NFL Nation: LeGarrette Blount

Most significant move: The Steelers cut a pair of players who appeared in games for them last season. In the process, their plans along the defensive line came more into focus. The team released defensive end Brian Arnfelt, who appeared in two games at the end of last season, and nose tackle Hebron Fangupo, who played in four games in 2013. Josh Mauro, an undrafted rookie, has the edge for the last defensive spot if the Steelers keep seven defensive linemen, and rookie nose tackle Daniel McCullers, a sixth-round pick, is almost sure to stick on the 53-man roster. Defensive end Ethan Hemer may be the odd man out with defensive end Nick Williams and nose tackle Roy Philon likely grabbing spots on the practice squad. Arnfelt entered training camp with a good chance at making the team, but the second-year man fell out of favor with the coaches and Mauro passed him at defensive end. Williams still has a chance to unseat Mauro if he plays well in the Steelers’ final preseason game Thursday night against the Carolina Panthers.

Running back shuffle: The Steelers are down to five running backs after releasing three at that position Tuesday, including Tauren Poole, who got a long look from the coaches. A roster spot is there for the taking if either Josh Harris or Stephen Houston seizes the final opportunity against the Panthers. The Steelers may go with three running backs and fullback Will Johnson even given the uncertain status of starter Le’Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount. Coach Mike Tomlin has said the team is considering all options as far as punishment following their arrest on marijuana possession charges. (Bell has also been charged with driving under the influence.) That includes a suspension -- and the Steelers can maneuver around the collective bargaining agreement by simply deactivating Bell, Blount or both for the Sept. 7 season opener against the Browns. I don’t expect the Steelers to sit either for an entire game, and a suspension from the NFL wouldn’t come until next season. That means Harris or Houston will have to play his way on to the 53-man roster, or the two could be vying for a spot on the practice squad. The Steelers will also keep an eye on the waiver wire to see which running backs become available at the end of the week.

Steelers’ moves: Arnfelt, S Jordan Dangerfield, C Chris Elkins, Fangupo, WR C.J. Goodwin, RB Jordan Hall, LS Luke Ingram, RB Miguel Maysonet, OT Emmanuel McCray, WR Kashif Moore, Poole, CB Devin Smith, OLB Vic So’oto, CB Lew Toler, TE Eric Waters
PITTSBURGH -- During the last week of Steelers training camp at St. Vincent College in Latrobe, a golf cart used for the transport of players and coaches around campus pulled up near the cafeteria. Running back LeGarrette Blount surveyed the reporters loitering around the area where players regularly give interviews at camp and said something to the driver.

The golf cart promptly did a U-turn, carrying Blount away from the reporters with whom he conducted few interviews during camp.

Williams
Blount
Should the Steelers execute the same maneuver with one of their most significant signings of the offseason?

Blount had a checkered past before he and starting running back Le'Veon Bell were pulled over because the Camaro that Bell was driving allegedly had the wrong kind of smoke coming from it.

Blount and Bell will be cited with marijuana possession after they were pulled over a couple of hours before the Steelers flew to Philadelphia for their third preseason game. In the aftermath of the first real incident that the Steelers will have to sort through since the start of the preseason, it is fair to question why they were able to sign Blount, a running back with a career 4.7 yards per carry average, to a modest two-year, $3.85 million contract in March.

And it's fair to ask why Blount, who emerged as New England's best running back by the end of last season, wasn't retained by the Patriots.

It's also fair to wonder why Blount is now with his fourth team since entering the NFL in 2010 as an undrafted free agent because he was kicked off Oregon's team as a senior for punching a Boise State player following a season-opening loss.

Blount is immensely talented, and the addition of the 6-foot, 250-pound thumper and the drafting of the ultra-fast Dri Archer makes running back one of the positions where the Steelers have upgraded themselves the most following consecutive 8-8 seasons.

Bell, who broke Franco Harris' record for yards from scrimmage by a rookie (1,259) in 2013, and Blount have been inseparable since they became teammates. That augured well for the time-sharing agreement the Steelers have planned for them in the backfield.

