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Analysis

Steelers Preseason Week 2 Winners and Losers

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While Week 3 of the preseason is the time where coaches get the longest look at their starters, Week 2 is a chance for the lower-on-the-roster players to push to get time in that key preseason game. Some of the winners of Week 1 saw more time and bigger roles, while the losers were looking to rebound.

Who set themselves apart this week’s as winners and losers in the Steelers’ 17-7 win over Kansas City?

WINNERS

BUD DUPREE

I know, it is the preseason. I know, some of it was against backups. Still, Bud Dupree is playing for a contract in 2019 and he sure looks motivated to make the most of a huge financial opportunity. To start, it is nice to know that Dupree does not have an injury, as the last three offseasons brought a lingering issue of some sort.

Dupree played into the second quarter against the Chiefs and picked up two sacks. The competition was not elite, but his ability to turn the corner around the edge has always been an issue and was on display in multiple pass-rush attempts. It is early but things are trending up for Dupree during a time where they have not been in the past.

ARTIE BURNS

Burns got a chance to start in place of an injured Joe Haden after missing Week 1 and got some much-needed work. Burns performed well with a tackle on Tyreek Hill early in the game followed by being in on a play along with Terrell Edmunds that resulted in a fumble. Burns deflected a pass later in the game. Overall, he showed confidence that he seemingly lost a year before.

Steven Nelson and Haden are still clearly ahead of him. However, he has cemented his status on the roster and gives the team cornerback depth for what feels like the first time ever.

ULYSSES GILBERT

Pre-game, we wanted to see Gilbert with a bigger workload. Gilbert performed well in the first game but did so late in the game. With Devin Bush and Vince Williams on the sideline, Gilbert was able to get on the field next to Tyler Matakevich late in the first half. The duo held up well together, and the increased workload against better competition did not seem to be a factor.

Gilbert played into the second half, blitzing, covering and defending the run to finish with four tackles. He also contributed on special teams. With versatility and lack of depth at outside linebacker, Gilbert may be on the inside of the 53-man roster.

TUZAR SKIPPER

The noted outside linebacker depth has given Skipper a chance to make the roster. Skipper delivered a sack in Week 1, and followed it up with a strong performance in Week 2. Skipper recovered a fumble, added a sack, a tackle and drew a few pressures. His pass-rush plan and dip around the edge is notable, and he provided on special teams as well.

Ola Adenyi just had surgery and Sutton Smith has yet to see an NFL field. All of the sudden Skipper is in the driver’s seat to be the fourth outside linebacker behind Anthony Chickillo.

CAM SUTTON, MIKE HILTON, KAM KELLY

All three have to be put together for their versatility. In the second half, Hilton moved from the slot to free safety. Kelly moved from safety to the slot and Sutton moved in and out of the slot, playing outside as well. This is crucial as the NFL becomes a more spread out league. Running backs and tight ends can catch and wide receivers can run and block. Teams motion to force teams to reveal their coverage. Having players who can move around and disguise coverages post-motion is vital to defenses in today’s NFL.

The team swapped personnel almost every play in the second half to test the defensive communication and versatility of the group and things went well. Due to versatility and communication, Hilton has a bigger role than before. Sutton is going to play plenty of dime snaps, and the team is set to run more dime than ever before, and the versatility of Kelly has locked him onto the 53-man roster. The coaches have to be pleased with their second-half experimenting.

LOSERS

JOSH DOBBS

The baton looks like it has been passed. Mike Tomlin downplayed it post-game, but Mason Rudolph may have won the starting backup job Saturday night. Rudolph started Week 2, and while he showed he has learning to do, he also was poised in leading a touchdown drive in the second quarter.

Dobbs followed that drive up with an interception in the red zone. When the two were drafted, the general opinion was that Rudolph had more upside and could be the better prospect. Dobbs surprised many when he won a camp battle last year fair and square.  However, now it seems apparent that Rudolph should move forward as the backup.

