Few and Far Between: Steelers Starting Spots Up for Grab as Training Camp Starts

The Steelers are set to report to training camp this week.

It will be a training camp like no other. That’s right, thanks to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, NFL players will have a ramp-up period to get acclimated to this new reality. This ramp-up period will include testing and weight and cardio conditioning.

Steelers St. Vincents, Steelers training camp, Steelers Latrobe

For the 1st time in 54 years, the Pittsburgh Steelers will not hold training camp at St. Vincents, in Latrobe. Photo Credit: WPXI

After that, it’s actual padded practices starting around mid-August or so. Oh, and did I mention training camp will be conducted at Heinz Field instead of St. Vincents this year? Also, there will be no preseason games. That’s right, due to the players’ concerns over traveling and putting themselves at risk, the NFLPA and NFL owners agreed to do away with exhibition football as a means to avoid unnecessary exposure and travel.

  • One last thing, teams will begin camp with 80 players instead of the standard 90.

That’s a lot to digest. That’s a lot to take in during this “new normal” that will include a regular season with few or zero fans in attendance at stadiums all across the NFL.

  • What’s a team that hasn’t made the playoffs for two-straight years to do?

Actually, the Steelers are a bit of an anomaly. Even though they haven’t made the playoffs since the 2017 season, they enter 2020 with few starting jobs up for grabs.

Actually, other than the battle between Zach Banner and Chukwuma Okorafor for the vacant starting right tackle spot, I can’t think of any other starting jobs that are truly up for grabs. And when it comes to that vacant right tackle spot, it’s kind of manufactured. In other words, head coach Mike Tomlin announced weeks ago that the team would begin training camp with Matt Feiler, the starting right tackle the past two seasons, as the starter at left guard in place of the recently-retired Ramon Foster.

That was a slightly surprising revelation by Tomlin, especially considering the free agent acquisition of Stefen Wisniewski, a 10-year veteran who could easily slide into the left guard spot for at least the 2020 season. Meanwhile, rookie Kevin Dotson, who Pittsburgh selected in the fourth round of the 2020 NFL Draft, could hone his craft and prepare for life as the starting left guard hopefully by 2021.

But even if things don’t work out, and neither Banner or Okorafor jump up to seize the opportunity at right tackle, Feiler could easily move back to that spot, while Wisniewski assumes the role as starting left guard.

Again, other than the questions along the offensive line, what other starting jobs are open? I suppose the Steelers have to find their next starting nose tackle following the free agent departure of Javon Hargrave.

But do they really? After all, it’s no secret that Pittsburgh’s defense spends very little time in its 3-4 base formation–like 33 percent. Is finding a new starter really all that critical? Veteran Tyson Alualu seems poised to absorb the starter snaps at nose tackle, anyway, so that might be your answer.

What else is there? We know JuJu Smith-Schuster is going to be the number one receiver. After him, James Washington and Diontae Johnson appear to be interchangeable. True, based on his rookie performance, Johnson probably has the inside track on the number two receiver position, but with the Steelers employing so many three and four-receiver sets, does it really matter who your number two receiver is?

  • What else is there? We know James Conner is going to be the starting running back just as long as he stays healthy.

We also know the defense, one of the more elite units in the NFL, has no question marks at the top of the depth chart other than at nose tackle, which, again, doesn’t seem that critical of an issue.

So there you go. The 2020 Pittsburgh Steelers are about to embark on the most unusual training camp in the history of the NFL, followed by a regular season that figures to be quite surreal.

They’re coming off back-to-back playoff-less seasons, and, rather surprisingly, they don’t have many questions at the top of the depth chart.

Not a bad place to be in this new and surreal NFL reality.

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Matt Feiler Moving to Left Guard for the Steelers? Surprising? Perhaps, but it Makes Sense

While on a virtual conference call with the media on Tuesday, Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin announced that Matt Feiler, who started 26 games at right tackle over the previous two seasons — including all 16 regular season games in 2019 — will open up training camp next month taking snaps at left guard.

  • When I first heard the news, I’m not going to lie, I was a bit shocked.

After all, I’m a practical and pragmatic guy–two words I’d also use to describe Tomlin–so when Ramon Foster retired after 11 years of very consistent left guard play, it just made sense to me to plug Stefen Wisniewski, a long-time veteran Pittsburgh signed as a free agent in the spring, into that spot for at least the start of the 2020 campaign.

