By Jeremy Hritz
The Pittsburgh Steelers will soon be reporting to training camp at Heinz Field for the second consecutive year and will begin the true preparations for the 2021 season. All of time players spent this offseason in workouts and addressing areas for growth, will now culminate, as they get their first opportunities in pads to showcase their readiness to achieve a playoff-bound winning season.
According to Chris Adamski of the Tribune Review, “The Steelers will practice at their UPMC Rooney Sports Complex facility on the South Side for a week before moving across town to Heinz Field. The South Side practices are not open to the public.” The Steelers will have an opportunity at UPMC to unite and come together as a team in private before giving the first glimpses of what the 2021 unit will look like to the general public.
In preparation for the start of camp, here are the 10 questions I am anticipating being answered in between the start of camp and the final preseason game on August 27th against the Carolina Panthers.
1. Which unknown players will emerge?
I have talked at length about my passion for the underdog, especially the late-round draft picks and undrafted rookie free agents. The Steelers have a plethora of intriguing talent heading into camp that fall into this category, and it will be interesting to see if any of these players can impress enough to earn a spot on the roster. Undrafted players like Shakur Brown, Mark Gilbert, Calvin Bundage, and Isaiah McKoy all have a buzz about them and what they can potentially bring to the team, and they will be a fun story to follow during camp. Additionally, late round draft picks such as Tre Norwood and Pressley Harvin have been discussed as possibly contributing in year one, and they will be worth monitoring.
For every win with a draft pick or undrafted free agent, the team wins, and the future of the team is made more secure. All the more reason to know these youngsters and to root for them as they give their best shot to become full-fledged members of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
2. Who will be the camp darling?
While the rookies are one group to keep an eye, there are always those players in year 2 or 3, who make an impression on their teammates and coaches in training camp and demonstrate they have what it takes to play the game at a high-level. This player tends to be the focus on constant praise throughout camp by coaches and players alike.
Could this be the year the light finally comes on for Justin Layne? Does Zach Gentry actualize his potential and take advantage of his size to become a legitimate tight end? Can Antoine Brooks provide meaningful depth at safety, and also contribute as the slot corner? The Steelers will need some of their 2nd, 3rd year players to elevate, step-up, and show they can be contributing members of the team.
3. Will Haskins hammer home the 3rd QB spot?
There has been ample discussion around Dwayne Haskins and his prospects as the 3rd quarterback for the Steelers in the 2021 season. He will be provided every opportunity in camp and in the preseason games to show he is learning and understanding the Matt Canada offense and can be a productive signal caller for the team. Right away, I expect the Steelers to give Haskins the bulk of the snaps in the Hall of Fame Game, so he will have an opportunity right away to show what he can do. Haskins has to show he can accurately push the ball down the field and be mobile enough to avoid pressure, in addition to mastering the offense, in order to stick with the team. With his talent, the Steelers are hoping he can coordinate all of his talents together.
4. How will the startling offensive line shape up?
In forecasting the starting offensive line at this point, it would seem it will shake out as follows:
Center – Kendrick Green
Left Guard – Kevin Dotson
Right Guard – Trai Turner
Left Tackle – Chukwuma Okorafor
Right Tackle – Zach Banner
However, this is speculation and before the competition that will occur in camp. Can BJ Finney challenge Green for the starting center position? Are the Steelers sold at Chuks on the left side and Banner on the right? Or will they flip-flop for a better output? Is there a dark horse hidden in the offensive line depth that will emerge and challenge one of the projected starters? Whatever the case, with 80% of the OL being completely new, seeing what that unit looks like as a whole and what they can generate in the preseason will give us a feel of what we can expect through 17 games.
5. Who will be the slot corner?
With the departure of Mike Hilton, the need is great to find his replacement. It has been speculated that Cam Sutton could move inside in sub-package football, while James Pierre would move outside in tandem with Joe Haden. It has also been speculated that 2nd year safety Antoine Brooks out of Maryland will be given every opportunity to fulfill that role. Or perhaps, Shakur Brown, the UDRFA, will creep out of the shadows to show he has a place in the Steelers secondary.
Are the pieces that the Steelers need at the corner position on the roster? Or does a lack of talent require an August trade from Kevin Colbert? Stay tuned.
6. Who emerges as the #3 Outside Linebacker?
I have spoke ad nauseum about the need for a proven 3rd edge rusher to spell TJ Watt and Alex Highsmith and believed that the team would make a move to bring in a veteran player at the position, especially after the Steelers freed up cap space after releasing David DeCastro. Despite that move, no additions were made, and it is Cassius Marsh, Quincey Roche, Jamar Watson, and Calvin Bundage competing for that 3rd spot. While Marsh seems to be the favorite, I am hopeful one of the rookies can show the explosiveness and intensity to be an effective rotational player at OLB.
7. Is Najee Harris the real deal?
Since he was drafted, Najee Harris has been celebrated and revered as a player who, with certainty, will come in and automatically improve the Steelers running game, and the team is absolutely counting on it. Anything less than around 1300 yards rushing this season would be a disappointment, and that is a lot of pressure to be placed on a rookie in his first season in the NFL. However, after 4 preseason games, Harris should have enough of an opportunity to show, albeit in limited duty, that he has what it takes to be the bell cow ball carrier, and be the first 1000-yard rusher since Le’Veon Bell.
All signs point to him being able to do it, but if he can’t, it will be a big hit to the potential of the 2021 offense.
8. Can the team avoid significant injuries?
Injuries are unfortunately part of the NFL game, and they frustratingly alter the course of seasons for every team. The Steelers need the good fortune of health throughout training camp, as their depth, especially on the defensive side of the football, is less than desirable, and losing a starter could be catastrophic to the success of the Steelers. Hopefully, after the numerous injuries experienced by the team last season, the Steelers get a break (pun intended) in 2021.
9. Will Kevin Colbert make a trade?
In a podcast earlier this year, Alex Kozora talked about the propensity of Kevin Colbert to make an August trade to fill a need. The Steelers have needs at OLB, CB, and possibly TE if Gentry and Kevin Rader do not show sufficient growth. If the team is not satisfied with its in-house materials, they will not be show in going outside of the organization to make a move they believe will make them a more competitive team in 2021. 1
10. How does Ben Roethlisberger adapt to the new Matt Canada offense?
While Roethlisberger will get very few snaps in the preseason games to protect him from injury, I will be watching very closely during practices and in the snaps he does get, to see how he performs within a new system. Canada is bringing more of a college-style offense to the Steelers, and with that, Roethlisberger must now adapt and play within the system in order for the team to be successful. As I wrote earlier in the year, the Steelers need Ben 2.0 in 2021, and we will get the early indications of this in camp.
Other Questions to Consider
11. Will Devin Bush be a distraction, or the Twitter nonsense behind him?
12. Will Kevin Dotson pass his conditioning test?
13. Will Jaylen Samuels survive training camp cuts?
14. Will the Steelers keep 6 or 7 defensive linemen?
15. Will Vince Williams survive cuts?