The Pittsburgh Steelers are officially halfway through the preseason. The team will get their starters some work in Week 3 against the Tennessee Titans on Sunday, but will rest everyone in Week 4 to evaluate the end of the roster.
This is the time for players in roster battles set themselves apart.
The first two games helped dwindle the field but the next two games will decide who is going to win spots. What are the key roster battles to watch over the next two weeks?
We thought we would be watching Mason Rudolph and Josh Dobbs duel it out. Now, heading into Week 3 we are looking at Dobbs vs. Devlin Hodges. Rudolph looked poised in his second career preseason start and has always had the inside track to the back up job.
Dobbs surprised many by beating out Rudolph and Landry Jones last season but has come back down to earth the following year. The surprising play of Hodges has pushed Dobbs to the point where he should not feel comfortable over the next two weeks. An unexpected quarterback duel could be brewing.
Mike Tomlin has not handed Matt Feiler anything yet but the thought is that Feiler has won the starting right tackle spot. With that in mind, the next two games will be about finding their swing tackle. The idea was third-round pick Chukwuma Okorafor would step into that role, but he has struggled to start preseason year two. Zach Banner has presented competition and the two will get plenty of snaps over the next two weeks.
On top of that, watch for Fred Johnson, who has played right and left guard, and Jerald Hawkins who has played both sides at tackle. The two will be competing for the ninth offensive line spot, as well as practice squad positioning.
The Steelers tight end depth is clearly the weakness of their roster. There is Vance McDonald and the rest brings questions. Whether it be Justin Gilbert, and J.J. Wilcox or McDonald and Joe Haden, the Steelers have been active in making a move before final cutdowns to ensure depth at a position of weakness. This year, it would be no surprise if tight end is that spot.
Kevin Rader is nowhere close to pushing rookie fifth-round pick Zach Gentry, except for Gentry’s lack of availability. He did not play in Week 2 of the preseason with an undisclosed injury. Gentry has little competition as the third tight end despite showing little to earn it. On top of that, Xavier Grimble has barely proven he can be a backup. The two may not know who they are competing with, but they are competing these next two weeks.
The last couple of roster spots are pure depth, and should not see the field on offense or defense if things go right. With that in mind, there are a few players who can make the roster due to being core special teams assets.
Trey Edmunds could join his brother on the roster as a special teams contributor who plays all four phases. The surprising special teams contributions of Benny Snell could hinder his chances, but he will be under the spotlight these next few weeks.
Johnny Holton returned kicks last week and made the Raiders as a core special teamer. The question for him is whether the Steelers will keep seven wide receivers, but if they view him as a special teams asset that should be all they need to know.
Tuzar Skipper has impressed with upside as a pass rusher in his limited preseason chances. However, a path to the roster will be showing he can work on special teams over the next two weeks. Sutton Smith has dealt with injury and has not played an NFL game yet but special teams was always his path to the roster. With Ola Adenyi injured and limited depth, these two have an inside track to the 53-man roster but have two weeks to win a roster spot on kick off and punts.
Ulysees Gilbert shined in Week 1 against end of the roster talent and saw a bigger workload the following week against backups. Gilbert once again held his own, which should warrant more snaps this weekend. Look for Gilbert to potentially cement a roster spot with a strong showing.
Lastly, Brian and Marcus Allen can make the roster as extra defensive backs due to special teams capability. Marcus Allen was hyped up this offseason, but has not lived unto expectations, while Brian Allen was drafted as a project and has had a strong camp. Marcus may have the upper hand, but the next two weeks are make and break for both.
Film Study: Conservative Game Plan Holds Steelers Back
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.
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.
Film Study: James Pierre’s Size, Strength Provide Upside at Cornerback
Coming into training camp, some undrafted free agents were on the radar to possibly make the Steelers at defensive back, where the team did not directly replaced departed veterans Artie Burns and Sean Davis.
A popular choice to make the team was undrafted slot corner Trajan Bandy, who ended up on the Steelers practice squad. The cornerback that came out of nowhere to make the roster was Florida Atlantic alum James Pierre. A near afterthought even after the Steelers signed him, Pierre showed up on the pool report every day against guys like James Washington and Chase Claypool. Pierre made plays on them, too. It was a healthy competition.
So, now that Pierre is on the roster, what are the Steelers really getting in this guy? Most importantly, what does his future outlook look like since he is likely buried on the bench?
Pierre mentioned in his press conference that he had one speed and that one speed was full speed. Pierre is 6-foot-2 and has great length. So, the physical fit is already rather striking right off the bat. Similar to Justin Layne, Pierre has the tools, and even though he bombed the combine, on tape, Pierre is a decent athlete. He is not a ‘wow’ player in terms of his athleticism, but it is sufficient, especially with how he plays the game.
The first thing that jumped out on his tape was his feistiness and willingness to do things that a lot of cornerbacks do not do: run support, tackling, and special teams. Pierre reaffirmed that, mentioning he wanted to help the Steelers anywhere they could, and it passes the eye test. Here on a cornerback blitz against Ohio State, Pierre is quite literally setting the edge on a read-option. That is a rare responsibility for a boundary corner, even one to the short side of the field. However, he does a fantastic job here to bring down Justin Fields with relative ease as well. Pierre can really tackle and is a physical player at the point of contact. It makes sense that the Steelers were drawn to Pierre for this reason. They expect their cornerbacks to be scrappy and help out in run defense and Pierre fits the bill.
This is where his size and strength come into play. UCF plays with weird wide receiver splits and this X-receiver has almost no room to work with on the sideline. Even still, Pierre does a fantastic job of using his hands to direct this route and control it. Even as the receiver swipes overhead, watch out how that speed turn is by Pierre. If that is thrown out of that break, Pierre has a chance to intercept that pass as he is in the hip pocket. He does almost surrender a catch on the scramble drill, but the initial stab and punch to the outside shoulder to divert any momentum from the receiver is what Pierre’s game is all about.
There are some issues with Pierre’s game. This is honestly not a bad rep by Pierre under all circumstances. It’s fine, he gets his hand knocked down while he has inside leverage and gets behind by a slight step. However, Pierre recovers quite well with a by marking his hand on that inside shoulder and staying in phase. He is in a position to make a play on this ball, but it is all a timing issue. Pierre actually jumps too early, misses a play on the ball, and as such this is caught. It would be nice to see Pierre get his head around even though he is in recovery mode. That comes down to composure and ball skills, which are two things Pierre needs to improve on. He dropped a few interceptions at training camp as well.
However, this is what it comes back to right here. The feistiness, the grit, and the passion Pierre plays with. It is going to land in the good graces of Mike Tomlin and the Steelers staff as long as he can do things like this on special teams and in practice. Pierre blows up a tight end here to make the tackle. Not many cornerbacks play with that strength or physicality but he does.
Pierre’s Outlook With the Steelers
It is a bit hard to frame what Pierre is going to be in his career. It all really comes back how he evolves in zone coverages and his composure in tough situations. There is a bit of a panic mechanic that Pierre induces when he gets beat off the line, even if he often recovers to be in a position to make the play. If he listens, learns, and works relentlessly to improve with these veterans in the room, however, Pierre has a chance to be a real gem of a find for the Steelers.
For right now, expect him to be a feisty special teamer that defines what it means to be a Steelers cornerback going back to the Steel Curtain days. The inconsistencies on the boundary will hopefully begin to work themselves out as he gets more and more coaching time with Teryl Austin and Tom Bradley.