Weekend Checkdown: the top stories of the week

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sport

Spring football reaches the halfway mark with excitement continuing to build over a revitalizing Steelers squad.

The two week warning

Its about six weeks until the beginning of training camp and one of the most commonly expressed sentiments at this and other locations where Steelers fans congregate is 'I can't wait until the season (or training camp) begins. The good news is that there will be another week of OTAs and related news, followed by mandatory minicamp, and then...nothing. And I mean nothing. There may be some contract news, but to be honest the new CBA has taken a lot of the uncertainty and drama out of financial issues (Our number one pick is already signed with no fuss whatsoever). Coaches and other team personnel will sensibly take a break in anticipation of the long relentless grind that will progress unabated from mid-July until (hopefully) early February for the fortunate. Players will, if they are wise, do what is necessary to get their minds and bodies right. Even the beat writers will take this opportunity to take their vacations because, well because there won't be anything going on. Be assured that Checkdown will continue if for no other reason I can be stubborn at times, and there is the intriguing creative challenge of making something out of nothing. I just wanted you to be prepared. I understand the Pirates are playing pretty well now. It may come to that.

CTE

My story of how I began my involvement with BTSC isn't probably that much different from a lot of you. I discovered the site several years ago and was immediately impressed with the quality of the interaction among the members of the community. As interesting as the articles were, as often as not they served as a mere springboard for discussion that was usually characterized as being incredibly thoughtful and insightful. It was actually pretty intimidating, and it took me some time to screw up the courage to weigh in with my own thoughts. I was quite relieved that someone didn't say 'Who let this idiot in here?'

A couple of pieces appeared this week that demonstrate that this spirit is still alive and well. PaVaSteelers and Scott Pavelle (DropTheHammer) take on the issue of head injuries and related concerns. This is complicated and troubling stuff that I pointed out a couple of years ago would continue to haunt the professional game for the foreseeable future. The articles were well done. And then this community commenced to do what it does best, which is to discuss, challenge (intelligently), provide additional information and perspective, some humor and, once again, provide yet another a reason for making a professional football site a daily must read destination in early June. If you haven't done so already, do yourself a favor and check these pieces and the related discussions out.

Speed kills continued. Maybe not the top story, but...

We're all fans here (mostly) and probably mature enough to realize that at this time of the year things can appear to be somewhat rosier than they actually are. Ryan Shazier hasn't missed a tackle, Martavis Bryant hasn't dropped a pass. Dri Archer hasn't been tackled for a loss. Kelvin Beachum hasn't missed a block. No one is on IR (or in jail). All is promise. So you would think the wise course would be to temper the optimism. You would also expect that sentiment to be reinforced by those in the know; coaches, team officials, players and embedded media types. So see if this piece by Bob Labriola doesn't bring a smile or two to your face.

"Super-duper fast," said Taylor when asked about the speed potential for the Steelers defense in 2014. "William Gay texted me all last week saying, ‘Hey man, I’m telling you it’s like a track meet on defense, from the defensive line all the way back to the secondary. These boys are running.’ When you look at it on the field and you actually play with them, you can see that they are running."

"He has almost unlimited potential," said coordinator Dick LeBeau of Shazier. "He’s one of those rare athletes who can probably do about anything you ask him to do. You look at a guy like him and you say, ‘Wow, we can do some things with that guy.’ By the time we picked him, I already had a couple of blitzes in mind for him, let’s put it that way."

But the Steelers defense in 2014 also should be able to point to the defensive line as an area where they will be improved in the speed department, thanks to Heyward and Tuitt. Those two are examples of players who cannot be considered fast in the manner of Dri Archer, but they are faster than the typical defensive linemen, which creates an advantage of its own.

"What you have heard is true," said Tomlin, laughing. "Dri Archer is really fast."

So what gives? What typically characterized Steeler leadership when they spoke of their players, especially young newcomers was how conservative, stingy even, they were with their praise. Maybe they believe a young group of players are in need of a pep talk and setting high expectations. And Labriola's article isn't just some outlier. They'll be more of this kind of talk as we continue with the week's review.

