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Training Camp Takeaways: Diontae Johnson Dominates the Day

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While Diontae Johnson has been sidelined for a good deal of camp due to a nagging calf injury, he made his presence known immediately on Thursday. The pool report detailed nothing short a dominant day for the second year Toledo product.

To open up the practice, Johnson and Ben Roethlisberger connected on a big 30-yard pass play down the field, which Johnson caught in stride. Later on, in the red zone period, Johnson caught a fade from Roethlisberger, dragging his feet to stay in bounds and get a touchdown. Roethlisberger and Johnson hooked up once again later in the practice on a deep 20-yard out route as well.

All in all, it was a massively impressive day for Johnson, who has strong year two expectations after an extremely promising rookie campaign. Johnson also seemed to be named the starting punt returner heading into week one against the New York Giants. Special Teams have been hard to evaluate, as Mike Tomlin noted, but he has complete confidence in Johnson’s abilities.

“I’m extremely comfortable with the utilization of Diontae [Johnson] along with his offensive workload,” Tomlin said. “He has real talents in that area and a desire to do so. I thought he just got better and better over the course of last year and I think he ended up making an All-AP team or something.”

Johnson led the NFL in broken tackles and separation per target last year. Those are just two stats that were impressive for the third-round pick. Johnson is expected to be the starting X-receiver heading into the 2020 season.

Jaylen Samuels Locks His Spot on the Roster

The fourth running back spot on the Steelers roster has been one that was least clear heading into training camp, but now at the end, it is clear as day that Jaylen Samuels will carry that spot into the season. While he had two rushing touchdowns in the red zone period on Friday, Samuels got effusive praise from Tomlin today about his skillset.

“He is continuing to be impressive with his versatility,” Tomlin said. “I think that is the thing that has always kind of distinguished him in a competitive setting among his peers. His ability to do a variety of things at a relatively high level particularly in the passing game and outside the backfield with his hands and route running. It is above the line from a running back perspective for sure.”

The wording of the quote, specifically to say “above his peers” clearly means the Steelers view Samuels in a positive light. Just last week, Samuels was being worked into packages in the system as well. It clearly signals that Samuels is not going anywhere.

The Offense Lights Up the Red Zone Period

One of the highlights of the practice period may have been the impressive showing by the Steelers offense in the red zone with Roethlisberger as their leader. On all four red zone attempts, the offense won and registered a touchdown. One of those attempts was the fade from Roethlisberger to Johnson.

However, the pool report also mentions an impressive showing to an array of targets. Roethlisberger threw touchdowns to James Washington, JuJu Smith-Schuster, and Eric Ebron as well as Johnson on the period.

The Steelers were ranked last in the NFL in red-zone offense last year but were first with Roethlisberger in the mix in 2018, the Steelers were the best red-zone team in the NFL. With new additions to the weapons group and the influence of Matt Canada, the Steelers hope this carries over to the games.

The Defense Picks off Mason Rudolph Three Times

The defense did get some revenge on the offense, albeit not on Roethlisberger. Throughout the day, Mason Rudolph was the victim of some opportunistic defensive backs that saw blood in the water and capitalized for three overall interceptions on the day per the pool report.

The first was veteran Jordan Dangerfield, who caught a ricochet off the hands of Saeed Blacknall and executed the tip drill to perfection. The Steelers got their fair share of interceptions off similar plays last season. Steven Nelson nearly had two on the day, as he nearly jumped a crossing route by DeAndre Thompkins. However, he did capitalize on a similar play against Amara Darboh, and picked that one-off. The last one was Joe Haden, who intercepted Rudolph to end practice on a 40-yard pass to the end zone.

Rudolph seemed to have somewhat of a rough day as he faced the defense on Thursday. He did make a nice throw to Deon Cain in practice. However, he tried a deep ball to Oklahoma State teammate James Washington and Justin Layne knocked it down. It was likely a day he wants to forget.

 

Steelers

Rooney: Steelers Plan to Return to St. Vincent for 2021 Training Camp

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There is plenty that remains up in the air about the 2021 NFL offseason, but the Pittsburgh Steelers still have plans to resume one of their enduring traditions that was broken by the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.

