UNITY TWP., Pa. — When the Steelers reconfigured their practice schedule for the final week of training camp at St. Vincent College after the death of wide receivers coach Darryl Drake on Sunday, the team had one final full practice in pads before packing up and heading back to Pittsburgh.
On Wednesday, they made it a good one. After slogging through an emotional, rain-shortened affair on Tuesday, the Steelers were back to business with the proper emotion, mindset and attitude required to get things done on the practice squad.
“A good, spirited day up here in pad, our last day here in Latrobe in full pads,” Tomlin said. “There’s a certain urgency to that. .Certain things that we do here, the nature in which we work — carrying pads, the drills that we do — it’s just a captured moment. I thought the guys displayed that understanding today.”
It was also a fairly even practice, as the offense won the seven shots goal-line drill, the defense won the two-minute drill to close practice, and many, many competitive battles went back and forth across the practice fields.
SIGHTS AND SOUNDS
As the team gets into the finer details of situational football, they’ve been playing a lot more personnel groupings, especially on defense as they defend the Steelers’ typical three-receiver sets on offense.
That will change a little bit as practice transfers to the team’s practice facility, cuts are made and a scout team emerges.
But for now, its mostly ones vs. ones and twos vs. twos. So that means a lot of Nickel and Dime. Wednesday, the Steelers’ defensive linemen were working on how to deal with double teams out of their two-man, sub-package front.
After having near full participating on Tuesday, the Steelers were missing a host of players on Wednesday.
David DeCastro (soreness), Joe Haden (foot contusion), Maurkice Pouncey (undisclosed), Christian Scotland-Williamson (soft tissue), and Vince Williams (hamstring) all missed practice for the second straight day.
Joining them on the sidelines were Devin Bush (undisclosed), Zach Gentry (undisclosed), Sutton Smith (abdomen). Bush and Gentry were still pending evaluation. Tomlin said Smith has fallen behind with the amount of time that he’s missed.
B.J Finney left practice with a heat-related issue. Tomlin said Pouncey is expected to practice on Thursday. He called DeCastro and Haden day-to-day and Williams “close” to returning.
Patrick Morris stepped up for Pouncey when Finney went down. Matt Feiler slid to guard and Chukwuma Okorafor played tackle to fill in for DeCastro. Tyler Matakevich started at inside linebacker in place of Bush and Williams.
Cameron Sutton made a mockery of the team’s punt return hands contest. Players usually try to catch as many balls as they can without setting one down. He stuffed one under his shirt, then another, and then one under his pad backplate to “win” for the day.
What to Expect from Diontae Johnson in Year 2
You may not know it with the amount of hype heaped upon rookie receivers like Deebo Samuel, D.K. Metcalf and Terry McLaurin, but in 2019, it was Steelers wide receiver Diontae Johnson that lead the league in receptions among first-year players. In 12 starts, Johnson had 59 receptions for 680 yards and five touchdowns. That was good enough for first, sixth and seventh respectively among his rookie class.
So what’s in store in year two? In addition to a year of pro strength training and all the other things that come from being part of a NFL organization, Johnson will have a full year of catching passes from a 17-year vet Ben Roethlisberger, a mild upgrade over Mason Rudolph and Duck Hodges to say the least.
How has an entire season with Roethlisberger worked out for previous Steelers receivers in their sophomore campaigns? Let’s take a look back starting with the rookies he played with and how they improved in their second year.
Nate Washington (2005): 0 targets / 0 receptions / 0 yards / 0 touchdowns / 0 catch % / 0 yards per target
Nate Washington (2006): 69 / 35 / 624 / 4 / 50.7% / 9.04
Washington didn’t have a single catch his rookie year, but was a solid contributor in his sophomore campaign, which was Ben’s third year on the job.
Santonio Holmes (2006): 86/ 49 / 824 / 2 / 57% / 9.58
Santonio Holmes (2007): 85 / 52 / 942 / 8 / 61.2% / 11.08
As a rookie, Holmes had a very productive season. But he improved across the board, especially in touchdowns and yards per target, in his second season.
