The Steelers offense is the best in the league. This is, in my mind, irrefutable. We all know the mainstays of this unit - the killer B's. Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and Le'Veon Bell have little to nothing to prove at training camp, they all have built their reputations as the reliable starters that a team with a seventh Super Bowl victory in their sites needs.
This does not mean that there are not some interesting things happening at minicamp on the offensive side of the ball -- in fact competition is vital for this team to staying in their prime.
Here are the top 5 battles on offence to watch.
Last season, Alejandro Villanueva was vital for the team on the offensive line when he filled in for Kelvin Beachum (now at Jacksonville). This shows the need for depth at left tackle, and so there have been moves to resolve this by the Steelers.
And he just got better with every game. He has a 6'9" frame carrying 320lbs of brute strength, 100lbs of which he added once he was signed to the practice squad. This guy oozes commitment and work ethic -- something the Steelers value highly. He is also incredibly versatile. Villanueva can line up pretty much anywhere: wide receiver, defensive end or O-line. He even played tight end while in college. His story is a great one too, he has served in the army in Afghanistan and has worked his way to where he is today since leaving the military. But the Steelers are not 100% sold on him.
During the offseason, Pittsburgh signed Ryan Harris from Denver and have drafted Jerald Hawkins from Louisiana State University. Ryan Harris, the oldest of the three, won a Super Bowl with the Broncos, something that clearly works in his favor. He's quick into position to get on the line. And although he was seen good enough to protect Peyton Manning, he was beaten by Kony Ealy in the Super Bowl. This seems unfair, considering most linemen in the league would find it difficult blocking Ealy. On the other hand, he was also beaten by Jarvis Jones last time Pittsburgh played Denver. This is a little more revealing of Harris' ability.
Hawkins was a smart draft pick by the Steelers. He can play as both left and right tackle. He's durable. He can change direction well to block the oncoming defenders, and has great field awareness. Of course, being as Harris was acquired, Hawkins is more likely there for insurance, but it would be unfair to say that he won't fight for his place on the roster. The battle for left tackle could be an interesting one.
The situation of backup QB has been something I have been invested in since I've been writing about the Steelers. And for good reason. Roethlisberger, although easily the best QB on the roster and easily one of, if not the, best QB in the NFL, has had more injuries than I am comfortable with while with the Steelers. Last season is testament to that, where Pittsburgh had to sign Michael Vick in a pinch, due to the fact that Big Ben and Bruce Gradkowski both got injured. Vick then himself, got injured. Landry Jones then had to step up to the plate. This real possibility of another bad injury to Roethlisberger means that backup quarterback is remarkably important to the Steelers.
This spot will be fought out by Landry Jones and now re-signed Bruce Gradkowski. Jones did well against the Cardinals when Vick got injured in the regular season, but suffered against the Chiefs the following week. When Roethlisberger got hurt in the wild card game against the Bengals, it was Jones that stepped back in. Jones then got intercepted. An injured Big Ben was then put back in rather than carry on with Jones. Jones has poor accuracy when going deep, gets jumpy in the pocket and panics under pressure. Despite that, another year of experience could have helped all of that.
On the other end of the spectrum is Bruce Gradkowski. Gradkowski is more experienced and more consistent than Jones. In the wild card matchup following the 2014 season agasint the Ravens, it was Gradkowski that converted on 4th down once Roethlisberger was injured with a suspected concussion. Once cleared to continue playing, Ben was put back in and was intercepted in the end zone on the very next play. Gradkowski has experience as a starter in the league, but his age and lack of play time in the last year is worth thinking about.
Back up quarterback will be important to watch for the coming season.
Wide Receiver (other than Antonio Brown)
Even with a suspended Martavis Bryant, the Steelers have the deepest set of wide receivers in the NFL. Antonio Brown is the clear choice for receiver number one. However, there are actually two battles going on here on the depth chart: the first is to set the ranking of the next three receivers - Markus Wheaton, Darrius Heyward-Bey and Sammie Coates; the second is the battle for the final receiver between Demarcus Ayers, Eli Rogers and Shakim Phillips.
