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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.”
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.