By Alex Kozora
The Pittsburgh Steelers’ first preseason game is just hours away. The storylines are too numerous to list in just one article to pay attention to but obviously, this is the first chance for the Steelers’ rookie class to compete in a stadium. A look of what I hope to see out of each member of the 2014 group.
1. Ryan Shazier – It would be a considerable surprise to see the first rounder suit up this evening, after missing the last three practices with an apparent right knee injury. So there’s nothing on the field we can discuss. But it doesn’t mean there isn’t something the coaches can learn about Shazier even if ultimately, the fans won’t be privy to it.
Shazier never missed a game at Ohio State. Sitting on the sidelines is something that’s foreign to him. I want to see how he reacts to that. Does he hang his head or is he mentally tough and doesn’t let it eat him up? Does he overwork himself, possibly aggravating the injury, or understand the bigger picture and work his way back at an appropriate pace?
Those things are tough to tell from the outside but they’re important responses in determining a player’s psyche. This is the first adversity Shazier is facing in an NFL environment. Let’s see how he handles it.
2. Stephon Tuitt – Assuming Steve McLendon sits out, Tuitt should be the lone rookie starter on the Steelers’ defense, playing left defensive end. He’s had a strong camp for the reasons mentioned in my latest practice recap where I anointed the second rounder as one of the early winners.
Tuitt will have to show he can handle the rigors of playing the run on the strongside. He’s going to be base blocked, chipped by the guard or tight end, and double-teamed. He’ll have to adjust his technique based on personnel (e.g. if there’s a tight end to his side). It’s not as if a Steelers’ defensive end always lines up at five tech, shaded to the outside of the tackle. There will be times he will play the four and in subpackages, more of a three technique.
Reading his keys while playing fast and remaining technically sound is one of the challenges any rookie defender will face. Let’s see Tuitt get his nearly 35 inch arms extended into the chest of the tackle, have the strength to hold the point of attack, and work off the block.
In subpackages, I’m curious where he is going to line up. In camp, he’s been given work at left end and right end. Tuitt’s active and violent hands lends itself to being an effective pass rusher. I do want to see a bull rush and show the ability to collapse the pocket, too.
3. Dri Archer – We know he’s going to be fast. That much is clearly evident. And we can talk about the obvious stuff. Where the team lines him up, how often they get him in space, etc. But we’ve heard enough of that already.
A couple specific aspects of him game I’ll be paying attention to even though they don’t first come to mind.
His decision making in the return game. Busting off a big return is great to see but this team values smart decision making.
Run through your upback’s stop sign to return a kickoff from nine yards out of the end zone and you’re doing the team a disservice. Fair catch a punt inside your five and you’ll have the coaches in your ear when you trot back to the sideline. These are aspects that are harder to evaluate in practice because you can’t get a true simulation of the organized chaos that happens on special teams. At St. Vincent, they’re low pressure environments. A lot of it comes down to football instincts, one of the things I’m sure Mike Tomlin will be watching for. You have to earn his trust to earn the job.
I want to get a good look at Archer’s vision. It hasn’t been an issue in camp but sometimes games force players to fall back on old habits. I saw a guy at Kent State who had the tendency to bounce runs. Hopefully, there’s less dance in his game, instead, hitting the hole with conviction. It’s not a huge concern of mine but a box I want to check off when evaluating him.
Last area of his game I want to see is his blocking. Something the Steelers haven’t asked him to do at all in camp. He doesn’t need to become a prolific blocker but there will be times throughout the year where he will have to pass protect or stalk block. I haven’t seen either from Archer.
4. Martavis Bryant – Hopefully he takes the “big guy” plays he’s been making in practice and carries them over to stadiums. Although it’ll be tough to judge without coaches’ tape, I want to see how well he runs short to intermediate routes. We know he’s a vertical threat, but can he make a quick, sharp break on a ten yard dig or does he stem upfield?
How does he beat press coverage? Something he hasn’t faced much in his life. His nearly 6’4 frame creates a lot of surface area for cornerbacks to get into his pads. Can he explode off the line and use his hands to knock the defender away?
Above all, I want to see a clean game from Bryant. As few mistakes as possible. No drops, run the correct routes. A big play won’t matter if you frustrate your coaches – and your quarterback – because you ran the wrong route and it led to an interception, as it once did in practice.
5. Shaquille Richardson – Richardson probably won’t get to play on defense until the second half. He’ll have to make his relatively limited playing time count. Want to watch his click and close on the ball. And more importantly, how he supports the run at LCB. Can he set the edge and get his nose dirty? I wasn’t a big fan of his tackling form at Arizona. Let’s see if he’s improved.
Will the team give him a chance at gunner? He’s going to have to prove his worth to Danny Smith in order to beat out Brice McCain and make this roster.
6. Wesley Johnson – I’m just as curious as to where he plays as much as how he plays. The team could decide to limit Cody Wallace’s playing time and eventually insert Johnson at center with the second-team line for part of the game. Someone like Guy Whimper probably won’t play the entire game, opening up the chance for Johnson to play left tackle. The rookie could also see action at left guard.
Bottom line: don’t expect Johnson to play just one position tonight. He will be moved around, just as he has throughout camp. Obviously, we’re talking about very different skillsets from each position. A kickslide at tackle, working in a booth at guard, and executing clean snaps at center. A lot to take in at the next level.
Also have a suspicion he’ll see some special team’s work on the kick return unit. When we’re talking about trying to get a hat on game day, having value on special teams for a backup lineman can be a deciding factor.
7. Jordan Zumwalt – Inside linebacker is the deepest position on the team, giving Zumwalt the steepest hill to climb in his quest to make this club. Currently, the only way he can make this team is through special teams. To his credit, he’s a big hitter who has an opportunity to make a name for himself.
When we do see him on defense, two things I want to watch for. How well he reads his keys and finds the ball carrier. Felt there were times at UCLA where, either by scheme or his own style, he got away with recklessly shooting gaps and hoping he’d find the runner along the way.
Sideline-to-sideline and coverage abilities was one of his biggest problems on his college tape. Let’s see him flow against any outside zone or tosses and how he runs down the seam in coverage. We know Zumwalt can hit. We need to see him move in space.
8. Daniel McCullers – I’m not interested in McCullers’ first snap. I’m more interested in his tenth and twentieth. I know he’s going to generate a push and move smaller, less skilled backup lineman around like he’s flashed in camp. There will probably be at least one play where the big nose tackle storms into the backfield and Steelers-Twitter explodes.
But does he look the same after several snaps as he did on the first one? Is the pad level, the first step, and the arm extension all there?
I really hope Ben McAdoo throws a couple screens with McCullers out there. I want to see the big guy be forced to run to the football, get a little winded, and then anchor against the run. I want him to be challenged. At his size and talent, challenges haven’t always something he’s had to deal with.
9. Rob Blanchflower – First, we need to see this guy play. I know he made it back to team drills but has still missed a lot of time and watching him Thursday, it was clear he wasn’t at 100%. I’m skeptical he will suit up.
If he does play, I’m going to want to first observe how he looks as a blocker. He gained a ton of experience as an in-line blocker at UMass but in the few practices I’ve watched, has had issues getting overextended and falling off his blocks. Let’s see him stick and drive when asked to base block. As the #3 TE who will only play in “Heavy” sets, he’s going to have to prove his mettle as a blocker.
Adding on a catch or two would be nice but I’m setting the bar low for a banged up rookie that hasn’t got to practice much in camp.