Steelers Report Card for Loss to Cardinals: James Connor Homecoming Edition

Taken from the gradebook of a teacher who is focusing on the homecoming of a former student after a wet and ugly loss, here the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 2023 loss to the Cardinals at Acrisure.

James Conner, Steelers vs Cardinals

James Connor rushes for a touchdown. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Quarterbacks
Kenny Pickett’s numbers of 7 of 10 for 70 yards are solid and he did start the game strong, but 2 of his three incompletions came on third down including one in the Red Zone. Mitch Trubisky was 11 of 17 for 117 yards and a garbage time touchdown, but the Steelers were still 4-11 on third downs. Grade: C-Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Najee Harris ran for 63 yards on 16 carries and Jaylen Warren ran for 59 on 9. Both enjoyed some long runs but neither man got into a rhythm. Grade: B-

Tight Ends
Pat Freiermuth had 3 catches on 12 targets for 29 yards. Connor Heyward had zero catches on 2 yards. Darnell Washington didn’t get a target, but then again, the answer to what ails the Steelers offense clearly isn’t to force-feed the tight ends. Grade: C-

Wide Receivers
George Pickens had a solid game with a deep catch to open things up and a few difficult ones on the sideline finishing the day at 4 for 86. Diontae Johnson also had 4 catches for 33 yards including a touchdown where he channeled his inner Bobby Shaw. Calvin Austin had 3 catches for 19 yards – so much for taking the top off the defense, while 3 catches for 19 yards. Grade: C

Offensive Line
Mason Cole had at least 3 bad snaps, one of which helped scuttle a drive that started with promise another which caused a turnover. Unacceptable. Overall the Steelers run blocking wasn’t enough to take advantage of the Cardinals weak run defense. Nor was pass protection particularly tight. Grade: F

Defensive Line
Keeanu Benton had a tipped pass as did Larry Ogunjobi. The defensive began the day stuffing the run. That changed as the day progressed. Grade: D

Linebackers
Again, early in the day it looked like T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith were going to feast on Kyler Murray and the Cardinals running backs. However as the day wore on the opposite happened. Losing Elandon Roberts hurt. With Mykal Walker and Mark Robinson on the field the Steelers were down to their 4th and 5th string tight ends. But we don’t grade on a curve and the Cardinals carved up the middle of the Steelers defense. Grade: F

Secondary
Joey Porter Jr. committed a pass interference penalty in the end zone on a third and 8 incompletion. The Cardinals scored a touchdown. The Cardinals were 10 of 17 on third down conversions and Minkah Fitzpatrick still managed to lead the unit in tackles despite being out for part of the game due to a broken hand. Grade: F

Special Teams
Chris Boswell missed a field goal. Miles Killebrew was flagged 3 times on punt returns, the last of which set up the Cardinals final touchdown. Calvin Austin did have an 11-yard punt return, but that’s not enough to bring this group’s grade up. Grade: F

Coaching
So firing Matt Canada in season wasn’t a panacea. To quote Myron Cope, “Whoever would have thunk?”

The Steelers offense got off to a good start, but then couldn’t finish in the Red Zone. When it couldn’t get into the end zone through the air the first time, it tried and failed again on the ground. Pass protection was weak, bone headed penalties cost the team a couple of first down conversions and the offense lacked “coordination” as it had under Canada.

The performance of Teryl Austin’s defense performed in direct proportion to the presence of Elandon Roberts on the field. With him they were good. Without him they were terrible.

  • Austin couldn’t make the adjustment.

One might say, “Oh, it’s too harsh to throw all that onto a coach who is down to his 4th and 5th string inside linebackers.” Yeah, right. Bill Belichick might be down, but you’d better believe he’s licking his chops thinking of ways he can jumpstart his offense by exploiting the middle of the field.

Trap games tripped up Mike Tomlin’s teams throughout the Ben Roethlisberger era. Some suggested, with some merit, that this was in part due to Roethlisberger being an “adrenaline junkie.” Well, Ben’s been gone for two years. Can’t blame this one on him. Grade: F

Unsung Hero Award
Deciding on an “Unsung Hero” after an awful, ugly game like this is a challenge. So today we think outside the box. Sunday’s lost might have been a bad day for the Steelers, but it was a good one for Pittsburgh football, as Western Pennsylvania native and Pitt Panthers alumni made his home coming to the Steel City to the tune 105 yards on 25 carries in an afternoon that saw him get better with each carry, and for that James Conner wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers loss to the Cardinals at Acrisure Stadium.

