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.
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.