Matt Feiler,

Pittsburgh Steelers 2020 Restricted Free Agent Matt Feiler, Photo Credit: Matt Sunday, DK Pittsburgh Sports

With so many people high on Kevin Dotson, a fourth-round pick out of Louisiana in the 2020 NFL Draft, perhaps he could assume the starting role at left guard sooner rather than later.

  • Why disrupt two positions along the offensive line, when you only have to find a replacement for one?

However, after hearing Mike Tomlin’s explanation, it now makes sense to me on more than one level.

“We don’t have time to mess around in this environment,” said Tomlin in a quote courtesy of Steel City Insider. “We lost 900 snaps like everybody did with the virtual offseason. You’ve got to give the benefit of the doubt to people that have been here at least as a basis to begin, and that’s the way we’re going to begin the training camp process, knowing that the process is going to be an abbreviated one.”

  • Matt Feiler is a versatile lineman, one who is capable of playing both guard and tackle.

Therefore, if you have to move someone to another position, why not the guy who knows the system even better than the older veteran you just signed?

Also, as Tomlin explained during his talk with the media, moving Feiler to guard opens things up for a competition at the right tackle spot between Chukwuma Okorafor, a third-round pick out of Western Michigan in the 2018 NFL Draft, and Zach Banner, a fourth-round pick by the Colts in 2017 who came to Pittsburgh in 2018 after spending some time with the Browns.

Both players are at the points of their careers where the Steelers need to find out if they have what it takes to be starters. In fact, if neither shows that potential during training camp, it may be time to wonder if either ever will.

  • Okorafor has some experience as a starter, while Banner spent most of 2019 reporting as an eligible receiver in jumbo packages.

If one or both step up in 2020, that could bode well for the Steelers’ future at both tackle spots. Let’s face it, as much as Steelers fans love him, left tackle Alejandro Villanueva isn’t getting any younger. While he’s fairly young in a professional football sense, he’ll be 32 in September, an age that’s never young in a professional athlete sense.

Besides, Alejandro Villanueva signed a four-year, $24 million contract in 2017, a deal that’s set to expire after the 2020 season. With the Steelers facing so many tough financial decisions regarding their superstar players over the next few seasons, it may not be the worst thing in the world for both Okorafor and Banner to step up and show they can be reliable starting tackles in the NFL.

At the very least, if one of those youngsters claims the starting right tackle spot at training camp, that frees up Wisniewski, like the recently-departed B.J. Finney, someone capable of playing both guard and center, to be the versatile veteran backup interior lineman who can step in and start in a pinch.

So to sum it up, thanks to Matt Feiler’s position flexibility and ability to play both guard and tackle at a high level, the Steelers are really only disrupting one position along the offensive line, even while creating a situation for two new starters.

Now it’s up to Chuks Okorafor and/or Zach Banner to jump up and seize the opportunity.

 

 

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Second Guessing Steelers Picks of Chase Claypool and Alex Highsmith? Join the Club

Every year, the Steelers draft players in the second and third rounds, and every year, the most audible reaction in Steelers Nation tends to be something along the lines of, “Why did they pass on that other guy?”

The second and third rounds of the NFL Draft are always the best places for those sort of reactions from the fans and media because so many prospects — known names — who were projected for months to go in the first round wind up sliding down the draft board.

Chase Claypool, Steelers 2nd round pick 2020

Chase Claypool scores a touchdown in the Camping World Bowl. Photo Credit: Stephen M. Dowell, Orlando Sentinel via AP

Considering the Steelers first pick of the 2020 NFL Draft wouldn’t come until midway through the second round (49th, overall), the reactions figured to be more pronounced and audible this year than usual.

Sure enough, not long after the Steelers made Chase Claypool, the big, fast and strong Notre Dame receiver, their first pick on Friday, objections immediately began to pop up all over social media to the tune of:

  • Why not Ohio State running back J.K. Dobbins, who went six picks later to the AFC North-rival Ravens?
  • Why not Baylor receiver Denzel Mims, who went 10 picks later to the Jets?
  • Why not an offensive lineman? How about that depth at outside linebacker?

Speaking of outside linebackers, who’s this Alex Highsmith kid the Steelers drafted in the third round? A former walk-on from Charlotte, a program that didn’t begin to play FBS football until the previous decade? Sure, he dominated the competition in the Conference USA. Sure, he was voted First-Team All-Conference in both 2018 and 2019. But he seems raw. He needs work.

  • Is he going to ultimately replace Bud Dupree in the starting lineup?

