Almost there

It's been a long two months, but real live football is almost here. Ryan Wilson takes a look at the issues facing the 2007 Steelers.

God, this is taking forever. The Pittsburgh Steelers start training camp in just over a week, and it seems more like two years than two months since they wrapped up minicamp. In that time, absolutely nothing has happened. Sure, Troy Polamalu and LaMarr Woodley might be close to signing new deals, but we're relegated to celebrating the possibilities at this point. Ugh.

On the other hand, I suppose we should all be thankful for a quiet summer; Ben Roethlisberger's head is still attached to his body, Joey Porter's off-field issues are now Cam Cameron's problem, and we don't even have to speculate about Bill Cowher's future with the team (although, we can certainly speculate about his future with other teams ... and that reality show). So hooray for boringness, I guess.

You know, it didn't use to always be like this; growing up, I spent my summers playing sports. I also loved the NFL, Major League Baseball and NCAA basketball equally, so something always had my attention. When one sport ended, another was just starting. It was perfect. In the 20 years since I left Little League (jeebus, that's depressing to write), my allegiances have changed. The NFL is far and away my favorite sport, with NCAA basketball and MLB a distant second. And you know what, professional golf is probably 2A. Yep, it's come to that.

In some sense, I feel guilty for wishing July would get the hell out of the way so we can christen another NFL season. But summer was a lot more fun when it included the word "vacation" after it. As an adult (chronologically, anyway), the only difference between July and January is that it's routinely 95 degrees with 99 percent humidity in July ... AND THERE'S NO FOOTBALL. Oh, and I'm expected to go to work everyday too.

Ten years ago, before the Internets became a fundamental part of our existence -- like breathing -- we did things like attend barbecues. (Because I never wanted to miss seeing my one uncle get so drunk that he'd inevitably throw up in the pool. Oh, and for the awesome hamburgers. Either way, good times.) Now, like zombies, we stare at our computer monitors waiting for our RSS aggregator to give us something -- anything -- football-related that might satiate us for one more day ... all while pretending to do our day job.

Or maybe that's just me.

Whatever, it doesn't matter now: we're down the home stretch, I can see the light at the end of the tunnel, I'll be comin' 'round the mountain, and any other hackneyed expression that conveys my relief that training camp is almost here. That's right folks, football is this close. Along with every new football season, comes the myriad questions, concerns and, let's be frank, skepticism of an entire fan base. A fan base, by the way, that's had the entire summer to ponder such weighty issues. Since I'm a fan, it only makes sense to get in on the discussion. So let's hop to it; the biggest issues for the Pittsburgh Steelers heading into the 2007 season, in reverse order of importance:

* 3-4 or 4-3? Just kidding. Everybody knows the Steelers will make an official announcement prior to the Hall of Fame game.

* Willie Parker's Helpers. Parker showed that he could do most of the heavy lifting last season, but just because he proved capable doesn't mean Pittsburgh should run him into the ground (right Larry Johnson?). Some fans panned the Matt Spaeth pick and wanted Tony Hunt specifically for the big-back role. The Steelers weren't sold on Hunt, and for now, we'll have to take their word for it. Personally, I'm plenty happy with Najeh Davenport, Verron Haynes, Kevan Barlow and hell, maybe even Gary Russell fighting for the job(s). The biggest issue -- and this is always the biggest issue -- is injuries. Davenport, Haynes and Barlow have all struggled to stay healthy during their careers, and anything that means additional work for Parker is bad for the Steelers.

* Bruce Arians' Scheme. Arians plans on opening things up a bit, but not so much that you don't recognize the Steelers offense. Roethlisberger will be given more responsibility -- which I think is a good thing -- but almost as important as the guy throwing the ball will be the dudes tasked with catching it. Depending on your perspective, Pittsburgh's well stocked with pass catchers or seriously lacking depth at the position. I guess you can put me somewhere in the middle. Hines Ward is still The Man, and I think most reasonable people can agree that Santonio Holmes is on the verge of being really special (and he's already better than Antwaan Randle El, at least as a wideout). Tight end Heath Miller is also a legit threat, one that hopefully will be targeted more often in '07. But after that, well, who knows, really?

Cedrick Wilson is reliable, but in much the same way my high school hoopty -- a 1980 Honda Civic hatchback with 200,000 miles - was reliable. Yeah, it would do the job, but it wasn't pretty, and you always found yourself looking at other cars and daydreaming about an upgrade.

