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Labriola on 5 things to watch at training camp

Ready or not, here it comes:

Players are due to report on Thursday, July 25, and the final practice open to the public will be on Thursday, Aug. 15. In between, the work necessary to lay the foundation and set the course for the 2019 Steelers to contend for a championship must get done.

Below are a handful categories that figure to be focal points of this training camp, and each could serve as an interesting diversion for fans interested in a summer afternoon spent watching football practice on the Saint Vincent College campus:

IS THIS ACTUALLY THE YEAR THE TAKEAWAYS COME
It’s no secret that the Steelers cannot contend for a championship if their defense does not do better than the eight interceptions and 15 total takeaways the unit posted in 2018. In the first place, the eight interceptions tied a franchise low that was set during an 11-game season in 1940, and the only teams with fewer than 15 takeaways last season were the 6-10 Detroit Lions with 14, and the 4-12 San Francisco 49ers with seven.

It should no longer be necessary to tout the importance of taking the ball away in today’s pass-happy NFL, and the Steelers have been emphasizing that aspect both in their scouting of rookies and free agents as well as incorporating drills into their practices to hone the skills needed to make it happen.

During this upcoming training camp, fans can expect to see defensive backs working on the JUGS machine as if they were wide receivers, and there also have been some things introduced during individual drills to emphasize the find-the-ball, catch-the-ball basics involved in coming up with takeaways.

It’s one thing to talk about it and then work on it, but who among the current crop of defenders has the ability to step forward and make things happen? As of today, that’s still largely an unknown, but rest assured the coaches, if presented with guys who display a knack for making plays on the ball, will find ways to get those guys on the field.

The presumptive starting defensive backfield at this point would include Joe Haden and Steven Nelson at cornerback and Terrell Edmunds and Sean Davis at safety. Those four players combined for eight interceptions in 2018, and half of those were recorded by Nelson in Kansas City. The Steelers defense more than halved the number of big passing plays it allowed from 2017 to 2018, and Davis in particular deserves kudos for that, but when two safeties played as many snaps as Davis and Edmunds did in 2018 and combined for only two interceptions and three total takeaways, that’s not good enough in an equally important defensive category.

And to be fair, ball awareness isn’t limited to when the ball is in the air, because while it’s reasonable to expect more than 13 forced fumbles over the course of a 16-game regular season, it’s more than fair to expect more than six of those to be recovered by the defense and turned into takeaways.

This is an area in which the Steelers must improve, and if it’s going to happen it usually shows itself first in practice.

THE BATTLE TO BE THE BACKUP
The optimum situation would be for Ben Roethlisberger to take every meaningful snap through the entirety of the 2019 NFL season, but if the Steelers aren’t lucky enough for that to happen their backup quarterback will have to step up. Unlike other teams with a clearly defined depth chart at quarterback, the Steelers will enter this training camp with a two-man competition for what can turn out to be the most important non-starting role on the team.

Joshua Dobbs unseated veteran backup Landry Jones last summer with a preseason that had him complete 67.4 percent for a team-best 434 yards, with four touchdowns, two interceptions, and a rating of 111.9. But not far behind Dobbs on the stat sheet was rookie Mason Rudolph, who completed 54.5 percent for 315 yards, with three touchdowns, one interception, and a 90.6 rating.

Today, Dobbs is entering his third NFL season and Rudolph his second, and so far in this offseason program Rudolph seems to be up to Mike Tomlin’s expectation that players are to show significant improvement from their first to their second seasons in the league.

In between the end of his rookie season and the start of the Steelers’ offseason program, Rudolph employed renowned quarterback tutor Tom House to refine his throwing motion, and the former Oklahoma State quarterback also spent a lot of time honing his footwork. Those efforts have not gone unnoticed.

Based on what Dobbs pulled off last summer to replace Jones, it wouldn’t be wise for anyone to take him lightly in this competition, and hovering over all of this anyway is that the Steelers signed Roethlisberger to a three-year contract earlier this offseason that binds him to the team through the 2021 season.

It’s easy and always fun to watch a quarterback competition unfold in a training camp setting, and Dobbs vs. Rudolph should provide fans at Chuck Noll Field with some interesting viewing starting in late July.

WHO STARTS AT RT, AND THE TRICKLE-DOWN
Of the 15 offensive linemen currently on the 90-man roster, seven can be categorized as tackles, with Jerald Hawkins, Matt Feiler, Zach Banner, Chuks Okorafor, and Al Villanueva being the ones who have spent some time during their careers on the team’s 53-man regular season roster. As the starting left tackle, Villanueva can be eliminated from this competition, and the same likely can be said for Hawkins, whose professional future was tied to the left side before a series of injuries ruined his 2016 and 2018 seasons.

Position flexibility is critical for this unit, especially so since there are usually but seven offensive linemen in uniform on game days. And once the team re-assembles in Latrobe, injuries could have an impact as to which player is lining up where, but as of mid-June it appears the prime candidates to open the season aligned to the right of David DeCastro are Feiler and Okorafor.

One calendar year ago, the general feeling was that Feiler’s best position was guard, but as things progressed he became the team’s go-to option when Marcus Gilbert was injured. Feiler ended up with 10 starts among his 11 appearances in 2018, and he did nothing to indicate he would be incapable of handling the job on a full-time basis.

Also in the mix, however, is Okorafor, who was drafted in the third round in 2018 to play right tackle, and he acquitted himself well in his one NFL start as a rookie when both Gilbert and Feiler were injured and unable to play. Okorafor showed himself to be athletic enough to line up as an extra blocking tight end and give the offense some added muscle for the running game, which usually is a precursor to earning a full-time job at tackle.

Besides the strict competition for the starting right tackle job, there also figure to be some elements unrelated to the competition that could impact the outcome. As an example, an injury at guard could have Feiler moving inside even though B.J. Finney is considered the top reserve along the interior of the offensive line, because coaches often are reluctant to have their backup center starting at another position. Coaches can be reluctant to have their backup center starting at another position because there is a chance a couple of fluke injuries during a game could leave a team without someone capable of snapping the ball, because again, there are only seven offensive linemen typically active on game day.

WHAT ABOUT THE WRs
Antonio Brown and the 104 catches for 1,297 yards and 15 touchdowns he amassed last season have been shipped to Oakland, and while that’s the most significant change in this unit from a year ago, it’s also worth noting that veterans Justin Hunter and Darrius Heyward-Bey – not that they made much of a statistical impact – also are not employed by the team anymore. That makes three openings, and don’t forget, the Steelers have been keeping only six wide receivers on their opening 53-man roster, and so there will be a 50 percent turnover at this position.

Barring injury, the top of this depth chart will include JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Washington, and Donte Moncrief, with the Steelers also hoping for more from rookie Diontae Johnson in 2019 than they got from Washington in 2018. With Brown plus two other veterans gone, there already have been a lot more practice reps available for a rookie, and it’s also safe to assume Ben Roethlisberger is viewing a rookie receiver as more of an immediate contributor than a work-in-progress.

How the footballs end up being distributed is going to be something that should evolve over the course of the summer and then also into the regular season, because tight end Vance McDonald has a much higher profile within the offense than he has had at any previous point in his brief time with the Steelers.

Before division of labor is worked out, sorting out the candidates will be necessary, and what OTAs and minicamp have indicated is that those expected to be on the depth chart here at the start of September all seem to be capable.

Smith-Schuster has a proven NFL track record, and Washington seems primed to live up to Coach Mike Tomlin’s ongoing expectation for a significant uptick in performance and production from players entering their second seasons in the league. Moncrief could be a real wild card here, because he has shown himself to be a much more productive player when paired with a top-flight quarterback, and Roethlisberger certainly qualifies as that. If opponents don’t respect what Moncrief can do to attack a defense, Roethlisberger could turn to him for the kind of plays he used to make with Plaxico Burress.

When the Steelers used one of their third-round picks on Johnson, receivers coach Darryl Drake referred to him on a couple of occasions as a natural catcher of the football, and Johnson has lived up to that description already. Given that things can change once the threat of physical violence is introduced to Johnson’s job description, the rookie from Toledo has made the catching part of his assignments look easy on many occasions.

That would leave the fifth wide receiver spot up for grabs between Ryan Switzer and Eli Rogers, because both of them offer the same basic skill-set, and then whether the Steelers keep a sixth player here would come down to someone stepping up and making himself indispensable to special teams coordinator Danny Smith.

