PITTSBURGH — It was, even by Brett Keisel’s standards, a little over the top.
Hard hat pulled tight over his head, thatch beard already in midseason form, the veteran Pittsburgh Steelers defensive end arrived at training camp last month in a mini-dump truck. Just to prove he knew what he was doing, the 13-year veteran hit a lever and sent his luggage tumble out of the cargo bed.
As an entrance, it was more goofy than grandiose. As a symbol of where the franchise Keisel plays for finds itself heading into 2013, it couldn’t have been more apt.
The Steelers shed what they deemed excess baggage in the offseason, even if the baggage included a handful of players with multiple Super Bowl rings. James Harrison, Max Starks and Casey Hampton, Willie Colon, Rashard Mendenhall and Charlie Batch were either deemed too old or too expensive to keep around — or both — after an 8-8 season while Mike Wallace and Keenan Lewis found bigger paydays elsewhere.
Though general manager Kevin Colbert shies away from the term rebuilding — particularly for a team that hasn’t missed the playoffs in consecutive seasons this millennium — his players are well aware of a small tectonic shift in the locker room.
“We have a lot to prove,” Keisel said. “The biggest thing we need is our young guys have got to step up and seize this moment.”
First-round pick Jarvis Jones and second-round pick Le’Veon Bell and a retooled offensive line will help lead the youth movement. Yet Pittsburgh’s fortunes this year will ultimately rely on several bold-faced names doing bold-faced things, and staying healthy while they do them.
While stars Ben Roethlisberger and Troy Polamalu remain fixtures, the Steelers find themselves trying to close the gap on defending Super Bowl-champion Baltimore and the upstart Cincinnati Bengals on the fly.
Consider this: starting in 2000 the Steelers have missed the playoffs once every three years. Each time the Steelers have responded with a bounce back season in which they won the division.
Five things to look for as the Steelers try to return to prominence:
DETENTE FOR ROETHLISBERGER AND HALEY? Depending on what you believe, Roethlisberger and offensive coordinator Todd Haley were either at each other’s throats last season or in the midst of a quiet cold war. Either way, both sides say they’ve made strides to get more in tune with the direction they want the offense to go. Roethlisberger praised Haley for opening the suggestion box during the offseason and there’s a sense the two firebrands have found some middle ground.
“Your big dogs have to have input,” Haley said. “They’re the ones out there facing the live bullets.”
The loss of Wallace leaves Pittsburgh without a proven big-play threat, but the addition of third-round pick Markus Wheaton gives the receiving corps a dash of speed.
WILL THE BELL TOLL? The Steelers were so high on Le’Veon Bell they made him just the second running back they’ve selected in the first two rounds of the draft since 1989. While he showed flashes of brilliance during camp, the 21-year-old also struggled to stay out of the trainer’s room.
Bell will likely miss the first few weeks of the regular season due to a sprained right foot, an injury that came on the heels of a left knee issue. Bell’s durability and versatility make him a great fit in Haley’s offense but for now, the running game will fall to holdovers Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer, both of whom are in contract years looking to prove they can be a feature back somewhere in the NFL.
TURNAROUND TROY: Polamalu spent most of 2012 standing on the sideline watching the league’s top-ranked defense go on without him due to a torn calf muscle. Nearing the twilight of a Hall of Fame career, the 32-year-old changed things up in the offseason, switching physical therapists while trying to be more proactive about injury prevention.
The explosion that’s made him a disruptive force over the last decade has returned in the preseason. The Steelers need him to look like his usual self if they want to create the kind of splash plays they lacked in 2012. Pittsburgh generated just 20 turnovers last fall, four of them coming in a meaningless season finale when a decidedly nimble Polamalu threw his body all over the field like it was 2009.
KEEPING UP WITH THE JONES: If there’s an heir apparent to Polamalu, it might be rookie linebacker Jarvis Jones. Taken with the 17th overall pick in the draft as the eventual successor to Harrison, Jones’ ability to make his way to the ball evokes Polamalu in his prime. During one 11-on-11 drill in camp, he swatted down two passes from Roethlisberger and intercepted another. He recovered a fumble in the preseason opener, forced one a week later and picked off a pass in his third game as a professional.
“I call it lucky, man, and just doing the things that I’m supposed to do,” Jones said. “That’s just go all out and run to the ball and just try to make plays.”
TERRIFIC TWENTYSOMETHINGS: Nowhere is the youth movement more evident than on the offensive line, which includes just one starter over the age of 25, and that’s 27-year-old Ramon Foster. Banged up and beaten down in 2012, cohesion and chemistry will be vital to protecting Roethlisberger.
Loaded with high draft picks — Foster is the only starter not taken in the first or second rounds — the group needs to mature quickly.
“We know what we can do, what’s ahead for us,” center Maurkice Pouncey said. “If we have that lunch-pail mentality and stay humble, I think things will work out for us.”
PITTSBURGH — It was, even by Brett Keisel’s standards, a little over the top.
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