The Steelers just finished their first week of padded practices, and lots of players have already had a chance to impress the coaching staff. There are still three critical weeks until the Steelers play the New York Giants on Monday Night Football, but players are already carving out their roles on the roster.
After the first week, whose stock is going up and who’s on the way down?
Stock Up: Ben Roethlisberger
This is the most crucial stock up of the entire article. Through videos and practice reports, Ben Roethlisberger’s week has gone about as well as it could have been. He has a slightly altered, albeit still compact, throwing motion and is pushing the ball with some extra zip on it this year.
Roethlisberger looks as trim as ever and has been throwing dimes in drills and the team sessions. The standout play of his week may have been his scramble away from T.J. Watt to find an open Ryan Switzer in the end zone during a two-minute drill. By all indications, Roethlisberger appears back and ready to go as good as ever in 2020.
Stock Up: Eric Ebron
In terms of a player who got all-around praise from all angles, Ebron is a guy who was hyped up consistently this week. Vance McDonald called Ebron “the missing link” while Tight Ends coach James Daniel said that Ebron has “stuff that a lot of guys don’t have.”
In practice this week, the media pool saw Ebron dust linebackers in coverage drills, including Bud Dupree, whom Ebron is working with mutually to improve his blocking. Ebron also made an impressive contested catch over Minkah Fitzpatrick that turned heads.
Mike Tomlin is challenging Ebron to work on his blocking, something Ebron wasn’t known for in previous stops in Detroit and Indianapolis. Tomlin asked Ebron if he would bring the same energy to his blocking as he does his receiving. Thus far, it seems Ebron is working and learning to get much more reliable as a blocker. With all of that in mind, the sky’s the ceiling for Ebron.
Stock Down: Wendell Smallwood
The Steelers did seem to like Wendell Smallwood coming into camp. Tomlin and Eddie Faulkner praised his experience and professionalism, but the first week did Smallwood zero favors to making the final 53-man roster.
Smallwood’s first day of backs on backers in front of the media pool was not good. He struggled and was repeatedly beaten on the day. It was only one day, but for a first impression, that was not a good one.
While making no other waves for the rest of the week, Smallwood came up with a shoulder injury after Saturday’s practice. That hurts his roster chances even more with a competitive position group pushing every day. If he wants to make the roster, he will have to get back on the field quickly and impress.
Stock Up: Chase Claypool
Chase Claypool‘s early portion of the week was a massive boost to his stock in the Steelers offense. During the first day of padded practice, Claypool made a leaping grab over Joe Haden for a touchdown, which showed off his strong hands on the play. In his press conference the day after, Haden said Claypool is “going to be a problem.”
That was not the only play Claypool made on the week, either. On Wednesday, the media pool saw Claypool made a tremendous leaping grab down the sideline and got both feet down on the play. He also caught a touchdown pass on Saturday, just adding to his already growing rapport with Ben Roethlisberger. The buzz for the rookie is continuing to grow.
Stock Down: Kerrith Whyte
Coming into training camp, to make the team, Kerrith Whyte had to show he had more in his bag than just elusiveness and great natural running ability. Those are all great, but the Steelers drafted Anthony McFarland, who also possesses those traits. Thus far, Whyte has not proven to do that.
Whyte has been beaten in backs on backers multiple times, even by safety Marcus Allen three times on Saturday. In the receiving drills against the linebackers, Whyte bobbled a ball that was subsequently picked off by Ulysees Gilbert III. To make the team, Whyte will have to show he can be the returner and improve his all-around showing thus far.
Stock Down: Mason Rudolph
At best, Rudolph had a rocky week. While his mindset was evident on Saturday, as he believes he can be a future starting quarterback in the NFL, he did struggle a good deal in the week.
Friday was a bit of a bounce-back day for him after a horrendous Wednesday. The pool report showed that on Wednesday, Rudolph did not complete a pass in his no-huddle sessions, and should have been intercepted more than a few times save for a few drops by the defense. At best, it was a lukewarm week for Rudolph, who needs to show he has taken a step forward in his progression in 2020.
Stock Up: Ulysees Gilbert III
Coming off a season that ended early for him due to a back injury, Gilbert III got a vote of confidence from the Steelers as they released Mark Barron and didn’t add anyone else through the draft. With snaps needing to be filled in sub packages, it seemed likely the athletic Gilbert III would step into that role with no regular-season NFL defensive snaps in his career.
Gilbert III, thus far, has proven that faith to be correct. Not only did he get an interception off Kerrith Whyte in the running backs versus linebackers coverage drill, but Gilbert III has registered multiple pass breakups throughout the week. While he detailed that he wants to take a mental leap, Gilbert III’s showing thus far allows his stock to rise significantly.
