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Training Camp Takeaways: Early Offensive Line Struggles Alarming

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PITTSBURGH — The Steelers offensive line is a ragtag group of nobodies and career journeymen as its stands. Zach Banner returned, but barely. He only was in the team period for the first two plays of seven shots. Kevin Dotson and Chukwuma Okorafor continue to miss practices. Trai Turner and Kendrick Green are there, and they are easily the best two linemen out there as it stands.

However, the Steelers have problems to worry about with their depth. In fact, they have significant worries. Dan Moore Jr. and Joe Haeg have both struggled. In the case of Moore, he just seems so technically raw. His feet and hands are not always in sync. When they are, his hands often get wide. There are natural tools with his athleticism and length there, but Moore lacks the true polish needed to be an immediate contributor. For Haeg, he seems somewhat belabored and easily overpowered. There were times when he was bull-rushed back into the quarterback’s lap.

No one else at tackle seems to stand out in a good way. The tackle depth might just be the biggest problem on the team as is, and there still is no answer as to how good the starting tackles actually are. The hope at this point has to be that they are not only good but that they can stay healthy. Otherwise, this could be a potential disaster season.

The interior looks fine. Almost all the big runs are being blocked well by Turner and Green. There is seldom a big play on the ground from anything below the first-team offensive line at this point. In particular, this team looks brutal when they try to pull guards. Even Turner, who was great at that in the past, looks a little tight in the hips at this point. They have been truly awful on counter, power, and concepts that require a guard to pull. Those gap schemes may have to be thrown down the drain a bit this year. This is an offensive line that is infinitely better at zone blocking thus far.

It is early, and the starting offensive line has yet to take a snap together. However, to make no exceptions to this, the depth at the positions is clearly lacking anyways. And even if the starting offensive line turns out to be solid, one injury could clearly derail the whole thing.

SEVEN SHOTS

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.

🏈: The Steelers came out in a three-receiver formation with the strong side to the right. From outside to inside it goes Diontae Johnson, Chase Claypool, and JuJu Smith-Schuster. Pat Freiermuth is isolated to the backside against James Pierre. The Steelers send the house and Melvin Ingram ripped on through. However, Ben Roethlisberger hit JuJu Smith-Schuster on the hot route for the touchdown.

🏈: The Steelers came out in shotgun again with Najee Harris to Roethlisberger’s right. Claypool was isolated alone to the right side, as well. Roethlisberger looked for Claypool or Harris to be open, but there was tight coverage from Joe Haden and Devin Bush respectively. Being pressured by Ingram, Roethlisberger tried to float it to Freiermuth, but ended up throwing it out the back of the end zone.

🏈: Harris lines up out wide isolated against Ulysees Gilbert III. Roethlisberger clearly had a predetermined read to try and attack the mismatch. Gilbert III attacked Harris at the line. Roethlisberger tried to get to Harris who gained a little separation, but he threw it past the pylon for an incompletion.

🏈: Mason Rudolph ran running the second team today after Haskins took those reps on Saturday. Anthony Johnson broke on an in-route and Rudolph looked for him, but Justin Layne played through Johnson’s hands and got the pass breakup.

🏈: Rudolph motioned Anthony McFarland Jr. out into the slot in an empty formation. He ran a very quick in-route, and Rudolph fired it to him almost immediately. Donovan Stiner could not close on the catch point fast enough and McFarland hauled it in for a touchdown.

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🏈:  Haskins ran the third team. The Steelers isolated Freiermuth to the right side against Stiner, the third time this period that Freiermuth has been isolated on the outside alone. Stiner attempted to press Freiermuth, but Freiermuth shook that off, worked back inside on the slant, and Haskins found him for the touchdown.

🏈: The Steelers ran what looked to be a shovel option. However, Kalen Ballage was covered to the outside and Jamir Jones covered up Kevin Rader on the shovel inside. Haskins tucked it down and took it himself to the endzone for a touchdown.

HIGHLIGHTS FROM ONE-ON-ONE TACKLING

There were two obvious winners from the one-on-one tackling drill portion of practice. Both of those were on the offensive side in Harris and Johnson. For Harris, no one could really tackle him. They put Antoine Brooks Jr. up against Harris, but Harris somehow still managed to just dominate that portion of the drill. On one rep, Brooks went low and popped Harris, and yet he somehow stayed up against defying matters of gravity. The next rep when Brooks went low, Harris simply hurdled Brooks. They faced off twice more, and Harris won those, too.

Meanwhile, Johnson simply could not be handled. He worked against both Robert Spillane and GIlbert III, and both times Johnson put some nifty moves on them to force a missed tackle. Against Spillane, it was a nasty juke and cut to the right that had Spillane leaning the wrong way. Gilbert III simply could not keep up with Johnson’s quick feet. Johnson then took it to Brooks shortly thereafter on after the catch.

There were a few other standout reps from this period. McFarland had a phenomenal rep where he simply was faster than Gilbert III. He zoomed up the sideline away from Gilbert III. On the next rep, McFarland made a pretty cut on GIlbert III on their next rep, and he could not keep up.

Buddy Johnson made a tremendous stick on Trey Edmunds. There was a loud thud that echoed through the stadium as Johnson put the hit on Edmunds. It may have been the all-around best defensive rep on the day. Facing Ballage on another rep, Johnson made a great tackle and put his eyes through Ballage’s thighs to make a textbook tackle.

Pittsburgh Steelers fullback Derek Watt (44) participates in the Organized Team Activities (OTAs), Wednesday June 2, 2021 at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex. (Karl Roser / Pittsburgh Steelers)

DEREK WATT’S OFFENSIVE ROLE

There is a bit of indication that Watt could have a bigger role in the Matt Canada offense than he did last year in Randy Fichtner’s offense. Watt has been used as both a usual fullback and as an H-Back. In fact, as that H-Back today, Roethlisberger hit Watt on a wide-open wheel route off play action. There were two receptions from Watt today, so he is being utilized in some way.

Even in the goal line drill, Watt was used in the offset I-formation and in the I-formation. The offense had moderate success, with Watt blowing up Bush on one play for the touchdown. On the other, Bush snaked his way around Watt to make the stick at the goal line.

Either way, it seems that Watt has some sort of tangential role in this offense this year. How big that role truly is? That remains to be seen, but Canada appears to have a plan for his fullback.

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