Rumors of the Death of the “Steelers Way” Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

Sometimes things change fast on the South Side. Russell Wilson and Justin Fields are in Pittsburgh, while Mitch Trubisky, Mason Rudolph and Kenny Pickett are in Buffalo, Tennessee and Philadelphia.

In the blink of an eye, Omar Khan and Mike Tomlin have remade the Steelers quarterback room in Nietzschean fashion.

SteelersNOW’s Alan Saunders proclaimed, “These are not your Father’s Pittsburgh Steelers.” On Steel City Insider, Jim Wexell looked back to the Buddy Parker era – the last time the Steelers completely remade the quarterback room year-on and year-out, and reminded us that these might be your grandfather’s Pittsburgh Steelers.

More than one commentator has said that these changes prove that the Steelers have fundamentally changed the way they work.

It may feel that way.

But reports of the death of “The Steelers Way” are greatly exaggerated. Let’s explore why.

Russell Wilson, Pittsburgh Steelers

Russell Wilson’s first Steelers press conference. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette.com

Yes, This IS a Big Change

Let’s embrace the obvious. The Steelers QB depth chart now reads:
1. Russell Wilson
2. Justin Fields
3. TBD

Precisely NO ONE saw this coming. No one.

Even coming out of the NFL combine the safe money was on Kenny Pickett’s “competition” being Ryan Tannehill. Not only did the Steelers reel in two of the bigger fish in the market, they moved on from Kenny Pickett faster than they’ve moved on from any first round draft pick since Huey Richardson in 1992.

  • For a franchise steeped in stability, that’s a lot of change.

But if you look at consider the moves that Omar Khan has made in the larger context of Steelers history, you’ll find plenty of precedent.

The Myth of Steelers Standing Pat @ Quarterback

If you asked GenAI or some other bot to neatly summarize modern era Steelers quarterback history you could easily get an answer like this:

The Steelers drafted Hall of Fame quarterback Terry Bradshaw in 1970. Despite seeing a series of bad, average and “good” quarterbacks follow Bradshaw, the Pittsburgh Steelers move to get another franchise quarterback until drafting Ben Roethlisberger in 2004.

  • Sounds about right, doesn’t it? Perfect for our world of Twitterized communication. Except its wrong.

Not drafting Dan Marino was a grave mistake. The Steelers also could have tried to get Steve Young’s rights in the 1984 Supplemental Draft and would have been better off with Brett Favre instead of Huey Richardson in 1991.

But after missing on Marino, those basically the Steelers only two chances to draft a franchise quarterback until 2001 when they took Casey Hampton instead of Drew Brees.

  • Meanwhile, Chuck Noll, Tom Donahoe and Kevin Colbert did exactly as Omar Khan has done this past spring.

Despite having invested a first round draft pick in Mark Malone, Chuck Noll traded a third round pick for David Woodley. After dealing Malone for an 8th round pick, Noll traded a 4th to Kansas City to bring Todd Blackledge to Pittsburgh.

Bubby Brister, Chuck Noll, Bubby Brister super tecmo bowl raiting, Steelers 1988

Chuck Noll and Bubby Brister. Photo Credit: Mike Powell, Getty Images

Bubby Brister beat out Blackledge for the starting role in 1988. A year later Brister and 1989 Steelers “shocked the world” by upsetting the Houston Oilers in the playoffs, finishing a bad snap and a dropped pass away from a trip to the AFC Championship.

Yet, Chuck Noll thought that Neil O’Donnell was a first round talent and would have drafted him there in 1990 had Bill Nunn and Dick Haley not assured him O’Donnell would be there in the 3rd.

Get that? The franchise had a 2-year starter at QB who’d just won the franchise’s first playoff game in 5 years, and yet Noll was ready to take another quarterback in the first round.

O’Donnell would of course eventually beat Brister for the starting job, and led the 1994 Steelers to AFC Championship game. Pittsburgh lost in a stunning upset, but people forget O’Donnell broke a few AFC Championship passing records on that dreary day.

  • So what did Tom Donahoe do?

He drafted Kordell Stewart in the 2nd round of the 1995 NFL Draft. Kordell Stewart saw his ups and downs as Steelers quarterback, leading Kevin Colbert to sign Kent Graham to compete with him.

Kordell Stewart, Steelers vs Raiders

Kordell shrugs off injury to lead 2nd half rally. Photo Credit: Getty Images via Twitter

Stewart lost but ultimately re-gained the starting role for the 2000 Steelers leading them to a 9-7 record. Yet, Kevin Colbert still took a flyer on XFL “star” Tommy Maddox. Stewart was voted MVP of the 2001 Steelers and appeared to have finally turned a corner. That didn’t stop Colbert for signing Charlie Batch when the Lions surprisingly cut him in the spring of 2002.

  • The Steelers have been criticized for not having a coherent succession plan for Ben Roethlisberger.

No real argument there. Anyone think that no one on the South Side regrets taking Terrell Edmunds over Lamar Jackson?

But along the way the Steelers did take flyers on Zach Mettenberger, Paxton Lynch and Dwayne Haskins, one former part time starter and two former first round picks.

What IS Different

As you can see, Terry Bradshaw began his “Life’s work” the Steelers actively tried to improve at quarterback. Sometimes this has taken the form of (largely unsuccessful) quarterback reclamation projects.

At other times they’ve invested premium draft picks in quarterbacks despite having an incumbent starter – starters who’d been more successful than Kenny Pickett.

Omar Khan, Pittsburgh Steelers General Manager Omar Khan

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

In contrast, Omar Khan has brought an aging veteran in at the veteran minimum and given up a conditional 6th round draft pick to bring in 2021’s 11th overall pick to Pittsburgh on his rookie contract.

