Sometimes, it pays to listen. Throughout the 2023 off season the Steelers brass has been saying they want Mitchell Trubisky to stay in Pittsburgh as a long-term backup quarterback. They even confirmed that they were leaving the door open for Mason Rudolph.
And this week, both men signed contracts with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
A few days after inking Mason Rudolph to a one year deal, the Steelers extended Mitch Tribusky’s contract by two years. According to the NFL Network, the new deal will keep Tribusky in Pittsburgh through the 2025 season and pay him 19.4 million dollars with a chance to earn 33 million through incentives.
Prior to the extension, the Steelers were on the hook to pay Tribuisky another 8 million this year, bringing his salary cap value to over 10 million dollars. That’s dirty cheap for a starting quarterback but rather expensive for a backup who, under the best of circumstances won’t do anything more than wear a headset and huddle with the starter and head coach during the 2 minute warning.
Mitch Trubisky, Kenny Pickett and Mason Rudolph. Photo Credit: Brandon Sloter / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images and The Athletic.)
Trubisky to Follow in Footsteps of Another Ex-Bears QB?
Of course “the best of circumstances” don’t always prevail in the NFL. After getting benched against the Jets, Mitch Tribuisky was forced into action twice thanks to Kenny Pickett concussions.
And his play in those games calls to mind another former Chicago Bears quarterback, who after a stint on the Great Lakes, found his way to Pittsburgh. That quarterback is Mike Tomczak, who after 77 games and 31 starts in Chicago, followed by stops in Green Bay and Cleveland, arrived in Pittsburgh in 1993.
Mike Tomczak hands off to Barry Foster in 1994. Photo Credit: Getty Images, via Pro Football Talk
And of course they came in rapid succession after that.
Isaac Seumalo lines up against the Steelers. Photo Credit: Indianapolis Star
Saturday was the first day I was able to pick up my pen, so I wrote about Nate Herbig signing as an indication of Andy Wedil’s influence. Figured that as free agent news is typically slow on the weekend, I could run the Herbig story on Sunday morning, use Sunday to write about the inside linebacker situation with the signings of Elandon Roberts and Cole Holcomb and that would be that.
But Omar Khan and Andy Wedil are marching to their own drummer, aren’t they?
And there can be no doubt that Andy Wedil is deliberately leaving his finger prints on the Steelers roster. Isaac Seumalo is a 6-foot-4, 303-pounder whom Pro Football Focus rated as the NFL’s ninth-best guard in 2022. At age 29 Seumalo only gave up one sack and started all 20 games for the Eagles.
How does he fit in?
Well, to quote Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell, that’s “…a mystery to team sources not named Mike Tomlin and OL coach Pat Meyer.” Herbig’s arrival signaled that Kevin Dotson’s starting job was likely on the line. The arrival of Herbig and Seumalo mans that Dotson will have to fight for a roster spot.
Kendrick Green’s chances of making the team just got very, very complicated. And it is also very unlikely that J.C. Hassenauer, whom the Steelers made an unrestricted free agent, will get a chance to return to Pittsburgh.
Little did he know, but Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Bill Cowher was about to start the “John Mitchell” era.
The day was Tuesday January 11th, 1993. The site was Three Rivers Stadium and the 1993 Steelers season had ended in with a bang. Literally.
The Steelers reached the end of 4th quarter clinging to a 7-point lead in a Wild Card game against the Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium. A failed attempt on third down sent Mark Royals out to punt. Steelers cast off Keith Cash blocked it, giving the Chiefs the ball deep in Pittsburgh territory. Worse yet, Cash gave Joe Montana what you absolutely could not give him – a 2nd chance.
Montana tied the game in regulation and Nick Lowery won it on overtime. Bill Cowher reacted decisively.
He fired Special Teams coach John Guy. Everyone expected this. The blocked punt culminated a season of special team’s disaster. He also fired wide receivers coach Bob Harrison. And Cowher made one more move: He sacked defensive line coach Steve Furness.
