RickVa keeps the bar at a high level with his observations and ruminations about the state of the Steelers heading into the second week of training camp. With all the traveling and unpacking I've been saddled with, it's sure nice to see so many of you guys bring the goods in my absence. This particular offering is filled to the brim with relevant insights and discussion points.
Yeah, I know its just the first week of training camp. But I think we've gleaned enough information that we can advance some ongoing discussions and raise some new questions concerning the upcoming season.
Injuries. We weren't the only camp that got hit. In fact, we got off easier than a lot of teams. The Redskins lost TWO defensive ends for the year on the first day of practice (Achilles and ACL) necessitating the Jason Taylor trade. This brings up an interesting question: have professional football players been pushed to their physical limits? With year round workout schedules, and players carrying an inordinate amount of weight I am most reminded of thoroughbred race horses; magnificent athletes, but very fragile and subject to catastrophic breakdowns at almost any time. I'm not convinced of this position, but I think its worth some exploration. What do you think?
The Tomlin Transition. One of the things I had problems wrapping my mind around last year was that the team was transiting from Bill Cowher's team to Mike Tomlin's team. Recent press reports seem to indicate that I wasn't the only one. One of the challenges was that when you make that sort of a change one year removed from a World Championship - unless the team is very old - is that you don't make a lot of wholesale changes. So the team we saw on the field looked all the world like the same team that was out there in '06 or '05. Where the transitional difficulties showed up the most were on offense and special teams. And where the issue really manifested was on the O-Line. The combination of a new coach (most of the offensive staff were either new or in new positions), a new system, a veteran group who were quite successful under an old system led by a strong team leader, Faneca, a Cowher guy. Let's not forget that all this is also occurring within the context of a new overall offensive system. The result: the O-Line looked and occasionally performed terribly. Easy conclusion: they ARE terrible. What was left unexplained is how a group that was missing one member from a world champion unit, that was on the brink of having the leading rusher in the league, an excellent passing attack and a pro bowl quarterback suddenly become terrible. The transition to a new system often does not occur overnight. Old habits have to unlearned and new ones acquired. The defense didn't have this problem for three reasons; the system didn't change, the staff, with one exception, didn't change, and the strong team leader, the Cowher guy (Joey Porter) had left. What problems the defense had could explained by late season fatigue (coaching inexperience) and key injuries to Aaron, Troy and Ryan. It is a testament to our high standards (or how spoiled we are, take your pick) that a division championship by a first year coach ( a championship, btw, that no one was predicting for us. Even after a fast start many one this site were urging caution because we believed that we would have serious problems within the division.) is viewed something of a disappointment by many. Things should go smoother this year.
O-Line. Having just defended the performance of the O-line, I'm going to pivot and express some disappointment with current practices. With Hartwig and Starks on the second unit I would say it is premature to consider the competition over. I'd say not before the third pre-season game. Granted I'm prejudiced. I think Starks is better than Colon, and I think a ham sandwich could beat out Mahan (just kidding Sean). Jury's still out on Coach Z.
RBs. Remember when everyone was so concerned about our situation at rb, and for good reason. After FWP our best hope was a FA rookie. Russell has not yet been part of the conversation. FWP is back, apparently at full strength, Mendenhall is showing promise of greatness, Moore is running first unit as third down back as advertised. Could this group be as good or better than what we had hoped for in '05; Bettis, Haynes, FWP and Staley? Could it potentially be our best group ever?
WRs. Two important questions were answered this week. First, Sweed's development curve will not be as long as some have feared. He may not reach his full potential this first season, but he looks to be a solid, maybe even an occasionally spectacular contributor from the get go. Second, Nate Washington is coming on strong. Consequently, as Maryrose has pointed out, we may have the best quartet of wide outs in over thirty years, and combined with our tight ends may be one of the top receiving corps in the league.
QB. Rose also pointed out something that seems to be spoken of in whispers; Ben is getting better. Let me suggest what many will say is either hearsy or hyperbole; soon, maybe by the end of this season he may be the best quarterback...period. And he has the tools (assuming I'm not completely wrong about the OLine) equal to or better than any of his likely rivals, even Brady.
DL. Big Snacks' conditioning issues are a disappointment and hopefully aren't indicative of more serious problems in his personal like that he might have difficulty overcoming. My intuition is that this will not be an issue in September. The one report I've seen on McBean has been very positive. Just two issues here, one obvious, the other not so much. Yes we are still thin even with an effective McBean. We'll just have to hope we are fortunate with injuries with this group. Where is Keisel? We were expecting more from him and we need him to show up. Also, Coach Mitchell doesn't get enough credit.
LBs. Woodley and Timmons seem to be impressing everybody. Very good news. Foote doesn't seem to be making it easy for Timmons. Bravo Larry! Silverback is terrorizing the entire camp. I've heard some good things about Humpal. Has anyone got any word on Davis? Kevin Greene's working with this group. Coach Butler is another guy that doesn't get enough credit. No worries with the linebackers.
DBs. The best news is that people are starting to realize how valuable Ryan Clark is to this defense. And, of course, that Clark seems to be in good health. McFadden vs. Townsend has been temporarily postponed because McFadden has been nicked. Only one area of concern; I know that Troy's injury is 'minor', but I am concerned that he may be more prone injury now, more fragile. Time will tell.
Return Specialist. Much noise being made about Drummond and why other players aren't being tried. I agree with the idea that Holmes, Mendenhall and Moore should be more or less off limits for punt and kickoff returns. If these guys have strong regular roles on the offense, why risk their availability by having them return kicks? Randle El almost got knocked out of the SB on a punt return. It is inappropriate for your #1 receiver, co-#1 running back and third down back to risk injury. No matter how good they may be doing so. Some may remember when Lynn Swann returned punts his first season with the Steelers. He was best in the league. He also was not the starting wide receiver. Once he did start, no more punts. Bloom may be out of the running, but Drummond has to prove that he's the guy that played for Detriot, and not the one who played for KC.
All and all a promising first week