The Trubisky Temptation: Why Tomlin Is Right to Stick with Kenny Pickett

Ron Jaworski? You never have to worry about me jerking you.” – Dick Vermeil, in a 1970’s NFL Films segment.

My introduction to the concept of “bench the quarterback” came on a random 1970’s Saturday afternoon while watching that NFL Films piece. My reaction? I asked my older brother – who while not knowing everything the way my father did, knew quite a lot – “What does ‘Jerking you’ mean?” “He means taking you out for another quarterback,” my he explained.

Kenny Pickett, Mitch Trubisky, Steelers vs Seahawks

Kenny Pickett and Mitch Trubisky during preseason. Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY

At my tender age, the concept wasn’t just abstract, it was downright strange. In my elementary school eyes, Terry Bradshaw was, had always been and always would be the quarterback of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

  • Why would any coach need much less want to change?

Ah, the innocence of youth.

I’m sure that a social media listening platform would reveal “Bench the quarterback” running neck-in-neck with “Fire the coach” for the two most popular phrases on Sunday afternoons.

Choosing a starting quarterback is the most consequential decision an NFL head coach makes. Having a “difficult choice” isn’t always a “good problem to have.”

  • But of course teams do change their starting quarterbacks either due to injury or benching.

Thanks to Kenny Pickett’s concussion Mike Tomlin had to make his 2nd quarterback change in three weeks. Mitch Trubisky came off the bench. He played without fear. He was exceptional, leading a touchdown drive and killing the clock with multiple 3rd down conversions.

  • The press wasted little time and calling for a quarterback controversy.

Mike Tomlin threw cold water on that idea quickly, affirming that Kenny Pickett will play against the Miami Dolphins if he clears the concussion protocol.

  • Pickett has cleared the protocol and it says here that Mike Tomlin is right to resist the Trubisky temptation.

He’s right for two reasons. One having to do with Tribuisky, the other having to do with Pickett.

Resist the Trubisky Temptation

Mitch Tribusky earned every bit of praise he’s getting for closing the Buccaneers game with a win. He was accurate with his arm, nimble on his feet. And he was decisive.

  • In other words, he was everything he hadn’t been in his first four starts.
Kordell Stewart, Steelers vs Jaguars

Kordell Stewart in action against the Jaguars Photo Credit: Andy Lyons /Allsport

And maybe that’s the point. Maybe is one of those quarterbacks who is better coming in off the bench. That may sound oxymoronic, but it is not unprecedented. Think of Kordell Stewart.

In the game he entered after Tommy Maddox’s spinal contusion, Stewart earned a passer rating of 135.2 while throwing 17 passes. The next week he notched a 117.3 rating.

While I can’t prove it, this lends credibility to the notion that Kordell played best as a backup, or at least without the the pressure of being a starter.

Be that as it may, the counter argument would run, Tribusky has the proverbial “hot hand,” so the Steelers should stick with him. Had the off season seen the Steelers depth chart evolve differently and say, had Tomlin benched Tribusky in favor of Mason Rudolph, and Rudolph had exited the game with a concussion then going with the hot hand might be a wise option.

But that’s not the situation.

Right to Pick Pickett

“Going with the hot hand” only makes sense if you don’t have or think you have your long-term answer at quarterback. The Pittsburgh Steelers picked have Kenny Pickett in the first round of the 2022 NFL Draft, ergo they see him as their long term answer at quarterback.

  • Once you make a decision to start your rookie first round pick, there’s (almost) no walking it back.

Mike Tomlin left himself some wiggle room after the Jets game. He could have come back the following Tuesday and announced:

Regarding last Sunday’s game relative to this Sunday’s game at the quarterback position, last Sunday I was looking for a spark, so I turned to Kenny. I felt that by in large he provided us with that spark and did some good things. But this week, with the Buffalo Bills coming up, on the road, I’m looking for stability so, Mitch  Tribusky returns to his role as starter, where he will stay. Any questions.

