With only two weeks to go until the Steelers face the New York Giants in their season opener on Monday Night Football, the Steelers wrapped up a crucial second week of training camp.
After week two, whose stock is going up?
Stock Up: Alex Highsmith
The rookies may have been the biggest winners this week, but Highsmith in particular has had his hype reaching astronomical levels lately. The team’s third-round pick out of Charlotte, Highsmith earned praise this week from Mike Tomlin, Keith Butler, and Chukwuma Okorafor for his standout practices and effort. Tomlin even went as far as to say that Highsmith is proving he belonged along with Chase Claypool.
Highsmith’s play of the week from the pool report was beating Zach Banner around the edge. By doing it, he pressured Mason Rudolph who threw an interception as a result. Highsmith’s shown up in the report other times just by making good, fundamental plays. He could be in line for some playing time as a rotational pass rusher this season.
Stock Down: Paxton Lynch
Point taken here, but Paxton Lynch’s stock is circling the drain at this moment. On Friday, he did not get any reps over Devlin Hodges in the scrimmage that the Steelers conducted. That alone is enough to say that his roster chances are likely diminishing.
If that wasn’t bad enough, the pool report also noted his week as rocky and erratic. Lynch overthrew Ray-Ray McCloud by twenty yards and missed an open Ryan Switzer up the seam on Tuesday. All in all, it was another rough week for Lynch.
Stock Up: Curtis Riley
With a limited amount of openings on the roster in the safety room, no one won more this week than Curtis Riley. Each day on the pool report, Riley was making plays and proving that he belonged. It all started last week when he got first-team reps with Terrell Edmunds hurt at strong safety, but it continued this week.
Riley added another interception and multiple pass breakups in the pool report this week across multiple days. Add in the fact that outside of the starters Riley is the only player with starting experience and this is a concoction that proves Riley is nearly a virtual lock to make the roster at this point.
Stock Down: Trajan Bandy
Trajan Bandy was thought of as an undrafted free agent darling of sorts. If any cornerback in the undrafted market was going to make the team, most pundits thought it would be Bandy. However, thus far at training camp, that hype has yet to manifest itself into anything meaningful.
Bandy has not been mentioned in the practice report once. Meanwhile, his main competition like James Pierre and Alexander Myres have made standout plays practically every practice, putting them on a path to possibly earn a roster spot. While many are rooting for Bandy based off his college tape, the lack of waves he has made thus far is not an encouraging sign.
Stock Up: Marcus Allen
Marcus Allen had nothing short of an exceptional week. After starting off the week with a strong day on backs on backers with four wins on the day per the pool report, Allen went on later in the week to be praised by Tomlin, Tom Bradley, and Butler for his versatility.
Then, on Thursday, Allen got reps at inside linebacker and actually played there. It was the first time that Allen’s versatility had shown itself formally on the practice report as an actual linebacker. Jerry Olsavsky was giving Allen one-on-one instruction, and he seems destined for a hybrid role this year.
Stock Down: Antoine Brooks
Much like Bandy, Antoine Brooks has seen his stock drop at the expense of his competition. And he has lacked the splash plays needed to really hype himself up to make the roster. There is a shortage of space on the team, and Brooks’s roster spot seems to be tied up by Allen and Riley for the most part. The issue is that Brooks seemingly has no ability to play free safety either due to his average athletic traits.
Brooks needs to start making some plays downhill and proving that he has some versatility of his own if he wishes to push Allen off the final roster, but Allen’s natural athleticism and experience may be too much for the rookie to overcome anyways at this point.
Stock Up: Ray-Ray McCloud
The wide receiver position looked like it was locked up last week with the final six on the roster firmly decided. However, new acquisition Ray-Ray McCloud is trying to make sure that is not the case just yet. A speedy playmaker, McCloud has put up splash play after splash play on the pool report, with numerous catches and a few big plays down the field that showcased his explosive ability.
McCloud’s biggest play may have been his Thursday kickoff return for a touchdown, as McCloud hit the gas pedal and was gone. With Switzer out, McCloud has seemingly filled his role and is proving he can make plays. Whether that means he can push anyone off the roster is a big question, but he’s been showing out so far.
Stock Down: Ryan Switzer
Switzer had an incredibly strong week last week and looked great per the pool reports. However this past week was a step back thanks to a foot injury that caused him to miss significant time. Switzer’s injury allowed McCloud to get his foot in the door and has since impressed with some big-time splash plays.
While he may not be in trouble yet–missing out on a roster spot seems highly unlikely–Switzer still needs to get back onto the field to secure that spot with McCloud making plays and sneaking up out of the shadows.
Training Camp Takeaways: Right Tackle Battle as Close as Ever
The Steelers are still vetting their right tackle battle between Chukwuma Okorafor and Zach Banner, and the highly anticipated winner may not be decided until the game day it appears. While Banner and Okorafor have both appeared to have good camps, Mike Tomlin is in no rush to decide who is the winner of the battle, even though the team has to put out an NFL-mandated depth chart on Monday.
“Yeah, you may see ‘or’ listed on that depth chart on Monday,” Tomlin said after the team’s final training camp session of 2020 on Friday.
