PITTSBURGH (AP) — Brett Keisel glanced around the Pittsburgh Steelers defensive meeting room one day at training camp and the defensive end was struck by what — or actually who — he didn’t see.
No James Farrior. No Aaron Smith. No Chris Hoke. All important role players in Pittsburgh’s run of three Super Bowl appearances in six years. All part of a mass offseason exodus — by Steelers’ standards anyway — that left the team decidedly younger though Keisel stressed no less focused on a seventh Lombardi trophy.
“Yeah, you notice when you’re one of the oldest guys in the room,” said Keisel, who turns 34 in September. “But you know how it is around here. The standard is the standard and these young guys, they know what’s expected and what they have to do to help this team win.”
And win now. In that sense, it’s business as usual in Pittsburgh. It’s also one of the few things that have remained intact following a busy offseason for one of the NFL’s most stable franchises.
Hines Ward, and his team-record 1,000 career receptions, was released. Offensive coordinator Bruce Arians was let go. Offensive guard Chris Kemoeatu was also shown the door as part of a youth movement along the offensive line.
While coach Mike Tomlin allows the locker room will miss the presence of leaders like Ward and Farrior, he’s hardly concerned about how it will affect the Steelers on the field.
“From the formation of a team and the playmaking standpoint, the plays are going to be made,” he said. “The wheels will continue to turn … it’s bigger than all of us. Somebody is going to catch passes. Somebody is going to tackle people.”
Hopefully just a little bit better than they did a year ago.
The Steelers went 12-4 in 2011 but lacked a certain killer instinct. They led the league in yards allowed but were last in turnovers created and let Tim Tebow kick them out of the playoffs with a wild overtime playoff win. Pittsburgh’s offense moved the ball with ease but struggled scoring points, one of the main reasons the popular and laid-back Arians was replaced with the fiery Todd Haley, who is hoping to give the running game some needed thump.
“We want to be a team that most importantly, can run it when we want to run it and throw it when we have to throw it,” Haley said.
To get there, the team drafted All-American guard David DeCastro in the first round and massive left tackle Mike Adams in the second in hopes they can bolster a line that gave up 42 sacks last season and made quarterback Ben Roethlisberger spend most of the year shaking off nagging injuries due to a constant pounding.
That plan hit a significant bump in the preseason as Adams struggled to adjust to the NFL’s speed and DeCastro is out indefinitely with a right knee injury.
Now the revamped line is merely reshuffled. Veteran Willie Colon moved from right tackle to left guard, while Ramon Foster will fill in at right guard until DeCastro returns. Max Starks recovered from offseason knee surgery in time to re-sign and protect good friend Roethlisberger’s blind side while Adams gets his bearings.
“We’ve been through this before,” Starks said. “It’s not like this is something brand new and you’ve had the same five starters for three years and nobody’s had any reps. Our group is used to turnover and position flexibility.”
Besides, the line is hardly the only position dealing with uncertainty. Starting running back Rashard Mendenhall is still rehabbing the torn ACL in his right knee suffered in last season’s finale against Cleveland. Linebacker James Harrison spent the offseason dealing with a balky knee. So did nose tackle Casey Hampton.
Harrison and Hampton vowed to be ready for the season opener in Denver on Sept. 9. Perhaps they will be, but their injury issues only highlighted just how close they are to the end of their brilliant careers.
This may be their last chance at making a Super Bowl run. The same goes for perennial All Pro safety Troy Polamalu, who took on a more visible presence during the offseason, showing up at organized team activities — which he usually skips — to fill the void left by the departure of players like Farrior.
“This team changed more than ever because of its loss of leadership,” Polamalu said. “This is a different personality team than it was in the past.”
Perhaps nowhere is that change more evident than at wide receiver, where Antonio Brown seems poised to replace Ward as the unit’s spokesman. It’s not a coincidence that Brown — who signed a six-year extension at the start of training camp — moved into Ward’s abandoned locker.
Even Pro Bowl wide receiver Mike Wallace, who ended his lengthy holdout less than two weeks before the start of the regular season, allowed Brown has emerged as the leader of the self-proclaimed “Young Money Family.”
Wallace’s holdout failed to produce the long-term contract he desires, but his return means Roethlisberger now has a full complement of weapons.
The 30-year-old quarterback has developed a newfound maturity in the last two years. He was married last summer, earned his college degree from Miami (Ohio) during the offseason and announced he and his wife will welcome their first child this winter.
Though Roethlisberger initially balked at the way Arians was ushered out the door, he’s embraced the diverse attack Haley hopes will make the Steelers one of the most explosive offenses in the league. No wonder the quarterback was so pumped when the speedy Wallace finally showed up.
“It’s kind of like your parents telling you you get a new car then it has to sit in the driveway because you don’t have any insurance,” Roethlisberger said. “Once you get that insurance, you get out and take it for a ride.”
One the Steelers hope doesn’t end until New Orleans.
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