Steelers healthy, happy with new starters
The Associated Press
Article Last Updated: 09/02/2008 05:05:09 PM EDT
PITTSBURGH—Roster turnover is a way of life in the free agency era of the NFL, yet the Pittsburgh Steelers boast a starting lineup largely the same as last season.
Five days before the season opener, the Steelers are a relatively healthy team that will have three new starters—two on the offensive line.
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin seems pleased with his offensive line, but is witholding his opinion until he sees the group in real game action.
"I've been pleased with the pocket in training camp and preseason, particularly in the area of play-action passing. That's been good," Tomlin said Tuesday at his first regular-season weekly news conference. "But we'll get a better sense of how it is on Sunday."
The Steelers open their season at home Sunday against the Houston Texans, who feature a young defensive line stocked with former first-round picks, including 2006 No. 1 overall selection Mario Williams.
Offseason free agent signee Justin Hartwig will start at center for Pittsburgh after beating out Sean Mahan during camp. Chris Kemoeatu takes over at left guard after free agent Pro Bowler Alan Faneca departed. So, the line—particularly the left side—has yet to have an opportunity to develop any cohesion in a meaningful game.
"The only way you do it is playing together," Tomlin said. "Those are problems everybody has, any time you have turnover. In today's NFL, you have turnover. They have some new guys. Everyone's working
on cohesion. That's what makes September football so exciting."
The only new starter on offense or defense is second-year outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley, who saw extensive time in pass-rushing situations last season.
Tomlin said he expects inside linebacker Larry Foote to be able to play after sitting out last week's practices due to a knee injury. Also, Pro Bowl safety Troy Polamalu will play. Tomlin said the team will "toss him in" even after sitting out the majority of training camp with a hamstring injury.
Another Pro Bowl player with health concerns entering camp was running back Willie Parker, who broke his leg in December. His game based on speed, Parker had to prove to the coaching staff that he was all the way back.
"I needed to see that he is Willie Parker," Tomlin said. "I think he's shown that he is, not only in preseason games, but in practices. He appears to be extremely healthy."
The Steelers also are leaving little suspense whom will dress for the opener. Depth players on the offensive and defensive lines might still need to be decided, and Tomlin wouldn't commit to who would be Pittsburgh's fourth wide receiver, Dallas Baker or Limas Sweed. Baker was a seventh-round pick last season; Sweed a second-round choice in April.
If it's Baker, that would likely mean that first round pick Rashard Mendenhall would be the only rookie to see action Sunday. Dennis Dixon will be in uniform as the emergency third quarterback. And even Mendenhall's level of playing time as an alternative to Parker is questionable after he fumbled three times in the final two preseason games.
"We're looking at his preparation this week, his attention to detail in terms of how he executes his assignments, and his level of ball security," Tomlin said. "We'll see as we get closer to game time."
Tomlin named Mendenhall the team's primary kick returner and said that newcomer Mewelde Moore will return punts—although he said starting receiver Santonio Holmes will be used as a "situational" returner. Moore also was named the Steelers' primary third-down back.
NOTES:@ The Steelers traded veteran center Sean Mahan to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for an undisclosed 2009 draft pick.