Now, it is worth wondering if the Steelers have to separate the two for the good of Bell, though the second-year man should in no way be absolved following an incident that appears to be as selfish as it was stupid.

The Steelers have little behind Bell and Blount with the diminutive Archer splitting time between running back and wide receiver -- and no other back emerging that the Steelers can count on to revive a ground attack that averaged just 86.4 rushing yards per game last season.

Now more questions have been raised about the Steelers' run game -- and whether the Bell-Blount pairing that looked so good before a dual moment of idiocy is worth it.
LATROBE, Pa. -- LeGarrette Blount did not get off to the best start at training camp with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

He struggled during early backs-on-'backers drills and nearly started a brawl when he jumped on linebacker Vince Williams after Williams and running back Le'Veon Bell had wrestled to the ground in the one-on-one blocking drill.

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Blount
The scene that took place at Memorial Stadium showed that Blount, whose college career ended ignominiously after he punched a player following an Oregon loss, is still prone to letting his emotions get the better of him.

But if the Steelers are worried about that becoming an issue they are doing a good job of hiding it.

"Easy for me to work with," running backs coach James Saxon said of Blount. "Great for the (running backs) room and the guy’s an outstanding runner. Very prideful guy. Comes to work every single day. Wants to do it right."

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin agreed.

"He works hard, he’s a competitor, he’s a football lover," Tomlin said. "Good attributes. I think he’s doing great."

The Steelers signed Blount to a two-year, $3.85 million contract in March and that seemed like a bargain considering how he had trampled the Indianapolis Colts' defense for New England in a playoff win two months earlier.

And that he had emerged as the Patriots’ best running back by the end of the 2013 season.

Blount not commanding more money on the open market might have been a commentary on the running back position, and how it has become devalued with the NFL increasingly becoming a pass-first league.

It might also have served as a reminder that Blount has not completely outrun his past -- and the punch that threatened to define his football career.

Blount went undrafted in 2010 but he rushed for more than a 1,000 yards as a rookie that season in Tampa Bay. The 6-0, 250-pounder enters his fifth NFL season with a gaudy 4.7 yards per carry average.

Blount, now with his fourth NFL team, will back up Bell. The two have become fast friends, and the Steelers have to hope that friendship won’t get tested when carries have to be divvied up among Bell, Blount and rookie speedster Dri Archer.

Saxon does not consider that loss of emotional control during a drill -- Blount also nearly squared off with defensive assistant Joey Porter after he was pulled off Williams -- an accurate snapshot of who Blount is.

"Out there these guys are working real hard, competing and sometimes your emotions get the best of you," Saxon said. "He’s got to be aware of when and how far he can go. He’s smart enough to do that. He’s very, very good for this football team."
LATROBE, Pa. -- A seemingly forgotten linebacker has hit harder than some of the storms that swept through the area during the Pittsburgh Steelers' first week of training camp.

