The Steelers limped through another victory on Sunday, beating the Cleveland Browns on Sunday with a number of absences, particularly on offense.
Randy Fichtner’s unit faced their divisional rivals without their starting quarterback, center, running back, and No. 1 wide receiver on Sunday, and still came away with victory.
This week, as the Steelers prepare to visit the Arizona Cardinals, they’re hoping to get some of those weapons backs. Preseason fourth-stringer Devlin Hodges will once again be under center, but All Pro Maurkice Pouncey will be the man snapping him the ball as he’s returned from his two-game suspension.
Top skill position targets James Conner and JuJu Smith-Schuster’s status remain up in the air.
“We still don’t have a lot of clarity on James Conner and JuJu,” head coach Mike Tomlin said on Tuesday. “I’d probably characterize both guys as questionable as I stand here today. They’ve got some work in front of them in terms of rehabilitation and maybe practice participation.”
Tomlin said both players were at the facility getting treatment on Monday in an attempt to get ready for practice this week. Practice participation usually guides the Steelers’ decision making when it comes to whether or not to play injured players.
“Conner probably has a better chance of practicing in some capacity tomorrow than JuJu,” Tomlin added. “We’ll take it day-by-day and see where it leads us.”
Conner was injured in the waning moments of the Steelers’ Week 8 win over the Miami Dolphins on Oct. 28. He was diagnosed with a sprained AC joint in his shoulder, and tried to return three weeks later against the Cleveland Browns on Nov. 14, but was pulled once again after just five carries.
On the season, Conner has 102 carries for 309 yards in eight games, with his 3.8 yards per carry figure down from the 4.5 he posted in each of his first two seasons.
He’s been replaced by Jaylen Samuels and Benny Snell, with the latter of which growing into his role over the last two weeks. Snell had 16 carries for 63 yards and his first career touchdown against the Browns in Week 13, after posing career highs with 21 carries and 98 yards against the Bengals in Week 12.
Smith-Schuster has been replaced by James Washington and Diontae Johnson. Washington had his best performance as a pro on Sunday, bringing down all four targets for 111 yards and a touchdown.
Chase Claypool Working, Developing with T.J. Houshmanzadeh
Steelers rookie wide receiver Chase Claypool was the team’s highest draft pick in the 2020 NFL Draft after the Steelers selected him with the 49th overall pick. While he and other rookies have missed rookie minicamp due to COVID-19, Claypool is still making sure to get work in during the offseason.
On social media, Claypool has been posting numerous videos of himself working out with former Bengals wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh. The former Bengals receiver was a long time nemesis of the Steelers, but Claypool certainly has appreciated Houshmandzadeh’s help during the downtime.
“I worked out with him in the pre-draft process all the way up until now, so I got a lot of work in with him. He kind of really – he was really excited for me, where I went because he thought it was a great fit for me, He thought I’d do really well just in the system,” Claypool said.
Coming out of Notre Dame, one of the biggest criticisms of Claypool’s game was his route running and ability to win off the line of scrimmage with his releases. The innate ability to defeat press coverage and attack leverage with his consistency to create separation was not there. However, Claypool seems to have been hard at work to try and fix those issues.
“You know, we worked on a lot of things, but the two main things were top of the route and then releases that we did. We did a lot of technique stuff within those two categories. The work with him definitely paid off,” Claypool said of his work with Houshmandzadeh.”
It is clear that Claypool’s physical tools lend themselves to potentially be a downfield threat. In some ways, he already is a vertical threat with his physicality and contested-catch ability being his main selling points. It seems even to the Steelers staff that is part of the allure of having Claypool on the roster. Certainly, Claypool recognizes his physicality as an asset.
“I think I can do that (be physical) within my route running, in terms of just releasing downfield. I release pretty aggressively, going to attack the ball,” Claypool remarked when asked about how he showcases his physicality.
