In Latrobe, a roster showing more youth is practicing with a rare ferocity—signs of a commitment to push for another ring before Ben Roethlisberger’s window closes
LATROBE, Pa.—The Steelers were still in stretching lines on Monday afternoon when the players broke into song, and the chorus of “Happy Birthday” was thick enough for the fans on the hillside at St. Vincent College to join in.
Cut DeAngelo Williams a break, if he was a little embarrassed. It wasn’t actually his birthday, but his teammates have been belting that out to him every day to remind him he’s 33, old by NFL standards and ancient for a tailback. And you should understand too if the Steelers brass smiled at the sight.
No longer is seeing a player of that age so common around here.
The ripping-off-of-the-Band-Aid—moving away from the core that went to three Super Bowls and won two between 2006 and ’10—hasn’t been painless, but the process now is nearing completion. What’s left is to figure out whether the current nucleus, which still has some growing to do, can come close to the accomplishments of its predecessor.
“There were just years we weren’t good enough,” GM Kevin Colbert said before Tuesday’s workout, on a perch above the fields. “Whether we were too young or the replacements weren’t ready, I’m not sure. It’s really a combination of everything that goes into why you have those dips. It was a dip, but it wasn’t a valley. You never want to get to the point where we totally bottom out to have to rebuild it.”
The Steelers didn’t. And it’s at least starting to feel like they’re close to being back.
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Seven players remain from the 2010 AFC title team, and only five of those guys are projected to start the opener on Sept. 11. Only five players are left from Pittsburgh’s last Super Bowl champion, and two of those (James Harrison, William Gay) left and came back.
These aren’t your older brother’s Steelers. Nineteen of the 22 projected starters haven’t turned 30 yet. Most were part of playoff teams the last two Januarys, and many were around for Pittsburgh’s idea of a downturn—back-to-back 8-8 seasons that followed the aforementioned run of dominance.
“I feel like we went through that transition phase of kind of having a group of older guys—we still had quite a few of them—and some young guys came in and we were teaching them,” now-34-year-old quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. “And then the older guys started cycling out a bit. And the younger guys start to become a little older. I do, I really feel good about where we are now as a team.”
And that’s mainly because, for the first time in a while, the Steelers are ascending. The front seven is stocked with young high draft picks. The secondary will be relying on rookies. Everyone knows what the offense can do, even without Le’Veon Bell, presumably, until mid-October and Martavis Bryant for the whole season.
Mike Tomlin, in his 10th year, didn’t want to assess the fallout following all that turnover after practice—“I’m not trying to tell a story over the course of multiple years, I’m trying to get this team ready to play this year”—but it’s abundantly clear how much has changed.
That’s fortunate, too, given where the Steelers are with Roethlisberger. His football mortality is slowly becoming a talking point, and while Colbert and Co. are adamant that the shrinking window to win a third title with him has no effect on how they build the team, everyone is also aware that Pittsburgh won’t have him around forever.
“We still think there’s still a nice size window for him—three, four, five years, knock on wood with health, obviously,” Colbert said. “But no, there’s no changing of the philosophy, based on any of that. We just continue to try to surround him with good players the way that we always go about it, with the draft and free agency here and there. But no different approach whatsoever.”
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Likewise, Roethlisberger added, “I’m pretty sure I have less days ahead than I’ve had in the past. I’m pretty sure of that. I take the mentality and the approach that if I look for how many I have left in the future that I’m cheating the here and now. I don’t think that’s fair. I think this game, as we all know, you’re one play away. Tomorrow could be my last day playing football. You never know.”
The good news for the quarterback is that the team once again looks to be championship-ready and, even better, the heart of the roster is young enough to make you think that Roethlisberger’s gonna get more than one good shot at a third ring.
And that should give everyone here plenty to sing about for years to come.
FIVE THINGS I THOUGHT ABOUT STEELERS CAMP
1. There doesn’t seem to be much concern over the looming suspensions. I asked Colbert if the troubles of Bell and Bryant have caused him to reevaluate how they do business in Pittsburgh, and his answer was an emphatic no. “Not at all,” he said. “Look, we try to do as much due diligence as we can, but you never really know a player until you get him in your building and issues bubble to the surface. Sometimes there’s evidence to that effect, sometimes there isn’t. But we’ve had very few incidents through the tenure that I’ve been here. Nobody’s perfect, but we try to investigate and know as much as we can about players, and for the most part everything is good.” So I followed up on whether or not he’s angry about the situation, given that the players have put the team in this situation, and he dismissed that, too. “No, because we’ll survive it,” he said. “I feel for a player that puts himself in jeopardy of losing a shot at this. There’s no reason for it. The organization, our team, the 2016 team, we’ll rise above. But I worry about the individual player, and hope they’ll save their own careers.” Suffice it to say, the Steelers are putting up a strong front. And showing confidence in their ability to replace those two.
