AFC North: Pittsburgh Steelers

Le'Veon BellAP Photo/Gene J. PuskarThe Steelers are thrilled with the news Le'Veon Bell's suspension was reduced by a third.


Fantasy owners aren't the only ones rejoicing that Le'Veon Bell's suspension dropped from three games to two after a successful appeal of his marijuana case.

Teammates have a fun new toy for at least one extra game. Bell has looked noticeably explosive so far in camp, which makes a two-game suspension less of a tease than three.

"He's a guy who's worked his butt off and I think everybody sees the difference in him," Steelers guard Ramon Foster said. "He fought (the case) and won and it's beautiful."

Bell originally got three games because of his charge in August for driving while under the influence of marijuana, signaling a two-game suspension for the DUI and one game for marijuana use. Bell had a case that he shouldn't be penalized twice for one crime. He can participate in all preseason work but will sit two game weeks without pay.

Teammates say they weren't worried about playing without Bell, following the 'next man up' mantra. But as left tackle Kelvin Beachum says, "[Bell] is happy it's just over with and he can concentrate on football." Beachum added Bell's versatility (83 receptions to go with 1,361 rushing yards) is hard to replace. "He can line up in the backfield or you can line him up wide."

Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said after Monday's practice that there are zero positives about playing without Bell, despite the team's confidence in free agent signing DeAngelo Williams.

tight end Heath Miller added: "We will take him when we can get him."

videoIf the Pittsburgh Steelers want to score 30 points per game this season, those efforts just got easier.

RB Le'Veon Bell's suspension reduction from three games to two gives the offense more versatility and alleviates early-season pressure on QB Ben Roethlisberger to handle the offensive load for an extended period.

Bell will be back for Week 3 at the St. Louis Rams, ready to show off his noticeable added explosion. It's only training camp, but Bell looks leaner and says he's in the best shape of his life. The thought of Pittsburgh waiting three games to see Bell on the field made training camp one big tease.

Roethlisberger has two weeks to get the offense clicking to the point where, when Bell comes back, he doesn't have to be a savior, but rather a spark.

DeAngelo Williams is a capable back. Josh Harris and Dri Archer are capable backups. They aren't Bell, who opens up the offense for others because of his ability to catch passes and run for tough yards. Bell's 83 catches last season were the league's second-most from the running back position, behind Matt Forte. Offensive Coordinator Todd Haley's quick passing game is better when there's a good dump-off pass available. Not that Williams & Co. can't handle that, but Bell is highly skilled in this area. He's also effective on wheel routes.

The Steelers can prep both Bell and Williams for heavy workloads while having clarity on this issue, moving on with a clear-cut plan in place. That plan should involve getting Williams ready for 12 to 15 carries per game in Weeks 1-2 while giving young receivers Martavis Bryant and Markus Wheaton more opportunities in the passing game alongside Antonio Brown.

The Steelers' first three opponents (New England, San Francisco, St. Louis) all finished in the top 14 in rushing defense last season. Fighting for tough yards all three weeks without Bell would have been exhausting, even if Williams played well. Bell's presence against the Rams will provide much-needed depth at that moment.

Coming off his best statistical season with 4,952 passing yards and 32 touchdowns, Roethlisberger should be well-equipped to handle the offense without a key player. But several recent observers of Roethlisberger, from Bengals defensive coordinator Paul Guenther to former teammate Ryan Clark, point out that the QB is thriving in part because this is his best supporting cast. He doesn't have to do too much. Bell's presence simply makes the offense run smoothly.

Save injuries, the offense will have that luxury for 14 regular-season games.

Running back Le'Veon Bell put on his best stutter-step moves when asked about the status of his suspension appeal last week at camp. He claimed he had no idea where things stood. Maybe that's the case, but his silence can be taken as optimism in light of colleague Dan Graziano's report that the NFL and NFLPA are discussing a possible reduction for Bell's three-game suspension.

Bell's strongest case was always that the league shouldn't punish him twice for his marijuana charge, which was settled in February. He got the proverbial double-down based on new league policies adopted in 2014 -- two games for the DUI, one for violating substance abuse policy. That Bell was driving with marijuana in his system worsened his case.

