Steelers Report Card for Loss to Patriots: Reverting to Old Habits Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is dismayed to see his students revert to the poor study habits that doomed them last year, here is the Steelers Report Card for the 2022 home opening loss to the Patriots.

Malik Reed, Mac Jones, Steelers vs Patriots

Mac Jones evades Malik Reed. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Quarterback
Mitch Trubisky looked more comfortable back there, the Steelers improved on third down, and he was sharp at the goal line. But his decision making was poor, on the interception and on other critical throws as he continues to force the ball while other receivers are open. Worse yet, the Steelers went 3 and out twice late in the 4th quarter. Grade: D

Running Backs
The Steelers lead running backs averaged 3.8 and 3.3 yards per carry. Pedestrian numbers to be sure, but a step in the right direction. Jaylen Warren looked good in his series and Derek Watt converted a 3rd and 1 with a 2 yard carry. Grade: C

Tight Ends
Pat Freiermuth only had 4 catches but one of those was for a touchdown. Zach Gentry didn’t have pass thrown his way. Grade: C

Wide Receivers
Diontae Johnson continues to shine, making an excellent catch on the 2 point conversion. Chase Claypool had 4 catches and George Pickens added 1 for 23 yards. Gunner Olszewski 18 yard reverse helped set up a score. Grade: CSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Offensive Line
The Patriots sacked Tribuisky 3 times and hit him two other times, but he generally had time to throw. There were also signs of life in the run blocking game. This unit has a long way to go, but it showed improvement. Grade: C-

Defensive Line
Mac Jones had all day to throw. Worse yet, the Patriots ran at will in the 4th quarter when they had to kill the clock. That was eerily reminiscent of 2021. Grade: D

Linebackers
The Steelers saw what life without T.J. Watt looked like, and this unit will have to step up. Alex Highsmith got a QB hit in on Mac Jones, as did Malik Reed. Robert Spillane led the unit in tackles. Grade: D

Secondary
Minkah Fitzpatrick’s interception essentially erased Mitch Tribuisky’s own. Cam Sutton dropped an interception which indirectly set up the muffed punt. Beyond that, the Patriots moved the ball far too easily during their first half 2 minute drill and that touchdown came back to haunt the Steelers. Grade: D+

Special Teams
Chris Boswell went 2-2 on Field Goals of 26 and 52 yards. Boomed off punts for a 51.8 yard average. Those were good. But New England logged several good kick returns as well as one nice punt return. Gunner Olszewski muffed a punt that set up New England’s 2nd half touchdown. This was a special teams error in a game where the Steelers could ill afford one. Grade: F

Coaching
It would be hard to call Matt Canada’s offense a success – and we won’t do that here. But we will acknowledge that the Steelers showed some improvement on third down and there were signs, if however faint, of life from the running game.

  • But as the 2019 experience showed, you won’t beat many people with one offensive touchdown per game.

Nor will you win many games when you’re 3 points behind in the 4th quarter, your defense forces 2 punts, and all you can muster is 2 three and outs.

If the offense took/may have taken an infants crawl forward, the Steelers defense took a giant “Mother May I” step backwards. Without T.J. Watt the Steelers generated precisely zero pass rush. Worse yet, with the game on the line the Patriots offense rushed the ball at will, advancing down the field and killing the clock.

Did Bill Belichick see some sort of systematic weakness he could exploit? Or did the Steelers simply lose a series of 1-1 battles?

  • Regardless, the ease with which the Patriots ran the ball looked all too much like 2021.

    Najee Harris, Steelers vs Patriots, Devin McCourty

    Najee Harris leaps Devin McCourty in the 3rd quarter. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Mike Tomlin, Teryl Austin, Karl Dunbar and Brian Flores had better answer that question – quickly. Because unlike last year, 4th quarter comeback look to be pretty spare. Grade: F

Unsung Hero Award
He didn’t have the kind of game that will make fantasy football owners happy. Nor did he make any of those spectacular plays that fall off of fantasy football owner’s radars. But he scrapped and scraped and managed to make piles forward, giving the Steelers running game some semblance of life, and for that Najee Harris wins the Unsung Hero Award for the 2022 opening day loss to the Patriots.

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Steelers Lose to Patriots 17-14 in 2022 Home Opener as 1 Bogger Begs to Have Been Wrong

The New England Patriots defeated the Steelers 17-14 at Acrisure Stadium, dealing Pittsburgh its 4 home opening loss in the last five years.

  • It was a close game that could have gone either way.

As Mike Tomlin stated, the game came down to a couple of “significant plays,” and one of those provided this writer an opportunity to regret being right.

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

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

Gunner’s Fumble Wounds Steelers at Precisely the Worst Moment

Gunner Olszewski made his NFL debut during the 2019 opener. That Steelers-Patriots game was to be the final Ben Roethlisberger-Tom Brady Matchup, which New England won 33-3.

  • In an ironic twist of fate, Gunner Olszewski made the first critical mistake of the post Ben-Brady era.

The Steelers signing of Gunner Olszewski in the off season was a surprise. Gunner signed for close to half of what Ray-Ray McCloud had gotten to go to San Francisco, yet on balance his return numbers were a little better. And with only three years in the league, the kid had “upside” both as a returner but also as a receiver.

  • The move seemed like a minor steal.

Which begged the question, why would Bill Belichick let this kid walk? A closer look at his return numbers for the 2021 season offered a possible explanation – ball security. He fumbled the ball 3 times last season, all on returns.

Ray-Ray had his own issues with ball security, and numerically the risk Olszewski fumbling was only a smidge higher. On the whole however, it seemed like a wise cost-benefit move for the Steelers, given that Pittsburgh was saving over 6 million dollars. But that concussion came with a caveat:

However, when you factor in that but 3 of Gunner Olszewski’s fumbles came in 2021, should Gunner Olszewski fumble a return the 4th quarter fumble of a close game, that 6.4 million could seem like a bargain.

As it was, Gunner’s came at the end of the 3rd quarter not in the 4th quarter, but it gave the Patriots an 11 point lead, which ultimately proved to be too much for the Steelers to overcome.

And let’s be fair to Gunner on one thing: He certainly didn’t “lose” this game for the Steelers. In fact he had plenty of help.

Some Good Before We Get to the Bad

As Jim Wexell predicted, it didn’t take long for the chorus at Acrisure Stadium to start chanting “Kenny!” “Kenny!” “Kenny!” “Kenny” is of course former Pitt Panther and Steelers 2022 first round draft pick Kenny Pickett.

  • The chorus at Acrisure Stadium has lots of support on social media, if Twitter is to be trusted.

Mitch Trubisky did leave a lot to be desired today. But the offense he led also took some tentative crawls forward  which represented, dare we argue, progress at least compared to last week. Sound fishy? Then consider this:

  • The Steelers went 8-15 on third downs, as opposed to 5-15 last week
  • Pressley Harvin only punted 4 times as opposed to 8
  • Najee Harris ran with more authority, forced piles to fall forward and also did damage as a receiver
  • The Steelers gave Diontae Johnson a “Prove It” contract and he is proving it
  • Olszewski responded to his fumble with an 18 yard reverse that helped set up a score
  • Pat Freiermuth’s touchdown and the 2 point conversion that followed represented excellent goal line execution

Minkah Fitzpatrick pulled down his second interception in as many weeks, which didn’t have much impact in the game but was nice to see all the same.

Failing on Fundamentals

As Jim Wexell pointed out prophetically before the game, the “Patriots are 8-0 when they have the edge in turnovers” under Mac Jones. Today that record improved to 9-0.

If Mitch Trubisky’s interception was negated by Fitzpatrick’s, it only took New England 3 plays to take advantage of Gunner’s fumble. Cam Sutton dropped a sure interception which set up the punt that Gunner muffed. Instead of being a game changer for the Steelers, the sequence was a game changer for the Patriots.

  • Turnovers and ball security is an important fundamental, but it is hardly the only one the Steelers failed on.

If Trubiksy does deserve credit for improved third down performance, even casual observation reveals that he is honing in on one receiver at the expense of missing others. In the same vein, if the offensive line showed some signs of life in the run blocking game, this unit remains very, very far from dominating in the trenches.

But all of this talk of progress above remains academic until the Steelers offense can so that it can score more than one touchdown per game. Or manage more than two straight 3 and outs when three points behind late in the 3rd quarter.

If player’s post game comments are any indication, players are beginning to become frustrated by Matt Canada’s offense.

Cam Heyward, Mac Jones, Steelers vs Patriots, Steelers 2022 Home Opener

Mac Jones escapes Cam Heyward in the 4th quarter. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

  • The Steelers pass rush suffered miserably in T.J. Watt’s absence.

Malik Reed, Tyson Alualu, and Alex Highsmith may have landed a few QB hits, but Mac Jones was otherwise writing his diary back there.

Run Defense Collapse = Difference in the Game

For as valid as those criticisms are, when New England got the ball back with 6:33 left to play, it could be said that up until that point the Steelers defense had done enough to win the game. After all, they’d just forced 2 punts limiting the Patriots to 10 plays while trying to get the ball back in a 3 point game.

  • At that point, the worst of Steelers recent defensive history repeated itself: The run defense collapsed.

Bill Belichick started handing the ball to Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson and the Steelers were powerless to stop either of them. They started slow, getting first 3 then 4 yards. But they improved, going for 6, 8, then 16 before finally settling in with a final 5 yarder that allowed New England to kill the clock.

The Steelers defense did a good job of limiting the run last week, and did a good job of doing it again for the game’s first 55 minutes and 22 seconds.

But the inability of the Steelers defense to slow, let alone stop the Patriots running game as the clock ticked away proved to be the difference in this game.

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Does Steelers + Pats – Ben & Brady = True Test of Tomlin vs. Belichick? Time to Find Out

When Mike Tomlin’s Pittsburgh Steelers welcome Bill Belichick’s New England Patriots tomorrow at Acrisure Stadium tomorrow it will mark the first Steelers-Pats contest since 1998 without Tom Brady and/or Ben Roethlisberger. 1998. We’ll get to what this means for the coaches in a minute.

Mike Tomlin, Bill Belichick, Mike Tomlin vs. Bill Belichick

Mike Tomlin and Bill Belichick at the then Heinz Field in 2010. Photo Credit: Eagle Tribune.

  • But first, let Brady-Roethlisberger factoid sink in.

While that 1998 Steelers squad did feature rookies  like Hines Ward and Alan Faneca who saw action in the Tomlin-era Steelers-Patriots series, it also had players like Dermontti Dawson and Carnell Lake – who were drafted by Chuck Noll.

  • Yeah, Brady has been tormenting the Steelers for a long time.

But this isn’t a nostalgia piece about Steelers history vs. the Patriots, as we’ve already covered that in detail, but rather one about the interplay between team, individual, and coaching records.

Of Quarterbacks, Records, Rivals and Coaches

As sports fans, we love to talk about So-and-So’s record against Such-and-Such. Numbers don’t lie and sometimes the picture they a cut and dried picture. Tom Brady owned the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Those wins were sweet! But if Steelers fans are to take off their Black and Gold tinted glasses, they’ll see that those wins tell us law of averages than about the completive balance between the two teams.

