AFC North: Dick LeBeau

PITTSBURGH -- Rookie Ryan Shazier created quite the buzz in training camp and the preseason but it is another young linebacker on whom the Steelers used a first-round pick who is most critical to the defense making significant improvement in 2014.

The question, with the regular-season opener less than a week away, is how much of a jump will outside linebacker Jarvis Jones make in his second season?

Jones
“I’m not thinking too much but I’m not where I want to be,” the Steelers’ 2013 first-round pick said. “I’ve just got to continue to work and not overthink things and when I’m out there just be more comfortable and be myself so that will allow me to make plays.”

Jones didn’t make enough of them last season when the former Georgia All-American registered just one sack despite starting eight games and playing 612 snaps.

The Steelers' starting right outside linebacker has to make significant improvement this season or it could have a domino effect on a defense that gave up too many big plays last season and recorded just 34 sacks, the Steelers’ lowest total since 1990.

If Jones doesn’t put consistent pressure on the quarterback, it will allow teams to focus on slowing down left outside linebacker Jason Worilds. And if Worilds is consistently double-teamed or offenses use a running back to chip or block the fifth-year veteran and the pass rush suffers as a whole, it will only further expose the Steelers’ cornerbacks.

Jones is in the year where Mike Tomlin expects players to make their most improvement, and the eighth-year coach said last week he is pleased with where Jones is despite an unsettling third preseason game in Philadelphia.

“Jarvis is a type of young guy that I expect him to continually be on the rise,” Tomlin said. “Sometimes you think as you push forward toward opening day that you can take the snapshot of the individual and the group and that’s the finished product and really that’s far from the case. I expect him (and) I expect us to continually get better even as we push into this season.

“The reality is, ultimately if we’re going to be the type of team that we need to be and want to be and (the) individuals that we need to be and want to be, we’re going to be continually in growth and develop(ment) particularly from a young guys standpoint.”

Jones is a young guy but the 6-foot-2, 245-pounder has had an entire offseason to get stronger and hone his pass-rushing moves. He is working with former Steelers pass-rushing great Joey Porter and he has had more than a year to learn defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau’s system.

In other words, there are no built-in excuses as there were last year when Jones was trying to find his way as a wide-eyed rookie.

“I think I’m doing a good job as far as getting there but I’m not going to make predictions,” Jones said. “I feel good about myself. I’m just going to continue to work.”
Pittsburgh Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau would probably take issue with where linebacker Lawrence Timmons ranks among the NFL’s top 100 defensive players, according to ESPN.com.

Timmons
Timmons, a player whom LeBeau has said should have made several Pro Bowls by now, is No. 77, falling 15 spots from his 2013 ESPN.com ranking.

It’s hard to imagine why Timmons dropped so much considering the season he had in 2013. The eighth-year veteran led the Steelers with 155 tackles, tied for the team lead with two interceptions and also recorded three sacks. Granted, it was a down year for the Steelers' defense, but Timmons excelled despite playing alongside a rookie (Vince Williams) who was feeling his way at weakside inside linebacker for much of the season.

Timmons is versatile and durable -- the former first-round pick has started 53 consecutive regular season games -- and he is the Steelers’ best player on defense.

In another ranking, a handful of Steelers showed up on ESPN NFL Insider Mike Sando’s list of 50 players poised to break out Insider this season, including right guard David DeCastro (No. 3) and running back Le'Veon Bell (No. 9).

Here is what Sando wrote about DeCastro:
  • DeCastro was quite proficient as a run-blocker while playing 15 games last season after a knee injury wiped out his 2012 rookie campaign. He has a shot at ascending among the best guards in the league if he can stay on the field.

Here is Sando’s take on Bell:
  • Lots of people in the league believe the Steelers are primed for a big season, and Bell figures to play a prominent role in their success after a foot injury slowed him as a rookie in 2013. Look for the goal-line carries to go to LeGarrette Blount, however (consider that an alert to fantasy owners).

Also showing up on Sando’s list are defensive end Cameron Heyward (No. 26) and outside linebacker Jason Worilds (No. 27).
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PITTSBURGH -- Fans all but begged the Steelers to bring back Brett Keisel during the months when it looked like the popular and hirsute defensive end would not be able to end an unlikely NFL career on his own terms.

