AFC North: Ramon Foster

PITTSBURGH -- Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Lance Moore practiced again Thursday and all but said afterward that he will play Sunday night at Carolina.

Moore
Moore missed the Steelers' first two games because of a groin injury, but he has not been limited in any of the three practices this week. Moore said the only thing he is waiting for is the go-ahead from coach Mike Tomlin to suit up for his first regular-season game with the Steelers.

"The mental part of the injury I think is gone now," said Moore, the Steelers' No. 3 wide receiver. "Every morning I wake up and feel normal again. I don’t have any pain or soreness. I’m definitely looking forward to getting out there on Sunday."

Ramon Foster is also looking forward to playing against the 2-0 Panthers.

The Steelers' left guard did not practice today because of an ankle injury and was limited in drills on Wednesday. Foster said he turned his ankle in practice this week, but said he will practice on Friday.

"I’m walking fine," Foster said. "Coach T said he won’t let me set myself up for failure, so we’re rehabbing and getting back out there."

Rookie running back Dri Archer (ankle) was limited in practice for the second consecutive day, and he will probably have to be able to make it through a full practice on Friday to play against the Panthers.

Panthers running backs DeAngelo Williams (thigh) and Fozzy Whittaker (thigh) and offensive tackle Garry Williams (thigh) have yet to practice this week.
PITTSBURGH -- Maurkice Pouncey corrected a reporter when asked if the Pittsburgh Steelers are poised for a bounce back season.

Pouncey
“The bounce back should have been last year,” the Pro Bowl center said.

Pouncey could only watch helplessly last season as the Steelers lost their first four games for the first time since 1968 on the way to a second consecutive 8-8 season.

Pouncey tore his ACL eight snaps into the season, and there initially was so much swelling that he couldn’t even travel with the team. Despite that -- and Pouncey having to watch home games on the sidelines -- the fifth-year veteran was around the team enough to know that he doesn’t want to experience another somber September at Steelers headquarters.

“You lose four in a row, everything’s different at work,” Pouncey said. “You come in and everybody’s on the edge and nobody really has a smile on their face.”

Nothing would do more to wipe the collective smiles off the Steelers’ faces than a loss Sunday against the visiting Browns.

The Steelers haven’t lost to the Browns in Pittsburgh since 2003 and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has never lost to Cleveland at Heinz Field. An end to both trends would be particularly disheartening to the Steelers considering their next two games are on the road and the specter of last year’s start hangs over the team.

“Everybody’s talked about it,” defensive end Cameron Heyward said. “If you were here last year that’s all that’s on your mind. It’s almost [talked about] too much.”

The best way the Steelers can end such talk is to beat an AFC North foe that is almost a touchdown underdog on Sunday.

“It’s one of those things where you can go back down that avenue,” Steelers left guard Ramon Foster said of the 0-4 start in 2013. “That has to be the mentality.”
LATROBE, Pa. -- His credentials as an offensive line coach are such that Mike Munchak could have easily told his players the first time he met with them as a group they need to do it his way.

No questions asked.

 That Munchak has taken pretty much the opposite approach is one reason why left guard Ramon Foster recently said, “He’s golden with me.”

“The way he comes at you is respectful and makes you want to work for the guy,” Foster said.

Added Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey, “I can’t praise him enough the things he brings to us. He’s the man.”

Munchak, who joined Mike Tomlin’s staff last January, would shrug off such talk -- just as he did in June when asked if he was the Steelers’ most significant offseason addition.

But Munchak, a Pro Football Hall of Fame guard and highly-regarded line coach, clearly has a presence, even when he is just leading his players through drills before the start of practice. That presence, his résumé and his love of teaching form the foundation of a coaching style that is noticeably lacking in volume.

“Our group is like a family. Just like my children I can look at you and I know what you did wrong and you know what you did wrong and we’re good with that,” Munchak said on why he doesn’t go ballistic when one of his players makes a mistakes. “I don’t need to scream so everyone can see that I’m really coaching my guys up. Sometimes I find that coaches will go nuts on a guy and you’ll look at the tape and you were wrong as a coach. The perception is maybe the media watching practice is going that guy’s getting chewed out and the next day I realize, geez, I was wrong. I think you have to be careful.”

