The Pittsburgh Steelers have a few noted philosophies when it comes to the NFL draft. They do not draft cornerbacks early and the first round players they do take are high upside athletes, who may be raw, but have the confidence that they can develop into better players than their draft slot. Since 2006 the Steelers have drafted 11 cornerbacks with one going in the first round and one more in round two. Since Jarvis Jones, the team has drafted pure athletes from Ryan Shazier, Bud Dupree, Artie Burns, T.J. Watt, and Terrell Edmunds, each one as impressive as the next.
However, due to recent history and Mike Tomlins comments about Artie Burns this offseason, it may be time to buck some of these trends to find a pure cornerback more than a pure athlete, and to draft him high, despite his limited athleticism. Rather than drafting the upside of Burns only to find out he is not going to develop, the Steelers should take a chance on a developed cornerback ready to see the NFL field despite non-elite measurables. If they want to do that in round one, they should look no further than Byron Murphy.
Murphy and Burns are not going to get much different at cornerback. Burns possesses elite size, length and speed to hang with bigger receivers on the outside. Of course, his tape was extremely raw, mostly filled with the physical attributes. Byron Murphy is a bit on the short side, does not have great length and does not even possess great deep speed.
This not the profile of a first round pick by the Steelers, especially at cornerback. However, it is worth noting that cornerbacks with similar measurables can find success in the NFL. Mike Hughes was a round one pick just last year with similar height, length, and athleticism, and Casey Heyward is one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL with similar length.
Mark Kaboly of The Athletic noted that Kevin Colbert is aware of their struggles at cornerback, and with the miss on Artie Burns, have opened their thinking to a new style of drafting.
“We have to try maybe to find that balance and maybe be more open to the concept that the game is constantly changing and if you want playmakers in the back end, then find someone who has done it,” Colbert said.
If the Steelers are going to be more open to finding playmakers at cornerback regardless of how athletic and when they find them, the obvious answer for them is to draft Byron Murphy. While Artie Burns had six interceptions in college, it came because he was peppered with targets due to his struggles. NFL.com notes that Murphy has the best ball production per target and the analytics match up the claim. He was not targeted often because when he was, bad things followed.
With Byron Murphy, the Steelers would be adding a very ball-aware player. In 20 college games, Murphy has six interceptions, seven tackles for loss and 20 pass breakups. Note the play below. What is so impressive is his physical nature despite being undersized.
He fights with the receiver at the top of the route, makes the route his, and then dominates the dog fight for the football. While he is undersized, the dog in his play brings out a bigger cornerback.
The top tweet is impressive as it shows his ability to recognize the route, plant his feet and change directions, and crash down on the pass right as it is caught. However, the bottom tweet is the perfect display of ball skills and awareness. Looks like his arm length was not an issue here, as his instincts put him in the right spot to knock the ball away near the end zone.
Byron Murphy vs Auburn pic.twitter.com/GCxTWLVEKi
— rph (@parkerhurleyNFL) March 3, 2019
Understanding and physicality
The understanding and physicality were on full display in the two plays highlighted and can be exemplified in the two plays below. In the bottom tweet, Murphy recognizes a screen pre-snap and ends the play before it ever starts. This type of play wrecking awareness was scattered throughout his 2018 season.
The top tweet will make every Steelers fan hope for their team to bring in Murphy. Watch how he is able to recognize the route in zone coverage, make a break on the football and lay a hit that separates the ball from the receiver in front of the first down sticks.
Byron Murphy screen pic.twitter.com/orLgtWjO7j
— rph (@parkerhurleyNFL) March 3, 2019
Murphy is best in zone coverage when working with his eyes on the quarterback. It helps relieve his deep speed and length questions as he keeps things in front of him and does not press much at the line of scrimmage. When you are a smart and talented player such as Murphy, sometimes you do not have to be versatile if you dominate as a zone cornerback. Below, he reads the play, leaves his man and forces the pass to go too far out of bounds before making a play. You do not want to throw to his side of the field.
While many Steelers fans will see a zone cornerback and think he is a perfect fit, it would be a surprise to many to learn they ran more man than most NFL teams last season. Is this going to fit for Murphy?
His ball awareness and instincts can make it happen. Below we see him lined up in man and following a receiver over the middle of the field. He breaks on the ball and knocks it away on a play that wound up winning Washington the Pac-12.
Of course, man is where Murphy will see the issues with his size and speed come. Murphy did allow a few receptions deep down the field and did get beat off of the line a few times when asked to press. Still, while he did not do it much, he can slide inside to take on snaps in the slot in man coverage.
In the play below he follows his man over the middle. He takes away the inside and uses his physicality near the line of scrimmage to make a play on the ball.
