It's hard to recognize these Steelers. In Week 5, they were the biggest underdogs (14 points) in franchise history since the 1970 NFL merger, then lost 38-3 to the Bills.
They're are 1-4 for the first time since 2013. The offense conducted a risky experiment with veteran passer Mitchell Trubisky that blew up in its face, and the rookie quarterback, Kenny Pickett, has zero touchdowns and four interceptions through six quarters of NFL action. What's up with yinz?
But the offensive struggles aren't foreign to this team of late. In the final season of Ben Roethlisberger's Hall of Fame career, the Steelers were 25th in Football Outsiders' offensive DVOA. The year before that -- 22nd. And when starting a rookie at quarterback, growing pains should be expected.
More than anything, it's the defense I don't recognize. Right now, Pittsburgh's defensive unit is 16th in DVOA, hardly an embarrassing rank yet not up to the Steelers' standard. The downward trend defensively began last season when that unit finished 14th. Again, not bad! But for the Steelers, no, not good. In the five seasons prior to 2021, Mike Tomlin's crew averaged finishing eighth in the league in DVOA and three times finished in the top 10 in points allowed per game defensively.
Right now the Steelers are 25th in points allowed per game.
Of course, losing reigning Defensive Player of the Year T.J. Watt has loomed large over the past month. I get that. But the rest of the pass rush is stagnant, the linebackers aren't continuing Pittsburgh's storied history at that position, and the secondary has felt noticeably less opportunistic than I can remember.
For the first time in a while, the Steelers need a jolt of energy on defense. Yes, THE STEELERS (or STILLERS, as they're pronounced in Pittsburgh) of all organizations, need a defensive shakeup. And they can get one that features a little City of Pittsburgh flair. I added cornerback Mark Gilbert and placed him at No. 1 in this week's PSPR. Who is Mark Gilbert? He just so happens to be the cousin of Pittsburgh Panthers legend Darrelle Revis. At Duke, Gilbert appeared to be potential first-round pick after a six-interception, 15 pass-breakup 2017. Then he was ravaged by injures his next two seasons in Durham, North Carolina, and plummeted to the ranks of the undrafted.
No idea is a bad idea for Pittsburgh's defense entering Week 6, and it's time to give Revis' cousin an opportunity.
The PSPR Call-Up Tally (The CUT) is cruising like Guy Fieri through Flavortown. We're at 12 call-ups after five weeks of regular-season action, including three members for action last weekend, and we still have Practice Squad Elevation Saturday in front of us. Let's keep the PSPR call-up average at two or more per week. How about now PSPR alum Isaiah Hodgins finally getting a chance in Buffalo and hauling in four passes for 41 yards in his NFL debut? Fantastic. Can't say I'm surprised though.
The expanded, 16-man practice squads are about the only good thing to come out of the pandemic, and they're here to stay in the NFL. Because of this, I run the Practice Squad Power Rankings parallel to the league. I write about 16 individuals every Friday, 10 officially in the rankings and six honorable mentions.
But I'll always stay true to the origins of the PSPR, which were to highlight young players. That means I won't be featuring "veterans" this season. Selecting someone like Josh Gordon -- currently on the Titans practice squad -- would not embody the fundamental intention of the PSPR. So for the sake of the Practice Squad Power Rankings' dignity, I'll only be including practice-squaders who are rookies, second-year players, third-year players, or fourth-year pros. Players drafted from 2019 on. That's it.
As always, I'll track every single PSPR member who gets The Call -- aka elevated to his respective team's 53-man roster on gameday. At that stage, said player moves from being a PSPR member into the exclusive Practice Squad Power Ranking alumni fraternity. The running count will be known as the "Call Up Tally" or "The CUT" for short.
Here's to the Practice Squad Power Rankings flourishing this season, emerging as a legitimate superstar, earning a massive payday and starting to cement its legacy in the hallowed halls of the internet's football-media industry.
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10. Makai Polk, WR, Giants
Polk messed around and went for 1,046 yards on a whopping 105 receptions in 2021 at Mississippi State. Sure, it was in Mike Leach's wide open Air Raid offense, yet Polk showcased slippery route-running capabilities in the SEC at a lanky 6-foot-3 and 195 pounds. The Giants are hurting a bit at the receiver spot, and Polk can be a reliable underneath pass catcher who can align on the perimeter or slot and win with decent regularity.
9. Ar'Darius Washington, DB, Ravens
Washington can be the Ravens multi-dimensional weapon in the secondary, and Baltimore's scheme asks a lot of its defensive backs. Cover the slot one play, range deep down the field the next. He can do it. Now with Marcus Williams injured, Baltimore has to give Washington a chance, right? Right?!
8. Travis Fulgham, WR, Packers
Fulgham, man did he ever get a raw deal over the past few seasons. And we're a game away from everyone in Wisconsin losing their minds about the youthful Packers receiving corps that's not quite on the same page as Aaron Rodgers. Now, sure, Fulgham and Rodgers don't have a connection. Yet. Fulgham is at least experienced and feels like a relative unknown Rodgers would gravitate toward after a couple of beautifully executed back-shoulder grabs. Rodgers heads into Week 6's contest against the upstart Jets 17th (!) in passing yards through five games. Some of that is due to how good the run game is, but it's also partly due to the lack of talent in the receiver group.
