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Analysis

One-Year Extension Brings Mike Tomlin, Ben Roethlisberger in Sync

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The sun sets everywhere, even in paradise.

We are just a few months removed from Ben Roethlisberger’s two-year extension that will take him through the 2021 season.

He said Friday that he plans on playing though 2021 and hasn’t made a firm plan for what happens beyond that. If that’s the end, Roethlisberger has put together quite the career since being selected as the 11th overall pick in the 2004 NFL Draft, a career that will one day see him standing at a podium in Canton, Ohio.

Mike Tomlin will begin his thirteenth season as head coach of the Steelers. In that time span, Tomlin has accomplished quite a few things, such as: Leading his team to six divisional titles, eight post-season births, two Super Bowl appearances and one Super Bowl victory. Tomlin also owns the second-best winning percentage (.645%) of active head coaches with over 50 games coached, behind the one and only Bill Belichick, who owns a cool .685%.

Second best is not acceptable in Pittsburgh, however. Since his last Super Bowl appearance in 2010, Tomlin simply hasn’t been able to rally the troops to the best of his abilities despite possessing some of the league’s top talent down the roster. Tomlin’s future with the organization has been met with great questions as of late, for lack of performance on and off the field. The Steelers have a history of extending head coaches well before their contract is over, and with Tomlin only having two years left on his current deal, many began to speculate Tomlin might be on his way out the door.

The Steelers were able to turn speculation dormant (for the present) on Thursday, as the team announced a one year contract extension for Tomlin that would carry his deal through the 2021 season. Some may debate the purpose of the extension, and perhaps for good reason.

If you wanted Tomlin around for the long-term, why not extend his deal for multiple years? Valid questions surround the intent of the extension even more-so than the actual extension.

Perhaps the Pittsburgh Steelers themselves acknowledge this: The end of an era is coming.

The moment Roethlisberger decides to hang his cleats up, Pittsburgh’s chances of clinching a seventh Lombardi Trophy diminish significantly. The Steelers are well aware of what happens following the departure of a Hall of Fame quarterback. Extending Tomlin’s contract to mirror that of Roethlisberger’s fully indicates the Steelers are all in on the next three seasons.

Dealing Tomlin an extra year on his contract means a handful of things:

First and foremost, Tomlin now understands his work is cut out for him. The failure to win a Super Bowl with talents such as Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown is already attached to his resumé, whether he prefers that or not. However, the failure to win another championship with Roethlisberger before he retires will add another layer of questions to his legacy.

Though superstars have come and gone, Tomlin still has the following to work with: A Hall of Fame passer, a Pro Bowl running back, a Pro Bowl receiver, one of football’s best offensive lines, established defensive players such as Cam Heyward and Joe Haden and young talents like T.J. Watt and Devin Bush.

Players change, expectations don’t. Although celebratory parades are expected to be had every February, Tomlin now essentially has a three year window to cash in on his bets.

While Tomlin will be able to worry about the near future, the organization now has time to evaluate whether or not Tomlin is capable of coaching a football team with no major superstars. The question is not whether Tomlin will be able to coach this Steelers team for another decade (he’s in great health at the young age of 47), but rather if he’s the guy they want leading the charge once the quarterback throne is inherited by another player.

In essence, that is why the one year extension is a minor but pivotal move. Had Tomlin chose to walk a season before Roethlisberger retired, the organization’s plans may have been altered significantly. The extension translates as assurance that the coach/quarterback relationship Tomlin/Roethlisberger share (one of the most important in football) will have the opportunity to gather one more championship before both potentially depart the Steel City.

Should the Steelers not like what they see, they afford themselves the ability to hit the refresh button and enter the 2022 season with not only a new quarterback, but a new head coach as well.

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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Analysis

Film Study: James Pierre’s Size, Strength Provide Upside at Cornerback

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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’s Upside

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.

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Analysis

Jaguars Release RB Leonard Fournette, Steelers again Speculated as Destination

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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.

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.

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