The big story this week is the run up to the first preseason game against the New York Giants at Heinz Field on Saturday evening. But sharing the headlines is that the team's relative good fortune on the injury front, lots of minor issues but avoiding major setbacks, has apparently run out. The news with the rookies is very good so far, while the guys from the 2012 class are quietly making positive strides as well. The head coach is getting praise for the physical tone that has been set and continues in the camp practices, while his coordinators continue to tweak their systems. Meanwhile Steeler Nation (players and fans) are a bit distracted as another Pittsburgh team is tearing it up in August.
I haven't been this bummed out since word came in that James Harrison was traveling down the Ohio River to work in Cincinnati. The 6'5" wide receiver is scheduled to have surgery on Monday on what is believed to be a torn rotator cuff. The outlook based upon various reports is not optimistic, with the likely outcome predicted to be season and even career ending. Plax has been something of a hard luck case ever since his heroics in the Giants' 2007 Super Bowl win over New England. But he appeared to be having a successful camp before suffering the injury on Thursday.
Though the injury is clearly unfortunate and deprives a team of what might have been a particularly effective weapon going into the 2013 campaign the setback would have to be seen as survivable. Despite the noise generated over the departure of Mike Wallace, wide receiver is one area of the team that could be characterized as more than capable and somewhat deep. Indeed, there are some fans who may be secretly pleased with this development as it will open opportunities for some of the younger receivers further down the depth chart who have captured their imaginations. It is also possible the chief beneficiary could be one of the running backs on the bubble if the eventual consequence of the loss of Burress is that the team carries fewer receivers than they might with him being available.
In keeping with Mike Tomlin's mantra that one man's misfortune is another's opportunity the door is clearly opened for both 3rd round draft choice Markus Wheaton who by all accounts is doing very well thus far (more on him and the other first year players later) and Jerricho Cotchery who also has been reported to be having a good camp. Perhaps the negative portion of the equation is the loss of a tall receiver in the red zone, an issue of greater concern given the current injury holocaust at the tight end position. Could this be the moment for Derek Moyer or Justin Brown?
A breaking story that comes under the category of when-it-rains-it-pours, as preliminary reports has the tight end who returned to the Steelers from the Chicago Bears being lost indefinitely with what is described as a 'lisfranc' injury that will require surgery. Like Burress, the subtraction of Spaeth is a blow to team depth and the loss of a veteran presence, but, after you take a deep breath, falls short of being a crucial blow. He was not expected to be able to adequately replace Heath Miller as a receiver, but would bring value as a blocker. The real problem here is a matter of timing. No one knows when Miller and David Johnson (aren't you glad they kept him around) will be ready to go, but the indications are that one or both should be available during the 2013 season. David Paulson who has been receiving quality reviews thus far will obviously have to step up, and Jamie McCoy now has his opportunity.
Other injury news
In addition to the tight ends the cornerbacks might benefit from an exorcism as well. Curtis Brown joined the ranks of the wounded with a sprained ankle, and a position that was seen as one of the deeper areas of the team is in a state of flux as new faces are brought in to provide the necessary bodies until injured parties are able to get back on line.
All the injury news is not bad. Cortez Allen is back in camp after his surgery last week and vows to be available for the season opener. Alameda Ta'amu has come off the PUP list and rejoined the fray. And in what may easily qualify as the best news of all is that there are signs that linebacker Sean Spence may, in fact, be rejoining the team this season.
The rookie class
Okay, enough bad news. Its understandable to get amped up over draft classes. But it is equally understandable to realize that many players can't live up to the hype, at least not right away. Sometimes players can't make the adjustment to the higher level of play either immediately or ever. Sometimes, like so many from last year's class, circumstances like injury takes the air out of the balloon. Sometimes they just have to wait their turn. So far this year the higher draft choices of this group are living up to the hype. In addition to their obvious contributions of talent, Bob Labriola of the Steelers Digest has also pointed out that the entire group has impressed with their attitude, specifically their humility and desire to learn. These qualities would bode well for their development as players.
2nd round draft pick Le'Veon Bell has had the biggest impact so far. One observer has said that it would be a "shocker" if Bell isn't the starter at running back this season. Not only has he made the case for being in the starting lineup but he is tracking to be a three down back as well. Tomlin will be giving him reps with the starting offense against the Giants, so we will know quickly whether the buzz is deserved.
Its not that 1st round draft pick Jarvis Jones has been less impressive than Bell, its just that he has a higher and more complicated mountain to climb. Nonetheless, Jones is making his mark early and with his ability to spike passes is drawing comparisons to JJ Watt of Houston. The belief that he will successfully join the pantheon of great Steelers outside linebackers seems to many to be a foregone conclusion. The operative question at this point is when.
