PITTSBURGH — Ray-Ray McCloud made a statement on Thursday. On separate individual reps as the Steelers wide receivers and defensive backs went at each other 1-on-1 with just the quarterback as the only other player involved, McCloud faced both Minkah Fitzpatrick and rookie Mark Gilbert and took their ankles both times.
McCloud, who got his NFL start primarily as a kick returner, has basketball-like releases in which he can crossover defenders and make cuts in a quick and explosive fashion. Those were very much on display with his quick feet and fantastic eyes to divert the defensive backs and get their hips turned.
Diontae Johnson was great that drill this as well as a pure route runner. He beat Cam Sutton and Fitzpatrick on separate occasions. Sutton was put in the blender on a gorgeous in-route as Johnson made a deceptive cut with both his head and eyes to the back pylon before crossing Sutton’s face to win back inside.
James Pierre was a standout on the other side of the ball. With Joe Haden given the day off, Pierre faced top competition in James Washington and Chase Claypool, Pierre won both reps against them by playing through the catch point. As Claypool tried to elevate for the pass, Pierre put his arm perfectly in between his hands and knocked it away. More importantly, Pierre is getting his head around and did so on both reps. So, these were clean plays that would not have yielded flags either.
Sutton and Claypool are the most heated battle of camp currently. They split reps against each other, going back to Wednesday in seven shots and the team period on Tuesday. On one rep, Sutton skied with Claypool to play the ball through the catch point once Claypool tried to body catch it. That is something that Claypool must clean up, but it was a solid play by Sutton.
Tre Norwood was a big winner in this drill as well. Facing Isaiah McKoy, Norwood stoned McKoy at the line with great hands and physicality. At the catch point, Norwood initially went for the tip but concentrated once the ball was in the air and snagged it for an interception. That was one of two interceptions on the day for Norwood.
JuJu Smith-Schuster made a nifty bobbling, toe-tapping grab akin to the one he made in Oakland a few years ago. Against Antoine Brooks Jr., Smith-Schuster simply made a bad throw into a touchdown, even with Brooks in his hip pocket on the play.
Seven shots is a daily set of players from the two-yard line, featuring the Steelers No. 1 offense vs. No. 1 defense for three plays, No. 2 offense vs. No. 2 defense for two plays and the No. 3 offense vs. No. 3 defense for two plays.
🏈: Ben Roethlisberger threw to Smith-Schuster in the right corner of the end zone, but Smith-Schuster couldn’t come down with two feet in bounds. Pierre had coverage.
🏈: The offense got Claypool isolated against Sutton to the left of the formation and Roethlisberger threw it up to the big second-year target, who came down with it, getting in a win in what has been a heated one-on-one battle at times through the early part of camp.
🏈: Roethlisberger found Claypool again, as he motioned to the slot to put three receivers on the left of the formation and then darted over the middle in front of linebacker Ulysees Gilbert III.
🏈: Arthur Maulet came untouched on a blitz from the right slot and sacked Mason Rudolph.
🏈: Rudolph rolled left to escape pressure and found McCloud just over the goal line, sitting in between Gilbert and Buddy Johnson in zone coverage.
🏈: Dwayne Haskins connected with Tyler Simmons for a score on a corner route over Stephen Denmark.
🏈: Haskins went to his hot read on a blitz, but tight end Dax Raymond didn’t get his head around in time and the pass caromed off the back of his helmet. Lamont Wade had coverage.
Norwood was a real winner from the day. The two interceptions indicated above, including one of former Oklahoma State rival quarterback Mason Rudolph, caused Norwood to be one of the biggest winners from the day. In a Cover 3 robber scheme, Norwood was the robber over the middle of the field and simply jumped an errant pass by Rudolph. It was a bad read by Rudolph, and a good play for Norwood to be heads up.
Norwood has been especially smart and the Steelers are simply keeping him at safety for now to get him comfortable. However, if he continues to make plays like he did today, it is hard to not envision Norwood being the main backup to Fitzpatrick in the event he should be injured.
“He’s a sharp kid,” Tomlin said. “He communicates well. At this stage of the journey, that communication indicates understanding. That’s a good place to be in a guy in his spot. We’ll keep putting him in position to do what he’s done so far.”
STANDOUT DAY FOR DENMARK
Stephen Denmark is one of those defensive backs that is still stuck in limbo as the Steelers hold an open competition for some of the lower roster spots in the cornerback room. But at 6-foot-2, Denmark has length and plenty of athleticism that he flashed today. He and the impressive Rico Bussey had quite a battle today. Bussey and Denmark split their reps, and Denmark made a near-spectacular one-handed grab on a deep route.
In the one-on-ones, Denmark made a few plays with two pass breakups. On the day, Denmark made six pass breakups and only surrendered two catches. It was only one day, but with his fluidity and explosiveness for his size, Denmark is a very intriguing player who has to be watched closely on the roster bubble.
PUNTERS GET A TURN
Punters Jordan Berry and Pressley Harvin III have been competing all the way through camp, but they took a turn at center stage on Thursday, with the punters featuring heavily in full-squad special teams drills for the first time. Harvin drew a strong comparison from Tomlin.
“He looked like Ray Guy a time or two, didn’t he?” Tomlin said. “Those guys have been battling. We respect all the battles that are going on out here.”
Tomlin was displeased when the defense won a two-minute drill rep after Fitzpatrick tackled Fitzpatrick with in bounds, allowing the clock to run out. He was more upset about the lack of awareness by the offense than the defense making a strong play.
“At 15 seconds, we’ve got to take shots at the end zone,” Tomlin said. “When Minkah tackled that guy on the field of play, the game is over and we’ve got to have that level of awareness. It was annoying, yes, but I also acknowledge that the learning process is part of this.”
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