NFL Nation: Cam Thomas

PITTSBURGH -- Starting nose tackle Steve McLendon has been officially ruled out for the Pittsburgh Steelers' game against the Tennessee Titans on Monday night.

McClendon
McClendon
McLendon did not practice all week after aggravating a shoulder injury that caused the fourth-year veteran to miss two games this season.

Rookie Daniel McCullers is expected to make his first career start in place of McLendon, and it will be something off a homecoming for the 6-foot-7, 352-pounder McCullers.

He played his college ball at the University of Tennessee before the Steelers took McCullers with the second of two sixth-round draft picks in May.

It will be interesting to see how many snaps McCullers plays against the 2-7 Titans.

Defensive end Cam Thomas will probably also play nose tackle at Tennessee. The Steelers could also use their nickel package in which the nose tackle comes off the field more.

In addition to McLendon, safety Shamarko Thomas will miss a third consecutive game because of a hamstring injury.

The Steelers are expected to get safety Ross Ventrone back after he missed the 20-13 loss to the New York Jets on Sunday because of a hamstring injury. Ventrone, who had filled in for Thomas on special teams, practiced all week.

He is listed as probable on the Steelers’ final injury report of the week, as is cornerback Cortez Allen (thumb). Allen was limited in drills on Friday, but practiced fully on Saturday.

The Steelers will be without strong safety Troy Polamalu (knee), linebacker Ryan Shazier (ankle) and cornerback Ike Taylor (forearm) against the Titans.

All were ruled out earlier this week.
PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Steelers have gotten younger on defense, but they are still relying on a trio of players who were cornerstones of the teams that played in three Super Bowls from 2005-10.

Harrison
Harrison
 
Keisel
Keisel
 
Polamalu
  Outside linebacker James Harrison is already playing significant snaps even though the 36-year-old is still working his way into football shape. Defensive end Brett Keisel, who is also 36, leads the Steelers with 10 quarterback pressures and is playing over Cam Thomas in the nickel package.

And then there is Troy Polamalu, the pup, if you will, of the trio.

The veteran strong safety is third on the Steelers with 31 tackles, and the eight-time Pro Bowler has gotten better with each game. Polamalu, at the age of 33, is not the disruptive force he had been while winning the NFL Defensive Player of the Year award in 2010.

But Steelers defensive backs coach Carnell Lake sees Polamalu producing the big plays that have been his hallmark -- and doing it in bunches at some point this season.

“One thing I found out about Troy is just when you think, ‘Oh, he’s not really going to [do] that much this year,’ boom, he starts making plays just like he did last year,” Lake said. “He’s building. It’s like our team in general. The gears are turning.”

Harrison is the most unlikely of those gears.

Keisel and Polamalu helped talk Harrison out of retirement after starting outside linebacker Jarvis Jones went down in a 37-19 win over the Carolina Panthers last month with a dislocated wrist.

Harrison played almost 30 snaps in his first game back with the Steelers and 20 in the 17-9 win at Jacksonville last Sunday. Harrison dropped Jaguars running back Denard Robinson for a 2-yard loss the play before cornerback Brice McCain returned an interception for a touchdown.

“I’m not where I want to be right now but week in, week out it gets a little better,” Harrison said Thursday before practice. “We’ll see how far and how fast I progress.”

When asked if he is progressing slower than he had anticipated, Harrison said with his typical bluntness, “If you were trying to lose weight, you’re not going to lose all the weight you want to in two weeks are you? It takes time.”

Despite the process of working his way back into shape and playing a supporting role on defense, Harrison said he doesn’t regret coming out of retirement, even though he had been content to walk away from the game.

"Everything happens for a reason,” Harrison said. “I’m here because that’s what was meant to be. It’s the right decision.”
PITTSBURGH -- Stephon Tuitt didn’t try to hide a wide smile on Wednesday afternoon and for good reason.

Tuitt
“I literally felt like 90 percent of the plays I was in, I did right,” the rookie defensive end said. “That alone shows progress.”

