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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alex Highsmith, Steelers vs Browns, Alex Highsmith interception

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

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

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

Miles Killebrew, Steelers vs Patriots

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Patriots

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

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

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

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

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

Chris Boswell, Steelers vs Bengals,

Chris Boswell boots it. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger

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

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

 

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Ugly Afternoon @ Acrisure as Steelers Choke, Losing 24-10 to the Cardinals

After an ugly afternoon of football at Acrisure Stadium the Pittsburgh Steelers dropped a 24-10 decision to the Arizona Cardinals.

  • After the game Mike Tomlin declared “That was a horrible day at the office.”

Tomlin hit the nail on the head. The Cardinals arrived in Pittsburgh as a 2-10 team that hadn’t won on the road in close to a year. The Steelers were 7-4 and in the thick of the AFC North race.

Yet the Steelers suffered an ugly loss because they failed to heed the lessons that carried them through several ugly wins this season: Win the weighty downs, don’t turn over the ball and above all else, don’t lose the game.

Kenny Pickett, Johnathan Ledbetter

Kenny Pickett scrambles for the end zone in vain. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

What Went Right (no, that’s not a misprint)

With the New England Patriots coming to town in just four days, the Steelers don’t have the luxury of self-pity. (They also may not have the luxury of letting injuries heal, but we’ll get to that later.) Nor should they seek comfort in silver linings.

But if that’s true, its also true that the Steelers started the game by doing a lot of things right.

In just three plays the Steelers were at the Arizona 11, and then there came a big “BUT.” But before we get to that “BUT” let’s move on to other things that went right.

T.J. Watt and Larry Ogunjobi opened by stuffing James Conner for no gain, setting up a quick three and out. On Arizona’s next possession it fell to Watt and Keeanu Benton to stuff Conner for no gain in a drive that saw the Cardianls settle for 51 yard field goal.

Arizona’s next possession ended with a three and out in large part to Alex Highsmith’s sack of Kyler Murray. After a Steelers three and out, it fell to Nick Herbig to stuff Connor and T.J. Watt to drop Murray for a loss.

The Steelers got the ball back and went on a 12 play, 79 yard drive that consumed nearly 8 minutes of clock time. In truth this drive contained much of what had been missing on Matt Canada’s watch.

  • The Steelers made 4 first downs.
  • Both Jaylen Warren and Najee Harris ripped of double-digit runs
  • They also made shorter runs to set up manageable 3rd downs
  • Pat Freiermuth converted one of those with George Pickens picking up another through the air.

The Arizona Cardinals 1 yards line lie at the end of those 79 yards, where the next big “BUT” reared its ugly head.

About Those “BUTS”

The success of the Steelers first three plays was almost uncanny. In the blink of an eye, Kenny Pickett and company was just 16 yards away from an opening drive touchdown. Once there Najee Harris ran for 5 only to see Pickett fail to connect on his next two passes, bring up a Chris Boswell field goal.

On that second, picture perfect drive, the Steelers tried four times to punch starting from the Arizona 7, but couldn’t make it into the end zone.

  • Pittsburgh left 11 points on the field on those two drives along.
  • Chris Boswell missed a field goal in the second half.
  • Make that 14 points the Steelers left on the field.

It is tempting to conclude “You can’t leave points on the field like that and expect to win in the National Football League.” Which is generally true. But we’ve seen the Steelers win in spite of their offense for most of the season. But against the Cardinals, something else was different.

Back to Ball Security

The Steelers defense opened the second half down 10 to 3 after having given up a 99 yard touchdown drive to close the first half. The Black and Gold’s response was to force an Arizona three and out.

Pittsburgh’s rebound was short-lived as 7 plays later Mason Cole wobbled a snap to Mitch Trubisky’s shoe laces and the Cardinals recovered. Unlike Pittsburgh, Arizona was able to convert in the Red Zone and put the Cardinals up 17 to 3.

Giving up that touchdown might not have ended it for the Steelers, but Boswell’s missed field goal came on Pittsburgh’s next possession and his miss effectively ended things.

