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Steelers Rookie Zach Gentry Trying to Work His Way into Pro Role

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PITTSBURGH — The blocking sleds at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex on Pittsburgh’s South Side are bright red, a color thought for years to bring out anger in animals.

It’s the legend behind why the muleta of a Spanish bullfighter wears red, thought the science behind that theory is lacking.

So too, may be the idea that the angriest, nastiest blocker does the most damage to the sleds that are build and bought solely for their ability to take physical punishment.

Simply put, there is a right way and a wrong way to attack the dummies, and, if lacking the proper technique, all the anger and strength in the world isn’t going to do a bit of good.

That was one of the lessons that longtime Steelers tight ends coach James Daniel was doling out during the team’s rookie minicamp last week, and one of the receipts of that advice was fifth-round draft pick Zach Gentry.

Gentry, a 6-foot-8, 265-pound tight end out of Michigan, was not used prolifically in Michigan’s passing offense. He had a 16.1-yards-per-catch average in his redshirt junior season in 2018, but was targeted just 32 times and caught two touchdown passes.

The Albuquerque, New Mexico native joined the Wolverines to play quarterback, and was covered to a tight end by Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh.

That means that he’s still developing the tools and talents required to play the position, but the Steelers believe his frame, natural athleticism and football IQ will lead to a more-productive future.

“He’s a good football player,” Daniel said right after the draft. “Long frame. He’s a guy that we’re excited about getting in here and getting to work with.”

Working alongside first-year players Kevin Rader (Pine-Richland, Youngstown State) and Christian Scotland-Williamson, the 22-year-old was show the ropes of how, where and how hard to make contact with that red pad to drive the blocking sled backwards.

Gentry was asked to block in Michigan’s system, but it’ll be a different animal when asked to take on defensive ends in the NFL on a weekly basis.

The physical adjustment to being able to hold his own — and even drive back — stronger players, is going to be one of the toughest parts of the process for Gentry to master.

“It’s just going to be the size of everybody, I think,” Gentry said. “Everybody out there is a big, physical, fast guy. I’ve just got a little bit of a taste for it.

While that part of a game will be an adjustment, there’s plenty that Gentry has to offer. His big frame should make him an attractive red-zone target and his experience as a quarterback should help him absorb the offense quickly.

“That background has helped me with coverages and defense fronts, and also, it’s helped me draw a lot of parallels between defense,” Gentry said. “I’ve always been acclimated to learning the playbook quickly.”

ROSTER FIGHT

Gentry, Rader and Scotland-Williamson will be battling for what will likely be one spot at tight end behind starter Vance McDonald and backup Xavier Grimble.

Rader (6-foot-4, 250 pounds) is a stockier player and probably more of a blocking threat, while Scotland-Williamson is a 6-foot-9 former rugby player.

BIG PERSONALITIES

Last week, Gentry got his first taste of what it’s like to play for Steelers coach Mike Tomlin. But after four year of playing for Harbaugh, he’s pretty used to playing for a larger-than-life head coach.

“They both live and love the game of football,” Gentry said. “They live for it. They love it. They know every little piece of it. They’re both competitors.”

Steelers

JuJu Surprises Family With New House

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Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster is continuing the gifting trend, as the latest Pittsburgh player to give their family a life-changing surprise.

Smith-Schuster shared a video to his YouTube channel Monday night, chronicling the lead up and eventual reveal that he had purchased his family a new house.

“Now that I’m able to live my dream and play in the NFL, I think it’s everyone’s dream to take care of their family at some point in their life, especially when it’s their parents,” he said. “For me, myself, I’m buying my mom and dad a house. It’s something I’ve wanted to do since I was a kid.”

The 23-year-old has been vocal in the past about the adversity he faced growing up one of 23 children in Southern California, including not sleeping in a bed of his own until he arrived at USC. Smith-Schuster’s experiences as a kid were some of the main motivating factors behind his selfless act.

In the vlog, Smith-Schuster documents his trip home to California for the ultimate reveal. While his parents were privy to the whole setup, his siblings were unaware, believing they were visiting Smith-Schuster’s Airbnb for a day at the pool. He originally told his mother over FaceTime months earlier, also included in the video.

Instead of a pool party, his siblings were surprised with their new six-bedroom, five-home in Yorba Linda, California. Upon learning the incredible news, they raced around the house picking rooms and brainstorming design ideas.

Smith-Schuster’s big announcement comes just a day after teammate James Conner surprised his mother with a new house, sharing her reaction on social media as well.

Entering the final year of his rookie deal with the Steelers, the fully-healthy Smith-Schuster is looking to have a big season in 2020.

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Steelers

Film Study: Banner or Okorafor, Who Wins Steelers’ Right Tackle Spot?

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The Steelers have announced their intentions to move 2019 starting right tackle Matt Feiler to left guard after the retirement of Ramon Foster.

With that occurring, it sets Zach Banner and Chukwuma Okorafor on a collision course for a training camp battle at right tackle. Okorafor did get the nod against the Los Angeles Rams last season. However, Banner was the team’s sixth offensive lineman and came in on numerous plays. That spawned the “No. 72 is eligible” movement in Pittsburgh.

