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Key position No. 2: New faces will abound in secondary

By Gerry Dulac 49 minutes ago

For the next two weeks, we will look at the five positions that will hold the key to the 2015 season that begins Sept. 10 in New England. We will provide a general rundown, identify the strength and weakness and pick the one player who is ready to have a breakout season.

Today: Secondary.

The Steelers focused on improving the back end of their defense after allowing 15 pass plays of 40 yards or longer last season, including seven of 51 yards or longer.

And they did it by bringing in young bodies in the draft.

Gone are two long-time mainstays -- Pro Bowl safety Troy Polamalu and cornerback Ike Taylor. In are third-year safety Shamarko Thomas, who finally steps in to replace Polamalu after being a third-round choice in 2013; and a pair of rookies, No. 2 pick Senquez Golson and No. 4 Doran Grant.

Both rookies will be given a chance to play, especially Golson, who, despite his size (5-8 ½), gives the Steelers something they haven’t had in a long time – a ball-hawking corner.

The key will be whether Cortez Allen can bounce back after being benched for poor play to reclaim one of the starting corners. Veteran Willie Gay is back after a season in which he had three interception returns for touchdown and will keep the seat warm until Golson is ready.But the team lost Brice McCain in free agency, meaning Antwon Blake will get more of a chance to play if the rookies are slow to transition to the pro game.

Free safety Mike Mitchell, who was signed in free agency last season, should be better because he doesn’t have to worry about covering for Polamalu.They will need that to stem the plethora of big pass plays that have hurt the team the past two season.

STRENGTHS: There aren’t many, but Gay has been more than solid on the boundary or as a nickel back.

WEAKNESSES: Lots of personnel turnover and new faces that will take time to mesh.

BREAKOUT CANDIDATE: Mitchell. He says he played with two injured groins most of last season that hampered his mobility. Regardless, if he can avoid the missed tackles and bad angles from last season, he should be much improved.

NEXT: Wide receiver


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LB tops the 5 key positions heading to 2015 season

By Gerry Dulac 1 day ago

 

Good morning everyone.

It is the slowest time of the NFL season, with the players away from the practice facility and the coaches on vacation until training camp.

But that won’t stop us from taking a look at what lies ahead for the Steelers as they get ready to go to St. Vincent College on July 25.

For the next two weeks, we will look at the five positions that will hold the key to the 2015 season that begins Sept. 10 in New England. We will provide a general rundown, identify the strength and weakness and pick the one player who is ready to have a breakout season.

We will not examine the quarterback position because, well, that is always the most important position on the team.

Today, we will start with linebackers, the No. 1 most important position on the team.

RUNDOWN

It is likely the Steelers will start four No. 1 picks at linebacker, perhaps as early as the opener in New England.

It will only be a matter of time before Bud Dupree, their No. 1 choice, moves in as the starter at left outside linebacker ahead of veteran Arthur Moats. The Steelers needed a replacement for Jason Worilds, and they think they found him.

Dupree is 6-foot-4, 269 pounds, but he is freakishly athletic for his size. He can rush the passer and drop into coverage, and has the football smarts to quickly pick up the defense. The hope is he will pair with former No. 1 pick Jarvis Jones to provide the type of productive outside tandem the Steelers once enjoyed with Joey Porter and Jason Gildon or James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley.

Jones enters his third season and has to start to show why he was a No. 1 pick. This is a big year for him.

Harrison is still around – he was brought back at age 37 for one final season – but the former NFL defensive player of the year, has already been told he will have a reduced role in 2015 designed to keep him from wearing down. The danger here is relying on Harrison too much and further retarding the development of Jones.

On the inside, Lawrence Timmons is coming off his first Pro Bowl season. But the key could be Ryan Shazier, a No. 1 pick in 2014, who should make an impact after his rookie season was slowed by injuries. At least, that is the hope.

STRENGTHS: Timmons and the promise that three young No. 1 picks can have a huge impact.

WEAKNESSES: Lack of pressure from the edge. Still waiting for Jones to do something.

BREAKOUT CANDIDATE: Shazier. After being handed a starting job not long after he was the team’s No.1 pick, his rookie season was interrupted by a pair of nagging injuries that caused him to miss seven games and play mostly in a rotation at inside LB. But his speed, play-making ability and increased strength could make him a disruptive force on the defense in his second season.

NEXT: Secondary


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Former Steelers coaches honored

Ray Fittipaldo 1 week ago

Dick LeBeau and Tom Moore, a couple of former Steelers assistant coaches, were honored on Monday with the Paul Zimmerman Award for lifetime achievement in NFL coaching. The award is presented by the Pro Football Writers of America.

LeBeau was the Steelers’ defensive coordinator on two occasions, most recently from 2003-14. He has been an NFL coach for 43 years and is currently coordinating the defense in Tennessee under former Steelers assistant Ken Whisenhunt.

