Updating Pittsburgh Steelers Key Position Battles Early in Training Camp

Chris Gazze@ChrisG_PITCorrespondent IJuly 28, 2014

Updating Pittsburgh Steelers Key Position Battles Early in Training Camp

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    Chris Gazze

    Shorts and helmets were all that members of the Pittsburgh Steelers had on for the opening weekend of training camp. It was a relatively easy transition into what will a demanding three weeks of practice under the hot summer sun.

    While the physical nature of football was lacking during the first weekend of camp, the mental preparation and competition was not. That is exactly how Mike Tomlin likes it, per Teresa Varley of Steelers.com

    I know that I’m excited about seeing some of these guys play and seeing what they are capable of and I know that they are excited about showing what they are capable of, and really the only way to do that is to play football.

    I enjoy the spring and summer but that’s the spring and the summer. Now (that) we are here in training camp we are going to do what we do in this type (of) setting, which is compete.

    Competition is key to building a deep roster, something that the Steelers lacked last season. There are 90 players competing for only 53 jobs with at least 35 of those spots already locked into place. That makes for many intense battles to earn a spot on the roster.

    The Steelers may have just started camp, but camp battles have already begun to take shape. Here is an early look at the top position battles in training camp after the opening weekend of practices.

Cam Thomas vs. Stephon Tuitt

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    Stephon Tuitt lines up at left defensive end.
    Stephon Tuitt lines up at left defensive end.Chris Gazze

    The Steelers are without three of their top four defensive ends from 2013, leaving a gaping hole in the starting lineup. With Cameron Heyward shifting to right end, there is a budding competition between Cam Thomas and Stephon Tuitt for the starting job on the left side.

    After two days of practice, Thomas is running with the first-team defense, which is not a surprise. His NFL experience gives him an edge over the rookie Tuitt. At 6’4” and 330 pounds, he has the size to stuff the run, but he does not look the part of a traditional end in the Steelers’ system.

    That is not the case for Tuitt. The 6’5” and 303-pound rookie appears to be in great shape for a big man and will have the opportunity to display his strength and athleticism on Monday when the team undergoes its first padded practice of the summer.

    During the first practice, Tuitt flashed some of his potential in the Steelers' first practice when he burst through the line to shut down a run. This earned him praise from the sidelines. That was not the case for his second practice, according to Bob Labriola of Steelers.com.

    Lot of tough love for No.2 draft pick Stephon Tuitt today from @Steelers DL coach John Mitchell.

    — Bob Labriola (@BobLabriola) July 27, 2014

    Mitchell is one of the top assistants on Tomlin’s staff and rarely offers praise for his rookies, so it is not a surprise that he was tough on the second-round draft pick. Though he loves his potential, back in June, per Steelers.com, he said (via Scott Brown of ESPN.com) that they cannot rush Tuitt into the starting lineup. 

    A slow developmental period is the approach that the Steelers have taken with other defensive ends, including Aaron Smith, Brett Keisel, Ziggy Hood and Cameron Heyward. However, Tuitt may be better prepared to contribute early than any of them.

    But just because he is more prepared does not mean he is ready to start for the season opener. He still must understand how Mitchell wants him to play in the Steelers’ defensive system, and that will take time, meaning Thomas currently has the edge.

Adam Podlesh vs. Brad Wing

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    Brad Wing was the only punter on the field to start camp.
    Brad Wing was the only punter on the field to start camp.Uncredited/Associated Press

    The carousel of punters continues in Pittsburgh, this time with Adam Podlesh and Brad Wing.

    According to Alan Robinson of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Podlesh was excused from the start of training camp to be with his wife, who is due to give birth. That left Wing as the only punter in Latrobe. 

    Young punters often have consistency problems when they enter the NFL, and that was the case for Wing. I was able to time four of his punts, and he averaged 4.03 seconds of hang time. I do need to point out that the punts that I was unable to time would have helped increase that average.

    Even though he had good height on his punts, he lacked distance. On at least three occasions, the punt returners had to run at least five yards forward to field the ball. He had another that came off his foot wrong and was only in the air for 2.92 seconds.

    Podlesh missing practice did not hurt him as he already has seven years of NFL experience. He has a career average of 42.4 yards per punt, but he had the worst season of his career in 2013 when he averaged just 40.6 yards per punt.

    Without both players in camp, this battle hasn’t had much of an exciting start—if a punting battle can be exciting. Despite being the only punter present, Wing wasn’t able to take advantage of his opportunity, and he remains behind Podlesh early in camp.

Guy Whimper vs. Wesley Johnson

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    Wesley Johnson gets work at center with the third-team offensive line.
    Wesley Johnson gets work at center with the third-team offensive line.Chris Gazze

    One of the most interesting competitions comes between Guy Whimper and Wesley Johnson. These two will compete to be the eighth lineman on the final roster, assuming that the starting five, plus Mike Adams and Cody Wallace, are all locks.

    Whimper came to the Steelers last season with a poor reputation, but he actually played well when called upon. In 11 games played and two starts last season, he was called for three penalties and allowed 2.5 sacks, according to the Washington Post

    Sitting at the bottom of the depth chart, Whimper’s value came in his ability to play guard and tackle. However, he is limited to a backup role at this point of his career, while Johnson could be much more.

