Five games. 18 practices. That’s the allotted time the 2015 Pittsburgh Steelers will have to prove themselves before playing in a meaningful game. The preseason is unique in the sense that it’s the only time when the scoreboard doesn’t matter. 0-5, 5-0, it really isn’t going to matter. It’s the time for self-evaluation, seeing how players progress. And that’s what we’ll do here. For each player on the 90 man roster, we’ll give a short overview of what we’re looking for from them entering camp.
Switching over to the defensive side of the football with the defensive ends.
Cameron Heyward: Dave asked me where I thought Heyward could improve and I struggled to come up with an answer. This is a guy who should be making All-Pro teams this year. There really isn’t any bad to his game but I’ll set a lofty goal. Record ten sacks, becoming the first Steeler defensive lineman to do that since Keith Willis in 1983. That obviously isn’t something that can be judged during camp but there isn’t anything else to examine with him.
Stephon Tuitt: A player who came on strong the last quarter of the season, getting better each week. I’m excited for him to play in Keith Butler’s more one-gap centered defense which should really play to his strengths. Still, there will be times where he’s asked to two-gap or move down the line against zone schemes.
Like Martavis Bryant, Tuitt has to prove he can handle the rigors of a full 16 game season. Something he hasn’t experienced, especially with the physical demands of playing on the offense’s strong side.
Matt Conrath: We’ve talked about the backup defensive ends a lot so I don’t think we need to beat a dead horse. Conrath has been around the league, on rosters, he understands what it takes to make a roster. I can’t wait to see him back in a 3-4 but I also want to see him use those 4-3 skills to penetrate and disrupt. After telling me he had just played left end in the spring, I’m hoping to see him log snaps on the right side as well.
Clifton Geathers: For starters, he’s gotta stop fighting. I imagine he’ll get in at least one dust-up over a long, intense 18 practice training camp. But it’s a team rule, especially when the team is in shorts. He’s a long, physically intimidating body but I want to see how well he moves now that he’s at a much more manageable weight. Don’t exactly expect to see him as quick-twitch but he can’t slog around, either. Like Conrath, I hope to see him playing at both end spots and even some work at defensive tackle in subpackages. Similar to Daniel McCullers, his reach could allow him collapse the pocket and there’s nothing better than interior pressure.
Cam Thomas: Assuming he isn’t going to be asked to play nose tackle, I hope Thomas comes into camp slimmed down. That should improve his athleticism at least a tick, though it’s unlikely it’ll be enough to get back in the good graces of coaches and fans. There were isolated moments of decent run defense and he’ll have to show that while he’s a poor one-gapper, he’s just good enough at holding the point of attack to justify a roster spot.
Also, he must stay on his feet against zone runs. Defensive lineman on the ground are a sin.
Ethan Hemer: My biggest knock against him has always been a lack of athleticism. I think it was a little better than I anticipated but that’s not saying a lot. I want to see position versatility from him and a better first step. He has a nice motor, willing to chase the ball, but I don’t know if he has the innate physical tools to do anything else but land on the practice squad.
Joe Kruger: Another player I’m relatively unfamiliar with. He has a nice frame and presumably long arms that makes him worth monitoring. As we start to tumble down the depth chart, snaps become rarer and heighten the need to maximize them.
Niko Davis: This guy has me interested. Not just because of his unique backstory but finally healthy and in a starting role in 2014, he produced at Liberty. His positional coach was also Mike Singletary’s nephew who spent time with the Hall of Fame linebacker coaching in the NFL. He’s a project, and certainly not a threat for the 53 man roster, but I envision him as a Nick Williams type. Raw but with a skillset.