LATROBE, PA. – It's a simple formula, and as the Pittsburgh Steelers prepare to break the fifth training camp of the Mike Tomlin era, it can be used to rank the previous four. From best to worst, it would be 2008, then 2010, then 2007 and coming in last would be 2009.
That's because the Steelers won Super Bowl XLIII in 2008, they won the AFC Championship in 2010, the won the AFC North Division in 2007, and they missed the playoffs in 2009.
"I usually measure camps based on seasons," said Tomlin on Tuesday during his final press briefing of the Saint Vincent College portion of this preseason. "I believe that's the appropriate way to look at it. I feel comfortable with what we've done to this point, but no question, you measure camps and productivity based on outcomes of football seasons. I'll really take a look at this camp and its structure and what we were able to do in hindsight as we proceed throughout the season."
History will remember 2011 training camps as the ones that happened without the benefit of an offseason that allows for free agency, minicamps and OTAs to be spread over a four-month span. Because of no offseason, those things were condensed from months into a matter of days, and the sum total was to create a training camp that seemed disjointed, a camp that never developed the comfort level of a typical one.
"I said at the outset of this thing that comfort was going to be a difficult thing under the circumstances," said Tomlin. "I find comfort in that all of us as head coaches are slightly uncomfortable from that standpoint. No we weren't able to get done what we usually get done under normal circumstances, but I'm sure there are 31 other guys in my position who are saying the same thing."
From the standpoint of the building of the 90-man roster to the art of conducting training camp practices in pads with some 30-plus guys who were issued their playbooks about a fortnight ago, yes, everything is equal all across the league. But here in Latrobe this summer, the climate has been better suited to growing rice than practicing football, and the Steelers have been able to conduct only about a half-dozen practices on the grass fields their turf specialists spend months preparing. Still, Tomlin refuses to complain or make excuses.
"I'm always comfortable, maybe because I make the schedule," Tomlin said jokingly, before turning serious. "I'm not looking for comfort, you guys know that. That's not in our profession. I enjoy what I do, I enjoy the challenges that it presents, even under the unusual circumstances such as what we've all gone through in the National Football League this season. I welcome it all."
One of the keystones of an NFL training camp is the battle for jobs, and on this veteran Steelers team the one spot that remains wide open at this point is at right guard. When things began, the competitors included Doug Legursky, Ramon Foster and Chris Scott, but last Friday in Washington a new candidate emerged, and Tony Hills will get the start there against the Philadelphia Eagles on Thursday night at Heinz Field. Legursky will start at left guard while Chris Kemoeatu (knee) continues to work his way back to being ready to play after a camp-opening stint on the physically unable to perform list.
"Doug Legursky will start at left guard," said Tomlin, "and I think we'll give Tony Hills a shot at right guard. Tony represented himself very well in his guard play in the preseason opener. We gave Chris Scott the opportunity to start with the first unit. Tony played later in the game at right guard and represented himself rather well, and so we want to give him an opportunity to play, hopefully against Philadelphia's first units and see how he fares under those circumstances.
"That's what this process of team building is about. I think it's refreshing, not only for (coaches) but for (players). It lets them know we have viable candidates and guys competing for work, and we're going to let their play sort it out. That's what training camp and the preseason is about, and we're glad it's developing the way it is."
What this point in the preseason is about for Tomlin is getting some improvement from his team, because of what he saw in the opener against the Redskins. As Tomlin said, "Of course, this is a significant step as it's our second time out. We're looking for improvement, quite frankly, in all areas."
Still, there will be no game plan installed for the Eagles, but Tomlin has indicated the staff will do a little bit in the way of preparing the players for what they can expect, if for no other reason than to give the coaches a better chance at evaluating performances.
"I thought their first two quarterbacks (Michael Vick and Vince Young) looked sharp," said Tomlin about what he saw of the Eagles in their preseason opening win over the Baltimore Ravens. "They were able to keep plays alive with their natural skill sets, which we're all aware of, of course. They've got great skill offensively, they've got great rush-men and cover-people defensively. They're a great football team, and it's going to be a really good challenge for us. I'm glad we're playing these guys. This is the type of challenge we need coming off our last performance."
INJURY REPORT: Tomlin has ruled seven players out of the game: WR Emmanuel Sanders, CBs, Cortez Allen, Crezdon Butler, Bryant McFadden and Ike Taylor, G Chris Kemoeatu and ILB Mario Harvey. "There may be some others," said Tomlin, "but those are the ones we're definitive about in terms of them not participating."
Tomlin also said that James Harrison and Troy Polamalu will play this week after sitting out the opener, and he explained his thinking: "Like Chris (Kemoeatu) this week, they hadn't had enough consistent participation for my comfort, so I didn't play them. They have had that this week, so I am going to play them. And that's why Chris Kemoeatu is not playing Thursday. Even though he had a nice day on Monday, just not enough practices and not enough consistent work leading into a performance opportunity for my comfort. He wants to play, but it's my call."
On Monday, veterans Aaron Smith, Brett Keisel and LaMarr Woodley were given a day off practice, and Tomlin explained his reasons for that, as well: "Guys have training camp-like injuries, minor injuries, swelling in the knees and so forth, particularly when you're working on artificial surfaces. We're just trying to stay ahead of the curve and preserve them. Rotate them in and out in terms of giving them days off in terms of keeping the guys who are veteran Steelers ready to go."