Steelers Report Card for the 2023 Season – Glad the Grading is Over Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is glad to be done with grading for a while, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 2023 season.

T.J. Watt, Jake Browning, Steelers vs Bengals

T.J. Watt strip sacks Jake Browning. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Quarterbacks
Both Kenny Pickett and Mitch Trubisky disappointed. Kenny Pickett not only failed to make the “second year leap” he posted some historically anemic passing numbers. Trubisky had multiple chances both as a reliever and a starter to show why he belongs in this game, and he squandered them. The difference is Trubisky turned over the ball, Pickett did not. Mason Rudolph in contrast, elevated the entire offense. IT was a different unit with him on the field. And his performance pulls the group’s grade up. Grade: C+Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren entered uncharted territory for the franchise this year, becoming the only 2 running backs to get a carry (although Anthony McFarland did catch 2 passes in the opener.) Both men earned over 1000 yards from scrimmage, with Najee Harris rushing for 1035 yards – his third consecutive 1000 yard season. We saw as the season progressed, the running backs were capable when they had the blocking. Grade: A-

Tight Ends
Pat Freiermuth got hurt in the opener and then played through injuries for the first several weeks until missing several games in the middle of the season. His effectiveness was limited, but he did come on late. Darnell Washington did a respectable job for a rookie. Connor Heyward was a quality role player and his presence as a blocker was notable late in the season. Grade: C

Wide Receivers
The Steelers wideouts had their ups and downs. George Pickens flashed early in the season, but struggled in the number one role. His attitude came into question, but he closed the year with a bang. Diontae Johnson was injured early in the season, and took some time to find his stride. Calvin Austin flashed on a few plays, but otherwise was a non-factor. Allen Robinson served as a serviceable slot receiver. Myles Boykin didn’t see much action outside of special teams. Grade: B

Offensive Line
This unit was easily the biggest disappointment for the first half of the season. Pass blocking was poor and run blocking appeared to be non-existent at times. The change began when Broderick Jones entered the starting lineup. However, the rest of the line improve, particularly as Isaac Seumalo got his legs under him. The improvement was important, but the difficulty the Steelers had running the ball against Buffalo shows that this group has a long way to go. Grade: C-

Defensive Line
This group got a taste of what life could be like after Cam Heyward, and at times that was pretty scary. Early in the year it looked as if the Steelers run defense might revert to 2021 form. However, the unit improved as Keeanu Benton worked his way into the line up. Still, it would be nice to call out a few other up and comers. Grade: B-

Alex Highsmith, Steelers vs Browns, Alex Highsmith interception

Alex Highsmith intercepts Deshaun Watson out of the gate. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Linebackers
T.J. Watt authored another Defensive Player of the year worthy performance. Watt proved time and time again he is a generational talent capable of altering the course of a game by himself. Alex Highsmith’s numbers were down a bit from his previous year, but Highsmith delivered, as did outside linebacking backups Markus Golden and Nick Herbig. At inside linebacker, it took a while to jell, but the Steelers had quite a troika there in Cole Holcomb, Elandon Roberts and Kwon Alexander. Then of course Holcomb and Alexander got hurt, as did Roberts, forcing the Steelers to look to the street for replacements. Those guys did well enough, but the absence of the starters was significant. Grade: B+

Secondary
When the Steelers opened against San Francisco, Patrick Peterson and Levi Wallace were the starting corners, with Minkah Fitzpatrick, Damontae Kazee and safety Keanu Neal formed a troika while Eric Rowe sat on the Carolina Panthers practice squad. When the Steelers closed at Baltimore, Joey Porter Jr. was a starting corner, Levi Wallace was back as a starter as Patrick Peterson was playing safety alongside Eric Rowe. Yes, this unit weathered a lot of adversity. And while their numbers might not have been flashy, they had as big a part of keeping the Steelers in games as did any other unit on the defense. Grade: B

Miles Killebrew, Steelers vs Patriots

Miles Killebrew blocks his second punt of the season. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review

Special Teams
Miles Killebrew was a one man wrecking crew blocking 2 punts during the season. Calvin Austin may not have done much as a receiver, but he proved to be a good punt returner. Godwin Igwebuike proved to be a solid kick returner with “upside.” Steelers kick coverage could have been better at times, but it was never a liability. Pressley Harvin’s punting was inconsistent, and that brings the group’s grade down. Grade: B+

Coaching
The Steelers coaches’ score card for 2023 contains ugly, bad and good.

The ugly stems from the ill-fated decision to retain Matt Canada. None of the progress evident during the final half of the 2022 season was evident in 2023. Instead, the Steelers fielded one of the most anemic offensive efforts franchise history. Three and outs became the norm. The Steelers failed to establish the running game and Kenny Pickett did not progress.

For as disappointing as Kenny Pickett’s failure to make the “second year leap” was, the Steelers worst stretch of the season came when Kenny Pickett was out. Mitch Trubisky showed a lot of leadership, looked in command on the field, but he ultimately failed to rally the team in relief of Pickett and floundered in his first two starts.

  • Mike Tomlin had treated Mason Rudolph as a “nice to have” and he should have given him stronger consideration sooner.

The Steelers defense had its struggles early on too. But as the troika of inside linebackers found their stride, the unit perked up. Then they started to get hurt. Many Steelers fans question why Mike Tomlin extended Teryl Austin for two more years.

They should not. Austin’s defense may never have broached shut down level, but it displayed an uncanny knack for delivering big plays at critical moments. This continued throughout the season, despite the fact that Austin had to rebuild the middle of his defense, almost on a weekly basis.

Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Patriots

Mike Tomlin on the sidelines. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review

If Mike Tomlin deserves criticism for retaining Canada and the horrid 10 quarter stretch that followed Pickett’s injury – and he does – he also earns credit. When the bottom falls out on and NFL team late in the season like that, free fall generally ensues.

Mike Tomlin made sure the opposite happened, defying the odds and landing his team in the playoffs, where they made a spirited run at a Super Bowl favorite. Grade: C+

Front Office
The improvement of the Steelers in 2023 can be tied, in many respects, directly to integration of its rookie class into the starting line ups. Omar Khan and Andy Wedil’s first draft won accolades.

That was nice, but the Steelers 2023 draft class helped the team win games, which is far more important.

