AFC North: Pittsburgh Steelers
With offseason workouts and minicamps in the rearview mirror and training camps just a few weeks away, we assess the Pittsburgh Steelers' offseason moves and assign a letter grade in the video above.
Best move: Signing running back DeAngelo Williams to a two-year, $4 million deal. This move had to be made. Le'Veon Bell is missing three games, and the Steelers couldn't open the season with Dri Archer and Josh Harris at running back. Williams has a starter's pedigree and comes to Pittsburgh on a low-risk contract. He can be a reliable early-down option for the Steelers but doesn't have to carry the ball 20 to 25 times a game because the offense is so stocked. Ben Roethlisbergerthrew the ball 38 times a game last season, a career high. Williams still has explosion left, notching 58 rushes of at least 20 yards in 1,432 career carries. The Steelers will need some of that burst, and Williams has assured he can give it. Williams averages less than 20 catches a year as a receiver, so the Steelers would like to see that clip rise while Bell's out.
Riskiest move: Pittsburgh eschewed the cornerback market and failed to draft one in the first round of the 2015 draft. The Steelers took Senquez Golson in the second round, and he has a future as the team's slot cover in zone coverage. But the team took pass-rusher Bud Dupree at No. 22 overall over corner Byron Jones, who is athletic and has ideal build for the position. Dupree might be a great pick, but corner was an obvious need that wasn't addressed on the draft's first day or in free agency, where several impact players were available. The Steelers are basically saying "we're good enough" with the maligned-but-talented Cortez Allen, Antwon Blake (one career start) and William Gay. If Allen cleans up his 2014 performance and Blake turns his offseason flashes into success, then they will look smart. But the risk is obvious.
Depth at receiver impressive: Sammie Coates has athleticism that shows up when watching him live, he knows how to finish a play and aims to redirect the drops label that followed him at Auburn. And the third-round pick could have a hard time seeing the field in 2015. The Steelers are much more than Antonio Brown at receiver, with Martavis Bryant building off a 21-yards-per-catch rookie performance and Markus Wheaton, who caught 53 passes in 2014, potentially moving to the slot. And don't forget about Darrius Heyward-Bey, a veteran with raw speed. Heath Miller is still good for 55 to 60 catches a year, or else the Steelers would have drafted a tight end higher than the fifth round. Roethlisberger will have more passing game options than he's ever had.
Training camp outlook: The Steelers' biggest questions remain on defense, which must be answered -- can only be answered -- in camp. The offense had the edge for much of offseason workouts, and though a few young players emerged (Blake and Shamarko Thomas, according to teammates), the Steelers need to see who's ready to hit once the pads go on. Outside linebacker Jarvis Jones had some good moments in May and June. He should take advantage of the momentum. The offense should feel very good about where it's headed. While the team needs a No. 2 receiver, Bryant and Wheaton both appear ready to fulfill that need. The offensive line wants to lead a top-10 rushing offense.
NFL Nation reporter Jeremy Fowler assesses which rookies on the Steelers could earn a starting berth this season.
Why Bud Dupree could start: The Steelers have set the stage for Dupree, the 22nd overall pick in this year's NFL draft, to take an outside linebacker spot when he’s ready. James Harrison, at 37, seems suited for situational pass-rushing duties. Arthur Moats is valuable as a reliable pass-rusher who can play inside or outside linebacker, but he’s been a backup for most of his five-year career and never has recorded more than four sacks in one season. That leaves Dupree and third-year rusher Jarvis Jones, who eyes a rebound season after missing nine games in 2014 with a wrist injury. No one from this group is guaranteed to start, which is good for Dupree, whose athleticism at 6-foot-4, 269 pounds stands out in workouts. He’s a bit raw, but his experience at Kentucky allowed him to rush the passer and backpedal in pass coverage, which should help him acclimate to coordinator Keith Butler’s system. The Steelers will give all four players plenty of training camp opportunities to take ownership of a spot. Dupree told me recently his ability to quickly grasp the Steelers’ playbook should help him in camp. If Dupree catches up mentally to the speed of the NFL game, his natural ability could give him the nod over Harrison and Moats, who will play a lot of snaps, even in reserve roles.
Why Senquez Golson could start: Golson is what the Steelers need, an inside corner who can combat the underneath passing game that safety Shamarko Thomas says got the best of the defense last season. Elite quarterbacks can carve up good defenses that eliminate the intermediate-to-deep stuff. Tom Brady is a master at this. But Golson’s role on the 2015 Steelers is complicated because although he's best utilized in the slot while in zone coverage, where he can use his instincts and vision, veteran William Gay has the inside track on that spot right now. Gay playing in the slot hinges on Antwon Blake solidifying an outside corner role and Cortez Allen rebounding from last season’s struggles in pass coverage. If those two things take shape, Gay can do damage inside. That leaves Golson on the sideline to start the season unless he’s too good to sit in training camp. A smart bet is he finds his way onto the field at some point in 2015, as a starter or reserve nickel corner. Receiver Antonio Brown recently told me Golson has stood out to him in offseason workouts; his presence is felt on the field. That’s high praise from one of the game’s best receivers. Even if the Steelers lack star power in the secondary, they do have adequate depth, which hurts Golson’s case.
Much like the entire Steelers’ defense, Pittsburgh’s defensive line is going through changes and a youth movement.
Gone is Dick LeBeau. Keith Butler, who learned much of his trade from LeBeau, has replaced the legendary coordinator. The “Steeler Way” and many of the defensive concepts should remain with Butler.
However, there is some speculation that Pittsburgh’s defensive line will become more of an attacking unit rather than a reactive one. The reason for doing this is to generate more pass rush from the front three rather than just occupying blockers and freeing up the second-level defenders to flow freely to the football. We also could see more slanting and stunts.
Cameron Heyward has come into his own and somewhat quietly has become one of the better 3-4 defensive ends in the NFL. He should be one of the new leaders of this young, rebuilding defense on and off the field. If the Steelers attack more up front, Heyward’s sack numbers should rise. He is already a force against the run and pass and should be in the running for Pro Bowl honors this year.
Brett Keisel is gone and the Steelers are counting on Stephon Tuitt to step up in his second season. Tuitt has much better movement skills than Keisel, who was at the end of the line physically. With Heyward and Tuitt starting at end, Pittsburgh should have good overall athleticism and range from this position. These two will bump inside on throwing downs. Tuitt has upside as an interior pass-rusher.
At nose tackle, Steve McLendon has that starting spot locked up. While he lacks the beef of a pure nose tackle like Casey Hampton and can be moved by double-teams in the run game, McLendon can spell Tuitt on throwing downs as an interior pass-rusher and is a very underrated player who can also play end in this scheme in a pinch.
Pittsburgh needs one of its younger defensive linemen to step up. Cam Thomas is basically the backup for all three defensive line spots at this point, but he didn’t perform close to what the Steelers paid him after signing him last offseason. If a few of the younger guys can step up, Pittsburgh likely would release Thomas and use his money elsewhere.
Last year the Steelers used a sixth-round pick on Daniel McCullers, a simply huge human being at 6-foot-7 and 352 pounds. Word on the street is that McCullers has lost approximately 15 pounds from last year. Even though he is a pure nose tackle, losing those excess pounds could end up being beneficial for McCullers and the Steelers’ interior run defense overall. With less baggage, he should be able to play with better pad level for more snaps throughout a game. As a pass rusher, McCullers can use his rare gifts of size and power to move smaller men backwards and he can disrupt throwing lanes in the A-gaps. But his forte is occupying space inside, not rushing the passer. He should make this team and take a step forward, like Tuitt, in his second season.
Pittsburgh also used a sixth-round pick on the line this year with the selection of Leterrius Walton, who is a project and could be targeted for the practice squad. But he does fit the size requirements that the Steelers look for at defensive end and could sneak on the opening day roster with a strong preseason.
The wild-card of this group is Clifton Geathers, who is 27 years old and has really bounced from team to team since entering the league. He is very tall (6-8, 325) and long with the exact dimensions for a Steelers-type defensive end. Since joining the team, the reports have been positive and he looks to have finally found a home in Pittsburgh. Ideally, he is the rotational third end. Also, while McCullers spells McLendon, McLendon could then possibly get a few reps at end with McCullers in the middle as sort of a jumbo package. While Pittsburgh might be keeping its eyes open when final roster cuts are made in search for another defensive lineman addition, it looks to have enough on hand (barring injuries) right now to allow the Steelers to release Thomas. It is a young group overall with some upside for improvement.
PITTSBURGH -- For a moment, let's forget about the ability of the Pittsburgh Steelers secondary or whether young draft picks will pan out.