That is not to say Munchak is too buddy-buddy with his players or soft on them. He just doesn’t see the point in embarrassing players to get his point across.

“Some guys needs a push, and we’ve had some good talks in our meeting room. We’ve had talks on the field. They get the point,” Munchak said. “That’s how I liked to be coached when I played, and I’ve got to do what’s most comfortable for me because players can tell if ‘I’m real or not.”

That authenticity as well as Munchak’s philosophical approach to coaching is what has really endeared him to his players.

“I’m big on explaining to them the whole picture,” said Munchak, who coached the Oilers/Titans offensive line from 1997-2010 and spent the previous season as the Titans’ head coach. “Here’s what we’re doing, here’s the concept, this is what we believe in, and then they believe in it and they understand the concepts so they can apply it. They appreciate that and they want to see accountability for all of them, not just ‘Hey, Pounce you get a free ride because you guys have been here.’ They see everyone’s getting treated the same way that way.”
LATROBE, Pa. -- A couple of notes before Pittsburgh Steelers' practice really heats up on Wednesday:
  • The good news for Steelers inside linebacker Sean Spence keeps on coming. Spence said his body responded well Tuesday, a day after his first contact drills in almost two years. The 2012 third-round pick is not limited today with the Steelers again practicing in pads. Spence hasn't played since tearing several ligaments in his left knee and also dislocating his knee cap in a 2012 preseason game. Spence has made remarkable progress and doesn't have many more obstacles to overcome as he tries to return from a career-threatening injury.

    "The test is going to come here in the next two or three days when he's feeling sore," Steelers linebackers coach Keith Butler said. "We've got some live stuff going on and it gives him an opportunity to get confidence in that knee and that's the only way you can do it. I think as time goes along the more confident he's going to get. He's going to be sore a little bit like everybody else is. We'll find out in two or three days how he's holding up."
  • Starting left guard Ramon Foster is practicing after missing the first part of camp because of his mother's death. Foster arrived at training camp Monday night, and he said being at St. Vincent College has restored a sense of normalcy after the loss of his mother.


    "The support I've had from my teammates has been tremendous," Foster said. "It's definitely helped me get through this untimely type of thing that nobody ever wants to experience. The guys and coaches have been great. They were texting and calling, sent flowers. It was a beautiful thing from them."

Steelers Camp Report: Day 3

July, 28, 2014
Jul 28
7:15
PM ET
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.
LATROBE, Pa. -- The Pittsburgh Steelers suffered a setback before the start of training camp when free safety Mike Mitchell hurt his groin while working out.

Mitchell
Mitchell, the Steelers’ most significant signing this offseason, and running back Alvester Alexander have been placed on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list.

Alexander, who spent last season on the Steelers’ practice squad, is also nursing an injured groin.

Both can come off the PUP list at any time, and coach Mike Tomlin said the Steelers expect Mitchell to be sidelined for the first week of training camp.

“We’ll monitor him day to day,” Tomlin said late Friday afternoon.

Two Steelers players did not report to camp by the 4 p.m. ET deadline and each was excused by the team. Punter Adam Podlesh is staying with his wife until she gives birth to their child, and starting left guard Ramon Foster is coping with the death of his mother.

Tomlin did not give a timetable for the return of either player.

Tomlin addressed the media after the Steelers’ conditioning test, and he seemed pleased with his first look at the players since the end of offseason practices.

“I like the look in the eye of the group,” the eighth-year coach said, “and the way that they performed at the run test was impressive.”

Also of note from Tomlin’s first news conference of training camp.
  • Tomlin plans on running a physical camp after watching the players take part in non-contact practices during the offseason.

    “I enjoyed the spring and summer, but that’s the spring and summer. Now that we’re here in training camp we’re going to do what we do in this type of setting, which is compete,” Tomlin said.

    When asked if there will be tackling, Tomlin smiled.

    “Absolutely,” he said. “See you on Monday.”

    Monday is the first that that the Steelers are allowed to practice in full pads and hits. The team will conduct non-contract practices on Saturday and Sunday, something that is mandated by the collective bargaining agreement.
  • Tomlin said he won’t take a slower approach to installing the playbook despite the Steelers’ youth, particularly on defense.

