"Sometimes in the past we've been in a position where our draft choices don't necessarily have to play for a year or so," said defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. "That is definitely not the case in this situation. Our depth is a challenge. The general manager and head coach have taken two defensive players in the first two rounds. That's a blessing for us, and we appreciate it. We'll try to bring their fruits to bear."
Over a span of almost exactly 24 hours that covered the first two rounds of the 2014 NFL Draft, the Pittsburgh Steelers conducted a makeover of a defense criticized in recent seasons for being old and slow. They addressed the slow in rather dramatic fashion with the selection of Ryan Shazier, an inside linebacker who has posted a 4.38 in the 40-yard dash. Then in the second round they injected 300-plus pounds of young talent to their defensive line when they added Stephon Tuitt.
With their third-round pick, the Steelers selected one of the few players available in this draft who actually could beat Shazier in a race, but more on runner/receiver/returner Dri Archer later.
Shazier fills a need as a defensive playmaker, and Tuitt fills a need as a reinforcement for a unit that lost Ziggy Hood and Al Woods during this free agency period, a unit that will be turning to 25-year-old Cam Heyward for "veteran" leadership.
"I had some guys who were here for a long, long time – guys who played for 10 or 12 years – and then you lose them and have to start over," said defensive line coach John Mitchell. "A lot of those guys I had, we grew up together. With the transition now, you're getting some young guys, and you're getting some guys who do not have a lot of playing time under their belts, and it's going to take a little while to develop them."
Tuitt, 6-foot-5, 304 pounds, became a full-time starting defensive end for Notre Dame in 2012, and over the course of his final two seasons there he posted 19.5 sacks and 22 tackles for loss.
The reason why Tuitt was available to the Steelers on the second round can be traced back to a hernia he sustained after a 2012 season in which he led Notre Dame with 12 sacks to go along with nine other pressures. The hernia surgery prevented him from working out, and his weight ballooned, which then had a somewhat negative impact on his production in 2013.
"He gained weight. If you go back and look at him as a sophomore (in 2012), he played around 308 to 310," said Mitchell. "Last year he played around 330 to 335. He was carrying that extra weight with the foot (injury) and the hernia, so he didn't play well. He didn't play up to his ability."
But as the 2013 season continued, Tuitt was able to work on his weight and by the time the Steelers went to Atlanta to attend his pro day, they were liking what they saw.
"When we worked him out in Atlanta he had shed quite a few pounds," said Mitchell. "He was around 315, 312. When you draw up an end for our scheme, a guy who is going to play a five-technique over the tackle and a three-technique over the guard that's what you want."
Dri Archer, his first name pronounced, "DREE," played in 11 games in 2009 as a freshman in 2009 during which he had 476 yards from scrimmage and four touchdowns. He played in 12 games in 2010 with limited production, and then Archer was academically ineligible in 2011 and missed the whole season.
In 2012 Archer was a finalist for the Paul Hornung Award that honors that nation's most versatile player when he scored 23 touchdowns rushing, receiving, and returning kicks. Archer was hampered by an ankle injury in 2013, and despite making only 21 starts in college he finished his Kent State career ranked among the school's all-time leaders with 4,980 all-purpose yards and 40 touchdowns (24 rushing, 12 receiving, four kickoff returns).
"The one thing, to the kid's credit, is he's as tough as any of the kids I've been around, and he's going to learn to do a number of different things," said running backs coach James Saxon. "We are going to try and put him in a position where he is going to succeed. Whatever way we can find to get this kid the ball or to have him involved in our offense we are going to do that as a staff. Todd Haley is going to do a great job with that. We are all going to work together to get this guy in the right place."