Cowher surprised everyone with the Furness firing. Not only was Steve Furness a Steel Curtain Veteran sporting 4 Super Bowl rings, but the arrow seemed to be pointing up on Steelers defensive line.
But as so often is the case in the NFL, when a door closes for one person, it creates an opportunity for another.
John Mitchell, 29 years a Steelers Assistant coach. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com
Bill Cowher hired John Mitchell to coach the defensive line. John Mitchell didn’t so much as take advantage of that opportunity, but rather he molded it, transformed it and remade it as his own.
Mitchell retired last week after 29 years with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
In stepping away, Mitchell ends an era for the Pittsburgh Steelers that was as remarkable as it was understated.
To understand just how understated the “Mitchell Era” was try this test: Strip a Steelers fan of his or her smart phone and ask – “Who was the longest tenured Steelers defensive coach?” Most would probably answer “Dick LeBeau.” Some will probably say “Bud Carson” or “George Perles.” “Tony Dungy” might earn an honorable mention. I guarantee you that few would answer “John Mitchell” even though with 29 years of service as defensive line and then assistant head coach that is the right answer.
To understand how remarkable Mitchell’s tenure has been, consider the fate of his opposite number on offensive line. When the Steelers hired Karl Dunbar to replace Mitchell as defensive line coach in 2018, we observed that since Dunbar’s rookie training camp at St. Vincents in 1991, the only other coaches the title of “Defensive line coach” for the Pittsburgh Steelers were Joe Greene and Furness.
As Dick Hoak observed when he retired as Steelers running backs coach “You’re hired to be fired. I guess I beat the system.” So did John Mitchell.
And he beat the system by remolding and reforming the young defensive lineman in his own image. This fact has been well known and evident in the fact that very few defensive lineman started for John Mitchell as rookies.
Aaron Smith’s first two years, he didn’t like me because I never called him by his name. I called him ninety-one. Aaron Smith came from a small school, Northern Colorado, and they only had about three or four coaches on the staff, so Aaron Smith didn’t know any fine points about football. When he got here, he had to play technique football. The first year and a half was pretty tough on him.
Aaron Smith agrees, sharing with Ron Lippock from Steelers Takeaways: “We laugh about it now. I thought he hated me and I hated him. But now, there’s no greater person.”
For a quarter century Mitchell put the Steelers defensive line through similar paces.
Steelers defensive line coach Johnny Mitchell at his best – teaching in the trenches. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com
Even the most educated fan has a difficult, if not impossible time assessing a position coach. Do you judge Carnell Lake on the disappointing careers that Cortez Allen and Shamarko Thomas authored? Or do you measure the “Lake Effect” on William Gay’s maturation following his return to Pittsburgh and rejuvenation of Kennan Lewis under Lake’s tutelage?
Frustrating. Disappointing. Unfortunate. These words come to mind after the Pittsburgh Steelers 16-10 loss to the Miami Dolphins on Sunday Night Football.
Mike Tomlin labeled it a hard-fought defensive battle that slipped through their fingers, thanks to 4 dropped interceptions by Pittsburgh vs 3 that the Dolphins caught.
Fair enough. Indeed, at the game’s end the descriptor “Two interceptions too far” was tempting. But another explainer works better: Growing Pains.
There’s no sugar coating this. 2-6 sucks in the NFL. Pittsburgh is feeling the pain, but there were signs that this pain signals future gain.
Jalean Phillips tries to bring Kenny Pickett down. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune Review
Defense Bends, But Doesn’t Break, Pushes Back
This one started ugly. Miami won the toss and Tua Tagovailoa carved the Steelers up with laser like efficiency and the Dolphins scored with clockwork precision. Clearly, the Steelers could hope to slow him down, let alone stop him as the Dolphins raced right back down to the Red Zone as soon as they got the ball back.
However, The Steelers defense bent, but it didn’t break.
Larry Ogunjobi snuffed out a run, Devin Bush stopped Tua Tagovailoa on a scramble, Minkah Fitzpatrick deflected a pass in the Red Zone and the Dolphins settled for 3. But it didn’t seem to matter. Kenny Pickett threw an interception two plays later, and 3 plays later Miami was again knocking on Pittsburgh’s door at the 23.
