Steelers Report Card for Loss to Patriots: Reverting to Old Habits Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is dismayed to see his students revert to the poor study habits that doomed them last year, here is the Steelers Report Card for the 2022 home opening loss to the Patriots.

Malik Reed, Mac Jones, Steelers vs Patriots

Mac Jones evades Malik Reed. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Quarterback
Mitch Trubisky looked more comfortable back there, the Steelers improved on third down, and he was sharp at the goal line. But his decision making was poor, on the interception and on other critical throws as he continues to force the ball while other receivers are open. Worse yet, the Steelers went 3 and out twice late in the 4th quarter. Grade: D

Running Backs
The Steelers lead running backs averaged 3.8 and 3.3 yards per carry. Pedestrian numbers to be sure, but a step in the right direction. Jaylen Warren looked good in his series and Derek Watt converted a 3rd and 1 with a 2 yard carry. Grade: C

Tight Ends
Pat Freiermuth only had 4 catches but one of those was for a touchdown. Zach Gentry didn’t have pass thrown his way. Grade: C

Wide Receivers
Diontae Johnson continues to shine, making an excellent catch on the 2 point conversion. Chase Claypool had 4 catches and George Pickens added 1 for 23 yards. Gunner Olszewski 18 yard reverse helped set up a score. Grade: CSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Offensive Line
The Patriots sacked Tribuisky 3 times and hit him two other times, but he generally had time to throw. There were also signs of life in the run blocking game. This unit has a long way to go, but it showed improvement. Grade: C-

Defensive Line
Mac Jones had all day to throw. Worse yet, the Patriots ran at will in the 4th quarter when they had to kill the clock. That was eerily reminiscent of 2021. Grade: D

Linebackers
The Steelers saw what life without T.J. Watt looked like, and this unit will have to step up. Alex Highsmith got a QB hit in on Mac Jones, as did Malik Reed. Robert Spillane led the unit in tackles. Grade: D

Secondary
Minkah Fitzpatrick’s interception essentially erased Mitch Tribuisky’s own. Cam Sutton dropped an interception which indirectly set up the muffed punt. Beyond that, the Patriots moved the ball far too easily during their first half 2 minute drill and that touchdown came back to haunt the Steelers. Grade: D+

Special Teams
Chris Boswell went 2-2 on Field Goals of 26 and 52 yards. Boomed off punts for a 51.8 yard average. Those were good. But New England logged several good kick returns as well as one nice punt return. Gunner Olszewski muffed a punt that set up New England’s 2nd half touchdown. This was a special teams error in a game where the Steelers could ill afford one. Grade: F

Coaching
It would be hard to call Matt Canada’s offense a success – and we won’t do that here. But we will acknowledge that the Steelers showed some improvement on third down and there were signs, if however faint, of life from the running game.

  • But as the 2019 experience showed, you won’t beat many people with one offensive touchdown per game.

Nor will you win many games when you’re 3 points behind in the 4th quarter, your defense forces 2 punts, and all you can muster is 2 three and outs.

If the offense took/may have taken an infants crawl forward, the Steelers defense took a giant “Mother May I” step backwards. Without T.J. Watt the Steelers generated precisely zero pass rush. Worse yet, with the game on the line the Patriots offense rushed the ball at will, advancing down the field and killing the clock.

Did Bill Belichick see some sort of systematic weakness he could exploit? Or did the Steelers simply lose a series of 1-1 battles?

  • Regardless, the ease with which the Patriots ran the ball looked all too much like 2021.

    Najee Harris, Steelers vs Patriots, Devin McCourty

    Najee Harris leaps Devin McCourty in the 3rd quarter. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Mike Tomlin, Teryl Austin, Karl Dunbar and Brian Flores had better answer that question – quickly. Because unlike last year, 4th quarter comeback look to be pretty spare. Grade: F

Unsung Hero Award
He didn’t have the kind of game that will make fantasy football owners happy. Nor did he make any of those spectacular plays that fall off of fantasy football owner’s radars. But he scrapped and scraped and managed to make piles forward, giving the Steelers running game some semblance of life, and for that Najee Harris wins the Unsung Hero Award for the 2022 opening day loss to the Patriots.

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Steelers Lose to Patriots 17-14 in 2022 Home Opener as 1 Bogger Begs to Have Been Wrong

The New England Patriots defeated the Steelers 17-14 at Acrisure Stadium, dealing Pittsburgh its 4 home opening loss in the last five years.

  • It was a close game that could have gone either way.

As Mike Tomlin stated, the game came down to a couple of “significant plays,” and one of those provided this writer an opportunity to regret being right.

Gunner Olszewski, Brenden Schooler, Steelers vs Patriots 2022 home opener

Gunner Olszewskimakes the tackle after muffing a punt. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review

Gunner’s Fumble Wounds Steelers at Precisely the Worst Moment

Gunner Olszewski made his NFL debut during the 2019 opener. That Steelers-Patriots game was to be the final Ben Roethlisberger-Tom Brady Matchup, which New England won 33-3.

  • In an ironic twist of fate, Gunner Olszewski made the first critical mistake of the post Ben-Brady era.

The Steelers signing of Gunner Olszewski in the off season was a surprise. Gunner signed for close to half of what Ray-Ray McCloud had gotten to go to San Francisco, yet on balance his return numbers were a little better. And with only three years in the league, the kid had “upside” both as a returner but also as a receiver.

  • The move seemed like a minor steal.

Which begged the question, why would Bill Belichick let this kid walk? A closer look at his return numbers for the 2021 season offered a possible explanation – ball security. He fumbled the ball 3 times last season, all on returns.

Ray-Ray had his own issues with ball security, and numerically the risk Olszewski fumbling was only a smidge higher. On the whole however, it seemed like a wise cost-benefit move for the Steelers, given that Pittsburgh was saving over 6 million dollars. But that concussion came with a caveat:

However, when you factor in that but 3 of Gunner Olszewski’s fumbles came in 2021, should Gunner Olszewski fumble a return the 4th quarter fumble of a close game, that 6.4 million could seem like a bargain.

As it was, Gunner’s came at the end of the 3rd quarter not in the 4th quarter, but it gave the Patriots an 11 point lead, which ultimately proved to be too much for the Steelers to overcome.