No one would have thought anything of it.

  • But Tomlin didn’t go that route.

He named Pickett his starter, and Pickett needs to know that Tomlin’s behind him. Switching back to Tribusky after just one strong quarter of football would send the opposite signal.

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The Case for the 2022 Pittsburgh Steelers

The Pittsburgh Steelers start the post-Ben Roethlisberger era this Sunday as they open the 2022 season against the Cincinnati Bengals at Paycor Stadium. The Steelers have a new quarterback, a new general manager and when they return to Pittsburgh, they’ll be playing at Acrisure Stadium instead of Heinz Field.

  • So Steel Curtain Rising is responding to all this change by reviving a tradition perfected by a lost friend.

If you’re fortunate enough to have known the late, great Ivan Cole you will remember that he previewed every season with an article titled “The Case for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 20xx.”

There, Ivan would make the strongest case possible for the Steelers Super Bowl chances, with the caveat that he was only laying out a best case scenario and not making a prediction.

So today I honor my departed friend with my own best-case scenario.

T.J. Watt, Lamarr Jackson, Steelers vs Ravens

T.J. Watt contains Lamarr Jackson. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review.

Steelers Strong @ Skill Positions

For the last 16 or 17 years Bob Labriola’s preseason analysis has hinged on one key fact – The Steelers had a chance at a Lombardi because they had franchise quarterback.

  • Now that Roethlisberger has retired, does doom the Steelers?

No, far from it. If a year ago, Ben Roethlisberger gave the Steelers a certain floor (see his six 4th quarter comebacks), he also gave them a bit of a ceiling. He was clearly a bad fit for Matt Canada’s offense (Ben was at his best, almost his old self, calling his own plays; the rest of the time? Not so much), and even with the addition of Najee Harris, his inability to throw deep limited the offense.

Pat Freiermuth, Najee Harris, Steelers vs Bears

Pat Freiermuth and Najee Harris celebrate in the end zone. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

That alone should improve first half scoring. In other words, while Trubisky cannot be expected to mount 4th quarter comebacks the way Ben did, they may not be as necessary.

And should Trubisky falter, Kenny Pickett has looked as good as anyone had a right to expect him to look so far. Which brings us to Mason Rudolph. Booing fans may beg to differ, but a third string quarterback with 17 starts under his belt is something most NFL coaches would envy.

So this is the deepest quarterback room the Steelers have had since 2012… when they finished 8-8. OK. But I’d argue that the 2022 Steelers are far deeper at the skill positions.

Najee Harris gave the Steelers their first 1,000 yard rusher in 4 years despite working behind a terrible offensive line. Benny Snell Jr. may not be RB number 1 material, but he is a solid backup. Jaylen Warren impressed enough in presason to be the “next man up” if the depth chart is correct.

At wide receiver the Steelers are led by Diontae Johnson, a promising young player whose impressive body of work is underpinned by his integrity, worth ethic and maturity. In other words someone who can provide a perfect example for rookie George Pickens as well as Chase Claypool, a veteran struggling to mature.

Myles Boykin and Gunner Olszewski provide solid depth from two men who can play specials teams, and this group only figures to get stronger with Calvin Austin’s return.

At tight end Pat Freiermuth appears poised to grow into a “Go To Guy” in clutch situations, while Zach Gentry has a chance to prove that drafting a guy as “a project” isn’t necessarily a dirty word. If new comer Conner Heyward works out, the Steelers could have their deepest tight end room since 2010.

Which brings us to the Offensive Line….

A Lot Is Riding on the Offensive Line

Let’s call a horse a horse: The Steelers can be stronger at quarterback, running back, wide out and tight end, but if their offensive line fails to improve all is for naught.

And let’s not sugar coat this: Based on the preseason, the Steelers offensive line is picking up right where they left off in 2021.

This is bad.

It is even worse when you factor in the Steelers spending 72 million to sign Mason Cole and James Daniels and resign Chukwuma Okorafor. Tony Defeo has counseled patience towards the offensive line, but is that just a Pittsburgh pipe dream?

