The switch to inside linebacker for Marcus Allen has been one of the more unexpected, but important developments at training camp for the Steelers. Not only would it shore up depth concerns for the Steelers at the position, but Allen now becomes a hybrid, versatile chess piece both in the box and at safety for the Steelers. It gives them another chip in their sub-packages as well with Allen’s physicality and speed.
That is Allen’s game this year. With great functional athleticism and an insatiable itch to always lay the hit stick down, Allen can bring the heat to still play in the box even at 215 pounds, as he revealed on Wednesday. The influence for his style play has its roots in the Steel Curtain era of the Steelers, as Allen looks to uphold the Steelers tradition of physicality.
“I’d say just the history of the Steelers defense and just having those hard-nosed players back in the day
and keeping the reputation going with the Jack Lamberts and Jack Hamms like that,” Allen said. “Every day we have
Coach [Tomlin] and Coach [Butler] always reminding us how to play football, and football is
built around hitting. That’s what it is.”
The pool report revealed an impressive day for Allen, as he made multiple plays scampering downhill to make plays in run defense. Even more importantly, he showcased his coverage ability by breaking up a pass downfield for Zach Gentry. Overall, it was a day where Allen showcased his skillset and why he was perfect for the hybrid role. Allen even discussed just why he was comfortable with the switch before practice.
“I love hitting,” Allen said. “I’ve been hitting since little league to be honest. As far as the physical part of it, I’m not too worried about that. I’m very excited about just being in the box to play and showcase my talents.”
Alex Highsmith and Chukwuma Okorafor Battle
A fun battle in one-on-one pass-rush drills was that between likely starting right tackle Chukwuma Okorafor and hyped up rookie pass rusher Alex Highsmith. In perhaps the most impressive pass rush rep of the day per the pool report, Highsmith countered Okorafor’s overset for his speed rush with a nifty spin move to the inside. A concern of Highsmith’s coming out was his counters, so that is nice to see.
Mike Tomlin did order that another rep is taken, which Highsmith tried to beat Okorafor with a bull rush. However, Okorafor anchored down well and fended off the bull rush. Highsmith did not have much of a bull rush at Charlotte, so it seems he is trying to add that power element of his game to his arsenal. Okorafor took first-team reps at right tackle on Wednesday, signaling that he could be the day one starter.
James Conner Gets a Feature Back Workload
Thus far on the training camp, James Conner has been a guy who has been slightly quiet. There has not been an overabundance of reps for him, but on Wednesday with only twelve days to go until the Steelers play their first game, Conner got a hefty workload.
Scheduled to be the Steelers main running back this season, Conner has been getting revved up to a level of contact, likely out of an abundance of caution due to his injury history. The pool report details that Conner got more reps than he ever had before on Wednesday, and he ripped off consistently big gains, even if some were against the second-team defense. Tomlin acknowledged that Conner had been laid off a bit in camp so the Steelers could see their young running backs.
“We’ve removed him from some of the tackle football in terms of team run, but that’s not about him,” Tomlin said. “That’s just to get more exposure to some of the younger guys that we know less about, to check the evolution of Benny Snell, to get to know Anthony McFarland if you will.”
Terrell Edmunds Makes Plays
It has been an extremely short training camp for Terrell Edmunds, who has battled an injury for the majority of camp and is only getting back into the groove now. On Wednesday, Edmunds had a few splash plays that turned the heads of the media pool as they watched.
Edmunds knocked the ball out of Kevin Rader’s hands on a crossing route over the middle of the field. Even better, Edmunds angled a receiver out of bounds and out of the catch radius on one rep down the field. It was two key coverage plays that helped showcase Edmumds may be taking a step up in a critical third year.
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.