If you dig a little deeper, you could perhaps say that as legitimate franchise quarterback Ben Roethlisberger gave the Steelers had a chance against the GOAT. With Kordell Stewart? Not so much. But what about the coaches?

Stephon Tuitt, Tom Brady, Steelers vs Patriots

Stephon Tuitt bears down on Tom Brady. Photo Credit: Geoff Burke, USA TODAY, via Steel City Insider

Those with short memories are likely to conclude that the record proves that Bill Belichick is also better the Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin, because he’s shared in Brady’s success against the Steelers.

  • But is that really accurate?

The one time, in 2008, when Bill Belichick bring Tom Brady to his fight against Mike Tomlin, the Steelers creamed him. In contrast, the onetime Mike Tomlin faced off against Billy Belichick with Landry Jones as his standard bearer, Jones kept the Patriots honest until the Steelers got Gronked.

So just how much could you, or should you untether a coach’s ability from the performance of his franchise quarterback? That’s a hard question to answer. Chuck Noll and Mark Malone  beat Bill Walsh and Joe Montana. Twice.

No one in their right minds would argue that those outcomes suggest that Mark Malone was a better quarterback than Joe Montana. It’s hard to even write that denial without snickering.

Yet, on the flip side, I unhesitatingly use the 1984 Steelers and 1987 Steelers wins over the 49ers as proof that, in terms of pure coaching ability Chuck Noll was at least the equal of not the superior of Bill Walsh (heck with that, Noll was the better than Walsh! To show that I’m not biased, I’ll also cite Joe Gibbs’ 3-0 record over Noll as proof of Gibbs’ superiority.)

  • Without Tom Brady, Bill Belichick’s record against the Steelers is a rather pedestrian 9-3.

That’s right ladies and gentleman. Remember this for Final Jeopardy:

The Answer – “He’s the Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback with a perfect record against Bill Belichick.”
The Question – “Who is Bubby Brister?”

Bubster led the Steelers to victory over Bill Belichick’s Browns Chuck Noll’s final game in 1991, and then for an encore closed Bill Cowher’s ’92 Steelers season by quarterbacking Steelers to another win over Cleveland.

Brister, like Brady, Ben and Bill Cowher, is long gone, giving way to Mike Tomlin and Mitch Trubisky vs.Billy Belichick and  Mac Jones. For the record, going into this game Mike Tomlin is 3-7 against Belichick.

Will this downgrading of quarterbacks for both coaches give us a chance to truly gauged one coach’s talent against the other’s?

  • Objectively, probably not.

But if the T.J. Wattless, crappy offensive line Steelers do beat the Patriots tomorrow, you’d better believe this scribe is gonna say its offers evidence that Tomlin is a better coach than Belichick.

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Surprise! Steelers Upset Bengals 23-20 in Overtime as Defense Dominates

The Pittsburgh Steelers launched the Mitch Tribisky era Sunday with a 23-20 overtime win over the Cincinnati Bengals at Paycor Stadium.

  • The win came at a cost with several marquee players leaving the field early with injuries.

But an upset road win over a division rival and defending conference championship is always good. And the win confirmed a lot of what we thought we knew about these Pittsburgh Steelers, and that’s both good and bad.

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

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

Defense Still Wins Games

The old adage used to be, “Defense wins championships.” In this era of big gambling, Fantasy Football fueled football, the game has been legislated to tilt heavily towards the offense. Does defense still “win championships” in the National Football League?

Who knows?

Mike Tomlin and his players proved that defense can still win games for the Pittsburgh Steelers here in 2022. And they did this from the very beginning of the game.

Cam Heyward opened up the game, rag dolling Joe Burrow with a 5 yard sack. Minka Fitzpatrick struck next with a 31 yard pick six. Less that three and a half minutes had elapsed, the Steelers offense had punted once after earning just 8 yards.

Cam Heyward, Steelers vs Bengals

Cam Heyward opens game by sacking Joe Burrow. Photo Credit: Tribune-Review

  • Yet, the Steelers were up 7-0.

Alex Highsmith struck next, sacking Burrow for a 7-yard loss on third down, although a record setting 59 yard field goal by Evan McPherson got Cincinnati on the board. Highsmith wasn’t done, because four plays later he strip sacked Burrow with Cam Heyward recovering. Pat Freiermuth did his part with a 31 yard reception.  But the Steelers offense sputtered at the goal line, settling for a Chris Boswell field goal.

Not that it really mattered, because T.J. Watt picked off Joe Burrow 8 plays later. This time Zach Gentry did the honors of getting the Steelers in position to score, and Najee Harris finally found the end zone on the team’s 5th shot from the goal line.

Lovers of defense only needed to wait for six more plays for Cam Sutton to short-circuit another promising Bengals drive with an interception.

And that was only the first half. In the second half Ahkello Witherspoon intercepted Burrow again while Arthur Maulet sacked him in overtime forcing a final punt. T.J. Watt and Robert Spillane added sacks of their own, Myles Jack stepping up with a critical pass defense, as did Cam Sutton in the end zone.

After the game, this was the word from Cincinnati:

Then this:

Anyone wonder why?

SOSO – Same Old Steelers Offense

If the Steelers defense played as well as optimist felt it could, their offense played as poorly as pessimists (or realists) feared it would. Here’s some harsh reality: Only 2 critical Cincinnati special teams errors separated the Steelers from losing a game in which they enjoyed a 5 point turnover differential.

