Looking Back @ Mike Tomlin Opening Day Blowout Losses & How Steelers Have Responded

Last Sunday the San Francisco 49ers kicked the Pittsburgh Steelers “in the teeth,” to borrow Mike Tomlin’s words. Perhaps a Pittsburgh loss to San Francisco wasn’t unexpected, but no one foresaw the Steelers suffering such a spanking.

But if the Steelers got knocked down in the first round of a 17 round fight, what does that first round performance tell us about their prospects for the other 16 rounds? After all, the Steelers are a franchise that lends itself to trends thanks to their stability.

Take the uncanny nature of opening day results during the Cowher Era.

For Bill Cowher teams, and an opening day ass kicking was basically a good omen. In contrast, opening day wins preceded difficult seasons (with the exceptions of 1992, 2004 and 2005.)

  • The loss San Francisco brought Mike Tomlin’s opening day record to 10-6-1.

Here we look back at those other opening day blowout to see what, if anything, we can gain from them. (The 2015 loss to the Patriots is excluded, as it wasn’t a blowout.)

Talaona Hufanga, Connor Heyward, Steelers vs 49ers

Talanoa Hufanga intercepts Kenny Pickett while Connor Heyward can only watch. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

2011 – The Blowout at Baltimore

September 11th 2011 @ M&T Bank Stadium
Baltimore 35, Pittsburgh 7

The Steelers entered this game as defending AFC Champions and holding a 7-3 edge over the Baltimore Ravens to start the Tomlin era, including two playoff victories. Everyone expected the good times to continue, perhaps even members of the Steelers organization.

  • The Ravens kicked the Steelers asses.

The 35 to 7 score makes this one look closer than it was. Baltimore dominated Pittsburgh in every phase of the game, prompting Warren Sapp to declare that the Steelers defense was “Old, slow and done.”

The Steelers responded the next week with a shutout of the Seattle Seahawks. The 2011 team struggled a bit after that against the Texans, but a mid-season win over the Patriots seemed to confirm that they were still contenders.

But injuries ravaged the Steelers by the time they reached the playoffs, and the loss to Tim Tebow slammed the Super Bowl window shut.

2012 – Peyton Manning Outfoxes Polamalu

September 9th @ Sports Authority Field at Mile High
Denver 31, Pittsburgh 19

The Steelers began the rebuilding process in the 2012 off season, but they still took what they felt was a strong team to Denver where Peyton Manning made his debut.

Looking back at this game, it is easy to forget that the Steelers actually held a 19-14 lead in early in the 4th quarter.

However, Peyton Manning had been engaged in a chess match all night with Troy Polamalu, and by the 4th quarter he maneuvered the Steelers defense into checkmate, leading two scoring drives for ten points while a Tracy Porter interception of Ben Roethlisberger added on another six.

  • This game, in many ways signaled the wired dynamic that defined the 2012 season.

For all that was made of the tension between Ben Roethlisberger and Todd Haley, the offense did fairly well in the first half of the season while the defense struggled. The defense found its footing by midseason, thanks largely to James Harrison returning to health, only to see the offense falter due to injuries to Roethlisberger and overall dysfunction.

2013 – The Titans Bring Opening Day Armageddon

September 8th 2013 @ Heinz Field
Tennessee 16, Pittsburgh 9

By the spring of 2013 the Steelers were in full rebuilding mode. They were also doing it with stuck in salary cap purgatory. Going into the game Bob Labriola described the Steelers situation at offensive line as walking a tight rope without a net (hold on to that one.)

Injuries had already taken their toll on their opening day roster as they started their number 3 and number 4 tight ends, their number 2 running back, Isaac Redman (who was already playing with a career-ending injury) and with their top backup at inside linebacker (Sean Spence) on IR.

Things got worse. Fast. Maurkice Pouncey was lost for the season after about a half dozen plays. Inside linebacker Larry Foote would be lost for the season before too long. So would 3rd down back LaRod Stephens-Howling whose Steelers career would consist of 6 carries. Oh, and the Steelers also lost starting corner Cortez Allen during the game.

  • Despite the injuries, the Steelers were in it until the end.

But things got worse before they got better. The Steelers would lose their next 3 in route to a 2-6 start to the season. Nonetheless, they clawed their way back to respectability and an 8-8 finish and only missed the playoffs due to a blown call in another game.

