The Pittsburgh Steelers will soon open their training camp with many tasks to accomplish. There are the standard ones facing every team—evaluating their players, finding spots on the roster for them or otherwise releasing them, honing the playbook—and there are others that are more specific to the Steelers.
These Steelers-specific tasks will be getting the most attention over the course of training camp. The Steelers have issues carrying over from last season that need to be addressed effectively during camp if the team wants to improve upon its 8-8 record from 2012. Here are three of the biggest questions the Steelers must answer in the next five weeks.
What Will the Steelers Run Game Look Like?
We've known for some time now that the Steelers offensive line will be shifting to an outside zone-blocking scheme with the addition of new line coach Jack Bicknell, Jr., after relying on inside zone and power running for years. This move also coincides with the Steelers drafting running back Le'Veon Bell in the second round this year; Bell is certainly a back who will benefit from the switch in run-blocking philosophy.
However, there are concerns about how successful the Steelers can be with this change. Mike Tanier of Sports on Earth discussed them in great detail in June—the biggest being that some of their assumed starters on the line aren't well-suited for the scheme. There's also the issue of the other Steelers' backs—Jonathan Dwyer, Isaac Redman, Baron Batch, La'Rod Stephens-Howling—and what their roles will be in an outside-zone rushing offense.
While the fit is good for Bell, in order for him to get starter-level playing time this year, he'll need to improve his pass-blocking. He's working on it and should have more than enough opportunities to learn the nuances of pass protection in training camp, but if he doesn't master it by the start of the season the Steelers may have to look to the Redman-Dwyer combo that carried the team last year.
"Carried the team" might be a bit of an overstatement when it comes to the Steelers run game in 2012. It ranked 28th in rushing touchdowns per game, 26th in rushing yards per game and 29th in yards per rushing attempt, at 3.7, despite ranking 20th in rushing attempts per game.
So if the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review's Mark Kaboly is right in his assumption that, ultimately, Redman will end up with the most carries for the Steelers this season, then the blocking scheme needs to do him—and the other backs—more favors than last year.
Plainly put, the Steelers run game last season was terrible and uncharacteristic for the team. However, the switch to outside zone could make this a more difficult area to improve. It could also be the perfect shot in the arm for Pittsburgh's offense.
Training camp will be an especially important time for the Steelers offensive line and running backs; what we see there will give us a fairly strong indication of how well the two parts will work together in the regular season.
What's Next for the Steelers' Passing Offense?
The Steelers run game isn't the only question mark hanging over the heads of the offense—the passing game is going to be getting a great deal of scrutiny over the course of training camp, as well.
The reason for this is two-fold: One, is the departure of wide receiver Mike Wallace in free agency. The second is the severe multiple-ligament knee injury suffered by tight end Heath Miller in Week 16 of the 2012 season, from which he is continuing to recover.
The Steelers will need to replace both players, one permanently and the other for an indeterminate amount of time—as of May, Miller said he still doesn't know when he'll be healthy enough to return to the field.
Filling Wallace's spot is relatively easy, as the Steelers still have Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders to do the heavy lifting. The pair are also joined by veterans Plaxico Burress and Jerricho Cotchery, an assortment of younger depth players and 2013 third-round draft pick Markus Wheaton.
Wheaton is the most intriguing of the bunch, with speed, size and hands that echo Wallace and, reportedly, with better route running. However, receiver is a hard position to master in the first year in the NFL, so the odds are high that we won't see Wheaton perform to his full potential this year. Much will be asked of Brown and Sanders, in particular, when it comes to keeping Pittsburgh's passing game performing at a high level.
This is doubly important because of Miller's absence. Though Week 1 is certainly a target for Miller, the nature of the injury he suffered and when he suffered it makes it seem impossible. While Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson managed a Week 1 comeback from a similar injury last year, Miller is older and the injury a bit more extensive. Further, it's hard to say that Peterson's example is any template for subsequent ligament tears in the NFL.
The problem with not having Miller is that he was practically the face of offensive coordinator Todd Haley's ball-control passing offense last year.
Under Haley, the deep passes dwindled while the focus shifted to moving the chains, piling on first downs and keeping hold of the clock. That resulted in Miller hauling in 71 passes, the most of any Steelers target, for 816 yards and eight touchdowns. He also led the team in first downs, with 44.
Without Miller, the Steelers not only need to find a tight end to replace him—likely a mix of second-year player David Paulson and free-agent signing Matt Spaeth—the receivers on the field will also have to adjust their games somewhat to account for Miller's absence.
Further, the Steelers need to find a way to be threatening to opposing defenses even though they will be well aware that Miller not playing means a huge, versatile weapon is not available to quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
The questions facing the Steelers' passing offense this training camp are just as important as those facing their run game. Camp should help them find solutions to these problems, but how well they do so will have a lot to do with their win-loss record in 2013. They must get it picture perfect in at least one of these two areas.
Can the Steelers Improve their Pass Rush?
Last year, the Steelers defense notched a total of 37 sacks—a respectable number, yes (they tied with the New England Patriots and Baltimore Ravens in their regular-season totals), but certainly not the kind of numbers typically expected out of that side of the ball. Though better than their 35-sack 2011, it still pales in comparison to the Steelers' 48- and 47-sack 2010 and 2009 season, in which they ranked first and second in the league, respectively.
Granted, the Steelers found a way to compensate for the low sack total last year. They were the top passing defense in the league despite putting forth disappointing pressure on opposing quarterbacks, but changes in the secondary—namely losing cornerback Keenan Lewis in free agency—make it even more important that the Steelers right their pass-rushing ship during training camp this year.
And while a good secondary is a nice asset to have, the fact that Pro Football Focus ranked the Steelers pass rush the worst in the league in 2012 (subscription required) clearly means it's an area upon which the team must focus this summer.
Complicating matters is the departure of longtime starting outside linebacker James Harrison. Though his play had been in decline as his age rose, his mere presence on the field added a level of intimidation that will be hard to replicate with Jason Worilds taking over his spot.
Yes, the Steelers took pass-rusher Jarvis Jones in the first round of this year's draft, but precedent indicates that Jones won't be a full-time starter in his rookie season. Worilds will have to effectively carry Harrison's load with Jones likely coming in to spell him on a situational basis only.
Dig deeper into the Steelers' 2012 pass-rushing problems and a few conclusions can easily be drawn. One is that defensive end Ziggy Hood remains a huge liability when it comes to pressuring quarterbacks. He had only three sacks on the season despite playing 495 of his 833 snaps as a pass-rusher. The other is that former nose tackle Casey Hampton, with no sacks, was also an issue.
Fortunately, Hampton is gone and Steve McLendon—one of only three Steelers defenders to earn a positive pass-rushing grade from Pro Football Focus last year—seems poised to take over.
Linebacker Lawrence Timmons was given much more free reign last year and it paid off; he seems primed to be even better this year. Safety Troy Polamalu claims to be in the best shape of his professional career and, if true, it only means that Dick LeBeau's cache of blitzes and unorthodox pressures should prove more effective.
The Steelers must find a way to summon back the sacks they've lost over the last two years and be yet again one of the most formidable defensive units up front. Whether that means changing up how they move around personnel, adding in new wrinkles to LeBeau's playbook or simply emphasizing discipline and technique, improving the pass rush is something the Steelers must address at training camp this year.