While fans will have very limited access to the happenings this week on the South Side, the Steelers first Organized Team Activities (OTAs) of the 2012 season should bring out the newshounds in the traditional media who have been stumbling through hockey and baseball highlights for the past four months while reporting every miniscule Steelers tidbit as if the season were starting tomorrow.
The OTA season is upon us, and that means very little to us – the “media” or to you, the fan. Other than giving the football-starved folks of western Pennsylvania some Steelers gossip to chew on between gulps of depressing Pirates game nights, very little happens during the OTA’s. In a normal year for the Steelers, the team would simply gather a third of their roster – mainly newly signed rookies and free agents – and bring them into the fold to start learning playbooks and terminology. This is not a “normal” year for the Steelers. New offensive coordinator Todd Haley has arrived with an entirely new offense that has turned a simple coaching change into a certified Black and Gold emergency, taking fans back in time to the year 1999, when Head Coach Bill Cowher brought offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride into Steeler Nation and helped make the final two seasons at historic Three Rivers Stadium two of the worst campaigns the team ever enjoyed at the old concrete bowl. Change is a curse word in Steeler Country, a term rarely heard uttered around the most consistent organization in football. For a team that has had three head coaches since 1969, fans are used to just tuning out anything that happens before the players move into their dorm rooms at St. Vincent College in late summer. Not this year, folks. Change is upon us – at least in theory – and both fans and players alike have hit the panic button already in late May. Since Phase One of the OTA sessions are basically conditioning practice, the only real news we will hear will be if someone shows up grossly overweight (my money is on RB Jon Dwyer) , but it is football so we will be thrilled to hear about it.
Nobody knows who will show up for these OTA sessions, as they are not exactly mandatory for the veterans. We know that first and second round draft picks OG David DeCastro and OT Mike Adams won’t be there, as they are still putting the finishing touches on their final year of college. S Troy Polamalu won’t be there because he trains on his own until camp starts. WR Mike Wallace won’t be there because he is still pouting over his failure to land a “Larry Fitzgerald-sized” contract in his restricted free agency period. There is a chance Wallace will milk this contract business until he is mandated to be in Latrobe, and his story will be a source of endless debate all year.
So what can fans look for once the news starts pumping out of the South Side Complex this week? Here are a few items that are worth investigating this week.
1. Larry Foote takes over the starting “Buck” ILB slot for the departed James Farrior – The last time the Steelers entered a season without #51 calling the defensive plays was 2001. Foote has been with the team since 2002 – minus a one-year stint with his hometown Detroit Lions – and is going to be counted on as the leader in the middle of this Steelers defense. The team will be without Farrior, DE Aaron Smith, and DL Chris Hoke – three of the respected, grizzled veterans of the past decade – and will need Foote to divide his time between making a ton of tackles against the run and trying to help develop young ILB Stevenson Sylvester and Sean Spence (who though unsigned, will most likely be in Pittsburgh this week). For his part, Foote has always been a steady hand as a player. As a starter between 2005-2008, Foote was a productive linebacker who was always better than he was given credit for. As a back-up, he has been a consummate professional, understanding his role and just happy to be the Steeler. It will be interesting to see how he reacts to becoming a major piece of the puzzle again, and taking over the former slot of his legendary buddy, James Farrior. His battle to become a respected leader can begin this week.
2. The Cornerback position derby begins – Let’s just call it like it is – not many people are crying their eyes to sleep at night over the though of a Steelers secondary sans William Gay. Gay took his ball and a nice contract and headed to Pittsburgh-West, leaving the Steelers with only Ike Taylor as a CB with any kind of game experience. Since Ike can’t “swag” alone, he will need a new “swagging” partner in the defensive secondary. That player will come from a group that includes Keenan Lewis, Cortez Allen, Curtis Brown, and newcomer Terrence Frederick. The odds-on-favorite for the job is Keenan Lewis, who heads into his fourth season and at 6-foot tall and 208 lbs., has a natural build for the position. Lewis will be pushed hard for the job by both Cortez Allen and Curtis Brown, second-year players that both turned heads last year. Frederick comes in as one of the Steelers 7th rounders and has a real chance to make the roster for special teams duties. No matter who wins the starting job, the Steelers finally seem to have some legit depth in talent at cornerback – a spot they have lacked solid backups for some time. We should see all four players at OTAs this week, and it will be a good chance to see how their off-season conditioning either thrusts them into the limelight or turns them into the next Joe Burnett.
3. The new Defensive Line takes shape – The first true team activities without Aaron Smith and Chris Hoke are upon us, and NT Casey Hampton is still nursing his ACL injury. That means the Steelers will be looking at a defensive line potentially featuring DE Cameron Heyward, DE Ziggy Hood, and NT Alameda Ta’amu -not just for OTA action, but for the start of the season. We won’t count out another stellar season coming from “The Diesel” Brett Keisel, but at 33-years old he should begin to be phased out this season. It is a transitional period for the Steelers front three, and we should get a good look at how the young guns on the defensive line are looking this week. While they won’t be wearing pads, just seeing the new players out there sweating and pushing around offensive linemen should be a sight that warms Steeler fans hearts.
OK, I know…..this is just an OTA. There won’t be much actual football taking place this week, but the excitement of seeing the Steelers doing anything is a sight for sore pigskin eyes in May. The bitter taste of that loss in Denver is still in the mouths of most fans, and certainly the players are ready to move on from that debacle. This is a minor step towards the new season, but hopefully it is enough to end the “sky is falling because Todd Haley threw out the Arians playbook” garbage we have been shoveled endlessly over the past month. Let’s hope for some positivity out of the South Side this week, and start the push towards a very interesting and potentially Earth-shattering 2012 season.
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Topics: Aaron Smith, Alameda Ta'amu, Cameron Heyward, Casey Hampton, Chris Hoke, Cortez Allen, Curtis Brown, Fullback, James Farrior, Keenan Lewis, Larry Foote, Mike Tomlin, OTA, Pittsburgh Steelers, Pittsburgh Steelers Blog, Sean Spence, Steelers, Steelers New Offense, Stevenson Sylvester, Terrence Frederick, Todd Haley, Ziggy Hood