There is a lot of uncertainty surrounding the Pittsburgh Steelers going into the 2013 season.
After missing the playoffs last year and losing some big-name players in the offseason, the preseason will be crucial for the Steelers.
Pittsburgh has many questions it needs answered before the regular season kicks off. The preseason is the perfect time to let their rookies play and experiment on both sides of the ball.
As the Steelers kick off their preseason schedule, fans should pay close attention to how the running game shapes up, the play of Markus Wheaton, the success of the secondary, how the offensive line performs and the battle between Jason Worilds and Jarvis Jones for a starting job.
How the Running Game Shapes Up
The Pittsburgh Steelers averaged only 96.1 yards per game on the ground last season and lost their starting running back in the offseason.
This means all eyes will be on Le'Veon Bell when the preseason kicks off.
The Steelers selected Bell with their second-round pick in the 2013 NFL draft and have high expectations for the rookie out of Michigan State.
The Steelers lacked versatility in their running game last year. Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer are both downhill power backs. This lack of versatility caused the Steelers to have only three games all year in which a running back broke the 100-yard mark.
As Colin Dunlap of CBS Pittsburgh writes, Bell should be able to change that because he possesses the physical abilities to add versatility to their running attack:
At 6-feet-1-inch, 244-pounds, Bell is a brawny back who has the ability to run behind a guard to grit out the tough yards, but also showed a counterbalance at Michigan State, where he was just as apt to bounce the play to the edge and make yards along the hashmarks.
The Steelers' ability to run the ball will be crucial to this season's success. They need to establish who will be their starter and how the offense can be best suited for his success as soon as possible.
The Play of Markus Wheaton
Throughout Ben Roethlisberger's career, he has always liked to have a tall, fast receiver who he can lob the ball downfield to.
With the departure of Mike Wallace in the offseason, it is unclear if Big Ben will have that go-to guy in 2013.
The Steelers selected Markus Wheaton in the 2013 NFL draft with the hope that he can stretch the field and become that go-to guy for Roethlisberger.
His quickness is blatant and dangerous. Whether taking off from the slot or outside, his feet are literally a step ahead of his defender on everything from speed outs, crossers, to jerk routes. Displays the flexibility to grab throws behind him or over his shoulder when running deep.
Fans should keep an eye on how Wheaton performs in the preseason because he could be an X-factor in the offense in 2013.
The key for Wheaton will be how quickly he can understand the offense so he can be in the right place to make plays. As the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review has reported, though, that shouldn't be a problem.
The Success of the Secondary
While the secondary won't really be tested until the third game of the preseason, their success is something to watch throughout the next month.
The Steelers had the best passing defense in the league last year, but due to their loss of Keenan Lewis this offseason it might be difficult for them to maintain that success.
The Steelers expect Cortez Allen to fill Lewis' shoes. Unfortunately, it took just a short time into training camp for Allen to go down with a knee injury.
Behind Allen and Ike Taylor, the Steelers don't have a lot of proven depth.
That makes the preseason vital. Pittsburgh needs to get their cornerbacks as much game experience as possible.
Overall, the secondary is young.
Terry Hawthorne and Shamarko Thomas are rookies while Ross Ventrone, Curtis Brown and DeMarcus Van Dyke all have three years or less of NFL experience.
Performance of the Offensive Line
The Steelers' offensive line comes into the 2013 season as one of the most talented groups in recent memory.
Veterans Maurkice Pouncey, Marcus Gilbert and Ramon Foster will work alongside second-year players David DeCastro and Mike Adams.
The concern for the offensive line, though, is their depth.
As Dale Grdnic of SB Nation writes, this lack of depth is a major concern going forward due to the Steelers' history of injury:
With 20 different offensive line combinations to start games the past three seasons — which must be some kind of record, one would think — the chances are that someone will get injured along the way. So, standing pat and hoping that the front five stay healthy is like betting that you'll draw an ace for that Royal Flush. Sure, it could happen, but the odds are heavily against you.
Fans need to watch the offensive line for two reasons.
They mainly need to watch and cross their fingers that nobody goes down with an injury. They also need to watch to see how the young, unproven backups perform.
Battle Between Jason Worilds and Jarvis Jones for Starting ROLB
James Harrison left a big hole in the Steelers' pass rush when he left this offseason for Cincinnati. It will be up to Jones or Worilds to fill Harrison's shoes.
ESPN currently shows Jarvis Jones as the starter at right outside linebacker going into Week 1 of the preseason.
This is by no means set in stone, however, and is a position battle that needs to be watched as the preseason unfolds.
While Worilds has four years of experience working in Dick LeBeau's system, the rookie Jones has more upside.
Don Banks of SI.com writes that Jones has had an impressive camp so far:
Jones, meanwhile, is off to an impressive start in his first Steelers camp, showing good instincts and feel for the game, doing a fair J.J. Watt impersonation with several batted down passes, and flashing the speed, athleticism and strength it takes to collapse the pocket and stand out in pass rush drills. The day I visited Steelers camp, Jones was particularly impressive in the "backs on backers'' drill, where linebackers take turns blitzing a quarterback, while a stationary running back or tight end is tasked with blitz pickup duties. Jones won almost all of his battles, earning some notice from both teammates and coaches.
Jones has a lot of expectations riding on him, as he is the highest drafted outside linebacker in Steelers history.
It would appear he has the edge on Worilds but anything can happen.
The only thing that's certain is whoever wins this position battle will have a major impact on the success of the Steelers' defense in 2013.
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