- The Washington Times - Friday, August 21, 2009

LATROBE, Pa. | Buses were parked on the hill that overlooks the practice fields at Saint Vincent College on Thursday morning. And more than a few Steelers players thought their presence signaled a trip to the local movie theater, which has long been a training camp tradition, instead of practice.

Alas, kicker Jeff Reed had set up a prank to burnish his credentials as a Pro Bowl-caliber jokester, and coach Mike Tomlin had laughingly gone along with it to see how the players would practice after their hopes were dashed.

“Some guys who didn’t know about the joke were really disappointed,” veteran receiver Hines Ward said with a laugh. “We’ve got a lot of characters, a lot of comedians on the team. This camp has been very amusing.”

The reigning Super Bowl champions will be allowed to leave Saint Vincent on Friday after a walkthrough for Saturday night’s game against the Washington Redskins.

The Steelers exited camp largely the way they entered it: with a preponderance of questions about the offense. But they also left their summer home in the rolling hills of western Pennsylvania confident that the offense is ready to take some pressure of a defense that carried the Steelers at times in 2008 and returns all but two starters.

“We need to set our goals higher and be better because we just can’t keep relying on our defense every single game to win the game for us,” quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. “So we set our sights and the bar high this year.”

It might be a stretch to say there is nowhere for the running game to go but up. The Steelers, long known for a robust running game, ranked 23rd in the NFL last season in rushing with just under 106 yards a game.

Injuries to Willie Parker and 2008 first-round pick Rashard Mendenhall did the running game no favors. Nor did a patchwork offensive line that got better as the season progressed but left questions about whether the Steelers won the Super Bowl because of that group or despite it.

Preseason practice has given the Steelers a chance to take a long look at Mendenhall, whose rookie season ended last September when he broke his left shoulder against the Ravens.

The Steelers have to determine whether Mendenhall is ready to become a true complement to the speedy Parker. That’s what offensive coordinator Bruce Arians would prefer, especially because Parker broke down in 2008 after averaging 329 carries the previous two seasons.

One thing Arians has made clear is that he is not interested in style points, no matter how much criticism comes his way following uneven showings by the offense.

“We’re not about statistics on offense. It’s all about the scoreboard,” Arians said. “I would like to run the ball better in certain areas, especially the red zone and the goal line, and continue to throw it.”

Roethlisberger does not lack for options with a pair of Super Bowl MVPs, Ward and Santonio Holmes, at wideout and fifth-year veteran Heath Miller at tight end. But depth is a concern at receiver, where a host of players, including 2008 second-round pick Limas Sweed and rookie speedster Mike Wallace, are battling for the No. 3 spot.

Like Washington’s Devin Thomas and Malcolm Kelly, Sweed struggled making the transition from college to the NFL. The former Texas star caught just six passes for 64 yards last season and had a memorable drop in the AFC title game in January.

Ward said the difference between Sweed this preseason compared with last year is “night and day.” How much improvement he has made - and the rest of the young players who shone during training camp - ultimately will be determined by regular-season results.

“Successful camps don’t mean anything unless you have a good season,” Tomlin said.

Note - Roethlisberger hurt his right ankle or foot near the end of Thursday’s practice. The Steelers did not comment on the injury, but it’s unlikely Roethlisberger will play Saturday at FedEx Field.

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