NFL Nation: Aaron Smith


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.

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 -- Brett Keisel took part in Super Bowl Media Day on Tuesday asking hair-related questions as part of a promotion for Head & Shoulders.

Keisel
Keisel
The Steelers defensive end, however, made it clear after the media extravaganza/parody that he is not in the New York City area this week auditioning for post-football jobs such as professional pitch man or some sort of NFL analyst.

Keisel, nearly a month after his 12th NFL season ended, told ESPN's SVP & Russillo that retirement isn't on his radar even though he is 35 and has played out the five-year contract he signed in 2009.

"I think I've got a couple [of seasons] left in me," Keisel said on the syndicated talk radio show. "I feel great and still feel like I can play and we'll see what happens."

The question Keisel may soon face is how far he is willing to go to continue his career -- and that could be literally.

Keisel has said he can't imagine donning a different uniform, and he and his wife have fallen so in love with Pittsburgh that they plan to raise their family here after his playing days are over.

But the Steelers are more likely than not to move forward without Keisel. It is something they have done the last two years with other cornerstones from the teams that won two Super Bowls and played in another from 2005-10.

Hines Ward, James Farrior, Casey Hampton and Aaron Smith, Keisel's onetime mentor, are among those whom the Steelers released or did not re-sign, and Keisel could soon join that list.

He would have to accept a drastic pay cut -- he made $4.9 million in 2013 -- and probably a reduced role for the Steelers to even considering bringing him back for another season.

If Keisel is amenable to both I think the Steelers should re-sign the 6-5, 285-pounder, especially since fellow defensive ends Ziggy Hood and Al Woods are also set to become unrestricted free agents on March 11 and face uncertain futures.

Keisel had four sacks last season and 26 quarterback pressures, third most on the Steelers, despite missing four games and playing sparingly in another because of a nagging foot injury.

Bringing him back as a situation pass rusher, a role he filled before becoming a full-time starter in 2006, would make a lot of sense.

That is if the dollars and cents work for the Steelers and Keisel.

There are a lot of variables at play as far as Keisel's future with with the Steelers.

One that isn't: his desire to keep playing.

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.
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."

Heyward continues to shine for Steelers

December, 12, 2013
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PITTSBURGH -- It seems ludicrous now considering that he may be the Steelers’ best defensive player this season. But it wasn’t too long ago that it was easy to wonder if the Steelers had made a mistake when they used their 2011 first-round pick on Cameron Heyward.

He played sparingly outside of special teams his first two seasons, and it was also easy – or convenient – to forget that Heyward didn’t have the benefit of getting acclimated to a new defense before his first training camp because of the lockout.

[+] EnlargeCameron Heyward
Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY SportsSteelers defensive end Cameron Heyward showed off his tenacity against the Dolphins.
Or that it takes years for ends to master the technique and hand-to-hand combat skills that are necessary to succeed in the Steelers’ 3-4 defense.

Heyward, it can be argued, is actually ahead of schedule. And any questions about whether he has arrived were erased last Sunday against the Dolphins.

Heyward recorded a career-high 10 tackles, and he displayed a brute strength on a couple of them in yanking Dolphins ball carriers to the ground. The former Ohio State star is second on the Steelers with 24 quarterback pressures and third on the team with four sacks.

And yet when asked if development has been a source of satisfaction this season, Heyward said, “No, because it just doesn’t show up on the [score]board. I think I’ve become more confident in what I’m doing out there. I just want it to translate onto the board. I’ll do whatever it takes.”

Heyward is a main reason why the Steelers have hope that their future performances translate into wins – and not just in the final three games of the season.

The player who didn’t open the season as a starter -- he supplanted Ziggy Hood in the lineup after the fourth game -- has emerged as a cornerstone whom the Steelers can build around as they re-tool their aging defense. Heyward has also established himself as the next in a line of defensive ends who have distinguished themselves, most notably Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel.

“I’ve had the pleasure of just getting to learn from those guys and there’s so much I’ve learned,” Heyward said. “I’m just trying to live up to the hype. Those guys have set the bar pretty high and just trying to carry it on.”

He has already started doing just that.

“Cam had a lot of God-given ability. It just took him some time to learn what to do," Steelers defensive line coach John Mitchell said. "He’s getting better and better. He feels more comfortable. We wanted to get him on the field because he was making plays.”
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.”
J.J WattBrett Davis/US PresswireHouston's J.J. Watt leads the AFC with 5.5 sacks, and sees room for improvement.
J.J. Watt isn’t pretending he’s not been productive.

