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.
Film Study: James Pierre’s Size, Strength Provide Upside at Cornerback
Coming into training camp, some undrafted free agents were on the radar to possibly make the Steelers at defensive back, where the team did not directly replaced departed veterans Artie Burns and Sean Davis.
A popular choice to make the team was undrafted slot corner Trajan Bandy, who ended up on the Steelers practice squad. The cornerback that came out of nowhere to make the roster was Florida Atlantic alum James Pierre. A near afterthought even after the Steelers signed him, Pierre showed up on the pool report every day against guys like James Washington and Chase Claypool. Pierre made plays on them, too. It was a healthy competition.
So, now that Pierre is on the roster, what are the Steelers really getting in this guy? Most importantly, what does his future outlook look like since he is likely buried on the bench?
Pierre mentioned in his press conference that he had one speed and that one speed was full speed. Pierre is 6-foot-2 and has great length. So, the physical fit is already rather striking right off the bat. Similar to Justin Layne, Pierre has the tools, and even though he bombed the combine, on tape, Pierre is a decent athlete. He is not a ‘wow’ player in terms of his athleticism, but it is sufficient, especially with how he plays the game.
The first thing that jumped out on his tape was his feistiness and willingness to do things that a lot of cornerbacks do not do: run support, tackling, and special teams. Pierre reaffirmed that, mentioning he wanted to help the Steelers anywhere they could, and it passes the eye test. Here on a cornerback blitz against Ohio State, Pierre is quite literally setting the edge on a read-option. That is a rare responsibility for a boundary corner, even one to the short side of the field. However, he does a fantastic job here to bring down Justin Fields with relative ease as well. Pierre can really tackle and is a physical player at the point of contact. It makes sense that the Steelers were drawn to Pierre for this reason. They expect their cornerbacks to be scrappy and help out in run defense and Pierre fits the bill.
This is where his size and strength come into play. UCF plays with weird wide receiver splits and this X-receiver has almost no room to work with on the sideline. Even still, Pierre does a fantastic job of using his hands to direct this route and control it. Even as the receiver swipes overhead, watch out how that speed turn is by Pierre. If that is thrown out of that break, Pierre has a chance to intercept that pass as he is in the hip pocket. He does almost surrender a catch on the scramble drill, but the initial stab and punch to the outside shoulder to divert any momentum from the receiver is what Pierre’s game is all about.
There are some issues with Pierre’s game. This is honestly not a bad rep by Pierre under all circumstances. It’s fine, he gets his hand knocked down while he has inside leverage and gets behind by a slight step. However, Pierre recovers quite well with a by marking his hand on that inside shoulder and staying in phase. He is in a position to make a play on this ball, but it is all a timing issue. Pierre actually jumps too early, misses a play on the ball, and as such this is caught. It would be nice to see Pierre get his head around even though he is in recovery mode. That comes down to composure and ball skills, which are two things Pierre needs to improve on. He dropped a few interceptions at training camp as well.
However, this is what it comes back to right here. The feistiness, the grit, and the passion Pierre plays with. It is going to land in the good graces of Mike Tomlin and the Steelers staff as long as he can do things like this on special teams and in practice. Pierre blows up a tight end here to make the tackle. Not many cornerbacks play with that strength or physicality but he does.
Pierre’s Outlook With the Steelers
It is a bit hard to frame what Pierre is going to be in his career. It all really comes back how he evolves in zone coverages and his composure in tough situations. There is a bit of a panic mechanic that Pierre induces when he gets beat off the line, even if he often recovers to be in a position to make the play. If he listens, learns, and works relentlessly to improve with these veterans in the room, however, Pierre has a chance to be a real gem of a find for the Steelers.
For right now, expect him to be a feisty special teamer that defines what it means to be a Steelers cornerback going back to the Steel Curtain days. The inconsistencies on the boundary will hopefully begin to work themselves out as he gets more and more coaching time with Teryl Austin and Tom Bradley.
Jaguars Release RB Leonard Fournette, Steelers again Speculated as Destination
The Jacksonville Jaguars released veteran running back Leonard Fournette on Monday, reigniting speculation that the Pittsburgh Steelers could be interested in the former No. 4 overall NFL Draft selection.
