The Pittsburgh Steelers report to training camp Thursday, July 27th, and it officially starts the beginning of the 2017 football season. While the masses rejoice at this news, the team, and organization, still have several questions which need answered before Week 1 of the regular season.
I have narrowed the questions down to 5, and will try to decipher whether or not these will have their own answers, or a resolution, before the team starts to play football games which actually matter in the regular season.
1. Will Alejandro Villanueva and Stephon Tuitt get new contracts?
For Villanueva, you have to think this is priority No. 1 for the Steelers. Villanueva is set to make $670 thousand dollars for the entire 2017 season if he signs his Restricted Free Agent (RFA) tender, and this is for a starting left tackle on one of the premiere teams in the NFL. The man they call ‘Big Al’ should get a new deal, and I wouldn’t be shocked if that deal came early in camp, maybe even Day 1.
As for Tuitt, this will be a negotiation which will be based on what he expects to make, and how much salary cap space is available after signing Villanueva. If Tuitt gets a new deal, and there is nothing saying he will, it will likely be a deal which is done later in camp, or before the first game of the regular season. The Steelers don’t mess with contract negotiations during the season, but will work up till the final minute on deals. Tuitt could be one of those.
Ultimately, I believe both get new contracts this preseason.
2. Is the defense capable of more man-coverage?
A lot has been made of the Steelers ability, or inability, to play more man-coverage schemes in their defensive secondary. Mike Tomlin is a Tampa-2 coach, and has been putting in more zone concepts since Dick LeBeau left the team, but the need for them to have more man-coverage schemes in their back pocket was made evident against the New England Patriots in the 2016 AFC Championship game.
The concepts could be there, but what about the personnel? Ross Cockrell and Artie Burns seem more than capable of playing tight man coverage, but the slot might be a different story. T.J. Watt used in sub-packages, more on this later, will help cover shifty and athletic receivers, and a mixture of Cameron Sutton, William Gay and maybe Senquez Golson should help improve the slot defense as well.
This isn’t the first time the talk has been about man-to-man coverage entering a season, and I am of the camp where I say I will believe it when I see it when it comes to the change from zone to man schemes.
3. How will the Steelers handle the RB division of labor
There is little-to-no chance Le’Veon Bell reports to training camp Thursday. I would be stunned if he even steps foot on Saint Vincent College’s campus, most likely waiting until camp breaks before he returns to the team. Nonetheless, Bell is eventually going to sign his franchise tag tender and report to the team.
When that happens, how will the team handle the division of labor in the backfield?
Fans of the Steelers know Bell doesn’t like to come off the field, but how will they use James Conner and Knile Davis in the backfield? Will Bell be spelled more frequently than when DeAngelo Williams was his backup to help save his legs, or will the team continue to try and run the wheels off him?
Although I expect Conner to play well in the preseason in Bell’s absence, I don’t see Todd Haley and Mike Tomlin doing anything different with Bell in the backfield. He is going to get his touches, and continue to be a three-down back in the backfield with Conner spelling him only when necessary.
4. Utilizing T.J. Watt’s unique skill set
When the Steelers selected T.J. Watt in the first round of the 2017 NFL Draft, they didn’t just get an outside linebacker, they got an athletic freak. Watt’s NFL Scouting Combine results were off the charts, and the Steelers have to find a way to get him on the field.
Is Watt ready to beat left tackles regularly in the NFL? Maybe, but I wouldn’t put money on it. What Watt is more than capable of is coverage. His fluid hips and speed will be perfect for the team’s sub packages, which they run nearly 75-percent of the time on defense, and seeing a defense with Ryan Shazier and Watt next to one another, sending Vince Williams off the field, would make for a very intimidating, and possibly dominating, defensive linebacker corps.
The Steelers need to use Watt to maximize his skill set, but also to help keep James Harrison fresh for the stretch run. Both of which I believe will happen in 2017.
5. How will the Wide Receiver depth chart shake out?
The team’s WR depth chart will be one of the fiercest training camp battles to watch while at Saint Vincent College. It was already going to be tough sledding for several players, but now that Sammie Coates will likely start camp on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list due to having his knee scoped, well, things just got real.
Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant, Eli Rogers and JuJu Smith-Schuster are all locks to make the team, in my opinion, but the final two, maybe three, spots on the depth chart will be between Justin Hunter, Sammie Coates, Demarcus Ayers, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Canaan Severin and Cobi Hamilton. 6 players, 2 likely spots.
Get your popcorn ready...but I like the team to keep Heyward-Bey, Hunter and try to hide Ayers on the practice squad with Severin. This is all dependent on Coates’ knee keeping him out of camp and therefore out of the competition all together.
As they say, “You can’t make the club from the tub.”