The Steelers saw two rookies - Jarvis Jones and Vince Williams - start last season, at outside and inside linebacker, respectively. It was a huge departure from the norm for the Steelers, who had Jones basically splitting time with Jason Worilds and Williams the best remaining option after a horribly timed injury for veteran Larry Foote.
Apparently there's something the Steelers are liking about the idea of getting the rookies on the field.
First round pick Ryan Shazier is continuing to practice with the first team during the team's OTAs practices, and second round pick Stephon Tuitt, who, according to Alan Robinson of the Tribune Review, is in "heavy rotation at defensive end."
The word "rotation" is key here. The Steelers signed veteran defensive lineman Cam Thomas this offseason and saw Ziggy Hood and Al Woods leave via free agency. Brett Keisel remains unsigned. Cameron Heyward is the defensive lineman who can expect to play nearly the entire game, and Steve McLendon will still start at nose tackle. The other defensive end spot, and whatever positions the team has in mind for its compliment of sub package personnel, are what's up for grabs here.
And that makes sense.
It's not just about the base defense. McLendon played about nine snaps a game last season - partially due to some in-game injuries, partially due to the team utilizing a two-man front fairly often. If a combination of Thomas, Tuitt and McLendon can fill in a variety of different packages around Heyward, the Steelers' depth and versatility increases tremendously from where it was last year.
For as strong as veteran former first round pick Ziggy Hood is, he doesn't have the lateral quickness of any of the other Steelers' defensive linemen. He could not move over gap-to-gap the way Thomas can, and he doesn't have the overall athleticism Tuitt showed in college.
So the fact Tuitt is getting extensive looks now can simply be the best means the team has to evaluate where he is and what they will need him to work on before the season starts. It seems a much safer bet to assume some kind of rotational system is planned for Tuitt and Thomas.
Shazier brings a very differnt set of skills than Williams does. Shazier is easily the better athlete of the two, but he's a bit smaller, and isn't known as the run-stopper Williams is. While it seems more likely now Shazier would get the start over Williams, Williams may enter the game on running downs.
The key here is coaching. Making the right combinations of players work well together is on all the defensive coaches as well as Mike Tomlin. While they can't hit each other now, the coaches can evaluate and see what kinds of schemes they can come up with to counter an opponent's personnel group on the field.