But when the Houston Texans defensive end looks at film of his performance through three games -- three games that include an AFC-best 5.5 sacks, seven tackles for a loss, five passes defensed and a fumble recovery -- he sees what hasn’t happened more than what has.

“I’m confident in my game and the best part about it. And the most exciting thing for me right now is watching the film, I still have so many things, so much more that I can do to get better,” he said. “I can’t wait to improve ...

“Obviously the sacks are nice, and the batted balls and the TFLs [tackles for loss], but I am still leaving a few plays on the field. That’s what excites me, and those are the plays that I focus on.”

Sunday, he’ll bounce from one side to the other against the Tennessee Titans at Reliant Stadium, typically going to the formation’s strong side and working with outside linebacker Brooks Reed behind him.

Tennessee has been poor in terms of run-blocking but has protected the passer well. However, the Titans have not faced anyone playing as well as Watt.

“He fits that system perfectly,” Titans coach Mike Munchak said. “I was upset when they got him, because I knew we were going to face him twice a year. The guy makes plays. He fits that scheme perfectly, probably better than most do …

“We’re going to have our hands full with him this week, and when we play them in the future. He reminds me of [San Francisco’s Justin Smith]. He’s one of the guys that stands out as being a stud in that system, which is a very similar system.”

Such production from a 3-4 end is an attention-grabber, though Watt and defensive coordinator Wade Phillips say it shouldn’t be.

Perhaps it’s because we tend to think of a 3-4 end as a two-gapper, responsible primarily for taking up blockers and freeing linebackers to make plays.

Aaron Smith, the former Pittsburgh Steelers end, for example.

“Houston is not the normal 3-4,” Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. said. “They are an attacking defense, and they don’t ask their DEs to two-gap like, say, Aaron Smith in his prime. Really, Houston is an attacking 5-2 more than a traditional 3-4. But ends in just about any 3-4 should be able to bump inside on throwing downs and pressure the QB."

What Smith did for the Steelers is not Watt’s role, or the role of Antonio Smith, Houston’s weakside end, in its base package.

“I’m trying to break the mold,” Watt said. “A lot of people keep telling me that, that we’re not allowed to make plays or we’re not supposed to make plays. One of the things is that Coach Phillips puts me in great position to have success, he gives me great opportunities. And I think another thing is just having the belief, and not buying into this thing where you can’t make plays.

“I mean, I don’t know why people say that you can’t make plays. If you bust your tail and you’re rushing the passer, you’re going to get a sack. If you’re chasing down a runner from the back side and you beat your blocker, you’re going to get a TFL. I don’t see why you have to be a block-eater.”

Watt doesn’t like hearing that what Houston’s running isn’t really a 3-4. We sometimes paint it as a 5-2 or some wild twist on a conventional 3-4. But as the league evolves, maybe we are too quick to label something conventional. If defenses like Houston’s and San Francisco’s are so strong, maybe they redefine convention.

“I play the 5-technique [shaded outside the tackle] and the 3-technique [shaded outside a guard] just like all the other 3-4 ends,” Watt said. “We’re a 3-4, and I play the same position as those guys.”

Phillips jumped in when I started to ask about uncommon production from a 3-4 end.

What about Oilers Hall of Fame Elvin Bethea, who Bum Phillips deployed in a similar fashion? What about Bruce Smith, who Wade Phillips coached in Buffalo?

“That’s why we don’t play a conventional 3-4,” Phillips said. “In the Phillips’ 3-4, my dad’s 3-4, he said, ‘Elvin Bethea isn’t going to play two-gap, he can stunt, he can move, let’s get him on the move where he can make plays, because he’s a great player.’ You do what your players can do, you can utilize that kind of personnel in our defense.”

The Houston front is such a strong group that blocking schemes have difficult choices to make.

Inside linebacker Brian Cushing will rush a lot on third down. So offenses tend to move their center toward him. That helps Watt wind up with one-on-ones with a guard, since the tackle has to deal with another very good rusher in Reed.

“I don’t know what they are going to do,” Phillips said of the attention Watt can draw.

Watt gets moved around based on what Phillips calls and the matchups the Texans are looking to exploit. But the default is the strong side, which Watt estimates puts him against right tackles and guards 70 percent of the time.