Furthermore, will receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster get a second contract after this year? How about running back James Conner? And what about the depth along the offensive line? For that matter, what about the starters along the offensive line? They’re getting a little long in the tooth, aren’t they?

While we’re at it, what about the depth at safety? What about that starter at safety? I’m talking about strong safety Terrell Edmunds, the 2018 first-round pick who hasn’t really made his mark despite two-full years as a starter?

That’s the thing about the Steelers 2020 NFL Draft. They entered it with many questions and few draft picks (only two picks in the first 102 selections) to try and answer them.

  • And that’s why they weren’t going to please everyone.

All they could do was use their first two picks to address specific needs with specific players and do so without reaching.

Did they? We obviously can’t answer that question yet. But, again, NFL Draft history is filled with “Why not draft that other guy?” reactions. It’s also filled with “sure thing” prospects who busted out (Huey Richardson anyone?) and unknown prospects who made it big (ever heard of Brett Keisel?)

It’s easy to say the Steelers added a player to a position of strength — wide receiver. But you could have also said that about running back, a position that includes a former Pro Bowl player in Conner, as well as Jaylen Samuels (fifth round, 2018) and Benny Snell Jr. (fourth round, 2019).

It’s easy to say the Steelers neglected their offensive line with their first two selections, but you can also say Chukwuma Okorafor (third round, 2018) and Zach Banner (fourth round, 2017) are fairly high-end tackle prospects.

Perhaps if the Steelers had more draft capital this season — instead of having just six picks, total — they could address more needs at more positions.

  • But it’s like that old saying: You’ve got to give in order to get.

The Steelers have parted with some premium draft capital over the past year in order to acquire players to help bolster their defense. During last year’s draft, Pittsburgh sent its 2019 first and second-round picks, along with a third-round pick in 2020, to the Broncos and moved into the 10th spot of the first round. With that pick, the Steelers selected Michigan inside linebacker Devin Bush.

Last September, the Steelers sent their 2020 first-round pick to the Dolphins for the services of safety Minkah Fitzpatrick. Both players fit nicely into the middle of a defense that quickly ascended up the ladder to the top of the league in yards, points, sacks and takeaways.

Maybe the Steelers should have held onto all of that draft capital and taken their chances with other prospects.

  • Would it have worked out? It’s hard to say, but it’s working out right now with the players they got.

It’s seems kind of corny and a little silly for fans to say things like, “With the 18th pick of the 2020 NFL Draft, the Pittsburgh Steelers select safety Minkah Fitzpatrick…..” but, in a way, it’s actually true. Not only is Fitzpatrick still young — he’s entering just his third NFL season –h e’s already emerged as one of the best safeties in the game. Therefore, it’s easy to say the Steelers really did acquire their 2020 first-round pick last September.

  • The only problem with that is dealing with restless fans on draft day.

The Steelers could only do so much with their first two picks in the 2020 NFL Draft. Did they get it right? It’s impossible to say. But they’re currently no more right or wrong than anyone else.

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Steelers 2020 Offensive Line Draft Needs: Time to Focus on Foundation for Future

Quarterback is the most important position in the NFL and by default offense. But 2nd most important position on offense is the line.

A good offensive line can compensate for deficiencies at the skill positions and even, for a limited time, allow a mediocre quarterback to elevate his play. (See Mike Tomczak during the middle of 1996. Yeah, I’m that old.)

While it’s true that the Steelers did win Super Bowl XLIII and appear in Super Bowl XLV in spite of suspect offensive line play, there’s no question that outstanding offensive line play was a cornerstone to the Steelers return to contender status during their four year playoff run from 2014 to 2017.

As core of the line is now over 30, how important is it for the Steelers to reload in the 2020 NFL Draft?

David DeCastro, Maurkice Pouncey, Chukwuma Okorafor, Steelers vs Rams

Steelers offensive line in action vs the Rams. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Steelers Offensive Line Depth Chart Entering the 2020 NFL Draft: The Starters

Times are a changing. With a few tweaks here and there, the Steelers starting lineup on offensive line has been stable since about 2014. That’s an eternity in the NFL.

  • While the Steelers will field many familiar faces in 2020, this season begins a period of transition for the unit.

Maurkice Pouncey returns as a starter. Maurkice Pouncey’s is a perennial Pro Bowler and 2019 was no exception even if his low snaps are a bit of a concern. David DeCastro will return on Pouency’s right side, while Alejandro Villanueva will return at left tackle.

