Report Card For Steelers 29-17 Loss To Browns on TNF

Quarterback

Photo credit: Steelers.com

Mitchell Trubisky had his best game of the 2022 regular season against the Browns at FirstEnergy Stadium on Thursday Night Football. Unfortunately, that might be damning Trubisky with faint praise. Yes, he did look much better in the first half while leading the offense to two scoring drives, including a one-yard run to give Pittsburgh a 14-13 lead late in the second quarter. But the offense was almost non-existent in the second half and was forced to punt on its first three possessions. All-in-all, Trubisky completed 20 of 32 passes for 207 yards and may have had a slightly better night had receiver Diontae Johnson been able to hold onto a pass down the right sideline late in the third quarter with the Browns leading, 16-14. Grade: C

Running Backs

Najee Harris had his best game of the young season, rushing for 56 yards and a five-yard touchdown on 15 carries. Meanwhile, rookie Jaylen Warren had a bit of a breakout game in his own right, rushing for 30 yards on four carries. Unfortunately for Warren–and Trubisky and his night–a short pass that resulted in a 35-yard catch and run by Warren early in the third quarter was wiped out by a penalty on right tackle Chukwuma Okorafor and killed a promising Steelers drive that may have extended their one-point halftime lead. Grade: C+

Tight Ends

Pat Freiermuth didn’t catch any passes until the final moments when he reeled in two for 41 yards with the Steelers desperately trying to claw their way back from a 23-14 hole. Zach Gentry didn’t receive a single target all night. Grade: C-

Wide Receivers

Rookie George Pickens made the catch of the year when, while falling backward, he reached out with his left hand to snag a pass from Trubisky for a 36-yard gain in the first half. Sadly, Pickens would go on to catch just two more passes for two more yards. Johnson had a decent night, catching eight passes for 84 yards. He may have had an even bigger night had he been able to pull in that aforementioned deep ball from Trubisky late in the third period. Yes, he was covered well on the play and would have had to make a one-handed grab, but he’s the big money man of the receiving corps now and could have helped his quarterback out at that point in a close game. Grade: C

Offensive Line

The line played its best game of the 2022 campaign. But even though Trubisky was only sacked once and hit twice, and even though the Steelers rushed for 104 yards on 22 carries for 4.7, the offense was so impotent in the second half that it’s hard to give the unit anything but an average grade. Throw in the critical penalty on Okorafor that wiped on a huge gain, and that hurts the unit’s cause even more. Grade: C

Defensive Line

To say this Steelers’ defense, the highest-paid in the NFL, is simply average without T.J. Watt would be an understatement, and that starts up front with the defensive line. Cameron Heyward has been invisible since Watt’s injury. Has he faced more double teams? Sure, but that should be freeing up other guys to make plays, and they really have not. Larry Ogunjobi did record half a sack, but the Browns also rushed for 171 yards on 38 carries. Grade: C-

Linebackers

Both Myles Jack and Devin Bush had productive nights at inside linebacker, tallying 12 and 11 tackles, respectively. As for the outside linebackers, Alex Highsmith had a really good night, registering eight tackles, two quarterback hits and 1.5 sacks. Unfortunately, Highsmith’s counterparts on the other side–including Malik Reed and Jamir Jones–were sort of just there. Grade: B

Secondary

Not a good night for the secondary, as receiver Amari Cooper–seven catches for 101 yards and a touchdown–and tight end David Njoku–nine receptions for 89 yards and a score–dominated the entire game. Safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, who had the game of his life in Week 1, failed to come close to that kind of performance for the second week in a row–and the Steelers need him to do that on a consistent basis with Watt out of action for some time. Grade: D

Special Teams

Kicker Chris Boswell proved that he wasn’t automatic from inside of 50 yards, by pulling a 49-yard attempt wide right early in the game. True, Boswell was kicking in windy conditions, but a successful try may have changed how the game unfolded down the stretch. Pressley Harvin III, 42.4 yards per punt on five boots, was solid if unspectacular. The return game was just there. Grade: C

Coaching

I hate to use a cliche and say that Mike Tomlin and Co. were outcoached over the final two periods after the Steelers played their best half to start the game, but it sure felt like it, didn’t it? Offensive coordinator Matt Canada is once again the subject of fan wrath thanks to an uninspired second-half showing. As for Teryl Austin, defensive guru Brian Flores and Tomlin, the brain trust of the defense, why haven’t they been able to scheme up any quarterback pressure in Watt’s absence? Grade: D

Unsung Hero Award

Left tackle Dan Moore Jr. held up quite well against Myles Garrett all night.

