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Friday, July 31, 2015

Friday night lights

Ben Roethlisberger didn't do any 11-on-11 work again today and that meant more time for Landry Jones. And Jones looked more comfortable than he has perhaps at any time in his three-year career, commanding the huddle and making all the right throws.

That won't change the opinion of some about him, but perhaps he's starting to get it. If so, it would be just in time.

His passes were crisp tonight. They were thrown on time and before the receiver broke open.

In short, he looked like an NFL quarterback, not a starter, mind you, but certainly like he belonged.

His best moments came in the seven shots drill.

His first pass, intended for Antonio Brown was broken up by Antwon Blake, but after that, he threw a TD to Jesse James, then fit one into a tight window to Brown between Blake and Shamarko Thomas with perhaps the best throw I've seen him make in three years.

Jones followed that up with a good session in the team portion of practice. We'll continue to keep an eye on that situation.

@ Martavis Bryant came down hard on his left elbow on a deep pass from Tajh Boyd that he was unable to come down with and got up shaking the arm out. He had an ice pack on it after practice, but didn't miss any time.

@ Mike Tomlin said rookie safety Gerod Holliman is out with a lower leg injury. It doesn't appear real serious, but he missed his second day of practice tonight.

@ Maurkice Pouncey was running full sprints before practice with Bruce Gradkowski and appears close to making a return from the PUP list.

@ With Cortez Allen out again today, Blake again worked with the first-team defense. But B.W. Webb also got some extra time in the nickel defense.

He's been overlooked with the addition of a couple of rookie draft picks at the cornerback position, but Webb is still running ahead of them with Senquez Golson still out. Doran Grant has had his moments, as has first-year player Kevin Fogg, but it's still Webb out there for now.

@ First-round pick Bud Dupree was a star of the backs on backers tonight, showing off power and speed.

Then again, a guy who's 260 pounds - he told me today he's shed 10 pounds - and runs a 4.5 40 should dominate running backs and tight ends.

So he did what he's supposed to do, which is nice.

Anthony Chickillo also had a nice session. His motor doesn't stop and he showed off some different pass rush moves.

Rookie fullback Roosevelt Nix again showed some pass blocking chops and was probably the best of the offensive players.

After stoning Jarvis Jones at one point, he got kudos from Mike Tomlin - "Oh, I like it Rosy," Tomlin exclaimed.

Jones didn't have a strong session, but has looked good otherwise, especially setting the edge against the run.

Ryan Shazier also showed off some different pass moves, beating Nix a couple of times, first on a little stutter step into a speed move, then on a dip and go around the end.

But Nix came back to pancake Sean Spence moments later.

@ Vince Williams got himself matched up at one point on the outside in 11-on-11s with Dri Archer and Archer showed why that wasn't fair, running an in and out, catching the ball in the flat. He then headed for the sideline, deked Williams, who went flying by, and then deked him again five yards later when Williams came back for another shot.

That drew smiles from both.

@ Williams, meanwhile, seems to hammer DeAngelo Williams every time he touches the ball.

I don't know that DeAngelo Williams has worked this hard in a training camp in a long time.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Thursday thoughts

The Steelers' backup quarterback situation is something of a mess right now.

The team expects Bruce Gradkowski to be OK and return at some point. And he had better.

The Landry Jones experiment has not worked out. He's slightly better than he was before, but not enough that he's a sure thing.

I like what I've seen of Tajh Boyd at times, but he's had issues handling snaps from center. That's kind of important.

Tyler Murphy, who is more polished than Devin Gardner, has been at QB for the entire first week. He's got a long release that probably won't work in the NFL.

And all three have accuracy issues.

Could the Steelers be in the market for another veteran? Possibly. And Michael Vick is still out there.

But I think the only way the Steelers sign Vick is if they have something really bad happen. He'd be the nuclear option, ie. Ben Roethlisberger going down.

