By Dale Grdnic
PITTSBURGH — With three starters gone from their defense and four on offense, as well as several in backup spots, the Pittsburgh Steelers enter training camp this season with opportunities open for a number of young players and more question marks than usual.
Defensive end Brett Keisel, the longest-tenured Steelers player entering his 12th season with the club, believed the upcoming camp will be as important as any in recent years with all the position battles that await the team.
“There’s a lot of opportunities, probably more in this training camp for guys to make the team maybe that I’ve been a part of,” Keisel said Thursday. “So, there’s a lot of openings, really, but that’s what makes training camp so special, because you find the guys who are able to rise up to those occasions.
“And that should make for an exciting camp, as exciting as any that we’ve had in recent years. (And) in order for us to be successful, we have to have the young guys step in and play great football. We have a lot of young guys in this locker room. Our success lies on their shoulders, just as much as on us old guys. We need them to play great ball if we want to be a good team.”
Inside linebacker Larry Foote, who has spent 11 of his 12 NFL seasons with the Steelers, believed fellow backers like Jason Worilds, Chris Carter and No. 1 pick Jarvis Jones — all competing for James Harrison’s starting right outside linebacker spot — needed to take advantage of the opportunity presented to them. He also addressed guys like third-year pro Cortez Allen, who is expected to play left cornerback for departed starter Keenan Lewis, and fourth-year player Steve McLendon as he steps into Casey Hampton’s nose tackle spot.
Offensively, the Steelers were hit harder, as running back Rashard Mendenhall, wideout Mike Wallace and offensive linemen Max Starks and Willie Colon were not re-signed. The Steelers will be a lot younger on the offensive line now.
“We need guys to step up and fill those roles, not only on defense, but on special teams,” Foote said. “You know, we lost two good guys on special teams, so we need linebackers to dominate that unit. That’s what we were known for, but the DBs kind of overtook us for that. So, it’s important for our young guys to know that it’s important for us to dominate on special teams.
“(But) we’re always yelling at the young guys, telling them that they might think they’ve arrived, but they aren’t veterans yet. They have to stay in their place and keep learning, until it’s their time to lead. … But right now, they still have to follow. So, that’s what is preached to the young guys.”
The Steelers never took the practice field Thursday, as head coach Mike Tomlin and his staff held early meetings and then released the players into the offseason. There are about six weeks before training camp.
“I just told the guys it’s been a great offseason, but, and I think that but is significant because legitimately, you’d like to find ways to measure offseasons and feel good about it, but the reality is these types of processes are measured based on results,” Tomlin said.
“So, our offseason, our training camp and our preseason ultimately will be measured on how we perform. I think it’s important that the guys understand that. But, as I sit here today I feel good about the foundation we’ve laid for 2013. I like the efforts of the guys, the messages have been received.
“We’re just in a good place, but that doesn’t assure us anything,” Tomlin added. “We understand what we do moving forward is what’s really significant. We’ve expressed that. We’ll continue to prepare ourselves for the challenges that await us. (And) we’re excited about moving forward.”
Tomlin noted that the Steelers will “play it by ear,” as far as working the injured players back into the mix, but he expected all of them to be ready for training camp. That might not include linebacker Sean Spence (left knee) or tight end Heath Miller (right knee), although being ready for the season is more likely. Miller couldn’t add much to what he said earlier in the OTAs.
“No, nothing miraculous,” Miller said. “So, I just take every day, one day at a time and try to get better. (But) I feel pretty good right now. It’s kind of lonely in here when you’re here by yourself, so it was nice to have the other guys around. It’s encouraging to watch everybody else work, and you just try to be inspired by how hard they’re working and try to get back to where they’re at.”
Notes: Tomlin believed the Steelers would stand pat, as far as their roster was concerned, going into training camp. But they also would look at any available free agents along the way who could help improve the team. … Training camp begins when players report July 26. The first practice is July 27. … The first day in pads is July 29.