8 Biggest Takeaways from the Pittsburgh Steelers' First Week of Camp
An old friend returned to join the Pittsburgh Steelers at training camp this year. His name—physical football.
There was no doubt that changes would be made to the offense when Todd Haley was hired, but he has changed them in a big way.
The Steelers will still be a passing offense, but Haley has made a statement early in camp that they will be a physical offense who can run the ball as needed.
Here are some observations that you can take away from the Steelers’ first week of camp.
Return of a Physical Offense
It has been years since the Steelers offense has had an identity, and Todd Haley told Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that he is going to change that.
This training camp is part of establishing an identity, and we want to be a team I think most importantly can run it when we have to run it and throw it when he have to throw it. That’s the key to keeping the defense off base.
Haley could have fooled everyone that the Steelers are going to throw the ball.
For the first several days of camp, nearly every play during the 11-on-11 drills was a run.
Haley had good logic for running the ball so often. He already has a franchise quarterback in Ben Roethlisberger, and the passing game will be fine, but the Steelers could not get the yards they needed on the ground. Via the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:
But I think that’s the name of the game on offense is being able to get the yards you need on the ground when the defense knows you’re running, wherever that falls in the game, if it’s critical short-yardage, if it’s a four-minute situation.
Combine the commitment to the run with the new personnel expected to start on the offensive line, and the Steelers will return to the days of having a physical offense to match their physical defense.
Rookies Should Start on Line
Ramon Foster is a solid starter at guard. Trai Essex is a serviceable backup.
But David DeCastro and Mike Adams have the potential to be much, much more than that.
DeCastro and Adams have been sharing reps with the starters since the beginning of camp, and both players should be on the starting line for the opening game of the season against the Denver Broncos.
While neither player has dominated like Maurkice Pouncey did as a rookie—not many do—they have not looked out of place either.
Both rookies have room to get stronger to meet the physical demands of battling the tough defensive linemen in the AFC North, but they have both been up to the challenge against some excellent defenders in camp.
DeCastro has shown the ability to bust open a hole for the backs on running downs and has been strong in pass protection. He has looked very comfortable with his assignments as well.
Meanwhile, Adams has matched up physically against the tough defensive ends and has held his own against the speed rush of Chris Carter.
In rather surprising news, Adams was the first to crack the starting lineup, joining the first team on Friday night. The promotion was not without merit, as Mike Tomlin has been impressed. Via the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:
“Mike’s been doing a nice job,” Tomlin said. “He earned those snaps. We’ll continue to do that. But, again, far from ready.”
And it should be expected that a rookie, barely a week into his first training camp, has a long way to go.
Next up should be DeCastro.
DeCastro has looked just as good, if not better, than Adams. The only problem is that DeCastro has a more qualified veteran ahead of him.
But when all is said and done, DeCastro and Adams should be on the starting line.
Brown Has Been Outstanding
No Mike Wallace? No problem.
Well, not exactly in the depth department, but the Steelers are set with a go-to receiver.
Brown has quickly become the favorite target of Roethlisberger of this year’s training camp, and this should continue into the regular season.
Even with the focus being on the run, Brown has stepped up when he has needed to, making receptions to all parts of the field.
One of his most impressive plays came when he beat Keenan Lewis deep for a touchdown when working in the two-minute offense.
Brown is demonstrating that he can be a dynamic receiving option without Wallace on the field in camp, and the Steelers will need him to be if they want to have a strong passing game.
No Young Receivers Stepping Up
While Brown continues to improve, there has been little growth at the bottom of the wide receiver depth chart.
There is an open spot for the fifth receiver on the roster, and not one of the young guys has stepped up yet. Via the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:
“I haven’t seen any distinct separation at this point, but it’s still early,” Haley said.
There is a lot of potential at the position with a variety of skill sets that would help the Steelers offense, but inconsistency has been the trait that stands out, and that is not good enough to make the roster.
“We tell them all, we don’t want yo-yo players—good one day, bad the next,” Haley said. “We’re looking for a guy who consistently comes to work and is the same guy.”
Derrick Williams continues to run as the fourth receiver, while Wallace is out, mainly because of his NFL experience.
He has been getting open, but does not come down with the receptions that he should.
The same can be said about David Gilreath and Toney Clemons.
They have both flashed the ability to get open, but have dropped their fair share of passes.
Tyler Beiler has been a step below these players and will really need to step up if he wants to compete for the final receiver spot.
Marquis Maze has looked very good in position drills, but has yet to establish himself in team drills.
This is one position that will have to get sorted out in the preseason games.
Rainey Will Get the Ball
Without Rashard Mendenhall, the Steelers have been treating training camp with the back-by-committee approach.
