NFL Nation: Keith Butler

PITTSBURGH -- Sean Spence will add another chapter to his inspirational story on Sunday when the Pittsburgh Steelers inside linebacker makes his first NFL start.

Steelers linebackers coach Keith Butler told Spence Wednesday morning that the 5-foot-11, 231-pounder will start in place of Ryan Shazier, who is nursing a sprained knee, against the visiting Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

It had to be particularly gratifying for Butler to deliver that news to Spence.

It was Butler, after all, who said in April of 2013 that it would be a “miracle” if Spence ever played again.

“The tunnel was dark for me for a long time, but I stayed positive and Steelers Nation stayed behind me,” said Spence, who shredded his left knee in a 2012 preseason game and dislocated his knee cap while also sustaining nerve damage. “I finally get to get some good quality reps on defense.”

Spence actually got those last Sunday night when he replaced the injured Shazier in the third quarter of the Steelers' 37-19 win over the Carolina Panthers.

And the 2012 third-round pick played well enough to earn the start this week with Shazier already declared out against the Buccaneers.

Spence recorded three tackles against Carolina, including one when he tripped up Cam Newton after the Panthers quarterback had escaped a collapsing pocket. Newton had a lot of grass in front of him when he started to scramble, but Spence limited him to a 5-yard gain.

Spence, who logged a career-high 35 snaps last Sunday night, said his play in Carolina proved “that I can play in the National Football League. I hadn’t done it in two years, and the preseason doesn’t really count and Sunday night counted. I think I held up pretty well.”

Spence will probably make more than a few calls after his work day is finished.

His parents are at the top of the list of people with whom he wants to share his latest good news. Spence will also call former Steelers linebacker Larry Foote, who is now playing for the Arizona Cardinals, at some point.

“I talk to Larry every week. He’s like a big brother to me,” Spence said. “He mentored me when he was here, not only in football but life.”
PITTSBURGH -- He still uses his GPS to make his way around Pittsburgh, but rookie inside linebacker Ryan Shazier didn’t need nearly as much navigational assistance when he was on the Pittsburgh Steelers practice fields in late May and June.

Shazier started alongside Lawrence Timmons from the outset of offseason practices, and he looked anything but lost despite learning a new defense on the run.

[+] EnlargeRyan Shazier
Joe Sargent/Getty ImagesRookie linebacker Ryan Shazier was a star in minicamp, but will his progress continue when the pads come on?
“He understands concepts very well,” linebackers coach Keith Butler said of the Steelers’ first-round draft pick. “He reminds me a lot of Larry Foote in terms of football intelligence, and he’s a very sharp guy.”

Not that Shazier will be exempt from the requisite rookie growing pains. Or that Butler wouldn’t prefer the Steelers easing the former Ohio State All-American into the NFL.

That is not an option in large part because Shazier’s speed and playmaking ability are both badly needed on a defense that slipped appreciably last season. Shazier, the Steelers’ most significant addition during the offseason, made it look easy at times during offseason practices. He turned in a couple of breathtaking plays, including a leaping interception of a pass that backup quarterback Bruce Gradkowski thought he could throw over Shazier in the middle of the field.

The caveat with how good Shazier has looked: the 6-1, 237-pounder has only practiced with the Steelers in shorts. That changes Monday, when the Steelers don the pads at training camp following two non-contact practices.

If Shazier makes the same kind of progress at camp as he did during offseason drills he will start Sept. 7 in the season opener against the visiting Browns.

Here are the four other significant additions that the Steelers made during the offseason.

Offensive line coach Mike Munchak. The Steelers have too often fielded suspect offensive lines under coach Mike Tomlin, though constant injuries up front haven’t helped. A line that came together in the second half of last season will start a pair of former first-round draft picks and two second-round selections. Nobody is more qualified to bring the group together then Munchak. There are no excuses this season -- unless mass injuries consistently scramble the line.

S Mike Mitchell. As with Shazier, the Steelers added speed and a playmaker when they signed Mitchell to a five-year, $25 million contract in March. They badly needed both elements on the back end of their defense, and Mitchell will be a significant upgrade over Ryan Clark at free safety. He has aspirations of becoming one of the best safeties in the NFL, and the Steelers would love to see Mitchell achieve that goal in Pittsburgh.

