Steelers Training Camp 2011 – Unasked Questions

The Steelers are knee-deep into training camp, the camp roster is more or less set, and position battles are well defined.

Everyone knows that James Harrison’s back, Aaron Smith’s health and Troy Polamalu’s durability and Manny Sanders feet are the chief injury concerns. The issues of if, how and when the Steelers will renew the contracts of Lawrence Timmons, Mike Wallace, and Troy Polamalu are on everyone’s mind.

Yet questions remain which few from the press or public take the time to pose, which Steel Curtain Rising again presents here:

Are the Steelers Grooming an Adequate Safety Valve?
How Good is Klugler Outside of a Crisis?
Who Will Be the Lead Blocker?
Can Everest Reverse the Special Teams Sputter?
Who Will Be the Lead Blocker?

Are the Steelers Grooming an Adequate Safety Valve?

Ryan Clark turns 32 in October 31. Troy Polamalu is 30. Will Allen is 29.

Ryan Mundy, 26, is following in Lee Flowers footsteps in terms of development. Mundy still has an upside, but even if he does develop into a Lee Flowers-caliber safety it would still mark a drop off from the level that Clark, let alone Polamalu brings to the secondary.

Crezdon Butler, a 5th round draft pick in the 2010 NFL draft, is the only other potential safety the Steelers have, and he’s an unknown commodity.

In the age of the salary cap it is impossible for every team to have quality starters and developing depth at each position area, but after Polamalu and Clark the Steelers cupboard is particularly thin at safety.

How Good is Klugler Outside of a Crisis?

If you find yourself saying, “well, yeah, there’s a reason why no one’s asking this question” let me say that I hope events vindicate you. And I expect they will.

Sean Kugler did a phenomenal job in 2010. In the Steelers Digest’s 2010 Year-in-Review, Bob Labriola mentions how Kugler is Tomlin’s first coaching here, observing:

Why would the Pittsburgh Steelers hire the offensive line coach from a 6-10 Bills team that allowed more sacks than any team in the NFL in 2009. In about six months that will become a stupid question.

Injuries kept the Steelers offensive line in constant chaos, and under Kugler guidance the unit preformed better than anyone had a right to expect.

Ironically enough, success in a crisis environment doesn’t always portend to success under ‘normal’ circumstances – history honors Winston Churchill for his role as Prime Minister during World War II; few remember his second stint in the 1950’s.

Kugler of course, almost certainly is up to the task of coaching in a non-crisis environment, but that belies a more fundamental point.

By waving Max Starks and Flozell Adams the Steelers are trusting their offensive line the hands of Jonathan Scott, Ramon Foster, Doug Legursky and Marcus Gilbert.

A good coach will coax the best out of the talent he is given. Kugler has and will continue to do that, but can he do that well enough to get the Steelers back to the Super Bowl and then over the hump?

Who Will Be the Lead Blocker?

The signing of John Gilmore explains why few are asking this question. But the fact remains that both David Johnson and Doug Legursky lined up as full backs and sprang Rashard Mendenhall lose on a host of key plays in 2010.

If Johnson ascends to the number two tight end position and Legursky wins a starting guard job then who plays the role of human battering ram out of the backfield for Rashard Mendenhall?

Can Everest Reverse the Special Teams Sputter?

This is not only one of the most pertinent unasked questions of the Steelers training camp 2011, it was also one of the major unreported stories of the second half of 2010.

Under Al Everest the Steelers special teams made a dramatic turn around. Not only did special teams shed its liability status, it transformed itself into a strike force, directly providing the Steelers with their margin of victory against the Titans and the Bengals.

But there was a decided drop off late in the year. Antonio Brown started with the look of a return man who could go all the way on every kick and then ceased to be a threat.

Worse yet the coverage units suffered, costing the Steelers the game against the Jets, and where it not for a very lucky call, almost sabotaging their playoff comeback against the Ravens.

These kinds of things are easy enough to forget when a team is on a Super Bowl run, but Tomlin and company had better be asking themselves this question, and Everest must rise to the challenge.

From Where Will the Improvement Come?

During the 2008 training camp Bob Labriola postulated that any improvement the Steelers would see over 2007 would have to come from within, not from the 2008 draft.

Labriola was right. 2008 rookie of the year was Patrick Bailey, who found himself on the waiver wire less than a year later. But the ’08 Steelers did improve from within. Consider:

  • Justin Hartwig proved to be a step up from Sean Mahan
  • Nate Washington stepped up his game
  • LaMarr Woodley showed that his six sacks as a rookie were no fluke
  • Mewelde Moore made everyone remember why Najeh Davenport lacked as a number two back
  • Aaron Smith and Troy Polamalu stayed healthy for the entire year

The 2010 Steelers made it to the Super Bowl in large part because contributions from rookies such as Maurkice Pouncey, Emmanuel Sanders, and Antonio Brown improved key position areas from the disappointing 8-8 2009 squad.

The Steelers got close, very close to a 7th Super Bowl in 2010. To get over the hump some element of their game must improved markedly.

  • Will Keenan Lewis or one of the rookie corners provide a true threat opposite Ike Taylor?
  • Can Marcus Gilbert or Keith Williams come out of nowhere to become a Pouncey-like presence on the offensive line?
  • Might Mike Wallace succeed in getting separation from the best DB’s in the game?
  • Can a combination of Ziggy Hood’s, Cam Heyward’s and Lawrence Timmons’ development and Dick LeBeau’s scheming solve riddle that has allowed the Rodger’s, Brady’s and Brees to bedevil the Steelers?
  • Could this be the year that Rashard Mendenhall consistently runs with the same power and authority that he ran with in his first start against San Diego and in the AFC Championship game?

Undoubtedly most if not all of these questions are on the minds of Mike Tomlin and his coaches. As they should be because the answers to these questions will determine the success or failure of the 2010 Pittsburgh Steelers.

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