Another Twist in a Long, Strange Season

Two weeks ago the Steelers loss of a winnable game in Cleveland carried ominous overtones. Mike Tomlin reacted by firing Matt Canada, and last week it felt like the team had turned a corner in Cincinnati. Instead they dropped a game, at home to one of the league’s worst teams.

What to make of it? Well, there are a couple of things:

  • This Steelers team really has no margin for error as it lacks the talent to overcome mistakes.
  • Injuries may not be an excuse, but they are an explanation.

Seriously.

The Steelers did everything they could give this game to the Cardinals, including 2 illegal formation penalties that negated first downs, a pass interference penalty in the end zone on a 3rd and 8 incompletion, in addition to twin personal fouls on punt returns and a too many men on the field — after a time out.

The Steelers defense started the game shutting down the Cardinals in stunning fashion but ended up unable to stop them at critical points. But by that point an inside linebacking corps that had lost Cole Holcomb and Kwon Alexander had also lost the services of Elandon Roberts, who’d arguably been the defense’s MVP over the last several games.

And on offense the Steelers lost Kenny Pickett and Isaac Seumalo just before half time. And Minkah Fitzpatrick broke his hand during the first half (but was able to return).

  • Yet, for all of that, had the Steelers not left 14 points on the field they’d have scored enough to tie the game.

This reality excuses nothing. But it reminds us that the Steelers stole a couple of wins early in the season by taking advantage of other teams’ mistakes. Now they’ve had one stolen from them in the same fashion.

Mike Tomlin and company have 3 days to figure out how to prevent the Patriots and Bill Belichick to be the next to benefit from the law of averages. They have their work cut out for them.

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Steelers Report Card for Win Over Rams: Threading the Needle Edition

From the gradebook of a teacher threading the needle between grading on outcome vs rewarding for progress here is the Steelers Report Card for the win in Los Angeles over the Rams.

T.J. Watt, Steelers vs Rams, T.J. Watt Interception Rams

T.J. Watt starts 2nd half with interception. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Quarterback
Kenny Pickett started the game going 6-13-78 in the first half. He closed the second half going 11-12-152. He also converted 3 first downs including a touchdown and the game-icer (albeit with a generous spot.) While Pickett does need to pick it up sooner, he’s now led 6 game winning drives in his young career. You can’t put a price on that. Grade: BSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Together Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren rushed for 85 yards on the ground. They added 4 catches for 14 yards through the air. Both are low quantities. But quality is the key measure of the running backs’ effort vs the Rams, as both scored rushing touchdowns, and Najee Harris ripped off several other impressive runs. Grade: B

Tight Ends
Darnell Washington got his second start and did not get a target in the passing game. Connor Heyward had 2 catches on 3 targets for 23 yards. Grade: C

Wide Receivers
George Pickens did his damage on just 5 catches for over 105 yards. Diontae Johnson had 5 catches for 79 yards. Allen Robinson and one catch for 7 yards. Those types of numbers won’t keep Fantasy Football owners happy, but the wide outs are what got the offense moving. Still, both men committed boneheaded penalties that set the team back. Grade: B-

Offensive Line
In the early going, it looked like it was going to be a long afternoon for Kenny Pickett. But the line tightend up, and Pickett was only sacked twice, although he was hit 7 other times. The Rams defenders likewise made 4 tackles for losses and made 3 other stops for no gain. Yet, when the game was on the line the Steelers ran the ball when needed to and scored. Grade: C

Defensive Line
Larry Ogunjobi ended the Rams’ first drive with a sack that forced a punt. Montravius Adams and DeMarvin Leal both contributed to key stops in the running game. This unit needs to do more to compensate for the loss of Cam Heyward, but it is making progress. Grade: B-

Linebackers
Nick Herbig got his first NFL sack and Alex Highsmith helped pressure Matthew Stafford into Ogunjobi’s sack. At halftime Sean McVey and the Rams’s staff thought they were sitting pretty having neutralized T.J. Watt. So the Steelers worked him into coverage and Watt intercepted the Stafford on the first play of the game. Grade: B