With weaknesses to fix and limited offseason programs, Claypool could be limited. His on-field action on offense could be limited to redzone reps and a small route tree. If he can leverage his size and physicality with some new improvements from his training with Houshmandzadeh, Claypool can make a big impact even this early into his career.
The Steelers drafted Claypool with the intention of making him a boundary receiver. Steelers Now previously highlighted how Claypool could impact opposing defenses with his athleticism and size on the boundary. Creating separation is paramount in the modern NFL. Should Claypool improve his ability to create separation, the Steelers offense will be that much more dangerous. The training with Houshmandzadeh should help Claypool’s growth to reach his high ceiling in the Steelers offense.
Steelers Place Samuels, Washington on COVID-19 List, Release 8
Pittsburgh Steelers running back Jaylen Samuels and wide receiver James Washington have been placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list, the team announced Sunday.
This brings the team total to four players on the reserve/COVID-19. Pittsburgh placed defensive backs Justin Layne and Arrion Springs on the list last week.
The team also announced the release of eight players on Sunday. Quarterback J.T. Barrett, running back Ralph Webb, returner Quadree Henderson, offensive lineman Christian Montano, long snapper Christian Kuntz, defensive end Dewayne Hendrix, safety Tyree Kinnel and defensive end Josiah Coatney were all waived. Henderson and Hendrix were former standouts at Pitt, while Kuntz played his college ball at Duquesne.
The reserve/COVID-19 designation was created for players who have either tested positive for the virus, or have been in close contact with an infected individual. Players can be removed from the list once they have been medically cleared. There is no limit to the amount of players a club can place on the list.
A second-round pick in 2018 out of Oklahoma State, Washington is coming off a productive sophomore season that saw him catch 44 passes for 735 yards and three touchdowns. He played in 15 games last year, starting ten.
Selected in the fifth round of the same draft out of NC State, Samuels has turned into a reliable pass catcher out of the backfield, snagging 47 receptions for 305 yards and a score in 2019. He also carried the ball 66 times for 175 yards and a touchdown.
While they are not the first Steelers to receive the designation, Samuels and Washington are definitely more crucial to the team’s immediate plans than Layne and Springs. Getting them healthy and back on the field will be paramount, as the Steelers look to improve on their disastrous offensive output from a year ago with the return of a healthy Ben Roethlisberger.
Steelers, Heyward Have Made Little Progress Towards Extension, Per Agent
The Pittsburgh Steelers and defensive end Cam Heyward are no closer to agreeing to a long-term contract extension, according to the star’s agent.
Speaking with ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler, Heyward’s agent Michael Perrett of Element Sports Group divulged that the team and his client have made no significant advances towards a new deal.
Perrett reaffirmed that Heyward still wants to retire as a Steeler, but acknowledged that COVID-19 has made the path to an agreement more challenging.
“I thought we’d be further along in the process. In a normal year, we might be,” he told ESPN. “The current situation has led to a lot of uncertainty, but NFL business is still moving forward. Cam would love to retire a Steeler, but at this point, he just doesn’t know how all of this is going to play out.”
According to Fowler, Heyward is not considering holding out, mainly because of his position in the team as a captain and player rep.
Heyward, 31, is coming off one of the best seasons of his career in 2019. With nine sacks, eleven tackles-for-loss and 23 quarterback hits, Heyward earned Pro Bowl and First-Team All-Pro honors a year ago. His 79 tackles-for-loss are the fourth-most in franchise history.
While other high-profile pass rushers have signed new deals this offseason, including the Chiefs’ Chris Jones, the Browns’ Myles Garrett and the Chargers’ Joey Bosa, Heyward still waits.
Even though the Steelers tend to avoid in-season contract negotiations and little progress has been made thus far, the two sides still have the month of August to work out a deal.
Still, if they are not able to get something prior to the season opener, you would think the organization would make an exception for Heyward, considering his desirable combination of leadership and ability.
He has remained consistent that he wants to retire in Pittsburgh. The Steelers would be wise to make his wish a reality.