As the Pittsburgh Steelers assemble for their 49th training camp at St. Vincent’s College in Latrobe, the franchise’s best hope for reclaiming championship form after back-to-back 8-8 seasons lies in its ability to transform weakness into strength.
- Such clichés get thrown around too often, simply because they’re true: achieving a strength-from-weakness transformations is the mark of a true competitor.
Poor drafting plagued the Steelers for 40 years, yet Chuck Noll turned that trend on its head and made the draft the life-blood of 4 Super Bowl Championships. That took several seasons; the 2014 have only weeks to find out if they can pull off similar switches in 5 key areas:
Inside Linebacker, from Famine to Feast?
Might Mitchell Modify His Methodical Ways?
Have the Steelers Increased their Safety Margin?
Can Muchak’s Tennessee Blue Turn into Titan Sized ROI on Offensive Line?
Will the Steelers Avoid a Brown Out @ Wide Out?
Inside Linebacker, from Famine to Feast?
Just how bare was the Steelers cupboard at inside linebacker in 2014?
Well, on opening day 2013 when Larry Foote left the field injured, he took with him his 119 starts and 479 tackles, and on walked Kion Wilson, he of 8 game appearances and 1 assisted tackle.
- Worse yet, Wilson wasn’t even the preferred replacement.
That fell to Vince Williams, who struggled mightily during the early course of the season. Linebacking excellence has long been the backbone of Steelers defensive dominance; suddenly in 2013 linebacking was a liability.
- The Steelers have a chance to affect a 180 degree shift.
By the end of 2013, Williams had improved (at least vs. the run) and Terence Garvin was working in on third downs. Add to that, Sean Spence’s recovery, and the Steelers depth chart is already much stronger.
Yet, the Steelers wasted no time in drafting Ryan Shazier in the 1st round and inserting him as the starter during OTA’s. Even those quick to caution against evaluating based on “football in shorts,” appeared to be awed by the athletic prowess displayed by Shazier’s during OTA’s.
The Steelers inside linebacking crops is laden with potential. But Lawrence Timmons, who at age 28, is already 7 year veteran, is the only proven performer. At St. Vincent’s it’s Keith Bulter’s task to tap production out of that potential.
Immediately after the 2014 NFL Draft, Steelers defensive line coach John Mitchell heaped uncharacteristic praise on a draft pick, labeling second round pick Stephon Tuitt a “Young Aaron Smith.” Such words are encouraging, but fans would do well to remember that Aaron Smith only appeared in 6 games as a rookie.
Few tears were spent on Ziggy Hood’s departure to Jacksonville, but he nonetheless leaves a void for the Steelers at defensive end. The Steelers have swapped Cam Heyward over to Brett Keisel’s traditional slot, signaling that the Steelers clearly want Tuitt to win the starting job.
Nonetheless, history is against Tuitt.
- In 20 years, Casey Hampton is the only rookie to start for John Mitchell; in fact few others have even played.
Mitchell’s record in training talented defensive lineman speaks for itself; yet for the Steelers defensive line to take a step up, the old dog Mitchell might need to learn new tricks.
The decline of the Steelers’ defense wasn’t simply notable on the defensive line and among the linebackers. The secondary also slipped, too. After spending several seasons where he was arguably the league’s most underrated safety, Ryan Clark finally began slowing a step in 2013.
Age is also catching up with Troy Polamalu, although how much is an open question as he essentially played linebacker in 2013.
- The Steelers have made two moves to address this issue.
First they traded up in 2013 to select Shamarko Thomas, with an eye towards grooming him to act as Polamalu’s replacement. Next they made a dramatic break from tradition by signing Mike Mitchell on the first day of free agency.
- They also avoided a repeat bout of 2013’s buyer’s remorse by resigning Will Allen.
While that’s smart move, they key for the unit here is Thomas’ development. Polamalu played all 16 games last year, and so if his luck holds he’ll struggle with injuries this year. Sharmarko had better be ready to shine.
In 2013 the Steelers depth chart at safety was top heavy with age, and that as much as anything else resulted in long gain after long gain. On paper they’ve positioned themselves for success at safety. But the operative word is “on paper.”
The Steelers could just as easily field a safety squad that clumsily cobbles age together with inexperience, or they could finely calabrate veteran wisdom with youthful athleticism. It’s up to Carnell Lake to ensure that they do the latter.
As a rookie, Mike Munchak had the honor of blocking of Jack Lambert and Jack Ham. Later he’d square off against David Little and Bryan Hinkle, and then against Greg Lloyd and Kevin Greene, while continuing to coach against Chad Brown, Joey Porter, and James Harrison.
- Now Muchack has traded in his Tennessee blue for Steelers Black and Gold.
And that’s fitting, because Munchack was on the opposing sideline on opening day 2013 when the Steelers number 3 tight end, (who was also the number two tackle and number two guard) had to step in and replace the number 1 center, thus manning the position for the first time in his NFL life.
Yes, the Steelers offensive line has been the subject of turmoil during the Mike Tomlin era, as the Steelers have played plug and patch, while signing lineman to contracts only to cut them a few years later.
To its credit, management has made a commitment to ending this process via the draft, but Steelers Nation has yet to see a solid return on investment.
- Yes, the team’s bad luck with offensive line injuries has been Kafkaesque.
- Yes, the line has “actually done well when you factor in….”
- Yes, Ben Roethlisberger holds on to the ball too long.
Yet excuses be damned: consistency has eluded the Steelers offensive line. Munchak’s job is to change that, and it starts right after the run test.
Unlike the first four position areas mentioned, wide receiver was not a weakness for the Steelers in 2013 as Antonio Brown established himself as an elite receiver, Jerricho Cotchery became a touchdown scoring machine, and Emmanuel Sanders had his healthiest and most consistent year.
- The problem is, Sanders is now in Denver, and Cotchery is in Carolina.
The Steelers responded by bringing Lance Moore in from New Orleans, but outside of Moore, the Steelers’ depth chart at wide out is almost as thin on paper in 2014 as the inside linebackers were in 2013.
- The issue is that one of them needs to step up, and the Steelers need him to do it decisively.
The Steelers plan is to for Wheaton to take that step, but Justin Brown impressed during Football in Shorts (aks OTA’s). Moye also flashed, some, in 2013. Now is their time to shine.
- The Steelers are looking smarter and smarter in locking down Antonio Brown instead of Mike Wallace, but Brown cannot do it all by himself.
Steeler’s wide receivers coach Richard Manning is a consummate pro who has been around long enough to coach for the Baltimore Colts, old Cleveland Browns, and Baltimore Ravens. Now he must ensure that someone rises from the pack.
A lot more will go on at training camp – unexpected position battles will emerge, unwanted injuries will strike, and rookies will both shine and disappoint. But the answers the Steelers find to these five questions will go a long way to defining 2014.