After that things get murky. Matt Felier will start on the line, but it isn’t clear whether that will be a right tackle or at left guard. Newly signed free agent Stefen Wisniewski could be an option at guard, which would likely mean that Felier will remain at right tackle.

However, both Zach Banner and Chukwuma Okorafor could both be in the mix at right tackle. While Zach Banner played as the swing tackle in 2019, the Steelers started Chukwuma Okorafor at tackle against the Rams, just as they’d started him against the Broncos in 2018.

Steelers Offensive Line Depth Chart Entering the 2020 NFL Draft: The Back Ups

The addition of Stefen Wisniewski important flexibility at offensive line, and depending on how roster battles pan out, could give the Steelers two starter-capable offensive lineman on the bench.

Which is good, because they don’t have a lot of other developmental prospects in the pipeline.
Derwin Gray, their 2019 7th round pick returns and is listed as a tackle but has experience at guard, and J.C. Hassenauer who did an apprenticeship with Gray on the practice squad will return to fight for roster spots in 2020.

The Steelers 2020 Offensive Draft Needs

The Steelers play at offensive line slipped in 2020. The run blocking was suspect early in the season, and while that did improve a bit, the pass blocking was lacking for much of the year.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL Draft

As D.I. Davis has suggested on Steel City Insider, the fact that instead of Ben Roethlisberger, Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges were calling out the pass protections at the line of scrimmage could have a lot to do with that.

  • But so could the unit’s age.

Ramon Foster was 33 and has begun his “Life’s work.” Maurkice Pouncey will be 31. Alejandro Villanueva will be 32. David DeCastro will be crack the big 3-0 this year.

Assuming that either Zach Banner or Chukwuma Okorafor starts at right tackle, the average age of the Steelers offensive line should drop, but their three best starters are still another year into their race with Father Time.

  • Quality offensive lineman don’t grow on trees.

The offensive line that led the Steelers to victory in Super Bowl XL “got old” together, and it took several years to rebuild. Barring injury, the Steelers are fortunate in that they don’t have to try to draft offensive lineman who will need to play immediately in 2020.

But you need to start 5 lineman, and you need quality backups. So the Steelers offensive line needs going into the 2020 NFL Draft must be considered Moderate.

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Mulling Steelers Restricted Free Agent Matt Feiler’s Future in Pittsburgh

The Steelers have made it a habit in recent years of taking undrafted free agent offensive linemen and molding them into starting-caliber players. Matt Feiler is perhaps the most recent example. However, is he worth bringing back as a restricted free agent? That’s what we’re about to discuss.

Matt Feiler,

Pittsburgh Steelers 2020 Restricted Free Agent Matt Feiler, Photo Credit: Matt Sunday, DK Pittsburgh Sports

Capsule Profile of Matt Feiler’s Career with the Steelers

An undrafted free agent out of Bloomsburg in 2014, Feiler initially signed with the Texans, where he spent that season on their practice squad after being cut near the end of training camp. After failing to make Houston’s roster out of camp the following year, Feiler was then signed to the Steelers practice squad at the beginning of the 2015 campaign.

With the exception of a brief cup of coffee on the active roster, the practice squad is where Feiler remained through the end of the 2016 season. Feiler finally made the Steelers 53-man roster in 2017, appearing in five games and starting the regular season-finale at guard. In 2018, Feiler started 11 games at right tackle for the injured Marcus Gilbert. After Gilbert was traded to the Cardinals last offseason, Feiler won the starting right tackle job in training camp and started all 16 games in 2019.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Matt Feiler in 2020

Feiler will turn 28 right before the start of the 2020 training camp, which means he’s coming into the prime of his career. Also, as a restricted free agent, the Steelers have the option of placing a second-round tender on him. Last offseason, the Steelers did the same to reserve guard/center B.J. Finney to the tune of $3.095 million.

Even if a second-round tender is a bit more expensive this season, that still wouldn’t be a bad price to pay for a lineman that has started 26 games over the past two years. Furthermore, Feiler has experience at guard, which gives him that all-important position flexibility.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Matt Feiler in 2020

As always, the Steelers are currently up against the salary cap. Chukwuma Okorafor, who is entering his third season after the Steelers selected him in the third round of the 2018 NFL Draft, theoretically should be ready to jump into a starting role in 2020. Also, the arrow appears to be pointing up for Zach Banner, a USC product who saw increased playing-time last year as a tackle-eligible receiver in many short-yardage packages. If the Steelers are confident that one or both youngsters are ready to start at right tackle next season, money might talk, and Feiler may have to walk.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Matt Feiler

With veteran guard Ramon Foster a prime candidate to be a cap casualty, and with Finney about to become an unrestricted free agent, Feiler’s versatility may prove to be an asset to the Steelers in 2020 and beyond. A season ago, in a game against the Rams at Heinz Field, head coach Mike Tomlin started Feiler at left guard in place of an injured Foster, while Okorafor started at right tackle. Why that lineup, instead of inserting the reliable Finney in at left guard?