Moore won two Super Bowls with the Steelers as their receivers coach in the late 1970s and later served as Chuck Noll’s offensive coordinator from 1983-89. He has been an NFL coach for 37 years and is currently the assistant head coach in Arizona under Bruce Arians.

Also honored was Dante Scarnecchia, who spent 32 seasons as an NFL assistant, including 30 with the Patriots.

*If there is someone who is capable of switching positions in the middle of an NFL career and being successful, it’s Terrelle Pryor. But it was the worst news possible for him when the Browns were the team that claimed him off waivers on Monday. The Browns are a train wreck, with a GM who meddles in the coaching decisions, where there is constant drama.

Pryor needed to go somewhere where it was low-key, where he could develop on a practice squad and work on his transition. He’s not going to pick it up in a month, and it’s unlikely he’s going to make a 53-man roster this season.

*Today is the day Tom Brady has his appeal heard in person before NFL commissioner Roger Goodell at the NFL offices in New York. Plenty has been written in recent weeks about the report from the American Enterprise Institute, which commissioned a study that debunked the science of the Wells Report. What I haven’t heard enough of is why AEI is issuing studies on the NFL and the deflation of footballs.

According to its web site, the conservative think tank’s policy areas include economics, foreign and defense policy, health care, education, politics and public opinion, poverty studies and society and culture. Not one mention of sports. Among the scholars employed by AEI is Lynne Cheney, the wife of former vice president Dick Cheney.

Through a spokesman, the Patriots claim there is no connection between the team and AEI, but what continues to go unanswered is AEI’s interest in Deflategate.

Here is a Boston Globe piece that tried to get to the bottom of it.

*Finally, because he’s back in the news, I have a Pete Rose story. Back in the mid- or late-1990s I had a friend worked for an Independent League team. His team brought Rose in for an appearance. Rose did his thing and the club cut him a check for his appearance fee.

A few days later, the check the club issued to Rose was cashed at a dog track.


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Top five defensive story lines entering training camp

Ray Fittipaldo 1 week ago

On Friday we took a look at the top five offensive story lines entering training camp. Here are my top five defensive story lines entering camp. 

5. Living up to the hype.

The Steelers invested their past three first-round draft choices in linebackers, and it’s time for those players to make an impact. Injuries have held back 2013 first-rounder Jarvis Jones and 2014 Ryan Shazier. Jones missed nine games with a wrist injury last season and Shazier missed eight with ankle and knee injuries. The Steelers need both players to stay healthy and produce. Both showed flashes of their potential last season, but they have to play with consistency. Jones recorded two sacks in the first three games before getting injured. Bud Dupree is this year’s first-round pick, and it’s looking like he’ll be a situational player to begin the season. Perhaps the coaching staff looked back on Jones’ struggles two years ago when he was inserted as a starter as a rookie and had to be benched. Dupree can afford to learn behind veteran Arthur Moats, but it would help if he could provide some sacks, an area where the Steelers desperately need an upgrade. They finished last season ranked 26th in the NFL in sacks with 33. That’s a far cry from the 2010 AFC championship team that led the league with 48.

4. Cover someone

While the Steelers were 26th in sack production they were worse when it came to pass defense. They finished the season ranked 27th, allowing 253 yards passing per game. It’s true that pass rush and coverage work hand in hand in the Steelers’ defense, but if the Steelers don’t generate more pass rush the defensive backs have to do a better job of staying close to receivers. The front office addressed the issues in the back by drafting three defensive backs, including second- and fourth-round cornerbacks. Through OTAs and minicamp, cornerbacks Senquez Golson and Doran Grant were working behind starters Will Gay an Cortez Allen and nickel back Antown Blake. They have five weeks of training camp to show what they have, and defensive backs coach Carnell Lake seems intent on giving them a chance to get on the field as rookies.

3. Stuff the run

Once upon a time, teams didn’t even attempt to run the ball against the Steelers, who perennially ranked among the top rushing defenses in the NFL. That’s no longer the case. The Steelers finished last season ranked sixth in the league in run defense in 2014, but that’s misleading. They were ranked 25th with a 4.4 yards per attempt average. Only two other defenses had fewer rushing attempts against. It’s not that teams didn’t have success running against the Steelers; it’s just that they were so successful passing that they decided that was the best way to beat them. When the Steelers stop the run they can dial up exotic blitzes on second- and third-and-long. When opposing teams are constantly in second-and –third-and-short or medium they control the tempo of the game, and the Steelers have not proven capable in recent years of being effective with a mediocre rush defense. Nose Steve McLendon had shoulder surgery after missing four games last season. If he can stay healthy it should help, but it’s not solely on the nose tackle to get stouter against the run. The linebackers and defensive ends have to do a better job, too.

