AFC North: Casey Hampton

Stephon Tuitt: 'I love pressure'

June, 19, 2014
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PITTSBURGH -- He was issued the number worn by Aaron Smith, one of the best defensive ends in Pittsburgh Steelers history.

His position coach continued the link when he compared Stephon Tuitt to a young Aaron Smith.

Pressure? Yeah, and Tuitt says bring it on.

“I love pressure,” the rookie defensive end said. “I thrive off of that.”

[+] EnlargeNotre Dame
AP Photo/Frank Franklin IIStephon Tuitt, 7, of Notre Dame hopes to follow in the footsteps of Aaron Smith as the Pittsburgh Steelers' next dominant 3-4 defensive end.
He better, since the Steelers are hoping Tuitt is one of the players they build around up front with Smith and nose tackle Casey Hampton no longer with the team and defensive end Brett Keisel still a free agent.

John Mitchell has spoken highly of Tuitt since the Steelers drafted the former Notre Dame star, calling him a steal in the second round and later comparing him to Smith, who was so good in his prime that teams could not effectively block him with just one man.

Mitchell, however, has tempered expectations during minicamp, which wraps up today, and said the Steelers won’t play Tuitt until he is ready.

“The worst thing you want to happen to a good player who is going to be good down the road, he loses confidence because he goes in the game when he’s not ready to play,” the veteran defensive line coach told Steelers.com. “We’re not going to rush this kid in there. When he’s ready to play and we feel he can help this team, that’s when we’re going to play him. As he grows he’s going to be a good football player and he’s going to play here for a long time.”

It certainly wouldn’t hurt if Tuitt, who could have returned to Notre Dame for his senior season, is able to help the Steelers right away since much at defensive end is unknown after Cameron Heyward.

Cam Thomas, who started 10 games at nose tackle for the San Diego Chargers last season, will go into training camp as the starting defensive end opposite Heyward. After that the Steelers have a bunch of young, unproven players at the position, though there is a chance they bring Keisel back.

Tuitt is the most promising of the youngsters the Steelers have at defensive end.

The 6-foot-5, 303-pounder already has an NFL body, and he likely would have been a first-round pick had he not carried extra weight in 2013 after surgery compromised his offseason training.

Tuitt’s sheer size and the fact that he played some five-technique defensive end in college should help reduce his learning curve.

“I played every single position at Notre Dame,” said Tuitt, whose 21 career sacks rank among the school’s all-time leaders “Coming into this defense there isn’t much change. It’s just different when everybody you’re going against is top caliber.”

Top-caliber is an apt description of the defensive end who wore No. 91 before Tuitt.

Smith established himself as one of the best 3-4 defensive ends of his generation, and he was a main reason the Steelers regularly ranked among the top rushing defenses in the NFL.

Tuitt has yet to meet Smith, but he has already heard plenty about him.

“I’ve gotten a chance to see who wore this number before me, and the person who wore the number before me was a great player for the Steelers,” Tuitt said. “With that comes a great opportunity to become the best, and that’s somebody I want to become as great as or greater than.”
PITTSBURGH -- Steve McLendon has added 20 pounds since the end of last season but the Steelers nose tackle dropped weight in another sense.

After struggling with expectations from replacing a five-time Pro Bowler, McLendon said he is no longer weighed down by the pressure of taking over for Casey Hampton at nose tackle.

And McLendon certainly felt the pressure last season though much of it was self-imposed.

[+] EnlargeSteve McLendon
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarSteve McLendon added some weight this offseason in an effort to become more formidable against the run.
“Think about it,” McLendon said Thursday after the Steelers' final practice of the week. “You've got a Hall of Famer in waiting and I'm coming in to play right after him. That's pressure. You know what the legend is behind that guy.

"Everybody knows what Casey was. I've seen the man play. There's nothing else like him. I'm far from Casey. I'm never going to try to be Casey. The only thing I can do is work every day, do my best and just be the best Steve that I can be.”

Doing that led McLendon to the ironic decision that he has to become more like Hampton to thrive at a thankless but vital position in the Steelers' 3-4 defense.

The fourth-year veteran concluded that the weight he played at last season was simply not enough for him to consistently stand his ground in the middle of the Steelers' defensive line.

“I can't be down there at 310 (pounds), trying to play a spot where guys are 330-plus,” said McLendon, who recorded 23 tackles and nine quarterback pressures last season. “I need to be heavy just like them and be able to move faster and quicker than them.”