2019 – Brady, Patriots Pulverize Steelers One Last Time

September 8th, 2019 @ Gillette Stadium
New England 33, Pittsburgh 3

In hindsight, we should have seen this coming. But we didn’t.

The Steelers defense had improved in 2018 enough make Tom Brady look mortal in an upset at Heinz Field. While this was the first game of the post “Killer Bees” era for the offense, but the unit had looked sharp in route to a 3-1 preseason record.

Gunner Olszewski, Steelers vs Patriots, Steelers vs Patriots 2019, Gunner Olszewski first game

Gunner Olszewski’s first games was against the Steelers in 2019. Photo Credit: David Butler II, USA Today, via Bemidji Pioneer

Regular season reality set in fast. Tom Brady led the Patriots to 20 unanswered first half points. The offense’s best play was a 2 yard dink from Ben Roethlisberger to Ryan Switzer. The lasting memory on defense is of substitute safety Kameron Kelly who seemingly forgot not only that he was supposed to try to stop the receiver from catching the ball, but also that he was supposed to chase and tackle him afterwards.

The Steelers followed this with losses to Seattle, where Ben Roethlisberger was lost for the season, and San Francisco, where Mason Rudolph made his first start. Mike Tomlin coaxed a 1989-Steelersque like turn around that put Pittsburgh in contention for the playoffs.

But the rally fizzled down the stretch as the Steelers ended with three straight losses.

Take Aways from Tomlin’s Season-Opening Blowouts

The good news? In each case, Mike Tomlin’s teams improved following their season-opening blowouts.

  • The bad news? Only one of those teams made the playoffs.

And, with exception of the 2011 team, none of the teams authored dramatic, rebound wins. Instead, improvement came gradually, or in the case of the 2012 Steelers, unevenly. And the injuries suffered in those openers formed and important part of the backstories of each of those seasons.

Does that tell us something going into the Browns game at Acrisure Stadium on Monday Night Football?

Maybe. But as Mike Tomlin would retort, the 2023 Pittsburgh Steelers are writing their own story.

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Pittsburgh Steelers History vs the San Francisco 49ers

The Pittsburgh Steelers and the San Francisco 49ers are two of the modern NFL’s most storied franchises. The Steelers defined the Gold Standard for excellence in the 1970’s and the 49ers dominated the 1980’s and continued winning Super Bowls into the 1990s.

Going into 2023 the Steelers record against the 49ers is 10-12, but of course time robbed history for a chance to see a definitive match up between titans of separate decades.

However, the history of the Pittsburgh Steelers vs. San Francisco 49ers is filled with both inspiring upsets and disappointing losses for the Steelers. We recount all of them since 1984 here. Click on the links below to relive a specific game, or simply scroll down to read them all.

Donnie Shell, Joe Montana, Steelers vs 49ers

Hall of Famer vs Hall of Famer: Donnie Shell stares down Joe Montana. Photo Credit: George Gojkovich, Getty Images via SI.com

Steelers vs. 49ers 1984: Chuck Noll & Mark Malone vs. Bill Walsh & Joe Montana I

October 14, 1984 @Candlestick Park
Pittsburgh 20, San Francisco 17 

Is there a more celebrated Steelers victory of the 1980’s?

Who can say? No matter what, this game nearly tops the list. The year was 1984, and the 49ers were steamrolling the league. In fact, were it not for one game, the 49ers would have been perfect.

This would be the first time that the duo of Chuck Noll and Mark Malone would square off against Bill Walsh and Joe Montana, and this game shows you why we play games instead of leaving the contest to Madden-like computer simulations. The Steelers matched San Fran with tough defense with smart ball control to keep the 49ers off balance the entire day, and in the process added the lone blemish to the 49ers would-be perfect season.

Steelers vs. 49ers 1987: Chuck Noll & Mark Malone vs. Bill Walsh & Joe Montana II

September 13th, 1987, Three Rivers Stadium
Pittsburgh 30 @ San Francisco 17 

Joe Montana finished the 1987 season with a 102.1 passer rating. Mark Malone finished the 1987 season with a 46.6 passer rating (yes that’s forty six point six.) And although Montana did outplay Malone on this fateful day, it wasn’t enough.

