BY WILL GRAVES
Mike Tomlin knows he can talk all he wants about progress and the overhauled roster and how much he likes what he’s seen during the offseason.
Yet the Pittsburgh Steelers coach understands it means little if it doesn’t translate onto the field.
“The reality is these types of processes are measured based on results,” Tomlin said at the end of minicamp in June.
And the results were typically un-Steelerlike last fall for one of the NFL’s most consistent franchises. A late-season swoon dropped Pittsburgh to 8-8 and a spot outside the playoffs looking in. It marked a decidedly ungraceful exit for some of the stars that led the team to three Super Bowl appearances in six years.
James Harrison, Casey Hampton, Mike Wallace, Max Starks, Rashard Mendenhall, Willie Colon and Keenan Lewis were either cut, not brought back or lured elsewhere in free agency. In their place are a bevy of rookies or reserves expected to take on larger roles.
How quickly youngsters like rookies Jarvis Jones and Le’Veon Bell assimilate will determine if the “processes” the Steelers have undergone the last few months will pay off with a return to the postseason.
Five things to look for at Steelers training camp:
n The bell tolls: The Steelers didn’t exactly shed any tears when enigmatic RB Mendenhall bolted for Arizona in free agency. Five seasons and just as many off-the-field issues had Pittsburgh all but pushing him out the door. Enter second-round pick Bell. Though the 21-year-old comes to camp in a three-way battle with Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer for the starting job, there’s little doubt Bell will be given every opportunity to win it. The 6-foot-2, 230-pound Bell offers size and versatility the other two lack. The Steelers haven’t had a true every-down back since Willie Parker left the team after the 2009 season. Running back by committee failed last season – the Steelers were 26th in yards rushing. Bell gives them their best chance at taking some of heat off quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
n Speed to burn: Mike Wallace and his speed ran off to Miami in the offseason. The Steelers hope they brought in a cheaper – but eventually no less effective – replacement in third-round pick Markus Wheaton. The rookie missed minicamp and organized team activities due to NCAA rules that prevented him from leaving school before graduation. Wheaton will have time to get his feet set behind veterans Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders and Plaxico Burress. But with Sanders in the final year of his deal and Burress looking for one last hurrah, Wheaton will be expected to contribute this season.
n Young guns: So long Starks. See you later Colon. The youth movement along the offensive line is complete after those two were allowed to leave through free agency. In their place are 20-somethings – Marcus Gilbert (25), Maurkice Pouncey (24), David DeCastro (23) and Mike Adams (23) – with 27-year-old Ramon Foster the “old” guy. Despite their youth, none of the starters made it through 2012 unscathed. Their health and the quickness with which they jel will be vital for a unit required to protect the health of Roethlisberger and open holes for Bell. Pouncey, a three-time Pro Bowler, is the unquestioned leader, but his image took a hit when he was pictured wearing a hat defending former college teammate Aaron Hernandez. Pouncey apologized, but as one of the faces of the franchise, he’ll need to let his play make the biggest impression this fall.
n Can Jones keep up? The Steelers felt they got lucky when Jones bombed on his 40-yard dash during Pro Day. The shoddy 4.8-second time scared off some teams, but not Pittsburgh, which scooped him up with the 17th pick with the expectations he’ll be the eventual successor to James Harrison at outside linebacker. Jones led the NCAA in sacks last fall (141⁄2) at Georgia and the Steelers believe he will give a jolt to a pass rush that got to the quarterback just 37 times in 2012, tied for 15th in the league.
n Happily ever after? Roethlisberger and offensive coordinator Todd Haley have enjoyed a year to work out the rough spots in their relationship. The quarterback even praised Haley for openness in accepting input from players during the offseason. The two will need to find a way to peacefully coexist if the Steelers want to minimize the off-the-field distractions. Without Wallace around to take the top off opposing defenses, the Steelers will need to find interesting ways to get players open. Haley likely can’t do that without Roethlisberger’s support, and vice versa.