4 Big Areas of Concern for Pittsburgh Steelers Heading into Training Camp
The team has gone through a dramatic makeover after its second straight .500 season. Numerous vets have been shown the door and have been replaced with fresh, young talent.
What will come of the many moves the team made this offseason isn’t yet clear. Jarvis Jones and Jason Worilds are slated to take over the spots that James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley dominated from mere seasons ago. Can they handle that pressure?
More importantly, can they bring the pressure?
Of course, some concerns facing the Steelers are all too familiar. Pittsburgh’s offensive line has been a sieve for the better part of a decade. Can the Steelers build on a strong end to last season?
Read on to learn more about these issues.
Cameron Heyward, a 2011 first-round pick, emerged in a big way with 59 tackles and five sacks in ’13. He’ll be uncontested as the right defensive end.
There is some uncertainty opposite Heyward, though. Free-agent signee Cam Thomas is currently slotted in the spot after playing nose tackle for four seasons in San Diego. He started a career-high 10 games last season, but he was reduced to a rotational role in the Chargers’ season-ending four-game win streak.
That doesn't necessarily mean that reducing Thomas’ role kick started the turnaround, but it is telling that the Chargers didn’t give up more than 24 points in that stretch. In their previous 12 contests they ceded that figure six times.
Behind Thomas, rookie Stephon Tuitt is vying for playing time. Tuitt has much higher upside, but an injury-related weight gain led to a lackluster ’13 season and a slide to the second round of the 2014 NFL draft.
Per SB Nation’s Neal Coolong, Tuitt has the potential to figure into the Steelers defense in Week 1. Now it’s just a matter of the mental aspects of his game catching up to his physical gifts.
A team that’s been known for nasty defenses and sacks aplenty has underwhelmed in recent seasons. In fact, the Steelers haven’t recorded more than 37 sacks in the past three years. It’s no coincidence that they haven’t won a playoff game in that time either.
As of now, there doesn’t look to be a James Harrison or Joey Porter-esque player on the roster, but that’s not to say they don’t have enough capable rushers to show marked improvement. As is per usual with a Dick LeBeau defense, it depends on the outside linebackers.
2010 second-rounder Jason Worilds broke out to the tune of eight sacks last season. He’s been signed to a one-year transition tag and should be out to prove that his big season wasn’t a fluke as he simultaneously hunts quarterbacks and a big extension.
Opposite Worilds is second-year man Jarvis Jones. He actually began last season ahead of Worilds, but largely inconsistent play saw him in and out of the lineup. The physical talent that saw Jones dominate at Georgia is still there, but his game needs to make a big leap.
Obviously, injuries affect every team in the NFL; still, some are tougher to overcome than others. Mike Tomlin may preach, “The standard is the standard," but there’s no way to truly replace a franchise player.
With that being said, there a few men who the Steelers would be hard-pressed to replace in 2014. Losing Antonio Brown would cripple the passing offense. And without Lawrence Timmons, the linebacking corps would become dangerously inexperienced.
Heath Miller, Maurkice Pouncey and Troy Polamalu have combined for 13 Pro Bowls and have all missed significant time with injury. The Steelers' odds of winning are greatly increased when all of the aforementioned men are on the field.
Only one man, however, is absolutely needed for the team to contend: Ben Roethlisberger.
Roethlisberger started all 16 games for just the second time in his 10-year career last season. Once out of every five years doesn’t necessarily indicate that he is poised to do so again.
One thing fans can hang their hat on is that Roethlisberger has never missed more than four games in any season due to injury. That’s good because extended playing time for Bruce Gradkowski, who hasn’t started a game in three seasons, would result in disappointment.
To say the Steelers offensive line has been a trouble spot over the past few years would be generous. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has been planted at least 40 times in six of the past eight seasons. The two exceptions are from years in which he missed at least three games.
2013 began in the same vein that the numbers above suggest. Pittsburgh gave up multiple sacks in each of its first nine contests. The Steelers failed to eclipse 100 team rushing yards in six of those nine games as well.
Something seemed to click in the second half of the year, though. Roethlisberger took just seven sacks in the final seven games, a far cry from the nearly four per game he took in the first half. Rookie running back Le'Veon Bell benefited from the turn around as well, topping 4.0 yards per carry in four of his final five games.
What ignited this improved play is unclear. With two first- and two-second round linemen on the roster, it’s evident that Pittsburgh’s line has the pedigree to excel. If anyone can help the group maintain its solid closing stretch into next season, it should be new offensive line coach Mike Munchak.