This reminds me of how I felt during some of the track and field finals at the Olympics. There is one more significant hurdle to get over. If the team can get through the third preseason game without suffering any catastrophic injuries (forget the quality of play for the moment), then the Steelers are likely to charge into the regular season in much better shape than any of us could have reasonably hoped for as recently as a week ago. For the second consecutive week there is news that is unexpected, even shocking, that will keep us on our toes.
Special Teams Coach Al Everest terminated
Did anybody see this coming? The performance of special teams during Everest's tenure has been good, and certainly a significant improvement over that of his predecessor. If there has been any serious deterioration of that aspect of team performance it has only been recently, and not notable enough to have elicited much in the way of grumbling by either fans or the media. This is pretty much the definition of something coming out of left field. So, why? At this point it would be all baseless speculation. But given the timing and the dynamics of the firing the feeling is that there is something involved here that is generally not known and probably won't be officially revealed now or ever.A couple of issues come to the fore here. First are questions of style and control as Mike Tomlin settles in with his contract extension. The handling of this Everest situation is consistent with an approach that is decidedly non-deferential to players, the media or fans. I am not suggesting that Tomlin is being hostile or insensitive. But it does seem to imply that the 'standard is the standard' is being seriously adhered to on all levels. And few if any explanations are owed for doing so.
The second part has to do with some of the fan reaction to this. As regular readers of my pieces probably know by now, I tend to be somewhat critical of a certain segment of the Steeler fan base that regularly resorts to scapegoating; the practice of constantly campaigning against individuals associated with the team who are blamed for real or imagined team shortcomings and who, in the opinion of this critics must be purged. Some of the assessments are undoubtedly true, however many times they are not, but once things start reverberating in the echo chamber of Steeler Nation, truth becomes the first casualty. Ignorance, misinformation and unsubstantiated claims can linger for months and become accepted wisdom. Players are the most obvious and vulnerable targets, but coaches aren't spared either. For years the animus in this regard had been directed at Bruce Arians. With him gone there has to be another target. You heard it here first; the whispering campaign appears to be beginning against Offensive Line Coach Sean Kugler. Why? Who knows? The O Line isn't experiencing an instant turnaround (how realistic is that?) De Castro has yet to be named to the Pro Bowl by acclamation, fire the O line coach.
"...not so wounded as we thought." (From Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan)
In the movie Khan was referencing to the USS Enterprise, but he could have also been speaking about the Steelers as we approach the beginning of the season. Slightly more than a week ago it was generally believed that Rashard Mendenhall and Casey Hampton would probably not be available until mid season at the earliest, and in the case of Mendenhall, possibly not at all this season. Big Snack is now talking about being on the field in Denver on Week One, while Mendenhall is practicing in pads. This with a week still remaining in August. Perhaps it won't be until October before he plays, but would you want to bet on it?
Max Starks is slated to start against Buffalo this week. Stevenson Slyvester's surgical procedure was described as "minor". In a recent interview reporter Jim Wexall said that James Harrison looked really good and "thicker". The impression I got was that Harrison would be available early in the season. Remember what I said last week about the running backs going from surplus to deficit? Well, its back to surplus again, as discussion once again turns to who among a very good group is likely to be the odd man out. And this even considering the release of John Clay.
I am beginning to believe (and I think some in the media are as well) that this is not merely a fortunate accident. If there are no injuries of significance in Buffalo the Steelers could go to Denver more or less fully loaded; certainly in much better shape than in recent years. All of this could be obsolete in less than 24 hours but it is worth noting that the strategy for managing of the rehab for last year's injured as well as minimizing the occurrence of serious new injuries (as well as some of more nagging concerns such as hamstring injuries) has been very successful. Tomlin's admonition to players to refrain from discussing their injury situations with the media would indicate that the Steelers are attempting to lull the league to sleep over their early season readiness.
