The Steelers will embark on St. Vincent College in Latrobe, Pa. next month to begin yet another training camp. Like many other folks, I have a list of things I’m looking for.
Below is that list:
1. Will third-year man James Conner be the workhorse again at running back, or, in a departure from their old philosophy and approach, will the coaches noticeably lighten his load?
And if Conner’s workload is lightened, what percentage of the carries will he now get? I honestly believe the Steelers have such a good offensive line, just about any player the team employs in the backfield among its current stable that includes Jaylen Samuels, Benny Snell and Conner will be productive. However, that doesn’t mean one back can’t be the most talented and capable. Based on his production last year and how the offense performed when he was a focal point (pre-injury issues), I believe Conner is the most capable. I don’t believe the Steelers will fully depart from their old habit of giving one running back the bulk of the carries. But they—specifically general manager Kevin Colbert—have talked about perhaps changing their approach in that area. It will be interesting to see what that means when things start happening for real this summer.
2. Can an emphasis on creating them lead to more turnovers by a defense?
I’ve been quite vocal about the Steelers lack of takeaways on defense dating back to 2011, when this problem first emerged. If you go back to that season, it started a trend in-which the defense averaged approximately 19 takeaways a year through 2018, when the total was an abysmal 15. That’s never going to get it done. The Steelers have paid a lot of lip-service this offseason to emphasizing takeaways in 2019. How can that be emphasized, and why wasn’t it emphasized the previous eight years? All one has to do is research past Super Bowl champions and how well they did in the turnover department to know just how vital that category is. Finally, can taking the football away truly be taught? Or is it a skill that only truly great defenders possess? And if that’s the case, will some of those defenders emerge this season?
3. Can JuJu Smith-Schuster handle the responsibility of being the number one target in the passing game?
Given his skill-set, physical attributes and body of work through his first two seasons, there’s no question Smith-Schuster is capable of being the man in the Steelers offense. However, there’s also no question the recently-departed Antonio Brown was the greatest receiver in team history and one of the best who has ever played in the NFL. With Brown not around to take on double and triple teams, how will that affect what defenses try and do with No. 19? And if teams do start paying extra attention to Smith-Schuster, will he be able to rise to the occasion?
4. Who will step up and be the number two receiver in the offense?
The smart money is on Donte Moncrief, the veteran Pittsburgh signed in free agency in March. Moncrief has a history of putting up decent number two receiver stats—particularly early in his career, when he was with the Colts and Andrew Luck was healthy. Moncrief spoke very highly of Ben Roethlisberger during OTAs and mini-camp. Will playing with a future Hall of Famer (and not Blake Bortles) allow Moncrief to elevate his game and be more productive than at any other time in his career? Or maybe it will be James Washington, the second-year man out of Oklahoma State who struggled mightily during his rookie campaign, who rises to the occasion. Washington is lighter this season and seems highly-determined to make that all-important first to second year leap. While the smart money might be on the veteran, NFL history tells me not to discount the determined youngster.
5. Speaking of first to second year leaps, why aren’t more people talking about Terrell Edmunds?
There’s been a lot of talk about a lot of different things this offseason, but the 2018 first-round pick has gone mostly under the radar. While Edmunds did start a lot of games during his rookie year, he didn’t exactly turn heads. Strong safety is a vital part of any defense. How will Edmunds respond to having one year of NFL experience under his belt?
6. Will Mason Rudolph emerge as the clear-cut backup quarterback?
And if Rudolph does beat out Josh Dobbs to become the backup to Roethlisberger, what will that even mean? Will it mean he’s the heir apparent, or will that simply mean he out-performed Dobbs during training camp and the preseason? I personally don’t think quarterbacks can be groomed into starters. In my opinion, they have to be thrown into the fray right away and just take their lumps and learn—NFL history is littered with many examples. Head coach Mike Tomlin once joked that Landry Jones took more preseason snaps than any quarterback in NFL history. However, that obviously didn’t translate into him becoming a capable starter. You might say Rudolph is no Landry Jones. Maybe, but we once thought highly of Landry Jones.
7. Is Javon Hargrave a beast just waiting to be released?
The fourth-year man out of South Carolina State graded out really well in his ability to win blocking match-ups in 2018, at least according to Pro Football Focus. Does this mean Hargrave, who had 6.5 sacks last year, will get more opportunities to show his stuff in 2019?
Oh well, that’s one list for this morning. I may have more. After all, training camp is still over a month away. Stay tuned!