John Stallworth, Ronnie Lott, Steelers vs 49ers

2 Hall of Famers: John Stallworth and Ronnie Lott. Photo Credit: George Gojkovich, Getty Images via SI.com

Rookie cornerback Delton Hall, linebacker Mike Merriweather, and veteran cornerback Dwayne Woodruff all picked off Montana’s passes. Delton Hall, who won the Steelers rookie of the year award only to fade, opened the game with a 50 yard fumble return to put the Steelers up by 7. Mark Malone only completed 9 of 33 passes, but one of those was for a touchdown to tight end Preston Gothard (who?). Earnest Jackson, Walter Abercrombie, Frank Pollard, Harry Newsome teamed to rush for 184 yards and a rookie named Merril Hoge caught his first NFL pass for 27 yards.

  • With this win, Chuck Noll passed his mentor (and Walsh’s mentor) Paul Brown on the NFL’s all time win list

Steelers vs. 49ers 1990: Rod Woodson vs. Jerry Rice I

October 21st, 1990 @Candlestick Park
San Francisco 27, Pittsburgh 7 

The 49ers entered the game at 6-0 looking every bit the team en route to a 3 peat, while Pittsburgh entered with a 3-3 record, looking every bit like the team suffering from a hangover following the Steelers storybook 1989 season.

Joe Montana was on fire that year, but the Steelers came with a secret weapon – the NFL’s number one defense that had only given up 3 touchdown passes in 6 games. The Steelers felt they could win this game, if only they could avoid mistakes….

…And mistakes the Steelers made. Although Rod Woodson and Thomas Everett intercepted Montana twice, Joe Walton’s offense failed to capitalize. Barry Foster ‘forgot’ that uncaught kickoffs are live balls, setting up an easy San Fran TD, and a Charles Haley strip sack of Bubby Brister set up another. A 49er’s interception would stop any chance of a Pittsburgh comeback.

  • In their first face off, Rod Woodson held Jerry Rice to 3 catches for just 31 yards.

Steelers vs. 49ers 1993: Rod Woodson vs. Jerry Rice II

September 5th, 1993 @ Three Rivers Stadium
San Francisco 24, Pittsburgh 13 

After taking the league by storm in 1992, the NFL scheduled what was to be one of their marquee match ups of opening day by pitting the Steelers vs. the 49ers on opening day at Three Rivers Stadium. With Neil O’Donnell on the sidelines with tendonitis during the first half the 49ers built up a 17-3 lead.

Neil O’Donnell came off the bench to get Pittsburgh back in the game narrowing the score to 17-13, before Steve Young connected with Brent Jones for a touchdown, making the Steelers regret that Chuck Noll cut tight end whose sin was to be a better pass catcher than run blocker.

  • In his second match up with Rice, Rod Woodson held him to just 78 yards, but 2 of Rice’s 8 catches were for touchdowns…

Steelers vs. 49ers 1996: Don’t Spot the 49ers 16 Points (and Expect to Win)

December 15th, 1996 @ Three Rivers Stadium
San Francisco 25, Pittsburgh 15 

It was a tricky time for the Steelers. Already with 10 wins and the division title in the bag, a first round playoff bye remained in their grasp…

…But Mike Tomzack was faltering as the team’s starter, and injuries had ravaged the team all season. The Steelers gave up a quick touchdown, and then a safety to spot the 49ers 9 points. If memory serves, another turnover set up the 49ers next score, putting the Steelers in the hole 16-0.

The Steelers rebounded scoring 15 with touchdowns from Jerome Bettis and Kordell Stewart. But it was not enough as the 49ers also scored a Terrell Owens touchdown and kicked a field goal.

  • In their final match up, Rod Woodson again held Jerry Rice under 100 yards, although Rice did score a touchdown with one of his 8 catches.

Steelers vs. 49ers 1999: Solar Flare, Before a Total Eclipse

November 7, 1999 @ Candlestick Park
Pittsburgh 27, San Francisco 6 

After watching the 49ers both beat them 3 straight times and beat them to one for the thumb this was supposed to be the one that Steelers fans had been waiting for. And on paper it was. The Steelers jumped to a 17-3 first half lead on the strength of Jerome Bettis and Hines Ward touchdowns and a field goal. The Steelers dominated the score board winning the game 27-3.

After a 2-3 start, the Steelers had now won 3 straight to improve to 5-3. All looked well but… the 49ers Charlie Garner rushed for 166 yards. The following week Kordell Stewart’s fumbled snap led to the upset at the hands of the expansion Browns.