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

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

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

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

THREE REASONS FOR OPTIMISM

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

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

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

THREE REASONS FOR PESSIMISM

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

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

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

OBSERVATION DECK

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

Steelers Camp Report: Day 7

August, 2, 2014
Aug 2
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LATROBE, Pa. – A daily review of the hot topics coming out of Pittsburgh Steelers training camp:
  • The offense and defense battled to a draw in one of the most anticipated drills of training camp. The offense scored three touchdowns in six attempts from the 1-yard line in the goal-line drill. Ben Roethlisberger threw an easy touchdown pass to tight end Matt Spaeth off play-action to start the drill. The play call didn’t sit well with the defense and might have contributed to cornerback Ike Taylor and LeGarrette Blount later jawing at each other from across the field. Tauren Poole and Josh Harris each scored on 1-yard runs, but the defense held its own, stopping three runs other short of the end zone. Inside linebacker Vince Williams blew up Poole short of the end zone, putting an exclamation on an impressive day. Williams had delivered a monster hit earlier in practice when he obliterated running back Miguel Maysonet in an 11-on-11 drill.
  • Rookie wide receiver Martavis Bryant had his best practice of training camp. The fourth-round draft pick made a handful of difficult catches. None were more impressive than when Bryant twisted his body while on the run to catch a Bruce Gradkowski pass that had sailed behind the 6-foot-4, 210-pound Bryant in the end zone. “He’s a big, so we expect him to consistently make big-guy plays,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said of Bryant. "I’m interested in him developing a complete game.”
  • Tempers flared again a day after the first fight of training camp broke out and nearly turned into a brawl. Outside linebacker Chris Carter and left tackle Kelvin Beachum had to be separated at the end of one play during a red-zone drill. Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey and nose tackle Hebron Fangupo went at it during goal-line drills and punches were thrown before the two were separated.
  • Wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey missed his second consecutive practice after sustaining a concussion last Thursday and linebacker Jordan Zumwalt remains out with groin tightness. Tomlin gave tight end Heath Miller and nose tackle Steve McLendon the day off in part so he could look at some of the younger players at those positions. Safety Mike Mitchell did some work, Tomlin said, and he might be close to returning. Mitchell, who signed a five-year, $25 million contract with the Steelers in March, has been on the physically unable to perform list since reporting to camp with a groin injury.
  • Rookie running back Dri Archer showcased his speed in one-on-one passing drills. Matched up several times against Lawrence Timmons, Archer made an over-the-shoulder catch after separating from Timmons on a wheel route. Earlier in the drill, Archer caught a pass in front of Timmons, stopped and then ran right past him.
  • The Steelers practice Sunday and Monday from 2:55 to 5:30 p.m. ET. The players are off on Tuesday and practice will resume on Wednesday.

Steelers Camp Report: Day 6

August, 1, 2014
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LATROBE, Pa. -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of Pittsburgh Steelers training camp:
  • Friday night under the lights almost turned into Friday night at the fights. Spirited competition during the backs-on-'backers drill spilled over when Vince Williams and Le'Veon Bell wrestled each other to the turf at Memorial Stadium. Running back LeGarrette Blount, who wasn’t even practicing, dived at Williams in an attempt to help Bell, and players from both sides of the ball jumped into the fray. Order was quickly restored, but not before Blount and defensive assistant Joey Porter jawed at each other as Porter tried to get Blount away from the scrum. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, who eventually led Blount away from the end zone where the drill had taken place, later said, “it’s an emotional game. They do lose that element of it sometimes. All of it is part of team development even if it is a little negative. They do it in a brotherly way. They understand what we’re going in the grand scheme of things.”
  • Williams said there aren’t any hard feelings between him and Bell even though their tussle nearly set off a brawl. "We’re just two fierce competitors going at it. It’s all love man.” Williams didn’t appear to be stewing over the incident on the bus ride back to St. Vincent College. He was more preoccupied with locating his cell phone, which outside linebacker Jason Worilds found for him as the team buses were making their way back to campus.
  • Outside linebacker Jarvis Jones did not practice because of an groin injury that Tomlin said is not serious. Wide receiver Justin Brown was also out after breaking his nose Thursday in practice. Rookie cornerback Shaquille Richardson left practice early because of groin tightness, according to Tomlin. Rookie linebacker Jordan Zumwalt remains out with a groin injury.
  • An estimated crowd of more than 7,000 people packed into Memorial Stadium and were treated to one of the more intense practices of camp. Special-teams coordinator Danny Smith experienced the physicality of the drills when he fell to the ground hard after Antonio Brown was tackled out of bounds following a short reception. Smith popped right back up after getting taken out near the benches.
  • The Steelers waived running back Alvester Alexander and signed running back Jawan Jamison. Alexander, who spent all of last season on the Steelers’ practice squad, arrived at camp last Friday with a groin injury, and the Steelers placed him on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list. That injury doomed him as the Steelers brought in Jamison, who was taken in the seventh round of the 2013 NFL draft by the Washington Redskins but did not make the team. Jamison made a favorable first impression as Tomlin praised him several times during the backs-on-'backers drill.
  • The Steelers return to their regular schedule today following their first night practice of camp. They will practice from 2:55 to 5:30 p.m. ET at St. Vincent College. Admission is free.

