Weekend Checkdown: the top stories of the week

Joe Sargent

OTAs began this week and new leadership emerged.

It's interesting to see how dramatically a situation can appear to change with just a relatively tiny insertion of more information. And sometimes its not a matter of additional information, just allowing for time to digest what you already have.

Though we are still some weeks from donning pads (Antonio Brown excepted) and months from fully knowing the exact nature of the product that Pittsburgh will have taking the field for the 2014 season, the completion of the first week of OTAs has yielded a sense of increased clarity about the Steelers' direction and possibilities. You may not agree with the wisdom of the various decisions the team has made in order to craft a competitive roster (and more significant moves may yet come), but I think that most of us are beginning to understand the thought behind them as well as the attendant risks. Last week I and others were looking forward to the beginning of spring drills with a heightened sense of excitement spurred in part by this stage in the annual cycle where the game begins to awaken from its winter slumber, but also because of the great promise and uncertainty that characterizes this rendition of the Steelers. Nothing has occurred this week to suggest that the enthusiasm has been misplaced.

The good news of what didn't happen this week

One team, a season removed from a Super Bowl victory, has a running back problem. One of the backs was being investigated for striking his fiancé in a casino elevator, then, last weekend, his backup was booted from a boozy Ocean City bar for being too drunk, and then his backup was arrested the same weekend for punching out a taxicab window while drunk

If you thought Ray Rice’s apology for allegedly striking his fiancé was tone deaf, and if you cringed when the Ravens tweeted out Janay Rice’s apology for her role in all of it, consider this passage from Ravens.com writer John Eisenberg: "More than a decade ago, Rice’s mentor, Ray Lewis, experienced even more serious legal trouble. He ultimately got on with his life, but it took years for sponsors to return to him, for Lewis to change the narrative. In the end, he was one of the faces of the NFL and a powerful force in the community. It became a great story of redemption, but his road was long and tough, and some detractors have never forgotten what happened." By detractors, do you mean the victims’ families? The apologist culture surrounding the stars of one of pro football’s most successful teams may have reached a moral nadir.

Besides SI.com's Robert Klemko's recitation of current events in Ravens Country, around the league there are tales of arrests, suspensions, murder indictments, cultural insensitivity, season and career ending injuries. Meanwhile in Pittsburgh we're dealing with...well, let's see. Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor, two of the hardest workers on the team decided not to attend the first week of OTAs. One or two people were concerned believing it was sending the wrong message, most were not. Third round draft pick Dri Archer blew off OTAs as well, and...no, wait. He had a league obligation and was restricted by CBA agreement to not participate in practices. Never mind. During the draft Ben was as concerned as many other fans about the team's decisions, but has thought better of it since. And he hasn't been extended yet, nor has Jason Worild's new contract materialized. Markus Wheaton's pinkie finger looks like crap. Jarvis Jones hasn't gained any weight. Ryan Shazier was mean to Maurkice Pouncey. That's about it.

Coaches

First-year defensive assistant Joey Porter has made an immediate impact with the team with his personality and especially his knowledge of the game.

"He knows what it takes to be great," linebacker Jarvis Jones said. "He pushes me every day. He motivates us. He makes sure we are doing what we are supposed to be doing. He gets us right. He has the mindset of a football player. He showed that when he was playing. We are trying to do that as a linebacking unit."

Mark Kaboly - Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

For the past couple of weeks I've been suggesting that the coaching staff, the assistants especially, could have a huge role in the team's success. Porter has wasted no time in meeting our hopes and expectations. Running backs coach James Saxon provided insight as to how he sees the relationship between the players in his room and the offensive line. And then, of course, there is Mike Munchak  who has intimated that the promise of his group, in particular that of Pouncey may have played a role in his decision to choose to come to Pittsburgh.

Leadership

With the tremendous level of turnover experienced by the team over the past few years who steps up to assume formal and informal leadership responsibilities is an ongoing challenge. Here's the picture so far.

Antonio Brown. Based upon size and demeanor AB has always given the impression of being the younger brother, but besides some on the field indiscretions involving questionable celebrations, his work ethic has been impeccable throughout his career. His performance success, and willingness to take on tasks that can be argued he's outgrown demonstrates a powerful lead by example leadership style. His wearing full pads to OTAs is reminiscent to me of when Hines Ward would place a strip of tape with his name on his helmet when he was at Saint Vincent.

Lawrence Timmons.  Is the elder statesman among the linebacker corps and is now viewed as the vocal leader of not just his position group, but arguably the entire defense.  You could say that Cam Heyward's role falls to him by default, it's also something that he has clearly embraced.

LaGarrette Blount. You get the impression that Blount may be the closest thing to a Jerome Bettis for the running backs group as we've seen since The Bus retired. He is easily the least deferential of the newcomers both free agents and rookies.

Ben and Pouncey will continue to exercise authority whether they are elected captains or not. Troy, Ike and Heath Miller will also lead at minimum due to the example they set, plus by virtue of the two Super Bowl rings each possesses. Another possibility of an emerging leader if there are no further problems with his rehabilitation might be Sean Spence. The bottom line is that there will be no shortage of qualified, effective leaders for this team. In many respects they may be in better shape in this regard than they have been in a couple of years.

OTAs

The significant takeaways from the first week of spring drills is that the Steelers are attempting to field a team that is younger, faster and deeper than in previous years. In what would appear to be a break from traditional practice, some first year players may skip the process of apprenticeship that has been more characteristic of the Steelers throughout most of the past decade. While it is unlikely that many starting positions will change hands at this time the competition for complimentary roles and roster spots will likely be fierce.