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

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

Jaylen Warren, Steelers vs Packers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keeanu Benton, Steelers vs Packers

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

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

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

 

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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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Steelers 2023 Draft Needs at Inside Linebacker – More Questions than Answers

Perhaps its fitting: It was in a win against Cincinnati in December 2013 that Vince Williams stood out enough to signal that stability was returning to the Steelers depth chart at inside linebacker. Four years later Ryan Shazier’s injury at Paul Brown Stadium would destabilize that spot on the Steelers depth chart at inside linebacker and the franchise is still shuffling to regain its footing.

Might they find that footing in the 2023 NFL Draft?

Mark Robinson, Gus Edwards, Steelers vs Ravens M&T Bank Stadium

Mark Robinson stops Gus Edwards. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Steelers Depth Cart at Inside Linebacker: The (Presumed) Starters

Everyone expected the Steelers to move on from Devin Bush. And they did, without a second thought.

Who expected Robert Spillane to bolt? But bolt he did. But that didn’t stop Omar Khan and Mike Tomlin from cutting Myles Jack, the Steelers other starter from 2022 and to look outside the franchise’s comfort zone and sign not one but two inside linebackers in the form of Cole Holcomb and Elandon Roberts.

Holcomb brings four years and 48 games of starting experience from Washington. Elandon Roberts brings seven years of experience and 76 starts from seasons with the New England Patriots and Miami Dolphins.

The Steelers once unexpectedly lost a free agent inside linebacker (Earl Holmes) and reacted by signing James Farrior, one of their best free agent pickups ever. They also reacted the the loss of Shazier by signing Jon Bostic who was pretty good on first and 2nd downs, but had to leave the field after that and hence had to leave town.

Are Holcomb and Roberts Farriors or Bostics? Today there’s no way to know.

Steelers Inside Linebacker Depth Chart: The Backup

In contrast, there are a few things we know about the Steelers lone backup at inside linebacker. While conceding that he wasn’t comfortable giving rookie Mark Robinson a leading role in late season contests against the Ravens and Browns, Mike Tomlin doled out rare praise complementing the rookie:

He’s a guy that likes physical confrontation. That’s the one component of his game that has never been in question, growth and development and all other areas due to youth and lack of experience is.

The Steelers drafted Mark Robinson in the 7th round of the 2022 NFL Draft as a project. Robinson played for three schools during his college career and only moved to linebacker as a senior, spending time at running back during one of his colligate stints.

Robinson was inactive for most of 2022, only seeing his first action against Carolina, but he still played 50% of the defensive snaps against the Ravens, helping shut down a running attack that had embarrassed the Steelers just 3 weeks earlier.

The Steelers also have Tanner Muse who played safety and then “linebacker” for the Seattle Seahawks. Muse is seen mainly as a special teams signing, but Pittsburgh is listing him as a linebacker.

Steelers Draft, Steelers Draft Needs scale

Steelers Draft Needs Scale 2023

The Steelers 2023 Draft Needs @ Inside Linebacker

The Steelers are thin at inside linebacker. Yes, they appear to used free agency to bring one legitimate starter and one starter capable linebacker in free agency and they have a solid up and coming rookie. But is that enough to be comfortable?

Not by a longshot. The Steelers started 2020 with Devin Bush, Vince Williams and Robert Spillane as their top three linebackers, and by December their starting duo in the middle was Avery Williamson and Marcus Allen.

Everyone remembers Ben Roethlisberger‘s horrible performance in 2020 disaster at Cincinnati, but check the running stats to see how well the Allen-Williamson duo worked out. (Yes, there’s that Cincinnati-Inside Linebacker-Steelers axis rotating again.)

Taking that into account, the Steelers need at inside linebacker going 2023 NFL Draft should be considered as High.

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Solution or Stopgap? Steelers Signings of Cole Holcomb, Elandon Roberts Symptoms of Struggles @ Inside Linebacker

One of the core achievements of the 2022 Steelers season was the improvement of the run defense. Just how bad was the Steelers run defense in 2021?

Consider this: The 2021 Steelers were 32nd against the run and that’s not even the most damning stat against them – you have to go back 1946 when Jock Sutherland’s team had a worse yards-per carry allowed average (it was 5.8 if you’re curious.)

In 2022 the Steelers run defense improved to 9th overall in the NFL and allowed 4.2 yards per carry as opposed to 5.0 yards per carry.

So of course one of Omar Khan and Mike Tomlin’s first personnel moves was to obliterate the Steelers inside linebacker depth chart up and start over.

In the course of two days the Steelers signed Cole Holcomb from Washington Elandon Roberts from Miami. As those gentleman were walking through the indoor, Robert Spillane and Devin Bush were taking their leave through the outdoor, while the Steelers shoved Myles Jack out the backdoor.

This is actually like one of those scenes in a sitcom where someone gets caught cheating on their spouse and says, “Oh, but this isn’t what it looks like.” And in a certain sense that’s correct, because upheaval at inside linebacker has become par for the course in Pittsburgh.

