Steelers training camp news and notes from this past weekend

As the Pittsburgh Steelers shifted operations from Saint Vincent’s College to Latrobe Memorial Stadium for Friday Night Lights – and then back again to the campus for the weekend – a number of storylines have developed.

The good news is, there’s lots of good news. Here are some of the positive developments coming out of camp.

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Pickett’s accuracy

It would appear that attitudes are changing about Kenny Pickett’s ability to be a franchise NFL quarterback.

Only one year ago the rookie out of Pitt was bypassed by several QB-needy teams, falling to 20th-overall in the NFL Draft due to his “small hands”. He started training camp firmly as the team’s third option and slowly ascended the depth chart to become the starter by Week 5.

Fast forward one year and Pickett is impressing everyone who sees him as the installed starter from day one. His accuracy is spot-on, even getting some analysts to quote that he has some “Joe Burrow like” tendencies when it comes to his attitude and cool demeanor under pressure.

Pickett put on a highlight show at Friday Night Lights, with only one pass hitting the dirt and any other incompletions, of which there were maybe one or two, being caused by players running routes out of bounds. Almost every pass he throws is with intent and finds its intended target.

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Pickens catches everything…

Pickett’s accuracy leads to the wide receivers making big plays as well. Second-year pro George Pickens is headlining a lot of “breakout season” lists with his acrobatic play.

Combining size, speed, and hands, Pickens looks like an unstoppable force who’s ready to become Pickett’s top option in the passing game. The two have a connection that is eerily similar to Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown, and should only flourish as games get underway.

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…As does Calvin Austin

There are many aggregation Steelers “news” sites out there who aren’t in attendance at camp and apparently make up stories as they go along.

If you’ve seen, heard, or read anything about second-year WR Calvin Austin III having issues catching the ball, I can assure you that whoever is making that statement either:

  • Didn’t witness it with their own eyes
  • Has him mixed up with another receiver

One of the bright spots in last year’s training camp – and one I surmise gave people a false impression of Mitchell Trubisky – was Austin’s ability and willingness to catch everything that comes his direction. He’s easily the smallest player on the field, but can wriggle free and hauls in just about anything within his catch radius.

Most fans didn’t have a chance to see Austin in action last year, as the then rookie was sidelined due to injury before preseason games got underway. The team tried to bring Austin back mid-season, but a setback caused him to miss the remainder of the Steelers schedule.

Watch out for Austin this year, as one of 2022’s fastest drafted players is poised to find offensive snaps and also takeover the lead roles of kick and punt returner on special teams.

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Joey Porter Jr. = CB1?

A lot of fans were hyped to see Pittsburgh select the son of a Steelers legend in this year’s draft, but the critics will always have their claws out about Mike Tomlin’s propensity to target bloodline athletes.

Those with concerns should set them aside immediately, as Porter appears to be everything the Steelers have needed in a cornerback draft pick over the last 25 years or more of swinging and missing on the position. (Okay, mostly missing!)

Porter floats around the field, keeping up with the likes of tough-to-cover receivers such as George Pickens, while also showing the ability to make splash plays already over lesser, veteran talents such as Cody White.

Porter should become the team’s lockdown “CB1” by year’s end.

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Kendrick Green‘s new role?

Remember when everyone was out on Kendrick Green, who as a third-round rookie in 2021 had to fill the huge shoes of the retired Maurkice Pouncey?

Green, who was primarily a college guard but pegged to play the center position, was replaced by the end of 2021 and then officially in 2022 with the signing of Mason Cole. That left Green competing for a starting guard spot with Kevin Dotson, but the former couldn’t win a job at his natural position either, leaving most (including myself) believing his NFL days were numbered heading into training camp.

Then, low-and-behold, Green entered the second-team offense huddle during Friday Night Lights, and lined up as what can best be described as a tight end. He squirted out toward the sideline for a short screen from Mitch Trubisky, caught the ball in stride, and bowled over LB Toby Ndukwe.

The ovation from his teammates and the record crowd at Latrobe Memorial Stadium was on par with the movie Rudy. But Green wasn’t done yet, absolutely mauling a would-be defender on the very next play, sending (by my account) Ndukwe (or Quincy Roche by other counts) flat on his back.

The news Saturday morning is that this was a one time thing – and believed to be so out of Tomlin’s purvey as the head coach was in Canton Friday night to present Ronde Barber with a gold jacket.

That was fake news, as Green resumed h-back duties again during the afternoon practice, with consistent results. He once again flattened Ndukwe on a run play block, then caught a pass and rumbled through LB Tanner Muse, even using his arm to steady his balance on the ground and spinning up for additional positive yards.

Green’s underdog story is now how the team may have unlocked how best to use the big pulling guard in a backfield role, possibly preserving one of few open roster spots that could be available at the end of the month.

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Washington and Heyward

On the tight end spectrum too, Darnell Washington and Connor Heyward couldn’t be more of a yin-and-yang as you see the two stand next to each other on the sidelines. However, each listed tight end has their own niche with the team.

Washington, who is listed on paper as the same size as Zach Gentry, is clearly carrying his size a different way. Nicknamed “Mount Washington” already, he towers over the competition with footwork that could see him be the next Steelers player on Dancing With The Stars.

However, Washington’s willingness to be a “sixth offensive lineman” was also on display this past week, as he battled with and even bested T.J. Watt in blocking drills. Only Nick Herbig was able to get by Washington with a quick dip move, but Washington still won the best of three series between the rookies.

Washington is also victimizing linebackers and safeties, as it appears none of the second-team options are capable of covering him.

On the other hand, Heyward may be smaller, but he’s finding ways to come across the formation both pre-and-post snap, finding holes in the defense that will also make him a handful to contend with in multiple tight end sets.

This is all being said without starting TE Pat Freiermuth as part of the equation, which means the Steelers have a nasty stable of players at the position group for the foreseeable future.

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