Haskins Can’t Handle It & 3 Other Thoughts on Steelers Preseason Loss to Panthers

“It was a junior varsity performance,” concluded Mike Tomlin following the Steelers 34-9 loss to the Carolina Panthers which wrapped up Pittsburgh’s 2021 preseason campaign with a 3-1 mark.
Who can argue?

Going into the game Tomlin had several players for whom he “thought it would be a great platform for them to display varsity skill.”

  • Display those they did not.

Here are four quick takes on this preseason loss.

Dwayne Haskins, Steelers vs Panthers Preseason

Dwyane Haskins had a rough night, to say the least. Photo Credit: AP via Tribune Review

1. Haskins Humiliated? Not Quite. Humbled? You Bet

By all accounts, Dwayne Haskins has authored a very strong summer from the moment training camp began in July. Prior to the Panther’s game, he did nothing but impress in preseason. In comparison to Mason Rudolph, Dwayne Haskins showed himself to be the far more dynamic player, and he exhibited more poise and comfort than Rudolph.

  • But of course, that’s that way it was supposed to be.

As a former 15th pick overall, Dwayne Haskins was sort of like the kid who gets held back in kindergarten and then is the best in his class the following year. So Haskins earned the right to start.

  • Haskins squandered it.

No, Haskins didn’t have a full complement of starters. Neither did he get a lot of help from his offensive line and from his running backs. But Haskins looked overwhelmed. Against the Cowboys, Eagles and Lions, the offense directed by Haskins has been a virtual touchdown scoring machine.

  • Against the Panthers the Steelers didn’t convert a 3rd down until late in the 3rd quarter.

Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell went as far as to suggest that Haskins performance caused “us to wonder whether it might be more prudent to cut him.”

Frankly, that’s going a bit too far. Haskins did not look good, but the Steelers shouldn’t abandon their reclamation project.

2. Nothing Sexy about Sexton

One of the benefits of the Steelers-Panthers preseason rivalry is that it provides excellent fodder for story lines. Eleven summers ago a small, CFL vet whose speed earned him the name “Joystick” caught the coaches eye’s with a return for a touchdown in preseason. So Mike Tomlin gave him another chance, and he delivered again.

  • Yet he was still on outside looking in going into the preseason finale again.

Stefan Logan got a final chance and he took it to the house, earning himself a roster spot in the process.

  • Matthew Sexton entered the game against the Panthers with a similar opportunity.

But he botched it, badly by muffing two punts. Not even 24 hours have elapsed since the game ended, and Sexton’s butter fingers have earned him a spot on the waiver wire and all but ensure that Ray-Ray McCloud, who had a respectable night receiving, will keep his spot as the Steelers 5th wide out and 1st return man.

3. Can’t Keep Up with the Joneses

Unlike the regular season, during training camp reporters are allow to report on basically everything they see. As camp progresses, you’ll often start hearing a new name mentioned again and again.

  • Jaimr Jones was that player this year.

You started hearing his name in practice. In the Hall of Fame game he had started making noise with a tackle for a loss and a few QB hits. Then he started adding on sacks in preseason games.

He continued the process against the Panthers, leading the team in tackles, getting a sack and logging a few more QB hits for good measure.

That effort has likely earned himself a roster spot, perhaps at the expense of 6th round draft pick Quincy Roche.

4. Enough to Tell with Snell?

If there was any one player on the roster of figured to benefit for the departure of James Conner and the arrival of Najee Harris, it was Benny Snell. Mike Tomlin likes Benny Snell, and while Snell certainly didn’t give the Steelers any reason to second guess drafting a running back in the first round, he has shown himself to be at least a competent number 2 rusher.

  • Except Snell has been hurt for most of the summer.

And Kalen Ballage has gotten the carries and as recently as last week it looked like he could be pushing Snell off of the roster. Snell got his first work and while 8 carries for 28 yard is hardly gang busters, he didn’t have the best blocking to work with.

Snell certainly didn’t give the Steelers any reason to cut him.

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6 “Its Only Preseason, BUT…” Observations from the Steelers 26-20 win over the Lions

The Pittsburgh Steelers prevailed in their third preseason outing of the summer at Heinz Field where they triumphed over the Detroit Lions 26-20. Although “its only preseason” the contest was not nearly as close as the final score suggests.

