Steelers Starting QB Derby Is Both A Sprint And Marathon For Trubisky, Rudolph, Pickett

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The race to become Ben Roethlisberger’s heir apparent with the Pittsburgh Steelers has begun in earnest. And, contrary to common belief, it’s not a sprint to the Sept. 11 season-opener against the Cincinnati Bengals.

It’s going to be a marathon to see who can keep the Steelers competitive and even championship relevant for years to come.

That became clear over the weekend when Steelers coach Mike Tomlin put his three candidates for the Roethlisberger crown on the field in the first preseason game.

Mitch Trubisky started.

Mason Rudolph took over after two series.

And rookie Kenny Pickett finished.

All three did very, very well. All three did mostly what was asked of them. All three made a case that they are the future in Pittsburgh.

“He moved his group,” Tomlin said of Pickett, who is the crowd favorite in Pittsburgh but has to do more to win favor with the coaching staff. “He played situational football. He displayed a competitive spirit. A lot of good things to build on from a first performance standpoint.

“I could say the same thing about all three, to be honest with you. They moved their units. They did the
informal things associated with the position from a leadership and communication standpoint. They were engaged. It was a good first time out for all three.”

Now let me tell you something Tomlin won’t.

The Steelers are open but also expecting Trubisky to be the starter. He’s got the most game experience. He’s probably the most athletic, which fits the things offensive coordinator Matt Canada wants to do that weren’t previously done with the lumbering Roethlisberger.

And he’s generally been practicing well and was good in this outing, completing 4 of 7 passes for 63 yards with 1 TD and a 126.8 rating.

Trubisky sliced up the Seattle Seahawks starters (well, some of them that played) on the first drive, taking the Steelers 90 yards for a touchdown, with the final 38 yards coming on consecutive completions to Gunner Olszewski.

That’s impressive considering receivers Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool, tight end Pat Freiermuth and running back Najee Harris didn’t play for Pittsburgh.

“I was just amped up, ready to go, and wanted to lead the team right down the field and score right away, and it was a good way to start the game and set the tone,” Trubisky said.

If Trubisky maintains this arc, it’s going to be hard to wrestle the starting job away from him before the season opener.

But that may not be what matters. Because while the Steelers need that short-term solution for the opener and just beyond, they also need the bigger issue resolved to remain an NFL legacy team:

They need an elite starter at quarterback, not just the best body in camp.

Is Trubisky that guy? Maybe if he meets potential he had when he was drafted No. 2 overall by Chicago in 2017. But that’s still unproven.

Rudolph, who obviously wants to start, doesn’t quite feel like that long-range answer. It seems like he’s more likely trying to hold serve as the backup.

The home crowd actually booed Rudolph and the offense on his first series after he got steamrolled for a sack and fumble, which he recovered.

Rudolph called that moment “an awakening” which is good because he performed the rest of the way as if his eyes were wide open.

He completed 9 of 15 for 93 yards with TD.

But let’s be honest, Rudolph reminds a bit too much of Roethlisberger — and not for the electric pass to Santonio Holmes reasons.

He’s a pocket passer. He’s not going to worry the defense with his scrambling. He’s a 2000-style quarterback trying to play in 2022.

So for him to win the job, particularly long-term, he’s got to be a great (not good) pocket passer.

And then there’s Pickett. He’s not the sprinter in this race to the starting job.

He’s Haile Gebrselassie or Lasse Viren or some other long-distance GOAT who’s name I’ve never typed before now because I cover football not track.

Pickett is Pittsburgh’s first-round pick and he’s already beloved by the city because he played at Pitt and played well in his first outing. The crowd was chanting “Kenny, Kenny” when he first entered this game.

That is a tough combination to overcome if he stays on course which he did by completing 13 of 15 passes (including his first 10 in a row) for 95 yards and 2 TDs.

“I told him before the game, you always remember your first preseason game,” Trubisky said of Pickett. “They all kind of blend together after that, but I told him it’s going to be a memorable one tonight, and we finished strong as a group, and you’ve got to be happy for him and the whole team, so that was awesome.”

Pickett made good decisions. And he used his feet to get out of trouble when his first read was not available or the pocket broke down.

Most of his throws were quick and in rhythm. He threw quick outs and in-cuts and even his game winning 24-yard touchdown pass to Tyler Barnes with three seconds to play actually traveled only 10 yards and then Barnes did the rest

None of this was a result of a weak arm. That game winner came from the opposite hash to the sideline on a line so he showed plenty of velocity.

“There are definitely things I wish I had back with some ball placement things,” Pickett said. “But overall I think I made good decisions, got the ball out of my hand, used my legs when I had to and got the win.”

That probably doesn’t make Pickett the sprinter to reach the starting job in the regular-season opener. But he sure looks like the marathon runner in the group.

Follow on Twitter: @ArmandoSalguero

Written by Armando Salguero

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