The Pittsburgh Steelers 2022 preseason opener had no shortage of fireworks thanks to their rookie class. All of the rookies who got in on the action had a positive impact that solidified their strong start. In this article, we’re going to talk about a few games that stood out and what we learned about these guys when they first tested against live NFL competition.
Throwing by technique of George Pickens
As only he can do these days, Pickens stole the show by catching a bomb in the corner of the end zone, tapping his foot to another touchdown score. While this piece is the one that’s been circulating all over social media for good reason, it’s not the piece we’re going to be looking at. Instead, I wanted to run his first catch in the NFL which was a simple loop that gained nine yards.
It’s the attention to detail that intrigues me for a young receiver already stuffed with immense talent. Pickens draws fellow rookie Tariq Woolen into press coverage on the first snap of the game and begins by taking an outside exit. He then works the technical throw to target Woolen’s inside shoulder and lands a subtle elbow to ensure Woolen’s momentum continues to carry him down the court. It’s something receivers coach Frisman Jackson repeated many times throughout training camp and to walk into a stadium and display it immediately is a fantastic job.
A common mistake that many young receivers make when trying to use this technique is that they execute the move but don’t try to get out of the cut and back into the football. However, Pickens is not just any young receiver. You can see him coming back into the flight path of Trubisky’s throw, which only increases the distance he has to the cornerback. Because of that extra space, Pickens is able to secure the holds and move up the field several more yards.
Kenny Pickett Game Winner
It didn’t take long for the Steelers’ first-round pick to step up as a hero for the home team. In his very first game as a professional, Pickett led for a six-play, 43-yard touchdown with just seconds left to put his team ahead. He saved his best for last as his final completion of the night was arguably his most impressive and we’ll talk about several reasons why that’s the case.
It all starts with pre-snap recognition, a single high safety with the fieldside cornerback playing inside leverage. Normally that would be a 3 coverage indicator for the quarterback, but Vaughns’ escape route will always be open as long as the curl/flat defender doesn’t continue to gain depth. Pickett’s eyes quickly land on Vaughn and he notices the slot defender starting to drag inside, meaning he’s playing man-to-man.
Because the corner on the side of the field plays inside on a searing road, he has already lost a step. Pickett throws with anticipation on this rep as the ball leaves his hands as the receiver enters the break point, reducing the possibility that the defender could undermine the throw for a takeaway. Vaughns has plenty of time to come out of his hiatus and return to football before coming back up the field and essentially scoring a scoreless touchdown.
Pickett’s balance in the pocket on this play is also remarkable as he takes a killing blow from the defensive tackle that runs freely through the A gap. Even with pressure in his neck, he still goes fully into the throw , which helps it generate maximum speed. Showing that kind of balance at that point in your first career game as a pro is definitely the kind of effort that will generate a ton of buzz around the fan base.
DeMarvin Leal’s Cross-Chop
DeMarvin Leal was generating first-round buzz at the start of his senior year at Texas A&M, but ended up slipping well into Day 2 of the NFL Draft for a number of reasons. One of them was that he played the full defensive line in college, never really finding a real home anywhere from year to year. Up 280 pounds during the NFL Combine, Leal has added about 20 pounds to his frame since being drafted by the Steelers.
Leal’s stat sheet didn’t look that impressive with just two tackles in limited playing time. However, I saw the same talented pass thrower that I saw watching his college tape throughout the last draft cycle. On one of his first pass rush opportunities at this level, Leal recorded a quick win that ended with a hit on the quarterback.
Leal lines up in a 4i technique on this rep before using a crossover motion to slide past the right guard quickly. The move begins by using his inside hand to cut off the guard’s outside arm. From there, Leal uses his outside hand to pull himself through by putting pressure on the blocker’s right shoulder pad before ripping his inside arm underneath to earn the rep.
The cross-chop is a move originally created by Osi Umenyiora and is now the go-to move for many, including current stars such as Robert Quinn and TJ Watt. Not all inside rushers have the tic and cunning with their hands to pull off this move. It’s encouraging to see that Leal has maintained his explosiveness despite the added weight on his frame.
Stellar Hands by Conner Heywards
Coming out of Michigan State, the younger Heyward brother had a reputation for having reliable hands as a pass catcher. We saw plenty of examples of that throughout training camp and his first NFL action proved no different, catching two passes for 24 yards while adding a two-point conversion. Heyward’s first take of the night didn’t get enough love from the Livestream team.
Heyward will move to the left side of the field and run a route over the middle. Seattle is on man-to-man coverage, but he ends up maintaining a split step on fellow rookie Tariq Woolen who is quite the burner, which makes it all the more interesting. If you watch Trubisky’s body language after the throw, you can tell he knew that ball had gone a bit away from him as he navigated it high.
This was no problem for Heyward, however. The rookie tight end went all the way to the apex of the football, catching it well off its frame to secure a 16-yard completion downfield. It’s a tough hold in the middle for a receiver, let alone a full-time tight end recently in transition. If that ball goes through his hands or is knocked through the air, the free safety behind it has an interception wrapped in a gift with tons of green grass in front of him. Making those tough catches on poorly thrown footballs is one way to ensure that you become your quarterback’s best friend.
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Mark Robinson at the point of attack
Robinson’s forced fumble late in the fourth quarter gave the Steelers offense another chance to win a game. While the turnover was obviously incredibly important to achieving the end goal, there wasn’t much to break down considering it was simply a failed mission on Seattle’s part. However, Robinson flashed in other ways.
Seattle came out in 21 against the Steelers 3-4 base defense with Robinson lined up on the right side of the field. Robinson’s responsibility on this play is the A gap to the front side and you can see little hesitation in his movements after the ball has been broken. You see him patiently approaching the line of scrimmage, straightening his shoulders before meeting the center head-on.
Before the center could even get a hold of him, Robinson was able to fight him first, using heavy hands to drive the blocker back. All this while maintaining excellent gap integrity. He finishes the rep with a nice form tackle with minimal yards after contact. For a group that struggled all last season with the run, they could definitely use a better, more physical linebacker game at the offensive end.
Jaylen Warren excels in Pass Pro
The undrafted free agent from Oklahoma State generated steam throughout camp and did not disappoint in the preseason opener. Warren ran decisively, showed soft hands and rammed into a group of would-be tacklers throughout the night. The rep likely to get the most praise in the movie theater with running backs coach Eddie Faulkner will likely be his key pick of the second quarter blitz.
3rd and 4th, the Steelers lined up in the shotgun with Warren as the lone back. A frequent pass and distance, Seattle decided they were going to send a delayed blitz from their inside linebacker. The backer sells this by pretending to drop into coverage before rushing to the quarterback. This is where he meets Jaylen Warren.
Warren did a great job identifying the blitz and executing a physical, jarring block to keep Mason Rudolph clean in the pocket to deliver a completion to Miles Boykin. As a young running back, you quickly learn that if you’re going to step onto the pitch at this level, you absolutely have to be effective in pass protection to earn the trust of the coaches. Warren has already shown his abilities as a runner and receiver, but if he continues to improve as a pass protector, it will be hard to keep him off the 53-man roster.
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