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August 2, 2015
by Chris Adamski


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Adamski: Who’s an unlikely mentor for first-round pick Dupree?

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Le’Veon Bell: AFC’s leading rusher, Steelers’ record-breaking receiver out of the backfield – and 23-year-old well-respected mentor…

 

…for linebackers?

 

“I’ve kind of taken him by my side… to make sure he’s taking care of his body,” Bell said Saturday, referring to first-round pick Bud Dupree.

 

“He’s the kind of guy who’d come around if he’d see me in a cold tub and ask ‘How long you in here?’ I’d tell him 25 minutes or whatever it may be… I remember my rookie year, my guy was Jerricho Cotchery; he was a guy I looked up to. Now it’s my third year in the league, I’m kind of helping the younger guys out a little bit.”

 

Bell likes to wear his shirt up, exposing his washboard abs. That, and his production (a team record 2,115 yards from scrimmage last season) are proof that if you’re new to the NFL, Bell is someone worth listening to when it comes to fitness and conditioning.

 

“If he can take care of his body that way and play like he plays, I want to do the same thing,” Dupree said. “He’s someone who knows how important taking care of your body is… He was in the same boat I was in – a heavier guy who had to drop weight (when entering the NFL), too. We had to do the same thing, and the things he does off the field after practice have helped him recover for the next day and helped him become a better player.”

 

An All Pro player helping out a highly-regarded rookie teammate? Commendable, but not too uncommon in the NFL. But when that “veteran” is not even a year older than the rookie and plays a position that is as disparate as running back is to outside linebacker – a little bit strange, no?

 

“Not at all in our (Steelers) culture,” coach Mike Tomlin said. “It’s about guys who know what to do helping guys that don’t. And obviously, if you look at Le’Veon from a physical-conditioning standpoint, he knows what to do, so it’s his job to grab younger guys in the system with that, just like guys were assisting him in his effort (when he was a rookie).”

 

One of the most impressionable lessons that Dupree has taken from Bell is use of the cold tub after workouts to help in body recovery and preservation. It was something Dupree needed to adjust to.

 

“Sometimes, he’s struggling,” Bell said with a chuckle. “I kind of see him shaking a little.

 

“But he’s sticking in there, and as a rookie, it’s hard to do that.”

 

Said Dupree with a smile while referring to the cold tub, “Some things you don’t wanna do. But then after you get done you go ‘Ah, I need to do this more to help myself out in long run.’”

 

 

Another chance to listen to the weekly Steelers Roundtable show on TribLive Radio with myself and co-hosts Ken Laird and Mark Kaboly.

 

 

And also check out our thrice-daily video updates from training camp at the Trib Sports YouTube page:

 

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July 30, 2015
by Chris Adamski


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Who’s the key to the defense? Whose stock is up/down? LISTEN to TribLive Radio Steelers Roundtable

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LATROBE — Over the past 6 1/2 months, the Steelers Roundtable show on TribLive Radio has been (for the most part*) on hiatus. It’s back!

 

Although it wasn’t the same with Ralph Paulk enjoying a day off back home (he’s missing the best weather day of camp so far at St. Vincent),  Mark Kaboly and I joined host Ken Laird for the first Steelers Roundtable episode of the 2015 season Thursday morning from high atop Chuck Noll Field in Latrobe.

 

Give it a listen by clicking on this.

 

 

 

And while you’re at it, enjoy the latest Steelers Trib One-Minute Update from camp (check out all the updates via Trib Total Media’s Sports YouTube page):

 

 

*-In the spring, we had two episodes previewing and reviewing the draft.

 

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July 28, 2015
by Mark Kaboly


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Kaboly: Who called Antwon Blake a “freakish athlete?”

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Antwon Blake (right) Chaz Palla Photo

Antwon Blake (right)
Chaz Palla Photo

Terrell Buckely, Ty Law, Sam Madison, Deion Sanders, Aeneas Williams … and Antwon Blake?

Well, that’s how renowned training guru Tom Shaw sees it.

