AFC North: Howard Jones

LATROBE, Pa. -- A seemingly forgotten linebacker has hit harder than some of the storms that swept through the area during the Pittsburgh Steelers' first week of training camp.

Vince Williams jolted Le'Veon Bell several times during a back-on-'backers drill last Friday night, leading to the first fight of camp. The next day Williams walloped running back Miguel Maysonet and Tauren Poole in separate drills, putting him among the players who have stood out since the pads have gone on and started popping.

"Vince brings a great deal of emotion and intensity to his work. He has that distinguishing characteristic," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "He had it at Florida State and it continues. It's a good thing to build his game around."

Williams started 11 games last season following the loss of Larry Foote, and the sixth-round draft pick made significant progress during his rookie campaign. But he opened offseason practices behind rookie first-round pick Ryan Shazier on the depth chart at weakside inside linebacker, and Shazier has only tightened his grip on Williams' former job.

Williams lacks Shazier's speed and athleticism, two attributes that are vital with offenses increasingly spreading out defenses, but man can he deliver a shot. The Steelers will count on Williams doing that in a reserve role at linebacker as well as on special teams.

THREE REASONS FOR OPTIMISM

1. The Steelers have an abundance of talent at inside linebacker a year after they had to start a player who had previously worked as an insurance adjuster for two games at the position. Williams gives them solid depth inside and Sean Spence looks like he will contribute two years after suffering a career-threatening knee injury. The Steelers are so deep at inside linebacker that Terence Garvin, who played 15 games as a rookie last season, will have to battle to make the team. One of the final roster spots could come down to Garvin and rookie sixth-round pick Jordan Zumwalt.

[+] EnlargeVince Williams
Jason Bridge/USA TODAY SportsSecond-year linebacker Vince Williams has made an impact during Steelers training camp this summer.
2. Ben Roethlisberger has looked sharp and focused despite talk swirling around him about his contract situation and former teammate Emmanuel Sanders' claim that Peyton Manning is a far better leader than Roethlisberger. Sanders, who is now with the Denver Broncos, might reassess his evaluation if he watched Roethlisberger for a couple of days during training camp. The 11th-year quarterback has been coaching the Steelers' wide receiver as much as he has been throwing to them, barking at them if they run a wrong or sloppy route or drop a ball, but also praising them when they make a good play. He has also stayed after practice to throw to his receivers.

3. The offensive line has a chance to be really good if it can stay relatively healthy. The Steelers already appear to be set with their starting five, and that group can use camp and the preseason games to work together on the new technique and schemes the line is learning from new position coach Mike Munchak. The line, which returns four starters from 2013 as well as Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey from a knee injury, has taken to the coaching of Munchak. It has also taken personally that the Steelers averaged just 86.4 rushing yards per game last season. One of the offensive line's goals this season is for the Steelers to rank among the NFL's top 10 teams in rushing.

THREE REASONS FOR PESSIMISM

1. Running back LeGarrette Blount's on-field behavior has been a little unsettling, and you have to wonder if the raw emotion that he couldn't check when he dived onto Vince Williams during the first fight of camp will resurface if he doesn't get the ball enough during the regular season. Bell is entrenched as the starter and he is clearly the better all-around back then Blount. The Steelers also want to get speedy rookie Dri Archer involved in the running game. How many carries that leaves for Blount remains to be seen. If he becomes unhappy with his role in the offense that could become an issue.

2. Groin injuries haven't become an epidemic but they have been an issue at camp and cost several players valuable practice time. New starting free safety Mike Mitchell, who arrived at camp with a groin injury, has yet to practice and he needs to develop a good on-field rapport with strong safety Troy Polamalu. The two did not practice together much during the offseason since Polamalu skipped the voluntary organized team activities (OTAs) and it has to be at least a small concern to the Steelers that they have yet to work together in camp. Jordan Zumwalt also missed significant practice time with a groin injury stunting his development. Zumwalt has a real chance to make the 53-man roster, but after missing OTAs because UCLA's school year hadn't ended, the sixth-round pick needs to get as many repetitions as he can during camp.

[+] EnlargePittsburgh's Antonio Brown
Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY SportsAntonio Brown, who caught 110 passes for 1,499 yards last season, has been a popular target for Ben Roethlisberger during training camp.
3. Roethlisberger seems to be targeting Antonio Brown a lot during 11-on-11 drills, which is understandable considering the latter caught 110 passes for 1,499 yards last season. But Brown is going to need some help this season to keep defenses from throwing all kind of coverages his way. The reality is that the young wideouts who have looked so promising in camp have yet to prove themselves at this level. The Steelers will probably feel a lot more at ease about their wide receivers if Markus Wheaton and Justin Brown, among others, flash in preseason games instead of just practice.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • Rookie outside linebacker Howard Jones has helped himself through the early part of camp. Jones, who signed with the Steelers as an undrafted free agent, has stood out during back-on-'backers drills, and last Friday night he twice beat tight end Heath Miller. "He has a chance to be a player," a veteran Steelers player said of Jones.
  • One of the young running backs is going to emerge and make the 53-man roster and my guess is it is either Tauren Poole or Miguel Maysonet. Both have had their moments running the ball, though special teams may be the biggest consideration as far as who the Steelers keep as a fourth running back.
  • Wide receiver Martavis Bryant is making the team. The question is will the Steelers essentially redshirt him during his rookie season by deactivating him for games. The answer at this time last week would have probably been yes. But Bryant has come on after a slow start to camp and the Steelers could badly use a 6-4 wide receiver inside the 20-yard line. Bryant dominated a red zone drill late last week.
  • The Steelers are through the grind of camp. They are off today following six consecutive days of practice, and they will only practice two more times this week before holding a walk through for their first preseason game. After playing the New York Giants on Saturday night, the Steelers will practice four more times at St. Vincent College before breaking camp.