A reduction to two games seems like a fitting punishment for Bell, who clearly broke rules. But this isn't a case owners are invested in upholding like with Deflategate. Less politics involved. Two games for smoking, move on.

An educated guess is that's the conclusion that will come down soon.

Bell has been contrite in his approach to the suspension, saying last week he'll accept any punishment the league deems necessary. The NFL could still view Bell's case as clear-cut, that getting behind the wheel after taking an illegal substance should be harshly punished. But the fact the league is engaging in negotiations shows they are willing to evaluate a compromise.

Two games should be the compromise.

Also, the league could consider Bell's legal timing as a factor for leniency. Bell’s legal team could point to his February admittance into the Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition program for first-time offenders. Completing the 15-month program could erase Bell’s charges, assuming he stays clean for those 15 months.

Bell couldn’t enter the program in time for the league’s informal November deadline for players to keep resolved cases in the parameters of the old NFL drug policy. But he was trying to do just that and got held up by the courts.

LATROBE, Pa. – DeAngelo Williams passes Jarvis Jones in the cafeteria.

"Don't let yourself go," Williams said. "You're looking real good out there."

Jones is one of three consecutive first-round linebackers selected by the Pittsburgh Steelers. The potential of that group must graduate to production for the Steelers to restore a sagging defense.

The Steelers, once known for pass rushing, ranked 26th in the league with 33 sacks a year ago. The Steelers selected Jones, Ohio State inside linebacker Ryan Shazier and Kentucky edge rusher Bud Dupree in back-to-back-to-back years in part because Pittsburgh typically drafts in the second half of the first round, where the best-player-available draft method prevails. They also wanted to add defensive speed, which Shazier and Dupree clearly have.

Jones isn’t known for his speed but entered the league with a rep as a relentless rusher, producing 24.5 tackles for loss for Georgia in 2012. Jones battled a wrist injury for much of last season but the numbers -- three sacks in two seasons -- are hard to ignore.

Jones aims to change that. And he will need to, because if the Steelers don't find consistent sack masters (Cameron Heyward led the team with 7.5 last season), the offense's goal of scoring 30 points per game won't be enough some weeks.

"He wants to be a guy who gives us 10-12 sacks a year," said Pro Bowl inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons, also a first rounder, from 2007. "Very motivated."

Adds Jones: "I'm here to work, I've been working. All the other stuff that goes with it doesn't matter."

While Dupree is a relative unknown until proven otherwise, Timmons and Shazier should have chances to disrupt offenses from several spots. Timmons can be seen rushing the passer on blitz packages during training camp practices. Despite the switch from Dick LeBeau to new coordinator Keith Butler, blitzing will always be a Steelers hallmark, Timmons said.

The preseason usually doesn't matter much but this year "it's going to be fun," Timmons said, because the new defense is expected to try out some new wrinkles.

This fits Shazier's skill set perfectly, Timmons said, because Shazier's range will be utilized well.

"Jarvis, he has a lot to prove just like I do," Shazier said. "We've been talking and we've been working this offseason."

LATROBE, Pa. -- If you haven't heard about Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Antonio Brown's streak of 33 games with at least five catches and 50 yards -- by far an NFL record -- then you will after the 2015 season.

Antonio BrownKeith Srakocic/APWide receiver Antonio Brown has started 43 of the 70 games he's played for Pittsburgh.

Because that streak is going to 49 games, said former Steelers teammate and ESPN NFL analyst Ryan Clark, who calls the streak "insane."

"I think he does it again this year," said Clark, who played 13 years in the league, eight with Pittsburgh. "The passing game is tailored around him, but also because he can run every route and runs them so well that he can always get yards and catches."

Early in 2014, Brown broke Laveraneus Coles' streak of 19 straight games. Then he kept going, all the way through a playoff loss to Baltimore.

Brown also leads the league in yards (3,197) and catches (239) since 2013.

Guard David DeCastro says Brown's feat is like an impressive hitting streak in baseball. He isn't surprised he's gone two years without one week of dropoff.

"He's so quick and athletic in tight spaces when where a play breaks down, he's finding an open space," DeCastro said.

LATROBE, Pa. -- The Pittsburgh Steelers did not wear pads on the first day of camp, but the running backs didn't need contact to look the part Sunday as the team opened camp at Saint Vincent College.

