By Jeremy Hritz
The other day, I took a look back at the ten questions facing the Pittsburgh Steelers heading into training camp from 2012. A year later, it was interesting to reflect on the biggest issues facing the team to see which ones were still obstacles in 2013. While Mike Wallace is no longer the object of disdain in the Steelers Nation, some of the questions from last year are still relevant heading into this year’s training camp on July 26th. With that said, let’s take a look at the storylines that we will be paying close attention to as the team preps for its season opener against the Tennessee Titans at Heinz Field.
10. Can Jarvis Jones contribute in year one?
The Steelers outside linebackers have underperformed over the past two seasons, and with James Harrison now a Bengal, the Steelers are counting on Jason Worilds to fill the void. Or are they? With their first round selection in the 2013 Draft, the selected Jarvis Jones, an outside backer that early on was projected as a top five pick. The initial reports on Jones are that he is working hard and that he has an innate ability for the game. Whether or not that can translate into playing time, and ultimately pressure on the quarterback, has yet to be seen. Does he have an outside shot to beat out Worilds for a starting spot, or will he be a role player on third downs? The latter scenario seems to have the greater likelihood in Jones’ first season.
9. Will Le’Veon Bell meet the lofty expectations?
The Steelers have had some tremendous running backs over the years, but the running game hasn’t been anything special since the wheels fell off Willie Parker and Rashard Mendenhall danced into and out of Pittsburgh. Enter Le’Veon Bell, a back that many in the media are predicting to have a special rookie season, even naming him as a potential candidate to win Offensive Rookie of the Year. Can Bell ascend and meet those expectations? His resume from college indicates a yes, but will his skills translate to the NFL? His first order of business will be beating out Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman for the starting job before he can present his case.
8. Will Heath Miller fully recover and return to his productive ways?
Heath Miller was the most integral part of the Steelers passing attack in 2012, and not having him early in the year, especially without Wallace, could result in some hiccups in the passing game. If the Steelers are going to make a championship push, they will need Miller to fully recover and produce as he did last season. And if he can’t, David Paulson and Matt Spaeth are going to have to step it up.
7. Can LaMarr Woodley rebound?
LaMarr Woodley has proven that he can play at a high level in the National Football League, despite struggling with injuries and conditioning issues during the last two seasons. The Steelers need Woodley to provide a threat off of the left side if they are to return to their dominating ways on defense, and based on early reports on Woodley’s conditioning, being out of shape will not undercut his play. Without Harrison, Woodley has to step up more than ever to lead the young outside linebackers by example, which hopefully means a double digit sack total.
6. Can the receiver corps overcome the loss of Mike Wallace?
While the Steelers organization is dealing with the distraction of Maurkice Pouncey and his ignorantly messaged ball cap, it is not nearly the distraction that the Wallace contract situation was from a year ago. While the distraction won’t be in the locker room, the deep speed will not be on the field either, and Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders, and rookie Markus Wheaton will have to show that no void has been left behind. Brown should be able to produce, and with Sanders in a contract year, he may be motivated to perform at an even higher level. As far as Wheaton is concerned, we won’t know what he is capable of until we see him in training camp since he missed mini-camps and OTAs.
5. Can new starters Cortez Allen, Steve McLendon, and Jason Worilds emerge as game-changers on defense?
The defense is in need of some playmakers, and with the insertion of Cortez Allen, Steve McLendon, and Worilds into the lineup, they could be the needed elements to turn the defense into a formidable unit. Allen demonstrated the ability to create turnovers at the end of last season, and in McLendon’s limited play, he brought a physical and chaotic presence to the middle of the defense. Worilds has shown a little, but the jury is still out on what he can do as the full time starter. Truthfully, the jury is out on Allen and McLendon, too. If they prove themselves to be productive members of the defense, it could provide a spark that the unit has been missing the last two seasons.
4. Can the offensive line live up to its billing?
One year later, this is still a question that hasn’t resolved itself. While the offensive line is loaded with talent, injuries have stifled its growth and development into a solid unit. Pouncey is the only proven commodity, when healthy, and Ramon Foster’s greatest asset is his consistency. David DeCastro, Mike Adams, and Marcus Gilbert are unproven, but have the potential to complete what could be a staunch group. If they can stay healthy and perform well, it will not only do wonders for the running game, but it will also help to keep Ben Roethlisberger upright.
3. Will the defense get to the quarterback and create turnovers?
There has been a sack and turnover drought in Pittsburgh over the last two seasons, and that has to change in order for the Steelers to win more than eight games. Worilds, Woodley, and Jones have to get to the quarterback frequently to force fumbles and interceptions. The secondary also has to do a better job of making picks when opportunities present themselves. Dick LeBeau, as he did last year, emphasized turnovers in mini-camps and OTAs because he knows that the Steelers cannot make a run without them.
2. Can Ben Roethlisberger stay healthy and can the Steelers avoid the spate of injuries from the past two seasons?
Big Ben is the key to the Steelers success, and if he goes down, so do the team’s chances. He has to stay healthy, but history has shown that doing so is difficult, hence the emphasis on the running game and quickly getting rid of the ball in the Haley offense. It is not just important for Roethlisberger to stay health though; the entire team must stay out of the training room. Had the Steelers not have experienced the injuries that they did last season, they may have won more games. If they want to win more than eight games this season, they absolutely must avoid major injuries.
1. Are the Steelers still relevant, or are they the third best team in the AFC North?
The Baltimore Ravens are coming off of a Super Bowl victory, while the Bengals are riding high after two consecutive playoff appearances. Popular thinking has it that the Steelers are the third best team in the AFC North, including Steelers great Jerome Bettis. Despite pockets of writers that believe that the Steelers will rebound this season, the majority see the Steelers as a team on the decline, incapable of challenging for a title. Is this belief true and is the run over in Pittsburgh? Or was 2012 an anomaly? Steelers Nation is dying to find out.