The Right Decision: Steelers Extend Mike Tomlin’s Contract Despite Playoff Drought

The Steelers extended head coach Mike Tomlin’s contract for three years, keeping him in Pittsburgh through the 2027 season. The news was expected as both Tomlin and Art Rooney II confirmed shortly after the playoff loss to the Bills, that Tomlin would get an extension.

Art Rooney II, Mike Tomlin, Mike Tomlin contract

Art Rooney II and Mike Tomlin Photo Credit: Chuck Cook, USA Today via 93.7 the Fan

However, these clarifications only came after Tomlin’s contract was not extended last summer before training camp when he had two years left on his existing – and for decades franchise policy was to extend the head coach when he had 2 years remaining on his existing contract.

  • During the season there were murmurs the 2023 season would be Tomlin’s last.

Many, if not most of those were poorly sourced. However, on the Steel City Insider podcast legendary Steelers scribe Vic Ketcaum did everything but say a reporter he was close had sources indicating Tomlin would be gone. Ed Bouchette, who joined the podcast, wasn’t as insistent, but also indicated that “one way or another” he expected 2023 to be Tomlin’s last.

  • For the record, podcast host Jim Wexell told listeners to expect Tomlin back. And Wexell was right.

News of the extension was not taken well by many in Steelers Nation.

But now that Art Rooney II has “Gone and done it” let’s unwrap his decision.

The Elephant in the Room: Tomlin’s 7 Year Playoff Victory Drought

While Mike Tomlin has never had a losing season, the Pittsburgh Steelers are now 7 years and counting since Chris Boswell kicked them into the AFC Championship game with a win at Kansas City. To put that in perspective:

That last point strikes hard and seems particularly damning. But it is not. For two reasons.

First, simple math proves that Noll is a better coach than Tomlin. Second, the 80’s saw the AFC suffer an uncanny talent imbalance to the NFC (just look at the decade’s Super Bowl results). That gave an edge to teams with superior coaching.

Stephon Tuitt, Tom Brady, Steelers vs Patriots

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

Also remember that the Steelers playoff losing streak started with Le’Veon Bell’s injury in the AFC Championship, when Bell was fresh off breaking the Steelers playoff rushing record in back-to-back games.

At that point Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert had overseen a complete rebuild of the roster since Super Bowl XLIII save for two players. For as bad as losing another AFC Championship to the Patriots stung, the franchise’s futures seemed bright.

Then of course the Steelers lost Ryan Shazier, who was budding into an all pro and perhaps a generational-talent. Not too long after that Ben Roethlisberger needed elbow reconstruction surgery.

  • The ripple effects of those two injuries can still be felt today. To quote Jim Wexell, “That’s not an excuse. Its reality.”

It is also reality to acknowledge that those ripples did not reverberate in a vacuum. Since their last playoff win the Steelers swung at air with several personnel moves in a vain effort to reload for a final run with Roethlisberger. Those misses snowballed following Shazier’s injury.

Mike Tomlin deserves his share of the blame for those errors.

But along the way Mike Tomlin has:

  • Gone 8-8 in 2019 while starting Devlin Hodges for almost half the season
  • Won the AFC North in 2020 with a 1 dimensional offense and an injury ravaged defense
  • Made the playoffs in ‘21 with offensive and defensive lines rebuilt with spit, duct tape and bubble gum

It takes quality coaching to coax winning records in situations like that. But you’ll notice the 2023 season isn’t listed above.

There a reason for that.

Tomlin Still Proving the Rooney Rule

When Mike Tomlin beat out insider favorites Ken Whisenhunt and Russ Grimm for the head coaching job, many attributed it to “The Rooney Rule.”

The Rooney Rule may have contributed to Tomlin’s getting hired, but he certainly met the requirements of a Rooney Rule, but not the one you’re thinking of. As retired radio journalist, Steelers blogger and Immaculate Reception witness Mike Silversteen has observed, the real Rooney rule is as follows: Hire the best man for the job and stick by him.

And one of the most important qualities of a coach, as Dan Rooney explained in his autobiography is an ability to lead men. Chuck Noll started his tenure going 1-13, 5-8 and 6-8. But Dan Rooney kept him because Noll always had the locker room.

Bill Cowher’s 1998 Steelers finished an ugly 7-9 and an even uglier 6-10 in 1999. Yet Dan Rooney stood by Cowher, because he felt Cowher had kept the locker room (I disagreed at the time, but yep, Dan knew a little more than me.)

The Steelers opened last December with one of the worst 3 game stretches of the modern era, punctuated by perhaps the Tomlin era’s most appalling 30 minutes of football in 2nd half against the Colts.

  • Everyone, yours truly included, left them for dead.

Yet Tomlin rallied the locker room, brought Mason Rudolph out from the bull pen and pulled guys from the couch to the practice squad and made them starters and brought the Steelers to the playoffs.

17 years later he still proving to be worthy of the Rooney Rule.

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Dyslexic Reversals: Why I’m Still Have Hope for Kenny Pickett

Super Bowl Sunday has arrived! And the Pittsburgh Steelers aren’t playing in Super Bowl LVIII as has been the case since they losing to the Packers in in Super Bowl XLV.