A lot of people got their wish Tuesday. Not the least of them was Keisel.

The deal that returns him to the only organization he has known will also allow Keisel to retire as a Steeler. "Da Beard" wanted that as much as he did another season of playing in the NFL.

The Arizona Cardinals' interest in Keisel prompted the Steelers to double back on him, even though they are generally getting younger on defense.

Keisel
Keisel
That is not a knock against Cam Thomas, whom the Steelers signed to a two-year, $4 million contract in March. It is certainly not an indictment of second-round pick Stephon Tuitt, whom the Steelers love -- and who is the future at left defensive end.

But teams can usually find a place for players such as Keisel, and the Steelers are no exception. He is so valuable in the locker room and defensive linemen's meeting room because of his leadership.

And he showed this past season that he can still play when healthy. Keisel missed almost five games, but it’s not like his body was breaking down because he was in his 12th NFL season.

One injury, plantar fasciitis, sidelined Keisel for a mid- to late-season stretch. Even that painful foot injury did not stop Keisel from finishing third on the Steelers with 26 quarterback pressures and fourth on the team with four sacks.

He can still help the Steelers’ defense, even if he gets limited snaps while playing in a rotation. And his return won’t stunt the development of Tuitt.

On the contrary, Keisel is the perfect player to mentor the immensely talented Tuitt. He is a two-time captain who has been held as an example by Steelers defensive line coach John Mitchell because he always runs to the ball.

Always.

When he is giving pointers to Tuitt, Keisel can think back to when Aaron Smith mentored him -- Tuitt actually wears the No. 91 for which Smith set the standard -- and marvel at where the time went.

It has been almost 13 years since Keisel crashed the league that didn't want him and nearly called it a career before he ever got started. Keisel lasted until the 242nd pick of the 2002 NFL draft and almost left St. Vincent College a couple months later because the seventh-round selection felt so overwhelmed at his first training camp.

But he ended up staying, and he developed into one of the unlikeliest core players of the teams that won two Super Bowls and played in a third in a six-season span.

Just when it looked like the Steelers had moved on from Keisel, who celebrates his 36th birthday next month, they bring him back for another season.

Both sides will be better for it -- and Keisel gets to author the ending he wanted all along for his improbable story.
LATROBE, Pa. -- Cornerback Ike Taylor, coming off his most trying season since 2006, when he lost his starting job for five games, received a vote of confidence from Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau.

“From the middle of the (2013) season on if you looked at him, he’s really close and playing ball like Ike can,” LeBeau said. “He looks good in training camp.”

Taylor
Teams targeted Taylor frequently last season and the 6-2, 195-pounder had trouble shadowing premier wide receivers like the Lions’ Calvin Johnson and the Browns’ Josh Gordon.

Taylor turned 34 in May but LeBeau said advancing age did not cause a decline in Taylor’s play as much as other factors did.

“He was playing with some injuries last year, and true professional players do that and they don’t use it for a crutch,” LeBeau said. “You didn’t hear that from Ike but we needed him in there.”

A few odds and ends:
  • It will be interesting to see what this afternoon’s practice looks like after such a lackluster one on Wednesday. Coach Mike Tomlin clearly was not happy about the Steelers’ worst practice of camp, and the Steelers could do more tackling this afternoon than he had planned even though they play their first preseason game in just two days. Tomlin will hold a news conference at 11:45 a.m. ET, when he will likely provide more clarity on rookie inside Ryan Shazier, who has missed the last two practices because of a right knee injury. Tomlin has twice said that Shazier has a “boo boo” when asked about the first-round pick’s injury.
  • Veteran inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons has said it is a childhood dream of his to make the Pro Bowl and go to Hawaii for the annual all-star game. LeBeau said the recognition that comes with making Pro Bowl is long overdue for Timmons. “I’ve said he’s been playing at a Pro Bowl level for three years now, and a couple of those years we led the daggone league in defense and he should have gone,” LeBeau said. “That’s just my opinion.”
  • Fans are running out of opportunities to watch the Steelers practice. Today’s practice at St. Vincent College will be the final one of the week that is open to the public. The Steelers have four open practices next week starting Monday and ending Thursday. Their last two open practices at camp with be joint ones with the Buffalo Bills at St. Vincent College.
LATROBE, Pa. – Dick LeBeau has a high opinion of Cleveland Browns rookie quarterback Johnny Manziel. The longtime Pittsburgh Steelers defensive coordinator is similarly impressed by a couple of rookies he sees on a regular basis.