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Steelers’ Defense Doesn’t Deserve A Pass In The Loss To The Patriots

The Steelers dropped their home opener to the Patriots, 17-14, at Acrisure Stadium on Sunday.

Photo courtesy of Steelers.com

It was the kind of game the Steelers have to play these days, thanks to an offense that’s been downright awful for going on two calendar years.

Pittsburgh’s offense was again atrocious on Sunday, tallying just one touchdown to go along with two Chris Boswell field goals.

It was such a shame to see a fine and solid defensive effort go to waste. Yes, sir, even without T.J. Watt, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, in the lineup, the Steelers’ defense clearly did enough to win and deserved better from the offense.

Only, the Steelers’ defense didn’t do enough to win. Why do I say that? Because Pittsburgh lost the game. I don’t know what it is about Steelers fans locally, nationally and internationally, but they love to prop up the defense and give it the benefit of the doubt no matter what. When evaluating a defensive performance following a loss, fans almost always take the big picture approach and simply cite the number of points given up, as if there is a magical amount that is always acceptable regardless of what occurred during the game.

The offense gets evaluated with much greater scrutiny, however. The Steelers could score six touchdowns in a game, but if the end result is a loss, fans take a more situational approach and cite situational football, like a particular play call, a turnover and/or red zone efficiency.

Nobody ever talks about a prolific offense being gassed or winded late in the fourth quarter after propping up a porous defense all game long–gaining yards and scoring points must rejuvenate the body.

The bottom line for an offense is this: It must continue to execute and score points until it has enough to secure a win.

Why can’t the same be true for a defense when it comes to things like the number of points it allows or a situational moment in the game where it failed?

If you watched Sunday’s game, you know it came down to a few key moments. Yes, the offense was horrible and did little to win the game, but the defense did little to pressure Mac Jones, sacking him zero times and only hitting him thrice.

To reiterate, Watt was out of action–he suffered a pectoral injury in the Week 1 overtime victory against the Bengals and will miss at least a month after being placed on the Injured Reserve list–but zero sacks? So little pressure?

Watt means so much to the team that his mere absence neutralizes good-to-great players like Alex Highsmith, Larry Ogunjobi, Tyson Alualu and Cameron Heyward?

Even without a pass rush, the Steelers’ defense may have done just enough to win on Sunday if cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon would have won the one-on-one battle against Patriots receiver Nelson Agholor late in the first half that resulted in a great combat catch by the latter and a 44-yard touchdown.

What about the drop of an easy interception by cornerback Cameron Sutton late in the third quarter, with the Steelers trailing, 10-6? Sutton could have given the Steelers prime real estate–at worst–and who knows? Maybe the offense would have come to life and actually taken advantage of the gift.

Instead, return man Gunner Olszewski muffed a punt two plays later; New England recovered and set up shop at the Steelers’ 10 before ultimately capitalizing with a Damien Harris touchdown to make it 17-6.

The Steelers managed to close the gap to 17-14 early in the fourth quarter but could get no closer.

The offense could only muster two three and outs in the fourth quarter, and the Patriots ran out the final 6:33 to secure the win.

While the offense deserves a lot of the blame for failing to do anything in the fourth quarter, the defense deserves an equal share for allowing New England to run out the rest of the clock and not giving the offense one final possession.

Would it have been a futile possession? It’s easy to say, “Yes,” but Pittsburgh’s offense was even more pathetic in Week 1 and did virtually nothing for over 69 minutes of game action.