Minka Fitzpatrick, Levi Wallace, Steelers vs Rams

Minkah Fitzpatrick and Levi Wallace try to stop a catch. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Secondary
Puka Nacua shows another wide out dominating the Steelers to be sure. But Cooper Kupp had two catches for 29 yards. But the Steelers blanked him in an 4th quarter effort that saw the Rams make a total of 25 yards and Joey Porter Jr. had a big hand in making that happen. Minkah Fitzpatrick led the team with 11 tackles and was as critical in shutting down things at the line of scrimmage as Troy Polamalu ever was. Grade: B

Special Teams
Chris Boswell was perfect, and Pressley Harvin punted strong in his return, with particularly good hang time as the Rams had zero returned punts. Calvin Austin did a respectable job of returning, although he did bobble a kick which he recovered. Grade: B

Coaching
To the naked eye, this was yet another game that saw the Steelers give up big runs on the ground and an excessive number of passes to a key receiver through the air. And of course the Steelers offense was dormant until the 4th quarter.

Yet the defense improved as the game wore on, and the offense did put together a good drive in the first half but had to settle for a field goal. But what was mainly different on offense was the did make some positive plays early on. They couldn’t quite get into a rhythm because Pickett had difficulty on third downs, but this is progress of a sort.

  • The Steelers defense also showed in game improvement both against the run and the pass.

While those improvements were enough to ensure that the Steelers had more points when the clock struck zero than the Rams did, let’s also acknowledge that the Rams missed 3 kicks costing them 7 points.

  • This underlines the reality that the both Matt Canada and Teryl Austin must end the slow starts.
Isaac Seumalo, Steelers vs Rams

Isaac Seumalo reflecting before the game. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

The win over the Rams improves Mike Tomlin’s record coming out of the bye week to 13-4 and their season record to 4-2. Few would have predicted this after the 49ers or Texans games. Grade: C

Unsung Hero Award
Of all of Omar Khan’s “Khan Artist” off season moves, this one intrigued fans of “Steelers Football” more than any other. Yet, offense’s slow start had some questioning the move. But against the Rams Isaac Seumalo stepped up to deliver key blocks at critical moments and for that he wins the Unsung Hero Award for the win over the Rams in Los Angeles.

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Steelers Report Card for MNF Win over Browns: No All Nighters for This Teacher Edition

Taken from the gradebook of a teacher who is late with his marks because he refused to pull an all nighter, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 2023 win over the Browns on Monday Night Football.

George Pickens, Steelers vs Browns,

George Pickens scores the Steelers lone offensive touchdown. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review.

Quarterbacks
Kenny Pickett went 15-30-1-1 for 222 yards. On the surface that look “OK.” Although Pickett made completed a few nice throws within tight windows, he didn’t look comfortable out there. Worse yet he didn’t improve as the game progressed. Grade: FSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Najee Harris had 43 yards on 10 carries. Jaylen Warren had 20 yards on 6, while adding 66 more through the air. The running backs didn’t have much room to run but made the best with what they had. Grade: C

Tight Ends
Pat Freiermuth caught one pass for 2 yards on one target. The other two tight ends were invisible. Grade: C-

Wide Receivers
George Pickens took it to the house on a 71 yard pass from Pickett. He also caught 3 other passes for a 4 of ten targets. Allen Robinson caught 2 passes while Calvin Austin, Gunner Olszewski and Myles Boykin each caught 1 pass. Pickett checked down early and often. Was that because guys weren’t open or he was just more comfortable close to home? Grade: C+

Offensive Line
The Cleveland Browns had 5 tackles for losses, 2 sacks and 9 quarterback hits. Worse yet, the line failed to move bodies when it counted the most, such as on the failed 2-point conversion effort. Deeply disappointing. Grade: F

Defensive Line
DeMarvin Leal got a sack, Montravius Adams forced a fumble, Keeanu Benton had two tackles while Armon Watts showed he belonged. Grade B

