Steelers 2023 Draft Needs @ Defensive Line: Time to Find Cam’s Replacement?

Playing defensive line for the Pittsburgh Steelers isn’t just about helping the team win games, its also about maintaining a legacy.

In 2021, the Steelers defensive line was a glaring liability. Looking back at the 2022 season it is safe to say that the Steelers defensive line once again helped Pittsburgh win football games.

In the 2023 NFL Draft it is time for the Steelers to start looking for defensive lineman who can defend its legacy.

Cam Heyward, Cam Heyward Franco Harris Number 32, Steelers vs Raiders

Paying homage to Franco, Cam Heyward leads Steelers out of tunnel. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Steelers Depth Cart at Defensive Line: The Starters

Cameron Heyward hasn’t lived up to the Steelers legacy at defensive line. Yes, you read that right. You can’t say Cam has lived up to the legacy because he has added to it. In 2022, Cameron Heyward logged 10.5 sacks, batted away 4 passes, forced one fumble and dropped 14 players behind the line of scrimmage.

And he did it at age 33.

When Stephon Tuitt announced his retirement in June of 2022, things looked bleak. Absent Tuitt, Cam Heyward had looked like a future Hall of Famer playing along side NAIA second stringers. However, Omar Khan went out and signed Larry Ogunjobi.

Larry Ogunjobi’s 1.5 sacks and 7 tackles for a loss might look pedestrian, but with Ogunjobi in the line up, the Steelers field the 8th best defense against the run instead of the 32nd best defense against the run in 2022.

The Steelers signed Montravius Adams off of the New Orelans practice squad in November 30 and he improved the defense. He started 17 games in 2022 contributing to the turn around against the run.

Steelers Defensive Line  Depth Chart: The Backups

Quantity. That’s the best way to describe the Steelers depth chart behind their starters on defensive line. Leading the way is DeMarvin Leal, the Steelers whom the Steelers drafted with their third round pick in the 2022 NFL Draft.

Leal didn’t see much action as a rookie, but tellingly when the Steelers run defense came up soft against the run at home against the Ravens, Mike Tomlin responded by getting Leal into the line up, and the run defense improved.

The Steelers also have Isaiahh Loudermilk whom they traded up to get in the 2021 NFL Draft. As a rookie Loudermilk saw playing time on a horrible defensive line but still managed to flash. His second season was a disappointment, with Loudermilk not even suit up for the first four games and only seeing 18% of the snaps after that – down from 29% as a rookie.

Omar Khan has been aggressive in adding to the defensive line in free agency signing Breiden Fehoko and Amon Watts who look like good value signings.

Steelers Draft, Steelers Draft Needs scale

Steelers Draft Needs Scale 2023

The Steelers 2023 Defensive Line Draft Needs

The Steelers are basically in the same place they were a year ago on defensive line. They’ve got starters on defensive line, one of whom is aging, and they’re OK in the middle. Behind that they’ve got a lot of names.

“Ah, but DeMarvin Leal!” you counter? Yes he looked good in limited action as a rookie, you could have said the same thing about Loudermilk this time a year ago. While Loudermilk’s draft status will likely earn him another season, it isn’t too much of a stretch to say he’s 2023’s version of Henry Mondeaux

“Ah, but the free agency signings” you protest? Breiden Fehoko and Amon Watts do offer a lot of potential and “Upside” but they’re basically replacements for Tyson Alualu and Chris Wormley.

Put that all together and the Steelers need at defensive line going into the 2023 NFL Draft should be considered as High.

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Time to Learn to Spell Their Names: Steelers Resign Larry Ogunjobi and Damontae Kazee

The Pittsburgh Steelers reinforced their defense by “promoting from within” so to speak on the second day of free agency when they resigned defensive lineman Larry Ogunjobi and safety Damontae Kazee.

Both were excellent football moves, but there’s a real downside for bloggers.

Both men arrived as potential short timers. It was an open question whether they would remain in Pittsburgh. So it made little sense to try to learn to spell their names. Now we don’t have a choice.

T.J. Watt, Larry Ogunjobi, Steelers vs Panthers

T.J. Watt and Larry Ogunjobi. Combine to make a critical stop. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Larry Ogunjobi, by far the one with the most difficult name to spell, signed a three-year contract totaling $28.75 million. Information on how much is guaranteed hasn’t been released, but just over 21 million coming in the first two years of the deal.  Ogunjobi’s injury history explains the lack of detail about guaranteed money and his contract’s structure.

  • Damontae Kazee signed a 2 year contact but terms of the deal have not been released.

That latter factoid could spell hope for Terrell Edmunds. The conventional wisdom heading into free agency was that the Kazee/Edmunds decision was an “either/or” proposition for the Steelers. One would sign and the other they would let walk.

That still may happen, but the fact that the details of Damontae Kazee’s contract haven’t surfaced more than 24 hours after news of his signing broke suggests that it is for a modest sum – otherwise his agent would have made sure reporters knew how much he just made his client.