LeBeau, in fact, couldn’t say enough good things on Wednesday about inside linebacker Ryan Shazier and defensive end Stephon Tuitt. LeBeau expects Shazier, a first-round pick in May, to start this season and for Tuitt, a second-round selection, to play a lot.

“I don’t want to overload their plate but I would say they’re ahead of schedule,” LeBeau said. “They’ve been very much a pleasure for the whole coaching staff mostly because of the type of people they are. They’re very open to coaching. They’re hard workers and they know they’ve got a lot to learn and that’s not always the case.”

LeBeau is enamored with the physical ability of both players as he tries return the Steelers’ defense to the NFL’s top tier after it finished 13th in total defense last season.

Grimes
Tuitt
Shazier, the 15th overall pick of he 2014 draft, runs like a defensive back. His athleticism also translates well to an NFL game is that is becoming more wide open. The 6-foot-5, 303-pound Tuitt has a unique blend of size and athleticism, and it is probably only a matter of time before he supplants Cam Thomas at left defensive end.

“Even though I knew he could run, when I see him in person I am surprised by his endurance and his speed and quickness,” LeBeau said of Tuitt. “I don’t know if I’ve seen a guy that big move like that. Now does that mean he’s going to be a great player? No, it doesn’t. There’s a lot of other things that come in there. But he seems willing to try to acquire that knowledge and those skills.”

Shazier has been the starter at weakside inside linebacker since the outset of offseason practices, and he has all but won the starting job because of the speed the Ohio State product and Lawrence Timmons can provide in the middle of the defense.

“I think those two guys are going to give us a lot of speed at a position that doesn’t necessarily feature speed. We’re going to be fast at inside ‘backer.”

Shazier and Tuitt will play in their first preseason game on Saturday night when the Steelers visit the New York Giants. To say LeBeau is excited to see how each player fares in the 7:30 ET game is an understatement.

“These young guys I don’t want to overload the expectations but at this stage they’re doing a good job,” LeBeau said. “I’m glad we’re going to start playing some games. It makes the evaluation process a little easier and perhaps identify some of the areas we need to focus on.”
LATROBE, Pa. -- Dick LeBeau's defense lost a step in key areas last season when he had to use 5-foot-10, 207-pound safety Troy Polamalu extensively at inside linebacker and when his players had trouble lining up for the first half of the season due to the loss of defensive signal-caller Larry Foote.

What is fitting as LeBeau nears the end of a coaching career that is every bit as distinguished as his playing one: the longtime Steelers’ defensive coordinator will receive a serious boost from a fellow Buckeye as he tries to restore the swagger and fear factor to a unit that conspicuously lacked both last season.

[+] EnlargeKeith Butler and Ryan Shazier
AP Photo/Keith Srakocic"I think he can shed blocks at this level," LB coach Keith Butler said of Ryan Shazier. "What he's got to do is pick his battles."
Indeed, there couldn’t be a better pairing than LeBeau and rookie inside linebacker Ryan Shazier, and not just because each starred at Ohio State albeit in different eras.

Shazier’s athleticism will stir LeBeau’s fertile defensive mind, and Shazier playing alongside Lawrence Timmons gives LeBeau some serious speed -- and options -- in the middle of his defense.

"Those two are going to show up all over the field and that’s going to help your defense," LeBeau said. "They can make a similar defense look different because it’s just difficult to get them both blocked."

There are questions about whether Shazier will struggle to get off blocks his rookie season. The 6-foot-1, 237-pounder is not the biggest linebacker and he will have to add strength, like most young players, as his career progresses.

But the Steelers are not concerned about Shazier struggling to handle offensive linemen who are bigger and faster than the ones he usually beat in college.

