Training Camp Recap: Front Seven Evaluation

We’re turning our attention to the defensive side for our training camp evaluations. This is based just on the first 11 practices and recognize this is still the very early stages of the entire preseason. But so far, my thoughts on the defensive line and linebackers.

Defensive Ends:

Cam Heyward: I haven’t paid a lot of attention to Heyward, mainly because there’s no reason to. He’s an All-Star and nothing he did in camp was going to change that. He’s a leader but also a source of levity for the team, the one who drummed up the “DeAngelo Williams’ Birthday” movement.

His snaps in team drills have been a bit limited, likely in part to keep him fresh and to evaluate the slew of unknown players behind him. He’s been trying out a spin move in one-on-ones so let’s see if that’s a move he’ll show off in games.

Stephon Tuitt: Like Heyward, there wasn’t a lot I needed to see with Tuitt, funny for a guy who is only going into his third season. That’s how impressive Tuitt is. As I wrote about this morning, he and David DeCastro make each other better.

Ricardo Mathews: He’s had an impressive camp. Easy to spot with some pretty sweet dreads, Mathews is an above average athlete that makes him difficult to reach block on zone schemes. He’s blown up several runs in camp and I expect him to do more of the same in the preseason. The Steve McLendon of defensive ends.

His pass rush has been decent, winning occasionally, but I haven’t seen a “go to” move yet. Still, early signs indicate he’s quality depth for a team completely lacking it in 2015.

L.T. Walton: I don’t know if I would call Walton a disappointment, that’s too harsh, but he has been quiet. I noted early in camp that his chase to football was excellent and that, of course, is a requirement for John Mitchell. But beyond that, he hasn’t seemed to do much. In one-on-ones, his one move, ripping under, has failed, and it reminds me of the “rut” Matt Conrath was in last year.

He has been working as the second team left end and should get a lot of playing time today. Big moment for him.

Caushaud Lyons: Lyons is listed at 284 pounds but looks a lot bigger than that. You’ll see what I mean tomorrow. Generally, he’s been quiet but has flashed a bit more recently, showing power to hold the POA in the run game and quick, violent hands to shed in one-on-one moments.

He has been running with the third team defense at right end and needs to take advantage of the reps he’s able to get.
Devaunte Sigler: If you’re an avid listener to the Terrible Podcast, you probably know what I am going to say. One play a day, Sigler. He’s flashed a little bit, which is more than I can say for a lot of this group, and he’s rebounded well after missing the beginning of camp after struggling in his conditioning test. A 4-3 tackle in college, he flashes a quick first step and the hand use to defeat blocks. But I question if he can two-gap and hold up against the run enough to justify keeping him around, especially when compared to someone like Lyons.

Johnny Maxey: Maxey was a complete unknown as a UDFA out of Mars Hill. He has good size and holds up well-enough versus the run but seems to offer very little moves as a pass rusher. He had been receiving most of the snaps at left end but Sigler cut into some of his playing time. He may not see more than a quarter of action today and better hope the Steelers’ offense doesn’t play with a lot of ball control.

Giorgio Newberry: Gotta say, he was someone I thought had sleeper potential in camp. Looking pretty wrong on that one. Last guy off the board, barely seeing time at right end, and has done little with the snaps he’s gotten. To put it simply, a very likely candidate to be released at first cutdowns. He better make some impact plays tonight.

Nose Tackle:

Daniel McCullers: It’s been a fine camp for McCullers. He might not be showing much different, and I anxious to put him in a stadium to really test that conditioning. He’s still a house, difficult to move, who can simply overpower individual players. He hasn’t even tried moves other than his bull rush which is fine with me. It’s his best tool and either you can stop it or you can’t. There is no try.

McCullers has played nickel snaps in practice and may log time in the preseason but with the talent the Steelers’ boast, I don’t expect McCullers to be a viable option there in games that matter.

Javon Hargrave: Talk about rookie sensation. Hargrave has been as advertised…and maybe then some. His first step is something never seen from a Steelers’ nose tackle and he couples that with quick, violent hands to swim or dip past. He’s dusted Chris Hubbard, B.J. Finney, and Cody Wallace throughout camp.

Even in team drills, he’s held his own, showing the ability to leverage and hold the point of attack against Maurkice Pouncey.

The only criticism I’ve had of him in camp is his bull rush runs out of energy pretty quickly. He needs to work on adding that to his arsenal because like I wrote two days ago, he won’t always have the luxury of two-way gos as a pass rusher.

Lavon Hooks: He’s a big body with a slightly interesting background, a sought after recruit going into college, with the anchor that gives him some practice squad potential. He’s shown some strength in the run game and the occasional win as a pass rusher but it’s been far too hit-or-miss, even realizing that obviously, no one is going to shine all the time. With Roy Philon out, Hooks should firmly be entrenched as the third team nose tackle. His conditioning will be tested now that he isn’t splitting time.

Roy Philon: Philon was having a quiet camp before suffering a potentially serious ankle injury on Tuesday. Any time he misses is instrumental and hinders his already faint chances of making the 53 man roster. He had been rotating with Hooks as the third team nose tackle.

Outside Linebackers:

James Harrison: I am a bit surprised to see Harrison practice nearly every day in camp but in no way am I complaining. He doesn’t get work in one-on-ones and you can’t hit the quarterback in practice (Ben Roethlisberger approves of this), but it’s not like we need to see much from Deebo as a pass rusher.

His run defense is as strong as ever, playing with uncanny strength and leverage. Jesse James found that out early in camp this year and he did similar to the Lions’ Taylor Decker on Tuesday.