On a Steel City Insider podcast, Craig Wolfley assured Steelers fans that the line can improve. OK. Wolfey sees the world with Black and Gold tinted sun glasses you say? Well that’s true. But Duke Manyweather, who trains NFL lineman in the off season, reminded Steelers fans:

A little history is helpful here: The Steelers offensive lines in 2008 and 2010 started out as weak spots and struggled mightily at times, but both units improved during the course of the season.

Difference on the Defensive Front 7? Known Unknowns

In 2021 the Pittsburgh Steelers fielded the franchise’s worst run defense since the 1940’s. Honestly, one has to wonder why opposing coaches even bothered to throw. It was obvious that even an average running back could, would and did gouge the Steelers run defense for double digit gains at will.

  • Why did that happen?

In a word, because Stephon Tuitt was injured, Vince Williams retired, Tyson Alualu’s season lasted 6 quarters and Devin Bush wasn’t the same prior to tearing his ACL. But except for Bush, the Steelers couldn’t have anticipated any of this prior to the season.

  • The Steelers used the past off season to plan accordingly.

Larry Ogunjobi gives the Steelers a quality option on the defensive line, and Myles Jack should help stabilize the center of the defense behind the line. Likewise, the Steelers made frequent use of their 3 safety package during the preseason which should strengthen the run defense.

True, Damontae Kazee being out to start the season is a setback, but the 3 safety package’s existence suggests that Mike Tomlin, Teryl Austin and Brain Flores are actively addressing this liability.

At outside linebacker T.J. Watt is flashing signs of being a generational talent, while Alex Highsmith looks to improve. Depth is thin behind them, but Malik Reed’s arrival should help. But the Steelers need both starters to remain healthy.

Secondary = Primary Intrigue

The secondary is of the most intriguing depth charts on this 2022 Steelers squad. In 2021 Cam Sutton emerged a true leader and a legitimate starting NFL cornerback. Last year, just before the season, the Steelers raised eyebrows when they traded for cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon.

Those eyebrows remained raised when Witherspoon sat on the bench for 8 of the Steelers 9 first games. He only started getting serious snaps in week 12, but managed to finish the season with 3 interceptions and 9 passes defensed. The Steelers resigned him along with Levi Wallace, a cornerback who had a lot of success against the Black and Gold.

Minkah Fitzpatrick, Willie Snead, Justin Tucker, Steelers vs Ravens

Minkah Fitzpatrick knocks the ball away from Wille Snead as Justin Tucker lays in the wood. Photo Credit: Patrick Smith, Getty Images via Fansided.com

At safety Damontae Kazee was looking like he could turn into one of those trademark Steelers under-the-rader free agency signings and, if his stay on injured reserve as indeed short-lived, he still could be.

If it is, he will join Terrell Edmunds, a player who returned to Pittsburgh after finding lukewarm interest on the free agent market. IT says here that Edmunds misfortune is Pittsburgh’s good luck. While Edmunds may never be a superstar, he’s improved each year, and should be a stabilizing force in the secondary.

Many, including this author, questioned the wisdom of the Steelers trading their first round pick for Minkah back in 2019, but since then he’s made game changing play after game changing play.

Special Teams to Be Special?

Anyone who doubts the importance of special teams need only remember how the Steelers struggled in 2018 when the kicking game faltered.

In Chris Boswell the Steelers return one of the best kickers in the NFL. Statistics say that the Ravens Justin Tucker is the NFL’s best, and his resume speaks for itself. But Boswell kicks in a tougher venue, and the man his ice water flowing throw his veins.

  • If the game comes down to Boswell’s foot I wouldn’t bet against him.

A year ago the Steelers drafted Pressley Harvin in the 7th round, and fans spent the season wondering why Mike Tomlin kept him around. However, if he can translate his preseason punting exploits into the regular season, we’ll know why.