Here are 6 quick, “Its Only Preseason But” observations.

Pat Freiermuth, Steelers vs Lions Preseason

Pat Freiermuth catches 1 of 2 TDs. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

1. Meet the New Ben, Same as the Old Ben?

All eyes were on Ben Roethlisberger as he took the field for the first time following the Hindenburg Rescues the Titanic disaster in the playoffs against Cleveland. Since then Ben Roethlisberger agreed to take a 5 million dollar pay cut to return while admitting that his arm did not hold up well during the course of 2020.

  • So how did he do?

Pretty well. On the plus side Ben showed his old mobility in the pocket, dodging around to buy time and hitting receivers down the field. Likewise, his arm strength looks just fine, as he rifled off two touchdown passes in the Red Zone.

  • Throwing down field as more of a mixed bag.

He was right on the money in trying to hook up with Eric Ebron, but Ebron couldn’t hold on.

However, his pass to Diontae Johnson looked to be a little underthrown. Johnson noted, and slowed to adjust his route. Roethlisberger himself admitted that he put too much air into that ball. That’s good, but make no mistake, the Buffalo Bills will destroy the Steelers on that type of play when the regular season starts.

2. Too Early to Worry about the Run Defense?

The Lions top four rushers had long runs of 12, 13, 10 and 9 yards. OK, one of those was a scramble by David Blough and we are talking about an offense that didn’t get on the board until the first minute of the fourth quarter.

Sometimes these preseason tendencies are little more meaningful than an April batting average; sometimes they signal season-long problems.

3. Welcome to Pittsburgh Paty Freiermuth

Sometimes preseason stars are just that – preseason stars. Anyone even remember Matthew Thomas? Neither did I. Had to look up his name. This might jog your memory:

https://twitter.com/BlitzVideos/status/1035700924893855744

This same Matthew Thomas whom Jim Wexell reported that coaches had hopes could come in an earn playing time by the time the leaves began to fall. The same Matthew Thomas the Steelers cut on December 3rd of that year. The same Matthew Thomas Baltimore signed in January only to cut in August.

  • Then there are players who prove they are the real deal.

And here we introduce Pat Freiermuth. A lot of people questioned the Steelers decision to draft Pat Freiermuth, a tight end out of Penn State, in the 2nd round of the 2021 NFL Draft.

No one’s asking that question this morning, when Freiermuth caught not one, but two touchdown in the end zone. Both times he had double coverage, both times Ben Roethlisberger found Freiermuth. Both times he made it look easy.

4. Kalen Ballage Secures Backup Slot

Najee Harris and Anthony McFarland both put in strong nights. But if the Mike Tomlin era has taught us ANYTHING its that the Steelers need a running back depth chart that’s at least 3 players deep.

(How might 2014, 2015 and/or 2018 turned out if the equivalent of a Mewelde Moore and/or Gary Russell had been on the roster. We’ll never know. And that’s the point.)

Kalen Ballage looks like he can be that player. Ballage was one of Kevin Colbert’s unheralded free agent signings and brought a pedestrian resume to Pittsburgh. But he’s looked strong in preseason. Benny Snell, who began the summer as running back number 3, remains out with injury.

And while Jaylen Samuels looked strong against the Eagles, he didn’t play as well against the Lions.

5. T.J. Who? Well, No, Quite

Neither Melvin Ingram nor Alex Highsmith put up any gaudy stats against the Lions, but both men were around the ball. While no one is going to suggest that their performance gives the Steelers cause to stall in their contract negotiations with T.J. Watt, it looks like the Steelers have 3 viable outside linebackers.

6. Glad You’re Still Here JuJu

One of the surprises of the 2021 off season was the return of JuJu Smith-Schuster. JuJu Smith-Schuster might have only had 5 catches against the Lions, but if you looked at his tape, you’d never have known he was playing in preseason.

  • Just as you won’t have known he was playing from hopelessly behind against the Browns last January.

In terms of pure talent, Chase Claypool and Diontae Johnson probably lead the Steelers wide receivers depth chart. But when it comes to heart and want to, JuJu and James Washington lead the way.

