Kovacevic: All that talent could topple Butler


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There’s something immediately, inherently special about Minkah Fitzpatrick.

Yeah, I know that couldn’t have been more obvious with the two early turnovers he forced in his debut in the Steelers’ 24-20 loss to the 49ers here Sunday. When a guy’s that dynamic, when he makes a difference of that scope within a couple days of being handed a playbook, that’s some seriously rare air.

But even beneath that ...

... wow, that’s the one that got me.

That was in the second quarter. It’s a 6-yard strike from Jimmy Garoppolo to Richie James Jr. It’s an indefensible play for all intents and purposes. It’s too quick, too sharp.

But watch Fitzpatrick close. Watch him leap and raise his arms like a swooping pterodactyl to consume James whole. That’s not a tackle. It’s an elimination.

Reminded of anyone by that?

This young man’s 22. With three years of team control ahead, possibly a lifetime in black and gold. All that, and the Steelers added an elite talent, upon whom they’d hung a top-five grade coming out of Alabama, in exchange for a first-round pick that, no matter how hard 0-3 feels now, won’t be a top-10 next year.

Loved this trade when it took place. Completely stoked about it now.

• Know who maybe shouldn’t be stoked about it?

How about Keith Butler?

Think about it: He’s now got nine first-round picks — 10 if one counts Artie Burns on the depth chart — and two second-rounders. That’s a ton of pedigree, unlike anything the Steelers have seen in some time. And if that data alone weren’t enough, they then went out, with Fitzpatrick, and pounced on five San Francisco turnovers, made Garoppolo miserable most of the afternoon and would’ve dragged the Steelers to victory had the offense done its part.

Well, here’s the rub: If this defense doesn’t rise up to the bar of its personnel, that’ll reflect far worse on the schematics and instruction of Butler — and Mike Tomlin, too, of course — than on the participants.

They’d better do well.

• Can anyone conceive of a reason why Jaylen Samuels wouldn’t have gotten a single touch Sunday?

He wasn’t listed on the injury report, and I saw him shortly after the game at his stall without any wraps, ice or anything that would indicate he’d been in the medical room. Doesn’t mean he isn’t hurt — Tomlin will address that tomorrow, I’m sure — but it definitely didn’t look like it.

Randy Fichtner claims to love calling pass plays for Samuels because of his precise route-running and ability to gain separation.

Think Mason Rudolph might’ve welcomed a little more of that?

• Samuels needs to start over James Conner against the Bengals. Not for punitive reasons. And not because Conner couldn’t blow through Cincinnati’s defense, the NFL’s second-worst against the rush. But because this team needs to finally take strides toward an identity, and Conner’s dropped the ball on his chance.

• Oh, he'll put everything he has into the rebound ...

... because that's who he is.

In the interim, he needs to burn all his Le’Veon Bell footage and rediscover what made him at Pitt, then what broke him through in the NFL: Run forward. No hitch, no hesitations, no left-right. Run forward.

JuJu Smith-Schuster’s 76-yard catch-and-run was a work of art ...

... but it underscores the silliness of fearing getting him the ball. The defense shouldn’t be able to dictate that, no matter the coverage.

What’s up there is a simple crossing pattern, the kind that’s scorched the Steelers in the other direction. Two other receivers are flung other ways to clear a little room, and that’s all JuJu needs. The rest occurs only because there’s a football in the man’s hands.

It’s almost like Fichtner needs to go watch Clairton High School for a night. The civic treasure that is the Bears, forever and ever, have designed a billion plays for their best player. Move him around, even to different positions, keep the opponent guessing as much as possible but, ultimately, put the ball in the right hands.

• Oh, and hey, maybe JuJu needs to be a little less of the good soldier and find a way to start demanding the ball. Show me an elite receiver who doesn’t demand the ball, and I’ll show you an underachiever.

• What’s ridiculous is that, even at 0-3, the Steelers can win the AFC North. The division as a whole is 3-9, and the three victories have been over the Dolphins, Cardinals and Jets. Beat the Bengals, keep getting better, take care of the division, then take care of, you know, the Dolphins, Cardinals and Jets. See where it goes.

[caption id="attachment_836286" align="aligncenter" width="640"] Neal Huntington. - MATT SUNDAY / DKPS[/caption]

• Is it unfair to be put off that Neal Huntington and others within the Pirates speak so openly, so boldly about “making things right again” in 2020?

