First, before we get started, tell me how the Steelers are coping dealing with the major distractions of Antonio Brown, Ben Roethlisberger, and Le’Veon Bell not being there so far?
Ha. Well, I don’t want to say that the players don’t care, but the extent that it matters is very overstated. I did write a short while ago that Pouncey, who has the respect of his team, said he wants this team to be ready and expects the absences won’t matter much. I mean, Landry Jones’ cadence is different. The ball comes out differently – with less zip normally And it does lower the quality of the reps the defense faces.
But with guys like Antonio not being here – and Ben. You just saw McGee and Hawkins go down with horrific injuries and you start to understand why they don’t want to show up when there’s no obligation to.
Roehtlisberger’s absence is more curious. He’s missed five of six practices so far. He planned his vacation in advance sure, but that’s questionable because he knows when OTAs are. Pouncey is as close as we get to Ben and he did say months ago that Ben wanted to play for three more years, and sure as rain Ben said the same thing.
I heard some good comments about Tucker from the rookies -tell me about him and any other guys you think will take that next step and surprise?
The Tucker thing is real. He’s running with the number ones and doing pretty well. It’ll be interesting to see. Hilton remains the top nickel corner and he actually looks to have improved from last year on his pre-snap reads. He’s refined a lot of things and it’s scary to think about the pre-snap improvement as a lot of his big plays last year were because of his pre-snap reads and his ability to make plays easily because of them.
I think Tucker is a real threat to make the roster – his biggest threat may be if the Steelers re-sign Eli Rogers. I know Tomlin spoke about re-signing him almost matter-of-factly, but maybe Tucker’s play makes them think twice.
Dobbs is throwing much better too. He was spoken about last year as a project and he’s cleaned up some of his delivery. It’s obvious he needs time to develop. But Rudolph – he strikes you as a guy who’s going to be throwing in the NFL for a while. When you see Rudolph you can see he doesn’t need that time to develop like Dobbs does.
A lot of talk about what rookie Jaylen Samuels can do at running back. Your thoughts?
I don’t know if he’s going to be a guy to replace Bell. It’s tricky judging guys that get hit a lot normally when they don’t this time of year. They are still in the simple stages of the offensive installation – they’ll add more wrinkles soon. So it’s hard to understand how he fits in yet and what his role will be in 2018. Maybe he’s used in a trick play fashion, and I don’t mean that in a demeaning way. I know in prior years there was talk of two-back sets with Williams and Bell, maybe they can use him in that role and try those with Samuels and Bell and motioning one out. It’s hard to speak of it at this point. And I don’t want to disrespect Conner either. He will likely be the number two back and could be the lead guy in 2019 if they can’t re-sign Bell.
I spoke with a number of the defensive backs who attended rookie camp and communication was the big mantra with them. Have you seen this as well? Thoughts?
I think I’ve heard this every year and I’ve been covering the team for four years now. I remember the preseason game in 2015 when Shamarko Thomas blew a coverage and we said “I guess Will Allen is going to be the starting safety.”
I do think communication is sometimes just a way to obfuscate for someone who just screwed up. I know Sean Davis is doing a lot of the play calling now. He’s a guy you want to be doing that – and Matekevich and Williams make a lot of the calls too. Bostic is not that guy, not right now, anyway. Maybe later, but he’s not even the next guy right now. Williams actually spoke out and said he and Bostic play the same position but that Matekevich can play both linebacker spots. That’s a notable statement from Williams because linebackers usually say there’s not much difference.
And LJ Fort – don’t discount him. He can cover. That position has to be able to cover and I’m not sure if Bostic is that guy. Maybe it just ends up being a rotation of the three guys. But I know the free agent signing with Bostic – its just not real yet.
Meanwhile, the secondary has more safeties than I can count now. It seems a bit of a mess and a mad scientist-like situation. How does this shake out?
It’s a great May question that probably won’t have an answer until August. Edmunds has to show that he gets the concepts for him to come in on third downs and on second and longish situations. As is, they won’t play an extra guy who doesn’t know the defense no matter where he was drafted.
I think the sixth defensive back right now is Cameron Sutton. Like Gay used to do when Polamalu played in the box, I think Sutton is very good and so respected by the other defensive backs. I can’t see him not seeing the field. Hilton stays in the nickel and Haden said he can play the dime position – he knows the defense well enough. Davis unfortunately gets an unfair amount of criticism I think from fans. We know Pittsburgh fans like to eat those secondary guys alive.
Any other surprises?
One possible surprise – if Grimble can block better he can get on the field. It’s not a knock – he slimmed down and seems cleaner in his movements. He’s always been a better downfield threat than anyone else on the team since a healthy Ladarius Green. He’s always been a guy with big potential since high school. He just never quire delivered on it.
Why is that?
I think it’s just usage. There hasn’t been a huge incentive to use him in Pittsburgh. I remember in 2017 Tomlin pulling together the tight ends and telling them they want a number one tight end they can run with – that can block defensive ends. It was fair to see James get in there over Grimble when McDonald was injured, but Grimble can make some incredible catches, but then he’ll drop passes. He has to be more consistent with his hands. He’ll get chances in preseason. And with James’ in his contract year, while he’s good, maybe they don’t think they need to pay him that much more over Grimble. And McDonald’s contract jumps up a bit over the next two years too. Maybe the front office and coaches decide they don’t want to pay out that much for both of those guys and give Grimble more opportunities this year to see what he can do.
Maybe the biggest issue is how they fix the pass rush. What can they realistically do here?
Well, they moved Dupree to the right side and Watt to the left. Switching guys up. I’m not sure yet why that might be – maybe they like Watt more versus the run since teams often run more to the right side? It puts them more vulnerable in coverage with Dupree out there but it’s not like it was when Harrison was out there, Dupree can move pretty well.
I think the bigger thing though will be the defensive line rotation. They are looking to move Hargrave more into the rotation this year like they did when he was a rookie. So he’s used as a defensive end, not just a nose tackle. For a couple of seasons it was Heyward and Tuitt until they dropped, and they did. I think this gives me the most optimism for the pass rush.
Can this defense turn the corner?
I’ll say, this is the most intriguing season of football I’ve covered as far as the defense is concerned. At safety, the potential permutations there are fascinating. I think if you enjoy football, you’ll find this aspect of the team intriguing. Tomlin once built and coached a great scheme and secondary in Tampa Bay. Maybe he’s going to do it again here in Pittsburgh.
Any last thoughts?
Yes – don’t forget the punter battle! I’m sure I’ll write something in the second week of camp about it! Hey – it happened a couple of years ago and we traded Wing for a sixth rounder. That got us Matekevich right? Maybe we do that again.
Or another Antonio Brown!
Of course a Pittsburgh fan would say Antonio Brown! It’s funny how many people got upset we traded a low pick to get Mason Rudolph. We might have gotten a franchise quarterback. How do you not make that pick?
Read more by former Steelers via the book Steelers Takeaways: Player Memories Through the Decades. To order, just click on the book: