As the calendar has finally hit the late-July date that signals the start of training camp for the Pittsburgh Steelers, we turn our attentions for the next few weeks to just that, training camp, the necessary respite for all football fans who have been the past six weeks wondering what to do with themselves—as least as far as the game goes.
With the start of training camp also comes the start of meaningful competition, and I’m not just talking about players getting to put on pads and smash into each other. There are battles to be won. Position battles, roster battles. Battles for starting jobs.
Before we get too deep into the swing of training camp, here is a quick series that provides a preview of some of the most significant battles that will have to be determined over the course of training camp and the preseason, though the regular season can always decide to change the results.
We have covered so far in this category the vast majority of what there is to cover, but one area of contention that we have not yet talked about is the reserve positions at inside linebacker—not just who will be there, but how many. The roster spots will be at a premium this year.
The Steelers are at a transition at the inside linebacker position, seeing a changing of the guard from Lawrence Timmons to Vince Williams, the latter of whom was the team’s top reserve at the position a year ago. That role now is seemingly slated to fall to second-year Tyler Matakevich.
But what about the rest of the group? At least one more inside linebacker will make it. Could they force the Steelers’ hand to carry two? The team has for most years in the very recent past indeed carried five inside linebackers, but they have surpluses at wide receiver and cornerback now.
The two players most likely competing for what will probably be only one more roster spot are Steven Johnson and L.J. Fort. Both of them have varying degrees of history and experience with other teams. Both of them were cut by the Steelers at some point last year.
Fort would appear to be the more athletic and perhaps more capable in coverage of the two, which might be a feather in his cap, since there isn’t much athleticism behind the currently and oft-injured Ryan Shazier.
But chances are good that special teams will be the bigger factor, and based on last season, at least, Johnson is the better performer in that regard. In just a handful of games before he was injured, he registered six tackles and forced a fumble, in addition to downing punts.
The Steelers brought the veteran in last year to fill the shoes of the departed Terence Garvin, who played on all four major special teams units. That hasn’t changed. I think the burden is upon Fort that he can do the same.