NFL: Steelers have many back, few big issues
PITTSBURGH ó It’s almost a given since the NFL adopted a salary cap 15 years ago: win a Super Bowl, break up the team in a year or two.
The New England Patriots were the exception, winning three titles in four years, and now the Pittsburgh Steelers will try to take their third in five seasons by doing what they do best. That means staying the course, refusing to hitch themselves to the latest strategical trend,and keeping their best players signed.
That’s why the team that reports to training camp Friday at St. Vincent College in Latrobe, about an hour’s drive east of Pittsburgh, will be nearly identical to the one that won the Super Bowl six months ago, beating Arizona 27-23 on Ben Roethlisberger’s last-minute TD pass to Santonio Holmes.
Only two starters are gone, a rarity during the salary cap era, and neither player who left may have started this season. Indeed, the biggest change from past summers will be visible not on St. Vincent’s steamy practice fields, but along the sidelines.
Team owner Dan Rooney has been a training camp fixture since he was a toddler during the 1930s. But he is expected to miss all or most of camp now that he is the U.S. ambassador to Ireland. Rooney’s midfield confabs with his coach always signaled the unofficial end to that day’s work, but now coach Mike Tomlin will huddle with only one Rooney, team president Art Rooney II, Dan’s son and the grandson of team founder Art Rooney.
Their topics of discussion during a preseason camp that shifts to the Steelers’ Pittsburgh practice complex after three weeks? They could be these:
óIs hunger a problem? Not Casey Hampton’s well-known appetite, either. After winning the Super Bowl in February 2006, the Steelers admittedly did too much celebrating and didn’t appear focused or driven when camp started the following summer. Roethlisberger’s motorcycle crash and the uncertainty over coach Bill Cowher’s future also didn’t help.
The Steelers went on to lose six of their first eight games and missed the playoffs despite finishing with a 6-2 run, and Cowher resigned shortly after the 2006 season ended.
“It’s different this time,” wide receiver Hines Ward said. “Coach Tomlin, he won’t let us have a down year.”
óHampton’s weight. He may be the key to the Steelers’ run defense, but the 350-pound Hampton won’t be re-signed unless he shows he can push aside second helpings as easily as he does offensive tackles.
óDistractions? What distractions? Roethlisberger’s reaction to the allegation he sexually assaulted a Nevada hotel employee last year will be closely watched throughout camp. But he is not expected to comment about the civil lawsuit. There are no criminal charges, and Tomlin is certain to try to make it a non-issue from the start.
“We have the desire to be a good team, the desire to be a consistently good team, a world championship-caliber team,” Tomlin said before the Roethlisberger allegations surfaced. “You’ve got to acknowledge that some potential distractions come with that.”
óThe running game. The Steelers will be boosted by the return of running back Rashard Mendenhall. Whether Mendenhall, a first-round pick in 2008, pushes Willie Parker may determine whether the Steelers try to re-sign Parker for 2010. Parker is coming off his first injury-interrupted season, and his first with fewer than 1,000 yards as a starter, and he is expected to get fewer carries with Mendenhall healthy.
“How he (Mendenhall) plays will determine his role,” Tomlin said.
óContracts. The Steelers lost former starting cornerback Bryant McFadden to Arizona (William Gay, who split time late last season, takes his place), and linebacker Larry Foote left for more playing time in Detroit. But punter Daniel Sepulveda hurt in 2008, returns.
The Steelers made certain tight end Heath Miller’s status wouldn’t be an issue, reaching terms Wednesday on a $35.3 million, six-year contract that pays Miller a $12.5 million signing bonus.
óSome happy returns? The Steelers averaged 11-plus wins the last five seasons despite never having an above-average return game. Newly drafted kick returners Mike Wallace and Joe Burnett might offer a substantial upgrade.
óWho’s No. 3? Ward and Holmes form the only NFL receiving tandem in which both starters have been Super Bowl MVPs. Limas Sweed, a second-rounder last year, will compete with former Lions receiver Shaun McDonald to be the third receiver, replacing Nate Washington, now with Tennessee.
óThe offensive line. Center Justin Hartwig is mending from a broken toe, and right guard Darnell Stapleton may be the weakest link along a rather nondescript offensive line. Still, a line that is expected to be a major problem every season never seems to become one, and the Steelers need it to stay that way.