Big Ben not Steelers' only worry as they prepare to kick off camp

PITTSBURGH -- Now that the Steelers have Ben Roethlisberger back, at least for training camp, they have another problem with the quarterback whose offseason missteps repeatedly overshadow all that he accomplishes as a player.

What do they do with him?

Once the Steelers report to training camp Friday, does Roethlisberger run with the starters, despite his suspension that will last at least four games? Or do they drastically cut his time with the regulars so Byron Leftwich will be better prepared to run the offense when the season begins, because Roethlisberger can't play until mid-October at the earliest?

As wide receiver Antwaan Randle El said, it's a situation that's equally tricky and delicate. For now, coach Mike Tomlin, who along with director of football operations Kevin Colbert recently signed contract extensions, plans to improvise until the Steelers figure out what works, or what doesn't, especially since quarterbacks Dennis Dixon and Charlie Batch also need work.

But Roethlisberger isn't the Steelers' only worry as they start what promises to be one of their most hectic and eventful training camps of the 45 they have staged at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, Pa. It's about an hour's drive east of Pittsburgh, but it isn't nearly far enough away to distance the team from one of the worst offseasons in franchise history.

Roethlisberger was accused in March of sexually assaulting a Georgia college student and, while he wasn't charged, his six-game suspension puts the Steelers at a significant disadvantage -- even if NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell trims the punishment to four games.

Wide receiver Santonio Holmes, the Super Bowl MVP just 18 months ago, was all but given away to the New York Jets for a fifth-round draft pick after the Steelers wearied of his behavior. Right tackle Willie Colon was lost for the season in June with an Achilles' tendon injury.

All this occurred after a 9-7 season caused Pittsburgh to bring back four players from its Super Bowl past in Randle El, Leftwich, linebacker Larry Foote and cornerback Bryant McFadden. Perhaps not coincidentally, all are considered strong influences inside a locker room that was rattled by a five-game losing streak late last season.

"We have some unusual things to address in camp," team president Art Rooney II said.

No, this camp won't be business as usual.

A running game that traditionally is one of the NFL's strongest slipped the past two seasons. Still, the Steelers did little to upgrade it other than drafting former Georgia Tech running back Jonathan Dwyer, who might be the NFL's most-watched sixth-round draft pick.

The Steelers plan to lean heavily on their running game during Roethlisberger's absence, although 1,000-yard rusher Rashard Mendenhall was their only reliable runner last season and the offensive line sustained a major setback when Colon was hurt.

On Thursday, the Steelersreached a two-year contract agreement with five-time Pro Bowl tackle Flozell Adams, who was cut by the Dallas Cowboys in April. Adams could replace Colon on the right side or return to his natural position of left tackle, with Max Starks shifting to right tackle.

The worries aren't limited to the offense, either.

A defense that was the NFL's best statistically during the past five seasons couldn't hold leads, with five losses occurring last season after the Steelers led in the fourth quarter.

Seven projected defensive starters are 30 or older, including linebacker James Farrior (35) and defensive end Aaron Smith (34), who missed most of the 2009 season because of a right shoulder injury. Many teams fear that the older a defense gets, the most suspect it becomes to injuries.

One of the defense's best players, outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley, is unhappy as camp opens, despite having 13.5 sacks last season. Without a new NFL labor agreement, the Steelers can't sign Woodley to a new contract that pays more than 30 percent above what he made the previous season -- this season, for example, he couldn't make more than $598,000 even with a new deal.

One welcome development: Star safety Troy Polamalu returns after missing 11 games and most of two others with two knee injuries. His lengthy absences proved how valuable he is; the Steelers were 3-0 when Polamalu played a full game but just 6-7 in all the rest.

"He literally can do anything," defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said. "He just opens the playbook to anything that you want to do."

All these troubles and concerns are lowering expectations for a team that routinely reports to camp expecting to make a Super Bowl run.

Rooney doesn't know if that's necessarily a bad thing.

"We've always done well as the underdog, and I'm not sure why," he said. "It seems that in the years people kind of underestimated us a little bit, sometimes that's been some of our better years. I don't mind that role if that's where we wind up."

Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press

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