If he can hold onto the ball, Gunner Olszewski should give the Steelers a viable threat in the return game, and Steve Simms also looked good as a returner in preseason.Ivan Cole

Tomlin Adds Experienced Coaches to the Mix

While Mike Tomlin is a well-known commodity, this will be the first time he’ll start a season without a franchise quarterback. Tomlin will also welcome a number of new assistant coaches either to the team or to new roles within the team.

Teryl Austin will take over as defensive coordinator, Brian Flores arrives as linebackers coach and work as a senior defensive assistant. Pat Meyer joins the team as offensive line coach. Alfredo Roberts, Grady Brown and Frishman Jackson round out the new faces at position coaches, taking over the tight end, defensive backs and wide receiver rooms.

  • What to make of all this?

Well, if Mike Tomlin has struggled when he’s tried to identify, recruit and/or promote up and coming young coaching talent (think Scottie Montgomery, Jack Bicknell or Carnell Lake), he’s repeatedly he’s demonstrated ability to bring in experienced veteran value adding coaches to his staff (think Richard Mann, Mike Munchak and yes, Todd Haley.)

Tomlin’s hires for senior positions all boast extensive resumes in both the NFL and/or college and should serve as able mentors for a maturing team.

Steelers fans in northern Virginia.

Ivan Cole, right, middle, with Bill Steinbach and Rebecca Rollett

Will Underdog Status Once Again Suit the Steelers?

We close this tribute to Ivan Cole, by quoting from his “The Case for the 2013 Pittsburgh Steelers,” which he wrapped up with:

I want to end like I began. I am not saying what I think will happen this season, just a best case scenario of what can happen in a fully realistic way, and in many respects, validated by history.

Like Ivan, I’m not making predictions. Nor am I ignorant to the fact that the Steelers are playing in the AFC North, home to two potential Super Bowl-NFL MPA favorite tandems in the form of Bengals with Joe Burrow and the Ravens with Lamar Jackson.

Must pundits outside of Pittsburgh are predicting a rough year, not only forecasting Mike Tomlin’s first losing effort but a 5 or 6 win season.

But if Ivan were he he’d say, “So be it. Let Iron sharpen Iron. And besides, the Steelers play best with their back to the wall. So let’s live in our hopes and not in our fears!”

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Subtraction & Addition: Steelers 2022 Roster and Practice Squad @ a Glance

The Pittsburgh Steelers made final cuts reducing their roster to 53 members, but had to do some addition to complement their subtraction.

To shore up the thin depth behind T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith, the Steelers traded a 6th round pick from the 2023 NFL Draft to the Denver Broncos for outside linebacker Malik Reed and Denver’s 7th round 2023 pick.
They also traded a conditional 7th round pick to the Miami Dolphins for offensive lineman Jesse Davis, strengthening what is the weakest area on the depth chart going into the season.

Mike Tomlin

Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin.

Some Surprising Cuts

To get to 53 men the Steelers made a number of surprising cuts Joe Haeg, John Leglue, Buddy Johnson, Marcus Allen, Anthony McFarland, and Justin Layne all got visits from The Turk. As expected, Marcus Allen returned to the 53 man roster after the Steelers put safety Damontae Kazee on the short-term injured reserve list. Anthony McFarland and John Leglue have returned via the practice squad.

Still, considering how versatile he was last season and how frequently he was called into action, Joe Haeg’s departure is a minor surprise as is their decision to part ways so quickly with Buddy Johnson. What’s most surprising about Justin Layne’s dismissal isn’t that the Steelers said goodbye, but rather that he was picked up off of waivers by the New York Giants.

First Look at the Steelers 2022 Roster

Quarterback
Mitch Trubisky
Kenny Pickett
Mason Rudolph
– No surprise for those who understand franchise philosophy.

