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Key No. 4: Defensive line needs to rise for Steelers

By Gerry Dulac about 4 hours ago

 

This is the fourth in a series as we 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: No. 4, Defensive line

RUNDOWN

For the first time since 2004, the Steelers will have someone other than Dick LeBeau running their defense.

Keith Butler, who worked under LeBeau for all 11 years, is the new defensive coordinator and will implement changes in how the team rushes the quarterback and defends the pass.

And the Steelers think they have the ingredients to have a pretty good three-man line with defensive ends Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt and nose tackle Steve McLendon. Problem is, there isn’t much behind them.

But what is behind them is massive.

That would be tackle Dan McCullers (6-8, 358), whose size makes him almost unstoppable collapsing the pocket. The Steelers think they can take advantage of that in their sub-packages to generate more pressure up the middle.

Heyward, though, is the star. At 25, he has emerged not only as a leader of the defense, but also one of the best ends in the league. He tied for the team lead with 7 1⁄2 sacks and led the team with 21 quarterback hurries in 2014, healthy totals for a 3-4 defensive end.

Tuitt, a No. 2 pick last season, came on late in his rookie season and showed great development. With Heyward, that gives the Steelers hope for the future that the young duo can form a bookend tandem similar to Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel.

While the run defense improved six spots to No. 6 in the league, allowing an average of 100.3 yards per game, the Steelers still allowed 11 runs of 20 yards or longer (10th most in the league) and their per-carry average of 4.4 yards was seventh worst in the league.

Those numbers were worse than 2013 when they ranked 12th in the league and allowed seven runs of 20-plus yards and an average of 4.3 yards per attempt.

Rookie L.T. Walton has a spot waiting for him on the roster., but the Steelers would like to see him earn that spot. Veteran Cam Thomas could still be a training-camp casualty.

STRENGTHS: Heyward has developed into one of the best 3-4 defensive ends in the league and is equally adept pressuring the quarterback and stopping the run.

WEAKNESSES: Lack of depth prohibits will restrict any type of quality rotation, though McCullers should be a good sub-package substitute.

BREAKOUT CANDIDATE: Tuitt. He came on late in the 2014 season when he had a chance to start five games, including the postseason, and develop. He could become even more disruptive if No. 1 pick Bud Dupree becomes a player on that side in his first year.

NEXT: Offensive line


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Brown and WRs key to explosive offense for Steelers

By Gerry Dulac 4 days ago

 

This is the third in a series as we 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: No. 3, Wide receiver

Todd Haley’s offense was one of the most productive and balanced in NFL history in 2014

After all, it was the first time a quarterback, running back and wide receiver each finished first or second in the league in their statistical category. And one of the prime reasons was Antonio Brown, who compiled one of the greatest seasons for a wide receiver in league history and combined with Le’Veon Bell to account for 60 percent of the offense.

Despite his size, Brown has not only shown he can be a No. 1 receiver, he became the first Steelers player to lead the league in receptions (129) and receiving yards (1,698). What’s more, his 13 touchdown catches set a franchise record.

But it’s not just Brown. The Steelers have three young, talented receivers to go with him.

The best is Brown’s big-play partner, Martavis Bryant, a fourth-round pick in 2014 who didn’t dress for the first six games but quickly became one of the best rookie receivers in the last eight games.

Bryant used his size (6-4, 217) and long stride to catch eight touchdowns and average 21.1 yards in the last eight games. He also had a touchdown catch in the playoff loss to the Ravens. That has taken some of the attention off Brown.

Markus Wheaton, a third-round pick in 2013, showed lots of development in his second season with 53 catches for 644 yards and two touchdowns. And they added to the stable by taking stud receiver Sammie Coates on the third round of the draft.

Coates can be another Bryant. He had a reputation for having bad hands at Auburn, but so did Bryant. And you see how that worked out. Coates has the size, speed and hops to be a top-end receiver. OK, so he dropped the ball 19 percent of the time in college. That means he caught four of the five balls thrown his way. The Steelers can live with those odds, especially what they see Coates did after he caught the ball.

STRENGTHS: Antonio Brown might be the most dangerous receiver in the league, and he has three young and very talented guys behind him.

WEAKNESSES: Experience in key situations would appear to be the biggest issue, especially if something happened to Brown.

BREAKOUT CANDIDATE: Bryant. It’s hard to say a guy who caught nine touchdowns and averaged 21.1 yards per catch as a rookie will have a breakout season. But he didn’t dress for the first six games. Imagine what he can do in 16 games?

NEXT: Defensive line


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

By Gerry Dulac 5 days 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 6 days 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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