Yesterday, we walked through the Pittsburgh Steelers’ offense player-by-player, recapping how each player performed during training camp. Today, we’ll do the same for the defense and punters.
Cam Heyward: One of the best at his position, there wasn’t a need to pay attention to Heyward in camp. But it was fun to see him take advantage of the few matchups he received against backup lineman, tossing them around like ragdolls.
Stephon Tuitt: A lot of what I wrote about David DeCastro is applicable here. They had some of the best battles in camp, making each other better players. Tuitt shows a dynamic punch and is a great athlete capable of flowing laterally down the line. Hopefully he’ll be ready in time for Week One’s matchup against the New England Patriots.
Steve McLendon: It’s a difficult position to evaluate for several reasons. From my angle at practice, the nose tackle usually gets sandwiched between the rest of the players, sometimes making him easy to lose in the pile. And it’s a position that only plays half the time anyway. McLendon was on-again, off-again in camp due to injury, but he’ll be a full-go in Week One.
Daniel McCullers: McCullers missed significant time with a hamstring injury but returned to play against the Green Bay Packers game. Thing I like most about McCullers is his willingness and ability to run down the line and chase after the football. He commands double-teams and will collapse the interior when left solo blocked. He got some nickel reps Sunday, something I hope that carries over into the regular season. It may only mean 3-5 extra snaps per game, but a great way to get him on the field and make an impact.
Cam Thomas: We’re in a position many of us never thought would happen. If the common fan would have had their way, Thomas would have been released alongside Lance Moore. But Thomas stuck around, effectively became the #3 DE when Clifton Geathers got sent to IR, and with Tuitt’s injury, could start Week One. It’s impossible to forget how terrible he was in 2014 but Thomas has genuinely had a good camp. We’ll see if it translates.
L.T. Walton: Walton has a much better chance to make this team than what I imagined before training camp. He’s an above average athlete that really runs to the football with all his might, a trait that got him drafted arguably above anything else. He’s fighting for that #4 DE job. Walton is raw and has trouble disengaging but is an active hand fighter with a good attempted arsenal of moves. It’ll take time to refine his game but overall, I’ve been impressed.
Ethan Hemer: Hemer is the anti-Walton. A below average athlete, Hemer is more refined with a more effective punch and hand use. They do share the same effort level, giving the second-year end a fighting chance for the 53. At this point though, I still give Walton the edge, sending Hemer back to the practice squad. It’s not like he has only additional versatility compared to the 6th round rookie either. Walton plays one side, left end, while Hemer plays on side, right end.
Mike Thornton: Hard not to love Thornton. Woefully undersized, you’d think his best chance would come in a 4-3. He struggles to hold the point of attack but uses a lightning quick first step to get penetration. He just lacks strength and is easily absorbed, even when he times the snap. It was fun watching him in one-on-ones. He’s squarely on the bubble for making it past the first wave of cuts. The fact Cam Thomas is going to play early in the final preseason game, subbing in for Tuitt, is a positive sign for Thornton’s chances. With Thomas playing early and McLendon unlikely to see much time, the Steelers will need a #2 NT for that game. Thornton would be that guy.
Matt Conrath: A sleeper of mine I had high hopes for, Conrath made faint noise in camp. Never higher than the third team left end, Conrath’s habit of trying to rip offensive lineman as a 6’7 defender rarely worked. He did bat down a few passes, using that length of his, but doesn’t figure to be a threat to even make the practice squad. He may not last past the first wave of cuts. On my current list, he’s getting cut.
Joe Kruger: Hard to explain but if you’re looking for a practice squad “sleeper,” if there is such a thing, it’s Kruger. He isn’t a special athlete nor shows a variety of moves. But he packs a strong initial punch and gets his arms fully extended as a run blocker, making him a decent two-gapper. The third team right end could make the practice squad if the Steelers decide to keep two defensive ends on their ten man taxi squad.
Niko Davis: Davis doesn’t take his chance for granted. Ran back to every drill in practice and ran sprints by himself after practice. He’s a good athlete with a good swim move who saw some quality playing time as a nickel end against the Green Bay Packers. But he struggles to stay on his feet and doesn’t seem likely to make it past the first wave of cuts.
Joe Okafor: Okafor was brought in after Geathers went down. And that was about the only notable event in Okafor’s Steelers career. The definition of lethargic, Okafor rarely made a peep in any of his practices. He’ll be an easy initial cut.
James Harrison: Deebo is doing Deebo-like things. His safety on Aaron Rodgers was his second sack in seven pass rushing opportunities. The 37 year old plays like he’s 15 years younger. He could wind up leading the Steelers in sacks.
Arthur Moats: As steady as they come. Moats does a little bit of everything – he can win off the edge, convert speed to power, set a physical edge against the run, and drop into coverage. There’s a lot of snaps needed to replace Jason Worilds, who rarely left the field in 2014.