Fournette rushed for 2,631 yards in his three seasons with the Jaguars, including a 1,152-yard season in 15 games in 2019. But the LSU product also grew dissatisfied with his situation in Jacksonville, requesting a trade over the offseason.
That trade, in which the Steelers were frequently suggested a partner, never materialized, and Fournette was waived on Monday.
Which team(s) should pursue Leonard Fournette? Simms and I both said Steelers. Anyone else?
— ProFootballTalk (@ProFootballTalk) August 31, 2020
Five possible landing spots for Leonard Fournette, who was released today by the Jags: https://t.co/B4L7Tmyz5O
— OutKick (@Outkick) August 31, 2020
Though the Steelers were a repeatedly rumored destination for Fournette in a trade, the circumstances are much different now.
The Steelers used one of their 2020 NFL Draft selections on running back Anthony McFarland, Jr. from Maryland, and he impressed through the first two weeks of his first training camp.
The Steelers have also already gone through their cycle of restructuring their contracts to get salary cap compliant for the 2020 season. Fournette is owed $4.2 million in salary for 2020 that would have to be absorbed if the Steelers or another team claimed him on waivers. The Steelers do not have that amount of cap space available, meaning they would have to begin the process of renegotiating a contract in order to make space very quickly.
There also isn’t a player in the Steelers running backs room that they could release in order to realize any cap savings if they landed Fournette, as their entire running backs room consists of players on their rookie contracts or for near the veteran minimum.
The combination of factors makes it seem unlikely that Fournette will end up with the Steelers, especially considering the fact that they likely could have acquired him for very little earlier this offseason and chose not to. But until he lands elsewhere, it seems likely that the speculation will continue and it’s a situation worth monitoring.
Training Camp Takeaways: Eric Ebron Continues to Impress
Eric Ebron is standing out in a very good way at training camp thus far. James Daniel noted on Tuesday that Ebron “had made a few splash plays” already in camp, and he continued that on Wednesday, not even a day after being called the “missing link” to the offense by fellow tight end Vance McDonald.
On Wednesday, Ebron skied over All-Pro safety Minkah Fitzpatrick to make an impressive contested catch. Later in the team sessions, Ebron laid out to make a fantastic diving catch for a touchdown. Those were the key two plays Ebron flashed in the passing game. Daniel praised Ebron’s receiving skillset.
“Ebron’s calling card for the time he’s been in the League is pass-catching ability, and he’s got some quickness, some speed, route-running stuff that a lot of guys don’t have,” Daniel said.
With the team raving about the energy he brings to the table as well, Ebron’s stock is shooting through the roof.
Ryan Switzer is Turning Heads at Camp
After much criticism throughout a lackluster 2019, Ryan Switzer showed up to training camp looked more shredded than ever before. He was battling for a roster spot, and showing up in the best shape of his life is a good way to impress the coaches. Even with his close relationship with Ben Roethlisberger, Switzer had to prove himself. As the only pure slot on the roster, Switzer has a unique skill set, which Tomlin acknowledged on Wednesday.
“He’s a guy that understands that’s a niche for him,” Tomlin said. “He embraces the detail required to be successful in there. He will continue to carve out his role in this process like everybody else is, but he does bring that unique experience to that position specifically.”
Switzer made a leaping grab over Mike Hilton on Tuesday for a touchdown, and caught yet another touchdown Wednesday in the two-minute team session along the sideline. It was a broken play by Roethlisberger, and Switzer worked the scramble drill with him to connect for the touchdown. Switzer also caught a key pass on a 3rd and 12 play to convert for a first down in the same two-minute drill session. Truth be told, it seems Switzer is on a mission.
“I have to prove No. 7 (Ben Roethlisberger) right. I have to prove a lot of people right,” Switzer said. That’s what I’ve been focused on. I haven’t focused on the people I’m trying to prove wrong. I’m trying to prove Coach Tomlin and Mr. Colbert and Mr. Rooney right.”
It seems Switzer is making a very strong case to make the 53-man roster at this point as the slot specific receiver on the team.
