When a team that is fresh off a Super Bowl victory goes into their following season with 20 of 22 starters returning, it is hard to pinpoint where the position battles will ensue.
For the most part, returning players know their place and incoming rookies know that their chance of breaking into the starting lineup, or even seeing a significant amount of playing time, is scarce.
The Pittsburgh Steelers, fresh of an instant-classic caliber win against the Arizona Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII, lost only Larry Foote and Bryant McFadden from their starting lineup in the offseason, and enter the 2009 season with very lofty expectations.
In what will be one of the blandest mini-camps in recent memory, the Steelers have beyond adequate replacements ready to fill in for their departing starters, as well as enough depth to hint that their aspirations for this following season will go unfilled if they do anything other than hoist the Lombardi Trophy again at the end of the season.
There are, however, four position battles that will be worth watching, and a couple minor storylines that should keep things interesting in the hot summer weather of Latrobe at St. Vincent’s College.
The offensive side of the football is cluttered with one of the most solid arrays of talent in the NFL…once you get past the offensive line of course.
Pittsburghhas the potential to conceivably send four or five players to the Pro-Bowl in February with Ben Roethlisberger, Willie Parker, Hines Ward, Santonio Holmes and Heath Miller filling out their skill positions.
Their performances rely heavily on the success of the offensive line which, unless you have been kept out of the loop, is the known weak-point of the Steelers attack.
An interesting storyline that will monopolize much of the press this upcoming season is whether or not the front five of Max Starks, Chris Kemoeatu, Justin Hartwig, Darnell Stapleton and Willie Colon can build on last year and develop the cohesiveness necessary to turn one of the NFL’s weakest front five into the traditional stalwart unit that has paved the way for one of the most tenacious rushing attacks in NFL history.
Pittsburgh was not as active in the draft as initially suspected in regards to building depth at the offensive line position.
They selected two linemen in Wisconsin’s Kraig Urbik and 2008 Rimington Trophy winner, given annually to the player considered to be the best center in college football, A.Q. Shipley of Penn State; Shipley was voted the 2008 Big Ten Offensive Lineman of the Year as well.
Shipley will be an interesting rookie to watch develop. He scored a 40 on the Wunderlik Test, which is twice the NFL average, benched pressed 33 reps of 225 pounds (fifth among offensive linemen, measured a 31-inch vertical jump (eighth), ran a 7.46 in the three-cone drill (second) and a 4.40 in the 20-yard shuttle run (fifth).
Pittsburghmay have the steal of the draft in Shipley, he has all the athletic tools to succeed and the smarts to be the quarterback of the offensive line, but at 6’1”, 304 pounds, there is concern that he may be undersized against some of the league’s bigger nose tackles.
While the offensive line makes for an interesting storyline heading into the season, the most important position battle will be taking place amidst a group of individuals vying for a non-starting spot in trying to become the Steelers third option at wide receiver.
Position Battle No.1 – No.3 Wide Receiver
The Steelers boast the NFL’s first ever pair of Super Bowl MVP’s at wide receiver in Hines Ward (XL) and Santonio Holmes (XLIII).
Ward, perhaps the team’s all-time greatest receiver, continues to make the hard catches in heavy coverage, over the middle, while laying out vicious blocks that not only shatter jaws (my apologies for the painful reminder to Keith Rivers), but change NFL rules.
Holmes’ break-out game in the Super Bowl has him poised to emerge as Big Ben’s go-to-guy, as well as one of the AFC’s elite. His ability to create yards after the catch makes him a dangerous threat in the open field, and he has developed enough chemistry with Roethlisberger that he knows when to break-off a route and improvise as Ben scrambles.
The departure of Nate Washington has created a void in the deep passing game for Pittsburgh.
Washington had been a deep threat for Pittsburghfor three seasons, before signing a six-year 27 million dollar contract with Tennesseein the offseason, as he never averaged below 15.5 yards per catch in a season.
In 2008, Nate caught a pass of 48-yards or longer in four straight games; three straight with a reception of 50-yards or longer.
In seven of 16 regular season games Washington recorded a reception of 20-yards or longer en route to a 40-catch year with 631 yards and three touchdowns.
His ability to stretch the field enabled Holmes and Ward to catch balls underneath, Mewelde Moore to catch 40 balls out of the backfield for 320 yards and one score.
The 6’1”, 185lb Washington will be sorely missed, but the Steelers, as they consistently do on defense, should have no trouble plugging the hole with a completely capable cast of individuals ready to fill-in.
