Steelers vs. Redskins: Who's on the Hot Seat Tonight in Washington?
The first week of training camp for the Pittsburgh Steelers has both answered and brought up new questions, but it certainly brought to the glaring forefront the players that are going to be on the roster bubble in a preseason with little time for mistakes and incompetency.
Veterans that signed new contracts weren't eligible to practice until late in the week, and it gave the coaching staff a chance to look at some of these players under a microscope with the top two squads in situations that they otherwise would not have.
Combine these opportunities with fitness and conditioning tests, and it became very clear who put in the work during the lockout. Some came into camp overweight, others look confused and somewhere in the middle of the two, are the players using their last chance to make good on the Steelers; patience concerning their slow progression.
Going into Friday night’s first preseason game against Washington has the cut bubble shifted, and where do the Steelers still need to answer some glaring questions? Let's take a look and see…
5. Jonathan Dwyer: Steelers' Running Backs
The "wrecking ball" looked more like a marshmallow than a piece of iron coming into camp. After Steelers Nation had such high hopes for Dwyer coming into the 2010 season, he has proven to be lazy at best.
Dwyer showed up clearly overweight after the lockout ended, and has performed as sluggishly as he looks. He lagged behind in conditioning drills where he was significantly outperformed even by the likes of Maurkice Pouncey who looks more like an oversized tight end than a lineman in terms of athleticism this season.
After a few years of famine at the position, the Steelers find themselves in a position of considerable depth at running back.
Rashard Mendenhall and Isaac Redman have looked nothing short of sharp in Week 1. With the contract extension given to Mewelde Moore last week, and seventh-round pick Baron Batch displaying a propensity for everything the Steelers need or want in terms of a third-down back so far, the backfield looks more crowded than ever for Dwyer.
When you add undrafted running back John Clay, who has displayed the willingness and skill set to be even more of what the Steelers thought Dwyer was, it almost seems impossible for Dwyer to make the roster.
Dwyer was thought to be a contact driven back that could make his own holes, and provide the Steelers with a stalwart back they have been lacking since Jerome Bettis retired. Instead Dwyer has shied away from contact in camp, and with his lack of offseason conditioning is certainly not going to outrun anyone.
With Clay looking for contact like a heat-seeking missile it would not be entirely surprising to see Dwyer on the practice squad or the unemployment line before Week 1 of the NFL season.
4. Limas Sweed: Steelers' Receiving Corps
Limas Sweed has certainly been the definition of a bust since being drafted by the Steelers in the second-round of the 2008 draft. The collegiate circus catch performer from the University of Texas was projected to be one the top two receivers in the 2008 draft before an injury dropped him to the Steelers in the second round.
Draft stock isn't the only thing that dropped around Sweed since he apparently left his sure hands in the Longhorns' locker room down in Austin. Sweed has been unable to consistently catch the football since parting ways with his alma mater, and the Steelers have paid dearly for it at times.
After a season-ending Achilles injury in camp last season, Sweed enters camp perhaps on his last chance with the Steelers who went after body-type red-zone threat Plaxico Burress last week in free agency, and officially signed former Jets wideout Jerricho Cotchery yesterday.
With Hines Ward still on the roster, and Mike Wallace fast becoming one of the most prolific receivers in the NFL, the Steelers have a host of young and talented receivers that are among the best in the league. They are however, without a legitimate red-zone receiver, and Sweed fits the mold. The problem lies in his hands, and this will be his last chance to prove his worth on a Steelers roster that is full of young talent at the position.
3. Dennis Dixon: Steelers' Quarterback Situation
For yet another preseason Dennis Dixon has demanded an opportunity to start or be traded to a team that will let him compete for the starting position, and for yet another season Dennis Dixon may not even win the backup position on the Steelers’ roster.
Dixon finally signed the one-year tender the Steelers left on the table for him after none of the other 31 NFL teams were willing to part with a fifth-round pick to gain the right to sign him to a contract, but Dixon might be miles away from where he believes himself to be in terms of ability and status on his own team.
Since rejoining the team, Dixon has been running the Steelers' fourth team offense, and has looked unimpressive at best in doing so. While having the ability to run wild is one thing, it does little more than concern your own offensive coordinator when you cannot throw as well. Dixon has been tucking the ball early and often in passing situations in practice, and with no improvement Dixon may find himself running a distant fourth on the Steelers quarterback depth chart.