THE DO-OR-DIE GUYS
The NFL Films clip is 20 years old by now, but its message rings just as true today as it did then. The clip has Jerry Glanville roaming the sideline during a regular season game, and in the process of complaining to an official about something, he can he heard saying, “This is the N-F-L. That stands for not-for-long. If you keep making calls like that, I’m going to be packing groceries.”

Every summer there are a number of players on NFL teams who are facing a make-or-break training camp in terms of their professional careers, and as is often the case some of those guys don’t even know the ax is hovering over their heads. But in this particular installment of training camp at Saint Vincent College, there are three Steelers veterans who should know in advance that they are in a do-or-die situation.

In alphabetical order: Chris Boswell, Artie Burns, and Bud Dupree.

Chris Boswell
Boswell’s 2017 almost defied belief, and then based on what he accomplished that season, his 2018 definitely defied belief. In 2017, in addition to providing the deciding points in the fourth quarter in four different victories, Boswell converted 25-for-28 (89.3 percent) from 30-plus yards out, including 4-for-4 from 50-plus yards out, including a 53-yarder as time expired to defeat Green Bay. In addition to making 92.1 percent of his field goal attempts on the season, Boswell broke the franchise record for field goals made in a season with 35, and he broke the franchise record for points in a season with 142.

But it was his 2018 that puts him in this category. Boswell missed five extra points, and from 30-plus yards out his field goal percentage dropped to 58.8. And instead of winning games with his right foot, Boswell’s missed field goals contributed to the Steelers settling for a tie in the opener in Cleveland and to a loss to the Raiders in Oakland.

Boswell was due a $2 million roster bonus in the spring as part of the four-year, $16.8 million contract extension he signed last August, but the Steelers convinced him to defer that until the day after the 2019 preseason finale. Call it a little bit of an extra incentive to perform well in training camp and the preseason.

Artie Burns
Burns was the team’s first round pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, and his rookie season indicated that the team had found themselves a starting cornerback. In just nine starts that season, Burns finished with three interceptions and 13 passes defensed, and he was making the kinds of plays on the ball the Steelers had not been getting from their cornerbacks at the time.

But things fell apart for Burns in 2018, and he went from a starter to a guy who was demoted to a spare part in some sub-package defenses to a guy who couldn’t get on the field for a defensive snap. The Steelers responded by declining to pick up the fifth-year option on Burns’ rookie contract, and then they signed unrestricted free agent Steven Nelson to a three-year deal worth a reported $25.5 million and installed him as a starter opposite Joe Haden.

Even with the addition of Nelson, though, it’s not as if the Steelers are stocked with proven playmakers at cornerback, and so Burns will have a chance at training camp and during the preseason to play himself back onto the field. Behind starters Haden and Nelson, the Steelers are an injury away from being in a potentially desperate situation at cornerback.

Bud Dupree
Like Burns, Dupree was a first-round draft choice, but he had his fifth-year option picked up by the Steelers and will earn in excess of $9 million this season as a result. In 2018, Dupree and T.J. Watt flipped sides, and Dupree finished with 5.5 sacks, 13 pressures, three passes defensed, and one interception that he returned for a touchdown. Still, there is, and has been, a sense that Dupree is capable of more.

When he came into the NFL, Dupree was coming from a scheme in college where he was used primarily as a guy turned loose to attack the offensive backfield. Once upon a time, rushing the passer was the primary assignment for an outside linebacker in the Steelers’ 3-4, but as offenses continued to evolve the team’s outside linebackers had to be able to be effective in coverage as well.

During this past offseason, both General Manager Kevin Colbert and Coach Mike Tomlin defended Dupree’s development and expressed confidence that he would continue to improve, and then the team backed that up by not using a premium pick in the most recent draft on an outside linebacker.

Of the three do-or-die guys, Dupree would seem to be entering training camp as the most secure, both in terms of a roster spot and in his role as a starter. But the salary Dupree will be paid this season will come with even higher expectations. If he is productive and the Steelers defense takes a step forward, Dupree will go into unrestricted free agency next March in a position of strength, but if not, he’s likely looking at being cast as a journeyman who would have to spend the next season or two on prove-it deals before even getting a chance to get himself back to where he is right now.

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