Training camp is quickly approaching, and the Pittsburgh Steelers will be looking to bounce back from a disappointing 8-8 season.
Much of the team's success will hinge on the performance of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and the offense. Now in their second year under offensive coordinator Todd Haley, the offense will look to put more points on the board in 2013.
They had a solid start last season, yet had problems putting the ball in the end zone. The addition of rookie running back Le’Veon Bell should help the Steelers in this area, but the loss of Mike Wallace and an injury to Heath Miller will be tough to overcome.
As training camp approaches, I will preview each skill position on the Steelers. Here is what to expect from the quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers and tight ends.
For the first time in years there has been a major shakeup at the quarterback position.
Of course Ben Roethlisberger is still the starter, but Charlie Batch and Bryon Leftwich will not be backing him up. Instead, the Steelers went with a couple of younger options in Bruce Gradkowski and Landry Jones.
With John Parker Wilson rounding out the depth chart, there will be a lot of new faces throwing the football around the practice fields at Saint Vincent College.
Roethlisberger has had a year to settle into the offensive scheme and is pleased with the changes that Todd Haley made.
As history has taught us, quarterbacks have performed well in their second year under Haley. Roethlisberger should be no exception.
The question now becomes: “What changes will be made to the offense?”
Last year, the Steelers emphasized the run and short, quick passes. While the ground game faltered during the regular season, the short passing game became quite effective.
However, Roethlisberger's 7.27 yards per attempt was the second lowest of his career and well below his career average—through 2011—of 8.02 yards per attempt.
Expect these numbers to go up in 2013 as Haley will likely allow Roethlisberger to throw deep more often. He has a trio of speedy receivers in Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders and Markus Wheaton, but it will be a change from Mike Wallace.
Roethlisberger will no longer just be able to heave the ball behind the defense anymore. Instead, he will have to depend on timing and ball placement as his receivers won’t be able to create as much separation. Developing timing with his receivers in training camp will be important.
Gradkowski will also have to begin to develop his timing as he is almost certain to be under center at some point this year considering Roethlisberger has only played in all 16 games once in his career.
Unlike their previous backups, the Steelers will have a second-string quarterback that can move in the pocket. However, his career completion percentage is only 52.9, and he hasn’t completed more than 50 percent of his attempts since 2010.
Gradkowski got an early jump into learning the offense when he stepped in as the No. 1 during OTAs after Roethlisberger had knee surgery.
While most of the focus will be on the top two quarterbacks, Landry Jones will be worth watching as well.
He may not be an immediate replacement for Roethlisberger, but he has an intriguing set of skills that could project to a quality backup and maybe even a future starter.
Jones has ideal size at 6’3” and 221 pounds and had a very productive college career. Last season he completed 66.1 percent of his passes and threw for 16,646 and 123 over his four-year career.
Now we will get to see if his skills can translate to the NFL level. One thing to watch will be how he handles pressure. This is not something that he did well at Oklahoma, and now he must face one of the most confusing defensive schemes in practice every day.
John Parker Wilson rounds out the depth chart and will provide a fourth arm during training camp. Given Gradkowski’s experience and Jones’ draft status, Wilson will not make the team.
One of the deepest areas of the team is at running back, where the Steelers have three backs that have had at least 110 carries in a season.
Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman both had over 100 carries last season, with Dwyer leading the team with 623 yards. Meanwhile, LaRod Stephens-Howling had a career-high 110 carries for 356 yards with the Arizona Cardinals.
Despite the experience, Redman and Stephens-Howling will not be competing for a starting job. Instead, it will be between Dwyer and second-round draft choice Le’Veon Bell.
Bell was the target for the Steelers when they drafted him, according to Todd Haley, via ESPN.com.
“It was pretty clear that this was the guy that we would be most excited about being available when it came to our pick,” Haley said.
They were excited because he is potentially a three-down back.
He led the nation with 382 carries last season and had no issues carrying the load for Michigan State. This was evident in a game against Boise State in which he had 50 touches for 265 yards.
