|Center Maurkice Pouncey could help fill the leadership gap left by Hines Ward and James Farrior. (Getty Images)|
One of the special days on my annual NFL camp tour is the stop it Latrobe, Pa., to visit the Steelers. Every year, I make sure I am in town for the scrimmage at Latrobe High School on the first Friday of August. This year the team honored four retiring Steelers: Joey Porter, Aaron Smith, Marvel Smith and Willie Parker. A reported 55,000 fans showed up, which drives home the point that the Steelers are a mighty force because of their close-knit family mentality. Like all teams they have questions this summer. Thanks to Art Rooney, Mike Tomlin, Todd Haley, Brett Keisel, Antonio Brown and Joey Porter for spending time with me to take a look at the 2012 season.
1. What is happening with WR Mike Wallace?
Some Steelers fans are mad at Mike Wallace for holding out, but the people who know this team best believe he will be in camp around mid-August. I agree. Wallace will not win his toe-to-toe battle with the Rooneys for a big contract. Granted, when the Steelers dropped a big deal in the lap of Antonio Brown it looked like Wallace was destined to a restricted tag this season and a potential franchise tag for the 2013 and 2014 seasons. That's one option for the club, but I am more inclined to think they get a long-term deal done with Mike Wallace. A critical receiver injury in camp could turn some leverage back to Wallace but not enough for management to give in to his demands.
|More on Pittsburgh Steelers|
|NFL coverage on the go|
2. Can the Steelers run the ball significantly better than last year?
Pittsburgh was 14th in the NFL last year, averaging 119 yards a game on the ground. There was a strong opinion among many of the 55,000 fans at practice that the team needs to run it more. Fans think Todd Haley is spinning the clock back to the glory days of the '70s and '80s to run the ball. Haley was quick to point that getting in the right plays -- run or pass -- and executing them is a bigger concern than percentage of running plays. But mark my words: The Steelers running game will be among the league's top 10. The offensive line is looks better than it has in years. Willie Colon, now the left guard, can pull and lead a 'G' power-run scheme to his right with great results. The other day in practice he pulled and exploded into linebacker Lawrence Timmons, sending Timmons flying. Stanford rookie David Castro is wearing Alan Fanaca's number (No. 66) and has excellent pull skills. Pittsburgh will run effectively anywhere across the line of scrimmage. Finally, don't underestimate rookie LT Mike Adams as a zone-run blocker. In the scrimmage he got up to the second level and drove linebackers into the ground. Last year, Pittsburgh ran 55 percent of the time for 5.0 yards a carry on first down. Those results are sure to improve this year.
3. Who are the team leaders with Hines Ward and James Farrior gone?
In the absence of Ward and Farrior, Tomlin believes the natural leaders will rise to the top. He also pointed out Ben Roethlisberger, Brett Keisel and Ryan Clark all have gone out for the coin toss in the past and have leadership skills. After watching practice, I'll throw the names Maurkice Pouncey, Lamar Woodley and, of course, Troy Polamalu into the mix. True leaders set the pace their own way and are not always rah-rah types. The Steelers' leadership is healthy and ready to go.
4. Where are the key camp battles?
• The most intriguing position battle is going on at cornerback opposite Ike Taylor. Many have penciled Keenan Lewis in as the starter but he's getting a serious challenge from 2011 third-round pick Cortez Allen. Between the two, they had one start last season but each looks capable of having a great season. I think Allen wins the job, but that doesn't mean the loser is the nickel back. The top player in camp for the slot nickel corner is Curtis Brown, who can explode as a blitzer. There is opinion in Pittsburgh that Brown will beat out the loser of the starting right corner spot for the nickel job.
• The fifth wide receiver spot is wide open, assuming Mike Wallace eventually returns. Antonio Brown, Wallace, Emmanuel Sanders and Jericho Cotchery have the first four spots locked up. Tony Clemons, a 2011 seventh-round pick, was singled out as a guy looking good but I could see the Steelers keep a guy like Chris Rainey, a hybrid runner/receiver/returner, instead.
5. Who steps up if the guys on PUP can't go right away?
Key players on the PUP (physically unable to perform) list are Casey Hampton, Jason Worilds, James Harrison, and Rashard Mendenhall. It's clear to me that the Steelers have answers for most of these situations after watching a two-hour practice. Steve McLendon is no longer the 280-pound college free agent from 2009. He is now the 325-pound starting nose tackle working in place of Hampton. McLendon won some terrific battles vs. All-Pro center Maurkice Pouncey and is no downgrade after Hampton. With two OLBs sidelined, the Steelers have opened the door for 2011 fifth-round pick Chris Carter (Fresno State). He needs work and there would be a significant drop-off if he has to start. While Mendenhall heals Isaac Redman is stealing the show and may not surrender the RB role after Mendenhall returns. Redman plays angry and is just the kind of guy Todd Haley will want carrying the ball.