Tuitt has played sparingly on defense through the first quarter of the season and when asked if a light went on for him during the Steelers’ first practice of the week, he said, “Kind of. I know I can play. What’s holding me back is not knowing the plays. When I start knowing the plays I’ll help my team. Just like anybody in a new system, it’s going to hit sooner or later.”

The sooner the better for Tuitt.

The Steelers, too.

Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said before the start of the season that he expected the immensely talented Tuitt to get significant playing time.

That hasn’t materialized as Brett Keisel, who re-signed with the Steelers six weeks ago, has played in a rotation with starting defensive ends Cameron Heyward and Cam Thomas over Tuitt.

Tuitt played just three snaps in the Steelers’ 27-24 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the second-round draft pick has just one tackle after four games.

But if Tuitt’s demeanor after practice on Wednesday is an indication, the 6-foot-5, 303-pounder is anything but frustrated as he adjusts to the NFL and veteran defensive line coach John Mitchell.

“He’s a tough coach but he really wants all of his players to get better. As long as you give him effort and show that you’re trying to get better every day you’ll always be on the same side,” Tuitt said. “I go hard every day, so it’s exciting.”

What really has Tuitt excited is his belief that he is getting closer to just playing and not thinking as much when he is on the field.

His development will only help a defensive line that has stabilized after getting gashed by the run in the Steelers’ first two games.

The Steelers have allowed just 105 rushing yards and 3.5 yards per carry in their past two games largely because of the improved play of the defensive line.

“Don’t let our record fool you,” Tuitt said. “We are a great team and we’re going to show it when the time comes.”
An examination of what the Pittsburgh Steelers must do after their 30-27 win over the Cleveland Browns:

Tomlint
Tomlin
The Steelers will work on all aspects of communication this week after repeated defensive breakdowns against the Browns.

They don’t have a lot of time to fix what coach Mike Tomlin acknowledged were communication problems from the sideline to the players and from the players to one another as the Browns went up and down the field after halftime.

Pittsburgh has just three days to prepare for a Thursday night game at Baltimore, and the Ravens will surely look closely at the success the Browns had in the second half against the Steelers.

The Browns piled up 288 yards in the second half and erased a 24-point halftime deficit while running and throwing the ball with equal success.

They kept the Steelers defense on its heels by running a no-huddle attack almost exclusively after halftime. The surprise with the confusion that the no-huddle offense caused is that the Steelers defense practiced extensively against it in training camp and the preseason.

“We’ve had some good days,” Tomlin said of the Steelers practicing against the no-huddle. “Obviously, [Sunday] was not one. We’re not going to let [Sunday] define us by any stretch.”

The Steelers defense should get a chance to redeem itself against the no-huddle offense Thursday.

The Ravens used it in the second half of their 23-16 loss to the Bengals on Sunday to change the tempo of the game. They went no-huddle on eight of the 10 plays that covered 82 yards in the third quarter and resulted in the Ravens’ first touchdown.

The communication issues that hampered the Steelers in the second half against the Browns are disconcerting since defenses tend to stay more basic when the opposing offense is in no-huddle mode.

Three new players -- rookie inside linebacker Ryan Shazier, defensive end Cam Thomas and free safety Mike Mitchell -- started on defense in the season opener. But Tomlin would not use that as a crutch for why confusion reigned in the second half against the Browns.

“The big thing is we’ve got to communicate it [since] communication is integral to execution,” Tomlin said. “We were [lined up] where we were supposed to be, but based on some of the results of those snaps, I can’t say that we were ready.”
PITTSBURGH -- Well, that didn't take long.

The ink had barely dried on the two-year contract that Brett Keisel signed with the Pittsburgh Steelers on Wednesday when he vaulted to the top of the depth chart at right defensive end.

Keisel
Keisel
The signing of Keisel led to several changes on a depth chart that coach Mike Tomlin said he pays scant attention to during the preseason.

Keisel is back at the position where he has started since 2006 with Stephon Tuitt, Nick Williams and Ethan Hemer listed behind him. Cameron Heyward is the starter at left defensive end with Cam Thomas, Brian Arnfelt and Josh Mauro listed behind him.