  • While this isn’t surprising for most Steelers fans, it does reveal how quickly perceptions change.
Kenny Pickett, George Pickens, Steelers vs Raiders, Immaculate Reception 50th anniversary

Kenny Pickett and George Pickens after the Go Ahead Touchdown. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review.

Just one year ago today, several commenters on the Steel City Insider message board agreed that Kenny Picket’s arrival had opened the Super Bowl window for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Mind you, these commenters are students in the game who are well-versed in the X’s and O’s. And while they’re devoted Steelers fans, none can be written off as a “homer” or a “fanboy.”

  • Today putting “Kenny Pickett” and “Super Bowl” into the same sentence almost seems laughable.

The Steelers 2023 season was the year to expect the unexpected. And one of the unexpected disappointments was that Kenny Pickett failed to make the proverbial “Second Year Leap.”

His performance was so uninspiring that many commentators both inside and outside Pittsburgh think that the franchise would be wise to cut their losses and move on.

They may be right.

But I’m still holding out hope for Kenny Pickett for some very personal reasons.

Pickett’s Disappointing Development

If you look you’ll find no shortage of statistics that paint a rather anemic picture of Kenny Pickett’s work as a passer. Instead of recounting them here, I’ll offer one of my own:

  • Through 12 games in 2023, Kenny Pickett threw a mere 6 touchdown passes.
  • In just 8 games in 2019, Devlin Hodges threw 5 touchdown passes
Delvin Hodges, Steelers vs Bengals

Delvin Hodges rallies Steelers. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review

That’s a sobering stat if there ever was one. Comb through Pickett’s numbers and you’ll be hard pressed to find any sort of silver lining….

…Except for when it comes to the fourth quarter.

And it is that part of Kenny Pickett that reminds me of my own. In many ways my own story of growing up with dyslexia reminds me what we’ve seen on Kenny Pickett’s NFL journey thus far.

Before diving in, in the (extremely) unlikely event this post goes viral, let me make an important clarification:

  • I don’t know whether Kenny Pickett has dyslexia or another learning disability
  • There’s nothing to suggest that his struggles are a symptom of dyslexia
  • And if he is dyslexic, I’m not suggesting it explains anything about his NFL career so far

But my own story makes it easier to understand what I’ve seen.

Why Kenny Pickett’s Career Arc Resonates with Me

As the middle class child of two college educated parents, one of whom was a teacher, I started with a lot of advantages. I also in a school system that had sterling, national reputation. Even before I started school I was impressing neighbors as a bright child.

Harmony Hills Elementary

Harmony Hills Elementary school at some point before 1998.

In the first grade Mrs. Gable gave me a book to take home and read. It was the kind of “Jack saw Mary and said, ‘Hi!’ Mary said, ‘Good morning Jack!’”

Every night I sat there at the dinner table with mom or dad every night trying to read it. I got the book in early October and was supposed to finish it in a week.

I finished it in May.

But then a funny thing happened. Mrs. Gable gave me another book to take home and bring back in a week. I finished it in two days. And I closed May by banging out several other books with just one or two night’s work.

  • The pattern continued throughout Elementary School and Junior High School

I’d start the year slowly. Although I was always raising my hand and answering questions, I never got considered for “Gifted and Talent” programs because I “took too long to finish” my work. Indeed, by the third grade spending 3-4 hours after school doing homework was quite common.

The first report card in seventh grade was pockmarked with several C’s, a B or two and one A (its completely possible that some of those C’s would have been D’s had my mom not been friends with several of my teachers.) On my last report card in 7th grade I got 5 A’s, 1 B and a C.

That prompted an observation from my dad who said, “You know, you’re like a runner, you start the school your slowly, but by the end of the year you’re running at full speed. We need to figure out a way to keep you going through the summer.”

  • The prospect of summer homework did not appeal to me. But dad was on to something.

Fortunately “summer homework” never materialized during July or August of 1985, but that fall I was diagnosed with dyslexia. And it was then that Dr. Levinson explained to my parents that slow starts followed by fast finishes were common for bright kids with dyslexia because it took us time to develop accommodation strategies.

Which brings me back to Kenny Pickett.

Kenny Pickett’s Splits Suggest More than “Clutch Gene”

Kenny Pickett’s been called “Mr. 4th quarter.” It’s been said that he has the “clutch gene.” With 7 4th quarter comebacks in just 24 starts, that’s understandable. But it oversimplifies things.

A quick look at Kenny Pickett’s 2nd year splits reveals why:

Kenny Pickett, Kenny Pickett 2023 splits

Kenny Pickett’s 2023 Splits, via Pro Football Reference

As you can see, Kenny Pickett’s 4th quarter comebacks don’t come out of thin air. Kenny Pickett improves during the course of games. This is true across nearly every key metric, save for completion percentage with dips in the 2nd quarter, but rebounds after half time.

  • This makes Kenny Pickett unique.

