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May 6, 2014
by Alan Robinson


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Robinson: Big Ben discusses 2014 QB class, his contract status and more

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Ben Roethlisberger

What does it take for an NFL rookie quarterback to succeed? If anyone knows, it’s Ben Roethlisberger.

Roethlisberger made some interesting comments Tuesday on his 93.7 FM radio show about the Class of 2014 quarterback group headed by Johnny Manziel, Blake Bortles, Teddy Bridgewater and Derek Carr.

“It takes a little bit of luck, it takes a little bit of crazy fire and tenacity because you’ve got to be able to take a hit and get up,” Roethlisberger said. “I think it takes a good team around you. I was blessed to come in (in 2004) with a great defense, a good offensive line, a good running game and a lot of veterans around me who helped usher me in and mold me.”

Roethlisberger played on a team that went 15-1 during his rookie season, but lost to the Patriots in the AFC title game. A year later, the Steelers won the Super Bowl.

So perhaps it’s not surprising which rookie QB Roethlisberger believes in built for long-term success — the guy who most resembles him.

“I talked to Blake, and I know Blake has that fiery chip,” Roethlisberger said of Bortles, who played at Central Florida. “I think he’s going to be the best one of the group because I see something in him, his competiveness, his leadership. And I think he’s got a lot of upside.”

Bortles is listed at 6-foot-5 and 232 pounds, making him the same height and only nine pounds lighter than Roethlisberger. Manziel is 5-11 1/2 and 207.

Roethlisberger also praised Manziel, the 2012 Heisman Trophy winner from Texas A&M, saying, “He’ll come into this league and he’ll probably be a star early because he’ll use his athleticism.”

But Roethlisberger also related a recent conversation he had with former Pro Bowl linebacker Joey Porter, now a Steelers defensive assistant.

“I was in the weight room the other day with Joey Porter, (and he was) asking me what I thought about Manziel,” Roethlisberger said. “I looked at Joey and said, `Joey, do you think if you got a good hit on him, that he would be OK? And he said, `No, not at all.’ And that’s my question.

“You have guys like Joey Porter, who’s a big guy, guys that are fast like Troy (Polamalu), Ike Taylor coming off the edge, Lawrence Timmons, you’d better be real athletic, get down or be big” to absorb the pounding an NFL quarterback can take.

“I think he definitely has a lot of upside, but let’s wait and see,” Roethlisberger said. “The key I’ll say every year when I get asked about RGIII (Robert Griffin III), Andrew Luck, or whoever it is, Cam Newton, it’s not about your first year, it’s about years two, three and four.

“Can you sustain it when defenses, like coach (Dick) LeBeau and the defenses he coaches, when they figure you out, can you find a way to stay a step above them?”

Roethlisberger, who has two years remaining on his current contract, also said he knows of no ongoing contract talks between his agent, Ryan Tollner, and the Steelers.

“I think there’s always a chance (for a new deal), but I don’t know how realistic it is,” Roethlisberger said on his 93.7 FM show. “I don’t know that there are any real serious talks. If there is, I haven’t been informed of it. I think it’s probably just been some small talk, like, `Let’s talk later.’ It’s hard for me to really speculate what they’re  doing behind closed doors. It’s nothing significant enough to be brought to my attention.”

Roethlisberger also said:

— He was surprised when wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery left to sign with the Carolina Panthers. Cotchery led the Steelers with 10 touchdown catches last season.

“He was one of the best teammates, along with Heath Miller, I’ve ever played with in any sport,” Roethlisberger said. “I didn’t see us losing him, so it might have made it a little tougher when you’re not expecting someone to go. But he had to do what was right and best for his family.”

— He works out six times a week and, going into his 11th season at age 32, hopes to play until he is nearing 40.

“I feel great, I feel like I’m in great shape, I feel really good,” he said. “At this rate, I feel I could play for quite a few more years, I feel I could get five, six, seven more years out of these arms and legs.”

– He believes the no-huddle will be more of a base offense in 2014 given how successful it was during the second half of last season, when the Steelers went 6-2.

“In the past, we’ve always had the no-huddle but it’s always been a back burner type of offense;  let’s go to it if we’re in trouble or we need a change of pace. If we kind of need a spark,” Roethlisberger said. “We’ve all kind of come to the conclusion that maybe it needs to be more involved, we need to do it more. So I think parts of it might be more of a base offense; we might go into training camp, OTAs, minicamp, using it a lot more, so it is more of a regular thing.

“But not always. Because we’ve got to have our two and three tight-end packages, we’ve got to have jumbo stuff, short-yardage, goal line. We still have to have all those things. But to have it, to use it more often, and to be more comfortable with it, I think it makes us better.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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May 1, 2014
by Alan Robinson


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Robinson: New Steelers wide receiver Lance Moore tells Saints fans to chill out

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Lance Moore

 

Lance Moore apparently caused a stir down south with his comments that Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has a stronger arm than Saints quarterback Drew Brees.