Chris Boswell, Steelers vs Bengals,

Chris Boswell boots it. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger

The front offense proved to be quick on its feet, as the Steelers found themselves cycling through street free agents at safety and inside linebacker. Likewise the free agents Khan brought to Pittsburgh also accounted itself well. Grade: A

Unsung Hero Award
The Steelers offense had trouble scoring for most of the year. At times it had difficulty doing anything right. But there was one player who could be counted on to score when his number was called, and he delivered 56 times out of 59 and for that Mr. Automatic Chris Boswell wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers 2023 season.

 

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Steelers Report Card for Win over Packers: Work to Do and Bills to Pay Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is late in making his marks thanks to “work to do and bills to pay,” here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the win over the Green Bay Packers at Acrisure.

Jaylen Warren, Steelers vs Packers

Jaylen Warren in route to his first 100 yard game. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Quarterback
Kenny Pickett started sharp helping touchdown drives on the team’s opening two possessions. However, Pickett was shaky after that. He avoided the middle of the field and barely missed two turnovers. Pickett’s numbers 14-23-126 appear to be economical, but he was dreadful on third down. At his weekly press conference Mike Tomlin said he needs to “see more” from Pickett. He is right. Grade: DSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Wow. Both Jaylen Warren and Najee Harris ran with authority and determination. Both scored touchdowns and both ripped off multiple double-digit runs. Jaylen Warren had 101 yards on 15 carries while 82 yards on 16 carries. Excellent work for both. Grade: A

Tight Ends
Darnell Washington logged another 6 yard catch while Connor Heyward caught 3 passes, tying him for the team lead, for 32 yards. Washington’s presence was evident in run blocking plays. Grade: C+

Wide Receivers
George Pickens led the unit with 3 catches for 45 yards. No that’s not a misprint from some 1980’s newspaper. Diontae Johnson had 1 catch for 17 yards, losing a few combat caches. Calvin Austin had one catch for 3 yards and another reverse for 6. Green Bay was playing with a depleted secondary. But you’d never have known. Grade: D

Offensive Line
Kenny Pickett was sacked once and hit 4 other times, a sign of progress. And the offensive line opened some incredibly wide holes for the running game. This offensive line still hasn’t earned the use of terms like “road grading” or “imposing their will” yet, but this represents a tremendous improvement. Grade: B+

Defensive Line
The Steelers defensive line had a quiet day by some measures. Green Bay is known for its rushing attack, yet those running backs were largely neutered save for a 40 yard run. Take away that, and the Packers ground attack was pretty spare. That starts with the defensive line. Grade: B

Linebackers
With Kwon Alexander going down early, it fell to Elandon Roberts to carry the weight, and Roberts led linebackers in tackles. Mark Robinson saw his first action and had 3 tackles, but also over pursued on AJ Dillon’s 40 yard run. T.J. Watt led the team in tackles and recorded the team’s lone sack. Grade: B

Secondary
On the downside, the secondary gave up two long touchdown passes. However, Joey Porter Jr. and Elijah Riley both had tackles for losses, while Patrick Peterson had a tippled ball that Keanu Neal intercepted in the end zone while Damontae Kazee sealed the win with an end zone interception of his own on a play called at the sidelines by Minkah Fitzpatrick. Grade: B

Special Teams
Chris Boswell was perfect, again. Pressley Harvin punted well, including downing three punts inside the 20. The Packers had some nice returns, one of which set up a score, but Anthony McFarland set up a score with an above average return of his own. And Patrick Peterson’s blocked extra point dramatically altered the dynamic of the game. Grade: B

Coaching
Has it been fear of Matt Canada on the sidelines or Broderick Jones slipping into the starting line up, but for two straight weeks the Steelers ground attack has been effective. The pass protection has been strong too.

The Steelers also scored a touchdown on their opening drive in the one that followed, showing that Canada’s scripting was smart. It was rough sledding after that, but given Kenny Pickett’s third down performance, it is hard to chalk that up to play calling.

It is easy to fault Teryl Austin’s defense for making lots of Fantasy Football owners who started Packers players happy. But the truth is that his unit contained Green Bay’s rushing attack, kept them out of the end zone in the second half, and secured 2 turn overs in the games final minutes.

Keeanu Benton, Steelers vs Packers

Kennau Benton tackles Aaron Jones. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Which brings us to Mike Tomlin. This team fails “the eye test” in so many ways. However, his players “run to big moments” and that is to his credit. Grade: B

Unsung Hero Award
For the last two weeks pockets have been getting a little cramped and running space has become a bit more spare against the Steelers defense. That’s because rookie Keeanu Benton is steadily making his presence known and for that he wins Unsung Hero Honors for the Steelers 2023 win against the Packers at Acrisure Stadium.

 

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Steelers Report Card for Loss to 49ers – Teeth Kicked in Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher whose students aced the practice test only kicked in the teeth on the real exam, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 2023 opening day to the 49ers.

Javon Hargrave, Steelers vs 49ers

Javon Hargrave celebrates with an air kick after sacking Kenny Pickett. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review.

Quarterback
On the face of it 31-46-232 for 1 TD and 2 interceptions might seem respectable. But it was not. Kenny Pickett was off every time it counted. He didn’t shy away from the center of the field but that’s where he threw his worst interception (OK he had a far uglier almost interception.) Pickett can still make the 2nd year leap – at this point he can only go up. Grade: FSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Take away Najee Harris’ 24 yard scamper at the end of the 2nd half and he and Jaylen Warren totaled 13 yards rushing. The duo added 14 more through the air. Unacceptable by any measure. Grade: F

Tight Ends
Pat Freiermuth caught the only touchdown but missed a key block on a shove jet sweep on the second play of the game. Connor Heyward caught 2 passes. The Steelers needed more from their tight ends. Grade: F

Wide Receivers
Allen Robinson II had a respectable day and Calvin Austin caught 6 passes for a total of 37 yards – this is the kid who is supposed to spread the defense? Diontae Johnson contributed to Pickett’s first pick, and he and Pickett failed to connect on what should have been an easy touchdown pass. George Pickens had 5 catches for 36 yards. Grade: F

Offensive Line
Steelers running backs averaged 1.6 yards per carry if you control for Harris’ long run. 49er defenders recorded 8 tackles for losses. Kenny Pickett was sacked 5 times and hit a total of 9 times. It’s as if the second half of 2022 never occurred. Grade: F

Defensive Line
San Francisco 49ers average 5.5 yards rushing. And that’s including two kneel downs. That isn’t entirely on the defensive line’s shoulders, but it starts there. Grade: F

