The final workout of the Pittsburgh Steelers' offseason program concluded last week, and there is a lot of optimism heading into training camp.
A strong offseason was particularly important this year as the Steelers try to bounce back from a disappointing 8-8 season. Mike Tomlin has his team focused and ready, or should I say “prepared”—more on that later—for training camp.
While OTAs are nothing more than the players running around in shorts, there were plenty of items to take note of, including changes to the coaching staff, adjustments with the schemes and an infusion of young players into the lineup.
These stories will continue to develop once camp begins, but until then, here is the latest buzz surrounding the Steelers.
The 2011 AFC Championship Game was a preview of what Heinz Field could look like with a closed lower-seating bowl.
As with every team in the NFL, the Pittsburgh Steelers are in the business of making money, and proposed upgrades to Heinz Field were going to help them achieve that.
Originally slated to be completed for the 2013 season, the Steelers had hoped to add 3,000 seats and a new scoreboard to the North end of the field.
However, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Mark Belko reported that the team and the Sports and Exhibition Authority (SEA) are at odds over the language in the stadium’s lease agreement. According to Mark Hart, the Steelers’ director of strategic planning and development:
The expansion of Heinz Field will allow an opportunity for more Steelers fans to attend games. It is unfortunate that it has come to this after negotiating with the SEA for months. If this matter is not resolved in the near future, another year of increased fan attendance and increased tax revenue will be lost.
Of course, the team put a positive spin on its side, citing that it wants to add seats for the fans—as opposed for an extra revenue stream.
Regardless of your opinion, this will be something to keep an eye on as an extra 3,000 seats would enhance the home-field advantage, but more importantly, 3,000 fans who have been on the waiting list will have a rare opportunity to purchase season tickets.
There is no doubt that the Steelers have some old starters on the defensive side of the football.
They will have five starters over the age of 30 when the 2013 season begins. These players include Brett Keisel, Ryan Clark, Larry Foote, Ike Taylor and Troy Polamalu.
Sure enough, NFL Network’s Warren Sapp once again called out the Steelers defense for its age.
Sapp is right—the Steelers are old.
ESPN.com’s Mike Sando analyzed the projected starters this year and found that the Steelers had the oldest projected starting defense in the league.
But does age really matter?
Last season, while the Steelers still failed to get to the quarterback and create turnovers, they still finished at the top of the league in total yards allowed and passing yards as well as second against the run.
Fast does not always equate to good. Dick LeBeau values a veteran presence on his defense. They know their assignments and can execute the scheme, even if they lack elite speed.
That is not to say the defense doesn’t need to get younger.
There will be at least three younger starters on defense this season as Steve McLendon, Cortez Allen and either Jason Worilds or Jarvis Jones will enter the starting lineup. Shamarko Thomas could also get a significant amount of playing time.
Sapp may focus on the age and speed of the veterans, but those veterans combined with the up-and-comers will once against make this defense one of the best in the league.
When will Dick LeBeau retire? If he has it his way, it won’t be after this season, via ESPN.com’s Jamison Hensley:
I don't think, because of the situation I'm in, it would be very productive to think about it. I go one day at a time really and one year at a time and feel blessed that I'm still in the game and surrounded with young people that are working hard. I don't worry too much about the future. Some of us don't have as much future as some of the others.
Since rejoining the Steelers in 2004, LeBeau’s defenses have finished at the top of the league in total yards allowed five times and in points allowed four times.
LeBeau has changed as his personnel has changed as well.
Last season, he implemented more man coverage with his defensive backs, and it was effective. The defense was the best against the pass.
Whenever LeBeau does retire, the Steelers have a couple of quality options to replace,
Linebackers coach Keith Butler has turned down multiple job offers to stay with the Steelers, and defensive backs coach Carnell Lake has done a terrific job with the secondary.
A change of offensive coordinators was supposed to be the answer for the Steelers offense. It didn’t quite work out that when they brought Todd Haley in last season.
That left the Steelers with a couple of options. They could have went with the Bruce Arians method and forced what wasn’t working, or they could modify things.
It’s more than just me. I think it’s everybody. Just the simple fact that he came to me and asked what I thought about it, changing the names of things to kind of make more sense to all of us. Usually, I talk to a lot of the guys. I ask the tight ends and wide receivers, ‘Does this hit you? Does it make sense to you if we call it this?’ If it doesn’t, then we will go try to change it. We want everything, when it’s on the fly, to make as much sense as possible.