However, unlike this past Sunday, the defense managed to give the ball back to the offense one final time, and, believe it or not, quarterback Mitchell Trubisky and Co. made the necessary plays to get in range for Chris Boswell to end things from 53 yards out as time expired in the extra period.

The defense certainly did enough to beat the Bengals. Why do I say that? Because the Steelers won the game.

It’s too bad the defense didn’t do enough to beat the Patriots in Week 2.

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Seen This Movie Before? The 2022 Steelers Looked Too Much Like ’21 Edition in the Opener

The Steelers literally outlasted the Bengals, 23-20, in the 2022 regular-season opener at Paycor Stadium on Sunday in one of the most exciting, dramatic and blunder-filled games in recent history.

The game had everything. It was a defensive slugfest between two AFC North foes–one, the Bengals, the defending AFC champions; the other, the Steelers, the team that once owned Cincinnati, as well as aspirations for AFC and NFL dominance.

The action was so crazy, that it required overtime and every last second of it before a winner was finally declared, thanks to Chris Boswell‘s 53-yard field goal at the gun.

When it comes to defensive efforts by the Steelers, it will be hard to top what the unit did on Sunday. Not a bad debut for Teryl Austin, the team’s new defensive coordinator.

The defense, led by stars Minkah Fitzpatrick, T.J. Watt and Cam Heyward, kept fighting, hitting, tackling, sacking Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow, and taking the football away from him despite being on the field for over 43 minutes of game action.

When the defense did wilt, like at the very end of regulation when Burrow connected with receiver Ja’Marr Chase on what looked to be the game-winning touchdown with two seconds left, a defensive star showed up on special teams and saved the day; I’m talking about Fitzpatrick and his blocked extra point that sent the game into overtime. 

Yes, sir, the Steelers’ 2022 start should be a reason to celebrate and get you excited about what lies ahead over the next 16 games.

  • If only Sunday’s Week 1 win didn’t look alarmingly like 2021’s Week 1 win when a putrid offense had to be propped up all game long by the defense.

That’s right, despite a new quarterback in Mitch Trubisky, a very mobile man who was signed in part because the Steelers wanted someone with great athletic skills to be the field general of Matt Canada’s motion-influenced offense, the play calling during Sunday’s game looked just like what we witnessed in the last days of Ben Roethlisberger’s career when he was extremely immobile and seemingly unwilling to adapt to Canada’s philosophy.

I’m talking about a horrible running game, quick and short passes to the sidelines, an unwillingness to stretch out the passing game even a little bit, and treating the middle of the field like it was radioactive.

It didn’t seem all that surprising or frustrating when the Steelers’ offensive performance played out the exact same way during the upset win in Buffalo in Week 1 of the 2021 regular season. After all, it was Canada’s first game as offensive coordinator, and the marriage between his philosophy and that of Roethlisberger’s figured to take some time to gel. Throw in a totally revamped offensive line, and you just knew there would be some growing pains with the offense over the course of the season.

But while the pain persisted all throughout the 2021 regular season, no growing ever took place.

Back to 2022.

I wasn’t expecting the Steelers offense to look like a well-oiled machine in Cincinnati on Sunday. In fact, I expected more growing pains, especially with an offensive line that not only experienced more changes in the offseason but struggled mightily all throughout training camp and the preseason.

  • I did expect to see a different offensive approach, however.

Instead, we watched the Steelers offense, one that Washington’s Chase Young claimed had been exposed as far back as 2020, try the same game plan it had been utilizing since Roethlisberger came back from the elbow injury that kept him out for most of 2019.

I realize that Sunday’s win would have been bittersweet no matter what, thanks to the uncertainty surrounding T.J. Watt and his pectoral injury. But even with a healthy Watt, it’s hard to imagine the Steelers’ defense being as dominant over the course of the regular season as it was against the Bengals on Sunday.

The defense will be great, no doubt, maybe even with Watt on the shelf for an extended period of time, but you’ll never see as dominant of a performance as what you got in Week 1.

