Though training camp’s technically been underway for about two weeks, today marks what feels like its unofficial start. Pads come on today, the first of fourteen such practices at Heinz Field. Unfortunately, for the first time since I’ve been part of the website, we won’t be there in-person to give you the lowdown of what’s happening. But here are the things we hope to learn about by the end of camp.
A New Routine – To say this is a weird year is the world’s biggest understatement. It applies to football too. For the first time in 54 years, the team is practicing away from St. Vincent College and its the first time they’re in Pittsburgh since the 30s.
Instead of having multiple fields for the roster to sprawl out on, there’s just one. Instead of practicing at 2:55, they’re practicing at 12:30. And of course, there will be all the sensible COVID precautions to keep players healthy and distanced when possible.
For rookies, this won’t feel like a change because they don’t know the difference. For anyone whose been through a camp, it’ll be an adjustment. Football players are creatures of habit and even savvy veterans will have to recalibrate to the new normal. I don’t know how much that translates into actual substance but it’s something to keep in mind. Don’t be surprised if Mike Tomlin makes camp look different too in order to compensate for the lack of a preseason.
Right Tackle Rumble – The biggest position battle includes some of the largest men on the roster. The only starting spot that’s truly up for grabs is RT, a fight between Chukwuma Okorafor and Zach Banner. There’s a lot on the line for both men. Okorafor is in his third year, coming off a disappointing 2019, and if he can’t win the job now, his future in Pittsburgh looks dim. Banner is on a one-year contract, betting on himself for a big payday in the offseason.
Give the slight edge to Okorafor heading into camp, when they’ve needed a RT the last two years, they’ve turned to him, but this thing could go either way. Even the winner won’t have great job security once the regular season begins.
Eyes On The Elbow – The national story is Ben Roethlisberger. Rightfully so. How much will he practice? Will they ramp up his work, scale it back, or as he hinted at, keep things relatively the same with a full, half, off day schedule? Hopefully sooner than later, we’ll hear about his first deep ball completion. When it happens, there will be much rejoicing.
Rare Rookies? – No question rookies and young players are in the toughest spot, missing an estimated 900-1000 offseason reps they’ll never get back. Who can fight through that adversity and emerge? The ones mentally sharp, physically fit, and doing the little things to give them the edge. Ones whose head is in the playbook, eating right, getting enough sleep, and taking the advice from veterans in the room. While the Steelers aren’t heavily counting on any rookie, it wouldn’t hurt for Chase Claypool or Anthony McFarland to get off to a fast start. Assuming there is one, let’s see how McFarland fares in the backs on backers drill while Claypool could stand out in the stalk blocking drills.
Shaping Up, In Shape – Bouncing off the last point. For rookies or futures players trying to turn heads, they have to be in great physical condition. To be able to take on every single rep in practice. Avoiding dehydration that could cause someone to bow out; if a team can’t trust you to finish practice, they won’t trust you to finish a game. And oh yeah, there’s only 80 on the roster now, which will give some players a couple more reps a day. Those players better take advantage of the opportunity.
Safety Net At Safety – There aren’t nearly as many storylines defensively as there are on offense. But that doesn’t mean there are zero. Safety remains one of the team’s weakest areas of depth behind slam-dunk starters Minkah Fitzpatrick and Terrell Edmunds. Jordan Dangerfield is a quality special teamer, new FS Curtis Riley seems to have decent odds, but hearing positive reports on those guys or youngsters Marcus Allen and Antoine Brooks Jr. would offer a little more confidence here. Allen and Brooks are physical box types so padded practices are when they should thrive.
Second Year Surges – A full offseason sure would’ve been nice for second-year players looking to make the jump, and avoid the sophomore slump, in 2020. Diontae Johnson and Benny Snell have both transformed their bodies, Johnson adding weight, Snell losing it, and will be counted on for key roles this year. Especially Johnson as he works with Ben Roethlisberger for pretty much the first time. He caught only seven passes across training camp, preseason, and the regular season last year.
It’s even tougher for the sophomores with very little rookie experience. Ulysees Gilbert III turned heads this time last year but missed the latter half of 2019 with a back injury. Now, he’s the #3 inside linebacker, an injury away from being next man up. And third rounder Justin Layne didn’t log a single defensive snap as a rookie. He’s off the COVID list, however, a positive sign as the pads come on.