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Training Camp Takeaways: T.J. Watt Continues to Prove He’s Elite

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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.

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