Prior to the re-signing of Keisel, Heyward had been the starter at right defensive end with Thomas the starter at left defensive end and Tuitt behind Thomas.

Keisel made the trip with the Steelers Wednesday afternoon to Philadelphia, but he is not expected to suit up for the Steelers' 7:30 p.m. ET game against the Eagles Thursday night.

What is clear is the Steelers did not bring back "Da Beard" to play a limited number of snaps and mentor their young defensive linemen.

Heyward has been practicing at right defensive end but he should be fine moving back to the position where he emerged as a starter last season. The fourth-year veteran has said there is not much difference in playing right and left defensive end.

Thomas appears to lose the most with Keisel back.

He is now relegated to the Al Woods role of swing defensive end/nose tackle. Thomas, however, also provides injury insurance at nose tackle and could push Steve McLendon there if the latter struggles this season.

PITTSBURGH -- Fans all but begged the Steelers to bring back Brett Keisel during the months when it looked like the popular and hirsute defensive end would not be able to end an unlikely NFL career on his own terms.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Always.

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

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

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

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

Both sides will be better for it -- and Keisel gets to author the ending he wanted all along for his improbable story.
LATROBE, Pa. – Dick LeBeau has a high opinion of Cleveland Browns rookie quarterback Johnny Manziel. The longtime Pittsburgh Steelers defensive coordinator is similarly impressed by a couple of rookies he sees on a regular basis.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“These young guys I don’t want to overload the expectations but at this stage they’re doing a good job,” LeBeau said. “I’m glad we’re going to start playing some games. It makes the evaluation process a little easier and perhaps identify some of the areas we need to focus on.”
LATROBE, Pa. -- The Pittsburgh Steelers have not ruled out bringing back defensive end Brett Keisel or outside linebacker James Harrison.

General manager Kevin Colbert declined to talk about specific players Monday morning when asked if Keisel is on the Steelers’ radar. But Colbert said, “We haven’t eliminated anybody from consideration because we don’t know what’s going to happen before the season. Even into the season there’s been times when we’ve brought back veteran players due to injury. If we have eliminated a player we always tell [him] don’t keep us in your thought process, if you have an opportunity don’t wait for us, something along those lines.”

Keisel
Keisel
Harrison
Harrison
Keisel and Harrison, who played for the Bengals in 2013 after nine seasons with the Steelers, would like to return to the team. And I have Keisel on my latest projected 53-man roster.

It makes all the sense in the world for the Steelers to bring Keisel back.

He could play in a rotation at left defensive end – I’m not sold on Cam Thomas there – and serve as a perfect bridge between second-round pick Stephon Tuitt’s rookie and second seasons. There are a lot of people with football expertise who think Keisel can still play, even though he turns 36 in September, and he would be a great mentor for the younger defensive ends like Tuitt and Brian Arnfelt.

The Steelers don’t have to be in a hurry to bring back Keisel, who is keeping himself in shape and doesn't need training camp at this point of his career. That will give them time to take an extended look at what they have at defensive end and help them decide whether to bring back Keisel.

I like Keisel’s chances of returning to the Steelers a lot better than I do Harrison coming back for a second stint in Pittsburgh.

The five-time Pro Bowler would have to be content with a really limited role with the Steelers set with their top three at outside linebacker in Jason Worilds, Jarvis Jones and Arthur Moats.

For fans who have asked about Harrison returning so he can help the younger players at outside linebacker, the Steelers added that mentor last February when they hired Joey Porter as a defensive assistant.

One injury, of course, could change everything in regard to the Steelers and Harrison. But if the Steelers stay relatively healthy at outside linebacker, I don’t see him returning to Pittsburgh.

