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The Steelers need to find their next QB/WR tandem to be a true contender

The Steelers need to develop a special QB/WR connection that is commonplace for contending teams.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers Rookie Minicamp Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Sometimes inspiration for articles come from the most unexpected places.

Former Pittsburgh Steelers superstar wide receiver Antonio Brown sent out an unexpected tweet on Monday expressing his previously unbeknownst desire to retire as a Pittsburgh Steeler.

This brought back a flood of memories for yours truly, both good and bad. Without forcing anyone to endure a deep dive into my subconscious, let me just say the memories of recently retired franchise quarterback (QB) Ben Roethlisberger firing the old pigskin to the unstoppable Brown seemingly at will were like highlights replaying in my mind.

Those memories; coupled with a recent BTSC article written by our own Jeff Hartman about the need for a two man QB competition this upcoming training camp and preseason because of the limited number of reps to go around, inspired this article.

While every NFL organization desires a deep stable of skill position players available for their franchise QB to distribute the ball to, the truth remains that an elite QB/WR connection is more important for teams striving for contender status. Having a deep group of pass catchers isn't as impactful without a true number one guy.

The world champion Los Angeles Rams have Matthew Stafford to Cooper Kupp. AFC champion Cincinnati Bengals have Joe Burrow to Ja'Marr Chase. The Buffalo Bills have Josh Allen to Stefon Diggs. The list goes on and on, but I feel certain you catch my drift.

In today's pass-happy NFL, equipped with a plethora of new rules designed to directly limit physicality, the rules indirectly facilitate the modern day passing craze. It’s left every team searching for a franchise QB throwing to an elite number one receiver combination. It's the quickest way to offensive success in the modern NFL. If you don't have one, you get one.

This makes Hartman's suggestion the Steelers limit the quarterback competition to Mitch Trubisky and Kenny Pickett in their rapidly approaching training camp that much more accurate and insightful. The Steelers already know what they have in Mason Rudolph, for all intents and purposes. The Steelers need to find out what they have in the two newcomers brought in to compete for the starting job. Training camp reps and preseason opportunities are more important than ever.

However, not just for the quarterbacks. The wide receivers need those opportunities to establish a pecking order of their own, if you will. To establish much needed chemistry with the newcomers at QB, especially with the next man entrusted to lead the Steelers new-look offense into an ever changing future.

It will take plenty of hard work and unscripted passing sessions to develop the type of chemistry achieved by Ben Roethlisberger/Antonio Brown, and the other aforementioned elite combos. Receivers can utilize the jugs machines outside of practice to improve their hands, but a live arm is needed to truly work on footwork and precision timing.

The type of connection developed by Ben and Brown doesn't happen by accident. It takes faith and trust. Faith the receiver will get open in time and on schedule, plus complete the catch. Trust the QB will put the ball on target, and on time. It all comes down to split second precision and execution, amidst all the chaos.

For the 2022 Steelers, there are four wide receiver candidates vying for the top spot:

  • Diontae Johnson
  • Chase Claypool
  • George Pickens
  • Calvin Austin lll

Some are more realistic candidates than others, but it remains an open competition, because the Steelers lack a clear-cut number one receiver.

Some aspects of an elite QB/WR tandem have to develop naturally, as a true instinctual connection cannot be forced. It would benefit the receivers greatly if Trubisky or Pickett were able to quickly and clearly separate themselves in the competition. More time and opportunities to develop that special chemistry with the established No. 1 quarterback. Regrettably, that scenario is highly unlikely.

Diontae Johnson is the most accomplished of the Steelers quartet of receiver candidates, coming off his first 1,000-yard receiving season and Pro Bowl selection. However, he has yet to show the clutch ability to rise to the occasion when the stakes are the highest, a trait present with all elite number one receiving options, whether they be wide receivers or tight ends. Johnson will go a long way towards locking down his rumored contract demands, at least somewhere, if he is able to take his game to that, as of yet unattainable, level.

Chase Claypool is immensely talented, blessed with elite level athleticism and length. However, he has yet to show the maturity and intensity to match those other elite level abilities. If the offensive line shows the improvement hoped for, the Steelers new-look offense may prove to be a far better fit for the talented young pass catcher. It will be up to Claypool to earn the trust of his new quarterbacks.

George Pickens has every attribute and ability needed for a No. 1 receiver. He is tall, fast, and athletic. Intensity personified, with an alpha dog mentality. He is also very much an inexperienced 21 years old rookie, having missed the majority of his junior year at Georgia rehabbing a knee injury. In my opinion, he is the most likely candidate to eventually ascend to the top receiving spot for the Steelers, but doing so as a rookie is a lot to ask. In a perfect world, Pickens would develop that special chemistry with Kenny Pickett to form an elite connection in the Steel City for years to come.

Lastly, fellow rookie Calvin Austin lll is the longest of long shots in the competition. Austin will most likely be limited to the slot, at least in the early portion of his career. Slot receivers can be dominant No. 1 options, see Wes Welker and Julian Edelman for recent examples. Austin is diminutive, but he has one special attribute none of the other aforementioned options have; elite level speed and quickness. If his game-changing abilities transition well to the NFL, the Steelers may have the steal of the 2022 NFL Draft, and a potential number one guy in the slot. Rare, but not unheard of.

There is too much evidence to ignore the truth. True modern day contenders need a franchise QB, and a elite receiving option to pair with him. The Steelers need to find theirs.