Bouchette on the Steelers: Goal of the OTAs

May 19, 2013
Associated Press
By Ed Bouchette / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The Steelers open their first spring practice in shorts Tuesday with one major goal in mind -- to make it through the 10 permitted practices plus a mid-June minicamp healthy. Simply because no pads are worn and no contact is permitted does not mean injuries don't occur. San Diego linebacker Melvin Ingram discovered as much Tuesday when his ACL was torn during an organized team activity, or OTA, practice. Ingram, San Diego's first-round draft choice in 2012, is expected to miss the 2013 season.

The Steelers have had some injuries during spring practices, including a torn Achilles tendon by Limas Sweed in 2010.

They do have some other goals for their spring practices, which are spread out over the next four weeks and end with a required minicamp June 11-13. They include:

Determine which tackle positions Marcus Gilbert and Mike Adams will fill. Mike Tomlin said during the draft that it had not been determined which side each will play. Gilbert has played both and seems to be the more natural fit on the left side and Adams on the right.

Develop rookie quarterback Landry Jones and assimilating new backup Bruce Gradkowski into Todd Haley's offense. Charlie Batch and Byron Leftwich are gone, and Ben Roethlisberger has two new backups.

Devise a pecking order for the halfbacks. The real test for the backs, including second-round pick Le'Veon Bell, will not come until training camp and preseason games. However, how quickly Bell picks up the offense could determine whether he or Isaac Redman/Jonathan Dwyer start the season at halfback.

Adjust to life without Mike Wallace. Wallace is gone and while Emmanuel Sanders is projected to take over his spot at split end at least for one year, third-round pick Markus Wheaton will miss all of the OTAs because final exams at Oregon State aren't until June 10-14. NFL rules prohibit him from participating until then. That won't help Wheaton's learning curve.

Adjust to new coaches. The Steelers lost two offensive coaches -- line coach Sean Kugler and wide receivers coach Scottie Montgomery, whose philosophies differed with Haley's. Tomlin hired Jack Bicknell Jr. to coach the line and Richard Mann to coach the receivers. Danny Smith takes over as special teams coach to replace Al Everest, fired by Tomlin last preseason, and Amos Jones, who left to join the Cardinals' staff.

Have an old defense welcome new faces. At least three new starters will line up Tuesday: Jason Worilds for James Harrison at outside linebacker, Steve McLendon for Casey Hampton at nose tackle and Cortez Allen for Keenan Lewis at cornerback.

Decide what Troy will do. Polamalu has a history of blowing off the voluntary portion of spring drills to train with his guru, Marv Marinovich, in the Los Angeles area. Last year, he went through most of the spring practices with his teammates -- and then missed nine games with injuries.

Endorsement without the bells

Longtime NFL personnel man Ken Herock, a Munhall native, predicts good things -- but maybe not great ones -- for rookie linebacker Jarvis Jones.

"I was at Georgia's Pro Day and looked at his workout," said Herock, who lives along Lake Lanier northeast of Atlanta. "He wasn't very good. He was one of those guys who was a great football player who doesn't test well.

"He'll be a player, he'll be a good player for them. He'll fit into their scheme. Will he be a great player? I can't say he will. Great players usually play great and test great. Those are the usual great players.

"When I first saw him at the beginning of the season, I thought he was a cinch top-10 pick, because I watch a lot of Georgia games. I came away very impressed with him as a player."

Then came the pre-draft workout, when Jones ran a 4.9 in the 40. "Ohhhh, only 4.9!" Herock recalled. "Oh my god, how does he play that way? How does he do it?"

Jones played outside linebacker in Georgia's 3-4 defense, the same position he will play with the Steelers. He will compete with Jason Worilds to fill the void that James Harrison left on the right side.

Herock said Harrison "wasn't fast either. But [Jones will] fit into that scheme, fill that role, be a good player for them."

Jones was a client of Herock's before the NFL draft. Since he retired from the NFL, Herock has run Pro Prep, which prepares college prospects for their pre-draft NFL interviews.

"This kid, I don't see any problems," Herock said. "The community will like him, he'll be a good player for them. He's a great kid."

The Steelers Way ... and everyone else

Compare and contrast the different approaches of the Patriots and Steelers. The Patriots this past week cut starting defensive tackle Kyle Love two weeks after he was diagnosed with diabetes, citing a non-football injury in doing so.

The Steelers not only kept guard Kendall Simmons when he was diagnosed, he returned to start. And now the Steelers have said they will carry linebacker Sean Spence for a second season even though his return to the game would be a "miracle" after his preseason knee injury in 2012.

Heinz Field: Too late to make it right?

The Steelers built Heinz Field too small, and that becomes more evident every year as the waiting list for season tickets grows and their ability to expand becomes more difficult.

The Steelers ranked 25th in the NFL in home attendance last season with an average of 61,141. Even the Jacksonville Jaguars did better at 64,984. Those figures count only customers who walked through the turnstiles, not paid attendance.

The Steelers have sold out every game but one (a 1987 strike game in which they offered refunds that fans accepted) since 1972.

However, their stadium is one of the smallest in the league with capacity of only 65,500. They added about 3,000 more seats since its opening in 2001. Now they want to add another 3,000 but are involved in a battle with the city over who will pay.

Why didn't they build a 75,000-seat stadium to start with? They had a long line of season ticket-holders even then and probably would have had little trouble selling out their season tickets.

But that's Monday morning quarterbacking more than a decade after the planning. Dan Rooney did not want to overbuild for fear the team would not be able to sell all those tickets, especially the personal seat licenses, in a small market. Requiring Steelers fans to pay a one-time fee to keep their season tickets was something new and many fans resisted. Others were upset because they felt their seats weren't as good as the ones they had at Three Rivers Stadium. Plus, the smaller the stadium, the greater the demand for tickets. And they always could expand, right?

They did so once, but now they're running into roadblocks on an expansion that already should have been in place for the 2013 season but does not appear possible even for 2014 as the issue winds through the courts.