Salary Cap Casualty: Steelers Cut Allen Robinson Saving 10 Million

The cuts keep coming in Pittsburgh as the Steelers release wide receiver Allen Robinson as Omar Khan continues to create salary cap space ahead of free agency.

  • Unlike some of Khan’s other choices, the decision to cut Robinson is completely expected.
Allen Robinson, Steelers vs Bengals

Allen Robinson catches a 4th quarter pass. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

The Steelers traded for Allen Robinson last spring by swapping picks with the Los Angeles Rams, as Pittsburgh sent a 7th to get Robinson and the Ram’s 7th. The move was one of many that earned the Steelers General Manager the title “Khan Artist” as the Rams not only gave Robinson away, but also agreed to pay 10 million of his 15 million dollar salary.

With that said, Robinson’s body of work with the Steelers reveals why the Rams were so quick to part with him.
While Robinson was a good blocker and wasn’t a liability in the passing game, he only caught 34 passes for 280 yards. While it is true that the Steelers played much of the early season without Diontae Johnson and with Calvin Austin doing little to demand attention of defenses, Robinson clearly wasn’t able to help the unit move forward.

  • With Allen Robinson set to make 10 million in 2024, the Steelers were expected to cut him.

The move will save the Steelers approximately 10,000,000 in salary cap space with Pittsburgh absorbing a $1,917,500 dead money hit. The Steelers will also save about 7.1 million from the release of Patrick Peterson.

Per Over the Cap, Keanu Neals release which also occurred yesterday could save the team close to 2 million in cap space although the Steelers would likely need to come to an injury settlement with Neal.

With Robinson’s release, the Steelers have George Pickens in addition to Johnson and Austin. Wide receiver Myles Boykin is also a free agent, but he has mainly been used on special teams.

So a move to add to this depth chart is highly expected.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, Yeah About Wilson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Questions abound:

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

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

Landing on Their Feet

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

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Back to the Drawing Board: Steelers Cut Mason Cole, Will Seek Center in 2024 NFL Draft

The NFL’s 2024 off season isn’t quite in full swing but Omar Khan made another decisive move as the Steelers cut starting center Mason Cole. The Steelers signed Mason Cole in 2022 after Kendrick Green’s one year starting stint ended in disaster.

Mitch Trubisky, James Daniel, Mason Cole, Steelers 2022 Offensive Line

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

Although sources from inside the South Side expressed skepticism to Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell that Cole was up to the task, Cole’s play was solid during his first year in Pittsburgh. 2023 told a different tale. Whether Kenny Pickett, Mitch Trubisky or Mason Rudolph stood under center, one of the first things that fans looked for was an errant or low snap.

Fortunately there were no signature disaster moments such as Maurkice Pouncey opening the 2020 playoff loss to the Browns by hiking the ball so far above Ben Roethlisberger‘s head that neither Ben nor James Conner could recover it before the Browns Karl Joseph did in the end zone.

But Cole’s low snaps were a disruption for an offense line that didn’t find its footing until about Halloween and an offense that literally struggled with the basics until Christmas.

Ironically or perhaps not so ironically, Omar Khan made his move on the day when the NFL officially increased the salary cap 30 million for 2024. Prior to cutting Cole, the Steelers were estimated to be about 8.5 million under the cap.

By releasing Mason Cole, the Steelers will gain about 4.75 million dollars in salary cap space, although they will add to their 1.5 million in dead money.

Who Has the Next Shot?

Although Cole does not have an heir apparent in Pittsburgh, the Steelers do have options at center already on their roster. Reserve guard Nate Herbig can also play center as can starting guard James Daniels. The Steelers also began the off season by signing Ryan McCollom to a reserve/futures contract.

But the 2024 NFL Draft is said to be deep in interior lineman, and the Steelers have already been linked to several top centers.

The franchise’s lineage at the position is second to none, having proceeded seamlessly from Ray Mansfield, to Mike Webster, to Dermontti Dawson, to Jeff Hartings. And while the Sean MahanJustin Hartwig interregnum disappointed, the Steelers responded by drafting Maurkiece Pouncey.

So perhaps the 2024 NFL Draft will deliver Pittsburgh its next worthy successor.

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Starting Fast: Steelers Cut Mitch Trubisky, Chucks Okorafor & Pressley Harvin to Start 2024 Off Season

Shortly after the Kansas City Chiefs completed their comeback in Super Bowl LVIII the Pittsburgh Steelers published a tweet proclaiming “The 2024 season starts now #HereWeGo.”

Omar Khan certainly got the message as the Steelers began the first day of their off season by cutting quarterback Mitch Trubisky, former starting offensive tackle Chuks Okorafor and punter Pressley Harvin. While none of these moves can be described as a complete surprise, they all reveal something about the thought process of the Steelers brass.