    “We expect those guys to catch up. It’s professional football, they don’t have an academic workload to worry about,” Tomlin said. “Obviously we’re willing to adjust when it’s time to play football in September. It’s just smart football to do what your guys are capable of doing, but as we step into Latrobe we do not have that mentality. We need to see what they’re capable of handling. And in order to so that we’re going to install at our normal pace.”
  • Center Maurkice Pouncey won’t be eased into practice even though he is still less than a year removed from tearing the ACL in his right knee.

    The Steelers gave Pouncey periodic days off during the offseason practices as a precaution, but Tomlin said the three-time Pro Bowler won’t be limited in camp.

    “He’s ready to go,” Tomlin said.
PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Steelers report to training camp in three days and it looks like coach Mike Tomlin has pre-ordered heat and humidity, two of his favorite ingredients for the practices that will take place at St. Vincent College in Latrobe, Pennsylvania.

Here is a different kind of primer for camp, and it is the first of two posts recapping the Steelers' offseason in the words of the coaches and the players.

Here is what the players said during the offseason practices.

Polamalu
“We could put Usain Bolt and the whole track team out there but that doesn't make us a good football team. So, we'll see how everything works out.” – strong safety Troy Polamalu on what an infusion of speed will mean for the defense

“I’m excited about this team and the direction we’re headed. I think that we have a lot of speed. That’s running the ball, that’s throwing the ball, whatever. I want us to be fast and to put a lot of points on the board. I feel younger than ever." – quarterback Ben Roethlisberger on expectations for the offense after the Steelers averaged just under 28 points in their final eight games last season

“You see guys finishing to the end zone, the whole defense running to the ball, everyone coaching each other. I think we’re just a hungry young group that’s aspiring to win games. When you’ve got a young motivated group that everyone bought into what we’re trying to do it just speaks highly when you see it on the practice field.” – Pro Bowl wide receiver Antonio Brown on the urgency the Steelers showed during offseason practices

“I’m in his head every day, always asking questions, always trying to figure out the best way to do it. He’s always on my butt about just grinding. Not saying that I don’t push myself, but there’s always a next level and that’s what he’s brought to our whole unit.” – outside linebacker Jarvis Jones on new defensive assistant Joey Porter

Miller
“I expect to be better than last year for sure. That’s better because I should be able to put more preparation in, should be able to work like I’m used to working. Last year was about trying to find a new normal for myself and I’m a creature of habit so that wasn’t easy for me.” – tight end Heath Miller on participating in offseason practices after missing them the previous year while recovering from a torn ACL

“You’ve got a few guys and there time is right now. Cortez Allen is one of those guys. Will Gay is still one of those guys regardless of what people don’t want to say about him. The man’s real solid.I think last year was the best year of his career. And Cortez Allen toward the end was breaking out to what we all thought he could be -- a ball hawk.” – veteran Ike Taylor on the Steelers’ cornerbacks

“It’s nothing right now and I say that in the sense that that’s been talked about the last few years. The talent is there but if we come out here and [falter] we’ll be saying the same thing next year. You can’t just say because we have the high-round talent or guys that have experience that it’s supposed to be special. We’ve got to make it that way.” – left guard Ramon Foster on the whether offensive line’s strong finish in 2013 will translate into a big season for the unit this year

“He’s one of my better friends on the team now. It’s crazy the relationship I built with him over the last couple of months. He’s a lot like I am, outgoing, more jokes. Dri is the same way. It’s crazy how we all mesh together and get along.” – starting running back Le'Veon Bell on new backfield additions LeGarrette Blount and Dri Archer


“Think about it. You’ve got a Hall of Famer in waiting and I’m coming in to play right after him. That’s pressure. Everybody knows what Casey was. He’s on a top five defense his whole career. 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.” – nose tackle Steve McLendon on replacing five-time Pro Bowler Casey Hampton last season

Mitchell
“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 but this defense here is very talented. Sometimes you’re overlooked but that’s just another chip to put on my shoulder and play football.” – new free safety Mike Mitchell on his goal for this season

“He’s like a sponge right now. The coaches tell him, ‘Don’t say much at all. Just try and soak everything up right now.’ It’s going to be tough on him but he’s the type of athletic he can do it. He’s willing and able to do whatever it takes.” – inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons on first-round draft pick Ryan Shazier

