Sunday, July 20, 2014

A look on what to look for at camp

With training camp set to open at week's end, there are surprisingly few starting spots up for grabs on the Steelers' roster.

That does not, however, mean that there won't be a few heated battles. Here's a quick look at what we can expect:

Punter-The Steelers would like to settle on one guy this year rather than this being a rotation of "JV" punters - to steal a phrase from Mike Tomlin - as it has been the past couple of seasons. Veteran Adam Podlesh was signed as a free agent and has been solid, if unspectacular, throughout his career. He averaged a career-low 40.6 yards per punt in 2013, but a big reason for that was that he placed 27 of his 68 kicks (40 percent) inside the opposing 20. In to challenge Podlesh is former LSU bad boy Brad Wing. The Australian has a big leg and averaged 44.6 yards in his college career but was suspended at LSU for a bowl game and also had an arrest for battery. He was released by Philadelphia at the end of training camp last year.

Right tackle-Marcus Gilbert is the starter right now and there's no reason to think he won't hold that spot down. But Mike Adams lined up at No. 2 there throughout the offseason and, with Gilbert going into his contract season, the team could take a long look to see if Adams is the better long-term option.

Inside linebacker-Ryan Shazier has been handed the starting spot held down for most of last season by Vince Williams. Williams is back and showed improvement last season, but not enough for the team to pass on the chance to take Shazier in the first round. Make this an all-around battle royal Sean Spence is back as well after missing the past two seasons with a serious knee injury. Rookie Jordan Zumwalt could be a special teams star and Terence Garvin also has shown some promise. Shazier and Timmons are guarantees to make the team and free agent signee Arthur Moats can also line up inside or outside. That could mean that just two out of the group of Williams, Zumwalt, Spence and Garvin make this roster, though Garvin and Zumwalt can also slide outside.

Wide receiver-Antonio Brown will start at one spot. But who starts on the other side? Markus Wheaton will get the first chance. But Justin Brown has looked good pretty much since last November. Lance Moore is more of a slot guy, while veterans Darius Heyward-Bey, Derek Moye and fourth-round draft pick Martavis Bryant are also in the mix. Rookie Dri Archer will also see some time at WR, while there are a couple of interesting prospects in former Virginia Tech star Danny Coale, Kashif Moore and Cal U's C.J. Goodwin. Todd Haley called this a deep group, and he wasn't wrong. But the Steelers need somebody to step up into a more prominent role opposite Brown.

Tight end-Heath Miller and Matt Spaeth are locks. But veterans Michael Palmer and David Paulson will be pushed for the No. 3 spot by interesting prospects Rob Blanchflower and Eric Waters, a pair of rookies. The Steelers had draftable grades on both Blanchflower and Waters and took Blanchflower in the seventh round. Both are considered solid blockers and receivers. The No. 3 spot could come down to special teams plays, though another spot is likely there for the taking on the practice squad.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Pounceys being sued is obvious money grab

I've answered the question here and on Twitter: "What do you think of the Pouncey news?"

To this point, my reply has been the same. Nothing.

At this point, there appears to be nothing to it as far as the Pouncey twins are concerned.

To the uninformed, a man went on social media claiming to have been attacked in Miami by the Pouncey twins and bouncers at a club where the twins were celebrating their 25th birthdays.

Yes his face was swollen. Yes, he was crying on video.

But that's all we have to this point.

There is still no proof that either Pouncey twin engaged in an assault. The only claims we have seen regarding the incident come from the victim.

That same "victim" announced today that he plans on suing the Pouncey brothers. Geez, that didn't take long.

According to the victim's statement today on a Miami television statement the incident began with the Pouncey brothers taunting him, then, "Somebody grabbed me and ?I got hit. Somebody lifted me up and dragged me out of the club. I was being beat up, I was getting kicked and punched. A bottle hit me."

The initial investigation has shown that the Pouncey brothers were not involved in the assault. And I'm sure the guy was minding his own business and the brothers picked him out of the crowd to start taunting. And then, they pointed to the bouncers and had a hole stomped in him.

Yep, it all sounds very plausible. . . Not.

Some might rip the Pounceys for throwing themselves a party. Some might trash them for being out past 4 a.m. - which is when this alleged incident took place.

But the fact of the matter is, there are an awful lot of holes in this guy's story. And him saying he's bringing a lawsuit into play before any charges have even been filed only makes that more so the case.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Is Keisel returning to Steelers?

With training camp for the Steelers scheduled to begin in less than two weeks at Saint Vincent College, now would be the time for the team to start looking at any possible additions to the roster.

