Steelers Training Camp 2009: Unasked Questions

Steelers training camp is in its second week, and we know the drill. a little more than a week old

12 months ago when the Steelers assembled in Latrobe for Camp Tomlin II, they did so under a cloud of questions, about special teams, about their defense, about their running game, and about Mike Tomlin himself.

What a difference one year makes.

The Steelers are now defending Super Bowl Champions. They had the number 1 defense last year and Pittsburgh’s toughness and tenacity in 2008 was second to none. And no one questions Mike Tomlin.

Like every team, the Steelers enter training camp questions to answer. Will this group of Steelers avoid a Super Bowl hangover? Can the offensive line sustain its 2008 gains? What, if anything, will the front office do about players set to become free agents?

These issues have been discussed to death, so Steel Curtain Rising chips its two cents in, but the main focus of this post is on the unasked questions that the Steelers face this summer in Latrobe.

Questions like, is there any discontinuity in the philosophies between Mike Tomlin and Bruce Arians? What is Carey Davis’ Role? Will this be that year that the Steelers day 2 draft slip ups come back to haunt them?

We’ll dive into these questions after quickly commenting on the others.

“You’re judged not so much on how you deal with failure, but how you deal with success.” – Mike Tomlin, during his first year as coach, reflecting on his post-Super Bowl experience in Tampa Bay

Success can breed complacency; Tomlin knows this and set the tone accordingly.

Not 24 hours removed from winning Super Bowl XLIII, Tomlin relegated the 2008 squad to the past, banished the word “repeat,” and declared 2009 to be a new year, with a new team, with a renewed goal to win Lombardi Number Seven.

Mike Tomlin’s good fortune brings him 20+ Super Bowl XL veterans. These men lived through 2006’s 2-6 start, struggle to finish 8-8 and, perhaps worst of all, both drubbings from the Ravens.

  • The Steelers may falter in 2009, but don’t bet on compliancy being a cause.

In 2008 the Offensive Line Gained, Now Can It Sustain?

Two facts were lost in the late season clamor to declare the Steelers offensive line as failure.

  • This was a line that was rebuilt in training camp, and then rebuilt again at mid-season.
  • The line did improve during the latter part of 2008.

While progress can carry over from season to season, this is not guaranteed. While the line’s work in Latrobe is important, they won’t face any real tests until the regular season, and then we will know if Larry Zierlein succeded in building upon 2008’s foundation.

What About the 2010 Free Agents?

Include Jeff Reed, and at least six Steelers starters can become free agents come March 2010.

Losing any one would be a blow. All of them? A disaster.

A bigger disaster would have been losing James Harrison, Max Starks, Hines Ward and Heath Miller, whom the Steelers resigned this year.

  • This story has legs, and Steel Curtain Rising will say more later as time allows. But for now, just remember that the Steelers will have options come 2010.

Is There a Clash of Philosophies Between Mike Tomlin and Bruce Arians?

Perhaps this question isn’t being asked for a good reason. Perhaps there is no controversy. Winning Super Bowls tends to overshadow a lot of disagreements.

The fact remains that the Steelers struggled in short yardage situations last year. In Arians defense, a big reason for these struggles is that the Steelers offensive line could not support a power running game.

Mike Tomlin also responded to Willie Parker’s complaints about the team’s running game by pointing out that the Steelers had Super Bowl titles, not rushing titles.

Still, Tomlin left little doubt that he was not happy with the team’s running game late in the season.

Whether this question gets asked depends in large part on the development of the offensive line and Rassard Mendenhall, as the early returns indicate the Steelers air game will continue to fly.

  • If Parker stays healthy, Mendenhall improves, and the line is better but offensive consistency still eludes the Steelers, it is going to be interesting to watch how Tomlin reacts.

What in the World is Carey Davis’ Role?

OK… asked or unasked, this is not a burning question. Fair enough. But what IS Cary Davis’ role with the team. One of Bruce Arian’s first acts as offensive coordinator in 2007 was to phase out full back Dan Krieder in favor of Carey Davis.

Coaches argued that what Davis gave up in blocking ability he made up for in rushing and pass catching ability.

In 2007, Davis had 17 carries and 12 catches. In 2008, with Willie Parker hurt much of the time and Mendenhall out for most of the season, Carey Davis’s production dropped to 12 carries and 5 receptions.

When the Steelers cut Gary Russell, Steel Curtain Rising asked why Russell and not Davis. OK, non-football reasons drove the Steelers decision to cut Russell, but this doesn’t obscure the fact that Davis’ role with the team seems to be shrinking, not growing as Sean McHugh serves as their primary full back (when the use one). Mewelde Moore is a far more accomplished number 3 back.

Cary Davis has guys like Hank “the Tank” Johnson, Stefan Logan, and Isaac Redman behind him.

  • At age 28, the 2009 camp could bring Carey Davis’ “now or never” moment.

Will the Steelers mistakes on draft day number #2 come back to haunt them?

Kevin Colbert, Bill Cowher, and Mike Tomlin have done an excellent job on day one of the draft. For evidence look no further than Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII.

The 2008 draft did little, if anything to help the Steelers get Lombardi Number Six, and hence the focus on the development of that group this summer in Latrobe.

But Colbert Record on day two has not been as stellar.

The Steelers very well might have the oldest defensive line in the NFL, and picks like Ryan McBean, Orien Harris, Shuan Nua, and Eric Taylor contribute to this distinction.

The Steelers secondary is younger, and features a smart mix of accomplished veterans and enticing potential. That is good, but Pittsburgh might not need to bank so much on untested potential had guys like Anthony Smith and Ricardo Colclough stepped up.

Looking at it another way, 2004 draft picks Ben Roethlisberger and Max Starks are entering the primes of their careers. These are the only two guys from that group that have made a name for themselves in the NFL.

The same can be said for the 2006 draft. Santonio Holmes came into his own in the 2008 playoffs and Willie Colon has been OK, and still has an upside. But aside from Anthony Smith and Willie Reid, even the most avid Steelers fan is likely to read the rest of 2006 draft roster and ask, who?

No one is talking about this, in part because the 2007 draft is delivering results, and because, there is little that can be done. But it’s a legitimate question.

In a sense, the question is being asked every time someone brings up the Steelers 2010 free agent class. The Steelers would have more options had an up and comer, or even a could be up and comer, to step into Hampton, Kiesel, or Clark’s shoes. That they don’t can be traced, at least in part, to disappointments on day two of the draft.

  • At the end of the day however, barring injury the impact of this probably won’t be felt until 2010.

Thanks for visiting Steel Curtain Rising. Thinking of other “unasked questions” for training camp 2009? Leave a comment and let us know.

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2 thoughts on “Steelers Training Camp 2009: Unasked Questions

  1. Nice observation about Carey Davis.

    For future questions, how about:

    Is this Dick Lebeau’s last year?

    Will Ramon Foster make the squad?

    Who is the back-up Tackle?

    How is Chris Hoke playing now he’s on the wrong side of 30?

    Why did the team return to natural grass at Heinz Field?

    What changes has Tomlin continued to make in now his third year?

  2. Todd,

    Yeah, I have nothing against Carey Davis, but… he hasn’t really done much to justify the coaches’ faith in him. (I have no idea why he got the nod at first when Mendenhall went down against Baltimore.)

    Those are some great questions, particularly the one about Dick LeBeau.

    Thanks for commenting.

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