Pittsburgh Steelers: Updating the Top Training Camp Battles
Training camp practices may be good opportunities for a player to make an impression on the coaches, but a strong performance in the preseason is what a player really needs to make the team.
Prior to the start of training camp, I examined nine training camp battles. Now it is time to check on the progress of each of those camp battles.
If healthy, Max Starks figures to be a strong contender for the starting job at left tackle, but he has yet to practice and will have to make a strong push late in camp if he wants to start.
Trai Essex and rookie Mike Adams have been working with the first team since the start of camp, and Adams has been pulled into the league.
Last Friday was Adams' first opportunity to start at left tackle, and he has been there ever since.
Adams has had a solid camp, but he is still a work in progress.
Even so, Adams is at least as good—if not better than—Trai Essex. That is reason enough to give Adams the starting job.
It is still early, so Adams is not locked in as the starter, but things are looking good for the rookie.
Barring a complete collapse in the preseason, Adams should remain the starter at left tackle.
It is Johnson versus Johnson for the battle at fullback.
So far, it has been one of the closest battles of camp.
David Johnson is a dependable veteran who the coaches feel comfortable with and has proven—at times—that he is capable of getting the job done.
But there is always room for an upgrade.
Will Johnson is making the most of his opportunities.
He has looked good blocking and has been successful with a limited number of carries and receptions.
Johnson has even had reps with the starters, so he has made a positive impression.
Despite a good camp, Will Johnson still remains behind David Johnson. But both players can make their true marks starting on Thursday night.
While Casey Hampton remains on the physically-unable-to-perform list, Steve McLendon has locked down the starting job at nose tackle.
McLendon has challenged Maurkice Pouncey throughout camp and has made a number of plays in the backfield.
At times, McLendon has looked dominant, and he is showing that he may be more than a short-term starter.
Alameda Ta’amu has looked like a rookie.
He has not been terrible, but Ta’amu may not be ready to contribute as a backup, let alone start.
Ta'amu has been slow out of his stance and does not have the technical side of the game down.
McLendon has already earned the starting job, and if he continues to perform at the level that he has during camp, he will continue to start when Hampton returns as well.
The cornerback position was expected to be one of the best battles of camp and it has lived up to its billing.
Keenan Lewis has been running with the starters but has been slowed with a shoulder injury.
That may hold Lewis back as Cortez Allen has been hot on his heels.
Allen has not let up in his second training camp and has been one of the best players so far.
Not only has Allen been strong in coverage, but he has improved the physical aspect of his game and has quickly developed into a well-rounded cornerback.
Meanwhile, Curtis Brown has had a strong camp as well, but he still remains behind Lewis and Allen.
These three will have to distinguish themselves in the preseason.
Lewis may have the lead now, but if Allen continues to perform, he will earn the starting job.
The battle for third-down back has been between more than just Baron Batch and Chris Rainey.
Pittsburgh’s coaches have gotten all of the running backs involved, and it is a toss-up as to who will start at the position.
Rainey, Batch, Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer all have pretty good hands and besides Rainey, they are all capable blockers.
It is very possible that the Steelers could enter the season without a set third-down back. Or they may even use two running backs in the backfield and keep one in as a blocker and send the other out as a receiver.
While there is no leader in the clubhouse, the battle is not due to a lack of capable players but instead due to having several talented ones to choose from.
Backup Inside Linebacker
Stevenson Sylvester and Sean Spence were thought to be the two top options behind Lawrence Timmons and Larry Foote, and I have seen nothing to change that opinion.
Sylvester is an experienced linebacker with the athletic abilities that are desired to defend against the pass.
However, he has been working both inside and outside, which has limited his time to develop on the inside.
Spence has flashed some skills, but he has yet to truly stand out. Although, this is rather difficult when you can’t tackle anyone.
Meanwhile, Mortty Ivy is another name to consider.
Ivy had an outstanding camp and preseason last year and has not lost that potential.
The Steelers depth at inside linebacker is not too bad, and the battle for the backup spot will be intense.
Right now, the job is Sylvester’s, but Thursday night will give these players a true test.
This has been a rather lackluster battle.
In fact, the highlight of this battle came when Will Allen slammed a receiver during last Friday night's practice and got yelled at by Mike Tomlin.
Considering that this has been one of the "highlights" for Allen, that is not a good sign.
He has primarily been a special teams player for the Steelers and has done nothing to show otherwise.
Myron Rolle was an interesting name, but he has yet to flash anything yet.
The play that sticks out in my mind is when Rolle was defending Rainey in the slot. He was burned by Rainey for a big gain.
Damon Cromartie-Smith fell behind early after being on the PUP list, but returned on August first.
By default, Allen is the leader, though look for Cromartie-Smith to apply pressure as camp continues.
Emmanuel Sanders, Chris Rainey, Marquis Maze and David Gilreath look to be the primary contenders for the return jobs.
All of the players have looked good fielding the ball and have the speed and quickness to make plays in the return game.
The problem with watching returns in practice is that they are not performed at full speed and there is a lack of hitting.
Returning the ball in practice is a lot different than returning in a game. Not too long ago, Willie Reid was the perfect example of this.
Fielding the ball is the most important thing for a returner, but an underdog can make a team if he shines in the return game.
It will be a wait-and-see approach with these positions, but one of the ideal scenarios would be for Maze to win the job.
This would allow Sanders and Rainey to focus on their roles within the offense. More importantly, it would reduce their risk of injury.
Knowing Sanders' health history and Rainey's lack of size, this would be rather important.
Drew Butler has been inconsistent throughout camp, but he does have a big leg.
There is a good chance that he can make the roster if he can shine under the lights, since Jeremy Kapinos has yet to practice.
If Butler falters, Kapinos is an experienced veteran and would likely be able to step right in and succeed when he is able to return.
The Steelers could also look elsewhere if needed.
However, Butler has shown that he can kick and is definitely worth an extended look. He just must take advantage of his opportunities.
David DeCastro has not surpassed Ramon Foster on the depth chart, but he will join fellow rookie Mike Adams in the starting lineup on Thursday night, according to Tomlin. Via Steelers.com:
"Both guys finish and they're smart, young guys," said Coach Mike Tomlin. "We'll know more about them Thursday night."
Though DeCastro has taken longer to develop than anticipated, the skills are there and I am confident that he'll be in the starting lineup for the opener against the Denver Broncos.
Fifth Wide Receiver
Derrick Williams, Toney Clemons, Tyler Beiler, David Gilreath and Marquis Maze.
That's a lot of players competing for the Steelers' fifth wide receiver spot.
All have been plagued by drops, and all have flashed potential.
I would put Williams in the lead right now, but only because he's a veteran. But that does not mean I believe that he should make the roster.
Even if they're inconsistent, I would take a young receiver with a high upside over Williams.
If that is the case, Clemons would be the best option. He has size and speed and has made some very athletic receptions to go along with his drops.
Beiler has demonstrated some good skills, and Gilreath has flashed speed.
Maze rarely drops passes, but he has trouble getting open.
The coaching staff is waiting for one of these guys to step up. Thursday night will be as good of a time as ever.