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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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March 24, 2014
by Alan Robinson


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Robinson: Kevin Colbert opens up about the offseason, Steelers’ 2014 game plan

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Kevin ColbertBy Alan Robinson

ORLANDO, Fla.—While Steelers coach Mike Tomlin has a policy of not talking to reporters from the end of the season until the NFL meetings in March, general manager Kevin Colbert has a different approach.

He doesn’t talk during the season – he believes that the coach should be a team’s mouthpiece when games are being played – but he is more expansive once the season ended.

Colbert talked in mid-February during a let’s-take-a-look back-at the-season session, then again during the NFL Combine in Indianapolis. But his most interesting comments since the Steelers wrapped up their second 8-8 season in a row came here at the annual NFL meetings. (Don’t bother trying to drop by; you probably can’t afford it.)

Here are Colbert’s comments on various issues as the Steelers push forward through free agency and get ready for the May draft. (Yes, I said May draft.)

Q: Was losing Jerricho Cotchery a disappointment?
A: “I would say it was a disappointment because he was a productive guy for us and really found his niche and had a comfort zone with Ben, which was nice. Other people saw that same potential, or production I guess you should say at this stage of his career, and they were able to do some things financially that we weren’t able to do. He had to make some decisions. He also had a little bit of an attraction to that area because of where he went to school and where his wife is from. You respect that and understand that. We wish him luck.”

Q: Why did the Steelers go after Mike Mitchell?
A: “He’s big, he’s fast and the biggest thing about the free safety position in our defense is you have to be smart. Based on the reports we had about Mike coming out of college, 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. 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.”

Q: Mitchell is low mileage, too, having started less than one entire season, right?
A: “Right, because he wasn’t a starter early in his career. Again, you don’t think you possibly have seen the best, but what he’s shown so far, it was exciting because he was certainly productive for a good defense.”

Q: Will this be an adjustment for Troy (Polamalu) after playing with the same guy (Ryan Clark) for eight years?
A: “It is, but I know Troy had some anxieties when Chris Hope left and he and Ryan Clark became inseparable almost. Troy is a special player and I’m sure once he gets to know Mike and Mike gets to know Troy and they begin to work together I think there will be a comfort zone they’ll find there as well.”

Q: Is bringing back James Harrison a possibility?
A: “We’re never going to close the door on any possibilities at this point, but especially with a guy who is a huge part of your success. With that being said, we have to see what is best for our team as we continue to go through this free agency period. There might be other outside linebackers that could help us as well. Like I said, we’re just going to continue to look and see as to what’s out there. As long as James is available, that obviously remains an option but it’s something that we have to decide if it’s the best thing for the organization at that point.”

Q: What went into the decision to sign Lance Moore?
A: “We lost two veteran receivers in Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho. I think Lance gives us a little bit of what each of those guys could give us. We knew we weren’t going to be able to keep both Jerricho and Emmanuel, so we looked at veteran receivers to have available. Lance actually wasn’t in the group when we started free agency because he was cut. As you move forward, if you remember, I said that will happen throughout free agency, guys will get cut and now all of the sudden they are in the mix. Fortunately for us, he was in the mix. He’s a very smart, experienced receiver that knows how to work in the slot. He’s been productive and again, he’ll be 31 in August I think it is, so there is still some good football left in Lance Moore and we’re excited that he was available to us when we went to sign him.”

Q: Moore had a drop-off statistically last season; was that a concern?
A: “Kenny Stills, the kid they (the Saints) drafted, developed and I think he produced and that probably took away some of his catches. Again, as we talked about earlier, when they move up in the contract, if the production is not matching the contract, you have to make a decision. I don’t think they wanted to let him go, I think they probably had to.”

Q: Has Ben (Roethlisberger) ever come to you and asked for a tall receiver tan than a shorter receiver (like Moore)?
A: “No, he hasn’t. Everybody wants big, fast – but guys get open, too. Guys that know how to get open. Our best receiver is 5’10”. I’m sure teams would rather have him than a big guy. So, size, sure it’s important and there are plenty of big receivers in this draft, but really if you get caught up just looking for a specific, you’ll miss out on a good player.”

Q: Did the salary cap bump (from $123 million to $133 million) help with the decision to cut Woodley (and his $14.1 million in dead money)?
A: “It helped. It changed some things with us, and we didn’t anticipate that at all. All along we’re thinking $123 [million] and you’re hearing reports and then it ends up being as high as it was, that certainly allowed us to be able to do some things that we didn’t think we’d be able to do back in January and February.”

