Yes, I know, draft grades are meaningless and do not deserve to be graded for at least another three seasons. Still, the process behind the results has to matter at some point as well. The NFL draft and free agency are the only times that NFL teams are truly honest and we get a peek into the decision-making process behind these moves.
With that in mind, how did the Pittsburgh Steelers fare? What kind of draft did they have, and if the players missed was it a good process with an unlucky result, or was the process flawed with a need to be reworked?
Round 1: Devin Bush, LB, Michigan
The Steelers had a need and they went and got one of the best possible options for it. What makes the trade up for Devin Bush so noteworthy is that is showed that the Steelers likely did not think any other linebacker in this draft had a chance to start in the near future, and they also were not sure if anyone they took at 20th overall would have been worth that selection. These two factors, along with extra picks from Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown helped make the decision easier.
Round 3: Diontae Johnson, WR, Toledo
The Steelers spent one year looking for a Ryan Shazier replacement, but they were very quick in finding a player who profiles as the next Antonio Brown. With the kidding aside that he can live up those lofty expectations, the comparisons are uncanny, and it almost felt as if they were trying to prove a point by using the Brown pick on him.
Johnson is a great fit because as a rookie he can return punts, and at times play outside. Whether it be Johnson or Washington shuffling with Donte Moncrief on the outside, these players will help keep JuJu Smith-Schuster in the slot, where he plays best.
Round 3: Justin Layne, CB, Michigan State
The Steelers missed on Artie Burns in round one three years ago and found themselves signing Steven Nelson and drafting an outside option as well. Layne has serious upside but is raw with limited cornerback time. Still, as a former wide receiver, he is a smart player who knows the position and can read offenses from the cornerback’s point of view.
With the addition of Steven Nelson across from Joe Haden, the Steelers can ease along the high upside cornerback. Still, with the uncertainty of Nelson, and the age and injury history of Haden, they could not go much longer without a cornerback.
Round 4: Benny Snell, RB, Kentucky
Benny Snell fits the Steelers mold. A bigger back who does not have great speed, but has good vision, can catch and can pass protect. Knowing the Steelers he will follow the footsteps of James Conner and Le’Veon Bell by losing some weight, adding a step of speed, and becoming a reliable option in the NFL by year two. They clearly value similar abilities in these three backs and even Steven Ridley.
Speaking of Ridley, he fumbled twice in 29 carries with the Steelers last season, and failed to convert a controversial 4th and 2 against the New Orleans Saints. Benny Snell has five fumbles in 738 carries and was a goal-line force, as shown here.
Steelers fans you want toughness near the goal line? Benny Snell goes down when he says he’ll go down. The #Steelers got a TOUGH runner to compliment Conner and Samuels.
— Donnie Druin (@DonnieDruin) April 27, 2019
If all they get is an upgrade from Steven Ridley, that may have been the difference between the playoffs last season.
Round 5: Zach Gentry, TE, Michigan
The Detroit Lions signed Jesse James for an average salary of $6 million per year. Everyone in Pittsburgh, even the biggest James fans, knew that was going to be too much to keep him in Pittsburgh. In similar fashion to Antonio Brown, the Steelers tried to find themselves a carbon copy of the player they lost.
Drafting Zach Gentry to replace Jesse James is what the Spiderman Meme was made for. They lost their 6’7″ tight end with long arms and added a 6’8″ tight end with long arms. Heck, even like Brown and Johnson being MAC standouts, Gentry was a Big 10 performer like James, a round five pick from Penn State.
Round 6: Sutton Smith, OLB, Northern Illinois
Sutton Smith was the most exciting pick of the third day. Smith is a highly productive player who put up 29 sacks and 56.5 tackles for loss over the last two seasons. However, he was an outside linebacker who weight 233 pounds. For comparison T.J. Watt is over 250 pounds, Bud Dupree is over 260 pounds, and Devin Bush weighs 234 pounds.
Is Sutton Smith an outside linebacker or an inside linebacker?
It does not matter in today’s NFL. He can rush the passer and defend players with size in space. That is exactly what you want. At the very least Sutton Smith can run downhill and hit and that gives him special teams value. If he took the Vince Williams route to a starting role, it would not surprise.
Round 6: Isiah Buggs, DL, Alabama
Buggs is a technically sound defensive lineman who doesn’t have great length or athleticism which limits his ceiling. While he was aided by playing next to the likes of Quinnen Williams, Da’Ron Payne and Josh Allen, he got on the field with those players and can compliment those players. It is also worth noting that NFL.com compared him to Tyson Alualu, a player he will be competing with.
Round 6: Ulysses Gilbert: LB, Akron
The Steelers had enough with being too slow in the middle of their defense. Even with the addition of Devin Bush, that was not enough. The team doubler-dipped and added Ulysses Gilbert from Akron. Gilbert is undersized, weight 224 pounds. Still, he could be looked at as an oversized safety in today’s NFL. What the Steelers know is that he hits hard, and similarly to Sutton Smith can find a job special teams.
He also is a versatile chess piece who can be matchup specific. Drafting Gilbert to ensure speed in the middle of the field was likely the tipping point that causes the team to move on from Jon Bostic.
Round 7: Derwin Gray, OT, Maryland
Gray is a road grader of an offensive lineman who is expected to move to guard in the NFL due to his forceful run blocking and questionable pass blocking.
This was one of the most Steelers like drafts that you can possibly find. Each player shows shades of another player currently on the roster, or that they may need to be directly replacing. Kevin Colbert has been in the game so long he clearly has a type.
The Steelers addressed their needs, and they showed that they are gearing up for what modern NFL football is going to look like. At times it felt as though some picks were forced, but the Steelers could not go into another year with the speed that they lacked in the middle of the field. That was their number one priority and they not only hit it, but they also hit it with all hands on deck by trading for Devin Bush and drafting an undersized outside linebacker, and an undersized linebacker who can play as an off-ball linebacker and over-sized safety respectively.
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.