Steelers will still be dangerous minus suspended Roethlisber
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LATROBE, Pa. -- For the first time in my 11-year NFL training camp tour, I arrived here and had some Steelers fans tell me they weren't expecting much from the team.
The worst prediction I heard was a 5-11 record and Ben Roethlisberger being traded at the end of the season. The best outlook was 12-4 and a good playoff run, but not a Super Bowl title.
In sitting down with players and director of football operations Kevin Colbert, however, a different view came to light. There's no doubt the veteran players feel they can circle the wagons and overcome the adversity of not having Roethlisberger for at least the first four games as he serves his suspension. As wide receiver Hines Ward said to me, "We don't mind being the underdogs."
Colbert likes this football team and its chances to make the playoffs. He believes there are players who can fill in admirably for departed stars Santonio Holmes (traded), Willie Colon (injured) and Willie Parker (released). After visiting the Steelers and watching them scrimmage, I'd recommend not taking the Steelers lightly this season.
» Don't count on Dennis Dixon making a serious run at the starting quarterback job while Roethlisberger is out. He brings an interesting dimension to the offense with his escapability, but he also struggled this week in practice. Several players and at least one front-office person felt Byron Leftwich is the choice -- for his experience and previous success in this offense.
» As defensive end Brett Keisel said, "the Steelers don't usually bring back players who left the organization," but there is great comfort that Larry Foote, Antwaan Randle El, Bryant McFadden, and Leftwich are back in Pittsburgh.
"No one replaces Santonio Holmes," Ward said, "but Randle El gives us a real smart receiver who knows how to get open."
» Get ready for more exotic defenses from coordinator Dick LeBeau. The Steelers couldn't close out opponents last year in true Pittsburgh fashion.
» Roethlisberger is taking a lot of reps in practice considering the other quarterbacks have to get ready to start in his absence. At some point there will be a shift away from Roethlisberger, but for now he's getting a lot of work. If I was coach Mike Tomlin, I might give him the entire fourth preseason game and let him throw it 40 times before he's sent home with no contact between him and the team.
» Instead of moving left tackle Max Starks over to the right side, where he played in a Super Bowl, the Steelers decided to put career left tackle Flozell Adams (a recent free-agent pickup) at right tackle. When considering Adams is right handed and Starks is left handed, it made some sense. Colbert said that, with each practice, Adams is getting better at his angles and drops from the right-handed stance. Things should work out just fine.
» Pittsburgh's first-round pick Maurkice Pouncey is working mostly at right guard but is also taking reps at center. He has impressed the coaches with his ability to bounce back from bad plays. If he gets beat on a pass rush, the next time he beats the same man. He will be on the field come Week 1.
» I had a chance to sit down with second-round choice outside linebacker Jason Worilds, who is definitely cut from the mold of LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison as a thick and explosive athlete. He quickly found out that his speed-rush move off the edge got neutralized by the Steelers' tackles and is working hard on counters. He's a backup at this point and should be a terror on special teams, which need to be upgraded.
» Wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders, a third-round pick, is already getting noticed for his routes and smooth running style. He has a chance to make the team and is getting good grades from the coaches. That said, he has a long way to go to get on the field, and there are other young players like Brandon London and sixth-round pick Antonio Brown also vying for a roster spot.
» Despite having a great starting tandem at outside linebacker, and drafting Worilds, Pittsburgh still took Thaddeus Gibson in the fourth round. Colbert explained, "It was really a very easy decision to take him when we did because he's a good player, and he has more experience in a 3-4 defense than most college players."
» Coming to Latrobe is different than any other camp. Seeing Ward with a piece of tape on the front of his helmet with his name on it -- which is what high school kids do until the coach knows their name -- is always impressive to me.
Watching the Steelers pull up to Latrobe High School in yellow school buses with an old steel mill as the backdrop and 15,000 fans jammed into the little stadium is very special. The players take it seriously.
» Kicker Jeff Reed was upset about not receiving a long-term contract and claimed the team lied to him. That was a few days ago, but it doesn't appear his comments will impact his preparation or performance this season.
» Get ready for a big year from defensive end Ziggy Hood. When I asked multiple people about who the most improved player, the number one name was Hood. He has worked on a number of pass rush moves and increased his power to the point where he will be a factor up front.
» After the Roethlisberger issue, the biggest challenge to the Steelers might face is finding a safety who can help prevent a major drop off if Troy Polamalu incurs another injury. Keep an eye on veteran Will Allen and last year's third-round pick, Keenan Lewis.
» When the news broke about the Roethlisberger suspension, Bill Cowher told me that this team would quickly develop an "us against the world" mentality, and that they would be mentally ready to win in spite of the situation. There is no doubt Cowher had his old team pegged right.
» Commissioner Roger Goodell was here the day before I arrived to meet with Roethlisberger. Goodell is going to wait until September to decide on the length of the QB's suspension, but I now believe it will be four games instead of six. I leave Latrobe thinking this is a 9-7 or 10-6 team with the potential to make the playoffs as a wild card.
I like the teams chances even without Ben for the first 4 games of the season. They should be even better when Ben returns and shakes off some of the rust.