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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.

Steelers

Highlights from Steelers Practice 10/30/20

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Steelers linebacker TJ Watt leads the defense during their final practice before plating the divisional rival Ravens. Running back James Conner also works on his burst.

Footage courtesy Pittsburgh Steelers

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Steelers

Steelers ‘Next Man Up’ Mentality Paying Dividends in 2020

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The Steelers are 6-0, and while the team has had relatively good health for the season, there have been key injuries that have struck at inopportune times. Most recently, the Steelers lost Devin Bush for the season with a torn ACL.

However, he has not been the only one. Mike Hilton has missed time with a shoulder injury, Diontae Johnson has been nicked up, and Derek Watt has missed multiple games with a hamstring injury. Yet, at all spots, the Steelers have yet to miss a beat.

These are not just minor injuries either. Bush is the glue in the middle of the defense. Johnson is the shifty receiver that makes team fear the Steelers quick passing game. Hilton is the best run defending slot cornerback in the NFL and expands the Steelers’ blitz packages. Even Watt is a fantastic special teamer. Yet, the Steelers continue to chug along like nothing is wrong.

Mike Tomlin talks about the “next man up” mentality every week when it comes to the health of his team. The Steelers work through replacing their injured guys and getting them the replacements up to speed quickly. Even still, this is a mentality that is much easier said than done. Raw talent is hard to replace, especially when these are inexperienced, young players that are stepping in for those key contributors.

However, as the Steelers have shown in the past two weeks, Bush’s injury thus far has yet to be felt. Robert Spillane, a former undrafted free agent out of Western Michigan, has stepped in well. Playing on base downs, Spillane’s physicality and football IQ have been key in his standout performance. He has even shown he has more athleticism than anticipated. His big hit on Derrick Henry on Sunday was just the icing on the cake for a strong two weeks for Spillane.

Ulysees Gilbert III stepped into the other part of Bush’s role, which is sub-packages. Gilbert is now working in that role, and while not tested all that much on Sunday, Gilbert looked rather solid. Most importantly, he has the same speed and rare athleticism for the position that Bush presents.

With Johnson banged up this year, Chase Claypool and James Washington have jumped in at random times to step up in a big way. When Johnson was hurt early in Week 5 against the Eagles, Claypool stepped in and was the unsung hero. Against Cleveland, both Claypool and Washington had a touchdown.

Cam Sutton played a tremendous game in the absence of Hilton against Tennessee. With a near interception and two pass deflections, it was undeniable that Sutton had a strong game. Working as both a slot corner and in his usual dimebacker role, Sutton’s football smarts were on display the entire game. He worked as a deep third safety, yet again as well.

Justin Layne came into the game in those dime package sets as well. With Steven Nelson kicking inside, it was Layne who was tasked with guarding the boundary. In fact, in his limited snaps, Layne held his own. On the final drive by the Titans, Layne was mostly tasked with covering A.J. Brown, and he shut him down. While not targeted, if Layne had been targeted, he would have been in an excellent position to make a play. It was simply clear that Layne’s length was disruptive and an issue.

As for Watt’s injury, the Steelers have used both Trey Edmunds, Jaylen Samuels, and even Henry Mondeaux to replace his production on offense. As lead blockers, both Edmunds and Mondeaux have cleared lanes for goal-line touchdowns. Samuels took over Watt’s wingback role and secured himself a jet sweep on Sunday. It is a position that has been filled by committee, but an effective one at that.

All of that is to say, the season has thrown rolling punches the Steelers way, but they have stayed resilient. All these young guys stepping into bigger roles have played at a high-level. That shows this team buys into the next man up mentality that Tomlin instills in the locker room. This is further proof of Tomlin’s leadership skills to sell this mentality to the locker and get them all to buy-in.

In addition, it is a credit to all the position coaches. They are coaching these guys up during the week to get them ready for the big stage, and so far all of them have come through in a big way. The biggest example of this is when David DeCastro was injured not once, but twice, and Kevin Dotson came into the game with no problems. The Steelers did not miss a beat with Dotson at the helm. Zach Banner tore his ACL and Chuks Okorafor has been fantastic in his absence. Offensive Line Coach Shaun Sarrett deserves a lot of praise to get these guys up to speed. The players are buying into the mentality.

All across the roster from the defense to the offense and even special teams, the Steelers’ backups have filled in well every time they have been asked to do so. That is rare for any NFL team to have in a given season. However, thanks to great leadership from Tomlin, high-level position coaching, and buy-in mentality from the players, the Steelers have overcome injuries with the next man up mentality.

Without the mentality, it is hard to see the Steelers being 6-0 right now. It is the gift that keeps on giving and going forward, it is hard to see it not paying dividends for a talented, but still somewhat young team down the stretch.

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Steelers

Highlights from Steelers Practice 10/29/20

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Two of the Steelers deepest units turned up the heat during practice on Thursday, October 29, 2020.

The Steelers receivers and members of the secondary go head-to-head to prepare for matchups with their counterparts on the Ravens.

Footage courtesy Pittsburgh Steelers

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