Offensive line: the last shall be first

If the plague of injuries that has periodically struck this unit can be softened the transformation from dysfunction to the rock upon which championships might be built could reach completion this season. This is not a fanciful belief in that they were clearly on their way to this position based upon their performance in the latter portion of last season. This may be reflected in reports that indicate a lack of major changes but an emphasis upon mastering the details of the job. The proof of the notion that competition and turnover will be dominant themes is that Nik Ebernate, a candidate in the minds of some for a camp darling is already gone (failed physical). At the other end of the spectrum, Pouncey looks as if he will be at full strength, if not now, certainly by September. Mike Adams is celebrating the anniversary of his encounter on the South Side and there are signs that those who wrote him off may have spoken prematurely.

Running backs

You may have to go back to 2005 to find a stable of Steelers running backs that have this type of blend of talent and complimentary styles (Bettis, Willie Parker, Duce Staley), the difference being that Bettis and Staley were clearly on the downside of their careers, Blount is in  his prime while Bell and Archer are just getting started. Blount is showing the chip on his shoulder with his claims that the LeBackfield is being disrespected by the national media (Welcome to Pittsburgh LeGarrette. You're not in Foxboro anymore). While Archer will probably be viewed as a blank slate until he displays his skills in pads, there is a body of information available on Bell that would leave the impression that he has just scratched the surface of what he is capable of, and the depth and variety at the position should help preserve his legs.The stereotype of Blount is of a big, inside, short yardage compliment to Bell, but he may be capable of much more. He could, for example, be a bigger homerun threat than Bell is currently.

So far no one in this group has been arrested or been drunk in public. Whether that will translate into an advantage in the AFC North remains to be seen.

Wide receivers

What a traffic jam they are having in that room. Media attention has focused upon Markus Wheaton and whether he's up to the task of making us forget Manny Sanders. Lance Moore has settled into the role of the humble, steady veteran presence that Jerricho Cotchery played so well the past couple of years. Derek Moye can serve as Exhibit A of a down the roster presence who has shown potential but whose career with the Steelers could well be strangled in the crib due to the numbers. Something of a surprise last season as he outperformed his former teammate Justin Brown, Moye is actually a bigger potential target (6'5") for Ben than rookie Martavis Bryant (6'4"). But Bryant has more potential upside, fitting in nicely with the 'speed kills' narrative that is developing this season, and Moye lacks the highly valued position flexibility, particularly special teams cred. He's one of those players who could improve significantly this season and still find himself on the outside looking in.

Taken together the Steelers offense may be as deep, solid and versatile as any since the first couple of years of Ben's career. 2014 may be one of those relatively rare years where the offense may be the dominant portion of the team without it being considered a knock on a defense that will probably be much improved.

Linebackers

Arguably the big story of the first week was Ryan Shazier being given first team reps, something that happens infrequently with Dick LeBeau's defense. According to all reports he has the physical tools to contribute positively now, the question most are asking is whether he will have the necessary mental preparation by the fall. Another question might be what about Sean Spence? If it becomes clear that he has, miraculously some would say, come all the way back from his injury then he can make a credible run for the starting lineup with the most likely rivals being Shazier and Vince Williams. With a possible projected starting group that would include three first and one second rounder this looks to be the unit that will form the foundation upon which the next great Pittsburgh defense will build.

Mike Mitchell

The star of this year's free agent class attracted some attention as he took the field for the first time. Comparisons with the man he replaces, Ryan Clark, were inevitable and favorable (younger, faster, more athletic). However, continuing with the theme of depth, one of the more interesting things he said had to do with his observations about teammate Robert Golden which may speak to the talent down the roster at the safety position.

D Line

Probably the most unsettled area of the team at the moment. So much so that there is questioning as to whether we will see Brett Keisel back in the fold soon.

Handicapping the Steelers

All of this optimism isn't necessarily playing all that well outside of Steelers Nation, although Herm Edwards did predict this week that Pittsburgh was going to the Super Bowl (He also picked Tampa Bay which makes him unhinged in the estimation of some). Bill Barnwell has the Steelers as improving based upon their participation in close contests (determined by six points or less). Otherwise the thought is that the team will make modest progress. This is fine for those of us who believe the team does best when flying under the radar.

Signings

Draftees Shaquelle Richardson, Wesley Johnson and Jordan Zumwalt signed their rookie contracts this week.

Weight issues and big men

In the 1960s Roger Brown of the Detroit Lions was the only man in the NFL to weigh over 300 pounds. This year 57 players were drafted that are over 300 pounds. Carrying that amount of weight may seem necessary for many of today's players, but what happens after their football careers end is an area of concern examined by Kent Babb in the Washington Post. Of concern to Steelers fans is that Alan Faneca is featured prominently in the piece and stands as a success story of transition as he has just completed running a marathon after bring his weight down to 215 pounds. Other players haven't been so lucky.

Correlation between academic and football success

The Post-Gazette's Gene Collier highlights data that says that the NFL teams with the highest number of college graduates do better competitively. Someone should be yelling that from the rooftops.

Improving training camp

Jerry Angelo has some interesting proposals that might help teams get more out of training camp. These suggestions could have a particular impact on the Steelers in that it addresses how teams would maximize their opportunities to work and evaluate young players given the practice restrictions now in place with the new CBA.

Memory lane

Neal republished a 2009 piece by WolfpackSteelersfan on a comparison of the great defenses. Well worth the read.

Countdown

The documentary on the 2014 Steelers draft continues. This week the highlight is the selection of first round choice Ryan Shazier.

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