Weekend Checkdown: the top stories of the week

Joe Sargent

Will this week mark the beginning of the next great Steelers team?

The week leading up to Memorial Day provided an opportunity for a pause in the process of talent procurement, evaluation and team building for the Steelers. The next few weeks will be the beginning of spring drills in earnest, football in shorts.

One of the more compelling illusions about teams is that they are essentially the same from year to year. But every year a team is a different organism even if few if any of the component parts have changed. Some of the ways that the evolving 2014 edition of the Pittsburgh Steelers is different from the 2013 group is rather obvious. Old faces such as Jerricho Cotchery, Ziggy Hood, Larry Foote, Emmanuel Sanders, Jonathan Dwyer, Ryan Clark and others are gone. The faces that will replace them are TBD, though we have a pretty good idea as to who most of them will be, but anything, such as injuries, can happen. More subtle are the changes that occur with those who remain. With fellow captains Clark and Brett Keisel among the missing this team is more Ben Roethlisberger's than it ever has been. Having missed an entire season due to injury Maurkice Pouncey is likely to be a lot hungrier. Ike Taylor's football mortality is in full view. Cam Heyward has come into his own as a player and a leader. Antonio Brown has to cope with genuine stardom. We're just not talking players here either. Kirby Wilson, Jack Bicknell Jr. and Bill Nunn are gone. Mike Munchak, James Saxon and Joey Porter are new. Others remain but will be older, and hopefully, wiser. Installing schemes and expectations, earning roster spots and determining roles will be the order of the day going forward.

This happens every year of course, but I think a lot of you reading this are like me in that there is a level of intrigue connected to the building of this team that is greater than anything in recent memory. For all his greatness, Chuck Noll was never able to replicate the success of the 70s Steelers with a new group. After getting his team to Super Bowl XXX, it took Bill Cowher a decade to claw his way back. What we would all hope will be that third wave of champions is now being assembled before our eyes. They don't have ten years to get it done. Urgency, expectations and shelf life are all different. Its Tomlin's shot now, and the question that dominates comes at two levels; can they quickly return to playoff caliber play, and are they capable of making the leap to the rarefied air of championship ball?

So, something a little different this week. In addition to the top stories I'm going to take a look at this most interesting team building period that will really begin to pick up steam this coming week. Those who know me understand I'm not much for predictions. I believe that the right questions can be more illuminating than simply trying to anticipate the answers. I'll leave the answers to those of you who believe themselves to be better at that sort of thing. I want to focus on a few set of issues that will likely define the eventual composition of this team, and ultimately, its fate.

Moving forward there will be two set of unknowns that could, and likely will have a massive impact on what follows. The first involves whether or not we have in our possession the final version of the competitors who will be part of this process. The addition of another chess piece can change the equation radically; particularly if that piece were named Harrison, Keisel, Velasco or Holmes, just to name four possibilities. Many of us were caught off guard with the aggressiveness displayed by the team in making moves, especially given the relative modesty of the resources available to it. Why should we expect for them to turn conservative now even if there are just a few pennies remaining on the table for them to play with? The second unknown is the dreaded "I" word. Injuries. In spite of all the brave talk about injuries just being part of the game, who is injuried, how and when can make a difference. And the chance of going injury free is just about zero. The practical question would not be if the Steelers can avoid injuries, but rather, will the team be fortunate that they will only be subjected to injuries that they can bear and remain competitive?

Coaching evolution and coaching revolution

Last week I attempted to make the case that coaching might be the X factor for this team. Here are some of the relevant questions that we can follow into the summer, beginning with the offense.

Haley

Have you noticed that all of the controversy that had been surrounding offensive coordinator Todd Haley over the past couple of years has calmed down considerably? No Ben vs. Todd talk lately. If there has been any conversation at all relative to any dissatisfaction involving Ben it would be contract related. If it's been discussed I missed it, but a healthy Roethlisberger, competent offensive line play and a productive running back apparently has quieted doubts about the Haley offense. It may also be worth noting that with the exception of tight ends coach James Daniel and quarterbacks coach Randy Fichtner, that the offensive assistants have turned over under Haley, suggesting at minimum an acceptance of the system in place. There has also been no talk about adjusting to the system, the terminology and so forth. The system is the system basically. Things have now evolved to where the acquisition of Dri Archer is a nod to Haley's preferences. Regardless of whether you believe this faith is well placed, having the buy in to a system is a big positive, and having pieces that fit the system could result in an offense that opponents may find extremely dangerous.

The consensus is that Mike Munchak is the most impactful addition the team has made this off season so far. His biggest challenge is likely to be that over which he has the least control, injuries. Can the techniques he brings to bear, the preexisting work ethic of the unit and position flexibility be an offset of something that has plagued this group throughout Tomlin's tenure?

Its tempting to think that all running backs coach James Saxon might do is stay out of the way, but the more responsible question is whether he is an improvement on Wilson. It would seem that receivers coach Richard Mann and Daniel have cups that are overflowing. Can they capitalize on prosperity?

