The Steelers won the Super Bowl less than six months ago, but to blogger Ryan Wilson it feels like six years. Between run-ins with the law and run-ins with Chrysler New Yorkers, the off-season couldn't go by fast enough. Well, Pittsburgh opens training camp today and there is plenty to be excited about.
Okay people, our long national nightmare is over. Training camp starts tut suit
and mind-numbing columns about All-AFC North teams
, supplemental draft speculation
, and Santonio Holmes's impending date with Judge Judy
are all fading in the off-season rearview mirror. The 2006 season officially begins ... now. And for somebody who writes several columns a week about the hometown team, let me say: Thank you, Jesus, for some new material. Players must report to Latrobe by 6 p.m. today, which means Casey Hampton
is still more than 24 hours away from not finishing the running test. While we wait, here are my New Season's resolutions for the 2006 Pittsburgh Steelers
I know the Browns are supposedly the sworn enemy, but this is awful. Let's hope LeCharles Bentley makes a full recovery and is ready to go for 2007. Here's to everybody staying healthy. (Even the Ravens.)
Willie Parker is utilized more as a pass catcher. And not just on screens and swing passes -- which both were successful ways of matriculating the ball up the field a season ago -- but also motioning out of the backfield a la Marshall Faulk and Brian Westbrook. A lot of this is contingent on Parker actually being able to consistently catch the ball, but hey, if Lee Mays can do it, so can he. (And yes, I've blocked out the 2004 incident where Sean Taylor featured Willie Parker in his own personal showing of "Jacked Up.") If nothing else, this will give the Steelers' opponents one more thing to game plan, and give Ben Roethlisberger one more weapon.
Kendall Simmons returns to the form that saw him start as a rookie in 2002 ... but only after fending off a surging Chris Kemoeatu. I have a soft spot for Simmons because he's had to overcome the train wreck that was the 2003 season due to an off-season diagnosis of adult on-set diabetes. I don't think anyone would argue that he struggled in 2005, but I thought he played better during the last part of the regular season, and probably played his best football during the post-season. Still, he can do better. Some healthy competition from Kemoeatu provides depth -- something you can never have enough of on the offensive line -- and maybe pushes Simmons to be the dominant interior lineman the Steelers were looking for when they made him their 2002 first-round pick. Seems like a win-win to me.
By the way, last summer I was vice president on the committee to keep Keydrick Vincent in Pittsburgh based on his solid 2004 showing. Um, how did going to Baltimore work out for him again? If he's not Exhibit A for how good Russ Grimm is at getting a bunch of really fat guys to work as a unit, I don't know who is. (The prosecution would like to submit Exhibit B into evidence: Barrett Brooks, stand up ...) Of course, if you're a Ravens fan, I suppose you might argue that Chris Foerster, the offensive line coach, is just really, really bad at his job. I'm going with the former.
Verron Haynes can have an injury-free season and actually push Duce Staley for playing time. I have a vague recollection of Kendrell Bell, Haynes's college teammate at Georgia, saying that Haynes was one of the best running backs he'd seen and that the Steelers were lucky to have him. Well, with the Bus parked in the studio and Duce back from walking the earth like Cain in Kung Fu, now seems like the perfect opportunity for Haynes to make something happen.
Yeah, yeah, we all want Bryant McFadden to give Deshea Townsend a fight for the starting cornerback job, but I'm setting my sights a little higher: Ricardo Colclough making the third-year leap enjoyed by Ike Taylor last season. After Ike's breakout 2005 it's easy to forget that he was in the dog house for part of the 2004 season -- he didn't even make the game day roster the first few weeks -- and he was still behind Willie Williams on the depth chart early last year. As fans, we're an impatient bunch when it comes to high-round picks evolving into solid starters but I think Colclough gets one more year in the system before we relegate him to Alonzo Jackson Island, where he'll live out the rest of his days on Scott Shields Blvd. (which runs parallel to Jeremy Staat Way, but intersects with Will Blackwell St. down by the Eat n' Park, where coincidentally, Jamain Stephens is the night manager.)
Some combination of Ryan Clark, Anthony Smith and Tyrone Carter can replace Chris Hope. Hope wasn't the best tackler on the team -- he seemed more interested in knocking the crap out of people -- but he was good against the pass and seldom got beat deep. There are differing views on just how effective he was, but whatever you thought of him, if the new guys can't pick up the slack, then that's a problem. I know Kimo von Oelhoffen will be missed on the defensive line, but we have a pretty good idea what we're getting with Brett Keisel; free safety is a different story. Let me put it this way: Keisel may struggle at times against the run, but he'll have help behind him; if an opposing team recognizes the free safety as the weak link on the Steelers' defense, Troy Polamalu's effectiveness is marginalized. On the other hand, if it's a relatively smooth transition, Dick LeBeau can continue to build on a defense that basically caused the Colts to poop their britches in the playoffs last season. Nothing quite like seeing the Manning Face after he's soiled himself. With any luck, Pittsburgh will have this sorted out by the time the regular season rolls around.
Rian Wallace and Andre Frazier will vie for more playing time. Pittsburgh has some of the best linebackers in the NFL, but age is an issue: Joey Porter and Clark Haggans are 29 and James Farrior is 31. In addition to long-toothedness, depth is also a concern. After the starting four, there is ... well ... James Harrison. Sure, Clint Kriewaldt started a couple of games for the injured Farrior in 2005, but let's be honest, we're all much more comfortable seeing No. 57 running around the field on special teams -- not so much as the starting middle linebacker. Wallace came out of Temple with a reputation as a player who enjoyed maiming ball carriers, but it was Andre Frazier who showed similar tendencies as a special-teamer last season. Hopefully, both Wallace and Frazier are much improved, but if they struggle, maybe Mike Kudla and Lee Vickers can turn some heads. Which reminds me ...
The rookie non-drafted free agents help solidify special teams and add depth at key positions. In addition to Kudla and Vickers, defensive backs Zach Baker, Mike Lorello and Anthony Madison will earn a roster spot based solely on their special teams play. Vickers could be the new wedge buster now that Keisel has graduated to the starting defensive end job; and Madison could be the new, cheaper Chidi Iwuoma. And who knows, seventh-rounder Cedric Humes might find his way on the final 53 if he excels at special teams – just like Verron Haynes.
Alright, these aren't so much resolutions as things I hope happen during training camp, but whatever you want to call it doesn't change the fact that the 2006 season is here. Finally.