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

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

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

Mitch Trubisky, Steelers vs Colts,

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chukwuma Okorafor, Chuks Okorafor, Steelers 2022 Free Agent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alex Highsmith, Steelers vs Browns, Alex Highsmith interception

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

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

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

Miles Killebrew, Steelers vs Patriots

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Patriots

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

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

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

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

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

Chris Boswell, Steelers vs Bengals,

Chris Boswell boots it. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger

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

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

 

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Don’t Look Now: Steelers Put Pat Freiermuth on IR, Activate Diontae Johnson, Cut Gunner Olszewski

It was too good to be true. Coming out of the bye week the Steelers had reached full health with a clean injury to prove it. Then T.J. Watt’s name popped on to with a heel injury. (Breath easy, Watt will play vs. the Rams.)

But Pat Freiermuth wasn’t so lucky. On Thursday he reinjured his hamstring injury. Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell described it this way “…when he re-injured it, he cussed loudly and walked off the field and you knew what happened had to be the hamstring.”

Pat Freiermuth, Steelers vs. Browns,

Focused Pat Freiermuth scores the go ahead touchdown. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

The Steelers ruled him out for the Rams game on Friday and on Saturday morning they put him in injured reserve meaning Freriermuth will miss at least the next four games.

  • That’s bad news for the Steelers.

Pat Freiermuth’s been a reliable receiver with a knack for catching with clutch balls. He’s had a slow start to 2023 (but what player not named Jaylen Warren hasn’t for the Steelers offense) but by the end of 2022 he was developing similar rapport with Kenny Pickett to the one he enjoyed with Ben Roethlisberger in 2021.

  • The hope was that he’d continue that starting with the Rams game. His hamstring had other ideas.

Hamstring injures can be tricky. A non-athlete reading, “He pulled his hamstring” sounds mundane. I mean, who hasn’t pulled a muscle and gone about their day as usual? But hamstrings don’t work that way.

In 1995 Yancey Thigpen exploded to break John Stallworth’s single-season reception record with 85 catches (yes, it was different era.) Yet in 1996, a hamstring injury limited him to 6 games and 12 catches. 2 of those catches were for touchdowns, showing just how much the ’96 Steelers missed Thigpen. A few years later, a hamstring injury suffered in the 1999 Pro Bowl limited Dermontti Dawson to 7 games in 1999 and 9 games in 2000, ultimately forcing his retirement.

Hopefully Pat Freiermuth will fare better.

But his re-injury and trip to injured reserve reminds us that hamstrings heal on their own time and on their own terms.

Hot Rod Next Man Up, Gunner, King Gone, Rush Arrives

One man’s misfortune is another man’s opportunity in the NFL. With Freiermuth on injured reserve rookie Darnell Washington will get an extended look at tight end.

Friermuth’s misfortune is means that Rodney Williams roster spot is safe. Williams is a reserve tight end who transformed and impressive preseason into a practice squad spot. Against the Ravens, in his first game on the active roster he almost recovered Miles Killebrew’s blocked punt. But what came next was more impressive, as Williams willed himself to make a tackle and save a touchdown following Gunner Olszewski’s fumbled punt return.

The punt was ultimately the last straw for the Steelers on Olszewski, whose fumbling problems with the Patriots have followed him to Pittsburgh.

The extra roster spot does clear the way for the Steelers to activate Diontae Johnson, who is believed to have fully recovered from a hamstring he suffered in the opening day loss to the 49ers.

  • The Steelers also made one under the radar move on defense.

While Steelers Nation clamors for Joey Porter Jr. to start over Levi Wallace (or Patrick Peterson or perhaps both!), the Steelers parted ways with Desmond King, the former Houston Texans cornerback whom they signed following cut down day.

King came to Pittsburgh with almost 50 starts and the pickup was hailed as another “Khan Artist Coup.” Yet, he only appeared in 3 games returning 4 kicks in 15 special teams plays and logging a single defensive snap.

  • To replace King the Steelers signed Darius Rush from the Kansas City Chiefs practice squad.

Rush was a highly rated cornerback prospect going into the 2023 NFL Draft. The Indianapolis Colts took him in the 5th round but cut him at the end of summer. The Chiefs picked him up, put him on the active roster for a few games, but then put him back on the practice squad.

Now he’s with the Steelers and must remain on the active roster for at least 3 games.

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Reality Bites: 49ers Kick Steelers in the Teeth, 30-7 to Open the 2023 Season

Week 1 in the NFL is all about acquainting yourself with reality. And the reality Pittsburgh faces today is that the San Francisco 49ers came to Acrisure Stadium for the 2023 season opener and embarrassed the Steelers to the tune of 30-7.

