At postcard-perfect Latrobe, Pa., where these fans of Steeler Nation have squeezed into the stands at Chuck Noll Field, scattered across the hills of idyllic St. Vincent College and lined up along the perimeter of the practice fields on a sultry 90-degree afternoon to watch the Rashard Mendenhall- and Mike Wallace-less Steelers. This is football heaven. Quick impressions from one packed day in the home of Arnold Palmer: The young offensive line is growing up quickly ("There have been some growing pains, but I really like what I see," said offensive coordinator Todd Haley), and Ben Roethlisberger's rotator cuff tear is a non-issue ("He's looking real good," said Antonio Brown. "He's having a great camp -- it's the Big Ben of old.").
For that to happen, Haley and Roethlisberger will have to play nice -- when I suggested that everyone's waiting for the first blow-up between quarterback and coordinator, Haley laughed. "Look, I'm passionate about this game and proud of it, but it was always about what the situation dictated at the time," he said, pointing out that at his prior stops, Arizona and Kansas City, the teams were mired in losing situations.
It's too early to say precisely how the offense is going to evolve under Haley, though we know this: the Steelers are restoring the fullback to the offense. They'll run more no huddle. The preseason opener against the Eagles last week offered more clues: the emphasis, as expected, seemed to be on a short passing attack and ball control, which will be a contrast to Bruce Arians' spread. There's still much for Haley and Roethlisberger to work out, of course -- Haley wants Roethlisberger to dump the ball off to the back more, Roethlisberger likes to check to his secondary receivers -- but so far, so good. Stay tuned.
Redman is ready for this moment -- he talked about losing some weight over the offseason to add some versatility to his game ("I'm trying to be more than a red zone back," he said). The Steelers ranked 14th in the league in rushing last year, but Haley will have them running more behind the improved line. The young linemen, David DeCastro at right guard and Mike Adams at left tackle, will struggle at times, of course, but the Steelers like Willie Colon at left guard. Marcus Gilbert continues to get better and Maurkice Pouncey is already one of the best centers in the league. The Steelers running game looks poised to be one of the best in 2012.
The Steelers' season begins where last year's ended: in Denver, against Peyton Manning, in the first of five nationally televised games. That's the start of a tough opening stretch -- four of the team's first six games are on the road (two out west). We'll find out early just how much the offensive line has improved. The division will be decided over three weeks late in the season, when the Steelers face the Ravens on Nov. 18, and again two weeks later. Bet on the Steelers if they're in the driver's seat in December: they finish with a favorable final stretch, with three of four games at home, the final two at Heinz Field against the Bengals and Browns.