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Some offseason observations

Posted Jun 20, 2014

Football in shorts is over, so the next time the Steelers gather will be at Saint Vincent College

The offseason program is over. Finally.


Next stop: Latrobe.

To get you ready, here are a couple of observations gleaned from watching football in shorts:

First-round pick Ryan Shazier looks like the real deal:
The Steelers knew Shazier was fast when they drafted him No. 1 from The Ohio State University. But since arriving on the South Side of Pittsburgh Shazier has gotten Maurkice Pouncey’s attention with physicality in practice, stunned Bruce Gradkowski with leaping ability on the way to an interception and impressed Ben Roethlisberger as a potential defensive signal-caller someday. Shazier also has been running with the first-team defense since snap one of OTAs. He’ll still have to do it in pads this summer, but he created a consistent buzz this spring.

The starting wide receiver spot opposite Antonio Brown is Markus Wheaton’s to lose:
Although wide receivers were rotated with the first-team throughout the spring, Wheaton, who missed some time with a minor injury, estimated he ran with the first unit “for the majority” of the offseason program. “It means a lot,” Wheaton continued. “It means Ben is building trust in me.”

Wheaton didn’t make every play. During a two-minute drill on the first day of mandatory veteran minicamp he failed to come up with a tough catch in traffic at the goal line. But the pass was the third Roethlisberger had launched at Wheaton during the drill, a drill that had opened with consecutive Roethlisberger-to-Wheaton connections.

Wheaton is taking nothing for granted, but he’s playing the game at the necessary pace physically and mentally.

“I’m reacting the way I want,” he said.

That’s what might ultimately win him the job.

The no-huddle offense will be expanded, not forgotten:
The Steelers remember what the no-huddle offense did for them last season and they want to do more with it this season, not less.

“We’ll have some different personnel groups in the no-huddle,” Roethlisberger explained. “In years past it’s been kind of one, maybe two, personnel groups. And now we can kind of do some different things.”

The idea is to be able to run or pass from the no-huddle without substituting, because the defense only gets time to substitute if the offense does it first. Allowing the defense to get different personnel on the field defeats the purpose, and the Steelers also want to be able to go no-huddle whenever the mood strikes them, even mid-series.

“We can start a series with certain personnel and keep that (group) on the field and go no-huddle,” Roethlisberger said. “We can try and dictate what defense comes on the field for us (at the start of a series) so that way we can try to get in the best play possible.”

Critical to making this approach work will be the ability of players such as Le’Veon Bell, Will Johnson and perhaps Dri Archer to contribute in both the running game and in the passing game. It’s an ambitious approach, but it’s also an indication of what the Steelers believe they’ll be capable of offensively.

The Steelers are united in their desire to improve the running game:
As Steelers President Art Rooney II said a couple of years ago, the idea will be to run the ball more effectively as opposed to more often.

When the subject is discussed now it’s nothing short of remarkable how similar Roethlisberger and offensive coordinator Todd Haley sound when pointing out how much easier it’ll be to throw it after a good running game has opened things up for the passing game.

The quarterback is as adamant and enthusiastic as the offensive coordinator on the matter of balance. They’re on the same page.

Joey Porter wasn’t brought here to lead the band at halftime:
The Steelers’ new defensive assistant was uncharacteristically quiet throughout the offseason, both with the media and with the players. But what linebackers coach Keith Butler referenced during the draft as Porter’s trademark “barn-boss attitude” remains a part of who Porter is and what he can bring. It’ll erupt at the appropriate time. Chances are that’ll be seconds after the first ’Backs-on-’Backers drill commences at Saint Vincent College.

The defense in general and outside linebacker Jarvis Jones in particular could not have a better mentor in terms of recapturing the proper mind-set, attitude and standard of defensive conduct.

Where would you rather be than right here, right now?:
If you’re a Steelers offensive lineman, the answer is probably “nowhere.”

A collection of mostly top-end draft picks with starting experience supported by veteran backups with starting experience is now being coached by a Hall of Fame guard with extensive experience in both an offensive line room and running an NFL sideline.

And Pouncey is back.

The O-Line’s arrow is unquestionably pointing up.

That has been reflected in the enthusiastic manner in which the offensive linemen have gone about their offseason business, and also in the universal admiration and respect for Mike Munchak that’s been expressed by the players he’s now coaching.

You’d expected nothing less than the right things being said in public about a new position coach. But at the same time the street cred Munchak has brought with him to Pittsburgh has been unmistakable. His guys are all in when it comes to following his lead.

 

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