A new era that harkens back to an old one could begin at Heinz Field tonight when the Steelers play the New York Giants in their first exhibition game.
They hope to re-introduce their ground game with a new back flashing a familiar style behind a new blocking scheme. Rookie halfback Le'Veon Bell will cap an impressive first two weeks of training camp by, if not starting, then playing some with the first team offense and beyond.
It will be one of the most-anticipated debuts by a Steelers rookie running back since Franco Harris took his first bows 41 years ago. Coordinator Todd Haley, who compared Bell to former NFL star Eddie George when the Steelers drafted him in the second round in April, acknowledged that maybe his style looks more like that of Harris with a little less speed.
"He looks pretty good at this point," Haley said. "We've seen a lot of good signs."
Bell, a tad heavier than Harris who was 6 feet 2 and weighed around 225-230 pounds, eagerly anticipates the chance to show off his skills against someone other than his teammates and for a larger audience.
"I can't wait. It will be my first game dressed as a Pittsburgh Steeler, my debut in the NFL. So, I actually get to show everybody in the world what I'm capable of doing. And I'm so excited for it."
Mike Tomlin has given him every chance to do that in training camp. Despite listing him as his fifth running back on his first depth chart, Tomlin has put Bell with the first-team offense on occasion, and he has come through, including in live tackling drills.
Unlike last season when no one was able to grab hold of the No. 1 job at halfback and keep it, Haley hopes to go with a lead horse and have the others in complementary roles. After two weeks, Bell looks like, well, their Bell Cow.
"If you have a big dog who holds up and can play, that's the way you really like to do it," Haley said.
Tomlin has shown a propensity in his previous six years as head coach to use a different back on third downs, but Bell would like to do that job, too. He showed in his first two weeks at Saint Vincent College his receiving ability and he sticks his nose in the blitz pickups as well.
In the first blitz-pickup drills against pass-rushing linebackers in Latrobe, his 6-2 frame tended to get bent backward, although he still won his share of his chances.
He since has learned more of the art of leverage while blocking.
"That first day, I probably won half," said Bell, who exudes confidence on and off the field. "I think the next day I won all but one. Just technique things really helped me out. I'm a physical guy, so I can really hold my own in a lot of situations, but I have to make sure my technique is good and let my talent and physical strength take over."
Tonight, he'll get a chance to run in the Steelers' new outside zone-blocking scheme, the kind that has paid big dividends to other backs around the league.
"It's a lot of the things I ran in college so I'm real comfortable with it," the Michigan State man said.
Burress' career in jeopardy
Plaxico Burress' long, twice-interrupted NFL career might have come to an end where it all began, on the practice field at Saint Vincent College.
Burress will have surgery Monday to repair what Tomlin said appeared to be "a significant shoulder injury" caused late in practice Thursday when he landed on it while leaping for a pass.
A source told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that his rotator cuff was torn, which was first reported by Adam Schefter of ESPN late Thursday night.
The injury could be the final blow to the career of Burress, who turns 36 Monday. The Steelers drafted him with the eighth overall pick in 2000. He left them as a free agent after five seasons to sign with the New York Giants, where he caught the winning touchdown pass in Super Bowl XLII.
His career hit the skids the following November when he was arrested after he illegally carried a handgun into a New York City nightclub and it accidentally went off, wounding him in the thigh.
He spent 20 months in jail and missed all of the 2009 and 2010 seasons. He returned to play in 2011 for the New York Jets but went unsigned as a free agent in 2012 until injuries prompted the Steelers to sign him last November.
Signed to another one-year contract in March, Burress was trying to make his last stand with the team that drafted him but faced an uphill battle. He was not making much headway to convince them to keep him as a fifth wide receiver behind four others who look to be locks barring injury --Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders, rookie Markus Wheaton and veteran Jerricho Cotchery.
Burress was battling rookie draft pick Justin Brown along with David Gilreath for the fifth spot. Plus, Brown and Gilreath can play on special teams, possibly as a punt-returner.
Thin at tight end
Tight end Matt Spaeth has a Lisfranc injury to his foot, which is expected to keep him out 8 to 10 weeks.
The injury is one to the midfoot in which one, or all, the metatarsal bones are displaced from the tarsus.
Spaeth, who was injured Monday, was brought back in free agency this year to be the top backup to Heath Miller, who is recovering from ACL surgery and is not expected to be ready for the start of the regular season.
Without Miller, Spaeth and David Johnson, the Steelers have had to sign two tight ends -- Michael Palmer and Nathan Overbay -- to join David Paulson and Jamie McCoy on the training camp roster.
Gerry Dulac contributed. For more on the Steelers, read the blog, Ed Bouchette on the Steelers at www.post-gazette.com/plus. Ed Bouchette: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @EdBouchette. First Published August 10, 2013 4:00 AM