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Steelers’ training camp week one; Reading the tea leaves

One of my favorite expressions and an easily over-used cliche of mine is ‘reading the tea leaves.’ I really believe in the days of 24/7 media and sports hype, people often say or do things that are not quite on point so we are left to decipher exactly what they are getting at. Thus, we must read the tea leaves, or, figure or what the future holds on our own.

As the Pittsburgh Steelers enjoy their first off-day of 2012 training camp, I’m taking a look at some of the happenings in the first few days and how they could play out this season for the black ‘n gold.

The Offense

Lots of talk from linemen especially that there is definitely a new attitude being instilled in the offense this season. The aggressiveness started soon as guys like Willie Colon and rookie Kelvin Beachum were involved in scrums with defenders. At one point, Todd Haley called as many as 10-12 straight running plays to open a session.

Does this necessarily mean a return to ‘three yards and a cloud of dust?’ Not in my book, but what it does signal is a return to nastiness which I feel has vanished in recent years. It also means a more efficient and effective running game not one that is made to run the ball just to ‘show it.’

Who Stood Out?

Despite being held out of drills yesterday for precautionary reasons as the team was on the turf, wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders is having a really good camp. Steelers’ DB Ike Taylor commented that Sanders is “a complete 360 from last year.” This is good news for those of you who believe Sanders may have to fill the void left by Mike Wallace’s continued absence.

As he transitions from tackle to guard, Willie Colon is having a really strong camp right now. The aggressiveness is there and Colon has always seemed to many, myself included, to be more suited to guard than tackle anyway so he should flourish there next to Maurkice Pouncey.

With tight end Heath Miller missing much of camp so far with an ankle sprain, 2nd year man Wes Saunders has been outstanding. He has shown great improvement in blocking and is also proving he can split the defense with good speed for a tight end by getting deep quickly. Saunders is trying to get his four-game suspension for substance abuse (Adderall for crying out loud) reduced and if it is that will be a great thing for everyone involved.

Shout out also to FB Will Johnson who has proven himself quite capable as well.

The Defense

Sometimes a ranking is just that, a ranking. A number on a piece of paper or on a computer screen that really means nothing at the end of the day. More than one time this off-season, I’ve talked about how this defense, despite its’ number one overall ranking was not as good as it needed to be. It became vanilla, lacked creativity and lacked pressure on the quarterback. Apparently, the Steelers agree with those sentiments.

LB Larry Foote, FS Ryan Clark and Taylor all made comments this week about how much improvement they have to see in 2012 in a lot of areas. Yes, it’s pretty amazing that a defense that earned its’ number one ranking would see so much room for improvement, but I see it as a great step in the right direction.

Foote was hounded by Mike Tomlin in several drills this week and was beaten soundly in coverage by running backs and tight ends. This is not a good development as he is supposed to replace James Farrior who suffered from the same issues.

The fight for the left cornerback position has been hotly contested as we thought it would. Keenan Lewis left with a shoulder injury and could be out several days. Curtis Brown replaced him and Cortez Allen took the nickel in those situations.

Who Stood Out?

I can’t imagine anyone standing out more than rookie nose tackle Alameda Ta’amu who looks as though he could throw Brett Keisel’s Kubota tractor a mile down the road. The massive man from Washington has shown tremendous power and awareness despite hurting himself slightly during a walk to the local Wal-Mart. This was an initiation of sorts by the vets. At one point Ta’amu drove Doug Legursky five yards back giving everyone nightmarish flashbacks to Super Bowl XLV. If Ta’amu can keep this up, he will give Casey Hampton even more time to heal.

Last year in the pre-season I selected Lawrence Timmons as my guy to win the NFL Defensive Player of the Year Award. I felt like he was ready to take the next step, but didn’t and it wasn’t all his fault as he was shuffled around due to injuries to James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley. So far in camp, Timmons has been everywhere. He’s been solid in coverage and is coming up with tremendous pop in stopping the run. A huge season from Timmons would be very welcome.

With James Harrison and Jason Worilds not particpating, OLB Chris Carter is taking advantage of the time. While he has struggled at times, he has also flashed some real positive moments as well. Depth at linebacker is going to be a huge issue for this team moving forward.

What the Tea Leaves Tell Me

First of all, I get concerned when a guy like Willie Colon says “We’re going to light up the scoreboard.” Many of us have thought the same thing going into the last few seasons and it hasn’t quite worked out that way. Make no mistake, with or without Wallace, this offense will be improved. To what degree I’m not sure yet. Once I see some pre-season action I might be able to wager a guess.

I guarantee Haley will find a way to get Chris Rainey involved. Sounds like the coaches and fellow players are riding this kid way too much not to expect big things out of him.

I like what I hear out of the defense. They know they have to be better and they are working towards that. The question marks will continue to be how will Larry Foote fair and who will be the corner opposite Ike Taylor. I don’t expect to see too much from the defense in the pre-season, but I certainly hope Dick LeBeau is planning to dial up the creativity and aggressiveness.

When it comes to reading the tea leaves, getting a read on Mike Tomlin is not always easy. His comments so far through camp have been pointed and at times aloof but that’s Tomlin. My feeling is that he likes this team though. Yes there are always concerns as every team has, but I get the feeling Tomlin likes the mix of youth and leadership for the 2012 Steelers.

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