The Steelers were forced to forgo their trip to the campus of St. Vincent College near Latrobe, Pennsylvania in 2020 due to the NFL’s rules regarding keeping players isolated during the coronavirus pandemic.

It’s unclear how much those restrictions will change for the NFL teams this summer, but as things stand as of today, the Steelers are still making plans to return to the Laurel Highlands for the team’s annual training camp this summer.

“As we sit here today, our plan is to have training camp in Latrobe,” team president Art Rooney II said to Steelers.com on Friday. “We still have a ways to go to get there, but I think there’s a pretty good chance that’s going to be able to happen. We’re still hopeful we’re going to have some form of offseason program, and it’s probably not going to start on time but I think it’s important particularly for the young players that we get back to having an offseason program and then a full training camp and preseason games. I think we need to have that to help the young players continue to develop.”

Displaced from their usual bucolic summer home and from UPMC Rooney Sports Complex on the South Side due to capacity limitations, the Steelers spent the 2020 training camp and preseason at Heinz Field.

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NFL Network Analysts Call Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger 3rd-Best in AFC North

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It appears that quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is likely to return to the Pittsburgh Steelers, with both Roethlisberger’s agent and team president Art Rooney II making public statements that each party desires a return for 2021 this week.

But how much of a difference-maker will Roethlisberger be? That depends on his level of play this coming season.

NFL Network analysts and former NFL players Willie McGinest and LaDainian Tomlinson each ranked the quarterbacks of the AFC North and both said they think Roethlisberger is the third-best quarterback in the division, behind Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson and Cleveland’s Baker Mayfield.

“I’m not taking anything away from Ben,” McGinest said. “Lamar Jackson is special and I put Baker in front of Ben because of what we’ve seen in the progression of Baker the last couple of years. … I see him getting better and Ben fighting father time, with the skills diminishing just a little bit.”

“It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish,” Tomlinson said. “We’ve seen, in spurts, Big Ben play well. He started out hot. But he didn’t finish so well. … He looked old and beat up toward the end of the season. I’m just not sure that improves.”

Statistically, Roethlisberger finished first amongst the four AFC North passers in completion percentage, but he was fourth in yards per attempt and third in passer rating and QBR. Pro Football Focus ranked Roethlisberger last of the division’s four starters in 2020.

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NFL Head Coach: Bud Dupree’s Injury Cause for Uncertainty Entering Free Agency

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Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker Bud Dupree is set to hit free agency in a matter of weeks, but one head coach believes he could be waiting a while to sign.

Speaking with FanSided’s Matt Lombardo, an NFL head coach, speaking anonymously, said Dupree’s season-ending knee injury has made his free agency outlook uncertain.

“Bud Dupree is someone that is a real question mark for me,” the head coach told FanSided. “If he was healthy, he’s easily the top pass-rusher hitting the open market, and teams would pay a king’s ransom to sign him. But, with him coming off a torn ACL, what exactly are you committing to? Does he want to go back to Pittsburgh? Who knows, but he’s someone that I think will wind up having to wait a while to sign.”

Lombardo compares Dupree’s situation to Tennessee Titans defensive end Jadeveon Clowney last offseason.

While he had not suffered a significant injury the season prior with the Houston Texans and Seattle Seahawks, Clowney signed with Tennessee on just a one-year, $12-million deal. He had been expected to be paid handsomely on a lengthier contract, which obviously did not come to fruition.

Clowney was virtually invisible for the Titans, recording no sacks in eight games before being placed on injured reserve in November.

Due to his torn ACL, Dupree could find himself having to settle on a cheaper, one-year “prove it” deal as well. Ideally he would then cash in during the 2022 free agency period is all goes as planned.

Dupree was having another stellar season before tearing his ACL in the Steelers’ Week 12 win over the Baltimore Ravens. He had eight sacks, eight tackles for loss, 15 quarterback hits and a pair of forced fumbles through eleven games.

After playing last season under the franchise tag, which paid Dupree $15.828 million, the Steelers’ dire salary cap situation will most likely prevent them from bringing him back. Still, the brass of the organization has expressed their desire to do so if circumstances were different.

While the knee injury remains a concern, Dupree shared he was ahead of schedule in his recovery when he joined NFL Network’s Good Morning Football late last month.

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