RB/WR Dri Archer. The Steelers added a bolt of lightning to their offense when they drafted the ultra-fast Archer in the third round. He will return kickoffs and could allow the Steelers to relieve Pro Bowl wide receiver Antonio Brown of his duties as the primary punt returner. Archer’s speed and versatility gives offensive coordinator Todd Haley the kind of player he can use to exploit mismatches. If Archer is Chris Rainey 2.0 the Steelers will be more than happy with the investment they have made in the former Kent State star.

OLB Arthur Moats. The former Buffalo Bill has starting experience and versatility and gives the Steelers a promising option should there be injuries or ineffective play at outside linebacker. Moats can also play inside, though the Steelers are pretty deep there, and he is expected to establish himself as a core special-teams player. The importance of depth in the NFL can't be overstated, and the Steelers improved themselves in that area with the signing of Moats.
PITTSBURGH -- He sat at a table with Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor a couple weeks ago, and there was nothing remarkable in itself about Joey Porter chatting up his former teammates in a cafeteria.

[+] EnlargeJoey Porter
Sean Brady/NFLPhotoLibrary/Getty ImagesJoey Porter plans to approach his duties as a coach in the same emotional way that he did as a player for the Steelers.
But watching Polamalu and Taylor listen intently to Porter, it seemed like 2005 all over again. That's when the two were young players following the lead of the brash, fully charged linebacker who may have been most responsible for the Pittsburgh Steelers ending a quarter-century Super Bowl drought that season.

A couple of hours later, Porter revealed just how much time has passed since he was the soul and guts of a defense in which players fed off the emotional lather that once possessed "J Peezy" to try to board the Baltimore Ravens teams bus after a game because he had unfinished business with none other than Ray Lewis.

Talking about his fledging coaching career after a minicamp practice, Porter candidly said, "I don't have all of the answers. As a player I would say something slick like I knew it all. As a coach I've got to be humble because I don't."

A humble Joey Porter? That must mean up is down, black is white and Johnny Manziel is a recluse.

But watching Porter lead the linebackers in a drill during offseason practices or give pointers to one of the players he is now mentoring served up proof that the five-alarm fire that drove him as a player has simply been transferred to Porter's latest endeavor.

"I'm a coach like I played," said Porter, who joined Mike Tomlin's staff as a defensive assistant in February. "I'm going to coach with my emotion. The coaching staff that I have the opportunity to work with is amazing because these guys know exactly who I am."

Indeed when linebackers coach Keith Butler told his players about Porter trying to get on the Ravens' bus, something that shaped his "J Peezy" persona in Pittsburgh, he didn't relay the story just to draw laughs.

He was trying to make a point.

"Joey always had that kind of barn boss attitude when he played," Butler said, "and we need some of that."

Yes, they do.

The Steelers managed just 34 sacks last season, their lowest total since 1990, and their defense scares nobody this side of their own fan base.

Tomlin didn't just hire Porter to pump up the volume at Steelers' headquarters and instill swagger in the linebackers' meeting room. The latter will work closely with 2013 first-round pick Jarvis Jones, who plays right outside linebacker, the position that Porter owned during his eight-year career with the Steelers.

Jones played extensively as a rookie but managed just one sack. It is critical for a defense that slipped appreciably in 2013 that Jones makes a big jump in his second season.

Jones has gotten stronger and the 6-foot-2, 245-pounder will play faster this season because he has a much better grasp of the defense.

Meanwhile, Porter can only help Jones develop a repertoire of pass-rushing moves, something that was lacking from his game last season.

"Pass rush is all [about] believing that you can beat the guy and execute your craft," said Porter, whose 60 sacks from 1999-2006 rank fifth on the Steelers' all-time list. "You've got to work on it. You just can't go out there and not do pass rush during the week and go out there and expect to get a sack on Sunday. It's not that easy, so you have to really work. That's what I'm trying to get him to do is just work."

It would be an understatement to say that Porter has a willing protégé in Jones.

[+] EnlargeJarvis Jones
Justin K. Aller/Getty ImagesOne of Joey Porter's primary roles as a mentor is to help Jarvis Jones develop pass-rushing moves.
"I'm in his head every day, always asking questions, always trying to figure out the best way to do it," Jones said. "He's always on my butt about just grinding. Not saying that I don't push myself but he's always after me just to keep me going. There's always a next level and that's what he's brought to our whole unit."

There is a limit to how much Porter can help the Steelers' defense though he has kept himself in the kind of shape that suggests he is not far physically from the days when he tormented quarterbacks.

