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Analysis

Steelers Depth Chart at Receiver Still Wide Open Behind Smith-Schuster

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The obvious question surrounding the Pittsburgh Steelers heading into the 2019 season was how the team’s offense will look without Antonio Brown. Regardless of his off-the-field antics, he had natural chemistry with Ben Roethlisberger and was arguably the best wide receiver in the NFL.

JuJu Smith-Schuster can certainly step up, but he will do it in different ways than Brown. Instead, the Steelers are going to look for a variety of pass catchers to step up to the plate and take a little bit of the workload. That was demonstrated immediately in the openers versus New England with the team starting Ryan Switzer and Donte Moncrief next to Smith-Schuster, while also using Johnny Holton on the first drive. James Washington and Diontae Johnson saw a little work in the first half as well before seeing more utilization in garbage time.

The Steelers are testing things out at wide receiver. Roethlisberger missed Holton deep, Moncrief recorded seven drops, Switzer had the stat line of a short-yardage running back, Washington questionably ran out of bounds on his best play, and Johnson had a penalty. It is safe to say there is still a jumble of receivers on the depth chart behind Smith-Schuster.

When asked about the development of the group, Mike Tomlin noted that the group is a work in progress.

“That’s a process that we’re going to go through particularly at the early stages of this season every week, not in reaction to what transpired in-stadium Sunday night, it’s just the nature of this thing as you harden up your division of labor and find your personalities at the early stages of this thing.”

Tomlin noted that he will not overreact to Week 1, but also that it is the nature of things that the room will develop. That is a fact in Pittsburgh when looking at their history at receiver. Since the new CBA in 2011, practice times have been limited, and starters have played less in the preseason. Teams will try to use the first four weeks to sort things out and try to get hot for a playoff run.

This can be shown in the Steelers receiving core going back to 2014. In 2014, the team started Week 1 shuffling Lance Moore and Justin Brown next to Markus Wheaton and Antonio Brown. By the end of the year, rookie Martavis Bryant had eight touchdowns and was an established splash player in the offense. A 2015 suspension to Bryant saw Darius Heyward-Bey start early in the year before Bryant put up over 750 yards. In 2016 Bryant was suspended. This was supposed to lead to Sammie Coates emerging, but by the AFC Championship Eli Rogers and Cobi Hamilton were the starters next to Brown.

In 2017, Rogers started over Smith-Schuster in Week 1 before Smith-Schuster put up 900 yards as a rookie. Smith-Schuster went over 50 yards just once in the first seven games of his rookie year. Finally, last season saw Justin Hunter as a starter through three weeks. In the Steelers loss to the New Orleans Saints, Brown, Smith-Schuster, Washington, Rogers, and Switzer all saw snaps over Hunter.

So, when Tomlin talks about this process being natural and that they will sort things out in the first few weeks of the season, you tend to trust him on that one.

For the Steelers, their development track is obvious. They drafted Washington in the second round and have talked him up this preseason. They mentioned having a first-round grade on Johnson. This is their future. These are the players that should progress as the year goes on such as Bryant, and Smith-Schuster.

They are still not sold on Washington’s ability to be a complete receiver, and he has not earned the trust of Roethlisberger. However, the offense needs his splash-play ability to keep the defense honest. When looking at the routes where Smith-Schuster was successful on Sunday, he was at his best working the middle of the field. The Steelers motioned him around and got him in good matchups to take advantage of space he has always dominated.

However, Ryan Switzer is a true slot receiver, who does not test defenses down the field and works the short middle. With Vance McDonald typically operating in that space as well things will get condensed. Washington does not have a refined route tree, and he can get jammed up at times. He also has had issues finding chemistry with Roethlisberger.

However, he opens things up in the offense. He takes the role that Bryant once had. Bryant technically was a starter for just three games as a rookie, and five in year two. However, his presence as a player who can flip the field was enough to keep defenses honest and see him emerge as a number two.

You can see that the types of routes Washington runs will open Smith-Schuster up to do what he does best more than Switzer.

Washington does not have to start or play full games. However, he does need to get on the field to test defenses and open up space in the middle of the field for Smith-Schuster.

On the other side, the Patriots dared Moncrief to beat them, and teams will follow suit. Roethlisberger said he is committed to Moncrief. Tomlin said one game will not change things. However, this team has moved on from Moore, and Hunter, other veterans who did not quite live up to the hype.

Moncrief has a leash longer than one game, but his leash could still be short. Especially if Johnson can step up. Last week, Johnson was the last receiver in the rotation, behind Holton, and Washington, but may have brought the most optimism.

