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Positional Grades: Steelers vs. Seahawks

Saturday’s night’s preseason opener between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Seattle Seahawks at Acrisure Stadium might have been one of the more entertaining preseason matchups in recent memory. Oftentimes the preseason is very bland, but Saturday’s 32-25 win for the Steelers featured plenty of highlights on both sides of the football and got the new era in the Steel City off to a fast start.

All three quarterbacks failed to separate themselves on Saturday – in a good way — as Mitch Trubisky, Mason Rudolph and Kenny Pickett all played very well in extended action. Backup running backs Anthony McFarland and Jaylen Warren raised some serious eyebrows, and George Pickens continues to take his star turn.

Defensively, rookies DeMarvin Leal and Mark Robinson both flashed for the black and gold, while some key veterans like Arthur Maulet and Tre Norwood had impressive nights overall. Still, some major concerns remain along the defensive line and inside linebackers as the Seahawks did whatever they wanted on the ground against the Steelers inside Acrisure Stadium.

Don’t overreact too far one way or another on these grades. It’s preseason and it’s pretty hard to keep track of 70+ guys that played on Saturday night for the Steelers. Lots to like, some things not to like. Let’s dive in.

QB — A-

Well, that was fun.

Mitch Trubisky, Mason Rudolph and Kenny Pickett all lead scoring drives on Saturday night, and all looked rather good doing it. That’ll make the decision under center that much more difficult.

Trubisky started the game and finished 4-for-7 for 63 yards and a score on the night, finding Gunner Olszewski wide open in the left corner of the end zone for a 13-yard touchdown on the first drive of the game. A touchdown for the Steelers offense on the game’s first drive? This truly might be a new era.

I liked what I saw from Trubisky, especially from a decision-making perspective. He was quick and decisive, threw with good anticipation and really saw the field well working through his progressions. He also did a great job utilizing his legs in limited action, stepping out of a would-be sack to scramble for 4 yards, and then later scrambled to his left and found Olszewski for the score.

Rudolph (9-for-15, 93 yards, one touchdown) had arguably the best throw of the day on his 26-yard strike to Pickens for a touchdown. He looked really confident overall, moved well within the pocket, worked through his reads quickly and made the correct decisions, for the most part, throughout the game. That said, Rudolph also had the two worst plays of the day from the quarterbacks as he was strip-sacked on the first play of the game for him (through no fault of his own) and also threw late across the middle for what should have been an interception but was dropped.

Rudolph realistically should have had two touchdown passes, but Miles Boykin couldn’t haul in a well-placed, perfectly-timed slant in the red zone between two defenders.

Pickett (13-for-15, 95 yards, two touchdowns) really stole the show though, especially late with the game-winning drive. He used his legs very well, threw with great anticipation and confidence and appeared extremely comfortable overall. He directed the offense with great poise, showed off his ability to throw outside the numbers with zip and proper timing, and really did a nice job staying within himself to direct the offense up and down the field on two scoring drives.

A lot to like from the quarterbacks coming out of this one.

RB — B

Saturday’s performance might be the one that helps Anthony McFarland turn the corner and really start to realize his potential. Getting a bit of a showcase Saturday with Najee Harris and Benny Snell Jr. both sitting out due to injuries, McFarland seized upon his opportunity and showed great burst and elusiveness, rushing for 56 yards on seven carries, including an impressive 24-yard jaunt off left tackle on third and one early in the game. He ran well between the tackles too and had good vision overall. Pleasantly surprised by McFarland coming out of Saturday’s game.

Rookie Jaylen Warren had a really strong game as well, aside from a fumble that drew the ire of head coach Mike Tomlin. Warren has been the talk of camp at the backup running back position and carried that over into the game, rushing for 34 yards on six carries, adding another 30 yards and a touchdown on four receptions in the win. He ran hard downhill, made defenders miss at a high clip and showed great hands out of the backfield in traffic. He’s going to really push for playing time.

Master Teague III flashed in limited action late in the fourth quarter, picking up 31 yards on six carries, running over some defenders in the process. He did a great job running downhill, falling forward and dishing out punishment at every opportunity. Hopefully he gets some more work against the Jacksonville Jaguars.