In Watt, the Texans have a largely egoless guy. He’s easygoing when he chats with a reporter, relentless when he’s on the field. He’s not too far removed from working as a pizza delivery guy, so he cherishes the job he’s got and the chances that come with it.

“He’s a perfect guy,” Phillips said. “He’s a perfect player for you, he works hard, he studies hard, he plays hard, he’s first in everything he does, all the drills and all that stuff. He’s what you want. Plus, he’s a great athlete, too.”

Early in training camp, I asked Watt about how he could get better at after a great rookie season that included a point-blank interception of Andy Dalton and a 29-yard touchdown return in a playoff win against Cincinnati. After the great three games so far, I asked how he had improved.

He said it’s all been about calculated risks he’s now willing to take.

“It’s confidence, first of all,” he said. “I have more of an array of moves. But I have the confidence in maybe taking a risk in order to make a play. They are extremely calculated. I’m not going to put the team in harm’s way or give up a big play. I do them at just the right time where, hopefully, if everything goes according to plan, I have a very small chance of failure.

“Sometimes if I’m going to knife underneath a block or I am going to swim over a blocker, those are things where you can get caught with your arm over a blocker, he can hit you right in the chest and you’re in some deep trouble there. But if you play it right and you do it at the right time and you set him up long enough, you can make it where your chance of failure is pretty small.”

Watt is appreciative of the comparisons to Justin Smith, who he respects and regards as a great player.

“Watt is on a defensive MVP type of pace,” Williamson said. “To me, Justin Smith was the clear No. 1 3-4 defensive end heading into this season, but Watt was great as a rookie and is even better in Year 2. He is pushing for that crown. The ends in Arizona have been fantastic as well in their more traditional 3-4.”

Growing up in Pewaukee, Wis., Watt admired Howie Long and Reggie White. But the young Texan isn’t real big on comparisons.

Please don’t call him the next anybody.

“I think the mark of a truly great player is the guy who wants to have the most success, a guy who wants to do things that have never been done before,” he said. “So that’s my goal. I want to come out here and hopefully work my tail of for my career and do things that have never been done before.”
There was speculation that Ziggy Hood could be a candidate to play nose tackle for the Pittsburgh Steelers if Casey Hampton wasn't fully recovered from a knee injury. Hood might be better suited to take over for James Farrior at inside linebacker if he keeps up his training regimen.

Hood plans to report to training camp at the end of July looking more like a linebacker than a defensive end. According to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Hood lowered his body fat from 24 percent to 18 percent in a four-week span in March. He also lost 18 pounds of fat and gained 20 pounds of muscle. His current weight is 307 pounds.

If you have any doubts about Hood's shape, you should take at look at the YouTube video of him jumping on top of a 50-inch box from a seated position.

“I felt a big difference and feel great right now,” Hood told the Tribune-Review. “You feel good, you play good. You can always improve, and that was one area I would like to improve on, and that’s what I have been doing.”

Hood has never began a season as a starter, but he's made 23 starts the past two seasons because of injuries to Aaron Smith. Judging by his work ethic this offseason, Hood doesn't expect to be handed the starting job this season. He seems prepared to win the competition with Cameron Heyward.

The impressive part is Hood says his training is far from over. He will start back at the end of the month and continue through the start of camp.

"All that big and looking sloppy, that’s out the window,” Hood said. “We are sexy now.”
Unlike the other all-time great safety in the division, the Steelers' Troy Polamalu is committed to playing this season. But Polamalu did acknowledge to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that he thinks of the end of his career "all the time."

Polamalu
"People have asked me how many years do you think you can play? My reaction is always, when you live day to day, it's hard to talk years," he said. "It's always been my mantra in life, whether it was my first year as a rookie or year 10, I just live day to day."

It's fair to say that Polamalu, who turned 31, has fewer years ahead in his playing career than behind him. But that won't impact this season. The fact that Polamalu was there for voluntary workouts will.

Polamalu usually skips these practices because he prefers working out with his trainer in Los Angeles. He said he chose to come this year "for obvious reasons."

"We had a lot of our major leadership leave, people that we count on," he said. "I think it's nice for the younger guys to see a familiar face, and, honestly, to get myself better."

This older Polamalu might think of retirement more, but he is also more mature and responsible. He understands the effect of losing the likes of James Farrior, Aaron Smith and Chris Hoke on defense. He understands that the Steelers need him in Pittsburgh and not on the West Coast.

