Pittsburgh Steelers Training Camp: Top Five Positional Battles

Jonathan Cyprowski@@JCyprowskiCorrespondent IJuly 5, 2010

Pittsburgh Steelers Training Camp: Top Five Positional Battles

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    Every team goes into training camp with question marks concerning which players will step up at certain positions.

    As the Pittsburgh Steelers head to Latrobe this summer, there are several key position battles about to take place.

    So who will be involved in these battles, and who is likely to emerge when the dust settles at St. Vincent College? 

    Lets take a closer look...

5. Joe Burnett vs. Keenan Lewis: Nickel/Dime Back

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    The Steelers spent third and fifth round picks on Lewis and Burnett respectively in 2009. There was quite a bit of buzz about the two this time last year, but despite small flashes from Burnett neither came to the forefront in their rookie season.

    Here’s how it breaks down:

    Lewis was plagued by injuries during his sophomore and junior seasons, but finally had a healthy senior season leading up to a Senior Bowl where he made a name for himself amongst NFL scouts and coaches.

    Unfortunately for Lewis the injury bug followed him to the Steel City where he finished the season on the IR in December after contributing only one special teams tackle all season.

    Coming out of school Lewis was known for his physical, hardworking attitude, which has shown up this offseason as well.

    While Lewis may have had a slow start to his career, reports from within the organization say that Lewis had an outstanding offseason. He will be coming into camp with a year’s worth of experience learning the Steelers’ defense, and by all accounts is completely healthy.

    Joe Burnett on the other hand is a prototypical corner for the nickel/dime back position. While a bit undersized at 5’9”, 192 lbs, Burnett combines strength and overall athletic ability with some of the best ball skills the college game had to offer.

    Burnett showed some signs of these ball-hawking skills last preseason, and added to the team’s special teams in 2009 with 17 tackles during his rookie season.

    His nose for the ball is exactly what the Steelers will be looking to see when making the decision on who will see the playing time during passing downs in 2010.

    Predicted Outcome:

    1. Keenan Lewis
    2. Joe Burnett

    While Burnett seems to be the frontrunner having seen him assert himself more over the last year, fans will finally see what Lewis has to offer this summer.

    If Lewis can manage to stay healthy, and it tends to be a big “if”, the offseason work he has put in around the Southside should validate the third round selection spent on the Oregon State product.

    While Lewis may win the nickel/dime back duties, look for Burnett to see the field on dime sets and have a much larger role on special teams this season. Should Lewis end up hurt again this season, Burnett will naturally step into the role.

4. Byron Leftwich vs. Dennis Dixon vs. Charlie Batch: Quarterback

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    The suspension of the Steelers franchise quarterback Ben Roethlisberger stands at six games to start the season, with a possibility of being reduced to four should he prove he is capable of staying on the straight and narrow.

    In the meantime the Steelers are going to have to rely on their three additional quarterbacks to keep them in the hunt through the first quarter of the season.

    Here’s how it breaks down:

    Coach Mike Tomlin has given every indication that Byron Leftwich will enter camp as the starting quarterback.

    The team gave up a seventh round pick in 2010 draft to acquire Leftwich after he left to sign a free agent contract with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2009.

    Leftwich backed up Roethlisberger quite successfully during the stretch run of their 2008 Super Bowl run. Leftwich was 21-of-36 for 303 yards and two touchdowns in relief of Roethlisberger, but perhaps the best stat he had in 2008 was zero, as in the number of times he turned the ball over.

    Dennis Dixon is their young, explosive, and extremely inexperienced project quarterback taken in the fifth round of the 2008 draft.

    Dixon was more than explosive in the collegiate ranks where he was a Heisman frontrunner before a season-ending knee injury.

    Since coming into the league, he has seen very little regular season action under center.

    After throwing just one pass his rookie season, he managed to start in Week 12 against the Baltimore Ravens when Roethlisberger went down.

    Dixon went 12-of-26 for 145 yards and one touchdown. He ran the ball three more times for 27 yards and an additional score. Dixon’s lone interception came late in the game to seal the loss for the Steelers.

    Dixon may have lost his lone start, but not without turning some heads in the process. His running ability and strong arm make him an interesting possibility in Roethlisberger’s absence, but his inexperience is working against him in terms of starting the season as the Steelers starting quarterback.

    Charlie Batch on the other hand has become the old man on the block in terms of age, leadership, and overall health.

    He is clearly a player-coach on the sideline, and his leadership is invaluable to the team with and without Roethlisberger present.