McLendon said he did not compromise any quickness by packing on the extra pounds. And the former undrafted free agent thinks he will play faster this season simply because he has rid himself of the burden of trying to be Hampton, one of the best nose tackles of his generation.

“The pressure of last year came on strong in the middle (of the season) because you never know how much it takes to be a starter,” McLendon said. “It's not all physical, it's mostly mental. Sometimes you try to do too much. You've just got to try to play your technique and do what's best for the team, do what's inside the defense.”

McLendon staying within himself could go a long way toward shoring up a defense that allowed 115.6 rushing yards per game last season.

That number was as astounding as it was alarming considering the Steelers have finished in the top three in the NFL in rushing defense 13 times since John Mitchell took over as defensive line coach in 1994.

Mitchell is among those who have given McLendon a vote of confidence. He has also told McLendon to relax, play his game and not try to be Casey Hampton.

“My coaches weren't expecting me to do that,” McLendon said as he reflected on last season. “They were expecting me to go out there and play hard, play fast and play hard, and that's all I should have been doing.”
PITTSBURGH -- A month into free agency few could have expected the Steelers to be as active as they have been in reshaping their roster. They have signed more than 10 free agents, including seven from other teams.

The Steelers are around $300,000 under the salary cap and are done signing players for now, having shifted their focus to the draft. With free agency having slowed to a crawl following a furious spending spree, let’s take a closer look at the outside free agents that the Steelers added with ESPN NFL analyst and former NFL scout Matt Williamson weighing in on each player:

Mitchell
Mike Mitchell

Position: S

Age: 27

Ht/Wt.: 6-0, 210

Deal: five-year, $25 million contract with $5.25 million guaranteed

2013 statistics: Set career-highs in tackles (66), interceptions (4), sacks (3 1/2) and forced fumbles (2) for the Panthers, blossoming after leaving Oakland for Carolina.

Skinny: The Steelers signed Mitchell to take over for Ryan Clark at free safety and get younger in the secondary. Mitchell prepares and plays with an edge. Next up for one of former Raiders owner Al Davis’ most infamous drat picks is proving those wrong who say his breakout season had more to do with the talent around Mitchell than his growth.

Matt Williamson’s take: “I think the arrow is very much going up on him because he’s big and fast and now he knows how to play the game. I think he’s a better coverage player than he is a run defender. I think he’s going to be your deep centerfield more often than not and let Troy (Polamalu) do his thing. Tackling is one thing he needs to work on but he can blitz.”

Thomas
Cam Thomas

Position: DL

Age: 27

Ht/Wt.: 6-4, 330

Deal: two-year, $4 million contract with $1 million guaranteed

2013 statistics: Recorded 23 tackles while starting 10 of 16 games at nose tackle for the Chargers and also made his first career interception.

Skinny: The Steelers signed Thomas to provide depth at nose tackle and defensive end. The player known as “Baby Zilla” could get an opportunity to start at the defensive end spot opposite Cameron Heyward depending on the players that the Steelers draft or sign in free agency.

Matt Williamson’s take: “I thought it was a decent pick up. I think he’s versatile enough to play any of their defensive line spots as is (Steve) McLendon. They certainly need d-line help but it’s not like boy they have to get a Casey Hampton or boy they have to get a (Brett) Keisel. It’s giving them more options going into the draft and he’s young, big body, fits the mold of what they want from that position.”

Moore
Lance Moore

Position: WR

Age: 30

Ht/Wt.: 5-9, 190

Deal: two-year, $3 million contract with $645,000 million guaranteed

2013 statistics: Caught 37 passes for 457 yards and two touchdowns while starting five of the 13 games he played in his final seasons with the Saints.

Skinny: The Steelers moved quickly to fill their opening at No. 3 wide receiver after Jerricho Cotchery signed with the Panthers. They landed Moore, who was a 1,000-yard receiver in 2012, and had some other good seasons in New Orleans. Moore, like Cotchery, knows how to get open and has reliable hands. He is a little younger than Cotchery but isn’t as effective as Cotchery is in the red zone. Eight of Cotchery’s 10 touchdown receptions last season were from inside the opponents’ 20-yard line.

Matt Williamson’s take: “I think having a veteran in that room is really important, but I just wish he was a bigger guy. Cotchery was a pretty good red zone weapon where now they’re extra small at receiver. Moore had a bad year last year. He didn’t play much because of injuries but the few seasons before that he was a good player. He was always very reliable.”

