Rounding Up Pittsburgh Steelers' Offseason Buzz, Post-Minicamps
The Pittsburgh Steelers completed minicamp with a full practice last Thursday. It was clear that head coach Mike Tomlin wanted to set the tone for the start of training camp, which is just over one month away.
Tomlin has plenty of work to do with his team after two consecutive missed playoff appearances. He has a roster full of young players eager to help lead the team back to the playoffs. Early indications are that the team is coming together nicely, but Tomlin told Bob Labriola of Steelers.com that you must exercise caution when making evaluations when playing without pads:
They have done nice, but again you can convince yourself of anything this time of year. I’m not interested in telling the story to myself. I just simply roll the ball out and provide opportunities for guys to improve. I’m not trying to measure it too much because it is what it is. This isn’t football. It’s football-like, and it’s a great opportunity to prove and learn and develop game cohesion and understanding. That’s what this is about as opposed to evaluating performance.
Without any formal practices until the team arrives in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, players will have to spend time training and learning the playbook. This will be particularly important for the rookies as several—Ryan Shazier, Stephon Tuitt and Dri Archer—will have an opportunity to contribute early on.
Besides new personnel, there will also be shifts in schemes, particularly with the offense.
Todd Haley plans to use more of the no-huddle offense this season, and Ben Roethlisberger is more than ready for this style of attack. However, with all of the new offensive weapons on the roster, everyone must quickly get up to speed for it to be an effective approach.
The Steelers are far from being a finished product, but they have provided us with a taste of what to expect this upcoming season. Therefore, as training camp approaches, here is the latest buzz surrounding the Steelers.
Ryan Shazier Living Up to Hype
The Steelers wanted to get faster on defense, and that is exactly what they did with the addition of Shazier in the first round of this year’s draft. Not only was he one of the fastest linebackers drafted in years, but at just 21 years old, he is slated to start alongside Lawrence Timmons at inside linebacker.
Tomlin wasted no time getting Shazier into the starting lineup. He has been running with the first-team defense since the first day of OTAs. So far, he has made quite an impression.
Shazier caught the attention of everyone with an incredible interception that Jim Wexell of Steel City Insider said should help him hold off any competition:
"But don't look for Shazier to relinquish his spot any time soon. Not after the interception he made during OTA No. 9. Even Shazier admitted that 'it was really good.'"
Expect Shazier to be the first opening-day starter for the Steelers since Kendrell Bell in 2001. He is too athletic and has the potential to make too many splash plays—as displayed by his interception in practice—to leave him on the bench.
With the lack of playmakers on defense, Shazier will help fill that role with his combination of speed and knowledge of the defense. His knowledge of the playbook will come in time, but it will be the first-team reps during training camp that will prepare him for the regular season.
Shazier will help boost a lackluster pass rush that has struggled to consistently pressure on the quarterback, yet he will be able to drop into coverage and run with the more athletic tight ends in the league. With their failure to produce turnovers in recent years, they would also like to see athletic interceptions like the one that he had in practice.
That is a lot to ask from a rookie, but from all early reports, he looks the part of a first-round draft pick and projects as an integral part of the defense from the start.
Stephon Tuitt a Work in Progress
When Tuitt was given his jersey—No. 91—the comparisons to Aaron Smith were bound to happen. For now, he is just trying to learn the playbook but did admit that it has been a tough start, via Ray Fittipaldo of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:
“It’s rocky,” Tuitt said. “But I’ve been in this system now for a couple of weeks and I’m understanding the playbook and understanding my role and understanding the system.”
Although there may seem that there will be a lot of pressure for him to start right away, do not be surprised if he doesn’t. It has been historically difficult for a defensive end to start as a rookie in Pittsburgh’s defensive system.
Smith didn’t. Brett Keisel didn’t. Neither did Ziggy Hood or Cameron Heyward.
Rather than force Tuitt into the lineup, Cam Thomas can hold down the job until the rookie is ready to go. That would allow Tuitt to learn the position and defensive playbook at a comfortable pace. More importantly, defensive line coach John Mitchell can focus on his technique.
Mitchell has a lot of faith in Tuitt and believes that he can be another Smith. However, he also acknowledged that they must not rush him into the lineup and damage the rookie's confidence.
As far as training camp goes, do not be alarmed if the coaches work Tuitt into the lineup slowly. He will spend most of his time working with the second team as he shows that he can compete physically. As long as all goes well, he will step in as a rotational player early in the year with the outside chance of overtaking Thomas for the starting gig before the end of the season.
Here Comes the No-Huddle
You may have heard this before, but the Steelers are going to use more no-huddle offense this year.