Spillane to Las Vegas

One player who won’t be back is inside linebacker Robert Spillane. Spillane is a Steelers success story. He went from starting 2020 as the one player the Steelers couldn’t afford to end up playing, to they guy who kept Devin Bush to the bench by the end of 2022.

He’s someone you’d want to keep in Pittsburgh. But the Raiders signed him to a 2 year deal worth 9 million dollars with 4 million dollars in guarantees – that’s a lot of money to pay someone who generally leaves the field on passing downs.

Follow Steelers free agency. Visit our Steelers 2023 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2023 free agent focus articles.

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Unfortunately, for Steelers Free Agent Chris Wormley, Sometimes Timing is Everything

On December 2nd, 2020 the stories of Chris Wormley and Bud Dupree intertwined an a eerie way to show that sometimes timing is everything in the NFL.

And that’s bad news for Chris Wormley as he reaches free agency.

Chris Wormley, Lamar Jackson, Steelers vs Ravens

Chris Wormley sacks Lamar Jackson. Photo Credit: Don Wright, Shutterstock.

Capsule Profile of Chris Wormley’s Career with the Steelers

The Steelers traded for Chris Wormley in March 2020, marking a rare interdivision trade. The Steelers used Wormley sparingly for most of the year. However, his snap count spiked to 45% in that fateful December game against the Ravens. Although Wormley didn’t do much of note during 2020, the Steelers resigned Wormley the next spring to a two year deal.

In 2021 Wormely became the defacto starter thanks to Stephon Tuitt’s retirement and Tyson Alualu’s season-ending injury. He logged 7 sacks, batted down 3 passes, made 6 tackles for losses and hit quarterbacks 10 other times. His best game by far was a 2.5 sack effort in the Steelers upset of the Ravens at Heinz Field.

With that said, he played 71% of the snaps on a Steelers defensive front that was historically bad against the run – and let’s be clear, Cam Heyward was not the weak link up front.

In 2022 his workload dropped thanks to the arrival of Larry Ogunjobi, and the only splah play he made was a half sack against the Ravens at home. That was also his last game of the year, as he tore his ACL and missed the rest of the season.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Chris Wormley

So maybe Chris Wormley’s 2021 performance was a bit of an achievement. It still shows he has serviceable skills and can provide valuable depth. Bringing him back on a team-friendly deal is a no-brainer.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Chris Wormley

Cam Heyward’s not getting any younger. Larry Ogunjobi might not be back. Isaiahh Loudermilk failed the make the 2nd year leap (if anything, he regressed.) The Steelers need defensive lineman, but they need more than bodies.

Save the roster spot, if not the salary cap space, on someone who has legitimate “Upside” because Wormley does not.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Chris Wormley

Chris Wormley saw his first extended action in the same game where Bud Dupree tore his ACL. Dupree was coming off of a career year. Things might not have worked out well for him in Tennessee, but he still got paid.

  • Wormley’s not so lucky. He tore his ACL at the end of a year where his effort was rather middling – at best.

He can still be a good 4th or perhaps 5th lineman for the Steelers, but given his injury and his subpar year, his next contract is likely going to be for the veteran minimum.

Follow Steelers free agency. Visit our Steelers 2023 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2023 free agent focus articles.

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Cost, Benefit: Steelers Can’t Afford to Lose or Overpay Larry Ogunjobi in Free Agency

Street free agents are the NFL’s bottom feeders. As the name implies, they’re literally NFL veterans that teams sign off of the streets because no one else wants them.

Street free agents were Kevin Colbert’s secret weapon. Time and time again, an emergency would create a need for a starter and he’d find guys like Fernando Velasco or Flozell Adams stepped in and immediately began contributing.

Larry Ogunjobi was Omar Khan’s first street free agent signing, arriving in Pittsburgh by virtue of Stephon Tuitt’s retirement. There’s no question that Larry Ogunjobi gave the Steelers defense a shot in the arm. Was that shot effective enough to keep him in Pittsburgh?

Larry Ogunjobi, Leonard Fournette, Steelers vs Bucaneers

Larry Ogunjobi stuffs Leonard Fournette. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Capsule Profile of Larry Ogunjobi’s Career with the Steelers

Sometimes statistics are simply insufficient to measure a player’s performance. Case in point Larry Ogunjobi’s 2022 campaign with the Pittsburgh Steelers. He made 48 tackles, 7 of which were for losses and registered 1.5 sacks. In 2021 while playing for the Cincinnati Bengals he made 49 tackles, had 7 sacks and 10 tackles for losses.

  • In both season Larry Ogunjobi started 16 games. Seems pretty ominous, doesn’t it?

Now consider this. In 2021 the Steelers defense ranked 32 against the run. Beyond being dead last in the NFL, you have go back to the 1940’s to find a worse Steelers run defense. Larry Ogunjobi isn’t the sole reason for that change, having Myles Jack behind him and Brian Flores wearing the coaching headset helped, but Ogunjobi played a big part.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Larry Ogunjobi

In Cam Heyward the Steelers have an All Pro defensive lineman who, quite frankly should probably get Hall of Fame consideration (but probably won’t.) And we saw in 2021 that Cam can’t do it alone.

