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.
Analysis: Steelers Must Develop Their Own Brand of Vertical Offense
The Steelers offensive identity has been built on efficiency. With Ben Roethlisberger coming off of elbow surgery, they wanted the veteran quarterback to reinvent himself. The good news is that Roethlisberger has done that and then some. Roethlisberger gets the ball out faster than any other quarterback in the NFL. With an emphasis on the quick passing game, the Steelers have been throwing it to their bevy of playmakers to a large degree of success for most of the season.
However, over the past two games, the offense has suddenly gone stagnant. Scoring just 17 points on Monday against the Washington Football Team, the Steelers offense is trending in the wrong direction at the worst time. Without a running game in sight, the passing game has been the Steelers’ crutch. Still, it is something that has become predictable. Washington edge defender Chase Young said that “Baltimore exposed some things” and that the defense could pick up on the Steelers tendencies as a whole.
It is that predictability that is the root cause of the issues the Steelers are having offensively. To the running game and short passing game, everything comes back to their inability to be unpredictable and fool the defense. Perhaps the most important of these predictable tendencies is the Steelers’ affinity to run short horizontal routes only. Bubble screens, drags, quick slants and ins, and smoke routes are essentially the Steelers’ route tree at this point. Every now and then there is a five yard curl over the middle of the field.
That is something that Randy Fichtner hangs his hat on. Ever since becoming the offensive coordinator, he has made it point for the Steelers to get their receivers in open space, create havoc, and let the playmakers do the work. In the modern NFL, it has a lot of great things to it. The fruits of it were shown in games against Tennessee, Cleveland, and Philadelphia earlier this season. The issue has become that Fichtner goes horizontal too much in games. Out of any bunch set, there is at most five route combinations the Steelers are running. Knowing they will try quick passes, teams are just dropping eight defenders into coverage and clamping down on it.
So, what is the natural adjustment to that? Well, it is to take the fight to them and attack them vertically. Now, the type of vertical attack they have is somewhat limited. It is essentially relegated to heavy and pray bombs. The Steelers also refuse to attack the middle of the field. They have only 11 passing attempts for 15 or more yards in the middle of the field this season.
Attacking the entirety of the field is one of the easy fixes for the Steelers. The middle of the field is ripe for the taking given what defenses are throwing at the Steelers. It is a lot of single-high coverage, so if they can isolate someone like Chase Claypool or JuJu Smith-Schuster on that single-high safety, it could be a big play. The Steelers have the weapons to really go after it in the middle of the field.
The caveat coming with a more oriented traditional vertical passing game would be the inaccuracy of Roethlisberger himself. There is a reason that the Steelers are hesitant to throw 40 yard bombs. It is because Roethlisberger’s accuracy is all over the place. Every now and then he finds paydirt, but it is a deep ball that far from what it was prior to his elbow surgery. The good news is that while Roethlisberger may struggle with those extremely deep passes, he can still put a lot of velocity on the ball and push it.
With an arm like Roethlisberger’s now, the Steelers should be trying a different vertical attack. They must go back to what they once did under Tood Haley, and even more so earlier this season. While they will have to toss the vertical heave every now and then, the Steelers can get away with working on the vertical plane. That means a lot of out, curl, comeback, dig, and seam routes. Those throws outside the numbers with guys like Claypool and Diontae Johnson could really be the adjustment this team needs.
Opening up the offense for JuJu Smith-Schuster to run up the seam a bit more and make some combat catches would be a welcome sight. Even running a skinny post or corner route with Eric Ebron seems ideal. Roethlisberger does not have the accuracy on those heave ball types anymore. He does have the accuracy in the 20-25 yard area to still push it to all areas of the field. It is that key distinction that the Steelers must take advantage of to work open this offense. The Steelers have the personnel to do it, the question is just will they do it.
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.”
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.