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Updates from Week 4
Mitch Trubisky started Sunday’s game, which was confirmed by Mike Tomlin Friday. Pittsburgh treated the week leading up to the game as a mock “game rehearsal” week. They studied film from last week’s game on Monday; they practiced Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday; and they installed game plans specific to Detroit. Because of that, Trubisky was treated as the starter all week. But the door isn’t closed on who will start Week 1. When asked about the situation, Trubisky only said, “we’ll see.” Both quarterbacks played solid but unspectacular football in Sunday’s game. NFL.com’s Ian Rapoport thinks Trubisky will be the Week 1 starter. And that should be the case after a hyper-efficient first-half performance Sunday that saw Trubisky go 15-of-19 for 160 yards, 1 touchdown, no interceptions, and a rating of 119.3. Certain oddsmakers seem to think Pickett will play sooner rather than later, listing Pickett and a fellow rookie teammate among the betting favorites for Offensive Rookie of the Year. Mason Rudolph is a clear third in this battle despite a solid preseason for his standards. There are talks that he could be traded, but he’s not likely to generate a ton of interest.
Najee Harris played in Sunday’s game and looked fresh after missing four weeks of camp practices. On August 2, Tomlin said that Harris’ foot was stepped on in practice. However, Harris divulged more following Sunday’s game, saying the injury was a Lisfranc sprain. Behind Harris, a combination of Benny Snell and Jaylen Warren handled the rushing duties. Anthony McFarland Jr sprinkled in, but he’s still primarily cast as a player the team wants to see in space rather than an early-down back.
Diontae Johnson made an excellent catch for 38 yards on Sunday but was injured on the play. Tomlin told CBS’ sideline reporter that there is “no long-term concern,” but stay tuned. Tomlin said of Johnson’s injury (and of T.J. Watt’s) that they would have likely returned if this had been a regular season game. Hopefully, Tomlin is being more forthcoming about that than he was about Harris’ injury. Chase Claypool missed the game with a shoulder injury of his own, though it’s also not expected to be serious. George Pickens continued his tremendous preseason with another solid performance. His 22-yard catch during Pittsburgh’s two-minute drill to end the first half led to a touchdown. Pittsburgh will utilize three receivers as much as anyone in the NFL, which means all three of these players will be on the field plenty.
Pat Freiermuth remains a safe presence in the middle. A 32-yard reception highlighted his game Sunday. "Pat's just a guy you trust," said Trubisky after the game. That’s solid praise and chemistry with a quarterback who’s new to the team and is the favorite to be the Week 1 starter. Rookie Connor Heyward, a converted collegiate fullback, appears to be second in line at tight end. But he’s still learning the position – one where NFL rookies of all pedigrees tend to struggle. Freiermuth should be on the field a ton this season.
The defense had been using formations with three safeties (Minkah Fitzpatrick, Terrell Edmunds, and Damontae Kazee). It’s a formation that allowed them the flexibility to defend the pass and the run. But Kazee was injured in Sunday’s game, and he’ll be placed on Injured Reserve due to the need for surgery. Kazee wasn’t the highest-profile injury for Pittsburgh Sunday, but the team hopes he’s the most long-term one. All-Pro T.J. Watt left with a knee injury after being blocked low. His exit from the game was likely precautionary (and arguably too late, given that he was playing past the middle of the second quarter). But he returned to the sideline without a brace, boot, or ice, suggesting he’ll be fine to play in Week 1. Watt’s compliment at edge rusher, Alex Highsmith, has been dealing with injured ribs, but he’s close to returning. The defense needs him because outside linebacker is “painfully thin” behind the starters, per Bob Labriola of steelers.com. On Sunday, Cameron Heyward looked excellent up front, and Fitzpatrick had a great game in the back. Cornerback Cameron Sutton had an interception and a big return. The defense allowed zero points. Sure, it came against backup quarterbacks, but the unit should feel confident after performing in a game environment.
The Steelers signed former All-Pro return specialist Gunner Olszewski from the Patriots to handle their special teams responsibilities in 2022.
Updates from Week 3
Mitch Trubisky continues to be the team’s starter at quarterback, but last week signaled a shift behind him. Kenny Pickett was the second quarterback in practice all week. And on Thursday, Mike Tomlin announced that Pickett would enter Saturday’s game ahead of Mason Rudolph. Pickett worked with the first team on two-minute drills in practice later in the week – not because he passed Trubisky but because he’d be in the game at the end of the first half (after Trubisky and before Rudolph). In Saturday’s game, Pickett outplayed Trubisky. Both played in the first half and with Pittsburgh’s starters. At this point, Pickett is closer to being the starter than the third-stringer. Stay tuned.
