PITTSBURGH — With the new introduction of Nick Bosa into the starting lineup, the Pittsburgh Steelers will have a tough time against a loaded San Francisco 49ers front. But it is more than just about defending the players they have on four-man rushes. DeMeco Ryans, now the Texans’ head coach, turned them loose on exotic blitzes. They had them all, from double A-gap mugs to overloaded blitz to the side to even coffee stunts. That makes the communication for the Steelers that much more paramount up front.
“I feel like communication is important every week but this week it really is,” center Mason Cole said. “They do so many things, they rush double A-gap, overload from the slot, disguise the safety, it’s all different out of a lot of formations. They can beat you with four, too. It’s a challenge.”
So, protection calls on which direction to slide become much more critical for the team this week. Cole is at the center of that operation, literally. From Kenny Pickett to an underrated critical element, the running backs must be on watch for those blitzes. But new defensive coordinator Steve Wilks is set to have his twist on the defense and their blitzes with the stacked personnel group.
One thing that Cole noted is that anyone from anywhere in the defensive formation can blitz. From the linebackers to Talanoa Hufanga, slot cornerbacks, and even the rare outside cornerback blitz, the 49ers don’t shy away from bringing the heat. So, you better have your head on a swivel.
“The crazy thing about this team is that you think you’ve seen it all, but then you see something different the next week,” Cole said. “It’s all about communication and being on the same page. If you bust one block, your quarterback is probably going down. These guys are great.”
MAN IN THE MIRROR
Kenny Pickett and Brock Purdy have a lot more in common than a shared calendar event this Sunday.
There were only two rookie quarterbacks that emerged as starters last season and led their teams to winning records — the first one drafted (Pickett) and the last (Purdy).
“We were in the same I guess group at the combine and stuff,” Pickett said. “We got to talk a little bit you know, Brock’s a great guy, you know, having a ton of success. Happy for him. Definitely looking forward to opening up the season against him.”
Two more, Desmond Ridder in Atlanta and Sam Howell in Washington will hope to join the group this season. But for now, it’s Pickett and Purdy as the gold standards of the 2022 draft class, that makes for a bit of an awkward comparison for Pickett.
He was the first picked. He should be lapping the last. But Purdy (and Kyle Shanahan’s offense) have shown the ability to get the job done, so the two will likely be compared throughout their career. It wouldn’t help Pickett’s case to win the first head-to-head battle.
BIG NEW HELP
When it comes time to communicate, no one is better at pointing out what is happening in the defensive formation than Isaac Seumalo. Jason Kelce, the Eagles All-Pro center, noted that Seumalo can deconstruct blitz looks and point them out. In Cole’s short time with Seumalo to his left, he has seen that manifest itself already.
“It’s phenomenal, man, because he helps me a lot,” Cole said. “Sometimes, before a play, Isaac will already tell me what’s going on. He reads the defense and knows what’s coming. I don’t always see what’s coming, but he’s helped a lot with being on point with those details and when pressure is coming.”
James Daniels has observed Seumalo doing the same thing. When they have to go tit for tat with Javon Hargrave and Arik Armstead, the two guards could sometimes have help from Cole. But their ability to win by rushing four will be necessary for San Francisco to make Pickett feel uncomfortable. The offensive line’s interior is vowing to ensure that doesn’t happen.
“These guys are two different types of players,” Daniels said. “Armstead, he’s longer and super smart, and before every snap, he looks at every alignment or formation. It’s a chess match, and he knows what’s coming. Hargrave is the opposite of that. He’s twitchier and smaller, but he’s tough to stop. This is a test.
Seumalo’s veteran experience will be a key part of what helps the Steelers in this game. The new defensive looks Wilks brings out will be the wild card of the entire game. Guys like Seumalo and Cole have their hands full in this matchup.
When the team goes through warmup drills and it’s time to practice handoffs, they usually go through by teams. Pickett hands to Najee Harris, Mitch Trubisky to Jaylen Warren, Mason Rudolph to Anthony McFarland, so on and so forth.
But the presence of a new running back altered the plan, as Pickett cut back in line to get a handoff in to the new No. 41 at running back, his old Pitt teammate, Qadree Ollison.
PICKENS IS A MUTANT
George Pickens continued his training camp assault on the bounds of good sense and the laws of gravity with another absurd one-handed catch at practice on Wednesday.
“Routine,” Pickett said sarcastically. “He’s insane when he does those things and it’s just another day for George.”
Mike Tomlin apparently did not get enough of practice in pads over the course of training camp and the preseason. The Steelers were padded up once again for their Wednesday session.