Training Camp Battles: Running Backs and the Offensive Lines Who Enable Them

USA Today Sports

Some of the position battles are fairly clear. Appropriately, there is just a scrum in the halfbacks room. The almost-certain-to-be-suspended Le’Veon Bell is the clear No. 1, DeAngelo Williams is the clear No. 2, and Fitzgerald Toussaint would seem to be the the heir apparent to the No. 3 spot. Behind him you have a couple of guys who weren’t even UDFAs, rookie mini-camp invitee Brandon Brown-Dukes and last week’s signing, Christian Powell. They are competing with Cameron Stingily and Daryl Richardson, both veterans of a sort.

Stingily hails from Romeoville, Illinois, which seems promising, and was signed as a UDFA after the 2015 draft. He impressed the coaching staff last year enough to get a contract, and then was yet another victim of the Hall of Fame turf. He blew out his knee and was waived/injured. After spending the last year working out as much as he could while working at a warehouse and in a landscaping business to support himself and his daughter, the Steelers invited him to rookie minicamp again this year.

He feels he came in with a much better understanding of what was expected, and in better shape. He lost about 20 pounds and is now about 6-1, 230. He also felt he has been able to react more quickly, as he understands more of the playbook and has a feel for what the pace is like. He’s a guy you want to root for.

As is Brandon Brown-Dukesthe minuscule back from Mercyhurst. Tomlin likes what he’s seen enough to stop calling him “Mercyhurst” and use his name. BD, as the linked article suggests he should be called (that just too much of a mouthful) has been impressing at camp, and tomorrow night gives us the first chance to see whether this can, in any way, carry over into live game action.

The true veteran in the room, other than the NFL’s oldest running back, DeAngelo Williams, (a fact his teammates won’t let him forget) is Daryl Richardson. Drafted by the St. Louis Rams in 2012, just barely (he was the next-to-last pick in the entire draft) Richardson beat out their second-round pick Isaiah Pead for the backup job in his rookie year. After two seasons with the Rams they waived him and the Jets picked him up. He was at both their 2014 and 2015 training camps, and on the practice squad for 2014. They waived him, and he had cups of coffee with both the Texans and the Browns.

That was then. This summer he looks impressive. It isn’t just the magnificent braids which obscure his jersey number, but he’s running hard and catching passes. Nobody is going to mistake him for Le’Veon Bell, but he appears to have a lot to offer.

Christian Powell has literally been with the team for ten days. A couple of those were days off. He hasn’t had much chance to make a statement. But he’s a goodly size, at 6-0, 230 pounds, and is doing his best to make an impression. Again, he should get some opportunities tomorrow night.

I decided to put the O line with the backs, because it is due to the line that the guys have any hope of gaining yardage. There is very little drama, and I’m hoping it stays this way. Alejandro Villanueva and newcomer Ryan Harris  are competing for the left tackle spot. And it is literally a case thus far of Villanueva as the first team LT one day and Harris the first team LT the next, with one exception. At Tuesday’s practice Marcus Gilbert was given the day off, and Villanueva was placed at LT, Harris at RT.

As mentioned in the Training Camp DiaryTunch Ilkin was reporting the progress being made by Villanueva, although it was somewhat of the two-steps-forward-one-step-back type. They didn’t say much about Harris, but Jon Ledyard of Scout.com said this several days ago:

I’ve been far more impressed with Alejandro Villanueva than Ryan Harris at left tackle. The latter struggles to stop inside counters, something that Jarvis Jones took advantage of for a clean win during the two-minute drill

That’s the first team. As far as the second team goes, there is more of a competition for the back-up spots on the roster. At center, a position which it would be foolish not to have as good a back-up as you can possibly manage, given Pouncey’s history, there are several guys who can also play guard who are contending—veteran Cody Wallace, Chris Hubbard, and B.J. Finney, the man whose UDFA signing video went viral when he sobbed for joy about being picked up by the Steelers. The Steelers also signed Valerian Ume-Ezecke, a center from New Mexico State, when they waived/injured the first rookie center they had picked up. But given the level of competition, it’s hard to see a single-position unknown having much of a chance at the job.

Jim Wexell, also of Scout.comsaid this about a couple of other linemen:

Chris Hubbard and B.J. Finney are involved in a roster battle from which the loser will likely be claimed by another team. Finney is bigger and has a higher upside but Hubbard moved to left tackle in an injury emergency Tuesday. Hubbard’s C-G-LT versatility will loom large.

Rookie tackle Jerald Hawkins was enjoying his best practice yet before he was sidelined with an injured shoulder. A couple of linemen told me they believe it’s a minor injury and agreed that Hawkins improves every day.

Jerald Hawkinsconsidered very much a project when he was drafted, also impressed Tunch Ilkin the other day. However, no one seems to think he’s be ready anytime soon.

Assuming the first-team line stays healthy, as do the top running backs, the Steelers may be able to run more effectively than they’ve done for a while. But in the NFL that’s a big “if”…

to be continued

 

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