Commentary

Steelers camp is anything but quiet

Originally Published: July 28, 2012
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

LATROBE, Pa. -- No training camp opened with the explosions that the Pittsburgh Steelers' did, and it had nothing to do with the storms that circled Latrobe, Pa.

The first lightning bolt came in the morning, when it leaked that Jimmy Haslam, a minority owner, was negotiating to buy Randy Lerner's majority shares of the Cleveland Browns. A Steelers owner buying the Browns? Tweeted one loyal Twitter follower, "haven't the Steelers owned the Browns for years?"

Later that day, Browns president Mike Holmgren confirmed the negotiations and higher-ups in the Steelers organization said the transaction was well along and should happen, pending NFL owners' approval.

In the second bombshell, Antonio Brown potentially aced out Mike Wallace for the franchise's long-term wide receiver deal. Wallace, an unsigned restricted free agent, had turned down the Steelers' $9 million-a-year offer.

Like most teams staring at a tight salary cap for the next several years, the Steelers faced a predicament keeping good young players. Wallace could be an unrestricted free agent next year. Brown and talented receiver Emmanuel Sanders are restricted free agents next year and potential free agents in 2014.

Agent Drew Rosenhaus slipped into town Friday and worked a five-year, $42.5 million deal for Brown. Brown's new $2.24 million cap number doesn't kill Wallace's bid for a long-term deal, but it might make it hard for the Steelers to keep him. By lingering on the Steelers' offer and then holding out, Wallace jeopardized his long-term future in Pittsburgh.

The Steelers are now more than $16 million over next year's cap, which might make it hard to franchise Wallace. Mike Tomlin wants to keep both receivers, but at least the Steelers secured Brown.

Here are five observations from training camp:

1. Wait and see: The Ben Roethlisberger-Todd Haley relationship ought to work, but no one will really know until the regular season begins. Both have their philosophies for offensive success. Roethlisberger is one of the league's five best quarterbacks and loves to control games through the air. Haley likes a good passing game, but his days with Bill Parcells taught him the value of running the ball. Working with Kurt Warner in Arizona taught Haley to trust the quarterback's throwing intuitions. Roethlisberger's incredible throwing display in the offseason and on the first day of camp has reminded Haley that he doesn't need to call a Jeff Hostetler game plan. Meanwhile, the Steelers' quarterbacks understand the wait-and-see approach. Roethlisberger and backups Charlie Batch and Byron Leftwich have 34 years of combined NFL experience. Theoretically, under Haley's scheme, we'll see a little more running, more throws to the tight end and more short passes to set up the play-action.

2. An opening at RB: Running back Rashard Mendenhall is expected to be on the physically unable to perform list until at least October recovering from his knee reconstruction. Although he is running well straight ahead, he's not ready to make the cuts needed to be an every-down runner. Haley will take a running-back-by-committee approach into the season, and Isaac Redman will be the chairman. Just because Redman was undrafted doesn't mean he's not good. As many as seven or eight undrafted running backs could start in the NFL this season. Redman is that big "north-to-south'" runner who can pound the ball on early downs and if the Steelers have the lead in the fourth quarter. Redman came to camp light. "I want to be 'all-the-way Redman' this year instead of 'red zone Redman,' so I'm trying to get into the 230-pound range,'' Redman said. Jonathan Dwyer is working behind him but doesn't seem to have the quickness needed. Baron Batch is a low draft choice who could beat Dwyer for backup duty. Keep an eye on Chris Rainey, a 5-foot-8, 178-pound scatback with incredible speed. He could be an exceptional threat on screen passes and throws into the flat.

[+] EnlargeHeath Miller
AP Photo/Keith SrakocicThe Steelers could change how they use tight ends this season, which might mean more catches for Heath Miller.
3. How will the tight ends be used? Parcells always had a tight end heavily involved in his offenses. Haley will keep that in mind as he looks at the skill sets of the Steelers. Heath Miller has had only one season in which he caught more than 51 passes, but don't be surprised if he catches 70 this season. It's a shame that Weslye Saunders will be suspended the first four games of the season. Saunders adds a Jermichael Finley look when the Steelers line up in two-TE sets. He's massive and can run. He can be flexed out like a slot receiver and be a matchup nightmare. Haley also recruited 6-8 tight end Leonard Pope from Kansas City, and he could be a factor as a backup.

4. A shored-up line: For years, Roethlisberger operated behind an offensive line scrambling to keep starters. Right guard David DeCastro and left tackle Mike Adams now form the foundation of what should be one of the NFL's best blocking units by 2014. But how quickly they will be incorporated this year? At the moment, DeCastro and Adams are working with the second team, a signal that rookies have to earn starting jobs. DeCastro should excel on running downs and learn how to be a good pass-blocker. Adams looks natural when he's going one-on-one against a pass-rusher. But a rookie tackle can be counted on to give up eight to 10 sacks. For example, look at the 49ers when they drafted Mike Iupati at guard and Anthony Davis at right tackle. The 49ers gave up 44 sacks that year. Roethlisberger has been sacked an average of 43.5 times a season the past six seasons. Willie Colon should do well at left guard if he stays healthy. Maurkice Pouncey is already one of the best centers in football. The Steelers just have to make sure DeCastro and Adams are ready. They have Trai Essex at left tackle until Adam is ready.

5. Depth at cornerback: Free agency wiped out two-thirds of their starting cornerback crew. Gone are Bryant McFadden and William Gay. Injuries caught up to McFadden last year, robbing him of speed and playing time. Gay left the Steelers to join the Cardinals, but his struggles in coverage had been exposed the past few years. That leaves 32-year-old Ike Taylor and 2009 draftee Keenan Lewis. Lewis could head into the season as the starter, but that might not last. Cortez Allen, 6-1 and long-armed, looks good in press man coverage and at worst is the team's third corner. The scouting department also feels good about Curtis Brown, a fourth-round pick from last year. For the first time in years, the Steelers look four deep at corner, but the question is whether the young corners can step up against top offenses.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer