Steelers camp observations: Kwon Alexander suits up, Cole Holcomb steps up and more


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LATROBE, Pa. — If you were hoping for hints about how Kwon Alexander fits into the Steelers’ remade inside linebackers group, Sunday’s practice provided little clarity.

Alexander, who agreed to a one-year deal on Saturday night, was worked into practice slowly and situationally. He participated in individual drills and only a handful of full-team reps late in practice with the third-team defense.

That’s to be expected, considering Alexander put pen to paper less than 24 hours before putting on a No. 26 yellow jersey. The fact that he was able to play at all shows a player with 95 NFL games on his resume knows the game.

But what type of linebacker will he be? Well, the Steelers overhauled that position group this offseason with two archetypes. There’s Cole Holcomb, who is supposed to be a do-everything, three-down linebacker with coverage ability. And then there’s Elandon Roberts, more of a traditional, downhill thumper who will have his greatest impact on first and second downs.

“I’m both,” Alexander said. “I can do it all.”

As camp unfolds, it will be especially interesting to watch how Alexander fares in coverage. While Roberts has the potential to be a force in the run game, he was in coverage on third down just 17 times last season and never aligned in the slot on third down, according to stats from TruMedia. By comparison, Alexander was in coverage on third down 45 times last season — including 13 times in the slot.

Alexander said he is “very confident’ in his ability to play on all three downs and be matched up against tight ends and running backs in the Steelers’ man-heavy scheme.

No matter where he finds a home on the depth chart, Alexander will provide quality depth at what was arguably the thinnest position group on the roster.

“I think competition is an awesome thing,” coach Mike Tomlin said. “We don’t have any preconceived notions about a role. We got some very capable guys at that position and will put them in an environment like this and let them sort themselves out.”


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Here are my 10 observations:

1. Cole Holcomb solid in coverage

On the day the Steelers welcomed Alexander to the team, it was another inside linebacker who had one of his better days of the young camp. Holcomb, who was inconsistent in coverage early in Latrobe, made a number of standout plays on Sunday. He dove to break up a Kenny Pickett pass intended for Najee Harris. Later, during one of the final team segments, he stuck with Harris to force an incompletion. This is his second consecutive day of solid coverage, with several noteworthy reps on Saturday.

Holcomb is one of the great X-factors on this defense. He played 99 percent of the snaps for Washington over the last two seasons, when healthy. After undergoing foot surgery, which slowed him during OTAs, he’ll need to prove he’s healthy and competent in coverage for the Steelers’ highly compensated defense to reach its ceiling.



Can Cole Holcomb solve the Steelers’ inside linebacker problem? He’s a good start, at least

A number of veterans got the day off Sunday, including outside linebacker T.J. Watt, defensive lineman Cameron Heyward, cornerback Patrick Peterson, backup quarterback Mitch Trubisky and right tackle Chukwuma Okorafor.

That opened the door for a number of younger players, notably first-round pick Broderick Jones.

Incumbent left tackle Dan Moore Jr. bounced over to fill the void at right tackle, which paved the way for Jones. He worked more extensively with the first team than he has at any point in camp. That began with the seven-shots drill and continued through practice. Often, he took both the first- and second-team reps.

“Oftentimes, these guys are going through the learning process, but they don’t get an opportunity or as many opportunities as they would like to display that learning,” Tomlin said. “So some days, we thoughtfully shorten the lines and increase their reps in an effort to gain exposure. They get an opportunity to put up or shut up and then we plan the next week accordingly.”

It’s probably ill-advised to read too much into how an offensive lineman performs without pads. But the fact that the Steelers are giving Jones a chance to prove himself before they really ramp things up suggests this will be a true competition.



Kaboly: Broderick Jones looks the part, but what’s the rush to play him early?

3. Rudolph gets a chance, throws two picks

Meanwhile, Trubisky’s day off opened the door for quarterback Mason Rudolph. He took all the second-team reps and Tanner Morgan, an undrafted free agent from Minnesota, got the third-team snaps. It was far from a banner day for Rudolph. During seven shots, he was intercepted by Kenny Robinson. The backup safety had Rudolph’s number again during a team segment. Rudolph floated a duck to Calvin Austin. Robinson, a WVU product and Wilkinsburg, Pa., native, rose above the 5-foot-8 receiver to reel in his second interception of the day.

4. Seven shots report

Kenny Pickett had one of his better days in the red zone Sunday, going 3-for-4 on seven shots. The play that stuck out to me was the last one. He made a hand signal to the receivers and then found tight end Pat Freiermuth, who was lined up in line, on a quick out.

