The 2019 NFL Draft continues to draw closer, now in the single digits for days counting down to draft day.
The Pittsburgh Steelers currently hold ten selections in the draft, a first for Pittsburgh since the 2010 NFL Draft, which included Maurkice Pouncey, Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown. Draft day trades are somewhat unusual for GM Kevin Colbert, yet we’ve seen him pull the trigger more than once. One year ago, the Steelers moved up in the third round of the 2018 NFL Draft to select quarterback Mason Rudolph. The pick (#79 overall) used to wheel and deal with the Seattle Seahawks? Acquired from the Oakland Raiders in a trade that sent Martavis Bryant packing to wear silver and black.
The Steelers currently hold the 20th overall pick in the first round. Colbert has two notable first round moves to climb up the board and select a player, as the Steelers moved up to get Troy Polamalu in the 2003 NFL Draft and Santonio Holmes in the 2006 NFL Draft.
First Round Consistency
Since 2010, the Steelers have spent eight of nine first round picks on the defensive side of the ball (the lone exception being David DeCastro in 2012). The trend is expected to continue in 2019. Pittsburgh still has needs at both the inside linebacker/cornerback positions. One prospect that has been linked with Pittsburgh is Michigan’s Devin Bush, a speedy. three down inside linebacker who would perfectly fill a need for the Steelers at number 20. The problem? He may not even be there, as Bush’s draft stock has soared in the last few months thanks to impressive combine+pro day performances.
Would the Steelers move up to take Bush?
“Trading up or trading back, that is always going to be a possibility. We won’t know that until probably draft day, but you always have those different scenarios” said Colbert to Steelers.com. “Understanding when you have 10 you have more ammunition to either take 10 players or use ammunition to trade up.”
Judging by Colbert’s comments on having the ammunition to move up, and earlier comments about failing to find a replacement for Ryan Shazier, it’s not out of the question if Colbert decides pick up the phone to make a move.
Should Bush be out of sight, two popular choices for the Steelers reside in cornerbacks Washington’s Byron Murphy and LSU’s Greedy Williams. The status for either defender remains unknown, yet it’s believed to be a good possibility that either of the two are on the board when Pittsburgh is on the clock. The addition of a new cornerback would be a welcome sight for Steelers fans, as first round pick Artie Burns has regressed since his impressive rookie year.
If nobody is there for the Steelers liking? Trading down is another option for Colbert, as he did in 2001 with Casey Hampton. The Steelers free agency spending (Steve Nelson, Mark Barron) has afforded Colbert of avoiding a panic scenario similar to the events that unfolded in the 2016 NFL Draft, where Pittsburgh’s highly-coveted pick William Jackson III was taken by the Cincinnati Bengals right before the Steelers went on the clock. Colbert has been under fire for the performances of recent first round selections, as T.J. Watt and Ryan Shazier are the outliers of solid contributors among the likes of Jarvis Jones, Bud Dupree and Artie Burns (The jury is still out on Terrell Edmunds, as his first season was just completed).
The NFL Draft is one of the more entertaining events of the season due to its chaos and uncertainty with each pick, yet it’s a fairly safe bet the Steelers will be looking to upgrade the defensive side of the ball in the first round.
Day Two: Hit or Miss
Day two (2nd and 3rd rounds) currently holds three picks for the Steelers, one second round selection (52nd overall) and two third round picks (66th, 83rd overall). If the Steelers choose to keep both third round selections, 2019 will mark the third consecutive year Pittsburgh held multiple picks in the third round. Of the 20 picks selected in the second+third round since 2010, 12 have been on the offensive side of the ball. Those selections include the likes of JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Conner, Le’Veon Bell, Marcus Gilbert and Emmanuel Sanders. On the defensive side of the ball, players such as Javon Hargrave and Stephon Tuitt have seen their name called on the second day of the draft.
The Steelers have a few options available to them, all of which are dependent on what happens in the first round. Michigan’s Chase Winovich has seen his name linked with the Steelers in the second round if Pittsburgh addresses one of their top needs. Winovich is arguably the most underrated pass rusher in this class, yet his lack of coverage skills may be enough to scare away the Steelers if they plan on finding a potential replacement for OLB Bud Dupree.
