Tim Benz: Steelers’ Ola Adeniyi adding to pass-rush repertoire
The size. The number. The sacks. The bio.
The similarities were too obvious to ignore. Steelers rookie Ola Adeniyi spent last preseason flashing as a 6-foot-1, 248-pound undrafted MAC outside linebacker, wearing No. 92.
Adeniyi frequently popped during training camp and had three sacks and two forced fumbles in four preseason games.
He couldn’t have been more James Harrison-esque if he tried. Well, aside from what appears to be a relatively friendly disposition and a general acceptance of common human interaction, of course.
But nothing of what he showed on the field in the summer carried over to the fall. A combination of a hamstring injury in the preseason finale and his rookie status resulted in Adeniyi playing in just one game last year, against the Chargers on Dec. 2 at Heinz Field.
He was stashed on injured reserve for most of the season and was only elevated to the 53-man roster for the last five games of the year.
“Sitting out those first couple of weeks, I just sat in the background and just learned everything,” Adeniyi said. “Soak it all up. Learn from T.J. (Watt), Bud (Dupree), Chick (Anthony Chickillo). Taking it all in. Coming out here (in 2019). Just trying to stay healthy this year and get my body right.”
With Adeniyi not available, the Steelers played short-handed at outside linebacker last year, with only Chickillo and his 1.5 sacks backing up Watt and Dupree. The Steelers attempted to back fill that hole on the roster by, well, doing nothing, actually. Sutton Smith was drafted in the sixth round this year out of Northern Illinois. But he looks more like Tyler Matakevich insurance at inside linebacker and a special-teams contributor — or even a full back — than he does as a fall back for Dupree or Watt.
So that’s where Adeniyi comes in. Perhaps when an injury occurs or rotation is needed at outside linebacker this year, we’ll get more of a glimpse at what we thought we saw from the 21-year-old in the summer of 2018.
“We activated him, but he wasn’t going to be a contributor,” general manager Kevin Colbert said after the draft. “I think that’ll be a difference. We always talk about players moving into their second season. We are excited about what he can do.”
Watt said Adeniyi’s willingness to diversify his pass-rush skills has been obvious during this spring’s OTA sessions.
“I think Ola is making some improvements,” Watt said. “Just seeing him try new pass-rush moves. I think that’s the biggest thing for any pass-rusher is to try different moves this time of year because who cares if you fail? Just go out there and try as many moves as you can. I think Ola is doing a good job of that.”
Exploring new tactics to beat opposing offensive tackles is something Adeniyi seems to believe is critical in his development, as he critiques himself as being too reliant on winning one-on-one battles with his speed-rush.
“I feel like I’m definitely good off the edge speed rushing,” Adeniyi said. “But I want to add some counters in case the tackle oversets. Be able to come back, swat the hands, spin moves, things like that.”
Given how often Steelers outside linebackers have to drop, Adeniyi has to hone that aspect of his game, too. That’s a skill that may be coming along, as evidenced by an interception he had in practice last week.
“I dropped to the flat probably once or twice my junior year (at Toledo), but that was it,” Adeniyi said. “This offseason, I was trying to work on that aspect of my game because I never really did that in college.”
So long as he keeps No. 92 on his back, the Harrison comparison always will be there for Adeniyi. He’ll likely never be that good. He won’t have to be.
Unless Watt or Dupree get hurt, of course. Then, slamming the occasional quarterback — or Browns fan — would be a welcomed flashback.