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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alex Highsmith, Steelers vs Browns, Alex Highsmith interception

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

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

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

Miles Killebrew, Steelers vs Patriots

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Patriots

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

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

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

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

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

Chris Boswell, Steelers vs Bengals,

Chris Boswell boots it. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger

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

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

 

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Meltdown in Indy: Steelers 30-13 Loss to Colts Is a Microcosm for Entire Season

The Pittsburgh Steelers 30-13 loss to the Indianapolis Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium was a debacle in every sense of the word.

And perhaps that is how it should be.

Because even with three games remaining on the schedule, the Steelers meltdown in Indy serves as a perfect microcosm for the 2023 season.

Zack Moss,

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

Strong Start Signals Sinkhole to Come

The Steelers had lost two ugly games against bad teams that had no business beating Pittsburgh, at home no less. Yet, Jim Wexell reported on WESA, that the Steelers had had a strong week of practice.

And as beat writers will tell you, performance in practice during the week is almost always indicative of performance on Sunday. And besides, Mike Tomlin always rallies the men when their backs are two the wall. Doesn’t he?

Mike Tomlin boldly elected to take the ball to open the second half, giving his offense a chance to grab the proverbial bull by the horns….

And, he was rewarded by a Najee Harris run for no gain (wasn’t the Colt’s rushing defense supposed to be weak?), a Mitch Trubisky sack (what was it about the Colts not blitzing), and a 4 yard pass to Jaylen Warren on 3rd and 14. Oh, and Pressley Harvin only managed 42 yards on his punt.

But T.J. Watt wrecked the Colt’s next possession with a sack, and Indy’s Matt Gay bounced a 56 yard field goal off of the crossbars. The Steelers had won several games earlier in the season by combining big plays on defense and capitalizing on opponent’s mistakes.

Might they be reverting to form. For the next 8 minutes or so, that seemed to be the case.

  • But as always is the case with the 2023 Steelers, there was a big “BUT” attached to it.

Mitch Trubisky moved the team effectively following the blocked field goal. Nothing spectacular. But the Steelers keeping the sticks moving. But even then there were danger signs, both Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren were getting stopped regularly.

After a one yard run by Harris, Trubisky moved the Steelers into the Red Zone with a 14 yard strike to George Pickens. Jaylen Warren followed by ripping off a 6 yard run on 1st and seven in a play that saw Pickens…

…Stand there and watch instead of blocking, costing Warren at least a yard if not a touchdown.

Mitch Trubisky, Steelers vs Colts,

Mitch Trubisky fumbles after scoring. Photo Credit: AP via Tribune-Review

Two plays later, Mitch Trubisky’s second attempt to sneak the ball into the end zone succeeded, but only after replay ruled he had crossed the goal line before fumbling.

But all’s well that ends well, right?

  • Maybe not, because Chris Boswell’s extra point bounced off the cross bar.

Given the way the defense and special teams were playing it looked like Boswell’s missed extra point might be a mere footnote. Larry Ogunjobi wrecked the next drive with a sack and Connor Heyward blocked Rigoberto Sanchez with Nick Herbig recovering at the one.

Najee Harris 3 yard loss on first and goal at the one might have been ugly, but Mitch Trubisky hit Diontae Johnson for a touchdown one play later to put the Steelers up 13-0.

Barely a minute had elapsed in the 2nd quarter and the Steelers had already made it a 2 score game.

Anatomy of a Meltdown

How does a team go from starting a game 13-0 in the first 16 minutes to losing 30-13? Let’s count the ways:

1. Getting burned deep
The Steelers defense is hurting. But even before losing their two starting safeties, Gardner Minshew burned the Steelers for two deep strikes to Michael Pittman.

2. Being Soft in the Middle
There’s a reason why Mykal Walker was unemployed in October. The Cardinals and Patriots exploited him in the previous two weeks, and the Colts followed suit.

The Colts got their first touchdown courtesy of items number 1 and 2.

3. Turnovers I
The faults of the Steelers offense are legion. But one of the things they did not do was this: Turnover the ball.

That was early in the season. For the last 3 weeks? Not so much. Pittsburgh seemed primed to answer the Colts’ score, as both Harris and Warren had a couple of strong runs. Then Mitch Trubisky thought it was a good idea to target George Pickens in triple coverage. He almost pulled it off, but the ball was a bit high and napped by Nick Cross.

The Colts didn’t covert that turnover into a penalty, but did back the Steelers up to their own won.

