May 22, 2012; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin reacts during organized team activities at the Steelers training facility. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-US PRESSWIRE
I'm feeling pretty good about doing the Check Down this week. With the start of OTAs there are plenty of interesting stories to highlight. For many of the past several weeks I've been feeling like someone tasked with serving a banquet armed only with a bag of saltine crackers and a can of sardines. Where to begin? How about starting with a story that will get your hackles up.
ESPN predicts Steelers finishing 3rd in the AFC North
A SportsCenter panel of Herm Edwards, Bill Polian and Marcellus Wiley unanimously concluded that the Steelers would finish third behind the Ravens and Bengals in 2012. The explanation given by Edwards is too much change.
I was ticked off for about a nanosecond. But one of my superstitions is that the Steelers do best when they have been written off by the media and the fans, so of course, I think this is good news. Besides, Edward's assertion isn't crazy, if you haven't been following the team that closely it appears to make a lot of sense on the surface. If you were told last year that the Steelers would be going into the 2012 season without Hines Ward, Aaron Smith, James Farrior, Chris Hoke, Casey Hampton, Rashard Mendenhall, Bryan McFadden, Chris Kemoeatu and Willie Gay what would your reaction be? Well, besides the fact that many would be dancing a jig to celebrate being rid of Gay (remember this is last year).
Steeler Nation has placed a great deal of confidence in a group of players with little or nothing in the way of experience competing in the NFL. That confidence isn't baseless, Steeler Nation isn't considered among the most knowledgeable fan bases in the league for nothing. On the other hand it would be foolish to dismiss the risk involved with such a high turnover of front line players and leadership, even if it consists only of a sensible period of acclimation to new responsibilities and relationships. In a division as competitive as the AFC North that may be enough to cost a team the championship. But don't get me wrong, I love the hand Pittsburgh has been dealt. And I especially love flying under the radar.
But most of the news this week has come out of the OTAs conducted from Tuesday through Thursday. One of the first things we learned is that...
Troy steps up
Safety Troy Polamalu usually isn't seen much around Pittsburgh in May. Normally this time of year he's in California or Tibet or some such place receiving specialized instruction in being a super hero. No one minded because the results were always spectacular. That was just Troy's way. So, it has caused more than a little stir that Polamalu is here apparently for the duration of the OTAs. The reason is leadership. According to Troy he was asked by Mike Tomlin to show up in order to help fill the void created by the loss of so many veteran players. However, don't expect a major personality change from Troy. He has been, and will continue to be more of a leader by example type as opposed to being highly verbal. It appears that the other veteran players may have been more affected by his appearance than the younger players.
And it's not only Troy who has increased his profile in response to the leadership needs of the team. Larry Foote, Willie Colon, Trai Essex, Ike Taylor, Jerricho Cotchery, Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders have all become more verbal and visible. We're even hearing a lot from Isaac Redman. What is becoming clear, painfully so for me, is that the number of three Super Bowl Steelers, those veterans who were part of the '05, '08 and '10 Super Bowl squads is dwindling. Even a relative bit player like Essex has to be afforded a great deal of respect because there are few people that have ever played the game who can make a claim to having this level of championship experience.
These guys must be considered a special advantage for the Steelers. The Ravens and Bengals have no one like them. It also appears that leadership will not be the sole responsibility of a few, but dispersed among many. I get the feeling this team will have no shortage of leaders moving forward.
Then there is the matter of who didn't show up...
Mike Wallace and other absentees
As predicted (feared), Mike Wallace has been a no show so far. But there is more to the story than that. Wallace did make an appearance at the Steelers facility last week, and among others, apparently spoke with Coach Tomlin. He also left with a copy of the new playbook thereby reducing the greatest concern about lack of participation to this point; that he would fall behind in learning the new system. If you pay close attention to Tomlin's comments about the matter (always a wise thing to do) you come away with the impression that all of this is a necessary, short term business issue that will be fully resolved eventually with little long term impact. As others have said, Wallace has few options beyond negotiating a long term deal in good faith or simply signing his tender. At present he appears to be a hostage to his agent's strategy, whatever that might be. Please leave me out of the ongoing effort at character assassination as it references Wallace. I think he'll be back in the fold sooner rather than later and we'll be glad to have him.
Three draftees (Adams, DeCastro and Ta'amu) are unable to participate due to rules relating to when they graduate. Have you wondered what it must be like for these three guys, bouncing off the walls while their new teammates are practicing and bonding? A few players missed one or more of the practices due to personal or other issues and several others were present but didn't participate because of injury concerns, but it doesn't appear that anyone simply blew the activity off. A good thing.
Redman spills the beans concerning the Haley offense
A couple of weeks ago we didn't know anything about the new Steelers offense. Details have begun to emerge as the players have been candid about their reaction to the opportunities and challenges that the new system contains. Steeler running back Isaac Redman revealed that a fullback would be part of Haley offensive system. He went further to say that David Johnson has been ‘transferred' from the tight ends room to the running back room. In other words, he is now officially a fullback. Taking in consideration Redman's comments and those made by Manny Sanders we can expect more of a play action focus with the offense in the coming months.
