Steelers Report Card for AFC Wildcard Loss to Bills: Effort Isn’t Enough Edition

From the grade book of a teacher who hopes his students learned that “effort isn’t enough,” here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the Wildcard loss to the Bills at Highmark Stadium.

Minkah Fitzpatrick, Khalil Shakir, Steelers vs Bills, Steelers Bills AFC Wildcard 2023

It looks like Minkah Fitzpatrick has Khalil Shakir. But he doesn’t. (Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Quarterback
Mason Rudolph went 22 of 39 for 229 yards with two touchdowns and one interception. That interception was costly, as it took at least three points off the board for the Steelers. But Rudolph showed poise in keeping the Steelers in the game, passing for 14 first downs. Overall Rudolph’s first playoff start was “good” but the Steelers needed him to be mistake free. Grade: B-Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
This is one instance were the “Eye test” fails. Once the Steelers offense got going, it seemed like both Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren ran pretty well. Their numbers suggest something a little different as neither man cracked 40 yards, although Warren’s 4.8 average was impressive. Both men had two catches, helping in the passing game. Still, the Steelers needed more from their running backs. Grade: C-

Tight Ends
Pat Freiermuth led the Steelers with 5 receptions but he escaped disaster with a fumble that was ruled out of bounds. Connor Heyward had 1 catch for 5 yards. Darnell Washington was targeted once but did not have a catch, and committed two false start penalties when the Steelers could ill afford them. Grade: C

Wide Receivers
George Pickens had 5 catches for 50 yards and Diontae Johnson was close behind with 5 for 48 and a touchdown. Allen Robinson had 2 catches for 12 yards. Calvin Austin had 1 catch for 7 yards, but it was a touchdown. The wide receivers deserve credit for getting the Steelers back in the game, but George Pickens’ fumble helped put the Steelers in a deep hole. Grade: C

Offensive Line
The offensive line did an nice job of keeping Mason Rudolph upright, as he only suffered one sack and was hit just three other times. However, the run blocking lagged. Certainly it was better than what we saw early in the season, but it wasn’t playoff caliber. Grade: C-

Defensive Line
The Bills ran the ball efficiently, and they were very effecint when Cam Heyward was out of the lineup. Keeanu Benton is going to be a very good player for the Steelers one day, but he wasn’t a difference maker in his first playoff game. Grade: D

Linebackers
It wasn’t the same unit without T.J. Watt. Sure, Alex Highsmith and Markus Golden had sacks, but overall Josh Allen had time to throw. And the Bills tight ends tormented the Steelers during the first half. Myles Jack’s penalties hurt the Steelers at the worst possible time. Grade: D

Secondary
Minkah Fitzpatrick provided a bit of a boost early in the game, but he missed on Khalil Shakir’s touchdown (so did several others.) The game was more about plays the secondary didn’t make. Patrick Peterson didn’t sack Josh Allen, he got close. Eric Rowe didn’t get an interception that could have changed the game, instead he only got close. Levi Wallace and Damontae Kazee didn’t tackle Josh Allen on his touchdown scrable, they got close. See a trend? Close isn’t good enough. Grade: D

Special Teams
Chris Boswell was perfect, kicking in difficult conditions. Nick Herbig recovered a blocked field goal that got the Steelers into the game. Calvin Austin had a good punt return that set up a field goal. But Pressley Harvin’s punts were pathetic. That hardly spelled the difference in this game, but the Steelers needed every edge they could get and their punting game didn’t deliver. Grade: B-

Coaching
This is a bit of a glass-half full or glass-half empty situation.

The Bills were ready for the Steelers at the start of the game. For much of the first half, the Steelers offense looked as inept as it has all year long. On defense Buffalo’s tight ends terrorized the Steelers.

But the offense put 17 points on the board and should have had at least three more, and the defense held their own, keeping it close until the deep into the fourth quarter.

The Steelers could have folded at any number of points, but they never blinked. Mike Tomlin’s players fought for every blade of grass, even if they lost a few too many of those fights. Grade: C

Steelers vs Bills, Steelers vs Bills 2023 AFC wildcard

The Bills attempt a field goal. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Unsung Hero Award
It was the biggest play of the game for the Steelers. Easily. Yet, after it happened its author got zero air time nor is there memory of the commentators even mention his name. No one, not even the Steelers team photographer got a picture of the moment, let alone its star. You have to dig deeply into the stat sheet to found out how did it, but did it he do, and for that Montravius Adams wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Pittsburgh Steelers AFC Wildcard loss to the Buffalo Bills.

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Steelers Report Card for Win Over Titans: No Helmet Required Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is wondering if helmets should be optional here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the Thursday Night Football win over the Titans at Acrisure.

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

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

Quarterbacks
Kenny Pickett is unlike any previous Steelers quarterback. He started sharp. He followed that up by missing throws that Duck Hodges would have made. But he improved as the game progressed an authored a 4th quarter worthy of his predecessor. His 19-30-160 for one touchdown fail to impress the Fantasy Football owners, but they were good enough to win. Grade: BSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
THIS is the running game we’ve been waiting to see. Jaylen Warren exploded for 88 yards on 22 carries he set up a score with a 22 yard burst in the 4th quarter but ripped off runs of 15 and 14 yards. Najee Harris had a strong night too going 69 yards on 16 carries, including a run of 25 yards and another 10 yarder for a touchdown. The duo caught 5 passes through the air. Grade: A-

Tight Ends
Connor Heyward had 2 catches for 16 yards. Darnell Washington got his first reception and although it was for a mere 7 yards, it sustained a scoring drive. Grade: B-

