The “football in shorts,”as Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin calls spring workouts, is over. Now the real work begins for the Steelers as they head into this season.
The Steelers report Friday to Saint Vincent College in Latrobe to open training camp. The first practice open to the public will be Saturday afternoon.
Coming off a season in which they missed the playoffs for the first time since 2009, the Steelers are eager to prove last year was a bump in the road, not the beginning of a downward trend.
“Last year, we had an 8-8 season,” said wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders. “People around here are upset about that. We don’t want that to happen again.”
To that end, the Steelers made some big changes in the offseason.
Gone are wide receiver Mike Wallace (Miami), cornerback Keenan Lewis (New Orleans), left tackle Max Starks (San Diego), left guard Willie Colon (New York Jets) and linebacker James Harrison (Cincinnati). All were starters at the beginning of 2012 and were released or left as free agents.
Of that group, only Wallace and Lewis, members of the 2009 draft class, would be considered youngsters.
Add in other veterans who are gone, such as quarterbacks Byron Leftwich and Charlie Batch and safeties Will Allen and Ryan Mundy and running back Rashard Mendenhall, and you have a much younger roster than the Steelers have fielded in several years.
“It feels new and different every year,” said Tomlin. “We’re working with 90 guys and every year 40 or so of them, minimum, are new guys. From that standpoint, it’s the same. We’re always excited and energized to work with the new faces.”
The biggest question facing the Steelers? Is younger necessarily better?
With the departures of Starks and Colon, along with key backup Doug Legursky, the Steelers have the potential to start one youngest offensive lines in their history. Starting tackles Marcus Gilbert and Mike Adams are 25 and 23, respectively. The interior linemen are 27-year-old Ramon Foster, 24-year-old Maurkice Pouncey and 23-year-old David DeCastro. Even key backup Kelvin Beachum is just 24.
But each of those potential starters, with the exception of Foster, was a first- or second-round draft pick.
“I think we’ll be younger (but) I think we’ll be more athletic, which will give us a little versatility,” said Todd Haley, who is entering his second season as offensive coordinator. “As I said, we’re going to play to our players’ strengths and if you’re limited a little athletically, then you’re going to be limited in what you can do.”
Early in the season, the Steelers might need to rely on their running game a little more than in recent years.
With Wallace in Miami and tight end Heath Miller recovering from a torn ACL suffered in December, the Steelers will be without two of their top three receivers from last season.
That was why Pittsburgh was so intent on retaining Sanders, matching a restricted free agent offer from New England to keep the fourth-year receiver around for another year. He’ll team with Antonio Brown to help carry the load in the passing game until Miller returns.
Mendenhall was slowed by injuries in 2012 and suffered a torn ACL suffered late in the 2011 season.
Though Jonathan Dwyer led the team in rushing last season, his 623 yards were the fewest to lead the team since Merril Hoge had 610 in 1991.
To that end, the Steelers selected running back Le’Veon Bell in the second round of this year’s draft. Bell, a 240-pound bruiser, will compete with Dwyer and Isaac Redman for a starting job.
Defensively, replacing Harrison, who saw his sack total fall to six in 2012, will be critical.
Jason Worilds, a second-round pick in 2010, will get the first shot, but waiting in the wings is this year’s top pick, Jarvis Jones, an explosive pass rusher who led the NCAA in sacks at Georgia last year.
Also new to the starting lineup will be cornerback Cortez Allen, who played the nickel spot last season but is expected to replace Lewis.
“If Cortez Allen can stay healthy, he’s going to be hell for a lot of people,” said fellow cornerback Ike Taylor. “He pretty much has everything you are looking for as far as a cornerback, being a shutdown guy.”
At least that’s what the Steelers are hoping for.
Inserting those younger players into more prominent roles and keeping their remaining veterans healthy will be crucial if the team hopes to achieve its goal of not just returning to the postseason, but winning a seventh Super Bowl and third since 2005.
“I’ve just been fortunate, three Super Bowl appearances and winning two,” said Taylor. “I also feel we could have been to more Super Bowls and probably could have won one more. It’s always the goal. Two sounds good but three sounds a whole lot better. Four sounds a whole lot better than three. You never get used to that feeling of being a champion and winning championships, so that’s a good thing.”