“I think he can shed blocks at this level,” Steelers linebackers coach Keith Butler said. “What he’s got to do is pick his battles. If there’s a big guy he’s going to hit, get off him fast. Don’t stay on him because the guy’s going to win.”

Where the Steelers really win with Shazier, if he proves to be as good as advertised, is he and Timmons will allow LeBeau to get creative in drawing up blitzes, which are his hallmark.

“We feel like we’ve got two good blitzing inside linebackers as well as two good blitzing outside linebackers,” said Butler, who is the likely successor to LeBeau after the latter retires. “So there’s things we can do to put pressure on offenses. We’re changing some things and we’re also adding to our package a bit. ”

It’s easy to be optimistic at this time of the year, as Butler pointed out, since every team is undefeated and feeling good about itself.

But it’s hard not to notice the quiet confidence LeBeau has exuded, going back to last month when he said he had never seen the Steelers look better in offseason practices.

LeBeau essentially had to coach with one arm tied behind his back last season though that is something he would never say publicly.

This season will be a much better barometer of whether he still has it as a coordinator. It also has the potential to squelch the notion that the game has somehow passed by LeBeau.

“We’re fast. Sometimes we do the wrong direction but we’re getting there in a hurry and that’s good defensively,” LeBeau said. “We’re really involved in getting everybody coordinated and communicated and getting these young guys going in the right direction. It’s very encouraging. They’ve got a good work ethic and they’ve got tremendous athleticism. We’re going to go through some growing pains because we’re lacking some snap experience. But you get smart in a hurry in this league or you get out.”

Steelers Camp Report: Day 3

July, 28, 2014
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LATROBE, Pa. -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of the Pittsburgh Steelers training camp:
  • What a difference the popping of pads makes. The Steelers held their first padded practice of training camp between the rain drops produced Monday by a sobbing sky and everyone, it seemed, turned the intensity up. Way up. You expected to hear new defensive assistant Joey Porter early and often during practice. It was a surprise to see even-keeled defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau also yelling as he did several times during an 11-on-11 drill. Running backs and linebackers collided ferociously during the popular backs on 'backers drill and there was tackling as coach Mike Tomlin had promised. The practice looked totally different from the non-contact drills that the players had taken part in May and June and for the first two days of camp.
  • Rookie Ryan Shazier stood out during the backs on backers drill, showcasing the speed that helped convince the Steelers to take the inside linebacker with the 15th overall pick of the 2014 NFL draft. Everyone was anxious to see Shazier in full pads, and he made a strong first impression, especially when he twice blew past LeGarrette Blount. "He did some nice things," Tomlin said of Shazier. "He was elusive. He was playing to his assets with his speed and agility."
  • Outside linebacker Jason Worilds turned in the play of the day when he intercepted a pass thrown to rookie running back Dri Archer on a wheel route. When asked what was more impressive, Worilds making a play on the ball down the field or his running with the ultra-fast Archer, Tomlin said the interception and laughed. "That's the first time Jason Worilds has caught a ball in any fashion out here in practice. I know he can run. I'm going to paint that ball and give it to him."
  • Rookie cornerback Shaquille Richardson made a diving interception of a Bruce Gradkowski and the defense seemed to be ahead of the offense on the first day of pads and contact. Not that Tomlin saw it that way. "Battles were fought and won on both sides of the ball," he said.
  • Starting running back Le'Veon Bell (hamstring) didn't practice, and Blount, his backup, didn't have his best day. Blount struggled in backs on 'backers and also dropped a pass. Bell is "day-to-day," Tomlin said, after experiencing hamstring tightness on Sunday.
  • In other injury news, rookie linebacker Jordan Zumwalt left practice with groin tightness and wide receiver C.J. Goodwin was held out of drills after landing on his shoulder during practice on Sunday. Ramon Foster will not in camp due to the death of his mother, so Chris Hubbard played left guard with the first-team offense for the second consecutive practice. The players are off on Tuesday and resume practice on Wednesday.
PITTSBURGH -- As excited as the Steelers’ offensive linemen are by the addition of Mike Munchak, their enthusiasm may be trumped by someone else at team headquarters.

