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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.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Ranking the Steelers' top 25

We're in that dead period. You know the one; the time in between the end of mini-camp and the start of training camp.

There's just not a lot happening right now, especially since the NFL instituted a rookie salary cap. Heck, even the rookies are now signed.

So I'm going to start something new to pass the time. I'm going to rank the Steelers' top 25 players. Why 25? Why not? It's a nice round number and I'll do five each week until the start of training camp July 25.

So here's the first installment. As a side note, I'm not going to rank rookies since they haven't played an NFL game as of yet.

No. 25. Markus Wheaton, WR - Wheaton is expected to start this season, but he's not there yet. He has flashed the ability on the practice field but we haven't see it in a game as of yet. If the Steelers are going to be better than 8-8 this season, they need Wheaton to play his way into a much higher spot on this list.

No. 24. Mike Adams, OT - I know this one is going to draw some fire. But Adams is entering just his third NFL season. It's way too early to give up on him. He's running second team behind Marcus Gilbert at RT heading into training camp, but that could certainly change. The upside potential is still there and he's an excellent run blocker. Can he become a credible pass blocker? That remains to be seen.

No. 23. Cam Thomas, DE - Thomas is a big body and maybe the Steelers can coax some solid play out of him, but he lost his starting job at nose tackle in San Diego at the end of last season. Thomas is going to be in the mix at both defensive end and nose tackle, but he's going to be looking over his shoulder all season at second-round pick Stephon Tuitt.

No. 22. Jarvis Jones, OLB - The 2013 first-round draft pick was basically handed a starting job last season but lost it. He was thinking on the field too much in 2013 and it showed. Like Wheaton, if the Steelers are going to make a push for the playoffs in 2014, Jones has to push his ranking higher

No. 21. William Gay, CB -  If you believe, Gay was one of the best corners in the league in 2013. But I trust my eyes. Gay isn't nearly as bad as some fans would lead you to believe, but he's not one of the top corners in the league, either. He's a solid No. 3.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Mini-camp, that's a wrap

How intent was Mike Tomlin in getting a full day of practice in on Thursday for the final day of mini-camp?

So much so that when the skies opened up Thursday during the afternoon practice, he quickly moved the team indoors.

Some would say the extra hour of practice the team got indoors was no big deal, but when you're breaking in a new free safety and rookie inside linebacker, all the reps are important. That's especially true considered strong safety Troy Polamalu had missed all of the OTAs and needed the extra time working with Mike Mitchell.

Tomlin had traditionally let the team leave following the morning walk through. That wasn't happening today.

@ That should be a pretty good preview of what's going to happen at training camp this year. There will be no wasted practice dates.

This is a team with a lot of new (and young) components and the more practice time they can get, the better.

The new CBA severely limits how often and how intense teams can practice, which hurts teams that have a lot of turnover.

That typically hasn't been the Steelers, but it is the boat in which they now find themselves.

@ There's a growing buzz around this current Steelers team. I was talking with Gerry Dulac of the Post-Gazette, who also writes for the Sporting News - for which I had a longtime subscription but didn't know still existed - and he said the publication was picking the Steelers to win the AFC North in its yearly preview magazine.

I'm not surprised by that, though I'd still say Cincinnati is the overall favorite.

I think the Steelers are a definite playoff team this year from what I've seen. Regardless, their two games with Cincinnati in December should be huge.

@ Todd Haley called this the deepest receiver group he's had. That might be true. There are a bevy of seemingly equal talents fighting for a roster spot after the top four - Antonio Brown, Markus Wheaton, Lance Moore and Martavis Bryant (on scholarship).

And they all bring something a little different.

I'd say the battle right now is between Justin Brown and Darius Heyward-Bey, but I'm not counting anyone out. After all, Derek Moye made the roster last season based on a couple of nice plays in the preseason.

@ Jason Worilds was excused from today's practice.

@ The Steelers remain interested in free agent cornerback Brandon Flowers. I'm not sure where he would fit into the mix, but the team is about $6 million under the salary cap and the only corner among their top four signed for next year is William Gay.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Day two of minicamp

The Steelers just completed their second day of minicamp Wednesday and will wrap things up Thursday.

Usually, Mike Tomlin has cut his troops free early, but I don't think that will happen this year with so many new faces in key spots. Every practice counts.

@ Ben Roethlisberger confirmed today that Dri Archer is working  with the running backs one day and the receivers the next.

The Steelers want Archer to learn both roles, which will give them some flexibility when he's on the field.

Opponents won't be able to key on him just coming into the huddle. They'll need to figure out if he's lining up at running back or receiver.

@ Roethlisberger also confirmed what some other guys have been saying about the Steelers wanting to increase the number of packages from which they can run their no-huddle.

The idea is to start a drive at a regular pace and then go no-huddle at a moment's notice to catch the other team in a bad personnel package.

