Saturday, July 30, 2005

On Sunday, It All Starts Again


How will the NFL respond to Ben Roethlisberger in his second season as a starting quarterback? How will Roethlisberger respond to that response? Will it be Antwaan Randle El or Cedrick Wilson starting at wide receiver with Plaxico Burress now with the New York Giants? Will any of the young cornerbacks – Ike Taylor, Ricardo Colclough or Bryant McFadden – make a serious push for playing time? How is Heath Miller going to fit into the passing game? Is Max Starks ready to be a starter?

It’s training camp season in the NFL, and for the Steelers it begins with all players having to report to St. Vincent College by 6 p.m. on Sunday, July 31.

Training camp is the place a team goes to find answers to these kinds of questions, it’s the place a team goes to remember how to be competitive.

During their 26 days in Latrobe, the Steelers will find most of the answers to the questions of personnel and playing time, all the while trying to build the foundation they hope will allow them to achieve their goal, which is to win a championship.

One of the two of the most laudable characteristics of the 2004 Steelers was their ability to have players step in for injured teammates with little or no drop-off in performance, and the other was the way in which the team navigated the 17-week regular season with a one-game-at-a-time tunnel vision. Both of those characteristics were formed at training camp.

“Where you start is so much based on where you finished the previous year, because that’s the reality of where you are,” said Coach Bill Cowher. “But starting that way doesn’t mean you don’t still have to build that foundation. This is going to be a tough camp. It’s going to be very demanding. It’s going to be very competitive. It’s going to test their focus. We’re not trying to live up to a 15-1 record and the idea of, how do you do better than that? The bottom line is we were 1-1 in the postseason, and we have to do better than that.”

Cowher has promised a competitive training camp, and based on the success the team had last season following just such a camp, the players can be sure he’s not going to break his promise.

In a lot of ways, the Steelers go to their training camp with fewer issues than most of their competition. Cowher’s entire staff of assistants returns intact, and all 11 defensive starters (at least the starters over the second half of the season and the playoffs) return. The offense has to replace Burress, plus Keydrick Vincent and Oliver Ross on the right side of the offensive line, but Vincent was a replacement for starter Kendall Simmons in the first place, and Starks came along nicely at right tackle as his rookie year progressed.

But all of that’s on paper, and very little in the NFL transpires according to the way it’s originally drawn up. The Steelers are going to have issues arise, and they’re going to have to resolve them; they’re going to have adversity, and they’re going to have to overcome it. Just as they did so well last year, starting with Simmons going down with a season-ending knee injury, which happened during a training camp practice.

“We have to go back up to training camp and create that foundation,” said Cowher. “It’s not like we’re building a building and can just finish the thing off. We’re back at the foundation, back at the bottom and we’re building our way back up. There’s no easy way of doing it, and it’s part of the process.

“There’s going to be a new collection of 53 players, and there are going to be some new roles that players will have to accept going in, and there are going to be a set of challenges this team will have to respond to throughout the course of 16 games. There’s going to be a greater scrutiny on this football team because of some of the expectations. With that, you have to be careful not to overreact to some situations, but there’s going to be some adversities to come up and how we respond to that week in and week out largely will determine the outcome of the season.”

Scrutiny always is going to exist for the Steelers, because football is king in Western Pennsylvania, and the Steelers are the area’s favorite football team. But the increased scrutiny to which Cowher referred can be expected to come nationally, because a 15-1 team that was defeated in the conference championship round by the eventual Super Bowl winner is going to go into the following season with a target on its back.

“It will be a demanding camp,” said Cowher. “The one thing I like about these guys is you have to know how to compete within your own team. This team always has been able to make practices very competitive, but in doing that you have to be careful that you make sure to leave it all on the field. You don’t want to take those things into the locker room.

“These guys will get to the point where it will be competitive, it will get physical. There will be a lot of emotion when you put the pads on and it gets hot and it gets to be about the second or third week at camp and you’re seeing these same guys, it starts to get old fast. Those four weeks we’re up these seem like four months. It will get competitive and there will be some skirmishes, I’m sure, but that’s not always all bad.”

Not if it helps a team become a team.


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