After nothing short of a rocky 2019 season, JuJu Smith-Schuster needs to bounce back in a big way in 2020. With a concussion, toe injury, and knee injury all slowing him down on top of losing Ben Roethlisberger, Smith-Schuster seems like a player primed for a rebound season. Despite being somewhat quiet throughout training camp thus far, Monday perhaps marked Smith-Schuster’s best day of training camp.
The pool report detailed a dazzling performance from the leader of the Steelers receiving corps. To start off the day, Smith-Schuster caught a three-yard touchdown from Mason Rudolph.
In the no-huddle drill, Ben Roethlisberger connected with Smith-Schuster four times on one drive alone. In a two-minute drill, Smith-Schuster caught two passes for chunk plays from Roethlisberger. He capped the drill off by catching a six-yard touchdown.
All in all, it was an impressive showing for Smith-Schuster. After posting a career-low in receiving yards last season and now stepping into a leadership role in a young wide receiver room, all eyes will be on him.
Smith-Schuster is obviously in the last year of his contract and working for a big payday as well on the open market if it is possible. With him now expected to move into the slot more in 2020, Smith-Schuster’s strengths of physicality and fluidity for his size should show up for the Steelers.
Chase Claypool’s Hype Train Won’t Stop
There has been a ridiculous amount of hype for Chase Claypool coming out of training camp, and Monday was no exception to that rule. Claypool had yet another standout day for the Steelers as he tries to quickly earn playing time despite a shortened offseason.
The highlight of Claypool’s day was a big touchdown over James Pierre. On a fade in the end zone, Claypool skied over Pierre and dragged both of his feet in bounds to make the catch for a touchdown. Working on his connection with Rudolph, Claypool also caught two big chunk passes from Rudolph on the day per the pool report.
While it is yet to be seen if the hype will translate to Sundays, it seems Claypool is earning more playing time through his strong camp performance.
Kevin Dotson’s Shaking Off the Rust
On Friday, Kevin Dotson had a ridiculously good day run blocking for the running backs, especially on the goal line, where he pancaked an opposing defensive lineman on a Jaylen Samuels touchdown. On Monday, his impressive trend of answering the bell after being thrown into the fire continued.
Dotson’s first rep in the one-on-one pass blocking drills was a definitive loss, but afterward, Dotson bounced back to go on a long winning streak per the pool report. Dotson did not lose another rep in those drills, thus showcasing his ability to adjust with ease. Dotson specifically credited his readiness to his work ethic and training over the offseason.
“I knew that some people were going to be home just chilling, one of those people that just sits at the house, not self-motivated,” Dotson said. “I just knew that I can’t be one of those guys if you are going to be in the NFL. I kind of took that to heart and trained as hard as I could. Even when I didn’t have weights or something like that, I would do some type of prison workout type of thing, doing pushups. I know people saw that video of me pushing cars. I was just trying to find anyway to get better.”
While he is unlikely to get much playing time this regular season, Dotson does have a chance to improve and step into a big role next season.
Derek Watt a Tight End?
One of the more intriguing and interesting developments of Monday was the blurb in the pool report that noted Derek Watt took some reps at tight end. With the Steelers planning to run some more two-tight end sets, it stands to say Watt could be involved in that since he is such a good blocking. However, Mike Tomlin will not commit to calling him anything other than just a fullback.
:[Derek] has been playing exclusively F or fullback for us,” Tomlin said. “Sometimes, that position is not always in the backfield or behind the quarterback, but that’s what he plays for us.”
The quote showcases they are more than likely interested in Watt’s blocking abilities, but the games will have to reveal that. Around the league, fullbacks like Kyle Juszczyk have become big components in the passing game, and Watt could potentially have more impact there than expected.
Ulysees Gilbert III is Coming Into His Own
Ulysees Gilbert III has been one name to watch all of camp. With the departure of Mark Barron, Gilbert III stands to fill in some of his snaps in the sub-packages as a coverage specialist on the Steelers defense. With zero meaningful NFL snaps in a regular-season game, Inside Linebackers Coach Jerry Olvalsky seemed to praise Gilbert III for how he has looked thus far.
“He’s done a very good job of learning both spots,” Olvalsky said. “He’s done that out there on the field with the calls and things like that. He has a long way to go just in general because of last year, but I like his trajectory.”
There seems to be some reluctance from Olvalsky about throwing Gilbert right into the fire early in the season, so it may be more Vince Williams early on, but as the season ramps up, expect Gilbert to get more snaps.
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.