Apparently, Saints fans took that as a slight following Moore’s nine seasons with the team, a span in which he caught 346 passes in 101 games and played on one Super Bowl winner.

Here’s what Moore had to say on the adjustment period, during his first session with Steelers reporters this week:

“It can [take some time] because they are a different style of quarterback. I would say Ben has a little bit stronger of an arm, maybe a lot stronger arm. Just from the couple of days with him here, that’s something that kind of jumps out at me. If you are kind of lazy with your eyes – I call it lazy with your eyes – the ball will zoom right past you. That’s something that I will have to adjust to.

“I feel like the quarterback should never really have to adjust to the receiver. The receiver should make those adjustments and make things right with the quarterback, because they are the ones pulling the trigger. If they are waiting on you, it’s going to be tough for things to get done. I have been around long enough. I played with, at least in practice, a bunch of different quarterbacks that have different styles. Like I said earlier, the more work that we put in together, the more smooth that will be.”

Moore wasn’t being critical of Brees — and why should he be? — but rather was explaining the differences in the throwing styles of the two QBs. No doubt Emmanuel Sanders is making a similar adjustment in Denver from catching Roethlisberger’s passes to catching those of Peyton Manning.

Moore received some criticism from Saints fans following his remarks, which prompted him to post this response on Twitter:

“Everybody down south is mad now? Never said I disliked Drew (sp) or am not thankful for my time w him. Wouldn’t be where I am w/out him. Chill out.”

Moore is trying to bounce back from an off-season at age 30 in 2013, when a broken hand helped limit him to 37 catches, a 12.4 average and two touchdowns. He was coming off his first 1,000-yard season in 2012 (65 catches, 6 TDs, 1,041 yards).

He explained it was somewhat traumatic to be let go by a team after so long — it was a salary cap move — but was glad the Steelers picked him up within days.

“I actually heard that I was being released or shopped on Twitter. I was at a workout and people were text messaging me like crazy. So immediately, I texted Coach Sean Payton and my wide receivers coach about what was going on. Literally about 36 hours later I got released. It wasn’t necessarily something that I didn’t see as a possibility after coming off of last season. I didn’t have the greatest of years. They kind of owed me a little bit of money. I understood that it was probably a possibility that I wasn’t going to make that money there. That’s how it goes in this game. A lot of teams are trying to get younger and cheaper at the same time,” Moore said.

” And I was kind of one of those casualties of that. And from that point, I got released on a Friday, I believe. Sunday afternoon, I left and visited New England. It was a quick visit. I was in and out. From there, they kind of just told me we will wait and see what happens with Julian Edelman and we will go from there. I didn’t hear back from them, obviously, after Edelman signed. I was kind of in limbo, just training and waiting. And out of the blue, my agent called me and said the Steelers wanted to bring me in on a visit.

“I came up here and had a great time. I met all the coaches. It felt like it was right. Coming from a place where things are run the right way, ownership is great and you win a lot of games, obviously won a world championship, you want that feeling again. You want to be able to get somewhere where you have an opportunity to win. I’ve been in the game 10 years now. I am not here just to try to collect a check. I want to win another championship. I feel like this is a great place for me.”

Moore, by the way, was impressed by the display of six Lombardi Trophies at the Steelers’ South Side offices, and told coach Mike Tomlin it helped influence him to sign with Pittsburgh.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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April 22, 2014
by Alan Robinson


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Robinson: Ike Taylor says to watch for this receiver in Steelers’ draft

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Martavis BryantIke Taylor is one Steelers player who doesn’t mind discussing team personnel matters, and he made an interesting comment Tuesday on his TribLiveRadio show.

Asked about the upcoming draft, Taylor said he thinks the Steelers will go for a cornerback in the first round — Bradley Roby, Darqueze Dennard or Justin Gilbert are the most-likely targets — then grab Clemson wide receiver Martavis Bryant (above) in a later round — which would probably be the second round.

Bryant is 6-foot-4 with secondary-shedding speed and exceptional leaping ability — or exactly the kind of receiver with size the Steelers are seeking. But he isn’t nearly as polished, and wasn’t nearly as proficient, as the upper-tier receivers in the draft — namely his Clemson teammate, Sammy Watkins, and 6-5 Mike Evans of Texas A&M.

Of course with Watkins on the field, he is always going to be a quarterback’s  No. 1 option, as he was last season for Tajh Boyd — as evidenced by his 101 catches for 1,464 yards, 12 touchdowns (one of 96 yards) and 14.5 average. It’s pretty evident Watkins will be the first receiver taken in the draft.

