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Tribune News Service
Gerry Dulac

Gerry Dulac: Steelers' quarterback room due for another major shakeup

PITTSBURGH — When Ben Roethlisberger retired after 18 seasons, it did more than bring to an end the longest chapter of one of the greatest players in Steelers history. It created what quietly was a landmark moment for the franchise.

For the first time since even before Terry Bradshaw was drafted in 1970, the Steelers entered the 2022 season with two quarterbacks at the top of their depth chart — rookie Kenny Pickett and Mitch Trubisky — who were not on the roster the previous season.

You have to go back to 1957 when Earl Morrall was acquired in a trade from the San Francisco 49ers and rookie Len Dawson was the fifth overall pick in the draft to find the last time the Steelers had two quarterbacks who were not with the team a year earlier.

There is no danger of that occurring again next year — Pickett is the designated future of the franchise — but that doesn't mean the quarterback room won't undergo another drastic change in 2023.

It is probably a safe bet to assume both Trubisky and veteran Mason Rudolph will not be with the team next season, forcing the Steelers to find two new backups for Pickett.

Let's start with Rudolph. He is an unrestricted free agent after the season and will look elsewhere for a chance to play, even as a backup. Despite what was said to be an open quarterback competition in training camp, there never really was one, especially for Rudolph.

He was never given a chance to be their starter, despite being in his fifth season with the team, three as Roethlisberger's top backup. He almost never got to work with the first-team offense in training camp and did nothing but play mostly with third-teamers and future waiver-wire cuts, despite looking better than his competition at Saint Vincent College.

After being demoted and inactive for every game this season, Rudolph will have no intention of returning for another season, though the Steelers would probably welcome him if he did.

The situation with Trubkisy is a little different, but it will likely have the same ending.

He was brought in to be the Steelers' starter and serve as a buffer while Pickett could watch and learn until he was ready to play. The Steelers moved so fast to sign him in free agency it was as though they couldn't wait to thrust Trubiksy into their new role.

It lasted 3 1/2 games.

Trubisky was angered when he was unceremoniously yanked at halftime from a 10-6 game against the New York Jets, a half in which his only interception resulted from a pass skipping off the hands of Diontae Johnson and what would have been a 23-yard touchdown misfired when Johnson failed to get the tip of his foot inbounds.

He could have had his job back a couple weeks later when he came in after halftime when Pickett was diagnosed with a concussion and beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers with the best 30-minute performance of any quarterback this season. But Mike Tomlin elected to stick with his rookie quarterback the following week, all but triggering what will be a mutual departure after the season.

It is highly unlikely Trubisky, who is 28, will want to return after the way he was treated, going all the way back to when the Steelers never told him they intended to draft a quarterback in the first round.

Trubisky has a year remaining on the $14.2 million contract he signed in March, but he is scheduled to earn $8 million in base salary and count $10.6 million against the salary cap in 2023. The Steelers are not likely to want to pay that for a backup quarterback when they can save his $8 million in salary by trading him or releasing him — something Trubisky would probably welcome.

That means the Steelers will have to find two new quarterbacks in the offseason — probably a veteran in free agency and another in the draft — to backup Pickett. Which means more upheaval for a quarterback room that historically has lacked such changeover.

But if they're looking for continuity, here's a familiar name to remember: Josh Dobbs.

Man on the run

Pickett is certainly not going to be confused with Lamar Jackson or Justin Fields, quarterbacks who lead their team in rushing. He is not even Jalen Hurts, who has 12 rushing yards more than Najee Harris despite having 31 fewer carries.

But Pickett's ability to run, whether by design or scrambling from the pocket, has not only helped inflate the Steelers' rushing stats, it has helped create room for the other running backs.

Pickett has run for 195 yards on 35 attempts, 11th-most among NFL quarterbacks. His per-game average of 24.6 yards ranks 10th in the league, a shade behind Patrick Mahomes. But his per-carry average of 5.6 yards ranks seventh in the league, an indication of the productivity he has when he runs.

It's a big reason why the Steelers are averaging 113.6 rushing yards per game, 20 yards more than last season and their highest total in 11 years. But in their past four games, they are averaging 158.8 yards per game — their highest total since they averaged 168 yards in the first four games of Mike Tomlin's rookie season in 2007.

"I think you have to account for it," offensive coordinator Matt Canada said of Pickett's running ability. "I think it's part of his game. I think last week we had the one designed quarterback draw; we had a couple balls that he could have pulled that he didn't. There's not a lot, but at times we're using it. So I think it does. You have to account for it. You can't play coverage and just think he's going to stay in there, so it certainly helps us."

Not just a pass rusher

Only one linebacker in the AFC and just two in the NFL have more sacks this season than Alex Highsmith, who has a career-high 10 already with six games remaining. He is likely headed to the Pro Bowl, even though there isn't an actual Pro Bowl game anymore.

But Highsmith is more than a one-trick edge rusher in the Steelers defense. Because he was a defensive end at the University of Charlotte, he is very good at setting the edge in run defense and developing into a complete player.

"That was his strength," defensive coordinator Teryl Austin said. "When he came in, you could see that. He's got really strong hands. He's able to hit and extend on guys and disengage from blocks and make things happen. He's always been, in my mind, a stout run performer.

"The sack numbers are coming this year, and that's really good for him. This, to me, means he's rounded into a really good football player."

Highsmith, a third-round pick in 2020, is a free agent after the 2023 season and will be the team's top priority to receive a contract extension

However, after giving Highsmith's partner, T.J. Watt, the largest contract in franchise history, the Steelers are not going to break their piggy bank to re-sign Highsmith. It will be a situation similar to what happened with Bud Dupree, who was never given a new contract and eventually signed with the Tennessee Titans in free agency. Even Dupree knew the Steelers were saving their money to re-sign Watt.

But the Steelers could always do to Highsmith what they did with Dupree — place the franchise tag on him in lieu of a contract extension. That way they can keep him around for another year or two after his current deal expires.

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