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'It's a matter of them just doing it'

LATROBE _ The Steelers fielded a top-5 defense last season and set a franchise record with 56 sacks, but it all unraveled against Jacksonville.

What was revealed in the Jaguars' 45-42 playoff victory last January at Heinz Field wasn't atypical. The Steelers had periodically surrendered rushing yards in bunches and big plays with regularity even before inside linebacker Ryan Shazier had gotten hurt in early December.

The defense was sometimes dominating but at times vulnerable and too often inconsistent in 2017.

The immediate response was to seek better communicators in free agency and the draft in the off-season, and to talk at length about a renewed commitment to tackling in the springtime (head coach Mike Tomlin dismissed much of the latter as simply what players and coaches say when they're asked to do interviews in minicamps and after OTAs).

Here at Saint Vincent College, the emphasis on getting the guy with the ball on the ground has resumed in earnest in position drills and in the regular, 11-on-11 live-tackling periods that have become an annual identifying characteristic of a Tomlin training camp.

And defensive coordinator Keith Butler has talked openly about the defense's potential, and identified who specifically needs to "stand up" in order for the Steelers to reach the level of defense to which they aspire, individually and collectively.

"There are several guys that I've talked to, there are four or five guys on our defense that have to stand up," Butler said. "(Defensive end Stephon) Tuitt's one of them, there are several other guys. 'S.D.' (free safety Sean Davis) needs to stand up, (cornerback) Artie (Burns) needs to stand up, (outside linebacker) Bud (Dupree) needs to stand up and (inside linebacker) Vince (Williams) needs to stand up. And I think all of them would tell you that.

"After the season, that's the way I felt. But I wouldn't say that about them if I didn't think they were capable of doing it. They are capable of doing it. It's a matter of them just doing it. And if they do it, then we have a chance to be really good."

VINCE WILLIAMS: He started 11 games as a rookie in 2013 after Larry Foote had been lost to injury and all 16 by design in the regular season last season. But any starts Williams makes this season will be made with someone other than Shazier lining up next to him inside.

More will be required from Williams and he knows it.

He's also of the opinion he's not that only player from whom more must be delivered.

"Everybody has to stand up," Williams acknowledged. "The defense has to play better.

"Gotta stop the run better."

Only defensive end Cam Heyward (entering his eighth NFL season) has more tenure with the Steelers' defense among the starters than Williams, a sixth-year pro and a former sixth-round pick.

That positions Williams to assume more of a leadership role, but that doesn't necessarily put him in an exclusive category, either.

"I feel like everybody can be a leader," Williams said. "You don't have to be an old guy to be a leader. I feel like being a leader is an attitude.

"It's not about how long you've been here. It's about what you add, your contribution to the team."

ARTIE BURNS: A No. 1 pick in 2016, Burns understands the demands attached to that status.

"Yeah, definitely, I know the expectations with that," he said. "I have to live up to it. I just have to get better. There's no pressure, I joined this sport to be the best. I have to keep working to be the best."

Burns has been learning from reps against one of the best ever since his first summer at Saint Vincent, wide receiver Antonio Brown.

This time around he's also absorbing all he can from cornerback Joe Haden, a "veteran guy in your (defensive backs) room that got to a level everybody wants to get to," Burns said.

A couple of interceptions on which Burns broke on the ball, jumped the route and under-cut Brown suggest Burns is achieving an appreciation of how such plays can be made.

"You can feel the speed of the receiver and the timing of the play," he said. "A play can only go for so long. Once you figure out that timing of it, that's when you pick a chance to go make a play on the ball."

BUD DUPREE: Like Burns, Dupree is a former No. 1 pick (2015).

And like Burns, Dupree is aware young players with a high-round pedigree are expected to produce sooner rather than later.

"It's our time now," he said. "We're not young guys anymore and we lost Shazier. Everybody has to step up an extra notch."

Dupree has started 24 of 38 games with the Steelers, but he hasn't been the splash player they initially envisioned. His career totals of 14.5 sacks, three passes defensed, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery would be impressive in a season, but not in three.

A switch from left to right outside linebacker was made, in part, to glean more from Dupree.

He gets the message.

"Just be around the ball more," he said. "Now that we really know the defense we really just gotta put ourselves in situations to make plays. Just stop going by the book and not necessarily do our own thing, but we gotta add a little swag to it and really play football now.

"Just anticipate stuff, don't be afraid. Basically, just don't hold back, make plays like we've been doing our whole lives. Just go out there and do it."

Check out the best photos from the first week of Steelers training camp.

STEPHON TUITT: When the Steelers drafted Tuitt in the second round in 2014, they were convinced he had first-round talent.

He still does, but he also has to stay healthy.

"My name's on the list," Tuitt said. "Last season I had a down season.

"Gotta make up for it."

Tuitt's 2017 contributions included 25 tackles, three sacks, two passes defensed and one forced fumble.

The asterisks attached were a biceps injury Tuitt sustained two snaps into the season in Cleveland and a subsequent back injury that conspired to keep Tuitt sidelined for four regular season games in addition to all but two defensive plays of the opener.

As a result, his goals are more simplistic than statistical in nature.

"Be healthy and do what I can do," Tuitt said. "Stop the run, passing, put pressure on the quarterback and just help my team win."

SEAN DAVIS: The Steelers' second-round pick in 2016 was so highly thought of initially that the Steelers tried him at slot cornerback as well as safety in his rookie training camp.

Eventually, Davis played strong safety exclusively.

This season he's been moved to free safety, a position Butler considers essential as a big-play eraser.

"He has more range than everybody else does," Butler said of Davis. "The thing he has to do now, he has to learn to see things and take good angles at things.

"When we've had good defenses here, we've always had a post-safety who made a lot of tackles and kept us from those 20-yard gains in the running game. We had Chris Hope and then we had Ryan Clark. Both of those guys where exceptional what I call post-safeties, guys in the middle of the field."

As former defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau used to opine, Davis needs to "see what he needs to see and be where he needs to be."

And he needs to make plays when he gets there.

"He's gotta learn to take good angles," Butler emphasized, "and I think he will."

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