Steelers Camp Report: Day 1

July, 26, 2014
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LATROBE, Pa. -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of Pittsburgh Steelers training camp.
  • Martavis Bryant broke inside as a pass sailed over his head during the Steelers’ first practice of training camp. “Don’t come in that way!” quarterback Ben Roethlisberger yelled Saturday afternoon to the rookie wide receiver. Roethlisberger proceeded to gesture to Bryant how he should have retraced his steps and run back toward the quarterback instead of cutting toward the middle of the field. No other sequence better epitomized how hands-on Roethlisberger was with a young receiving corps that has to replace two of its top three wideouts from last season. Expect the on-field instruction and dialogue with his receivers to continue during camp and throughout the preseason. “He has full control over the whole team, really, and he doesn’t take that lightly,” veteran tight end Heath Miller said of Roethlisberger. “He takes a lot of pride in that. He’s the unquestionable leader of this team.”
  • The wide receivers looked really good as a group during the first practice. The caveat, of course, is that the Steelers won’t hit or wear pads until Monday. But the wide receivers drew oohs and aahs from fans who watched from the hillsides or the bleachers at Chuck Noll Field. Darrius Heyward-Bey made an over-the-shoulder grab of a Roethlisberger deep ball during a seven-on-seven drill. Justin Brown made a leaping catch of a pass that Roethlisberger delivered with some serious heat. Markus Wheaton made a handful of nice catches. Wheaton and Antonio Brown were the starters at wide receiver when the Steelers went 11-on-11 and Lance Moore was the No. 3 wide receiver.
  • Roethlisberger wore No. 99 for the first part of practice in honor of his former teammate and good friend Brett Keisel. Keisel, who played for Pittsburgh from 2002-13, remains unsigned and is hoping to return to the Steelers. “That’s my boy,” Roethlisberger said. “We were suitemates, he’s been one of my closest friends, been in my wedding. I miss him.” The Steelers could bring Keisel back if it is determined that the defense misses player who started the previous eight seasons at right defensive end. Cameron Heyward played mostly at right defensive end during the Steelers’ first practice. Cam Thomas, Brian Arnfelt and Stephon Tuitt all received repetitions with the first-team defense at left defensive end.
  • Coach Mike Tomlin started to address the one injury that occurred during the Steelers’ first practice when he realized he had referred to center/guard David Snow by the wrong name. “I call him Jon Snow because I’m a ‘Game of Thrones’ guy,” Tomlin said of the popular TV series. David Snow suffered an ankle or foot injury on Saturday, though Tomlin said he did not know the extent or severity of the injury. Other than Snow’s injury, Tomlin said, “We got through [practice] pretty clean and I liked the effort.”
Here is the latest Steelers mailbag. If you have a Steelers' question please send to @ScottBrown_ESPN with #steelersmail. And away we go ... @ScottBrown_ESPN: I think Le'Veon Bell could get 300-plus carries this season but not much more than that even if he plays every game. The Steelers say they are committed to running the ball this season, and I don't think that's just lip service from offensive coordinator Todd Haley and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. However, I doubt that the Steelers lean as heavily on Bell as they did last season because of the additions of LeGarrette Blount and Dri Archer. Bell will start at running back but the other two will get touches as well. I like that approach because I think it will extend the number of productive seasons Bell has in the NFL. That's probably not good news for fantasy football owners who covet Bell, but he will still be a prominent part of the offense and the Steelers will put his receiving skills to good use too. @ScottBrown_ESPN: I think he will because I expect Mike Adams, who may be the Steelers' most physically gifted offensive tackle, to benefit as much as anyone from offensive line coach Mike Munchak's tutelage. Kelvin Beachum and Marcus Gilbert got most of the first-team snaps at left tackle and right tackle, respectively, but the real competition along both the offensive and defensive line won't start until training camp. Adams has said he wants the opportunity to start whether it is at right or left tackle and I'd like to see the Steelers give him a shot at unseating Gilbert. I thought Adams played well at right tackle when he made six starts there as a rookie and he could be the future there if the Steelers don't sign Gilbert to a long-term contract before the start of the regular season. @ScottBrown_ESPN: Still pretty quiet on that front but I think the Steelers will re-sign Brett Keisel though it might not be until right before the start of training camp. He would be a terrific mentor for second-round pick Stephon Tuitt and Keisel's presence would allow the Steelers to bring Tuitt along slowly. I agree too that Keisel still has something left, and he could play in a rotation with Cam Thomas and Tuitt with the limited snaps keeping him fresh throughout the season. I know the Steelers are committed to getting younger on defense but Keisel would contribute both on and off the field. I think if defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau has his way Keisel will be back for one more season. @ScottBrown_ESPN: I think Cortez Allen gets a new contract and that the Steelers let Marcus Gilbert play out the final year of his rookie deal. Allen is the only long-term starting cornerback on the roster right now and the Steelers can't afford to lose him. I think the two sides can reach a deal that is good for both and ensures that Allen is a Steeler well beyond the 2014 season. As for Gilbert, I just haven't seen enough from the former second-round pick to warrant the Steelers locking him up with a long-term deal. Much like outside linebacker Jason Worilds, I think the Steelers want to see more from Gilbert and will take their chances on getting a deal done after the season if he fits into the team's long-term plans. If Gilbert walks after the 2014 season the Steelers have Mike Adams to plug in at right tackle. @ScottBrown_ESPN: I believe that is the case since players are allowed in the building during the span that bridges the end of a season and the start of the team's offseason program. It would make sense too for the coaches to be available to rookies or first-year players who may have questions about the playbook. That availability, however, is limited in the sense that coaches take lengthy vacations not long after the conclusion of offseason practices since it is really the only extended break from football they will get all year. The building is mostly empty too since a lot of players travel somewhere to continue working out, often ratcheting up their training regimen to get ready for camp.

