Pittsburgh Steelers 2022 Draft Grades

Pittsburgh Steelers 2022 NFL Draft
Photo Credit: David Becker/Getty Images

The Pittsburgh Steelers begin a new chapter in 2022. Not only are they moving on from franchise quarterback and future Hall of Famer Ben Roethlisberger, but the 2022 NFL Draft was also the final one for general manager Kevin Colbert. As one of the best general managers in the NFL for the last two decades, it seems only fitting that Colbert received the honor of shepherding Pittsburgh into a new era. Therefore, let’s dive into the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 2022 draft grades.

Round 1, #20: Kenny Pickett, QB, Pittsburgh

Many expected the Pittsburgh Steelers to use their first selection on a quarterback. The question was which ones would be available at #20 overall. However, an unpredicted situation occurred when the Steelers came on the clock. No quarterbacks had been taken, and Pittsburgh could take whichever one they pleased. Keeping with the theme of surprises, they selected Kenny Pickett. 

At face value, Pickett seems like a natural fit for the Steelers. He is obviously very familiar with the city and the team. Many regarded Pickett as one of the more pro-ready quarterbacks in this year’s draft class. However, his biggest drawback was his perceived lack of upside. In an ideal world, Pickett ends up somewhere in the Kirk Cousins/Ryan Tannehill range.

This begs the following question: is that player worth a first-round pick? Furthermore, when the next quarterback was not selected for more than 50 picks, could the Steelers have gotten their quarterback, or a quarterback, in the second or third rounds?

Nevertheless, I will be rooting for Pickett. Regardless of what you think of the value of the pick or his standing in the quarterback class, it is exceptionally cool that Pickett will be staying in Pittsburgh. As Mike Tomlin said, the Steelers scoured the country looking at quarterback prospects; but at the end of the day, they went with the guy from next door. They made significant efforts to surround him with an improved offensive line and a diverse arsenal of weapons.

If Pickett beats out Mitch Trubisky for the starting gig, he should be able to pilot this offense more effectively than the reanimated corpse of Ben Roethlisberger that was under center the last two years. 

Grade: B

Round 2, #52: George Pickens, WR, Georgia

From an on-field talent and team fit perspective, this might be the best pick in the entire 2022 NFL Draft. George Pickens was on a trajectory toward being an early first-round pick after a stellar true freshman season in 2019. But injuries and poor quarterback play robbed him of his 2020 and 2021 seasons.

When he was healthy and on the field for the Dawgs, Pickens was an absolute monster. His best ability was getting vertical and making spectacular catches downfield and in the air. He only had two drops on 139 career targets and improved as a contested-catch receiver. 

The Steelers have spent multiple second-round picks on wide receivers they wanted to use as vertical threats. But James Washington struggled to develop chemistry with Ben Roethlisberger and find a role in the offense. Chase Claypool started off hot but cooled off significantly in 2021; the offense sputtered around him, but Claypool also struggled to win in contested-catch situations. Pittsburgh has not had a true vertical receiving threat since Martavis Bryant, someone who Pickens compares relatively favorably to in terms of skill set and play style. 

Obviously, the Steelers are famous for their ability to identify talented wide receivers on the second and third days of the NFL Draft. Claypool, Washington, and Bryant are among their more recent finds. But Diontae Johnson, Juju Smith-Schuster, Sammie Coates, and Markus Wheaton are also among their more recent finds.

While not all of these players became superstars — some of them even failing to complete their second contracts — they were at least competent NFL receivers, something the Steelers desperately needed. Furthermore, a receiver that makes contested catches outside his frame is something that can help a young quarterback who lacks great arm strength. 

Grade: A+

Round 3, #84: DeMarvin Leal, DE, Texas A&M

When healthy, the Steelers have one of the best defensive lines in the NFL. Of course, the issue during the 2021 season was staying healthy. Stephon Tuitt missed the entire season after rehabbing his knee injury was delayed by his brother’s untimely demise. Tyson Alualu missed almost the entire season with a broken ankle. This forced the Steelers to turn to free agents off the street and practice squad players on the defensive line.

Even with Alualu and Tuitt returning to the lineup this season, some predicted that the Steelers would use an early pick on a new nose tackle. Therefore, selecting a hybrid defensive end / outside linebacker in the third round came as a surprise. 

DeMarvin Leal came into the 2021 season with a massive amount of hype, considered a first-round lock, and arguably the best interior defensive lineman in the class. But his play took a significant drop relative to his 2020 performance. He struggled to consistently defend the run and couldn’t settle into a positional role. Leal also tested quite poorly at Texas A&M’s pro day, although so did every other player at the pro day, so there may have been a confounding factor at play. 

