The Pittsburgh Steelers have their first padded practice today, and we take a look at what to look for in the limited virtual viewing we get this year.
Steelers.com and the official Steelers accounts on Twitter & Instagram will host live video of camp during most practice sessions, as well as nightly and weekly video wrap-ups. You can even vote for the player you’d most like the cameras to focus on the next day. Go to:
When the cameras are on here are some things to look for:
1. Ben’s Arm
Honestly, this could be Numbers 1-1,000,000. As goes Ben’s arm, so goes the Steelers 2020 season. So far, the reports have been great and we’ve been teased by and obsessed over like the Zapruder film. Hopefully, the video from practice assuages our fears and we can start breathing again.
2. The Progress of promising 2nd-year year players Devin Bush, Diontae Johnson, & Benny Snell
The Steelers 2019 draft class made a huge impact last season but expected to do even more in 2020. Devin Bush had it all thrown onto his plate as a rook, but is expected to understand the defense and his responsibilities much better in 2020. Will the game slow down for him? Look for him to flash in camp. Rumor has it that both Johnson & Snell have put in the work during the extended offseason and have the rebuilt bodies to show for it. Will it translate to a corresponding jump in performance? Johnson seems like a likely contender to become the Steelers’ top WR target, after a season where he was targeted a team-leading 92 times and produced an NFL rookie-leading 59 catches. Last year Snell was thrust into the RB mix, with an increasing role after injuries to James Conner & Jaylen Samuels, but at times seemed to lack burst. Perhaps a drop in weight and a more NFL-ready body will boost his place in the rotation more permanently. Ulysses Gilbert not listed in the headline, but he flashed last year and is expected to contend for playing time in the Inside Linebacker rotation this year.
3. The Hierarchy of Running Backs
The Steelers and Mike Tomlin may have a preference for giving one RB a vast majority of the work, but this year Pittsburgh’s roster has quite a diverse group of players who could contribute. Is Conner healthy and carved in stone as the #1? Will Jaylen Samuels be the NFL top-3 most efficient receiving RB he was with Ben in 2018 or the lackluster, not quite healthy RB he was in a lost 2019? With new draft pick Anthony McFarland jump right into the mix or will he serve his rookie ‘apprenticeship’ watching and learning from the practice squad (this year’s rules make that an extension of the inactive list). Will newcomer Wendell Smallwood surprise by making the roster based on his experience? Will Kerrith Whyte––who was probably the best-looking runner they had last year in limited opportunities––get a bona fide chance to win a spot? Will the backups be sorted by participation on Special Teams––an aspect that won’t get any preseason game action and will likely favor veterans/the status quo?
4. How do the Rookies and newcomers look?
There will be few glimpses of the rookie class, and they’ve got to make big impressions to get playing time for a contending team and no exhibition games in which to stand out. Chase Claypool will be easy to spot in 7-on-7s and passing practice, and Alex Highsmith in pass-rush drills, but others may take a bit more time to catch the eye. For Eric Ebron, will he be the #1 TE or more of a receiving specialist option? This is our only chance to get a feel for these players before the season starts.
5. How will the weird 2019 season and unprecedented 2020 offseason affect this team?
Can the Steelers give a reprise of last year’s Defense while getting the offense back to where it was with Ben? Can Mike Tomlin press the right buttons in an unusual ‘training camp’ situation? The Steelers like consistency and familiarity as much, if not more, than any franchise. Can they not only keep the good parts and fix the bad from 2019 but also navigate a tightly condensed preparation period? It probably helps to have an established coaching staff and veteran leaders, but seeing how they stricture camp and practice will begin to show how well they’ll navigate the unknown.
6. Will Matt Canada infuse the offense with more motion and different looks?
Although Randy Fitchner is still the Offensive Coordinator and Ben Roethlisberger still is going to call plays that suit him, the introduction of some innovative thinking would be a godsend, particularly in terms of presnap motion and distracting the eyes of the defense. Although many fans were critical of Fitchner’s work in 2019, a review of the season’s film shows that he faced a nearly impossible job with the poor quality of the QB play. If you’re an optimist, you think back to the innovative plays designs Randy used to build the Steelers 2-pt attempts success and the fact that his offense was a Red Zone juggernaut in 2019, back when he had a real quarterback to work with. Adding in Canada to work with quarterbacks, share some knowledge, and spice up a run game that suffered the loss of coach Mike Munchak… hopefully it will have enough of an impact that you can see from the online video.
7. Wil the backup QBs show improvement?
There’s not much of a backup QB competition and no games in which to shine or fail, so any shiny moments in practice will be magnified. Any practice struggles will be magnified beyond belief.
8. Can the Defense be as good as last year… or even better?
Even though the Defense returns most contributors from a top 3 season in 2019, there are still some shuffling of parts. Plus, if you’re not getting better, you’re getting worse. MWill Minkah Fitzpatrick take a jump forward now that he has had more time to understand and prepare? Will Terrell Edmunds take the jump forward we all have been hoping to see? Who will be the Steelers’ #3 safety? Will Stephon Tuitt be bubble-wrapped so that he can stay healthy and have a full season being as much of a beast as he was in his injury-shortened 2019? Can a healthy Tuitt help cover for the loss of dynamic Javon Hargrave? Tune in to find out!