The Pittsburgh Steelers closed up shop on the workout portion of their offseason this Thursday.
While these sessions are mainly a good chance to get rookies and new members of the team used to the playbook, it also is a chance for players to set the tone for what is to come in 2019.
The Steelers started to implement their plans, and we got a peak into what they may be thinking for next season. With that in mind, what are some of the standout notes from the off-season training sessions?
DEVIN BUSH IS GOING TO GET EVERY CHANCE TO CALL PLAYS
When the Steelers drafted traded up for Devn Bush, it was apparent that his tested speed was going to be able to step in for Ryan Shazier. However, an underrated factor from losing Shazier was his play-calling prowess, and ability to get his teammates set. Bush went from a fast linebacker with some talent to a top tier player that the Steelers coveted because of his leadership and playcalling abilities at Michigan. However, entering the NFL there is an obvious question as to how fast he could get acclimated to the playbook and jump into the role as a play caller.
Bush immediately jumped into the role in rookie camp and showed that he was willing to be vocal, even if he did not have all of the language down.
“Right or wrong, I was just being vocal and trusting what I see,” Bush said. “I’ve got quite a bit to learn. I just have to know how to speak the language of the defense and get caught up on all my plays. … I know concepts about the style of defense that we’re trying to run, I just have to learn the language.”
Bush took his knowledge from there and saw it expand by calling plays with the starters on the first day of OTAs. Bush mixed in with Vince Williams, and Mark Barron throughout the sessions, showing that he fit right in with the two veterans who will challenge him for playing time.
The ripple effect of Bush calling plays will intrinsically make the rest of the defense better. Bush is showing that the jump may come even faster than the Steelers thought.
Going all the way back to Le’Veon Bell and DeAngelo Williams, the Steelers have long tried to get two running backs on the field at the same time. With both backs adding passing game value, putting both on the field can create matchup opportunities. Of course, injuries, suspensions and everything associated with Bell put those plans on delay for most of his time in Pittsburgh.
Now, in 2019, it appears the Steelers are best equipped to use this formation, and they have also been the most vocal about seeing it happen. James Conner has talked openly about his teammates being competent to reduce his workload, and Jaylen Samuels mentioned that he has been on the field with Conner at the same time.
“We’ve had a couple sets where it was me and him in the backfield and I was motioned out,” Samuels said. “We’re just building off from there.”
Getting two pass-catching running backs on the field has been increasing league-wide, and now that the Steelers have the personnel to match, do not be surprised if we finally see action behind their lip-service.
DONTE MONCRIEF HAS EMERGED AS AN AB REPLACEMENT
Let’s contradict the headline from the start. One player will not solely replace Antonio Brown. When the Steelers lost the future Hall of Fame talent they added Donte Moncrief, drafted Diontae Johnson and still have hopes of a second-year breakout for James Washington.
Roethlisberger knows that he needs the combination of size, speed, and big-play opportunities that Moncrief presents to prove that he can still succeed without Brown. The two have connected early and often into camp, and Roethlisberger is looking to give Moncrief a career year with his most stable quarterback situation yet.
“I’m a new guy,” Moncrief said. “He’s trying to learn me, and I’m trying to learn him, so I’m coming out here and showing him the best routes that I have, so I can gain trust and make those tough catches.”
Roethlisberger noted that while he is looking forward to working with all of the new and emerging faces in this offense, Moncrief is one that consistently catches his attention.
“Just getting to see his work ethic, the type of person he is, his desire to be great, his knowledge of the offense already. … He’s in with Coach [Darryl] Drake every single morning, pretty much all day. You seen the desire and want-to-be-great, so I’ve enjoyed getting to know him and work with him so far.”
Moncrief is happy to work with Roethlisberger and the feeling is mutual. The two have connected on and off of the field and the hope is that this momentum will only grow in Latrobe. Johnson and Washington will get theirs, but right now all eyes are on Moncrief.
ARTIE BURNS IS ON THE BUBBLE
After the draft, one of the bolder takes from our 53-man roster projection was leaving Artie Burns off. However, as the days of OTAs have gone by, it has become more and more likely that he will enter Latrobe with his job on the line.
Steven Nelson has jumped in firmly with the starters across from Joe Haden and has been confident in his standing.
On top of that, Justin Layne was drafted in round three and has been strictly learning on the outside.
Both have lived up to expectations so far, and if they can carry momentum into Latrobe, the need for Burns on the outside starts to become very small. With Mike Hilton in the slot, and Cameron Sutton being able to play every secondary spot, Burns is going to have to prove he can play on special teams to make the 53-man roster, because five cornerbacks are currently safer than him.
SUTTON SMITH COULD BE A CULT HERO
Sutton Smith is a Yinzer’s perfect storm. A small-school player who was undersized and underrated yet consistently produced. Now, he is going to play every phase of the game to try to earn a roster spot. Smith put up strong combine stats, strong college production and still fell into round six. He is the classic bottom of the roster underdog.
Smith was a defensive end at Northern Illinois but was not afraid to play off of the ball at outside linebacker in the Steelers scheme. The Steelers went from seeing him transition to outside linebacker to transitioning him to the offensive side of the ball at fullback. Yes, you heard that right.
On top of that he is a special teams stud. Mike Tomlin was quick to point out his versatility and special teams prowess in his post-draft press conference.
“We are excited about his special teams capability, etched him close down in Mobile in that area,” Tomlin noted. “This is a conversion guy, a guy that played defensive end. So, their abilities to display their special teams talents and play like linebackers is important.”
Smith showed that on top of any role on special teams, as well as any role on the defensive side of the ball, he now is willing to play three ways.
“I’ll do whatever they need,” Smith added. “I keep saying that but it is the God’s honest truth right now.”
Smith has Tomlin’s attention, and has the ability to get on the field in a variety of ways. Smith is going to play an extreme number of snaps in the preseason, and his work ethic, hustle, and three-way prowess is going to have fans chanting for him to stick on the back end of the 53-man roster.
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.