Pittsburgh has an up and comer poised to break out at running back, but has big question marks regarding the most important position on the team, quarterback.
Rashard Mendenhall had a strong season last year, rushing for over 1,100 yards in only 12 starts, and is in position to have an even bigger year this season.
For the first time in his career, Mendenhall will be the primary back without a true second option to take carries away from him. He will have to step to the plate as the Steelers look to run the ball more effectively.
If Mendenhall isn’t capable of running in short yardage situations, second year player Isaac Redman and rookie Jonathan Dwyer are two players that could step up to the challenge.
At quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger will be out for at least the first four weeks of the season, but is permitted to participate in training camp.
Byron Leftwich will likely continue to get the majority of the first team snaps as he did during the OTA’s, but Dennis Dixon will provide a challenger for the starter role.
The quarterback situation will be one of the most fascinating aspects of camp even though the depth chart is unlikely to change prior to the season opener.
Mendenhall will be the featured running back this year without Willie Parker in the fold.
This is a good thing for the Steelers.
Mendenhall is an all-around threat with his combination of speed, power, agility, and receiving ability.
As long as he continues to improve his blocking, Mendenhall can be a key factor on third downs. With 25 receptions last season, he may see those numbers grow this year if the coaches use him as an every down back.
The coaching staff is also putting an emphasis on situational running, meaning that Mendenhall should have more opportunities to get his hands on the ball near the endzone. Ideally they will use him late in the game to wear down opponents while milking the clock.
What should you watch for in camp? Look at how the coaching staff uses him on third downs and how many reps he gets in goal line drills, as there should be more of these in this camp than last.
Mewelde Moore has been an effective backup for Pittsburgh the last two seasons. He has over 700 yards rushing and nearly 500 yards receiving
Acting primarily as the third down back, Moore has been an integral part of the Steelers’ offense, but that slowly changed last year with the emergence of Mendenhall.
Moore will likely continue to have a reduced role as long as Mendenhall continues to develop. As their only viable veteran option on the team, he is a key part of the offense and will need to be depended on if Mendenhall has to miss any time.
The question regarding Moore is how much time he will see as the third down back this year.
The rest of the pack gives the Steelers plenty of options to choose from.
Two of the favorites will be Redman and Dwyer.
Redman earned the nickname “Redzone” last year because of his ability to put the ball in the endzone during goal line drills. At 6'0" and 230 pounds, he is a big back that could address the Steelers need for a short yardage back, given their struggles in that area last season.
If it isn’t Redman, Dwyer will be given an opportunity. Though not as physical as his size would indicate (5'11" and 229 pounds), Dywer has the potential to be a very good back.
Dwyer was very effective at Georgia Tech and has a greater upside than his sixth round draft position indicated. With deceptive speed, he can develop into a starter in time.
Given the lack of depth, Dwyer is in good position to earn a roster spot.
Frank Summers was a hot name in the draft last year. With the nickname “Tank,” fans had high expectations for him.
Unfortunately, Summers disappointed, in part due to injury. He is expected to make great strides entering his second season, but will have to make the roster as a dual running back and fullback, so his blocking must improve.
If it hasn’t, rookie Demetrius Taylor may be the answer.
Though Taylor will have an uphill battle, transitioning from defensive line to fullback, if he can open up holes for the ground game he could find a spot on the roster.
Both players will have to show good blocking abilities since offensive coordinator Bruce Arians does not believe in having a fullback in his offense and in the past has used a tight end in the H-back role.
Justin Vincent is unlikely to make the roster, but will provide good depth and competition for the other young backs.
Roethlisberger is the clear cut starter and will be the first game that he is permitted to play in.
After throwing for 4,328 yards and 26 touchdowns with only 12 interceptions in 15 games last season, there was great excitement for the potential season that Roethlisberger could have had this year.
Instead, the question will be can he come back from his suspension in position to lead the Steelers to the playoffs.
The good news is that Roethlisberger appears to be in the best shape that he has been for years. This is a distinct difference from last season, when he looked to be in the worst shape of his career. It is clear that he is taking his suspension seriously and has refocused his priorities.
It will be interesting to see first-hand Roethlisberger’s physical condition in camp as well as how he handles himself around his teammates.
Roethlisberger is an unquestioned game day leader of the Steelers, but can he take those abilities beyond the field?
Another thing to look out for is how Mike Tomlin handles Roethlisberger’s reps. How much time will he get with the first team? Or will Tomlin focus on getting the other quarterbacks ready?
Without a doubt, Roethlisberger will be the biggest story of this year’s training camp.
Leftwich and Dixon will battle it out to earn the title of starter for the first quarter of the season.
If the Steelers want to make the safer decision, Leftwich will be the choice. He is an experienced veteran with starting experience and fared well in spot duty as the Steelers backup in 2008.
Leftwich has an understanding of the Steelers offense and has the arm strength to get the ball downfield to Mike Wallace.
However, Leftwich is not without his faults.
While strong, Leftwich is not very mobile and could be a sitting duck for defenders behind the Steelers offensive line. Though he gets the ball out faster than Roethlisberger, Leftwich also has a very slow release which once again could leave him susceptible to the pass rush.
Another issue with Leftwich is that he has no touch. Just about all of his passes, even short range passes, are bullets. This may be one of the reasons that he has only seen mediocre success as a starter.
Dixon is just about the opposite of Leftwich.
He has tremendous upside, is very mobile in the pocket, and has the speed to make something happen with his feet in addition to his arm.
However, Dixon does not have the experience of Leftwich or his strength. Still, he is an intriguing prospect and showed that he could eventually be a starter last season when he started against Baltimore.
In the end, Leftwich’s experience will win out. The Steelers are not in position to see if Dixon can play because they are trying to make the playoffs.
It should become evident early in camp if there will be a legitimate competition or not. I do not believe that Dixon will have a real shot, meaning Leftwich will get a majority of the first team snaps.
Charlie Batch has been a great backup to have around, not only for his abilities on the field but also as an extra coach on the sideline.
Batch had been one of the best backups in the league while with Pittsburgh, but injuries and age have caught up to him.
The arm strength is no longer there, and neither is the mobility. Both Leftwich and Dixon offer the Steelers more than Batch at this point, meaning that he will be on the outside looking in.