Linebackers
T.J. Watt was a man on fire. The rest of the unit got burned. This was the first time the inside linebacking group played together in a game that counted and it looked like it. Both Elandon Roberts and Alex Highsmith authored some good places, but as a whole the unit was below the line. Grade: D

Secondary
Brandon Aiyuk had his third best outing in terms of catches and his best one measured by yards. Patrick Peterson defended a few passes nicely, but he was on coverage for some of those plays against Aiyuk. Levi Wallace took a poor angle and missed a tackle on Christian McCaffrey’s 65 yard run. Minkah Fitzpatrick took a poor angle on a key blitz. Brock Prudy very well may prove that he’s the next Tom Brady on his own merits. But even if he doesn’t, the Steelers certainly made him look like Brady. Grade: F

Special Teams
After an awful opening three and out, Pressley Harvin shanked a 34 yard punt, setting up the 49er’s first score. Later on, long snapper Christian Kuntz got called for a face mask, tacking on a 15 yard penalty and setting up another score. Ex Steeler Ray-Ray McCloud III set the 49ers up other scores with solid punt returns. Chris Boswell made his only PAT. Grade: F

Coaching
The Steelers knew they had to limit the 49ers yards after catch. They knew they couldn’t let Christian McCaffrey reach the second level. On offense the Steelers understood that the 49ers were the tough to run on and would need to win the battle in the trenches.

  • We know that because Mike Tomlin told us.
Anthony McFarland, Steelers vs 49ers

Anthony McFarland was a bright spot for the Steelers. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

We have every reason to take him at his word that he, Matt Canada and Teryl Austin did their damndest to prepare their units for the 49ers. Whatever they did, it didn’t work. Grade: F

Unsung Hero Award
How to you find a hero after an awful game like that one?

Well, one easy way is to avoid mentioning a highlighting his key contribution to his unit and mention him here. Against the 49ers Anthony McFarland returned kicks for 25, 32 and 34 yards and for that McFarland wins the Unsung Hero Award for the 2023 opening day win over the 49ers.

 

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Reality Bites: 49ers Kick Steelers in the Teeth, 30-7 to Open the 2023 Season

Week 1 in the NFL is all about acquainting yourself with reality. And the reality Pittsburgh faces today is that the San Francisco 49ers came to Acrisure Stadium for the 2023 season opener and embarrassed the Steelers to the tune of 30-7.

  • Sometimes reality bites.

Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin minced no words declaring, “We got kicked in the teeth today in a lot of ways.” He’s right. The question is why and should we be worried?

 

Kenny Pickett, Drake Jackson, Steelers vs 49ers

Drake Jackson sacks Kenny Pickett. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla

How Quickly Off Season Accolades Feel Hollow

The NFL has dominated sports news, in terms of commanding press coverage and fan interest since the Freeman McNeil verdict brought free agency to professional football. Yet through all of it, the Pittsburgh Steelers have largely remained in the background.

But 2023 was different. The Steelers got out of their comfort zone:

  • Free agents that otherwise would have stayed in Pittsburgh were allowed to walk.
  • Older free agents and/or others with injury histories were brought to the Steel City
  • Omar Khan and Andy Weidl authored a draft that made everyone happy
  • “Flawless” isn’t too much of an exaggeration to describe the Steelers preseason effort

Yet, as Washington Commanders fans can assure us, winning the off season Lombardi counts for nothing when the games actually matter. Oh, it’s not that the everything the Steelers did in the off season blew up in their faces. To the contrary:

And that exercise above, ladies and gentleman, is the football analysis equivalent of having the icing off of the top of your cupcake before eating the rest of your dinner. And by cupcake, I’m not talking about the kind your mother made, I’m talking about a Hostess cupcake. You might enjoy a brief sugar high, but everything else will disappoint you as your appetite is spoiled.

Because really everything else the Steelers did in their 2023 opener disappointed.

Losing It in the Trenches

One of the most heartening things about the off season was the front office’s commitment to returning to “Steelers Football.” By “Steelers Football” we mean winning in the trenches because the ones in Black and Gold are the ones hitting the hardest.

First in free agency and then in the draft, the Steelers invested heavily in bulking up their starters and backups on both lines, while signing thumpers to rebuild their inside linebacking corps. Yet the 49ers pushed the Steelers around like rag dolls.

  • You remember that picture-perfect run Jaylen Warren in preseason against the Bills?

Well, the 49ers executed a similar play to open the 2nd half, where Christian McCaffrey ran 65 yards for a touchdown. McCaffrey ran well on that play, but his lineman watch that play again and try to count all of the Steelers defenders who got manhandled on that play.

  • Nor was that an isolated incident. Take away that 65 run and McCafferty still averages over 4 yards a carry.

And the 49ers hardly executed a one-dimensional offense. The Steelers defense might have “contained” George Kittle and Deebo Samuel, but Brandon Aiyuk torched them for 129 yards and two touchdowns.

Granted, on the first touchdown pass Brock Prudy placed the ball with super-human precision, but either way Aiyuk literally caught everything that was thrown his way.

Chicken, Egg or Both?

During the back-half of 2022 the Steelers formula for success on offense was simple:

  • Control the line of scrimmage
  • Create manageable third downs by running hard on first and or second down
  • Count on Kenny Pickett (or Derek Watt if we dare say) to convert those third downs
  • Dominate time of possession

Sure, the Steelers got stuck in the Red Zone more often than not ensuring that a lot of games went down to the buzzer. But it worked.

Fast forward to September 2023. When Mike Tomlin was asked about the poor performance of his offense, he reference the fact that the Steelers started something like 0-5 on third down conversions.

Take away Najee Harris 24 yard run at the end of the 1st half and he averages 1.4 yards per carry. Jaylen Warren wasn’t much better, averaging 2 yards per carry. Suffice to say, there’s no running back controversy in Pittsburgh this morning.

But the offense’s woes don’t lie entirely on the shoulders of the running backs and offensive line. The Steelers tried opening several drives with short passes, but even when they completed those they still found themselves in third and long.

What’s perhaps more worrisome was how they attacked those third and longs. During the second half of 2022 the knock on Kenny Pickett was that he played it safe, avoiding throwing downfield and/or in the middle of the field.

  • Against the 49ers he attacked the middle of the field, and the middle counter attacked.

Perhaps his first interception was due to Diontae Johnson slipping, but he threw a very poor pass dead center in the middle of the field on his second one, and he should have had a third returned for a touchdown.

