While New York may have been their biggest competition, it was not their most important competition. That honor goes to the position battles that reached another level as they went from the practice field to Heinz Field.
In the end, no one will remember the 18-13 loss, but what was learned in the position battles will have a lasting impact on the upcoming season.
With one preseason game under the Steelers’ belt, here is an updated look at the top training-camp battles.
Note: All stats for this article are via ESPN.com.
Starting Running Back
Candidates: Isaac Redman, Jonathan Dwyer, Le’Veon Bell
While everyone wanted to see Bell in action, missing the game did not hurt his position on the depth chart. In fact, his stock is on the rise after sitting out.
Isaac Redman started and carried the ball on the first two plays from scrimmage for seven yards. That was it for him as LaRod Stephens-Howling stepped onto the field.
It was a bit of a surprise that Jonathan Dwyer did not work with the starters and, instead, followed Stephens-Howling. But when he got in, he did not make the most of his opportunity, as he was unable to make a significant impact.
Dwyer’s longest carry went for 11 yards on a play in which he showed a good burst to get to the outside. However, the rest of the night did not go well as he gained only four yards on his next five carries.
With only two receptions on five targets, Dwyer was disappointing in the passing game as well. He had a couple of drops and was part of an offense that had trouble executing a screen pass.
At this point, Redman is ahead of Dwyer on the depth chart, and Bell should be as well. It should only be a matter of time before Bell earns the starting job, but he must prove himself in a game first. Until then, Redman will be the starter.
Starting Right Outside Linebacker
Candidates: Jason Worilds, Jarvis Jones
The first true test for the outside linebackers came and went without seeing anything spectacular.
Jason Worilds had three tackles and a sack, but was otherwise a non-factor. In other words, it was one of his typical performances.
There was not much action from Worilds when playing on the right side. He recorded his sack once he switched to left outside linebacker.
The sack came on a designed screen which was sniffed out by Cameron Heyward. This caused David Carr to hesitate, and Worilds came in freely to make a sack. While it was encouraging to see him make a play, it was his teammate who made it happen.
Besides his sack, Worilds caught the attention of Mike Tomlin for two dumb personal-foul penalties near the end of the first half.
After the second, Tomlin called Worilds off the field, and you could make out the words “that’s stupid” coming out of his mouth.
It is understandable if the penalties were the result of hustle and trying to make a play. But these weren’t “hustle penalties.” They were the result of a lack of discipline, and Worilds needs to be better than that.
Jones was not much better once he entered the game, as he finished with two tackles and a fumble recovery.
A lot was made of the fumble recovery, but he did not cause the fumble. I will give him credit for being in position to pounce on the loose ball. Besides this, he was not particularly active in the backfield, particularly when it came to generating pressure on the quarterback.
That is an issue since this is where the Steelers need him to come up big.
There were a number of times that Jones was close to making a tackle behind the line, but the fact remains, he did not make the plays. Another problem he had was setting the edge when defending the run.
Part of his problem is, he lacks the strength to shed blocks, and he must continue to work on his pass-rushing moves. So far, he lacks in this area.
However, Jones did show that once he gets a feel for the speed of the game and builds strength, he should be a good player. He is at least a year away from being where he needs to be, but that should be expected.
Given his experience and knowledge of the defense, Worilds is still in the lead for the starting job at right outside linebacker, but Jones can continue to push him if he continues to improve each week and improve on his pass rush.
It is almost certain that Worilds will enter the season as a starter, but once Jones improves rushing the passer, he should get some time in a specialized pass-rusher role on the defense.
Candidates: Drew Butler, Brian Moorman
The battle for the punting job remains status quo, as Drew Butler continues to outperform Brian Moorman with a solid outing against the Giants.
Butler continued to show he has the stronger leg. Against New York, he averaged 48 yards on two punts. While he has the lead, this battle isn’t over quite yet.
Over the course of training camp, Butler has been inconsistent with his distance. He also does not put a high arc on his punts which decreases the hang time on the ball. This provides the returner with more time and space for returns.
