The Steelers should probably have expected T.J. Watt to have a strong training camp. After a sensational 2019 season that saw him rack up 14.5 sacks and force eight fumbles, the Steelers’ fourth-year outside linebacker shows no signs of slowing down.
On Tuesday, Watt zoomed past Zach Banner off the edge and sacked Ben Roethlisberger before he could scan the field and find an open receiver, according to the team’s pool report, continuing a string of days where Watt has been dominant against right tackles Chukwuma Okorafor and Banner. Defensive Coordinator Keith Butler heaped praise onto Watt Tuesday.
“T.J. is still advancing in his pass rush, and he’s a problem for a lot of people because he does a great job of using his hands when he rushes the passer, does a good job in recognizing the difference between pass and run and play action and stuff like that,” Butler said.
While Watt is beating up on the right tackles, he thinks both of them have shown promise despite his dominance.
“Chuks [Okorafor] is a little smaller, a little bit more of a finesse player, but he’s very well-improved with his hand punching,” Watt said. “I think Zach [Banner] has done a good job all offseason of getting in shape and getting able to compete throughout the whole practice. I feel like he’s done well with his hand punch as well.”
Anthony McFarland and Ulysees Gilbert III Battle It Out
Tuesday was another day where the Steelers had backs on backers coverage drills, but the most notable matchup was Anthony McFarland versus Ulysees GIlbert III. As two speedy football players that are both looking to carve out roles, the matchups are huge. On Tuesday, McFarland got the better of Gilbert III on three of the four reps.
On one rep, McFarland burnt GIlbert III on a deep pass down the sideline with ease. Gilbert III did get his revenge later, however, as he swallowed up McFarland on a wheel route. Gilbert III’s showing at training camp per practice reports has been an overarching story that will make the Steelers more comfortable with how they view their depth at the inside linebacker position.
Whether Gilbert III steals snaps from Vince Williams in the subpackages is yet to be seen. Still, with his natural coverage ability, it would not be surprising for him to take on that bigger role.
Ray-Ray McCloud Makes an Impression
Since being signed last week, it seems Ray-Ray McCloud has done a good job of working himself into the picture. McCloud was reportedly wide open on Monday when Paxton Lynch overthrew him by at least twenty yards. On Tuesday, McCloud continued his strong showing.
On one rep, McCloud burnt Jordan Dangerfield over the middle of the field on a deep crosser. On another, McCloud shot down the field for an explosive catch off of a post route and he got praise from Tomlin for his efforts.
McCloud also got work on both kick and punt returns and that is still likely his easiest path to the 53-man roster. If Ryan Switzer is significantly hurt, however, McCloud could find his way into an offensive role, as well.. Still, it seems he likely will be more a high upside practice squad player at this time.
James Pierre Makes Noise
It is tougher than ever for undrafted free agents to crack the 53-man roster with no preseason games, but undrafted free agent James Pierre out of Florida Atlantic is giving it his best shot to try and make the team. For two straight days, the pool report has given Pierre glowing praise.
On Monday, Pierre ran a route for James Washington and nearly had an interception due to how well it was covered. On Tuesday, Pierre locked down Deon Cain and yet again nearly had an interception.
Pierre, a 6-foot-2 cornerback, also has worked on kick and punt returns, which adds to his value on the team. He is in strong contention to make the 53-man roster if the Steelers keep six cornerbacks and he seems very likely to at least hit the practice squad given his performance.
Mason Rudolph Shines
A day after putting up an impressive performance, Mason Rudolph continued that on Tuesday with an impressive set of throws to multiple targets.
Rudolph executed a fantastic throw off a play-action pass and threw a dime to Ray-Ray McCloud on a deep crosser. He scanned the field and found McCloud. On another play, Rudolph hit McCloud once again on a deep post route per the pool report. The report goes on to mention Rudolph’s glowing success in the red zone period. On back-to-back plays, Rudolph hit Deon Cain and Amara Darboh on slant routes for touchdowns.
Coming off a tumultuous season where Rudolph’s all-around stats were nothing short of abysmal, it is nice to see him get some positive reports. His pocket management, mechanics, and accuracy were the three keys to turning around his game. His footwork needs to get cleaner and he needs to start engaging his torso to push deep balls.
With a rocky road already traveled last season, Rudolph hopefully will take the tape from last season and show growth. The Steelers will be watching him closely, but anything positive out of the pool reports on Rudolph is a good thing.
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.