REPORTING DAY: Mike Tomlin heads into his second training camp
Sunday, July 27, 2008
By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
How does Mike Tomlin love going to training camp? Let him count the ways.
"I love football, I love this process, I love going to camp, I love team-building, readying ourselves to pursue our goals. I am extremely excited. If I had to characterize it, I would say no more excited or no less excited than a year ago."
Training camp a lovefest? Latrobe in late July and early August for the Steelers never has been confused with Woodstock, although all those motorcycles zipping around Westmoreland County for the National Bikers Roundup this week will choke the atmosphere.
Nevertheless, the Steelers' coach obviously has not taken the harrumph outlook by many on his team to heart, not seen the dire predictions about their reign as one-year AFC North champs ending and the title moving to Cleveland, about the issues in the offensive and defensive lines, about having the most difficult schedule in the NFL.
Others won't write his team's story before the first chapter, Tomlin said as he convenes the Steelers at Saint Vincent College this afternoon and puts them through a running test to open their 42nd training camp on the bucolic yet expanding small-college campus.
"There will be a lot of issues, and that is what training camp is about. I think one of the things that I am always conscious about is that I never try to tell a story; I always try to let the story unfold and call it as I see it. That is what I intend to do this year as well."
Tomlin has some noted larger issues, such as a possible 60 percent turnover in starters in his offensive line, the age of his defensive line, building a better pass rush and finding return men. Every team has issues in the salary-cap era in which talent is spread more evenly across the league and depth is always a problem. It's why a team such as the New York Giants could pull off what the Steelers did after the 2005 season by winning all of their playoff games on the road and then upsetting the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl.
Training camp is a time to start solving the concerns.
Besides team and unit issues, competition will be keen for some individuals fighting for starting jobs and roster spots. Among them:
• Veteran Larry Foote vs. 2007 top draft pick Lawrence Timmons at the mack inside linebacker position that Foote has held the past four seasons. Even Foote has intimated the writing is on the wall for Timmons to take his spot.
• Newcomer Justin Hartwig vs. Sean Mahan at center. Mahan was underwhelming in his first year after signing from Tampa Bay in 2007. Hartwig once was a good center in Tennessee, but he was affected by an injury in Carolina.
• Chris Kemoeatu replacing seven-time Pro Bowl left guard Alan Faneca. Kemoeatu would seem to have no competition, even though he has started just two games in three years.
• Willie Colon vs. Max Starks at offensive right tackle. Colon beat out Starks, who started in 2005 and 2006, last summer. Does paying Starks $7 million this season add to his virtues in this competition?
• Deshea Townsend vs. Bryant McFadden at right cornerback. McFadden, entering his fourth season, has yet to surpass the steady old vet.
• Ryan Clark vs. Anthony Smith at free safety. As long as Clark, who had his spleen removed at mid-2007 season, is healthy, it's his job. Smith took over when Clark left, then could not hold onto it.
• Willie Parker and rookie Rashard Mendenhall at running back. This won't be an either/or situation but the start of what should be a good one-two punch for the Steelers that might on occasion see them in the backfield at the same time. How much time Mendenhall gets will depend on Mendenhall.
"The growth of his role will be determined on his ability to execute from an assignment standpoint," Tomlin said. "I don't have a crystal ball, and we will let that play out. He's got a nice, humble mentality about him, so I won't be shocked if he does some nice things for us."
• Finding a return man. Santonio Holmes, who did a good job of returning punts as a rookie in 2006, wasn't allowed to do it last season, and everyone else failed. He could be the leading candidate. Others of note: Mendenhall, Mewelde Moore, Willie Reid and Jeremy Bloom.
• Find a new third-down back: Najeh Davenport and, on occasion, Carey Davis performed that job last season. It almost surely will go to Moore, who was signed for that purpose as an unrestricted free agent from the Minnesota Vikings.
• Dennis Dixon, the team's fifth-round draft choice, will replace departed Brian St. Pierre as the No. 3 quarterback.
• Plenty of roster decisions must be made, such as the No. 3 tight end, the No. 5 or even 6 wide receivers, which backup offensive linemen to keep, whether one or two of the young defensive linemen can bump off an old vet backup or two, and if rookie Ryan Mundy can beat out Tyrone Carter as a backup safety.
"One of the things we've learned around here and I've learned in this business," Tomlin said, "is that if a man has a helmet and is invited to camp, he has an opportunity."