Le'Veon Bell looked noticeably explosive. He says he's in the best shape of his life, and he's not lying.

Stutter steps. Change-of-pace runs. Straight-line speed. Watching Bell run is like one big tease for the Steelers, who can't play him until Week 4 because of his marijuana suspension. Bell's right knee injury, which kept him out of a playoff loss to Baltimore, still needs additional pre-practice stretching and isn't completely the same as the left one. But this is the best Bell has felt in a while, he said. If he had to play today, he could.

That might be why Mike Tomlin is challenging free agent signing DeAngelo Williams by saying Bell will run with the first team, even though Williams needs enough to work to be ready to start Week 1 against New England.

That won't be an issue if the first practice is any indication, Williams said. He "absolutely" got enough work as the backup because the offense ran dozens of plays throughout the day. Williams even commented on his feet hurting after the session.

"I don’t think there is any special emphasis on me getting any more or less carries," Williams said. "It goes by the scope of the day. And I don’t expect anything to be different (from today)."

Williams met Tomlin's challenge to drop below 220 pounds, closer to his listed playing weight of 215. Williams indicated Sunday that he's done that.

"I actually look better than minicamp and OTAs," Williams said.

Bell settled his marijuana case back in February, yet the Steelers don't know whether Bell's appeal with the NFL has legs, or even has a hearing date. Bell maintains he has "no idea." What seems certain is Bell will miss the Patriots game. But even if the league reduces the suspension, the Steelers need more convincing running from Williams like they got Sunday.

"He’s a power running back," center Maurkice Pouncey said of Williams. "He runs like himself. He doesn’t try to copy anybody else. You can really appreciate that from a running back. He’ll get those extra yards.”

The Steelers offense showed that it can get creative in its running attack, as it used Martavis Bryant on a reverse a few times on Day 1.

In other Steelers news, outside linebacker James Harrison and safety Will Allen did not practice. Harrison did conditioning off to the side. Both are expected back soon.

LATROBE, Pa. -- Landry Jones has not thrown a regular-season pass in his first two seasons, which should absolve him of all the pressure usually heaped on an NFL quarterback drafted in the first four rounds.

[+] EnlargeLandry Jones
Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY SportsThird-year QB Landry Jones is still trying to figure out what style quarterback he's going to be for the Steelers.

But he is the highest-drafted quarterback by the Pittsburgh Steelers since the team selected Ben Roethlisberger in 2004. Jones went 115th overall after starting four years at Oklahoma. Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley called Jones' offseason workout performance “a little up and down.”

Pressure re-applied.

Before the Steelers' first training camp practice later Sunday, Jones, while speaking with ESPN, was reflective and honest about his place in the franchise.

He’s still trying to find it.

Big Ben’s eventual replacement? Jones isn’t even in that galaxy of thinking.

“I have to figure out what style of quarterback I’m going to be,” Jones said.

He admits Roethlisberger and longtime backup Bruce Gradkowski, who’s nursing a shoulder injury, have their own identities at quarterback. Jones is still working on his.

That identity, he believes, involves making good decisions with the football “and making plays when they are available.”

Jones threw for nearly 17,000 yards at Oklahoma, and though Haley’s offense has elements of the no-huddle, the pre-snap terminology is deeper and the game is faster.

That has taken Jones time to figure out. It showed at times in offseason workouts, which is why Jones admits Haley’s assessment is fairly accurate. “I could see where he could say that,” Jones said.

But Jones adds that he finished minicamp strong, leading the offense to a touchdown in a two-minute drill on the last day.

“Felt good to finish that way,” Jones said.

Former sixth-round pick Tajh Boyd will push Jones for third-string reps. If Jones responds, that identity he’s searching for should surface quickly. Gradkowski’s absence early in camp should benefit Jones.

If Jones doesn’t solidify a role soon, the Steelers might eventually use a second-round pick on a quarterback the way the Patriots did with Jimmy Garoppolo.

“They just want to see me progress, take more control of the offense, kind of make it my own,” Jones said of the Steelers’ offense. “Become more of a leader inside of it.”

TomlinJason Bridge/USA TODAY SportsSteelers coach Mike Tomlin plans to set a tough mentality in training camp.


LATROBE, Pa. -- They sense it, and they sense that you sense it.

And they want it to stop, starting this weekend at training camp at Saint Vincent College.

