LATROBE, Pa. – Now it's football. Finally. Granted, it's not regular season football that counts in the standings, or even preseason football that counts in the evaluations made in the run-up to the final roster cut-down. It's only practice, but it's going to be practice in pads.
The real evaluating cannot begin for the coaching staff and the personnel department until the practicing in pads begins. A player's individual ability to learn something and retain it can be determined over the course of an offseason, but until the hitting starts, until the threat of violence is introduced into the job description, well, that's what makes it football.
When the Steelers take to the fields at Saint Vincent College at 3 p.m. on Saturday, July 28, they will conduct their first practice in pads of this training camp. How significant that is can be debated, but what's inarguable is the first practice in pads represents a turning point. From this point, the Steelers will practice the sport in a way that closely resembles the way it's played in games.
So, when the Steelers offense lines up in pads for the first time as an 11-man unit there figures to be a good bit of attention paid to the positions of right guard and left tackle. Who will line up there with the first unit?
During the two padless practices that opened this camp, the starting right guard was Ramon Foster and the starting left tackle was Trai Essex. Since nobody really expects that to be the case for the regular season opener in Denver on Sept. 9, what's the point of that?
David DeCastro, a right guard by trade, was a player the Steelers firmly believed they would have no chance to select with their first-round pick back in April, so certain were they of his readiness to play in the NFL right away. Mike Adams, who is left tackle capable, was a first-round pick based on ability but ultimately was going to be chosen later because of some character concerns.
Based on talent level, both DeCastro and Adams are better than the alternatives the Steelers have at their respective positions, and so some would suggest they be plugged in immediately to get the process started. Ready or not, here we come.
But when it comes to rookies, Coach Mike Tomlin doesn't believe in anointing anyone. In fact, expect Tomlin to respond to early questions about DeCastro or Adams with a simple, "He's a rookie."
DeCastro and Adams will be in the starting lineup – even during a training camp practice – when they've shown they deserve to be there.
"They have to be in the top five. Their quality of play has to put them in that mix. Not potential. Not up-side. Not pedigree. Their play," said Tomlin. "I've been very black-and-white with them, as I have with the group. We talk about these things openly in team meetings because I believe in it. If they are who we think they are, they'll prove they're worthy to be in the lineup, and they'll be in there sooner rather than later."
By talking about this issue openly in team meetings, what Tomlin has established is an understanding among everyone in the locker room. Starting jobs, roles within the offense or defense, playing time, all are to be determined through competing in practice and preseason games.
"You never want to let a rookie beat you, ever," said Brett Keisel. "(Defensive line) coach (John) Mitchell told me that a long time ago. He said, 'I would never let a rookie block me, ever.' So that's just the mentality you have. You want to come in and show these young guys how we play football and what type of defense we have."
Before David DeCastro and Mike Adams are put into the starting lineup, they're going to have to show a lot of people they belong. And many of the people who will need to be shown are their own teammates. In this respect, their situations are the same as Isaac Redman's, a man who was the 80th man on the 80-man training camp roster when he arrived as an undrafted rookie from Bowie State and who now is the starting running back as Rashard Mendenhall continues to rehab a knee injury.
Because of what he has shown to Tomlin, to the coaching staff, to the players in the locker room, there is no trepidation on the team about the prospect of having to go to Denver to open the 2012 regular season with Isaac Redman as the starting running back.
That's how it works around here. Tomlin constantly refers to professional football as a show-me business.
"When it's definitive for me, and usually it's definitive for a lot of other people at a similar time, then we'll know," said Tomlin when asked directly about a potential timetable for DeCastro and/or Adams. "I'm not going to circle some date on the calendar, but when the time is appropriate everybody will look around at one another and we'll all know. We had no timetable on Maurkice Pouncey. We just looked around, and we just knew."
Before everyone knows, there will be some pads-a-popping to take place, and it starts here on Saturday afternoon.
"I'm interested to see these kids, our first and second picks, see what they're capable of with pads on," said Keisel. "All we've seen is what they do with the college uniform on. Let's see what they do with the Steelers uniform on."