UNITY TWP., Pa. — Several members of the Steelers 2019 rookie class made their NFL preseason debuts on Friday, with first-round pick Devin Bush taking most of the headlines with a stellar first effort.
The rest of the rookie class came with mixed results, with cornerback Justin Layne and running back Benny Snell struggling in starting roles and tight end Zach Gentry and linebacker Ulysees Gilbert making impacts later in the game.
Speaking with the team for the first time since the game on Tuesday, head coach Mike Tomlin evaluated the progress of his newest additions.
“It’s probably the most important film session of the year for us, because we set a trajectory for expectations and the spirit in which we study tape,” Tomlin said. “We study tape for one reason and one reason only: to get better, to improve for the next time we step into a stadium. So, we critique it in that spirit. We can’t be thin-skinned and defensive and so forth.”
So how did Tomlin rate the rookies? Here’s what he said to the media Tuesday morning:
On linebacker Devin Bush:
“It was a very solid performance. It was really kind of reminiscent for me of Ryan Shazier’s first home preseason game years ago in terms of production, getting around and making a number of plays. But he’s going to continue to write his story in terms of growth and development, usefulness and role within this group, not only in 2019 and beyond. He’s got to roll up his sleeves and go back to work like the rest of them.”
On cornerback Justin Layne:
“It looked a little big for him at times. We talked openly about that today. That’s what I mean when I say that we’re going to be really transparent. It’s a big business day for us. But I also told every member of the team not to over-analyze performance. Justin Layne is a very young guy who stepped into the stadium for the first time and had an opportunity to start and start against an NFL starting quarterback because of injury and lack of availability of others, maybe not necessarily because of what he did to get in that spot. Such is life in football and particularly, football this time of year. I’m sure it was going to be a valuable experience for him, but not necessarily a positive experience for him.”
On linebacker Ulysees Gilbert:
“[He] made a lot of splash plays, but I pointed out to the team that those plays were made between play 80 and 89 defensively. So the people that he was on the field with were not the quality of people that Justin Layne was on the field with. So, we’d better no read too much into quality of performance. We’d all just better keep our heads and keep working.”
JuJu Smith-Schuster Asks Fans to Give him Space
JuJu Smith-Schuster is experiencing the negative side effect of living so much of his personal life in the public eye. The Steelers receiver, who is looking for a new NFL contract, took to Instagram to ask fans to leave him alone.
This stems from allegations that fans are showing up to his family home in California while he is there. Obviously, fans have no right to show up unwelcome anywhere to stalk an an athlete or celebrity, but this is just another example of the polarization of Smith-Schuster’s career. While he’s received much criticism, most notably this past season, for his sometimes over-the-top behavior and seemingly prioritizing his brand at all times, he also has many avid supporters who would stop at nothing to defend one of their favorite players.
Smith-Schuster is set to be a free agent in March for the first time in his professional career. If the Steelers should try to bring back the receiver has become a hot debate among Pittsburgh fans, so much so Smith-Schuster himself addressed the situation during a live Twitch sessions with fans.
Even Smith-Schuster’s play on the field is often up for debate. He totaled 97 receptions, but for only 831 yards with an average of just 8.6 yards per catch, which is significantly lower than his average from past seasons, including 15.8 his rookie year and 13.1 in 2019.
When it comes to JuJu Smith-Schuster, it’s always best to just stay tuned.
Steelers’ Vance McDonald Reflects on Stiff Arm Moment, Relationship with Ben Roethlisberger
Steelers tight end Vance McDonald spoke to the media after officially announcing his retirement from the NFL. McDonald responded to a question about the play he’s most synonymous with by saying he embraces the famous stiff arm moment. He also detailed his interaction with Ben Roethlisberger when he told his quarterback he was planning to retire.
Steelers TE Kevin Rader Aced Week 17 Audition, More Coming in 2021?
The Steelers have an opening in their tight ends room, as four-year starter Vance McDonald retired on Friday.
That leaves Eric Ebron as the team’s projected starter for 2021, and that won’t be a big change, as Ebron out-snapped McDonald and started nine games to McDonald’s 12. Without another veteran option, it’s likely the Steelers will use fewer two-tight end sets, but the issue of backups will need to be addressed.
Michigan product and former fifth-round pick Zach Gentry has yet to be a factor through two seasons and missed most of 2020 with an injury, but as he’s under contract and the team is facing a salary cup crunch, he seems likely to hold onto that job.
The Steelers have options for a third tight end, securing the services of Dax Raymond and Charles Jones on reserve/future contracts for the 2021 season on Thursday. But the man that seems most likely to step up into that role is third-year pro Kevin Rader.
Rader, a Pine-Richland and Youngstown State alum spent his second season with the Steelers in 2020, but got his first taste of action in Week 17 at Cleveland with the Steelers choosing to rest starters.
He made the most of the opportunity, particularly on special teams, where he played in nearly half of the team’s snaps, made three tackles and drew praise from head coach Mike Tomlin.
“Guys like Kevin Rader had an opportunity to step up and play,” Tomlin said. “I think he had three tackles on kickoff. For an offensive player to have that type of contribution in net, in a coverage unit I think was impressive. That’s good for him. That’s good for us as we move forward.”
Rader is also on a reserve/future contract, with no guaranteed money for 2021, but if he can continue to show the ability to contribute on special teams and help as a blocker, where McDonald excelled and Ebron does not, it seems that he can certainly carve himself out a role in Pittsburgh in 2021.