None of that matters if the Steelers' retooled defense can do two things.
Stop the run, get the fear factor back.
The great Steelers defenses could shake the mental toughness of a quarterback by placing him in third-and-longs, then driving shoulders into the chest of that quarterback.
Four NFL seasons is enough for defensive end Cam Heyward to know run-stopping is the best way for the Steelers to get back to that.
"When you look back at the top defenses, here at least, it's all made on stopping the run," Heyward said. "I remember 2010, I had read something about the Steelers and they were talking about they had the best defense ever, and they stopped the run. They got after the quarterback and got interceptions. That didn't really didn't start until you had the front line creating havoc."
That 2010 team made the Super Bowl behind the league's best rushing defense that gave up an insane 3.0 yards per game. The year before, the Steelers finished ninth in the league in rushing yards allowed per attempt, and went 12-4.
Somehow, the 2012 team lost eight games despite allowing 3.7 yards per attempt. Last year's Steelers were tied for 25th in rushing defense and still won 11 games because the offense was so good. The Steelers ranked in the league's bottom third in interceptions and sacks, which is very un-Steelers like.
The way to fix that is clear-cut, safety Shamarko Thomas said.
"Like coach (Mike Tomlin) told us this morning, run stop and just hit," Thomas said. "The big dudes run around fast and the little dudes lay the lick. That's the big thing."
Heyward isn't expecting a defensive overhaul under new coordinator Keith Butler, a long-time member of Tomlin's staff, but he believes Butler will promote more one-on-one matchups for all 11 players. Also, Thomas said he expects more run-hitting opportunities for defensive backs.
"I think this year we're going to have a lot more guys to the ball, where you have the defensive linemen not just holding up guys, but where we have to make the play as well," Heyward said. "Coach Buts said early on, ‘I'm not going to hold you back. I want the linebackers to fend for themselves. I expect you guys to make plays for yourself.' Hopefully we all can help out and make more plays. In the rush, we are going to play some one-on-one situations where we have to win. We expect to."
How does Heyward, fresh off a 7.5-sack season and entering a contract year, feel about potentially getting more one-on-ones?
"I'm salivating," Heyward said. "I can't wait until the season starts."
Thomas remembers too many offenses gaining yards on underneath passing routes. This defense must clean that up.
"Read the QB, play man to man well, and no matter what you do, run to the ball," Thomas said.
Only then will the Steelers be truly feared again.
PITTSBURGH -- When Ben Roethlisberger watches film of last season's games, he can see what about Todd Haley's offense suits him well.
“All of it,” Roethlisberger said in an interview last week. “We work well together. Guys believe in it and believe in each other. That’s one of the biggest keys.”
The Pittsburgh Steelers open minicamp Tuesday with the optimism of a 6-2 finish to last year's regular season, a stretch during which Roethlisberger threw for 2,572 of his career-high 4,952 passing yards, completing at least 63 percent of his passes in all but one of those games. Roethlisberger’s quarterback rating jumped from 92 in 2013 to 103.3 last season thanks to 32 touchdowns and nine interceptions.
This is a sizable jump for a team that got trounced 31-10 in Cleveland on Oct. 12.
Both Roethlisberger and Haley, who is entering his fourth season as Pittsburgh's offensive coordinator, have expressed happiness with the balance struck between implementing Haley’s quick passing game -- with an emphasis on yards after the catch -- and utilizing Roethlisberger’s ability to improvise, or make “Ben-like plays,” as Haley calls them.
Roethlisberger was sacked 33 times last season, his lowest total since 2005.
Last year’s momentum, coupled with extra offseason offense work at Roethlisberger's lake home in Georgia, fostered productive organized team activity sessions in Pittsburgh. The offense regularly looked convincing against the first-team defense.
“A good cohesive group that wanted to be the best it can be,” Roethlisberger said last week about last season’s group. “If we can stay healthy and believe in each other and play the best football when we need to and have each other's back -- we need to be a selfless football team [to contend]. That’s one of the key ingredients to being a championship football team is being selfless and being there for one another.”
Despite last season's success, the offense knows it can produce more. The Steelers scored 436 points last season, good enough for a No. 7 ranking in the NFL. It was solid, but didn’t match its No. 2 ranking in yards per game with 411.
