Camp Caravan: Tomlin, Steelers back on familiar ground

Posted: August 13, 2008
http://www.sportingnews.com/yourturn/vi ... p?t=445323
LATROBE, Pa. -- In Sporting News' tour of all NFL training camps, today, we check in with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The atmosphere

The NFL's premier training camp destination, St. Vincent College, has hosted a pretty good football team over the last few decades, and that doesn't figure to change this year. With a year under Mike Tomlin in the books, the Steelers and their coach have a better feel for one another, so this camp hasn't been the endurance test last year was, when 15 two-a-days marked the 25-day camp schedule.

"Quite simply, I know more about the guys than I did a year ago," Tomlin says. "So some of the things I can pay attention to, or need to pay attention to, I can really hone in on, where a year ago, I was kind of looking at everything and everybody every day. It's easier from that standpoint. But it's the same, we're going through the process of team building, we don't take it for granted, just because we have familiarity."

Inside linebacker Larry Foote says, "We know we're coming out here every day, and there's going to be no break." But there's a better efficiency that the familiarity between coach and player is bringing to the proceedings. And the comfort level that Tomlin's reached with his roster is hard to miss.

Before practice, he can be seen working down the line during agility work, joking with the secondary, then the linebackers, then defensive linemen and so on. Once the session gets going, he's bouncing from position group to position group. One minute, he's putting a hand in a receiver's face during a bad-ball drill. The next, he's getting on the tight ends on the one-man sled. The next, he's stoically observing the quarterbacks honing their footwork. All the while, he's bellowing, "Punch that clock!" and "Go to work!"

"I think all the great coaches that I've been around have done it that way," Tomlin says. "I've learned from those guys, I'm by no means a trailblazer in that regard. When I worked with Tony Dungy, he knew what all 22 on the field had to do and were supposed to do, and that's part of it for me."

And there's no question that Tomlin, while asking much of the team, keeps conversation breezy with players who, in some cases, are about the same age he is - "I think in order for us to do great things, we need to have unique relationships, no doubt. There is professionalism, there is a division of labor, everybody understands their role. But we're people too, and that's part of it."

The hot topics

1. Drawing a line: For the first time in many seasons, the offensive line in Pittsburgh is seen as a problem. Over the past two years, the front has yielded 47 and 49 sacks, the two highest single-season totals in 14 years.

In that time, there's been upheaval, with the retirement of two-time Pro Bowl center Jeff Hartings after the 2006 season and the departure of All-Pro guard Alan Faneca this offseason. But despite the high sack numbers, the players and coaches can point to a pair of figures to quell concerns -- Ben Roethlisberger's club record 104.1 quarterback rating in 2007, and the 1,317 yards Willie Parker had in the first 14 weeks of last year, before breaking his leg in Game 15.

Still, there are issues that have to be worked out, primarily settling on a center and getting third-year guard Chris Kemoeatu, he of two career starts, ready to take Faneca's place.

2. The run around: One thing that figures to help the line's progress is the addition of Rashard Mendenhall, bolstering a running game that ranked third in the NFL last year.

"You take a Willie Parker out of the game and put in a Rashard Mendenhall? That's going to be explosive, because Rashard, although he's not a power runner, he's very powerful," running backs coach Kirby Wilson said. "And that's going to be a really good complement, because when you have a guy whose so productive, in Willie, and bring in another legitimate NFL starting-quality back, that's tough on a defense."

Mendenhall's comfort with the passing game, and his ability to pick up the blitz, should allow the rookie to contribute quickly and, perhaps, get on the field together with Parker in some packages. The first-round pick looks like a young Edgerrin James with his slashing style and ability to catch the ball, and at 225 pounds, he showed on one run during Wednesday's practice how he can pull away from a defense like a runaway freight train.

3. Defensive upgrade? It's tough to say Pittsburgh will get a whole lot better on this side of the ball. They did lead the NFL in total defense in 2007. But dig deeper and you find this -- Pittsburgh played playoff teams on three occasions last fall, allowing 34, 29 and 31 points in those games and lost all three.

So where is there room for improvement? Keep an eye on second-year linebacker LaMarr Woodley, a potentially menacing pass-rusher who is fast become a complete player, and will replace departed starter Clark Haggans.

Woodley had four sacks as a backup during the regular season, then two more in the playoff loss to Jacksonville, and has a non-stop motor.

"The sky's the limit for him, just with the tools God gave him," Foote says. "If he just keeps working hard and doing the little things, he can't be stopped."

The heated battle

Center: Justin Hartwig vs. Sean Mahan. An ideal situation, this is not. Mahan took Hartwig's spot at center last year, after spending his first four seasons in the league, as a Buccaneer, at guard. The idea in signing Hartwig is that it gives the team the flexibility to move Mahan back to guard, if need be.

But this is a clear sign that a position that's long been a staple of Steeler stability -- Mike Webster passed the reins to Dermontti Dawson, who passed them to Hartings -- is in a bit of transition. And for a line that's made changes, there's a real need for either Hartwig or Mahan to step forward.

The hot rookie

Mendenhall. Tabbed by some pundits as the draft's best back, the 2007 Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year was just the fourth player taken at his position. One thing that's clear -- with Edgerrin James' style of running -- is that he's more equipped to be a bellcow than each of the other three, and really only Carolina Panthers' RB Jonathan Stewart gives a run for his money in that regard.

The coaches are prodding Mendenhall to tweak his running style a little. Where in Illinois' zone-blocking-heavy offense, he was asked to run laterally then cut back, the Steelers are trying to get him to attack the hole more aggressively and run downhill to better take advantage of his 225-pound frame.

"He has to attack the line of scrimmage," Wilson said. "There are very few lateral-movement plays for him, where he's going East and West. That's an adjustment for him because he hasn't done it in a while in that way. I think he'll make those adjustments because he's a talented, talented athlete. ... The best is yet to come."

The Turk alert

WR Willie Reid. Two years after the Steelers picked Reid in the third round, the receiver has just four catches and hasn't contributed in the return game the way some expected he would.

He might not be a big name, but for a team that drafts well, cutting the cord so early on a first-day pick is significant. The Steelers are deep at receiver -- Hines Ward, Santonio Holmes, Nate Washington and Limas Sweed are locks to make the roster -- and the club is giving former Olympian Jeremy Bloom a long look in the return game, which could spell doom for Reid.

The water cooler

Roethlisberger posted that gaudy QB rating. He's got a $102 million contract. And yet, this season represents, perhaps, his best chance to improve in some time.

After the championship season of 2005, Roethlisberger went through the effects of a devastating motorcycle accident. Last year, he was getting acclimated with new coordinator Bruce Arians. So for the first time since his second year in the league, the 26-year-old isn't dealing with some kind of turmoil going into a season.

"Just being in the second year of the offense makes it a little better," he told Sporting News. "The last time I was in the second year of an offense, I was still young in the league. So I would hope for as long as Bruce is here, and hopefully he'll be here for a long time, and Mike and this staff, we continue to grow. This offense will keep getting better."

So assume the offense gets better, and the defense improves with Woodley representing an upgrade over Haggans. Could this club be a Super Bowl team? You don't hear that buzz outside Pittsburgh. But there seems to be a quiet confidence inside the organization and within a team that's loaded with big-game experience.

"In every sense, since I've been in the league, we've been under the radar," Foote says. "We've dominated our division. But that's the way it is, we're not that sexy team, as people like to say. We're going to be there at the end, we know that."