Linebackers
Don’t look now, but T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith are tied as the Steelers number 2 scorers thus far this season. Both men authored All Pro worth performances as Highsmith won AFC Defensive Player of the week while Watt simply became the Pittsburgh Steelers all time sack leader. Cole Holcomb forced a fumble, Kwon Alexander and Elandon Roberts looked stout against the run. Grade: A

Secondary
Minkah Fitzpatrick tipped the pass that Highsmith intercepted and was one of the leading tacklers despite leaving early with an injury. Joey Porter Jr. had limited snaps, but defensed two passes just the same. Patrick Peterson batted away one pass. For the second straight week Levi Wallace came up short in run defense and it cost the Steelers. Again. That brings the grade down. Grade: B

Special Teams
Chris Boswell was perfect, hitting 52 and 50 yards – the Steelers need both. Calvin Austin had a punt return for 14 yards. Pressley Harvin banged off some really impressive punts and pinned the Browns down inside their 20 four times. Gunner Olszewski fielded a kick he should have let go out of bounds. Grade: B

Coaching
We will pull no punches here: Something is rotten in the State of Pennsylvania and the odor makes it clear that it is the Pittsburgh Steelers offense.

2 weeks into the season and the Steelers are once again charter members of the “One touchdown per game” club. In the second half of 2022, they would move the ball, control the clock but settle for field goals. Now they’re not even doing that, averaging 10 points per game.

When the Steelers don’t sputter out of the gate and put the onus on Pickett to convert third and longs, they play physical football and set up third and shorts only to watch plays implode at the snap.

Is it Matt Canada’s fault? Isaac Seumalo the next Ladarius Green? Did Pat Meyer create a mirage with the rest of the offensive line late last season? I don’t know.

  • But I do know this: Nothing is going right.

In contrast the Steelers defense rebounded against the Browns. No they unit was not perfect. And yes the story may have been very different had Nick Chubb not gotten hurt. But Teryl Austin’s unit proved itself of capable of making a big play when it counted.

The Steelers showed up against the Browns with fire. That’s not a surprise, but its also not a given as opening day disappointments can have a spiral effect. But Mike Tomlin’s team have a history of bouncing back from big losses, and they added to that against the Browns. Grade: C-

Larry Ogunjobi, Deshaun Watson, Steelers vs Browns

Larry Ogunjobi sacks Deshaun Watson. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Unsung Hero Award
With Cam Heyward out someone on the defensive line was going to need to step up. And they were going to need to do it early to prove to the Browns that Pittsburgh wasn’t going to be pushed around. This player did it, stepping up and sacking Deshaun Watson after Kenny Pickett’s gift wrapped interception. He later recovered his fumble and stopped him stone cold on another run – all in the first half. And for that Larry Ogunjobi wins the Unsung Hero Award for the win over the Browns.

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The Case for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2023

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

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

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

Mike Tomlin, Kenny Pickett, Steelers vs Ravens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Running Backs – Depth Here Where Its Undervalued Elsewhere?

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

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

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

Aerial Attack – Enough Footballs to Go Around?

Connor Heyward, Steelers vs Browns

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

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

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

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

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

Flipping Both Lines

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Linebackering: Reinforcing the Foundation and Ripping Down to the Studs

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

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

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

T.J. Watt, Steelers vs Ravens

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

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

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

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

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

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

Secondary: Calculated Risks and Hedged Bets

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

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

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

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

Damontae Kazee, Steelers vs Saints

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

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

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

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

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

A Word on the AFC North

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

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

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

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

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

Let the Kenny Pickett Era Begin in Earnest

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

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

Bring on the 49ers!

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Wheeling and Dealing Not Done? Steelers Release Initial 2023 Roster

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

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

Omar Khan, Pittsburgh Steelers General Manager Omar Khan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two punters? Not for long.

