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July 22, 2014
by Mark Kaboly


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Kaboly: Outside zone makes return

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FosterAll the talk a year ago was how the Steelers were going to incorporate the outside zone running scheme into their offense.

Injuries to running back Le’Veon Bell and center Maurkice Pouncey early in the season forced the Steelers to put the scheme on the back burner.

Even though it wasn’t used after the first week, it was never removed from the playbook.

“We had it in, that’s the thing,” guard Ramon Foster told me on my TribLive Radio Show on Monday. “The same amount we have in this year was the same amount we had in last year. It was a little more publicized last year.”

Pouncey’s back, Bell’s healthy and the Steelers brought in offensive line coach Mike Munchak putting everything in place for the return of the outside zone this year … well, at least in theory.

“We are going to do it and get outside and run but it is also going to help the inside run,” Foster said. “You have to keep the defense honest. If you try to pound down guys the entire game, they get in tune with that you are doing. The outside zone keeps them honest. Sometimes we catch defenses off guard, too. We have to perfect it and get the little things taken care of in perfecting the run but I think it will be a tool that we use.”

It could be a welcome and much-needed addition to the offense.

The Steelers — typically a power and inside zone running team — finished with their fewest rushing yards (1,383) in a full season since the NFL adopted the 16-game schedule in 1978. They haven’t been a top-10 rushing team since 2007.

Foster said this year will be different.

“No excuses anymore,” Foster said.

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July 1, 2014
by Mark Kaboly


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Kaboly: Q&A with Todd Haley about his view on analytics in the NFL

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NFL: Tennessee Titans at Pittsburgh SteelersIt pales in comparison to Major League Baseball’s gaggle of advanced stats available and it can’t even come close to the NHL’s Corsi rating.

But the NFL – the ultimate come-late-to-the-party entity – is starting to warm to the benefits that advanced stats and analytics can offer them.

There are a handful of teams that now employ full time analytics experts including Buffalo, Chicago and Baltimore. Even though a portion of their job is linked to marketing, they are involved in game day trends and the draft as well.

As for the Steelers, they dabble in it a little bit but accrue most of its information the old fashioned way – by watching film.

Todd Haley has always been interested in the analytics parts of the game and has tried to work some into his thinking as the Steelers’ offensive coordinator, especially when it comes to figuring out one of the game’s most vexing problems – when to kick a field goal versus going for it on fourth down.

I had a chance to sit down with Haley during the recently completed spring practices and asked him about his view on advanced stats and analytics when it comes to football.

 

Q: “Do you use or believe in any kind of football analytics?”

A: “I have always been in to that in some areas. I took a lot of heat in Kansas City for going for it on fourth down. That’s one of the biggest areas for me. As a play caller when I was in Arizona with (Ken Whisenhunt), he would tell me on third down to have a fourth down call ready and I would think ‘Boy, if I would’ve known that two calls ago it would’ve changed everything.’ We have messed with it here a little bit with four-down mode. It doesn’t happen in obvious places. It might be on your own 30 when you say we have four downs to get the first so to me it changes drastically because you can hand it off three times in a row knowing that you will have that extra down. Obviously, if you can average 3.3 yards … when we led the league in rushing (in Kansas City) I was taking a lot of heat for the times we went for it and didn’t get it in critical situations say in Indy where everybody was trying to steal a possession. Our number of handoffs went up dramatically. (Bill) Parcells always taught if you hand off the ball 25 or more times and for years and year and years, it’s like you are going to win eight out of 10 games. In the first half, I am always like how many runs, where are we at. A lot of that is skewed because you are winning the game and you hand it off in the fourth quarter. If you can get to that number early in the game, you are probably playing pretty good football. Turnovers can change everything. That four-down mode allowed me to call three runs in a row, four runs in a row and stay in four down mode and now you might’ve handed it off seven or eight times in a row and those add up.”

 

Q: “So you know there is a better chance of you converting a fourth down than making a 50-plus yard field goal?”

A: “You start to factor in some of those things. Like I said, I took some heat but didn’t realize how much we were in it and how much it helped us win 10 games with Matt Cassel at quarterback and led the league in rushing. You factor in the percentage of going for it rather than kicking a long field goal.”