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 -- Heath Miller is many things.

Keisel
Keisel
Revealing during an interview is not one of them.

But the Steelers tight end may have provided a hint on Brett Keisel’s future Thursday after Miller talked about what it’s like to be one of the longest-tenured players on the team.

Miller was reflecting on when he was one of the younger players on the Steelers and looked up to veterans such as linebacker James Farrior and defensive end Aaron Smith, who each played long after their 30th birthday.

Then he said, “Keisel’s not here right now and he was well into his 30s last year.”

"Not here right now" implies that Keisel will be back with the Steelers at some point.

I could be reading too much into Miller’s comment, but it dovetails with the sense it makes for the Steelers to bring back Keisel for another season.

First and foremost, there is no clear-cut starter at defensive end opposite Cameron Heyward.

Cam Thomas has been working with the first team during OTAs, but the Steelers signed the former San Diego Charger to serve as a swing man who plays both defensive end and nose tackle.

Rookie Stephon Tuitt should figure into the mix at right defensive end but it may not be realistic to expect the second-round draft pick to develop quickly enough to start next season.

And who better to mentor Tuitt than Keisel, who also could play in some sort of rotation at right defensive end.

The timing for re-signing Keisel is right as the Steelers will receive more than $8 million in salary-cap room on Tuesday from releasing outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley in March.

Stay tuned on this front.

Also from the Steelers’ third OTA session:
  • Strong safety Troy Polamalu, cornerback Ike Taylor, outside linebacker Jason Worilds and running back Dri Archer were among those not in attendance on Thursday. Center Maurkice Pouncey did not practice but that probably resulted from the Steelers not wanting the Pro Bowler to push himself too much in his return from a torn ACL.
  • Antonio Brown said he is willing to return punts this season but it sounds like a duty the Pro Bowl wide receiver wouldn’t mind passing off to one of his teammates. The Steelers have had a handful of players fielding punts during OTAs, including Lance Moore and Martavis Bryant. When asked if that means he will be replaced in that role, Brown smiled. “They say that every year and I’m back there, so we’ll see,” the fourth-year veteran said. “I’ll let Coach [Mike Tomlin] decide.”
  • Miller, who is going into his 10th NFL season, said he has not put a timetable on how much longer he wants to continue playing. The Steelers signed Miller to a three-year contract in March. “I just want to play as long as my body will allow me to,” he said, “so we’ll see where that takes me.”