Najee Harris, Elandon Roberts, Steelers vs Dolphins.

Elandon Roberts (No. 52) lies on the turf as Najee Harris runs. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Ripple Effect from Shazier’s Injury Continues

Sometimes the truth hides in plain sight. In this case the Post-Gazette’s Ray Fittipaldo helped bring it to light.

Actually, he’s not going far enough. In addition to signing Myles Jack, Mark Barron and Jon Bostic in free agency, they also traded up to get Devin Bush, traded for Avery Williamson in addition to trading for Joe Schobert during preseason.

And, on some level at least, saying this amounts to apologizing for failure, but the blunt truth is that each of this moves counts a ripple stemming from the need to replace Ryan Shazier. So the question is, are Cole Holcomb and Elandon Roberts long term answers or are they just additional stopgaps?

The Steelers were expected to sign an inside linebacker in free agency. However, many of the top prospects came off of the board. The idea of the Steelers signing Tremaine Edmunds and getting Terrell Edmunds back on a package deal seems quaint in light of Termaine’s 72 million dollar contract.

It also stands to reason that the Steelers did hope to resign Robert Spillane. Spillaine after all was playing 100% of the snaps by year’s end and could have been a force for stability. But it is easy to see Omar Khan balking at guaranteeing 4 million dollars for Spillane the way the Raiders did.

  • So the Steelers turned to Cole Holcomb.

Cole Holcomb has played 4 years in Washington, appearing in 50 games and starting 48. His best year was 2021 when he made 142 tackles, registered 1 sack and had 2 interceptions. Stylistically, he’s been compared to Vince Williams, although Jim Wexell pointed out that Holcomb’s 40 time was 4.51 compared to Williams’ 4.76.

That quarter of a second difference can be a big deal when covering opposing running backs and tight ends, particularly close to the line of scrimmage.

Jon Bostic’s 40 time was 4.61 and the knock on him was that he was too slow to cover and therefore a liability on third down.

The Steelers signed Holcomb to a 3 year $18,000,000 with a 4.92 million dollar signing bonus as the only portion of the contract that is fully guaranteed. So in other words the Steelers can get out of this deal fairly easily if he doesn’t work out – just as they did with Myles Jack.

If the Steelers weren’t expecting Robert Spillane to leave, the decision to move on from Myles Jack wasn’t surprising. They’re replacing him with Elandon Roberts, a seven year veteran with 107 games under his belt including 76 starts.

He started as a 6th round draft pick for the New England Patriots in 2016, when Brian Flores was their linebackers coach. Flores brought him to Miami in 2019. Roberts is known as a “thumper” who excels in playing against the run.

Elandon Roberts signed a 2-year 7 million dollar contract with 2.33 million fully guaranteed. So its possible that Mark Robinson pushes him for playing time and certainly a deal the Steelers can walk away from next spring.

So are Cole Holcomb and Elandon Roberts the answer for the Steelers at inside linebacker or just two more stop gaps?

  • Looking at their pedigree and their contracts, the smart money would say they’re stop gaps.

But you never know. In the 2006 off season, coming off Super Bowl XL, Kevin Colbert signed as free agent safety and then invested a 2nd round pick in Anthony Smith in the 2006 NFL Draft. Clearly the free agent was brought to Pittsburgh as a bridge player.

Except he wasn’t.

By the time he left Pittsburgh in the spring of 2014, he’d made 11 interceptions in the regular season while forcing 2 fumbles and logging another interception in the post season. If you’ve forgotten him, his name was Ryan Clark.

So while its unlikely that neither Cole Holcomb nor Elandon Roberts is the next Ryan Shazier, if one of them turns out to be the next Ryan Clark it will have been a very produtive week in franchise history.

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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No Beating Around the Bush: Steelers, Devin Bush to Part Ways via Free Agency

When it comes to free agency, Mike Tomlin has as saying: “Its free for them and its free for us.”

The saying has many take aways, but one of those is that free agency is as much about giving players a chance to search for better opportunities as it is about teams searching for better players. It also gives teams chance to clean their slates, so to speak.

When it comes to Devin Bush reaching free agency, both of those factors will be in play.

Devin Bush, Devin Bush touchdown, Steelers vs Chargers

Happier Times: Rookie Devin Bush dives for a touchdown. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Capsule Profile of Devin Bush’s Career with the Steelers

Desperate to fill the hole created by Ryan Shazier’s injury, Devin Bush arrived in Pittsburgh as Kevin Colbert traded up to get him with the 10th overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft.

  • As a rookie, Devin Bush delivered.

He was a dynamic, explosive player who played 82% of the defensive snaps, while making 1 interception, 2 sacks, forcing 1 fumble, recovering 4 fumbles including one returned for a touchdown. But Bush didn’t just make those “Splash Plays.” He showed a knack for making them at opportune times.