Moats
Arthur Moats

Position: LB

Age: 26

Ht/Wt.: 6-2, 250

Deal: one-year, $795,000 contract with $65,000 guaranteed

2013 statistics: Played in every game last season, starting 12 at inside linebacker, and recorded a career-high 54 tackles.

Skinny: This under-the-radar signing could turn out to be a significant one for the Steelers. Moats will provide depth at outside linebacker and play special teams. He also could get a shot at challenging Vince Williams for the starting job at left inside linebacker, though Moats has said the Steelers will first try him at outside linebacker.

Matt Williamson’s take: “He’s unique. I can’t really come up with a guy off the top of my head in the league who can play all four linebacker spots at a 3-4. They’re very different skill sets. At a minimum he’s your fifth linebacker. He’s a very good special teamer. He’s still really young.”

Brice McCain

Position: CB

Age: 27

Ht/Wt.: 5-9, 187

Deal: one-year, $795,000 contract with $65,0000 guaranteed

2013 statistics: Started a career-high four games for the Texans and recorded 32 tackles with an interception and seven passes defended.

Skinny: The Texans cut ties with McCain after opposing teams picked on the fifth-year veteran a good bit last season. The Steelers only had three other cornerbacks with significant NFL experience before signing McCain so he gives them some insurance and will be plenty motivated to bounce back from a rough 2013 campaign.

Matt Williamson’s take: “He’s a fourth or fifth guy that plays sparingly and might not even make the team if they draft one or two (cornerbacks) that are real impressive. He has at least played a lot of snaps in this league. He’s good enough to get on the field but bad enough to get burned when he’s on there and he’s little. He’s the (signing) I’m least excited about.”

Williams
Blount
LeGarrette Blount

Position: RB

Age: 27

Ht/Wt.: 6-0, 250

Deal: two years, $3.85 million, with $950,000 guaranteed

2013 statistics: Rushed for 772 yards and seven touchdowns and averaged 5.0 yards per carry while emerging as the Patriots’ best back by the end of the season. Blount went off in a Patriots playoff win over the Colts, rushing for 166 yards and four touchdowns.

Skinny: The Steelers were looking for a proven back to provide depth and injury insurance behind Le'Veon Bell and they found a young one at a reasonable price. If Blount can shoulder some of the workload at running back that should keep Bell fresh throughout the season and perhaps add some seasons to his career.

Matt Williamson’s take: “If you watch SportsCenter and watch his highlights you think he’s better than he is. There’s times that he doesn’t play as big and strong as he really is. If there isn’t a hole there he doesn’t make his own, but he is powerful and I think he’s got really good feet. He doesn’t really offer anything in the passing game but the best thing is he’s better than (Jonathan) Dwyer and (Isaac) Redman. They upgraded there.”

Heyward-Bey
Darrius Heyward-Bey

Position: WR

Age: 27

Ht/Wt.: 6-2, 219

Deal: one-year, $795,000 contract with $65,000 guaranteed

2013 statistics: Played a career-high 16 games, starting 12 of them, and caught 29 passes for 309 yards and a touchdown in his only seasons with the Colts.

Skinny: The seventh overall pick of the 2009 draft has never lived up to expectations with suspect hands often neutralizing his unique blend of size and speed. Heyward-Bey gives the Steelers a bigger wide receiver and one who is still young enough to have some upside. If he doesn’t work out the Steelers took virtually no risk in signing Heyward-Bey

Matt Williamson’s take: “Highly unreliable and it really only comes down to drops. He drops so many passes. It wasn’t his fault that he was the seventh pick of the draft and didn’t live up to it. Nobody thought he should be (picked that high) except for Al Davis. He may not even make the team.”

McShay Mock 3.0 reax: Steelers

March, 6, 2014
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The re-signings of Troy Polamalu and Will Allen have not made safety any less of a priority in the 2014 NFL draft. The Pittsburgh Steelers, who are not expected to re-sign starting free safety Ryan Clark, have to draft at least one safety in May in preparation for the post-Polamalu years.

The consensus is that Alabama’s Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Louisville’s Calvin Pryor are the top two safety prospects in the draft, and ESPN’s Todd McShay has the Steelers taking Clinton-Dix Insider in his third mock draft, which was unveiled Thursday.