Running Back
Najee Harris
Benny Snell
Jaylen Warren
Derek Watt
– Tomlin’s decision to revert to a backfield that’s 3 deep is a bit disappointing

Wide Receiver
Diontae Johnson
Chase Claypool
George Pickens
Calvin Austin
Gunner Olszewski
Miles Boykin
Steven Sims
– Sims beats out Tyler Vaughns for the last slot, Boykin’s experience and special teams ability helps him.

Tight End
Pat Freiermuth
Zach Gentry
Connor Heyward
– Excited to see Connor Heyward, but sad to see Kevin Radar go.

Offensive Line
Kendrick Green
Kevin Dotson
Mason Cole
James Daniels
Chukwuma Okorafor
Jesse Davis
J.C. Hassenauer
– Will “New” = “Improved”?

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward
Tyson Alualu
Larry Ogunjobi
Chris Wormley
Isaiahh Loudermilk
Montravius Adams
DeMarvin Leal
– Hopefully Alualu’s health holds

Outside Linebacker
T.J. Watt
Alex Highsmith
Derrek Tuszka
Malik Reed
– Clutch those rosary beads and ask for intercession for Watt and Highsmith’s health

Inside Linebacker
Devin Bush
Myles Jack
Robert Spillane
Mark Robinson
Marcus Allen
– Make or break year for Devin Bush

Cornerback
Cam Sutton
Ahkello Witherspoon
Levi Wallace
James Pierre
Arthur Maulet
– Steelers have invested heavily here. Time to for it to payoff

Safety
Minkah Fitzpatrick
Terrell Edmunds
Tre Norwood
Miles Killebrew
– Losing Kazee is a blow. But let’s hope Norwood can shirk the sophmore slump.

Specialists
Chris Boswell (K)
Pressley Harvin (P)
Christian Kuntz (LS)
– You didn’t remember Kuntz’s name did you? That means he’s doing his job.

Steelers 2022 Practice Squad

Anthony McFarland, Running Back
John Leglue, Offensive Line
Carlos Davis, Nose Tackle
Cody White, Wide Receiver
Hamilcar Rashed, Outside Linebacker
William Dunkle, Offensive line
Ryan McCollum, Offensive line
Elijah Riley, Safety

During COVID-19 the NFL expanded practice squads to 16 and has kept that size, so the Steelers should be adding new players soon.

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

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

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

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

Pat Freiermuth, Steelers Lions 2022 Preseason

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

1. The Offensive Line Has Potential to be Truly Offensive

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

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

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

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

2. This Defense Has “It”

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

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

3. Freiermuth is for Real

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

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

4. Pickett Looks Good, But Mortal

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

5. Snell Sells It

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

More importantly, his hustle was apparent.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And there’s the rub.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was a magical evening.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mitch Trubisky, Steelers 2022 Training Camp

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chuck Noll, Mark Malone

Chuck Noll and Mark Malone.

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

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

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

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

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

Mason Rudolph, Steelers vs Rams

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Those guys are just so hard to find.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Feed the Hand that Slaps You III: Steelers Sign Larry Ogunjobi, Veteran AFC North Defensive Lineman

The Pittsburgh Steelers have responded to Stephon Tuitt’s retirement by falling back on what has been their off season mantra: Feed the hand that slaps you.

  • In this case this involves signing defensive lineman Larry Ogunjobi to a one year contract.

Larry Ogunjobi is no stranger to Steelers fans, Cleveland Browns drafted him in the 3rd round of the 2017 NFL Draft and he played for the Mistake by the Lake for four years. Following that he took a cruise down I-71 and sigened with the Cincinnati Bengals.

Larry Ogunjobi, Mason Rudolph, Steelers vs. Browns

Larry Ogunjobi glares at Mason Rudolph after shoving him to the ground. Photo Credit:

Larry Ogunjobi 16 games for the Bengals in 2021, recording 7 sacks, 12 tackles for losses and 16 quarterback hits. Unfortunately, for Ogunjobi he injured his right foot in the Bengals playoff game against the Oakland er um Las Vegas Raiders and missed the rest of the post season.

