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Labriola On

Labriola on the win over the Lions

Nothing will be official until Coach Mike Tomlin announces his decision, which makes everything you're about to read in this space for entertainment purposes only. But even with that significant qualifier, it is difficult to imagine a realistic scenario that doesn't reach the conclusion that it will be Mitch Trubisky as the Steelers' starting quarterback when the team's 2022 regular season opens at 1 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 11 in Cincinnati against the defending AFC Champion Bengals.

Trubisky opened the offseason program as the first quarterback in the rotation for every drill in every practice, padded or not, and he crossed the finish line of the three-game preseason as the team's best offensive player in a 19-9 victory over Detroit on Sunday at Acrisure Stadium that clinched the Steelers' first undefeated preseason since 1997.

In that victory over the Lions, Trubisky completed 15-of-19 (78.9 percent) for 160 yards, with one touchdown, no interceptions, and a rating of 119.3. He was the quarterback for 16 of the Steelers' 19 points, and he also seemed to have had Tomlin's words playing on a loop inside his helmet throughout while using them as a checklist.

Tomlin spoke those words some 48 hours before kickoff of the preseason finale when he was asked about what would go into his final decision in picking Ben Roethlisberger's successor.

"Performance. The ability to lead," Tomlin had said. "The ability to do the things, the unwritten things, or the informal things that the job prescribes for them to do. To assist in the growth and development of young, offensive eligibles and things of that nature. But ultimately, it's production, and the things that are critical at that position are the ability to anticipate with pinpoint NFL-like accuracy, what you do as plays break down or as you extend plays. Are you able to minimize negativity while also having the potential for splash? Those are the variables."

There can be no argument that Trubisky performed, because he finished the preseason having completed 78.9 percent of his 55 pass attempts (pinpoint NFL-like accuracy) for 380 yards, with three touchdowns, no interceptions (the ability to minimize negativity while also having the potential for splash), and a rating of 111.17.

"All the (quarterbacks) have represented themselves very well," Tomlin had said before the final exam. "I've been pleased with the playmaking, but it kind of comes to a close as we walk out of the stadium (Sunday), and it's time to make some hardcore decisions and move forward. But I'll say this, it's not necessarily decision-making, it's just really calling what you see. And the guys hold the power, the quality of play is a determining factor, and so I'm excited for (the winner of the competition)."

To their credit, neither Kenny Pickett nor Mason Rudolph made the competition an easy win for Trubisky. For the opening portion of training camp, Rudolph was the team's best and most consistent quarterback, and after a relatively brief acclimation period where he likely made some adjustments to the step up from college to professional football, Pickett rarely looked like a rookie and his improvement over the course of the competition was noticeable even to an untrained eye.

Pickett enjoyed the homefield advantage regardless of the situation and the venue, because he has been the darling of Steelers Nation since the moment his name was announced at the podium by Commissioner Roger Goodell during the first round of the 2022 NFL Draft. Rudolph competed on the other end of that spectrum, miscast as a villain maybe because he didn't duplicate Roethlisberger's 13-0 record as a first-time starter when he was thrown into the lineup in 2019 six quarters into the regular season.

If Pickett neither acted nor played like a rookie, Rudolph carried himself throughout with a veteran's class and a professionalism that should serve as an example for those who might someday find themselves in a similar situation.

Neither loved nor scorned, Trubisky was more of the total package. He was more of a threat than Rudolph to use his legs to create opportunities either for himself to gain yards by running or for those "young eligibles" to make plays down the field once the threat of him running broke down the coverage. And while Pickett finished the preseason with a higher yards-per-attempt average than Trubisky (7.3 to 6.9), Pickett benefitted from receivers taking short passes and adding significant run-after-catch yardage, while Trubisky was better at pushing the ball down the field with timely and accurate throws.

And it should be understood that none of the candidates made the decision easier by exhibiting glaring deficiencies in any of the categories Tomlin defined as significant. As one example, before the preseason opener, Tomlin said this about the candidates facing a challenge for the first time this summer:

"I think stepping into a stadium and putting these guys in a live pocket is a significant component of evaluating them individually and collectively and sorting out this battle," Tomlin had said. "You practice in drill-like settings and it's football-like, but it's not football. We're going to be prudent and smart in terms of the protection of the quarterback and keeping a clean pocket in a practice setting. The live pocket component of preseason football is significant. Their ability to make timely decisions under those circumstances is critical. Their ability to protect the football and themselves, their ability to move their units under those circumstances is really telling, and I'm excited about watching those guys display their skills and talent within the confines of a stadium."

In that game, all three quarterbacks finished with triple-digit passer ratings, but it was Trubisky who was the quarterback when the Steelers took the opening kickoff and marched 90 yards in seven plays to score a touchdown on a 13-yard pass to Gunner Olszewski, which was significant because the 2021 Steelers were notoriously slow starters on offense with only three touchdowns on game-opening possessions during the 18-week regular season. Then against the Lions, Trubisky checked maybe the final box when he directed a six-play, 92-yard drive in 80 seconds at the end of the first half and capped it with a pretty 6-yard pass to Steven Sims for the touchdown.

"It was good," Trubisky said after the game about that two-minute situation at the end of the first half. "We finished in the end zone, so that was ideal. A lot of two-minute situations we've been working in practices, and so it was nice to get a live rep at it today. We went right down the field and scored a touchdown. I thought it was smooth, good communication, getting in and out of the huddle."

The Steelers preseason is over, and it wasn't long into Tomlin's postgame media session that he was asked, "Do you have a starting quarterback?"

He answered, "I might, but you're not going to have that today. Like I told you guys the other week, we're not going to make knee jerk reactions and statements following a performance. We'll go through our proper, professional procedure. We'll evaluate the game. We'll meet with our front office people. We'll have discussions. We'll talk internally. We'll talk external possibilities. We'll go through our normal procedure this time of year, and we'll disclose it to you at our leisure, to be quite honest with you."

Whenever Tomlin decides the time is right to disclose his choice, I would be very surprised if it wasn't Mitch Trubisky.