While appearing on TribLive Radio on Tuesday, Shaw called Blake – the Steelers third cornerback – “probably one of the freakiest athletes that we have had at our facility.”

And that facility – located at the Disney Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando – has seen the likes of 11 Super Bowl MVPs, 10 No. 1 draft picks and 145 first-round picks.

Blake ranks up with all of them, according to Shaw.

“He can do everything you dream of doing on the football field,” Shaw said. “He is that guy. He is going to be a star. He has work ethic and dedication and those are two key opponents. And when you have speed and agility like the way he gets in and out of breaks and move and change direction … he is a freak of nature.”

The Steelers likely feel the same way, too.

They didn’t do much in the offseason to help out the maligned secondary immediately. That might be because of what they think Blake can do.

Blake is currently slotted at left cornerback when the Steelers go to their nickel package. William Gay and Cortez Allen are the starters.

It has been a quick ascent for Blake.

After getting released by the Jaguars in 2013 after playing four snaps as an undrafted rookie free agent, Blake was claimed by the Steelers, where he played four snaps.

Blake finally got his opportunity Week 9 last year against the Colts when he replaced a benched Allen and played in the nickel package the rest of the season.

Blake allowed only one touchdown the entire season and finished with five pass defenses, an interceptions and a key forced fumble and fumble recovery in the season finale against the Bengals.

 

*Take a listen to the Kaboly Show Podcast on TribLive Radio. It’s just a click away —à

http://sportstalk.triblive.com/download/727KAB15.mp3+share

 

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July 28, 2015
by Chris Adamski


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Adamski: Who is/are the Steelers’ defense’s new leaders now that Troy, Ike and Keisel are gone?

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A heavy storyline in the early stages of Steelers training camp is the defense – more specifically, “Whose defense is this?”

 

There’s a new coordinator (Keith Butler in for Dick LeBeau), and three beloved veterans with a combined 37 years of playing experience have also retired since the end of last season. So, without Troy Polamalu, Brett Keisel and Ike Taylor – who combined to account for at least a share of the Steelers’ defensive captaincy over the past three seasons – who will step up now?

 

It takes a… village?

 

For my money, there are three primary candidates to be the Steelers’ captain(s) on defense this year. So, let’s just ask them where the leadership will come from…

 

 

  • CB William Gay: “I think collectively. It’s not by one person stepping up and being a leader; it’s about the whole team just coming together and being a family, and that’s what we plan on doing. We don’t really care who’s the leader because at the end of the day it’s not about what we say – it’s about what we do… There’s a lot of leaders on the team – we don’t need one player to step up and be the voice of the Steelers. We don’t need to do that, we just need to let our play do the talking.”
  • DE Cameron Heyward: “A lot of guys lead in different ways. It doesn’t fall on one guy’s shoulders. I think that’s the way we like it because we can keep each other accountable and focused on the task at hand.”
  • LB Lawrence Timmons: “We’ve got a lot of guys ready to step in there to do the role… We’re the type of team that we all play our roles – whatever our role, all our guys fulfill that role, and that’s what makes us better as a team… I try to be a leader now that I’m the older guy, trying to set the example for how we play or whatever. But the thing about me, I’ve seen that from the guys who did it in the past, so I know the recipe starting with Coach LeBeau and with Coach Butler now, so I know the winning recipe and I’m just ready to do the job.”

 

 

So there you have it. Heyward? Timmons? Gay? James Harrison? Will Allen?? Mike Mitchell?!

 

There’s no sense trying to figure out who the leader of the Steelers’ defense will be. After all, even when Polamalu, Keisel, Taylor, James Farrior, Aaron Smith, Casey Hampton and Ryan Clark were all still around, they shared the leadership mantle among them. No reason to believe these new Steelers on defense won’t do the same.

 

 

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July 26, 2015
by Mark Kaboly


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Kaboly: Steelers blitzing team or coverage team? Even the players don’t know

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The question on the minds of everybody as the Steelers open up training camp here at St. Vincent College with new defensive coordinator Keith Butler running things is what kind of stamp will he put on the unit.

