PITTSBURGH — There will be NFL football played on Thursday night, as the Pittsburgh Steelers visit the Carolina Panthers for their fourth and final preseason contest of 2019.
But the number of NFL football players might be awfully few.
With both teams expected to rest most of their starters and critical reserves, the game will mostly be contested by players that are battling for one of a handful of still-available roster spots on either side.
That won’t mean much to a fan hoping to catch a glimpse of Ben Roethlisberger or Cam Newton.
But it means an awful lot to the players in the heat of those battles.
For the Steelers, one of the toughest ones will come at outside linebacker. Backups Ola Adeniyi, who is still expected to miss another couple weeks after knee surgery, and Anthony Chickillo (chest) have both missed time with injuries.
So has sixth-round pick Sutton Smith, who missed several weeks of training camp and the first two preseason games with an abdominal injury and went from a three-way standout during OTAs to the outside of the roster looking in approaching the regular season.
Those absences opened the door for another player to make an impact at outside linebacker. Toledo alum Tuzar Skipper has kicked it down.
Skipper, a 6-foot-3, 246-pound former collegiate defensive end, has been a pass-rushing menace through three preseason games, racking up three sacks, another quarterback hurry, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery.
The fumble recovery came in the Week 2 preseason game against Kansas City, and afterward, Skipper asked the Steelers equipment staff if he could have the ball from his first NFL turnover.
If there are going to be more balls in that category than just one, Skipper will have to continue to show that he’s too good to be cut. Turnovers are a big part of that.
“It’s Pittsburgh, AKA Blitzburgh,” Skipper said. “Anything that we can get a turnover on, we’re going to capitalize on it. It could be a fumble recovery, an interception, sack/fumble, it’s doesn’t matter. Any time it’s a turnover, we like that.”
Skipper has been a big part of an increased number of turnovers and plays at the quarterback this preseason for the Steelers. But come Sundays, that role might not be available. Starters Bud Dupree and T.J. Watt seem primed for strong seasons. Chickillo could be healthy by the opener against New England, and Adeniyi won’t be all that far behind.
If Skipper is going to have a big impact on the 2019 Steelers, it’s probably going to be on special teams. It’s a fact he’s aware of, but he only has three snaps in the third phase through three games. It’s not for lack of want-to.
“That’s where I feel like I will make the team — special teams,” Skipper said. “Don’t get me wrong, I can make it defense-wise, but let’s be realistic, we’ve got four studs coming back. … Where I want to be is playing that special teams aspect. It’s crazy to say I love this man already, but Danny Smith is a good coach that thinks like that. Just like I say about Mike Tomlin, I’m ready to work for those two guys.”
Skipper might get the opportunity to show what he can do on special teams Thursday night. If he does, and he does well, it might be the key to a roster spot and a few more of those footballs down the road.
Highlights from Steelers Practice 9/25/20
It was all about wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster’s return and the Watt brothers at the final practice before the Steelers week 3 game against Houston.
Footage courtesy Pittsburgh Steelers
Highlights from Steelers Practice 9/24/20
While it’s odd to see referees standing out in a clip of highlights, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin’s plan to incorporate actual refs into practice this week happened on Thursday.
Tomlin explained he is adding refs to practice to ensure his team is more disciplined, which hopefully leads to less penalties in their game this week compared to last week.
Wide receivers James Washington, Diontae Johnson and tight end Eric Ebron run routes and catch passes in this clip.
Footage courtesy Pittsburgh Steelers
Ben Roethlisberger Says Form, Mechanics Can Be Better Despite Hot Start
To hear Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger tell it, he can better than what he’s shown on the field in his first two weeks since returning from elbow surgery.
He’s not happy with his footwork, he thinks he’s dropping his arm a bit and needs a more consistent release point.
The statistics, however tell another story. They say Roethlisberger has been operating at a higher level of precision than ever before. So which is it? Maybe both.
“I do feel I got a little lazy with my feet, which then, in turn, translated to a lazy arm,” Roethlisberger said. “There were some throws that I kind of dropped my elbow, if you will. I don’t want to get too technical, but it became more of a three-quarter release instead of an over the top when I didn’t need to. There are obviously times you have to change your release point. There were too many throws, I felt looking back, that I just have to get my feet working better, and that will then translate, hopefully, to the rest of the body. Then, I won’t be guiding some of the throws.”
Here’s an example from the game Roethlisberger’s form getting a little sloppy. He throws this ball flat-footed and almost all with his right side, getting less power behind it than usual and resulting in a pass that ends up behind JuJu Smith-Shuster instead of allowing him to build a head of steam toward the defenders at the line of scrimmage.
Is this a big deal here? Not really. Smith-Schuster probably couldn’t have done much better than he did at bulling over the defender, anyway. But this is also a route into the flat on the near side of the field. Over longer distances, that can make a big difference.
“I’ve gotten away with it in the past being able to not necessarily be perfect from the ground up and just letting my arm kind of make up for a lot of things, a lot of imperfections if you talk to quarterback people,” Roethlisberger said. “I feel great. I just need to get it in my mind that I can still make the throws when I’m not in the perfect position to make them.”
All of that can be true, and yet, it’s hard to argue with the results. Through two games, Roethlisberger has a 68.5 completion percentage. His career season high was 68% in 2015. In a game and a half last year, it was 56.5%.
His passer rating, even with an interception against the Broncos, is 107.1. His career season-long high came in 2o07, when he finished with a 104.1 mark. Last season before his injury, it was 66.
Some of that can be explained by a passing scheme that has take fewer deep shots down the field than it has in years past. His yards per pass attempt sits at 7.4, lower than all but four of his other 16 seasons.
Mechanical inconsistency can certainly have a greater impact on longer throws, so the Steelers’ somewhat more methodical offensive approach could be helping Roethlisberger get into the swing of things.
“Maybe some of that just comes from not playing a lot of football,” he posited. “I played two games this year. I played a game and a half last year, so really, it’s about three and a half games in two years if you think about it. It’ll come. Like I said, if I’m having these issues and we are still winning football games, that’s a plus.”
If a 2-0 record with career highs in passer rating and completion percentage is what he looks like with mechanical issues, the NFL should be very worried about what might happen if he gets into a groove.