Awkward silence marks Steelers arrival for training camp
Call it a Larry Foote promise rather than a Joe Namath-like guarantee.
Six months after following a pair of 12-4 seasons by sitting out the playoffs, the Steelers reported to training camp Friday amid an unusual backdrop. And it wasn't the steamy deep-in-the-valley practice fields of St. Vincent that can separate wannabe NFL players from the real ones — as they will starting Saturday.
Rather, there wasn't the usual opening-day crush of national media or questions about Super Bowl runs or All-Pro awards or huge expectations. For now, the Steelers are being perceived in a different light — an 8-8 team that probably might not be much better in a rugged AFC North that features Super Bowl winner Baltimore
“It's quiet around here,” safety Ryan Clark said, commenting about the lack of buzz that commonly accompanies a Steelers camp opening. “Nobody's expecting us to do too much.”
Foote is. And the man who calls the defensive signals felt it was too passive and peaceful.
Since Foote arrived in 2002, the Steelers haven't skipped the playoffs in consecutive seasons. Despite all the questions about the big-name departed free agents — James Harrison and Mike Wallace — and the Steelers' ability to replace them without signing recognizable veterans, Foote promised it won't happen in 2013.
The Steelers, he said, are a playoff team — and they're ready to prove it.
“I've never been around for that,” Foote said of successive non-playoff seasons. “It's not going to start this year.”
None of his teammates was ready to make a prediction, but Emmanuel Sanders and Brett Keisel were among those who said there is a quiet determination —there's that word quiet again — to make this a typical Steelers season.
Center Maurkice Pouncey and Sanders consider the Steelers to be Super Bowl-caliber quality.
“I don't mind being the underdog,” said Sanders, a starter for the first time in his four-season career.
“I'm excited. The past three times I reported to training camp, there were a lot of expectations, big expectations, and now guys are counting us out. But I don't mind. … Guys are working hard so last year won't happen again.”
Sanders didn't even take a break during the six weeks the Steelers were off before camp, staying with strength coach Garrett Giemont and working out daily in the Steelers' complex.
As for the talk that the Steelers will miss Wallace's unrivaled speed and big-play ability, Sanders said, “We've got to work with what we've got, and I feel like what we got, the nucleus of guys we have, Plaxico (Burress) and Jerricho (Cotchery) and myself and Antonio (Brown) and now Wheat (rookie Markus Wheaton), that's a pretty good wide receivers corps. We're out there in training camp trying to get better and gain some chemistry.”
Keisel said if there is improvement, it might have to come from one of the most anticipated Steelers rookie classes in decades, one that features outside linebacker Jarvis Jones, running back Le'Veon Bell, Wheaton and safety Shamarko Thomas. The other draft picks of recent seasons, such as 2012 first-rounder David DeCastro, also are expected to contribute.
Foote made a similar comment by challenging either Jones or Jason Worilds to step in and play at a Harrison-like level because, he said, “He has been our hammer around here for a long time.”
“We've got a lot to prove, and the biggest thing is we need our young guys to step up,” Keisel said. “Training camp is hard, especially for the young guys because they're the ones who get most of the reps — the coaches want to see if they can succeed or show they can't do it. I'm excited to watch them; I'm excited to see the ones rise up, the strong ones rise up and do the stuff that's going to help us win games. I feel like we're going to be tough.”
Clark said the Steelers don't need lessened expectations to motivate them.
“We don't have a rallying cry,” he said. “If you need to find things to get excited, to get the opportunity to play a great game in a great city for a great organization and great fans, we don't need you here because we don't want that type of guy.”