As Tomlin said after the game, he wanted bigger bodies up front in order to deal with the Rams’ impressive front seven, one that included Aaron Donald. Maybe Tomlin was giving us a glimpse into the Steelers’ future along the offensive line. Whether that was the case or not, I believe it would be in the Steelers’ best interests to bring back Matt Feiler in 2020.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2020 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2020 free agency focus articles.

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Time to Say Goodbye? Steelers B.J. Finney Reaches Unrestricted Free Agency

An undrafted free agent out of Kansas State in 2015, B.J. Finney has appeared to be destined for a starting role in the middle of the Steelers offensive line for years. Will he finally get his chance in 2020? That’s what we’re about to discuss.

B.J. Finney, Le'Veon Bell, Alejandro Villanueva, steelers vs bills

B.J. Finney blocks for Le’Veon Bell against the Bills in 2016. Photo Credit: Kevin Hoffman, USA Today Sports, via K-State Slate

 

Capsule Profile of B.J. Finney’s Career with the Steelers

After spending his rookie season on the Steelers practice squad, Finney made the final 53-man roster in 2016 and even started three games at both center and left guard. Finney has started a total of 13 games at center and both guard positions during his four years in Pittsburgh–including four at center a year ago–and the line hasn’t missed a beat. Finney was a restricted free agent a season ago, and the Steelers thought enough of him to place a second-round tender on him to the tune of $3.095 million.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning B.J. Finney

With veteran left guard Ramon Foster a prime candidate to be a cap casualty and Pittsburgh continuing to find financial freedom lacking, Finney would seem like the perfect fit to transition into a starting role in 2020. With Foster, 34, due to make over $5 million next season, the Steelers could net a savings of roughly $1.5 million if they can ink Finney, 28, to a deal that averages close to the $3 million he made in 2019 on his tender.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning B.J. Finney

Matt Feiler is a restricted free agent, one that would likely command a tender that’s equal to or greater than the one Finney signed last year. Feiler, who started all 16 games at right tackle last year, can also play guard. Also, Chukwuma Okorafor and Zach Banner, both offensive tackles, earn far less than what Finney is projected to make next season.

Plus, one or both might be ready to start at right tackle in 2020. If that is the case, the Steelers, who started Feiler at left guard in place of an injured Foster in a game against the Rams last year (and not Finney), might feel that they can transition Feiler to left guard permanently.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and B.J. Finney

I think Finney has what it takes to be a starting guard or center in the NFL for the next five years. In a perfect world, he would just slide into the starting left guard position for the Steelers and there would be no drop off from Foster’s play. But this isn’t a perfect world.

This is a world where the Steelers must make some tough decisions, based mostly on finances. With so much money already tied up in the offensive line, they probably can’t retain both Finney and Feiler. At the moment, they have more control over Feiler than Finney. And that’s why I think they may have no choice but to let B.J. Finney walk as an unrestricted free agent.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2020 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2020 free agency focus articles.

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Steelers Report Card for Win Over Rams – Who Got A’s, Who got D’s?

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is pleased as punch to see half of his class excelling to their potential while worried that the other half keeps losing points due to misspellings and other sloppy mistakes, here is the Steelers Report Card for the win over the Rams at Heinz Field.