And what did it amount to? A game that would have been a loss if not for some luck and blunders by the Bengals.

  • The Steelers’ defense did all that it could do, and it still almost wasn’t enough.
  • Why? Because the offense was as bad as it was all of last season and in much the same way.

While I can’t imagine the Steelers’ defense ever looking as good as it did on Sunday, I can certainly picture the offense continuing to look horrible all throughout the 2022 regular season.

That’s a frightening thing to imagine.

 

 

 

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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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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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The Steelers ’22 Preseason Opener Was a Draftnic’s Dream

The Pittsburgh Steelers defeated the Seattle Seahawks, 32-25, in the 2022 preseason opener at Acrisure Stadium on Saturday night.

Kenny Pickett, Kenny Pickett preseason debut, Steelers vs Seahawks preseason

Preseason debut of Pitt Alum and Steelers first round pick Kenny Pickett. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Reivew

The end result wasn’t all that important. Teams win preseason games. Teams lose preseason games. At the end of the day, it has no bearing on what happens during the regular season–not usually, anyway.

However, Saturday’s events at Acrisure Stadium may just yet have a bearing on the Steelers’ 2022 regular season. Why? Because of who helped Pittsburgh win the game.

It wasn’t just anyone, mind you. No, this game was decided quite noticeably by many members of the Steelers 2022 draft class.

Fans and the media spend so much time analyzing and overanalyzing the draft–both pre and post–that it almost becomes mind-numbing. The reason for this is because so many of these draft choices–regardless of the round or position–go on to do nothing as NFL players.

That still might be the case for the Steelers 2022 draft class, but if Saturday’s events were any indication, maybe we can expect big things from these youngsters.

Let’s start off by talking about receiver George Pickens, a second-round pick out of Georgia who was the talk of Steelers training camp in the days before Saturday’s preseason opener vs. Seattle. It seemed that Pickens could do no wrong from the moment he set foot on the grass of Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, Pa. No matter the circumstance, no matter the route, no matter the defender covering him, Pickens was reportedly unstoppable over the first two weeks of training camp.

  • But what about in a professional game against an actual opponent?

Here we are, just days after Pickens first professional football game, and he can still do no wrong. Sure, Pickens’s box score of three catches for 43 yards and a touchdown seems rather pedestrian, but did you see the touchdown–a 26-yard catch in the back right corner of the end zone? Yes, the pass was an absolute dime thrown by beleaguered quarterback Mason Rudolph, but the concentration Pickens displayed while making an over-the-shoulder catch and managing to keep both feet in bounds? Let’s just say that Antonio Brown, a former Steelers receiver who was not shy about referring to himself as Toe-Tap Tony for his ability to make such catches, wouldn’t have been able to do any better on his best day.

Speaking of catches, how about the ones made by Connor Heyward, a sixth-round pick out of Michigan State? At 5’11” (or 6′ depending on who’s doing the measuring) and 230 pounds, Heyward, the little brother of the legendary Cam Heyward, was brought to training camp as a tight end, this despite the fact that he had the body of an H-back/fullback. But in spite of his rather short stature for a tight end, Heyward displayed the kind of athleticism he was known for at MSU and extended his arms away from his body to pull in two passes for 24 yards on the night. He looked like an actual tight end, and not a lumbering fullback.

What about Mark Robinson, a former running back in college who converted to inside linebacker after transferring to Ole Miss as a senior and making the team as a walk-on? Robinson, a seventh-round pick in the 2022 NFL Draft, entered Saturday’s contest as your proverbial underdog fan-favorite. How did he do over the course of the evening? I’m afraid I lack the football IQ or keen eye to answer that question, but Robinson did catch my eye late in the game when he blitzed Seahawks quarterback Drew Lock and stripped him of the football. The Steelers recovered the fumble with just over a minute left in a game that was tied at 25.

And what did the offense do with this critical possession? It scored the game-winning touchdown with three seconds left. And just who orchestrated this drive? Kenny Pickett. That’s right, I had to save the best–or at least the most exciting–for last.