Moorman has terrific hang time, but has been inconsistent with his distance, and this showed on Saturday. He averaged only 43.8 yards per punt.
Butler maintains his lead, and as long as he continues to have a higher average than Moorman, he will keep his job. Remember, he is still young and has plenty of room to improve while Moorman is on the downside of his career.
Candidates: Mike Adams, Marcus Gilbert, Kelvin Beachum
Mike Adams performed well at left tackle in training camp, and he had a strong start there in the preseason opener.
Adams did not give up a sack and was a force in the run game. His real test will come when he has to match up against a speed rusher.
Marcus Gilbert was not as impressive as Adams, but still had a pretty good showing in his first game. He performed pretty well while paving the way for the ground game, particularly on one play in which he sealed the edge nicely for LaRod Stephens-Howling. He was not perfect, but he played at the level we have become accustomed to over his first two seasons.
Kelvin Beachum only worked with the backups and still figures to be the top backup at tackle and guard. He did not have a bad performance, but was a part of a backup offensive line that struggled.
As the rest of camp progresses, it will be worth keeping an eye on Beachum’s role on the line. If the coaching staff continues to move him around, he will likely get slotted into the backup role. However, if he gets some snaps with the first-team offense in a game, then he will be in competition with Gilbert for the right tackle job.
So far, he only has received time with the starters in practice when he participated at right tackle during the final 11-on-11 session on Thursday.
But after one preseason game, the starting offensive line appears to be in place with Adams at left tackle and Gilbert at right tackle. It is time to move forward with this line and allow them to develop as a unit.
Backup Tackle: Outside of Kelvin Beachum, the Steelers lack quality at tackle behind the starters. That did not change after one preseason game. Pittsburgh’s front office should keep an eye on the free-agent market for other options. If I had to pick one of the backups to make it, I’d take a risk on Joe Long, but the coaches will likely want a veteran and go with Guy Whimper.
Backup Wide Receiver: Plaxico Burress’ torn rotator cuff opened the door for a number of young receivers to make the roster as the No. 5 option.
Justin Brown was the most productive with four receptions on Saturday, including one in which he came back to a bad pass to make a tough catch. He has had a solid camp and is currently the favorite, but he will have to fend off tough competition from Derek Moye and J.D. Woods.
Backup Running Back: LaRod Stephens-Howling erased any concerns about his play with a strong showing against the Giants. He had seven carries for 40 yards and looked very good in the process. The final roster spot should come down to Jonathan Dwyer and Baron Batch. Dwyer had a rough opener to his preseason, but is still the more talented back and should beat out Batch.
Backup Nose Tackle: After beginning training camp on the PUP list, Alameda Ta’amu turned some heads with his performance on Saturday night. He had two tackles, including one for a loss.
In addition to this, he showed his power by getting a push into the backfield. That did not mean he didn’t struggle at times. There were plays that he was easily blocked by one lineman. However, he performed well enough to take the lead over Hebron Fangupo for the backup nose tackle spot.
Backup Outside Linebacker: Outside of the top three outside linebackers, there will be a good battle for what may be the final spot—or two—between Chris Carter, Alan Baxter and Adrian Robinson.
Given the injury history with LaMarr Woodley and Jason Worilds, it is a good bet Carter makes the team. It is a tight battle between Baxter and Robinson, but I give the early edge to Robinson considering he has one year of experience.
Backup Cornerback: There are too many injuries to fairly assess this position, but Isaiah Green had a strong showing on Saturday with tight coverage and one pass defended. He has taken advantage of his opportunities and is a sleeper to make the roster.
Third-String Quarterback: Neither Landry Jones nor John Parker Wilson performed well against New York. Wilson is the better quarterback right now, but Jones has potential to get better. After their initial performance, odds are that the Steelers go with potential and keep their fourth-round draft pick.
Punt and Kick Returners: It is too early to tell, but David Gilreath may have taken himself out of contention with a fumbled punt. Reggie Dunn had plenty of opportunities and jumped to the top of my list after he had a 19-yard punt returner. At this point, I would rather see the team take a risk on a potentially special player than play it safe.
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