Every year thirty-two NFL teams head into training camp with tough decisions and a myriad of puzzle pieces to put together before the pre-season and regular season kicks off. The Pittsburgh Steelers will put their decoding skills to the test to solve and attempt to put it all together when training camp starts in Latrobe, PA, this Friday at St. Vincent College. This year may prove to be one of the most unpredictable camps in the Steelers' last seven seasons under head coach Mike Tomlin.
The Steelers last experienced a perplexing camp situation the year that young Ben Roethlisberger reported to camp fresh off the draft board - 2004. The Steelers had finished with a record of 6-10 during the 2003 season. After camp, however, the Steelers were able to finish 15-1 in 2004 and reach the AFC Championship; something no one in the football world is predicting for the 2013 Steelers. The AFC North has become a stronghold of warriors ready to do battle, including Super Bowl Champion Baltimore.
Will 2013 be the year that Dick LeBeau starts to turn over the reigns more to Keith Butler? Will Todd Haley, who was allowed to shop his own works around to Arizona in January 2013, tweak his offense with Randy Fichtner and Jack Bicknell, Jr.? Most of the questions facing the Steelers will not only need to be addressed during training camp, but answered.
The Steelers have one of the most puzzling questions to answer in their tight ends. If anyone within the Steelers organization has a clue when tight end Heath Miller will be ready to play in 2013, no one is saying. Miller led the Steelers with 71 receptions in 2012 before tearing his ACL, MCL and PCL. Following reconstructive surgery to the knee, Miller has spent time rehabbing. David Johnson, who was slated to be the new half-back in 2012, suffered a season-ending knee injury in the first quarter of Pittsburgh's preseason game against Philadelphia. Johnson is on the mend, saying that he is, "85 to 90" percent better. That could open up a door for second-year veteran Will Johnson to take the H-back position. The biggest question - and it's a daunting one - is whether or not the Steelers will count on second-year tight end David Paulson to fill in or Matt Spaeth, who returned to the Steelers during the off-season. During minicamp, Paulson had some nagging injuries.
Unless Todd Haley can rewrite the roles tight ends have in the Steelers offense - an offense where tight ends had accounted for 96 receptions and 11 touchdowns in 2012 - it is looking like the Steelers should have shopped for another replacement in the draft or through free agency. Too many question marks in this category unless someone gets healthy and Spaeth makes a historic return to Heinz Field.
The Steelers have never been a team to throw in the towel before a season even begins, and there is a lot of promise in one of the most exciting groups of rookie talent this year. And, while the Steelers put them into play, there are questions of depth and veteran assignments to contemplate and fit together. Training camp will be a team-building experience and the Steelers can't afford to be complacent about being ranked third in the AFC North. Camp at Latrobe is always an exciting mix of positioning and discovery. In 2013, the Steelers will have unravel the mystery of whether they have all the pieces to complete the puzzle.
See the list for other positional battles and key questions expected during training camp this year for the Steelers.
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Can Jarvis Jones make an immediate impact for Steelers?
Jarvis Jones may be one of the most highly anticipated rookies on the Pittsburgh Steelers' roster this season. Following the departure of James Harrison, the Steelers are looking for explosive power and the ability to contain. During rookie training camp, Jarvis showed he has the mentality and the skills to perform at the highest level in football, a career in the NFL.
Jarvis will be competing for an opening spot against Jason Worilds who many considered to be Harrison's heir-apparent. In his ten starts with the Steelers, Worilds didn't show the pass-rushing efficiency that Harrison had, but was an efficient tackler. One of the biggest unknowns about Worilds is his longevity. Can he be a 16-game starter? During the 2012 season, most of his snaps were on the left side of the defensive line in place of injured LaMarr Woodley. Will Worilds be able to translate on the right side?
Jones has some intangibles as well. His own health problems in the past have made some NFL insiders uneasy about how well Jones will hold up should he start for the Steelers. If Jones can learn the defensive scheme from LeBeau and company, he may prove doubters wrong. He'll need to shine up his pass-rushing ability and keep rushers from getting outside.