“I feel like I was overlooked by a lot of teams. A lot of guys that went ahead of me aren’t even on teams right now so that gives me a chip on my shoulder every day. 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.” – cornerback Antwon Blake on what drives 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. With that comes a great opportunity to become the best and that’s somebody I want to become as great as or greater than. I love pressure. I thrive off that.” – rookie defensive end Stephon Tuitt on wearing No. 91, Aaron Smith’s old number

“Ben is strong-armed with a sense of boldness. He’s going to throw some balls that maybe some other guys wouldn’t, even guys with strong arms. I love that as a receiver.” – new wide receiver Lance Moore on playing with Roethlisberger

“He’s like Paul Bunyan. He’s huge. He’s thick but he’s definitely agile. I think we can get a lot out of him. His potential is out of the roof. It’s about getting him to the next level.” – defensive end Cameron Heyward on rookie defensive tackle Dan McCullers
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.”
PITTSBURGH -- The tears that made it hard for Maurkice Pouncey to talk Thursday afternoon also cut short what should have been a celebratory news conference.

Emotion choked the Pittsburgh Steelers center, and it emanated from the day last September when a teammate crashed into his right knee and left Pouncey in the kind of pain that made him wonder if he would ever walk well enough to play football again -- or at least at a high level.

What also had to overwhelm Pouncey: Steelers chairman Dan Rooney, team president Art Rooney II, general manager Kevin Colbert and coach Mike Tomlin all attended the official announcement of the five-year contract extension he signed nine months after tearing several ligaments in his right knee, including his ACL.

[+] EnlargeMaurkice Pouncey
David Dermer/Diamond Images/Getty ImagesMaurkice Pouncey is the only center in NFL history to make the Pro Bowl in each of his first three seasons.
Their presence as much as the new deal that could be worth as much as $44 million, affirmed to Pouncey that he is a Steeler.

And there is a difference between that and playing for the Steelers.

“It’s true love here,” Pouncey said shortly after the Steelers concluded organized team activities. “I’ll do anything for this team and I’m ready to lead us to where we’ve got to get back to.”

The Steelers concluded that Pouncey is one of the keys to them re-establishing themselves as perennial Super Bowl contenders following consecutive 8-8 seasons.

They made a bold move with the contract that is now the most lucrative for a center in the NFL.

They also made the correct move in locking up Pouncey long-term after the Jaguars had raised the ante at the position by signing Alex Mack to a five-year, $42 million contract (the Browns later matched it to retain Mack).

Pouncey is the only center in NFL history to make the Pro Bowl in each of his first three seasons. His teammates respect him so much that they voted Pouncey a captain last season, not much more than a month after he had celebrated his 24th birthday. And Pouncey is the kind of player you build around on the offensive line, especially if your goal is to maximize Ben Roethlisberger's remaining seasons as a top-tier quarterback, something that Colbert has stated.

Questions have been raised about Pouncey and whether the 2010 first-round pick is prone to injury. But he had missed just three regular-season games prior to 2013.

And the injuries he suffered in the Steelers’ season opener were a result of nothing more than rotten luck, as friendly fire took Pouncey out after right guard David DeCastro whiffed on an attempted cut block.

The Steelers are obviously comfortable with Pouncey’s injury history as well as where he is from a health standpoint nine months after hurting his right knee. Pouncey’s teammates, meanwhile, were nothing short of ecstatic about his new deal.

And not because Pouncey is likely to pick up the next couple of dinner tabs.

“He worked his butt off so we’re glad to have the team commit to him like that,” Steelers left guard Ramon Foster said. “We’re more excited than he is about it.”

Just not as emotional.

“I was just telling coach (Tomlin) it seems like five years all over again, and I’m ready to start this path and help this team get back to where we need to,” said Pouncey, who turns 25 the day before the Steelers report to training camp. “This is really an awesome feeling and words can’t really say enough about it.”
PITTSBURGH -- The Steelers start another round of organized team activities today.

That means three more full-squad practices this week.

And a leap of faith.

The Dallas Cowboys lost arguably their best defensive player for the 2014 season last week when linebacker Sean Lee tore his ACL. The grim reality that OTAs are fraught with as much risk as they are reward was reinforced by another in a string of unfortunate injuries for Lee.

