The Pittsburgh Steelers are wrapping up their first week of training camp and the biggest news has to be Lawrence Timmons and the Mysterious Groin followed closely by Santonio Holmes and the Mysterious Illness. Before looking ahead, though, I thought I'd hit the rewind button to 12 months ago, and see if any of my 2006 New Season's resolutions panned out:
1. Willie Parker is utilized more as a pass catcher. Last year I wrote: "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." Well, it didn't quite turn out that way. Parker caught 31 balls for 222 yards last season; in '05 it was 18 for 218. It's hard to pinpoint why Parker's numbers weren't better -- I'm sure some of it had to do with the quarterback getting to park in the handicap space in the Heinz Field players lot for most of the season -- but with new offensive coordinator Bruce Arians promising to spread the field, this could be the Parker's year.
2. Kendall Simmons returns to the form that saw him start as a rookie in 2002 ... but only after fending off a surging Chris Kemoeatu.Um, yeah, that didn't exactly happen either. Kemoeatu played well in Simmons' place during the Chiefs game, but who didn't? (By the way, screw Kansas City for laying down in that game. Pittsburgh, 1-3 heading into Week 6, was listing badly; the Chiefs, already capsized, stumbled into Heinz Field, took a whuppin', renewed Steelers fans' faith in the season, and, well, you know how this story ends. So thanks, Herm Edwards. Thanks for being one of the worst coaches in the league. Really appreciate it.)
Wishing Simmons well has almost become cliché at this point, but I'm not giving up on the guy. Seriously, though, I would love to know how Simmons' game has changed since his rookie season in 2002 when, by all accounts, he was a worthy first-round pick. I know Simmons has been diagnosed with diabetes and blew out his knee (and froze his foot), but how does that translate into on-field performance? Is he slower? Weaker? Is it mental? The point, I guess, is can he return to his rookie form?
3. Verron Haynes can have an injury-free season and actually push Duce Staley for playing time.And that makes me 0 for 3 on New Season's resolutions. Looking back, there was a better chance of Staley running for 1,000 yards last season -- in just his game-day sweats -- than Haynes not getting hurt. And while he recovers from his latest malady, Carey Davis and John Kuhn are getting their shot.
I'll be honest, I was a Staley apologist last summer. Partly because I knew what type of player he could be, but also because I wasn't convinced that Kuhn should win a roster spot by default. You know what happened: Staley served on sideline duty until the team wised up, cut him, and re-signed Chidi, and Kuhn landed on the practice squad. Yep, I swung and missed on that one. With hindsight being 20/10 (Staley looks humongous in that rearview mirror), I'm pulling for Kuhn/Davis, veterans be damned (looking right at ya Kevan Barlow -- and Verron … assuming you ever get healthy enough to practice).
4. Ricardo Colclough making the third-year leap enjoyed by Ike Taylor last season. Moving on. Nothing to see here. Honestly, what the hell happened last year? Okay, we know what happened to Colclough: Bill Cowher ruined his season (and maybe his career) by forcing him to return punts. Before that -- and I often have to remind myself of this -- Colclough had fared well in the nickel and dime packages.
Taylor, on the other hand, had a rough go of it. Last season, I wrote about his potential benching, and even though he's one of my favorite Steelers, I understood. But just like my buddies who played on the high school football team (a ridiculously bad outfit that found creative ways to lose every week) claimed: "the experience builds character." I was doubtful at the time and, frankly, I still feel that way. But that's what I'm going with: Ike used 2006 as a character-building exercise. It'll all be different in 2007 … for both Ike and Ricardo (crosses fingers).
5. Some combination of Ryan Clark, Anthony Smith and Tyrone Carter can replace Chris Hope.Thank you, Jesus, I got one right. Clark had a solid first year in Pittsburgh and Smith wowed us with his two-interception performance in the Cardinals preseason game. He didn't see much action early in the regular season, but by the end of the year, he looked like a savvy Pro Bowler (when, of course, he wasn't high-steppin' it down the sidelines). Although Carter wasn't as effective last year as he was during the Super Bowl run (who was, really?), I won't forget the Saints game. He knocked the ball loose -- and himself out -- on a pass play late in the fourth quarter to preserve a Steelers win.
As much as Smith's potential excites me, I'm in the "Ryan Clark should be the starter" camp. Partly because he's seldom out of position -- and that's important, especially when playing alongside Troy Polamalu -- and because he's such a cerebral player. Now I haven't seen the guy's SAT scores, but I've heard plenty of stories of how Clark was primarily responsible for holding the Redskins' secondary together in the two years prior to coming to the Steelers. In particular, he made Sean Taylor -- a rookie in 2004 -- a better player -- certainly much more than the robot masquerading as Sean Taylor last season. (Apparently, Taylor admitted to missing Clark's leadership -- and more importantly, his friendship -- and said it had a lot to do with his uneven play in '06.)
But forgetting the above-the-neck stuff for the moment, last year, Clark was also one of the best safeties in the in pass coverage. He successfully defended 60 percent of the plays in his area (as a safety, he didn't always have man-to-man responsibilities), the same rate as Troy Polamalu, and six percentage points better than Anthony Smith. Obviously, this isn't reason enough to declare Clark the starter, and truthfully, if Smith wins the job in camp, Clark will still see plenty of snaps. For Tomlin and Dick LeBeau, it's a great problem to have.
6. Rian Wallace and Andre Frazier will vie for more playing time. Frazier got playing time … in Cincinnati. And Rian Wallace, just like Kemoeatu, had his coming out (and going back in) party during the Chiefs game. He had a pick-for-six in the fourth quarter, but after that it was "thank you, and good night." Here's what I wrote a year ago: "Hopefully, both Wallace and Frazier are much improved, but if they struggle, maybe Mike Kudla and Lee Vickers can turn some heads." I should go into comedy writing with that material.
Now the Steelers have Timmons and LaMarr Woodley in the mix, though who knows when, exactly, we'll see Timmons. I'm not too concerned (yet … it's still July, after all), although somebody threw out Kendrell Bell's name in reference to Timmons' most recent nagging groin troubles, and I did a mental double take. Timmons should be so lucky to have a Bell-like rookie year -- be honest, you'd gladly take that right now, no questions asked -- but let's also hope he can avoid the litany of boo-boos that kept Kendrell on the bench for much of the remainder of his Steelers career.
So far, so bad, but like I said, it's way too early to start whining about that. I'm much more concerned about Santonio Holmes' raging case of polio.
Crystal ballin' it
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