With Ben Roethlisberger firmly entrenched as the starting quarterback in Pittsburgh, the rest of the depth chart is likely to fall as it has in past years. Byron Leftwich is heavy footed, but strong armed and experienced with the system.
Charlie Batch may be the most intelligent of the three backups in terms of the system and decision making, but is beginning to show signs of inability physically. His arm is not what it used to be, but experience and what he brings to the locker room may be enough to keep him in the running.
Dixon is the most physically gifted of the four. However, his inaccuracy and inability to make good decisions with the football coupled with his lofty attitude may prevent him from ever improving.
2. Keenan Lewis: Steelers' Defensive Backs
Lewis came into camp last year a front-runner for the nickelback position and possibly to be the No. 2 corner, but his inconsistency and hotheaded decisions prevented him from even playing most of the season.
Lewis has looked sharp early on in camp. With far less mental mistakes, Lewis has the physical tools to become a major contributor in the Steelers' defense in 2011.
William Gay has proven to be nothing better than a dime back, and had there been an affordable option on the free agent market, he likely would not be with the Steelers this season. With a contract signed, Gay will be on the roster, but his position is anything but guaranteed.
McFadden is likely to start the first preseason game as the No. 2 corner, but don’t be surprised if Keenan Lewis gets a good long look from the Steelers coaching staff on Friday night and throughout the preseason.
Some would ask if the criticism of the Steelers’ corners is justified after making a Super Bowl run in 2010.
Quite honestly the Steelers made a Super Bowl run despite the play of their secondary at the end of the season. While the numbers were not particularly bad, when the Steelers’ pass rush was not as effective against better offensive line units it became very clear how susceptible they were. It was never clearer than during the Super Bowl when the Packers were able to neutralize James Harrison, and Troy Polamalu was just as ineffective.
While there is some fresh talent on the roster after the draft, the Steelers still have some major questions as to whether anyone is capable of stepping up in 2011. Keenan Lewis will be on top of that list.
1. Offensive Line: Relying on a Gut Feeling?
The Steelers found themselves in a serious pickle last season concerning their offensive line. The unit was not one of the league’s strongest to begin with, but injuries took a major toll on top of it.
Willie Colon went down for the season during OTA’s, and Max Starks was soon to follow during the regular season. The rest of the line found itself out for a week or two at a time, and right up until the Super Bowl, Maurkice Pouncey was the only consistent week in and week out starter.
The Steelers released veteran tackles Flozell Adams and Max Starks after the lockout because of salary cap issues, and have not done much to replace them in terms of talent. While the new contract for Willie Colon solidifies the right tackle position making Adams expendable at such a high price, Jonathan Scott is certainly not the answer at left tackle.
The Steelers have done very little to solidify their offensive line. While they spent a second-round pick on Florida offensive tackle Marcus Gilbert, and a sixth-round pick on guard Keith Williams, is it reasonable to expect either to contribute the way the Steelers need them to in 2011?
The Steelers seem to be relying on luck and a gut feeling concerning the linemen they have in camp.
Chris Kemoeatu is on the PUP list at this point, and bubble players exist at every position along the offensive line. None being of more concern than Jonathan Scott, who had a very difficult time filling in for the departed Max Starks in 2010.
Questions will be asked early and often about his ability to protect Ben Roethlisberger’s blindside, and this preseason will be a true test of what No. 7 can expect to see this season in terms of pressure and time in the pocket.
Let's not forget that for every Maurkice Pouncey there is a Jamain Stephens and Kendall Simmons to be had. To count on Marcus Gilbert so early on in a lockout shortened offseason/preseason (should Scott prove to be what he has always been (a backup offensive lineman)), is close to trying to catch lightning in a bottle twice.
Even if Colbert, Tomlin and company have a gut feeling about the young crop of guys coming in, this isn’t NCIS, it’s the NFL.
The Wrap Up
The Steelers will play their first preseason game Friday night against the Washington Redskins, and while the starters are unlikely to play very long, most if not all of the bubble players on this list will get substantial time on the field.
Aside from those mentioned above, fans will get a chance to see some of the Steelers’ younger talent. While it’s difficult to expect young talent to perform especially well in their first live action in the NFL, Curtis Brown and Cortez Allen should see time in the second half, and Marcus Gilbert will likely see substantial time as well.
Follow Jonathan on twitter @JCyprowski or visit his profile to become a fan.