Getting the rookies ready

Lawrence Timmons and LaMarr Woodley. Matt Spaeth, Daniel Sepulveda, Ryan McBean and William Gay. Possibly to a lesser extent, Darnell Stapleton and Gary Russell, too.

Coach Mike Tomlin is of the belief that players make their most dramatic improvement between their first and second seasons, and therefore much will be expected of the second-year players mentioned above. But it could be the contributions from a couple of rookies that determine if the Steelers offense can become what it will need to be if the team is to get where it wants to go.

“It really depends on who we’re talking about,” said Tomlin when asked what constitutes a realistic expectation for an NFL rookie. “My experience in this league has taught me that they’re all different. They learn differently, they adjust to the speed of the game differently, they adjust to the expectations in terms of professionalism differently.

It’s really on a case-by-case basis.” Undoubtedly, this is a sound approach for a coach to have when it comes to the normal maturation process that takes place for each
rookie, but as this training camp is about to begin there seems to be ample evidence the
Steelers could really use both Rashard Mendenhall and Limas Sweed to be abnormal.

Mendenhall is the first-round draft pick whose skill set had coordinator Bruce Arians
comparing him to Edgerrin James; Sweed is the kind of big, physical, athletic receiver who appears to complete a corps already stocked with Hines Ward, Santonio Holes and Nate Washington. “I’ll put it to you like this,” said Washington about the Steelers offense, “we had a good unit, but with the additions we made, I think we went from good to great. Well, we have the potential to be great, rather. We’re not there yet.
It’s a great opportunity for us to come out and open up as an offense.”

The opening up of the Steelers offense has been an annual topic since the time long ago
when Chuck Noll was the coach and Tom Moore his offensive coordinator. There always
seems to be interest in getting the ball to the tight end more, or getting the ball down the field more, or spreading the field more, but history also shows that whenever the Steelers have been champions they have been able to run the football effectively.

During a 2007 season capped by a playoff loss to Jacksonville at Heinz Field, the Steelers
lost four games in which they led or were tied in the final minutes, including the one to the Jaguars that officially ended their season. Certainly, part of that problem was a defense unable to prevent the opponent from mounting late scoring drives, but another part of it can be traced to the offense’s inability to make the plays to kill the clock.

In terms of the inability to kill the clock, which had been such an integral part of the team’s run to Super Bowl XL in 2005, the obvious culprit was the offensive line. The unit that played a large part in Ben Roethlisberger being sacked 53 times over 17 games had been weakened by the retirement of center Jeff Hartings and injuriesso Marvel Smith, with another factor being the inevitable adjustment period required whenever a new position coach arrives with different ideas and teaching methods.

Whether the offensive line was a unit on the slide and needed an overhaul of personnel, or whether it was a group mostly needing time to adapt and adjust still can be a subject of debate because not much changed over the course of the offseason. The Steelers wisely chose to concentrate their offseason efforts toward getting Roethlisberger’s name on a longterm contract extension, and then the events of the draft conspired against them having a chance to use their early round picks on offensive linemen.

And so it was that when their turn came in the first round, the Steelers picked Mendenhall, thought by some to be the best running back available, and then in the second they chose Sweed, thought by some to be the best wide receiver available.

“I was shocked,” Arians said. “It was because of the run on linemen. People panicked. I
called it a panic attack on offensive linemen. All of a sudden guys were trading away future picks and stuff to go get one of those tackles because this was the year to get a tackle. And when it happened, the tremendous skill guys dropped. Man, they were passing them up.” Now it falls to Arians and the rest of the offensive staff to find ways to utilize Mendenhall and Sweed to enable the offense to do its part to make sure the Steelers squander no more games in the final minutes. But the reality of life in the NFL is it’s far easier to type the sentence than actually accomplish the task.

The belief is that certain positions are simpler for rookies to learn quickly, and if running back is one of those, then wide receiver is at the other end of the spectrum. For a rookie receiver, there is an unfamiliarity with the offense and the quarterback, the cornerbacks are much better and the “open” windows are much, much smaller and close much, much quicker.

“I’ve heard it said that it’s easy for a running back to make the adjustment,” said Tomlin,
“and maybe it is when he has the ball in his hands, because that’s what comes natural. But there’s so much more to playing running back than having the ball in your hands. In that respect, all positions are equally difficult. Some of the things may come naturally, such as running the football or rushing the passer, but there’s so much more to those positions than the things that draw a lot of attention.”

How quickly Mendenhall and Sweed absorb those other things will determine how quickly
they get onto the field, and how quickly they get onto the field and contribute could have a significant impact on this Steelers’ season. “Ideally,” said Tomlin, “what you want from rookies is that these guys understand the gravity of what it is they do, and they’re ready to be contributors to the football team if they make it."