Compared to moves to bring Woodley, Blackledge, O’Donnell and Stewart to Pittsburgh, Khan is downright conservative compared to his predecessors.

  • The critical difference or the “independent variable” if you will is Kenny Pickett.

To be sure, the arrivals of these new quarterbacks to Pittsburgh didn’t spawn Cumbia-like moments at St. Vincents. But all of the signal callers in question handled the prospect of competition with far more professionalism and maturity than did Kenny Pickett.

Which is why he’s in Philadelphia facing at least two years of clipboard holding.

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Steelers Kenny Pickett Era’s Lasting Lesson? If You’re Gonna Fail, Fail Fast and Fail Big

In case you’ve been under a rock, the Pittsburgh Steelers traded Kenny Pickett to the Philadelphia Eagles in a move that no one saw coming mere days before it happened.

  • In a blink of an eye, Omar Khan has ended the Kenny Pickett era of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

That’s amazing when you consider that just over one year ago hardened, serious X’s and O’s types over at the Steel City Insider were declaring that “The Super Bowl window is open” largely thanks to Kenny Pickett’s improvement at the tail end of 2022.

Russell Wilson signed with the Steelers on the same day Pickett got traded, so perhaps someday we’ll look back and say that Wilson’s arrival in Pittsburgh marked the moment the Super Bowl re-opened.

  • But if that’s the case, Pickett will be watching from the opposite side of the turnpike.

Kenny Pickett played in 25 games for the Pittsburgh Steelers, threw 713 passes, completing 13 of those for touchdowns while throwing another 13 for interceptions. Pickett leaves Pittsburgh without having any real signature moment (my God, doesn’t feel like “Kenny Fucking Pickett!” happened 100 years ago?)

  • But there is lesson to be drawn from the Kenny Pickett era: If you’re going to fail, fail fast and fail big.

And ironically the Steelers lived the best example that lesson immediately after Pickett made his final play as a Steeler.

Kenny Pickett, Johnathan Ledbetter

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

The first half against the Cardinals was ending. On third down at the goal line, Kenny Pickett, after being unable to find an open receiver, tried to run it in himself. He failed and got injured in the process. Mike Tomlin could have gone for three, gotten points on the board and lived to fight another day. Instead he went for it on 4th with Najee Harris who came up short.

A similar situation played out a week later against New England after a Mykal Walker Red Zone interception yielded three fruitless attempts and another 4th down attempt when kicking a field goal would have been the wise mathematical decision.

And be crystal clear on one thing: When a team moves on from a first round draft pick after just 25 games, you’ve failed big.

Richardson was Chuck Noll’s last first round draft pick. Noll picked him during the 1991 NFL Draft in a panic move when none of the players he’d targeted remained on the board. Richardson only saw spot duty in 5 games as a rookie (although he did have an impressive preseason debut). He struggled so badly during his sophomore summer at St. Vincents that Bill Cowher traded Huey Richardson to Washington for a 7th round pick.

The Steelers sent Pickett to Philadelphia and a 4th for a third and two 7ths – what has been described as the NFL equivalent of some couch change.

To a man, Mike Tomlin, Omar Khan and Art Rooney II all expressed confidence in Pickett. While there were rumblings that at least one of the brain trust was having second thoughts, all reports indicate the Steelers had every intention of a QB depth chart topped by Wilson and Pickett – otherwise they would have made at least a token effort to resign Mason Rudolph.

But the Steelers didn’t lift a finger to keep Rudolph in Pittsburgh, and now he’s a Tennessee Titan.

But apparently the move was spawned by Pickett’s reaction to the Steelers decision to sign Russell Wilson. That calls to mind Tommy Maddox’s outburst after the Steelers drafted Ben Roethlisberger. When he confronted Bill Cowher, Cowher’s retort was that Maddox’s reaction validated the Steelers decision to draft Roethlisberger.

Yet, Pickett faced a far different choice. He’s not a veteran facing the prospect of having to share a quarterback room with his successor. He could have embraced the opportunity of challenging a Super Bowl veteran for a starting role or alternatively being mentored by one.

  • Instead he viewed Wilson’s arrival as a threat.

Pickett didn’t want to fight for his job. One can only surmise that Wilson’s arrival provoked a total meltdown. So as a consequence he now finds himself on the other end of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, waiting on either 2 years or a serious injury to Jalen Hurts for his next chance to start.

I hope he’s happy with his choice.

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Let the Competition Begin! Steelers to Sign Russell Wilson

Russell Wilson is signing with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Both ESPN and the NFL Network are reporting this, while Wilson himself indicated this in a tweet.

Russell Wilson, Devin Bush Jr., Mike Hilton, Steelers vs Seahawks

Russell Wilson at Heinz Field. Photo Credit: Justin K. Aller, Getty Images via Dawgs by Nature

The conventional wisdom as recently as the NFL Combine was that the Steelers were not interested in bringing any of the big name quarterbacks available to Pittsburgh to provide competition for Kenny Pickett. However, late last week Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that Russell Wilson was visiting with the Steelers and that the interest was mutual.

Unlike the various social media “experts” who claimed that Kirk Cousins or Justin Fields to the Steelers was “a done deal” no one rushed to debunk this rumor. Wilson showed up in Pittsburgh as advertised, had a long meeting but left without signing. Even then, other commentators (including this one) floated the possibility that Omar Khan was entertaining Wilson in Pittsburgh to pressure Mason Rudolph into signing.

Then on Sunday night Russell Wilson issued this tweet:

Russell Wilson led the Seattle Seahawks to a Super Bowl Championship in 2013 in just his second season in the league. Seattle returned the following year, but lost in part due to a goal line interception that Wilson threw scuttling a comeback effort.

