Training Camp '06 Preview

In less than two weeks, the Steelers begin their defense of their NFL title by opening training camp at St. Vincent College. Here, the Sports Exchange provides a look at camp goals and breaks down each of the team's positions.

INSIDE SLANT, Pittsburgh Steelers

TRAINING CAMP GOALS

--Ease their easy riding quarterback into the lineup: Ben Roethlisberger's motorcycle accident pushed the quarterback's simulation back into the lineup as the most critical of the Steelers' goals when they report to training camp.

By his own admission, Roethlisberger was lucky that he came away from his June 12 accident in downtown Pittsburgh with nothing more than a broken jaw, missing teeth, broken nose and a slight concussion.

"They told me that I was literally seconds, maybe a minute away from dying because I split a vein or artery in my mouth or my throat," Roethlisberger said this past week in his first interview since the accident.

Roethlisberger said he's eager to return to playing football and he likely will dig right in at camp. He has been throwing a football for a few weeks and making public appearances and will play as early as the second exhibition game. The Steelers expect him to be ready to start the season Sept. 7 against Miami.

--Get Santonio Holmes out of the courts and onto the field: The Steelers drafted Holmes on the first round to replace departed wide receiver Antwaan Randle El. Holmes got off to a fast start, but not the kind the Steelers had hoped. He was twice arrested after they drafted him, once for disorderly conduct in Miami Beach and one for the more serious charge of domestic battery in Columbus, Ohio. He has pleaded not guilty to both but a trial on the latter charge was set for Aug. 15.

Holmes may miss some training camp because of his legal problems. He already missed all but a three-day minicamp of the Steelers spring workouts because his class at Ohio State did not graduate until after they ended in June. He has a long way to go to challenge Cedrick Wilson for the starting split end job that Randle El filled last season.

At this point, the Steelers merely hope he can make some kind of contribution for them this season among their top three or four receivers.

--Don't get fat: Coach Bill Cowher has a job he has never encountered in his previous 14 seasons in Pittsburgh. He has never coached a defending Super Bowl champion and dealing with the issues that go with that, including increased individual stardom for his players and the psychological trap that can come over them.

He already started in the spring by declaring that his Steelers were not necessarily the best team, they just had the best run in the playoffs. He will emphasize to them that they were 7-5 at one point last season.

"We are going to have a bulls-eye on us," Cowher said. "You don't just pick up where you left off. You don't just get to say this was the result of last year, this is how we played, because that was the result of last year's process."

CAMP CALENDAR

The Steelers report to training camp at St. Vincent College in Latrobe, Pa., by 6 p.m. July 28. Coach Bill Cowher will put them through their annual running tests the following day and conduct their first July 30. They have no scrimmages scheduled against other teams. They have two night practices scheduled, one at the Latrobe Memorial Stadium on Aug. 2 at 7 p.m. and one at St. Vincent College Aug. 9 at 6 p.m., their only evening practices. They break training camp Aug. 24.

NOTES, QUOTES

--Rookie wide receiver Santonio Holmes has pleaded not guilty to both a disorderly conduct charge in Miami Beach and domestic battery in Columbus, Ohio. A trial for the latter charge has been set for Aug. 15 and there has been some concern that Holmes' troubles will drag him down.

"Trust me, once we get him in the fold, we'll get him headed in the right direction," said Super Bowl MVP Hines Ward.

--The Steelers came away with two ESPY awards at the annual ESPN show. They won for Best Team and Bill Cowher won for Best Coach. Cowher, linebacker Joey Porter, retired back Jerome Bettis, cornerback Ike Taylor and receiver Antwaan Randle El, now with the Redskins, took the stage. Bettis then introduced QB Ben Roethlisberger, who received a standing ovation from the audience in his first public appearance since his June 12 motorcycle accident.

--Still no word on negotiations to extend Bill Cowher's coaching contract beyond the 2007 season. Cowher has never entered a season in which he has had only two years left on his contract, he and the club always agreeing to an extension before that. Steelers President Art Rooney II said if an agreement is not reached by the start of the regular season, talks would halt until the end of the season.

--Until last season, no Cowher coaching staff has ever returned completely intact the following year. Now, they've done it two consecutive years with no turnover. Coordinator Ken Whisenhunt and offensive line coach Russ Grimm each had interviews for head coaching jobs, Whisenhunt turning down an offer from the Oakland Raiders.

"I think that's huge," Cowher said. "To be able to have the same staff for the third year in a row is big. There's continuity to be said fore that."

QUOTE TO NOTE

"When you are the champs, a lot of people pay a whole lot more attention to you." -- Linebacker Joey Porter.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

The Steelers sailed through the month of July with no personnel news, something of a good thing since most of the off-season served up bad news involving QB Ben Roethlisberger's motorcycle accident, first-round pick Santonio Holmes's two arrests and Pro Bowl LB Joey Porter's surprise knee surgery in May.

They still had only one of their draft picks signed, OT Willie Colon, a fourth-round choice.

UNIT-BY-UNIT ANALYSIS

QUARTERBACKS: Starter - Ben Roethlisberger. Backups - Charlie Batch, Omar Jacobs.

The big question will be how soon Roethlisberger can play following his June 12 motorcycle accident and if he will be gun-shy because of the injuries to his face, which are healing nicely. He is 27-4 as their starter and the youngest quarterback to win a Super Bowl. Batch won two games as a starter last year after he replaced Tommy Maddox, released in March, as the top backup at midseason. Jacobs was the 164th selection in the draft and has a funky but accurate release.

