Thursday, August 27, 2015

Another day, another controversy for your Steelers

This has turned into one of the more eventful weeks in Steelers' history - at least for a preseason week.

First, the Steelers lost center Maurkice Pouncey to a broken leg and backup QB Bruce Gradkowski to a finger and shoulder injuries last Sunday in a preseason win over Green Bay.

Then, Mike Vick was signed on Tuesday to replace Gradkowski, who was placed on injured reserve.

Finally, Adam Schefter of ESPN reported Thursday that wide receiver Martavis Bryant will be suspended the first four games of the season for violation of the league drug policy.

Coupled with Le'Veon Bell's two-game suspension to open the season, the Steelers could definitely be behind the 8 ball a little when the season opens.

Bryant is being roundly ripped for his possible suspension - which he is appealing.

It's automatically assumed that Bryant's violation was for an illegal drug, such as marijuana. But we don't know that - though ESPN is now reporting that is is a marijuana violation.

If that is the case, that means he's a second-time offender. And if this is his second offense, he's been randomly tested a lot.

It appears the Steelers will be without his services for the first month of the season.

That means Darrius Heyward-Bey will step into a more prominent role, at least to start the season.

With Bryant suspended, the Steelers almost certainly have to account for that on their roster, whether it be keeping a sixth wide receiver or using Dri Archer as the fifth or sixth guy.

That trickles down to the rest of the roster, which is why I have avoided doing a 53-man projection to this point.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Tuesday news, notes

Anything happen today with the Steelers?

Seriously, I've been covering this team for 23 years and I don't know if there was a day that was quite as newsy in that time period.

In the span of the past 24 hours, All-Pro center Maurkice Pouncey had surgery to place a plate into his fractured fibula; backup QB Bruce Gradkowski had surgery to repair a dislocated finger and might require a second surgery to repair a shoulder injury; the team re-signed former center Doug Legursky to help ease the loss of Pouncey; and some guy named Michael Vick was brought in to replace Gradkowski, who went on season-ending IR.

Got all of that?

Let's start with the last topic first, since it seems to be drawing the most interest.

Vick is a polarizing figure. Actually, that's not right. There's a certain segment of the population who will never, ever forgive him for hosting dog fights no matter what he does,

He could cure cancer, save the whales and end famine worldwide and it wouldn't matter.

I get that. But he's also paid his debt to society, serving 21 months in a federal prison. That's nearly two years of his life not in some halfway house, but at Leavenworth.

There are people I severely dislike who I wouldn't wish to spend one day in Leavenworth, let alone the 548 days Vick did there.

I know, I know. He killed dogs. I get that. It was cruel and inhumane in many cases.

But he served his time and has walked a straight line in the nearly 10 YEARS since.

I don't know the man. Only talked to him a couple of times on the phone over the years. But I'm certainly willing to give him a second chance.

It was a calculated risk by the Steelers. They knew there would be a firestorm surrounding the signing. It's why they haven't brought him in before when he's been available.

But even despite the injury to Pouncey, the Steelers feel they have a Super Bowl contender. And they're not about to turn this contender over to Landry Jones unless all other options have been explored.

Signing Vick was their nuclear option. And when Gradkowski was lost for the season, it was time to push the red button.

I laugh when people bring up the "Steelers way," anytime something like this happens or another team has issues.

The "Steelers way" is winning. Period.

Does character still matter to the team? Absolutely. Given a choice between Player A, who is a model citizen, and Player B, who is not, the team will take Player A every time if the talent is close.

But winning in the bottom line in professional sports. And the Steelers have many model citizens in their locker room, from Heath Miller to Arthur Moats to Cam Heyward to Kelvin Beachum. There are many.

It's a shame when the really, really good guys get their names drug through the mud by the bozos who want to paint a team that has, right now, 90 players on the roster. But it goes with the business.

There will be those who like one guy one Twitter said, "If the Steelers sign Vick, I'm done. I'll follow the Eagles. And I've been a fan since 1964."