Wide Receivers
Diontae Johnson reminded everyone of why they missed him so dearly. His 7 catches for 90 yards might not be eye popping, but they were difference makers. Allen Robinson and Myles Boykin helped sustain drives with catches. Calvin Austin had one target that, had the ball been delivered well, would have been a touchdown. He had two reveses for positive yards. George Pickens stat line of the night is 2 passes for negative 1 yards. Had he been focused on getting his feet in bounds that line would read 3 passes for 11 yards and a touchdown. Grade: B-

Offensive Line
Was Broderick Jones the shot in the arm this offensive line needed. Most of the focus has been on the improved quality of the run blocking which was self-evident on several plays. But Kenny Pickett wasn’t sacked the entire night and only hit 2 times during the entire game. The line must sustain this improvement, but against the Titans they were an asset. Grade: B

Defensive Line
Cameron Heyward made his presence known on the very first play and later snuffed out a screen on third down and he was the third leading tackler. Larry Ogunjobi was next. Keeanu Benton also saw time extended time. Derrick Henry was continued and it started with the defensive line. Grade: B

Linebackers
T.J. Watt and Markus Golden both had sacks with Alex Highsmith notching two of his own in addition to multiple pressures. Elandon Roberts stepped up and stoned Derrick Henry on 2nd and 5 helping force a punt. Kwon Alexander sealed the game with an interception. Grade: A

Secondary
Yes, Joey Porter Jr. helped shut DeAndre Hopkins down. Yes, the Steelers continued to reduce their yards per pass average. But both Joey Porter and Patrick Peterson were flagged multiple times which helped keep Tennessee in the game. Grade: C-

Special Teams
Chris Boswell was perfect and Pressley Harvin boomed off some excellent punts. Godwin Igwebuike did respectable job of returning kicks as did Calvin Austin on punt returns. The Steelers did give up an overly long kick return. Grade: B-

Coaching
For Teryl Austin it must really feel like he’s in a “One step forward two steps back” situation. He get’s Cam Heyward back, but loses Minkah Fitzpatrick. His inside linebackers start to jell, and he loses Cole Holcomb.

The Steelers defense improved against the run and also against the pass, statistically speaking, and of course delivered with a splash play when the game was on the line.

Matt Canada’s offense was far from perfect. At times it was as frustrating as it has been all year. But the unit started fast, fielded their strongest rushing effort of the season and neither needed to rely on a turnover or a defensive score to ensure that the Steelers had more points on the board than their opponent at the final gun.

The Pittsburgh Steelers have gone 8 games without having gained more yards than their opponents and, for the first time since the 1930s, have a winning record to show for it. Credit Mike Tomlin for continuing to coax out wins. Grade: B

Mason Cole, Steelers vs Titans, James Daniels, Jeffery Simmons

Mason Cole. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.come

Unsung Hero Award
The offensive line has been the most disappointing spot on the depth chart this season, and this man has been fingered often as its weakest link. As recently as the loss to the Jaguars, he failed the “Eye Test.” Yet, the Steelers finished their opening drive by scoring a touchdown and it all started with strong play in the center and for that Mason Cole is the Unsung Hero of the win over the Titans.

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Steelers Report Card for Loss to Jaguars: No Mood for Excuses Edition

Taken from the gradebook of a teacher in no mood to make excuses, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the latest home loss to the Jaguars.

Kenny Pickett, Steelers vs Jaguars

Kenny Pickett after being injured. Photo Credit: Justin K. Aller, Getty Images via Yahoo Sports.

Quarterbacks
To paraphrase the old Red Dog beer commercial (yeah, I just dated myself), “Don’t let the smooth stats fool you.” Kenny Pickett’s 10 of 16 for 73 with zero picks and no TD’s looks OK. But he was 2 of 6 on third downs and one of those completions went for negative yards. Another incompletion came when Diontae Johnson was open in the end zone. Mitch Trubisky’s 15 of 27 for 1 TD and 1 pick look respectable too. But he was not. When he wasn’t throwing into triple coverage he was gaining garbage time glory. Grade: FSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Jaylen Warren had runs for 8 and 7 yards, but outside of that it was pure “Sludge Ball” for him and Najee Harris. The duo also caught 9 passes between the two of them during garbage time. The running backs didn’t get much help from their line, but the Steelers needed more. Grade: F

Tight Ends
Connor Heyward caught 5 passes on 6 targets but really didn’t make himself a factor in the passing game. Darnell Washington has been quiet in two starts. Grade: D

Wide Receivers
If Diontae Johnson catches that first pass, which was high but catchable, perhaps the dynamic of this game is dramatically different. But Diontae didn’t catch it. He caught several more really doing a remarkable job of getting open. George Pickens had a touchdown, but had he hurried to the line of scrimmage rather than strutting the Steelers could have had a long gain. Instead the Steelers had to punt. Calvin Austin had 2 catches in garbage time. He got stopped cold on one reverse and helped set up a field goal with a ten yard run on his other one. The receivers made a some plays, but they had chances to make a few more and the didn’t. And that cost the team. Grade: C-

Offensive Line
Steelers running backs carried the ball 12 times. Sure there’s a bit of a chicken egg element to that statement. But “Sludge Ball” on first and second down leads to long third downs. And let’s remember that Kenny Pickett was sacked on the second play from scrimmage and ultimately knocked from the game. The Jaguars had 3 sacks and 9 quarterback hits. Unacceptable. Grade: F

Defensive Line
The Steelers did a respectable job of containing Travis Etienne on the ground as Montravius Adams quietly starts to build a name for himself at nose tackle. Grade: C

Linebackers
The Steelers inside linebacking corps helped contain the Jaguars running game as Cole Holcomb, Elandon Roberts and Kwon Alexander all authored some nice plays. Alex Highsmith had a half sack as did T.J. Watt who also got a hand on a pass. Grade: B

