Steelers Training Camp: The 5 stories everyone will be talking about
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The plot and subplots for the 2010 Steelers began soon after the 2009 season ended when team president Art Rooney spoke up. He told the Post-Gazette Jan. 14 that he had talked to coach Mike Tomlin about the need to improve the ground game.
"I think Mike and I certainly agreed coming off the season that we need to run the ball more consistently to get to where we want to get to," Rooney said. "So that's part of the thinking in the offseason: We need to figure out how to get better running the football."
The offseason ends Friday, when the Steelers report to Saint Vincent College for training camp. The main issue, one that will dominate the discussion through at least October, comes at quarterback. But this team has more subplots than a K.C. Constantine mystery. Here are five of them:
Since Art Rooney's proclamation 61/2 months ago, the Steelers have talked a good ground game but done little to implement improvements. Some could argue they lost a few yards instead. They did nothing to replace Willie Parker, who opened last season as their starter before a foot injury derailed him. The only fullback listed on their roster is an undrafted defensive lineman who has not played fullback since his freshman season in high school. Rashard Mendenhall is the new workhorse after rushing for 1,108 yards and a 4.6-yard average last season. He may even resume his role on third downs, a job he grew into last season. Mewelde Moore has been a capable backup, but after that where's the beef? The Steelers will count on the unproven masses to fill out their backfield. There are the hybrid backs: Frank "The Tank" Summers started the second game of his rookie season at fullback and did not play again because of back surgery, and Isaac "Red Zone" Redman spent all his rookie season except for one game on the practice squad. Neither has a NFL carry from scrimmage. Justin Vincent spent last season on the practice squad. The best hope for a big payday is rookie Jonathan Dwyer, a producer at Georgia Tech who was drafted in the sixth round.
For a team that rarely takes anyone back -- from players to coaches to front-office employees -- the 2010 Steelers turned out the welcome back mat. Four former Steelers will wear the uniform again this season, and all four were brought in for rescue efforts. Wide receiver Antwaan Randle El stayed away the longest, having played for the Washington Redskins since 2006. He will help the depth at wide receiver after the loss of Santonio Holmes and Limas Sweed. The other three went missing for only one season. Linebacker Larry Foote returns after he requested and received his release last year so he could return to his hometown Detroit Lions. He re-signed as a free agent after things did not go well in Detroit and the Steelers' inside linebacker play suffered without him. Same with cornerback Bryant McFadden; his one-year experience in Arizona and the Steelers' play at left cornerback were quite disappointing. They re-acquired him in a draft-day trade, and the coaches quickly reinstalled him as starting left cornerback. Quarterback Byron Leftwich spent only one season with the Steelers in 2008 but earned a Super Bowl ring and admiration for his work as Ben Roethlisberger's backup. His highly disappointing experience in Tampa Bay last season did not dim the Steelers' enthusiasm to sign him to start while Roethlisberger is suspended.
Mike Tomlin has a new contract and some new coaches for the first time since he put together his first staff in 2007. Randy Fichtner moves from coaching wide receivers to coaching quarterbacks after Ken Anderson retired. Scottie Montgomery left Duke University's staff to coach the Steelers' receivers. Tomlin fired line coach Larry Zierlein and replaced him with Sean Kugler, who lost his job in Buffalo when the Bills changed head coaches. Al Everest, fired in San Francisco, replaces the fired Bob Ligashesky as special teams coach. Former Steelers linebacker Jerry Olsavsky joins the staff as its defensive assistant to replace Lou Spanos, who became linebackers coach for the Redskins. Tomlin's three-year contract extension through 2014 ended the debate about whether he would get one and, if not, why. A controversy began shortly after the 2009 season ended without a playoff berth when it was reported that Tomlin would fire offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, and when he did not, there were reports that Roethlisberger saved Arians' job. Tomlin and Art Rooney deny the front office applied pressure to fire Arians. As he enters his fourth season as coach, Tomlin has experienced two playoff berths, one Super Bowl victory and one season out of the playoffs. He has fired his first coaches and signed his first contract extension.
It's an age-old story for the Steelers, one that has been discussed for at least three training camps -- the graying of the defense. Two years ago, that defense answered any questions about its age by leading the NFL in most categories and helping deliver a sixth Lombardi Trophy to the franchise. Last season was a different story. The Steelers slipped to fifth in the NFL in yardage allowed, but that did not tell the whole story. They could not protect late leads and they were unreliable on third downs. The Steelers lost five games in which they led in the fourth quarter and a sixth in which they were tied in the fourth quarter. Seven starters entering training camp are over 30: Defensive linemen Aaron Smith (34), Casey Hampton (33 in September) and Brett Keisel (32 in September); linebackers James Farrior (35) and James Harrison (32), and defensive backs Ryan Clark (31 in October) and Ike Taylor (30). Three of their top backups also are in their 30s with Foote (30) and defensive linemen Chris Hoke (34) and Nick Eason (30). The loss of Smith and safety Troy Polamalu for 11 games each last season contributed to the sagging defensive play, but the age of that defense remains an issue entering camp.
Training camp cannot come fast enough for the Steelers, who have experienced nothing but setbacks in their worst offseason since Ben Roethlisberger's motorcycle accident. The losses include two of their most valuable offensive performers, not counting the suspension of Roethlisberger and the decision not to re-sign Willie Parker. The Steelers gave Santonio Holmes away for little, a fifth-round draft choice from the New York Jets. Coaches looked the other way as Holmes showed up late for various things, but Tomlin benched him for a game in 2008 when he was arrested for marijuana possession. His latest brouhaha during an incident in Orlando, his response to that and then his impending four-game suspension to start the 2010 season for violating the NFL substance-abuse policy proved to be the breaking point with the Steelers. Mike Wallace could step into a starting job at split end after an excellent rookie season, but that has yet to be determined, with rookie Emmanuel Sanders a candidate with veteran newcomers Antwaan Randle El and Arnaz Battle. The coaching staff felt right tackle Willie Colon was the team's best lineman, and he's done for the season after having surgery to repair an Achilles' tendon injured during a summer workout. The candidates to replace him are Jonathan Scott, signed as a free agent from Buffalo, veteran Trai Essex, second-year pro Ramon Foster and Tony Hills, used little in his two seasons. The Steelers also signed veteran guard Adrian Jones Wednesday, and at 6-4, 330 pounds, he's big enough to play tackle.
First Published July 25, 2010 12:03 am