Steelers QB coach on Mitch Trubisky, Kenny Pickett and the competition so far

LATROBE, Pa. — There have only been seven practices, and only two of them have been in pads, and it sure looks like the Steelers want Mitch Trubisky to be their Week 1 starting quarterback in Cincinnati.

Thanks to a week of practice at Saint Vincent College, the Steelers are surely treating him like a starter.

Even if Mike Tomlin was talking about Cameron Heyward and TJ Watt getting veteran days off on Wednesday, his words – “we treat everyone fairly but not everyone the same” – could very well be applied to the battle of the quarterback that involves Trubisky, Kenny Pickett and Mason Rodolphe.

The Steelers treated all three fairly considering it an open competition, but they didn’t treat them the same.

Reps, at least so far, suggest Trubisky is their preferred starter, based on the opportunities given to him, but his play hasn’t followed the same narrative.

Trubisky has struggled at times, but he also has plenty of excuses. His 0-for-16 streak in the Seven Shots goal-line drill was snapped in the first rep on Wednesday, but the overall numbers for that critical drill were putrid — 1 of his last 19 and 4 of 23 overall. He has the most interceptions of any quarterback in camp, but he’s spent most of the past week without his top four guns — Najee Harris, Diontae Johnson, Chase Claypool and Pat Freiermuth.

Trubisky learns a new system and the Steelers are yet to complete their setup, limiting his forces at times.

On the other hand, he led the Steelers to a two-minute drill touchdown on Wednesday, though he may have been helped by a generous first-down call on a third check to Benny Snell.

Despite all that, Trubisky is where the Steelers want him to be.

“He’s on the right track,” quarterbacks coach Mike Sullivan said Athleticism. “Mitch is progressing well. There’s a big carryover of things in the spring, he develops more chemistry with his receivers. He is comfortable with systems, calls and processing.

Athleticism spent more than 10 minutes discussing the position with veteran Sullivan, who reiterated that how the Steelers are approaching their first quarterback competition in 20 years is part of a bigger plan. He also discussed when a starter could be named, Rudolph’s role and what Pickett showed in week one.

(Note: Conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.)

We are now more than a week in the camp. Is the progression of these guys going as you hoped?

He is. The guys work very hard. It’s been nice to see them all take the next step in the spring. There was a lot of postponement. Admittedly, there is a lot of work to be done and improved either fundamentally or conceptually, but it’s been a nice progression so far.

Everyone keeps tabs on who gets what, every day. Does that tell you something?

It’s all part of a plan that I think Coach Tomlin has clearly outlined. We are not going to rush into decisions. We have a process in which everyone will have the chance to show their abilities. It’s a huge decision. We’ve been turning things around, and we’ll continually be doing this throughout training camp and into pre-season games.

Until we can put it all together, it’s hard to make a decision. We want guys to be able to go out there and compete and not be wired so tightly where they think one bad pitch, one bad decision will move them. The depth chart is very fluid at this point. It’s not finalized, and all the guys understand that.

Have you noticed this working? Take the pressure off them so they can play freely and not care?

They are competitors. These four guys want to do their best. They’re not like, ‘Oh, I missed a pitch, that’s okay.’ In any game, there’s an ebb and flow with the good and the bad, and that gives us the best chance of – who’s going to react well after a bad game and have a good game? It’s all part of the process, and it’s going to give us a clearer picture of who our guys are.

Do you need or want to know sooner or later who will start on 9/11? Is that in Tomlin’s plan?

It’s hard to speculate at this point. Who knows what will happen for the rest of this week and for the first preseason game and the second preseason game. You certainly don’t want to put a timeline on that. Certainly, the organization will know who will be the starter before this match.

It’s a process, and we’re just focusing on that 24-hour period. The guys think like that, the coaching staff think like that about what can happen today and make sure it doesn’t happen tomorrow. You don’t want to make the same mistakes again. You want to see them take incremental steps to improve.

To the untrained eye, it looks like Kenny has been a guy to read and get out of there so far. Is that the case, and if so, was that expected of a young man so soon?

