It is finally back. While the preseason does not necessarily constitute that football has officially returned, it does feel good to know that the Steelers will be running out of the tunnel to play an organized game against an NFL opponent.
Friday will probably not be the day we learn how Ben Roethlisberger will bounce back after losing Antonio Brown, or how JuJu Smith-Schuster will step up to fill that presence. With three more preseason games, we may not even see either suit up.
The first week of the preseason is not for the stars of the organization. However, there is plenty to learn from this game, especially when it comes to the depth of the roster. Depth players play the snaps in week one, and this is a chance for these players to lay a foundation that can get them noticed for the rest of the summer. We can start to see the depth chart being sorted and learn which bottom-of-the-roster players may sneak their way onto the 53-man roster.
With that in mind, football is back, and there is plenty to absorb in what many will tell you is a meaningless game. Who are the five players that you should keep your eyes on throughout the game?
1. Sutton Smith
Sutton Smith may be a consistent member of the “players to watch” list this preseason. Smith lit up the MAC, posting 29 sacks and 56.5 tackles for loss over the past two seasons. However, his physical limitations have many questioning his NFL application, which saw him falling to the Steelers in the sixth round.
Smith comes in as a refined pass rusher, with good speed and tackling ability. He has special teams capabilities and has even played full back in OTAs as well as parts of training camp.
With T.J. Watt banged up, Smith is going to get plenty of snaps at outside linebacker on Friday. Considering how refined he is, and quality of play across from him, he could certainly make a name for himself in the stat sheet. On top of that, Smith will be competing on special teams, which is where he can win a roster spot. We may even see Smith play three sides, and get a look on offense. Without a doubt, he will be a player to look for from the opening kick off to the final snap.
2. Kameron Kelly
The AAF was intended to give fringe NFL players a chance to show their talents and get picked up by an NFL team. Although short-lived, the league may have done as intended for Kam Kelly. Kelly was a UDFA from San Diego State who spent some time in Dallas before becoming a player in the AAF.
Kelly switched between wide receiver and cornerback in the AAF, and with safety experience in college, the versatility drew Pittsburgh’s attention. With Sean Davis sidelined due to a finger injury it was expected long-time special teamer Jordan Dangerfield would be the next in line. However, that role has gone to Kelly in the early days of camp.
The Steelers certainly want to see what he can offer in a game situation, and will not reward him anything based on a few camp sessions. This should give Kelly a chance to start and play deeper into the game than any other starter. Kelly may get a look at free safety, and in the box as a dime or nickel player. His role, usage, and special teams ability could lock down a spot for him.
3. Ola Adenyi
Last preseason the UDFA from Toldeo led the Steelers in sacks. Unfortunately, a hamstring injury relegated him to the injured reserve. Still, he worked back and overcame the injury to get on the active roster for one game to close the season.
For a UDFA to work back and get a chance to earn a helmet shows what the team sees in him. In year two, he picked up right where he left off and has assumed his role as a veteran.
The Steelers know what they have and are optimistic with the start to Adenyi’s summer. They do not want to see him get hurt again, but at the same time, he is a UDFA who has lit up camp but has yet to show that he is a legitimate NFL defender.
While the ability of others will be tested, the usage of Adenyi should help tell us what this team thinks of him, and whether he is a back end roster player who they need to see more from, or if he can push Anthony Chickillo for the first pass rusher off the bench.
4. Diontae Spencer
Diontae Spencer is an undersized receiver checking in at 5’8″ and 163 pounds. He spent some time in the NFL in 2014, but developed his game in the CFL the past couple of seasons. His big-play ability and progression caught the Steelers eye, and now that he is back in a camp, he is making the most of his opportunity.
If Spencer wants to make the roster, he will have to beat out Eli Rogers or Ryan Switzer. The easiest way to do this would be as a return man. The Steelers will surely give the big-play weapon a chance to prove himself in that area, and a long return could provide momentum. On top of that, Switzer and Rogers are looked at as more quick-shifty slot players who can work the intermediae.
Spencer has a chance to provide a vertical element that these two don’t provide as often. Big plays are the name of the game for Spencer. How many can he make?
5. Jerald Hawkins
When Hawkins was drafted in round four, his upside was high, but his refinement was low. The idea was that getting him in a room with Mike Munchak could do wonders with his talent. Hawkins suffered a shoulder injury in his first preseason that ended his rookie year prematurely. He got back into the swing of things in year two, but another injury in year three, this time to his quad, has him well behind entering year four without Munchak getting his hands on him for very long.
