PITTSBURGH -- The theme of the 2014 offseason for the Pittsburgh Steelers was getting younger and faster. The Steelers chose not to re-sign many aging veterans such as defensive end Brett Keisel, safety Ryan Clark, linebacker Larry Foote and receiver Jerricho Cotchery. Their replacements were signed in free agency and selected in the draft, and they all have one thing in common: speed.
That speed will on display when the Steelers report to their St. Vincent College training camp with the first practice set for July 26. They will also host the Bills for joint practices on Aug. 13-14.
As for that speed, safety Mike Mitchell was signed to a five-year, $25 million contract and replaced Clark in the back end. Ryan Shazier, the fastest linebacker in the draft, was the team's first-round pick and was immediately inserted into the starting lineup during OTAs and minicamp. The speed theme continued in the third and fourth rounds.
The Steelers chose Kent State's Dri Archer in the third round. He had an impressive reported time of 4.26 second in the 40-yard dash at the combine. Even more impressive, although not officially reported, he was timed by one combine-designated scout in 4.16 seconds, which is the best 40-yard clocking at the combine this century, if not ever.
The Steelers expect him to make an immediate impact as a returner on special teams. The coaches are trying to figure out where he fits best in the offense. He attended meetings and practiced with both position groups during spring workouts.
In the fourth round, receiver Martavis Bryant was selected and the plan is for him to stretch the field much in the same way Mike Wallace did for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger before he left in free agency before last season.
The Steelers were 6-2 in the second half of last season and almost sneaked into the playoffs because Roethlisberger ran the no-huddle offense and masked some of the team's defensive issues by scoring 27.8 points per game over the final eight contests. In the spring, the Steelers worked extensively on the no-huddle and they expect it to be a staple of the offense.
Roethlisberger is coming off one of his best seasons. He passed for 4,261 yards and 28 touchdowns, and was most productive down the stretch when the coaches committed to the no-huddle offense. Expect similar or better production this season if the no-huddle is implemented from the start.
One player to watch in the passing game is receiver Markus Wheaton. Wheaton was limited to six receptions as a rookie because he was hampered by finger injuries that required two surgeries. But that didn't stop the Steelers from letting Emmanuel Sanders leave in free agency. They are counting on Wheaton to take his spot opposite Antonio Brown. Wheaton, a third-round pick in 2013, had a strong spring and is poised for a more productive sophomore season. He should see plenty of single coverage because opposing defenses will concentrate their efforts on Brown.
The Steelers have leaned on Roethlisberger and the passing game for the last few years because the running game stalled. New line coach Mike Munchak was hired to fix the problems in the running game. If he does, Roethlisberger can have an even better 2014 because the play-action threat would return.
Second-year running back Le'Veon Bell missed three games in 2013, but he still managed to set the franchise record for most yards from scrimmage for a rookie. Bell had 1,259 yards, 860 rushing and 399 receiving in 13 games. Franco Harris, the previous record-holder, had 1,235 yards in 14 games as a rookie in 1972.
Camp should see competition at left tackle. Mike Adams, drafted second in 2012, started the first four games there last season, but lost his job to Kelvin Beachum, who was drafted in the seventh round in 2013. Beachum started the rest of the way, except for one game he missed because of injury.
Adams, 6-foot-7, 315, was knifed in the stomach in Pittsburgh one year ago and he wants his job back. Beachum, 6-foot-3, 300, wants to keep it. Beachum is more of a technician who relies on his savvy and leverage. Roethlisberger will keep a sharp eye on what is considered the second-most important job on offense.
Elsewhere on the line, the return of center Maurkice Pouncey, who missed last season with a knee injury, should help boost a unit that struggled without him. The Steelers were ranked 27th in the league in rushing and had problems in protection until Roethlisberger went to the no-huddle. Athletic and smart, Pouncey is the ideal center for the outside zone scheme. Right guard DeCastro, a first-round pick in 2012, had a strong season as did left guard Ramon Foster. Right tackle Marcus Gilbert has incentive to improve from his mediocre showing in 2013. He is entering the final year of his rookie contract.
Roethlisberger commented during minicamp that the Steelers defense is faster than he has ever seen in his 11-year career. Expect defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau to draw up some blitzes for Mitchell and Shazier, who occasionally lined up at outside linebacker in the spring. The Steelers hope the speed will produce more turnovers. They have forced just 40 turnovers the past two seasons.
Production is also needed from outside linebacker Jarvis Jones, the team's first-round pick in 2013. Jones started eight games as a rookie, but did not make an impact and, in fact, lost his starting job after four games until LaMarr Woodley was hurt. He had one sack.
With little depth at outside linebacker and another unproven veteran on the left side in Jason Worilds, Jones needs to show he can lock down that position on the right side or they may get desperate enough to put a call into the bullpen where James Harrison is warming up without a contract.
A potential surprise could be rookie sixth-round pick Jordan Zumwalt. Zumwalt played inside and outside linebacker at UCLA and was a playmaker at both. The Steelers have depth issues at both positions and Zumwalt should fit in nicely.
Coaches are talking about starting him out at inside linebacker, but during rookie camp they used him outside, then he missed OTAs and stayed outside at the final minicamp. He may move inside in training camp. Last year, a sixth-round pick, Vince Williams, started at inside linebacker because of an injury to Larry Foote. This year, Shazier will start on the inside, but there is plenty of room behind him and at outside linebacker.
One other area that will be emphasized in training camp is run defense. The Steelers, perennially one of the top rush defenses in the league, fell to 21st in that category last year. Defensive end Stephon Tuitt, the team's second-round pick, was chosen to help fix that problem.
There are also questions at cornerback. The Steelers' issues there were hidden for years because of a strong pass rush. The lack of a pass rush the past few years has exposed their corners.
Ike Taylor had his worst season in 2013 and he is not likely to improve at age 34. Cortez Allen did just OK as the other starter. William Gay, the nickel back who returned after a brief stay with Arizona, probably played the best of the group last season.
Pittsburgh did little to help the position, signing 5-foot-9 Brice McCain after he was cut by the Texans and drafting Shaquille Richardson in the fifth round.
Here is a snapshot of the Steelers lineup going into training camp:
--OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters - LT Kelvin Beachum, LG Ramon Foster, C Maurkice Pouncey, RG David DeCastro, RT Marcus Gilbert. Backups - T Mike Adams, C Cody Wallace, G/T Guy Whimper, G/T Wesley Johnson.
--LINEBACKERS: Starters -- ROLB Jarvis Jones, LOLB Jason Worilds, ILB Ryan Shazier, ILB Lawrence Timmons. Backups -- OLB Arthur Moats, OLB Chris Carter, OLB Vic So'oto, ILB Vince Williams, ILB Kion Wilson, ILB Jordan Zumwalt.
--DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- LCB Ike Taylor, RCB Cortez Allen, FS Mike Mitchell, SS Troy Polamalu. Backups -- CB William Gay, CB Brice McCain, CB Antwon Blake, CB Shaquille Richardson, SS Will Allen, SS Shamarko Thomas, FS Robert Golden.
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