7. Netane Muti, OL, Broncos
Muti was my No. 1 interior offensive lineman in the 2020 class. Mind you, it was not a stellar draft at those positions, but the effortless people-moving capabilities and balance in pass pro and for the run game appealed to me with Muti more so than anyone else playing guard or center. He went in the sixth round and has battled injuries early in his career. However, last season, the former Fresno State stud got an opportunity and shined in his final two starts, allowing one pressure on 61 pass-blocking snaps. Muti's been twice called up by the Broncos but has yet to take the field in 2022. He deserves a chance.
6. Tyler Shelvin, NT, Bengals
D.J. Reader will be on the shelf for a while with injury -- who isn't injured in the NFL today?! -- and he's been a flat-out stud in all phases for the Bengals to begin the season. Now, I'm not attempting to put massive pressure on Shelvin to replace the impact Reader has on a game. But the former LSU product is an enormous, athletic nose tackle on the Bengals practice squad ready to be called upon in this very scenario.
5. Cameron Goode, EDGE/LB, Dolphins
All Goode did to pop squarely onto the draft radar after his productive career at Cal was jump 39 inches in the vertical along with a 6.91 three-cone time at his pro-day workout. In 2021 for the Bears, as a hybrid, kind of old school stand-up outside linebacker, Goode had 6.5 sacks and 8.5 tackles for loss along with 45 tackles and four pass breakups. The Dolphins are currently dead last in Football Outsiders' pass defense DVOA entering Week 6. That unit needs an explosive boost.
4. Jordan Jackson, DT, Saints
The Saints are dead-last in defensive pressure-creation rate entering Week 5. That's incredible, given the amount of resources they've invested on the defensive line of late, and the fact that Cam Jordan still resides on the roster. You know who could give New Orleans some much-needed upfield juice? Jackson, the rookie from Air Force who had six sacks and 11 tackles for loss to go along with 52 pressures and a hefty 13.5 pressure-creation rate, in 2021. Call up him, Saints!
3. Deven Thompkins, WR, Buccaneers
What more can I tell you about Thompkins? How about that he had five catches for 53 yards -- including two contested-catch wins! -- during the 2022 preseason. He's also a Brady-type too in that he was a 0-star recruit when he joined the Utah State program in 2018. Brady loves an underdog's underdog, and that's precisely what Thompkins is.
2. Thomas Graham, CB, Browns
Late addition here with Graham. He's back on the Browns practice squad. Cleveland has to call up him. Immediately. They're 16th in pass defense DVOA and have two interceptions through five contests. Graham is a former PSPR cover guy who had the best debut performance from a PSPR alum, when he defended three passes in late December against the Vikings.
1. Mark Gilbert, CB, Steelers
I vividly remember being so excited about Gilbert in my first year scouting draft prospects for CBS Sports. He had that dazzling 2017, had the NFL bloodlines -- beyond Revis, his uncle Sean Gilbert was a Pro Bowler in 1993 -- and it's always fun rooting for the underdogs, and Gilbert certainly was one of those as a defensive back from Duke. Then those damn injuries hit. However, he managed to rebound from them to run 4.48 with a 36-inch vertical and a 130-inch broad jump at his pro day. HELLO! Gilbert is explosive and, most importantly, healthy! He needs a chance in Pittsburgh.
Nazeeh Johnson, DB, Chiefs
Johnson was a stat-sheet filler at Marshall with 302 tackles, seven picks, and 19 pass breakups in five seasons. He can man the nickel corner spot. Free safety. Strong safety. He tackles well and plays with authority on every snap.
ZaQuandre White, RB, Dolphins
White was the No. 1 junior-college running back recruit in the class of 2020. On 88 totes for South Carolina last season, he averaged 6.6 yards per. And, on film, his juice jumps off the screen. Dynamic cuts, Tesla-like acceleration, power through contact. It's still a shock he went undrafted. I guess teams like to see more of a workload in college for a runner? I love the minimal wear on his body. The Dolphins have Raheem Mostert and Chase Edmonds in their backfield. White can step in and contribute in Year 1. He's very talented.
We have Mercer on the PSPR board! Poe, a Mercer alum, was a wrecking ball in college, and he tested like a high-caliber athlete at the Georgia Pro Day. Yeah, the Bulldogs gave him the opportunity to showcase his skills, and he thoroughly impressed. Poe feels like an athletic brawler of a guard Kyle Shanahan will eventually get the most out of in San Francisco.
Jaret Patterson, RB, Commanders
The Commanders are averaging 3.5 yards per carry through two contests. No idea is a bad idea when it comes to how to fix the run game. Now, of course, a running back himself cannot single-handedly fix an NFL team's rushing attack. But it won't hurt to incorporate the small, ultra-shifty Patterson into this offense, particularly if the coaching staff is not going to trust J.D. McKissic to handle any normal running back duties. He forced four missed tackles on his 16 attempts during the preseason.
Curtis Brooks, DT, Colts
Brooks was a late-bloomer at Cincinnati but may have been the most dynamic purely pass-rushing three technique in the 2022 class. I mean that. On just 304 pass-rushing snaps, Brooks registered 43 pressures thanks to an awesome blend of first-step quickness, leverage, and power at the point of attack.
Curtis Weaver, EDGE, Browns
OK, Curtis. You get one more opportunity on The PSPR. An enormous draft crush of mine just a few years ago, Weaver broke his foot while training before the start of his first NFL season, and he's never been quite the same dynamic, bendy rusher he was at Boise State, when he was a fixture on the stat sheet with a litany of pressures, tackles for loss, and sacks.