The prohibitive favorite to fill-in immediately is recently signed veteran Shaun McDonald.
For his career, McDonald has registered 220 receptions, 2,490 yards (11.3 average per catch) and 11 touchdowns.
His best season came in 2007, while with Detroit, when he hauled in 79 receptions for 943 yards and six touchdowns; he dropped off a bit last year, while only playing in 12 games, with 35 receptions, 332 yards and one touchdown.
In his 12 games last season, McDonald registered four or more receptions in six games.
The former two-time All-Pac 10 receiver, third team AP All-American, and Biletnikoff finalist was selected in the fourth round (106th overall) of the 2003 NFL entry draft by the Rams.
McDonald’s only disadvantage is his size. Standing at 5’10”, 183lbs, he would find himself looking up at Hines Ward (6’0”, 205lbs) and Santonio Holmes (5’11”, 192lbs).
His experience gives him an edge over the other men competing with him for the job, and he should find himself in the number three spot come opening day.
His primary competition for the role will come from 2008 second round pick (53rd overall) Limas Sweed.
Sweed had a bittersweet rookie campaign with Pittsburgh, becoming better known for his dropped balls and inability to grasp the playbook than the big-time potential he displayed while at Texas.
Sweed only caught six balls for 64 yards in a Steelers uniform last year while sporadically seeing the field; his first taste of NFL action came in the seventh week against Cincinnati where he registered one catch for 11 yards.
When asked to fill in for Hines Ward in the AFC Championship game, Sweed dropped a 50-yard bomb in the endzone after looking at the scoreboard as opposed to his hands; there was no one within 15 yards of him at the time; he subsequently laid on the field after his drop and cost the Steelers their final time-out before the half.
It was very reminiscent of that old Snickers commercial where the trainers asked the fallen football play what was hurt.
“My feelings,” he replied with a sniffle…as the deafening boo’s rang down upon Sweed after his drop, Steelers fans across the nation knew that he was more frustrated with himself than anyone at that given moment.
Sweed would redeem himself in the second half when he landed an absolutely crippling blow on Corey Ivy that sent Heinz Field into a frenzy.
While Sweed may be the long-term option at receiver, it will be up to him to make his case for playing time this season.
There will be little room for error in Pittsburgh, and Sweed will need to show that he can hold on to the ball before he is challenged to hold onto a significant role in the offense.
At 6’4”, 220lbs, Limas Sweed could be the big receiver that Pittsburgh has sought since the departure of Plaxico Burress.
Two other players will also be vying for a role in the Steelers passing game this season.
While not as publicly prominent as McDonald and Sweed, Dallas Baker and Mike Wallace will also be given opportunities to earn playing time in camp.
Baker, a seventh round pick (227 overall) out of Florida in 2007, has split time between the practice squad and the 53-man roster for Pittsburgh.
The former first team All-SEC standout played in eight games for the Steelers in 2008, registering only one catch for six yards.
At 6’3”, 206lbs Baker adds an element of size that only Sweed can match, but still has a lot of work to do if he hopes to play a significant role this upcoming season.
Mike Wallace, the team’s third round selection (84th overall) out of Ole Miss in this year’s draft will most likely be asked to fill a preeminent role on special teams returning kicks.
However, after recording 784 yards and seven touchdowns on only 39 receptions in the 2008 collegiate season, he only played in six games by the way, Wallace will warrant some looks at wide receiver.
In 2007, the 6’0” 199lb Wallace saw action in all 12 of Ole Miss’ games, with nine starts at slot receiver, and recorded 716 yards with two 100-yard games, seven catches of at least 40-yards or more, three catches of 50-yards or more, was first in the SEC in yards per catch at 18.8 and was named to the third-team all-SEC.
The credentials are there, and you can rest assured that he will be given a chance to lay his claim to a spot on the offense.
This battle, for all intensive purposes, will come down to Limas Sweed and Shaun McDonald.
McDonald will most likely have the spot on opening day, but don’t be surprised if come the season’s end that Limas Sweed has earned a spot alongside Santonio Holmes and Hines Ward.
Position Battle No.2 – Mewelde Moore vs. Rashard Mendenhall
In 2008 the Pittsburgh Steelers selected Rashard Mendenhall with the 23rd overall selection in the first round.
Expected to be a compliment to Willie Parker, the 5’10”, 225lb Mendenhall was expected to get the tough yards up the middle and take the big-bruising place of Jerome Bettis.
