For someone who has been living in the Diaspora for years, coming to Steelers training camp can be a jarring experience. Where I’m from, to be a Steelers fan is to be an insurgent. Granted, there are a lot of us in Redskin Country, but at the end of the day we are still considered to be rebels, strangers and a source of annoyance, particularly in light of the success of our ‘movement’. As I was gassing up in preparation for my drive to Latrobe I pull behind a car with a Steelers decal on the license plate. As is somewhat typical of our foxhole existence, though complete strangers we strike up a conversation about the team, our observations about Friday night’s game (Of course he saw the game, are you kidding?), and the team’s prospects for the season. We didn’t share names, our frame of reference was our communities (He was from Mckeesport) and how long we had been in exile.
So it’s strange to me to see the electronic sign on the side of the road on Route 30
STEELERS TRAINING CAMP
I am now in Steelers Country where what is viewed in Northern Virginia as an affliction is now normal behavior. But there is more to it than that. To be at Saint Vincent’s in August is to be at the very heart of the …uh well. I know I’m supposed to say "Nation", but the term that is burning in my mind is Empire. We’ve left Nation behind some time ago if you ask me. This thing transcends geography, culture, history; it almost threatens to transcend the game itself. As I walk from the parking area to the campus in the company of dozens of other believers what comes to mind is the Hajj; the pilgrimage to Mecca that all Muslims attempt to complete at least once in their lives. Complementing the religious metaphor are occasional glimpses of monks in flowing black robes. It gives this place a spiritual, contemplative aura and the sense that even though it is just football it is somehow elevated to something more meaningful. But more about this later; the atmosphere is interesting but the football is riveting.
Rain is one of the dominant themes of the time that I am at camp. It has been raining on and off for a couple of days now and the skies are threatening. Consequently, practice is taking place on the artificial turf field. This does not go over well with the crowd for two reasons. First, the field is located at one end of the practice facility, well removed from many of the spectators, especially those who position themselves on the hillside where the players enter and are most likely to stop and give autographs. More importantly, this is the field where rookie running back Baron Batch shredded his knee. With a number of players nursing injuries from Friday’s preseason game there is something of a sense of foreboding. Who’s next? Fortunately, there would be no injuries of significance this day (or any other day I am in attendance).
Prima Donna? I’m a little torn about mentioning this; I don’t think it amounts to much. However, I’ve heard this spoken about before and I drop it as a data point that means a lot or nothing in the future. During the stretching period everyone, and I mean every player in uniform is on the ground, except for Ben. As I said, probably means nothing. But I do recall that last year during his troubles this very behavior was mentioned by some as indicative of a problem area. Otherwise, everything seemed absolutely fine with Ben. And if any of the fans had any difficulty with him I didn’t hear about it. File it away. If things go sideways in the future then we can pull it back out at that time.
Offensive Ascendency. Watching a football practice is like being at a three ring circus, only more complicated. You have to make choices as to what to pay attention to, otherwise you risk missing everything of significance. I quickly decide to follow Tomlin. Where he is probably is where the action is, and I am mostly right. Of the coaches and other noncombatants on the field Tomlin is one of the easiest to spot (Coach Kugler being the other by nature of his head). His ‘uniform’ does not vary from day to day; black hat, long sleeve black top, black pants and sunglasses (also black). Not that black is all that unusual in these parts, this is Steeler Country and black is a primary part of the décor. But Coach Tomlin’s Johnny Cash/Paladin thing just stands out, particularly during the hot days of summer. One good thing about following the travels of Tomlin; if there is any chance of there being a situation involving violence Tomlin is going to be there. Unfortunately, relatively speaking, there is precious little violence. In this year of the lockout and new rules via the new CBA, no days of full pads, wet grounds, two days removed from one game and three days ahead of another, with two players cued for surgery while several others are cooling their heels on the sideline nursing various football induced maladies violence has been dialed down quite a bit. Of course, if any of this is bothering Tomlin he’s not letting on. Even when he’s not saying anything Tomlinisms echo in the Ether; "The standard is the standard" or some such thing. And not that there isn’t some violence, there is even a fight. It didn’t last very long, and (this is the really bad news) from my angle I’m uncertain as to who was involved other than an offensive lineman, and (I am speculating here) Casey Hampton. I can say that when people that big and that strong lose control and become truly hostile, even if for just seconds, it can be cause for great excitement.
