Mike Tomlin wrapped up the final practice of his first training camp yesterday afternoon with many questions remaining about his football team, but with more insight about what he has.
Peter Diana, Post-Gazette
First-year Steelers coach Mike Tomlin says training camp at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe was everything he hoped it would be.
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Steelers Training Camp Video: On to the South Side
"It's been as good as could be expected," the Steelers new coach said. "You always come in prepared for the worst and hopeful for the best. I think it's been more toward my hopes; it's been awesome."
Tomlin leaves Saint Vincent College believing he has a team that can compete for a Super Bowl. Like many NFL teams, injuries or the lack of them will decide how serious a bid the Steelers make.
That was the good news coming from his first training camp: No serious injuries. Halfback Willie Parker, perhaps the player the Steelers least can afford to lose, missed a few weeks and two games with what was called slight inflammation of his left knee, but he returned to practice and will start tomorrow night against the Washington Redskins in the third preseason game.
"We have to get Willie P going," Tomlin said.
Tomlin still has not determined the backs he will keep behind Parker and whether he will go young with Carey Davis and Gary Russell, keep veterans Verron Haynes and Dan Kreider or go with a mix.
Decisions must be made everywhere, particularly along the starting offensive line. Tomlin has to decide how many wide receivers/tight ends to keep, which backup defensive linemen after Chris Hoke to maintain, who will fill two starting spots in the defensive backfield and what backup outside linebackers will stay.
Yet, three preseason games remain and the first cutdown does not happen until Aug. 28, when teams reduce their rosters to 75. The tougher cut happens Sept. 1, when teams get down to 53. Teams can add eight practice squad players Sept. 2, after they clear waivers.
Tomlin often used a phrase for the work that took place at camp the past 3 1/2 weeks, and the work that's left before the regular-season opener Sept. 9 in Cleveland. He calls it "team building."
"It's an ongoing process," he said. "I like where we are. I like our skill development. I don't think we're a finished product in that area, but that's why we're here."
Players groaned a little when they first saw Tomlin's training camp schedule, which included no days off the first two weeks and 15 scheduled two-a-day practices. He canceled several of those, however, and some others were rained out.
Still, players considered it a tougher training camp than they have had before.
"He put us through a hard camp," defensive end Brett Keisel said. "I think coming in as a first-year coach you kind of need to do that and see which guys you have on board and which guys are going to fall by the wayside. It was a tough camp, but we made it."
Keisel also saw Tomlin evolve the past month.
"I think he's getting more comfortable. This was his first time up here and when you come up here it's different. He did a good job. We made it through camp without any severe injuries, which is great."
Tomlin's camp may have been different from those run the previous 15 summers by Bill Cowher, yet most NFL training camps look alike. Tomlin held practices at the same time in the afternoon as in previous camps, and for all the talk about there being more hitting, there really was not. He often cut afternoon practices shorter than the scheduled two hours, sometimes by as much as 30 minutes. Cowher often went the entire two hours in the afternoon.
Tomlin held more one-hour special teams practices in the morning, along with the occasional two-hour morning practice. But the morning special-teams drills were more laid back and most of the starters were dismissed from them early.
Curfew was still set at 11 p.m., there was family night and a night off, and movie day, just as there were under Cowher. Camp also lasted about the same length, although they reported earlier because of the extra preseason game.
Still, "they resisted the change," Tomlin said. "But I think they did a nice job of dealing with it and not letting it affect their quality of play.
"It's funny, we're all creatures of habit, particularly the guys that have been here a long time. Guys who were drafted here, they know one way. When you know what's going on, you never have to look at the schedule. You can kind of get on autopilot. That's what we crave. We like to be on autopilot and know what lies ahead.
"But sometimes it's good to get out of your comfort zone a little bit and have to read an itinerary, have to keep up with the schedule and don't really know what's going on next. That's how this process has been for some people."
"It's been as good as could be expected. You always come in prepared for the worst and hopeful for the best. I think it's been more toward my hopes; IT'S BEEN AWESOME."
-- Mike Tomlin
Ed Bouchette can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .