LATROBE, Pa. — So I got here two days too soon. I arrived in camp last Wednesday, just before the Antonio Brown explosion out in Oakland. I doubt they’d have piled on their alumni receiver, because it’s not the Steeler Way, but it’d have been fun to try to get the vets here to say something. Imagine what they were thinking over the weekend: Man, we’re so glad we don’t have the Antonio drama anymore.
I’ve come to this training camp most years since 1984. It’s amazing how little has changed. Chuck Noll was in the middle of his 23-year run then, and reporters could actually visit players in their dorm room at St. Vincent College. (I knocked on Mike Webster’s door that year and spent a pleasant 30 minutes with him.) Then Bill Cowher, starting in 1992; once, because of a soggy main field, unwilling to cancel practice that day, Cowher had a practice on the little-used upper field bordering a corn field. I thought it would be cool to see Jerome Bettis and Levon Kirkland walk out to practice Field of Dreams-style, through the cornstalks. And now, Mike Tomlin runs the show, and he did the other day what he’s always done—hooted and hollered at the one-on-one drills, offensive line versus defensive line. Tomlin’s been a prototype Steelers coach, because he loves traditional football and traditional football practices. And traditional winning.
The Steelers have been here every summer since 1966. This practice was the first one in a while that I did not see the brown-robed monks out at practice, mingling with the Rooneys. Joe Greene never had training camp anywhere else. Nor has JuJu Smith-Schuster.
Last year felt like mayhem from the start, with the Le’Veon Bell holdout marring the start and the Brown no-show in Week 17 marring the finish. Something had to give. That something was letting Bell walk, and the trade of Brown to Oakland. I think the Steelers are better off without both. James Conner (5.4 yards per touch in 2018) was a suitable but not perfect sub for Bell, and Conner and JuJu Smith-Schuster, the amiable and totally non-controversial wideout, give Ben Roethlisberger the kind of team-first weapons Tomlin loves. I found it interesting that Roethlisberger has been talking up Ryan Switzer, the well-traveled (for 24) wideout/returner as a potential big weapon on an Edelman scale. At the afternoon practice, there was Switzer as a sidecar to Roethlisberger running a wheel route out of the backfield, as well as in both slot and wide formations. So we’ll see about the former Cowboy and Raider. The Steelers need young James Washington or veteran Donte Moncrief to produce too. Also: Vance McDonald, who has a Gronk-type stiff arm and isn’t afraid to use it (50 catches, 12.2 yards per catch last year), should see expanded importance at tight end.
I’m bullish on the Steelers and the cheerful/optimistic Roethlisberger—who, camp observes say, has been genuinely happy this summer—having a prolific season again. Did you know he led the NFL with 5,129 passing yards last year—774 more than Tom Brady, 1,137 more than Drew Brees? It’s understandable that he will miss the great Brown, but I also am told he is supremely motivated to prove he can be just as great without Brown than he was with him.
Pittsburgh’s got an interesting season ahead, in many ways. The schedule, for one. Six 2018 playoff teams in the first nine games, including the opening Sunday night in Foxboro. But only one 2018 playoff team in the last seven weeks. Much of that late-season fortunate scheduling depends on the Browns, because Pittsburgh plays Cleveland on Nov. 14 and Dec. 1.