Tomlin made it very clear that the reason he is in no rush is that he feels both Banner and Okorafor are quality NFL tackles in the NFL. Despite a healthy competition for weeks, neither has separated themselves, and whichever player starts against the New York Giants a week from Monday, there is no guarantee they’ll finish the game at that spot.
“I think it’s been a challenging decision for us because both guys are capable,” Tomlin said. “Both guys have been consistently above the line in their performance. Those are good problems to have. I don’t know if I necessarily view it as a negative thing with whoever gets named starter could have a short leash, et cetera. I think we’ve seen two guys who are capable NFL starters at that position battling it out. That’s why we are not in a hurry to make a decision from my perspective.”
Banner is focused on improving his game after extensively watching his 2019 film. With a full offseason of finally being secure on a 53-man roster, Banner feels like he has an opportunity to win the job over Okorafor.
“Watching film on myself and just focusing on myself is probably the biggest priority I can focus on,” Banner said. “Paying attention to my pass sets and how I’m coming off the ball, both for the run and the pass. Hand usage and being physical. Just things like that. Staying within the parameters of my own mental.”
Defense Shows Out in Seven Shots
In the final seven shots of training camp, the pool report detailed an impressive showing by the defense. The first rep was a miscommunication between Ben Roethlisberger and Diontae Johnson, as Roethlisberger threw it behind Johnson. Minkah Fitzpatrck made a nice play to knock a ball away from Eric Ebron on the next rep.
The next two plays were the two wins for the offense. James Washington caught a quick pass for a touchdown from Roethlisberger. On the next play, the offense pounded the rock in with a Benny Snell touchdown run. However, that was the last victory they Had in the period.
On the next play, Ola Adeniyi knocked down a Mason Rudolph pass at the line of scrimmage. Cam Sutton came roaring off the edge on the sixth rep and that rushed Rudolph to force an incomplete pass. To end off the session, Rudolph targeted Chase Claypool in the end zone, but undrafted free agent James Pierre knocked the ball away from Claypool.
Stephon Tuitt Dismantles the Line
While his return was heavily anticipated by the Steelers, Stephon Tuitt let the team know he was back on Friday. The pool report details an impressive red zone period for the game wrecking defensive lineman who comes off season-ending surgery with high expectations.
Tuitt, on two straight plays, blew right through the offensive lineman in front of him. On both plays, Tuitt got to the quarterback and registered two sacks on the day. After a dominant start to his 2019 season, it is no surprise to see Tuitt destroying offensive lineman. He and Cam Heyward look to be one of the top interior pass-rushing duos in the NFL.
The Question of David DeCastro’s Health
One of the more concerning questions coming into the day was the health of David DeCastro. Tomlin in the past has described his injury as a lower-body injury. He did not practice on Friday. With DeCastro now having been out an entire week with the injury, Tomlin was asked about it at his post-practice press conference to outline his plan for DeCastro.
“He wasn’t good enough to go today,” Tomlin said. “Hopefully, he will be good enough to go the first of next week. We do have a bonus day on Monday. I don’t know if I want to expose him to that. Hopefully, we will see what it looks like as we get into the normal rhythm of our preparation week.”
Tomlin sounded hopeful but by no means certain that DeCastro will be able to suit up against the Giants in just over a week. Should DeCastro not be able to go, Stefen Wisniewski or Kevin Dotson will be the likely replacements to step into his spot.
The Mysterious 53rd Roster Spot
Tuzar Skipper ended up getting released on Friday, and thus far he is the only Steelers roster cut that is known. However, his release throws the final spot on the Steelers roster into limbo. They did sign Jayrone Elliott, who has experience in the system and is a special teams standout. Still, that is no guarantee that Elliott is guaranteed to make the roster. He seems to be the natural fit, but it is not certain.
The other main candidate is standout cornerback Pierre. Pierre has shown up at training camp and made plays against guys like Washington and Claypool. Pierre has also made plays on special teams. It is no guarantee that the team keeps six cornerbacks, but Pierre has a legitimate chance to knock off the fifth outside linebacker in favor of himself with his impressive camp.
Highlights from Steelers Practice 9/4/20
Jaylen Samuels and Benny Snell runs drills to improve their footwork and pass catching abilities while Zach Banner works out with other linemen during Steelers practice at Heinz Field on Friday, September 4, 2020.
Footage courtesy Pittsburgh Steelers
Gallery: Steelers Wrap Training Camp at Heinz Field
The Steelers wrapped up their 2020 training camp on Friday with a final practice at Heinz Field before Saturday’s roster cuts. When the team reconvenes on Monday for its first regular-season practice of the year, they’ll do so on the South Side at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex, the team’s usual practice home.
The Steelers and Pitt Panthers both usually spend nearly all of their practice time on the South Side and the Steelers usually spend training camp at St. Vincent College near Latrobe, Pa. So it may be quite some time before another Steelers practice takes place in at Heinz Field.
Here’s one final look at the Black and Gold practicing in their usual game-day digs. Photos courtesy Pittsburgh Steelers.