Weekend Checkdown: the top stories of the week

Joe Sargent

Pro Football goes dark as the length of days reaches its peak.

If you are a fan of the Steelers or professional football in general then you now find yourself at the beginning of one of, if not the most dreaded time of the year. I call it Death Valley, a four to five week period of little to no activity or news (unless its bizarre or bad) that one can hang their hat upon. We lament the off season in the sense that there are no games, but there is activity, plenty of it. Hirings and firings, trades, free agency, the draft, OTAs, minicamps and league meetings. But the coming period constitutes a death march of little to no nourishment so profound that most football beat writers plan their vacations for this time secure in the knowledge that they are likely to not miss anything of consequence. If you doubt what I say, check this out.

If you're not the patient sort temperamentally or medically then what is to come is nothing short of Hell. But if you like to speculate and dream there is joy to be had here. This is unusual from my perspective. The elements and expectations that are coming together with the 2014 edition of the Pittsburgh Steelers are not a particularly common occurrence. With spring football concluded its a good time to see where things stand. We have plenty of time.

Transition

For the past few years a running debate has been whether the team was in, or should be in transition. The question is no longer relevant. We are way past transition at this point. This is basically a new team. Even some of the most familiar faces are being called upon to play vastly different roles, such as Ben Roethlisberger, Lawrence Timmons, Antonio Brown and Cameron Heyward being asked to shoulder heavy leadership responsibilities. Maurkice Pouncey has been essentially anointed one of the faces of the franchise for the remainder of the decade. So much of the fate of this team will be carried on the backs of free agent newcomers (Mike Mitchell, LeGarrette Blount, Lance Moore, Cam Thomas and others), rookies and second year players (Ryan Shazier, Jarvis Jones, Le'Veon Bell, Markus Wheaton) and third year players whom comparatively speaking seem like grizzled veterans (David DeCastro, Kelvin Beachum). They join a dwindling, but still vital group that have championship pedigree (Timmons, Ben, Troy Polamalu, Ike Taylor, Heath Miller, William Gay, Matt Spaeth, Greg Warren, Will Allen).  And this doesn't tell the entire tale of a team that is young, deep, fast, versatile and talented. Whether it proves enough to challenge for a title or they sputter and gasp and find themselves, once again out of the running for a playoff spot remains to be seen. But as the spring has progressed the prospects for the former outcome have appeared to even the most cautious among us as more plausible, while the latter option has appeared to become more remote. A lot can happen in football in six months so no outcome is out of the realm of  possibility, but these are some of the things we know now.

Injury free

When was the last time a Steelers team was poised to go to Latrobe fully loaded? When was the last time at least part of the conversation wasn't about rehabilitation schedules, whether 'nagging' concerns will be resolved by training camp, or hopefully by the beginning of the season? No car accidents, stabbings or ill fated trips to the convenience store thus far. Will this carry over throughout the year? Looking at things realistically, not likely. But whether it is the consequence of luck, the benefit of having younger, more resilient players, a more effective approach to the training regimen or some combination of all it would take an extraordinary turn of misfortune to place this team back on par with what has the norm for the better part of a decade. And the depth and versatility in the roster will provide some additional insurance against injuries to all but a few key personages from derailing the season.

Controversy free

With the signing of his rookie contract earlier in the week by second round draft choice Stephon Tuitt the Steelers had all of its players under contract before the commencement of mandatory minicamp. Well, what about Jason Worilds turning down a contract offer by the Steelers? Or did he? If the Worilds contract is what passes for maximum controversy and intrigue in 2014 I'll take it. At this point any possible outcome is survivable.

And then there is the story that Ben was unhappy with his contract situation. Maybe he is. Its just that he has a funny way of showing his displeasure. By all accounts Ben is more engaged and in better condition this season than anyone can remember. We can certainly use more of this type of displeasure.

And then there was the story that the Steelers were planning on ditching the 3-4 defense in favor of the 4-3. Turns out this 'story' did not originate with the team or the local media. And once again certain elements in the national sports media are exposed as being unprofessional amateurs in spite of the profile of their platform and their compensation.

