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Positional Grades: Steelers vs. Lions

Just like that, the preseason is over and we’re one step closer to the 2022 version of the Pittsburgh Steelers fully taking shape.

Of course, roster cuts are coming in the next few hours, which means some players’ dreams are dead, while other dreams are coming true. It’s a cruel, cruel business world in the NFL.

In regards to the game against the Lions though, there were some things to like offensively, others to not like. Same thing on the defensive side of the football in the 19-9 win to close the preseason at Acrisure Stadium.

Let’s dive in.

QB — B+ 

In the final tune-up before the regular season, Mitch Trubisky came through with his best performance of the preseason. Completing 15-of-19 passes for 160 yards and a touchdown, Trubisky looked poised throughout the afternoon and made some impressive throws throughout the first half.

His 38-yard deep ball to Diontae Johnson was perfectly placed down the sideline, as was his 32-yard back-shoulder throw to tight end Pat Freiermuth up the seam in the two-minute drill. Speaking of the two-minute drill, Trubisky was outstanding in that setting, completing six passes for 92 yards, marching the Steelers down the field for a touchdown in a little over a minute, giving the Steelers a 16-0 lead at the half.

He’ll be the starting quarterback Week 1.

Rookie Kenny Pickett came on in the second half and completed 10-of-14 passes for 90 yards and had some outstanding throws of his own, but he wasn’t able to do enough to truly challenge Trubisky for the starting job in his final opportunity. That said, he closed the preseason in style overall, completing more than 70% of his passes in the preseason without turning the football over. He’s going to be a good one.

Pickett’s back-shoulder throws to Miles Boykin and Tyler Vaughns were high-level NFL throws, and his incomplete pass to Gunner Olszewski in the red zone while on the run was an absolute dot that should have been caught.

Mason Rudolph received just five snaps in the win, going 0-for-3 on passing attempts, but he threw a terrific ball up the seam to tight end Jace Sternberger that should have been caught for a big gain. He’s clearly the No. 3 QB right now, and could be on the move via trade.

RB — C- 

Najee Harris played 28 snaps in his tune-up for the regular season and really didn’t do much with any of his seven touches on the afternoon. That was more of an issue with the offensive line in general than it was from Harris’ production standpoint. The second-year standout running back carried the ball four times for 10 yards with a long of 11, telling you all you need to know about the offensive line.

As a receiver, Harris hauled in three passes for 11 yards. He held up well in pass protection, giving Trubisky time to operate throughout the first half, but the real concern is the lack of space and time with the football that Harris was afforded Sunday.

Behind Harris, UDFA Jaylen Warren again had a strong showing, even if the numbers weren’t there. He rushed seven times for 11 yards, did a great job turning the corner on one run that should have gone for a loss, and showed his chops in pass protection, especially on chips, where he bowled over a Lions’ pass rusher in the first half on a chip. He did more than enough to make the team.

Benny Snell Jr. had a quiet day too, but had one the of the best runs of the day, finishing with five carries for 17 yards, including a bruising 8-yard carry in the second half in which he bounced off of multiple defenders. Anthony McFarland Jr. didn’t get enough run to show he should stick around either, finishing with two carries for six yards and one reception for seven yards. I’d imagine the Steelers would like to get him back on the practice squad.

WR — B

The wide receiver room certainly is making it a difficult process to work through for the decision makers in Pittsburgh, thanks to some strong play top to bottom throughout the preseason.

Johnson looked really good on his 38-yard catch down the left sideline, showing that ability to stack and win vertically. Rookie George Pickens continued to flash as well, finishing with three catches for 35 yards, including a beautiful toe-tapping back-shoulder catch on the two-minute drive to set up the throw to Freiermuth. He also had some great run blocks in the game as well.

Miles Boykin appeared to do enough to hold down his roster spot, finishing with three receptions for 41 yards, including the great twisting back-shoulder catch from Pickett in the third quarter for 29 yards.

Steven Sims and Vaughns made pushes for the 53-man roster too, with Sims hauling in four passes for 23 yards and the touchdown from Trubisky, while Vaughns added two catches for 24 yards in the win. They both appear to be ideal practice squad candidates, but their play in the preseason could see them land on 53-man rosters elsewhere.

Lots to like throughout the preseason from a position that is very clearly an area of strength for the Steelers.

TE — B+

It was so great to see Freiermuth stretch the field vertically Sunday against the Lions. Hopefully that will happen more and more throughout the 2022 season, as that was an area of his game that wasn’t utilized as a rookie.

The twisting catch he made on the back-shoulder throw up the seam from Trubisky for 32 yards in the two-minute drill was a thing of beauty. Hopefully there is more of that to come, because he has great hands and can win in those situations, especially against linebackers. He was also a decent blocker on Sunday, getting out on the move at times and engaging his hands and feet to move defenders. It was a good tune-up overall for the budding star tight end.

Behind him Connor Heyward was used as a fullback and h-back throughout the game, finishing with just two catches for four yards. It was curious though that he was the fullback in front of Harris to open the game. We’ll see how that factors into the decisions for roster cutdown. Sternberger played throughout much of the second half but couldn’t come down with the pass from Rudolph up the seam in the fourth quarter. He was cut Monday.

