By: Zach Metkler, GZ Sports Report Writer
Just over a week has passed since the Steelers reported to Latrobe for training camp and needless to say, it has been a rather interesting camp in many regards.
With the exception of a few bumps and bruises here and there (which happens to every team during training camp), the Steelers have been widely healthy so far *knocks on wood*. The biggest blow to the Steelers, though, has been the loss of 2nd-year CB Senquez Golson, who potentially might be out for the season with a lisfranc injury in his foot. Early reports indicated that Golson could be out for up to 12 weeks, although recent reports have indicated that he could wind up being out for a large portion of the season (likely until December). If that’s the case, Golson will be 0-2 in terms of lost seasons and it won’t be until his 3rd season that he is able to hopefully see the field.
This Could be the Year of Sammie Coates
As training camp rolls along, one thing is extremely evident: Sammie Coates is the real deal. With the year-long suspension of WR Martavis Bryant, someone needed to step up and fill the void left by the talented deep-threat. While Markus Wheaton finally developed a chemistry with Ben Roethlisberger and seemed to be the one expected to help fill the void, it appears that Coates will be the player that benefits the most from the absence of Bryant. So far through training camp, Coates has showed great hands and route running and seems to almost absorb the football no matter where it is thrown. This offseason, Coates reportedly cut 5-6 lbs., which has greatly improved his conditioning, an area that he admittedly struggled with as a rookie. With the off-field issues that Bryant has been dealing with so far during his career, this could be a huge opportunity for the young receiver out of Auburn to make his mark as the #2 receiver opposite of Antonio Brown. With the first preseason game coming up against the Lions on the 12th, Coates will be one of the players fans are most excited to see. If he can make a solid impact much like he did against the Broncos in the playoffs last season, it will truly be his spot to lose moving forward.
The Return of Maurkice Pouncey
With all of the news surrounding the Steelers with Antonio Brown and David DeCastro’s contracts, the off-field issues with Le’Veon Bell, the Senquez Golson injury, and the emergence of some young talent, people seem to have forgotten that the Steelers All-Pro center Maurkice Pouncey is back and healthy and appears to be playing at an All-Pro level already after missing two of the past three seasons. Although the Steelers offensive line has greatly improved over the past few seasons, there is no doubt that having Pouncey available makes the offensive line much better. When you consider the hefty contract that Pouncey is playing on, he serves the team better when he is on the field. The question is: will this be the season that Pouncey can finally stay healthy for a full 16 games?
To no one’s surprise, the offense is on pace to be amongst the NFL’s elite once again. Ben Roethlisberger has been making savvy veteran moves by cutting weight, taking time off to maintain his body, all while looking sharp as ever, especially in the redzone, which is an area that Steelers continue to improve upon every offseason. Earlier in the offseason, Roethlisberger expressed interest in wanting to go for 2 more often and as it currently stands, this might be the case this year, even with Chris Boswell proving himself to be a solid kicker. Beyond Big Ben, Antonio Brown has only continued to wow and has been able to keep a positive mindset throughout the contract drama that circulated throughout the beginning of training camp. Not only does Pouncey seem to be back to full form, Le’Veon Bell is making it hard to tell that he ever suffered from a knee injury last season. While his tackling has been limited, he is seamlessly transitioning between cuts and running at full power, all of which are promising signs that once the pending suspension is over, Bell should be back at full All-Pro form. The Steelers have yet to see what prized free agent TE Ladarius Green has to bring to the table due to injury but once he returns, expect big things. However, TE Xavier Grimble has really stepped up and has been sharing 1st-team reps with former 5th round pick Jesse James. While many will think that James is the sure-fire bet to be the #2 tight end behind Green, don’t sleep on Grimble, who seems to be building a decent chemistry with Ben Roethlisberger, especially in the redzone where the Steelers would love to employ more 2TE sets.
I’m just going to say it now: this Steelers defense is miles ahead of the Steelers defenses we have seen in recent years. Early reports from defensive coordinator Keith Butler indicate that this years defense is already in regular season form in regards to the learning curve of the players. This should come as a surprise to no one, considering that last season was Butler’s first year as the Steelers DC after longtime coach Dick LeBeau left the team. This defense that Butler has employed is much simpler than the ones previously used by LeBeau during the 2000s. Fortunately, though, players seem to be adjusting quite well to the changes, especially young players that were drafted to help shore up the defense. Head coach Mike Tomlin also seems to be building a competitive spirit between the defensive players, especially with the 1-on-1 competitions and the “Backs-on-Backers” drills that have been seen throughout camp. This is where players like Ryan Shazier have really shown that they are ready to make the next jump in terms of playing ability. Beyond Shazier, players like OLB Anthony Chickillo have really stepped up and are putting together solid camps, which will only help the Steelers in the long-run.
