What We've Learned from Pittsburgh Steelers Training Camp so Far
The Pittsburgh Steelers have now been in training camp for nearly two weeks and have their first game of the preseason on Friday. With numerous practices in the books—including last weekend's Friday Night Lights prime-time session and their Heinz Field-based Family Fest on Sunday—there have been a glut of developments as far as the roster is concerned, as well as injuries to report on.
Here is what we have learned from the Steelers camp thus far.
JuJu Smith-Schuster Impresses
The Steelers' 2017 second-round draft pick, receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, has benefited from wideout Martavis Bryant still awaiting full reinstatement by the league as well as Sammie Coates missing time after undergoing a knee scope before training camp. He's also a major benefactor of the tutelage of former Steelers receiver Hines Ward, who is helping out as a coaching intern.
As such, Smith-Schuster has been a standout in camp so far. Steelers Depot's Alex Kozora has the rookie boasting the highest catch percentage of any of the Steelers wideouts who are in the mix to start this year, with 11 catches on 16 targets for two touchdowns through nine practices and no drops. Meanwhile, Smith-Schuster's usage in the slot is also on the rise.
Though Eli Rogers is the incumbent slot receiver, PennLive's Jacob Klinger noted that both Rogers and Smith-Schuster continue to split work at the position with the first-team offense. And if Ward's praise is to be believed, it's quite possible that Smith-Schuster continues to rise up the depth chart during the rest of the summer.
Ward, speaking to Steelers.com, said, "JuJu, words can't describe. I see a lot of myself in him. He is a kid that wants to get better every day. The kid is willing to learn. He wants to get better each and every day. ... I see him having a long and productive career." The Steelers will have no choice but to find room on the field for Smith-Schuster this season.
Backup Running Backs Getting Long Looks
With Le'Veon Bell continuing his holdout and James Conner sidelined with a shoulder sprain, the rest of the Steelers backup running backs have been getting more work than they would otherwise.
The main beneficiary has been Knile Davis, who was signed in free agency to push Fitzgerald Toussaint for the No. 3 running back spot as well as to work as a kick returner. According to Steelers Depot's Alex Kozora, Davis has 49 carries through nine practices, compared to 36 for Toussaint, 31 for Brandon Brown-Dukes and 26 for Terrell Watson. Conner had 12 carries prior to his injury.
Also interesting is how involved Davis has been in the passing game, with 12 catches on 12 targets and a receiving touchdown; Toussaint, meanwhile, has caught five passes on six targets. Depending on how long Bell holds out and how Conner's injury progresses, it's possible that Davis could open the season as the No. 2 back on the Steelers depth chart. It is also possible that the Steelers hold onto more backs than was presumed before camp began.
Injuries Mounting in the Secondary
This training camp was to be a big one for the Steelers secondary, which has been working to improve and increase its reliance on man coverage in the passing game. But injuries have been mounting, particularly at the cornerback position, thus putting the entire unit behind on their progress.
As Joe Rutter of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review pointed out, rookie Cameron Sutton, starter Artie Burns and slot corner Senquez Golson (who is now injured for the third summer in a row) have all missed multiple practices, as has veteran safety Mike Mitchell.
Burns had spent the entirety of camp shadowing No. 1 wideout Antonio Brown, but in his absence Ross Cockrell has moved over to covering Brown, with Rutter reporting that Cockrell has struggled in the role.
With the Steelers shifting their coverage philosophy this year, they need as many opportunities as possible to have all of the expected starters in the secondary to work on its implementation together during training camp. Injuries, however, have provided setbacks that may result in a few shaky outings early in the regular season depending on how long it takes for these players to get back onto the field.
Joshua Dobbs Learning Quickly
Rookie quarterback Joshua Dobbs has thus far been afforded an extended look during training camp this summer, with starter Ben Roethlisberger often resting or participating on a minimal basis (as well as nursing a minor ankle injury) and the incumbent No. 2 passer, Landry Jones, missing time with an abdominal strain.