General manager Kevin Colbert said at the NFL owners meetings that he couldn't identify who would become the new leaders on this team. "We're looking for that right now," he said.

Well, the Steelers looked at one when they saw Polamalu entering team headquarters for a workout in May.
Mike TomlinMichael Hickey/US PresswireMike Tomlin and the Steelers need to tap into their draft magic this year more than many.

Nearly a full month into free agency, the Steelers finally signed their first player Tuesday. It was -- yawn -- Leonard Pope.

Not excited about adding a backup tight end? Well, this is essentially a repeat of last year, when the Steelers' big free-agent signing was wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery. Let's face it, Steelers' free agency contains as much action as a Sarah Jessica Parker flick. Everyone knows this, and that's why no one is wringing their Terrible Towel over the inactivity.

The Steelers find players in April, not March. They hit on first-round picks every year -- at least in recent memory -- and develop undrafted prospects into starters. No one has built their team through the draft quite like the Steelers this decade. If the season started today, only one of the projected starters (safety Ryan Clark) joined the Steelers as an unrestricted free agent.

The Steelers need this remarkable track record in the draft to come through for them again. In some ways, this is the most important draft of the Mike Tomlin era. I'm not saying this is a crucial draft in terms of finding immediate starters. But the pressure is on the Steelers to find "potential" starters for the 2012 season.

The organization lost a piece of its history when it parted ways with wide receiver Hines Ward, linebacker James Farrior, defensive end Aaron Smith, nose tackle Chris Hoke and guard Chris Kemoeatu this offseason. Some have downplayed these departures because none were major contributors last season. Farrior was a part-time player, Ward was being phased out, Kemoeatu was benched and Smith and Hoke were both injured. The Steelers, though, could have used their experience as backups this season.

The loss of these veteran safety nets makes injuries a major concern. Two starters -- running back Rashard Mendenhall and nose tackle Casey Hampton -- are candidates to start the regular season on the physically unable to perform list (and miss at least the first six games) after ACL surgeries this offseason. Tomlin has expressed concern whether right tackle Willie Colon and wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders can shake their injury histories. And the Steelers have to be worried about Maurkice Pouncey's ankle, LaMarr Woodley's hamstrings and Doug Legursky's shoulder.

If Hampton is placed on the PUP, the starting nose tackle would likely be an out-of-position Ziggy Hood. If Legursky is hurt, the current top backup at guard is John Malecki. If Colon goes down, the Steelers have to turn to the often-struggling Jonathan Scott. If Sanders can't play, the third receiver would be ... well, no one right now. These are all painful scenarios for the Steelers.

This is where the draft comes into play for Pittsburgh. Taking the right college player has always kept the Steelers in the mode of reloading, not rebuilding. No one knows whom the Steelers will select with the 24th overall pick. It could be Alabama inside linebacker Dont'a Hightower, Georgia offensive lineman Cordy Glenn, Stanford tight end Coby Fleener or someone not even linked to Pittsburgh. Based on the Steelers' history, the only certainty is the pick will become an impact player.

[+] EnlargeBrett Keisel
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesDefensive end Brett Keisel, taken in the seventh round, is just one of the Steelers' draft finds.
Since 2000, the Steelers' first-round selections have been wide receiver Plaxico Burress, Hampton, guard Kendall Simmons, safety Troy Polamalu, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, tight end Heath Miller, wide receiver Santonio Holmes, linebacker Lawrence Timmons, Mendenhall, Hood, Pouncey and defensive end Cameron Heyward. The only one who didn't quite live up to expectations is Mendenhall, and he is hardly a major disappointment, having led the team in rushing for the past three seasons. This great run is more amazing when you consider only two (Burress and Roethlisberger) were selected in the top half of the first round. Even the Ravens, who are known for excelling in the draft, have had two busts during this span with quarterback Kyle Boller and wide receiver Travis Taylor.

General manager Kevin Colbert, one of the underrated decision-makers in the NFL, can't explain this string of success.

"We've been fortunate," he told reporters at the NFL owners meetings. "We are capable as anybody of making a mistake. We never keep score. There's only one score that matters and that's the last game of the year."

If the Steelers had been keeping score, they would realize their success goes beyond the first round. They have come away with current starters in the second round (linebacker Woodley), third round (wide receiver Mike Wallace), fourth round (cornerback Ike Taylor), sixth round (wide receiver Antonio Brown) and seventh round (defensive end Brett Keisel). And don't forget about the undrafted finds like Legursky, right guard Ramon Foster and running back Isaac Redman.