Steelers Camp Report: Day 3

July, 28, 2014
Jul 28
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LATROBE, Pa. -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of the Pittsburgh Steelers training camp:
  • What a difference the popping of pads makes. The Steelers held their first padded practice of training camp between the rain drops produced Monday by a sobbing sky and everyone, it seemed, turned the intensity up. Way up. You expected to hear new defensive assistant Joey Porter early and often during practice. It was a surprise to see even-keeled defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau also yelling as he did several times during an 11-on-11 drill. Running backs and linebackers collided ferociously during the popular backs on 'backers drill and there was tackling as coach Mike Tomlin had promised. The practice looked totally different from the non-contact drills that the players had taken part in May and June and for the first two days of camp.
  • Rookie Ryan Shazier stood out during the backs on backers drill, showcasing the speed that helped convince the Steelers to take the inside linebacker with the 15th overall pick of the 2014 NFL draft. Everyone was anxious to see Shazier in full pads, and he made a strong first impression, especially when he twice blew past LeGarrette Blount. "He did some nice things," Tomlin said of Shazier. "He was elusive. He was playing to his assets with his speed and agility."
  • Outside linebacker Jason Worilds turned in the play of the day when he intercepted a pass thrown to rookie running back Dri Archer on a wheel route. When asked what was more impressive, Worilds making a play on the ball down the field or his running with the ultra-fast Archer, Tomlin said the interception and laughed. "That's the first time Jason Worilds has caught a ball in any fashion out here in practice. I know he can run. I'm going to paint that ball and give it to him."
  • Rookie cornerback Shaquille Richardson made a diving interception of a Bruce Gradkowski and the defense seemed to be ahead of the offense on the first day of pads and contact. Not that Tomlin saw it that way. "Battles were fought and won on both sides of the ball," he said.
  • Starting running back Le'Veon Bell (hamstring) didn't practice, and Blount, his backup, didn't have his best day. Blount struggled in backs on 'backers and also dropped a pass. Bell is "day-to-day," Tomlin said, after experiencing hamstring tightness on Sunday.
  • In other injury news, rookie linebacker Jordan Zumwalt left practice with groin tightness and wide receiver C.J. Goodwin was held out of drills after landing on his shoulder during practice on Sunday. Ramon Foster will not in camp due to the death of his mother, so Chris Hubbard played left guard with the first-team offense for the second consecutive practice. The players are off on Tuesday and resume practice on Wednesday.
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.
PITTSBURGH -- As Cam Heyward talked to a couple of reporters following the last of the Steelers’ organized team activities on Thursday, LeGarrette Blount sidled up to him with a recording device that the running back had temporarily requisitioned.

Blount, a free-agent signee and emerging jokester on a team that has its share of them, waited patiently and then asked, “I just want to know how you feel about this guy LeGarrette Blount coming to your team?”

Heyward
“Who???” Heyward asked.

Blount was about to repeat the question when he realized that Heyward had played it perfectly. The two shared a hearty laugh, and the scene looked a lot different from the one in which Heyward fumed even after he and offensive lineman Wesley Johnson had to be separated during an 11-on-11 drill on Wednesday.

A day later Heyward shrugged off the altercation, chalking it up to the heat of the moment, even if it was a practice in shorts.

“I blacked out for a second,” Heyward said. “It's practice. It happens. We’re past that. We address it in house but I don’t think it needs anything out of the ordinary where we have to address it in public. Just make sure we’re on the same page and that we’re trying to work and get better every day.”

Heyward practiced at right defensive end during OTAs after starting the final 12 games last season on the left side. The 6-foot-5, 288-pounder, who led the Steelers with 31 quarterback pressure in 2013, said he doesn’t have a preference where he plays this season since he has experience at both left and right defensive end.

Heyward also said that there isn’t much difference between the two spots aside from hand placement.

“You’re still going to get the same looks,” the fourth-year veteran said. “Sometimes you’ll get a heavier guy on the left side. On the right side you might have more of a versatile guy that’s able to move quicker but you’ve got to be ready for both.”
PITTSBURGH -- The most interesting sequence of the Pittsburgh Steelers' organized team activities took place late Wednesday morning.

