Pittsburgh Steelers: 5 Questions That Must Be Answered Before the Season Opener
The preseason is half over, and the Pittsburgh Steelers have accomplished a lot.
Over the first two games, Todd Haley put an emphasis on the run game to help establish a physical identity on offense.
Defensively, the Steelers have played pretty vanilla, but they have had an opportunity to get a look at Keenan Lewis starting at cornerback and Steve McLendon at nose tackle.
But while many of the questions heading into training camp have been sorted out, there are still some left unanswered.
Here are five questions that must be answered before the season opener.
Who Will Start at Left Tackle?
Rookie Mike Adams was thrust into the starting lineup prior to the first preseason game against the Philadelphia Eagles but has since fell out of favor.
Adams had been having a solid camp, but after two preseason games, he is clearly not ready to protect Ben Roethlisberger’s blind side.
Though he struggles in pass protection, Adams has demonstrated that he can be a devastating run blocker, but that is not good enough if he wants to start this year.
That leaves Marcus Gilbert or Max Starks.
Gilbert moved to left tackle for the second preseason game and played well. However, he is a better fit for the right side and is the long-term option there.
The favorite to win the job is Starks.
Starks was just activated from the physically-unable-to-perform list and is able to participate in full team activities.
As long as his surgically repaired knee can hold up, expect Starks to be the opening day starter at left tackle.
How Will the Running Backs Be Used?
The running back position remains a bit of a mystery for the Steelers after two preseason games.
All of the running backs have been used in various situations, and chances are that each will play a vital role come the regular season.
Isaac Redman figures to be the starter and will get a bulk of the carries, though he missed last week with a groin injury.
Given his importance to the offense, it may be wise to give Redman extra rest so that he can be 100 percent for the start of the regular season.
Jonathan Dwyer is showing signs of finally living up to his potential.
Dwyer has had a good camp and has been solid in the preseason. He is effective not only running but also as a receiver and has a knack for finding holes in the defense and turning them into big runs.
It is possible that Dwyer will have a fairly large role with the offense this year.
But the most exciting player is Chris Rainey.
Rainey has been a focal point for the offense for all of training camp, and the coaches continue to get the ball in his hands during the preseason.
Though he will never be a back who can carry the load, Rainey could end up with the second-most touches from the back position.
Rainey is a decent runner, but he has the potential to be an excellent receiver out of the backfield. This is where he will make his mark.
Baron Batch remains a bit of a question mark.
He has had a ton of opportunities this preseason but has not looked particularly good at running the ball.
There has been a lot of talk from fans that he would be the third-down back, but that is not necessarily the case, as both Redman and Dwyer are capable (Rainey was not included because of his lack of blocking abilities).
Chances are that situational football will dictate how the backs are used this season and that the Steelers will go with the hot hand.
Who Will Start at Right Outside Linebacker?
James Harrison told Steelers.com that he thinks that he will be ready for the season opener at Denver on September 9.
However, he has been sidelined for all of training camp, and there should be some concern whether or not he can be ready to start against the Broncos.
Jason Worilds was the primary backup at outside linebacker last season, but like Harrison, he has not been able to practice in camp.
That leaves either Lawrence Timmons or Chris Carter.
Timmons was not a good option on the outside last season. He was ineffective in his starts there last year and did not have a sack during the season.
While Carter may not be ready to start, he has at least flashed potential as a speed rusher and continues to improve against the run and pass.
I recently wrote that Carter should start in place of an injured Harrison and that opinion has not changed.
However, there is still time for Harrison to get healthy and for this position to be sorted out.
Will the Steelers Keep Four or Five Cornerbacks?
Pittsburgh has four solid cornerbacks with the potential to develop into one of the better units in the league.
Ike Taylor and Keenan Lewis are slated to start with Cortez Allen playing in the slot. Curtis Brown has not had the best preseason but is still a pretty talented player to be the fourth cornerback.
Now the question becomes: Will the Steelers keep five cornerbacks or will they only keep four and go with an extra player at another position—such as keeping an extra safety.
The odds of a fifth cornerback playing on the defense are slim, so the Steelers must consider a player’s efforts on special teams as well.
Terrence Frederick—Pittsburgh’s seventh-round draft pick—has yet to stand out on defense or on special teams.
Andre Freeman flashed some upside during camp but has a long way to develop and may be a better option for the practice squad.
Josh Victorian made a nice interception against the Colts, but one play is not something to get caught up over.
Walter McFadden may be the most experienced of the rest, but he is too hot and cold. Even though he has made some nice plays, McFadden is just like the rest in the sense that none of the cornerbacks have stood out.
If the Steelers keep five, expect the fifth to be the best special teams player. They could even fill this void with a player from outside of the organization.
Who Will Return Punts and Kicks?
Chris Rainey should be the favorite for the return job, but his slight build is a concern.
Injuries are a concern for a player like Rainey and putting him on return duties greatly increases his chance at an injury.
While teams need to put their playmakers on the field, is having Rainey return the ball worth the risk? Maybe not.
The only reason that there is competition for the return job is because Antonio Brown will focus his attention on playing receiver. Clearly, the Steelers value his role as a receiver more than as a returner.
Could the same be said for Rainey? I believe so.
Rainey is going to have an important role in the offense, and every effort should be made to find another option for kick and punt return duties.
Marquis Maze is a nice option, but he has yet to show anything impressive.
A part of the problem is that Maze has run the ball too much east and west on returns, rather than finding a seam and going for it.
Another possibility is David Gilreath, who had a very impressive receiving performance against the Colts.
Gilreath practiced returning in camp, and if the Steelers are still looking for a returner at this point, maybe he should get a chance.
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