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The Steelers Dress Rehearsal Preseason Game Isn’t What It Used to Be…

One of my most distinct Steelers preseason memories took place in the final game of the 1988 exhibition schedule.

The Steelers came from behind and ultimately defeated the Saints in overtime at the Superdome in New Orleans, Louisiana. It was memorable for several reasons, not the least of which was the fact that most of the starters–including quarterback Bubby Brister — played the entire game.

Bubby Brister, Pat Swilling, '88 Steelers vs Saints preseason

Pat Swilling rushes Bubby Brister during the ’88 Steelers preseason finale. Photo Credit: Neworleanssaints.com

It wasn’t just Brister however. This was the game where Pat Swilling schooled John Jackson so thoroughly late in the 4th quarter that Chuck Noll had to be convinced not to cut him. While Jackson was a rookie 101th round draft pick, Swilling was 3 year veteran coming off a 10.5 sack season.

  • You want to talk about a dress rehearsal game. You want to talk about ramping up for the start of the regular season.

That’s how one does it in a perfect world. But it was a different world in 1988. Free agency did not exist, neither did the salary cap. Depth was much better because quality backups weren’t moving from one team to another in search of more money and more playing time.

Anyway, that all began to change in the early 1990s with the introduction of, well, free agency and a salary cap. This quickly began to change how most teams conducted their preseasons. The starters began to play less and less, and exhibition games became more a way for rookies and unproven players to showcase their talents than a means for the veterans to shake the rust off and solidify team chemistry.

  • At some point, it became taboo for valued starters to even see the field in the final preseason game.

No, instead, the next-to-last exhibition matchup became known as the all-important “dress rehearsal game.”

Such will be the case on Saturday night when the Steelers take on the Lions at Heinz Field. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger will play, as will many other key players on both sides of the ball.

Just don’t expect those key individuals to play all that much, however. Roethlisberger will likely play a few series. As for the rest of the vital veterans?

  • I’d be a little shocked if any played into the third quarter.

I guess it all depends on who you consider to be a vital veteran. Cam Heyward certainly fits into that category. The same goes for safety Minkah Fitzpatrick and even Joe Schobert, the recently acquired veteran inside linebacker.

A lot of people complain about the lack of playing time veterans now receive during the preseason, but I have no problem with it at all. What’s more important: shaking off the rust or remaining healthy for the start of the regular season?

Based on the tone and scope of this article, I think you know my opinion. Is shaking off the rust important? It might be if the dress rehearsal game took place in the final week of the preseason and not the next-to-last week. Face it, once the last preseason game turned into a showcase for finding the final five or six players on a 53-man roster, that made shaking off the rust a futile endeavor, especially when the vast majority of teams begin Week 1 of the regular season over two weeks after Week 3 of the preseason.

This year, the Steelers’ first regular-season game won’t take place until 15 days after their final exhibition game. That means that Roethlisberger, for example, won’t see any live bullets for 22 days.

  • You can probably say the same for most of the important players on Pittsburgh’s roster.

With a schedule so weird, I don’t even see the point of playing any key guys during the 2021 preseason. But if you’re head coach Mike Tomlin, you must walk a fine line. If none of your guys play in the preseason, people will point to that decision as a reason for a slow start. If you play your guys too much and one of them gets hurt, you’ll get criticized for that.

Finally, I’m okay with the preseason being about the young guys and the fringe players who are just looking to hold on. I can endure four somewhat boring preseason games if it helps the Steelers stay healthy for the regular season.

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Soft in the Middle No More? Steelers Trade for Joe Schobert

Sensing weakness, Kevin Colbert has traded for Jaguars inside linebacker Joe Schobert in exachage for a 6th round pick in the 2022 NFL Draft.

The importance of this development should not be underestimated. A quick look at history drives this point home.

Joe Schobert. Steelers vs Browns, Mason Rudolph

Joe Schobert sacks Mason Rudolph. Photo Credit: John Kuntz, Cleveland.com

The Importance of the Center of the Steelers Defense

Before he left Pittsburgh, former defensive coordinator Tim Lewis told Jim Wexell that the strength of the Steelers 3-4 defense runs through its center. Meaning, that when the nose tackle, inside linebacking and safety must be stout for the rest of the unit to excel.

The first trio solidified the Steelers as contenders in the 1990’s, while the second trio dominated as Champions in the 00’s.