But Bryant wasn’t exactly a bit player in Clemson’s offense; he had 42 catches for 828 yards and seven touchdowns, and his 19.7 yards per catch average was nearly five yards higher than Watkins’ average. The 2013 season was the only one in which Bryant was a starter; he made 11 starts and was chosen as honorable mention All-ACC.

Bryant was timed at 4.42 seconds in the 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine, tying him for the fifth-fastest time among wide receivers, although his 16 weightlifting reps of 225 pounds were seven fewer than for Miami, Fla. punter Pat O’Donnell. But here are a couple of Bryant’s numbers that, er, jump out — 39 inches in the vertical jump and 124 inches in the broad jump.

And nearly a quarter of his catches last season were for 20 yards or longer, though he also dropped 12.5 percent of passes thrown his way.

A scouting report on Bryant: He’s long, tall and possesses elite speed. Good at making back-shoulder catches, but drops some passes he should catch. Not an especially adept route runner. Needs time to make it in the NFL; he declared early for the NFL Draft in part because some of Clemson’s younger receivers were pushing him for playing time. But he is explosively fast after catching the ball, and he could be the proverbial take-the-top-off-the-defense receiver the Steelers are looking for. (They signed free agent Darrius Heyward-Bey to audition for the same role.)

Career stats: 61 catches, 1,354 yards, 13 touchdowns in 27 career games. Also returned 14 kickoffs for a 20.8 average.

Taylor’s job as a cornerback is to closely watch wide receivers. Now we’ll find out if he is just as proficient in watching them off the field.

 

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April 17, 2014
by Alan Robinson


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Robinson: Will Roby be Steelers’ pick? Donald now in the Top 10?

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Bradley Roby

As the Steelers continue their face-to-face visits with nearly all of the top cornerback prospects in the upcoming NFL Draft, one of them is making a surge up the draft boards.

 

NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah, a former scout for three NFL teams, said Thursday on a conference call that Bradley Roby (above) of Ohio State could be the second cornerback chosen in the May 8-10 draft — and he has him going to the Steelers at No. 15.

 

Roby visited the Steelers last Friday.

 

Previously, the general consensus among the top-level draft analysts was that Justin Gilbert of Oklahoma State and Darqueze Dennard of Michigan State were  1-2 among cornerbacks. But Jeremiah said his discussions with team executives lead him to think that Roby could go fairly early, possibly ahead of Dennard.

 

Jeremiah had Roby rated as the top cornerback going into the season. But Roby had an uneven senior year, with Jeremiah saying he might have had some NFL-itis — wishing he’d gone pro the previous spring. Roby also was suspended for Ohio State’s season opener because of an off-field incident.

 

Roby is 5-foot-11 and 194 pounds, and he ran an impressive 4.39 seconds in the 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine in Indianapolis.

 

Jeremiah’s NFL Network colleague, Charles Davis, has Roby behind Gilbert and Dennard. ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr. has Roby behind Gilbert, Dennard and Jason Verrett of TCU.

 

Dennard and Verrett met earlier with the Steelers in Pittsburgh, with Verrett dropping by the South Side offices on Monday — the same day cornerback Shaquille Richardson of Arizona visited.

 

Yet another cornerback, Phillip Gaines of Rice, met with the Steelers on Thursday, along with defensive tackle Ra’Shede Hageman of Minnesota and tight end Rob Blanchflower of Massachusetts.

 

With so many of their 30 allowable visits devoted to cornerbacks, it’s obvious the Steelers plan to draft at least one — but not necessarily on the first round.

 

Roby, for example, was seen before as a possible second-round pick. But, if Jeremiah’s instincts are correct and he goes in the first round, another one of those cornerbacks (Dennard or Verrett) could be available in the second round for Pittsburgh, which then could possibly go for a wide receiver on the first round.

 

The Steelers also met recently with two safety prospects,  Calvin Pryor of Louisville and Deone Bucannon.

 

Davis also thinks Pitt defensive tackle Aaron Donald could end up being a Top 10 pick.

 

Jeremiah has Donald going No. 14 overall to the Bears,  but Davis said Donald could go as early as No. 10 to the Lions, who decided recently not to bring back defensive lineman Nick Fairley.

 

“Donald could be a guy they (the Lions) make a move on right then and there,” Davis said. “I don’t think he’s out of line for the Giants (at No. 12). The Bears, Cowboys (No. 16) are probable spots. I’m not sure he gets past that.”

 

Jeremiah also thinks Pitt quarterback Tom Savage will go near the top of the second round, and Davis said Pitt wide receiver Devin Street could go later in that round.

 

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April 16, 2014
by Alan Robinson


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Robinson: The position of greatest need for the Steelers pre-draft is …

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Brett KeiselCornerback or wide receiver? Wide receiver or cornerback?

 

With the NFL Draft now three weeks away, much of the pre-draft speculation concerning the Steelers is whether they’ll take a cornerback (Darqueze Dennard, perhaps, or Justin Gilbert) or a wide receiver (even if Mike Evans isn’t there at No. 15, which he probably won’t be).