With Larry Ogunjobi in the line up, Heyward continued to dominate AND the line was an asset to a defense on the rise instead being a glaring liability. Although defensive lineman come at a premium in free agency, Ogunjobi lack of “splash” plays should make him affordable.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Larry Ogunjobi

Last year when Larry Ogunjobi became a free agent the Chicago Bears wasted little time in offering him a 40 million dollars over 3 years. But Chicago backed out of that deal just as quickly when Ogunjobi failed a physical.

  • While Ogunjobi only missed one game for the Steelers, his name was a permeant fixture on the injury report.

While its unlikely that any team will offer him the type of money that the Bears did last year, resigning Larry Ogunjobi will require several million dollars in guarantees and an average salary that’s likely trending towards 8 figures.

Meanwhile, the Steelers have DeMarvin Leal on a rookie deal, will likely draft a defensive lineman with one of their top three picks and can add  a “veteran whose ideal to be the first guy off the bench” defensive lineman similar to what they did in 2017 when they signed Tyson Alualu.

They can do all of that for less than what it would likely take to resign Larry Ogunjobi.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Larry Ogunjobi

What happens with Larry Ogunjobi will be one of the more interesting off season questions. Even if the Steelers projects DeMarvin Leal as starter going into 2023 depth on the defensive line is perilously thin.

That means that letting Larry Ogunjobi walk all but commits the Steelers to using one of their top three picks on a defensive lineman – they may want to do this anyway, but his absence could force them to reach.

Despite his injury history, the Steelers still had to pay him 8,000,000 dollars last year. If he’s willing to come back for something in that range, the it make sense to do that deal. If he’s looking for the kind of payday Chicago offered them then the Steelers should take a pass.

Follow Steelers free agency. Visit our Steelers 2023 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2023 free agent focus articles.

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Steelers 2023 Free Agent Tracker

The Steelers 2023 off season is about to kick into high gear. The Scouting Combine is this week and free agency is only a few weeks away.

And this will be the first time Mike Tomlin has navigated the free agent waters without Kevin Colbert. General Manager Omar Khan and Assistant General Manager Andy Weidl will now work with Tomlin to guide the Steelers through the first off season of the Kenny Pickett Era.

Omar Khan, Pittsburgh Steelers General Manager Omar Khan

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

Although the Steelers salary cap situation is generally considered to be healthy, Omar Khan will certainly need to make moves to allow the Steelers to maneuver.

And maneuver they will need to do, as Pittsburgh has 23 free agents to make decisions on this spring.

Here is a look at the lay of the land before the chess pieces begin to move.

Click on the highlighted names for a full profile of each Steelers free agent.

Steelers 2023 Free Agent Signings

Christian Kuntz, long snapper
Signed 1 year exclusive rights free agent tender 2/23/2023
Jamir Jones, Outside linebacker
As an exclusive rights free agent, signed one year deal on 2/27/2023
Patrick Patterson, Cornerback
Signs 2 year 14 million dollar contract with $5.85 million in guarantees on 3/13/2023
Larry Ogunjobi, Defensive Tackle
Signs 3 year 28 million dollar contract on 3/14/2023
Damontae Kazee, Safety
Signs 2 year contract on 3/14/2023
Nate Herbig, Guard
Signs 2 year contract on 3/14/2023
Cole Holcomb, Inside Linebacker
Signs 3 year contract on 3/15/2023
Elandon Roberts, Inside Linebacker
Signs 2 year contract on 3/16/2023
Isaac Seumalo, Guard
Signs 3 year contract on 3/18/2023
James Pierre, Cornerback
Signs 1 year contract on 3/22/2023
Le’Raven Clark, Offensive Tackle
Signs 1 year contract on 3/24/2023
Zach Gentry, Tight End
Resigns with Steelers on 3/25/2023 — signing not confirmed 1 week later
Keanu Neal, Strong Safety
Signs 2 year contract with Steeles on 3/30/2023
Breiden Fehoko, Nose Tackle
Signs 1 year contract on 3/30/2023

Steelers 2023 Free Agent Losses

Cam Sutton, Cornerback
Signs 3 year contract with the Detroit Lions, for 33 million dollars in change and 22 million in guarantees
Robert Spillane, Inside Linebacker
Signs 2 year contract with Las Vegas Raiders
Devin Bush, Inside Linebacker
Signs 1 year contract with Seattle Seahawks
Malik Reed, Outside Linebacker
Signs 1 year contract with the Miami Dolphins
Terrell Edmunds, Strong Safety
Signs 1 year contract with Philadelphia Eagles
Trent Scott, Right Tackle
Signs 1 year contract with Washington Commanders
Steven Sims, Wide Receiver
Signs 1 year contract with Houston Texans
J.C. Hassenauer, Center/Guard
Signs 1 year contract with New York Giants

Restricted Free Agents

Jeremy McNichols, Running Back

Unrestricted Free Agents

Mason Rudolph, Quarterback,
Derek Watt, Fullback
Benny Snell Jr., Running Back

Chris Wormley, Defensive End
Miles Boykin, Wide Receiver
Tyson Alualu, Nose Tackle
Karl Joseph, Safety
Marcus Allen, Inside Linebacker

Yeah, Omar Khan certainly has his work cut out for him. Steel Curtain Rising will be here to cover it all, adding capsule profiles as they’re ready and updating signings as they occur.