As for the cornerback position, Pittsburgh has struggled to see production from any of their day two picks (Cameron Sutton, Senquez Golson, Sean Davis). If the Steelers are unable to grab either Murphy or Williams, options such as DeAndre Baker (Georgia), Rock Ya-Sin (Temple) and Trayvon Mullen (Clemson) are potential second round picks for the Steelers to grab.
Another avenue the Steelers could explore is adding depth to their receiving corps with the departure of Antonio Brown. Smith-Schuster and newly signed free agent Donte Moncrief will top the Steelers depth chart, yet the team could potentially look to add another receiver to the long line of receivers drafted and developed outside of the first round. Names such as South Carolina’s Deebo Samuel and Iowa State’s Hakeem Butler are popular names expected to go at some point in the second round. The Steelers have drafted a receiver in either the second or third round the last 5/6 years (We’re counting Dri Archer as a WR coming out of school).
For as much praise as Colbert seems to receive for hitting on mid-round picks, he’s also seen his fair share of flops. Picks such as Senquez Golson, Dri Archer and Mike Adams immediately come to mind. Granted not every player will turn out to be a Pro-Bowl player, the Steelers have indeed seen missteps after the first round. With the last four selections on day two have been on the offensive side of the ball, will Pittsburgh go defensive heavy? With needs in multiple places, it’s a possible scenario.
Late Round Finds
The majority of Pittsburgh’s ten selections rest within rounds 4-7 with the Steelers currently touting six selections towards the later parts of the draft. Trades during this time period tend to fly more frequently, and this can be displayed upon discovering 4 of the 6 selections are from various trades Pittsburgh have completed over the past couple years. Obviously a team would love to find the next Tom Brady or Antonio Brown in the later parts of the draft, but a good chunk of this time is spent finding depth when needed and acquiring draft capital for the future. In some instances, players selected in this range may not even last long as a member of their original team.
In example, since the 2015 NFL Draft, the Steelers drafted 16 players in the fourth round or later. Heading into the 2019 NFL Draft, half of those players (8) are not on the Steelers roster.
It’s the nature of the business. With the average NFL career lasting only three seasons, players will undoubtedly find themselves not meeting the mark to make a NFL roster.
While the Steelers haven’t found the next big thing in those draft slots, Colbert has still been able to successfully add solid contributors. Linebackers Tyler Matakevich and Anthony Chickillo have carved roles out for themselves through special teams play, tight end Jesse James proved to be a valuable addition, and the likes of Josh Dobbs, Marcus Allen and Jaylen Samuels are all young players expected to contribute at some point in the future.
In some scenarios, teams will address the often-forgotten special teams aspect of the game by drafting kickers, punters and long-snappers. Since 2010, the Steelers have not drafted a kicker or punter, and have one long snapper (Colin Holba, who was cut before playing a game in Pittsburgh) to their name.
The Steelers, at some point in the draft, are expected to add to the depth of the running back position to go along with James Conner and Jaylen Samuels. The Steelers hosted a handful of running backs during their pre-draft visits: Jordan Scarlett (Florida), Mike Weber (Ohio State), Travis Homer (Miami FL), Miles Sanders (Penn State) and Damien Harris (Alabama) all have visited the Steelers facility and met with the team.
Other names of interest to the Steelers in the later rounds of the draft: LB Germaine Pratt (NC State), WR David Sills V and LB David Long Jr. (West Virginia), TE Foster Moreau (LSU).
2019’s Draft Class Will Need to Impress
I’ve written about the importance of this year’s draft class, and I will continue to echo that sentiment. 2019 is one of the most important drafts in recent memory for the Steelers for a variety of reasons. With Mike Tomlin and friends failing to reach a Super Bowl in nearly a decade, Roethlisberger’s days beginning to dwindle and the departure of two superstars, Pittsburgh will need to reload rather than rebuild. A strong 2019 draft class will not only assist in helping Pittsburgh reach their goals of a championship in Roethlisberger’s window of time left to play, but would also set the Steelers up to maintain future success when viewing the core of young play-makers on the roster.
Luckily for Pittsburgh, a team that will certainly be looking to beef up the defensive side of the ball, the 2019 draft features a wide array of defensive talent. Will Colbert follow the trends outlined in the paragraphs above? Only time will be able to tell, yet one thing is for certain: The draft can make or break the direction of a franchise.
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.