  • The injury unfortunately prevented Ogunjobi from cashing on his “prove it” deal with the Bengals.

In March he signed a three-year contract with the Chicago Bears worth a totaling $40.5 million and, if reports are correct, got $26.3 million guaranteed. However, when Ogunjobi failed a physical and Chicago withdrew their offer.

As Joe Rutter of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review has pointed out, Larry Ogunjobi has more tackles against the Steelers than against any other teams.

But Steelers fans will undoubtedly remember him from the infamous 2019 “Body Bag Game” at Cleveland Stadium. Shortly after Myles Garrett assaulted Mason Rudolph, Larry Ogunjobi pushed Mason Rudolph to the ground. That action earned him a 1 game suspension, which was lenient given that he’d crossed the field of play to interject himself into a fight.

So like fellow new defenders Genard Avery Myles Jack and Levi Wallace, the Steelers signed yet another player who has caused Pittsburgh pain in the past (at least Avery Jack and Wallace did so legally….)

Defensive Line Depth Shored Up

Larry Ogunjobi probably doesn’t alter the Steelers projected starting depth chart for St. Vincents, with Cam Heyward, Tyson Alualu and Chris Wormley expected to begin camp as starters. Assuming he arrives in Latrobe in full health, Ogunjobi could push Wormley or perhaps Alualu for a starting job.

Isaiahh Loudermilk quest for playing time just got more complicated and Montravius Adams’ lease on a roster spot just got looser. As for Henry Mondeaux, Carlos Davis and Khalil Davis? None of those men would would be wise to sign long-term leases in the greater Pittsburgh area.

Third round pick DeMarvin Leal remains a lock to make the team, but if he wants to get a helmet, he’d better bone up on his special teams.

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A Steelers Fan Looks at 50: If You’ve Watched the Blonde Bomber and Big Ben Play, You’re Old

I just turned 50 not long ago, and I don’t know if you know anything about math and age, but that’s getting up there in both categories.

Yes, 50 is the new 40, but try telling that to the 38-year-old at the bar who thinks you’re ancient while watching you try to look hip as you bust out a tune on Karaoke Night. (For the record, I don’t blame that 38-year-old one bit, because that’s what I thought about 50-year-olds 12 years ago.)

Ben Roethlisberger, Terry Bradshaw

Image Credit: 274 Sports Pittsburgh

Anyway, as it pertains to the Pittsburgh Steelers, I have been watching this team play football since January of 1980 when I was just seven. That’s a long time to watch any sports franchise do anything. Fortunately for yours truly, the great memories far outweigh the bad ones. My first memory — Super Bowl XIV between the Steelers and Rams –showcased quarterback Terry Bradshaw, the MVP of the Big Game for the second year in a row, and his awesome talents. My most recent Steelers memory, a blowout loss to the Chiefs in a wildcard playoff game this past January, was the last hurrah for legendary quarterback Ben Roethlisberger after 18 glorious seasons.

Needless to say, I’ve seen a lot of great things as a Steelers fan over the years. Even the seasons in between The Blond Bomber and Big Ben weren’t all that bad in terms of success on the football field.

Yes, the 1980s were kind of meh after the incredible success of the previous decade. However, there were still some great moments to cherish, like the upset of the Broncos in the divisional round of the 1984 playoffs, as well as the thrilling overtime wildcard road win over the hated Oilers to close out the decade.

What about the 1990s under new head coach, Bill Cowher, who had the unenviable task of succeeding the legendary Chuck Noll on the sidelines of old Three Rivers Stadium? The Chin sure had TRS rocking again like the Super ’70s, right? And while the Steelers never brought home One For The Thumb in Cowher’s initial postseason run when he took Pittsburgh to the playoffs during his first six seasons, in many ways, it was the most fun I’ve ever had watching my favorite football team.

Obviously, the decade of the 2000s saw Cowher finally bring his hometown team a fifth Lombardi Trophy with a win in Super Bowl XL. Not long after that, Mike Tomlin, who took over for Cowher as head coach in 2007, gave us “Got Six?” following a thrilling victory over the Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII.

