Steelers open training camp with questions aplenty
They are an aging team that might wind up relying heavily on rookies. An underachieving team coming off an 8-8 season that has three recent Super Bowl appearances to lean upon for reference.
They are a team that has shed considerable talent in James Harrison, Mike Wallace and Keenan Lewis but one that always seems to find exemplary replacements for key starters. A team with a gambler-type quarterback in Ben Roethlisberger that prefers to play with precision rather than unpredictability in Todd Haley's system.
The Steelers are fraught with contradictions — even they don't seem to know what to expect — and a lot of question marks.
Some of those questions will begin to be answered Friday when training camp opens at St. Vincent College in Latrobe, the start to one of those uncommon seasons in which the Steelers aren't being widely predicted to make the playoffs or pose a Super Bowl threat.
“Not making the playoffs, that's unacceptable, especially with the type of talent we have,” linebacker Larry Foote said. “We're going through a bit of a transition period — we lost some guys — so it's unknown guys who need to step up if we're going to go far.”
This is different, too: Normally fans are clamoring for the Steelers to open camp as another discouraging Pirates season plays out. Now it could be argued the Steelers are No. 2 in fan interest to a contending Pirates team.
Talk about contradictions.
The Steelers, picked by numerous national outlets to finish No. 3 in the AFC North, won't do anything Friday except go through conditioning tests; the first practice in pads is Monday.
But they have much to do during the 23 days they'll be based in Latrobe, another contradictory scenario for a franchise that often has its lineup set even before the first wind sprint is run.
These Steelers need to sort out whether either, both or neither of their top two picks — linebacker Jarvis Jones and running back Le'Veon Bell — is ready to start. Whether one of the NFL's best pass-rush units will badly miss the now Cincinnati-based Harrison. Whether their offense will be more predictable now that Wallace and his sprinter-type speed are gone.
“As my old boss, Bill Parcells, used to say, you are what your record is,” Haley said. “We were 8-8, and that's not good enough. But we'll continue to do everything possible to be better than that.”
They'll also get a better idea of how long tight end Heath Miller, their leading receiver a season ago, will be out following major knee surgery and whether Matt Spaeth or David Paulson can be a suitable replacement.
“Heath Miller is a guy they desperately need to get on the field as soon as possible,” NFL Network analyst Shaun O'Hara said.
Troy Polamalu and LaMarr Woodley will be monitored closely a year after Polamalu, one of the NFL's most dynamic defensive players, missed nine games to a torn calf and Woodley had injury troubles of his own while being limited to four sacks.
The Steelers also will get their first look at receiver Markus Wheaton, a promising third-round pick who could not attend the May/June practices because Oregon State's academic year hadn't ended.
And one summer after they couldn't re-sign Wallace, the Steelers are expected to make a push to re-sign Emmanuel Sanders, who was offered a contract by the Patriots that Pittsburgh matched.
So much to do, and so little time to do it.