Evaluating Four Potential Position Battles Before OTAs
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.
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.
Steelers inexplicably fail to field a free kick and let the Browns have it. Browns could have run it in for a TD pic.twitter.com/yMyT6PqMeR
— Vikings Blogger (@firstandskol) October 28, 2018
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.