Since then Wilson had been a consistent winner in Seattle, but as the 2000 teens came to an end, there were rumblings that he was not happy. Wilson and the team said all of the right things and Wilson had a reasonably strong season in 2021, but the Seahawks traded him to the Broncos.

  • This first season in Denver was a disaster, leading to the firing of head coach Nathaniel Hackett.

Under Sean Peyton Wilson’s play improved, but he did play a few very bad games. Peyton benched him late in the the season opening speculation that Wilson would leave by trade or release. The Broncos plan to release Wilson when the league year begins on Wednesday March 11th. The Broncos are on the hook for 38 million to Wilson this season, so conceivably the Steelers could sign him for as little as 1.2 million.

No Risk? + No Rudolph?

On one level this deal is a no brainer for the Pittsburgh Steelers. While Khan, Mike Tomlin and Art Rooney II have all expressed their confidence in Kenny Pickett, each man has also said the Steelers would bring him competition.

December and January of last season revealed two things about the Steelers:

1. This team is still a ways away with playing on the level of any of the teams in the conference championships
2. However, competent quarterback play brings them is much closer than anyone would have thought possible on say, December 20th 2023.

So, if the Steelers can land a Super Bowl winning quarterback at the veteran minimum that would almost be a no-brainer. Almost. At age 36 Russell Wilson may “still have something left in the tank,” but he also doesn’t have much “upside.”

That means if neither Pickett nor Wilson pans out in 2024 then the frachise will be starting from zero at quarterback in 2024 because the Steelers signing Wilson almost certainly ends Mason Rudolph’s time in Pittsburgh.

Even before Wilson’s arrival it was clear that Rudolph would return as QB No. 2 with nothing more than a promise that he’d have a shot at moving up the depth chart. Given limitations on training camp practices and the current 3 schedule of 3 preseason games holding a 3-way competition for the starting quarterback slot simply isn’t realistic.

While bringing Wilson to Pittsburgh carries little “risk” conventional risk for the Steelers, the opportunity this presents could also be smaller than meets the eye.

Mike Tomlin’s flirtation with aging athletes in the twilight of their careers – think Michael Vick, Plaxico Burress, Joey Galloway and perhaps even Patrick Peterson hasn’t yielded much fruit. And if Tommy Maddox did deliver one year of “Tommy Gun” in 2002, previous franchise quarterback reclamation projects with David Woodley, Todd Blackledge and Kent Graham failed.

  • But none of those men wore Super Bowl rings.

Russell Wilson does. Welcome Steelers Nation.

 

 

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Definition of “At a Crossroads” The Steelers Mason Rudolph and Free Agency

What difference does 365 days make? For Mason Rudolph, everything.

Last year when Mason Rudolph reached free agency, I debated over whether it was worth the time to do a free agent profile on him or not. Omar Khan’s comment about “keeping the door open for Mason” nudged the scales in his favor.

  • But felt like an academic exercise.

But of course Mason Rudolph returned to Pittsburgh. He authored another strong preseason. Yet he remained nothing more than a clipboard holder until, wait for it, the eve of Christmas Eve when Rudolph began leading the franchise to the playoffs.

Now Mason Rudolph is a free agent again, and this time he’s the one holding… well at least some of the cards. Let’s take a look at how this could play out.

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 and Mason Rudolph have reached a cross roads. And they took a unique route to get here. So instead of focusing on the nuts and bolts of Mason Rudolph’s journey with the Pittsburgh Steelers, we’ll instead focus on how that journey started.

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

Early in the 2018 off season Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell was working into his pre-draft profiles and devoted some time to Oklahoma’s Mason Rudolph, mentioning that Tomlin and Colbert had shown real interest.

In the comment’s section a reader shared a picture noting “Went to the osu game at Heinz Field. Colbert was never more than 5 feet away from him entire pregame.”

Yet, when the 2018 NFL Draft came the Steelers passed on Lamar Jackson and took Terrell Edmunds in the first round and then picked James Washington in the 2nd round (ouch!). But Kevin Colbert also robbed er um traded Martavis Bryant to the Raiders for a third round pick. And with that extra pic, the Steelers took Mason Rudolph.

Then two interesting factoid’s leaked: 1. The Steelers had a first round grade on Rudolph; 2. Rudolph was described as a “compromise pick.”

While Steel Curtain Rising has no access to sources on the South Side, the translation of the above into simple English is this: Kevin Colbert was Mason Rudolph’s champion.

  • If this is true then Rudolph’s career arc with the Steelers becomes easier to understand.
Mason Rudolph, Joshua Dobbs, Steelers developing quarterbacks

Mason Rudoph and Joshua Dobbs square off @ St. Vincents. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

It easier to see why Mason Rudolph became the first quarterback of the Tomlin era to get benched for performance. The same can be said for Tomlin’s decision to bring back Joshua Dobbs, sign Dwayne Haskins, Mitch Trubisky and draft Kenny Pickett. Likewise, Tomlin’s decision to look past Rudolph’s strong performances during the 2022 and 2023 preseasons take on a different light.

  • That doesn’t necessarily mean that Tomlin mishandled Rudolph’s development.

In a non-football context you’d say, “the business drivers” of each of those decisions were strong. And in both 2022 and 2023, Rudolph only had one year remaining on his contract. Pickett and Trubisky had multiple years so it made perfect sense to focus precious practice and preseason snaps on that duo.

Now Mason Rudolph’s contract is about to expire. Mike Tomlin, Omar Khan and Art Rooney II all say they want him back.

But just how badly do they want him?

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Mason Rudolph

The Tomlin era has seen the Golden Age of Steelers third string quarterbacks. So when Rudolph resigned last spring, he seemed destined to get a start. He got four, including one in the playoffs.

  • And Mason Rudolph was undisputed best quarterback on the roster.

