In a matter of days, the Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiving group was flipped on its head. After an exciting preseason game last Saturday, Anthony Miller has officially been ruled out for the 2022 season and the work to solidify the receiving corps pursued. Earlier in the spring, the Steelers used two of their 2022 draft picks on George Pickens and Calvin Austin III and brought in free agent Gunner Olszewski to take over as a return man. But there is more business to be handled as the final roster continues to be crafted.
If we think back to last season, JuJu Smith-Schuster was listed as the primary slot receiver in most instances. Between his size, hands, and route-running ability, Smith-Schuster performed best when lined up inside and was ready for his final ride with Ben Roethlisberger. But when he went down with a shoulder injury in early October of 2021, it was Ray-Ray McCloud, the cemented return specialist, who came in and took over the slot receiver duties. Although he didn’t post big numbers, McCloud was able to make critical plays at big moments to help the Steelers; the tough 4th-and-eight catch against the Baltimore Ravens to get the Steelers into field goal range and win the game is a good example. As it turns out, not even a season later, it looks like the presumed return man for the Steelers is poised for a larger role on offense than what was initially expected.
Gunner Olszewski is proving he can be a key component in the Steelers’ offensive attack.
With Diontae Johnson agreeing to terms on a contract extension and ending his ‘hold-in’ earlier in camp, the depth to fill the few remaining vacancies was, and continues to be, in flux. As mentioned earlier, the inside receiver position was already open for business before training camp kicked off. Early on, we saw Chase Claypool move from his outside position into the slot area while rookie Pickens took over as that outside deep threat. Claypool missed some time shortly thereafter with a minor injury and opened the competition back up for the newer additions. Last week, head coach Mike Tomlin talked about how he was evaluating the different skill sets of the current receiving group inside of the 20-yard line:
“We were working in the red zone yesterday, in the tight red, and we focused on a lot of jump balls to the bigger-bodied guys. If you look at people working in the slot, you’ll see guys like 84 [Tyler Snead] and 19 [Austin III] and 89 [Olszewski], guys with great stop and go, trying to lean on those skills. And so a lot of the work, it’s the same cast of characters, but there’s a different emphasis based on the skill set of the people involved.”
In their first preseason game of the 2022 season, the Steelers defeated the Seattle Seahawks by way of a defensive splash play and last second touchdown. Hours prior to those plays however, we saw Tomlin’s, call it ‘foreshadowing,’ come to fruition. On the first score of the game, Mitch Trubisky rolled left and found Olszewski open in the end zone for a 13-yard touchdown. When he was finished with his live action of the game, Olszewski finished with 3 catches for 47 yards and a touchdown. Ironically enough, the player who was signed to be a return specialist on special teams didn’t see a single punt or kick return in the game.
As a long-time writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Gerry Dulac suggested this week that the Steelers got more than they bargained for with Olszewski:
“The Steelers knew he was a good punt returner — he was named First Team All-Pro in 2020, the first [New England] Patriots returner to ever be so honored — but it’s safe to say they didn’t think he could become a reliable weapon in their offense,” Dulac said. “Now, not only is he expected to be the Steelers punt returner once the regular season begins, but Olszewski could be playing his way into the rotation as a dependable third-down receiver in the slot. He would appear to be rubber-stamped as one of the top five receivers, along with Diontae Johnson, Chase Claypool and rookies George Pickens and Calvin Austin III.”
Of course, this new thrust into the receiving spotlight comes on the heels of Miller expecting to miss the entire 2022 season with an injury. The Steelers typically carry six receivers on the final 53-man roster with one of those being a kick/punt returner. With four of those six spots being presumably spoken for with Johnson, Claypool, Pickens, and Austin III, Olszewski needed to show he can wear different hats when called upon to lock up his spot on the roster. If Saturday’s performance and camp are any indication of what the Steelers can expect (which they usually are), Olszewski is a clear shoe-in as a fifth receiver.
Now that the Steelers are in the ‘keep or cut’ portion of the off-season, the window of opportunity for the final receiving spot will continue to shrink by the day. The next cut deadline is on Tuesday, August 23rd where the Steelers need to trim their roster down to 80 players heading into the final preseason game. With six players competing for one spot, be on the lookout for more possible late-game heroics from the Steelers’ receiving corps.
What do you think Olszewski will bring to the offense in 2022? Who do you think will win the final roster spot? Let us know in the comments below!