LeBeau

The question for the defense might not be so much evolution as revolution. There are indications that the changes in both the style of offensive play and rule changes that have further favored offensive football have forced some innovative responses that have included a de-emphasis on the nose tackle position and deploying fast, position flexible players as a counter. If true, then we may be witnessing the birth of a new version of the Blitzburgh Steel Curtain this summer.

To what extent can Joey Porter make a difference? The new additions the Steelers have brought over the past few years have, for the most part been nice, high character people. This is a good thing generally, but there is a potential downside. Unlike many areas of life, belligerence is an asset in football, especially when you're playing the Ravens twice a year. In fact, if you have followed this team long enough it is part of the DNA of the franchise. Down through the years, win, lose or draw it was considered a guarantee that when you played the Steelers you were going to get your ass kicked. Not to diminish the technical expertise he brings to the table, the big question is whether he can infuse some attitude into this group of linebackers. We may get some answers during the backs on backers drills this summer.

A multitude of dogs, not so many bones

In 2010 there was a competition for the third receiver spot between two rookies, Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown. It was then that Tomlin introduced the phrase 'Two dogs, one bone.' Many have forgotten that it was actually Sanders who won that competition, but it is certainly fair to say that both players and the team benefited. Strong internal competition raises the minimum standard of performance across the team to a very high level before the team ever faces an opponent. It undercuts complacency and creates a level of focus that is sustained throughout the season as mere task of practicing becomes a creative exercise in survival. Looking across position groups there exists a severe bone shortage such that it is essentially guaranteed that what it took to earn a helmet in 2013 probably won't be sufficient in 2014.

Cornerbacks

If there was an area in the 2014 draft where there was some fairly widespread disappointment expressed by fans and other observers it was the seeming indifference shown to the position of cornerback. The selection of Shaquelle Richardson in the fifth round seemed casual and uninspired given the belief that this was a major area of need. But then there was this a few days later from Carnell Lake.

DEFENSIVE BACKS COACH CARNELL LAKE on defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau’s contention that the Steelers have "great players in the building already; they just haven’t had the chance to show us that they’re great,"  as it related to the cornerback position:

"The one or two corners that we picked up last year and this year; (one) would be Antwon Blake, from Jacksonville. I had him graded fairly high going into last year’s draft. Blake is very fast. He didn’t get invited to the Combine; some clocks had him sub-4.3 (in the 40-yard dash). He’s very strong on top of that, he’s quick.

"He was so tough the Jaguars tried to use him at safety even though he’s under 6-foot (5-9, 198). He turned out to be a really good special teams player for us. I’m thinking he could turn out to be a really good corner for us.

"We also picked up Brice McCain in the offseason (UFA, Houston). I’ve been working with the guys on the field the last couple of weeks and I’m very surprised by how well he moves. Not only is he quick but he has some speed, and that’s what I’m looking for to improve our room. We’ve got to get faster and we’ve got to get quicker and I’m always looking for tough guys. If you can tackle and you can cover, there’s a place for you not just in the NFL but especially here."

Art Rooney II pointed out in Part Two of the Countdown documentary that free agent activity set the tone for what came afterwards, specifically the draft. And while Blake and McCain didn't generate the same level of excitement as the acquisition of Mike Mitchell, I don't know how I got it into my head that the Steelers would invest what precious little free agent money that they had available on what they believed would be, in essence, a camp body. Remember also that in addition to Lake, when it comes to evaluating defensive backs you have Tomlin who made his bones as defensive secondary coach, and LeBeau who is a Hall of Fame defensive back.

Let's also examine our attitudes toward the incumbents. No doubt Taylor is in decline, but the group think on that spiked in the wake of his performance against Calvin Johnson. Well, who hasn't looked bad playing Megatron? Coming off an injury Cortez Allen didn't make the leap that many expected. And though his play was solid throughout the season we are loath to give too much credit to William Gay. It certainly bears watching, but the broader point is that this may be a position group that is nowhere near as anemic as some may fear.

You see the same dynamics at play position group after position group. Take inside linebacker. What if Spence comes all  the way back while Williams, Garvin and Wilson all make that second year leap? Now wide receiver. Start with AB. Remember what I said above about free agents in considering Lance Moore and Darrius Heyward-Bey. Then there are three second year players (Wheaton, Moye and Justin Browneach of whom could make that leap. And, oh yeah, the rookie Bryant.

Think about players like Ebernate, Michael Palmer, Robert Golden, Fangupo, Ventrone. The stage has been set to force players to get better or get out, or, cruelly, get better and still not be good enough to stay.

Masters of all trades

Citing just one example, that there are three dogs (Adams, Beachum and Gilbert) chasing two bones, but even better is that all three dogs are qualified to get either bone. Each player is a credible candidate for either the left or right tackle spot. This kind of position flexibility is present throughout the roster. Defensive linemen (McLendon and Thomas) who can play both nose and end. Linebackers (Shazier, Timmons, Moats and Garvin) who can play inside or out. Offensive linemen (Beachum and Wesley Johnson) who can play all five positions. A hybrid (Archer) who can credibly play running back, wide receiver, punt and kickoff returner. A bruising inside runner (Blount) who can also return kicks.