[+] EnlargeTennessee's Mike Munchak
AP Photo/Wade PayneNew Steelers offensive line coach Mike Munchak has used his head coach and Hall of Fame player experience to make a great early impression.
“Really nobody was happier when Coach [Mike] Tomlin, Kevin Colbert and Mr. [Dan] Rooney were able to pull off getting him to come on board," offensive coordinator Todd Haley said of the Steelers' new offensive line coach. "He’s a great teacher. He’s great at what he does, the best in the league in my opinion. He seamlessly transitioned into our staff. He's a stud.”

Haley and Munchak join Dick LeBeau as three former NFL head coaches on Tomlin’s staff, giving it some heft. And Haley has good reason to be thrilled that Munchak will mentor and mold the Steelers’ offensive line this season.

The line came together at the end of last season and is still young with left guard Ramon Foster, who is only 28, the oldest projected starter up front. Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey returns after missing most of last season with a torn ACL, and the line will be counted on to keep quarterback Ben Roethlisberger upright and open holes for running backs Le'Veon Bell, LeGarrette Blount and Dri Archer.

Stellar offensive line play has often eluded the Steelers during Tomlin’s tenure, and some of that can be blamed on injuries. But with Munchak, a Pro Football Hall of Fame guard, pulling everything together, the Steelers’ line could be poised to lead the way for an offense that averaged just under 28 points in its final eight games of 2013.

“Not all great players are great coaches, but he’s definitely one of those great players that transitioned into being a great coach,” Haley said. “The head-coaching experience is a benefit because he doesn’t just see it from his position group or his perspective. He sees the big picture, which I take pride in doing, having been there. He is a very good teacher that believes in hard work, like we all do.

"Great players want to be coached. They want to be pushed to see how good they can be, and these guys are eating it up.”

Mike Mitchell burns to be great

June, 30, 2014
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PITTSBURGH -- The speed and playmaking ability that Mike Mitchell flashed during his breakout season in 2013 certainly attracted the Steelers to the hard-hitting safety.

What the Steelers also have to love about their most significant free-agent acquisition is his makeup.

One thing that stood out during Mitchell’s introductory news conference in March, shortly after he signed a five-year $25 million contract with the Steelers, is his desire to be great. And the competitiveness he showed during the practices that were in helmets and shorts only reinforced how much Mitchell wants to establish himself as one of the top safeties in the NFL.

[+] EnlargeMike Mitchell
Keith Srakocic/AP PhotoNew Steelers safety Mike Mitchell has used perceived slights as inspiration as he enters his sixth NFL season.
Mitchell took a significant step toward that goal last season when he intercepted four passes, notched 3 sacks and forced two fumbles for the Carolina Panthers. When I asked him recently if he felt he should have made the Pro Bowl in 2013, Mitchell said, “Absolutely.”

He also added this: “I don’t really care about Pro Bowl. I want to be All-Pro. I have to do what I did last year again plus get better. A lot of times last year people were talking about the front seven I played with and they were very talented. Sometimes you’re overlooked, but that’s just another chip to put on my shoulder and play football.”

Mitchell has already collected his share of chips -- from playing his college ball at a Mid-American Conference school, the widespread derision heaped on the Oakland Raiders when they took the little-known Ohio University product in the second round of the 2009 draft, to being overshadowed on the Panthers’ defense last season.

Whether Mitchell’s success stemmed from a front seven that included sack master Greg Hardy and tackling machine Luke Kuechly is irrelevant. That there is a perception that Mitchell’s spike in performance can be attributed to the players who were around him following four nondescript seasons in Oakland is another perceived slight that drives the 6-foot, 210-pounder.

Mitchell will get plenty of opportunities to show his worth on a Steelers’ defense that badly needed to add playmakers. And his speed and versatility gives defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau another chess piece he can move around to outwit opposing offenses.

“Mike Mitchell is very fast and a good, solid tackler. An excellent blitzer, actually,” LeBeau said. “I looked at quite a bit of his tape during the free agency period and you had to look pretty far to find any weaknesses.”

That includes above the shoulders.

Mitchell is a heady player who seems to have a pretty seamless transition while learning a new defense and adjusting to new teammates and a new city.