And let’s be fair to Gunner on one thing: He certainly didn’t “lose” this game for the Steelers. In fact he had plenty of help.

Some Good Before We Get to the Bad

As Jim Wexell predicted, it didn’t take long for the chorus at Acrisure Stadium to start chanting “Kenny!” “Kenny!” “Kenny!” “Kenny” is of course former Pitt Panther and Steelers 2022 first round draft pick Kenny Pickett.

  • The chorus at Acrisure Stadium has lots of support on social media, if Twitter is to be trusted.

Mitch Trubisky did leave a lot to be desired today. But the offense he led also took some tentative crawls forward  which represented, dare we argue, progress at least compared to last week. Sound fishy? Then consider this:

  • The Steelers went 8-15 on third downs, as opposed to 5-15 last week
  • Pressley Harvin only punted 4 times as opposed to 8
  • Najee Harris ran with more authority, forced piles to fall forward and also did damage as a receiver
  • The Steelers gave Diontae Johnson a “Prove It” contract and he is proving it
  • Olszewski responded to his fumble with an 18 yard reverse that helped set up a score
  • Pat Freiermuth’s touchdown and the 2 point conversion that followed represented excellent goal line execution

Minkah Fitzpatrick pulled down his second interception in as many weeks, which didn’t have much impact in the game but was nice to see all the same.

Failing on Fundamentals

As Jim Wexell pointed out prophetically before the game, the “Patriots are 8-0 when they have the edge in turnovers” under Mac Jones. Today that record improved to 9-0.

If Mitch Trubisky’s interception was negated by Fitzpatrick’s, it only took New England 3 plays to take advantage of Gunner’s fumble. Cam Sutton dropped a sure interception which set up the punt that Gunner muffed. Instead of being a game changer for the Steelers, the sequence was a game changer for the Patriots.

  • Turnovers and ball security is an important fundamental, but it is hardly the only one the Steelers failed on.

If Trubiksy does deserve credit for improved third down performance, even casual observation reveals that he is honing in on one receiver at the expense of missing others. In the same vein, if the offensive line showed some signs of life in the run blocking game, this unit remains very, very far from dominating in the trenches.

But all of this talk of progress above remains academic until the Steelers offense can so that it can score more than one touchdown per game. Or manage more than two straight 3 and outs when three points behind late in the 3rd quarter.

If player’s post game comments are any indication, players are beginning to become frustrated by Matt Canada’s offense.

Cam Heyward, Mac Jones, Steelers vs Patriots, Steelers 2022 Home Opener

Mac Jones escapes Cam Heyward in the 4th quarter. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

  • The Steelers pass rush suffered miserably in T.J. Watt’s absence.

Malik Reed, Tyson Alualu, and Alex Highsmith may have landed a few QB hits, but Mac Jones was otherwise writing his diary back there.

Run Defense Collapse = Difference in the Game

For as valid as those criticisms are, when New England got the ball back with 6:33 left to play, it could be said that up until that point the Steelers defense had done enough to win the game. After all, they’d just forced 2 punts limiting the Patriots to 10 plays while trying to get the ball back in a 3 point game.

  • At that point, the worst of Steelers recent defensive history repeated itself: The run defense collapsed.

Bill Belichick started handing the ball to Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson and the Steelers were powerless to stop either of them. They started slow, getting first 3 then 4 yards. But they improved, going for 6, 8, then 16 before finally settling in with a final 5 yarder that allowed New England to kill the clock.

The Steelers defense did a good job of limiting the run last week, and did a good job of doing it again for the game’s first 55 minutes and 22 seconds.

But the inability of the Steelers defense to slow, let alone stop the Patriots running game as the clock ticked away proved to be the difference in this game.

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Does Steelers + Pats – Ben & Brady = True Test of Tomlin vs. Belichick? Time to Find Out

When Mike Tomlin’s Pittsburgh Steelers welcome Bill Belichick’s New England Patriots tomorrow at Acrisure Stadium tomorrow it will mark the first Steelers-Pats contest since 1998 without Tom Brady and/or Ben Roethlisberger. 1998. We’ll get to what this means for the coaches in a minute.

Mike Tomlin, Bill Belichick, Mike Tomlin vs. Bill Belichick

Mike Tomlin and Bill Belichick at the then Heinz Field in 2010. Photo Credit: Eagle Tribune.

  • But first, let Brady-Roethlisberger factoid sink in.

While that 1998 Steelers squad did feature rookies  like Hines Ward and Alan Faneca who saw action in the Tomlin-era Steelers-Patriots series, it also had players like Dermontti Dawson and Carnell Lake – who were drafted by Chuck Noll.

  • Yeah, Brady has been tormenting the Steelers for a long time.

But this isn’t a nostalgia piece about Steelers history vs. the Patriots, as we’ve already covered that in detail, but rather one about the interplay between team, individual, and coaching records.

Of Quarterbacks, Records, Rivals and Coaches

As sports fans, we love to talk about So-and-So’s record against Such-and-Such. Numbers don’t lie and sometimes the picture they a cut and dried picture. Tom Brady owned the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Those wins were sweet! But if Steelers fans are to take off their Black and Gold tinted glasses, they’ll see that those wins tell us law of averages than about the completive balance between the two teams.

If you dig a little deeper, you could perhaps say that as legitimate franchise quarterback Ben Roethlisberger gave the Steelers had a chance against the GOAT. With Kordell Stewart? Not so much. But what about the coaches?

Stephon Tuitt, Tom Brady, Steelers vs Patriots

Stephon Tuitt bears down on Tom Brady. Photo Credit: Geoff Burke, USA TODAY, via Steel City Insider

Those with short memories are likely to conclude that the record proves that Bill Belichick is also better the Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin, because he’s shared in Brady’s success against the Steelers.

  • But is that really accurate?

The one time, in 2008, when Bill Belichick bring Tom Brady to his fight against Mike Tomlin, the Steelers creamed him. In contrast, the onetime Mike Tomlin faced off against Billy Belichick with Landry Jones as his standard bearer, Jones kept the Patriots honest until the Steelers got Gronked.

So just how much could you, or should you untether a coach’s ability from the performance of his franchise quarterback? That’s a hard question to answer. Chuck Noll and Mark Malone  beat Bill Walsh and Joe Montana. Twice.