In his first career reception, he made a one-handed grab lined up on the outside. You can see that on the other side a deep route is being run while Smith-Schuster motioned into the slot to take over the middle of the field. This is how the offense will need to flow.

Diontae Johnson 1 GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

Later in the game, Johnson showed great quickness to create separation on the outside in the short area. His ability to create in the quick passing game could help get him on the field.

Diontae Johnson GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

Johnson would typically play the “X” role that Brown occupied and Moncrief currently plays. However, if Johnson can emerge, then Moncrief and Washington can both be used to clear space which opens the middle of the field back up for Smith-Schuster.

Johnson missed a lot of preseason time with injuries but has impressed at every stop so far. The Steelers will certainly continue to ease him in, but If they really did have such a high grade on him they have to be happy with his presence and more willing to bump him into an every-down role than Washington.

Still, the Steelers need the splash element from Washington who will need to be mixed in more. The Steelers have typically eased their young wide receivers into the mix early into the season. While the changes may not come immediately, both young receivers could continue to slowly progress into bigger roles as the season goes on.

Over the next couple of weeks, look for all six receivers to mix and match as the team looks for who can be in their core rotation for the main stretch of the schedule.

Steelers Now analyst. IUP Alum. Pittsburgh native. Steelers and Pirates critic, Penguins homer. Covers NFL. Follows NFL, NCAAB, NBA, MLB, and NHL. Writes about the Chicago Bears, Pittsburgh Steelers, and other relevant NFL news.

Analysis

Film Study: Kevin Dotson Has Starting Upside

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The Steelers were going to address the offensive line at some point in the 2020 NFL Draft. Whether that be in the early portion of the draft or the mid-rounds, they were going to do it at some point. Thus, they did in the fourth round as they selected combine snub and lifelong Steelers fan Kevin Dotson.

As one of the best offensive lineman in the Sun Belt, lots of draftniks were hot on Dotson’s trail and were fans of him. It was a pick that makes a lot of sense with the Steelers’ offensive lineman types, especially on the interior at guard. Dotson is a mauler. He is nasty and brutal to his opponents. There is no denying what he does upfront on the offense. The question is how well does he do it? Can he start?

IMPRESSIVE TAPE

What stands out about Dotson’s tape immediately is that this is a guy who is strong and moves people of their spot with his strength. His upper body strength in particular is great.

A play that showcases that strength is this play against Appalachian State. The net gain of this play is not in Dotson’s favor, but his individual effort on this play is really strong. He moves the end right off his spot with well-placed hands and a ton of power in his upper body. As he engages the end, he comes in low and wins the leverage battle, which gives him the hand placement and the ability to drive through the defender’s chest. That is how he got this movement and opened up the edge.

It all comes from the aggressive mentality that was instilled with Dotson. This is a twist and Dotson was having absolutely none of it. Dotson’s hands are heavy and with those strong punches, it allows him to stun pass rushers on twists and even head up. Plays like this are just one representation of that mentality that he carries around. With smooth footwork to mirror the twist, Dotson allows the quick pass to be executed and shows a little nastiness in the process.

One of the main concerns for Dotson coming out was his athleticism and this his ability to climb to the second level. Listen, he might not be the most flexible guy or even the greatest athlete out there, but this is a pretty smooth rep from Dotson. His feet are quick and efficient with no false steps and he does a great job of framing his blocks and engaging with second-level defenders. That means he can work in a zone running scheme just as well as he can in a gap running scheme. With the Steelers moving to a more hybrid running scheme approach, that versatility is really nice to have. A caveat with Dotson is that there are some grip strength issues. He can get his hands inside and then lose his assignment a little too early, but all in all this is a nice rep.

As a guy who needs to execute a pull or a wham block, expect Dotson to be up to the task. This is a great rep. From the release off the line with that smooth footwork to how he engages this block and makes a really strong block on a good linebacker in Dylan Moses, Dotson shows out on this play. He engages this block with a low pad level and puts his hands right inside the chest plate of Moses. That seals off the middle and allows this run to break free for a good gain. This is an NFL level rep here.

The other key in pass protection for Dotoson is if he is asked to take a guy on one-on-one without help, can he be trusted? The answer is absolutely. It comes back to his strong hands, leverage, and smooth footwork to mirror pass rushers who try to break free. With a strong anchor and good balance as well, Dotson can handle strong bull rushers that come his way and stay on his feet and divert them. On this rep above he does a great job of getting his hands inside and as the pass rusher tries to knock his hands off, he resets them and keeps the defensive tackle locked up. Really good rep to defend against potential counters as well.