But Porter, who retired after the 2012 season, is clearly serious about coaching and is not just doing it while he figures out what he wants to do with the rest of his life.

Porter spent last season as an assistant coach at Colorado State, his alma mater, and he said he wants to go as far as coaching will take him.

"I can't see myself putting on a suit and tie and sitting behind a desk for eight hours. That would just drive me crazy," Porter said. "I need the smell of the grass. I need to be out here on a football field. I feel like I'm at my best when I'm out here. Even though I can't play no more I still feel like I have a good opportunity to help kids who want to get there."

He is still a kid himself in that he is only 37 and is just getting started in coaching. Porter is young enough that a handful of his former Steelers teammates are still in the locker room he once dominated with his force of personality.

Polamalu and Taylor jokingly remind him of how things have changed by occasionally calling him "Coach Porter." But Polamalu, who is nearing the end of his playing career, knows how valuable it is having Porter back in the Steelers' building.

"He really embodied the Steelers' way and the Steelers' attitude," the veteran strong safety said.

Now coach Porter just has to do it in a different capacity.

"I see all these young guys now. I used to be that," Porter said. "Fifteen years in this business, working as a player [and] now being a coach. In time I don't care who you are, you will humble yourself at some point in time when you get older, and I can just say I'm older. I'm wiser than I was at 22."
PITTSBURGH -- The Steelers went into the NFL draft with Lawrence Timmons and a lot of question marks at inside linebacker.

Now it might be one of the deepest positions on the team.

If Ryan Shazier is as good as advertised -- and it says here that the former Ohio State star will be another first-round hit for the Steelers -- he and Timmons fill form one of the better inside linebacker tandems in the NFL.

[+] EnlargeRyan Shazier
Elsa/Getty ImagesThe Steelers selected Ohio State linebacker Ryan Shazier with the 15th overall pick in the first round.
Vince Williams, who started 11 games last season as a rookie, provides quality depth. Undrafted free agent Terence Garvin, who played 15 games last season before hurting his knee, also returns, and he shined on special teams in 2013 while also logging some snaps on passing downs.

The Steelers added more depth at inside linebacker on the third day of the draft when they picked UCLA's Jordan Zumwalt in the sixth round.

“Great competition at inside linebacker,” linebackers coach Keith Butler said, “we are going to have some.”

Sean Spence could also be part of the competition when the Steelers open training camp in late July.

Spence, who suffered a career-threatening knee injury in the Steelers' final preseason game in 2012, has made remarkable progress. The former third-round pick has been working with his teammates in the Steelers' offseason program after receiving medical clearance from the team doctors.

“He looks real good to me,” Butler said. “It's getting really close to being miraculous.”

Spence shredded his knee in his final preseason game as a rookie as he tore several ligaments and also suffered nerve damage. It is still too early to tell how much the Miami (Fla.) product will be able to contribute to the Steelers, especially since his game was predicated on speed.

But Spence will be a player to watch during the offseason practices, which start at the end of the month and conclude with a mandatory minicamp in the middle of June.

“We will see how the knee holds up when he starts hitting and things like that,” Butler said. “He is such an exceptional young man and you hope that it works out for him, and I think it will.”

If that happens it will be quite a bonus for the Steelers, who would further bolster themselves at inside linebacker if Spence is able to play again.

“In the coaching sessions that he's been able to take part in he looks great, he looks healthy,” Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert said. “We hope to have him in the mix. We can never have enough good players at any one position.”
PITTSBURGH -- Of the many things to like about the Pittsburgh Steelers picking Ryan Shazier in the first round of the NFL draft, here is another one: to peg him as just an inside linebacker is shortsighted.

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

Yes, they do.

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

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

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

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

And he wasn't joking.

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

That's not going to happen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

File it away: First-round pick Ryan Shazier will be an immediate difference-maker as a rookie -- and will make multiple Pro Bowls if he stays healthy. His speed is such that defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau has said he envisions playing Shazier all over the field. Lake said he will gladly take Shazier as a safety if linebackers coach Keith Butler doesn’t want him. Butler, when told that, smiled and said “I’m not in favor of doing that. Shazier can make mistakes and has make-up speed to get back into position and make plays.” Butler scoffs at the notion that the 6-1, 237-pound Shazier is undersized for an inside linebacker at this level. Butler said former Steelers inside linebacker James Farrior played between 225 and 230 pounds in the latter part of his carer, including 2010 when he made the Pro Bowl. “A lot of times young linebackers get in their head, ‘I have to weigh 250 or I have to weigh 260 [pounds] but can they move? Can they get where they need to be when they need to be there? This guy can do that.”
PITTSBURGH -- Yep, I was that guy.