McShay had the Steelers taking Notre Dame defensive tackle Louis Nix III in his two previous mock drafts, including one right after the NFL scouting combine. He now has the Steelers addressing their secondary with the 15th overall pick, and here is what he wrote:
"I think Pittsburgh’s priorities should be to get younger on defense and upgrade the offensive line, but in this scenario there isn’t a tackle who really justifies a top-15 pick (although Zack Martin at least merits consideration). If they trade back, nose tackle Louis Nix III could be an option, but I have enough concerns about his 2013 performance that I don’t think he’d go off the board this early. So I think this pick comes down to the best available secondary player, and Clinton-Dix is a playmaker at the safety position, with really good range."


What is interesting in regard to Nix is the one time the Steelers have traded down in the first round since Kevin Colbert joined the organization in 2000 happened in 2001. The Steelers moved from No. 16 to No. 19, swapping places with the Jets while also receiving fourth- and sixth-round picks from New York.

They used that pick on nose tackle and hit big, literally and figuratively, on Casey Hampton. Nix has been linked to the Steelers because of the perceived need for a successor to Hampton, who was not re-signed after the 2012 season.

Also noteworthy from McShay’s latest mock draft is he has the Lions taking Texas A&M wide receiver Mike Evans 10th overall and Pryor going to the Rams with the 13th pick in the draft.

McShay has the Bears, who pick one spot ahead of the Steelers taking Pitt defensive tackle Aaron Donald. He also has five cornerbacks going in the first round with Oklahoma State’s Justin Gilbert coming off the board at No. 8 to the Vikings.

McShay has a run on cornerback starting with the Cardinals taking Michigan State’s Darqueze Dennard at No. 20. The other cornerbacks going in the first round of McShay’s mock draft are Ohio State’s Bradley Roby (Eagles), Virginia Tech’s Kyle Fuller (Bengals) and TCU’s Jason Verrett (Chargers).

Louis Nix shows off lighter sides

February, 24, 2014
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PITTSBURGH -- If the Steelers are looking for a worthy successor to Casey Hampton, who was not re-signed after the 2012 season, Louis Nix III measures up to the five-time Pro Bowler in one sense.

The man knows how to fill reporters’ note pads.

[+] EnlargeLouis Nix III
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsCould the Steelers look to light-hearted Notre Dame nose tackle Louis Nix in the draft?
Hampton was a media favorite in Pittsburgh because of his candid and colorful answers -- not to mention his tendency to generate a laugh that emanated from his ample belly -- and Nix provided one of the more entertaining interviews at the NFL scouting combine.

Here are a few gems from the former Notre Dame standout whose Twitter handle is @1IrishChocolate:
  • On feeling lighter after shedding more than 20 pounds: “Yeah man, my stomach doesn’t stick out as much. That’s kind of nice. I like that part. My thighs got a little smaller. I just feel sexier, man.”
  • On embracing salads and eschewing Five Guys Burgers and Fries: “No dressing. I eat it like chips. I just pick it up and yeah.”
  • On whether he is the best nose tackle prospect in the draft: “What do you think?” When told yes, Nix said, “Thank you.”

The question for the Steelers isn’t so much whether Nix is the best nose tackle in the draft but whether that position is worthy of the 15th overall pick.

The Steelers only played their base defense about 40 percent of the time last season, Kevin Colbert said, but the general manager also pointed out that everything in a 3-4 defense starts with the nose tackle -- and shutting down the run.

The Steelers have to be encouraged by the commitment Nix has shown since undergoing knee surgery last November to repair meniscus damage.

Nix said he has shed 23 pounds since January -- he has been training at Athletic Performance Inc in Arizona -- and that he weighed in at 331 pounds at the combine while measuring 6-2.

“I hope (the lost weight) helps my knee and I plan on staying low,” Nix said. “Hopefully my knee stays good like it is now and I’ll be good. My knee is well. I can run on it.”

Nix ran an unofficial time of 5.25 seconds in the 40-yard dash on Monday. More relevant or significant is that his knee is strong enough for him to take part in running drills in Indianapolis.

“I’m back and myself again," Nix said. "Less weight though.”

Whether he brings both of his lighter sides to Pittsburgh remains to be seen.

But if the Steelers are satisfied with what they saw from Nix in Indianapolis he figures to remain at the forefront of discussion when it comes to the team's first-round pick.
PITTSBURGH -- Louis Nix III, the top nose tackle prospect in the draft, has been linked to the Steelers as much as any player in the mock drafts that have already proliferated.

ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay have done two mock drafts apiece and each time they have had the Steelers taking Nix with the 15th overall pick.

Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert rarely talks about individual players before the draft. And true to form he didn't tip his hand when discussing how the role of nose tackles has changed as the NFL has become more of a passing league.

[+] EnlargeLouis Nix III
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsNotre Dame's Louis Nix III has the prototypical size to be a space-eating nose tackle.
Colbert acknowledged that the Steelers only played their base defense about 40 percent of the time last season, and the nose tackle is the first player to come off the field when the Steelers use one of their sub-packages.

But he dismissed the notion that such math devalues nose tackles, especially on a Steelers' defense that is predicated on stopping the run.

"In a 3-4 defense you're still going to start with a nose tackle," Colbert told Pittsburgh reporters at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis. "You have to get into third-down situations, and those second-and-longs, too. If you don't have that player help you get to those extended downs then you're going to have problems.

The Steelers had their share of problems stopping the run last season.

They yielded 125 rushing yards per game, an increase of 30 yards from 2012, and that spike coincided with Steve McLendon taking over at nose tackle for five-time Pro Bowler Casey Hampton.

It would be unfair and inaccurate to pin the Steelers' struggles in stopping the run solely on McLendon.

It certainly didn't help that the Steelers had a rookie inside linebacker Vince Williams learning on the job in 2013. Or that the Steelers were not nearly as sound from an assignment standpoint as they have been in past seasons.

Whether they think they need an upgrade at nose tackle is another question.

When asked last week to assess McLendon's performance in 2013, Colbert said, "He did OK. He fought through some injuries and gave us some good work. But to say anybody was good enough, including myself, when you're 8-8 that's a disservice to the organization."

That qualifies as neither an endorsement nor an indictment of McLendon, which is why the Steelers are presumably open to taking a player who will be on the field less than half the time with their first-round pick.

If they use their first selection on a nose tackle, Nix appears to be the only one worthy of such a high pick.

The former Notre Dame standout fits the prototype for a space-eating nose tackle, one who can anchor the middle of the defensive line and free the inside linebackers to flow to the ball.

Nix has to check out medically at the combine after undergoing surgery last November to repair torn meniscus in his knee. It will also be interesting to see what he weighs -- the 6-2 Nix is generally listed at 345 pounds -- and what kind of shape he is in three months after his surgery.

If Nix is in good shape that would shine a positive light on his work ethic and answer questions the Steelers may have about his knee.
PITTSBURGH -- ESPN NFL draft analysts Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay have the Pittsburgh Steelers taking Notre Dame defensive tackle Louis Nix III in the two mock drafts each has done to this point.

McLendon
Cian Fahey of Football Outsiders provided insight into why the Steelers need to address the middle of their defensive line. Fahey wrote that nose tackle is the Steelers’ biggest need because Steve McLendon did not prove to be a good enough replacement for five-time Pro Bowler Casey Hampton.

McLendon, according to Football Outsiders, made his average tackle following a gain of 3.0 yards, the worst of any starting nose tackle in a 3-4 defense last season.

The Steelers slipped to 20th in the NFL in defense-adjusted value over average (DVOA), according to Football Outsiders. Last season marked the first time in five years that the Steelers did not finish in the top 10 in either rushing or passing DVOA. And the Steelers allowed 125 rushing yards per game last season after surrendering just 95 rushing yards per game in 2012.

Here is an excerpt from what Fahey wrote regarding the Steelers’ need at nose tackle:

    Everything the Steelers do on defense is predicated on their ability to stop the run. The most important run defender in Dick LeBeau's scheme is the nose tackle. Casey Hampton excelled in that role for years before Steve McLendon took over last season. McLendon had thrived in a pass-rushing role, but he struggled to sustain quality play as a full-time starter at the nose.

Polamalu, Steelers still a good fit

January, 16, 2014
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PITTSBURGH -- The last two years show that sentimentality has nothing to do with Art Rooney II's desire for Troy Polamalu to retire as a Steeler.

[+] EnlargeTroy Polamalu
AP Photo/Tom UhlmanMoney may be the only thing in the way of Troy Polamalu retiring as a Steeler.
Hines Ward, Aaron Smith, James Harrison, James Farrior and Casey Hampton are among the players whom the Steelers have either cut or not re-signed since 2012. Like Polamalu, all were cornerstones on the teams that won two Super Bowls and played in another from 2005-10.

True, Polamalu is the most iconic of those players with the flowing locks that have morphed into their own brand and a game that is a study in angles, kinetics and flash.

