Steady Steelers looking for peaceful, productive camp
PITTSBURGH (AP) The Pittsburgh Steelers will check into the tidy dorms at Saint Vincent College for the 50th consecutive summer on Saturday. For the first time in a decade Hall of Fame defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, safety Troy Polamalu and cornerback Ike Taylor won't be among those getting their room keys and unpacking their shower shoes at the small school tucked in the southwest Pennsylvania hills.
Things will certainly look different without LeBeau's quiet professionalism, Polamalu's wavy mane and Taylor's perpetually running mouth. Yet they really won't feel different at a place that time has stood still in some ways for the better part of five decades.
LeBeau's replacement is longtime linebackers coach Keith Butler. Cortez Allen and Shamarko Thomas will be entrusted with the roles they've been groomed for as the heirs to Taylor and Polamalu. The Steelers spent the offseason doing what they do seemingly every spring: investing heavily in the draft, re-signing their core players (quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and defensive end Cameron Heyward this time around) and avoiding any kind of real splash in free agency.
It's a method that has paid off in six Super Bowl trophies, with an eye toward the seventh ever present for a team coming off an AFC North title. The Steelers will be given a little extra time to get ready thanks to an appearance in the Hall of Fame game on Aug. 9, giving coach Mike Tomlin - who signed an extension through 2018 on Thursday - and his staff ample opportunity to take a nice, long look at what few roster battles are out there.
BLITZBERG? Butler's long anticipated promotion came with one major directive: revive a pass rush that has slipped in recent seasons. Pittsburgh finished 26th in the league in sacks last season, a number Butler believes can tick upward with a healthy Jarvis Jones, a revitalized James Harrison, and rookie Bud Dupree. The Steelers selected the talented but raw 6-foot-4 Dupree in the first round, convinced he has the size and speed to become the consistently disruptive force on the outside the team has lacked since Harrison's prime in the late 2000s.
ON-TIME DELIVERY: Despite a reported threat he would sit out minicamp and perhaps training camp in search of a hefty raise, All-Pro wide receiver Antonio Brown didn't miss a snap during spring drills and promised to be there when camp opens. Brown is only halfway through the six-year contract he signed in 2012, a deal that looks like one of the best bargains in the NFL after Brown led the league in receptions and yards receiving.
WILLING WILLIAMS: Pittsburgh's only real splurge in free agency came when former Carolina running back DeAngelo Williams was brought in to serve as the backup for Le'Veon Bell. With Bell set to miss the first three games as part of the discipline stemming from his arrest last August on drug and DUI charges, Williams will need to get up to speed quickly. The Panthers' all-time leading rusher said repeatedly during organized team activities he is eager to prove his best days are not behind him.
CAN JONES KEEP UP? Roethlisberger signed an extension in March that will keep him in black and gold for the rest of the decade. And with veteran Bruce Gradkowski seemingly entrenched as the No. 2, Landry Jones finds his career at a crossroads as he enters his third camp. There are depth concerns in other areas (namely the secondary), meaning the Steelers might not want to carry a third quarterback heading into the season. Jones needs to provide a compelling argument to stick around.
RESTORING ALLEN: Pittsburgh showed its faith in cornerback Cortez Allen on the eve of the 2014 opener, awarding him with a five-year contract that paid more than $5 million annually. Yet rather than flourish with his future assured, Allen floundered. He lost his starting job midway through the year before a broken thumb sent him to injured reserve. Allen appeared refreshed during OTAs, but the real proof if his confidence has returned won't come until he's standing across the line of scrimmage from an opposing receiver. If he falters, rookies Senquez Golson and Doran Grant will be given every a chance to step in.
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