Granted Bill Cowher is no longer the coach of the Steelers, but there is a consistency about the Steeler organization that transcends the coach. A day at Saint Vincent's College watching the 2007 Steelers prepare for the season under new head coach, Mike Tomlin, and it just looked like a tough hard-nosed, blue-collar football team getting ready to make a playoff run. Pittsburgh is used to winning and over the past five seasons they have averaged 10 wins a year.
Last season's eight wins, and in particular the two losses to the Ravens, when they only generated seven points and gave up 58, is on the minds of all the veteran players. There are some differences in the coaching. Tomlin started out like a ball of fire with double sessions in pads day after day. Some complained, but as Hines Ward said, "It's a test to see if we really want to do things Mike's way. Can we separate from the past?"
The core players on this team are passing the test and buying into the Tomlin era.
The offense is working hard to prove to the coaches they can succeed if they open it up and throw the ball more. The defense is relieved that Tomlin will stick with Dick LeBeau's 3-4 defense. "We will continue to look for players who fit into our 3-4 scheme. Coach Tomlin made it clear during his interview that he has no problem sticking with the 3-4," said Kevin Colbert, VP for personnel.
The special teams will always have issues at Heinz Field where the wind is a challenge. Look for Willie Reid to become a critical part of the return game. At least six veteran players mentioned Reid when I asked which player is on the verge of being a big surprise in 2007. "A young Hines Ward" was the best description I heard.
1. The new offense -- Ben Roethlisberger has been asking for a more wide open offense especially on traditional run down situations. Ben looked great at practice throwing the ball with great accuracy and building up the coaches' confidence that he can handle more in the passing game. One front office executive said Ben is doing a better job of "trusting" the system. Translation -- He doesn't take off out of the pocket before he reads his receiver options. Some felt a year ago Ben was more interested in creating plays outside the pocket than locating second and third receivers.
2. Alan Faneca contract -- Veteran players had no trouble sitting down with me to talk about Alan Faneca. He is clearly considered a leader of the team, and as one player said "a real Pittsburgh guy." There's no doubt that all of the veterans especially the six players with 10 or more years of service want Faneca signed before the season starts. As one player said, "Alan does everything the right way and it looks like they don't care." I think extending the 10-year veteran might be a good idea. A senior member of the team said, "The Cowboys thought Larry Allen was done when they let him go and that wasn't true."
3. Mike Tomlin -- Mike is another young defensive coach hired from outside the organization to take over the franchise. Coach Noll and Bill Cowher both won in their first season as the head coach and the fans bring it up every time the topic of the new coach arises. Mike is winning the players over and as James Farrior said, "I played against Mike in college."
THE BEST NEWCOMERS
1. LaMarr Woodley -- First round pick Lawrence Timmons is on the sidelines with an injury, so he suffers from out of sight out of mind. In the mean time, Lamar has already gained the respect of the veteran defenders. As Brett Keisel said, "Woodley knows the defense and he's tough; the veterans like him."
2. Matt Spaeth -- Matt jumped out at me as soon as practice started. The 6-foot-7-inch rookie tight end has soft hands, runs very good routes and will give the Steelers offense an excellent target over the middle. He has the agility to run a pivot route like a little wide receiver, he can get upfield in a hurry and is developing as a blocker. There will be times when Pittsburgh goes to a three tight end personnel grouping and they will cause problems for defenses.
OFFENSE - Don't sound the alarm that the Steelers have abandoned the run and become a passing team. The Steelers will always run the ball well. But this season I expect some shotgun no back sets on first and second downs. If nothing else, all the preseason emphasis on the new concepts will develop their two minute drill principles. Heath Miller looks faster and more of a vertical threat, Santonio Holmes runs better routes and Hines Ward still wears his name on a piece of tape on his helmet until he makes the team. The Steelers will do better than scoring 17 points a game in those six divisional games like they did last year. Willie Parker said, "Ben's handling the new offense very well and is going to have a great year." I agree with Willie on big Ben.
DEFENSE -- Gone is OLB Joey Porter, the emotional leader of the defense. The 2007 version of the 3-4 will be better in the secondary, deeper at outside linebacker where the pass rush pressure comes from and just as good up front. Ike Taylor said, "Coach LeBeau has some new tricks up his sleeve for the season and we are all excited to get back on top." There is a great battle being waged at the safety position opposite Troy Polamalu with Ryan Clark, Anthony Smith and Tyrone Carter. Whoever wins that job may do so by letting Polamalu be himself on the field. At practice Troy was constantly lining up in different spots and somehow getting to his real spot after the snap of the ball. Heath Miller said on one play Troy was acting like he was beat in coverage by me just teasing the quarterback to throw it to Heath and out of nowhere picked off the pass and scored.
SPECIAL TEAMS -- The coverage units will get a dose of young players with Timmons and Woodley becoming core coverage players. Their rookie punter, Daniel Sepulveda, kicks left-footed which can be problematic for returns and as a former linebacker, the 6-foot-3, 230-pound athlete will make a tackle. Willie Reid will have a big year as a return specialist.
The inexperience of the head coach could be a problem when it comes to game time decisions, rules, and play calling in critical moments. The offensive line lost Jeff Harting and is starting to look old. They gave up 49 sacks last year and they should throw the ball another 50 times this season.
MOST INTERESTING INTERVIEWS
1. Hines Ward -- Ward is "old school" in so many ways. He runs to the end zone on a reception, he has his name on the helmet and is probably the leader of this team.
2. Brett Keisel -- A number of people felt Keisel was headed back to kick coverage, but when he walked into the room, his 292-pound frame said none of that for me. Keisel is the ultimate team player and would do anything to get on the field.
3. Ike Taylor -- Called this season a fresh start for himself. He has his starting job back and he has no intension of losing it. I think Ike is going to have a very successful season.
The Steelers need Ben Roethlisberger to play more inside the system and basically sit in the pocket a split second longer and find the third read before he runs. Santonio Holmes has to become a go-to receiver, which isn't a lock. When the team heads to the airport for an away game, they have to do better than 3-5 and they can't be shutout like they were twice in road games last season.
As I leave the Steeler training camp in Latrobe, Pa., I am confident they will win more than the eight they won last year but I think it's nine or 10 wins and a wild card berth in the playoffs. Tomlin will be a big success in his first year as a head coach.