Behind all of this, however, which of the young tackles is the guy who should take the field against the New York Giants in Week 1?

The Tale of the Tape

In terms of actual on the field reps, Banner was good last season. That is not an exaggeration. Banner immediately sticks out as a guy that could potentially start. He got limited pass protection reps, and during those 24 limited reps did not allow a single pressure, sack, hurry, or quarterback hit. However, in run blocking, Banner showcased his ‘Hulk strength’  by blowing guys off their spot and out of the gap consistently.

When the label of a ‘people mover’ is given to an offensive lineman, this is what they mean. Banner may just be the strongest guy on the offensive line because he gets this type of unusual movement at the NFL level. For a big 6-foot-8 guy, Banner plays extremely low here. He showcases good knee bend and comes through with a nice flatback to keep his pads low. More importantly, he uses that knee bend to engage his lower body and shoot that power through his hands as he hits the edge defender in the middle of his pads. The best thing about this rep, however, is that he simply does not quit. Banner stays engaged until the whistle is blown and ends up moving the defender a whole ten yards downfield.

That functional strength will always be Banner’s best trait. It is natural for a guy of his size to be this strong, but guys his size often do not play with the consistent pad level and grip strength that Banner plays with. The one thing to highlight in this play is Banner’s feet as well. They are light and do not stop moving. Banner is not a heavy-footed guy for his size, which bodes well for his pass sets when quick feet will be all that more important. Banner as a pure finisher and run blocking technician, however, is a fun thing to watch on film.

Keeping those feet running and staying engaged is so important in the open field for an offensive lineman. Banner has excellent movement skills, superb feet, and always has the grip strength needed as well. When a lineman can stay engaged like this on a linebacker downfield, that is how they spring big plays in the running game and screen game. That is why seeing reps like these from a guy like is Banner is so exciting. NFL starting tackles do things like this.

For Okorafor, he has far more limited reps than Banner. However, during his start against the Rams, he flashed some good tape out there. For one, his vision and ability to multitask along the offensive line is excellent, as he showcases here. Okorafor attacks and collapses the hip of the rusher heading for DeCastro, but is still quick-witted enough to bounce back, stun the edge rusher, and keep Rudolph protected. That is all eye discipline at that point. It shows Okorafor can process looks and where the pressure may be coming from on any given play.

Unlike Banner, who wins through pure functional strength, Okorafor wins moreso through his punch power. In pass protection especially, Okorafor has well-timed, strong punches that stun pass rushers that can try to win around the bend. Against speed rushers especially, it is how Okorafor wins. Dante Fowler can speak to that, as he is stunned by a robust two-handed jab from Okorafor on this play.

Where Okorafor sets himself apart from Banner is that he has superb footwork. Banner has good footwork, but they are not nearly as quick as Okorafor’s feet. Here, he can get into his smooth kick-slide and virtually glide to his spot. That means he is not often rushing to beat guys, even with a significant first step to his spot. As such, he can stay disciplined and within strike pocket. There is no need for him to be overaggressive and lunge. Instead, he simply maintains good knee bend and strikes to stun the pass rusher with his heavy hands.

So, Who Wins the Job?

This one is a bit tough to answer. The higher pedigree within the organization by far goes to Okorafor. He was groomed to be the successor at one of the tackle spots ever since he was picked in the 3rd round out of Western Michigan. However, Banner put out quality tape in 2019, and it is hard to see him going on the bench.

Okorafor certainty struggled in the preseason, but he was not that bad against the Rams. He had some help with chips and such, but when asked to face a man head-to-head simply, most of the time, Okorafor did his job. Still, though, Banner’s quality tape and performance have to stand for something. He has reworked his body once this offseason and looks ready to go once again.

At this time, the prediction is Banner just because of the amount of quality tape he put out. In reality, this is up in the air, and it would not be a surprise at all to see Okorafor capture that spot, but just based off the sheer quality of tape, Banner gets the nod.

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NFL

James Conner Surprises Mom with New House

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Pittsburgh Steelers running back James Conner warmed hearts last month when he surprised his father with a new truck.

Now, he is taking care of mom.

Conner recently surprised his mother with a brand new house, sharing her emotional reaction to Twitter on Saturday.

Conner was able to pull off the surprise for his mother, Kelly Bibbs, with the help of his brothers. While Bibbs may have not realized what exactly was going on at first, seeing her son James and the golden balloons arranged to say “Welcome Home” quickly gave it away.

Steelers running backs coach Eddie Faulkner and Cleveland Browns wide receiver Jarvis Landry shared their thoughts on the big surprise, among other on social media.

Conner’s gesture is a continuation of an offseason of giving that saw him gift his father a brand new truck back on June 6.

Entering his fourth season out of Pitt, Conner is looking for a bounce back season following an injury plagued 2019 campaign. He rushed for 464 yards and four touchdowns, but played in only ten games for the Steelers.

Last season was a far cry from 2018, when Conner was a breakout sensation replacing Le’Veon Bell. He ran for 973 yards and 12 touchdowns, earning Pro Bowl honors.

Entering the final year of his rookie contract, the 25-year-old has something to prove in 2020.

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