Five questions facing Steelers entering training camp
It's not the questions the Steelers struggled with the past couple of seasons. It was finding answers to them.
A year ago, they couldn't find an answer to depth issues at running back until they were 0-4 or for all the sacks they were allowing. And world-class players such as Tom Brady and Calvin Johnson had all the answers to solving what once was one of the NFL's most puzzling defenses.
As they begin training camp Friday in Latrobe — they're the only AFC North team that still holds an old-style, college-campus camp — the Steelers are convinced they have fewer question marks than they did during successive 8-8 seasons in 2012 and 2013.
But many remain.
Did they give Ben Roethlisberger enough help?
Lance Moore looks to be a plug-and-play replacement for slot receiver Jerricho Cotchery (10 TD catches in '13), rookie Martavis Bryant has exceptionally fast feet, and Antonio Brown is coming off one of the best seasons in Steelers history. And Heath Miller is healthy again.
But in one of the most top-heavy wide receiver draft classes, the Steelers passed over big names to take defensive players in the first two rounds.
“I would have loved getting Ben a wideout,” NFL Network analyst Jamie Dukes said. “That perplexes me a little bit. That may come back to haunt them. I would have loved to see them bring in a speed-merchant type of guy.”
Instead, the Steelers begin camp with a wide-open receiver position, where Moore, Bryant, Markus Wheaton, Justin Brown and Darrius Heyward-Bey will compete to replace Emmanuel Sanders.
How fast are they?
Dri Archer might be the fastest player in team history. Ryan Shazier might be the fastest linebacker. Speed abounds on a team that often looked a step slow the past two seasons.
“By skewing younger, they're going to become faster,” NFL Network analyst Brian Baldinger said. “Mike Tomlin understands as a defensive guy how hard it is to match up (with speed). That's why he said, ‘We've got to go get us one of those.' That's what Dri Archer represents.”
How much of a difference will Mike Munchak make?
Despite boasting four first- or second-round picks on the offensive line, the Steelers struggled to find a healthy, stable unit until midseason. They believe they have one in Kelvin Beachum, Ramon Foster, Maurkice Pouncey, David DeCastro and Marcus Gilbert/Mike Adams.
Can Munchak, one of the NFL's renowned teachers, make this line into one of the NFL's best, something the Steelers didn't have even while winning Super Bowls in 2005 and 2008?
“I thought DeCastro could be the next Alan Faneca,” said Dukes, a former NFL lineman. “I haven't seen that yet. Maybe (now) Alan Faneca will show up.”
Will Todd Haley finally run the ball the way he's wanted since being hired in 2012?
The Steelers took advantage of a deflated market for running backs to sign LeGarrette Blount (right) to back up Le'Veon Bell (left), who is expected to be a 1,000-yard rusher if he stays healthy.
With Archer thrown in to create more offensive diversity, this looks to be Haley's best run-game unit since his Jamaal Charles-led Kansas City Chiefs offense led the NFL in rushing in 2010.
“I think running the ball, whether we are huddling or no-huddling, is something that we are going to do better — a lot better,” Haley said.
Will big plays be a big problem again?
The Steelers gave up a league-high 11 plays of 50 yards or more last season and had only one themselves.
The added speed on offense could generate such plays, and the Steelers could begin to eliminate them if Troy Polamalu can go back to being a full-time safety and Jason Worilds can replicate his second-half sack stats.
“And (safety) Mike Mitchell? He's versatile, probably more explosive than Ryan Clark,” NFL Network analyst Solomon Wilcots said. “He's got range. He can go man-to-man with some tight ends. He's going to give them more flexibility and more speed and more athleticism on the back end” to eliminate long catch-and-run plays.