Mitchell is working out in Miami prior to the start of training camp and no doubt spending extra time in his playbook. His pursuit of greatness starts in earnest once the Steelers report to St. Vincent College in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, on July 25.

And the Steelers would love nothing more than if Mitchell takes the next step while wearing black and gold.

“I’m at the point of my career where it’s time to prove it,” said Mitchell, who turned 27 earlier this month. “If we could play Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Matt Ryan, [Joe] Flacco in that order I’d want to run through it. I want to be the best.”
PITTSBURGH -- As polarizing a figure as Johnny Manziel is, he can probably get Cleveland Browns and Pittsburgh Steelers fans to agree on one thing.

The majority of fans on both sides would love to see him start Sept. 7 when the Browns visit Heinz Field for the regular-season opener between the bitter rivals.

Manziel
Steelers season-ticket holders would pay double to see the quarterback who reached celebrity status before throwing his first NFL pass receive a baptism/comeuppance from Dick LeBeau’s defense.

Browns fans might be just as eager to see Manziel in Pittsburgh, though obviously for a different reason.

The Browns have gone through quarterbacks at an alarming rate since the NFL returned to Cleveland in 1999. They desperately need someone to stop the cycle, and Browns fans might want to see if Manziel can conjure up the magic that made him a legend at Texas A&M right from the start -- even if the circumstances for his NFL debut in Pittsburgh could be a recipe for disaster.

Manziel, speaking to Browns reporters at the NFL Rookie Symposium, said his goal is to start this season. But the former Heisman Trophy winner conceded that he is still well behind Brian Hoyer, who will enter training camp as the No. 1 quarterback.

I asked a handful of Steelers defensive starters before the end of offseason practices whether they would like to see Manziel under center for the season opener, and I didn’t get much more than a collective shrug of the shoulders.

“It don’t matter,” veteran cornerback Ike Taylor said. “We’re trying to win ballgames. It doesn’t matter who is at quarterback.”

Mike Mitchell agreed.

“To be honest I just want someone that’s going to throw me a pick,” the Steelers free safety said. “I don’t really care who it is. I want the quarterback that’s the most confident, the most prepared, so when I take it from him, no excuses. That’s what I want every week.”

Defensive end Cameron Heyward played his college ball at Ohio State, so he can understand, even if only to some degree, the scrutiny Manziel is already under in the Buckeye state.

“It’s tough. Everybody’s looking for him to mess up,” Heyward said. “He’s a great player. I wish him the best.”

So, would Heyward like to get the first crack at Johnny Football, so to speak?

“Whoever’s in there I’m going to have fun either way,” Heyward said with a smile.
PITTSBURGH -- There are grandiose visions.

Then there is how Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback Antwon Blake sees his career playing out.

“When I get to the point where I’m that No. 1 guy and I’m an All-Pro cornerback I’m going to think back to the days when I was sad because I didn’t get drafted,” Blake said.

Blake
A lot of teams will be sad if Blake realizes his goal of becoming one of the top cornerbacks in the NFL. There is, of course, the small matter of Blake having to bridge a considerable gap before he is mentioned in the same breaths reserved for the likes of Richard Sherman and Darrelle Revis among others.

Blake played just four defensive snaps in 2013, and a big reason why the Steelers were perceived to have a glaring need at cornerback prior to the draft is because of players such as Blake, who lack pedigree and experience at the position.

Blake signed with the Steelers last September after the Jacksonville Jaguars did not include the 5-9, 198-pounder on their 53-man roster.

Blake established himself as a core special-teams player while learning the defense, and the Steelers are hoping he can make a big jump this season. They don’t have a long-term starter at cornerback after Cortez Allen, so the opportunity is there for Blake, who only turns 24 in August.

“I feel like they have confidence in me enough, my work ethic and abilities,” Blake said. “In time I can shock the world and show them I’m someone who will emerge from being an undrafted free agent to the sky’s the limit.”

If Blake’s skills come anywhere close to matching up with his confidence he could be quite a find for the Steelers.

His size doesn't exactly help him, especially with NFL teams coveting taller wide receivers. But Blake has excellent speed and defensive backs coach Carnell Lake told Steelers.com last week that the third-year veteran is among the fastest players on defense.

