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Analysis

Four Players to Watch at NFL Combine

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The NFL Combine in Indianapolis is underway this week in Indianapolis. As hopeful prospects undergo testing and interviews, the week will see the rise and fall of multiple prospects. Essentially, it means the entire landscape of what we think could happen will be changing. But for some of those draft hopefuls, this week is more important to them than other prospects. The consensus best player in the draft, Chase Young, has already decided to sit out of drills. But for some, that is just not possible with the implications it has for them. Here are 5 of those guys that could sink or swim by the end of this week.

LSU TE THADDEUS MOSS

Thaddeus Moss came on strong late in the season with two strong games against Oklahoma and Clemson. It surged enough to gain buzz and bolted for the NFL after the Tigers’ National Championship victory. For Steelers fans, he has long been at the forefront of the tight end discussion. Views on his draft stock have gone all the way from the middle of the second-round to the middle of day three. Right now, no one really knows where he is going to fall on that spectrum.

However, it was clear that Moss was lacking a little bit of juice on tape. His testing is going to be big to really get a gauge on how athletic he really is. The 40 yard dash, broad jump, and vertical are all going to be big to get a sense of his long speed and explosiveness. He will need to test well in order to creep up into the discussion for a day two draft pick. His weigh-in already showed that he was only 6-foot-1, so if he also bombs testing, Moss could experience a free fall in his draft stock. In addition to that, he has to pass medicals for the troubling foot injury that he suffered last year. This week is incredibly important for him.

MINNESOTA S ANTOINE WINFIELD JR.

Antoine Winfield Jr has been nothing but a playmaker over this past year. Seven

Seven interceptions is a number that will catch the eye of anyone. At Minnesota, he was a huge part of a season that saw the Golden Gophers surge to an unexpectedly Top-25 finish. He was the crux of the defense and moved around the entire field. They would use him as a slot defender, down near the line, and play him deep in a free safety role. So, the question, with his great year, would be why is his stock not even higher?

The answer lies in the questions about his athleticism. See, Winfield Jr. is clearly a playmaker and has the wherewithal for the football, but it is anything but certain that he has legitimate NFL range and athleticism. There were times on tape where Winfield Jr. seemed a step slow behind everyone. Too often his speed just was not enough to make the splash play. Those athleticism questions are going to be answered this week. But even more so, he has to answer for multiple injuries he has suffered in college, too. The testing and medicals will be indicative of if Winfield is in the second-round wheelhouse or more of an early day three guy.

FLORIDA STATE RB CAM AKERS

The Steelers are fighting a little bit of a battle with the running back position here. Do they really need one or do they not? If they choose to be on the side of drafting one, they have a ton of running backs that fit their standard. Florida State running back Cam Akers is just one of those guys that fits what they would look for in a running back. After a down Sophomore season, Akers came back for a rebound Junior campaign that saw his draft stock bounce right back up into the day two discussion.

Akers will likely test well, but in such a tight-knit class with Clyde Edwards-Helaire, D’Andre Swift, JK Dobbins, and Jonathan Taylor in it, Akers will need to steal the show to be the talk of the week and swing his stock up. So, for him, it is more of an issue of how impressive can his numbers really be. Any 40-yard dash that hits the 4.4s is a big win for him. In interviews, he will also need to answer the questions about why his production dipped suddenly last year. Those two aspects are going to determine if Akers rises to join the upper echelon of the class or if he is just a big fish in a small pond in the second tier.

BOISE STATE EDGE CURTIS WEAVER

Another guy for Steelers fans to watch closely in case Bud Dupree walks in Curtis Weaver. If Dupree walks, Weaver will be smack dab in the middle of mock drafts and buzz in Pittsburgh as a potential replacement. However, he has significant questions athletically and with his flexibility. All of this week for Weaver is going to determine if he is actually going to be there when the Steelers pick. With a good week, he probably is a fringe first-rounder, but with a bad week, he is a mid-second round pick.

The new figure-eight drill that was added to test flexibility for pass rushers will be key for him. He looked stiff in his ankles and hips and lacked bend. If he can show off some bend and fluidity, it would be incredibly encouraging. And as for his athleticism, he at times was just unimpressive. His explosiveness was okay, but nothing great, and his movement skills in space were nothing to write home about. Weaver needs to show he can be an explosive and fluid athlete in order to be crowned as one of the winners of the combine.