  • Sometimes reality bites.

Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin minced no words declaring, “We got kicked in the teeth today in a lot of ways.” He’s right. The question is why and should we be worried?

 

Kenny Pickett, Drake Jackson, Steelers vs 49ers

Drake Jackson sacks Kenny Pickett. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla

How Quickly Off Season Accolades Feel Hollow

The NFL has dominated sports news, in terms of commanding press coverage and fan interest since the Freeman McNeil verdict brought free agency to professional football. Yet through all of it, the Pittsburgh Steelers have largely remained in the background.

But 2023 was different. The Steelers got out of their comfort zone:

  • Free agents that otherwise would have stayed in Pittsburgh were allowed to walk.
  • Older free agents and/or others with injury histories were brought to the Steel City
  • Omar Khan and Andy Weidl authored a draft that made everyone happy
  • “Flawless” isn’t too much of an exaggeration to describe the Steelers preseason effort

Yet, as Washington Commanders fans can assure us, winning the off season Lombardi counts for nothing when the games actually matter. Oh, it’s not that the everything the Steelers did in the off season blew up in their faces. To the contrary:

And that exercise above, ladies and gentleman, is the football analysis equivalent of having the icing off of the top of your cupcake before eating the rest of your dinner. And by cupcake, I’m not talking about the kind your mother made, I’m talking about a Hostess cupcake. You might enjoy a brief sugar high, but everything else will disappoint you as your appetite is spoiled.

Because really everything else the Steelers did in their 2023 opener disappointed.

Losing It in the Trenches

One of the most heartening things about the off season was the front office’s commitment to returning to “Steelers Football.” By “Steelers Football” we mean winning in the trenches because the ones in Black and Gold are the ones hitting the hardest.

First in free agency and then in the draft, the Steelers invested heavily in bulking up their starters and backups on both lines, while signing thumpers to rebuild their inside linebacking corps. Yet the 49ers pushed the Steelers around like rag dolls.

  • You remember that picture-perfect run Jaylen Warren in preseason against the Bills?

Well, the 49ers executed a similar play to open the 2nd half, where Christian McCaffrey ran 65 yards for a touchdown. McCaffrey ran well on that play, but his lineman watch that play again and try to count all of the Steelers defenders who got manhandled on that play.

  • Nor was that an isolated incident. Take away that 65 run and McCafferty still averages over 4 yards a carry.

And the 49ers hardly executed a one-dimensional offense. The Steelers defense might have “contained” George Kittle and Deebo Samuel, but Brandon Aiyuk torched them for 129 yards and two touchdowns.

Granted, on the first touchdown pass Brock Prudy placed the ball with super-human precision, but either way Aiyuk literally caught everything that was thrown his way.

Chicken, Egg or Both?

During the back-half of 2022 the Steelers formula for success on offense was simple:

  • Control the line of scrimmage
  • Create manageable third downs by running hard on first and or second down
  • Count on Kenny Pickett (or Derek Watt if we dare say) to convert those third downs
  • Dominate time of possession

Sure, the Steelers got stuck in the Red Zone more often than not ensuring that a lot of games went down to the buzzer. But it worked.

Fast forward to September 2023. When Mike Tomlin was asked about the poor performance of his offense, he reference the fact that the Steelers started something like 0-5 on third down conversions.

Take away Najee Harris 24 yard run at the end of the 1st half and he averages 1.4 yards per carry. Jaylen Warren wasn’t much better, averaging 2 yards per carry. Suffice to say, there’s no running back controversy in Pittsburgh this morning.

But the offense’s woes don’t lie entirely on the shoulders of the running backs and offensive line. The Steelers tried opening several drives with short passes, but even when they completed those they still found themselves in third and long.

What’s perhaps more worrisome was how they attacked those third and longs. During the second half of 2022 the knock on Kenny Pickett was that he played it safe, avoiding throwing downfield and/or in the middle of the field.

  • Against the 49ers he attacked the middle of the field, and the middle counter attacked.

Perhaps his first interception was due to Diontae Johnson slipping, but he threw a very poor pass dead center in the middle of the field on his second one, and he should have had a third returned for a touchdown.

In his defense, Pickett faced pressure all day. The 49ers sacked him 5 times and registered a total of 9 hits. Couple that with the 8 tackles for losses registered by 49er defenders and Andy Weidl’s “planet theory” of offensive line building looked more like space dust.

