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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Seen This Movie Before? The 2022 Steelers Looked Too Much Like ’21 Edition in the Opener

The Steelers literally outlasted the Bengals, 23-20, in the 2022 regular-season opener at Paycor Stadium on Sunday in one of the most exciting, dramatic and blunder-filled games in recent history.

The game had everything. It was a defensive slugfest between two AFC North foes–one, the Bengals, the defending AFC champions; the other, the Steelers, the team that once owned Cincinnati, as well as aspirations for AFC and NFL dominance.

The action was so crazy, that it required overtime and every last second of it before a winner was finally declared, thanks to Chris Boswell‘s 53-yard field goal at the gun.

When it comes to defensive efforts by the Steelers, it will be hard to top what the unit did on Sunday. Not a bad debut for Teryl Austin, the team’s new defensive coordinator.

The defense, led by stars Minkah Fitzpatrick, T.J. Watt and Cam Heyward, kept fighting, hitting, tackling, sacking Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow, and taking the football away from him despite being on the field for over 43 minutes of game action.

When the defense did wilt, like at the very end of regulation when Burrow connected with receiver Ja’Marr Chase on what looked to be the game-winning touchdown with two seconds left, a defensive star showed up on special teams and saved the day; I’m talking about Fitzpatrick and his blocked extra point that sent the game into overtime. 

Yes, sir, the Steelers’ 2022 start should be a reason to celebrate and get you excited about what lies ahead over the next 16 games.

  • If only Sunday’s Week 1 win didn’t look alarmingly like 2021’s Week 1 win when a putrid offense had to be propped up all game long by the defense.

That’s right, despite a new quarterback in Mitch Trubisky, a very mobile man who was signed in part because the Steelers wanted someone with great athletic skills to be the field general of Matt Canada’s motion-influenced offense, the play calling during Sunday’s game looked just like what we witnessed in the last days of Ben Roethlisberger’s career when he was extremely immobile and seemingly unwilling to adapt to Canada’s philosophy.

I’m talking about a horrible running game, quick and short passes to the sidelines, an unwillingness to stretch out the passing game even a little bit, and treating the middle of the field like it was radioactive.

It didn’t seem all that surprising or frustrating when the Steelers’ offensive performance played out the exact same way during the upset win in Buffalo in Week 1 of the 2021 regular season. After all, it was Canada’s first game as offensive coordinator, and the marriage between his philosophy and that of Roethlisberger’s figured to take some time to gel. Throw in a totally revamped offensive line, and you just knew there would be some growing pains with the offense over the course of the season.

But while the pain persisted all throughout the 2021 regular season, no growing ever took place.

Back to 2022.

I wasn’t expecting the Steelers offense to look like a well-oiled machine in Cincinnati on Sunday. In fact, I expected more growing pains, especially with an offensive line that not only experienced more changes in the offseason but struggled mightily all throughout training camp and the preseason.

  • I did expect to see a different offensive approach, however.

Instead, we watched the Steelers offense, one that Washington’s Chase Young claimed had been exposed as far back as 2020, try the same game plan it had been utilizing since Roethlisberger came back from the elbow injury that kept him out for most of 2019.

I realize that Sunday’s win would have been bittersweet no matter what, thanks to the uncertainty surrounding T.J. Watt and his pectoral injury. But even with a healthy Watt, it’s hard to imagine the Steelers’ defense being as dominant over the course of the regular season as it was against the Bengals on Sunday.

The defense will be great, no doubt, maybe even with Watt on the shelf for an extended period of time, but you’ll never see as dominant of a performance as what you got in Week 1.

And what did it amount to? A game that would have been a loss if not for some luck and blunders by the Bengals.

  • The Steelers’ defense did all that it could do, and it still almost wasn’t enough.
  • Why? Because the offense was as bad as it was all of last season and in much the same way.

While I can’t imagine the Steelers’ defense ever looking as good as it did on Sunday, I can certainly picture the offense continuing to look horrible all throughout the 2022 regular season.

That’s a frightening thing to imagine.

 

 

 

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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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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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Could “Patience” Be the Watch Word for the Steelers 2022 Offensive Line?

Tell me if you’ve heard this one before: The Steelers’ offensive line stinks.

You’ve heard that before? I’m not surprised. It has been a popular refrain over the past two seasons whenever the Steelers and their potential problems are discussed.

Mitch Trubisky, Chucks Okorafor, Mason Cole, Steelers 2022 Offensive Line

Mitch Trubisky at the line of scrimmage. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review.

Of course, there is no use putting the word “potential” in front of the world “problem” when talking about the Steelers’ offensive line. It was a problem in 2020. It was a problem last year.