 

Q: “So it really does change a lot to you if you know you are four-down mode before the drive starts?”

A: “I had a rule and I told Charlie that when I tell him we are in four-down mode, I want three handoffs in a row no matter what unless on first down we got 7 yards and second down we would get 2 and knowing that you had a fourth down to hand it off to get the first, that shot against a more predictable defense came into play. It’s third-and-1 and we are trying to get the ball down the field for a huge play knowing that we are probably going to get man-to-man. It drastically changed the thinking. That came to me when Kenny would say third down and have a fourth down call ready. I’d have a fourth-down call ready but if I knew that, I could’ve handed it off here and here and here.”

 

Q: “Mike (Tomlin) is good with letting you know it is four-down mode?”

A: “I went through the whole thing with him and we have done it some. You really have to have your whole team on board. I’d tell the defensive coordinator that we are in four-down mode so they would know. We might’ve been on our own 35 and we are taking a risk so our defense better be ready to come out and shut them down.”

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June 18, 2014
by Mark Kaboly


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Kaboly: Worilds not offered a contract by Steelers

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WorildsWhen Jason Worilds quickly agreed to the rarely used transition tag in March that guaranteed him $9.745 million for the upcoming season, it was under the assumption that number wouldn’t stick by the time the Steelers’ season started.

The feeling at the time was that the Steelers would be highly motivated to sign Worilds to a long term deal to ease the near-$10 million cap hit for the then cap-strapped Steelers.

But with the cap unexpectedly jumping $10 million to $133 million and the extra money created by the release of LaMarr Woodley, the motivation to get a deal done quickly waned.

Now, it looks like Worilds will be playing under a one-year deal.

I was told that Worilds was not offered a contract by the Steelers and that there have been no talks between the two sides since Worilds agreed to the transition tag three months ago. It was recently reported that Worilds rejected a contract offer by the Steelers, which remains on the table.

It is not unusual for there to be two different stories during contract negotiations. In fact, it’s the norm, so take it for what is worth.

Worilds would not comment on his contract situation when I asked, and that’s about status quo for him. Worilds is a very quiet and guarded individual that would never talk about something as sensitive as his contract situation.

Worilds was drafted by the Steelers in the second round of the 2010 NFL Draft out of Virginia Tech. In his career, Worilds has started 21 regular-season games and registered 18 sacks and three forced fumbles. Last season, he set career highs in starts (11), tackles (54), sacks (eight) and forced fumbles (two).

Worst case scenario for Worilds is to play this season for nearly $10 million and do it all over again next year. The Steelers could transition tag him again or even franchise tag him.

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June 18, 2014
by Alan Robinson


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Robinson: 5 very important Chuck Noll wins as Steelers coach

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chucknoll

When a coach has 193 career wins – and 209, counting the playoffs —  as Chuck Noll did, some games are certain to stand above the others. In Noll’s case, a lot of them do, because the Steelers won 14 playoff games just in the 1970s, in addition to experiencing seven seasons of 10 wins or more.

Narrowing down the list to the five best is difficult and, of course, is subjective – one man’s top win is another man’s No. 10.

But here is a list of five exceptional Noll-led wins – and not all of them were in the Super Bowl.

1-STEELERS 24, Raiders 13, at Oakland, AFC Championship Game, Dec. 29, 1974. Maybe the Steelers took the first step towards becoming the Team of the Decade with the Immaculate Reception and an 11-3 record two seasons before in 1972, but this is the game that started their playoff dominance. First, look at the date – nearly a month sooner than AFC title games are played today; the NFL played only a 14-game schedule, so the regular season was over by Dec. 15. There was no week off between the end of the season and the division playoffs, either, so there was little time for regrouping.The week before, the Steelers routed the Bills and O.J. Simpson, 32-14, in the divisional playoffs at Three Rivers Stadium (the following season, Simpson would rush for 227 yards and a TD as Buffalo came back to Pittsburgh and won, 30-21). The Raiders were favored after beating the two-time defending Super Bowl champion Dolphins the week before in a game that was billed as the “real” AFC title game. It wasn’t, as Joe Greene explains. 

