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

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

Malik Reed, Mac Jones, Steelers vs Patriots

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Najee Harris, Steelers vs Patriots, Devin McCourty

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

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

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

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

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

Ja'Marr Chase, Arthur Maulet, Steelers vs Bengals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • The run defense delivered the difference.

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

  • The offense told a different story.

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

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

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

Arthur Maulet, Joe Burrow, Steelers vs Bengals 2022

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

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

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The Case for the 2022 Pittsburgh Steelers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Steelers Strong @ Skill Positions

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

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

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

Pat Freiermuth, Najee Harris, Steelers vs Bears

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which brings us to the Offensive Line….

A Lot Is Riding on the Offensive Line

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

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

This is bad.

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

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

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

Difference on the Defensive Front 7? Known Unknowns

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

  • Why did that happen?

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

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

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

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

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

Secondary = Primary Intrigue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Special Teams to Be Special?

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

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

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

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

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

Tomlin Adds Experienced Coaches to the Mix

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

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

  • What to make of all this?

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

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

Steelers fans in northern Virginia.

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

Will Underdog Status Once Again Suit the Steelers?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Tomlin

Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin.

Some Surprising Cuts

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

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

First Look at the Steelers 2022 Roster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Steelers 2022 Practice Squad

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

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

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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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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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George Pickens Catch = The Beauty and Bliss of Steelers Training Camp

The Steelers returned to St. Vincents, in Latrobe on Tuesday, July 26th after a 2 year thanks to COVID-19. And took just 24 hours and less than one picture on my Whats App to bring home the beauty and bliss that is summer at St. Vincents.

George Pickens, Steelers 2022 training camp, Cam Sutton

George Pickens making a catch on the first day @ St. Vincents. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette.com

When the Pittsburgh Steelers drafted George Pickens in the 2nd round of the 2022 NFL Draft, friends who know a lot more about X’s and O’s than I do were excited. A quick look at his college record revealed why. This kid had talent, and were it not for an injury, he’d surely have gone early in the 1st round.

And this first photo from training camp makes it easy to see why:

In a single shot you have the beauty of training camp.

Sure, as Jim Wexell pointed out, it was only, “a lazy, looping “bomb” by Trubisky that Cam Sutton allowed George Pickens to catch as he was falling down.” But you know what? It matters not. And that’s the bliss of training camp.

Art Rooney Sr. once lamented to a reporter that, “Everyone’s a winner on draft day.” The Chief was right. The draft is about potential. St. Vincent is about seeing how can prove their potential.

Every summer is filled with these moments like George Pickens catch. Some of these go on to earn their rightful spot in Steelers lore, such as Joe Greene dominating in the Oklahoma Drill as soon as he arrived at St. Vincents or Ben Roethlisberger making an “a memorable rollout, throwback, 40-yard laser to Zamir Cobb” that caught Bill Cowher’s attention and brought Big Ben 1 step closer to Tommy Maddox on the depth chart.

Others, fade into obscurity. During my first year in Buenos Aires prior to the Steelers 2001 season I remember excitedly read Bob Labriola’s account in the Steelers Digest Kendrell Bell stopping Jerome Bettis at the goal line with a hit so resounding that it echoed off the hills which surround Chuck Noll field.

No one remembers that now because today Jerome Bettis is in the NFL Hall of Fame, while Kendrell Bell is a One Year Wonder Steelers rookie of the year.

  • How will we remember George Pickens catch a generation from now?

Will we see it as the first sign that this kid was something special?  Or will this photo only serve to remind us of how deeply he disappointed us ? Only time can tell us where George Pickens’ journey will take him and just as time will tell us where the 2022 Steelers journey will take them.

But that one photo of George Pickens is proof that the journey has begun.

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Steelers 2022 Draft Class Shows Kevin Colbert Leaving as He Arrived – Doing It His Way

The Pittsburgh Steelers 2022 Draft Class, Kevin Colbert’s final one, is complete. How well did Colbert do? What “grade” did he get for his final draft? That question will take several years to answer.