After the Steelers didn't take a cornerback in the first two rounds of the draft, defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau expressed confidence in current roster players who simply need an opportunity.

When asked if he interpreted the Steelers waiting until the fifth round to draft a cornerback as a vote of confidence in him, Blake said, “It is to a certain extent, but I know I have to come out here every day and earn my keep, continue to improve on my technique because on the field it’s what have you done for me lately. One of my strong points is my speed and my ability to stay with guys.”

How far those attributes take Blake, who went undrafted coming out of UTEP, remains to be seen. But when reminded that his goal of becoming an All-Pro cornerback is a rather lofty one, Blake said, “it is but I’m going to work every day until I get to it.”
PITTSBURGH -- Of the many things to like about the Pittsburgh Steelers picking Ryan Shazier in the first round of the NFL draft, here is another one: to peg him as just an inside linebacker is shortsighted.

[+] EnlargeRyan Shazier
Elsa/Getty ImagesThe Steelers selected Ohio State linebacker Ryan Shazier with the 15th overall pick in the first round.
"Ultimately, you're in sub packages so much that you really need to have guys that can match up, and that's what Shazier brings, and he brings pass-rushing ability," ESPN analyst Todd McShay said during a post-draft conference call. "I think they [the Steelers] get faster and more athletic with that pick alone."

Yes, they do.

"When we took Ryan, we talked about a defensive playmaker over anything else," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "He fit the bill in that regard."

The speedy Shazier is also the kind of player defenses need in order to counter offenses that spread out and increasingly force defenses out of their base set.

"What's happening today is there are multiple receiver personnel groupings, like 60 to 65 percent of the time," Steelers linebackers coach Keith Butler said. "[Shazier] fits the part of the game that is starting to put faster people on the field."

Shazier ran a sub-4.4 seconds in the 40-yard dash at Ohio State's pro day, and he is so fast that Steelers defensive backs coach Carnell Lake asked Ohio State cornerback Bradley Roby during a pre-draft visit if Shazier could play safety.

And he wasn't joking.

"There is no reason why he couldn't play safety," said Lake, the former Steelers standout who played safety and cornerback during his 13-year NFL career. "This guy is big and fast and aggressive. If for some reason Keith Butler doesn't like him, I'll take him."

That's not going to happen.

But Shazier is going to line up at different spots because of his speed, versatility and ability to play in space.

"He has the athleticism to drop back into coverage and match up," Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said. "He has speed. He's going to get on people quicker than they know because he's very fast."

Shazier is not even the fastest player in the Steelers' draft class -- third-round pick Dri Archer takes that honor -- which shows how much of a premium Pittsburgh put on adding speed through the draft.

"I think you covet speed, but it's football, not a track meet," Tomlin said. "If you get a capable football player who happens to be fast, it's an asset. Speed players that we were able to acquire in this draft fit that bill: football players first who happen to be extremely fast."
NFC wrap-ups: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South


PITTSBURGH -- A wrap-up of the Pittsburgh Steelers' draft. Click here for a full list of Steelers draftees.

[+] EnlargeNotre Dame
AP Photo/Frank Franklin IIThe Steelers expect big things from Notre Dame defensive lineman Stephon Tuitt.
Best move: Taking Notre Dame defensive lineman Stephon Tuitt in the second round. The Steelers had no bigger need than at defensive end, and they were smart to pounce on Tuitt, who had been widely projected to go late in the first round. The 6-foot-5, 303-pounder has the ideal build for a five-technique defensive end, and he also has the pass-rushing skills to move inside when the Steelers go to their nickel package. Tuitt had 21 career sacks at Notre Dame, and the Steelers are convinced his play slipped last season because recovery from double-hernia surgery compromised his training and caused him to put on too much weight. Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert said Tuitt is back to his 2012 playing weight when he dominated for the Fighting Irish, and they expect him to play significantly as a rookie if not start at some point in 2014.

Riskiest move: The Steelers took just one defensive back in the draft and they didn’t select cornerback Shaquille Richardson of Arizona until the fifth round. That won’t do anything to allay the anxiety of Steelers’ fans about the state of the secondary and specifically cornerback where Ike Taylor isn’t getting younger and where there isn’t much depth. Steelers defensive backs coach Carnell Lake said he is confident free-agent signee Brice McCain and Antwon Blake, who played almost exclusively on special teams last season, can be key contributors this season. They better be since the draft didn’t deliver the reinforcements at cornerback that most thought it would.