Our defenses did a hell of a job. They bring a lot of good pressure. The defense has the upper hand and then we try to counter, so there will be times when we wish we had more time, and maybe we have more time, and the guys are too obsessed with their reads.

It’s too early to tell right now that he’s a one-read, happy-footed guy. One thing we’ve seen from Kenny is the same thing he showed Pitt, and it’s accurate in motion. He is precise on the move on short and intermediate casts.

On Tuesday, Mitch threw an interception to Damontae Kazee, and it looked like a bad read because he threw it directly after Kazee came out of the box. Is that how you saw it?

In fact, it was a good read. The ball has just sailed over him. We watched him, and he was at the right time, he wasn’t tapping the ball and bouncing there. It was a good read but the throw was high and slightly back, and (Kazee) made a good play.

Mitch had an 0-16 streak in Seven Shots, and we all know how important goal-line situations are in this league. Does this concern you?

First, we as a unit have enough blame for the whole offense. The defense has been great, and it’s a competitive drill, and it’s great to start practice that way. The coach always talks about not preparing for it.

What matters most is how we react when things are not going well. We can’t just sit there and sulk and say we’ve lost Seven Shots because we have a hell of a practice left to do. How disappointed we all are that we keep fighting and making these plays without snowballing – I was part of when the first part of training didn’t go well and then it got worse, from Getting worst.

Does it bother Mitch to have a hard time, even if it’s just an exercise with extenuating circumstances?

He’s a competitor, and all the guys are competitors and they show great determination. OK, that’s disappointing. I’m glad he cares. But we want him to drop that and move on to the next game, no matter how awesome he is. The greatest quarterbacks of all time are moving on.


Mike Sullivan is in his second season as the Steelers quarterbacks coach, a position he has held with three NFL teams. He also had two stints as offensive coordinator. (Charles LeClaire / USA Today)

People have written off Mason since the day after you signed with Mitch. In fact, maybe they wrote him off in the 2019 season. It sure looks like he didn’t write himself off and can earn that job. Thoughts?

Mason competed very well and responded well to the challenge and showed signs of improving and working in those areas. There are things he needs to improve on.

One thing I will say about the whole band is that everyone shoots for each other. It is a very comfortable meeting room. The guys work hard. They know there can only be one starting quarterback, but everyone helps everyone and has a good attitude.

They can present a good attitude, but they also have to think that there is only one winner here.

Sure. We are not just sitting, holding hands and chanting Kumbaya. These four children have goals and objectives. There’s only one, right? A single starter. What they did was able to strike a good balance. They can have that steel-eyed focus and determination and competitiveness and not be at the point where they’re going to sabotage someone else.

Is there room for all three (Trubisky, Rudolph and Pickett) on the final list?

I’m not going to speculate on who will be on the list later. I’m trying to earn Seven Shots, man. We won the first one on the artificial turf pitch, and the luge has been tough ever since.

How to win this? Does it have to be quick throws and reads? How do you approach this exercise as a QB?

It’s a combination of that. You can’t put it on one thing. Sometimes you’re ready to launch, but the road isn’t quite mapped out. Do you do a script or do you want them to react to what they see?

We’re still setting everything up, so there’s no game plan. We’re playing the Steelers, so we’ll stick to some plays. We have a menu, and a library if you will, of pieces we like to use. If we were playing in Pittsburgh, there would be some better than others. Right now we are still in the installation process, so some will be better than others.

Is the offense fully settled in the spring?

Yeah, so you go back and there’s always a wrinkle here and there. Everything we put in spring and now, we’re going to recycle it and start from day 1 and move forward. I think by next week we’ll have about 98% by then. It gives the opportunity to assess our guys with those creative throws and quick decisions, even when they’re in a disadvantaged position.

Do you appreciate this?

I love him, I love him. I’m excited about it, and we’re not thinking too far down the road because we have to handle business today, but it’s exciting to see this group work and how it’s going to pan out.

(Top photo from, left to right, Mike Sullivan, Mitch Trubisky, Kenny Pickett, Matt Canada and Mike Tomlin: Charles LeClaire/USA Today)

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