@ Talked to a source today about cornerback Brandon Flowers, who was released recently by Kansas City.

The Steelers have some interest in Flowers, though they're not about to go overboard to acquire him.

@ Martavis Bryant was back working today after sitting out Tuesday with an illness.

@ Here is how misinformation gets passed along.

One of the local newspapers did a story quoting a couple of national analysts - nobody from the Steelers - about how the team could be considering a shift to the 4-3 defense.

One of the analysts is an NFL Network guy.

A day after the story runs in said local paper, again, with nobody from the Steelers saying anything of the sort, the NFL Network starts tweeting that the Steelers are considering changing to a 4-3, with the source being their own guys answering a question.

And people wonder why I get frustrated with this job.

@ The Steelers released corner Deion Belue and signed running back Jordan Hall.

@ Congrats to the Post-Gazette's Ed Bouchette for being named the 2014 McCants Award winner for a career of excellence covering the NFL.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Mini-camp opens

I spent a lot of time watching Joey Porter work today with the outside linebackers during position drills on the opening day of the Steelers' min-camp.

Porter is coaching it with the same intensity with which he played.

When young linebackers didn't do a drill right, Porter would physically step in and show them the right way to do it, then make then do it again and again, until they got it just right.

"I want you to get the proper technique," he yelled at rookie outside linebacker Howard Jones at one point. "I don't care how fast you do it. I'd rather you do it slow and do it right than do it fast and do it wrong."

Porter was talking specifically with Jones, a Shepherd product, about getting his hips squared while working on his swim move against tackling dummies. Jones slowed down and did the drill correct.

@ How into practices is Porter? He's the only coach I've seen that has to ice his knees during practice.

Part of the reason for that is having spent 10-plus years playing in the NFL. But he's also very active out there.

@ You see the difference between the veterans and the younger guys in their positional drills. The vets do them with confidence and explosion. The younger guys are still feeling their way through the process.

@ Spoke with rookie tight end Eric Waters today about his days at Missouri.

I wondered how it was he had just eight receptions last season and 14 for his career.

"Being targeted less than 10 times in a season, it sucks," said Waters. "Once I get the opportunity at this level, it will be showing everybody else that (Missouri) had a weapon that was never used."

My guess is that Waters won't have any of the Missouri coaches on his Christmas card list.

@ Waters' statement was similar to the one a couple of weeks ago from California (Pa.) wideout C.J. Goodwin, who caught just 11 passes in his only season for the Vulcans.

Goodwin has made a number of acrobatic catches in the short time he's been with the Steelers, including a couple today. It wouldn't surprise me if he makes a strong push to make the practice squad  - though the true test will come when the hitting starts for real.

It's easy to make catches when you know you won't be hit. Doing so when you know you're going to get crushed is sometimes another matter.

But Goodwin is certainly very athletic.

@ Troy Polamalu was at the team's facilities today for the mandatory practice sessions. New free safety Mike Mitchell said he looks forward to learning from Polamalu.

The dynamic between those two should be interesting. Polamalu and Ryan Clark are the best of friends. He and Mitchell don't have to be quite that close, but it would certainly help speed the process for them to get on the same page if they spent some time together.

As Mitchell said, "Us playing together for the first time, he needs to know how I play and how I think. I need to see how he responds to certain situations, handles emotions."

@ Jason Worilds was back on the field for position drills on Tuesday after sitting out the OTAs with an unspecified injury. He's able to run and do conditioning work.

@ Members of the Penn State coaching staff, including head coach James Franklin, were in attendance at practice today.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Summing up Chuck Noll

I started covering the Steelers in 1993, two years after Chuck Noll retired. But his legacy on the team was obvious every time you walked into Three Rivers Stadium and, later, the Steelers offices on the South Side or Heinz Field.

He created what is now commonly known as the Steelers' way.

Here are my thoughts on Noll and what he meant to the team

Thursday, June 12, 2014

OTA's wrap up with Pouncey contract

The Steelers wrapped up their OTAs for this offseason with the announcement that they had signed center Maurkice Pouncey to what amounts to a six-year, $48-million deal.

Sounds like a lot, right? It is, until you look at the overall numbers.

While Pouncey's deal makes him the NFL's highest-paid center, in a couple of seasons, he'll probably be the seventh or eighth highest-paid player at his position.

And his 2014 cap hit of $3.6 million isn't anywhere near the top of the charts for centers, and is far less than the $5.26 million he was scheduled to count against the cap this season. Editor's Note: The savings doesn't take into account $1.4 million of remaining bonus money from his rookie deal. So the savings in 2014 is actually about $250,000.

So, in reality, the Steelers just saved themselves some cap space this season while also locking up a player who was the first center in NFL history to make the Pro Bowl in each of his first three seasons.