“It was Monday (the day after the Bills game). He (Noll) made a comment about the Oakland-Miami, and how it was being called a championship game even though it was only a divisional game. And he said those people in Oakland said the championship game was played yesterday, that the best two teams in football had played.  He said, ‘I want you guys to know that the Super Bowl is played three weeks from now. And the best team in football is sitting right here in this room.’ That statement doesn’t mean a whole lot if he said something like that every week. Chuck never said anything like that prior to that or after that. Not in that way. That was a great impetus for us winning that football game. The Raiders up to that point had been a nemesis for us. At that point in time the Raiders, after Chuck talked to us, they had no chance of winning that ball game. I felt that feeling never changed throughout the course of our preparation and during the game.”

The Raiders had won in Pittsburgh, 17-0, earlier in the season. But the Steelers dominated the fourth quarter of the title game after trailing 10-3 after three quarters, getting three touchdowns – a pair of Franco Harris runs and a Terry Bradshaw to Lynn Swann TD pass play of 6 yards. The Raiders ran for only 29 yards on 21 carries – it was one of the first big days by the Steel Curtain – and Ken “the Snake” Stabler threw three interceptions on his home turf.

“They just weren’t going to win the game,” Greene said.

The Raiders didn’t the next season, either, losing, 16-10, despite seven Steelers turnovers in the AFC title game at icy Three Rivers Stadium.

2-STEELERS 35, Cowboys 31, Super Bowl, at Miami, Jan. 21, 1979. One of the best-played Super Bowl games – and most entertaining – even though the Steelers narrowly missed squandering an 18-point lead after they made it 35-17 in the fourth quarter. The Steelers won a third Super Bowl under Noll and denied Tom Landry a third with the Cowboys. The Steelers also bounced back after losing to the Raiders in the 1976 AFC title game and having a 9-5 record in 1977, the year of the Noll “criminal element” trial involving the Raiders’ George Atkinson. Last year, a nationwide panel of experts picked the 1978 Steelers as the greatest team in franchise history for the Trib.

This is the game that began to establish the Steelers as one of the great teams of all time. If they’d won on the 1974 and 1975 Super Bowls, they would have been viewed as a very good team – but winning a third made people realize this was a very special team. They followed it up by winning the 1979 season Super Bowl over the Los Angeles Rams in Pasadena, the first time that one of the participants was essentially a home team.

3-STEELERS 27, Oilers 13. AFC Championship Game, at Three Rivers Stadium, Jan. 6, 1980. This game would be the springboard for the Steelers’ fourth Super Bowl – and for the NFL adopting instant replay. The Steelers beat the Oilers in the AFC title game at rainy, icy Three Rivers the season before, and then manhandled them again 35-7 early in the 1979 season. But the Oilers prevailed, 20-17, in a Monday night game in Houston, and Oilers coach Bum Phillips had promised to “kick down the door” to allow the Oilers to get past the rival Steelers. After upsetting the favored Chargers the week before, the Oilers looked like they might do it when they opened a 7-0 lead. But after a pair of touchdown drives put the Steelers ahead 17-10, Dan Pastorini tossed what looked to be a tying, 6-yard touchdown pass to Mike Renfro in the back of the end zone in the third quarter. But Renfro was ruled to be out of bounds, even though it appeared he made the catch with inches to spare, and the Steelers – the momentum now on their side – went on to score the final 10 points. It took a few more years, but the Renfro play was cited frequently as a reason the NFL ultimately adopted instant replay.

