The training camp phase of the preseason is winding down as the team prepares to take on the Washington Redskins Monday night in my neck of the woods. With one stadium experience under their belts the state and composition of various postion groups is starting to shape up. The promise that was shown by the rookie and second year classes is not a mirage. Help is on the way. They're dodging injuries as if caught out in a hail storm, but they continue to elude serious consequences for the most part.
The depth chart
Football games are played so rarely compared to other sports that it's hard not to place a lot of weight on games that everyone understands intellectually to be meaningless. So the first taste of Steelers football for 2013 left a bitter taste in some mouths even though the result has no bearing on anything to follow besides as an evaluation tool of players and schemes. There was legitimate disappointment that the anticipated debut of Le'Veon Bell was postponed due to a minor injury, and may be delayed again after the injury was aggravated in practice on Thursday. Though the team was unable to secure a victory on Saturday, they escaped the evening free of serious injury, and in my biased opinion, more positive news than not concerning many new and returning players.
These developments were reflected in the new depth chart released by Mike Tomlin this week. Newcomers such as LaRod Stephens-Howling, Markus Wheaton, Brian Rolle and Vince Williams, as well as veterans like Al Woods and Adrian Robinson enhanced their status, while others such as David Gilreath and DaMon Cromartie-Smith may have taken a step back. However, it can't be emphasized enough that this is just one leg in a long distance race. One of the fun things that fans and media like to do at this time of the year is to begin projecting the final 53 man roster, but there is a way to go yet. Performance and likely, unfortunately, unforeseen circumstances such as injury will have their say before its all done.
We also learned a lot about how the position groups and the schematic changes, where applicable, are playing out. There was mostly good news here, and surprisingly so in some cases.
This was one group that folks have been stressing about throughout the off season because of an apparent lack of depth. There was Lawrence Timmons, Larry Foote and then what? By the end of Saturday evening the question seemed to be who among a promising group of prospects will come up short and be without a helmet when all is said and done. Pretty much every inside linebacker on the roster helped themselves with their play, including off the radar types like Brian Rolle, Terence Garvin and Kion Wilson. And if that wasn't promising enough, it appears that Sean Spence may be available to return sometime during the 2013 campaign.
Another group that now appears to be delightfully deep is the D line. The big news here is the performance of Al Woods who recorded nine tackles and was named Steelers Digest player of the game. Newcomer Brian Arnfelt represented himself well, and the reported demises of end Ziggy Hood and nose tackle Alameda Ta'amu appear to be premature. With this representing the end of the Casey Hampton era, and some thinking that this may be Brett Keisel's last year, it would be understandable to think of this unit as taking a step back. Instead, we could be seeing a new group of talented, energetic players emerging that could go six to seven players deep, take up a place on the practice squad, and may still leave some promising talent on the street.
There are still troubling issues related to depth to be worked out and worried about going forward. But if there were questions about the quality of play of the front line group or the relative effectiveness of the new zone blocking scheme then Saturday was a very good night. Adams, DeCastro and Gilbert did not disappoint, and when the first unit was in there was a potent consistency to the run game that has been rarely seen in the past few years.
You would think with all the hype related to the loss of Mike Wallace as well as the bad news that Plaxico Burress would be lost for the season due to injury that the situation at receiver would seem to be precarious at best. To the contrary, even with David Gilreath laying an egg, this looks like a group that will have more promise than helmets when all is said and done.
Jarvis Jones, Adrian Robinson and Alan Baxter played well enough to allay fears concerning a deficit of either talent or depth at this position.
Things are a little more problematic with tight ends, running backs, defensive backs and special teams. Most of the concerns are driven by injuries, and hoping things don't get worse, will be resolved in time as players recover and get back on line.
Things seemed a lot worse this time last week, but as it turns out Matt Spaeth is not lost for the season, and the fact that the Steelers did not feel it necessary to dip into the free agent market to procure another player has led some to believe that the prognosis for a return of Heath Miller sooner rather than later might be pretty good. It would be fair to say that in the short run the position is a bit under siege. Players such as David Paulson and newcomer Michael Palmer are playing well given the circumstances, but what breakdowns there were with the offense were likely to come from tight end.
The breakdowns in this phase of the game (blocked punt, fumbled punt) represented the margin of defeat on Saturday. Not unsurprisingly some wanted to read too much into this as a sign that there might be structural problems with the unit. In the good news department, the punting competition involving Drew Butler and Brian Moorman is currently at a dead heat. And Shaun Suisham whose only weakness last year was an apparent lack of range hit a 60 yard field goal in practice this week.
Still a concern obviously. There was good news as cornerbacks Curtis Brown and Terry Hawthorne came back on line after being part of a rash of injuries incurred by the defensive backs early in camp. This was offset by yet another injury to an offensive lineman (Justin Cheadle) and then both number one running backs (Bell and Redman) being knocked out in one practice. Jarvis Jones is reportedly nicked (groin) as well. The injuries to Bell and Redman are not considered serious. But for a team that was ravaged by injuries last season and with a lot promising talent but less proven depth than in years past, there is a great deal of nervousness concerning whether this team is snake bitten.
PaVaSteelers tried to provide a little perspective here. Its not so much that the concerns about injuries are unfounded, its just that the concern is league wide. Pittsburgh has actually been relatively fortunate when compared to other teams this summer. The reduction in injuries hoped for as a result of the reduction in padded practices negotiated in the new CBA have not materialized. And it is now being recognized that the specter of injury poses the single biggest challenge that threatens to degrade the quality of the product on the field. This is not encouraging news, but it may alleviate the ongoing worries that the Steelers are doing something 'wrong' in the area of injury prevention.
How good are the new guys?
As I mentioned last week, there is always a danger of getting overly enamored with the alleged potential of the young talent that comes in every year. Disappointment and disillusionment often follows. So two sets of questions were out there as we approached the first preseason game; would the positive reviews that the first year players were receiving in camp be justified on Heinz Field, and what would we make of the second year players who also were viewed with so much promise last year? The answer for Le'Veon Bell would be deferred. But there was a lot of new information on the others and much of it was good.
Ike Taylor paid a high complement to Markus Wheaton stating that he did not look like a rookie on the field. Wheaton has been characterized as a more complete player than the departed Wallace. The reviews of Jarvis Jones were a little more uneven, but definitely trending in a positive direction. Justin Brown had the most receptions of any receiver.
With the second year players, Steel34D graded the group (even Chris Rainey). Kelvin Beachum will attempt to expand the range of his effective resume by taking on duties at center this Monday. Alameda Ta'amu seems to be making progress with his rehabilitation efforts. Whether it will be enough remains to be seen.
An ongoing concern with all the veteran losses that the team has endured over the past couple of years is how the leadership void would be filled as the team transitions to a new generation. Two responses came in the form of
Troy Polamalu speaking to renewing the sense of team camaraderie, and Antonio Brown channeling Hines Ward as he responds to the filling the role as number one receiver.
In spite of the steady presence of Ben Roethlisberger, the Steelers are entering a new era in the quarterback room. We had stories that focused upon the evolving quarterback situation as new talent is incorporated and we looked forward (Bruce Gladkowski) and back (Bubby Brister)
Who needs to step up in week two
SteelCityRoller gives his take on the seven players who have to make a statement for a place on the 53 man roster this week in Washington.
Ranking the Steelers fan base
Steeler Nation is ranked as the fifth 'most engaged' fan base in the NFL.
More than just a saying
The head coaches signature Tomlinism 'The Standard is the Standard' is now a fixture of the Steelers locker room
Goodbye to Latrobe
Rebecca Rollett weighs in with her last report from the campus of Saint Vincent College. The Steelers break camp on Sunday and after their trip to Washington continue their preparation for the 2013 season at their South Side facility in Pittsburgh.
More from Behind the Steel Curtain:
- Steelers training camp updates
- Ben paddles his way back to powerful territory
- Tomlin gives Le'Veon Bell a clean bill of health
- Friday training camp recap: Cortez Allen practices
- Meet Jeremy Wright, the Steelers newest running back
- Dawson on All Madden 25 Team
- Le'Veon Bell's injury is minor, returns to the field Friday
- Steelers Pre-Season Injuries not Tomlin’s fault
- The Other Pittsburgh Steelers Quarterback from Louisiana: Remembering Bubby Brister
- Ramon Foster not into training camp scrimmages
- Kelvin Beachum, the Steelers Swiss Army Knife, to take second-team reps at center