Jarvis Jones: Jones has missed the last two days with an unspecified injury but he has gotten a lot of reps in camp. It’s been a very “Jarvis” camp. High effort, strong against the run, the ability to drop into coverage. As a pass rusher, there’s not much new, the occasional win aside (he made Ryan Harris look awful on one team rep) and I still don’t’ have confidence that he can be anything better than a 4-5 sack guy.

Arthur Moats: A veteran that we didn’t need to do much fact-finding about, Moats has had an impressive camp. He’s had some awesome battles with Marcus Gilbert and has his fair share of wins. He’s working on that speed bull rush that makes James Harrison such a force, but doesn’t have the same power conversion as Deebo.

But Moats has won in a variety of ways and offers a well-rounded game who isn’t going to kill you in any one area. I do wonder if he could become the odd man out if the team pushes Anthony Chickillo into the lineup. It certainly won’t be James Harrison, the team seems committed to Jarvis Jones (I’ll meet your anger in the comments) and Moats was ruled expendable at the end of the year back in 2014. We’ll see.

Bud Dupree: I wish I had more to say. He started camp fine but pulled up with some sort of groin injury that has kept him out for nearly the last week. Some work in individual but on the last day of practice, he sat out entirely. Disappointing that there isn’t much to evaluate and he’s nearly certain to miss tonight.

Anthony Chickillo: Few players have elicited the excitement as the man they call Chick and for good reason. He’s not only been flashy but consistently so and shown progression in every facet of his game. It starts as a pass rusher with a dangerous first step, ability to bend and corner the edge, while having the knack to set up his moves. He’ll speed rush you one time and then set up outside again before dipping inside and beating you that way. It shows confidence in his game and the ability to beat the tackle if he overslides or short-sets and tries to cheat inside. Chickillo should have a really impressive preseason or else he’s going to make all of us look really silly.

He’s also set a pretty good edge against the run and done well in one-on-ones in coverage. Carrying the seam has been an issue for him and I think coverage in general is the biggest area of improvement but that’s expected for a guy still in his OLB infancy.

Jordan Zumwalt: Well….he’s been healthy. So that’s good news. But beyond that, he’s so out of place, shuttled to outside linebacker to fill up the numbers. His first step is truly that of an inside linebacker and he lacks the flexibility to bend the edge. His frame doesn’t suggest someone who is going to hold up against the run great, either.

The effort is there, I have no qualms with that, and he’s seemed to accept his switch to outside linebacker without complaint (he played it a bit in college), and I’m appreciative of that. But the guy isn’t making the 53 and practice squad seems just as unlikely.

Travis Feeney: He started to practice…and now that’s come to a screeching halt. It appears to be a left thigh issue that has held him out for roughly a week, valuable time missed for a rookie. His frame is slight and I’m not the only one to wonder if he can play on the outside; heck, I called him an inside linebacker immediately after getting drafted before I realized they were announcing him outside. I said before camp he could wind up going on IR, the injury bug has followed him throughout his career, and that’s still in play.

Mike Reilly: He’s actually a sort of interesting prospect, beyond just going to the same school as his head coach. His initial step is average to above average and he shows some hip and ankle flexibility to win the edge. His hustle to the football has been impressive, too. Reilly has mainly worked at ROLB and will hopefully get a quarter to play, knowing Harrison and Jarvis Jones are unlikely to play much (if at all), and Moats probably fairly limited.

Inside Linebackers:

Lawrence Timmons: He’s lost a couple of pounds and still looks like Timmons, still able to cover sideline to sideline well. Sure, he’s been beat down the seam but he’s been in some unfavorable matchups (working on Eli Rogers once), and I think another came on playaction, with Timmons forced to respect his run keys and low hat.

With Senquez Golson’s injury potentially limiting the amount of dime the Steelers use, it could keep Timmons on the field nearly the entire time.

Ryan Shazier: He had one dominant practice in one of the first contact practices, including a monster hit on Daryl Richardson in the backfield. He dealt with a minor injury but returned in full for the last couple practices and shouldn’t worry anyone.

Vince Williams: It took a couple contact practices for Williams to bring the pain but he dished out some big licks last week. His coverage has been solid but I don’t think it was ever all that bad, just a productive of a narrative coming out of college. I don’t want to say he’s a starter in waiting in Pittsburgh…I’m just saying I think he’ll be a starter somewhere, maybe Pittsburgh, in 2017.

L.J. Fort: The ranks have been jumbled up with some injuries and guys getting rest but Fort has gotten most of the second team reps next to Williams. He, like VW, have been flying around the ball against the run, and is showing he could be more than just a special teamer.

Of course, that is probably what he will be and I think he’ll be at least a three phase special teamer with the lone exception maybe coming on the punt coverage team.

Steven Johnson: He’s primarily been running as the third team ILB. He’s done a fine job against the run, sifting through the trash and routinely meeting running backs in the hole. It hasn’t been spectacular, and I’m surprised to see a guy like Moats run as the first team left guard on punt coverage, meaning he might be a clean swap for Terence Garvin as the all-around special teamer.

The right guard spot may still be available on that unit and had been occupied by Jesse James. If he winds up as the #1 TE, he’ll obviously be removed from that and Johnson is a logical replacement. Special teams rant over.

Tyler Matakevich: He’s been another rookie sensation and what’s really impressed me is what he’s shown as a pass rusher. Never saw that coming and he’s had a lot of success in backs on ‘backers, especially in his two reps on Roosevelt Nix under the Friday Night Lights. That pass rush ability, that hand use, is going to be an asset on special teams, which is still how he’s going to make this roster.

He’s been aggressive against the run and thrown his weight around there, too. Early but promising signs for the long-term future.

Still, there has to be an odd man out between Fort, Johnson, and himself. And it’s all very much up for grabs.

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