Pittsburgh Steelers: 5 Questions That Must Still Be Answered This Preseason
The Pittsburgh Steelers are preparing for their second preseason game of the year, this time against the Buffalo Bills. This roster has some really dynamic players, and players a bit more pedestrian man some spots.
Nevertheless, things are starting to get a bit more clear about how this team will look at the start of the regular season. Even with that, there are still plenty of areas that still need some ironing out. If this team wants to break the streak of 8-8 and return to the playoffs, there are questions that much be answered.
Here is a look at five questions that are still lingering for the Steelers.
Who Will Step Up in the Secondary?
The area of greatest concern for the Steelers last season was at cornerback. Veteran Ike Taylor's play was up-and-down most of the season, and this really hurt the overall play on the back end.
The team's best cornerback might have been slot corner William Gay, but it is hard to say if he could hold up to 16 games starting on the outside. This means it is time for Cortez Allen to step up, stay healthy and play with better consistency opposite Taylor.
At safety, there are some new faces, but it appears to be with the same results. Against the New York Giants, Rashad Jennings burned the secondary for a 73-yard touchdown. There wasn't a player in the secondary that could catch the 231-pound running back.
Is there a player in this secondary who's going to step up and be an elite player? At this point, counting on safety Troy Polamalu might be asking too much of the 33-year-old future Hall of Fame safety. If this group wants to support what looks like an improving defensive front, someone had better be ready to be that guy.
Who Will Start at Inside Linebacker?
Is there really a chance that heralded rookie linebacker Ryan Shazier doesn't start next to Lawrence Timmons on the inside this season? I'd say there is. There is a battle brewing between Shazier and third-year linebacker Sean Spence who is returning from injury.
When Shazier missed several practices and the team's first preseason game, Spence jumped on the opportunity to get all those first-team reps. His play certainly didn't disappoint, and it gave one pause as to which young linebacker gives this team a better shot to win.
When Pittsburgh Tribune-Review writer Alan Robinson wrote that defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau made the announcement that Shazier would be the starter (prior to the injury), it gave everyone pause. Not because Shazier isn't starter-quality, but because it marked the first time a rookie would be an opening-week starter for LeBeau as DC.
This is high praise, and it shouldn't be minimized. However, just based on the fact that this staff has had the confidence in Spence to keep him in the fold for the past two seasons while he recovered should be commended as well. Both players are very talented, and it will be a shame if one of them is stuck on the bench.
Can the Outside Zone Work?
Last season, offensive line injuries decimated this team. Some weeks the Steelers were literally one man from being one man short. All the injuries forced the coaches to adjust their plan of attack heavily, and that included very little outside-zone run plays.
The hope this season is that with running backs Le'Veon Bell and rookie Dri Archer, an effective outside zone-blocking scheme could give them creases on the outside they can exploit for big gains.
Unfortunately, with one game into the preseason, the outside zone still looks very much like a work in progress. Ironically, it is this group of tackles that appear to be holding things back. Guard David DeCastro and center Maurkice Pouncey have all the requisite athleticism to slide and cut in the outside zone. However, tackles Kelvin Beachum and Marcus Gilbert are still trying to get up to speed.
The key to an effective outside zone-blocking scheme is having players who can kick out and work down the line. When you consider that most linemen don't know who they are going to block until the ball is snapped, working together as a team and being on the same page is so vital.
As of now, this group, in particular the tackles, just isn't holding up its end of the bargain.
Should Cam Thomas Start at Nose Tackle?
The Steelers' nose tackle position, like its inside linebacker position is in a state of flux. Pittsburgh has incumbent starter Steve McLendon on the roster and is giving him every opportunity to start.
However, when McLendon was out with a concussion, per Scott Brown of ESPN.com, defensive lineman Cam Thomas did a great job filling in. He slid over from his defensive end spot and anchored the middle of the defensive line very well against the New York Giants.
In his place, rookie Stephon Tuitt started at defensive end and played very well for a young player opposite Cameron Heyward. This group looks like the future of this defensive line, and it's a really formidable group.
So why not just go with it? I understand loyalty and not losing a starting spot to injury, but McLendon isn't a great nose tackle. His body type doesn't lend itself to the punishment and physicality of a 3-4 nose tackle, and last year showed that.
The quicker Tuitt can get up to speed, the quicker this defensive line is going to improve. McLendon might open the season as the starter, but at some point, the coaches have to consider moving McLendon out when Tuitt's ready.
What Is the Identity of This Offense?
Much of the energy the Steelers have put into the offseason has been toward rebuilding the run game. After letting Jonathan Dwyer, Felix Jones and LaRod Stephens-Howling leave, they made some huge upgrades with LeGarrette Blount and Dri Archer.
All this movement has to mean the Steelers are going to go back to the old ground-and-pound style of Steelers football, right? Not so fast, my friend. There are still plenty of questions about this offensive line (see first slide), not to mention this passing offense is pretty darn stacked.
I think back to 2007. It was head coach Mike Tomlin’s first season, and Pittsburgh went 10-6, winning the AFC North. That season, the Steelers did a great job of using the pass to set up the run, rather than the other way around.
This roster feels a lot like that. Success might come by taking some shots down the field, which will force the safeties deep. That will give the run game a bit more room to operate. I’m just not sure this offensive line is built to play it the other way around.