Kovacevic: Never too early for these Steelers
Obligatory disclaimer I: The Steelers' organized team activities (OTAs), which trekked through a second day Wednesday on the South Side, mean next to nothing.
Obligatory disclaimer II: Because OTAs are voluntary, it's standard protocol to praise all participating veterans while pardoning anyone who blows them off.
Obligatory disclaimer III: I don't care. About either of those.
Because when a team goes 8-8 in back-to-back seasons, the standard that's become the standard is one of mediocrity. And the only way to break free from that is to do more, to give that little extra.
Step up and lead.
Make a difference.
It's as simple as A, B and … well, A.B.
“I have to set the tempo,” Antonio Brown was telling me, that bazillion-dollar smile belying the seriousness of his tone. “I have to have a leadership role, explain assignments to the guys and what's expected. I have to will the group with my attitude and my actions. I want to be the one who sets the pace and the standard. Hopefully the guys will follow.”
Probably 99 percent of all sports discussions related to leadership are overblown or outright irrelevant. Not so for these Steelers. Show me a team that goes 2-6 in the first half, 6-2 in the second, and I'll show you a team that at least partially could blame that on a lack of focus. And yes, a lack of leadership.
Ben Roethlisberger led by example in 2013, powerfully at times, but he never has been fully embraced that way off the field. Maurkice Pouncey was the offensive line's main man, but that was moot after eight snaps and a mangled knee. Brett Keisel was the defensive captain, but he was fading. Ryan Clark had the biggest mouth, but he was tuned out by pretty much everyone except ESPN.
Brown can be that guy. And no, not just because he recently ripped Clark in an interview with the Trib's Alan Robinson.
Brown, who retains his sixth-round work ethic within his first-round talent, can be the glue for a receiving corps that, for better or worse, lost Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery and replaced them with Lance Moore and … um, Markus Wheaton and his still-damaged hand? Raw fourth-round pick Martavis Bryant? Indy castoff Darrius Heyward-Bey?
Moore's a bright guy, a vet who's worked with Drew Brees. But the rest will be real work, and the Steelers' MVP sounds amped for it.
“The young guys have to embrace everything, the offense and the team,” Brown said. “For me, there's nothing more exciting than being the leader.”
Here's another example: Lawrence Timmons long has been a beast at inside linebacker, but the leadership at the position came from longtime partner Larry Foote. Foote's gone to Arizona, of course, and the signal-calling that Timmons took over following Foote's first-game injury last season now will be joined by the task of teaching Foote's old role to first-rounder Ryan Shazier.
Timmons and Shazier already look like they're having a blast together. After defensive huddles, it's been common to see Timmons give Shazier a playful flick to the helmet, just to keep him sharp.
“Believe me,” the kid said, “L.T.'s got my attention.”
“He has to be a student of the game,” Timmons said. “And my role will be to help him. I accept that challenge. I enjoy it.”
Good stuff, all of it.
There's more: Cam Heyward, fresh off a breakout on and off the field, needs to calm a defensive line that still can't tell its nose from the rest of its face. Pouncey and Ramon Foster finally need to pull that offensive line together. As Foster put it, “The time for talk is over.” LeGarrette Blount could be a perfect usher for Le'Veon Bell. Heath Miller can begin grooming successors.
So, notice anyone missing?
Oh, yeah, only the single area of greatest concern.
Troy Polamalu will be working with his first new regular partner at safety in a decade in Mike Mitchell, the Steelers' prized free agent signing. Mitchell not only has to learn the Dick LeBeau playbook from Page 1, but also how to read off one of the most unpredictable players in football history.
Polamalu isn't here yet.
He's never made a secret of disliking these voluntary sessions, and he came last year — for a week — only after strong urging from Mike Tomlin.
There's another OTA session Thursday, then seven more over the next two weeks. Here's hoping Polamalu shows.
Same goes for Ike Taylor, who should have to fight to keep his job at starting corner ahead of William Gay.
With 8-8 as the default, it doesn't take much to tip the scale.