 

Yet neither one of those position picks would help the Steelers at what currently is their position of greatest need.

 

Defensive end.

 

Look at the Steelers depth chart (and it’s below), and it’s obvious how thin they are at a critical position in their defense — and one in which they received mostly solid play last season from Cam Heyward, Brett Keisel and, sporadically, Ziggy Hood.

 

But Hood left to sign with the Jaguars, and Keisel is an unrestricted free agent who, at 35, is unsigned. Just before the start of the free agent signing period March 11, Keisel’s agent, Eric Metz, said the Steelers had shown no interest in bringing Keisel back.

 

However, the Steelers’ only defensive line addition to date is former Chargers nose tackle Cam Thomas, who, at 330 pounds, seems more suited to playing nose tackle than he is to playing defensive end in a 3-4 defense. However, if the Steelers were to take the field today (and they don’t for another four months-plus, of course), he’d likely be playing there.

 

With free agency about dried up, the Steelers’ only avenues for securing another defensive end capable of playing immediately are 1) The draft; 2) Hoping a team releases an experienced defensive end after June 1, for salary cap purposes or 3) Bringing back Keisel.

 

The draft appears to be a real gamble, at least if the Steelers are anticipating immediate help. While this appears to be a loaded and deep draft at multiple positions, the defensive line isn’t one of them.

 

Jadeveon Clowney of South Carolina is likely to be a very high pick, perhaps even No. 1 overall, but multiple draft analysts are calling this a weak draft for d-linemen, at least those suitable for the Steelers’ system.

 

Among defensive linemen, Aaron Donald of Pitt is ranked No. 14, Timmy Jernigan of Florida State is No. 18 and Louis Nix of Notre Dame — who the Steelers scouted at the recent Fighting Irish pro day — is No. 28 among all draft prospects, according to NFL.com draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah. But they’re all defensive tackles.

 

After Clowney heads the list at No. 1 overall, no other defensive end is in Jeremiah’s top 30; Kony Ealy of Missouri is No. 31, Dee Ford of Auburn is No. 33 and Stephon Tuitt of Notre Dame is No. 34. Tuitt recently visited the Steelers for one of the multiple in-house interviews they’ve done post-combine.

 

Might the Steelers be eying Tuitt as a possible second-round pick? Given their thin-as-thin-can-be predicament at defensive end, it’s possible, because it’s obvious they must add someone at defensive end who can take a considerable number of snaps next season.

 

The Steelers don’t often go this deep into an offseason without securing starters at every position but, currently, they need a starting wide receiver opposite Antonio Brown and a starting defensive end opposite Heyward.

 

Even if they are figuring that Thomas will end up as a starting defensive end, they  need someone behind him — and the question is whether that might be Keisel,  who said at the end of last season that he wanted to keep playing.

 

 

Steelers Depth Chart (4/16/14)

 

OFFENSE

WR —             Markus Wheaton (1)

Darrius Heyward-Bey (5)

 

LT —    Kelvin Beachum (2)

Guy Whimper (8)

 

LG —   Ramon Foster (5)

David Snow (2)

 

C —      Maurkice Pouncey (4)

Cody Wallace (4)

 

RG —   David DeCastro (2)

Nik Embernate (1)

Bryant Browning (1)

 

RT —   Marcus Gilbert (3)

Mike Adams (2)

 

TE –    Heath Miller (9)

Matt Spaeth (7)

David Paulson (2)

Michael Palmer (4)

 

WR —             Antonio Brown (4)

Lance Moore (9)

Derek Moye (1)

 

QB –  Ben Roethlisberger (10)

Bruce Gradkowski (7)

Landry Jones (1)

 

 

RB –   Le’Veon Bell (1)

LeGarrette Blount (4)

 

FB –   Will Johnson (2)

 

DEFENSE

 

DE —   Cam Heyward (3)

Brian Arnfelt (1)

 

NT –   Steve McLendon (4)

Hebron Fangupo (1)

 

DE –   Cam Thomas (4)

Nick Williams (1)

 

OLB –            Jason Worilds (4)

Chris Carter (3)

 

ILB –  Vince Williams (1)

Sean Spence (2)

ILB — Lawrence Timmons (7)

Terence Garvin (1)

 

OLB –            Jarvis Jones (1)

Arthur Moats (4)

 

CB –   William Gay (7)

Brice McCain (5)

CB —   Cortez Allen (3) or             Ike Taylor (11)

Isaiah Green (1)

 

SS —    Troy Polamalu (11)

Shamarko Thomas (1)

 

 

FS –    Mike Mitchell (5)

Will Allen (10)

Robert Golden (2)

 

SPECIAL TEAMS

K –      Shaun Suisham (9)

P –      Adam Podlesh (7)

Brad Wing (1)

 

LS —    Greg Warren (9)

Bryce Davis (1)

 

Number of NFL seasons denoted in (parenthesis)

 

Sources: Steelers and ourlads.com

 

 

 

 

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April 14, 2014
by Alan Robinson


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Robinson: Pitt player surging up NFL Draft boards; `Sleeper of the draft?’