So far through training camp, the Steelers rookie class has been making strides as they attempt to make an impact this season. The cream of the crop for this rookie class so far has been 2nd-round S Sean Davis. Whenever Senquez Golson went down with an injury, Davis was called upon to fill the spot at nickel corner, a position that Davis has readily adapted to. This is not to say that Davis won’t be playing any safety this year. But the earlier the huge, athletic safety can be on the field, the better. Keith Butler has compared him to Ryan Shazier coming off the edge out of the nickel packages rushing the quarterback, which is extremely high praise for the rookie defensive back. The Steelers plan on employing more 3 safety nickel packages (typically 3 safety packages are reserved for the dime but a linebacker would have to come off of the field. The 3 safety nickel package keeps the base linebackers on the field but removes a cornerback from the slot) which will only increase Davis’ role this year. Beyond Davis, 3rd-round DT Javon Hargrave has been living up to the hype that accompanied his draft selection. Hargrave is an extremely stout player and plays very low to the ground. Beyond that, his first step off of the ball is straight nasty and he has routinely embarrassed the Steelers offensive line at times with his get-off and surprisingly developed pass-rushing moveset. The battle between Hargrave and McCuller will be one to watch but early reports seem to be leaning towards Hargrave seeing the field earlier than most people would expect. While Davis and Hargrave have really shown so far, many people haven’t noticed the solid training camp that 7th-round ILB Tyler Matakevich has put together thus far. Matakevich has shown surprising athleticism while rushing the quarterback (which is surprising due to his lack of athleticism, as demonstrated during his career at Temple) and has been an exceptional run-stopper. During Backs-on-Backers on Thursday, Matakevich had 7 matchup’s and won each of them. But while all of these aspects are great, arguably the most impressive part of Matakevich’s training camp so far has been his ability to drop back into coverage and even make some plays (he has already recorded a camp interception). If this type of play continues from the 7th-rounder, he could wind up being more than just a camp body or special teams ace; he could end up being a relief linebacker beside Vince Williams. This is even more important when you consider the fact that Lawrence Timmons, Vince Williams, and Steven Johnson are all on the last year of their deals. Matakevich’s time could come sooner than many people believed.
While these rookies have been making strides, Steelers 1st-round CB Artie Burns has been living up to his billing of being a raw prospect, which should surprise no one. While many fans will ride this off as being a huge concern, it really is not something to be concerned about, especially when you consider that he has been facing off against Antonio Brown every day at practice. Steel sharpens steel and if Burns continues to go against Brown in camp and as the season progresses, it is only a matter of time until the 21-year-old corner from Miami finally blossoms into the #1 cornerback the Steelers have been looking for.
Players to Continue Watching
- RB Daryl Richardson: Richardson has impressed with his ability to pick up blitzing linebackers and has pulled off a couple of big runs. With the impending suspension of Le’Veon Bell, Richardson is fighting for a spot as the Steelers 3rd/4th RB.
- TE Xavier Grimble: With the absence of Ladarius Green, Jesse James and Xavier Grimble have been eating up the available reps. Grimble has the raw athleticism that you look for in a TE prospect and if he can continue to put his game together, he will be one heck of a tight end for the Steelers and jump James on the depth chart.
- WR Eli Rogers: After missing last season with an injury, Rogers has been a stud this training camp so far, especially returning punts. Additionally to being a punt returner, Rogers has carved out some reps as the 1st-team slot receiver. He definitely fits the mold for both positions.
- DT Javon Hargrave: Hargrave has lived up to his high praise during the draft process and is showing incredible strength and an absurdly fast first step. If Hargrave shows this promise, the Steelers will continue their transition away from their base 3-4 into more exotic defensive fronts.
- OLB Anthony Chickillo: While Chickillo put together a solid camp last year as well before cooling off, Chickillo is proving that he can be more than just a high motor player. Now 20 lbs. lighter, Chickillo is showing improved speed and pass-rushing moves.
- S Sean Davis: With the injury of Golson, Davis has stepped up and is putting on a show so far as the nickel cornerback. There is no denying his athleticism and knack for finding the ball. If he continues to develop, he will be the next star in the Steelers secondary in no time.