4-STEELERS 21, Cowboys 17, Super Bowl, at Miami, Jan. 18, 1976. It almost seems unfair to list two Cowboys-Steelers games here, yet both were extremely pivotal to the Steelers becoming known as the Team of the Decade. First, the 1975 Steelers clearly were the best team in franchise history to that time; they went 12-2 during the season, and one of the losses was a meaningless, end-of-season Saturday loss at Los Angeles. The Steelers were 12-1 at the time. Second, both the AFC title game (the 16-10, glare-ice win over the Raiders at Three Rivers) and the Super Bowl were extremely competitive games that could have gone either way; lose either, and the Steelers probably aren’t remembered as arguably the best team of all time. They had only two regular-season losses in each of the two seasons they met the Cowboys in the Super Bowl, and those teams arguably were the two best of the Noll era (the 1978 team went 14-2).This was the game that featured two acrobatic and almost impossible-to-make catches by Lynn Swann; if he doesn’t make these catches, he might not be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The two Cowboys-Steelers Super Bowls are  often cited as being two of the best of all time because they featured the NFL’s two most popular teams at the time and two distinct styles, the Cowboys’ always-effective offense and the Steelers’ blanketing, Steel Curtain defense. Classic matchups, classic games. Want to know how those two Cowboys games resonate in Dallas to this day? When Noll died Friday, the Dallas Morning News headline the next day referred to him as the coach who beat the Cowboys in two 1970s-ers Super Bowls – not as the only coach to win four Super Bowls.

5-STEELERS 34, Raiders 28, at Three Rivers Stadium, Sept. 17, 1972. Surprised this game isn’t on the list? You shouldn’t be. This was the first big high-quality win for the Steelers under Noll after they went 12-30 in his first three seasons. It quickly established the 1972 Steelers weren’t the same old Steelers of the past four decades, and it helped give them the confidence and momentum to go on to a 11-3 record – easily the best in franchise history.There’s also this – for all of the Raiders’ complaining about how they were robbed in the Immaculate Reception AFC title game that would follow 3 ½ months later, they never cite the fact they lost to the Steelers TWICE that season – so much for the fluke element. The Steelers opened up leads of 17-0 and 34-14 as Terry Bradshaw RAN for two touchdowns, then held on despite two late Raiders touchdowns. This was Franco Harris’; first NFL game, and he would carry 10 times for only 28 yards and catch two passes. The next time he faced the Raiders, he was a much, much bigger factor. Oh, and after this game – for the first time in Steelers history – it became difficult to get tickets for regular season games. They began selling out every game starting that season, a streak that continues through today.

 

 

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June 16, 2014
by Alan Robinson


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Robinson: Roethlisberger says training camp will emphasize “learning”

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Ben Roethlisberger will do be doing a lot more at camp than signing autographs

Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger acknowledged at his annual youth football camp that training camp will incorporate more learning than usual because of all the new receivers.

That’s the quarterback learning all about the receivers, and the receivers learning all about the quarterback. And there’s still much to learn.

With minicamp about to start on Tuesday and run through Thursday, here’s what Roethlisberger had to say about various issues related to the practices to date and the upcoming training camp, which starts July 25 in Latrobe.

What the minicamp focus will be:  “Mostly about getting to know the new guys, getting work, I think we’re going to do a lot of no-huddle stuff. Just getting to work with some of the new guys, the younger guys, and staying healthy.”

On the nine offseason practices to date: “It’s real early, we wore helmets, that was it, there was no hitting, no pads. Right now I like what I see, but it’s way too early to get excited about.” 

On training camp, with the new receivers (Lance Moore, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Martavis Bryant, Dri Archer among them) he’ll be working with: “(I’m) going into my 11th one of these, and the mindset’s always different, but this one has to be about learning and working little things.”

That’s necessary, of course, because two of the top three receivers are gone from last season (Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery) and replacements still must be found. Lance Moore looks to be the logical replacement for Cotchery, but a starter (Markus Wheaton? Justin Brown? Someone else) still must be found for the receiver’s position that Sanders manned last year. And the offense must incorporate all the new wrinkles that Dri Archer can bring as a hybrid running back/wide receiver.

“Even in the OTAs (organized team activities), with Lance (Moore, the former Saints receiver), who is a pro, he’s a great professional — he’s going to be really good and I think we’re going to have a good connection — there were a few things that were just like a foot off,” he said. “A pass I threw a little bit outside, I thought he was going in(side). Those little things we can work on and that’s what these camps are going to be about, getting on that same page with these guys.”

If Dri Archer’s speed excites him: “It will be a great complement to the backs we have, with (Le’Veon) Bell and (LeGarrette) Blount. Putting him in there and having two backs and splitting him out and doing all kinds of fun things with him, it will be interesting to see the impact he can have on our offense.”

On Heath Miller being fully healthy for practices to date (Miller was recovering from his right knee injury and missed the OTAs and minicamp last year): “(It’s) huge, the way he has looked. He has looked healthy right from the get-go, looks kind of like the old Heath. One of the practices, he caught a pass about 12 yards downfield and made a move and actually made a guy miss and he finished all the way down the field. That was the Heath Miller we love to see. “

Roethlisberger was at Seneca Valley High School, working with hundreds of players at his annual youth camp – one that was reduced from the usual two days to one day because the Steelers’ minicamp is later than usual.

Asked how much he enjoys the camp, he said, “I’m the biggest kid out there.”

 

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June 14, 2014
by Mike Palm


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Remembering Chuck Noll via Twitter

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Chuck Noll made an impact on countless players, coaches and fans. Here’s what some had to say on Twitter:

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June 10, 2014
by Alan Robinson


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Robinson: Steelers judged to have NFL’s 6th-worst roster

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Are the Steelers Really No. 27>Are they really that bad? Really?

Pro Football Focus rated each of the 32 NFL teams’ lineups from top to bottom and concluded the Steelers have the NFL’s sixth-worst roster. The only teams ranked below the Steelers at No. 27 are the Raiders, Vikings, Falcons, Rams and Jaguars

Even the Browns, who are undergoing their usual coaching and front office shuffle, are ranked ahead of the Steelers at No. 24. The Bengals – despite their usual postseason fold-up act — are the top-rated AFC North team at No. 7 and the Ravens are No. 16

Pro Football Focus ranked 12 players on each team on offense and defense (to account for the nickel/third down sets all teams use) with a scale that ranged from Elite to Poor. In between were High quality, Good, Average and Below Average. There also were categories for players with little playing experience, such as Browns quarterback Brian Hoyer (not enough information) and rookies

The Bengals (defensive lineman Geno Atkins) and Browns (left tackle Joe Thomas) were the only teams in the division with an elite player. None of the Steelers or Ravens players were rated that highly

The Steelers were judged to have three high-quality players — quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, wide receiver Antonio Brown and strong safety Troy Polamalu. Only 10 of their 24 starters were judged to be above average

The Steelers offense’s ratings by Pro Football Focus:

QB Ben Roethlisberger     High quality

RB Le’Veon Bell                  Average

TE Heath Miller                   Average

TE Matt Spaeth                   Below average

WR Antonio Brown            High quality

WR Lance Moore                Good

WR Markus Wheaton        Below average

LT Kelvin Beachum                         Average

LG Ramon Foster                            Good

C Maurkice Pouncey                      Good

RG David DeCastro                                    Good

RT Marcus Gilbert                          Average

 

The Steelers defense’s ratings:

LE Cam Thomas                               Average

NT Steve McLendon                       Average

RE Cam Heyward                            Good

OLB Jason Worilds                          Good

ILB Ryan Shazier                             Rookie

ILB Lawrence Timmons                 Good

OLB Jarvis Jones                              Below average

CB Cortez Allen                               Average

CB Ike Taylor                                    Below average

CB William Gay                                Average

SS Troy Polamalu                            High quality

FS Mike Mitchell                             Average

While the Steelers have just three elite or high quality players in Pro Football Focus’ judgment, the Browns have six: Thomas, WR Josh Gordon (who might not play this season), C Alex Mack, ILB Karlos Dansby, CB Joe Haden and S Donte Whitner.

Here’s what Pro Football Focus has to say about a Steelers roster that has undergone quite the overhaul over the last two years: “Once held up as a shining example to the rest of the league for how to run a franchise, the Steelers have allowed their roster to be eroded talent-wise for several years now, and are clinging onto being in contention for playoff spots at the end of the season thanks to having a top-quality quarterback and little else.

“The team simply has not drafted well, failing to replace key personnel when they needed to, and then persisting with struggling players long past the point they should have given up on them. Ike Taylor is still used as if he were a shutdown corner, shadowing an opponent’s best receiver despite surrendering six touchdowns in 2013 and a passer rating into his coverage of 110.6.” (Note: The Steelers stopped using Taylor this way late last season.)

