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Playing 10 questions with the Steelers

| Sunday, July 22, 2012, 12:01 a.m.
Mike Wallace, the Steelers’ most accomplished receiver now that Hines Ward has retired, has yet to participate in this year's training camp. Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Former Steelers receiver Hines Ward is among the 94 nominees for next year's Pro Football Hall of Fame class.
Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin high fives Troy Polamalu after dropping Rams running back Steven Jackson for a loss on third down at Heinz Field Dec. 24, 2011. Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review

The questions began seconds after Demaryius Thomas of the Broncos outran Ryan Mundy and Ike Taylor to the end zone to conclude one of the biggest upset losses in Steelers' playoff history.

There were even more after franchise fixtures Hines Ward, James Farrior, Aaron Smith and Chris Hoke retired during a busy offseason in which the Steelers became younger but less experienced.

A season gone — and just like that, on the first play of overtime — against an apparently inferior opponent. Then, four careers spanning more than 50 years of NFL experience were over, too.

And don't think there weren't plenty of questions after the Steelers, for the first time in 13 years, not only went outside their organization for an offensive coordinator — Todd Haley — they hired a coach with a colorful past.

The Steelers are aware of all the ”They're-on-the-downslide” talk that's developed since they bowed out of the playoffs — or, more precisely, Te-bowed out — by losing to Tim Tebow and the Broncos, 29-23, on Jan. 8. The loss resulted in plenty of internal soul searching by the Steelers, from team president Art Rooney II to GM Kevin Colbert to coach Mike Tomlin on down, and may have led in the part to the departure of former offensive coordinator Bruce Arians and the arrival of Haley.

While their 47th training camp at Saint Vincent College begins Wednesday — the first workout fans can attend is Friday — the questions haven't ended. Not even close.

Here's a training camp Top 10 — and, now, let the answers begin.

1 Will Mike Wallace show up — and, if he does, when? Wallace, the Steelers' most accomplished receiver now that Ward has retired, skipped the offseason workouts as he discussed a long-term deal. The Steelers still control his rights for one more season at $2.7 million, and they will be unhappy if he's not in camp. How mad? If he's a no-show, we'll soon find out. And the Steelers don't negotiate when a player holds out.

2 Will Haley's comet collide with Ben? Haley has a combustible personality that's been highly visible on more than a few NFL sidelines, while Ben Roethlisberger prefers back-patting coaches to sideline screamers. Will these two disparate personalities mesh? A few hot days at training camp may provide the first hint.

3 Are two rookies too many? For the first time in their modern history, the Steelers could start two rookie offensive linemen (Mike Adams, David DeCastro) – though it would be a major surprise if Adams beats out the newly re-signed Max Starks. No doubt Roethlisberger, sacked 40 times last year and 215 times since 2007, welcomes any offensive line upgrade.

4 Who's the leader in the clubhouse? The Steelers lost some of their most vocal and demonstrative team leaders as Ward, Farrior, Smith and Hoke left. That's a lot of leadership to replace in one season. But team leaders often are those who play the best and set an example for the younger players. And the Steelers have plenty of talent returning.

5 And, in this corner, it's ... ? Keenan Lewis already is predicting a Pro Bowl season for himself, yet he's not guaranteed to start at cornerback along with Ike Taylor. Both Tomlin and defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau prominently mentioned Curtis Brown and Cortez Allen when questioned about the cornerback vacancy, and filling it could be one of the major issues during camp.

6 Running into trouble? Rashard Mendenhall, for all of his post-knee surgery optimism, probably won't be ready to start the season. That means Isaac Redman, who has made all of two career starts, will be the starter de jour. The Steelers rarely open a season with such an inexperienced player at such a critical position, yet there seems to be a strong trust factor in Redman among his teammates and management. There's also a lot of depth behind Redman (Jonathan Dwyer, Baron Batch, John Clay and rookie Chris Rainey).

7 Too many 30-somethings? The Steelers still have plenty of 30-plus players remaining even after all the offseason departures. There are 15 on their camp roster, including Roethlisberger and Troy Polamalu. Some players hit the wall once they reach 30, becoming more prone to up-and-down performances and injuries. Obviously, the Steelers need a lot more good years out of arguably their two highest-profile players.

8 Stepping up — or taking a step back? There's lots of league-wide chatter that this could be the season the Steelers regress, given they're coming off successive 12-4 seasons with a veteran team. Of course, Warren Sapp observed last year that the Steelers were “old, slow and it's over.” It wasn't, of course — at least not until that shocker in Denver.

9 The front-runner, by a nose? Nose tackle Casey Hampton (left knee) won't be ready for the start of camp, or the season. Steve McLendon moves in, backed by intriguing rookie Alameda Ta'amu. The question is how much any nose tackles will play, given the ever-increasing reliance on the pass by nearly every NFL team.

10 Double-digit downfall? Each of the last four times they were coming off successive double-digit win seasons (2009, '06, '03 and 1998), the Steelers had a major falloff that season — averaging just 7½ wins per season. They were 12-4 each of the past two seasons, so that means they're due for another downturn. Training camp may provide the first hint if there might be one.

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