LATROBE, Pa. -- When the Pittsburgh Steelers made Lawrence Timmons the first draft pick of the Mike Tomlin era, they liked the Florida State product in part because he had the versatility and speed to play inside or outside.

Timmons, after a slow start to his Steelers career, has established himself as one of the top inside linebackers in the NFL. And he probably should have realized by now his lifelong dream of going to Hawaii to play in the Pro Bowl.

Timmons has indeed been that good the last two seasons.

Timmons, who has started 53 consecutive regular-season games, has played outside linebacker during his career when injuries necessitated a move. But the eighth-year veteran doesn’t see that happening this season even though the Steelers have little proven depth at the position.

“I think we’ve got enough outside linebackers now to where I’m not needed there anymore,” said Timmons, who led the Steelers with 126 tackles last season. “I’m strictly inside.”

Timmons singled out Vic So'oto, who signed a futures contract with the Steelers last January, and rookie Howard Jones as two outside linebackers who have a chance to provide depth along with Arthur Moats and Chris Carter.

So’oto has NFL experience, having played in six games with three different teams. Jones is an intriguing prospect; the undrafted free agent entered Shepherd University, a Division II school in West Virginia, as a wide receiver and left as an outside linebacker -- and with the school’s record for career sacks (35).

Timmons’ belief that he will strictly play inside linebacker reinforces my belief that the Steelers won’t have any interest in bringing back James Harrison unless injuries change the outlook at outside linebacker.

Harrison would strictly provide depth, and the five-time Pro Bowler is not a special-teams player at this point of his career. The Steelers, meanwhile, will apparently try to build depth at outside linebacker through younger players who may also be able to help them on special teams.
PITTSBURGH -- The Steelers agreed to terms with 10 undrafted free agents Saturday night, and history says one or a couple of them has a good chance of making the team's 53-man roster.

Heck, an undrafted free agent that the Steelers have yet to sign could end up sticking with the team.

Consider that the Steelers signed West Virginia safety Terence Garvin after a tryout last year and he made the team after moving to linebacker. Garvin played in 15 games before hurting his knee, and he shined on special teams while also getting snaps on passing downs.

The Steelers' rookies will take part in a three-day minicamp that starts Friday, and here are five undrafted free agents to watch:

OLB Howard Jones, Shepherd: Jones arrived at the Division II school in West Virginia as a wide receiver and left as Shepherd’s all-time sacks leader (34 1/2). The 6-foot-4, 238-pounder opened enough eyes to receive an invitation to the NFL combine where he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.54 seconds. Jones has a real chance to make the Steelers given their depth issues at outside linebacker.

DE Josh Mauro, Stanford: The 6-6, 282-pounder is certainly built for defensive end in a 3-4 scheme. Mauro has long arms and good strength, and he recorded 51 tackles, including 12 for losses, and four sacks in 2013. The Steelers could still use depth at defensive end and Mauro is an intriguing prospect.

DE Ethan Hemer, Wisconsin: Former walk-on is no stranger to overcoming long odds in pursuit of his dream of playing in the NFL. Hemer recorded just 13 tackles in 2013 but the 6-6, 285-pounder played well enough to earn All-Big Ten honorable mention honors from the league’s coaches.

TE Eric Waters, Missouri: Only caught eight passes for 72 yards and a touchdown last season as the Tigers primarily used him as a blocker. Waters opened eyes at Missouri’s pro day when the 6-5, 245-pounder ran the 40-yard dash in 4.58 seconds and recorded a vertical leap of 39 inches.

S Devon Carrington, Stanford: The 6-1, 204-pounder recorded 33 tackles and broke up four passes in his final season for the Cardinal. A highly regarded recruit coming out of high school, Carrington played as a true freshman at Stanford but never established himself as a full-time starter. Could be interesting as a developmental player.

The rest of the undrafted free agents:

G Will Simmons, East Carolina

DT Roy Philon, Louisville

QB Brendon Kay, Cincinnati

OT Kaycee Ike, UAB

OL Chris Elkins, Youngstown State

SPONSORED HEADLINES

Insider

AFC NORTH SCOREBOARD