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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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 2023 Draft Needs @ Offensive Tackle – Not Time to “Seek Comfort” in Status Quo

When asked if he was happy about his offensive tackles at the recent NFL owners conference Mike Tomlin offered a curious response, “Happy is a dangerous word. I’m comfortable.”

Mike Tomlin’s the man who never seeks to “take comfort” in style points, moral victories or silver linings offered by statistics drawn from losing performances. Yet he’s “comfortable” with his tackles.

Does that mean the Steelers will not or should not seek to strengthen themselves at tackle in the 2023 NFL Draft? Let’s take a look.

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

Steelers Depth Cart at: The Starters

In the spring of 2018 the fact that the Pittsburgh Steelers had one of the best offensive lines in the NFL was almost taken for granted. With Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert having moved away from their “plug and patch” offensive line building philosophy and Mike Munchak providing tutelage a strong line seemed to be a given.

But that line was aging, and the Steelers took their first steps towards renewal by drafting Chuks Okorafor with third round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft. For two years, Chukwuma Okorafor only started two games. One in 2018 against the Denver Broncos that matched him up with Von Miller and another in 2019 against the Los Angeles Rams that pitted him opposite Aaron Donald.

Okorafor did well in those match ups, but lost the competition to start at right guard in 2020 to Zach Banner, but when Banner got hurt, he stepped in and started 15 straight games. Chukwuma Okorafor returned to start 16 games in 2021 at right tackle. The conventional wisdom at the time was that Okorafor had done “OK” as a starter.

Starting opposite Okorafor at left tackle is Dan Moore. A lot of fans are down on Moore, but how many 4th round picks start as rookies at left tackle on opening day? Moore did. He started there all year, and unlike fellow rookie starter Kendrick the Steelers saw no need to replace him.

As Dave Schofield of Behind the Steel Curtain points out, after two years Dan Moore might not project as the next Tony Boselli, but his body of work at this point in his career matches up nicely with predecessors Kelvin Beachum and Alejandro Villanueva.

Steelers Offensive Tackle Depth Chart: The Backups

The cupboard is pretty thin here folks. The Steelers recently signed Le’Raven Clark to provide depth. And that’s it. They don’t even have any guys on “futures contracts.”

Steelers Draft, Steelers Draft Needs scale

Le’Raven Clark does bring 64 games and 18 starts worth of experience for those of you taking notes.

The Steelers 2023 Draft Needs @ Offensive Tackle

Mike Tomlin might be “comfortable” with his two starting tackles but there’s no way he can be comfortable with his depth. And there’s a reason why the Steelers signed Chuks Okorafor to a 3 year contract – offensive tackles are very expensive to sign on the open free agent market.

  • It is much, much more cost-effective to draft then and then resign them.

While Okarfor and Dan Moore are legitimate starting NFL tackles, both upgradeable in the medium term and in the immediate term the Steelers need depth as in, they need a kid who can step in and play in the event of an opening-day injury, as their need at offensive tackle going into the 2023 NFL Draft is Extreme.

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Steelers 2023 Draft Needs @ Center & Guard – Is Pittsburgh Set?

Let’s face it. Offensive line isn’t “Sexy.” An offense might need to field five lineman, but the other six men are said to play “The skill positions.” Even then, interior offensive lineman get short shrift.

Quibble you do?

Take a look at how NFL teams prioritize Center and Guard in the draft and in how they spend their salary cap. Heck, offensive tackles get Hollywood movies made about them. Try making On the Blind Side about a guard.

True as that may be, the Pittsburgh Steelers have more interior offensive lineman in the Hall of Fame, see Mike Webster, Dermontti Dawson and Alan Faneca, than they do wide receivers (Lynn Swann and John Stallworth).

During the last two springs both Kevin Colbert and Omar Khan have invested heavily in interior offensive line positions. Does that mean the Steelers can ignore them in the draft? Let’s take a look.

Mitch Trubisky, James Daniel, Mason Cole, Steelers 2022 Offensive Line

Mitch Trubisky at the line of scrimmage. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review.

Steelers Depth Cart at Center and Guard: The Starters

The leader of the Steelers offensive line is unquestionably James Daniels. Kevin Colbert signed him last spring to a 3 year 26 million dollar contract, after Daniels had finished four years as a starter in Chicago.