Yes, you read that right. You’d think this tendency might be common among great comeback quarterbacks, particularly early in their careers. But it is not. In fact, the opposite is true.

Tom Brady is the leader in 4th quarter comebacks. Yet his Split numbers show a slightly worse passer rating in the 4th quarter but that difference is due to chance. This is true for both his entire career and his second year as a starter.

Ben Roethlisberger’s career 4th quarter passer rating is slightly better than other quarters, but again, its likely due to chance. In his second year his 4th quarter performance was markedly worse than other quarters. Peyton Manning sees quite a drop off in the 4th quarter career wise and a much stronger one in his second season.

A full accounting of all legendary comeback artists isn’t possible here. But you can see the same tendency in place for stalwarts like Roger Staubach, Ken Stabler and John Elway.

Kenny Picket, Steelers vs Bengals, Steelers vs Bengals 2023 Paycor

Kenny Pickett drops back to pass. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.come

Yet here is Kenny Pickett steadily improving as the game progresses. How do we explain this? Well, there are three possibilities:

1. This is an aberration that will normalize over time.
2. Pickett’s playing from behind and has more freedom thanks to the hurry up offense
3. Kenny Pickett improves because during games he’s reading coverages better and throwing more accurately

Let’s concede that number 1 is a real possibly. Kenny Pickett’s 12 games from 2023 provide a small sample which is further skewed by him leaving 3 games due to injury. And this narrative falls apart if you look at his career splits, although those include his first few games, which included a lot of late interceptions which disappeared from his game afterwards.

Number 2 is basically a variant of “blame Matt Canada,” but if it is true, it speaks well of Pickett’s football IQ.

  • But for me? I’m holding out hope that the third explanation is the right one.

As someone who started out school years with great difficulty, absorbed tons of criticism about being “too slow” or “taking too long to finish your work” yet who always finished with a bang, my money’s on Kenny Pickett improving in real time as a game progresses.

Time (or injury) may prove me wrong, but count me as one Steelers fan who is glad that Art Rooney II and Mike Tomlin are committed to giving Kenny Pickett a chance to prove me right.

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Welcome Back Mason. Steelers Resign Mason Rudolph for 1 Year

When asked just 11 days ago where Mason Rudolph would play in 2023, Chapter head of the Pittsburgh Pro Football writers association Mark Kaboly assured readers, “It won’t be the Steelers.”

steelers 2019 season, T.J. Watt, Mason Rudolph, Maurkice Pouncey, Zach Banner

Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

During the team’s recently concluded rookie Mini Camp the Steelers gave Tanner Moran jersey number 2. Many took this as further confirmation that the one-time heir-apparent to Ben Roethlisberger’s days in Pittsburgh were over.

  • And just like that the Steelers resigned Mason Rudolph to a one year contract.

Hum, maybe we should have listened when Omar Khan addressed the press way back on February 28th when he responded to reporter’s asking whether Mason and the Steelers were done, “No, not at all. We have a great relationship, good conversation with Mason. The door is still open.”

Omar Khan and Mike Tomlin left the door open, and Mason Rudolph has decided to walk through it. Although its fair to say that Rudolph’s decision was driven by necessity rather than desire.

While Rudolph (and his agent) couldn’t have been expecting an find an opportunity to start in free agency, a shot at a backup job somewhere seemed reasonable. Apparently, 31 NFL General Managers thought differently.

Actually, make that number 32, because at 10 million dollars a year, Mitch Trubisky is entrenched as the Steelers backup behind Kenny Pickett.

  • Nonetheless this is a good move for both the Steelers and Mason Rudolph.

The Pittsburgh Steelers are a team that believes in keeping 3 quarterbacks. Sure, Chuck Noll might have started 1989 with only Bubby Brister and Todd Blackledge on the active roster and Bill Cowher might have begun 1992 with just Bubby behind Neil O’Donnell, but are exceptions.

Mike Tomlin briefly flirted with a 2 quarterback system when he traded Joshua Dobbs after the 2019 season opener. Ben Roethlisberger’s season was over 2 quarters later, and Duck Hodges joined the active roster and was throwing passes before the leaves had begun to fall along Brownsville Road.

Yes, this is a wise move indeed.

Since he arrived in Pittsburgh, Mike Tomlin has carried Dennis Dixon, Charlie Batch, Landry Jones and Devlin Hodges on the active roster as third string quarterbacks and started each of them in meaningful games in 2009, 2010, 2012, 2015 and 2019.

  • That means once ever three years, Mike Tomlin’s 3rd string quarterback starts a game.

The last time that happened was 2019. So the Steelers are due…

Welcome back Mason Rudolph.

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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Steelers 2023 Draft Needs @ Quarterback – Does Pittsburgh Pick a 3rd String QB?

Last year the Pittsburgh Steelers bucked the conventional wisdom that dominate the rest of the NFL: Namely that there were no first round worthy quarterbacks in the 2022 NFL Draft.

Looking no further than their own back yard, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin begged to differ and the Steelers used a first round pick on a quarterback for the first time since the 2004 NFL Draft.