  • The ensuring quarterback controversy would dominate the news, but the failing defense, as Joel Steed’s knees gave way, was one of the under reported stories of the Steelers 1999 meltdown.

Steelers vs. 49ers 2003: Tommy Gun Misfires

November 17, 2003 @Candlestick Park
San Francisco 30, Pittsburgh 

Tommy Maddox had been the 2003 version of Tebowmania having gone from out of football, to the XFL, to resurrecting the Steelers 2002 season. Alas, 2003 was not as kind to Maddox, as the Steelers pass defense struggled, injuries decimated the offensive line, and Cover 2 defenses frustrated Maddox. The ’03 Steelers had gone 2-1 before losing five straight. By the time they were 2-6 they mounted the “win a game, lose a game” see-saw.

  • Unfortunately, the Steelers trip to San Francisco came on the downside of that see-saw.

San Francisco opened a 14-0 lead at the end of the first half, and the Steelers feigned making go at it by scoring the first touchdown in the second half, but the 49ers would score 20 unanswered points until Tommy Maddox hooked up with Randel El for a final, face saving touchdown.

Steelers vs. 49ers 2007: Make that 3-0 for Mike Tomlin…

September 23, 2007 @ Heinz Field
Pittsburgh 37, San Francisco 15 

Just two weeks earlier Steelers Nation had no idea about what to make of Mike Tomlin, the man who leapfrogged Russ Grimm to succeed Bill Cowher. By the time the 49ers arrived at Heinz Field, Tomlin was already 2 and 0 and notched his third win at San Francisco’s expense.

What stands out when looking at the stat sheet is that role players made all of the splash plays for the Steelers that day. Allen Rosseum got his 15 minutes of fame as a Steeler with a 98 yard kickoff return for a touchdown. Jerame Tuman caught the only touchdown pass, and Najeh Davenport ran for 39 yard touchdown, while Bryant McFadden had a 50 yard pick six.

On defense the story was a little different, as then starter Bryant McFadden had a 50 yard pick six and veteran James Farrior and rookie LaMarr Woodley both sacked Alex Smith.

Steelers vs. 49ers 2011:  The Night the Lights Went Out @ Candlestick

December 19, 20011 @ Candlestick Park
San Francisco 20, Pittsburgh 3 

This was the last Monday Night Football game played at Candlestick Park and the lights appropriately went out in the middle of the game. Its also marks the moment when the lights went out on the 2011 Pittsburgh Steelers, who had a chance to leap above the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC North race.

  • Alas, it was not to be.

Ben Roethlisberger had been injured in a Thursday Night Football contest ten days prior to the game. Mike Tomlin decided to play him. While many defended Tomlin, the truth is Tomlin should have pulled Roethlisberger. This much was clear when Roethlisberger couldn’t even make it to the line of scrimmage in the hurry up offense.

Given Charlie Batch’s rustiness in coming off the bhttp://steelcurtainrising.com/2011/12/tomlin-chokes-on-roethlisberger-decision-steelers-lose-to-49ers.html/ench in subsequent games, Tomlin’s decision is more easily understandable. However, Roethlisberger shouldn’t have been on the field.

Steelers vs. 49ers 2015: Ryan Shazier’s Breakout Game

September 23rd, 2015 @ Heinz Field
Pittsburgh 43, San Francisco 18

The easy lead on this game was that the Steelers offense led by the short-handed Killer Bees scored over 40 points while running just 52 plays. And to be sure, only 6 of Ben Roethlisberger’s passes hit the ground, while Antonio Brown had nearly 200 yards receiving and even Darrius Heyward-Bey looked like he could be a weapon on the passing game.

Ryan Shazier, Colin Kapernick, Steelers vs 49ers

Ryan Shazier corrals Colin Kapernick. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Mike Tomlin broke form and wasted little time making Shazier his starter as a rookie in 2014. But injuries sidelined Shazier, and when he return he found himself competing for playing time with Vince Williams and Sean Spence. Fans were already beginning to call Shazier a “bust.”

  • Shazier swiftly began altering that narrative that Sunday afternoon against San Francisco.