Pro Football Focus also writes: “The departure of Emmanuel Sanders in free agency means the team needs Markus Wheaton to step up, and for all the draft picks spent on the offensive line, it remains a unit that has yet to distinguish itself.”

One more: “Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown are the other two high-quality starters, and they might be the only players keeping the Steelers competitive into December.”

So do the Steelers really have the worst roster in the AFC North? Multiple national NFL analysts have praised the Steelers’ offseason procurement of eight free agents and their draft class and believe they are on the upswing, not the further downslide following successive 8-8 records that Pro Football Focus projects.

The players who appear to be graded too low include Bell, who could be a 1,100-yard, 40-catch running back this season, Miller, Pouncey and DeCastro, plus Worilds, Timmons and Mitchell on defense.

Such ratings/grades/analysis/projections mean nothing in June – just as preseason college football polls in August have proven to be wildly inaccurate projections of the season to come. But they appear to predict a further slide by a team coming off successive non-winning seasons, and it will be interesting to see how accurate they are once the season starts.

That season starts Sept. 7, by the way, when the No. 24 Browns visit the No. 27 Steelers.

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June 4, 2014
by Mark Kaboly


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Kaboly: Tomlin’s message to Martavis Bryant …

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Mike Tomlin likes to refer to organized team activities as football in shorts.

That may be true, but Tomlin has had his moments of forgetting that it is only football in shorts during the first two weeks of OTAs, especially when he sees something on the field that he doesn’t like.

Saying that, Tomlin really didn’t like what he saw out of rookie fourth-round pick Martavis Bryant during a receiving drill where he didn’t turn up the field quick enough after making the reception for the liking of Tomlin.

“Finish it 10,” Tomlin barked out to Bryant.

But Tomlin wasn’t done with the tough love after that.

Tomlin went on to really let Bryant know that’s not how they do things and pointed out a point of reference just in case.

“What you need to do is watch 84 and do what 84 does,” Tomlin said about fellow wide receiver Antonio Brown. “You would never see 84 doing that.”

I’ve attached the video of the route and, unfortunately, I didn’t keep the camera rolling for Tomlin’s outburst, but you can see what made him so upset (it’s at the very end of the video.)

While I am at it, here are some other things I think I think:

* We all may look back on the offseason signing of Lance Moore and call it brilliant. Moore has been tremendous through the first two weeks of OTAs, and he’s just learning the offense and just getting used to Ben Roethlisberger.

Wait until he knows what he’s doing.

I hate to put numbers on players in OTAs, but I will. From what I’ve seen from Moore, I wouldn’t be surprised with 60 catches for 850 yards and seven touchdowns.

* Mike Mitchell instantly makes the Steelers defense better. Now, I am not exactly breaking news here, but comparing the closing speed of Mitchell and Ryan Clark last year is night and day.

* With close to 90 players on the field at the same time, it’s hard to focus on one player. Usually one or two will jump out at you that get you to pay a little closer attention. Saying that, I have yet to notice Stephon Tuitt at all. Once again, I haven’t been looking for him, but he hasn’t done anything that made me notice, either. Maybe I’ll be closer attention on Thursday?

* Steve McLendon looks a lot leaner. Jason Worilds looks a lot thicker. Jarvis Jones looks the same. Lawrence Timmons looks like one of the best linebackers in the NFL.

* I still say wide receiver Justin Brown has a chance to be this year’s Derek Moye. Just keep him in mind.

* Saying that, linebacker Vic So’oto just may be pushing Chris Carter out of the door. Yet another battle to keep an eye on.

* Rookie cornerback Shaquille Richardson is a nice bump-and-run guy … well, from what I’ve seen. He’s no Terry Hawthorne, I’ll tell you that.

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May 30, 2014
by Alan Robinson


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Robinson: More Ben Roethlisberger thoughts on Steelers draft

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 Ben Roethlisberger

While watching the NFL Draft three weeks ago, Ben Roethlisberger was no different from any of the myriad of Steelers fans who were tuning in

As the first few rounds played out over Thursday and Friday, and the Steelers still did not draft a tall, difference-making type of receiver, Roethlisberger wondered what was up.