2. Turning it over

The Steelers were ranked 23rd in takeaways in 2014, with 11 interceptions and 10 fumble recoveries. According to coldhardfootballfacts.com teams that won the turnover battle from 2008-12 won almost 80 percent of the time over that five year period. It’s especially important for a team that possesses one of the best returning offenses in the NFL. Anytime the Steelers give the back to their offenses it increases their chances of winning.

1. Will the philosophy change?

We really won’t find out until the regular season begins, but one thing to watch during camp will be discerning the differences between a Dick LeBeau-led defense and a Keith Butler-led defense. Butler said some things will change, but he wasn’t giving many hints as to how that might happen. About the only one was saying his defensive linemen will have more opportunities to rush the passer and make plays in the running game. There has been speculating about more blitzing or different blitzing schemes that could help free up pass rushers as opponents seemed to have caught on to the tendencies of Lebeau or his playbook. Having a new play caller could help the Steelers break those tendencies. Of course, the more Butler breaks tendencies the more he changes a formula that proved to be successful over a long period. Striking a balance between changing tendencies and relying on the assembled talent to play within the defense will perhaps be his most important and most difficult problem as a first-year coordinator.


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Five offensive story lines entering training camp

Ray Fittipaldo 1 week ago

The Steelers wrapped up their offseason on Thursday when they completed their three-day minicamp. The team will reconvene July 25 for training camp in Latrobe. 

Here are my top five offensive story lines entering training camp:

5. The development of Martavis Bryant.

The Steelers saw how important a legitimate No. 2 receiver was to their offense last season. In the first six games, when Bryant was on the inactive list, the Steelers were 3-3 and sputtered on offense. With Bryant in the lineup, the Steelers went 8-2 and posted juggernaut stats. Bryant is a candidate to have a breakout season, and he might have to be. Opposing teams are going to do everything in their power to stop Antonio Brown, who had 129 receptions for 1,698 yards and 13 touchdowns last season. The 129 receptions are the second-most receptions in a single season in NFL history, behind only Marvin Harrison, who had 143 catches in 2002. In 2003, Harrison had only 94 receptions. What happened to the Colts offense? Reggie Wayne got more opportunities, and he stepped up and caught 68 passes, 19 more than the previous season. Look for Bryant to do the same because defensive coordinators won’t allow Brown to torture them the way he did last season.

4. Goal line efficiency.

The Steelers drove the ball up and down the field last season better than any other team in the league, but when they got near the goal line their execution unraveled. The coaches spent the spring putting an emphasis on goal line satiations by drilling it every day during OTAs and minicamp. The Steelers scored just 20 touchdowns on 74 snaps inside the 10-yard line. That’s a 27 percent conversion rate, and it pales in comparison to the top percentages posted by the best goal line offenses in the league. Houston, for example, converted at a 45 percent clip to lead the league. With the talent the Steelers have assembled on offense there isn’t any reason they can’t be one of the top goal line offenses.

3. Improve the running game

The best running teams can run even when defenses know when it’s coming. The Steelers made a big improvement in their rushing stats in 2014, going from 27th in the league the previous year to 16th. But they didn’t run well down the stretch as they averaged fewer than 50 yards over their final four games (playoffs included). The way Ben Roethlisberger and the receivers carved up defensive backfields last season it’s a good bet defensive coordinators will drop more players into coverage and force the Steelers to prove they can run. The offensive line returns intact, but DeAneglo Williams must show he can carry the load early in the season when All-Pro back Le’Veon Bell is out serving his three-game suspension.

2. Avoid another slow start

Yes, the Steelers have a built-in excuse with Bell missing the first three games, but they can’t start 2015 the way they did 2014. The Steelers scored 17 points or fewer in three of the first six games last season. That can’t happen again. The defense is rebuilding on the fly, and the offense might have to outscore some teams early in the season until the defense can find its footing. It’s not going to be easy without Bell, but the Steelers have enough other skilled players to get the job done. They had better step up to the challenge because their season might depend on it.

1. Step up in crunch time

There is no guarantee the Steelers win the AFC North again and make the playoffs, but if they do the offense has to step up when the games really count. The last three times the Steelers played in the playoffs they went home losers. Roethlisberger’s recent playoff history pales in comparison to his early playoff performances. In his past three playoff games, Roethlisberger has thrown four touchdowns and five interceptions, with a combined quarterback rating of 76.0. Even with his 22.6 rating in Super Bowl XL, Roethlisberger still managed to post an overall rating of 97.6 in that Super Bowl year, his second season in the league. If the Steelers are good enough to get back to the postseason they need Roethlisberger to rekindle the magic he showed regularly as a young quarterback.

Coming Monday: top 5 defensive story lines


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