Labriola on calm, Boz, Artie, player's coach

LATROBE, Pa. – Ready or not, here it comes:

• Over time, it had become their normal. It probably happened gradually, but it got to a point where it was difficult to remember when it hadn’t been that way. The tension, the conflict, the little annoyances that can fester and morph into bigger issues when you have a situation with 90 grown men cooped up in a college dorm and re-living Groundhog Day for close to a solid month.

• But things are different at Saint Vincent College this summer. Sure, it’s still miserably hot and humid, and the day-to-day existence can numb your mind with its sameness, and the bed isn’t your own, and the food isn’t necessarily what you want to eat, and it’s just the same places and the same faces over and over and over again.

• Sure, all of that, and football players have come to expect that from a training camp. What’s different this summer is that’s all of it. It’s just the mundane football misery with no extracurricular tension, which means in its own strange way there’s a calm hanging in the air here like so much humidity. But this is actually refreshing.

• The players aren’t interested necessarily in talking about it, or assigning reasons for it, but every now and then something happens to illustrate the point.

• To that end I offer you Ben Roethlisberger after a practice earlier in the week. I’d cite the day, but remembering what day it is can be impossible up here when all of the days are the same.

• Anyway, it was after a practice, and totally of his own volition, Roethlisberger strolled over to an area where fans were behind a fence and hoping for a player to come over and sign some autographs. Little did they know they were going to hit the lottery this day and get the franchise quarterback.

• Roethlisberger signed and signed and signed. For over an hour he stood there and signed and interacted with the fans. At one point he took off each of his football cleats and signed those and gave them to young fans. He started signing around 5:15 p.m. and there was no way he made it up to the locker room before 6:30 p.m.

• There also has been easy and regular on-field interaction between Roethlisberger and teammates, particularly the wide receivers. He just seems comfortable with his role on this team, engaged and yet relaxed. He’s not the only one, but it’s also true that on a football team other players have a tendency to take a cue from the quarterback.

• There have been transformative training camps in recent Steelers history, camps that set a tone and established a mind-set for a season that was in all ways positive. This has the makings of one of those. And it’s becoming more clear every day why Coach Mike Tomlin chose to use the word “cleanse” in talking about it.

• During his camp-opening news conference, Tomlin promised he was going to create some adversity for the placekicking competition between Chris Boswell and rookie Matthew Wright. As you read this, Boswell has not missed an attempt so far at camp, and he has at least one 50-plus yard success under his belt.

• Another player who was perceived to have an uphill fight on his hands to win a roster spot is Artie Burns. Today he is unquestionably one of the 53 best players on campus, and it isn’t that difficult to make the case that he’s the third-best cornerback in a Steelers helmet.

• One example was his performance in the Aug. 1 practice. When Burns came to the NFL he was labeled as a guy not real interested in run support, but he has improved significantly in that aspect of cornerback play. During a two-play sequence of an 11-on-11 period that contained live tackling, Burns came off a block to stone Benny Snell for no gain on a sweep to his side, and then he also weaved through the trash to dump Diontae Johnson for no gain on a quick sideline screen.

• Burns hasn’t been perfect in coverage, but he has won more than he has lost, and later in the same practice he cleanly defended a pass at the goal line for JuJu Smith-Schuster with an official standing by and watching closely.

• It’s not exactly breaking news that the Steelers are emphasizing taking the ball away more often this upcoming season, and in addition to talking about that and making it a point of emphasis both in meetings and during practices, there also is a regular gathering of defensive backs at the Jugs machine before and after every practice. Because after all, catching the ball is an integral element of the whole process.

• Kameron Kelly, signed by the Steelers after the AAF folded, has been getting a lot of time at free safety with Sean Davis out with a dislocated finger. Kelly has had his moments, both positively and negatively, roaming the middle of the field so far, but his best play was one he didn’t try to make.

• On a deep pass to JuJu Smith Schuster, who had half-a-step on Burns, Kelly came ranging over from the middle and arrived just a little late to make a play on the ball. But rather than take out his frustration by lowering the boom on a teammate who happens to be the Steelers’ No. 1 receiver, Kelly chose not to, and in fact took himself away from a big-time collision.

• Mike Tomlin calls that professional etiquette, and Kelly made a positive impression handling the situation the way he did.

• Tomlin often is described as a player’s coach, and it’s not a compliment when it’s coming from the people outside the locker room. That’s because their understanding of the term is that it means the players can treat the coach as their pal.

• But his players see him as a player’s coach, and Joe Haden offered his definition of the term:

• “The thing about Coach T is that he’s very, very black-and-white,” said Haden. “He’s very, very straightforward. He lets you know exactly where you stand. And he lets you know where you stand in front of your peers if you’re not holding down what you’re supposed to be holding down. If I’m doing it, I’m gold. If I’m not, I either got to pick my stuff up or Coach T is going to tell me he’s going shopping.”

• Doesn’t seem very friendly to me.

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