After missing the early part of the week, Steelers wide receiver James Washington returned from injury on Friday. On Saturday, Washington had an outstanding day.
After being the team’s leading receiver in 2019, Washington is hoping to continue that momentum into 2020. But 661 of his 735 yards on the season came after quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s injury.
Saturday, he worked on building his rapport with the Steelers returning star quarterback.
Although he may not have gotten both of his feet down, Washington skied up for a pass, and reeled the ball in on an impressive contested catch, which fits Washington’s strengths.
However, it was the team period where Washington made his presence felt. The media pool saw Washington catch two touchdowns from Roethlisberger in the final team session, one in the back of the end zone, and another where he made yet another leaping contested catch.
Key Depth Chart Positions Revealed
With numerous injuries across the team, the Steelers dipped into their depth on Saturday. However, first, they announced Chuks Okorafor as the starter at right tackle. With the battle still raging on, Okorafor has lined up at the first-team spot at least twice this week, even as Banner impressed at times.
With Conner out, Benny Snell got the nod over Jaylen Samuels and Anthony McFarland. Snell comes into his second season down from 224 pounds to 212 pounds in an effort to add more all-around athleticism.
The interior offensive line has been hit with a flurry of absence and with Stefen Wisniewski moving to center, JC Hassenauer was revealed as the third backup interior offensive lineman down the depth chart behind Wisniewski and Dotson. It was not 2019 draft pick Derwin Gray, but the versatile Hassenauer, who can play both guard and center.
Then, the defensive lineman rotation without Tuitt was an interesting note. It appeared that in individual drills, Wormley and Isaiah Buggs were the primary defensive ends working with Cam Heyward and Henry Mondeaux. Meanwhile, it would be assumed that the nose tackles would work together, which would be a rotation of Tyson Alualu, Dan McCullers, and Carlos Davis. As for how they rotate that defense, it is anyone’s best guess, but it does appear Wormley is working as the base defensive end, not a nose tackle as he is listed on the roster.
Marcus Allen Shows Out in Backs on Backers
The safety competition on the back end of the Steelers roster is one to watch, especially if they keep five safeties. Curtis Riley and Antoine Brooks had strong days on Friday, but it was former Penn State safety Marcus Allen who really won the day at the safety position on Saturday. Allen was one of only two defensive backs, along with Mike Hilton to work in the drill.
“Some of those safeties, particularly those playing the box, we bring them down to running back competition because the responsibilities of their job are linebacker-like,” Tomlin said.
Allen mopped the floor with Kerrith Whyte, as Allen beat Whyte on three straight reps before splitting on his reps against Trey Edmunds. Allen then came back for more and discarded of rookie Anthony McFarland with ease, per the pool report.
This is the first high praise of Allen out of training camp thus far, and if he wants to make the roster, he will have to show out more in drills like this, but also on special teams.
Mason Rudolph Confident He Can Be the Answer
Mason Rudolph is one of the players that will have all eyes on him during this training camp. Throughout the season, he will need to prove his worth in the future of the Steelers. Kevin Colbert and Tomlin have spoken highly of Rudolph, including noting that they had a first-round grade on him. After struggling in 2019, Rudolph still believes he could Ben Roethlisberger’s heir.
“I am confident that I will be a starting quarterback in the NFL, and right now, my job is to prepare and push Ben [Roethlisberger] and help our guys in any way that I can,” Rudolph said. “And, obviously, in training camp, improve and take advantage of every single day.”
Rudolph suffered a season-ending shoulder injury, which he said now is “feeling great.” He is especially excited to get to work more with new quarterbacks coach Matt Canada. Canada was brought in partially to help develop the young quarterbacks, and Rudolph sees that.
“I think when you have somebody come from the college level like myself, Paxton [Lynch] and Devlin [Hodges] did a couple years ago, they understand a lot of the differences of the game,” Rudolph said. “He understands that now. [It’s] not only the stuff that he is helping us on the field with drill work, just another set of eyes. Having another person there to drill us and work us through practice as well. I think it is going to be a big advantage when we are preparing for games this year when you have another mind, another season, football mind in there to collectively think and game plan.”
After a strong game against Jets to end the season, Rudolph is hoping that will translate into growth throughout the 2020 season.
Zach Gentry Draws Rave Reviews
One of the guys who has flown under the radar thus far in camp is second-year tight end Zach Gentry. After having little to no playing last season as the third tight end on the depth chart, Gentry was looking to take a step in the right direction this year. The glowing reviews of the practice report today show he may have.
Gentry beat Allen deep and up the seam for a deep completion for Devlin Hodges in his first standout play. However, his biggest play may have been his touchdown catch. With Ulysees Gilbert III’s back facing towards him, Gentry wrapped his hands around the back of Gilbert, pinned the ball to Gilbert’s back, and snagged a touchdown. Furthermore, Gentry showed lots of promise blocking on the sled as well.
Kerrith Whyte Continues to Struggle
The battle for the last running spot was a close one coming into camp. With Smallwood hurt, it could open up more opportunities for other guys in the room, but Kerrith Whyte has yet to capitalize on any opportunity.
The Steelers knew Whyte was a dynamic running in the open field with great speed. He is a great pure runner. The question was if he could show he was more than that.
Up to this point, the answer to that would be no. Whyte has dropped passes and was at the expense of multiple pass breakups and interceptions in the coverage drills. Saturday, he was beaten three times by Allen in the backs on backers drill. With an inability to show efficacy in either area, Whyte is limited and will have to prove his worth in the return game, where he has worked extensively this week.
Injuries Begin to Pile Up
The Steelers came into Saturday with a number of injuries already, but that list expanded once again on Saturday. Diontae Johnson, Terrell Edmunds, David DeCastro, Kevin Dotson, and Maurkice Pouncey once again did not practice. DeCastro has not practiced since the Steelers began padded practices.
However, on Saturday, James Conner and Stephon Tuitt both also missed practice. It was their first missed practice of the week.
Robert Spillane (finger), Wendell Smallwood (shoulder), Chris Wormley (shoulder), and Kameron Canaday (knee) all were injured in practice and are being evaluated. Mike Tomlin does not expect them to be severe.
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.