In his defense, Pickett faced pressure all day. The 49ers sacked him 5 times and registered a total of 9 hits. Couple that with the 8 tackles for losses registered by 49er defenders and Andy Weidl’s “planet theory” of offensive line building looked more like space dust.

Primary Differentiation on Opening Day

Is all hope lost for the 2023 Pittsburgh Steelers? Of course not. The Steelers opened their previous two seasons with upsets of AFC contenders only to flounder for large portions of both campaigns. Looking further back, during the Cowher Era and opening day blowout was almost a good omen.

  • But with that said, opening day revealed a stark contrast to Steelers Nation.

The San Francisco 49ers looked every bit of the team that’s been to 3 of the last 4 Conference championships and the Pittsburgh Steelers looked like a team still searching for its first playoff win since 2016.

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The Case for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2023

The moment we’ve all been waiting for since Mike Tomlin exclaimed “Kenny F__king Pickett” after last December’s  comeback over the Ravens is almost here. This Sunday at 1:00 pm the Pittsburgh Steelers begin their 2023 season against the San Francisco 49ers at Acrisure Stadium.

Last year, I dedicated my season preview to my friend, the late, great, Ivan Cole. Prior to each season, Ivan would write his “The Case for the Steelers in…,” and my goal wasn’t simply to follow his form, but to try to find his tone. It felt good then and it feels right now, so this year I’m doing it again.

As a quick reminder, Ivan’s “The Case for the Steelers” articles weren’t predictions on what the Steelers would do, but rather vision of what they could do. Here goes.

Mike Tomlin, Kenny Pickett, Steelers vs Ravens

Mike Tomlin says “Kenny F___ing Pickett.” Photo Credit: Getty Images, via Heavy Sports.com

A Quarterback Room That’s the Envy of the League?

We are told that quarterback is the NFL’s most important position. That’s always been true. It is more true today.

Look back to previous eras. Who were Jim Brown and O.J. Simpson’s quarterbacks? No one remembers.
Yet glance around today. Who were Patrick Mahomes and Matthew Stafford handing off to in the last two Super Bowls? We’ve already forgotten.

In this sense the Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback room is the envy of the the NFL. In Kenny Pickett the Steelers have a player who looks poised to make the proverbial “2nd year leap.” Pickett’s 2022 passing numbers won’t impress Fantasy Football fans. But the moxie and mental toughness he showed in leading 2 come from behind wins late in the season means far more to Reality Football fans.

Behind Pickett, the Steelers have Mitch Trubisky, a former first round pick. Trubisky’s brief tenure as starter revealed why the rest of the NFL wrote him off. However, his play in the wins against the Buccaneers and Panthers shows why he can be a long-term backup in Pittsburgh.

Mason Rudolph rounds out the room. Rudolph will never win respect from most Steelers fans. But let’s be honest. Every other NFL coach would sleep better if their third string quarterback had 17 games and 10 starts of NFL experience under his belt. Do you doubt that the third string quarterback matters? If so just remember: The Mike Tomlin Era has basically been the Golden Age of Steelers 3rd String Quarterbacks.

Running Backs – Depth Here Where Its Undervalued Elsewhere?

Even if the NFL undervalues running backs in the salary cap era, a strong running game can certainly for a critical component of a championship team.

If that’s the case, then the Steelers are in good position with Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren. Harris has his critics, but he’s posted consecutive 1000 yard seasons running behind substandard offensive lines and/or while injured. Jaylen Warren earned playing time as an undrafted free agent rookie last summer and gives every indication of pushing Harris, a former first rounder, for playing time.

Going into training camp, some speculated the Steelers would only carry 2 running backs on their opening day roster. But Anthony McFarland quelled that with an outstanding preseason where he proved himself as a true dual threat.

Aerial Attack – Enough Footballs to Go Around?

Connor Heyward, Steelers vs Browns

Connor Heyward makes a key 3rd down conversion. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

One of Matt Canada and Kenny Pickett’s biggest challenges could be spreading the football around. Diontae Johnson remains a reliable all-purpose threat. George Pickens has yet to be thrown a pass in his catch radius that he can’t bring around. And Calvin Austin has field-stretching speed.

  • And when he does, Allen Robinson and Pat Friermuth can do their damage underneath.

And of course we’d be remiss if we didn’t discuss Connor Heyward, who after making several impact plays in 2022, is following that up by making himself into an offensive Swiss Army Knife.

Rounding it out, you have Gunner Olszewski who in Mike Tomlin’s words, plays with “toughness and versatility and smarts.” If nothing else, rookie Darnell “Mt. Washington” should net the Steelers a couple of three pass interference penalties in the Red Zone.

Flipping Both Lines

Two years ago it took 7 Ben Roethlisberger rallies to overcome the deficits created by historic weaknesses on both the offensive and defensive lines. By the end of 2022, both units improved to the point where they were no longer liabilities.

  • Going into 2023, both lines appear to be growing into strengths.

Watch Jaylen Warren’s prseason run against the Bills again to understand how much better the offensive line can be this season:

While the contribution from newcomer Isaac Seumalo is evident, the truly exciting thing is that the best play was authored by Dan Moore, the once-maligned left tackle who has improved so much he’s keeping first round draft pick Broderick Jones on the bench.

Last year’s arrival of Larry Ogunjobi gave the Steelers defensive line the shot in the arm it desperately needed. In the blink of an eye, Pittsburgh’s rush defense improved from 32nd to 9th in the NFL. Yet, to achieve that Cam Heyward still needed to play 75% of defensive snaps.

Last year’s starting nose tackle Montravius Adams returns, which is a good sign. But an even better sign is that rookie Keeanu Benton is not only pushing him for playing time, but might supplant him as starter as he has already pushed free agent signinee Breiden Fehoko to the practice squad.

Isaiahh Loudermilk, after suffering a bit of a “sophomore struggle,” had a strong camp and preseason. Last, but not least is DeMarvin Leal, the Steelers 2022 2nd round pick who saw his playing time increase late in the season just as the Steelers run defense was improving. Coincidence? I don’t think so either.

Linebackering: Reinforcing the Foundation and Ripping Down to the Studs

If you look at the great Steelers defense from the 1970’s onward, you’ll see that there’s one constant that unites them: Exceptional linebackers.