Rookie linebacker Ryan Shazier made a breathtaking interception during an 11-on-11 drill, leaping high to pick off a Bruce Gradkowski pass and drawing oohs for the display of athleticism.

And the action was just getting started.

Defensive end Cameron Heyward and rookie center Wesley Johnson started fighting at the end of the play and it took coaches and teammates to break the two apart. Heyward was still fuming at the end of the 11-on-11 drill, though it is not clear what set him off.

The Steelers' next-to-last OTA session produced its share of good catches but none beat Shazier's after he dropped into coverage. Gradkowski tried to throw a pass over the first-round pick's head, but Shazier snagged it out of the sticky air after making a standing leap.

“He has a high vertical because I was right behind him,” Steelers free safety Mike Mitchell said. “I was coming from the backside hash(mark) so I was just tracking the ball and then I saw it get snatched out of the air and I said, 'Wow.' He's a rookie but I came over to him and said, 'Good play young fella.'"

As for Shazier's take on the play, he said, “I had a zone drop and I just dropped over top and just read the quarterback's eyes and I knew he thought he could get it over me. I just jumped up and did what I could. Any time you can get a turnover that helps the offense get more points.”

Also of note from the Steelers' ninth OTA session:
  • Outside linebacker Jason Worilds, who is nursing a calf injury, did not practice again but he did some work on the side. Cornerback Ike Taylor was a no-show for the second consecutive day. Wide receiver Markus Wheaton fielded punts and caught passes after practice but he did not take part in 11-on-11 drills. Not sure if there is some kind of injury issue but it appears Wheaton has been limited to drills in which he doesn't have to do much running.
  • Justin Brown has been getting extensive work with the first-team offense. The Steelers' sixth-round draft pick in 2013 showed why on Wednesday. Brown made a difficult touchdown catch in a seven-on-nine drill, outfighting two defenders for the ball in the corner of the end zone. More on Brown's development in a post that should go up later today.
  • Le'Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount lined up together in the backfield though only for a couple of snaps. Look for the Steelers to try and find ways to get the two on the field together in different packages this season.
PITTSBURGH -- Ben Roethlisberger merely confirmed after the Pittsburgh Steelers' final practice this week what his actions on the field the last two weeks have shown.

"I feel younger than ever," the Steelers quarterback said Thursday.

[+] EnlargeBen Roethlisberger
Keith Srakocic/AP PhotoQB Ben Roethlisberger has high expectations for the Steelers' offense in 2014.
That much is evident by Roethlisberger doing some extra jogging in when he is not running the Steelers' offense during organized team activities. Or directing a two-minute drill that ends with him firing a touchdown pass to Pro Bowl wide receiver Antonio Brown on a slant pattern, something Roethlisberger did Thursday.

The only time Roethlisberger shows his age -- he turned 32 in March -- is when the 10th-year veteran is directing an offense that is his now more than at any point of his decorated career.

Roethlisberger may not be Peyton Manning with all of the hand gestures and barking of signals, but he is not far off.

And it is only June.

No one is more responsible for an offense that came into its own in the second half of last season integrating new players and inexperienced ones than Roethlisberger.

Gone are two of his top three wide receivers from last season -- and the 1,342 receiving yards and 16 touchdowns that Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery combined for in 2013. The backfield has also undergone change with the Steelers signing LeGarrette Blount and drafting speedy fast Dri Archer to complement Le'Veon Bell.

Roethlisberger is charged with pulling everything together, and he has clearly embraced that responsibility while not tempering his expectations for the offense in 2014.

"I think we have a lot of speed," said Roethlisberger, who played every snap last season while throwing for 4,261 yards, the second-highest single-season total of his career. "That's running the ball, that's throwing the ball, whatever. I want us to be fast and put a lot of points on the board."

The Steelers averaged just under 28 points in the final eight games last season. Roethlisberger is the key to them building on that and he has been nothing but a leader during OTAs. Roethlisberger has been front and center at the offseason practices, missing only one of them because of a family obligation.

"I love being out here. I love the game," Roethlisberger said. "I'm excited about this team and the direction we're headed."
PITTSBURGH -- Kent State coach Paul Haynes and Northern Illinois coach Rod Carey shared a memory -- and a laugh -- recently when they recalled Dri Archer's 100-yard kickoff return for a Kent State touchdown last season in a game between the Mid-American Conference rivals.

