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The Steelers’ coaching staff sent a clear message to its second-year players

The Pittsburgh Steelers second year players have been put on notice after minicamp.

NFL: MAY 24 Pittsburgh Steelers OTA Offseason Workouts Photo by Brandon Sloter/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Steelers assembled last week for their mandatory mini-camp at the Rooney Sports Complex in Pittsburgh. It was a relatively low-key affair, as “football-in-shorts” season often is. Reports on the schemes being installed or anything pertaining to X and Os were prohibited, which left fans combing through still photos of players lining up in their stances or short video clips of small-group work. Not exactly the most compelling stuff. Still, there were plenty of storylines to consider, and numerous interviews to digest, which fans and media-types did so readily.

Some of the more interesting comments came from Steelers’ coaches in reference to the team’s second-year players. It was an encouraging start for last year’s rookie class, which produced starters in Kenny Pickett and George Pickens and rotational players in DeMarvin Leal, Connor Heyward, Mark Robinson and undrafted free agent Jaylen Warren. That success notwithstanding, the coaching staff went out of their way to stress that the growth of these players and the jump they must make from their first to second year is of significant importance. It wasn’t like the coaches put the Class of 2022 “on blast,” as the click-bait writers like to say. But they didn’t exactly keep their thoughts to themselves. The message was pretty clear: for the Steelers to succeed in 2023, their second-year players must step up.

It began with quarterbacks coach Mike Sullivan, who told the media he’s been working with Pickett on his “feel,” and when to climb in the pocket versus when to bail out. Sullivan called this the next step in Pickett’s development.

In referencing Pickett’s “feel,” Sullivan was talking about a quarterback’s ability to sense the pressure of the pass rush while keeping his eyes down the field on his receivers. Young quarterbacks often struggle to do these things simultaneously. They either lock in on the routes, which causes them to hold the ball and take sacks; or, they’re so conscious of pressure that they miss open receivers because their eyes are focused on the rush. Knowing how to balance the two can either be instinctual — some quarterbacks simply have the ability to process this information all at once and to understand how to navigate the chaos as it unfolds around them — or it can be developed through repetition.

Pickett seems more likely to require the latter. When Sullivan said Pickett struggled to “climb” at times last season, he meant that he was quick to bail out rather than moving his feet within the pocket to find space to throw. The benefit of staying inside the pocket is that it allows routes to develop as they’re intended, or to keep them “on schedule.” Routes are designed to exploit particular coverages, and the longer a quarterback can stay on schedule, the better chance one of those receivers has of coming open. Once a quarterback leaves the pocket, the integrity of the route structure is broken and things essentially become a fire drill. Pickett did a good job at times last season of using that chaos to his advantage by making plays in free-lance situations. He was clearly more comfortable under those conditions than he was hanging in and working through his progression. But by fleeing too quickly, he often missed potential big plays that were developing down the field.

At times, Pickett had no choice but to leave the pocket due to it collapsing around him. Pittsburgh’s pass protection improved as the year progressed, however, while Pickett remained quick to look for an escape. The good news is that, unlike last season, Pickett is taking all of the off-season reps as QB1, which should aid in this development. One way or another, for the Steelers to become more effective in the passing game, this aspect of Pickett’s game must evolve.

Another interesting set of comments came from defensive coordinator Teryl Austin, who when asked about the performance of the inside linebackers, described Robinson as “a work in progress.” Austin said he hoped Robinson would be ready to compete for a starting job next season, as in 2024.

I have no doubt Austin was being genuine when he characterized Robinson this way. Robinson is just a few years removed from playing running back in the SEC. To expect him to lock down a starting job in the NFL after just two years of full-time linebacker training is a bit unrealistic.

I also believe Austin was attempting to motivate Robinson by downplaying his chances to start. While I don’t believe Austin expects Robinson to start — the Steelers did sign free agents Cole Holcomb and Elandon Roberts for that purpose — I think he absolutely expects a spirited competition from Robinson for those starting roles.

The Steelers parted ways with their top three linebackers from last season — Myles Jack, Devin Bush and Robert Spillane — and didn’t exactly break the bank in replacing them. Holcomb is a nice player with 48 career starts under his belt. But he’s coming off of a 2022 season where he played just seven games due to injury, and he missed five games in 2020 with an injury as well. Roberts started all 17 games last season in Miami and has made 76 starts in his career. But his coverage skills are mediocre and he is not viewed as a three-down backer. Between Holcomb’s injury history and Roberts’ limitations, the Steelers almost certainly want a third backer in the mix who can provide both insurance and competition.

Given the fact they have not signed a veteran free agent to be that third backer, nor did they select one in April’s NFL draft, they must feel confident in Robinson. It seems unlikely that Holcomb and Roberts will stay healthy enough to start all 17 games together — that’s just the nature of the beast in the NFL. Under the current circumstances, that would mean Robinson becomes the starter. Why, given that possibility, would Austin put a player into the lineup who, by his own admission, isn’t ready for it? I don’t believe he would. Which is why his comments about hoping Robinson can be ready to start by 2024 were probably more for the player’s ears than for our own. Austin is banking that his words help motivate Robinson, whose against-all-odds mentality makes him a perfect candidate for that sort of tactic.

(For more on Robinson, check out this piece by my colleague Shannon White):

The comments that got the biggest headlines, though, were the ones wide receivers’ coach Frisman Jackson directed towards Pickens. Jackson said a repeat of Pickens’ rookie season, during which the Georgia product caught 52 passes for 801 yards and four touchdowns, would be a “failure.” Any time a coach puts the name of a well-known player and the word “failure” in a sentence together, ears perk up. It’s not surprising Jackson’s comments garnered headlines.

While some writers attempted to spin Jackson’s comments into a controversy, there was nothing scandalous about them. Jackson said Pickens “has got to be a great player for us,” and that to do so, he has to make a jump — “That big jump we are all looking for.” Jackson continued by saying, “For him to play like he played last year, {would be} a failure. A failure on my part and a failure on his part. He’s got to play at a great level.”

What’s the difference between what Jackson said about Pickens and what Sullivan said about Pickett? Sullivan suggested Pickett needs to grow for the Steelers passing game to improve and cited his pocket awareness as a specific area for growth. Jackson did the same with Pickens, minus the detail. How is that controversial?

My suspicion is it’s because he used the word “failure.” Jackson did not suggest Pickens was a failure as a rookie. What he said was it will be a failure if his play does not improve. Which is totally accurate. And which I’m sure Pickens understands.

Pickens displayed big-play ability last season and was effective making contested catches, especially on fade balls along the sideline. Beyond those, however, his route tree was limited. Jackson’s comments suggest Pickens must develop as a route-runner and master the nuances of his craft in order to take his game to the next level. Maximizing Pickens’s substantial potential could be one of the biggest keys towards improving the performance of the offense. If the Steelers can’t do so, it would indeed be a failure.

So, while the headlines suggest Jackson put Pickens on notice with his comments, all he really did was state that the growth of Pickens, much like the growth of Pickett, will be directly tied to the team’s success.

Whether it’s Pickett, Robinson, Pickens, or some of the other second-year players, like Leal, Heyward and Calvin Austin III, all of whom garnered attention last week, it’s clear the level of expectation from the coaching staff has risen. The jump between a player’s first and second season is often significant, and Pittsburgh’s coaches suggested last week that they need their players to make it. The pressure is on for this group of sophomores, and how they handle it could very well determine the success of the Steelers in 2023.