Cam Heyward, Todd Gurley, Cameron Heyward, Steelers vs Rams

Cam Heyward stones Todd Gurley in the 3rd quarter of the Steelers win over the Rams. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Quarterbacks
Mason Rudolph passed for a career high 242 yards as he completed 22 of 38 attempts with no interceptions and one touchdown. Hardly numbers to impress a Fantasy Football owner. But what those numbers fail to demonstrate is the poise, control and command that Mason Rudolph displayed on the field. Ultimately, that proved to be a difference maker. Grade: BSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Jaylen Samuels got his 2nd consecutive start and was limited to 40 total yards from scrimmage as he was neither a threat to run nor as a pass catcher. Tony Brooks-James got 11 yards on 6 carries. Trey Edmunds got 1 yard on 4 carries, although he did convert a critical 4th down pass. It wasn’t all their fault, but the Steelers needed more from their running backs. They didn’t get it. Grade: D

Tight Ends
The Steelers used a lot of two tight end sets in hopes of helping the offensive line against the Rams stout front seven. The lack of running lanes for the running backs and the punishment Mason Rudolph faced speak for themselves. Vance McDonald caught 3 of 7 passes thrown his way for 11 yards. Nick Vannett caught 1 of 1 passes thrown his way. Grade: C-

Wide Receivers
James Washington took another stride forward in catching 6 passes for 90 yards, including a touchdown. Yet he coughed up the ball just as he was moving the Steelers into scoring position. Diontae Johnson caught 4 passes for 64 yards while JuJu Smith-Schuster, battling Jaylen Ramsey for most of the day, was limited to 3 catches for 44 yards. The Steelers wide outs must do better. Grade: C-

Offensive Line
The Steelers offensive line had its stiffest test, so stiff that Mike Tomlin reconfigured it by moving Matt Feiler to guard and Chukwuma Okorafor to right tackle. Things didn’t start well as a bad snap spotted the Rams 7 points. Mason Rudolph had good time to throw at times, but he did take more punishment than he has all season. As for the running game? The Rams recorded 12.5 tackles behind the line of scrimmage. Grade: D-

David DeCastro, Maurkice Pouncey, Chukwuma Okorafor, Steelers vs Rams

Steelers offensive line quite simply needs to step it up. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Defensive Line
Javon Hargrave led the Steelers defensive line in tackles, including a key strip sack, which although  probably a gift from the officials, turned the game for the Steelers. Cam Heyward registered one helacious sack, another tackle for a loss, 2 passes defensed and 3 quarterback hits. Tyson Alualu had a hand in a tackle behind scrimmage and 4 tackles. Grade: A-

Linebackers
We could have written this ahead of time:  T.J. Watt led the unit with 2 sacks including a strip sack. Bud Dupree had 4 tackles, Vince Williams and Devin Bush had 3 a piece while Mark Barron clocked in the most with 11 and 1 pass defensed. Strong play by the line backers, but cursory viewing replays suggest that the inside linebackers were largely responsible for the gaps that Todd Gurley and Malcom Brown exploited. Grade: B+

Secondary
Is Minkah Fitzpatrick for real? Or is Minkah Magic just a dream? Each week when the Steelers need a big play Minkah Fitzpatrick steps up on cue. The Rams game added to his lore, as his heads up fumble recovery for a touchdown and last minute interceptions were game changers. Mike Hilton played point man in shutting down Cooper Kupp, while Steven Nelson had a key tackle to force a third down with 11:44 left to play. Terrell Edmunds helped bat away a pass in the end zone, although he’s lucky he didn’t get called for pass interference. Grade: A

Steven Nelson, Gerald Everett, Steelers vs Rams

Steven Nelson makes key 3rd down stop on Gerald Everett. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Special Teams
As usual the Steelers coverage units gave up a longish punt and kick returns. Ryan Switzer got negative yards on the one punt return he tried to bring back. Diontae Johnson returned 3 punts including one for 14 yards, but he had a fumble.

  • Chris Boswell was 1-1 on his field goal and perfect on PATs.

The key play for Danny Smith’s special teams was Trey Edmunds interception to stop a fake punt attempt, which could have been a game changer. Grade: B

Coaching
Randy Fichtner’s taking a lot of heat. Some of it is justified, some not. Fichtner didn’t fumble those three balls nor did he drop those six passes. These types of execution errors are hobbling the offense. He’s also playing with a running game on life support.

However, winning and losing starts at the line of scrimmage, and the put plainly, Pittsburgh is consistently losing that battle when it comes to establishing the run.

  • In the 90’s, when Carnell Lake reported after ending a contract hold out, Dick LeBeau quipped to reporters, “I just became a better coach.”

The addition of players like Steven Nelson, Minkah Fitzpatrick, paired with the maturation of T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree seems to be making Keith Butler much, much a better coach too. Seriously. The Steelers defense is performing at levels not seen since at least 2010 if not 2008 and has scored as many touchdowns as the offense in the last two weeks.