Follow Steelers free agency. Click here for all Steelers 2022 free agent focus articles.

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Changes: Steelers Hire Aaron Curry, Fire Jerry Olsavsky Resign Christian Kuntz

Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin has made his first coaching hire of the off season by naming Aaron Curry as the team’s inside linebackers coach. Curry arrives as a replacement for Brian Flores, who left Pittsburgh after a one year stint to take the defensive coordinator job with the Minnesota Vikings.

Curry comes to the Steelers from the Seattle Seahawks which has been his NFL home. Seattle drafted him in the first round of the 2009 NFL Draft and he has served as an assistant coach with them since 2019. He spent his first two years as an assistant linebackers coach and the last two as a defensive line assistant coach.

Curry got into coaching at the University of Charlotte in 2014 where he coached defensive line and worked with current Steelers Alex Highsmith and Larry Ogunjobi.

  • Aaron Curry’s arrival, however, signals the end for another long time Steelers veteran.

Jerry Olsavsky joined Mike Tomlin’s staff in 2010 as a defensive assistant until earning a promotion to inside linebackers coach, a title he held since 2015. Although he retained that title last year after Brian Flores’ arrival, his role with the team appeared to be in doubt.

Jerry Olsavsky

Jerry Olsavsky at the Steelers South Side training complex. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Unfortunately for Olsavsky those doubts were well-founded. The team made no announcement of his departure, but his picture and bio disappeared from the team website. Jerry Olsavsky went to the University of Pittsburgh and was the Steelers 10th round pick in the 1989 NFL Draft.

Jerry Olsavsky distinguished himself in 8 starts as a rookie in the place of the injured Hardy Nickerson and topped that off with a blocked punt that helped fuel the 1989 Steelers upset of the Houston Oilers in the Astrodome on New Year’s eve.

Olsavsky earned the starting role during the 1993 Steelers season only to see his knee destroyed in a road game at Cleveland that saw the Dawg Pound pelt him with beer bottles. Overcame that injury and was back on the roster by late 1994, served as a part-time starter for Chad Brown in 1995, started for most of 1996 after Brown moved to outside linebacker to take over for Greg Lloyd, then finished his service to the team in 1997 serving as a backup for Earl Holmes and Levon Kirkland.

Olsavsky lost his wife, Rayme L. Olsavsky, to cancer in 2021 so it is possible that this father of 3 made his own decision to walk away from the Steelers. But the manner in which his departure has been communicated suggests the opposite is the case.

Steelers Make First Free Agency Move

The Steelers also made their first free agency move by extending a one year tender to exclusive rights free agent Christian Kuntz. Kuntz is a product of Duquesne and Chartiers Valley and beat out Kameron Candy for the long snapper’s job during 2021 training camp.

Since then he’s appeared in 34 games for the Steelers.

Most fans probably don’t even recognize let alone know his name. And if you’re a long snapper, that means you’re doing your job.

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Good While It Lasted… Steelers Lose Brian Flores to Minnesota Vikings

The Minnesota Vikings have hired Steelers Assistant Brian Flores showing that some things are not meant to last. Literally.

Brian Flores, Steelers 2022 training camp

Brian Flores at St. Vincents in the summer of ’22. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

When the Steelers surprised the rest of the NFL by hiring Brian Flores as their senior defensive assistant/linebackers coach last spring, everyone suspected it would be a short-term relationship.

Brian Flores was head coaching material, having just been fired from the Miami Dolphins largely because – as Flores argues, he refused to tank for draft position. So there was a bit of a question over whether Flores would find a cold shoulder from the rest of the NFL.

But the Cleveland Browns leapt to interview Flores for their defensive coordinator spot. And that was followed by several other interviews, including a 2nd interview with the Arizona Cardinals.

So instead of a cold shoulder, Flores found a warm embrace. Steelers fans may have held out hope that Mike Tomlin and/or Art Rooney II could have convinced Flores to stay in Pittsburgh for another year. But the reality is that moving into the Vikings defensive coordinator chair provides Flores a better path to a head coaching job.

Flores Made an Impact in Pittsburgh

Judging the impact of an assistant coach from the outside in is difficult. Sure, when an assistant does a great job such as Mike Munchak their influence is obvious. But the reverse isn’t always true.

