Steelers ready to see if the kids can play
PITTSBURGH (AP) Ben Roethlisberger isn't quite sure when or how it happened.
All the Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback knows is he looked up in a meeting one day recently and realized he was the oldest player in the room.
At age 32 the linchpin of the franchise is firmly in the third quarter of a career that already includes two Super Bowl rings.
For years he was the fresh face in the huddle. He enters his 11th season the wise sage with the occasional fleck of gray in his stubble to prove it.
Not that Roethlisberger is ready to concede anything to the NFL's version of middle age.
''Some days I feel old, some days I feel young,'' Roethlisberger said. ''I feel like I'm in great shape. ... I can make plays if I need to.''
The Steelers, however, have done their best to make sure Roethlisberger no longer has to make them all by himself.
Wide receiver Antonio Brown is already a two-time Pro Bowler and still in the early stages of his prime. Running back Le'Veon Bell set a rookie franchise record for total yards last fall and remains six months shy of his 23rd birthday, though his preseason arrest on marijuana and DUI charges showed there are still maturity issues to resolve.
Rookie Dri Archer might be the fastest player in the league and a blank slate for offensive coordinator Todd Haley.
Even an offensive line that has been together for nearly two seasons doesn't have a starter over 28.
When Roethlisberger surveys his surroundings before he takes the first snap against Cleveland in the opener on Sept. 7, he and good friend Heath Miller will be the only offensive players in black and gold over 30.
The team labeled ''old, slow and over'' by critics during a pair of lackluster 8-8 seasons in 2012 and 2013 has rebuilt itself on the fly. It's time to find out if the kids can play.
Things to look for as the Steelers try to get back to the postseason for the first time since Tim Tebow - yes, that Tim Tebow - stunned them in the wild-card game in January, 2012 and sent Pittsburgh into a tailspin from which it finally hopes to recover.
MORE NO-HUDDLE PLEASE: The sometimes rocky relationship between Roethlisberger and Haley found a level of detente midway through last season, when Haley gave Roethlisberger more freedom to call his own plays while working out of the no-huddle. The result was a 6-2 second half in which the Steelers averaged a healthy 26 points a game and Roethlisberger's No. 7 jersey remained clean.
Roethlisberger describes the offense as a ''partnership'' with Haley, but stressed to his teammates during a meeting in training camp that it will belong to each of them.
''The ownership is equal for everybody,'' Roethlisberger said. ''I may be doing more because I'm calling the plays ... but this is our offense.''
Thomas joked the workouts were ''ninja'' stuff, one the Steelers hope extend the 33-year-old's Polamalu's career. While the team drafted linebacker Ryan Shazier in the first round and brought in hard-hitting Mike Mitchell to work alongside Polamalu, Pittsburgh's defense will still rely heavily on Polamalu's uncanny instincts to wipe out the big plays that plagued them during a miserable 2-6 start in 2013.
Enter Markus Wheaton, whose rookie season in 2013 was plagued by injury. He entered training camp in July fully healthy for the first time as a pro and the results have been promising. Pittsburgh needs Wheaton to evolve quickly to take some of the pressure off Brown.
''I think he's more comfortable and (better) understands some things conceptually-wise,'' Brown said of Wheaton. ''He's definitely on the same page with Ben and anytime you get on the same page with Ben it's a good opportunity.''
BELL AND BLOUNT: While the offense will continue to run through Roethlisberger, the Steelers hope the addition of LeGarrette Blount will bolster a running game that finished 27th in yards per game last year. Blount averaged a healthy 5.0 yards per carry for New England in 2013, but the Patriots didn't stop him from walking out the door.
Rather than chase a starting spot elsewhere, Blount signed a two-year deal with the Steelers, who view him as the bullish yin to Bell's patient yang. Blount said the chance to win played a major role in his decision, though any early momentum was stunted after he was cited for marijuana possession during the same traffic stop in which Bell was arrested.
SPEED, SPEED, SPEED: Pittsburgh is joining the expanding number of teams who use analytics to make personnel decisions, though an old favorite seemed to be the deciding factor during the offseason: a stop watch.
The Steelers drafted Shazier, Archer and defensive tackle Stephon Tuitt, who were all rated among the fastest players at their respective positions coming out.
''We have some young people who are capable of infusing some speed, but we're not going to hang our hats on that, and we're not going to talk too much about it,'' coach Mike Tomlin said. ''It seems like too much has been talked about it already. It's football, not a track meet.''
Either way, after two down years by their typically high standards, the Steelers plan on winning.
Online: AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and www.twitter.com/AP-NFL