Devin Bush started his sophomore season in similar fashion, splitting two sacks with other defenders and batting away 4 passes before tearing his ACL in the Steelers home win over the Browns.

Although his 2021 snap count clocked in at just below 80%, the splash plays disappeared. Moreover, his tackle count dropped from 109 as a rookie to 70. Bush’s play stabilized under Brian Flores, but by the end of the season he was playing behind not only Robert Spillane but also rookie Mark Robinson.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Devin Bush

Devin Bush knows the system and his failure to live up to his ballyhooed draft position actually works for the Steelers here. No one is going to throw money at Devin Bush so the Steelers can extend him an offer more or less at their leisure and keep a known commodity in Pittsburgh

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Devin Bush

The rational for paying such a heavy price to get Devin Bush was that he was the type of player who could replace Shazier and shore up the defense sufficiently to give the Steelers one final shot at a Super Bowl with Ben Roethlisberger.

Whether it’s because of his injuries or because his rookie year was just a flash in the pan, Devin Bush didn’t deliver.

It is time for the Steelers to move on.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Devin Bush

This is where, “Its free for us and free for them” kicks in. Two generations ago a team would draft a player like Bush, a player whose career fell somewhere on the continuum between “Total Bust” and “Clear disappointment ” and be stuck with him for the better part of a decade.

That’s not true anymore. Devin Bush is a bust and the Steelers can move on from Bush and clean their slate, and Bush can seek a new beginning. Expect both sides to do exactly that.

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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DeMarvin Leal’s Right. The Steelers 2022 Rookie Class Will Be “Scary.” But Will It Be “Scary Good” or Just Scary?

Steelers.com did a profile on rookie DeMarvin Leal this week where Leal spoke at length about the Steelers 2022 rookie class. Looking to the future Leal made an eye catching comment:

For a rookie class to be thrown into the fire that brings confidence. Looking back at year one, looking at the film, we know what we can do. We know we can do better. Going into year two it feels like it’s going to be scary.

Kenny Pickett, George Pickens, Steelers 2022 Draft class

Kenny Pickett and George Pickens celebrate. Photo Credit: San Diego Union-Tribune

Yes, the future of the Steelers 2022 draft class will be scary. Now, is it “scary good” or just scary? If that sounds like a strange question lets take a quick quiz on some notable past Steelers rookie classes.

To make things fun I’ve scrambled their chronological order. Here goes:

A. By midseason 3 rookies cracked the starting lineup helping spark a rally of a defense that had been struggling. The rally continued until sputtering out in the AFC Championship.

B. 2 rookies were season-long starters, 1 got spot duty, the Steelers activated a 4th late in the season to boost the defense. The defense melt down anyway as the Steelers suffered one of their biggest playoff upsets ever.

C. 4 rookies started from the season’s start, another for 1 half of the season due to injury and four more saw extensive time as this Steelers team “shocked the world” with a Wild Card upset of a rival on the road and was only a bad snap and a dropped pass away from the AFC Championship.

D. This draft class was declared DOA by one of the best in the business. 1 rookie won a starting job due to injury. Another rotated with a decorated veteran. An undrafted rookie earned a sport and started 1 game. Two other rookies did special teams and spot duty on this Steelers Super Bowl team.

So, if you were building a franchise which Steelers rookie class would you pick? You’d probably pick C. If you’d lean into your salary cap savvy and grab “A” thinking there’d be no way you could get all those guys from C to 2nd contracts.

Groups B and D would be a toss up as to which one you wanted less, but maybe you’d lean towards B because at least that group had two full season starters.

And based on how those Steelers draft/rookie classes looked at the end of their respective years, those would be the wise choices. But draft classes do not mature equally.

T.J. Watt strip sack flacco, Steelers vs Ravens, T.J. Watt, Joe Flacco

T.J. Watt strip sacks Joe Flacco. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Just look at Groups A and B. Group A is the Steelers 2016 draft class, Group B is the Steelers 2017 draft class. At the end of their rookie years, Artie Burns, Sean Davis and Javon Hargrave looked like solid picks, if not steals given how late the Steelers were drafting them. And while T.J. Watt and JuJu Smith-Schuster had great rookie years, James Conner had done nothing and Cam Sutton was a question mark.

  • Which draft class would you take today?

Groups C and D are more interesting yet. Group C is the 1989 Steelers draft class and Group D is the 1974 Steelers Draft/rookie class.

At some point, when the 1989 Steelers were shocking the NFL, some TV commentator actually compared their draft class to 1974. Although I’m old enough to remember that, I was too young to understand the comparison at the time.

Even if I had, I’d have agreed, because those rookies clearly contributed to their turn around. But, as I’ve written before, the 1989 draft did deliver some gems, but they came with a lot of fool’s gold. Case in point: That bad snap and that dropped pass that doomed the ’89 Steelers came at the hands of rookies.

