Following in line with what most expect, ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler – a former Steelers’ beat writer – believes QB Mitch Trubisky will open the season as Pittsburgh’s starter when they travel to Cincinnati Week 1. Fowler went on to argue a Trubisky-led team can remain competitive.
Appearing on ESPN’s Keyshawn, JWill, and Max Show, Fowler said all signs point to the veteran Trubisky beating out rookie Kenny Pickett.
“It’s looking like if there is a favorite, it’s Mitchell Trubisky,” he told the group. “He’s positioned himself well. He had a good spring. The feeling out of Pittsburgh is it’s his job to lose. Kenny Pickett’s gonna play. Just depends on when.”
Trubisky ran as the team’s starter during spring workouts, OTAs and minicamp. While that doesn’t give him an ironclad lock on the job throughout the summer, it would take him struggling combined with Pickett playing well for the depth chart to shift. Mason Rudolph is also in the conversation, but it would take a lot for him to begin the year as the starter. Currently, it’s an open question whether or not he’s still a Steeler come the season opener.
Fowler was then asked if he thinks Pittsburgh can still compete for a playoff spot.
“If you take the quarterback out of it, we always overinflate the quarterback position, right? That that’s just going to result in 12 wins or losses. But the reality is, you have to have a good overall roster to make it happen. This is a good roster. Offensive line’s the issue, right? If they can play respectable offensive line play up front for whoever’s the quarterback, then I think their chances are pretty good. This is gonna be a top five to seven defense again.”
“Take the quarterback out of it” is a heck of a spin, and the Steelers are in an AFC North with some of the top names at the position: Joe Burrow, Lamar Jackson, and (at some point) Deshaun Watson. Pittsburgh will have to compete with those names for the next 5+ seasons, meaning they have to match with strong play at the position themselves. But Fowler is right quarterback isn’t the sole deciding factor of a team’s success. Watson’s Texans teams were pretty bad with him, too. As he points to, the Steelers’ offensive line is what really may make or break this team. But when your two biggest question marks are at quarterback and o-line, it makes for serious concerns.
Pittsburgh’s O-line must prove itself this year and free agent additions Mason Cole and James Daniels must be substantial improvements over the men they’re replacing, Kendrick Green and Trai Turner. Cole can be just a serviceable, average center while Daniels must be the best lineman on this team.
Fowler believes the offense will shift in what it’s capable of doing, opening up a wider menu of plays for second-year OC Matt Canada, who is getting to run “his” offense really for the first time.
“They also had an offense with Ben Roethlisberger where he was aging, had to get rid of the ball really fast. They weren’t really driving the ball deep down field. If they can do a little bit of that, then that buys the offensive line some time…I think they’ll be less one-dimensional, which will help the offensive line.”
Expectations are for Pittsburgh to throw downfield more effectively this season though as Dave Bryan’s recent study concluded, Trubisky’s track record is only marginally better than what Roethlisberger has done. Perhaps a change of scenery and better weapons boost his numbers, but it’s an open question for an offense bound to deal with their share of growing pains. The better Pittsburgh’s defense plays, the more margin of error their offense can be afforded.