It was expected that 3rd rounder Markus Wheaton would be well behind the curve because he was forced to miss spring drills due to NFL rules. But he is coming on fast and strong. He is receiving strokes from national media figures now and appropriately or not, comparisons are being drawn between him and Wallace. He is one reason why we console ourselves that the loss of Burress won't be felt that badly.
4th rounder Shamarko Thomas continues to draw high praise and has earned a new nickname from his teammates. He's even playing some corner in nickel situations. Haven't heard too much from the guys lower down the draft order, but if we've learned anything from the likes of the Kelvin Beachums and the David Paulsons is that Rome isn't built in a day. For a lot of these players developmentally its still early, which makes the showing of Bell, Jones, Wheaton and Thomas all that more impressive.
With all the excitement directed at the newcomers it might be easy to overlook the strides being made by the second year players in camp.
Peter King, Don Banks and others from Sports Illustrated turned their focus to Latrobe this week. One person King highlighted was guard David DeCastro, pointing out high expectations with his injury behind him and a year in the system under his belt.
Mike Adams has been switched to the left tackle from the right side, a move that is rumored to be permanent, and will certainly hold true at least through the Giants game. Its felt that this wouldn't have been done if there was not confidence that Adams had significantly improved his pass protection skills given the crucial nature of the position in protecting Ben.
You get the impression that Kelvin Beachum could legitimately compete for a spot in the starting five and his not doing so may simply be because he is more valuable being the number one reserve given his position flexibility. David Paulson is drawing rave reviews for his pass catching abilities, and is apparently improving in all phases of his game. Legitimate heir apparent to Heath? Fans mistook him for Miller often enough last year. It just wasn't because of his skin tone.
And as was mentioned earlier, it appears that reports of Sean Spence's demise have been premature. These nine players from the last two draft classes along with relatively young veterans such as Maurkice Pouncey and Antonio Brown could provide the leadership foundation for the Steelers for the next decade.
Performance is one story coming out of training camp 2013, another is the tone and tenor of the training itself. Characterized as one of the most physical camps since the Chuck Noll era, and certainly the most physically demanding since Tomlin's rookie season in 2007, like so much that occurs at this time of the year, the reasons being advanced for the change resembles an inkblot test, something that says as much the observer as it does the actual truth of the matter.
What is beyond dispute is that camp is more spartan than anything that has been seen at Saint Vincent in over twenty years. There are full contact sessions everytime the team convenes in pads. Amenities such as the golf carts that transported players off the field after practice have been eliminated. Tomlin's public explanation is a combination of the need to indoctrinate a group that includes a lot of young players into the intensely physical style of play that defines Steelers football. It also reflects the training landscape as it expresses through the new CBA. I don't think anyone disagrees that these are factors in determining the style of the camp.
But Hombre de Acero and Neal Coolong have points of view that would suggest that the team's performance last season might have something to do with it. Cliff Harris is still a punk!, himself a football coach published a fan post that was promoted to the front page that gave a fine argument supporting Tomlin's actions as a high quality expression of leadership. It would be fair to say that the consensus on Camp Tomlin is positive even given the short term risks of involving injury.
Steelers vs Giants
Of course, at the end of the day all we're talking about here is practice. We won't know what to make of, especially, the young players in camp or the impact of the training methods until there is an opportunity to test these things under game conditions. The first opportunity presents itself on Saturday night at 7:30. Tomlin had a news conference in preparation for this contest on Thursday morning. What struck me as an interesting departure was the generous (for Tomlin), unguarded praise was willing to give to the efforts of the rookies.
SteelCityRoller chooses seven players whom may find that this game represents their professional Waterloo. And the folks at the SB Nation Giants site shared their observations concerning the game with BTSC.
Besides the individual dramas what will also be on display may be some tweaks to the offensive and defensive systems that fans have yet to witness. Todd Haley is hoping that the Steelers running game will be less predictable because of the new zone blocking scheme being installed. While on the defensive side changes are being made to allow the ends to pursue sacks more aggressively.
To get a proper understanding of this segment let's take a couple of snippets of our own Rebecca Rollett as she multi-tasks through Thursday's practice at Saint Vincent
Way back on field No. 3, the DBs were practicing catching the ball, while the offense was practicing handoffs and blocking drills. Scarcely compelling theater, I fear, but the Bucs were keeping it real. They had managed to tie the game, and were into the Marlins' bullpen (and their own.)
Finally, the big moment—the Pirates tied the game! Oh, and the Steelers headed over en masse to Field No. 1 for the build-up to the 11-on-11s.