The Pittsburgh Steelers don't want to be your overlooked Super Bowl contender or your AFC favorite or your trendy pick for the league's best offense -- even if the team's head coach fueled that last one.

Maybe there was a time to celebrate that, but late July is the time for tone-setting, which means the Steelers won't overvalue the impressive offense, just as it won't downplay the retooled defense.

If the Steelers expect last year's 8-2 finish to the regular season to carry over organically, they could find themselves back in the 8-8 quicksand from the previous two seasons.

"I think everybody's giving us a lot of accolades during the offseason," offensive guard Ramon Foster said. "You have to answer for that and show it. ... We can't have glitches of greatness and then [not] pan out against a team that's not playing up to our level. We have to set the tone each and every week."

Mike Tomlin has no problems with that. The Steelers coach, fresh off receiving a two-year contract extension, said at his Saturday news conference that he "looooves training camp," and hopes the extra week of preseason work for all NFL teams this year is "an advantage if we make it one."

How's this for an edge from the head coach? Tomlin said he's not relinquishing any first-team tailback reps to DeAngelo Williams despite Le'Veon Bell's looming three-game suspension, and he's been challenging Williams in ways that he admits are uncomfortable for a 10-year veteran. He's not disclosing those challenges, but the message is clear.

Nothing's conceded. That means no excuses for a defense replacing 30-plus years of defensive experience among Troy Polamalu, Ike Taylor and coordinator Dick LeBeau.

"I don’t grade on a curve," Tomlin said. "I don’t take present circumstances into the equation. They understand we expect those guys to play dominant defense, regardless of who we are.”

The Steelers defense finished in the league's bottom third in several defensive categories and still won 11 games, largely because of 8,000-plus combined yards from Ben Roethlisberger, Bell and Antonio Brown.

The offense is prepared for similar firepower, just in case.

"We have to take it further," Brown said. "The pressure’s on to make the necessary plays.”

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The Pittsburgh Steelers can justify elevating Mike Tomlin into the elite club of highest-paid NFL coaches. He wins 64 percent of his games, he's never had a losing season, he has a winning playoff record (5-4). He provides stability, which is a hallmark for a franchise going on its third coach in nearly five decades. They thrive off stability.

But the commitment -- and the money -- from the Rooneys speaks loudly. It basically says, "Let's go ahead and grab another championship sooner than later."

A source told ESPN that Tomlin is set to make at least $7 million, placing him among the top 3-5 highest-paid coaches. Bill Belichick, Sean Payton and Pete Carroll all make $7.5 million or more, according to reports. It's safe to say Tomlin is either in that club or just outside of it.

Those three coaches have won three of the last six Super Bowls. Tomlin's last one came seven seasons ago, which isn't to say he doesn't belong with that crew, but rather to remind that a dip back in the Super Bowl water would punctuate the reason both sides did this extension in the first place.

"We are confident he will continue to lead the team in our pursuit of another Super Bowl championship," team president Art Rooney II said in a statement.

"I look forward to pursuing what is the Steelers' goal every year -- bringing another Super Bowl championship to the city of Pittsburgh," Tomlin said.

No one is mincing words here. Everything is clear-cut: Both parties are extending this marriage to 2018 for one reason.

The convenient narrative after Tomlin's title in 2008-09 was he won with Cowher's team. This isn't college football recruiting. Winning playoff games is difficult with any roster. If Tomlin wins a second Super Bowl, no one can question his imprint on the pursuit. He's giving his defense a face-lift, injecting youth and playmaking at the potential risk of a painful transition. He's helped the Steelers draft well, especially on offense, giving Ben Roethlisberger the best supporting cast he's had.

Tomlin is under contract until at least 2018, meaning his place in Steelers' folklore will be well-defined by then. He will have easily reach 100 wins. He can do more than that, and he seems to know it. Expectations couldn't be higher for a team that went 8-8 in both 2012 and 2013.

Tomlin has a chance to earn every dollar, and more.