Secondary
The Steelers already started the game with a thin secondary and it got thinner fast as Minkah Fitzpatrick went down with a hamstring injury early in the game. In his absence, there was good and bad. The Steelers didn’t give up a 100 yard receiver for only the second time this year, and actually reduced their yards allowed per pass. Damontae Kazee took seven points off the board for Jacksonville and started a drive that ended in a field goal. Nonetheless, the miscommunication that led to Travis Etienne’s 56 yard pass put Pittsburgh in a deep hole that it never dug out from. Grade: D

Special Teams
Chris Boswell missed a field goal, but missing a 61 yarder in the rain at Acrisure Stadium after you’ve just made 56 yarder is understandable. Pressley Harvin had a mixed bag on punting. The Steelers gave up a little more return yardage than you’d like to see, but that was hardly the difference in the game. Grade: C

Coaching
Danny Smith’s special teams were “Above the line.” Teryl Austin’s defense forced 3 turnovers, 2 of which came when the Jaguars were in the Red Zone wrecked several other drives with sacks in critical situations.

  • Yet it wasn’t enough. Not by a long shot.

Apparently the Steelers defense and special teams need to play pristine games and see their opponents miss kicks or otherwise leave points on the board to be competitive, because scoring more than one offensive touchdown is too much to ask.

  • 5 of the the Steelers first seven possessions ended in a three and out.
  • Their penultimate drive before scorning their weekly touchdown went for 5 yards
  • When the Steelers scored, the defense forced a punt only for the offense to turn the ball over 2 plays later

Yes, it is true. Matt Canada didn’t drop a deep bomb to open the game or miss an open wideout in the end zone. Neither did he throw the ball multiple times into triple coverage. But clearly Canada can’t get it done.

Nick Herbig, T.J. Watt, Steelers vs Jaguars

Nick Herbig and T.J. Watt. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Mike Tomlin’s hands maybe be tied as the Steelers are a franchise which doesn’t believe in interims coaches (see Mike Nixon’s tenure), his job is to coax what he can out of Canada offense while he’s here. And right now, he’s getting next to nothing. Grade: F

Unsung Hero Award

When a team caps a bad first half by failing to score immedatly before half time, the best way to start driving the nail into its coffin is to score on the opening drive of the second half. The Jaguars were doing just that, taking their opening kick off to Pittsburgh’s 35. Yet that drive stopped there, thanks to Nick Herbig’s playing through to the wistle as he forced Tank Bigsby’s fumble and for that he wins the Unsung Hero Award for the (latest) loss to the Jaguars at Acrisure Stadium.

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Steelers Report Card for Win Over Rams: Threading the Needle Edition

From the gradebook of a teacher threading the needle between grading on outcome vs rewarding for progress here is the Steelers Report Card for the win in Los Angeles over the Rams.

T.J. Watt, Steelers vs Rams, T.J. Watt Interception Rams

T.J. Watt starts 2nd half with interception. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Quarterback
Kenny Pickett started the game going 6-13-78 in the first half. He closed the second half going 11-12-152. He also converted 3 first downs including a touchdown and the game-icer (albeit with a generous spot.) While Pickett does need to pick it up sooner, he’s now led 6 game winning drives in his young career. You can’t put a price on that. Grade: BSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Together Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren rushed for 85 yards on the ground. They added 4 catches for 14 yards through the air. Both are low quantities. But quality is the key measure of the running backs’ effort vs the Rams, as both scored rushing touchdowns, and Najee Harris ripped off several other impressive runs. Grade: B

Tight Ends
Darnell Washington got his second start and did not get a target in the passing game. Connor Heyward had 2 catches on 3 targets for 23 yards. Grade: C

Wide Receivers
George Pickens did his damage on just 5 catches for over 105 yards. Diontae Johnson had 5 catches for 79 yards. Allen Robinson and one catch for 7 yards. Those types of numbers won’t keep Fantasy Football owners happy, but the wide outs are what got the offense moving. Still, both men committed boneheaded penalties that set the team back. Grade: B-

Offensive Line
In the early going, it looked like it was going to be a long afternoon for Kenny Pickett. But the line tightend up, and Pickett was only sacked twice, although he was hit 7 other times. The Rams defenders likewise made 4 tackles for losses and made 3 other stops for no gain. Yet, when the game was on the line the Steelers ran the ball when needed to and scored. Grade: C

Defensive Line
Larry Ogunjobi ended the Rams’ first drive with a sack that forced a punt. Montravius Adams and DeMarvin Leal both contributed to key stops in the running game. This unit needs to do more to compensate for the loss of Cam Heyward, but it is making progress. Grade: B-

Linebackers
Nick Herbig got his first NFL sack and Alex Highsmith helped pressure Matthew Stafford into Ogunjobi’s sack. At halftime Sean McVey and the Rams’s staff thought they were sitting pretty having neutralized T.J. Watt. So the Steelers worked him into coverage and Watt intercepted the Stafford on the first play of the game. Grade: B

Minka Fitzpatrick, Levi Wallace, Steelers vs Rams

Minkah Fitzpatrick and Levi Wallace try to stop a catch. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Secondary
Puka Nacua shows another wide out dominating the Steelers to be sure. But Cooper Kupp had two catches for 29 yards. But the Steelers blanked him in an 4th quarter effort that saw the Rams make a total of 25 yards and Joey Porter Jr. had a big hand in making that happen. Minkah Fitzpatrick led the team with 11 tackles and was as critical in shutting down things at the line of scrimmage as Troy Polamalu ever was. Grade: B

Special Teams
Chris Boswell was perfect, and Pressley Harvin punted strong in his return, with particularly good hang time as the Rams had zero returned punts. Calvin Austin did a respectable job of returning, although he did bobble a kick which he recovered. Grade: B

Coaching
To the naked eye, this was yet another game that saw the Steelers give up big runs on the ground and an excessive number of passes to a key receiver through the air. And of course the Steelers offense was dormant until the 4th quarter.