Primary Differentiation on Opening Day

Is all hope lost for the 2023 Pittsburgh Steelers? Of course not. The Steelers opened their previous two seasons with upsets of AFC contenders only to flounder for large portions of both campaigns. Looking further back, during the Cowher Era and opening day blowout was almost a good omen.

  • But with that said, opening day revealed a stark contrast to Steelers Nation.

The San Francisco 49ers looked every bit of the team that’s been to 3 of the last 4 Conference championships and the Pittsburgh Steelers looked like a team still searching for its first playoff win since 2016.

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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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Good to be King? Steelers Sign Desmond King, Cornerback from the Houston Texans

Alas, Omar Khan didn’t have another “Khan Artist” style trade up his sleeve. The Steelers initial 53-man roster had 2 punters on it: Pressley Harvin and Braden Mann. Surely this wasn’t going to last. So speculation started.

Glancing down the Turnpike, the Eagles didn’t have a punter and had 7 defensive backs….

….Could Khan and Andy Weidl be cooking up a cross state exchange? After all, the biggest question on the depth chart was whether the Steelers had found the right mix between speed, youth and experience in their cornerback room.

Desmond King, Tyler Matakevich, Steelers vs Chargers

Tyler Matakevich tries to tackle Desmond King. Photo Credit: Chargers.com

While a trade never materialized, the Steelers did acquire a defensive back when they signed Desmond King who’d been cut by the Houston Texans. Unable to make a trade (assuming he tried), Khan remained in the Steelers comfort zone of “feeding the hand that slaps you.”

During the 2022 off season the Steelers filled key defensive needs by signing Levi Wallace, Genard Avery, and Larry Ogunjobi, all of whom had hurt the Steelers with big plays. And while few Steelers remember the name “Desmond King,” most will never be able to forget his 75 yard punt return for a touchdown in the Steelers 2018 loss to the Los Angeles Chargers.

The play was not only dramatic, but was likely aided by an uncalled clip.

Desmond King was a 5th round pick of the San Diego Chargers in 2017. He played for the Chargers for four season, appearing in 53 games and starting 23. The Chargers traded him to the Tennessee Titans in 2020 and he signed with the Houston Texans during the 2021 off season.

In Houston, King appeared in 33 games, starting 25 of those. During his career he’s logged in 9 interceptions, force 3 fumbles and recovered 7. He’s also made 8.5 sacks and delivered 16 hits on the quarterback.

And between Calvin Austin and Gunner Olszewski the Steelers appear to be set for returners, but King gives Mike Tomlin and Danny Smith an option there, having returned over 101 punts in his career and 57 kickoffs, including a 50 yarder just a year ago.

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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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Flipping the Script: Steelers Trade of Kevin Dotson to Rams Reverses Recent Trends

The composition of the Steelers roster remains unknown as Mike Tomlin and Omar Khan have the lion’s share of their cuts to make before today’s 4:00 pm deadline.

  • But we already know one fundamental fact: The duo is flipping the script on Steelers late summer trading narrative.

News broke during the weekend that the Steelers had dealt Kevin Dotson, their 4th round pick from the 2020 NFL Draft to the Los Angeles Rams. In exchange the Steelers get the Rams’ 4th round pick in the 2024 NFL Draft. The teams will exchange 5th rounds picks in the 2025 NFL Draft and the Steelers will send Los Angeles their 6th round pick in 2025.

Kevin Dotson, Steelers vs Broncos

Kevin Dotson as a rookie. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Time will tell which side gets the better of this deal, but the move reverses the Steelers recent tendency to trade away picks to bolster depth. To be fair to Kevin Colbert, these trades typically involved a lot of back and forth, with the Steelers dealing and often times getting back 5th and 6th round picks.

But taken as a whole, the Steelers eroded their draft capital by trading to bring the Malik Reed, Joe Schobert, Avery Williames of the NFL to Pittsburgh.

By adding an extra 4th round pick Omar Khan is beginning to change that.

Snapshot of Kevin Dotson’s Steelers Career

Although he was only a 4th round pick, Dotson arrived in Pittsburgh and was penciled in as a future starter. Dotson started 4 games as a rookie, and when the team opted to let Matt Feiler walk, Dotson earned the starting spot.

In 2021 Dotson started the first 9 games at left guard during a season when the Steelers had one of their worst offensive lines in recent memory. Yet, in this scribe’s humble opinion they were reaching the outskirts respectability by midseason, only to see that journey come to a crashing halt when they lost Dotson in the tie against Detroit.

Dotson rebounded in 2022 and started all 17 games, but was reportedly fighting nagging injuries throughout the year.