No one in their right minds would argue that those outcomes suggest that Mark Malone was a better quarterback than Joe Montana. It’s hard to even write that denial without snickering.

Yet, on the flip side, I unhesitatingly use the 1984 Steelers and 1987 Steelers wins over the 49ers as proof that, in terms of pure coaching ability Chuck Noll was at least the equal of not the superior of Bill Walsh (heck with that, Noll was the better than Walsh! To show that I’m not biased, I’ll also cite Joe Gibbs’ 3-0 record over Noll as proof of Gibbs’ superiority.)

  • Without Tom Brady, Bill Belichick’s record against the Steelers is a rather pedestrian 9-3.

That’s right ladies and gentleman. Remember this for Final Jeopardy:

The Answer – “He’s the Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback with a perfect record against Bill Belichick.”
The Question – “Who is Bubby Brister?”

Bubster led the Steelers to victory over Bill Belichick’s Browns Chuck Noll’s final game in 1991, and then for an encore closed Bill Cowher’s ’92 Steelers season by quarterbacking Steelers to another win over Cleveland.

Brister, like Brady, Ben and Bill Cowher, is long gone, giving way to Mike Tomlin and Mitch Trubisky vs.Billy Belichick and  Mac Jones. For the record, going into this game Mike Tomlin is 3-7 against Belichick.

Will this downgrading of quarterbacks for both coaches give us a chance to truly gauged one coach’s talent against the other’s?

  • Objectively, probably not.

But if the T.J. Wattless, crappy offensive line Steelers do beat the Patriots tomorrow, you’d better believe this scribe is gonna say its offers evidence that Tomlin is a better coach than Belichick.

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Steelers Report Card for the Upset Over the Bengals – Call It As You See It Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher whose summer assessment of his student’s strengths and weaknesses appears to be on target, here is the Steelers Report Card for the 2022 overtime upset win over the Bengals at Paycor Stadium.

Ja'Marr Chase, Arthur Maulet, Steelers vs Bengals

Steelers upend Ja’Marr Chase at the goal line. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, via Steelers.com

Quarterback
Mitch Trubisky first start brought good, bad and ugly. The Ugly: The Steelers were 4-15 on third down and they punted 8 times, including FIVE three and outs. The Bad: Pittsburgh only had 113 yards in regulation and only scored one touchdown. The Good: Trubisky avoided turnovers and kept himself upright. More importantly, he put the offense in scoring position not once but twice in over time. Grade: CSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
You know your running game has issues when a wide receiver has more yards on the ground that RB 1 and RB 2. Combined. Najee Harris had one nice run, but otherwise had no where to go. Jaylen Warren had 7 yards on 3 carries…. It may not be their “fault” but the running game was “Below the line.” Grade: D

Tight Ends
Pat Freiermuth and Zach Gentry both set up touchdowns with long gains in the first half, with Freiermuth making not one but two key catches that set up the game winner in OT. Surely the tight ends shoulder some responsibility for the run blocking fiasco, but they delivered Trubisky looked their way. Grade: B+

Wide Receivers
Diontae Johnson had what was perhaps his best catch as a Steeler and one that should have set up the game winner in overtime. Chase Claypool did his damage with 4 catches and 3 runs. George Pickens had 1 catch for 3 yards. The receivers did their part. Grade: C+

Offensive Line
Mitch Trubisky was sacked once, hit 5 other times and had to scramble 3 times. Not great, but a slight improvement over last year. The run blocking was atrocious. Pittsburgh was positively pathetic when trying to pound it in at the goal line. Nor did they get any push upfront at any point in the game. This. Must. Improve. Grade: F

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward’s opening sack was a tone setter for the entire game. His fumble recovery set up another score. Larry Ogunjobi had four tackles and a QB hit. Tyson Alualu and Chris Wormley had two. Joe Mixon was in check all day and just as Joe Burrow was under pressure. Grade: A

Linebackers
Alex Highsmith had 3 sacks while T.J. Watt had a sack, an interception and batted down two passes. Robert Spillane had a sack, and Devin Bush played aggressively. Myles Jack had a key pass defense and led the linebackers with 10 tackles. Grade: A

Secondary
Minkah Fitzpatrick dominated the Bengals. His pick six forced them to play catch-up from the get go. He led the team in tackles and, even after a bogus penalty in the end zone, he broke up a would-be touchdown on the next play. Cam Sutton and Ahkello Witherspoon both had interceptions while Levi Wallace had a key pass break up. Terrell Edmunds quietly put in a good game stuffing out a number of runners before they could reach the second level. Grade: A

Special Teams
Gunner Olszewski made his single returnable punt count by setting up a score with a 20 yards return. Pressley Harvin averaged over 48 yards on his 8 punts. Punt return coverage was strong. Minkah Fitzpatrick’s extra point block was the game’s second most important play after his pick six. Chris Boswell did miss a field goal in OT, and that brings this grade down, but he didn’t blink on his second chance. Grade: A-

Coaching
The Steelers defense came out swinging with a sack and an pick six on successive plays. They kept that up for the next 72 minutes. But Splash plays were nothing new compared to last year.

  • The run defense delivered the difference.

Joe Mixon embarrassed the Steelers defense last year. Twice. Sunday, aside from one long run, Teryl Austin and Brian Flores’ boys neutralized him.

  • The offense told a different story.

For 2 years debate has raged over “What a Matt Canada offense will really look like.” Well, now Canada has his quarterback, but against the Bengals it was more of the same:  Weak offensive line play, three-and-outs, lots of Chris Boswell field goals with just enough late fireworks to keep it interesting.

Canada might not have the personnel upfront and Tribuisky might not be a long-term signal caller, but he needs to find a way to make it work now.

Mike Tomlin welcomed many new faces to the fold this off season on all sides of the ball. Had you not known that you’d have thought this was a group of veterans who’d been together for 6 or 7 years based on their resiliency alone. Grade: B

Arthur Maulet, Joe Burrow, Steelers vs Bengals 2022

Arthur Maulet strip sacks Joe Burrow in overtime. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, via Steelers.com

Unsung Hero Award
This player embodies the principle that the Steelers care about what you can do, not where you come from. He arrived in Pittsburgh as a veteran minimum player during an off season where the Steelers were navigating salary cap Armageddon. He did enough to earn a second contract, and in Cincinnati his strip sack was enough to give Chris Boswell a second chance to win it in overtime. And for that Arthur Maulet wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers 2022 opening day overtime win over the Bengals.