@ With the Steelers wanting more pass rush out of their defensive line, you can close the door on any potential Brett Keisel return.

Keisel hasn't filed his retirement papers yet, but I don't foresee a return to the Steelers in his future.

@ The Steelers' release of Shawn Lemon and addition of safety Jordan Sullen tells me the Steelers feel Ross Ventrone is going to be out for an extended period of time.

It also tells me they are happy with what they have at outside linebacker.

Bud Dupree's athleticism has been evident at times. But Anthony Chickillo has been the more impressive player at this point.

That's not surprising. Chickillo's the more polished player. But his ceiling isn't nearly as high.

It should also be noted that Chickillo is working against scrubs for the most part at this point, while Dupree is getting work against the better guys.

@ The defense is playing with a chip on its shoulder after having to hear about how good the offense was in 2014 and will be in 2015.

The line has been strong, especially the first unit. And you can add Daniel McCullers to that group as well.

But Vince Williams has been bringing it time and again.

The Steelers feel they have four starter-quality players at inside linebacker and it's tough to argue that they don't.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Steelers complete first day in pads

The pads were popping at Steelers' practice on Wednesday as the team was in pads for the first time this year.

Highlighting that was a backs-on-backers session that was lively as usual.

As the players and staff came down the field, head coach Mike Tomlin had some words for linebacker Lawrence Timmons.

"Law Dog, you know I ain't going to feed you nothing but 26," Tomlin said, referring to running back Le'Veon Bell.

Tomlin lied a bit, as Timmons did get some reps with other players. But those two kicked things off with Timmons winning the one-on-one battle, setting the tone for the drill.

Jarvis Jones was up next and beat Will Johnson to the QB. Then, Vince Williams absolutely destroyed DeAngelo Williams on back-to-back attempts, putting him flat on his back the second time.

Tomlin began letting all the offensive players know who was coming after that, not that it mattered in most cases. Two defenders line up at the line of scrimmage and a coach typically points to the one rushing - unbeknownst to the offensive player.

That was out the window today.

The defensive stars were Williams, who absolutely brings it on every play, Jarvis Jones, who showed off some good power and agility and, of course, Timmons.

Offensively, young running backs Cameron Stingily and Roosevelt Nix were consistent, while Ross Sheurerman drew praise from Tomlin later on.

Stingily did well in a pair of reps against Ryan Shazier, prompting Tomlin to say after the first one, "Yes sir, I like that. Let's make sure it was no fluke."

After struggling early, Shuererman completely stoned Jordan Zumwalt the next time. In their rubber match, he not only beat Zumwalt, he drove him to the ground and showed plenty of fight.

"You're starting to figure it out and it didn't take all day," Tomlin said.

Williams, meanwhile, had a tough go of it, though he did stand Sean Spence up at one point. When Spence asked for a rematch, Williams declined, saying he had gotten his rep.

@ The only bad thing about the drill this time was that young outside linebackers Bud Dupree and Anthony Chickillo stayed on the other end working  on their pass rush against the offensive linemen.

We'll get to see them in the drill later on in camp.

@ The defense carried its strong day into the team 11-on-11 drill after that, as Arthur Moats droppd Williams for a loss after getting off a block from Jesse James.

William Gay followed that up by taking  down Josh Harris in the backfield.

DeAngelo Williams ripped off a long run around right end on his third carry, but Vince Williams set things right for the defense again by blowing up the center on the next play at the snap and forcing a fumble by Tajh Boyd.

Boyd was having some trouble handling snaps today but he is throwing the ball reasonably well.

Anthony Chickillo then made a nice play on Scheurerman to finish things off in the backfield.

@ The No. 2 offensive line unit today was, from left to right, Alejandro Villanueva, Chris Hubbard, Reese Dismukes, Miles Dieffenbach and Mitchell Van Dyk.

Rookie B.J. Finney left early with heat-related issues, though tight end Cam Clear was back.

