PITTSBURGH – The Steelers took the field for the first time since their Hall of Fame game victory over the Dallas Cowboys. While they were only in shells, they got two key players back. Both of their top two tight ends, Eric Ebron and Pat Freiermuth were on the field Saturday.
The good news for the Steelers is that both of their tight ends lit the world on fire. Ebron and Freiermuth as a tandem were essentially unstoppable. Mix in some really nice reps from the other depth guys in Zach Gentry and Kevin Rader, and there is a real possibility this is the deepest tight end room the Steelers have had in a minute. On the day, only one pass intended for Ebron was broken up. That was a feisty and scrappy play by Mark Gilbert. Outside of that play, no one could touch him.
Meanwhile, Freiermuth continues to torch the seam in team periods. Ben Roethlisberger has used Freiermuth as a safety valve more than enough times to think he will get significant targets in the regular season. The team has a tough time covering Freiermuth, although Roethlisberger was intercepted by Minkah Fitzpatrick on a floating balloon ball up the seam in the two-minute drill. However, that was to no fault of Freiermuth himself. He has continued to be impressive day in and day out.
Seven shots is a daily set of players from the two-yard line, featuring the Steelers No. 1 offense vs. No. 1 defense for three plays, No. 2 offense vs. No. 2 defense for two plays and the No. 3 offense vs. No. 3 defense for two plays.
🏈: The Steelers started out in an empty formation. Najee Harris aligned outside with Diontae Johnson and JuJu Smith-Schuster in the slot. Roethlisberger motioned Harris back into an H-Back look with the three-man pressure to the left side of the formation. Harris stayed in to pass protect on a sprint out by Roethlisberger to the strong side of the formation. Chase Claypool climbed the ladder over Joe Haden and reeled it in for a touchdown.
🏈: Another formation with three to the right side and one to the other side with Harris beside Roethlisberger. The condensed bunch set ran a spacing concept. Meanwhile, Harris ran a texas route against Devin Bush. Bush got turned around and had to hold Harris as the ball fell incomplete, and it would have been a penalty.
🏈: Anthony McFarland got onto the football field with Harris to Roethlisberger’s right side. The first pony look in seven shots in a few practices. McFarland lined up as an H-Back. The Steelers ran a shovel option and no one picked up McFarland on the inside pitch. Easily a touchdown as he walked in.
🏈: Mason Rudolph then came in as the second team got their first rep. They saw a mismatch with James Washington aligned outside with Justin Layne on him. Washington floated in the air, high-pointed the football, and mossed Layne for the touchdown. Layne stood no chance as Washington boxed him out.
🏈: The Steelers ran their two tight ends on hitch routes to the middle of the endzone. Rudolph did find an open Freiermuth, however, Jamir Jones came in rushing free off the left side of the formation for what would have been a sack.
🏈: The Steelers decided to get Eric Ebron a few reps with the third team. On this rep, he was isolated on Gilbert on the boundary. Ebron ran an elongated in-route in an attempt to get Gilbert to bite. However, GIlbert stayed in the hip pocket and broke on the ball to get the pass breakup. It was a nice play by the underrated free agent.
🏈: They then went into empty with the rest of the third team. Tony Brooks-James worked on Tegray Scales on a pivot route. Brooks-James’s speed and fluidity out of the turn were too much for Scales and he was wide open for six in the end zone.
HIGHLIGHTS FROM TEs AND RBs VS LBs
Devin Bush was up and down in this period. For the most part, he was not tested. However, Freiermuth ran a gorgeous corner route only to be caught by Bush’s flat speed at the catch point. Laying out to get in at the catch point, Bush got what was probably the pass breakup of the day in that period.
Still, Bush was cooked by Harris in another part of the drill. With Harris aligned out wide, Bush was embarrassed off the line of scrimmage. Harris stacked Bush, caught the ball in the end zone, and got the touchdown. Those were the main highlights and lowlights for Bush, who still seems to be a bit of a roller coaster.
Ulysees Gilbert III was not great. He was beaten numerous times by Freiermuth. One in-breaking route, in particular, was rather gruesome for GIlbert as he nearly tripped and lost his footing. Rader then beat Gilbert on a flag route. Gentry then got Gilbert on an up-and-out route, but it hit off his fingertips. His best coverage rep was against Derek Watt. He was tight on Watt, but Haskins delivered what was a solid ball. It hit off of Watt’s hands, and he should have reeled it in.
Ebron took it to Cassius Marsh and Alex Highsmith on multiple occasions. He was uncoverable and did not lose a single rep, all of the reps on different routes. That is to be expected of the savvy veteran, but it is still good to see Ebron be a clear cut above anyone not named Freiermuth.
Calvin Bundage was the most consistent and impressive linebacker in coverage. He is a bundle of energy and is able to stick with receivers regardless of the route they are running. Bundage had three pass breakups in the drill alone with his tight coverage. He is not going away.
Ray-Ray McCloud had himself one day on Saturday. In the team period, McCloud was buzzing all over the middle field, including a 30-yard rip on a deep-over route. In the receiver versus defensive back one-on-one drills, no one could cover McCloud. His basketball-like releases allow for him to fool a lot of defenders with slick crossovers and lightning-fast change of direction.
McCloud is in line to get some significant snaps from the slot with Smith-Schuster getting some tread on the outside in 2021 after playing over 80% in the slot in the 2020 season. So, the more explosive and hard to cover McCloud proves to be, the more his role may grow in the Canada offense.
SHAKUR BROWN SHINES
With Antoine Brooks out for Saturday’s practice, it thrust Shakur Brown into the spotlight from the slot. In his chances to play against more talented players, Brown shined in a good way. He made two pass breakups and was willing in the running game. The most impressive thing might have been that physicality. Even only in shells, Brown was stunning guys and flying around.
He may have a legitimate chance to make the team. Brown is a consistent standout on special teams and was in live game action on kickoff duty as well. Keep an eye out for Brown as he tries to vie for a spot.