Though the Steelers missed the playoffs in 2022 with a 9-8 record, Team President Art Rooney II saw enough improvement from the team in the second half of the season to feel encouraged for 2023.
After a 2-6 start to the season, the Steelers went 7-2 over the second half to put together their 19th consecutive non-losing season, the second-longest streak in NFL history.
"Even though we fell short of making the playoffs this year, the second half of the season was encouraging," Rooney said Thursday at the UPMC-Rooney Sports Complex. "Obviously, we still have a lot of areas we need to improve on, but I liked the way the team kept fighting down the stretch and kept ourselves alive.
"A key factor in the season was having a rookie starting quarterback that stepped in, a quarter of the way through the season. And you know that the progression of Kenny (Pickett) I think was obvious and good to see and hopefully something that we'll continue to build on next year."
Pickett, the Steelers' first-round pick in the 2022 NFL Draft, took over as the Steelers' quarterback at halftime of the team's Week 4 loss to the Jets. The Steelers went 7-5 in the rookie's starts and he continually checked off a number of important milestones of growth over the course of the season.
For a team that had 18 seasons of stable quarterback play with Ben Roethlisberger at the position, it was a big step. Rooney doesn't discount the team's 2-6 start when looking at the season in its entirety, but he also understands the hurdles that must be accounted for when moving on from that kind of quarterback stability.
"I think you want to see a team improve over the course of the season, start to finish no matter what your record is, that's what you're shooting for is to get better as the season goes on," Rooney said. "And I thought we did that. Obviously, you know, you'd rather not dig too deep a hole in the beginning of the season, which unfortunately, we did. But the fact that we were breaking in new quarterbacks, in fact two new quarterbacks, it was something that I think was a factor in at least some of the difficulties we had in the first half of the season.
"But you know, we weren't playing that well on the defensive side, first half of the season, either. Giving up big plays early in games doesn't help. So, I don't discount completely the first half of the season, you can't ignore it. But I think again, the key is to see that improvement over the course of the whole season is encouraging."
To that point, Rooney feels the offense, which started two rookies, three second-year players and two players acquired in free agency last offseason, will only continue to get better.
And the second half of the season seems to point in that direction. After the midway point of the season, the Steelers were No. 1 in the NFL in third-down conversions. They averaged 146 yards rushing per game over their final nine games, up from just under 95 yards in their first eight, and dominated time of possession over the second half of the season, finishing fifth in the league overall in that statistic. The Steelers' scoring improved from 15 points per game in the first eight games, to 20.9 points per game over their final nine outings.
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Those improvements were big reasons why offensive coordinator Matt Canada was retained.
"Yeah, I think so," Rooney said. "I think we'd like to see the improvement and you know, with a rookie quarterback, they seem to work well together. They built a good working relationship. And so to kind of sort of start over again with a new offensive coordinator, could wind up back in the same situation again, where the first half of the season you're breaking into new coordinator, so, we just felt like there's enough there to build on that, we want to continue to keep that group together."
But he also understands that though the Steelers have a young core group of players coming back on offense - all of the team's key contributors on offense and the entire offensive line are under contract for 2023 - the team can't simply stand pat.
There are things that need to be improved upon, most notably scoring in the "Red Zone." The Steelers ranked 24th in the league in Red Zone touchdown percentage at 51.9 percent.
"Score more points," Rooney said of the biggest improvement he'd like to see from this season to next. "We talked about the areas of improvement and I think there are some good ones but you know, we didn't score enough points. That's the bottom line. And then in particular we were not great red zone efficiency. So I think you know, those are a couple things that I would identify that we clearly have to get better at."
• Rooney said he felt head coach Mike Tomlin did a good job of handling the team during the season.
"I think the No. 1 thing I always want to see in a team, and I think that it's up to the coach to make this happen, is get better as the season goes on," Rooney said. "I mean, you should your best team at the end of the season. I thought we did that, bringing a rookie quarterback along.There's no one way to do it right. I think we wind up with a rookie quarterback who got better as the season went on. And I think we're excited about the future because of that. So you know, I think those things are encouraging the way Mike handled them."
• With the league having planned to hold a potential Kansas City-Buffalo conference championship at a neutral site had they played each other this weekend because the Bills had only played 16 games, some speculated the NFL could look to hold all of its conference championships at neutral sites in the future.
Count Rooney among those not in favor of such a move.
"I hate the idea," he said. "I don't like that at all. It's my sense that if you put that up for a vote, it wouldn't pass today but who knows?"
A total of 24 owners would need to vote in favor of such a move for it to happen.
• The NFL announced its host teams for international games earlier this month, and none of the teams the Steelers will visit in 2023 were among those chosen, meaning the team won't play outside of the United States next season.
The Steelers now haven't played outside the U.S. since playing the Vikings in London in 2013. But Rooney says that could change soon.
"(We) would like to play a game in Mexico again sometime soon," Rooney said. "We've got a great fan base down there. And we have the right now under this new international program that the league has to have more of a presence in Mexico, and we now have a preseason television agreement down there. Our preseason games are going to shown in Mexico. Our radio broadcasts are on in Mexico, so it's a presence we're going to continue to try to build on."
The Steelers played the Colts in Mexico City in the preseason in 2000.
Pittsburgh was granted Mexico as an International Home Market in 2021 as part of a new NFL initiative and has a strong fan base there.
But the NFL won't hold any games in Mexico during the 2023 season because of work being done at Estadio Azteca in Mexico City this year.