Haley charted the Steelers’ red zone efficiency last season and believed the offense left at least 30 points on the field in 2014. Pittsburgh's 51.72 success rate in the red zone barely cracked the league's top 20.
"Guys had some amazing individual seasons last year, and we had a really good season on offense in general, but there are always areas we can improve in and get better," Roethlisberger said.
Antonio Brown helps that process go smoothly for Roethlisberger, who calls Brown “probably the best receiver I’ve ever played with,” fresh off nearly 3,200 yards and 239 catches since 2013.
“Even when it’s not what it’s supposed to be, it seems to work,” Roethlisberger said last week about his throws to Brown, on broken plays or otherwise. “I guess that means we’re on the same page. He’s a special player."
Roethlisberger believes he hasn’t altered his game too much. At 33, he’s not looking to scramble very often, he said.
He’s simply asked to hold onto the ball for less time than when he played for former offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, who has an affinity for the deep ball.
“I think that’s what it is more than me changing or anyone changing,” Roethlisberger said.
Lately, that’s been a good thing for all parties involved.
BETWEEN CLEVELAND AND PITTSBURGH -- The need for a franchise quarterback in the NFL is obvious, but never is the reminder so glaring than when watching two teams practice in the same offseason.
One with the franchise, one without.
To the East, there's a quarterback that could have changed the Browns' outlook in the 2004 draft, before the Browns selected Kellen Winslow No. 6 overall. He runs offensive drills like a player/coach, constantly instructing young receivers on where to be and why. The ball rarely touches the ground. Five-wide sets, goal-line package, deep shots -- everything is crisp most of the time. The defense is usually behind as a result.
Ben Roethlisberger is a franchise quarterback right now. That's evident within a few minutes of watching a Steelers practice.
To the West, there are two quarterbacks trying to halt the now-infamous streak of 22 Browns starters since 1999. One is a long-time backup with 49 NFL starts in 12 seasons. He's reliable, a calming locker room presence, a classic bridge quarterback. He knows how to run a practice, where to put the ball. He's not going to torch a good defense like Cleveland's very often. The backup quarterback is getting his life right on the field but must answer questions on it. He's been hard on himself as a result. He shows glimpses of playmaking but the mistakes are still there, too.
Doesn't mean either of them can't perform well in 2015. After all, Browns quarterbacks are breaking in a new offense this month and must throwing against a high-level secondary every day. But there are 10 to 15 franchise guys on earth. The list doesn't fluctuate very much.
The Browns are doing a lot of the right things. They are building a stout defense and offensive line. They seem committed, eager to redirect the convenient dysfunction storyline.
A quarterback can bring it all together, as you've probably heard 1,286 times in this space. Make no mistake, the Browns can win some games with Josh McCown. The Texans won nine games with Ryan Fitzpatrick, Ryan Mallett and Case Keenum. It can be done.
But a guy that dominates a practice and elevates the play around him makes everything easier. The Steelers were 6-10 when drafting Roethlisberger. They haven't won fewer than eight games in a season since.
Seeing this in motion highlights the contrast in the best quarterbacks versus the others. Everything looks fluid, organic, smooth. Roethlisberger is far from perfect, but it's safe to say he looks worthy of his $100-plus-million contract.
The Browns would spend that much if they had a player to spend it on.
PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Steelers were second in the league with 6,577 total yards last season. Todd Haley's job, however, is to coordinate the offense through the prizm of improvement.
That’s why Haley is still a bit fired up that the Steelers didn’t finish in the top five in red-zone offense.
"I think it's an area of emphasis for us," Haley said of red-zone efficiency.
The Steelers ranked seventh league-wide with 27.3 points per game. Football Outsiders, which keeps and provides advanced stats on NFL teams, ranks the Steelers eighth in red-zone efficiency. Teamrankings.com has the Steelers with a 51.72 percent success rate in the red zone, good enough for 19th in the league.
Haley remembers at least 10 trips inside or close to the red zone when the Steelers produced zero points. Ten field goals equal 30 points, which would have pushed the Steelers closer to the top five.
A healthy portion of the Steelers' organized team activities sessions are dedicated to red-zone play, including packages from the 2-yard line.
"We have a very good kicker," Haley said of Shaun Suisham. "Really, how we changed our mentality, once we hit the 35 in decent weather conditions, we have to assume we have a chance to get 3 points. If we don't end up with at least 3, then we’ve hurt ourselves. Too many times last year (zero points) occurred for different reasons, whether it was a turnover or sack. Those add up surprisingly quick."
