The summer lull for area sports fans is about to get a whole lot better in a week, when the Pittsburgh Steelers head to Saint Vincent College in Latrobe for the start of their 2019 training camp.
It’s always a welcome sign for football fans as it signifies the official start of the football season, but has to be even more exciting for general managers and coaches who can finally see an offseason of preparation and acquisitions put the pads on.
For Pittsburgh, it’ll officially mark the end of the Antonio Brown-Le’Veon Bell era and usher in the next generation of playmakers on offense. For one thing, the three weeks in Latrobe will be a lot quieter than in years past.
But outside of the two talented, and outspoken, players finally departing the Steelers this offseason, there are plenty of other storylines to watch out for.
Here are the top four:
Brown’s replacement/#2 receiver: The Steelers found themselves in a position that few other football teams have ever faced: the ability to replace an All-Pro receiver with a talented star already on their roster. Pittsburgh, and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, know what they are getting from JuJu Smith-Schuster when he steps on the field as the team’s top target in Week 1 against the Patriots. Two seasons, over 2,300 yards receiving and 14 touchdowns have earned him that right. It’s what plays out behind him that will be of the most intrigue to Pittsburgh fans.
It seems to be a three-man battle for the other starting position opposite Smith Schuster, with free agent pickup Donte Moncrief, second-year man James Washington and 2019 third-round pick Diontae Johnson. Depending on how much stock you put into minicamp and OTAs, it was Moncrief and Rothelisberger who had the most chemistry on the practice field — pegging him as the early favorite to start. But a lot can still happen in the following months and preseason games with Washington — who had just 16 catches in his rookie year — and Johnson, having legitimate chances to develop a rapport with Roethlisberger and the offense. If neither can develop in the short-term, several veteran wideouts remain on the market including Mike Wallace, Bruce Ellington and Piere Garcon.
The kicker/punter battle: It’s a phrase NFL coaches love to utter: “Special teams are one-third of the game.” For Pittsburgh, its one-third of special-teamers, particularly the two main components, struggled mightily last season. Chris Boswell, who missed seven of his 20 field goal attempts in 2018, hung onto his job by a thread for most of the year. Mike Tomlin gave Boswell several meek votes of confidence, and the team did bring in Matt McCrane to compete with the four-year Steeler kicker. Still, despite the misses that included some extra points, Boswell kept his job. This summer, Pittsburgh brought in rookie Matthew Wright to compete with Boswell, if only to at least add some pressure and urgency to the once-exceptional kicker. Boswell’s kicking cost the Steelers at least one game in 2018, and it does seem like the team is determined to not let it happen again.
Pittsburgh also seems to be trying the same strategy on the punting side of things. Incumbent Jordan Berry struggled with his hangtime and net average to start last season, and while it gradually improved, the team has also seemingly grown impatient with the Australian. Ian Berryman was signed as an undrafted rookie from Western Carolina and has a legitimate chance to unseat Berry. While Steelers fans may have their eyes set on some of the flashier positional battles this offseason, their special teams units could see a massive makeover by the end of August.
Fight for right tackle: It’s been a position of consistency in Pittsburgh for years, with Marcus Gilbert holding down the right side of the line since 2011. But Gilbert had been plagued by injuries over the past couple of seasons, and his trade to Arizona this offseason has opened the door for a bevy of Steelers to compete for the position. The early favorite in the race is Matt Feiler, who started 10 games in Gilbert’s absence last year and played well enough on an offensive line that hasn’t seen much turnover over the years. However, his hold on the job is anything but sturdy. He’ll have to fend off Chukwuma Okorafor, who started three games at the position last year and was drafted in 2018 by Pittsburgh as the eventual successor to Gilbert. And, like most NFL teams at this time of year, the Steelers have plenty of camp bodies eager to try and make a name for themselves. Jerald Hawkins and Zach Banner will also figure into the mix at right tackle and should both be able to crack the roster as backups, as well. Outside of the uncertainty at that spot, the offensive line as a whole again looks to be one of the best in the league as Alejandro Villaneuva, Ramon Foster, Maurkice Pouncey and David DeCastro all return to block up front. Should those four find a way to again stay healthy, James Conner and the rest of the offense will be in for another solid season.
A drama-free camp?: There’s a question mark attached to this storyline just because it seems almost implausible to use drama-free in describing this team. But … this SHOULD finally be the offseason where all of the extra storylines with Bell and Brown and the ex-players criticizing Big Ben end. Instead, it should be a chance for Mike Tomlin and his coaching staff to have a distraction-free camp and put together a roster with the best 53 players on it. Roethlisberger isn’t going to be around forever, and the window to make a run with this core and this franchise quarterback is quickly closing. With a challenging AFC North again facing the Steelers, it’ll be critical to get off to a hot start in 2019 — making a distraction-free summer all the more important.
(Anthony Sambrotto, The Bradford Era sports editor, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)