Camp Confidential: Can the Steelers repeat?
August 7, 2009 1:00 PM
Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker
LATROBE, Pa. -- University of Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari knows a title contender when he sees one.
Calipari, who has led two different programs to the Final Four, was in Steelers training camp this week to see what he could incorporate into his program.
"They are a championship organization because of the people," said Calipari, a native of suburban Pittsburgh. "That means the people that own it, the people that manage it and the people that coach it. They make sure the players are quality people and they take care of everybody. That's why they are what they are."
After returning 20 of 22 starters, Pittsburgh is in a prime position to become the first group since the 2003-04 New England Patriots to win back-to-back Super Bowls. But it won't be easy.
They have a shot if they can answer "yes" to these key questions.
1. Will the offensive line improve in 2009?
The knee injury this week to guard Darnell Stapleton already hurts the depth of a unit that has struggled in recent years. Stapleton, who started in the Super Bowl, will have arthroscopic knee surgery Friday and will miss a good portion of the preseason.
Pittsburgh's offensive line remains one of the team's few glaring weaknesses. The Steelers have allowed quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to be sacked an astounding 139 times the past three seasons. The running game, normally a Steelers staple, stalled in 2008.
Knowing that Roethlisberger cannot continue to take a pounding at this clip, the Steelers have been working on improving pass protection this summer. Although Stapleton is injured, the Steelers return all five starters from the Super Bowl and hope another year together improves chemistry and helps the line's overall performance.
Pittsburgh also has backups who have the potential to contribute, including versatile guard/tackle Trai Essex and rookies Kraig Urbik and A.Q. Shipley, who were taken in the third and seventh rounds, respectively.
2. Can Pittsburgh handle distractions?
In terms of distractions, the Steelers did not get off to a glowing start. About a week before camp opened, Roethlisberger was hit with a civil lawsuit alleging sexual assault in Nevada. Pittsburgh's offseason was relatively quiet up until that point, and Roethlisberger apologized to his teammates and the organization last week for shifting the attention from football.
Whether the Steelers learned anything from 2006 remains to be seen. That was the last time the Steelers were coming off a Super Bowl victory, and the wheels came off quickly and completely as distractions, injuries and poor play led to a 2-6 start and an 8-8 finish.
But this group seems very business-like in its approach. Key veterans such as receiver Hines Ward, linebacker James Farrior and safety Troy Polamalu were also on that disappointing team in 2006 and claim to have learned from that humbling experience. Training camp practices have been crisp and players, including Roethlisberger, appear focused.
3. Will the special teams be good?
The Steelers don't have many holes, so we're just nitpicking. But Pittsburgh's special teams were the weakest of the three units (offense, defense, special teams) last season.
Kicker Jeff Reed, in the final year of his contract, is solid. But beyond that, Pittsburgh's special teams were weak.
The Steelers are trying to find a boost in the return game. In camp, Pittsburgh is working out several new players at returning kicks, including former CFL running back Stefan Logan and receiver Shaun McDonald. The goal this year is to take every-down players such as Santonio Holmes off special teams to help the offense.
Perhaps the biggest addition to special teams will be the return of punter Daniel Sepulveda, who missed all of 2008 with a torn ACL in his knee. Pittsburgh's punting was one of the league's worst last year and Sepulveda should change that. The team also is giving Sepulveda an occasional day off from punting in camp to make sure he doesn't rush back.
Second-year receiver Limas Sweed was an enigma last season. First, he couldn't find his way on the field. Then when his number was called late in the year, Sweed wasn't ready.
But last season's disappointment led to Sweed become one of the hardest-working players on the team this offseason. In camp,
the former second-round pick looks more confident and continues to make plays.
Sweed has the inside track to open the season as Pittsburgh's No. 3 receiver and knows his number will be called early if he holds onto the job. This time Sweed believes he's prepared to produce.
Newcomer to watch
The Steelers do not often take defensive linemen high in the draft, but they broke that mold with first-round pick Evander "Ziggy" Hood.
Pittsburgh likes Hood's motor and versatility. He is expected to spell both starters at defensive end and possibly play some nose tackle.
The three starting defensive linemen for the Steelers are all over 30, so it will be vital for Hood to provide depth and inject some youthful exuberance. The fact that he's not expected to start puts him in a good spot to produce without the normal pressures of a first-round pick.
Roethlisberger is struggling with his arm strength early in camp. After taking a pounding and playing so deep into the postseason, Roethlisberger didn't do any throwing independently away from the Steelers this offseason, choosing to rest instead.
But many of his deep throws are coming up short and intercepted. With the preseason starting next week, it will be interesting to see how long it takes for Roethlisberger to regain his form. ... Tailback Rashard Mendenhall appears to have recovered from his season-ending shoulder injury. The former first-round pick lost significant weight in his upper body last year because he was unable to lift weights after surgery.
But he has regained his bulk and looks more sure of himself in his second training camp. ...Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau is using inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons in a variety of ways now that the former first-round pick is a full-time starter.
Timmons has great range to patrol the middle of the field. But LeBeau also likes Timmons' skills as a pass-rusher and has been turning him loose in pressure packages. ...Look out for rookie receiver Mike Wallace.
The third-round pick from Mississippi is making a good impression in camp. Teammates are already calling him one of the fastest players on the team.