When the Pittsburgh Steelers drafted Demarcus Ayers in the 7th round of the 2016 NFL Draft, special teams coach Danny Smith spoke with media about the selection. What was truly interesting about the situation was when a reporter asked about Eli Rogers being able to fill in as a punt returner. Smith's response?
"Who? Does he play for the Steelers?"
Although probably joking, let's just say he, and Steelers fans everywhere, knows who Rogers is as the team prepares for their final preseason game against the Carolina Panthers on Thursday.
Rogers has been the training camp darling for fans of the black and gold for a few weeks now, but he has taken the next step, and played extremely well on the football field in preseason action. This is just the preseason, so you take results with a grain of salt; however, what truly matters is the trust he has developed with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
Roethlisberger doesn't just throw passes to anyone, ask Dri Archer streaking down the sideline, and this was on display Friday night as he took the field with the starters, and looked like he belonged.
Make the tough play
Rogers is a slot receiver. Period. There aren't many like him in the NFL anymore. These are guys who specialize in dominating the interior of a defense, willing to take a hit and make the tough plays over the middle of the field. In the above play, you see just what it takes to gain Roethlisberger's trust, and the rest of the team's.
Notice the formation, 3WR set with twins to the left out of the shotgun. As stated above, Rogers is in the slot. This is a 3rd and 10 play, and Rogers, only in his second year and first actual season, is crafty enough to not only run a crisp 10-yard route, but when coming back to the football realizing he is short of the sticks and fights for the tough yardage while taking a hit.
If he doesn't give the extra effort, the Steelers could be faced with a 4th and short, instead, they received a new set of downs.
Ah, there lies the rub
Here you see Rogers as the motion man in the same formation as the previous play. This was on the team's second drive of the game and a 1st and 10 situation. Roethlisberger uses Rogers to diagnose a man or zone defensive scheme. With the defensive back following Rogers, it signals man-to-man defense, and Roethlisberger immediately knows the play designed is going to work.
Off the snap Xavier Grimble and Rogers run a beautiful rub route off the line of scrimmage. A rub route is when one receiver runs his man vertical, pushing the defender with him, and his adjoining receiver rubs right underneath his route. It is the modern day pick play, but legal if done correctly,
Grimble could have been called for offensive pass interference, as he made contact well before the catch was made, but it went unnoticed and Rogers had a clean alley to catch and run.
People always compare Rogers to Antonio Brown, and that is simply unfair, but what Brown would most likely have done in this situation is catch the pass and quickly try to stiff arm the defender to gain extra yardage. Brown has become a master at the stiff arm, and this eluding the solo tackle is certainly an aspect of Roger's game which could improve.
Still room for improvement
Throughout the first two series with the starting offense on the field, they relied heavily on the no-huddle offense, and when they did so this was their go-to offensive package. Again, shotgun formation, 3WR set with Rogers in the slot, typically on the heavy side (where the tight end lines up outside the tackle).
This was great defense by the Saints, but Rogers could have gotten himself in a better situation to catch this pass. Watch - while coming off the line Rogers, throws a head-and-shoulders fake to try to get the defensive back to bite on the inside post route. However, it wasn't very convincing. If he really sells that fake, Roethlisberger would have a much larger window to fit the football into, which could have become 6-points.
This isn't the first time I've noticed this throughout the preseason, and Rogers' execution will likely improve as the preseason ends and the regular season begins.
What might have been the most interesting aspect of Rogers' game was how he was out there with the starting no-huddle offense. It wasn't Sammie Coates, or even Darrius Heyward-Bey. This tells me those fans who are screaming about how it is just the preseason might want to think twice as No. 17 might be a mainstay in certain packages and situations in the Steelers offense.
Should you go run to the NFL shop and buy yourself an Eli Rogers jersey? You could, but you might want to take a wait-and-see approach to that before shelling out that much money. However, it looks as if Rogers is going to be a big part of this offense in 2016, and he has the look of someone who is ready and willing to embrace such a role.