Under Tomlin, Steelers will still be Steelers
By Pat Kirwan
NFL.com Senior Analyst
LATROBE, Pa. (Aug. 3, 2007) – Granted, Bill Cowher is no longer the coach of the Steelers, but there is a consistency about the Steelers organization that transcends the coach. A day at Saint Vincent College watching the 2007 Steelers prepare for the season under new head coach Mike Tomlin and it just looked like a tough, hard-nosed, blue-collar football team getting ready to make a playoff run. Pittsburgh is used to winning, and over the past five seasons the team has averaged 10 wins a year. Last season, however, the Steelers won only eight games and lost twice to the Ravens, generating just seven points and giving up 58 points in the series against their division rivals. That has stayed on the minds of all the veteran players.
There are some differences in the coaching. Tomlin started out like a ball of fire with double sessions in pads day after day. Some complained, but as Hines Ward said, "It's a test to see if we really want to do things Mike's way. Can we separate from the past?" The core players on this team are passing the test and buying into the Tomlin era.
The offense is working hard to prove to the coaches they can succeed if they open it up and throw the ball more. The defense is relieved that Tomlin will stick with the Dick LeBeau's 3-4 defense. As Steelers VP for personnel Kevin Colbert said, "We will continue to look for players who fit into our 3-4 scheme. Coach Tomlin made it clear during his interview that he has no problem sticking with the 3-4."
The special teams will always have issues at Heinz Field, where the wind is a challenge. Look for Willie Reid to become a critical part of the return game. At least six veteran players mentioned Reid when I asked which player is on the verge of being a big surprise in 2007 -- "a young Hines Ward" was the best description I heard.
After a down year, Ben Roethlisberger looks to be regaining his confidence.
The new offense: Ben Roethlisberger has been asking for a more wide-open offense, especially on traditional run-down situations. Roethlisberger looked great at practice, throwing the ball with great accuracy and building up the coaches' confidence that he can handle more in the passing game. One front-office executive said Roethlisberger is doing a better job of "trusting" the system. Translation: He's not taking off out of the pocket before reading his receiver options. Some felt a year ago Roethlisberger was more interested in creating plays outside the pocket than locating second and third receivers.
Alan Faneca's contract: Veteran players had no trouble sitting down with me to talk about Alan Faneca. He is clearly considered a leader of the team, and as one player said, "a real Pittsburgh guy." There's no doubt that all of the veterans, especially the six players with 10 or more years of service, want Faneca to sign an extension before the season starts. As one player said, "Alan does everything the right way and it looks like they don't care." I think extending the 10-year veteran might be a good idea. A senior member of the team said, "The Cowboys thought Larry Allen was done when they let him go and that wasn't true."
Mike Tomlin: Tomlin is another young defensive coach from outside the organization to take over the franchise. Chuck Noll and Bill Cowher both won in their first seasons as the head coach and the fans bring it up every time the topic of the new coach comes up. Tomlin is winning the players over, even though he's so young. As James Farrior said, "I played against Mike in college."
NEWCOMERS ready to make an impact
LaMarr Woodley, DE, second-round pick: First-round pick Lawrence Timmons is on the sidelines with an injury, so he suffers from out of sight, out of mind. In the meantime, Woodley has already gained the respect of the veteran defenders. Brett Keisel said, "Woodley knows the defense and he's tough -- the veterans like him."
Matt Spaeth, TE, third-round pick: Spaeth jumped out at me as soon as practice started. The 6-foot-7 rookie tight end has soft hands, runs very good routes and will give the Steelers offense an excellent target over the middle. He has the agility to run a pivot route like a little wide receiver, he can get upfield in a hurry, and he is developing as a blocker. There will be times when Pittsburgh goes to a three-tight end personnel grouping and it will cause problems for defenses.
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Offense: Don't sound the alarm that the Steelers have abandoned the run and become a passing team. The Steelers will always run the ball well. But this season I expect some shotgun no-back sets on first and second downs. If nothing else, all the preseason emphasis on the new concepts will develop their two-minute drill principles. Heath Miller looks faster and more of a vertical threat, Santonio Holmes runs better routes, and Hines Ward still wears his name on a piece of tape on his helmet until he makes the team. The Steelers will do better than scoring 17 points a game in their six divisional games like they did last year. Willie Parker said, "Ben's handling the new offense very well and is going to have a great year." I agree with Parker on Big Ben.
Defense: Gone is outside linebacker Joey Porter, the emotional leader of the defense. The 2007 version of the 3-4 will be better in the secondary, deeper at outside linebacker (where the pass-rush pressure comes from) and just as good up front. Ike Taylor said, "Coach LeBeau has some new tricks up his sleeve for the season and we are all excited to get back on top." There is a great battle being waged at the safety position opposite Troy Polamalu between Ryan Clark, Anthony Smith and Tyrone Carter. Whoever wins that job may do so by letting Polamalu be himself on the field. At practice, Polamalu was constantly lining up in different spots and somehow getting to his real spot after the snap of the ball. Heath Miller said on one play Polamalu was acting like he was beat in coverage, just teasing the QB to throw it to Miller, and out of nowhere picked off the pass and scored.
Special teams: The coverage units will get a dose of young players with Timmons and Woodley becoming core coverage players. Their rookie punter, Daniel Sepulveda, kicks left-footed, which can be problematic for returners, and as a former linebacker, the 6-foot-3, 230-pound Sepulveda will make a tackle. Reid will have a big year as a return specialist.
1. The inexperience of the head coach could be a problem when it comes to game-time decisions, rules, and play-calling in critical moments.
2. The offensive line lost Jeff Harting and is starting to look old. They gave up 49 sacks last year and they should throw the ball an additional 50 times this season.
Hines Ward's hustle helps him lead the Steelers by example.
Hines Ward: Ward is old school in so many ways. He runs to the end zone on a reception, he has his name on the helmet and is probably the leader of this team.
Brett Keisel: A number of people felt Keisel was headed back to kick coverage, but when he walked into the room, his 292 pounds said none of that for me. Keisel is the ultimate team player and would do anything to get on the field.
Ike Taylor: Taylor called this season a fresh start for himself. He has his starting job back and he has no intension of losing it. I think Taylor is going to have a very successful season.
The Steelers need Ben Roethlisberger to play more inside the system and basically sit in the pocket a split second longer and find the third read before he runs. Santonio Holmes has to become a go-to receiver which isn't a lock. When the team heads to the airport for an away game, they have to do better than last year's 3-5 road record and they can't be shutout like they were twice away from home.
As I leave Steelers training camp in Latrobe, Pa., I am confident they will win more than the eight they won last year, but I think it's nine or 10 wins and a wild-card berth in the playoffs. Tomlin will be a big success in his first year as a head coach.