The first one who prompted ESPN draft analyst Matt Williamson to really tsk-tsk a pick in the ESPN NFL Nation mock draft conducted Tuesday.

[+] EnlargeAnthony Barr
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsAnthony Barr can bolster the Steelers' pass rush, but the former running back needs seasoning at linebacker.
And I have to imagine that what Williamson typed was much more diplomatic than what came out of his mouth when the former NFL scout saw I had picked UCLA outside linebacker Anthony Barr for the Steelers at No. 15.

Let me preface my selection by saying that I tried trading down in the first round, something I think the Steelers will attempt to do Thursday night.

I thought I had a deal with Jets writer Rich Cimini when he inquired whether I would swap spots with him in exchange for two fourth-round picks. That would have been ideal as I would have only had to move from No. 15 to No. 18 while pocketing a pair of extra picks in a deep draft.

Unfortunately, Rich let the draft come to him. When it became clear that he would have his pick of a couple of players he liked at No. 18 he pulled the offer.

At least I could take comfort that my demand for a breakfast buffet in the press box when the Steelers visit the Jets this season hadn't been the deal-breaker.

In the end, I only received one trade offer, and 49ers writer Bill Williamson dangling a host of picks -- though none in the first round -- wasn't enough for me to seriously consider.

First-round picks are gold to the Steelers and no way could I give this one up, no matter how deep this draft is.

LSU wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. and Virginia Tech cornerback Kyle Fuller were still on the board when the Steelers were up at No. 15. And believe me, I strongly considered each player.

But I hadn't anticipated Barr being there as well.

In the end I couldn't pass on a player who could bolster the Steelers' pass rush as well as provide immediate depth at a position where they sorely need it.

Nothing will help the Steelers' defense regain its swagger more than if they add some teeth to their pass rush. Only five teams had less sacks than the 34 the Steelers managed in 2013.

And the outside linebackers on the Steelers' roster have a combined 24 career sacks -- one-half more than what Barr produced in his final two seasons at UCLA, where he didn't exactly play against intramural teams in pads.

Barr didn't record any sacks his first two years in Westwood, and there is a good reason for that: He played running back.

After growing two inches, the 6-5, 255-pounder moved to outside linebacker before his junior season, and he promptly dominated. Barr's 13 1/2 sacks in 2012 were second in the country only to Jarvis Jones, the Steelers' first-round pick last year.

He is still a baby at his position, which makes Barr far from a finished product. Let him learn the position from new defensive assistant Joey Porter, who is fifth on the Steelers' all-time sacks list with 60. Let him improve his strength, something Jones has had to do after his first NFL season.

In the meantime, Barr can provide depth behind Jones and Jason Worilds, and contribute on special teams as well as a situational pass rusher.

There are no guarantees with Worilds as there is a question as to whether the Steelers are committed to him beyond 2014. That uncertainty makes outside linebacker as pressing a need as any that the Steelers have.

They need to groom a possible replacement for Worilds. The Steelers also need to help a defense that has 20 interceptions in the last two seasons combined -- one less than they had in 2010 -- create more turnovers by collapsing pockets.

And they can never have enough outside linebackers, which is as important as any position on their defense.

Some see Barr as a player who is not instinctual and not strong enough against the run. I see a player who has a knack for getting after the quarterback and has a high ceiling.

If he is willing to work there may be no better situation for Barr than the Steelers.

He can learn from Porter, learn from linebackers coach Keith Butler, learn from defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau -- and he doesn't have to be rushed into the starting lineup.

If Barr slips to the Steelers in the first round, and they don't trade down, they should take him.

The draft is exceptionally deep at wide receiver. It is also strong as cornerback.

Address those positions later in the draft and go with a player who has a chance to be a real difference maker on a defense that desperately needs more of them.
PITTSBURGH -- Mike Tomlin has another coaching spot to fill, and this time he has to replace one of his most trusted lieutenants.

