Weekend Checkdown: the top stories of the week

Charles LeClaire-US PRESSWIRE

The off season is dead. Welcome to the 2013 preseason.

If you don't know what the top story is this week you probably made a mistake and linked to the wrong site. For football starved fans this is one of the most welcome and exciting weekends of the year, not as big or important as the beginning of the regular season, but for the devotee of the game this is when the menu is prepared, the table set and the cooking begins for the banquet that will be served beginning in September. The focus now shifts from the past to the present and the future, from pure speculation to an anticipatory projection fueled by concrete observations.

The center of the Steelers universe for the next month will be a small college in a small town in the foothills of the Allegheny Mountains east of Pittsburgh. There team officials, staff, alumni, media and 90 talented men will gather to sort out their individual and collective futures. Tens of thousands of fans will make the pilgrimage from points near and far to witness the process and celebrate as a special community.

At BTSC our celebration of a new season includes the commencement of a new feature. Summaries of the upcoming challenges, position battles and such highlight much of the news of the week. Thankfully, we have completed our trek through the metaphorical desert of no football from minicamp until now with no controversy worth mentioning. Its pretty much all football, a big victory in and of itself. But before moving resolutely forward into a training camp as full of complexity and uncertainty as any in recent memory, we might benefit from a brief glance over our shoulders at the off season that has finally reached its conclusion.

A long and challenging off season

Unofficially, the off season began a couple of days before Christmas when the Steelers lost at home to the Cincinnati Bengals, in the process breaking established habits of both teams. For the Bengals the win afforded them the opportunity to make the playoffs in back to back seasons for the first time in more than a generation. For the Steelers it meant that they would miss the playoffs, something that has been considered an entitlement by many. Consequently, it was a long off season, one with a particularly sour and bitter taste, especially in the first half as we had to watch the opponent that many in Steeler Nation hate the most win the Lombardi Trophy, sweat the possibility of wholesale changes to the roster and indulge in our darker impulses as we contemplated whether the organization had merely stumbled or was entering a period of a sharp decline. Was a golden age coming to a close?

Things got better in the spring.

Summarizing free agency

Hombre de Acero put together a great summary of what free agency was anticipated to be and what it actually has been in steelcurtainrising. The changes, particularly the deletions were significant, but once again not the bloodbath that many had predicted and feared during the winter. As in 2012 the team parted ways with key decorated and beloved contributors, including Casey Hampton, Charlie Batch and Willie Colon due to a combination of age and financial considerations. The departure of James Harrison had the whiff of tragedy since it seemed to be more about miscalculation than inevitability. Keenan Lewis and Mike Wallace left for the kind of money that Pittsburgh was either unable or unwilling to spend. But in the case of Lewis, and also Max Starks and Doug Legursky it seemed to reflect philosophical changes as well as confidence in those who remained to be able to more than competently replace them.

For the second year in a row the Steelers were lauded for the quality of their draft. The players from these two classes (including UDFAs) are a part of a rising sense of optimism that has replaced the pessimism of the winter months. David DeCastro, Mike Adams and Le 'Veon Bell are being asked to make major contributions immediately. It is hoped that they'll be joined in some form and fashion by Jarvis Jones, Markus Wheaton and Shamarko Thomas. Kelvin Beachum, David Paulson and Adrian Robinson are anticipated to be solid in supporting roles. And there is hope that there are surprises in store from Justin Bell, David Gilreath, Vince Williams, and maybe even a healed Sean Spence.

While not completely unscathed the team survived the offseason relatively free from scandal and the injury concerns of previous years. Its fair to say that for many who follow the team there has been an 180 degree turn from the attitudes of six months ago. Some things have to go right. Some other things have to not go wrong. But most of us can really see how this group could get to the playoffs in January, and perhaps even to New Jersey in February without miracles being involved. But I think we can agree that it is particularly gratifying to put this off season behind us. The work now begins in earnest.

The Renegade

The brainchild of managing editor Neal Coolong, The Renegade is a new magazine type feature that is providing comprehensive coverage of the team going into training camp. BTSC is no stranger to quality preseason fare. The Renegade is a spiritual descendant of the beloved (by me at least), now defunct Maple Street Press Steelers Annual that was spearheaded by BTSC founder Michael Bean. There are some differences. The Annual was a hard copy magazine that you had to purchase from newsstands and had all the assets and liabilities of that particular format. The Renegade is online, free and up to the minute. And if you're in anyway familiar with Neal's work you'll understand that when I say 'comprehensive', I mean it. If you suffer from a serious Steelers jones The Renegade should suffice as a pretty good fix. I suggest you start with this overview, and this piece that highlights the birthing process of this effort. Then have at it. You'll find articles on position battles profiles of players, coaching issues, soup to nuts. Then you can come back in a few hours and continue with the Checkdown.

Camp questions

As alluded to earlier, this camp is going to be different than what Steelers fans might have become accustomed. For a team that had advanced to three Super Bowls in seven years there was a relative sense of stability concerning personnel and schemes. There was some coming and going of players, and rising and falling within the ranks but these were more like tweeks, a tuneup for a machine that could be relied upon to challenge for championships on a consistent basis.

Now the Steelers are considered a team in "transition". Bob Labriola of Steelers.com gives a nice summary of the varying meanings attached to that term. For some 'transition' is code for being in the process of some level of decline that signals a lessening of expectations and a coming period of mediocrity or worse. The definition favored by many in the Nation is that there will be no change in standards or expectations but the personnel and methods that achieve those ends will change. Long time participants in the BTSC community may remember discussions that anticipated this moment (at pretty much precisely this time) being held back in 2009.