The draft is almost upon us again – should the Steelers use one of their seven picks on a quarterback in 2023? Let’s take a look.

Kenny Pickett, Mitch Trubisky, Steelers vs Seahawks

Kenny Pickett and Mitch Trubisky during preseason. Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY

Steelers Depth Cart at Quarterback: The Starter

Quarterback was a clear need for the Steelers entering the 2022 NFL Draft. Yet, if you take Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin at their word, they never expected to get the one they wanted.

  • When Kenny Pickett fell to them at the 20th pick, they wasted little time in calling his name.

Yes, the franchise that passed on the chance to replace Terry Bradshaw with Pitt-star Dan Marino easily went all in on replacing Ben Roethlisberger with Pitt’s Kenny Pickett.

At first glance, Pickett’s rookie statistics appear quite pedestrian. His record as a starter was 7-5. One of those wins was the upset against the Buccaneers and one of those losses was against the Ravens at home. Both were games where Pickett couldn’t finish due to concussions.

During 2022 Pickett threw 389 passes, completed 245 of them for a 63% completion rate, while throwing 7 touchdowns an 9 interceptions.

  • Yes, those numbers look pedestrian indeed.

But there are also truths that aren’t self-evident in these stats. Only one of those 8 interceptions came before the bye week. And even during that pre-bye week stretch of starts, Pickett’s poise was always present in his play. As Craig Wolfey commented after the loss to the Dolphins, Pickett may have thrown two interceptions in the 4th quarter, but the game never looked too big for him.

And twice, late in the season playing under harsh AFC North winter conditions, Kenny Pickett rallied this team for victory in the 4th quarter, and he looked natural doing it.

Steelers Quarterback Depth Chart: The Backup

One of the Steelers first moves in free agency in the spring of 2022 was to sign Mitch Trubisky to a 2-year contract. As Mike Tomlin later explained, they moved to sign Trubsky to “prevent us from doing something stupid in the draft.”

(That’s a sound strategy, because when you reach, Jarvis Jones or Artie Burns happen.)

  • Extreme highs and extreme lows defined Trubisky’s tenure in 2022.

He looked “OK” in the season-opening upset of the Bengals, but couldn’t rally the team to a victory in a very winnable game against the Patriots. The offense struggled against the Browns and the Jets, which led to his benching, in favor of Pickett.

Yet Trubisky played exceptionally well against the Buccaneers, after Pickett got hurt. But Trubisky was horrible in relief against the Ravens.

But against the Carolina Panthers, with Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren running strong, Trubisky did an exceptional job, completing 17 of 22 passes for an economic 179 yards and one touchdown. The kind of performance you’d like and expect to see out of your backup.

The Steelers 2023 Quarterback Draft Needs

Steelers Draft, Steelers Draft Needs scale

Much of the rest of the NFL might consider it quaint, but the Pittsburgh Steelers believe in carrying 3 quarterbacks. And the Mike Tomlin era has seen the Golden Age of Steelers third string quarterbacks, with Dennis Dixon, Charlie Batch, Landry Jones, Devlin Hodges all beginning seasons as third stringers, only to start meaningful games during the year.

Thus far Mason Rudolph remains unsigned and even if the Steelers are open to bringing him back, would he really wanted to serve as a third string quarterback?

We probably won’t know until after the draft.

The Steelers neither have a 5th nor 6th round pick and they are certainly not drafting a quarterback on day one or day two. Could the Steelers find a viable 3rd string quarterback with one of their 2 7th round picks.

  • Stranger things have happened.

With that said, the Steelers need at quarterback going into the 2023 NFL Draft should be considered as Fair.

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Did Andy Reid Really “Rein In” JuJu Smith-Schuster? Or Are the Chiefs Simply Superior to the Steelers?

It didn’t take long after the Chiefs’ 38-35 victory over the Eagles in Super Bowl LVII for current Kansas City receiver and former Steelers receiver, JuJu Smith-Schuster, to become the heel of the professional football world.

He trolled James Bradberry, the cornerback who was called for holding Smith-Schuster near the end of the Super Bowl (a play that was deemed controversial at that moment and gave the Chiefs a chance to run out the clock and kick the game-winning field goal with eight seconds left), with a Valentine’s Day-themed Tweet on Tuesday:

“Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone,” Tweeted the sixth-year receiver out of USC, accompanied by a meme that included Bradberry’s picture on Valentine’s Day-inspired greeting card with a caption that read: “I’ll hold you when it matters most.”

Ouch.

JuJu Smith-Schuster Super Bowl Kilt

JuJu Smith-Schuster arrives for Super Bowl in a Kilt. Photo Credit: USA Today.com

Given the controversial nature of the holding call on Bradberry (a good number of people thought it was a ticky-tack penalty that shouldn’t have been called with less than two minutes left in the game), along with the fact that it may have been the worst moment of Bradberry’s life (at least professionally), you can see why Smith-Schuster has become a Ric Flair-level heel on social media.

In terms of bulletin-board material, JuJu Smith-Schuster’s tweet makes his “The Browns is the Browns” comment he made in an interview before the Steelers met Cleveland in a wildcard playoff game at Heinz Field following the 2020 campaign look downright bland by comparison.