Is there a downside? Sure. Maybe Pouncey comes back and isn't the player he was before tearing his ACL in the first game of last season. Maybe he re-injures the knee. But that's a danger any time you sign a player to a long-term deal in football.

As hard as it is to believe, Pouncey is still just 24 years old. His best football is still ahead of him. And his contract extension Thursday made sure he'll play that best football in Pittsburgh.

@ Some of those trashing the Pouncey signing point to Pro Football Focus' ranking of Pouncey outside the top 12 in NFL centers as proof.

PFF's rankings are ridiculous. Some of the same people who use the PFF rankings to rip Pouncey also rip cornerback William Gay, who was one of PFF's highest-rated cornerbacks in the NFL last season.

There is no way somebody sitting on a couch somewhere can accurately judge how well or how poorly every player on a football field performed on every given play of a game. It's just not possible without knowing assignments and other things that go into it.

That's not to say that PFF doesn't have some good statistics. The site's breakdowns on where plays are run and such are excellent.

But don't quote me their player rankings as the be-all, end-all. It's just not the case.

@ Mike Mitchell jumped a pass in the red zone today with the kind of closing speed that was reminiscent of a young Troy Polamalu, easily picking it off. It was his second interception at the OTAs this week.

His speed could be a game-changer for the Steelers.

Mitchell, of course, will finally get his first opportunity to work with Polamalu next week at mini-camp.

Polamalu, as he often has, skipped all the OTAs to work out on his own.

@ I look for the Steelers to try to get something done on a contract with Cortez Allen next, assuming Allen wants to do a deal.

Right now, Gay is the only veteran cornerback on the roster signed for next season.

Why wouldn't Allen want to sign now?

He could be looking at Keenan Lewis-type money down the road if he has a big 2014.

It's unlikely the Steelers at this point would offer him a deal in the neighborhood of the five-year, $26.3-million deal Lewis signed with New Orleans.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Steelers release training camp schedule, practice at Heinz

The Steelers on Tuesday released their training camp schedule. Players will report on Friday, July 25, with the first practice open to the public falling on Saturday, July 26.

All told, 15 practices will be open to the public, including the popular night practice Aug. 1 at Latrobe Memorial Stadium.

One added twist this season will be a pair of dual practices with the Buffalo Bills Aug. 13 and 14 in the leadup to their preseason game at Heinz Field Aug. 16.

The Steelers have not practiced against another NFL team since doing so with the Washington Redskins back in the mid-'90s.

Steelers 2014 Training Camp Schedule

Friday, July 25All players report by 4 p.m.
Saturday, July 262:55 p.m. and open to public
Sunday, July 272:55 p.m. and open to public
Monday, July 282:55 p.m. and open to public
Tuesday, July 29Players Day Off - no Steelers' practice
Wednesday, July 302:55 p.m. and open to public
Thursday, July 312:55 p.m. and open to public
Friday, August 17 p.m. Night Practice at Latrobe's Memorial Stadium
Saturday, August 22:55 p.m. and open to public
Sunday, August 32:55 p.m. and open to public
Monday, August 42:55 p.m. and open to public
Tuesday, August 5Players Day Off - no Steelers' practice
Wednesday, August 62:55 p.m. and open to public
Thursday, August 72:55 p.m. and open to public
Friday, August 8No Steelers' practice - team travels
Saturday, August 9First Preseason Game at N.Y. Giants (7:30 p.m., KDKA-TV)
Sunday, August 10Players Day Off - no Steelers' practice
Monday, August 112:55 p.m. and open to public
Tuesday, August 122:55 p.m. and open to public
Wednesday, August 132:55 p.m. joint practice with Buffalo Bills, open to public
Thursday, August 145:30 p.m. evening practice at Saint Vincent College with Buffalo Bills, open to public
Friday, August 15No Steelers' practice
Saturday, August 16Camp Breaks - Second Preseason Game vs. Buffalo Bills (7:30 p.m., KDKA-TV)

@ The team held an OTA session at Heinz Field on Tuesday and it was a spirited session.

The Steelers have added a second jumbotron in the northwest corner of the stadium and players could get an immediate sense of what was going on by watching the regular jumbotron in the end zone or by looking at the new one. Plans are in place to add a third jumbotron as well.

The team worked on a lot of red zone today and Ben Roethlisberger looked pretty sharp.

Despite his diminutive size, Lance Moore showed he can be a go-to guy in that area. Martavis Bryant also showed some skills on the fade.

@ Mike Tomlin was giving Le'Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount and earful during a special teams session about how the running backs weren't going to be any help on special teams.

Blount said he could return kicks - which he has done in his career. And Tomlin came back at him by saying Blount could return kicks like Najeh Davenport and Gary Russell returned kicks at times for the Steelers.

When Blount used that example as proof that he could do it, too, Tomlin replied, "They did it because we didn't have anybody else."