For Roethlisberger, that means terminology that the offense is more familiar with and likely the return of the deep ball.
Haley is known for running an offense that fits his personnel, so it is no surprise that he was open to suggestions. His goal is to make the offense get better, even if that meant making some changes, via Steelers.com:
That’s offensive to me because I’m an open-minded guy, but I think it just comes with familiarity and getting to know people. Myself, as a coach, I know the players a lot better. They know me personality-wise. I think it’s just an evolution of how things go with anything you’re doing, business, sports, whatever it is. I think we’re seeing that happen. I think everybody is just more comfortable, which is a good thing. That leads to better communication, which in my opinion leads to better execution and better football.
Expect the Steelers to continue to develop a short passing game while mixing in more deep passes. However, the key to the success of the offense will be the effectiveness of the ground game.
Will Johnson was one of the more impressive rookies last season, and he should have an expanded role in 2013.
According to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review’s Mark Kaboly, Johnson said he could see more action in the passing game:
We are doing a lot more; that's been evident (during OTAs). In the red zone, they put some angle routes in there for me. We are doing a lot of things. If they are impressed, they will show me by adding plays where I can get out in some routes, particularly in space. That's how I will know if they are interested in using my hands.
Johnson still primarily be a blocker, but he has surprisingly soft hands for a big guy.
Last season, he had 15 receptions for 137 yards and a touchdown. His combination of size and speed make him more of an H-back than a fullback, which could allow Haley to use him as a secondary receiving threat for Roethlisberger.
For a team starved for depth at inside linebacker, it is a bit puzzling that it would move Stevenson Sylvester to the outside.
But according to Mark Kaboly of the Pittsburgh Tribune- Review, that is exactly what they are doing, and Sylvester is prepared for the challenge:
I am still learning. I have a lot of friends that play outside linebacker—I train with Paul Kruger in Utah in offseason. I am learning a lot of different stuff from a lot of different people and just from watching film. LaMarr Woodley and even James Harrison from the past helped me and even Chris Carter and Jason Worilds—they have amazing first steps and I am trying to learn that.
Sylvester flashed some potential at inside linebacker as a rookie and was a special teams ace, but he has since faded. If not for the lack of depth, the Steelers may not have even re-signed him this season.
There is no doubt that this will be his last chance to impress the coaching staff. If Sylvester is able to shine on special teams as well as back up at both inside and outside linebacker, he will be too valuable to keep off of the final roster.
There was a collective groan from Steelers fans everywhere when William Gay was signed. That may get louder when he is on the field playing a significant role in the defense.
Carnell Lake told Mark Kaboly of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that Cortez Allen will move to the slot in the nickel package, while Gay will play the outside:
For a tall defensive back, Cortez does a very good job in man-to-man and especially bump-and-run and he has quick enough feet to handle the slot receivers. Some of the time we are getting two tight end sets where they use their athletic tight end in the slot and Cortez’s size matches up well with that. He has a lot of versatility and a lot of range and he can play outside, inside, press-man, off coverage and he is smart enough to handle them all and that’s why I like him.
So much for Gay playing the slot. But when you think about it, Lake makes sense.
In 2010, the New England Patriots used Rob Gronkowski to abuse Gay for a three-touchdown performance. It was a terrible mismatch for the Steelers.
The NFL is all about matchups, and if placing Allen in the slot puts the defense in the best position to succeed, then that is where he should play.
Rarely do the Steelers need their rookies to start, and this year is no exception. With that said, it would be nice if Jarvis Jones could win a starting job, or at the very least earn a situational role this year.
One of the reasons that so few rookies for the Steelers start—particularly on defense—is because of the complex schemes.
No one knows this better than Troy Polamalu, a former first-round selection who had to sit and learn the defense his rookie year. He told Alan Robinson of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review some of the challenges of learning LeBeau’s scheme.
"It's like trying to teach algebra to basic math," Polamalu said. "You've got to almost erase their career and what they've learned to this point and start anew with this defense."
Keith Butler added that Jones has a lot to learn, via the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review:
In college, he kind of free lanced a little bit, and we’re a little more disciplined in what we ask them to do and the techniques we ask them to use in the passing game. All he did (at Georgia) was drop straight back and look at the quarterback. We’re asking him to do a lot of different things in terms of pass coverage, and that’s not one of them. We’ve got to get him out of that habit, and he’s willing to get out of that habit.