James Daniels not only leads the team in terms of talent and salary, but also in terms of attitude. When the Buffalo Bills hit Kenny Pickett late, Daniels wasted no time in defending his quarterback – just what you need to see from your top offensive lineman.

Last year Colbert also signed Mason Cole to play center, after Cole had played for 3 years in Arizona and 1 Minnesota. Cole helped shore up a position that had been a weakness was solid all season.
Here’s where it gets interesting.

Officially speaking, Kevin Dotson is the Steelers other starting guard. Kevin Dotson was the Steelers 4th round pick in the 2020 NFL Draft and while he missed games in both 2019 and 2020, the Steelers line was certainly stronger with him playing. Dotson fortunately played all 17 games in 2022.

But that didn’t stop Omar Khan and Andy Wedil from going out and signing Isaac Seumalo, who brings 7 years of NFL experience with the Philadelphia Eagles totaling 81 games and 60 starts, including 17 last season. The money the Steelers are paying Seumalo makes it clear that they’re not bringing him to Pittsburgh to be a backup.

Steelers Guard and Center Depth Chart: The Backups

When talking about depth at guard and center it would remise not to point out that both James Daniels and Isaac Seumalo have some experience at center. As does Nate Herbig, whom the Steelers signed as a free agent from the New York Jets (although he is another ex-Philadelphia Eagle.)

Steelers Draft, Steelers Draft Needs scale

The Steelers also have Kendrick Green, their 2022 3rd round pick who was their starting center for most of 2022. Green also has position flexibility at guard, and many feel he’s more naturally suited there.

The Steelers 2023 Draft Needs @ Center and Guard

“You can never have enough good offensive lineman” the old adage goes. And that’s a sound philosophy. But the Steelers have three if not four starter-capable guards, a former 3rd round pick, and an established starter at Center.

And oh, by the way, 3 of those guards have experience playing center. And the Steelers only have 7 picks this year. Therefore, their need at both center and guard going into the 2023 draft should be considered as Negligible.

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Weidl Effect? Steelers Signing Nate Herbig, a Road Grading Guard, May be Sign of Andy Weidl’s Influence

So far everything the Steelers have done in free agency has been by the book. Well, ok “by the book” if you channel your Ben Kenobi and agree that its “by the book from a certain point of view.” Which is to say that by signing 33 year old cornerback in the form of Patrick Peterson is not something the Steelers typically do.

But all things consider equally, the Steelers would have preferred to keep Cameron Sutton. When Cam Sutton signed with the Lions the Steelers needed a starting corner and turned to Patrick Peterson.

Ditto the signings of Elandon Roberts and Cole Holcomb – personnel moves at inside linebacker have been a staple of Steelers off seasons for the last 5 seasons. (More on that in a day or so.)

  • But the Steelers decision to sign Nate Herbig is an outlier.
Nate Herbig

Steelers newest guard Nate Herbig. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

While it’s a given that the Steelers need depth at offensive line, those conversations had typically focused on tackle. Behind Mason Cole, James Daniels and Kevin Dotson the Steelers had J.C. Hassenauer and Kendrick Green. Guard wasn’t considered an area of need.

Yet the Steelers wasted little time in signing Nate Herbig for 2 years at 8 million dollars with Herbig getting 3 million of that in guarantees. That’s not crazy money for an NFL guard – James Daniels is going to have a cap number $11,166,666 this year, but there are certainly starting guards that make less in today’s NFL.

  • That means that heading into his contract year Kevin Dotson is going to need to fight for his starting job.

The move is also the first sign of Assistant General Manager Andy Weidl’s influence. Herbig came out early from Stanford and that probably cost him getting drafted. But the Philadelphia Eagles signed him. When Joe Douglas left Philadelphia for the New York Jets he signed Herbig. And now he’s followed Weidl to Pittsburgh.

During his time in Philadelphia, Weidl developed a reputation as a personnel man who bought into the idea that football games are still won and lost at the line of scrimmage. (See the Eagle in people moving mode on short down situations in the Super Bowl.)

At 6’4” and 335 pounds, Herbig is in the 93rd percentile of offensive guards. By all accounts he’s a road grader in the run game even if his pass pro skills remain a work in progress. When asked about where he would play, Herbig quipped he’d play punter if the Steelers asked him to.

