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Steelers Analysis

Steelers Training Camp Takeaways: Darnell Washington Shines



Steelers TE Darnell Washington

UNITY TWP., Pa — The Steelers training camp train rolled on to Tuesday, and with another padded practice underneath their belts before they play the Buccaneers in Tampa Bay on Friday, they are putting the finishing touches on their first stretch of training camp. What stood out on Tuesday in Latrobe?

Seven Shots

First Rep: The Steelers come out in twins with Connor Heyward in motion across the formation. They run a sweep play to Najee Harris and he runs behind Heyward, Isaac Seumalo, and Dan Moore Jr. who clear out the left side of the line and Harris plunges into the endzone. Offense leads 1-0.

Second Rep: Kenny Pickett starts out with trips to the left but motions Diontae Johnson across the formation to the wide right. Pickett steps back with great protection but is forced to leave after pressure from Larry Ogunjobi. Pickett fires it up for Pat Freiermuth who makes a great play above the rim for the touchdown. Offense 2-0.

Third Rep: George Pickens comes in motion to create a bunch set to the right side. He runs a spot route and Pickett looks his way right off the rip. But Pickett airs the ball over Pickens’ head and it falls incomplete. Offense 2-1.

Fourth Rep: The Steelers come out in trips to the left with Pickens as the most inside guy in that formation. Gunner Olszewski and Freiermuth run clear outs and Pickens is wide open with the cornerbacks unable to pass off Pickens. Pickett hits him in the flat and he dives into the end zone for a touchdown. Offense 3-1.

Fifth Rep: Mitch Trubisky has a 2×2 set with Rodney Williams in motion from right to left to become the inside man in trips to the left. Trubisky steps back to pass and fires it to Williams for the touchdown. Offense 4-1.

Sixth Rep: Darnell Washington comes in and goes all the way out wide. He is matched by size with James Pierre. Trubisky takes one look that way and fires the fade to Washington. He leaps and makes the catch look like child’s play. Pierre sprawls to the ground. Shades of Rob Gronkowski on Sean Davis. Offense 5-1.

Seventh Rep: Trubisky steps back to pass with Cody White going in motion to the left side. The two inside receivers run a wheel and curl route while Miles Boykin sprints across on a shallow slant. Trubisky fires it to Boykin for the touchdown. Offense wins 6-1.

Tight Ends Galore

Today was a really physical, grind-it-out practice. The Steelers went to a team run drill in short yardage and worked the goal line today. They worked tackling drills. It all really highlighted that this team wants to get better at playing bully ball. But one thing that was not lost on me was the way they used their tight ends. The Steelers consistently used 12 and 13 personnel today. They seemed to be multiple out of multiple different looks, from empty, to spread, to ace, to kings, and to other scenarios. The entire room is versatile and moved around to different spots.

Between the five of them, they covered anywhere from X-receiver to running back, and that is something that Mike Tomlin loves to have in his holster. Their 12 personnel usage shot up to nearly 38% during the second half last season in their run of strong rushing performances. There’s little to no reason to think it won’t do the same this year but from the very start of this entire thing.

Tackling One-on-One Notes

Tuesday was the first time that we saw the tackling drills come out during training camp from Mike Tomlin. It makes sense given that the Buccaneers game is coming up in merely three days. While most of the top guys sat by the wayside, we got to see some of the depth or hungrier guys really step up and have an opportunity to prove themselves.

– Hakeem Butler was the undeniable winner of this drill. The only loss out of about eight reps he had was when Kenny Robinson went low on the big fella. But Butler showcased he had an array of moves that I’m not sure I knew he had. Butler whipped out a spin move, a good juke, and used his size to truck guys into the dust. To say the least, lots of players tried to test themselves against Butler, and he ended up winning those and making the guys look foolish. Mike Tomlin even gave Butler a congratulatory pat on the back after the end of the drill. He earned it today.

– Darius Hagans is a unit but had an inconsistent performance. The same with Mark Robinson. Those two went against each other a number of times today and ended up really fighting for the rest of the session. They split it down the middle at three each, and gave a handshake of respect afterward. At one point, Hagans got called out by Robinson to get another rep against one another. This was a good fight from both.

– Anthony McFarland looked great in this drill. He dusted Kwon Alexander about three times with different moves. One of them was on a juke and Alexander collapsed after getting his ankles taken. The next was just a pure show of speed from McFarland. The last one was a spin move that McFarland busted out. He has the juice and McFarland is proving to have quite the camp so far.

– Elijah Riley really stuck out well here. Gunner Olszewski won just about every single one of his reps, but Riley stuck him on a great form tackle. There are certain things this guy just does really well. This is one of those things that he stands out with and what makes him an ideal slot cornerback, especially on run-downs. That was his only rep, mainly because that was the only thing Mike Tomlin needed to see out of Riley. He stuck out in a good way.