Yes, they’ve had Hall of Fame players on the defensive line and in the secondary. But think of how easy it is to picture Greg Lloyd, Kevin Greene, Chad Brown or James Harrison strolling out of a DeLorean and playing alongside Joe Greene, Mel Blount and/or Troy Polamalu. Now repeat the same exercise with good players Ray Seals or Bryant McFadden. It isn’t quite as easy, is it?

So let’s look at what Omar Khan and Mike Tomlin did with their linebacker room this off season.

T.J. Watt, Steelers vs Ravens

T.J. Watt stuffs J.K. Dobbins. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

We’ve all seen that statistics showing the Steelers ’22 defense with and without T.J. Watt, and the same dynamic was at work with the impact of Alex Highsmith. Turning inward, the Steelers defensive staff mixed and matched 3 different inside linebackers all season long.

Yet, even if linebacking improved from 2021 to 2022, the whole was less than the sum of its parts. So Omar Khan strengthened the foundation on the outside, while tearing things down to the studs on the inside.

First, the Steelers signed outside linebacker Markus Golden – a virtual statistical clone of Bud Dupree, whom everyone wanted back. They also drafted Nick Herbig who promted fans to ask during preseason, “Why did he last until the 4th round?” The Steelers outside linebacking depth is sound.

Shifting inside, Omar Khan renovated without mercy. Gone are Devin Bush, Robert Spillane and Myles Jack. In their place are Cole Holcomb, Elandon Roberts and Kwon Alexander. Mark Robinson, a converted running back, returns for year two.

Prudence demands we offer the “Its only preseason” caveat, but if early returns are any indication, the Steelers may have flipped their inside linebacker position.

Secondary: Calculated Risks and Hedged Bets

In 2022, the Steelers secondary authored highlights in abundance. It was a ball-hawking unit that hauled in over 20 interceptions. That was an NFL best, if you’re wondering. Yet turnovers are only one metric. An analysis of others finds the ’22 pass defense wanting.

  • The Steelers defense gave up 6.5 yards per pass attempt, ranking it 25th in the NFL.

As they did elsewhere, the front office made several bold moves. Some carry risk. The Steelers invested heavily in the development of Cam Sutton and Terrell Edmunds. Both men had provided vital stability.

Tomlin and Khan are ready to trade stability for splash and spark, and brought in Patrick Peterson, Keanu Neal and drafted Joey Porter Jr. to replace them.

Damontae Kazee, Steelers vs Saints

Damontae Kazee intercepts Andy Dalton, Photo Credit: Don Wright, AP

Peterson is a future Hall of Famer. He was exceptional in Minnesota last year. Yet, he’s 33 and cornerback is a young man’s game. Neal entered the league as first round pick. He started his career with a bang, but got derailed by injuries on and off since then. His counterpart, Damontae Kazee, also carries some injury baggage.

While these concerns are real, the Steelers have made several moves to mitigate these risks.

Chandon Sullivan and Elijah Riley both looked outstanding in preseason and provide depth. Khan snatched up veteran corner Desmond King after cut down day. Patrick Peterson could also shift to safety if needed; indeed, some suggest his long term future is at safety.

Behind all of these names stand Minkah Fitzpatrick, a man who is playing himself into carrying the label of being a “generational talent.”

A Word on the AFC North

The dynamics in the AFC North have changed and decidedly not in the Steelers favor. Or so we are assured. Let’s concede the obvious:

  • The Baltimore Ravens always field consistent winners.
  • They’ve kept former NFL MVP Lamar Jackson in the fold.
  • Joe Burrow is already proved he’ll be one of this generation’s great quarterbacks.
  • The Cleveland Browns are finally reaping the fruits picking in the top-third of the draft for over a decade.
  • Now they have Deshaun Watson to guide them for a full season.

The task is tall. But “Iron Sharpens Iron.” Here, a few facts from the ’22 might be illuminating:

  • The ’22 Steelers went 1-1 against the Bengals.
  • They went 1-1 against the Ravens, earning their win in late December.
  • 2 weeks later a freak, 4th quarter goal line fumble separated Baltimore from a playoff upset of Cincinnati.
  • Pittsburgh went 1-1 against Cleveland last year; their win came with Watson starting

Dare I suggest that “Iron Sharpening Iron” has already begun…?

Let the Kenny Pickett Era Begin in Earnest

I’ll close as my friend Ivan always did by reminding readers that these “The Case For” column’s aren’t predictions but best-case scenarios. We all know too well how a few inopportune injuries can lay waste to the best laid plans of mice and NFL coaches and general managers.

But with that caveat in mind, I think we can all say that there are plenty of reasons for optimism as the Kenny Pickett era begins in earnest in general. And specifically, a “Best-secnario” for this season ending with a Lombardi Trophy are a lot more realistic than they’ve been in a long time.

Bring on the 49ers!

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Wheeling and Dealing Not Done? Steelers Release Initial 2023 Roster

The Pittsburgh Steelers announced their initial 53-man roster today as Omar Khan continued to wheel and deal.

Over the weekend Khan dealt Kevin Dotson to the Los Angeles Rams, getting a fourth round pick in the 2024 NFL Draft, swapping 5th round picks and sending a 6th round pick in the 2025 NFL Draft to LA. But Kahn has already traded back into the 6th round when he dealt Kendrick Green to the Houston Texans for their 6th round pick in 2025.

Omar Khan, Pittsburgh Steelers General Manager Omar Khan

Pittsburgh Steelers General Manager Omar Khan, Photo Credit: Nola.com

The Steelers cuts included some surprises. Veterans Zach Gentry and Tre Norwood got visits from The Turk, as did free agent signees Breiden Fehoko and Nick Kwiatkoski who played nose tackle an inside linebacker respectively. Quincy Roche’s second go around with the Steelers will also come to an end.

Here’s a look at who made the Pittsburgh Steelers 2023 initial roster. There is at least one more move to come as you’ll see at the bottom.

Quarterbacks – 3
Kenny Pickett
Mitchell Trubisky
Mason Rudolph
– No surprises here. Pittsburgh has perhaps the deepest quarterback room in the NFL

Running Backs – 3
Najee Harris
Jaylen Warren
Anthony McFarland
– Common Sense Attack: A running back depth chart that’s three backs deep for the 2nd straight year.

Wide Receivers – 6
Diontae Johnson
George Pickens
Allen Robinson
Calvin Austin
Gunner Olszewski
Miles Boykin
– Gunner Olszewksi showed a lot of heart in preseason. The coaches took notice.

