Back to School: 3 R’s to Guide the Steelers at Saint Vincents: Retool, Recalibrate, and Refocus

It is fitting that the Pittsburgh Steelers still hold training camp at a college, because this franchise needs to concentrate on the 3 R’s while at St. Vincents.

Of course the 3 R’s in question are not reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic but Retool, Recalibrate, and Refocus. While each of the Steelers “3 R’s” represents an area of individual urgency, all of them are interrelated.

Steelers First “R” for 2013 Training Camp:  Retool

The Steelers personnel philosophy since opening Heinz Field has been simple:  Keep the core together.

But a shift away from this philosophy began after 2009 (see the departures of Willie Parker and Deshea Townshend) and has continued in fits and starts (see the return of Foote and Randle El in ’10) since then.

  • Now the Steelers strategic personnel pivot has reached its end-game.

Whether the draftees and rookie free agents of 2012 and 2013 can win starting jobs and roster spots is now a moot question. They will win them because there are no veterans left to hold them back. Max Starks is in San Diego, Willie Colon is in New York, James Harrison is in Cincinnati.

The question now is can players like Jason Worilds, David DeCastro, Cortez Allen, and Mike Adams produce at high enough level for the Steelers make a Lombardi run while Ben Roethlisberger retains some youth (and health).

  • The Steelers have been here before.

Precisely 30 summers ago a fair contingent of the Super Steelers had retired, and Pittsburgh found itself with some aging, yet viable, stars mixed with untested youth.

We now know that there were too many Keith Gary’s, Walter Abercrombie’s and not enough Tunch Ilkin’s, Brian Hinkle’s and Louis Lipps for the Steelers to snatch the elusive “One For the Thumb.”

But in 2013 Mike Tomlin has two advantages that Chuck Noll lacked in 1983:

  • Terry Bradshaw was 35 and Ben Roethlisberger is 31
  • Free agency, yes, free agency

The benefit of a younger franchise quarterback is self-evident. Free agency’s is not, but perhaps it should be.

Historically Steelers Nation has had a hate-hate relationship with free agency, viewing it has a force that has robbed Pittsburgh of talented players as they reach their prime. And that of course has happened.

But free agency also gives the Steelers the ability to divest itself of players who are not up to par or might be good but don’t fit their system. In practical terms this means that Mike Tomlin can get rid of Ryan Mundy whereas Chuck Noll was stuck with Lupe Sanchez.

The story of the Steelers 2013 off season was Kevin Colbert’s attempt to get the most bang out of the Steelers salary cap buck.

They made hard choices, saying good bye to tenured veterans and promising youngsters alike. At St. Vincent’s this summer Mike Tomlin’s challenge is to simultaneously develop and mold that talent into a winning roster.

Steelers Second “R” for 2013 Training Camp:  Recalibrate

We all know the story of the Steelers 2012 season.

  • When the offense was effective, the defense lacked
  • When the defense began shutting down opponents, the offense imploded

Injuries were at the core of some of this ineffectiveness and inconsistency in 2012, but not all of it.

On offense Ben Roethlisberger and Todd Haley kept denying friction existed between the two of them until the Steelers Digest itself outed them, labeling the improvement of the Roethlisberger-Haley relationship as the off season imperative.

  • On defense the issues are both trickier and more challenging.

Statistically the Steelers have fielded a dominating defense each of the last two seasons. But statistics can deceive. For as strong as the Steelers were in limiting yards, taking away the big play, and winning on third downs turnovers and sacks remained in short supply in both ’11 and ’12.

And this was also the case for the Steelers in 2009.

  • There’s a pattern here, and one that reveals a deficiency that Dick LeBeau must rectify.

It won’t be an easy task, and a single example suffices to show this.

The Steelers defense has been predicated on stopping the run. Casey Hampton took away the middle of the field almost single handedly, and James Harrison, for all of his hell raising in the backfield, was phenomenal vs. the run.

Stopping the run has been cited as a weak point for both Jason Worilds and Cam Heyward – two potential starters on the front seven.

Dick LeBeau has a delicate balance to strike.

Steelers Third “R” for 2013 Training Camp:  Refocus

Friend and Behind the Steel Curtain scribe (full disclosure I also write for BTSC) Ivan Cole recently submitted were that were it not for a fumble in Oakland and one in Dallas that the Steelers would have finished in a three way tie for the AFC North crown.

  • That’s a tantalizing hypothetical, as success or failure in an NFL season often does boil down to a handful of plays.

But the picture in Pittsburgh in 2012 was far more complex. Several times in 2012 in the comments supporting the Steelers post-game report cards it was observed that coaches shouldn’t be held responsible for fumbles and inopportune penalties.

  • And that’s true.

Neither Mike Tomlin nor Amos Jones forced Antonio Brown to fumble in Dallas, just as momentum swung to Pittsburgh.

But Brown’s fumble wasn’t an isolated incident. There were myriad lapses vs. Oakland. The Cleveland road game was a comedy of errors, and vs. Chargers nearly everyone wearing black played just like they’d exited shock treatment. (Heck Mendenhall didn’t even grace the team with his presence that day.)

It is ironic, but not coincidental that the Steelers followed their best game of the season, the backup-powered road victory over Baltimore, with their worst, at home against San Diego where they did their best to make Norv Turner and Philip Rivers look like a modern day Air Croyle

  • Such erratic performance generally boils down a lack of focus.

Fortunately focus is something that can be taught, practiced and bred into a football team. Chuck Noll called it “Singleness of Purpose.” Neither Greg Lloyd nor Merril Hoge were gifted with natural athletic talent. But both men became household names in Steelers Nation because they with competing on every play in every practice, did extra reps and always put in the necessary physical and mental preparation.

A generation later, Hines Ward and James Harrison followed their example.

  • And so it must be with 90 men the Pittsburgh Steelers have brought with them to Latrobe.

Chuck Noll and Bill Cowher both referred to training camp as the time to lay a team’s foundation. Mike Tomlin is no different. The summer the Steelers spent at St. Vincient’s in 2013 needs to be a time where they lay a foundation based on fundamentals and focus.

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2 thoughts on “Back to School: 3 R’s to Guide the Steelers at Saint Vincents: Retool, Recalibrate, and Refocus

  1. Good article, glad to see the insightful commentary again, between you guys and BTSC, provides for interesting reading. Thanks!

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