Q: Still feel good about the decision last year to trade a third-round pick to the Browns to draft Shamarko Thomas?
A: “If he was in this draft, we certainly would feel good about having used that third-round pick. He started out real good for us last year and then after the ankle injury, he fell behind because he was missing time and then Will Allen did a nice job of stepping back in after we picked him up and solidifying the back end a little bit. Shamarko will come out of this last year a much better player we think this year.”

Q: Are there any concerns with Markus Wheaton about his (broken) finger, which required multiple operations?
A: “No, he’s been in the building, he’s working out and he’s rehabbing. That’s not an uncommon injury for an NFL receiver and they learn how to adapt and fight through it. Hopefully, he’s going to do that.”

Q: Anything new with Jarvis Jones?
“He’s not here (in Pittsburgh). That’s the hard part with this new (labor) agreement. We can only call them or you can call whoever they are training with. But we can’t go there.”

Q: Many players like to train in Florida or Arizona because of the weather. Have you had many working out in Pittsburgh?
A: “They trickle in and out. I saw Cam Heyward. We haven’t been there ourselves so it’s hard. I don’t check on them. I’ve seen Kelvin Beachum, David DeCastro, and Markus Wheaton. Worilds was in there for a little bit and he went back. He’s training in Atlanta. I saw Heath in there the other day.”

By the way, Tomlin will sit down for a one-hour interview Tuesday with national and Pittsburgh reporters, so there should be more insight then as to what’s going on with the Steelers. His session last year in Phoenix was interesting and a bit prescient; he predicted that NFL defenses would make adjustments to the read-option offense and effectively neutralize it, and that largely played out during the season.

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March 23, 2014
by Alan Robinson


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Robinson: Mike Tomlin talks ’14 Steelers for the first time

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Mike TomlinBy Alan Robinson

ORLANDO, Fla.—The NFL draft is nearly two months away, minicamp is three months out and training camp is more than four months away. No wonder Steelers coach Mike Tomlin isn’t nearly ready to compare his 2014 team to the one that ended 2013 with six wins in eight games.

Since beating the Browns on Dec. 29 to end up with a second 8-8 record in as many seasons, the Steelers have added Mike Mitchell, Lance Moore and Cam Thomas but lost LaMarr Woodley, Jerricho Cotchery, Al Woods, Larry Foote, Jonathan Dwyer, Emmanuel Sander and Ziggy Hood.

So have they improved themselves?

“I don’t have the answer to that, because we still got a lot of significant stuff to do with the rest of free agency and the draft,” Tomlin said Sunday at the NFL meetings. “We’re talking about probably as many as 10 more people who could be on our football team who aren’t on our team as we sit here today. So it would be very premature of me to measure this group against that last group at this juncture. We are still very much in the process of building for 2014.”

Tomlin talked to Pittsburgh reporters for the first time since the day after the season ended. Tomlin will talk again Tuesday at the owners meetings, this time with national reporters mixed in. Then, his policy has been to not talk again until the draft and the offseason workouts begin.

Here’s what Tomlin had to say about various Steelers issues, and how the offseason has gone to date:

On the offseason moves: ““I think we’ve had some real positive developments thus far. We got a young, talented guy like Mike Mitchell, and Cam Thomas was important to us. Retaining Jason Worilds was important to us. Getting Heath (Miller) and Troy (Polamalu) done from a (contract) extension standpoint was important to us,” Tomlin said. “It’s still ongoing for us. But it’s not that what is going to happen is going to be less significant than the things that I already mentioned, the things that we do moving forward – adding quality depth, insulating us vs. the unforeseen – is a big part of developing the type of team that we need to be.”

Is adding an experienced running back important, given no one on the roster has NFL carries except for Le’Veon Bell? “I felt good about (the meeting with free agent Maurice Jones-Drew). We are open to it (adding an experienced back). I’ll stop short of saying ‘have to,’ but we need to add quality depth to that position, whether it’s through free agency or the draft,” Tomlin said. “Le’Veon Bell is a talented player but a young player. It would be good to get a been-there, done-that type of guy in the room to maybe help him with growth and development. But I don’t view it as a necessity, quite honestly, because Le’Veon is a very grounded and humble young man and is open to getting better, and is a good listener.”

Was the move from the right side to the left side exactly what Jason Worilds needed to become the pass rusher the Steelers long anticipated he could be? “I don’t know that (Worilds) was any different,” Tomlin said. “I just think the animal that he faces is a different animal. That right tackle is a little different animal than the left tackle. I think if you’re really looking for differences in performance or highlighting differences in performance, the true answer might be there as opposed to what Jason is doing. Although, I will acknowledge that Jason has continued to improve since we’ve had him, and he has grown both on the field and off. Obviously, we like that growth and development.”