That's pretty much it. You realize of course that things aren't quite as placid in other locations around the league. In other places there is all matter of illegal and unethical behavior. There are trials and suspensions, drug use, domestic violence, murder, genuine displeasure over personnel moves, internal discord and locker room dysfunction. By comparison the Steelers would seem to resemble another Pittsburgh institution; Mr Rogers Neighborhood.

Remember salary cap hell?

When is the last time you heard anyone complaining about how handcuffed the Steelers were in free agency? Now the talk is all about how well positioned the team is in Phase Two free agency. How do they manage to do that? If the team continues to behave as it has throughout this off season it is in this area where we are most likely to see some news over the coming weeks. Free agent cornerback Brandon Flowers is the flavor of the week among some. Brett Keisel's locker reportedly has not been emptied out. James Harrison workout videos keep surfacing. And if things hold to form the most likely move will be something no one has imagined outside of Steelers HQ.

Minicamp

The spring football in shorts phase of the off season came to a close on Thursday. Here are a few of the takeaways.

Tomlin plays out the string. In the past the last day of minicamp was Hat Day, a sort of school's out celebration that kicked off summer vacation. This year they worked straight up until rain forced them off the field, and then they continued to work indoors. No one interpreted this as displeasure with the work being done, rather it was a concession to the reality of a new collection of talent struggling to get on the same page combined with the limitations contained in the CBA as to practice opportunities. In other words, this team needs the work.

As Dale Lolley points out and is felt in terms of the dispatches of the other Steelers beat writers, there is a 'buzz' that is developing around this team as it comes together. The national media, you know, the people who are predicting the imminent implementation of the 4-3, despite being somewhat slow on the uptake are beginning to recognize that something is going on here with some predicting Pittsburgh as favorites to win the AFC North. I remember this type of buzz from the early 1970s. At that time it was the realization that the team was in the process of turning a corner, going from awful to competitive and daring to strive for elite. A similar realization is dawning that it will be harder for this team to be merely mediocre than something a lot more.

Competition is ramping up. Its going to be harder to make this team, harder still to get a helmet on game day and opportunities to be key contributors hardest of all. It is no longer enough to be able to do one thing really well, it will be preferred that you do several. If, for example, you are thinking running backs and you're thinking that Blount, Archer and Will Johnson all have their specialties, think again. If they want to be part of the no huddle they're going to have to do it all. And here's the thing; they're all capable.

Wide receivers

Last week we heard quotes from Ben and LeGarrette Blount predicting that the Steelers offense had the potential of being "explosive". There's been no backing away from that sort of talk this week. In continuing the trend this spring of coaches throwing caution to the wind and speaking of their charges in superlatives, offensive coordinator Todd Haley declared this the deepest receivers group he's had.

Last week it was thought that the number two receiver spot was Markus Wheaton's to lose, the second year wideout has apparently done nothing to hurt his cause lately. Nonetheless, Lance Moore's stock is rising. Everybody seems to be talking about the strides made by Justin Brown, yet no one is writing off Darrius Heyward-Bey or Derek Moye. Martavis Bryant would have to really screw up to not make this roster and it doesn't look like Tomlin is going to let him. Besides his upside is for real. And remember that Dri Archer is spending time in the receivers room. In the end it may come down to who makes the best cappuccino.

Running backs

As noted above, Archer is splitting his time with the wide receivers. Will Johnson now hangs out with the tight ends. Blount has been seen lining up on the outside and Le'Veon Bell is in on goal line situations. The Steeler offense and the no huddle in particular is not for one trick ponies. Expect Archer to be running inside and out, Blount to be catching passes in space, Johnson to be running tight end routes and Bell to be doing any and everything.

