It will be the 78th training camp in their history, the 44th time they will spend the whole time at Saint Vincent College, the fourth time they'll convene with Mike Tomlin as their coach. Given all that, it wouldn't seem possible that the Pittsburgh Steelers would be having a unique experience at a training camp, but that's exactly what the 2010 version will bring.
There is always a bit of the unknown as a team opens its training camp, what with the arrival of a bunch of rookies and assorted free agents, and with the way the NFL is these days there often is little carryover from one season to the next. Seven of the 12 teams that made the playoffs in 2007 didn't qualify in 2008, and six of the 12 teams that made the playoffs in 2008 didn't qualify in 2009. Nothing really new about that.
Injuries also can throw a wrench into the best laid plans for a solid depth chart, and sometimes they even strike before players put on shoulder pads for the first time, as was the case this summer when Willie Colon (Achilles) and Chris Scott (foot) went down in late June. Nothing new about that kind of stuff either.
Yet this camp will be different – actually unprecedented – for the Steelers because of the situation with Ben Roethlisberger.
When the Steelers players all gather today at Saint Vincent College in time to take their conditioning test, Roethlisberger will be there with the rest of his teammates. He can practice, attend meetings, ride the carts to-and-from the cafeteria, do all of the things that are a part of the Steelers training camp experience. He can play in the preseason games.
But come the final gun of the preseason finale against the Carolina Panthers on Sept. 2, Roethlisberger will begin serving a suspension levied by Commissioner Roger Goodell. Right now, the suspension is for six games, but there is the opportunity for Roethlisberger to have it reduced to four with good behavior.
And so it will be that Coach Mike Tomlin will have to come up with a way to get Roethlisberger his work while preparing another quarterback to open the season against the Atlanta Falcons.
"We're kind of making it up as we go along. There's no blueprint for these situations or circumstances," said Tomlin. "And even if there were, you wouldn't necessarily follow it. You try to do what's appropriate for this specific instance and situation and the men involved and what is best for this football team. So even if there was a similar situation in another city at another time, it doesn't necessarily provide a blueprint because every situation and circumstance is different when you're dealing with people."
Based on what happened during minicamp and the OTAs, Byron Leftwich looks to be the guy who will start at quarterback when the season opens on Sept. 12 against the Falcons at Heinz Field.
"We all know it's a unique situation, different than any that have come before," said Leftwich. "I'm preparing the same as I always have – the same as I did last year in Tampa, the same as when I was here in 2008. As a player you can't ever let yourself get into the mind-set that, I'm a backup so I don't have to do whatever. You always have to prepare yourself as the starter, because you never know what's going to happen. Trust me, you never know.
"They're going to determine who the guy is going to be when Ben's gone, and from there, whoever they pick, I have so much respect for Mike Tomlin and for this organization and any decision they're going to make – we're all going to live with it because they're going to make the best decision for this football team. I just try to play football and make as many plays as I can."
Because quarterback is the marquee position on every football team, how Tomlin chooses to work Roethlisberger during training camp and the preseason will be watched closely, as will the competition to start at the position during his suspension. But there are other issues for the Steelers to face, and here is a sampling of one for each phase of the team:
Can the current group of wide receivers get it done?
Regardless of the opinion of the Santonio Holmes trade – whether it was justified and necessary or short-sighted and reactionary – the football ramification is that it removed the team's No. 1 receiver from the roster. There is no one-for-one replacement for what Holmes contributed to the offense, and expectations have to be adjusted accordingly.
Mike Wallace may be the guy whose playing time is most affected by the trade, but he's not the same type of player as Holmes. To oversimplify, Wallace right now is faster than Holmes but not as nifty in the open field, but he has some other qualities that if developed further could end up making him a better and more dependable player in the long run.
What will be interesting during the process is the way the two rookies – No. 3 Emmanuel Sanders and No. 6b Antonio Brown – react when the threat of violence is introduced to the execution of their craft, and whether guys like Tyler Grisham, Brandon London and Isaiah Williams can find a way to separate themselves in a good way in the fight for a roster spot.
Is the defense, with 10 thirtysomethings, too old?
When the Steelers were squandering fourth quarter leads, the defense looked old, a step slow, maybe tired. As Chuck Noll always told his team, "When you lose, whatever they say about you is true," and so those theories couldn't be dismissed out of hand.
But the reality is that the Steelers played the best people last year. If Deshea Townsend, for example, was too old, he still was better than the younger guys behind him, and so his age really wasn't the issue. The lack of sufficient development of the young guys was.
James Farrior got a good bit of criticism for plays at the end of games against the Bengals and Ravens, when Brian Leonard and Ray Rice caught passes on late drives that ended in scores to turn wins into losses. Farrior is still a very important part of this team, but maybe it's time for Lawrence Timmons to assert himself and take over the middle linebacker spot in the sub-package defense.
It will be up to Timmons to use this camp to show he's capable, just as it will fall on some other twentysomethings to prove they deserve to replace the thirtysomethings in critical situations.
Can Al Everest correct what was wrong with special teams?
Al Everest has been coaching football as many years as Mike Tomlin has been alive, and the two men now will embark on a professional relationship that's different from any of the others Tomlin will have with other assistants on his staff.
Special teams doesn't get as much on-field practice time or meeting time as offense and defense, and when it comes to the chore of cutting the roster to 53, Everest understands his voice isn't as loud as the others'. Still, he has a job to do, and nobody cares whether it's completely fair in his world.
"As a coach, you have to make a decision on your time," said Everest about his approach. "You can be a scheme person, multiple schemes, and those things take time. Time to teach, time to install. The other side of it is fewer schemes and more of how can I make you a better football player. To me, fundamentals and techniques are the tools of the game. If you've seen 'The Karate Kid,' it's not much of a movie until he learns wax-on, wax-off, because he was getting his butt handed to him before that."