Nate Washington enters his third season, but we've all spotted him a redshirt year, so it's basically Year 2. What can we expect? No idea, but hopefully he'll be a lot more consistent. Don't forget, he started strong last season -- he had that nifty touchdown catch against the Dolphins in the opener -- but he was uneven for most of the next 16 weeks. Still -- and I have to remind myself of this -- he ranked 33rd among all wide receivers in total value ahead of Laveranues Coles, Donald Driver and some dude named Plaxico Burress. It's the 51 percent catch rate he needs to work on, however. (By comparison, Holmes caught 57 percent of the passes thrown in his direction, and Ward caught 59 percent. By the way, 2006 was an off-year for Ward, he caught 61% in '05, 75 percent in '04, and 61 percent during that dreadful '03 season.)

Aside from the Wilson/Washington battle for No. 3, Willie Reid's status will be The Question of training camp for this unit. He only played in one game last year before breaking his foot, and he missed minicamp in May because of another foot injury. During his rookie training camp, he was a nice little pass-catching surprise, but if he can't go again this fall, he'll be missed more for his return abilities. Which reminds me...

* Losing Sean Morey (a.k.a. Special Teams). Honestly, can this team -- any team, really -- rebound from losing Sean Morey? Not only is he a valuable seventh receiver, he's a fourth-string kick returner who can also play on the coverage teams. Okay, I'm kidding. I liked Morey and thought he was an important cog in the special teams machine, though not important enough to garner a hefty salary bump -- particularly given the ol' machine lurched its way through season in a way that can best be described as gear-grindingly efficient.

With Morey gone, hopefully that means more Chidi, but with Anthony Madison's role expected to expand, and William Gay also a likely contributor, Iwuoma could be facing tougher odds of making the final 53 this go round.

Compounding matters for Chidi is head coach Mike Tomlin's insistence that starters will play on special teams. At one point a few years back I thought this was a silly idea. Bill Belichick was one of the few coaches doing it, and it didn't seem smart given that (a) NFL rosters have 53 players, and (b) how often starters got injured while playing on teams.

But after watching the Steelers stumble their way through covering and returning kicks for two years, I'm up for anything. For the first time in a while, I have a good feeling about the unit, even if the players aren't crazy about the stupefyingly boring drills they're forced to endure. (Note to players: your complaints carry a lot more weight when you don't rank near the bottom of the league in most every special teams category.) For me, Daniel Sepulveda single-handedly made the 2007 draft, and I predict by 2008 training camp, more fans will be sporting Sepulveda jerseys than Skippy Reed jerseys (well, unless this ensemble counts). And although first-rounder Lawrence Timmons and second-rounder Woodley won't step into starting roles at linebacker, they should immediately contribute -- and upgrade -- the coverage teams.

* The Linebackers. The starters are solid. Porter's gone, but no one seems really concerned. I will offer this, though: Porter's pass-rushing dropped off in 2006, but I don't think he was as bad as he was often portrayed in the media. Whatever, where Dick LeBeau will really miss Porter is as a pass defender. He was one of the best linebackers in the league in coverage. I don't think James Harrison will have any trouble adjusting to his new full-time job -- he's proven he can handle the responsibility -- but the team may lose a little something on passing downs.

I expect James Farrior and Larry Foote to play like, well, James Farrior and Larry Foote. Yep, Farrior's probably only good for another season or two, but I'm not so much concerned about 2008 or 2009 because of what the team did in the 2007 draft. Some fans think first-round picks should be able to step into starting roles, and while that's a swell notion, it doesn't always happen. Which doesn't mean the pick was a bust, or the front office pulled a Millen, it's just that some players progress slower than others, and some teams have different timetables than others. Look at this way: be glad that the Steelers don't need Timmons and Woodley to start this year. We can worry about such stuff next summer.

* Impending Contract Concerns. I think the media and fans make a bigger deal about contracts than the players do. That said, it's hard to ignore Alan Faneca's minicamp rant, or the fact that Pittsburgh could lose a lot of guys at the end of the season. Re-signing Polamalu is a no-brainer, but Faneca, Kendall Simmons, Max Starks, Clark Haggans and Dan Kreider are all in the last year of their deals too. No one's threatened to holdout -- which is good -- but you have to wonder how Faneca will handle things if the team doesn't re-up him before the season. I suspect he'll keep his mouth shut and play like he always has, but who knows? And let's just say Faneca does decide to weigh his options from his Louisiana couch, then what?

