Labriola On

Labriola on INTs, Hilton, blocking kicks, Starr

Ready or not, here it comes:

• It’s just as likely that it was a meaningless coincidence as it was a positive omen for the upcoming season.

• We go back to the first of the Steelers’ 10 OTAs this offseason, which means it was Tuesday, May 21, and after individual drills and some work on special teams, the on-field session took on the look of a typical practice. Whether the practice is padded or whether it’s conducted with players wearing shorts and helmets, that means things begin with the increasingly popular “seven shots.”

• On the first of those seven shots from the 2-yard line, Ben Roethlisberger took the snap and looked quickly to his right, where tight end Vance McDonald ran some sort of quick pattern toward the sideline and turned to look for the ball about 1 yard deep in the end zone. Roethlisberger put the ball where it needed to be, but Joe Haden undercut the route and intercepted the pass before stepping out of bounds.

• The worst kept secret within the boundaries of Steelers Nation is that if 9-6-1 is going to morph into something that will qualify this team for the 2019 playoffs, the defense must, absolutely must, increase its number of takeaways from its 2018 totals. In case anyone forgot, those totals were 15 takeaways of which eight were interceptions.

• There is nothing that will happen or can happen during OTAs to impact this cause, but there can be a laying of a foundation where it becomes an emphasis. And there does seem to be an energy around the defense when it comes to making things happen in the area of takeaways.

• So far, it has been little things. Simple things, even, with one of those being a drill that is easiest described as half of a seven-on-seven. Just defense on the field, some configuration of seven linebackers and defensive backs, which is a fairly typical representation of sub-package football. The ball is snapped, the defenders drop to cover the imaginary receivers, and conditioning assistant Marcel Pastoor – in the role of the quarterback – picks an area and fires a football at NFL velocity into an open area, which allows the defenders to break on the ball and hopefully get hands on it and catch it.

• And for those looking as the on-field sessions progress into team drills, there have been some signs. Maybe time and how the upcoming season unfolds will re-cast those signs as a mirage, but linebackers and defensive backs have been getting their hands on the ball, and it has been a rare 11-on-11 that hasn’t included at least one interception. Baby steps.

• Speaking of defensive backs, Mike Hilton is placing an interesting bet on himself during this offseason program. As a player not yet eligible even for restricted free agency, Hilton has yet to sign his one-year tender as an exclusive rights free agent, but since he is allowed to participate in the offseason program without doing so he has been a regular attendee.

• Hilton would like the same outcome as Al Villanueva got a couple of years ago when he took a similar tack as an exclusive rights free agent and ended up with a four-year contract that is paying him on the level of the starting left tackle he is.

• But what makes Hilton’s move a gamble is that he’s not a starting left tackle, and that his 2018 statistics weren’t as eye-popping as his 2017 statistics. Another difference is that while the Steelers had no clear-cut fallback option at left tackle when Villanueva coaxed a long-term deal out of the team when it didn’t have to give him one, there are about a dozen defensive backs currently on the roster without a clear-cut role for 2019.

• Certainly not all of those dozen have the skill-set to play slot-corner, and maybe fewer than a handful are legitimate threats to Hilton’s playing time. But one of those few is Cam Sutton, a former No. 3 draft pick who’s entering his third NFL season and is entering a phase in his career where he’s going to have to make a positive impression himself to earn a second NFL contract.

• And as an exclusive rights free agent, Hilton has no recourse if the Steelers decline to offer him a long-term contract, because the rules of the CBA dictate that he either plays for the Steelers or doesn’t play at all.

• In the news this week was that Chris Boswell agreed to postpone a $2 million roster bonus that was to be paid to him this offseason. With Boswell’s permission, the bonus now will be paid following the team’s preseason finale vs. the Carolina Panthers, which is slightly less than 48 hours before the NFL requires all teams to cut their rosters to 53 players. In other words, Boswell is going to have to compete for his bonus.

• Why would Boswell agree to this? Because if he had not, the Steelers would have cut him rather than pay that amount of money to a kicker who may or may not rebound from a below-the-line 2018 season. Had that happened, Boswell – even if he had gotten a job with another NFL team – likely would have had to sign for the NFL minimum.

• This way, he gets a chance to compete for his current contract, which if he regains his form and keeps his job would pay him somewhere north of $10 million over the next four years.

• Still on the subject of special teams, one aspect in which the Steelers have excelled under special teams coordinator Danny Smith is in the area of blocking kicks. In 2018, the Steelers blocked four kicks – punts and field goals – and that followed a 2017 season in which they blocked six kicks.

• Most often, special teams are ranked and judged by a variety of categories, but those categories rarely include blocking punts and field goals. Those kinds of plays often end up being game-changers, with an example being last season’s opener in Cleveland. That game ended in a 21-21 tie, an outcome most often attributed to the 42-yard field goal Boswell missed in overtime. But it’s also worth remembering that outcome was preserved when a 43-yard field goal by Zane Gonzalez was blocked by T.J. Watt.

• I don’t know where Bart Starr ends up on those lists that purport to rank the best quarterbacks in NFL history, but I guarantee you it’s too low. Starr, a Hall of Fame quarterback for Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers of the 1960s, died on May 26 at the age of 85, and it’s accurate to view him as one of the most under-appreciated quarterbacks in NFL history.

• Starr never passed for as many as 2,500 yards in any of his 16 NFL seasons, nor did he throw more than 16 touchdown passes in any of those seasons, but if he’s not the best big-game quarterback in NFL history, he’s on the shortest of short lists.

• In the postseason, Starr was 9-1 as the Packers starting quarterback, and that lone loss came in his first NFL Championship Game, a 17-13 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles in 1960. In those 10 games, Starr completed 61 percent of his passes, with 15 touchdowns, three interceptions, and a rating of 104.8. His teams won five NFL titles and the first two Super Bowls, and Starr was the MVP in both of those first two Super Bowls.

• But there’s more to this than simple statistics, because Bart Starr called all of his own plays, and he did this while working for a coach considered among the all-time taskmasters in the history of professional sports.

• My belief is that there is a considerable difference between playing quarterback and being the quarterback, and Bart Starr did both to a championship level in the final 4:50 of the game against the Dallas Cowboys that has come to be known as the Ice Bowl.

• With the 1967 NFL Championship and a berth in Super Bowl II at stake, Starr and the Packers offense took the field at the Green Bay 32-yard line with Dallas holding a 17-14 lead. And just to make things even more interesting, the air temperature was minus-13 degrees with a wind-chill factor of minus-46 degrees.

• Starr moved the Packers down the field – in the process converting a second-and-19 with consecutive completions, of 9 and then 12 yards, to halfback Donny Anderson – but it all came down to a fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line in the final seconds. Before that play, Starr called his team’s final timeout.

• During that sideline conversation with the great Lombardi, which has been preserved forever by NFL Films, Starr suggested that he call a wedge play in the huddle and then without telling any of his teammates he would keep the ball instead of handing it to fullback Chuck Mercein, because the backs were slipping on the frozen turf as they were coming out of their stance.

• Lombardi deferred to Starr, and the play turned into the most famous quarterback sneak ever executed. Touchdown. Add another trophy to the case.

• Calling the plays, being the quarterback instead of just playing quarterback, and the constant exposure to the kind of physical pounding that’s long been outlawed in today’s NFL are just some of the factors often ignored when contemporary media makes lists of the greatest quarterbacks of all-time.

• Bart Starr belongs on those lists. High on those lists.

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