Mike Wallace (2009): 72 / 39 / 756 / 6 / 54.2% / 10.50
Mike Wallace (2010): 98 / 60 / 1257 / 10 / 61.2% / 12.83
Wallace saw a big increase in receptions (54%) and receiving yards (66%) compared to his rookie season as he became one of the premier deep threats in the NFL.
Emmanuel Sanders (2010): 43 / 28 / 376 / 2 / 56.0% / 7.52
Emmanuel Sanders (2011): 50 / 22 / 288 / 2 / 51.2% / 6.70
Sanders was one of the few players whose production dipped in year two, mostly as a result of the incredible rise of his fellow 2010 draft pick Antonio Brown.
Antonio Brown (2010): 19 / 16 / 167 / 0 / 84.2% / 8.79
Antonio Brown (2011): 124 / 69 / 1108 / 2 / 55.6% / 8.94
After an inauspicious start to his career, Brown exploded in his second season with the Steelers putting up three times the catches and five times to yardage compared to his rookie season.
Martavis Bryant (2013): 48 / 26 / 549 / 8 / 54.2% / 11.44
Martavis Bryant (2014): 92 / 50 / 765 / 6 / 54.3% / 8.32
Bryant nearly doubled his reception total after an incredible rookie campaign that saw him catch touchdowns on more than a quarter of his catches in year two. But Bryant proved that his rookie campaign wasn’t a fluke with a solid 50 receptions for 765 yards.
Markus Wheaton (2013): 13 / 6 / 64 / 0 / 46.2% / 4.92
Markus Wheaton (2014): 86 / 53 / 644 / 2 / 61.6% / 7.49
Wheaton looked like he was on his way to being the next Steelers mid-round receiver find after a nice year two. Unfortunately his 2014 sophomore season turned out to be the high point of his career.
JuJu Smith-Schuster (2017): 79 / 58 / 917 / 7 / 73.4% / 11.6
JuJu Smith-Schuster (2018): 166 / 111 / 1426 / 7 / 66.9% / 8.59
Smith-Schuster certainly showed flashes in his rookie season opposite full-fledged superstar Antonio Brown, but it was nothing compared to what he’d do in year two. With Brown drawing the top corners, Smith-Schuster was virtually unstoppable posting career highs in catches and yardage.
James Washington (2018): 38 / 16 / 217 / 1 / 42.1% / 5.71
James Washington (2019): 80 / 44 / 735 / 3 / 55.0% / 9.19
Washington did not live up to his second round pick status in year one with a paltry 16 catches for 217 yards playing with Roethlisberger. But in year two, even with Roethlisberger on the shelf for most of the season, Washington showed the flashes that made him such a threat in college. His ability to make combat catches was on full display as he more than tripled his receiving yards and posted a huge increase in catches, catch percentage and yards per target.
Diontae Johnson (2019): 92 / 59 / 680 / 5 / 64.1% / 7.39
Johnson really began to excel towards the end of his 2019 season as he gained a report with Rudolph and Hodges. And it wasn’t just on short passes, in the last four weeks of the season, Johnson was the Steelers best down the field option as well. A deft route runner, Johnson was tops in the entire league in target separation, which measures the average yards of separation between the receiver and cornerback at the time of the catch. The Toledo product also finished 24th in the NFL in yards after catch and was 3rd in forced missed tackles among receivers. Perhaps even more encouraging was the amount of targets Johnson had as a rookie. The 92 were most since Ben Roethlisberger became quarterback and second most in Steelers history.
So what will Johnson do in year two? His rookie numbers were most comparable to Santonio Holmes who was the Steelers’ clear number two receiver behind Hines Ward in his second year. Johnson’s numbers will get a boost from being the likely number two receiver–and the increase in targets that accompanies it–when the season opens opposite a presumably healthy Smith-Schuster. Although it’s worth noting that with the recent acquisition of tight end Eric Ebron, a healthy Vance McDonald and a deep, if inexperienced, receiving corps, there’s going to be a lot of competition for targets.
Despite that it’s probably safe to say that with Roethlisberger coming back and the offense more geared towards the passing game, Johnson’s numbers will see a moderate increase from his impressive rookie season.