The 2013 Steelers opened the season 2-6 and a horrendous offensive line was the main culprit. Yet they fought back and kept their playoff hopes alive until a blown call in overtime swung victory and the final playoff spot to San Diego Chargers. Improved offensive line play had driven the ’13 Steelers surge during the 2nd half of the season.

Other times the influence of an assistant is more subtle. Mike Tomlin fired Joey Porter as outside linebackers coach following he 2018 season and announced that Keith Butler would take over his responsibilities. Fans snickered an jeered Butler’s apparent demotion.

  • Yet under Butler’s tutelage, Bud Dupree finally began to play like a first round draft pick.

So if it is hard to pinpoint Brian Flores’ influence on the Steelers 2022 defense, there’s no question that he made his mark. And that mark is helping turn around a unit that was one of the worst run defenses in franchise history into a unit that ranked in the NFL’s top ten.

And the arrival of veterans like Larry Ogunjobi and Myles Jack fueled that improvement, it is quite clear that Flores had a role in helping raw rookies like Mark Robinson be ready to make contributions late in the season. And Robinson played a large role in shutting down stout running offenses such as the Carolina Panthers, Las Vegas Raiders and Baltimore Ravens.

Clearly, the Steelers will miss Flores.

Brian Flores’ departure marks the first coaching change to Mike Tomlin’s staff this off season, as Tomlin has already decided to retain offensive coordinator Matt Canada. Jerry Olsavsky remains as inside linebackers coach while Denzel Martin is on staff as assistant outside linebackers coach.

Mike Tomlin likes to promote from within although his best coaching choices have been veterans, like Flores and Munchak, that he’s brought in from the outside.

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Steelers 2022 Season Review – Rebuilding the Right Way in Pickett’s Rookie Season

The Pittsburgh Steelers finished the 2022 season 9-8, just barely missing the playoffs but giving the franchise its 19th consecutive non-losing campaign since 2003. The quick take away?

  • Sometimes denial is desirable.

2022 was a rebuilding year in Pittsburgh. Just don’t expect Art Rooney II, Mike Tomlin, Omar Khan or even Kevin Colbert to utter the word. In fact, expect them to reject the concept. To understand why go back to the words of Bill Cowher.

After consecutive losing seasons in 1998 in 1999, reporters asked Bill Cowher the Steelers were rebuilding in 2000. The Chin rejected the idea immediately, explaining, “Anytime you say you’re rebuilding, you’re giving yourself an excuse for losing.”

I don’t know if Mike Tomlin ever rejected rebuilding so eloquently, but his actions prove that he shares his predecessor’s philosophy.

But if Mike Tomlin will not, and should not say the Steelers were rebuilding in 2022, I can and I will. In 2022 the Steelers showed right way to rebuild. Let’s look at how and why.

Kenny Pickett, Steelers vs Ravens

Kenny Pickett drops back. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Laying the Foundation: 2023 Off Season

The secret to rebuilding the right way is as simple: Successfully rebuilding in the NFL means doing your best to field a winning team as quickly as possible in a way you can sustain in the future.

  • But if that’s easy to write, it’s hard to execute.

The NFL certainly doesn’t lack “Get rich quick” schemes. The wisest move of the Steelers brain trust was to avoid any of those temptations, as they declined to throw draft picks and guaranteed contracts to bring Russell Wilson, Deshaun Watson or even Aaron Rodgers to Pittsburgh.

Instead, the Steelers focused their rare salary cap abundance on shoring up weaknesses at offensive line by bringing in Mason Cole, James Daniels and at inside linebacker with Myles Jack. And they remained true to the core franchise philosophy of building through the draft.

While the success or failure of their ’22 draft will hinge on Kenny Pickett’s development, the story of the 2022 phase of the rebuild belongs as much to the rest of the Steelers 2022 draft class as it does to Pickett.

Before the Bye – Life Without a Franchise Quarterback

Other commentators have described the Steelers 2022 season as “The Tale of Two Season: Before the Bye and After.” You can muster many statistics from both sides of the ball to show how bad the Steelers were before their bye week. You can point to Najee Harris playing injured, the offensive line’s slow development under Pat Meyer and/or T.J. Watt going on injured reserve.

Those are all valid points. But the simple explanation for the Steelers 2-6 is the best one: For the first time in 18 years, Pittsburgh was playing without a franchise quarterback.

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

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

Watching the Steelers try and fail to comeback against the Patriots in week 2, I had no doubt that Ben Roethlisberger, at least the 2021 edition of Big Ben, would have gotten Chris Boswell into position to tie the game. I’d argue that had Roethlisberger returned the Steelers would have won 2 of the three against the Jets, Browns, Dolphins.

Instead we saw Mitch Trubisky playing not to lose and the Kenny Pickett playing like a raw rookie. The defense  struggled without T.J. Watt; although new comers Myles Jack and Larry Ogunjobi were improving it against the run, as foreshadowed in the upset of Tom Brady and Tampa Bay.

After the Bye – Coming Together, Growing Together, Winning Together

The conventional explanation ties the Steelers 2nd half turn around to Kenny Pickett’s development. And be clear about it, Pickett’s growth was critical.