Can Worilds get even better? “We expect Worilds to grow. We expect Lawrence Timmons to grow. We expect Jarvis Jones to grow,” Tomlin said. “Even though you lose some veteran leadership and experience with the loss of (Woodley and Foote), and that’s significant, but at the same time, I think it is important that we all recognize and state we don’t expect those who remain to remain the same. We expect them to continue to grow on and off the field.”

What might the Steelers do during the draft? “I really just think it depends on how the rest of free agency shapes up. We have things that we feel we need to get done to insulate ourselves on both sides of the ball, and in the kicking game,” Tomlin said. “And what we don’t get done in free agency, we intend to finish off in the draft.”

This is Tomlin’s first year on the NFL Competition Committee, which largely shapes rule changes and dictates how the game should be played. He had a committee meeting Sunday and will have another one Monday, but the Orlando trip isn’t all business for him. He also attended the Pitt-Florida NCAA tournament Round of 32 game Saturday.

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March 21, 2014
by Alan Robinson


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Robinson: Rooney believes NFL office already involved in replays

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Art Rooney IIBy Alan Robinson

Steelers president Art Rooney II knows exactly what he wants to see next season: Better officiating.

Better officiating, as you remember, might have gotten the Steelers into the playoffs. The NFL acknowledged that an illegal formation penalty should have been called on the San Diego Chargers on the missed 41-yard field goal by Ryan Succop of the Chiefs that, if it had been good, would have sent the Steelers to the playoffs.

That final-day-of-the-season play occurred nearly three months ago, and some Steelers fans still haven’t gotten over how a field goal that is successfully converted in the NFL about 90 percent of the time these days didn’t go through.

But as he heads off to the owners meetings at the plush Ritz-Carlton resort in Orlando this weekend, Rooney also knows what he doesn’t want to see during the 2014 season: Too much time spent by the referees under the instant replay hood.

Rooney isn’t sure how the NFL will get there, but all he knows is he wants the level of officiating to be improved — by whatever means — but not at the price of extending games.

So how can the NFL improve the officiating, and the replay process, without further spilling over into “60 Minutes?”

“That’s a key question. That to me is one of the main things, we don’t want a longer game,” Rooney said. “We don’t want it to take longer for replay. The question of having it go to the league office, that would be one of my questions about that, and I think that’s one of the reasons they didn’t want to rush into making a decision this year. Again, our goal is to get it right, not necessarily to have more replays or more delays in the game.”

The NFL office must agree with Rooney. According to NFL Competition Committee co-chairman Rich McKay, “You’re going to see a real emphasis on on-field officiating and trying to be the best we can be and trying to make sure there is the necessary (mechanism to do so).”

Among the proposals that will be taken up in Orlando are these:

– Any officiating call can be challenged, not just those currently specified.

– Personal foul penalties can be reviewed.

– Instant replay should be expanded to include all types of change-of-possession plays, such as the one on Dec. 22 in which the Steelers blocked a Packers field goal, yet Green Bay ended up with the ball and a first down.

– Add additional cameras on the field to make sure that all angles of a play are covered, not just those available on a TV Network’s telecast. (Note the Patriots are the team proposing there be more cameras in stadiums.)

– The referee can consult with the league office in New York before ruling on a replay — something that Rooney believes already occurs. This would be a slightly different version of the NHL replay system, in which all calls are reviewed and either upheld or reversed via centralized replay.

– The instant replay system can be used to correct an officiating error.

Rooney doesn’t believe there will be radical changes adopted immediately, but he does expect some modification that will allow the league — probably, officiating chief Dean Blandino — to have more input into calls.

“Number one, I think that we need to review replay in general and from what I understand, the Competition Committee did spend a lot of time on it this year. As I understand it, they felt like it requires more study than just saying, “We’re going to make some changes this year.” I really think their attitude is that it needs a little longer term than just making a change at this meeting,” Rooney said.

“I think there will be a lot of discussion about it. I think the whole question of should we make a change in terms of the referee actually being the one that makes the decision, I think there is going to be a lot of discussion about that and I wouldn’t be surprised if there is a change in that at some point, probably not this year, but at some point.”

Still, it appears the Steelers are going to need further convincing that any of the proposals will make a difference before they vote favorably, except for that allowing the referee to consult with the league. Any such adoption requires a favorable vote from at least 24 of the 32 teams.

