Always there are issues as the Steelers head to training camp, even their 1970s teams had them (check out 1977 for an impressive list). Some issues do not change from one year to another, just the reasons. Here are five of the more important issues for the Steelers as they gather at Saint Vincent College Friday:
What's my line?
Or, what's guard Ramon Foster doing here with all these high draft picks? Foster re-upped as a free agent, which is what he was back in 2009 when he went undrafted after starting three years at the University of Tennessee. That makes him the old man of a very young group with loftier draft resumes. The other four projected starters were drafted in the first or second rounds since 2010, led by three-time Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey. Mike Tomlin will turn over the starting tackle jobs to two second-round picks, Marcus Gilbert on the left and Mike Adams on the right. David DeCastro, their top pick in 2012, is the right guard. Add second-year guard-tackle (and perhaps center) Kelvin Beachum as the top backup and the line youth movement is nearly unprecedented for them. Whether all those lofty credentials will combine to turn it into an effective line is TBD.
A running joke
What had 10 legs and could not run in 2012? The Steelers five halfbacks. Their runners produced the fewest team yards (1,537) since 2003, and Jonathan Dwyer's 623 yards were the lowest by their leading rusher since Merril Hoge had 610 in 1991. One of coordinator Todd Haley's goals was to improve the ground game, and that remains a major one. Gone are Rashard Mendenhall and Chris Rainey. Added are rookie Le'Veon Bell and vet LaRod Stephens-Howling. Injuries contributed to the poor showing by the runners last season. Even though he led them, Dwyer is no lock to make the roster. Bell could claim the starting job before camp is out with his main competition Isaac Redman. Baron Batch and Stephens-Howling are candidates on third downs.
Two years in a row now the Steelers have been ruthless in their paring of storied veterans. In 2012, they cut loose Hines Ward, James Farrior and Aaron Smith. Many more veteran losses followed this year and young talent fled on their own. Those gone include James Harrison, Casey Hampton, Max Starks, Willie Colon, Rashard Mendenhall, Mike Wallace and Keenan Lewis, all starters of various resumes, including the 2008 NFL Defensive Player of the Year, Harrison. Change is not a four-letter word, but that's a lot of departed talent and leadership to fill in one season. Some were ready to go, others like Harrison, the team wanted to keep but could not reach agreement on pay. The Steelers believe they have possible solutions for all of them -- e.g., they drafted Bell to replace Mendenhall, promoted Cortez Allen to take Lewis' spot at cornerback, groomed Steve McLendon to take over for Hampton and picked Jarvis Jones No. 1 to ultimately succeed Harrison.
The Kumbaya factor
Several players made statements after last season labeling their locker room atmosphere in 2012 poor. Ryan Clark said the locker room was fractured. Antonio Brown said "we wasn't a team in 2012" and that the leadership must be better. If true, perhaps part of it came from our previous topic, with team leaders leaving right and left. Clark later backed off his statement, when he said during June minicamp that there really wasn't a fractured locker room. "Guys got along,'' Clark said. "We still had fun.'' Nevertheless, the team attitude will now be under the microscope after those statements, which were prompted by a teammate, quoted anonymously, criticizing LaMarr Woodley's workout dedication as a reason for his injuries and dip in play the past two seasons.
Injury prone (or supine)
Injuries cost Steelers starters 78 games last season. There was little doubt that hindered their ground game, their big-play defense and ultimately their passing game when quarterback Ben Roethlisberger went down with rib and right arm injuries after a 6-3 start. Roethlisberger missed three games and wasn't the same upon his return, throwing late interceptions in two close losses. He then had cleanup surgery on his right knee in June. Club president Art Rooney II had his people examine causes and possible remedies and they came up with some ideas they put into practice in the spring. Among other things, they had players take stress tests and instituted mandatory pre-practice warmups for all. Clark put the responsibility on players to make sure each is in top shape, but said, "Sometimes guys just get hurt. It has nothing to do with the way they prepared . . . When you have key guys at key positions who get hurt, you try to find ways to remedy the problem. You want to do your part and that's what the team is doing."