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

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Flipping the Script: Steelers Trade of Kevin Dotson to Rams Reverses Recent Trends

The composition of the Steelers roster remains unknown as Mike Tomlin and Omar Khan have the lion’s share of their cuts to make before today’s 4:00 pm deadline.

  • But we already know one fundamental fact: The duo is flipping the script on Steelers late summer trading narrative.

News broke during the weekend that the Steelers had dealt Kevin Dotson, their 4th round pick from the 2020 NFL Draft to the Los Angeles Rams. In exchange the Steelers get the Rams’ 4th round pick in the 2024 NFL Draft. The teams will exchange 5th rounds picks in the 2025 NFL Draft and the Steelers will send Los Angeles their 6th round pick in 2025.

Kevin Dotson, Steelers vs Broncos

Kevin Dotson as a rookie. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Time will tell which side gets the better of this deal, but the move reverses the Steelers recent tendency to trade away picks to bolster depth. To be fair to Kevin Colbert, these trades typically involved a lot of back and forth, with the Steelers dealing and often times getting back 5th and 6th round picks.

But taken as a whole, the Steelers eroded their draft capital by trading to bring the Malik Reed, Joe Schobert, Avery Williames of the NFL to Pittsburgh.

By adding an extra 4th round pick Omar Khan is beginning to change that.

Snapshot of Kevin Dotson’s Steelers Career

Although he was only a 4th round pick, Dotson arrived in Pittsburgh and was penciled in as a future starter. Dotson started 4 games as a rookie, and when the team opted to let Matt Feiler walk, Dotson earned the starting spot.

In 2021 Dotson started the first 9 games at left guard during a season when the Steelers had one of their worst offensive lines in recent memory. Yet, in this scribe’s humble opinion they were reaching the outskirts respectability by midseason, only to see that journey come to a crashing halt when they lost Dotson in the tie against Detroit.

Dotson rebounded in 2022 and started all 17 games, but was reportedly fighting nagging injuries throughout the year.

Early in the 2023 off season the Steelers brass showed signs of being read to move on. First they signed guard Nate Herbig in free agency. But Herbig’s contract tagged him as a backup. This was not the case for Isaac Seumalo who got clear starter’s money.

As the Steelers learned all too painfully early during Mike Tomlin’s tenure, you can never have enough good offensive lineman. But the emergence of Spencer Anderson and the number of snaps Kendrick Green got against the Falcons at guard put the writing on the wall for Kevin Dotson.

Getting a 4th round pick for a backup guard playing on the final year of his rookie contract is an excellent deal in today’s NFL.

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Random Thoughts: A Shopping List, a Steelers Stub on Santonio Holmes & The Upcoming Season

How do we know when either a player and/or an entire football team has “Arrived?”

That can be a tricky question to answer.

The 2022 Pittsburgh Steelers started the year in such uninspiring fashion that veteran sports writer Jim Wexell made sure to make it back to Pittsburgh cover an early season game in person because he thought a 1-16 team (and an ensuring book) might be in the offing.

  • But of course that didn’t happen.

The schedule got easier. Kenny Pickett stopped making mistakes. The offensive line matured. Najee Harris resumed running like first round pick. T.J. Watt returned from IR.

The Steelers finished 2022 with a bang. Kenny Pickett led dramatic, come from behind wins over the Raiders and the Ravens and authored a convincing closing performance against the Browns.

  • Omar Khan and Andy Weidl sprinted out of the gate to start the off season.

Out went Cam Sutton, Terrell Edmunds, Robert Spillane, Devin Bush and Myles Jack. In came Patrick Peterson, Cole Holcomb, Elandon Roberts, Isaac Seumalo and Keanu Neal.

Santonio Holmes, Super Bowl XLIII, Santonio Holmes toe tap, Steelers vs Cardinals

Santonio Holmes Super Bowl XLIII toe tap touchdown. Photo Credit: Sports Illustrated

Then came the 2023 NFL Draft. As Art Rooney Sr. reminded us “everybody’s a winner on draft day,” but the Steelers haul from Broderick Jones to Darnell Washington seemed to make even the most hardened members of the “Fire Everyone” chorus happy.

