For the past few months, the young players – specifically the rookies – have been a focus. Starting with the scouting process that included the Senior Bowl and the combine, then the draft, then minicamp and finally with the allotted 14 OTAs, which for the Steelers ended with a workout at Heinz Field on June 10 – it's been about the young guys.
How they look, how quickly they learn, what they retain, how they adapt, whether they fit in with the rest of the players. Those are the things that are important at this stage of the NFL calendar, primarily because these on-field sessions deserve to be called workouts and not practices, being that they're conducted without pads or threat of physical violence.
Come training camp, all of that will change. The pads go on, the hitting begins, and the emphasis will switch from the individual to the group.
Coach Mike Tomlin ended this offseason's OTAs with some feeling of accomplishment, but also with the measured expectations that come from having the experience of being through this before and the perspective of what football in shorts actually means.
"I think you can be too high or too low on a guy this time of year based on football in shorts. I'm always cautious in that regard," said Tomlin. "I've been encouraged by some of the things I've seen, but I temper that encouragement because I understand that the physical nature of football is a big element of it."
As long as the sport has been played, football coaches have been big on themes, and so it was for the Steelers during the first offseason of the Tomlin era that did not follow an appearance in the playoffs.
"I stop short of characterizing OTAs as a success because I think ultimately you measure offseason programs by the production they provide in the fall and winter," said Tomlin, "but I do feel good about the work we were able to get done. The themes for the OTAs – detail in our work and the development of great physical football conditioning – I believe that our team is growing in those areas, which is an important part, but it's just a part."
The other important parts of every offseason program are to get to the end without any serious injuries, and to use it as a springboard to training camp so that the time there can be used to maximum benefit.
"Thankfully, we have had pretty clean OTA sessions," said Tomlin. "We've had instances where someone planted his foot in the ground wrong or something of that nature, but nothing of real significance that is worthy of mentioning at this juncture, which is good for us. These next six weeks is another journey, another stretch of the journey that I think is significant. A lot of the guys will be getting into the individual regimens that prepare them for the season. We will be closely monitoring those things as we continue to move forward."
They will continue to move forward – and in the Steelers' case toward the east as well – with everything pointing toward the day players report to training camp at Saint Vincent College, which this summer will be on July 30.
"Training camp is for one reason and one reason only, and that is to prepare for the season while bringing the football team together," said Tomlin. "That will always be my approach to training camp. Very rarely do I have a reactionary approach to that element of our core beliefs relative to what happened in the past. Usually it is all eyes forward in terms of providing this team with what it needs to prepare for the 2010 season. So from that standpoint, I am not approaching this training camp any differently than how I approached the one before that, or the one before that, or the one before that for that matter."