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Saunders: What to Watch for at Steelers Training Camp in 2021

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Steelers training camp starts on Thursday, and as usual, Steelers Now will have full coverage from the UPMC Sports Complex on the South Side and Heinz Field with recaps, videos, photos and more.

But with 90 (89 at the moment) players on the practice field at one time, it’s tough to take in all the action at once, and at the end of the day, we know a lot about what the 2021 Pittsburgh Steelers are going to look like already.

Where there are gaps in our information and where decisions have yet to be made is where our coverage will be focused. So here’s what we’re watching for this training camp.

What does Matt Canada’s offense look like?

Those of us that have been to OTAs and minicamp have something of an idea as to the answer to this question, but haven’t been allowed to share it with the public just yet, and none of us, Canada included, have seen what it’s going to look like against a live defense attempting to stop it.

Canada has been notorious for tinkering with personnel groupings and sub packages and using pre-snap motions and shifts to add complexity to a relatively simple playbook and give his offense an edge. Will that work in the NFL? That remains to be seen.

All five wide receivers are back from 2020, but Canada has promised to deploy them differently, without a hard line between slot receivers and outside guys, something that start JuJu Smith-Schuster has asked for after playing primarily in the slot under Randy Fichtner.

How will the offensive line shake out — and can it be better?

After having one of the least-effective offensive lines in football in 2020, the Steelers made wholesale changes, replacing or moving every single starter from last season and replacing Shaun Sarrett with Adrian Klemm as coach.

Doing the same thing over again and expecting different results is the definition of insanity, but change does not guarantee greater success, either. There are question marks at nearly every spot on the offensive line,

Chukwuma Okorafor struggled at right tackle last season and will moving to the more difficult of the tackle spots, Zach Banner has not yet fully recovered from ACL surgery and has just two career starts under his belt, Trai Turner was hurt most of last year and played poorly as a result, Kevin Dotson has just a handful of starts and there have been questions about his level of conditioning this season and Kendrick Green has played only a few games of center in his adult life, let alone at the NFL level.

Can all of that work out into a quality line? Probably. But it won’t be easy.

Who steps up in the secondary?

The Steelers lost Steven Nelson and Mike Hilton, as well as experienced backup Sean Davis, from absolutely the 2020 secondary, and didn’t replace any of them with a single player of pedigree: No trades, no big-name free agents, no high draft picks.

Instead, they’ll rely on a combination of second-year players that didn’t play much last year like Antoine Brooks Jr. and James Pierre, lightly regarded rookies such as Tre Norwood, Shakur Brown and David Gilbert and street free agents like Miles Killebrew and Arthur Maulet.

It’s not an awe-inspiring bunch, but there is talent to be had there, along with nearly an unlimited number of permutations through which they can be deployed.

The four primary starters in the secondary should not be an issue, but the fifth and sixth defensive backs and all of the depth constitute big questions to be answered this camp.

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Other key battles:

P: Jordan Berry vs. Pressley Harvin III

RB2: Anthony McFarland Jr. vs. Benny Snell Jr. vs. Kalen Ballage

QB3: Dwayne Haskins vs. Joshua Dobbs

DE3: Isaiah Buggs vs. Isaiahh Loudermilk vs. Henry Mondeaux

ILB3: Ulysees Gilbert III vs. Marcus Allen vs. Buddy Johnson

TE3: Zach Gentry vs. Kevin Rader

OLB4: Cassius Marsh vs. Quincy Roche

Other players to watch:

• Mason Rudolph did not get a ton of opportunities in 2020 to show how he’d grown from his first starting experience the previous year. He’ll get that in 2021 with a full preseason, and has a chance to cement his status as Ben Roethlisberger’s heir apparent.

• Robert Spillane is going to be trusted with a big role in the defense with the retirement of Vince Williams. He showed reliability against the run but vulnerability against the pass when thrust into duty in 2020. Williams’ old Buck ILB spot seems a better fit for him long term.

• Cameron Sutton will be playing outside cornerback full-time for the first time in his career. He’s shown promise in the ability to make that adjustment, but any time a player needs to do more than they’ve done in the past, a strong camp will ease minds about the transition.

• Alex Highsmith was not strong against the run last year and now has real competition for playing time in the form of Melvin Ingram. It’s been a strong early progression for the 2020 third-round pick, but he’ll have to continue that upward trajectory if he wants to dominate the playing time opposite T.J. Watt.

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