4. Attrition I
The game of football has changed. Back on November 15th 1993 the Steelers were already leading the then-AFC Alpha male Buffalo Bills, Gary Jones laid this hit on Don Beebe:

Beebe left the game, there was no flag, no fine just Gary Jones getting his 15 minutes of Steelers history fame. Now compare this to the hit that Damontae Kazee laid on Michael Pittman.

There are some difference in the mechanics of each play, but the big difference is what came after, not only did Kazee get a 15 yard personal foul, he got thrown out of the game. That forced 4th string safety Trenton Thompson into the game.

On the next series Minkah Fitzpatrick got hurt and left the game, leaving the Steelers with Miles Killebrew to play.

5. Penalties
While still behind, Gardner Minshew hit D.J. Montgomery over the middle, for a 42 yard pickup. Joey Porter Jr. gave them another 26 yards on pass interference on Alec Pierce. Two plays later Minshew was connecting with Montogmery to put the Colts ahead. For good.

6. Turnovers II
It is easy to pinpoint where the bottom fell out for the Steelers in this game. The Colts got the ball to start the second half, but the short-handed Steelers forced a three and out.

Najee Harris fumbled the ball right back to them, and the Colts scored on the next play.

7. Penalties II
Steelers responded with a punt, the Colts got a field goal and on the next drive Pittsburgh held the ball for nearly six minutes. Good. They also suffered 3 holding penalties on that same drive. They reached Indy’s 39, but Mike Tomlin opted to punt rather than try a 57 yard field goal.

At this point it serves no narrative purpose to enumerate the Steelers breakdowns, because they simply repeated themselves. The Colts ran the ball down the Steelers throats, with Pittsburgh knowing it was coming an unable to stop.

Mitch Trubisky threw another ugly interception. The Steelers kept killing themselves with penalties. Mason Rudolph came in for mop up duty and managed to complete 2 passes, one for negative yards and get himself sacked.

For the record this game wasn’t the worst loss of the Mike Tomlin era – a couple of candidates from the 2009 5 game losing streak would top this – but it clearly makes any top 5 list.

Can the Steelers Recover from Shell Shock?

The Steelers offense lacks talent at some positions and desire at others (see wide receiver.) It lacks coordination. Despite some of the results of the last week, the defense is in much better shape, or at least it would be if it weren’t so deeply depleted.

  • But even that doesn’t account for Pittsburgh’s poor performance against the Colts.

This team is shell shocked. It is playing with zero confidence and self-destructing as a result of it to the extent that one would be surprised if they win another game this year.

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If You’re Gonna Fail, Fail Big: Steelers 21-18 Loss to Patriots Leaves Lessons

The hits keep coming. Thursday Night Football saw the New England Patriots waltz into Acrisure Stadium with a 2-10 record and leave with a 3-10 mark after beating the Pittsburgh Steelers 21-18.

  • This one stings. And so it should.

The Steelers have just dropped back-to-back home games against twin 2-10 teams. Ouch. But losses leave lessons to be learned. In fact, there’s a saying in business “Fail quickly.” The 2023 Steelers looked like they might be taking that route in the season opening stinker vs San Francisco.

Instead they rallied, stitched together 7 wins, a few of which were ugly while some others resembled respectability. Now they’ve lost two games to weak teams after seemingly turning a corner in Cincinnati.

And the reason why is clear: Having lost the ability to fail quickly, Mike Tomlin’s decision-making in both games shows he’s willing to Fail Big, even though he clearly desires a different outcome.

Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Patriots

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

Belichick Still the Boss

Last season, week two, brought the Patriots to Pittsburgh, and yours truly savored at the chance to see the Steelers go up against Bill Belichick sans Tom Brady. The hope was for a return to the pre-Brady days when the Steelers owed Belichick.

At first glance the 6-3 Steelers should have had every advantage against the Patriots. Pittsburgh was playing at home on a short week against one of the few teams in the NFL that has a worse offense than theirs. But this overlooks a few inconvenient facts:

  • The Patriots have an excellent run defense
  • The ground game is the only thing that has sort of worked for the Steelers’ offense
  • The Steelers were down to their 4th and 5th string linebackers

That last part is a bit of a fib. Although Elandon Roberts had left the game against the Cardinals with a groin injury, he did play 81% of the snaps against the Patriots. But the injury clearly impacted him. And the truth is that his counterpart, Mykal Walter was in between practice squad gigs just 38 days ago.

  • Bill Belichick took note and mercilessly attacked the middle of the Steelers’ defense.

