Pittsburgh Steelers: Updating Biggest Training Camp Battles to Watch

Chris GazzeCorrespondent IJuly 22, 2012

Pittsburgh Steelers: Updating Biggest Training Camp Battles to Watch

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    The Pittsburgh Steelers will arrive at Saint Vincent College on Wednesday as they kick their preparations for the 2012 season into high gear.

    There will be a different feel at camp this season with Todd Haley running the offense as well as the absence of longtime stars Hines Ward, James Farrior and Aaron Smith.

    That does not mean there will be any shortage of excitement.

    Pittsburgh has a new offense to install and a lot of young players who have been sitting back, waiting for their opportunity to contribute.

    With a few open spots in the starting lineup and numerous backup positions up for grabs, there will be plenty of competition in Camp Tomlin 2012.

    Here are the biggest Steelers training camp battles to watch for.

Left Tackle

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    It was only a matter of time before the Steelers re-signed Max Starks.

    The news broke on July 17th when Starks tweeted a picture of his contract with the Steelers and said “I’ll be seeing you in Latrobe.”

    This was welcomed news as the Steelers were depending on rookie Mike Adams along with veterans Jonathan Scott and Trai Essex to compete to protect Ben Roethlisberger’s blind side.

    But after last year’s disaster starting Scott at the position, this clearly was not an option again this season.

    Scott was released by the Steelers (via Steelers.com) leaving Starks and Adams to compete for the starting job.

    As long as he has fully recovered from the ACL injury that he suffered in January, Starks will be the starter to open the season. However, that may be a lot to ask for.

    That means that Adams must be ready. He will get plenty of reps in camp and will have a chance to earn the starting job as a rookie.

    The problem with Adams is whether or not he is strong enough to match up against NFL defenders as well as if he can grasp the scheme. The last thing the Steelers need is to get Roethlisberger hurt because of the left tackle making a rookie mistake.

    For these reasons, Essex should at least get a look at the starting job as well. He does not have the talent of the other two, but he knows the system and could hold the job down until Starks is ready.

    But if healthy, the job should be Starks to lose. However, be sure to watch the progress of Adams. If he can show he can handle the job, he just may get the nod.

Fullback

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    David Johnson has played H-back for the Steelers and expects to play that role again this year.

    While he has not been a particularly strong blocker from the fullback position, Johnson is the most experienced player the Steelers have at the position.

    Johnson will be challenged by Will Johnson, an athletic fullback from West Virginia.

    Rob Rang of CBSSports.com reported that Johnson unofficially ran a 4.49 40-yard dash on his pro day and did 30 repetitions of 225 pounds.

    Those numbers are very good, but now he needs to translate them onto the field.

    Being athletic is not a requirement for a fullback, but it would be helpful.

    Whoever proves to be the better blocker will earn the starting job, especially as the Steelers try to improve the effectiveness of their ground game.

Nose Tackle

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    The battle at nose tackle will depend on the status of Casey Hampton.

    Hampton is recovering from a torn ACL and it may be tough for him to come back for the start of the season. However, he has recovered from an ACL injury before and is only a part-time player at this point of his career.

    If Hampton is not ready, the battle will be between Steve McLendon and rookie Alameda Ta’amu.

    According to Mark Kaboly of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, McLendon has earned the trust of defensive line coach John Mitchell. That should go a long way for McLendon.

    He played well as a backup last season and is ready for a larger role this year.

    McLendon has proven that he can play in the NFL and could hold down the starting job until Hampton is ready to return. Even then, McLendon may be the better fit as the starter.

    Another benefit of having McLendon start is that the Steelers could slowly develop Ta’amu.

    Typically, it takes two or three seasons for defensive linemen to develop in the Steelers’ system. If needed, Ta'amu could probably be a significant contributor this year, but he would be better served to get limited time behind McLendon early in the season and develop at a slower rate.

    But while McLendon may be the more experienced player, Ta’amu is more of the prototypical 3-4 nose tackle, which will work in his favor.

    McLendon should start the year, but both players should get a significant amount of playing time throughout the season. 

Cornerback

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    Who is going to start opposite of Ike Taylor at cornerback?

    Pittsburgh has three pretty good options with Keenan Lewis, Curtis Brown and Cortez Allen.

    Lewis struggled through his first two seasons, but made a big leap forward last year and played the outside on passing downs.

    Last season, Lewis played in 16 games and had 37 tackles, six pass defenses and one interception.

    Overall, he was rarely noticed on the field for a few reasons.

    On the negative side, Lewis was not a playmaker. But he also went unnoticed because he rarely gave up a big play and was never the focus of opposing offenses.

    Lewis is a steady player and is very dependable when out there. He has proved himself and should be the favorite to start.

    He will be pushed by second-year players Brown and Allen.

    Brown was a special teams sensation last year with 14 tackles and a forced fumble. He has good size and is an excellent athlete. If he doesn't win the starting job, he could be the nickelback.

    Allen was a camp surprise last season as he put his raw talent on display and did not look like a rookie.

    In fact, Allen was so impressive that the team could not keep him off the field. Not only did he contribute on special teams, but the coaching staff found a spot for Allen in the secondary.

    Allen has the talent to start in this league and that has only been reinforced by his development last season.

    Even if he doesn't start, Allen figures to be a contributor once again in the secondary.

