By Alan Robinson
Here’s your first Mike Tomlin news conference of the 2012 regular season.
No real surprises. No real news, either.
The main points:
— Ryan Clark, as expected, won’t play in Denver because of his sickle cell trait. He didn’t play there in the 29-23 wild-card playoff loss in January, so there was no reason to expect him to play in a regular season game there. Clark launched an initiative today with UPMC designed to raise funds for sickle cell trait and, ultimately, find a cure.
— Mike Tomlin thinks Peyton Manning is good.
— What Manning is doing in Denver resembles what he did in Indianapolis, especially pre-snap (picture Manning doing all of his finger-pointing),
— Tomlin didn’t say whether Mike Wallace would start or not, but it’s obvious that Wallace will play a lot. His holdout may have been a touchy subject during training camp, but this is the regular season and the games count. And the Steelers are a better team when Wallace plays, if only because — as Clark says — he forces defensive coordinators to devote personnel to him on every play.
— Rashard Mendenhall wasn’t ruled out, even though the Steelers have not anticipated him returning from major knee surgery until later in the season. He practiced Monday. But it still seems like a stretch they would go against their own plans and rush Mendenhall back into game action with precious little practice time and no game time since the end of last season.
— There was no update on James Harrison’s still-balky left knee. Harrison said Monday if his knee acted up this week — i.e. swells appreciably — he won’t be ready to go.
— If Harrison can’t go, Chris Carter will make his first NFL start at outside linebacker. Tomlin said Carter has shown substantial improvement from year 1 to Year 2.
— Keenan Lewis “has earned a spot” at cornerback.
–Isaac Redman still must get over his ankle injury if he is to start in Denver. (Coincidentally, this will be the sixth time in their last seven meetings that the Steelers have traveled to Denver to play., Denver played in Pittsburgh in 2006. Two of those six visits to Denver occurred in the playoffs, the 2005 AFC title game and last season’s wild-card loss.
–Tomlin has seen “very little” change since Amos Jones took over from Al Everest as the special teams coordinator. To me, special teams will be an area worth watching closely all season. More games are won (or lost) via special teams than you might imagine, and this is the first time that Jones has had the job by himself. (He was part of Tomlin’s first staff, but was passed over for the job when Bob Ligashesky left following the 2009 season and Everest took over in 2010.) It’s one thing to run special teams drills in practice. It’s another still coordinating everything on a hectic sideline. If an injury occurs, Jones must have someone ready to go. It’s not as easy as it sounds.
Let me repeat that: Special teams should be watched closely all season.
The transcript, as provided by the Steelers:
— Coach Tomlin: Good afternoon. We are excited about getting the 2012 season started and getting it started in a hostile environment versus a very good football team in the Denver Broncos. We are excited but we do respect it. We are going to display that respect with how we prepare this week, and we are going to go and play the game. Let’s spend a few minutes talking about the Broncos and the potential problems they will provide us. Let’s start with Peyton Manning. He needs no endorsement from me. His resume is his resume. Guys like him make their reputations in rising up in moments like this. He has battled some adversity with injury and being in a new city. We should anticipate his very best. That’s what guys like Manning do. Obviously he is mentally talented and physically talented. He has a ridiculous football character, he’s smart. He works at it. He is a ridiculous competitor. We have to deal with him but we also recognize that the Broncos are a good football team. They were a playoff-caliber football team last year without him. We respect him and them. It looks like he is quickly establishing a rapport with Eric Decker. Decker is a big guy that plays big. He creates space for himself. At the x-position they have Demaryius Thomas. He is a talented, former first-round pick out of Georgia Tech. He has given us issues in the recent past. He is another big guy who is extremely tough to get on the ground. His run after the catch is exceptional. He utilizes the stiff arm, and just in general he has good leg strength and is tough to tackle. Some other guys that have a past history with Manning, and he has a good rapport with are Brandon Stokely and Jacob Tamme. Manning is protected by a very good offensive line. Ryan Clady, their left tackle, is a perennial Pro Bowl-caliber player. At right tackle they have Orlando Franklin from the University of Miami. He is a very physical player that plays with good demeanor. If you look at them on defense, the first guy you mention is Von Miller. He is the reigning AFC Rookie of the Year. He is extremely talented. He has great rush skills. He utilizes his speed and power. They move him around. In base defenses he is the SAM linebacker. In sub-package defenses he is a defensive end. Let’s talk about their defensive front. They are a very talented group. They run as many as six people deep. Elvis Dumervil and Derek Wolfe are their ends. Wolfe is a former second-round pick out of the University of Cincinnati. He is a very talented, high-motor guy. They are supplemented by Robert Ayers, a veteran guy that was highly regarded coming out of the University of Tennessee. That’s a good three-man punch at defensive end. On the inside of their defensive line they have Justin Bannan, Kevin Vickerson and Ty Warren. Joe Mays is their inside linebacker. He’s a very active guy. They will be playing without D.J. Williams. That is a good group. They added a veteran presence in Keith Brooking. In the secondary they are led by Champ Bailey. Opposite of him is Tracy Porter. He is a talented cover man with great short-area quickness and he can mirror just about any receiver in the NFL. He has some hardware that can prove