Steelers adjusting to new offense as camp opens
Ben Roethlisberger likens offensive coordinator Todd Haley's versatile playbook to learning a new language.
Time to see how fluent the Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback - and the rest of his teammates - have become.
Five months after Haley replaced the ousted Bruce Arians, the Steelers finally get a chance to see what the former Kansas City coach brings when training camp opens on Wednesday. They dabbled with the basics during minicamp and organized team activities, putting Roethlisberger a little more at ease.
''I'm not saying I can go out and call a game myself right now,'' the two-time Super Bowl champion said last month. ''When he calls a play, I know what's going on for the most part. So we're getting it down to figuring it out.''
And they may have to begin the process without Pro Bowl wide receiver Mike Wallace, who has yet to sign his one-year tender. The speedster, entering his fourth season, would like a long-term deal. The Steelers, never fond of protracted contract negotiations, would like their big-play specialist to be in camp. Though Wallace's teammates insist he'll be at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, Pa., sooner rather than later, every day that passes without Wallace's familiar No. 17 is one that Roethlisberger will use to develop a deeper rapport with Antonio Brown, Jerricho Cotchery and Emmanuel Sanders.
''You're always going to miss something,'' Sanders said. ''Whether it's camaraderie of the teammates or just the physical aspect of (implementing) the playbook. But Mike is one of those guys that's going to get in here and hit the ground running.''
He'd be wise to hurry. For all the firepower Wallace provides, Brown became Roethlisberger's favorite target toward the end of last season. The sure-handed Brown had more receptions over the last eight weeks of the regular season - hauling in 35 to Wallace's 26 - and added five more in a wild-card playoff loss to Denver, a game in which Wallace made just three grabs for a mere 26 yards.
While Brown insists it's just a coincidence that he inherited the locker vacated by the recently retired Hines Ward, there's no mistaking the hardworking Brown is considered the most likely to fill the leadership void. It's a comparison the soft-spoken Brown tries to downplay, though he's well aware of the legacy Ward left behind following a likely Hall of Fame career.
''Hines, he's irreplaceable,'' Brown said. ''I'm just going to do what coach (Mike) Tomlin talks about and be the next man up.''
There's going to be a lot of that going around following one of the bumpier offseasons in recent memory. Defensive linemen Aaron Smith and Chris Hoke and linebacker James Farrior joined Ward in retirement, while offensive guard Chris Kemoeatu was released. That's nine Super Bowl rings and seven combined Pro Bowls gone.
While there will be no lack of volunteers - particularly on an offensive line in the midst of a major youth movement after the Steelers used their top two picks in April's draft to select guard David DeCastro and tackle Mike Adams - the core that led the franchise to three Super Bowl appearances since 2005 remains intact.
Roethlisberger turned 30 in the offseason and is ready to enter the prime of his career and his life. While the Steelers were overhauling the roster this spring, he was finishing up his degree at Miami (Ohio) and announcing that he and his wife, Ashley, are expecting their first child in December. The trouble that dogged Roethlisberger early in his career has disappeared. With Ward's retirement Roethlisberger is the longest-tenured offensive starter. The Steelers would like to keep it that way, one of the main reasons they brought in Haley and beefed up the offensive line.
Roethlisberger spent most of the season banged-up playing behind a line that struggled to protect him. He suffered a pair of debilitating injuries to his left foot last season, including a painful ankle sprain against Cleveland in early December that was a major issue into the playoffs.
Haley orchestrated an attack at Arizona that led the Cardinals to the 2009 Super Bowl, then in Kansas City revitalized the franchise behind a bone-crunching running game. His presence should make Pittsburgh's offense a little more balanced.
The Steelers finished with more passing attempts than rushing plays in each of the last four seasons, including a 56-44 pass-run ratio in 2011. The addition of DeCastro, an All-American at Stanford, and the continued development of second-year right tackle Marcus Gilbert and two-time Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey - combined with Willie Colon's move from tackle to left guard - should give the line the kind of punch it lacked last fall.
The Steelers scored touchdowns on just over half of their trips to the red zone, one of the main reasons they ranked just 21st in scoring. That's not nearly enough to keep pace in today's NFL, particularly with a defense that showed signs of aging in key moments in 2011, including the playoff loss to the Broncos in which Tim Tebow passed for 316 yards and two touchdowns, including the 80-yard winner on the first play of overtime.
It's a memory that has stuck with cornerback Ike Taylor, who chased Denver's Demaryius Thomas down the field on the final play of Pittsburgh's season. He thinks about it often and is eager to move on. After a lackluster season - by their lofty standards - so are the Steelers.