Postcard from camp: Steelers
Todd Haley's ball-control offense is a departure from Bruce Arian's spread scheme
Despite Rashard Mendenhall's injury, the Steelers should be a better running team
The team needs Mike Wallace, given the lack of depth at WR behind Antonio Brown
SI.com has dispatched writers to report on NFL training camps across the country. Here's what Albert Chen had to say about Steelers camp in Latrobe, Pa., which he visited on Aug. 7. Read all of our postcards here.
At postcard-perfect Latrobe, Pa., where these fans of Steeler Nation have squeezed into the stands at Chuck Noll Field, scattered across the hills of idyllic St. Vincent College and lined up along the perimeter of the practice fields on a sultry 90-degree afternoon to watch the Rashard Mendenhall- and Mike Wallace-less Steelers. This is football heaven. Quick impressions from one packed day in the home of Arnold Palmer: The young offensive line is growing up quickly ("There have been some growing pains, but I really like what I see," said offensive coordinator Todd Haley), and Ben Roethlisberger's rotator cuff tear is a non-issue ("He's looking real good," said Antonio Brown. "He's having a great camp -- it's the Big Ben of old.").
1. Todd Haley is chill. Really. "I feel like I've come home," the new offensive coordinator said to me as we baked underneath the midday sun outside the cafeteria. Before he was the coach of the Chiefs, before he was the offensive coordinator at Arizona, Haley was a Steelers ball boy in the '70s when his father, Dick, was the team's director of player personnel. "It's special, the connection I have to this organization," he said, "and it really makes you want to accomplish great things."
For that to happen, Haley and Roethlisberger will have to play nice -- when I suggested that everyone's waiting for the first blow-up between quarterback and coordinator, Haley laughed. "Look, I'm passionate about this game and proud of it, but it was always about what the situation dictated at the time," he said, pointing out that at his prior stops, Arizona and Kansas City, the teams were mired in losing situations.
It's too early to say precisely how the offense is going to evolve under Haley, though we know this: the Steelers are restoring the fullback to the offense. They'll run more no huddle. The preseason opener against the Eagles last week offered more clues: the emphasis, as expected, seemed to be on a short passing attack and ball control, which will be a contrast to Bruce Arians' spread. There's still much for Haley and Roethlisberger to work out, of course -- Haley wants Roethlisberger to dump the ball off to the back more, Roethlisberger likes to check to his secondary receivers -- but so far, so good. Stay tuned.
2. No Rashard Mendenhall for now ... but the running game will be better in 2012. While Mendenhall will be out until at least October, the Steelers clearly have faith in Isaac Redman, despite lingering questions about the third-year back's durability (he's only logged double-digit carries in four career games and is already undergoing an MRI for a groin injury). It should be noted that while Mendenhall averaged 3.9 yards a carry since 2010, Redman, who when healthy will lead a committee that includes Jonathan Dwyer and Baron Batch, is averaging 4.5 yards over that time and riding the momentum of his 121-yard game against the Broncos in the playoffs.
Redman is ready for this moment -- he talked about losing some weight over the offseason to add some versatility to his game ("I'm trying to be more than a red zone back," he said). The Steelers ranked 14th in the league in rushing last year, but Haley will have them running more behind the improved line. The young linemen, David DeCastro at right guard and Mike Adams at left tackle, will struggle at times, of course, but the Steelers like Willie Colon at left guard. Marcus Gilbert continues to get better and Maurkice Pouncey is already one of the best centers in the league. The Steelers running game looks poised to be one of the best in 2012.
3. They don't seem to miss Mike Wallace at the moment, but they'll be hurting, badly, if he doesn't sign. There seems to be increasing optimism in camp that Wallace will sign and report to Latrobe any day now, though Pittsburgh is preparing for the possibility of life without its big playmaker. The concern here isn't the No. 1 slot -- everyone knows that Antonio Brown has the talent to be an elite receiver in the league. But beyond that it gets ugly fast. Emmanuel Sanders is a good slot receiver, but not everyone's convinced he can be an effective No. 2. Is Jerricho Cotchery the answer? Derrick Williams, David Gilreath, or Marquis Maze? Plaxico Burress?
Keenan Lewis, cornerback. The best camp battle is for the cornerback slot opposite Ike Taylor, with Bryant McFadden and William Gay gone. The fourth-year Lewis has started one game in his career, but is already talking about making the Pro Bowl this season. (No Steeler corner has made the Pro Bowl since Rod Woodson in 1997.) Lewis has worked with the starters but has also been held back with a shoulder injury -- that may open the door for Cortez Allen, who is exceeding expectations in camp.
Chris Rainey, running back. A sign of things to come? The explosive rookie back played early and often in the team's first preseason game and scored on a 57-yard screen pass. Rainey also was slotted as the team's primary kick returner. The former Gator, who used to live with Pouncey during their days at Florida, is an intriguing X-factor in the new Steelers offense -- Roethlisberger is already raving about the former track star. Haley will use him as a Dexter McCluster-type -- though by season's end, the 5-foot-9, 180-pound back will be drawing comparisons to Darren Sproles.
The Steelers' season begins where last year's ended: in Denver, against Peyton Manning, in the first of five nationally televised games. That's the start of a tough opening stretch -- four of the team's first six games are on the road (two out west). We'll find out early just how much the offensive line has improved. The division will be decided over three weeks late in the season, when the Steelers face the Ravens on Nov. 18, and again two weeks later. Bet on the Steelers if they're in the driver's seat in December: they finish with a favorable final stretch, with three of four games at home, the final two at Heinz Field against the Bengals and Browns.