Just the attitude you’d like to see in an offensive lineman.

Cutting Them Loose – Steelers Don’t Tender RFAs

The Steelers also made another uncharacteristic, if under the radar move: They didn’t tender any of their four Restricted Free agents.

The Steelers had until 4:00 pm on Wednesday to offer tenders to J.C. Hassenauer, James Pierre, Jeremy McNichols and Steven Sims.

Most people probably don’t know who Jermey NcNicols was so that’s no surprise. Hassenauer has some starting experience, but he wasn’t much of a surprise. But Sims is their de facto 3rd wide out and James Peirre was their starting cornerback at year’s end.

So it is a bit of a surpise that Omar Khan and Mike Tomlin opted to let those guys reach the free market.

All remained unsigned at this point, so they could still remain in Pittsburgh.

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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No Restrictions: Steelers Should Resign J.C. Hassenauer But Not Extend an RFA Tender

Like characters in a story, every NFL player’s career has an arc. Follow a player’s arc and most of the time it reveals a lot about the individual’s talent, dedication and character. Just think of Jerome Bettis “face of the franchise” career journey and you’ll see what I mean.

Yet sometimes the opposite happens. Sometimes a player’s career arc reveals more about the team than the player. Such is the case with J.C. Hassenauer who is about to become an Restricted Free Agent.

J.C. Hassenauer

Steelers center J.C. Hassenauer. Photo Credit: AP

Capsule Profile of J.C. Hassenauer’s Career with the Steelers

After watching undrafted rookie free agent J.C. Hassenauer spend 2018 going on an off the Atlanta Falcon’s practice squad, the Steelers signed him in the spring of 2019 and he made the practice squad earning a promotion to the active roster for the season finale against Baltimore.

Hassenauer got his first start against Baltimore in November 2020 at center and started two more games at center and one at guard due to injuries to Maurkice Pouency and Matt Feiler. J.C. Hassenauer started against the Chargers in 2021 when Kendrick Green was out, and started the final two games of the season plus the playoff loss to the Chiefs.

In 2022 Hassenauer only logged 46 snaps with the offense, but he did log 71 special teams snaps, a slight increase from two years before.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning J.C. Hassenauer

The Steelers know what they have in J.C. Hassenauer. He brings position flexibility to the interior of the offensive line.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning J.C. Hassenauer

J.C. Hassenauer isn’t going to keep any opposing defensive line coach up at night. Position flexibility is nice, but is it really worth $2.627 million? For a guy that in his third year play 46 snaps? You’re kidding right?

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and J.C. Hassenauer

At first glance the J.C. Hassenauer’s career arch of starting 7 games at two positions in 2020 and 2021 and then failing get on the field in year 3 seems pretty damning. But in reality, this reveals more about the sorry state of those Steelers offensive lines than it does about J.C. Hassenauer.

J.C. Hassenauer has some serviceable skills and an ability to step in and play or even start of a pinch at guard or center. Kind of a modern day Doug Legursky lite.

  • But even if that is true, is Hassenauer worth $2.627 million restricted free agent tender?

Probably not. Even without thinking about who the Steelers might draft, Kendrick Green brings the same position flexibility at a far lower salary cap hit. The Steelers should most certainly bring Hassenauer to St. Vincents, but they can do so for far less than 2.6 million.

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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Teacher’s Late! (Again): Pittsburgh Steelers 2022 Season Report Card

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who waited until the last day before summer to get his grades in, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 2022 season.

Cameron Heyward, Deshaun Watson

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

Quarterbacks
Kenny Pickett went 7-5 completed 63% of his passes 2404 yards for 7 touchdowns and 9 interceptions. Pickett progressed following the bye, getting stronger each week and leading 3 come from behind wins. Taken alone his work was “Good.” However, Mitch Trubisky performed poorly as a starter early in the season and, although he did well in relief against Tampa Bay and Carolina, his interceptions against Baltimore cost the Steelers both the game and the playoffs. This brings the grade down. Grade: B-Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
2022 marks a banner year for the Steelers rushing attack. Najee Harris worked through early injuries to earn 1054 yards. Jaylen Warren’s 379 yards might seem pedestrian, but his role as a third down and rotational back saved Harris 71 touches. Beyond the numbers, the duo ran both harder, smarter and with more authority as the year progressed, forcing piles forward. Derek Watt got into the act with 8 first down runs. Benny Snell and Anthony McFarland delivered when their number was called. Grade: A

Tight Ends
Pat Freiermuth continued to build on his role as a “go to” target in critical moments. Zach Gentry was steady as a number 2 tight end. Connor Heyward only had his number called a handful of times, but he answered each of them. Grade: B

Wide Receivers

Diontae Johnson lead the unit with 86 catches followed by rookie George Pickens by 52. After that there’s a steep drop to Chase Claypool who wasn’t even on the team for the last nine games. Steven Sims functioned as the 3rd wide receiver  Gunner Olszewski making cameo appearances. Much has been made of the lack of explosive plays and dearth of touchdowns from this group, but that’s largely not their fault. They executed well in the ball-control focused offense during the season’s 2nd half, and answered with clutch plays time-and-time again on game winning drives. Grade: B

George Pickens, Steelers vs Ravens

George Pickens makes a clutch catch. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Offensive Line
The offensive line turned a corner in 2022. By the end of 2019 it was a liability and it struggled for the next two seasons. It started slowly in 2022 but improved as the season progressed. Pass protection must continue to improve, but run blocking was an asset late in the year. Grade: B-

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward had another monster year and is the team’s undisputed leader on and off the field. Larry Ogunjobi’s stat sheet won’t make Fantasy Football owners salivate, but he was a tremendous asset in stopping the run. Montravius Adams was solid in the middle. Grade: A-

Linebackers
The evolution of Alex Highsmith has a pass-rushing, edge-setting outside linebacker was the biggest story of the year. Highsmith had 14.5 sacks and 12 tackles for losses. Myles Jack stabilized the center of the field leading the team in sacks. Devin Bush’s play was stable at the beginning of the year, but fell out of favor due to rookie Mark Robinson’s development. T.J. Watt missed half of the year and took time get back to full strength, but his return boosted the entire defense. Grade: B+

Minkah Fitzpatrick, Steelers vs Falcons

Minkah Fitzpatrick intercepts the final Falcons pass. Photo Credit: USA Today SteelersWire

Secondary
Ball Hawking. That was the Steelers secondary’s calling card in 2022. Minkah Fitzpatrick led the unit with 6 interceptions, followed by Levi Wallace’s 4, Cam Sutton’s 3, Damontae Kazee’s 2, while Ahkello Witherspoon, Arthur Maulet and James Pierre all had 1. Overall, the defense was 16th on third down efficiency and struggled when matched with high power passing offenses like the Bengals, Bills and Eagles. Grade: B+

Special Teams
Danny Smith’s special teams had an up and down year. Chris Boswell was solid, until suffering an injury and then had his difficulties. Matthew Wright was excellent in relief. Steven Simms added dynamism to the kick return game, but he did fumble three times. The Steelers coverage teams also began giving up long returns late in the year. Pressley Harvin was a bit erratic early in the year, but settled down as time wore on and did a good job of pinning teams down inside the 20. Grade: B-

Coaching
Have Steelers fans vilified any other offensive coordinator more than Matt Canada? Probably Joe Walton, if you control for the absence of social media. But at least Joe Walton deserved it. Matt Canada? Not so much.

The Steelers offense began 2022 worse than it was in 2021 thanks to the absence of a franchise quarterback and overall lack of experience. Execution errors rather than schemes or play calling strategies drove many, if not most, of the Steelers early offensive woes.

  • As the offense gained experience they eliminated the errors and victories followed.

Yes, the Steelers still need a more aggressive, effective downfield passing game – but that’s largely not a product of play calling. The Steelers certainly do need to execute better in the Red Zone. But as games against Carolina and Cleveland confirmed, Canada’s cocktail of long, ball-controlling drives that end with touchdowns is lethal.

Teryl Austin, with a strong assist from  the recently departed Brian Flores turned a Steelers defense around that was headed in the wrong direction. True, the defense was a different unit with T.J. Watt in the line up. But Dick LeBeau’s defenses were far superior when Troy Polamalu was playing. While the Steelers defense wasn’t tested against an elite passer following the bye week, they were stout against the run down the stretch.

  • That brings us to Mike Tomlin.