Early in the 2023 off season the Steelers brass showed signs of being read to move on. First they signed guard Nate Herbig in free agency. But Herbig’s contract tagged him as a backup. This was not the case for Isaac Seumalo who got clear starter’s money.

As the Steelers learned all too painfully early during Mike Tomlin’s tenure, you can never have enough good offensive lineman. But the emergence of Spencer Anderson and the number of snaps Kendrick Green got against the Falcons at guard put the writing on the wall for Kevin Dotson.

Getting a 4th round pick for a backup guard playing on the final year of his rookie contract is an excellent deal in today’s NFL.

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Steelers Sign Kwon Alexander. Lesson? Watch What Omar Khan Does, Not What He Says

Although they’ve been at St. Vincents for less than 4 full days under, the Steelers made their first personnel move by signing veteran inside linebacker Kwon Alexander.

We’ll talk about what he brings to Pittsburgh a little later, but the quick takeaway is that, as it was with Kevin Colbert, so it is with Omar Khan. Which is: Watch not what he says, but what he does.

Kwon Alexander, Diontae Johnson, Steelers vs Jets

New Steelers Kwon Alexander tackles Diontae Johnson. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review

Khan Follows Colbert’s Footsteps

Kevin Colbert famously began the 2003 Steelers off season by defending the team’s secondary. He then promptly let longtime veteran Lee Flowers walk in free agency, tried and failed to sign Super Bowl MVP Dexter Carter, and then traded up to draft Troy Polamalu waited a few rounds, and then picked Ike Taylor.

  • During the 2023 off season the Steelers ripped their inside linebacking depth chart up root and stem.

Devin Bush’s departure was a given (as Mark Kaboly quipped, Devin Bush Sr. had a better chance of playing for the Steelers in 2023.) I strongly suspect that the Steelers were surpised to lose Robert Spillane. But even if that is true, when Spillane went to Oakland, it didn’t stop the Steelers from showing Myles Jack the door.

  • That left 2022 rookie Mark Robinson, he of 44 defensive snaps, as the “veteran” at inside linebacker.

Omar Khan quickly added Cole Holcomb and Elandon Roberts as the team’s starters at inside linebacker in free agency. While the Steelers address several key areas of defensive need in the 2023 NFL Draft, inside linebacker was not a position they were able to get to.

So, when Khan took questions from the media, they naturally asked him how he felt about depth at inside linebacker. Here’s Khan’s full response:

We signed the guys that we did because we felt we had to get better, and we think we’re going to be better with those guys. I’m confident with the group we have there. If there’s an opportunity to upgrade a position group, we’re always going to look at it, and if it makes sense it makes sense.

He praised his guys. Expressed confidence that they’ll improve the defense. While he left open the door to adding someone else “If t here’s an opportunity to upgrade a position group” (notice “a” the indefinite article, not “the”) he’d do it.

It sounded like Khan was content to stand pat with his current inside linebackers. And then three days later, he went out and signed Kwon Alexander.

So what is Alexander bringing to the Steelers?

Quick Look at Kwon Alexander

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers made Kwon Alexander their 4th round pick in the 2015 NFL Draft. He started for 3 straight seasons, until injuries derailed his career. After starting 40 games in his first 3 seasons, he started 14 over the next two, six in Tampa Bay, 8 in San Francisco.

He almost doubled that in 2020, starting 13 games, but he played for the 49ers and the New Orleans Saints after being dealt to the Big Easy. He started 8 games in New Orleans in 2021, and then went to the New York Jets, where he started 12 games in 2022.

All in all, he’s seen action in 95 NFL games, making 8 interceptions, 12.5 sacks, forcing 11 fumbles and making 49 tackles for losses. He’s seen as being strong in coverage, and his 33 passes defensed would lend credence to that, but only 3 of those passes defensed came in the last two seasons.

When asked why he opted to sign with the Steelers, Alexander explained, “I really came here cause of the defense,” further expanding that “Hard-nosed football, hit hard, run, get the ball. That’s the type of player I am.”

Terms of his contract haven’t been announced, but one can imagine it is either at or very near the veteran minimum.

In addition to Holocomb, Roberts and Robinson, the Steelers also have newcomers Tanner Muse and Nick Kwiatkoski listed as inside linebackers, but they’re seen more as special teams contributors. After finishing 2023 on Pittsburgh’s practice squad Chapelle Russell is also in the mix.

But one can imagine that Alexander is at the top of that pecking order.

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Grading Omar Khan’s First Year as Steelers General Manager – A Khan Artist? Or Just a Risk Taker?