Running backs Kirby Wilson is leaving Pittsburgh for the same position with the Minnesota Vikings, a source confirmed to ESPN.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette first reported Wilson's departure, which is not yet official, hours after reporting that Wilson was no longer a candidate to become the Ravens’ offensive coordinator.

Wilson twice interviewed for the opening in Baltimore -- he was one of three finalists for the job -- and his departure leaves just five assistants on the staff who have been with Tomlin since he became the Steelers’ head coach in 2007.

The Steelers permitted Wilson to pursue other jobs even though he had one year left on his contract and was significantly involved in crafting game plans.

The one question that will trail Wilson out of Pittsburgh is what might have been for the well-traveled assistant.

Wilson would have been one of the top candidates to take over at offensive coordinator in 2012 after the Steelers did not renew Bruce Arians’ contract. But Wilson was badly burned in house fire about a month earlier, and he couldn’t start working again -- even on a limited basis -- for more three months after the blaze that nearly cost him his life.

The Steelers hired Todd Haley to replace Arians, and when it became apparent that Haley would return in 2014 Wilson started looking around for other opportunities with Tomlin’s blessing.

The loss of Wilson comes three days after the Steelers hired Mike Munchak as their next offensive line coach. Running backs coach is the only position Tomlin is expected to have to fill with both coordinators returning as well as linebackers coach Keith Butler.

Butler had been a candidate to join Ken Whisenhunt’s staff in Tennessee as the defensive coordinator but he never interviewed for the position.

Wilson joins his sixth NFL organization after coaching running backs such as Willie Parker, Rashard Mendenhall and Bell with the Steelers.

Bell, under Wilson’s tutelage, rushed for 860 yards in 2013 despite missing the first three games of the season. The second-round draft pick also broke Franco Harris’ Steelers’ record for yards from scrimmage by a rookie with 1,259 yards and established himself as a focal point of the offense in the coming seasons.

Wilson will join first-year coach Mike Zimmer in Minnesota, and he will work with the best running back in the NFL in Adrian Peterson.

Peterson rushed for 1,266 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2013 despite weathering foot and groin injuries, the latter of which sidelined him for two of the Vikings’ last three games.

Peterson had groin surgery last week but the Vikings said he should be fully healthy after a six-week recovery period.
PITTSBURGH -- A surprising name has surfaced in connection with the opening the Baltimore Ravens have at offensive coordinator.

Coach John Harbaugh announced on Tuesday that Pittsburgh Steelers running backs coach Kirby Wilson is among four finalists for the job that became open when the Detroit Lions hired Jim Caldwell as their head coach.

Wilson is eminently qualified for the job, and he probably would have been promoted to offensive coordinator in Pittsburgh had he not been badly burned in a house fire in January, 2012.

The surprise is that the Steelers have granted Wilson permission to interview with their chief rival. Wilson is to meet with Harbaugh this week, presumably in Mobile, Ala., where NFL coaches are scouting Senior Bowl practices and interviewing draft prospects.

The Steelers could have blocked Wilson from interviewing with the Ravens since it is not for a head-coaching job. The guess here is that Mike Tomlin does not want to deny Wilson, who has been with him since 2007 in Pittsburgh, an opportunity given how loyal Wilson has been and what he persevered through to return to coaching.

Wilson would be attractive to the Ravens because of Baltimore's need to fix a running game that faltered badly in 2013. The Ravens averaged just 83.0 rushing yards per game, ranking 30th in the NFL in that cateogry. They averaged just 3.1 yards per cary, last in the NFL.

Wilson is the second Steelers assistant coach who has been linked to a coordinator job elsewhere.

Linebackers coach Keith Butler was considered one of the favorites to become new coach Ken Whisenhunt’s defensive coordinator in Tennessee. But Butler, who is considered the heir apparent to Dick LeBeau in Pittsburgh, never interviewed for the job.

In addition to Wilson, the other finalists for the job in Baltimore are former Rams head coach and Lions offensive coordinator Scott Linehan, former Redskins offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, and Ravens wide receivers coach Jim Hostler.

There has been only one change to Tomlin's coaching staff so far, as he fired offensive line coach Jack Bicknell Jr., this month.

Former Titans coach Mike Munchak interviewed for the job of offensive line coach last week in Pittsburgh.

NASHILLE, Tenn. -- During his final two years as head coach of the Arizona Cardinals, Ken Whisenhunt’s wanted a Pittsburgh style, 2-gapping, 3-4 defense.