The Steelers selected Pickett, a University of Pittsburgh product who led the Panthers to the ACC Championship in 2021 and was a finalist for the Heisman Trophy, with the 20th pick in the 2022 NFL Draft.

That Pickett, the first quarterback taken off the board, lasted until the 20th choice was either divine intervention or an indictment of the ’22 class of passers, depending on your perspective. However, there was no question about the significance of the Steelers using a first-round pick to draft a quarterback just months after Ben Roethlisberger retired after 18 years.

The anticipation was almost palpable as Pickett finally made his debut in the third quarter of Saturday’s contest. Pickett was immediately met with the sounds of “Kenny! Kenny! Kenny!” by the folks in attendance, a chant that went on unabated the entire second half.

Pickett’s debut was everything a Steelers fan could have dreamed of. He completed 13 of 15 passes–including his first 11–for 95 yards and two touchdowns. Pickett’s final pass was a quick hitter to the right side that receiver Tyler Vaughns took the rest of the way for the aforementioned game-winning score.

The fans continued to chant Pickett’s name. His teammates all swarmed the field to congratulate him.

It was a magical evening.

And lest we forget about defensive lineman DeMarvin Leal, who did some good things in his professional debut. Speaking of debuts, we have yet to see receiver Calvin Austin III make his NFL debut. He missed Saturday’s game due to injury, but don’t you just feel like he’ll do some wonderful things when he eventually plays?

  • This is what happens when you’re excited about a draft class and those guys shine right away.

It’s hard to imagine a better overall debut for a Steelers draft class.

Is this group for real? I don’t know, but I can’t wait for the second act this Saturday night against the Jaguars.

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Is This Year’s Steelers Defense Really Good? Or is Mitchell Trubisky Really Average?

Whenever anyone discussed an aging Ben Roethlisberger in recent years and what the Steelers’ plan should be for finding his successor, I was always a staunch supporter of drafting a quarterback in the first round right after the big guy retired and throwing the youngster into the fire as quickly as possible.

Mitch Trubisky, Steelers 2022 Training Camp

Mitch Trubisky at St. Vincents. Photo Credit: NBC Sports.com

The Steelers did ultimately pick a quarterback with the 20th overall selection of the 2022 NFL Draft Kenny Pickett, the pride of the University of Pittsburgh. No offense to Mason Rudolph, but had the fifth-year man from Oklahoma State been Pickett’s top competition going into training camp, I would have given my plan a very good chance of becoming a reality.

Only problem? Mitch Trubisky became Pickett’s top competition about six weeks before the latter was even selected by Pittsburgh. That’s right, the Steelers agreed to a two-year deal with Trubisky, the number-two overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, at the onset of free agency, a development that seemed to indicate he would have the most realistic chance of becoming Roethlisberger’s immediate replacement.

Still, the Steelers did draft Pickett in the first round, and teams don’t spend that kind of draft pick on that position unless their plan is for that man to start sooner rather than later. But it became a bit easier to perhaps give Pickett a “redshirt” rookie season with Trubisky available to start for Pittsburgh in 2022.

If only Trubisky wasn’t struggling at training camp, which he seemingly has been since the moment he took his first practice rep at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, Pa.

Trubisky has struggled with his accuracy. He’s struggled against the Steelers’ number one defense in seven-on-seven and 11-on-11 drills. Trubisky has struggled in the now very popular 7 shots goal line drill that is a part of just about every training camp practice session.

Most importantly, Trubisky has struggled to convince anyone that he’s not the same quarterback who struggled to be anything other than ordinary during his four years with the Bears.

Yes, it is true that Rudolph has looked the most comfortable at quarterback during the early portion of the Steelers 2022 training camp, while Pickett has been up and down–although, Week 2 has been more encouraging than Week 1. Unfortunately, Trubisky, despite his struggles, has taken the vast majority of first-team reps, and it appears that the Steelers are hellbent on him being the starter when the team travels to Paul Brown Stadium for the regular-season lid-lifter vs. the defending AFC Champion Bengals on September 11.

