The Pittsburgh Steelers have had a busy offseason marked by a flurry of retirements, departures, and one well-publicized holdout. Even so, the most intriguing stories have yet to unfold. Here's what to watch for this Thursday in the Steelers' first preseason game against the Philadelphia Eagles.
Competition at the Nose
The Steelers' fourth-round selection of Alameda Ta'Amu, the hulking defensive lineman out of Washington, looks like a potential steal. As the heir-apparent to longtime Steeler great Casey Hampton, Ta'Amu fills a giant need for the Steelers while providing a crisp, clean story-line for the press: Insert Ta'Amu. Just add water. Enjoy new era.
Steve McLendon has other ideas.
McLendon got some valuable playing time at the nose last year, and it clearly made an impression on Steelers coaches. Once considered undersized at 280 pounds, McLendon has spent what seems like the entire offseason in the gym, packing on pound after pound of muscle on his way to a solid 325 pounds. No wonder Steelers defensive line coach John Mitchell nearly flew into a rage when reporters appeared to dismiss McLendon in a post-draft press conference this year.
What to Watch For: Though their work might not always look pretty, it's not possible to overstate the importance of an effective nose tackle in Dick LeBeau's 3-4 scheme. Barring injury, McLendon will get the start, and Ta'Amu will see a larger portion of playing time against second-stringers. Each must demonstrate the ability to clog interior rush lanes and occupy multiple offensive linemen so that the linebackers have room to work.
After being exposed by the Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl XLV, the Steelers invested heavily in CBs during the 2011 NFL Draft by taking Curtis Brown in the third round and Cortez Allen in the fourth. This offseason, the Steelers doubled down on their investment, watching William Gay and Bryant McFadden walk without adding any new talent except a seventh-rounder, Terrence Frederick. The Steelers hope that what's left on the roster can comprise a new young core, capable not only in the zone coverages that have been typical of LeBeau's defenses in the past, but also in a growing proportion of man coverage that will hopefully help neutralize high-flying attacks like Green Bay's or New England's.
Now the Steelers must sort out who will see the field right now. Ike Taylor is, of course, firmly entrenched as the number one CB, but the spot across from him will be hotly contested, as will the nickel position. Keenan Lewis had a decent season last year, so he is currently the favorite. However, Cortez Allen and Curtis Brown have been far quicker studies than Lewis was at their age, and one of them just might unseat Lewis.
What to Watch For: The Eagles have a number of dynamic wide receivers, so this could be a good test for this young group of corners. Since Taylor will probably come off of the field rather quickly, all three young corners will likely see a good bit of playing time. Watch them all closely, but pay particular attention to who is playing in the nickel. Cortez Allen has been playing in that spot for the most part during training camp, but he may still have a shot at Lewis' outside spot as well. Similarly, Curtis Brown could also play the nickel, even though he has no experience there.
New Opportunities for Young Defensive Ends
In each of the last several seasons, guessing how many games DE Aaron Smith would play was sort of a parlor game among Steelers fans. Smith gave the Pittsburgh faithful plenty to cheer about during his time as a Steeler, but his struggle to stay healthy in the latter portion of his career necessitated a heavy investment in the defensive end position.
Enter Ziggy Hood and Cameron Heyward. Neither of these two young men have yet been able to distinguish themselves on the field, but there are a few reasons to watch their performances more closely this season. This is the first year that Hood, in particular, will be able to step outside of Smith's gigantic shadow, and judging by his offseason preparation, it seems like he wants to make a good impression. For his part, Cameron Heyward has reportedly been quite impressive in camp thus far, though a good deal of that has come at the expense of rookie seventh-rounder Kelvin Beachum rather than more seasoned competition. Moreover, Heyward's playing time will doubtless be more limited than Hood's because Brett Keisel continues to play (and grow beards) at such a high level. Even so, the expectations are high for this pair of first-rounders -- and they should be.
The less obvious player to watch is Al Woods, a former 4th round pick of the New Orleans Saints who the Steelers have signed on multiple occasions, only to have him plucked away from the practice squad. At 25, it seems fairly unlikely that Woods will develop into anything better than a solid role player, but the Steelers' repeated attempts to hold onto this guy should tell us something. Keep an eye on him to see if he becomes a backup to Hood and Heyward in the future; if Chris Hoke taught us anything it should be that reliable backups are incredibly valuable.
What to Watch For: Much like the NT, defensive ends are expected to occupy blockers to free up the linebackers in a 3-4 scheme. Unlike the NT, however, defensive ends are expected to generate a little bit more of a pass rush themselves, especially when the Steelers only employ a three man rush. Look to see if Hood, Heyward, and Woods can consistently push the opposing linemen backward without creating running lanes for Lesean McCoy to squirt through. After a year of uncharacteristically low sack output, the Steelers need all the help they can get to make the pocket collapse around opposing quarterbacks.
Wideouts Without Wallace
There can be no doubt about the talent that the Steelers have at the wide receiver position, but it will be interesting to see how efficiently the offense can function without estranged star Mike Wallace. Say what you will about the incredible season that Antonio Brown put up last year, but the fact remains that he has never had to produce without a proven threat on the other side of the field. Who better than the great Nnamdi Asomugha to help begin to answer that question? Since this is the first preseason game, we won't see a whole lot of the first team on either squad, but it's difficult to pretend that a solid performance by Brown against one of the best corners in the league won't have any effect on the Steelers' ongoing contract negotiations with Mike Wallace.
This will also be an important test for Emmanuel Sanders, as he will be given the opportunity to show that he can be effective as an every-down option. Sanders has potential oozing out of his ears, but the time has come for his production on the field to begin to match that potential. When Sanders is healthy, he can run absolutely gorgeous routes. Hopefully he can pull off a few beauties against Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie.
There is also an interesting battle going on for the final WR spot on the roster. Assuming Wallace shows up at some point, expect the Steelers to keep Wallace, Sanders, Brown, Jerricho Cotchery, and just one other wide receiver on the roster. The early front runner for this spot was seventh-round selection Toney Clemons, but he has struggled mightily with drops so far in camp. It is far too early to count out the speedster from Colorado, of course, but Clemons certainly looks vulnerable. That leaves Marquis Maze, the diminutive, shifty runner out of Alabama, and Derrick Williams, the former third-round pick and current castoff of the Detroit Lions, as Clemons' primary competitors.
What to Watch For: Brown and Sanders aren't likely to see extended playing time in the first exhibition, but it will be important for them to show they can get separation against tougher corners than they have faced in the past. The younger guys will get an extended look, so each of them will be looking to move the ball down field. What may end up deciding the competition for the final WR spot on the roster is each young wideout's ability to contribute on special teams, not only as returners, but also in kick coverage.
Quiet Desperation at OLB
Though not many people are talking about it, the Steelers are perilously thin at outside linebacker. When healthy, LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison are the best pass rushing tandem in the NFL. The problem is that they are not healthy, nor have they been for quite some time. Both Woodley and Harrison missed substantial time last season, and their absence showed: the Steelers were ranked just No. 17 in the NFL for quarterback sacks last season. Playing in what is probably his final season with the Steelers, the 34-year-old Harrison is at the age when he will likely have injury problems and production declines. Unfortunately, his backup, former second-rounder Jason Worilds, continues to recover from a wrist injury and has yet to distinguish himself as a pass rusher.
This same lack of depth forced star middle linebacker Lawrence Timmons to play outside linebacker last year, an experiment which led to the disastrous neutralization of one of Pittsburgh's biggest playmakers. In order to avoid that scenario this season, Coach Mike Tomlin has tried pretty much everyone at the outside during camp, even journeymen Brandon Johnson and ILB Stevenson Sylvester.