Johnson’s individual metrics; his impressive separation on catches and his ability to break tackles all indicate that Johnson should continue to progress in 2020. and it certainly wouldn’t be a surprise to see him eclipse 75 catches and 1,000 yards in year two.
Odds in Steelers Favor to Make Playoffs in 2020
The Steelers have missed the NFL playoffs each of the last two season, but oddsmakers have faith that they will make a return to the postseason in 2020.
Pittsburgh is favored to make the playoffs this upcoming season at -180 (5/9), according to BetOnline.ag.
With quarterback Ben Roethlisberger returning from the elbow injury that sidelined him the majority of the 2019 campaign, there is reason for optimism that the team will be much improved from last season’s disappointment.
In addition to getting back their franchise quarterback, the Steelers furhter bolstered their offense through free agency with the signings of tight end Eric Ebron, fullback Derek Watt and guard Stefen Wisniewski. All three signings should help an anemic offense that was 29th in rushing and 31st in passing in 2019.
Pittsburgh will also return one of the league’s best defensive unit, led by outside linebacker T.J. Watt and safety Minkah Fitzpatrick. The Steelers led the league with 54 sacks last year, and had the NFL’s third-best pass defense.
Just one other AFC North team is favored to make the playoff this upcoming season, the division champion Baltimore Ravens at -1000 (1/10). Already led by the reigning MVP in quarterback Lamar Jackson, the Ravens made a big addition this off-season by acquiring defensive end Calais Campbell from the Jacksonville Jaguars
The odds for the Cleveland Browns and Cincinnati Bengals are not as promising, with both favored to miss the postseason at +125 (5/4) and +800 (8/1), respectively.
Steelers Draft Picks in the 21st Century: Quarterback
Yeah, this is going to be a short one.
The Steelers have spent a lot of draft capital on the offense during Colbert’s tenure, but the quarterback position has been pretty much wrapped up since the team spent their first round pick on a quarterback from Miami of Ohio in 2004.
In recent years the Steelers have spent a few mid-round picks on backups (and possible heirs) as Ben Roethlisberger nears retirement, but it hasn’t yet entered 2005 Green Bay Packers Aaron Rogers/Brett Favre Packers territory.
From 2000-2003 the Steelers rotated between Kordell Stewart, Kent Graham and XFL MVP Tommy Maddox with varying degrees of success. Who knows what would have happened if the Steelers hadn’t been upset by the spygate enhanced New England Patriots in 2001, but that failure would lead to Stewart being cast off and the fateful 6-10 2003 season which allowed the team to get the 11th overall selection in the 2004 NFL Draft.
The 2004 draft was loaded with quarterbacks: Eli Manning, Phillip Rivers, Ben Roethlisberger. The only question was would one fall to the Steelers? One did and the rest is history. Roethlisberger is a future Hall of Famer, has won two Super Bowls and will be entering his 17th season with the team in 2019. His 144 career wins is seventh all-time and his 13 playoff victories is 6th.
Despite leading the league in interceptions his last full season in 2018, Roethlisberger’s 2.4 interception percentage that season was actually tied for the 5th best of his career and he also had career highs in completions, attempts and yardage. Not the sign of a quarterback nearing the end of his career. If his elbow has fully recovered, he should be in line for another big year, even at age 38.
2017: 4th round, Josh Dobbs, Tennessee
2018: 3rd round, Mason Rudolph, Oklahoma State
This is where things started to get interesting. Were the Steelers taking flyers on potential replacements, or just in need of a backup? With second day quarterback selections in back-to-back seasons, the team spent more draft capital than Roethlisberger would have preferred. Rudolph had his ups and downs in 2019 as the starter after Roethlisberger’s injury and whether or not he can take on the mantle when Ben retires is up for debate.
2000-2020 draft quarterback breakdown
Total selections: 6
Years selecting an OL: 6/20
Selections by round:
1st round: 1
2nd round: 0
3rd round: 1
4th round: 2
5th round: 2
6th round: 0
7th round: 0
Selections by conference:
Big 12: 2
Big 10: 0
PAC 12: 1
Power 5: 5
Group of 5: 1
There’s not much to say, the Steelers have had a franchise quarterback since 2003. He’s helped them win two Super Bowls in three trips and will one day enter the Hall of Fame.