This is why the Steelers don't have to write a $100 million check to free agents. This is why the Steelers can sign one player in the first 28 days of free agency and not sweat about it. Pittsburgh's way of business is about patience and faith. The Steelers believe in their front office to select the right college players and they believe in their coaching staff to develop them. It's a proven system that has led to five AFC North titles in 10 seasons and three trips to the Super Bowl during that span.

As players come and go, the Steelers' goals never change. Like Tomlin always preaches: "The standard is the standard."

"If you have a desire to be in this league for a length of time, you are going to roll with the punches and the ebb and flow, the evolution of the game," Tomlin said at the NFL owners meetings. "Thankfully, I've been in the game long enough to see a little bit of that. Those who are able to sustain success are pliable and flexible."

And the organizations that are able to sustain success are often quiet in free agency and make their most noise in the draft.

AFC North free-agency assessment

March, 29, 2012
3/29/12
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AFC Assessments: East | West | North | South NFC: East | West | North | South

Cincinnati Bengals

Key additions: RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis, S Reggie Nelson, G Travelle Wharton, CB Jason Allen, CB Adam Jones, DE Jamaal Anderson, DE Derrick Harvey

Key losses: DE Frostee Rucker (Browns), G Nate Livings (Cowboys), G Mike McGlynn (Colts), DE Jonathan Fanene (Patriots), WR Andre Caldwell (Broncos)

Grade after first wave of free agency: B. The Bengals were the most active team in the division and they should have been. Cincinnati entered free agency with over $50 million in salary-cap space, which was more than the rest of the AFC North combined. The Bengals upgraded at running back and left guard while bringing back their top free-agent priority in safety Reggie Nelson. The biggest knock against the Bengals is they didn't make a splash by signing a high-profile free agent like guard Ben Grubbs or wide receiver Robert Meachem.

The prize of the Bengals' signings is running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who is an improvement over Cedric Benson. Green-Ellis isn't known for breaking long gains, but he is a force in the red zone and has never fumbled in the NFL. Wharton is a step up from Nate Livings at left guard because he is a strong run-blocker who will open holes inside. The biggest losses came on the defensive line, where Cincinnati will miss Frostee Rucker on run defense and Jonathan Fanene in the pass rush.

What’s next: The Bengals can still close the gap between the Ravens and Steelers because they have two first-round picks in the draft (No. 17 overall, which came from Oakland in the Carson Palmer trade, and No. 21). Even with the signing of Wharton, Cincinnati needs a right guard and could have a shot at the top interior offensive lineman coming out of college. Stanford's David DeCastro is one of the safest picks in the draft and would start immediately for the Bengals.

The second first-round pick could be used on a wide receiver or a cornerback. The Bengals surprisingly didn't add a free-agent wide receiver to pair with A.J. Green. Georgia Tech's Stephen Hill or Baylor's Kendall Wright should be available in the bottom third of the draft. Another need is cornerback because Cincinnati could use an eventual replacement for Nate Clements, who is entering his 12th season. Alabama's Dre Kirkpatrick, the second-best corner in the draft, has a chance of sliding to the Bengals.

Cleveland Browns

Key additions: DE Frostee Rucker, LB D'Qwell Jackson, CB Dimitri Patterson, DE Juqua Parker

Key losses: RB Peyton Hillis (Chiefs), S Mike Adams (Broncos), G Eric Steinbach, OT Tony Pashos

Grade after first wave of free agency: C. Browns president Mike Holmgren and general manager Tom Heckert said they were building this team through the draft and they weren't joking. The Browns desperately needed to improve at quarterback, wide receiver and right guard. But Cleveland's offense came out of the initial wave of free agency empty-handed. Blame the Washington Redskins. The Browns attempted to move up in the draft to take Robert Griffin III, and the Rams instead traded the second overall pick to the Redskins. Cleveland reportedly pursued wide receivers Pierre Garcon and Josh Morgan, and both took high-priced deals from Washington.

The Browns provided more help to the defense in free agency. Frostee Rucker will make an impact in stopping the run, which was the biggest weakness on the NFL's 10th-ranked defense. Juqua Parker, who has 31.5 sacks over the past six seasons, will team with Jabaal Sheard to give Cleveland a strong rush coming off both edges. The Browns didn't try to keep Peyton Hillis and Mike Adams from going elsewhere.

