Thought to be a hybrid type of player when coming out of Penn State, Marcus Allen is officially working more and more towards that role as he had one-on-one instruction from inside linebackers coach Jerry Olsavsky on Thursday after spending his first two seasons as a strong safety. Mike Tomlin made it clear that the Steelers and Allen are embracing the position switch, at least as a part-time option.
“We have played Marcus Allen some at linebacker,” Tomlin said after Thursday’s practice. “He has shown some position flexibility playing strong safety and some inside linebacker, so that really fortifies our depth in that area when from a perception standpoint, we might be running thin.”
The Steelers have just four true inside linebackers on their roster: starters Devin Bush and Vince Willams and backups Ulysees Gilbert III and Robert Spillane, leaving an opportunity for someone like Allen to find some playing time.
As for how he performed at practice, it was a losing battle for Allen, who drew Benny Snell in 1-on-1 tackling drills. Snell ran over Allen twice, juked him so bad on another he did not even get a finger on him, and made a smooth cut on the final one per the pool report. Allen’s performance in that drill was not good. But as a safety-turned-linebacker, his strength at the position would probably be in coverage, at any rate.
Going forward, he looks like he will a hybrid with versatility. That should increase his chances of making the final 53-man roster over the next few weeks.
Smooth Sailing for Ben Roethlisberger
After his season-ending elbow injury, there was rampant worry that Roethlisberger may not be able to return to form, but if Thursday is any indication, Roethlisberger is more than fine. When asked how is elbow feels given the circumstances, Roethlisberger gave a glowing review.
“It’s felt really good,” Roethlisberger said. “We’ve always for the last handful of years done the same routine with a full day, half day, off day. I even went three days in a row last week. It’s been feeling really good. I definitely need to give it some time to rest, that kind of one day off every so often out of general fatigue and soreness. It’s amazing how fast it bounces back and feels great the next day.”
That statement was backed up in the pool report as Roethlisberger executed a perfect pump fake and throw up the seam on a post route to JuJu Smith-Schuster. As Roethlisberger continues to look comfortable and say that his elbow feels just fine, the Steelers offense’s stock goes up with it.
Ray-Ray McCloud Continues to Flash
After coming onto the team last week, Ray-Ray McCloud has been a spark plug of big plays at practice. With Ryan Switzer now injured, McCloud has the opportunity to really shine in the return game. On Thursday, McCloud did just that. On his return, he took it up field, made one cut, and hit daylight for a touchdown per the pool report.
Later in the day, McCloud made numerous catches at wide receiver, including a big catch from Mason Rudolph for twenty yards. The pool reports notes McCloud did have one drop, which he has struggled with in the past. McCloud is making a strong push to make the 53-man roster as he makes explosive plays. He also worked on the kickoff return unit on a day where special teams were a focus.
Chase Claypool’s Hype Train Continues
The big play of Chase Claypool‘s day was a nice diving catch in the end zone during seven shots per the pool report. However, that is not where Claypool’s biggest endorsement came from on the day. Roethlisberger gave Claypool lots of praise at his press conference prior to practice.
“Well, I always get caught trying to spread too much praise to rookies because I want them to sneak up on other people, but it doesn’t look like Chase is going to be able to sneak up on anybody right now because people are talking about him and deservedly so,” Roethlisberger said. “He’s just making plays. I think the plays that he’s making are impressive, but I think, to me, what’s more impressive is that he doesn’t ask a lot of questions, which means he knows his stuff. I can change a play with a hand signal or call a different play at the line of scrimmage, and I always check him like, are you good, and he’s like ‘I got it.'”
After having a strong camp so far, Claypool seems to be in line with for more playing time as he continues to carve out his role on the team.
Matt Canada’s Influence in the Running Game
While it was expected that new quarterbacks coach Matt Canada would have an effect on the Steelers offense as a whole, Roethlisberger further expanded upon exactly what he is bringing to the table. Besides motion and play-action ideas, it appears that Canada is forcing some ideas into the run game in an effort to spice up a playbook that felt static and stale as the year went on in 2019.
“I think Coach Canada is bringing in a lot of uniqueness in the run game,” Roethlisberger said.
Whatever that uniqueness ends up being will be revealed once games begin to be played. Randy Fichtner confirmed that his input is being felt in the Steelers offense. When asked about replacing Mike Munchak as running game coordinator, Fichtner made sure to single out Canada.
“I know that having Coach Canada, another experienced coach in the room, is only going to help [running backs coach Eddie] Faulkner’s one year in the system and being able to communicate,” Fichtner said.
While the extent of Canada’s influence is unknown, it certainly seems that the Steelers are going to look a bit different on offense with his schemes implemented.
Big Day for Special Teams
The Special Teams units had quite the busy day today. In addition to McCloud’s big return touchdown, Chris Boswell’s kicking game was on display today. Boswell drained kicks of 40, 41, 34, 42, 45, 50, and 48 yards on his own per the pool report. During the live period, he clanged a 55-yard kick off the right upright and drained the next 55-yarder right through the uprights. Newly signed long snapper Liam McCullough got his first work at practice, with Tomlin watching his snaps intently. It seems McCullough has worked his way into Tomlin’s good graces, as starter Kameron Canaday was limited with an injury,
“We wanted to continue with our intense special teams work so we brought someone else in that was capable,” Tomlin said. “That was an opportunity for us to get some exposure there and see what his (McCullough’s) skillset is. We were really impressed with him in the workout, so we are excited about having him on board and having him put his hand on the pile and see where that leads us.”
The team tried to host a live-game setting for special teams in an effort to ramp up the heat two weeks out from their Monday night rendezvous with the New York Giants.
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.