The Pittsburgh Steelers enter the 2014 regular season in a very unfamiliar situation; they are expected to be mediocre. After two consecutive 8-8 seasons, that expectation is completely reasonable, but the organization with more Super Bowl trophies than any other is not used to a lack of expectations. The team will look very different from past years, especially on defense, after many players were either released or left during free agency. Pittsburgh will have many positions up for grabs when training camp begins and there will be some new faces looking to fill the voids left behind by players like Brett Keisel, Ryan Clark, Emmanuel Sanders and Lamar Woodley.
The greatest turnover during the offseason for the Steelers came on the defensive side of the ball, and there will be some interesting training camp battles to replace previous defensive stalwarts like Ryan Clark and Brett Keisel. On the offensive side of the ball, improvement will be needed on the offensive line if Pittsburgh hopes to be competitive, but no new faces will need to step up. Rather, recent high draft picks will need to improve. Wide receiver will be a position that is closely watched in training camp as both Jerricho Cotchery and Emmanuel Sanders left in free agency. Here are the positions that will have some new faces fighting for playing time:
Safety – The battle to replace free safety Ryan Clark, who signed with Washington in free agency, will come down to 2013 fourth round pick Shamarko Thomas and free agent signing and former Carolina Panther Mike Mitchell. Mitchell seems like the favorite considering his breakout 2013 season, but people within the organization have been very high on Thomas since he was drafted. The re-signing of Troy Polamalu for less money than expected helped the Steelers greatly, as he will continue to bring his instincts and experience to help usher along whoever is set to replace Clark. In today’s NFL, with so many passing situations, it is likely that all three of Polamalu, Thomas, and Mitchell will be on the field together often, especially considering the team’s lack of depth at cornerback.
Linebacker – Both Larry Foote and Lamar Woodley were both released by the Steelers during this offseason and they will need to be replaced by some younger players. The players who are expected to fill those voids will not have much competition, but it will be interesting to see if they can produce similar numbers as their predecessors. The players vying for the two outside linebacker roles are Jason Worilds and last year’s first round pick, Jarvis Jones. Worilds signed a transition tender deal to stay with the Steelers after he had eight sacks last season after moving into a starting role. Jones did not impress last season, but the team is hoping this season he can grow into the player they expect him to be. If Jones cannot up his production this season, he may have to compete for playing time with the likes of Arthur Moats, who came to Pittsburgh from Buffalo in free agency.
Lawrence Timmons will continue to be the strong side inside linebacker and leader of the defense, as the linebackers around him get younger. Rookie first round pick Ryan Shazier, a very fast yet smaller backer out of Ohio State, will likely join him in the middle of the defense. Shazier was somewhat of a surprise pick at 15th overall, considering the Steelers need at cornerback, but with the loss of both Larry Foote and Lamar Woodley, a versatile linebacker was also a big position of need. Drafting a smaller and faster linebacker to play in the middle was a good move by Pittsburgh, considering how the NFL game has become increasingly more reliant on passing. This means Shazier, if he wins the starting spot over 2013 sixth round pick Vince Williams, will be able to stay on the field for all three downs and not have to be taken out of the game in passing situations. Both inside and outside linebacker positions have likely starters, but will have very capable backups like Williams and Moats ready to take their spots if some of the young talent does not meet expectations.
Cornerback – Corner is probably the weakest position on the Steelers roster, which is why not addressing the position early in the draft was so surprising. Ike Taylor is still the best corner on the roster, which is not a good sign considering his age and his diminishing play. He is still called upon to cover the opposing team’s best receiver, but last season was burned on a number of plays. William Gay and Cortez Allen are just not talented enough to be the second corner on a playoff caliber roster, so it could be a long year for the Pittsburgh secondary. If fifth round pick Shaquille Richardson, out of Arizona, is able to immediately contribute, that would help Taylor out tremendously. Richardson could potentially challenge for the second corner spot, considering Gay’s deteriorating play and the fact that Allen has never really shown an ability to be a starter. It will be interesting to see what the corner position produces for the Steelers, because the success of their season could rest on the shoulders of this very shallow position group. If Ike Taylor continues to produce and someone else can step up, it could help get them back into the playoffs for the first time since 2011.
Wide Receiver – Receiver will be a position where new players really have to step up in order for the Steelers to be even competitive in 2014. Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery both left in free agency, shrinking an already-shallow receiving core. Free agents pickups Lance Moore and Darrius Heyward-Bey will help add depth, but Pittsburgh needs someone to fill the production void left by Sanders. 2014 fourth round Martavis Bryant and 2013 third round pick Markus Wheaton are expected to add to Moore in replacing that production. Wheaton only had six receptions in his rookie year, but had some injuries and was behind Sanders on the depth chart. The former Oregon State product is expected to be a nice receiver in the slot who can help Big Ben in the intermediate passing game. Bryant is the big vertical receiver Pittsburgh has lacked in recent years and could get a lot of playing time if he is able to adapt to the pro game quickly. Lance Moore is not expected to be transcendent, but he should help add to a receiving core that really only has one star in Antonio Brown.
Commentary by Max Petkevicius