What begins this weekend is a camp where every position group save quarterback has important personnel questions to resolve. There are also changes in how the team plays from the continuing evolution and adjustment of Todd Haley's offense to the installation of new blocking schemes, adaptations to the defense that are designed to generate more takeaways and counters to the read/option offense and a new approach to special teams play. Hombre summarizes these issues with a three 'Rs' approach, while I try to distill things down to 30 questions that are available here and here.

Four players placed on PUP list on first day. Adams cleared for full participation.

The Steelers placed four players on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) on Friday. Heath Miller, David Johnson, Alameda Ta'amu and Sean Spence were so designated. Miller, Johnson and Spence, all still recovering from serious knee injuries suffered last season were not unexpected placements on the list which removes them from working with the team at present but keeps open possibilities for participation as the season wears on. Ta' amu is suffering from a hamstring injury that apparently occurred during spring drills. Members of the Pittsburgh media suggested that the lingering injury in combination with the cloud that hangs over last year's 4th round draft pick in light of his off field troubles may very well place his future with the team in jeopardy if his recovery is slow.

In a slightly unexpected piece of good news, tackle Mike Adams was cleared by the team for full participation in practices starting immediately. It was thought that he might need additional time to more fully recover from the injury he incurred when he was attacked in an attempted carjacking in May. A couple of minor concerns includes Ben Roethlisberger experiencing some discomfort in his surgically repaired knee. However, he is expected to fully participate in the coming practices. Marcus Gilbert experienced some difficulty after successfully competed the conditioning run and was carted from the field. All players successfully completed the run though.

Tomlin

Given the circumstances the team faces heading into camp the role of the head man takes on added significance. Entering his seventh season at the helm, Tomlin will be setting the tone, managing expectations and making a lot of important decisions moving forward. I'm sure that some would see this as a burden, but I'm inclined to believe the head coach is likely to be energized by the challenge. Tomlin also seems intent in making certain that Ben is clear on leadership expectations as well.

In a couple of unexpected, lighthearted developments Tomlin has now joined the Twitterverse and published a tweet to mark the beginning of camp. Am I the only one who thinks that this is a medium that is tailor made for Tomlin's communication style? And then there was the report of the coach walking into a bar.

Position evaluations

The media have returned from vacation and you can go to any variety of sources to find profiles of the various position challenges. The Renegade has evaluations of all the position battles and their principles. Labriola and Mike Prisuta conclude their ten part series on Talking Steelers Football with audio profiles of the wide receivers, running backs, tight ends and quarterback.

The players

They're back and have some interesting things to say as many regardless of their immediate position or contract status move into what may be one of the more important periods of their lives. In an enlightening piece at SI.com Russell Allen writes about the challenges and pitfalls faced by UDFAs as they try to make NFL rosters. Steelers.com caught up with several Steelers, including David DeCastro, Cameron Heyward, Le 'Veon Bell and Baron Batch as they arrived at Saint Vincent for camp.

Maurkice Pouncey

As predicted last week the controversy over the hats worn by the Pouncey brothers has calmed down, but the Steelers center apologized again for his behavior and then turned his attention to the season, stating that anything short of a Super Bowl and a seventh title was unsatisfactory.

Brett Keisel

The veteran defensive end repeated his unusual entrance to camp driving a black and gold dump truck. He wanted to make the point that camp was a 'construction site' of team building.

Cortez Allen

Stepping away from camp for a moment, Rebecca Rollett continues her series on character by focusing the spotlight on the third year cornerback. Rebecca knows how to pick 'em.

James Harrison

The former Steeler is featured in a piece at SI.com speaking of his adjustment to the Bengal system and his developing relationship to his new defensive coordinator. *Nausea Alert* If the site of former Steelers wearing Bengals black and orange makes you ill, proceed with care.

Contract negotiations and cap issues

For some its never too early to be looking forward to 2014. The beginning of camp also marks the the beginning of the countdown to that point when the Steelers begin their self imposed moratorium on the negotiation of contracts and extensions. No discussions are in progress currently, though given the ambiguity concerning which players will even be around heading into the season and what their roles might be it strikes me as prudent that the team might wait a bit before determining who they will attempt to extend and the quality of the offer. Steelcityroller also previews some of the salary cap issues that are likely to arise after this season.

Concussions

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell was in town (brave man) and visited UPMC to learn more about the leading edge work being done the Center and the Steelers in addressing the question of concussions, while former Steeler Merrill Hoge is speaking to the issue at his alma mater Idaho State.

Defending the Read/Option

One of the league wide questions leading into the season is whether defenses can catch up and develop answers for the read/option offense. In a meaty piece at Grantland.com Chris Brown takes the issue on.

The top fifty in trade value

Also at Grantland Bill Barnwell lists here and here who he considers the top fifty players in the league according to their trade value. Ben comes in at 18th.

Player conduct

The league has gotten a lot of bad press this off season due to a number of incidents that that seemed to represent an entire menu of criminal behavior. Jack Bechta addresses the question as to whether NFL players are somehow more prone to criminality than the population at large. (The data says the opposite is the case). And highlights steps being taken to deal with these issues going forward.

Is the CBA ripping off the players?

This is the question being raised by some agents leading to a debate played out in this article concerning how the CBA is impacting contracts for rookies and veteran players.

Drumline

In an effort to enhance the entertainment experience for Steelers' fans the team will employ a drumline that will perform at training camp and before games. Hopefully this move will meet with greater success than the Steely McBeam experiment. And (trivia alert) if Zoe Saldana is involved I'm all in.

Fantasy

Just to show that I am not a complete bigot concerning what I highlight, Neal explored some of the Fantasy Football issues for the upcoming season.

More from Behind the Steel Curtain:

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