For the second time since his arrival in 2007, his team opened the season 2-6. And as he did in 2013, Mike Tomlin turned it around and had his team in the hunt for a playoff spot until the waning moments if their final game.

Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin, Steelers 2022 Draft Class, Kevin Colbert last draft

Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin at their final press conference. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

In terms of X’s and O’s Tomlin accomplished this by refusing to given into knee jerk reactions or drop into coaching by crisis mode. In terms of managing people, Tomlin convinced his locker room to believe in the Steelers Way and ultimately themselves. Grade: A

Front Office
In his final spring on the job Kevin Colbert enjoyed record amounts of salary cap space and succeeded in using it to bolster the Steelers offensive lines an interior defense. It is way, way too early to evaluate Kevin Colbert’s final NFL Draft class, but the early returns are extremely positive.

Omar Khan took over the helm in June and Kahn’s first act was to sign Larry Ogunjobi in response to Stephon Tuitt’s retirement. Kahn’s next moves were to ink extensions for Minkah Fitzpatrick, Chris Boswell and Diontae Johnson, moves he made early in the summer, eliminating potential distractions. And Khan moved Chase Claypool for a 2nd round pick, a move that looks like an absolute coup today. Grade: A-

Robert Spillane, Andy Dalton, Steelers vs Saints

Robert Spillane stops Andy Dalton cold on 4th down. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Unsung Hero Award
He started out 2019 as a Tennessee Titan cast off who’d bounce on and off the roster and practice squad multiple times. He began 2020 as the one player the Steelers could absolutely NOT afford to see play. Then injuries forced him in and although he delivered, during the summer of 2021 the Steelers still made a trade to shore up his position. So he began 2022 as a rotational starter, playing roughly 1/3 of the snaps.

That snap percentage jumped to 80% during the seven-game winning streak the Steelers authored to close the 2022 season and leapt to a perfect 100% in the final four games, which saw the Steelers get better week-by-week. Coincidence? I don’t think so either which is why Robert Spillane wins the Unsung Hero Award honors for  Steelers 2022 season.

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Persistence Pays Off: Steelers 20-10 Win over Saints Fueled by Dominating Defense, Patient Offense

Several terms describe the Pittsburgh Steelers 20-10 win over the New Orleans Saints at Acrisure Stadium Pittsburgh:

  • Ugly
  • A dominating defensive performance
  • A “team win”

Each of these is correct, but at the end of the day, Mike Tomlin’s first win over the Saints was a victory for persistence.

Jaylen Warren, Demario Davis, Steelers vs Saints

Jaylen Warren rips off 4th quarter run. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla

For Mike Tomlin Persistence Pays Off

For much of Steelers Nation, 2022 is a deep dive into uncharted territory. Think of it:

Most of Duquesne’s freshman class was born during the Steelers 2004 season, Ben Roethlisberger’s rookie year

  • These freshman have never suffered a Steelers a losing season.

Even teachers and staff who are Thirtysomething, likely have only distant memories of the 6-10 1999 season. And let’s be clear about one thing: The 2022 Steelers have been just as bad as that ’99 squad.

Losing has opened the Pandora’s box of calls for dramatic change in Pittsburgh. “FIRE MATT CANADA” is only one popular refrain. Fans react as if Najee Harris’ stellar rookie campaign had never happened and throw around the B word. Embarrassments at the hands of the Bills and Eagles have led commentators to mock the Steelers “expensive defense.”

Mike Tomlin has tuned it all out, rejected the idea of coaching by crisis and preaching the need to stay the course and act systematically.

Against the Saints, Mike Tomlin’s patience and perseverance delivered dividends on both sides of the ball.

Defense: Watt One Man Can Do? Not Quite

The Steelers defense delivered a dominating performance against the New Orleans Saints by any measure. They shut them out in the second half, and likely would have kept them out of the end zone in the first half had it not been for a questionable defensless receiver penalty.

  • It is easy to chalk it all up to the return of T.J. Watt.

That conclusion would be simultaneously correct and incomplete. It is true. T.J. Watt helped stone Alvin Kamara for little or no gain early and often. He also snuffed out an Andy Dalton scramble on third down, forcing a field goal.

  • And when Watt wasn’t making plays, he was enabling them.

 

T.J. Watt, Jordan Howard, Steelers vs Saints

T.J. Watt stuffs Jordan Howard. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review.