Butler, who replaced Hall of Famer Dick LeBeau in January, already alluded to having defensive ends Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt do more than just occupy blocks. He wants them to make plays. That’s a good first step, that’s for sure.

However, other than that, we all really don’t know what Butler will do to get back to being one of the top-ranked defenses in the NFL – something they haven’t been over the past two years.

When I say nobody, I mean nobody.

“In OTAs, you know what it is like with the installation process,” linebacker Arthur Moats said. “Whatever we install that day we are going to run 100 times. One day, we are like, ‘Oh man, we are a blitzing team.’ The next day it is ‘We are just a coverage team.”

Now that the Steelers are at training camp, that identity will likely come into focus a little more.

“During camp we are going to definitely lock in to what our identity will be,” Moats said.

For Butler, his biggest adjustment is going to be game day plays calls – something he has never done.

What’s he going to dial up on a 3rd-and-5 at midfield? What personnel is he going to use? Will he play more bump coverage? Will he blitz corners and safeties?

Only Butler knows.

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July 23, 2015
by Chris Adamski


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Adamski: A fun look at how long Mike Tomlin has been the Steelers’ coach

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On the 3,104th day of Mike Tomlin’s tenure as Steelers head coach, he and the team announced that their marriage – contractually – will last at least several hundred more days.

 

Or three-plus more years, to use the more generally accepted unit of time measurement, thanks to a two-year contract extension that ties Tomlin to the Steelers through the 2018 season.

 

Look at the young man Jan. 22, 2007, well before the term “Tomlin-ism” became an accepted part of the Yinzer vernacular:

 

Already, at just 43 (six years older than James Harrison), Tomlin is the NFL’s sixth-longest tenured head coach, trailing only Bill Belichick, Marvin Lewis, Tom Coughlin, Mike McCarthy and Sean Payton.

 

Eight-and-a-half years in the NFL can feel like an eternity. In the world of Pittsburgh sports it can, too.

 

A fun look at exactly how long Tomlin has been the Steelers coach:

 

 

—The Raiders have had five “permanent” head coaches (Lane Kiffin, Tom Cable, Hue Jackson, Dennis Allen, Jack Del Rio) and one interim head coach (Tony Sparano).

 

—The organization that shares a South Side practice facility with the Steelers – Pitt football – has had five “permanent” head coaches (Dave Wannstedt, Michael Haywood, Todd Graham, Paul Chryst and Pat Narduzzi) and three interim coaches (Phill Bennett, Keith Patterson, Joe Rudolph).

 

 

Among players, head coaches and general managers, only nine athletes and one administrator were with one of Pittsburgh’s three professional teams then and remain on them now:

 

  • The Steelers’ LB James Harrison*, QB Ben Roethlisberger, LS Greg Warren, TE Heath Miller and GM Kevin Colbert.
  • The Penguins’ C Sidney Crosby, C Evgeni Malkin, G Marc-Andre Fleury, D Kris Letang* and D Rob Scuderi*
  • There are no Pirates players nor a coach nor general manager around from when Tomlin was hired – although a caveat is that OF Andrew McCutchen, 2B Neil Walker and RHP Jared Hughes were in their minor-league system.

 

*-Harrison and Scuderi spent time with other teams in the meantime but returned to the Steelers and Penguins, respectively, so I’ll count it. Letang was with his junior team when Tomlin was hired — but he’d already played in seven NHL games earlier that particular season, so it counts (albeit with an asterisk).

 

 

In terms of the news the teams were making….

—Three days prior to Tomlin’s hire, the Pirates stole the headlines – they acquired slugging first baseman Adam LaRoche in a trade and signed right-hander Shawn Chacon to a free-agent contract.

 

—Two days prior to Tomlin’s hire, Mark Recchi had a hat trick for the Penguins in an 8-2 win against the Maple Leafs.

