Steelers 2022 Preseason: Three Battles To Watch

August 19, 2022
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The Steelers find themselves with many key positions still up for grabs heading into the second week of the preseason. Breaking down three battles most important for the team and their success.

As the Steelers look towards the season’s second preseason matchup, there are a few notable preseason camp battles to watch. The way these contests shake out will go a long way toward determining the shape of the Pittsburgh depth chart for the 2022 season. Here are the biggest camp battles that you should keep an eye on as preseason progresses:

A Rare Preseason Quarterback Controversy For The Pittsburgh Steelers

For the first time in Mike Tomlin’s tenure as head coach for the Steelers, he does not have a Hall-of-Famer named Ben Roethlisberger behind center. The trio of Mitch Trubisky, Mason Rudolph, and Kenny Pickett are duking it out for the starting spot so far this season.

Trubisky got the starting nod for the first preseason game against the Seahawks. He only played the first two series but managed to throw for an opening-drive touchdown to a wide-open Gunner Olszewski, something the Steelers struggled mightily with last season. In the second series, Trubisky was marching the team down the field again but came away with no points to show for it. Overall, it was a good showing from the presumed starter. 

The second quarterback to play against the Seahawks was veteran Mason Rudolph. The crowd was booing him as he tossed a 26-yard touchdown to the electric rookie, George Pickens. It was a beautiful touch-pass that was followed up by an even more beautiful catch. Rudolph made the most of the opportunity, finishing the first half with 93 passing yards and that touchdown pass. Check out this article about Rudolph and his future with the team: https://steelerreport.com/2022/08/02/mason-rudolph-winning-starting-job-means-the-steelers-failed/

The team’s first-round selection, Kenny Pickett, played the entire second half and put on a show. He threw for only 95 yards but threw for a two-point conversion and two touchdowns including the game-winner to Tyler Vaughns with three seconds left. The critics will say that he did not throw the ball down the field and that the receivers helped him out. My response to that would be to watch that game-winning pass to Vaughns. It was a 14-yard out-route that was thrown with perfect strength and accuracy. That is a high-level NFL throw.

Tomlin spoke with the media on Wednesday about the plans for Saturday’s second preseason game. He listed Trubisky as the starter, with Pickett to follow. Many expected this after Pickett’s continued growth and a possible Mason Rudolph trade upcoming. If one were to guess, Pickett will continue his growth but not enough to dethrone Trubisky for the number one spot.

Who’s After Najee Harris For The Steelers Run Game This Season?

As most fans know, Najee Harris will get the bulk of carries this season, as he should. An alarming fact that arose from last year is his usage rate. Harris finished last season with 307 rushing attempts and 74 receptions, which are absurd numbers for a running back. In comparison, that is more rushing attempts than Joe Mixon, and only seven receptions less than breakout-star, Ja’Marr Chase.

The Steelers’ focus should be on finding a true backup for this season. Throughout camp, Benny Snell has been the backup but he did not appear in the matchup against the Seahawks. This allowed for other players to shine. Third-year running back, Anthony McFarland Jr., and undrafted free agent, Jaylen Warren, combined to put on a show.

McFarland struggled to find his footing in his first two seasons, often tripping over himself while running the ball. At least for one game, it appears he figured that issue out as he had a team-high 56 rushing yards on seven carries. His sudden burst of speed, mixed with his shiftiness could become a lethal package in this league.

Undrafted rookie Jaylen Warren ran for power in the first game and was impressive enough to earn some first-team reps at camp this week. His undeniable effort and unwillingness to go down, despite his five-eight frame, opened the eyes of fans and coaches alike. His final stat line from Saturday’s game was 34 yards on six carries to go along with four receptions, 30 more yards through the air, and a receiving touchdown.

We have yet to see Benny Snell in a game scenario but he does have his own brand of running, what he likes to call “Benny Snell Football.” He has yet to show what that really means, but with his age and experience, he should have first looks in regards to the backup role. Performance is the major factor when it comes to Snell. If he cannot get healthy nor produce and the other young guys continue to do so, it is possible the Steelers move on from him sooner rather than later.

Nonetheless, the Steelers will most likely roster three running backs heading into the year. With Harris’s spot a lock, three guys are fighting for the last two openings. My prediction is as follows: Najee Harris, Jaylen Warren, and Anthony McFarland Jr.

The Steelers Linebacking Group Is Possibly The Most Important Camp Battle To Watch

Probably the most important position battle on the defensive side of the ball is at middle linebacker. Newly acquired, Myles Jack, will undoubtedly be the top guy up the middle for the Steelers, but who is his running-mate? As for Jack, he saw limited action in his first game with the Steelers. In those few plays, he showed the skill that once had him in the “Top Middle Linebacker” discussion with All-Pro players like Bobby Wagner. 

As for the competition, the Steelers have Devin Bush and Robert Spillane. Bush is coming off a down season in many people’s eyes, a year after tearing his ACL. Many fans were optimistic about the fact he would bounce right back to the way he played as a rookie, fast and free-flowing. That was not the case this past season as he struggled with confidence in his own body.

This lack of confidence resulted in many missed tackles and stretches of horrid effort. Having a full year to rebuild strength and confidence, Bush has a chance to reclaim his glory and show fans why the Steelers traded up to the tenth pick in the 2019 NFL Draft to select him.

After one preseason game, he has not shown much progression, getting juked and run past by Seahawks running backs. A positive to take away is that Brian Flores, the linebackers coach, has spoken in good faith in regards to Bush, saying he has been making all of the “unsung plays” in camp. Will this translate to the field? I hope so but would not bet on it. There’s still an outside shot that Bush is traded by the Steelers.

Robert Spillane, the conductor of the pain train, is my betting favorite to be Myles Jack’s second half this season. Spillane is most notably remembered for his bone-crushing collision with Titans’ All-Pro running back, Derrick Henry. Spillane can lay the wood, play against the run, and has decent coverage skills. He outshines Bush in the run game by a wide margin and is about equal in terms of coverage skills. The combination of those things will ultimately lead to Spillane winning the job. 

After the preseason is over, some of these players may not be a member of the Steelers roster anymore. As for their skill, they all should make the team but with cuts and trades looming overhead, I can see some of them not being in town in a few weeks. Players like Kenny Pickett and Jaylen Warrenwill continue to impress and garner more attention. For players like Rudolph and Bush, it feels like their time is ticking down as members of the Steelers. Only time will tell, but these position battles are intense and good for the team.