Steelers offseason wrap-up

May, 23, 2014
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» NFC Wrap: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South » Grades


With free agency and the NFL draft in the rearview mirror and training camp just a couple of months away, we assess the Pittsburgh Steelers’ offseason moves.

[+] EnlargeMike Mitchell
Bob Donnan/USA TODAY SportsSigning Mike Mitchell gives the Steelers another speedy playmaker in the secondary.
Best move: The Steelers wasted little time in getting younger and faster in the secondary as they landed former Panthers safety Mike Mitchell on the first day of free agency. Mitchell, who turns only 27 next month, blossomed last season in Carolina as he intercepted four passes and recorded 3.5 sacks. He gives the Steelers a playmaker to pair with Troy Polamalu on the back of their defense. And Mitchell was cost-effective for a team that had limited room under the salary cap. Only $5.25 million of the five-year $25 million deal that Mitchell signed is guaranteed, and the contract is backloaded to make it cap friendly.

Riskiest move: The Steelers shopped more than usual in free agency, but they added only one player to their defensive line while losing defensive ends Ziggy Hood and Al Woods. Cam Thomas, who signed a two-year, $4 million contract, would ideally fill Woods’ role as a swing man between nose tackle and defensive end. But right now he is the Steelers’ best option at defensive end opposite Cameron Heyward. The Steelers need second-round pick Stephon Tuitt to develop quickly and at least play in a rotation at defensive end. They would also be wise to keep Brett Keisel’s number handy.

Most surprising move: The Steelers didn’t draft a cornerback until the fifth round, and that is a position where they have only one long-term starter in Cortez Allen. The prevailing thought prior to the draft was that the Steelers would take a cornerback early and select two of them. Shaquille Richardson, their fifth-round pick, and free-agent signee Brice McCain are the only addition they have made at cornerback. That means the Steelers better be right that the answers at cornerback are already in their building,

What’s next: The Steelers appear to be done adding -- for now -- and most of the $8 million they'll receive in salary cap savings after June from the release of outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley will be used to sign draft picks. They have a handful of players going into the final year of their contracts that they should try to sign to long-term deals. The list includes center Maurkice Pouncey, outside linebacker Jason Worilds and Allen. The Steelers could also try to sign quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to a new contract, though nothing is imminent on that front. The Steelers may wait until after the 2014 to sign Roethlisberger to a new deal since he still has two years left on his contract.
PITTSBURGH -- Cameron Heyward may have provided a glimpse earlier this week into a subtle yet significant shift that appears to be taking place in the Steelers’ defensive philosophy.

McLendon
When asked if nose tackle in a 3-4 scheme has become devalued with teams playing more nickel or dime than their base defense, Heyward said, “The nose tackle position is vital. I think it’s the most critical position on our defense in the run.”

OK, no news flash there.

Then Heyward added this: “I think our nose tackles have to be ready to play in sub package this year.”

If that is the case then Steve McLendon is primed for a bigger role in 2014, not a reduced one.

And he could become a three-down player, staying in the game with Heyward when the Steelers replace a lineman with an extra defensive back.

The nose tackle has traditionally come off the field when the Steelers employ a fifth defensive back in their nickel defense. But it makes sense if the Steelers are planning to keep McLendon in the game on some passing downs for several reasons.

McLendon has shown flashes as far as putting pressure on the quarterback and the Steelers want to generate more of an inside pass rush in 2014. McLendon and Heyward, who tied for second on the Steelers with five sacks last season, could make a good pairing as the inside pass-rushers in the nickel defense.

Also, the Steelers don’t have a lot of options after McLendon.

There is no clear-cut starter at defensive end opposite Heyward and the plan – at least for now – may look something like this:
  • Play Cam Thomas at end when the Steelers are in their base defense and have him and McLendon rotate at tackle when the Steelers go to the nickel.
  • Find depth among second-year players Brian Arnfelt and Nick Williams as well as the defensive ends that the Steelers draft next week and sign as undrafted free agents.

That, of course, is speculation at this point, and the Steelers’ plan could change depending on the players they add through the draft -- or in free agency by bringing back veteran defensive end Brett Keisel for one more season.

