Steelers Thoughts #3 (7/30/14): Are we there yet?

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Steelers Training Camp is officially underway in beautiful Latrobe, PA, though today is an off day for the team. Yesterday, the boys practiced in pads for the first time this year, and, though Mike Tomlin has in his press briefings kept things in strict perspective and been typically (and, I might add, properly) circumspect about praising anybody, there is nevertheless lots to talk about, both on and off the field. The air is thick with possibility, which, of course, is so much fuel to the fires of speculation. Soon enough, they’ll be raging, but I’ll do my best to keep this piece comparatively breezy in feel. There is, of course, absolutely no news to be found here, but this is just too fun a time of year for fans for it to go wholly unremarked upon. So, without further ado, my quick takes on some recent Steeler headlines, plus other tidbits. Mmmm…training camp!

Ben’s contract

Hear ye, Hear ye…

Ben Roethlisberger has two years left on his contract with the Steelers. He is not going anywhere, nor does he want to. All this is a matter of public record, commented on and reinforced by both Ben and the team numerous times.

We don’t have the money this year to extend Ben for the amount he both wants and deserves. Ben has been told this. Ben says all the right things and is a vocal, engaged leader on the field, whilst “sources” paint him as seriously disgruntled off it.

These same sources now report he wants $20 million per year, or thereabouts. Since I don’t work at the NSA, I’ve never had the privilege of eavesdropping on a phone call between Ben’s agent Ryan Tollner and Steelers negotiator Omar Khan. So I dunno. Next year’s salary cap will be an estimated $10 million higher, which sounds nice. Whatever the number, rest assured the Steelers will pay him well at that time.

GM Kevin Colbert has said repeatedly that Roethlisberger is the team’s priority, this week going so far as to say there is, “no scenario under which Ben does not retire a Steeler”. That word’s final enough for me.

I understand the Steelers are normally a comparatively drama-free and, therefore, fairly uninteresting team from a national perspective. I only write about them once every few months, so I’m not unsympathetic to those who have to scavenge or concoct new stories on a daily basis. Still, though, pretty please with sugar on top, give this contract stuff a rest, guys.

Sanders vs. Ben

There’s nothing essentially wrong with former Steelers WR Emmanuel Sanders seeming to fire a shot at his former quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, in the process of praising his new one, Peyton Manning, on Denver morning radio recently. It still struck me as pretty unnecessary, and should have been handled better. Job #1 for any new hire, of course, is to settle into unfamiliar surroundings, make himself known, and declare his suddenly unwavering loyalty to his new colors and their standard bearers. And there is no higher bar to clear in professional football than Peyton Manning, whose myth has in some ways already surpassed his reality, even as he still puts up ungodly numbers on a regular basis and has lost a Super Bowl much more recently than has Ben. So, yeah, I get it. Manning, who was probably calling pre-snap audibles in the womb, has always seemed a more demonstrative “leader” than anyone this side of the late Gen. Douglas MacArthur. Ben, who spent the first half of his career practically incubated by veteran leadership (Ward, Porter, Farrior, Bettis, et al) and has only in recent years grown into himself in a leadership role and really seized that mantle, is going to suffer by that comparison. Practically everyone would.

Still and all, Sanders had to know that Denver local sports media isn’t somehow isolated from the rest of America just because the Rocky Mountains in which it’s nestled are so darn pretty and high. Sanders is certainly entitled to his opinion. Even though he’s sucking up to the new home town intelligentsia, I think he comes off a bit petty by intimating then outlining the leadership gap in stark terms. Sanders had a nice little career in Pittsburgh. He made some big catches and dropped others. He played well enough, though not quite up to his potential. Even as I hated to lose him in a salary cap move this offseason, it wasn’t as if I thought he was irreplaceable. Todd Haley is already calling the Steelers’ current WR crop potentially the best he’s been associated with, and told the media its depth might well necessitate “good receivers” not making the team. Sanders thinks much more highly of his abilities than I do, as he should. After being pursued at first very lightly, he finally hit the free agent jackpot in Denver. Good for him. Let’s not talk about it. When a team lets you hit the open market without even extending a contract offer, players are conditioned to see that as a grievous slight. The Steelers did match an RFA offer sheet from the Patriots for Sanders the previous offseason, so I’d say they valued him appropriately and only squeezed him out when the hardest choices had to be made. I think the Steelers’ business decision wounded him a little, and a thinly veiled shot like this is just a low fuss way of getting back at them.