I pointed out earlier this week that for those of us who find some comfort in the team flying below the radar, the Pirates have provided fine cover and distraction, not just for outsiders and dilletantes, but for core constituents of Steeler Nation. The Pirates have the best record in baseball, only have to win 25 percent of their remaining games to insure a winning season for the first time in 20 years, and the stat geeks claim that their chances of ending up in the playoffs is something like 99 percent. Their success has had a collateral impact on the Steelers. Attendance at camp and focus on the team is down. And don't blame this on fly by night fans. Even the team is into it, some having attended a game this week, and sporting Pirates gear.
Should this be considered disloyalty? No. This is a good thing. If the Pirates doing well means that preseason interest in the Steelers is a bit depressed, then it probably means that the previous level of interest might have been somewhat unhealthy. July and August is baseball time. In a healthy sports town baseball should not be subordinate to training camp and preseason football. You can't help but wonder if the previous levels of interest were a reflection of how great a football town Pittsburgh was or was it simply a matter of fans having nowhere else to go because of the consistently terrible play of the Bucs, who were usually out of any serious consideration for a pennant for every August for a generation. It will be interesting to see if the Pirates can keep it going deep into October how a younger generation of fans (pretty much everyone under the age of 40) will handle these kinds of riches.
A Momma's eye view of camp
Speaking of Rebecca, she shared two dispatches from Saint Vincent this week here and here. She was much more on her game on Thursday, keeping track of the Pirates, Steelers and her notepad (paper towels unnecessary). Twice more she has presented us with slices of the life of a Steelers' training camp both on the field and in the bleachers.
Changes on the offensive line
For once there is some news concerning the offensive line that is not based upon injuries. The big story has been the switch of tackles Mike Adams and Marcus Gilbert. The move was not a surprise. It had been anticipated since OTAs but was delayed in application due to Adams' car jacking difficulties. The somewhat quick decision to declare the move more or less permanent is something of a surprise. Given the history of these two players there will be fans who will suggest, some in jest, some completely serious, that both Ben Roethlisberger and David DeCastro watch their backs.
Another somewhat unexpected development was the release of tackle Mike Farrell. Given the perception of very weak depth at this position, the move on the surface seemed particularly risky. I am in agreement with Bob Labriola who speculates that such a separation would occur if the team was feeling confident about another player. I am also in sync with his belief that the player may be Joe Long.
Mike Golic Jr. is part of a promotion by Gilette where his mentor relationship with Ramon Foster is lifted up. Golic is considered an underdog to make the 53 man roster, but the elimination of Farrell may help him in attempting to secure a spot on the practice squad.
Coming to blows
Last year the competition between Antonio Brown and Ike Taylor grew so intense that it came to blows on a few occasions. You'll be happy to know that they were at it again this week. It hard for me to feel anything but delight in this bit of news. Their conflict appears to be professional rather than personal, and it shows that neither man is willing to back down or to take defeat easily. In a post Hines Ward, post Joey Porter era I find that somewhat comforting.
I like to include a story that doesn't necessary speak of the Steelers directly but serves to deepen our collective understanding of game and related issues. I have two of these this week. In the first a NFL player relates in emotionally excruciating detail what it is like to be cut from a team.
More head injuries
In what appears to be a fascinating book on the influence of nature and nurture in the development of athletes David Epstein reveals that the difference between those players who suffer from debilitating conditions after their careers are over may have certain genetic traits, similar to that which can predict an increased risk for developing Alzheimers. This is testable meaning that a method may be available to measure the risk factors for individuals who would participate in football or any activity where head injuries are a possibility.
The national Steelers bar tour
As most of ex pats know only too well, Steelers bars are everywhere and a great part of the culture of the Diaspora. There will be a nationwide tour this season where the bar experience across the country will be sampled and winners determined. All I can say is that the list of bars in the Washington DC area is way too short.
BTSC by the numbers
It has become a yearly ritual for long time community member 5020 to assign team jersey numbers to many of us who contribute to this site. He goes to some trouble providing numbers that have some connection to the wearer (My number is 24 given that I share a first name with Ivan 'Ike' Taylor). I always consider it an honor and an exercise in solidarity. It also serves as something of unofficial directory of the community. if, by chance, you aren't part of the list and feel that you were omitted by error, I would suggest contacting 5020. This strikes me as an exercise in inclusion, not the other way around.
More from Behind the Steel Curtain:
- Steelers vs. Giants story stream
- Greg Lloyd: 'Guys aren't truly football players'
- Streaming the game online
- Roster Bubble Watch: Carter vs. Baxter
- Steelers re-sign OT Mike Farrell
- Pittsburgh is still a Steelers town
- Offensive Depth Chart
- Defense, Special Teams Depth Charts
- 5 Players to Watch
- Steelers projected as Wild Card round losers
- Video: Injury to Matt Spaeth hits Steelers thinnest position
- Matt Spaeth injury: Tight end suffers 'lisfranc' sprain, out 8-10 weeks, according to report
- Steelers power rankings: Pittsburgh lands highest spot yet