John Stallworth, Rod Perry, Super Bowl XIV

John Stallworth catches the go ahead touchdown in Super Bowl XIV

In 1974 the Steelers authored the greatest draft in history, picking Hall of Famers Lynn Swann, John Stallworth, Jack Lambert and Mike Webster with Donnie Shell arriving as an undrafted rookie free agent. Yet Lambert was the only full time starter on that Super Bowl team.

The takeaway from this Steelers draft history lesson isn’t to open a can of buzz kill on DeMarvin Leal’s praise for his fellow rookies.

Far from it. Kenny Pickett showed a lot of poise. George Pickens flashed something special. Leal and Mark Robinson came on strong late in the year, but neither came on as strongly as Connor Heyward. Calvin Austin shows potential.

The 2022 Steelers draft class has given us many reasons to be excited. But let’s temper that excitement with the understanding that drafts take time to develop and that rookies only really succeed when they can sustain a strong start.

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Teacher’s Late! (Again): Pittsburgh Steelers 2022 Season Report Card

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who waited until the last day before summer to get his grades in, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 2022 season.

Cameron Heyward, Deshaun Watson

Cameron Heyward after sacking Deshaun Watson. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Quarterbacks
Kenny Pickett went 7-5 completed 63% of his passes 2404 yards for 7 touchdowns and 9 interceptions. Pickett progressed following the bye, getting stronger each week and leading 3 come from behind wins. Taken alone his work was “Good.” However, Mitch Trubisky performed poorly as a starter early in the season and, although he did well in relief against Tampa Bay and Carolina, his interceptions against Baltimore cost the Steelers both the game and the playoffs. This brings the grade down. Grade: B-Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
2022 marks a banner year for the Steelers rushing attack. Najee Harris worked through early injuries to earn 1054 yards. Jaylen Warren’s 379 yards might seem pedestrian, but his role as a third down and rotational back saved Harris 71 touches. Beyond the numbers, the duo ran both harder, smarter and with more authority as the year progressed, forcing piles forward. Derek Watt got into the act with 8 first down runs. Benny Snell and Anthony McFarland delivered when their number was called. Grade: A

Tight Ends
Pat Freiermuth continued to build on his role as a “go to” target in critical moments. Zach Gentry was steady as a number 2 tight end. Connor Heyward only had his number called a handful of times, but he answered each of them. Grade: B

Wide Receivers

Diontae Johnson lead the unit with 86 catches followed by rookie George Pickens by 52. After that there’s a steep drop to Chase Claypool who wasn’t even on the team for the last nine games. Steven Sims functioned as the 3rd wide receiver  Gunner Olszewski making cameo appearances. Much has been made of the lack of explosive plays and dearth of touchdowns from this group, but that’s largely not their fault. They executed well in the ball-control focused offense during the season’s 2nd half, and answered with clutch plays time-and-time again on game winning drives. Grade: B

George Pickens, Steelers vs Ravens

George Pickens makes a clutch catch. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Offensive Line
The offensive line turned a corner in 2022. By the end of 2019 it was a liability and it struggled for the next two seasons. It started slowly in 2022 but improved as the season progressed. Pass protection must continue to improve, but run blocking was an asset late in the year. Grade: B-

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward had another monster year and is the team’s undisputed leader on and off the field. Larry Ogunjobi’s stat sheet won’t make Fantasy Football owners salivate, but he was a tremendous asset in stopping the run. Montravius Adams was solid in the middle. Grade: A-

Linebackers
The evolution of Alex Highsmith has a pass-rushing, edge-setting outside linebacker was the biggest story of the year. Highsmith had 14.5 sacks and 12 tackles for losses. Myles Jack stabilized the center of the field leading the team in sacks. Devin Bush’s play was stable at the beginning of the year, but fell out of favor due to rookie Mark Robinson’s development. T.J. Watt missed half of the year and took time get back to full strength, but his return boosted the entire defense. Grade: B+

Minkah Fitzpatrick, Steelers vs Falcons

Minkah Fitzpatrick intercepts the final Falcons pass. Photo Credit: USA Today SteelersWire

Secondary
Ball Hawking. That was the Steelers secondary’s calling card in 2022. Minkah Fitzpatrick led the unit with 6 interceptions, followed by Levi Wallace’s 4, Cam Sutton’s 3, Damontae Kazee’s 2, while Ahkello Witherspoon, Arthur Maulet and James Pierre all had 1. Overall, the defense was 16th on third down efficiency and struggled when matched with high power passing offenses like the Bengals, Bills and Eagles. Grade: B+

Special Teams
Danny Smith’s special teams had an up and down year. Chris Boswell was solid, until suffering an injury and then had his difficulties. Matthew Wright was excellent in relief. Steven Simms added dynamism to the kick return game, but he did fumble three times. The Steelers coverage teams also began giving up long returns late in the year. Pressley Harvin was a bit erratic early in the year, but settled down as time wore on and did a good job of pinning teams down inside the 20. Grade: B-

Coaching
Have Steelers fans vilified any other offensive coordinator more than Matt Canada? Probably Joe Walton, if you control for the absence of social media. But at least Joe Walton deserved it. Matt Canada? Not so much.

