Training camp usually maintains a focus on new faces. Whether it’s high-profile draft picks or undrafted free agents fighting for a roster spot, we often look passed the familiar to the uncertain.
But behind all the hoopla of training camp and fresh faces, the veteran leaders of a team and what they bring to camp is where champions are formed.
Here are the 10 most important veterans on the Steelers’ 80-man roster, and what the Steelers need of them in training camp and beyond…
The Steelers’ desperately need consistent veteran leadership on the offensive line.
Over the course of the last several seasons, the Steelers have been decimated by injuries and inconsistent play along the offensive line. If they hope to return to prior form and the ability to run the football, they are going to need more than better play out of offensive coordinator Bruce Arians.
Losing Willie Colon for the season has only compounded the situation, and has put the leadership responsibilities on the shoulders of Chris Kemoeatu. Kemoeatu began to come into his own in the running game before missing the last portion of the season due to injury.
Kemoeatu’s veteran presence on a line that will likely be starting a rookie at the opposite guard and a newcomer in Flozell Adams at left tackle is of the utmost importance to the unit’s ability to come together early on.
The Steelers brought Foote back through free agency after a short hiatus with the Detroit Lions for a reason.
His ability to make smart decisions and put himself in position to make plays will aid in the development of young players like Lawrence Timmons, while compensating for the aging process of James Farrior.
Because of his versatility and cerebral approach to the game, Foote has the ability to play to the strengths of whoever he is paired with in the middle of the Steelers’ defense on any given play.
While Foote may not get all the recognition or accolades he deserves for the time being, his veteran approach to the game will see him on the field more often than not in 2010.
Woodley and Harrison comprise one of the most potent edge rushing tandems in the NFL.
The violent, reckless style of Harrison, coupled with the brute strength of Woodley, provide the Steelers with endless options to rush the passer and control the edge.
Last season, the tandem combined for 23.5 sacks and 141 tackles, earning them both a trip to the Pro Bowl.
With the young and untested depth behind them, Woodley and Harrison are vital to the success of the Steelers defense this season.
A five time Pro Bowler and the newest member of the Steelers offensive line, Flozell Adams is going to play a very important role for the Steelers this season.
Adams may be the Steelers’ smartest free agency move this off-season. Depending upon his ability to grasp the Steelers offense and gel with a thin and relatively inexperienced offensive line, he may actually prove to be an upgrade over last year’s version.
The Steelers got Adams at a bargain price with little to no risk on their end. With not a penny of his contract being guaranteed, the Steelers have no financial obligation worth talking about, and the veteran has everything to prove. His performance and ability to assert himself as a player and as a veteran presence on the Steelers’ line will play a big role in their success this season, and that role begins in Latrobe.
The tandem is back together again, and if the results are anything like the first go around, the Steelers will be back to their Super Bowl form in the secondary.
Taylor has always had the physical tools (other than the nubs at the end of his arms that he calls hands), but that physical ability has been plagued with inconsistency. For whatever reason, that inconsistency seems to dissipate when he is opposite Bryant McFadden.
McFadden is coming off a season in Arizona where he posted career highs in passes, defense, and tackles, and he should have no problem assimilating back into the Steelers defense in 2010.
The importance of both McFadden and Taylor is two-fold.
1) The tandem excels in the man coverage aspect of the game. It became apparent during the 2009 season that William Gay does not have the ability to cover NFL caliber receivers one on one.
His constant need for safety help put a major strain on the “Polamaluless” defense last season. McFadden excelled in man coverage during his time in Pittsburgh, and the addition of his services to the secondary will allow the Steelers a great deal of latitude, scheme-wise.
2) The tandem provides not only leadership, but they make each other better. They seem to feed off of one another, and the byproduct tends to be league leading in nature.
The last time the tandem played together, the Steelers had the best pass defense in the NFL. Assuming that Taylor is going to push himself that much harder in a contract season, and McFadden will continue to be the solid cover corner he has been in recent years, there is no reason to expect that they could not achieve the same results again in 2010.
