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Camp questions need answers

It’s going to be a different training camp this summer for the Steelers. Unique in some ways, unprecedented in others. Unique in that it won’t be staged at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, and unprecedented in that at no point will it include any preseason games. But even though it will happen at Heinz Field in the midst of a global pandemic, and the on-field competition never will be provided by any players who aren’t potential teammates, there still will be work to get done.

Whether it gets done, and how effectively it gets done will be what charts their course through the regular season that’s scheduled to follow. And in that sense, it really won’t be a different training camp at all. But whatever it is or is not, this is the only training camp these Steelers have to get themselves ready for their 2020 schedule, and during their time at Heinz Field there are some specific things to accomplish.

Here are a handful of those specific things: ADAPTING TO BEN BEING BACK Last season’s primary challenge turned out to be adapting to playing without Ben Roethlisberger for all but six quarters of the regular season. With the surgery on his right elbow a seeming success and Roethlisberger already throwing and moving steadily toward

returning to his place as the Steelers most important player, it might be assumed that nothing else needs to be said about it. But it’s not ridiculous to make the case that the primary challenge of this upcoming season will be how successfully the Steelers are able to adapt to playing with Roethlisberger. Offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner explained one aspect of this phenomenon during a Zoom call with the Pittsburgh media during the last week of July. “I think they’re committed to doing all the right things to put themselves in position to be better this season,” said Fichtner about the offensive personnel surrounding Roethlisberger. “Like I said, if I was JuJu, if I was Diontae [Johnson], if I was any skill player on offense, I wouldn’t just say, ‘Wow, Ben Roethlisberger’s back, so I’m going to come back better.’ That’s not going to happen. That doesn’t happen like that. He’s going to make you better, but you’re not winning if you’re not (also) trying personally to get better, and I know they are.” There are going to be times when Roethlisberger saves them, when he bails them out either with his veteran savvy, or with his knowledge of how defenses are designed, or with his physical skills. But there are going to be more times when one of them will be put into a position to make a play to help the team win, and those will be the times when they have to come through for him and for themselves.

Coach Mike Tomlin first went down this road immediately following the 2018 season, and since that worked out rather splendidly he tried it again this past offseason. On Jan. 11, 2018, Tomlin hired Teryl Austin, whose resume included stints in the NFL as both a secondary coach and a defensive coordinator, and with the Steelers his title is Senior Defensive Assistant/Secondary. Translating that job description into reality, Austin joined Tom Bradley in working with the defensive backs and he also brought his coordinator’s experience to the weekly defensive game-planning sessions. Something similar should evolve with Matt Canada, who was hired by Tomlin on Jan. 15, 2020 to coach the quarterbacks and add to the weekly offensive game-planning sessions based on his time at seven different colleges as an offensive coordinator, including LSU, plus a stint at Maryland as a head coach. How Canada might impact the Steelers offense in a strategic way is likely to evolve over time as did Austin’s influence on the defense last season, but judging from Fichtner’s expressed openness to having Canada’s input there should be little doubt it will happen.

“Obviously, he brings expertise in years of coaching quarterbacks, years being around offensive football, years of being a play-caller, and the experience of being a head coach,” said Fichtner. “It is more knowledge in the (offensive meeting) room. It is one more opportunity to throw ideas around … I also know that when it comes to ideas and thoughts and things you can bring to the table every week, what he can bring might be different, and that’s going to be really fun to see and watch develop.”

Tomlin already has said that when the pads go on and the 11-on-11 work begins at camp, the starting offensive line will open with Matt Feiler at left guard. With Feiler at left guard, the right tackle spot will come down to a competition between Chuks Okorafor and Zach Banner.

The Steelers already know Feiler can handle his end of this because he was more than competent when Tomlin moved him inside for a game against the Rams and Aaron Donald last season. And there is no tougher competition for an interior offensive lineman in the NFL than 60 minutes against Donald.

Having Feiler inside would prevent the Steelers from having to go with a less desirable option of either starting their backup center (Stefen Wisniewski) at a different position, or starting a rookie guard during an NFL year that included no offseason program and no preseason games.

“As far as up front, you know Matt has played inside, and Matt has played outside,” said Fichtner. “Then you look at the rest of the more experienced players who have played in regular season games. Chuks [Okorafor] and Zach Banner are guys who have played in professional football games. To me, moving Matt back inside to keep the other two in familiar positions where they’ve played before is the right thing to do, especially now given the fact that we have lost all these (offseason) reps and the preseason games.” Feiler at left guard only works, though, if Okorafor or Banner shows the ability to handle right tackle, and handle it in a way where the team’s surgically repaired quarterback isn’t exposed to unnecessary danger.

One of the significant issues for every team during every NFL season is health, because as coaches often remind fans about players: “The most valuable ability is availability.” And during a 2020 season in which a virus has the potential to deplete a roster with frightening efficiency, a roster’s ability to withstand the loss of players could end up being more critical than in any season in recent memory.

The only opportunity teams will have to develop depth this year is during the training camp period, and even that isn’t what it used to be in terms of time spent in pads on the field.

No team in this salary cap era would be able to overcome a rash of injuries at a particular position, nor are the Steelers different than the rest of the league in that their roster contains about a half-dozen players without whom the prospect of the postseason becomes more dream than reality. But with that said there seem to be three areas on defense where this Steelers roster seems especially vulnerable.

Devin Bush is one of the young, dynamic players on this roster around whom the Steelers can build a championship-caliber defense, and Vince Williams is a reliable pro and a proven starter whose assets out-weigh his limitations. But beyond those two starting inside linebackers, the Steelers are in a spot where there’s more hoping than knowing.

At inside linebacker, the guy the Steelers need to come through for them in 2020 is second-year pro Ulysees Gilbert, a sixth-round pick in the 2019 NFL Draft. But to get the chance to be the top backup at inside linebacker, Gilbert first will have to make a positive impression on special teams coordinator Danny Smith.

“No. 1, they have to make themselves useful not only in backing up our first team guys, but on special teams,” said Keith Butler. “Especially linebackers, if they’re not starting, then they have to be making good contributions to the special teams. We’re hopeful that some of these young guys can come along.”

If Gilbert does not, the Steelers recently have shown they’re not opposed to making a trade late in the preseason process, and they even may look to explore that avenue regardless of what Gilbert shows between now and the opening of the season because having one backup isn’t necessarily sufficient. Maybe Robert Spillane becomes a legitimate option, but he has just one regular season snap on defense on his resume.

The situation currently appears less dire at safety, but only because the Steelers recently signed fifth-year pro Curtis Riley, who has played in 43 NFL games with 19 starts over the previous two seasons. And besides Riley, the Steelers also have guys such as Jordan Dangerfield and Marcus Allen, who can boast some NFL experience as well as experience within the Steelers’ defensive scheme. But the addition of Riley indicates the team sees Dangerfield and Allen as special teams players more than safeties, and so it will be interesting to continue to monitor that situation

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