Pittsburgh Steelers: What We've Learned Through Week 1 of Training Camp
The Pittsburgh Steelers have put a bow on the first week of NFL Training Camp, and there has been lots of activity. 2014 marks a pivotal season for the Steelers. After back-to-back 8-8 seasons and no playoffs, the entire franchise understands it must buck this trend.
Pittsburgh is breaking from tradition, with multiple rookies in prominent roles right from the jump. The core of this team remains in tact, but the pressure is on for several young players to step up and play big for this team.
Pittsburgh was one of the last teams to start training camp. They have officially wrapped up their first week of practice, and here are some of the things we have learned thus far.
Here’s a link to the initial depth chart that the Steelers released today. This information will be referenced within these slides.
Dri Archer Making Life Easier on Antonio Brown
I could sit here all day and expound on just how exciting is the potential of rookie running back Dri Archer. His ability to punish defenses with his speed is something this team hasn’t had in a very long time.
However, beyond being able to play running back and line up in the slot, it could be Archer’s impact on special teams that really helps this team. The new depth chart has Archer as the starting kick returner and backup punt returner. Giving Archer the kick-return duties makes perfect sense. However, the best thing the coaches can do is line up Arche to return punts as well.
As great as Antonio Brown is as a punt returner, he may be even better at wide receiver, where in 2013 he elevated himself to among the league's elite. In order to maintain that level of play, his focus needs to be on being a wide receiver full time. There isn’t another wide receiver in the league with his kinds of numbers who is also a full-time returner.
All Archer needs to do is hold onto the football in the preseason when he gets opportunities, and he should slide up that depth chart by the start of the regular season as well. And the reality is, the more touches Archer gets, the better this team will be.
In addition, the speed of Archer on the field as a slot wide receiver helps Brown. Defenses won't be able to bracket Brown if Archer lines up on the same side. Two of the quickest, most explosive players in the league on the same side of the field forces defenses to make decisions. Those decisions are going to give Brown much better looks than he got in 2013.
Martavis Bryant Better Than His Spot on the Depth Chart
Going back to the depth chart, it is certainly puzzling that rookie wide receiver Martavis Bryant finds himself buried behind six other wide receivers—a group that includes Darrius Heyward-Bey and Derek Moye.
But by virtue of how well Bryant has played in camp thus far, there is no way he should be behind either of those players. As Scott Brown of ESPN.com pointed out in his most recent camp report, Bryant just continues to play better and better every single day.
Perhaps head coach Mike Tomlin is keeping Bryant humble and grounded by sticking him so far back on the depth chart, but I suspect it’s mainly posturing. This team will likely carry five wide receivers. With Antonio Brown, Markus Wheaton, Lance Moore and Justin Brown in the first four, it’s up to Bryant to secure that last one. And trust that he will.
Regardless of his spot on the depth chart, Bryant is the best big receiving target this team has had since Plaxico Burress was in his prime. He'll need to earn his spot, but there's really no fear in Bryant not making this team.
Mike Adams Has to Go
I wrote back in October 2013 that offensive tackle Mike Adams needed to be replaced, and in the nine months since, he has done nothing to dissuade me.
Training camp has been a nightmare for Adams, and at this point it seems more like a matter of when, not if the third-year pro finds himself out of work. The Steelers are putting together a very talented offensive line. With the potential addition of more outside zone, playing on this line is predicated on being able to get out in space and cut defenders.
Adams is a nice run-blocking lineman. He’s got all the measurables you want from an NFL-caliber tackle. Unfortunately, his overall lack of athleticism and terrible feet are just too much to overcome. Pittsburgh has some interesting young linemen who can play multiple positions.
Considering the number of injuries this unit had last year, those types of players are far more valuable than Adams. Sorry Mike, but there's no place for you on this team.
Defensive Line Is Better Than 2013
Going into the offseason, there were questions about who was going to be playing defensive line for the Steelers. After letting Ziggy Hood, Al Woods and Brett Keisel leave, those questions being even more challenging.
Fast forward to now, however, and this group looks to be much stronger than last year’s squad. Defensive end Cameron Heyward is back and hoping to build on a strong second half of 2013. Newcomers Stephon Tuitt and Cam Thomas are massive, athletic players who can line up in multiple spots.
That’s not to say all is perfect, as nose tackle Steve McLendon returns and looks to be unchallenged for the starting spot.
Ultimately, this line is best if Thomas can play the nose and the rookie Tuitt can play the end spot opposite Heyward. Nevertheless, for the time being, Tuitt is a reserve.
The good thing is, there is some exciting young depth on this roster. Rookies Josh Mauro and Daniel McCullers have both impressed during training camp, and this group top to bottom looks much more talented than the 2013 unit.
The Linebackers Run Deep
As much praise as I can laud onto the defensive line, it is this group of linebackers that is really standing out in training camp. In particular, the inside linebackers have been outstanding. Lawrence Timmons are penciled in as the starters, but reserves Sean Spence and Vince Williams have been tremendous.
Mike Prisuta on steelers.com got into the depth of this group with linebackers coach Kevin Butler.
On the outside, it is less about star power, and more about building a solid group. Jason Worilds and Jarvis Jones are the starters, and Arthur Moats have played well enough in camp to be the primary backup on the outside.
This is really saying something when you consider he came from the Buffalo Bills where he played exclusively in a 4-3 defense and even spent quite a bit of time playing on the inside.
It will be interesting to see if the Steelers opt for nine linebackers on the final roster or only eight. The strength of this group might warrant keeping nine and keeping one less as a position like safety where the Steelers don’t have the plethora of talent.
Energy Is at an All-Time High
If there is nothing else you take from training camp reports, it’s that this is a team prepping for the season with a great deal of energy and aggression. The players understand how important this season is. They also understand that with few exceptions there aren’t any jobs that are truly safe.
The highlights of this have been some of the most physical drills long-time Steelers’ reporters have ever seen, and as pointed out by ESPN.com’s Scott Brown, multiple fights in just the first week.
This level of early energy really punctuates just how important the players and coaches view this season. It will be very interesting to see how all this training camp energy and intensity translates to the field during exhibition and regular seasons.
The talent is on this roster to win plenty of games. It is playing with a high level of energy every single game that was lacking in 2013. This newfound energy is a great sign.
Ryan Shazier to Make History
There isn’t a player on this team who has warranted more discussion than rookie linebacker Ryan Shazier. One week into training camp, and he’s done nothing to dissuade me of believing that he can be one of the best inside linebackers to wear a Steelers uniform in the past 20 years.
As Alan Robinson pointed out in a recent piece for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, expectations are high for Shazier, and he is entering rarified air for a Steelers rookie.
Dick LeBeau is making official what has been evident since the first day of offseason workouts. Ryan Shazier will be the first rookie to start in his defense since LeBeau returned to the Steelers in 2004.
Not to get too deep here, but Shazier represents a paradigm shift for the NFL linebacker. The days of the physical, thumping inside linebacker are numbered. Players like Shazier utilize their speed and athleticism to be a chase-and-tackle player who gets to the football in a hurry.
The permutations as to how a smart defensive coordinator like Dick LeBeau can use a player like Shazier are limitless. The fit of player and team with Shazier and the Steelers is ideal.
Where Is the Screen Game?
In scouring practice reports from dozens of beat writers, bloggers and observers in attendance at Steelers training camp, there has been one subject the absence of which has been quite interesting: the screen-heavy passing attack.
This is not just a good thing; it's an excellent thing.
Last season, the short passing game was part and parcel to this offense. The plus was it afforded the Steelers speedy receivers an opportunity to run after the catch. What it didn’t do was force opposing defenses to back away from the line. This meant that running back Le’Veon Bell and the rest of the running backs didn’t have the luxury of taking handoffs with the safeties playing deep, and it made for some tough sledding.
If Pittsburgh wants to amp up the run game, throwing the football downfield is a big part of that. With all this speed, every defense in the league should fear the Steelers offense.
And this is an area in which rookie wide receiver Martavis Bryant could excel. The young man has the size (6’4”) and the speed (4.42 seconds in the 40) to take the top off a defense. Steeler fans hope is what they see more of as the preseason progresses.