The Steelers offense began 2022 worse than it was in 2021 thanks to the absence of a franchise quarterback and overall lack of experience. Execution errors rather than schemes or play calling strategies drove many, if not most, of the Steelers early offensive woes.

  • As the offense gained experience they eliminated the errors and victories followed.

Yes, the Steelers still need a more aggressive, effective downfield passing game – but that’s largely not a product of play calling. The Steelers certainly do need to execute better in the Red Zone. But as games against Carolina and Cleveland confirmed, Canada’s cocktail of long, ball-controlling drives that end with touchdowns is lethal.

Teryl Austin, with a strong assist from  the recently departed Brian Flores turned a Steelers defense around that was headed in the wrong direction. True, the defense was a different unit with T.J. Watt in the line up. But Dick LeBeau’s defenses were far superior when Troy Polamalu was playing. While the Steelers defense wasn’t tested against an elite passer following the bye week, they were stout against the run down the stretch.

  • That brings us to Mike Tomlin.

For the second time since his arrival in 2007, his team opened the season 2-6. And as he did in 2013, Mike Tomlin turned it around and had his team in the hunt for a playoff spot until the waning moments if their final game.

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

In terms of X’s and O’s Tomlin accomplished this by refusing to given into knee jerk reactions or drop into coaching by crisis mode. In terms of managing people, Tomlin convinced his locker room to believe in the Steelers Way and ultimately themselves. Grade: A

Front Office
In his final spring on the job Kevin Colbert enjoyed record amounts of salary cap space and succeeded in using it to bolster the Steelers offensive lines an interior defense. It is way, way too early to evaluate Kevin Colbert’s final NFL Draft class, but the early returns are extremely positive.

Omar Khan took over the helm in June and Kahn’s first act was to sign Larry Ogunjobi in response to Stephon Tuitt’s retirement. Kahn’s next moves were to ink extensions for Minkah Fitzpatrick, Chris Boswell and Diontae Johnson, moves he made early in the summer, eliminating potential distractions. And Khan moved Chase Claypool for a 2nd round pick, a move that looks like an absolute coup today. Grade: A-

Robert Spillane, Andy Dalton, Steelers vs Saints

Robert Spillane stops Andy Dalton cold on 4th down. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Unsung Hero Award
He started out 2019 as a Tennessee Titan cast off who’d bounce on and off the roster and practice squad multiple times. He began 2020 as the one player the Steelers could absolutely NOT afford to see play. Then injuries forced him in and although he delivered, during the summer of 2021 the Steelers still made a trade to shore up his position. So he began 2022 as a rotational starter, playing roughly 1/3 of the snaps.

That snap percentage jumped to 80% during the seven-game winning streak the Steelers authored to close the 2022 season and leapt to a perfect 100% in the final four games, which saw the Steelers get better week-by-week. Coincidence? I don’t think so either which is why Robert Spillane wins the Unsung Hero Award honors for  Steelers 2022 season.

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Good While It Lasted… Steelers Lose Brian Flores to Minnesota Vikings

The Minnesota Vikings have hired Steelers Assistant Brian Flores showing that some things are not meant to last. Literally.

Brian Flores, Steelers 2022 training camp

Brian Flores at St. Vincents in the summer of ’22. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

When the Steelers surprised the rest of the NFL by hiring Brian Flores as their senior defensive assistant/linebackers coach last spring, everyone suspected it would be a short-term relationship.

Brian Flores was head coaching material, having just been fired from the Miami Dolphins largely because – as Flores argues, he refused to tank for draft position. So there was a bit of a question over whether Flores would find a cold shoulder from the rest of the NFL.

But the Cleveland Browns leapt to interview Flores for their defensive coordinator spot. And that was followed by several other interviews, including a 2nd interview with the Arizona Cardinals.

So instead of a cold shoulder, Flores found a warm embrace. Steelers fans may have held out hope that Mike Tomlin and/or Art Rooney II could have convinced Flores to stay in Pittsburgh for another year. But the reality is that moving into the Vikings defensive coordinator chair provides Flores a better path to a head coaching job.

Flores Made an Impact in Pittsburgh

Judging the impact of an assistant coach from the outside in is difficult. Sure, when an assistant does a great job such as Mike Munchak their influence is obvious. But the reverse isn’t always true.

The 2013 Steelers opened the season 2-6 and a horrendous offensive line was the main culprit. Yet they fought back and kept their playoff hopes alive until a blown call in overtime swung victory and the final playoff spot to San Diego Chargers. Improved offensive line play had driven the ’13 Steelers surge during the 2nd half of the season.

Other times the influence of an assistant is more subtle. Mike Tomlin fired Joey Porter as outside linebackers coach following he 2018 season and announced that Keith Butler would take over his responsibilities. Fans snickered an jeered Butler’s apparent demotion.

  • Yet under Butler’s tutelage, Bud Dupree finally began to play like a first round draft pick.

So if it is hard to pinpoint Brian Flores’ influence on the Steelers 2022 defense, there’s no question that he made his mark. And that mark is helping turn around a unit that was one of the worst run defenses in franchise history into a unit that ranked in the NFL’s top ten.

And the arrival of veterans like Larry Ogunjobi and Myles Jack fueled that improvement, it is quite clear that Flores had a role in helping raw rookies like Mark Robinson be ready to make contributions late in the season. And Robinson played a large role in shutting down stout running offenses such as the Carolina Panthers, Las Vegas Raiders and Baltimore Ravens.

Clearly, the Steelers will miss Flores.

Brian Flores’ departure marks the first coaching change to Mike Tomlin’s staff this off season, as Tomlin has already decided to retain offensive coordinator Matt Canada. Jerry Olsavsky remains as inside linebackers coach while Denzel Martin is on staff as assistant outside linebackers coach.

Mike Tomlin likes to promote from within although his best coaching choices have been veterans, like Flores and Munchak, that he’s brought in from the outside.

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Steelers 2022 Season Review – Rebuilding the Right Way in Pickett’s Rookie Season

The Pittsburgh Steelers finished the 2022 season 9-8, just barely missing the playoffs but giving the franchise its 19th consecutive non-losing campaign since 2003. The quick take away?

  • Sometimes denial is desirable.

2022 was a rebuilding year in Pittsburgh. Just don’t expect Art Rooney II, Mike Tomlin, Omar Khan or even Kevin Colbert to utter the word. In fact, expect them to reject the concept. To understand why go back to the words of Bill Cowher.

After consecutive losing seasons in 1998 in 1999, reporters asked Bill Cowher the Steelers were rebuilding in 2000. The Chin rejected the idea immediately, explaining, “Anytime you say you’re rebuilding, you’re giving yourself an excuse for losing.”

I don’t know if Mike Tomlin ever rejected rebuilding so eloquently, but his actions prove that he shares his predecessor’s philosophy.

But if Mike Tomlin will not, and should not say the Steelers were rebuilding in 2022, I can and I will. In 2022 the Steelers showed right way to rebuild. Let’s look at how and why.

Kenny Pickett, Steelers vs Ravens

Kenny Pickett drops back. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Laying the Foundation: 2023 Off Season

The secret to rebuilding the right way is as simple: Successfully rebuilding in the NFL means doing your best to field a winning team as quickly as possible in a way you can sustain in the future.

  • But if that’s easy to write, it’s hard to execute.

The NFL certainly doesn’t lack “Get rich quick” schemes. The wisest move of the Steelers brain trust was to avoid any of those temptations, as they declined to throw draft picks and guaranteed contracts to bring Russell Wilson, Deshaun Watson or even Aaron Rodgers to Pittsburgh.

Instead, the Steelers focused their rare salary cap abundance on shoring up weaknesses at offensive line by bringing in Mason Cole, James Daniels and at inside linebacker with Myles Jack. And they remained true to the core franchise philosophy of building through the draft.

While the success or failure of their ’22 draft will hinge on Kenny Pickett’s development, the story of the 2022 phase of the rebuild belongs as much to the rest of the Steelers 2022 draft class as it does to Pickett.

Before the Bye – Life Without a Franchise Quarterback

Other commentators have described the Steelers 2022 season as “The Tale of Two Season: Before the Bye and After.” You can muster many statistics from both sides of the ball to show how bad the Steelers were before their bye week. You can point to Najee Harris playing injured, the offensive line’s slow development under Pat Meyer and/or T.J. Watt going on injured reserve.

Those are all valid points. But the simple explanation for the Steelers 2-6 is the best one: For the first time in 18 years, Pittsburgh was playing without a franchise quarterback.

Gunner Olszewski, Brenden Schooler, Steelers vs Patriots 2022 home opener

Gunner Olszewskimakes the tackle after muffing a punt. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review

Watching the Steelers try and fail to comeback against the Patriots in week 2, I had no doubt that Ben Roethlisberger, at least the 2021 edition of Big Ben, would have gotten Chris Boswell into position to tie the game. I’d argue that had Roethlisberger returned the Steelers would have won 2 of the three against the Jets, Browns, Dolphins.