DOTSON’S OUTLOOK

There really is not a lot of opportunities this year for Dotson unless he just wows that coaching staff. The shortened offseason program in addition to the addition of Stefen Wisniewski, who is no slouch in his own right, is going to make Dotson a guy who will have a hard time starting this year.

Instead, he is going to get a year to be a strong depth guy at guard. His brother is teaching him center as well, so that can add to his versatility and value on the offensive line. However, after 2020, all bets are off on this guy. Dotson has all the tools to be an NFL starter and it would not shock me if he is the starter at left guard in 2021 when everything is all said and done. He has that potential.

 

 

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Analysis

Film Study: Anthony McFarland is Big-Play Threat Steelers Needed

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It was expected that the Steelers would leave the 2020 NFL Draft with a running back to bolster their backfield, so it was no surprise when they selected Anthony McFarland in the 4th round of the draft. They did so after passing on JK Dobbins and Cam Akers with the 49th pick. While they certainly did not necessarily need a running back, there were depth questions, especially with James Conner missing far too many games over the past two seasons.

So, with McFarland now on the team what will the team be getting out of the former Maryland rusher?

The Steelers will be getting an electric runner who busts angles and adds something that the Steelers did not have in the backfield prior to the draft — a home-run hitter that can take any carry to the house whenever he gets the ball in his hands.

McFarland’s Film

The immediate reaction to the pick is that this is not a normal Steelers pick. Rarely do they actually go out and get pure speed backs. Usually, they get bigger, slower backs like Benny Snell, James Conner, and others in the past that have followed that mold. In the past when they did touch speed backs, it was smaller, leaner guys like Dri Archer and Chris Rainey. However, McFarland is a complete outlier. He is not like those other speed backs, in fact, he runs pretty tough when it comes down to it.

This is a guy that is going to grind out yards. At 5-foot-8 and 208 pounds, McFarland is a stocky build that is just about perfect for a running back his size. Here he is against Temple absolutely grinding out yards due to his stocky build and leg strength. That compact lower body allows him to fight for extra yards and often times, fall forward to get as many yards as possible. It also allows him to add top-notch contact balance to his arsenal. One of the key reasons why McFarland has that home run hitting ability is because he slips tackles with ease.

Really, this is a dude that does not mess around in the open field. He can use his agility to get past people (more on that later), but can absolutely run right through defenders as well. Here against Michigan, McFarland delivers a straight-up stiff-arm to the Michigan defender to shed the attempted tackle. It is another move in his arsenal of open-field moves, and it is an effective one at that.

This right here is a great read on the fly by McFarland. Maryland runs power here and ideally, the end and alley are sealed off so McFarland can sprint right through and use his speed to take this one all the way. However, the overhang safety makes a nice run fit and forces McFarland back inside. What makes this a good display of Vision by McFarland is that he reads the leverage the linebacker has to the outside of his lineman and once he sees the outside leverage of the linebacker, he makes a smooth cut back inside. He then accelerates and gets extra yardage. That is him creating yards with his eyes and reading the flow of the second-level.

That lateral agility is a legitimate part of McFarland’s game. This is counter and all the reads are entirely on the front side of the play, but with a blitz to backside, McFarland feels it and slides away from the would-be tackler. This is all about vision and footwork. With the footwork McFarland possesses, he is able to almost glide on the football field and make smooth, sharp cuts to create yards. In addition, his stop-start burst allows him to hit holes quickly and fast to maximize yards, just as he does here.

This would not be an article about Anthony McFarland if there was not a long touchdown run in this article. It also would not be a proper analysis article without mentioning his 2018 game where he terrorized Ohio State on the ground. This is one of those big plays he struck against a talented Buckeyes defenses. On this play, there are a few things that McFarland shows off. The first, and most obvious, is the long speed. This guy legitimately has 4.4 speed. It is one of the main reasons the Steelers drafted him anyways. In addition, he shows off that contact balance again by shedding a wimpy tackler. His feet never stop moving as he engages that tackler. Even more impressive is how quickly he hits top speed after breaking that tackle. However, another key point to this play is that this is a completely different type of running scheme. This is an outside zone play. It shows that McFarland is not a one-scheme back, but a versatile back in that mindset.

