Evaluating a defensive unit during no-contact workouts is like going to a wine tasting without being able to actually taste the wine. (And for the record, I'm a beer person, as long as it isn't some overly-hopped IPA or something that's spent time in an oak barrel. Yuck.)
During minicamp this week, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin and his defensive coordinator Keith Butler, at the helm for the first time in the wake of Dick LeBeau's resignation, are attempting to assess the future of a defensive unit in transition that can have little more contact than a TSA airport security patdown. Unless, of course, you count the Clifton Geathers-Mike Pouncey skirmish yesterday during practice. (Pouncey-Geathers could be the undercard to the James Harrison v. Joey Porter stare-down, I've been trying to promote.)
Mike Tomlin is keenly aware of the limitations of minicamp when it comes to the predicting the fate of the Steelers defense, which hasn't experienced such a drastic transition since Kanye West and Jamie Foxx came out with Gold Digger and Usher's Yeah! and the Black Eyed Peas Let's Get it Started were current and fresh.
Tomlin's philosophy is echoes particularly sage line from Let's Get it Started: "Don't move to fast, people, just take it slow." Usher fits in too, because, "Yeah, Yeah, Yeah! Yeah, Yeah! Yeah!" that is a good idea.
The head coach recently said via ESPN, "I'm just rolling the ball out and watching these guys work. Time will tell the story." Some chapters in that story have already been written: Ike Taylor, Troy Polamalu, and Brett Keisel have all retired, and a mix of less flashy veterans and younger talent will need to step up in some combination to salvage what had become an increasingly ineffective and disappointing defense during the last few seasons.
At linebacker, Bud Dupree, Ryan Shazier, and Jarvis Jones will have to prove they were worth of a first-round pick, while veterans James Harrison, Cam Heyward, and Lawrence Timmons should provide continuity while also adjusting to Butler's spin on Steelers defense.
During the rest of the offseason, coaches will be able to glean valuable information about the secondary as well. Antwon Blake and William Gay will almost certainly be starters, while Mike Mitchell's recovery from groin surgery and mastery of the playbook will likely dictate his level of participation and contribution. Rookies Gerod Holliman, Doran Grant, and Senquez Golson could have roles to play as well in elevating the defense from the bottom half of the league to the impenetrable force that terrorized offenses and inspired dread and awe around the league. Time will tell.
Coaching obviously makes a huge difference in a team's success. We've seen Magic Mike Munchak transform the offensive line from collapsible to unyielding. Can Butler and Tomlin effect this same type of transformation on the defensive side of the ball?
As coach Tomlin indicated, minicamp probably won't reveal many answers, and it will take the duration of the offseason to have a better idea of the personnel and schemes that will form the backbone of the new era of Steelers defense.