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Analysis

Five Steelers to Watch in Preseason Week Two

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Week One of the preseason is about learning who can set themselves apart in game action. From there, players who stood out may see a bit more work on their plate to see how they respond. They may play up a unit or see a bigger role on the field in Week 2.

That’s the process the Steelers are in the thick of as they move into the stadium once again for a 7:30 p.m. kickoff against the Kansas City Chiefs on Saturday night.

The key for this game will be progression. Whatever happened in Week 1, players have a chance to wipe the slate clean with progression. With that in mind, who are five players who have a chance to sway their stock in a big way in preseason Week 2?

JUSTIN LAYNE

Layne is the exact example of a player where you are looking for progression. Layne was a former wide receiver who fell to round three because he was raw, despite great size and ball skills. With that in mind, the leap from Big 10 football to preseason football was on display front and center for the rookie from Michigan State.

“It looked a little big for him at times,” noted head coach Mike Tomlin. “I’m sure it was a valuable experience for him but not necessarily a positive experience for him.”

Tomlin summed up his performance in Week 1 well. It was not positive. He looked hesitant and gave up easy receptions. However, it was valuable. You cannot simulate the speed of the NFL. Layne needs as many reps within that speed to see his reactionary skills.

Layne was able to take the first punch of the NFL. Now, he has to show that he ready to swing back. For Layne, you are looking for confidence in coverage, which would show that the game had slowed down a bit after the initial week one shock.

MASON RUDOLPH

Rudolph will get the second preseason start of his NFL career on Saturday. Last year, Rudolph was in a similar spot to Layne and saw the initial speed as a waking up experience. Rudolph bounced back from a poor start in week two last year to put together a decent end to his preseason. He spent the season inactive as the third quarterback last year and came into training camp with more confidence.

It can be argued that last week was the best we have seen from Rudolph. Now, he has a real chance to cement the backup spot for 2019. A good start this week and he is the leader in the clubhouse. A poor start will make it tough to beat Josh Dobbs.

For Rudolph, the thing to watch is his ability to work the pocket as pressure gets closer. You want to see him get through his progressions quickly and not latch onto certain players or looks. And of course, not turn the football over.

ULYSEES GILBERT

Many walked away from the first preseason game disappointed in Layne but impressed with the performance of Gilbert. That was easy to do as Gilbert flashed with a tackle, 1 1/2 sacks, and a forced fumble. However, Tomlin was quick to note in his press conference that while Layne struggled, it was against starting NFL players. While Gilbert excelled, they were in snaps 80-90 of the game. The difference in competition has to be noted.

However, an increased role for Gilbert will be noted as well. Gilbert proved that he is better than the fourth quarter of a preseason game. How does he look against backup NFL players? Look for Gilbert to see the field much earlier this week than the week before. This will be a true test to see just how quickly he is picking things up.

JOHNNY HOLTON

Holton spent three years with the Raiders before signing in Pittsburgh and has 11 career receptions, but has stayed in the NFL with special teams ability. Last week, we mentioned the potential of Diontae Spencer pushing Ryan Switzer and Eli Rogers with speed and special teams prowess. While Spencer was a loser from last week, Holton showed well on special teams and hauled in two passes for 65 yards.

If he can turn in back to back impressive performances, he will be a wide receiver that will be hard to cut.

TUZAR SKIPPER

Skipper was a winner from the Steelers first preseason game. However, he got all of his work done late in the game. Similar to Gilbert, Skipper has earned a chance to move up a unit and see how he looks against tougher competition. With Sutton Smith sidelined, a low-end roster spot at linebacker is on the line. Stringing together two straight games, and thriving against better players will give Skipper a chance to make the roster in Week 3.

Steelers Now analyst. IUP Alum. Pittsburgh native. Steelers and Pirates critic, Penguins homer. Covers NFL. Follows NFL, NCAAB, NBA, MLB, and NHL. Writes about the Chicago Bears, Pittsburgh Steelers, and other relevant NFL news.

Analysis

What to Expect from a 38-Year-Old Starting Quarterback

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On March 2nd, Ben Roethlisberger turned 38. When the NFL season starts in September, Ben will be 38 years old and entering his 17th year as the starting quarterback for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Even at this age, Ben is reaching rarefied air. Since 1969, there have been only 54 quarterbacks that played into their age 38 season. Of those 54, 46 of them started a game and just 22 finished the season with starts in more than half the games that season.

