Roethlisberger gets another chance
LATROBE, Pa. -- Western Pennsylvania is a forgiving region. So despite Steelers fans' disappointment in his off-the-field conduct and six-game suspension, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was greeted with cheers Saturday as he ran onto the practice field at Saint Vincent College.
Two Super Bowl rings temporarily trumped the two allegations that two women made against Roethlisberger. Steelers fans forgave defensive tackle Ernie Holmes for his 1973 arrest on a charge of shooting at a police helicopter after a long chase into Ohio. They have forgiven almost every Steeler who has had difficulty with the law.
Winning does that, and the Steelers have been winning for most of the past three decades. The coaching staff showed its confidence in Roethlisberger by letting him take the first-team snaps Saturday, even though Byron Leftwich will start at least the first four games of the season.
Training camp offers optimism, giving Roethlisberger the chance to heal his strained relationship with fans and teammates. A 2-2 start or better would help Roethlisberger; his absence could lead to him being the fall guy if the Steelers start 1-3 or worse.
Here are three key observations from Steelers camp:
1. The offensive line should be good enough to get by. The Steelers should survive even though they lost perhaps their best-performing offensive lineman, right tackle Willie Colon, for the season with a torn Achilles. The offensive line isn't the team's strength, but the personnel department has scrambled to provide Mike Tomlin with enough depth to get by.
Former Cowboys left tackle Flozell Adams, who just signed a contract that will pay him $2.5 million this season, lined up with the starters at right tackle on Saturday. Sure, it will take him time to adjust his techniques after years of playing on the opposite side of the line, but Adams should have enough left to get the Steelers through the season. Like most aging left tackles, Adams lost some of the legs needed to block quick pass-rushers. As a right tackle with some protection (having a tight end available to his right), Adams can just use his 350-pound body to power-block on running plays and hold off pass-rushers enough for Steelers quarterbacks to adjust if they slip by.
Adams isn't needed as a blindside pass-protector because the team has confidence in left tackle Max Starks. It also helps that right guard Trai Essex is an intelligent blocker who could aid Adams in his adjustment to a new line. That also explains why talented first-round choice Maurkice Pouncey opened camp as a backup. From the scouting reports, Pouncey is a star-in-waiting, but the team needs experience to get through the tough month of September without Roethlisberger. The Steelers also signed veteran Adrian Jones as a backup tackle just in case of another injury.
2. Offensive emphasis stays on the pass. Mike Wallace, a third-round pick from 2009, won't fill the 1,249 yards lost at split end because of the Santonio Holmes trade, but he gives offensive coordinator Bruce Arians speed that he's rarely had at the position. Wallace runs a 4.33-second 40-yard dash, and his running style is smooth. He explodes down the field. Even with Holmes on the roster last season, Wallace caught 39 passes for a ridiculous 19.4-yard average. What the Steelers will miss without Holmes is the consistent run-after-catch threat he provided, but if Wallace makes the catch, he can score a fast touchdown.
Speed is lacking overall at receiver, but that's because the unit has plenty of age. Hines Ward is 34. The 30-year-old Antwaan Randle El was brought back, while the 30-year-old Arnaz Battle was signed as a free agent from the 49ers. Randle El and Battle add flexibility to the mix because both can help on special teams. Battle is a good coverage defender on special teams, while Randle El can work out of the slot for the offense and double as a returner.
Third-round choice Emmanuel Sanders is an interesting addition. Like most Steelers receivers, he's rather short at 5-foot-11, 180 pounds, but he catches the ball well along the sideline and should get some playing time in spread formations.
The one thing that apparently won't change in the Steelers' offense is the emphasis on the pass. Arians still believes the team can run well out of spread passing sets and doesn't plan to go to a fullback-led power game that marked the long success of the franchise. Fullbacks are hard to find coming out of college. Converted tight end David Johnson is the leading option at fullback from a group of three, but the Steelers don't plan to turn into a pure running team despite the Roethlisberger suspension and the Holmes trade.
3. Pride should lead to a rededication of the Steelers' defense. Poor tackling and mistakes led to a disappointing 2009 for the defense. Statistically, the Steelers' defense finished fifth in the league, but it wasn't the same last season. The Steelers were the fifth-worst team in third-down efficiency and third-worst on fourth down. Tomlin blames missed tackles.
The emphasis this offseason is on getting the veteran defenders to do what they do best -- make tackles. Although age remains a concern, bad technique won't be tolerated. It's still amazing to see how hard this defense plays even though it is wrestling with Father Time. Eight starters are between the ages of 29 and 35. Linebackers LaMarr Woodley (25) and Lawrence Timmons (24) are the only starters younger than 28.
The Steelers' defensive linemen all want to squeeze out another great season for 72-year-old defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, who will be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday. Somehow, LeBeau, through his scheming, has helped these aging players find the Fountain of Youth. For the Steelers to survive a tough offseason of losses, the defense will have to carry the load.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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