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Analysis

Devin Bush’s Progress a Big Positive from 1-4 Steelers Start

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It is tough to take many positives away from the Pittsburgh Steelers first five games. Sitting at 1-4 it seems as though there is nothing to watch for the rest of the season. However, while their record is 1-4, the defense has taken a step forward with the addition of Minkah Fitzpatrick, who assisted on an interception again on Sunday.

On top of that, their trade into the top ten for Devin Bush is starting to see its returns.

The start of the season was a whirlwind for Bush. Tom Brady and Russell Wilson are two of the best quarterbacks in the NFL, and both saw the rookie and looked to attack when they had the chance. Bush gave up a few receptions but consistently found the ball, with three fumble recoveries in his first three NFL games.

Bush had a sack, three tackles for loss, and a quarterback hit on top of nine tackles in a Monday Night Football win against the Cincinnati Bengals that was a career game to date. However, Sunday against Baltimore may have been an even more impressive performance and a landmark of things to come.

With Mark Barron leaving late in the second quarter due to a hamstring injury, the Steelers had to make a decision on who they would let call plays. Bush was drafted to fill the role but the tough start had the Steelers using Barron for the time being. Despite being hesitant to put that responsibility early into the season, the progression of Bush gave Mike Tomlin confidence to roll with the rookie in the role he has been intended to play.

Bush had an early neutral zone infraction that helped keep a drive a live. The very next play Bush made a stunning interception, stealing the ball from the intended receiver, Nick Boyle.

Against a complex offense that featured plenty of moving pieces and motion, Bush was able to keep the group in line. In the first half, Lamar Jackson and the Ravens rushing attack was able to rip off 4.2 yards per attempt.

In the second half, the Steelers mixed in more three linebacker looks as well as three safety looks. They mixed and matched with the Ravens personnel, which required a lot of communication. Kam Kelly and Cam Sutton played 10 snaps, and Tyler Matakevich played seven snaps as the team defended the power of Mark Ingram along with the speed of Jackson.

“Just throwing different looks at the quarterback is always tough on them,” said Fitzpatrick about all of the shuffling that aided a strong defensive second half.

“They study the film and they’re expecting to see what they see on film in the game. When you throw different looks on them, it makes them hold onto the ball longer. Which it did, and it allowed us to get to the quarterback.”

Bush was able to handle the shuffling of personnel, get the plays in on time, and get the defense set before the snap. It obviously worked as the 4.2 yards per rush went to 2.8 in the second half. The Ravens averaged just 3.7 yards per play after half time. To put that into perspective, New England leads the league this year allowing 4.1 yards per play. The defense has grown with Bush, and with Bush calling the plays, they were playing arguably their best of the season considering the opponent.

Yes, this is a moral victory in the City of Champions, but the growth of Bush has been reassuring and is going to have the Steelers competitive in games throughout the season, regardless of who is at quarterback.

Barron was beaten multiple times in coverage before a hamstring injury ended his day. Considering the team is 1-4 and Bush has already gotten his feet wet with play-calling it seems foolish to pull back on his responsibility now. With Vince Williams back in the mix, the team has a veteran who can help guide Bush, and as Barron comes back from his injury he can shuffle with Williams based on situation.

Whether the season ends with a magical run, or not, the improvement of the defense has been inspiring and the progression of players such as T.J. Watt, Devin Bush, and Minkah Fitzpatrick should keep fans tuning in for Sundays in 2019 and for years to come.

Analysis

Steelers Rookie Kevin Dotson is Ready to Step Up in a Big Way

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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.

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Analysis

Film Study: James Pierre’s Size, Strength Provide Upside at Cornerback

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Coming into training camp, some undrafted free agents were on the radar to possibly make the Steelers at defensive back, where the team did not directly replaced departed veterans Artie Burns and Sean Davis.

A popular choice to make the team was undrafted slot corner Trajan Bandy, who ended up on the Steelers practice squad. The cornerback that came out of nowhere to make the roster was Florida Atlantic alum James Pierre. A near afterthought even after the Steelers signed him, Pierre showed up on the pool report every day against guys like James Washington and Chase Claypool. Pierre made plays on them, too. It was a healthy competition.

So, now that Pierre is on the roster, what are the Steelers really getting in this guy? Most importantly, what does his future outlook look like since he is likely buried on the bench?

Pierre’s Upside

Pierre mentioned in his press conference that he had one speed and that one speed was full speed. Pierre is 6-foot-2 and has great length. So, the physical fit is already rather striking right off the bat. Similar to Justin Layne, Pierre has the tools, and even though he bombed the combine, on tape, Pierre is a decent athlete. He is not a ‘wow’ player in terms of his athleticism, but it is sufficient, especially with how he plays the game.