The Steelers "got in (the red zone) a bunch," Haley said, which is a positive sign. And the offense's big-play ability produced several scores from outside the 20.
"But when we get down in there tight, where football gets tough, we have to get the ball in the end zone, whether it’s running or throwing it," Haley said.
When Haley studied the Steelers' trends from inside the 35-yard line, he was dismayed by the turnovers.
"We can’t give away points," he said.
PITTSBURGH -- Asking Antonio Brown is a good way to judge the performance of the Pittsburgh Steelers' retooled cornerback position. Brown is a precise route runner and surveys the entire defensive backfield before the snap and when getting open.
Brown brought up the name of rookie second-round pick Senquez Golson when asked which young players have impressed him in organized team activities.
“Really like 27,” Brown said of Golson, who is wearing No. 27. “Smooth guy, doesn’t really say too much. Seems like he’s focusing on his business. I’m liking what I’m seeing from him.”
Veterans William Gay, Cortez Allen and Antwon Blake will occupy a bulk of the first-team reps, but if the Steelers have their way, Golson will eventually help the defense thwart opponents’ underneath passing attacks. Golson’s specialty is using his vision and instincts in the nickel defense.
Blake has had a solid past few weeks, something Brown has noticed. Blake is taking ownership of a starting spot unless proven otherwise.
“Quick, competitive, hungry -- he’s always a great challenge to go against him because he’s not going to quit,” Brown said. “Kill him on the route, he’s going to come back and try to swat the ball out of there, always fighting to the finish.”
PITTSBURGH -- The Steelers and Antonio Brown want to maintain a healthy marriage. Brown has no plans to miss training camp and says he will be there with a smile on his face.
Both sides respect each other. That hasn’t changed.
What also hasn’t changed is this: The league’s most productive wideout is not in the top 10 of highest-paid wideouts. Brown is due about $23 million over the final three years of his current deal, which places him in the Pierre Garcon/Victor Cruz range of money. That’s a tough sell for a player averaging nearly 120 catches and 1,600 yards over the last two seasons. Excellence is underpaid in this case.
Though the Steelers’ way is to avoid contract extensions unless a player has a year left on his deal, perhaps the Steelers could rearrange money to bolster Brown’s pay without affecting their salary cap.
I reached out to J.I. Halsell, a former Redskins salary cap analyst and purveyor of the Twitter handle @SalaryCap101, about how the Steelers could effectively pull this off – reward a productive and patient player without handcuffing the team on future business.
Here’s what Halsell suggested:
*From 2015-17, bump Brown from $22.96 million ($6 million, $8.25 million, $8.7 million) to $34.5 million, while adding two additional years to his deal.
*Create a $16 million signing bonus that’s prorated at $3.2 million until 2019.
*2015: $18.8 million payout (mostly the bonus), $9.787 million cap hit (no cap difference)
*2016: $5.512 million payout, $12.5 million cap hit ($462,000 cap increase)
*2017: $10.187 million payout, $15.475 million cap hit ($4.677 million cap increase)
*2018-19: $11.5 million each year, $14.7 million cap hit
*Average annual payout: $11.5 million
My take: This scenario has the Steelers giving Brown nearly $12 million in new money just for being him. That’s generous for a cost-effective team. But sometimes high-level, high-character players get rewarded, especially if cap hits on the back end of the current deal are already bloated. Twice the Seahawks increased Marshawn Lynch’s pay before they had to, with a raise in 2014 and a restructured deal in 2015. A mini-extension vaults Brown into a respectable financial range for his skill set without having to shatter megadeal standards for wide receivers. Just think, if Brown puts up two more huge years under his current deal, the Steelers would have to double down on Calvin Johnson-sized money ($113 million). A restructuring with new money avoids that process. Will the Steelers do this? Probably not. Brown’s not holding out and everything seems merry. But as we wrote in May, this situation doesn’t feel like it will go away.
PITTSBURGH -- Antonio Brown has played all 16 games in each of the last two seasons, and he plans to make it a third.
Brown has added five pounds of "good muscle" this offseason because he wants to be more durable, he said. He now weighs 195 pounds.
"Taking care of myself as far as training, getting proper rest, knowing what it takes to perform at a high level," Brown said. "Nutrition paid dividends for me last year, and just understanding even more now with the time last year is accommodating way better.”