So despite his incredible talents as a pass-rusher—and the Steelers' need for a pass-rusher—Jones has a lot to learn before he gets on the field as a starter.
It is easy to compare his situation to LaMarr Woodley’s when he was a rookie.
Woodley showed that he could get to the quarterback. He had four sacks in 13 games but still sat behind the veteran Clark Haggans.
Jones doesn’t have an incredibly experienced veteran ahead of him. Instead, he will have to beat out Jason Worilds for the starting gig.
Worilds doesn’t have a proven track record like Haggans did, but he does know the defense and has some starting experience.
That doesn’t mean that Jones doesn’t have a chance to win the starting job. Even though he has a lot to learn, Butler told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Ed Bouchette that they have been impressed so far.
"He's showing us things, and, if he keeps showing those things he's going to be a big part of that, hopefully," Butler said.
More importantly, Jones has caught the eye of LeBeau, via the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
"He's shown us a lot of instinctive football ability," LeBeau said. "If the coach doesn't mess him up, I think he's got a chance to be a pretty good player."
Just as Jarvis Jones is expected to make an early impact for the defense, Le’Veon Bell needs to be a big part of the Steelers offense.
Running back may be the easiest position to transition to from college to the pros, but that does not guarantee the second-round draft choice a starting spot. Running backs coach Kirby Wilson told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that Bell must prove that he can protect the quarterback.
“That's anybody. That's any running back,” Wilson said. “You have to be able to protect the quarterback or you won't play. That's not just in Pittsburgh. That's in every NFL city.”
Bell was a solid blocker while at Michigan State and he has the size—6’1”, 244 pounds—to be an effective blocker in the NFL.
Not only will Bell earn a starting job if he can show that he is capable in pass protection, but he may even be a three-down back for the Steelers.
Entering the draft, it was no secret that the Steelers would be targeting a safety to develop behind the aging Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark.
One of the reasons they made the move was because of the contract status of both of their safeties. Clark is a free agent after this season and Polamalu after next season.
Clark recently told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (subscription required) that there has been no talk of a contract extension.
Though Clark will turn 34 this season, he has been playing excellent football over the past few seasons and was arguably the Steelers’ most consistent defender last season.
Clark doesn’t have the flash that Polamalu has, but he is the glue in the Steelers secondary, and it would be worth signing him to a two-year contract extension.
Few coaches in the NFL can deliver a press conference like Mike Tomlin. He has a way to say absolutely nothing by using many clever “Tomlinisms.”
You can add another one to the list.
At his final minicamp press conference, Tomlin told the media that he wants his team to be “prepared” for training camp, via Teresa Varley of Steelers.com:
The word that I used was ‘prepared.’ Oftentimes we talk about being ready for camp. I think ready is an emotional thing. I’m ready for camp as I sit here today because I love camp. I love the process of team building. Prepared is another thing. Daily actions between now and then are to ensure that we’re ready to take the actions that we desire to take. I’m more concerned about our guys being prepared than ready. We talk openly about the differences between the two.
I have to say, that is an impressive statement. It actually makes quite a bit of sense, but in the grand scheme of things means absolutely nothing.
Words are one thing—actions are another.
Tomlin needs the actions to come through if the Steelers are to get back to the playoffs. It is going to take more than playing mind games with his words to achieve this.
The most important news coming out of the Steelers' offseason program is that the team is healthy.
Besides Roethlisberger having knee surgery and Mike Adams recovering from injuries suffered after he was stabbed in the stomach, the Steelers have no new setbacks from OTAs or minicamp.
With both players expected to return to action in time for training camp, the Steelers should be in great shape. That is particularly important given the injury situation last year.
According to the, the Steelers lost 78 starts due to injuries last season. While no one will make excuses for their 8-8 record last season, there is little reason to doubt that injuries were a major contributor to this.
Right after the season, team president Art Rooney II stated that he wanted to examine ways to prevent so many injuries, via Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
"I think we do have to look at everything we are doing," Rooney said in January. "And we will look at everything we are doing from a training and conditioning side of things and a practice side of things and see if there are things we can do to get better."
The new training and conditioning regiment will be put to the test once training camp begins.