But the 2010 NFL Defensive Player of the Year is also still playing at a high level even if he has slipped a bit in coverage. That was never the strongest part of his game anyway. and Polamalu is still arguably the most valuable piece the Steelers have on defense given how defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau deploys him all over the field.

Any doubts the Steelers may have had about wanting Polamalu back in 2014 were erased by a season in which he displayed remarkable durability.

Consider that a significant number of the 1,041 snaps Polamalu played came at inside linebacker in the Steelers' quarter package. And yet the 11th-year veteran did not come off the field a year after he missed more than half of the 2012 season because of a calf injury.

Necessity is also a factor in the Steelers wanting Polamalu back in 2014. The team is unlikely to re-sign free safety Ryan Clark, and there is no way the Steelers can go into next season with two new safeties.

Shamarko Thomas, the eventual successor to Polamalu at strong safety, showed promise during his rookie season. But the fourth-round draft pick did not play a defensive snap in the final seven games after sustaining a high ankle injury and getting supplanted by veteran Will Allen in the quarter package.

Money is the one thing that could complicate Polamalu finishing his career in Pittsburgh.

His cap hit of just under $10.9 million is prohibitive for a team that needs to shed salary in the offseason. And the Steelers wanted to re-sign Harrison last year but the two sides couldn't agree on the amount of a pay cut the outside linebacker take, and he is now playing in Cincinnati.

It is possible that a similar scenario could play out with Polamalu but I think it is highly unlikely.

Polamalu wants to finish his career in Pittsburgh. Rooney expressed, in as strong of terms possible, that he wants the same thing.

The two sides will find a way to make it happen.

Kiper mock 1.0 reaction: Steelers

January, 15, 2014
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Space-eating defensive tackle Louis Nix III -- a potential heir to Casey Hampton -- has again been linked to the Steelers.

ESPN NFL draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. has the Steelers taking Nix Insider with the 15th overall pick in the 2014 draft even though they also have a number of other needs on defense.

Nix went to the Steelers in Kiper’s mock draft over players such as Alabama safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Michigan State cornerback Darqueze Dennard and Florida State wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin, who would give quarterback Ben Roethlisberger the big target he has long coveted.

Kiper joins ESPN NFL draft analyst Todd McShay in sending Nix to the Steelers in his first mock draft.

Drafting a nose tackle for a defense that slipped dramatically against the run a year after the Steelers did not re-sign Hampton certainly won’t get any arguments from me.

But the draft is still more than three months away, and who knows how much Nix’s stock may rise or fall during the gauntlet that lies ahead for him and other top prospects?

Pittsburgh general manager Kevin Colbert has often said that a prospect’s final grade is based mostly on what he put on tape in college. That is what may give the Steelers pause when it comes to Nix.

He did not consistently dominate at Notre Dame, and when trying to assess whether Nix can be the long-term successor to Hampton, I can’t help but recall what former Texas coach Mack Brown once told me about the latter.

Hampton, he said, was so disruptive as a defensive tackle that the Longhorns sometimes could not even scrimmage with him on the field. Did Nix come close to having that kind of impact at Notre Dame?

That is one of the questions the Steelers will try to answer as they scrutinize Nix.
PITTSBURGH -- Defensive end Brett Keisel, like safety Ryan Clark, has probably played his last game as a Steeler at Heinz Field. And Keisel, like Clark, isn't thinking about retirement right now.

He made very clear after the Pittsburgh Steelers' 20-7 win over the bumbling Cleveland Browns that whatever nostalgia he experienced Sunday shouldn't be mistaken for Keisel giving serious thought to retiring after more than a decade of playing in the NFL.

Clark
Keisel
Keisel
"I'm not saying it's over for me at all," Keisel said. "I still feel like I can play and we'll see."

Keisel and Clark are in remarkably similar situations.

Each just finished his 12th NFL season and each has to make a minimum of $955,000 next season per the collective bargaining agreement regarding veteran salaries.

Like Clark, Keisel is aware of what has happened in recent years with the Steelers either releasing or not re-signing defensive stalwarts such as linebackers James Farrior and James Harrison, defensive end Aaron Smith and nose tackle Casey Hampton.

If Keisel is the next to go he at least went out in memorable fashion.

He recorded a sack and a forced fumble on the same play early in the game. Keisel then delivered what had become one of his signatures after dropping a quarterback. The avid outdoorsman mimicked shooting a bow and arrow after sacking Jason Campbell, and he had the presence of mind to not drop to his knee and avoided getting a taunting penalty.