That guy obviously only pays attention to the Steelers since the Eagles were the team that gave Vick his second chance when he got out of prison.

But it shows how little some people think about things.

Now, would I have signed Vick? Probably not.

But not because I have issues with what he did - though I did and do. But I wouldn't have wanted to deal with the firestorm surrounding him.

And I also don't think that, at 35, he has a lot left in the tank.

* I spoke with offensive coordinator Todd Haley today about what changes, if any, the team will have to make in its blocking schemes without Pouncey.

Haley said the team has several plays it uses that were designed to take advantage of Pouncey's skill set.

Those will likely be out the window now. But he did make sure he mentioned that Cody Wallace, who will replace Pouncey, showed that he's capable of getting out on the edge as well, pointing out that soon after he entered the game, he drove Julius Peppers about 10 yards downfield after getting out on the edge.

* Ben Roethlisberger said today that he feels the offense is ready to go and that, realistically, he only needs a couple of preseason games to be ready.

Roethlisberger understands that young players need to play. But at this point in his career, the less preseason, the better.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Steelers sign Legursky, hosting Vick

The Steelers on Tuesday signed center Doug Legursky to help improve their depth on the interior offensive line following Maurkice Pouncey's injury.

Legursky, of course, began his career with the Steelers but has played the past two seasons with Buffalo and San Diego.

He was currently without a team.

Also today, ESPN is reporting the Steelers are bringing in Mike Vick for a visit.

This was basically the nuclear option at quarterback and tells me the team is worried about Bruce Gradkowski - not necessarily Landry Jones, though that can't be comforting, either.

Gradkowski missed most of training camp and a good chunk of the offseason workouts with a shoulder issue, then suffered a finger injury on his left (non-throwing) hand in his first preseason action Sunday.

And Jones isn't ready to be No. 2 at this point - or maybe ever.

The Steelers will take a look at Vick to see if he's ready to be Ben Roethlisberger's backup.

Vick has long been a favorite of Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin and is several years from his incarceration for dog fighting.

Some people will never forgive Vick for that, and that's understandable. But he hasn't been in any trouble since.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Post-Green Bay thoughts

When the Packers drove right down the field on 10 plays for a TD on the opening drive, Twitter started.

"Going to be a long season with this defense," was the general tone.

And then the sacks started coming.

Six in one game. I realize that some of those came in the second half when both teams had plenty of backups in the game, but we saw James Harrison and Cam Heyward almost get there and then Harrison do so for a safety.

Then we saw Jarvis Jones get home. Bud Dupree did so twice - though one was negated by an offside penalty by nose tackle Cam Thomas (how does that happen?). Shamarko Thomas got there on a blitz as well.

The first-team run defense was a little soft - Eddie Lacy averaged 5.0 yards per carry on six attempts - but they were playing a nickel. And without Lawrence Timmons.

That will get better.

But it was nice to see some guys getting home, especially since, as Jones said afterward, Mike Tomlin had challenged them to win some one-on-one battles.

* OK, now we can talk about Maurkice Pouncey and his latest injury, a broken lower left leg.

Much like when he was injured against Tennessee in the opener a couple years back, Pouncey was hurt out on the edge.

Perhaps his mobility is working against him in these situations. The fact that he's able to get out there, while some other centers don't, has added up to a pair of major injuries for the Steelers' Pro Bowl center.

I'm not saying you don't do those things with him any more when he gets back, but both injuries were kind of flukish.

It's a shame, because the line really looked poised for a big year. It really had made some strides in the past year.

Cody Wallace will be fine as a fill-in until Pouncey returns - sometime in November, I'm estimating.

The problem arises for his backup spot. Chris Hubbard struggled Sunday at center against the Packers. Rookie B.J. Finney might have found a roster spot because of those two things.

* The Steelers dodged a bullet with Stephon Tuitt. Tomlin said Tuitt has an ordinary ankle sprain. That means he could be back for the preseason finale or the regular season opener.

That also means the Steelers will continue their auditions at defensive end.