 

—The day prior to Tomlin’s hire, despite 21 points off the bench by Ronald Ramon, Pitt basketball lost to Marquette in overtime to snap a seven-game winning streak and drop to 17-3 and from No. 6 to No. 9 in the AP poll that would come out 48 hours later. They’d go on to make the Sweet 16.

 

 

Yet for how very long it seems Mike Tomlin has been the Steelers’ head coach, perhaps this is the craziest part: He’d have to fulfill this contract and then add on three more years just to tie Bill Cowher as the Steelers’ second-longest serving coach.

 

To match Chuck Noll? Tomlin would have to coach until 2029.

 

 

 

Enjoy your day. Catch you next from Latrobe on Saturday.

 

 

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July 18, 2015
by Chris Adamski


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Adamski: Is Kelvin Beachum next?

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With the news that the summer’s No. 1 contract-extension priority for the Steelers, Cameron Heyward, was signed to a new deal late Thursday, now the attention can turn to the player who is the team’s No. 2 priority.

Assuming there is one.

It’s been speculated that the Steelers might – perhaps – be one-and-done this offseason when it comes to extending players who are entering the final year of their deals. Heyward, for any number of reasons (production, intangibles, talented-and-ascending), was the obvious “must-sign.” With that getting done comfortably, what or who is next?

First, a listing of the candidates – “candidates” defined as veteran players who are entering the final season of multi-year contracts in which they will be unrestricted free agents after the campaign ends. Of the Steelers 2016 UFA’s-to-be, backup quarterback Bruce Gradkowski, defensive lineman Cam Thomas, fullback/tight end Will Johnson, guard Ramon Foster, cornerback William Gay, nose tackle Steve McLendon and left tackle Kelvin Beachum qualify.

That group can quickly be whittled down when you concede backup quarterback doesn’t figure to be a high priority – and neither does fullback, considering it’s a position rarely used anymore (with apologies to Johnson’s improved work when lining up on the line of scrimmage).

Also, Cam Thomas just has to worry about making this season’s team before he can think about any kind of extension.

Then, consider that the Steelers have already let Gay walk once via free agency (he played the 2012 season in Arizona). Although it wouldn’t be surprising whatsoever if Gay is back in 2016 and beyond, just don’t expect it to be a priority over these next eight weeks before the regular season starts.

Finally, the Steelers could probably be content to take a longer look at Daniel McCullers this season before effectively blocking him by signing the player in front of him on the depth chart, McLendon, to an extension.

Who does that leave? Beachum. A fine player (Pro Football Focus rated him the NFL’s fifth-best tackle in 2014) and an even finer young man. But he probably isn’t the slam-dunk extension candidate Heyward was, however.

Beachum is a curious case. He’s been effective, and he’s well-liked. He’s been underpaid – his backup, Mike Adams, has made more than him over these past four seasons (Adams was drafted five rounds prior than Beachum in 2012’s second round). Considering Adams is also an unrestricted free agent-to-be and there is literally zero NFL games of experience behind them (not counting starting right tackle Marcus Gilbert, of course), extending Beachum is a no-brainer, no?

Maybe, but if so, it’ll not come cheaply. Veteran starting left tackles on the free agent market typically are richly rewarded. It’s a position viewed by some as the second-most important on the field.

To wit, per Spotrac.com:

Twenty-three left tackles carry a cap hit of at least $4 million this season, 21 of at least $5 million, 18 of at least $6 million, 15 of at least $7 million and 10 of at least $8 million. You better believe Beachum – via his agent – will want to be paid at least in the top half of the league’s starters, which easily means $7 million (yes, I know cap hit isn’t the same as salary, but bear with me, this  just as a general guide here).

Of left tackles currently under contract who signed veteran deals of at least three seasons (which Beachum will, at minimum, command) and that kick(ed) in during this season of either of the past two seasons*, the average annual value is $7.5 million and the average guarantee is $17.45 million. (Again, my disclaimer: “guarantee” is subjective, but this is per Spotrac’s definition).