OL – C-

I’ll say this: the offensive line took some steps forward from a pass blocking standpoint, especially James Daniels at right guard. That said, still too sloppy from this unit as a whole.

Dan Moore Jr. was called twice for holding penalties and Chukwuma Okorafor was hit with one holding penalty. Both were drive killers.

Mason Cole was solid once again and appears to be the steadiest offensive lineman for the black and gold at the moment, for whatever that’s worth. Kevin Dotson was rather average overall, especially as a run blocker. That said, he was the highest-graded Steelers’ lineman from a pass blocking standpoint against the Lions in 25 reps. Something to build on.

Behind the starters, I was once again very displeased with Kendrick Green. He was missing blocks against third stringers, was on the ground a lot and just looks completely lost at the position. His time might be up.

Trent Scott looks like the swing tackle for the Steelers. Take that for what it’s worth. OL coach Pat Meyer likes him a lot, considering he’s taken him everywhere he’s gone, and he’s gotten some key reps ahead of Joe Haeg.

All that said, this depth chart on the offensive line could look drastically different come Tuesday at 4 p.m. I expect Omar Khan and the Steelers to be active adding pieces.

DL — B-

Yes, the Lions again rushed for a bunch of yards against the Steelers, but I really liked what I saw from the Steelers defensive line in this one.

Cam Heyward got some preseason action in and looked like his typical self. He controlled the line of scrimmage, stayed assignment sound and even batted two passes at the line, looking like his mid-season form.

Larry Ogunjobi and Tyson Alualu played as well and showed some decent reps against the run, though the Lions had some success running their way throughout the first half. Once the regular season hits though, I think the veterans will turn it up a notch and will get back to their consistent levels of play they’ve shown.

Behind the starting trio, I loved what I saw from DeMarvin Leal. He won consistently as a pass rusher, defended the run well and even batted a pass at the line of scrimmage. He looks like the real deal in the trenches for the Steelers. Great find there by the coaching and scouting staff. He’s going to be a problem as at least a rotational pass rusher this season.

Carlos Davis and Khalil Davis showed flashes on Sunday in the second half. Carlos recorded two tackles and a sack, winning consistently against backups, while Khalil recorded a tackle for loss, shooting a gap and dragging the ball carrier down for a sizable loss.

LB — C+

T.J. Watt remains T.J. Watt. He was disruptive immediately against the Lions and probably shouldn’t have played anymore snaps. That’s out of my control though, so we’ll leave it at that.

Outside of Watt, I liked what I saw from Derrek Tuszka in limited reps. He finished with four tackles and a pass deflection and certainly looked the part as a serviceable rotational depth piece. Same for Delontae Scott, who was strong against the run and created some pressure as a pass rusher, finishing with a sack and two tackles for a loss in the win. He might make the 53-man roster at this point.

Hamilcar Rashed Jr. got the start against the Lions and really didn’t do much with the opportunity. That said, the Steelers really like him, so we’ll see.

Inside, Myles Jack was again really strong against the run and nearly picked off a pass. Devin Bush was better in this one too, making a huge tackle for loss on fourth down to force a turnover on downs. Still, he struggled to get off blocks and his rep on the third and 17 draw was very poor. Long way to go, but showing signs of improvements.

Robert Spillane was very average again. He’s a good spot dropper in coverage and can handle tight ends in limited reps in coverage. He’s just not moving the needle at the position.

Mark Robinson was really strong once again and appears to have locked up a 53-man spot. He’s really good at reading and reacting right now, slipping under blocks, shedding blockers and is a sound tackler. Buddy Johnson looked better than he has on Sunday too, though he drew a pass interference penalty in the fourth quarter in coverage, an area he continues to struggle in.

DB — A-

I really, really liked what I saw from this group on Sunday, especially guys like Cameron Sutton, Tre Norwood, Elijah Riley and Carlins Platel.

Sutton picked off Lions quarterback Tim Boyle, Norwood was constantly around the football, Riley looked exceptional in his first action with the Steelers and Platel was playing some really good football until suffering what appears to be a season-ending injury.

Riley finished with four tackles and a pass breakup and might be the third safety on the roster at this point due to the injury to Damontae Kazee. Time will tell. Platel added three tackles and a pass breakup before being injured late.

Norwood was everywhere, recording five tackles in the win. So too was Minkah Fitzpatrick in the first half, finishing with four tackles and a sack for the Steelers, who have blitzed Fitzpatrick often this season. That’ll be something to monitor moving forward.

Ahkello Witherspoon and Levi Wallace looked strong coming downhill as tacklers, quieting some concerns about Witherspoon as a physical defender at least.

Special Teams — B-

Chris Boswell got plenty of work in Sunday, hitting 4-of-5 field goals in the win, including a long of 54 yards at Acrisure Stadium. He’s in mid-season form, though the blocking unit, especially Kendrick Green, wasn’t on the blocked field goal in the third quarter.

Punter Pressley Harvin III looked solid again, finishing with an average of 47.5 yards per punt on four attempts, downing two inside the 20 yard line with a long of 56 on the afternoon. He seems to be finding that consistency that eluded him as a rookie.

Coverage was mostly solid overall too, especially from Tuszka, who had a great open-field tackle on the Steelers’ first punt of the game.

McFarland had a nice kick return of 23 yards, making a defender miss in the process, but again, too little too late for the third-year running back.

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