Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his notebook. The topics of this edition include:
But first, a look at the race to replace a legend in Pittsburgh ....
Three weeks from now, when the Pittsburgh Steelers' offense hits the field for the first time in Cincinnati, who will take the snap?
That's one of the biggest questions in the NFL on the eve of the 2022 season. The Steelers have essentially held an open competition to succeed Ben Roethlisberger at the game's most important position, with free-agent acquisition Mitchell Trubisky battling against first-round pick Kenny Pickett and (purportedly) veteran Steeler Mason Rudolph. While Mike Tomlin has refrained from naming his Week 1 starter before Sunday's preseason finale against the Detroit Lions, I strongly believe the verdict should be in:
Pickett's the pick! It's time to end the suspense and anoint the rookie as the Steelers' QB1 of the present and future.
Look, I understand why this team might like to ease Pickett into the lineup. Pittsburgh's schedule opens up with a pretty imposing three-week slate: at Cincinnati, vs. New England, at Cleveland on Thursday Night Football. Not to mention, the Steelers' offensive line has not acquitted itself well in the preseason, looking like a serious bugaboo for whoever lines up under center.
That said, this is one of the proudest organizations in the league, fronted by a 16th-year head coach who's yet to post a losing season. Pittsburgh isn't a team that eases itself into the regular season and/or opts to take the multi-year long view. The Steelers view themselves as contenders each and every fall. And in a hyper-competitive division that features the defending AFC champion Bengals, a Ravens team that's poised to bounce back in a major way with any kind of injury luck and a talented Browns roster, there's no time to waste handling the No. 20 overall pick with kid gloves. And with how the past month has played out, I just can't see Tomlin starting Trubisky over Pickett without drawing quizzical looks from his veterans in the locker room.
Pickett has been nothing short of sensational in his two preseason appearances, posting a 138.6 passer rating with as many touchdown passes (three) as incompletions on 22 throws. The rookie hasn't thrown a pick or put the ball on the turf. Not only has the University of Pittsburgh product shown superior skills as a passer and playmaker from the pocket, but he has displayed great command of Matt Canada's offense, which features a variety of college concepts that suit Pickett's skills as a pass-first point guard on the grass.
As the Jaguars' preseason TV color commentator, I got an up-close look at Pickett in last Saturday's Pittsburgh-Jacksonville game down in Duval. And let me tell you: I came away quite impressed. Going against the Jags' "varsity" defense, Pickett completed six of his seven passes for 76 yards with a touchdown in just eight offensive snaps. The rookie superbly managed the Steelers' no-huddle offense in a two-minute drill that showcased his poise, quick trigger and anticipation as a passer. After the game, Tomlin was asked about the rookie's dazzling work in engineering that drive at the end of the first half, when he marched Pittsburgh 63 yards to paydirt in just 42 seconds. The coach's assessment spoke volumes.
"You know, that's probably who he is," Tomlin said. "I know he did it next door (at the University of Pittsburgh). He probably did it in high school. He probably did it in little league. Some things, people are born with."
That's some high praise from a no-nonsense coach. Pickett indeed looked as cool as a cucumber behind a leaky offensive line that kept Trubisky and Rudolph on the run. Perhaps it spawns from his extensive experience as a four-year starter at Pittsburgh. After 49 starts, he departed Pitt as the program's all-time leader in completions (1,045), passing yards (12,303) and passing touchdowns (81). All that burn in the ACC appears to have helped him seamlessly transition to the pro game without any hiccups. The 6-foot-3, 220-pounder has been decisive with the ball without looking hurried or rushed. In addition, he has shown a comprehensive understanding of the scheme that has enabled him to get to the second and third reads of the progression.
Long story short: Tomlin has more than enough evidence that the rookie's ready to drive this ship.
I understand why some in the building might be wary of starting the rookie in Week 1. The Steelers have a pair of veterans with double-digit NFL starts under their belt, each of whom has overcome his share of adversity and won games. Theoretically, they'll be less likely to fall apart if things don't go well at the beginning of the season. But their individual and collective grit should not trump the talent and performance disparity between the rookie and the veterans.
Simply put, this team just moves differently with No. 8 at the helm. That not only stands out in film study, but it was apparent when I watched the game from the press box last weekend. The vibe on the Steelers' sideline is different with Pickett making plays, and the ultra-confident head coach must feel that energy when he is watching his young quarterback go to work.
If the Steelers operate in a meritocracy, Pickett has earned the right to run out of the tunnel with the 1s in Week 1. From his performance between the lines to his strong intangibles (intelligence, confidence, poise and grit), the rookie has checked all of the boxes that coaches and teammates typically want to see from a young quarterback. Although a brief apprenticeship might have been a part of the team's original plan, Pickett's stellar preseason play should prompt Tomlin to hand the ball to the rookie as Pittsburgh's opening-day starter.
Lions' player-run practice: savvy or cute?
Second-year Detroit coach Dan Campbell took a different approach to training camp earlier this week. On Monday, the Lions conducted a player-led practice with team leaders guiding their teammates through a series of individual drills and team periods. There were no assistant coaches on the field, with Campbell simply observing from the sidelines.
Although the practice schedule and scripts were provided by the coaching staff, team leaders were responsible for overseeing the drills and making sure everyone performed up to the standard.
"Well, he told us this morning that the players were gonna go out there and run their own practice," Lions veteran left tackle Taylor Decker said on Monday, via MLive.com. " 'Here's the team scenarios that we want to get done and you guys are gonna go out there and run the show.' I think it's awesome to do. Because honestly, on a game day, we're out there, we gotta communicate, we have to be accountable to one another."
This kind of unique arrangement fosters the commitment, accountability and trust between players and coaches that is needed to perform at a high level. Moreover, it forces players to master their leadership and communication skills. Given how today's society often communicates via text or various social media channels, coaches should to spend more time teaching their players how to talk to each other between the lines. In addition, the player-led sessions challenged the team leaders to be very clear and direct with their instructions and expectations.
"He just told us, he was like, 'This is what the practice -- these are the periods we want to practice and the coaches won't be out there.' That's pretty much it," Decker said. "Just left it at that. So, OK. Like I said, we come out here and we work every day. It doesn't matter if the coaches are out here or not. We know what to do and how to do it. Obviously, we need coaches. But we shouldn't need them out here to be able to get good work in. Because we're professionals. I don't need a cheerleader to get me to go. Pretty cool. I've never seen anything like it, so it was fun to get out here."
Keep in mind that the Lions' coaching staff is loaded with former NFL players with winning pedigrees (SEE: Duce Staley, Aaron Glenn, Mark Brunell, Antwaan Randle El, Aubrey Pleasant, Kelvin Sheppard and J.T. Barrett), and they have certainly leaned into their playing experience to help them become more effective coaches. As natural leaders back in their playing days, they would take charge of respective position groups to run extra film sessions or individual periods to help their young teammates master the nuances of the game.
On winning teams, these player-led study sessions are part of the culture. Campbell is undoubtedly attempting to create a championship environment by teaching his young players how to study, prepare and practice with purpose.
While this method is a little unorthodox, the Lions' coaching staff is attempting to empower its leaders to take control of the team while also teaching them the championship habits that lead to consistent success on the field.
If the Lions continue to heed the messages while taking greater ownership of the squad, these perennial cellar-dwellers could make a surge up the standings this season.
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