What’s next: Offense, offense and offense. Did I mention offense? The Browns need a quarterback but there's no one worthy of the fourth overall pick. Cleveland could trade down to select Texas A&M's Ryan Tannehill or wait until the second round for Oklahoma State's Brandon Weeden. The big decision comes if the Browns stay put at No. 4. Cleveland's choices are Alabama running back Trent Richardson or Oklahoma State wide receiver Justin Blackmon. The Browns could use either one because they don't have a starting running back or a No. 1 wide receiver.

Cleveland has a second first-round pick as a result of last year's trade with the Atlanta Falcons. The Browns need to target a wide receiver (if they don't take one earlier in the first round), right tackle or outside linebacker with the 22nd overall pick. Baylor receiver Wright, Mississippi offensive tackle Bobby Massie and Nebraska outside linebacker Lavonte David have been linked to Cleveland.

Baltimore Ravens

Key additions: C Matt Birk, ILB Jameel McClain, OLB Brendon Ayanbadejo, CB Corey Graham, S Sean Considine

Key losses: G Ben Grubbs (Saints), OLB Jarret Johnson (Chargers), DE Cory Redding (Colts) and CB Domonique Foxworth

Grade after first wave of free agency: D. The Ravens lost three starters (Ben Grubbs, Jarret Johnson and Cory Redding) from last season's AFC North champion team and have yet to add anyone to replace them. It was a a rough start to free agency for Baltimore, which didn't sign any of its first three visits (guard Evan Mathis, defensive end Mark Anderson and receiver-returner Ted Ginn Jr.). The toughest part of free agency was when the Ravens failed to sign Mathis, who re-signed with the Eagles, after Baltimore had just lost Grubbs.

Baltimore was able to keep two free-agent starters, Matt Birk and Jameel McClain, and boost a struggling special-teams group that allowed three touchdowns last season. The Ravens signed Cory Graham, a Pro Bowl special-teams player from the Bears; Brendon Ayanbadejo, a three-time Pro Bowl special teams standout; and Sean Considine, who played special teams for three seasons under John Harbaugh in Philadelphia.

What’s next: The Ravens' biggest need is at left guard, but there might not be one that warrants being taken at No. 29. Wisconsin center-guard Peter Konz's stock has slipped recently even though he can guard right away before switching to center in future seasons. It's hard to pin down a player for Baltimore, which can go in a lot of different directions in the first round.

The Ravens could take the best wide receiver available (especially if he's a returner) because they need a third target who can eventually take Anquan Boldin's starting spot. They could take a safety because Ed Reed turns 34 at the start of the season and Bernard Pollard is a free agent next year. And they could take an offensive tackle because they don't have a reliable backup and Bryant McKinnie is a free agent in 2013.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Key additions: None

Key losses: CB William Gay (Cardinals), LB James Farrior, NT Chris Hoke, G Chris Kemoeatu, DE Aaron Smith, WR Hines Ward

Grade after first wave of free agency: D. It's been a quiet free-agency period so far for the Steelers. Then again, it's usually quiet for the Steelers at this point in the offseason. The only team that consistently does less than the Steelers in free agency is the Green Bay Packers.

The Steelers avoided a failing grade because they've only lost two starters from last season's playoff team. James Farrior was cut in the team's salary-cap purge, and William Gay left as an unrestricted free agent. What Pittsburgh really lost in trimming $25 million to get under the cap was veteran depth and leadership. Injuries would force young players to step up into starting roles.

What’s next: There are question marks at running back, guard, inside linebacker, nose tackle and cornerback. Despite all of those needs, the consensus has been Pittsburgh will draft Alabama inside linebacker Dont'a Hightower if he's available at No. 24. He has a great combination of size and speed and excelled in a 3-4 defense in college. It seems like Hightower would be the perfect fit for Pittsburgh.

There's no chance that Memphis' Dontari Poe falls to the Steelers, but there some quality nose tackles in the draft. Those who should be available after the first round are: BYU's Loni Fangupo (second round), Washington's Alameda Ta'amu (third round) and Alabama's Josh Chapman (fourth round). The Steelers likely will become active later in free agency, especially in retaining their own players. Wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery, running back Mewelde Moore and quarterbacks Byron Leftwich and Charlie Batch could potentially return to the team.
When a player gets released by a team -- especially one who has been with the organization for a long time -- it's painful and can often lead to bitter feelings. That's why gestures, like the one by former Steelers defensive end Aaron Smith, really stand out.

