By Chris Adamski
LATROBE -- One of the manufactured storylines of Steelers training camp involves who will fill the leadership vacuum caused by the retirements of Aaron Smith, Chris Hoke and Hines Ward and the apparent retirement of James Farrior.
Those broaching the subject forget the fact that this is still a veteran-laden team. Even without those 35-plus-year-olds roaming the St. Vincent campus anymore (Hoke is actually here doing TV work), almost half the Steelers' defensive starters are 31 or older.
The first-team offense through the first weeks of camp contains four players who are at least 29 -- a fifth, if you count No. 3 receiver Jerricho Cotchery, who will likely be on the field for more than half the snaps the offense takes this season.
"I don't think we've had as much change from a leadership perspective as we've had in the past," said safety Troy Polamalu, who, at 31, is only the fifth-oldest starter on defense.
Sure, to a man, Farrior, Smith, Hoke and Ward were all respected, admired and well-liked by their teammates. Each also set a good example with his work ethic, professionalism and demeanor.
But with Ben Roethlisberger now 30, with two Super Bowl rings in hand and playing the most high-profile position, he's shown an increased maturity level since his high-profile off-field incidents of a few years ago. There's no reason that the ninth-year Roethlisberger, eight-year pro Heath Miller and the likes of Max Starks (eight years in the league), Willie Colon (seven) and Cotchery can't pick up the slack for the departed Ward.
On defense, the list is even lengthier: Casey Hampton (34 years old), Brett Keisel (33), Ryan Clark, Larry Foote and Ike Taylor (32) and Polamalu.
"It's certainly been different without a couple familiar faces," Miller said, before adding, "But for the most part it's pretty much business as usual."
And for those who say the Steelers are TOO old, sixth-year pro LaMarr Woodley has a message for you: "That's been said ever since I was in college. Every year that's said about the Pittsburgh Steelers -- and every year we're planning Super Bowls or making a run in the playoffs."
Tidbits from the sixth practice day at St. Vincent College:
**Ben Roethlisberger let everyone know he tore his rotator cuff last Nov. 6 in a loss to the Baltimore Ravens. After leaking the word to a reporter early in the afternoon, Roethlisberger played off the ailment as if no big deal when he finally spoke to reporters that evening: "You didn't see any dropoff in my play throwing the ball (at the end of last season) and you haven't seen it yet (this year). And none of you guys would have known it if we hadn't talked about it today, which I kind of thought it was a non-issue since it happened so long ago. And it really is. I'm letting you know now that it's a serious non-issue because I'm just fine."
**Running back Rashard Mendenhall gave no timetable on his projected return to practice or a target date for playing in a game. But Mendenhall said his recovery from a torn ACL sustained in a win Jan. 1 at Cleveland is "going well." Mendenhall is doing some lateral cutting in addition to straight-on running.
**Roethlisberger said he was "sure" that holdout wide receiver Mike Wallace would join the team "before the first game." Assuming Roethlisberger was referring to the preseason opener, Steelers officials privately roll their eyes at that notion.
**This was probably just Tomlin being Tomlin, trying to motivate a veteran, but file this away regardless: When asked about the increased development of safety Ryan Mundy, Tomlin said, "He's got to earn a spot, first and foremost, so I don't want to proceed with that assumption. We have some guys competing at that position that are doing a nice job and he's within that group."
**Drills at practice Wednesday included kick and punt return work, coverage work for linebackers on tight ends and running backs and one-on-one wide receivers releasing on defensive backs.
**Saftey Damon Cromartie-Smith was taken off the PUP list and practiced for the first time Wednesday.
**Two running backs did not complete practice: John Clay and Chris Rainey. Rainey was suffering from "a heat-related illness" and Clay had a groin injury.
**Even merely in running drills during practice, it's obvious Roethlisberger looks Antonio Brown's way first virtually every snap.