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What fans should expect during this 2014 Pittsburgh Steelers training camp

One man's take on some key issues that may define the 2014 Pittsburgh Steelers' season

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

What do we need to be looking for in training camp that will have the greatest impact on the course and of the Steelers' 2014 season? Obviously, certain position battles will be crucial, but there are also some issues that can determine the team's success this year depending on how they unfold.

Injuries

The 2014 season has been kind to Steelers so far and that is a huge bonus heading into training camp. However, in the NFL it is usually not a question of 'if' as it relates to injuries but how and when. Nor do injuries in and of themselves derail seasons. In 2005, Willie Parker got his chance to shine in large measure because Jerome Bettis and Duce Staley were both sidelined with injuries. Ben Roethlisberger was lost for several games in the middle of that magical season, and the team still won it's fifth Lombardi. In 2008, they did it again even though their best offensive lineman, Marvel Smith, was on injured reserve, and players like Casey Hampton and Willie Parker were lost for multiple games. Those injuries required individuals like Darnell Stapleton and Mewelde Moore to step up and perform at crucial times throughout that season.

On the other hand, the 2013 Pittsburgh Steelers were a team lacking depth and experience in key areas, with important contributors like Heath Miller and Le'Veon Bell not yet ready to step in.  The loss of Maurkice Pouncey, Larry Foote and LaRod Stephens-Howlings in the first game was essentially a kill shot to the entire season. It is a testament to the organization that they rallied and came within a missed field goal of making the playoffs, but those injuries came upon the wrong people at the wrong time.

Because of the number of new faces that are going to be part of this roster it is not a stretch to say that regardless of how well they start out, the 2014 Pittsburgh Steelers will most likely be at their best later in the season. Consequently, even relatively minor setbacks could have a powerful impact if they occur earlier rather than later. As other Steelers beat writers have pointed out, an injury to a player that is sufficient to keep him off the field in camp or early practices and resulting in missed reps could retard unit cohesion sufficiently to impact wins and losses early, not to mention being catastrophic for any number of players fighting for jobs.

Put simply, for a team that is experiencing this type of transition even a rather minor injury may go a long way in determining who comes, who stays and who goes. Whether a Brett Keisel or a James Harrison might eventually find themselves on the roster as well as any number of others who are on the bubble could well be decided by injuries. A strained hamstring occurring to the wrong person at the wrong time, like the proverbial butterfly whose flapping wings could influence the creation of a hurricane, might make the difference in a division title or playoff berth.

The learning curve

We are rightfully curious about how certain position battles play out like the one about to begin at wide receiver. But as important and compelling as those stories can be, the critical and urgent concern is how quickly whomever ends up in those particular roles can get on the same page on either offense or defense.

Two things have been true over the past three off seasons. One, the team has done a fine job in accumulating quality personnel, particularly through the draft. Two, fans have consistently overestimated how quickly the majority of those players can get up to speed and contribute at a high level. We've been told that this year will be different. It will have to be if this team is to hit the high end of its aspirations. There appears to be little doubt that the newcomers are athletically capable. And the demands (or lack) of spring football in shorts is going to skew those capabilities. Their football capacity, as well as their ability to achieve cohesion is still an open question. The optimistic view is that this is more of a matter of when rather than if, but knowing the fan base if the answer to when isn't "very soon" then disgruntlement, not to mention struggles on the field may not be far behind.

It's important to note that in what would be considered by many as a cultural role reversal the 2014 Steelers are most likely to be carried, at least early, by the offense. Assuming, as many do, that, in another reversal, the offensive line is one of the more experienced and stable areas of the team and is in more than capable hands with Mike Munchak at the helm, that the tight ends are strong at the top of the depth chart and with the running backs being a somewhat more low maintenance group, would it be hyperbole to suggest that the fate of the season may well hinge upon what happens with the wide receivers?

Let me quickly say that I don't think this has anything to do with ability. We went through this drill last year. It was believed that the loss of Mike Wallace would mean that the receiving corps would experience a serious downturn. What the world learned was that Wallace was a much better receiver when he was working with Ben than with Ryan Tannehill while those left behind in Pittsburgh got more opportunities and did quite well individually and collectively. The lesson? Expect Emmanuel Sanders to do better because he's working with a better quarterback than Wallace. And don't judge the newcomers to the Steelers group based upon what they did elsewhere. The issue is likely to be who steps up and how quickly. The losers in that struggle will probably not be out of football, but will likely be wearing a different uniform come September

Veterans

Job security in the short term is not going to be the problem with the upper tier veterans (with Darrius Heyward-Bey perhaps being a notable exception) though there will be questions posed concerning longevity in almost every case. But the big challenge for almost all of them will center around leadership.

For Lawrence Timmons and probably Health Miller in particular, their job descriptions will likely involve more than just performing the duties of their respective positions at a high level. At least one of them will almost certainly be a team captain in fact, and both will be carrying those responsibilities if not the job title. And it will not be merely ceremonial. Troy Polamalu, Ike Taylor and Ben will also be carrying this burden as well. They are the embodiment of institutional memory as well as championship pedigree. Joining them will be Maurkice Pouncey, Antonio Brown and Ramon Foster on offense, and significantly, Cam Heyward. I say significant because Heyward was considered a marginal contributor just one year ago. With that in mind, do not be surprised if other leaders emerge quickly. The landscape has changed. This is no longer a team dominated by long term veterans.

Another relevant question has to do with the relative rate of decline that most of those mentioned in this section are experiencing. An intriguing example might be Ike Taylor. The assumption is that Taylor is on his last lap in the league, but alternative explanations are possible. What was not taken into account last season was that it was the first that the normally durable Taylor had to deal with on the heels of a major injury (broken leg). Had he lost a couple of steps or had he not made it all the way back. The first half of the Detroit game seemed to seal the matter in the minds of many, but forgetting that Megatron has a way of making any cornerback look real bad. So the question with Taylor is has he fallen as far as some would think?

The most important position battle

Outcomes may not be as important with some position battles as is the process of how the result was obtained. For example, if Kelvin Beachum easily retains his job as starting left tackle is that because of his remarkable rise on the team and a testament to hard work, intelligence and technique, or is it some combination of unrealized potential on the part of either Mike Adams or Marcus Gilbert (or both)? In an ideal world you want this to be an agonizing decision for Munchak and the rest of the coaching staff. You like the same to be true with every position group.

But returning to the butterfly metaphor, is it possible that the most important competition might be at punter? Punting is often the determining factor as to whether the offense and defense are consistently faced with a short or long field respectively which gives them the best chance to succeed. Unreliable and inconsistent punting can do as much to undercut an offense or defense as anything.

Camp darlings

It seems that every year there are one or two players that we root for; some simply to make the team as a feel good story about the rewards of perseverance, others to reach a higher level and make significant contributions. Isaac Redman and Baron Batch have been recent examples. This season we have a winner in waiting. Sean Spence. A lot of people tear up at the mere thought of him not only making the 53 man roster but making more than token contributions. There are any number of other worthy candidates as well. Dan McCullers and Josh Mauro, Terence Garvin and Howard Jones, Danny Coale and C.J. Goodwin. Any and all of them may make the team, but if he's wearing black and gold come September our hearts will belong to Sean.