Nevertheless, getting Leal in the mid-late third round is excellent value. Leal still needs to develop as a player and round out his skill set. On the Steelers’ defensive line, he can be brought along slowly as an apprentice to Cam Heyward.

If everyone on the roster is healthy and available, Leal would be the fourth or fifth option, which indicates excellent depth. He can be used as a dynamic matchup nightmare in specific situations. By the end of his rookie deal, Leal should be able to receive the torch from Cam Heyward as a leader along the defensive line. 

Grade: A

READ MORE: 2022 NFL Draft Live Tracker, Analysis, Grades
Round 4, #138: Calvin Austin III, WR, Memphis

Typically, the Steelers like to double-dip at one position in any given draft. Last year, they selected offensive linemen in consecutive rounds. In 2019, they picked an inside linebacker in the first and sixth rounds.

Going into the 2022 draft, many expected the Steelers to take a wide receiver, but not many predicted they would double-dip at the position. But the board fell tremendously for the Steelers at their compensatory selection in the fourth round, landing them Memphis wide receiver and return specialist, Calvin Austin III. 

Calvin Austin III exploded onto the scene with his performance at the Senior Bowl, consistently getting open during practices and making spectacular catches downfield. He then followed it up with an outstanding Scouting Combine performance, with elite testing numbers across the board.

But Austin is more than just a practice phenom or workout warrior. He put up over 1000 receiving yards each of the last two seasons for Memphis, helping him finish in the top-five across most career receiving categories for the Tigers. 

Furthermore, the stories emerging post-draft concerning Austin have validated the Steelers’ selection. Firstly, according to Peter King, Pittsburgh stole Austin from their division rival, the Baltimore Ravens, who would have taken Austin had the Steelers not. Secondly, the fourth overall pick in the 2022 NFL Draft, Sauce Gardner, name-dropped Austin as one of his most difficult match-ups in an interview with Chris Simms of Pro Football Talk.

These two stories indicate how valuable this selection was. While Austin will most likely not be an immediate starter, he can make an immediate impact on special teams and carve out a niche role on offense. 

Grade: A+

Round 6, #208: Connor Heyward, FB/TE, Michigan State

This pick was more of a meme than anything. I’m sure thousands of Steelers fans thought they were geniuses for mocking Connor Heyward to the team with one of these final three picks. Call Kevin Colbert Dom Toretto because for the Steelers, family is everything.

This gives Pittsburgh four sets of brothers on their roster. Interestingly, only one of those pairs are on the same side of the ball (Carlos and Khalil Davis are both defensive tackles). Connor Heyward is a fun pick, as he a former running back that switched to fullback and eventually tight end. He was also an All-Big Ten kick returner earlier in his career before bulking up. 

Even though most picks after 200 don’t matter very much, I don’t love this selection. Even though Heyward will be listed as a tight end, at 5’11” and 233 pounds, he is essentially a fullback. The Steelers already have a fullback who is the brother of a star defensive player in Derek Watt. Watt is entering a contract year and will turn 30 by next season. But I have to imagine the Steelers will be one of the few, if not the only, teams to keep two fullbacks on the active roster.

Even though Heyward is very versatile, I just don’t see the point of drafting and rostering a second fullback. I’m sure he will make the team and will have some fun plays; I just don’t love the process behind it. 

Grade: C

Round 7, #225: Mark Robinson, ILB, Mississippi

The Pittsburgh Steelers love drafting linebackers. They have drafted at least one linebacker every year since 2009. Granted, this covers off-ball linebackers and edge defenders, but they still value spending draft capital on inside linebackers.

Mark Robinson was a late visit for Pittsburgh, and these kinds of visits should set off alarm bells for fans. Robinson is essentially Vince Williams’ brain/spirit in Devin Bush’s body. He’s a converted running back who walked on at Ole Miss and earned a starting role quickly, despite switching positions. 

With all that being said, this pick comes off as redundant and unnecessary. The Steelers currently have seven inside linebackers on their roster, several of whom have very similar skill-sets to Johnson. At least three of those players are already significant contributors on special teams, along with safety-linebacker hybrid Miles Killebrew.

It seems unlikely that Robinson will even make the roster, leading to the question: why use a draft pick on a practice squad player? They could have used more depth at cornerback, running back, tight end, or outside linebacker. Again, seventh-round picks are almost equivalent to throwaways, so it’s not an awful pick, but it could have been better. 

Grade: C

Round 7, #241: Chris Oladokun, QB, South Dakota State

Like Robinson, Chris Oladokun visited the Steelers in the pre-draft process and stuck out like a relatively sore thumb. As with most of their late-round picks, Pittsburgh reached on a guy they had a personal connection with. This was also telegraphed by Kevin Colbert’s and Mike Tomlin’s comments in the pre-draft process, indicating that they carry four quarterbacks into training camp.