But one thing that seems clear is that the Steelers’ nose tackles won’t just be asked to stop the run in 2014.

“Steve can rush, Cam can rush,” Heyward said, “and we’re looking for them to add more to this defense.”
PITTSBURGH -- Mock drafts have, predictably, been all over the place as far as the Pittsburgh Steelers' first-round pick. Most, however, have them taking a wide receiver or a cornerback No. 15 overall, assuming they don’t try to trade down.

I think those two positions are most likely the ones the Steelers will target with their first pick, though North Carolina tight end Eric Ebron could also be in play if he slides a little in the draft.

Ebron
Ebron is the No. 1 player at one of the few positions that is not particularly deep, and he would give the Steelers a tall receiver while also filling a long-term need. I think Heath Miller has at least three good seasons left in him, but the Steelers have to plan for the post-Miller years at some point.

If Ebron is still available when they make the first pick, I think they give him serious consideration, especially if a couple of cornerbacks are already off the board, as well as Texas A&M wide receiver Mike Evans.

The Steelers have eight other picks in the draft, three of which are compensatory selections, including one at the end of the third round. They have a lot of needs -- or as general manager Kevin Colbert would frame it "wants" -- particularly on defense.

Here is my projection of the positions they will address with their nine picks, which is contingent on the Steelers not adding extra ones through a trade.

Cornerback (2): The Steelers could use immediate help here, and they don't have a long-term starter at cornerback after third-year man Cortez Allen. I would be surprised if they don't draft two cornerbacks, with one of them coming in the first three rounds. They drafted two cornerbacks in 2011, including Allen in the fourth round.

Defensive line (2): The Steelers will draft a defensive lineman as early as the second round -- ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr. has them taking Notre Dame nose tackle Louis Nix III with their second pick in his latest mock draft -- and they need to take at least one end. The signing of Cam Thomas gives them a player with position flexibility, but the Steelers' need at defensive end is every bit as glaring as it is at cornerback.

Wide receiver (1): No position is deeper in the draft, and even if the Steelers don't address it in the first round, they can still get a good prospect later. The Steelers probably won't get a chance to draft Evans unless they trade up in the first round and Florida State's Kelvin Benjamin may be too much of a risk to take at No. 15. LSU's Odell Beckham Jr. has been linked to the Steelers in various mock drafts, and they could pull the trigger on him if they have him high on their board.

Linebacker (1): The Steelers have to take a player who projects as an outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme given how thin they are at the position. It will be interesting to see what they will do if Alabama’s C.J. Mosley is still on the board at No. 15. Mosley, who projects as an inside linebacker, may be one of the most NFL-ready players in the draft. “He and (Lawrence) Timmons could be your (NaVorro) Bowman and (Patrick) Willis,” ESPN analyst and former NFL scout Matt Williamson said. If the Steelers take Mosley, they will also draft an outside linebacker later in the draft.

Safety (1): The Steelers have hosted at least three safeties for pre-draft visits, including Louisville’s Calvin Pryor, a projected first-round pick. The signing of Mike Mitchell makes it unlikely the Steelers take a safety in the first round but it wouldn't hurt to add another younger player here. The question is whether it makes sense for them to draft a safety -- or instead sign a couple of undrafted free agents -- if they don’t take one in the second or third round.

Offensive line (1): I don't see this as the need that others do. The Steelers got their upgrade up front when they hired Mike Munchak to coach the offensive line and he has plenty of material with which to work. All five starters return, including Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey, who tore his ACL eight snaps into last season. And the Steelers have depth up front after re-signing Cody Wallace and Guy Whimper. The Steelers will probably take a lineman they can develop later in the draft, but I could also see them not drafting one for the second year in a row if they take two linebackers or a tight end.

Running back (1): The Steelers need depth and they could use a speedster to complement Le'Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount. The de-valuing of running backs allows the Steelers to wait until later in the draft to address the position and still get a good prospect. I don't see them taking a running back before the fifth round.

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