Preparations for the 2013 season will kick into high gear when the Pittsburgh Steelers report to training camp on July 26.
Mike Tomlin and his staff will have a lot of work to do if they want to make it back to the playoffs after a disappointing 8-8 finish last year. It will be particularly challenging since the AFC North is a difficult division, with the Super Bowl Champion Baltimore Ravens and Cincinnati Bengals both finishing ahead of the Steelers last season.
There will be plenty of storylines as camp kicks off, particularly concerning the offense, where Todd Haley will have to mold one of the youngest projected offenses in the league.
That doesn’t mean the defense should be ignored. There is plenty to discuss on that side of the ball, particularly the infusion of new starters and when the rookies will be ready to contribute.
Here is a look at the top eight storylines heading into Steelers’ training camp.
The Pittsburgh Steelers’ defense is often referred to as “Blitzburgh” because of their propensity of getting to the quarterback. That hasn’t been the case over the past two seasons.
A major reason for the lack of sacks has been the decline in production from the outside linebackers.
LaMarr Woodley will be the center of attention this year after two consecutive disappointing seasons in which he has combined for 13 sacks.
Injuries were the key reason for his lack of sacks, but an anonymous teammate told Ron Cook of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that the injuries were the result of poor conditioning.
While this caused a stir, last August Mark Kaboly of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reported that linebacker coach Keith Butler called Woodley out for being overweight.
The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review’s Alan Robinson reported that Woodley has changed his offseason training routine and that his weight is down.
The last time that he was healthy and in shape—the first half of the 2011 season—Woodley was one of the most feared pass rushers in the league. Whether or not he can regain that level of play is another story. We will find out soon.
Outside of Ben Roethlisberger, there was no more important skill position player on offense last season than Heath Miller.
Miller had 71 receptions for a career-high 816 yards and eight touchdowns. What was more impressive was that 44 of those receptions went for first downs—the most on the team—and he was named team MVP for his efforts.
But the Steelers may be without Miller to begin the season as he recovers from a torn ACL that he suffered in their Week 16 game against the Cincinnati Bengals.
While Miller told Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that there is no timetable for his return, his activity during training camp will provide an indication on whether or not he will start the season on the PUP list.
Each year, it is the offense that seems to underachieve, but the defense was the unit to see the most turnover this offseason.
There will be as many as three new starters this season with Steve McLendon, Cortez Allen and Jason Worilds entering the lineup. So much for that “old and slow” defense, right Warren Sapp?
McLendon will replace long-time starter Casey Hampton and will bring a different feel to the nose tackle position. Not only can he defend against the run, but he can rush the quarterback. He had two sacks in a reserve role last season.
After sitting behind Hampton, McLendon has learned a lot and has been working hard this offseason to be the best player that he can be. This is a player who has earned his shot and will be one to watch.
Another exciting young player is Allen, who is stepping in for Keenan Lewis. He caught the attention of SI.com’s Chris Burke, who named him as a breakout player to watch.
Allen has the size of Ike Taylor and comparable speed. Unlike Taylor, he has a nose for the ball with two interceptions, three forced fumbles and a fumble recovery.
More importantly, Allen flashed the ability to be a quality cover cornerback. The coaching staff had no issues lining him up against some of the best receivers that they faced late in the 2012 season, including A.J. Green.
Worilds will have the task of replacing James Harrison, though he recognizes that he is not the same type of player that Harrison was.
While McLendon and Allen will be unopposed for their starting roles, Worilds will have to hold off first-round draft pick Jarvis Jones.
Rookies are not expected to contribute much for the Steelers, but that has changed in recent years as more and more rookies are getting onto the field.
This was evident last season when the Steelers had five draft picks contribute throughout the season, including three rookie offensive linemen that started games.
The best-case scenario is that seven of the nine draft picks could contribute in some form—mainly on special teams—this year. A more realistic number, though, would be for of them.
Jarvis Jones and Shamarko Thomas are virtual locks to be special teams players. Depending on their development, they could eventually develop into situational players on the defensive side of the ball as the season progresses.
Le’Veon Bell has the best opportunity to start as he will battle Jonathan Dwyer during training camp. The Pittsburgh Tribune Review's Mark Kaboly reported that as long as Bell can block, he will get on the field.
Early in the season, Markus Wheaton will likely be the fourth receiver with potential to move up the depth chart as the season progresses. He will have to play on special teams, he but probably won’t have return duties.
The play of Terry Hawthorne and Vince Williams will be something to watch. Both players have upside, but are limited right now. They have to prove themselves on special teams to make the roster.
Landry Jones and Nick Williams are developmental players, but they are two guys who could be important players down the line.
As the summer heats up, so will the camp battles. Not so much for starting spots, but rather building depth across the roster.
The only battles for starting positions will be at running back between Bell and Dwyer, and at right outside linebacker between Jason Worilds and Jarvis Jones.
When it comes to depth, virtually every position will be up for grabs.
A lack of depth hurt the Steelers last season as they were unable to overcome injuries to their starters. They lost five of their final seven games en route to an 8-8 record.
There are a number of exciting young players, and the opportunity to compete for a roster spot is what training camp is all about. Expect to see an intense camp that will involve some heated exchanges as young players try to make the final 53-man roster.
It has been a long-term building process, but the Steelers may finally have a quality offensive line in place.
The final pieces of the puzzle were added last year when David DeCastro and Mike Adams were the top two picks. They will join Maurkice Pouncey, Ramon Foster and Marcus Gilbert to form one of the youngest offensive lines in the league.
They will be under new leadership as Jack Bicknell Jr. is taking over for Sean Kugler, who left for the head coaching job at UTEP.
Bicknell Jr. will bring a new philosophy to the line as they try to become a strength of the team. It will take time to jell, but once they do, the sky is the limit for this group of players.
The Steelers may have a top-ranked defense, but Dick LeBeau doesn’t feel that way, at least until they get more turnovers, via Steelers.com:
The first thing, the obvious thing, is we have to get more turnovers. We’ve had years that we’ve been real productive there, but the last couple we haven’t been. I wish I knew the answer to the why, but we’re searching for those answers and we’re working in that direction. We’ll keep stressing it. That’s the most obvious area. We have to help the offense shorten their field and maybe get some more points ourselves. You’ve got to get fumbles, sacks and interceptions to do that. We want to get [production] higher in that for sure.
LeBeau’s scheme has not been the issue, but rather the production from the defenders. The outside linebackers have not been getting the job done and neither has the defensive line.
All eyes will be on Woodley and Worilds as they try to reinvigorate the pass rush and rookie Jarvis Jones could provide a boost on passing downs.
The much-anticipated explosion between Ben Roethlisberger and Todd Haley never happened last season, but neither individual was happy with the production of the offense.
Rather than stick with what didn’t work, Haley made adjustments to the scheme and Roethlisberger has been pleased with them according to Alan Robinson of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
Though the entire scheme will not be revealed in training camp, we will begin to get a taste of it and as history shows, the second year in Haley’s offense has been very good to his quarterbacks.
But the changes won’t be limited to just the philosophy. There are personnel changes as well with a new offensive line in place, potentially a new starting running back and a new starting receiver with Emmanuel Sanders taking over for Mike Wallace.
The new offense should be the top story of training camp 2013.