The game has evolved in the last decade to the point where the Steelers are in their “base” defense less and less. But that doesn’t make the center of the unit less important. When Ryan Shazier went down in 2017 with Mike Mitchell already faltering and Javon Hargrave hurt for the playoffs things went south fast (see the Jaguars game).

  • In 2020 history repeated itself.

A lot of things went wrong for the Steelers down the stretch in 2020. Everyone focuses on Ben Roethlisberger’s struggles and while that’s understandable, the defense was struggling just as badly.

By the time of the road loss to the Bengals, the Steelers were down to Avery Williamson and Marcus Allen at inside linebacker, their 4th and 5th string inside linebackers.

  • The Steelers added quantity at inside linebacker in the off season.

But quality took a hit when Vince Williams retired. And there’ve been signs that the plan to go with Robert Spillane, Marcus Allen, rookie Buddy Johnson and “veteran” Ulysees Gilbert III was faltering. As Mark Kabloy in observed in The Athletic that the Steelers have drilled the inside linebackers on covering back and tight ends extensively in camp, concluding, “If it is drilled that much, the Steelers must realize it’s an issue.”

Apparently, the experiment has been replicated enough to convince Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert that the answer lay outside of the Steelers locker room.

The Skinny on Joe Schobert

The Cleveland Browns drafted Joe Schobert in the 4th round of the 2016 NFL Draft. He led the league in tackles and earned Pro Bowl honors in 2017. He transformed that resume into a handsome payday in 2020 when he signed a 5 year, $53.7 million dollar contract with the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Last year for the Jaguars he started 16 games, had 3 interceptions including a pick six, forced 2 fumbles and registered 2.5 sacks.

  • With that production a 6th round pick seems like a pittance to bring him to Pittsburgh.

The Steelers are well acquainted with Schobert. He’s suited up against them 8 times for both the Browns and the Jaguars and made Pittsburgh pay, pulling down 2 interceptions, batting away 6 passes, recovered 2 fumbles, recorded a sack while making 64 tackles.

Jim Wexell reminds us that prior to last year’s game against the Jaguars, Mike Tomlin admitted, “He’s gotten after us in the past. He beat us last year, quite frankly, in Cleveland. He was a significant component of that.”

Schobert did a number of the Steelers in infamous Body Bag game in November 2019, as the above photo of him sacking Mason Rudolph can attest. One has to wonder why the Jaguars were so ready to part with such a player so easily.

Schobert Instead of Watt?

In terms of salary cap ramifications, Joe Schobert will make $7 million this season, according to Spotrac.com and he has he has three years and 29.75 million remaining for 2022-24. While that’s not an exorbitant amount of money to pay for a veteran inside linebacker, the Steelers have limited salary cap space, and are still trying to resign T.J. Watt.

One has to wonder if the addition of Schobert today doesn’t signal a franchise tag for Watt next spring. Let’s hope not.

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5 Observations from My 1st Preseason Football Game in 2 Decades as Steelers Beat Eagles

The Pittsburgh Steelers defeated the Philadelphia Eagles 24 to 16 in their 2nd preseason game of the 2021 season. This game also marked my first game of preseason football 20 years after living aboard for that long.

Here are some quick hits from re-encounter with preseason football.

Anthony McFarland, Steelers vs Eagles preseason

Anthony McFarland scores a touchdown. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review

1. It is Good to See Preseason Again

Some will blanch at this, but the statement should come as no surprise given this site’s annual admonitions that we should all appreciate preseason.

  • But the blunt truth is that after reading about so-and-so player for months, it is finally good to see them with my own eyes.

The NFL could and should do more to improve the presentation of this part of its “product” but those comments will come in a future column.

2. Soft in the Middle?

The Eagles had a lot of success throwing to the middle of the field. And Jaylen Hurts wasted little time setting the tone by picking on Devin Bush who was on coverage and gave up a long gain on the second play of the game.

  • One pass play panic does not cause, as Yoda would remind us.

Fair enough. And let’s also remember that this was Bush’s first action since tearing his ACL. But Robert Spillane also looked to be on the wrong end of a lot of completions. And the Eagles had some success running up the middle. During the game the news broke that the Steelers were trading for inside linebacker Joe Schobert.