Smith, 35, who had been with the Steelers for 13 years, bought a full-page ad in today's Pittsburgh Post-Gazette to say goodbye to the organization and its fans. The last Steelers player to do this was Alan Faneca in 2008, according to the Post-Gazette.

Smith
A 1999 fourth-round draft pick by the Steelers out of Northern Colorado, Smith was possibly the most unheralded figure on the Steelers' defenses. From 2000 to 2008, when Smith had double-digit starts, Pittsburgh ranked in the top 10 in defense all nine years including four as the top-ranked unit. During his career, Smith had at least four sacks in six seasons and is 10th on the team's all-time list with 44.

But injuries lessened his impact in recent years. Smith's 2011 season ended in October when he was placed on injured reserve with a neck injury. It was the third straight season that injuries have limited Smith. He played in only 11 games spanning the 2009 and 2010 seasons because of shoulder and triceps injuries and appeared in just four in 2011.

Here is what Smith wrote in the ad today:
Dear Steelers Fans,

As of today, I am no longer a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers. I leave the field and Steelers with no regrets, and am grateful to have played for such a tremendous organization. I feel truly blessed to have spent my entire professional career in the best town, playing for the most loyal fans who have loved and supported myself and my family.

The last 13 years of our lives have been special because of the people who cheered me on, and I am truly fortunate to have been a part of the Steelers, the City of Pittsburgh and the Steelers Nation. You have opened your arms and your hearts to us as a family and we will never forget that. Your support, enthusiasm, love and dedication are gifts I will carry with me my entire life.

I may no longer be on the Steelers active roster, but I will always be a Steeler and will never forget the people who made it all worthwhile -- the fans, the Rooneys, the front office, the equipment guys and trainers, my teammates and family. Thank you for supporting me over the last 13 years, and I hope you will support me in whatever future path life will take me on.

We plan on making Pittsburgh our home and I will endeavor for the rest of my days to find a way to thank each and every one of you personally for all that you have done and meant for me and my family. You cheered for me for 13 years and now I cheer for you for the rest of my life. You will always be in my heart, thoughts and prayers. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for allowing me to have the job of a lifetime. You will always be in my heart.

Your friend always,

Aaron Smith and Family, No. 91

AFC North roster moves

March, 1, 2012
3/01/12
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There were two roster moves made in the division, and neither come as a surprise. The Steelers released defensive end Aaron Smith (according to ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter), and the Ravens cut cornerback Chris Carr (according to the NFL Network).

Both were based as much on performance as salary-cap ramifications. Smith, who is scheduled to make $2.1 million this year, has seen four of his past five seasons cut short by injury. Carr, whose 2012 salary was $3 million, was injured soon after signing four-year, $14 million deal (included $3.8 million signing bonus) this summer and never regained his starting spot.

What's next for the Steelers and Ravens?

The next to go in Pittsburgh is likely inside linebacker James Farrior, one of the top leaders on the Steelers defense. His agent indicated that the "percentages" aren't with the Steelers keeping Farrior. "He wanted to retire a PS [Pittsburgh Steeler] but he is healthy and ready [and] wants to play," agent Ralph Cindrich posted on Twitter. Farrior, 37, is scheduled to make $2.8 million in 2012, the final year of his deal.

The next to go in Baltimore is expected to be cornerback Domonique Foxworth, who has only played two games the past two seasons. The knee injury that put him on injured reserve the past two years could force him to retire at the age of 28. Foxworth declined to talk about the knee last month. Asked if it could stop him from ever playing again, he said, "That's a tough question." Foxworth, who is scheduled to make $5.6 million in 2012, could seek an injury settlement.

John Clayton's 2011 All-Pro team

January, 4, 2012
1/04/12
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The season is 16 games, which means sometimes things change from the midseason evaluation of the best players at each position.

Although Steve Smith finished with one of his best seasons, it’s hard not to put Wes Welker and his incredible numbers ahead of him. Center Nick Mangold finished strong and wrestled the top spot from Chris Myers of the Texans and Maurkice Pouncey of the Steelers. Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh stomped his way off the All-Pro list with dumb penalties and problems stopping running plays.

Here are my All-Pro selections:

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