"I had to shoot one more," Keisel said. "I'm glad I had the opportunity."

He would love nothing more than to get more opportunities with the Steelers but Keisel is well aware that he could soon confront a dilemma that others such as Farrior, Smith and wide receiver Hines Ward faced before him: retire as a Steeler or try to extend his career elsewhere.

Keisel can't imagine wearing another uniform and he loves Pittsburgh so much that he and his wife plan to raise their family here. But he is also an admitted competition junkie so walking away from football won't be easy, especially since Keisel still feels like he can still play.

If he suited up for the final time as a Steeler on Sunday, he didn't leave anything to chance.

Keisel gathered the defensive linemen before the game and told them to savor the moment because it would be the last time they would all play together with change inevitable after every season.

Keisel -- and the linemen who see him as their unquestioned leader -- then helped a defense stymie the Browns and keep them off the scoreboard until the waning minutes of the game.

"It was emotional," Keisel said of is meeting with the linemen, "but I'm just proud to be a Steeler and proud to have helped finish this thing strong. You never know what's going to happen. But it's a great feeling to come off the game with a big win. I'm a happy camper."
PITTSBURGH -- Ryan Clark wasted little time acknowledging an uncomfortable truth after the loss that all but eliminated the Steelers from postseason contention.

Change is coming sooner rather than later, and it could sweep away most of the remaining veterans who won at least one Super Bowl with the Steelers and played in another.

Clark
“Any time you're in the last year of a contract and a team is playing a certain way you never know what moves they want to make,” Clark said Sunday after the Steelers' 34-28 loss to the Dolphins. “I think guys need to realize, and I have realized probably because I am older, faces change. You lose James Farriors and you lose Aaron Smiths, and it hurts and it's tough but everybody's time comes. For me I want to enjoy bit, keep playing, have fun.”

The Steelers have their share of pending free agents and they fall into two groups: veterans they may not try to re-sign and younger players they may not be able to re-sign because they command more money somewhere else.

Clark is clearly in the first category as he is in his 12th NFL season, turned 34 in October and is part of a secondary that desperately needs an infusion of youth.

He saw the Steelers make tough business decisions a couple of years ago when they released Farrior and Ward, two players who meant everything to the organization.

The same thing happened after last season when the Steelers did not try to re-sign Casey Hampton, a locker room favorite and one of the best run-stuffing nose tackles of his generation.

The Steelers rarely let sentiment get in the way of making difficult personnel decisions, and they don't figure to start now.

The franchise that has won a record six Lombardi Trophies is at a crossroads, and it faces another offseason that will be marked by turnover. Letting Clark walk may be one of the easier decisions it faces given his expiring contract and declining play.

That reality is the reason Clark is looking at the Steelers' final three games as anything but meaningless.

“I know (they) matter to me because for some of us this may be the last however many games in a Pittsburgh Steeler helmet, so you want to play well, you want to enjoy the time with your friends,” Clark said. “You just continue to play hard, you continue to have fun and for me that's what I'm going to do and then what happens with that happens.”

McLendon on a mission to stop the run

November, 7, 2013
11/07/13
10:45
AM ET
PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Steelers have given up almost 200 rushing yards in each of their past two games. They are No. 31 in the NFL in rushing defense, and Steve McLendon takes the Steelers' struggles in a part of the game they have traditionally owned personally.

“If you don't take it personal,” McLendon said, “what are you doing here?”

The disgust McLendon expressed over the way teams have run on the Steelers explains why he doesn't care who plays quarterback for Buffalo on Sunday though all signs point to rookie EJ Manuel returning to the starting lineup.

“I'm not really thinking about throwing,” McLendon said. “We gave up 55 points (at New England). People was running the ball on us. That's what we've got to worry about, stopping the run.”

That will be one of the keys to the Steelers beating the Bills.

Buffalo is averaging 145.8 rushing yards per game, second in the AFC, behind the explosive C.J. Spiller and the underrated Fred Jackson.

Inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons described Spiller as a “home-run hitter” and said Jackson will also challenge the Steelers' run defense.

“Jackson has those capabilities too but he's more of an in-between-the-tackles guy,” Timmons, the Steelers' leading tackler, said. “He's a balanced back and has good contact balance, too.”

“One's just a little faster than the other,” McLendon said. “They both can execute the same plays. We have to go out and just execute our game plan.”

The Steelers haven't done that nearly enough when it comes to stopping the run, and Dick LeBeau's defense is predicated on forcing teams into second- and third-and-long.

