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Steelers Analysis

Steelers OTAs Takeaways: Russell Wilson Unlocks Moonball, Beanie Bishop Shines

The Pittsburgh Steelers third day of practice brought about plenty of fireworks on both sides of the ball as roles become more defined.

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Pittsburgh Steelers QB Russell Wilson
Steelers quarterback Russell Wilson at OTAs on May 21, 2024. -- Ed Thompson/ Steelers Now

PITTSBURGH — The sparks at Pittsburgh Steelers offseason training activities have come more from the locker room discussions than the on-field product. At this point in the process, that is par for the course. In reality, there is only so much value that I or anyone else who watched practice can extract from practice without pads, and on top of that, a period in the curve where the team is working more on install and individual traits than seeing the ‘pop’ from most players. If sparks can fly, they did on Thursday during the Steelers’ third OTAs session.

Steelers quarterback Russell Wilson

Steelers quarterback Russell Wilson at OTAs on May 21, 2024. — Ed Thompson/Steelers Now

Russell Wilson Unlocks His Moonball

What was the giant spark that came on the day? Russell Wilson’s deep ball shined in one specific instance. For one, the team pushed the ball downfield in their training, which was a spoiler of what would come. Quez Watkins confirmed the play, and he was on the receiving end of a Wilson moonball that hit him right in the hands after Watkins torched the defense for a would-be touchdown.

“Honestly, I really wasn’t focused (which DB) it was on; it was just really getting that connection with Russ,” Watkins said. “We talked about it earlier. At the end of the day we are just trying to hit that, get connections. That (deep completion) is what he (Wilson) has been doing his whole career, and I am ready to be one of his guys.”

Pittsburgh Steelers WR Quez Watkins

Pittsburgh Steelers WR Quez Watkins at the team’s OTAs, May 21, 2024 – Ed Thompson / Steelers Now

Wilson’s deep ball still looks effortless. When breaking down his game, it is the one part of his game that remains truly elite no matter how you break it down. Wilson’s arm strength dazzles and his touch and accuracy on deep balls is impressive. Watkins is likely the first benefactor of that in a Steelers uniform this season.

The question about Wilson will be the pocket management and how much juice he has left to play backyard football. But on that play, the offensive line held up and gave Wilson time to uncork the deep ball. I imagine that is part of the core offensive game plan. The team will run the ball to stay ahead of the chains while going to play action deep passes on advantageous downs. If given time, Wilson should have a potent weapon in his deep ball that he flashed on Thursday.

As for Watkins, he is someone who needs to make inroads. This cluttered wide receiver room remains all over the place, but Watkins has elite speed and downfield playmaking skills. At the very least, this is one way to earn your keep with the man who is currently in ‘pole position’ at quarterback.

Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback Beanie Bishop during OTAs at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex, May 21, 2024. — Ed Thompson / Steelers Now

Beanie Bishop’s Day

To make a football team as an undrafted free agent takes a different level of commitment and a little bit of crazy. I can confidently say that Beanie Bishop has enough ‘crazy’ in him to make that push at slot cornerback. Though Josiah Scott is working with the first team early in OTAs, Bishop’s background is one where he perpetually remained doubted. Coming out of high school. He was under-recruited, and of course, after a fantastic season at West Virginia, he was undrafted. Bishop uses that to fuel himself.

He is a player to watch closely, and on Thursday, he popped on the football field. Bishop forced a fumble and made a fantastic pass breakup against Roman Wilson. Bishop has embraced that competition with Wilson during his limited time in Pittsburgh. But the fumble and inherent physicality he plays with exemplify the type of player Bishop is on the field daily.

“I like to hit guys in the mouth. A lot of receivers don’t like to play like that. There are a lot of receivers who are pretty and stuff like that. I don’t like to be a pretty player. I’m one of those nasty and physical guys. I play with an edge to my game and I’m fearless,” Bishop said.

To be an undersized slot cornerback who will stick his face in the fan in the run game and be a significant pass-rushing threat takes cajones. Bishop proves he has the mental makeup to do that daily, and Pittsburgh talked to Bishop specifically about playing in the slot before he signed with the team.

Mike Hilton took a similar path to Bishop as an under-the-radar player who came into Steelers training camp and pushed all the right buttons. Now, he is a captain in the NFL and one of the league’s premier physical slot cornerbacks. Bishop looks up to him. That’s the right player to model your game after, and Bishop has the right mindset to make a push here.

Pittsburgh Steelers WR Calvin Austin III

Pittsburgh Steelers WR Calvin Austin III at the team’s OTAs, May 21, 2024 – Ed Thompson / Steelers Now

Calvin Austin III Focuses on Route Running

Talking about Watkins earlier, Calvin Austin III remains the front-runner over Watkins and others like Scotty Miller to make this team. Maybe they are competing for two spots, but if there is one spot between those three players, I think Austin is the best player of that crop. In previous years, Austin had shined in OTAs and training camps with his pure speed and ability to burn defensive backs with that speed.

There is nuance to Austin’s game, especially with his expansive release package and instant acceleration in and out of breaks. However, cornerbacks could sit on Austin’s deep route tree because he could not separate underneath on curls, comebacks, and other routes to set up his deep game. Austin’s most significant area of improvement was to focus on improving the snap in his routes.

“It was all on the snap down. I was looking to improve upon that, and it’s something I know I improved upon,” Austin said.

Pittsburgh is banking on someone emerging from this room. Roman Wilson is off to a hot start, and there are plenty of dart throws in the veteran part of this room. Austin has intriguing traits, and if he can create some separation with the added snap into his routes at all three levels, Austin could provide ample utility for the room.
Pittsburgh Steelers DT Keeanu Benton

Pittsburgh Steelers DT Keeanu Benton at the team’s OTAs, May 21, 2024 – Ed Thompson / Steelers Now

Experimenting in Style

Who knows what the new kickoff rules will bring to the NFL, but I like the ideas that can be thrown around within the system. Talking to players and coaches since it has been implemented, there is some natural optimism that run schemes will be implemented into that, and coverage units can employ other tactics like stunts. It plays out far more like a run play with a bit more space, but that changes the body types for the unit, too, and you best be able to deconstruct blocks.

On Thursday, the Steelers worked on some kickoff coverage and return ideas. I will not go into painstaking detail for obvious reasons. Still, something that caught my eye when I talked with Isaiahh Loudermilk was the fact that defensive linemen were on the kickoff coverage team. It’s not something I considered, but there are gap responsibilities, and with less space to work with, defensive linemen can be weapons on coverage units.

“There’s not as much space as there used to be on kickoffs,” Loudermilk said. “You know, there are some similarities like gap integrity, and with less space, you can use bigger-bodied guys. We’re playing with it right now, experimenting with it, but that’s something that could change.”

How does that change roster construction mean defensive linemen become even more valuable if they are proven to be viable options on the kickoff coverage team? It probably will, but I am fascinated to see how it all plays out throughout the next few months with the new rules. The more I dive into the scheme and theory behind the new regulations, the more fun this could all end up being for coordinators and teams.