Stock Down: Corliss Waitman
Special teamers that are coming in for tryouts are in a precarious spot at best, given the current conditions due to the coronavirus pandemic. With no preseason games, it is harder to evaluate kicking and punting competitions, and teams will have to create competitive environments to see who can stem the tide either way.
For undrafted punter Corliss Waitman, it is that fact that lowers his stock. Danny Smith and Tomlin both were confident in the fact that they could create a competitive punter competition given the conditions. Still, with Jordan Berry already on the roster, Waitman has an uphill battle. Berry’s 300 punts as the incumbent will make him especially hard to unseat, and Smith’s comments seemed to hammer that home quite well.
Stock Up: Anthony McFarland
Anthony McFarland came into training camp with a lot of buzz from just his college tape at Maryland, and so far, he has proven that hype to be real. The former Terrapins running back continues to have an outstanding camp in the opening week. Devin Bush even called a McFarland a “really, really good running back.”
McFarland’s first day at camp included a large number of reps in the backs on backers drill, and he was described as a tough out on that day. The media pool saw McFarland hit holes with great explosiveness and burst, and even showcase a nasty dead leg cut that froze defenders.
His most impressive play of the week may have come on a flip pass. McFarland caught the pass and reversed the field to get a massive gain after the catch. On Saturday, McFarland drew Vince Williams in backs on backers, which is another ringing endorsement of confidence for McFarland from this week.
Stock Down: Derwin Gray
When the Steelers practiced on Saturday, it was JC Hassenauer that was announced as the starting right guard. With David DeCastro and Kevin Dotson, both nursing injuries, Hassenauer proved to be the third man on the interior offensive line depth chart.
That does not bode well for second-year, former seventh-round pick Derwin Gray, who is trying to find himself a spot on the roster after being on the practice squad last season. While Gray was no slam dunk to get the place Hassenauer is currently in, if anyone makes the team as a ninth offensive lineman, it would seem that guy is Hassenauer and not Gray. If Gray wants to make the 53-man roster, he will have to prove he can leapfrog Hassenauer on the depth chart.
Steelers Postgame Show: Are Second Half Issues a Concern Despite 6-0 Record?
Despite it getting close at the end, the Steelers found a way to win again and are now sitting pretty at 6-0. Host Mike Asti welcomed Daniel Valente, who serves as a football editor at The Score, to discuss a game Pittsburgh almost let slip away.
What changed in the second half to allow it to become a game? Why was JuJu Smith-Schuster able to be more involved in the Steelers offense? Where do the Steelers rank among the best teams in the NFL, and how much does that still rely on what they do next week against Baltimore. Mike and Daniel answered all those questions and more on this Steelers edition of Pittsburgh Postgame on Pittsburgh Sports Live.
Scouting Report: Play-Action Game Fuels Titans Offense
Heading into Week 7, the Steelers have their first 5-0 record since 1978. However, they face their stiffest test yet in the undefeated Tennessee Titans in Nashville. Even after a strong performance in Week 6 against the Browns, the Steelers are reeling from the loss of Devin Bush. Meanwhile, the Titans are going to be missing their best offensive lineman in Left Tackle Taylor Lewan. What are the Steelers facing as they head into an undefeated clash on Sunday?
Titans Offensive Coordinator Arthur Smith has been with the organization for nearly a decade at this point. However, he has his own unique scheme that was influenced by the former offensive coordinator and now Packers Head Coach Matt LaFleur. The Titans run out of primarily a run-based offense supplemented by play action. In fact, most of the time, this is a team that runs 12 or 21 personnel and only keeps two wide receivers on the field as a result. They have a clear brand of physicality up front that builds off of Derrick Henry and allows Ryan Tannehill to shred defenses behind the run defense as they try to slow down Henry.
The Titans only use one wide receiver here and are in 21 personnel. They love to get their tight ends involved in the passing game over the middle of the field. However, crossers, curls, digs, and other key routes over the middle of the field with their receivers are huge too. They pull out a curl here and get an easy first down as a result of the linebackers keying in on the run and vacating the space behind them. They make everything look the same and give a lot of eye candy pre and post-snap to throw linebackers off to vacate those middle of the field zones. The stress placed on those defenders in the box is immense.
In terms of running the football, the Titans run a multi-dimensional scheme. Gap and zone runs are included, but with a big back like Henry, they run more outside zone than one would expect. In fact, the Titans on average run more zone than they do gap, as the split zone and inside zone series in their playbook are extensive. Duo is another favorite of Smith’s to pull out. This play above is a spilt zone run, and they get the linebackers and safety to flare out with the tight end on that flare motion. As such, it opens up a huge gap and lane for Henry to run right through. Smith gets creative with this eye candy post-snap to create throwing or running lanes.