No offensive lineman from the 2012 draft class has signed his “second” contract yet. (Tom Compton was cut before his rookie season began, spending it on the practice squad, so he is exempt). This means a market has not yet been established.

Keep in mind that for those first two bulleted points, the numbers are on the low end of what today’s starting left tackles will command on the market simply because most of those deals were signed in past offseasons, when the salary cap was lower and therefore less money was available. Inflation, in the NFL as in life, is a constant. (Just usually exponentially more in the NFL than in life).

But the overall point stands: A Beachum contract will cost no insignificant sum.

The problem is, where do the Steelers turn at left tackle if they don’t keep Beachum?

Adams – a player their own actions say they believe is inferior?

Alejandro Villanueva – a player who turns 27 soon and hasn’t appeared in an NFL game yet?

A free agent? Who’s to say a comparable player would come any cheaper than a known quantity in Beachum?

A draft pick? It’s never wise to depend on a rookie – let alone an unnamed, theoretical one who you wouldn’t even know his identity at the time you’d be letting Beachum walk.

At 6-3, 303, Beachum is undersized by NFL left-tackle standards. Maybe that gives the Steelers pause? Perhaps knowing that it’s likely that at least some teams will never considering signing Beachum because of his size will work to suppress his value on the open market, thereby giving the Steelers a reason to lowball? As a seventh-round pick, several teams have passed on Beachum once before.

Either way, tracking the Beachum/Steelers extension saga will be one of the main stories to follow during training camp.

*-Note: For Michael Oher, I used the contract he signed with Tennessee in 2014 instead of the one he signed with Carolina this past spring after getting but by the Titans

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July 13, 2015
by Chris Adamski


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Adamski: Where have you gone, Chris Gardocki? Examining a decade of Steelers punting turnover

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If you’re a Steelers fan, mark Dec. 13 on your calendars. A big division game on the road at Cincinnati? Yes. But it’s also a day Brad Wing – potentially – could make history.

 

 

Under Mike Tomlin, no man has started and finished two consecutive full seasons as the Steelers punter. Should Wing make it to mid-December holding the job – no sure thing whatsoever, considering he’d have to hold off challenger Jordan Berry in camp, stay healthy and avoid getting cut due to performance through 12 games – he will have been the first Steeler since Chris Gardocki (2004-2006) to last at least 29 consecutive games as the team’s punter.

 

 

Through a combination of poor performance, bad luck, injuries and a quick trigger finger when it comes to cuts, the Steelers’ punting position has been a revolving door since Gardocki was cut at age 37 in the wake of the team drafting punter Daniel Sepulveda in the fourth round of the 2007 draft.

 

 

Gardocki and Josh Miller had handled 716 of the Steelers’ 729 punts over the decade span of 1997-2006 (trivia answer for the remaining 13: one Kordell Stewart quick kick in 1998 and two by Ben Roethlisberger in 2005, three punts by kicker Kris Brown when Miller was knocked out of the 2001 opener in Jacksonville and seven by Tom Rouen when Miller had a shoulder injury in 2002).

 

 

In an early statement as to a supposed emphasis on special teams during his first draft as coach, Tomlin (via general manager Kevin Colbert, et al) traded up in the fourth round of the 2007 draft to select Sepulveda, the NCAA’s all-time leader in punting average. (A little more trivia and perspective: The Patriots used the 110th pick in a trade to get Randy Moss; the Steelers used a sixth-round pick to move up to the spot two picks later to nab Sepulveda).

 

 

But Sepulveda would neither stay healthy (he was available for only 52 of the Steelers’ 80 games he was paid by them) nor live up to his lofty draft status (a mediocre 43.7 yards-per-punt career gross average).

 

 

So the Steelers turned elsewhere. Again and again.

 

 

Eight men have held the title of being the Steelers’ punter over the past eight seasons, with the job being passed on to someone else (for one reason or another) 11 times in that span.

 

 

 

Some seasonal examples to wit…

2008: Sepulveda sustained a season-ending knee injury early in training camp. Mitch Berger held the job for eight games but then got cut in favor of Paul Ernster, who held it for all of three weeks before the Steelers cut him and went back to Berger.