Discounting the fact that Roethlisberger is recovering from elbow surgery, what can we expect from a 38-year-old quarterback? Surprisingly, the answer is plenty.

From 1969-1999 quarterbacks playing in their age 38 season on average threw for 2,665 yards with 15 touchdowns against 14 interceptions. Not gaudy numbers, but some of that has to do with the eras in which these quarterbacks played. Even more encouraging, they had a 63% winning percentage.

From 1969-1999, five Hall of Fame quarterbacks played to age 38. Some experienced more success than others.

In 1978 Fran Tarkenton threw for 25 touchdowns and over 3,400 yards but tossed up 32 interceptions and went 8-7-1 on the season. In 1983, Ken Stabler went 7-7 at age 38, but threw 18 interceptions against only 9 touchdowns and fewer than 2,000 yards. Warren Moon went 9-6 in 1994, but had more interceptions (19) than touchdowns (18). In 1999, Dan Marino went 5-6 at age 38, throwing 12 touchdowns against 17 interceptions.

On the positive side, all-time great Joe Montana had 3,283 yards through the air and a 2:1 TD to INT ratio (18-9) with the Kansas City Chiefs in 1994 and John Elway won a Super Bowl in his age 38 season. Elway may have been relying on Terrell Davis at that time, but still put up nearly 3,000 yards along with 22 touchdowns and only 10 interceptions.

As sports science and training regimes have improved, it’s become more commonplace to find quarterbacks 38 and older still having success, or even dominating in the league.

In 2007, Brett Favre at 38 threw for over 4,000 yards and added 28 touchdowns to only 15 interceptions as the Packers went 13-3. Kurt Warner a year after his Super Bowl loss to the Steelers still had plenty in the tank at 38. The veteran quarterback started 15 games, going 10-5 with 3,753 yards, 26 touchdowns and 14 picks. Even journeyman Josh McCown put up 18 touchdowns to only 9 interceptions and 2,900 yards in his age 38 season.

As far as Roethlisberger’s direct contemporaries, Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees all put together superlative performances at age 38.

Peyton Manning, 4,727 yards, 39 TD, 15 INT (12-4)
Tom Brady, 4,770 yards, 36 TD, 7 INT (12-4)
Drew Brees, 4,334 yards, 23 TD, 8 INT (11-5)

However, depending on how you view Roethlisberger, a closer proxy may be former Chargers quarterback Phillip Rivers. Rivers’ age 38 season was statistically one of his worst as the team went 5-11. Rivers threw for 4,600 yards but threw nearly as many interceptions (20) as touchdowns (23).

What will Roethlisberger be like when he comes back? If history offers any clues, there’s no reason to think he can’t be a highly effective player on his return. Quarterbacks at his level in this era– i.e. future Hall of Famers–have historically had success at age 38 and beyond.

It’s impossible to predict when a player will “lose it”. But as long as his elbow is healed and there’s not a significant loss of arm strength, there’s no reason to think that Roethlisberger won’t be able to return to his per-injury, high-level of play.

NFL Quarterbacks at age 38, >7 starts, since 2000

PlayerYearAgeTmGGSCmpAttCmp%YdsTDIntPick6TD%Int%RateSkYdsSk%Y/AAY/AANY/AY/GWLT4QCGWD
Vinny Testaverde200138NYJ161626044158.962752151413.43.1775.3181223.90%6.245.495.01172106055
Rich Gannon200338OAK7712522555.561274642.71.7873.517907.00%5.665.44.6418225012
Brad Johnson200638MIN151427043961.5275091532.13.4272292006.20%6.265.144.39183.368023
Brett Favre200738GNB161635653566.544155281515.22.895.715932.70%7.777.557.18259.7133024
Jeff Garcia200838TAM121124437664.89271212613.21.690.2231005.80%7.217.136.4722665013
Kurt Warner200938ARI151533951366.083753261425.12.7393.2241724.50%7.327.16.46250.2105012
Kerry Collins201038TEN10716027857.551823148152.8882.213914.50%6.566.275.68182.325011
Jon Kitna201038DAL10920931865.7223651612353.7788.9211006.20%7.446.756.03236.545012
Peyton Manning201438DEN161639559766.164727391516.52.51101.5171182.80%7.928.097.68295.4124011
Tom Brady201538NWE161640262464.42477036725.81.12102.2382255.70%7.648.297.48298.1124022
Carson Palmer201738ARI7716426761.4219789713.42.6284.4221507.60%7.416.95.86282.634022
Josh McCown201738NYJ131326739767.2529261894.52.2794.5392648.90%7.377.266225.158012
Drew Brees201738NOR161638653672.01433423814.31.49103.9201453.60%8.098.277.71270.9115022
Philip Rivers201938LAC161639059165.994615232013.93.3888.5342225.40%7.817.066.32288.4511012

All data from Pro Football Reference

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Analysis

Who Fits the Mold of a Steelers RB in the 2020 NFL Draft?