I too confess to sharing this spirit of optimism that is permeating Steelers Nation. The arrow is pointing up in Pittsburgh.

Yet, a while back I stumbled upon a word of caution, or potential caution at least, hiding in plain sight in Saturday morning shopping list.

Take a look for yourself:

A Steelers article stub and a Saturday Morning Shopping list. (For non-Spanish speakers, my wife tasked me with buying green, red & yellow peppers, grated cheese, sweet potatoes, bananas, green onion, onion, red onion and two pastries for vegetable pies.)

This Steelers article stub, turned piece of scrap-paper, turned shopping list carries no date, but it has to have been written during the Steelers 2009 off season. The writer too remains unknown. It resonates with the distinct echo of  the late, great Ivan Cole’s voice, but a Google search for those exact phrases and limited to BTSC returns no results.

But those unknowns are unimportant.

This anonymous Steelers stub is still telling us something important.

In the moment that this piece was published, the logic about Santonio Holmes seemed self-evident. ‘Tone, after a troubled start to his career and distracting his team just a few months earlier had turned an irrevocable corner with his Super Bowl XLIII toe-tap.

Except he hadn’t.

Santonio Holmes 2009 season was best remembered for the plays he failed to make. A troublesome off-season followed where he was in the news for all the wrong reasons. That got him shipped to the New York Jets for a 5th round pick.

  • Might this message offer us a useful lesson for the upcoming 2023 season?

Even as they struggled through tough moments in 2021 and 2022, it became apparent that the Steelers had added several “foundational players.” Think Pat Freiermuth. Think Alex Highsmith. Think, perhaps at least, Connor Heyward. They’ve added more of those during the off season.

Andi Weidl has brought his “planet theory” of offensive line building to Pittsburgh, and that should cheer the hearts of true devotes of “Steelers Football.” The Steelers appear to be headed in the right direction.

But as the Santonio Holmes experience reminds us, actions and outcomes instead of appearances, will define the 2023 Steelers.

In many ways, Mike Tomlin’s “Kenny _ucking Pickett!” was the signature moment of the Steelers 2022 season just as ‘Tone’s toe tap was the signature moment of 2008.

But what Santino Holmes failed to understand was that his moment neither defined nor established his legacy, but rather opened the door to building himself into a true Steelers legend.

The same is true for Kenny Pickett. Let’s hope he realizes it.

All evidence suggests that he does. But it is something to keep in mind the Steelers descend on St. Vincents later this week.

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What’s Going On? Steelers Sign of Armon Watts, Cut Jamir Jones Raising Questions about Depth

Most of the Steelers moves in free agency under Omar Khan thus far have been pretty easy to understand thus far. But this week has brought some head-scratchers.

Jamir Jones,

Jamir Jones in 2021. Photo Credit: USA Today via the Rams Wire.

Although it hasn’t been confirmed, the Steelers signed free agent defensive tackle Armon Watts. A few days later the Steelers announced that they had cut outside linebacker Jamir Jones, just a few weeks after extending an restricted free agent offer.

The Watts’ signing is a bit of a surprise, given that the Steelers have already signed Breiden Fehoko who is also a fellow defensive tackle. As Tim Benz of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, points out, this double dip on the part of the Steelers is understandable given that they’re basically replacing Chris Wormley and Tyson Alualu two free agents who won’t be back.

  • What’s more puzzling is the decision to cut Jamir Jones.

Jamir Jones was the only experienced outside linebacker behind T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith. And if it’s true the Jones coming in to spell Watt and/or Highsmith for an extended period would have left opposing offensive coordinators licking their chops, he did play nearly 60% of special teams snaps.

  • Are the Steelers signaling that another free agent signing at outside linebacker is imminent?

Perhaps Pittsburgh’s about to come to terms with Bud Dupree? Time will tell.

Thus far Omar Khan has basically followed the path Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin blazed in free agency of shoring up depth in key areas to avoid a situation where they need to reach to fill a need.

