Steelers open camp with new faces, same expectations
PITTSBURGH STEELERS (12-5)
CAMP SITE: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
LAST YEAR: The Steelers used a franchise-best 11-0 start to their fourth AFC North title since 2014. QB Ben Roethlisberger threw for 33 touchdowns in his return from right-elbow surgery that cut short his 2019 season. Rookie WR Chase Claypool was sensational at times to offset the worst rushing attack in the league. The NFL’s third-ranked defense led the league in sacks for a fourth straight year but wore down late in the season. So did everyone else. Pittsburgh went 1-5 down the stretch, culminating in a blowout home playoff loss to Cleveland.
IMPORTANT ADDITIONS: RB Najee Harris, OG Trai Turner, TE Pat Freiermuth, C Kendrick Green, OL BJ Finney, QB Dwayne Haskins.
IMPORTANT LOSSES: C Maurkice Pouncey, RG David DeCastro, LT Alejandro Villanueva, LB Bud Dupree, CB Steve Nelson, DB Mike Hilton, TE Vance McDonald, RB James Conner, LB Avery Williamson, offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner.
CAMP NEEDS: Roethlisberger took a pay cut to return for an 18th season. He’ll do it playing behind a totally revamped offensive line. Pouncey retired, DeCastro was cut and Villanueva left in free agency. The three combined for 17 Pro Bowls. The collective resumes of their replacements are thin by comparison save for Turner, who signed in June just hours after DeCastro was released. The offense will also have to adjust to Matt Canada, promoted after Fichtner was let go in January. It’s a lot of moving parts to figure out for a team with a brutal schedule and the usual sky-high internal expectations.
KEY CAMP COMPETITIONS: The offensive line is a bit of a jumble. Green is the future at center, but if he struggles during camp, JC Hassenauer and Finney have both proven capable. Most of the rest of the starting positions on both sides of the ball are set barring injury. Alex Highsmith will take over for Dupree at outside linebacker opposite T.J. Watt. Devin Bush returns from a knee injury, as does Vince Williams, who was cut and then re-signed at a lower salary. The secondary is set with Cam Sutton replacing the effective but expensive Nelson. Punter Jordan Berry will have to fend off sixth-round draft pick Pressley Harvin III.
EXPECTATIONS: Roethlisberger did not come back so he could be feted by rocking chairs at visiting stadiums in what could be a farewell tour. The Steelers believe their window to be a legitimate Super Bowl contender remains open as long as he’s behind center. A running game bolstered by Harris’ arrival would certainly help take the pressure off a short-passing game that became far too predictable after Thanksgiving. Canada proved to be a wiz while working next door at the University of Pittsburgh in 2016. The Panthers averaged 40 points that season. If he can find a way to get the Steelers to around 30 points on a regular basis, that should be enough considering the talent on defense. Training camp will be about installation and gaining familiarity with the unfamiliar, something not often done in a franchise that has long thrived on continuity.
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