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The Steelers are in a unique position this year with a plethora of needs based on depth. In terms of actual day one impact, is there really a position that will bring a ton of that? Sure, rotational pass rusher, a third safety, a new tight end, and even offensive line help. But one of the key arguments of the running back contingent group has been that day one impact.

The Steelers were clearly doing their work snuffing around the combine as they met with Cam Akers, Jonathan Taylor, Clyde Edwards-Helaire, JK Dobbins, and AJ Dillon. But just what do they look for in their running backs and who fits the mold in this draft?

In this study, I have realized that there are two types of Steelers running backs. There are the speed backs and then the workhorse back. The Steelers currently have a few workhorse back types in Benny Snell, Jaylen Samuels, and James Conner, while having the speed back archetype in Kerrith Whyte. Let us start out with the workhorse type of back. Over Mike Tomlin’s tenure, here are the running backs selected that fit the workhorse archetype.

Steelers Workhorse Back Archetype

Benny Snell

Height: 5’10”
Weight: 224
40: 4.66
Vertical: 29 1/2
Broad: 9’10”
Bench: 16 reps
3 Cone: 7.07
Short Shuttle: 4.33

Jaylen Samuels

Height: 5’11
Weight: 225
40: 4.54
Vertical: 34 1/2
Broad: 10’1″
Bench: 18 reps
3 Cone: 6.93
Short Shuttle: 4.28

James Conner

Height: 6’1″
Weight: 233
40: 4.65
Vertical: 29″
Broad: 9’5″
Bench: 20 reps

Le’Veon Bell

Height: 6’1″
Weight: 230
40: 4.6
Vertical: 31 1/2
Broad: 9’10”
Bench: 25 reps
3 Cone: 6.75
Short Shuttle: 4.24

Jonathan Dwyer

Height: 5’11”
Weight: 229
40: 4.68
Vertical: 33″
Broad: 8’11”
Bench: 15 reps
3 Cone: 7.56
Short Shuttle: 4.67

Baron Batch

Height: 5’10”
Weight: 207
40: 4.5
Vertical: 39″
Broad: 10’6″
Bench: 24 reps

Rashard Mendenhall

Height: 5’10”
Weight: 225
40: 4.45
Vertical: 33.5″
Broad: 9’9″
Bench: 26 reps
Short Shuttle: 4.18

Here are the corresponding thresholds I have created with the data. There is one outlier for each of the data sets aside from the bench press, where all met the requirements.

Height: 5’10″+
Weight: 224+
40: Sub 4.66
Vertical: 29″+
Broad: 9’5″+
Bench: 15 reps+

Now, here are the guys who check every single box set forth here:

Wisconsin RB Jonathan Taylor
TCU RB Sewo Olonilua
Boston College RB AJ Dillon

Correspondingly, here are guys who only missed the cut by one measurable, with that measurable being weight for every single one of them:

Florida State RB Cam Akers
Maryland RB Javon Leake
Memphis RB Patrick Taylor
Florida RB La’Mical Perine
Georgia RB Brian Herrien
UCLA RB Joshua Kelley
Vanderbilt RB Ke’Shawn Vaughn

The Steelers have met with Taylor, Dillon, and Akers, so they are running the mold right on schedule in terms of showing interest in certain running backs.

