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Pitt Coach Pat Narduzzi on Mason Rudolph: ‘People are Going to Be Shocked’

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PITTSBURH — Pitt has faced its fair share of top quarterbacks since Pat Narduzzi took over in 2015.

The Panthers have faced Deshaun Watson and Trevor Lawrence at Clemson, Daniel Jones at Duke, Lamar Jackson at Louisville and Mitchell Trubisky at North Carolina, just to name a few.

But perhaps the star collegiate quarterback the Panthers had the most trouble with over the years was former Oklahoma State passer Mason Rudolph. Pitt faced Rudolph and the Cowboys in a two-game series in 2016 in Stillwater, Oklahoma and at Heinz Field in 2017.

In 2016 Rudolph threw for 540 yards and two touchdowns in a 45-38 win against the Panthers, including a 91-yard touchdown to current Steelers wide receiver,James Washington. A year later, Rudolph led the No. 9 Cowboys to a 59-21 win at Heinz Field. Rudolph threw for 497 yards on 23-32 and five touchdowns.

Two years later, Rudolph will be trying to put up those kinds of numbers in his first NFL start for the Steelers on Sunday in San Francisco.

Narduzzi was impressed with Rudolph during his college days and said he has no doubts that he will continue to improve while with the Steelers.

“There’s a reason he’s in the NFL,” Narduzzi said. “He was spectacular at Oklahoma State. He knows how to throw the ball and he doesn’t get flustered with pressure. … I’m glad I don’t have to play him tomorrow.”

With Narduzzi having first-hand experience of seeing Rudolph in action and being able to watch the way he takes command of an offense, he believes that he will fit in well with the way the Steelers want to do things.

“Mason Rudolph isn’t going to have any problems,” Narduzzi said. “[Rudolph] has a chance to go in and take over. Everybody on that team is playing for him and he’ll have a lot of support behind him.”

When talking about who are the best quarterbacks that Narduzzi has faced at Pitt. He put Rudolph right at the top, with former UNC quarterback Trubisky. Both of whom probably still give Pitt fans nightmares.

Rudolph is replacing a franchise icon in Ben Roethlisberger, and many have questioned the Steelers’ ability to compete with the second-year passer at the helm. But Narduzzi is definitely a believer.

“I think a lot of people are going to be shocked,” he said.

Alan Saunders contributed reporting to this story.

Steelers

Steelers Can Practice, Play in ‘Yellow’ and ‘Green’ Phases

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Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin, who recently voiced his concerns over not getting practice time, especially with rookies, may be getting his wish.

This afternoon, Governor Tom Wolf released a proposal that would allow professional sports teams to practice or play in the “yellow” and “green” phases without “on-site or venue spectators” as long as they have a coronavirus safety plan.

Before the Steelers can get to work, the plan must first be approved by the state Health Department and include testing or screening and monitoring of all players and personnel.

In this plan, no fans or spectators would be permitted on interior or exterior venue property.

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Steelers

Diontae Johnson Played Most of 2019 Season Injured, Excited for 2020

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Steelers wide receiver Diontae Johnson had a stellar rookie campaign and was one of the lone bright spots of a lackluster offense in 2019.

His productive debut is even more impressive when you consider that he performed the way he did all while hampered by an injury.

Speaking with reporters on a conference call Wednesday, Johnson revealed that he played the majority of last season battling a sports hernia, originally suffered Week 2 against the Seattle Seahawks. Johnson underwent surgery to repair the injury in February, and says he is close to being fully cleared.

“I was running, and I felt like my groin was getting a little tight on me,” said Johnson. “I am doing rehab down here in Florida. Doing a lot of core exercises on the Pilates machine. That has helped me a lot. Hopefully I am going to get clear in the next couple of days. I am staying on top of that. Making sure it’s healthy and I come back ready.”

While quarantining in Florida, the Toledo-product has been working on his game, getting healthy and staying ready for whenever football can return.

“I am working on catching the ball, having strong hands,” said Johnson. “Working on getting my routes better, more tuned up. I have plenty of stuff to work on. Not just those two. I am working on my game all around. This pandemic has been crazy. I have been just staying to myself, still getting in the work. I am getting through it. The rest of the guys on the team are doing the same thing as well. I am just staying out of the way and staying ready.”