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Surprise! Steelers Upset Bengals 23-20 in Overtime as Defense Dominates

The Pittsburgh Steelers launched the Mitch Tribisky era Sunday with a 23-20 overtime win over the Cincinnati Bengals at Paycor Stadium.

  • The win came at a cost with several marquee players leaving the field early with injuries.

But an upset road win over a division rival and defending conference championship is always good. And the win confirmed a lot of what we thought we knew about these Pittsburgh Steelers, and that’s both good and bad.

Minkah Fitzpatrick, Steelers vs Bengals, Steelers 2022 Opening Day,

Minkah Fitzpatrick intercepts Joe Burrow’s first pass. Photo Credit: NFL.com

Defense Still Wins Games

The old adage used to be, “Defense wins championships.” In this era of big gambling, Fantasy Football fueled football, the game has been legislated to tilt heavily towards the offense. Does defense still “win championships” in the National Football League?

Who knows?

Mike Tomlin and his players proved that defense can still win games for the Pittsburgh Steelers here in 2022. And they did this from the very beginning of the game.

Cam Heyward opened up the game, rag dolling Joe Burrow with a 5 yard sack. Minka Fitzpatrick struck next with a 31 yard pick six. Less that three and a half minutes had elapsed, the Steelers offense had punted once after earning just 8 yards.

Cam Heyward, Steelers vs Bengals

Cam Heyward opens game by sacking Joe Burrow. Photo Credit: Tribune-Review

  • Yet, the Steelers were up 7-0.

Alex Highsmith struck next, sacking Burrow for a 7-yard loss on third down, although a record setting 59 yard field goal by Evan McPherson got Cincinnati on the board. Highsmith wasn’t done, because four plays later he strip sacked Burrow with Cam Heyward recovering. Pat Freiermuth did his part with a 31 yard reception.  But the Steelers offense sputtered at the goal line, settling for a Chris Boswell field goal.

Not that it really mattered, because T.J. Watt picked off Joe Burrow 8 plays later. This time Zach Gentry did the honors of getting the Steelers in position to score, and Najee Harris finally found the end zone on the team’s 5th shot from the goal line.

Lovers of defense only needed to wait for six more plays for Cam Sutton to short-circuit another promising Bengals drive with an interception.

And that was only the first half. In the second half Ahkello Witherspoon intercepted Burrow again while Arthur Maulet sacked him in overtime forcing a final punt. T.J. Watt and Robert Spillane added sacks of their own, Myles Jack stepping up with a critical pass defense, as did Cam Sutton in the end zone.

After the game, this was the word from Cincinnati:

Then this:

Anyone wonder why?

SOSO – Same Old Steelers Offense

If the Steelers defense played as well as optimist felt it could, their offense played as poorly as pessimists (or realists) feared it would. Here’s some harsh reality: Only 2 critical Cincinnati special teams errors separated the Steelers from losing a game in which they enjoyed a 5 point turnover differential.

  • You almost have to try to lose a game in which your defense secures 5 turnovers.

And the worst part about it? The Steelers offense wasn’t trying to lose the game, they were trying their best. And their best almost wasn’t good enough. Sure, both tight ends came up with big catches in the first half with Pat Freiermuth adding another in overtime.

  • Matt Canada employed some smoke and mirrors to get a running game going with Chase Claypool.

Diontae Johnson set up what should have been the game winning field goal in overtime with what was perhaps his best catch as a Steeler.

But Steelers running backs managed 2.3 yards per carry behind an offensive line that had ZERO push. And Pressley Harvin punted 8 times. Mitch Trubisky made a few nice throws and his mobility limited his sack total to one.

But the Steelers offense was just as in effective as it has been since early 2020, scoring only 2 field goals without the help of turnovers.

Chase Claypool, Germaine Pratt, Steelers vs Bengals

Chase Claypool stiff arms Germaine Pratt. Photo Credit: Tribune-Review.

The Difference – Special Teams and the Run Defense

And the one field goal the Steelers did score was set up in part by Gunner Olszewski 20 yard punt return. The Steelers special teams also blocked an extra point and the Bengals missed a field goal in overtime. That’s four points special teams kept off the board and three more that they added. Subtract Boswell’s miss, and you still have a 1 point differential.

  • But what made all if it meaningful was the Steelers run defense.

Last year Joe Mixon embarrassed the Steelers, averaging 5.5 yards per carry against them, and making it look easy. That success loosened the defense and allowed Burrow to abuse the Steelers secondary at will.

Today the Steelers held him to 3.0 yards on 27 carries, and if you take out the one, ugly 31 yarder that the Steelers defense did allow, that average drops to almost 2 yards a carry.

Running the ball might be passé in today’s NFL, I’d argue it is not, but even if I’m wrong, being unable to stop the run is positively lethal. The Steelers defense stopped the run, giving their play makers a chance to do their damage, and that was the difference.

Keeping It in Perspective

This win, in all its ugliness, came with a cost. T.J. Watt is rumored to have torn a pec. If that’s true, he’s done for the year, and the Steelers defense will become decidedly mortal. Najee Harris reportedly left the stadium in a walking boot. Levi Wallace and Robert Spillane also left the game with injuries.

  • Even if the news on Watt is better than expected, the Steelers offense must improve. Period.

But if that’s true, its also true that the Pittsburgh Steelers played their first game without Ben Roethlisberger demonstrating the same resilience that defined the Roethlisberger Era.

That alone is a sign of hope.

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For Better or For Worse: Steelers Trubisky Begins Where Roethlisberger’s Super Bowl Window Closed

History keeps evolving symetrically for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Last year, Ben Roethlisberger played his final regular season game on the road, against the Ravens, just where he played the first one. On Sunday September 11th 2022, the Steelers Mitch Trubisky will begin in Cincinnati, exactly where the Ben Roethlisberger’s ended or at least where his Super Bowl window closed.

