Since breaking out the pads last Monday, Tomlin had his team tackling during 11-on-11 drills each day of the week. It is a strategy that hasn’t been used since Chuck Noll was head coach.
Not only did Tomlin establish a physical tone to the start of camp, he brought about a competitive nature as players could truly showcase what they are capable of. Live tackling is a lot different than the usual camp wrap-up tackles.
The live drills helped give us a better look at the training camp battles heading into the preseason opener against the New York Giants.
Here is an updated look at the top training camp battles.
Note: All depth chart information is from the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Candidates: Isaac Redman, Jonathan Dwyer, Le’Veon Bell
After two days in shorts, Isaac Redman was the clear leader to start at running back. He looked quick and strong as he showed terrific burst when carrying the football. However, that all changed once the pads came on.
Le’Veon Bell has shown why the Steelers invested a second-round draft pick on him as he has been the best running back in 11-on-11 drills.
With the offensive line incorporating the outside zone-blocking scheme, Bell is the only viable option that is a true fit.
Redman is a power runner and is best in between the tackles. He hasn’t shown the ability to be able to cut back and has been stopped in the backfield on the outside stretch plays.
Jonathan Dwyer has enough speed to get to the outside, but he does not have the same burst or strength as Bell.
During my camp visits, I have watched Bell get to the edge, cut it back as well as make his own yardage with his size and power. He has had some of the biggest runs during team drills and is not afraid to lower his shoulder.
Besides his running ability, Bell has excellent hands out of the backfield and can make plays happen while in space. He has had a lot of passes go his way and has made the most of them. In addition to this, his pass-blocking has improved.
Bell may currently be buried deep on the depth chart, but it is only a matter of time before he enters the starting lineup.
Leader: Le'Veon Bell
Candidates: Jason Worilds, Jarvis Jones
Football in shorts was not kind to Jarvis Jones.
He looked lost in coverage and wasn’t able to show what he is truly capable of. But once he put on his pads, a switch appeared to go off in Jones’ head and he began to play like a first-round pick.
Though he has room to grow in all areas of his game, Jones began to show his playmaking ability by getting to the quarterback and coming around the back edge to make a stop in the ground game.
However, Jones’ best play came when he batted a pass straight up in the air and caught it for the interception. It isn’t often that you see a linebacker from the Steelers make that type of play.
But as good as Jones has looked, he still has some tough competition with Jason Worilds.
Worilds is bigger and stronger than Jones, which should aid him when defending the run. He is more comfortable while dropping into coverage, but he is still limited as a pass-rusher.
Another problem with Worilds is his injury history. He has had problems over his career staying healthy and has already experienced a toe injury in this camp.
Saturday night will show us the type of progress that each linebacker has made. Even though Jones is beginning to shine, he hasn’t passed up the experienced Worilds quite yet.
Leader: Jason Worilds
Candidates: Drew Butler, Brian Moorman
Drew Butler is at the top of the depth chart, but Brian Moorman is giving it his all to pass him up.
Moorman has excellent hang time on his punts, which will really help the coverage units get downfield and in position to make the tackle. He has also been very consistent and has average power.
Butler potentially has more power behind his kicks and has really sent some deep. But he still occasionally shanks one, which should remind everyone of his inconsistencies last season.
The arc on Butler’s punts isn’t quite as high, but he has shown improvement and has the opportunity to get even better.
As many kicks as I have seen in practice, it is much different when the punters are in live action at Heinz Field. This is really when you can evaluate a punter’s consistency.
Up to this point, both punters have their strengths, but it is the younger Butler’s job to lose right now.
Leader: Drew Butler
Candidates: Mike Adams, Marcus Gilbert, Kelvin Beachum
In a moderately surprising move, quite a battle has emerged at tackle.
Late last week, Tomlin moved Mike Adams from right to left tackle, leaving Marcus Gilbert to compete with Kelvin Beachum on the right side.
Adams had potential to be the left tackle of the future when the Steelers drafted him in the second round last season. However, to say that he struggled at that position during his rookie training camp would be a vast understatement.
The good news is that Adams has been much better in his second camp. He has decent feet and is a powerful presence in the ground game. The problem will be how he matches up against speed rushers.
While the move may be good for Adams, it is not a positive sign for Gilbert.
If the coaches were confident with Gilbert, he wouldn’t have been shifted to right tackle. Even with his experience there, he is not a lock to earn the starting job.
Beachum had a successful stint at right tackle as a rookie and has impressed the coaching staff enough to backup all five offensive line positions.
Given the recent moves, Adams appears to have a strong lead for the left tackle job and Gilbert the edge at right. Beachum’s value as a versatile backup cannot be understated at this point, but I would not be surprised if he eventually beats out Gilbert.
Leaders: Mike Adams (left tackle), Marcus Gilbert (right tackle)
Backup Tackle: No backup tackle has stood out yet, but I have been happy with what I’ve seen from Joe Long. Granted, he has been going up against third or fourth stringers. Guy Whimper and newly signed D’Anthony Batiste will also compete for the job. As of right now, I have Long and Whimper making the team as backups at left and right tackle, respectively.
Backup Wide Receiver: Markus Wheaton is coming on fast and could be the slot receiver before the midpoint of the season if he continues to develop at the pace that he has been on. But as much as many would like to see that, Jerricho Cotchery is a dependable veteran and is still the No. 3 for the time being. Plaxico Burress still has a hold on the fifth spot, but Justin Brown could take that over if he can return punts. David Gilreath has a decent shot as well.
Backup Running Back: After a week of training camp, it appears as though Bell and Redman are locks for the team. LaRod Stephens-Howling has shown a lot as well as a potential third-down back and returner and should have a spot as well. Considering I favor talent when filling out a roster, Dwyer should be an easy choice over Baron Batch for the final spot on the roster.
Backup Nose Tackle: Hebron Fangupo has not looked bad backing up Steve McLendon and has actually made some plays in the backfield. However, this battle is incomplete as Alameda Ta’amu was activated off of the PUP list on Monday. Fangupo leads this battle by default.
Backup Outside Linebacker: Jarvis Jones is a lock for a backup job and odds are that Chris Carter and his experience will earn a job as well. However, according to Dale Lolley, it appears as though Alan Baxter has passed up last year’s camp phenom, Adrian Robinson.
Backup Cornerback: With injuries to Cortez Allen, Curtis Brown, DeMarcus Van Dyke and Terry Hawthorne, this battle is far from complete. Josh Victorian has had plenty of opportunities to step up and make his mark.
Third-String Quarterback: Landry Jones looks like a fourth-round rookie quarterback and it has not been pretty. While he has a decent arm, he has had some accuracy issues where he has bounced the ball before getting to the receiver or just flat out missed him. John Parker Wilson has been surprisingly good and has earned the third-string role so far.
Punt and Kick Returners: Emmanuel Sanders is the top kick returner and Antonio Brown the top punt returner so far. I don’t know if we’ll see them as the returners by the time the season starters. I expect Stephens-Howling to eventually take over as the kick returner unless Reggie Dunn absolutely shines. David Gilreath and Markus Wheaton are listed behind Brown, which is not a good early sign for Justin Brown making the roster as a returner.