Brown is known as an offseason workout warrior. He's usually the last off the practice field, and his regimen has contributed to his 239 catches for 3,197 yards and 21 touchdowns the last two seasons.
Brown isn't revealing dietary secrets, though.
"It's more important what you put into your body than what you put out," Brown said.
PITTSBURGH -- Le'Veon Bell makes clear he needs to “grow up and move forward” after his three-game suspension for marijuana, but there’s an important distinction attached to that.
His football routine hasn’t changed. He needed to grow up by making better choices. Basically, he needed to stop smoking, a sentiment he alluded to in a May interview with ESPN’s Josina Anderson and echoed in a post-practice interview with ESPN on Wednesday.
Since he has stopped smoking, he hasn’t noticed a difference in his preparation because he already prepared diligently in two years with the Steelers.
“I do the same things,” Bell said. “Regardless of what happened off the field, that doesn’t change what I do on the field and my performance.”
That performance makes the case for Bell becoming the NFL’s best all-around back with 2,215 offensive yards in 2014. From eating egg whites to occasional 5 a.m. wakeups, here are football habits Bell has practiced since becoming a pro in 2013.
On how he has developed into a reliable receiver (83 catches last year): “Knowing when to break in on option routes, when to hook it up, when to break it out, identifying the defense. Obviously, catching the ball is big. You don’t get as many opportunities to catch it as a running back so sometimes you’ll drop it. Then, the quarterback might not trust the running back’s hands. All of those elements factor into the games, so Ben [Roethlisberger] now has the confidence to throw me the ball. Even when I may not be open all the way, he throws me open. Now that he trusts me like he trusts his wideouts, the sky is the limit."
On playing naturally: “When I used to drop the ball, it was because of concentration, trying to run before I caught the ball. I got way better from college to the NFL, I’m glad I will continue to grow with it. Now I can make moves and I’m not thinking when I touch the ball; it happens naturally because I practice at it so much.”
On touching the ball ‘however many times necessary to win the game’: “Some games I have 12 or 13 touches and we win the game, I’m fine with that. Some games I’ll have 35 touches and we’ll win the game. I’m fine with that, too.”
On body recovery: “I definitely stick to a diet, get a lot of massages, a lot of MAT [muscle activation techniques], training room, stretching, rolling out my legs, making sure joints and muscles are working so I don’t come out to practice feeling tired. I always try to stay loose."
On an NFL vet teaching him how to live right: "Jerricho Cotchery, that’s who I followed. I watched him every day as a rookie. He’d stretch and get in the ice tub, get in the hot tub, he always was getting himself right. I kind of took his routine. That’s why I’ve been able to stay healthy. In college I was younger so I didn’t really know or learn what to do. You think you are taking care of your body because you’re sitting in the ice tub for 2 minutes. Now, I do 18 or 20. Now, I go to the training room or the stretching room even when something’s not hurt. It’s all about prevention. If I’m even a little tight or sore, I work things out."
On his diet secrets: “My go-to, I eat a lot of boiled eggs, egg whites. A lot of people like chips or candy, I just cook eggs. I have a chef for my main meals but when he’s not there, rather than go to the store and grab chips, I will eat grapes or a banana or egg whites."
On sleeping habits: “Sleep helps me stop eating. When you wake up in the morning, you have your breakfast, that’s great, but if I’m not staying on my diet, I’ll eat late and then go to sleep on it, and that’s not something I’m supposed to be doing. I try to get 8 hours. If I go to bed at 9, I’m up at 5 naturally. Don’t really need an alarm clock. Sometimes I get six hours. It depends.”
PITTSBURGH – Ryan Shazier's head was covered in sweat after Tuesday's practice. He looked like a man working to reclaim his name.
After missing seven games as a rookie with an ankle injury and a sprained MCL, Ryan Shazier probably deserved a pass for his 36-tackle, no-turnover debut. He’s still expected to start at inside linebacker alongside Lawrence Timmons.
Considering his potential, no wonder why Shazier feels he underwhelmed with his performance.
“This is definitely a chance to wipe the slate, start off healthy and do everything I need to do to get back on point,” Shazier said. “Last year was kind of a disappointment for me because I felt I could have brought more to the team.”