  • Often times Super Bowl windows close in silence.
Ben Roethlisberger, Ryan Shazier, Steelers vs Bengals

Ben Roethlisberger and Ryan Shazier after the Steelers win. Photo Credit: Aaron Doster, USA Today, via 937TheFan.com

The Pittsburgh Steelers beat the Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowl XIII. The Steelers returned for their 4th Lombardi in Super Bowl XIV a year later against the Rams, while the Cowboys lost in the NFC Divisional playoffs. Yet Tom Landry and Danny White had The ‘Boys back in the NFC Championship for 3 straight years. It seemed only a question of “When” Tom Landry would win his third ring, not one of “If.”

  • Alas, it would take Jimmy Johnson to bring the Lombardi back to Texas Stadium.

In contrast, the Steelers 2nd Super Bowl Era end the moment Ryan Shazier turned over on the turf unable to move his legs at Paul Brown Stadium (yes, I know its Paycor now) back on that dark December night in 2017. The Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin and especially Ben Roethlisberger himself tried to move heaven and earth to re-open that window.

  • But Ryan Shazier proved to be irreplaceable.

And in trying to replace the irreplaceable the Steelers quite likely gave up too much, in the form of the Devin Bush and even Joe Schobert trades.

And Cincinnati adds its weight to that historical rhyme scheme in other ways. For it was in Cincinnati in 2019 that Mike Tomlin benched Mason Rudolph for Delvin Hodges — reminding everyone of just how difficulty it was going to be to replace Ben Roethlisberger. A year later at Paul Brown, Ben Roethlisberger gave his own reminder, authoring a first half of football that drove this scribe to wonder out loud if Steelers Nation hadn’t just witnessed its own Ali-Holmes moment.

Fortunately, that was not the case. Roethlisberger rebounded, playing better football the next Sunday and for the next season as well. Yet, if there was any one game that symbolized just how far the Steelers had fallen, it was the 2021 beating the Steelers suffered in their final game at the venue that was to be known as Paul Brown Stadium.

  • What fate will fortune deliver to the Mitch Trubisky era of Steelers football?

Will Trubsiky earn his own Super Bowl rings? Will he follow in the footsteps of Cliff Stoudt, who ushered in an era of mediocre, bad, average and above average quarterbacks? Or will he be like Tommy Maddox, serving as a bridge quarterback to a long and successful Kenny Pickett era?

No one knows at this moment. But we’re about to start finding out.

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The Case for the 2022 Pittsburgh Steelers

The Pittsburgh Steelers start the post-Ben Roethlisberger era this Sunday as they open the 2022 season against the Cincinnati Bengals at Paycor Stadium. The Steelers have a new quarterback, a new general manager and when they return to Pittsburgh, they’ll be playing at Acrisure Stadium instead of Heinz Field.

  • So Steel Curtain Rising is responding to all this change by reviving a tradition perfected by a lost friend.

If you’re fortunate enough to have known the late, great Ivan Cole you will remember that he previewed every season with an article titled “The Case for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 20xx.”

There, Ivan would make the strongest case possible for the Steelers Super Bowl chances, with the caveat that he was only laying out a best case scenario and not making a prediction.

So today I honor my departed friend with my own best-case scenario.

T.J. Watt, Lamarr Jackson, Steelers vs Ravens

T.J. Watt contains Lamarr Jackson. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review.

Steelers Strong @ Skill Positions

For the last 16 or 17 years Bob Labriola’s preseason analysis has hinged on one key fact – The Steelers had a chance at a Lombardi because they had franchise quarterback.

  • Now that Roethlisberger has retired, does doom the Steelers?

No, far from it. If a year ago, Ben Roethlisberger gave the Steelers a certain floor (see his six 4th quarter comebacks), he also gave them a bit of a ceiling. He was clearly a bad fit for Matt Canada’s offense (Ben was at his best, almost his old self, calling his own plays; the rest of the time? Not so much), and even with the addition of Najee Harris, his inability to throw deep limited the offense.

Pat Freiermuth, Najee Harris, Steelers vs Bears

Pat Freiermuth and Najee Harris celebrate in the end zone. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

That alone should improve first half scoring. In other words, while Trubisky cannot be expected to mount 4th quarter comebacks the way Ben did, they may not be as necessary.

And should Trubisky falter, Kenny Pickett has looked as good as anyone had a right to expect him to look so far. Which brings us to Mason Rudolph. Booing fans may beg to differ, but a third string quarterback with 17 starts under his belt is something most NFL coaches would envy.

So this is the deepest quarterback room the Steelers have had since 2012… when they finished 8-8. OK. But I’d argue that the 2022 Steelers are far deeper at the skill positions.

Najee Harris gave the Steelers their first 1,000 yard rusher in 4 years despite working behind a terrible offensive line. Benny Snell Jr. may not be RB number 1 material, but he is a solid backup. Jaylen Warren impressed enough in presason to be the “next man up” if the depth chart is correct.

At wide receiver the Steelers are led by Diontae Johnson, a promising young player whose impressive body of work is underpinned by his integrity, worth ethic and maturity. In other words someone who can provide a perfect example for rookie George Pickens as well as Chase Claypool, a veteran struggling to mature.

Myles Boykin and Gunner Olszewski provide solid depth from two men who can play specials teams, and this group only figures to get stronger with Calvin Austin’s return.

At tight end Pat Freiermuth appears poised to grow into a “Go To Guy” in clutch situations, while Zach Gentry has a chance to prove that drafting a guy as “a project” isn’t necessarily a dirty word. If new comer Conner Heyward works out, the Steelers could have their deepest tight end room since 2010.

Which brings us to the Offensive Line….

A Lot Is Riding on the Offensive Line

Let’s call a horse a horse: The Steelers can be stronger at quarterback, running back, wide out and tight end, but if their offensive line fails to improve all is for naught.

And let’s not sugar coat this: Based on the preseason, the Steelers offensive line is picking up right where they left off in 2021.

This is bad.

It is even worse when you factor in the Steelers spending 72 million to sign Mason Cole and James Daniels and resign Chukwuma Okorafor. Tony Defeo has counseled patience towards the offensive line, but is that just a Pittsburgh pipe dream?

On a Steel City Insider podcast, Craig Wolfley assured Steelers fans that the line can improve. OK. Wolfey sees the world with Black and Gold tinted sun glasses you say? Well that’s true. But Duke Manyweather, who trains NFL lineman in the off season, reminded Steelers fans:

A little history is helpful here: The Steelers offensive lines in 2008 and 2010 started out as weak spots and struggled mightily at times, but both units improved during the course of the season.

