Camp Battles Revisited Part 1: Top 5 Positional Battles to Watch for the Steelers in Preseason

I absolutely love football before actual football.  By that, I mean I love reading about camp, watching highlights about camp, and analyzing every single play of every preseason game.  The positional battles that occur are always awesome to watch and, believe it or not, these big decisions will have a large impact on the season.  These battles are usually for depth positions and ultimately end up having an impact when injuries occur.  If you are not a preseason junky like me, you are in luck.  I have prepared a checklist for you to watch this year.

Here are my top 5 positional battles:
5. 3rd Tight End
4. Starting Right Guard
3. Nickel Cornerback Defensive Back
2. The Fifth Wide Receiver
1. 3rd Down Running Back Fourth Running Back

5. 3rd Tight End

With Matt Spaeth gone, the Steelers have an open roster spot for a TE.  Heath Miller is obviously head and shoulders above all the other TEs on the roster.  That leaves David Johnson landing the 2nd TE spot.  After that, it is anybody's guess as to who will take the final spot.

Players to watch: Weslye Saunders (44), Jamie McCoy (45), Vaughn Charlton (49), John Gilmore (89)

Notes from camp and preseason game 1:  To add more competition to the position and bring in some veteran experience the Steelers signed former Buccaneers and Bears TE John Gilmore.  From what I have read, Gilmore is a known for his blocking and is not the best pass catcher, which anyone could conclude from his 52 career receptions in 9 seasons. Reports from camp are that Jamie McCoy has excelled at blocking and is surprising a lot of people with his pass catching.  He has a good set out hands, but his route running is not as crisp as it could be.  I have also heard that Saunders is very athletic and is an exceptional route runner.  He has said that he is focusing on his blocking to show the coaches he can be multifaceted.  In the preseason game I saw Saunders miss a two blocks, one for a sack, and saw Dixon overthrow him on a deep slant route.  McCoy was mostly in blocking and showed his ability to do so.

My pick: I think Weslye Saunders is still the favorite to win the position based on his athleticism and potential.  Jamie McCoy, however, is turning heads in camp and closing the gap.  If he can have a big game this preseason he might become the favorite.

 

4. Starting Right Guard

Right Guard appears to be the only position on the OL that the Steelers do not have a clear cut starter for.  At LT they have Jonathan Scott, LG Chris Kemoeatu, C Maurkice Pouncey, RT Willie Colon.  Ramon Foster and Trai Essex split time playing RG last year and neither was overly impressive.  I think the Steelers will be looking in a new direction this year.  A new face, if you will.

Players to watch: Doug Legursky (64), Marcus Gilbert (65), Chris Scott (61), Keith Williams (62), Tony Hills (66), Ramon Foster (73)

Notes from camp and preseason game 1: Doug Legursky has become a bit of a fan favorite after his performance in the Super Bowl last year.  I have not heard a lot of him out of camp, but I did know that he would be starting at one of the G spots in the first game.  My feelings on Legursky are mixed.  I think he played good at G, but he did have some mistakes.  After he transitioned to C, his play dropped off a lot.  Stephen Bowen (I think) abused him and tossed him around like a man playing a child.  Moving on, the surprise of this game easily goes to Tony Hills.  What a tremendous game he had.  After nothing but disappointment since being drafted in 2008, Hills had his best performance as a Steeler when he subbed in at LT.  He stoned Brian Orakpo in pass protection and held his own in run blocking.  I was shocked by this, because almost every camp report had him playing poorly and seemingly off the team.  The coaches noticed his big game and they are giving him the start at RG for the Eagles game. 

Chris Scott, who spent all of 2010 on the IR, was a roller coaster of good and bad.  He had some nice blocks on a few of Issac Redman's bigger runs, but then had some absolute flubs where he got beat right off the snap.  His footwork looked weak, which surprised me after the praise he had received in camp.  I think Scott might need a healthy season as a backup before he can step into a starters role.  Lastly, the two rookies Marcus Gilbert and Keith Williams have been earning approval in camp drills.  However, neither stood out in the preseason game.  Both appeared to have issues with their footwork that can be improved with more time with the Steelers offensive line coach, Sean Kugler.

My picks: As it stands right now, Tony Hills.  Doug Legursky is nipping at his heals though.  Hills could very well have had a fluke game, we will know after the Eagles game.

 

3. Nickel Defensive Back

Well, one of our weakest positions hit another speed bump when Ike Taylor broke his thumb.  He will have surgery this week and he should be good to go by week 1 or week 2.  Taylor is not in the habit of missing games, so I would expect him to be ready to go against the Ravens in week 1. Also, Ike does not use his hands for catching anyway.  On to the point, we still have an open competition at the 3rd CB spot or the Nickel DB.

