There were many positive takeaways from the Pittsburgh Steelers win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in week one of preseason NFL action. One major point of interest on the offensive side of the ball was the play of several different bubble wide receivers looking to make the team. Following the departure of Antonio Brown, the Steelers wide receiver depth is still great and there are several names to keep an eye on.
Johnny Holton was the wide receiver who stood out the most against Tampa Bay. Though he only recorded two catches in the game, there were three plays in which Holton showcased what he is capable of. The first of these plays came early in the third quarter when Holton got open across the middle of the field on a crossing route. With plenty of room to work with, Holton was off to the races. After making two guys miss with a well-timed spin move, Holton would keep going until he was forced out of bounds inside the ten-yard line for a 60 yard gain. The big takeaway from this play was that Holton has serious speed.
Another play that boosted Holton’s stock was a defensive pass interference call he drew in the third quarter. He got a step on Tampa Bay corner Sean Murphy-Bunting. The ball was just slightly overthrown by quarterback Devlin Hodges, but it still went for a big gain due to the penalty. Again, Holton showed off his speed on the play.
The third play that stood out from Holton was a first down conversion he made late in the third quarter. Hodges dropped back to pass and had nowhere to go with the ball. Recognizing this, Holton worked his way back to the ball as he saw Hodges leave the pocket. Hodges made a good throw and Holton got his knees in bounds to gain the first down.
Overall, Johnny Holton did the most of any bubble receiver in this game to boost his stock and increase his chances of making the roster.
Another receiver who played well against the Bucs was last year’s practice squad member Tevin Jones. He caught three passes for 24 yards and a touchdown in the game. Perhaps Jones’s most impressive play on the game came on an incomplete pass. Late in the first half and looking to get in the red zone, Mason Rudolph took a shaky snap out of the shotgun. He took a deep shot to the left side of the field, down around the five-yard line. Jones was there and showed off his height and leaping ability, as he soared over Bucs corner Ryan Smith to secure the ball. The only problem is that Jones only got one foot down in bounds, so the catch didn’t count. Still, it was a good showcase of Jones’s height, athleticism, and leaping ability, all tools that he puts together very well as a receiver.
Jones’s touchdown came early in the fourth quarter. Lined up in the slot in the middle of the field, Jones had to extend his route as Hodges bounced around the pocket looking for an open man. Jones ended up taking his route to the left side of the end zone, where he was multiple steps in front of his man for the wide open touchdown.
In an offense where extending the play is key, being able to get open as the play extends is an important skills for receivers to have. And Jones showed that skill here.
One receiver who didn’t improve his stock in the game with the Buccaneers was Diontae Spencer. He had a very bad drop on a third and long in the third quarter. On what likely would have been a first down conversion, Spencer looked like he tried to turn up field before he caught the ball. The pass went straight through his hands and the Steelers were forced to punt.
There was a play later in the game where Spencer got open across the middle of the field on a post route and turned it into a decent gain. On the play, he showcased some of his elite speed in the open field. But, there was also another play where he caught the ball before having it knocked loose by a defender. As a receiver in this game, Spencer had his ups and downs.
Spencer is most known for his abilities as a returner, though he got off to a slow start in that department, too. On Tampa Bay’s first punt of the game, Spencer didn’t signal for a fair catch with a gunner unblocked and in his face. As soon as Spencer caught the punt, he was leveled. Thankfully, Spencer held onto the ball. But, the decision making was poor and cannot happen on a team who already has enough of struggles on special teams.
Later in the game, Spencer would make some nice plays in the return game. He had one decent punt return and a good one, seen below. Spencer definitely excels at making would-be tacklers miss when he has some space to work with.
Along with this solid punt return, Spencer’s only kick return on the night went for 35 yards. He definitely has the tools to be a good return man. But, as he fights for a spot on the roster, Spencer will need to be more than just a returner. He needs to tighten it up in the receiving game if he wants to give himself a chance to make the final 53-man roster.
Lack of Roster Spots
The good news for that receivers is that it’s expected that the team will be keeping six receivers. The bad news, though, is that at least four of those spots are etched in stone. Juju Smith-Schuster, Donte Moncrief, James Washington, and Diontae Johnson will be on the roster. That’s a fact. And, some would argue that all six spots are already taken. Ryan Switzer and Eli Rogers seem like the likely takers of the final two spots. Switzer is a good locker room guy, and can be used in the slot, as a returner, and even out of the backfield. Rogers is a veteran of the team who has chemistry with Ben Roethlisberger and also has been used as a returner in the past.
Through just one preseason game, Holton has done the most to increase his chances of making the team. Maybe there’s an outside shot that one of the previously mentioned receivers could be let go of, or traded. If that’s the case, Holton would likely be the next man up. To go with that possibility, there’s also the practice squad. With ten spots to fill, two of them could definitely go to receivers. Jones will likely be one of them, as he’s currently the eighth receiver and even a surprise move with one of the top six wouldn’t open a spot for him. It will be interesting to see how the receiving core pans out, and who all is sent to the practice quad and who outright gets cut.
Photo courtesy of Karl Roser/steelers.com