Difference on the Defensive Front 7? Known Unknowns

In 2021 the Pittsburgh Steelers fielded the franchise’s worst run defense since the 1940’s. Honestly, one has to wonder why opposing coaches even bothered to throw. It was obvious that even an average running back could, would and did gouge the Steelers run defense for double digit gains at will.

  • Why did that happen?

In a word, because Stephon Tuitt was injured, Vince Williams retired, Tyson Alualu’s season lasted 6 quarters and Devin Bush wasn’t the same prior to tearing his ACL. But except for Bush, the Steelers couldn’t have anticipated any of this prior to the season.

  • The Steelers used the past off season to plan accordingly.

Larry Ogunjobi gives the Steelers a quality option on the defensive line, and Myles Jack should help stabilize the center of the defense behind the line. Likewise, the Steelers made frequent use of their 3 safety package during the preseason which should strengthen the run defense.

True, Damontae Kazee being out to start the season is a setback, but the 3 safety package’s existence suggests that Mike Tomlin, Teryl Austin and Brain Flores are actively addressing this liability.

At outside linebacker T.J. Watt is flashing signs of being a generational talent, while Alex Highsmith looks to improve. Depth is thin behind them, but Malik Reed’s arrival should help. But the Steelers need both starters to remain healthy.

Secondary = Primary Intrigue

The secondary is of the most intriguing depth charts on this 2022 Steelers squad. In 2021 Cam Sutton emerged a true leader and a legitimate starting NFL cornerback. Last year, just before the season, the Steelers raised eyebrows when they traded for cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon.

Those eyebrows remained raised when Witherspoon sat on the bench for 8 of the Steelers 9 first games. He only started getting serious snaps in week 12, but managed to finish the season with 3 interceptions and 9 passes defensed. The Steelers resigned him along with Levi Wallace, a cornerback who had a lot of success against the Black and Gold.

Minkah Fitzpatrick, Willie Snead, Justin Tucker, Steelers vs Ravens

Minkah Fitzpatrick knocks the ball away from Wille Snead as Justin Tucker lays in the wood. Photo Credit: Patrick Smith, Getty Images via Fansided.com

At safety Damontae Kazee was looking like he could turn into one of those trademark Steelers under-the-rader free agency signings and, if his stay on injured reserve as indeed short-lived, he still could be.

If it is, he will join Terrell Edmunds, a player who returned to Pittsburgh after finding lukewarm interest on the free agent market. IT says here that Edmunds misfortune is Pittsburgh’s good luck. While Edmunds may never be a superstar, he’s improved each year, and should be a stabilizing force in the secondary.

Many, including this author, questioned the wisdom of the Steelers trading their first round pick for Minkah back in 2019, but since then he’s made game changing play after game changing play.

Special Teams to Be Special?

Anyone who doubts the importance of special teams need only remember how the Steelers struggled in 2018 when the kicking game faltered.

In Chris Boswell the Steelers return one of the best kickers in the NFL. Statistics say that the Ravens Justin Tucker is the NFL’s best, and his resume speaks for itself. But Boswell kicks in a tougher venue, and the man his ice water flowing throw his veins.

  • If the game comes down to Boswell’s foot I wouldn’t bet against him.

A year ago the Steelers drafted Pressley Harvin in the 7th round, and fans spent the season wondering why Mike Tomlin kept him around. However, if he can translate his preseason punting exploits into the regular season, we’ll know why.

If he can hold onto the ball, Gunner Olszewski should give the Steelers a viable threat in the return game, and Steve Simms also looked good as a returner in preseason.Ivan Cole

Tomlin Adds Experienced Coaches to the Mix

While Mike Tomlin is a well-known commodity, this will be the first time he’ll start a season without a franchise quarterback. Tomlin will also welcome a number of new assistant coaches either to the team or to new roles within the team.

Teryl Austin will take over as defensive coordinator, Brian Flores arrives as linebackers coach and work as a senior defensive assistant. Pat Meyer joins the team as offensive line coach. Alfredo Roberts, Grady Brown and Frishman Jackson round out the new faces at position coaches, taking over the tight end, defensive backs and wide receiver rooms.

  • What to make of all this?

Well, if Mike Tomlin has struggled when he’s tried to identify, recruit and/or promote up and coming young coaching talent (think Scottie Montgomery, Jack Bicknell or Carnell Lake), he’s repeatedly he’s demonstrated ability to bring in experienced veteran value adding coaches to his staff (think Richard Mann, Mike Munchak and yes, Todd Haley.)

Tomlin’s hires for senior positions all boast extensive resumes in both the NFL and/or college and should serve as able mentors for a maturing team.

Steelers fans in northern Virginia.

Ivan Cole, right, middle, with Bill Steinbach and Rebecca Rollett

Will Underdog Status Once Again Suit the Steelers?

We close this tribute to Ivan Cole, by quoting from his “The Case for the 2013 Pittsburgh Steelers,” which he wrapped up with:

I want to end like I began. I am not saying what I think will happen this season, just a best case scenario of what can happen in a fully realistic way, and in many respects, validated by history.

Like Ivan, I’m not making predictions. Nor am I ignorant to the fact that the Steelers are playing in the AFC North, home to two potential Super Bowl-NFL MPA favorite tandems in the form of Bengals with Joe Burrow and the Ravens with Lamar Jackson.

Must pundits outside of Pittsburgh are predicting a rough year, not only forecasting Mike Tomlin’s first losing effort but a 5 or 6 win season.

But if Ivan were he he’d say, “So be it. Let Iron sharpen Iron. And besides, the Steelers play best with their back to the wall. So let’s live in our hopes and not in our fears!”

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Subtraction & Addition: Steelers 2022 Roster and Practice Squad @ a Glance

The Pittsburgh Steelers made final cuts reducing their roster to 53 members, but had to do some addition to complement their subtraction.

To shore up the thin depth behind T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith, the Steelers traded a 6th round pick from the 2023 NFL Draft to the Denver Broncos for outside linebacker Malik Reed and Denver’s 7th round 2023 pick.
They also traded a conditional 7th round pick to the Miami Dolphins for offensive lineman Jesse Davis, strengthening what is the weakest area on the depth chart going into the season.