And for the game’s first 20 minutes or so, Bailey Zappe channeled his inner Tom Brady. Seriously. By the 7:38 mark of the second quarter, he’d thrown 3 touchdown passes on the Steelers’ defense – or half as many as Kenny Pickett has thrown all year.

Mitch Trubisky, Steelers vs Patriots

Mitch Trubisky hit. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune Review

The Patriots dominated just as thoroughly on the other side of the ball.

  • Steelers tried to run and failed
  • The Patriots’ pass rush collapsed the pocket around Mitch Trubisky
  • And when it didn’t, their coverage confused him

The best plays on the Steelers first scoring drive were Tribuiky’s 15-yard scramble and the pass interference penalty that negated his first interception. But Trubisky had no such luck on his second interception, which set up an easy score (shout out to Connor Heyward for crossing the field to prevent a pick six.)

Credit Trubisky for showing a lot of mental toughness for ignoring the boos and chants for Mason Rudolph that were raining down from Acrisure Stadium throughout the first half. He closed the first half with a solid drive that saw the offense mix it up with a successful reverse to Calvin Austin, solid runs by Jaylen Warren and Najee Harris, and a 25-yard touchdown strike to Diontae Johnson.

Being down 21-10 at the half isn’t pretty, but it sure beats 21-3.

…The NFL Will Seldom Note and Quickly Forget

Professional football is a pass-fail endeavor. There are no “A’s for effort.” That’s the way it should be. But let’s also acknowledge something here which few elsewhere note:

  • The Steelers’ defense performed a 180 degree adjustment against the Patriots’ offense.

It began at the tail end of the first half. New England had time to score, but sacks by Elandon Roberts and tackles for losses by Minkah Fitzpatrick stifled those hopes. Cam Heyward got into the act in the 2nd half, sacking Bailey Zappe on third down and forcing a punt.

Mykal Walker, who’d been exploited for most of the first half got an interception, killing the next drive. T.J. Watt, Patrick Peterson, and Heyward stepped up to make critical stops.

  • The Steelers opened the second half down 21-10.

The defense did its part, in the final two quarters, forcing 5 punts, securing a turnover, and not allowing the Patriots to even sniff a score. It wasn’t enough to redeem the 21 points so easily allowed it in the first half, but the effort gave the offense a chance to either succeed or fail.

Failing Big

Mike Tomlin signaled his intentions at the end of the first half to either go for it all and win or fail big by trying. The Patriots got the ball back with 2:50 remaining, and after two good plays by the defense, Tomlin called a time out. Ultimately the Steelers didn’t get a chance to score before half time, but Tomlin had set the tone.

Against the Cardinals, the Steelers reached the Red Zone, and on 4th and 1, after losing Kenny Pickett to injury, Mike Tomlin went for it. The Steelers didn’t make it, and the bottom fell out.

Take Tomlin at his word when he said he had no regrets because he did the same thing against the Patriots. Mykal Walker’s interception gave the Steelers the ball at the 10 yard line.

The Steelers called 3 plays, none of which worked, although Tribuisky salvaged one with a 7-yard scramble. Mike Tomlin didn’t blink. He went for it on fourth, but the pass protection broke down and an ugly dump off to Jaylen Warren netted just 1 yard. The Steelers needed 2.

Miles Killebrew, Steelers vs Patriots

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

Miles Killebrew blocked a punt to give the Steelers a second chance, and this time the Steelers scored. Tomlin went for 2, and Pat Freiermuth got the 2-point conversion, making it a 3-point game. The mathematicians will note that had Tomlin kicked a field goal instead of going for it on 4th, the Steelers could have tied the game.

  • Tomlin wasn’t interested in a tie: He wanted a win.

The Steelers had the ball twice after narrowing the gap on the scoreboard to 3 – they managed 35 yards on 13 plays, going for it on 4th twice, succeeding once and failing the next time. Tomlin played to win but ended of failing. But at least he failed big.

Benefits of Failing Big

Mike Tomlin is in the middle of one of the toughest moments of his coaching career. But the temptation to treat this as a unique experience is a false one. Mike Tomlin is doing what he’s always done, put the game in the hands of his players at critical moments. Tomlin’s decision to go for it on fourth isn’t any different than:

The difference in the last two weeks is that the Steelers have failed big whereas in two out of the three cases above, they succeeded. Failing big stings. But it does offer a dose of reality therapy, bringing home various painful truths:

  • The offensive line is average at best, with at least two starters that need replaced.
  • Ditto the wide receivers. Johnson and Pickett have talent but attitude issues.
  • As for Austin and Allen Robinson? They’re placeholders.
  • Firing Matt Canada was no panacea, as the answers certainly aren’t to be found in house.