While this news has been confirmed yet, one can see why there’s interest.

3. Harris Living Up to the Hype?

One of the adages behind those “Grumpy Old Man” “Eat Your Peas and Carrots and Enjoy Preseason Football” articles is simple: Preseason might not tell us much about how good (or bad) the Steelers will be, but it often gives an excellent look at individual players.

But early in preseason it was clear that Jerome Bettis was the real deal, just as it had been equally clear a year earlier that Bam Morris wasn’t up to the task of replacing Barry Foster.

Aside from the analytics addicts who’ll tell you never to draft a running back in the first round, all we’ve heard about 2021 first round pick Najee Harris has been positive.

  • And seeing him with my own eyes I concur.

Sure, his numbers of 2 carries for 10 yards are pretty plain, but he also had two other nice runs called back on penalties. Along those lines, backup running back Anthony McFarland looks like he’s vindicating those who said, “The kid won’t do much as a rookie, but watch out after that.”

4. The Battle to be QB Number 2

The battle to be Ben Roethlisberger’s backup has been one of the bigger stories of training camp. There’ve been conflicting reports as to whether Dwayne Haskins was gaining on Mason Rudolph or not.

  • Honestly, after watching both men against the Eagles, nothing sticks out.

Yes, this goes against the conventional wisdom that Haskins is gaining

Both men put up good numbers. But neither man was exactly throwing against the ’85 Bears. Of the two, Haskins looked a tad bit more decisive. In contrast, save for his long completion to Diontae Johnson, Mason Rudolph looked like Ben Roethlisberger ’20 edition lite.

  • Nearly all of his passes were quick short high percentage dump offs and check downs.

Haskins wasn’t exactly channeling his inner Dan Fouts, but he was more aggressive, and his mobility was an asset. But then again, he wasn’t facing top-line starters. Neither man was inspiring, but that many not mean much. Mike Vick’s numbers during the 2015 preseason were excellent.

  • When the games counted, it was a different story.

In all fairness to Haskins he has led drives that put 30 points on the boards, as opposed to Rudolph’s 0. But in all fairness to Mason Rudolph, he’s been playing against better competition.

Speaking of doing things when it counts, Joshua Dobbs has to be kicking himself. He started the summer on the outside looking in and his reps will be limited. Which makes his ugly interception all the more unfortunate.

5. Berry, Sammuels and Pierre Stepping It Up

After their Hall of Fame game against the Cowboys, Pressley Harvin III was proclaimed as the next “Josh Miller” largely on the strength of his directional punting. Jordan Berry got his shot, and pinned the Eagles into the 20 yard line on his first opportunity.

  • This isn’t to say he’ll win the competition.

As Jim Wexell has reported at Steel City Insider, Berry was cut in favor of Dustin Colquitt last year on orders from way up high. But it does look like competition is bringing out the best in Berry.

  • The same can be said for Jaylen Samuels.

Outside of his wildcat role and spot duty, Jaylen Samuels has been pretty quiet since lighting up the Patriots for over 100 yards at the tail end of the 2018 season.

  • Jaylen Samuels got 10 carries against the Eagles and was targeted once more.

He ran pretty well on those ten carries and turned his one reception into a 17 yard gain. Samuels knows what’s at stake and is playing like it. James Pierre also realizes the opportunity he has in front of him and is stepping it up.

*Now that I remember, I saw a bit of the Steelers-Eagles 2005 preseason game, and also saw about 2 quaters from the Steelers 2019 preseason game against the Titans.

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5 Non-Offensive Line Questions Steelers Must Answer @ Training Camp 2021

The Pittsburgh Steelers begin training camp today as players have begun working out with their first padded practices coming in a week.

Again, as they did a year ago, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Steelers will not be able to hold training camp at St. Vincents, instead splitting activities between their facility on the South Side and Heinz Field.

  • Unless you’ve been under a rock, the offensive line is the main story line this summer.

With the retirement of Maurkice Pouncey and the departure of David DeCastro, the Steelers will feature an almost completely re-made offensive line. While the offensive line was a liability last season, at least in the running game, cohesion is critical there and any hopes for better season lie with an improve offensive line.

But the development of the offensive line, while critical, is hardly the only pressing issue the Pittsburgh must resolve. Here are 5 others.