Job #1 for any sports talk show host is to ask leading questions. I wouldn’t call Sanders outspoken per se, but during his time with the Steelers he did seem especially hungry for a spotlight that never fully settled on him (thanks first to Mike Wallace, then Antonio Brown), and I have a hard time imagining him turning down any interview request. So in a way this whole non-story was painfully predictable. If 2.5 weeks of basking in the glow of Peyton Manning has taught Emmanuel Sanders what true leadership is in comparison to what he so bravely endured in Pittsburgh, more power to him. As far as I’m concerned, his mouth has free reign now to roam and run and run, situated as it is 1400 miles away from that team he should probably stop talking about immediately. As for the question of Ben’s leadership, I’m seeing more evidence of his seriousness, studiousness and commitment to the game and to his team now than I have at any time during his admittedly turbulent career. He continues to grow, and talks about leadership constantly, if you ever bother to listen. There is possibly a nugget of truth to Sanders’ jab, which Ben might well use as additional motivation, assuming he even gives it a second thought. For now, his signs all seem to be trending up, and that’s what matters to me. Put on those noise-canceling headphones and get to work.

Defense! Defense!

With the drafting of Ryan Shazier (LB) and Stephon Tuitt (DE), the acquisition of Mike Mitchell (S), the bulking up of Steve McLendon (NT) and the continuing recovery of Sean Spence (LB), fans have much reason to be bullish on the Steelers’ chance to reclaim their place as an intimidating, turnover-producing defense. Even in recent years when Dick LeBeau’s defenses weren’t setting the world on fire, they’ve still been among the league’s elite in yards and points against per game. Last season then can be seen as a startling moment of clarity, a painful admission of inadequacy, a pot long simmering finally coming to boil. Faced with middle of the road defensive rankings that fully reflected its second straight 8-8 season, the Steelers moved quickly and decisively to add team speed and, even more important, defensive playmakers. First round pick Shazier has been the focus of attention thus far and has in some ways already exceeded expectations. His hustle and drive were highlights of the annual “backs vs. backers” drill, where he reportedly flung himself into the fire and got the better of bruising RB LeGarette Blount (also a new hire looking to make his name) several times before Blount adjusted and was able to score some points.

Coaches also gush about the potential of Notre Dame’s Tuitt, the team’s second round pick, and speculation is high that both he and Shazier could be starters by year’s end, Shazier perhaps by week one (he’s taken first team snaps consistently since the moment he took the field at last month’s OTAs). Mitchell, a free agent signee from Carolina coming off a career year, is seen as a speed and youth upgrade over the departed Ryan Clark at safety, and one who might grow into one of the league’s best under the tutelage of LeBeau and backs coach Carnell Lake. Mitchell has been limited by a strained groin thus far, but is already running, and, of course, saying all the right things. Also saying and doing the right things is Steve McLendon, an athletically gifted converted DE whose first season as a starter at NT was decent, even as he occasionally struggled both with the AFC North’s stout interior linemen and the considerable shadow of his predecessor, future HOF’er Casey Hampton. McLendon put on about 20 strategic pounds to make his frame better able to both absorb shock and dish it out, but claims his speed should not suffer as a result. Assuming he’s right, a stabilized eventual line of Tuitt, McLendon and emerging star Cam Heyward, all young and mean and playing up to par, would likely be a nightmare for opposing linemen.

Interior linebacker is also a potential strength for the team. If Shazier develops as he seems fast-tracked to do, his pairing with Lawrence Timmons becomes one of the league’s premier tandems in short order. Sean Spence, the ILB drafted two years ago as the first attempt at filling Shazier’s current role (with, by many accounts, a comparable skillset and football IQ) continues to make steady progress from the devastating knee injury that has kept him off the field his entire career, participating in “backs vs. backers” yesterday and running back an interception for a touchdown during OTAs. With questions in abundance over the Steelers’ depth and options at cornerback, fortifying the front seven to apply maximum pressure (one pictures Timmons and Shazier running LeBeau’s trademark “X-stunt” interior blitz just as well as James Farrior and Larry Foote did in the early 2000s) is of paramount importance. It’s a fair question how much pressure the outside linebackers will be able to generate, but inside depth is a reason for optimism. With the prospects of Shazier, Mitchell and Timmons flying to the ball, McLendon holding the line, and Heyward and the OLBs pressing the quarterback, the recent days of “old, slow” Steeler defense seem at least to be definitively over. Please hold your applause, and further pronouncements, until day two of Training Camp in pads.

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