The Steelers have just over $6 million in salary cap space and could bolster their roster with an addition or two. There will be some contract extensions as well, but that won't likely eat up all of the cap space.

No. 1 on that list would be defensive end Brett Keisel.

Make no mistake about this. IF the Steelers bring Keisel back, it would not be to start. In fact, he would be, at best, a 10-snap-per-game player as a situational pass rusher.

Consider that Cam Thomas, the guy signed to help replace Keisel, has six career sacks in four seasons in San Diego. And Keisel had four sacks and 26 pressures - third on the team behind Jason Worilds and Cam Heyward - despite missing four games.

But what he would mean in the locker room would be so much greater.

Few players in the locker room are as respected as the 35-year-old Keisel, who turns 36 in September.

But even more than that, consider that Cam Heyward and Steve McLendon is now the senior man in the Steelers' defensive lineman room - at least in terms of time spent with Pittsburgh.

This is no knock on McLendon, who is a ridiculously hard worker, or Heyward, who is coming into his own as a leader, but it wouldn't hurt to have another trusted voice in that meeting room, somebody who could mentor second-round draft pick Stephon Tuitt.

McLendon and Heyward are both young starters and are likely more worried about improving their own game than they are mentoring a young teammate.

Does Keisel have to be on the roster for that to happen? I think so, unless he's ready to hang up his helmet and take on more of a coaching role. And I don't see that happening yet.

As of mini-camp, Keisel still hadn't cleaned out his locker. Everything was still there, just as he had left it at season's end.

Did Keisel know something? Perhaps.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Top 25, the final five

Here are the top five players on the Steelers' top 25 list. By now, you guys (and girls) all know the parameters. So here we go:

No. 5. Troy Polamalu. I've seen all of the guesses on who would be the top five. This is where I put Polamalu. He's not what he once was, but he's still an impactful player. In fact, he's probably still the player opposing offenses fear the most for the Steelers because of his playmaking ability and with the way he can disrupt a game. But there's no doubt he's slowed down. He had to play more in the box last year than he has in quite some time. Will the addition of Mike Mitchell and Ryan Shazier alleviate that and allow him to freelance more? That should be the case.

No. 4 Lawrence Timmons. Timmons once again led the team in tackles and was disruptive at times in 2013. But he had to cover too much for the constant merry-go-round beside him once Larry Foote was lost for the season in the opener. With speedy Ryan Shazier playing beside him, I expect Timmons to match or exceed the career-high seven sacks he had in 2009. If he can do that, get his 120-130 tackles and pick off a couple of passes, the Pro Bowl awaits.

No. 3 Cameron Heyward. Heyward was arguably the best 3-4 defensive lineman in the NFL last season. And he's still learning the position. He might not put up the big statistics of Polamalu or Timmons, but he'll be even more important in this defense this season if he can consistently draw double teams. And when he isn't doubled, if he gets to the QB, that will be a big bonus. Heyward, like Timmons, could burst onto the national scene this season.

No. 2 Antonio Brown. Brown is now a two-time team MVP. He does a little bit of everything for this team's offense. The Steelers would like to lighten his load a little bit and get him off punt returns, which might finally happen this year with the addition of Dri Archer. That won't affect Brown's overall value, however. He's still the focal point of the offense.

No. 1 Ben Roethlisberger. If the Steelers had snuck into the playoffs last season as the sixth widlcard, nobody would have relished the matchup because Roethlisberger was playing some of the best football of his career. He's bought into the Todd Haley system and they have a good give-and-take. Roethlisberger is getting rid of the ball more quickly, and Haley is giving him more freedom to run the no-huddle. The cast will be different this season, but Roethlisberger makes it go.

Sunday, July 06, 2014

Steelers top 25, 6-10

Here's the next five on my list of the Steelers' top 25 players. Remember, we're not including rookies in this.

No. 10. Mike Mitchell, S. Speed and explosiveness. They were missing from the Steelers' secondary - particularly at free safety last season. Mitchell brings those two things, plus some ball skills as well. It's not a knock on Ryan Clark. He just got old, and once the NFL legislated big hits out of the game, his lack of speed became a serious detriment. I look for Mitchell to have at least four interceptions, three sacks and two forced fumbles in 2014.

No. 9. Maurkice Pouncey, C. I know a lot of people are on the Fernando Velasco bandwagon. And he played well in 2013 in place of Pouncey. But Pouncey's a legitimate Pro Bowl center. He's also the leader of the line and one of this team's offensive leaders. He's going to have a big bounce-back season.

No. 8. Le'Veon Bell, RB. Bell had 1,259 total yards in 13 games in 2013. And he was learning things on the fly after missing most of the preseason and first three games with a mid-foot sprain. He's only going to get better, and the addition of LeGarrette Blount will only help take some of the pressure off of him. Bell should have 1,600 total combined yards from scrimmage this season.