Shazier exploded with 15 tackles, dropping 3 49ers for losses, a strip-sack, a fumble recovery all while completely neutralizing Colin Kaepernick as a running threat. While some griping over his development continued, this was the first game where Ryan Shazier signaled he could be something really special.

Steelers vs. 49ers 2019: The Mason Rudolph “Era” Begins

September 22nd, @ Levi’s Stadium
San Francisco 24, Pittsburgh 20

Stunning disappointments had marked 2019 thus far for the Pittsburgh Steelers. The year began with fallout of Antonio Brown’s late season meltdown, ultimately leading to his trade. Then tragedy struck at St. Vincents as wide receivers coach Darryl Drake died suddenly.

Meanwhile Antonio Brown orchestrated his exit from Oakland, only to land with the Patriots, who creamed the Steelers in the season opener. And to prove that things get worse before they get better, a week later the Steelers lost Ben Roethlisberger for the season.

People forget but Rudolph’s first start went saw him play reasonably well, as rookie Diontae Johnson made his presence known while Minkah Fitzpatrick, newly arrived via trade, made an immediate impact, notching an interception, a QB hit and a pass defensed.

The two teams actually traded the lead several times, with the 49ers pulling ahead with just over 1-minute remaining. Mason Rudolph tried to rally, but could only muster 9 yards.

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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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Pinch Yourself? After Steelers Dominating 27-12 Preseason Win over Bills Fans Ask, “Is it OK to Believe?”

The Pittsburgh Steelers 27-15 win over the Buffalo Bills at Acrisure Stadium offered a reminder of the existential struggle that every fan of the Black and Gold faces: The temptation to believe.

  • The Pittsburgh Steelers are a franchise that measures success in Lombardi Trophies.
Jaylen Warren, Steelers vs Bills 2023 preseason

Jaylen Warren runs for 62 yards. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Steelers.com

During the 70’s Jimmy Pol’s “Western Pennsylvania Polka” accurately told us that “Winning’s a habit, not only a dream.” Generation X Steelers fans grew up assuming that the team had always been good. But the growing pains we experienced as the 70’s shifted to the 80’s was learning that Super Bowl windows don’t stay open forever.

  • And once they’re closed, convincing yourself that they’ll ever reopen remains a challenge.

I can remember watching Jepoardy at some point in the mid-80’s when a Pittsburgh resident was a guest. Alex Triebec asked him if he was one of those Steelers fans who “recorded each game and watched it over and over again.”

The response? “Yes, but only when we’re in the Super Bowl. And that’s not going to happen for another 20 years.” Although Chuck Noll’s Steelers squads in the 80’s authored some stunning playoff upsets, it took the arrival of Cowher Power in 1992 for the faithful in Steelers Nation to really believe that the season might end in a Lombardi Trophy presentation.

And even then we had to wait 14 years for The Chin to make good on his promise to Dan Rooney.

Yeah. True Steelers fans stick by the Black and Gold through thick and thin, but if pressed, we’ll admit that it is difficult to let ourselves believe.

Which brings us to 2023’s preseason game number 3, and the Buffalo Bills visit to Acrisure Stadium

Steelers Domination of the Bills in Preseason Is Down Right Scary

The Steelers 27-17 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers featured a lot of impressive moments. But the first string only played for one series. And the Buccaneers aren’t expected to be very good. And several of their defensive starters were out. And who really needs cautioned against jumping to conclusions after the first preseason game?

  • The second preseason game is different. It is a dress rehearsal.

It only took 6 plays – two Najee Harris runs, two Kenny Pickett passes to George Pickens and then Allen Robinson to set up Jaylen Warren’s 64 yard touchdown run. Any 62 yard run is impressive. But its the way this play unfolded that tantalizes Steelers faithful towards that temptation to believe:

You don’t need to be an X’s and O’s genius to single out the elements that signal something special:

  • Dan Moore turns his man’s back to the sideline
  • Isaac Seumalo also turns his man’s back to the opposing sideline
  • Warren sees a hole he could drive a truck through and heads for it
  • Diontae Johnson delivers a downfield block
  • Warren after he reaches the second level turns the jets on

Yes, this is “Only preseason” but these are pros executing solid fundamentals in concert.

The Bills opened their next drive with an 8 yard gain. On 2nd and 2 an NFL offense is in position to dictate to a defense. But thanks to Levi Wallace and T.J. Watt, the Bills were punting 2 plays later.