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TTom SavageThe former Pitt Panthers player is surging up the various draft boards, going from a mid-round projection before the NFL Combine in late February to being a projected second-round pick — perhaps very, very high in the second.

 

His rise is predicated on a very good NFL Combine workout in which he proved he was stronger than initially thought, and his draft position has steadily improved during numerous interviews and workouts with a majority of teams in the league.

 

Right now, he’s being called the surprise player in the draft.

 

Guess what? He’s not defensive tackle Aaron Donald, who now seems likely to go in the first round . Rather, it’s quarterback Tom Savage, who might have the strongest arm in the draft, according to several draft analysts who keep moving Savage up their charts as the May 8-10 draft approaches.

 

In fact, longtime Dallas Cowboys talent evaluator Gil Brandt, now of NFL.com, not calls Savage not only the “sleeper” quarterback in the draft, but the top sleeper, period. Brandt also referred to him on Twitter as “the hottest guy in the draft.” Brandt also likens Savage to “a young Troy Aikman.”

 

And ESPN analyst Todd McShay’s latest mock draft has the 6-foot-5, 230-pound Savage being the first pick of the second round, by the Houston Texans, who would have time to bring him along after adding QB Ryan Fitzpatrick to challenge Case Keenum following the departure of Matt Schaub.

 

Savage probably didn’t have much of an idea where he might go in the draft after wrapping up his senior season. He bounced from Rutgers to Arizona to Pittsburgh before finally settling into a program, and his senior season had peaks and valleys accentuated by the nation’s-leading 43 sacks he absorbed. (No other D-I QB was dropped more than 39 times.)

 

But Savage’s strong arm appears to be impressing team after team; his agent, Neil Schwartz, told SI.com that he is beginning to turn down in-person visit requests because Savage’s calendar is full. Schwartz estimates Savage will end up visiting 25 of the 32 NFL teams.

 

Savage is generating so much buzz around the league, NFL.com analyst Bucky Brooks posted an extensive, 800-word analysis of him on the website. Among the highlights:

 

– “A classic dropback passer with exceptional physical traits for the position. He has a big, sturdy frame and body build that’s in line with the quarterbacks that have traditionally manned the position in the NFL for years. Additionally, Savage has big hands, which should allow him to `grip it and rip it’ in poor weather conditions.”

 

– “From an athletic standpoint, Savage ranks as a marginal athlete. He lumbers a bit when moving outside of the pocket.”

 

– “He capably makes every throw in the book with zip and velocity. … (His) accuracy woes show up on short and intermediate throws.”

 

– “Savage’s limited athleticism and movement skills make it imperative for him to shine from the pocket. … He has to display better awareness of the pocket breaking down and get the ball out of his hands before the rush arrrives.”

 

If Savage indeed goes in the top half of the second round, as Brandt projects, it would be remarkable for several reasons.

 

One, Savage played so little while twice changing programs; since beginning his college career, 97 other Division I quarterbacks have thrown more passes than he has. He threw more passes last season at Pitt alone (389) than he did in two seasons at Rutgers (368). He never got on the field at Arizona.

 

Then there’s this: Pitt quarterbacks simply don’t get picked in the draft.

 

No Panthers quarterback has been drafted at that position this century; the last to be selected was Alex Van Pelt in the eighth round by the Steelers 21 years ago, in 1993.

 

Savage would be only the SECOND Pitt quarterback drafted since Dan Marino went No. 27 to Miami in 1983, or 31 years ago (Van Pelt, of course, was the other). And he would be only the FIFTH Pitt quarterback ever drafted, joining Marino, Van Pelt, Rick Trocano (1981, 11th round) and Matt Cavanaugh (1978, 2nd round). Cavanaugh was the first Pitt quarterback ever taken in the draft at that position, according to the NFL’s database.

 

As Pitt fans were watching Savage go 238 of 389 for 2,918 yards, 21 touchdowns and nine interceptions (only three in the final nine games) last season, they probably had no idea they were watching a player who might make draft history at Pitt, which currently has 13 former players on NFL rosters — and has sent nearly 300 players to the league. But Savage might just do that.

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April 10, 2014
by Alan Robinson


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Robinson: Two linebackers, safety are latest Steelers visitors

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Ryan ShazierAfter general manager Kevin Colbert and coach Mike Tomlin spent Tuesday and Wednesday attending the Penn State and LSU pro days, the Steelers played host Thursday to three more potential draft prospects.