Jarvis Jones: My feelings haven’t changed on Jones. He’s an above average run defender who sets the edge. But he’s a marginal pass rusher, even realizing the sack he had Sunday, and I don’t think that’s going to change dramatically enough to satisfy the coaching staff.
Bud Dupree: Funny how people want to pile on a guy when nearly everyone was enamored with the pick in May. Dupree played his best game against the Packers, getting after the quarterback and just as impressively, stacking and shedding in the run game. His best play was working off the block to help bring down John Kuhn on the goal line. There will be plenty of bumps in the road, and Moats is clearly capable of dominating the snaps, but don’t even think about giving up on him. Ignore the people who tell you otherwise.
Anthony Chickillo: One of the most surprising players in camp, the sheer transformation of Chickillo still blows my mind. A four technique turned into a 3-4 OLB, getting his weight under 255 has allowed Chickillo to play fast. He’s a refined pass rusher with several moves, rare for a rookie, a player who isn’t afraid to take on blocks, something he did every play as a defensive lineman, with surprising ability to dip and bend the edge.
Chickillo’s 53 man spot could be in danger given the Maurkice Pouncey injury, and I do have some genuine concern he could be lost to waivers. 3-4 team who ignored him during the draft, not envisioning such a conversion, could revisit him now. I normally say most players are safe from being claimed but Chickillo is an exception.
Howard Jones: Jones will flash that great first step or quick hand use and blow by a tackle. Then on the next play, he’ll get shoved five yards up the arc. Just far too inconsistent and unrefined to make it easy to trust him. Classic boom or bust guy and fringe players like him don’t tend to last long. Don’t be surprised if he fails to even make the practice squad.
Shayon Green: Green’s best moments came in practice during the first half of camp. But they never translated to games, and he faded in practices as camp went on. Green is still running ahead of HoJo in games, but Green seems more likely to be the player subject to the first wave of cuts. Seems likely they’ll have to make one cut at the position on September 1st to help bring the roster to 75.
Lawrence Timmons: Law Dog was doing just fine until he suffered his turf toe injury. They can linger so there’s justifiably some concern. No reason to rush him. Just hoping he can get ready for Week One.
Ryan Shazier: Shazier has had a great camp. He’s a lot more physical and stronger at the point of attack while working off of blocks and flowing laterally down the line on zone runs. Obviously still a rare athlete for the position while generally, sans a few misses, being a reliable open field tackler. All encouraging signs as he heads into year two.
Sean Spence: Nearly the same thing I said about Shazier applies here. Spence is a much more physical player, making him a well-rounded linebacker. I still think there’s some false steps, missing his run/pass keys, though some of that could be scheme related, but his play has taken a step forward from where he was in 2014.
Vince Williams: One of the most physically imposing players on the roster, Williams has missed a portion of camp with a hamstring issue. He did mix in during the final training camp practice and should play in Saturday’s game against the Buffalo Bills. Williams is a true thumper and while not a great coverage linebacker, is better than what he’s given credit for. A special teams tone-setter, too, Williams will provide a lot of hidden value in 2015.
Terence Garvin: Still laugh at the notion that some people think Garvin’s spot isn’t secure. Garvin is making this team. He’s showed that even in a scenario where he had to play, he can come in and log quality snaps against the run. He is a guy who is tight in coverage but going downhill, Garvin looks like a starter. Another A+ special teamer, too.
L.J. Fort: Fort just arrived on scene to replace the waived/injured Jordan Zumwalt, but he’s already made plays. An interception in practice and a win-sealing sack against the Packers. He’s working against the numbers crunch but there is an outside shot he sticks on the practice squad. He’s already been as productive as Zumwalt was in his career.
William Gay: Gay’s tackle on Julius Thomas was William Gay in a nutshell. Physical and never backs down from players who have 40 pounds on him. I know Brandon Boykin is the more talented corner, age has a lot to do with that, but Gay is still the best cornerback on this roster.
Cortez Allen: Allen got off to a hot start with three interceptions in camp, and then quieted down the rest of the way. But it hasn’t been anything bad from him. Allen has done well and hopefully regained some of the confidence he ostensibly lost in 2014. The best thing for Allen, even though the snap count has been relatively limited, is that he’s yet to be penalized in the preseason after averaging a penalty once every 32 snaps last season. Long ways to go but Allen is off to a fine start.
Antwon Blake: I’ve been a fan of Blake. A lot of pieces about his game I like. Straight-line speed, quick feet and a fluid turn, and a knock-you-out physicality that you can’t help but love. But his biggest wart is an inability to find the football, leading to him being too physical with the risk of drawing penalties, similar to Cortez last year. At worst, he’ll be the #4 corner and a core special teamer, returning to become the Steelers’ starting gunner and an active participant on the kick coverage unit.
