After the 8-8 debacle of 2012, a lot of us here in BTSC nation opined at length on the root causes of the Steelers problems. We know from the pronouncements of Colbert, Rooney and others that the Steelers management conducted their own post-mortem on the season. I thought that at this point in the pre-season it would be good to step back and look at what we've seen so far, both from training camp reports and the first pre-season game, to see if and how well these issues are being addressed.
Player Conditioning. It appears literally every single player has shown up to camp in excellent shape, including Jonathan Dwyer. Guys like Ta'amu, Woodley, Dwyer, Redman and Hewyard all have lost a significant amount of weight. Ben's double chin is gone. There have been zero reports of players out of shape. Give the coaching staff credit for delivering the message on fitness and making sure everyone showed up in shape this year.
Injuries. To date, the Steelers have been able to keep the injury demons away from key players. Matt Spaeth has been the only serious casualty so far, with Cortez Allen expected back for the regular season opener. Season-ending injuries have only hit players on or outside the bubble. Whether or not this is due to the increased focus on fitness, but whatever they're doing seems to be working better in this area than last year.
Replacing Mike Wallace. Well it's difficult to replace a trick like that, and you can argue that the Steelers won't without another sub-4.3 receiver, but there are a whole bunch of rookies and ex-practice squad guys that are making us realize that there is more than one way for a receiver to get open and that are making us forget about Wallace and his $65M trick in a hurry. Wheaton, Woods and Justin Brown are all showing that they are NFL-capable and giving us reason to think that this WR corps may just be a noticeable upgrade over 2012.
Offensive Line Performance. I don't know about you but I really liked what I saw from the starters on the O-line in the first pre-season game against the Giants. The run blocking was consistent and better than I had seen in years, although the pass blocking still needed some work. It's looking like hiring Jack Bicknell Jr. and moving to a ZBS with the younger, athletic line is going to improve the performance of this unit significantly. Depth is still an issue, as evidenced by the continuing presence of players like Whimper and Batiste on the roster..
Running Game. Related to the offensive line was the question of how good (or bad) the running game would be in 2013. We could, of course, say that it couldn't be worse than 2012 (and that would be correct, in my view). There have been reports out of training camp of a new Steeler Super Hero, drafted in the second round, coming to us from the planet Michigan and able to leap over tall defenders in a single bound. Unfortunately we didn't see him against the Giants, but we did see something in that game that we hadn't seen in a long time - the Steelers ran the ball effectively.
Special Teams Performance. For the past three years, this area of the Steelers game has run somewhere between mediocre and a complete disaster area. Right now, calling it mediocre would be generous. With a new coach and a concerted focus on this part of the game, you'd think that the first outing of the pre-season would see fewer blocked punts, fumbled punt returns, special teams penalties, and generally poor decision making. We're led to wonder if there is something fundamental in how Tomlin runs this team that leads to consistently bad special teams work.
Draft Picks Contributing Earlier. It looks like Le'Veon Bell is going to wrap up the starter's job at running back. In addition, Jarvis Jones and Markus Wheaton look like, although not starters, they'll get a significant number of snaps this season.
Overall I'm liking what I'm seeing. The FO and coaching staff recognized their problems seem to be well on the road to solving them. Now about those special teams.....