    Batch has looked great for the Steelers in the relief role over the course of his time in Pittsburgh, but he cannot seem to stay healthy long enough to piece it all together. He was signed as more of an insurance policy than a legitimate candidate for the starting role in 2010.

    Predicted Outcome:

    1. Byron Leftwich
    2. Dennis Dixon
    3. Charlie Batch

    In the end experience wins out over youth and physical tools. While Leftwich is not nearly as mobile as Dixon or Roethlisberger, he protects the football and manages the game well.

    The Steelers will lean on Leftwich to do that until No. 7 returns after Week Six.

3. James Farrior vs. Lawrence Timmons vs. Larry Foote: Inside Linebacker

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    The Steelers are known for their linebackers, and the middle linebackers are relied upon for their pre-snap leadership and solidifying the 3-4 zone the Steelers are famous for.

    This season the Steelers have some questions with regards to just who will be providing that leadership and when.

    Here’s how it breaks down:

    James Farrior has been the defensive captain and starting middle linebacker in Pittsburgh for the better part of the last decade.

    The two time Pro Bowler has been as stable and consistent as any defender in the NFL over that span, but it was clear that Farrior had lost a step in 2009.

    Statistically speaking Farrior tends to follow up his best seasons concerning individual numbers with a fractional effort the following season. How much of his 2009 season was a hangover from the exceptional 2008 season he turned in is yet to be seen.

    At age 35 Farrior will likely be riding off into the sunset within the next two seasons regardless. How much playing time he will lose in the transitional period leading up to his departure remains to be seen.

    Lawrence Timmons was drafted in the first round of the 2007 draft (15th overall), and has been a slow starter up to this point.

    His lateral quickness has served him well, as he has made the move from outside to inside linebacker and taken the second starting role at the position.

    Some tend to feel that Timmons was better suited in his passing down role where he could concentrate on rushing the quarterback. The progress he continues to show as he grows mentally and physically as a player will make a way for him to be an every down player for the Steelers defense, and his high draft status will afford him every opportunity as well.

    Larry Foote began his career as a Steeler when they drafted him as a fourth round pick in 2002.

    Foote asked for his release and returned to his hometown of Detroit to play for the Lions for one season in 2009. Foote returned to Pittsburgh this offseason as a free agent.

    Foote is one of the best stay-at-home middle linebackers in the game, and is known for having the knack of being in the right place at the right time on the field. His instincts are second only to his fundamental prowess on the field.

    This season Steeler fans will be sure to see plenty of Foote along with the team’s 2009 starters. Much of the time he will most likely be alongside Lawrence Timmons as the team tries to build chemistry between Foote’s ability to stay home and solidify the zone and Timmons' ability to penetrate the offense and attack the backfield.

    With the new three-year deal in place for Foote, the duo consisting of he and Timmons should be the tandem for the next several years after Farrior departs.

    Predicted Outcome:

    1. Larry Foote
    2. James Farrior: Running downs and scenario activity
    3. Lawrence Timmons: Passing downs and scenario activity

    Larry Foote is the man with the contract and in the prime of his career. He is clearly the player with the most versatility and best all-around game. He should move between the two middle linebacking positions affording Farrior and Timmons the opportunity to be used in the situations that best suit their skill sets at this point in their careers.

2. Justin Hartwig vs. Doug Legursky: Center

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    The Steelers center situation is vexing to say the least. With recent injuries the line will once again be forced to make transitions during training camp.

    Here’s how it breaks down:

    Before offensive tackle Willie Colon went down with a season ending Achilles injury many would have expected rookie Maurkice Pouncey to spend some time working at right guard, but to also be in the mix to challenge incumbent starter Justin Hartwig for the center position.

    Now with the possibilities that surround the right tackle, it is likely that Trai Essex will move out to challenge for the starting tackle position and Pouncey will duke it out with Craig Urbik at right guard during training camp.

    That leaves Hartwig and Legursky to contend for the position, and don’t think for one second that Legursky isn’t capable of making the decision a tough one for Mike Tomlin and new offensive line coach Sean Kugler. With Pouncey waiting in the wings, it is now or never for Legursky.

    A second-year player out of Marshall, Legursky has grown tremendously over the course of the last season. All sources leading up to camp say that he has turned some heads this offseason and is coming into camp with the favor of the coaching staff.

    Hartwig is coming off one of the worst statistical years of his career after signing a long term deal in the offseason leading up to the 2009 season. The four-year deal worth $10 million includes $2.1 million guaranteed by way of a signing bonus.