The Steelers started the season at 1-4 and, while injuries contributed to that “September stench,” they’ve remained and issue since then. Today they’re 5-4 and “Playoffs” are a real possibility for Pittsburgh. Credit Mike Tomlin for keeping his team focused and finding ways to win. Grade: B

Unsung Hero Award
For the last two years he’s been the top dog in his unit. Steelers management agrees, so says the contract he signed before the season. Since then his spot in the pecking order has been displaced, but he’s but he’s not been deterred, as his five defensed passes led the team on Sunday, including a final one that set up the game sealing interception, and for that Joe Haden wins the Unsung Hero Award for the win over the Rams.

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Too Bad Mike Tomlin Can’t Run the Oklahoma Drill at St. Vincents

Tomorrow the Steelers put the pads on at St. Vincents. Football in shorts will have ended. The sorting between the men and the boys will begin. As Peter King remarked two years ago, Mike Tomlin is one of the last NFL coaches to practice full speed hitting in training camp.

  • It says here that is a wise move.

As Jack Lambert remarked, “I believe the game is designed to reward the ones who hit the hardest. If you can’t take it, you shouldn’t play.”

Steelers training camp hitting

Unlike other teams, the Pittsburgh Steelers STILL hit in training camp. Photo Credit: MMQB

And conditioning yourself to hit doesn’t come through simulation. So its good that the Steelers will do some hitting in Latrobe.

  • But it would be better if Mike Tomlin could run the Oklahoma Drill.

The NFL, in an attempt to reduce head trauma banned the Oklahoma Drill along with a number of other traditional hitting drills. The blunt truth is, this is a wise move. After the tragedies of Mike Webster, Justin Strzelczyk, Terry Long and Adrian Robinson, Steelers Nation needs no reminder of the existential threat that CTE poses to football.

  • But that doesn’t change the reality that something is lost even as player safety gains.

Advocates of the ban point to the fact that Oklahoma Drill doesn’t really help develop any skill, and therefore exposes players to unnecessary head trauma. They have a point. But, as much as it pains me to quote him, so did Bill Belichick when he explained that these Oklahoma Drill did answer these important questions: “Who is a man? Who’s tough? Who’s going to hit somebody?”

  • The Oklahoma Drill pits a defender against an offensive player and sometimes a ball carrier in a test of wills.

They line up 3 yards off the ball and the offensive lineman and the defender tussle until the defender is knocked to the ground, or the ball carrier is tackled or disrupted from his one yard corridor. Chuck Noll used to start training camp with the Oklahoma Drill.

  • Rookie Joe Greene famously tossed Ray Mansfield like a rag doll and anhililated every other offensive lineman in his first Oklahoma Drill.

The Pittsburgh Steelers have regressed each of their past two seasons. The team, along with Ben Roethlisberger, served as a veritable punching bag during the 2019 off season. What better way for Mike Tomlin to set the tone than by asking for volunteers to run say a half dozen Oklahoma Drills?

How about letting Matt Feiler and Chukwuma Okorafor start their competition for the starting right tackle slot by squaring off against Cam Heyward in an Oklahoma Drill? Why not acquaint Mark Barron and Benny Snell Jr. with what it means to be a Steelers by making the former fight through David DeCastro  to get to the latter?

Joe Greene’s famous Oklahoma Drill exhibition came on his very first snap of training camp practice. Dick Hoak says that veteran defensive lineman who were watching Greene openly talked about packing their bags. Andy Russell pinpoints this as the key moment when Pittsburgh pivoted from being a perennial loser, to transforming into the best football team the story has or ever will see.

There are a lot of things Mike Tomlin can do to transform this Pittsburgh Steelers squad into a champion this summer at St. Vincents. Sadly, however the Oklahoma Drill won’t be one of the tools at his disposal.

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Steelers Draft Derwin Grey in 7th Round, Close 2019 Draft with Offensive Lineman from Maryland

The Pittsburgh Steelers closed the 2019 NFL Draft by picking Derwin Gray an offensive lineman from the University of Maryland.

While it is tempting to writer off a 7th round offensive lineman as someone whose NFL dream rides on earning a practice squad spot, it was only in the 2012 NFL Draft that the Steelers ended up picking Kelvin Beachum, who was starting games at both guard and tackle before the season was over.

  • Truth be told, the Steelers 2019 offensive line figures to be much, much deeper than its 2012 predecessor.

Indeed, at lot of thing would need to go wrong for Derwin Gray to find himself protecting Ben Roethlisberger and/or opening holes for James Conner and Jaylen Samuels. The Steelers are set with David DeCastro and Ramon Foster as their starters, with B.J. Finney entrenched as their top backup on the interior of the offensive line.