He could adjust given his second head-coaching job, with the Tennessee Titans. But if we're forecasting scheme, that might be the most likely defense we'll see.

What's that mean regarding potential coordinators on the other side of the ball for Whisenhunt, who played as an NFL tight end and is an offensive coach?

If defensive coordinator Ray Horton is fired by the Cleveland Browns, who are still searching for a head coach, he’d likely be a prime candidate to re-join Whisenhunt, for whom he worked with the Cardinals. It was Horton who went from Pittsburgh to Arizona to run that scheme for the Cardinals.

[+] EnlargeRay Horton
AP Photo/Mark DuncanIf Ray Horton is not retained when the Browns hire a new coach, he could be a prime candidate to join Ken Whisenhunt's staff.
A couple others I think could be defensive coordinator possibilities: Green Bay’s inside linebackers coach Winston Moss and Baltimore’s secondary coach Teryl Austin, who coached Arizona’s secondary for Whisenhunt from 2007-09.

The Packers or Ravens would have to be willing to let them go in order for Whisenhunt to get them.

Steelers linebacker coach Keith Butler is someone Whisenhunt coveted for the role in his first go-round as a head coach. But Pittsburgh wouldn't let Butler go then and it's unlikely it will let him go now.

Gregg Williams was a 4-3 guy coming up with the Oilers/Titans, as head coach in Buffalo, as coordinator in Washington and Jacksonville. He did run some 3-4 in New Orleans, where he coaches a Super Bowl-wining defense.

Williams did well as a senior assistant/defense for Mike Munchak in 2013. His contract recently expired. He seems like an unlikely guy for Whisenhunt to want, but who knows what options the new coach will wind up with?

His two earlier defensive coordinators in Arizona -- Clancy Pendergast in 2007-08 and Billy Davis in 2009-10 -- ran hybrid fronts. But ultimately Whisenhunt landed on Horton and that 3-4.

If Whisenhunt puts the Titans on a course for a 3-4 defense, he’ll likely need some time to get them there. In the traditional version of the scheme, linemen generally take on the man across from them and are expected to clog the gap on either side of the blocker depending on how a play develops. The linebackers fill in and make the bulk of the plays.

The Titans’ best defensive player, Jurrell Casey, is a 4-3 tackle who would surely become a 3-4 end. Big nose tackles who demand a double team are hard to find, though perhaps 328-pound Sammie Hill could make the conversion.

The Titans linebackers were very unproductive in 2013 after a good start. None scream out to me that they’d be better standing up and adding some coverage duties, though Akeem Ayers was projected by many in that role when he came out of UCLA. I didn’t think the Titans had one sufficient middle linebacker, better yet two who could be tackling machines sharing the inside.

Indianapolis coach Chuck Pagano got good results running a hybrid in his first season converting a 4-3 to a 3-4 in 2012, and in his second season the team was better stocked for his preferred front. But he had Robert Mathis, a pass-rushing demon at end who’s taken well to playing as an outside linebacker.

When he’s formally introduced Tuesday, we’ll hear from Whisenhunt about his plans for Tennessee’s defense.

LB coach likes what he sees from Woodley

September, 16, 2013
CINCINNATI -- Andy Dalton is just 1-3 in his career against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

If the Steelers are to saddle the Cincinnati Bengals quarterback with another loss, they are going to have to make things very uncomfortable for him tonight at Paul Brown Stadium.

And nothing would help the Steelers more in that department than if LaMarr Woodley re-introduces himself to the nation as one of top pass-rushers in the NFL.

[+] EnlargeLaMarr Woodley
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarThe Steelers need linebacker LaMarr Woodley to get back to being a feared pass-rusher.
Woodley hasn’t been the same since suffering a serious hamstring injury midway through the 2011 season.

The seventh-year veteran recorded the Steelers’ only sack in a season-opening loss to the Tennessee Titans, and linebackers coach Keith Butler likes something else about Woodley when he looks at the bigger picture.

“LaMarr is probably in as good a shape as he has been since I’ve been here,” said Butler, who arrived in Pittsburgh long before Woodley.

“He looks like he is almost 265, but I know he isn’t,” Butler said with a laugh. “But he’s not far from it. This is as close as he’s been in awhile.”

Woodley is listed in the Steelers’ media guide at 265 pounds. But those weights are nothing if not dated as they rarely change following a player’s arrival in Pittsburgh.