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The Pittsburgh Steelers open training camp on July 26 at St. Vincent College in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. Here’s a closer look at the Steelers’ camp, which wraps up on Aug. 22:

Top storyline: The first real glimpse at the new-look defense under coordinator Keith Butler. This is the first training camp without Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor in the defensive backfield in 12 years, and the first without coordinator Dick LeBeau in 11 years. A defense known for stability could have at least four new starters and must prove in live action it can regain the fearful edge that once made it great. The Steelers made progress during offseason workouts but that’s hard to judge without live hitting. Camp will be a true barometer for whether the defense will sag behind a good offense or soar with it.

Position battles to watch: Cornerback will have its share of battles but the outside linebacker spot will be most interesting because two first-round picks (Jarvis Jones and Bud Dupree) are battling with a 37-year-old menace (James Harrison) and a versatile veteran (Arthur Moats). Harrison appears in good shape and isn’t resigned to a part-time role -- he wants to be the guy. And if he is, that’s sort of a problem, because it means a first-round pick is losing out to a 37-year-old who’s been cut twice since 2013. Only two can win the job, though all four could realistically play. This is earn-your-money time for Jones, who has three career sacks in two years and looked promising early in 2014 before a wrist injury derailed his season.

Veterans to watch: Defensive end Cam Heyward will be highly motivated after earning a $59-million extension. Cortez Allen needs his reputation back after a disastrous season that included a benching and the general manager questioning his ability as a starter. The Steelers still like Allen’s skill set -- that’s why they signed him to a five-year, $26-million deal last offseason -- and hope he resurges. At 32, Heath Miller has a chance to reward the Steelers for not taking a tight end higher in the draft. He’s still a fringe top-10 pass-catcher at the position. Linebacker Lawrence Timmons is fresh off his first Pro Bowl and wants his play to ensure he retires a Steeler.

Rookies to watch: Corner Senquez Golson needs a heroic camp to pry snaps from veteran William Gay in the slot. Golson is in the future plans but might have to wait his turn. If he’s impatient and takes ownership of a job, that’s good news for Pittsburgh. Sammie Coates will be buried by a deep receiving corps and must fight his way into playing time. But the former Auburn star said he plans to show he can do everything the starters can do. Watch for Coates on his specialty play, the deep ball, if Ben Roethlisberger feels so inclined. Seventh-round safety Gerod Holliman could make an early impact with his ball skills, but he must show he’s a capable tackler.

Bubble watch: Receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey must use his veteran savvy to survive at a crowded position. Quarterback Landry Jones had an uneven offseason and free-agent pickup Tajh Boyd will push him for the No. 3 quarterback job. Nose tackle Steve McLendon is a lock for the 53-man roster and should play a healthy dose of snaps. But if Daniel McCullers makes a move for the nose tackle job, there goes McLendon’s chance to be Pittsburgh’s long-term answer in the middle.

Le’Veon Bell watch: Don’t be surprised if the Steelers get more first-team reps for DeAngelo Williams, who will start while Bell misses the first three games due to suspension. The Steelers must keep Bell fresh and engaged while working Williams into the rhythm of the offense. Bell’s role as the primary back is unquestioned, and he will get most of the carries early on. At some point in August, that might change.

For daily updates at camp, check out the Pittsburgh Steelers’ clubhouse page.

Ben RoethlisbergerAP Photo/Gene J. Puskar


The Pittsburgh Steelers open training camp on July 26 at St. Vincent College in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. Here’s a 53-man roster projection.

Quarterbacks (3): Ben Roethlisberger, Bruce Gradkowski, Tajh Boyd (cut: Landry Jones, Devin Gardner)

Running backs (4): Le'Veon Bell, DeAngelo Williams, Dri Archer, Josh Harris (cut: Cameron Stingily, Ross Scheuerman)

Fullbacks (1): Will Johnson (cut: Roosevelt Nix)

Wide receivers (5): Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant, Markus Wheaton, Sammie Coates, Darrius Heyward-Bey (cut: Tyler Murphy, C.J. Goodwin, Shakim Phillips, Eli Rogers)

Tight ends (4): Heath Miller, Matt Spaeth, Jesse James, Cam Clear (cut: Rob Blanchflower, Michael Egnew)

Tackles: (3): Kelvin Beachum, Marcus Gilbert, Mike Adams (cut: Alejandro Villanueva, Kevin Whimpey, Mitchell Van Dyk)

Guards (3): David DeCastro, Ramon Foster, Cody Wallace (Miles Dieffenbach, Chris Hubbard, Reese Dismukes)

