LATROBE – As NFL training camps open up across the country, every team – at least publicly – says the same things when asked about goals. They all look at the Super Bowl as a final destination.
For some teams, that’s reality. For others, it’s lip service meant to placate fans and media.
The Pittsburgh Steelers, who open training camp at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe today, are set to begin the journey through this season. Will it end with a long run into the postseason or a third straight season out of the playoffs?
Here are five things to look forward to over the next few weeks:
Fresh faces in new places: The Steelers were more active in free agency than they have been in at least a decade, bringing in safety Mike Mitchell, defensive lineman Cam Thomas, running back LeGarrette Blount, wide receivers Lance Moore and Darius Heyward-Bey, punter Adam Podlesh and linebacker Arthur Moats. All seven are expected to either start or play crucial roles.
Add an exciting rookie class that includes linebacker Ryan Shazier, defensive lineman Stephon Tuitt, running back/receiver Dri Archer and wide receiver Martavis Bryant, and there are plenty of new faces.
Training camp and the preseason offers the first opportunity for fans to get a look at the new guys.
Joint practices with the Bills: For the first time in more than a decade, the Steelers will work out with another team. The Buffalo Bills will be at Saint Vincent College for a practice from 3-5 p.m., Aug. 13, and from 5:30-7:30 p.m. Aug. 14. Both sessions are open to the public. The two teams will then meet at Heinz Field Aug. 16 for a preseason game.
While it’s hard to judge whether a player is having a good or bad training camp going against his own teammates, it’s not as difficult when he’s doing so against players from another team. The practices also should be a good opportunity for autograph seekers of Steelers and Bills players.
Night practice at Latrobe Stadium: Always a popular event, the night practice typically draws 10- to 15,000 people. There’s an autograph session before the practice that begins at 7 p.m. and a fireworks display when it ends at 9 p.m. Longtime Steelers play-by-play man Bill Hillgrove also lends his dulcet voice to the event, calling the action on the field from his perch in the press box. This year’s night practice is Friday, Aug. 1.
Camp battles: Mitchell will replace Ryan Clark at free safety, Shazier will step into the starting inside linebacker spot next to Lawrence Timmons and Thomas and Tuitt will help ease the losses of defensive ends Brett Keisel and Ziggy Hood. But there’s a battle at wide receiver to replace Emmanuel Sanders in the starting lineup at wide receiver, with second-year players Markus Wheaton and Justin Brown getting the first shot. Moore, Heyward-Bey and Bryant will be waiting in the wings.
At right tackle, the question will be whether Marcus Gilbert can hold off Mike Adams. Can Podlesh and his seven years of NFL experience win the punting job over former Brad Wing of LSU?
Two-headed running back attacks: Pittsburgh’s rushing game was tied for 27th in the league after averaging just 86.4 yards per game in 2013. With that in mind, the Steelers upgraded their 2013 backups – Jonathan Dwyer, Isaac Redman, Felix Jones and LaRod Stephens-Howling – with the addition of the 250-pound Blount, who had 772 yards rushing on 153 carries last season for New England.
Of NFL running backs who had at least 150 carries last season, only DeMarco Murray of Dallas and LeSean McCoy of Philadelphia averaged more than the 5.0 yards per attempt that Blount did.
The Steelers feel the addition of Blount and the speedy Archer will give them more flexibility to go along with starter Le’Veon Bell, who set a team rookie record with 1,259 total yards from scrimmage in 2013. How the carries are divided between the three and who serves what roles remains to be seen.