"Dri went down his sideline and [Carey] said he was going so fast and he was just thinking, ‘We are so stupid for kicking to this guy,'" Haynes said. "They were the only team that kicked deep to us. Everybody else pooched."

That anecdote neatly distills why the Pittsburgh Steelers were enamored enough with Archer’s breathtaking speed and big-play ability to draft him in the third round -- yet also why taking him that high might be a luxury they couldn't afford after consecutive 8-8 seasons.

[+] EnlargeDri Archer
AP Photo/G.M. AndrewsThe Steelers hope Kent State's
Dri Archer can cause matchup problems for opposing defenses.
Archer already had been compared to former great kick returners such as Mel Gray and Gerald "Ice Cube" McNeil, and that was just in the Steelers' building.

But since NFL kickers have been able to boom the ball out of the end zone with regularity since kickoffs were moved to the 35-yard line, how much of a weapon will Archer be if teams simply decide to play keep-away?

That is what teams did last season when Archer managed just two kickoff returns for 128 yards and a touchdown. Haynes said Kent State didn’t even bother practicing kickoff returns once it became apparent that opposing teams weren’t going to let Archer beat them in that phase of the game.

Despite his limited opportunities last season, the Steelers placed a premium on Archer as a return man during their pre-draft evaluation of him.

"In my mind, return guys are starters," Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert said. "His kick-return ability is unique. It really is special. Whatever he can add to us offensively, we see some value there."

Where exactly the 5-foot-8, 173-pound Archer fits into the offense remains to be seen. The Steelers feature Pro Bowl wide receiver Antonio Brown, and they have an emerging running back (Le'Veon Bell) and a bruising back (newly signed LeGarrette Blount).

"This is a guy that is going to create some unique opportunities for us from a package standpoint in terms of him getting identified," coach Mike Tomlin said. "Is he a running back? Is he a wideout? Regardless of position, I think he’s a playmaker. He's a guy that gets yards in chunks and rings up the scoreboard."

Williams
Blount
Bell
Such talk sounds great in May, but how will it translate in actual games when there are a limited number of snaps and Archer is not a primary option at running back or wide receiver?

"We are all going to work together to make sure this guy is in the right place," running backs coach James Saxon said. "The kid is a special football player with the ball in his hands."

Indeed, Archer rushed for 1,429 yards and 16 touchdowns as a junior, leading the country with 8.99 yards per carry. His rushing totals plummeted to 527 yards last season, but much of that can be attributed to the fact that Kent State played him extensively at wide receiver to showcase his versatility to NFL teams.

"I think one of the biggest mistakes we made here is flexing him out," Haynes said. "We needed to keep him at running back just because we could have gotten him more touches. He has great vision, he has great feet, he has great burst -- all the things a good running back needs to be."

That includes strength and toughness.

It is easy to fixate on Archer’s size and speed and label him a gimmick player, but that evaluation doesn't fit. He ran the fastest 40-yard dash time (4.26 seconds) at the NFL scouting combine in February, but Archer also bench-pressed 225 pounds 20 times.

That's only seven shy of the combine bench-press total for defensive tackle Daniel McCullers, the 6-7, 352-pounder the Steelers drafted in the sixth round.

Haynes said Archer is strong and thick enough to absorb a pounding in the NFL, and Tomlin said, “He is not small. He is short.”

It remains to be seen how many touches Archer will get in an offense that returns all but one starter from last season.

Bell averaged 17.2 carries per game in 2013, and he is a legitimate feature back because of his pass-catching abilities. The Steelers also have to find carries for Blount, who as recently as January bulled his way to 166 rushing yards and four touchdowns while leading the Patriots to a playoff victory.

That leaves Archer as a situational player, albeit a unique one, and the Steelers didn’t get favorable results the last time they drafted a ridiculously fast player with plans to use his speed to exploit mismatches.

