You are going to hear at least once from now until the start of the 2019 NFL draft that the Pittsburgh Steelers need to add one of the two “Devins” who sits atop of the list of top linebackers available. The team did a poor job of replacing Ryan Shazier last offseason, and now they are forced into a make or break spot this offseason on the addition of one of these two elite prospects.
Unfortunately for the Steelers, as the days have gotten closer to the draft, the idea that Devin White or Devin Bush will drop to Pittsburgh has started to look less likely. Devin White has almost been guaranteed to be picked by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at fifth overall, and if an unforeseen outcome did change that, White would not fall much further.
White going higher than anticipated only starts the totem pole effect, making it harder to imagine Devin Bush dropping another 15 spots to Pittsburgh. The Steelers can try to trade up for Bush, heck, they tried to trade up for a linebacker last season. Sometimes, it just does not work out.
With that in mind, the Steelers cannot take the same approach as last year.
After missing on their linebacker early, they felt unsure of the other options in the draft and opted to wait until after the draft to sign Matthew Thomas as a UDFA. Thomas will enter training camp with the Ravens this summer.
If the Steelers miss on Devin Bush in round one, they need to attack linebacker in the next round or so. And if the Steelers miss on Devin Bush, the player they need is Ben Burr-Kirven (BBK) from Washington.
While Devin Bush has elite upside, the one knock against him was that he did not stuff the stat sheet while in college. The Steelers, who lacked turnovers at every spot on defense last season need a playmaker in the middle of the field. Enter BBK.
As a senior, BBK had an unreal 176 tackles. More than that, he added 5.5 tackles for loss, two going for sacks. Burr-Kirven defended six passes, intercepted two, forced four fumbles and recovered three more. It is safe to say Ben Burr-Kirven was everywhere. He did this all while playing extremely efficient, posting a 91 grade by Pro Football Focus, with elite grades in coverage, an area where the Steelers lack the most.
BBK plays with an instinctive understanding and a motor that never runs cold. He is a player who can get to the sidelines, defend the run and make plays in the passing game.
The play below will make Steelers fans eyes light up. It is third down and two and BBK is playing off of the ball. However, he recognizes a run up the middle, fills the gap, and not only halts momentum but begins to drive the runner into the backfield further.
BEN BURR-KIRVEN Utah pic.twitter.com/aRViRvm51C
— rph (@parkerhurleyNFL) March 3, 2019
Again, note his diagnosing skills. Despite a lot of pulling and movement on the offensive line, BBK stays in his gap with his eyes on the ball. He reads the run, finds his hole and wraps up.
Still, the Steelers have Vince Williams and Jon Bostic for downhill, physical run defense. What they need is the speed over the middle of the field that they lost from Ryan Shazier. In the slot near the right hash, you can see BBK lineup with a tight end in the slot, and follow him up the seam. Watch him deny the middle of the field, slide with his man and then turn his hips to maintain speed without losing his man.
BBK is also instinctive in coverage. Watch the bottom tweet first of the two below. He reads the quarterback the entire time. The quarterback looks left and BBK shuffles one step to give him the impression he is baited into a read. When the quarterback thinks he got BBK to shuffle left, he looks right over the middle of the field. However, BBK knew that, and moved with the quarterback to pick the pass off with room to run. This not only shows awareness but a change of direction, burst and ball skills.
The top tweet is an encapsulation of everything he brings to the table. Watch him fluidly change directions as he reads the play. He helps defend the route over the middle by the wide receiver before crashing hard on the drag route check-down option. He effectively shut down two passing options and made a great stick after the fact to contain his man to nothing at all after the catch. One of the few negatives against BBK is that he is credited for allowing completions, but often they are plays like the one highlighted here. We will take those completions.
Ben Burr-Kirven interception pic.twitter.com/NrHlnedMf1
— rph (@parkerhurleyNFL) March 4, 2019
Of course, his game is not complete, and if it were, he would be in the Devin Bush range as a prospect. Instead, the Steelers may be able to find a player such as Burr-Kirven in round three, if not later.
That mainly comes down to his size. Ben Burr-Kirven is a bit undersized by NFL standards but did show up to the NFL combine, at 6′ in height, and 230 pounds in weight-two thresholds that improve his chances in the NFL.
Unfortunately, his biggest question is going to come from his reach and arm length. As shown in his athletic testing, he does not have long arms. Washington played with a strong defensive line, and BBK was given the chance to roam free because of it. Will he get eaten by second-level blocks that he did not see in the NFL?
Many Steelers fans are going to see the size, the production and a white athlete and immediately draw comparisons to Tyler Matakevich. However, as you can see from his athletic testing, BBK is nearly an elite athlete at his size.
His speed in the 40 stands out, but his 3-cone and short shuttle speak to elite change of direction and short area quickness skills needed to hang with slot receivers, tight ends, and running backs in coverage.
In fact, when you compare Ben Burr-Kirven to Tyler Matakevich athletically, you do not even have a player in the same ballpark. The upside of BBK is significantly higher.
The upside of BBK is a player who can get on the field next season. His size issues are always going to be there, but his combination of smarts and athleticism can help him deal with it. The NFL is shifting to a smaller league as well, as Ryan Shazier now looks averagely sized for a linebacker at 237 pounds. Burr-Kirven being undersized is not nearly the issue it would have been 10 years ago.
If the Steelers can add Devin Bush in the first round, it comes off as a no-brainer. However, if they are unable to pull it off, Steelers fans should not fear. Ben Burr-Kirven worked out for the Steelers recently, and he should be sitting at the top of the Steelers list of backup plans when it comes to drafting a linebacker in 2019.
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.