PITTSBURGH — The Steelers wrapped up their three-day mandatory minicamp on Thursday. While the week was just the last step before training camp, the Steelers are certainly heading into the next phase of their offseason on a high note.
As Eric Ebron and Mike Tomlin mentioned on Thursday, the team had a spirited punting competition between Jordan Berry and Pressley Harvin III. However, that was only one of the multitude of things that happened at Steelers minicamp. With the first preseason game against the Cowboys a little under two months away, what did minicamp reveal about the Steelers and the 2021 season?
SLOT CB ROTATION INTRIGUES
The Steelers slot cornerback situation is likely the biggest story of the week. From the standout play of James Pierre, who got two interceptions off Ben Roethlisberger on Wednesday, to the praise of Antoine Brooks Jr. and Tre Norwood, this team has possibilities all over the defensive backfield.
In individual drills, Norwood consistently looks head-up and quick. At the earliest stage, Norwood looks like he belongs. In that same individual period, Norwood aligned from both the slot cornerback position and safety, which backs up what Austin said Wednesday. Norwood is a Swiss Army knife. He is smart and knows what he is doing at all times. That bodes well for his future.
For what it is worth, Brooks’ best value is in the run game. In the individual period, he was a bit stiff and does not change direction all that fluidly. That likely limits his true versatility. Perhaps he could work as an overhang slot cornerback, but as a true slot cornerback, the Steelers would have to get creative to go forward with Brooks as the full-time guy.
The one name not mentioned above that does stand out is undrafted free agent Mark Gilbert. He is certainly fluid, instinctive, and likes to get physical. While there is far from any guarantee that gets him a roster spot, Gilbert’s play at Duke prior to his flurry of injuries is encouraging.
NEW-LOOK OFFENSIVE LINE
This one may seem rather obvious because of all the change, however, the Steelers offensive line as a whole is going to be different. The most important thing seems to be the mentality. Players have harped on just what Adrian Klemm is trying to change. Most importantly, upfront, that means being nasty and physical. Klemm’s mentality is something he’s trying to spread.
“One thing we’re not going to do is get pushed around,” Klemm said. “We are going to get after and be physical. At game time, I want to be able to control and play with a level of passion.”
Zach Banner referred to this as “necessary violence”. Still, that is not the only change to the offense. While the Steelers want to be physical and disciplined within their technique, they are also bringing in a lot of new personnel. For Kendrick Green and Dan Moore Jr., specifically, they have to step up as rookies. Klemm has seen Green do “fairly well” while he is challenging Moore to play both the right and left side at tackle.
“(Moore) is struggling a little bit with learning some new stuff,” Klemm said. “On RPOs and quicker stuff, the sets are a little flatter. That’s new to him … I’m challenging him to play both the right and left sides. I want to see growth out of him.”
As far as the new offensive lineman, Green is on another level with athleticism. As the Steelers were working combo blocks and outside zone footwork in individual drills, Green moves better than anyone else on the line. His explosiveness and lateral quickness are outstanding.
As Klemm to alluded to as well, Moore struggled a little bit in individual drills. He is learning new pass sets and overall, seems to be out of his comfort zone. That is a challenge that Klemm wants Moore to clearly relish and improve from this offseason. He too is athletic for his size, and his length is rather evident.
STEELERS WILL RUN ZONE AND PLAY ACTION
The Steelers are most certainly not letting schematic things slide this week, either. While Matt Canada’s “we’ll do what Ben wants to do” quote blew up and got lots of attention, more information about just what Canada wants to install trickled down throughout.
Canada noted that play-action was a key part of what he wanted to do to help fix the running game. While he did acknowledge it was only facet and component, it was something he emphasized.
“To run the football, we certainly believe play action is a part of that,” Canada said. “It is only one part of it, but we believe it is a key part of the growth in that area.”
In individual drills on Thursday, the Steelers continued to have their offensive lineman work zone footwork heavily. Anything from combo blocks to outside zone blocks to physicality within the scheme is what they are trying to work on. Klemm says the process is arduous and detail-oriented.
“When you talk about the zone scheme, everybody thinks it’s lateral and soft, but you can have some physical elements in the zone system,” Klemm said. “You know, there is some gap stuff still in there … even with the zone scheme it’s teaching them you can still be physical.”
The Steelers will have a mix of the outside zone, inside zone, counter, and power. These are the main elements that Canada has loved to run at his previous stops, so this is likely where they are headed this season as well.
DWAYNE HASKINS’ STOCK RISING
The Steelers signing of Dwayne Haskins was one of their bigger storylines of the offseason. Thus far through the offseason, Haskins is only receiving praise. Diontae Johnson heaped onto that praise earlier today for the young quarterback after he was asked who is standing out.
“Dwayne has a strong arm, and I see his work ethic every day,” Johnson said. “He’s working with the quarterbacks coach and just how he tries to gain information from everybody around him is impressive.”
Haskins is garnering praise all around. Thursday in individuals, Haskins was mostly spot-on. His passes are certainly beautiful. However, he has some lower body mechanics that could be cleaned up. He seems too heavy on his feet and plays with his heels on the ground. Oftentimes, quarterbacks should have a slight lean forward and bend in their knees. Haskins does not have that yet.
If he can fix those issues and remove the the off-the-field issues that plagued his Washington career, Haskins can stick in Pittsburgh for a while. It simply depends upon his progression.