He’s done this at cornerback by bringing in Patrick Peterson, at inside linebacker by signing Cole Holcomb and Elandon Roberts and at guard (and center) by signing Isaac Seumalo and Nate Herbig.

  • Moreover, these signings have come positions which can be cost-effectively addressed in free agency.

Still, it is a little peculiar that Omar Khan would sign two guards and two interior defensive lineman while leaving the cupboard bear behind the Steelers starters at outside linebacker and offensive tackle – even if those positions expensive to fill via free agency.

With that said, with experience playing for the Minnesota Vikings and Chicago Bears, Armon Watts has experience in 57 games, has made 22 starts in which he’s logged 8 sacks and forced 3 fumbles. Assuming he’s arriving in Pittsburgh at or near the veteran minimum he could be a good value signing.

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 @ Center & Guard – Is Pittsburgh Set?

Let’s face it. Offensive line isn’t “Sexy.” An offense might need to field five lineman, but the other six men are said to play “The skill positions.” Even then, interior offensive lineman get short shrift.

Quibble you do?

Take a look at how NFL teams prioritize Center and Guard in the draft and in how they spend their salary cap. Heck, offensive tackles get Hollywood movies made about them. Try making On the Blind Side about a guard.

True as that may be, the Pittsburgh Steelers have more interior offensive lineman in the Hall of Fame, see Mike Webster, Dermontti Dawson and Alan Faneca, than they do wide receivers (Lynn Swann and John Stallworth).

During the last two springs both Kevin Colbert and Omar Khan have invested heavily in interior offensive line positions. Does that mean the Steelers can ignore them in the draft? Let’s take a look.

Mitch Trubisky, James Daniel, Mason Cole, Steelers 2022 Offensive Line

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

Steelers Depth Cart at Center and Guard: The Starters

The leader of the Steelers offensive line is unquestionably James Daniels. Kevin Colbert signed him last spring to a 3 year 26 million dollar contract, after Daniels had finished four years as a starter in Chicago.

James Daniels not only leads the team in terms of talent and salary, but also in terms of attitude. When the Buffalo Bills hit Kenny Pickett late, Daniels wasted no time in defending his quarterback – just what you need to see from your top offensive lineman.

Last year Colbert also signed Mason Cole to play center, after Cole had played for 3 years in Arizona and 1 Minnesota. Cole helped shore up a position that had been a weakness was solid all season.
Here’s where it gets interesting.

Officially speaking, Kevin Dotson is the Steelers other starting guard. Kevin Dotson was the Steelers 4th round pick in the 2020 NFL Draft and while he missed games in both 2019 and 2020, the Steelers line was certainly stronger with him playing. Dotson fortunately played all 17 games in 2022.

But that didn’t stop Omar Khan and Andy Wedil from going out and signing Isaac Seumalo, who brings 7 years of NFL experience with the Philadelphia Eagles totaling 81 games and 60 starts, including 17 last season. The money the Steelers are paying Seumalo makes it clear that they’re not bringing him to Pittsburgh to be a backup.

Steelers Guard and Center Depth Chart: The Backups

When talking about depth at guard and center it would remise not to point out that both James Daniels and Isaac Seumalo have some experience at center. As does Nate Herbig, whom the Steelers signed as a free agent from the New York Jets (although he is another ex-Philadelphia Eagle.)

Steelers Draft, Steelers Draft Needs scale

The Steelers also have Kendrick Green, their 2022 3rd round pick who was their starting center for most of 2022. Green also has position flexibility at guard, and many feel he’s more naturally suited there.

The Steelers 2023 Draft Needs @ Center and Guard

“You can never have enough good offensive lineman” the old adage goes. And that’s a sound philosophy. But the Steelers have three if not four starter-capable guards, a former 3rd round pick, and an established starter at Center.

And oh, by the way, 3 of those guards have experience playing center. And the Steelers only have 7 picks this year. Therefore, their need at both center and guard going into the 2023 draft should be considered as Negligible.

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