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Donte Moncrief Big Part of ‘New Guys’ Vying for Ben Roethlisberger’s Targets

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PITTSBURGH — Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has not always been a staple of the team’s optional offseason training activities — OTAs — over the last few years.

But after practice one, where Roethlisberger was a regular participant, he said that is likely going to change this season.

There are several reasons for that decision — including his quest to be a better leader this season — but there’s also a very practical reason for Roethlisberger’s presence.

Ben Roethlisberger Focused on Leadership in Wake of Antonio Brown Flap

Steelers will be replacing the production of Antonio Brown after he was traded to Oakland, and that’s going to be no small task. He had 104 catches for 1,297 yards and a league-high 15 touchdowns last season, and the theory of the Steelers making an addition by subtracting Brown’s attitude from locker room won’t hold up if they can’t replace his production.

To that end, the Steelers acquired veteran receivers Donte Moncrief and Johnny Holton and drafted Toledo’s Diontae Johnson in the third round. Those three, along with returning backups Eli Rogers, Ryan Switzer and James Washington, will vie for playing time along side No. 1 receiver-to-be JuJu Smith-Schuster.

That’s three totally new receivers and another three that combined for just 64 catches a year ago that Roethlisberger needs to get on the same page with, and the no-pads setting of OTAs provides the perfect landscape for getting quarterbacks and wide receivers on the same page.

“It’s pretty important,” Roethlisberger said after practice on Tuesday. “Whether it’s young guys, whether it’s rookies, whether it’s guys from other teams, it definitely is a new kind of challenge. That’s what makes it fun, too. You love the challenge. You love working with the guys, communicating. That will be the biggest thing, I think, is communication — being able to talk to guys and tell them exactly what I’m thinking and asking them.”

Moncrief, in particular, is a veteran receiver that looks to be in line for a lot of targets, and the two got started in working on getting on the same page on Tuesday.

“I was talking today with ‘Crief today a couple of times,” Roethlisberger said. “I was asking him ‘Hey did you feel good on your depth there?’ Just working different things out. It’s definitely going to take some big focus.”

Entering his sixth season, Moncrief is no stranger to what it takes to get the job done in the NFL. He has a career 12.7 yards-per-catch average. But he’s struggled to put up big totals the last two seasons thanks to scuffling offenses. The 2017 Indianapolis Colts were without Andrew Luck all season and the 2018 Jacksonville Jaguars pinballed unsuccessfully between Blake Bortles and Cody Kessler.

Now, he’s hoping to build a meaningful connection with Roethlisberger.

“He can spin that ball, for sure,” Moncrief said. “He makes crazy plays. He doesn’t like going down. He can extend plays. That’s a good thing to know. … I’m ready to get our timing down and get ready to get some of those balls.”

The Steelers’ biggest free agent signing on the offensive side of the ball, Moncrief is eager to earn his way into that role.

“I’m a new guy,” he 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.”

Both seem to be enjoying the process, and they’ve seemingly already started to develop some chemistry, with Roethlisberger poking friendly fun and Moncrief’s decision to do his post-practice interview with his helmet on.

Even though he’s at OTAs to do more work this season, Roethlisberger seems energized by the thought of working with some fresh blood.

“It’s fun,” he said. “Some of the guys I was just eyeballing, some of the new guys. You get to watch them, even if you don’t get to throw to them necessarily, to watch them work. I got to throw one to the new guy, too, the rookie. So that was fun.”

Steelers

Ben Roethlisberger Says Form, Mechanics Can Be Better Despite Hot Start

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To hear Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger tell it, he can better than what he’s shown on the field in his first two weeks since returning from elbow surgery.

He’s not happy with his footwork, he thinks he’s dropping his arm a bit and needs a more consistent release point.

The statistics, however tell another story. They say Roethlisberger has been operating at a higher level of precision than ever before. So which is it? Maybe both.

