Like many of you, I look forward to six hours of radio every week on Sunday night on WANB radio. If you need any explanation to what I am referring, you are either not from around Greene County, or you never had a radio growing up.
This past Sunday was the Christmas in July special on Greene County Gold, one of my nine favorite broadcasts of the year, along with the four Halloween-themed shows in October complete with spooky old-time radio drama at 11:30 p.m. every week, and the four Christmas shows in December. For Steelers fans, that Christmas in July comes on Friday in Latrobe.
When Pittsburgh opens camp on the campus of Saint Vincent College, there will be a lot less drama than in recent years, but possibly more questions when it comes to on-field performance. Questions about running back, wide receiver and middle linebacker have been dissected over and over for weeks if not months. I’d like to try to shine a light on a few jobs that maybe haven’t gotten as much attention, but could still play a big role in the team bouncing back from missing the playoffs.
n Ever since Heath Miller joined the Steelers, the tight end spot has been an important part of the passing game, especially when Ben Roethlisberger started playing like the future hall of famer he is today. When he’s healthy, Vance McDonald is not only one of the best all-around players at the position, but he has garnered cult following status with his demoralizing stiff arms and bull-in-a-china-shop style when he has the ball in the open field.
But, as previously mentioned, injuries have limited McDonald’s time on the gridiron. In the past, the team has had the services of native son Jesse James to not only fill the spot but spend time on the field in team’s myriad of spread and double tight end packages. With James now suiting up for Detroit, there has been some consternation expressed over who will fill in for the former Penn State Nittany Lion and South Allegheny Gladiator.
Veteran Xavier Grimble is sure to get the first shot at the job, but massive rookie Zach Gentry (6-8, 265) has received some positive reviews throughout rookie camp. Amazingly, Gentry isn’t even the tallest man at the position. That designation goes to 6-9, 274-pound skyscraper Christian Scotland-Williams, who is in his second season out of Loughborough University in England.
n Kicker Chris Boswell has been saying all the right things following his disastrous 2018 campaign that came after signing a contract many at the position would give their specialized kicking shoe for. Boswell will be given every opportunity to keep his job, despite missing seven field goals and five PAT attempts. However, he won’t be the only kicker on the roster.
Rookie Matthew Wright is coming off the greatest kicking career in Central Florida history. He was more than reliable in one-pointers, connecting on 212 PATs, including a school-record 153 in a row. Would the team be willing to move on from the NFL’s most expensive kicker (four years, $16.86 million)? That’s not likely to happen, but if Wright performs well enough this preseason, he could earn a spot on the practice squad.
Should Boswell struggle or get hurt, Wright will be ready to swoop in and grab the top spot.
n Can anyone tell me the last time the Steelers have had a legitimate kickoff and punt return threat? When were they able to trot anyone out there that really struck fear into an opposing kick or punt unit?
I guess you could throw Antonio Brown out there, but as he grew as a pass catcher, his significance in the special teams withered to almost nonexistence.
It’s not as if the franchise hasn’t tried to find that guy. Whether Ryan Switzer, Dri Archer or others, Pittsburgh has never found its Devin Hester or, for you CFL fans, Brandon Banks. Let’s take a look at this year’s contestants for the job.
Rookie Diontae Johnson should get the first crack at it. They love his play-making ability and think he could be a great addition to the wide receiver corps. However, even with Brown’s departure, the wide receiver ranks are jam-packed with veterans looking to gobble up touches. Switzer, James Washington, Donte Moncrief and Eli Rogers all have good to very good NFL résumés and will be looking to man that No.2 spot beside JuJu.
While Johnson will no doubt get his shot in the preseason to line up on offense, the return game could be where he cuts his teeth against legitimate pro defenders.