Yet the defense improved as the game wore on, and the offense did put together a good drive in the first half but had to settle for a field goal. But what was mainly different on offense was the did make some positive plays early on. They couldn’t quite get into a rhythm because Pickett had difficulty on third downs, but this is progress of a sort.

  • The Steelers defense also showed in game improvement both against the run and the pass.

While those improvements were enough to ensure that the Steelers had more points when the clock struck zero than the Rams did, let’s also acknowledge that the Rams missed 3 kicks costing them 7 points.

  • This underlines the reality that the both Matt Canada and Teryl Austin must end the slow starts.
Isaac Seumalo, Steelers vs Rams

Isaac Seumalo reflecting before the game. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

The win over the Rams improves Mike Tomlin’s record coming out of the bye week to 13-4 and their season record to 4-2. Few would have predicted this after the 49ers or Texans games. Grade: C

Unsung Hero Award
Of all of Omar Khan’s “Khan Artist” off season moves, this one intrigued fans of “Steelers Football” more than any other. Yet, offense’s slow start had some questioning the move. But against the Rams Isaac Seumalo stepped up to deliver key blocks at critical moments and for that he wins the Unsung Hero Award for the win over the Rams in Los Angeles.

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Defense Creates Its Own Destiny in Steelers 26-22 Win over Browns on MNF

It wasn’t pretty.

At times it was actually butt ugly.

It confirmed more doubts that it dispelled, at least on one side of the ball.

What the Steelers 26-22 win over the Cleveland Browns on Monday Night Football means for the rest of their season remains very much an open question.

But there’s one thing we do know now: Pittsburgh won because they prevailed in the game’s critical “Reality Football” football moments.

Alex Highsmith, Steelers vs Browns, Alex Highsmith interception

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

Stats Don’t Win Games, Players Do

“A Most betraying box score,” was the first headline I saw the morning after the game. It was in an email from The Athletic. And let’s agree: the stats don’t paint a pretty picture for Pittsburgh. Consider:

  • The Browns outgained the Steelers 411 to 258 yards
  • Cleveland logged 21 first downs to Pittsburgh’s 9
  • The men from the Mistake by the Lake dominated time of possession 35:28 to 24:32

And no, I won’t go to “So and So made their Fantasy Football owners happy BUT…” again, because it would be flat out wrong. That’s because Jerome Ford, Amari Cooper and Nick Chubb both delivered for their team in multiple key moments.

But the Steelers defense came up bigger in the game’s critical moments. Before we dive into that, let’s discuss the Nick Chubb situation.

Yeah, But What About Chubb, Watson and the Penalties Etc…

First, Godspeed and good luck to Nick Chubb in his recovery whose injury is almost as gruesome as gruesome Joe Theismann’s was.

As it relates to the game, many are saying “The Steelers wouldn’t have won had Chubb not been hurt.” They’re probably right. So are those who argue “Had Deshaun Watson not self-destructed, the Browns would have won.” Or “Cleveland killed itself with penalties.”

All of that is irrelevant.

The Steelers 1-1 record doesn’t come with an asterisk today. Nor will Roger Goodell add one at the end of the season, just as Pete Rozelle never added an asterisk to Chuck Noll’s Super Bowl record because Rocky and Franco both got hurt in the 1976 AFC Championship game.

Injuries and errors are both a part of football, and winners are ones who can capitalize on them.

Steelers D Dominates on Weighty Downs

Anytime a defense outscores an offense in football, we tend to describe the defense as “dominant.” Yet, the Steelers defense gave up runs of 69 and 20 yards and passes of 23 and 29 yards. And frankly, Cleveland made it look easy. Just think back to Deshaun Watson converting a 3rd and 13th while standing on his own 3. He made it look so easy Troy Aikman was left in disbelief.

  • Indeed, that was a key moment of “situational football” that the Browns offense won.
  • And it likely would have been a critical moment had the Steelers defense not created bigger moments.
Joey Porter Jr., Elijah Moore, Steelers vs Browns

Joey Porter Jr. tips a pass away from Elijah Moore. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review.

Alex Highsmith set the tone by picking off a pass that Minkah Fitzpatrick deflected and taking it to the house on the game’s very first play. Ten plays later Joey Porter did it again, by batting away a pass and forcing a field goal.

  • The defense didn’t get to rest much.

Kenny Pickett almost gave the Browns a layup, throwing an interception with his third pass of the night on Pittsburgh’s 16. Larry Ogunjobi sacked Watson on the next play. His next pass went for one yard. Ogunjobi got credited for defending a pass on the ensuring third down. Then the Browns missed a field goal.

And that was the story of the night:

  • When the Browns went for it on 4th, Montravius Adams stripped Watson, as Ogunjobi recovered
  • With Cleveland threating to score to close the first half, T.J. Watt forced a field goal by sacking sacked Watson.
  • Cole Holcomb forced another fumble in late in the third quarter
  • Alex Highsmith answered Moore’s third down conversion with a strip sack, that Watt recovered and scored on.

And Joey Porter closed the game the way he opened it, by batting away a ball on 4th down. While it still has its warts, the Steelers defense showed it can create its own destiny.

The Steelers Offense: From Reality Football to a Reality Check

While the Steelers defense made a statement following their awful performance against the Browns, their offense did the opposite.