RUNNING BACKS: Starters - RB Willie Parker, FB Dan Kreider. Backups -- Duce Staley, Verron Haynes, Cedrick Humes.

The two most intriguing questions on this group is whether Parker can duplicate his phenomenal 2005 season, his first as a starter, and whether Staley or Haynes will replace the retired Jerome Bettis in the backup role. Parker ran for 1,202 yards and averaged 4.7 per carry and showed he could hold up for an entire season. Haynes is their third-down back, although Staley could get a chance there as well. Staley took a back seat last season after knee surgery in August, but should be healthy for 2006. Kreider is a great blocker who rarely carries or catches passes.

TIGHT ENDS: Starter - Heath Miller. Backups - Jerame Tuman, Charles Davis.

Miller made the position come alive as a rookie. He was second on the team with 39 receptions and second with six touchdown catches, and his blocking was superb. Tuman re-signed as a free agent for his eighth season and plays often as they use two tight ends liberally. Davis, a fifth-round pick from Purdue, stands 6-6.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters - Hines Ward, Cedrick Wilson. Backups - Santonio Holmes, Quincy Morgan, Nate Washington, Willie Reid.

The Steelers had hoped Holmes would challenge Wilson for the starting split end job vacated when Antwaan Randle El signed with the Redskins. How his two arrests since the end of May affect that is anyone's guess. Reid, another rookie drafted in the third round, has speed and looked good in the spring. The coaches have continued to heap praise on Washington, an undrafted rookie in 2005.

OFFENSIVE LINE: Starters - LT Marvel Smith, LG Alan Faneca, C Jeff Hartings, RG Kendall Simmons, RT Max Starks. Backups - C Chukky Okobi, G Chris Kemoeatu, T Trai Essex, T Barrett Brooks, T Willie Colon, C Marvin Philip.

The Steelers believe they have the best offensive line in the NFL. Certainly from the center to the left is with All-Pro guard Faneca, Pro Bowler Hartings and former Pro Bowler Smith. The right side played well after a bumpy first half of the 2005 season with Simmons returning after missing 2004 with a knee injury and Starks making his first start in his second season. Starks looks as though he will develop into a strong right tackle. The Steelers have five draft picks in their line over the past two drafts.

DEFENSIVE LINE: Starters - LDE Aaron Smith, NT Casey Hampton, RDE Brett Keisel. Backups - NT Chris Hoke, DE Travis Kirschke, DE Rodney Bailey, DE Shaun Nua, DE Orien Harris.

RDE Kimo von Oelhoffen signed with the Jets as a free agent and the Steelers quickly followed by re-signing Keisel to replace him. He has been a playmaker for them in spot roles and now he gets to do it every down. Hampton is a Pro Bowl nose tackle, sharing team MVP honors with Hines Ward. Smith is a former Pro Bowler who is the perfect 3-4 end, stout against the run and a pocket-pusher.

LINEBACKERS: Starters - LOLB Clark Haggans, LILB James Farrior, RILB Larry Foote, ROLB Joey Porter. Backups - James Harrison, Clint Kriewaldt, Rian Wallace, Andre Frazier, Arnold Harrison.

As usual, Pittsburgh boasts a strong group of linebackers. Pro Bowler Porter led all NFL linebackers with 10.5 sacks and Haggans was third with nine. Farrior, a Pro Bowler in the past, is in his prime, although Foote overtook him for the team tackle lead with 123 even though Foote does not play on third downs. Depth could be a problem. Harrison is the No. 1 replacement on the outside and has done an excellent job at it when filling in for Haggans and Porter. Kriewaldt is the top backup inside but there's little experience after that on a defense that thrives on its linebacker play.

SECONDARY: Starters - LCB Ike Taylor, RCB Deshea Townsend, FS Ryan Clark, SS Troy Polamalu. Backups - CB Bryant McFadden, CB Ricardo Colclough, S Mike Logan, CB Chidi Iwuoma, S Anthony Smith.

After years of so-so play from their secondary, the Steelers are stronger and deeper there than they have been since the Rod Woodson-Carnell Lake days in the 1990s. Polamalu ranks with those two for talent and production, an All-Pro who plays everywhere on the field. Taylor made his first year as a starter a good one, leading the league with 25 passes defensed. Townsend, a steady veteran, will try to hold off McFadden, who played extremely well as a nickel back as a rookie and saved their playoff win against the Colts in the closing minute. The loss of Chris Hope to the Titans in free agency prompted the Steelers to sign Clark from the Redskins and to draft Smith on the third round from Syracuse. Depending on how Clark comes along, the secondary could improve over last season.

SPECIAL TEAMS: P Chris Gardocki, PK Jeff Reed, LS Greg Warren, PR Santonio Holmes/Willie Reid, KR Quincy Morgan, Ricardo Colclough.

The loss of Antwaan Randle El, who averaged 10.2 yards a punt return with two touchdowns, hurts but the coaches are excited at the possibilities Holmes and Reid present. Morgan was their best kickoff returner last season with a 25.3-yard average, but he will have to make the top five receivers in order to be active. Reid and/or Holmes also could be involved in kickoff returns. Gardocki does not put up good, long stats but he's dependable (he has never had one blocked) and kicks precisely. Reed made 24 of 29 last season, another strong one for him in the notorious winds at Heinz Field.


Steel City Insider Top Stories