By John Clayton
LATROBE, Pa. -- Crowds at Saint Vincent College this summer brought back a lot of memories. Through the 1970s, Steelers fans showed passion for their Super Bowl teams by turning the perimeter of the practice fields into a sea of black and gold. Fans waited for autographs, but their biggest mission was simply watching one of the league's greatest collection of players tune up for another Super Bowl run.
The campus has grown from years of wise investments. To get a parking spot, you must arrive early. For late arrivals, there is a little bit of a walk, but it's not bad. The sight of the Steelers fans walking to and from practice is sort of like watching a golf tournament with Tiger Woods.
A team scrimmage here on Friday night drew more than 15,000 people. It was an awesome sight.
Here are few things I learned from my Steelers visit:
1. James Harrison is an absolute beast: Any matchup the linebacker has against a tall offensive tackle is a mismatch in his favor. At 6-foot-0, Harrison uses leverage and strength to abuse tall tackles. You almost must feel sorry for Steelers tackle Max Starks. He's 6-8 and has made dramatic improvements over the past year to become a passable left tackle, but Harrison destroys him most of the time in practice.
One of the keys to Harrison's success is his relentlessness. He'll drive his body under the long arms of Starks and use his strength and power to drive Starks back. If Starks tries to clamp down on him, Harrison will slip away and rush around him. Harrison comes hard on every play. There is no such thing as practice to Harrison. Every practice play is a game to him, and he wants to win.
The knock on short pass-rushers is the supposed disadvantage they have going against big tackles. Bull. Harrison, who weighs 240 pounds, can bull rush a tackle. Any time you see Harrison go against a tackle taller than 6-6, look for a two-sack day. The good news for Starks is that there aren't many pass-rushers like Harrison out there.
2. Timmons looks great: It was hard for the Steelers to cut Larry Foote. He was the perfect Steelers inside linebacker -- smart, accountable and a good tackler. But this season expect Lawrence Timmons to emerge as a star at weakside inside linebacker.
In his third season, Timmons has grown into the position. The Steelers drafted Timmons when he was 20. Head coach Mike Tomlin loves developing 20-year-old athletes and will always encourage the scouting department to bring young players to him. With a 20-year-old, you need patience because it often takes three years for them to develop their body for NFL success. Tomlin said Timmons has added 10 pounds of muscle this offseason. He looks sensational.
One of the first things I noticed on outside running plays is how much ground Timmons can cover when he's trying to cut off running lanes. He's also developing into a violent tackler. Years from now, sports historians might look at the Timmons-LaMarr Woodley draft of 2007 as one of the best ever for a 3-4 defense.
3. The Steelers really like their first-round choice: Evander "Ziggy" Hood has already established himself in the rotation of defensive ends. If needed, he could grow into a nose tackle. Tomlin is using him as a backup at right and left defensive end. He's 6-3, 300 pounds and the only thing he lacks is experience.
I like the way Hood can engage a tackle in a two-gap situation, throwing him aside to make the play. He'll need some time to learn different ways of beating tackles. Veterans know the tricks of how to lock down a young end, but Hood shows that, once he get away from a blocker, he has enough speed to chase down runners.
The Steelers needed a young player on the line because they have five defensive linemen in their 30s. Hood is the first step in the youth movement.
4. Rashard Mendenhall is living up to his first-round billing: Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis ended Mendenhall's rookie season with a violent, legal tackle that fractured the running back's shoulder. Going back to Tomlin's love for young players, you get the feeling the Steelers have a pretty good plan for Mendenhall.
Last year, Mendenhall was the youngest player on the team entering the 2008 season. Tomlin didn't mind a young Lawrence Timmons being a backup his first two seasons because he believed Timmons would emerge by his third season. That seems to be the plan for Mendenhall. Willie Parker remains the starter, but he doesn't have the body to hold up for 300 carries in a season. Mendenhall is 225 pounds and gives the Steelers the type of workhorse back who works well in the cold weather in November, December and January. He has good speed and seems able to make quick reads. As long as he stay away from Ray Lewis, Mendenhall is the back of the future who can be a big contributor in the present.
5. Forget the finesse: Running the ball will always be the main priority for the Steelers. Hines Ward remembers how the Steelers tried to have a finesse style in the pre-Ben Roethlisberger days and how that didn't work out. Replacing power runs with quick passes isn't Steelers football.
Roethlisberger does love to slip into shotgun and no-huddle offenses, and he will have the freedom to do that at times. If you are wondering about how the civil suit is affecting Roethlisberger's play, don't be too worried. Roethlisberger shouldn't have a dropoff in his play, but he will be distracted to a degree.
Roethlisberger has great command over the huddle and his offense, although it was fascinating to see what was going on in last Friday's scrimmage. Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau unleashed blitzes, forcing all the quarterbacks to make quick, hot throws into the middle the field and scramble on most pass plays. Steeler fans might have wondered what was wrong with Roethlisberger. Nothing. Head coaches with an offensive background, particularly those from the West Coast offenses, don't let many blitz periods slip into their practices and scrimmages. Offensive head coaches want the offense to win. Defensive head coaches -- and that's Tomlin's background -- love the defense to test its players' skills, which make it tough at times on the quarterbacks.