Alex Highsmith had two sacks, and if you look at the one where he showed off his really cool spin move, you’ll see that T.J. Watt is drawing a double team. So yes, having T.J. Watt back made a huge difference for the Steelers, even with Minkah Fitzpatrick out.

  • But the rest of Steelers defense played as a complete game as they have all season.

Taysom Hill is the NFL’s most unorthodox, most dynamic offensive weapon since Kordell Stewart unleashed Slash during the ’95 Steelers season. Hill had one yard the entire game. Alvin Karma isn’t a great running back, but he’s had two 100 yard games (well, almost) and Najee Harris would love to have his rushing average.

  • The Steelers held him to 26 yards. The rest of the Saints only added 3 more.

How quickly we forget – only one year ago, the Steelers run defense was so bad one had to wonder why opposing offensive coordinators even bothered to pass.

Bottling up the run forced the Saints to pass, and the Steelers secondary was a primary reason for the unit’s dominant performance. One game after the Steelers starting corners secured position but failed to make plays down field, Arthur Maulet hung with Chris Olave down field, timed his jump perfectly, and delivered a pass breakup that would have made Troy Polamalu proud.

Levi Wallace and Damontae Kazee, fresh off of injured reserve, both showed incredible focus on 4th quarter interceptions. Kazee’s pick set up the Steelers final touchdown while Wallace’s allowed the Steelers to kill the clock.

Offense Takes Baby Steps Towards Half Full Status

Is the Steelers offense a glass that’s filling up to the half way mark or is it one that’s still mired in the mediocrity of half emptiness? It all depends on your perspective.

  • Yes, the Steelers continue to sputter in the Red Zone.
  • Yes, as they did against Philadelphia they needed to fall back on trick plays for their two touchdowns.
  • Yes, the offense’s longest touchdown is only 8 yards.
  • Yes, Kenny Pickett still isn’t seeing open receivers and tucking and running too quickly.
  • Yes, the offensive line pass protection left a lot to be desired with 6 sacks.

All of those are negatives. None of them bode well for Joe Burrow and the Bengals impending visit to Pittsburgh next week.

But the Steelers offense had a good day against the Saints. Najee Harris, Jaylen Warren, George Pickens and Diontae Johnson posted runs or catches of 36, 23, 21, 22, 36 and 26 yards. That’s not “Greatest Show on Turf” like production, but for an offense in need of chuck plays, it’s a step in the right direction.

Jaylen Warren, Derek Watt, Tyrann Mathieu, Steelers vs Saints

Derek Watt blocks for Jaylen Warren. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

But even more important than the chunk runs was the ability to grind it out, set up manageable third downs and convert them in route to a 38:56 to 21:04 time of possession.

  • Levi Wallace made his second interception at the 4:30 mark.

After that the Steelers offense ran 9 straight plays, all of them runs, splitting carries between Harris, Warren, Derek Watt and Steven Sims converting 3 third downs along the way.

The New Orleans Saints do not field an elite defense, nor did the Pittsburgh’s offensive line do any “Road Grading” and it would be a stretch to say that the Steelers “Imposed their will.”

But for the first time, in a very, very long time, the Steelers salted away a game by running the ball. It was a sight for sore eyes. And I’d say a sight that reveals a glass half full.

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The Case for the 2022 Pittsburgh Steelers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Steelers Strong @ Skill Positions

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

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

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

Pat Freiermuth, Najee Harris, Steelers vs Bears

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which brings us to the Offensive Line….

A Lot Is Riding on the Offensive Line

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

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

This is bad.

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

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

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

Difference on the Defensive Front 7? Known Unknowns

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

  • Why did that happen?

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

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

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

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

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

Secondary = Primary Intrigue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Special Teams to Be Special?

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

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

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

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

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

Tomlin Adds Experienced Coaches to the Mix

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

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

  • What to make of all this?

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

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

Steelers fans in northern Virginia.

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

Will Underdog Status Once Again Suit the Steelers?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pat Freiermuth, Steelers Lions 2022 Preseason

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

1. The Offensive Line Has Potential to be Truly Offensive

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

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

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

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

2. This Defense Has “It”

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

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

3. Freiermuth is for Real

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

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

4. Pickett Looks Good, But Mortal

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

5. Snell Sells It

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

More importantly, his hustle was apparent.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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