The downside is that there’s really not many ways to apply that insight this late in the season. So Mike Tomlin should continue to play to win while being prepared to fail big.

If nothing else, we’ll find out who is mentally tough on this team.

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

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

James Conner, Steelers vs Cardinals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Austin couldn’t make the adjustment.

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

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

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

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Don’t Look Now: Steelers Put Pat Freiermuth on IR, Activate Diontae Johnson, Cut Gunner Olszewski

It was too good to be true. Coming out of the bye week the Steelers had reached full health with a clean injury to prove it. Then T.J. Watt’s name popped on to with a heel injury. (Breath easy, Watt will play vs. the Rams.)

But Pat Freiermuth wasn’t so lucky. On Thursday he reinjured his hamstring injury. Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell described it this way “…when he re-injured it, he cussed loudly and walked off the field and you knew what happened had to be the hamstring.”

Pat Freiermuth, Steelers vs. Browns,

Focused Pat Freiermuth scores the go ahead touchdown. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

The Steelers ruled him out for the Rams game on Friday and on Saturday morning they put him in injured reserve meaning Freriermuth will miss at least the next four games.

  • That’s bad news for the Steelers.

Pat Freiermuth’s been a reliable receiver with a knack for catching with clutch balls. He’s had a slow start to 2023 (but what player not named Jaylen Warren hasn’t for the Steelers offense) but by the end of 2022 he was developing similar rapport with Kenny Pickett to the one he enjoyed with Ben Roethlisberger in 2021.

  • The hope was that he’d continue that starting with the Rams game. His hamstring had other ideas.

Hamstring injures can be tricky. A non-athlete reading, “He pulled his hamstring” sounds mundane. I mean, who hasn’t pulled a muscle and gone about their day as usual? But hamstrings don’t work that way.

In 1995 Yancey Thigpen exploded to break John Stallworth’s single-season reception record with 85 catches (yes, it was different era.) Yet in 1996, a hamstring injury limited him to 6 games and 12 catches. 2 of those catches were for touchdowns, showing just how much the ’96 Steelers missed Thigpen. A few years later, a hamstring injury suffered in the 1999 Pro Bowl limited Dermontti Dawson to 7 games in 1999 and 9 games in 2000, ultimately forcing his retirement.

Hopefully Pat Freiermuth will fare better.

But his re-injury and trip to injured reserve reminds us that hamstrings heal on their own time and on their own terms.

Hot Rod Next Man Up, Gunner, King Gone, Rush Arrives

One man’s misfortune is another man’s opportunity in the NFL. With Freiermuth on injured reserve rookie Darnell Washington will get an extended look at tight end.

Friermuth’s misfortune is means that Rodney Williams roster spot is safe. Williams is a reserve tight end who transformed and impressive preseason into a practice squad spot. Against the Ravens, in his first game on the active roster he almost recovered Miles Killebrew’s blocked punt. But what came next was more impressive, as Williams willed himself to make a tackle and save a touchdown following Gunner Olszewski’s fumbled punt return.

The punt was ultimately the last straw for the Steelers on Olszewski, whose fumbling problems with the Patriots have followed him to Pittsburgh.

The extra roster spot does clear the way for the Steelers to activate Diontae Johnson, who is believed to have fully recovered from a hamstring he suffered in the opening day loss to the 49ers.

  • The Steelers also made one under the radar move on defense.

While Steelers Nation clamors for Joey Porter Jr. to start over Levi Wallace (or Patrick Peterson or perhaps both!), the Steelers parted ways with Desmond King, the former Houston Texans cornerback whom they signed following cut down day.

King came to Pittsburgh with almost 50 starts and the pickup was hailed as another “Khan Artist Coup.” Yet, he only appeared in 3 games returning 4 kicks in 15 special teams plays and logging a single defensive snap.

  • To replace King the Steelers signed Darius Rush from the Kansas City Chiefs practice squad.

Rush was a highly rated cornerback prospect going into the 2023 NFL Draft. The Indianapolis Colts took him in the 5th round but cut him at the end of summer. The Chiefs picked him up, put him on the active roster for a few games, but then put him back on the practice squad.

Now he’s with the Steelers and must remain on the active roster for at least 3 games.

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How Hatred of Matt Canada has Gotten Out of Hand (Even if He’s Doing a Bad Job)

What exactly did the Steelers win over the Ravens at Acrisure Stadium last Sunday really mean? How will we see it in a few years when we look back?