The last key concept in the Titans offense is space. The Steelers have a great pass rush and may be able to force the Titans into their shotgun looks and plain dropbacks as a result. In which case, that is when they rely on space and traffic to cause havoc. Much like the Steelers, they love to utilize space on the boundary out of tight splits and bunch sets. Creating traffic out of these bunch sets is a key way they often convert on third down and medium. The tight split on this play allows Corey Davis enough room to attack that leverage and get open on the out route. It gives an advantage to the receiver.
As far as the defense goes, the Titans run a 3-4 scheme with potent outside linebackers to boot. Mike Vrabel does take some influence from Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots with this defense, make no mistake. As such, the Titans are mostly a Cover 3 and Cover 2 team that likes to use their linebackers and safeties as exotic blitzers. The key to this defense is working is the disguising of coverages. A lot of Tennessee’s turnovers this season have been off of these disguised coverages, and Ben Roethlisberger has to be careful to not get trapped by one of these on Sunday.
Players to Watch
QB Ryan Tannehill
The biggest threat to the Steelers in this game, Tannehill is the guy that takes this offense to the next level. Make no mistake, while the system does fit Tannehill like a glove, he has played at an extremely high level this season. Tannehill has been smart, efficient, and more importantly, he has taken care of the football thus far on the season. With his athleticism, Tannehill can extend the play or take off when needed as well. It is his combination of smarts and precise accuracy that make him such a dangerous passer to all levels of the field.
RB Derrick Henry
If Tannehill is the guy that elevates the team, then Henry is the engine that allows Tannehill the flexibility to elevate that offense. Henry is a big, bruising back that is now for running over guys and stiff-arming them into oblivion, much like he did to Josh Norman two weeks ago. For a man so big, Henry is fast and quick as well. This is either the best or second-best running back the Steelers have faced this season, and with fancy window dressing and schematics to help him, Henry is going to be an issue.
WR A.J. Brown
A star that broke onto the scene last year, A.J. Brown is becoming an even better receiver in his second season. He lives in the middle of the field, and more importantly, Brown is a menace after the catch. With a dense frame and great contact balance, Brown is able to break tackles and evade tacklers with ease all game. His physicality allows him to separate at a high level and create space for open throwing windows. The Steelers will have to be worried about Brown all game.
S Kevin Byard
There are lots of talented players on the Titans defense, but safety Kevin Byard is a former All-Pro and a certified ballhawk on the back end of the defense. A rangy free safety, Byard allows the Titans to switch up and disguise their coverages with his rare athleticism, ball-hawking skills, and instincts. The Steelers will have to be wary of Byard at all times as he can change the momentum of a game in one play.
Matchups to Watch
Malcolm Butler vs Chase Claypool
This is a matchup that will fly under the radar, but this one could be a huge advantage for the Steelers. The Titans will be without speedy cornerback Adoree Jackson, and that means if the Steelers want it, they can line up Chase Claypool on Malcolm Butler. Butler has struggled with faster receivers this year, and was burnt by Will Fuller for a big touchdown last week on a miscommunication. Claypool’s size and speed is a huge mismatch in this matchup and it would not be surprising to see an explosive play from this matchup.
Robert Spillane vs Titans Tight Ends
Tasked with covering David Njoku last week, Spillane rose to the occasion in the short zones he was asked to man. However, Tennessee attacks up the seam and over the middle, which is a place where Spillane was not tested last week. That aspect of his coverage ability is currently unknown. With Devin Bush out and the Steelers missing that athleticism, it would stand to reason that this Spillane’s audition and will be huge in determining how the Steelers approach the linebacker situation in the future.
Ty Sambrello vs Bud Dupree
With Taylor Lewan out for the season, backup left tackle Ty Sambrello will take over his spot. J.J. Watt did get a strip-sack off of Sambrello last week, but after that, Sambrello settled in quite nicely. Now, he will be tested with the explosive and powerful Bud Dupree who leads the Steelers in sacks up to this point. It will be a matchup where Dupree has the edge and in similar matchups this year, he has taken advantage of these matchups.
Steelers Sign P Jordan Berry, Elevate Trey Edmunds, Jayrone Elliott from Practice Squad
The Steelers officially signed veteran punter Jordan Berry, who previously punted for Pittsburgh from 2015 to 2020, and elevated two players from the practice squad.
Berry came in for a visit this past week after the Steelers released veteran punter Dustin Colquitt, who was signed to replace Berry right before the start of the regular season.
Despite the team’s 5-0 record, Mike Tomlin hinted Colquitt’s struggles could trigger a change at punter.
In other news, running back Trey Edmunds and linebacker Jayrone Elliott have both been elevated from the practice squad ahead of the team’s Week 7 game in Tennessee against the Titans. This marks the second time Edmunds has been elevated from the practice squad this season.