Predicting the Winner of Pittsburgh Steelers Training Camp Battles

Joshua AxelrodCorrespondent IJuly 24, 2013

Predicting the Winner of Pittsburgh Steelers Training Camp Battles

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    With only two days until the Steelers open training camp, it is time to make some official predictions for Pittsburgh’s most heated training camp battles.

    Not much on the Steelers’ 2013 roster is set in stone. Sure, Ben Roethlisberger will be at quarterback, Antonio Brown will take over for Mike Wallace as the team’s top receiver and LaMarr Woodley will be given a chance to bounce back from last season’s injuries.

    A surprising number of positions remain in flux, though. It's strange to say, but the Steelers will have many tough decisions to make after training camp. Then again, this is not a squad coming off of a strong season.

    Instead, this is an 8-8 unit until proven otherwise. Mike Tomlin will need to evaluate all of his talent and hope he is right on enough of them to elevate that record to playoff contention.

    Many of the players will face stiff competition for their starting jobs and, in some cases, their roster spots. Here are some of the most important training camp battles for the Steelers.

Running Back

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    Competitors: Le’Veon Bell, Jonathan Dwyer, Isaac Redman, LaRod Stephens-Howling, Baron Batch

    Pittsburgh’s rushing attack last season was nothing short of depressing. After Rashard Mendenhall fizzled out, neither Dwyer nor Redman stepped up and made a solid case for the starting job. 

    Because of their inability to earn the trust of the coaching staff, the running back position is now up for grabs in open competition. This is probably the most important training camp battle because it will determine how potent an entire half of the Steelers' offensive attack will be.

    Dwyer is a deceptively fast runner who can also run over opponents when necessary, while Redman is a pure power runner who has also been known to be a legitimate receiving threat.

    The Steelers brought in free-agent speedster Stephens-Howling to add more depth at the position, though he will probably end up replacing Chris Rainey on special teams duty. Batch will probably not make much of a splash in training camp. 

    Until proven otherwise, the starting running back job is Bell’s to lose. The Steelers drafted the Michigan State product to inject quickness and power to its backfield, and there is little doubt that Bell can provide both.

    The only way Bell will not start in Week 1 is if Dwyer somehow steals his starting job back. For now, count on Bell to emerge from training camp as the victor.

    Winner: Le’Veon Bell

5th Wide Receiver

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    Competitors: Plaxico Burress, David Gilreath, Justin Brown, Reggie Dunn, J.D. Woods

    Brown is the best receiver on Pittsburgh’s roster. There is no denying that.

    Emmanuel Sanders has the No. 2 wide receiver job secured. Rookie Markus Wheaton and veteran Jerricho Cotchery may duke it out for the third and fourth spots, but calling a situation where both players more or less have a roster spot locked down a battle is silly.

    The real fight will be to determine the fifth receiver. No matter what, the Steelers are stuck with a scrub here. There will not be much depth at wide receiver in Pittsburgh this year.

    The only guy of interest in this group, other than Plax, is Dunn, but he is better off trying to prove himself on special teams if he wants to make the team. Gilreath’s name has been floating around, but he hasn't done enough to make me believe he can usurp Plax.

    Sure, he may come with baggage and will turn 36 on Aug. 12, but Plax is still tall and, if nothing else, can be an end-zone threat. As we all know, Big Ben values tall wide receivers. Expect the Steelers to make Ben happy and give Plax one more shot in black and gold.

    Winner: Plaxico Burress

Tight End

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    Competitors: Matt Spaeth, David Paulson, David Johnson 

    We would not even be talking about Pittsburgh’s tight end situation if Heath Miller was healthy. Unfortunately, here we are.

    Until Miller gets back on his feet, the Steelers are stuck with these guys at tight end. This is not a terrible group, but none of them are as dynamic as the criminally underrated Miller.

    Anyway, Spaeth is the clear favorite here. The former Steeler knows the team well and has succeeded here before, though that was under Bruce Arian’s offense. There is no reason to believe he cannot succeed with Todd Haley, but it is something to think about.