“I think everybody feels like we can do better than what we have now in terms of the time it takes. I don’t know that I favor any of the proposals that are on the table today,” Rooney said. “There is no objection to the one about allowing the referee to consult with the league office during the replay. Frankly, I think that happens anyway. So, there is no objection to that. I think in terms of, let’s say anything more ambitious than that, I think it’s going to be studied over the next year. ”

Rooney’s comment is interesting because the league has never said that it does consult with referees as they review replays.

“I’ve heard that. It’s my sense that happens, yes,” Rooney said. “But again, the idea of having replay either go to the league office for final decision or go upstairs for final decision, I think that’s all fair game for discussion and I think that is sort of under consideration. In terms of this year, I think they didn’t want to rush into that. They really want to kind of take a little longer look at how to address that. I think it’s going to be something that they take another year to look at.”

Right about now, the Steelers probably wish the NFL had rushed into making changes in advance of the 2013 season. They might have ended up making the playoffs if it had happened.

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March 18, 2014
by Alan Robinson


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Robinson: Local resident applies for Steelers job — and you know him

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James Harrison, Ben RoethlisbergerBy Alan Robinson

The Steelers aren’t placing want ads for defensive players, but a local resident would like to apply for a job as an outside linebacker.

He has some experience, after all. He’s a five-time Pro Bowl player, and a former NFL Defensive Player of the Year. And he would be affordable.

He’s James Harrison.

Harrison, cut recently after one season with the Bengals, is making it clear he would like to play for the Steelers again. He appeared recently at a function for Brett Keisel, even while still under contract to the Bengals, and he told the NFL Network’s NFL Total Access show where he would like to end his career.

Pittsburgh, of course.

“Everybody knows that,” Harrison said. “I’ve got two (Super Bowl) rings and I’ve got a lot of relationships, teammates, former teammates that are still good friends.”

Harrison will be 36 in less than two months, but he thinks he’s still got enough left to play effectively. He said he’s not close to retiring and — not surprisingly for a man known for his demanding training regimen –he wants to “go until the wheels fall off.”

Harrison was let go by the Steelers a year ago when the two sides couldn’t agree on a pay cut. Harrison, a trademark 3-4 linebacker, played out of position in Cincinnati’s 4-3 defense, but he also played effectively at times.

He was the sixth highest-ranked player on Cincinnati’s defense, which ranked No. 3 in the NFL, behind only Seattle and Carolina and was the AFC’s top-ranked unit.

Harrison played 383 snaps, or about 37 percent of all those played by the Bengals defense. He graded out at a plus-8.4 in Pro Football Focus’ player grades, including an above-average 10.7 as a run defender. He was minus-3.0 as a pass rusher.

Harrison’s final stats line: two sacks, three QB hits, 14 QB hurries, 25 tackles and only three missed tackles.

So would he be an asset to a Steelers defense that is being made over to get younger?

With LaMarr Woodley gone, Jason Worilds and Jarvis Jones seem certain to be the starters, with only the ineffective-to-date Chris Carter as an experienced backup.

Given his resume, and the likelihood he would likely accept a salary much lower than he would have agreed to play for a year ago, Harrison would seem to be an option the Steelers might want to consider.

Unlike most players brought in from another team, Harrison certainly wouldn’t need much time to learn Dick LeBeau’s defense.

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March 16, 2014
by Mark Kaboly


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Kaboly: Steelers’ Cotchery to visit Carolina

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Jerricho CotcheryTaking part in the ‘Steelers Cruise’ for the past week has put Jerricho Cotchery’s free agency period on hold, but that will change this week.

Cotchery will visit wide-receiver-needy Carolina on Monday according to league sources.

Carolina recently released veteran Steve Smith (who signed with Baltimore) and lost Brandon LaFell to the Patriots, Ted Ginn to the Cardinals and Domenik Hixon to the Bears via free agency. One of the most experienced receivers left on the roster is Valley graduate Toney Clemons, who has three career catches. Clemons was drafted by the Steelers in 2012.

Cotchery went to college at nearby North Carolina State.

Two others teams besides the Steelers and Panthers have shown interest in the 31-year-old Cotchery, who had a career high 10 touchdowns last year for the Steelers.

The Steelers have had preliminary talks with Cotchery, but no deal is imminent. Cotchery did say he wanted to return to the Steelers after the season, but could make a decent salary if he signs with the Panthers.

The Steelers are also low on experienced receivers as they lost Emmanuel Sanders to Denver on Sunday. It was the second consecutive year the Steelers lost a receiver to free agency — Mike Wallace signed with the Dolphins last year. Behind Antonio Brown, Steelers’ receivers have eight career receptions – six by Markus Wheaton and two by Derek Moye.

According to numbers released by the NFLPA, the Steelers have approximately $3.5 million cap space, which would be plenty to lock up Cotchery.

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