Steelers Training Camp 2005 Wrap-Up - By Jason Seidling

Steelers Fever Exclusive Editorial

Another Pittsburgh Steelers training camp is in the books at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe. After 25 days of mucking and grinding it out between the trenches, battling fierce heat along the way, the team held its last practice at 3pm this afternoon, and, after a light walk through tomorrow, will depart the college and get set to begin the 2005 campaign.

This year's camp was as event filled as any camp in recent memory, and we will take this opportunity now on the final day to recap all the highlights, and some lowlights, of Camp Cowher 2005.

The big story throughout camp, especially early on, was the 15 day holdout of 4-time Pro Bowler Hines Ward. With just one year remaining on his deal, at $1.66 million, it appeared that Ward was going to sit out the entire preseason, and maybe even into the regular season, but a long telephone call from Head Coach Bill Cowher convinced Ward to come back to camp. While Ward has been back for one week now, the new deal that was expected to come his way has yet to happen. Most observers believed that he came back on the premise that a new deal was imminent, and he is still expected to be locked up long term by the time the regular season rolls around.

Speaking of contract extensions, the Steelers made a wise move when they gave nose tackle Casey Hampton a new five-year deal on Monday. Even though Hampton is coming off of a major knee injury, he has gotten better during each day of practice, and continues to be one of the defense's most unsung players. Among nose tackles in the 3-4 defense, there is nobody in the NFL as adept at attracting double teams as the 312 pound Hampton is. He rarely garners attention from the media, but that is a good thing in the context of the Steelers' scheme, and as long as James Farrior and Larry Foote are making plays, then Hampton is doing his job. Kudos to Kevin Colbert for getting this deal done.

While on the subject of potential 2006 unrestricted free agents, the team would be wise to lock up safety Chris Hope and defensive end Brett Keisel before the season starts. Both of those players have taken the next step here in their fourth season, and, with their youth and athleticism, both players could be hot commodities if they hit the open market. If Colbert and the rest of his management team still have money left over after re-signing those players, wide receiver Antwaan Randle El should be their third priority.

The team made it through camp, knock on wood, relatively injury free. Both Duce Staley and Joey Porter each underwent arthroscopic knee surgery within three days of each other during the first week of camp, but Cowher expects both to be ready by the Titans game.

Several rookies among this year's draft class have stepped up and made the transition to the NFL faster than anticipated. The two most prominent have been third-round selection Trai Essex, a tackle, and sixth-rounder Chris Kemoeatu, a guard. Both players have shown tremendous potential, although Essex has struggled a little in the running game. First-rounder Heath Miller has not had his number called often enough through the first two exhibition games, with only one catch for five yards, but he has been a frequent target in practice this week, and should be a factor by season's end. Cornerback Bryant McFadden has excelled on special teams, but his play in the secondary has kind of leveled off, which should be expected from a rookie. Also, fourth-rounder Rian Wallace has also overcome a slow start, forcing two fumble against the Dolphins.

If Porter's knee is somehow not ready for the season opener, fear not Steelers' fans. Backup James Harrison has picked up right where he left off last season. Through two games he has two tackles, one for a loss, one sack, and a fumble recovery that he took 69 yards for a touchdown. Harrison has proven enough that he should be given increased playing time, even when Porter returns. This guy just has a knack for big plays.

Anyone who wonders how the Steelers will fair in the post-Plaxico Burress era need only look at free agent newcomer Cedrick Wilson to see that Ben Roethlisberger and the wide receiving core should actually fair better. Despite his drop in the end zone on Saturday, Wilson has been a huge hit at camp, developing quick rapport with Roethlisberger. The bet here is that Wilson won't drop another clutch pass all season, which is more than can be said for Burress.

Talk of the Steelers entertaining trade offers for backup quarterback Tommy Maddox is nonsense. Maddox has easily been the Steelers' best and most consistent quarterback throughout camp, and provides quality starting experience should Roethlisberger get hurt. Also, there aren't many backups out there who can ignite an offense with limited repetitions than Maddox, a fact he proved in 2002 when he took over for an ineffective Kordell Stewart.

On the subject of Roethlisberger, his inconsistency has to be at least somewhat concerning for the coaching staff. After setting the league on fire during his debut in 2004, Roethlisberger has not played up to the level that he did a year ago. In his defense, Ward's 15 day absence didn't help matters. Big Ben must pick his game up if the Steelers are going to go anywhere in 2005.

Looking for a long-shot to root for as the final cuts loom? How about rookie free agent receiver.

Want a good measure of just how good and how loaded this year's roster will be? Try balancing the numbers game at each position and you'll find some pretty valuable reserves that will be sent packing. Among those in jeopardy are Suisham, Charlie Batch, Washington, Zamir Cobb, Tyrone Carter, Matt Cushing, and Matt Kranchick, to name a few. The final two exhibition games mean a lot to a growing number of players.

Quote of camp: Troy Polamalu joking with me about how he lost so much weight in the off-season.

"It's all about steroids." After a couple minutes of laughter on both sides, he told me that is was actually just working out, running, and dieting. Offensive MVP of Camp: Although there was plenty of competition, second-year running back Willie Parker has stepped up to the plate and performed so well that the team is considering either giving him increased carries as the number two back, or giving him the third-down job in favor of Verron Haynes. Parker's speed has always been his strongest asset, but he went out and added more muscle to his frame, making him better able to run between the tackles. With Staley possibly out into the regular season, Parker could be this year's Ben Roethlisberger.

Honorable Mention: Nate Washington, Tommy Maddox, and Kendall Simmons.

Defensive MVP of Camp: Ike Taylor came to the Steelers from Louisiana-Lafayette as a project. That project took a while to complete, but in his third season, Taylor has burst onto the scene, and is even pushing veteran Willie Williams for a starting spot. That thought seemed downright unimaginable after Taylor was deactivated for three of the first five games last season. With great size, and unmatched athleticism, Taylor could be one of the surprises of the 2005 campaign.

Honorable Mention: Brett Keisel and James Harrison.

Camp Disappointment: Much was expected of Alonzo Jackson after the team took him in the second round of the 2003 draft. At this point in his career, about the only thing expected is a one-way ticket out of Pittsburgh for the former Florida State Seminole. Despite having chances to prove himself in each of the past two camps, Jackson has done little on the playing field to justify earning another roster spot. Youngsters Dedrick Roper, Andre Frazier and Arnold Harrison have shown more potential, and that should result in Jackson's last stand in the black-and-gold.

Honorable Mention: Zamir Cobb and Ben Roethlisberger.

And there you have it, the final analysis and observations of another training camp at Saint Vincent College. Now the Pittsburgh Steelers must get on with trying to replicate their success of 2005. It will not be an easy task, but if training camp is any indication, this team will do its best to stay in their perch at the top of the NFL pecking order.