An underrated training camp battle that Pittsburgh Steelers fans will be watching is the quarterback position.
When the Steelers drafted Joshua Dobbs, there was an assumption that he could be a longterm backup. His ceiling may not be a starting-caliber player, but he can step in for a series or two, or even a start. He won the backup spot over Landry Jones, and we saw him step in and convert a key first down early in the season at Cincinnati. However, we also saw at Oakland that Dobbs has more to climb to become that trusted back up.
Dobbs needs repetitions and game experience to step into that role. However, the Steelers also drafted Mason Rudolph in the third round last year. When the Steelers drafted Rudolph, much more “heir apparent” talk came. The team traded up for Rudolph after taking Dobbs a year before. They must really like the kid.
Considering he was inactive while Dobbs struggled at Oakland last season, his rookie season would have to be looked at as a disappointment. Did the Steelers future at quarterback really spend a year struggling to beat out the future backup?
Rudolph has size, arm strength, and accuracy. His biggest issue comes when it comes to playing off-script, and moving through his progressions. The speed and reactionary decision making cannot be simulated and can only be improved through game experience.
On top of all of that, it can be argued that Ben Roethlisberger may need more snaps this preseason than years past. Roethlisberger has two new wideouts in Donte Moncrief and Diontae Johnson. He is coming off of a year where he and James Washington could not get on the same page, and scrutiny has come from the Antonio Brown fallout.
It puts the Steelers into an interesting situation this preseason. How do they split four preseason games worth of snaps between three quarterbacks looking to get real game experience?
“Whenever my number is called upon in whatever role or position that is, I know I’ll be ready to execute,” Dobbs said before camp. “I’m just looking to continue growth and show more command in the offense.”
Preseason Game 1 vs Buccaneers
This has been a game that Roethlisberger has missed in the past couple of years. It has typically been shrugged off as the team would rather rest his arm. With his old friend Bruce Arians on the other sideline, does Roethlisberger get back into the swing of suiting up for week one? If he does play, it would be for a series or two.
Even Arians will likely give his starters just a series or two to knock the rust off for starters but the first week is important for identifying the end of the roster players to give more time to in the coming weeks. Tomlin has talked about the mental aspect of preparing for a game, and playing out the role of the starter is valuable for depth quarterbacks. This added to the reasoning of starting Landry Jones in these spots. Does Dobbs take over that role?
Prediction: Steelers give Dobbs his big chance to act in as a starter. If Roethlisberger goes down, that would currently be his job, and the team should want to see how he handles all of the pre-game prep. Dobbs will start and play the first half. However, Rudolph will likely come in for a two-minute drive situation late into the first half. He can get his jitters out, go into the half and lead the team back out for the entire third quarter into the fourth. Devlin Hodges can take the last drive or two.
Preseason Game 2 vs Chiefs
Expect to see Roethlisberger in game number two. Game three is known as the “dress rehearsal” which means the team prepares as if they are playing a regular-season game. Roethlisberger will not be cold for that game. However, it is still fair to question how much time he will get.
In the backup department, the performances of each in week one will help dictate week two.
Prediction: Roethlisberger will likely get two series, and may not make it out of the first quarter considering game flow. He will get a chance to get back into the swing of things, and maybe uncork a pass to Moncrief and Washington.
Dobbs has usually been slightly ahead of Rudolph on the depth chart, so he will step in for the second quarter, and get his chance to run a two-minute drill. Rudolph will get to play most-of, if not all of the second half.
Preseason Game 3 at Titans
Of the first eight quarters, Rudolph will have played roughly four with a close to a half and two starts to a half. Dobbs will have played around two quarters but will have a start and end of a half. With this amount of experience and all of the training camp reps, the Steelers should have a much better idea about where the room is than they did just three weeks prior.
This is could be the game where Roethlisberger earns some reps back that he does not usually get in the preseason. All starters will be active and the first drive will be entirely scripted to show us a glimpse of what we will get in the regular season. Roethlisberger usually finished a quarter but has not played into quarter two very often in recent years. This year he may get an extra series or two, considering the new starters at receiver.
Prediction: Roethlisberger plays into the second quarter. However, he does not finish the half. The quarterback that the team feels higher on will get another chance in the two-minute drill, and will also get to regroup at the half and lead the team out for the third quarter. This could be when the team moves from Dobbs to Rudolph.
That will likely only be one drive in quarter three, as the player who is third on the totem pole will get to finish out quarter number three, and Hodges will get to finish out the game.
Preseason Game 4: at Panthers
The team has prepared for Week One and has seen enough from their starters. This is likely where the backup will get another chance to start and play a full quarter that extends into quarter two. The number three quarterback will get to finish out the first half and play into the second half, and then Hodges will once again round out the preseason.
Prediction: Expect Rudolph to start this game, win the backup job and have Dobbs start the second half as the number three quarterback. Hodges, who has had at least an equal share, might force his way into playing the second half here. But the big takeaways is that if Rudolph has not passed Dobbs by that point, the investment of a third-round pick has to start being questioned.
Analysis: Steelers Must Develop Their Own Brand of Vertical Offense
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.
With Conner, Snell Each over 100 Yards, Running Game Crucial to Steelers 2-0 Start
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.”
Steelers Rookie Kevin Dotson is Ready to Step Up in a Big Way
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.