2010: A Sepulveda knee injury after the 12th game knocked him out for the season, and the team turned to Penn State grad Jeremy Kapinos.

2011: On Nov. 5 – midway through the regular season – the Steelers again turned to Kapinos after placing Sepulveda on injured reserve because of, you guessed it, a knee injury.

2013: The Steelers spent the preseason with two punters on their roster – incumbent Drew Butler and 37-year-old Brian Moorman – but ended up using neither of them, instead signing Zoltan Mesko the week prior to the regular-season opener. Mesko wouldn’t even last the season, though, and he was cut in late October in favor of Matt McBriar.

 

 

 

 

 

The Steelers have tried seemingly everything: From rookies (Drew Butler) and first-year players (Wing) to 36-year-olds (Mitch Berger) and 11-year veterans (Matt McBriar); unsigned first-year players (Berry) to high draft picks (Sepulveda). They’ve tried both right- and left-footed (Sepulveda) punters. They’ve encouraged competition in camp, scanned the waiver wire when camp ended, brought in players for tryouts midseason.

 

 

Nothing – in terms of continuity, at least – has worked.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Steelers punters, by season, in the Mike Tomlin Era, with team punting NFL ranks

 

 

Season             Punter(s)                                             Team gross rank         Team net rank

2007                Daniel Sepulveda                                            18th                                   18th

2008                Mitch Berger (13 games), Paul Ernster (3)    31st                              29th

2009                Sepulveda                                                        22nd                              22nd

2010                Sepulveda (12 games), Jeremy Kapinos (4)    12th                              8th

2011                Sepulveda (8 games), Kapinos (8)                  16th                              9th

2012                Drew Butler                                                    26th                              25th

2013                Zoltan Mesko (7 games), Matt McBriar (9)   31st                              31st

2014                Brad Wing                                                       29th                              26th

 

AVERAGES IN TOMLIN ERA                                                    23rd                              21st

 

 

 

 

 

I couldn’t find the data to back this up, but judging by those numbers the Steelers’ gross average has got to be one of the worst in the league over that eight-year span. Not exactly the legacy Tomlin was looking to establish by spending two picks on a specialist in his debut draft as a head coach.

 

 

Maybe Wing can stop the merry-go-round. Other than a couple memorable gaffes last season, he was satisfactorily dependable – and at 24 with a year of experience under his belt, one would bet on him improving and remaining the Steleers’ punter throughout this season and into the foreseeable future.

 

 

Then again, after watching what has happened to Steelers punters over the past decade, perhaps the smarter bet is on what always seems to happen: Change at the position.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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June 22, 2015
by Chris Adamski


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Adamski: Don’t forget about Fogg, Webb when examining the Steelers’ cornerbacks

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From the outside, they’re the forgotten men in the Steelers’ quest to improve their secondary.

 

Caught in the middle between established veteran and high-pedigree rookie, B.W. Webb and Kevin Fogg might be Nos. 6 and 7 among the seven cornerbacks on the Steelers training camp roster when it comes to headlines. But don’t be surprised come final cuts in September that one and/or the other finds his way onto an opening day 53-man.

 

“There’s always room for improvement and things to do better at; I’m still trying to get a grasp of some things,” Webb said last week in the locker room following a minicamp workout. “But I think I’m doing a good job of showing them that I’m ready to get out on the field and start playing.”

 

Everyone knows projected starters William Gay and Cortez Allen, who have a combined 13 seasons with the Steelers. Fans also are keenly aware of rookies Senquez Golson and Doran Grant, who were each drafted within the first four rounds of the draft last month.

 

Antwon Blake, after late last season showing he could play – even excel – in the NFL, likewise is a known quantity of sorts.

 

Where does that leave Webb and Fogg?

 

In an uphill battle to win a roster spot? Perhaps. But each also has an intriguing case to make.