Najee Harris returned to practice in full pads Monday, August 15. And he’s making up for lost time by working extra after practice. Harris is the unquestioned workhorse in this backfield and is taking more of a leadership role on the team this year. Behind Harris, undrafted rookie Jaylen Warren is making a splash. And that’s not surprising considering that Benny Snell and Anthony McFarland Jr have proven to be pedestrian talents so far in their careers. Warren got first-team practice reps this week and scored in goal-line drills. He also did well pass blocking in those same drills. Warren was the only back working with the second-string in Thursday’s practice (the last practice before Saturday’s game). It was clear in Thursday’s “game-planning” practice that Warren was the RB2. Warren is also working on special teams, which has him as a near-lock to make the team. The backs rotated in Saturday’s game. Snell started and played on all three downs on the first series, though he looked pedestrian until his touchdown catch. He lacks explosiveness. Warren entered the game before McFarland and looked like the team’s best back on the night (Harris didn’t play). Warren caught passes, ran well in space after the catch, and played on all three downs. It’s also worth noting that McFarland was not the starting kick returner. Gunner Olszewski had that role Saturday.
Diontae Johnson returned to practice. He’s not generating as much buzz as the others at his position, but a player whose role is cemented can go overlooked in camp reports. Johnson is the team’s most talented and proven wide receiver. Behind him, George Pickens has received as much camp buzz as anyone in the NFL and continues to own camp. Pickens is a threat to Chase Claypool’s playing time and presumed place in the pecking order. Claypool was benched at times last season due to behavior that Tomlin felt was immature. As for this year, Claypool has missed time with two separate minor injuries in camp. But he returned to a full-pads practice Monday, August 15. Also returning to practice this week was Calvin Austin III. He had been in a walking boot and returned to limited work Tuesday. Austin and Anthony Miller were battling in the pecking order, though both had been injured. Austin returned, but Miller went the other way. He’s out for the year with a shoulder injury. Many thought that when Gunner Olszewski was added, he would be the team’s return specialist after excelling in the same role with New England. But Olszewski has been excellent as a receiver in practices so far, getting open each day and building rapport with the quarterbacks, especially Pickett. The starting offense Saturday was Johnson and Pickens wide and Claypool in the slot. Claypool made an excellent play on a slot fade. The receiver rotation was interesting, with Johnson (the presumed WR1) playing later than the others. Perhaps that was an effort to get Johnson more chemistry with Pickett, who hasn’t seen many QB1 reps in practices. Johnson caught a touchdown that was negated by offsetting penalties. Jacksonville’s defensive end was offsides, and Pittsburgh’s left tackle had to hold him to prevent him from getting to Pickett.
Pat Freiermuth had an excellent rookie season, and he’s looking to build on that this year. In a low-volume passing offense, targets could be a concern. However, Monday’s two-minute drill gave Freiermuth fans something to celebrate. He was targeted three times in the same two-minute drill on Monday. All of those targets came from Trubisky, who also hit Freiermuth for back-to-back touchdowns in the team’s goal line drills Tuesday. Between Pickens and Freiermuth, Claypool has some catching up in terms of rapport with the quarterbacks. In Saturday’s game, Freiermuth showed his pass-catching chops with his highlight play coming on a floated pass up the seam from Pickett. It was excellent touch by Pickett and a show of speed from Freiermuth to run under it. Connor Heyward is the best pass-catcher behind Freiermuth, but he won’t see the field consistently. The team will run mostly three-receiver sets.
The biggest battle of camp has been at inside linebacker. Myles Jack is a presumed starter at one spot in the 3-4, which leaves Devin Bush and Robert Spillane battling for the other. Reports from Wednesday’s practice said that Spillane had an interception, and Bush got beat by Freiermuth in coverage. Bush’s supposed advantage over Spillane was pass coverage, with Spillane being a better run-stopper. That sequence highlights why some beat writers think that neither is the answer and that the team should get creative with other personnel packages instead. Another option is to use a hybrid nickel with three cornerbacks and three safeties, which Pittsburgh has done in the past. Bush started Saturday’s game alongside Jack. Bush and Spillane also played together after Jack was pulled for rest purposes. Jack is clearly a starter, with Bush slightly ahead of Spillane in the battle for the other spot. The good news for the defense is the defense line is looking good, especially new team member Larry Ogunjobi.
The team added veterans Mason Cole (Arizona) and James Daniels (Chicago) to shore up the center and guard spots. There might be another lineup change brewing as left guard Kevin Dotson fights an ankle injury and life in the coaches' doghouse. Kendrick Green is battling hard for the spot, and even though Dotson is the favorite, Green could be sneakily working his way into the starting lineup again. The tackles of Dan Moore and Chukwuma Okorafor are young players with upside, but the interior holds down this group's grade.