Analysis

Analysis: Steelers Must Develop Their Own Brand of Vertical Offense

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The Steelers offensive identity has been built on efficiency. With Ben Roethlisberger coming off of elbow surgery, they wanted the veteran quarterback to reinvent himself. The good news is that Roethlisberger has done that and then some. Roethlisberger gets the ball out faster than any other quarterback in the NFL. With an emphasis on the quick passing game, the Steelers have been throwing it to their bevy of playmakers to a large degree of success for most of the season.

However, over the past two games, the offense has suddenly gone stagnant. Scoring just 17 points on Monday against the Washington Football Team, the Steelers offense is trending in the wrong direction at the worst time. Without a running game in sight, the passing game has been the Steelers’ crutch. Still, it is something that has become predictable. Washington edge defender Chase Young said that “Baltimore exposed some things” and that the defense could pick up on the Steelers tendencies as a whole.

It is that predictability that is the root cause of the issues the Steelers are having offensively. To the running game and short passing game, everything comes back to their inability to be unpredictable and fool the defense. Perhaps the most important of these predictable tendencies is the Steelers’ affinity to run short horizontal routes only. Bubble screens, drags, quick slants and ins, and smoke routes are essentially the Steelers’ route tree at this point. Every now and then there is a five yard curl over the middle of the field.

That is something that Randy Fichtner hangs his hat on. Ever since becoming the offensive coordinator, he has made it point for the Steelers to get their receivers in open space, create havoc, and let the playmakers do the work. In the modern NFL, it has a lot of great things to it. The fruits of it were shown in games against Tennessee, Cleveland, and Philadelphia earlier this season. The issue has become that Fichtner goes horizontal too much in games. Out of any bunch set, there is at most five route combinations the Steelers are running. Knowing they will try quick passes, teams are just dropping eight defenders into coverage and clamping down on it.

So, what is the natural adjustment to that? Well, it is to take the fight to them and attack them vertically. Now, the type of vertical attack they have is somewhat limited. It is essentially relegated to heavy and pray bombs. The Steelers also refuse to attack the middle of the field. They have only 11 passing attempts for 15 or more yards in the middle of the field this season.

Attacking the entirety of the field is one of the easy fixes for the Steelers. The middle of the field is ripe for the taking given what defenses are throwing at the Steelers. It is a lot of single-high coverage, so if they can isolate someone like Chase Claypool or JuJu Smith-Schuster on that single-high safety, it could be a big play. The Steelers have the weapons to really go after it in the middle of the field.

The caveat coming with a more oriented traditional vertical passing game would be the inaccuracy of Roethlisberger himself. There is a reason that the Steelers are hesitant to throw 40 yard bombs. It is because Roethlisberger’s accuracy is all over the place. Every now and then he finds paydirt, but it is a deep ball that far from what it was prior to his elbow surgery. The good news is that while Roethlisberger may struggle with those extremely deep passes, he can still put a lot of velocity on the ball and push it.

With an arm like Roethlisberger’s now, the Steelers should be trying a different vertical attack. They must go back to what they once did under Tood Haley, and even more so earlier this season. While they will have to toss the vertical heave every now and then, the Steelers can get away with working on the vertical plane. That means a lot of out, curl, comeback, dig, and seam routes. Those throws outside the numbers with guys like Claypool and Diontae Johnson could really be the adjustment this team needs.

Opening up the offense for JuJu Smith-Schuster to run up the seam a bit more and make some combat catches would be a welcome sight. Even running a skinny post or corner route with Eric Ebron seems ideal. Roethlisberger does not have the accuracy on those heave ball types anymore. He does have the accuracy in the 20-25 yard area to still push it to all areas of the field. It is that key distinction that the Steelers must take advantage of to work open this offense. The Steelers have the personnel to do it, the question is just will they do it.

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Analysis

With Conner, Snell Each over 100 Yards, Running Game Crucial to Steelers 2-0 Start

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The Steelers have charged out to a 2-0 start to the season thanks to the stellar defense and the return of star quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, which has elevated an already talented group of receivers that also added Chase Claypool and Eric Ebron to the mix this offseason.

At least, that’s how the narrative has gone so far. And with good reason. The Steelers do have a stellar defense, and Roethlisberger has been a spark, with five touchdowns in two games and a completion percentage (68.5) and passer rating (107.1) that would both be career highs.

