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Updating Pittsburgh Steelers' Key Position Battles in Training Camp

Nick DeWittAnalyst IDecember 21, 2014

Updating Pittsburgh Steelers' Key Position Battles in Training Camp

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    The Pittsburgh Steelers have now had a couple of good, solid weeks of work to evaluate the players in camp. The performances on the practice fields at St. Vincent College and in the first preseason action in Philadelphia have made an impact on the position battles underway as the season nears.

    Here’s an updated look at the position battles with some new favorites and confirmation of some earlier theories.

Starting Cornerback

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    Combatants: Keenan Lewis, Cortez Allen and Curtis Brown

    Analysis

    The surprise hasn’t come from the work Lewis has done. He showed up ready to compete for a starting job and with designs on making the Pro Bowl. He’s gone forward with that chip on his shoulder and he’s been solid so far. The big plays haven’t happened, but he’s made the best case.

    The surprise has been how poorly Curtis Brown has played. In one game, he gave up two huge touchdowns. One of them could have been a big play the other way had he simply turned his head and kept an eye on the ball.

    Brown was drafted because of big-play ability, but he hasn’t shown that at all yet. If he doesn’t show it soon, he’s going to be competing for snaps in the dime formations and on special teams units. That’s a far cry from where many thought he might be at this point.

    Allen has been unspectacular so far, but he has been far better than Brown and he looks like a lock to be the team’s choice in the nickel spot. I’m interested to see how he works in the second game against the Colts.

Starting Left Tackle

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    Combatants: Mike Adams, Max Starks and Trai Essex

    Analysis

    This battle illustrates a major difference between what we can learn from practice and what we can learn from game action.

    In practice, Adams looked like a guy who was easily the team’s most impressive rookie. He was holding blocks well and was good in pass protection as well. In game action, however, he showed there’s still some miles to be traveled before he’s ready for prime time. He gave up at least two sacks against backup defensive linemen. That’s not a good start, but it wasn’t all bad for Adams, who is still the best bet to start at left tackle.

    The problem is that Adams will miss about two weeks now as he recovers from an injury. That will rob him of some valuable playing time and there’s always the worry that an injury will nag into the season and ruin effectiveness. Only time will tell there.

    Starks still hasn’t been on the field. He’s recovering from injury and hopes to be ready by the start of the regular season, but nothing is certain yet. I don’t think the Steelers would have brought him back on board if he wasn’t likely to be ready, however. He likely isn’t going to start, but he’ll be a quality backup.

    The wild card has been Essex, who’s been solid but who was beaten out in practice by Adams. Essex could be the first guy in if Adams isn’t ready and Starks is still recovering too. I wouldn’t be comfortable with Essex starting long-term, but he should be okay for a week or two.

Starting Defensive Tackle

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    Combatants: Steve McLendon, Alameda Ta’amu and Casey Hampton

    Analysis

    This becomes less of a battle every day. Ta’amu has had some issues with technique and effort so far, although he looked solid against Philadelphia. He’s not in line to start at this point, although he could earn himself some playing time if he continues to improve.

    The bright spot on defense so far has been McLendon. Coming into the year, he was kind of an afterthought. He’d been a consistent and effective backup and substitute, but he hadn’t had a chance at going big time. Now he’s making a bid to be the future of the position and doing it with gusto.

    McLendon was a star in the first preseason action and he looks like a player poised for a huge breakout. He adds a dimension of big-play ability to the defense that has been missing that up front for the last year or so.

    Hampton is still recovering and there’s no indication he’s going to be ready to roll in Denver. He may end up coming back to being only a role player with the way McLendon has been performing, but we’ll see what happens as things get more clear.

Starting Inside Linebacker

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    Combatants: Larry Foote, Stevenson Sylvester and Sean Spence

    Analysis

    This one is all but over at this point. Larry Foote made a statement in OTAs and has followed it up with continued effort in the practices and first game. He will almost assuredly be next to Lawrence Timmons when Peyton Manning takes his first snap of the regular season.

    Sylvester still has a chance to wrestle the top backup job away from the competition, but he still hasn’t been able to show up impressively and made some mental errors in the Eagles game that are troublesome for a player who should be beyond that.

    Spence makes things more difficult because he is a good playmaker and he can step up in the middle and disrupt an offense. I like his chances to start in the long run, but the linebacker spots are intricate and Dick LeBeau and Keith Butler aren’t likely to throw a rookie into the fray like that.

    One thing is for sure with Spence, however. We will see him during the season.

Backup Running Back

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    Combatants: Jonathan Dwyer, Chris Rainey, Baron Batch and John Clay

    Analysis

    I’m still writing Clay off at this point. His injury this week will only hurt his already bleak chances of making a dent on the roster. He just isn’t a complete enough back to make this team. There’s too much talent in front of him.

    I was intrigued by Batch’s work against the Eagles. He’s a guy I thought would be a receiver out of the backfield and who would get some carries with the chance to bounce outside. Instead, Todd Haley had him running inside and he was pretty good at it too. I think he showed some interesting tools in that game and he may have moved ahead of Dwyer.

    Dwyer wasn’t bad either, however. He played relatively well in some short stints and he is likely going to be with the team at least until final cuts are made and probably beyond as a backup. It will be interesting to see how the fullback position is approached with David Johnson hurt. How Haley and Tomlin structure that spot may impact how many backs remain with the team.

    Rainey is the star of the preseason so far. He was unbelievable in his first action in the NFL and there’s a lot of factors pointing to a season in which he could be a very, very special player. He’s made this team. That’s certain. He might even have earned the right to take some snaps regularly on offense too.

Third/Slot Receiver

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    Combatants: Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery

    Analysis

    Before the news that Mike Wallace might be reporting for the beginning of the season, the slot position was likely going to Cotchery, who is much better over the middle than on the outside. Now that Wallace is projected back, Sanders will slide back into the competition.

    I think this is still Sanders’ job to lose. He played great in his first game as a starter and it’s pretty telling that he got the nod to start with Wallace missing. He’s more versatile than Cotchery as well, something that may push him ahead. The key is for him to stay healthy.

    Cotchery is going to get his catches too, but he can have just as much of an impact as the fourth receiver as he might in the slot. His money is going to be made on red-zone work, where his ability to get in tight and make plays is much more important.

Punter

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    Combatants: Drew Butler and Jeremy Kapinos

    Analysis

    This is another competition that’s becoming a rout, but that’s not because one guy has blown the other away. This one is one-sided because one player hasn’t managed to get on the field because he’s hurt.

    Injuries in camp aren’t uncommon, but when you’re in a competition with one guy for one spot and you’re competing to replace a guy who was injury-prone (Daniel Sepulveda), the last thing you want to do is have a problem staying healthy.

    Kapinos hasn’t punted much. On the flip side, Butler was great in his first game action and he boomed some really great kicks. He displayed the placement abilities that make him so valuable and the big leg proved to be helpful in giving the defense room to work. At this point, I don’t see Kapinos making a big comeback unless something completely turns this situation on its ear.

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