Derwin Grey, Steelers draft Derwin Grey

The Steelers closed the 2019 NFL Draft by picking Derwin Grey from the University of Maryland. Photo Credit: Mitch Stringer, USA Today

Beyond that, the Steelers have Matt Feiler who started 11 games for the Steelers at right tackle. With Marcus Gilbert now in Pittsburgh West aka Arizona, Matt Feiler is expected to battle Chukwuma Okorafor for the starting spot there.

  • Nonetheless, word is that the Steelers coaches consider Matt Feiler to be a more natural guard than tackle.

While the Steelers depth chart appears to be loaded with both quality players from end-to-end, you can never have enough good offensive lineman. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin confirmed that the Steelers will work Derwin Grey at both at guard and tackle.

Even late round offensive lineman have their own highlight tapes, and Derwin Grey is no exception:

Welcome to Steelers Nation Derwin Gray.

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Steelers 2019 Draft Needs @ Offensive Line – Can Pittsburgh Afford to Take a Pass?

The offensive line has been perhaps the most decorated and lauded unit for the Steelers over the last several seasons.

With the help of offensive line coach (and guru) Mike Munchak, the unit has gone from one of weakness to one of great strength. In addition to taking his high-pedigreed charges to a new level, Munchak was able to flesh out the talents of projects and unrestricted free agents. Unfortunately, Mike Munchak left to take the same job with the Broncos following the 2018 season. However, Shaun Sarrett, his trusted assistant for several years, was promoted and is highly-thought of by his linemen, the guys he’ll now be teaching and instructing in 2019.

David DeCastro, Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers 2012 first round draft pick

David DeCastro blocking for Ben Roethlisberger. Photo Credit: Photo Credit: Chuck Cook, USA Today via kickoff coverage.com

Steelers Offensive Line Depth Chart Entering the 2019 NFL Draft: The Starters

The Steelers will be entering the 2019 season with Alejandro Villanueva starting at left tackle, Ramon Foster starting at left guard, perennial Pro Bowler Maurkice Pouncey starting at center, the almost as decorated David DeCastro starting at right guard and Matt Feiler starting at right tackle. The only difference from the beginning of the 2018 campaign is the absence of right tackle Marcus Gilbert, who was shipped off to the Cardinals in exchange for a sixth-round pick in the 2019 NFL Draft.

Fortunately for the Steelers, Feiler, an undrafted free agent out of Bloomsburg in 2014, started 10 games in place of an injured Gilbert a year ago and more than held his own with no noticeable drop-off in performance from the right side. Therefore, the Steelers offensive line, one that has been considered among the best in the NFL for quite some time, should remain a strength in 2019, provided there are no serious injuries.

Steelers Offensive Line Depth Chart Entering the 2019 NFL Draft: The Backups

One of the ways Munchak earned such a great reputation in Pittsburgh was, again, his ability to take so-called lesser talents and turn them into starters–or more. Villanueva, who has made two straight Pro Bowls after entering the NFL as an undrafted defensive lineman, is one such example. Feiler is another one. How about B.J. Finney, a 2015 undrafted free agent out of Kansas State?

The jury is still out on whether or not he’ll ever be a decorated starter. But his reputation as a super-sub is well-earned after starting a combined nine games at center and guard since joining the Steelers in 2016. Speaking of super-subs, Okorafor Chukwuma, a third-round choice out of Western Michigan last year, is actually expected to challenge Feiler for the starting job at right tackle this summer.

If it’s a competitive battle, Pittsburgh figures to have a very reliable backup that can play both tackle positions in whoever comes out on the losing end. R.J. Prince, Joe Cheek, J.C. Hassenauer, Zach Banner, Patrick Morris and Jerald Hawkins make up the rest of the offensive line’s depth chart. The most notable name on that aforementioned list is Hawkins, a tackle and fourth-round pick out of LSU in the 2016 NFL Draft. He’s been severely limited by injury thus far, appearing in only five games. Hawkins is a virtual unknown at this point, and the 2019 training camp figures to be his last chance to prove himself.

The Steelers 2019 Offensive Line Draft Needs

The average age of the starters is approximately 30, these days.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL Draft

As for the backups, again, there are only two that inspire much confidence. Having said that, however, the needs along the offensive line don’t appear to be anywhere near dire. Therefore, the draft priority must be considered Low-Moderate

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