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1st & Goal: Merril Hoge, Former Pittsburgh Steelers Running Back

Zach Gelb Show / Zach Gelb
The Truth Network Radio
August 22, 2023 7:12 pm

1st & Goal: Merril Hoge, Former Pittsburgh Steelers Running Back

Zach Gelb Show / Zach Gelb

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August 22, 2023 7:12 pm

Merril Hoge joined Zach to discuss his expectations for Kenny Pickett this season and where the Steelers rank in a tough AFC North. 

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That's ShipStation.com slash audio. The NFL season is inching closer and closer. Who are the contenders and who are the pretenders? We have four downs to figure out your team's future. It's time now for First and Goal on The Zach Gelb Show. Alrighty, we continue this The Zach Gelb Show coast to coast on CBS Sports Radio.

It's time to preview the Pittsburgh Steelers, so let's welcome in a man that played for the Steelers from 1987 to 1993, and that of course is Merrill Hodge. Merrill, I always appreciate the time. How you been? Zach, I burned the candle at both ends, brother, but doing well.

Well, great to have you back on. Let me start you off because you know what we do in our business. All we do is talk about quarterbacks and coaches. Kenny Pickett had a good finish to his rookie season. Now everyone's wondering if they'll have a breakout year in year number two.

What do you kind of expect this year from the Steelers quarterback? Well, listen, I believe this. I experienced it as a player, and oftentimes it is true. If you played a little bit in your first year, which a lot of players usually do, you see your most improvement in their second year, and that's kind of normal.

Oftentimes, and I can even give a quarterback maybe in his third year when you really see some real growth, but if you go back and you look at what Kenny's skill set was in college, he had the two things that have to be woven together, and he did them as good as I've seen a lot of guys coming out of college do. And that is process things and then be accurate. And processing means decision making. It doesn't matter what your system is. Now his system was a pro system, so it made it a little bit more valid in the sense that he had played in a pro system, so he understood it.

So that helps you. But he did those two things extremely well. He processes things quickly, he's accurate with these football throws with anticipation, and he manages things really well. In fact, that's one thing that stood out to me in college is that he manages the team and drives to get points.

And I saw him do that a little better than a lot of college kids will do it. So watching him in training camp this year, watching him in preseason, you can tell that there's a growth and a comfort to the system that he played in last year, and I feel more comfortable with it. And I just expect a big jump with him.

And all the things I just mentioned, you're going to see that on display. Our offensive line has gotten better. We got some upgrades, and they're starting to come together.

They're going to get better as the year goes on, but they're graphically getting better. And he's got a lot of good perimeter players in every aspect of things to help him too. He doesn't carry the load, but he does have a real special skill set that will allow him to be very successful in this league, and I think you're going to see a real impressive growth this year. We've seen a lot of your old draft takes pop up, and usually when that happens, it's someone getting something wrong. You were spot on with some of those players. When you look at Kenny Pickett with all that you just said, is there no doubt about it in your mind that this guy is going to be the franchise quarterback for the Steelers one day?

Just all the things I just shared with you, you have to have a shot. He clearly has a shot because he has that. He's not lacking accuracy. Accuracy is a really, really big issue. I've heard people talk about, I've not just played it, I've coached it.

And I've coached it from every age from 7 to 27. And I can just say this, accuracy is just like speed, it's a gift. If a guy is not accurate, you're not going to correct that one day. You can improve accuracy, but you're not going to give him accuracy.

And that's never going to happen, and nobody has yet to prove that at any level, anywhere. If he's accurate, he's accurate. Kenny is accurate. He processes things really well, he's decisive with his decision making, and those things really are poignant.

And then you grow from there. Is he a good leader? Is he tough? Yes, he has all those things. And all the other characteristics that you'd want from a player. So he does have that, but listen, teams win championships. I'm not minimizing the quarterback play and how important that is. He has the skill set to help you win a championship, but a team has to be built around him. And you've got to get better as a team in order for that to flourish and eventually come to fruition.

Let's get to the next down. Merrill Hodge here with us on the Zach Gelb show previewing the Pittsburgh Steelers. Merrill, you talk about the rest of the team. Just on offense, Najee Harris has had a good first two seasons in the league. George Pickens looks primed to have a big year. We'll see how Deontay Johnson's going to be this season. A lot of eyes on Allen Robinson too.

Pat Fryermuth is just the phenomenal tight end in this league. They've got some serious talent on the offensive side of the ball. And I feel like not a lot of people are talking about the Steelers. Do you look at their weapons offensively as a bit underrated nationally?

Well, yes, I think you can overlook them. But for me it's a fair evaluation because, listen, unless your offensive line comes together, and that has been their real struggle over the last three years, getting that solidified, making that the strength of your team, is what has to happen. That's just the way it is. I'm telling you, playing this game, starting this league for nearly a decade, been watching it for almost, studying it for nearly three. At the end of the year, the Super Bowl winning team, after you watch tape of that Super Bowl game, it isn't the perimeter players that you saw in the game who got the MVP or made the great plays stand out. It's how they played in the trenches. That is always the difference in the Super Bowl. How long have people played, how the defensive line played.

I've never seen it come out any different. So, in order for all those players that you just described, and they're young too, the one thing that you need to emphasize is that they're all growing together. Pickens, Pickett, Friar Muth, Najee. Is there anybody I just mentioned that's not going into their fourth year? No, I think it's three years for Friar Muth, I think, and Najee. So, there's your veterans.

John might be sick, but he's the wise old guy. That's young when you think about it. They're young people and they're going to get better. They haven't even hit their prime. They're still growing together and learning this game together.