Then Calvin Austin and Danny Smith’s special teams got into the act, as Austin romped 54 yards on his first NFL punt return. The next stat line reads: K.Pickett pass deep middle to P.Freiermuth for 25 yards, TOUCHDOWN

And if all you did was read the box score, it be easy to chalk that up to preseason luck.

But Pickett not only hit Pat Freiermuth in the middle of the field – and area he avoided last season, he threaded the needle placing the ball perfectly, in triple coverage where only Mooth could get it.

Another reason to believe.

There were many more. Connor Heyward, Nick Herbig, Cole Holcomb and Tanner Muse all came up with big plays, while Chandon Sullivan, Elijah Riley and Joey Porter Jr. made interceptions. All reasons to believe.

Calvin Austin’s punt return wasn’t a one note Johnny for the Steelers special teams. Gunner Olszewski had a nice 15 yard return of his own. Danny Smith’s coverage units were strong while Chris Boswell was perfect on the night. All good signs.

  • No, Pittsburgh wasn’t perfect against the Bills.

The Steelers rushed the ball 33 times, but running backs not named Jaylen Warren looked average – at best and they didn’t have the benefit of quality run blocking. (To be fair, Anthony McFarland looked good catching the ball.) Kendrick Green mis-timed a snap to Mason Rudolph setting up Buffalo’s first touchdown.

But even of those are all things to bear in mind, the fact remains: The way the Steelers dominated the Bills is making it very hard for fans to resist the temptation to believe.

A Word about DAZN’s GamePass

Last week I skewered the viewing experience DAZN’s NFL GamePass International. This week I followed their advice and downloaded their app on to my SmartTV.

  • The results were much better.

True, my first attempt to watch the replay was unsuccessful. However, that looked to be a problem my internet connection. Image quality was a little shaky on the full replay, and I was disappointed to see that they hadn’t edited out commercials (why? If ever there would be a “Hello McFly!!!” principle of showing replays of NFL games, you’d figure editing out commercials would be one of them.)

Their Game in 40 presentation was excellent, nothing compared to the last week’s experience on the desk top. Not only was the image quality good, but they took just a little more time in between plays, and salted in some replays so that you got the flavor of the game.

 

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Key Question: If Kendrick Green Stays at Fullback, Can He Match Derek Watt’s Streak?

So apparently Kendrick Green at fullback wasn’t a onetime thing.

The big news out of the Steelers annual Friday Night Lights practice at Latrobe Stadium was center/guard Kendrick Green getting reps at fullback.

Green told Steel City Insider’s  Jim Wexell, “I felt like I was a kid again playing backyard football.” Green, who got work at fullback with the team’s third offense tempered expectations conceding, “Just something they were just dabbling with. I don’t think it’s going to be nothing too serious, though. We’ll see.”

Kendrick Green, Kendrick Green Fullback

Steelers guard/center takes reps at fullback. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

After issuing similar cautions before Saturday’s practice, Green got several reps at fullback again for the Steelers, including at least one with the first team offense.

Mike Tomlin, who was not present for the “Friday Night Lights” practice, explained on Saturday “That guy is a unique guy, so we asked KG to provide a quality look for us, and he did,” before revealing “We just put that in our hip pocket.”

The Steelers started the summer with fullback Monte Pottebaum on their roster, but he mysteriously went on the reserve/retired list early in camp. Connor Heyward has been mentioned as an option at fullback, and now so has Kendrick Green is getting reps there.

  • So apparently the speculation that the Steelers will sign Derek Watt is moot.

Which makes dollars and salary cap sense. Derek Watt was an asset during his 3 years in Pittsburgh, but he was a very expensive “Nice to have” for the Steelers offense. Kendrick Green is both cheaper and offers position flexibility.

But if Mike Tomlin decides to take Kendrick Green out of his “Hip pocket” the question should be asked, “Can he match Derek Watt’s rushing streak?”

Thus far Kendrick Green’s reps at fullback have seen him block while catching a few passes from Mason Rudolph. But the hidden value Derek Watt added to the Steelers offense was in short yardage carries: Derek Watt only carried the ball 10 times for the Steelers, but Pittsburgh went 9-1 in those games.

  • If Kendrick Green can deliver at even remotely that level, this little experiment will be worthwhile.

One final factoid to remember: Kendrick Green wouldn’t be the first Steelers guard/center to do double duty at fullback.

