The Pittsburgh Steelers will open their 2013 training camp in just over a month. As things stand now the Steelers are trying to get back on track after a disappointing 8-8 season in 2012. To do so they will have to rely on some old faces and some new ones.
As we move closer to the beginning to the 2013 NFL season here are eight stories for Steelers fans to keep an eye on:
1.) Big Play from the 2007 Draft Class
Last season the Steelers had only two players left from their 2007 draft class in linebackers Lawrence Timmons and LaMarr Woodley. Timmons had the best season of his career to date, but Woodley battled injuries and criticism on the way to his worst season so far in the NFL.
Now, after bringing back tight end Matt Spaeth and corner William Gay in free agency, the Steelers have four players from their 2007 draft class on the roster and they will need all four to play well in 2013. Timmons will be leading the defense in 2013 from his spot at middle linebacker and they would like a repeat, or better, than his 2012 campaign.
Woodley is said to be in much better shape this off-season and the Steelers are hoping he can get back on track at outside linebacker. During the first half of the 2011 season Woodley was considered a Defensive Player of the Year candidate If he can get back to that level of play it will help alleviate the losses the defense has suffered this off-season.
Spaeth may see major playing time early in the season is Heath Miller misses time after tearing up his knee late in the 2012 season. As for Gay he will be the team’s third corner in 2013 and the hope is that he can regain form from 2011 when he was one of the Steelers top defenders.
2.) Starting Running back and Positional Depth Chart
Running back may be the position to follow during this off-season. Pittsburgh is overloaded with running backs after drafting Le’Veon Bell in the second round and signing former-Pitt back Larod Stephens-Howling. Jonathan Dwyer and Issac Redman are still in the mix to start or be back-ups and Baron Batch, one of the teams best special teams players, is still vying for a roster spot.
Stephens-Howling can make the roster by winning the kick returning job and has the speed to be a change of pace back. Batch’s special teams play will help him, but he will also have to show that he can contribute in the running game to earn a roster spot.
As for Redman, Dywer and Bell all three are bigger stronger backs, but only one, Bell, seems to have a roster spot locked down at this point. If the Steelers are to cut one of their backs, it’s unlikely they would carry five, it will likely be Redman or Dwyer due to their salary. Though, the Steelers do have a good amount of cap room so money may not be a huge concern.
3.) Heath Miller’s Recovery
As stated above Miller is recovering from a major knee injury. His recovery will be a major Steelers-storyline this off-season as his progress is recorded. There is some optimism that Miller could be ready to play by the first week of the season, but no official timetable has been set.
Miller was the Steelers team-MVP in 2012 and getting him back healthy will be important for the offense. Miller is the Steelers top red zone threat given his height. If he is expected to miss a decent amount of games the Steelers may be more likely to keep Plaxico Burress on the roster to have his height for redzone plays in Miller’s absence.
4.) Offensive Line Working as a Unit and Staying Healthy
The health and play of the Steelers offensive line has been talked about on end over the last few years. For whatever reason the Steelers line has not been able to keep healthy in recent years and 2012 was another glaring example of that as it seemed a lineman went down injured almost every single game.
So far this off-season the line has been working out together and trying to gel as a unit. The line will be very young in 2012 with Ramon Foster the oldest projected starter at 27. Hopefully their youth, athleticism and added outside zone blocking scheme can help the run game improve and keep them healthy.
5.) Impact of the Rookies
LaMarr Woodley had an impact as a rookie in situational pass rushing. Jarvis Jones may be used in the same way if he doesn’t win a starting job outright. The last time a rookie started at linebacker on the Steelers defense it was Kendrell Bell in 2001 so it seems unlikely Jones will start outright, but he can still have an impact.
Le’Veon Bell is considered the front runner to start at running back and if he wins that job he will have a major impact on how well the offense performs in 2013. Right now the biggest concern surrounding Bell is his ability to block, but according to Mark Kaboly of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review Bell thinks he will be up to the challenge.
Markus Wheaton, the Steelers third round pick, could also make an impact on the offense at wide receiver. Wheaton was considered a player that would be ready to step in and play as a rookie leading up to the draft. He had to miss OTA’s due to his college schedule so he will have to catch up and play well during training camp to see playing time early in 2013, but he has a chance to be the team’s third receiver depending on his play and understanding of the offense.
6.) Offense in Year Two Under Todd Haley
During Kurt Warner’s second season with Haley as offensive coordinator in Arizona he led the Cardinals to the Super Bowl. During the season Warner threw for 4583 yards, 30 touchdowns and only 14 interceptions. Of course, Warner had Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin at wide receiver, but his second season under Haley was very successful.
Matt Cassel, in Kansas City, also excelled in his second year under Haley with the Chiefs and that team didn’t have the weapons that the Cardinals had. In Cassel’s second year with the Chiefs he threw for 3116 yards, 27 touchdowns and only 7 interceptions. That was with an offense that had Dwayne Bowe and not much else.
Hopefully Roethlibserger can follow in their footsteps and excel in his second year under Haley.According to Robinson that could be the case: ”The Steelers officially began practicing that reworked offense as they went through the first of 13 team practices Tuesday, and Roethlisberger said everyone involved likes this package better,” Robinson says.
“You can ask anybody on offense that, including coaches, and they’ll tell you that we all like the way the offense is and where it’s going,” Roethlisberger said.
7.) Last Chances?
There are a few players on the Steelers roster who may be facing their last chance to make a lasting impact with the Steelers:
Linebacker Stevenson Sylvester is on his last leg in Pittsburgh and everyone knows it. Kaboly says that linebacker coach Keith Butler even said as much during the NFL Draft in April. However, Sylvester is now going to have to make an impression from a different position as he has been moved from inside linebacker to outside linebacker.
“I am just doing whatever they tell me,” Sylvester said. “If they want me to go outside, I’ll go outside. If they want me to go inside, I’ll go inside.”
Curtis Brown may also be looking at a make or break year in 2013. He was supposed to be the better of the two corner the Steelers drafted in 2011, but Cortez Allen has been much better to this point. As others speculated the Steelers signing of William Gay likely says more about their feeling about Brown than their feelings about Keenan Lewis.
8.) The Replacements
The Steelers lost some veteran depth this off-season and those players replacements will have to step up and replace them to keep the team on track. Jason Worilds is expected to replace James Harrison at outside linebacker. Harrison is a former Defensive Player of the Year so Worilds has some big shoes to fill.
Cortez Allen is projected to see his first playing time as a starter on the Steelers defense as he steps in for Keenan Lewis, who signed with the Saints this off-season. Emmanuel Sanders is expected to be the Steelers number two receiver in 2013 replacing Antonio Brown in that spot, who will replace Mike Wallace as the team’s number one target.
Steve McLendon is also joining the starting line-up as a replacement for Casey Hampton, who held down the middle of the Steelers defense since 2001. McLendon may have the biggest shoes to fill of these four players, but he seems to be up to the task and is hoping to play all three downs as a nose tackle or defensive end.