Almost a full decade ago, the Pittsburgh Steelers were in a similar spot. They were 0-4 after losing to the Vikings in London. There wasn't much optimism around a team that figured to be years away from relevance.
To the surprise of many, the 2013 Steelers rebounded after their Week 5 bye. They won two consecutive games before suffering two ugly losses, the later a 55-31 pummeling in New England that dropped the Steelers to 2-6 at the midway point. The Steelers would rally to get to 5-6, but two more losses put them at 5-8 and on the edge of playoff elimination.
Pittsburgh rallied to win its final three games, evening its record at 8-8. And while they did miss the playoffs by the slimmest of margins, the seeds for what was to come in the following years were planted during a season that saw significant growth from several young players. The Steelers won the AFC North the following season, and would make the playoffs each of the next four years. They came a game away from reaching the Super Bowl in 2016, and were perhaps an injury and a controversial call away from getting to the big game in 2017.
Like the 2013 team, the 2022 Steelers are in an early hole. Last Sunday's loss dropped Pittsburgh to 1-4, with upcoming games against the 3-2 Buccaneers, the 3-2 Dolphins and the undefeated Eagles before entering its Week 9 bye. Many Steelers fans are bracing themselves for the franchise's first losing season since 2003, four years before the launch of the first iPhone.
Fans should consider the following things, however, before they throw in the (Terrible) towel on the Steelers' season, one that will likely be the launch pad to future success for the black and gold.
A promising rookie class
Led by Kenny Pickett and George Pickens, the Steelers have several promising rookies whose progress will be something to look forward to over the next 12 games. In his first career start, Pickett showed many of the tangible and intangible qualities that led the Steelers to selecting in the first round of April's draft. Despite facing arguably the league's best defense, Pickett threw for 327 yards while attempting 52 passes last Sunday in Buffalo. Pickett will only get better as he continues to get more in-game reps.
Pickett has developed a fast rapport with Pickens, who likely would have been a first-round pick if not for a knee injury that sidelined him for most of his final year at Georgia. Pickens, who is blessed with a rare combination of size and speed, has experienced a jump in production since Pickett has entered the starting lineup. The 6-foot-3 wideout has 12 catches for 185 yards over the past two games after catching just five passes during the season's first three games.
The Steelers' rookie class also includes running back Jaylen Warren, defensive lineman DeMarvin Leal, tight end Connor Heyward, and wideout Calvin Austin III. Warren is averaging nearly 5 yards per carry so far, prompting Mike Tomlin to acknowledge on Tuesday that he will get more work moving forward. Leal has shown promise and will likely receive more reps as the season progresses. Heyward may also get more work in the offense, especially after starting tight end Pat Freiermuth sustained a concussion during Sunday's loss to Buffalo. Austin, a speedy player who could bring an added dimension to the Steelers offense, is hoping to get back on the field after starting the season on injured reserve.
T.J. Watt's return
Watt was on his way to a second consecutive Defensive Player of the Year award after terrorizing the Bengals in Week 1. Watt's pec injury near the end of that game, coupled with his recent knee surgery, will likely keep him sidelined until the Steelers return from their Week 9 bye.
The return of Watt will undoubtedly bolster a Pittsburgh team that is 0-8 without him in the lineup since the start of his rookie season. Clearly, the Steelers are a vastly better team with Watt in the lineup, and his presence should be enough to help Pittsburgh win the close games that it failed to pull out in early-season losses to the Patriots and Jets.
Even if his return doesn't ignite a playoff run, watching Watt -- a possible future Hall of Fame player -- on a weekly basis is something Steelers fans shouldn't take for granted. The same can be said for fellow defenders Cam Heyward and Minkah Fitzpatrick, who are also putting together resumes that may one day be considered for bronze busts in Canton, Ohio.
Light second-half schedule
The Steelers are in the middle of a brutal gauntlet of games, including Sunday's game against longtime rival Tom Brady. On paper, the Steelers' schedule lightens up following their bye. Over that span, they'll face just one team -- the Baltimore Ravens -- that currently has a winning record. Two of Pittsburgh's other tougher post-bye games, against AFC North foes Cincinnati and Cleveland, will take place at Acrisure Stadium.
The second half of the Steelers' schedule also includes games against the Falcons, Saints, Raiders and a Panthers team that recently fired head coach Matt Rhule. It's feasible to think that the Steelers could win at least five of their final nine games, if not more, especially with Watt back and Pickett settling into his starting role.
Will that be enough to get Pittsburgh into the playoffs? Probably not, unless the Steelers can find a way to win at least two of their next three games heading into the bye. But similar to 2013, this season is more about the Steelers setting themselves up for better days ahead. Watching the seeds of a new era should be enough to keep Steelers fans interested for the rest of this journey, regardless of Pittsburgh's record or playoff positioning.