LATROBE, Pa. — The Pittsburgh Steelers are all about constancy, from the ownership of the founding Rooney family to the virtual lifetime appointments afforded to their head coaches to the peaceful training camp surroundings at their traditional summer home, Saint Vincent College. The on-field success has been a regular accompaniment as well, as their six Super Bowl titles attest.
But this is a training camp of change for the Steelers as they move on from the 18-year quarterbacking reign of Ben Roethlisberger, the six-time Pro Bowl selection and two-time Super Bowl winner who retired after last season.
“There’s different questions,” veteran defensive lineman Cameron Heyward said this week. “You’re no longer just wondering who’s the No. 2 quarterback. You want to know who’s No. 1. … Every practice we’re just saying: ‘Oh, this guy is getting better. Oh, this guy is learning.’ It’s a different feel.”
Roethlisberger’s successor is likely to be Mitchell Trubisky, the No. 2 selection in the 2017 NFL draft for the Chicago Bears who signed with the Steelers as a free agent in March after one season as the backup to Buffalo Bills star Josh Allen.
“There’s always pressure,” Trubisky said. “... I have a lot to prove, just because last year was like a reset year for me. I didn’t play as much. I’m looking forward to [getting] back on the field and [being] a starting quarterback again and leading a team. I know I have a lot to prove to myself, and … I want to show that a lot of the work that I’ve put in has been paying off. So I’ve got a lot of respect for Big Ben and what he’s done here. He had an amazing career. We’re trying to carry on that legacy of winning a lot of games and being a successful quarterback at that position in Pittsburgh.”
The Steelers also have holdover backup Mason Rudolph and rookie Kenny Pickett, the University of Pittsburgh product who was the only quarterback taken in the first round of this year’s NFL draft. But the starting job seemingly was Trubisky’s from the moment he picked the Steelers over the New York Giants in free agency. There had been speculation he might head to New York after the Giants hired Bills executive Joe Schoen as their general manager and Brian Daboll, Buffalo’s offensive coordinator, joined Schoen as head coach.
“To be in that offense and stay with them would have been a lot of fun,” Trubisky said. “It would have been an advantage. But this was one of the spots that I had circled in the free agency. … They wanted to have me here, and this is where I wanted to be. So I just felt like when that happened, I felt like it was working out the way it was supposed to. … I felt like this was the best opportunity for me to get back on the field and compete to win a lot of games.”
Trubisky widely was labeled a bust with the Bears, failing to live up to the promise that accompanied the team surprisingly drafting him at such a lofty spot. He never won a playoff game with Chicago, and the Bears declined to exercise the fifth-year option in his rookie contract.
But Trubisky, in truth, wasn’t entirely awful in Chicago. He was even selected to a Pro Bowl as a second-year player in 2018.
“There were very high expectations, obviously, for being drafted No. 2,” Trubisky said. “... At the end of the day, I enjoyed my time in Chicago. I love my teammates there still. And we won a lot of ballgames. So would I love to have more individual success and win Super Bowls? Of course. Everybody does. But I feel like I’m where I’m supposed to be for a reason now in Pittsburgh. That was just part of my journey. I’m thankful for it. But people are always going to say stuff and look at it however they want, especially with social media and everything these days. … It’s part of my story.”
Coach Mike Tomlin eventually will face an interesting decision if Trubisky plays well, given the team’s use of a first-round choice on Pickett. Trubisky is still young — he turns 28 on Saturday — and his talent level rarely has been questioned.
As the Roethlisberger era gives way to, perhaps, a Trubisky era, there are reasons for the Steelers to be hopeful. There are playmakers around Trubisky on offense, from second-year tailback Najee Harris to tight end Pat Freiermuth to a promising group of wide receivers that includes Diontae Johnson, Chase Claypool and rookie George Pickens. The defense is led by standouts such as Heyward, safety Minkah Fitzpatrick and game-wrecking pass rusher T.J. Watt, the reigning NFL defensive player of the year.
Tomlin enters his 16th year with the franchise without a losing season on his head coaching record. Even when it appeared at times last season Roethlisberger had played one year too long, Tomlin managed to get the Steelers into the AFC playoffs — barely, at 9-7-1 — before they lost in the first round to the Kansas City Chiefs.
And these are, after all, the Steelers.
“To me, this organization is the gold standard of gold standards,” said Andy Weidl, a Pittsburgh native and long-ago Steelers intern who rejoined the organization in May as the assistant general manager. “You have an expectation and standard to live up to. … The goal here is to win number seven. And it’s important.”
Weidl’s return coincided with another major change. Longtime general manager Kevin Colbert stepped aside after this year’s NFL draft and the Steelers promoted front-office executive Omar Khan to GM. But there is continuity with Khan, who has been with the organization since 2001. Likewise, there is a familiar feel to being back in Latrobe, which was the Steelers’ training camp home for more than five decades until they spent the previous two summers in Pittsburgh for pandemic-related reasons.
Not much changes dramatically with the Steelers, even when familiar faces bow out. They expect to keep winning and contending even without Roethlisberger.
“I never temper my expectations,” Heyward said. “It’s just we have to win in different ways. We have to be an opportunistic defense. There’s going to be growing pains. We understand that. But as a defense, we’ve got to be able to weather that.”