* Offensive Line's Effectiveness. Yes, this is No. 3, but I wouldn't argue if you made it No. 1. A competent offensive line is a pretty important part of making a successful football team -- Charlie Frye (and soon, Brady Quinn) can attest to as much. Jeff Hartings has retired, and Sean Mahan or no Sean Mahan, he won't be easily replaced. Max Starks should have a better '07 if for no other reason than I can't imagine him playing any worse than he did last season. Simmons is an enigma; I like the guy, but after his rookie year, he's been wildly inconsistent. Apparently, blowing up your knee and being diagnosed with adult-onset diabetes will do that. If Faneca returns like it's 2006 (or even better, 2005), great. If not, well, the opposite of great. Marvel Smith, like most everybody on the o-line, had an average year in '06. Maybe Russ Grimm's message was getting stale, maybe the unit never gelled, or maybe everybody got old/injured at exactly the same time. There's not one thing you can point to, which makes Larry Zierlein's job even tougher.

* Mike Tomlin's Influence. I mentioned it above, but it's hard for a team to be successful if it doesn't respect the head coach. The players seemed to respond to Tomlin during minicamp, but that and a 10-loss season will get you the Tommy Maddox treatment. The real test will come during the season, if the team drops two in a row, or God forbid, suffers an injury to a key player. I think Tomlin will do well, but just like minicamp, that and a 10-loss season … well, you know the rest.

* Ben Roethlisberger's Health. If last year proved anything, it's that the Steelers are only as successful as their quarterback. (It also proved that it was possible to lose to the Oakland Raiders, which is a whole other column.) It's been 13 months since Big Ben's brains were scrambled on the Pittsburgh pavement, but he'll have to answer questions about his readiness until he proves he's back to his pre-accident form. We can all agree he looked atrocious for much of the first half of the season, but the 6-2 finish ended an otherwise tumultuous year on a high note.

After watching Roethlisberger dazzle during my three-day training camp visit last summer, I thought he would pick up right where he left off in '05. Not quite. I'd like to confidently proclaim he'll be super dreamy this year, but I'd just be making stuff up. Do I think he'll be better? Sure. But after the 2006 season, I'm not quite ready to anoint anybody anything just yet. It'll take at least three training camp practices for me to start crownin' some asses around here.


Steel City Insider Top Stories

\r\n\r\n\r\nGod, this is taking forever. The Pittsburgh Steelers start training camp in just over a week, and it seems more like two years than two months since they wrapped up minicamp. In that time, absolutely nothing has happened. Sure, Troy Polamalu and LaMarr Woodley might be close to signing new deals, but we're relegated to celebrating the possibilities at this point. Ugh.

On the other hand, I suppose we should all be thankful for a quiet summer; Ben Roethlisberger's head is still attached to his body, Joey Porter's off-field issues are now Cam Cameron's problem, and we don't even have to speculate about Bill Cowher's future with the team (although, we can certainly speculate about his future with other teams ... and that reality show). So hooray for boringness, I guess.

You know, it didn't use to always be like this; growing up, I spent my summers playing sports. I also loved the NFL, Major League Baseball and NCAA basketball equally, so something always had my attention. When one sport ended, another was just starting. It was perfect. In the 20 years since I left Little League (jeebus, that's depressing to write), my allegiances have changed. The NFL is far and away my favorite sport, with NCAA basketball and MLB a distant second. And you know what, professional golf is probably 2A. Yep, it's come to that.

In some sense, I feel guilty for wishing July would get the hell out of the way so we can christen another NFL season. But summer was a lot more fun when it included the word \"vacation\" after it. As an adult (chronologically, anyway), the only difference between July and January is that it's routinely 95 degrees with 99 percent humidity in July ... AND THERE'S NO FOOTBALL. Oh, and I'm expected to go to work everyday too.

Ten years ago, before the Internets became a fundamental part of our existence -- like breathing -- we did things like attend barbecues. (Because I never wanted to miss seeing my one uncle get so drunk that he'd inevitably throw up in the pool. Oh, and for the awesome hamburgers. Either way, good times.) Now, like zombies, we stare at our computer monitors waiting for our RSS aggregator to give us something -- anything -- football-related that might satiate us for one more day ... all while pretending to do our day job.

Or maybe that's just me.

