Five days to camp, five questions
AP file photo by GENE J. PUSKAR Sixburgh is what Pittsburgh became last season after the Steelers became the first NFL franchise to win six Lombardi Trophies.
By Mike Bires
Times Sports Staff
On Friday, the Steelers report to Latrobe for what figures to be a most intriguing training camp. Though they’re the reigning Super Bowl champions and return 20 of 22 starters (including all 11 on offense), they do have some genuine concerns and question marks. Times pro football writer Mike Bires breaks down the Steelers’ top five most pressing issues:
1. Big Ben’s state of mind
After the Steelers’ last Super Bowl victory, Ben Roethlisberger went to camp still showing the effects of a near-fatal motorcycle accident. He went on to have his worst season as a pro as the Steelers stumbled at 8-8 and missed the playoffs in 2006.
Now, the star QB heads to St. Vincent with the weight of a sexual assault lawsuit weighing heavily on his psyche. He’s proclaimed his innocence, but you can only wonder how this will affect his performance on the football field.
2: Hampton’s waist line
A year ago, Casey Hampton was immediately placed on the physically unable to perform list because he reported for duty overweight. The situation resolved itself midway in camp when “Big Snack” worked his way back into shape.
But the four-time Pro Bowl all-star wasn’t his dominant self and missed three games early in the season with a groin injury.
It would behoove Hampton, who’s in the last year of his contract, to report to camp in decent shape and avoid the wrath of coach Mike Tomlin.
3. Ongoing saga of the O-line
During Super Bowl week and in the aftermath of their 27-23 win over Arizona, Tomlin, Roethlisberger and others chastised the media for ripping on the offensive line all season.
On one hand, they were right. That unit was good enough to help the Steelers win it all. Still, Roethlisberger was sacked 46 times during the regular season — only New England’s Matt Cassel was sacked more — and seven more times in three playoff games.
Not all of the sacks can be blamed on the line, but too many of them can. And despite the Super Bowl win, the line has two major question marks going into camp.
Who will play right guard, where Darnell Stapleton filled in after Kendall Simmons suffered an early season-ending injury?
And will Max Starks, at the all-important left tackle spot, elevate his game now that he’s been rewarded with a lucrative contract extension?
4. Finding a new No. 3 wide receiver
The Steelers can only hope they can find a third wideout who produced as well as Nate Washington did last year.
For a guy who dropped his share of passes during his four-year stay in Pittsburgh, Washington came up big, especially in the middle part of the season when he caught passes of 48 yards or more in four straight games. It was Washington who led the Steelers in yards per catch (15.8). And it was Washington who was on the receiving end of Rothlisberger’s longest TD pass (65 yards).
Going into camp, Limas Sweed, a tall target who made a minimal contribution as a rookie last year, and free-agent acquisition Shaun McDonald are the front-runners to take over as the No. 3 guy behind Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes.
5. Threat of a Super Bowl hangover
The last time the Steelers defended a Super Bowl title, they fell flat on their faces. Never did they appear to be a legitimate contender in a disappointing .500 season in ’06.
There were several reasons for that demise. Among them were Roethlisberger’s health issues (beside his motorcycle crash, he also had appendicitis and a concussion); the retirement of Jerome Bettis; and the unstable coaching situation with Bill Cowher, who would quit at the end of the season.
Another theory for the flawed title defense was a collective feeling of complacency. After 14 years, Cowher had finally won the big one. After 25 seasons, the Steelers finally won “one for the thumb.” So many players, at long last, experienced the thrill of the NFL’s ultimate victory. Naturally, the desire for greatness was dulled in the summer of ’06.
That doesn’t figure to happen this year. Not with Tomlin in just his third season at the helm.
These Steelers also have a sense of history on their side. If they can repeat, they’ll match the New England Patriots for most Super Bowl wins in this decade.
Mike Bires can be reached online at firstname.lastname@example.org