Instead we saw Mitch Trubisky playing not to lose and the Kenny Pickett playing like a raw rookie. The defense  struggled without T.J. Watt; although new comers Myles Jack and Larry Ogunjobi were improving it against the run, as foreshadowed in the upset of Tom Brady and Tampa Bay.

After the Bye – Coming Together, Growing Together, Winning Together

The conventional explanation ties the Steelers 2nd half turn around to Kenny Pickett’s development. And be clear about it, Pickett’s growth was critical.

Heyward first “appeared” when Tampa’s defense ‘forgot’ him and Mitch Trubisky found him in the middle of the field for a 49 yard gain that set up an insurance touchdown as the Steelers secured their second win. Next, Kenny Pickett found Heyward open in the middle against Atlanta, giving the Steelers their only touchdown in a game that improved their record to 5-7. Heyward’s next big play came with 25 seconds left against the Raiders where he took a toss 21 yards before wisely taking a knee, allowing the Steelers to kill the clock and improve their record to 8-8.

Connor Heyward, Steelers vs Browns

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

Injuries forced him into the starting line up in the season finale, where he:

  • Converted a 3rd and 1 with a six yard scamper.
  • Caught 3 of 4 passes thrown on the game-closing touchdown drive
  • Those catches included a 27 yarder on 3rd and 8

Connor Heyward earns this extended shout out because his arc exemplifies the arc of so many on the team.

The offensive line gelled, allowing Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren to run smarter instead of just harder. Backups Benny Snell and Anthony McFarland did the same in Indy when injuries forced them into the game. George Pickens arrived in Pittsburgh making acrobatic catches – as the season progressed he started making them in clutch situations. Steven Sims made several clutch catches of his own down the stretch, while Diontae Johnson managed to break his nasty habit of running backwards after a catch. Pat Freiermuth played well from the get go, but continued to deliver even when limited by a knee injury late in the season.

  • On defense, the story is similar, but it revolves more around T.J. Watt’s return.

The Steelers lost T.J. Watt in the opening upset of Cincinnati, and struggled in his absence. Even if Watt wasn’t at wasn’t at full strength until December, he still forced defenses to account for him.

Minkah Fitzpatrick, Steelers vs Ravens, Steelers vs Ravens 2022 M&T Bank Stadium

Minkah Fitzpatrick with the game-sealing pick. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

And that’s why both veteran leaders like Cam Heyward and Minkah Fitzpatrick as well as emerging leaders like Alex Highsmith and Cam Sutton authored their biggest “splash plays” after Watt’s return.

  • But growth also fuels part of the 2022 Steelers defense’s story.

After getting embarrassed against the run at home against Baltimore, Mike Tomlin turned to rookies DeMarvin Leal and Mark Robinson, and the duo helped shut down several stout rushing attacks in late December.

Every player had a hand in the pile pushing the Steelers late season surge. And anatomical measurements aside, no player had a bigger hand than Kenny Pickett.

Pickett’s Progress

Drafting a first round quarterback in the NFL is pro sport’s ultimate risk-reward call. Consider this: between 1994 and 2021, Washington has drafted 5 first round quarterbacks and won 2 playoff games.

In the same timespan, the Steelers have drafted one first round quarterback and appeared in 9 conference championships and 4 Super Bowls. So the Steelers took a risk when they took Kenny Pickett.

  • We’re still don’t know if that risk will pay off, but the early returns are positive.
Kenny Pickett, George Pickens, Steelers vs Raiders, Immaculate Reception 50th anniversary

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

Even during Pickett’s interception-laden early appearances, the game never looked “too big” for Pickett the way it sometimes did for Mason Rudolph or say Kordell Stewart. After Mitch Tribuisky’s strong performances in relief of Pickett and after the trashing from Philly, there were calls for Mike Tomlin to “put Pickett on ice” for the rest of the season.

Tomlin stuck by quarterback and Pickett delivered:

  • A come-from behind win against the Colts on Monday Night Football
  • A flawless two minute drive to comeback against the Raiders
  • An improvised throw on a broken play to clinch the comeback against the Ravens – on the road

Let’s be clear. Pickett has a lot to prove. He needs to play better earlier in games, use the middle of the field and improve his deep ball accuracy. But Pickett can learn those things. Pickett’s comebacks reveal traits that  quarterback’s cannot learn.

In 2021 thanks to the heroics of their aging franchise quarterback, the Steelers made the playoffs when they didn’t deserve to. In 2022 the Steelers came together as a team around their rookie quarterback and missed the playoffs even though the probably deserved to make it.

Missing out on competing for a Lombardi is always a disappointment, but that disappointment shouldn’t cloud the fact that the 2022 Steelers showed the NFL how to rebuild.

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