The Steelers defense forced Tua Tagovailoa into 3 misfires, and Miami was kicking again.
Devin Bush deflects a pass. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com
The real turn for the defense came in the Dolphins 1st possession of the third quarter. ON 3rd and 2 at the Steelers 14, Cam Heyward slammed Chase Edmonds back like a rag doll for a 1 yard loss. Mike McDaniel opted to go for it on 4th and 3 and Myles Jack stoned Edmonds for no gain.
The Steelers defense wasn’t in “bend but don’t break” mold – it was pushing back.
The defense affirmed that after Jevon Holland intercepted Kenny Pickett with 3:06 left. The math was simple: A Miami first down wins the game. But the defense forced a quick three and out.
Can you ask more from the defense?
Yes, you can. Cam Sutton and Levi Wallace dropped interceptions that could have prevented two of the Dolphins field goals. Wallace and Terrell Edmunds dropped picks that could have given the Steelers a shorter field.
The defense couldn’t deliver victory, but they contested every single blade of grass during the game’s last fifty three minutes and forty five seconds and they did so with playoff-level intensity.
Yeah, Canada’s Offense Is Bad, but Still….
Matt Canada is the most hated man in Steelers Nation today. Even Ed Bouchette, who witnessed the darkest days of Joe Walton, Ray Sherman and Kevin Gilbride, asserts he’s never seen a worse Steelers offense.
While tempted to disagree, I’ll lean back on Chuck Noll’s wisdom that, “When you lose, everything they say about you is true.” Measured by many metrics Matt Canada’s offense is either the worst or among the worst in the NFL.
So be it. There were still positive take aways from the Dolphins game:
Najee Harris hasn’t regained his 2021 swagger, but is getting better.
No, no one will confuse this offensive line with those of Mike Munchak. But the unit is making progress under Pat Myer’s tutelage. This all is encouraging, but transforming these incremental improvement into points and victories depends on one man: Kenny Pickett
Evaluating quarterbacks in for the NFL is perilous. For every Peyton Manning there are two Ryan Leafs. Why is this? Well, perhaps because you can’t measure a quarterback’s greatest asset, his mental toughness.
An NFL quarterback needs to project where 11 guys will move in a single instant. He must know where a half dozen of his players will go once the ball is in motion. He’s got to process that information and fire off a piece of pigskin at over 55 miles per hour with NASA like precision hitting moving a window that’s the size of a lunch box. Oh, and he needs to do all of this in about 2 seconds with 4 or 5 300 pound guys trying to kill him.
Suffice to say, quarterbacks make mistakes. Even the best ones.
The critical question is: How does a quarterback respond when he makes a mistake?
You can’t test for that at the combine, nor does college necessarily offer a representative sample. Kenny Pickett shook off his first interception, intended for Chase Claypool, and led two scoring drives in the first half.
He didn’t do much in the second half – until the game was on the line.
Then he moved the team to the 15 yard line, where he converted a 3rd down only to have penalties push him back 15 yards. Then he threw an interception. It would have been easy to fold then, but the defense got the ball back.
Pickett didn’t fold. Instead he moved the team nearly 80 yards to the Dolphins 25, where a miscommunication with Diontae Johnson led to another interception.
I’ll let the X’s and O’s experts critique the technical parts of Pickett’s performance, but my take away is that those two drives suggest he has the mental toughness needed to be an NFL quarterback.
If that’s the case, these growing pains will result in something positive.
Let’s Keep It Real
Rolling your eyes and saying “The Steelers are 2-5 and this guy’s trying to push the positive…?” I am, but I’m also realistic. If you’re 2-5 in the NFL you, put eloquently, suck.
And guess what? Next up is the Eagles.
