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Steelers Training Camp

Training Camp Takeaways: Battle Begins at Right Tackle

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On Monday, the Pittsburgh Steelers finally had their first day with the pads on. It was the first time since December that the Steelers ever had pads on, and it may have just been the most eventful day of the short offseason the Steelers have had thus far.

With a plethora of press conferences, a live video feed, and of course, the first contact in pads, there was a lot to take note of from this first day. Here are some of those critical takeaways and reports from all of what was heard and seen today.

Minor Injuries Arise

The Steelers, unfortunately, did suffer three injuries of note before Monday. Center Maurkice Pouncey missed practice but was excused due to personal reasons.

Karl Dunbar and Mike Tomlin both noted that Chris Wormley was dealing with a lower-body injury. James Washington and David DeCastro also missed today with minor injuries, but Tomlin characterized all three as day-to-day.

“I fully expect all three of those guys to be full participants here in a short number of days,” Tomlin said.

Overall, the Steelers look relatively healthy for now.

Battle at Right Tackle Begins

The right tackle position is the biggest starting spot that is currently up for grabs on the entire Steelers roster. Chukwuma Okorafor and Zach Banner are expected to battle it out, entering camp as a toss-up.

On Monday, it was Okorafor who received the first first-team reps at right tackle, but Tomlin said he has a plan for dividing the workload and to not necessarily make too much out of one day of work.

“It will be thoughtful, but it will be based on the drills of the day and things of that nature,” Tomlin said. “It will be fair, but I wouldn’t necessarily rep count.”

From starting the Rams game last season to taking the first first-team reps on Monday, it would seem Okorafor is the favorite right now over Banner, but it’s early in the process.

Contract Woes

The Steelers are trying to work around an uncertain cap room number for the 2021 NFL season, but before then, they must clear money before the 2020 season. To accomplish both of those goals, signing Cam Heyward to a long-term extension makes a lot of sense. With Heyward entering the last year of his deal and an extension lowering his 2020 cap hit, it would seem an extension would be natural.

However, on Monday, Heyward said contract talks have gone nowhere.

“Honestly, there are no new updates,” Heyward said. “We’re in, what, the third week of camp? Nothing of any substance. Y’all know where I stand. I want to be a Pittsburgh Steeler and lead this team to a Super Bowl. We’ll see where we are. I love my team. I love my teammates. I love this city and the coaches. I love being a Pittsburgh Steeler. You have to take two to tango. I want to be here. We just have to see what happens.”

Meanwhile, star wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster is also looking to make big money as he enters a contract year. After a subpar third year, Smith-Schuster needs to have a bounce-back season to get paid what he will likely want. He was asked about his thoughts on his contract situation today and shrugged it off.

“As of that right now, I’m not worried about that,” Smith-Schuster said. “It’s more so just playing ball.”

The Steelers will have to decide what to do in the next few weeks before the season, as they typically do not negotiate contracts in season

A Vote of Confidence for Tyson Alualu

The Steelers will have to replace Javon Hargrave at nose tackle after he left Pittsburgh to head to the other side of the state with the Philadelphia Eagles. The main player talked about this offseason thus far has always been Tyson Alualu.

While Mike Tomlin did say “nothing is decided” yet between Alualu and Daniel McCullers, the press conferences today with Heyward, Karl Dunbar, and even Tomlin himself show they are high on Alualu.

“Tyson  has been in this league, and he played a lot in Okie and a lot at the defensive end position when [Stephon] Tuitt went down last year,” Dunbar said. “I think there’s a lot of, I guess you could say, comfort food in having some guy that’s been on the field before that can do it.”

Tomlin praised Alualu for showing up to training camp in great shape, while Heyward gave props to his experience and dependability in the rotation. While it seems McCullers has a chance to win the spot, Alualu certainly seems to have the inside track to the starting spot given his experience.

Backs on Backers Proves Vital

The Steelers made sure to run backs on backers right from the jump of training camp, as they do every year. On the very first day, however, it was rookies Anthony McFarland and Alex Highsmith that got a bulk of the reps as the coaching staff tried to get them acclimated to the NFL style. Tomlin described the drill for them as a “platform of learning” and McFarland was a tough out in the drill.

For new signee Wendell Smallwood, it was a rough day in the backs on backers drill. He was repeatedly beaten, and while he showed his physicality when running the ball, pass protection is a big part of Smallwood’s path to the 53-man roster. He feels increasingly more and more like a practice squad player given his utility. It is only the first day, but that is not the ideal start to training camp for Smallwood.

Keeping an Eye on the Tight Ends

Tomlin and Kevin Colbert each watched the tight ends closely in individuals as they monitored them working the sleds. Tomlin worked with the new faces, including Eric Ebron. Tomlin most importantly seemed to want to instill the mentality and importance of blocking to the tight ends.

“Letting guys know what drills are part of individual period that are important to us and to me. And so, I’m routinely watching the tight ends when they are getting their sled work because I want to present that consistency to them because I want them to know how important that skillset is,” Tomlin said.

He was rewarded, as the tight ends seemed to have a rather standout day. Vance McDonald made a leaping grab over Terrell Edmunds, which turned out to be the highlight of the day. Ebron got praise for his energy and physicality against rookie Highsmith in backs on backers.

