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Preseason Week One Winners and Losers

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The score of the Pittsburgh Steelers first preseason game is meaningless. However, what happened within the game does matter as players can lay groundwork onto what their 2019 season can be. We did not see Ben Roethlisberger or the stars, but depth chart battles and roster spots are won and lost in the preseason.

So, while we may see winners and losers from the game, the key is to see they progress from game to game. Can they build off of this, can they improve, or is there potential regression as the season gets closer? That is what we are looking for. Whose stock changed the most after one preseason game?

Winners

Devin Bush

Bush was the obvious winner of the night. Bush played the entire first half, calling plays from first snap through the two-minute drill. Bush had some bumps but hung well for his first NFL experience with added weight on his shoulders. Bush had 10 tackles, two tackles for loss, including stuff on fourth down, as well as a couple of pass breakups. Bush was all over the place, proving he has a knack for the ball.

Bush gave up a few catches and did lose his footing taking on the run but the arrow is pointing up in a big way heading into week two. Look for Bush to continue to get play-calling experience as the team hopes to see him in that role by week one.

James Washington

Donte Moncrief has been the leader in the clubhouse to be the number two receiver this season. However, the second-year receiver from Oklahoma State still has something to say.  Washington bounced back from a poor rookie season to open the preseason with a bomb from Josh Dobbs that could have gone for six had Washington not needed to wait for the ball. He was also inches away from a toe-tapping touchdown. Washington finished with four receptions for 84 yards and a touchdown, dominating every snap he was on the field.

Washington proved he is better than the competition of early preseason. Now, we need to see him string these performances together against stiffer competition.

Ola Adenyi

Adenyi has been turning heads in camp and was a player we had noted to look for before the game. Adenyi delivered. He compiled five tackles and added a few pressures on strong pass rush attempts. He not only got after the passer, but he also dropped into coverage and made a couple of special teams plays. Adenyi answered a lot of questions and after a strong showing last preseason, he is essentially a lock to make the roster now.

Kam Kelly

The AAF signing has seen a lot of work in camp, which made him a player to watch pregame. With Sean Davis out, Kelly got the start in week one of the preseason, ensuring that the team has faith in his ability. Kelly played the entire first half and looked sound. He added special teams snaps, showing that he can add enough value to make the roster. He is currently a firm backup and could become a roster lock soon.

Tuzar Skipper

Skipper did not see the field until the second half but should be worth following next week. He may have earned more time as he forced an intentional grounding and added a sack in the fourth quarter. Could this lead to more time and a bigger chance next week? The Steelers need depth at outside linebacker.

Losers

Chuks Okorafor

Coming into camp, it was speculated Okorafor could be in a camp competition for starting right tackle snaps with Matt Feiler. After one week, it is clear that the job is Feiler’s to lose. Okorafor struggled in his year two opener, allowing multiple pressures and getting issued with a holding penalty. Okorafor appears to still be a work in progress as he looks to show progression next week.

Justin Layne

Layne started and played deep into the second half. That is likely because he needed the work. The former wide receiver does not have much experience at the college level and it showed in his first NFL start. Layne was picked on relentlessly on the Buccaneers first scoring drive, and the theme did not stop as the game went on.

Layne was cautious to get beat deep, but in the process recorded eight tackles as he allowed completion after completion underneath. This was a good chance for Layne to get used to the speed of the NFL, and he certainly got a work out in. We knew Layne would be raw coming in, now we need to see progress.

Marcus Allen

After the draft, Mike Tomlin spoke as if the team had real confidence in Allen taking a step in year two. Apparently, the step has not been taken. Allen ran with the third team and did not see the field until late into the third quarter. Kelly, Terrell Edmunds, Jordan Dangerfield, and P.J. Locke all saw the field ahead of Allen.

When he saw the field he gave up a completion. Allen went from a player who could carve out a dime role to a player who needs to show special teams value to keep a seat. Whatever the issue, it is clear he does not have the Steelers trust right now, and they need to see more.

Diontae Spencer

Before the game, Spencer was a player to watch as he looked to build momentum to compete with Ryan Switzer and Eli Rogers for slot and return work. Unfortunately, Spencer may have known what was on the line and played a bit tense. He tried to return a punt he had no business trying to return, but he was likely trying to make a play and stand out. Sometimes, coaches just want to see the smart thing, though.

He also added a drop in the third quarter. Spencer had a nice return later in the game, but it is clear he knew he had a chance and he did not take advantage. Now, Spencer not only needs big plays to catch up, he needs to build back trust by making smart plays.

Brian Allen/Sutton Smith/Diontae Johnson

These are three players who had a great chance to improve their stock but could not suit up due to injuries. It is tough to ding players over things out of their control, but all three needed snaps in this game, and not seeing them will set them back.

Allen is going to struggle to make the roster. He was already behind the eight ball with additions of Steven Nelson and Layne, and he could not take advantage of one of his four biggest chances to change his fate. Smith is do-everything sixth-round pick who saw Skipper and Adenyi make plays at his position. Meanwhile, the third-round rookie Johnson saw Washington take big steps into being the emerging young receiver across from Moncrief to keep JuJu Smith-Schuster in the slot.

All three have three more chances to change their fate, but a strong start in week one would have helped tremendously.

Analysis

Chase Claypool Working, Developing with T.J. Houshmanzadeh

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Steelers rookie wide receiver Chase Claypool was the team’s highest draft pick in the 2020 NFL Draft after the Steelers selected him with the 49th overall pick. While he and other rookies have missed rookie minicamp due to COVID-19, Claypool is still making sure to get work in during the offseason.