As for the player, Chris Oladokun is a productive, yet undersized, FCS quarterback with a strong arm and good athleticism. He will be their practice squad or scout team version of divisional rivals Lamar Jackson and Deshaun Watson. 

Regardless, I can’t look positively on this pick because it wastes scarce resources. Granted, seventh-round picks, especially late ones, generally do not matter. But using one on a fourth quarterback whose entire role will be a scout team replica on a practice squad is ridiculous in my opinion.

This is only made worse by the fact that the quarterback finished his career at his second FCS school and third overall. There were still plenty of valuable players on the board who would be able to help this team in a much more meaningful way than a fourth quarterback who will only get a helmet on game day if two of the other quarterbacks are injured.

Even if the Steelers felt that Oladokun would not be available or acquirable as an undrafted free agent, his skill set is not special enough to warrant using a draft pick on him, no matter how late. 

Grade: D

Pittsburgh Steelers 2022 Draft Grades: Overall

The Pittsburgh Steelers entered the 2022 NFL Draft seeking a franchise quarterback, offensive weapons to surround him with, and depth pieces on defense. From a bird’s eye view, they accomplished these goals. They added two dynamic receivers to the offense, found some developmental players on defense, and added a quarterback with their first-round pick.

However, they left a significant amount of value on the board. One could write an entirely separate article on whether Kenny Pickett was the right quarterback to take in the first round; another perhaps on whether they should have taken one in the first round at all. Finally, they squandered their late-round picks on redundant or unnecessary positions.

However, at the end of the day, they solved their primary needs. Even though Pickett may be relatively uninspiring, he has a high floor and should make the offense competent. Furthermore, the picks where they reached were not especially valuable. Therefore, Kevin Colbert’s final draft grades out as good, but not great.

Overall Grade: B

Steelers Raiders Recap: Back to the Drawing Board

The Pittsburgh Steelers fell to the Las Vegas Raiders 26-17 this Sunday. After a remarkable performance from their defense, the Steelers upset the Buffalo Bills last week; the Raiders also won their opener in dramatic fashion against Pittsburgh’s rival, the Baltimore Ravens. Even though the Steelers’ offense played very inconsistently in Week 1, most seemed to expect them to beat Last Vegas, given that they had to travel across the country on a short week after a very emotional win. However, the Raiders got the best of the Steelers on Sunday for a number of reasons. We’ll begin our recap of the Steelers and Raiders matchup discussing injuries.

Injuries Abound

One element of this loss was the mounting injuries for the Steelers. Now obviously, every team deals with injuries; the Raiders lost both their starting guards at the beginning of the week, along with their starting running back. But the Steelers’ injury problems began late in the week. On Friday, cornerback Joe Haden and linebacker Devin Bush appeared on the injury report with “questionable” designations. On Sunday, both were declared inactive. 

To make matters worse, two more starters suffered injuries that knocked them out of the game on Sunday. Tyson Alualu fractured his ankle and could be lost for the season. But the worst loss came when TJ Watt pulled up in the first quarter. He went to the sideline and discarded his helmet and gloves. When he came out for the second half, he was in street clothes. Watt indicated that he suffered a groin injury, like Haden and Bush, but should be ready to go for this week’s game. 

Again, injuries are a part of the NFL. But losing four starters late in the week, including two during the game, prevents the coaches from being able to gameplan around these absences and get the backups reps with the starters. There’s also the fact that losing a consistent DPOY candidate and arguably the best edge defender in the NFL makes a significant negative impact on the defense. At the end of the day, it’s hard to expect a defense to be their best when they’re missing four starters with no practice to prep for it. But let’s dive into the actual game. 

Steelers Raiders Recap: Defense

Against the Bills, the Steelers did an excellent job at preventing explosive plays. They also prevented Stefon Diggs from destroying them like in their 2020 matchup. Part of this success is attributable to the Steelers’ willingness to sell out to stop the pass and play different types of coverages. Obviously, Pittsburgh’s pass rush helped as well, as they kept Josh Allen from being comfortable in the pocket. Mike Tomlin and the coaching staff took elements from their game plan against Buffalo and applied them to their matchup with Las Vegas. This strategy worked for a time.

The Steelers took extreme measures to eliminate tight end Darren Waller from the Raiders’ game plan. Waller earned double coverage, typically with an underneath defender and a safety over the top. Essentially, Pittsburgh wanted Derek Carr to beat them with his other, not-as-elite weapons. For most of the game, the Steelers’ defense shut down Waller and forced the Raiders to kick field goals. 

