Playing 10 questions with the Steelers
Playing 10 questions with the Steelers
By Alan Robinson
Published: Sunday, July 22, 2012
The questions began seconds after Demaryius Thomas of the Broncos outran Ryan Mundy and Ike Taylor to the end zone to conclude one of the biggest upset losses in Steelers’ playoff history.
There were even more after franchise fixtures Hines Ward, James Farrior, Aaron Smith and Chris Hoke retired during a busy offseason in which the Steelers became younger but less experienced.
A season gone — and just like that, on the first play of overtime — against an apparently inferior opponent. Then, four careers spanning more than 50 years of NFL experience were over, too.
And don’t think there weren’t plenty of questions after the Steelers, for the first time in 13 years, not only went outside their organization for an offensive coordinator — Todd Haley — they hired a coach with a colorful past.
The Steelers are aware of all the ”They’re-on-the-downslide” talk that’s developed since they bowed out of the playoffs — or, more precisely, Te-bowed out — by losing to Tim Tebow and the Broncos, 29-23, on Jan. 8. The loss resulted in plenty of internal soul searching by the Steelers, from team president Art Rooney II to GM Kevin Colbert to coach Mike Tomlin on down, and may have led in the part to the departure of former offensive coordinator Bruce Arians and the arrival of Haley.
While their 47th training camp at Saint Vincent College begins Wednesday — the first workout fans can attend is Friday — the questions haven’t ended. Not even close.
Here’s a training camp Top 10 — and, now, let the answers begin.
1 Will Mike Wallace show up — and, if he does, when? Wallace, the Steelers’ most accomplished receiver now that Ward has retired, skipped the offseason workouts as he discussed a long-term deal. The Steelers still control his rights for one more season at $2.7 million, and they will be unhappy if he’s not in camp. How mad? If he’s a no-show, we’ll soon find out. And the Steelers don’t negotiate when a player holds out.
2 Will Haley’s comet collide with Ben? Haley has a combustible personality that’s been highly visible on more than a few NFL sidelines, while Ben Roethlisberger prefers back-patting coaches to sideline screamers. Will these two disparate personalities mesh? A few hot days at training camp may provide the first hint.
3 Are two rookies too many? For the first time in their modern history, the Steelers could start two rookie offensive linemen (Mike Adams, David DeCastro) – though it would be a major surprise if Adams beats out the newly re-signed Max Starks. No doubt Roethlisberger, sacked 40 times last year and 215 times since 2007, welcomes any offensive line upgrade.
4 Who’s the leader in the clubhouse? The Steelers lost some of their most vocal and demonstrative team leaders as Ward, Farrior, Smith and Hoke left. That’s a lot of leadership to replace in one season. But team leaders often are those who play the best and set an example for the younger players. And the Steelers have plenty of talent returning.
5 And, in this corner, it’s ... ? Keenan Lewis already is predicting a Pro Bowl season for himself, yet he’s not guaranteed to start at cornerback along with Ike Taylor. Both Tomlin and defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau prominently mentioned Curtis Brown and Cortez Allen when questioned about the cornerback vacancy, and filling it could be one of the major issues during camp.
6 Running into trouble? Rashard Mendenhall, for all of his post-knee surgery optimism, probably won’t be ready to start the season. That means Isaac Redman, who has made all of two career starts, will be the starter de jour. The Steelers rarely open a season with such an inexperienced player at such a critical position, yet there seems to be a strong trust factor in Redman among his teammates and management. There’s also a lot of depth behind Redman (Jonathan Dwyer, Baron Batch, John Clay and rookie Chris Rainey).
7 Too many 30-somethings? The Steelers still have plenty of 30-plus players remaining even after all the offseason departures. There are 15 on their camp roster, including Roethlisberger and Troy Polamalu. Some players hit the wall once they reach 30, becoming more prone to up-and-down performances and injuries. Obviously, the Steelers need a lot more good years out of arguably their two highest-profile players.
8 Stepping up — or taking a step back? There’s lots of league-wide chatter that this could be the season the Steelers regress, given they’re coming off successive 12-4 seasons with a veteran team. Of course, Warren Sapp observed last year that the Steelers were “old, slow and it’s over.” It wasn’t, of course — at least not until that shocker in Denver.
9 The front-runner, by a nose? Nose tackle Casey Hampton (left knee) won’t be ready for the start of camp, or the season. Steve McLendon moves in, backed by intriguing rookie Alameda Ta’amu. The question is how much any nose tackles will play, given the ever-increasing reliance on the pass by nearly every NFL team.