Johnson also added that he has been building on his relationship with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. After seeing limited action together last season as a result of Roethlisberger’s injury, the two have been working out this offseason.

“It’s crazy. It’s Big Ben,” said Johnson. “He’s great. Just being able to work out with him this offseason has been good. Just getting the timing down, get a feel for him, what he likes, what he doesn’t like. How he likes to throw the ball on a certain play, certain routes. Just trying to pick his brain. I might go back up there next week and work out with him again. Just getting that timing down and get a bond with each other so we can build that trust.”

It appears their rapport building is off to a good start, and it has Johnson excited.

“It’s building that trust with one another,” he said. “I talk to him almost every day now. That’s my guy. We’ve got things to do this year and we are trying to win the Super Bowl together.”

Johnson was a pleasant surprise for the Steelers in 2019, catching 59 passes for 680 yards and five touchdowns. He was also named Second-Team All-Pro as a punt return. Johnson averaged 12.4 yards per return and housed one Week 14 against the Arizona Cardinals.

A fully-healthy Johnson looks primed for a breakout season in 2020, and he plans on doing just that.

“The ultimate goal is to win a championship. My goal is to have at least 1,000 yards and the Pro Bowl. I also want to be an All-Pro punt returner.”

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Can Minkah Fitzpatrick Win Defensive Player of the Year?

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Can Steelers All-Pro safety Minkah Fitzpatrick win NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2020?

It’s a loaded question. Of course, in theory, any defensive player in the league is eligible for the award. And Fitzpatrick is coming off an exemplary 2019 season.

The Alabama product had five interceptions, a forced fumble, two defensive touchdowns and 57 tackles in 14 games with the Steelers after coming over from the Dolphins for a 1st round pick.

Despite the protestations of CBS Sports’ Pete Prisco, Minkah Fitzpatrick is one of the best players in the league and should be one of the stars of a Steelers defense that should challenge for the top spot in the NFL this season.

In an interview with 93.7 The Fan this morning, NBC Sports’ Peter King labeled Fitzpatrick as a Defensive Player of the Year candidate. King makes the case that with a full year to learn the Steelers system under belt, Fitzpatrick will be even better than he was in 2019, saying “With a year knowing this system and especially a system that features the safety so much, he’s not going to be good, I think he’ll be great this year.”

Fitzpatrick certainly has the talent, and if he can repeat his numbers from 2019, the stats to win NFL Defensive Player of the Year. He’s currently listed as one of the favorites by William Hill, sitting at 40/1 odds, behind teammate T.J. Watt and a handful of others. But one thing beyond his control may have the final say, and that’s history. Only five safeties have ever won the award since it was first handed out in 1971.

You may recognize one of the winners, Troy Polamalu, who won the award in 2010 had seven interceptions, 11 passes defensed, a touchdown, one forced fumble and 63 tackles in 14 games while leading the number one ranked Steelers defense back to the Super Bowl. He’s the most recent safety to take home the award. Before him were Bob Sanders in 2007, Ed Reed in 2004, Kenny Easley in 1984 and Dick Anderson in 1973 (who was sandwiched between two Joe Greene DPOY awards). Sanders put up linebacker-esque numbers with 97 tackles, 3.5 sacks, two picks and six passes defensed, leading a top ranked scoring and third overall Colts defense in 2007. Before Sanders, Ed Reed was the first safety winner in 30 years, taking home the award in 2004 after leading the league in picks with nine and adding three forced fumbles, two sacks, 17 passes defensed and 78 tackles. 1984 winner Kenny Easley played in an era before tackles or passes defensed were official stats, but managed to lead the league in interceptions and defensive touchdowns with 10 and two, respectively.

In the history of the award, it has gone to linebackers 16 times, a defensive end 13 times, nine times to defensive tackles, six to cornerbacks and only five times has it been awarded to safeties.

In other words, you need to have a monster season as a safety to win the award. Fitzpatrick certainly proved he can put up gaudy numbers, but he’ll have to outshine fellow defensive stalwarts and teammates Cam Heyward and T.J. Watt, as well as beat out stars like Aaron Donald and last year’s winner Stephon Gilmore to take home the win.

Can Fitzpatrick win the award? Absolutely. Will he? History isn’t on his side. But if he can put up the same kind of numbers across a full season for the Steelers in 2020, the voters will have to be on notice. Expect him to make a strong case.

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