Inside backers flash in coverage
It was a big day on Wednesday for the inside linebackers, as all of the big three made plays that stood out. Devin Bush made a fantastic play on Anthony McFarland. Bush kept pace with McFarland all the way down the field on a deep pass and made a play in the end zone to bat the ball away. In the team sessions, Bush batted yet another ball away from McFarland.
Vince Williams had a standout rep, as he stayed patient and knocked the ball away from Kerrith Whyte in the linebacker-running back coverage drill. Ulysees GIlbert III continues to delight in camp as he registered a few pass breakups on the day both in the drills and in the team session.
For a unit with some depth concerns, the flashes from all three linebackers atop the depth chart are promising.
Mason Rudolph Struggles
While Roethlisberger continues to get lots of praise at training camp, his backup, Mason Rudolph, struggled on Wednesday. In the no-huddle drill, Rudolph did not complete a single pass. After that, he switched to the two-minute drill, where errant passes and a drop hurt the drive from even getting off the ground.
Rudolph should have been intercepted on a few passes but was not due to bad hands from defenders or good defense from the wide receivers to prevent the interceptions.
Rudolph did throw a nice pass to Deon Cain, but Cain fell before catching it. Rudolph also connected with Chase Claypool for a touchdown on the day. Regardless, it would be better if there were rave reviews coming out of camp about Rudolph, not ones that report he is struggling.
Zach Banner is Making His Case
Banner is in fierce competition with Chuks Okorafor for the starting right tackle spot. While Okorafor saw the first-team reps on Wednesday, Banner has shown out the past two days in an effort to prove he is worthy.
On Tuesday, Banner faced Bud Dupree twice and they split the reps against each other, with Banner impressing coaches. In the one-on-one pass-rush drills, everyone that Banner faced was stymied, including seventh-round rookie Carlos Davis. It was an impressive showing for Banner.
On Wednesday, Banner was light on his feet and looked quick. After transforming his body over the past two years, Banner is in better shape than ever before. Banner even got some work in on the Juggs machine prior to practice.
As the competition develops, if Banner continues to impress, he may force himself into the starting spot.
Snell Down 12
Since reporting to Pittsburgh, it has been noticeable that Benny Snell appeared far slimmer than the 2019 season. On Wednesday, Snell confirmed that he had shed weight. In 2019, Snell weighed 224 pounds but said he has now lost 12 pounds and weighs 212 pounds.
Despite that, Snell did it all on his own, which earned the praise of Mike Tomlin. Snell clarified the reasons as to why he and the coaching staff decided he follow the same route that Le’Veon Bell, James Conner, and Jaylen Samuels took.
“The Steelers gave me a plan,” Snell said. “I stuck to it, and I feel like it will help me a ton going into this year with my lateral quickness, my speed, me taking care of my body, the hits I can take, etc.”
Snell is looking to showcase his new athletic skills to become a more dynamic runner. Last year, he was used as a between the tackles, short-yardage power back. In 2020, he will want to prove he has the explosiveness to win outside the tackles, thus earning him more snaps as a scheme diverse runner.
Punters Hard to Evaluate
Special teams are often overlooked but are a key part of the team. Nothing has been truer for the under the radar punter competition between Jordan Berry and newcomer Corliss Waitman out of South Alabama. Despite the tough challenges, Mike Tomlin and Danny Smith both seem comfortable they will be able to sort it out and create a competitive environment for the competition.
“There’s a lot of those battles in terms of the division of labor that’s worrisome in this environment,” Tomlin said. “We will push through it. We will create a competitive environment.”
Waitman comes off a college career of averaging 42.7 yards per punt. Berry is the incumbent and experienced veteran, however. Still, Smith says the Steelers will forge ahead.
“We have time,” Smith said. “We put them in different situations. I’m going to tell you the truth, and I think it’s going to happen a lot throughout our league, when we all open up and there are 16 games being played the first week of the NFL season there are going to be guys out there on every team that we are all going to see what they can do under pressure for the first time in this environment that we’re in.”
How the punting competition works out will be anyone’s guess given the current conditions, but Berry, with experience, would likely be the favorite at this point.