I suppose Steelers fans could and should be encouraged by the dominance of the Steelers defense, a unit that is very expensive and includes three All-Pros and the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year in T.J. Watt. Maybe there are few defenses in the NFL as dominant as Pittsburgh’s unit, and maybe things will open up for Trubisky once he goes up against lesser foes on that side of the ball.

Steelers fans sure better hope so. If not, Trubisky could join the likes of Cliff Stoudt and Mark Malone as the first quarterback to inadequately try to replace a legend.

Chuck Noll, Mark Malone

Chuck Noll and Mark Malone.

  • Of course, there’s always the possibility that Rudolph could get the nod if Trubisky continues to struggle.

Unfortunately for Mason Rudolph, he may have already reached the point of no return with Steelers fans, a group who will probably just be waiting for him to screw up before unleashing its wrath even harder and with even more vengeance than when Rudolph was simply a backup–the kind of wrath normally reserved for a starting quarterback. There’s always the possibility of just throwing Pickett into that fire after a few more weeks of seasoning. Could that plan of mine actually work after all? It’s impossible to say at the moment.

Is this an overreaction? After all, the Steelers haven’t even reached Week 3 of training camp. Hopefully, it is. If not? Be prepared to hop in a time machine and take a trip back to the mid-’80s.

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Rejoice! The Steelers Have Reported To Training Camp!

It’s finally here. Your Pittsburgh Steelers reported to training camp at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, Pa., on Tuesday!

What does that all mean? Nothing much as far as Tuesday was concerned. The players reported to camp and said some things to the media. The head coach, Mike Tomlin, said some things to the gathered press.

But at least the Steelers are officially at training camp and preparing for the 2022 regular season, which will be upon us in approximately six weeks.

Can you believe the Steelers are actual

Mike Tomlin

Steelers Training Camp has started. And fans, like Mike Tomlin, are smiling ear to ear.

ly at training camp? For my money, there’s nothing all that exciting about the Steelers being at camp, but it’s like boarding a flight before going on a tropical vacation. As a fan, you don’t have to exert much effort between now and whenever the Steelers season ends. You sit back and enjoy the ride until everything comes to a stop in January. Sure, you hope it’s February (if you know what I mean?), but it’s most likely going to be January.

You don’t have to try very hard to fill the football void because the news stories will be coming at you daily, and they’ll be authentic and organic. You don’t have to sit around and have debates about the draft. You don’t have to sit around and talk about Tomlin’s worth as a head coach. Much like a lawyer prepping for a big case, everything from now on will be what they call discovery. How does veteran Mitch Trubisky look? Is he taking advantage of this second chance at being a starting quarterback in the NFL? Maybe he is, but perhaps Kenny Pickett, the first-round draft choice out of Pitt, is just too good to have a redshirt rookie campaign.

There’s so much at stake as far as Devin Bush is concerned. Coming off an underwhelming 2021 campaign, one in which he was clearly still affected by a torn ACL suffered in 2020, this is Bush’s time to show everyone that the Steelers didn’t make a mistake by trading several picks away to move up to the 10th spot to take him in the 2019 NFL Draft.

There are so many other stories to mine in camp, and it’s such an exciting time for the Steelers organization. Ben Roethlisberger has moved on after 18 years, and the franchise is tasked with ushering in a new era and doing so the right way.

The Steelers have been here before. They had to replace Chuck Noll in 1992, and couldn’t have found a better successor than Bill Cowher. Fifteen seasons later, less than one year after he finally brought home the organization’s fifth Lombardi Trophy, Cowher said goodbye.

  • Mike Tomlin said, “Hello,” got on that moving train, and everything kept on running smoothly.

Will the Steelers strike gold again with their new quarterback? That remains to be seen, but I do know this: The time for speculation is over.

The Steelers 2022 season has arrived. Sure, it’s only moved into the development phase, but at least we’ve moved beyond the pre-production period.

