View Full Version : Support system working well for Steelers

05-24-2009, 03:33 AM
Support system working well for Steelers
Sunday, May 24, 2009

Offseason practices are more about teaching than evaluating, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin is quick to point out.

But coaches aren't the only ones providing guidance to the younger players particularly rookies who feel as overwhelmed as a station wagon in the Indianapolis 500.

What is unsaid but expected out of the veterans is this: Help the players who came after you even if you are preparing them to one day take your job.

"It's something our guys embrace," Tomlin said.

Such an embrace explains starting center Justin Hartwig talking intently to rookie A.Q. Shipley as the two walked off the field during a recent practice. It explains Willie Parker welcoming the competition Rashard Mendenhall will provide at running back even if the Steelers' 2008 first-round pick usurps some of Parker's carries.

It also explains why veteran wide receiver Hines Ward is still valuable to the Steelers while watching offseason practices instead of participating in them so he can offer pointers to younger players just as former Steelers wideouts such as Charles Johnson, Courtney Hawkins and Will Blackwell did for Ward when he broke into the league in 1998.

"That's what's special about us," said cornerback Deshea Townsend, who was drafted the same year as Ward. "When we say we are a team, we really are a team."

Steep learning curve for rookies

To understand how daunting it is for rookies to learn an NFL offense or defense, consider the case of second-year Steelers linebacker Patrick Bailey.

He graduated from Duke University in four years with a degree in computer and electrical engineering, and he finished with a 3.3 GPA. When it came his turn to tell his new teammates something unique about himself last spring all rookies are required to do this during their first mini camp Bailey revealed that he builds robots in his spare time.

Yet even a guy as smart as Bailey couldn't help but feel a little lost after he signed with the Steelers as an undrafted free agent last year and received his playbook.

"The playbook's intense," Bailey said, "and it's hard to cram that into your mind at one time."

Bailey said he constantly asked older players questions during drills. That they were receptive to his queries is not as much a reflection of the sort of buddy system the Steelers have but rather their collective buying into the belief that team building starts from the bottom.

"If you get everybody to come together, then you'll be strong during the season because you might need a play or two from that guy," cornerback William Gay said. "So, if you hold information back and a guy gets out there and messes up, the blame is on you because you could have helped him instead of being selfish."

Such a mind-set is what Steelers defensive coach Ray Horton calls the players taking "ownership" of the team.

Horton, who played in the NFL for 10 years before going into coaching, said most teams in the league take a similar approach but likely not to the same degree.

"We have camaraderie here," Tomlin said, "but I think the same thing can probably be said about any of the teams that are consistent winners."

Several players, however, said the esprit de corps the Steelers have is unique. And the willingness of the veterans to help rather than haze rookies is passed down.

Jerome Bettis became a mentor to Parker when the latter signed with the Steelers in 2004, and that is one reason why the two are still close friends. It is also why Parker, who is going into the final year of his contract, has helped Mendenhall.

Emotions can hinder team building

In some ways, it would be natural for players to look out for themselves at the expense of the team.

"I've never been around (selfishness), but I can just assume that's happening around the league," Parker said. "You get afraid that someone's going to take your job, so you don't say anything. You probably know the answer, but you just keep it to yourself."

Willie Colon feared that and worse when he joined the Steelers as a fourth-round pick in 2006.

"I had a couple of buddies that made the NFL and they were like 'Man, guys don't talk to you, and they actually tell you something wrong, and it kind of makes you look bad,' " Colon said. "I was like, 'Is this guy really telling me the truth?' and extra paranoid about my playbook because I didn't know if someone was telling me the truth. But here, it's not like that."

Max Starks was one of the offensive linemen who helped Colon during his transition from college to the NFL and Colon eventually supplanted Starks as the Steelers' starting right tackle.

In addition to veteran offensive linemen helping him, Colon said he also got tips from players on the other side of the ball. Defensive end Aaron Smith, for example, told Colon one day during his rookie year that he had been tipping whether the offense was going to run or pass before a play with his body language.

"That's extremely helpful to a young guy," Colon said. "The reason we're the best is we all kind of have each other's backs."

Smith follows the example former Steelers defensive end Kimo von Oelhoffen once set for him.

Smith said he tells younger players to ask him any time they have a question. And, in fact, he challenges them to become good enough to take his starting job.

"It makes me better," Smith said of the competition. "It makes me more motivated. Everyone can get complacent, don't you think, if nobody pushes you?

"I think that's kind of the environment we created. Really, we just want to win, and we don't care who does it."


Galax Steeler
05-24-2009, 06:55 AM
Thats good to hear that they help each other and I am sure them playbooks look like a sears and robuck catalogue.

05-26-2009, 09:32 AM
This is a great example to set for young players starting out in the game.

Thank god we don't have people like Terrel Owens on the Steelers...

05-26-2009, 11:48 AM
Nice article.

Although it gives no "new" information about the unselfishness of the team, just reinforces what most of us already knew, it is, however, quite refreshing to read an article not written by Bouchette or Cook of the PPG.

05-26-2009, 12:21 PM
Thats amazing that other teams players actually teach their rookies the wrong way to cover their own butts. Thats like cold business practice. There are so many reasons to love the Steelers.