The Steelers fielded a different, more dynamic offense with number 2 at the helm. George Pickens exploded. Diontae Johnson did his damage. Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren had some of their best games. The defense, freed from the obligation of carrying the team, also played some of its best ball despite being critically short-handed.

The only question is, what is Omar Khan waiting for?

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Mason Rudolph

Yes, Mason Rudolph looked good. He elevated the team. Everything about his four game audition, complete with the way he maintained his poise after the interception vs Buffalo says the Steelers would be insane to let him walk.

Yet, before cutting a check, the Steelers brass would be wise to remember a few names: Brock Osweiler, Matt Flynn, Rob Johnson and Scott Mitchell.

These are four NFL quarterbacks who parlayed varied amounts of success in a limited number of starts into mammoth free agent contracts to be starters elsewhere.

  • For those four, the grass truly was greener on the other side.

But none of these quarterbacks proved be worthy of their fortune, fame or salary cap space for the teams that signed them.

The only thing worse for the Steelers than losing Mason Rudolph would winning a bidding war to keep him. Mason Rudolph has shown he’s worth of an NFL starter’s contract, but light years away from earning a franchise quarterback deal.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Mason Rudolph

Everyone wants Rudolph back and Rudolph seems open to it.

  • But there are three “but’s” at work here.
Mason Rudolph, Kenny Pickett, Steelers 2022 Training Camp, Steelers St. Vincents 2022

Mason Rudolph and Kenny Pickett in 2022 at St. Vincents. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

On the numbers side, you can take it at face value that the Steelers want to keep Rudolph in Pittsburgh. But you can also be sure that the Steelers have a number in mind and won’t go much beyond that (see Cam Sutton last spring.)

Then there’s a trust issue. Mike Tomlin has confirmed that Kenny Pickett will arrive at St. Vincents as the number 1 quarterback but assures that “He’ll have competition.” And Tomlin sounded serious. But he also sounded great to Melvin Ingram, Morgan Burnett and LeGarrette Blount who came to Pittsburgh as free agents and left disgruntled feeling that Tomlin promised them something he didn’t deliver.

  • This phenomenon isn’t limited to outsiders. Just ask James Harrison.

Finally, there’s Russell Wilson. The conventional wisdom has been that the Steelers would bring Mason Rudolph back to Pittsburgh to provide “competition” and if they couldn’t, they’d fall back to a veteran free agent such as Ryan Tannehill or Jacoby Brissett. But Russell Wilson has already visited the Steel City and talked with the Steelers brass.

  • Maybe this Russell Wilson flirtation is Omar Khan and company pressuring Rudolph to sign…
  • …but maybe it’s a signal that Tomlin doesn’t see Rudolph as a long-term starter and never will.

Mason Rudolph is good guy to have in the locker room. His teammates love him. He takes his preparation seriously. He puts the team first. He will elevate any quarterback room he joins.

In an ideal world for the Steelers, Rudolph would elevate the quarterback room in Pittsburgh. But if Russell Wilson’s visit to the Steelers is anything more than a “kick the tire” due diligence exercise, then that’s a clear signal that in Rudolph’s ideal world his NFL career will continue elsewhere.

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Steelers Cut Patrick Peterson, Keanu Neal. To Meet Russell Wilson

With the clock ticking towards free agency Omar Khan continues to make moves to free salary cap space for the Steelers by cutting Keanu Neal and reportedly Patrick Peterson.

  • And Khan is neither being sentimental nor playing it on the safe side.

Khan began the off season by cutting the Steelers punter, their backup quarterback and their number 3 tackle. For an encore he cut the starting center. Now he’s taking a cleaver to the secondary.

Patrick Peterson, Keanu Neal, Chistan Watson, Steelers vs Packers

Patrick Peterson tips an end zone pass to Keanu Neal. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review.

Keanu Neal’s release was somewhat expected. Neal came to the Steelers with a high pedigree but with a questionable injury history. But the Steelers 3 safety package has become more and more important to the defense and with Terrell Edmunds’ departure that opened a role for Neal.

Neal filled the role well, playing in 66% of the Steelers defensive snaps, making his biggest move with the game-saving interception in the Steelers win over the Green Bay Packers. Unfortunately it was his last play with the team as he went on injured reserve the following week

The Steelers gave him a physical this week and when he failed granted him his release.

  • The decision to cut Patrick Peterson is more of a surprise.

Peterson is a potential future Hall of Famer who admittedly was closing in on his “Life’s Work” before the Steelers signed him last spring. Peterson became an immediate starter, logging more snaps than any other starter on the defense.

His performance was checkered. At times he appeared to be slowing a step. But he clearly proved to be an asset in other ways, mentoring Joey Porter Jr. and moving over to safety after injuries decimated the position late in the season.

There was speculation that Peterson would move to safety full time in 2024.

Apparently that won’t happen now, at least not in Pittsburgh.

Oh, Yeah About Wilson

The other BIG news ahead of free agency is the report that the Steelers will meet with Russell Wilson. Yes, none other than Russell Wilson who led the Seattle Seahawks to a Super Bowl championship and how the Broncos gave up the store to bring to Denver.

Mason Rudolph, Kenny Pickett, Steelers 2022 Training Camp, Steelers St. Vincents 2022

Mason Rudolph and Kenny Pickett in 2022 at St. Vincents. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

The same Russell Wilson that the Broncos will have to pay nearly 40 million dollars to next year no matter what he does.

All of the reports from credible reporters indicated that the Steelers were not interested in bringing one of the veteran free agent quarterbacks to Pittsburgh. Nonetheless, at the combine Omar Khan did clearly state that all options were on the table for improving the Steelers at quarterback.

Khan, Mike Tomlin and Art Rooney II have all expressed confidence in Kenny Pickett and they’ve all said they want Mason Rudolph back.