While Mike Hilton is the starter in the slot, it is worth noting that Hilton is a free agent next year and will not move away from the slot. Mike Tomlin noted versatility and being able to move in and out of the slot as a key reason to signing Steven Nelson. With different types of receivers moving in and out of the slot now, the Steelers are looking for cornerbacks who can move in and out of the slot, and Murphy has that ability.
The Pittsburgh Steelers have been unable to get cornerback right. However, they have admitted to their mistakes and have made changes in their philosophy before. Now, it is time for them to show that they are true to their words. The team flew Murphy to Pittsburg for a meeting, so they clearly have interest despite him not checking all of their old boxes.
Drafting Byron Murphy would not be a typical Steelers move based on recent draft history. However, that may be exactly why he is the cornerback they need to take in round one.
Analysis: Steelers Must Develop Their Own Brand of Vertical Offense
The Steelers offensive identity has been built on efficiency. With Ben Roethlisberger coming off of elbow surgery, they wanted the veteran quarterback to reinvent himself. The good news is that Roethlisberger has done that and then some. Roethlisberger gets the ball out faster than any other quarterback in the NFL. With an emphasis on the quick passing game, the Steelers have been throwing it to their bevy of playmakers to a large degree of success for most of the season.
However, over the past two games, the offense has suddenly gone stagnant. Scoring just 17 points on Monday against the Washington Football Team, the Steelers offense is trending in the wrong direction at the worst time. Without a running game in sight, the passing game has been the Steelers’ crutch. Still, it is something that has become predictable. Washington edge defender Chase Young said that “Baltimore exposed some things” and that the defense could pick up on the Steelers tendencies as a whole.
It is that predictability that is the root cause of the issues the Steelers are having offensively. To the running game and short passing game, everything comes back to their inability to be unpredictable and fool the defense. Perhaps the most important of these predictable tendencies is the Steelers’ affinity to run short horizontal routes only. Bubble screens, drags, quick slants and ins, and smoke routes are essentially the Steelers’ route tree at this point. Every now and then there is a five yard curl over the middle of the field.
That is something that Randy Fichtner hangs his hat on. Ever since becoming the offensive coordinator, he has made it point for the Steelers to get their receivers in open space, create havoc, and let the playmakers do the work. In the modern NFL, it has a lot of great things to it. The fruits of it were shown in games against Tennessee, Cleveland, and Philadelphia earlier this season. The issue has become that Fichtner goes horizontal too much in games. Out of any bunch set, there is at most five route combinations the Steelers are running. Knowing they will try quick passes, teams are just dropping eight defenders into coverage and clamping down on it.
So, what is the natural adjustment to that? Well, it is to take the fight to them and attack them vertically. Now, the type of vertical attack they have is somewhat limited. It is essentially relegated to heavy and pray bombs. The Steelers also refuse to attack the middle of the field. They have only 11 passing attempts for 15 or more yards in the middle of the field this season.
Attacking the entirety of the field is one of the easy fixes for the Steelers. The middle of the field is ripe for the taking given what defenses are throwing at the Steelers. It is a lot of single-high coverage, so if they can isolate someone like Chase Claypool or JuJu Smith-Schuster on that single-high safety, it could be a big play. The Steelers have the weapons to really go after it in the middle of the field.
The caveat coming with a more oriented traditional vertical passing game would be the inaccuracy of Roethlisberger himself. There is a reason that the Steelers are hesitant to throw 40 yard bombs. It is because Roethlisberger’s accuracy is all over the place. Every now and then he finds paydirt, but it is a deep ball that far from what it was prior to his elbow surgery. The good news is that while Roethlisberger may struggle with those extremely deep passes, he can still put a lot of velocity on the ball and push it.
With an arm like Roethlisberger’s now, the Steelers should be trying a different vertical attack. They must go back to what they once did under Tood Haley, and even more so earlier this season. While they will have to toss the vertical heave every now and then, the Steelers can get away with working on the vertical plane. That means a lot of out, curl, comeback, dig, and seam routes. Those throws outside the numbers with guys like Claypool and Diontae Johnson could really be the adjustment this team needs.
Opening up the offense for JuJu Smith-Schuster to run up the seam a bit more and make some combat catches would be a welcome sight. Even running a skinny post or corner route with Eric Ebron seems ideal. Roethlisberger does not have the accuracy on those heave ball types anymore. He does have the accuracy in the 20-25 yard area to still push it to all areas of the field. It is that key distinction that the Steelers must take advantage of to work open this offense. The Steelers have the personnel to do it, the question is just will they do it.
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.”
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.