Fresh faces, same expectations for Steelers

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MIKE TOMLIN (AP Photo/File)

 

PITTSBURGH (AP) – Mike Tomlin knows he can talk all he wants about progress and the overhauled roster and how much he likes what he’s seen during the offseason.

Yet the Pittsburgh Steelers coach understands it means little if it doesn’t translate onto the field.

“The reality is these types of processes are measured based on results,” Tomlin said at the end of minicamp in June.

And the results were typically un-Steelerlike last fall for one of the NFL’s most consistent franchises. A late-season swoon dropped Pittsburgh to 8-8 and a spot outside the playoffs looking in. It marked a decidedly ungraceful exit for some of the stars that led the team to three Super Bowl appearances in six years.

James Harrison, Casey Hampton, Mike Wallace, Max Starks, Rashard Mendenhall, Willie Colon and Keenan Lewis were either cut, not brought back or lured elsewhere in free agency. In their place are a bevy of rookies or reserves expected to take on larger roles.

How quickly youngsters like rookies Jarvis Jones and Le’Veon Bell assimilate will determine if the “processes” the Steelers have undergone the last few months will pay off with a return to the postseason.

Five things to look for at Steelers training camp:

1. THE BELL TOLLS: The Steelers didn’t exactly shed any tears when enigmatic RB Mendenhall bolted for Arizona in free agency. Five seasons and just as many off-the-field issues had Pittsburgh all but pushing him out the door. Enter second-round pick Bell. Though the 21-year-old comes to camp in a three-way battle with Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer for the starting job, there’s little doubt Bell will be given every opportunity to win it. The 6-foot-2, 230-pound Bell offers size and versatility the other two lack. The Steelers haven’t had a true every down back since Willie Parker left the team after the 2009 season. Running back by committee failed last season – the Steelers were 26th in yards rushing. Bell gives them their best chance at taking some of heat off quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

2. SPEED TO BURN: Mike Wallace and his speed ran off to Miami in the offseason. The Steelers hope they brought in a cheaper – but eventually no less effective – replacement in third-round pick Markus Wheaton. The rookie missed minicamp and organized team activities due to NCAA rules that prevented him from leaving school before graduation. Wheaton will have time to get his feet set behind veterans Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders and Plaxico Burress. But with Sanders in the final year of his deal and Burress looking for one last hurrah, Wheaton will be expected to contribute this season.

3. YOUNG GUNS: So long Starks. See you later Colon. The youth movement along the offensive line is complete after those two were allowed to leave through free agency. In their place are 20-somethings – Marcus Gilbert (25), Maurkice Pouncey (24), David DeCastro (23) and Mike Adams (23) – with 27-year-old Ramon Foster the “old” guy. Despite their youth, none of the starters made it through 2012 unscathed. Their health and the quickness with which they gel will be vital for a unit required to protect the health of Roethlisberger and open holes for Bell. Pouncey, a three-time Pro Bowler, is the unquestioned leader, but his image took a hit when he was pictured wearing a hat defending former college teammate Aaron Hernandez. Pouncey apologized but as one of the faces of the franchise, he’ll need to let his play make the biggest impression this fall.

4. CAN JONES KEEP UP? The Steelers felt they got lucky when Jones bombed on his 40-yard dash during Pro Day. The shoddy 4.8-second time scared off some teams, but not Pittsburgh, which scooped him up with the 17th pick with the expectations he’ll be the eventual successor to James Harrison at outside linebacker. Jones led the NCAA in sacks last fall (14½) at Georgia and the Steelers believe he will give a jolt to a pass rush that got to the quarterback just 37 times in 2012, tied for 15th in the league.

5. HAPPILY EVER AFTER? Roethlisberger and offensive coordinator Todd Haley have enjoyed a year to work out the rough spots in their relationship. The quarterback even praised Haley for openness in accepting input from players during the offseason. The two will need to find a way to peacefully coexist if the Steelers want to minimize the off-the-field distractions. Without Wallace around to take the top off opposing defenses, the Steelers will need to find interesting ways to get players open. Haley likely can’t do that without Roethlisberger’s support, and vice versa.

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Online: AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org

 

Bengals fine-tuning team that’s been playoff flop

CINCINNATI (AP) – Marvin Lewis sees it as a whole new series rather than a summer repeat.

The Cincinnati Bengals agreed to be the focus of HBO’s “Hard Knocks” training camp series for the second time this summer. They also were in the cable spotlight in 2009 with an entirely different cast that reached the playoffs and flopped.

“It is a lot different football team,” the Bengals coach said. “There are very few players on this squad that were here in ’09, so there’s a lot of interesting positions, some battles that we’re going to have. There’s been quite a bit of change.”

One thing hasn’t changed: the knack for falling flat in the postseason. The Bengals have been to the playoffs each of the last two seasons and lost to Houston both times. Those poor performances extended the seventh-longest stretch of playoff futility in NFL history – no postseason win since the 1990 season.

Andy Dalton is entering his third season as the starting quarterback, and young players like receiver A.J. Green and defensive tackle Geno Atkins have emerged as stars. While HBO’s audience watches, the Bengals will try to fine-tune a roster that returns nearly intact from last season and knows the stakes.

Five things to know as the Bengals prepare to open training camp with cameras rolling at their first practice at Paul Brown Stadium on Thursday.

1. IT’S DALTON’S TIME: He needs to take a big step in his third season. Dalton is the first Bengals quarterback to reach the playoffs in each of his first two seasons. He has 47 touchdown passes, trailing only Dan Marino and Peyton Manning for most in the first two seasons. But he’s had two awful playoff games – no touchdowns, four interceptions and a 48.6 passer rating. He overthrew an open Green in the end zone late in the playoff loss at Houston last season. Dalton has been working on his long throws and needs to find receivers other than Green with more consistency. Tight end Tyler Eifert, taken in the first round, should give him another option.

2. DALTON’S BACKUP: One of Cincinnati’s biggest losses in free agency was backup quarterback Bruce Gradkowski, who gave the Bengals some security in case Dalton got hurt. They signed Josh Johnson, who started five games for Tampa Bay from 2008-11, and claimed John Skelton off waivers for Arizona, which couldn’t settle on a starter last season. Johnson knows offensive coordinator Jay Gruden from their days in Tampa Bay. Skelton has never run a West Coast-style offense. Although Dalton has been very durable, missing only half of a game because of injury, a team with playoff aspirations needs some security at the backup spot.

3. WHAT’S UP WITH ANDRE? The Bengals reached a three-year deal with right tackle Andre Smith as the draft started in April, meaning their entire offensive line would return intact. But Smith missed all of the team’s offseason workouts and its mandatory minicamp because of personal matters, the only player who wasn’t available. His conditioning will be a focus in camp early. They’ll also be looking at how center Kyle Cook has recovered from an ankle injury that required surgery and forced him to miss the first 12 games last season.

4. TURNING HARRISON LOOSE: The Bengals’ biggest offseason acquisition was linebacker James Harrison, who left Pittsburgh after they couldn’t agree on a restructured contract. Coordinator Mike Zimmer will be looking for ways to turn the outside linebacker loose in a defense than finished sixth in the NFL in yards allowed last season. Harrison says he’s healthy and ready to make an impression with his new team, especially when it faces his old team.

5. PAGING DRE KIRKPATRICK: Cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick was the 17th overall pick in the 2012 draft, but missed all of training camp and the first seven games of the season after injuring his left knee during workouts. He played in five games, then suffered a concussion and was bothered again by the knee problem, ending his season. Kirkpatrick has been limited because of the knee in the offseason. His status will be another focus in camp.

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