Analysis: Steelers can dodge potholes

With a collective chip on their shoulders, and enough talent in reserve, the Pittsburgh Steelers will enter training camp as legitimate contenders.

This would probably work better on the eve of training camp, but sometimes it's best to jot down your feelings while they're fresh. So here's my breakdown of the Pittsburgh Steelers immediately following the end of spring workouts.

Quarterback: Mike Tomlin made it all sound so easy when he moved Ben Roethlisberger back to first team and kept Dennis Dixon at second team late in workouts. While it was clear Byron Leftwich had outplayed Dixon this spring, and will be the No. 1 during Roethlisberger's suspension, it's also clear that Dixon remains the guy with the most upside and is worthy of receiving a solid workload. Leftwich made his mark this spring by seeking out Mike Wallace as often as he could, while Dixon showed off his tantalizing mobility on the rare occasion that Bruce Arians called for the QB to run a read-option. As for Roethlisberger, he accomplished his primary goals of losing weight and addressing the media. He's hoping his game will be the next aspect to fall into line.

Running back: Rashard Mendenhall never looked quicker, but he wants to put about five pounds back onto his 217-pound frame. Jonathan Dwyer, Isaac Redman and Frank Summers appear to be worthy of a team that wants to build a stable of power backs, while Mewelde Moore figures to have another year in him as a coach's favorite. One of the five will probably get the axe if the team keeps six wide receivers. Undrafted rookie fullback Demetrius Taylor is an interesting candidate for the practice squad.

Wide receiver: Hines Ward didn't practice at all, but claims his hamstring "tweak" will be forgotten come training camp. Of course, you can never be sure with 13-year veterans. On the other side, Wallace appears to be taking the next step from rookie slot sensation to sophomore starter. Antwaan Randle El was a Roethlisberger favorite the last week of drills and overcame a sluggish start to put a hammerlock on the No. 3 job. Arnaz Battle showed veteran savvy on short and intermediate routes and sneaky deep speed. He's also a frontrunner for a gunner job on the punt team. Of course, Anthony Madison could also handle that job if Battle and his $975,000 signing bonus are deemed expendable. That would come on the heels, presumably, of outstanding camp showings by rookies Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown. The latter had the more productive spring but the former has a bit more athleticism. Tyler Grisham stuck on the practice squad last year and earned playing time late. After making so many acrobatic catches again this spring, Grisham may take that course once again this season. Brandon London is a longshot sleeper at the position.

Tight end: I probably say this every year, but Heath Miller has never looked better. The Pro Bowler will turn 28 in October, so he's right in his physical prime. Matt Spaeth is the No. 2, and the battle for No. 3 will be waged by David Johnson, Sean McHugh and Eugene Bright. Johnson dropped more balls than anyone this spring, but is a solid blocker. McHugh is the best lead-blocking fullback of the group. Bright drew praise from Tomlin, who admitted to me that the team scouted former prep phenom Callahan Bright just because of the respect he has for his older brother Eugene.

Offensive line: This will again be the interesting group to watch this summer. My preference is to change centers. If Doug Legursky has the playbook edge on Maurkice Pouncey, let Legursky replace Justin Hartwig. Otherwise, let the Pouncey era begin. Right guard would then become my second domino. The rest of the line is set, with Trai Essex and Jonathan Scott helping the depth at the tackle spots. As for Willie Colon, someone please tell his agent to keep quiet. As with LaMarr Woodley, the Steelers are waiting until the end of August to get a better handle on the CBA negotiations. If a breakthrough is imminent, they'll try to extend both players. If not, they'll use the agreement to their advantage and re-sign each the following March as restricted free agents.

Defensive line: The "old men" here are raving about the work ethic and improvement made by Ziggy Hood. He's still a backup to a group that should be able to get it done once again. We'll be able to better gauge the development of No. 4 DE Sunny Harris and No. 3 NT Steve McLendon (310 pounds) at training camp.

Linebackers: As often as possible, the coaching staff used Larry Foote at the buck position because of his understanding of the scheme and his ability to make the calls. He'll be a help this season in reserve. Second-round pick Jason Worilds is quick, heavy-handed and enthusiastic, and most believe he'll develop into a legitimate NFL pass-rusher off the edge. Fifth-round pick Stevenson Sylvester should make the team and overload the position, meaning an unexpected loss will be taken at another position coming out of training camp.

Defensive backs: At his wrap-up press conference last week, Tomlin boasted a bit about the young defensive backs he's brought in since being hired. It said something about his opinion of Joe Burnett, Keenan Lewis and Crezdon Butler, who should provide better depth this season behind the first three cornerbacks. Yet, the problem with depth at safety remains, in spite of the addition of Will Allen. So it'll be another easy camp for Ryan Mundy. The No. 4 safety will only have to fight off two undrafted rookies to make the team.

Special teams: For all the nonsense written about the alleged search for a kickoff specialist this spring, none looked any better than Jeff Reed. Also, Daniel Sepulveda won't be challenged at punter either. Return man Stefan Logan is still the best of the bunch, but will have numbers problem as a running back, particularly if either of the rookie receivers breaks a long one in a preseason game.

Summary: It's a hungry team with veterans who want to prove they're not over the hill, youngsters who want to prove they're worthy of the Steelers tradition, a quarterback who wants to prove everyone wrong, and a coach who's coming off a dreadful season. The talent is there. So is the collective chip on the shoulder. If healthy, the Steelers could surprise their growing pool of doubters.


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