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Film Room: Positives From Steelers Rookies in First Game

The Pittsburgh Steelers rookie class showed a lot in their first preseason game.

The Pittsburgh Steelers 2022 preseason opener had no shortage of fireworks thanks to their rookie class. All of the rookies who participated in the action made in a positive impact which solidified their strong debuts. In this article, we're going to talk about a couple plays that stood out and what we learned about these guys in their first test against live NFL competition. 

George Pickens' Throw By Technique

As only he can these days, Pickens stole the show by catching a bomb in the corner of the endzone, toe tapping his way to another touchdown score. While that play was the one that was blasted all over social media for good reason, it's not the play we'll be reviewing. Instead, I wanted to go over his first NFL catch which was a simple curl route that gained nine yards.

It's the attention to detail which intrigues me for a young receiver already loaded with immense talent. Pickens draws fellow rookie Tariq Woolen in press coverage on the first snap of the game and starts by taking an outside release. He then works the throw by technique to target Woolen's inside shoulder and gives a subtle nudge to ensure that Woolen's momentum continues taking him up the field. This is something that wide receiver coach Frisman Jackson has repped with them repeatedly throughout training camp and to come into a stadium and display it immediately is fantastic work.

One common mistake that a lot of young receivers make when trying to use this technique is that they execute the move but don't try out of the cut and work back to the football. Pickens is not just any young receiver, though. You can see him work back to the flight path of Trubisky's throw which only increases the amount of separation he has from the cornerback. Due to that extra bit of space, Pickens is able to secure catch and get back up the field for several extra yards.

Kenny Pickett's Game Winner

It didn't take long for the Steelers first round pick to play the role of hero for the hometown team. In his first ever game as a pro, Pickett led a six play, 43 yard touchdown drive with just seconds remaining to put his team in the lead. He saved his best for last as his final completion on the night was arguably his most impressive and we'll talk about several reasons why that is the case.

It all starts with pre-snap recognition, single high safety with the field side cornerback playing inside leverage. Normally this would be a cover 3 indicator for the quarterback but the out route by Vaughns is still going to be open as long as the curl/flat defender doesn't continue to gain depth. Pickett's eyes quickly snap to Vaughn and he notices that the slot defender starts trailing inside, which means he's playing man to man.

Because the field side corner is playing inside leverage on an outbreaking route, he's already lost a step. Pickett throws with anticipation on this rep as the ball is leaving his hands as the receiver is entering the break point, reducing the possibility of the defender being able to undercut the throw for a takeaway. Vaughns has plenty of time to come out of his break and back to the football before turning upfield and scoring essentially a walk off touchdown.

Pickett's poise in the pocket on this play is also noteworthy as he takes a kill shot from the defensive tackle running free through the A gap. Even with pressure barreling down his neck, he still steps into the throw completely which helps him generate max velocity. Showing that kind of poise in that moment in your first career game as a pro is certainly 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 entering his final year at Texas A&M but ended up sliding well into day two of the NFL Draft for several reasons. One of those was him playing all over the defensive line in college, never really finding a true home at any one spot year over year. Up from 280 pounds during the NFL Combine, Leal's added 20 or so pounds to his frame since being drafted by the Steelers.

Leal's stat sheet didn't look all that impressive with just two tackles in limited playing time. However, I saw the same talented pass rusher that I did from watching his college tape throughout the last draft cycle. On one of his first pass rush opportunities at this level, Leal registered a quick win that resulted in a hit on the quarterback.

Leal lines up in a 4i technique on this rep before utilizing a cross-chop-rip move to slide quickly past the right guard. The move begins by using his inside hand to chop the guard's outside arm. From there, Leal uses his outside hand to pull himself through by putting pressure on the blockers right shoulder pad before ripping his inside arm underneath to win 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 T.J. Watt. Not every interior rusher has the twitch and savviness with their hands to pull off this move. It's encouraging to see that Leal has maintained his explosiveness despite the additional weight on his frame.

Conner Heywards Stellar Hands

Coming out of Michigan State, the younger Heyward brother had a reputation for having reliable hands as a pass catcher. We've seen 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 grab of the night didn't get nearly enough love from the broadcast team in real time.

Heyward's going to motion to the left side of the field and run an over route across the middle. Seattle is in man to man coverage but he ends up maintaining a step of separation on fellow rookie Tariq Woolen who's quite the burner, making this even more interesting. If you watch Trubisky's body language after the throw, you can tell that he knew this ball got away from him a little bit as he sailed it high.

That was no issue for Heyward, however. The rookie tight end went up to highpoint the football, catching it well away from his frame to secure a 16 yard completion down the field. This is a difficult catch over the middle for a receiver, much less a recently transitioning full time tight end. If this ball goes through his hands or is tipped up into the air, the free safety lurking behind has a gift wrapped interception with tons of green grass in front of him. Making those difficult catches on poorly thrown footballs are ways to ensure that you become your quarterbacks 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 crack at a game winning drive. While the turnover was obviously incredibly important to towards the end goal, there wasn't much to break down given that it was simply a blown assignment on Seattle's part. However, Robinson did flash in other ways.

Seattle came out in 21 personnel against the Steelers base 3-4 defense with Robinson aligned on the right side of field. Robinson's run fit responsibility on this play is the front side A gap and you can see little hesitation in his movements after the ball is snapped. You see him patiently approach the line of scrimmage, get his shoulders square before meeting the center head on. 

Before the center could even get his hands on him, Robinson was able to take the fight to him first, using violent hands to jolt the blocker backwards. All of 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 against the run, they could certainly use better, more physical linebacker play at the point of attack. 

Jaylen Warren Excels in Pass Pro

The undrafted free agent out of Oklahoma State has been generating steam all throughout camp and didn't disappoint in the preseason opener. Warren ran decisively hard, showcased soft hands and barreled through a bunch of would be tacklers throughout the night. The rep that will likely get the most praise in the film room with running backs coach Eddie Faulkner will likely be his key blitz pickup in the second quarter.

On 3rd and four, the Steelers lined up in the shotgun with Warren as the lone tailback. A frequent passing down and distance, Seattle decided that they were going to send a delayed blitz from their inside linebacker. The backer sells this by faking as if he's dropping into coverage before storming towards the quarterback. That's where he meets Jaylen Warren. 

Warren did an excellent job identifying the blitz and executive 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 want to get on the field at this level, you absolutely must being effective in pass protection to gain the coaches trust. Warren's already showcased his ability as a runner and receiver but if he continues to improve as a pass protector, it's going to be difficult to keep him off of the 53 man roster. 

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