Camp could be make-or-break for Steelers WR Limas Sweed
Ryan Clark was walking through the Steelers' locker room before Super Bowl XLV when he noticed wide receiver Limas Sweed cutting a lonely figure in front of his stall.
Clark handed Sweed a pair of headphones. The veteran free safety had cued his iPod to his favorite gospel song, "Your Tears," and he left it with Sweed.
"It seemed like he needed something," Clark said. "By the time I came back, he had it on repeat."
Fast forward to the second day of training camp. Sweed, bothered by setbacks on and off the field the past two seasons, declares he is "110 percent" physically and mentally.
He leaves little doubt that he has found his footing -- this following the dropped passes that threatened to be the epitaph of his Steelers career, a stint on the non-injury/illness list and a major foot injury.
Still, one of the intriguing questions of this preseason is whether Sweed can find a spot in the wide receiver rotation after getting passed by Mike Wallace, Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown.
"I feel like I have something to prove to my coaches and to myself, that I'm ready to be here and that I'm ready to play," Sweed said. "Yeah, I have a chip on my shoulder."
Sweed sprained his shoulder last Saturday, an injury that came after he had already missed several practices because of a balky hamstring. Sweed returned to practice Monday but didn't finish it, and the injuries could be seen as yet another setback for the player who has to gain the trust of his coaches in a hurry.
Then again, Sweed isn't going to play his way onto the 53-man roster by starring during practices at St. Vincent College.
"For him, it's when the lights come on," Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians said. "It's just a matter of him getting in games and showing up. He's been here a long time, and it is a make-or-break time."
Seven career catches and no touchdowns put Sweed at this juncture, less than five years after the former University of Texas star slid to the Steelers in the second round of the 2008 NFL draft.
As then, when the Steelers happily snatched up Sweed after taking running back Rashard Mendenhall in the first round, there is much to like about him as a wide receiver.
Sweed is 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds, has enough speed to separate from defensive backs and is a capable and willing blocker. What makes Sweed even more of a deep-threat prototype is his 37-inch vertical leap and exceptional body control.
"He's got such strength in his core that he's able to contort his body to do things that a normal guy can't do," said Texas head football strength coach Bennie Wylie, who worked with Sweed during the offseason. "He's one of those kinds of freaks of nature."
Such physical ability, coupled with a willingness to work, is what makes this reality all the more perplexing: Sweed has been the actor who can recite his lines in his sleep but flubs them when the curtain rises.
How else to explain the drop of a perfect Ben Roethlisberger deep pass in the 2008 AFC Championship Game• Or the one in Cincinnati in September 2009, when Sweed dropped a touchdown pass in an eventual loss to the Bengals?
"That was two or three years ago, you know what I mean?" Sweed said of the drops. "I don't know if people think about it or say something about it; I don't worry about it. That's irrelevant."
The drops undoubtedly contributed to the emotional turmoil that caused the Steelers to place Sweed on the non-injury/illness list at the end of the 2009 season. He returned to the team that offseason but ruptured his Achilles tendon in the final practice of minicamp.
|Hit and miss|
|The 2008 NFL draft featured a run on wide receivers in the second round. Those players have produced mixed results through their first three seasons.|
|Donnie Avery, Rams||33||Caught 100 passes for 1,263 first two seasons; missed 2010 campaign with knee injury|
|Devin Thomas, Redskins||34||A bust in D.C., Thomas is trying to catch on with the Giants|
|Jordy Nelson, Packers||36||Burned Steelers for 140 receiving yards in Super Bowl XLV|
|James Hardy, Bills||41||Caught just 10 passes in Buffalo before Bills waived him; in camp with the Ravens|
|Eddie Royal, Broncos||42||Fourth-fastest in NFL history to 100 career catches; also a dangerous return man|
|Jerome Simpson, Bengals||46||Time is now for Simpson in Cincy now that T.O. and Ochocinco are gone|
|DeSean Jackson, Eagles||49||Two-time Pro Bowler is one of the top deep threats in the NFL|
|Malcolm Kelly, Redskins||51||Clock is ticking for Kelly, who missed last season due to multiple injuries, in D.C.|
|Limas Sweed, Steelers||53||Going into final year of his four-year contract|
|Dexter Jackson, Buccaneers||58||Tampa Bay gave up on him after one season; Jackson now in the UFL|
The injury that Sweed called "devastating" derailed his comeback bid five months before the start of the 2010 season. And another lost season for Sweed sagged to a low point when he had to watch his teammates play in the Super Bowl without him.
That led Clark to introduce Sweed to the gospel song by Paul S. Morton -- the same one that Sweed said he now has on his iPod.
"I know it's hard to feel alone, so I just wanted to reach out to him the best I could," Clark said. "Hopefully it helped him, he seems like he's doing a lot better."
"It was awesome," Sweed said of Clark's gesture, "and I'm a spiritual person so I believe that everything happens for a reason."
Sweed is vague about the circumstances that led to his leave of absence in 2009.
"I was lost," Sweed said early during camp.
A couple of days later he offered a clarification.
"I wouldn't say lost," Sweed said. "I had things in my life that I was struggling with on and off the field and needed some assistance in my life and my family understood."
Sweed credits a closer relationship with God and the organization-wide support he has received for getting him back on course. He spent most of the offseason in Texas, and Wylie said effort was never an issue when Sweed trained with him.
"He was always excited about training," said Wylie, who is in his first year at Texas. "I just assumed that's how he always was, just a very positive guy, an upbeat guy."
Staying upbeat has probably been a challenge for Sweed. In addition to the injuries Sweed has had to weather, the Steelers have shown a willingness to go outside of the organization to bolster their receiving corps.
The team has hosted Plaxico Burress and Jerricho Cotchery for visits, and Burress and Sweed are the same type of player.
"I was like, 'I'm 6-4, I'm here, I'm ready to play,' " Sweed said of the Steelers' unsuccessful courtship of Burress. "But I also know I had injuries and things to prove. From that standpoint it just added fuel to my fire. I'm ready to show them I'm that big guy and fill in where they need me to fill in."