On July 27th, your Pittsburgh Steelers will report to Latrobe, PA to kick off the start of the 2008 season. We'll delve into full anticipatory coverage of camp in the forthcoming weeks, and do our best to provide us with solid coverage of how things shake out in Latrobe, but for now, let's start with a discussion on what I think should be the most interesting developments of the Pittsburgh Steelers 2008 Training Camp and preseason.
1) Max Starks, Marvel Smith, and the rest of the Steelers Offensive Line
Let's just get this one out of the way and start by saying that I can't wait to see how Starks and Smith look once the pads go on. In the case of Starks, I sure hope we see a bull in the china shop mentality from him from Day 1. In the case of Marvel Smith, I'll feel much, much better about our season if he seems to be entirely void of the back issues that were plaguing him at the end of last year. As for the rest of the guys, there's no need to rehash everything that's been said since Hartwig was signed in free agency. I just hope Tomlin, Zierlein, and Arians all stick to the mantra: may the best man win.
2) What's in store for Dennis Dixon?
I've been meaning to mention this for awhile, though I'm not sure what it means, if anything, but Dennis Dixon is easily the most searched for player by Steelers fans on this site. We haven't spent much time discussing him and his future in Pittsburgh, so I doubt too many have come away satisfied in their search. Anyway, I suspect that most of those folks scouring for news and innuendos about Dixon are Oregon Ducks fans, who enjoyed multiple years of Dixon's unique abilities.
What role, if any, will he have on the 2008 Pittsburgh Steelers? It's not very likely that he'll situate himself ahead of Charlie Batch on the depth chart. But it is possible that we see plenty of him during the preseason games to come away sufficiently impressed and convinced that he'll be in the #2 slot in 2009. But, is it also possible that we discover that the coaching staff has other plans to get him involved this year? I sure loved the way we mixed in a gadget play or two during the final years of the Ken Whisenhunt era. Other than the Cedric Wilson 2-pt conversion pass against Jacksonville, I can not recall another instance in which he tried something tricky last year. Might Dixon be the guy we use to shake things up?
3) The Defensive Backfield
We know Ike Taylor, Troy Polamalu, Deshea Townsed, and Bryant McFadden will all see the field and be the primary components of our secondary, provided they're all healthy. What about Ryan Clark, though? Reports confirm he looks good thus far this offseason and should be just fine in 2008. But, again, pads have not yet been put on. What about William Gay? I kinda like the look of the kid. Will he impress in camp and the preseason and work his way into some dime and nickel packages? And what about Anthony Smith and Tyrone Carter? An. Smith is likely going to be an integral part of our defense, but Carter could very well be beat out for a spot, despite counting very little against the cap. Finally, we know Mike Lorello won't be around, but what about Ryan Mundy, Travis Williams, and the other rookies we have. Will any of them stick?
4) The Return Game and Special Teams
There was an article earlier this offseason about the deliberate decision made by Tomlin to spend less time and energy in practice on special teams. For a team that fared poorly for the most part on special teams last year, that seems strange to me, but these are the coaches decisions must make, and for now, I'll just have to assume that Tomlin has a plan.
Who will return punts and kicks for us this year? One would have to imagine that we'll tip our hand during camp and during the preseason. Other than Mewelde Moore fielding punts, your guess is as good as mine as to who might also get a stab as a PR, and who Tomlin and Ligashesky will opt to go with on kick returns. That's enough speculating for now on this subject, but it's worth mentioning that this also ties into....
5) Who Will Win That 5th WR Spot
If Willie Reid, or Kevin Marion can prove themselves enough in the return game, they maybe, just maybe, can sneak onto the squad as the 5th WR. Obviously, that 5th WR won't have his number called much, if at all, as a WR, provided the guys in front of him stay healthy. But if neither of them show enough, the competition may be between Dallas Baker and Micah Rucker. Willie Reid deserves mentioning here for that 5th spot, more so than Rucker in the minds of most fans and reporters. I'm not one of them, really. I personally think that Reid better be rock solid on special teams this camp or he'll be let go. My feelings don't mean much though, so let's just consider many to be in the mix right now, making this internal competition interesting, if not overly critical to the success of the team.
Anyway, many feel Baker has the leg up right now, and I wouldn't disagree. But that theme of 'let's wait till the pads go on' rings true here as well. Baker's yet to prove his meddle when contact's involved. I'll be curious to see how this shakes out.
Can Kyle Clement make the team and add youthful depth along the D-line?
Can Tony Hills give us reason to hope that, with or without Marvel Smith, our offensive line is in better shape moving forward than we might think?
How hard will Tomlin work the guys, knowing what he now knows about burnout late in the season?
Wil Keyaron Fox, Bruce Davis, and any of our other young additions give us the energetic and sure-tackling head-hunters on special teams that we so sorely missed last year?
Will Jeff Reed leave his clothes on?