Devin Bush,

Steelers Devin Bush on the fields of St. Vincents 2 years ago. Photo Credit: AP, via Yahoo! Sports

1. Who Will Provide Depth at Inside Linebacker?

The news that Devin Bush is back and ready to practice was tempered by the surprise retirement of Vince Williams. The Steelers cut Williams and then welcomed him back on a smaller contract.

  • That move seemed to give the Steelers needed depth on the inside.

Robert Spillane did well enough to earn a starting slot along side Devin Bush, and Williams seemed to be the perfect veteran backup. Instead, he will start “Life’s Work.”

That leaves converted safety Marcus Allen, veteran journeyman Miles Killebrew, 4th round pick Buddy Johnson and Ulysees Gilbert (remember him?) as the primary contenders to replace him. Killebrew is the immediate favorite.

But the Steelers contingency plans to shore up the center of their defense just got more complicated.

2. Can Pittsburgh Escape a Tight Spot @ Tight End?

With Eric Ebron the Steelers are in a “What you see is what you get” position. Ebron is an asset in the Red Zone. He can be an effective receiver – when he catches the ball. As for blocking? Well you or I might be able to do a better job. OR at least make more effort.

With a shaky offensive line, the Steelers need a presence at tight end that can block effectively. They also need someone who can catch underneath passes once wide receivers have stretched the field.

The Steelers drafted Penn State’s Pat Freiermuth in the 2nd round and on paper he should meet that need. Kevin Radar showed himself to be a solid blocker in limited action during 2020. Zach Gentry is at the point in his NFL career where he needs to start replacing potential with production.

3. Can the Steelers Square Their Depth Chart at Cornerback?

In 2020 fielding a competitive defense means fielding 3 starting caliber cornerbacks. The Steelers said good bye to two starters this off season. Cam Sutton has been an under the radar type player for the Steelers for the last two, if not three seasons.

  • The Steelers are betting that he can make the next step.

It says here that the Steelers bet will likely payoff. What about the third and 4th cornerback slots? The Steelers brought in James Pierre last season and thought enough of him to move him ahead of Justin Layne for the playoffs. The decision to part ways with Steven Nelson was as much a vote of confidence in Pierre as it was anything else.

As for Justin Layne, he appears to have escaped legal trouble for his latest off the field incident, but one wonders if he can find the maturity he needs if he hasn’t already. If that’s the case then the Steelers need someone to emerge from the tangle of bodies below this group, be it Shakur Brown, DeMarkus Acy or Stephen Denmark.

4. Who Can Emerge as Defensive Lineman Number 4?

Officially the Steelers remain a 3-4 team, but each season sees the Steelers play in their base defense less and less. Hence, Cam Heyward is listed as a defensive tackle, even though he typically has a linebacker to his left and a defensive lineman to his right.

  • The Steelers caught a break when they got Tyson Alualu back.

But Alualu is 34. Ideally Carlos Davis, Isaiah Buggs, Henry Mondeaux or even rookie Isaiahh Loudermilk, would supplant him as the starter and allow Alualu to become the 4th man in Karl Dunbar’s rotation.

Regardless, the Steelers need to find a 4th man this summer.

5. Who Will Be QB Number 3?

Ben Roethlisberger, Mason Rudolph

Ben Roethlisberger and Mason Rudolph on the sidelines at Heinz Field in 2019. Photo Credit: AP via

IF the Steelers are to have ANY chance of making a run at a Super Bowl this season, Ben Roethlisberger quite simply must get more comfortable with the “bionics” of his new arm and thereby improve on his deep and intermediate passes.

  • It really is that simple.

Armed with a new contract, Mason Rudolph will be the Steelers backup quarterback this season. The big question this summer is whether Dwayne Haskins and prove he was worth the flyer the Steelers took on him or whether he becomes a footnote in Steelers history.

This is important, because of Haskins can show himself to be worthy of a roster spot, then he has the physical tools to challenge Mason Rudolph next summer (regardless of whether Roethlisberger retires.)

Haskins was just in the news. Again. At this point there’s nothing to suggest Haskins did anything illegal, but he’s making headlines for the wrong reasons. Again. Something tells me Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin are happy they hedged their bets here.

 

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