The Steelers’ first preseason game of the year is just around the corner, and hopes are high for the team. Throughout Pittsburgh’s three exhibition games to prepare for the regular season, fans should get a chance to preview the play of not just the team’s reserve players, but likely a few drives with this year’s starters.
Below is a very basic primer on what to look for in each position group this preseason as each room will be trying to prove themselves. There are many best-cast scenarios that would clear up a number of the uncertainties on the Steelers roster. In the comments, feel free to add what other plausible improvements you hope to see in this preseason from the Steelers roster.
Quarterbacks: Meet expectations
It’s hard to pinpoint just one thing this room needs. For this position, we’ll split it up by player.
Mitch Trubisky: Athleticism and decision-making
Trubisky isn’t the long-term solution in Pittsburgh, but it’s been pretty clear ever since he signed with the team that the Week 1 starting job is his to lose. He doesn’t need to light the world on fire in the preseason, but it’d be nice if he can show off the athleticism and mobility the Steelers likely signed him for to lead Matt Canada’s offense with. Beyond that, the best way he can help the Steelers this season is by taking care of the football to supplement the run game and keep the defense fresh. If he can show these traits in the preseason, he’ll show that he has what it takes to be the bridge quarterback the Steelers need this season.
Kenny Pickett: Steady improvement
Is Kenny Pickett the Steelers’ next franchise quarterback? He was certainly drafted to be. It’s highly, highly unlikely the Steelers would even consider starting him early this season, so Pickett doesn’t need to be a Pro Bowler right away. He simply needs to show that he has the tools to do so.
Mason Rudolph: Show something worth trading for
This seems harsh, but if Mason Rudolph wins the Steelers quarterback competition this season it would likely be a failure on the part of the front office, which spent free agent money and a first round draft pick on two quarterbacks to lead the team instead of Rudolph. It’s simply best for the Steelers if Rudolph doesn’t win the quarterback competition but instead shows enough in the preseason for another team to trade for him with respectable compensation. Then, Pittsburgh can focus on Trubisky and Pickett in the future.
Chris Oladokun: Be worth the draft pick
It was baffling at the time, and still is, that the Steelers spent a pick on Oladokun in the 2022 NFL Draft with three solid quarterbacks already on the roster. That confusion has been further compounded by the team’s reluctance to give Oladokun much of a chance to prove himself in training camp. He’ll likely get some chances in the preseason, however, and can hopefully show the traits of a good QB3 or even QB2. That would further incentivize trading Rudolph as well.
Running Back: Find a RB2
Perhaps the most obvious heading on this list: the Steelers desperately need to find a complementary back to Najee Harris. Pittsburgh’s multiple hosted workouts and signings of various backs across the league show that the team feels the same way. This preseason, Benny Snell, Anthony McFarland, Jaylen Warren, and the many other running backs on the roster will have a chance at claiming that RB2 spot. But it isn’t just about separating from the pack — it’s about showing who can be a viable weapon in a regular season NFL game, something none of the backs on the Steelers roster, besides Harris himself, have proven at this point.
Wide receiver: Minimize mistakes
The depth and talent of the Steelers’ WR room is undeniable, but they’ve yet to unlock their full potential. Drops, miscommunications, and even some maturity issues plagued the group last year, and with a new quarterback and some rookie additions this offseason, there’s no guarantee those problems will disappear in 2022.
It’s up to new WR coach Frisman Jackson and the receivers themselves to show improved focus this season and elevate the group into one of the better wide receiver cores in the league. That may seem unreasonable, but it’s an achievable ceiling for this incredibly talented group. With a tight battle to make the final roster for many at this position, minimizing mistakes will be paramount for many Steelers receivers this preseason.
Tight ends: Find a TE3
Pat Freiermuth is among the best young tight ends in the NFL right now, and Zach Gentry seems to have solidified his position as a good second option. But who comes next on the depth chart? It’s a wide-open positional battle between Connor Heyward, Jace Sternberger, and Kevin Rader, all of whom possess wildly different specialties and essentially the same chance at making the roster. The best bet is the rookie Heyward, who has the football pedigree and multifaceted skill set to claim the role, but he’s rather undersized for the position and will have to prove himself this preseason.
Offensive line: Show talent
The Steelers’ offensive line is considered among the team’s weakest positional groups. It’s fair to say that a number of the names Pittsburgh started last year would not have been starting on many other squads. That being said, the group was undermanned and inexperienced last season. With a new coach, some free agent talent, and a year of experience under their belts, a lot could change for the Pittsburgh O-line in 2022.
Dan Moore has reportedly enjoyed a good camp after enduring a trial by fire last year at left tackle, while Kendrick Green’s move to guard seems to be a good change for the athletic-yet-undersized interior lineman. His battle for the left guard spot with boom-or-bust prospect Kevin Dotson will be one to watch this preseason.
Despite fears of a plateau, Chukwuma Okorafor has a chance at improving this year with a new coach. Free agent addition Mason Cole should be a noticeable improvement over Green at center this year, while former Bear James Daniels might be the best offensive lineman this team has had for the past couple years as well.
A lot has changed regarding personnel and philosophy, and don’t underestimate how valuable a year of experience can be for last season’s rookies. There could be a night-and-day improvement for the offensive line as opposed to last year, but the truth will come out on game day. Hopefully, their performance this preseason will showcase that they can be a viable starting NFL unit.
Defensive line: Stop the run
The Steelers’ defensive front desperately needs to prove they can stop the run this preseason. It’s widely known the Steelers’ defensive line can rush the passer, but run defense has been a different story, with the Pittsburgh defense getting absolutely gashed in 2021 to the tune of 143.8 rushing yards allowed per game, an NFL-worst.
Injuries were a large part of the issue, but there’s still undeniable room for improvement. Offseason additions Larry Ogunjobi and DeMarvin Leal should help the problem, while young depth pieces such as Montravius Adams and the Davis brothers continue to show improvement. For veterans like Cam Heyward and Tyson Alualu, it’ll just be important to stay healthy. This defensive line seems to have the talent to be a formidable force this season, but this preseason will start to show if they truly have what it takes.
Inside Linebacker: Everything
There just isn’t much we know about this group. Even Devin Bush’s trademark athleticism is in doubt as it’s unclear if he ever fully recovered from 2020’s ACL injury, while it remains to be seen if Myles Jack can revive his career in Pittsburgh. Robert Spillane has had an inconsistent NFL career as has the depth behind him. How will this group stop the run? Is there enough athleticism to defend the pass? How strong is the depth? These major unknowns will begin to be answered this preseason.
EDGE: A big year for Highsmith
Alex Highsmith had a great preseason last year, but his regular season remained good but not great. He’s a solid linebacker already, but a Bud Dupree-esque leap this season opposite T.J. Watt could take the Steelers pass-rush to even higher levels. If Highsmith can show even more improvement this preseason, it would be an excellent sign for Pittsburgh’s defense.
The depth at this position behind Highsmith and Watt remains something to watch as well.
Cornerback: Find a CB1
The Steelers have a seemingly solid cornerback room this year, but there’s a glaring absence of a true CB1. Akhello Witherspoon, Levi Wallace, and Cam Sutton are all quality CB2s, but it remains to be seen if there’s a corner of shutdown quality like a truly elite defense requires. Cam Sutton seems to have shown all he has to offer at this point, but there’s a chance that Wallace’s fit on the Steeler defense or Witherspoon’s immense potential and confidence can turn into something special. This isn’t to say that the Steelers have a Jalen Ramsey hidden somewhere on the roster, but there’s a big need for a corner to step up in a big way, and one just might this preseason.
Safety: Damontae Kazee shines
The Steelers have a good starting safety duo in Terrell Edmunds and Minkah Fitzpatrick, but it has been a while since the team has had a quality third safety. However, with the Steelers’ offseason addition of veteran safety Damontae Kazee, a step above the usual depth signing, that could change. Kazee has a good bit of starting experience in his NFL career, even leading the league in interceptions in 2018. There’s no expectation of Kazee starting this year for Pittsburgh, but some quality play from him this preseason would lessen the chance of disaster if Edmunds or Fitzpatrick miss some games in 2022.
There aren’t many worries regarding Chris Boswell and Christian Kuntz, but consistency is most important for punter Pressley Harvin, who showed some talent last year but also a penchant for shanks. It should be noted that Harvin was dealing with two family deaths last year all while playing as a rookie in a harsh punting environment. With his challenging first season behind him, the expectations are higher for Harvin this year. With his talent he has a very good chance at greatly improving his play this preseason and showing he can be a reliable asset to the special teams unit.
Consistency is also essential for those competing to be the starting returner. Big plays in the return game are great, but what’s most important — and what Mike Tomlin values the most — is consistent, clean fielding of kicks and punts.
Of course, the most important thing to hope for this preseason are a lack of injuries for both the Steelers and their opponents.
Even in the preseason, it can be too early to draw conclusions about the state of the roster heading into the regular season. But if the Steelers can show some of the improvements listed above, it will be a good sign for when the games finally start to count.
What are your hopes for the Steelers’ 2022 preseason, and what else does the team need to prove? Make sure to list them in the comments below, and stay tuned to BTSC for more Steelers coverage as the preseason begins.