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.
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.