As far as post-Super Bowl decades go, the 2010s weren’t nearly as meh as the 1980s. In fact, the Steelers’ 2000s run bled over into the 10s when they advanced to Super Bowl XLV before losing a heartbreaker to the Packers down in Dallas.

While the second Super Bowl era officially ended in an overtime loss to Tim Tebow and the 8-8 Broncos in a wildcard playoff game following the 2011 regular season, it didn’t take long for Pittsburgh to overhaul its roster and become a bona fide contender again by the mid-10s.

Holy smokes, I just realized we’re only months away from witnessing the Steelers’ third regular-season campaign of the 2020s. That means that the 2000s are like the ’70s to someone in their early-20s. Yikes. Not only have they grown up only knowing Roethlisberger as the Steelers quarterback, they probably have no clue who Bradshaw even is, or if they do, he’s like who Johnny Unitas was to me as a kid — someone who played in the Before Time when dinosaurs roamed the Earth.

  • What about those little kids out there right now who barely even know about Roethlisberger?

Man, I’m getting up there. I’ve seen both Joe Greene and Cam Heyward. I’ve been around for both Jack Ham and T.J. Watt.

Franco Harris, Jerome Bettis, Three Rivers Stadium,

Jerome Bettis & Franco Harris @ Final Game at Three Rivers Stadium. Photo Credit: Matt Freed, Post-Gazette

Lynn Swann, John Stallworth, Louis Lipps, Yancey Thigpen, Hines Ward, Antonio Brown, JuJu Smith-Schuster and George Pickens.

I remember where I was when the Steelers cut Franco Harris. I know exactly where I was standing when I learned that the Steelers had traded for Jerome Bettis. I can still recall the sick feeling that I had in the pit of my stomach when Le’Veon Bell suffered a hyperextended knee on the eve of the 2014 postseason. I still have the text from my brother, who has a source within the Steelers organization, that informed me before just about anyone else that Pittsburgh was going to select Najee Harris in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft.

Again, I’ve seen a lot. I know this because younger people I argue with on Twitter now say things to me like, “I’m not wasting my time trying to reason with some old dude who probably has low testosterone.” Yes, while it’s true that my t-levels are probably lower at the age of 50 than they were at the age of 25, what does that have to do with my opinion on the Steelers’ backup running back situation?

Anyway, even though I’m now officially old (if I already wasn’t in my 40s), I still love the game of football as much now as I ever did. I respect its evolution. I don’t yearn for the days of Yesteryear when Smashmouth football was all the rage and “Defense Wins Championships” was a mantra that everyone actually believed to be true.

I’m a football purist, but only in the sense that I think the game is a pure joy to watch. I still get those butterflies in my stomach when the calendar turns to July and I know that we’re right on the doorstep of another Steelers training camp.

My only concern is what my response will be to the next Steelers title. Will it feel as magical to me as an older fan as the march to

Super Bowl XL
Bill Cowher, Dan Rooney, Art Rooney II, Super Bowl XL, Steelers vs Seahawks, One for the Thumb, Lombardi Trophy

Bill Cowher hands Dan Rooney the Lombardi Trophy. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review

 did when I was 33? I often think back to that two-month period from December of 2005 to February of 2006 when the Steelers went on their historic run and never stopped winning until they finally added a fifth Lombardi to their trophy case.

  • I may have been approaching my mid-30s, but I felt like a little kid during that eight-game winning streak.

Will I ever have that feeling again? How do older sports fans, especially ones who have already witnessed a few championships, respond to a team winning it all? Is it just as fulfilling as it was in your youth?

As the Steelers begin a new era with a new quarterback–it’s either going to be Mitchell Trubisky, Mason Rudolph or Kenny Pickett who gets the first crack at replacing Big Ben–I sure can’t wait to find out.

 

 

 

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