The Steelers have held training camp at St. Vincent College, about an hour due east from Pittsburgh, for the last 43 years, making it one of the longest standing training-camp traditions in the NFL. When league personnel are asked for the ideal camp setting, Latrobe is usually one of the first that comes to mind. That the fields are below the parking lots and fans can sit and watch on the hills makes the setting even more perfect. Latrobe and the Steelers have been a record-setting combination in terms of Super Bowl championships over the years, so I wouldn't expect the black and gold to train anywhere else in the near future. Why fix something that isn't broken?
Even though there was an 80-percent chance of rain and thunderstorms on this particular day, fans waited in a long line to enter the training camp fields two hours before the afternoon practice. I have often said the Steelers have the best fans in the country, and they absolutely did not disappoint as they cheered on the reigning Super Bowl champs, even when it began to pour late in practice. Talk about die-hards. More than half the people in attendance were wearing a Steelers jersey, and the variety of numbers was astounding.
1. Being inside the white lines is Ben Roethlisberger's reprieve. The sexual assault allegation is sure to weigh heavily on his mind until there is a final outcome in the civil suit. Several veterans said Roethlisberger wouldn't be human if he didn't think about the situation often, but they also went out of their way to say that they don't see any difference in his work or daily performance up until this point. A couple said it seems like Big Ben is at his happiest when he is out on the field playing football like the other 79 men in uniform. There, he doesn't have to think about the fact that his reputation has been tainted in some people's minds, no matter the end result of the case.
Roethlisberger had a mixed day at practice on Sunday, alternately making outstanding throws and getting picked off. He should be aided this season by a better supporting cast, even though Nate Washington is gone. Second-year wideout Limas Sweed made a couple of outstanding catches and looks ready to step up his play this season. Rookie speedster Mike Wallace flashed the elite speed that played a part in the Steelers deciding to take him in the third round. Most importantly for Roethlisberger, the offensive line should be much improved.
2. Casey Hampton is the keystone of the defense -- no matter how much he weighs. Any team that runs a 3-4 knows it all starts with the nose guard. If you don't have a player sturdy enough to hold the point against constant double teams, you might as well just give up.
Hampton's weight has been debated the past couple of years, but it really doesn't matter whether he is 335 or 355 or whatever. His job is to play head up on the center and take care of anything that happens on either side of him in the gaps between the center and his flanking guards. Even if all else fails, he has to take care of the playside gap, or the direction in which the ball carrier is going, letting the inside linebacker stay home for the cut back. In order to help lever the center and maintain his positioning, Hampton lines up almost a full yard off the ball. That's in stark contrast to the casual fans' image of the nose guard who lines up as close to the center's facemask as legally possible.
3. The Steelers offensive line is just good enough to help Pittsburgh win it all again. The unit was kept intact this offseason by the re-signing of Max Starks, Trai Essex and Willie Colon and Chris Kemoeatu. All four are still fairly young and approaching their prime. Colon, in particular, is the typical ornery right tackle, and vastly underrated. The linemen know what they accomplished last year and realize this year they should be even better.
"I could say that [the negative critique] is a motivating factor, and it probably is to some extent, but we believe in each other and realize that we are all just in this together and ultimately don't really care all that much what the people outside say," said Starks.
As I will point out in my column this Wednesday, continuity and chemistry are two of the most important factors for success along the offensive line, and the Steelers certainly have that. Playing together for another year and the confidence of winning it all should only serve to help this group. Adding young draft picks to the mix like Kraig Urbik and A.Q. Shipley could contribute to their depth.
You know a team feels pretty good about its Super Bowl championship roster when the only real free agent of note is coming in to compete for the third wide receiver spot. The Steelers signed Shaun McDonald to vie for playing time with Sweed and others. The Steelers drafted a younger version of McDonald in Mississippi speedster Mike Wallace in the third round, so McDonald's role on the team is not yet defined. The good thing for McDonald is that when the Steelers bring in a free agent to supplement their roster, whether it be James Farrior, Justin Hartwig or Ryan Clark, it is usually with a purpose. At a minimum, the additions of McDonald and Wallace add significant speed to the receiving corps and provides some depth for the unit in case Sweed never comes around.
In typical Steeler fashion, no rookies are slated to crack the starting lineup. The most likely candidate, third-round pick Urbik at right guard, had a slow start, which makes it more likely that incumbent Darnell Stapleton or veteran challenger Trai Essex will start. That means the "rook" with the best chance for playing time early is first-round pick Evander "Ziggy" Hood.
Hood is athletic enough to play defensive end. However, the beauty of his body type and skill set is that he's also strong enough to hold down the nose tackle position if necessary. That means he will likely get significant snaps in the defensive line rotation as a rookie and then probably man one of the defensive line spots in 2010 since Hampton and Brett Keisel are in the final years of their contracts and long-time trench warrior Aaron Smith has seen his best days.
Watching James Harrison and James Farrior screaming at the third-string defense as it attempted to keep the third-string offense from scoring toward the end of practice. It epitomized what Steeler football is all about. Both guys, each of whom already has a pair of Super Bowl Rings, implored the backups to keep the offense out of the end zone. You could tell the catcalls from the veterans got the younger players excited, knowing the starters were watching.
The best part of the scene was how pure the furor was. They were dead serious. They did not want the offense to score and they wanted the young Steeler defenders to know what it means to be a Steeler. The ensuing couple of plays were the most intense of the day. Though the offense finally scored on third down, the real winners were the Steeler fans and everyone who believes the mentality in Pittsburgh is just a little bit different.
• Things are going well for a franchise when it can extend the contracts of two of its starters at the game's highest paid positions, other than quarterback, at well below market value. Both left tackle Max Starks and pass rushing outside linebacker James Harrison signed long-term deals that are decidedly less than what their peers at those elite positions around the NFL are getting paid these days. People have long talked about how the Patriots are able to get players to play or stay for less. Well, the Steelers now have the same dynamic unfolding. "I really just wanted to have some security and know that I was going to a part of a team with legitimate championship expectations every season, and as soon as they gave me something that showed they really wanted me here, I was happy," said Starks.
• The master of defensive ingenuity in the NFL is over 70 and his name is Dick LeBeau. I mean, think about that for a second, in an era of technological advances from devices like the iPod to the social networking platform available via Twitter, the guy coming up with the most new schemes on defense in the NFL is a septuagenarian. LeBeau shows absolutely no signs of slowing down. With a talented returning roster, why should he?
• The signing of tight end Heath Miller was stabilizing for a position where the Steelers have long had talented, versatile performers and depth. And even though the team seems pleased with backup Matt Spaeth, his subpar blocking performance in the Super Bowl had to contribute to the Steelers feeling they needed to keep Miller as the starter.
• New projected starting corner William Gay has adopted the physical mindset his mates in the secondary displayed the last couple of seasons. During one team period, Gay smoked Wallace in the back after he caught a pass; it was the best hit of the day, by far.
• It might be a surprise, but the truth is that the Steelers don't really talk about last year's Super Bowl season very much. No talk about defending their title, no discussion about starting anew, they just move on like nothing happened at all. They feel like they get their opponents' best every week because they are the Pittsburgh Steelers, so they don't anticipate this season being any different.