UNITY TWP, Pa. – It’s finally game week.
On the 10th day of 2019 training camp, the Steelers practiced at Saint Vincent College following a much-needed day off. The team performed with a noticeable sense of urgency during the 2-and-a-half-hour session in anticipation of their first preseason game Friday night against the Buccaneers.
There were several players out of practice with bumps and bruises typical of this point in training camp, notably on the offensive line, where three starters in Ramon Foster, Maurkice Pouncey and Alejandro Villanueva were sidelined. Matt Feiler moved to left guard in Foster’s place, Chukwuma Okorafor replaced Feiler at first-team right tackle and Jerald Hawkins repped second-team left tackle.
But nonetheless, the session was hard, physical and competitive – reflecting the harsh reality that comes along with the dog days of NFL training camp. Almost half of this group is competing for their job, with a roster spot – and their NFL future – on the line.
Mike Tomlin relayed that message at the start of individual drills this afternoon.
“Punch (in) that clock, or give your jersey up,” he said.
Check it out below:
SIGHTS AND SOUNDS
Ben Roethlisberger was his usual self, directing the Steelers’ offense, most notably the young receiving core – with tips and adjustments as the day went on.
He was crisp and on target. On one play during 11-on-11, he escaped the pocket, rolled left and connected an off-balance throw to JuJu Smith-Schuster over Joe Haden that drew “ahhs” from the crowd.
But for as crisp as Roethlisberger was, there was a stretch during the team segment where his receivers/tight ends were anything but. It started with Vance McDonald, who dropped a wide open, would-be catch on a curl route. “You’re unconvered! No one’s there,” offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner quipped. However, McDonald later hauled in an impressive 20-yard catch across the middle later to make up for it.
Mason Rudolph (1st team) and Devlin Hodges (2nd team) were both efficient during the two-minute drill segment to conclude practice. Neither unit scored, though, as the defense bent but didn’t break in the red zone.
Trey Griffey made the best play of the afternoon with a diving grab on a beautifully placed ball from Hodges down the left seam.
The hardest hit of the day came from Trey Edmunds, who stepped up in pass protection and delivered a crack on Mike Hilton as he blitzed off the edge. The Steelers heavily rely on their RBs to block in blitz pickup (think Le’Veon Bell).
Every time Jordan Dangerfield made a play during team drills, he yelled to the sideline (likely the media) “Good morning!” or “Stop sleeping on me!” He performed well with a couple of notable pass breakups.
James Conner, Artie Burns, Sutton Smith, Trevor Wood, Justin Layne, Vince Williams, Ramon Foster, Maurkice Pouncey, and Diontae Johnson either did not participate or exited early. Tomlin said all are being evaluated, but didn’t express immediate concern.
Villanueva, who exited midway through practice, was seen with an ice wrap on his right shoulder.
The offense won Tuesday’s red zone drill with ease, 6-1.
1st play: Roethlisberger put the offense up 1-0 on a connection to Eli Rogers.
2nd play: Xavier Grimble hauled in an inside slant in traffic on a tight ball from Roethlisberger.
3rd play: Ryan Switzer, who lined up next to Roethlisberger out the backfield, found the end zone on a short pass to the left.
4th play: Roethlisberger drew the defense off-side on a hard count.
5th play: Hodges found Switzer for the receiver’s second conversion of the drill.
6th play: The defense finally tallied a W on a pass breakup by Cameron Sutton.
7th play: Hodges found Tevin Jones on a curl route, who barely stretched the ball over the plane.
NBC’s Mike Florio Predicts Dim Outlook for JuJu Smith-Schuster in Free Agency
Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio is not so sure Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster is going to get the pay day he believes he deserves.
Florio joined The PM Team on 93.7 The Fan on Friday, and painted a dim picture of Smith-Schuster’s free agency prospects.
“If Juju wants to be paid like a No. 1 wide receiver, he’s going to be waiting a long, long time,” Florio said.
Smith-Schuster has expressed a desire to remain in Pittsburgh, but their dire salary cap situation had a made a continuation seemingly impossible.
Now that Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has signed a new contract and provided the club additional financial flexibility, there may be a path for Smith-Schuster to return. Still, there will not be enough money available to pay him like one of the league’s elite wideouts.