The backs alternate into and out of the lineup on nearly every play. This has given all of the running backs plenty of opportunities in nearly every situation, and Haley likes his options. Via the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:
You got some big, strong guys like [Redman], where you can hump it up in there when needed. But you also got some of the sports car-type bodies that offer some different weapons. It’s a good mix, a good group of guys.
The sports car of the group is Chris Rainey.
Rainey has carried a heavy load despite his small 5’8”, 178-pound frame, and we are not talking about gimmicky plays.
When Rainey has lined up in the backfield, he has carried to all parts of the field, including between the tackles.
Rainey darts around the backfield and can squeeze through some very tight holes or duck under defenders to pick up yardage.
When he gets into open space, Rainey can accelerate like few on the roster and pick up large chunks of yardage.
But Rainey won’t exclusively be used as a running back.
Odds are that he will handle some of the return duties on special teams and also move around the field on offense.
Rainey will be a dangerous option in the slot with his quickness and speed. However, if they do use him this way, it will have to be on quick-hitting passes.
Not often can you get excited about fifth-round selections, but Rainey is being prepared to provide a spark for the offense, and he’ll get plenty of touches this year.
Strong Defensive Line
After a relatively disappointing 2011 season, the Steelers defensive line appears to be back and poised for a big 2012.
The dependable Brett Keisel is the leader of the group, but Ziggy Hood and Steve McLendon have had strong camps.
Hood looks much stronger than he did last year in appearance and in performance. Then again, he was a stud in camp last year, but a no-show in games.
That will need to change, but all signs are pointing to Hood being a better player this season.
He has been part of a defensive line that has shut down the offense’s ground attack.
Another big reason for the improved defensive line is McLendon.
McLendon moved up the depth chart last year to become the primary backup behind Casey Hampton, and he has taken that next step this year, as he looks as though he can be a very good starter.
McLendon has even received compliments from the man that he is going to replace. Via the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:
“He’s a beast man,” Hampton said of McLendon. “He can be dominant, so I’m looking forward to seeing what he can do.”
McLendon has—at times—dominated Pouncey in positional and team drills and has been a force in the middle in defending the run.
Add an improved Cameron Heyward to the mix, and the Steelers will have a very formidable defensive line.
Backup Linebackers Getting Opportunities
Injuries to James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley are never good, unless you’re a backup linebacker.
Harrison’s and Jason Worilds’ presence on the physically unable to perform list and have provided Chris Carter with the opportunity to work at right outside linebacker with the starters.
The experience is very valuable for Carter, as he missed part of last season due to injury.
Carter is visibly stronger than last year, but it has not always shown when rushing the quarterback. He still depends on his speed.
However, Carter has been showing more in defending the run, which is a necessary skill to play in the defense.
Keith Butler has been impressed with the progress of Carter, but acknowledges that he still has room to grow. Via the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:
He doesn’t know much about a lot of pass coverage and formations. He’s always been right on the tight end or the tackle. He has to play the true linebacker position and he’s never had to do that. But he’s still learning. He’s a never-say-die guy. He’s Clark Haggans. I feel like he’s going to be quicker and maybe a little stronger when he does learn it.
Playing with the starters will be a big help in developing these skills, especially playing with all of that talent in the preseason games.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the defense, Stevenson Sylvester has gotten time at left outside linebacker.
Sylvester has played on the inside, but has the size and the athletic abilities to transition to the outside. In fact, he may be a better fit there.
If nothing else, Sylvester playing both spots will provide some position flexibility, which we all saw that the Steelers needed last year.
They do not want to have to move Lawrence Timmons to the outside again. He was ineffective there, and in essence, this move weakened two positions.
As the preseason continues, both players should get their opportunities to catch the eyes of the coaching staff.
Allen at Cornerback
The best cornerback in training camp hasn’t been Ike Taylor—it’s been Cortez Allen.
Allen was considered raw coming out of college, but has quickly developed and may eventually take the starting cornerback job in just his second training camp.
Keenan Lewis is currently the front-runner at cornerback, but Allen is closing fast.
Allen’s size and speed is comparable to Taylor’s, and he has also developed the physical aspect of his game.
There are few other defensive backs that are as physical at the line of scrimmage as Allen. He has the ability to jam receivers and is also willing to come up to stop the run.
During 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 drills, Allen has rarely been beaten, and often times, will blanket the receiver that he is covering.
Allen came up with a big interception during the two-minute drill when he jumped over Toney Clemons to intercept a pass by Charlie Batch.
It’s not that the other cornerbacks aren’t playing well—they are—Allen has just been that good.
The coaches will have a tough time keeping him off the field, and if his progress continues, Allen will be starting at corner for the season opener.
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