Whatever, it doesn't matter now: we're down the home stretch, I can see the light at the end of the tunnel, I'll be comin' 'round the mountain, and any other hackneyed expression that conveys my relief that training camp is almost here. That's right folks, football is this close. Along with every new football season, comes the myriad questions, concerns and, let's be frank, skepticism of an entire fan base. A fan base, by the way, that's had the entire summer to ponder such weighty issues. Since I'm a fan, it only makes sense to get in on the discussion. So let's hop to it; the biggest issues for the Pittsburgh Steelers heading into the 2007 season, in reverse order of importance:

* 3-4 or 4-3? Just kidding. Everybody knows the Steelers will make an official announcement prior to the Hall of Fame game.

* Willie Parker's Helpers. Parker showed that he could do most of the heavy lifting last season, but just because he proved capable doesn't mean Pittsburgh should run him into the ground (right Larry Johnson?). Some fans panned the Matt Spaeth pick and wanted Tony Hunt specifically for the big-back role. The Steelers weren't sold on Hunt, and for now, we'll have to take their word for it. Personally, I'm plenty happy with Najeh Davenport, Verron Haynes, Kevan Barlow and hell, maybe even Gary Russell fighting for the job(s). The biggest issue -- and this is always the biggest issue -- is injuries. Davenport, Haynes and Barlow have all struggled to stay healthy during their careers, and anything that means additional work for Parker is bad for the Steelers.

* Bruce Arians' Scheme. Arians plans on opening things up a bit, but not so much that you don't recognize the Steelers offense. Roethlisberger will be given more responsibility -- which I think is a good thing -- but almost as important as the guy throwing the ball will be the dudes tasked with catching it. Depending on your perspective, Pittsburgh's well stocked with pass catchers or seriously lacking depth at the position. I guess you can put me somewhere in the middle. Hines Ward is still The Man, and I think most reasonable people can agree that Santonio Holmes is on the verge of being really special (and he's already better than Antwaan Randle El, at least as a wideout). Tight end Heath Miller is also a legit threat, one that hopefully will be targeted more often in '07. But after that, well, who knows, really?

Cedrick Wilson is reliable, but in much the same way my high school hoopty -- a 1980 Honda Civic hatchback with 200,000 miles - was reliable. Yeah, it would do the job, but it wasn't pretty, and you always found yourself looking at other cars and daydreaming about an upgrade.

Nate Washington enters his third season, but we've all spotted him a redshirt year, so it's basically Year 2. What can we expect? No idea, but hopefully he'll be a lot more consistent. Don't forget, he started strong last season -- he had that nifty touchdown catch against the Dolphins in the opener -- but he was uneven for most of the next 16 weeks. Still -- and I have to remind myself of this -- he ranked 33rd among all wide receivers in total value ahead of Laveranues Coles, Donald Driver and some dude named Plaxico Burress. It's the 51 percent catch rate he needs to work on, however. (By comparison, Holmes caught 57 percent of the passes thrown in his direction, and Ward caught 59 percent. By the way, 2006 was an off-year for Ward, he caught 61% in '05, 75 percent in '04, and 61 percent during that dreadful '03 season.)

Aside from the Wilson/Washington battle for No. 3, Willie Reid's status will be The Question of training camp for this unit. He only played in one game last year before breaking his foot, and he missed minicamp in May because of another foot injury. During his rookie training camp, he was a nice little pass-catching surprise, but if he can't go again this fall, he'll be missed more for his return abilities. Which reminds me...

* Losing Sean Morey (a.k.a. Special Teams). Honestly, can this team -- any team, really -- rebound from losing Sean Morey? Not only is he a valuable seventh receiver, he's a fourth-string kick returner who can also play on the coverage teams. Okay, I'm kidding. I liked Morey and thought he was an important cog in the special teams machine, though not important enough to garner a hefty salary bump -- particularly given the ol' machine lurched its way through season in a way that can best be described as gear-grindingly efficient.

With Morey gone, hopefully that means more Chidi, but with Anthony Madison's role expected to expand, and William Gay also a likely contributor, Iwuoma could be facing tougher odds of making the final 53 this go round.

Compounding matters for Chidi is head coach Mike Tomlin's insistence that starters will play on special teams. At one point a few years back I thought this was a silly idea. Bill Belichick was one of the few coaches doing it, and it didn't seem smart given that (a) NFL rosters have 53 players, and (b) how often starters got injured while playing on teams.