  • You almost have to try to lose a game in which your defense secures 5 turnovers.

And the worst part about it? The Steelers offense wasn’t trying to lose the game, they were trying their best. And their best almost wasn’t good enough. Sure, both tight ends came up with big catches in the first half with Pat Freiermuth adding another in overtime.

  • Matt Canada employed some smoke and mirrors to get a running game going with Chase Claypool.

Diontae Johnson set up what should have been the game winning field goal in overtime with what was perhaps his best catch as a Steeler.

But Steelers running backs managed 2.3 yards per carry behind an offensive line that had ZERO push. And Pressley Harvin punted 8 times. Mitch Trubisky made a few nice throws and his mobility limited his sack total to one.

But the Steelers offense was just as in effective as it has been since early 2020, scoring only 2 field goals without the help of turnovers.

Chase Claypool, Germaine Pratt, Steelers vs Bengals

Chase Claypool stiff arms Germaine Pratt. Photo Credit: Tribune-Review.

The Difference – Special Teams and the Run Defense

And the one field goal the Steelers did score was set up in part by Gunner Olszewski 20 yard punt return. The Steelers special teams also blocked an extra point and the Bengals missed a field goal in overtime. That’s four points special teams kept off the board and three more that they added. Subtract Boswell’s miss, and you still have a 1 point differential.

  • But what made all if it meaningful was the Steelers run defense.

Last year Joe Mixon embarrassed the Steelers, averaging 5.5 yards per carry against them, and making it look easy. That success loosened the defense and allowed Burrow to abuse the Steelers secondary at will.

Today the Steelers held him to 3.0 yards on 27 carries, and if you take out the one, ugly 31 yarder that the Steelers defense did allow, that average drops to almost 2 yards a carry.

Running the ball might be passé in today’s NFL, I’d argue it is not, but even if I’m wrong, being unable to stop the run is positively lethal. The Steelers defense stopped the run, giving their play makers a chance to do their damage, and that was the difference.

Keeping It in Perspective

This win, in all its ugliness, came with a cost. T.J. Watt is rumored to have torn a pec. If that’s true, he’s done for the year, and the Steelers defense will become decidedly mortal. Najee Harris reportedly left the stadium in a walking boot. Levi Wallace and Robert Spillane also left the game with injuries.

  • Even if the news on Watt is better than expected, the Steelers offense must improve. Period.

But if that’s true, its also true that the Pittsburgh Steelers played their first game without Ben Roethlisberger demonstrating the same resilience that defined the Roethlisberger Era.

That alone is a sign of hope.

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For Better or For Worse: Steelers Trubisky Begins Where Roethlisberger’s Super Bowl Window Closed

History keeps evolving symetrically for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Last year, Ben Roethlisberger played his final regular season game on the road, against the Ravens, just where he played the first one. On Sunday September 11th 2022, the Steelers Mitch Trubisky will begin in Cincinnati, exactly where the Ben Roethlisberger’s ended or at least where his Super Bowl window closed.

  • Often times Super Bowl windows close in silence.
Ben Roethlisberger, Ryan Shazier, Steelers vs Bengals

Ben Roethlisberger and Ryan Shazier after the Steelers win. Photo Credit: Aaron Doster, USA Today, via 937TheFan.com

The Pittsburgh Steelers beat the Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowl XIII. The Steelers returned for their 4th Lombardi in Super Bowl XIV a year later against the Rams, while the Cowboys lost in the NFC Divisional playoffs. Yet Tom Landry and Danny White had The ‘Boys back in the NFC Championship for 3 straight years. It seemed only a question of “When” Tom Landry would win his third ring, not one of “If.”

  • Alas, it would take Jimmy Johnson to bring the Lombardi back to Texas Stadium.

In contrast, the Steelers 2nd Super Bowl Era end the moment Ryan Shazier turned over on the turf unable to move his legs at Paul Brown Stadium (yes, I know its Paycor now) back on that dark December night in 2017. The Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin and especially Ben Roethlisberger himself tried to move heaven and earth to re-open that window.

  • But Ryan Shazier proved to be irreplaceable.

And in trying to replace the irreplaceable the Steelers quite likely gave up too much, in the form of the Devin Bush and even Joe Schobert trades.

And Cincinnati adds its weight to that historical rhyme scheme in other ways. For it was in Cincinnati in 2019 that Mike Tomlin benched Mason Rudolph for Delvin Hodges — reminding everyone of just how difficulty it was going to be to replace Ben Roethlisberger. A year later at Paul Brown, Ben Roethlisberger gave his own reminder, authoring a first half of football that drove this scribe to wonder out loud if Steelers Nation hadn’t just witnessed its own Ali-Holmes moment.

Fortunately, that was not the case. Roethlisberger rebounded, playing better football the next Sunday and for the next season as well. Yet, if there was any one game that symbolized just how far the Steelers had fallen, it was the 2021 beating the Steelers suffered in their final game at the venue that was to be known as Paul Brown Stadium.

  • What fate will fortune deliver to the Mitch Trubisky era of Steelers football?

Will Trubsiky earn his own Super Bowl rings? Will he follow in the footsteps of Cliff Stoudt, who ushered in an era of mediocre, bad, average and above average quarterbacks? Or will he be like Tommy Maddox, serving as a bridge quarterback to a long and successful Kenny Pickett era?

No one knows at this moment. But we’re about to start finding out.

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Like It or Not: Benny Snell Football Remains in Pittsburgh for One More Year

In a move that shocked anyone heavily invested in the Steelers, Benny Snell Jr., the fourth-year running back out of Kentucky, survived the team’s final round of cuts last Tuesday and will remain on the roster through at least the 2022 campaign.