However, in the second half, the defense began to crack and erode. Darren Waller started getting involved; more importantly, the Raiders took advantage of the Steelers’ focus on Waller. Carr comfortably targeted his other weapons, distributing the ball to whoever was open. Players like Wille Snead, Derek Carrier, and Foster Moreau made clutch catches, with the latter scoring the Raiders’ first touchdown. 

The Slow Knife

The backbreaker, of course, came on a beautiful deep shot to Henry Ruggs III. The color commentator, Charles Davis, noted this on the broadcast: the Steelers’ focus on Darren Waller gave just enough room to get Ruggs open on that play. On that play, Minkah Fitzpatrick played as the single-high safety but kept his eyes on Waller. Carr made sure Fitzpatrick held his place, as Carr kept his eyes on Waller as well; Carr even added a very subtle pump fake to get Fitzpatrick to cheat towards Waller. Minkah got back but was just an inch/second too late and in a flash, Ruggs was in the end zone. 

There’s a lot of blame to be distributed for this play. One could obviously blame Minkah for not keeping proper depth. Against a guy like Ruggs, you have to make sure you keep the lid on the pot, so to speak. But I’m sure the coaches instructed Minkah to keep his eyes on Waller and make sure he doesn’t beat you deep. Furthermore, on 3rd and 9, you have to expect Carr is looking at Waller to convert. Give Carr tons of credit here; he took advantage of that assumption, and he threw a perfect ball to Ruggs. 

You could also assign some blame to Ahkello Witherspoon. Obviously, your job as a corner is to prevent a receiver from getting behind you; against a speed demon like Ruggs, that should be your only concern. But give credit to Ruggs here; if you look at the play above, he adds a little hesi-move to his route, causing Witherspoon to freeze and allowing Ruggs to get open.

One might bring up the fact that Witherspoon was playing where Joe Haden would usually line up. Even though Haden is obviously a superb technician as a cover corner, such that he doesn’t need to rely on his speed, I don’t think he would have done a much better job. At the end of the day, the Raiders offense did an excellent job executing, even when the Steelers took away their primary weapon. Pittsburgh wanted Las Vegas to beat them with their third and fourth options; they did just that. 

Steelers Raiders Recap: Offense

The Steelers offense has averaged 16.5 points through two games, a far cry from the explosive, versatile unit of the mid-2010s. However, in comparison to their performance last week, I would argue they looked markedly improved. Opening the game last week, the Steelers punted on every drive in the first half, going three and out on two of those five drives.

This week, they still didn’t score until midway through the second quarter. But they only went three and out once. Two of their first three drives ended in turnovers (an interception and a turnover on downs). Despite those mistakes, Ben Roethlisberger played very well, arguably his best game since last October (granted, that isn’t saying much). He did a good job surveying the defense and throwing to the right receiver. We even saw him throw some very nice deep balls. Not all of them were caught but more often than not, they were decently accurate and gave the receiver a legitimate chance to make a play on the ball. 

However, Ben was very reticent to test the defense over the middle in the intermediate range. This was most likely due to the Raiders’ coverage schemes. But to have a complete offense, you need to threaten that area. Hopefully, the Steelers can incorporate that into their offense in the coming weeks. 

Growing Pains

With that being said, the most pressing issue for the Steelers’ offense is the offensive line. Roethlisberger still did a solid job of getting rid of the ball quickly. But he took too many hard hits. Dan Moore Jr. took a step back in his second career start and Chukwuma Okorafor had another rough day at the office. The bigger problem, as many would expect was the run blocking. While it was somewhat improved relative to last week, as Najee Harris had a better game, it still isn’t good enough. Harris got stopped behind the line multiple times and he’s getting physically punished by defenders every play. 

Luckily, there is a remedy for these symptoms, although it might be unpleasant: time and patience. The Steelers’ offensive line in the mid-to-late-2010s was so dominant because they were experienced veterans with great chemistry as a unit. This offensive line features two rookies, a second-year player in his first year as a starter, a fourth-year player who is technically a backup and still their weakest link, and a veteran on his third team with pass-blocking limitations. Nothing is going to help this offensive line more than playing time with each other. This line is going to take their lumps, especially the younger guys. But that’s the necessary evil to get better. 

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How the Steelers Beat the Bills

The Pittsburgh Steelers pulled off arguably the most shocking upset in Week 1 of the 2021 NFL season. They toppled the Buffalo Bills, one of the presumptive Super Bowl favorites from the AFC, by a score of 23-16. The Bills led the game at the half 10-0. The Steelers’ offense was anemic at best, as the running game couldn’t get going and Ben Roethlisberger missed some easy passes. The Steelers punted on every offensive series in the first half, except for the final one where they knelt the ball to go to the half. 

