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Analysis

Training Camp Takeaways: Eric Ebron Continues to Impress

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Eric Ebron is standing out in a very good way at training camp thus far. James Daniel noted on Tuesday that Ebron “had made a few splash plays” already in camp, and he continued that on Wednesday, not even a day after being called the “missing link” to the offense by fellow tight end Vance McDonald.

On Wednesday, Ebron skied over All-Pro safety Minkah Fitzpatrick to make an impressive contested catch. Later in the team sessions, Ebron laid out to make a fantastic diving catch for a touchdown. Those were the key two plays Ebron flashed in the passing game. Daniel praised Ebron’s receiving skillset.

“Ebron’s calling card for the time he’s been in the League is pass-catching ability, and he’s got some quickness, some speed, route-running stuff that a lot of guys don’t have,” Daniel said.

With the team raving about the energy he brings to the table as well, Ebron’s stock is shooting through the roof.

Ryan Switzer is Turning Heads at Camp

After much criticism throughout a lackluster 2019, Ryan Switzer showed up to training camp looked more shredded than ever before. He was battling for a roster spot, and showing up in the best shape of his life is a good way to impress the coaches. Even with his close relationship with Ben Roethlisberger, Switzer had to prove himself. As the only pure slot on the roster, Switzer has a unique skill set, which Tomlin acknowledged on Wednesday.

“He’s a guy that understands that’s a niche for him,” Tomlin said. “He embraces the detail required to be successful in there. He will continue to carve out his role in this process like everybody else is, but he does bring that unique experience to that position specifically.” 

Switzer made a leaping grab over Mike Hilton on Tuesday for a touchdown, and caught yet another touchdown Wednesday in the two-minute team session along the sideline. It was a broken play by Roethlisberger, and Switzer worked the scramble drill with him to connect for the touchdown. Switzer also caught a key pass on a 3rd and 12 play to convert for a first down in the same two-minute drill session. Truth be told, it seems Switzer is on a mission.

“I have to prove No. 7 (Ben Roethlisberger) right. I have to prove a lot of people right,” Switzer said. That’s what I’ve been focused on. I haven’t focused on the people I’m trying to prove wrong. I’m trying to prove Coach Tomlin and Mr. Colbert and Mr. Rooney right.”

It seems Switzer is making a very strong case to make the 53-man roster at this point as the slot specific receiver on the team.

Inside backers flash in coverage

It was a big day on Wednesday for the inside linebackers, as all of the big three made plays that stood out. Devin Bush made a fantastic play on Anthony McFarland. Bush kept pace with McFarland all the way down the field on a deep pass and made a play in the end zone to bat the ball away. In the team sessions, Bush batted yet another ball away from McFarland.

Vince Williams had a standout rep, as he stayed patient and knocked the ball away from Kerrith Whyte in the linebacker-running back coverage drill. Ulysees GIlbert III continues to delight in camp as he registered a few pass breakups on the day both in the drills and in the team session.

For a unit with some depth concerns, the flashes from all three linebackers atop the depth chart are promising.

Mason Rudolph Struggles

While Roethlisberger continues to get lots of praise at training camp, his backup, Mason Rudolph, struggled on Wednesday. In the no-huddle drill, Rudolph did not complete a single pass. After that, he switched to the two-minute drill, where errant passes and a drop hurt the drive from even getting off the ground.

Rudolph should have been intercepted on a few passes but was not due to bad hands from defenders or good defense from the wide receivers to prevent the interceptions.

Rudolph did throw a nice pass to Deon Cain, but Cain fell before catching it. Rudolph also connected with Chase Claypool for a touchdown on the day. Regardless, it would be better if there were rave reviews coming out of camp about Rudolph, not ones that report he is struggling.

Zach Banner is Making His Case

Banner is in fierce competition with Chuks Okorafor for the starting right tackle spot. While Okorafor saw the first-team reps on Wednesday, Banner has shown out the past two days in an effort to prove he is worthy.

On Tuesday, Banner faced Bud Dupree twice and they split the reps against each other, with Banner impressing coaches. In the one-on-one pass-rush drills, everyone that Banner faced was stymied, including seventh-round rookie Carlos Davis. It was an impressive showing for Banner.

On Wednesday, Banner was light on his feet and looked quick. After transforming his body over the past two years, Banner is in better shape than ever before. Banner even got some work in on the Juggs machine prior to practice.

As the competition develops, if Banner continues to impress, he may force himself into the starting spot.

Snell Down 12

Since reporting to Pittsburgh, it has been noticeable that Benny Snell appeared far slimmer than the 2019 season. On Wednesday, Snell confirmed that he had shed weight. In 2019, Snell weighed 224 pounds but said he has now lost 12 pounds and weighs 212 pounds.

Despite that, Snell did it all on his own, which earned the praise of Mike Tomlin. Snell clarified the reasons as to why he and the coaching staff decided he follow the same route that Le’Veon Bell, James Conner, and Jaylen Samuels took.

“The Steelers gave me a plan,” Snell said. “I stuck to it, and I feel like it will help me a ton going into this year with my lateral quickness, my speed, me taking care of my body, the hits I can take, etc.”

Snell is looking to showcase his new athletic skills to become a more dynamic runner. Last year, he was used as a between the tackles, short-yardage power back. In 2020, he will want to prove he has the explosiveness to win outside the tackles, thus earning him more snaps as a scheme diverse runner.

Punters Hard to Evaluate

Special teams are often overlooked but are a key part of the team. Nothing has been truer for the under the radar punter competition between Jordan Berry and newcomer Corliss Waitman out of South Alabama. Despite the tough challenges, Mike Tomlin and Danny Smith both seem comfortable they will be able to sort it out and create a competitive environment for the competition.

“There’s a lot of those battles in terms of the division of labor that’s worrisome in this environment,” Tomlin said. “We will push through it. We will create a competitive environment.”

Waitman comes off a college career of averaging 42.7 yards per punt. Berry is the incumbent and experienced veteran, however. Still, Smith says the Steelers will forge ahead.

“We have time,” Smith said. “We put them in different situations. I’m going to tell you the truth, and I think it’s going to happen a lot throughout our league, when we all open up and there are 16 games being played the first week of the NFL season there are going to be guys out there on every team that we are all going to see what they can do under pressure for the first time in this environment that we’re in.”

How the punting competition works out will be anyone’s guess given the current conditions, but Berry, with experience, would likely be the favorite at this point.

Analysis

Analysis: Steelers Must Develop Their Own Brand of Vertical Offense

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The Steelers offensive identity has been built on efficiency. With Ben Roethlisberger coming off of elbow surgery, they wanted the veteran quarterback to reinvent himself. The good news is that Roethlisberger has done that and then some. Roethlisberger gets the ball out faster than any other quarterback in the NFL. With an emphasis on the quick passing game, the Steelers have been throwing it to their bevy of playmakers to a large degree of success for most of the season.

However, over the past two games, the offense has suddenly gone stagnant. Scoring just 17 points on Monday against the Washington Football Team, the Steelers offense is trending in the wrong direction at the worst time. Without a running game in sight, the passing game has been the Steelers’ crutch. Still, it is something that has become predictable. Washington edge defender Chase Young said that “Baltimore exposed some things” and that the defense could pick up on the Steelers tendencies as a whole.

It is that predictability that is the root cause of the issues the Steelers are having offensively. To the running game and short passing game, everything comes back to their inability to be unpredictable and fool the defense. Perhaps the most important of these predictable tendencies is the Steelers’ affinity to run short horizontal routes only. Bubble screens, drags, quick slants and ins, and smoke routes are essentially the Steelers’ route tree at this point. Every now and then there is a five yard curl over the middle of the field.

That is something that Randy Fichtner hangs his hat on. Ever since becoming the offensive coordinator, he has made it point for the Steelers to get their receivers in open space, create havoc, and let the playmakers do the work. In the modern NFL, it has a lot of great things to it. The fruits of it were shown in games against Tennessee, Cleveland, and Philadelphia earlier this season. The issue has become that Fichtner goes horizontal too much in games. Out of any bunch set, there is at most five route combinations the Steelers are running. Knowing they will try quick passes, teams are just dropping eight defenders into coverage and clamping down on it.

So, what is the natural adjustment to that? Well, it is to take the fight to them and attack them vertically. Now, the type of vertical attack they have is somewhat limited. It is essentially relegated to heavy and pray bombs. The Steelers also refuse to attack the middle of the field. They have only 11 passing attempts for 15 or more yards in the middle of the field this season.

Attacking the entirety of the field is one of the easy fixes for the Steelers. The middle of the field is ripe for the taking given what defenses are throwing at the Steelers. It is a lot of single-high coverage, so if they can isolate someone like Chase Claypool or JuJu Smith-Schuster on that single-high safety, it could be a big play. The Steelers have the weapons to really go after it in the middle of the field.

The caveat coming with a more oriented traditional vertical passing game would be the inaccuracy of Roethlisberger himself. There is a reason that the Steelers are hesitant to throw 40 yard bombs. It is because Roethlisberger’s accuracy is all over the place. Every now and then he finds paydirt, but it is a deep ball that far from what it was prior to his elbow surgery. The good news is that while Roethlisberger may struggle with those extremely deep passes, he can still put a lot of velocity on the ball and push it.

With an arm like Roethlisberger’s now, the Steelers should be trying a different vertical attack. They must go back to what they once did under Tood Haley, and even more so earlier this season. While they will have to toss the vertical heave every now and then, the Steelers can get away with working on the vertical plane. That means a lot of out, curl, comeback, dig, and seam routes. Those throws outside the numbers with guys like Claypool and Diontae Johnson could really be the adjustment this team needs.

Opening up the offense for JuJu Smith-Schuster to run up the seam a bit more and make some combat catches would be a welcome sight. Even running a skinny post or corner route with Eric Ebron seems ideal. Roethlisberger does not have the accuracy on those heave ball types anymore. He does have the accuracy in the 20-25 yard area to still push it to all areas of the field. It is that key distinction that the Steelers must take advantage of to work open this offense. The Steelers have the personnel to do it, the question is just will they do it.

