The skies opened up in Latrobe, Pa., cutting short the Steelers' second training camp practice. That didn't damper the spirits of a team that's ready to return to the playoffs

By Jenny Vrentas
July 29, 2014

Pittsburgh's no-huddle offense will highlight the chemistry between Antonio Brown and Ben Roethlisberger. (Keith Srakocic/AP) Pittsburgh's no-huddle offense will highlight the chemistry between Antonio Brown and Ben Roethlisberger. (Keith Srakocic/AP)

The Steelers’ second practice on the quaint campus of Saint Vincent College was cut short by a menacing thunderstorm, but Mike Tomlin didn’t mind—all the better to move those reps to a day when the pads are on and live hitting is allowed. “I’m always excited about who ascends in those situations,” the coach said,“and who shrinks.”

That’s what this year’s training camp is about for the Steelers: figuring out what they have, and figuring out if it’s enough to get this proud franchise back on track after finishing 8-8 in the past two seasons. Looking at a room full of new faces—only 16 current Steelers were on the roster for the team’s last playoff game, in Jan. 2012—Tomlin reminded the team in a meeting last weekend that the goal is a world championship.

“I would like to think the 8-8 seasons are over,” tight end Heath Miller, one of the few holdovers from the ’05 and ’08 championship teams, said Sunday morning. “There are new guys, and there is a lot of talent. We just have to figure out how to play well together.”

One vivid memory from watching practice

Inside linebacker Ryan Shazier, Pittsburgh's first-round pick in May, is on pace to be a rare rookie starter under Dick LeBeau. (Keith Srakocic/AP) Inside linebacker Ryan Shazier, Pittsburgh's first-round pick in May, is on pace to be a rare rookie starter under Dick LeBeau. (Keith Srakocic/AP)

Whether it’s doing his stretches in the center of the practice field while talking to Mike Tomlin, or taking Antonio Brown aside during a special teams period to practice tight throws to the corner of the end zone, Ben Roethlisberger likes to be in command of his surroundings, particularly now that he’s in his 11th training camp. That’s why the team’s apparent commitment to make the no-huddle offense more of a regular thing, after having success with it in the second half of last season, has the quarterback so excited. We didn’t see any of it during the rain-shortened practice, but they’ve devoted time in meetings and offseason workouts, and Roethlisberger picked new receiver Lance Moore’s brain about Drew Brees’ use of it in New Orleans. “He asked me, ‘That’s something you guys did a lot?’ ” Moore said. “I said, ‘Yeah, Drew loved doing it. He loved being in command.’ I see that same type of thing in Ben. I think it’s in him. He’s one of those guys who wants to take control, and that’s his way.”

How this team can go 12–4

The Steelers have the most important asset: an experienced, championship-caliber quarterback. An improved offensive line (now coached by Mike Munchak) and running game (bruiser LeGarrette Blount and burner Dri Archer will complement Le’Veon Bell) will be the keys to avoiding last season’s dreadful start. On defense, the new guard needs to play like the old guard.

How this team can go 4–12

A Mike Tomlin-coached, Ben Roethlisberger-led team has never dipped below .500, so it’s difficult to imagine 4-12 happening this season. The roster does have some potential traps, though: New pieces at wide receiver could make the no-huddle more challenging to operate, and the front seven in Dick LeBeau’s defense is deep on talent (four first-round picks) but thin on experience.

Now, from Fantasyland …

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1. Markus Wheaton isn’t a sure thing as the Steelers’ No. 2 receiver, but the second-year player could get plenty of chances. Antonio Brown figures to draw double-teams coming off his 1,499-yard season, and the Steelers’ promised use of the no-huddle should translate to more plays and more passes.

2. Dri Archer’s crazy speed will earn him a few touches per game. But his size (5-8, 173 pounds) will limit the situations in which the team can use him. During Sunday’s practice, he did a nifty plant-and-burst for a long touchdown run, but he later got trucked by a blitzing linebacker. Play it safe and pass on the rookie.

3. Le’Veon Bell is as comfortable taking a handoff as he is catching passed out of the backfield, and Roethlisberger will lean on him often as an outlet in the no-huddle offense. Durability is the only question; he missed the first three games of 2013 with a foot injury and left Sunday’s practice with hamstring tightness.

The starters

How I project the lineup, with competitive spots in bold:

  OFFENSE   DEFENSE
WR Antonio Brown LDE Cam Thomas/Stephon Tuitt
LT Kelvin Beachum NT Steve McLendon
LG Ramon Foster RDE Cameron Heyward
C Maurkice Pouncey OLB Jarvis Jones
RG David DeCastro ILB Lawrence Timmons
RT Marcus Gilbert ILB Ryan Shazier
TE Heath Miller OLB Jason Worilds
WR Markus Wheaton CB Ike Taylor
3rd WR Lance Moore CB Cortez Allen
QB Ben Roethlisberger SS Troy Polamalu
RB Le’Veon Bell FS Mike Mitchell
FB Will Johnson 3rd CB William Gay
K Shaun Suisham P Adam Podlesh/Brad Wing

 

Cam Thomas is a placeholder until Stephon Tuitt, a second-round pick, is ready for a larger role ... Yes, there is a position battle at punter between Adam Podlesh, the NFL veteran, and Brad Wing, the Aussie wild card.

Best new player in camp

Ryan Shazier, linebacker. Dick LeBeau hasn’t started a rookie in a regular-season opener since 2001. Barring unforeseen circumstances, Shazier will change that in September when he starts at inside linebacker. The Steelers’ defense is in an unusual transition period, but the first-round pick is earning the opportunity.

Strong opinion that I may regret by November

The Steelers’ offense will be better than its defense. Great stat by longtime Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Steelers beat writer Ed Bouchette: The offense has had a higher ranking than the defense just twice in the past 22 seasons, and never under Tomlin.

Something I’ve never seen before

Every single offensive lineman on the Steelers’ roster was practicing with braces on both knees. There’s a reason: Extra protection for their knees in training camp. I can’t recall seeing this as universal practice before, but it makes a lot of sense—long training camp practices, a lot of reps and 90-man rosters with potentially less technically sound teammates crashing around in the trenches.

What I thought when I walked out of camp

It might not be a 12-win season, but the playoff drought will end in 2014. Heath Miller said it best, “If Ben’s healthy and playing well”—and you could add happy in the offense he’s running—“we’re going to do good things.”

Sunday's practice was cut short when the skies opened up and the tarp came out in Latrobe. (Keith Srakocic/AP) Sunday's practice was cut short when the skies opened up and the tarp came out in Latrobe. (Keith Srakocic/AP)

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