There was considerable pre-draft media speculation that the Steelers would take a big receiver early on, yet their first three picks were an inside linebacker (Ryan Shazier), a defensive end (Stephen Tuitt) and a kick returner-running back-occasional wide receiver (Dri Archer).

Just like any franchise quarterback, Roethlisberger would have welcomed a big receiver early in the draft.

“For me it was just I got caught up in doing what I always say not to do, and that’s listen to the media,” Roethlisberger said.

The Steelers finally did take a tall receiver in the fourth round, or two rounds later than Clemson’s talented but unpolished Martavis Bryant was projected to go. It’s still far too early to tell if Bryant can contribute right away – unlike receivers such as his former Clemson teammate, Sammy Watkins (Bills); Mike Evans (Buccaneers) and Kelvin Benjamin (Panthers), who are expected to be big-play producers starting this season

The Steelers did give Roethlisberger a couple of new targets in Bryant and Archer, just not as early as he might have expected.

“They obviously have their agendas, the things they want, and they got two guys that they felt can help this team — and that’s what matters to me,” Roethlisberger said. “If we have guys who can help this team and help us win championships, that’s first and foremost.”

Winning championships, of course, is almost always Topic No. 1 in any discussion with Roethlisberger. Now that he’s 32, and he’s on the back nine of his career rather than the front nine, being able to contend every year is very important to him. With the emphasis on “every year.”

Roethlisberger wants his legacy to be that he was one of the great winners of all-time among quarterbacks – he already owns two Super Bowl rings, and just missed out on another – and sitting out the playoffs the last two seasons was a major disappointment to him.

That’s why Roethlisberger doesn’t care at all what round a player was drafted in, as long as that player can come in and make a difference – such as Antonio Brown, a sixth-round pick in 2010, has done.

“There are people who do 400 mock drafts, so you never know anything (in advance of the draft),” Roethlisberger said. “All I said all along was whatever helps us win a championship.”

Some more from the first week of the Steelers’ offseason practices:

— New safety Mike Mitchell was clearly excited about his first week of formal workouts. He’s with his third team in as many seasons, following four seasons in Oakland and one season in Carolina, and he’s working in his fifth different defensive system in six NFL seasons.

As a result, he took pride in not missing any assignments during his first three Steelers practices.

“It’s been an easy transition. I think as guys see me make more plays, I’ll grow and they’ll respect me. As I continue to make plays, people will believe in me more,” Mitchell said

Mitchell also appears to be assimilating himself well into a locker room that has undergone quite an overhaul over the last couple of seasons; eight of the Steelers’ 11 projected defensive starters weren’t in the lineup only two seasons ago in 2012. The only projected holdovers are Troy Polamalu, Lawrence Timmons and Ike Taylor – and there’s a chance Taylor won’t start.

“In Oakland, I felt like I played in three different teams in four years because we were always changing head coaches,” Mitchell said. “Learning a new scheme is nothing too different for me, I’ve handled it well just because I work hard and guys like my personality, I’m a likeable guy.”

How about that? Only one week into spring practice, and the Steelers already have a candidate for Mr. Congeniality

— Mitchell made an interesting observation about backup safety Robert Golden, a former undrafted free agent who played mostly on special teams last season. (And played well enough there that Pro Football Focus rated Golden as the NFL’s second-best special teams defender last season.)

“He’s probably got the smoothest back pedal in the league for a safety,” Mitchell said.

As for the entire secondary group, Mitchell said, “(They’re) good guys to be around every day, they’re pushing every day, we’re all pushing, nothing’s guaranteed. We all have to come out here and earn our spots and earn our living. We’re all pushing each other.”

And Troy Polamalu isn’t even in camp yet.

— The Steelers waived guard Nik Embernate after he failed his physical, according to the NFL transactions list. Embernate was an undrafted free agent a year ago who had an excellent change of making the team until he badly tore up a knee during training camp. He spent the entire season on the injury list and rehabilitating in Pittsburgh. According to the team, an injury settlement wasn’t required because Embernate spent all of last season with the Steelers.