Players to watch: William Gay (22), Ryan Mundy (29), Keenan Lewis (23), Crezdon Butler (28), Cortez Allen (39), Curtis Brown (40), Da'Mon Cromartie-Smith (42)

Notes from camp and preseason game 1: William Gay is obviously the favorite to win the position, but I think we are all hoping that someone will beat him out.  Gay had a miserable performance against the Redskins. He tried to play press coverage on Santana Moss and got burned.  Gay seemed to forget that you need to bump the WR to alter his route and throw off the timing with the QB.  Now, the Steelers traditionally put a CB in their nickel packages, but I am wondering if Da'Mon Cromartie-Smith (DCS) and Ryan Mundy should get a look.  Ryan Mundy was all over the field against the Redskins making plays. Most impressive was his blanket coverage and support over the top in the zone scheme.  DCS had his ups and downs in the game.  I thought he looked fluid in coverage, but his lack of experience in a zone were apparent as he seemed out of position often.

As far as the rest of the guys go, Keenan Lewis has to be the favorite.  He has been doing well in camp showing his speed and athleticism.  However, against the Redskins I did not see it.  Lewis spent most of the game giving up a big cushion and then back pedaling until his WR caught the ball.  He seemed so focused on his WR that he had no idea where the ball was and could never make a break on the throw to try and break it up.  Crezdon Butler was a disappointment in my own opinion.  He did play some press coverage, but he did not seem physical enough to force his WR off his route.  He got beat quite a few times for a some big plays.

My pick: As it stands right now, William Gay has a strangle hold on the position.  Keenan Lewis is more of an outside CB guy, so I cannot see him unseating Gay.  That is why I would like the Steelers to consider using Ryan Mundy instead, but I doubt that will ever happen.

 

2. The Fifth Wide Receiver

If you had not heard, the Steelers signed veteran WR Jerricho Cotchery from the Jets.  The move adds some more veteran experience after Antwaan Randle-El was released.  We do not know whether or not the signing speaks about the confidence the Steelers have with the return of Emmanuel Sanders in the near future.  They are playing it very cautious with Sanders and will not hurry to bring him back.  However, for the time being it appears we have an open slot or two for WRs.

Players to watch: Jerricho Cotchery (82), Limas Sweed (80), Arnaz Battle (81), Tyler Grisham (19), Wes Lyons (15), Eric Greenwood (8), Terrence McCrae (11), Armand Robinson (14)

Notes from camp and preseason game 1: Cotchery was just signed and therefore I do not have much on him. I have heard that they are burying him in the playbook and expect him to catch on quickly.  We should see some action from him in the Eagles game.  He will be the player to watch, in my opinion.  Limas Sweed has spent most of the time since the last 'Camp Battles' report nursing a shoulder injury.  Apparently, he warmed up for the game but did not play.  I read a short report that he had a great day at practice yesterday.  Here is to hoping he can have a lights out game against the Eagles.  Next, we have Tyler Grisham, who is as reliable as ever.  A great slow guy who runs crisp, quick routes.  Against the Skins he had some good routes and Dennis Dixon missed him a few times.  His blocking was up and down.  He had a nice cut block on the Redman TD, but he got tossed to the side on another running play and his man stuffed the play.

I did not see anything extremely impressive from the rest of the young WRs.  Wes Lyons had a drop and hurt himself on the play (he came back in the game).  Arnaz Battle had 2 catches, but also had a drop or two.  With Battle, you have to think he makes the team as a ST player and not a WR.  Eric Greenwood had a big 29 yard reception, but he looked a bit slow coming out of breaks on his routes.  Terrence McCrae had a reception for 10 yards.  The only time I saw Armand Robinson was on a punt return for 9 yards.  Nothing impressive.

My pick: Lets assume that Mike Wallace, Hines Ward, Antonio Brown, and Emmanuel Sanders are safe.  With the injury of Sanders, I do think the Steelers will keep 6 WRs.  Cotchery will likely be a favorite to take one of those spots.  That leaves a 3 way battle for the remaining spot between Sweed, Grisham, and Battle.  Each guy brings a completely different skill set to the table.  If the Steelers are comfortable with their other ST players, I believe they will keep Sweed because of his height and potential.  If not, expect Battle to make the roster.

 

1. Fourth Running Back

Rashard Mendenhall and Lord/Saint Isaac Redman are locks at 1 and 2.

Players to watch: Mewelde Moore (21), Jonathan Dwyer (27), John Clay (38)

Notes from camp and preseason game 1: Mewelde Moore became a lock to make the team when fan favorite Baron Batch tore his ACL a week ago.  He is reliable, knows the playbook, and is good at blitz pick up.  That leaves a two man battle for the fourth RB on the team.  Out of camp, I have not heard anything tremendous about Jonathan Dwyer or John Clay.  Actually, I have heard that both have been miserable in Backs on Backers.  In the game, neither was impressive either.  Dwyer had one nice run for 5 yards, but had a total of 2 yards on his 4 other runs.  He did have a nice catch for 6 yards.  John Clay only had 1 run for 3 yards.  Clay, I believe, has miles to go before he can be an NFL back.

 

My pick: I almost question what the purpose would be to keep either of these guys.  Would this roster spot be more useful if it was put toward keeping an extra DL, OL, or LB?  Anyway, if we do keep a 4th guy, I think Dwyer will win easily.  He has a year in the system and has solid potential.

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