 

Webb was a fourth-round draft pick just 26 months ago. He played 195 snaps over 15 games for the Cowboys in 2013 (all snap info courtesy Pro Football Focus), and he appeared in 11 games for the Steelers last season (albeit almost exclusively on special teams).

 

But with the retirement of Ike Taylor and the free agency departure of Brice McCain, combined with the fact rookies are still just a few weeks into learning the playbook and a minor minicamp injury to Allen, Webb found himself on the field with the “1s” with frequency during organized team activities and minicamp.

 

“I just trying to be a better me so we can win the Super Bowl,” Webb said. “Anything that I can do better, anything that I can help with to put us in the right spot to get to that big game, man.”

 

For Webb, that’s meant a role in special teams. He said he’s been part of both punt and kickoff coverage and return teams. Standing out for special teams coach Danny Smith certainly wouldn’t hurt his cause.

 

Webb made a name for himself at an FCS school (William & Mary), intercepting three passes in his collegiate debut in an upset over Virginia in 2009. He also turned some heads at the 2013 combine and Senior Bowl.

 

But he struggled during his rookie season and was cut late during the ensuing training camp. The Steelers scooped him up via waivers and kept him on the 53-man roster all season.

 

Fogg has yet to earn anything more than a practice-squad NFL check. Another small-school product (Liberty), he went undrafted last year. After spending time in the Dolphins’ training camp, he eventually was signed to the Steelers’ practice squad in December (48 hours after Taylor’s final play with the team).

 

But after the season ended he was quickly signed to a reserve/future contract, and he appeared far from out of place in defensive snaps this spring.

 

“I’m just blessed just to be here; God has opened up my eyes a little bit of all that He’s given me, so it’s been good to be able to compete and have fun and enjoy the process,” Fogg said. “Sometimes going into your first *true* offseason it can be a little hesitant at first, but it’s been good because I was with (the Steelers) for the last four weeks of the season just to get used to the feel for everybody and click with people for the most part. But it’s fun; I feel good.”

 

Fogg, who was an FCS All-American returner as a senior in college, said he hasn’t taken any reps at nickel DB this spring. But he has been on the outside covering receivers – and he has repeatedly made plays and raised some eyebrows among teammates, coaches and observers on the South Side over the past month.

 

A spiritual man, Fogg is doing his best to take his quest to earn an NFL roster spot in stride.

 

“I felt like when I went through the process of training camp last year with the Dolphins that I got a little too ahead of myself and was trying to, you know, play the numbers game (in regard to available roster spots),” Fogg said. “For a player that’s young and a rookie to play the numbers game, it plays with your head and it messes you up mentally.

 

“So it’s just been good for me to take one day at a time here, enjoy the process and just give it my best each and every day, and just do what I have to do right now – worry about tomorrow when the time arises, and just continue to have that mindset each and every day… All I can do is just do my best and God will take care of the rest.”

 

A lot can happen between now and the start of the regular season: Injuries. A new player brought in at the position (seven cornerbacks is not very many for a 90-man roster). Play from the rookies that either far exceeds or is far inferior to what is expected. The point being, it’s too early to tell how the Steelers roster will shake out at cornerback.

 

But for inspiration on how a so-called longshot can make an impact at the position for the Steelers, Webb and Fogg can look no further than their own meeting room. Blake went undrafted from a smallish school (UTEP), got cut late in his second training camp, underwent a position change from safety, made his initial mark on special teams… and by the end of last season was a key subpackage cog in the Steelers’ secondary.

 

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June 15, 2015
by Chris Adamski


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Adamski: Does Shazier have to ‘beat out’ Spence, Williams for his starting job?

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Last season, Ryan Shazier became the rare rookie who started on defense for the Steelers (barring injury). Remember, not even Troy Polamalu did that. Shazier started the season opener – indeed, the first three games of the season, and was in the lineup for the first five in which he played overall. This, after “running with the 1s” throughout most of training camp, too.