No. 7. Jason Worilds. Worilds emerged as a force last season, particularly once he was moved into LaMarr Woodley's strongside linebacker position. Many are still taking a show-me stance with Worilds, but realize this: He's started 21 career games and has 18 sacks. Last season was not a fluke. Worilds should have a big season in 2014 and put the Steelers in a precarious spot. Do they let him walk or slap the Franchise Tag on him? It's unlikely a contract gets done at this point because if you're Worilds, why would you want to sign unless it's a big deal, and if you're the Steelers, you're not going to make him a huge offer.

No. 6. David DeCastro, G. DeCastro should have made the Pro Bowl in 2013. He didn't because the Steelers' overall rushing numbers weren't very good. But DeCastro was very, very good in 2013. He'll make it this season and prove to be the Steelers' best overall lineman.

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Top 25 Steelers/ 11-15

Here is the continuation of the Steelers' top 25 list. Again, a reminder, this does not include rookies, several of whom could jump onto this list this season.

No. 15. Ike Taylor, CB. Yes, Ike had a bad first half last season. That will happen when you're being matched against the A.J. Greens and Calvin Johnsons of the world with virtually no safety help. But there's little doubt that Ike is slowing down a little. He rebounded to play better in the second half, particularly in the final month of the season. The Steelers asked him to take a pay cut and Ike accepted. He said he was OK with it, but then ripped the move on the Jim Rome Show last week. So he's got a chip on his shoulder. That could mean he bounces back with one more solid season in 2014.

No. 14. Lance Moore, WR. Yes, Moore hasn't yet played a down for the Steelers, but Ben Roethlisberger is raving about Moore's ability to find the open area. Moore had just 37 receptions for 457 yards and two scores last season in New Orleans, but in 2012, he caught 65 passes for 1,041 yards and six scores. He's just 30 and could approach those numbers again this season.

No. 13. LeGarrette Blount, RB. Another player who hasn't yet played a down for the Steelers but who will make a big impact in 2014. Blount averaged 5.0 yards per carry for New England last season (153-772) with seven touchdowns and then had 172 yards and four touchdowns in 29 postseason carries. His career average per carry is 4.7 yards. He and LeVeon Bell will be options 1 and 1A in the Steelers' rushing attack.

No. 12. Kelvin Beachum, LT. This is a pretty high ranking for Beachum, but he handles one of the most important positions on the field, perhaps the most important one that doesn't actually handle the ball. The Steelers went 8-4 with Beachum at left tackle in 2013. He's not going to amaze you with his power or speed, but he's a solid technician who gets the job done. And he's still improving.

No. 11. Heath Miller, TE. This ranking for Miller is actually lower than where many would have him, but he just played OK in 2013 as he continued to recover from a serious knee injury suffered at the end of the 2013 season when he was the team MVP. Miller has looked good in OTAs and mini-camp and looks more like the player he was in 2012 rather than the shell of himself than he was in 2013. He could easily push his way back into the top 10 this season.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

The next five

Continuing with the Steelers' top 25 series, here are players No. 20-16. Keep in mind, no rookies are being ranked:

20. Will Johnson, FB. Johnson is a meat-and-potato guy who could be much more. He's big and fast and could be a bigger weapon in 2014 after getting just 10 touches in 2013.

19. Steve McLendon, NT. McLendon unfairly took the brunt of the blame for the Steelers' shoddy run defense in 2013. Many of the big gains that hurt them and their overall average were when he wasn't on the field or ran to the outside, away from the middle. Is he Casey Hampton. No. But he's solid. Many of the same people ripping him in 2013 were the same ones calling for him to play more in 2012.

18. Marcus Gilbert, RT. Gilbert is heading into a contract year hoping to hold off Mike Adams at right tackle. To this point, he's done just that. Again, he's not spectacular, but he's a decent NFL starter who still has some upside.

17. Ramon Foster, LG. Foster was forced to be the brains of the outfit up front in 2013 when Maurkice Pouncey went down. He worked with Fernando Velasco to get him up to speed, then did the same with Cody Wallace. Foster is solid and, like the rest of his linemates, still getting better.

16. Cortez Allen, CB. Allen, to this point, has barely scratched the surface on his talent. In fact, it wouldn't surprise me if he jumped up into the top 10 in terms of value to the Steelers in 2014. He's big, he's got speed and he's smart in coverage. An ankle injury held him back to some extent in 2013. But he could break out in 2014. The Steelers should sign him to a contract extension before the season starts, if he'll go for it.