  • Will it be a turning point for the Kenny Pickett-era?
  • Or will be an example of “On Any Given Sunday” at work?

Today, there’s way to know.

There is one thing we can be certain of today: Sunday’s win against the Ravens marks the point where hatred for Matt Canada reached surreal levels.

And no, this veiled “Give Matt Canada more time” plea. This is different.

Matt Canada

Matt Canada talking to reporters on the South Side. Photo Credit: Brooke Pryor via Twitter

Canada Hatred Reaches Surreal Level in Steelers Nation

Matt Canada comes from a long line of unpopular Pittsburgh Steelers offensive coordinators. Its part of the job description.

But Matt Canada stands in a class of his own. He’s charting new territory as this Twitter (or X) exchange reveals:

Andrew Fillipponi isn’t some random fan who happens to have a large X following, he’s a credentialed member of the Pittsburgh press – at least he’s not making a pretense of journalistic integrity.

By the time the game was over, Andrew Fillipponi’s tweet drew 217,900 views, 1,333 retweets and 1840 “Likes.” You can see how my numbers stack up (Gracias Gus por collaborar con tu RT!)

So let this sink in: Going into the Ravens game fans weren’t focused on the rivalry or the AFC North lead, but hoping things would go so badly that Rooneys would be forced to break a 90-year precedent and fire a coordinator midseason.

This boggles the mind.

Joe Walton was a bad offensive coordinator. The 1989 Steelers had breathed life into a nascent Steelers Nation. In 1990 Walton’s stumbling, overly sophisticated offense sucked the oxygen out of the room.

Did I want Chuck Noll to replace him? Sure. I thought Dick Hoak would have made a great in-season replacement. I even toyed with the idea of writing Noll a letter and suggesting it (ah, to be a naïve teenager again.)

  • Yet, I always rooted for Steelers to win, and for Walton’s offense to ‘click.’

Ditto Ray Sherman and Kevin Gilbride (and Bruce Arians and Randy Fitchner). But I guess that makes me old school.

From Surreal to Sublime

Let’s call a horse a horse: For most of the afternoon the performance of Matt Canada’s offense strengthened the case for his dismissal. Sure, a wily-eyed optimist could say that unit was making baby steps before exploding for the Kenny Pickett to George Pickens hook up.

  • But at the end of the day this was yet another one touchdown game for the Steelers offense.

With that said, Kenny Pickett seemed to get better as the game progressed. He made tough throws to convert 2 third downs on that drive and then audibled when he say the Ravens were in zero coverage and about to bring the house. Pickett made them pay by hitting Pickens for a 42 yard TD.

Finally, the offense had a big play to match the splash plays authored by Miles Killebrew and Rodney Williams on special teams and Joey Porter Jr. on defense.

Yet many Steelers fans STILL felt compelled to find fault with Matt Canada:

Excuse me? When did the measuring stick for an offensive coordinator shift?

Funny, I always thought you’d judge an offensive coordinator on total yards, Red Zone and third down performance, time of procession and, get this, whether the Steelers have more points on the board than their opponent does when the clock strikes zero.

  • But apparently that’s not the case.

Apparently the best measure of an offensive coordinator is his facial expressions after a big play….

I supported the decision to bring Matt Canada back. And I’ll man up and say I was wrong. This isn’t the first time nor will it be the last. The Steelers offense has been terrible in 2023. The progress they showed late last season looks like a mirage.

But I’ll root for his offense to succeed because when it does, the Steelers succeed. And when it performs poorly I’ll criticize Canada, based on the X’s and O’x and not on his non-verbal behavior in the coaching booth.

That’s the way things should be. Shouldn’t need to be said, but I guess it does.

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Steelers Report Card for Rebound Win over Ravens: Baby Steps and Big Plays Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is oscillating between baby steps and big plays here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 2023 rebound win over the Ravens at Acrisure Stadium.