Tight Ends – 3
Pat Freiermuth
Darnell Washington
Connor Heyward
– The deepest Steelers tight end room since 1991?

Offensive Line – 9
Dan Moore
Isaac Seumalo
Mason Cole
James Daniels
Chuks Okorafor
Broderick Jones
Nate Herbig
Spencer Anderson
Dylan Cook
– Almost a complete rebuild since 2021.

Defensive Line – 7
Cam Heyward
Keeanu Benton
Larry Ogunjobi
DeMarvin Leal
Isaiahh Loudermilk
Montravius Adams
Armon Watts
– A solid mix of veterans and youth.

Inside Linebackers – 4
Cole Holcomb
Elandon Roberts
Kwon Alexander
Mark Robinson
– Dare we hope this unit is finally finding post-Ryan Shazier stability?

Outside Linebacker – 4
T.J. Watt
Alex Highsmith
Markus Golden
Nick Herbig
– Steelers have good depth at this critical position. Knock on wood, they won’t need it.

Cornerback – 6
Patrick Peterson
Levi Wallace
Joey Porter Jr.
Chandon Sullivan
James Pierre
– Have the Steelers achieved the right balance between youth, speed and experience?

Safety – 5
Minkah Fitzpatrick
Damontae Kazee
Keanu Neal
Miles Killebrew
Elijah Riley
– Will health hold out?

Specialists – 4
Chris Boswell, kicker
Christian Kuntz, Long Snapper
Pressley Harvin, Punter
Braden Mann, Punter

Two punters? Not for long.

One way or another Omar Khan isn’t finished with his wheeling and dealing.

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Pinch Yourself? After Steelers Dominating 27-12 Preseason Win over Bills Fans Ask, “Is it OK to Believe?”

The Pittsburgh Steelers 27-15 win over the Buffalo Bills at Acrisure Stadium offered a reminder of the existential struggle that every fan of the Black and Gold faces: The temptation to believe.

  • The Pittsburgh Steelers are a franchise that measures success in Lombardi Trophies.
Jaylen Warren, Steelers vs Bills 2023 preseason

Jaylen Warren runs for 62 yards. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Steelers.com

During the 70’s Jimmy Pol’s “Western Pennsylvania Polka” accurately told us that “Winning’s a habit, not only a dream.” Generation X Steelers fans grew up assuming that the team had always been good. But the growing pains we experienced as the 70’s shifted to the 80’s was learning that Super Bowl windows don’t stay open forever.

  • And once they’re closed, convincing yourself that they’ll ever reopen remains a challenge.

I can remember watching Jepoardy at some point in the mid-80’s when a Pittsburgh resident was a guest. Alex Triebec asked him if he was one of those Steelers fans who “recorded each game and watched it over and over again.”

The response? “Yes, but only when we’re in the Super Bowl. And that’s not going to happen for another 20 years.” Although Chuck Noll’s Steelers squads in the 80’s authored some stunning playoff upsets, it took the arrival of Cowher Power in 1992 for the faithful in Steelers Nation to really believe that the season might end in a Lombardi Trophy presentation.

And even then we had to wait 14 years for The Chin to make good on his promise to Dan Rooney.

Yeah. True Steelers fans stick by the Black and Gold through thick and thin, but if pressed, we’ll admit that it is difficult to let ourselves believe.

Which brings us to 2023’s preseason game number 3, and the Buffalo Bills visit to Acrisure Stadium

Steelers Domination of the Bills in Preseason Is Down Right Scary

The Steelers 27-17 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers featured a lot of impressive moments. But the first string only played for one series. And the Buccaneers aren’t expected to be very good. And several of their defensive starters were out. And who really needs cautioned against jumping to conclusions after the first preseason game?

  • The second preseason game is different. It is a dress rehearsal.

It only took 6 plays – two Najee Harris runs, two Kenny Pickett passes to George Pickens and then Allen Robinson to set up Jaylen Warren’s 64 yard touchdown run. Any 62 yard run is impressive. But its the way this play unfolded that tantalizes Steelers faithful towards that temptation to believe:

You don’t need to be an X’s and O’s genius to single out the elements that signal something special:

  • Dan Moore turns his man’s back to the sideline
  • Isaac Seumalo also turns his man’s back to the opposing sideline
  • Warren sees a hole he could drive a truck through and heads for it
  • Diontae Johnson delivers a downfield block
  • Warren after he reaches the second level turns the jets on

Yes, this is “Only preseason” but these are pros executing solid fundamentals in concert.

The Bills opened their next drive with an 8 yard gain. On 2nd and 2 an NFL offense is in position to dictate to a defense. But thanks to Levi Wallace and T.J. Watt, the Bills were punting 2 plays later.

Then Calvin Austin and Danny Smith’s special teams got into the act, as Austin romped 54 yards on his first NFL punt return. The next stat line reads: K.Pickett pass deep middle to P.Freiermuth for 25 yards, TOUCHDOWN

And if all you did was read the box score, it be easy to chalk that up to preseason luck.

But Pickett not only hit Pat Freiermuth in the middle of the field – and area he avoided last season, he threaded the needle placing the ball perfectly, in triple coverage where only Mooth could get it.

Another reason to believe.

There were many more. Connor Heyward, Nick Herbig, Cole Holcomb and Tanner Muse all came up with big plays, while Chandon Sullivan, Elijah Riley and Joey Porter Jr. made interceptions. All reasons to believe.

Calvin Austin’s punt return wasn’t a one note Johnny for the Steelers special teams. Gunner Olszewski had a nice 15 yard return of his own. Danny Smith’s coverage units were strong while Chris Boswell was perfect on the night. All good signs.

  • No, Pittsburgh wasn’t perfect against the Bills.

The Steelers rushed the ball 33 times, but running backs not named Jaylen Warren looked average – at best and they didn’t have the benefit of quality run blocking. (To be fair, Anthony McFarland looked good catching the ball.) Kendrick Green mis-timed a snap to Mason Rudolph setting up Buffalo’s first touchdown.

But even of those are all things to bear in mind, the fact remains: The way the Steelers dominated the Bills is making it very hard for fans to resist the temptation to believe.

A Word about DAZN’s GamePass

Last week I skewered the viewing experience DAZN’s NFL GamePass International. This week I followed their advice and downloaded their app on to my SmartTV.

  • The results were much better.