Sure, Kenny Pickett had a nice connection with George Pickens. Both Jaylen Warren and Najee Harris ripped off a handful of authoritative plays. Calvin Austin came down with a very nice third down converting pass, catching a bullet that Pickett tucked into a tight coverage window.

  • Those were all excellent, highlight-worthy plays.

The problem is they were the only positive plays Pittsburgh’s offense made all night. Thank God the Steelers defense scored on their first and last turnovers. Because the other two resulted in a total of 4 plays that led to a fumble and a punt.

  • How bad was the Steelers offense?

Going into the 4th quarter it needed 2 points to take the lead. Not only did the offense need the defense to score those points, but Kenny Pickett and company actually netted negative 5 yards.

All of the progress the offensive line appeared to make last season seems like a mirage. For once, Matt Canada doesn’t look as bad as his critics say he is. He looks worse. And Kenny Pickett looks lost.

Time for Less Work, More Progress

Against the Browns the Steelers defense showed itself as a unit capable of creating its own destiny. As for the offense? Bob Labriola, fully admitting to being charitable, remains a work in progress.

Fair enough. But next week against the Raider the offense had better start proving it is capable of making that progress.

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Cam Heyward Goes on IR – Can the Steelers D Repeat the 2016 Rebound?

The ’23 Steelers opening day loss to the 49ers left virtually no positives (save for perhaps Anthony McFarland’s play.) But worse than the 30-7 drubbing, the Steelers lost Cam Heyward for what most expect to be an 8 week stretch.

This one hurts.

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

With all due respect to Ben Roethlisberger and/or “The Killer Bees,” Cam Heyward has been the face of the franchise for the better part of a decade.

Without Heyward the Steelers won’t simply be losing a man who has 20.5 sacks to his name over the last two years alone, they’re losing their undisputed leader on the field and off of it.

Cam Heyward has been remarkably durable throughout his career. With the exception of 2016 you can count the games Heyward has missed due to injury on your fingers.

  • Yet, this isn’t the first time the Steelers have lost Cam Heyward for an extended stretch.

And if it looks bad to lose Heyward now, things felt far bleaker when Heyward went in injured reserve in 2016. The Steelers had just lost 4 straight games, including giving up 2 touchdowns to Ezekiel Elliott and the Dallas Cowboys inside the 2-minute warning.

When news of Heyward’s torn peck broke, this humble scribe channeled his Bill Paxton, posting a YouTube video declaring, “Game Over Man, Game Over!”

  • The defense was floundering and it has just lost its best and most consistent player.
  • The season truly seemed be lost.

Except the defense wasn’t done and the Steelers season would extend all the way to the AFC Championship.

Can the Steelers flip the script again?

Lessons from the Steelers 2016 Rebound

As Mike Tomlin declared this week, there is no one man who can replace Cam Heyward. And, in that respect, on paper at least the Steelers are in better position at defensive line than they were in 2016.

Yes 2023’s Larry Ogunjobi and Montravius Adams are steps down from Stephon Tuitt and Javon Hargrave of 2016.

But Ogunjobi and Adams have far stronger supporting casts to lean on. In 2016 the Steelers backup defensive ends were Ricardo Mathews, L.T. Walton, Johnny Maxey with Daniel McCullers offering depth at nose tackle. Mathews and Maxey never played a down after 2016 and Walton and McCullers remained on the roster as footnotes for a few season afterwards.

DeMarvin Leal, Isaiahh Loudermilk, Armon Watts and rookie Keeanu Benton look like studs by comparison, although the group lacks experience.

Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler made changes in the way they deployed the Steelers defense during the back half of 2016. But the biggest change came in Tomlin’s decision to start James Harrison over Jarvis Jones. Harrison might have “only” registered 3 sacks during the rest of the season, but one of James’ underrated abilities was to seal the edge in the run game.

  • With T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith, the Steelers don’t have go to their outside linebacker bullpen, which is a plus.
Ryan Shazier, Bud Dupree, Steelers vs Dolphins playoffs

Ryan Shazier returns an interception at Heinz Field. Photo Credit: Justin K. Aller, Getty Images via USA Today’s Steelers Wire

A key difference which isn’t a plus compared to 2016 is experience. The Steelers defensive line is young, as it was in 2016, but in contrast to ’16, the inside linebackers playing behind them are new to the team and to the system.

By the middle of 2016 Ryan Shazier was coming into his own, and Vince Williams had established himself as a steady, physical presence in the middle of the Steelers defense.

On the flip side, the Steelers secondary of 2016 didn’t have anyone remotely close to the caliber of Minkah Fitzpatrick, nor did they have anyone with the pedigree of Patrick Peterson. Joey Porter Jr. is a rookie, but I don’t think we even need 20/20 hindsight to say he’s an upgrade from Artie Burns who was a rookie in 2016.

So when you weigh the differences in personnel and experience between 2023 and 2016, the Steelers have about an even shot at compensating for Cam Heyward’s absence.

Interesting Insider Insight

The situation may have felt desperate from the outside looking in in 2016, but that was not the case on the South Side.

As Craig Wolfley reported in Steel City Insider the day after the 2016 loss to the Cowboys an assistant coach declared: “You’re about to see one of the greatest turnarounds in Steelers history.”

  • That prediction came from Todd Haley of all people.

Haley was right because Mike Tomlin doesn’t just mouth his “Next man up” mantra, he lives it. If he can get his players to buy into as strongly he did in 2016 then the Steelers should be able to weather the storm without Cam Heyward.

