Postcard from camp: Steelers
Despite his off-field trials, Ben Roethlisberger looked comfortable on the field
Nose guard Casey Hampton will be the anchor of the Steelers' defense
The Super Bowl champs' offensive line is strong enough to win it all again
SI.com has dispatched writers to report on the 32 NFL training camps across the country. Here's what Ross Tucker had to say about the Steelers' camp in Latrobe, Pa. For an archive of all the camp postcards, click here.
Setting the Scene
The Steelers have held training camp at St. Vincent College, about an hour due east from Pittsburgh, for the last 43 years, making it one of the longest standing training-camp traditions in the NFL. When league personnel are asked for the ideal camp setting, Latrobe is usually one of the first that comes to mind. That the fields are below the parking lots and fans can sit and watch on the hills makes the setting even more perfect. Latrobe and the Steelers have been a record-setting combination in terms of Super Bowl championships over the years, so I wouldn't expect the black and gold to train anywhere else in the near future. Why fix something that isn't broken?
Even though there was an 80-percent chance of rain and thunderstorms on this particular day, fans waited in a long line to enter the training camp fields two hours before the afternoon practice. I have often said the Steelers have the best fans in the country, and they absolutely did not disappoint as they cheered on the reigning Super Bowl champs, even when it began to pour late in practice. Talk about die-hards. More than half the people in attendance were wearing a Steelers jersey, and the variety of numbers was astounding.
1. Being inside the white lines is Ben Roethlisberger's reprieve. The sexual assault allegation is sure to weigh heavily on his mind until there is a final outcome in the civil suit. Several veterans said Roethlisberger wouldn't be human if he didn't think about the situation often, but they also went out of their way to say that they don't see any difference in his work or daily performance up until this point. A couple said it seems like Big Ben is at his happiest when he is out on the field playing football like the other 79 men in uniform. There, he doesn't have to think about the fact that his reputation has been tainted in some people's minds, no matter the end result of the case.
Roethlisberger had a mixed day at practice on Sunday, alternately making outstanding throws and getting picked off. He should be aided this season by a better supporting cast, even though Nate Washington is gone. Second-year wideout Limas Sweed made a couple of outstanding catches and looks ready to step up his play this season. Rookie speedster Mike Wallace flashed the elite speed that played a part in the Steelers deciding to take him in the third round. Most importantly for Roethlisberger, the offensive line should be much improved.
2. Casey Hampton is the keystone of the defense -- no matter how much he weighs. Any team that runs a 3-4 knows it all starts with the nose guard. If you don't have a player sturdy enough to hold the point against constant double teams, you might as well just give up.
Hampton's weight has been debated the past couple of years, but it really doesn't matter whether he is 335 or 355 or whatever. His job is to play head up on the center and take care of anything that happens on either side of him in the gaps between the center and his flanking guards. Even if all else fails, he has to take care of the playside gap, or the direction in which the ball carrier is going, letting the inside linebacker stay home for the cut back. In order to help lever the center and maintain his positioning, Hampton lines up almost a full yard off the ball. That's in stark contrast to the casual fans' image of the nose guard who lines up as close to the center's facemask as legally possible.
3. The Steelers offensive line is just good enough to help Pittsburgh win it all again. The unit was kept intact this offseason by the re-signing of Max Starks, Trai Essex and Willie Colon and Chris Kemoeatu. All four are still fairly young and approaching their prime. Colon, in particular, is the typical ornery right tackle, and vastly underrated. The linemen know what they accomplished last year and realize this year they should be even better.
"I could say that [the negative critique] is a motivating factor, and it probably is to some extent, but we believe in each other and realize that we are all just in this together and ultimately don't really care all that much what the people outside say," said Starks.
As I will point out in my column this Wednesday, continuity and chemistry are two of the most important factors for success along the offensive line, and the Steelers certainly have that. Playing together for another year and the confidence of winning it all should only serve to help this group. Adding young draft picks to the mix like Kraig Urbik and A.Q. Shipley could contribute to their depth.
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