Today is the day.
For fans, it's a day that signals a time of hope, a day engendering an optimism that this could be their favorite team's year. For the players, it amounts to the start of a tryout for a job they have dreamed about their entire lives, a job that has few openings but offers big paydays. For the teams, it's the start of a time they had better utilize to figure some things out about their players to lay a foundation for the upcoming season.
It is Friday, July 26, and that means training camp opens for the Pittsburgh Steelers, with players due to report to Saint Vincent College before the 4 p.m. conditioning test, and come the time the team leaves on Sunday, Aug. 18 it should have some answers to some of the issues it faces today.
The following is a small sampling of those issues:
THE ISSUE: Takeaways by the defense
Once upon a time, the Steelers defense did to opponents what Genghis Khan did to Eastern Europe and Asia during the 12th Century. Sacking and pillaging is what the Mongols did best, and when the Steelers are winning their defense is doing the football version of that. The Steelers had 35 takeaways in 2010 and 29 in 2008, but in the NFL that qualifies as ancient history. It was 15 in 2011 and 20 last season, and there has been an extended drought when it comes to interceptions.
"We've had years when we've been real productive there, but the last couple we haven't been," said defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. "I wish I knew the answer to the why, but we're searching for those answers and we're working in that direction. We'll keep stressing it. That's the most obvious area. We have to help the offense shorten their field and maybe get some more points ourselves. You've got to get fumbles, sacks and interceptions to do that."
Nine different Steelers teams over the franchise's 80 seasons have posted 12 interceptions or fewer, with a current streak of two in a row, and three out of four. There are times when a team's takeaway total can be traced to an emphasis, to a tone that was set during camp and then takes root in the preseason. The Steelers defense can be proud of its No. 1 ranking in 2012, but it also can see clearly that combining that with 20 takeaways isn't going to be good enough.
THE ISSUE: Offensive line depth
This unit will arrive at Saint Vincent College knowing it is six players deep in a league where sometimes nine, 10, or more can be required over the course of a full regular season. Remember 2010, when only two of the five linemen who started Super Bowl XLV had been starters when the regular season opened? This current group doesn't appear to be that deep.
The Steelers know they have six players here – Maurkice Pouncey, Ramon Foster, David DeCastro, Marcus Gilbert, Mike Adams, and Kelvin Beachum – and there aren't many recognizable names, and even less NFL experience, among the nine candidates trying to grab one of maybe four spots on the 53-man roster behind those six. Guy Whimper has seven seasons of NFL experience, and John Malecki played some in the 2012 finale, and that's it. Seven guys – Joe Madsen, Justin Cheadle, Nik Embernate, Chris Hubbard, Mike Farrell, Mike Golic Jr., and Joe Long – either are undrafted rookies or practice squad veterans.
There is nobody among the nine who deserves to be considered a lock to survive the final cut-down on Aug. 31, but all of them will be scrutinized daily for signs of potential. The Steelers may attempt to look for their backup offensive linemen from among names on the waiver wire through the preseason, which means the guys in camp will have about a month to turn some heads. To pick one to watch, Golic is a bit more interesting because he grew up in an NFL household, which should give him a leg-up in the critical area of understanding what it takes to be a professional.
THE ISSUE: The young WRs
There is nothing quite so different as playing wide receiver in OTAs vs. playing wide receiver at training camp and in preseason games. Once the threat of violence is introduced, some players shrink away while others will rise to the challenge and flourish. There are roster spots and maybe even roles on offense at stake, and it will be interesting to see how the two draft picks – No. 3 Markus Wheaton and No. 6a Justin Brown – respond. Because Wheaton wasn't permitted to attend the offseason program – Oregon State's term didn't end until after Steelers minicamp was over – he could be a bit behind in the learning, but he's on equal footing when it comes to playing the sport in pads.
And remember, a significant element here is special teams, and if somebody scores a couple of touchdowns on returns during the preseason, or somebody shows himself to be a consistent factor as a gunner, a roster spot will be found for him. Among the young receivers, Brown and undrafted rookie Reggie Dunn could be interesting as returners, and David Gilreath should be in the mix as a gunner.
THE ISSUE: Rookies contributing and/or starting right away
When trying to figure this one out, it's fair to look back on Maurkice Pouncey's rookie training camp, where he progressed at a rate that had Coach Mike Tomlin become comfortable putting him into the starting lineup before the preseason was half over.
"First and foremost, he was a quick study," said Tomlin about Pouncey in 2010. "He played beyond an acceptable level from an assignment standpoint, and I think that's the prerequisite. Before we start talking about physical abilities, are they reliable from an assignment standpoint? And he was more than reliable, a quick study, and that was the initial thing that gave him a leg up. And I also believe that ends up being the first thing that maybe X's guys out. It's not necessarily physical talent, it's the ability to execute detailed assignments at an acceptable level. (Pouncey) went above and beyond that. Then, obviously, the physical talent is what it is."
The two rookies thought to have a chance at significant playing time in 2013 are OLB Jarvis Jones and RB Le'Veon Bell, the team's top two draft picks last April.
For Bell to earn significant playing time as a rookie, he's going to have to show he can protect Ben Roethlisberger, and it's not that he has to prove he's tough enough. Bell will establish himself as tough enough, but he cannot make mistakes in identifying where the pressure is coming from and which rusher is his man to block based on the protection scheme.
For Jones to log a lot of snaps at ROLB, Jason Worilds is going to have to fall short of expectations. Mike Tomlin said he considers Worilds a starter, in large part because of what he contributed on defense when given the opportunity to play. If Worilds does what Keenan Lewis did last summer at cornerback – performs well and never misses even a whole practice because of injury – Jones could find it difficult to get onto the field right away.
During the 46 seasons when the NFL has named both an Offensive Rookie of the Year and a Defensive Rookie of the Year, only once have the awards been won by players from the same team in the same season. In 1967, CB Lem Barney and RB Mel Farr pulled it off for the Detroit Lions, who finished 5-7-2 that season.
That record should be safe for another year, but this better turn out to be more than a redshirt season for Jones and Bell if the Steelers are to compete in 2013.