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.
Film Study: Kevin Dotson Has Starting Upside
The Steelers were going to address the offensive line at some point in the 2020 NFL Draft. Whether that be in the early portion of the draft or the mid-rounds, they were going to do it at some point. Thus, they did in the fourth round as they selected combine snub and lifelong Steelers fan Kevin Dotson.
As one of the best offensive lineman in the Sun Belt, lots of draftniks were hot on Dotson’s trail and were fans of him. It was a pick that makes a lot of sense with the Steelers’ offensive lineman types, especially on the interior at guard. Dotson is a mauler. He is nasty and brutal to his opponents. There is no denying what he does upfront on the offense. The question is how well does he do it? Can he start?
What stands out about Dotson’s tape immediately is that this is a guy who is strong and moves people of their spot with his strength. His upper body strength in particular is great.
A play that showcases that strength is this play against Appalachian State. The net gain of this play is not in Dotson’s favor, but his individual effort on this play is really strong. He moves the end right off his spot with well-placed hands and a ton of power in his upper body. As he engages the end, he comes in low and wins the leverage battle, which gives him the hand placement and the ability to drive through the defender’s chest. That is how he got this movement and opened up the edge.
It all comes from the aggressive mentality that was instilled with Dotson. This is a twist and Dotson was having absolutely none of it. Dotson’s hands are heavy and with those strong punches, it allows him to stun pass rushers on twists and even head up. Plays like this are just one representation of that mentality that he carries around. With smooth footwork to mirror the twist, Dotson allows the quick pass to be executed and shows a little nastiness in the process.
One of the main concerns for Dotson coming out was his athleticism and this his ability to climb to the second level. Listen, he might not be the most flexible guy or even the greatest athlete out there, but this is a pretty smooth rep from Dotson. His feet are quick and efficient with no false steps and he does a great job of framing his blocks and engaging with second-level defenders. That means he can work in a zone running scheme just as well as he can in a gap running scheme. With the Steelers moving to a more hybrid running scheme approach, that versatility is really nice to have. A caveat with Dotson is that there are some grip strength issues. He can get his hands inside and then lose his assignment a little too early, but all in all this is a nice rep.
As a guy who needs to execute a pull or a wham block, expect Dotson to be up to the task. This is a great rep. From the release off the line with that smooth footwork to how he engages this block and makes a really strong block on a good linebacker in Dylan Moses, Dotson shows out on this play. He engages this block with a low pad level and puts his hands right inside the chest plate of Moses. That seals off the middle and allows this run to break free for a good gain. This is an NFL level rep here.
The other key in pass protection for Dotoson is if he is asked to take a guy on one-on-one without help, can he be trusted? The answer is absolutely. It comes back to his strong hands, leverage, and smooth footwork to mirror pass rushers who try to break free. With a strong anchor and good balance as well, Dotson can handle strong bull rushers that come his way and stay on his feet and divert them. On this rep above he does a great job of getting his hands inside and as the pass rusher tries to knock his hands off, he resets them and keeps the defensive tackle locked up. Really good rep to defend against potential counters as well.
There really is not a lot of opportunities this year for Dotson unless he just wows that coaching staff. The shortened offseason program in addition to the addition of Stefen Wisniewski, who is no slouch in his own right, is going to make Dotson a guy who will have a hard time starting this year.
Instead, he is going to get a year to be a strong depth guy at guard. His brother is teaching him center as well, so that can add to his versatility and value on the offensive line. However, after 2020, all bets are off on this guy. Dotson has all the tools to be an NFL starter and it would not shock me if he is the starter at left guard in 2021 when everything is all said and done. He has that potential.
Film Study: Anthony McFarland is Big-Play Threat Steelers Needed
It was expected that the Steelers would leave the 2020 NFL Draft with a running back to bolster their backfield, so it was no surprise when they selected Anthony McFarland in the 4th round of the draft. They did so after passing on JK Dobbins and Cam Akers with the 49th pick. While they certainly did not necessarily need a running back, there were depth questions, especially with James Conner missing far too many games over the past two seasons.
The Steelers will be getting an electric runner who busts angles and adds something that the Steelers did not have in the backfield prior to the draft — a home-run hitter that can take any carry to the house whenever he gets the ball in his hands.
The immediate reaction to the pick is that this is not a normal Steelers pick. Rarely do they actually go out and get pure speed backs. Usually, they get bigger, slower backs like Benny Snell, James Conner, and others in the past that have followed that mold. In the past when they did touch speed backs, it was smaller, leaner guys like Dri Archer and Chris Rainey. However, McFarland is a complete outlier. He is not like those other speed backs, in fact, he runs pretty tough when it comes down to it.
This is a guy that is going to grind out yards. At 5-foot-8 and 208 pounds, McFarland is a stocky build that is just about perfect for a running back his size. Here he is against Temple absolutely grinding out yards due to his stocky build and leg strength. That compact lower body allows him to fight for extra yards and often times, fall forward to get as many yards as possible. It also allows him to add top-notch contact balance to his arsenal. One of the key reasons why McFarland has that home run hitting ability is because he slips tackles with ease.
Really, this is a dude that does not mess around in the open field. He can use his agility to get past people (more on that later), but can absolutely run right through defenders as well. Here against Michigan, McFarland delivers a straight-up stiff-arm to the Michigan defender to shed the attempted tackle. It is another move in his arsenal of open-field moves, and it is an effective one at that.
This right here is a great read on the fly by McFarland. Maryland runs power here and ideally, the end and alley are sealed off so McFarland can sprint right through and use his speed to take this one all the way. However, the overhang safety makes a nice run fit and forces McFarland back inside. What makes this a good display of Vision by McFarland is that he reads the leverage the linebacker has to the outside of his lineman and once he sees the outside leverage of the linebacker, he makes a smooth cut back inside. He then accelerates and gets extra yardage. That is him creating yards with his eyes and reading the flow of the second-level.