Mike Tomlin

Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin.

Some Surprising Cuts

To get to 53 men the Steelers made a number of surprising cuts Joe Haeg, John Leglue, Buddy Johnson, Marcus Allen, Anthony McFarland, and Justin Layne all got visits from The Turk. As expected, Marcus Allen returned to the 53 man roster after the Steelers put safety Damontae Kazee on the short-term injured reserve list. Anthony McFarland and John Leglue have returned via the practice squad.

Still, considering how versatile he was last season and how frequently he was called into action, Joe Haeg’s departure is a minor surprise as is their decision to part ways so quickly with Buddy Johnson. What’s most surprising about Justin Layne’s dismissal isn’t that the Steelers said goodbye, but rather that he was picked up off of waivers by the New York Giants.

First Look at the Steelers 2022 Roster

Quarterback
Mitch Trubisky
Kenny Pickett
Mason Rudolph
– No surprise for those who understand franchise philosophy.

Running Back
Najee Harris
Benny Snell
Jaylen Warren
Derek Watt
– Tomlin’s decision to revert to a backfield that’s 3 deep is a bit disappointing

Wide Receiver
Diontae Johnson
Chase Claypool
George Pickens
Calvin Austin
Gunner Olszewski
Miles Boykin
Steven Sims
– Sims beats out Tyler Vaughns for the last slot, Boykin’s experience and special teams ability helps him.

Tight End
Pat Freiermuth
Zach Gentry
Connor Heyward
– Excited to see Connor Heyward, but sad to see Kevin Radar go.

Offensive Line
Kendrick Green
Kevin Dotson
Mason Cole
James Daniels
Chukwuma Okorafor
Jesse Davis
J.C. Hassenauer
– Will “New” = “Improved”?

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward
Tyson Alualu
Larry Ogunjobi
Chris Wormley
Isaiahh Loudermilk
Montravius Adams
DeMarvin Leal
– Hopefully Alualu’s health holds

Outside Linebacker
T.J. Watt
Alex Highsmith
Derrek Tuszka
Malik Reed
– Clutch those rosary beads and ask for intercession for Watt and Highsmith’s health

Inside Linebacker
Devin Bush
Myles Jack
Robert Spillane
Mark Robinson
Marcus Allen
– Make or break year for Devin Bush

Cornerback
Cam Sutton
Ahkello Witherspoon
Levi Wallace
James Pierre
Arthur Maulet
– Steelers have invested heavily here. Time to for it to payoff

Safety
Minkah Fitzpatrick
Terrell Edmunds
Tre Norwood
Miles Killebrew
– Losing Kazee is a blow. But let’s hope Norwood can shirk the sophmore slump.

Specialists
Chris Boswell (K)
Pressley Harvin (P)
Christian Kuntz (LS)
– You didn’t remember Kuntz’s name did you? That means he’s doing his job.

Steelers 2022 Practice Squad

Anthony McFarland, Running Back
John Leglue, Offensive Line
Carlos Davis, Nose Tackle
Cody White, Wide Receiver
Hamilcar Rashed, Outside Linebacker
William Dunkle, Offensive line
Ryan McCollum, Offensive line
Elijah Riley, Safety

During COVID-19 the NFL expanded practice squads to 16 and has kept that size, so the Steelers should be adding new players soon.

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6 Quick Takeaways from the Steelers 19-9 Preseason Win over the Lions

The Steelers 2022 preseason finale win over the Detroit Lions may not have had the intensity of an ole style Chuck Noll preseason finale dress rehearsal, but it certainly brought a lot more to the table than the 4th preseason wrap up games against the Carolina Panthers.

And that revealed both good and bad for the Steelers now that the games that count are about to start.

With that in mind, here are 6 not-so-random thoughts on the game.

Pat Freiermuth, Steelers Lions 2022 Preseason

Pat Freiermuth’s 32 yard catch sets up a score. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

1. The Offensive Line Has Potential to be Truly Offensive

The big ugly spot coming out of the preseason win over the Jaguars was the offensive line, which had been horrendous in that preseason game. Could the unit improve week-on-week?

Not really. Mitch Trubisky was sacked twice and had to get out of trouble many more times. And while he did have time to throw on a couple of his longer passes, we also saw plenty of the “chink-and-dink that plagued the Steelers offense during Ben Roethlisberger’s final two seasons.

The run blocking wasn’t much better, with the Steelers averaging 2.9 yards on the ground. Najee Harris saw his first action, and did a decent job of making something out of nothing on more than one occasion.

After the game Mike Tomlin did concede that the line had improved a little, it did, but those improvements were offset by penalties. The Steelers offensive line has a long way to go before it is no longer a liability.

2. This Defense Has “It”

3 sacks, 1 interception, 12 passes defensed and 2 4th down conversions stopped. Yes, as Mike Tomlin cautioned, it is only preseason. And yes, the defense did allow longer runs of 27, 10, and 11 yards.

But it is hard to avoid watching and coming away with the feeling that this defense is headed in the right direction.

3. Freiermuth is for Real

Pat Freiermuth not only lead the team in touchdowns, he came up with a key 32 catch that set up Steven Sims touchdown catch as time was expiring at the end of the first half. Based on what we saw from Freiermuth last season this shouldn’t surprise anyone.

But it always takes two years to really measure a player’s mettle, so its nice to see Freiermuth deliver.

4. Pickett Looks Good, But Mortal

After coming in and playing exceptionally well during his first two preseason outings, Kenny Pickett still looked good but played like a mere mortal. He did make one long critical completion with a perfectly placed ball to Myles Boykin. And 3 plays later he hit Olszewski with a catchable ball in the end zone.

5. Snell Sells It

Benny Snell has had some injury issues this summer while Jaylen Warren has earned a lot of positive press. Snell’s stat line is a modest 17 yards, but he did post the highest total of the group and earned the best rushing average of behind a bad line.

More importantly, his hustle was apparent.

Snell was playing as if his job depended on it – it very well may – and that’s what you want to see in a situation like this. More importantly, he made something out of nothing on a couple of carries – a skill that’s going to be critical behind this line.

