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

The Steelers gathered last week for their mandatory mini-camp at the Rooney Sports Complex in Pittsburgh. It was a relatively low-key affair, as the “football-in-shorts” season often is. Reports of the schemes being installed or anything relating to the X and Us were banned, prompting fans to comb through still images of players lining up in their positions or short video clips of small group work. Not exactly the most compelling stuff. Still, there were plenty of stories to consider and numerous interviews to digest, making it easy for fans and media types.

Some of the more interesting comments came from the 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 rotation players in DeMarvin Leal, Connor Heyward, Mark Robinson and undrafted free agent Jaylen Warren. Despite this success, the coaching staff went out of their way to emphasize that the growth of these players and the leap they have to make from their freshman to sophomore year is of significant importance. It wasn’t like the coaches were putting the 2022 class “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 that he has been working with Pickett on his “feel” and when to climb the pocket versus when to bail out. Sullivan called this the next step in Pickett’s development.

In referring to Pickett’s “feel,” Sullivan spoke of a quarterback’s ability to sense the pressure of the pass rush while keeping his eyes downfield on his receivers. Young quarterbacks often struggle to do these things simultaneously. They either lock into the routes, causing them to hold the ball and take sacks; or they are so aware of pressure that they miss open receivers because their eyes are focused on the rush. Knowing how to balance the two can either be instinctive—some quarterbacks simply have the ability to process this information at once and to understand how to navigate the chaos as it unfolds around them—or it can be developed through repetitions.

Pickett seems more inclined to demand the latter. When Sullivan said Pickett struggled to “scramble” at times last season, he meant he was quick to bail out instead of moving his feet in the pocket to find room to throw. The advantage of staying in the pocket is that it allows routes to develop as they are intended, or to keep them “on schedule.” Routes are designed to exploit certain coverages, and the longer a quarterback can stay in the scheme, the better chance one of those receivers has to get open. When 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 playing in freelance situations. He was clearly more comfortable in those conditions than hanging in and working through his progression. But by escaping too quickly, he often missed potential big plays that were developing downfield.

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

Another interesting set of comments came from defensive coordinator Teryl Austin, who when asked about the performance of the 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 that Austin was genuine when he characterized Robinson in this way. Robinson is just a few years removed from playing running back in the SEC. Expecting him to lock down a starting job in the NFL after just two years of full-time linebacker training is a little unrealistic.

I also think Austin was trying to motivate Robinson by playing down his chances of starting. While I don’t believe in Austin expect Robinson to start – the Steelers signed free agents Cole Holcomb and Elandon Roberts to that end – I absolutely think he expects some 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 replacing them. Holcomb is a nice player with 48 career starts under his belt. But he is coming off a 2022 season in which he played just seven games due to injury, and he also missed five games in 2020 with an injury. Roberts started all 17 games last season in Miami and has made 76 career starts. But his coverage skills are mediocre and he’s not considered a three-down backer. Between Holcomb’s injury history and Roberts’ limitations, the Steelers will almost certainly have a third back in the mix who can provide both insurance and competition.

Given the fact that they haven’t signed a veteran free agent to be the third linebacker, nor did they pick one in April NFL draft, they must feel safe with 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 will be the starter. Why, given that opportunity, would Austin insert a player into the lineup who, by his own admission, isn’t ready? I don’t think he would. Therefore, his comments about hoping Robinson can be ready to start in 2024 were probably more for the player’s ears than our own. Austin is sure his words help motivate Robinson, whose against-all-odds mentality makes him a perfect candidate for that kind of tactic.

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

The comments that got the biggest headlines, however, were those that wide receivers coach Frisman Jackson directed at Pickens. Jackson said a repeat of Pickens’ rookie season, in which the Georgia product caught 52 passes for 801 yards and four touchdowns, would be a “failure.” Every time a coach puts the name of a well-known player and the word “failure” together in a sentence, the ears perk up. Not surprisingly, Jackson’s comments grabbed headlines.

While some writers tried to turn Jackson’s comments into a controversy, there was nothing scandalous about them. Jackson said Pickens “has to be a great player for us” and that to do that he needs to make a leap — “The big leap we’re all looking for.” Jackson went on to say, “For him to play the way he played last year, {it 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 is the difference between what Jackson said about Pickens and what Sullivan said about Pickett? Sullivan suggested that Pickett needs to grow in order 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 details. How is that controversial?

My suspicion is that it is because he used the word “error”. Jackson didn’t suggest Pickens was a failure as a rookie. What he said was that it will be a failure if his game does not improve. Which is exactly right. And as I’m sure Pickens understands.

Pickens showed big-play ability last season and was effective at making contested catches, especially on fade balls down the sideline. Beyond those, however, his route tree was limited. Jackson’s comments suggest Pickens needs to develop as a route runner and master the nuances of his craft to take his game to the next level. Maximizing Picken’s considerable potential could be one of the biggest keys to improving the performance of the offense. If the Steelers can’t do that, it would truly be a failure.

So while the headlines suggest that Jackson was calling Pickens’ attention for his comments, all he really did was say that Pickens’ growth, like Pickett’s, 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, who all got attention last week, it’s clear that the expectation level 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 Steelers’ success in 2023.

Leave a Comment