10 Double-digit downfall? Each of the last four times they were coming off successive double-digit win seasons (2009, ’06, ’03 and 1998 the Steelers had a major falloff that season — averaging just 7½ wins per season. They were 12-4 each of the past two seasons, so that means they’re due for another downturn. Training camp may provide the first hint if there might be one.
Position battles will provide plenty of intrigue at Steelers camp
By Alan Robinson - Tribune-Review
Published: Tuesday, July 24, 2012
Just because a player is currently in a favorable position doesn’t mean he’ll still be there be when Steelers training camp winds down and the students — not the millionaires — occupy the Saint Vincent College dorms.
Jobs are won and lost, careers are jump-started or prematurely ended, hopes are raised and expectations are dashed every July and August. The Division I star figures out that college success doesn’t guarantee multiple Pro Bowls; the barely known Division II player realizes he could have succeeded in big-boy major college ball.
When the Steelers arrive in Latrobe on Wednesday, former franchise figureheads Hines Ward, James Farrior and Aaron Smith won’t be among them; as former coach Chuck Noll said, they’ve gotten on with their life’s work. Bryant McFadden, William Gay and Chris Hoke will be missing, too.
It’s all part of the inevitable change that occurs every season as players retire or are cut. And what is about to change is the depth chart, as the camp plays out and players move up or move on.
Some position battles to watch as the Steelers go camping with coach Mike Tomlin for the sixth time:
LT Max Starks or Mike Adams: The Steelers want Adams, their second-round pick, to seize the job and become a starting lineup fixture for a decade. Starks is back in case it doesn’t happen. Adams has the size and credentials, but there’s a reason why only three rookie offensive linemen have started a Steelers opener.
RG David DeCastro or Ramon Foster: When DeCastro unexpectedly slipped to the Steelers in the draft, it appeared to be a near-lock he would start. It might still be. The Steelers are tired of Ben Roethlisberger being on his back every other series, and DeCastro could help prevent that. But remember that even Alan Faneca didn’t start the opening game of his rookie season.
CB: Keenan Lewis or Curtis Brown (Cortez Allen wants to be in here, too): Might be the single best competition in camp. Lewis is talking about Pro Bowls, but Brown is earning Dick LeBeau’s praise. And this is a position that is badly in need of an upgrade.
RB: Chris Rainey or Baron Batch: This is for the backup’s job, at least until Rashard Mendenhall (knee) returns to try to win his starter’s job back from Isaac Redman. Rainey’s speed potentially adds a different dimension to Todd Haley’s offense, but Batch might have been the breakout player of the 2011 camp until he injured a knee.
WR: Toney Clemons or Tyler Beiler: The receiver position appears set with Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown, Jerricho Cotchery and Emmanuel Sanders, except for one backup job. Clemons and Beiler look to be the frontrunners to land it. One injury separates the No. 5 receiver from not-insignificant playing time, and this is one job that could be won during the four preseason games.
Casey Hampton (knee) might have to beat out Steve McLendon to keep his long-held starting job at nose tackle, but it remains uncertain when he will be healthy.
Last edited by hawaiiansteel; 07-24-2012 at 12:40 AM.
Team needs camp to sort out issues
July 21, 2012
Bob Labriola - Steelers Digest
Every training camp comes with questions that will need to be answered before the start of the regular season, and this one is no different for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Here are a sampling of some of the issues Mike Tomlin will be facing come Wednesday, July 25, when all players are due to report to Saint Vincent College:
No. 1: The new offense
Of all the various aspects of the process of preparing for the 2012 regular season, the implementation of the offense coordinated by Todd Haley is certain to attract the most attention.
In the rehabilitation business, the first step toward solving a problem is an admission that there is one, and there is no denying the Steelers’ offense was in need of a little rehab following the 2011 season.
Despite having Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback, a pair of wide receivers in Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown who accounted for a combined 2,301 yards and a 16.3 average, and a pair of running backs in Rashard Mendenhall and Isaac Redman who combined for 1,407 yards and a 4.2 average, the Steelers finished tied-for 21st in the league in points per game. During a season in which nine teams averaged more than four touchdowns worth of points per game, the Steelers managed fewer than three, at 20.3. Those numbers tie in with the unit’s struggles in the red zone and point to a lack of efficiency that can cost teams games.
It’s only natural for there to be some adjustment period required, especially for those players who really have known no other offensive system in their professional lives, and there also figures to be some frustration associated with that. And maybe that even continues – to varying degrees and at different times – right through the run-up to the regular season.