  • But Mike Tomlin also insisted that Kenny Pickett would get “competition.”

Questions abound:

  • Would Wilson agree to come to Pittsburgh on the condition that he compete for the starting job?
  • Would Mike Tomlin stage an open competition?
  • Would Wilson even be a good fit for Arthur Smith’s offense?
  • How doe Mason Rudolph factor in? Is part of the reason behind this to pressure him to sign?
  • Does Wilson have something in the tank?

On the latter note, Mike Tomlin does have a history of bringing high-profile athletes to Pittsburgh late in their careers. Plaxico Burress, Michael Vick, and even Joey Galloway serve as examples. While he didn’t do much in his second act in Pittsburgh, Burress did close his career with a touchdown at Heinz Field. Vick had one quarter of football left in him that put the Steelers over the on top vs San Diego on Monday Night Football. And Galloway never saw the field.

Landing on Their Feet

Two recently released Steelers have landed on their feet. Mitch Trubisky signed a two-year deal to return to Buffalo to backup Josh Allen. And the New England Patriots have signed Chukwuma Okorafor.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They may be right.

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

Pickett’s Disappointing Development

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

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

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

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

…Except for when it comes to the fourth quarter.

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

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

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

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

Why Kenny Pickett’s Career Arc Resonates with Me

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

Harmony Hills Elementary

Harmony Hills Elementary school at some point before 1998.

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

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

I finished it in May.

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

  • The pattern continued throughout Elementary School and Junior High School

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

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

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

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

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

Which brings me back to Kenny Pickett.

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

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

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

Kenny Pickett, Kenny Pickett 2023 splits

Kenny Pickett’s 2023 Splits, via Pro Football Reference

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

  • This makes Kenny Pickett unique.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Case Closed: GroupThink Explains Myles Garrett Winning DPOY over T.J. Watt

The AP has named Myles Garrett as 2023’s NFL Defensive Player of the Year over T.J. Watt, and in doing so makes a mockery of itself and the entire process.

Truthfully, T.J. Watt’s 2023 season might not be worthy of a second DPOY award, because it is perhaps more worthy of an NFL MVP Award. But I digress.

T.J. Watt, Steelers vs Titans, T.J. Watt sack Will Levis no helmet

No helmet? No problem for T.J. Watt. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Steelers.com

Let’s call a horse a horse here: Voting Myles Garrett over T.J. Watt for the NFL DPOY is an exercise in GroupThink pure and simple. Throughout the season, anyone who was even remotely tied into NFL threads on X (formerly known as Twitter) could see that there was a campaign underway pushing for Myles Garrett as 2023’s Defensive Player of the Year.

Two factors fuel GroupThink here. First is a palpable pro-Garrett sentiment in the press. Second is an infatuation with analytics, largely supplied by Pro Football Focus metrics.

The press likes Myles Garrett. By all accounts he’s a well-rounded person who readily engages with members of the media. That’s fine. Good relationships with the press often lead to positive coverage (see Najee Harris for a contrasting example.) That’s how the game is played.

But relationships shouldn’t trump facts, but when in Garrett’s case it has. Jim Wexell pointed this out on Steel City Insider shortly after Myles Garrett assaulted Mason Rudolph in the infamous Body Bag Game back in 2019. Reflecting on reactions of many Cleveland based reporters, Wexell offered this:

Listening to Cleveland-area reporters telling me how nice of a guy Garrett is, and how well he treats his dog, made me think of reporters interviewing neighbors of mass murderers. Yes, a bit much, but, honestly, Mason Rudolph could’ve been killed out there. “He was SUCH a nice, quiet guy who never bothered anyone. And what a LOVELY dog!”

While Wexell admits to exaggerating a bit, subsequent events proved his point. After Roger Goodell lifted his suspension, Garrett doubled down on his baseless, debunked claim that Mason Rudolph uttered the N-word during their scuffle.

Garrett’s claim went unchallenged to the point where Mike Tomlin did the unheard of by breaking his off season vowel of silence by joining Stephen Smith on ESPN to defend his quarterback.

  • The analytics nut is a bit harder to crack.

Advanced analytics certainly have their place in today’s NFL. They can be an excellent tool for uncovering contributions and achievements that remain hidden in standard box scores. Kenny Pickett’s quarter-by-quarter splits might offer an example here.

But over-reliance on analytics, either by coaches or the press creates a tail-wags the dog dynamic. Which is what’s happening with Myles Garrett, who apparently does exceptionally better than his peers in penetrating pass coverage.

  • Fine. But the result of what you do after you get past the offensive lineman that drives excellence.

And in that, T.J. Watt wins hands down. Some times raw numbers reveal a truth that advanced analytics can’t obscure:

T.J. Watt, Myles Garrett, Micha Parsons

Numbers don’t lie: T.J. Watt should be 2023’s NFL DPOY

But of course there are those who try to argue that it’s as much about quality as it is quantity. So let’s take a look at a highlights reveal a little bit about the quality vs quantity debate. Here’s a clip of T.J. Watt’s interception against the Rams this past season:

Now let’s look at a clip of a Myles Garrett interception from the past season…. Oh, wait a minute. He doesn’t have one.

Scores serve as an excellent differentiator when evaluating defenders. So let’s take a look at T.J. Watt’s touchdown from the season:

That wasn’t just a splash play, it came at a critical moment and sealed the Steelers win over the Browns. Now, let’s look at a Myles Garrett scoring play from the 2023 season…. Oh, wait a minute, Myles Garrett didn’t have a scoring play.  (And this was a close game. Garrett had multiple opportunities to make a similar play. He didn’t. Just Saying….)

