For the rest of the preseason, we’ll give a recap, position-by-position, player-by-player of what I saw during the 2021 Pittsburgh Steelers training camp and preseason games.
Marching ahead with the defense with a look at the linebackers.
Alex Highsmith: Along the 90 man roster, there were plenty of impressive performances this camp. None better than Highsmith’s, my MVP of the summer. He showed up to camp bigger and more importantly, stronger, impressing with increased power on his bull rushes and holding the point of attack much better than a year ago. To me, the biggest jump he’s made with his game is his get-off. He’s lining up in a three-point stance with his hand down more than last season. On pass downs in the preseason, he’s had his hand in the dirt 35.9% of the time (14 of 39 snaps). Doing what TJ Watt’s done throughout his career. His keying and timing of the snap is a lot better and he’s been a terror off the edge, forcing tackles to set wide and then countering with an inside spin.
Of his 39 pass rush snaps, he registered a pressure on nine of them, 23.1% of the time. Compare that to his rookie season of a little over 6%. Of course, Highsmith won’t actually have a near one-quarter pressure rate once the regular season starts but even if that number is cut in half, it’ll still be a fantastic figure.
Highsmith was a menace in run sessions in camp with multiple plays in the backfield and tackles for loss. That carried over into game-action. He also had an interception and a pass deflection in team drills, padding his stat line.
He was highly conditioned, not missing a practice, and I have him at the same level entering Year 2 as Bud Dupree was at entering Year 4. Highsmith isn’t quite on Dupree’s 2019-2020 level yet, he’ll need to at least prove it during the regular season, but he and the addition of Melvin Ingram is easing the sting of Dupree’s departure.
For his camp, Highsmith receives an A+. That’s the first such grade we’ve ever given out in a camp recap since we began assigning grades in 2017.
Camp Grade: A+
Melvin Ingram: At 32 years old, Ingram might not and probably shouldn’t be a 700+ snap player, but he can offer high-quality rotational snaps of 20-25 per game. First thing you notice about him is his size and body style. A little Woodley like with this huge, thick lower half and tree trunks for legs. He plays to that strength as well with a smart pass rush plan and ability to win in different ways, schooling top ten pick Penei Sewell and the Lions’ this past weekend. Ingram was a force in the run game, Mike Tomlin called him a “run game bully” for it.
He’s a liability in coverage and you don’t want him going backwards but beyond that, his play was stellar. Able to line up at either OLB spot or even off-ball over the A gap to shoot or loop, he was a critical add to transform this team’s depth.
Camp Grade: A-
Jamir Jones: Probably this camp’s biggest darling, Jones went from unknown – even by me – to someone with a chance to make the roster. He’s certainly done all he could. Jones’ power was the part that surprised me the most. He twice put players on their butts in backs on ‘backers, getting Derek Watt and Najee Harris on the same day. That strength translated to games, his bull rush creating pressure and an interception in the Hall of Fame Game against the Dallas Cowboys.
He had six pressures on 62 pass rushes this season, a strong 9.7% pressure rate. And more importantly, his pressures led to turnovers. His run defense was sound, he played a ton of snaps, working as second-team ROLB ahead of rookie Quincy Roche for all of camp. He was also a strong special teamer with multiple tackles on the coverage unit.
Jones isn’t someone who is going to offer a lot in coverage, just underneath hook/curl zones, but short of that, he’s done about all he could this preseason. Someone who deserves to at least make the practice squad. I’ll be surprised if he doesn’t.
Camp Grade: A-
Cassius Marsh: A nice start to camp for Marsh though he faded a bit down the stretch. He had the team-rep of the summer, whooping Okorafor one day, and set a better edge against the run. He consistently ran as 2nd team LOLB throughout camp and the preseason and with his strong special teams value, is still viewed as the #4 OLB on the team. His spot isn’t set in stone and tonight’s game could change things but I have him as the favorite.
And much prefer him as the #4 than the #3. Though he got quieter down the stretch, he looked a lot better than last year, a testament to having a full offseason and much more stable situation than the one he got thrown into last season.
Camp Grade: B
Marcus Allen: A nice although not a spectacular or home run camp. Presumably more comfortable at ILB after making the switch there just over a year ago, Allen took good angles to the ball in the run game and seemed to be processing quicker than he had been. He’s an above average tackler who did well in 1v1 drills.
His coverage numbers are decent, 3/7 for 26 yards, though he gave up a late touchdown to the Lions. He’s not as strong in coverage as you’d think for a former safety. Allen has improved as a blitzed and got some A/B gap pressure this preseason. Importantly, he served as the starting upback on the punt team, Jordan Dangerfield’s old role, as the QB of that unit. That doesn’t lock his roster spot in pen but it’s significant news.
Camp Grade: B-
Devin Bush: Judging the play itself, it was an up-and-down summer for Bush. But the mere fact he was out there and available from basically Day One is remarkable, a long ways back from his season-ending ACL tear last year. He avoided PUP, his reps were slightly limited but less so than say, Zach Banner, and he did move around the field well. That’s a lot of work behind the scenes we haven’t seen, a counter to the idea he’s too immature for his own good.