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Analysis

With Conner, Snell Each over 100 Yards, Running Game Crucial to Steelers 2-0 Start

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The Steelers have charged out to a 2-0 start to the season thanks to the stellar defense and the return of star quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, which has elevated an already talented group of receivers that also added Chase Claypool and Eric Ebron to the mix this offseason.

At least, that’s how the narrative has gone so far. And with good reason. The Steelers do have a stellar defense, and Roethlisberger has been a spark, with five touchdowns in two games and a completion percentage (68.5) and passer rating (107.1) that would both be career highs.

But the Steelers have also done a surprisingly strong job of running the football. Through two weeks, there have only been 10 running backs to rush for over 100 yards, and the Steelers have two, with Benny Snell clearing the century mark against the New York Giants and James Conner returning from injury to do so against the Denver Broncos.

They’re the only team with a 100-yard rusher in each of their first two games and have increased their percentage of run plays from 33% in 2018 to 42% this season. Roethlisberger said part of that is that the Steelers have been operating with a lead in the second half and looking to run some clock by running the ball.

“Yeah, I think it’s just the way the games have played out,” Roethlisberger said. “We don’t go into any game saying, OK, here’s our percentage of run/pass. We go into the game trying to win it. I’ve just been happy at the end of games, we’ve been able to utilize the four-minute offense both games. I think that’s something that we take pride in. Because when we say we have to run the ball, it doesn’t mean we have to run it more. We have to run it more effectively. And running it in the four-minute offense is effective running.”

Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin also highlighted the success of the four-minute offense as the Steelers ran out the clock with the football in both victories.

“We have been able to close games out via the run,” he said. “We have been able to possess the ball in four-minute offense. We’ve had a lead in the latter part of the game and have been able to close the game out and maintain possession of the ball primarily via the run. I like that aspect of it. We are still working and growing in terms of being able to do all the things that we want to do, not only in that area of the game, but in all areas of the game. But I think it is a good start when you have your four-minute offense rolling and you are able to possess the ball via the run and preserve a lead at the end of a football game.”

Of course, there are many mouths to feed when it comes to the Steelers offense. Roethlisberger’s number of quality targets in the passing game, plus what looks like it could be a two-headed backfield between Conner and Snell is a lot of talent to go around and there’s only one football.

Roethlisberger said striking a balance is easy, though, at least when the team is 2-0.

“You look at the win loss column,” he said. “At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter who’s getting the ball. It doesn’t matter how many times we’re running or throwing it, it doesn’t matter who’s getting their stats, it’s just a matter of if the team is getting that one stat that’s most important. And that’s a win.”

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Analysis

Steelers Rookie Kevin Dotson is Ready to Step Up in a Big Way

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The Steelers will be throwing their rookie guard into the fire on Sunday. With injuries to both David DeCastro and Stefen Wisniewski, the Steelers are being forced to throw fourth-round rookie Kevin Dotson into the starting lineup. While his college tape looks good, and Steelers Now concluded he could have starting upside, this is early for him to be starting. Dotson missed a good portion of training camp with a knee injury. Not only that but with such limited time, is he really ready to play this early? The few reps he got versus the Giants may be able to tell the story.

There were two key plays that showed Dotson might just be ready right out of the gate here, even despite the “angst” that Mike Tomlin and Randy Fichtner have described at starting Dotson this week.

The first play was this rep against Dexter Lawrence. Now, Lawrence is an explosive athlete. Converting speed-to-power is something he does really well. With powerful hands to jolt pass protectors as well, he can be a real problem, especially for a young guy like Dotson. However, while Dotson initially gets hit slightly back, he does a great job of engaging his core strength and anchoring down. It is obvious how strong Dotson is on the football field, but it is not just in his arms. It is his legs and core that allows him great body control to stand his ground. Other than his dependable anchor on this play, Dotson has fantastic hand placement. His hands are placed inside of Lawrence’s shoulder pads and he is able to control the point of attack here as a result. It was all through winning the leverage of the rep where Dotson was able to get those hands under Lawerence’s pads. A true people-mover it is no surprise to see Dotson play with excellent leverage.

This is a fantastic pull by Dotson on this play to spring Benny Snell. He shows off some hip stiffness, but overall moves pretty well to reach the end here and seal it off. Dotson is the very definition of mauler that plays with violence and power. The end gets shocked by Dotson’s pull and can not get free of his grasps in time to make a play on Snell. This is textbook teach tape for pulls, and while it is not flashy, it is good stuff from Dotson.

Back in training camp after he had just come back and was facing some first team competition, Dotson made sure to let it known he was up to the task.

“I feel like I can make an impact no matter what happens,” Dotson said.

Now with a flurry of injuries, it will up to Dotson to handle Jurrell Casey against the Broncos as the Steelers try to improve to 2-0. If the limited tape says anything, Dotson might just be up to that task.

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