Training camp has started and for the next few weeks St. Vincents, in Latrobe will occupy the center of the universe for Steelers Nation. Over the next 24 hours, we’ll be treated to images of players moving into camp, interviews with veteran stars and rookie hopefuls and a press conference from Mike Tomlin where he promises to “Build a foundation.”
A foundation is indeed necessary if the men in Black and Gold are to reverse their two year slide from AFC Championship appearance in ‘16, to one-and-done in ’17 to watching Cleveland come up “choto” to keep them out of the playoffs in ’18 (“Choto” is a bit of Argentine porteño slang, either Google it or check here and here to see choto used in a Steelers football context.)
With that in mind, here are 3 key challenges the Steelers must master during training camp and preseason.
1. Sharpening Players While Keeping Them Fresh and Healthy
Training camp is a time where teams build cohesion. But cohesion means little if guys get hurt during the process. NFL coaches must strike a fine balance.
- Mike Tomlin is no different, and he has a fine line to walk with Ben Roethlisberger.
Ben Roethlisberger is 37 years old. He knows the playbook. He’s well versed in the nuances of running the two minute drill. Mason Rudolph and Joshua Dobbs can use all the reps they can get, whereas Ben Roethlisberger knows how to throw a fade route.
Ben Roethlisberger’s training camp practice has reps have been limited and he’s seen precious little action in preseason for the past several summers. He’s also remained healthy and upright for the past two seasons.
- But Roethlisberger has also been rusty at the start of the last two seasons.
He was far worse in early 2017 than in 2018, but last year it still took him several games to hit his stride. The Steelers cannot afford that, especially given the fact that JuJu Smith-Schuster, Donte Moncrief, James Washington and Vance McDonald will have to find someway to make up for the loss of You Know Who.
This summer at St. Vincents the Steelers must position themselves to start fast and finish strong.
2. Establish a Number 2 Wide Receiver
JuJu Smith-Schuster is a legitimate number 1 wide receiver. You don’t make the catches he’s made over the last two years if you don’t have true talent. But every true number 1 needs a number 2 to take heat off of him.
Just look at how You Know Who was limited down the stretch in ’16 when the Steelers were essentially starting practice squad guys at the number 3 and 4 wide receiver slots.
If James Washington can transfer what coaches and journalists say they see on the practice fields to game situations then the Steelers will be OK. If not, then they had better hope that Donte Moncrief does indeed benefit from having Ben Roethlisberger throw to him.
Otherwise, the Steelers fall from contender status will continue this autumn.
3. Find a True Number 3 Running Back
Yep. We are beating that horse again, although the horse is very much on its legs. The combination of injures and lack of backfield depth has been a chronic weakness throughout the Mike Tomlin era. Some situations were unavoidable.
However, the Steelers have gambled with not staffing a competent number 3 running back for the past several seasons, and it has hurt them every time. Counting on James Conner to stay healthy and Jaylen Samuels to both stay healthy and build on his rookie year is too big a role of the dice.
The Steelers NEED Bennie Snell Jr., Trey Edmunds or someone else to prove they can be a legit number 3 NFL running back. Otherwise, the prospect of needing to make another December call Stevan Ridley could be come very real.
4. Sort Out Secondary Depth
Assuming good health, which is never a safe assumption in the NFL, it says here the Steelers have four competent starters to field in the secondary with Joe Haden, Steven Nelson, Terrell Edmunds and Sean Davis. Mike Hilton might not be a superstar, but he’s a 3rd corner you can win with.
- After that, the Steelers have quantity, but no proven quality.
The Steelers need to develop that depth this summer. Morgan Burnett forced his way out of Pittsburgh after last season and most fans shrugged their shoulders. Yet, it was Burnett who knocked away Tom Brady’s final pass, and had he returned he’d have given the Steelers a strong option as a third safety.
Over at cornerback Cam Sutton and Brian Allen need to turn potential into production and/or Artie Burns has to salvage something of a once promising start. Otherwise, might see Justin Layne get a baptism by fire….