Fumbling problems in the preseason limited Mendenhall’s role early on, and at one point he was forced to carry a football around for an entire week after Hines Ward taped a note to the ball saying, “Take Mendenhall’s ball and he’ll pay you 100 bucks!”
In 2007, while at the University of Illinois, Mendenhall earned first team all-Big 10 and Big 10 Offensive Player of the Year honors after racking up 1,681 rushing yards (6.4 average), 17 rushing touchdowns, 318 receiving yards and two receiving touchdowns.
Initially considered a top-ten talent, Mendenhall fell down the draft board to Pittsburgh who stuck with a tradition of selecting the best player available.
The Illinois standout would carry the ball 19 times for 58 yards in 2008 as he would suffered a fractured shoulder at the hands of Ray Lewis in the Steelers fourth game of the season; Mendenhall got the start in this game after Willie Parker went down with an injury the prior week.
When Mendenhall went down, it was Mewelde Moore that would step in and play perhaps the biggest role of any Steeler in their quest for a Super Bowl.
The 5’11”, 209lb Moore was a fourth round pick (119th overall) out of Tulane; Moore was the second player in NCAA Division I history to rush for 4,000 yards and record 2,000 yards receiving.
He arrived in Pittsburgh after spending his first four seasons with the Minnesota Vikings.
He finished the 2008 season with 140 carries for 588 yards and five touchdowns; he would also register 40 receptions for 320 yards and one score.
While his numbers are not staggering by any means, Moore may have been the team’s MVP for the role he played after Parker and Mendenhall were forced to miss extended time with injuries.
In the six games he was asked to carry, or assist a returning Parker in carrying the load for Pittsburgh, Moore carried the ball 107 times for 483 yards.
If not for Moore’s contributions during the Steelers time of need, it is highly doubtful that Pittsburgh would have remained an elite team in the AFC.
These two payers will be battling it out for the right to be Parker’s backup, as well as the third-down back, again.
This battle will all but come down to the progress that Mendenhall shows in recovery from his injury, and his ability to hold onto the ball on the field.
Moorehas the experience and has shown what he is capable of doing, and any improvements he can show will certainly help his cause, but the uber-talented Mendenhall could provide an upgrade in short yardage situations, something that haunted Pittsburgh all season, and take a considerable load off the shoulders of Willie Parker.
Position BattleNo.3 – William Gay vs. Keiwan Ratliff
Pound-for-pound this is the most even matchup of any position battle that could take place in Steelers training camp.
All indications are that this is William Gay’s job to lose, but the offseason acquisition of Ratliff should create a situation similar to that of the place-kicker every year.
Pittsburgh brought in a guy to challenge and push Gay in order to see if he is ready to take over as a starter in Dick LeBeau’s vaunted defense.
Ratliff is no slouch however, and could very well steal this job right out from underneath Gay’s nose if he is not up to snuff.
Gay, a fifth round pick (170thoverall) in 2007 saw significant playing time last year after injuries forced Bryant McFadden and DeShea Townsend out of the lineup.
The Louisvilleproduct filled in admirably, and showed enough potential that Steelers management allowed McFadden to sign with Arizonain the offseason.
Gay registered 41 tackles and one interception in 2008, and that one interception locked up the division title in Baltimore in week 15.
At 5’10”, 190lbs Gay has enough size to hold his own on the line, and has shown enough quickness to allow Steelers fans to feel comfortable with him taking over as a starter.
Gay was as close to a shutdown corner as Pittsburgh had all season last year during his time filling in, and barring a total mental collapse in training camp, he should find himself in the starting lineup.
However, nothing is a given in the NFL, and in the spirit of Herm Edwards’ “You play to win the game” rant, Pittsburgh brought in capable opposition to challenge Gay for that starting role.
With DeShea Townsend being relegated to mostly nickel and dime packages towards the tail end of his career, granted he is more than capable of filling in as the starter but he is better preserved in this manner, Keiwan Ratliff will offer the chief competition for William Gay in Steelers training camp.
Ratliff has quite the collegiate resume to his credit, as he accumulated numerous individual accolades in 2003 including a first-team all-SEC selection, first team All-American selection, the Sporting News SEC Defensive Player of the Year and a spot on the ballot as a Thorpe Award finalist, given annually to the player considered the top defensive back in all of college football, Ratliff’s pro-career has been that of a journeyman to say the best.
After being drafted by Cincinnati in the second round (49th overall) of 2004, and spending three seasons with the Bengals, Ratliff moved on to Tampa Bay, where he spent 16 days with the Buccaneers, Indianapolis for one season and now finds himself on the defending Super Bowl Champions.
