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Analysis

Evaluating Four Potential Position Battles Before OTAs

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The Pittsburgh Steelers are nearly two months away from training camp, as the team will take to the practice fields at Saint Vincent College some time in late July. While details have yet to be announced for the Steelers 54th consecutive stay in Latrobe, the Steelers will arrive in much different fashion than 2018.

But with no superstar position players or no division title to defend, Pittsburgh’s attempt to cleanse the atmosphere by discarding all-pro talent will begin to take form before camp begins. That work starts on Tuesday, as the Steelers will meet at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex on the South Side for the first of 10 OTAs.

Sitting nearly three weeks removed from the 2019 NFL Draft, the Steelers have signed nearly their entire draft class among a myriad of free agents. With a plethora of new talent assembling in Pittsburgh, 2019’s edition of the Steelers will have plenty of storylines and position battles to follow. I

How will the offense look without Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown? What are the expectations for Devin Bush in his rookie season? While the above questions will be answered in due time, the present will be focused on the potential positional alignments that can be sorted out over the rest of the team’s summer work.

OPEN FOR BUSINESS

With Brown no longer commanding the bulk of the receiving targets, eyes are on the Steelers coaching staff to see what they will do to replace his production. This season will test the true skills of JuJu Smith-Schuster as a top receiver, while also monitoring the improvement of second-year player James Washington.

Ideally, the Steelers would like to keep playing Smith-Schuster in the slot. With new addition Donte Moncrief expected to start on the outside, spot on the opposite side of the field may be Washington’s for the taking. Where does rookie Diontae Johnson fit into the mix? In addition to Smith-Schuster, the Steelers have two other viable options in the slot in Ryan Switzer and Eli Rogers. Both, when healthy, have played well enough to garner playing time.

Offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner finds ways to get people on the field, whether it be Switzer lined up as a running back or Jaylen Samuels spread out wide as a receiver. There’s no doubting the members of the Steelers’ crowded receivers room will all be able to find playing time, yet Fichtner along with the rest of the coaching staff, will have to determine their staple sets.

Will Switzer continue to improve in the slot, or will Rogers play well enough to force Fichtner to split reps? Do the Steelers trust Washington enough out wide, or does the coaching staff want to give Johnson a fair shot at grabbing valuable playing time? With so much talent and various options for the Steelers, it’s certainly a good problem to have. However, decisions will need to be made when games begin to roll around.

THE (OTHER) LINEBACKER

At one inside linebacker spot, Vince Williams will be going into his third consecutive season as a full-time starter, and at the other, rookie Devin Bush is fully expected to own one of two starting middle linebackers come opening day.

However, the Steelers like to experiment with defensive packages. This sometimes involves bringing on an additional linebacker/safety on the field to play a “moneybacker” role. This role can be considered a hybrid role, as a safety who is brought in would be able to handle linebacker duties, or vice versa for a linebacker. The goal is to provide the defense with a physical body which can also cover effectively, and the Steelers believe they have a few people that can fill that position. Often times, this role can also be identified as a “dimebacker” position, as said player would operate as the defense’s sixth defensive back.

When initially watching film, Pittsburgh often likes to utilize three safeties when operating outside of their 3-4 defense. The usual candidates for the extra safety (aka the moneybacker) typically involved Morgan Burnett or Terrell Edmunds last year, usually playing the other safety that did not start. With Burnett out of town, the full time starting job opposite of Sean Davis now opens for Edmunds to step in immediately. This leaves a handful of potential players in the secondary who will have the opportunity to step in as the Steelers utility player during training camp, those most notably being second-year DB Marcus Allen and UDFA P.J. Locke.

Let’s also not forget about newly signed linebacker Mark Barron, who was brought in due to his coverage skills (Barron was originally drafted in the league as a safety) and will immediately be a strong candidate to win the position. Head Coach Mike Tomlin likes where the team is at in terms of assets.

“We’re comfortable, not only with our numbers, but with the flexibility of others that may not be quote-on-quote safeties” said Tomlin.

As for Allen’s expectations, the dimebacker role may be the way to find himself on the active roster for 2019.

“I know that we have spent a lot of time grooming and talking about the development of Marcus Allen,” Tomlin said “as a guy that is going into his second year that should be able to compete for a linebacker position.”

It will be interesting to see who Pittsburgh works into the specialized role. With viable options such as Allen and Barron, the Steelers will undoubtedly keep their eyes focused on the dimebacker position during camp.

KICK RETURNER

Last year, Ryan Switzer took over return man duties for the Steelers and performed considerably well. Per Pro Football Reference, Switzer ranked 13th in the league in average yards per punt return. Despite being only one of two players to return more than 30 punts (Tarik Cohen being the other), Switzer may see his role decreased or even fully removed by the arrival of third round pick Diontae Johnson. Johnson’s special teams abilities were on full display during his years as Toledo’s return man, is his college tape enough to earn him a shot against Switzer? If not on the punt team, then certainly on kickoffs, as Johnson averaged a cool 25.8 yards per return in 2019 according to ncaa.com.

When it comes to a free kick after safeties, Johnson may have already won that role, as Switzer is best remembered for his mental lapse against the Browns last season.

With the recent signing of speedy receiver Johnny Holton, the Steelers will have more than a few options to test out when it comes to their return man. Switzer appears to be the lead man for the spot, yet Pittsburgh drafted Johnson partially for his play-making abilities when the ball is in his hands.

DEPTH AT TIGHT END

The rise of Vance McDonald in 2018 ultimately pushed Jesse James out the door for greener pastures in free agency. The Steelers believe McDonald can be everything Ladarius Green was meant to be, and perhaps more than that. However, the loss of James put the Steelers in a shaky place in terms of their tight end depth, as Xavier Grimble is the only experienced option behind McDonald.

Enter Zach Gentry, Pittsburgh’s fifth round pick from the 2019 NFL Draft. Gentry’s frame (6-foot-8, 265 pounds) is enough to make fans draw quick comparisons to James’, as their build and play style appear to be similar. Will Gentry find more success than James did during his stint with the Steelers? As of now, the Steelers are favored to roll with three tight ends going into the regular season. McDonald has secured the number one spot and will look to shine as the lead pass catcher from the group, yet the roles of Gentry and Grimble remain unknown.

The Steelers may look to utilize Gentry’s length in the red-zone, while using Grimble as a spell for McDonald on every other drive. Pittsburgh doesn’t utilize their tight ends like Baltimore does, yet the Steelers have been known to use two tight-end sets during games. Grimble likely gets the nod as the number two tight end due to experience, but if Gentry can connect with Ben Roethlisberger and catch passes, the Steelers may have found exactly what they were looking for in the draft.

Analysis

Analysis: Steelers Must Develop Their Own Brand of Vertical Offense

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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.

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Analysis

With Conner, Snell Each over 100 Yards, Running Game Crucial to Steelers 2-0 Start

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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.”

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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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