Pittsburgh Steelers training camp: Prepping sans Mike Wallace
By Aditi Kinkhabwala
Reporter, NFL.com and NFL Network
Published: July 31, 2012 at 12:38 p.m.
Updated: July 31, 2012 at 08:53 p.m.
NFL.com has dispatched several writers to report on the 32 training camps over the next few weeks. Aditi Kinkhabwala details her visit with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
At St. Vincent's College in Latrobe, Pa., where the idyllic campus is spread out wide, Steelers fans are plentiful and our ambassador to Ireland, Dan Rooney, has been a regular.
1. The Steelers might not miss Rashard Mendenhall all that desperately in the early going. Mendenhall, the Steelers' starting running back, tore his anterior cruciate ligament in Week 17 of last season and is on the physically unable to perform list, where he'll most likely start the season. In his stead, third-year back Isaac Redman has looked awfully forceful. The 6-foot, 230-pound Redman is solid, strong and doesn't waste time dancing behind his line. He has deceptive speed, too, and can definitely bust one out (see the 32-yard run that punctuated a 17-carry, 121-yard showing in Pittsburgh's playoff loss to the Denver Broncos). Steelers tackle Willie Colon said it best, though, regarding Redman's grind-it-out mentality: "He doesn't mind getting three yards, he doesn't mind getting five yards."
2. Yes, there was a message in receiver Antonio Brown's contract extension. Only it wasn't for Mike Wallace, as the chattering classes initially thought. "If you're here and you keep working hard, you can earn yourself something," third-year receiver Emmanuel Sanders said, confirming it was him -- and his fellow teammates -- who saw a missive in Brown's five-year deal. Wallace, of course, is the Steelers' No. 1 receiver, who as of this writing is still not in camp. The restricted free agent refuses to attend until the Steelers offer him a new contract. The Steelers have refused to re-open contract talks until he signs his $2.7 million tender and comes to camp. Still, veteran receiver Jerricho Cotchery insisted there is no transitive relationship -- or any veiled threat -- to be read between Brown's deal and Wallace's situation. "Here, they tell you exactly what they're thinking. There's no games," Cotchery said.
3. The Steelers have an impressive group of receivers, but they still need Wallace. Brown and Sanders run great routes, have good hands and are fast. Save for the recently retired Hines Ward, Cotchery is as tough a veteran leader as the Steelers could want. (Remember Cotchery's diving third-and-long catch -- WITH a pulled groin -- against the Cleveland Browns when he was with the New York Jets?) And yet, Wallace is, well, special. Santonio Holmes once told Cotchery that Wallace is absurdly fast. Cotchery didn't quite get it, until he became Wallace's teammate; now, Cotchery says Wallace is easily the fastest player he's seen in the NFL. And he runs clean routes, too. "I think the fear is," Cotchery said, "if you get up there and miss him at the line of scrimmage, you might as well just scream, 'Help!' "
4. Brett Keisel is everything you think he is. Yes, the beard -- already in midseason form -- is fun. Yes, the fact that the veteran defensive end drove a tractor to camp was fun -- ludicrously so. But Keisel is still motoring on the football field, too. He doesn't even look remotely like a guy entering his 11th season -- or like he's thinking about slowing down. "What? No," Keisel said when asked if camp gets old a decade in. "I love this."
THE NEW GUYS
Chris Rainey. If not for the scraggly goatee, the rookie running back out of Florida might look like he's 12. Maybe it's because he's always happy. Rainey is very serious about his role on this team, though; while the speedster might currently project as a change-of-pace back, don't tell him that. "I can do anything they ask me to. I can start," he said. Of course, he also said he was the fastest player on the team, and challenged veteran defensive back Ike Taylor to a race. (Taylor said that after nine full seasons in the NFL, he doesn't need to race anyone to prove anything.)
David DeCastro and Mike Adams. The Steelers chose the offensive linemen in the first and second rounds of April's draft with an eye on helping quarterback Ben Roethlisberger stay upright for longer periods of time. DeCastro rolled an ankle Sunday, but coach Mike Tomlin said he's day-to-day. Both look the part and both are learning. Center Maurkice Pouncey -- a starter from his first day in the NFL who has been a Pro Bowler and All-Pro in both of his pro seasons -- said DeCastro is further along than he was at this stage. ("He went to Stanford," quipped Pouncey, a former Florida Gator.) The pads have only just now come on, though. And once this happened, Colon said the most obvious thing about the rookies was: "They're young."
Todd Haley. Brown said he loves the Steelers' new offensive coordinator. Running back Jonathan Dwyer said he's been great. Sanders said the Steelers "are definitely going to be attacking," and all the hullaballoo over Haley's arrival hasn't resulted in much drama. Roethlisberger appears to be getting along just fine with his new play caller, and the offense is looking comfortable. And yes, Big Ben does seem to have a lot of options these days.
"My bad on the block, bro."
-- Brown to Taylor on the sideline during Sunday's practice, after an unexpectedly hard block. Taylor laughed, the two bumped fists and hugged. Then Taylor watched -- and offered input -- while Cotchery and Brown discussed how and why Brown's cut on the route could've been sharper.
1. Why Troy Polamalu is so great, Part I: After practice Sunday, the veteran grabbed a ball boy and told him to throw him balls, so he could get some work in catching. Spying that, fellow safety Ryan Clark waited until Polamalu was done, then grabbed the same ball boy and asked him to do the same for him.
2. Why Polamalu is so great, Part II: He caught every single one of those balls with one hand.
3. Rooney might be one of the most beloved owners in the NFL. In a ball cap and suspenders, a bit hunched over by age, he still moves easily among his players, who uniformly say he's one of the best people to talk to about life (not just football). Check out Taylor's Twitter avatar. Yep, that's the 80-year-old ambassador, striking a swaggin' pose.
For all the talk about the Steelers and Baltimore Ravens getting older, both teams are better for it: Veterans help coaches teach on the sidelines, sometimes to greater effect. (Isn't it always easier to hear a critique from a peer than a coach?) The Steelers' defense, No. 1 in 2011, is returning everyone but retired linebacker James Farrior and defensive end Aaron Smith, while the offense should be more vertical. Why should this year be different from any other? The AFC North will come down to the Steelers and Ravens.
Follow Aditi Kinkhabwala on Twitter @AKinkhabwala.