2. Haley’s shot should be coming. Todd Haley’s predecessor in Pittsburgh, Bruce Arians, has rightfully gotten a lot of attention for a late-career surge. Sometimes it’s lost that the Steelers haven’t fallen off much since Arians left, thanks to Haley’s work. Pittsburgh ranked second in the NFL in total offense in 2014, and third last year, despite playing for stretches without Roethlisberger, Bell, Bryant, and linemen Maurkice Pouncey and Kelvin Beachum. On paper, it’d look like it might be time for Haley to get a second shot at being a head coach. But he says he’s not thinking about it. “I never even thought that was a possibility,” Haley says. “I’m proud of my time that I had as a head coach. At the same time, I’m with the best organization in football in my opinion. I’m with great people, I’ve got a great head coach and boss that I work for, and I’m in a place that means a lot to me. I’m not saying it’s something I’d never do, but it’s not something I’m worried about or thinking about.” If the Steeler machine keeps steamrolling defenses, it’d make sense for someone to kick the tires here.
3. Sammie Coates is next in line. I wrote in June about the coaches’ excitement over the development of second-year receiver Sammie Coates, and nothing I saw on Monday would temper what I was thinking coming into Latrobe. Coates told me before practice that last year was tough, coming from Auburn’s spread into the pros. But the coaches here saw him turn a corner last December, and he hasn’t looked back since. “It’s not just that [the Auburn offense is] simple, it’s more that there were concepts,” Coates said. “We had it like, ‘If they do this, we do that.’ It was a fast-paced offense, so you gotta know what to do, so if they line up in this, we go. You just knew what you were gonna do. … It’s way different.” As Steelers coaches will tell you, Coates has been in the building as much as anyone since the Super Bowl in an effort to make up the difference. Months later, he’s flashing potential to have the Steelers thinking losing Bryant might hurt a little less than expected. And the 6’2”, 213-pound Coates brings attitude and size to the receiver group. “He’s a very physical guy,” said Roethlisberger. “And we’re gonna ask him to [be physical]. We’re gonna ask him to do some blocking stuff. We’re gonna ask him to stick his nose in there and do some of the things we’d expect a guy of his size and caliber to do.”
4. Defensive backs could be the difference between good and great here. While the front seven may not be what the 2006 or ’08 groups were, there’s confidence in the building it’ll be plenty good to work with. The big question on the roster is in the secondary. Even those in charge can concede that the season may swing on how quickly improvement comes there. “I think it will,” Colbert said. “And we knew that going in. Fortunately this was a year where you could do something about it, because it was very defensive back-friendly in the draft.” And the Steelers did do something about it, drafting corner Artie Burns in the first round and corner-turned safety Sean Davis in Round 2, to pair with 2015 second-round pick Senquez Golson. It’s been a while since the Steelers have been elite on the back end. They won’t need to be in 2016, either. But everyone here knows the group has to get better.
5. The Steelers beat the stuffing out of one another. Monday’s afternoon practice was the most physical one I’ve seen in a few years, and probably one of the five or six most violent NFL practices I’ve been to. Tomlin told me that, in an era when everyone’s going the other direction, he simply believes this is right way to get a team ready. “It’s a necessary part of the team-building process for us,” he said. “We don’t spend a lot of time worrying about what others do, we want to have a winning edge. Physicality is still as much a part of the game of football as it’s always been, from my perspective. That’s why we take our approach to team building. We got 90 guys out there, many of which are new; we’re trying to evaluate them. When you play with that level of intensity, and tackling at times, it eliminates a lot of speculation and provides clarity.” Haley told me after the workout that the practices he’s been involved in here are the most physical he’s ever been a part of, and he coached under Bill Parcells in both New York and Dallas. “My first year, I was like, ‘What the heck?’ There was a difference,” he said. “That’s something Mike and the veterans on the team create. I think it’s great. … No disrespect to real battle, but they’re going into a 16-game or more battle, and the only way to physically prepare yourself, it’s through having some practices like this. That’s an issue with the CBA, you’re gonna get more guys hurt when you don’t prepare them like this, because you gotta get your body ready. In the offseason, it’s about conditioning and building your strength, but you gotta go through this process.” There are plenty of people in the NFL who agree with the sentiment. But I can say first-hand, very few actually still operate the way the Steelers do, which probably says something considering Pittsburgh is among the NFL’s steadiest franchises.
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