Which is a real value too, quite honestly. It's rare to get that young of a group, that talented of a group, that are building and working and growing together. Let's get to the football coach in Mike Tomlin. I'm a big fan of him. I think he's one of the better coaches in the league. I know he's sometimes polarizing in the fan base because we know where the standard is in Pittsburgh and they haven't won a playoff game since January of 2017. Your view of Mike Tomlin is what as we get to another season of Steelers football? Well, I've got to be a little more in-depth with him and work with him and watch him work.

Let's not play for the other two Hall of Famers, Chuck Nolan and Bill Cowher. I understand the standard too. I understand the standard coaching and he fulfills that. I think he has a great pulse for his team. I think he does an outstanding job of challenging players, setting expectations and demanding a certain standard.

That's what leaders have to do. He's done that. He's been in situations. You lost Ben one year and you had to find ways to win games.

He did. He retires and now you're starting over. You've got to find ways to build and improve. The way the organization has worked with him to get this team the way it is today, there is massive growth from last year. That's what you've got to do.

You've got to constantly get better and evolve. So far that has been on display through the preseason. Let's get to the next down. Merrill Hodge here with us. I look at the defense going to the other side of the ball. T.J. Watt, we know the injury from last year was a big concern, but he's a stud. Cam Hayward up front is a beast. Alex Highsmith, just a phenomenal player on the back end.

Who doesn't love Minka Fitzpatrick? What do you think this defense can do this upcoming year, especially in an AFC that has a ton of great quarterback play? They're going to need that defense to shine. All those players that you mentioned, you've got difference makers. I've always said that you need about five to six difference makers on the team to have a chance to really be a Super Bowl contender. You have difference makers on defense. You've got some young guys at linebacker that fulfill or fill a real void that was inconsistent last year for them.

That leadership and experience so far has manifested that that is an upgrade. Getting Joey Porter Jr. to play, I've known Joey Porter forever. I've seen his son grow up. To fall to where he did to the Steelers, you'd love to script something like that, but most people say, boy, they'll do that in movies.

They write those things, but they usually don't happen. So for it to happen for him, I just think it's ideal. He fits with the Steelers. His play and training camp has been outstanding. His growth and his willingness to grow, which is really the important part. It's players that know that they've got a lot of room to grow and they're willing to do that.

They're willing to put themselves in a position to grow, meaning you're going to get exposed sometimes because you're learning, you're working on things that you need to work on. He's done that. I've been impressed by that, that he wants to work on his weaknesses and make them better. Let's get to the final down. Merrill Hodge here with us on the Zach Gelb show previewing the Pittsburgh Steelers. Merrill, you look at this AFC North, it is tough. I think it's the second toughest division in football. Bengals to me are the best team in this division. How do you rank the other three between the Ravens, Steelers, and Browns? What's your order when you look at this AFC North? Well, I think Cincinnati is your standard. Joe Burrow is playing. He's lethal and he's your difference maker.

The Ravens will be interesting. I find what they're doing there to be... Actually, I don't quite understand what they're doing there. Their office coordinator has a great reputation of doing what I think great coaches do, which makes him to be one of those coaches that ends up being a really great coach. He takes his personnel and then he fits the system around that.

Isn't like, I got my system, you fit this system. That's kind of Benny's history. But they're asking, the way they're talking about it, is now they're going to ask Lamar to do something he's not good at. He's never shown he's good at. And that's playing a pro-style, traditional NFL offense.

Now that's not me saying it. The Ravens have showed you that for his entire career. A majority of their formations are two tight ends, two backs, power formations.

They don't run traditional pro-style situations. When they have done that, or have been forced to do that, he's been exposed as a passer. That is not his strength. Not in college, not in the NFL.

So he has no evidence of that. But they're going to play into that. So I mean, you could argue, okay, well that's what they got to do to make that next step.

But is it really what he can do, and it's going to give you your best chance to win? I just think how that ends up coming together, you know, the coach stays true to what he is. I don't think the Ravens look much different than they have in previous years. You know, they could talk about all this, throwing it all over the place. And keep in mind, these are all new people, too, that he's played with, aside from his tight end.

And a new system. And I can tell you this, from experience and personally in that environment, some of the hardest things to do is after you've played in a system you're comfortable with, you're good at, and you completely change it. You want to talk about a setback? You do those kinds of things.

So to me, that team is the most interesting in how their offense is going to play out and eventually come together. In Cleveland, watching what was missed about his time out. He didn't play for two years. And listen, that's a big deal. But you took two years where you didn't get to develop. How many thousands of snaps did you miss that would have developed you and made you better?

And I think people would never think about that. And that is the bigger harm than just missing two years. What did you miss in those two years?

And sometimes you never catch up to that. He got a little better, but he was nothing like you saw in Houston. You know, they've had an outstanding running game. Are they going to deviate from that? I think that would be a mistake. I still think Chubb would be your foundation. If they make that still the foundation, and Watson compliments that, I actually think that would be pretty good. But if they choose to like, hey, we're going to Watson roll, I think it could be a mistake to do that and ignore the guy who has kept you in the thick of things. And it's one of the most important things in the NFL too, quite honestly, is controlling the tempo in our league. That is one of the most vital components in winning consistently in the NFL, and that has been true for the history of our game.

And to avoid that or negate that or say that's not important, I think you put your team in harm's way. Meryl Hodge, always great to catch up with you. Appreciate the time and the insight. Thanks so much. You got it, Zach. See you, pal.
Whisper: medium.en / 2023-08-24 15:57:11 / 2023-08-24 16:03:44 / 7

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