However, as for the second mold, the Steelers speed back, there an entire difference of prerequisites, but all the speed backs of the Mike Tomlin era here are listed below:

Steelers Speed Back Archetype

Kerrith Whyte

Height: 5’10”
Weight: 197
40: 4.37
Vertical: 42″
Broad: 11″
Bench: 21 reps
Short Shuttle: 4.37
3 Cone: 7.2

Tony Brooks-James

Height: 5’8″
Weight: 190
40: 4.45
Vertical: 35.5
Broad: 10’7″
Bench: 15 reps
Short Shuttle: 4.27
3 Cone: 7.06

Dri Archer

Height: 5’8″
Weight: 173
40: 4.26
Vertical: 38″
Broad: 10’2″
Bench: 20 reps
Short Shuttle: 4.06
3 Cone: 6.86

Chris Rainey

Height: 5’8″
Weight: 180
40: 4.45
Vertical: 36″
Broad: 10″
Bench: 16 reps
Short Shuttle: 3.93
3 Cone: 6.5

Here are the thresholds needed to qualify for a Steelers speed back:

Height: 5’8″+
Weight: 173+
40: Sub 4.45
Vertical: 35 1/2″+
Broad: 10″+
Bench: 15 reps+
Short Shuttle: Sub 4.37
3 Cone: Sub 7.2

In addition, all of these guys had return experience, so that is another requirement.

Here are the guys who check the boxes:

Appalachian State RB Darrynton Evans
Memphis RB Antonio Gibson
Lousiana Lafeyette RB Raymond Calais

All of these guys hit the nail on the head for requirements. Gibson would likely be taken with the 3rd round compensatory pick while Evans and Calais would going into the later rounds if the Steelers were looking down this route.

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Analysis

Film: Derek Watt Brings Tenacity, Versatility to Steelers

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The Steelers have some more wattage in the building. They signed Derek Watt, brother of star outside linebacker T.J. Watt, to a three-year deal on Tuesday. It came as a shock, as the Steelers had vested interest already in the fullback position with Roosevelt Nix.

However, the Steelers are also reeling from the loss of special teams captain Tyler Matakevich, who led the NFL in special teams tackles. The signing of Watt not only corresponds with the emphasis president Art Rooney II placed on improving the running game but also upholding the special teams unit. Watt tied Matakevich for the lead league in special teams tackles and is an upgrade over Nix in that regard.

This is what you get with Watt. He is usually is a split-back on the punt coverage unit the Chargers had. The key with him on special teams was how sure of a tackler he is and how fast he gets the alley. Watt knows how to avoid blocks while flying down the field. He seems to always be in a position to make a tackle away from the traffic and towards the return man. On special teams, you really want to see the ball and then find the ball. Watt does that masterfully, as he does here to close quickly on the returner.

This is the same deal. Watt has a hot motor and flies from the backside of this return to come back and make this tackle, even after a good blocker on the edge to stop the all-out blitz that the Raiders sent. He finds the ball, goes straight to the ball carrier while avoiding traffic, and makes the tackle. This is great technical special teams play. Watt is going to add a lot to that unit at the very least.

However, then what about Watt’s ability to be a fullback? Can he actually block well and be an asset when being that lead blocker?

From the film, yes. Watt plays with intensity and is an absolute battering ram coming downhill towards defenders. His highlights as a blocker are nothing but fun as he clears alleys with ease. Something I have seen that has impressed is his mobility, as well. He moves extremely well for a fullback. The Chargers had him pulling and kicking out defensive ends.

This is one of those examples. Watt gets an absolute head of steam downhill as the puller and obliterates the defensive back coming into the alley to open this play up for Melvin Gordon. The mentality and tenacity Watt shows on this play to bully defenders in the open field is exactly why he is a great fit for the Steelers smash-mouth running style. It is fun to watch him do this consistently. He was a key cog in the Chargers running game when on the field and made a significant difference with blocks like this.

This run won the game for the Chargers in overtime and Watt blew this hole wide open as a lead blocker. Austin Ekeler is able to bounce this back all because Watt engages the linebacker and drives him out of the gap. He has impressive functional strength that allows him to drive guys right off their spot and open up these lanes for running backs. James Conner is going to love running behind a guy like Watt that can do this. With Conner’s ability to read and react to the second level of the defense, Watt can make a big difference.

One of the more intriguing parts of Watt’s game is his receiving ability. The Chargers did not use him a ton in that role, but his hands are soft and he can be used in this part of the offense. Like here, where shows off good hands and creates for himself by breaking a tackle and lowering his shoulder into a defender. He is a tone-setter even in the passing game. That is something the Steelers will always value. I think they could use him in the play-action game and get him out into the flats. Think of how the Patriots used James Develin and I think that is what we could see from Watt here. The bottom line is he can fill multiple roles and does them all well. Watt is a very solid signing and will contribute in multiple ways for the Steelers.

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