What about this year? Even though the Steelers have only played two preseason games so far, the offensive line still appears to be quite offensive.

Yes, despite adding free agents James Daniels (right guard) and Mason Cole (center) to the interior of the offensive line in March, the line has struggled through much of training camp and all of the exhibition season.

In spite of the fact that Dan Moore Jr., a fourth-round pick out of Texas A&M in the 2021 NFL Draft, started 16 games at left tackle as a rookie, he may need a little more seasoning before he’s fully developed.

As for Kendrick Green, a third-round pick out of Illinois in 2021 who played center as a rookie and has been switched over to guard — his more natural position in college — during the 2022 training camp? Yikes.

Let’s just say Green is still incredibly raw and that no amount of seasoning and time in the oven may turn him into a professional offensive lineman.

  • Having said all that I’ve said up to this point, there’s still time for this line to gel and find some cohesion.

Believe it or not.

I know it’s hard to believe after witnessing two-plus years of the same level of play along the offensive line, but as I alluded to earlier, the guys doing the playing aren’t the same.

The Steelers almost completely overhauled their entire offensive line during the 2021 offseason; gone were left tackle Alejandro Villanueva (a free agent the team decided to move on from); left guard Matt Feiler (a free agent the team couldn’t afford to bring back); center Maurkice Pouncey (retirement); and right guard David DeCastro (released due to injury).

David DeCastro, Maurkice Pouncey, Chukwuma Okorafor, Steelers vs Rams

File photo of the 2019 Steelers offensive line. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Last year’s line, from left to right, included Moore, Kevin Dotson, Green, veteran Trai Turner and Chukwuma Okorafor.

Chucks Okorafor, a third-round pick out of Western Michigan in the 2018 NFL Draft, was the only leftover from the mostly aging 2020 crew. As for Dotson? He was a fourth-round pick out of Louisiana in 2020 who turned some heads as a spot starter during his rookie season.

What about Dotson’s sophomore campaign? Dotson didn’t turn as many heads despite winning a starting job in camp. A rumored lack of commitment seemed to sour some Steelers coaches on Dotson during the 2021 offseason, while injuries hindered him in the regular season as he tried to make the transition over to left guard in place of the departed Feiler.

Okorafor and Turner were steady if uninspiring on the right side. Moore had his issues at left tackle, but, again, he did enough to start 16 games as a rookie.

  • Kendrick Green’s stint at center was an epic failure.

What did this all add up to in 2021? An offensive line that was just as bad, if not worse, than it was in 2020.

At least youth was on its side, though, right?

Not if you were Dotson and Green.

Mason Cole was brought in to be an upgrade over Green at center in 2022. James Daniels was a highly-touted free agent who Pittsburgh signed to sort of act as the new anchor of the line at right guard, a la DeCastro.

Green was thrown into a position battle with Dotson during training camp, while Moore and Okorafor remained as the starting tackles.

In addition to more player personnel changes, Pat Meyer was hired as the team’s new offensive line coach, making him the fourth person to assume that role for the Steelers since 2018.

That’s a lot of upheaval for one unit in a short period of time. It’s kind of unrealistic to expect everything to be going smoothly at this point in time. Should there be individual improvements? Yes, and I’m still excited about DAn Moore despite his struggles during the preseason.

As for the center position? If Cole can simply be steady and reliable, that would be a stark improvement over what even Pouncey gave the unit in his final season.

It’s no secret that James Daniels has struggled a bit at right guard, but I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt while he finds his bearings with his new coach and co-workers.

And that last part really is the most important, right? These guys have to be given time to gel together and perfect the techniques their new offensive line coach has taught them.

Those in the know in terms of offensive line play say that chemistry, trust and learning to work together are just as important as winning individual battles when it comes to developing an effective offensive line.

Should the Steelers go out and sign a free agent or make a trade? I doubt you’ll find much in terms of quality this late into the offseason.

Many say that the Steelers should have used more premium draft choices to address the line in recent years. Yeah, but in place of whom? Would you rather have an offensive lineman over Najee Harris, a running back the Steelers selected with the 24th pick of the 2021 NFL Draft? How about tight end Pat Freiermuth, selected one round after Harris?

Najee Harris, Steelers vs Ravens, Ben Roethlisberger final regular season

Najee Harris starts overtime with 1 handed catch. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review.

What about the 2022 draft? You’d rather have a tackle over Kenny Pickett, who looks like he could be a more than credible replacement for Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback? What about George Pickens, a second-round pick in 2022 who might be a superstar receiver the moment he plays in his first regular-season game?

Fact is, the Steelers have been transitioning from a veteran offense to a more youthful one over the past few years, and you’re not going to be able to address every position with premium picks. Focusing on one position means kicking the can down the road on the others.