And this barely scratches the depths of the pro-Garett GroupThink movement. In the eyes of one commentator, Garrett is more versatile than T.J. Watt.

Fortunately, Steelers reporter Mike Frazer wasn’t having any of it.

 

Yes, facts can be stubborn things, but they come up short against GroupThink.

Myles Garrett beat out T.J. Watt because it many felt it was “His turn” and perhaps because Cam Heyward won the NFL’s Walter Payton Man of the Year Award, and as L.C. Greenwood’s absence from the Hall of Fame attest to, the “too many Steelers” mentality is real.

JJ Watt was right when he stated: “Myles is a phenomenal player, I’m a big fan and he’s had an incredible career so far. I can acknowledge that while also wondering what more TJ could have possibly done.”

T.J. Watt couldn’t have done more, and frankly should have needed to.

But it is what it is.

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Hidden Risk? Do Art Rooney’s “Time to Get Some Playoff Wins” Comments Set the Bar Too Low?

Pittsburgh Steelers President Art Rooney II gave his annual end-of-the year press conference this and there was one quote that landed as music in the ears of many citizens of Steelers Nation.

James Harrison, Art Rooney II, James Harrison Art Rooney Handshake, James Harrison 2nd retirement

Art Rooney II & James Harrison shake after the Steelers 2017 playoff win over the Chiefs. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

When asked about the Steelers historic playoff drought, Rooney bluntly declared:

Yeah, I think there’s an urgency. I think everybody, myself, Mike, guys that have been on the team for a while, T.J., Cam, everybody, we’ve had enough of this. It’s time to get some [playoff] wins.

Art Rooney II seldom speaks to the press. When he does he says very little. But those words carry a tremendous impact – after all, after the 2004 season ended in another AFC Championship loss it was Rooney who declared it was time for a Super Bowl. And the 2005 Steelers brought the Lombardi back to Pittsburgh.

The response on social media was swift and decisive. Here’s one example:

And this is understandable.

The Pittsburgh Steelers have not won a playoff game since Chris Boswell kicked them out of Kansas City and into the AFC Championship in January 2017. That’s a long time. To put that in context, even after the Super Steelers faded, Chuck Noll never went more than four years without a playoff win during the 1980s.

  • Yet here’s Mike Tomlin looking at 7 years and counting since his last playoff win.

So while it is good that the Steelers brass embraces the elephant in the room, there is a flaw in Rooney’s response. Notice that Rooney simply said, “It’s time to get some [playoff] wins.”

  • That risks setting the bar too low.

In 1992 when Bill Cowher returned to Pittsburgh to coach the Steelers, he offered a change of pace and he did so immediately by declaring that his goal for his rookie season was to win the Super Bowl.

Chuck Noll had started the 1990 and 1991 seasons saying similar things, talking about having “Championship caliber talent” with players like Rod Woodson, Greg Lloyd, Dermontti Dawson and Merril Hoge in mind. But Cowher delivered his remarks with a difference – he really believed it.

And that caused reporters openly snicker and rolled their eyes.

Yet Cowher’s 1992 Steelers took the league by storm and entered the playoffs as the AFC’s first seed. Those Steelers of course didn’t win the Super Bowl, and Bill Cowher faced a long road litter with AFC Championship losses to get to Super Bowl XL.

  • But his goal remained constant.

And setting winning the Super Bowl as the standard for success paid dividends in 2004 when Ben Roethlisberger arrived. Injuries to Tommy Maddox forced Ben Roethlisberger into the line up in week 2 and the franchise never looked back.

  • When the playoffs arrived, the Super Bowl was the goal and the expectation.

That left no room for a “We’re just glad to have won 14 straight games with a rookie quarterback and be in the AFC Championship” mentality. Winning a Super Bowl was the only success metric.

I’m sure if you asked Rooney a follow up question, he’d affirm that winning the Super Bowl is his goal and he was simply acknowledging that wining playoff games is a perquisite to a Lombardi.

  • So there’s no reason to overact here.

But Rooney and everyone else must be mindful that comments like “its time get some [playoff] wins” can carry unintended consequences.

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Mr. Smith Goes to Pittsburgh: Steelers Hire Arthur Smith as Offensive Coordinator

Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin is set to hire Arthur Smith as his 5th offensive coordinator. In making the move, Tomlin may not have quite turned over all possible loose stones, but he did make good on his promise to look outside the organization.

Smith is most recently served as the Atlanta Falcons head coach, and prior to that he worked for two years as the Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator. He will be the first Steelers offensive coordinator in the 21st that neither has ties to the team nor the city of Pittsburgh.

Ironically however, a quick look at Smith’s track record suggests he could help the franchise remain true to its roots.

Mike Tomlin, Arthur Smith, Steelers vs Falcons

Mike Tomlin shakes hands with new offensive coordinator Arthur Smith. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette.com

Of Running, Ryan and Combos

In his season-ending press conference, Mike Tomlin clarified that he wanted his next offensive coordinator to have experience and that he wanted someone who can foster Kenny Pickett’s development.

  • Arthur Smith checks both boxes.

The Miami Dolphins drafted Ryan Tannehill with the 8th overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft he started 88 games for them over 6 seasons. Tannehill’s numbers were OK, but never delivered what you’d need and expect an 8th overall pick to deliver. He never started a playoff game although the 2016 Dolphins did make it to the playoffs, Tannehill did not play as they got crushed by the Steelers.

The Dolphins moved on after 2018 and Tannehill headed to Tennessee where he joined Smith, who’d just been promoted to offensive coordinator. The difference was eye popping. Tannehill’s average passer rating at Tennessee was 91.2. In his two seasons with Smith that soared to 117.5 and 106.5

That pickup caught the attention of NFL owners, undoubtedly helping Smith land the head coaching job in Atlanta. And what’s telling here is that without Smith Tannehill’s passer rating dropped to Miami-like levels.

