Ed: A year of transition

Friday, July 20 2012
By Ed Bouchette
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Here's Ed's training camp preview story for Sunday's paper:

So, the Steelers have a new offense, a new line, and a new running back. They purged themselves of longtime stars Hines Ward, James Farrior, Aaron Smith and several other mortal players.

The question in this year of transition, their most significant since Mike Tomlin became their coach in 2007, then becomes, will they regress, improve or stay on the road competitively they've followed for most of this century as annual division and Super Bowl contenders?

The team gathers at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe Wednesday to begin finding answers to those questions and more, including the most immediate: Will Mike Wallace show up?

Their Pro Bowl wide receiver skipped all of their spring activities because he has not signed his $2.742 million one-year contract offered to him as a restricted free agent. He wants a multiple-year deal for much more money and the Steelers want to give him one. The two sides just have not been able to settle on compensation and unless they do, or until he signs that one-year deal, he cannot participate.

Beyond Wallace, the Steelers have other issues to begin solving in Tomlin's sixth training camp. They must show both a mastery of Todd Haley's offense and that it can be effective. They must find a new left cornerback. They must determine if their top two rookies, guard David DeCastro (still unsigned) and tackle Mike Adams, can handle starting in that revamped offensive line. They must sort out their running backs behind Isaac Redman as Rashard Mendenhall's ACL continues to heal.

But the Steelers, who made the 2011 playoffs as a wild-card team after tying AFC North champ Baltimore with a 12-4 record, still have plenty going for them.

They return the No. 1 defense against points, total yards and passing yards. That defense lost Farrior, Smith and starting cornerback William Gay, but Farrior split time with renewed starter Larry Foote, Smith again missed most of the season with an injury and the Steelers believe they have young cornerbacks good enough for improvement at the position on the left side.

They also don't expect to lose LaMarr Woodley for half the season. Woodley was making his case for NFL defensive player of the year with nine sacks in the first eight games when a hamstring issue practically wiped out the second half of the season for him. They also lost James Harrison for five games with an eye injury and one-game suspension. Harrison tied Woodley for the team lead with nine sacks.

Another former multi-Pro Bowler, nose tackle Casey Hampton, could open the season on the physically unable to perform list as he recuperates from January ACL surgery. The Steelers, though, do not expect him to take long to return to the lineup. In the meantime, they drafted Alameda Ta'amu at the position and believe Steve McLendon can handle it as well.

The high drama could occur on offense this summer and perhaps into the season. Haley, a former Steelers ballboy and son of their longtime personnel director, threw out a playbook that was familiar to them for more than a decade. He is the first outside hire as offensive coordinator since Kevin Gilbride came aboard in 1999 for two forgettable seasons.

Players in the spring noted the difficulty learning the new terminology, but generally liked the philosophy on offense despite a few remarks by Ben Roethlisberger that seemed at times to question it. It has multiple goals that include a) committing more effort to the ground game, although not necessarily run it more often; b) using more high-percentage passes that include check-downs to running backs and allowing receivers such as Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders to use their abilities to pick up yards after catching it; c) protecting Roethlisberger, something team president Art Rooney mentioned last January would be a priority; d) improving their success inside the opponent's 20.

Whether the offense can accomplish much of that or whether players struggle to adapt sets up the drama.

And for the first time since Mendenhall replaced Willie Parker, the Steelers will have a new starter at halfback. Redman has a different style than Mendenhall, resembling more Barry Foster than the sleek, cutting style of their 2008 No. 1 draft pick. Redman rose from undrafted rookie in 2009 from little-known Bowie State to become a reliable backup to where he gained 479 yards last season and averaged 4.4 yards per carry. He still must show if he can carry 20 times a week.

Wallace's decision, of course, will affect what happens at wide receiver. Antonio Brown showed he can be his equal last season, albeit with a different style. Emmanuel Sanders finished strong after shaking off foot and then knee injuries, and veteran Jerricho Cotchery fulfilled the Hines Ward role nicely in the second half of 2011.

The Steelers hope for an offensive line that looks like this: LT Adams, LG Willie Colon, C Maurkice Pouncey, RG DeCastro, RT Marcus Gilbert. After ignoring linemen in the top two picks in the draft for nearly a decade, that would give them two first-rounders and two second-rounders in the starting lineup, along with Colon.

They re-signed Max Starks Tuesday in case Adams cannot handle the job immediately on the left side. That avoids them having to move Gilbert there, which they did not want to do.

Oh, and Haley re-installed a position on offense, a fullback. Former tight end David Johnson moved their fulltime.

So while these are not quite the same old Steelers that have been so successful in this century, they enter training camp with the chance to at least keep the ball rolling.