Joey Porter Jr., Steelers vs Ravens

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

Quarterback
The stat sheet says Kenny Pickett went 18 of 32 for 224 yards and one touchdown. But those numbers fail to tell the story of how Pickett improved as the game wore on, who his accuracy got better, and how he made a key audible to burn the Ravens. Grade: A-Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Here’s another case where the stat sheet simply isn’t sufficient to judge a player. Jaylen Warren only had 40 yards on the ground on 9 carries and 3 catches for another 39. But he imposed his will to earn those yards, setting up a score. Najee Harris had 14 carries for 37 yards. Grade: B

Tight Ends
Darnell Washington got his first start and was targeted twice. Connor Heyward moved into the number 2 tight end role and caught 3 passes for 23 yards. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
Allen Robinson but one converted a third down on the touchdown drive. Calvin Austin got one target in limited activity due to concussion concerns while Miles Boykin got a target. The real start of the unit was George Pickens. Everyone in the stadium knew that Pickett would target Pickens. He did it anyway. And Pickens came away with the ball every time it counted. Grade: B+

Offensive Line
Kenny Pickett was sacked 3 times and hit 5 other times while the Ravens made 3 tackles for losses. Overall the line play was a little better than it has been, but was still far from what the Steelers need it to be. Grade: D

Defensive Line
The Steelers were down two defensive lineman so this was a game where the Ravens likely expected to run well. And they started off running well. But the Steelers defensive line held its own as Keeanu Benton led the team in tackles and Larry Ogunjobi made a downfield tackle to force a fumble. Grade: B

Linebackers
T.J. Watt helped stall a scoring drive with one sack, recovered Alex Highsmith’s strip sack which should have ended the game. When it didn’t Watt sacked Jackson on Baltimore’s final possession. Grade: A

Secondary
Yes. Baltimore dropped two sure touchdowns in the end zone and another all but sure touchdown later in the day. But another scene that repeated itself several times during the game was Lamar Jackson slamming his helmet to the bench. And that’s because as the game wore on, Jackson had nowhere to pass leading to abortive runs. Damontae Kazee recovered a fumble, and of course Joey Porter, Jr. made his first career interception covering Odell Beckham in the end zone. Grade: B

Special Teams
Chris Boswell was again perfect, and Brad Wing kicked well enough to make people wonder why he’s been out of the league so long. The Steelers return coverage was solid. Gunner Olszewski made some nice returns, but almost cost Pittsburgh the game with yet another fumble. The real stars of the unit were Miles Killbrew who blocked a punt and Rodney Williams, who saved a touchdown after Olszewski’s fumble. Grade: A-

Coaching
It took 8 quarters, but Matt Canada’s offense finally scored a touchdown. But it looked good doing it. Seriously, Canada’s offense took some baby steps, those were evident in the field goal drive that followed the blocked punt.

Productivity on the Steelers offense remains the exception when it must become the rule. Baby steps are nice, but leaps beyond the occasional big passing play are in order.

If Matt Canada has been a lightning rod for criticism, Teryl Austin’s has gotten a pass, although his defense’s deficiencies have been on display. They were in display again in the first quarter, but his unit tightened down and held the Ravens scoreless for nearly 3 quarters.

  • Sure, the Ravens made some dumb decisions and dropped 2 if not 3 touchdowns.

But that’s how football works. You take advantage of mistakes and if possible you force them. Teryl Austin’s defense forced those – Lamar Jacksons’ frustration made that evident.

A loss as lopsided as the humiliation the Steelers suffered in Houston can break the will of a football team. Fans and the press demanded dramatic changes. Tomlin made a few minor ones visible to the public and likely made more in private.

Elandon Roberts, Justice Hill, Steelers vs Ravens

Elandon Roberts stuffs Justice Hill late in 4th quarter. Photo Credit, Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

But most importantly, he kept his team on an even-keel and prepared them for a physical AFC North football and they prevailed. Grade: C+

Unsung Hero Award
The middle of the Steelers defense has been a mess. They’ve been flashes from this group of players, but too often the errors have outweighed them. Yet against the Ravens, Cole Holcomb, Elandon Roberts and Kwon Alexander stepped up to make several critical plays at critical junctures and for that Inside Linebackers win the Unsung Hero Award for the 2023 win over the Ravens at Acrisure Stadium.

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Steelers Beat Ravens 17-10 as 4th Quarter Fireworks in All 3 Phases Fuel Comeback

The Pittsburgh Steelers defeated the Baltimore Ravens 17-10 at Acrisure Stadium to enter the 2023 bye week with the lead in the AFC North.

The 17-10 score suggests that this was yet another, hard-fought defensive battle in the iconic series between these two rivals.

  • Yet there was nothing simple in how the Steelers scored their 17 points.

And that’s fitting. There’s something about this young Steelers season that escapes the numbers. The Steelers have struggled for much of this year just as they struggled against the Ravens. Yet the takeaways from this latest rebound win against the Ravens suggests that maybe those struggles might be bearing fruit.