Heyward first “appeared” when Tampa’s defense ‘forgot’ him and Mitch Trubisky found him in the middle of the field for a 49 yard gain that set up an insurance touchdown as the Steelers secured their second win. Next, Kenny Pickett found Heyward open in the middle against Atlanta, giving the Steelers their only touchdown in a game that improved their record to 5-7. Heyward’s next big play came with 25 seconds left against the Raiders where he took a toss 21 yards before wisely taking a knee, allowing the Steelers to kill the clock and improve their record to 8-8.

Connor Heyward, Steelers vs Browns

Connor Heyward makes a key 3rd down conversion. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Injuries forced him into the starting line up in the season finale, where he:

  • Converted a 3rd and 1 with a six yard scamper.
  • Caught 3 of 4 passes thrown on the game-closing touchdown drive
  • Those catches included a 27 yarder on 3rd and 8

Connor Heyward earns this extended shout out because his arc exemplifies the arc of so many on the team.

The offensive line gelled, allowing Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren to run smarter instead of just harder. Backups Benny Snell and Anthony McFarland did the same in Indy when injuries forced them into the game. George Pickens arrived in Pittsburgh making acrobatic catches – as the season progressed he started making them in clutch situations. Steven Sims made several clutch catches of his own down the stretch, while Diontae Johnson managed to break his nasty habit of running backwards after a catch. Pat Freiermuth played well from the get go, but continued to deliver even when limited by a knee injury late in the season.

  • On defense, the story is similar, but it revolves more around T.J. Watt’s return.

The Steelers lost T.J. Watt in the opening upset of Cincinnati, and struggled in his absence. Even if Watt wasn’t at wasn’t at full strength until December, he still forced defenses to account for him.

Minkah Fitzpatrick, Steelers vs Ravens, Steelers vs Ravens 2022 M&T Bank Stadium

Minkah Fitzpatrick with the game-sealing pick. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

And that’s why both veteran leaders like Cam Heyward and Minkah Fitzpatrick as well as emerging leaders like Alex Highsmith and Cam Sutton authored their biggest “splash plays” after Watt’s return.

  • But growth also fuels part of the 2022 Steelers defense’s story.

After getting embarrassed against the run at home against Baltimore, Mike Tomlin turned to rookies DeMarvin Leal and Mark Robinson, and the duo helped shut down several stout rushing attacks in late December.

Every player had a hand in the pile pushing the Steelers late season surge. And anatomical measurements aside, no player had a bigger hand than Kenny Pickett.

Pickett’s Progress

Drafting a first round quarterback in the NFL is pro sport’s ultimate risk-reward call. Consider this: between 1994 and 2021, Washington has drafted 5 first round quarterbacks and won 2 playoff games.

In the same timespan, the Steelers have drafted one first round quarterback and appeared in 9 conference championships and 4 Super Bowls. So the Steelers took a risk when they took Kenny Pickett.

  • We’re still don’t know if that risk will pay off, but the early returns are positive.
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.

Even during Pickett’s interception-laden early appearances, the game never looked “too big” for Pickett the way it sometimes did for Mason Rudolph or say Kordell Stewart. After Mitch Tribuisky’s strong performances in relief of Pickett and after the trashing from Philly, there were calls for Mike Tomlin to “put Pickett on ice” for the rest of the season.

Tomlin stuck by quarterback and Pickett delivered:

  • A come-from behind win against the Colts on Monday Night Football
  • A flawless two minute drive to comeback against the Raiders
  • An improvised throw on a broken play to clinch the comeback against the Ravens – on the road

Let’s be clear. Pickett has a lot to prove. He needs to play better earlier in games, use the middle of the field and improve his deep ball accuracy. But Pickett can learn those things. Pickett’s comebacks reveal traits that  quarterback’s cannot learn.

In 2021 thanks to the heroics of their aging franchise quarterback, the Steelers made the playoffs when they didn’t deserve to. In 2022 the Steelers came together as a team around their rookie quarterback and missed the playoffs even though the probably deserved to make it.

Missing out on competing for a Lombardi is always a disappointment, but that disappointment shouldn’t cloud the fact that the 2022 Steelers showed the NFL how to rebuild.

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Bittersweet: Steelers Defeat Browns 28 to 14 but Miss Playoffs, Finishing ’22 9-8

With the playoffs on the line, the Pittsburgh Steelers beat the Cleveland Browns 28 to 14, to close their 2022 campaign with a record of 9-8.

  • Alas, their season ended there, thanks to the Miami Dolphins win over the Jets.

Missing the playoffs is disappointing. But the game itself should encourage fans because it reveals the Steelers as a franchise that knows how to win, while the Browns are one that remains in perpetual rebuilding.

Cameron Heyward, Deshaun Watson

Cameron Heyward after sacking Deshaun Watson. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Steelers Temp Fate Early On. Twice.

Season finales against division rivals with nothing to play for other than pride can be tricky affairs. The advantage usually falls to the team fighting for a playoff spot as opposed to the spoiler.

