Skip to main content

Training Camp

Mike Tomlin, Pittsburgh Steelers embrace challenge of moving into post-Ben Roethlisberger era

On Saturday, July 30, NFL Network will present Training Camp: Back Together Saturday. Beginning at 9 a.m. ET, more than 50 analysts, reporters and team correspondents will provide 13 hours of live coverage from training camps across the NFL -- plus, check out NFL Films-produced wired sound of players and coaches in action.

LATROBE, Pa. -- It has been three years since the Pittsburgh Steelers last moved into Saint Vincent College for training camp, and as good a measure as any of how different the team is became apparent as players unloaded the microwave ovens and pillows they had jammed into their cars. By the Steelers' count, 70 players who reported this week have never trained here, meaning they joined the team sometime after August of 2019. Receiver Chase Claypool, one of the collection of young pass catchers on whom the Steelers will rely -- Claypool is 24, and the five most notable are 26 years old or younger -- was so unsure about what to expect that he had to ask some veterans what to bring, which explains why he showed up with a comforter and blackout curtains.

The Steelers are steeped in tradition and history. The football stadium here is named for Chuck Noll, who coached the team from 1969 to 1991. There are pictures of Steelers legends like Joe Greene in the cafeteria. Mike Tomlin, entering his 16th season, is the second-longest-tenured head coach in the NFL.

But even considering the immense roster turnover over the past two years, the Steelers are in the midst of a truly unique transition this summer. Or are they? Tomlin himself does not perceive it that way.

"I'd be lying if I say that I did," he said Tuesday, after the Steelers completed their annual conditioning run to open camp. "I just work hard not to proceed with any assumptions every year. I always try to have the type of urgency that says we're a team in transition. It's new and different every year. There's evolving roles."

In a recent appearance on The Pivot Podcast, Tomlin said that embarking on his first year as a head coach without Ben Roethlisberger as the quarterback is both scary, because of the unknown, and exciting, because of the challenge it presents him.

In an interview Tuesday, Tomlin admitted he veers more toward getting a charge out of the position he and the Steelers are in. Tomlin has long talked about the need to be comfortable with discomfort. Having to replace a franchise quarterback for a franchise that harbors annual playoff expectations would seem to be the kind of challenge he welcomes.

"I do. I'm excited," he said. "I love to smile in the face of adversity. To me, this is just a known variable we have the opportunity to rise up against and questions we get to answer."

There are many questions. Roethlisberger's retirement after 18 seasons means the Steelers are the rare NFL team that will stage a quarterback competition during training camp. When players checked into the dorms on Tuesday, it was Kenny Pickett, the rookie selected 20th overall at the 2022 NFL Draft, who drew the biggest crowd of reporters. He represents what the Steelers hope will be their future, but he enters camp having taken no snaps with the starting offense during spring practices, when he was lodged behind Mitch Trubisky, who signed as a free agent in March, and Mason Rudolph, the veteran backup.

Pickett may have the most to learn on the field during camp, but because he went to college at Pitt, he's had an up-close view of the Steelers. He, perhaps more than any other rookie could, appreciates how much this feels like turning a page in Steelers history.

"It's obviously a new era now that Ben's gone, and we have other quarterbacks that are coming in here and trying to compete for the job," Pickett said. "It's an exciting time, and I know everyone just wants the best for the team, so we're just going to go out there and compete."

All of this, though, has lent an air of instability to one of sports' most stable franchises. Tomlin has never had a losing season as the head coach, but even the parade of defensive stars who arrived Tuesday, highlighted by reigning Defensive Player of the Year T.J. Watt, could not offset the sense that nobody is quite sure what to expect from the Steelers this season.

They squeaked into the playoffs as a wild-card team last season. But the Cincinnati Bengals' run to the Super Bowl and the Cleveland Browns' stunning trade for Deshaun Watson have reshaped the AFC North, as part of a broader turbocharging of the AFC highlighted by Russell Wilson's trade to the Denver Broncos. The Steelers went to the playoffs 12 times in the Roethlisberger era, but his exit, coinciding with the strengthening of so many other teams in the field, has ratcheted up the difficulty of the AFC landscape for those worried about the Steelers' fate. For large parts of this offseason, the Steelers have been something of an afterthought.

They, though, are far from rebuilding. Depending on how you measure it, the defense is the most highly compensated in the NFL -- per Over the Cap, the Steelers are spending $125.8 million on defense this season, more than any other team. There is an onus on the unit to rebound from a subpar season, in which it ranked 20th in scoring and 24th in total defense, to provide support while the offense works itself out.

"I don't look at it as a transition -- it's an opportunity to step up," said defensive tackle Cam Heyward. "It's weird saying Ben is part of the history, but he is. It's time for other guys to uphold that history and play Steelers football.

"As a defense, we have to be responsible and understand that for us to be great, the defense has got to thrive. There are going to be hiccups along the way -- newer quarterbacks, different pieces on the offensive line -- it takes time to jell. We're not saying it's going to happen out of the gate, but we're going to give them every opportunity to be successful by providing short fields, turnovers and giving them the ball as much as possible."

That would be good for whomever the quarterback is. Only seven rookie quarterbacks over the last 15 seasons selected 20th overall or later started Week 1 of their rookie year, and Pickett's work with the backups in the spring suggests it is unlikely he will win the job out of camp for the season opener. Pickett said he does not think it is a burden to try to follow a Steelers legend like Roethlisberger, although he also said he believes he could win the job in camp.

"Honestly, I don't think of it," he said. "I know I have a long ways to go before I get there.

"Of course, you have to go out there and think that you're the best. I definitely have that mindset. But I have a lot of work to do and a lot to learn, so at the same time it's kind of a healthy balance."

Tomlin will not spend this camp judging Pickett's intangibles. He watched the quarterback lead the Pitt Panthers from the same practice field the Steelers use. He is more concerned with Pickett's development in the tangible parts of the game -- his accuracy and his ability to take care of the football. Pickett threw 42 touchdown passes last season, but his small hand size has led to concerns about fumbles.

If Tomlin has any angst about overseeing his first quarterback competition as the head coach, he certainly doesn't reflect it. On the outside, the Steelers may look to be in the throes of an upheaval. With a smile, Tomlin reminds everyone how the Steelers have thrived all these years. It may be a new era, but it's going to behave a lot like an old one.

"We're not going to micromanage or overmanage this quarterback competition," Tomlin said. "The depth chart will not rest on every throw. We're going to be a little more steady than that. It's important to not overmanage it, to not be too impulsive."

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter.

NFL+ gives you the freedom to watch LIVE out-of-market preseason games, LIVE local and prime-time regular-season and postseason games on your phone or tablet, the best NFL programming on-demand and more! Wherever you are, this is how you football! Learn more about NFL+.

Related Content