But the Pittsburgh defense kept the whole team in this game. Even when the Bills returned the opening kickoff 75 yards, the defense forced a field goal. They prevented the Bills offense from creating explosive plays and only allowed a touchdown when Josh Allen beat perfect coverage from Cam Sutton with an even better throw. Within the defense, Pittsburgh’s pass rush harangued Allen for the entire game. Even if they didn’t get home, they forced bad throws and incompletions or drew holding penalties. 

The Second Half Comeback

In the second half, the Steelers’ offense found a rhythm. They seemingly leaned into the concepts introduced by new offensive coordinator Matt Canada. They used more motion and called some creative plays. Additionally, Ben Roethlisberger actually started throwing down the field. He wasn’t perfect but he found a matchup that he liked and repeatedly attacked Levi Wallace. Roethlisberger even beat All-Pro corner Tre’davious White a few times. This helped open up the run game a little bit and Najee Harris finally had some room to run. Pittsburgh’s offense scored on every drive in the second half (albeit mostly field goals), outsourcing Buffalo 23-3 in the second half. They were aided by a massive blocked punt return for a touchdown. 

At the end of the day, the Steelers defense dominated one of the NFL’s best offenses for 60 minutes on Sunday. On the other side of the ball, the offense did just enough when it was needed to come back and win the game. Let’s get into exactly how the Steelers won their game against the Bills, starting with the defense.

How the Steelers beat the Bills on Defense: Play Smart, Play Angry

Credit where credit is due: Keith Butler put together an excellent gameplan and the defense executed it nearly to perfection. Many Steelers fans, including yours truly, expected Keith Butler to come out with his base defense and try to have his linebackers cover the Bills’ wide receivers. Luckily, Butler did not do that. He played with five defensive backs for the majority of the game. He also put a ton of trust in seventh-round rookie Tre Norwood to play safety and slot corner. Norwood validated his trust when the Bills repeatedly went after him, as he made several key tackles and a few pass breakups. He got burned by Emmanuel Sanders on a deep route once but Allen overthrew him. 

For the remainder of the game, the Steelers played with five or six defensive backs on the field. They did an excellent job preventing explosive plays by staying deep and forcing Allen to dink and dunk. Furthermore, the defensive backs themselves made countless plays in coverage. Norwood, Cam Sutton, James Pierre, and Minkah Fitzpatrick all broke up several passes with perfectly-timed hits. This may have been the best performance from a Steelers’ secondary in a very long time, considering their opponent(s). 

The Bills did not make an adjustment until late in the fourth quarter when they finally started running the ball; Devin Singletary, surprisingly, sliced up the Pittsburgh defense, picking up 49 of his 75 yards on that drive alone. The Bills outrushed the Steelers easily, going for 117 yards on 25 carries. Josh Allen picked up some key first downs using his legs, rushing for 44 yards. But even with his third-down conversions, the Pittsburgh defense did a decent job preventing him from picking up massive gains with his feet. Allen’s longest gain went for only 11 yards; more importantly, the defensive line prevented him from consistently getting outside the pocket. 

Pass Rush

With that, it’s time to talk about the pass rush. TJ Watt, Cam Heyward, Melvin Ingram, and Alex Highsmith were the unquestioned MVPs of this game. All four repeatedly pressured and hit Josh Allen, preventing the Bills offense from getting into a rhythm. The conversation has to start with TJ Watt. Fresh off a brand new contract extension and only two full days of practice, Watt sacked Allen twice, stripping the ball once, hit Allen five more times, and drew at least one holding penalty. He played like a man possessed in all phases of the game. 

The other edge rushers, Ingram and Highsmith, also played extremely well. They didn’t get any sacks but they each drew holding penalties and forced errant throws. Finally, Cam Heyward played exactly like he always does. He generated a whopping 11 pressures, tacking on one QB hit and another sack, according to PFF. With Heyward generating pressure from the interior, Allen needed to get rid of the ball quicker and it opened up more opportunities for the edge rushers. 

Part of the reason why the entire defense was successful was Pittsburgh’s ability to generate pressure with only four rushers, thereby keeping seven defenders in coverage. According to NFL Network’s Aditi Kinkhabwala, Pittsburgh only blitzed Josh Allen twice on Sunday. One of football’s most accurate aphorisms is that if you can pressure the quarterback with four rushers, you can win games. For this reason, if I’m a Bills fan, I’m not going too concerned about if the events of Sunday’s game will repeat themselves. Very few teams can generate so much pressure consistently with only four rushers; even fewer also have some excellent players on the back end. If the Steelers’ front can play like this every game, maybe the offense doesn’t even need to be that good. 

How the Steelers beat the Bills on Offense: Lean into Canada, Eh?

