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Summary from the Final Week of Camp
Ben Roethlisberger was held out of the preseason finale, which was not surprising given his veteran status and importance to the team. He played last week and finished with a perfect passer rating. Mason Rudolph was also held out of the game, further solidifying his status as the backup. Dwayne Haskins got the start but ultimately hurt his chances of either sticking with the Steelers or landing elsewhere as a No. 2. The usually pragmatic Mike Tomlin didn’t mince words after the game. “Like the rest of us, I didn’t think it was enough varsity work from him,” Tomlin said of Haskins. “It wasn’t the type of performance he wanted, or we wanted. But such is life.”
The coaches initially planned on playing Najee Harris in each preseason game, but they changed their minds before the finale. When asked about that decision, Tomlin said, “Succinctly, he's varsity. He checks the boxes. He's varsity.” It’s confirmation that Harris is one of the most valuable pieces of the offense. Kalen Ballage has pushed incumbent No. 2, Benny Snell, throughout camp. Snell was healthy enough to see his first preseason action Friday night. He started the game, but that decision could have been more to catch him up and evaluate him than an indication he’s held off Ballage. There were rumors throughout the preseason that Snell could be cut, but he should make the final roster. Anthony McFarland Jr’s special teams’ contributions give him a strong chance of making the final roster, too.
The top three receivers are set, with Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool playing outside and JuJu Smith-Schuster handling the slot. Smith-Schuster could play in some two-receiver sets ahead of Claypool, but the team will likely use three receivers as its primary offensive formation. Johnson has seen plenty of targets throughout camp, including more end zone work than one might think, considering he’s the smallest of the three. Behind the elite trio is James Washington, another starting-caliber player. The team will probably only keep five wide receivers, with Ray-Ray McCloud III rounding out the group as the punt and kickoff returner.
Pat Freiermuth has pushed presumed starter Eric Ebron for the entirety of camp and offers a tall, athletic red zone target with great hands. Ebron has played a lot of practice reps with backup quarterbacks Mason Rudolph and Dwayne Haskins. If Freiermuth can show the ability to block effectively, he could become a near every-down player. Ebron hardly resembles the athletic mismatch that made him a first-round pick years ago.
The most significant stories on the defense are T.J. Watt and Stephon Tuitt. Watt hasn’t participated in team drills in camp because he wants a new contract. Tuitt’s absence has been more mysterious. His brother was tragically killed in a hit-and-run accident this summer. Like Watt, he’s present at practice, but he still hasn’t returned to full activity. The team expects both stalwarts to play in the season opener. In Watt’s case, he should return with a much more secure financial future. Elsewhere on the defense, the team continues to incorporate new middle linebacker Joe Schobert. Defensive coordinator Keith Butler prefers nickel coverage over dime when they need to move away from the base defense. He reasons that keeping Schobert and Devin Bush on the field is essential since they’re among the team’s best players. But it could also be because the cornerback depth is lacking.
The Steelers brought in competition for Ray-Ray McCloud III, but that competition didn't survive past the last cuts, leaving McCloud the top option to field both punts and kickoffs.
Summary from Week 3 of Camp
Ben Roethlisberger increased his activity this week, including playing in the preseason game Saturday night. The new offense has him doing things he hasn’t done in years (including misdirection play-action fakes and roll-outs). He ended his abbreviated game Saturday with a perfect passer rating. Many are questioning Roethlisberger’s arm strength, but he threw with zip and connected on a deep ball in the game. The offense also performed better in practice, ending the week going 6-for-7 in “Seven Shots,” a drill where the offense runs seven plays from the three-yard line. Last week, the defense got the better of that drill nearly every day. Roethlisberger was 3-for-4 on the drill, with the lone miss coming on a dropped pass. Asked about his arm, Roethlisberger said, “My arm feels pretty good compared to last year.” Mason Rudolph continued to play after Roethlisberger in the rotation, with Dwayne Haskins entering the game third.
Pittsburgh continues to treat Najee Harris as a workhorse and one of the more valuable players on the offense. After starting the game and playing with Roethlisberger for the first time in a game situation, Harris came out when Roethlisberger did. Other offensive starters, including Diontae Johnson, JuJu Smith-Schuster, and the starting line, remained in the game for the entire first half with Mason Rudolph under center. Harris’ work ethic has been excellent throughout the preseason. Behind Harris, Benny Snell is still less than 100%. Last week, he returned to limited drills but hasn’t participated in a full practice or a game yet this preseason. Snell could be on the outside looking in when final cuts are made because Anthony McFarland Jr contributes on special teams, and Kalen Ballage is performing well in practices and games, getting second-team reps in Thursday’s practice. Ballage is also working with the top punting unit. McFarland was the second back into the game Saturday, including a brief appearance with Roethlisberger after Harris’ long catch-and-run resulted in him getting a well-deserved rest.