By far the most promising potential replacement at OLB is former fifth-round pick Chris Carter. This former defensive end from Fresno State has loads of speed, but doesn't yet fully understand what to do with it. Steelers linebacking coach Keith Butler points out that Carter is learning an entirely different position than the one he played in college, so some growing pains are to be expected. In spite of this, Carter appears to be having a great camp and is deserving of your close attention on Thursday.
What to Watch For: While it will certainly be interesting to see how Pittsburgh uses Stevenson Sylvester and fellow ILB prospect Sean Spence, neither is likely to have much of a future as an OLB. Johnson may well be serviceable on the outside in a pinch, but Carter is the real prospect to watch. Like many other converted college DEs, Carter is still getting used to the necessity of utilizing a bull rush. Much of his college production came because he was able to simply run around slower offensive tackles. That will not work in the NFL. In addition, Carter needs to show that he can be effective when he drops into pass coverage. Watch him closely; we will see a lot more of him in the near future.
Will Rookies Rule the Offensive Line?
The arrival of rookies David DeCastro and Mike Adams is the most obvious story of all, and for good reason. Steeler Nation has gotten used to lackluster offensive line play, but those days are hopefully behind us. It will no doubt take time for each of these youngsters to feel more comfortable in their new roles, but it is entirely possible for both of them to seize starting roles this year. Expect both young men to see a great deal of time against the Eagles, with Adams likely playing left tackle and DeCastro playing right guard. Adams' primary competition, Max Starks, is still injured. DeCastro, on the other hand, will have to fend off Ramon Foster, who has contributed admirably to the Steelers in the past.
What to Watch For: Both of these young prospects are still learning the nuances of the game, so expect some confusion out there. DeCastro is as ready-made an NFL lineman as I can remember coming out of college, so if he begins to look mentally comfortable soon, it will be difficult for Foster to fend him off. By contrast, Adams may have some physical deficits which could prevent him from starting immediately. For instance, Adams was only able to do 19 reps at this year's NFL Combine, a mark which is well below expectations for a left tackle in the NFL. We won't know if he has the strength necessary to handle NFL bull rushers until we see him on the field. Something tells me that Trent Cole and Jason Babin might drop by to say hello to Adams and welcome him to the league -- it's as a good a first test as any.
Running Back: The NFL's Newest Game of Musical Chairs
With Rashard Mendenhall out of commission for the foreseeable future, there is still reason for optimism about the Steelers' running game. New Offensive Coordinator Todd Haley is still installing his new system, but there is widespread speculation that it will involve an increased role for smaller, agile, pass-catching backs like Chris Rainey and Baron Batch. Not that there won't be room for bruisers too. Isaac Redman will compete with Jonathan Dwyer and John Clay for tough carries between the tackles.
The Steelers have quietly built up depth at RB on the cheap over the years, using fifth-round selections or less to acquire Rainey, Batch, and Dwyer. Clay and Redman were signed as undrafted free agents. The reason for this shrewd pattern of talent accumulation might well be that the Steelers realize just how fungible the running back position has become in today's NFL. Some of the most prolific offenses in the league (most notably in Green Bay, New Orleans, and New England) use a revolving door of runners to fulfill their needs; why should the Steelers be any different?
What to Watch For: Despite his thin resume, Redman is a known quantity compared to all of the other runners on Pittsburgh's roster, so expect his carries to be limited this week. Rainey and Batch will likely attempt to display their versatility, so watch out for plays designed to get the two of them the ball in space, a la Dexter McCluster in Kansas City.
Clay and Dwyer will have a more traditional road to hoe. Of the two bigger backs, Dwyer looks the most primed to earn his spot. Having traditionally struggled with his weight, the mega-talented Dwyer showed up to camp in shape this year, signifying that he knows how important this opportunity is. Given the Steelers' probable salary cap problems next season, it is completely possible that the Steelers will let Mendenhall walk next year, meaning that the results of this year's open competition at running back could reverberate for seasons to come.
For more on the Steelers, check out Behind The Steel Curtain.