With Hawkins being so questionable, the team drafted Chukwuma Okorafor in round three of the 2018 draft, and he appears to be head and shoulders ahead of Hawkins as the team swing tackle. With B.J. Finney, as the swing guard, the top seven spots on this offensive line are locked in.
The Steelers will keep eight, and potentially even nine offensive linemen, but Hawkins is going to have to beat out Zach Banner, as well as rookies Derwin Gray. Fred Johnson and Garrett Brumfield. With the top seven locked in we will not see much of them this preseason, especially the starters.
Combining this with Hawkins having two years to make up on and the team still being invested in his upside, and Hawkins should see plenty of snaps this preseason. Will he look rusty? Will he look capable at all, or is it time to move on from what could be a missed pick? We will learn more about Hawkins on Friday.
With Conner, Snell Each over 100 Yards, Running Game Crucial to Steelers 2-0 Start
The Steelers have charged out to a 2-0 start to the season thanks to the stellar defense and the return of star quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, which has elevated an already talented group of receivers that also added Chase Claypool and Eric Ebron to the mix this offseason.
At least, that’s how the narrative has gone so far. And with good reason. The Steelers do have a stellar defense, and Roethlisberger has been a spark, with five touchdowns in two games and a completion percentage (68.5) and passer rating (107.1) that would both be career highs.
But the Steelers have also done a surprisingly strong job of running the football. Through two weeks, there have only been 10 running backs to rush for over 100 yards, and the Steelers have two, with Benny Snell clearing the century mark against the New York Giants and James Conner returning from injury to do so against the Denver Broncos.
They’re the only team with a 100-yard rusher in each of their first two games and have increased their percentage of run plays from 33% in 2018 to 42% this season. Roethlisberger said part of that is that the Steelers have been operating with a lead in the second half and looking to run some clock by running the ball.
“Yeah, I think it’s just the way the games have played out,” Roethlisberger said. “We don’t go into any game saying, OK, here’s our percentage of run/pass. We go into the game trying to win it. I’ve just been happy at the end of games, we’ve been able to utilize the four-minute offense both games. I think that’s something that we take pride in. Because when we say we have to run the ball, it doesn’t mean we have to run it more. We have to run it more effectively. And running it in the four-minute offense is effective running.”
Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin also highlighted the success of the four-minute offense as the Steelers ran out the clock with the football in both victories.
“We have been able to close games out via the run,” he said. “We have been able to possess the ball in four-minute offense. We’ve had a lead in the latter part of the game and have been able to close the game out and maintain possession of the ball primarily via the run. I like that aspect of it. We are still working and growing in terms of being able to do all the things that we want to do, not only in that area of the game, but in all areas of the game. But I think it is a good start when you have your four-minute offense rolling and you are able to possess the ball via the run and preserve a lead at the end of a football game.”
Of course, there are many mouths to feed when it comes to the Steelers offense. Roethlisberger’s number of quality targets in the passing game, plus what looks like it could be a two-headed backfield between Conner and Snell is a lot of talent to go around and there’s only one football.
Roethlisberger said striking a balance is easy, though, at least when the team is 2-0.
“You look at the win loss column,” he said. “At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter who’s getting the ball. It doesn’t matter how many times we’re running or throwing it, it doesn’t matter who’s getting their stats, it’s just a matter of if the team is getting that one stat that’s most important. And that’s a win.”
Film Study: Conservative Game Plan Holds Steelers Back
The Steelers squeaked out a victory from the jaws of defeat on Sunday by defeating the Denver Broncos 26-21. It was a hard-fought battle as the Steelers allowed the Broncos to creep back into the game in the second half. Turnovers and penalties were two big reasons as to why the Steelers kept them in the game. However, the conservative offensive play calling was as well. Offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner has received due criticism before. Today, that criticism was once again well deserved.
Fichtner’s Questionable Calls Shackles Ben Roethlisberger
The biggest problem with Fichtner was his conservative play-calling once the Steelers got into unfavorable second down positions. On 2nd and long, the Steelers should be using the playmaking ability and arm of Ben Roethlisberger and the skillsets of their weapons to help get into manageable third-down situations.
On a 2nd and 18, these draw plays should not be in contention. One was in the very first quarter when the Steelers should be gunning for a quick start, not a first possession punt. It was after a fumble, but all Fichtner should be doing is trying to get the offense back on track. A run on second and long does not accomplish that. Then, with a two-score lead, this is a classic example of a team taking the foot off the gas pedal. Living in fear of turnover at this point is not a valid point to the contrary, especially when the passing game had been working especially well in the first half against a battered Broncos secondary. More potently, this is playing right into the Broncos strengths. Their front line, even without Von Miller, is strong and capable. It made no sense to go with a draw here on 2nd and long. Even attacking the Broncos underneath here would have worked to some degree. Anything is better than a run at this point.