Offensive line

Stable. And getting more steady with every passing day. Absolutely nothing has transpired to dampen the enthusiasm that has been building from their season ending performance in 2013, through the hiring of Munchak and climaxing with the extension of Pouncey, signaling his full return. There is now talk of this being the strongest unit on the team. The rookie Weslye Johnson could easily be the poster child for the position flexibility theme team wide. Beachum shows no sign of withering as he fights to keep his starting left tackle slot. Marcus Gilbert is making noise about wanting to remain partnered with his college teammate Pouncey as the opening salvos are being fired in his eventual campaign for that next contract. Guy Whimper and Cody Wallace look appealing as solid veteran back ups. DeCastro seems an afterthought at times.

Defense

The speed theme continues with the defense. Troy made his first appearance in 2014 and finally began to work with free agent newcomer Mike Mitchell. Cortez Allen speaks to the strives he has to make to get to the his next level. The marriage of Jarvis Jones and Joey Porter continues. Neal's series on defensive line coach John Mitchell's boot camp continues. A couple of Mitchell's guys were highlighted this week. Besides signing his rookie contract Stephon Tuitt is experiencing the expected growing pains of adapting to the demands of the LeBeau defense. We will see how much progress he can make through the upcoming training camp. Nick Williams was the subject of a profile, the likes of which we will probably see much of in order to pass the time.

But there are two story lines concerning this side of the ball that stand out above the others.

You keep waiting for the thing that brings first round draft pick Ryan Shazier back to earth. We're still waiting. It appears that Shazier is a special talent who just may be the first player since Kendrell Bell over a decade ago to be able to step in and have an immediate and massive impact on the Pittsburgh defense.

Sean Spence intercepted a pass and returned it for a touchdown in drills this week. The 'yes but' on him is still firmly in place until he demonstrates he can withstand the demands of football in pads. However, his abilities do not appear to be diminished based upon what we have seen. If it is revealed in Latrobe that he is all the way back...can you imagine? And beyond the joy of the human interest aspect of this, adding a completely healthy Spence and a rising Shazier to the defensive mix really gets the juices flowing.

There was also a rumor that Ike Taylor had an interception, but of course, that would be impossible.

Chuck Noll

He was laid to rest this week. There can be upsides to anything. And it would seem that Noll's passing has allowed for renewed focus upon  what he accomplished as well as his legacy that is ongoing. Post Gazette columnists Gene Collier and Ron Cook, Steeler alum Andy Russell, as well as our own Hombre de Acero take us deeper into the significance of his work for the Steelers organization, the City of Pittsburgh and the National Football league. SI,com's MMQB adds a two part series on Noll republished from 1980.

Last week Neal Coolong suggested that Noll be honored with a patch on the team's uniforms during the 2014 campaign. Happy to say that wish will be coming true.

Looking back

Continuing on the theme of looking backwards for the moment, here is a nice twenty year retrospective of significant sporting moments. Also an opportunity to catch up with Baron Batch here and Tyrone Carter here. Its always nice to see ex-Steelers landing on their feet. In other alumni news, Hines Ward is planning on tying the knot at Heinz Field. I wonder if there will be dancing. And something on Alan Faneca's induction into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame on Steelers.com.

Rookie news

Jordan Zumwalt is this year's Markus Wheaton in that he had to forego participating in OTAs due to rules pertaining to his school's graduation schedule. He started playing catch up this week. We were provided with an outline of the rookie program set up by the Steelers. That it is a thorough and quality effort should come as a surprise to no one.

Ben

He was named 31st on one of those NFL Network thingies that strives to rank order everything and everyone. And was cited for some other achievements. 500 children attended his youth football camp. But what kept coming up this week was the level of engagement he has shown with the team, as well as the state of his conditioning. Is it possible that conditions are favorable for Ben to take a leap beyond that to which we have become accustomed this season?

Shaun Suisham

Isn't it nice that we have reached the stage where his name doesn't even come up this time of the year. (Though PaVaSteelers and I both probably live in fear of that other shoe dropping. Call it PTSD)

A roster move

There always seems to be a player or two who defies the odds and goes further than you would imagine. meet Jordan Hall.

Willie Parker

His touchdown run in Super Bowl XL. Neal says this doesn't get old. He's right.

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