(And yeah, that’s clearly the new catchphrase among them, since they’re all repeating it for weeks.)

I mean, doesn’t it come as presumptive that they’ll be the ones tasked with doing so? Or that Bob Nutting would never conceive of firing them all? Or, worst of all, that they’re somehow the ones we’d all agree would be best equipped for this challenge?


• For a long while, I felt like the lone voice in focusing on the Pirates’ drafting and developing shortcomings. Now, of course, it’s become a chorus.

That makes sense. The casual observer cares almost entirely about what’s playing out in Pittsburgh. So all the garbage that’s been going on in the minors was bound to either stay beneath the surface or fall prey to false hope. Because everyone loves a prospect, real or imagined, and anyone can be hyped.

But 2019 was the year everything was exposed. The Year of the Neverending Neverauskas. Everyone watched it, one surrendered home run after another.

They can’t survive this. They just can’t.

• It’s not about one year. It’s about 12. I can’t stress that strongly enough. This summer had wrought the worst pitching in the franchise’s 133-year history. That doesn’t happen in a snap. It happens because of a decade-plus of failing to infuse and instruct talent through the amateur pipeline. And no, such a shortcoming can’t be addressed by raising payroll. They’d love for fans to think it can, since it shifts blame to Nutting, but the cost would be overwhelming even if Nutting were to spend deep into deficit.

• He won’t. Ever. But I’ll say this now: Whoever Nutting hires next had best be given reasonable guarantees about payroll, if only to avoid another debacle like the winter of 2015.

• My team MVP: Erik Gonzalez. And it’s two-fold reasoning:

1. He served as yet another glaring reminder that those paid to evaluate baseball talent for this team, all of whom were genuinely glowing about this guy at PiratesFest back in January, should be getting paid to do something else.

2. If Gonzalez doesn’t inexplicably slam into Starling Marte in center field back in April, we’d never have seen Bryan Reynolds. At least not for months. Worse, he’d have been stuck in the minors that much longer and, thus, been in danger of having the Giants’ developmental work undone.

• Six more games. The desperate Cubs in town tonight. Imagine losing out, 15 in a row, to finish a season.

[caption id="attachment_893043" align="aligncenter" width="640"] SAM POULIN. -- MATT SUNDAY / DKPS[/caption]

• One of the Penguins’ executives told me the other night, with a broad smile, how pleased the team’s been with both of their top two picks in this year’s NHL Draft, Sam Poulin and Nathan Legare, but especially that their camp experience was positive.

The reason: Prospects their age have to be returned to juniors and, if they’re blown away in NHL settings at an early age, they can lug it back with them. These two are about to drop several levels in competition in the QMJHL, but they’ll do so with both confidence and the humility gained by being around players a heck of a lot more advanced than them.

Poulin told me he was proud to see how his skating, in particular, fit.

“I know I can play here,” he said.

Legare told me he felt more buoyed, more energized with each shift.

“I like to play that way,” he said.

They’re exciting. That’s cool. Been a while.

• I watched a lot of Brandon Tanev in Winnipeg. He’s best on a fourth line. It’s not the lack of finish so much as the lack of hands in general. That’s going to hurt possession. Let him be what he is. There’s value in that.

• This is no place for Jack Johnson bashing, but I’d been hoping he’d enter this season more prepared and intent on reestablishing the offensive presence he once had in Columbus. Maybe that’d involve gaining speed through lost weight or whatever, but just to have it as a priority. But after speaking with him and observing him this preseason, he seems set, as he told me, “to maintain a physical presence, be even stronger.”

With all due respect, I don’t think that’ll cut it.

• Speaking of a bigger body getting faster: Erik Gudbranson spent the summer emphasizing a more explosive first stride. And I’m beyond proud to share that I found this out by spotting one such burst in a game a few days ago, where he was given the puck by partner Pierre-Olivier Joseph in a bad spot, had two opponents converging on him, then just whisked away to his left with a single step.

I asked where that came from: “That’s been all of my work for a while now. It’s felt good. I feel stronger, able to do more things like that.”

Remember when that was a terrible trade because of his analytics in Vancouver?

Not everyone fits everywhere.

• If you missed it on the home page, Jason Rollison, our baseball analyst, our colleague, our friend, died yesterday at age 38 after a brief but bullish battle with cancer. I'll be at the ballgame tonight. I'll bet he'll be there, too.

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