Here’s the full play-by play:

  • Pickett throw to the left side of the end zone intended for Freiermuth. Broken up by Levi Wallace (1-0 Defense)
  • Busted coverage. George Pickens is left all alone in the back corner (Offense 1, Defense 1)
  • Pickett completes to Zach Gentry (Offense 2, Defense 1)
  • Here’s the play I was talking about. Pickett signaled at the line and then hit Freiermuth on a quick out (Offense 3, Defense 1)

Mason Rudolph: 0-for-3

  • Rudolph’s pass was picked off by Robinson. (Offense 3, Defense 2)
  • Pony formation with Anthony McFarland in the slot. Rudolph looks for Connor Heyward on a quick out. Incomplete. (Offense 3, Defense 3)
  • Rudolph scrambles right and looks for Ja’Marcus Bradley. Incomplete. Defended by Joey Porter Jr. (Defense wins, 4-3)


‘Seven Shots’ drill is more than just a fan favorite at Steelers training camp. Here’s why

5. McFarland stock up, but a big test coming

After toiling on the practice squad for the majority of last season, the running back may finally have a chance to carve out his niche in the Steelers offense. Early in camp, he’s taking full advantage. On Sunday, the speedy back took a screen pass and turned on the jets for a big gain.

McFarland is the smallest of the backs on the roster but also probably the quickest. The Steelers are wisely playing to his strengths by using him in a variety of roles, including lining him up in the slot. He’s also run a number of jet sweeps, which would seem to fit his skill set as a burner.

His real test comes this week once the pads come on. If there’s one area that may prevent McFarland from capitalizing on his chance, it’s pass protection. He’s put in work in that area in the offseason. When the Steelers roll out the popular backs-on-backers drill, he may be the player most worth watching.

6. Kazee in a boot as secondary gets thinner

Safety Damontae Kazee, who left Saturday’s practice with an injury, was in a walking boot Sunday. While Kazee called himself “week to week” and said he believes he’ll be ready for Week 1, Tomlin said that he doesn’t yet know the severity of the injury.

“I’ll probably give you more information when I get it,” Tomlin said. “But in environments like this man, we don’t always have immediate, immediate answers in that regard.”

The Steelers came into training camp with the opportunity to expand the effective three-safety (dime) package they used last year. But now, two of the three safeties likely to start in that package are out. Minkah Fitzpatrick was excused for the second consecutive day because of a personal matter.

7. Goodbye Monte, hello Derek?

With a long blond mullet and a name that sounds great in a Pittsburgh accent, Monte Pottebaum had all the makings of a preseason fan favorite. However, the Steelers abruptly announced on Sunday that he was placed on the reserve/retired list.

The move probably just accelerates what was already inevitable, as Pottebaum faced an uphill battle to make the 53-man roster. The ripple effect may be more significant than the actual retirement. The Steelers are now down to one fullback and there’s a certain Watt brother who still remains unsigned.

Asked if the Steelers could add a fullback, Tomlin said, “We’ll go into our off day and look at the totality of what our needs are and make appropriate decisions from there.”

8. An up-and-down day for Austin

Speedster Calvin Austin was one of the standouts of OTAs, but so far in camp, he’s been up and down. That continued Sunday. He dropped a screen pass, which was at least his third dropped pass of camp. But later, he reeled in a pass on a shallow cross and showed off his speed for a big gain. Later during a special teams period, the Steelers had three defenders in pursuit of one ball carrier. Austin juked Mark Robinson out of his shoes. His feet will help him get on the field as long as his hands improve.

9. Bad news for jet-sweep haters

If you’re not a fan of the jet sweep, bad news. The concept isn’t going away. If anything, the Steelers could continue to evolve their pre-snap motions even more this season.

In some instances, the Steelers have sent a player in motion, but before he gets to the quarterback, the motion man will reverse course and ready for a pass. If you remember how the Chiefs scored two red zone touchdowns in the Super Bowl, you know what I’m talking about.

Other times, the Steelers have sent one player in motion, let him get set and then sent a second player in motion. They’ve also lined up running backs wide and then motioned them into the backfield.

10. Pads come on Tuesday

Football in shorts ends Tuesday, when the Steelers put the pads on for the first time. All eyes will be on Jones, as the rookie lineman has the first opportunity to show he has the snarl to match his athleticism.

(Photo of Kwon Alexander: Jeffrey Becker / USA Today)

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Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams is a writer and editor. Angeles. She writes about politics, art, and culture for LinkDaddy News.

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