A couple of queries to get started
BY JIM WEXELL
For The Tribune-Democrat
PITTSBURGH — The Steelers report for training camp Sunday and coach Mike Tomlin admitted to four questions he has on his mind.
1. Offensive line.
2. Third-team quarterback.
3. Finding roles for the running backs.
4. The development of the second-year players.
“I never try to tell a story,” Tomlin said. “I let the story unfold and call it as I see it.”
Reporters, on the other hand, can tell the story before it unfolds, so here are the pre-camp answers to Tomlin’s questions, as well as the answers to questions he should have on his mind:
Offensive line: Tomlin said the competition at center would be “hotly contested,” but the thinking behind closed doors is that Sean Mahan was overextended last season as a starter. He’s a backup, and that’s how he’ll be used this year behind newcomer Justin Hartwig. As for Max Starks, he’s focusing on right tackle, according to Tomlin, but “there will be instances or moments” of him playing left tackle. It sounds as if Tomlin is planning to keep Starks as a swing tackle, making him the highest-paid backup in team history.
Third-team quarterback: Dennis Dixon had problems understanding his assignments in the spring, so this is an understandable concern. But Dixon flashed quickness and a strong arm, even if his release point is too low.
Roles for running backs: This should be rephrased as “How good is Rashard Mendenhall?” because this spring Willie Parker was the lead dog and Mewelde Moore was the pass-downs back. Mendenhall is considered “a supplemental runner” at this point, so only if he has a great preseason will any of the roles change for the opener.
Second-year players: LaMarr Woodley will move into the starting lineup, but Lawrence Timmons must compete against Larry Foote for the inside Mack linebacker position. Foote took all the run-down snaps in the spring and Timmons played on passing downs. To beat out Foote for the starting job, Timmons must show better instincts and run-down toughness this preseason.
Depth on the defensive line: Tomlin continues to praise the signings of Travis Kirschke and Nick Eason, but they’ll need to show the public more for this question to go away. Ryan McBean, a rookie last season, impressed his position coach late in the year, but an injured foot kept him out of spring drills. Word is that McBean is fully recovered and has been in the South Side weight room every day this summer. The only other person to show that kind of dedication in recent years, according to a source with the team, has been James Harrison.
Free safety: Even though Clark had his spleen and gall bladder removed after playing in the high altitude in Denver last season, Tomlin said he’ll treat Clark like everybody else at camp. But Clark must prove he has more than the right mental approach to come all the way back as the starting free safety.
Return men: The Allen Rossum Project fizzled last season, so Tomlin told Santonio Holmes that he’s in the punt-return mix with Willie Reid and Moore. The Steelers also used Mendenhall as a kickoff return man in the spring as they continue their search to replace Antwaan Randle El.
“More than anything,” Tomlin said of his camp questions, “are group dynamics, the development of leadership, the chemistry. The things you can’t measure are always a question to me. Some of the other things that are more obvious always sort themselves out where they should: On the grass at training camp and in preseason games.
“I’m more concerned and more interested in the development that you don’t measure: The camaraderie, the natural leadership, the ever-changing roles that involve the football team.”