The 6-2 Woodley has probably played closer to 285 than 265 in recent seasons. His weight became an issue in the offseason when an anonymous teammate ripped his work ethic in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

The withering criticism was more of a surprise since it came from inside a locker room where players often describe their solidarity as a brotherhood.

It nonetheless shed additional light on the fact that Woodley registered just four sacks in 2012, his lowest total since his rookie season, and missed three games because of hamstring and ankle injuries.

Butler said the high-ankle sprain that Woodley suffered in the 10th game contributed most to what turned out to be a lost season for one of the highest-paid players in franchise history. That dreaded sprain happened a month after Woodley returned from a hamstring injury.

“It wasn’t something that you could say ‘OK, LaMarr’s fat butt was out of shape.’ That wasn’t necessarily the case when he did his ankle,” Butler said in defense of Woodley. “That (injury) has nothing to do with his will or the type of condition he’s in.

"The biggest thing is for him to try and stay healthy, and that’s what we’re going to do with those outside linebackers and I think we’ll be OK.”

The Steelers will spell Woodley at left outside linebacker with Jason Worilds in an attempt to keep Woodley fresh and healthy for the entire season.

That doesn’t mean they have lowered expectations for Woodley, whose 52 sacks in his first six seasons are the most of any player in franchise history since sacks became an official statistic in 1982.

Butler has talked to Woodley about how the fast start to his career -- as well as the six-year, $61.5 million contract he signed in 2011 -- has raised the bar for him.

“You see countless number of players on the waiver wire that’s had great contracts that you’re saying, ‘What are those guys doing on the waiver wire?’ The reason they’re on the waiver wire is their productivity hasn’t matched what they’re making,” Butler said. “And that’s just a fact of life in the league. I wasn’t trying to challenge him. I was trying to reiterate those facts, but he knew them before I told him. He knows.”

Future is now for Jarvis Jones

September, 15, 2013
PITTSBURGH -- Jarvis Jones will make his first career start Monday night, and Steelers linebackers coach Keith Butler may be just as excited about that as the team’s first-round pick in the 2013 NFL draft is.

“We just want to see this young guy, and we think he’s going to be productive,” Butler said. "The more he plays the better off he’s going to be and so we’re going to try to get some improvement out of him. At the same time, Jason [Worilds] played well for us last week and hopefully he’ll continue to play well.”

Worilds giving way to Jones at right outside linebacker isn’t an indictment of the former as much it is as an endorsement of the latter.

Indeed, the Steelers will continue to use a three-man rotation at outside linebacker so they can also keep LaMarr Woodley fresh. But Jones, barring injury, will play the majority of the snaps at right outside linebacker against the Bengals.

“I’m ready for it,” the former Georgia star said. “I’m going to take full advantage of it and just try to make it count. It’s all about staying focused and prepared.”

Jones has done well enough in both areas to ascend to the starting lineup -- something that rookies rarely do so early in their career while playing in Dick LeBeau’s complex defense.

And he has consistently made an impact when he has been on the field, whether in preseason games or last Sunday when both tackles that Jones registered went for losses.

The first one came in the second quarter when Jones blew up Titans running back Chris Johnson and dropped him for a 2-yard loss. That kind of play could be a preview of things to come from the player whom the Steelers drafted as James Harrison's successor at right outside linebacker.

Jones spent part of his offseason working out with cornerback Ike Taylor at Tom Shaw Performance Camp in Orlando, Fla., and Butler said, “He’s in real good shape; better than I thought he would be.”

What has Butler really excited about Jones is how much better the latter will be once he gets stronger. Jones is listed at 6-foot-2, 245 pounds, and his frame can clearly handle more bulk without compromising his speed.

“He’s a big, tall, long basketball-looking type of guy, and I told him he needs to start looking like a football player instead of a basketball player,” Butler said. “He will. He’s a great kid. He’s confident but humble, and that’s a great combination in my opinion.”
Nearly six months ago, an unnamed teammate called out Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley, saying the reason he was always hurt was because he was out of shape. While this led to the perception of a fractured locker room, maybe the silver lining from this can finally be seen.

Perhaps more motivated to work out after being called out, Woodley reported to Steelers training camp in good shape, according to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

“Right now, Wood is where we need to have him,” linebackers coach Keith Butler said. “He looks good. He looks real good.”