  • One thing we can say today: Kevin Colbert is leaving the NFL the way he arrived – doing it his way.

When Kevin Colbert returned to Pittsburgh in the winter of 2000, the Steelers were reeling. The 1999 Steelers had finished 6-10, as Bill Cowher feuded with Tom Donahoe while Kordell Stewart’s regression continued. Although Kordell Stewart had signed a big contract after a shaky 1998 season, the conventional wisdom was that the Steelers should move on.

  • And Pittsburgh held the 8th pick in the 2000 NFL Draft.

The consensus among the draft pundits was that Kevin Colbert should begin his tenure by turning the page at quarterback and drafting Chad Pennington. And really, how many new general managers wouldn’t jump at the chance to put their on stamp on a franchise by drafting a quarterback with their first pick?

Kevin Colbert wasn’t having any of it. For Colbert, it was never about his ego and always about making the right decision. So he and Cowher ignored the pleas from the peanut gallery, followed their own counsel, drafted Plaxico Burress, posted a winning record in 2000 and were in the AFC Championship in 2001.

  • 22 years later as he prepared to exit the NFL, Colbert faced a similar situation.

Ben Roethlisberger had just retired, and the franchise is suffering drought of playoff wins. The conventional wisdom among both pundits and actually NFL personnel men was that this was a historically weak draft class.

Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin, Steelers 2022 Draft Class, Kevin Colbert last draft

Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin at their final press conference. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

The prevailing opinion, including mine, is that the wise move for Kevin Colbert would have been to address other needs and allow his successor to find a franchise quarterback in 2023 when the class is said to be stronger.

  • By Kevin Colbert paid them no mind, and drafted Pitt quarterback Kenny Pickett.

Let’s take a quick look at the others who join Pickett as part of the Steelers 2022 Draft Class.

Steelers 2022 Draft Class at a Glance

First Round, Kenny Pickett, quarterback University of Pittsburgh
Second Round, George Pickens, wide receiver, Georgia
Third Round, DeMarvin Leal, defensive lineman, Texas A&M
Fourth Round, Calvin Austin III, wide receiver, Memphis
Sixth Round, Connor Heyward, tight end, Michigan State
Seventh Round A, Mark Robinson, inside linebacker, Old Miss
Seventh Round B, Chris Oladokun, quarterback, South Dakota University

Because Kevin Colbert finished his days in the draft room the way he began them, by marching to his own drummer, its tempting to argue that Kenny Pickett’s success or failure will define Kevin Colbert’s final effort.

  • The lesson that Kevin Colbert has been teaching us means that this is a temptation we should all resist.

There’s no question that if Kenny Pickett leads the Steelers up the Stairway to Seven, we’ll all say, “Yes, Kevin Colbert sure went out with a bang.” But, remember, Pickett doesn’t necessarily need to become a true, Joe Burrowesque franchise quarterback to do that.

And even if Kenny Pickett becomes a bust, that wouldn’t define Colbert’s final draft, let alone his legacy. Think back to the 2000 draft. Plaxico Burress certainly was a good player for the Steelers, but he won his Super Bowl with the Giants. But during the ’00 draft, the Steelers also added Marvel Smith and Clark Haggans, both of whom started Super Bowl XL.

That was of course the first of two Super Bowls Colbert helped bring back to Pittsburgh, the other being Super Bowl XLIII.

And the real lesson of Colbert’s legacy that extends through is final draft can be found in his own words, as he reflected on his role in adding to the organization’s Lombardi count, “… and being able to add to that room means a ton. But it doesn’t mean it’s over. The next step, I mean, we’ve got to get more, and we’ll never lose that. But it means a lot.”

Amen to that.