On social media, Claypool has been posting numerous videos of himself working out with former Bengals wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh. The former Bengals receiver was a long time nemesis of the Steelers, but Claypool certainly has appreciated Houshmandzadeh’s help during the downtime.

I worked out with him in the pre-draft process all the way up until now, so I got a lot of work in with him. He kind of really – he was really excited for me, where I went because he thought it was a great fit for me, He thought I’d do really well just in the system,” Claypool said. 

Coming out of Notre Dame, one of the biggest criticisms of Claypool’s game was his route running and ability to win off the line of scrimmage with his releases. The innate ability to defeat press coverage and attack leverage with his consistency to create separation was not there. However, Claypool seems to have been hard at work to try and fix those issues.

“You know, we worked on a lot of things, but the two main things were top of the route and then releases that we did. We did a lot of technique stuff within those two categories. The work with him definitely paid off,” Claypool said of his work with Houshmandzadeh.”

It is clear that Claypool’s physical tools lend themselves to potentially be a downfield threat. In some ways, he already is a vertical threat with his physicality and contested-catch ability being his main selling points. It seems even to the Steelers staff that is part of the allure of having Claypool on the roster. Certainly, Claypool recognizes his physicality as an asset.

“I think I can do that (be physical) within my route running, in terms of just releasing downfield. I release pretty aggressively, going to attack the ball,” Claypool remarked when asked about how he showcases his physicality. 

With weaknesses to fix and limited offseason programs, Claypool could be limited. His on-field action on offense could be limited to redzone reps and a small route tree. If he can leverage his size and physicality with some new improvements from his training with Houshmandzadeh, Claypool can make a big impact even this early into his career.

The Steelers drafted Claypool with the intention of making him a boundary receiver. Steelers Now previously highlighted how Claypool could impact opposing defenses with his athleticism and size on the boundary.  Creating separation is paramount in the modern NFL. Should Claypool improve his ability to create separation, the Steelers offense will be that much more dangerous. The training with Houshmandzadeh should help Claypool’s growth to reach his high ceiling in the Steelers offense.

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Steelers

Steelers Place Samuels, Washington on COVID-19 List, Release 8

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Pittsburgh Steelers running back Jaylen Samuels and wide receiver James Washington have been placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list, the team announced Sunday.

This brings the team total to four players on the reserve/COVID-19. Pittsburgh placed defensive backs Justin Layne and Arrion Springs on the list last week.

The team also announced the release of eight players on Sunday. Quarterback J.T. Barrett, running back Ralph Webb, returner Quadree Henderson, offensive lineman Christian Montano, long snapper Christian Kuntz, defensive end Dewayne Hendrix, safety Tyree Kinnel and defensive end Josiah Coatney were all waived. Henderson and Hendrix were former standouts at Pitt, while Kuntz played his college ball at Duquesne.

The reserve/COVID-19 designation was created for players who have either tested positive for the virus, or have been in close contact with an infected individual. Players can be removed from the list once they have been medically cleared. There is no limit to the amount of players a club can place on the list.

A second-round pick in 2018 out of Oklahoma State, Washington is coming off a productive sophomore season that saw him catch 44 passes for 735 yards and three touchdowns. He played in 15 games last year, starting ten.

Selected in the fifth round of the same draft out of NC State, Samuels has turned into a reliable pass catcher out of the backfield, snagging 47 receptions for 305 yards and a score in 2019. He also carried the ball 66 times for 175 yards and a touchdown.

While they are not the first Steelers to receive the designation, Samuels and Washington are definitely more crucial to the team’s immediate plans than Layne and Springs. Getting them healthy and back on the field will be paramount, as the Steelers look to improve on their disastrous offensive output from a year ago with the return of a healthy Ben Roethlisberger.

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Steelers

Steelers, Heyward Have Made Little Progress Towards Extension, Per Agent

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The Pittsburgh Steelers and defensive end Cam Heyward are no closer to agreeing to a long-term contract extension, according to the star’s agent.

Speaking with ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler, Heyward’s agent Michael Perrett of Element Sports Group divulged that the team and his client have made no significant advances towards a new deal.

Perrett reaffirmed that Heyward still wants to retire as a Steeler, but acknowledged that COVID-19 has made the path to an agreement more challenging.

“I thought we’d be further along in the process. In a normal year, we might be,” he told ESPN. “The current situation has led to a lot of uncertainty, but NFL business is still moving forward. Cam would love to retire a Steeler, but at this point, he just doesn’t know how all of this is going to play out.”

According to Fowler, Heyward is not considering holding out, mainly because of his position in the team as a captain and player rep.

Heyward, 31, is coming off one of the best seasons of his career in 2019. With nine sacks, eleven tackles-for-loss and 23 quarterback hits, Heyward earned Pro Bowl and First-Team All-Pro honors a year ago. His 79 tackles-for-loss are the fourth-most in franchise history.

While other high-profile pass rushers have signed new deals this offseason, including the Chiefs’ Chris Jones, the Browns’ Myles Garrett and the Chargers’ Joey Bosa, Heyward still waits.

Even though the Steelers tend to avoid in-season contract negotiations and little progress has been made thus far, the two sides still have the month of August to work out a deal.

Still, if they are not able to get something prior to the season opener, you would think the organization would make an exception for Heyward, considering his desirable combination of leadership and ability.

He has remained consistent that he wants to retire in Pittsburgh. The Steelers would be wise to make his wish a reality.

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