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.