Wow, right? I guess it could be a surprise if you are so emotionally connected to all things Steelers that you spent the majority of the summer rooting for Snell to leave town once and for all.

Benny Snell, Steelers vs Ravens

Benny Snell delivers for Steelers in 4th quarter. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Ah, the good old days of his rookie year when Benny Snell, who the Steelers picked the fourth round of the 2019 NFL Draft, actually had fans excited. Why? Mainly because of a hugely-productive college career that included 3,873 combined rushing yards and 48 touchdowns.

Kentucky has never been known as a college football powerhouse, especially in the powerful SEC, so for Snell to produce so well–he rushed for over 1,000 yards in each of his three seasons–was seen as a good sign.

There was even talk that Snell could be a prime candidate to replace James Conner, the third-year running back with a great personal story but a bad habit of always being injured. After battling ailments over his first two seasons, Conner again missed a lot of time in 2019; Snell carried the load in Conner’s absence and nearly finished as the team’s leading rusher with 426 yards on 108 carries.

There was so much hope for Snell heading into 2020, and the goodwill continued for the second-year back after he replaced an injured Conner during the Week 1 showdown against the Giants in New York and rushed for 113 yards.

Then it all came crashing down. James Conner remained the starting running back in 2020 — and he even managed to remain healthy — while Snell only rushed for 326 yards on 111 carries.

  • Benny Snell did not look good behind a quickly aging and deteriorating offensive line.

Snell was an even less productive back in 2021, rushing for 98 yards on just 36 carries, while Najee Harris, the rookie bell-cow running back out of Alabama, tallied 1,200 yards on 307 rushes.

  • Fans had soured on Benny Snell even before the 2021 campaign and started referring to him as “Benny Snail.”

So what has happened to Snell? You can blame it on the offensive line — one that got younger and even worse in 2021. You can blame it on Snell being stuck behind Harris, the team’s first-round pick a year ago.

But if I had to pin the stagnation of Snell’s career on anything, I think the number-one suspect would be his draft stock. That’s right, despite what people like to now say about the position, it’s rare for running backs selected with mid-to-late-round picks to turn into stars.

It’s probably even worse for undrafted free agents, which is why I have a warning for Jaylen Warren, the UDFA running back out of Oklahoma State who became a training camp darling and made the Steelers’ final roster: Run!

  • No, not from defenders. Instead, you better learn to run from the critics and the haters.

They’ll be around soon to voice their opinions on you.

Why do I say that? Because it goes back to what I just mentioned: It’s rare for guys drafted with non-premium picks, or not drafted at all, to make an impact at the NFL level.

Just ask Jaylen Samuels, a fifth-round pick out of NC State in 2018 who, like Snell, showed a lot of promise during his rookie season. Remember his 100 yard performance in the 2018 Steelers upset win over the Tom Brady and the New England Patriots.

  • Then, Jaylen Samuels stopped showing much promise at all.

After spending three seasons with the Steelers, and then cups of coffee with both the Texans and Cardinals, Samuels is currently a free agent. Will he ever play again? It seems doubtful.

Jaylen Samuels, Antonio Brown, Steelers vs Patriots

Jaylen Samuels rips off a long 1st quarter run with Antonio Brown blocking. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, via PennLive.com

Back to Snell.

Why is he still on the Steelers’ roster? Because of special teams, that’s why; apparently, Snell is one of those special teams demons. No, he’s not a Pro Bowl-level player, but he’s really good. In fact, Snell’s special teams snaps increased to 326 last year after tallying 198 in 2020.

  • Can’t everyone play special teams? Apparently not, or at least not everyone can play them as well as Snell.

Believe it or not, not every player is there to please the fans and to become a star. Most NFL players stick around because they can do the mundane work, the stuff that doesn’t get the headlines, and do it well.

Benny Snell Football was a style of play the young running back boasted about during his rookie season. Unfortunately, Benny Snell Football has morphed into something way less sexy than we all thought it would be.

But that’s okay.

Benny Snell Jr. has managed to make it to his fourth NFL season. There are few football players on the planet who can make that same claim.

 

 

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6 Quick Takeaways from the Steelers 19-9 Preseason Win over the Lions

The Steelers 2022 preseason finale win over the Detroit Lions may not have had the intensity of an ole style Chuck Noll preseason finale dress rehearsal, but it certainly brought a lot more to the table than the 4th preseason wrap up games against the Carolina Panthers.

And that revealed both good and bad for the Steelers now that the games that count are about to start.

With that in mind, here are 6 not-so-random thoughts on the game.

Pat Freiermuth, Steelers Lions 2022 Preseason

Pat Freiermuth’s 32 yard catch sets up a score. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

1. The Offensive Line Has Potential to be Truly Offensive

The big ugly spot coming out of the preseason win over the Jaguars was the offensive line, which had been horrendous in that preseason game. Could the unit improve week-on-week?

Not really. Mitch Trubisky was sacked twice and had to get out of trouble many more times. And while he did have time to throw on a couple of his longer passes, we also saw plenty of the “chink-and-dink that plagued the Steelers offense during Ben Roethlisberger’s final two seasons.

The run blocking wasn’t much better, with the Steelers averaging 2.9 yards on the ground. Najee Harris saw his first action, and did a decent job of making something out of nothing on more than one occasion.

After the game Mike Tomlin did concede that the line had improved a little, it did, but those improvements were offset by penalties. The Steelers offensive line has a long way to go before it is no longer a liability.