Most surprising move: The Steelers bypassed a cornerback and wide receiver in the third round to take speedy but diminutive running back Dri Archer. This looks like a luxury pick since the Steelers had more pressing needs when they selected the 5-8, 173-pounder. Archer ran the fastest 40-yard dash time (4.26 seconds) at the NFL combine, and the Steelers plan to carve out a role for him in the offense. ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr. has compared Archer to Darren Sproles because of his explosiveness and versatility. Steelers wide receivers coach Richard Mann said Archer reminds him of former Browns scatback/receiver Gerald “Ice Cube” McNeil. “He’s not small,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “He’s short.”

File it away: First-round pick Ryan Shazier will be an immediate difference-maker as a rookie -- and will make multiple Pro Bowls if he stays healthy. His speed is such that defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau has said he envisions playing Shazier all over the field. Lake said he will gladly take Shazier as a safety if linebackers coach Keith Butler doesn’t want him. Butler, when told that, smiled and said “I’m not in favor of doing that. Shazier can make mistakes and has make-up speed to get back into position and make plays.” Butler scoffs at the notion that the 6-1, 237-pound Shazier is undersized for an inside linebacker at this level. Butler said former Steelers inside linebacker James Farrior played between 225 and 230 pounds in the latter part of his carer, including 2010 when he made the Pro Bowl. “A lot of times young linebackers get in their head, ‘I have to weigh 250 or I have to weigh 260 [pounds] but can they move? Can they get where they need to be when they need to be there? This guy can do that.”
PITTSBURGH -- No one at Pittsburgh Steelers’ headquarters could have been happier than Dick LeBeau by the end of Friday night.

The first two rounds of the NFL draft provided the Steelers’ defensive coordinator with a speedy, instinctual linebacker who could be used all over the field -- think a certain iconic safety who is nearing the end of a spectacular career-- as well as a hulking defensive end who could be a steal if his motivation stays up and his weight stays down.

A delayed flight from New York made linebacker Ryan Shazier late for his own introductory news conference Friday afternoon but the first-round pick otherwise arrived just in time for a defense that badly needed an infusion of speed and youth.

The timing, meanwhile, couldn’t have been better for defensive end Stephon Tuitt to fall into the middle part of the second round after he had been widely projected as a late first-round pick. The Steelers gave up 4.3 yards per carry last season -- their highest since 1999, according to ESPN Stats & Info -- and had a gaping hole at defensive end.

Tuitt could help solve both problems, and sooner rather than later.

He may be starting this season along with Shazier on a defense that is in the midst of a pretty serious makeover.

Yes, that is right.

LeBeau said the Steelers will remove the training wheels from Shazier and Tuitt faster than they do with most first-year players.

And that is saying something considering how conservative the Steelers generally play it with their rookies.

“Both of these players, if all develops as anticipated, are going to get a lot of playing time.” LeBeau said. “Sometimes in the past we’ve been in a position where our draft choices didn’t necessarily have to play for a year or so. That is definitely not the case in this situation.”

The Steelers have already drafted two potential starters, and their third-round pick could also make an immediate impact though Kent State running back Dri Archer looks like a luxury pick for a team that can’t afford any of those.

Archer is faster than a rumor, if on the small side, and the Steelers will try to use his speed and versatility to create mismatches.

If offensive coordinator Todd Haley is excited about the possibilities Archer provides him when calling plays, LeBeau feels the same way about Shazier.

LeBeau, in fact, said Shazier could be used in ways similar to strong safety Troy Polamalu, who has long been hard for opposing offenses to track because he lines up in so many different places.

“From what I have been able to gain from watching him play, there is not a heck of a lot that you can ask him to do that he doesn’t have the athletic ability to do it,” LeBeau said of Shazier. “He’s going to be a problem. He’s going to get on people quicker than they know because he’s very fast.”

Fast could apply to several things when it comes to Shazier, including how long it takes him to crack the starting lineup.

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