That lateral agility is a legitimate part of McFarland’s game. This is counter and all the reads are entirely on the front side of the play, but with a blitz to backside, McFarland feels it and slides away from the would-be tackler. This is all about vision and footwork. With the footwork McFarland possesses, he is able to almost glide on the football field and make smooth, sharp cuts to create yards. In addition, his stop-start burst allows him to hit holes quickly and fast to maximize yards, just as he does here.
This would not be an article about Anthony McFarland if there was not a long touchdown run in this article. It also would not be a proper analysis article without mentioning his 2018 game where he terrorized Ohio State on the ground. This is one of those big plays he struck against a talented Buckeyes defenses. On this play, there are a few things that McFarland shows off. The first, and most obvious, is the long speed. This guy legitimately has 4.4 speed. It is one of the main reasons the Steelers drafted him anyways. In addition, he shows off that contact balance again by shedding a wimpy tackler. His feet never stop moving as he engages that tackler. Even more impressive is how quickly he hits top speed after breaking that tackle. However, another key point to this play is that this is a completely different type of running scheme. This is an outside zone play. It shows that McFarland is not a one-scheme back, but a versatile back in that mindset.
In reality, McFarland may not get a ton of touches in his first-year. The shortened offseason in addition to the Steelers’ mentality of having a lead back type is one of the reasons he may only touch the ball around 75 times. Still, as a complement to the powerful James Conner, McFarland fits that role perfectly. The only other guy with anything remotely close to McFarland’s skillset is Kerrith Whyte, but even he did not get enough touches last year to prove he will stick on the roster.
McFarland, thus, becomes the primary speed back and big-play element out of the backfield that the Steelers have not had since Willie Parker. It really has been that long. McFarland’s tape is good and he should be able to live up to the hype. His big question marks are the receiving game and pass protection, however, and in order to get a bigger role in the offense he will have to prove himself competent in those areas.
Film Study: Alex Highsmith Brings Juice to Steelers Pass Rush
The Steelers surprised more than a few people by taking an outside linebacker in the third round of the 2020 NFL Draft. Coming into the draft, it was a position that could be addressed due to the looming contract of Bud Dupree, who is on a one-year rental contract on the franchise tag. Seeing as the Steelers have a plethora of contracts to take care of in the next year, Dupree may be on his way out. Even then, with Anthony Chickillo gone, the Steelers needed to address the depth and get a rotational pass rusher.
All of that is taken care of now as they selected Charlotte’s Alex Highsmith, who was an uber-productive pass rusher who was a standout all week at the East-West Shrine Game in Tampa. Given what he has put on tape, his selection is not a surprise and the Steelers hit a home run with the pick of Highsmith, who put up quality tape not just against teams in the Conference USA, but also against a top team such as Clemson.
The one developing area of Highsmith’s game is his counters and pass rush moves. There are a few moves that he employs to win and starting last season, a spin move was one of the ways he won inside as offensive tackles overset for his speed rush. Highsmith has a few defining traits to his game, but there is no doubt that his explosive first step is a key one. He gets off the line and up the arc in a hurry because of his explosive first step. The good thing is that he is not simply a speed rusher. While that is how he wins most of the time, he can pull off nifty moves like this. Clemson tackle Jackson Carman oversets expecting the speed rush from Highsmith, but instead, he takes his pass rush angle up the arc and bends it back inside on that spin move.
One thing that was telling on the Clemson tape was just how much they prepared for Highsmith. Carman is a good tackle and a potential first-round pick in 2021, but Highsmith gave him fits all day long. They chipped Highsmith with tight ends and kept running backs in just in an effort to try and stop him. This play above shows off his first step. He has rocket shoes on his feet on this play as he beats Carman to his spot. If not for a quick three-step drop and throw from Trevor Lawrence, this may have been a sack for Highsmith off his explosiveness alone.
Run defense is a part of Highsmith’s game that is inconsistent, but as his hand usage has improved, so has his run defense. This play is one where he shows he can take advantage of a tackle’s mistakes. Carman is flat-footed and lunges towards Highsmith rather than driving through his chest, allowing Highsmith to be nifty and zoom right on by here. That is part of the reason his explosiveness causes so many problems. However, he does a nice job of executing a chop-rip to slice down the line to make a tackle. Based on the film, the chop-rip combination is Highsmith’s go-to move.
Here is the chop-rip again, this time for a sack. Highsmith does a great job of nailing his hand right inside the tackle’s pad, which is almost always certain death for a tackle. The ability to rip around the edge and make this arc tight is something that Highsmith is really good at doing. Still, this is more about his burst and hand usage combination that allows him to win.
This is exactly how Highsmith recorded most of his sacks, however. When the Steelers drafted him, they likely bet not just on his improvement as a strategist with his counters and moves, but his combination of burst and bend to destroy set angles and win around the edge with his speed rush. He does that extremely well here as he sets his pass rush angle up as if he was going to come here with some power move such as bull rush. However, his lateral agility allows him to cut back outside and use his explosiveness to get the angle. After that, it is all flexibility in his ankles. The ankle flexion he gets is really great on that lead leg. It bends and leads under his shoulders and hip to allow him to dip and reduce his surface area on his way to getting this sack.
The Steelers’ selection of Highsmith may have been their best pick in the 2020 NFL Draft. His combination of burst and bend makes him a perfect fit for the 3-4 outside linebacker scheme. With the Steelers rushing their outside linebackers more than ever, Highsmith is a great fit to provide more pass rush upside in the rotation than anyone since Jason Worilds. With his improvement in his pass rush plan and hand usage, HIghsmith could be a starter in 2021 if Dupree walks after the 2020 season.