I've been coming to Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, Pa., home of the Steelers training camp, for years. I remember interviewing Kordell Stewart one summer about the pressures of being a quarterback in Pittsburgh. I remember doing a story on Hines Ward, Plaxico Burress and Antwaan Randle El when they were young and dynamic and one the best receiving trios in football. But I never noticed the small sign on the main road into campus: Winnie Palmer Nature Reserve.
Western Pennsylvania is Steelers Country, but it is also the province of Winnie and Arnold Palmer. Arnie, of course, is the King, the son of Latrobe who became golf's first transcendent star. Winnie was there every step of the way, lending her name to good causes until cancer took her at 65 in 1999. The most famous is Orlando's Winnie Palmer Hospital For Women and Babies, home to the fourth-largest Neonatal Intensive Care Unit in the country. Less known is the 26-acre nature reserve in Latrobe that she worked to save from development, a large swath of land that is home to trails, meadows and a Monastic garden.
I made a brief stop Friday and spied a rabbit grazing in the grass. School kids go on field trips here. The Steelers train up the hill. All these years I'd never noticed it. Now, I'll never forget it.
1. The Steelers have aged gracefully. Will that continue? Seeing the 35-year-old Hines Ward begin camp on the physically-unable-to-perform list as he recovers from thumb surgery reminded me just how many prominent thirtysomethings the team has on its roster. On defense alone, Brett Keisel (32), Casey Hampton (33), Troy Polamalu (30), James Farrior (36), James Harrison (33), Aaron Smith (35), Larry Foote (31) and Ryan Clark (31) have all been through arduous seasons extending deep into winter.
In an important way, their cohesion is an asset, especially following a lockout that robbed rookies and young players of much-needed learning time. Still, how much longer can Pittsburgh's veterans be effective? "[Coach Mike Tomlin] understands the type of people he's working with," Clark said. "He knows he can come to us and ask, 'Is this too much guys?' We'll be honest with him. We have the best interests of this team at heart also. He's still going to bring us along in the way he feels like he needs to so we're prepared to play in that first game [against Baltimore], but he's not going to try to kill us. We're a little bit older."
2. If there has been a consistent theme to recent Pittsburgh seasons -- even great Pittsburgh seasons -- it is an offensive line in flux. The release of veteran tackles Max Starks and Flozell Adams before training camp even started has the 2011 season beginning in a similar vein. Starks started 68 games with the Steelers since being drafted in the third round out of Florida in 2004. (Last season, a neck injury limited him to just seven starts, and he missed the Super Bowl). The 36-year-old Adams was the only Steelers lineman to start every regular season and postseason game last season.
Their departures figure to leave Jonathan Scott and Willie Colon as the probable left and right tackles. Mitigating the shifting bodies is the emergence of center Maurkice Pouncey, who turned in a tremendous rookie season before a high-ankle sprain cost him a spot in the Super Bowl. Watching Pouncey rip through the Steelers' conditioning evaluation Thursday -- from a distance he looks as swift as a strong safety -- is a reminder that the Steelers will be their usual beasts in the running game.
3. The Steelers were lobbying free-agent wide receiver Plaxico Burress to return to Pittsburgh, where he played from 2000-2004, and they were lobbying hard. "Plax and I have been talking for the past couple of months," Ben Roethlisberger said on Thursday, three days before Burress agreed to sign with the New York Jets. "We [have] a good young group [of receivers], and Plax is a veteran guy who can come in with Hines who can help our young guys."
As rookies last season, receivers Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown combined with Ward and Mike Wallace to form a productive and, at times, highly prolific receiving corps. But they all stand 6 feet in height or less. The 6-foot-5 Burress would have added a different dimension to the offense.
The Steelers already have a tall, lanky receiver in camp -- Limas Sweed -- who ruptured his Achilles tendon during minicamp last year and missed the entire 2010 season. Asked about Pittsburgh potentially landing Burress, Sweed said he would welcome him. When asked about the impact of a tall receiver in the Steelers offense, Sweed says, "I am that guy. That's how I like to look at it. It's just a matter of me showing my teammates and my coaches that I am that guy. That's the attitude I'm going to have throughout this whole camp."
Rashard Mendenhall has logged back-to-back rushing seasons of 1,108 yards and 1,273 yards. He raised his rushing touchdowns total from seven in 2009 to 13 last season. And with third-down back Mewelde Moore a free agent, Mendenhall could see an increased workload on third down. But Mendenhall's fumble in the Super Bowl against Green Bay was a costly error that some believe diminished his regular season play. "I think for a lot of other people it did, but for me, no," Mendenhall said. "It was just one play of many plays." Asked if he is ready to take on an even larger role in the offense, Mendenhall said, "I'll be ready to do that. It just depends on what the coaches ask me to do and what our identity is."
With no minicamps or OTAs to attend, Cameron Heyward, a 6-foot-5, 288-pound rookie defensive end from Ohio State, spent the lockout working out in Columbus, Ohio, waiting for his first NFL season to begin. He finally signed his contract Friday. How much he contributes as a first-year player will depend on how quickly he overcomes the lost months of learning. He has a number of factors in his favor, including the playbook he was able to receive during the brief lifting of the lockout in April. The Steelers need his depth along the line. He's also the son of former NFL fullback Craig "Ironhead" Heyward, who died in 2006.
A 12-4 record is possible, thanks to Pittsburgh's penchant for winning games and also a potential soft finish to the season. The Steelers close at home against Cincinnati on Dec. 4, home against Cleveland on Dec. 8, at San Francisco on Dec. 19, home against St. Louis on Dec. 24 and at Cleveland on Jan. 1. The start of the season is a bear, though, with three of the Steelers' first games on the road (Baltimore, Indianapolis and Houston) as well as back-to-back home games against the Patriots and Ravens on Oct. 30 and Nov. 6. The Steelers will play five prime time regular season games.