Visiting the South Side complex were Ohio State outside linebacker Ryan Shazier, UCLA inside linebacker Jordan Zumwalt and Washington State strong safety Deone Bucannon.

The Steelers have little depth at outside linebacker behind Jason Worilds, Jarvis Jones and the recently signed Arthur Moats, or at inside linebacker, and they are expected to draft at least one player at both positions during the May 8-10 draft.

Shazier is one of the top-rated outside linebackers and recently ran an unofficial 4.36 in the 40-yard dash at Ohio State’s pro day. That’s defensive back-type speed for a disruptive player who was credited with 39 1/2 tackles for a loss in his final two college seasons.

Shazier is 6-foot-1 and 237 pounds, somewhat on the smallish side for an outside linebacker these days, but was the Big Ten’s leading tackler.

Zumwalt is 6-4 and 235, a big hitter who finished his college career with a 43-yard interception return  against Virginia Tech in the Sun Bowl. According to an NFL.com scouting report, Zumwalt “is very competitive with a fiery on-field temperament … and explosive hitter.” He is listed on some draft boards as an outside linebacker, but he played inside linebacker at UCLA.

Bucannon was a first team AP All-America player who started four years at Washington State. He had a huge numbers season in 2013 with 114 tackles, six interceptions, 4 1/2 tackles for losses and three forced fumbles. Like Zumwalt, he is considered to be a second-day pick.

Detect a trend? Of the at least 12 college players that have visited the Steelers for in-house interviews, four are defensive backs and three are wide receivers. Louisville safety Calvin Pryor met with the Steelers on Monday.

Previous visitors were Minnesota safety Brock Vereen, the brother of Patriots running back Shane Vereen; South Carolina wide receiver Bruce Ellington,

Pitt defensive tackle Aaron Donald, Notre Dame defensive end Stephon Tuitt, Michigan State cornerback Darqueze Dennard, Baylor running back Lache Seastrunk, Pittsburg State wide receiver John Brown and Mississippi wide receiver Donte Moncrief.

 

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April 7, 2014
by Alan Robinson


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Robinson: With draft one month out, keep an eye on 5 potential Steelers picks

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Mike EvansDarqueze Dennard(Mike Evans, top, and Darqueze Dennard during the recent NFL Combine in Indianapolis.)

The NFL Draft will be exactly one month out as of Tuesday, and it’s becoming obvious the Steelers are focusing in on several positions — if not a handful of players — in anticipation of making the No. 15 pick on May 8.

Is there any chance the Steelers, who have nine picks, will trade up to move up in the first round? Not really. Making such trades almost always requires parting with a very high draft pick, which the Steelers almost never do, and teams consistently overpay to move up. And there’s enough talent in that draft that the Steelers are convinced they can get a potential impact player at No. 15.

As of Monday, the Steelers have had at least nine in-house visits from college players — three wide receivers, some of whom will go lower than the first round; three defensive backs, two defensive lineman and one running back. Pretty easy to spot a trend there.

After all, the Steelers’ biggest positions of need are 1) wide receiver; 2) cornerback; 3) defensive end/nose tackle; 4) inside linebacker. For all the depth in this draft class, which Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert calls the best he’s seen in 30 years, this is not a particularly great year for inside linebackers. So it seems likely the Steelers’ first-round pick will come from one of the first three positions.

Five players to watch closely as the countdown to May 8 continues:

1) MIKE EVANS, WR, 6-5, 230, Texas A&M. After watching the Johnny Manziel/Mike Evans workout last month, multiple scouts came away thinking that Evans might be most responsible for Manziel’s two great college seasons. Not only he is an offense-changing receiver, he’s 6-foot-5 with more-than-adequate speed, great moves and an ability to outmuscle smaller cornerbacks; that’s a big advantage when going up against press coverages. He doesn’t drop many passes, and he’s a huge asset in the red zone. Think Ben Roethlisberger wouldn’t like having this guy to throw to? The offensively deficient Giants might go for him at No. 12, but if he’s available at No. 15, it’s difficult to envision the Steelers passing on him. He’s that good and, remember, the Steelers still do not have a wide receiver to start opposite Antonio Brown.

2) DARQUEZE DENNARD, CB, 5-11, 200, Michigan State. With Cortez Allen, William Gay, Ike Taylor and Brice McCain under contract, the Steelers don’t have quite the depth issues they have at wide receiver. But they want to get a player at No. 15 who can contribute immediately, and it’s evident they like Dennard, who already has visited the South Side. Dennard is an aggressive, NFL-type corner who seems to be a perfect fit for what the Steelers do. Interestingly, former Steelers CB Keenan Lewis of New Orleans is the current NFL defensive back to whom he’s most compared. He is excellent in man-to-man coverage, a Steelers’ deficiency last season. The downside is Michigan State didn’t play a lot of superior offenses last season.