Not only are the Eagles the NFL’s last undefeated team, they’re playing in Philadelphia a city that the Steelers haven’t won in since 1965, when a man on the moon was more science fiction than fact, and in Pittsburgh the phrase “Nixon sucks” referred to Steelers coach Mike Nixon because Richard had assured us we didn’t have him to kick around anymore.
Nixon, however did earn one of his two victories at Philadelphia’s Franklin Field, thereby accomplishing something that neither Bill Austin, Chuck Noll, Bill Cowher nor Mike Tomlin have been able to do.
While the positives I saw against the Dolphins are real, expect things to get worse before they get better.
You’ve heard that before? I’m not surprised. It has been a popular refrain over the past two seasons whenever the Steelers and their potential problems are discussed.
Mitch Trubisky at the line of scrimmage. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review.
Of course, there is no use putting the word “potential” in front of the world “problem” when talking about the Steelers’ offensive line. It was a problem in 2020. It was a problem last year.
What about this year? Even though the Steelers have only played two preseason games so far, the offensive line still appears to be quite offensive.
Yes, despite adding free agents James Daniels (right guard) and Mason Cole (center) to the interior of the offensive line in March, the line has struggled through much of training camp and all of the exhibition season.
In spite of the fact that Dan Moore Jr., a fourth-round pick out of Texas A&M in the 2021 NFL Draft, started 16 games at left tackle as a rookie, he may need a little more seasoning before he’s fully developed.
As for Kendrick Green, a third-round pick out of Illinois in 2021 who played center as a rookie and has been switched over to guard — his more natural position in college — during the 2022 training camp? Yikes.
Let’s just say Green is still incredibly raw and that no amount of seasoning and time in the oven may turn him into a professional offensive lineman.
Having said all that I’ve said up to this point, there’s still time for this line to gel and find some cohesion.
Believe it or not.
I know it’s hard to believe after witnessing two-plus years of the same level of play along the offensive line, but as I alluded to earlier, the guys doing the playing aren’t the same.
The Steelers almost completely overhauled their entire offensive line during the 2021 offseason; gone were left tackle Alejandro Villanueva (a free agent the team decided to move on from); left guard Matt Feiler (a free agent the team couldn’t afford to bring back); center Maurkice Pouncey (retirement); and right guard David DeCastro (released due to injury).
File photo of the 2019 Steelers offensive line. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive
What about Dotson’s sophomore campaign? Dotson didn’t turn as many heads despite winning a starting job in camp. A rumored lack of commitment seemed to sour some Steelers coaches on Dotson during the 2021 offseason, while injuries hindered him in the regular season as he tried to make the transition over to left guard in place of the departed Feiler.
Okorafor and Turner were steady if uninspiring on the right side. Moore had his issues at left tackle, but, again, he did enough to start 16 games as a rookie.
Kendrick Green’s stint at center was an epic failure.
What did this all add up to in 2021? An offensive line that was just as bad, if not worse, than it was in 2020.
At least youth was on its side, though, right?
Not if you were Dotson and Green.
Mason Cole was brought in to be an upgrade over Green at center in 2022. James Daniels was a highly-touted free agent who Pittsburgh signed to sort of act as the new anchor of the line at right guard, a la DeCastro.
Green was thrown into a position battle with Dotson during training camp, while Moore and Okorafor remained as the starting tackles.
That’s a lot of upheaval for one unit in a short period of time. It’s kind of unrealistic to expect everything to be going smoothly at this point in time. Should there be individual improvements? Yes, and I’m still excited about DAn Moore despite his struggles during the preseason.
As for the center position? If Cole can simply be steady and reliable, that would be a stark improvement over what even Pouncey gave the unit in his final season.
It’s no secret that James Daniels has struggled a bit at right guard, but I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt while he finds his bearings with his new coach and co-workers.
And that last part really is the most important, right? These guys have to be given time to gel together and perfect the techniques their new offensive line coach has taught them.
Those in the know in terms of offensive line play say that chemistry, trust and learning to work together are just as important as winning individual battles when it comes to developing an effective offensive line.
Should the Steelers go out and sign a free agent or make a trade? I doubt you’ll find much in terms of quality this late into the offseason.