This has actually been an annual ritual for Roethlisberger and the Steelers, as brilliantly explained by Scott Kacsmar of Football Outsiders.
Well, this year it actually appears to be true.
Mark Kaboly of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reported that the Steelers worked extensively in the no-huddle during OTAs. They continued to do so during minicamp, according to what Roethlisberger told Mike Prisuta of Steelers.com:
“We’ll have some different personnel groups in the no-huddle,” Roethlisberger explained. “In years past it’s been kind of one, maybe two, personnel groups. And now we can kind of do some different things.”
This is where the versatility of the offensive weapons comes into play. The wider range of versatility, the more looks that the Steelers can give a defense. The result is creating as many mismatches as possible.
In the past, the Steelers used the no-huddle attack when they were behind in a game or when they needed a spark on offense. That should not be the case this year. Rather than wait until they are struggling, expect Haley to use this from the start.
The no-huddle helped the Steelers bounce back to a winning record in the second half of 2013, so using it from the start of the season should mean good things for the offense. Roethlisberger loves to work out of it and understands that it can help both the passing and running game.
With personnel that can move around the field, Pittsburgh’s offense could have its best season in years. The top three receivers can play inside and outside. Le’Veon Bell, LeGarrette Blount and Archer can be active as runners or receivers, and the presence of Will Johnson adds the threat of a fullback or a tight end to the personnel mixes.
Utilizing this attack will require the entire offense to be on the same page, but with the tone set early, it appears as though the Steelers will commit to the no-huddle and feature it as a prominent part of the offense.
Dri Archer Will Be Used, but How?
One of the biggest names of the offseason is the smallest player on the team.
The 5’8” and 173-pound Archer does not have the size to carry a heavy load, but rather be a role player with elite speed. At this point, it seems as though the Steelers know what kind of threat that he can be but are unsure how to use him.
"We are all going to work together to make sure this guy is in the right place," running backs coach James Saxon said to Scott Brown of ESPN.com. "The kid is a special football player with the ball in his hands."
Besides how to get the ball in his hands, how many times can they get it in his hands?
Does Haley take touches away from Antonio Brown? Heath Miller? Bell or Blount?
That would be difficult to do, especially from the latter. As the Steelers try to boost their ground game, it is difficult to justify taking carries away from two players who can pound the ball, especially when they are going to be a part of the no-huddle package.
When Roethlisberger was asked about the ground game in the no-huddle offense, he knew exactly what to expect from Bell and Blount, but he was unsure how they would use Archer, via Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:
"That’s big for us, because we used it a lot in the no-huddle, we used it a lot when we had Le’Veon back and healthy. Now, I think we have a great complement to him in LeGarrette and even Dri Archer, getting him some different kind of runs and things."
Haley and the rest of the offensive staff has a month to decide what “and things” means and how to effectively integrate it into the offense. Archer may be limited to just four or five touches per game, so they must make the most of them.
Wide Receiver Battle Lines Set
Entering the 2014 season, the Steelers are deep with talent but shallow on experience at wide receiver. That is a concern considering how important route running and timing are to the success of the offense.
That has not stopped Haley from praising his receivers during minicamp. Not only did he call it one of the deepest groups that he has ever worked with, but he acknowledged that there would be quality players left off the roster, via Fittipaldo of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:
There are some pretty good football players who probably won’t make the team. That means you have some good players. Lance Moore is a sharp, smart guy who has picked things up quick. Markus Wheaton and Justin [Brown] have been here and you can see they have a year under their belt. Those are the two guys I saw during the offseason. They’d be in there working. They have a different confidence level in what they’re doing and what we’re doing.
Already expected to be one of the top battles in training camp, Haley established a pecking order with his comments.
With Brown locked in to the No. 1 role, the rest of the receivers on the depth chart have some room to maneuver. The early indications, though, are that Wheaton will start opposite of Brown and Moore will play the slot. The praise Justin Brown has received is an indication that he has an early edge to make the team.
That leaves Derek Moye, Darrius Heyward-Bey and Martavis Bryant as three receivers who will compete for one or two spots left on the roster.
The final spot—or spots—may come down to the player who not only looks good in practice, but also displays a comfort level in the no-huddle. Contributing on special teams is an added bonus.
It is too early to say who will earn that fifth spot, but it would be hard to believe that the Steelers would give up on a physical talent like Bryant so soon in his career. They should give him the benefit of the doubt and find a way to get him on the roster. There is no other receiver on the depth chart who has the size, speed and upside of Bryant. Not only can he develop into a starter, but a very good one.