From all accounts, Devin Bush has made an impressive early start to training, and he made sure to continue that trend on Friday.
In 11-on-11 team drills Friday, the media pool saw Bush recognize a screen pass, defeat a blocker, and then made the tackle immediately as the ball was being caught. Bush made an impressive pass breakup against Anthony McFarland deep down the field as well, as well.
All of that ability comes back to the second-year leap Bush wishes to makes, which he trained for over the offseason.
“I want to be more efficient just with my movements,” Bush said before Friday’s practice session. “I’m not saying my movements were bad, but I’ve seen just playing in the system I played in college and switching to another system in the league, things have to change. I had to get leaner. I had to train differently. I think I’ve done a good job of that in the offseason.”
Stepping into a bigger role in his second year, Bush is being asked by the Steelers to take on a more vocal role. Tomlin praised Bush for showing up in great shape and improving his traits, but he wants to see more improvement in communication.
“I’m looking for that step to be revealed in the quality and the amount of his communication, and he still has room for improvement in that regard,” Tomlin said. “He’s better than he was, but as a defensive quarterback, as you will, I’m really looking for significant maturation in that area.”
Curtis Riley Shines
A standout on Friday was new veteran signee safety, Curtis Riley. With Terrell Edmunds out with an injury, Riley stepped into the lineup and received the first-team snaps. Riley nabbed an interception by ripping the ball right out of Eric Ebron’s hands after he said a defensive lineman deflected the pass. On punt coverage, Riley sprinted down the field, dove for the ball at the goal line, saved it, and downed it at the one-yard line. With a standout day, Riley is feeling more comfortable than ever, despite having just joined the team at the outset of training camp.
“I think I am doing pretty well,” he said. “It is actually a similar defense that I ran my first few years in Tennessee. It was easier picking it up. Just had to learn the terminology and how they play things,” Riley said.
In a safety room that is starving for quality depth, a strong day on both defense and special teams will help Riley in his pursuit to make the final 53-man roster.
Maryland Rookies Have a Superb Day
McFarland continues to have lots of buzz from out of the locker room. Often praised by both players and coaches alike, the Steelers fourth-round pick has made quite the impression in only a small number of days. On Friday, Bush praised the former Terrapins running back, whom he faced in the Big Ten at Michigan.
“Anthony McFarland is a really, really good running back,” Bush said. “I played him in previous years in college. I’m already familiar with his skillset. He’s doing a good job of adjusting. He’s going through his rookie things with just learning how to be a professional, how to take on practice and compete.”
The pool report detailed an impressive day for McFarland, whose top-end was fully on display at practice. He also showcased a dead leg cut that froze defenders and was able to instantly hit the gas pedal and explode after his cuts. However, the standout play was in the team session. McFarland caught a flip pass out of the backfield and proceeded to pull theatrics by crossing the field for a big gain after the catch.
McFarland was not the only former Maryland player that had an impressive day. Rookie safety Antoine Brooks showcased his strengths at practice. Brooks illustrated his physicality in sideline drills against the running backs. More importantly, in team sessions, Brooks flashed his impressive natural open-field tackling ability. Brooks is in a competition to make the roster in a safety room with shallow depth, and another standout day only helps his argument.
Right Tackle Competition Will Rage On
Chukwuma Okorafor and Zach Banner have been in a fierce battle this week. Okorafor has received first-team snaps, but Banner has turned heads with his intensity and performance this week. With such a tight race, Mike Tomlin refuses to rush to pick a winner, and he might not for some time.
“We’ll go until we get definitive clarity,” Tomlin said. “We’ve got two really good, capable men there, guys that are not new to us and new to the challenge. We’re excited about watching those guys sort themselves out, and we’re looking for as many ways as we can to create an atmosphere where they can definitively separate themselves. When we get to that spot, we will know it, but until then, we will continue to work to create opportunities for them to distinguish themselves.”
Offensive Line coach Shaun Sarrett praised both Okorafor and Banner. Still, he agreed with Tomlin’s sentiments, saying that he is “not going to be forced to make that decision right now.” However, his praise for both shows how good he feels about either one of them.
“I’ll commend both of those guys,” Sarrett said. Both of those guys came in the best shape that I’ve seen since I’ve been here. I commend them both. They know what they’re practicing for every day. They’re not just going out to practice. They’re going out there competing for a job, every rep, every drill, every walk through. That’s meaningful to those guys, and they’ve done a great job with it.”
As far as who will win the right tackle job, it is still up in the air. It seems to be a true flip of the coin situation.
Mason Rudolph Bounces Back
After a rough Wednesday, it was a welcome sight to see the positive review that Rudolph received on Friday. Rudolph made a good throw off a play-action pass to an open Eric Ebron for a big gain of 20 yards on a play. Rudolph also executed a nifty flip pass to McFarland and a perfectly executed screen on his part.
While it is minor, it is good to see Rudolph back in the positive light as he enters a critical prove-it season as Ben Roethlisberger’s backup. If he fails to meet expectations and take a step forward, the Steelers may take a quarterback early in the 2021 NFL Draft.
Training Camp Takeaways: Right Tackle Battle as Close as Ever
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.
Highlights from Steelers Practice 9/4/20
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
Gallery: Steelers Wrap Training Camp at Heinz Field
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.