    Lewis should start, but he will get a lot of pressure from Brown and Allen. The Steelers cornerbacks look to be in very good shape.

Third-Down Back

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    The battle for the position of third-down back may be the most fun and exciting battle of training camp this season.

    This job should come down to Baron Batch and Chris Rainey.

    Both players have the ability to catch the ball out of the backfield and good speed.

    Batch has a year in the Steelers’ system, but is coming off of an ACL injury that he suffered in camp last season.

    He had one outstanding block of James Harrison in the ‘backs on ‘backers drill that had camp buzzing. However, Batch still had plenty of room to grow.

    Meanwhile, Rainey is a rookie who has yet to step on the field at training camp and yet he has many people excited.

    Part of this reason is because Rainey can be used in so many different ways on the field.

    But regardless what these guys can do with the ball in their hands, it will be what they do without the ball in their hands that decides this job.

    Blocking is such an important aspect of this position and whoever is the better blocker will have the edge. If neither can block, the job could easily go to Isaac Redman or Jonathan Dwyer.

Backup Inside Linebacker

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    Before all is said and done, rookie Sean Spence could be starting over Larry Foote at inside linebacker.

    However, I believe that the Steelers will ease Spence into a starting role rather than placing him there for the start of the season.

    Instead, he will compete with Stevenson Sylvester for the backup inside linebacker job.

    This is a particularly important role this season as the backup could see a lot of playing time as Foote did behind Farrior last season.

    Spence and Sylvester are both more athletic than Foote and are ideal fits on passing downs.

    Spence has good speed and is a very instinctive player. His high football IQ was one of the reasons that he was drafted by the Steelers. The only thing that he lacks is size, standing at only 5’11”.

    Sylvester is not as instinctive as Spence and this is something that I noticed at camp last year.

    After a sensational rookie season on special teams, Sylvester looked as though he was ready to take a leap forward, particularly at the linebacker position. That did not happen though.

    Sylvester was not in position enough in camp and still needs to develop this aspect of his game.

    In the end, as long as Spence lives up to his hype, he will be the top backup behind Lawrence Timmons and Foote.

Backup Safety

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    The Steelers have three locks at safety: Troy Polamalu, Ryan Clark and Ryan Mundy.

    That leaves potentially only one spot left for Will Allen, Da'Mon Cromartie-Smith and Myron Rolle.

    Allen has had virtually no impact on with the Steelers defense since signing with Pittsburgh in 2010. Instead, he has been primarily a special teams player.

    While every team needs good, dependable special teams players, you can always find younger options who can also contribute in more ways than one. The Steelers should not release a young player with upside for Allen.

    The 6’2” Cromartie-Smith could be the player who knocks Allen off of the roster.

    He spent time on the Steelers’ practice squad in 2010 and played in four games for them last season. Now in his third year, it is time for Cromartie-Smith to show if he can be more than a borderline NFL player.

    Rolle is another player who needs to prove himself.

    He is not the most athletic safety on the roster, but he has a strong mental makeup to make it in the NFL and he will receive excellent coaching from defensive backs coach Carnell Lake.

    There is a chance that the Steelers could keep five safeties to start the season given that Clark will miss the opening game at Denver, but that will only be a short-term roster spot for one player.

    Expect Tomlin to stick with the veteran Allen unless either Cromartie-Smith or Rolle blows him away.

Kick/Punt Returner

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    With Antonio Brown starting at wide receiver, his duties as the Steelers’ returner will be greatly decreased.

    Pittsburgh will probably use him as a returner as they did with Santonio Holmes several years ago.

    Holmes was not the primary returner, but when the Steelers needed a boost in the return game, he stepped in.

    That means there will be an open competition for the return duties and it will likely come down to Rainey, Emmanuel Sanders or Marquis Maze.

    Rainey is a good candidate for the job as he will be the ultimate role player for the Steelers given his versatility.

    But as athletic as he is, Rainey must show that he can safely field the ball as a returner and make something happen once it’s in his hands.

    Sanders has had a fair amount of success with his limited duties as a returner with the Steelers. However, given his injury problems and increased role as the slot receiver, should the Steelers ask him to return as well?

    The third option is Maze, an undersized rookie who needs to make the Steelers’ roster as a returner.

    Maze has the chance to be an electric return man, but the problem is that would likely be the only role that he would serve on the team.

    The Steelers did take a chance with Stefan Logan and could do the same with Maze if he lights it up in the preseason.

    From these three, I expect Rainey to win the job as it will just be another way to put the ball in his hands as a potential big-time playmaker.

Punter

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    Jeremy Kapinos is no longer the underdog. He will enter training camp as the favorite over rookie Drew Butler, who is challenging him.

    Kapinos has played in 12 games for the Steelers over the past two seasons and has done a solid job.

    Last season, he averaged 45.0 yards per punt and had a net average of 38.3 yards.

    While these numbers do not put Kapinos at the top of the league, he has at least proven himself to be a capable punter in the NFL.

    For this reason, Butler will have a tough time beating out Kapinos. That does not mean Butler does not have a chance, though.

    As these two compete, watch for consistency of the lengths of the kicks as well as hang time.

    Kapinos launched some booming punts, but was very inconsistent. This will be an area that Butler could make up some ground and overtake Kapinos.

    However, Kapinos will likely earn the spot as Butler gets his feet wet in the NFL.

     

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