3) LOUIS NIX, DL, 6-2, 330, Notre Dame. Mike Tomlin was one of two NFL head coaches who attended Notre Dame’s pro day (Gus Bradley of Jacksonville was the other), and he jumped in with Nix on some drills, lining up head-to-head against him. While the Steelers felt Steve McLendon was adequate in the middle last season, multiple Steelers defensive players said at the end of the season that not having Casey Hampton was a big loss because his strength and sheer physical presence often made such a difference on first and second downs. Nix plays with the edge the Steelers like and moves as well as many much-smaller linemen. The red flag: a torn meniscus that required surgery to repair in November and kept him out of the Irish’s final two games and bowl game. The Steelers have a history of shying away from players (see Eddie Lacy) with not insignificant health issues going into the draft.

4) JUSTIN GILBERT, CB, 6-0, 200, Oklahoma State. A couple of months ago, some draft experts didn’t rank a single cornerback in the top 50. That’s changed as both Dennard and Gilbert have moved up the charts — Gilbert to the point that he’s now seen as a potential top 10 pick. He ran a 4.37 in the 40, and he might be the best pure athlete available in the draft. He’s also shown the kind of physicality that NFL scouts like. Gilbert has a history of biting on pump fakes, but NFL teams love these numbers: seven interceptions last season, and six career kickoff return touchdowns, only one off the NCAA record.

5) KELVIN BENJAMIN, WR, 6-5, 240, Florida State. Yet another 6-5 receiver, the type Roethlisberger covets. Marqise Lee of Southern Cal is rated slightly higher, but the Steelers’ need for a big wide receiver (Lee is 6-0) makes Benjamin all the more attractive. He comes from a winning, NCAA championship program. And some NFL scouts believe he could easily add 10 pounds and become a hybrid tight end/oversized wideout. With his size, he has the ability to get to slightly overthrown or underthrown passes that some receivers can’t catch. (Another interesting comparison: he reminds some scouts of Plaxico Burress coming out of Michigan State.) Both Colbert and Tomlin attended Florida State’s pro day. However, he is seen as more of a late-Round 1 pick and, with all the quality players available, it’s likely the Steelers will have other players rated higher than him when they choose. And there seems to be little chance of him falling to No. 46, or where the Steelers draft on the second round.

And what about Pitt defensive lineman Aaron Donald, who’s now moved up to around No. 15 on several prominent draft charts? Despite his evident pass-rush skills, he just doesn’t seem like a good fit for the Steelers’ defense. He’s a bit undersized at 285 to play nose tackle, and he’s seen as more of a fit for a 4-3 defense than a 3-4. And he would face an enormous amount of pressure to succeed playing in the same city he did in college. A better fit might be the Cowboys. Donald has met with them and likes their system.

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April 1, 2014
by Alan Robinson


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Robinson: As NFL nears 500 yards-per-game passing level, Steelers’ secondary gets a makeover

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Mike MitchellFree agency is bringing change to the Steelers’ secondary — and not just because who’s coming in (Mike Mitchell, above, and Brice McCain), but also because who’s staying (Ike Taylor).

The offseason workouts that begin next month on the South Side and will conclude with the June 17-19 minicamp will offer a better idea of how coach Mike Tomlin, defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau and secondary coach Carnell Lake will employ their personnel.

For now, it’s obvious Mitchell will be the free safety, replacing Ryan Clark, who is headed back to Washington eight years after he left the Redskins to sign with the Steelers. Troy Polamalu will remain as the free safety, and Shamarko Thomas’ debut as a full-time NFL starter has been pushed back at least a year, barring injury.

The ever-increasing reliance upon the passing game as the primary method of moving the football by NFL offenses was further illustrated by the number of salary cap-friendly deals signed by running backs during free agency, including LeGarrette Blount’s $4 million, two-year deal with the Steelers.

Teams now believe it’s not necessary to spend a lot of money or expend high draft picks to find a reliable running back, especially if their offense — like most — is based around the passing game. There wasn’t a single running back drafted on the first round last year.

Here’s why: NFL teams threw for a combined 120,633 yards last season, an average of 471.2 yards passing per game for both teams. That’s way, way up from the combined 109,467 yards in 2003, when teams combined to average 400.8 yards passing per game. That’s a 75 yards per game increase in only a decade’s worth of time, or the equivalent of one long scoring drive.

All this passing is putting extra pressure on the back end of defenses, and having two — or more — reliable safeties is almost a must.

“The safety position, by nature, is one that is stressful, and those guys are a big component of a good defense,” Tomlin said.

However, Tomlin disputes that having good safeties is more important than it was a decade ago. The Steelers have three proven safeties in Polamalu, Mitchell and the re-signed Will Allen, and they thought enough of Thomas to trade a 2014 third-round pick to move up and draft him last year.