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The Case for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2023

The moment we’ve all been waiting for since Mike Tomlin exclaimed “Kenny F__king Pickett” after last December’s  comeback over the Ravens is almost here. This Sunday at 1:00 pm the Pittsburgh Steelers begin their 2023 season against the San Francisco 49ers at Acrisure Stadium.

Last year, I dedicated my season preview to my friend, the late, great, Ivan Cole. Prior to each season, Ivan would write his “The Case for the Steelers in…,” and my goal wasn’t simply to follow his form, but to try to find his tone. It felt good then and it feels right now, so this year I’m doing it again.

As a quick reminder, Ivan’s “The Case for the Steelers” articles weren’t predictions on what the Steelers would do, but rather vision of what they could do. Here goes.

Mike Tomlin, Kenny Pickett, Steelers vs Ravens

Mike Tomlin says “Kenny F___ing Pickett.” Photo Credit: Getty Images, via Heavy Sports.com

A Quarterback Room That’s the Envy of the League?

We are told that quarterback is the NFL’s most important position. That’s always been true. It is more true today.

Look back to previous eras. Who were Jim Brown and O.J. Simpson’s quarterbacks? No one remembers.
Yet glance around today. Who were Patrick Mahomes and Matthew Stafford handing off to in the last two Super Bowls? We’ve already forgotten.

In this sense the Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback room is the envy of the the NFL. In Kenny Pickett the Steelers have a player who looks poised to make the proverbial “2nd year leap.” Pickett’s 2022 passing numbers won’t impress Fantasy Football fans. But the moxie and mental toughness he showed in leading 2 come from behind wins late in the season means far more to Reality Football fans.

Behind Pickett, the Steelers have Mitch Trubisky, a former first round pick. Trubisky’s brief tenure as starter revealed why the rest of the NFL wrote him off. However, his play in the wins against the Buccaneers and Panthers shows why he can be a long-term backup in Pittsburgh.

Mason Rudolph rounds out the room. Rudolph will never win respect from most Steelers fans. But let’s be honest. Every other NFL coach would sleep better if their third string quarterback had 17 games and 10 starts of NFL experience under his belt. Do you doubt that the third string quarterback matters? If so just remember: The Mike Tomlin Era has basically been the Golden Age of Steelers 3rd String Quarterbacks.

Running Backs – Depth Here Where Its Undervalued Elsewhere?

Even if the NFL undervalues running backs in the salary cap era, a strong running game can certainly for a critical component of a championship team.

If that’s the case, then the Steelers are in good position with Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren. Harris has his critics, but he’s posted consecutive 1000 yard seasons running behind substandard offensive lines and/or while injured. Jaylen Warren earned playing time as an undrafted free agent rookie last summer and gives every indication of pushing Harris, a former first rounder, for playing time.

Going into training camp, some speculated the Steelers would only carry 2 running backs on their opening day roster. But Anthony McFarland quelled that with an outstanding preseason where he proved himself as a true dual threat.

Aerial Attack – Enough Footballs to Go Around?

Connor Heyward, Steelers vs Browns

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

One of Matt Canada and Kenny Pickett’s biggest challenges could be spreading the football around. Diontae Johnson remains a reliable all-purpose threat. George Pickens has yet to be thrown a pass in his catch radius that he can’t bring around. And Calvin Austin has field-stretching speed.

  • And when he does, Allen Robinson and Pat Friermuth can do their damage underneath.

And of course we’d be remiss if we didn’t discuss Connor Heyward, who after making several impact plays in 2022, is following that up by making himself into an offensive Swiss Army Knife.

Rounding it out, you have Gunner Olszewski who in Mike Tomlin’s words, plays with “toughness and versatility and smarts.” If nothing else, rookie Darnell “Mt. Washington” should net the Steelers a couple of three pass interference penalties in the Red Zone.

Flipping Both Lines

Two years ago it took 7 Ben Roethlisberger rallies to overcome the deficits created by historic weaknesses on both the offensive and defensive lines. By the end of 2022, both units improved to the point where they were no longer liabilities.

  • Going into 2023, both lines appear to be growing into strengths.

Watch Jaylen Warren’s prseason run against the Bills again to understand how much better the offensive line can be this season:

While the contribution from newcomer Isaac Seumalo is evident, the truly exciting thing is that the best play was authored by Dan Moore, the once-maligned left tackle who has improved so much he’s keeping first round draft pick Broderick Jones on the bench.

Last year’s arrival of Larry Ogunjobi gave the Steelers defensive line the shot in the arm it desperately needed. In the blink of an eye, Pittsburgh’s rush defense improved from 32nd to 9th in the NFL. Yet, to achieve that Cam Heyward still needed to play 75% of defensive snaps.

Last year’s starting nose tackle Montravius Adams returns, which is a good sign. But an even better sign is that rookie Keeanu Benton is not only pushing him for playing time, but might supplant him as starter as he has already pushed free agent signinee Breiden Fehoko to the practice squad.

Isaiahh Loudermilk, after suffering a bit of a “sophomore struggle,” had a strong camp and preseason. Last, but not least is DeMarvin Leal, the Steelers 2022 2nd round pick who saw his playing time increase late in the season just as the Steelers run defense was improving. Coincidence? I don’t think so either.

Linebackering: Reinforcing the Foundation and Ripping Down to the Studs

If you look at the great Steelers defense from the 1970’s onward, you’ll see that there’s one constant that unites them: Exceptional linebackers.

Yes, they’ve had Hall of Fame players on the defensive line and in the secondary. But think of how easy it is to picture Greg Lloyd, Kevin Greene, Chad Brown or James Harrison strolling out of a DeLorean and playing alongside Joe Greene, Mel Blount and/or Troy Polamalu. Now repeat the same exercise with good players Ray Seals or Bryant McFadden. It isn’t quite as easy, is it?