I wrote it prior to this game and I'll write it again - the team's No. 3 defensive end might still be on someone else's roster.

Why do I say that? I think this team is poised as a Super Bowl contender. And if that's the case, you can't allow an injury to Tuitt or Heyward to derail your season.

* I thought Thomas showed up and had a solid game at strong safety, which is something I needed to see to feel a little better about his prospects moving forward.

But I'm a little curious as to why the team didn't give Thomas and Mike Mitchell more time together in this one.

Mitchell was out of there pretty quickly.

* Pouncey has a nasty streak that kind of sets the tone for the rest of the offensive line. But Wallace has that as well. Did you see him busting downfield on a screen soon after entering the game to crush a linebacker?


* I hate to say it, but the injury to Pouncey is one the Steelers can better deal with than one to, say, Kelvin Beachum.

First, they've already played a season without Pouncey. Second, they don't have a healthy reserve offensive tackle right now who has ever taken a snap in the NFL, let alone at left tackle.

* It was good to see Garrett Hartley force a couple of touchbacks. That had been a concern.

* Imagine how Tyler Murphy would look at wide receiver had he not spent most of training camp at quarterback.

Maybe they should line Sammie Coates up at QB for a while.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Breaking camp

I broke camp Friday night, but the Steelers stayed until Saturday morning. I thought it only right that I wait to post my final camp thoughts until the team actually ended its 50th training camp at Saint Vincent College.

I've been there for 23 of those camps and have seen it grow greatly. I thought about that again - for about the 500th time in the past month - as I looked out over campus Friday while doing my final radio show - the 32nd show I did from this year's camp - sitting in the Chuck Noll Press Box above the Chuck Noll bleachers overlooking Chuck Noll Field.

* The players finished up camp sans shoulder pads on Friday. I wonder what Chuck Noll would have thought about that.

* Funny moment in practice Friday came as Mike Tomlin had a light moment when he wandered over to a young reporter who has been busting the coach's hump with questions about every player signed when another guy has been Waived'Injured in this camp - and there were a lot of them.

The questions always went, "So how does Joe look?" No last name. No further hint to Tomlin who the reporter, whom Tomlin dubbed, "Obscure guy question guy," was talking about. It led to some awkward moments.

Tomlin stepped over to OGQG and said, "You gonna ask me all about No. 2?" Number 2 is now rookie receiver Jarrod West, a Syracuse grad, who not only took Tajh Boyd's roster spot, but his number as well.

OGQG replied, "I went to college with him."

Of course.

* I graduated from Pitt-Johnstown, which doesn't field a football team, but there was one guy from UPJ with the Steelers when I started covering the team in 1993, Carlton Haselrig.

He was better than any Syracuse guy the Steelers have had since I've been around.

* That's what worries me a bit about Shamarko Thomas. Is he a player or is he the next Anthony Smith?

He wasn't on the field enough in this training camp for anyone to figure that out.

I've said numerous times on my various radio broadcasts that with so many new faces or young guys on the defense, odds are that one or two will become stars, one or two will become solid starters and one or two will fail.

If I had to put odds on it right now, I'd say Ryan Shazier will be the star, Stephon Tuitt, Arthur Moats and Jarvis Jones will be solid starters and Thomas might be the guy who flames out.

I'm not including Cortez Allen or Mike Mitchell on that list, though I think both will be solid starters. They both started last season as starters.

I think both of those guys will be fine.

* My expectations of the Steelers defense have really gone down over the years.

I look for this group to be middle of the pack again. But if Keith Butler can cobble together 20 sacks from the outside linebackers, 15 from the defensive line and five to 10 from the rest of the group, it will be a marked improvement from the 33 they had last season.

* Same goes for turnovers. Anything above 15 interceptions is a marked improvement.

* Are those things doable? I think so. One thing for sure, the defense is younger and more athletic.

* With this offense, that might be all that's needed. As good as the Steelers were last year on offense, they are even better this year.

This defense has to get better practicing against that group every day, doesn't it?

* Alden Darby, Kevin Fogg, Roosevelt Nix and Ian Wild are the guys who have really helped themselves with strong training camps. But I don't know if more than one of those guys will make the final roster.

* The problem is that none of those guys play defensive line. The Steelers' No. 3 defensive end might be on somebody else's roster right now.

Cam Thomas has been OK as a nose tackle. But he showed last year that he's not athletic enough to play defensive end - especially if Butler is going to turn the ends loose more this season.

The Steelers are an injury away at that position from catastrophe.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Home stretch

Football is a game of attrition, both on and off the field.

Don't think so? Take a look at the Steelers tight end position as an example.

We know that Heath Miller and Matt Spaeth will be the top two guys.

But heading into mini-camp, the team was looking at Rob Blachflower, Jesse James and Cameron Clear for the No. 3 spot.

Clear got early kudos from offensive coordinator Todd Haley, despite the fact that Blanchflower was a seventh-round pick in 2014 and James was a fifth-round pick this year.

Blanchflower looked good last season on the practice squad, making some progress to the point that late in the season, I noticed him showing up quite a bit.

But he didn't make it through two weeks of practice before getting hurt and being placed on the Waived/Injured List.

James, after a strong start to training camp, had perhaps the worst first game of a draft pick in recent team history, dropping two passes - one of which was a sure touchdown, the other that was ruled a fumble - and drawing a false start penalty.

Clear, meanwhile, suffered a knee injury and had to have surgery to have a bone chip removed. The early kudos he got from Haley are long gone.

That leaves James and Ray Hamilton, signed after his release by Dallas when Blanchflower went down, "competing" competing for the third spot.

James has bounced back from his struggles in the first preseason game and we since learned that he struggled after the death of a close friend, but what once looked like a promising battle turned in just a few weeks of training camp.

@ Steelers GM Kevin Colbert said what we already knew. The team won't be discussing a contract extension with Antonio Brown anytime soon.

Signing left tackle Kelvin Bachum to an extension remains the team's top priority at this point, though it's possible a deal doesn't get done before the regular season begins.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Midweek news, notes

It was kind of ironic today that offensive linemen Ramon Foster, Maurkice Pouncey and David DeCastro made their way through the lunch-time interview sessions today and much of the focus was on how close that unit is.

How close is it?

"If you pushed me now, they'd all be over here," Pouncey told reporters, motioning toward Foster and DeCastro.

Rookie Bud Dupree got a lesson in that on Wednesday at practice. Admittedly, I wasn't there today - I had to return to Washington to work a desk shift, missing just my second practice of this camp - and it apparently turned into a bit of a donnybrook with Dupree attempting to fight the entire offensive line.

If so, it at least shows that the rookie has some fire - though he might want to reconsider taking on those five guys.

Dupree hasn't been very impressive in the first two preseason games - causing at least one national media guy, Louis Riddick of ESPN, to call him out

That's silly. Dupree was a project when the Steelers selected him in the first round. He's a superior athlete who needs to develop his football IQ.

It might take two or three years for it to happen. It might never happen. But to expect it to happen in two preseason games and then call Dupree out when it does not is ridiculous.

Kind of like him challenging the offensive line to a fight.

* Alejandro Villanueva split out wide as a receiver in 7 shots today. He didn't come down with the pass from Ben Roethlisberger, but the Steelers are certainly taking a long look at the young man.

After working at left tackle throughout training camp, he moved back to the right side this week. Could he be the swing tackle this year? I don't think so, but with Chris Hubbard now working at center, Cody Wallace should be concerned.

I don't know if they'll keep nine offensive linemen on the active roster.

* Jordan Zumwalt is the latest guy to head to the Waived/Injured List. He did so Wednesday to make room for linebacker L.J. Fort, who was claimed off waivers from New England.

Zumwalt was one of those players who looked great in games and terrible in practice. But he also has had issues staying healthy - his rookie season ended on injured reserve/

I like the move to sign Fort. Why not let Bill Belichick wonder how much the Steelers are picking his brain before he's eventually released?