Promising rookies, new work ethic reinvigorate Steelers in camp
Winds of change are whistling through the Steelers’ training camp in this coolish summer of 2013, all brought by a man who is motivated — and perhaps a bit angered — by the fall of ’12.
Change usually comes in measured doses to the Steelers, a team that has bucked tradition by holding an old-style camp in the same location for nearly a half-century, all while employing only three head coaches in 44 years.
But if this training camp looks different from others during the Mike Tomlin era that began in 2007, there’s a reason. It isn’t the same camp.
Practices are running longer than before, sometimes by a half-hour. There is live contact — something that was missing entirely in the past, except during the goal-line drill. There are rookies not just pushing but bulldozing for jobs at multiple positions, cheered on by encouraged fans who already seem to have adopted Le’Veon Bell, Jarvis Jones and Markus Wheaton as favorites.
Players such as LaMarr Woodley, Troy Polamalu, Jonathan Dwyer, Isaac Redman and Cam Heyward are in noticeably better shape, some of them at the coach’s insistence.
Tomlin said he didn’t change anything in response to the 8-8 season of a year ago, but this training camp appears to contradict that stance.
“I’m not doing anything in response to what occurred a year ago. This is not a continuation of what occurred a year ago,” Tomlin said Sunday following a practice on a sunny but uncommonly cool low-70s day. “I’m just trying to provide this group of men what it is they need to be the best they can be. We’ve got a lot of young guys, a lot of competition, jobs and so forth. The only way to provide an opportunity to sort themselves out is to throw a ball out, snap it and play football. And that’s what we’re doing.”
Only they’re doing it with a much-changed cast, at least by Steelers standards, with new starters at eight positions — at least.
Ben Roethlisberger seems energized by the addition of Bell and Wheaton to an offense that ran the ball consistently for only a brief stretch last year and didn’t throw it nearly as well late in the season as it did early.
The fans at St. Vincent already are sensing that Bell might be the starter and appear to be affording him the same attention they do the Polamalus and Pounceys. The quarterback is noticing, too.
“He’s shown that power. He’s been able to run through things,” Roethlisberger said. “He’s shown some shiftiness and quickness. He’s made some guys miss, which is good. He’s dynamic and can do a lot of things, and you can see it so far.”
Wheaton, who will replace some of the speed element the Steelers lost when Mike Wallace departed, “is doing a great job,” Roethlisberger said.
There’s more of an outside element to the running game, too, in part because of the newly added zone-blocking scheme that funnels blockers en masse to the outside. Of the three running backs competing to start, Bell appears to be better equipped than Redman or Dwyer to take advantage of it.
“It’s an athletic group, and they like it, and it helps them get on the move,” Roethlisberger said of his offensive line. “I think it’s going to be good for us.”
All of this newness seems to be invigorating the holdover players. Hall of Fame cornerback Rod Woodson, who is working in camp, appeared to pick up on that when he posted this Twitter message: “The team is looking good.”
“Some things have changed. There’s some new faces,” Roethlisberger said. “We’re seeing what we’re made of.”
His teammates appeared convinced the changes — the ones Tomlin won’t acknowledge — are for the better.
“He’s mad,” wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders said. “We’re all mad about 8-8 last season.”