Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Steelers 2013 Training Camp: 10 Days, 10 Takeaways (Defense)

Without a doubt, the Pittsburgh Steelers are the best franchise in all of American football over the last 40+ years. Since the NFL/AFL merger in 1970, they have made the playoffs 26 times for a total of 33 wins - more than any other team.

There’s no argument about whether or not the Steelers and their fans have reason to be proud of their accomplishments. Since the merger, they’ve competed for an NFL title nearly 20% of the time, having gone to the final game an average of once every five years in that time span.

In all, the Steelers lead or are tied for the lead in all of the most important categories: total wins (437), season wins (404), All-Pros (67), playoff wins (33), playoff berths (26), division titles (20), winning seasons (31), Super Bowl berths (8) and Super Bowl wins (6).

It is, therefore, that very success that makes last season's results that much less bearable. It was a team loaded with potential, potential never achieved. Now it is a team that goes into the 2013 Training Camp and season loaded with questions. Though a team of veterans, rookies and yet-unproven players will play a big part into how this season turns out.

The Steelers are resting and relaxing following some of the toughest Training Camp practices seen in ages. Practices that included tackling, live 11-on-11 drills and a little bit of history with live tackling in a non-goal line drill. According to inside linebacker Larry Foote, "First time we ever did that."

(photo courtesy of Jennifer L. Westbrooks)
As the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Ed Bouchette examined recently, this "is old-old-school," but it has been needed with the Steelers being "young in a lot of areas, particularly in the lines," head coach Mike Tomlin said in explaining the increased hitting.

In that case, now is a good time to review everything that has been disseminated over the course of the first 10 days of practice. We'll look at the things and players seen so far that are worthy of continued attention and that could have an impact on the season.

LaMarr Woodley: Woodley came into Camp looking great, really responding, though he won't admit to it, to the prods from his position coach prior to last year. One of the things we've suggested since the departure of James Harrison, though, is that, especially since Jason Worilds has played so much better of the left, that maybe Woodley might be moved to the weak side. But linebackers coach Keith Butler addressed the issue and gave the reasoning for his decision.

“Sure, for a little bit,” Butler responded when asked if he had considered doing so. But he left Woodley on the strong side because, as he put it, "You want a big-bodied guy over there on the left side because offenses are notoriously right-handed. Most people run to the right, some people try to run to the left, but most run to the right, and we want a big body over there.”

Um...no. Not true. In actuality, the numbers indicate that teams run to the left, opposite Woodley's side, about 15% more than they run to the right. Which means teams will be running primarily away from Woodley.

Curtis Brown: I have Brown as a high roster possibility for a while, and did nothing in Camp to cause one to go against that. However, with Mark Kaboly reporting that Brown went down when defending on a play and Steel City Insider's Jim Wexell reporting that he is on crutches after practice, his chances would seem to be damaged. But the Steelers are already down starter Cortez Allen (knee), who needed minor surgery last Friday, DeMarcus Van Dyke (who also needs all the help he can get) and Terry Hawthorne, all being sidelined for an unknown amount of time with training camp injuries. That, then, re-edifies Brown's chances of maintaining a roster spot.

Al Woods: Last year, Woods made the roster as the sixth defensive lineman and should make it again this year. But defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau and the Steelers are trying to make the defensive linemen more versatile by upping the pressure on the quarterback.

"We definitely need to get more pressure up front," said Brett Keisel, who led the Steelers last season with 40 quarterback pressures. "There's been an emphasis more on [ends] getting on the edge rather than just pushing the pocket, getting on the edge and trying to make something happen."

As the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review explains, when the defensive tackle or end "pushes a guard or tackle back, forcing the quarterback to scramble out of the pocket, they will earn a 'pressure' from their coaches."

For Woods, considering the pass-rush ability he showed when on the (limited time on the) field in both Pittsburgh and New Orleans, that would mean working him at nose tackle in addition to defensive end to increase his value and versatility up front, making him a viable candidate once again for a roster spot.

Cameron Heyward: “I think it’s not more of assignment things anymore, its more of now I can read and dissect the offense, so I can see tendencies and see what they’re favoring and formations,” Heyward said.

Along with reading and dissecting the offense, Heyward brought the body to be able to bring the hammer when he arrives at the play.

"He’s heavier than he’s been, but his body fat is down,” said Tomlin. “So you’re talking about lean muscle mass....He’s probably up three or four pounds, but his body-fat percentage is down, so he’s doing the right thing.”

Marshall McFadden: McFadden is making it as hard as possible to cut him, and is turning heads after the first half of Training Camp. The Steelers will be keeping either four or five inside players, so his making the roster depends on the play of sixth-round draft pick Vince Williams and Stevenson Sylvester. Unless something drastic changes what we've seen thus far, expect McFadden to make the team.

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TIDBITS: Remember the name "Alan Baxter."

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New Steelers starting cornerback Cortez Allen feels he should be in good shape and ready to go when the Steelers line up to face the Tennessee Titans, despite having surgery last week on his knee. Tez said he is getting better, but will stay off the practice field until at least the end of Training Camp nears.

“I’m just trying to be smart about it. I can’t really give a timetable on it, but I just have to follow the instructions of the training staff," Tez told the Tribune-Review. Of course it’s disappointing when you can’t do what you love. I pride myself on staying in good spirits. I’m doing my best to get back on the field."

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The Steelers signed veteran offensive tackle D'Anthony Batiste and Nik Embernate cleared waivers and is now on the Steelers Injured Reserve list.

Batiste ranked second worst out of 80 graded tackles on Pro Football Focus. Pray that someone else steps up and/or that Marcus Gilbert and Mike Adams stay healthy...for Ben's sake.

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Alameda Ta'amu released from PUP list. He will participate in the Steelers' Camp for the first time this season, after sitting out the first half of it with a hamstring injury.

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Maurkice Pouncey said he is at a natural 300 pounds. Up from 285 previous years.