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.
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.”
Film Study: Conservative Game Plan Holds Steelers Back
The Steelers squeaked out a victory from the jaws of defeat on Sunday by defeating the Denver Broncos 26-21. It was a hard-fought battle as the Steelers allowed the Broncos to creep back into the game in the second half. Turnovers and penalties were two big reasons as to why the Steelers kept them in the game. However, the conservative offensive play calling was as well. Offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner has received due criticism before. Today, that criticism was once again well deserved.
Fichtner’s Questionable Calls Shackles Ben Roethlisberger
The biggest problem with Fichtner was his conservative play-calling once the Steelers got into unfavorable second down positions. On 2nd and long, the Steelers should be using the playmaking ability and arm of Ben Roethlisberger and the skillsets of their weapons to help get into manageable third-down situations.
On a 2nd and 18, these draw plays should not be in contention. One was in the very first quarter when the Steelers should be gunning for a quick start, not a first possession punt. It was after a fumble, but all Fichtner should be doing is trying to get the offense back on track. A run on second and long does not accomplish that. Then, with a two-score lead, this is a classic example of a team taking the foot off the gas pedal. Living in fear of turnover at this point is not a valid point to the contrary, especially when the passing game had been working especially well in the first half against a battered Broncos secondary. More potently, this is playing right into the Broncos strengths. Their front line, even without Von Miller, is strong and capable. It made no sense to go with a draw here on 2nd and long. Even attacking the Broncos underneath here would have worked to some degree. Anything is better than a run at this point.
On the ensuing play, the point is driven home. The Broncos have sold out for the deep pass at the sticks and all that is left is a dig at the line of scrimmage. As a result, the Steelers end up punting here. There was no guarantee that the Steelers would have scored points even if they did take the air. However, shackling Roethlisberger when he has shown the capability to beat the Broncos secondary with ease is a questionable call. If the Steelers do convert and end up scoring a touchdown or even a field goal, the entire outlook on the game is changed. Analytics have shown aggressiveness is how teams have the best probability to win games. In situations like this, that should be followed.
The Steelers’ screen game was perhaps the worst part of the game today. There was nothing going for them all day and yet Fichtner continued to call them. The screen game is nothing more than an extension of the running game. It, yet again, is something that puts Roethlisberger’s best strengths in a bind and handicaps drives. There were promising drives that showcased the quick passing game as a way to slice through the Broncos defense with ease. Even more so, Chase Claypool’s big play made it known that it was possible to push the ball down the field.
This screen play may highlight the worst of the day for the Steelers. The pre-snap look they get is just not favorable for this play. They are outmanned three to two in a blocking situation. More importantly, the Broncos are playing with even spacing and have a great angle to the boundary to make this play on JuJu Smith-Schuster. They are expecting a quick pass here and the safety at the top of the formation is ready to drive down if he sees any quick passing game concepts. That is exactly what happens and the Steelers are stopped short on a critical 3rd and 2. It is questionable why they did not check out of this anyways, but given the struggles of the screen game all day, Fichtner’s call of a screen in a pivotal point is puzzling.
Fichtner has to learn to let Roethlisberger cook and use his arm talent. The quick passing game is more than fine. Honestly, screens are not all bad, but they should not be calling as many as they did today when they were not working. If they are to be called, there has to be more pre-snap action to mess with the defense’s eyes. It was that conservative play-calling that lulled the Steelers offense and in part gave the Broncos a window to creep back into the game as a whole.
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.