Another in a position-by-position analysis of the Steelers as they are about to report to training camp at Saint Vincent College. Today's installment focuses on the offense:
The progress of Landry Jones going into his second season might be of some interest to a segment of fans, but there isn't really anything here to see in terms of competition for playing time in 2014. Ben Roethlisberger is the starter, and hopefully backup Bruce Gradkowski goes a second straight season without having to play a meaningful snap.
What will be of most importance here during this camp will be the continued coordination established between Roethlisberger and his receivers. From last season's top three receivers, Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery are out and most likely Markus Wheaton and Lance Moore are in. And beyond those changes are potential roles for rookies Dri Archer and Martavis Bryant and veteran Darrius Heyward-Bey.
View photos of the Steelers' Offense before they head off to camp on July 25th.
One of the successful developments leading to a 6-2 finish for the Steelers last season was their no-huddle offense, particularly the ability to employ it on the road and in bad weather.
"I think a lot of it is going to be determined by how much the new guys and the young guys can learn," said Roethlisberger this spring when asked about the no-huddle's potential role in 2014. "We lost two starting wide receivers who knew the offense and knew the no-huddle really well, so for us to use it we're going to need the young guys and the new guys to pick it up quick."
Similar to the situation at quarterback, the purpose of training camp for this unit will be less about arranging the depth chart as it will be about working on the coordination required to have a successful running attack. When the dust clears – barring injury – it's going to be Le'Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount, and Will Johnson is going to be the fullback, and Dri Archer is going to have some role. Those are the critical players here, and what happens in Latrobe doesn't figure to change that too much.
Last summer, Coach Mike Tomlin had periods of live tackling tucked within virtually every padded practice, and it can be assumed that again will be part of the plan. The timing of the running game depends upon it.
Heath Miller looks to be back to his old self and should be much more physically ready for a full season since he didn't have to spend this entire offseason rehabilitating a knee injury, as was the case a year ago. Matt Spaeth is the best the team has for the job it wants from a No. 2 tight end. Both Miller and Spaeth might require an occasional veterans' day off, and that's probably the most prudent path for them anyway.
If Miller and Spaeth get through camp healthy, the initial 53-man roster probably would include only three tight ends, and the No. 3 spot looks wide open. The top candidates include veteran Michael Palmer, third-year pro David Paulson, rookie Rob Blanchflower, and first-year pro Bryce Davis.
Each of those four have plusses and minuses associated with his candidacy, and there will be 22 days spent on campus to sort all of that out.
When it comes to the competition for roster spots and then the battle for roles within the offense, there could be a lot of action at this position throughout the whole preseason. There will be 10 receivers, not counting Archer, to open camp with probably five or six roster spots available, depending upon the special teams value of the guys at the bottom of the depth chart and whether Archer ends up being counted here or with the running backs.
Antonio Brown is a starter and the team's No. 1 receiver, and Lance Moore was signed to be what Jerricho Cotchery was during his seasons here. In terms of roster spots, Markus Wheaton and rookie Martavis Bryant should account for two more of them, with Darrius Heyward-Bey, Justin Brown, and Derek Moye in the mix for however many are left.
There is no position that changes more once the pads go on than wide receiver, and players either rise to the occasion or shrink once the threat of violence is introduced. There will be that to sort out, because those who shrink will fall by the wayside, and then there will be the issue of who's best in what role. Because the secondary also figures to be a highly competitive area this summer, the seven-on-seven sessions during this camp should prove to be very interesting.
What would be a nice change here would be if the Steelers were able to line up five guys across the offensive front at the start of camp and complete the preseason with those same five guys in the same five spots. Continuity along the offensive line would be something new for the Steelers, and it would go a long way in allowing the offense to develop into the force it seems to have the potential to be.
The one fight for a position would be Marcus Gilbert (picutred above, middle) vs. Mike Adams (above, right) for the starting right tackle job, but there were no indications through the offseason that either Gilbert was slipping or Adams was gaining. Often, minor injuries to a player open the door for another, and that could be the deciding factor here.
Except for that one spot, most of the energies will be spent on developing continuity among the starting group and versatility among the backups. Having the opportunity to take a lot of repetitions as a five-man unit would create the muscle-memory to enable it to get off to a strong start, instead of having to open a season with some problem-solving before building momentum and rounding into form.
Continuity appears to be the critical element, because the talent certainly seems to be there. Maurkice Pouncey and David DeCastro have first-round talent, and Kelvin Beachum has first-round want-to. Ramon Foster is a reliable veteran and a solid presence to the right of Beachum, and Gilbert is in a contract year.
Adams, Guy Whimper, and Cody Wallace all have starting NFL experience with the Steelers, and keep an eye on rookie Wesley Johnson, who started 51 games against SEC competition and could be versatile enough to develop into a player who could line up at tackle, guard, or center.