During the Steelers 2009 season, center/guard Doug Legursky saw action at fullback. One of those games was Rashard Mendenhall’s 165 yard, career-best performance against the San Diego Chargers – Just Say’in….

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Ditch Mitch? Ah, No. Steelers Extend Mitch Trubisky for 2 Years

Sometimes, it pays to listen. Throughout the 2023 off season the Steelers brass has been saying they want Mitchell Trubisky to stay in Pittsburgh as a long-term backup quarterback. They even confirmed that they were leaving the door open for Mason Rudolph.

And this week, both men signed contracts with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

A few days after inking Mason Rudolph to a one year deal, the Steelers extended Mitch Tribusky’s contract by two years. According to the NFL Network, the new deal will keep Tribusky in Pittsburgh through the 2025 season and pay him 19.4 million dollars with a chance to earn 33 million through incentives.

Prior to the extension, the Steelers were on the hook to pay Tribuisky another 8 million this year, bringing his salary cap value to over 10 million dollars. That’s dirty cheap for a starting quarterback but rather expensive for a backup who, under the best of circumstances won’t do anything more than wear a headset and huddle with the starter and head coach during the 2 minute warning.

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

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

Trubisky to Follow in Footsteps of Another Ex-Bears QB?

Of course “the best of circumstances” don’t always prevail in the NFL. After getting benched against the Jets, Mitch Tribuisky was forced into action twice thanks to Kenny Pickett concussions.

And his play in those games calls to mind another former Chicago Bears quarterback, who after a stint on the Great Lakes, found his way to Pittsburgh. That quarterback is Mike Tomczak, who after 77 games and 31 starts in Chicago, followed by stops in Green Bay and Cleveland, arrived in Pittsburgh in 1993.

Mike Tomczak, Barry Foster, Steelers vs Raiders

Mike Tomczak hands off to Barry Foster in 1994. Photo Credit: Getty Images, via Pro Football Talk

Trubisky’s play in the Steelers upset over the Buccaneers and win over the Panthers evokes memories of Mike Tomczak at his best – a game manager/game manager plus who can step in and deliver when called up.

In the same vein, Trubisky’s play in the home loss to the Ravens, brings to mind Mike Tomczak at his worst – ask him (or let him try) to do too much will get you into trouble.

But that’s true of most backup quarterbacks (even Charlie Batch).

After backing up Neil O’Donnell in 1993, Tomczak stuck with the Steelers through 1999. If Trubisky plays out his full contract he’ll have a real shot at matching Tomczak’s tenure.

Another Cook Joins Pat Meyer’s Kitchen

Broderick Jones won’t be the only new offensive tackle in offensive line coach Pat Myer’s room next year. The Steelers continued to add to the depth behind Dan Moore and Chukwuma Okorafor when they signed tackle Dylan Cook.

Cook spent most of 2022 on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers practice squad, and was resigned after the season but got a pink slip shortly after the draft.

Cook is from Montana and actually play quarterback in high school. He stands 6’6” and weighs 303 pounds.

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Welcome Back Mason. Steelers Resign Mason Rudolph for 1 Year

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

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

Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes, this is a wise move indeed.

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

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

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

Welcome back Mason Rudolph.

Follow Steelers free agency. Visit our Steelers 2023 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2023 free agent focus articles.

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

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

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

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

Kenny Pickett, Mitch Trubisky, Steelers vs Seahawks

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

Steelers Depth Cart at Quarterback: The Starter

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

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

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

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

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

  • Yes, those numbers look pedestrian indeed.

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

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

Steelers Quarterback Depth Chart: The Backup

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Steelers 2023 Quarterback Draft Needs

Steelers Draft, Steelers Draft Needs scale

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

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

We probably won’t know until after the draft.

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

  • Stranger things have happened.

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

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Time for a Clean Slate: Steelers QB Mason Rudolph Reaches Free Agency

Who is the most popular player on the Steelers roster? Well, for 20 years the answer never changed – it was always the backup quarterback. Whether it was David Woodley, Jim Miller or Pete Gonzalez, Steelers fans were always convinced themselves that QB Number 2 was the next Terry Bradshaw.

Mason Rudolph never enjoyed such a honeymoon. Now that he’s about to hit free agency, it is time to take a look at whether he should or will stay in Pittsburgh.