These multi-dimensional 'slash' type players obviously give you more bang for your buck, increased flexibility and capacity, and a degree of injury insurance. But besides the fact that a high order of athleticism is required, such players also are likely to be very smart and highly disciplined, a fact that carries even greater weight given the fact that so many of them are also very young.

Speed kills

Clearly speed has been a point of emphasis this season. Even a lineman like Stephon Tuitt has demonstrated that he can run for his size. Its one thing to obtain a couple of weapons who can challenge opponents with the element of speed, but something else team speed becomes a concern in all phases and from a variety of sources.

The template would appear to be one where the players are multifaceted, intelligent, fast, unpredictable and well coached. We'll see how it all begins to play out.

Importance of OTAs

Every year a football starved nation anticipates the start of OTAs in the hope of getting a fix of the game that has been dormant for the most part for nearly half a year. Every year there is a certain level of disappointment when the realization once again hits that football in shorts falls considerably short of the real thing. This doesn't mean that the OTAs don't have great value, its just that much of it will be happening in meeting rooms and in other activities that may seem less than thrilling to most observers.

Newcomers in transition

Rookies are currently in the midst of the one of the most momentous periods of their lives. The transition to the professional level is fraught with pitfalls that if not navigated wisely can strangle a fledgling career in its crib. Steeler broadcaster and alum Craig Wolfley and agent Jack Bechta provide some maps of the landscape that will may prove useful to players and fans.

McCullers

Last week we were treated to detailed introductions to the higher profile draft choices (Shazier, Tuitt, Archer, Bryant) as the excitement of draft fever eases on a somewhat slow news week attention turns to a couple of lower round selections. To honest my first reaction to the selection of Daniel McCullers was that it had the appearance of a gimmick pick, a player noteworthy purely because of his immense size and nothing else, destined to develop a cult following in camp as a novelty and then disappearing in a year or two, contributing nothing. That could still happen, but McCullers is a more intriguing prospect than I imagined.

Just like Dri Archer is short, not small, McCuller is big, not fat. With just 18% body fat McCullers huge body takes on a different meaning and potential. But because the culture of football is one of the few places where he isn't subjected to treatment that is traumatizing due to his size, the question is whether McCullers can learn to leverage his gift to his and the team's advantage. If so he could have a huge impact for a long time.

Wesley Johnson

This another prospect who looks more interesting as you take the time to get a closer look. The big news about Johnson last week may have had more to do with the fact that members of his family were Steelers season holders. This week a film room piece gives us closer look at his capabilities as a player.

More McCullers and Blanchflower

The sixth and seventh round draft choices signed their rookie contracts this week.

More tutorials

While on the subject of fan education that we at BTSC provide year round, Neal Coolong helps us wrestle with the intricacies of the X, Y and Z receivers, their capabilities and responsibilities.

Documentaries

It is still possible that the Steelers may be selected to be profile on the HBO reality program Hard Knocks. The team would prefer not, but most fans of Steelers Nation, insatiable for any morsel of information or insight concerning their favorite team are torn. There's no need for distractions when there is the serious business of chasing Lombardis to deal with. On the other hand talk about must see TV. In the mean time there are alternatives. NFL Films 2013 Steelers Highlight film premiered this week at a Heinz Field screening. Part Two of the Countdown documentary featuring a behind the scenes look at Pittsburgh's draft process was released this week as well.

Team projections

With most of the pieces of the puzzle assembled projections are beginning to appear with predictions concerning the configuration of position groups and game and divisional outcomes. Espn's Scott Brown provides profiles on outside linebackers, the offensive and defensive lines. NFL. com projects a starting lineups for the offense and defense. Las Vegas sees Pittsburgh winning ten games this season, and Football Outsiders predicts that the Steelers will win the AFC North.

More profiles

Guard Ramon Foster spoke to issues of leadership at Steelers.com. It doesn't look good for Fernando Velasco's return at the moment, but he's plugging away. Merrill Hoge reflects on the encouragement he received from Art Rooney Sr. in his own NFL journey. Mike Adams speaks to his own struggles of the past year on the field. Steelers Chairman Dan Rooney receives a lifetime achievement award and a standing ovation. Rebecca Rollett provides a cap on the draft with a three parter using her special evaluation criteria herehere and here. And a look back at one of the great Pittsburgh linebacking groups.

Ryan Clark

He makes the news twice, once with a poignant farewell to Steelers Nation, and then a fiery critique of Commissioner Roger Goodell.

Reality

Then there is the matter of painkillers. The league's legal troubles continue as former players take it to task for this issue.

Playoff expansion

It appears that a move to 14 playoff teams is likely, it just won't happen this year.

Heinz Field expansion

The home park will be adding 3,000 new seats.

Other people's sorrows

As Joey Porter would say. Things aren't as bad in Baltimore and Cleveland as Manziel dodges a bullet and Ray Rice takes a glancing blow.

The reason for Memorial Day

As you enjoy the holiday weekend that kicks off the summer season please be mindful of its purpose and give some thought to those who risked and gave their lives for the peace and pleasures you'll be enjoying over these next few days and beyond.

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