  • But the worst thing you can do is to give the spoiler a chance to think they can win.
Najee Harris, Steelers vs Browns

Najee Harris Fumbles at the goal line. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

And that’s just what the Steelers did. After forcing a punt the Steelers marched straight down the field on the strength of some power rushing by Najee Harris and a heads up 32 catch and run by Diontae Johnson that put the Steelers at Cleveland’s 2.

  • There the Steelers made two critical mistakes.

First, Mike Tomlin and his staff failed to challenge a should have been touchdown run by Najee Harris, when replays showed it probably should have been a score. But Tomlin preferred to act quickly, and an attempted QB sneak by Kenny Pickett came up short. Najee Harris fumbled on the next play.

  • These are the type of turnovers that you must avoid in these situations.

Fortunately, the Steelers defense was able to stuff Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt on the next drive forcing a punt. Nonetheless, the Browns stuck first two series later, with a touchdown, facilitated in part by a holding call on Robert Spillane that transformed a punt into a 3rd down conversion.

The Steelers had just committed the 2nd deadly sin when playing a spoiler: Allowing them to get the upper hand and think they have a chance to win.

Wanting It More

On the ensuing drive Jaylen Warren responded with the type of play that would define the difference between the Steelers and Browns on this afternoon. Faced with a 3rd and 1 protection broke down and Myles Garrett bested Dan Moore to get his hands on Pickett.

  • Pickett threw? Tossed? Batted? the ball Warren’s way.

Warren caught the ball amidst a swarm of Cleveland Browns, well behind the line of scrimmage. Despite having at least three brown jerseys around him, Warren fought, twisted, wiggled and willed his way to a first down. Jaylen Warren simply wanted it more.

Four plays later someone on the Browns defense “forgot” to cover George Pickens and Pickens was in the end zone, tying the game. Cleveland would not lead for the rest of the afternoon.

Welcome to the AFC North DeShaun Watson

The Deshaun Watson trade was the NFL’s biggest off season story. Watson, who sat out all of 2021 in the face of approximately 2 dozen sexual harassment civil suits was dealt to the Cleveland Browns for 3 first round draft picks, a 3 round pick and a 4th round pick.

  • Oh, and the Browns gave him a $230,000,000 contract, fully guaranteed.

As Waston was suspended for the first Steelers-Browns meeting, this was his first visit to Pittsburgh as a Brown. The Steelers defense did its damned to welcome him to the AFC North.

Levi Wallace started the welcoming party as the Browns were in their 2 minute drill to close the first half. The Steelers reached the Red Zone, yet had to settle for a Chris Boswell field goal. Not what you want, but it did give them the lead.

Alex Highsmith, Deshaun Waston, Steelers vs Browns

Alex Highsmith sacks Deshaun Watson. Photo Credit: Matt Freed, AP

The Steelers opened the second half with yet another long drive that ended with yet another field goal. Disappointing? Yes, but it set up the defensive fireworks that were to come.

The Browns did get another touchdown, thanks in no small part to a roughing the passer “make up call” penalty on a legal sack made by Cam Heyward. The touchdown, plausibly gave the Browns a chance to get back in the game.

Instead, it fired up the Steelers defense. Cleveland’s final drive saw:

  • Cam Heyward and Alex Highsmith split a sack
  • Alex Highsmith and T.J. Watt split another sack a few plays later
  • Cam Heyward sack him on 4th and 25

Welcome to the AFC North Mr. Watson. We hope you give Jimmy Haslam gets his money’s worth.

Finishing the Season by Finishing Drives

While his detractors will likely refuse to see it, Matt Canada’s offense has improved as 2022 has progressed.

  • The offensive line is better.
  • Wide receivers run their routes better and clutch catches have replaced drops more often than not.
  • Running backs hit holes with authority and force piles to fall forward.
  • Canada’s jet sweeps have started to work.
  • Kenny Pickett has protected the ball and the Steelers have improved in 3rd down conversions.

Yet the Red Zone has remained a glaring liability for the Steelers.

  • That liability was on display in this season finale. Yet, in the 2nd half the Steelers changed the tune.

The Steelers got the ball at Cleveland’s 25 after Kazzee’s interception. There Canada committed to power football, rushing the ball on 4 of six plays, including Najee Harris’ touchdown.

Connor Heyward, Steelers vs Browns

Connor Heyward makes a key 3rd down conversion. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

After the Cleveland’s late touchdown the Steelers got the ball back with just over 10 minute left. On their previous possession, they’d managed precisely zero yards on three plays. This time, it wasn’t always pretty, but the Steelers offense got it done.

Connor Heyward made 3 catches, two of which converted third downs. George Pickens came up with a 17 yard catch to convert another third down. Heyward’s second 3rd down conversion gave the Steelers the ball a Cleveland’s 3.

It took the Steelers four tries, but on 1st and goal following a pass interference call, Derek Watt plowed into the end zone. Diontae Johnson didn’t get his touchdown this season, but he did give the Steelers an insurance 2 point conversion.

