- Jamison Hensley, ESPN Staff Writer
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LATROBE, Pa. -- Nestled in the rolling hills surrounding St. Vincent College, the Pittsburgh Steelers seem as though they're isolated from the football world for training camp. But make no mistake, they hear everything.
When it comes to the debate over who's winning the AFC North, the talk is either about the defending Super Bowl champions (Baltimore Ravens) or the team on the rise (Cincinnati Bengals). The Steelers? They're considered too old on defense and too young on offense.
If you expected the Steelers to make a rebuttal, you'd be wrong. They have embraced the underdog role.
"When you lose Mike Wallace, James Harrison and Casey Hampton on a team that went 8-8, you’re supposed to say they’re about to fall," linebacker Larry Foote said. "If I was a writer, I would write the same thing. But football is not played behind a computer in a nice cozy office. It’s played on the field. [General manager] Kevin Colbert doesn’t have two Super Bowls for nothing and this organization has six overall. They know what they’re doing. As players, we have to take it personally."
One player told me that this team was humbled by last season's 8-8 record, especially the losses to Oakland, Tennessee and Cleveland. The confidence, though, remains.
This defense has finished the past two seasons ranked No. 1. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had won 17 of 24 starts before suffering a serious rib injury in November. And the Steelers haven't forgotten about beating the eventual Super Bowl champions in December with third-string quarterback Charlie Batch.
Just don't expect the Steelers players to promote these facts.
"We got our poker face on," defensive end Brett Keisel said. "It’s one of those things where we’re all aware of the talent we have and we’re all aware of what we’re capable of. It’s a matter of doing it."
History is on the Steelers' side. The last two times the Steelers failed to finish with a winning record, they won the division the next season. After the Steelers went 6-10 in 2003, they rebounded to go 15-1 in 2004. Pittsburgh finished 8-8 in 2006 but came back with a 10-6 record in 2007.
"Playing in Pittsburgh, you don’t go 8-8 twice," cornerback Ike Taylor said.
So, what would happen if the Steelers ended up 8-8 again this year?
"It’ll be a clearance sale," he said. "Everyone must go."
THREE HOT ISSUES
1. Battle for starting running back job. The only reason this remains a battle is that Le'Veon Bell hasn't been able to stay healthy this summer. It has become clear that the Steelers want the rookie second-round pick to be the starting running back. The team tabbed him as the co-starter with Isaac Redman on the depth chart a week after Bell was held out of the preseason opener.
The problem is, Bell can't win the job on the sideline. He aggravated a knee injury from last week on Thursday and looks questionable for Monday's preseason game. Durability wasn't a question with Bell at Michigan State. Despite nagging injuries, he led the nation last year with 383 carries.
The Steelers have high expectations that Bell can revitalize their run game, something Redman and Jonathan Dwyer failed to do last season. Bell is the best fit in the Steelers' new outside zone blocking scheme. He has the experience (he ran the stretch play repeatedly in college), patience and footwork to excel in this ground attack, where it's find the hole, make one cut and run.
"We're excited about everything but the fact that he's now had a couple of little nicks," offensive coordinator Todd Haley said.
2. Injuries at tight end. Heath Miller is on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list after ACL surgery seven months ago, and Matt Spaeth is out eight to 10 weeks with a foot injury. So, if the Steelers are without their top two tight ends just like the Ravens, why haven't they made any additions like their division rival? It's because of the Steelers' confidence in David Paulson, a seventh-round pick from a year ago. He has impressed the coaching staff with his ball skills and sure hands.
"He's playing behind the right guy in Heath," Haley said. "And he's smart enough to follow Heath around and learn every possible thing he can from him. Guys like that have a way of sticking. He's someone that we're all excited about getting more seasoning."
Fullback Will Johnson also can be used as a tight end after significantly improving as a receiver. Plus, there's a chance that Miller could be back by the fourth or fifth game of the season if he follows Rashard Mendenhall's timetable from last year.