Only, Smith-Schuster’s trash talk to James Bradberry occurred AFTER his team just captured the most coveted trophy in all of professional team sports (in America, anyway).

  • Does that make it better? Is this the perfect example of the spoils going to the riches?

That’s a matter of debate. I don’t care much about trash talk or giving your opponent bulletin-board material before a big game.

  • It’s mostly meaningless, in my opinion.
JuJu Smith-Schuster, JuJu Smith-Schuster water ballon fight

JuJu Smith-Schuster at his first annual water ballon fight. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

I’ve always liked JuJu Smith-Schuster, and I thought his character was unfairly tarnished during his five-year career in Pittsburgh. He started out as a breath of fresh air, someone that all fans — but especially children — gravitated to instantly. Then, suddenly, by 2019 or 2020, his social-media antics and off-the-field fun became a detriment in the eyes of the media and fans.

Smith-Schuster was now a “problem,” and someone who was seen as the bad guy for dancing on opposing teams’ logos before a game (in the name of TikTok) and for participating in the milkcrate challenge during the offseason (again, for social-media clout).

JuJu Smith-Schuster was put in the same toxic class as Antonio Brown, a truly disturbed malcontent who the Steelers traded to the Raiders in exchange for third and fifth-round draft picks following the 2018 season.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Martavis Bryant, Antonio Brown, Steelers 2018 wide receiver draft needs

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Martavis Bryant & Antonio Brown. Photo Credit: Icon Sportswire

It certainly didn’t help that Smith-Schuster’s numbers fell off after Brown, perhaps the most talented and productive receiver in Steelers history, was given his walking papers.

JuJu Smith-Schuster’s rookie season of 2017 saw him catch 58 passes for 917 yards and seven touchdowns. The former second-round pick then turned in a sophomore campaign that included 111 receptions for 1,426 yards and another seven touchdowns.

Smith-Schuster’s 2018 season was so spectacular that his Steelers teammates voted him team MVP, an honor that was apparently one of the final straws that led to Brown’s epic meltdown and desire to burn every bridge on his way out of Pittsburgh (and Pittsburgh has a ton of bridges).

Yes, Smith-Schuster’s production took an immediate hit in 2019 without Brown around acting like the Jerry Rice to his John Taylor (or Batman to JuJu’s Robin), but then again, so did Pittsburgh’s quarterbacks room, thanks to the season-ending elbow injury suffered by Ben Roethlisberger in Week 2.

Sure, losing an all-time great receiver will hurt the number two wideout, but so will the loss of an all-time great quarterback, someone who led the NFL in passing yards in the year before.

The Steelers’ offense was piloted by both Mason Rudolph and Devlin “Duck” Hodges, two very-inexperienced quarterbacks, for the rest of the 2019 campaign, a reality that probably explains why Smith-Schuster’s numbers saw a massive drop to the tune of 42 receptions for 552 yards.

Smith-Schuster never did duplicate the same level of play he enjoyed over his first two seasons as a Steeler. Sadly, neither did the offense — including Roethlisberger — as it became the proverbial shell of its once-potent self.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, JuJu Smith-Schuster injury, Steelers vs. Broncos

JuJu Smith-Schuster leaves the field after a season-ending injury. Photo Credit: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

After surprisingly signing a one-year free-agent deal to remain in Pittsburgh following the 2020 season, Smith-Schuster, who suffered a significant injury in 2021 that limited him to five regular-season games, became a Chief in 2022.

As the Chiefs were marching toward yet another Super Bowl appearance, while Pittsburgh was simply trying to remain relevant, it became popular to claim that JuJu Smith-Schuster had changed his stripes now that he was no longer a Steeler.

You see, Andy Reid, Kansas City’s veteran head coach, would never give the charismatic Smith-Schuster the same kind of latitude to express himself that Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin did.

The Chiefs were far more disciplined under Reid than Pittsburgh was under Tomlin, and that’s why Smith-Schuster is now about to be fitted for his first Super Bowl ring….

Or so goes the narrative.

You really think Smith-Schuster is now a Super Bowl champion because his antics were reined in by a new employer?

  • Did you see what Smith-Schuster wore to the stadium on Sunday?

A skirt. That’s right, a skirt (a sight that may have caused the head of your average Steelers fan to explode).

As he was talking to reporters and celebrating wildly with fans after the Chiefs’ Super Bowl win, Smith-Schuster seemed like the same charismatic and happy-go-lucky guy that he always was in Pittsburgh.

Throw in the skirt/kilt before the Super Bowl (not that there’s anything wrong with that) and the heel Tweet directed at Bradberry after the Big Game and, well, has Smith-Schuster changed all that much?

Perhaps he just went to a much talented team.

You look at Smith-Schuster’s numbers in 2022 — 78 receptions for 933 yards and three touchdowns–and they don’t look much different than the stats he put up in his last full season in Pittsburgh in 2020 — 97 catches for 831 yards and nine touchdowns.

