Joe Starkey: Steelers open camp as one of NFL's biggest mysteries

Joe Starkey, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on

Published in Football

PITTSBURGH — It might be helpful, before we dive into a new season, to remember just how horrifically the last one ended.

You already know the Steelers gave up 48 points to the Cleveland Browns. That's not news. But honoring the true nature of the defeat — maybe the most embarrassing defeat in the Steelers' 88-year history — seems like the right thing to do as training camp opens Thursday at Heinz Field.

It could be cathartic. It definitely prompted major change in an organization sometimes too set in its ways, although it also prompted an unusually lengthy contract extension for the head coach.

The Browns didn't have a head coach that night, remember? Kevin Stefanski was in COVID protocol. His team practiced once all week on account of virus issues. It had barely beaten the Steelers' JV squad a week earlier. Quarterback Baker Mayfield literally introduced himself to a new lineman ("a guy named Blake") in the huddle.

The Steelers proceeded to play like the Buffalo Bills in a Super Bowl. Maurkice Pouncey snapped the ball to Station Square on the first play. Roethlisberger kept throwing to men in brown helmets. The defense wilted, like always in playoff games of late (not that there have been many).

No team in modern times had fallen behind 28-0 in the first quarter of a playoff game until those Steelers. The Browns — THE BROWNS — wound up celebrating on Pittsburgh turf, having secured their first playoff road win since 1969. Soon their fans were wearing "The Browns is the Browns" T-shirts, mocking JuJu Smith-Schuster's game-week slight.

The whole thing was a bloody nightmare. An 11-0 start became a 1-5 finish, completing the Steelers' third straight late-season collapse under Tomlin, who was lavished with a three-year extension in April.

"We were a group," Tomlin said, "that died on the vine."

Tomlin's extension, combined with a less-than-enthusiastic decision to retain the 39-year-old Roethlisberger, had people thinking the Steelers were in steep denial and an even steeper free fall.

And you know what? Those people might be right. This could be the year the Steelers crumble.

I happen to believe otherwise. I still believe they're capable of winning the AFC North. But I will absolutely acknowledge the doomsday scenario as real.

The mystery of it all is the overriding story as camp begins.

We usually have a pretty good idea of what the Steelers are bringing when camp rolls around. It's mostly the same people in the same positions doing the same things. It's the blessing and curse of "stability."

But now look: The powers that be went nuclear on the offense, bringing in a new coordinator, a new line coach, a new running back and essentially a new line.

They had less of a choice with the defense, which sustained significant loss.

This could go either way. Nothing would surprise me — not 11-6, not 6-11. It's actually refreshing to see so much uncertainty surrounding a Steelers team. Nobody in the football world knows quite what to make of them.


Three of the biggest mysteries are these ...

How will Ben adapt to Matt Canada's offense?

Sure, Canada deferred to Roethlisberger with his "whatever Ben wants" comments, but make no mistake, this is a new scheme — and we won't know if the often-stubborn Roethlisberger takes to it until real games happen.

If, say, the Steelers are stumbling in Game 4 at Green Bay, will Roethlisberger start calling plays out of old playbooks and drawing up pass patterns on the fly, the way he did last season in Baltimore?

It's a fascinating marriage, as Canada's no wallflower, either. Consider camp the honeymoon.

Is the Adrian Klemm effect real?

The new O-line coach has a sparkling reputation among former pupils and is said to be instilling his group with a violent, run-first demeanor. We'll see.

I happen to believe offensive linemen, like running backs, do in fact grow on trees. You might get a great one here or there — a top-10 pick — but the rest are pretty much the same, and then it becomes a matter of developing them and fitting them to the scheme. Analyze every line that has appeared in a Super Bowl since 2000, and among the starters you'll find just as many undrafted players as first-round picks.

That doesn't mean this will work. It just means it's way too early to freak out over the pedigree — or lack thereof — of the players involved.

What are the Steelers going to get from Devin Bush?

I'm not talking about Bush's bizarre social media musings. I'm talking about the Steelers stepping far out of their comfort zone to draft him two years ago, surrendering significant assets to move into the top 10 for the first time since 2000.

You only do that for a star, and after flashing serious potential in his rookie season, Bush sustained a major knee injury. The Steelers need him to be a high-impact player right now. Or at least by early September.

Is that realistic? Who knows? Who knows anything about this team?

It could flourish, or it could die on the vine.

Should be an interesting camp.

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