Defensive line

Coach John Mitchell in particular could be considered a master in the art of lowered expectations. We've been trained to expect Mitchell's charges to be subjected to long apprenticeships under his tutelage. So its a little disorienting to hear him refer to second draft pick Stephon Tuitt as a "young Aaron Smith" when you would expect to hear something more along the lines of 'maggot'.

There's lots of D line news this week. Neal Coolong put together parts one and two of a four part series entitled John Mitchell's Boot Camp. Part One focused upon the group's current Alpha Dog Cam Heyward, while Part Two takes a look at Heyward's namesake, newcomer Cam Thomas.

Heyward's apparent move to the right side was one of the factors Jim Wexall considers in a head vs. heart meditation on the likelihood of the return of Brett Keisel. In the course of making his argument he attempts to make the case that the D line 'bench' may be deeper than is imagined which would undercut some of the rationale for considering bring Keisel back.

Then there is Steve McLendon who has put on some weight and is holding himself accountable for the performance of the nose tackle position this season.

Offensive line

There was nothing this week directly from Mike Munchak, but there was some conversation about him and his unit. Ramon Foster says all the right things about unit accountability and also continues to reinforce the notion that the new offensive line coach is, indeed a cut above, a serious asset for the offensive, and by extension, the team moving forward. However, if you prefer more empirical evidence to the anecdotal, then you will probably be impressed by this piece on Munchak.

Linebackers

The other high profile new addition on the instructional side of things, Joey Porter, continues to impress and inspire the linebacker corps. The hope was expressed that Porter would help this new generation of Steelers to an attitude adjustment skewed toward nasty. So far, like Munchak on the O line side of things it appears to be going according to script.

Night and day. That might adequately describe the situation at inside linebacker, a position area that, not so long ago was considered thin and anemic, but now may only be exceeded by wide receiver as a position group that is jammed with competition.

Last week the focus was more on first round draft choice Ryan Shazier and Lawrence Timmons. This week we are reminded of the case for Vince Williams. Besides Timmons he is the only one who actually has a significant body of playing experience at the position. Thrown in the fire before he was ready he has been judged harshly by some. And then there is the possibility of that second year leap.

Sean Spence also got some attention this week as well. The evidence so far would indicate that his mobility has not been hampered by the challenges that he has endeavored to overcome. And while he has obviously not played, besides Timmons none of the other competitors has been exposed to the system as long and had the benefit of the mental reps that Spence enjoys. There is one looming issue that probably will not be resolved until the team gets to Latrobe. How will his knee hold up to contact work?

We're not done here. Terence Garvin is a candidate for a second year leap as well. And there are whispers that Jordan Zumwalt might be the underappreciated steal of this draft class. That would put him in Antonio Brown, Kelvin Beachum territory, which wouldn't be bad at all. All of this conversation has left some hoping that Keith Butler might consider pushing for some five linebacker sets.

This has also pushed any talk about the position flexibility of Arthur Moats to the back burner. The expectations would seem to be that Moats' energies would be best utilized focused solely on shoring up the much thinner circumstances with the outside linebackers. The big story with him this week was that he will be wearing Porter's old #55 jersey. I suspect that Porter will use that fact as leverage to hold Moats to a high level of performance.

Being shorthanded in terms of depth on the outside (and Worilds slight injury in that regard) has helped keep James Harrison in the conversation as well. Speaking of attitude, one of the linebackers. Vic So'oto broke the rules and got into a fight. It has been rumored that So'oto may be pushing Chris Carter for a roster spot.

Wide receiver

So far it appears that, barring injury, Markus Wheaton is comfortably maintaining his frontrunner status for the two spot opposite Antonio Brown in the Steelers offense. The realization also seems to dawning that after some initial indifference (probably due to his lack of 'height') that Lance Moore is a very good receiver. There are some interesting things going on lower down in the pecking order.