2. This Defense Has “It”

3 sacks, 1 interception, 12 passes defensed and 2 4th down conversions stopped. Yes, as Mike Tomlin cautioned, it is only preseason. And yes, the defense did allow longer runs of 27, 10, and 11 yards.

But it is hard to avoid watching and coming away with the feeling that this defense is headed in the right direction.

3. Freiermuth is for Real

Pat Freiermuth not only lead the team in touchdowns, he came up with a key 32 catch that set up Steven Sims touchdown catch as time was expiring at the end of the first half. Based on what we saw from Freiermuth last season this shouldn’t surprise anyone.

But it always takes two years to really measure a player’s mettle, so its nice to see Freiermuth deliver.

4. Pickett Looks Good, But Mortal

After coming in and playing exceptionally well during his first two preseason outings, Kenny Pickett still looked good but played like a mere mortal. He did make one long critical completion with a perfectly placed ball to Myles Boykin. And 3 plays later he hit Olszewski with a catchable ball in the end zone.

5. Snell Sells It

Benny Snell has had some injury issues this summer while Jaylen Warren has earned a lot of positive press. Snell’s stat line is a modest 17 yards, but he did post the highest total of the group and earned the best rushing average of behind a bad line.

More importantly, his hustle was apparent.

Snell was playing as if his job depended on it – it very well may – and that’s what you want to see in a situation like this. More importantly, he made something out of nothing on a couple of carries – a skill that’s going to be critical behind this line.

6. Trade Mason? Are You Out of Your Vulcan Mind?

The Steelers decision to cut 7th round pick quarterback Chris Oladokun set off a social media firestorm the likes of which have not been seen since the team cut 4th round pick Doran Grant prior to the 2014 opening day.

Was it because, like Devlin Hodges, Chris Oladokun had been the summer superstar at St. Vincents and the standout during preseason games? No. He never saw the field in preseason and, by one count, completed just over 46% of his passes in practice.

  • The real reason of course is that that cutting Chris Oladokun means the Steelers will be keeping Mason Rudolph.

As they should. Mason Rudolph has quietly authored the most consistent performance of any Pittsburgh quarterback this summer, although he’s not had much time with the first team. And for fans that don’t want to hear that, take this from the Lions. Midway through the 2nd half, the broadcasters flashed a “Battle of the Backups” graphic, showing that Tim Boyle had completed 5 of 15 passes for 64 yards and one interception vs. 4 of 10 for 50 yards for David Blough.

Blough of course got more garbage time yards, but that stat alone shows that the Steelers are very lucky to have a quarterback of Mason Rudolph’s caliber as their 3rd string.

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Could “Patience” Be the Watch Word for the Steelers 2022 Offensive Line?

Tell me if you’ve heard this one before: The Steelers’ offensive line stinks.

You’ve heard that before? I’m not surprised. It has been a popular refrain over the past two seasons whenever the Steelers and their potential problems are discussed.

Mitch Trubisky, Chucks Okorafor, Mason Cole, Steelers 2022 Offensive Line

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

Of course, there is no use putting the word “potential” in front of the world “problem” when talking about the Steelers’ offensive line. It was a problem in 2020. It was a problem last year.

What about this year? Even though the Steelers have only played two preseason games so far, the offensive line still appears to be quite offensive.

Yes, despite adding free agents James Daniels (right guard) and Mason Cole (center) to the interior of the offensive line in March, the line has struggled through much of training camp and all of the exhibition season.

In spite of the fact that Dan Moore Jr., a fourth-round pick out of Texas A&M in the 2021 NFL Draft, started 16 games at left tackle as a rookie, he may need a little more seasoning before he’s fully developed.

As for Kendrick Green, a third-round pick out of Illinois in 2021 who played center as a rookie and has been switched over to guard — his more natural position in college — during the 2022 training camp? Yikes.

Let’s just say Green is still incredibly raw and that no amount of seasoning and time in the oven may turn him into a professional offensive lineman.

  • Having said all that I’ve said up to this point, there’s still time for this line to gel and find some cohesion.

Believe it or not.

I know it’s hard to believe after witnessing two-plus years of the same level of play along the offensive line, but as I alluded to earlier, the guys doing the playing aren’t the same.

The Steelers almost completely overhauled their entire offensive line during the 2021 offseason; gone were left tackle Alejandro Villanueva (a free agent the team decided to move on from); left guard Matt Feiler (a free agent the team couldn’t afford to bring back); center Maurkice Pouncey (retirement); and right guard David DeCastro (released due to injury).

David DeCastro, Maurkice Pouncey, Chukwuma Okorafor, Steelers vs Rams

File photo of the 2019 Steelers offensive line. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Last year’s line, from left to right, included Moore, Kevin Dotson, Green, veteran Trai Turner and Chukwuma Okorafor.

Chucks Okorafor, a third-round pick out of Western Michigan in the 2018 NFL Draft, was the only leftover from the mostly aging 2020 crew. As for Dotson? He was a fourth-round pick out of Louisiana in 2020 who turned some heads as a spot starter during his rookie season.

What about Dotson’s sophomore campaign? Dotson didn’t turn as many heads despite winning a starting job in camp. A rumored lack of commitment seemed to sour some Steelers coaches on Dotson during the 2021 offseason, while injuries hindered him in the regular season as he tried to make the transition over to left guard in place of the departed Feiler.

Okorafor and Turner were steady if uninspiring on the right side. Moore had his issues at left tackle, but, again, he did enough to start 16 games as a rookie.

  • Kendrick Green’s stint at center was an epic failure.

What did this all add up to in 2021? An offensive line that was just as bad, if not worse, than it was in 2020.

At least youth was on its side, though, right?