JuJu Smith-Schuster’s numbers and production haven’t changed since he left Pittsburgh; instead, the talent surrounding him–including an MVP quarterback (Patrick Mahomes) and a future Hall of Fame tight end (Travis Kelce)–has.

Smith-Schuster was simply on a much better team in 2022, and that’s why it seemed like he was more disciplined than he was with the Steelers.

Again, I have no problem with Smith-Schuster, his personality, or the way he conducts himself on and away from the football field.

  • He’s a good dude who does many great things in whatever community he finds himself in.
  • Is he a lot to take for your average football fan whose stick is planted firmly in the mud? Absolutely.

But to suggest that the Steelers allowed JuJu Smith-Schuster to run amok in Pittsburgh while the Chiefs kept him in check in Kansas City? And to claim that this is why he’s not only a much better player now but also a Super Bowl champion?

Sadly, that’s why the media is the media

That’s also why the fans is often the fans.

 

 

 

 

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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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Steelers 2022 Draft Needs @ Quarterback – Don’t Force Trying to Find a Franchise QB

Quarterback is football’s critical position. This has been true since the modern game abandoned the Single Wing and has only become “more” true in the 21st century.

The Pittsburgh Steelers have been blessed by both excellence and stability at the quarterback position for almost two decades.

But while the 2022 off season is still young, the Steelers have been jolted twice with reminders of how fleeting stability at quarterback can be. First, they lost Ben Roethlisberger to retirement. This they expected. Then, tragedy struck, and they lost Dwayne Haskins, to an untimely, horrific death.

Matt Corral, Mike Tomlin, 2022 NFL Draft

Mike Tomlin sizes up Matt Corrall. Photo Credit: Tribune-Review

Steelers Quarterback Depth Chart: The Potential Starters

For the first time since the year summer of 2000, the Steelers will host their first quarterback competition at St. Vincents. Going into the 2022 NFL Draft, the two contestants are veteran Mason Rudolph and free agent Mitchell Turbisky.

In Mason Rudolph the Steelers have a veteran quarterback whom they graded as a first rounder and picked in the 3rd round of the 2018 NFL Draft. In those four years, Mason Rudolph has appeared in 17 games, started 10 of those, and amassed a 5-4-1 record.

  • He’s completed 61.5% of his passes, and thrown 16 touchdowns and 11 interceptions.

Mason Rudolph was thrown to the dogs in 2019 when an elbow injury ended Ben Roethlisberger’s season after just 6 quarters.

While he won 5 of his 8 starts, he suffered a concussion, and was the victim of an assault by Myles Garrett on the road  in the infamous “Body Bag Game” against Cleveland. The truth is that Mason looked shaky and tentative – as in Kordell Stewart al la 1999 – after both of those incidents. That led to his benching in favor of Devlin Hodges.

Hodges himself got benched against the New York Jets, and Mason Rudolph looked strong in relief, only to get injured again. He played fairly well in his only start against the Browns at the end of the 2020 season but was only “OK” in the tie against Detroit.

Four years after drafting him, the Steelers still aren’t sold on Mason Rudolph, explaining their decision to sign Mitch Trubisky to a 2 year, prove it deal. The Chicago Bears made Mitch Trubisky the 2nd pick overall in the 2017 NFL Draft.

  • The conventional wisdom on Trubisky is that he’s a bust.

After four years as a starter, including two playoff seasons, no one wanted to give him a second contract, let alone a shot at a starting job (contrast that with the Sam Darnold trade.) Has Trubsiky been that bad? Here are some interesting numbers:

Mitch Trubisky, Ben Roethlisberger,

 

That’s an interesting if not surprising comparison. Ultimately this is a glass-half vs. glass full comparison. Either Trubisky is only a step down from Roethlisberger, or the gulf between a franchise QB and a good QB is truly defined by the margins.

The terms and length of Trubisky’s deal (1 years for about 7 million per year, plus incentives) signal that the Steelers are giving him a chance to prove he’s an NFL starter and nothing else.

Steelers Quarterback Depth Chart: The Backups

The Steelers are new territory here. This is a franchise that not only believes in investing in the backup quarterback position, but also in the third string quarterback slot. As we’ve mused before, in many was the Mike Tomlin era has also been the Golden Age of Steelers 3rd string quarterbacks, with third stringers like Dennis Dixon, Charlie Batch, Landry Jones and Devlin Hodges getting starts.

Joshua Dobbs signed with the Cleveland Browns the day before Dwyane Haskins died, leaving the depth chart behind the two potential starters bare.

The Steelers 2022 Quarterback Draft Needs

Kenny Pickett, Malik Willis, Matt Corral and Desmond Ridder are just a handful of the potential first round picks at quarterback that the Steelers have shown interest in. And for good reason. Both Rudoph and Trubisky have something to prove, and they have no one behind him should both falter.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2021 NFL Draft

  • Should the Steelers target a quarterback in the first round of the 2022 NFL Draft?

Who knows? Seriously, I’m wise enough not to know that I don’t know enough to evaluate college players coming out for the NFL draft. I do know that the conventional wisdom of the “draftnics” is that this a weak quarterback class.