TIGHT ENDS PLAY PIVOTAL ROLE
To say the Steelers needed quality tight ends this season was an understatement. Canada’s offense utilizes tight ends heavily. Eric Ebron noted as such on Thursday, as he is largely excited after he said the tight ends “dominated” the minicamp.
“The tight end position period will be featured a lot more,” Ebron said. “Having Pat (Freiermuth) and some other guys we have, our tight end room is pretty strong. In the two days I’ve been here, we’ve dominated.”
Ebron praised both Freiermuth and Zach Gentry on the day. He thinks Freiermuth is a “silky smooth” player while Gentry’s height and ability to be a mismatch will be big for the room. However, perhaps even more succinct is that with that talent, Ebron expects 12 personnel and even 13 personnel to be utilized.
“I see a lot from all the tight ends who are on the roster, so two tight ends, three tight ends, we’ll mix it up and it’ll be good,” Ebron said.
In the individual drills, Ebron is not kidding when it comes to Freiermuth. He does not drop anything and is silky smooth when changing direction. In one individual drill, the tight ends were asked to run skinny posts in the end zone, and Freiermuth elevated for a pass and hauled it in with ease. It looks like Freiermuth can absolutely contribute early on in the Canada offense.
JAMES PIERRE IS A PLAYMAKER
There are plenty of players to talk about, but none are more important than Pierre. The praise and lauding that everyone around the organization has given to the young Florida Atlantic product is certainly notable, and is probably unprecedented for a player with 20-some career defensive snaps. However, it is for good reason, as Pierre looks the part.
In individual drills, Pierre looked quick when changing directions. His click and close is a bit delayed in true off-man coverage, which can lead to more than the desired cushion for some receivers if they flatten their routes correctly. Still, intercepting Roethlisberger twice and working hard every single moment is nothing to sneeze at. Pierre has a good chance to be a legitimate contributor on the 2021 defense.
DON’T COUNT OUT ANTHONY McFARLAND
Najee Harris is receiving all the love, and rightfully so, but Anthony McFarland Jr. is having himself a nice little offseason, as well. The second-year product out of Maryland simply looks different in individual drills compared to all other running backs not named Harris.
McFarland’s lateral agility and explosiveness are evident. His feet are lightning quick and he can make cuts and stop on a dime with ease. The biggest area of improvement for him needed is his mental game. Eddie Faulkner put the running backs in a mental processing drill where they had to read each other and jump-cut in opposite directions. It was all about processing. McFarland did it flawlessly and looked great doing it.
During the throwing session portion of individual drills, one ball was thrown behind McFarland. He made a spinning adjustment to it and snagged the ball outside of his frame. It was a nice week for McFarland, who would like to build momentum towards being the second running back on the depth chart.
NEXT STEP FOR CHASE CLAYPOOL
It is always tough to pinpoint down just who has taken steps at this point of the process, but second-year wide receiver Chase Claypool looks better than last year at this point. It is not blatantly obvious to the casual viewer in his individual drills, but Claypool looks sharper and more focused than ever.
His routes, most importantly look sharp. Last year, Claypool’s biggest weakness, other than defeating press coverage, was his rounded stems. That does not appear to be a weakness this year, as he has honed that down. He is not losing explosiveness or speed as he makes those sharp cuts. If he can maintain that speed and create even more separation this season, Claypool could be the clear top dog in the receiving room.
DON’T WORRY ABOUT DEVIN BUSH
There will always be some concern about a player’s athleticism as they return from a serious knee injury. After Devin Bush’s torn ACL, one of the main concerns would be that his athleticism had been compromised in some manner because of the injury.
If individual drills are any indication, there is absolutely no way that is true. Bush is absolutely flying around the field, going around bags with plenty of speed. Perhaps even more important, during a pass-rush drill, Bush cut hard on a dime, indicating he is starting to gain confidence back in the knee. It should be a quality season for the standout linebacker as he gets back to full health.
MIXED BAG FOR ROOKIE FREE AGENT SHAKUR BROWN
Easily the most talked-about undrafted free agent signing the Steelers made, Shakur Brown is being touted as a potential starting slot cornerback option among Steelers fans. The highest allotted signing bonus out of any of the undrafted free agents, the Steelers clearly wanted Brown for a reason.
In individual drills, it is a bit of a mixed bag for Brown. Even without pads, Brown is intense. The physicality comes from that sort of mindset. He also appears to change direction just fine. His hips are not stiff. Brown also displayed his plus ball skills. However, it is clear to see that he lacks long speed. That can hurt him in the long run, and he’s not overly explosive, either. He has some obvious traits the Steelers covet, but the athletic limitations may hold him back.
PUNTER COMPETITION COULD BE FIERCE
It certainly feels among the fanbase that Harvin is going to run away with the punting competition. However, if individual drills this week were any indication, Jordan Berry is saying not so fast. There are still some wavering punts in the rookie, and while he can obviously uncork beautiful balls at points, there is a consistency factor that must be found.
Berry, on the other hand, was strikingly consistent. In fact, that was on all fronts. Berry’s hang time, distance, and placement was very impressive. Harvin did have a few phenomenal punts. It is anyone’s guess who comes away with this competition at this point. The advantage probably goes to Harvin by a slim margin, but do not count out Berry.