Steelers Training Camp

Training Camp Takeaways: Right Tackle Battle as Close as Ever

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The Steelers are still vetting their right tackle battle between Chukwuma Okorafor and Zach Banner, and the highly anticipated winner may not be decided until the game day it appears. While Banner and Okorafor have both appeared to have good camps, Mike Tomlin is in no rush to decide who is the winner of the battle, even though the team has to put out an NFL-mandated depth chart on Monday.

“Yeah, you may see ‘or’ listed on that depth chart on Monday,” Tomlin said after the team’s final training camp session of 2020 on Friday.

Tomlin made it very clear that the reason he is in no rush is that he feels both Banner and Okorafor are quality NFL tackles in the NFL. Despite a healthy competition for weeks, neither has separated themselves, and whichever player starts against the New York Giants a week from Monday, there is no guarantee they’ll finish the game at that spot.

“I think it’s been a challenging decision for us because both guys are capable,” Tomlin said. “Both guys have been consistently above the line in their performance. Those are good problems to have. I don’t know if I necessarily view it as a negative thing with whoever gets named starter could have a short leash, et cetera. I think we’ve seen two guys who are capable NFL starters at that position battling it out. That’s why we are not in a hurry to make a decision from my perspective.”

Banner is focused on improving his game after extensively watching his 2019 film. With a full offseason of finally being secure on a 53-man roster, Banner feels like he has an opportunity to win the job over Okorafor.

“Watching film on myself and just focusing on myself is probably the biggest priority I can focus on,” Banner said. “Paying attention to my pass sets and how I’m coming off the ball, both for the run and the pass. Hand usage and being physical. Just things like that. Staying within the parameters of my own mental.”

Defense Shows Out in Seven Shots

In the final seven shots of training camp, the pool report detailed an impressive showing by the defense. The first rep was a miscommunication between Ben Roethlisberger and Diontae Johnson, as Roethlisberger threw it behind Johnson. Minkah Fitzpatrck made a nice play to knock a ball away from Eric Ebron on the next rep.

The next two plays were the two wins for the offense. James Washington caught a quick pass for a touchdown from Roethlisberger. On the next play, the offense pounded the rock in with a Benny Snell touchdown run. However, that was the last victory they Had in the period.

On the next play, Ola Adeniyi knocked down a Mason Rudolph pass at the line of scrimmage. Cam Sutton came roaring off the edge on the sixth rep and that rushed Rudolph to force an incomplete pass. To end off the session, Rudolph targeted Chase Claypool in the end zone, but undrafted free agent James Pierre knocked the ball away from Claypool.

Stephon Tuitt Dismantles the Line

While his return was heavily anticipated by the Steelers, Stephon Tuitt let the team know he was back on Friday. The pool report details an impressive red zone period for the game wrecking defensive lineman who comes off season-ending surgery with high expectations.

Tuitt, on two straight plays, blew right through the offensive lineman in front of him. On both plays, Tuitt got to the quarterback and registered two sacks on the day. After a dominant start to his 2019 season, it is no surprise to see Tuitt destroying offensive lineman. He and Cam Heyward look to be one of the top interior pass-rushing duos in the NFL.

The Question of David DeCastro’s Health

One of the more concerning questions coming into the day was the health of David DeCastro. Tomlin in the past has described his injury as a lower-body injury. He did not practice on Friday. With DeCastro now having been out an entire week with the injury, Tomlin was asked about it at his post-practice press conference to outline his plan for DeCastro.

“He wasn’t good enough to go today,” Tomlin said. “Hopefully, he will be good enough to go the first of next week. We do have a bonus day on Monday. I don’t know if I want to expose him to that. Hopefully, we will see what it looks like as we get into the normal rhythm of our preparation week.”

Tomlin sounded hopeful but by no means certain that DeCastro will be able to suit up against the Giants in just over a week. Should DeCastro not be able to go, Stefen Wisniewski or Kevin Dotson will be the likely replacements to step into his spot.

The Mysterious 53rd Roster Spot

Tuzar Skipper ended up getting released on Friday, and thus far he is the only Steelers roster cut that is known. However, his release throws the final spot on the Steelers roster into limbo. They did sign Jayrone Elliott, who has experience in the system and is a special teams standout. Still, that is no guarantee that Elliott is guaranteed to make the roster. He seems to be the natural fit, but it is not certain.

The other main candidate is standout cornerback Pierre. Pierre has shown up at training camp and made plays against guys like Washington and Claypool. Pierre has also made plays on special teams. It is no guarantee that the team keeps six cornerbacks, but Pierre has a legitimate chance to knock off the fifth outside linebacker in favor of himself with his impressive camp.

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Steelers

Highlights from Steelers Practice 9/4/20

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Jaylen Samuels and Benny Snell runs drills to improve their footwork and pass catching abilities while Zach Banner works out with other linemen during Steelers practice at Heinz Field on Friday, September 4, 2020.

Footage courtesy Pittsburgh Steelers

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Steelers Training Camp

Gallery: Steelers Wrap Training Camp at Heinz Field

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The Steelers wrapped up their 2020 training camp on Friday with a final practice at Heinz Field before Saturday’s roster cuts. When the team reconvenes on Monday for its first regular-season practice of the year, they’ll do so on the South Side at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex, the team’s usual practice home.

The Steelers and Pitt Panthers both usually spend nearly all of their practice time on the South Side and the Steelers usually spend training camp at St. Vincent College near Latrobe, Pa. So it may be quite some time before another Steelers practice takes place in at Heinz Field.

Here’s one final look at the Black and Gold practicing in their usual game-day digs. Photos courtesy Pittsburgh Steelers.

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