As the opening bell of the 2010 season and Steelers training camp is about to gong, the return of some familiar names gives hope to some serious leaks in the Steelers line-up. The return of the four prodigal sons -- Byron Leftwich, Antwaan Randle-El, Larry Foote and Bryant McFadden -- have come home at a most opportune time.
For an organization that rarely allows a player a second chance to come home, the return of this fearsome foursome is an event in and of itself. During my decade with the Steelers as a player, I only remember two players coming back: offensive tackle Ray Pinney and linebacker Dennis "Dirt" Winston. So let's look at these four key players:
* Byron Leftwich is an interesting guy. Composed, direct and a commanding presence, his swagger on and off the field is badly needed. By swagger, I'm not referring to arrogance borne of insecurity, rather the "Been there, done that" frame of mind that knows how to take charge of a huddle and instill confidence in his teammates. Byron still has bite left in his bark, and that picks a locker room/huddle up. A little barking injected into this offense at this time is not a bad thing. Byron, like Brett Favre, can throw a football 75 yards underwater. Given that the Steelers really go after running the ball, then Byron has all the tools in the tradesman's box to get the job done.
Many Dennis Dixon fans may balk at this, and let me say that I believe Dennis is very talented, but his inexperience is not something I'd want to come out of the gates with. It's the age-old question of how to gain experience without seeing the field, but the Kentucky Derby is not the time to answer the question if you've got a stallion that has already busted a gate or two.
Charlie Batch is much like Byron, but lacks the strength of Byron's frame and arm. If Byron can recapture the mojo of two seasons ago, he's in the catbird seat coming into camp, in my most humble estimation.
Even though Ben Roethlisberger remains the man, I'd be wildly disappointed if in the recesses of his mind Byron doesn't think that he can run the table at the quarterback position. I doubt you'll ever corner him into verbalizing it, but it's in Byron's nature to think of himself as more than a caretaker. And that gives him swagger.
* Antwaan Randle-El brings a joy similar to Hines Ward on game day. Not near as physically punishing as Hines (who is?), ‘Twaan packs a solid professional skill-set. This cat has an insider's groove and feel in his ability to read and plunk himself down into open windows in zone coverage. And Randle-El still has an elusiveness to make him dangerous in blitz control scenarios. When the pocket breaks down and the QB has to get on the hoof, Antwaan has the ability to make plaster coverages "watery." If Hines is the leader of the wide outs, then Antwaan is the ranking assistant professor and mentor, and it would behoove Mike Wallace to take notes.
* Jumping over to the defensive side of the ball, I "relish" the return of Larry Foote like a Coney Island hotdog. I've always been a fan of this dude. Blessed with instincts that match a bat's radar, Foote has a blow-em-up quality that makes for a lot of second- and-long situations. Larry has mouth and bang, a nasty edge, and a competitor's pride. That pride will push Lawrence Timmons to new heights.
Larry is another guy who doesn't see himself as a second teamer, but a starter. Footer will compete with a ferocity that will make Timmons increase the voltage in his noggin and a jump in his foot speed. I'm thinking Lawrence makes a big splash this year.
That speaks well for the Steelers on two fronts: increased big-play possibilities from being able to package Timmons in blitz situations, and having another capable run stopper with decent coverage skills in the event James Farrior doesn't find that burst he was lacking last year.
* The return of Bryant McFadden seemingly insinuates a dissatisfaction with William Gay. William learned that it's a different world when you are the 1-16 guy versus spot duty. And boy oh boy it can be a rough road. Those opposing offensive coordinators are paid good money to smell blood on a defense. Once they've got you in their gun-sites, it takes the warrior philosophy of "Thick Face, Black Heart" to weather the storm.
Having said that, I'm not willing to throw the towel in on Will. He's slated for nickel duty and that can serve as his grounding point for the future. Will has to be able to wipe the slate clean and get back on his horse. Everyone gets thrown once in a while. Most NFL guys can re-mount, but it's all in how you ride the second round, if you get the chance, that is.
The saga of Will aside, McFadden brings a predator's mind-set. I've had the opportunity to watch this young man up close and personal on many occasions, and it's his fierceness that always makes me watch him again. Whereas many cornerbacks like to play loosey-goosey, B-Mac displays a Mongoose grin when the Cobra whiffs. I've seen those eyes when Bryant heads for the kill. Rikki Tikki Tavi has nothing on this cornerback.
More than anything, the return of the Prodigals signals deeper competition and competition means sharpening the sword. It's biblical, Proverbs 27:17 says "As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another."