No player was more responsible for the Steelers' dominance in run defense over the last decade than Casey Hampton.

The mammoth nose tackle proved to be immovable from the middle of the line, and Hampton made five Pro Bowls while clogging running lanes and freeing up linebackers behind him to swallow up opposing running backs.

The Steelers opted to go with McLendon at nose tackle instead of re-signing Hampton, and he is well aware of the expectations that come with replacing the player affectionately known as “Big Snack.”

“You look at Casey, you look at Chris Hoke. Both of those guys did an excellent job of stopping the run, especially Casey,” McLendon said. “They didn't let anybody score 55 points on them. I've got to go out here and play better, play harder, play faster, play smarter.”

McLendon doesn't just take the Steelers' struggles in stopping the run personally. Like his teammates, he shakes his head at criticism of LeBeau.

“The way we can shut that up is to go out here and execute the game plan,” McLendon said. “Show that everything we do here does work.”
In case you missed it, I posted a couple of blogs late Tuesday afternoon from Baltimore Ravens training camp. I plan to stop over there once again for some interviews later in the day. Since there are three other teams in the division, let's address them in the wake-up call ...

RAVENS: Quarterback Joe Flacco insists he will stay grounded despite signing a then-record contract this offseason. If he doesn't, it won't last long. "The money thing isn't going to change him," Flacco's father, Steve, told USA Today. "He better not (change). I'll go kick his butt."

BENGALS: Owner Mike Brown decided to sign on for another "Hard Knocks" training-camp series with HBO because he wanted to change his franchise's image of having a team full of troubled players. "We have a different team now than we had a few years ago," Brown said, via The Associated Press. "We want the public to see them. We think they're good people. We think the public will be taken by them, will like them. It gives us a boost."

BROWNS: Inside linebacker D'Qwell Jackson told The Plain Dealer that the Browns support Josh Gordon, but the wide receiver is running out of chances to change. Gordon has been suspended for two games after violating the NFL's substance-abuse policy. “No matter how many bodies you put in front of him or people who speak to him, Josh has to be willing to make a change for himself,” Jackson said. “I could talk to him all day if I wanted to. (Coach Rob Chudzinski) could talk to him all day if he wanted to, but it’s not going to do any good unless he takes that next step. He doesn’t have that many lives left . ... He’s got one more time to really straighten things up before he’s got to leave. I think he is starting to realize that.”

STEELERS: Steve McLendon is looking to fill Casey Hampton's long-time role as starting nose tackle. Just don't expect McLendon to have the same playing style as Hampton. "The only thing that is similar is power and strength," McLendon told the Steelers' official website. "What makes us different is he is heavier than I am. He can hold double-teams better than I can. But I feel like I am quicker, but his reaction is better. The height is different and he is smarter at the game than I am. But I am trying to accomplish everything he did."
I was aware of how the Pittsburgh Steelers rarely start rookies. Since the Steelers selected tight end Heath Miller eight years ago, only one first-round pick (center Maurkice Pouncey) was an immediate starter for Pittsburgh.

But I didn't realize how long it's been since the Steelers put a rookie in the starting lineup on defense. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Ed Bouchette provided an eye-opening history lesson on this subject.

The last rookies to start on the Steelers' defense were nose tackle Casey Hampton and inside linebacker Kendrell Bell, both of whom did it in 2001. Hampton became a five-time Pro Bowl player while Bell only lasted four seasons in Pittsburgh.

The only rookie to start at outside linebacker for the Steelers since 1970 has been Jack Ham. That was in 1971. To put it in perspective, that was the second year for Three Rivers Stadium, which is currently a parking lot.

While the odds seem stacked against Jarvis Jones, he isn't battling history. He just has to beat out Jason Worilds, an underachieving second-round pick from 2010. The Steelers didn't show much faith in Worilds when they tried to restructure James Harrison's contract (instead of just cutting him immediately) and used the No. 17 overall pick on Jones in April.

As the Steelers wrap up their offseason spring workouts today, Jones has stood out to the coaching staff.

"He's showing us things, and, if he keeps showing those things he's going to be a big part of that, hopefully," linebackers coach Keith Butler said. "The best thing for him is his background, he played linebacker at Georgia, so he understands concepts as opposed to being a defensive end who doesn't know anything. He's picked some things up. There's a lot we're throwing at him right now, as we do everybody. He's still learning, but he's learning at a quicker pace than most guys we drafted at that position as a defensive end."

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