Postcard from camp: Steelers
So far, so good in Troy Polamalu's return from knee injury that ruined '09 season
Mike Wallace will have a big year now that he's starting alongside Hines Ward
Steelers have high hopes for Maurkice Pouncey, the first-round center from Florida
SI.com has dispatched writers to report on the 32 NFL training camps across the country. Here's what Peter King had to say about the Steelers camp in Latrobe, Pa. For an archive of all camp postcards, click here.
In Latrobe, Pa., on the campus of St. Vincent College. If you've read my postcards in the past few years from here, you know I love the place. It's the perfect training-camp setting, looking out over the rolling hills of the Laurel Highlands in west-central Pennsylvania, an hour east of Pittsburgh. On a misty or foggy morning, standing atop the hill at the college, you feel like you're in Scotland. The Arnold Palmer regional airport is across the state highway from the school. Classic, wonderful slice of Americana. If you can visit one training camp, this is the one to see.
1. The Steelers are one of the most compelling teams in football less than a month before the start of the season. Will Ben Roethlisberger reform his life? Will Mike Tomlin choose Byron Leftwich or Dennis Dixon or some combination to replace Roethlisberger for the four or six weeks he'll be out of action, serving his league suspension? Is Mike Wallace good enough to step into the starting lineup for banished Super Bowl MVP Santonio Holmes? Can a defense that played -- in Steeler terms -- mortally, allowing 20 or more points nine times last year, right itself? Can Aaron Smith return to Peter King all-decade-defensive-end status after missing 2009 with an injury? (A little self-promotional drama there.) But you get the point. Lots of questions around here this summer.
2. Two Benedictine monks from the St. Vincent Archabbey watched practice this afternoon. Common sight here, always, the monks in their long, flowing robes, despite the heat, with sandals. They walk over to the practice fields from the seminary or the beautiful basilica. To me, walking around this place is one of the great traditions of the NFL camp tour.
3. Troy Polamalu ran around on a fairly non-contact day looking healthy and back to normal after a left knee injury robbed him of the final three months of last season. Without him, as you know, the Steeler D is diminished not only on the back end but also in the rush and intermediate coverage areas. Time will tell. In the 11 games he missed last year, the Steelers allowed an average of 10 more points per game than in the five in which he played.
Uh, I know this is the template for the NFL postcard. But allow me to start this section over and call it "The Steeler Alumni Association Strikes Again.'' Among the men in camp who returned to some past glory -- or in a couple of cases, some past irrelevance -- are wide receiver Antwaan Randle El (from the Redskins, via Pittsburgh), quarterback Byron Leftwich (trade with Tampa Bay), cornerback Bryant McFadden (one-year detour to Arizona) and linebacker Larry Foote (Detroit). Say this about the Steelers: If you don't burn your bridge after going out the door of Heinz Field, that door's always going to be open to return.
Maurkice Pouncey, the first-round center from Florida, is interesting for many reasons, not the least of which is the Steelers believe they didn't draft only a center in April. They think they drafted a center, guard and tackle, a kid who can play all five positions on the line. Can he? It seems preposterous to think a college center could play left tackle?
Tunch Ilkin, the former Steeler offensive lineman and current color man on the radio network, thinks it's possible. Standing on the sidelines and watching practice with Ilkin and his radio partner, Craig Wolfley, I got the feeling they were the co-presidents of the Pouncey Fan Club. "So quick,'' Ilkin said. And watching the workout -- he took some of the first-team snaps while incumbent Justin Hartwig handled the rest -- I could see the excellent lateral movement.
Roethlisberger approaching me outside the cafeteria, where media interviews are done at lunchtime, and saying, "Do you need me?'' Then giving me 10 minutes, not altogether forthcoming but good-natured, then giving the Pittsburgh-area media five minutes or so, and when they were done, chatting up a couple of the scribes. I can tell you this didn't happen last year. Or any other year, at least that I've seen. Not that he wouldn't talk, but it was more of a tooth-pulling exercise.
Sometimes you just want a bowl of chili. That was my lunch in the Steeler cafeteria at St. Vincent -- good ol' American chili, with ground beef, chock-full of red beans, moderately spicy, with oyster crackers on top. And a salad with romaine, iceberg, cherry tomatoes, cukes and carrots, with Italian dressing. This cafeteria is not filled with the high quality choices of some others -- say, like the Giants -- but that was one welcome bowl of chili. Grade: B-plus.
1. Roethlisberger is signing scores of autographs daily, and I heard not one single boo or untoward remark from the crowds around the practice fields toward him. "The fans -- unbelievable,'' he told me. "The other night [in the preseason opener against Detroit] I didn't play, but I heard them chant, 'We want Ben.' Something like that means an awful lot.'' He's on a second honeymoon with the fans, from the looks of it.
2. Most popular Steelers with the fans: 1. Polamalu; 2. Hines Ward. I don't think anyone else is close. How about this for a wow: Ward is 105 catches from 1,000. I'll have some interesting stuff on that in Monday Morning Quarterback coming up next week.
3. Mike Wallace, the new starter alongside Ward, worked all offseason on being fast in and out of his cuts, and I watched him do some extra work against corners after practice. He was smoking. My track record on fantasy advice is awful (just call me "Danny Wuerffel''), but Wallace is going to have a very big year, if healthy.
4. Dick LeBeau is going to have to find playing time for Ziggy Hood this year. Period. He has wrecked a couple of practices. He could begin to take some playing time from end Brett Keisel, and if Aaron Smith shows signs of age, Hood could spell him too. But he's going to play somewhere.
5. Upstart camp guy Steelers are trying to find a spot for: wideout/special-teamer Brandon London, late of the Giants and Dolphins. Good hands and, at 6-4 and 210, he's good at going up for the ball and not being denied. Remember, he played multiple snaps in the Dolphins' playoff loss to Baltimore at the receiver position two seasons ago. I know the way Mike Tomlin likes his receivers to be tough and to be able to do more than just catch the ball. This guy is what they wish Limas Sweed had been.