This is the week where everyone gets sent home. Across the country schools celebrate the graduation of their seniors and shut down for the summer. The NFL does something similar, though I think the more appropriate metaphor is that of winter. The machine has to shut down some time. And though certain elements of pro football's hype organism will relentlessly drone on, depressingly adept at promoting nothing as something, a surefire sign of where we are is that this is when the beat writers go on vacation. As has been mentioned earlier in this space, little or nothing of positive value will be occurring over the course of the next six weeks. So let us hope and pray that Steelers news remains scarce during this time.
If you are a football junkie this might be the time for some therapeutic diversions. As I write this it is both Fathers Day and the solstice, the longest period of daylight of the year in the Northern hemisphere (Sorry Hombre). Get outside. Enjoy the weather. Plan a vacation, even if it is just for one day. Go to the beach or mountains if you are near either. Catch up on your reading. The Fourth of July is coming, clean that grill. Go to the movies. Watch some baseball. In other words, dial it back a little, smell the flowers and July 25th will be here before you know it.
The good news
I consider it part of my job to remind readers of when things are actually going pretty well. And this is one of those times. Its been awhile since Steelers Nation has entered the summer in support of a team that has been this healthy and the outlook so optimistic. We are not without our areas of concern, but when has that not been true. In the last couple of years the challenge was whether the Steelers could be competitive. This year some are suggesting that this may be a championship caliber group. There are too many open questions that need to be resolved in the affirmative, plus continued good fortune as it relates to health to carve that into stone. But it is not an implausible notion. The potentialities are there.
The team got through the final activity of the spring with a clean bill of health and competitive promise in all of the areas where it counts. This is not dissimilar to how things were playing out last year. One is left with the feeling that most, if not all of the position groups will have players that will be left on the side of the road who a year or two ago would be welcome additions to the roster. It would seem that the standard for earning a helmet has been elevated.
Last week we heard from the coordinators. This week the head man was front and center. Tomlin doesn't play along with many of the pet narratives that emerge during these exercises. One that appeared to be smashed was the notion that this rookie class was going to rush in, become world beaters and save the team. Something that he didn't just communicate to the media, but to the rookies themselves. This harkens back to comments made by Kevin Colbert earlier. With 47 players returning from last year's division championship roster, it well may be life and death for any newcomer to crack the 53 man roster in 2015.
Geathers vs. Pouncey; the evolution of the offensive and defensive lines
The team's All Pro center mixed it up with the largest man on the team this week. This could be viewed as a manifestation of an offensive line that is proud, stable and is striving for greatness. It may also speak to a defensive line that is placing itself on a similar path. The offense is obviously further ahead in this regard, but the signs are pointing to a group that is not just trending upward in terms of talent and intensity, but also preparing to assert themselves more aggressively in Keith Butler's scheme. The idea of iron sharpening iron could be at play here in the weeks and months to come.
A little more than a year ago Maurkice Pouncey was something of a figure of controversy. Coming off a season lost to injury and the object of criticism concerning some of the off field behavior of himself and his twin brother Mike, some argued that the team would be better off foregoing a contract extension and cutting ties. That thinking is now in full retreat as Pouncey has now clearly established himself as the cornerstone of a, now, highly regarded Steelers offensive line, an important team leader, and one of the elite players in the league.
Pouncey's counterpart on the defensive side of the ball, Heyward, who faced similar criticism about his abilities and character as he awaits resolution of his long term status with the team. With Brett Keisel now gone, Heyward has emerged as the undisputed leader of his unit and, like Pouncey an important team wide leader. Barring catastrophic injury, these two players will be the rocks upon which the line play of this team will be build over the course of the rest of the decade.
Bell and the running backs
Excitement is building over the Steelers offense as everyone from the average fan to the punditry is doubling down on their assertions about the rise of this group's future. The one area of weakness that raised concerns as we entered the off season was the situation at running back. With Le'Veon Bell coming off injury and facing a suspension and no experienced depth behind him, would this position group prove to be the Achilles Heel of the offense? And while plenty of doubts remain there is some talk of Bell and DeAngelo Williams being in the conversation of the best running back tandems in the league.
One area of the team that would have appeared safe from any outside challenges were the wide receivers. Though true for top dog, Antonio Brown, whose reputation as one of, if not the league's top receiver appears to be untouchable, the situation beneath him on the depth chart may be more dynamic than previously imagined. The world was expecting instability due to the rise of Martavis Bryant and the challenge that was likely to pose to Markus Wheaton. However, at this, admittedly, early stage of the competition, the stock of rookie third round draft choice Sammie Coates is rising, with some making favorable comparisons between Coates and Bryant. Is it conceivable that the top three receivers positions are not carved in stone?
Nothing save a few high quality performances when the games count will wash away the stain of 'not good enough' that covers the Steelers defensive secondary. But if competition is part of a formula for redemption then the news is good. With both the corners and safeties there is a rich combination of experienced veterans, younger veterans attempting to rise and talented newcomers. The reviews are promising so far.
Ike and Deshea
Timmons and Beachum
Steelers PR staff
They received the Pete Rozelle Award from the league as its top Public Relations operation.