If that is what Smith-Schuster wants in Pittsburgh, he may be in for a rude awakening as Florio predicts.
Smith-Schuster led the Steelers with 97 receptions in 2020, while also tallying 831 yards and nine touchdowns.
Selected in the second round of the 2017 NFL Draft out of Southern California, Smith-Schuster has 293 receptions, 3,565 yards and 24 touchdowns as a Steeler. He was selected to his first and only Pro Bowl in 2018.
Steelers Offensive Coordinator Matt Canada on Run Game, Roethlisberger
Pittsburgh Steelers offensive coordinator Matt Canada has spoken publicly for the first time since his promotion in late January.
Canada joined the latest edition of The Standard, the Steelers’ behind-the-scenes web series, and discussed a number of topics, including fixing the run game, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and his offensive philosophy.
There is no denying Pittsburgh produced the least successful rushing attack in football a season ago, averaging just 84.4 yards per game and 3.6 yards per attempt.
Canada recognizes the Steelers need to improve significantly on the ground, a mandate he implied came down from Team President Art Rooney II.
“He’s made it very clear that that’s got to get better,” Canada said. “When all of us realized that we didn’t get it done we wanted to with our running game and all of who are here are part of that. And we’ve got to improve upon it in a multitude of ways and we’re certainly focused on it. We’re globally studying who’s running the ball well. We’ve always believed in running the football anywhere that I’ve been. You win up front. I believe that. We believe that. I know Coach Tomlin believes that.”
Not only will the Steelers have to better impose their will in the trenches, but Canada knows they will also have to remove the predictability that plagued them last season, especially in the passing game.
“You have to be able to run the football when they know you’re going to run it,” Canada added. “And you have to be able to throw the football when they know you’re going to throw it.”
Canada also gushed over Roethlisberger, who the Steelers announced will be returning for the 2021 season on a one-year contract Thursday.
“He’s such a great competitor. He competes at everything he does and his competitive drive is so strong and so awesome to be around no matter what we’re doing,” Canada said of Roethlisberger.
He also praised the 39-year-old’s accuracy, which he believes sets Roethlisberger apart from his peers.
“And then just his accuracy. And I’ve said this to one of my buddies who’s a quarterback coach somewhere else. Young quarterbacks, I wish there was some way for them to be here and watch how he practices putting the ball in certain spots. It’s such a unique talent that he’s able to do it.”
While Roethlisberger’s new deal has provided the Steelers some much needed financial flexibility, they will still undoubtedly have some tough departures once free agency begins in earnest.
Regardless which players do or do not remain in Pittsburgh heading into the 2021 season, Canada insists his offense will be multi-dimensional and cater to whatever personnel the Steelers have on the offensive side.
“We are going through and looking at the foundation of our offense. And building an offense that will be conducive to whatever talent that we have,” Canada said. “I don’t believe you have a certain system that works and this is all we’re going to do and we have to have the players for that. We have the players we have each year. Our job is to score more points than the team we play on each Sunday.”
Steelers Sign Center J.C. Hassenauer on One-Year Deal
The Pittsburgh Steelers have signed center J.C. Hassenauer to a one-year deal, first reported by ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler.
Steelers sign center J.C. Hassenauer, an exclusive rights free agent, to a one-year deal, per source.— Jeremy Fowler (@JFowlerESPN) March 4, 2021
An exclusive right free agent, Hassenauer was almost a lock to return to Pittsburgh in 2021. His new deal with the Steelers is worth $780,000.
Hassenauer proved a vital piece along the Steelers’ offensive line a season ago, seeing action in 15 games and making four starts. He was on the field for 23% of the team’s offensive stats, while also appearing on 50 special teams plays.
Prior to Pittsburgh, Hassenauer signed with the Atlanta Falcons as an undrafted free agent in 2018, spending the first seven weeks of the season on their practice squad.
He played for the Birmingham Iron of the Alliance of American Football in 2019.
Hassenauer played his college ball at Alabama. He made just three career starts for the Crimson Tide, with his final coming in the 2018 College Football Playoff national championship game, a 26-23 overtime win over Georgia.
Hassenauer’s agent Blake Baratz confirmed the signing on Twitter on Thursday.