And the backflips that teams are doing to secure and/or keep established starting quarterbacks show that the majority of NFL personnel managers agree.

If one of the top quarterbacks is still on the board when the Steelers are on the clock, Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin would be wise to remember point 3 of the 4 Point Road Map to get the Steelers back to the Super Bowl:

But with that said, the focus of this series isn’t on how the Steelers can add, but what their areas of need are. And the Steelers draft needs at quarterback heading into the 2022 NFL Draft must be considered Moderate-High.

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Feed the Hand that Slaps You? Steelers Sign Levi Wallace to 2 Year Contract

How’s the saying go? Don’t slap the hand that feeds you? Well, maybe in Pittsburgh they’ll have to start saying, “Feed the hand that slaps you.” The Steelers have reportedly come to terms with Buffalo Bills cornerback Levi Wallace, who is expected to sign a 2 year 8 million dollar contract on Wednesday.

Levi Wallace entered the NFL as an undrafted rookie free agent out of Alabama, who made the Bills 2018 practice squad only to be activated and start the last 7 games of the season. He started all 16 games of the 2019 season, followed by 12 starts in 2020 and 17 starts in 2021.

That has given Mike Tomlin an excellent chance to see Levi Wallace up close, perhaps a little too close, as Wallace made interceptions in his first two outings against his future employer.

Levi Wallace, Steelers vs Bill, James Washington

Bills Levi Wallace picks off Ben Roethlisberger to seal a win. Photo Credit: Democrat and Chronicle

The first time came as Devlin Hodges tried to connect with James Washington deep late in the game, as Wallace’s pick sealed victory. A year later, Levi Wallace struck again late in the 4th quarter, picking off Ben Roethlisberger as he again tried to connect with Washington.

  • In 52 NFL starts, Levi Wallace has 6 interceptions, 30 passes defensed and 7 tackles for a loss.

At 4 million dollars a year the Steelers are getting Wallace at an extremely good contract.

Be that as it may, the fact that the Steelers are targeting cornerback as a priority signing also likely spells the end of Ahkello Witherspoon’s and/or Joe Haden’s time in Pittsburgh. The Steelers also have Cameron Sutton, James Pierre and Justin Layne under contract at cornerback.

Steelers Get 4th Round Compensatory Selection

The Steelers were also informed by the NFL that they would be getting a 4th round compensatory selection. Last spring the hope was that given the loss of Bud Dupree and Mike Hilton, the Steelers might get either a third round selection or perhaps multiple selections.

  • However, injuries to Bud Dupree and the need to play Joe Haeg altered that calculation.

The Steelers have the first 4th round compensatory pick, and now have a pick in each round, save for the 5th round.

Follow Steelers free agency. Visit our Steelers 2022 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2022 free agent focus articles.

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Its Probably Best for Steelers, James Washington to Part Ways in Free Agency

A second-round pick out of Oklahoma State in 2018, James Washington arrived in Pittsburgh as someone Steelers fans hoped would continue the team’s tradition of excellence at the receiver position that started with Hines Ward many years earlier.

But while James Washington had to initially bide his time behind the likes of Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster, he could never quite break through as a breakout star, even after Brown was traded in the 2019 offseason and JuJu Smith-Schuster spent the majority of 2021 — the final year of Washington’s rookie deal — on the Injured Reserve list. As James Washington enters free agency for the first time, the question is, should he and the team continue their relationship?

James Washington, Steelers vs Bengals

James Washington en route to a 79 yard touchdown. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Capsule Profile of James Washington’s Steelers Career

During his rookie preseason, James Washington showed glimpses of the deep-threat and combat-catch receiver the Steelers hoped he would be when they drafted him the previous spring, but, as I alluded to earlier, targets were hard to come by during the regular season, and Washington only caught 16 passes for 217 yards for one touchdown in 2018.

James Washington certainly didn’t endear himself to quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and head coach Mike Tomlin in a late-season loss to the Broncos when he dived and failed to catch a deep pass that, had he stayed on his feet, would have gone for a touchdown. Despite what I said earlier, Washington did seem to initially thrive following Brown’s departure and, believe it or not, he did it while mostly catching passes from Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges in 2019, while Roethlisberger was out with major elbow surgery injury. Washington pulled in 44 passes for a team-high 735 yards and three touchdowns — including a 79-yard catch-and-run against the Bengals in which he displayed both his deep speed as well as his physicality by stiff-arming a Cincinnati defensive back on the way to the end zone.

Unfortunately for James Washington, he couldn’t parlay his 2019 success into greater heights over the next two seasons, as he caught a combined 54 passes for 577 yards and seven touchdowns.

The Case for the Steelers Re-signing James Washington in 2022

There’s no question that Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool are the Steelers’ top two receivers (at least that are currently under contract). With JuJu Smith-Schuster likely set to explore free agency in search of the lucrative multi-year deal he couldn’t find on the open market last offseason, James Washington could finally get his chance to shine as the number-three receiver. He’s not likely to command much once free agency kicks off, and he could probably be retained on the cheap — even on a one-year “prove it” deal.

