The Pittsburgh Steelers might be off to a remarkably slow start, but newcomers give us hope for success in the future.
That large black cloud hovering over the Pittsburgh Steelers after their 1-4 start to the season isn’t quite yet lined with gold, despite objections from the team’s marketing department. That would be perfect…you know, stay on brand with the team colors and all.
But seriously though, there is a talented group of new players on the roster that has at least produced a silver lining of sorts.
Amid four consecutive losses, including three that were one-score games late in the 4th quarter, the Steelers have gone from being “The Toast of the Town” (after week one’s win at Cincinnati) to being run out of town last week in Buffalo.
Some say offensive coordinator Matt Canada must go, considering some of the play-calling that has at least been partially responsible for an offense that ranks 30th out of 32 NFL teams in scoring according to NFL.com. Others have recently started pointing fingers at defensive coordinator Teryl Austin, as that side of the ball ranks 25th in the league in points allowed. Not to mention the almost annual cries from half of the fan base to get rid of Mike Tomlin, whether worthy or not.
But here’s one thing we should all be able to agree upon. The upstart play of several of the team’s rookies and free-agent acquisitions gives the Steelers hope to possibly turn things around this season. Or at the least, in the very near future.
With 18 first-year players on the roster, it’s critical that most of the new faces progress quickly in order for the team to have any hope of rebounding from their slow start.
Newcomers who could meet or exceed “The Steelers Standard”
QB Kenny Pickett (First-Round Draft Pick): 2GP/1GS
Everyone’s favorite rookie quarterback (at least in Pittsburgh) took the reins from fellow newcomer Mitch Trubisky midway through the Jets game and has been solid, if not spectacular in spots. Though the sample size is somewhat small, Pickett has provided a spark to the offense in just six quarters of action.
In his first start last week, he completed 34-of-52 passes for 327 yards, all franchise records for a QB in his starting debut for the team. Overall, Pickett has completed 67.7 pct. (44-of-65) of his passes for 447 yards (6.9 yards per attempt). Per Next Gen Stats at NFL.com, his completion percentage ranks eighth in the NFL including players with at least 45 attempts, and his yards per attempt ranks just ahead of this week’s opponent, Tom Brady (6.8 ypa).
WR George Pickens (Second-Round Draft Pick): 5GP/2GS
Everyone’s favorite rookie receiver (at least in Pittsburgh) stole the show during training camp but never seemed to mesh with Trubisky in the first three-plus games. Don’t get me wrong, Pickens had his moments…such as an early candidate for “catch of the year” against the Browns. However, the former Georgia Bulldog has really come on since Pickett was inserted into the lineup to begin the third quarter against the Jets.
In the six quarters since, Pickens has 10 receptions on 12 targets for 154 yards (15.4 avg.). Overall, Pickens ranks third on the team with 17 receptions for 250 yards, including a team-best 36-yard catch. He’s also tied for sixth in the NFL with six 20-plus-yard receptions thus far (Miami’s Tyreek Hill ranks first with eight).
DT DeMarvin Leal (Third-Round Draft Pick): 5GP/1GS
The 6-4, 290-pound Texas A&M product has officially moved up to the second team at defensive tackle but has also seen a lot of action as a rotational outside linebacker over the last couple of games (40 pct. snap count during that span). Leal has played well on the outside too, notching a career-high 4 tackles and a tackle-for-loss against the Jets, while swatting down two passes against the Bills. Overall, Leal has nine tackles (five solo), one tackle-for-loss, and three passes defended this season.
RB Jaylen Warren (Undrafted Free Agent): 5GP/0GS
Warren has done a nice job spelling Najee Harris in limited action at running back. He’s proven his worth since day one of training camp and is the clear backup to Harris. Warren is coming off his best game statistically, accounting for 63 all-purpose yards (24 rushing, 39 receiving) at Buffalo. Overall, he’s rushed 19 times for 94 yards (5.0 avg.) and caught seven passes for 46 yards (6.6 avg.), while also showing the ability to add some crushing blocks in pass pro along the way.
C Mason Cole (Formerly at Minnesota): 5GP/5GS
Cole has started all five games at center for the Steelers and according to Pro Football Reference has played every snap except for a brief period in Cincinnati. He hasn’t had his name called much, which is normally a good thing for an offensive lineman.
RG James Daniels (Formerly at Chicago): 5GP/5GS
After a shaky pre-season, Daniels has been a solid, steady presence in five starts at right guard for the Steelers this year. He’s played every snap of the season and continues to get better as he feels more comfortable each game.
ILB Myles Jack (Formerly at Jacksonville): 5GP/5GS
Jack doesn’t seem as flashy as I thought he’d be, but after nearly every game he’s one of the team’s leaders in tackles. He notched 13 total tackles (one shy of his career-high) and had a tackle for loss against the Patriots. Overall, he ranks fifth in the NFL with 50 total tackles and has provided the Steelers with some greatly-needed consistency at the position.
DE Larry Ogunjobi (Formerly at Cincinnati): 5GP/5GS
Before injuring his back after just seven snaps against the Bills, Ogunjobi had performed well as the Steelers’ starting defensive end/tackle. His percentage of snap counts had increased every game this season, playing an average of 64 percent of the team’s defensive snaps overall. Entering the Tampa Bay game, Ogunjobi has 12 total tackles (four solo), one tackle-for-loss, and five quarterback hits.
CB Levi Wallace (Formerly at Buffalo): 5GP/2GS
Wallace became one of five Steelers with an interception this season when he picked off former teammate Josh Allen in Buffalo. However, he was also forced to leave the game later in the day due to a concussion, so his status is in question for now. The former walk-on at Alabama started the last two games, playing all 70 snaps against the Jets. Overall, Wallace has 13 total tackles and is tied for second on the team with four passes defended.
Newcomers who have not lived up to the standard
That doesn’t mean they won’t.
Former Broncos LB Malik Reed “hopped on a moving train” post-training camp and is still new to the defense, although filling T.J. Watt’s shoes are big ones to fill for anyone. If anyone can do it, Reed can, based on his experience filling a similar role in Denver the last three seasons.
Former Patriots WR Gunner Olszewski, who was an All-Pro Punt Returner for New England just two seasons ago, was benched last week after fumbling twice in the first four games. He has to make up for that if and when he gets another chance, whether as a receiver or return man.
Former Ravens WR Miles Boykin has had limited opportunities at the receiver spot. But he did get some playing time there in last week’s blowout loss in Buffalo, catching an 11-yard pass for his first Steelers reception. Boykin has also been an ace on the punt team this season.
Rookie TE Connor Heyward is on the cusp of meeting “the standard”, as his young career is off to a promising start. He hasn’t had many opportunities on offense, playing behind Pat Freiermuth and Zach Gentry. But both are battling injuries and this could be the week Cam’s brother emerges after making his first two receptions as a Steeler last week.
Fellow rookies Calvin Austin III and Mark Robinson could be getting their chance to make an impact soon. Austin, a speedy receiver drafted in the fourth round from the University of Memphis, is eligible to come off the injured list. He could certainly add to the receiving corps and possibly even special teams. Robinson, a seventh-round pick out of Ole Miss, is a thumper at ILB. The former college RB is also experiencing a steep learning curve, but when he figures it out he’ll be a good one.
LB Ryan Anderson, LB Jamir Jones, and OL Trent Scott are others who could emerge as they get more experience within the organization.
Despite their record, the Steelers are just two games out of first place in the AFC North with 12 to go. It sounds crazy, but there’s still plenty of time to turn things around. And this group of talented newcomers will have a big say so on whether or not it will happen.