[+] EnlargeMike Tomlin
Kelley L Cox/USA TODAY SportsMike Tomlin has advised his players to play hard but smart and to stay off the ground during OTAs.
Not coincidentally coach Mike Tomlin addressed the specter of injury before the Steelers' second OTA last Wednesday, a day after Lee got hurt.

"He told us we don't have pads on so we don't need to be on the ground, we don't need to be bull rushing each other and stuff like that," outside linebacker Jarvis Jones said. "Use your hands, run to the ball and keep it clean."

The Steelers could have suffered something similar to the deflating loss the Cowboys are dealing with during their first voluntary practice a week ago.

Center Maurkice Pouncey, practicing for the first time since tearing his ACL last September, locked onto rookie inside linebacker Ryan Shazier during a running play. Pouncey drove Shazier back before the Steelers' first-round draft pick threw off the block and sent Pouncey sprawling to the grass.

Pouncey bounced up immediately and told Shazier, in so many words, to chill. But that play could have turned into another cautionary tale about OTAs had Pouncey reinjured his rebuilt right knee or accidentally taken out a teammate when he fell to the ground.

"Sometimes when guys get pulled to the ground or fall to the ground other guys around you are going to trip over you," veteran tight end Heath Miller said. "You want to try and control what you can control but at the same time there's certain things that are out of your hands."

The collective bargaining agreement that went into effect in 2011 minimized the risk of OTAs by limiting the number of voluntary practices that teams are allowed to stage. Teams are only permitted 10 OTAs as well as one mandatory minicamp, though they are still allowed extra practices if they have a new head coach.

OTAs serve a purpose even if injuries sustained during the practices are magnified and seemingly senseless. They give the players a chance to practice together during the offseason and are particularly helpful to free-agent signees and rookies who are learning a new system.

And, to be fair, players can get injured working out on their own. They can also just as easily blow out a knee in a non-contact situation as they can while locked up with another player or getting tangled up in a pile of bodies.

Tomlin, as other coaches around the NFL do, regularly emphasizes the importance of playing hard but also smart during OTAs. He also reinforces an important message when it comes to the voluntary practices.

"You can't make the team right now is what he says, which is true," left guard Ramon Foster said. "He gives us rules. There will be no fighting out here, no jersey pulling. Protect our guys. We try to keep the guys off the ground."

Players are inevitably going to hit the ground given how fast the game is even with the participants only wearing a helmet, jersey and shorts and not engaging in contact drills.

That is why there is an element of luck when it comes to OTAs as well as a leap of faith by everyone involved in them.

"You start thinking about (getting hurt) and you start playing slow and you can't be yourself, you can't make plays," Jones said. "You start playing slow and now you're getting in other people's way and that could create injuries. If it happens, it happens, you've just got to deal with it. Hopefully all of us can stay healthy throughout these practices."
PITTSBURGH -- An offensive line in which the Pittsburgh Steelers invested heavily in recent NFL drafts appeared to come together in the second half of last season.

The Steelers allowed just 11 sacks in the final eight games of 2013 and averaged 99.3 rushing yards in those contests. The latter hardly represents a robust number, but it is a significant jump from the Steelers’ overall rushing yards per game last season (86.4). And the Steelers averaged 125.7 rushing yards in winning their final three games and nearly sneaking into the playoffs.

Foster
To borrow a favorite Mike Tomlin cliché, the arrow is pointing up for the offensive line, especially since Pro Bowler Maurkice Pouncey looks fantastic after coming back from a torn ACL.

Just don’t tell left guard Ramon Foster that.

“It’s nothing right now,” Foster said of the Steelers' offensive line, “and I say that in the sense that (the group’s potential) has been talked about the last few years. The talent is there, but if we come out here and (falter) we’ll be saying the same thing next year. You can’t just say because we have the high-round talent or guys that have experience that it’s supposed to be special. We’ve got to make it that way.”

That is exactly the kind of talk Tomlin wants to hear as no one should assume anything when it comes to the Steelers following consecutive 8-8 seasons.

There is, however, a lot to like about the line.

At least on paper.

The group is experienced but also young -- Foster, who turned 28 in January, is the oldest projected starter -- and it has better depth than in recent years.

The Steelers also have the perfect coach to pull everything together up front in Mike Munchak.