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Catching On? Steelers Draft Calvin Austin, Wide Receiver, Memphis in 4th Round

The Pittsburgh Steelers opened Day 3 of the 2022 NFL Draft by picking Calvin Austin III, wide receiver out of Memphis in the 4th round. Austin III is the 2nd wide out picked by Pittsburgh in this draft, after they chose George Pickens of Georgia in the 2nd round.

Austin, who has a 4.32 time in the 40, originally went to Memphis on a track scholarship, although he played football for four years. During that time he caught 156 passes for 2541 yards and scored 22 touchdowns in 33 games.

Calvin Austin III, Steelers 4th round draft pick, 2022 NFL Draft

Calvin Austin III, the Pittsburgh Steelers 4th round pick in the 2022 NFL Draft. Photo Credit: Noticias del Deporte Mundial

Steelers wide receiver coach Frishman Jackson explained that Austin was attractive in part because he is a player that can play both in the slot and outside. Commenting on his small stature, Austin is only 5’8”, Jackson commended Austin as a player who “goes up and attacks the ball in the air” which makes him someone who is “bigger than his size.”

Commenting on his interactions with Austin at the NFL Scouting Combine, Jackson complemented Austin as someone whom “…you felt the competitiveness in his voice when he spoke, felt the toughness that he had.”

When asked to give examples of that toughness on the field, Austin shared, “I think they were playing Temple, and I see him run across the middle to catch an end route and he’s going to get the crap hit out of him. He holds on and makes the catch.”

Calvin Austin Video Highlights

Here’s a look at Calvin Austin’s highlight reel, brought to you via a meld of the magic of YouTube and Word Press:

His speed is evident throughout the tape, and it looks like he has solid hands to, although you’d expect that of a pre-draft highlights tape.

What is really encouraging is his heads up play as a gunner on the punt return, as this highlights both his athleticism and sold football instincts, if not IQ.

Just two days ago the Steelers wide receivers room was a wanting place. Now, whether its Mitch Trubisky, Mason Rudolph or Kenny Pickett throwing the ball, they’ll have plenty of downfield targets beyond Chase Claypool and Diontae Johnson.

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Another “Pick.” Steelers Draft George Pickens in 2nd Round of 2022 NFL Draft, WR from Georgia

Pittsburghers are loyal, and the Steelers remain true to their traditions. This was the case in the 2022 NFL Draft when the Steelers picked wide receiver George Pickens in the second round. The junior from Georgia is the latest in a line of 2nd round wide receives that Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert have taken starting with:

Although he came in the third round of the 2019 NFL Draft, Diontae Johnson was in fact their second pick.

George Pickens brings an interesting resume to the Steelers. At 6’3” 200 pounds and a 4.47 time in the 40. However, a torn ACL in the spring of 2022 cost him all but four games of his Junior season, but that was enough for him to catch a 52 yard touchdown that helped the Bulldogs win a National Championship.

George Pickens, Steelers 2022 2nd round draft pick

George Pickens, National Championship game. Photo Credit: Robert Scheer, Indy Times.

ickens has had discipline issues, getting suspended by the team and sitting out a half for fighting. He was also cited after being in an accident without a seat belt.

Still, his talent is event. During his first two seasons Pickens had 85 catches for over 1200 yards and 14 touchdowns. Speaking on Steelers.com, draft analyst Matt Williamson suggested he could be the best wide receiver in the draft.

Speaking to reporters, Steelers offensive coordinator described Pickens as “explosive” multiple times, and confirmed that the Steelers could either split him wide or work him in the slot.

George Pickens Highlights

Early in his college career, Pickens was seen as a potential number 5 pick. So its no surprise that he has highlight reel to show, which we share via the magic of YouTube:

George Pickens knows how to catch and he knows how to score touchdowns.

First round draft pick Kenny Pickett now has another target to throw to in addition to Chase Claypool, Diontae Johnson, Miles Boykin and Gunner Olszewski.

Welcome to Steelers Nation George Pickens.

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