The Steelers have some obvious camp battles taking place in their first week and some lesser but potentially more nagging issues coach Mike Tomlin must resolve.
There are open competitions at center, right tackle and one inside linebacker. There will be new return men, a new No. 3 quarterback and a new left guard (Chris Kemoeatu) for the departed Alan Faneca and left outside linebacker (LaMarr Woodley) for Clark Haggans, who was allowed to leave as an unrestricted free agent.
How to put more pressure on the quarterback, better protect their own quarterback while developing more cohesiveness and better play on the offensive line, improve themselves in the secondary and find a way to keep an aging defensive line intact are the broader concerns.
"When you look back at seasons past, there are things that you didn't do well and want to improve on," Tomlin said. "The one thing that I am extremely conscious of is ... things that we did well last year doesn't ensure that we will do them well this year and things that we didn't do as well last year we can't anticipate being poor in those areas this year. It is really a clean slate if you will."
The obvious is reflected in the statistics — Ben Roethlisberger was sacked 93 times the past two seasons, including 47 last year, second most in team history; and the sack total has dipped from 47 to 39 to 36 on defense.
Toward those ends, there could be three new starters in the offensive line and there likely will be two among the front seven on defense. Their top two draft picks in 2007 were linebackers and LaMarr Woodley showed as a rookie he can get to the quarterback with six sacks over 17 games in a limited role. Lawrence Timmons should unseat Larry Foote at inside linebacker and his quickness and speed should give Dick LeBeau's zone blitz another weapon.
"Those are two men who have worked extremely hard in the offseason and have shown that at this point they are going to be ready to make that jump," Tomlin said. "They have to do it with their actions and I think that they are in the right frame of mind to do that. I am excited about watching those roles grow and expand."
Four-time Pro Bowl strong safety Troy Polamalu played through injuries and did not produce the kinds of big plays that have been his trademark. Free safety Ryan Clark missed half of last season after losing his spleen. The Steelers need both of them back at full strength to stiffen a sagging secondary.
"Ryan Clark has probably been one of the stories of the offseason as far as I am concerned of watching somebody battle back from what he has battled back from," Tomlin said. "But what he has done to this point is just part of the battle. It is going to be exciting to watch him take the next step, which is carrying pads and play. He's got his weight back up to where it was a year ago. He is excited. He is a mentally and physically tough guy. It will be awesome to watch him take the next step."
CAMP CALENDAR: Players reported to Saint Vincent College in Latrobe Sunday and had their running test that day. Practices in the afternoon (3 p.m.) are open to the public, as are the two night practices — at 7 p.m. Aug. 1 at Latrobe High School Stadium and at 5:30 p.m. Aug. 5 at Saint Vincent College. No scrimmages are scheduled. The last practice at camp is Aug. 17.
—There won't be as many twice-daily practices as coach Mike Tomlin held in his first summer camp on the job. He cited the smaller roster as a reason. "Some of the changes that we have made in terms of scheduling indicate that it is a concern," Tomlin said.
—Mike Tomlin acknowledged that the uncertainty of Rooney ownership could become a distraction for his players if they let it.
"Potentially," he said, "because there will be questions that I'll have to answer in regards to that and there will be questions that potentially our team has to answer in regard to that.
"I don't have the answer to those questions and neither does our football team; I'm here to coach, they're here to play. Those questions will be answered by the Rooneys."
—The Steelers were interested in running back Kevin Jones after his release by the Lions. Their plan was to sign him to a one-year contract and put him on the PUP list until he was healthy. Jones was interested, then signed with the Bears. Mike Tomlin said their interest had nothing to do with Willie Parker, who broke a fibula in the 15th game last season but practiced in the spring with no apparent lingering problem.
"I think you do it for just that purpose, to create great competition so that you can come away with the best 53," Tomlin explained. "Anything that we did in that regard had no bearing on Willie Parker's situation."
—The Steelers used their fullback less last season and, with veteran Dan Kreider unsigned after tearing his ACL late last season, it's likely they'll phase it out even more in 2008.
"I don't have the answer to that, I really don't at this point," Tomlin said.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I love football, I love this process. I love going to camp, I love team-building, readying ourselves to pursue our goals. I am extremely excited." — Coach Mike Tomlin, as he prepared to open his second training camp.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
Their top two draft picks both came to terms two days before training camp opened. First-rounder Rashard Mendenhall signed a five-year contract worth $12.55 million, with $7.125 million in guarantees. Second-rounder Limas Sweed signed a four-year deal. That leaves them with all seven rookies under contract and no veteran holdouts. They released WR Matt Trannon, a first-year pro, to put their roster at the required 81, which includes one international exemption.
EXPECTED BATTLE OF THE WEEK: Sean Mahan vs. Justin Hartwig for starting center — Mahan signed as a UFA last year from Tampa Bay, where Mike Tomlin served as secondary coach while he was there. Mahan showed he could not handle the big nose tackles, especially when facing a 3-4 defense. They signed Hartwig for a song after Carolina released him and believe he can return to the kind of form that made him a good center for the Tennessee Titans.
OTHER BATTLE FRONTS: Second-year LB Lawrence Timmons will try to take Larry Foote's starting job on the inside. ... OT Max Starks wants to reclaim his job on the right from Willie Colon, who took it from him last summer.
ROOKIE REPORT: The plan for RB Rashard Mendenhall is to work him in with Willie Parker and also see if he can return kicks. Coach Mike Tomlin said how Mendenhall is used will depend on the rookie. ... WR Limas Sweed will be given a chance to take the No. 3 job from Nate Washington, but it's more likely he will settle in at No. 4. ... OLB Bruce Davis must learn the position after playing end at UCLA, where he had 24.5 sacks the past two seasons. He will get a chance to be an occasional situational pass rusher. ... OT Tony Hills has a real shot at making the team as the No. 4 tackle. ... QB Dennis Dixon is ticketed to be No. 3 this season with a chance to take over for backup Charlie Batch next year. ... ILB Mike Humpal is a sleeper who will get a real opportunity to be the No. 4 man inside. ... S Ryan Mundy is slow but smart and likely will challenge Tyrone Carter for a roster spot.
INJURY REPORT: As of their reporting day Sunday, only DE Travis Kirschke (ankle) might be somewhat limited unless something new develops.