The guy in the middle of that massive mob of reporters, microphones and cameras situated in front of Rooney Hall on Friday? That’ll be Charlie Batch. He’ll be answering all the questions the media has for Ben Roethlisberger, who’ll more than likely slip in the back door as he does on most reporting days.
Of course, Roethlisberger will have good reason this year. He’ll be under the microscope when the Steelers report to St. Vincent College for training camp because he’s being sued for sexual assault. The media will fixate on his performance and how it relates to the team.
Similarly ominous clouds appeared after the last championship season, but the 2006 Steelers had other problems. Bill Cowher was on his way out and was less than motivating. That shouldn’t be a problem for Mike Tomlin, who’s only beginning what appears to be a long coaching career. He’s the guy on whom I’ll fixate, mainly because he’ll draw the lines on the Media vs. Roethlisberger scrums, and he’ll most likely do so with panache and flashy rhetoric.
Of course, there’ll be more to watch. These are a few of the topics I’ll monitor:
· The Scale – Casey Hampton doesn’t like to be told what and how much to eat, but he’s entering the final year of his contract and the Steelers won’t begin negotiating unless the soon-to-be 32-year-old nose tackle shows up in good shape. The team hopes Roethlisberger shows up in reasonable shape as well. He looked pudgy this past golf season, and that’s not a positive development for a player whose mobility has become the centerpiece of his offense.
· Center of Attention – Justin Hartwig suffered a hairline fracture in one of his toes this offseason. He may not miss much time, but it might open the door for a look at the future. Hartwig’s contract expires after this season. Will the Steelers extend him? Will they move Darnell Stapleton to his more natural center position? Or does Doug Legursky or A.Q. Shipley step into the breach? Legursky is much bigger than the rookie Shipley and has a camp under his belt. He’d likely receive the practice time as Hartwig mends.
· Curse of Carlton – Forget all the gibberish you’ve read about Kendall Simmons, or even Rich Tylski and Brenden Stai for that matter. The Steelers haven’t had good play at right guard since Carlton Haselrig’s Pro Bowl season of 1992. Stapleton was mauled by Darnell Dockett in the last Super Bowl, and because Eric Wood was drafted by Buffalo a few spots ahead of them, the Steelers didn’t pick a potential replacement until the third round. Rookie Kraig Urbik will have to first beat out Trai Essex to get a shot at Stapleton.
· Potential vs. Reliability – That’ll be on the marquee for the competition between Limas Sweed and Shaun McDonald as the No. 3 wide receiver. Sweed flashed his size and speed this spring, but he also dropped too many balls. McDonald caught 79 passes for 943 yards and 6 touchdowns in 2007 for the Detroit Lions, but last season his numbers dipped to 35-332-1. He blamed it on the loss of coordinator Mike Martz, so we’ll see if he can revert to previous form.
· Rookie Returns – Santonio Holmes busted out of his regular-season mediocrity in the playoffs with a punt return average of 14.7. But, alas, Holmes has been deemed too important for the offense to continue in that role, and the Steelers hope to turn the duties over to fifth-round draft pick Joe Burnett, an all-conference first-team return man all four years of his college career. The kick returner should be third-round pick Mike Wallace, the 4.3 speedster who reminds the team of Quincy Morgan, only faster.
· New Starters – DB coach Ray Horton said William Gay graded out better than any other cornerback last season. Gay will likely step into Bryant McFadden’s shoes, unless Deshea Townsend got drunk at the Fountain of Youth this offseason. The starter at inside linebacker in place of Larry Foote will be Lawrence Timmons. The former first-round pick bulked up to 245 while retaining his explosiveness this spring. Timmons, in fact, looked like a future All-Pro with the extra muscle.
· Mending Mendenhall – Punter Dan Sepulveda and long-snapper Greg Warren also return from devastating injuries, but all eyes will be on last year’s first-round pick, Rashard Mendenhall. The running back also added clean weight in the spring and had the look of a powerful feature back. It’ll be needed if the Steelers are to improve their dreadful short-yardage game this season.