    Because of depth issues the Steelers will most likely hold on to Hartwig for the duration of the 2010 season regardless of the outcome of this position battle.

    The Steelers will undoubtedly hope to see Hartwig live up to his money and win the job, but it’s safe to say Hartwig will be playing his final season with the Steelers if he doesn’t.

    Predicted Outcome:

    1. Justin Hartwig
    2. Doug Legursky

    In the end Pittsburgh will not likely make the center change with Roethlisberger being suspended. Legursky will start the season backing up the incumbent starter Justin Hartwig, but not without making it interesting.

1. Trai Essex vs. Jonathan Scott vs. Ramon Foster: Right Tackle

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    The offseason leading up to the 2010 season left a lot of fans wondering what was going to happen concerning the offensive line.

    While the Steelers line was less than stellar in 2009, Willie Colon was statistically one of the better right tackles in the NFL, ranking third overall amongst offensive tackles.

    Coming into the summer the Steelers had two sure starters with regards to the offensive line, Chris Kemoeatu at left guard and Willie Colon at right tackle.

    Now that Colon is officially out for the season with a torn Achilles. The right tackle position may very well be the biggest position battle at Steelers training camp.

    Here’s how it breaks down:

    The Steelers signed one “veteran” offensive lineman over the offseason, and Jonathan Scott wasn’t exactly what most would have hoped for. Scott comes from Buffalo by way of Detroit, and was part of Buffalo’s injury ravaged line unit in 2009.

    He played in 10 games last season (seven at left tackle, three at right tackle), and surrendered seven sacks, one quarterback hit, and 13 quarterback pressures.

    While Scott was not the worst statistical tackle in the league last season, he certainly was not one of the best. Scott is an average to slightly above average backup caliber offensive tackle, and doesn’t really do any one thing better than another.

    While Scott may still have his best football ahead of him, his first four years in the league have done little to impress two teams in the NFL that are starving for offensive line help.

    His signing undoubtedly has to do with Steelers’ offensive line coach Sean Kugler, who was also Scott’s offensive line coach in Buffalo last season. The vote of confidence from the position coach is nice, but will Scott make the best of his one-year contract with Pittsburgh and develop into a starting caliber player?

    Ramon Foster played a more significant role during his rookie season than anyone expected.

    Foster, a former Tennessee Volunteer, showed great versatility playing in 14 games as a rookie and starting the final four of the season for the injured Chris Kemoeatu at left guard.

    While Foster saw the majority of his action at left guard for the Steelers in 2009, he is more naturally a tackle, where he played more exclusively in college.

    Foster’s performance as a rookie in the absence of Kemoeatu was quite impressive when considering his background and status. During his seven games at left guard last season (four as a starter) Foster never surrendered a sack.

    That's an impressive stat considering that the Steelers gave up 50 sacks as a team last season.

    For an undrafted free agent to only allow the quarterback to be hit five times and to be hurried a total of ten times in his rookie campaign makes you wonder what he is capable of should he be moved back to his more natural position.

    With the return of Kemoeatu and the injury to Colon, this scenario makes a great deal of sense. He will start the season listed as a tackle, and should have as good of a shot to make the lineup as anyone else vying for the vacant position left by Colon.

    Trai Essex would have been the biggest disappointment on the Steelers offensive line in 2009 had it not been for the money committed to center Justin Hartwig in the offseason.

    Essex ranked dead last (84th) statistically amongst active guards in the NFL in 2009. The most eye-popping of all the stats was indeed his league leading 27 quarterback pressures.

    There have been talks of Essex moving to left tackle in the shakedown of the offensive line, but it is highly unlikely at this point with what the Steelers are looking at.

    Essex ranked third-worst in both pass and run blocking in the NFL last season. Moving him to the left side would be a crime committed to the Steelers quarterbacks this season.

    His move to the right side would be less of a liability, and will most likely be the spot he finds his competition to stay in the starting lineup with the all but certain emergence of Maurkice Pouncey as the starting right guard.

    Predicted Outcome:

    1. Ramon Foster
    2. Jonathan Scott
    3. Trai Essex

    While Essex has the experience as a starter, Foster is the most underrated lineman the Steelers have on the roster to date. Essex will likely go into camp as the leading candidate, but should be supplanted by the younger, better pass blocker in Foster.

    If things shake down this way Foster will assume the starting right tackle position, Scott will be the backup at both tackle positions, and Essex will become the backup at the guard position.