I was a bit disappointed by Mataeo Durant. He carried the football just two times for 4 yards and had a disastrous attempt deep in his own end in pass protection, getting dumped onto his backside to give up an ugly sack of Pickett. He also wasn’t targeted in the passing game at all, and appears to be the clear 5th back in training camp right now.

WR — B+

Much like the quarterbacks, a lot to like here for the Steelers.

Pickens truly looks like the real deal. He showed great body control and awareness twice on three catches, dragging his feet in the back of the end zone to haul in Rudolph’s strike for the score, and later showed off elite body control to twist, tap his feet down and haul in the pass on the far sideline one drive later, finishing with three catches for 46 yards and the score.

Olszewski certainly flashed as a receiver and looks like he could bring more to the table for the black and gold than just special teams prowess. He had a great run-after-catch reception for 24 yards, found himself wide open on the 13-yard touchdown and added another solid chain-moving reception later in the first half to lead the Steelers in receptions and yards with three catches for 47 yards.

Steven Sims really impressed me on his 38-yard run on a jet sweep in the second half. He has great top-end speed when he’s able to open it up in the open field. As a receiver though, just one catch for 2 yards. Hopefully he gets more work next week because he showed some high-level releases off the line and was open on a few looks.

Vaughns continues to perform very, very well for the Steelers with Pickett. He was targeted twice and hauled in both for 32 yards and a score on the night, including the game-winning 24-yard catch-and-run from the rookie quarterback. He can play on the boundary and in the slot, and showed some wiggle after the catch in both instances Saturday.

Boykin should have had a touchdown, but he did display strong hands on his first catch of the night, hauling in one from Rudolph on the far sideline with a cornerback draped all over him. He also recovered Warren’s fumble with a good heads-up showing. He’ll need to keep making plays in the passing game though to stick on the roster. That missed opportunity in the end zone from Rudolph isn’t helping him.

TE — B-

The depth here might be a bit better than anticipated, quite honestly.

Rookie Connor Heyward showed just how comfortable he was as an offensive weapon on Saturday, hauling in two passes for 24 yards, including a long of 16 yards on a leaping grab on a crossing route from Trubisky to move the chains. He struggled some as a blocker, which isn’t unexpected, and he did have a false start penalty, which will draw the ire of Tomlin and fellow teammates.

Jace Sternberger did a nice job in limited action, hauling in two passes for 20 yards, including Pickett’s first completion of the night on a rollout. He’s had a strong training camp and that continued on Saturday, though he’s not bringing much as a blocker at the moment.

Kevin Rader did a really nice job as a blocker, helping move people off the line of scrimmage to open lanes for McFarland and Warren. He also had one catch for 6 yards, but failed to come down with a throw from Trubisky early in the game on a back-shoulder look up the seam.

OL — C-

Some good, some bad on the night for the new-look Steelers offensive line.

I really liked what I saw from Chukwuma Okorafor in limited action on Saturday. He was moving guys in the run game and really showed some physicality in pass protection at times, building off of the step forward he took in 2021. Dan Moore Jr. had some positive plays overall, but the sack allowed to Seattle rookie Boye Mafe was the play the will stick out. He needs to improve as a pass blocker, and that rush from Mafe showed Moore might still have some issues with speed and hand usage off the edge.

Inside, it wasn’t very good. Kendrick Green was really, really rough at left guard, especially in pass protection. He whiffed on a few occasions, was driving back into the pocket on another and just really didn’t show he could handle length and strength inside. He was fine as a run blocker though, helping spring McFarland on his 24-yard run.

Mason Cole was rather quiet at center, though he flashed some as a run blocker, moving people off the spot throughout his limited action Saturday. Not much to write home about from a pass blocking standpoint.

James Daniels was the real disappointment. It might be adjusting to a new center and a new scheme, but he looked out of whack Saturday. He struggled with passing guys off, missed some assignments and got flat-out beat off the ball in pass protection at times, putting Trubisky and Rudolph in danger. Not great.

The second string line was fine, for the most part. Chaz Green is not a guard, and likely isn’t even an NFL offensive lineman at this point. I liked what I saw from J.C. Hassenauer inside, as well as John LeGlue and Joe Haeg. The right side of the offensive line was rather solid in the second half. They should be, considering the amount of experience that was out there. LeGlue is very, very intriguing.