But what needs to happen during the time spent at camp is for the coaches to learn what things from this offense the players can execute on a consistent level and then cater that to the specific opponent on the schedule each week. It doesn’t have to be about having an offense that can do all things at all times, but rather having a unit capable of succeeding against a particular opponent on a particular weekend.
No. 2: The signing of Max Starks
There have been seasons in the recent past where Starks has had to come to the rescue, but this isn’t one of those. Expect Starks, who had surgery to repair an ACL after sustaining the injury against Denver in the playoffs, to open training camp on the physically unable to perform list. It’s also not unrealistic to expect Starks still to be on PUP come the opening of the regular season, because a nine-month rehab is rather routine for an ACL injury, and that would make Starks ready come October, which is when teams have to make final decisions on players on PUP. Certainly, things could change if the rehabilitation progresses more quickly than expected, but it seems as though in this particular reincarnation, Starks is more of an insurance policy than a starter.
No. 3: The physically unable to perform
Casey Hampton and Rashard Mendenhall should be on the physically unable to perform list at the start of training camp, for sure. Again, the length of their stays will be determined by the progress of the rehab, but right now – with both of them coming off ACL surgery, and again, a nine-month rehab is a fairly normal timetable – it’s also not ridiculous to suggest both will be on PUP when the regular season opens.
No. 4: The starting cornerback opposite Ike Taylor
There are three candidates – Keenan Lewis, Cortez Allen and Curtis Brown – and it’s not coach-speak to say the competition is close enough that whatever happens at training camp will be the deciding factor.
This is what Taylor had to say about Allen in an interview done after the Steelers offseason program had ended: “He’s a very mature second year guy. The reason why he is so mature is he went to a military academy school. He kind of had to grow up early.”
As a player, Taylor said this about Allen: “He knows what it takes and he wants it. He wants to get better. The thing I like about Cortez is he doesn’t say much; he comes to work and he does what he needs to do. This dude could be way better than me – if he can stay healthy.”
Speaking of health, that has been something of an issue for Brown, who had some issues with his knee late last season and then missed some time during this offseason with a leg injury.
Lewis has had no such issues, he has more experience than either Allen or Brown, and he seemed to turn a corner in his development during the 2011 season. Playing under a restricted free agent tender this season, Lewis finds himself at another turning point, because a big year could put him on a path to a lucrative future in this league.
If any of the three candidates shows an aptitude for intercepting the ball, that could be the deciding factor, because the Steelers have to find a way to accumulate more than the 14 takeaways they managed in 2011.
No. 5: The running backs without Rashard Mendenhall
On paper, the depth chart there looks to be filled quite nicely, but paper can turn into garbage rather quickly.
Isaac Redman has spent the past couple of seasons proving that he belongs, and there should be little doubt he will carry his share of the load in 2012. But it would be foolish of the Steelers to believe Redman can do it all alone, and this is where the situation becomes somewhat cloudy.
It’s not that Jonathan Dwyer and John Clay are not capable; it’s not that Baron Batch has shown that his first couple of weeks of training camp last summer was a mirage; it’s not like this whole pro football thing looks like it’s going to be too big for rookie Chris Rainey. It’s just that things happen during the course of a training camp, bad things.
For example, in each of his first two professional training camps, Dwyer has reported overweight. When in shape, he has shown himself to be capable of being an NFL running back, but does he truly understand that being in shape cannot be a sometimes thing?
“I am just realizing how much it takes to get where you are in this league and how hard you have to work and push yourself,” said Dwyer. “This is my year to prove something to myself, to the league, to the organization, that I’m worth more than what I was.”
Clay showed some promise last year when called up from the practice squad, and he will compete with Dwyer for the primary backup spot behind Redman. Batch seems like the replacement for Mewelde Moore as a jack-of-all-trades/third-down back, but he’s going to have to re-create the magic he showed as 2011’s camp phenom before tearing his ACL during the last practice before the preseason opener.
Rainey certainly has the speed to succeed, but will he be able to hold up physically when it comes to the pass-protection responsibilities that go along with being an NFL running back? Bet on Mike Tomlin testing him during each of the backs-on-backers sessions.
Right now, they’re all just names on a piece of paper. This camp will show if they deserve to be something more.
No. 6: Potential camp phenoms
Among the ranks of undrafted rookies, keep an eye on WR/KR Marquis Maze, OLB Adrian Robinson, OLB Marshall McFadden and S Robert Golden. Among the ranks of the third-day draft picks, watch out for G-T Kelvin Beachum.
I didn't realize that Alan Robinson was writing for the Trib now. He was always the Pittsburgh area sports writer for the AP.