Munchak is a Pro Football Hall of Fame guard and his credentials as an offensive line coach are impeccable.

To say his new players have embraced Munchak is an understatement.

“Being around him now you see his reputation is exactly what you’ve heard,” Foster said, “and his knowledge of the game and the way he treats each player separately as far as his ability to do stuff you can see the quality of the coaching he brings. Everything you’ve heard is true.”

That does not necessarily apply to talk that the Steelers’ offensive line will be a strength in 2014.

At least not yet.

“We have to make it happen,” Foster said, “so to say this line is this or that, we’ve got to put in the work first.”
PITTSBURGH -- This is the next in a series that takes a post-free agency, post-draft look at the all of the positions with the exception of quarterback.

Our fourth look is at an offensive line that returns every starter and should get Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey back from a torn ACL.

OFFENSIVE LINE

[+] EnlargeMike Munchak
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesAdding Hall of Famer Mike Munchak to the coaching staff could take Pittsburgh's offensive line to the next level.
Who is new: Wesley Johnson. The second of the Steelers' two fifth-round picks, Johnson started 51 career games at Vanderbilt, and the 6-foot-5, 297-pounder is athletic and versatile. Johnson started at least two games at every position along the offensive line except for right guard. The Steelers should know plenty about Johnson considering coach Mike Tomlin is good friends with James Franklin, who coached Johnson at Vanderbilt.

Who is gone: Fernando Velasco. One of the unsung players of last season started 11 games at center before rupturing his Achilles tendon. Velasco remains unsigned as he works his way back from that injury.

Returning starters: Kelvin Beachum, Ramon Foster, Pouncey, David DeCastro, Marcus Gilbert. Beachum goes into offseason practice as the starter at left tackle after stabilizing the position last season and playing well in 11 starts there. He could face competition from Mike Adams, whom Beachum replaced at left tackle after the fourth game of 2013. Adams could also challenge Marcus Gilbert at right tackle. The Steelers are set at guard with Foster and DeCastro, who is already a Pro Bowl-caliber player. Pouncey returns at center, barring a setback, after tearing his right ACL in the 2013 season opener. Pouncey is the only center in NFL history to make the Pro Bowl in each of his first three seasons.

Most significant addition: Mike Munchak. The former Titans head coach joined Tomlin’s staff and he could be coach who brings everything together for a promising offensive line. Munchak is a Pro Football Hall of Fame guard, and he coached the offensive line for more than a decade before becoming the head coach in Tennessee. His credentials as an offensive line coach are impeccable, and Munchak is not lacking for talent to mold.

Most significant loss: Velasco. He probably would have signed elsewhere as a free agent after playing well at center last season. With Velasco hurt the Steelers opted to re-sign Cody Wallace to provide depth along the interior of the line. They could re-sign Velasco once he is close to full strength and bring him to training camp to compete with Wallace.

On outside looking in: Johnson. Assuming the Steelers keep eight offensive linemen when they finalize their 53-man roster, Johnson will probably have to beat out veteran Guy Whimper to make the team.

Hidden number: Nine different offensive linemen started at least one game last season as injuries again scrambled the offensive line.

Outlook: The Steelers have yet to field an offensive line that consistently controls the line of scrimmage under Tomlin. That could change this year, especially if the Steelers can stay relatively healthy up front. The Steelers invested heavily in their line from 2010-12 spending two first-round picks and a pair of second-round selections on offensive linemen. Now they have a position coach who can get the most out of a young but experienced group that also has good depth. “I’m excited to work with them,” Munchak said. “I think we can have a special group here.”
PITTSBURGH -- Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger played every snap and was the only Steelers offensive player to log more than 1,000 snaps in 2013.

Roethlisberger was under center for all 1,021 of the Steelers' snaps, according to ESPN Stats & Info, with wide receiver Antonio Brown (923), right tackle Marcus Gilbert (922), right guard David DeCastro (922) and tight end Heath Miller (874) rounding out the top five in playing time among offensive players.

