Steelers ready to turn the page when camp opens
Believers in incremental progress had the Steelers pegged for the Super Bowl even before the 2017 season began.
After returning to the playoffs in 2014 following a two-year absence, the Steelers advanced one round deeper the next two years, reaching the AFC championship game in 2016.
It stood to reason the Super Bowl was on the horizon when the Steelers reported to training camp last summer. Which made the stunning playoff loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars in January all the more difficult to digest.
Not only didn’t the Steelers return to the conference title game — let alone the Super Bowl — they were outplayed and outscored at home in the divisional round by an upstart opponent that was making its first playoff appearance in 10 years.
So much for that 13-win season and first-round playoff bye.
So much for incremental progress.
General manager Kevin Colbert expressed his disappointment in February as the Steelers headed into the offseason.
“I do not think we were better in 2017 than we were in 2016 because we got eliminated a round earlier, and I think that’s a reflection of the job that all of us did or didn’t do,” Colbert said. “And how do we get better? We all have to figure out a way to not get eliminated in the first round. That is the process that we are in.”
Six months after that bitter playoff defeat, the Steelers are ready to take the final step toward cleansing that game from their collective memory and building toward a new season. After engaging in free agency, the draft, organized team activities and minicamp, the process continues Wednesday when 90 players report to Saint Vincent for training camp.
Three weeks in Latrobe and four preseason games in August will shape the Steelers for a 16-game grind that perhaps will put the franchise in position to take the step that was so elusive in 2017.
Here are five areas that will occupy the spotlight until Labor Day when the Steelers turn their focus to the Sept. 9 opener in Cleveland:
Inside LB: Who will replace Ryan Shazier?
The Steelers didn’t have an answer when Shazier’s career was altered on that December night in Cleveland. Minus its Pro Bowl inside linebacker, the defense struggled to stop the run the rest of the season and was gouged for 38 of the 45 points scored by Jacksonville.
Jon Bostic, recently with the Colts, was signed in free agency, but the Steelers surprisingly didn’t address the position in the draft. With all of their first-round graded players off the board, the Steelers selected safety Terrell Edmunds in the first round and ignored linebacker the remainder of the draft.
Coach Mike Tomlin is a proponent of backup Tyler Matakevich, whose chance to replace Shazier against the Bengals lasted less than two quarters because of a shoulder injury. Matakevich never has started an NFL game, but he worked with the first-team defense in offseason workouts while Bostic learned Keith Butler’s system by practicing with the second team.
Matakevich vs. Bostic arguably will be the most closely monitored position competition of training camp.
RB: Who gets Le’Veon Bell’s snaps?
Last year, the preseason workhorses were Terrell Watson and rookie James Conner. Watson carried 37 times in the exhibition season and Conner 24. But after Bell reported for the regular season, Conner got just 32 carries and Watson five.
Conner is back — Watson wasn’t re-signed — to forge a bigger role with Bell expected to skip camp for a second consecutive summer. With Bell unlikely to return in 2019, much is at stake for Conner and the rest of the backfield that includes fifth-round draft pick Jaylen Samuels and veteran Stevan Ridley .
For the running backs on the roster, this camp could serve not only as a stepping stone for this season but an audition for 2019.
WR: Where does James Washington fit?
The last time Antonio Brown didn’t have Martavis Bryant flanking him at wide receiver, he faced constant double and triple teams because defenses didn’t respect the Steelers’ No. 2 option. Brown’s 1,284 receiving yards and 12.1 yards per catch in 2016 were his lowest totals in the past five seasons.
Bryant, for all of his faults and distractions last year, kept defenses honest and freed up Brown to dominate defenses to the tune of an NFL-high 1,533 yards , an average of 109.5 per game, also tops in the league .
Replacing Bryant on the outside this season will be JuJu Smith-Schuster, who is coming off a record-setting rookie season. Or it could be Washington, the team’s second-round draft pick, with Smith-Schuster lining up in the slot.
Or it could be a combination of the two, with Smith-Schuster and Washington flip-flopping between the two spots. The Steelers hope Washington makes the kind of impact as a rookie as Smith-Schuster, who set a franchise rookie record with 917 receiving yards.
Washington put up video game-like numbers in his four seasons at Oklahoma State, but at 5-foot-11, he is 5 inches shorter than Bryant. His time in the 40-yard dash, 4.54 seconds, wasn’t among the top 15 at his position, but the Steelers believe his speed is deceptive and that Washington will excel at making the difficult catches.
QB: Can Mason Rudolph unseat Landry Jones as the backup?
With Ben Roethlisberger skipping most organized team activities, Rudolph took snaps with the second team and impressed with his reads and accuracy.
The question of when Rudolph might step in for Roethlisberger is an issue best saved for another day, but the rookie third-rounder could compete with Jones in the preseason for the No. 2 job. Jones has the advantage of five years in the team’s system.
Rudolph, by virtue of the Steelers trading up in the third round to acquire him, is part of the team’s future, particularly with Jones signed only for one more season. The Steelers might be hesitant to enter the season with a rookie backing up the franchise quarterback. Four preseason games will give Rudolph a chance to show if he is ready for the challenge.
Outside linebacker: On which side does Bud Dupree play?
On the first day of offseason workouts, the Steelers had Dupree line up at the right outside linebacker spot, with T.J. Watt moving to the left side. This was a departure from last year when Watt, in his first NFL season, had seven sacks. Dupree, in his first full NFL season as a starter, had six.
In an effort to get more production from Dupree, who is entering his fourth year, the Steelers decided to line him up over the left tackle. This will give Dupree the chance , if he beats his man, to come at the quarterback from the blind side.
The Steelers estimated Dupree missed several more sacks last season because the QB saw him coming. Dupree and Watt have embraced the move, but it remains to be seen if the change is permanent or on a game-by-game or series-by-series basis .
Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe at email@example.com or via Twitter @tribjoerutter.