“I do feel I got a little lazy with my feet, which then, in turn, translated to a lazy arm,” Roethlisberger said. “There were some throws that I kind of dropped my elbow, if you will. I don’t want to get too technical, but it became more of a three-quarter release instead of an over the top when I didn’t need to. There are obviously times you have to change your release point. There were too many throws, I felt looking back, that I just have to get my feet working better, and that will then translate, hopefully, to the rest of the body. Then, I won’t be guiding some of the throws.”

Here’s an example from the game Roethlisberger’s form getting a little sloppy. He throws this ball flat-footed and almost all with his right side, getting less power behind it than usual and resulting in a pass that ends up behind JuJu Smith-Shuster instead of allowing him to build a head of steam toward the defenders at the line of scrimmage.

Is this a big deal here? Not really. Smith-Schuster probably couldn’t have done much better than he did at bulling over the defender, anyway. But this is also a route into the flat on the near side of the field. Over longer distances, that can make a big difference.

“I’ve gotten away with it in the past being able to not necessarily be perfect from the ground up and just letting my arm kind of make up for a lot of things, a lot of imperfections if you talk to quarterback people,” Roethlisberger said. “I feel great. I just need to get it in my mind that I can still make the throws when I’m not in the perfect position to make them.”

All of that can be true, and yet, it’s hard to argue with the results. Through two games, Roethlisberger has a 68.5 completion percentage. His career season high was 68% in 2015. In a game and a half last year, it was 56.5%.

His passer rating, even with an interception against the Broncos, is 107.1. His career season-long high came in 2o07, when he finished with a 104.1 mark. Last season before his injury, it was 66.

Some of that can be explained by a passing scheme that has take fewer deep shots down the field than it has in years past. His yards per pass attempt sits at 7.4, lower than all but four of his other 16 seasons.

Mechanical inconsistency can certainly have a greater impact on longer throws, so the Steelers’ somewhat more methodical offensive approach could be helping Roethlisberger get into the swing of things.

“Maybe some of that just comes from not playing a lot of football,” he posited. “I played two games this year. I played a game and a half last year, so really, it’s about three and a half games in two years if you think about it. It’ll come. Like I said, if I’m having these issues and we are still winning football games, that’s a plus.”

If a 2-0 record with career highs in passer rating and completion percentage is what he looks like with mechanical issues, the NFL should be very worried about what might happen if he gets into a groove.

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Steelers

Highlights from Steelers Practice 9/23/20

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David DeCastro practices with the Steelers after missing the first two games of the season. Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin explained to the media, including Mike Asti and Alan Saunders of Steelers Now, that he is evaluating DeCastro and he could start their week 3 game against Houston.

Joe Haden can also seen working on one-on-one coverage drills with the rest of the secondary.

Footage courtesy Pittsburgh Steelers

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Steelers

T.J. Watt Named AFC Defensive Player of the Week

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Leading up to his big matchup vs. his brother J.J and the Houston Texans, T.J. Watt was honored for his performance last Sunday.

Watt was recognized Wednesday morning as the AFC Defensive Player of the Week for his effort against the Denver Broncos at Heinz Field. This was the third time in his career that Watt has won this award.

During the Steelers 26-21 win over the Broncos, Watt registered 2.5 sacks, four quarterback hits and four tackles.

Watt continues to be one of the most feared pass rushers in the NFL. Counting his performance on Sunday, Watt now has collected 37 career sacks, which is the most by any NFL linebacker since 2017. Here’s another interesting stat courtesy the Pittsburgh Steelers media relations department: Watt has 25 sacks in 25 career games at Heinz Field. Only three players in NFL history have registered more sacks over their first 25 career home games.

Watt and the rest of the Steelers defense will be challenged this Sunday as they host Deshaun Watson and the Houston Texans at Heinz Field. Their 2-0 start has the Steelers tied with the Baltimore Ravens for 1st place in the AFC North.

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