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5 for Friday: In Kenny they trust

PHOENIX – If anyone had any questions regarding the Steelers' intentions offensively in 2023, their offseason moves to this point and what they said about them this week at the NFL Annual Meetings here at the Arizona Biltmore should clear them up.

The Steelers believe they found the equation to winning games in the second half of last season when they averaged nearly 150 rushing yards per game to finish with seven wins in their final nine games.

They're going to continue to run the ball and make life easier on young quarterback Kenny Pickett.

"I think a sound running game aids quarterbacks, particularly a young quarterback," Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said this week. "I don't think we were bashful about our intentions there and we won't be moving forward."

But that doesn't mean the Steelers aren't confident in what Pickett can do in his second season.

The Steelers went 7-5 in Pickett's 12 starts last season. And though his numbers aren't going to make anyone forget about the man he replaced – Ben Roethlisberger – the winning is what really mattered.

More important for Pickett was the poise he showed late in games, leading three fourth-quarter comebacks – tied for fourth-most in the NFL – and four game-winning drives – which was tied for third.

Thing is, every quarterback ahead of him on those lists had a full season's worth of starts.

That's a big reason why the Steelers aren't just going to be content with Pickett handing the ball off 40 times a game in 2023. They want to be able to run the ball effectively to take pressure off him. But they also feel he's going to take a big step forward in what he's capable of handling as a quarterback, as well.

"I think it's reasonable to expect that to be significant," Tomlin said of the jump from Year 1 to Year 2 for his young quarterback. "But we'll have an opportunity to make it so."

Again, running the ball effectively will make it all easier. And if Pickett takes that jump, the Steelers will be a more complete football team offensively.

That's why, much as he was last season to see what lies next in the post-Roethlisberger era, Tomlin is intrigued by what Year 2 of Pickett will look like.

"My emotions are similar. I'm always excited," Tomlin said. "We're all undefeated here in late March, and I have that perspective, man. I'm excited about the group that we're assembling and the opportunity to work with them. 

"I'm excited about Kenny individually in terms of growth that he's capable of making and in what he's willing to do to realize that. I think I'm probably more excited about that, because I've just been around him intimately now for 12 months. The reality of having worked with him for 12 months is just more evidence of what we should be excited about, his willingness to work, his professional approach, his maturity in processing is exciting."

• Tomlin's pronouncement that he had already spoken to cornerback Patrick Peterson about playing some safety this season wasn't a surprise. After all, Peterson had openly talked about wanting to do some different things at his introductory press conference a couple of weeks ago after he signed in free agency with the Steelers.

Taking a player with excellent ball skills like Peterson and having him with his eyes on the quarterback is a tried and true way of getting more playmaking out of the safety position.

But the cornerback has to be willing to play more in the middle of the field, where he's likely to see more tight ends and have to be a force in the running game.

A couple of seasons ago, I asked Joe Haden if he felt that would be a way to extend his career.

Haden, who like Peterson had excellent ball skills, wasn't interested in making such a move.

"I don't see myself going to safety," Haden told me in 2019. "I see myself staying at corner. I don't know. Nah, I'm not trying that."

The reason? Haden, at 5-11, 195 pounds, didn't want to deal with all the traffic he would see in the middle of the field and the pounding his body would take.

So, at 33, he's out of football.

Peterson, on the other hand, is looking for ways in which he can extend his career. He'll join Haden as a 33-year-old later in July. The difference, however, is that Peterson is a bigger guy. Though he's listed at 6-1, 198 pounds, he checked in at the NFL Scouting Combine in 2011 at 219 pounds.

He then went out and ran a 4.38-second 40-yard dash at that size.

Now, Peterson isn't running that fast any more. But like Haden, his above-the-neck processing is invaluable.

"We had the benefits of a guy like Joe Haden with a similar resume and love and passion for the game," Tomlin said. "So Pat P obviously, is a guy that brings something beyond his resume and playmaking capabilities, which is an asset to football teams, when guys can be living examples of what to do, how to go about this professional football business. I just think we all benefit from that. He is that."

He's a football player, first and foremost. Having him on the field as one of your top four, five or six defensive backs is a benefit to any football team. And it doesn't matter what position he is playing.

• A lot of people pay close attention to where Tomlin goes on his pro day trips. Typically, he has general manager Omar Khan with him, just as he used to do with Kevin Colbert.

Sometimes the Steelers don't hide their intentions, such as last year when they had clearly zeroed in on the quarterback position, going to the pro days of every top player at the position.

This year? Well, don't read too much into where Tomlin and Khan show up.

"It's a myriad of variables. Number of players, my scheduling, geographics," Tomlin said. "I mean, there's a myriad of variables that determine where we go, so don't try to read too much into where I go or where I don't go, to cut to the chase."

Take that for what it's worth. But there have been cases where Tomlin hasn't been to the pro day of the player the Steelers have selected in the first round of the draft.

And, believe it or not, many times, Tomlin and company aren't at a pro day to simply look at first-round players. After all, there are more rounds to the draft than just one.

And, Tomlin isn't above some subterfuge.

"I may because you guys might be tracking my movements," Tomlin told reporters when asked if he has visited with players in the past whose game tape he doesn't necessarily like.

• Colbert didn't worry too much about what other teams were doing in the draft, instead choosing to focus on what his staff's evaluations were on players. He said a couple of years ago the Steelers stopped doing mock drafts based on other team's needs or information several years ago.

That doesn't mean he ignored what moves others were making. But when it came to the draft, he was only focused on the Steelers.

• Dale Lolley is co-host of "SNR Drive" on Steelers Nation Radio. Subscribe to the podcast here: Apple Podcast | iHeart Podcast

Khan, however, said this week that he's taking a different approach when it comes to the draft process.

"I can tell you we will be working hard to try and identify other team's needs, trying to figure out maybe what they're doing," Khan said. "I mean, it's to our advantage to do that. So yeah, we will be paying attention."

Now, that doesn't mean Khan and his scouting department will be doing mock drafts, but they have detailed scouting reports on all 31 other teams. They have a good idea of what opposing teams will be doing.

• The Steelers have one of the smaller coaching staffs in the NFL. They have had that under Chuck Noll and Bill Cowher, and have continued that under Tomlin.

Some look at that as something that is a detriment to the team. But if you look around the league at some of the larger staffs, it doesn't necessarily equate to winning more games.

"I'd rather overwork them than underwork them. You know what I mean?" Tomlin said. "I think there's benefit in small numbers. It's easier to keep the group coordinated and on one accord, to have that one voice that is critical and culture building. So small is better for me, but you'd better have enough to get the job done. I realize that we're probably on the smaller side as far as staffing goes, but that's the agenda for us."