While Steelers rookies often do not get a bastion of early hype from the coaching staff, this year the team has had three notable exceptions in Chase Claypool, Alex Highsmith, and Anthony McFarland. After training camp session No. 6 at Heinz Field on Monday, Mike Tomlin has even singled out Claypool and Highsmith, saying that those two are “proving they belong” in practice.
Claypool’s last week in practice was impressive, and he continued that streak on Monday. Claypool caught a leaping grab in the back of the end zone and two key passes over the middle of the field. After practice, Eric Ebron tweeted that Claypool’s play had convinced him that the rookie wide receiver “is going to be a problem.”
Highsmith had another impressive day on Monday, as well. He registered a key pressure on Mason Rudolph after Bud Dupree left, which lead to an interception. It was yet another standout play from Highsmith, another in a growing list this training camp.
Although he didn’t receive any praise from Tomlin on Monday, McFarland also continues to flash. He broke a long run on Monday thanks to a strong David DeCastro pull. After a strong first week, McFarland started his second week of NFL Training Camp off on a strong footing.
The Defensive Backs Battle It Out
The Steelers, more than likely, will keep some variation of ten defensive backs on their final 53-man roster. What that means for the secondary is that there is a fierce battle for each and every spot available. While it seems the top two safeties and top five cornerbacks are locked in, the other three spots are anyone’s best guess.
So far this camp, Curtis Riley is making quite the impression and could be in line to earn one of those spots. With Terrell Edmunds still out, Riley again took advantage of the opportunity. He registered another interception after nabbing one last week as well. Riley seems to be inching closer to securing his spot on the roster.
“He’s one of the guys each day that has shown a little bit more and more,” defensive backs coach Tom Bradley said of Riley. “We’re getting excited about him as we continue through this process, watching him.”
Meanwhile, Marcus Allen received praise from Bradley prior to practice as well, even though he was later beaten by Eric Ebron in the one-on-one coverage drills.
“I think this is a big year for Marcus, and he’s taking advantage of a lot of different things,” Bradley said. “One thing, he’s playing a lot faster this year. You can tell he really understands the system.”
The cornerbacks also had their fair share of standouts. Undrafted free agent James Pierre out of Florida Atlantic ran a route for James Washington and dropped an interception. For the 6-foot-2 cornerback with punt return ability, it was a strong case that he was making.
Alexander Myres also made a nice play on a pitch from Jaylen Samuels to Chase Claypool. Myres, who is known for his standout special teams, is in contention for the sixth cornerback spot.
Justin Layne also had a tough fight with Washington on multiple reps, even showcasing his physicality and breaking up a pass. It is a big year for the second year for the Michigan State product.
Minkah Fitzpatrick Stays Put
There was a wide array of speculation that the Steelers would utilize Minkah Fitzpatrick’s versatility this upcoming season instead of sticking him just in the free safety role, but the hopes of that were quashed on Monday.
“I don’t think we will consider moving him around more,” Bradley said. “I think we like that combination where he is back there. We do bring him into the box at times just to make sure we can change up our tendencies on them. We like him right where he is right at free safety.”
Fitzpatrick, for the most part, was a deep safety last year, but did become a robber safety in the middle of the field at times with coverage rotations last season. That was often done out of their dime package, with Cam Sutton, who was described as “putty” Monday for his versatility, become a deep third safety. In an effort to improve there, Fitzpatrick said he watched tape of legends this offseason, including former Ravens safety Ed Reed.
“Part of being a successful safety — I mentioned Ed Reed earlier — is just being in the right position,” Fitzpatrick said. “If you watch a lot of Ed Reed’s tape, a lot of his tape is just him being in the right position and balls being tipped to him, forcing fumbles, taking the right angle. Because a lot of guys, if you are lazy back there, don’t pay attention to a lot of the details of the game. One little step off and Ed Reed is going to make that play.”
Fitzpatrick is looking forward to improving this upcoming year and seems extremely staying where he is at as a strictly deep safety.
Right Tackle Battle Heats Up
With Chukwuma Okorafor missing practice due to a groin injury, it was Zach Banner’s opportunity to show out. As he battled T.J. Watt, Banner did have his ups and downs. On two reps, Banner’s hands were swatted down by Watt, one of which caused a Mason Rudolph fumble. Banner got the better of Watt in run blocking more so than in pass protection. When asked about the battle, Tomlin pointed out Okorafor’s struggles against Watt, too.
“Yeah, [T.J.] Watt won a lot of them, but Watt won a lot of them versus Chuks [Okorafor] as well,” Tomlin said. “Watt is a handful for one man on NFL playing surfaces, but what a great opportunity for those young right tackles vying for that spot.”
Banner and Okorafor still have three weeks to prove they can overtake one another and win the starting spot for Monday Night Football game against the New York Giants.
A Tale of Two Quarterbacks
With Ben Roethlisberger sitting for the day, Mason Rudolph got an opportunity to show the improvement he talked about last week. In the team drill, Rudolph appeared sharp, completing several passes in a row at one point. He also threw a dime to Claypool in the end zone and a deep ball to Eric Ebron.
Offensive Coordinator Randy Fichtner praised Rudolph after he scanned the field and found an open man in the flat, to which Fichtner yelled “perfect, perfect” to Rudolph. Rudolph also nailed Ryan Switzer across the middle for a big catch. In the team period, he completed all four of his passes.
However, for Paxton Lynch, there were some struggles that he endured on the day. Lynch was erratic with his accuracy, badly missing a wide-open Ray-Ray McCloud down the field. Lynch also missed an open Switzer working right up the seam. Tomlin and Fichtner did not seem pleased. Given Lynch is in a battle for the final spot on the roster, Monday was not a good day for his chances.
Motion Being Implemented
When Matt Canada was hired, it was expected that the Steelers would use more motion and misdirection, as Canada is known for those things in the football community. That expectation was later revealed to be true as multiple Steelers mentioned they were learning new motions in the offense.
On Monday, those motions seemed to show up on the field in a prevalent manner during team sessions. The Steelers used misdirection a good deal with their running backs and wide receivers. A 20-yard Benny Snell touchdown run came off the back of a fake jet motion. Canada’s concepts are creeping their way into the offense and so far seem to be effective.
Alan Saunders contributed reporting from Heinz Field.