TE DEPTH

We all know Vance McDonald, but behind him, there is not much depth, especially now that Jesse James is gone. With Zach Gentry injured and missing valuable snaps, the team is looking for someone to step up. Early into the first half, Xavier Grimble dropped a pass right in his hands. Kevin Rader caught two passes for 20 yards but ended up with two holding penalties, as well (one was declined). Aside from that, there is not much to speak of.

The depth at tight end is an issue. Grimble does not seem ready to step up and Gentry is not ready, period. Is the team’s backup tight end on a different roster right now? McDonald was not in Pittsburgh at this time two years ago.

TACKLE DEPTH

Coming into training camp the idea was that Matt Feiler would be pushed for the starting right tackle job. Whether it be third-round pick Chukwuma Okorafor in year two, Zach Banner who has gotten into better shape, or Jerald Hawkins back from injury, the team had options. Through two weeks, not only is Feiler ahead of all of them, none of those options even seem ready for backup duty.

Okorafor gave up a sack in the first quarter, Banner had a worse game than the week before which included a hold, and Hawkins looks as though the injuries have him needing to start back at square one with his development. Is this the first sign of Mike Munchak not being in the room?

RYAN SWITZER

Eli Rogers started over Switzer in the slot and caught two passes for 31 yards. Rogers night ended early while Switzer played deep into the second half. It seems clear the team sees Rogers as the starting slot receiver over Switzer. However, on top of that, Diontae Johnson started as the punt returner, while Johnny Holton started as the kick returner.

We know Johnson is making the team. Suddenly, it is looking clear that Switzer is at best the number six receiver in Pittsburgh behind Johnson, JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Washington, Donte Moncrief, and Rogers.

Holton has more NFL experience than Switzer and brings more special teams value. If Holton can win the kick return job, Switzer is in a tough spot. Heck, even Diontae Spencer had a strong return. Switzer went from a player competing to get starting slot snaps to a player in a battle with the numbers. His usage in Week 3 will be noteworthy.

DONTE MONCRIEF

Let’s be honest, the only thing we are worried about with Moncrief is his chemistry with Ben Roethlisberger. Without Roethlisberger, Moncrief did start, but he fumbled his only catch.

Washington has put in back-to-back strong performances, leading the team in receiving both weeks. He has proven that he is ready for bigger competition. Moncrief is the starter, but Washington is pushing him. On top of that, Johnson struggled early in his preseason debut before hauling in two touchdowns, one being held back by a questionable penalty.

In a perfect world, Johnson and Washington ascend next to Smith-Schuster to form a young, high upside group. Moncrief has a place on the roster, but the progression of Washington and Johnson along with his fumble make the leash tighter moving forward.

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

What to Expect from a 38-Year-Old Starting Quarterback

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On March 2nd, Ben Roethlisberger turned 38. When the NFL season starts in September, Ben will be 38 years old and entering his 17th year as the starting quarterback for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Even at this age, Ben is reaching rarefied air. Since 1969, there have been only 54 quarterbacks that played into their age 38 season. Of those 54, 46 of them started a game and just 22 finished the season with starts in more than half the games that season.

Discounting the fact that Roethlisberger is recovering from elbow surgery, what can we expect from a 38-year-old quarterback? Surprisingly, the answer is plenty.

From 1969-1999 quarterbacks playing in their age 38 season on average threw for 2,665 yards with 15 touchdowns against 14 interceptions. Not gaudy numbers, but some of that has to do with the eras in which these quarterbacks played. Even more encouraging, they had a 63% winning percentage.

From 1969-1999, five Hall of Fame quarterbacks played to age 38. Some experienced more success than others.

In 1978 Fran Tarkenton threw for 25 touchdowns and over 3,400 yards but tossed up 32 interceptions and went 8-7-1 on the season. In 1983, Ken Stabler went 7-7 at age 38, but threw 18 interceptions against only 9 touchdowns and fewer than 2,000 yards. Warren Moon went 9-6 in 1994, but had more interceptions (19) than touchdowns (18). In 1999, Dan Marino went 5-6 at age 38, throwing 12 touchdowns against 17 interceptions.