So let’s look at what Omar Khan and Mike Tomlin did with their linebacker room this off season.

T.J. Watt, Steelers vs Ravens

T.J. Watt stuffs J.K. Dobbins. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

We’ve all seen that statistics showing the Steelers ’22 defense with and without T.J. Watt, and the same dynamic was at work with the impact of Alex Highsmith. Turning inward, the Steelers defensive staff mixed and matched 3 different inside linebackers all season long.

Yet, even if linebacking improved from 2021 to 2022, the whole was less than the sum of its parts. So Omar Khan strengthened the foundation on the outside, while tearing things down to the studs on the inside.

First, the Steelers signed outside linebacker Markus Golden – a virtual statistical clone of Bud Dupree, whom everyone wanted back. They also drafted Nick Herbig who promted fans to ask during preseason, “Why did he last until the 4th round?” The Steelers outside linebacking depth is sound.

Shifting inside, Omar Khan renovated without mercy. Gone are Devin Bush, Robert Spillane and Myles Jack. In their place are Cole Holcomb, Elandon Roberts and Kwon Alexander. Mark Robinson, a converted running back, returns for year two.

Prudence demands we offer the “Its only preseason” caveat, but if early returns are any indication, the Steelers may have flipped their inside linebacker position.

Secondary: Calculated Risks and Hedged Bets

In 2022, the Steelers secondary authored highlights in abundance. It was a ball-hawking unit that hauled in over 20 interceptions. That was an NFL best, if you’re wondering. Yet turnovers are only one metric. An analysis of others finds the ’22 pass defense wanting.

  • The Steelers defense gave up 6.5 yards per pass attempt, ranking it 25th in the NFL.

As they did elsewhere, the front office made several bold moves. Some carry risk. The Steelers invested heavily in the development of Cam Sutton and Terrell Edmunds. Both men had provided vital stability.

Tomlin and Khan are ready to trade stability for splash and spark, and brought in Patrick Peterson, Keanu Neal and drafted Joey Porter Jr. to replace them.

Damontae Kazee, Steelers vs Saints

Damontae Kazee intercepts Andy Dalton, Photo Credit: Don Wright, AP

Peterson is a future Hall of Famer. He was exceptional in Minnesota last year. Yet, he’s 33 and cornerback is a young man’s game. Neal entered the league as first round pick. He started his career with a bang, but got derailed by injuries on and off since then. His counterpart, Damontae Kazee, also carries some injury baggage.

While these concerns are real, the Steelers have made several moves to mitigate these risks.

Chandon Sullivan and Elijah Riley both looked outstanding in preseason and provide depth. Khan snatched up veteran corner Desmond King after cut down day. Patrick Peterson could also shift to safety if needed; indeed, some suggest his long term future is at safety.

Behind all of these names stand Minkah Fitzpatrick, a man who is playing himself into carrying the label of being a “generational talent.”

A Word on the AFC North

The dynamics in the AFC North have changed and decidedly not in the Steelers favor. Or so we are assured. Let’s concede the obvious:

  • The Baltimore Ravens always field consistent winners.
  • They’ve kept former NFL MVP Lamar Jackson in the fold.
  • Joe Burrow is already proved he’ll be one of this generation’s great quarterbacks.
  • The Cleveland Browns are finally reaping the fruits picking in the top-third of the draft for over a decade.
  • Now they have Deshaun Watson to guide them for a full season.

The task is tall. But “Iron Sharpens Iron.” Here, a few facts from the ’22 might be illuminating:

  • The ’22 Steelers went 1-1 against the Bengals.
  • They went 1-1 against the Ravens, earning their win in late December.
  • 2 weeks later a freak, 4th quarter goal line fumble separated Baltimore from a playoff upset of Cincinnati.
  • Pittsburgh went 1-1 against Cleveland last year; their win came with Watson starting

Dare I suggest that “Iron Sharpening Iron” has already begun…?

Let the Kenny Pickett Era Begin in Earnest

I’ll close as my friend Ivan always did by reminding readers that these “The Case For” column’s aren’t predictions but best-case scenarios. We all know too well how a few inopportune injuries can lay waste to the best laid plans of mice and NFL coaches and general managers.

But with that caveat in mind, I think we can all say that there are plenty of reasons for optimism as the Kenny Pickett era begins in earnest in general. And specifically, a “Best-secnario” for this season ending with a Lombardi Trophy are a lot more realistic than they’ve been in a long time.

Bring on the 49ers!

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Wheeling and Dealing Not Done? Steelers Release Initial 2023 Roster

The Pittsburgh Steelers announced their initial 53-man roster today as Omar Khan continued to wheel and deal.

Over the weekend Khan dealt Kevin Dotson to the Los Angeles Rams, getting a fourth round pick in the 2024 NFL Draft, swapping 5th round picks and sending a 6th round pick in the 2025 NFL Draft to LA. But Kahn has already traded back into the 6th round when he dealt Kendrick Green to the Houston Texans for their 6th round pick in 2025.

Omar Khan, Pittsburgh Steelers General Manager Omar Khan

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

The Steelers cuts included some surprises. Veterans Zach Gentry and Tre Norwood got visits from The Turk, as did free agent signees Breiden Fehoko and Nick Kwiatkoski who played nose tackle an inside linebacker respectively. Quincy Roche’s second go around with the Steelers will also come to an end.

Here’s a look at who made the Pittsburgh Steelers 2023 initial roster. There is at least one more move to come as you’ll see at the bottom.