Mason Rudolph, Steelers vs Dolphins,

Mason Rudolph launches a 45 yard touchdown to Diontae Johnson. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Capsule Profile of Mason Rudolph’s Career with the Steelers

The Steelers drafted Mason Rudolph in the 3rd round of the 2018 NFL Draft with the pick they obtained from trading Martavis Bryant to the Oakland Raiders. The decision was described as a “compromise pick” as we learned that the front office had put a “first round grade” on Rudolph.

That was all academic for a year as Mason Rudolph held the third string QB’s clipboard during all of 2018. In 2019 Josh Dobbs departed and Mason ascended to the backup role where everyone figured he’d stay, after all it had been 2 years since Ben Roethlisberger missed a full game right?

Wrong. Six quarters into the season against the Seattle Seahawks, Roethlisberger left the game with a season ending elbow injury, and Mason Rudolph’s roller coaster ride began.

To the naked eye, Rudolph played well enough in losses to the Seahawks and 49ers, but perhaps its telling that coaches had to install a Wild Cat offense for his first home start and win against the Bengals. A week later without the Wild Cat, Rudolph was authoring his best game ever against the Ravens when Earl Thomas knocked him from the game with a concussion.

The roller coaster ride began anew. Rudolph shifted from shaky to stable in his return against Miami, steady against Indy, strong against the Rams – and then Myles Garrett assaulted him with his own helmet in the infamous Body Bag Game.

Mason Rudolph, Myles Garrett, Matt Feiler, David DeCastro

Even prior to this pivotal moment, Mason Rudolph had shown alot of fight in 2019.

The incident shook Rudolph, whose play was shaky prompting Mike Tomlin to bench him for Devlin Hodges week later. Rudolph did look better coming off the bench against the Jets, but got injured and was done for the year. Rudolph started the season finale in 2020 and lost while looking good, and looked “OK” in starting in the overtime tie to the Lions.

In 2022 Mason Rudolph entered training camp as the back up to Mitch Trubisky, but got beat out by Kenny Pickett and outside of Carolina Panthers game, Mason Rudolph spent last season the way he spent his first – holding a clipboard in street clothes.

After 5 years in Pittsburgh, Mason Rudolph appeared in 17 games, holds a 5-4-1 record as a starter, threw 384 passes for 2,366 yards with a 61.5% completion rate and 16 touchdowns and 11 interceptions.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Mason Rudolph

Every championship team needs a strong backup quarterback.

Just look at how Byron Leftwich and Charlie Batch stepped in in 2005 and 2008. Mason Rudolph’s body of work isn’t that extensive. While he hasn’t shown himself to be worthy of a starter’s slot, he does project as a competent backup.

He knows the Steelers culture and system. He was never embraced or mentored or seemingly even befriended by Ben Roethlisberger. He was benched for a guy name “Duck.” He didn’t get his fair share of reps in the summer that was to be his one real shot at the starting job.

Yet, through all of it, Mason Rudolph has never complained. He’s been a loyal teammate and a positive force in the locker room – just what you’d want in a backup.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Mason Rudolph

The Steelers had a “first round grade” on Rudolph, yet picked him with an extra third round choice in a decision that was termed a “compromise.”

Consider these names:

Those are all quarterbacks that the Steelers brought to Pittsburgh after seeing Mason Rudolph’s 10 game audition in 2019. Now stir in the fact that in the summer of 2022, Rudolph neither got a fair shot at the starting job nor did he get a shot at QB No. 2.

That should tell you that Mike Tomlin was never sold on drafting Mason Rudolph and Rudolph hasn’t changes his opinion since arriving in Pittsburgh. The Steelers already have Trubisky under contract for 2023, has Mason given them any reason to tear that contract up, eat the dead money and offer him a deal to stay?

No. He has not.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Mason Rudolph

has said the Steelers have left the door open for Rudolph’s return, which is the smart move. But let’s close this conversation by turning it on its head: Is there any reason why Mason Rudolph would want to stay in Pittsburgh?

The fans never gave him a chance, even if his numbers, arguably, were better than Pickett’s. His head coach clearly doesn’t see him as starter material and didn’t even give him a shot as a backup. No NFL team is going to throw starter money at Mason Rudolph.

But Rudolph has done enough to earn both a competitive backup deal and something else more highly prized: A clean slate.

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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