PITTSBURGH — The Steelers returned to the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex on Monday, putting a bow on training camp. However, they now have a quick turnaround when they head to Atlanta on Thursday for their final preseason game, but that does not mean that the team is not in a consistent state of evolution with the group they have. What were some of the nuggets picked up from the South Side?
Slot CBs Praised
The Steelers’ slot cornerbacks were one of the biggest questions that remained on the team. But Saturday’s showing helped ease some of those concerns, with Chandon Sullivan and Elijah Riley catching interceptions. Mike Tomlin heaped praise onto Riley, who is proving what he can as a run-down slot cornerback and a high-level special teamer.
“I think he’s showing that he has been here,” Tomlin said. “And that’s a reasonable expectation, a guy that’s familiar with our environment and familiar with our schematics and so forth. And he could focus his energies on you know, just the play or the quality of the play and he has taken a significant step in terms of productivity in stadium, on defense and in teams and good for him. Good for us.”
Defensive coordinator Teryl Austin felt similarly about Sullivan. These are two guys who are assimilating themselves nicely into the team and boosting the talent they have around them. Both slot cornerbacks seem to be on the trajectory to make the team.
“I think those guys are both making a case that they belong,” Austin said. “They’ve each made some plays. They’ve each shown improvement, which is what I’m looking for. And they’ve each showed improvement from game one to game two. And so, we’ll see how it plays out here. I think it’s still a tight competition that’s going to go down to the wire, and we’ll see how that shakes out after these three games.”
Dylan Cook = Sleeper Swing Tackle?
The Steelers do not have a swing tackle that seems likely to make the team. Instead, Le’Raven Clark, who might have been that guy, is sliding down the depth chart. But in his place, second-year upstart Dylan Cook is looking to make that leap to the next level. Playing exclusively left tackle last year forced him to adjust in Tampa Bay, but now he is comfortable at both left and right tackle. Cook even sees some reps at guard. The former quarterback turned offensive tackle is adjusting to his new home.
“Rookie year, everything was so stressful during training camp,” Cook said. “This year, I just take it one day at a time. You treat every day as its own because it’ll eat you up. That stuff has led to my development.”
Cook proved he has excellent athleticism in training camp. The sweet feet he plays with are his most significant attribute. In Tampa Bay, Cook lacked hand usage comfortability. At Montana, they punched with their inside hand first, but with the Buccaneers, they hit with their outside hand. Pat Meyer is adaptable and allows his tackles to do what they are comfortable with, allowing Cook to find some level of play.
The Steelers started experimenting with their RPO series near the end of training camp. That could become a more significant focal point of the offense moving forward. Matt Canada’s scheme has adapted to the modern NFL with those RPOs, but last year, they never got comfortable enough to latch onto those concepts consistently. According to Anthony McFarland, those RPOs could become a significant part of this offense.
“We put a lot of pieces together, man, as a team,” McFarland said. “Not necessarily just think about me as an individual, but there’s a lot of versatility in this offense. You can plug anybody into this stuff, like RPOs, and we’ll get it.”
That is the next natural step for an offense showing a more robust dropback passing attack and a play-action series that is gelling with the rest of the offense.
LT Battle Continues
Dan Moore Jr. and Broderick Jones are having a spirited training camp battle at left tackle. The rookie has learning opportunities and a curve, but Moore has put up a fantastic training camp. Mike Tomlin sees the growth in Moore and what he has done, but naturally, that happens through significant reps.
“It’s not about him holding off anyone,” Tomlin said. “It’s about his relationship with his game and where he is in his career. And I think it’s reasonable to expect him to be on the trajectory that he’s on. We’re talking about a guy that’s played 1,000 snaps two years in a row. There’s no substitute for that snap experience; what you’re seeing is probably the fruit of that growth process.”
Jones is a talented player that is continuing his learning process. He must still work on his punch timing and technique, including placement and various punches. However, Jones has done an excellent job starting to mix up his pass sets. The technique is not yet there, but the athleticism is as advertised. Jones has a monstrous ceiling and must learn to hone that technique.
New Guys Could Have Niches
Kuony Deng and Aron Cruickshank joined the Steelers on Monday, but both could have notable niches with the Steelers. According to himself, Cruickshank is a standout returner with ‘all three’ of the key traits. The vision, speed, and elusiveness to make a big spark happen at any time. Cruickshank is unlikely to force himself onto the roster this late, but he certainly has enough spark to earn a practice squad spot with that position open.
Deng, all 6-foot-6 of him, is an odd fit in any defense. He is half inside linebacker and half outside linebacker. Deng confirmed to Steelers Now that he is likely to work as both inside and outside linebacker with the Steelers. No one else on the team has that specific distinction yet. With elite length, Deng will look to carve out a role and earn himself a spot on the practice squad.