and some good questions heading into training camp.
PITTSBURGH - Summer vacation ends one week from today for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Next Sunday, they report to training camp.
"Everybody's excited to get back," said director of football operations Kevin Colbert. "We've had a nice break, but I think everybody is really looking forward to July 31 and teeing it up again."
While the start of training camp always creates a buzz throughout the area, interest this year is particularly high. That's what happens after a hot-shot rookie quarterback drafted in the first round leads the team to a record of 15-1.
But because the Steelers didn't reach their ultimate goal - the Super Bowl - coach Bill Cowher says that the 86 players on the roster right now better be ready for a grueling camp at St. Vincent College in Latrobe.
"This is going to be a tough camp," Cowher said. "It's going to be very demanding. It's going to be very competitive. It's going to test their focus.
"We're not trying to live up to a 15-1 record. How do you do better than that? But hey, the bottom line is that we were 1-1 in the playoffs. We've got to do better than that. So we've got to go back to training camp and create the foundation."
A year ago, the foundation was set when Cowher decided to scrap the pass-happy, gimmick-play offense of ex-coordinator Mike Mularkey and re-establish the Steelers as a ball-control, running team.
In addition, Dick LeBeau was brought in for his second stint as defensive coordinator, and his expertise made the Steelers a dominating, aggressive, ball-hawking defense again.
And when Ben Roethlisberger replaced an injured Tommy Maddox after a 1-1 start, the Steelers were on their way to the best regular-season finish in team history. The only other NFL franchises to go 15-1 since the schedule expanded from 14 games to 16 in 1978 were the '84 San Francisco 49ers, the '85 Chicago Bears and the '98 Minnesota Vikings.
But the dream season ended with a loss to the New England Patriots, the eventual Super Bowl champs, in the AFC Championship Game.
"I know Bill's emphasis will be 'We're not satisfied with where we were last year,' " Colbert said. "Yes, we had a very good season. But we didn't have the great season we wanted to have. We didn't win the championship. That's our only focus."
Even after a 15-1 record, the Steelers have several question marks as they head to training camp. Among them:
* Can Roethlisberger, the NFL's Offensive Rookie of the Year, avoid a sophomore jinx?
* Will the offensive line, perhaps the best overall position on the team last year, came through again despite the loss of two starters via free agency (right tackle Oliver Ross and right guard Keydrick Vincent)?
* Have right guard Kendall Simmons, who missed the entire season with a knee injury, and nose tackle Casey Hampton, who missed the second half of the season with a knee injury, fully recovered?
* What impact will tight end Heath Miller, the 2005 No. 1 draft pick, have as a rookie?
* Will the Steelers miss wide receiver Plaxico Burress, or will Antwaan Randle El or free agent acquisition Cedrick Wilson fill the void?
* Will Larry Foote hold his own again as he did last year at inside linebacker in place of often-injured and since-departed Kendrell Bell?
* Will any of the young cornerbacks - third-year pro Ike Taylor, second-year pro Ricardo Coclough or rookie Bryant McFadden - steal away the starting job from 34-year-old veteran Willie Williams?
* Can running back Duce Staley stay healthy for a full season?
* Or will running back Jerome Bettis, at age 33, have to fill in again if Staley can't make it through a whole year?
"The challenges excite us," Colbert said.
With a week left before camp starts, the Steelers still have some business to take care of.
First, they must sign four of their rookie draft picks, including Miller and McFadden (the second-round choice). So far, they've signed four of their eight picks, including wide receiver Fred Gibson (fourth round).
They must also finalize the contract extension for Pro Bowl wide receiver Hines Ward that management promised Ward a year ago. That deal could come any day now
"No, nothing to report yet," Colbert said of the negotiations with Ward's agents. "Just that we're continuing discussions and that both sides are optimistic we will get a deal done."
Finally, the Steelers must decide if they'll make any more additions or subtractions to the current roster.
One published report suggests that the Steelers are interested in signing former Baltimore Ravens linebacker Peter Boulware, who missed the entire 2004 season with knee and toe injuries.
As far as the 86 players already on the roster, Colbert doesn't expect any to miss the start of camp due to health reasons.
The Steelers must report to camp by 6 p.m. next Sunday.
The annual run test will be held Aug. 1.
The first scheduled practice is Aug. 2.
Mike Bires can be reached online at email@example.com