The first thing that jumped out on his tape was his feistiness and willingness to do things that a lot of cornerbacks do not do: run support, tackling, and special teams. Pierre reaffirmed that, mentioning he wanted to help the Steelers anywhere they could, and it passes the eye test. Here on a cornerback blitz against Ohio State, Pierre is quite literally setting the edge on a read-option. That is a rare responsibility for a boundary corner, even one to the short side of the field. However, he does a fantastic job here to bring down Justin Fields with relative ease as well. Pierre can really tackle and is a physical player at the point of contact. It makes sense that the Steelers were drawn to Pierre for this reason. They expect their cornerbacks to be scrappy and help out in run defense and Pierre fits the bill.

This is where his size and strength come into play. UCF plays with weird wide receiver splits and this X-receiver has almost no room to work with on the sideline. Even still, Pierre does a fantastic job of using his hands to direct this route and control it. Even as the receiver swipes overhead, watch out how that speed turn is by Pierre. If that is thrown out of that break, Pierre has a chance to intercept that pass as he is in the hip pocket. He does almost surrender a catch on the scramble drill, but the initial stab and punch to the outside shoulder to divert any momentum from the receiver is what Pierre’s game is all about.

There are some issues with Pierre’s game. This is honestly not a bad rep by Pierre under all circumstances. It’s fine, he gets his hand knocked down while he has inside leverage and gets behind by a slight step. However, Pierre recovers quite well with a by marking his hand on that inside shoulder and staying in phase. He is in a position to make a play on this ball, but it is all a timing issue. Pierre actually jumps too early, misses a play on the ball, and as such this is caught. It would be nice to see Pierre get his head around even though he is in recovery mode. That comes down to composure and ball skills, which are two things Pierre needs to improve on. He dropped a few interceptions at training camp as well.

However, this is what it comes back to right here. The feistiness, the grit, and the passion Pierre plays with. It is going to land in the good graces of Mike Tomlin and the Steelers staff as long as he can do things like this on special teams and in practice. Pierre blows up a tight end here to make the tackle. Not many cornerbacks play with that strength or physicality but he does.

Pierre’s Outlook With the Steelers

It is a bit hard to frame what Pierre is going to be in his career. It all really comes back how he evolves in zone coverages and his composure in tough situations. There is a bit of a panic mechanic that Pierre induces when he gets beat off the line, even if he often recovers to be in a position to make the play. If he listens, learns, and works relentlessly to improve with these veterans in the room, however, Pierre has a chance to be a real gem of a find for the Steelers.

For right now, expect him to be a feisty special teamer that defines what it means to be a Steelers cornerback going back to the Steel Curtain days. The inconsistencies on the boundary will hopefully begin to work themselves out as he gets more and more coaching time with Teryl Austin and Tom Bradley.

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Analysis

Jaguars Release RB Leonard Fournette, Steelers again Speculated as Destination

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The Jacksonville Jaguars released veteran running back Leonard Fournette on Monday, reigniting speculation that the Pittsburgh Steelers could be interested in the former No. 4 overall NFL Draft selection.

Fournette rushed for 2,631 yards in his three seasons with the Jaguars, including a 1,152-yard season in 15 games in 2019. But the LSU product also grew dissatisfied with his situation in Jacksonville, requesting a trade over the offseason.

That trade, in which the Steelers were frequently suggested a partner, never materialized, and Fournette was waived on Monday.

Though the Steelers were a repeatedly rumored destination for Fournette in a trade, the circumstances are much different now.

The Steelers used one of their 2020 NFL Draft selections on running back Anthony McFarland, Jr. from Maryland, and he impressed through the first two weeks of his first training camp.

The Steelers have also already gone through their cycle of restructuring their contracts to get salary cap compliant for the 2020 season. Fournette is owed $4.2 million in salary for 2020 that would have to be absorbed if the Steelers or another team claimed him on waivers. The Steelers do not have that amount of cap space available, meaning they would have to begin the process of renegotiating a contract in order to make space very quickly.

There also isn’t a player in the Steelers running backs room that they could release in order to realize any cap savings if they landed Fournette, as their entire running backs room consists of players on their rookie contracts or for near the veteran minimum.

The combination of factors makes it seem unlikely that Fournette will end up with the Steelers, especially considering the fact that they likely could have acquired him for very little earlier this offseason and chose not to. But until he lands elsewhere, it seems likely that the speculation will continue and it’s a situation worth monitoring.

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