that. Their specialists are rock solid. Britton Colquitt is a great punter. Jim Leonhard could potentially be returning punts. He has caused problems for us in the past in several cities, whether it was in Baltimore, New York and now Denver. We expect him to be a factor not only on special teams, but we expect him to continue to work himself in the rotation on defense. They are a rock solid group, well coached by John Fox and company. They have new additions to that staff. Jack Del Rio is now their defensive coordinator. It’s not Fox’s and Del Rio’s first rodeo together. Those guys worked together with the Carolina Panthers before Del Rio was the head coach in Jacksonville. We have a tall task. We are excited about it. That’s what life in the NFL is all about. We started a process of preparing ourselves yesterday with our group of men. I will talk about some status things relative to some of our guys. Guys that we can count out at this juncture are David DeCastro and Stevenson Sylvester. They will not be practicing or playing this week. Some other guys that have missed some time, James Harrison, Jason Worilds, Rashard Mendenhall and Isaac Redman, all worked in some capacity yesterday. We are going to leave the door open for all of those men and see where the week takes us. A lot of their availabilities depend on how they respond to a work load. We provided a work load for them yesterday. Today is a player’s day off. We will see where that takes us as we push into tomorrow and throughout the week. You can add into that group Robert Golden and Curtis Brown. Those guys got banged up in our last preseason game but did work yesterday. Those guys are less likely to miss practice time than the other guys I mentioned earlier. Some of the guys I mentioned earlier are closer to returning than others, but we are going to monitor their progress and make the decision as we push forward through the week. We will base our determination on how they respond to the work. We did good work yesterday. I was encouraged by the work of all those men, particularly Harrison and Worilds, who have missed quite a bit of time in the preseason. I thought they were relatively sharp from an assignment standpoint and they displayed pretty good overall physical condition for a couple of guys that hadn’t logged any in-helmet time here in the early portion of the season. Ryan Clark will not be playing in the game. That’s been our position in the past and will be our position. Clark understands that and is supportive of that. I am sure he will be a big support to his teammates, not only in the stadium this weekend but in preparation this week. He always has been that guy. I expect it to continue. Right after this press conference, Clark will be having a press conference of his own. He is going to be talking about an initiative he is starting with his wife, Yonka, encouraging awareness in regards to Sickle Cell Disease and the issues regarding that. It’s a personal thing for them, so we are honored and humbled to support them in their endeavors and their willingness to give back to that community. The game is the game. Today is Tuesday. We are getting up to speed and putting together base plans on offense, defense and special teams. We are really looking forward to playing on Sunday night, and getting the season started in a hostile environment in front of our peers. We know what that’s about and we respect that. We are honored any time we are chosen to participate in prime-time television. More importantly than that, we need to show our honor by how we prepare and play.
Did any of the guys who are questionable come in for treatment today and do you have an analysis on them?
I’m sure they have. I’ve just been upstairs in my hole. I haven’t visited with anybody yet. I’ll get an update, I imagine, at some point this afternoon. But, again, it won’t be anything of any significance. We’ll base how they move and how they look in the mornings leading up to work, specifically tomorrow morning and Thursday morning.
Does the Broncos’ offense resemble the Colts’ offense when Peyton Manning was in Indianapolis?
Anything he’s involved in resembles other things he’s involved in because they’re usually successful. He’s very efficient, he reads pass patterns and route distribution combinations very quickly, he challenges the defense with some of the things he does pre-snap. It looks very familiar but I expected it to because Peyton is Peyton.
Re: Progress of Casey Hampton:
He’s kind of in a little different category because he participated and he participated in an above the line fashion in the last preseason game. We haven’t looked back with Casey.
How would you characterize Mike Wallace’s practice yesterday?
I thought it was pretty productive. Like I mentioned with some of the other guys who hadn’t participated much, number one I was generally, positively impressed with his general, overall understanding of what it is he needs to do. Number two, I think he displayed a decent level of overall physical conditioning. Obviously, that practice setting and that limited practice setting is not football games, it is not a hostile environment, it’s not NFL stadiums, so we’ll temper that excitement. We’ll just continue on with the preparation process that he’s under and that we’re under this week.
Re: Ryan Mundy playing for Ryan Clark in Denver:
Like anyone else that misses time, we don’t cry a whole lot about people that are out. We expect those expected to play to play in an above the line manner. Guys like Ryan Mundy and Will Allen have done so in the past, and we expect them to do so moving forward. Ryan [Clark] creates certain challenges because of the nature of the job that he does. He’s a great center fielder, if you will a great hub of communication for our defense, not only our secondary. So, those guys are going to be challenged in that way. Not only to play above the line, but to provide some of the help that he provides the rest of the defensive unit with the way that he communicates in-game, pre-snap, post-snap. It just comes with filling in for a guy like Ryan Clark.
What is different about Jonathan Dwyer this year?
It’s a couple of things. First of all, he’s a young man that I believe is maturing. Of course, he just turned 23. It’s funny to say that a guy is in his third year and just turned 23, but he just did. There’s a certain level of growth and maturity from a personal standpoint. The more obvious observation is that he is in better physical condition than he has been in the past.
Is Dwyer a candidate to start at running back on Sunday?
He is working, as are some others. Isaac Redman, who I mentioned earlier, is coming back from an injury. That’s something that we’ll determine later in the week.
Has Keenan Lewis earned the job at cornerback?
He’s earned a spot. I don’t anoint people in terms of jobs or positions. I’ll let you guys do that. I think he’s done a nice job here in this preseason in working and playing good, sound, technical football. That needs to continue.
Is this the best you’ve seen from Lewis?
It is. But, quite frankly, we expect it to be. He’s no longer a young guy. He’s no longer new to our system of football or our football team. We expect a hard worker, such as himself, to take off from a playing standpoint and he has.
Re: The progress of Cortez Allen:
He’s another young man that has grown by leaps and bounds. He still has room for growth and that’s a point that I want to make and a point that I made to our football team as I sat in front of the group yesterday and looked at the 53, plus eight practice squad guys. I thought it was a significant moment for us as we embark on this journey that is the 2012 season. I also made a point that we’re also very much a team in development, individually and collectively. We must be a team on the rise. Obviously, we better be a better team in the latter portions of the season than we are now. I could say the same about individuals. We’re talking about positions and who’s earned positions and things of that nature and who’s going to run out of the tunnel and start. All of that stuff is well and good, but individually, we better still be people on the rise from a football development standpoint, from a skill development standpoint and from a quality of play standpoint. That’s the only way we’re going to continue to grow and be the type of team that we need to be in the latter portions of the season.
Did you have any expectations about where James Harrison would be in his rehab at this point?
I didn’t have any. So, that’s probably an easy answer to the question. James is a guy that’s a competitor. I know that it’s within his power to be there and perform and, particularly for his teammates, he will be. I have had no reservations about him in that regard. The issue is just whether or not he gets a clean bill of health from our medical staff. He has to this point in terms of being able to practice. We’ll see how his body responds to that work and let that be a determinant about how we move forward.
Re: The benefit of having two experienced backup quarterbacks:
The reality is that when you talk about backup quarterbacks you need to find comfort in that they’re capable of coming in and playing winning football. In those two guys, we know that we have just that. We’ve won with them in the recent past, they’ve displayed in this preseason that they’re capable of being reasons why we win. The solutions or the answers to the questions lie in that. There’s always some discussion in today’s NFL whether you go with two or three. I always find comfort in the three. When I walk up and down these hallways and look at pictures of the 70’s Steelers that were 45-man rosters. I saw three quarterbacks in those pictures. So, that’s a little bit of a history lesson for me. When you’ve got three that are capable of being reasons why you win in general, I’m going to lean on going with that three. Obviously, some things that are going on at other positions oftentimes weigh in that when you’re putting together a 53-man roster, but just in general, we value and respect that quarterback position, particularly, those that can be reasons why we win.
Would you say that all three quarterbacks had pretty good preseason performances?
Does Wallace have the opportunity to show you that he can start in Week 1?
We’re just going to take that on a day-by-day basis and see where the week takes us. I didn’t see anything yesterday that would lead me to believe that’s not a possibility.
Re: The progress of Chris Carter from year one to year two:
He is a much better football player than he was a year ago, to be quite honest with you. That’s what’s been expected from him and not only him, but the other guys in his rookie class, whether we’re talking about Cam Heyward, Marcus Gilbert, Cortez Allen, Curtis Brown, and others. We challenge all of these guys to take a significant step, particularly with this group. Under the circumstances that they came into the National Football League a year ago were less than ideal, from a preparation standpoint, with no offseason and limited training camp exposure and so forth. We expect those guys to take a dramatic jump. He’s in the group that has done that. We find great comfort in his ability to play and his ability to play winning football for us. Whether or not he gets an opportunity or how much that opportunity is will be determined how we work this week, his work and the work of others.
Re: Chris Rainey being trusted with kickoff and punt return duties:
He will be given the return opportunities. I am not going as far as to say he is trusted with them. He is a young guy. He is a talented guy. He’s taken advantage of the opportunities we’ve given him thus far. Make no mistake, we have some young guys that are very credible and experienced return men, Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders. We are not afraid to use those guys either.
Will Rainey return both punts and kickoffs?
He is scheduled to get an opportunity to do both but we have some other guys that I know are capable and are chomping at the bit to contribute in that facet of the game as well.
Re: Changes in special teams since that Amos Jones took over:
Really, I’ve seen very little. It’s been business as usual for us in terms of the schematics and how we work. Obviously there is an adjustment from the distribution of labor but we have a good staff and good cohesion. It’s been a non-issue for us to this point.
What is Redman’s injury?
It’s his ankle. I am sorry if I didn’t clarify that earlier.