Not if you were Dotson and Green.

Mason Cole was brought in to be an upgrade over Green at center in 2022. James Daniels was a highly-touted free agent who Pittsburgh signed to sort of act as the new anchor of the line at right guard, a la DeCastro.

Green was thrown into a position battle with Dotson during training camp, while Moore and Okorafor remained as the starting tackles.

In addition to more player personnel changes, Pat Meyer was hired as the team’s new offensive line coach, making him the fourth person to assume that role for the Steelers since 2018.

That’s a lot of upheaval for one unit in a short period of time. It’s kind of unrealistic to expect everything to be going smoothly at this point in time. Should there be individual improvements? Yes, and I’m still excited about DAn Moore despite his struggles during the preseason.

As for the center position? If Cole can simply be steady and reliable, that would be a stark improvement over what even Pouncey gave the unit in his final season.

It’s no secret that James Daniels has struggled a bit at right guard, but I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt while he finds his bearings with his new coach and co-workers.

And that last part really is the most important, right? These guys have to be given time to gel together and perfect the techniques their new offensive line coach has taught them.

Those in the know in terms of offensive line play say that chemistry, trust and learning to work together are just as important as winning individual battles when it comes to developing an effective offensive line.

Should the Steelers go out and sign a free agent or make a trade? I doubt you’ll find much in terms of quality this late into the offseason.

Many say that the Steelers should have used more premium draft choices to address the line in recent years. Yeah, but in place of whom? Would you rather have an offensive lineman over Najee Harris, a running back the Steelers selected with the 24th pick of the 2021 NFL Draft? How about tight end Pat Freiermuth, selected one round after Harris?

Najee Harris, Steelers vs Ravens, Ben Roethlisberger final regular season

Najee Harris starts overtime with 1 handed catch. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review.

What about the 2022 draft? You’d rather have a tackle over Kenny Pickett, who looks like he could be a more than credible replacement for Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback? What about George Pickens, a second-round pick in 2022 who might be a superstar receiver the moment he plays in his first regular-season game?

Fact is, the Steelers have been transitioning from a veteran offense to a more youthful one over the past few years, and you’re not going to be able to address every position with premium picks. Focusing on one position means kicking the can down the road on the others.

I’ll admit that I’ve always been adamant that every unit needs at least one stud — a player with a high pedigree — but the Steelers seemed to find that guy in free agency when they signed James Daniels in March.

James Daniels wasn’t a first-round pick by the Chicago Bears, but he was selected in the second round in 2018 and started 48 games in four years.

  • Seems like a high-pedigreed stud to me.

The Steelers may just have to continue to endure the growing pains along the offensive line until they get it right. It’s not going to happen overnight. Heck, they’re more than a few nights into this rebuild and still in search of some answers.

Finally, the Steelers have a young team, complete with a young offensive line.

There still may be time for that young line to mature into something formidable.

Hell, maybe even Kendrick Green.

 

 

 

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6 (Not So) Random Thoughts on the Steelers 16-15 Preseason Win over the Jaguars

Preseason football isn’t what it used to be. (Or perhaps, as staff writer Tony Defeo suggested on BTSC, perhaps the good ole days of preseason weren’t all that good.)

Be that as it may, preseason football gives unproven players a chance to test their mettle in live fire circumstances. It gives coaches a evaluate unit cohesion. And, best of all, it gives fans a chance to evaluate young player with their own eyes.

With that in mind, here are 6 observations from the Steelers 16-15 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Kenny Pickett, Steelers 2022 preseason Jaguars

Kenny Pickett scan for a receiver. Photo Credit: AP via Tribune-Review

1. Pickett’s Got Poise

OK. Let’s be crystal clear on this: 2 preseason games does not a Hall of Fame resume make. Remember Matthew Thomas, the Steelers 2018 preseason standout? His NFL career consisted of 4 defensive snaps.

  • With those disclaimers in place, it is hard not to like what we’ve seen from Kenny Pickett.

His debut against the Seahawks was nice, but it is easy to see that as a varsity first round pick dominating JV competition. But against the Jaguars, Pickett was going up against NFL veterans.

  • He looked like he belonged. He made good decisions. Perhaps most impressive was his poise.

For the second time in two weeks, he took the reigns in a 2 minute situation and calmly went down the field. When asked about it, Mike Tomlin suggested that “…its probably who he is” before concluding “Some things people are born with.”

Leading touchdowns in the 2 minute drill against the Jaguars and Seahawks in August isn’t quite the same as doing on the road it against the Cincinnati Bengals or Baltimore Ravens in the 4th quarter of a rainy December night with the AFC North on the line, but we can now dare to dream.

2. Trubisky’s Mobility Will Be far More than a “Nice to Have”

So several times last season as it became clear that Ben Roethlisberger was about to ride into the sunset, Mike Tomlin mused about the importance of having a mobile quarterback, although it was clear he was thinking more along the lines of Steve Young than Kordell Stewart.

  • Against the Jaguars Mitch Trubisky showed his Steve Young-like mobility.

More than once, he slid his way out of pressure and delivered the ball down field to connect with Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool.

Mitch Trubisky, Steelers vs Jaguars 2022 preseason

Mitch Trubisky shows off his mobility against the Jaguars. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review

Its good that he has that mobility, because he’s gonna need it….

3. The Time to Worry about the Offensive Line Begins Now

…Throughout training camp, veteran beat reporters such as Jim Wexell and Mark Kaboly have warned their readers that the Steelers offensive line has been shaky. It is hard to know what that really means, even if the Steelers remain one of the few NFL teams to have live hitting during training camp.

  • The Steelers offensive line was atrocious.

The line’s decline began in 2019, became obvious in 2020 and accelerated in 2021. The conventional wisdom was that with the maturation of Dan Moore and Kendrick Green, and the free agent additions of Mason Cole and James Daniels, the Steelers offensive line couldn’t get any worse. Could it?

The performance against the Jaguars suggests that the Steelers offensive line IS capable of regressing even further in 2022.

4. Gunner’s Good, But Watch Those Fumbles

There’s a lot to like about Gunner Olszewski. When the Steelers signed him, it almost seemed like a steal when comparing his contract to what the 49ers had given Ray-Ray McCloud. Everything we’ve seen or heard since then has been a positive, with all signs indicating he can be a good return man and a viable 4th wide receiver on game day.

But, as suggested here when he signed with the Steelers, perhaps the Patriots parted ways with Olszewski because of his ball security aka fumbling issues.

After making a really smart kick return, Gunner Olszewski fumbled the ball in the 4th quarter, allowing Jacksonville to take the lead. That’s easy to forgive in preseason. When the games count? Not so much.

5. Time to Stop Beating around the Bush

As criticism of Devin Bush mounted last fall, Steel Curtain Rising urged restraint. ACL injuries were tricky things to come back from, reminding everyone that Rod Woodson, who tore his ACL in the 1995 Steelers opener himself admits he didn’t feel 100% until 1998. The Dr. de Acero wrote his own medical opinion in Spanish talking about the complexities of ACL rehab.

  • That was then. This is now.

I don’t pretend to have the savvy to do an X’s and O’s analysis of Devin Bush’s role in what was a very shaky run defense. But one image stands out is that of Bush getting turned so that he’s facing backwards as a running is cutting through to the second level behind him.

I’m pretty sure that’s not how Brian Flores and Jerry Olsavsky had Bush’s responsibilities for that play drawn up. When asked earlier this week if this was his “Make or break” year in the NFL, Bush offered sanguine words. Talk is cheap.

It is now time for Bush to put up or shut up.

6. NFL GamePass Condensed Games Have Their Limits

As I did last year, I opted not to watch the game live and instead watch it via NFL Game Pass’ condensed viewing option, which not only cuts out commercials, but also pauses between plays with very view replays.

While that sure beats slogging through 3 hours’ worth of commercial breaks, you really do miss something watching games in such condensed fashion. Not only do you lose the flavor of the game, it is also hard to hone in on its ebb and flow.

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Isn’t It a Shame that Trubisky, Pickett and Rudolph Can’t All Start a Game This Preseason?

All eyes will be on choice Kenny Pickett tonight as the Steelers square off against the Jaguars tonight in their 2nd preseason game of the 2022 exhibition season.

The Steelers of course drafted the Pitt Panther in the first round of the 2022 NFL Draft, and after a slow start in training camp, Pickett was arguably the star of the Steelers preseason win over the Seahawks last week leading a, dare we say, Ben Roethlisbergeresque comeback.

Sure, it was in the second half of the first NFL preseason game against a group of guys who’ll count themselves lucky if they spend a day on an NFL practice squad.

  • Nonetheless, Mitch Trubisky will start this game, with Pickett slated to come in second.

Which begs the question: If Pickett played so well and if Mike Tomlin is running a serious quarterback competition, then shouldn’t Pickett get a shot at starting a meaningful preseason game?

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

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

And there’s the rub.

Under the 4 game preseason format, it would have been far easier to give Kenny Pickett, Mitchell Trubisky and Mason Rudolph a shot at starting a game. But now that preseason is only limited to 3 games, the math gets harder.

The last time the Steelers staged a 3 way competition for the starting quarterback slot was during the 1996 season. Neil O’Donnell had departed after Super Bowl XXX, leaving Mike Tomczak, Jim Miller and Kordell Stewart to vie for the starting job.

Bill Cowher gave each quarterback a start, (thanks to an America Bowl game in Tokyo,Steelers actually had 5 preseason games that summer) decided on Jim Miller, but jerked him after just one half in an ugly season-opening loss to the Jaguars.

Looking back on that experience, perhaps it’s one of the reasons why, for all his talk about holding an open competition, Mike Tomlin has appeared intent on have Mitch Trubisky open the season as the starter.

But I for one would have liked to see each quarterback benefit from starting a game with the rest of the first team, followed by a rotation that gives the others a representative split of time playing with both primary backups and the guys struggling to land a roster spot somewhere.

  • But you can’t really do that with a 3 game preseason schedule.

Heck, is really hard to have two different QBs start a meaningful game. Yeah, the old curmudgeon in me who likes to sing the praise of the virtues of preseason football IS coming out. But that grumpiness is tempered by the reality the hemming and hawing over the poor quality of preseason football has become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Last year, Mike Tomlin did give hte late Dwayne Haskins a legitimate shot at wresting the job from Mason Rudolph. Reading the coverage of someone Haskins work with the second team, you’d have thought he flashed signs of stardom.

Watching the games told my eyes that I was seeing “good” but not great performances. When Haskins finally got his start, he blinked, but he wasn’t nearly as bad as some of the critiques written about him would have had your think.

The Steelers brass obviously had a different view, because they wasted no time in tendering Haskins an exclusive rights free agent contract.

At the end of the day, in a perfect world, each of the Steelers quarterbacks would start a meaningful game in the preseason. But the game has moved on, imperfectly or perhaps perfectly, but regardless, Mike Tomlin has a plan and he is sticking to it.

And Mike Tomlin knows “a little bit” more than I do about preparing quarterbacks to start in the NFL, so good for him.

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