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Labriola on training camp

Posted Jul 24, 2013

It’s fair to describe the Pittsburgh Steelers today as a team in transition, and Merriam-Webster would support the argument. But the Steelers don’t see themselves as being a “team in transition” in terms of what that phrase has come to mean in the lexicon of professional sports.

In sports, when a franchise dons the “transition” hat, it’s usually to deliver a two-pronged message: that a moratorium on competing for a championship has been declared while more realistic goals are chased; and it serves as a shout-out to fans to dial down the expectations.

The 2013 Steelers are in transition in that they are – as the definition reads – “evolving from one form, stage, or style to another,” but they head to Saint Vincent College fully intending to compete for a championship and understanding their fans’ expectations toward that end. They will arrive knowing all of that, just as they should realize what they get accomplished during their three weeks on campus will set them either on a solid or shaky footing for the opening phase of the 2013 season.

There is going to have to be some team-building that takes place, for sure, and along with that process always comes some weeding-out, but from among the 90 can emerge a representative group of 53, a group capable of contending for a spot in the playoffs. It sure does look like this is going to be a year, though, when the Steelers will be better off if they don’t have to depend on the lower levels of the depth chart for long periods of time.

As with every examination of the Steelers’ fortunes, the subject of Ben Roethlisberger is of the utmost importance, and things all seem to be pointing upward with him. The minor procedure on his knee should help his body deal with the demands of getting physically ready for a 10th NFL season, and the evolution of the offense in both style and terminology suits him.

The way it looks today, the Steelers are going to have some areas where they’re going to be doing a Nik Wallenda, i.e., working without a safety net. Area No. 1 looks to be an offensive line made up of one sure thing and five we-think-they-cans. Maurkice Pouncey is the sure thing, and Marcus Gilbert, Ramon Foster, David DeCastro, Mike Adams, and Kelvin Beachum each has shown enough to tantalize observers to varying degrees. This could end up being a very good offensive line, provided six turns out to be enough.

“Could” is a qualifier you’ll see attached to other areas of this team, to other individual players within those areas, and it’s not always going to be limited to the young or unproven.

Troy Polamalu is one such example, where the single issue of his health can be the difference between having an NFL Defensive Player of the Year in the secondary or having a unit that finished No. 1 in passing yards allowed but tied-for-27th in the league with 10 interceptions. LaMarr Woodley is another name to throw into the health category, and the either-or with him would have a similar impact on sack totals, which are tied to takeaways as well.

And herein lies the challenge to Coach Mike Tomlin. This is a roster containing some proven, important players whose bodies must be preserved until the Sept. 8 opener vs. the Tennessee Titans, but also a roster containing many more unproven, important players who must be honed into versions capable of manning their stations through an entire NFL regular season.

There have been training camps where the theme came across as self-preservation – 2003 rings a bell – and things never seem to work out once the real games commence. The Steelers’ best seasons have come after training camps that were competitive, that were physical.

That’s because this particular group happens to be made up of a bunch of promising players who are giving the impression of being ready to rise to the occasion but who also are largely unproven when it comes to the consistency of performance required over an entire regular season. To put names to it, Jason Worilds and Steve McLendon and Cortez Allen and Cam Heyward and David DeCastro and Mike Adams and Marcus Gilbert and … you get the idea.

Another, smaller part of the group is made up of the guys who absolutely have to stay healthy for this team to extend its playing days into January. The names here are the obvious ones: Roethlisberger, Polamalu, Pouncey, Woodley, Timmons, Clark.

This is where the Steelers are as their 2013 training camp opens. Where they are when it ends should help with the definition of “transition.”

Read the rest of this column in its entirety in the current issue of Steelers Digest. To subscribe, call 1-800-334-4005, or visit Steelers Digest.

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