The Case Against the Steelers Re-signing James Washington in 2022

There were rumblings that James Washington went to his bosses last summer and asked to be traded because he didn’t feel there was room on the roster for him to shine, especially after JuJu Smith-Schuster surprisingly re-signed with the team last March.

James Washington declined to refute those rumors, which probably meant there was likely some truth to them. Also, Washington garnered little playing time over the last 12 regular-season games following the injury to Smith-Schuster. Instead, Ray-Ray McCloud became a bit of a favorite target for Roethlisberger down the stretch.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and James Washington in 2022

I’d personally keep James Washington around because, again, I believe he could be had on the cheap.

But it’s probably a moot point, considering he likely wants to go somewhere where he can be more of a focal point for an offense. As Mike Tomlin says, “Its free for us, free for them,” and with that in mind it’s probably best for the two parties to go their separate ways.

Stay on top of Steelers free agency. Visit our Steelers 2022 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2022 free agency focus articles.

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Will JuJu Smith-Schuster Stay with Steelers? Should He? Its a Tricky Situation

Second contracts separate dollars from cents in today’s NFL. Sure, even undrafted free agent rookies get six figure salaries. But they’re only an injury away from losing it all. Draft picks have more security, but only a little.

  • But manage a second NFL contract wisely, and you’ll have financial security for life.

If you’re smart with your money and lucky enough to stay healthy, you’ve got a shot at integrational wealth. The Steelers are better than any other NFL team at honoring their second contract commitments, particularly for home-grown players.

Yet, when it comes to wide receivers, only Hines Ward and Antonio Brown have gotten second contracts.

A year ago, JuJu Smith-Schuster was pleading to join them. He got his wish, sort of, and now both sides need to decide whether to reup for a third dance. Will it happen?

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Ju-Ju Smith-Schuster stiff arm, Steelers vs Ravens

JuJu Smith-Schuster lays down the law. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Capsule Profile of JuJu Smith-Schuster’s Career with the Steelers

When the Steelers drafted JuJu Smith-Schuster in the 2nd round of the 2017 NFL Draft, a Twitter fight erupted between Martavis Bryant and Sammie Coates as to who JuJu was arriving to replace. As it turned out, JuJu pushed both men off of the team (OK, Bryant did himself no favors).

JuJu Smith-Schuster had an electrifying rookie campaign, catching 58 passes for just under 1000 yards and included game changing long catches against the Lions and what should have been a game changer against the Patriots. He followed up with 111 catches for 1426 yards in his second season, wining team MVP honors.

Those honors didn’t sit well with Brown, who threw a tantrum and well, you know the rest.

  • JuJu boldly declared, “I’m Ready.”

Alas, he might have been ready but the rest of the Steelers offense wasn’t. Ben Roethlisberger’s 2019 campaign lasted 6 quarters as Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges slogged out an 8-8 campaign with an offensive line in decline and a running game led by a wounded James Conner and rookie Benny Snell.

Smith-Schuster’s production dipped to 42 catches as he missed four games. He bounced back in 2020 to catch 97 passes, but didn’t get much interested in free agency. He returned to Pittsburgh on a one year deal, but got injured 5 games into the season. JuJu returned for the playoffs, but wasn’t a factor.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning JuJu Smith-Schuster

JuJu Smith-Schuster’s 2021 season only lasted 5 games but the Steelers missed him. As Mark Kaboly reminded before the playoffs, with JuJu the Steelers converted 46% of their third downs.

  • Without JuJu that number dropped by 10 percent.

Go back to 2020 when drops became a chronic issue for the Steelers receiving corps. But not for JuJu, as he easily led wideouts with a 75% catch rate.

JuJu Smith-Schuster is a gamer. He brings a physical presence as a run blocker. He is a leader. The fact that he suited up for the playoffs and risked injury tells you all you need to know about his heart.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning JuJu Smith-Schuster

JuJu Smith-Schuster’s story is a compelling one, but the Steelers can’t let sentimentally cloud their judgement. Alongside Antonio Brown, JuJu was lethal. Without him, he’s been good but not great. Second contracts for wide receivers clock in at about 12 million per year or more, often with 8 figures of guarantees.

JuJu Smith-Schuster quite simply hasn’t proven he’s worth that kind of investment.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and JuJu Smith-Schuster

A year ago, JuJu pleaded to stay in Pittsburgh. That seemed impossible. But when Smith-Schuster only got one year deals, he opted to stay with the Steelers via a home town discount and voidable years.

This year the Steelers have the cap space to consider resigning him, yet JuJu Smith-Schuster doesn’t appear interested, based on his comments about Heinz Field’s locker rooms and some social media posts. But does that mean JuJu’s as good as gone?

  • Much of this will depend on the market.

A year ago, JuJu thought he’d have more interest in his services yet got few takers. Perhaps that will happen again given how injury ravaged his 2021 season.

Realistically, that seems to be the only way he returns as a Steeler in 2022.

Follow Steelers free agency. Visit our Steelers 2022 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2022 free agent focus articles.

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