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Rookies earning their keep on a defense that's deep

A week after assessing the depth at outside linebacker as better than it had been a season ago, defensive coordinator Teryl Austin christened the entire defense as such.

"We're just deeper all around," Austin said Saturday at the Rooney UPMC Sports Complex. "We're gonna miss Cory Trice (Jr.) in terms of providing depth in the secondary. But I think in the front though, between the linebackers and the D-line, we've actually got some really good depth."

Trice, a seventh-round cornerback from Purdue, was lost for the season to a knee injury in training camp.

But the draft has nonetheless yielded players at all three levels who are being perceived as contributors in advance of the roster reduction to 53 on Tuesday.

Nick Herbig, a fourth-round linebacker from Wisconsin, amassed 3.5 sacks in the preseason and in doing so earned a place in the rotation at outside linebacker behind T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith when the regular season commences.

"No matter how many reps (Herbig) gets, I think he'll do something with them," Austin said. "If he's a 10-, 15-, 20-play guy, I think he'll do a great job with them. Hopefully, we get into some situations in two-minute where he's gotta rush the passer and those guys have to rotate in there and we keep them fresh.

"He's gonna get the snaps. I think he'll get probably what he deserves and we'll go from there. And if he earns more, then he earns more."

Joey Porter Jr., a second-round cornerback from Penn State, and Keeanu Benton, a second-round defensive tackle from Wisconsin, have likewise positioned themselves for playing time in the regular season based on preseason performance.

"They've gotten enough reps where they're ready to play and contribute," Austin said. "We'll see how it all plays out as the season goes on. There's always more reps we would have liked to have given them, but with both of them missing a game in the preseason they probably haven't gotten what we'd like.

"But they've gotten enough to be out on the field and help us."

Porter, the 32nd-overall selection in last April's draft, has impressed Austin in particular with a grasp of how to play defensive back at the NFL level, as opposed to how he was able to play in college.

"The biggest place he's grown the most is just the technique of an NFL DB," Austin said. "That's the biggest area you have to grow because if you don't you're gonna get a ton of penalties and you're gonna struggle. He had one last week and it really was kind of a minor thing.

"He's working that way, and that's probably the biggest area. The technique part of it has really been probably night and day from what he's used to."

Porter was flagged for defensive pass interference, a 7-yard infraction, late in the first half of Thursday night's 24-0 preseason win in Atlanta.

But his ability to line up in press coverage, redirect wide receiver Khalil Shakir out of bounds, reposition in coverage and eventually intercept quarterback Matt Barkley's pass late in the second quarter of the Steelers' 27-15 preseason win over Buffalo on Aug. 19 showcased Porter being able to "take the drills and take them to team work.

"He took the drills and he took it to the game and that was really what we're looking for," Austin said.

Such strides taken in his game have been significant for Porter, who arrived with a reputation of being a little too grabby at times at Penn State, a reputation of which the Steelers were well aware.

"Always worried about that," Austin said. "You do the research on the player and you find out if he's a guy that's willing to learn and willing to work at it. And if he is, then you can take a chance on it because a lot of times you can correct that. A lot of that stuff is correctable.

"It's been a big emphasis and he's known that since Day One, we've talked to him about that. That was one of the areas we were gonna work on, and make sure we work on. He's been receptive to that and I think it's shown."