Omar Khan’s first year as Pittsburgh Steelers General Manager has drawn praise from through out Steelers Nation. He’s been called a “Khan” artist. Some of the Black and Gold Faithful are already fitting him for a Gold Hall of Fame Blazer.

Khan addressed the media at St. Vincents, in Latrobe as Mike Tomlin and his staff began their first practices with the team.

With that in mind, it’s time to take an objective look at Khan’s first year on the job and ask, is Omar really a “Khan Artist?”

Omar Khan, Pittsburgh Steelers General Manager Omar Khan

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

A Subtle, but Important Shift on Contract Extension Timing

The under Tom Donahoe and Dan Rooney, Steelers were pioneers in targeting key players for contract extensions before they hit the free agent market. Kevin Colbert continued Donahoe’s policy.

  • However, Colbert was a bit more cautious, particularly in the Tomlin era.
Troy Polamalu, Troy Polamalu Interception Ravens, Troy Polamalu Interception AFC Championship Game, Troy Polamalu pick six AFC Championship

Troy Polamalu’s pick six vs Ravens the 2008 AFC Championship Game. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette.com

Colbert typically waited to finalized contract negotiations shortly before the regular season began. James Farrior, Troy Polamalu, Stephon Tuitt and Cam Heyward were all players who inked deals at the tail end of summer.
While this injected some “will so-and-so get his deal” uncertainty into the summer, it did allowed the Steelers to hedge against injury.

  • Omar Khan hasn’t hedged when it comes to contracts.

Last year the Steelers signed Minkah Fitzpatrick, Chris Boswell and Diontae Johnson to extensions early or before training camp. This year they got Alex Highsmith’s name on a long-term contract.

Injuries can and do happen during training camp and preseason (think Senquez Golson and/or Sean Spence) so Khan’s approach does carry a bit of extra risk. But it also provide certainty and helps ensure roster continuity.

Taking the Steelers Out of Their Comfort Zone on Free Agents

The Steelers were aggressive players in free agency during the spring of 2023, but that continued a trend Kevin Colbert started during the spring of 2022. And that new found aggressiveness is probably due to the fact that the team both doesn’t have a franchise quarterback’s contract to carry and didn’t have a lot of veterans to resign.

  • But under Khan, the Steelers did slide a bit out of their free agent comfort zone.

Entering the off season, resigning Cam Sutton seemed like almost a no brainer. Sutton wanted to stay, the Steelers said they wanted up. Yet, they were never able to get a deal done. The happened a few times under Kevin Colbert.

  • What makes Khan unique is the way he reacted.

The Steelers replaced Cam Sutton by signing Patrick Peterson, who will be 33 this year. Giving a major free agent contract to such an old player was almost unheard of under Kevin Colbert.

Khan also moved out of his comfort zone when it came to injuries, making major signings with Cole Holcomb and Keanu Neal who were either coming off of injuries or had significant injury history.

Khanning Others with Trades?

What’s really earned Khan his title of “Kahn Artist” is his work with trades.

First he traded Chase Claypool for the 32nd pick in the 2023 NFL draft and then watch from afar as Claypool make 14 catches for 140 yards over the last 7 games of the season. Today, trading Chase Claypool for Joey Porter Jr. looks like a very, lopsided deal.

Next he swapped 7th round picks to bring veteran receiver Allen Robinson to Pittsburgh from the Los Angeles Rams – with LA agreeing to pay 10 million of the 15 million he’s owed during the final year of his contract.

He also traded up to get Brodrick Jones in the 2023 NFL Draft, and then swapped 3rd round picks with the Panthers and got Carolina’s 4th round pick, getting them back into that critical depth round.

Even if we accept the obvious caveat that every trade carries risk, Khan has shown incredible negotiating savvy with these moves.

  • But credit for Khan’s savvy here doesn’t come as the result of comparisons to Colbert.

Kevin Colbert’s first major trade brought Troy Polamalu to Pittsburgh. His next major trade bagged Santinio Holmes, who was MVP of Super Bowl XLIII. He also suckered a 3rd round pick out of the then Oakland Raiders for Martavis Bryant (after declaring that he wasn’t available for trade). And Colbert committed highway robbery by getting a 3rd and a 5th for Antonio Brown.

Conclusion? Not a “Khan Artist” but Rather a Risk Taker

In his first year as Steelers General Manger, Omar Khan has shown himself as someone who can both live by the “Steelers Way” while acting as his own man.

And in that respect, he shown himself to be more of a risk taker, than a “Khan Artist.”

During these next three weeks on the fields at St. Vincents we’ll start see if those risks pay off.

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