Every training camp comes with questions that will need to be answered before the start of the regular season, and this one is no different for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Here are a sampling of some of the issues Mike Tomlin will be facing come Wednesday, July 25, when all players are due to report to Saint Vincent College:
No. 1: The new offense
Of all the various aspects of the process of preparing for the 2012 regular season, the implementation of the offense coordinated by Todd Haley is certain to attract the most attention.
In the rehabilitation business, the first step toward solving a problem is an admission that there is one, and there is no denying the Steelers' offense was in need of a little rehab following the 2011 season.
Despite having Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback, a pair of wide receivers in Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown who accounted for a combined 2,301 yards and a 16.3 average, and a pair of running backs in Rashard Mendenhall and Isaac Redman who combined for 1,407 yards and a 4.2 average, the Steelers finished tied-for 21st in the league in points per game. During a season in which nine teams averaged more than four touchdowns worth of points per game, the Steelers managed fewer than three, at 20.3. Those numbers tie in with the unit's struggles in the red zone and point to a lack of efficiency that can cost teams games.
It's only natural for there to be some adjustment period required, especially for those players who really have known no other offensive system in their professional lives, and there also figures to be some frustration associated with that. And maybe that even continues – to varying degrees and at different times – right through the run-up to the regular season.
But what needs to happen during the time spent at camp is for the coaches to learn what things from this offense the players can execute on a consistent level and then cater that to the specific opponent on the schedule each week. It doesn't have to be about having an offense that can do all things at all times, but rather having a unit capable of succeeding against a particular opponent on a particular weekend.
No. 2: The signing of Max Starks
There have been seasons in the recent past where Starks has had to come to the rescue, but this isn't one of those. Expect Starks, who had surgery to repair an ACL after sustaining the injury against Denver in the playoffs, to open training camp on the physically unable to perform list. It's also not unrealistic to expect Starks still to be on PUP come the opening of the regular season, because a nine-month rehab is rather routine for an ACL injury, and that would make Starks ready come October, which is when teams have to make final decisions on players on PUP. Certainly, things could change if the rehabilitation progresses more quickly than expected, but it seems as though in this particular reincarnation, Starks is more of an insurance policy than a starter.
No. 3: The physically unable to perform
Casey Hampton and Rashard Mendenhall should be on the physically unable to perform list at the start of training camp, for sure. Again, the length of their stays will be determined by the progress of the rehab, but right now – with both of them coming off ACL surgery, and again, a nine-month rehab is a fairly normal timetable – it's also not ridiculous to suggest both will be on PUP when the regular season opens.
No. 4: The starting cornerback opposite Ike Taylor
There are three candidates – Keenan Lewis, Cortez Allen and Curtis Brown – and it's not coach-speak to say the competition is close enough that whatever happens at training camp will be the deciding factor.
This is what Taylor had to say about Allen in an interview done after the Steelers offseason program had ended: "He's a very mature second year guy. The reason why he is so mature is he went to a military academy school. He kind of had to grow up early."
As a player, Taylor said this about Allen: "He knows what it takes and he wants it. He wants to get better. The thing I like about Cortez is he doesn't say much; he comes to work and he does what he needs to do. This dude could be way better than me – if he can stay healthy."
Speaking of health, that has been something of an issue for Brown, who had some issues with his knee late last season and then missed some time during this offseason with a leg injury.
Lewis has had no such issues, he has more experience than either Allen or Brown, and he seemed to turn a corner in his development during the 2011 season. Playing under a restricted free agent tender this season, Lewis finds himself at another turning point, because a big year could put him on a path to a lucrative future in this league.
If any of the three candidates shows an aptitude for intercepting the ball, that could be the deciding factor, because the Steelers have to find a way to accumulate more than the 14 takeaways they managed in 2011.
No. 5: The running backs without Rashard Mendenhall
On paper, the depth chart there looks to be filled quite nicely, but paper can turn into garbage rather quickly.
Isaac Redman has spent the past couple of seasons proving that he belongs, and there should be little doubt he will carry his share of the load in 2012. But it would be foolish of the Steelers to believe Redman can do it all alone, and this is where the situation becomes somewhat cloudy.
It's not that Jonathan Dwyer and John Clay are not capable; it's not that Baron Batch has shown that his first couple of weeks of training camp last summer was a mirage; it's not like this whole pro football thing looks like it's going to be too big for rookie Chris Rainey. It's just that things happen during the course of a training camp, bad things.
For example, in each of his first two professional training camps, Dwyer has reported overweight. When in shape, he has shown himself to be capable of being an NFL running back, but does he truly understand that being in shape cannot be a sometimes thing?
"I am just realizing how much it takes to get where you are in this league and how hard you have to work and push yourself," said Dwyer. "This is my year to prove something to myself, to the league, to the organization, that I'm worth more than what I was."
Clay showed some promise last year when called up from the practice squad, and he will compete with Dwyer for the primary backup spot behind Redman. Batch seems like the replacement for Mewelde Moore as a jack-of-all-trades/third-down back, but he's going to have to re-create the magic he showed as 2011's camp phenom before tearing his ACL during the last practice before the preseason opener.
Rainey certainly has the speed to succeed, but will he be able to hold up physically when it comes to the pass-protection responsibilities that go along with being an NFL running back? Bet on Mike Tomlin testing him during each of the backs-on-backers sessions.
Right now, they're all just names on a piece of paper. This camp will show if they deserve to be something more.
No. 6: Potential camp phenoms
Among the ranks of undrafted rookies, keep an eye on WR/KR Marquis Maze, OLB Adrian Robinson, OLB Marshall McFadden and S Robert Golden. Among the ranks of the third-day draft picks, watch out for G-T Kelvin Beachum.