Steelers have new faces, same expectations

Brett Keisel glanced around the Pittsburgh Steelers defensive

meeting room one day at training camp and the defensive end was

struck by what – or actually who – he didn’t see.

No James Farrior. No Aaron Smith. No Chris Hoke. All important

role players in Pittsburgh’s run of three Super Bowl appearances in

six years. All part of a mass offseason exodus – by Steelers’

standards anyway – that left the team decidedly younger though

Keisel stressed no less focused on a seventh Lombardi trophy.

”Yeah, you notice when you’re one of the oldest guys in the

room,” said Keisel, who turns 34 in September. ”But you know how

it is around here. The standard is the standard and these young

guys, they know what’s expected and what they have to do to help

this team win.”

And win now. In that sense, it’s business as usual in

Pittsburgh. It’s also one of the few things that have remained

intact following a busy offseason for one of the NFL’s most stable

franchises.

Hines Ward, and his team-record 1,000 career receptions, was

released. Offensive coordinator Bruce Arians was let go. Offensive

guard Chris Kemoeatu was also shown the door as part of a youth

movement along the offensive line.

While coach Mike Tomlin allows the locker room will miss the

presence of leaders like Ward and Farrior, he’s hardly concerned

about how it will affect the Steelers on the field.

”From the formation of a team and the playmaking standpoint,

the plays are going to be made,” he said. ”The wheels will

continue to turn … it’s bigger than all of us. Somebody is going

to catch passes. Somebody is going to tackle people.”

Hopefully just a little bit better than they did a year ago.

The Steelers went 12-4 in 2011 but lacked a certain killer

instinct. They led the league in yards allowed but were last in

turnovers created and let Tim Tebow kick them out of the playoffs

with a wild overtime playoff win. Pittsburgh’s offense moved the

ball with ease but struggled scoring points, one of the main

reasons the popular and laid-back Arians was replaced with the

fiery Todd Haley, who is hoping to give the running game some

needed thump.

”We want to be a team that most importantly, can run it when we

want to run it and throw it when we have to throw it,” Haley

said.

To get there, the team drafted All-American guard David DeCastro

in the first round and massive left tackle Mike Adams in the second

in hopes they can bolster a line that gave up 42 sacks last season

and made quarterback Ben Roethlisberger spend most of the year

shaking off nagging injuries due to a constant pounding.

That plan hit a significant bump in the preseason as Adams

struggled to adjust to the NFL’s speed and DeCastro is out

indefinitely with a right knee injury.

Now the revamped line is merely reshuffled. Veteran Willie Colon

moved from right tackle to left guard, while Ramon Foster will fill

in at right guard until DeCastro returns. Max Starks recovered from

offseason knee surgery in time to re-sign and protect good friend

Roethlisberger’s blind side while Adams gets his bearings.

”We’ve been through this before,” Starks said. ”It’s not like

this is something brand new and you’ve had the same five starters

for three years and nobody’s had any reps. Our group is used to

turnover and position flexibility.”

Besides, the line is hardly the only position dealing with

uncertainty. Starting running back Rashard Mendenhall is still

rehabbing the torn ACL in his right knee suffered in last season’s

finale against Cleveland. Linebacker James Harrison spent the

offseason dealing with a balky knee. So did nose tackle Casey

Hampton.

Harrison and Hampton vowed to be ready for the season opener in

Denver on Sept. 9. Perhaps they will be, but their injury issues

only highlighted just how close they are to the end of their

brilliant careers.

This may be their last chance at making a Super Bowl run. The

same goes for perennial All Pro safety Troy Polamalu, who took on a

more visible presence during the offseason, showing up at organized

team activities – which he usually skips – to fill the void left by

the departure of players like Farrior.

”This team changed more than ever because of its loss of

leadership,” Polamalu said. ”This is a different personality team

than it was in the past.”

Perhaps nowhere is that change more evident than at wide

receiver, where Antonio Brown seems poised to replace Ward as the

unit’s spokesman. It’s not a coincidence that Brown – who signed a

six-year extension at the start of training camp – moved into

Ward’s abandoned locker.

Even Pro Bowl wide receiver Mike Wallace, who ended his lengthy

holdout less than two weeks before the start of the regular season,

allowed Brown has emerged as the leader of the self-proclaimed

”Young Money Family.”

Wallace’s holdout failed to produce the long-term contract he

desires, but his return means Roethlisberger now has a full

complement of weapons.

The 30-year-old quarterback has developed a newfound maturity in

the last two years. He was married last summer, earned his college

degree from Miami (Ohio) during the offseason and announced he and

his wife will welcome their first child this winter.

Though Roethlisberger initially balked at the way Arians was

ushered out the door, he’s embraced the diverse attack Haley hopes

will make the Steelers one of the most explosive offenses in the

league. No wonder the quarterback was so pumped when the speedy

Wallace finally showed up.

”It’s kind of like your parents telling you you get a new car

then it has to sit in the driveway because you don’t have any

insurance,” Roethlisberger said. ”Once you get that insurance,

you get out and take it for a ride.”

One the Steelers hope doesn’t end until New Orleans.

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