And speaking of running backs...
Mendenhall ahead of schedule on rehabilitation
Not long ago the common wisdom was that Rashard Mendenhall would not be a significant part of the team equation this year. That was fine with the anti-Mendy faction of Steeler Nation. Between rehab and his contract we had seen the last of Mendenhall, and good riddance. We have adequate replacements, or so we have come to believe. Redman had a good game against the Broncos (let's not think about that little fumble fest he had in Cleveland), Dwyer has had one really good run, as has Clay. Baron Batch hasn't had a carry in a preseason game yet let alone the regular season, neither has Chris Rainey.
This is not to trash the running back corps. I'm as optimistic about their potential as anyone. But let us not forget that it is just potential that we are talking about so far. None of these backs have proven that they can fulfill the running needs of a professional franchise over the course of a sixteen game season, plus playoffs. And how come Mendy doesn't get much in the way of slack relative to the performance of the offensive line? Who says that he doesn't gain 2,000 yards behind this new group?
It's not clear exactly when Mendenhall will be back, but it is clear that he is determined to return to the line up sooner rather than later. For some of us that's good news.
Ben vs. Haley
Or so you would think. This stinks of a made up controversy, quite frankly. On the NFL Network and on this site folks are taking bets as to when these two will have their first on the field scrap. But as a commentator pointed out, regardless of what Ben thinks or what Haley does at the end of the day Tomlin is in charge. And how much BS do you think he's going to tolerate? Do you really think he's going to let this turn into a circus?
Watching the team get a handle on this new offense will be fascinating to watch. It will be a particular challenge for Ben (and all the quarterbacks) because, obviously, their understanding has to be so much greater. As such I am more inclined to take Ben at his word rather than to think that every utterance is some veiled reference to his displeasure with the new system. Whether or not the new system suppresses Ben's natural gifts remains to be seen, but should not be anticipated for the mere fact that it is no one's interest to do so. In the meantime people have to sell newspapers and advertising.
Harrison vs. Goodell
James Harrison has weighed in on the lawsuit filed by Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma against NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. Deebo characterized the suit as a "win-win" for the players. He also questioned the relative health benefits of the mandatory use of knee and thigh pads. As Neal Coolong has pointed out in his post on the subject this has become an intriguing little war being conducted by Harrison against an authority figure that has in the past shown the ability and the will to make Harrison's life somewhat miserable from a football standpoint. While Harrison will not win any awards for tact or diplomacy, he has the advantage of being right (imo) more often than not.
With the player safety concerns, legal actions and media attention increasing don't expect this little war to end any time soon. Many fans wish that Harrison would be more discrete (as in ‘Shut the Hell up!') probably fearing that he will incur Goodell's wrath in the form of a suspension at an inopportune time. Deebo clearly doesn't care.
Lewis, Allen and the secondary
Cornerback Keenan Lewis has swept past the issue of whether or not he will earn a starting position at cornerback and is expressing his ambition to make the Pro Bowl. Having such a goal certainly makes sense in light of the fact that it would have him keep pace with his childhood friend Mike Wallace. The fact that he is also in a contract year would be a factor too. Nothing wrong with aiming high.
Cortez Allen was also in the news. It appears that the nickel back position is his to lose. I am impressed with the progress of both Lewis and Allen, but I would write those names down in pencil until Curtis Brown is heard from. We are watching with interest to see if Carnell Lake's unit can build upon the momentum they created last year. At the moment confidence doesn't seem to be a problem.
Marcus Gilbert and the offensive line
The goal for Mike Tomlin and his staff at this point of the season is to create competition within the team to challenge and facilitate the development of the players, plus to determine who has the will to step up when it matters during the season. People have been penciling in Gilbert in the right tackle slot on the offensive line, but Gilbert has not entirely abandoned his desire to play the left tackle position. This is a reminder that this unit is very much a work in progress at this point. The only thing close to certain at this point is that, barring injury, Pouncey will start at Center. Everything else is up for grabs.
There are reports that, like Hines Ward before him, James Farrior is considering retirement. Hopefully, he will receive the recognition that he deserves if he goes through with that decision.
It has been such a big news week that these items get only a one line mention.
The NFL Owners have ruled that the wearing of hip, thigh and knee pads are now mandatory for its players. Hines Ward's victory lap continues as he was honored this week by the Governor of Pennsylvania and the Commonwealth Legislature. The NFLPA has accused the NFL of collusion in setting an unofficial salary cap for the 2010 season. New York Giants wide receiver Hakeem Nicks broke his foot during OTAs yesterday. Art Rooney II was honored this week by the Pittsburgh Public Theater.
Have a great Memorial Day Weekend everyone.