DL — C-

Rookie DeMarvin Leal and second-year pro Isaiahh Loudermilk had some strong reps on Saturday night. Henry Mondeaux recorded a sack. After that, not much to really like from the defensive line overall.

The Seattle offensive line got a ton of push up front, moving guys off the football left and right. Mondeaux is not a 0-tech at all. He can’t hold up. Chris Wormley is a solid pass rusher, but he’s still struggling to control the point of attack in the run game.

Carlos and Khalil Davis didn’t have much to talk about until Khalil cleaned the clock of a Seattle ball carrier on the final play of the game to end it. They can flash athleticism all they want, but they aren’t winning consistently on the interior.

I thought Donovan Jeter had some intriguing reps in the fourth quarter, flashing as a pass rusher a few times to create pressure, one of which led to Hamilcar Rashed’s sack, but overall the defense line really struggled to do anything against the run game, which remains a real concern moving forward.

LB — D+

Man…not great!

Aside from a flashy run stop on third and short from Myles Jack, and the forced fumble on a sack by rookie Mark Robinson, this group really struggled in the real game situation for the Steelers.

Devin Bush had some really ugly reps overall. He showed some burst and instincts at times, but too often he was allowing linemen to climb to the second level to reach him. Once that happens, it’s over for him. That rep on the cutback from Travis Homer was as bad as it gets. Robert Spillane did not have a strong game at all, which was a surprise considering how he’s played in training camp. He struggled in coverage, had some poor run fits and missed at least one tackle through my two viewings of the tape.

Buddy Johnson looked like a guy still trying to figure out the defense. He was a step slow, really struggled in coverage and was often making tackles against the run 5-6 yards downfield. That’s not what you want from your run-stopping inside linebacker. I really liked what I saw from Robinson on the sack though, going for the football and the hit, rather than differentiating between the two. Still, he struggled in coverage too and had a really ugly rep and a missed tackle on DeeJay Dallas’ catch-and-run for a score.

Outside, I liked what I saw in limited action from Rashed, including the sack. He mixed it up as a pass rusher at times and created pressure. Derrek Tuszka struggled in space and had a bad angle in the flats to allow a short throw to move the chains. He set the edge well against the run though. I liked what Delontae Scott did in the first half, but he fell off from there, struggling against the run and generating no pressure whatsoever.

Tuzar Skipper’s fumble recovery on the Robinson strip-sack was the only real noteworthy play he had on the day. Not much to really like from the outside linebacker depth so far.

DB — B

The starting unit at cornerback looks just fine. Ahkello Witherspoon looked really good coming downhill in run support, Cameron Sutton played well on the boundary and Levi Wallace was exactly as advertised as a run defender. Hopefully Witherspoon’s shoulder injury doesn’t linger.

Behind those three, there were flashes of things to like. James Pierre played well and had a huge breakup in the end zone. He seems more comfortable this year. He added six tackles too and quietly had a strong night. Arthur Maulet was really good too, coming downhill to play around the line of scrimmage with physicality.

I did not like what I saw at all from Carlins Platel and Linden Stephens. Both missed tackles in space and really didn’t offer anything in coverage. Time is ticking on them, it appears.

At safety, Tre Norwood was awesome. He held the Seahawks to zero completions when targeted four times on the night and had two breakups in the end zone. He’s going to be a serious chess piece for the Steelers. Damontae Kazee was his physical self as well and had some strong open-field tackles on Saturday night.

Donovan Stiner struggled to tackle in space, including a big miss on Dallas with Robinson on the touchdown.

Special Teams — B

Steven Sims really made a strong push for a role in Pittsburgh with his 38-yard punt return in the first half, leading to Rudolph’s touchdown to Pickens. He did a great job making a number of defenders miss and really showed he can provide that splash. I also liked what I saw from McFarland on the opening return, though Cody White’s penalty wiped out the strong runback from the Steelers.

Coverage was sound throughout the night, with Boykin and Heyward recording two special teams stops each.

Punting was rather poor though. Cameron Nizialek averaged just 44.3 yards per punt, had a shank that fortunately rolled for a 53-yard punt, and had one touchback. He didn’t have great placement or touch on his punts, so it’s not a surprise he’s not challenging Pressley Harvin III overall.

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