The start to Season 2020 has been different on so many levels for the Steelers. The team has been impacted by the civil unrest and BLM, with team leaders wanting to be agents for change.
The Coronavirus has upended the whole Football process completely. No Latrobe. No Pre Season games. No in person anything. Zoom calls are the new norm. There is little in the way of real reporting either as the NFL goes secret squirrel on us.
‘Pool reports’ are now the norm. A player who cannot be mentioned did something that I cannot report. Camp itself is also very different. The structure has changed with it being held at Heinz Field. Camp is almost a drama free zone as a result, compared to the real world.
Ben is fine, his arm looks good, if not better than before. All but one 2020 starter is a returner or already set. The only question to be answered is at right tackle. Banner or Okorafor?
With 69 players to be retained from 80, there will be little in the way of surprises. If a player does not make the 53, he will most likely end up on the expanded sixteen-man practice squad. The 11 that cannot do that I probably haven’t heard of. Season 2020 is mostly just about getting the starters ready to play, and hoping that the season lasts its full length.
Ben looks more motivated than ever. No longer going day, half day, off. He has practiced three consecutive days during this camp. A good sign for his elbow, and his ability to prepare for the season. After experiencing discomfort for most of his professional career Ben says he is now free from pain. He is also rejuvenated.
There is nothing like having your sporting life taken away to make you realise how much you miss it. After 17 years there is a lot of repetition and physical discomfort to wear you down. It is hard to maintain the same zeal and drive for preparation year after year.
I played 19 years and the pre-season does become a chore, even regular season games at times. You live for the playoffs. I can understand how Ben would have a new lease of life this season as he experienced what retirement would be like last year. Hence the multiple Lombardi’s quote. As Joe Montana once said, “play as long as you can, you are a long time retired.”
Beyond Ben the squad itself looks to have few surprises this year. If you consider the current roster, the 53 and 16 almost picks itself. What interest stems from the back-ups and who is getting themselves noticed? Paxton Lynch has been noticed, but not in a good way. Couldn’t hit a barn door holding the handle might be harsh, but how did he get to be a 1st round pick either? I believe he will be gone before the season starts.
Benny Snell has created a bit of a stir at running back with his new shape. Apparently he can now make defenders miss as well as run them over. It will be interesting to see how he goes this year. Conner is the starter, but his running style means he gets injured too often. He cannot seem to avoid contact and gets hit on the defenders terms too often. A running back’s feet are key. Even big guys like the Bus had great feet. Conner doesn’t.
At TE the addition of Eric Ebron to Vance McDonald, and the apparent improvement of Zack Gentry has elevated the TE group to potentially the best I have seen the Steelers have had for a while. Although Ebron needs to be able to block consistently.
My pet group for this year’s camp are the OL. It is a group on the decline, and it will be interesting to see how the coaches handle that. On paper Pouncey, De Castro, Feiler, Villanueva are still a strong pro bowl laden unit. They just need a new right tackle. In my opinion, Villanueva has dropped off significantly since Munchak departed, and Pouncey did not play like a Pro Bowler last year.
A question mark hangs over this group that cannot be dismissed with ‘Ben was not playing last season’. Villanueva may be in his last season, and Pouncey needs to step up. The only battle on the whole team right now is right tackle where Banner and Okorafor are competing. Even that is not a forgone conclusion, because if those two do not step up then Feiler can go back to tackle and newly signed Stefen Wisniewski can step in at left guard. My hope is that Okorafor makes it, and Banner gets left tackle next season. I know the Steelers do not like rebuilds, but this group is in need of an overhaul shall we say?
I do like the receiver group, but that’s because I am biased being a receiver coach. This could be an excellent unit, if it could only reach its potential. It has three physical beasts in JuJu, Washington and Claypool. They will level a defender happily. They all excel at contested catches.
However, separation is needed more often to lessen the need for that, and that leads to Diontae Johnson. I believe he is due a breakout season. He has electric feet and a great burst. I won’t compare him to a recent Steeler receiver but he has similar fast twitch talent. I would like to see #19 and #13 improve their foot speed. It is possible because there is a Canadian Behemoth rookie (Claypool) that has good feet. Also, a quick mention for Ray-Ray McCloud. He has potential. I liked his play at Clemson and he could be useful. Maybe land on the practice squad?
Contribution by Simon Cutts, Southampton Stags receivers coach.
Tomorrow, we will get Simon’s thoughts on the Steelers defense.