Two other things really seem to stand out. First of all, Steeler football is always associated with defense, and defense is usually dominant within the team, especially in the early days of the season. Now it seems pretty obvious that the defense is nowhere close to putting its best foot forward yet. Though one of the biggest concerns expressed by me and many others in the wake of the Redskins pre-season game is the sieve like behavior of this defense, even with its first line people in the game. Before anyone panics it should be pointed out that dialing down the violence would most significantly affect the defense. Also not having Deebo, Troy, Ike or BMac on the field is a factor as well. Having said that it is also clear, to me at least, that the offense is really beginning to assert itself, both in terms of talent and attitude. And while they may still be the little brother relative to the defense, that situation may not continue much longer. One sign came during the Redskins game when Mike Wallace was shoved rather rudely out of bounds after catching a short pass. Within a second or two there was Maurkice Pouncey getting in the defender’s face doing his best Jack Lambert imitation. Can this young man legally drink yet? Now the notion that the offense may be the dominant actor may seem like sacrilege to some, but it wouldn’t be the first time that happened in the midst of a championship run. Super Bowls 13 and 14 were offensively dominant affairs. SB 13 in particular was a shootout where the defense yields 31 points while only one of the team’s five touchdowns came on a run.
Ben is performing well, the situation at running back is becoming truly exciting even without young Batch, there are good things happening with the O-line in spite of how things looked on Friday. But far and away the most exciting and awe inspiring thing going on now is with the receiver corps. And without a doubt the most exciting thing about the receivers is Antonio Brown. His performance was head and shoulders above all others at Fed Ex on Friday, and it was head and shoulders above all others at Latrobe. Mike Wallace may be the fastest guy on the field, but Brown isn’t very far behind. And, many of you may have heard this before; his speed is of the lateral, shifty variety. He easily had the most spectacular play of the day; getting behind the last defender, catching a pass over his shoulder and fleeing to the end zone as the crowd roared. He hasn’t taken a play off in my observation either in a game or in practice. If body language is any indication Tomlin really likes this guy as do his teammates. To be certain improvement was expected, but is way more dramatic than I had imagined. He has definitely solidified his # 4 position in the hierarchy, and I’m not so sure that we can definitively pencil in Sanders at #3 just yet. We have got to get this kid on the field as much as possible.
Folks that I know who aren’t really familiar with the Steelers roster are amazed that Jerrico Cotchery is #5 on the depth chart. Two things: Cotchery’s body of work and performance in camp are indicative of a very high quality receiver, and second, # 5 is exactly where he belongs at the moment. That’s how good this unit is. The tragedy is that it is absolutely inevitable that not one, but several quality talents will be on the street because there simply is no room for them on this roster. Will six receivers be carried and who will be #6? Arnez Battle, a special teams, stalwart had a good receiving night in Washington and is doing well in practice. Will that be enough? In another reality Limas Sweed had enough talent and potential to be wet nursed through his difficulties, not in this environment. The acquisition of Cotchery probably sealed his fate regardless of health issues. Wes Lyons is a 6’8" specimen that gives folks fantasies of Plaxico Burress on steroids; Tyler Grisham has definitely improved and seems to be a favorite target of Ben’s. But none of that may be enough. If this group and Ben stay reasonably healthy this year (and I’m trying hard not to use profanity here), you’re gonna see some [thing] this year. It will be absolutely frightening to friend and foe alike; especially if the Mendenhall/Redman juggernaut comes on line as a complement and the O-line continues to gel under the stewardship of Kugler and the leadership of Pouncey. Whoa.