Mitch Trubisky, Steelers vs Colts,

Mitch Trubisky fumbles after scoring his final touchdown as a Steeler. Photo Credit: AP via Tribune-Review

After years of middle-of-the road punting the Steelers invested a 7th round pick in Pressley Harvin during the 2021 NFL Draft. Harvin had a mixed rookie year that was sprinkled with personal tragedy and the Steelers stuck behind him. Harvin improved in his second year, but his third year was wildly inconsistent. There were times when he boomed punts deep into opponents territory. At other times he placed them perfectly inside the 20s.

Yet there were too many times was Harvin failed to do either. In his season-ending press conference Mike Tomlin minced no words about needing more consistency from his punting game. Most thought that mean Harvin would have competition. Instead he got a pink slip.

Mitch Trubisky stands as Exhibit A for now the NFL really does mean “Not For Long.”

One year ago today, Mike Tomlin, Art Rooney II, and Omar Khan were all singing Trubisky’s praises and signaling their intentions to keep him in Pittsburgh long-term as a backup. Indeed, he seemed to fit the Mike Tomczak perfectly.

Yet Trubisky saw action in 3 games in relief of Kenny Pickett and two as a starter, and he disappointed on all 5 occasions and was clearly outplayed by Mason Rudolph, the man he was brought in to replace. Time will tell what form of competition Kenny Pickett will get for the starting job, but the Steelers wasted none in discarding Trubisky as an option.

Chukwuma Okorafor, Chuks Okorafor, Steelers 2022 Free Agent

Chucks Okorafor in the Steelers 2021 win over the Bears. Photo Credit: Emilee Chinn/Getty Images via StillCurtain.com

After years of neglecting the offensive line, the Steelers invested a third round pick in Chuks Okorafor in the 2018 NFL Draft as the first step in rebuilding their line. Okorafor saw spot duty in starts vs Denver and Los Angeles his next two years, acquitting himself well against Von Miller and Aaron Donald, before taking the starting role in 2020 thanks to an injury to Zac Banner.

While Okorafor was never a liability, he was also never a strength on several struggling Steelers offensive lines. And the unit clearly improved during the middle of 2023 when Broderick Jones took over the starting role. The Steelers don’t have a lot of depth behind Jones and Dan Moore, but Okorafor can’t play right tackle. It had been suggested the Steelers might trade him — he does have 59 starts under his belt — but the Steelers need his salary cap space now.

These moves save the Steelers approximately 13 million in salary cap space with more cuts and/or restructures to come.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They may be right.

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

Pickett’s Disappointing Development

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

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

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

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

…Except for when it comes to the fourth quarter.

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

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

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

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

Why Kenny Pickett’s Career Arc Resonates with Me

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

Harmony Hills Elementary

Harmony Hills Elementary school at some point before 1998.

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

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

I finished it in May.

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

  • The pattern continued throughout Elementary School and Junior High School

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

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

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

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

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

Which brings me back to Kenny Pickett.

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

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

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

Kenny Pickett, Kenny Pickett 2023 splits

Kenny Pickett’s 2023 Splits, via Pro Football Reference

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

  • This makes Kenny Pickett unique.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • The analytics nut is a bit harder to crack.

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

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

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

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

T.J. Watt, Myles Garrett, Micha Parsons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

But it is what it is.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alex Highsmith, Steelers vs Browns, Alex Highsmith interception

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

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

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

Miles Killebrew, Steelers vs Patriots

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Patriots

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

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

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

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

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

Chris Boswell, Steelers vs Bengals,

Chris Boswell boots it. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And this is understandable.

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

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

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

  • That risks setting the bar too low.

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

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

And that caused reporters openly snicker and rolled their eyes.

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

  • But his goal remained constant.

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

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

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

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

  • So there’s no reason to overact here.

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Tomlin, Arthur Smith, Steelers vs Falcons

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

Of Running, Ryan and Combos

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

  • Arthur Smith checks both boxes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of Precedents and Pedigrees

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

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

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

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Pittsburgh Steelers 2023 Season in Review: Expect the Unexpected

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

  • And Steelers Nation believed.

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

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

  • Belief morphed into expectation.

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

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

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

Ominous Opening Day Omen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2023 Pittsburgh Steelers Validate Ken Beatrice’s Wisdom

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

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

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

  • The Steelers offense was atrocious.

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

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

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

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

Joey Porter Jr., Steelers vs Ravens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zack Moss, Steelers vs Colts

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

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

  • The bottom fell out on the Steelers.

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

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

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

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

Rudolph to the Rescue

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

Mason Rudolph, Steelers vs. Seahawks, Najee Harris

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

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

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

What was different?

  • One thing. You had competent quarterback play.

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

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

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

Word to the Wise, Put 2023 Lesson to Work

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

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

 

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