George Pickens, Steelers vs Ravens

George Pickens after scoring a touchdown vs the Ravens. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

First Half = More of the Same from the Steelers Offense

As an organization the Steelers seem to have an uncanny ability to tune out the noise from the peanut gallery. And that’s good because during the first half Matt Canada’s offense gave this critics plenty to crow about. While the Ravens were busy putting 10 points on the board, Brad Wing was busy staking his claim to NFL comeback player of the year by punting the ball away for Pittsburgh.

Canada’s offense only suffered one three and out and even put together one 10 play drive before sending Wing out. So theoretically, there was progress.  The Ravens might have only scored 10 points, but Baltimore receivers had dropped 2 passes in the end zone. A more lopsided result only seemed to be a question of “When” and not “IF.”

  • But like any good drama, this game’s first chapters foreshadowed things to come.

If the Steelers defense hadn’t been giving up points, it was keeping fantasy owners happy by giving up yards. Yet late in the third quarter Lamar Jackson hit Justice Hill for a 10 yard gain, he seemed to be destined for more only to have Larry Ogunjobi come up from behind an knock the ball loose.

Damontae Kazee picked it up and 7 plays later, Chris Boswell was getting the Steelers on the board. That did little to satisfy booing fans. But the attentive eye noticed that Kenny Pickett to George Pickens had accounted for 25 of the 26 yards the Steelers offense earned. Could this be the start of a trend….?

There wasn’t much time for back patting in Pittsburgh, because the Ravens marched down the field with authority. They reached the Steelers’ 23, until John Harbaugh overplayed his hand, going for it on 4th and 2 passing up an automatic field goal.

Alas, Lamar Jackson misfired in the end zone 2, burning Baltimore’s a chance to put points on the board. Could another trend be forming….? That’s why we play second halves.

3rd Quarter Uneventful – And that was Half Good

Peyton Manning recently tried to dispel the notion of “half time adjustments” and “Half time momentum.” The effort of the Steelers offense in the third quarter would seem to support that.

  • Brad Wing punted another three times.

The Steelers offense started with a three and out. Then they managed 8 plays for 27 yards on their next possession. And on their final possession of the third quarter they managed another 8 plays for 43 yards, including two more Pickett to Pickens hookups.

That did little to quite the “Fire Canada” chants, but punting aside, Kenny Pickett’s passing seemed to get more precise as the quarter progressed, didn’t it?

On defense the Steelers defense forced the Ravens to put twice. But perhaps more importantly, they were starting to get to Lamar Jackson. That was only the beginning.

Fourth Quarter Fireworks — for Everyone

Has there ever been a more exciting fourth quarter in Steelers history? Perhaps. But this one literally had fireworks on every side of the ball.

The staff at Acrisure Stadium got the 4th quarter started in style with Renegade. The Ravens tried to respond, but with Kwon Alexander stuffing Justice Hill for a losses, the Steelers secondary locking down Baltimore receivers, and Cole Holcomb to cutting off a Lamar Jackson run, forcing a punt.

  • Special teams coach Danny Smith decided to get aggressive.

Special teams captain Miles Killebrew soared through the wedge blocking Jordan Stout’s punt, with Rodney Williams barely missing a touchdown. So the Steelers had to settle for a safety.

The Steelers failed to take the lead, but Jaylen Warren almost single-handedly moved them 49 yards, setting up another field goal. Could the Steelers really turn this around?

The Steelers defense followed with another shut down led by Elandon Roberts making spectacular plays first in pass coverage, then in stuffing Justice Hill. The Ravens punted, but return man Gunner Olszewski, as he is wont to do, fumbled with only Rodney Williams’ tackle saving a touchdown.

  • Perched on the Steelers seven yard line, the Ravens were ready pounce and to put Pittsburgh away.

But Kwon Alexander tackled Mark Andrews for a loss, bringing up 3rd down on the Steelers five. Lamar Jackson fired for Odell Beckham Jr., but Joey Porter Jr. had other ideas, intercepting the ball in the end zone.

  • Kenny Pickett took over at the 20, a Steelers quarterback in command of his offense.

He wasn’t perfect, misfiring on his first two passes. But that didn’t phase him. On his next two he found Allen Robison and George Pickett to convert third downs moved to midfield. The Steelers only needed a field goal to win, but Pickett saw the Ravens line up in zero coverage, crowding the middle of the field. He called an audible went for all the marbles, launching at George Pickens for a 41 yard bomb and a touchdown.

  • Yet that was not the end.