“I think it’s always been important,” Tomlin said. “I think that a component of defense is great safety play. It’s something that I’ve been around since the early days for me a professional. I’ve been around guys like John Lynch and Dexter Jackson, so I think that if you’re interested in playing good defense, you better have guys at the safety position that can confuse themselves in the run and can be what they need to be in the passing game.”

Mitchell, who turns 27 in June, is nearly eight years younger than Clark, who turns 35 in October, and has less than one full season as an NFL starter with the Carolina Panthers after spending his first three seasons primarily as a backup with the Oakland Raiders.
“He’s big, he’s fast and the biggest thing about the free safety position in our defense is you have to be smart,” general manager Kevin Colbert said. “Based on the reports we had about Mike coming out of college (Ohio U.), based on some of the things you can see him doing on film, and some of the information we had with him in the NFL, we thought he’d be able to handle it.”
Colbert added, “”Now he’ll have to go through and adjustment period of making calls specific to our defense, but he certainly has the capabilities to do that. He’s the type of guy we like to sign as a free agent. Usually, the guys we like to get if we do make a big investment are guys coming off of their first contract. Well he’s coming off of his second contract but his second contract was only a year. The nice thing is he’s experienced but I think there is a lot of room for continued growth.”
As for Thomas, Colbert said, “He fell behind (in 2013) because he was missing time (with an injury) and then Will Allen did a nice job of stepping back in after we picked him up, and solidifying the back end a bit. Shamarko will come out of last year a much better player, we think, this year.”

Taylor’s decision to take a $4.25 million pay cut, from $7 million to $2.75 million, means the Steelers’ top three cornerbacks from last season will return. The question is whether Taylor remains as a starter, or whether Cortez Allen moves in, with William Gay on the other side and Taylor playing situationally. Neither Tomlin nor Colbert offered a hint during the recent NFL meetings.

Keeping Taylor at relatively modest dollars meant not having to seek a replacement on the open market or expending a draft pick that otherwise might not have been used on a cornerback.

“We’re excited about retaining him, moving forward with him and having the significant years of his career be in Pittsburgh,” Tomlin said.

On Tuesday, the Steelers added former Houston Texans starter Brice McCain, who will be a backup cornerback and special teams player for them. The 5-foot-9, 180-pound McCain was the NFL’s worst-rated cornerback last season, according to Pro Football Focus.

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March 25, 2014
by Alan Robinson


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Robinson: Seeing 6 Super Bowl trophies clinched Moore’s signing with Steelers

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Lance MooreBy Alan Robinson

ORLANDO, Fla.—Don’t think those six Lombardi Trophies the Steelers proudly display at their South Side offices aren’t a powerful selling tool to prospective free agents.

It’s one reason the Steelers keep them under glass, properly lighted and lined up just right in an impressive display case, where all of their coaches, players and staff must walk by them on a daily basis.

New Steelers wide receiver Lance Moore said after signing a two-year contract last week that seeing those six NFL championship trophies up close helped clinch the deal. After all, the Steelers can display more such trophies than any NFL franchise.

Coach Mike Tomlin merely smiled when told of Moore’s comments.

“Man, that’s a strong selling point every day,” Tomlin said Tuesday at the annual NFL meetings. “I walk past them every day when I come to work and appropriately so. It provides clarity for us in terms of what it is we’re doing and it’s a motivator.”

Especially given the Steelers went to three Super Bowls in six seasons from 2005-10, winning two of them, but they haven’t won a playoff games in the past three seasons and sat out the playoffs in 2012 and 2013.

So what kind of sales pitch does Tomlin give to free agents such as Moore, especially those who have played previously on winning teams?

“We just told him the truth, and that’s what we tell all free agents: Who we are, how we do business and how we potentially see them fitting,” Tomlin said. “I think it fell in line with some of the things he wants to do as a professional. I think it was a natural thing.”

Tomlin called the 31-year-old Moore an experienced, proven and productive veteran player who should develop the same chemistry with Ben Roethlisberger than he did with Drew Brees in New Orleans. Moore was a 1,000-yard receiver with the Saints only two seasons ago, and he has 38 career touchdown passes.

While Tomlin is encouraged to have replaced slot receiver Jerricho Cotchery with Moore, he thinks having a healthy Markus Wheaton will help make up for the loss of wide receivers Cotchery and Emmanuel Sanders in free agency.

Wheaton, arguably the most impressive rookie during training camp last summer, ended up catching only six passes all season as he twice broke fingers, requiring both in-season and offseason surgery.

If he can stay healthy, Wheaton’s snap counts should go up significantly – and so should his importance in the offense.

“He has to stay healthy,” Tomlin said. “It’s tough to play wide receiver with broken fingers. I’ve been pleased with his approach to the game and how he works — he’s an intelligent young man, very capable and willing. I look forward to him taking a significant step for us, and we need him to.”

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