Brandon Boykin: The biggest splash the Steelers made in camp, they stole Boykin away from the Philadelphia Eagles. Immediately, you can see how talented this guy is. Can do it all. Athleticism, ability to play the pocket, tackle in the open field, and has played all three corner positions in such a short time. It’s a bit curious he is still running behind Blake. Have to think it’s only a matter of time before those two switch spots on the depth chart.
Doran Grant: Grant had a solid camp, helping to soften the blow over the loss of Senquez Golson. Grant is physical, reads the route of the receiver well, routinely under-cutting routes in practice. He showed the ability to high point the football and play the pocket in the Packers game, too. Any action Grant sees will come on special teams but overall, an encouraging start.
B.W. Webb: Webb is never going to be a starter but a well-rounded player and one every team needs. He’s a technician, something Carnell Lake absolutely requires, who can play all three cornerback spots while providing help on several units of special teams. He’s in a fight for the #6 corner spot.
Kevin Fogg: Webb is in that fight because of this guy. Fogg’s repeated ability to make plays in training camp is making him impossible to ignore. He had five interceptions across 18 practices, leading the team. He doesn’t have a lot of experience in the slot but has gotten work there in the preseason. He does have practice squad eligibility though, meaning he could get shuffled down to the practice squad while Webb remains on the 53.
Jordan Sullen: Sullen was signed early in camp. He has good size and does play the pocket at the catch point reasonably well but is stiff in his turn and lacks straight-line speed while only playing at right corner. Sullen will be among the first wave of cuts.
Shamarko Thomas: We’ve seen a lot of things we knew about Shark already. Big hitter, reliable tackler, willing to fill the alley in the run game. A lack of All-22 tape hurts the evaluation, but we still need to determine how competent he’s in in coverage. He’s already given up a touchdown against the Jacksonville Jaguars and may have allowed another one against Green Bay.
Mike Mitchell: Mitchell saw his first game action Sunday after missing the first two games and a sizeable chunk of camp with a hamstring injury. So there’s little we have to go off of to make an evaluation.
Will Allen: He had to be unwrapped after the several injuries at safety, filling in right away and not missing a beat. He hasn’t had many highs or lows but he’s been in the league long enough for us to not need to evaluate him. Have to wonder if this we’ll be his final season in the league with all the accomplishments he’s had off the field.
Robert Golden: For a moment, it seemed like his season was nearly lost, colliding with Antonio Brown and leaving with a leg injury. But Golden returned last week and played against the Packers. There hasn’t been enough snaps to make an evaluation but you know he’s a core special teamer – including the starting upback – but a player who hopefully won’t have to see any snaps on defense.
Ross Ventrone: The injuries at safety continue. Ventrone suffered a right ankle injury on one of the first days of training camp. He dressed last week but had yet to participate in team drills. Hopefully he’ll be a full-go against the Bills on Saturday. The fact the team has kept him around indicates he’d have the inside track on the #5 safety job but the numbers crunch elsewhere makes that seem like a luxury, not a necessity.
Ian Wild: Hard not to love some of these safeties. Wild has spent the last week at inside, where he played in college and in the CFL, looking every bit as competent there as he had at safety. He’s a more impressive athlete than I thought he would be while being every bit as physical as you would hope for out of him. He can play the upback and has a long snapping background. Prime practice squad candidate though little shot to make the 53.
Alden Darby: Another player that will make these cuts difficult. Darby plays with an edge and is a strong open field tackle in reliability and power. He has no problem dropping a guy like Roosevelt Nix by himself. Darby is vocal and energetic, traits that are infectious and make the players around him better. You just worry there might not be a spot for him on the practice squad, another hard-luck loser to the numbers game.
Jordan Dangerfield: Dangerfield lives to hit. He’s honestly one of the hardest hitters of any Steeler in camp. But the team deemed him expendable before camp, only to bring him back when they got so thin at the position. It doesn’t seem likely he’ll make it out of camp with the team again.
Gerod Holliman: Holliman has the draft pick status…but not much else. He hasn’t even recorded an interception in camp or in a game, though he’s been close once or twice, after picking off a Division One 14 passes at Louisville. Holliman still has yet to prove, even once, he’s capable of wrapping up a runner in the open field, and hasn’t played with near the energy Wild, Darby, and Dangerfield bring. That’s been reflected on the depth chart with Holliman being the last safety off the bench in each of the last two games. He played in just seven snaps against Green Bay.
Brad Wing: The incumbent, Wing has shown off his booming leg. You can hear it explode off his foot in practice and he averaged nearly 50 yards in Sunday’s game. He’s got a year under his belt, hopefully shedding some of the inconsistency that plagued him last year. This is his first year facing competition and he’s responding well.
Jordan Berry: Meet the competition. It was a shaky start to camp, with Wing looking like the runaway winner, until Berry roared back over the last week. His hangtimes are excellent, better than Wings, while providing some of his own impressive distances. I don’t know if the Steelers want to carry a first-year punter again, dealing with your typical growing pains, but Berry is putting up one heck of a fight.