Tomlin did tell Blount he might get a chance to show his stuff, though.

@ Jason Worilds did some running today, but did not practice.

He was asked after practice if he had a goal for how many sacks he would get this season.

"As many as we can get," he said.

How many is that, he was asked again.

"How many dropbacks we face, 400?" Worilds said.

I haven't looked it up yet, but that would probably be a record.

@ With Worilds sitting out, Chris Carter is getting increased reps, and he's showed a nice burst off the edge.

Thursday, June 05, 2014

A quick interview with Heath Miller

Caught up with Steelers tight end Heath Miller this week during the team's second week of OTAs. Here's what he had to say:

Q: Does it feel good to actually be out here this year?

A: Yeah, certainly. It's always good to do what you're here for, which is to play football. We're all out here laying the groundwork for this season.

Q: There's a lot missing from last year in terms of receptions. How do you pick up the slack for that?

A: There are capable guys on our team and it's going to be fun to see the guys out here working. We've got a good group. It just comes down to how the reps are going to be split up and who's going to be on the field. I have no doubt whoever is going to be out there is going to be more than capable.

Q: Do you feel like you're now 100 percent, completely healthy, with no thoughts whatsoever about your knee?

A: Yeah, I feel good. This process is good for me because I missed it last year. It's good to run around.

Q: What did think of the no huddle?

A: It's good. We're getting a lot of work with it. We're going to continue with it. The last period is good for it. We're tired and we can take the defense and make them tired. It can be a weapon for us.

Q: What did you think of Ben, the way he was reacting out there?

A: He's obviously very comfortable with the no-huddle. He always has been. I think it's going to be good for us, but we all have to be on the same page. Ben likes to do that. He likes to make the calls with the ball in his hands. He's been good at it and I think we can be good at it if we're all on the same page.

Q: He looked less than pleased with the results?

A: I don't know. We'll take a look at it. Like I said, this is the first steps for it. I'm sure this will be the most we've worked on it in the spring, so it will be good for us.

Q: Is that because of all the new faces, you have to put in the extra work with it this year?

A: Certainly. I think it's important to be on the field with him, hearing his calls and knowing what he likes in certain situations. Also, if we can do it within a variety of looks, it will be better, too.

Q: How do you think that will hash out as you move on? Do you think in training camp you'll do a lot more of that kind of stuff than before?

A: I don't know. Time will tell. A lot will depend on how quickly we pick it up as an offense. I think if we can, it can be a good weapon for us. But we have to have 11 guys on the same page, operating in the same manner. That's not an easy thing to do.

@ The Steelers signed first-round draft pick Ryan Shazier to a four-year contract on Thursday, taking advantage of their newfound cap space from their release of LaMarr Woodley.

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Week 2 of OTAs start

There were a couple of new faces as the Steelers opened their second week of OTAs, as cornerback Ike Taylor was in town for the optional practices and rookie running back Dri Archer returned from a mandatory showing at the rookie symposium.

It didn't bother me that Taylor wasn't at the OTAs last week. There's nothing the team is going over in the first week that he doesn't already know, though it is good for him to be there to show the young guys how to work. Nobody works harder than Taylor.

Some in the media ripped Archer for attending the symposium, but the Steelers had to send somebody there.

The easiest position for a player to play right away in the league is running back. Slot receiver might be second on that list. So why not Archer?

@ As some of you know, I've been saying for months now that Justin Brown, a sixth-round pick last season, was impressive in practice the last month of the 2013 season.

Even though he was running scout team stuff, he made a number of great, acrobatic catches that made me take note.

Given what I've seen thus far, Brown has the inside track on the fifth wide receiver spot with this team.

That won't make Derek Moye fans happy. But Brown just looks better.

@ I would expect the Steelers and Brett Keisel to come to terms on a one-year deal at some point, but probably not until right before training camp starts.

Keisel won't need a ton of reps to come in and play 10 to 15 snaps per game, and having him around for OTAs or mini-camp would only take valuable snaps away from the many new faces the Steelers have on their defensive line.

The same could be said of James Harrison - if the Steelers are interested in bringing him back as a backup. I don't see that move happening at this point, though.

While a reserve defensive end wouldn't be counted on to play special teams, a reserve linebacker would. And I just don't see Harrison playing at lot of special teams at this point in his career.

An injury or two could change that, but it's not like Harrison is sitting at home eating cheese curls. Chances are, he's keeping himself in good shape, and if the Steelers had a major injury at linebacker, he could be at their facility in a moment's notice.

@ The Steelers are adding former California University of Pa. star C.J. Goodwin to their roster.

A receiver, the 6-1, 178-pound Goodwin was a transfer from Fairmont State. He ran a 4.46 40 at his on-campus workout.

Goodwin caught 11 passes for 126 yards and a touchdown last season at California.