The 5’11”, 188lb Ratliff had 32 tackles and two interceptions for the Colts last season, one against Pittsburgh, and has been continually trying to find a niche in the NFL that would allow him to return to his collegiate form.
Ratliff is well-traveled, as well as very experienced, but it may take him some time to learn the complicated schemes of a LeBeau defense.
However, while he might not find himself in the starting lineup, granted he has the ability, he is a beyond satisfactory addition that should provide some depth the NFL’s top rated passing defense.
Position Battle No.4 – LawrenceTimmons vs. Himself
Lawrence Timmons will start opposite James Farrior as an interior linebacker for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2009, and the duo of James Harrison and Lamar Woodley will continue to flank the outside edges.
This tetrad of linebackers will be the focal point of LeBeau’s zone blitz schemes once again in 2009, and the athleticism that oozes from this quartet makes them among the best linebacking core in the NFL.
Larry Foote, the starting interior linebacker for the Steelers last season, got his wish and is out of Pittsburgh; he signed with his hometown Detroit Lions.
Foote, it should be noted, wanted out of Pittsburghdue to the increased playing time that Timmons was receiving.
The 6’1”, 234lb first round (15th overall) selection from Florida State earned it, period.
The success of this linebacking contingent will hinge greatly on Timmons ability to take the next step in his career.
After seeing time in all 16 games as a rookie, his time increased last season and he finished with 65 tackles, five sacks, one forced fumble and one memorable 89-yard interception return against the New England Patriots.
Timmons is the perfect mix of a defensive back’s athleticism, mixed with a safety’s speed and a defensive end’s strength all in the ideal package of a middle linebacker’s frame.
His progression is on par with many of history’s great linebackers, and he appears to be the next in what is a long lineage of Pittsburgh Steelers Pro-Bowl caliber linebackers.
Timmons will be virtually unopposed for the starting position in the Steelers 3-4 scheme, but that’s not to say he won’t have people vying to push him to his limits.
There will be several young studs trying to make a name for themselves in Pittsburgh’s training camp this season, they include, but are not limited to, Patrick Bailey (the teams rookie of the year last season), Donovan Woods, Bruce Davis, Arnold Harrison, Andre Frazier and Keyaron Fox.
Many of these men will find themselves on the Steelers special teams however, as the main obstacle awaiting Timmons is himself.
Lawrence Olajuwon Timmons, named after NBA great Hakeem, knows the system and what will be asked of him.
All that is left is for him to avoid any kind of letdown and continue to build on the success he has experienced in his young career.
Other things to watch for in Steelers training camp
As stated previously, a Super Bowl winning team returning 20 of 22 starters, with replacements already in place, will lack a lot of drama in training camp.
Players and coaches alike know what to anticipate when they take the field at St. Vincent’s College in Latrobe, PA.
There will be, however, a few other interesting things to watch come July and August.
Daniel Sepulveda may be the most important Steeler returning from injury this upcoming season. After Paul Ernster and Mitch Berger combined for the second worst punting season of any team in the NFL, Sepulveda will be looked upon to once again upgrade the glaring weakness on the Steelers roster.
The high-praise that first round selection Evander Hood has received from collegiate teammates and coaches has been well documented in Pittsburgh.
While his chances to see significant time are slim, they typically are for first round defensive linemen in Pittsburgh, he will have a chance to learn from one of the best in Aaron Smith.
His development will lie squarely on the shoulders of assistant coach John Mitchell, and with the depth and experience on the Pittsburgh defensive line he should have a full season to watch, learn and prepare for his sophomore campaign.
Mike Wallace, who is a long shot to see time at wide receiver, will be looked to in hopes of adding some speed to a weak return game.
Pittsburghdoes not want to risk injury to Super Bowl MVP Santonio Holmes, and the duo of Carey Davis and Gary Russell does not provide the Steelers with a true return man capable of break a big return.
With a returning Rashard Mendenhall, Mewelde Moore’s history of returning kicks in Minnesota (he still holds many punt return records for the Vikings) and Mike Wallace providing some depth, Davis and Russell could be in danger of losing their spot on the roster.
The Steelers do not have many holes to fill, after all they did win the Super Bowl will virtually the same team they will field to open the 2009 season.
There are, however, a few things to keep an eye on in Steelers training camp as Pittsburgh looks to hoist the Lombardi Trophy for a seventh time, make another run at defensive history and fully establish themselves as the NFL’s premier organization.