On the positive side, all-time great Joe Montana had 3,283 yards through the air and a 2:1 TD to INT ratio (18-9) with the Kansas City Chiefs in 1994 and John Elway won a Super Bowl in his age 38 season. Elway may have been relying on Terrell Davis at that time, but still put up nearly 3,000 yards along with 22 touchdowns and only 10 interceptions.

As sports science and training regimes have improved, it’s become more commonplace to find quarterbacks 38 and older still having success, or even dominating in the league.

In 2007, Brett Favre at 38 threw for over 4,000 yards and added 28 touchdowns to only 15 interceptions as the Packers went 13-3. Kurt Warner a year after his Super Bowl loss to the Steelers still had plenty in the tank at 38. The veteran quarterback started 15 games, going 10-5 with 3,753 yards, 26 touchdowns and 14 picks. Even journeyman Josh McCown put up 18 touchdowns to only 9 interceptions and 2,900 yards in his age 38 season.

As far as Roethlisberger’s direct contemporaries, Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees all put together superlative performances at age 38.

Peyton Manning, 4,727 yards, 39 TD, 15 INT (12-4)
Tom Brady, 4,770 yards, 36 TD, 7 INT (12-4)
Drew Brees, 4,334 yards, 23 TD, 8 INT (11-5)

However, depending on how you view Roethlisberger, a closer proxy may be former Chargers quarterback Phillip Rivers. Rivers’ age 38 season was statistically one of his worst as the team went 5-11. Rivers threw for 4,600 yards but threw nearly as many interceptions (20) as touchdowns (23).

What will Roethlisberger be like when he comes back? If history offers any clues, there’s no reason to think he can’t be a highly effective player on his return. Quarterbacks at his level in this era– i.e. future Hall of Famers–have historically had success at age 38 and beyond.

It’s impossible to predict when a player will “lose it”. But as long as his elbow is healed and there’s not a significant loss of arm strength, there’s no reason to think that Roethlisberger won’t be able to return to his per-injury, high-level of play.

NFL Quarterbacks at age 38, >7 starts, since 2000

PlayerYearAgeTmGGSCmpAttCmp%YdsTDIntPick6TD%Int%RateSkYdsSk%Y/AAY/AANY/AY/GWLT4QCGWD
Vinny Testaverde200138NYJ161626044158.962752151413.43.1775.3181223.90%6.245.495.01172106055
Rich Gannon200338OAK7712522555.561274642.71.7873.517907.00%5.665.44.6418225012
Brad Johnson200638MIN151427043961.5275091532.13.4272292006.20%6.265.144.39183.368023
Brett Favre200738GNB161635653566.544155281515.22.895.715932.70%7.777.557.18259.7133024
Jeff Garcia200838TAM121124437664.89271212613.21.690.2231005.80%7.217.136.4722665013
Kurt Warner200938ARI151533951366.083753261425.12.7393.2241724.50%7.327.16.46250.2105012
Kerry Collins201038TEN10716027857.551823148152.8882.213914.50%6.566.275.68182.325011
Jon Kitna201038DAL10920931865.7223651612353.7788.9211006.20%7.446.756.03236.545012
Peyton Manning201438DEN161639559766.164727391516.52.51101.5171182.80%7.928.097.68295.4124011
Tom Brady201538NWE161640262464.42477036725.81.12102.2382255.70%7.648.297.48298.1124022
Carson Palmer201738ARI7716426761.4219789713.42.6284.4221507.60%7.416.95.86282.634022
Josh McCown201738NYJ131326739767.2529261894.52.2794.5392648.90%7.377.266225.158012
Drew Brees201738NOR161638653672.01433423814.31.49103.9201453.60%8.098.277.71270.9115022
Philip Rivers201938LAC161639059165.994615232013.93.3888.5342225.40%7.817.066.32288.4511012

All data from Pro Football Reference

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Analysis

Who Fits the Mold of a Steelers RB in the 2020 NFL Draft?

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The Steelers are in a unique position this year with a plethora of needs based on depth. In terms of actual day one impact, is there really a position that will bring a ton of that? Sure, rotational pass rusher, a third safety, a new tight end, and even offensive line help. But one of the key arguments of the running back contingent group has been that day one impact.

The Steelers were clearly doing their work snuffing around the combine as they met with Cam Akers, Jonathan Taylor, Clyde Edwards-Helaire, JK Dobbins, and AJ Dillon. But just what do they look for in their running backs and who fits the mold in this draft?

In this study, I have realized that there are two types of Steelers running backs. There are the speed backs and then the workhorse back. The Steelers currently have a few workhorse back types in Benny Snell, Jaylen Samuels, and James Conner, while having the speed back archetype in Kerrith Whyte. Let us start out with the workhorse type of back. Over Mike Tomlin’s tenure, here are the running backs selected that fit the workhorse archetype.

Steelers Workhorse Back Archetype

Benny Snell

Height: 5’10”
Weight: 224
40: 4.66
Vertical: 29 1/2
Broad: 9’10”
Bench: 16 reps
3 Cone: 7.07
Short Shuttle: 4.33

Jaylen Samuels

Height: 5’11
Weight: 225
40: 4.54
Vertical: 34 1/2
Broad: 10’1″
Bench: 18 reps
3 Cone: 6.93
Short Shuttle: 4.28

James Conner

Height: 6’1″
Weight: 233
40: 4.65
Vertical: 29″
Broad: 9’5″
Bench: 20 reps

Le’Veon Bell

Height: 6’1″
Weight: 230
40: 4.6
Vertical: 31 1/2
Broad: 9’10”
Bench: 25 reps
3 Cone: 6.75
Short Shuttle: 4.24

Jonathan Dwyer

Height: 5’11”
Weight: 229
40: 4.68
Vertical: 33″
Broad: 8’11”
Bench: 15 reps
3 Cone: 7.56
Short Shuttle: 4.67

Baron Batch

Height: 5’10”
Weight: 207
40: 4.5
Vertical: 39″
Broad: 10’6″
Bench: 24 reps

Rashard Mendenhall

Height: 5’10”
Weight: 225
40: 4.45
Vertical: 33.5″
Broad: 9’9″
Bench: 26 reps
Short Shuttle: 4.18

Here are the corresponding thresholds I have created with the data. There is one outlier for each of the data sets aside from the bench press, where all met the requirements.

Height: 5’10″+
Weight: 224+
40: Sub 4.66
Vertical: 29″+
Broad: 9’5″+
Bench: 15 reps+

Now, here are the guys who check every single box set forth here:

Wisconsin RB Jonathan Taylor
TCU RB Sewo Olonilua
Boston College RB AJ Dillon

Correspondingly, here are guys who only missed the cut by one measurable, with that measurable being weight for every single one of them:

Florida State RB Cam Akers
Maryland RB Javon Leake
Memphis RB Patrick Taylor
Florida RB La’Mical Perine
Georgia RB Brian Herrien
UCLA RB Joshua Kelley
Vanderbilt RB Ke’Shawn Vaughn

The Steelers have met with Taylor, Dillon, and Akers, so they are running the mold right on schedule in terms of showing interest in certain running backs.

However, as for the second mold, the Steelers speed back, there an entire difference of prerequisites, but all the speed backs of the Mike Tomlin era here are listed below:

Steelers Speed Back Archetype

Kerrith Whyte

Height: 5’10”
Weight: 197
40: 4.37
Vertical: 42″
Broad: 11″
Bench: 21 reps
Short Shuttle: 4.37
3 Cone: 7.2

Tony Brooks-James

Height: 5’8″
Weight: 190
40: 4.45
Vertical: 35.5
Broad: 10’7″
Bench: 15 reps
Short Shuttle: 4.27
3 Cone: 7.06

Dri Archer

Height: 5’8″
Weight: 173
40: 4.26
Vertical: 38″
Broad: 10’2″
Bench: 20 reps
Short Shuttle: 4.06
3 Cone: 6.86

Chris Rainey

Height: 5’8″
Weight: 180
40: 4.45
Vertical: 36″
Broad: 10″
Bench: 16 reps
Short Shuttle: 3.93
3 Cone: 6.5

Here are the thresholds needed to qualify for a Steelers speed back:

Height: 5’8″+
Weight: 173+
40: Sub 4.45
Vertical: 35 1/2″+
Broad: 10″+
Bench: 15 reps+
Short Shuttle: Sub 4.37
3 Cone: Sub 7.2

In addition, all of these guys had return experience, so that is another requirement.