Updates from Week 2
All signs are pointing to Mitch Trubisky being the Week 1 starter. He has practiced with the ones throughout camp and started the game Saturday night. He played two drives and led the team to a touchdown on his first. He did so without the benefit of his best skill players. At one point, Trubisky showed what this offense can look like without Ben Roethlisberger when he avoided a sack and scrambled for a moderate gain. His legs made for a 14-yard difference on a play that should have been a big loss. Mason Rudolph entered the game second and looked like the same Rudolph we’ve always seen. The story behind Trubisky is when – not if – Kenny Pickett passes Rudolph (and perhaps eventually Trubisky). Pickett had a better week of practice and led the team to a touchdown on his first drive. He threw zero incompletions on the drive, though it was full of low-aDOT, risk-averse passes.
Najee Harris had his foot stepped on last week and is still working his way back. The injury is minor and shouldn’t threaten his availability for Week 1 and beyond. If anything, it could be a blessing in disguise to minimize wear and tear for a player who should once again contend for most snaps played and touches logged among NFL running backs this year. Harris showed up to camp in great shape, which is another good sign for his outlook. Behind Harris, Anthony McFarland Jr may have taken the lead over Benny Snell for RB2 duties. McFarland has been good in camp and was excellent as the starting back in the game Saturday. He has much more speed than Snell, a sub-4.0 yards per carry plodder. Snell could easily fall behind rookie Jaylen Warren. He’s been surprising in camp, and he took advantage of plenty of reps and touches in Saturday’s game. Master Teague also had nice showings in camp and in the game. He and Warren averaged over five yards per carry Saturday on six carries each, and McFarland was over seven yards per attempt on his seven carries.
Diontae Johnson signed a contract extension last week, eliminating a slight distraction and hold in. He’s the team’s unquestioned number one. Behind him, George Pickens continues to make highlight-reel plays and impress in practices. He brought that skill to the game as well, with a toe-tap touchdown that made him look like an NFL veteran rather than a rookie. If Chase Claypool repeats the immaturity that landed him in Mike Tomlin’s doghouse last year, he could easily fall down the depth chart below Pickens. As it stands now, all three of Johnson, Claypool, and Pickens will be on the field regularly. Pittsburgh utilized three-receiver sets as frequently as any team in the NFL last year, and the same offensive staff is in place. Gunner Olszewski started the game opposite Pickens and impressed with the starters. He scored a touchdown from Trubisky on a blown coverage. Seattle had two defenders follow Pickens on a crosser, and Olszewski leaked out on a corner route with no defensive attention whatsoever. In the regular season, Johnson and Claypool will absorb those first-team snaps, which will relegate Olszewski to special teams duties. He’s a former All-Pro return man. After those four, a battle is brewing between Calvin Austin III, Anthony Miller, and Miles Boykin. Neither Austin nor Miller played in Saturday’s game due to minor injuries, which gave Boykin more opportunities. Boykin impressed on special teams as well. Former Washington receiver Steven Sims Jr. also left his mark on Saturday’s game. He had a 38-yard punt return and a 38-yard run on a jet sweep. Pittsburgh is very deep at this position, which makes the roster decisions impactful.
Pat Freiermuth has the top job locked up. Like the other established starters, he didn’t play in Saturday’s game. Behind him, Zach Gentry and Connor Heyward offer different skill sets. Despite being a college fullback, Heyward has been an impressive receiver in camp. He was targeted four times in the game Saturday. Gentry is more of a blocker who will play sparingly in certain packages.
Tomlin said recently of his defense, "we have the men, not only in personnel but in schematics and coaching. I expect them to be dominant.” One key to that lofty status is Minkah Fitzpatrick, who returned to practice this week following some missed time due to a minor injury. He was explosive in drills and looks like the same player who led the team in tackles last year. T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith make for a great duo on the edge, but the depth behind them is a concern should one get injured or need a rest during games. Inside, Robert Spillane is pushing Devin Bush and Myles Jack into a three-man battle. Spillane’s perceived weakness is pass coverage, but he had a nice week covering tight ends in passing drills. Pittsburgh had three defensive backs get injured in Saturday’s game, but two are reserves. The injuries aren’t considered to be serious. What is serious, however, is Pittsburgh’s performance against the run. After finishing dead last in 2021, it’s a focus this preseason. But the team allowed 6.1 yards per carry on 26 Seattle rushes. This team can get after the quarterback better than any in the league, but they won’t get the chance to pin their ears back if they can’t stop the run.