6. Trade Mason? Are You Out of Your Vulcan Mind?

The Steelers decision to cut 7th round pick quarterback Chris Oladokun set off a social media firestorm the likes of which have not been seen since the team cut 4th round pick Doran Grant prior to the 2014 opening day.

Was it because, like Devlin Hodges, Chris Oladokun had been the summer superstar at St. Vincents and the standout during preseason games? No. He never saw the field in preseason and, by one count, completed just over 46% of his passes in practice.

  • The real reason of course is that that cutting Chris Oladokun means the Steelers will be keeping Mason Rudolph.

As they should. Mason Rudolph has quietly authored the most consistent performance of any Pittsburgh quarterback this summer, although he’s not had much time with the first team. And for fans that don’t want to hear that, take this from the Lions. Midway through the 2nd half, the broadcasters flashed a “Battle of the Backups” graphic, showing that Tim Boyle had completed 5 of 15 passes for 64 yards and one interception vs. 4 of 10 for 50 yards for David Blough.

Blough of course got more garbage time yards, but that stat alone shows that the Steelers are very lucky to have a quarterback of Mason Rudolph’s caliber as their 3rd string.

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6 (Not So) Random Thoughts on the Steelers 16-15 Preseason Win over the Jaguars

Preseason football isn’t what it used to be. (Or perhaps, as staff writer Tony Defeo suggested on BTSC, perhaps the good ole days of preseason weren’t all that good.)

Be that as it may, preseason football gives unproven players a chance to test their mettle in live fire circumstances. It gives coaches a evaluate unit cohesion. And, best of all, it gives fans a chance to evaluate young player with their own eyes.

With that in mind, here are 6 observations from the Steelers 16-15 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Kenny Pickett, Steelers 2022 preseason Jaguars

Kenny Pickett scan for a receiver. Photo Credit: AP via Tribune-Review

1. Pickett’s Got Poise

OK. Let’s be crystal clear on this: 2 preseason games does not a Hall of Fame resume make. Remember Matthew Thomas, the Steelers 2018 preseason standout? His NFL career consisted of 4 defensive snaps.

  • With those disclaimers in place, it is hard not to like what we’ve seen from Kenny Pickett.

His debut against the Seahawks was nice, but it is easy to see that as a varsity first round pick dominating JV competition. But against the Jaguars, Pickett was going up against NFL veterans.

  • He looked like he belonged. He made good decisions. Perhaps most impressive was his poise.

For the second time in two weeks, he took the reigns in a 2 minute situation and calmly went down the field. When asked about it, Mike Tomlin suggested that “…its probably who he is” before concluding “Some things people are born with.”

Leading touchdowns in the 2 minute drill against the Jaguars and Seahawks in August isn’t quite the same as doing on the road it against the Cincinnati Bengals or Baltimore Ravens in the 4th quarter of a rainy December night with the AFC North on the line, but we can now dare to dream.

2. Trubisky’s Mobility Will Be far More than a “Nice to Have”

So several times last season as it became clear that Ben Roethlisberger was about to ride into the sunset, Mike Tomlin mused about the importance of having a mobile quarterback, although it was clear he was thinking more along the lines of Steve Young than Kordell Stewart.

  • Against the Jaguars Mitch Trubisky showed his Steve Young-like mobility.

More than once, he slid his way out of pressure and delivered the ball down field to connect with Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool.

Mitch Trubisky, Steelers vs Jaguars 2022 preseason

Mitch Trubisky shows off his mobility against the Jaguars. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review

Its good that he has that mobility, because he’s gonna need it….

3. The Time to Worry about the Offensive Line Begins Now

…Throughout training camp, veteran beat reporters such as Jim Wexell and Mark Kaboly have warned their readers that the Steelers offensive line has been shaky. It is hard to know what that really means, even if the Steelers remain one of the few NFL teams to have live hitting during training camp.

  • The Steelers offensive line was atrocious.

The line’s decline began in 2019, became obvious in 2020 and accelerated in 2021. The conventional wisdom was that with the maturation of Dan Moore and Kendrick Green, and the free agent additions of Mason Cole and James Daniels, the Steelers offensive line couldn’t get any worse. Could it?

The performance against the Jaguars suggests that the Steelers offensive line IS capable of regressing even further in 2022.

4. Gunner’s Good, But Watch Those Fumbles

There’s a lot to like about Gunner Olszewski. When the Steelers signed him, it almost seemed like a steal when comparing his contract to what the 49ers had given Ray-Ray McCloud. Everything we’ve seen or heard since then has been a positive, with all signs indicating he can be a good return man and a viable 4th wide receiver on game day.

But, as suggested here when he signed with the Steelers, perhaps the Patriots parted ways with Olszewski because of his ball security aka fumbling issues.

After making a really smart kick return, Gunner Olszewski fumbled the ball in the 4th quarter, allowing Jacksonville to take the lead. That’s easy to forgive in preseason. When the games count? Not so much.

5. Time to Stop Beating around the Bush

As criticism of Devin Bush mounted last fall, Steel Curtain Rising urged restraint. ACL injuries were tricky things to come back from, reminding everyone that Rod Woodson, who tore his ACL in the 1995 Steelers opener himself admits he didn’t feel 100% until 1998. The Dr. de Acero wrote his own medical opinion in Spanish talking about the complexities of ACL rehab.

  • That was then. This is now.

I don’t pretend to have the savvy to do an X’s and O’s analysis of Devin Bush’s role in what was a very shaky run defense. But one image stands out is that of Bush getting turned so that he’s facing backwards as a running is cutting through to the second level behind him.

I’m pretty sure that’s not how Brian Flores and Jerry Olsavsky had Bush’s responsibilities for that play drawn up. When asked earlier this week if this was his “Make or break” year in the NFL, Bush offered sanguine words. Talk is cheap.

It is now time for Bush to put up or shut up.

6. NFL GamePass Condensed Games Have Their Limits

As I did last year, I opted not to watch the game live and instead watch it via NFL Game Pass’ condensed viewing option, which not only cuts out commercials, but also pauses between plays with very view replays.

While that sure beats slogging through 3 hours’ worth of commercial breaks, you really do miss something watching games in such condensed fashion. Not only do you lose the flavor of the game, it is also hard to hone in on its ebb and flow.

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