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7 observations in late May

Posted May 28, 2014

Some random observations with the regular season still 101 days away

Understanding that the ball doesn’t get kicked off in a real game for another 101 days, some observations:

* OTAs opened on Tuesday, and the focus for the media that day was on No. 1 draft pick Ryan Shazier lining up next to Lawrence Timmons at inside linebacker with the “first-team” defense. While the meaninglessness of that with respect to what the starting 11 might look like in 101 days cannot be overstated, it will end up being a piece of the evaluation on whether Shazier can get himself ready for that job. Coach Mike Tomlin often speaks of “whether it’s too big for them,” a reference to a player’s readiness to respond to events in the heat of a real game. What’s happening on the fields at the Steelers practice facility now isn’t even as important as what happens on the fields at Saint Vincent College in terms of a final decision on starting a rookie at inside linebacker, but Shazier’s response is bound to contribute to that decision. As Tomlin also says, “I know what you’re capable of, but what are you willing to do?”

* The opening of OTAs also begins a phase of the NFL calendar where fans’ attentions are concentrated on their favorite team, and one of the areas of concern for Steelers fans is wide receiver. Are there going to be enough weapons and capable role players to be found from the current group? Whether it’s of any consolation, but there are similar questions about other position groups on virtually every roster in every NFL city. In Houston, for example, Texans fans might feel secure in a corps of receivers headed by All-Pro Andre Johnson, but the depth chart at quarterback looks like this: Ryan Fitzpatrick, Case Keenum, T.J. Yates, and Tom Savage. It’s May. Every roster has holes.

* The addition of Joey Porter as a defensive assistant continues a recent trend where Tomlin has added individuals who have a unique perspective to impart on the players with whom they work. Porter, Jerry Olsavsky, and Carnell Lake all played in the NFL, they all played the positions they are coaching, they all played those positions for the Steelers, and they all played those positions for the Steelers on a defense that was coordinated by Dick LeBeau. That’s some very detailed knowledge, and it should do nothing but help.

* Ben Roethlisberger was asked on Tuesday whether he expected a lot of no-huddle in the upcoming season’s game plans, what with it having developed into a reliable weapon during the second half of the previous season. “We’ll see,” said Roethlisberger. “I think a lot of it is going to depend on how much the new guys and the young guys learn. We lost two starting wide receivers who knew the offense and knew the no-huddle really well, so for us to use it (in 2014) we’re going to need the new guys and the young guys to pick it up quick.”

* Roethlisberger’s assessment on what will help determine how often the no-huddle can be implemented – especially early in the upcoming season – makes sense, and if it comes down to the learning the Steelers should be in decent shape. Lance Moore (No. 16 above) arrived with several seasons of experience with Drew Brees operating Sean Payton’s offense in New Orleans, and while Markus Wheaton’s (No. 11 above) rookie year was ruined by finger surgery, he never ended up being held back by the learning of the offense even though he had to miss all of OTAs and minicamp because of the class schedule at Oregon State.

* Back in 2010, the Steelers decided to pick Jason Worilds on the second round of the draft instead of Sean Lee. Both players were linebackers, Worilds projected as an outside linebacker while Lee projected as an inside linebacker. Lee was a Pittsburgh native who played at Penn State, while Worilds was a relative unknown from Virginia Tech. Should the Steelers have drafted Lee, or were they better off picking Worilds? That was a debate for a few years, but as so often happens in this profession, the ability to stay healthy can be the deciding factor. Earlier this week, Lee sustained the third torn ACL of his career, and the injury is expected to cost him the 2014 season. Lee’s previous two torn ACLs happened while he was at Penn State. A hamstring injury cost Lee two games as a Dallas Cowboys rookie in 2010. A dislocated wrist made him miss a game in 2011 and forced him to play much of the year with a cast. Toe surgery sidelined Lee for 10 games in 2012, and a strained hamstring and sprained neck forced him to miss a total of five games last season. Lee’s injuries aren’t his fault, because he’s known as a hard worker who’s always diligent in his preparation, but if he goes on injured reserve and misses the 2014 season, he will have been unavailable to the Cowboys for 34 of the 80 regular season games played since he was drafted.

* Let’s pretend for a minute that the lineup changes on defense indicated by the first couple of these OTAs stick. Shazier at inside linebacker. Cam Thomas at defensive end. Mike Mitchell at free safety. Ziggy Hood gone. Brett Keisel gone. LaMarr Woodley gone. Ryan Clark gone. While it seems like unprecedented wholesale change, what’s happening now is not dissimilar to what happened between 2003 and 2004. During that offseason, the Steelers replaced OLB Jason Gildon, ILB Kendrell Bell, CB Chad Scott, CB Dewayne Washington, SS Mike Logan, and FS Brent Alexander with OLB Clark Haggans, ILB Larry Foote, CB Deshea Townsend, CB Willie Williams, SS Troy Polamalu, and FS Chris Hope. If these changes work out as well as those changes …

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