The Pittsburgh Steelers will report to Saint Vincent College later this week to embark on their 49th training camp to be held in Latrobe. After consecutive 8-8 seasons Steeler Nation is starved for football, and more importantly, improved football that could not only result in playoff appearances but also playoff wins. For that to happen you have to start somewhere and camp is that starting point. Sure there have been offseason workouts and minicamps as such but the real work begins in Latrobe this weekend. Here is a preview of what the Steelers should hope to accomplish in training camp.
The Steelers are going into camp with some really lofty goals for the offense. First and foremost is to keep working on the no-huddle offense. Everyone benefitted from the implementation of the no-huddle in the final eight games of 2013, especially Ben Roethlisberger. He was sacked fewer times, threw fewer interceptions, and ran a more controlled and efficient offense that some would say carried the team in the second half of the season. This year, the Steelers need all the training time they can get to keep the no-huddle a major part of the offense with all the new faces at wide receiver. Roethlisberger needs time to get the timing down with the new guys and develop the trust that allows the no-huddle to thrive. While they have been training on it since the beginning of the offseason workout programs, they’ll need every bit of training camp and preseason to get it in mid-season form.
The running game is also going to be closely looked at along with the offensive line. There hasn’t been a position coach hired with the same level of anticipation and early compliments than the hiring of Mike Munchak to take over for Jack Bicknell Jr. There has been talk that this offensive line could be the Steelers’ best in years but I distinctly remember that kind of talk going on last summer as well. Naturally, the injury to Maurkice Pouncey set off a domino effect of the abandoning of the new zone-blocking scheme, fewest rushing totals since the 60s, and for some reason, the diminished role that Bicknell Jr. played in coaching the line towards the end of the season that led to his termination. The Steelers invested in improving the running game both in free agency and the draft and the offensive line performing up to the hype is certainly key to all the running game success the Steelers hope to have this season.
The funny thing is that the objectives for the defense haven’t changed very much but the personnel sure has this offseason. The defense is going to be working on getting after the quarterback and creating turnovers, two things that have eluded them in their previous 8-8 seasons. For that to happen there needs to be a lot of production from the outside linebackers. Both Jarvis Jones and Jason Worilds have a lot of pressure on them and a lot to prove this season. Jason Worilds and the Steelers never worked out an agreement on a long-term contract before the July 15th deadline so he will play this season under the transition tag for the $9.7 million and be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season. He’s going to have to prove he’s worth a long term deal to whoever he wants to sign with at that point. Jarvis Jones, on the other hand, still has to prove that the Steelers correctly used their first-round draft pick in 2013 on him. His training wheels are off and now it’s time to produce because much will be expected from Ryan Shazier, the Steelers first-round pick this year, on the inside.
Additionally, the Steelers defense has to improve their defense against the run. I realize it’s a popular sentiment to complain about the cornerback situation and imagine that every time the Steelers lost it’s because either Ike Taylor or William Gay got burned for some big touchdown reception but the reality is that the Steelers were way worse at allowing running plays last season and they’ve invested free agent signings and draft picks to improve the front seven to correct just that. No better time to prove the critics that still think a cornerback was by far the biggest need wrong than with a tenacious defensive front seven that gets after the quarterback so much and stuffs the run that the cornerbacks can’t help but look better in the process.
The names of Brett Keisel and James Harrison are going to continue to come up in conversation, probably until the end of this season if they’re never picked up by anyone. It’s hard to see if the Steelers haven’t signed either one by now that they’ll make any moves before camp opens. Most likely, they’re looking to see what they have in the guys already reporting to camp before they’ll know for sure if they need to sign Keisel or Harrison. It’s definitely going to be strange to not see Keisel roll up on campus in his tractor this year.
Other than having one of the most accurate and dependable kickers in the NFL in Shaun Suisham, the Steelers’ special teams haven’t really been special at all. It’s never a good sign when the most memorable special teams play from the previous year is the one where the coach was on the field. Sure, Antonio Brown is a hell of a punt returner (when he’s not fair catching the ball all the time) as well but the team cannot continue to have their No. 1 receiver returning punts and risking injuries going forward. On top of that, the team had a revolving door at punter last year and lacked quality guys in special teams coverage.
The Steelers will open camp with a punter competition between Adam Podlesh and Brad Wing hoping that someone emerges and they don’t have to jump on the punter carousel again this season. They need a long-term answer at punter like there’s no friggin tomorrow. It shouldn’t be this difficult, should it?
In addition to hoping they’ve found a punter who can flip the field and the team can benefit from field position battles, special teams hopes to replace Brown as a punt returner and will also need to replace Emmanuel Sanders, who returned kickoffs last season. Dri Archer figures to fit into one of those roles at least. The team can definitely benefit from developing better players in coverage units on special teams. No one would have ever noticed Mike Tomlin on the field in Baltimore that night had the special teams coverage just gotten to Jacoby Jones as opposed to letting him break free down the sideline. Not that the coverage is going to be perfect every time, but the team was middle-of-the-road in the league in kickoff return yardage against and certainly let through some big plays that cost them dearly.
One last thing that’s not of vital importance but is definitely noteworthy is the preseason. The Steelers finished last year’s preseason without winning a game. While there’s no real reason why the score is kept in the preseason games because they don’t count for anything, the team took that winless preseason and carried it four games into the regular season. I’m not saying one directly influenced the other, but the fact remains that the team did not win as a unit together until October of 2013. Probably would be helpful and wise to knock out that first win as a group much earlier this time around, just saying.
Here we go Steelers! Here we go!