3. A ticked-off defense. The numbers say the Steelers finished as the No. 1 defense in the NFL last season. The perception is this wasn't the best defense in the NFL.
Pittsburgh allowed the fewest yards in the league last season, and it wasn't even close. The Steelers gave up 15 fewer yards per game than any other team. But this wasn't a playmaking defense. The Steelers forced 20 turnovers last season; only seven teams caused fewer. Pittsburgh also recorded 37 sacks, which was tied for 15th in the NFL.
"I have never heard of a No. 1 defense get talked about so negatively ever," Foote said. "The last two years, we’ve been No. 1 but we get shots at us. I don’t understand. Some organizations have never had a No. 1 defense. They’re still throwing stones at us. They want more turnovers and more splash plays. We’re going to give them what they want."
REASON FOR OPTIMISM
The keys are a healthy locker room and a healthy Roethlisberger. Five of Pittsburgh's eight losses last season were by a field goal. The players believe repairing a fractured locker room will go a long way in making this team hold up better in close games, especially in the fourth quarter. The other part of the equation is making sure Roethlisberger doesn't get hurt, which has been a major problem the past two seasons. The Steelers were 6-3 before Roethlisberger's rib injury last season, 2-5 after it.
REASON FOR PESSIMISM
There are questions about how the Steelers will fare without linebacker James Harrison and wide receiver Mike Wallace. Although Harrison's play had begun to decline, he was the embodiment of toughness on this defense for years. That's going to be harder to replace than his pass-rush presence, a void that can be filled with first-round pick Jarvis Jones. Some wouldn't consider Wallace a major loss because he was such a distraction last year. What people forget is that no one on the Steelers had more receiving yards or touchdown catches than Wallace in each of the past three seasons. Lack of depth also makes the Steelers vulnerable. Injuries to the offensive line and cornerback position would be a crushing blow.
The assumption is Antonio Brown would take over Wallace's role as the No. 1 receiver. But in my two of days at camp, Emmanuel Sanders was the one who stood out the most. Roethlisberger's best deep throws went to Sanders, and the quarterback was in a better rhythm with Sanders on crossing routes. This is a big year for Sanders, who will be a free agent after the season.
Safety Troy Polamalu has repeatedly said it doesn't matter if you're healthy during the summer. It's the regular season that counts. Still, watching Polamalu at practice, there were flashes of the old Polamalu, the one who bounced all over the field. The key is staying on the field. He hasn't played a full season in five of his past seven years.
All you have to do is watch Bell run one-on-one routes against linebackers and safeties to see why the Steelers are excited about him as a three-down back. He's extremely light on his feet, and no defender could keep up with him. The Steelers haven't had a running back catch more than 26 passes in a season since Mewelde Moore in 2008.
The wide receiver who has impressed the Steelers defensive backs the most is rookie third-round pick Markus Wheaton. He is currently the slot receiver on the second-team offense. It wouldn't surprise me if he gets a chance at taking over for Jerricho Cotchery at the No. 3 receiver spot this year. "He doesn’t look like a rookie. He doesn’t play like a rookie," Taylor said. "I can’t wait to see him playing in the season."
First-round pick Jarvis Jones has a knack for being around the ball and will make an immediate impact as a pass-rusher. After watching him in full-team drills, I wonder how he will hold up against the run. The Steelers can't play him on early downs if he lets runners get to the outside on him.
The hope is that cornerback Cortez Allen (knee) will be ready in time for the season opener. The Steelers can't afford to be without him. I knew there was a major drop-off from Allen to the likes of William Gay, Curtis Brown and Josh Victorian before I made my way to St. Vincent College. But it's an even bigger disparity when you watch them try to match up against Pittsburgh's receivers.
Kicker Shaun Suisham had a career year for the Steelers last season. His 90.3 percent success rate was the second-best in Steelers history, and he tied his career long with a 52-yard field goal. Suisham looked strong in camp, hitting one from 60 yards.