Centers (2): Maurkice Pouncey, B.J. Finney

Defensive tackles (3): Steve McLendon, Dan McCullers, Cam Thomas (cut: Mike Thornton)

Defensive ends (3): Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, L.T. Walton (cut: Clifton Geathers, Niko Davis, Ethan Hemer, Joe Kruger)

Outside linebackers (4): Jarvis Jones, Bud Dupree, James Harrison, Arthur Moats (cut: Shayon Green, Jordan Zumwalt)

Inside linebackers (4): Ryan Shazier, Lawrence Timmons, Sean Spence, Vince Williams (cut: Howard Jones, Terence Garvin, Shawn Lemon)

Cornerbacks (6): William Gay, Cortez Allen, Antwon Blake, Senquez Golson, Doran Grant, B.W. Webb (cut: Kevin Fogg)

Safeties (5): Shamarko Thomas, Mike Mitchell, Will Allen, Ross Ventrone, Robert Golden (cut: Gerod Holliman, Ian Wild, Isaiah Lewis, Alden Darby, Jordan Dangerfield)

Specialists (3): Shaun Suisham, Brad Wing, Greg Warren (cut: Jordan Berry)

Antonio BrownAP Photo/Don WrightFive-year veteran Antonio Brown is the projected starter at one receiver spot for the Steelers in 2015.

The Pittsburgh Steelers open training camp on July 26 at St. Vincent College in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. Here's a starting lineup projection:

OFFENSE

Quarterback (Ben Roethlisberger): Nearly a dozen years in the league and Roethlisberger is playing his best football, throwing for at least 340 yards a game seven times in 2014.

Running back (Le'Veon Bell): Possibly the league's best fantasy option after recording 1,361 rushing yards and 83 receptions in 2014, Bell has room to grow in the big-play department (12 runs of 20-plus yards in career).

Fullback (Will Johnson): He is a true fullback who knows Todd Haley's offense well, and he should be vital during the first three games while Bell serves a suspension.

Wide receiver (Antonio Brown): He's so consistent, getting at least five catches and 50 yards in 33 straight games, that Roethlisberger throws his way 30 percent of the time on broken plays.

Wide receiver (Martavis Bryant): Looks like a legitimate No. 2 receiver in offseason workouts, building off last year's 21 yards per catch average. *Markus Wheaton is likely the starting slot receiver.

Tight end (Heath Miller): Still a top-10 tight end at age 32, averaging 64 catches in his last three 16-game seasons.

Left tackle (Kelvin Beachum): Potential long-term answer at left tackle gave up 24 quarterback disruptions last season, according to Pro Football Focus.

Left guard (Ramon Foster): Four-year starter should be highly motivated entering contract year.

Center (Maurkice Pouncey): Named a Top 100 player by NFL Network after a second Pro Bowl appearance in 2014, Pouncey is used several creative ways by Haley, including as a pulling center on run plays.

Right guard (David DeCastro): Has started 31 straight games and played every snap in 2014, prompting the Steelers to pick up a $8.07-million option in 2016.

Right tackle (Marcus Gilbert): Has found his home at right tackle, where Gilbert was reliable and should help anchor a top-10 rushing offense in 2014.

DEFENSE

Left end (Cam Heyward): Locked into a new $59-million deal, Heyward could lead team in sacks for second straight year.

Nose tackle (Steve McLendon): As a free agent after 2015 and backup Dan McCullers poised for a breakout season, McLendon needs to stop the run consistently in potential career-defining year.

Right end (Stephon Tuitt): Potential is huge but Steelers need more than his one sack as a rookie.

Left outside linebacker (Arthur Moats): While he isn't flashy, Moats is reliable and versatile, which should give him the early edge over first-rounder Bud Dupree.

Inside linebacker (Ryan Shazier): If healthy, his elite range could help him post 100-plus tackles in this defense.

Inside linebacker (Lawrence Timmons): The Steelers' most consistent defender averages 112 tackles, 3.8 sacks, 1.7 forced fumbles and 1.3 interceptions per year since 2009.

Right outside linebacker (Jarvis Jones): Must return to his early three-game stretch last year, pre-wrist injury, when he produced two sacks, a forced fumble and 14 tackles.