McFarland’s Outlook

In reality, McFarland may not get a ton of touches in his first-year. The shortened offseason in addition to the Steelers’ mentality of having a lead back type is one of the reasons he may only touch the ball around 75 times. Still, as a complement to the powerful James Conner, McFarland fits that role perfectly. The only other guy with anything remotely close to McFarland’s skillset is Kerrith Whyte, but even he did not get enough touches last year to prove he will stick on the roster.

McFarland, thus, becomes the primary speed back and big-play element out of the backfield that the Steelers have not had since Willie Parker. It really has been that long. McFarland’s tape is good and he should be able to live up to the hype. His big question marks are the receiving game and pass protection, however, and in order to get a bigger role in the offense he will have to prove himself competent in those areas.

*You can also learn about McFarland by watching Mike Asti’s talk with Adam Zielonka of the Washington Times.*

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2020 NFL Draft

Film Study: Alex Highsmith Brings Juice to Steelers Pass Rush

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The Steelers surprised more than a few people by taking an outside linebacker in the third round of the 2020 NFL Draft. Coming into the draft, it was a position that could be addressed due to the looming contract of Bud Dupree, who is on a one-year rental contract on the franchise tag. Seeing as the Steelers have a plethora of contracts to take care of in the next year, Dupree may be on his way out. Even then, with Anthony Chickillo gone, the Steelers needed to address the depth and get a rotational pass rusher.

All of that is taken care of now as they selected Charlotte’s Alex Highsmith, who was an uber-productive pass rusher who was a standout all week at the East-West Shrine Game in Tampa. Given what he has put on tape, his selection is not a surprise and the Steelers hit a home run with the pick of Highsmith, who put up quality tape not just against teams in the Conference USA, but also against a top team such as Clemson.

Highsmith’s Tape

The one developing area of Highsmith’s game is his counters and pass rush moves. There are a few moves that he employs to win and starting last season, a spin move was one of the ways he won inside as offensive tackles overset for his speed rush. Highsmith has a few defining traits to his game, but there is no doubt that his explosive first step is a key one. He gets off the line and up the arc in a hurry because of his explosive first step. The good thing is that he is not simply a speed rusher. While that is how he wins most of the time, he can pull off nifty moves like this. Clemson tackle Jackson Carman oversets expecting the speed rush from Highsmith, but instead, he takes his pass rush angle up the arc and bends it back inside on that spin move.

One thing that was telling on the Clemson tape was just how much they prepared for Highsmith. Carman is a good tackle and a potential first-round pick in 2021, but Highsmith gave him fits all day long. They chipped Highsmith with tight ends and kept running backs in just in an effort to try and stop him. This play above shows off his first step. He has rocket shoes on his feet on this play as he beats Carman to his spot. If not for a quick three-step drop and throw from Trevor Lawrence, this may have been a sack for Highsmith off his explosiveness alone.

Run defense is a part of Highsmith’s game that is inconsistent, but as his hand usage has improved, so has his run defense. This play is one where he shows he can take advantage of a tackle’s mistakes. Carman is flat-footed and lunges towards Highsmith rather than driving through his chest, allowing Highsmith to be nifty and zoom right on by here. That is part of the reason his explosiveness causes so many problems. However, he does a nice job of executing a chop-rip to slice down the line to make a tackle. Based on the film, the chop-rip combination is Highsmith’s go-to move.

Here is the chop-rip again, this time for a sack. Highsmith does a great job of nailing his hand right inside the tackle’s pad, which is almost always certain death for a tackle. The ability to rip around the edge and make this arc tight is something that Highsmith is really good at doing. Still, this is more about his burst and hand usage combination that allows him to win.

This is exactly how Highsmith recorded most of his sacks, however. When the Steelers drafted him, they likely bet not just on his improvement as a strategist with his counters and moves, but his combination of burst and bend to destroy set angles and win around the edge with his speed rush. He does that extremely well here as he sets his pass rush angle up as if he was going to come here with some power move such as bull rush. However, his lateral agility allows him to cut back outside and use his explosiveness to get the angle. After that, it is all flexibility in his ankles. The ankle flexion he gets is really great on that lead leg. It bends and leads under his shoulders and hip to allow him to dip and reduce his surface area on his way to getting this sack.

Highsmith’s Overview

The Steelers’ selection of Highsmith may have been their best pick in the 2020 NFL Draft. His combination of burst and bend makes him a perfect fit for the 3-4 outside linebacker scheme. With the Steelers rushing their outside linebackers more than ever, Highsmith is a great fit to provide more pass rush upside in the rotation than anyone since Jason Worilds. With his improvement in his pass rush plan and hand usage, HIghsmith could be a starter in 2021 if Dupree walks after the 2020 season.

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