His play on the field was mixed. There were positive moments, especially on underneath throws against Najee Harris in 1v1 and in team sessions. But he did tend to get beat downfield, especially against the Eagles, and he needs to improve his technique. To me, Bush tries to initiate too much contact and gets knocked off-balance because of it. His 2021 role is unclear with the Joe Schobert trade but if the Steelers don’t play much dime this season, Bush could still be a near-100% snap player.
Camp Grade: B-
Quincy Roche: Reps were a bit hard to come by running third team ROLB all of camp. His game was hot and cold but his ability to rip through contact and bend the edge was by far the most impressive thing I saw. He’s a good technician and while he lacks great burst, size, and power, he’s a bendy pass rusher who works and fights hard to the QB. We have him down for four pressures on 36 rushes, 11.1%, with three of them coming in the Hall of Fame opener against Dallas.
Still learning how to consistently play on his feet and make the full-time transition to OLB and failing to stand out in a big way on special teams, he seems like good practice squad fodder. Always the chance he gets claimed but those odds are lower than most think. After all, this guy fell to the 6th round when draftniks thought he was an Early Day Three type and his tweener body type won’t appeal to a lot of teams. Definitely not 4-3 fronts.
Camp Grade: B-
Robert Spillane: Spillane has made plays in coverage before but he’s hit and miss and certainly someone who would be attacked by offenses, prompting the Schobert trade. Spillane plays downhill hard, works inside/out, and is a good tackler.
In three games this preseason, he was targeted eight times, allowing six catches for 71 yards. Not a big sample size but those are some poor numbers.
He ran as the starter next to Bush this year but pushed back to second-team after Schobert’s acquisition. Spillane will now be able to become a four-phase, core special teamer. That’s where he got his start and began climbing the ladder and has been one of the team’s top coverage guys of the past two seasons.
Camp Grade: C+
Buddy Johnson: A fine camp for Johnson. Nothing that wow’d or disappointed. Johnson improved a bit versus the run throughout camp and played more aggressively and forceful downhill. His processing and positioning also seemed improved compared to where it was at Texas A&M. In coverage, it was ok…but we haven’t seen much in-game. I don’t have him down for a target this preseason. He didn’t play a defensive snap in the tune-up game against Detroit and has logged only 35 in total this season, thanks to the second-half defense barely seeing the field against the Eagles.
Camp Grade: C
Calvin Bundage: A fun, rangy player with versatility, able to play off-ball, edge, overhang, he looked like a smaller safety at linebacker. He moved well and played with more physicality than his size and frame would suggest. But his Achilles Heel was as a tackler, either not running through contact or breaking down too early, causing him to dive, and he didn’t have the bulk or strength to make up for it. I thought he was practice squad material and there’s still a small chance he ends up there, but he was part of the second-wave of cuts.
Camp Grade: C-
Jamar Watson: No one should be happier about TJ Watt’s “hold-in” than Watson. If Watt practiced, Watson would’ve been domino’d and bumped from his third-string ROLB spot. And the few reps he had would’ve been even harder to come by. Watson is a big body who one day, with his jersey rolled up, I thought was a new defensive lineman the team signed. He has functional strength and his highlight came whooping Dan Moore Jr. (with Moore at RT) three times in a row 1v1. We have him down for two pressures in 38 pass rush snaps but he felt even less impactful than that.
He survived the first two waves of cuts, largely due to the numbers game working in his favor, but he won’t make the 53. And shouldn’t make the practice squad.
Camp Grade: D+
Ulysees Gilbert III: If there was a vote for camp’s most disappointing player, it’d be UG3. He’s missed a lot of time with back injuries and while I think he moved alright out there, he simply hasn’t had a lot of NFL reps and seemed rusty. He wasn’t the force in coverage the way he was his rookie season and he struggled during games. Against the Cowboys and Eagles (he didn’t play a defensive snap vs the Lions) he was targeted four times, allowing three completions for 36 yards.
UG3 missed too many tackles, including a key third down play against Dallas in the opener, allowing the Cowboys to convert on 3rd and 12. Another miss against the Eagles, which came from poor technique on a HB angle route, led to a first down. According to our Josh Carney, UG3 has missed two tackles on seven attempts, an ugly 28.5% miss rate.
Even before the Schobert trade, Gilbert III was fading fast and playing his way off the roster. With Schobert in the mix, it’s hard to see a way he makes it. He’s, at least, still played quite a bit on special teams.
Camp Grade: D
TJ Watt: As of this writing, Watt has still not signed an extension. As part of some sort of assumed agreement between his camp and the organization, he showed up to camp and worked on the side – some days working in team, some days off to the side – but never worked in team. He should be ready for Week One and still likely with a mega-contract in his wallet.
Camp Grade: Incomplete
Joe Schobert: Schobert was traded over from Jacksonville and arrived for the final handful of Steelers’ practices. His play was nondescript though the last two public sessions were a much lower key than the rest of camp as the Steelers had a simulated game week and had more scout-team work. Schobert played against the Lions and didn’t play especially well but he’s still trying to learn the defense. Unfair to make any sort of evaluation with his game.
Camp Grade: Incomplete