Here is a look at other snap counts on that side of the ball:
  • Le'Veon Bell logged 656 snaps despite missing the first three games of the season because of a foot injury. Bell played the most of the five running backs selected in the second round of the 2013 NFL draft, edging out Green Bay's Eddie Lacy by four snaps. Cincinnati's Giovani Bernard played 589 snaps with Denver's Montee Ball and Seattle's Christine Michael logging 302 and 26 snaps respectively. Michael has the hardest path to the field as he is playing behind Marshawn Lynch and Robert Turbin in Seattle.
  • Four offensive linemen played at least 800 snaps with left guard Ramon Foster (819) and left tackle Kelvin Beachum (807) joining Gilbert and DeCastro in that group. Fernando Velasco played 723 snaps despite not signing with the Steelers until after the first game of the season and missing the final four games because of a ruptured Achilles tendon. Eight offensive lineman played at least 250 snaps.
  • Rookie wide receiver Markus Wheaton logged just 153 snaps -- the fewest among the players in his draft class -- and not just because a broken pinkie caused him to miss four games and stunted his professional growth. The Steelers did not use many four-wide receiver sets, making it hard for the Wheaton to get on the field. Consider that No. 3 wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery played 617 snaps while Emmanuel Sanders, who started opposite Brown, logged 771 snaps. Look for Wheaton's snaps to at least triple in 2014 if Sanders signs elsewhere as an unrestricted free agent.
  • One reason why Miller is so respected in the Steelers' locker room is because of his work ethic, and the snaps he played in 2013 reflected how much he put into returning to the field less than a year after reconstructive knee surgery. The ninth-year veteran finished 10th on the team with 874 snaps despite missing the first two games and playing limited snaps in his first game back from torn knee ligaments. Miller proved to be remarkably durable as he played every snap in seven of 14 games. One key for the Steelers in 2014 will be having Miller and Matt Spaeth healthy at the same time for the majority of the season. Spaeth missed the first 12 games because of a foot injury but he averaged just under 39 snaps in the Steelers' final three games.

I will break down the Steelers' defensive snaps in my next post.

Offensive line could become a strength

December, 17, 2013
12/17/13
8:00
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PITTSBURGH -- The Steelers' offensive line has been beaten up in more ways than one ever since Mike Tomlin took over as head coach in 2007.

Could the oft-maligned unit become a reason why the Steelers win next season? Don't scoff.

David DeCastro has emerged as a Pro Bowl-caliber guard this season. Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey is expected to return in 2014 from a torn ACL. Left tackle Kelvin Beachum has played well enough that the Steelers may not have to target the position with their first pick in the 2014 NFL draft.

[+] EnlargePittsburgh's offensive line
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarThe Steelers have a strong offensive line to build upon if they can ever stay healthy.
“The biggest problem with the offensive line,” former NFL scout and ESPN analyst Matt Williamson said, “is they can't ever start the same five guys.”

Injuries have long been the X factor along the offensive line and any optimistic forecast for its future has to come with the caveat that the Steelers, for whatever reason, cannot stay healthy up front.

Assume for the sake of argument that the line isn't as wracked by injuries next season as it has been in recent years. DeCastro, Pouncey and left guard Ramon Foster would give them a strong interior around which to build.

That is especially true in the case of DeCastro, whom Williamson said has already established himself as one of the top five or six guards in the NFL.

“He doesn't have a major weakness,” Williamson said. “He can run the power stuff. He can pass block. There's a lot to like about him.”

Williamson echoed similar sentiments about Beachum, who took over at left tackle after the fourth game of the season and has earned glowing praise from offensive coordinator Todd Haley.

The 6-3, 306-pound Beachum is not a prototypical left tackle, and teams generally find protectors for their quarterback's blind side near the beginning of the draft not the end of it.

But Beachum, a late seventh-round pick in 2012, is proving to be the exception to several rules.

“I'm starting to come around on him,” Williamson said. “He might he good enough and he seems to be getting better.”

The 2014 draft is supposed to be deep at offensive tackle, and if the Steelers use their first pick on a potential franchise left tackle, Beachum would still have a key role on the team -- whether he serves as a super sub who can play all five positions or bolsters the line at another position.

The play of DeCastro and Beachum this season is the biggest reason for optimism for the offensive line, and Mike Adams still has time to develop into a long-term starter up front, whether it is at left or right tackle.

Injuries can scramble the offensive line throughout the season as the Steelers well know. But the investment they have made in their line in recent drafts could really start to pay off next season.

If the group can stay relatively healthy.

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