Speaking of being fully loaded. There is a good chance that by the time you read this wide receiver Mike Wallace may well have rejoined the team. And along with his return is an explanation of his absence that doesn't necessarily force you to conclude that Wallace is just an idiot. It appears that Wallace apparently informed the Steelers at the beginning of the process that if a long term deal could not be reached before camp commenced that he would not show up until the last possible moment with the major concern being avoiding a training injury that could harm his negotiating position. Not an unreasonable business posture in my opinion, but in the absence of that information the imaginations of many went to some pretty dark and unsavory places. And I suspect some are still there. It remains to be seen if Wallace's preparation is such that his reintegration into the team is not an issue prior to the season.
There is some speculation that the process of working out a long term deal for Wallace may impact roster decisions in such a manner that money rather than performance would be the criteria for cuts. This could involve decisions about Charlie Batch, Ryan Mundy and Will Allen.
Call Me Maybe
If you haven't seen the YouTube video of Steelers players, staff and fans lip syncing to the popular song against the backdrop of training camp at Saint Vincent, let me say that it really is worth a look. Ike Taylor in his weekly column in the Trib speaks to the emerging specialness and chemistry of the 2012 team. I think you get a taste of what Ike is talking about with this video.
Steelers vs Colts
The Steelers played their second preseason game Sunday night at Heinz Field in front of a national television audience. The game ended in a similar fashion as the preseason opener against the Eagles, only this time it was the Steelers that prevailed with a field goal in the late moments. What did we learn about the team?
Winners. As my colleague Neal Coolong pointed out, Antonio Brown and Ike Taylor stopped beating up each other and directed their efforts toward the Colts with successful effect; each scoring a spectacular touchdown. Willie Colon and David De Castro among the offensive line. With the skill positions it was Jonathan Dwyer, David Gilreath and Jerrod Johnson improved significantly in his second effort. On defense Steve McLendon continued in beast mode, while Cortez Allen, Adrian Robinson and LaMarr Woodley also impressed. Danny Hrapmann made some friends.
Losers. The big losers were Mike Adams and Kelvin Beachum, both of whom seemed to have taken a step backward.
A federal lawsuit was dismissed when a company that was producing Italian language Terrible Towel knockoffs agreed to cease production and sale of these items. The Steelers and the AVS (Allegheny Valley School) Foundation lodged the complaint. The late Myron Cope arranged for all proceeds of sales of Terrible Towels to go to AVS, who serves intellectual and developmentally disabled individuals.
It is a testament to the depth and the quality of depth on the Steelers roster that the team is facing hard decisions with all position groups as cuts loom. In probably every area Pittsburgh will likely have to cast reliable veterans and promising prospects, hopefully to the practice squad and in some cases on to the street altogether. Normally, the loss of tight end David Johnson and running back John Clay to injury would be considered unalloyed disasters, but in the current environment the upside is that it helps to resolve a logjam in the crowded races for roster spots among the two position groups. Beyond some short term depth issues due to injuries, the issue of weakness or inadequate talent that might have characterized the situation with the offensive line or defensive backs as recently as last summer is not part of the discussion this year. Consider who is on the bubble with the following position groups:
Quarterback: Charlie Batch, Jerrod Johnson (possibly Byron Leftwich)
Running Back: Baron Batch, Jason Ford
Wide Receiver: Tyler Beiler, Tony Clemons, David Gilreath, Marquis Maze, Derrick Williams
Tight End: Jamie McCoy, David :Paulson, Justin Peelle
Offensive Line: Trai Essex, Ryan Lee, Kelvin Beachum, Kyle Jolly, Chris Scott
Defensive Line: Corbin Bryant, Al Woods
Linebacker: Mortty Ivy, Brandon Johnson, Adrian Robinson, Marshall McFadden
Cornerback: Terrence Frederick, Josh Victorian, Walter McFadden
Safeties: Myron Rolle, Robert Golden, Will Allen, Da'Mon Cromartie-Smith, Ryan Mundy
Kicker: Shaun Suisham, Danny Hrapmann
Punter: Jeremy Kapinos, Drew Butler
Difficult choices. How valuable will each and everyone of those 53 helmets be this season?
According to ESPN Harrison was voted by 67 percent of NFL players as being the most terrifying player in the league. Second place? Ray Lewis with 10 percent of the vote.
Technology changes in the NFL
If you're something of a stat geek, and even if you're not, you may be intrigued by the coming technological innovations that Bill Barnwell highlights at Grantland.com.