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Coach Tomlin, Steelers facing plenty of questions as OTAs start

| Monday, May 20, 2013, 7:45 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Coach Mike Tomlin will get his first on-field look at the 2013 Steelers beginning with Tuesday's offseason practice.

Mike Tomlin said the Steelers plan to prove all of their doubters wrong starting in September in NFL stadiums.

If they're actually going to do that, a lot of the groundwork for a different kind of surprise season — this time a pleasant one — will be put in place during May and June at a closed-to-the-public practice field on the South Side.

The Steelers begin the first day of 13 offseason practice days — 10 OTAs and three minicamp sessions — Tuesday, and Tomlin will begin working through an extended check list of concerns, worries and question marks.

Among them: LaMarr Woodley's weight. Troy Polamalu's overall health. Ben Roethlisberger's receivers. Dick LeBeau's always-aging defense. The relatively young offensive line. The who's-on-first situation at running back. The who's-going-to-replace James Harrison scenario at outside linebacker.

And there's this: For the first time since Tomlin took over as coach in 2007, the Steelers aren't considered to be one of the AFC's elite teams or an AFC North frontrunner.

They finished third behind Super Bowl champion Baltimore and AFC playoff team Cincinnati while going 8-8 in 2012, and a departure-filled offseason in which Harrison, Mike Wallace, Keenan Lewis, Willie Colon and Rashard Mendenhall left didn't seem to strengthen them.

“When you look at their roster as a whole, you can make the case they're the third-best roster in the division, which is very rare to say,” former Ravens and Eagles scout Daniel Jeremiah said. “I still think they have ground to make up. I did like what they did in the draft, but when you look at the aging of some players and the departures in free agency, I don't know if a really good draft offset that.”

That draft yielded an unusually high number of rookies who likely will find themselves being counted upon from the start, including first-rounder Jarvis Jones, who will compete with Jason Worilds to replace Harrison, and second-rounder Le'Veon Bell. He will take on holdovers Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman to start at running back, a position of weakness throughout 2012.

“What I like is they drafted some Steelers-like players,” said Jeremiah, now an NFL Network analyst. “I thought they got away from that with some of the guys they drafted. But, to me, they loaded up this year on those kind of guys that made them what they were.”

Among them: Shamarko Thomas, a fourth-round safety from Syracuse who could find himself as the backup to Polamalu and Ryan Clark.

One draft pick — wide receiver Markus Wheaton, a third-rounder — can't take part in the spring work because Oregon State's classes don't end until mid-June. But while Wheaton's teammates won't see him full time until training camp, NFL Network analyst Charles Davis thinks he could be the steal of the Steelers' draft class.

“I love him and his speed. This guy can run better than people know,” Davis said. “Can he run like Mike Wallace? Wallace is a special case, but this kid can run pretty darned well.”

Among the issues that will begin to get settled during spring practices that run through a June 11-13 minicamp are whether Mike Adams or Marcus Gilbert succeeds Max Starks at left tackle, the running back starter and how quickly Emmanuel Sanders will settle in as Wallace's replacement.

The Steelers also will begin breaking in three new starters on defense: at outside linebacker (Jones or Worilds), cornerback (Cortez Allen) and nose tackle (Steve McLendon).

Tomlin also has three new assistant coaches in special teams coach Danny Smith, offensive line coach Jack Bicknell Jr. and receivers coach Richard Mann.

Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at arobinson@tribweb.com or via Twitter @arobinson_Trib.

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