Quarterbacks – 3
Kenny Pickett
Mitchell Trubisky
Mason Rudolph
– No surprises here. Pittsburgh has perhaps the deepest quarterback room in the NFL

Running Backs – 3
Najee Harris
Jaylen Warren
Anthony McFarland
– Common Sense Attack: A running back depth chart that’s three backs deep for the 2nd straight year.

Wide Receivers – 6
Diontae Johnson
George Pickens
Allen Robinson
Calvin Austin
Gunner Olszewski
Miles Boykin
– Gunner Olszewksi showed a lot of heart in preseason. The coaches took notice.

Tight Ends – 3
Pat Freiermuth
Darnell Washington
Connor Heyward
– The deepest Steelers tight end room since 1991?

Offensive Line – 9
Dan Moore
Isaac Seumalo
Mason Cole
James Daniels
Chuks Okorafor
Broderick Jones
Nate Herbig
Spencer Anderson
Dylan Cook
– Almost a complete rebuild since 2021.

Defensive Line – 7
Cam Heyward
Keeanu Benton
Larry Ogunjobi
DeMarvin Leal
Isaiahh Loudermilk
Montravius Adams
Armon Watts
– A solid mix of veterans and youth.

Inside Linebackers – 4
Cole Holcomb
Elandon Roberts
Kwon Alexander
Mark Robinson
– Dare we hope this unit is finally finding post-Ryan Shazier stability?

Outside Linebacker – 4
T.J. Watt
Alex Highsmith
Markus Golden
Nick Herbig
– Steelers have good depth at this critical position. Knock on wood, they won’t need it.

Cornerback – 6
Patrick Peterson
Levi Wallace
Joey Porter Jr.
Chandon Sullivan
James Pierre
– Have the Steelers achieved the right balance between youth, speed and experience?

Safety – 5
Minkah Fitzpatrick
Damontae Kazee
Keanu Neal
Miles Killebrew
Elijah Riley
– Will health hold out?

Specialists – 4
Chris Boswell, kicker
Christian Kuntz, Long Snapper
Pressley Harvin, Punter
Braden Mann, Punter

Two punters? Not for long.

One way or another Omar Khan isn’t finished with his wheeling and dealing.

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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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Strengthen the Center: Steelers Sign Keanu Neal, Breiden Fehoko, Sustain Omar Khan’s Free Agency Trend

Strengthen the center.

That’s been Omar Kahn’s singular focus in free agency. It was evident in the Steelers signings of Inside linebackers Cole Holcomb and Elandon Roberts, and resigning of Damontae Kazee. On the offensive side of the ball the Steelers signed guards Nate Herbig and Isaac Seumalo.

Khan doubled down on the third week of free agency by signing safety Keanu Neal and nose tackle Breiden Fehoko.

Keanu Neal, Zach Gentry, Steelers vs Buccaneers

Keanu Neal celebrates after making a play against his new team. Photo Credit: Buccaneers.com

As Joe Rutter of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review is reporting, David Cantner the agent for both players, has tweeted that Neal’s contract is for 2 years. Cantner did not tweet a length for Fehoko, which Rutter indicates that this likely means it is a one year deal.

The Atlanta Falcons drafted Keanu Neal with the 17th pick in the 2016 NFL Draft. Neal played in Atlanta for five seasons. He was their starting free safety for two straight seasons before injuries ruined both his third and 4th seasons.

Neal tore his ACL in the 2018 opener and then his Achilles in 2019. The Falcons extended him a 5 year option but let him walk to the Dallas Cowboys in 2021where Neal played middle linebacker. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers signed Neal in 2022, where appeared in all 17 games, but was limited to 8 starts due to a hip injury.

With Terrell Edmunds gone to Philadelphia and his background as a middle linebacker, Keanu Neal will likely split time with Damontae Kazze at strong safety and function as the “dime linebacker” in the Steelers three safety set.

Jim Wexell has suggested and Mike Tomlin has confirmed that Patrick Peterson could also see sometime at safety, suggesting that Minkah Fitzpatrick could work a little at strong safety.

  • Nose tackle Breiden Fehoko fills an obvious need for the Steelers for depth at defensive line.

Fehoko got his start in the NFL as an undrafted rookie free agent with the San Die… er um, the Los Angeles Chargers. He’s made his bones in the NFL as a backup, appearing in just 19 games over three years with 4 starts.

Although four of those starts came in 2022, the Chargers did not offer him a restricted free agent offer. Breiden Fehoko will likely work in behind Montravius Adams and compete with Isaiahh Loudermilk for playing time, if not a helmet on game days.

Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette retweeted this shot of Fehoko from late last season:

If this is an indication of the level he’s playing at, Karl Dunbar will find a way to get him on the field.

Draft Impact of Neal and Fehoko

While these moves address needs and add depth, they’re impact on the Steelers draft plans is likely minimal. Keanu Neal’s addition makes it less likely that the Steelers will draft a safety on day one or day two of the draft. But his injury history, along with Kazee’s injury history and his age suggest that neither is likely seen as a long-term answer.

So a safety in round 3 or 4 wouldn’t be out of the question.

Breiden Fehoko could be an interesting under the radar pickup for the Steelers. But at this point has to be seen as Tyson Alualu’s replacement. And even if he does turn out to be a free agent steal, that doesn’t change the fact that Cam Heyward isn’t getting any younger.

Defensive line remains a priority for Pittsburgh in the 2023 draft.

“Que Pasa con Gentry?”

Last weekend news broke that the Steelers had resigned Zach Gentry. All of the major outlets went with it. However, the Steelers have yet to announce that they’ve come to terms with their erstwhile number 2 tight end.

The signing could still happen, but it wouldn’t be the first time a NFL Network reporter broke the news of a deal, only for that deal to never appear.

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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