A minute 17 is a lot of time to give Lamar Jackson. And Jackson hit Zack Flowers for 19 yards on his first try. On his next try Alex Highsmigh hit the ball out of Jackson’s arm and T.J. Watt scooped it up, returning it to the 18, seemingly sealing the win for the Steelers,

  • Yet that was still not the end.

A penalty prevented the Steelers from running out the clock, giving the Ravens the ball back with a chance to tie with 49 seconds.

Jackson made four drop backs. He hit Mark Andrews on one of them, but T.J. Watt hit him on his last.

Four Takeaways to Put the Steelers Rebound vs Ravens into Perspective

What to make of all of this? Suffice to say, the Pittsburgh Steelers have taken one of the strangest routes to 3-2 and a hold on the division lead in franchise history. The drama underlying this comeback win shouldn’t obscure the fact that the Steelers cannot allow their punter to audition for the offensive MVP award week in and week out.

And the Ravens dropped 2 touchdowns in the end zone and another in the open field that likely would have resulted in another touchdown. That won’t happen again.

But even taking that into account, there are 4 takeaways from this win:

  • Rookies, such as Broderick Jones and Joey Porter Jr. are finding their NFL footing
  • The re-made inside linebacking crops is starting to gell
  • Kenny Pickett finally seems to have recovered the poise he showed late last season
  • And Pickett seems to be developing a rapport with Pickens

If Mike Tomlin can find away to sustain these trends coming out of the bye week, the next 12 weeks could get interesting.

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Wheeling and Dealing Not Done? Steelers Release Initial 2023 Roster

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

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

Omar Khan, Pittsburgh Steelers General Manager Omar Khan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two punters? Not for long.

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

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Steelers Draft Needs @ Safety – Pittsburgh Has Luxury of Being Strategic

Safety has been one of the most intriguing areas on the depth chart during this off season. The Steelers said goodbye to a former first round draft pick in the form of Terrell Edmunds, resigned an older veteran, brought in one free agent and made a trade that could someday impact the position.

So how does all of this impact their approach to the 2023 NFL Draft? Let’s find out.

Minkah Fitzpatrick, Steelers vs Bengals, Steelers 2022 Opening Day,

Minkah Fitzpatrick intercepts Joe Burrow’s first pass. Photo Credit: NFL.com

Steelers Depth Cart at Safety: The Starters

In Minkah Fitzpatrick the Steelers have a safety who is already adding to the legacy left by the likes of Donnie Shell, Carnell Lake, Ryan Clark and Troy Polamalu.

By any measure, Minkah Fitzpatrick is a play maker. In just four years he has 17 interceptions, including three pick sixes. And as true playmakers do, he makes them at timely moments in games. Just ask Joe Burrow who threw right to Fitzpatrick on the second play of the 2022 season.

Fitzpatrick is far more than a ball hawk. He comes away with deflections with the game is on the line, manages to make tackles in bounds when the clock is running, and is on the field wherever the action is.

Starting opposite Fitzpatrick is Damontae Kazee. Kazee is new to Pittsburgh but he had 2 interceptions in 9 games for the Steelers last year, and he made those at critical moments of the game. Kazee’s durability is an issue, however.

Steelers  Depth Chart at Safety: The Backups

The Steelers have also signed Keanu Neal. Like Kazee, Neal has durability issues, but he also brings 80 games and 61 starts of experience to the Steelers. With his resume, Neal could conceivably push Kazee for the starting job, but his contract suggests the Steelers are not projecting him as a starter.

The Steelers also have Tre Norwood the proverbial “Swiss Army” knife. Norwood arrived in Pittsburgh as a 6th round pick in the 2022 NFL Draft and appeared in 17 games as a rookie. While his snap count dropped from 33% of defensive snaps to 26%, he’s still an asset.

The Steelers also have Miles Killebrew who mainly plays special teams, but did has played 50 defensive snaps over the last two seasons.

Steelers Draft, Steelers Draft Needs scale

Finally, the Steelers have Patrick Peterson. Peterson arrived in Pittsburgh as a cornerback, but its been suggested and perhaps even implied by Mike Tomlin that he could play safety.

The Steelers 2023 Draft Needs @ Safety

The Steelers have positioned themselves well at safety. While neither Kazee nor Neal project as long term starters at the strong safety position, both are viable options for Pittsburgh in 2023.

So the Steelers could strength the position in the draft, should do so if they get the opportunity, but do not need to reach to fill a need.

In other words, they have the luxury of being strategic.

When all is said and done, the Steelers need at safety going into the 2023 NFL Draft should be considered as Moderate.

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