The Steelers lost their long-time return specialist Ray-Ray McCloud III in free agency but responded by quickly signing Gunnar Olszewski away from the Patriots. Olszewski was named the First-Team All-Pro returner in 2020 by the Associated Press and should serve as an upgrade for Pittsburgh.
Updates from Week 1
Life without Ben Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh is here, and Mitchell Trubisky is leading the first-team offense early in camp. Peter King says it’s Trubisky’s job to lose. Pittsburgh was the only team in the league to draft a quarterback in the first round this year when they selected Kenny Pickett. But Pickett is listed third on the team’s initial depth chart. That listing could be more procedural than what the coaching staff thinks. Mike Tomlin releases an early-August depth chart only because the NFL requires it. The backups are typically ranked by years of service and then by draft position. Pickett struggled in the first week of camp but showed progress this past week. Mason Rudolph is still in Pittsburgh and listed second on the depth chart. Despite reports that he had a positive first week in camp, it’s more likely he’s the third-string quarterback in Week 1 than the starting quarterback.
Pittsburgh featured Najee Harris last season. He was one of only two backs in the league to receive over 300 carries (Jonathan Taylor was the other). Harris is expected to retain the workhorse role this season as well. He was injured on August 1 when a teammate stepped on him. Afterward, Tomlin said it "shouldn't be a major deal." He missed practice for the remainder of the week. It would be ideal for Harris’ longevity if he weren’t used as much as last year, but the players behind him make that difficult. Benny Snell is a grinder with a career 3.5 yards per carry and only 15 receptions in his three seasons. Anthony McFarland Jr has speed but doesn’t profile as a between-the-tackles player. McFarland progressed this offseason, and Snell sees himself behind McFarland by projecting himself as mostly a special teamer. The team seems unsettled with its depth behind Harris. They brought in Jalen Richard and Wayne Gallman for workouts early in camp.
Diontae Johnson was the team’s WR1 for the past two seasons, and he will likely lead them in most categories this season as well. He began camp as a hold-in (he was present but not practicing) due to wanting a contract extension. He signed that extension on August 4, signaling his return to practice. Chase Claypool is the next proven player on the depth chart. Claypool is moving around the offense so far in practice, playing outside and in the slot. He suffered a minor injury and missed the team’s final practice of the week. As of August 6, Tomlin said that Claypool was close to returning. The departure of JuJu Smith-Schuster leaves little experience behind the top two, but two rookies are stepping up early in camp and looking like contributors. The team spent a second-round pick on George Pickens, implying that he’ll be part of their plans right away, and he’s been a highlight machine so far in camp. They also invested a fourth in Calvin Austin III, who is already showing rapport with Trubisky. The two connected for a 75-yard touchdown that was mostly run-after-catch by Austin. Both rookies have impressed and are feeding off each other in the first week. Due to Johnson missing the first week and a half of practice, both received valuable first-team reps and are leading the team in several statistical camp categories.
Pat Freiermuth is the unquestioned starter in 2022. He missed a few practices with a hamstring injury but is described as “day-to-day.” The team’s tight ends coach is looking to expand Freiermuth’s role this season. Zach Gentry is behind Freiermuth, but he doesn’t bring the same athleticism. The team’s selection of Freiermuth last season after Gentry had only played two years signaled that they didn’t think Gentry was the best fit. Behind Gentry is an exciting rookie in Connor Heyward. He played fullback at Michigan State but was converted to tight end. Heyward projects as an h-back type of player with his versatility. He is already showing that he can be more than just a blocking specialist.
The Steelers signed Chris Boswell to a four-year, $20 million extension. He is tied with Justin Tucker as the highest-paid kicker in the league. With subpar quarterback play and a strong defense, the Steelers will have to rely on Boswell more than most teams rely on their kicker.
A couple of new starters will help to keep Pittsburgh’s defense strong in 2022. Larry Ogunjobi was signed in free agency and will likely start at defensive end opposite Cameron Heyward in Pittsburgh’s signature 3-4 defense. At linebacker, Myles Jack will be plugged in as a Week 1 starter in the middle. Devin Bush and Robert Spillane were listed as co-starters in the official depth chart at the other middle spot. As an undersized linebacker, Bush struggled against the run last season but excelled in coverage. Spillane was the opposite, performing better as a straight-ahead run stopper. Pittsburgh led the NFL in sacks for five straight seasons. If they want to make it six, T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith will be the main contributors. Behind those players, though, the team lacks edge rusher depth. A camp story last week was Cameron Sutton’s injury in the secondary. He suffered a lower-body injury but returned the following day.