There was some focus last week on Derek Moye, but this week it is becoming clear from more than one source that the player who is making the greater impression is Justin Brown. His ascension is putting the future prospects of Moye and Darrius Heyward-Bey in question.

Martavis Bryant is experiencing some rookie growing pains as he allowed himself to become the subject of a Mike Tomlin teaching moment. Unknown at this time is how multifaceted Dri Archer effects this equation if at all.

Defensive secondary

The big story here was the presence of loquacious cornerback Ike Taylor at the proceedings. Taylor commented upon his own fading status, reminded us that the returning front line players (himself, Cortez Allen and William Gay) might not be so easily dislodged, and could be more than adequate with a more robust front seven in front of them, and confirmed that team speed has experienced a huge uptick. And though we might have not needed it, he reminded us that Troy Polamalu's absence should not be a matter of concern.

Antwon Blake has become an item. Since it was suggested that the solution to the team's cornerback issues may already be present on the South Side before the draft awareness of this special teams player has been growing (as well as that of free agent pick up Brice McCain). And as last year's disappointment Terry Hawthorne apparently has found a home in the CFL, there have been no real complaints thus far concerning Shaquelle Richardson. There is some concern about the developmental progress of second year safety Shamarko Thomas.

But, quietly, the emerging big story may well be that so many are talking about how good Mike Mitchell looks. That, with all due respect to Shazier, Moore, Archer and others Mitchell may stand as the most significant off season addition.

Running backs

After his absence last week Dri Archer drew attention to his probable role in the offense as well as stimulating discussion as to whether his selection in the draft would be considered a 'reach'. On paper at least it would appear that he compares favorably to a other players of his 'type' who have enjoyed success in the league.

Fullback Will Johnson joined the ranks of the injured with an ankle sprain.

Haley and the offense

It was mentioned last week that criticism of offensive coordinator Todd Haley and his offense has subsided recently as it appears on paper at least that he and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger have the most potent arsenal at their disposal that has been available since very early in Ben's career. There has been a lot of work this week on the deep passing game and the no huddle offense. Cliff Harris is still a punk has put together an intriguing piece laying out a hypothetical offensive drive based upon the tools available.

The OTAs so far

The expectations and recaps of a couple of this week's OTAs.

Report card

For those of you that find this whole business somewhat nauseatingly upbeat, you can find some comfort from SI.com's Chris Burke. the grade he has given Pittsburgh's off season moves is a C-.

Roster moves and financials

Money came available at the first of the month as a consequence of the LaMarr Woodley move. It remains to be seen how that money will be invested by the team in the coming weeks. The team added a player based upon the recommendation of alumnus Mel Blount.

Tomlin

The head coach made the news as a speech he made a few years ago to the graduating class at Saint Vincent College was honored by National Public Radio. He also hosted a golf tournament to go the Extra Mile for kids and teamed with Pirates manager Clint Hurdle on a program that highlighted men's responsibilities as fathers.

History and the future at the Hall of Fame

The team's rookies took a trip to Canton to visit the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Such an exercise has value in familiarizing the players with the legacy of the game, and specifically the legacy of the Steelers. It also provides them with a picture of a possible future for some of them.

Fantasy camp

And fantasies surrounding pro football comes in a variety of forms. Steelers fans from throughout North America attended a fantasy camp at Latrobe this past weekend.

Numberless jerseys

Much has been made of a current NFL franchise whose participants in OTAs are practicing with jerseys without numbers. Like so many things of this nature its a matter of been there, done that with the Steelers who practiced in jerseys without numbers throughout the 23 year regime of Chuck Noll.

A career in football

Think you might want to actually work in professional football? Here is some practical advice on how to begin

Countdown

Part Four of the documentary covers the Steelers selections from the second through seventh round of the 2014 NFL Draft.

Pittsburgh Dad

He meets Ben Roethlisberger with a pretty good ongoing gag involving autographs and references to "8 and 8".

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