Wheaton, although not as dynamic as Brown, is quick and is in a contract year and coming of a career year. He will want to top his best numbers from last year. He was expected to challenge for the number two spot last year, but Bryant got it. Now is his chance to take it. Heyward-Bey is not an every-down player and doesn't put up awesome stats like Wheaton, but when he does make plays, they come in crucial moments - catching a deep pass for a touchdown, converting on a third down, scoring conversions, things like that. He's also good at keeping opposing cornerbacks off, so he could be a dark horse.
Sammie Coates is the more likely to challenge Wheaton for number 2, if he lives up to all the praise that writers, fans and coaches alike have given him. When Antonio Brown got injured against Denver in the playoffs, it was Coates that got thrown into the lineup and did well considering no one really knew how well he'd do. He is fast, and taller than both Brown and Wheaton. His features are remarkably similar to that of Martavis Bryant, and therefore might be a logical choice to play beside Brown when considering how well Bryant did last season.
The fight for fifth wide receiver is just as contentious. The favourite is Eli Rogers. Rogers was brought in as a UDFA last year, but was injured in training camp so never touched the gridiron. He is agile and quick. Like Brown, he is small, shifty and most importantly can return kicks. That, more than the ability they have to catch passes, is the factor that is most likely to decide who will get the number five spot. This is because the Steelers are anxious to pass the kick return duties off of Antonio Brown to help keep him healthy. Demarcus Ayers, drafted from Houston this year, can also return kicks. Ayers is another small and shifty player, and although not the fastest is agile and can get around defenders. Shakim Phillips is the least likely to get that spot since he doesn't return kicks, but if he can prove he is an asset to the team, could get the spot despite this. Phillips has a year of practice squad experience over the other two, and is bigger and faster than them. Watching the battles on the wide receiver depth chart is a must.
Stars vs. Lingering Injuries
The Steelers, as I have already partially mentioned, have not had a good run with injuries recently. This has affected both sides of the ball, but offense has been where the real worries have been.
Le'Veon Bell has not played a single playoff game in his career. He has had two season ending knee injuries in his career, and that does not bode well for a running back. He is an amazing player (as we all know), so a player that can be this prolific is hurt can only mean a negative impact on the productivity of the team. Bell is important, because as mentioned earlier, Ben can get hurt. Last season against the Chargers we saw that Bell picked up the workload once Roethlisberger was out. Bell's battle against his injury will be important moving forward.
Roethlisberger himself is battling against injury. When considering that Big Ben has only completed an entire season 4 times in his 12 year career (one being in 2010 where he was suspended for 4 games), this is hugely important. He had three separate injuries last season, the first was against St. Louis when a defender rolled up on his leg, the second was when he was tackled and landed on his foot awkwardly and the third was being sacked by Vontaze Burfict on his shoulder. If he can't overcome these injuries, this will affect his playing. Watching Ben's and Bell's progress in training camp and how they recover from their injuries in this time is essential to understanding the form the offence will be in come the start of the season.
Youth vs. Experience
A theme through this list has been young players fighting for a spot against older players with experience. Watching this will show the direction the Steelers are moving in. If there are more young players taking the lead, then the Steelers could be rebuilding for a more youthful and durable team. If not, it shows the Steelers value consistency and experience. This is not to say that a younger player won't get the position if Pittsburgh values consistency, but if there is a widespread change across the team then it could show what the team values in its players.
Looking at wide receiver, we see players like Coates and Ayers trying to get positions over Wheaton and Heyward-Bey, new guys trying to get a roster spot over guys with years of experience. We see this at left tackle and quarterback too - Ryan Harris vs Gerald Hawkins and Landry Jones vs Bruce Gradkowski. We also see it at other positions. At running back, behind Le'Veon Bell there's DeAngelo Williams and Fitzgerald Toussaint. Williams has one year left on his contract, and at 33 years-old, he doesn't have long left in the NFL. Toussaint on the other hand is also on a contract year and is 26 years-old. We could see Pittsburgh's direction here based upon the moves made at camp. Williams is probably the better player, but his age does have to be a factor.
There are going to be a lot of interesting things going on in camp, and these are just five. Camp is great to see any possible changes in direction that a team might make from one season to another. It's going to be fun watching these battles on the offence, and seeing how that affects the team moving into week one.