The Pittsburgh Steelers will descend on Latrobe, Pennsylvania on July 26th for their 49th annual training camp at Saint Vincent’s College and practice on Chuck Noll field. Every summer Steelers fans flock to the locale hoping to get their first look at the next Steelers team to play that upcoming regular NFL season. This year, there are six things that Steelers fans should keep an eye on at camp that may help determine where the team is headed in 2014.
Infused youth, infused speed
The Steelers have been making a transformation over the past few years by adding young players who possess the ability to increase the overall tempo of play on the field. With only four players remaining on the team who have two Super Bowl rings (Ben Roethlisberger, Heath Miller, Ike Taylor and Troy Polamalu), the youth movement is fully underway in Pittsburgh. The fact that Dri Archer keeps being brought up as an elusively quick offensive weapon and that rookie linebacker Ryan Shazier is putting up 40 times in the low 4-second plus range, it’s a trend that has Steelers faithfuls excited to see it all in action at Latrobe. This will put the veterans on notice to pick up their own tempo in order to stay competitive. Thing to watch: How quickly the offense and defense get off the snap and execute.
Strong, healthy offensive line
The Steelers have the potential to put their best offensive line on the field in nearly six years. Under the tutelage of line coach Mike Munchak, the interior will be one to be dealt with by any NFL team. Surrounded by guards Ramon Foster and David DeCastro, Maurkice Pouncey will have help on the inside that hasn’t been available and has the potential to be able to hold back nearly any NFL defense. Everyone is entering camp healthy, and if they can remain that way, the squad will simply have to iron out the progress of their tackles. Kelvin Beachum has shown over the past couple of seasons that he is an asset on the o-line, and has great footwork and hands to add to a technique that has been appreciated. Marcus Gilbert and Mike Adams will compete for a starting spot on the right side of the line and it will be fun to watch the two of them show their individual strengths during camp. Thing to watch: Young guys that are in camp for the first time in 2014 who will push the projected starters to perform at an appropriate level to earn the starting position.
Running game improvement
The statement of Art Rooney II just keeps coming to the forefront – get back to better use of the rushing game. While it was attempted, improvement over the past three seasons actually declined. When Le’Veon Bell recovered in 2013 after suffering from a foot injury, he got off to a slow start and then gave the Steelers enough of an impression to hand him the starting spot and get rid of those players that were not helping them. The running game will be bolstered by LeGarrette Blount and Archer, but speed won’t be the only thing to improve. Balance will be the key to keeping the offense moving in the right direction. Thing to watch: How the running backs, including those who have been brought into camp to push the projected starters, utilize their blockers and get involved in play-action plays and short-yardage passing situations. Don’t rule out bubble screens in a Todd Haley offense just yet.
Opening up the field with the no-huddle offense
When the Steelers were allowed to use more no-huddle offensive plays at the end of the 2013 NFL season, the team was able to win six out of eight games. It was evident that the offensive line got on the same page and protected Roethlisberger. It was the first time in the quarterback’s career that he went seven games with only seven total sacks over the same period. Add the fact that Roethlisberger had better ball control and only tossed two interceptions. When the receivers and running backs who can block as well as rush and catch get on the same page, the Steelers seem to find a rhythm that can keep opponents on their heels. What to watch: The Steelers have been communicating better and spent a lot of time during spring practices running the no-huddle offense. It should come as no surprise to see them work out the final wrinkles.
Untested defense with new faces revamping system
The Steelers have only had the offense outperform the defense twice in their last 22 seasons. Bill Cowher saw it in his first and last season with the team. Mike Tomlin has yet to witness it. 2014 could be the year that a switch could happen once again. If Dick LeBeau and company have their way, they’ll get the newcomers on their as-yet untested defense pumped up to keep that from happening. Over the past three seasons, the Steelers have seen their defense lose Casey Hampton, Aaron Smith, LaMarr Woodley, James Farrior, James Harrison, Brett Keisel, Larry Foote and Ryan Clark. They also fell from a number one ranking in 2012 to number 13 on defense in the NFL in 2013, something that has to be remedied, and quickly. The biggest reason for their decline was a susceptibility to be burned on big plays and a lack of sacks and turnovers. Polamalu, Taylor and Timmons will need to lead by example and help Cam Heyward, Jarvis Jones and rookie linebacker Ryan Shazier pick up the defensive schemes and do it quickly. Shazier is projected to become the first rookie to start in an opening game since Kendrell Bell, but it isn’t a guarantee. If Stephon Tuitt can grasp the system, he may join Shazier. Mental mistakes that plagued the defense last season will need to be addressed by being more communicative on the field. What to watch: The defensive backs were one of the most picked-on corps on the Steelers defense last season. Taylor and Cortez Allen can improve their coverage skills while pushing Shamarko Thomas and young players to step up and become more physical. If the defense can return to their punishing, disruptive form and create pressure on the quarterback as well as turnover opportunities, training camp should indicate how far the Steelers have moved to get their ranking to a much better level in the NFL in 2014.
Solid play and a bit of old trickery
Where the Steelers used to be a savage beast to fear on any given gameday, solid play will be consistently reaffirmed during camp. The team will need to make big plays on their end and stop giving up the same to opponents. What to watch: Dick LeBeau returning the Steelers defense to blitz packages that are able to get into the opposing offense’s backfield and disrupt quarterbacks and the offense being creative with the plays they select to gain more first-down and scoring opportunities. While everyone loves a splash-play or trickery, this year the tricks may be old ones that work.
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