PITTSBURGH — The Steelers didn’t know that much about Elijah Riley when he came into the building last year for the first time. They knew he was versatile and had some athleticism. The Army cadet’s discipline and perseverance kept him in the NFL for longer than most people would have thought.
Then, Riley came into training camp and lit it up. Continuing that performance into the preseason, Riley pegged himself as a core special teamer with a versatile defensive back who could play the slot. There is tremendous value in a player like that, and the Steelers saw that in Riley.
Riley is one of the best stories of this game. When the Steelers lost Minkah Fitzpatrick, Riley, who hadn’t played safety all summer, filled in for Fitzpatrick quickly. he played all around the field. When the time came for someone to make a play, Riley came down like a missile to make the crucial sack against Deshaun Watson on Cleveland’s last drive.
That’s the type of stuff that embodies the next-man-up mentality. Riley might be more than acceptable to stick it out and continue making plays. Looking back on his journey from where he came to that sack, it sinks in for him just how far he has come. The coaches see it, too. Defensive coordinator Teryl Austin was extremely complimentary of Riley, who made one of the biggest plays in the game.
“Yeah, I think he — we got Elijah last year kind of on the run, and this year he had the whole off-season and the camp,” Austin said. “I thought during the preseason, he made some nice plays during the preseason. Sometimes you forget that because he goes into a backup role. Then he got on the field, and he was still able to make those plays. We felt pretty confident in the guys we’ve put out there because they’ve shown they can do it.”
Riley’s speed and his pursuit angles showed off on that play. He came from over 20 yards away to sack Watson. Besides, Riley is an aggressive player who gives his all in every play. For a Steelers defense that has to worry about some injuries piling up, Riley is the type of depth player Mike Tomlin dreams of having on his team. With his special teams exploits continuing as well, Riley remains one of the unheralded but key members of a Steelers team hoping to get on the upswing.