Many say that the Steelers should have used more premium draft choices to address the line in recent years. Yeah, but in place of whom? Would you rather have an offensive lineman over Najee Harris, a running back the Steelers selected with the 24th pick of the 2021 NFL Draft? How about tight end Pat Freiermuth, selected one round after Harris?
What about the 2022 draft? You’d rather have a tackle over Kenny Pickett, who looks like he could be a more than credible replacement for Ben Roethlisbergerat quarterback? What about George Pickens, a second-round pick in 2022 who might be a superstar receiver the moment he plays in his first regular-season game?
Fact is, the Steelers have been transitioning from a veteran offense to a more youthful one over the past few years, and you’re not going to be able to address every position with premium picks. Focusing on one position means kicking the can down the road on the others.
I’ll admit that I’ve always been adamant that every unit needs at least one stud — a player with a high pedigree — but the Steelers seemed to find that guy in free agency when they signed James Daniels in March.
James Daniels wasn’t a first-round pick by the Chicago Bears, but he was selected in the second round in 2018 and started 48 games in four years.
Seems like a high-pedigreed stud to me.
The Steelers may just have to continue to endure the growing pains along the offensive line until they get it right. It’s not going to happen overnight. Heck, they’re more than a few nights into this rebuild and still in search of some answers.
Finally, the Steelers have a young team, complete with a young offensive line.
There still may be time for that young line to mature into something formidable.
The Steelers continue to fill holes on their coaching staff as they announced the hire of Pat Meyer as their new offensive line coach, which confirms that Mike Munchak will not be returning to Pittsburgh.
Like Frisman Jackson who joined last week as wide receivers coach, Meyer comes to Pittsburgh from the Carolina Panthers, but unlike Jackson, Meyer had been fired following the Panther’s 5-12 season.
Pat Meyer, the new Steelers offensive line coach. Photo Credit: Steel City Blitz
Prior to coaching for the Panthers, Meyer coached for the offensive line for Los Angeles Chargers from 2017 through 2019. Before that he served as assistant offensive line coach for the Buffalo Bills from 2015 through 2016. Meyer got his NFL break in 2013 when the Chicago Bears hired him where he worked as assistant offensive line coach in ’13 and offensive line coach in 2014.
Prior to that, Meyer had several stints on the college coaching circuit that saw him make stops at Colorado State, Florida State, N.C. State and Memphis where he worked under Rip Scherer in 1999, just as Mike Tomlin had in 1996.
A Little Grey Hair a Good Thing?
In announcing the move, the Steelers took great pains to highlight the success that San Dieg… er um, Los Angeles had in rushing the ball during Meyer tenure. And it is true that the Chargers ran the ball well while Meyer with them, although the Steelers effectively contained their rushing attack in their home loss in 2018 and their road win in 2019.
But that contrasts with Pro Football Focus ratings of his offensive lines, which were not good.
PFF rankings are interesting, but hardly definitive particularly when it comes to evaluating how good a coach is.
Pro Football Focused ranked the Panthers offensive line at 31st in the NFL last season. As Chris Adamaski of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reminds us, during 2021 “only one player started more than 10 games,” for the Panthers with no one starting all 17 games at one spot.
Perhaps the most encouraging addition Meyer brings to the Steelers staff is his grey hair.
Seriously. Mike Tomlin’s coaching decisions have drawn a lot of heat over the last ten years, some of it justified, some of it hot air. But the truth is that when Mike Tomlin has brought outsiders on to his staff, the ones with established coaching track records have done better than his attempts to mentor and mold younger coaches.
The contrast between Richard Mann’s and Scottie Montgomery’s stewardship of the wide receivers room offers the best example. But you can also see it on offensive line. Both Jack Bicknell and Adrian Klemm were disasters with Shaun Sarrett also struggling, whereas Munchak transformed the line into an asset.
It is unfair to expect Meyer to reproduce Munchak’s magic, but to paraphrase Jerry Garcia, a touch of Grey suits the Steelers anyway.