From Ben to rookies, here's what to watch at Steelers training camp
By Scott Brown
Friday, July 31, 2009
What happened in 2008 is old news — like VCRs and coffee shops that don't have Internet access.
That is the position the Steelers, who report to training camp today, will take as they begin their quest to win back-to-back Super Bowls.
The journey, as Steelers coach Mike Tomlin is apt to call it, starts in earnest tomorrow, when the team holds its first preseason practices at St. Vincent College in Latrobe.
With the Steelers hoping to add another Lombardi Trophy to the six they already display at their South Side practice facility, here are seven things to watch during training camp.
Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers were jolted when the franchise quarterback was recently charged with sexual assault in a civil lawsuit.
Roethlisberger has vehemently denied the charges and has vowed to stay focused on football.
His situation, even though there are no criminal charges pending, will loom over Roethlisberger and the Steelers. The key for both is to minimize the biggest distraction facing the Steelers as they embark on the 2009 season.
The best way for Roethlisberger, 27, to do that is to continue to show growth as a player and a leader.
The Steelers are scheduled to have two practices on seven of the first 10 days of camp.
It will be a surprise if Tomlin doesn't cancel a couple of them or at least excuses established players from a handful of them for a simple reason.
It's likely that no team needs training camp less than the Steelers. They have a lot of veteran players who know what they have to do to get ready for the season, and their starting lineup is practically set.
Unlike his first year as coach in 2007, Tomlin doesn't have to show the players who is in charge. Nor does he need the extra practice time to evaluate players as he did in his initial season.
As if Tomlin needed another reason not to put his players through a grinding camp, the Steelers are coming off a season that lasted a month longer than most.
The Steelers got virtually nothing out of their 2008 draft class for a variety of reasons including injury (Rashard Mendenhall), the reason Stick-um was invented (Limas Sweed) and consistency ... as in consistently on the inactive list (Bruce Davis and Tony Hills).
Tomlin has said players make the most improvement from their first season to their second. As such, he is likely to lose patience with second-year players that don't show significant progress, starting with training camp.
None of the players from that class, with the possible exception of Mendenhall, are pushing for starting jobs. The Steelers, however, do need to get more return on the investment they made in the 2008 draft.
There isn't a whole lot to watch here as far as starting positions go.
Lawrence Timmons is ticketed to take over for Larry Foote at inside linebacker. William Gay takes over at cornerback for Bryant McFadden — provided he doesn't flop in camp.
A battle that appears to be wide open is the one for third wide receiver, a role Nate Washington filled well enough to land a big contract from the Tennessee Titans. Tomlin said at the conclusion of off-season drills that no one has separated himself out of a group that includes Sweed, veteran Shaun McDonald and rookie Mike Wallace.
Sweed should be given every opportunity to win the job, given his blend of size and speed and the fact that the Steelers used a second-round pick on the former Texas star.
Nothing, however, will be given to him.
As with Sweed, the Steelers are hopeful that Mendenhall, who had his rookie season wiped out by injury, is ready to assume a significant role in the offense.
If the 2008 first-round pick is able to do that, the Steelers will have their first legitimate tandem at running back since 2005, when Willie Parker and Jerome Bettis shared carries.
Mendenhall has fully recovered from the broken shoulder he sustained last September, and he could be the future at the position with Parker going into the final year of his contract.
Parker is still the Steelers' top threat in the backfield, but he broke down in 2008, and a heavy workload the previous two seasons seemed to catch up with him.
If Mendenhall can complement Parker this season, that will bolster a rushing attack that ranked 23rd in the NFL in 2008 and too often spun its wheels.
As busy as the Steelers were signing their own players during the offseason, they may have some unfinished business.
Starters going into the final year of their contracts include Parker, nose tackle Casey Hampton, defensive end Brett Keisel, free safety Ryan Clark and kicker Jeff Reed. Right tackle Willie Colon, meanwhile, will become an unrestricted free agent if a collective bargaining agreement between the players and owners is reached following the 2009 season.
The Steelers have a policy of not negotiating player contracts once the regular season starts. They may use training camp not only to evaluate the veterans who are in the final year of their contract but also players that are potential replacements for them.
Just as in Tomlin's first two years as head coach, the Steelers have the luxury of bringing the rookies along slowly.
First-round pick Ziggy Hood is at a position (defensive end) where the Steelers are deep and experienced. Third-round pick Kraig Urbik may be the only rookie with a chance to win a starting job as he is expected to push Darnell Stapleton at right guard.
One area where rookies could make an impact is the return game.
Fifth-round pick Joe Burnett was a decorated kickoff and punt returner at the University of Central Florida. And third-rounder Mike Wallace has blazing speed, which makes him an intriguing option to return kickoffs.
Scott Brown can be reached at email@example.com