    Paulson is young and a solid threat in the passing game, though his blocking leaves a little to be desired. Conversely, Johnson is a blocking ace who sometimes struggles in the passing game.

    It looks like Pittsburgh will be going with Spaeth next season. Personally, I hope Johnson comes out strong (he always does well for me in Madden), but unless that happens, the job is Spaeth’s to lose.

    Winner: Matt Spaeth

Offensive Tackels

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    Competitors: Marcus Gilbert, Mike Adams, Guy Whimper, Kelvin Beachum

    As always, Pittsburgh’s offensive line goes into training camp with a billion questions. The most pressing: Will the team discipline center Maurkice Pouncey for his “Free Hernandez” hat?

    That aside, Pouncey is by far the most talented player on the offensive line. Guards David DeCastro and Ramon Foster are basically guaranteed starting positions.

    It is the two outside tackles that are up in the air. Well, okay, Gilbert more or less has the left tackle spot in the bag, which leaves the right tackle spot in question. 

    Let us pretend for a second that Guy Whimper does not exist, as most defensive linemen tend to do when they go right through him to the quarterback.

    This leaves Adams and Beachum competing for the right tackle job. Conventional wisdom says Adams has the fast track here. But, you know what? I have faith in Beachum.

    He proved his mettle in his first career start, a Steelers victory against the Baltimore Ravens, where he kept Paul Kruger and Terrell Suggs from mauling Charlie Batch. If he can take on those guys without much help and succeed, he can block anyone.

    Adams is only successful when he has a tight end or running back helping him. Plus, he is recovering from a stab wound. Look for Beachum to advance to a starting position by the end of training camp. 

    Winners: Marcus Gilbert and Kelvin Beachum

Defensive End

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    Competitors: Ziggy Hood and Cameron Heyward 

    An aging Brett Keisel is the only sure thing on the defensive line. Steve McLendon will replace Casey Hampton at nose tackle, which should work out well for Pittsburgh. 

    The matchup to watch here is Hood versus Heyward. Neither of these guys are guaranteed anything and both have a lot to prove.

    Hood seems to have earned a reputation as an underachiever during his time with the Steelers. He has not been bad, but he has not lived up to the expectations of Steelers Nation. 

    Then again, neither has Heyward. But that is mostly because Hood has been hogging all his playing time. After last season, Tomlin will probably want to inject some fresh blood into the lineup.

    Since Hood and Heyward have similar skill sets, the desire to try something new will decide this battle. In this case, Heyward comes out on top by the luck of the draw. 

    Winner: Cameron Heyward

Outside Linebacker

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    Competitors: Jason Worilds and Jarvis Jones

    No one is touching Woodley’s starting spot, but the other outside linebacker job is up for grabs.

    Replacing James Harrison is a daunting task. The men up for the challenge are presumed starter Jason Worilds and rookie Jarvis Jones.

    No matter what, this is a fresh start for the position. In this case, the Steelers will probably opt to let the fresher face sit out a season and learn the ropes.

    Worilds has been a solid backup for Harrison and is poised to break out this season, if given starting duties. Jones will be a beast one day, but it will be best if he is given time to develop.

    Unless Jones completely overshadows Worilds during training camp, he will spend next season learning the Steeler way while getting some occasional playing time. 

    Winner: Jason Worilds

Punter

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    Competitors: Drew Butler and Brian Moorman 

    This certainly is not the sexiest training camp battle, but its importance should not be diminished. Field position is everything in football, and if the offense falters a punter who can pin his opponents deep in their own territory is highly valued. 

    Butler had a solid but unspectacular rookie season with the Steelers. The Steelers clearly want to push him, which is why they signed free agent Moorman.

    Moorman and new Steelers special teams coach Danny Smith were both with the Buffalo Bills from 2001-2003. That chemistry will likely be the difference in this battle.

    Butler may have youth on his side, but he needs to prove his reliability in order to keep his starting job. Moorman’s history with Smith should be enough to overlook his occasional inconsistency and give him the starting job.

    Winner: Brian Moorman