On the ensuing play, the point is driven home. The Broncos have sold out for the deep pass at the sticks and all that is left is a dig at the line of scrimmage. As a result, the Steelers end up punting here. There was no guarantee that the Steelers would have scored points even if they did take the air. However, shackling Roethlisberger when he has shown the capability to beat the Broncos secondary with ease is a questionable call. If the Steelers do convert and end up scoring a touchdown or even a field goal, the entire outlook on the game is changed. Analytics have shown aggressiveness is how teams have the best probability to win games. In situations like this, that should be followed.
The Steelers’ screen game was perhaps the worst part of the game today. There was nothing going for them all day and yet Fichtner continued to call them. The screen game is nothing more than an extension of the running game. It, yet again, is something that puts Roethlisberger’s best strengths in a bind and handicaps drives. There were promising drives that showcased the quick passing game as a way to slice through the Broncos defense with ease. Even more so, Chase Claypool’s big play made it known that it was possible to push the ball down the field.
This screen play may highlight the worst of the day for the Steelers. The pre-snap look they get is just not favorable for this play. They are outmanned three to two in a blocking situation. More importantly, the Broncos are playing with even spacing and have a great angle to the boundary to make this play on JuJu Smith-Schuster. They are expecting a quick pass here and the safety at the top of the formation is ready to drive down if he sees any quick passing game concepts. That is exactly what happens and the Steelers are stopped short on a critical 3rd and 2. It is questionable why they did not check out of this anyways, but given the struggles of the screen game all day, Fichtner’s call of a screen in a pivotal point is puzzling.
Fichtner has to learn to let Roethlisberger cook and use his arm talent. The quick passing game is more than fine. Honestly, screens are not all bad, but they should not be calling as many as they did today when they were not working. If they are to be called, there has to be more pre-snap action to mess with the defense’s eyes. It was that conservative play-calling that lulled the Steelers offense and in part gave the Broncos a window to creep back into the game as a whole.
Steelers Rookie Kevin Dotson is Ready to Step Up in a Big Way
The Steelers will be throwing their rookie guard into the fire on Sunday. With injuries to both David DeCastro and Stefen Wisniewski, the Steelers are being forced to throw fourth-round rookie Kevin Dotson into the starting lineup. While his college tape looks good, and Steelers Now concluded he could have starting upside, this is early for him to be starting. Dotson missed a good portion of training camp with a knee injury. Not only that but with such limited time, is he really ready to play this early? The few reps he got versus the Giants may be able to tell the story.
There were two key plays that showed Dotson might just be ready right out of the gate here, even despite the “angst” that Mike Tomlin and Randy Fichtner have described at starting Dotson this week.
The first play was this rep against Dexter Lawrence. Now, Lawrence is an explosive athlete. Converting speed-to-power is something he does really well. With powerful hands to jolt pass protectors as well, he can be a real problem, especially for a young guy like Dotson. However, while Dotson initially gets hit slightly back, he does a great job of engaging his core strength and anchoring down. It is obvious how strong Dotson is on the football field, but it is not just in his arms. It is his legs and core that allows him great body control to stand his ground. Other than his dependable anchor on this play, Dotson has fantastic hand placement. His hands are placed inside of Lawrence’s shoulder pads and he is able to control the point of attack here as a result. It was all through winning the leverage of the rep where Dotson was able to get those hands under Lawerence’s pads. A true people-mover it is no surprise to see Dotson play with excellent leverage.
This is a fantastic pull by Dotson on this play to spring Benny Snell. He shows off some hip stiffness, but overall moves pretty well to reach the end here and seal it off. Dotson is the very definition of mauler that plays with violence and power. The end gets shocked by Dotson’s pull and can not get free of his grasps in time to make a play on Snell. This is textbook teach tape for pulls, and while it is not flashy, it is good stuff from Dotson.
Back in training camp after he had just come back and was facing some first team competition, Dotson made sure to let it known he was up to the task.
“I feel like I can make an impact no matter what happens,” Dotson said.
Now with a flurry of injuries, it will up to Dotson to handle Jurrell Casey against the Broncos as the Steelers try to improve to 2-0. If the limited tape says anything, Dotson might just be up to that task.