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Ready or Not, This Could Be Mike Tomlin’s Last Shot

When you think of teams that make waves in free agency, the Pittsburgh Steelers probably aren’t the first to come to mind.  The Steelers are old school.  Draft and develop, re-sign your own – that sort of thing.  That’s why it was so shocking to see the Steelers make not one, but two moves that rocked the NFL world to its foundation.

In less than a week, the Steelers totally remade their quarterback depth chart.  All three quarterbacks who took snaps for the Steelers in 2023 (Kenny Pickett, Mitchell Trubisky and Mason Rudolph) are gone.  In their place are two players in completely different stages of their careers, but both with similar skill-sets and with a lot to prove: Russell Wilson and Justin Fields.

It’s easy to understand why Pittsburgh would feel compelled to make a move for both of these players.  For one thing, they’re both cheap.  Like, really really cheap, especially in the case of Wilson, who’s set to be barely above a $1.2 million cap hit.  Fields isn’t much higher at $3.2.  In a league where quarterback play has become more important, and more expensive, than ever, the Steelers are getting a humongous discount.  But whether those savings can turn into actual wins on the football field is another story.

There’s a reason why quarterbacks are so well compensated: the best ones have an outsized impact on winning.  Do you think the Chiefs are regretting signing Patrick Mahomes to an almost half a billion-dollar contract after he led them to consecutive Super Bowl wins?  Hell no.  While a massive quarterback contract can hamstring team-building to an extent, top-tier quarterback play can often overcome shortcomings.  That’s how the Bengals were able to reach the Super Bowl in 2021 with Joe Burrow despite having arguably the worst offensive line in the game that year.

So, the Steelers probably aren’t getting Mahomes or Burrow-level play out of Wilson (who’s already been named the starter) or Fields.  But can they get more out of the Wilson/Fields combo than the play they got from the Pickett/Trubisky/Rudolph abomination?  It’s not out of the question, and there’s plenty of concern to go around for both, but that’s exactly what the Steelers are counting on in 2024.

The biggest advantage the Steelers will get from the miniscule amount of cap space they’ve devoted to their quarterbacks is the ample space they have to maximize the talent on their defense.  Right now, the top five cap hits for the entire Steelers roster are all defensive players: T.J. Watt, Cam Heyward, Minka Fitzpatrick, Alex Highsmith and Larry Ogunjobi.  Out of the top ten cap hit, just two are offensive players, and both are guards.  This isn’t by accident – it’s by design.  The Steelers are going back to their roots: it’s defense or bust in 2024.

This could be a sneaky brilliant strategy.  Mike Tomlin is a defensive coach who’s renowned for his ability to get the very best out of his players.  Why not give him a defense that’s chocked full of playmakers?  Well, that’s exactly what Pittsburgh’s front office did this offseason.

Patrick Queen was stolen from the Ravens to be the classic Steelers thumper at middle linebacker, while DeShon Elliott gives them some much-needed experience alongside Fitzpatrick at safety.  Aside from adding Wilson and Fields, the Steelers other big move was to trade top receiver Diontae Johnson to the Carolina Panthers in exchange for a package that included top Panthers cornerback Donte Jackson.  That’s three new starters for a defense that was already quite good (6th in the NFL in points allowed).  There’s a decent chance that the Steelers wind up with the best D in the league in 2024.

For a team that has such a strong defensive tradition and identity, it makes all the sense in the world to choose this path, especially with a defensive-minded head coach like Tomlin.  But while this all seems chummy on the surface, what these moves belie is the tension that’s bubbling beneath: namely, that Tomlin’s time is running out.

It may seem impossible for many NFL fans to comprehend why a coach who’s never had a losing season in his career could be facing the chopping block.  Despite Tomlin’s abhorrence for losing seasons, his record in the postseason, especially recently, leaves a lot to be desired – that’s zero playoff wins since 2016, to be exact.  For a franchise with crazy high expectations like the Steelers, just having a winning season isn’t good enough.  Just reaching the playoffs or winning the AFC North isn’t good enough.  Pittsburgh measures success by Super Bowls, and of late, they’ve been wildly off target.

That’s why the Steelers are putting together the cheapest quarterback depth chart in the NFL and maximizing their spending on defense.  They’re giving Tomlin a chance to win his way – with bone-shattering defense and all-out effort.  Could it work?  Sure!  You can’t argue that defense doesn’t win championships after the Chiefs just ground the AFC competition into powder with their formidable unit.  But there’s a catch with KC – they have Mahomes.  Pittsburgh…doesn’t.  Not by a long shot.

As great as Pittsburgh’s defense could be, the play of Wilson (or potentially Fields) will likely be the biggest driver of their success.  We’ve already seen Wilson recently with an elite defense.  In 2022, Wilson’s Denver Broncos allowed a paltry 5.0 yards per offensive play (3rd-best mark in the league).  The Broncos went 5 - 12.  Now, there was plenty of blame to go around in Denver (hello Nathaniel Hackett) but plenty fell on Wilson’s shoulders, hence his signing in Pittsburgh for $1.2 million.  Pittsburgh’s defense could surpass what Denver’s defense did in 2022 and it still won’t matter if Wilson can’t get right after two awful years.

Fields, meanwhile, has always oozed potential but has rarely looked competent for more than a few plays at a time.  He has elite athleticism for the position and has one of the best highlight reels in the league, but he has poor accuracy and takes way, way, way too many sacks for a highly-mobile player.  He might, in theory, have more to offer than Wilson, but as far as results?  Nada.

As it stands, Wilson will get the first crack.  If he fails, Fields will be on-deck.  If both fail, no sweat – they cost basically nothing and both are free agents at the end of the year.  But the sad reality for Pittsburgh, though, is that what you see is likely what you get.  Wilson isn’t the dynamic playmaker he was in Seattle anymore, and if Fields was the juggernaut he appears to be on YouTube, Chicago wouldn’t have sent him packing for a 6th-round pick in 2025.  Their defense will have to be great – at least as great as Kansas City’s defense last year, and probably better.

In many ways, this mirrors the last years of Bill Belichick’s tenure with the New England Patriots.  When Tom Brady left for Tampa Bay, the Patriots gave Belichick another shot to draft and develop a quarterback into a franchise player.  He failed, and the Patriots capsized.  The Steelers won’t capsize, but anything less than a playoff run probably won’t be enough to save Tomlin’s job.  Like the Patriots, the Steelers measure their success in championships – nothing less will do.

If the Steelers do go another year without a playoff win, don’t expect Tomlin to be tarred and feathered and then cast into the Allegheny.  Like Belichick departure from the Patriots, the Steelers and Tomlin will likely have a “mutual parting of the ways.”  If that happens, Tomlin won’t have to wait long until TV executives are breaking down his door to call games or contribute to their Sunday panel – unless some desperate team (did somebody say the Dallas Cowboys?) throws caution to the wind and offers him $100 million to whip their roster into shape.

The additions of Wilson and Fields are getting all the notoriety, but it’s the rest of the moves that the Steelers have made this offseason that reveals their true intentions.  The Mike Tomlin Era is coming to a close before our eyes, but the Steelers aren’t going out without giving their seventeen-year head coach a chance to win his way.

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