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Kirwan's Steelers camp visit


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LATROBE, Pa. (Aug. 4, 2006) -- Next stop on the NFL camp tour, the world champion Pittsburgh Steelers, the franchise that still carries itself like a small-town team from an era gone by with a fan base that is nationwide. There are not a lot of organizational meetings to look at new ways things could be done and not much has changed from the days of Chuck Noll all the way to the chase for "one for the thumb." The Steelers have very physical practices and the players all seem to be on the same page about the way a Steeler carries himself -- and it starts at the top. As cornerback Ike Taylor told me, "When you become a Steeler, it isn't about getting an expensive watch or a fancy car. We look to the owner, Mr. Rooney, who still walks to the games from his home."

Head coach Bill Cowher is an extension of the Rooney family, telling me when we sat down for a talk about his team, "Pat, you know there's only one way to practice goal-line offense and defense -- all out." And even though these are walkthrough practice sessions, there is a big emphasis on the physical nature of the game of football at Steeler camp in Latrobe, Pa., and that's never going to change. Whether coming off a Super Bowl title or a six-win season, nothing changes the way this team prepares.

Ben Roethlisberger has shown few effects from his June motorcycle accident. Now that Ben Roethlisberger has emerged from the dark days that followed his motorcycle accident and is back in pads moving around in the pocket and throwing passes, the focus for the entire organization is back to defending the Super Bowl title the only way they know how -- a competitive camp with a no-excuse approach.

On offense, there is a constant undercurrent of a desire for more passing by Big Ben, but offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt said, "There is a natural growth to our offense as Ben matures that could involve more passing, but we also know how we got where we are." Roethlisberger clarified his public passing request to me by saying, "I'd like some more options in the play selection if defenses present things we can take advantage of during a game."

There's little doubt Roethlisberger is the same quarterback he was a year ago. He's 20 pounds lighter, he has worked hard in the film room, and even though he's won a Super Bowl, he is still growing and maturing. During the team practices I attended, he still demonstrates that "riverboat-gambler" style, especially when he moves out of the pocket. He's the first to describe himself as a guy not looking to run when he breaks contain from the pocket but rather to make a big play downfield in the passing game. Roethlisberger is excellent scrambling to his left and is very conscious not to be predictable about his escape routes. As long as teams can't corral the big guy, they will be in trouble.

His receivers are an interesting group, and as Roethlisberger pointed out, two years ago when he started scrambling, Plaxico Burress became an excellent deep target. Last year, Antwaan Randle El would get himself behind the coverage. This year, it is yet to be determined, but Cedric Wilson, Quincy Morgan and rookie Santonio Holmes look very capable of filling in for the lost players.

The Steelers will allow rookie Santonio Holmes time to catch on. I spent some time with Holmes, the team's first-round draft pick, and his head is spinning at this point in camp. He is an excellent route runner with outstanding playing speed getting off press coverage as the X receiver, but recognizing when he's the hot receiver and reading coverages as he works downfield take time to learn. After observing two days at camp, I would think he will be a role player to start the season and not the starter. The Steelers really don't like to rush their rookies into the starting lineup and there's no better example of that than Troy Polamalu, who didn't start as a rookie and then went to the Pro Bowl as a second-year player. Holmes will be brought along at the right pace.

The running game has three components to it: the men up front, the open-field attack and the short-yardage goal-line package. As for the trademark of the Steelers -- the offensive line -- left guard Alan Faneca is the foundation of a very good group of players. I asked Faneca how often the running game crosses the line of scrimmage behind him. Between the power plays that head to the left side and the number of plays that involve him pulling to the right so the ball can attack the right side, he agreed that close to 70 percent of the plays are right behind him. He is a lock at his position, as are Marvel Smith and Max Starks at the tackle spots.

At right guard, Kendall Simmons is holding off stiff competition from Chris Kemoeatu. Center Jeff Hartings is entering his 11th year with Chukky Okobi right behind him and the coaches and scouts are very high on sixth-round pick Marvin Philip. The other player making an excellent impression in camp for his toughness is rookie Willie Colon at right tackle. Cowher loves his feet and his competitive nature; let's just say Colon isn't afraid to mix it up when the defense and offense get together for some hitting.

At running back, Willie Parker is the run-down back, Verron Haynes will still handle third-down situations and Duce Staley will replace Jerome Bettis as the short-yardage back. Staley really impressed me during all the practices I watched with his quick feet, his power and his hands. I'm not naive enough to think he can replace everything The Bus brought to the table from a leadership and emotional role, but it does look like the short-yardage run game will be fine.

As for the Steelers defense, there are two components that stick out as soon as I got to camp. First, director of football operations Kevin Colbert and his personnel staff do one heck of a job finding players who can run and hit, especially the linebacker group. The other thing that jumps out is the schemes defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau teaches to his players. You really have to watch practice to see the excellent instructional work LeBeau does with the players. It's the first week of camp and some of the players told me 80 percent of the defense is installed and they are just working on repetitions in order to play fast. As Faneca said, "When you go against our defense, you will be prepared for every look there is."

There were two big questions coming into camp: Can Brett Keisel go from a situational pass rusher and special teams player to a full-time starter at defensive end, and who will replace Chris Hope at safety?

Keisel has gone from a 270-pound tweener who could run down on kickoffs to a 286-pounder who can two gap and hold the point of attack. He will be just fine replacing Kimo von Oelhoffen. When he needs a break, second-year defensive end Shaun Nua and maybe even Orien Harris, Pittsburgh's fourth-round selection, will get some time.

Ryan Clark made 12 starts with the Redskins last season. As for the safety spot, this team has real depth there. Ryan Clark signed from the Redskins and has picked up the defense very quickly, but Tyrone Carter is battling him all the way through camp. Rookie Anthony Smith made a great play in the scrimmage the other night and Mike Logan could start for a number of teams in the NFL. Whichever safety wins the job next to Polamalu, the Steelers will not miss a beat back in the secondary.

The cornerback position has a heated battle going on as Bryant McFadden tries to unseat old veteran DeShea Townsend. McFadden is talented, but as I watched practice, Townsend kept demonstrating the value of his nine years of experience. Cowher said Townsend still makes plays because he's smart and studies the offense. No matter which way this battle ends up, I like the talent when the Steelers go to a nickel or dime defense.

Finally, even though the Steelers won the Super Bowl, they didn't win the AFC North last year. The Ravens are an improved team this season and they split with Pittsburgh last year, as did the Bengals, who won the division. The Steelers know they are in a dogfight again and they are ready for it.

The world champs are headed back to the playoffs and should make a deep run, but there are questions. If they can't win division, will it be possible to win two Super Bowls in a row as a wild card? How will Roethlisberger handle the first time he gets his jaw smacked in a game following the motorcycle accident? And is there any hangover from the Super Bowl?

Steelers fans aren't worried about any of those issues, and as I leave camp, I'm less concerned about them too. If they win the division, they can repeat, but if they have to come from the wild card, history is against them. I'll let you know Pittsburgh's outlook when I get done looking at the rest of the AFC North as

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Nice read and excellent overview. For some reason, i pretty much get the impression that this years squad may be even better than last years. I can say this much for sure, Big Ben's deep throws are much better than the last few weeks last year. I dunno how much of it was his injured thumb or fatigue, but he is throwing a much tighter spiral on his deep throws and it seems like more velocity. I'm pretty excited about the offense this year.

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