Coming off an 8-8 season, the Pittsburgh Steelers have spent a lot of time moving pieces around this offseason looking for answers to right the wrongs of last year that couldn’t be fixed simply by getting healthy. Below are the five players that I am most interested in watching on opening day, as they enter the year with question marks attached to their resumes or are taking on a bigger role this year.
Mike Adams: Perhaps more than anybody else, I am anxious to see how newly-minted left tackle Mike Adams handles his first regular season snaps at the position. Adams spent his rookie year playing exclusively at right tackle in eight games, including six starts, although he was a left tackle in college. The coaching staff switched him over to the left side early in training camp and the move stuck throughout the preseason. No doubt there will be some growing pains as the second-year pro masters the nuances of his pass protection responsibilities at the NFL level.
David Johnson: A seventh-round pick in the 2009 NFL Draft, David Johnson seems to be a popular player among the coaching staff. However, he missed all of 2012 with a torn ACL, and he is still working his way back to full health. He needed to have a cleanup procedure done between OTAs and the beginning of training camp, which resulted in him beginning camp on the Active/Physically Unable to Perform List. Johnson offers versatility as a move tight end/h-back, and in fact spent most of his first two years lined up as a fullback. With Will Johnson looking extremely iffy to be a go for opening day, will David Johnson’s first snap in over a year be at his most familiar fullback spot? And how quickly will he be able to knock off the rust? With Heath Miller and Matt Spaeth still ailing, Johnson is the most veteran tight end on the roster, and will be asked to carry much of the load until they return.
Cortez Allen: Yes, Cortez Allen got the opportunity to make a few starts down the stretch of the season a year ago due to the injury of Ike Taylor. However, he has never opened a season as a starter, and will be following in the footsteps of Keenan Lewis, who had growing pains adapting to a consistent starting role before coming on to lead the league in pass deflections by the end of the year. Allen has shown a lot of promise in his first two years, first as a dimeback, then as a nickel, and finally as a starter, but his continuing that upward trajectory is an absolute must for the Steelers to have a successful season.
Jason Worilds: With a completely healthy roster, there appear to be only two starting jobs legitimately up for grabs, and both of them appear to possess a sense of inevitability of the younger player sooner or later taking hold of the job. One of those spots is running back, with second-round rookie Le’Veon Bell nursing a mid-foot sprain and certainly missing opening day, with Isaac Redman getting the start. The other position is outside linebacker, as fourth-year outside linebacker Jason Worilds looks to replace the former All-Pro James Harrison. Worilds will be taking the first snaps at right outside linebacker when the Steelers open their season on Sunday at home against the Tennessee Titans, but how long with he be able to fend off the team’s first round draft pick…
Jarvis Jones: The rookie outside linebacker showed a lot of flash in his three preseason games, the third and final seeing him leave in an ambulance after landing awkwardly upon the ball that he had just intercepted. The resulting SC chest sprain kept him to limited activity until this week, but he appears ready for a full load, and head coach Mike Tomlin said with a grin on his face during his pre-game press conference that Jarvis Jones will indeed play. How often he plays—and how often LaMarr Woodley does not—will be one of the more interesting items I intend to track during opening day.