@ Defensive coordinator Keith Butler confirmed today on Steelers Nation Radio what I had reported earlier in the week. The Steelers will be playing a lot more Cover-2 in their secondary this season.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

NFL reduces Bell suspension and other notes

The NFL on Tuesday reduced Le'Veon Bell's suspension from three games to two following Bell's appeal.

It gives some closure to a situation that had many Steelers fans wringing their hands.

Bell's representatives apparently successfully argued that their client was being penalized more so than other players who had violated the Substance Abuse policy at the time he was arrested for marijuana possession and DUI.

The league came up with a uniform policy for suspensions soon thereafter and penalized Bell under those rules.

Bell made a mistake. He's been a model citizen outside of that mistake. He'll pay the price and he and the Steelers can now move on.

@ The Bell ruling came, coincidentally, on the same day commissioner Roger Goodell announced he is upholding Tom Brady's four-game suspension.

With that announcement came the news that Brady destroyed his cell phone in the days before the league asked him to turn it over.

If Brady was innocent, as he claims, why destroy the phone? If he was innocent, why wouldn't he simply turn it over?

The NFLPA has said it plans to take the issue to Federal Court. But that holds some danger to Brady and the Patriots.

If, say, the courts hear the case in November and decides against Brady, does he really want to begin his suspension in December? Or worse, January?

@ It amazes me that supposedly smart football guys can't wrap their heads around the fact that the Steelers can play a version of the Tampa-2 defense out of a 3-4 this season.

The team already played some Cover-2 in the past, though it certainly wasn't their primary coverage.

But it's looking like it might be this season.

That doesn't mean the Steelers are suddenly going to switch to a 4-3. They're going to use their current talent appropriately.

But the option of switching to a 4-3 down the road is there. Anybody think Bud Dupree couldn't be effective as a 4-3 end?

This year's defense will have Mike Tomlin's fingerprints all over it. Keith Butler's will be calling the plays, but it will be Tomlin's defense.

@ The secondary could benefit from such a move, safeties Mike Mitchell and Shamarko Thomas more than most.

Mitchell has played this style of defense in the past and will be better able to react to the ball knowing that Thomas has the deep half of the field on the other side.

@ The Steelers feel that Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt are both studs at the defensive end position. And Steve McLendon is better suited as an up-the-field guy as well.

Why wouldn't you want to turn those guys loose?

Monday, July 27, 2015

Interesting development

I typically try to keep an eye on Mike Tomlin early on in practice to see which position he is paying attention to the most.

Monday, it was the cornerbacks, who had broken off from the safeties. I worked my way over to their grouping as Tomlin began talking to them about the things they were going to be working on extensively over the next 14 days.

He then began working on Cover-2 techniques with them, using former Tampa Bay players Will Allen, a veteran safety who was given the day off, and coaching intern Dexter Jackson, a Super Bowl MVP with the Bucs, as his examples.

It was something I had never before seen out of Tomlin. He'll often keep an eye on a certain position, but he never jumps in and coaches an entire session as he did today.

"We're going to build this but we ain't going to build it all today," Tomlin told the corners as defensive coordinator Keith Butler stood by watching.

What did they work on?

Locking their arms when they re-route receivers, shuffling at the line of scrimmage without giving ground to divert the receivers. Turning and dropping before passing the receiver off and then staying low so they can come up and tackle a receiver who catches the ball in front of them in the flat.

Nobody is saying for certain - though Allen came close - but it appears the Steelers will at least incorporate more of the Cover-2 into their defensive scheme.

First, we've had Butler talking about how he'd like the defensive linemen to get more QB pressure - a hallmark of the Cover-2. And with athletic linebackers such as Lawrence Timmons and Ryan Shazier in place, the Steelers have more guys capable of playing that style.

And now Tomlin's work today.

With both the loss of former defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau and the retirement of safety Troy Polamalu, it might be as good a time as any for a switch.

@ The heat index reached 112 today and claimed rookie tight end Cam Clear as a victim. He left early.

Safety Ross Ventrone also suffered a lower leg injury when he and rookie receiver Eli Rogers collided over the middle going  for a ball.

@ Cortez Allen had a nice interception of Ben Roethlisberger in the end zone in the opening goal-line drill. Later in the drill, rookie corner Doran Grant picked off Landry Jones on a quick out.

@ It was a tough day for Darrius Heyward-Bey. He was twice put to the ground along the sideline while making a catch but held on both times.

Somebody in the crowd hollered, "Hey, 88, you sure know how to make a roster."

@ Tough call on the catch-of-the-day.

C.J. Goodwin went up over Kevin Fogg along the sideline to haul in a Tajh Boyd throw in a nice show of body control.

And Antonio Brown did his best impersonation of himself, hauling in a pass from Roethlisberger one-handed along the sideline.

Then there was Martavis Bryant beating Antwon Blake and Isaiah Lewis deep to catch a bomb from Roethlisberger.

Heyward-Bey also caught a long pass down the sideline from Jones.

@ Linebacker Howard Jones was chided by his teammates for stepping in front of a pass but knocking it to the ground instead of trying to catch it.

"Oh, you've got to catch that," corner B.W. Webb yelled.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Day 1 thoughts and stuff

The Steelers concluded their first day of practice here at Saint Vincent College Sunday and it was an extension of the offseason work.

With NFL rules dictating that they can't work in pads until Wednesday, it was basically more football in shorts.

But we did see some interesting things.

With Bruce Gradkowski on the PUP list with a shoulder problem, Landry Jones worked as the No. 2 QB. Taj Boyd was No. 3 and Tyler Murphy was No. 4 today.

Mike Tomlin, however, said Murphy and Devin Gardner will split duties in some way or fashion as the No. 4 QB while also continuing to get work at wide receiver.

With Maurkice Pouncey and Mike Adams on the PUP list to open camp, Cody Wallace bumped up to first-team center.

But the second offensive line was, from left to right, Alejandro Villanueva, Chris Hubbard, Reese Dismukes, B.J. Finney and Mitchell Van Dyke.

@ The other interesting lineup issue was at outside linebacker. James Harrison and Will Allen were given a day off as veterans.

Jarvis Jones and Arthur Moats were the first-team linebackers and Bud Dupree backed up Moats, as expected. But behind Jones was Howard Jones.

@ The Steelers once again opened in a short-yardage situation, something Mike Tomlin calls "Seven shots," because the offense gets seven shots to convert third-and-2.

Though Ben Roethlisberger connected with Heath Miller in the back of the end zone on the first attempt, the defense got the better of it from there, including a pair of interceptions by Alden Darby off a tipped pass and then Kevin Fogg. Both were thrown by Landry Jones.

Lawrence Timmons also got kudos for breaking up a Roethlisberger pass intended again for Miller.

@ C.J. Goodwin again flashed with a nice leaping catch over Ryan Shazier over the middle.

Goodwin, who was on the practice squad last year, is going to have to continue to do those things once the hitting starts, but his athleticism is undeniable.

@ Clifton Geathers has gotten a lot of kudos for the way he looks after dropping at least 30 pounds this offseason. But the dude can't catch a cold.

Geathers and some of the other linemen were practicing fielding short kickoffs during special teams practice and he fought off a pair of balls like he had two left hands that had five thumbs on each.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Steelers report

The Steelers reported for camp today with five players heading to the PUP list.

They would be center Maurkice Pouncey (foot), linebacker Shawn Lemons (Achilles' tendon strain), offensive tackle Mike Adams (back), cornerback Senquez Golson (shoulder) and quarterback Bruce Gradkowski (shoulder).

Adams, who had back surgery July 20, would seem to be the most serious. And it leaves the Steelers painfully thin at the offensive tackle position for the time being.

But the injury to Gradkowski also is troubling. He was shut down during minicamp because of "shoulder fatigue." If that's still bothering him, that's not a good thing for, you know, a guy who throws the ball for a living.

The injury to Golson, the team's second-round draft pick, doesn't appear to be serious, but any time the rookie misses at training camp will set him back.

The biggest loser of the group could be Lemons, the former CFL star who was already a longshot to make the roster.

* The team announced Saturday that general manager Kevin Colbert has been signed to a two-year contract extension that will run through 2018.

Like Tomlin's extension, that will keep him here to help with the process of finding an eventual replacement for Ben Roethlisberger.

* Not a ton of news coming out of the player meet and greets today, but Cam Heyward did say his wife is due to have a baby sometime in November.

When asked if he might miss a game because of that, Heyward joked that he'd tell her to hold it in if she went into labor on a game day.

* With Adams down for the time being, Alejandro Villanueva should get plenty of reps at left tackle.

I know he's a fan favorite, but I'm taking a wait-and-see approach with a player who has A. Never played tackle and B. I haven't seen hit anyone.

Villanueva, a former Army Ranger, looks the part. But he's bounced around to so many positions - even in college - that he's painfully raw.

And heck, last year at this time, he was lining up as a defensive end for the Philadelphia Eagles.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Greetings from vacation

I am squeezing in a vacation this week before heading off to training camp for what might be seven months of football. But the Steelers have stayed active.

Thursday, the team announced it has signed Mike Tomlin to a two-year contract extension that runs through the 2018 season.

If Tomlin sees that contract through, 2018 will be his 12th season with the team.

It would also mean the Steelers will have had just three head coaches since 1969, a span of 50 years.

Think about that for a second. I'm entering my 23rd season of covering the Steelers on a full-time basis. And the team has had just two head coaches in that span. It also has had just two general managers in that same period of time.

That is as close to stability as you will get in the NFL.

Whether you like or don't like Tomlin, you have to respect the job he has done with the Steelers. The team has gone to two Super Bowls with him at the helm and has never had a losing season.

But by the time this contract is up, we will likely see where the team is headed in the future. By 2018, the Steelers will likely have drafted Ben Roethlisberger's eventual replacement.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Heyward signed, Beachum next?

The Steelers reached a contract extension of six years worth nearly $10 million per season with defensive end Cameron Heyward Thursday, locking up one of their best defensive players for the remainder of his decade.

Signing Heyward before the season begins was a priority for the Steelers. Up next should be left tackle Kelvin Beachum.

Beachum has one year remaining on the deal he signed as a rookie seventh-round draft pick that will pay him $1.5 million this season.

He should receive a nice pay raise from that amount. Beachum isn't the best left tackle in the league, but he's far from being the worst.

And the Steelers really don't have anyone on the roster capable of stepping in for him.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

The wheels are turning

Antonio Brown is likely a very happy man today.


After seeing Demaryius Thomas and Dez Bryant both get 5-year, $70-million contracts on Wednesday, Brown and his agent have to have visions of dollar signs dancing in their heads.

Brown has three years remaining on the  five-year, $42-million deal he signed in 2012. And while there was some talk, likely initiated in private by his agent, Drew Rosenhaus, that Brown would skip offseason workouts this year in an effort to get a new deal worked out, that didn't happen.

Brown signed his contract extension when he was still an emerging star and the Steelers took a gamble on him that he would continue on that upward trajectory. That has, in fact, happened and Brown has emerged as one of the best receivers in the NFL.

Last season, his best, earned him All-Pro and AFC Offensive Player of the Year honors. He shared the AFC Offensive Player of the Year award with teammate Le'Veon Bell.

So what will Brown be worth in another season or two?

Age will have to be considered. Brown just turned 27 last week. Thomas and Bryant are 27 and 26, respectively.

And, despite Brown's emergence as one of the league's top receivers, the only statistic in which he tops Bryant and Thomas is in receptions.

Here's a look at their career numbers:
Bryant 381 receptions, 5,424 yards and 56 touchdowns
Thomas 351 receptions, 5,317 yards and 41 touchdowns
Brown 390 receptions, 5,259 yards and 28 touchdowns

All three came into the league in 2010, though Bryant and Thomas were first-round draft picks, while Brown was selected in the sixth round.

That doesn't matter now, but it did slow Brown's progress getting onto the field as a rookie.

Brown does, however, also return punts, which gives him added value - though at some point the Steelers have to find somebody less valuable to handle those duties.

It will make for interesting negotiations. And let's not forget that other star receivers such as A.J. Green and Julio Jones also will be getting new deals before Brown's contract expires.

Will the Steelers be willing to hand out, say, $75 to $80 million over five seasons on a third contract for Brown?


But there's also a chance they might balk at that kind of commitment to a player who will be heading into his 30s.

And if the Steelers don't, somebody else will.

Thursday, July 09, 2015

Looking at the undrafted Steelers

They are the guys at the end of the roster that perhaps most fans don't know much about, but they can also turn into future stars - or at least capable NFL players.

With undrafted rookies, you just never know what you're going to get. It could be the next James Harrison or Willie Parker, or just another footnote in history.

But it's obvious the Steelers like some undrafted guys more than others - at least until they get them onto the training camps fields at Saint Vincent College.

That's where the players will be separated from the pretenders.

While that won't happen for a couple of more weeks, per here's a look at Pittsburgh's undrafted guys who received signing bonus money from the team - a clear picture on who the team liked more.

B.J. Finney, $10,000
Devin Gardner, $10,000
Miles Dieffenbach, $8,000
Cameron Clear, $5,000
Eli Rogers, $5,000
Reese Dismukes, $5,000
Ross Scheurman, $5,000
Tyler Murphy, $4,500
Niko Davis, $2,500
Cameron Stingily, $1,000
Kevin Whimpey, $1,000
Mike Thornton, $1,000

Obviously, the Steelers had a need on the interior line, giving Finney, Dieffenbach and Dismukes larger signing bonus.

But as I stated, that money means nothing when it comes to who will make this roster. But it does give a glimpse of which players the Steelers liked more - at least when it came to adding them to the roster following the draft.

What those players do with that opportunity is up to them.

Monday, July 06, 2015

Pittsburgh Super Bowl, I don't think so

The Steelers officially put in a bid to host a future Super Bowl last week, but I don't see that happening.

There are a number of reasons but the first is hotel rooms available. If you took the whole greater Pittsburgh area, you might have enough hotel rooms to host a Super Bowl.

But anyone who has to attempt, for example, to get from Washington to Monroeville can tell you that there's no good way to do so at certain times of the day. The city is just not easily navigated.

Another problem would be finding places for both teams to practice in the week before the Super Bowl.

One team could certainly use the Steelers' indoor facility. But it is shared with Pitt, the city's only Division I football program.

The other team might be forced to go all the way to Morgantown to find a suitable indoor practice facility.

And given that the Super Bowl is played in February, you have to plan on bad weather.

Another issue would be playing the game on grass in February in the northeast.

There are a lot of issues that would need to be resolved before the city could host such an event, of which these are just a few.

So while it sounds nice to make an attempt at a Super Bowl. It's unlikely Pittsburgh would be chosen.

* ranked all 32 presumptive starting quarterbacks in the NFL. Ben Roethlisberger ranked fifth behind, in order, Peyton Manning, Andrew Luck, Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady.

Three of those guys, I don't have a problem with, though Manning's finish to last season wasn't exactly stellar. I do have an issue with Luck being there.

Luck is good. But he doesn't have one thing the other four guys, including Roethlisberger, have - a Super Bowl ring.

That's kind of important. Seriously, the rankings had Joe Flacco, who has been erratic since his 2012 postseason ranked eighth based on that playoff run.

As for me, I'd have Rodgers first, Brady second, Manning third and then Roethlisberger.