True, my first attempt to watch the replay was unsuccessful. However, that looked to be a problem my internet connection. Image quality was a little shaky on the full replay, and I was disappointed to see that they hadn’t edited out commercials (why? If ever there would be a “Hello McFly!!!” principle of showing replays of NFL games, you’d figure editing out commercials would be one of them.)

Their Game in 40 presentation was excellent, nothing compared to the last week’s experience on the desk top. Not only was the image quality good, but they took just a little more time in between plays, and salted in some replays so that you got the flavor of the game.

 

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Steelers Preseason Takeaway: Pickett Starts Strong. DAZN’s NFL GamePass? Not so Much

The Pittsburgh Steelers opened their 2023 preseason with a bang, beating the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 27-17 in the 94 degree at Raymond James Stadium. While the proverbial caution of “…its only preseason” is a wise one – Jarvis Jones and Huey Richardson had outstanding preseason debuts – the Steelers checked several boxes from their “need to improve” list including:

  • Kenny Pickett made his reads quickly, threw the ball decisively and worked the middle of the field
  • George Pickens looked like a man racing against boys on his touchdown
  • Calvin Austin flashed “beep-beep” speed in burning a corner to a crisp on his touchdown
  • Anthony McFarland staked a strong claim to the number three running backs spot

The Steelers looked good in their preseason debut.

Alas the same cannot be said for DAZN’s debut with NFL GamePass International. Earlier this year the NFL announced a 10 year partnership to distribution NFL GamePass International via the international sports streaming site DAZN.

On The Athletic the news was greeted with jeers from fans in Canada and other countries who’d already experienced trying to watch NFL games via DAZN.

  • Nonetheless, I let my NFL GamePass renew and hoped for the best.

Full Disclosure: I did not watch much of the live stream as the Steelers were facing off against the Buccaneers. I had a medical test in the early evening, had to run some errands on the way home, and was only briefly able to log into the site with my new password during the game.

And to be 100% fair to DAZN the image quality (via Google Chrome, on my PC) appeared to be OK. There may have been an issue of lag between the video and the audio, but to be fair to DAZN, I can’t be sure if I’d left Steelers Nation Radio on via another window.

Which was a good omen, as I’d planned to watch it on Saturday using the “Game in 40” option. (Yes, I know that is a bit hypocritical of a blogger who has sung the praises of preseason repeatedly. Fair enough. I’ve also written that the NFL should reduce the number of TV timeouts so that preseason games only take between 2 and 2 and a half hours.)

Kenny Pickett, Steelers vs Buccaneers 2023 preseason

Kenny Pickett started the ’23 preseason strong. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review

DAZN’s NFL GamePass “Game in 40” = A Failure

However the quality of DAZN’s “The Game in 40” was atrocious.

“The Game in 40” was never a great way to watch a game because you lose a feel for the tone and tenor of events, but at least in previous years the viewing experience was pretty seamless.

DANZ’s “Game in 40” was anything but seamless. The image quality was terrible. During the middle of a play runners would begin to move in slow motion. Then you’d suffer a momentary stop. A second later things would resume, but you’d lose at least a second of action. On the next play the same sequence would repeat itself.

During my first attempt to watch DANZ’s “The Game in 40” I got pop ups advising me that, if quality wasn’t good, I should watch via an Ethernet and make sure no one else was streaming video. Well, I was already on an Ethernet, but my wife was watching videos via her cell.

So I waited again until she was in the shower. I tried again, putting all other Wifi devices on airplane mode. The quality of DANZ’s service was just as bad. By the end of Kenny Pickett’s touchdown to George Pickens it was clear that DANZ’s “Game in 40” was unwatchable.

Another friend here in Argentina had a good experience with DANZ’s NFL GamePass, but El Dr. de Acero also had a frustratingly piss-poor experience.

  • That’s a real shame.

Footage of scoring plays, key third down conversions and major highlights is easily available via Twitter, Steelers.com and YouTube. But as Chuck Noll oft reminded, you win football games by doing ordinary things extraordinarily.

Chuck Noll, Chuck Noll St. Vincents, Steelers practice no numbers

Chuck Noll’s Steelers practiced with no numbers. Photo Credit: Al Tielemans/Sports Illustrated

Now I’m not going to pretend to know enough to evaluate things like whether or not Kendrick Green and/or Broderick Jones “pad levels” were promising, but would like to get a chance to see how players who don’t make the highlight reels perform.

Watching preseason games end-to-end in the ‘90’s gave me the insight into under the radar players Lee Flowers and Carlos Emmons. On the flip side, during the ’95 preseason Bam Morris was signaling a sophomore slump (and then some). More recently, in August ’21 my take away was that both the hype generated by Dwayne Haskins performances as a backup and the disillusionment following his lone start were both exaggerated.

Sadly, we’ll never know whether I was right or wrong about Haskins, but I was only able to form an opinion in the first place by watching pre-season games end-to-end.

But with the DAZN’s sudden shifts to slow motion, to stops, to skipping a millisecond I might be able to see that someone blew up a run at the line of scrimmage, but I can’t really tell if it was Kwon Alexander, Nick Herbig, or Keeanu Benton who made the play.

Nor can I really tell if Darnell Washington or Elandon Roberts are really injecting physicality on both sides of the ball.

That’s a shame. Yet there still may be hope.

For better and worse I’ve seen times with Steelers preseason has been deceiving. Sometimes preseason flashes disappear in the pan. Other times the opposite happens. When Bill Cowher and Ben Roethlisberger shared the dais after Super Bowl XL did you wonder, “…And to think Cowher closed preseason by admitting his passing game wasn’t where it needed to be.” No? Neither did I.

So perhaps DANZ’s will get better by the time the regular season arrives.

They’ve left themselves lots of room for improvement.

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Steelers 2023 Draft Needs @ Running Back – Does Pittsburgh Have the Picks to Add Depth?

2022 was a banner year for the Steelers rushing attack. For the first time since 2007, Mike Tomlin ran Willie Parker “Until the wheels fell off,” the Steelers rushed for over 2,000 yards.

That’s a dramatic improvement for a franchise that has struggled to run the ball consistently ever since James Conner got injured in the middle of the 2018 season.

Do the Steelers need to address running back in the 2023 NFL Draft to sustain that improvement? Let’s find out.