Though he is a big back, Bell isn’t in the same mold of Dwyer. He is very cut and powerful, but at 6’1” he provides a lot of body for defenders to target. His upright running style does not help either and will be something that he must work on.
However, there is a lot to like about Bell, including his ability to run inside and outside as well as catch the ball out of the backfield. He had 78 receptions in his three seasons of college ball.
None of this matters, though, unless he can block.
Kirby Wilson told Mark Kaboly of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that running backs must “be able to protect the quarterback or you won’t play.”
Dwyer will have to hold off Bell if he wants to keep his starting job.
The biggest knock on Dwyer has been his conditioning, and he now seems to be up to the task. In February, he tweeted that he will “be in the best shape of my life.”
He is more than a capable starter, and he and Bell will provide the Steelers with two quality backs at the top of the depth chart.
Redman will once provide valuable depth at the position, though he will have a new look this season as Mark Kaboly reported that Redman has lost 10 pounds and hopes to lose more before training camp.
As a short-yardage specialist that has seen his yards per carry decrease in each of the past two seasons, it will be interesting to see how he can perform with less weight.
Stephens-Howling and Baron Batch will battle it out for the fourth spot on the depth chart. Though Batch is the younger option, Stephens-Howling has a proven track record and can contribute in return game.
Curtis McNeal is an undersized running back at only 5’9” and will have a tough time making the roster.
Leading the way for the running backs will be fullback Will Johnson. Coming off of an impressive rookie season, he is the only fullback listed on the official roster, and the coaching staff must be confident with him.
According to Kaboly, Johnson may even get more action in the passing game. Not bad for a long-shot to make the roster last season.
For years, fans have wanted the Steelers to draft a big receiver and for years, the Steelers have avoided them like the plague.
Three of their top four receivers will be under 6’0,” yet have the speed and quickness that will work well with what they are trying to do on offense.
Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders and Markus Wheaton are three quality route runners who are ideal fits with a timing-based passing attack, but still have the speed to stretch the field.
With Mike Wallace gone and Heath Miller out—for now—with an ACL injury, expect Roethlisberger to spread the ball around a lot.
Last season, the top three receivers had at least 44 receptions each, with Brown leading the way with 66 catches and Sanders leading the team with 14.2 yards per reception.
A lot will be asked of Brown this season, as he will take over as the No. 1.
His numbers slipped in 2012 after missing three games due to injury, but he showed his potential in 2011 when he caught 69 passes—including 57 for first downs—for 1,108 yards and an impressive average of 16.1 yards per reception.
The fall to 11.9 yards per reception last season was in part because of the shift in offensive philosophy of getting the ball out of Roethlisberger’s hands quicker.
Another negative is his lack of production when it comes to scoring. He had a career-high five touchdown receptions last year. By comparison, Wallace’s career-high came in his rookie year, when he had six touchdowns.
Sanders will have to help make up for scoring production as well.
He struggled through injuries over his first two seasons and finally began to live up to his potential last year when caught 44 balls for 626 yards.
Though Sanders has yet to break through as a star receiver, his targets have been limited, and he will finally have a chance to break out. He is a terrific route runner and is not afraid to go over the middle. Expect him to make major strides this year.
Bleacher Report’s Ryan Lownes believes that Wheaton can "develop into a star” and for good reason.
Wheaton is a track athlete who can play football. He has terrific deep speed, but is diverse with his routes. However, like Brown and Sanders, he is not overly physical and can be knocked off of the ball.
That is where Jerricho Cotchery and Plaxico Burress come in.
These two receivers add size and a physical nature to the game. Cotchery will be able to find soft spots in the zone, and Burress could be a red zone threat if he makes the team.
There are several players that will challenge Burress for the final spot on the depth chart. David Gilreath and Justin Brown are the top two competitors.
Gilreath was the best of the undrafted rookies last season and saw some brief action late in the year. He can contribute on special teams and fits the mold as a fast, undersized receiver that the Steelers like.
If the Steelers are purely looking for size, Brown could be their man. He is 6’3” and had a productive senior season at Oklahoma as a receiver and punt returner. He is a pure possession receiver.
Derek Moye, Kashif Moore and J.D. Woods will all have opportunities to catch the eyes of the coaches, but will have a tough time making the team.
Another name to keep an eye on is Reggie Dunn, who ran a 4.29 40-yard dash. He will have his best shot at earning a roster spot as a kick returner, but if the offensive coaching staff gets creative, he would be a dangerous threat when in space.
Let’s cut to the chase—the only concern in regard to the tight end position is Heath Miller’s injured knee.
Training camp will be our first opportunity to see how his rehabilitation is going and whether or not he will be ready for the start of the regular season.
Back in May, Miller told Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that he does not know when he will return, but just wants to get healthy.
"My ultimate goal, the most important goal is to be 100 percent, get this thing better no matter how long it takes. I think that's the overriding goal. I expect to be there,” Miller said.
While he is out, expect 6’7” Matt Spaeth to help to replace Miller.
Never a receiving specialist, Spaeth is capable of making minor contributions in the passing game. He has 49 receptions and eight touchdowns in six seasons.
Spaeth’s true value will come from his blocking. He will be able to aid the Steelers young tackles in pass protection as well as provide a boost in run blocking.
When it comes to replacing Miller’s production as a receiver, it will virtually be impossible. He had 71 receptions—including 44 for first downs—and eight touchdowns last season. His receptions will have to be distributed across all of the receivers.
However, David Paulson can make up for some of this production.
He moved up the depth chart during his rookie year and finished the season with seven receptions on 10 targets and showed some promise as a receiver.
Though Paulson doesn’t run particularly fast, he is a serviceable option and a quality No. 2.
Of course, the experience David Johnson has makes him another option. He is more of a blocking tight end and can play fullback as well. He only has 18 career receptions and is not much of a threat as a receiver.
Jamie McCoy and Peter Tuitupou fill out the depth chart and are unlikely to make the roster. However, McCoy will at least flash some potential and give the coaching staff something to think about.
How will Ben Roethlisberger adapt to the updated offense?
Expect Roethlisberger to be a happy camper this year. He had input into the adjustments that Haley made to the offense, and I would expect that it will include more deep passes. There should also be more leeway for Roethlisberger to move around in the pocket to extend plays, however, he should not completely abandon the quick, safe throws either.
Roethlisberger was efficient for most of the season last year and avoided taking unnecessary hits. With another year in the system, expect Roethlisberger to take command in training camp.
How long before Le’Veon Bell starts at running back?
It is not a matter of if, but when, Le’Veon Bell will start. The problem is that he must prove that he can be a complete back, and more importantly, he must beat out Jonathan Dwyer. Dwyer is a quality running back and has the talent to be a successful starter.
Expect Dwyer to maintain the starting role early in camp, but Bell will start at least one preseason game and will win the job either before the start of the regular season or just a few games into it.
Will the receivers scare defenses?
If you have listened to or read about Mike Wallace, you either think he is the worst receiver ever or the only deep threat that the league has ever seen. In reality, he was neither of those things. What the current receivers lack is elite, straight-line speed, but they make up for with their route-running ability. This should make them more of a threat in short and intermediate routes.
That is not to say they can’t get behind the defenders, because they can. They just lack that extra gear to create the separation that Wallace was capable of. However, with three guys that can go deep, Pittsburgh’s offense should be less predictable when going for a big play.
When will Heath Miller return?
Besides Ben Roethlisberger, Miller is the most important part of the Steelers’ offense. He blocks, he catches the ball, he moves the chains and he scores touchdowns. No other tight end on the roster can replace his production, and the Steelers will miss his presence.
However, they should not rush him back and risk his health. Instead, it may be wise to put him on the PUP list to start the season and allow Miller extra rehabilitation time before he has to experience the rigors of an NFL season.