LATROBE, Pa. – Because of the nature of the sport – that 11 players on each team must work as one – training camp always will be important to a football team. Different teams need different things at different stages of their development from a training camp, but the value derived from a concentrated schedule of meetings and on-field practice in pads is undeniable.
It starts for the Steelers today, this 2014 version of training camp, and what it is they need from the 22 days on the Saint Vincent College campus is a little bit different this year. This year, the team-building aspect will be paramount.
The Steelers long have been a franchise that prizes stability, because once Dan Rooney found Chuck Noll and then Chuck Noll showed them how it was done, the formula was in place. Football may have evolved, but the sport hasn't changed in the sense that the team executing the fundamentals most consistently has the better chance to win the game.
And so, figure on seeing a lot of the on-field exercises that have become commonplace at a Steelers training camp, but what won't be seen publicly is going to have as much to do with how the 2014 season turns out for them as, say, how effective the no-huddle offense can become.
Mike Tomlin has come to refer to it as team-building, and it's a term encompassing everything from the tactical to the emotional to the social aspects of a group of young men who have to become willing to sacrifice the me for the we. As Tomlin says to the players, "I know what you're capable of, but what are you willing to do?"
The tangible intangible that statement identifies is not as important as the assembled players' skills, because teams cannot contend for championships in professional sports without top-level talent. But in the NFL, there are a dozen teams that start every season with enough talent, with the difference between parades or unemployment often being how each team's talent comes together.
For the Steelers to compete in 2014 even for a division championship, significant strides will have to be made both in developing many of the individual's skills but then also having those individuals operate as a team, because they are young at a lot of positions and green at a bunch of others.
This is especially true on defense, where the unit will have six players who either are new to the team or new to the roles assigned to them at the opening of this training camp. Two of the other five expected starters still are green.
The newbies are rookie Ryan Shazier, and veterans Mike Mitchell and Cam Thomas; the guys new to their current roles are Jarvis Jones and Cam Heyward, who didn't come to camp last summer as starters; and also Jason Worilds, who comes to this camp as a starter at a different position. Cortez Allen, who played his college football at The Citadel, and Steve McLendon, who played his at Troy, are the two who still qualify as green. There is no flashy college resume for either, and since coming to the Steelers neither player has yet to show enough to be considered a quality NFL starter.
And another look at the above list of names shows that a bunch of the guys on it are the ones who are going to have to come through for this defense to give the Steelers a chance to contend this year. They're going to have to come through in situations on the field, such as making the kinds of plays to boost the sacks/takeaway numbers that have been below-the-line in each of the previous two seasons, and they're going to have to come through as far as the off-the-field discipline – the mental preparation and the taking care of one's body – required for a player to compete and succeed in the NFL.
Through the early-to-mid-2000s, the examples lived in every corner of the locker room, one generation of leaders begat the next, and the newest group understood that you start at the bottom and earn your way up the ladder. In a bunch of instances on this Steelers defense, the whole growth process is going to have to be fast-tracked.
Training camp is where the physical elements of the sport are first introduced to a particular group, and the most important players toward the goal of an improved Steelers defense in 2014 don't have much experience hunting together. Only time can heal the experience issues, and in the meantime they're going to have to work out some of the social issues among themselves.
The pecking order has to evolve naturally. It cannot be imposed, or strapped to a timetable, even though time is of the essence with the regular season opening on Sept. 7.
Having Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback handles all of the leadership/pecking order issues for the offense. Great players command respect, and Roethlisberger is a great player at an elite position. There, the work on campus will be mostly about fundamentals and execution.
It's different for the defense, because there the attitude has to be rebuilt. Defense is physical, it's aggressive, it's violent and destructive, but all of that must come within the structure of the scheme because over-doing it, over-reaching, can hurt a team.
There's going to be a lot of time spent together by the players over the next three-plus weeks, and as it is when living in a college dormitory that time together also is isolated from most everything else. That combination provides the defense with the setting to lay a foundation for a new group of players, a new group of Steelers.
It's their time. Saint Vincent College is the place.