 

But by the end of the season, he wasn’t starting. Yes, injuries played a part in that (he missed four weeks each for knee and ankle ailments), and the Steelers purportedly were “easing Shazier back in” after the second stretch of time he was out. As seen by the chart below, there is merit to that because Shazier’s playing gradually worked itself back up over the final five games (including the playoff loss to Baltimore).

 

Still, there really isn’t much room for interpretation: By definition, Shazier lost his starting job. Yes, Sean Spence and Vince Williams were performing admirably and yes, coaches are sometimes loathe to make changes when a team is on a late-season roll (the Steelers won their final four regular-season games). And while it’s true that conditioning up to “game speed” can be a factor, consider me highly skeptical that if Lawrence Timmons had missed similar time due to injury that he would not have immediately returned to his former role.

 

 

Steelers’ playing time at left inside linebacker late in 2014(after Shazier returned from injury)

Game  (defensive snaps)        Shazier           Spence             Williams

12/7 at Cincinnati (61)            0 (0%)              27 (44%)          34 (56%)

12/14 at Atlanta (60)              4 (7%)              22 (37%)          35 (58%)

12/21 Kansas City (66)            20 (30%)          13 (20%)          33 (50%)

12/28 Cincinnati (71)              38 (54%)          26 (37%)          7 (10%)

1/3 Baltimore (playoffs) (57)  23 (40%)          21 (37%)          11 (19%)

(Source: NFL.com and Pro Football Focus)

 

 

So, what does that mean for 2015? Apparently, not much – at least if reading into organized team activities and what inside linebackers coach Jerry Olsavsky  says means anything, anyway.

 

Shazier is back getting starter’s reps. (On a side note, the rest of the depth chart, as it stands now, at LILB clearly appears to be Sean Spence at No. 2, followed by Vince Williams). And not only did Olsavsky sing Shazier’s praises, he seemed to shoot down the notion that there will be any kind of timeshare at his position.

 

“He played at a pretty fast pace (last year),” Olsavsky said of Shazier. “How he played from whistle to whistle was pretty good. He just has to clean some things up so he can get a little faster on the top end and a little cleaner in the pile. But he missed a lot of time and came back and made some great plays…

“We picked him in the first round, and we expect a lot of our first-round picks. I expect lot of all my players, but when you get picked that high it’s for a reason, and we expect him to fulfill his potential.”

 

Pretty positive and unambiguous, no? None of that he-has-to-earn-his-spot-like-everyone-does-no-matter-how-talented-or-where-he-was-drafted coachspeak.

 

Perhaps even more telling was when I asked Olsavsky, without mentioning Shazier’s name, about “the three guys you have at your position other than Lawrence who, I’m sure, all see themselves as starters.” What I was getting at was if he or defensive coordinator Keith Butler would consider using Spence, Williams and Shazier either in some sort of rotation or, more likely, use each in certain specific subpackages (or situations) that might take full advantage of each player’s strengths.

 

Olsavsky allowed that “I hope all of them see themselves as starters,” but he did say that last season’s playing-time split at LILB (per Pro Football Focus, Shazier played 283 snaps, Spence 531 and Williams 264) “had more to do with the injury situation.”

 

“I don’t really look at packages and certain things linebackers have to do,” Olsavsky said. “…The guys who react the best are gonna play the most. I don’t really believe in democracy on a football team – every sport you play, there’s some player better than the other one, and if that drives you to be a better player, so be it.”

 

Add it all up, and to me, it seems as if Shazier is the starter, and Spence and Williams are backups. Period. That’s not surprising whatsoever by any means – it was a matter of time before a first-round pick and extremely talented player (as Shazier is) took over. But it appears as if the Steelers aren’t even offering the pretense of a manufactured competition for the job. Throughout sports, that’s typical protocol, particularly with a young and relatively unproven (at the NFL level, anyway) player.

 

Then again, perhaps that shouldn’t be surprising; after all, Shazier was in the same position last summer – when he had even less of a professional resume. Shazier’s pure athleticism and ability and playmaking skills are apparently just too overwhelming to ignore. Put that way, that’s probably good news for the Steelers.

 

 

 

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