But the Steelers have also done a surprisingly strong job of running the football. Through two weeks, there have only been 10 running backs to rush for over 100 yards, and the Steelers have two, with Benny Snell clearing the century mark against the New York Giants and James Conner returning from injury to do so against the Denver Broncos.

They’re the only team with a 100-yard rusher in each of their first two games and have increased their percentage of run plays from 33% in 2018 to 42% this season. Roethlisberger said part of that is that the Steelers have been operating with a lead in the second half and looking to run some clock by running the ball.

“Yeah, I think it’s just the way the games have played out,” Roethlisberger said. “We don’t go into any game saying, OK, here’s our percentage of run/pass. We go into the game trying to win it. I’ve just been happy at the end of games, we’ve been able to utilize the four-minute offense both games. I think that’s something that we take pride in. Because when we say we have to run the ball, it doesn’t mean we have to run it more. We have to run it more effectively. And running it in the four-minute offense is effective running.”

Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin also highlighted the success of the four-minute offense as the Steelers ran out the clock with the football in both victories.

“We have been able to close games out via the run,” he said. “We have been able to possess the ball in four-minute offense. We’ve had a lead in the latter part of the game and have been able to close the game out and maintain possession of the ball primarily via the run. I like that aspect of it. We are still working and growing in terms of being able to do all the things that we want to do, not only in that area of the game, but in all areas of the game. But I think it is a good start when you have your four-minute offense rolling and you are able to possess the ball via the run and preserve a lead at the end of a football game.”

Of course, there are many mouths to feed when it comes to the Steelers offense. Roethlisberger’s number of quality targets in the passing game, plus what looks like it could be a two-headed backfield between Conner and Snell is a lot of talent to go around and there’s only one football.

Roethlisberger said striking a balance is easy, though, at least when the team is 2-0.

“You look at the win loss column,” he said. “At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter who’s getting the ball. It doesn’t matter how many times we’re running or throwing it, it doesn’t matter who’s getting their stats, it’s just a matter of if the team is getting that one stat that’s most important. And that’s a win.”

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Analysis

Steelers Rookie Kevin Dotson is Ready to Step Up in a Big Way

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The Steelers will be throwing their rookie guard into the fire on Sunday. With injuries to both David DeCastro and Stefen Wisniewski, the Steelers are being forced to throw fourth-round rookie Kevin Dotson into the starting lineup. While his college tape looks good, and Steelers Now concluded he could have starting upside, this is early for him to be starting. Dotson missed a good portion of training camp with a knee injury. Not only that but with such limited time, is he really ready to play this early? The few reps he got versus the Giants may be able to tell the story.

There were two key plays that showed Dotson might just be ready right out of the gate here, even despite the “angst” that Mike Tomlin and Randy Fichtner have described at starting Dotson this week.

The first play was this rep against Dexter Lawrence. Now, Lawrence is an explosive athlete. Converting speed-to-power is something he does really well. With powerful hands to jolt pass protectors as well, he can be a real problem, especially for a young guy like Dotson. However, while Dotson initially gets hit slightly back, he does a great job of engaging his core strength and anchoring down. It is obvious how strong Dotson is on the football field, but it is not just in his arms. It is his legs and core that allows him great body control to stand his ground. Other than his dependable anchor on this play, Dotson has fantastic hand placement. His hands are placed inside of Lawrence’s shoulder pads and he is able to control the point of attack here as a result. It was all through winning the leverage of the rep where Dotson was able to get those hands under Lawerence’s pads. A true people-mover it is no surprise to see Dotson play with excellent leverage.

This is a fantastic pull by Dotson on this play to spring Benny Snell. He shows off some hip stiffness, but overall moves pretty well to reach the end here and seal it off. Dotson is the very definition of mauler that plays with violence and power. The end gets shocked by Dotson’s pull and can not get free of his grasps in time to make a play on Snell. This is textbook teach tape for pulls, and while it is not flashy, it is good stuff from Dotson.

Back in training camp after he had just come back and was facing some first team competition, Dotson made sure to let it known he was up to the task.

“I feel like I can make an impact no matter what happens,” Dotson said.

Now with a flurry of injuries, it will up to Dotson to handle Jurrell Casey against the Broncos as the Steelers try to improve to 2-0. If the limited tape says anything, Dotson might just be up to that task.

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