But after watching the Steelers stumble their way through covering and returning kicks for two years, I'm up for anything. For the first time in a while, I have a good feeling about the unit, even if the players aren't crazy about the stupefyingly boring drills they're forced to endure. (Note to players: your complaints carry a lot more weight when you don't rank near the bottom of the league in most every special teams category.) For me, Daniel Sepulveda single-handedly made the 2007 draft, and I predict by 2008 training camp, more fans will be sporting Sepulveda jerseys than Skippy Reed jerseys (well, unless this ensemble counts). And although first-rounder Lawrence Timmons and second-rounder Woodley won't step into starting roles at linebacker, they should immediately contribute -- and upgrade -- the coverage teams.

* The Linebackers. The starters are solid. Porter's gone, but no one seems really concerned. I will offer this, though: Porter's pass-rushing dropped off in 2006, but I don't think he was as bad as he was often portrayed in the media. Whatever, where Dick LeBeau will really miss Porter is as a pass defender. He was one of the best linebackers in the league in coverage. I don't think James Harrison will have any trouble adjusting to his new full-time job -- he's proven he can handle the responsibility -- but the team may lose a little something on passing downs.

I expect James Farrior and Larry Foote to play like, well, James Farrior and Larry Foote. Yep, Farrior's probably only good for another season or two, but I'm not so much concerned about 2008 or 2009 because of what the team did in the 2007 draft. Some fans think first-round picks should be able to step into starting roles, and while that's a swell notion, it doesn't always happen. Which doesn't mean the pick was a bust, or the front office pulled a Millen, it's just that some players progress slower than others, and some teams have different timetables than others. Look at this way: be glad that the Steelers don't need Timmons and Woodley to start this year. We can worry about such stuff next summer.

* Impending Contract Concerns. I think the media and fans make a bigger deal about contracts than the players do. That said, it's hard to ignore Alan Faneca's minicamp rant, or the fact that Pittsburgh could lose a lot of guys at the end of the season. Re-signing Polamalu is a no-brainer, but Faneca, Kendall Simmons, Max Starks, Clark Haggans and Dan Kreider are all in the last year of their deals too. No one's threatened to holdout -- which is good -- but you have to wonder how Faneca will handle things if the team doesn't re-up him before the season. I suspect he'll keep his mouth shut and play like he always has, but who knows? And let's just say Faneca does decide to weigh his options from his Louisiana couch, then what?

* Offensive Line's Effectiveness. Yes, this is No. 3, but I wouldn't argue if you made it No. 1. A competent offensive line is a pretty important part of making a successful football team -- Charlie Frye (and soon, Brady Quinn) can attest to as much. Jeff Hartings has retired, and Sean Mahan or no Sean Mahan, he won't be easily replaced. Max Starks should have a better '07 if for no other reason than I can't imagine him playing any worse than he did last season. Simmons is an enigma; I like the guy, but after his rookie year, he's been wildly inconsistent. Apparently, blowing up your knee and being diagnosed with adult-onset diabetes will do that. If Faneca returns like it's 2006 (or even better, 2005), great. If not, well, the opposite of great. Marvel Smith, like most everybody on the o-line, had an average year in '06. Maybe Russ Grimm's message was getting stale, maybe the unit never gelled, or maybe everybody got old/injured at exactly the same time. There's not one thing you can point to, which makes Larry Zierlein's job even tougher.

* Mike Tomlin's Influence. I mentioned it above, but it's hard for a team to be successful if it doesn't respect the head coach. The players seemed to respond to Tomlin during minicamp, but that and a 10-loss season will get you the Tommy Maddox treatment. The real test will come during the season, if the team drops two in a row, or God forbid, suffers an injury to a key player. I think Tomlin will do well, but just like minicamp, that and a 10-loss season … well, you know the rest.

* Ben Roethlisberger's Health. If last year proved anything, it's that the Steelers are only as successful as their quarterback. (It also proved that it was possible to lose to the Oakland Raiders, which is a whole other column.) It's been 13 months since Big Ben's brains were scrambled on the Pittsburgh pavement, but he'll have to answer questions about his readiness until he proves he's back to his pre-accident form. We can all agree he looked atrocious for much of the first half of the season, but the 6-2 finish ended an otherwise tumultuous year on a high note.

After watching Roethlisberger dazzle during my three-day training camp visit last summer, I thought he would pick up right where he left off in '05. Not quite. I'd like to confidently proclaim he'll be super dreamy this year, but I'd just be making stuff up. Do I think he'll be better? Sure. But after the 2006 season, I'm not quite ready to anoint anybody anything just yet. It'll take at least three training camp practices for me to start crownin' some asses around here.

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