The "Youth Movement" on the Steelers' offensive line
News that David DeCastro, who missed his entire rookie season due to injury, will return healthier this season is definitely a boon for the Pittsburgh Steelers. However, DeCastro, like many in the young offensive line that has been assembled, are virtually unproven. With little depth at the O-line position, there won't be much room for mistakes or lasting injuries. The "youth movement" may prove to be exactly what the Steelers need to be effective in the running game this season, but there are several intangibles and a mess of questions to answer.
Veteran guard Ramon Foster is the most seasoned player on the newly-formed offensive line. Foster, a free agent, re-signed with the Steelers during the off-season. And, despite his time with the Steelers, Foster doesn't have the pedigree that many of his fellow linemen do. He is expected to play left guard and lead the new-comers.
Projected to start are first- and second-rounders since 2010. Three-time Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey will make another stand in the middle. Starting at tackle, Marcus Gilbert (left) and Mike Adams (right). DeCastro will be at right guard.
This leaves second-year guard/tackle Kelvin Beachum looking like the only real backup the Steelers have available. Justin Cheadle (OG), Nik Embernate (OG), Mike Farrel (OT), Mike Golic, Jr. (OT), Chris Hubbard (OG), Joe Madsen (C) and John Malecki (OG) are young unproven linemen. Guy Whimper (OT), an eight-year veteran who last played with the Jacksonville Jaguars (2012), has only 22 starts in his career, and isn't necessarily proven either.
Whether the young blood proves to be an effective weapon for the Steelers in 2013 is really up in the air at this point.
Cam Heyward's position with the Steelers
Cam Heyward can feel the heat. It's radiating from Dick LeBeau. It's flaring up all around him. He is in an inescapable and inevitable reality - be ready to play. Two years from being selected in the first round of the NFL Draft, Heyward has yet to prove his worth to the Pittsburgh Steelers. His progression has been slow at defensive end, but the Steelers have been patient up to this point. Training camp this year puts a big target squarely on Heyward's back.
While Ziggy Hood and Brett Keisel will most likely retain their starting positions, the Steelers absolutely need Heyward to step up and show that he can be a starter. Heyward needs to show that he can be a formidable force in the trenches, and 2.5 sacks over the last two seasons won't give him the passing grade. Neither will the 26 solo tackles in 31 games. Where did the Big Ten terror go?
“It's hard to define my role right now, but we'll see as the season rolls around,” Heyward said. “I have to be a player on this team who contributes in multiple ways. It doesn't matter if it's special teams or defensive line...If I want to be strictly a pass-rusher, then I'm in the wrong place. We want to stop the run first, but I want to be that guy in the nickel who gets that push."
Everyone will expect Heyward to put his game into hyper-drive at camp or risk being labeled a "bust".
Le'Veon Bell and the Steelers' running back situation
Rookie Le'Veon Bell is being touted as the next Franco Harris, but I wouldn't ring that bell just yet. There is no guarantee that Bell will be the starter or how many carries he will handle in 2013. The Steelers look to be holding a three-man competition between Bell, Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman at camp. Bell was the Big Ten's leading rusher last season with 1,793 yards for Michigan State. If he can translate those numbers to the NFL - being fast, durable and able to play all three downs - he may put Dwyer and Redman in the dust. If he can show that he has the ability to block and catch passes as well, which we know he has in college, then he may punch his ticket to the top of the roster.
Dwyer is one year removed from being the Steelers' leading rusher after a slow start with the team. Dwyer put up 623 yards. That was during a season that was abysmal in rushing yards and where now former Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall was supposed to shine. Isaac Redman only ran for 410 yards. All three - Dwyer, Mendenhall and Redman - were on the bench soothing their egos after multiple fumbles cost the Steelers so much during critical games. The three backs ended up playing by committee.
With LaRod Stephens-Howling in camp as well, there will be hot competition to see who can show they have not only the fundamentals but the will to play in the Steelers' offense. While there is contention between whether Stephens-Howling will play anything other than special teams due to his kick return capabilities, it still remains to be seen if Dwyer or Redman will step up. Baron Batch looks like he may have too big of a road ahead of him to make it up the hill at this point.