  • And there’s no real secret to Smith’s success with Tannehill – he leaned into the running game.

Under Smith’s guidance, the Titan’s rushing offense ranked 2nd and 3rd in rushing in the NFL. That’s welcome news for Steelers Smash Mouth Football purists who’ve longed for the team to get back to its roots.

  • It also may signal that Mike Tomlin’s willing to challenge the conventional wisdom.

The NFL is a quarterback-driven league. If anyone ever doubted that, look no further than Josh Allen’s role in defeating the Steelers during the playoffs. But you can build a Super Bowl team around a solid running game and a strong defense as the 2015 Denver Broncos demonstrated (please spare me the “but they had Peyton Manning” replies, Manning was a glorified game-manager at that point in his career.)

With the Smith hire, it seems that Tomlin is acknowledging that the Steelers don’t have a super star quarterback and is acting accordingly.

The other encouraging sign in Smith’s resume is his background as a tight ends coach. Working as with tight ends gives a coach a unique perspective on the dynamics that drive both the running and passing games. I can’t speak for the rest of the league, but both Bill Cowher promoted both Mike Mularkey and Ken Whisenhunt from tight ends coach to offensive coordinator, and the Steelers offense flourished under both.

With that said, if during the Steelers 2022 win over the Falcons, Atlanta didn’t lean into its running game when it should have and they lost because of it, so that’s something to keep in mind.

Of Precedents and Pedigrees

The Steelers tendency to keep things in the family when it comes to finding offensive coordinators is nothing new. Tom Moore, Chan Gailey, Mularkey, Whisenhunt, Bruce Arians, Randy Fitchner and Matt Canada were all in-house hires. Both Joe Walton and Todd Haley had ties to the city and/or the team.

So Smith is now just the 4th “virgin” Steelers offensive coordinator hire, with Ron Erhardt, Ray Sherman and Kevin Gilbride being the first three.

Looking at his track record, Arthur Smith looks a lot more like Ron Erhardt than a Sherman or a Gilbride. That’s a good thing.

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Pittsburgh Steelers 2023 Season in Review: Expect the Unexpected

It started in a moment of triumph. Mike Tomlin’s “Kenny f___ing Pickett” after Pickett’s last-minute comeback against the Ravens on January 2nd started 2023 giving Steelers Nation permission to “Believe.”

  • And Steelers Nation believed.

Before the ’22 campaign even ended, Steel City Study’s Jeremy Hertz declared, “I can’t wait for training camp next summer!”

Then Omar Khan led the most aggressive free agency effort in franchise history. Next came the draft, where the Steelers 2023 draft class won universal praise, even from hardened skeptics.

  • Belief morphed into expectation.

Expectations skyrocketed after a sterling Steelers preseason. All of it remains understandable, even in 20/20 hindsight, but the story of the Steelers 2023 season is simple: Expect the unexpected.

Mason Rudolph, Kenny Pickett, Steelers 2022 Training Camp, Steelers St. Vincents 2022

Mason Rudolph and Kenny Pickett in 2022 at St. Vincents. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Ominous Opening Day Omen

In 2023, for the first time since 2014, the Steelers opened the season in Pittsburgh. Their opponent was the San Francisco 49ers, an NFC heavyweight and a Super Bowl favorite.

  • What a perfect opportunity for the Pittsburgh Steelers to prove themselves.
49ers fans Acrisure Stadium, Steelers vs 49ers

49ers fans invade Acrisure Stadium. Photo Credit: 49ers.com

Yet even before the opening kickoff, something was amiss: 49ers fans were taking over Acrisure Stadium. Steelers fans gloat when Steelers Nation invades stadiums on the road. It’s not so funny when the tables are turned. As Jack Lambert said, the Steelers should be the intimidators.

  • This phenomenon in the stands foreshadowed events on the field.

The Steelers were terrible. The offensive line got dominated like rag dolls by the 49ers. Kenny Pickett was tentative, inaccurate and ineffective. The Steelers defense appeared to play a speed slower than the 49ers offense.

The 49ers exposed Pittsburgh as pretenders not contenders. Worse yet, the Steelers saw Diontae Johnson, Pat Freiermuth and Cam Heyward fall to injuries.

But it fell to Anthony McFarland that set the tone for what was to come. McFarland was the only player who stood out that disappointing day. His arrow was pointing up. Or so it seemed. McFarland went on IR after the game and got cut before season’s end.

Yes, expectations were dangerous things for the 2023 Pittsburgh Steelers and their fans.

2023 Pittsburgh Steelers Validate Ken Beatrice’s Wisdom

When future generations browse the 2023 Steelers season on Pro Football Reference and glance at weeks 2-12 they’re think, “OK, the opener was bad and the Houston loss was ugly, but they won several close games against some decent teams. They must have improved.”

That’s the logical conclusion. It’s also the wrong one.

From week 2 to week 12 the Steelers validated legendary Washington DC radio journalist Ken Beatrice’s argument that “…Every Sunday in the NFL, very few teams win games. It is most often the case that the other team loses.” The Steelers didn’t win those games, they avoided losing them.

  • The Steelers offense was atrocious.

It quickly became apparent Mike Tomlin erred badly in retaining Matt Canada. He tried moving Canada to the sidelines. That didn’t work. But more than Canada ailed the offense.

The offensive line struggled. The progress and promise they showed in the second half of 2022 was a mirage. Najee Harris, when he wasn’t getting tackled behind the line of scrimmage, struggled to manage a couple-of-three yards in what Jim Wexell decried as “Sludge ball.” Jaylen Warren looked better, but he got fewer carries.