— Don’t look for this to happen in Pittsburgh: the Green Bay Packers and Jacksonville Jaguars both opened spring practices open to the public. The Packers had a full house at their practice facility for one practice this week, and they’ll have another open practice each of the next two weeks. The Jaguars are having one open practice as well.

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May 28, 2014
by Alan Robinson


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Robinson: Something’s not right with Markus Wheaton’s finger

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 Markus Wheaton

Something doesn’t feel right about this.

In an interview with the Tribune-Review, Steelers wide receiver Markus Wheaton accepted the blame for not properly rehabilitating his right pinky finger after it was broken early last season in London

It’s been nine months since that game, yet Wheaton’s pinky finger is bent at an awkward angle, apparently because so much scar tissue built up inside that it can’t all be removed

So how did this happen?

Some background: Wheaton, the Steelers’ third-round pick in 2013, got his first extensive playing time in that Week 4 game against the Vikings, making three catches. But he also broke the pinky finger, an injury that would prove far more troublesome than he could have envisioned. After all, as Wheaton himself said, it was only his pinky finger.

However, Wheaton didn’t get back onto the field again until Week 11 against the Lions, when he made three more catches. But the finger continued to trouble him for the rest of the season – he didn’t make a catch from Weeks 12-17 – and he needed to have additional post-season surgery to attempt to remove the scar tissue

That surgery wasn’t entirely successful because all the scar tissue couldn’t be removed – a condition that might not improve for the rest of Wheaton’s career.

“They did it (the surgery),” he said, “But it was tougher (to get out) than they anticipated. It is what it is. I’m going to continue to work on it but, if it doesn’t come, it doesn’t come.

So far during the Steelers’ offseason workouts, there has been nothing to suggest there will be any career-altering aspects to the injury. Wheaton is currently running with the starters, and other offensive players like what they see – his route running is precise, his speed and sure hands are there

But even with Wheaton back to looking like the receiver who earned so much praise from the Steelers’ defensive players during camp last summer, it still isn’t clear how his finger became damaged

Here’s his explanation

“I broke it in a couple of places, my pinky, the third bone in a couple of places (in London),” he said. “I had a couple of screws in that went into the joint and I had two surgeries. But that’s in the past and it’s not bothering me now.

Still, that doesn’t explain why his finger didn’t heal properly, or why the post-season surgery couldn’t correct the problem.

“The surgeon did a great job, but the rehab, it was on me,” Wheaton said. “I should have been pushing it a lot more than I was, I got pretty complacent in where I was with my rehab, and thinking, `It’s just my pinkie,’ and not giving it as much time as it needed.”

Rather than doing exercises to strengthen the finger as it was mending, Wheaton was under the impression the finger was to remain immobilized and protected.

If that’s indeed what happened, it raises the question as to why no one who was treating him caught it and advised him what he should be doing. After all, this wasn’t a player who was hurt one Sunday and tried to play the next; Wheaton was out for more than a month, healing, after initially breaking the finger, and there was plenty of time to monitor how his recovery was going.

Injured players are watched closely by their teams, and it’s all but unheard of for an NFL player to go weeks without receiving the proper rehabilitation instructions.

Wheaton doesn’t want to get into all of that, saying of his badly bent finger, “It doesn’t affect me, not at all. I’m pretty much out there not even thinking about it, pretty naturally catching the ball.”

Even if he’s requiring only nine fingers to do so.

In fact, despite the loss of Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery and what effectively was a lost rookie season for Wheaton, this has the looks of one of the Steelers’ best receiving corps during the Ben Roethlisberger era.

Tight end Heath Miller, his major knee injury now more than 17 months behind him, should be up and running from the start of the season, unlike last year. So should blocking tight end Matt Spaeth.  Newly added receiver Lance Moore is a precision route runner who was one of Drew Brees’ favorite targets in New Orleans.

Darrius Heyward-Bey is one of the fastest receivers in the league and, if he can develop a connection with Roethlisberger, could be a dangerous, come-off-the-bench deep threat who complements the rest of the group. And fourth-round pick Martavis Bryant, who was projected to go higher, has the kind of size and speed that quarterbacks covet.

“There’s a lot of good receivers out here who are all competing for that one spot (vacated by Sanders),” Wheaton said. “Hopefully, I can take it.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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