The Steelers huddled as a collective Thursday afternoon at Heinz Field and got their final, in-person instruction from Mike Tomlin before breaking minicamp and scattering across the country to enjoy some time off. Pittsburgh's players will next meet in Latrobe (most likely) in just over a month. It will be then — or even before then — that some questions will need to be answered about the makeup of the team.
I dive into the biggest areas of concern for Mike Tomlin’s team as it enters the 2021 season.
Can this offensive line really work?
Collectively, the offensive line is the worst unit on the team, and it’s not even close.
From left to right, I have major concerns at each position.
After a lackluster 2020 season at right tackle, Chukwuma Okorafor is sliding to the left tackle spot, a more difficult position and more important one for the health and safety of Ben Roethlisberger.
Zach Banner, who tore his ACL in the season opener last year, was not able to participate in minicamp last week as he continues to rehab. It remains to be seen if he can get back to where he was when he beat out Okorafor for a starting job in training camp last year.
The left guard appears to be Kevin Dotson who, while showing flashes of being a solid contributor in his rookie season, is still fairly unproven, having played just 33 percent of the team's offensive snaps last season.
Kendrick Green was drafted to play center eventually, but it could be BJ Finney or JC Hassenauer snapping the ball until Green is ready. And that might be a while.
Finally, at right guard, David DeCastro’s health status has to be in question after not participating in minicamp and the team reportedly working out five-time Pro Bowl guard Trai Turner last week. DeCastro missed the start of the 2020 season and most of training camp with a lingering knee injury, and I have to wonder if its will eventually become too much for him to play through.
Drafting Najee Harris is looking like a good move for Pittsburgh, but will the offensive line be able to give him any running room? I have my doubts.
Speaking of torn ACLs
In addition to Banner, how is Devin Bush going to bounce back from his season-ending knee injury? Reporters were only allowed to report on what they saw during a 30-minute window on Tuesday at Heinz Field, and I saw Bush going through *individual* drills… and, well, that's all I'm able to report. But you get the idea.
He seems to be ahead of Banner in rehab, which may make sense given Banner’s incredible size. But Bush’s game is about lateral quickness, and his speed is what sets him apart. Can he avoid losing a step after major surgery? He’ll have to if the Steelers defense is going to be successful.
How will corner position shake out?
We know that Joe Haden is going to lock down one of the cornerback positions. But who will play on the other side, and who will play in the slot?
Cam Sutton will answer one of those questions. Sutton has the ability to play the slot. He’s done it in relief of Mike Hilton in previous years, but he also has the capability of playing outside.
So if Sutton remains outside, who works in one of the game’s toughest positions, slot corner? Well, that’s a good question. No one really emerged in minicamp, though that’s to be expected in ‘football in shorts,’ as Mike Tomlin calls it.
However, second-year man James Pierre did stand out on the outside, including a pair of interceptions of Ben Roethlisberger on Wednesday. If Pierre can take another step in training camp, perhaps Sutton will be able to go to the slot, and Pierre can anchor the side opposite Haden.
Antoine Brooks is a name to watch at the slot position if that plan doesn’t work out. Pittsburgh could also look outside of the organization for help.
How will Matt Canada use his weapons?
New offensive coordinator Matt Canada talked about a ‘charge’ from owner Art Rooney II to be more physical on offense. But this is still a team very talented on the perimeter, and the additions of Harris and tight end Pat Frieremuth are going to be big.
Frieremuth catches everything. I mean, EVERYTHING. Steelers fans are going to love him. I can hear the “Muuuuth” chants already. But how does he fit into the scheme? How does Eric Ebron fit? And, just as important, how does Canada line up JuJu Smith-Schuster, who desires to play outside despite being a better fit in the slot? When and where does Chase Claypool get on the field? Same with Diontae Johnson and James Washington. And what about Ray-Ray McCloud, who is a true slot receiver?
It’s not a bad thing to have too much playmaking ability in an offense, but there will be some long nights for Canada trying to figure out how to keep his receivers happy while also creating a more physical culture in the run game.
• I’m curious to see how the punter battle shakes out. The Steelers drafted 6-foot, 255-pound Pressley Harvin III as a potential replacement for Jordan Berry, who has been average at best. The two had a documented punting battle at Heinz Field on Thursday.
• Can Dwayne Haskins overtake Mason Rudolph for the backup quarterback job. I’m not a Rudolph fan. Every time I watch him in the pocket, he looks nervous, and uncomfortable. That continued into minicamp. He’s going to be the backup until Haskins — the former first-round pick of Washington — can prove that he’s capable of playing behind Ben Roethlisberger. I think there’s a good chance that happens.
• I wrote about the Steelers’ need for another capable outside linebacker. This is a back-of-the-stove issue now, but if TJ Watt or even Alex Highsmith get hurt, it could become a grease fire in a hurry.