Here are the guys who check the boxes:

Appalachian State RB Darrynton Evans
Memphis RB Antonio Gibson
Lousiana Lafeyette RB Raymond Calais

All of these guys hit the nail on the head for requirements. Gibson would likely be taken with the 3rd round compensatory pick while Evans and Calais would going into the later rounds if the Steelers were looking down this route.

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Analysis

Film: Derek Watt Brings Tenacity, Versatility to Steelers

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The Steelers have some more wattage in the building. They signed Derek Watt, brother of star outside linebacker T.J. Watt, to a three-year deal on Tuesday. It came as a shock, as the Steelers had vested interest already in the fullback position with Roosevelt Nix.

However, the Steelers are also reeling from the loss of special teams captain Tyler Matakevich, who led the NFL in special teams tackles. The signing of Watt not only corresponds with the emphasis president Art Rooney II placed on improving the running game but also upholding the special teams unit. Watt tied Matakevich for the lead league in special teams tackles and is an upgrade over Nix in that regard.

This is what you get with Watt. He is usually is a split-back on the punt coverage unit the Chargers had. The key with him on special teams was how sure of a tackler he is and how fast he gets the alley. Watt knows how to avoid blocks while flying down the field. He seems to always be in a position to make a tackle away from the traffic and towards the return man. On special teams, you really want to see the ball and then find the ball. Watt does that masterfully, as he does here to close quickly on the returner.

This is the same deal. Watt has a hot motor and flies from the backside of this return to come back and make this tackle, even after a good blocker on the edge to stop the all-out blitz that the Raiders sent. He finds the ball, goes straight to the ball carrier while avoiding traffic, and makes the tackle. This is great technical special teams play. Watt is going to add a lot to that unit at the very least.

However, then what about Watt’s ability to be a fullback? Can he actually block well and be an asset when being that lead blocker?

From the film, yes. Watt plays with intensity and is an absolute battering ram coming downhill towards defenders. His highlights as a blocker are nothing but fun as he clears alleys with ease. Something I have seen that has impressed is his mobility, as well. He moves extremely well for a fullback. The Chargers had him pulling and kicking out defensive ends.

This is one of those examples. Watt gets an absolute head of steam downhill as the puller and obliterates the defensive back coming into the alley to open this play up for Melvin Gordon. The mentality and tenacity Watt shows on this play to bully defenders in the open field is exactly why he is a great fit for the Steelers smash-mouth running style. It is fun to watch him do this consistently. He was a key cog in the Chargers running game when on the field and made a significant difference with blocks like this.

This run won the game for the Chargers in overtime and Watt blew this hole wide open as a lead blocker. Austin Ekeler is able to bounce this back all because Watt engages the linebacker and drives him out of the gap. He has impressive functional strength that allows him to drive guys right off their spot and open up these lanes for running backs. James Conner is going to love running behind a guy like Watt that can do this. With Conner’s ability to read and react to the second level of the defense, Watt can make a big difference.

One of the more intriguing parts of Watt’s game is his receiving ability. The Chargers did not use him a ton in that role, but his hands are soft and he can be used in this part of the offense. Like here, where shows off good hands and creates for himself by breaking a tackle and lowering his shoulder into a defender. He is a tone-setter even in the passing game. That is something the Steelers will always value. I think they could use him in the play-action game and get him out into the flats. Think of how the Patriots used James Develin and I think that is what we could see from Watt here. The bottom line is he can fill multiple roles and does them all well. Watt is a very solid signing and will contribute in multiple ways for the Steelers.

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