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Labriola on Troy vs. OTAs, RB depth, man vs. zone

Ready or not, here it comes:

• A new coach had been hired a few months before, and that caused a predictable ripple effect through the locker room. Most of the guys in there had participated in a victory parade through Downtown Pittsburgh just two years earlier, but still they were savvy enough to understand it was time to prove themselves all over again.

• As a result, attendance during the 2007 offseason program was close to perfect. Professional football players understand that new coaches tend to judge players based on what they see from them personally today instead of on what they accomplished yesterday, and so there were very few empty spaces in the parking lot of the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex from mid-April through mid-June.

• One of those cars belonged to Troy Polamalu.

• NFL teams are knee-deep in their offseason programs right now, and with nothing more significant than football in shorts taking place on the field, fans and media often turn their attention to attendance-taking. Who shows up. Who doesn't. Who "practices." Who doesn't. Which brings the story back to Polamalu.

• It's likely that no one in the history of OTAs had such a strange relationship with the concept of an offseason program as Polamalu. One of the dynamic defensive players in franchise history and a man most see as a sure-shot Hall of Fame selection, the Steelers offseason program turned out to be his own personal kryptonite.

• The years in which he dutifully attended and participated usually were followed by seasons ruined by injuries. The years in which he stayed away and followed his own conditioning plan to get his body ready for the rigors of an NFL schedule usually were followed by mainly injury-free seasons that allowed him to build his Canton-worthy resume.

• In 2007, Polamalu attended and participated in OTAs, and he missed five regular season games with injuries and was a shell of himself in a first-round playoff loss to Jacksonville. In 2008, he did his own thing and was a big part of the Steelers' sixth Super Bowl championship, with his pick-six sealing the victory over the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC Championship Game. In 2009, Polamalu attended OTAs, maybe as a part of a statement that there would be no Super Bowl hangover, and he played in only five games before ending the year on injured reserve.

• Get it, attendance takers? The moral of the story is that OTAs are what they are, which is important for some players, necessary for others, and utterly meaningless for most of the guys causing the most angst among fans for their absence.

• Tom Brady is missing OTAs in New England. Aaron Donald is missing OTAs in Los Angeles. Le'Veon Bell is missing OTAs in Pittsburgh. Puh-leeze, spare me the righteous indignation. There is absolutely, positively nothing that could happen to players of such stature on a football field in May/June that would turn out to be anything but bad news.

• To avoid being a total buzzkill as to what's currently taking place at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex, let's focus a bit on some players who need OTAs. And since Bell is a running back, that position is as good a place as any to begin.

• In the recent past, the depth chart at running back seemed to be a done deal. Bell was at the top, and a veteran backup, first LeGarrette Blount and then DeAngelo Williams, was No. 2. The third running back was mostly a special teams player, and No. 4 was a fullback/H-back, first David Johnson and then Rosie Nix.

• This year things aren't so clear-cut. There are elements that are unchanged, such as Bell at the top and Nix as the fullback. But from there, things are very much up for grabs.

• James Conner was drafted in the third round in April 2017 to be Bell's backup, but his progress as a rookie was slowed by injuries during the offseason program and in training camp, and then his playing time during the regular season was limited because of a couple of busts in pass protection. As a second-year pro, Conner should be, and will be expected to be, significantly better in all aspects of the position, but nothing will be handed to him.

• Nothing will be handed to Conner, because the Steelers have options. Veteran Stevan Ridley was signed to a one-year, cap-friendly contract this offseason after a successful couple of games as a fill-in in mid-December after Conner sustained an MCL injury that required surgery. Ridley may have come to the Steelers as a fill-in, but he's a seasoned professional who had a 1,200-yard season with New England, who has a 4.2 career average per carry, who has a 4.3 average per carry in six career playoff games, and who has seven years of NFL experience but only 714 carries on his 29-year-old body.

• The team also used a fifth-round pick in last month's draft on Jaylen Samuels, who comes to the NFL as a Swiss-Army-knife-type from North Carolina State. Run it, catch it, tight end/fullback/H-back/running back, Samuels brings a lot of varied experience in his quest for a professional football career with the Steelers, and what's going to be critical for him over the next few months is staying on the field.

• If Samuels can get through the offseason program without missing on-field time because of injuries, and then carry that over to the pre-preseason game segment of training camp, he can have a chance to get the number of repetitions he'll need to improve and show the coaching staff he's improving and picking up the nuances of his position and of the offense.

• Undrafted rookie Jarvion Franklin is big and powerful, and he was highly productive during four seasons at Western Michigan where he posted over 1,000 carries. He could be someone worth watching once the team gets to Saint Vincent College, but again, he's also going to have to stay healthy enough to participate in enough practices to show what he can do. The Steelers may have some patience if Samuels is nagged by injuries, but that same courtesy is unlikely to be extended to Franklin.

• And don't forget Fitz Toussaint, whose contributions on special teams have been sufficient to keep him on the roster since 2015.

• For the first summer in a while cutting the roster at running back could hold more than just a bit of intrigue.

• Besides running back – primarily because of Bell's situation – another area of interest for fans during these OTAs is the defensive backfield, where Tom Bradley is the new position coach and where there are seven potentially significant players all younger than 25. And as usual, the burning question is: Will they play more man-to-man coverage this season?

• Here is an early take on the subject from Bradley, who offered this quote to Missi Matthews during an interview that appeared on shortly after he was hired:

• "There is no right way to answer that question," Bradley said. "I think over the years I was predominantly a big zone guy. Over the years I was what I was because of what I had. I didn't have people who could play a lot of man. I couldn't do it, so we played more zone and got creative on zone. At this (NFL) level, you constantly have to be changing and have different variations, a lot of different things. Anything you do, (NFL quarterbacks) are just going to pick it apart. So, we will do a lot of different things, but I guess the way it is kinda going now, as good as many of them are, I guess I'm a man guy."

• Stay tuned.

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