This shouldn't come as a major surprise. In early May, Woodley said he was "getting after it" with his offseason conditioning. And Butler wouldn't be saying this to appease Woodley. He was a brutally honest critic of Woodley last training camp, when he said Woodley "needs to get his big butt into shape."

But this is just the first step for Woodley. The bottom line is producing on the field. Woodley needs to revert back to his form in 2011 before the hamstring injury. He began that season with nine sacks in his first eight games.

Since that time, Woodley has missed nine games due to hamstring and ankle injuries. To make matters worse, he has four sacks in the past 13 games that he's played.

The Steelers made it clear this offseason with James Harrison that they're not going to keep a player around at a high salary if he isn't meeting expectations. Woodley is scheduled to make $8 million in 2014, which only trails quarterback Ben Roethlisberger ($12.1 million) and safety Troy Polamalu ($8.25 million).

“We talked about it,” Butler said. “You think about the logistics of the NFL: A team is paying you $7-8 million dollars and they aren’t paying you to watch from the sidelines. I am a coach and they don’t pay me $7-8 million to stand on the sidelines and that’s what he’s been doing. If you are not on the field, you can’t earn your money. They might pay for one year, but they aren’t going to pay for the next year. That is the matter-of-fact of the NFL.”
PITTSBURGH -- There are questions every year about whether Dick LeBeau will retire as the Pittsburgh Steelers defensive coordinator. And, every year, he returns to direct one of the top defenses in the NFL.

Asked about his future at the Steelers' mandatory minicamp Wednesday, the 75-year-old LeBeau was noncommittal, saying, "I don't think, because of the situation I'm in, it would be very productive to think about it. I go one day at a time really and one year at a time and feel blessed that I'm still in the game and surrounded with young people that are working hard. I don't worry too much about the future. Some of us don't have as much future as some of the others."

The speculation of LeBeau retiring has increased since January 2012, when linebackers coach Keith Butler turned down the opportunity to become the Indianapolis Colts' defensive coordinator. Butler is considered the coordinator-in-waiting because of his experience with the Steelers and knowledge of their 3-4 defense.

Under LeBeau, the Steelers have consistently ranked among the best defenses in the league. Over the past five seasons, the Steelers have finished No. 1 in fewest yards allowed and fewest points allowed three times. Last season, Pittsburgh allowed 275.8 yards per game, which was 15 yards per game fewer than any other defense in the NFL.

Some suggest the Steelers haven't been the most dominating defense. Pittsburgh has struggled to generate consistent pressure on the quarterback as well as turnovers the past two years.

Still, linebacker LaMarr Woodley doesn't think he will see LeBeau retire during his playing days.

"It's like Paterno at Penn State," Woodley said.

What Woodley admires most about LeBeau is his knowledge of the game.

"Not only from his playing experience from all of those years and all of those years from being a coach, he's speaking from both sides," Woodley said. "The thing I like about him is when he makes a play call, he does it off top of his head. He doesn't actually look at his sheet and do it."
They say no news is good news. But what do they say about conflicting news? That's the situation in Pittsburgh with inside linebacker Sean Spence.

During the NFL draft, Steelers linebackers coach Keith Butler said it would be "miraculous" if Spence came back from a devastating knee injury. A week later, coach Mike Tomlin weighed in on the outlook for the 2012 third-round pick.

"I did hear the opinion regarding Spence. My opinion differs," Tomlin said during rookie minicamp. "I think he’s going to have a full recovery. But now you have two opinions, neither of which are expert medical opinions. Do with it what you wish."

It would surprise me if Spence's position coach decided to paint such a grim picture (and do it publicly) without being informed by someone from the medical staff or another high-ranking official. So, why did Tomlin say something completely different? We already know the Steelers are going to keep Spence around for the 2013 season to give him every chance to rebound from a knee injury that involves two torn ligaments (ACL and LCL) and a damaged nerve. My take is Tomlin is giving some hope to a 22-year-old who couldn't have been inspired by Butler's comments.

The Steelers had high expectations for Spence before he injured his knee last preseason. He would have been one of the core special teams players last year and he might have been in line for a starting job this year.

Now, the Steelers are unsure, or at least not on the same page, as to whether Spence will ever play a meaningful game for the franchise. If I took one thing away from Tomlin's comments, it's that Butler, who is considered the heir apparent to defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, won't be revealing medical updates anytime soon.


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