Steelers players in for physical, grueling camp
By Len Pasquarelli
LATROBE, Pa. -- Forty-five minutes into the initial session of his first training camp as a head coach, Mike Tomlin pressed his fingerprint onto the future of the Pittsburgh Steelers by returning to the past, and unwittingly offering an homage to the legendary Hall of Fame sideline chief for whom the team's primary practice field was recently christened.
Nah, Tomlin didn't put his charges through the dreaded Oklahoma drill, a hallmark of Chuck Noll summer camps. There isn't a team in the league that still runs the Oklahoma drill, a onetime ritual here that used to draw boisterous crowds to the far corner of the practice field at St. Vincent College, and created the kind of bloodlust atmosphere typically associated with the Roman Coliseum.
But he did call for a "back-on-'backers" blocking session -- with running backs attempting to pass-protect against blitzing linebackers -- that instantly stoked the level of intensity at a Tuesday morning practice that already ranked as one of the most physical workouts in recent franchise history.
And with that drill, acknowledged wide receiver Hines Ward, who had worked his entire nine-year NFL career under one boss, Bill Cowher, the franchise's coaching calendar was officially flipped forward, and a rare Steelers transition was essentially complete.
While some unsuspecting veterans, who hadn't worked in full pads in the opening practice of any camp under Cowher, appeared poised to pass out, the baton was passed to Tomlin. And his players, even the most grizzled stalwarts who might have been eyeballing the rookie coach with skepticism, were keenly aware of the significance of the moment.
"Basically, that very first contact let us all know that this is Tomlin's team and this is his blueprint," said Ward. "I mean, you can go through the minicamps and all the OTAs and stuff, and think you know what a coach is going to be like. But you don't really know until you get into camp. He didn't leave any doubt about who's in charge. There's a feeling, when you've done things one way for so long and been successful at it, that's like, 'Why should we let go of the old way?' Well, there are no options like that around here. The old way is definitely gone."
Ironically, if the old way is passé here now, old school has been embraced by the first-time NFL head coach with the undeniable throwback mentality.
When wide receiver Cedrick Wilson wandered across the middle of the secondary on Tuesday morning, and was slammed hard to the ground by free safety Anthony Smith, he leaped up to complain. Screamed Smith, a second-year veteran battling for the starting job: "Hey, it's live here now."