When I was a kid, the NFL would loosen its grip on you for a few months during the offseason and allow you to concentrate on other things. But those days are now over. Is it a better time to be an NFL/Steelers fan? Is the constant engagement, with every little thing–including the ridiculous schedule reveal “event”–garnering “front page” coverage, healthy? I guess that all depends on your priorities.

But while I’ve always struggled during the offseason with caring about things like NFL free agency and the mind-numbing draft coverage that never seems to end, staying enthralled with all-things football during the season takes no work at all.

It never gets old.

The Steelers are my team, and this is my time of year.

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Former Steelers Kicker Matt Bahr was One Player Who Improved Over Time

Being a field goal kicker in the NFL is a tough job. It’s obvious to the entire world when you succeed or fail.

If you’re good at what you do, you get to keep doing it, but if you’re bad, you’re not going to stick around very long. Heck, even if you’re really good for a long time, you could still lose your job if you struggle for just a few games.

Matt Bahr, 1979 Pittsburgh Steelers

Former Steelers kicker Matt Bahr, on the road, during the 1979 or 1980 season. Photo Credit: NASL.com

Unlike other positions in the NFL, kickers are on the wrong side of supply and demand, where the supply of kickers walking around far outweighs the demand for them at the professional level; there are only 32 teams in the NFL and only 32 jobs available. There are no backup kickers, no third-stringers. You’re either a starter or an insurance salesman.

Matt Bahr, a sixth-round pick by the Steelers in the 1979 NFL Draft, initially looked to be one of those kickers who would have to choose his life’s work a lot sooner than he would have liked. The Penn State product did make Pittsburgh’s roster as a rookie, but his results were less than stellar, as he made just 18 of 30 field-goal attempts. Sure, Bahr did okay for himself in the postseason, making three of four field-goal attempts for a Steelers team that would go on to win its fourth Super Bowl title in six years, but he certainly didn’t show much improvement in Year 2, making just 19 of 28 during the 1980 regular season. Perhaps Bahr’s most “notable” moment during the ’80 season occurred in a Week 6 loss to the Bengals at Three Rivers Stadium when he missed a 39-yard field goal that would have put the Steelers ahead with mere seconds left.

Despite his struggles, Bahr, who was obviously riding the wave of the Steelers’ ’70s Super Bowl success, was the star of a Kentucky Fried Chicken commercial in the fall of 1980. Bahr’s money line in the commercial, ironically enough, was, “Do one thing all the time, you get to be great.”

Unfortunately for Bahr, he was sent packing after connecting on just 63.7 percent of his field-goal attempts over his first two seasons. Bahr quickly found a home with the 49ers in 1981, but after making just two of six field goals, Bahr was traded to Cleveland, where he closed out his third NFL season by hitting on a rather pedestrian 13 of 20 attempts. Bahr managed to stick with the Browns in the strike-shortened 1982 season, but he seemed to get worse, not better, and connected on just seven of 15 attempts.

So, after actually regressing during his third and fourth seasons, Bahr appeared to be at a crossroads as an NFL kicker, complete with a 59.5 career percentage on field-goal tries.

But something curious happened in 1983: Bahr became a damn-fine kicker and connected on 21 of 24 field-goal tries for a Browns team that somehow had the instincts to keep him around. Bahr spent the rest of the ’80s with the Browns and connected on 77.8 percent of his field-goal attempts between 1983-1989. Rather impressive, considering how windy, cold and cavernous old Cleveland Stadium was.

Bahr joined the Giants in 1990 and would eventually have his finest hour later that season; Bahr connected on a then-postseason record five field goals in the NFC title game against the 49ers at old Candlestick Park — including the 42-yard game-winner as time ran out. Bahr accounted for his team’s only points in a 15-13 victory that sent the Giants to the Super Bowl where they upset the Bills in dramatic fashion.

Bahr seemed to get better with age and connected on 79.7 percent of his field goals in the ’90s during stints with the Giants, Eagles and Patriots before finally retiring prior to the 1996 campaign.

