Players from the defending Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers will begin filtering into St. Vincent College in Latrobe today for the beginning of a three-week training camp.
The team is not extremely different from the same one that was celebrating six months ago with the Lombardi Trophy in Tampa -same coaching staff and 20 out of 22 starters on offense and defense returning.
Two of the biggest keys on how the 2009 regular season will unfold are how the offensive line will perform after becoming a stable unit and how the defensive line will mesh with aging veterans and an infusion of young talent.
Those questions won't be determined until the real games begin. Until then, here is a look at the Steelers' five biggest issues to watch during training camp:
1. Big Ben's psyche: Ben Roethlisberger has a civil suit hanging against him, but it probably won't be settled during this season. Roethlisberger's demeanor around his fellow players, the media and the fans should give a hint on how much the suit is weighing on him. An unsettled Roethlisberger takes the Steelers from Super Bowl contender to playoff hopeful.
2. An open corner: Third-year player William Gay will get a crack at replacing Bryant McFadden as the starting left cornerback. Gay's made progress over the first two seasons, and he needs to continue to improve to shore up the Steelers' secondary. He'll have veteran Deshea Townsend to help make the transition a smooth one.
3. Hello Lawrence: Third-year player Lawrence Timmons had a breakout season last year as a situational linebacker. This year, he is trying to become an every-down player by taking over at right inside linebacker for the departed Larry Foote. Timmons should help the Steelers' pass rush, but he needs to develop as a strong run stopper and cover man.
4. Super sophs?: Second-year players Rashard Mendenhall, Limas Sweed, Bruce Davis, Tony Hills, Dennis Dixon and Ryan Mundy need to show they are going to have a future with the Steelers after adding little to last year's team. Mendenhall could be Willie Parker's replacement at running back next season, Sweed could be the team's No. 3 receiver this year, Davis could help provide depth for a thin linebacking group, Hills could join the offensive line mix, Dixon could be a Wildcat threat if the Steelers add that to their arsenal, and Mundy could help add depth at safety.
5. Return to glory: The Steelers drafted two legitimate breakaway threats for their return game in Mike Wallace and Joe Burnett. If one of them shows they're NFL-ready, Santonio Holmes and Mewelde Moore will be able to focus entirely on their offensive roles.
It's still a long way from opening day on Sept. 10. But how these five issues play out over the next several weeks will go a long way in determining how ready the Steelers are at defending their title.
Buck Frank can be reached at 946-7461 or firstname.lastname@example.org.