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Labriola On

Labriola on buying time via special teams

Ready or not, here it comes:

  • Danny Smith tells the rookies the same thing every year. "If you're not a starter on offense or defense, then you better be a starter on special teams." But Smith is the special teams coordinator, and so he could be expected to be promoting the phase of the team for which he is responsible. But Smith's boss, Mike Tomlin, is every bit as blunt.
  • "To put it in simple terms: the farther you are down the offensive or defensive depth chart," said Tomlin, "the more dynamic you better be in special teams if you have a desire to be a part of it. If you're a second-team offensive player or defensive player, then you'll have a role on special teams and that role needs to be useful and helpful and productive. If you're third on the depth chart at whatever position you prescribe then you better have big-time special teams value, because there are no third-teams in the National Football League."
  • This is being regurgitated at this time because of a subject broached during Tomlin's weekly news conference earlier this week. The issue came up as a corollary to the one involving William Gay and why he wasn't the one to replace T.J. Watt when Watt went out of the game against the Vikings with a groin injury. Instead of Harrison, the Steelers had Anthony Chickillo move into the spot at right outside linebacker with Bud Dupree remaining at left outside linebacker.
  • The question was posed to Tomlin this way: "Has James Harrison dropped on the depth chart?"
  • Tomlin's answer began with: "Is he dropping or are other guys ascending?"
  • Clearly, Chickillo is ascending during this, his third season with the Steelers. His story is an interesting one in that he was discovered among the defensive linemen at the University of Miami and that he remade his body into that of a 3-4 outside linebacker by losing close to 30 pounds. Losing that amount of weight may not have taken him three years, but losing the weight and then re-conditioning his muscle memory to the physical requirements of his new position took time, and this is about what Chickillo did in the meantime to buy himself that time.
  • "It started with shaping his body to look like a 3-4 outside linebacker," said Tomlin about Chickillo. "Then there's probably the most significant element of it, which I didn't mention first and I should have: he's a college defensive lineman who acclimated himself to special teams linebacker play. That's the most significant element of his growth and development, because he doesn't give himself an opportunity to develop as a defender or a pass rusher, if he doesn't make himself useful. Over the course of his career here, he's made himself useful as a special teamer … "
  • Maybe the most famous example of blazing a path to NFL stardom via special teams is the player whose absence in the Vikings game prompted the line of questioning to Tomlin in the first place: James Harrison.
  • Harrison didn't become a full-time starter for the Steelers until 2007, but by then he already had established himself as an indispensable component on special teams. Signed by the Steelers off the street shortly before training camp was to open in 2004 in response to an injury to Clark Haggans, Harrison was facing his last best chance to carve out an NFL career for himself.
  • That Harrison was able to accomplish this is a credit to him, and that he accomplished it as an enthusiastic special teams player is proof that what Danny Smith and Mike Tomlin said is true. Harrison had 25 special teams tackles in 2004, 18 more in 2005, and then 16 more in 11 games in 2006. Two years later, he was a first-team All-Pro linebacker, the NFL Defensive Player of the Year, and the author of one of the greatest plays in Super Bowl history.
  • And it had a chance to happen, because as Tomlin might have said, he found a way to make himself useful on special teams.
  • Speaking of Chickillo, his ascendance up the depth chart and Mike Hilton's emergence as a playmaking cornerback serve as evidence that the Steelers have improved their defense from a year ago. Stay with me while I try to explain myself.
  • When the 2016 season ended, it was obvious that the Steelers couldn't stand pat on defense and have any realistic expectations that they'd be able to win a championship this year. The pass rush wasn't what it needed to be, and the defensive backfield had to be upgraded to the degree where it would allow the team to mix in more man-coverage schemes.
  • The Steelers opened this season with Dupree and Watt as the starting outside linebackers, and Chickillo's development – he had two of the nine sacks the team posted over the first two weeks – means the Steelers don't need a 39-year-old Harrison to rescue them, as was the case in each of the previous two seasons.
  • Tomlin said, and I believe it to be more than just lip service, that there will come a time this season when the Steelers will need to turn to Harrison, but what will be different is that he won't necessarily have to do it alone.
  • As for Hilton, after an outstanding offseason program that was backed up by a consistent camp/preseason, he began this season, in Tomlin's estimation, as an interchangeable part with Will Gay as the slot cornerback. Hilton gives the Steelers a better chance at playing man-coverage from the slot, and his playing time is a reflection of the way his performance in the season's first two games has been judged.
  • In Cleveland, Hilton played 34 defensive snaps and Gay played 26; against the Vikings, Hilton played 55 snaps and Gay played 20. This is what Tomlin said about Hilton when asked about his amount of playing time: "He's made plays. We don't try to overanalyze it. We try to put guys in a position to make plays and when we do and when they do, we acknowledge it. That's what we've done throughout this process with him in particular. We've given him an opportunity to make plays. He's largely made those plays, and he's ascending in his role within our group because of it."
  • There's that word again. Ascending. When young players can be described in this way, the unit of which they're a part usually can be, too.
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