    During his time at Vanderbilt, Johnson played all three positions on the offensive line, making him even more versatile than Whimper. He also was the first offensive lineman the Steelers drafted with Mike Munchak on staff.

    Johnson is a smart player and has potential to start at guard or tackle in the future. He is very athletic as well, which will be a nice fit in Munchak’s zone-blocking scheme. By the end of training camp, I expect Johnson to overtake Whimper or, at the very least, force the team to keep nine offensive linemen.

    However, at this point of training camp, Whimper has the edge as he has been running with the second- team offense at right tackle. Johnson lined up at center with the third team.

Brian Arnfelt vs. Nick Williams vs. Josh Mauro

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    Josh Mauro is a sleeper to make the final roster.
    Josh Mauro is a sleeper to make the final roster.Chris Gazze

    When Ben Roethlisberger walked down the hill to the practice fields wearing Brett Keisel’s No. 99 jersey, it was a friendly reminder to everyone that “The Beard” could be back in Pittsburgh before the regular season starts.

    But the Steelers may not need him if their young defensive ends develop and perform to their potential. Besides Tuitt, the Steelers have a talented trio of Brian Arnfelt, Nick Williams and Josh Mauro competing for a spot on the depth chart.

    Arnfelt has picked up right from where he left off in 2013, and that can only mean good things for his future. He was one of the stars of the preseason last year and has shown signs of being a quality contributor to the defensive line.

    Not only did Arnfelt work with the second-team defensive but he also got some first-team reps. If he keeps this up, he will be a part of the defensive end rotation this year.

    Williams did not have the same rookie experience that Arnfelt had, as he spent the year on the injured reserve. Now he is trying to bounce back from injury and earn a spot on the roster.

    After one weekend of practice, Williams was working with the third team and did nothing to distinguish himself. That is not particularly surprising since it is difficult for defenders to make an impact in practice when there is no hitting.

    The same could be said for Mauro, except that he impressed me with his size. Many rookie ends look like they need to bulk up but not Mauro. Even though his frame has room to add 15-20 pounds, he is big enough to hold his own right now.

    Mauro told Jim Wexell of Steel City Insider that he had great coaching at Stanford and feels comfortable with the techniques that he is learning in Pittsburgh: 

    I've actually had a pretty easy time learning the techniques. It's just different lingo from Stanford, but a lot of the plays we run here we ran there as well. Our defensive coordinator last year spent some time up here.

    Derek Mason, before he took the head coaching job at Vanderbilt this year, spent some time up here with Dick LeBeau and the defensive staff trying to pick their brains a little bit. So we actually had verbatim plays at Stanford that we have here.

    Early in camp, Arnfelt has shown that last year was not a fluke, and he is well on his way to making the roster. Mauro is next in line, and if he can shine on special teams, he will make the coaches think long and hard about finding a spot for him as well.

Darrius Heyward-Bey vs. Justin Brown vs. Derek Moye

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    Derek Moye and Justin Brown have been running with the second-team offense.
    Derek Moye and Justin Brown have been running with the second-team offense.Chris Gazze

    There may be no more exciting battle than the battle between Darrius Heyward-Bey, Justin Brown and Derek Moye. Though you could consider this the battle for the fifth and final receiver to make the team, in reality it is for the fourth spot on the depth chart—at least for the early part of the season.

    Though he spent the 2013 season on the practice squad, Brown appeared to be an afterthought entering the season. There were so many more new and exciting options to choose from with Heyward-Bey, Martavis Bryant and Dri Archer. Of course, who could ignore Moye’s height?

    Rather than sit back and allow the newcomers to take over, Brown worked hard and had a terrific spring, momentum he has now carried over to training camp. He ran fourth in the wide receiver drills and has already shown that he belongs with the top receivers on the team.

    At 6’3” and 209 pounds, he has run crisp routes during practice and has been one of the top targets for all of the quarterbacks. He has caught everything that has gone his way, and many are taking notice. 

    Justin Brown catching everything again today.

    — Scott Brown (@ScottBrown_ESPN) July 27, 2014 

    WR Justin Brown once again had a very good practice for #Steelers. Roethlisberger praised him after adjusting on a route.

    — Mark Kaboly (@MarkKaboly_Trib) July 26, 2014

    Moye has been running alongside Brown with the second-team offense. When these two are on the field, they tower over the cornerbacks and present mismatch problems for the defense. But unlike Brown, Moye hasn’t been able to stand out.

    That is not to say that he is having a poor start to training camp, because he hasn’t. Moye just hasn’t had the same opportunities that Brown has. Then again, Brown is making those opportunities for himself.

    In what has been a surprise, Heyward-Bey has been the sixth receiver in the lineup. Typically, a veteran receiver would be ahead of unproven second- and third-year players like Brown and Moye. Mike Tomlin must want to see his young options and for Heyward-Bey to prove that he can be a reliable option.

    So far, he has made several nice catches, including a deep touchdown from Roethlisberger and a diving catch along the sidelines.

    But Heyward-Bey’s experience can only take him so far. With Archer’s ability to play wide receiver, the Steelers are unlikely to keep a sixth receiver on the roster. That leaves only one spot for this trio, and Justin Brown is the clear leader of the pack.

    Note: Unless otherwise noted, all photos used in this article were taken by me, all stats are courtesy of ESPN.com and all roster information is courtesy of Steelers.com.  

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