Bahr connected on 72.3 percent of his field-goal tries during his career (300 of 415), a number that placed him just a class below some of the best kickers of his day–including Gary Anderson and Morten Andersen. In fact, when he was at the top of his game in the ’80s and ’90s, there wasn’t a whole lot that separated Bahr from his more decorated contemporaries.

Bahr will never make it to the Hall of Fame, but he is a two-time Super Bowl champion, and I’ll bet he’s never had to pay for a drink in the Big Apple.

Matt Bahr was an example of a kicker who was allowed to work through his early struggles and go on to have a really good and lengthy career in the NFL.

  • It’s like he said in the KFC commercial: “Do one thing all the time, you get to be great.”

Or at least good enough to stick around.

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Is It Crazy to Think Mason Rudolph Can Start for the Steelers in 2022?

Apparently, the popular belief is that the question put forth in the title of this article — which suggests that Mason Rudolph, the Steelers’ fifth-year quarterback out of Oklahoma State, has a shot of being the team’s starter in 2022 — is just plain nuts.

Mason Rudolph, Steelers vs Rams

Stats might not show it, but Mason Rudolph made strides against the Rams. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

In order to accomplish this, Rudolph would have to overcome the odds made even longer when Pittsburgh went out and signed free-agent Mitchell Trubisky in March before using a first-round pick to draft Kenny Pickett in April.

Rudolph would also have to overcome his many critics who have long since washed their hands of him and his abilities.

Seventeen career appearances, including 10 starts. That’s Rudolph’s resume as he heads into his fifth season as a professional. That amounts to a season’s worth of time honing one’s craft at the most important position in team sports. Is that really enough to evaluate a player at any position but especially quarterback?

You can cite Rudolph’s career stat line which includes 2,366 passing yards, 16 touchdowns and 11 interceptions when stating your case against him. But I think the biggest indictment against Rudolph after 17 appearances is that he has yet to have a “wow” or “it” moment, meaning he hasn’t wowed you with his skills, nor has he shown himself to have that “it” factor vital to every franchise quarterback’s makeup.

Let’s be real, though, did Trubisky, selected second overall by the Bears in the 2017 NFL Draft, ever have a “wow” or “it” moment during his four seasons in Chicago? The Bears certainly didn’t think so, otherwise, they would have picked up his fifth-year option instead of allowing him to become a free agent in 2021 and sign a deal to be Josh Allen‘s backup in Buffalo. Trubisky was solid in Chicago. For example, he had a 29-21 record as a starter and threw 64 touchdowns to 38 interceptions, but teams — even ones who appear to be as clueless about the position as the Bears are — don’t let perfectly good quarterbacks walk away.

  • Those guys are just so hard to find.

As for Kenny Pickett, he’s an exciting prospect, and he had an incredible fifth season at Pitt, one in which he put the football program on his back and carried it all the way to an ACC championship.

  • However, his first four years with the program proved to be rather underwhelming.

I’m not trying to disparage Trubisky and/or Pickett. In fact, I will be rooting hard for whoever wins the Steelers starting job in 2022. But are either of those guys that much better than Mason Rudolph, at least on paper?

How will Rudolph respond after an offseason where he knew he had at least a puncher’s chance of winning the starting job in Pittsburgh? Everyone knew Rudolph would never have a chance as long as Ben Roethlisberger was around, but if I were him, I don’t think I’d feel all that intimidated by the task of beating out his current competition for the role.

Being a backup quarterback in the NFL is tough. You get few opportunities to show what you can do during a regular-season game, and if you don’t impress people with the limited action you do get, it’s easy for negative opinions to form and harden fast.

Once those negative opinions form, it takes a lot to change them into something more positive.

Finally, your mind may already be made up about Mason Rudolph and his abilities as an NFL quarterback, but I sure do hope the Steelers keep an open mind about him as he takes his reps at Saint Vincent College this summer.

Good quarterbacks are hard to find, and the Steelers need to be as thorough about their quarterback search during training camp as they were in the offseason.

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