After posting over 1,100 yards and seven touchdowns while starting only 12 games in 2009, Rashard Mendenhall appeared to finally become what the Steelers thought he was when they spent a first round pick on him in 2008.
His importance, however, goes way beyond mere numbers this season.
The Steelers are starting the first four to six games of the 2010 season without Ben Roethlisberger under center. While it is possible that they could excel in his absence, their success is unlikely to happen by the same means it would if number seven was on the field.
The mandate to run the ball more effectively and more often is met by Byron Leftwich or Dennis Dixon at the helm.
While the offensive line and their ability to stay healthy and gel early on will play a large role in their success running the football, Rashard Mendenhall is the only true feature back on the roster.
With the Steelers having to scale down the passing attack that should have naturally opened up the running game initially, they will have to rely heavily on Mendenhall to stand up to the pounding of more men in the box early on.
Mendenhall has struggled to stay healthy early on in his career, and while drafting a power runner in Jonathan Dwyer was a step in the right direction, coupling him with veteran Mwelde Moore would not be enough to get the Steelers over the hump at this point.
Mendenhall’s health and his ability to step up to the challenge ahead is going to have a major impact on the Steelers’ season, especially early on.
The crop of wide receivers in camp for the Steelers is a bit of an anomaly this season.
While talented, the receivers are relatively inexperienced in the Steelers’ system and lack the star-power and explosiveness fans have grown accustomed to in recent years.
The departure of Super Bowl MVP and leading receiver Santonio Holmes, combined with the loss of the often-inconsistent yet physically gifted Limas Sweed for the season, has forced the Steelers into using a much smaller group.
Hines Ward will be counted on even more as a result.
Ward had another 90+ catch season in 2009, scoring six touchdowns and accumulating 1167 yards in the process. While the numbers are needed, his presence on the field is needed that much more in 2010.
Ward’s abilities go far beyond running routes and catching the football. His blocking ability in the running game, and his ability to command attention from opposing defenses make him one of the biggest assets in the Steelers’ arsenal, now more than ever.
As the Steelers wade their way through the opening of the season without Roethlisberger, Ward’s abilities will open up more positive matchups for his teammates, both in the running and passing games. It’s this ability that not only makes him great, but also gives his teammates the ability to be that much better as a result.
Even though the Steelers are going to be without their veteran quarterback to start the season, how he uses his time in camp is going to be of the utmost importance.
Roethlisberger is going to have limited time to not only rebuild a trust between he and his teammates, but also to form some type of chemistry and timing that can be built upon when he returns.
His ability to conduct himself in such a way during camp, so that he accomplishes both in his limited amount of practice time, will tell the future success of the season ahead.
Aaron Smith is,` without a doubt, one of the most important cogs to the Steelers’ defense. His ability to disrupt the opposing running game while collapsing the pocket in passing situations is very difficult to replace.
Losing his stalwart presence on the defensive line after game five last season hurt the Steelers’ defense more significantly that most recognize.
Smith’s numbers are rarely, if ever, gaudy, but his presence accomplishes more than someone with double the stats playing in a different defensive scheme.
His size and ability to penetrate an offensive front consistently serves as the catalyst to the aggressive read and respond style of the Steelers’ linebacking corp.
After going down to season ending injuries in two of the last three seasons, Smith needs to find a way to stay healthy this season if the Steelers hope to be successful.
I have dedicated entire columns to the importance of what Troy Polamalu brings to the Steelers’ defense in so many ways.
His versatility and natural god-given physical tools make him one of, if not the best, safety in the game.
What he adds to the defense is never more evident than when you are forced to remove him from the unit and watch the results.
Whether it’s turnovers, pre-snap chaos, or covering enough ground to make plays that average players simply cannot make, Polamalu brings a level of play to the field that transforms the Steelers’ defense from just above ordinary to extraordinary.
Much like Smith, Polamalu is going to have to find a way to stay healthy in camp, and that may be his most important role during camp.