PITTSBURGH (BVM) – Mike Tomlin has famously never had a losing record as head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Even during a season like 2019 when Pittsburgh lost Ben Roethlisberger to an elbow injury and were 3-5 at the time, Tomlin, with back-up quarterback Mason Rudolph, led the Steelers on a 5-3 run to finish the season with an 8-8 record. Tomlin’s record as the head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers is 162–94–2.
His talents have earned him a $6 million annual salary and this season he’ll have work cut out for him. This season offers new challenges that Tomlin and Pittsburgh haven’t dealt with in his 15 years coaching the Steelers. Roethlisberger is retired and although there are three options at QB, Mitch Trubisky, rookie Kenny Pickett and Mason Rudolph, there is no clear first choice for the next Steelers quarterback.
Then there is the problem of Diontae Johnson, who wants a new contract. With JuJu Smith-Schuster signing a contract with the Kansas City Chiefs, Johnson, along with Chase Claypool, will be pivotal for the Pittsburgh passing game. The Steelers did draft George Pickens and Calvin Austin III, but Johnson is coming off a career year.
Johnson had career bests in receptions (107), receiving yards (1,161) and touchdowns (8) last season. He was named to the 2022 Pro Bowl, but with that success has come the desire for a new contract.
Following the 2022 season Johnson will be an unrestricted free agent and has made it clear that he wants to stay in Pittsburgh. However, he also has set a price that the Steelers have not been willing to agree to yet. Fellow wide receivers from the 2019 NFL Draft including Terry McLaurin, Deebo Samuel and DK Metcalf have all gotten contract extensions this summer. All three contracts are three–year deals, with an annual salary of $24 million yearly. Based on those contracts it’s safe to assume Johnson is also asking for about $24 million a year.
The desire for a new contract and salary increase has made Johnson’s availability at training camp questionable with neither he or Tomlin giving a straight answer.
Johnson is at training camp but is not a full participant as he awaits a new deal, and Tomlin on the record as saying he isn’t “making any guesses” when it comes to the Pro Bowl wide receiver’s involvement in practice as the season gets closer.
Pittsburgh signed 2021 Defensive Player of the Year, T.J. Watt, to an extension last year and made Minkah Fitzpatrick the highest-paid safety in the league this offseason. But there is no real indication if the Steelers are interested in paying Johnson the money he is asking for.
Until something can be figured out, the three quarterbacks vying for the starting spot will have to work without their No. 1 wide receiver. It’s not an ideal situation when trying to have a winning record, but Tomlin is focusing on the players that are participating for now.
Trubisky came to the team through free agency after a year in Buffalo as Josh Allen’s backup following four years in Chicago. Trubisky would appear to be the first option, with the most time as a starter under his belt and playoff experience. However, three-year Steelers backup Rudolph will have a say, and first-round selection Pickett still has an outside chance.
“We’re at the very early stages of this,” Tomlin said about the quarterback battle. “Everyone is gonna get an opportunity to show their capabilities, for sure.”
Who will be the Steelers’ quarterback is still up for debate, but what isn’t is Tomlin’s approach to the season. When asked about the possibility of not having a winning record this season, Tomlin told NBC Sports Writer Peter King, “bring it on.”
Luckily, Tomlin will have some help. The Steelers have invested a lot of their salary cap in the defense and that is where most of the notable Pittsburgh stars can be found. It will be on Watt, Fitzpatrick and the rest of the Steelers defense.
On offense, the run game will more than likely take the lead. In his rookie season, Najee Harris rushed 307 times for 1,200 yards and another 467 receiving yards. The defensive–minded Tomlin will be able to use his run game and strong defense to his advantage as the quarterback situation plays out.
Tomlin is clearly one of the best coaches in the NFL. This year will be the perfect time to showcase that as he tries to keep his record and Pittsburgh’s above .500.