Jaylen Warren, Derek Watt, Tyrann Mathieu, Steelers vs Saints

Derek Watt blocks for Jaylen Warren. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Steelers Depth Cart at Running Back: The Starter

In his rookie season Najee Harris became the first Steelers running back to crack the 1000 yard mark since Le’Veon Bell in 2017. In his sophomore season, Najee Harris became the first Steelers back to have back-to-back 1000 yard seasons since Bell’s ’17 campaign.

  • It wasn’t easy.

As a rookie, Harris ran behind a weak offensive line, but succeeded in running strong and, at times, making it look easy. Harris suffered a foot injury in training camp and the offensive line’s run blocking was subpar during the first half of the season.

Harris struggled through the first 8 weeks of the season. Many of his critics pounced, arguing that his mediocre rushing averages proved that Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert had erred in investing a first round pick in him in 2021.

But if his stat line failed to impress, for my money, Harris continued to pass the “eye test” early in the season. The fight was there, even if the blocking wasn’t, and it seemed obvious he was nursing an injury.

Like they did with nearly everyone else on the team, Steelers Nation saw a different Najee Harris after the bye week. Harris began running with authority and power, 6 of his seven touchdown, and logging 3 90 yard plus games, including 111 yard effort in the road win over the Ravens.

Perhaps most impressively, Harris earned his second straight 1000 yard season while playing nearly 20% fewer snaps than he had in 2021.

Steelers Running Back Depth Chart: The Backups

The emergence of Jaylen Warren is the reason why Najee Harris was able to remain on the sidelines for close over 200 more snaps than he had has a rookie. Warren made the Steelers as an undrafted rookie free agent, first earning a roster spot and then carving out a role as their third down back.

As a rookie, Jaylen Warren played in 31% of the Steelers offensive snaps, both on third downs and rotating in with Harris. He only ran for 379 yards with a season-high effort of 76 against the Ravens, but he proved himself to be a true number 2 running back.

Steelers Draft, Steelers Draft Needs scale

Beyond Warren on the depth chart is Anthony McFarland. McFarland returns to the Steelers on a futures contract, after spending 2022 on the practice squad, save for his activation against the Colts. McFarland only ran for 30 yards in that game and caught 2 passes for 11 yards, but for the first time since the Steelers drafted him in 2020, he looked like he belonged in the NFL.

The Steelers also have Jason Huntley and Master Teague on their roster.

The Steelers 2023 Draft Needs at Running Back

As of this writing, both Derek Watt and Benny Snell remain unsigned. The Steelers may have seen enough from McFarland to pencil him in as the third string running back, but there’s no one on the roster remotely capable of taking Watt’s spot.

Ah, remember the good ole days of 2000, when the Steelers opened the season with fullbacks Jon Witman and Chris Fuamatu-Ma’afala on the active roster and Dan Kreider on the practice squad? Yeah, times change.

The Steelers need to beef up their depth at running back this off season, but lacking a 5th and 6th round pick, they’ll be hard-pressed to do it in the draft. Which is a shame because their need at running back going into the 2023 NFL Draft should be considered as Fair.

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Careful for What You Wish For: Steelers Free Agent Benny Snell Likely to Leave Pittsburgh

Steelers founder Art Rooney Sr. disdained, “Putting on the dog.” In 21st century terms, “putting on the dog” might translate to “strutting your stuff” or doing anything that wasn’t modest.

He expected his sons to follow suit, instructing them “Don’t drive a Cadillac, drive a Buick.” When Art Sr. went to Philadelphia to visit John Rooney (or perhaps it was Pat), his son tried to steer his father around the house in a way that made sure his father didn’t see that he’d had a pool installed. His father found the pool. The Chief was not pleased.

Most Steelers fans have probably never heard the expression “putting on the dog,” but they’ve absorbed The Chief’s philosophy all the same – We don’t like it when players show boat.

So when the Steelers drafted Benny Snell Jr. in the 3rd round of the 2019 NFL Draft and Snell arrived in Pittsburgh talking about “Benny Snell Football” it left a bad taste in the mouth of many fans. A taste that still lingers for many, if not most.

Now that Benny Snell is about to become a free agent, are Steelers fans about to get their pallets clean?

Benny Snell, Steelers vs Colts, Steelers vs Colts 2022 MNF

Benny Snell rips off a long one. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Capsule Profile of Benny Snell’s Career with the Steelers

Benny Snell got it backwards. Players who live at the bottom of depth charts are supposed to do well in spot duty but struggle when they get a full audition.

  • Snell’s done the opposite.

In 2019 he got 75 yards in his first extensive action in the Steelers win over the Chargers, 98 in his first start against the Bengals and over 100 in the season finale against the Ravens. He clocked in over 100 in relief of James Conner in the 2020 opener, and ran well in extensive action in wins against the Ravens and losses to the Bengals.

Injuries limited him to spot duty in 2021, and he was as he’s always been when his carries have been limited – uninspiring. In 2022 Snell mostly played special teams, but he did get 60 yards and a touchdown in the win over the Colts.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Benny Snell

That win over the Colts will always be Kenny Pickett’s first come from behind win. But Benny Snell’s rushing laid the foundation that made that win possible. Snell might not be a starting caliber running back, but he’s done enough to show he can be a good number two back and most teams would beg for a number 3 back of his talents.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Benny Snell

The Steelers don’t have a lot of salary cap space. They’re not in dire straits, but Omar Khan is going to need to make moves even if the Steelers are to take a conservative approach to free agency.

Benny Snell is simply a luxury the Steelers cannot afford.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Benny Snell

The NFL might be quarterback driven, pass happy league. Well, there’s no “might” about it. But I remain an unapologetic believer that your running back depth chart must be at least three players deep. As I asked rhetorically after the Colts win, “Does anyone think the Steelers win that game if the 2022 equivalents of Stevan Ridley and/or Fitzgerald Toussaint are playing instead of Benny Snell?”

Point made.

And if Mike Tomlin may be warming to staffing better depth at running back, doing so with a veteran on a second contract may be a different question altogether. And the Steelers have already signed Anthony McFarland to a “Futures Contract” so Anthony McFarland’s name may already be penciled into that role.

Moreover, Steelers top two running back slots are held by Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren, and they’ve earned their status on merit.

So you have to ask, would Benny Snell be interested in coming back to Pittsburgh as a third stringer? Probably not.

At the end of the day, while keeping Benny Snell in the Black and Gold is ideal, expect him to take “Benny Snell football” to one of the NFL’s other 31 teams.

Follow Steelers free agency. Visit our Steelers 2023 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2023 free agent focus articles.

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