Five camp story lines for Saint Vincent & Camp Tomlin 2008
Sunday, July 27, 2008
By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
1 The bottom line
Ben Roethlisberger has been sacked more frequently than any quarterback in the history of the franchise over two seasons -- 93 times, 46 in 2006 and 47 last season. That's not all the responsibility of the tackles, guards and center, but they have to take much of the blame.
The Steelers offensive line just isn't as good as it used to be, as recently as, say, the 2005 season. Now the best player in that line, the one selected as the best guard in franchise history, has withdrawn. Chris Kemoeatu will replace seven-time Pro Bowler Alan Faneca at left guard, but even if he approaches Faneca's greatness, will the line be any better than last season when Faneca played in it?
That line underwent two changes in the starting lineup and will have two and possibly three more this season. There's Kemoeatu, for one. Justin Hartwig, released by Carolina, will challenge Sean Mahan and possibly become the third different starting center in three seasons. And Willie Colon will try to hold off the player whose job he took last season at right tackle, $7 million-man Max Starks.
2 The rush to rush the passer
While sacks increased on offense, they slumped on defense the past two seasons. They stood at 47 sacks in the Super Bowl season of 2005, then slipped to 39 in 2006 and 36 last season.
The Steelers defense ranked first overall last season in yards allowed -- third against the run and third against the pass. But big plays like sacks and turnovers were off last season and there will be an emphasis on increasing them this year.
LaMarr Woodley should help as the new starting left outside linebacker. He had four sacks in just 80 defensive snaps last season, plus two more in their playoff loss to Jacksonville. Those six ranked third on the team. Rookie Bruce Davis, who had 24 1/2 sacks the past two seasons at UCLA, could help in a part-time role.
There's also a beefed-up playbook in which Pro Bowl linebacker James Harrison gets to move around a little more.
3 Not-so-special teams
Mike Tomlin tried to send a message last summer of the importance he placed on special teams by scheduling special practices just for them. They then played erratically last season, except for the punter and kicker.
Tomlin will budget less time to special teams practices this year with the hope that the quality of their sessions will improve them. They actually jumped to the middle of the pack, according to a system of special teams points kept by the Dallas Morning News. They moved from 30th on special teams in 2006 to 15th last season.
Finding competent return men is a priority and any number of players are candidates, including Santonio Holmes, who was prevented from returning punts last season, top draft pick Rashard Mendenhall and unrestricted free-agent signing Mewelde Moore.
The good news: Kicker Jeff Reed had a near perfect season and punter Daniel Sepulveda should improve after a good rookie start.
4 The aging front
The Steelers long have had one of the best defensive three-man fronts in the NFL, and that age is starting to show. The starting three of ends Aaron Smith (32) and Brett Keisel (30 on Sept. 19) and nose tackle Casey Hampton (31 on Sept. 3) are strong, but the depth must again come from nose tackle Chis Hoke (32) and ends Travis Kirschke (34 on Sept. 6) and Nick Eason (28), the baby of the bunch.
They had a stated need to get "bigger and younger" here before the draft and did not. Another injury such as the torn biceps that knocked Smith out of the lineup for the final three games plus the playoff loss could be crippling.
5 The evolving offense
Ben Roethlisberger set team records with 32 touchdown passes and a 104.1 passer rating while making his first Pro Bowl. This came after coordinator Bruce Arians allowed his quarterback to have more say in the offense; that included input into the new playbook he installed last season, helping with the game plan and calling some blocking protection.
Roethlisberger will have even more freedom this season, perhaps with even more use of the no-huddle. The fullback has been virtually eliminated and the Steelers on occasion may use a Pony backfield with first-round pick Rashard Mendenhall joining Willie Parker.
The tall receiver Roethlisberger requested was delivered with second-round pick Limas Sweed to add yet another feature to the repertoire.
The Steelers open their 42nd training camp at Saint Vincent College -- No. 2 under coach Mike Tomlin -- when the players report today. It will be among their shortest ever in Latrobe, their final practice occurring three weeks from today. Tomlin has plenty of work to accomplish in such a short time. Here are five of the more pressing issues confronting him and his coaching staff as they swing open the doors today at Saint Vincent to begin their 76th National Football League season: