Sunday, July 28, 2013

First weekend of Steelers training camp is in the books

The Steelers completed their first weekend of training camp without much hoopla, other than the usual fights, conditioning troubles and slight injury tweaks, and I don't have a feel for what the team is going to be all about in 2013, and neither does anyone else.

A lot of what happens for Pittsburgh this season will depend on many things such as injuries, age and how well the rookies and other young and mostly unproven players develop. It's a rather risky endeavor to depend on unproven players, especially rookies, but I've heard it said more than once that the Steelers are hoping that running back Le'Veon Bell, the team's second round pick, hits the ground running (no pun intended) and wins the starting job right off the bat.

That sentiment has merit, considering that most experts will tell you that making the transition from college to the pro game is probably easier for running backs than any other position.

However, it is worth noting that the Steelers and their fans were excited about rookie running backs each of the past three seasons--Jonathan Dwyer, Baron Batch and Chris Rainey--only to be disappointed by injuries, poor conditioning and an overall lack of production. And let's not forget, Bell's selection was seen as an underwhelming reach by many, especially with backs the caliber of Eddie Lacy still on the board.

I hope Bell does well, but I'm more excited about the prospects of receiver Markus Wheaton, the team's pick in the third round. No matter how much we love the ground game in Steeler Country, the NFL is a passing league, and you simply need big play receivers and tight ends in 2013 in order to make an impact on offense.

Fans want to downplay the loss of Mike Wallace and what he brought to the offense, but nobody was doing that pre-contract dispute when he was regarded as the best deep-threat in the NFL and had the body of work to back that up.

Is Wallace a complete receiver? No, but he was probably the best one the Steelers had over the past three seasons, and I really feel that he took the pressure off Antonio Brown, as defenses had to account for No. 17's over the top speed. If Wheaton can come in and be a break-out rookie, it would be HUGE for an offense that will also be missing Heath Miller at the beginning of the season due to the knee injury he suffered near the end of 2012.

With all that in mind, however, I truly believe the Steelers' 2013 season will come down to two things:

The ability to win the close games--Pittsburgh played in eight games where the margin of the final score was three points or less and finished with a record of 3-5 in those games. Bill Cowher used to say there was a fine-line between winning and losing in the NFL, and Mike Tomlin's teams have personified that sentiment. The Steelers won the majority of close games in 2011 and made the playoffs; a season ago, they missed the postseason by a game because they were on the wrong side of the line.

Another factor will be how Dick Lebeau's defense does in taking the football away. It's no secret that the Steelers have had one of the best defenses in the NFL over the past two seasons. But while the defense has been stout, it's been far from opportunistic, taking the football away a total of 36 times over the past two years.

In 2010, Pittsburgh took the football away 35 times in 16 games and made it all the way to the Super Bowl.

The Steelers' defense has been sorely lacking a playmaker. Whether it be a healthier Troy Polamalu, or another player, such as the dripping with potential Lawrence Timmons, someone is going to have to step up to make this defense more dynamic in 2013.

Maybe it'll be Jarvis Jones, but rookies never do well in Lebeau's sophisticated defense, right? Right?

The season kicks off in six weeks. Can't believe the offseason is pretty much over.

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