Dobbs has thrown the most passes of camp, at 84, according to Steelers Depot's Alex Kozora. He's completed 46 of them, and has thrown nine touchdowns to two interceptions. And Dobbs has also gotten time with the first-team offense, a luxury he is well aware of, saying to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review's Chris Adamski that, "Each rep is a learning opportunity, whether you make a great throw, or you mess up a read, you are able to learn from that opportunity and see how you grow and get better for the next rep."
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Gene Collier reported that Dobbs could be the starting quarterback for the preseason opener on Friday against the New York Giants. It will certainly be Dobbs' biggest opportunity for learning and growth.
Though Dobbs may revert back to the No. 3 quarterback on the depth chart upon Jones' return, he is at least getting more high-profile work than had been expected so far this summer. That could very well lay the foundation to someday supplant Jones on the depth chart or even be the man to take over for Roethlisberger when the veteran's career comes to an end.
The Latest on Martavis Bryant
Steelers receiver Martavis Bryant expected to be cleared by the NFL for full reinstatement from his year-long suspension in time for the team's Friday Night Lights practice at Latrobe Memorial Stadium. Though conditionally reinstated in April, until the league gives him complete clearance he is unable to participate in any team practices.
ESPN.com's Jeremy Fowler reported Friday that Bryant had his pads with him, intending to practice, before Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert pulled him aside and took the pads. But it appears that Bryant's official arrival to the practice field may be coming soon.
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Gerry Dulac reported on Sunday that, according to a Steelers source, Bryant is expected to be fully reinstated and thus able to practice at some point this week. Once that happens, it will be Bryant's first NFL practice since 2015, as he spent the entirety of 2016 under suspension after multiple violations of the league's substance-abuse policy.
Though Bryant's return will have a negative effect on the reps, particularly those of the first-team variety, for receivers like JuJu Smith-Schuster and Justin Hunter, it's important that the large, red-zone target starts getting comfortable being back with his team and connecting with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. His return puts the Steelers one step closer to fielding a full-strength offense in 2017.
Adding Shepherd, whom the Philadelphia Eagles drafted in 2015 and later released before he signed for the San Francisco 49ers, makes sense. For one, the injuries that have mounted in the secondary have left the Steelers thin at cornerback. Shepherd is also versatile.
Shepherd's main use a season ago was on special teams, returning 21 kicks for the Niners for a total of 456 yards. The Steelers are still trying to iron out who will handle both kick and punt returning duties. Though mostly running backs and receivers have been getting chances thus far this summer (and rookie cornerback Cameron Sutton before his injury), adding Shepherd into the mix gives the Steelers another multifaceted player.
Indeed, even if and when the numerous dinged-up cornerbacks return to the field, a roster spot might be available for Shepherd depending on how well he can impress on special teams.
According to Steelers Depot's Alex Kozora, the following players did not practice on Sunday because of injury (the Steelers were off on Monday):
Cornerback Senquez Golson (hamstring), receiver Sammie Coates (knee), cornerback Cameron Sutton (hamstring), safety Mike Mitchell (foot or ankle), linebacker Keion Adams (shoulder), running back James Conner (shoulder), quarterback Landry Jones (abdominal), linebacker Farrington Huguenin (possible concussion), cornerback Artie Burns (leg, groin), linebacker Ryan Shazier (hamstring), linebacker Bud Dupree (unknown), center Mike Matthews (unknown), center Maurkice Pouncey (unknown), wide receiver Demarcus Ayers (unknown) and possibly defensive end Stephon Tuitt, though his absence on Sunday may have been due to a day of rest. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger also didn't finish practice last Thursday, having suffered an ankle injury.
The good news is the Steelers haven't made multiple roster moves in response to these injuries, instead adding just one cornerback. That's a sign that many of these injuries don't appear to be serious or long term in nature.