I’ll admit that I’ve always been adamant that every unit needs at least one stud — a player with a high pedigree — but the Steelers seemed to find that guy in free agency when they signed James Daniels in March.

James Daniels wasn’t a first-round pick by the Chicago Bears, but he was selected in the second round in 2018 and started 48 games in four years.

  • Seems like a high-pedigreed stud to me.

The Steelers may just have to continue to endure the growing pains along the offensive line until they get it right. It’s not going to happen overnight. Heck, they’re more than a few nights into this rebuild and still in search of some answers.

Finally, the Steelers have a young team, complete with a young offensive line.

There still may be time for that young line to mature into something formidable.

Hell, maybe even Kendrick Green.

 

 

 

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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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Isn’t It a Shame that Trubisky, Pickett and Rudolph Can’t All Start a Game This Preseason?

All eyes will be on choice Kenny Pickett tonight as the Steelers square off against the Jaguars tonight in their 2nd preseason game of the 2022 exhibition season.

The Steelers of course drafted the Pitt Panther in the first round of the 2022 NFL Draft, and after a slow start in training camp, Pickett was arguably the star of the Steelers preseason win over the Seahawks last week leading a, dare we say, Ben Roethlisbergeresque comeback.

Sure, it was in the second half of the first NFL preseason game against a group of guys who’ll count themselves lucky if they spend a day on an NFL practice squad.

  • Nonetheless, Mitch Trubisky will start this game, with Pickett slated to come in second.

Which begs the question: If Pickett played so well and if Mike Tomlin is running a serious quarterback competition, then shouldn’t Pickett get a shot at starting a meaningful preseason game?

Mitch Trubisky, Mason Rudolph, Kenny Pickett, Steelers 2022 quarterback competition

Mitch Trubisky, Kenny Pickett and Mason Rudolph. Photo Credit: Brandon Sloter / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images and The Athletic.)

And there’s the rub.

Under the 4 game preseason format, it would have been far easier to give Kenny Pickett, Mitchell Trubisky and Mason Rudolph a shot at starting a game. But now that preseason is only limited to 3 games, the math gets harder.

The last time the Steelers staged a 3 way competition for the starting quarterback slot was during the 1996 season. Neil O’Donnell had departed after Super Bowl XXX, leaving Mike Tomczak, Jim Miller and Kordell Stewart to vie for the starting job.

Bill Cowher gave each quarterback a start, (thanks to an America Bowl game in Tokyo,Steelers actually had 5 preseason games that summer) decided on Jim Miller, but jerked him after just one half in an ugly season-opening loss to the Jaguars.

Looking back on that experience, perhaps it’s one of the reasons why, for all his talk about holding an open competition, Mike Tomlin has appeared intent on have Mitch Trubisky open the season as the starter.

But I for one would have liked to see each quarterback benefit from starting a game with the rest of the first team, followed by a rotation that gives the others a representative split of time playing with both primary backups and the guys struggling to land a roster spot somewhere.

  • But you can’t really do that with a 3 game preseason schedule.

Heck, is really hard to have two different QBs start a meaningful game. Yeah, the old curmudgeon in me who likes to sing the praise of the virtues of preseason football IS coming out. But that grumpiness is tempered by the reality the hemming and hawing over the poor quality of preseason football has become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Last year, Mike Tomlin did give hte late Dwayne Haskins a legitimate shot at wresting the job from Mason Rudolph. Reading the coverage of someone Haskins work with the second team, you’d have thought he flashed signs of stardom.

Watching the games told my eyes that I was seeing “good” but not great performances. When Haskins finally got his start, he blinked, but he wasn’t nearly as bad as some of the critiques written about him would have had your think.

The Steelers brass obviously had a different view, because they wasted no time in tendering Haskins an exclusive rights free agent contract.

At the end of the day, in a perfect world, each of the Steelers quarterbacks would start a meaningful game in the preseason. But the game has moved on, imperfectly or perhaps perfectly, but regardless, Mike Tomlin has a plan and he is sticking to it.

And Mike Tomlin knows “a little bit” more than I do about preparing quarterbacks to start in the NFL, so good for him.

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The Steelers ’22 Preseason Opener Was a Draftnic’s Dream

The Pittsburgh Steelers defeated the Seattle Seahawks, 32-25, in the 2022 preseason opener at Acrisure Stadium on Saturday night.

Kenny Pickett, Kenny Pickett preseason debut, Steelers vs Seahawks preseason

Preseason debut of Pitt Alum and Steelers first round pick Kenny Pickett. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Reivew

The end result wasn’t all that important. Teams win preseason games. Teams lose preseason games. At the end of the day, it has no bearing on what happens during the regular season–not usually, anyway.

However, Saturday’s events at Acrisure Stadium may just yet have a bearing on the Steelers’ 2022 regular season. Why? Because of who helped Pittsburgh win the game.

It wasn’t just anyone, mind you. No, this game was decided quite noticeably by many members of the Steelers 2022 draft class.

Fans and the media spend so much time analyzing and overanalyzing the draft–both pre and post–that it almost becomes mind-numbing. The reason for this is because so many of these draft choices–regardless of the round or position–go on to do nothing as NFL players.

That still might be the case for the Steelers 2022 draft class, but if Saturday’s events were any indication, maybe we can expect big things from these youngsters.

Let’s start off by talking about receiver George Pickens, a second-round pick out of Georgia who was the talk of Steelers training camp in the days before Saturday’s preseason opener vs. Seattle. It seemed that Pickens could do no wrong from the moment he set foot on the grass of Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, Pa. No matter the circumstance, no matter the route, no matter the defender covering him, Pickens was reportedly unstoppable over the first two weeks of training camp.

  • But what about in a professional game against an actual opponent?

Here we are, just days after Pickens first professional football game, and he can still do no wrong. Sure, Pickens’s box score of three catches for 43 yards and a touchdown seems rather pedestrian, but did you see the touchdown–a 26-yard catch in the back right corner of the end zone? Yes, the pass was an absolute dime thrown by beleaguered quarterback Mason Rudolph, but the concentration Pickens displayed while making an over-the-shoulder catch and managing to keep both feet in bounds? Let’s just say that Antonio Brown, a former Steelers receiver who was not shy about referring to himself as Toe-Tap Tony for his ability to make such catches, wouldn’t have been able to do any better on his best day.

Speaking of catches, how about the ones made by Connor Heyward, a sixth-round pick out of Michigan State? At 5’11” (or 6′ depending on who’s doing the measuring) and 230 pounds, Heyward, the little brother of the legendary Cam Heyward, was brought to training camp as a tight end, this despite the fact that he had the body of an H-back/fullback. But in spite of his rather short stature for a tight end, Heyward displayed the kind of athleticism he was known for at MSU and extended his arms away from his body to pull in two passes for 24 yards on the night. He looked like an actual tight end, and not a lumbering fullback.

What about Mark Robinson, a former running back in college who converted to inside linebacker after transferring to Ole Miss as a senior and making the team as a walk-on? Robinson, a seventh-round pick in the 2022 NFL Draft, entered Saturday’s contest as your proverbial underdog fan-favorite. How did he do over the course of the evening? I’m afraid I lack the football IQ or keen eye to answer that question, but Robinson did catch my eye late in the game when he blitzed Seahawks quarterback Drew Lock and stripped him of the football. The Steelers recovered the fumble with just over a minute left in a game that was tied at 25.

And what did the offense do with this critical possession? It scored the game-winning touchdown with three seconds left. And just who orchestrated this drive? Kenny Pickett. That’s right, I had to save the best–or at least the most exciting–for last.

The Steelers selected Pickett, a University of Pittsburgh product who led the Panthers to the ACC Championship in 2021 and was a finalist for the Heisman Trophy, with the 20th pick in the 2022 NFL Draft.

That Pickett, the first quarterback taken off the board, lasted until the 20th choice was either divine intervention or an indictment of the ’22 class of passers, depending on your perspective. However, there was no question about the significance of the Steelers using a first-round pick to draft a quarterback just months after Ben Roethlisberger retired after 18 years.

The anticipation was almost palpable as Pickett finally made his debut in the third quarter of Saturday’s contest. Pickett was immediately met with the sounds of “Kenny! Kenny! Kenny!” by the folks in attendance, a chant that went on unabated the entire second half.

Pickett’s debut was everything a Steelers fan could have dreamed of. He completed 13 of 15 passes–including his first 11–for 95 yards and two touchdowns. Pickett’s final pass was a quick hitter to the right side that receiver Tyler Vaughns took the rest of the way for the aforementioned game-winning score.

The fans continued to chant Pickett’s name. His teammates all swarmed the field to congratulate him.

It was a magical evening.

And lest we forget about defensive lineman DeMarvin Leal, who did some good things in his professional debut. Speaking of debuts, we have yet to see receiver Calvin Austin III make his NFL debut. He missed Saturday’s game due to injury, but don’t you just feel like he’ll do some wonderful things when he eventually plays?

  • This is what happens when you’re excited about a draft class and those guys shine right away.

It’s hard to imagine a better overall debut for a Steelers draft class.

Is this group for real? I don’t know, but I can’t wait for the second act this Saturday night against the Jaguars.

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