Ready or not, here it comes:
Phase Two of the Steelers offseason workout program is underway.
- As an NFL assistant coach, Mike Tomlin was raised on the Tampa-2 defense. He learned it at the foot of a master, a man by the name of Monte Kiffin. After learning it, Tomlin helped teach it, and then saw it implemented and executed at a high enough level to be the primary reason for the one-and-only Super Bowl championship won by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers franchise.
- That experience is one of the reasons why Mike Tomlin today understands that the Tampa-2 defense as it was back then, the Tampa-2 defense that fans can recognize, the Tampa-2 defense that has been linked to the Steelers more and more since Keith Butler replaced Dick LeBeau as the defensive coordinator cannot work in the NFL anymore.
- Not as it was, it cannot. And that's because of the player safety initiative.
- Do not mistake the previous sentence as a whine, or the beginnings of a fond reminiscence of the good ol' days. Quite the contrary. The player safety initiative is a part of the NFL now, and its acceptance and wisepread implementation has to trickle down to the lower levels of the sport.
- But because of the player safety initiative in the NFL, the Tampa-2 that the Buccaneers used to win Super Bowl XXXVII is now ineffective if utilized exclusively, because NFL quarterbacks have become too decisive and too accurate, and the defensive backs and linebackers no longer can utilize physical violence as a way to separate the receiver from the football.
- In other words, imagine if Tampa Bay safety John Lynch were playing today. At 6-foot-2, 220 pounds, Lynch was considered by some NFL scouts to be too slow for the safety position, but Lynch made up for it with a ferocious hitting style that served to discourage offenses from sending their receivers into the areas he patrolled. Lynch played 224 games over 15 NFL seasons with the Buccaneers and then the Denver Broncos, and during a five-season span from 2001-05 he broke up 43 passes, and it's safe to assume the bulk of those came via hits separating the receiver from the football.
- Or the fear of those hits.
- Just keep this in mind come training camp in Latrobe, when afternoons can be spent watching Mike Tomlin and Carnell Lake working with the defensive backs, because the relative improvement of the Steelers pass defense is going to be a critical element of the team's success in 2016. And because of Tomlin's background, there is going to be a good bit of speculation surrounding the Steelers' style of coverage, what with Keith Butler evolving as a coordinator and the addition of No. 1 and No. 2 picks to the mix on the back end.
- But Tomlin knows why the Tampa-2 cannot work as it once did, and certainly not on a full-time basis as it once did. There can be elements of it incorporated into the overall scheme, and it likely can be utilized successfully in doses as long as it's not tipped off to the quarterback too early.
- The Steelers held their rookie minicamp last weekend, and the carrot for the bulk of the attendees was the chance to earn a spot on the 90-man roster. Once upon a time, that was Terence Garvin's route to training camp and ultimately enough of an NFL career to have earned a second NFL contract as an unrestricted free agent a couple of months ago.
- True to his word, Tomlin and his staff honestly assessed the weekend's activities and swapped out four tryout players for guys already on the roster. When it comes to exploiting competition to create the most formidable roster possible, there clearly is no time like the present, and it doesn't seem to matter if the guys added are no more likely to make the roster than the guys they replaced.
- Such is life in the NFL for the tryouts and the futures contract signers, but there are a couple of names certain to entice Steelers Nation in the long drought between the start of football in shorts and the first live tackling drill at Saint Vincent College, just based on last weekend's rookie minicamp.
- Running back Cameron Stingily and cornerback Donald Washington.
- Stingily is not only enticing but also familiar, because he was a mid-camp addition last summer when injuries struck the team's depth chart at running back at a time when there still were a bunch of carries standing between the team and the start of the regular season. Somebody had to gobble them up, starting with those daily live tackling sessions on the practice fields, and Stingily was up to the challenge.
- But alas, his quest ended after 11 carries for 18 yards in the Hall of Fame Game because the NFL couldn't be bothered to stage this extra preseason game on a field with a playing surface suitable for professional athletes. Stingily and Chris Boswell were the victims of knee injuries that night, and if not for that it's possible it could have been Stingily instead of Fitzgerald Toussaint lining up behind Ben Roethlisberger in that AFC Divisional Round Game in Denver against the Broncos.
- The interest in Washington can be traced to the position he plays, but also because while he arrived in Pittsburgh as a tryout he had entered the NFL in 2009 as a fourth-round pick of the Kansas City Chiefs. Washington worked his way to backup strong safety with the Chiefs by 2011, and in what was his best season he recorded 25 tackles, a forced fumble, and one pass defensed. After a 2014 season spent in Canada with the Toronto Argonauts, Washington was giving the NFL another shot with a team certainly interested in shaking things up in its secondary.
- It's likely that Washington was able to stand out last weekend because there wasn't a pedigreed quarterback or wide receiver on the property, but today that doesn't matter because he's got his foot in the door.
Steelers' rookies take the field for rookie minicamp.
- But there's another guy at that same critical position to watch during this run-up to training camp. Montell Garner, like Washington, is 6-foot and right around 195 pounds. Like Washington, Garner has some NFL experience, with his coming in the form of one whole preseason after signing as an undrafted rookie with the St. Louis Rams in 2015.
- During the same weekend that ended with Washington being offered a contract, Garner had three interceptions, but those deserve to be viewed within the same context of the level of quarterback play. But remember, this is a Steelers team intent on re-making the secondary, and three interceptions over five padless practices are still three interceptions.
- There was some divided opinion on Garner as he was completing his college career at South Florida, and the Steelers now are open to the idea that the guys who were high on Garner might've been more right in their evaluation of him than the guys who weren't.
- The reality of their job is so harsh that a spot on the 90-man roster today isn't even a certain ticket to a dorm room at Saint Vincent College, and there have been many who came to learn that the dorm room at Saint Vincent College still left them far, far away from a locker at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.