Shazier has ridiculous speed for the position, running an unofficial 40-yard dash of 4.36 seconds at Ohio State’s 2014 pro day, another reminder why the Pittsburgh Steelers picked him No. 15 overall.
There’s a realistic chance that, when healthy, Shazier can record 100-plus tackles in Keith Butler's 3-4 defense because of his open-field tackling ability, especially in pass coverage. He’s a young piece for a defense restocking after several marquee departures. The Steelers have drafted a linebacker in each of the last three rounds.
Shazier must show he can stay healthy. Bulking up to 233 pounds, after playing in the mid-220s last season, should help.
“I don’t know if I have something to prove, but I have something to prove to my teammates,” Shazier said. “I’m just trying to help us get to the next level and get No. 7 Super Bowl. I want to prove myself to my teammates and that’s all that matters.”
The Steelers are preparing Shazier for “all-case scenarios” on the field, Shazier said. That’s crucial because the Steelers don’t view him as a specialist, but a linebacker that can play every down, tackle in the open field and rush the passer when necessary.
The Steelers’ defense will have several aggressive blitz looks involving linebackers. They need versatility from Shazier, especially with his backup, Sean Spence, getting 53 tackles in Shazier’s place last season. If Shazier isn't ready, Spence will be.
“Wherever the ball goes, I have to make a play around it,” Shazier said. “Open field, in the box, in pass situations -- I feel like anything they ask me to do, I can really help out.”
Devin Gardner has come full circle. In college, he started as a wide receiver at Michigan before switching to quarterback. As a Pittsburgh Steelers undrafted free agent, Gardner again started as a receiver and is now taking quarterback reps.
Gardner isn't sure whether he'll stay at quarterback or return to receiver. This is an open experiment.
The Steelers' offense is similar to what Gardner did at Michigan, he said, save the terminology and nuances.
Gardner and former Boston College quarterback Tyler Murphy are both trying to make the team as a receiver or quarterback.
PITTSBURGH -- In one sequence, the ball is out of Ben Roethlisberger's hands in less than two seconds. On a later play, he's pump-faking three times with his signature windmill ball palm and standing in the pocket for five-plus seconds.
This contrast from Tuesday's Pittsburgh Steelers organized team activities session isn't lost on offensive guard David DeCastro, who understands the offense aims to find the balance between Todd Haley's quick passing game and the improvisation that makes Roethlisberger who he is.
The offense clicked in Haley's third year as coordinator, with Roethlisberger posting a career-high 4,952 yards. Roethlisberger wants the 2015 offense to look "exactly" like last season as far as quick-passing/deep-ball balance, he says. That doesn't mean he must conform on every play, either. Plays must be made.
"That's always part of it," said DeCastro about Roethlisberger making plays when things break down. "That's the one thing you can't really measure, that intangible, the ability to scramble and make plays. Sometimes you have to block a little longer and that's OK. That's our job."
No doubt, Roethlisberger has worked at releasing the ball quickly. That's what the offense asks of him, and Roethlisberger credits quarterbacks coach Randy Fichtner for being "awesome" with staying on him about it.
The system is working. Roethlisberger was sacked 2.06 times per game last season, his lowest total since 2005 (1.9). Roethlisberger tied for 12th among NFL quarterbacks with 33 sacks in 2014.
Roethlisberger has always been willing to take the hits because he's durable (6-foot-5, 241 pounds) and he's willing to extend a play. He doesn't have to do that as much because Haley's offense is partly about yards after the catch and, as Roethlisberger points out, he's now 33.
"Guys are getting younger and faster, and I am not getting any faster," Roethlisberger said. "If I don't have to run around, I don't."
What won't change, DeCastro says, is Roethlisberger using instincts to make plays inside or (slightly) outside of the pocket.
DeCastro knows each year there will be a few plays where Roethlisberger "makes you look right" as a blocker.
"You get beat and he'll make you look good, step to the side and help you out with a block," DeCastro said. "That's a huge luxury. ...We just want to let Ben do his thing and keep him clean."
Call the Steelers' system rigid if you'd like, but when talking to players, Roethlisberger has a reasonable level of freedom. That's not likely to change. What helps is Roethlisberger and Haley seemed to have developed trust.
In case the complexion of a play changes, receiver Martavis Bryant, who had an impressive day Tuesday, always reminds himself to do two things pre-snap.
"Read the signals and keep my eyes on him the whole time," he said.