Steelers focused on Super Bowl title No. 7

LATROBE, Pa. — The Steelers return 20 of 22 starters, which makes them strong contenders to repeat as Super Bowl champions. They still have Dick LeBeau running the defense, and his players call him “The Wizard,” which reflects the schemes and creativity he brings. The offense still has Ben Roethlisberger under center and returns RB Rashard Mendenhall after a season-ending shoulder injury last year.

Here are some of my observations from two days of Steelers training camp:

  • As I met with many of the players, I was impressed by their humility and how focused they are on 2009. Rather than reminiscing about the Super Bowl or wearing their rings, they are looking for world championship No. 7.
  • Another interesting trait of the Steelers is how much more time their first-team offense works against their first-team defense when compared to other NFL clubs. As TE Heath Miller said, “Iron sharpens iron.” That is exactly what is happening in here. LeBeau’s defense gets after the offense, which typically struggles early. But as they sharpen up, things come together very well.
  • Last year, if the Steelers had lost any of their starting linebackers, the top backup was Lawrence Timmons. Today, Keyaron Fox inside and Andre Frazier outside fill out the depth chart. The Steelers don’t have many weaknesses, but an injury to a linebacker could send this team scrambling. Don’t be surprised if the team gets interested in a free agent or maybe a player at the final cuts. As I leave camp, I feel like Willie McGinest could help this team as an insurance policy and play a limited role.
  • Second-year WR Limas Sweed was penciled in as the replacement for speedy Nate Washington, and he might win the job. But Sweed is not a lock to win the spot, and he would never be handed the position. After watching practice, I can see that Sweed will be challenged by veteran Shaun McDonald and third-round draft pick Mike Wallace. Wallace impressed me with his pure speed and leaping ability at the afternoon practice. McDonald is a savvy slot-receiver type who gets in and out of breaks exceptionally well.
  • The Steelers are rarely in a hurry to usher their rookies onto the field. The organization likes to train them for a year and make sure they are game-ready. There is not one rookie listed as a starter, but a few will contribute. A.Q. Shipley, a seventh-round selection, is taking a lot of reps in practice with Darnell Stapleton and Justin Hartwig, who have been slowed by injuries. Kraig Urbik, a third-round selection at guard, is struggling a bit but also could see action early if Trai Essex has to replace an injured tackle. Just 13 linemen were brought to camp, and with two already out because of injury, the Steelers are dangerously thin.
  • First-round pick Evander “Ziggy” Hood had early success in camp at defensive end. While he demonstrates good power and quickness, he has flattened out a bit in the last few days. With both starting defensive ends in the “30-something club,” Hood needs to be ready to go. I talked with Hood about camp, and he reminded me that in the Big 12 Conference, he played mostly against spread offenses that quickly become a pass-rush situation. At camp, he has to learn to get his hands on people and fight double teams. Hood’s veteran teammates like him because he works hard and keeps his mouth shut. He needs to come along quickly if the team wants to repeat its 2008 success.
  • Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes had tape on the front of their helmets with their names on it. Ward has done it for years, and he has influenced Holmes to do it. High school coaches have players put tape and names on their helmets when players are trying out for the team. Ward wears his name until he makes the final roster. It is a symbol of players reminding themselves that they still have to work hard enough to make the 2009 Steelers.
  • Coach Mike Tomlin has eased up a bit from his camp two years ago, when he took over for Bill Cowher. Tomlin talks with the veterans about what they need to be ready for the season. Tomlin told me he will let certain players rest. He wants to see who emerges as leaders when MLB James Farrior isn’t with the defense or Roethlisberger is resting his arm. Don’t worry Steelers fans, Tomlin is not getting soft, just coaching smart.
  • Champions rarely repeat in the NFL. It would be understandable that injuries after the long 2008 season could creep into the lineup. All that considered, I still see the Steelers winning the AFC North and making some noise in the playoffs. Going all the way is too hard to predict with a healthy QB Tom Brady in New England and the number of good teams in the AFC.
  • Third-year CB William Gay was very impressive when he sat down to talk about the Steelers’ secondary and his role as a starter in 2009. Tomlin told me Gay’s football intelligence benefits him the most. For years, I have watched players who are advertised as the replacement for veteran DeShea Townsend compete for the starting job, only to watch the wily veteran keep it. Townsend will make another run at Gay, but this time, it looks like Gay will be the winner.
  • A few Steelers defensive players like what they see in the arm of third-string QB Dennis Dixon. Gay said Dixon is not scared to make any throw and is learning how to punish defenders for blitzing him.
  • I’m told by OT Max Starks that the run blocking of TE Matt Spaeth is much improved this offseason because he worked on his base alignment and has more power.
  • LB LaMarr Woodley (11.5 sacks in 2008) feels ready to challenge LB James Harrison for the team’s sack lead. Woodley recognizes Harrison is the best and acknowledges that he chased him all last season and never could catch him. Woodley responded to a question about which offensive tackle gives him the most trouble by saying: “None of them. I don’t give them that kind of respect.”

– Pat Kirwan

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