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Analysis

Steelers Can Buck Trend at Cornerback with Byron Murphy

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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.

Ball awareness

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.

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.

Zone coverage

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.

Man

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.

Slot

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

With Conner, Snell Each over 100 Yards, Running Game Crucial to Steelers 2-0 Start

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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.”

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Analysis

Film Study: Conservative Game Plan Holds Steelers Back

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The Steelers squeaked out a victory from the jaws of defeat on Sunday by defeating the Denver Broncos 26-21. It was a hard-fought battle as the Steelers allowed the Broncos to creep back into the game in the second half. Turnovers and penalties were two big reasons as to why the Steelers kept them in the game. However, the conservative offensive play calling was as well. Offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner has received due criticism before. Today, that criticism was once again well deserved.

Fichtner’s Questionable Calls Shackles Ben Roethlisberger

The biggest problem with Fichtner was his conservative play-calling once the Steelers got into unfavorable second down positions. On 2nd and long, the Steelers should be using the playmaking ability and arm of Ben Roethlisberger and the skillsets of their weapons to help get into manageable third-down situations.

 

On a 2nd and 18, these draw plays should not be in contention. One was in the very first quarter when the Steelers should be gunning for a quick start, not a first possession punt. It was after a fumble, but all Fichtner should be doing is trying to get the offense back on track. A run on second and long does not accomplish that. Then, with a two-score lead, this is a classic example of a team taking the foot off the gas pedal. Living in fear of turnover at this point is not a valid point to the contrary, especially when the passing game had been working especially well in the first half against a battered Broncos secondary. More potently, this is playing right into the Broncos strengths. Their front line, even without Von Miller, is strong and capable. It made no sense to go with a draw here on 2nd and long. Even attacking the Broncos underneath here would have worked to some degree. Anything is better than a run at this point.

On the ensuing play, the point is driven home. The Broncos have sold out for the deep pass at the sticks and all that is left is a dig at the line of scrimmage. As a result, the Steelers end up punting here. There was no guarantee that the Steelers would have scored points even if they did take the air. However, shackling Roethlisberger when he has shown the capability to beat the Broncos secondary with ease is a questionable call. If the Steelers do convert and end up scoring a touchdown or even a field goal, the entire outlook on the game is changed. Analytics have shown aggressiveness is how teams have the best probability to win games. In situations like this, that should be followed.

The Steelers’ screen game was perhaps the worst part of the game today. There was nothing going for them all day and yet Fichtner continued to call them. The screen game is nothing more than an extension of the running game. It, yet again, is something that puts Roethlisberger’s best strengths in a bind and handicaps drives. There were promising drives that showcased the quick passing game as a way to slice through the Broncos defense with ease. Even more so, Chase Claypool’s big play made it known that it was possible to push the ball down the field.

This screen play may highlight the worst of the day for the Steelers. The pre-snap look they get is just not favorable for this play. They are outmanned three to two in a blocking situation. More importantly, the Broncos are playing with even spacing and have a great angle to the boundary to make this play on JuJu Smith-Schuster. They are expecting a quick pass here and the safety at the top of the formation is ready to drive down if he sees any quick passing game concepts. That is exactly what happens and the Steelers are stopped short on a critical 3rd and 2. It is questionable why they did not check out of this anyways, but given the struggles of the screen game all day, Fichtner’s call of a screen in a pivotal point is puzzling.

Fichtner has to learn to let Roethlisberger cook and use his arm talent. The quick passing game is more than fine. Honestly, screens are not all bad, but they should not be calling as many as they did today when they were not working. If they are to be called, there has to be more pre-snap action to mess with the defense’s eyes. It was that conservative play-calling that lulled the Steelers offense and in part gave the Broncos a window to creep back into the game as a whole.

 

 

 

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Analysis

Steelers Rookie Kevin Dotson is Ready to Step Up in a Big Way

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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.

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