Was missing the playoffs after a win like this a bittersweet ending for the Steelers? You bet.

But keep in mind that when the game was on the line, the Steelers defense dominated, the Browns star quarterback fell flat on his face, while Pittsburgh closed the deal with an unsung third string tight end and a power rushing touchdown from its fullback.

The contrast between the two historic rivals couldn’t be clearer.

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Steelers Report Card for Win over Raiders: Living Up to Legacy Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is pleased to see his students adding to the legacy left to them, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the win over the Raiders on the 50 Anniversary of the Immaculate Reception.

Cam Heyward, Cam Heyward Franco Harris Number 32, Steelers vs Raiders

Paying homage to Franco, Cam Heyward leads the Steelers out of tunnel. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Quarterback
Kenny Pickett went 26 of 39 for 244 yards with 1 touchdown and one interception. In truth, Pickett did not look sharp for much of the first 55 minutes of the game. But he delivered perfectly when the game was on the line. Grade: B-Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren combined for 76 yards on the ground on 22 carries, although perhaps those numbers would have been better had the Steelers committed more to the run. The duo also combined for 7 catches for just under 50 yards. Derek Watt was stopped on third down. Grade: B-

Tight Ends
Pat Freiermuth caught 7 of 8 passes thrown to him for 66 yards and the arrow on this kid continues to point up. Zach Gentry caught 1 pass for 1 yard and missed the block on Derek Watt’s run. Connor Heyward took a surprise pitch 21 yards and showed veteran savvy by sliding down in bounds to keep the clock running. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
Diontae Johnson had 5 catches for 64 yards on 7 targets, leading the group. George Pickens caught 5 passes on 5 targets including a 25 yarder, the night’s longest, and the game winning touchdown. Steven Sims and one catch for 7 yards on 1 target. Myles Boykin helped push Kenny Pickett to a first down on 4th and 1. Grade: B

Offensive Line
Kenny Pickett wasn’t sacked all night and was only touched on 4 occasions. That’s good. However, the run blocking wasn’t there on a consistent basis, forcing lots of 3rd and longs and consequently, punts. The Steelers need to be able to run the ball in cold weather. Grade: C

Defensive Line
Larry Ogunjobi have only had one stop for a loss, but he helped dominate the Raiders upfront after the opening drive. Montravius Adams had 3 tackles as part of an effort that shut down the Raiders running game on a night when running the ball meant everything. Grade: A

Linebackers
Alex Highsmith closed the third quarter with a 13 yard losing sack of David Carr which helped begin the Steelers rally. T.J. Watt had a tipped pass and a tackle for a loss. Robert Spillane led the team in tackles with 12. Grade: A-

Secondary
Arthur Maulet made a heads up play intercepting the ball immediately after Pickett’s turnover. Minkah Fitzpatrick Short circuited their next drive with an interception of his own, and helped set up a sack on a blitz late in the fourth quarter. Cam Sutton made an interception that all but sealed the win for the Steelers. Grade: A

Special Teams
The Raiders did have one long punt return, but its impact was limited. Kick coverage was good and Steven Sims fair caught all but one punt. Pressley Harvin was solid on his returns. Chris Boswell did make two field goals, but he also missed to more. Yes, weather was a factor, but kicking at Acrisure Stadium should be his specialty. Grade: C-

Coaching
Matt Canada’s offense struggled for much of the night and one has to question why the Steelers passed 39 times on a night with 9 degree weather. Still, had the field goals not been missed, the last minute drive wouldn’t have been necessary, but it was and his unit executed to perfection.

  • And the toss to Connor Heyward was a beauty that sealed the game.
Mike Tomlin, Mike Tomlin Franco Harris Jersey, Steelers vs Raiders

Mike Tomlin wearing a Franco Harris jersey. Photo Credit: Fred Vuich, AP via St. Albert Gazette

Teryl Austin’s defense made an immediate adjustment that neutralized the Raiders running game and his defense kept delivering even as the offense missed a field goal and punted 3 times in the second half alone.

  • In early October the NFL had left the Pittsburgh Steelers for dead.

They had a rookie quarterback and had been smacked around by the league’s heavyweights and up and comers a like. At this point the smart money was on Pittsburgh spending Christmas “competing” for a top 5 pick.

Instead the Steelers competed for a playoff spot on Christmas Eve. On a night when the Steelers celebrated the 50th Anniversary of the Immaculate Reception and said goodbye to Franco Harris, Mike Tomlin harnessed that emotion without letting his team get caught up in it. Grade: B+

Sung Hero Award
The Steelers tapped him to lead introductions carrying a Number 32 banner. When the game started, Cam Heyward showed why he was worthy to carry on Franco Harris’ legacy, with two sacks, a pass defensed, another tackle for a loss and numerous others for no or little gain, and for that he wins the Sung Hero ward for the 2022 win over the Raiders at Acrisure Stadium.

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