Chris Rainey, even before he fell out of favor in Pittsburgh because of off-field incidents, didn’t make much of an impact on the offense. In 2012, his only season with the Steelers, the former Florida speedster rushed for 102 yards on 26 carries and caught 14 passes for a mere 60 yards.

There might turn out to be no comparison between Archer and Rainey aside from sheer speed. And one thing Archer won’t have a problem with, Haynes said, is representing the Steelers -- on the field and away from it.

"You think of toughness, you think hard-nose, you think of discipline," Haynes said of the Steelers. "That’s why I think Dri is going to fit in so well there, because a lot of those things are how I would describe him. Besides the football, he’s going to be a great ambassador for that program.

"You don’t have to worry about him off the field. He’s going to work, he’ll study the game, he’ll surround himself with the great pros that are already there and teach him how to be a great pro himself."
PITTSBURGH -- Given a chance to lobby for a tall wide receiver, Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger took a pass.

Roethlisberger
"Anything to help this team," Roethlisberger said on 93.7 The Fan when asked who he thinks the Steelers should draft in the first round. "That’s the mindset we all need to be in because 8-8 is not good enough and we need to get back to the playoffs and the Super Bowl. Whatever the higher powers decide can help this team that’s what I’m going for."

General manager Kevin Colbert has said the Steelers plan to maximize Roethlisberger’s remaining years with the team -- Big Ben said earlier this week that he feels like he can play five to seven more seasons -- by surrounding him with talent.

One former Steelers great said the best way to do that is to bolster the unit that protects the Steelers’ franchise quarterback.

"I think in order for Ben to be successful we have to solidify the offensive line," said Pro Football Hall of Famer Dermontti Dawson. "We have to get a big-threat receiver and we have to get a running game back."

The Steelers won’t take a running back until the third day of the draft since Le'Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount are poised to get the bulk of the carries in 2014. They could take a wide receiver in the first round, though the position is so deep I think the Steelers wait a little later in the draft before addressing it.

Would the Steelers take an offensive tackle with their first-round pick?

The top three tackles in the class -- Auburn’s Greg Robinson, Texas A&M’s Jake Matthews and Michigan’s Taylor Lewan -- are unlikely to slip to No. 15 in the draft. But Notre Dame’s Zack Martin could be available there, and he may be one of the safer picks in the draft as teams love his temperament and versatility.

ESPN analyst Todd McShay ranks Martin as the ninth-best player in the draft. He also has five tackles among his 16 highest-rated players in the draft (Virginia’s Morgan Moses is the other one).

It’s hard to see the Steelers using the first-round pick on a tackle given how many other needs they have.

But players they weren’t expecting to be available in past drafts have slipped to them so nothing can be ruled out here.
PITTSBURGH -- A highly regarded pass-rusher and one of the top performers at the NFL scouting combine are among the players visiting the Steelers today.

Boise State defensive end Demarcus Lawrence, a projected second-round pick, and Georgia Southern running back Jerick McKinnon are the Steelers’ latest pre-draft visitors.

Lawrence led the Mountain West last season in both sacks (10 1/2 ) and tackles for losses (20 ), and the 6-foot-3, 251-pounder projects as an outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme.

ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr. ranks Lawrence as the 44th-best player in the draft and there is a possibility he could get taken late in the first round.

The Steelers have hosted a handful of outside linebacker prospects, including UCLA’s Anthony Barr, a projected first-round pick.

McKinnon is the second running back to visit the Steelers, and he is an intriguing prospect for several reasons. The 5-9, 209-pounder rushed for 3,899 career yards and he gained most of those as an option quarterback.

McKinnon, who led Georgia Southern to a 26-20 upset at Florida last season, played running back in the Senior Bowl and really turned heads at the combine two months ago.

He tested as well as anyone in Indianapolis, running the 40-yard dash in 4.41 seconds and notching 32 repetitions in the 225-pound bench press, tops among all running backs. Both speedy and shifty, McKinnon fits the profile of the kind of back the Steelers may be seeking to complement Le’Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount.

McKinnon has been projected as a fourth- or fifth-round pick.

Teams are allowed to host 30 out of area prospects for visits prior to the draft. Sunday is the last day for pre-draft visits.
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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