– Joey Porter Jr. struggled, losing four out of his five reps. Olszewski beat Porter Jr. twice and caught him nipping at his ankles. Then, Porter Jr. came back and stuck Dez Fitzpatrick on a textbook hawk tackle the next time around, but would go back to the same thing and nip at the ankles for the next two, with the latter having Porter Jr. spun out of his shoes. Ryan Clark was on hand and told Porter Jr. that he needs to take more steps and break down instead of just diving. That seemed to be at the crux of it. He responded in the goal line period and made a great stick on a jet sweep by doing just that.

Linemen One-on-Ones

Well, these are always my favorite notes of the day, so let me go over some of the standouts.

– Edge rusher Toby Ndukwe is flashing some moves. He pulled out a nasty long arm and got Broderick Jones stumbling back into the dummy quarterback. Jones did win the next rep with a nice 45-set and held strong on the bull rush that Ndukwe brought out. But Ndukwe would beat Dylan Cook later on a cross chop and ran a nice, flat arc to the quarterback. Outside linebackers coach Denzel Martin has taken a liking to Ndukwe, and it seems that he learns rather quickly and is coachable.

– I continued to be impressed by Breiden Fehoko. He is not the smoothest pass rusher, but his run defense is great. On a double-team block, Fehoko basically bench-pressed the center, this one being Ryan McCollum, back and to the ground off his heels. Those two would go to battle later, with Fehoko taking both with his bull rush. Fehoko sat Kendrick Green back on another bull rush, too. He has a spot on this roster.

– Isaiahh Loudermilik has added about 10 pounds since he came into the NFL, and it’s all good weight. The man looks better and more shredded and the bull rush is really starting to come along. He won all five of his one-on-one reps today with that bull rush and long arm combination. Loudermilk is starting to build up a resume here. He had a few stops in the team run period as well.

– Chuks Okorafor stood out, stunning T.J. Watt multiple times. In fact, I did not have Watt winning a single rep against Okorafor today. That is a good step up for the tackle, who has sometimes struggled day in and day out against Watt. But Okorafor’s hands and smooth feet give him a chance in pass protection against just about everyone. He is a great athlete with clean technique.

– I continue to say it, but it’s hard to not take notice of Alex Highsmith. The man just has moves on top of moves. He continues to be dominant in this camp and beat everyone he faced on Tuesday. including Jones and Dan Moore Jr. Highsmith can win with power or speed. That’s the real treat of his game, and it shows up every day.

Goal Line Drill and Short Yardage Notes

Well, I did like the bully-ball mentality that the team had today. In these drills, I noted the tight end multiple parts of this offense and it continues to shine through that 12 personnel will be a big part of this offense. But from an individual play standpoint, here were some standouts.

– Isaiahh Loudermilk was a menace here. On the first carry, he went from a 5-technique, crossed the face of the guard, and ripped through with one arm to stop the running back. Then, later on, he kept the edge discipline and threw Moore to the side to stop a jet sweep to his side. He is having a very quietly good training camp. If he plays like this is preseason games, Loudermilk will make this team.

– Wow, the jet sweeps were prominent. Connor Heyward received two jet sweeps and Pat Freiermuth even got one. On one play, Heyward tossed a ball off the jet sweep to Freiermuth for the touchdown. That was the play they ran against Philadelphia last year for the touchdown. The Steelers’ offense will continue to see the jet sweep be a big part of this offense and how it operates on a horizontal basis.

– The Kendrick Green to fullback role is not a fluke. Pittsburgh is very serious about this entire thing. He got a fullback dive and rumbled forward for about five yards. Meanwhile, he worked as an H-Back and came across the formation to kick out Marcus Golden and allow Jaylen Warren to run into the endzone behind him. There is still some set of acclimation here, but Green seems to be taking to this well.

– Speaking of Warren, he brought me back to flashbacks of last year. On one run in the short-yardage period, Warren trucked Trenton Thompson and then proceeded to stiff-arm the next defensive back. It was a hard-earned five yards for Warren, but that type of physicality and grit is what made the team love him in the first place.

– The Steelers have more play-action in these scenarios than last year. I saw Anthony McFarland, Zach Gentry, Freiermuth, and others get involved in the goal-line areas more than they did a year ago. That is something that the Steelers seem quite focused on adding into the playbook.

– Short note, but one I had to put in here — Darnell Washington is still a monster. The movement he gets in-line on blocking is done with ease. He runs vertical-based routes but is a weapon in the red zone. He will have a role.