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

LATROBE, Pa. — It’s been only seven practices, and just two of those have been in pads, and it surely appears that the Steelers want Mitch Trubisky to be their starting quarterback Week 1 in Cincinnati.

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

Even though Mike Tomlin was talking about Cameron Heyward and T.J. Watt getting veteran days off on Wednesday, his words — “we treat everybody fairly but not everybody the same” — very well could be applied to the quarterback battle that involves Trubisky, Kenny Pickett and Mason Rudolph.

The Steelers have treated the three fairly by deeming it an open competition, but they haven’t treated them the same.

The reps, at least so far, suggest Trubisky is their preferred starter, based on opportunities he’s been given, but his play hasn’t followed the same narrative.

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

Trubisky is learning a new system, and the Steelers have yet to finish their installation, limiting his strengths at times.

On the flip side, he led the Steelers to a two-minute drill touchdown on Wednesday, even though it may have been aided by a generous first-down call on a third-down checkdown to Benny Snell.

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

“He’s on track,” quarterbacks coach Mike Sullivan told The Athletic. “Mitch is progressing nicely. There is a great carryover from things in the spring, he is developing more chemistry with his receivers. There is a comfort level he has with systems, calls and processing.”

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

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

We are now more than a week into camp. Is the progression of these guys going how you expected it to go?

It is. The guys are working very hard. It has been nice to see all of them take the next step in the spring. There has been a lot of carryover. Certainly, there is a lot of work that needs to be done and improve either fundamentally or conceptually, but it has been a nice progression so far.

Everybody is keeping tabs on who gets what reps daily. Does that mean anything to you?

It is all part of a plan that I think Coach Tomlin outlined clearly. We aren’t going to rush into any decisions. We have a process in which everybody will have a chance to showcase their abilities. This is a huge decision. We have rotated things through, and that will continually be the case throughout training camp and into the preseason games.

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

Have you noticed it working? Taking the pressure off them so they can play freely and not worry about that?

They are competitors. All four of those guys want to do the very best they can do. They aren’t like, ‘Oh, I missed a throw, no big deal.’ In any game, there is the ebb and the flow with the good and the bad, and it gives us the best chance of — who is going to respond well after a bad play and have a good play? It is all part of the process, and it is going to give us a clearer picture of who our guys are.

Do you need or want to know sooner or later who is going to start on Sept. 11? Is that in Tomlin’s plan?

That is difficult to speculate at this point. Who knows what is going to happen through the rest of this week and to the first preseason game and second preseason game. You certainly don’t want to put a timetable on it. Certainly, the organization will know who the starter is going to be before that game.

It is a process, and we are just focused on this 24-hour period.  The guys feel that way, the coaching staff feels that way in terms of what can happen today and make sure that doesn’t happen tomorrow. You don’t want to make the same mistakes again. You want to see them make the incremental steps of getting better.

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

Our defenses have done one heck of a job. They are bringing a lot of good pressure. The defense has the upper hand, and then we try to counterpunch, so there are going to be some instances where we would like to have more time, and maybe we have more time, and the guys are too fixated on their reads.

It is too early to say right now that he is a one-read, happy-feet guy. One thing we have seen from Kenny is the same thing he showed at Pitt, and that’s being accurate on the move. He’s accurate on the move on short and intermediate throws.

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

Actually, it was a good read. The ball just sailed on him. We looked at it, and he was on good timing, he wasn’t patting the ball and back there bouncing. It was a good read but the throw was high and slightly behind, and (Kazee) made a good play.

Mitch went through an 0-16 stretch in Seven Shots, and we all know how important goal line situations are in this league. Is that concerning to you?

First, us as a unit, there is enough blame to go around for the entire offense. The defense has been great, and it is a competitive drill, and it is great to get practice started that way. Coach always talks about not warming up to it.

The big thing is how we respond when things don’t go well. We can’t sit there and sulk and say that we lost Seven Shots because we have a heck of a practice left to go. As we are all disappointed in the fact that we continue to fight and make those plays and not have it snowball — I have been a part of when the first part of practice doesn’t go well then it gets worse, worse and worse.

Does it bother Mitch that he’s struggled, even though it is just a drill with mitigating circumstances?

He is a competitor, and all the guys are competitors and they show great resolve. OK, it’s disappointing. I am glad he cares. But we want him to let go of that and move on to the next play no matter how great it is. The greatest quarterbacks of all time move on.


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

People have written Mason off since the day after you signed Mitch. Actually, maybe they wrote him off during the 2019 season. It sure seems like he hasn’t written himself off and that he can win this job. Thoughts?

Mason has competed very well and has responded well to the challenge and has shown signs of improvement and has worked in those areas. There are things that he needs to get better at.

One thing I will say about the whole group is that everybody is pulling for each other. It is a very comfortable meeting room. Guys are working hard. They know there can be only one starting quarterback, but everybody helps everybody and has a great attitude.

They might present a great attitude, but they also have to be thinking that there is only one winner here.

Of course. We aren’t just sitting around, holding hands and singing Kumbaya. All four of those kids have goals and objectives. There is one only, right? Only one starter. What they have done has been able to strike a great balance. They can have that steely-eyed focus and determination and competitiveness and not be at the point where they are going to sabotage somebody else.

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

I am not going to speculate who is going to be on the roster down the road. I’m trying to win Seven Shots, man. We won the first one on the turf field, and it’s been tough sledding since then.

How do you win that? Does it have to be quick throws, and reads? How do you approach that drill as a QB?

It is a combination of that. You can’t put it on one thing. Sometimes you are ready to throw, but the route hasn’t quite unfolded. Do you script that, or do you want them to react to what they see?

We are still in the process of installing everything, so there is not a game plan. We are playing the Steelers, so we are going to stick to these certain plays. We have a menu, and a library if you will, of plays we like to use. If we were playing Pittsburgh, then 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 installed fully in the spring?

Yes, then you backtrack and there is always a wrinkle here and there. Everything we put in during the spring and now we will recycle back and start from Day 1 and work our way forward. I would think by the time we get into next week that we would have about 98 percent of it in until then. It gives an opportunity to evaluate our guys with those creation throws and quick decisions even when they are in a disadvantaged position.

Are you enjoying this?

I am loving it, loving it. I am excited about it, and we aren’t thinking too far down the road because we have to handle business today, but it is exciting to see this group work and how it will play out.

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

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