Much was made about the Steelers’ promotion of Matt Canada to offensive coordinator. In his first outing, the results were mixed. The Steelers opened the game with Canada’s patented tackle-tight end exchange and had some cursory jet sweep looks. But for most of the first half, the Steelers’ offense looked exactly like it did towards the end of last season. It was mostly quick passes out of the shotgun with Ben frequently misfiring. The offensive line struggled immensely, allowing the Bills’ pass rush to get home a few times and not getting any push in the run game. Najee Harris tried as best he could but he couldn’t find any holes. 

However, in the second half, things started to change. Pittsburgh started using more pre-snap motion and play action. This, along with some creative play-calling, helped break the roadblock. Najee Harris started to find some more openings as the offensive line got more comfortable. Harris still made some mistakes but he ran extremely tough, never leaving the field despite taking punishment from the Bills’ defense. 

Attacking Vertically and a More Diverse Offense

Furthermore, Canada and Ben started taking more shots downfield. The Bills started loading the box and playing many more single-high defenses with man coverage on the outside. This allowed Ben to start testing the Bills’ cornerbacks vertically. He obviously wasn’t slinging passes 50 yards downfield. But he drew a couple of pass interference and holding penalties and got some big catches from Chase Claypool, Eric Ebron, and Juju Smith-Schuster. This gave Ben the confidence he needed for some of the later drives when he fired several darts to convert multiple third downs. 

It’s clear the Steelers need to run the ball better if they want to keep winning games. But Ben Roethlisberger also needs to play better for the whole game. In short, the Steelers need to have a complete, diverse offense, which was the main problem last year. The offensive line will be the primary determining factor for this offense. If they play as they did in the first half, it will be an ugly season. Conversely, if they can build on the improvements they made in the second half and turn into a league-average offensive line, the Steelers’ offense should be just fine. 

How the Steelers beat the Bills: Summary

At the end of the day, the Steelers beat the Bills because of their defense and specifically their pass rush. But the turning point of the game was the blocked punt returned for a touchdown. Full disclosure: I’m not an expert on special teams and how punts get blocked. So I’m not gonna try to explain why that play happened. Regardless, this play killed any momentum that the Bills had left in this game; it even sparked the exodus of Bills fans from Highmark Stadium. 

The biggest takeaway from this game was that Keith Butler finally displayed the ability to switch up his scheme/gameplan to put his defense in the best position to win. Typically, people expect Butler to send the house and leave his defensive backs on an island. But he did the exact opposite of that. I expect Butler to return to his old ways at various points in the season. But it’s great to see that he can come out throwing different pitches at an offense. 

On offense, the Steelers were able to do basically the bare minimum to come away with a win. It will take time but this offense will keep improving. Additionally, we saw enough on Sunday to feel that there is at least a greater formula on offense. As the season goes on, expect the offensive line to continue to improve, which will open up the offense as a whole. 

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Pittsburgh Steelers 2021 Training Camp Battles to Watch

Every season, every team uses training camp and preseason games to build out their depth chart. Most positions on most teams are pretty set in stone, either with established veterans or highly-touted rookies. But, there are pitched battles for specific roles and spots on the roster in every training camp. Last year, the biggest battle took place at right tackle between Chukwuma Okorafor and Zach Banner. Banner won the job out of camp, but Okorafor started nearly every game after Banner went down in Week 1.

The year before, the battle for the backup quarterback job between Mason Rudolph, Josh Dobbs, and Devlin Hodges provided important competition that helped prepare Rudolph and Hodges for their surprisingly important role in the 2019 season. These instances exhibit why looking at specific training camp battles can provide essential insights for the upcoming season. Therefore, I’ll be previewing the battles in training camp that I believe will have the most significant impact on the Steelers’ 2021 season. I’ll highlight the position or role and the players in contention for it, break down their case and chance of making the roster, and predict who wins and who doesn’t make the roster. 

Backup Quarterback: Mason Rudolph, Dwayne Haskins, Joshua Dobbs

Unfortunately, the battle for the backup quarterback job is very relevant for the Pittsburgh Steelers once again. With Ben Roethlisberger possibly (hopefully) entering his final season at age 39, Pittsburgh must be prepared if Ben misses time again due to injury. Ben has only played all 16 games four times in his 17-year career, so having a quality backup is necessary. This job is pretty much Mason Rudolph’s to lose. He’s entering a contract year and has not lived up to the front office’s or fan’s expectations. However, Rudolph played a quality game in last season’s regular-season finale in Cleveland. So maybe he can build on that strong finish. Next is Dwayne Haskins, the former Washington first-round pick. Haskins impressed coaches and teammates alike in mini-camp and could be in a position to supplant Rudolph as Ben’s backup and the quarterback of the future. Lastly, Joshua Dobbs is trying to hold onto his QB3 position after returning to Pittsburgh in 2020. Dobbs serves a valuable role on this team as a pseudo-coach and offensive assistant, but his time in Pittsburgh (and the NFL) might be coming to a close. 

Prediction: The Steelers like to keep three quarterbacks, but four seems unlikely. Rudolph is a lock to make the roster based on his experience, and Haskins’ potential is enough to earn him a spot. Dobbs looks to be the odd man out unless Pittsburgh can finesse him onto the IR or something. It’s more likely that Dobbs moves on to starting his career as an aerospace engineer. 

Running Back #2: Benny Snell, Anthony McFarland Jr., Jaylen Samuels, Kalen Ballage

Going into the draft, the Steelers arguably had the worst running back room in the NFL. Thankfully, they used their first-round pick on Najee Harris, who should win the starting job on talent alone. Harris has the size and strength to be effective as a goal-line runner, along with the receiving and pass blocking skills to play on third down. Therefore, there will be no need for situational specialists this year. However, someone will need to spell Harris when he gets tired, which could happen given that he could be looking at a Le’Veon Bell-style workload. Benny Snell started in place of James Conner when he went out with injuries. But “Snell Yeah” quickly turned into “Snell Ya Later,” as he quickly showed that he lacked the requisite speed and athleticism to be a lead running back in the NFL.

Anthony McFarland Jr. was the Steelers’ latest late-round running back experiment, and while he seemingly struggled to acclimate to the speed of the NFL, he now has a whole offseason under his belt. Additionally, McFarland Jr. is reunited with his college coach Matt Canada. Next is Swiss Army Knife Jaylen Samuels, a versatile tool that ultimately remains stuck in neutral. Samuels is entering a contract year, but I don’t expect him to earn many offensive snaps. Finally, the Steelers brought in Adam Gase-favorite Kalen Ballage. Ballage is built very similarly to Harris and is also a versatile offensive weapon. The problem is that Ballage is just not very good. There’s a chance he could take Samuels’ spot, which is why this battle is interesting.

Prediction: I’m not sure if this is a hot take, but here goes: Anthony McFarland Jr. is going to win this job easily. His familiarity and smooth scheme fit with Matt Canada’s new offense will significantly help his case. Additionally, McFarland Jr. provides the perfect complement to Harris, as the lightning to Harris’ thunder. Granted, the offensive line didn’t do Snell many favors last year, but he simply does not have the juice to meaningfully contribute in this league. I also think Ballage has a decent shot at unseating Samuels as RB4. 

Starting Offensive Tackles: Chukwuma Okorafor, Zach Banner, Dan Moore Jr., Joe Haeg, Rashaad Coward

This is undoubtedly the most critical battle at camp. Unlike most of these other battles, the two contenders most likely to win were on the roster last year. Zach Banner won the starting right tackle job out of the preseason last year but tore his ACL in Week 1 and missed the rest of the season. Chukwuma Okorafor took over for him and performed decently well. This year, Okorafor kicks over to the left to take over for the (thankfully) departed Alejandro Villanueva, while Banner will most likely take up the post he won last year on the right side. Objectively, based on their past careers, this duo is among the lesser offensive tackle duos in the NFL. The Steelers are relying heavily on the new scheme and new offensive line coach Adrian Klemm to help rejuvenate a line that looked very uninspired last year. For competition, the Steelers spent a fourth-round pick on Texas A&M tackle Dan Moore Jr. and brought in versatile veterans Joe Haeg and Rashaad Coward. 

Prediction: Despite this being an important training camp battle, it’s also probably the one most likely to go chalk. Assuming both Chuks and Banner stay healthy, I’d be astonished to see one of the other tackles starting going into Week 1. Moore most likely needs some time to adjust to the pro game, while Haeg and Coward should not start unless there is an emergency. 

Starting Center: Kendrick Green, BJ Finney, JC Hassenauer

Arguably the second most crucial battle, Pittsburgh must finally replace Maurkice Pouncey after a storied career. Kendrick Green is a third-round pick that is definitely the future at the position but could also be the present. BJ Finney is back after a one-year rumspringa making his way around the league and has experience starting at center for Pittsburgh. Finally, JC Hassenauer is back after starting four games due to COVID and injuries, but he does not appear to be NFL-material. Finney brings experience and versatility but is unfamiliar and possibly ill-suited for the new offense. Green is precisely that, in terms of his experience, but the Steelers spent a top-100 pick on him for a reason, and Kevin Colbert has a pretty solid track record with offensive linemen. 

Prediction: This one is pretty hard to call at this point. If Randy Fitchner were still here, I’d pick Finney. But he might need to start at guard, and I think Green will win the job in the new system. He’s going to have to earn the job, but I’m sure he’ll be given every opportunity to do so. Green has superior movement skills, which is crucial in Matt Canada’s outside zone-based system. He might take some lumps early on, especially in pass protection. But he’ll be flanked by a good young guard in Kevin Dotson and an experienced recent addition in Trai Turner. By mid-season, he should be up to speed. 

Outside Linebacker #3: Cassius Marsh, Quincy Roche, *Player to be Named Later*

The first two players are pretty firmly entrenched as the backups to TJ Watt and Alex Highsmith, respectively. But one of them will be the third outside linebacker that comes in on passing downs and spells either Highsmith or Watt when they need rest. Alex Highsmith played that role beautifully last year before being thrust into the starting lineup after Bud Dupree tore his ACL. Marsh got some playing time late in the year but was largely unimpressive. He could improve in his second year in Pittsburgh with an entire offseason.

Quincy Roche is an exciting prospect that fell to the sixth-round and is a lot like Highsmith: a relatively smaller defensive end turned outside linebacker that is technically sound. Ultimately, it would shock me if the Steelers don’t bring in another veteran to compete for this slot. During his press time at mini-camp, Keith Butler implied that Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin would be looking to bring another body in for depth and competition. 

Prediction: Depending on who they bring in, I think the extra player will most likely win this job. Otherwise, I believe Marsh wins this job out of camp, but Roche will take it by mid-season. Marsh has the experience, and the coaching staff seemingly likes him. But Roche’s upside will eventually be too tantalizing to be kept on the bench. He’s not ready to be a starter, but he’s got the juice and skills to contribute in a meaningful way as a rookie. 

Slot Defensive Back: Cameron Sutton, James Pierre, Antoine Brooks, Arthur Maulet, Shakur Brown, Lamont Wade

Sadly, the Mike Hilton era has come to a close. Hilton was among the league’s best slot-only corners, bring a unique aggressiveness and toughness to the position (albeit, perhaps at the expense of some coverage skills). The slot corner position will undoubtedly look a lot different for Pittsburgh in 2021. No other corner on the roster possesses Hilton’s blitzing prowess, so whoever replaces him will most likely play a much more normal role as the slot corner. Cameron Sutton has lots of experience playing in the slot in relief of Hilton and in Dime packages. Still, he is slotted to replace Steven Nelson at the outside corner position across from Joe Haden.

This leaves former UDFA James Pierre, who played surprisingly well down the stretch, beating out former third-round pick Justin Layne. Pierre will also be competing for outside corner reps, so maybe he’ll kick Sutton inside sometimes. Next up is the previously mentioned Antoine Brooks. Brooks is decently similar to Hilton as a primarily run support-focused player. He brings better size to the position, but his coverage abilities remain in question. Arthur Maulet was brought in to compete at safety, but he also profiles similarly to Hilton and could kick down to the slot. The last two players, Shakur Brown and Lamont Wade are two similarly diminutive slot-specific players that also began their careers as UDFAs. Brown has better coverage instincts, while Wade is a significantly better athlete.

Prediction: This is pretty tough to project because there are many permutations of inside and outside cornerbacks. Based on what the coaches and beat reporters are saying, I think Brooks might win this job going into Week 1. If the Steelers want their slot defender to do the same things that Mike Hilton did, they need someone willing to stick their nose in the D-gap in run support. Brooks can do that on early downs if the Steelers want to stay in nickel. It remains to be seen how he’ll hold up in coverage against NFL slot receivers; if he struggles there, expect some kind of rotation with James Pierre and Cam Sutton on late and long downs. Also, one of Shakur Brown or Lamont Wade will make this roster or be on the practice squad for the vast majority of the season and contribute in 2022. 

Punter: Jordan Berry, Pressley Harvin III

We close out with everyone’s favorite position: punter. Jordan Berry, Danny Smith’s long-lost Australian lovechild, is back again. Berry is probably a league-average punter, but he’s a very inconsistent player, and his highs are not even that high, especially relative to his abysmal lows. This is why the Steelers used their last draft pick on Pressley Harvin III, the thick king himself. Beyond being a visual hilarity, Harvin is an excellent punter. The reigning Ray Guy award winner, he avered 48 yards per punt this season, downing 22 punts inside the 20 with only three touchbacks. Harvin also has some experience running trick plays at Georgia Tech, so keep an eye out for those. 

Prediction: Typically, seventh-round picks rarely make the active roster and even more rarely win the starting jobs. Obviously, the punter position is slightly different, but I truly believe Harvin will win this job in camp. Berry has been a liability at times, so if Harvin can just be consistently decent, he could very well win this job. 

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