|New OC Todd Haley is still getting to know two-time Pro Bowl QB Ben Roethlisberger. (AP)|
LATROBE, Pa. -- Nothing much ever changes in Pittsburgh. The Rooneys run the family business seamlessly, same as it has always been, and Steelers coaches and executives are long-tenured and signed for years to come and stability is the rule. Expectations rarely change.
Super Bowl or bust.
The sting of losing to Denver in overtime in the playoffs -- getting Tebowed, no less -- is still very real, but that's also in the past. Injuries riddled the roster as 2011 wound down, and escaping those age and health issues will be imperative this season. Getting Ben Roethlisberger on the same page as new offensive coordinator Todd Haley is key as well, and top receiver Mike Wallace is still a training camp no-show.
But for this franchise, that's no big deal. The Steelers are aiming for another Lombardi Trophy, and there's no reason to think they don't have a legitimate shot.
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"There is a great history here, and so much tradition, and that's comforting to be a part of," coach Mike Tomlin told me. "But every season is its own story."
• QB-coach chemistry. Haley is a very different type of coach than anything Roethlisberger has experienced in Pittsburgh. He is demanding and can be demonstrative and he will challenge the Pro Bowl quarterback in practices and games. He's also bringing a more dynamic offensive system with him, one that will cull more out of positions like tight end. Haley is taking his time with his star pupil. "I've always said this, whether it be with Kurt [Warner] or other quarterbacks I've worked with," Haley said. "It takes some time to really get to know a guy and what makes him tick. And training camp is when a lot of that really starts to come together."
• Get Wallace signed. The Steelers are still very interested in securing him long-term, and once Wallace comes to grips with the fact that $10 million a season is his price point, that will get done. Extending his absence into the regular season doesn't make sense. In the meantime Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders can hold down the receiver spot, but several Steelers players told me that without Wallace there to take the top off the defense, they aren't the same. Until Wallace reports to camp, there will be no further negotiations.
• Young blood. Much is made about the Steelers' age on defense, and it's true Troy Polamalu, James Harrison, Brett Keisel and Casey Hampton aren't getting any younger. But this team always drafts well and feels good about the next wave of youngsters, including Ziggy Hood, Cameron Heyward, Stevenson Sylvester and Chris Carter. General manager Kevin Colbert says he can see Heyward, a top pick in 2010, spelling Keisel, and Carter "is more comfortable now doing the things he has to do as a linebacker." With LaMarr Woodley and Lawrence Timmons in their prime, the linebacker group will be just fine, but the veterans are getting plenty of rest at this camp, which means ample reps for the youngsters.
Running back: The Steelers are pretty confident that feature back Rashard Mendenhall (knee surgery) will play at some point this season, but it's likely not until the stretch run in December. They probably will go somewhat by committee with Jonathan Dwyer, Isaac Redman and rookie Chris Rainey getting a look. But Rainey already was being held out of more physical drills in camp -- he is a speedster and quick-burst change of pace guy, nowhere near an every-down back. Redman has the most experience but Dwyer, a sledgehammer, was the buzz of the offseason and early camp. He's finally in great shape and seems determined, with several hardened defensive players telling me he is a handful. He has had a 100-yard game in the past in a limited role and could be a breakthrough player with the light bulb apparently now on. "It better be," Tomlin said. "It's his third year, it's time to produce and we like what we've seen so far."
Right tackle: The Steelers have more depth and youth on the offensive line than they have for a long, long time. And good competition. Rookie Mike Adams, a top-15 talent who fell because of a failed drug test, is seen as the right tackle of the future. He'll fight it out with Trai Essex through the preseason, both getting time with the starters. Rookie David DeCastro, a little hobbled at the start of camp, is trying to push for playing time at guard as well. Regardless of how it shakes out, Roethlisberger should feel better about his protection than he has for quite some time.
Return specialist: Brown is now a $42 million man after signing an extension at the start of camp. That means subjecting him to the return game mostly is a thing of the past. He'll still do it on occasion, if a spark is needed, but the Steelers are going to experiment with a bunch of guys in the preseason. Tomlin brought in former return whiz Desmond Howard to work with the group early in camp. "Antonio will be doing a lot less returning," Colbert said, "and we're hoping someone else will supplement that role."
Somebody to Watch
Injuries have robbed former starting tackle Willie Colon of time in recent years, but he is healthy, fit and thriving at left guard. Having tackle size at guard with a power running game is never a bad thing. "He looks very, very comfortable at guard," Colbert said. "He's a very physical presence there for us." Again, if this reshuffled line is as good as it seems it can be, one of Pittsburgh's biggest weaknesses in recent years could become a major strength.
• Harrison has dealt with all kinds of ailments in recent years and Colbert and Tomlin seemed fine with leaving him and Hampton on the PUP list for a while. Tomlin always manages his veterans through camp well.
• Tight end Heath Miller was dealing with a minor ankle sprain but there was no real concern there.
• Punter Jeremy Kapinos was dealing with back issues early in camp but should be fine in short order.
The Last Word
The AFC North again will be tough and the Steelers are always a factor. Big Ben could be more prolific than ever, the defense was still a highly ranked unit and you would think they couldn't get as banged up as they did a year ago. Eventually, Wallace will be back, and that will be another big boost (assuming he doesn't stay away to the point where it becomes a doomed season for him because of health/conditioning).
This looks like a team that can compete for a title and winning 11-12 games is well within reason. Another Super Bowl appearance wouldn't surprise me at all.