In a game where the Pittsburgh Steelers weren't favored until their lone touchdown (which came with just 1:17 remaining in regulation), we can't pretend that everything went well against the Baltimore Ravens in Week 5. Mike Tomlin's team had just 3 points entering the fourth quarter and the probability of a win seemed out of reach.
It took numerous clutch plays by the defense and special teams, but the Steelers emerged victorious. There are plenty of players we can't point the finger at for the near loss, but the rookies are not among them. In fact, this rookie class is starting to shape up to be as good as we all thought.
First-round pick, Broderick Jones, made his first NFL start against the Ravens in Week 5. When he entered the game early last week, his performance was a bit shakey, and he allowed a few quick pressures. This time around, all of that was cleaned up.
On Monday morning, I rewatched the Steelers game and noted every snap Jones played. His performance was remarkable, given this is the first full NFL game he has ever played. Jones was a people-mover in the running game but was even better in pass protection where he routinely stonewalled edge rushers.
In contrast, Dan Moore Jr. has graded out as the worst offensive tackle in the NFL prior to his injury. While the opponents and difficulty of competition play a factor here, after watching Jones, it certainly felt like there's no reason for the Steelers to ever go back to Moore as the starter at left tackle.
Broderick wasn't the only rookie who balled out against the Ravens. Joey Porter Jr. saw the most action on defense he has seen all season -- earning 28 defensive snaps. The only time Porter was targeted was when he recorded an interception in the endzone. This proved to be a game-changing play that provided the opportunity for Pittsburgh to mount a touchdown drive and win the game.
On the season, Porter has been outstanding -- allowing just 1 reception on 7 targets for just 12 yards to go with an interception. Porter's 0.0 passer rating allowed is as good as it gets (albeit a small sample size so far). Regardless, Porter needs to become a full-time starter moving forward.
Perhaps the most consistent player of the Steelers rookie class so far has been DL Keeanu Benton. The second-round pick is grading out among the best rookie defenders so far this season. With Cameron Heyward out, it's easy to see that Benton is the best of this group -- despite his youth (22 years old) and inexperience.
Benton certainly hasn't lit up the stat sheet so far in 2023. He has just 13 tackles, 1 tackle for a loss, and 1.0 sacks in the first five games. However, his performance on film has been much stronger than the raw numbers would indicate. Benton has been disruptive as an interior pass rusher while still managing to be one of the only respectable run defenders this year among Pittsburgh's interior defensive line.
Even rookie TE Darnell Washington is starting to turn it on with Pat Freiermuth out. He essentially served as an extra offensive tackle at times in pass protection while paving paths in the running game. He's still got a lot of work to do, but his freakish skill set has certainly shown promise.
Steelers must get start their rookies
Now the Pittsburgh Steelers enter their Week 6 bye looking for ways to improve before a long and treacherous stretch of 12 games to close out the 2023 season. The most obvious way to improve might be a change at offensive coordinator, but it's unlike the Steelers to make mid-season firings. One way they can ensure improvement is to start some of their talented rookies.
After the promise Broderick Jones has shown at left tackle, it's hard to imagine that Tomlin elects to go back to Dan Moore. After all, they wouldn't have traded up to the 14th overall pick to take Jones if they didn't believe in him. Though he will take his lumps as he learns, there's no going back now. He's the future at LT.
In the same way, the Steelers must turn to Joey Porter Jr. in a full-time role. Heading into the bye week, Porter has never played more than 40 percent of the team's total defensive snaps. Meanwhile, Levi Wallace has been a train wreck outside of a pair of interceptions that came against the Raiders in Week 3.
Wallace simply doesn't have the recovery speed to stick with wide receivers and should be demoted at this point. Porter, however, is an LCB who primarily plays on the defense's left side. Teryl Austin should leave him here where he's comfortable and ask veteran Patrick Peterson to kick over to RCB in place of Wallace. I have no doubt this would give Pittsburgh the lineup.
Keeanu Benton was forced onto the field early with the groin injury to Cameron Heyward, but he has still only played 38 percent of Pittsburgh's defensive snaps this year. For how disruptive he has been, that number needs to go way up following the bye week. He's clearly ready for more responsibility on defense.
It may not seem like much, but getting young, talented, athletic players on the field more often like Broderick Jones, Joey Porter Jr., and Keeanu Benton could pay dividends for the Pittsburgh Steelers by the end of the 2023 season. I have little doubt that they will prove to be upgrades over the veterans who are currently in their place.
All stats courtesy of Pro Football Reference.