Kenny Pickett struggled, except during the 4th quarter, when his “clutch gene” kicked in. To be fair to Pickett, with Pat Friermuth and Dionte Johnson out, he had few weapons to target. George Pickens flashed, but struggled in double coverage. Allen Robinson was nice to have and Calvin Austin was little more than a place holder.

The Steelers defense struggled against the run without Cam Heyward, and at cornerback Patrick Peterson and Levi Wallace left fans screaming for Joey Porter Jr. to start.

Joey Porter Jr., Steelers vs Ravens

Joey Porter Jr. gets his first interception. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Yet the offense avoided turning over the ball, and the defense showed an uncanny knack for making big plays at the right time:

  • Week two vs Cleveland saw Minkah Fitzpatrick open with a tipped pass that Alex Highsmith turned into a pick six.
    Alex Highsmith closed with a strip sack by Highsmith that T.J. Watt returned for a TD
  • Next week, Levi Wallace closed a 23-18 game with an interception vs. Oakla.. er Las Vegas
  • Against Baltimore, Joey Porter, Jr. picked off a pass in the end zone with 4 minutes remaining
    Alex Highsmith and T.J. Watt followed with another strip-sack, fumble-recovery combo
    T.J. Watt closed the game with a sack
  • Against Los Angeles, T.J. Watt opened the second half with an 24 yard interception return, setting up a touchdown, in a 24-17 win
  • Against the Titans, Kwon Alexander closed 20-16 game with an end zone interception.
  • Against Green Bay, Damontae Kazee closed a 23-19 game with an interception at the Packers’ 2.
  • In a 20-26 win over Cincinnati, Trenton Thompson ended the Bengals opening drive of the 2nd half with a Red Zone interception.

And this list of plays that saw the Steelers defense either score, set up scores and/or take certain points off the board for the opponent doesn’t include numerous other turnovers, key third down stops and/or sacks.

What’s makes this stretch of defensive fireworks all the more impressive starting in November, the Steelers practically lost a starting inside linebacker and/or a starting safety to injury each and every week.

No, they weren’t pretty, but the Black and Gold kept winning. Until they didn’t.

December Arrives. And Unpretty Winning Turns to Losing Ugly. Fast.

Firing coordinators during the season is something the Steelers never do. It just isn’t in their DNA.

Yet, Mike Tomlin opened Thanksgiving week by firing Matt Canada after an awful outing in Cleveland. Kenny Pickett and the offense perked up a bit that week against Cincinnati, but were struggling against the 2-10 Arizona Cardinals at home the following week.

Zack Moss, Steelers vs Colts

Zack Moss gets Indy on the board. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune Review

Shortly before halftime, on 3rd and 3 at the goal line, disaster struck as Kenny Pickett tried to run it in himself. Pickett didn’t score, but he did get injured. Najee Harris tried again on fourth down and failed.

  • The bottom fell out on the Steelers.

What followed was perhaps the worst 10 quarter stretch of football in the Mike Tomlin era. The Steelers lost the following week at home, against the 2-10 New England Patriots as Mitch Trubisky struggled.

A week later, the Steelers managed to play even worse against the Indianapolis Colts. Not only did Trubisky’s struggles continue, Damontae Kazee got ejected and ultimately suspended. Worse yet, the Colts closed the game by ramming the ball down the middle against a Steelers defense that was powerless to stop it. It looked like they had quit.

When the NFL announced Damontae Kazee’s suspension, it was for the rest of 2023, including the playoffs. Kazee appealed. The NFL acquiesced, agreeing to allow Kazee’s return for the playoffs.

That seemed like a cruel joke. The Steelers had just dropped 3 straight and were looking worse with each passing week. The only thing standing in between Steelers ending 2023 on a 6 game losing streak was the chance that John Harbaugh might rest his starters in the season finale against Baltimore.

Rudolph to the Rescue

Mason Rudolph, once Ben Roethlisberger’s heir apparent, toiled in obscurity for three years. Rudolph dove into free agency during the 2023 off season, but he returned to Pittsburgh because no one else wanted him. Rudolph mopped up at the ass-end of the Colts game and looked as bad as everyone else.

Mason Rudolph, Steelers vs. Seahawks, Najee Harris

Mason Rudoph and Najee Harris during the Steelers 2023 win over the Seahawks. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.come

So Mike Tomlin appeared to be desperate when he named Mason Rudolph as his starter for that Bengals game. Then a funny thing happened:

The Steelers not only won their next three games, they won convincingly. They even won in Seattle, and the Steelers NEVER win in Seattle. The offense came alive, and players like Eric Rowe and Myles Jack literally stepped off to couch to make game-changing plays on defense.

What was different?

  • One thing. You had competent quarterback play.

Mason Rudolph forced defenses to respect the deep ball. They couldn’t crowd the box. Opposing special teams coordinator didn’t automatically tell his punt return unit to get their helmets on each time the Steelers were in 3rd and 5 or more.

George Pickens – a candidate to be benched for the rest of the season after Indianapolis – exploded for 326 and 2 touchdowns in two games, and a delivered a devastating block in the season finale. Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren romped. Defenders like Nick Herbig and Patrick Peterson made splash plays at critical moments.

And so it was that the Steelers went from being a 7-7 team looking at a near-certain 7-10 finish on December 16th in Indianapolis, to a 10-7 team that stood in Buffalo just 7 points away from tying the AFC’s number 2 seed with just 7:18 left in the game.

Word to the Wise, Put 2023 Lesson to Work

Kenny Pickett demonstrably failed to make the “2nd year leap” in 2023 as hopped. And the tempting take away would be that it is unreasonable for the Steelers to expect him to make that leap in 2024.

But perhaps Pickett will prove once again the lesson coming out of 2023 for the Pittsburgh Steelers is to expect the unexpected.

 

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