Left cornerback (Cortez Allen): The ability is there, and it earned him a $26-million contract in the 2014 offseason, but confidence is an issue after being benched last year.

Strong safety (Shamarko Thomas): Teammates raved about the offseason of Thomas, who saw limited snaps and made five tackles a year ago while playing in Troy Polamalu's shadow.

Free safety (Mike Mitchell): Steelers could use his 2013 performance in Carolina, where he produced 3.5 sacks and four interceptions, not last year's zero-sack, zero-pick affair.

Right cornerback (William Gay): Can play outside or in the slot, which might be his home if Allen and Antwon Blake (*likely starting outside corner) develop.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Punter (Brad Wing): Steelers signed Jordan Berry to compete for the job but Wing should be safe if he improves his 29th-ranked 43.7 yards per punt average.

Kicker (Shaun Suisham): Rarely are kickers team captains, but Suisham is no ordinary kicker after posting three straight years of 90-plus-percent success on field goals.

Long snapper (Greg Warren): Re-signed to a one-year deal in February, the 11-year NFL veteran is the only long snapper on the roster and should be the go-to guy.

Punt returner (Antonio Brown): He's too good not to use in spot duty here, registering three 20-plus gains and a touchdown in 30 tries last season.

Kick returner (Markus Wheaton): Wheaton posted adequate numbers in 20 returns last season (24.7 yards per return) and will be the front-runner in camp competition.

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An evaluation of the numbers shows the Pittsburgh Steelers and defensive end Cameron Heyward truly agreed to a contract that works for both sides.

In fact, Heyward might become a $59.25-million bargain in a few years.

Heyward, who is now under contract for six years, will become the 11th-highest-paid defensive end on average and the fourth-highest at 3-4 end, behind J.J. Watt, Calais Campbell, Cameron Jordan and Corey Liuget.

That’s a reasonable place for Heyward, who is an ascending player but has yet to make a Pro Bowl like Jordan, who got $62 million over six years last month. The Steelers were smart to do this deal now before other heavy hitters such as Muhammad Wilkerson set the market higher. As a leader on a defense replacing several starters, Heyward has a chance to put up career numbers in 2015.

The Steelers' defense isn’t built to create large numbers from the end spot. Heyward led the team with 7.5 sacks last season, the first time a Steelers end led or tied for the lead in that category since Aaron Smith in 2004. Young players at that position typically need time to develop. But Heyward said new coordinator Keith Butler could create more one-on-one matchups up front. He told me in June that the possibility has him "salivating."

Contract year or not, Heyward was eyeing a career-defining season.

And if Heyward takes ownership of the defense like the Steelers hope he will, this contract will look modest in a few years. Plus, I’m told Heyward gets $21 million within the first eight months of the deal -- largely from the signing bonus -- so this could be a cap-friendly setup that allows Heyward to play out most of the years on the deal.

The Steelers can put an important piece of business behind them with more than a week to go before training camp while not feeling handcuffed financially. The Steelers are approaching healthy salary cap status and this deal doesn't jeopardize that. If Heyward played on a $7 million option this year, the Steelers risked paying him more after the season if Heyward performed well. Neither side has to worry about that, and though Heyward would be productive regardless, this deal validates his desire to be a cornerstone of the franchise.

Jerome Bettis will be presented for enshrinement into the Pro Football Hall of Fame by his brother John Bettis III.

Bettis made the news public in a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette story by longtime beat writer Ed Bouchette. Jerome called his brother "the biggest Steelers fan in the world since we were kids." He will do the honors on Aug. 8 in Canton, Ohio.

Bettis said his hopes for Canton always included his father, John. But he died in a car accident in 2006, which leaves his namesake.

"My brother has been more than willing," Bettis told the Post-Gazette. "He’s told me on a couple occasions he wants to step in in my father’s stead and present me in my father’s place. He also says, ’We got the same name so it’s close.’ That’s why [I chose] my brother.

"There is nobody more deserving than my brother.”

Bettis played 10 seasons in Pittsburgh after being traded from the Rams. He retired after the Steelers won the Super Bowl after the 2005 season. He ranks sixth in NFL history with 13,662 rushing yards, 10th with 91 touchdowns and fourth with 3,479 carries.

He will be the 23rd Steeler in the Hall of Fame.

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