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For the Steelers, A Retooled Secondary Is Job No. 1

The first-round pick looks like the real deal as Pittsburgh looks to bolster its defense to go with that high-powered attack. Plus notes on Le’Veon, the position battles at RB and LB and more from Latrobe

WHO: Pittsburgh Steelers
WHERE: Saint Vincent College. Latrobe, Pa.
WHEN: Wednesday, August 1
HOW: Hour-plus drive through traffic from Pittsburgh

When the Steelers took Virginia Tech safety Terrell Edmunds with the 28th overall pick, some thought it was a reach for a guy with a medical history who was pegged as a second- or third-rounder.

After a week of practice—and after one day of seeing him work with my own eyes—it’s easy to tell why the Steelers pounced on him late in the first round.

Edmunds’ athletic ability was his greatest strength coming out of college, and Wednesday in Latrobe he was all over Field No. 3 at strong safety with the first-team defense. By my count, he didn’t allow a pass in coverage during team drills.

“Yes, and it should,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said when asked if Edmunds’ athleticism has manifested itself on the practice field already. “He’s a 1. Those 1 characteristics should show up routinely.”

At 6’1” and 217 pounds, Edmunds is already an NFL-sized safety with the potential to play some linebacker in sub packages. But the Steelers are easing him in right now, working him solely at strong safety as he begins his rookie season.

There’s little battle in Pittsburgh’s retooled secondary this preseason. Joe Haden and Artie Burns will hold down the corner positions, Sean Davis and free-agent signee Morgan Burnett will be at the safety spots, and Mike Hilton will be the slot corner. Edmunds will be backing up Burnett at strong safety while seeing time on the field when Pittsburgh goes into its nickel and dime packages to get Edmunds’ big, athletic body on the field.

But on this day of practice, Burns, Davis and Burnett were all out with various injuries. Burnett, who signed a three-year deal worth $14.5 million in March after spending his first eight seasons in Green Bay, has missed all but one day of practice this training camp with a left hamstring injury, giving Edmunds the opportunity to get valuable time with the 1s.

“It’s really just the reps. It’s not that Morgan’s out or anything because I’m praying for a healthy and fast recovery for Morgan,” Edmunds says. “He’s my guy and a great player and a great mentor to come into. The extra reps, that’s coming in handy, but at the same time he’s talking to me after every play telling me what I may could do better or what he sees out of the play so we all see the same thing and be on the same page.”

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OH, I DIDN’T KNOW THAT: More than halfway through practice I noticed that not one of Pittsburgh’s four quarterbacks had on a red jersey (or a jersey different from the rest of the offense). I’m not sure how many teams across the league do it, but I imagine it’s few. Tomlin told me it’s “because everybody knows they’re playing quarterback. They know they better stay away from them.” We laughed for a second, and I agree, but doesn’t every little bit of protection help? “Seriously,” Tomlin says, “if they don’t recognize that guy is playing quarterback and they need to stay away from him, they probably are not good enough to be out here.”

STORYLINE TO WATCH: Le’Veon Bell won’t be reporting until Week 1, and we’ve all already been through this last year. He’ll likely miss all of training camp and sign his $14.544 million franchise tag once the preseason is complete. There’s really nothing new to report, but Bell did make a splash on social media when video of him surfaced Tuesday… enjoying his time at a gentleman’s club. No Steeler that I know of was asked about the video Wednesday, though it was a topic of much media gossip throughout the day. (P.S. It looks like Bell’s latest rap song/mixtape/album will be dropping Friday.)

TOP POSITION BATTLE: Everyone’s looking at the No. 2 running back position for obvious reasons, but James Conner appears to have a lock on that. What interests me the most is who will emerge as the top tight end coming out of camp. Jesse James started last season after Vance McDonald arrived via trade just before the start of the regular season, and McDonald struggled through injury to just 10 appearances last year. Meanwhile, James is entering a contract season after posting career highs in starts, catches, yards and touchdowns. A close No. 2 competition will be who takes over at inside linebacker in a battle between Jon Bostic and Tyler Matakevich.

Le’Veon Bell Is Right, and So Are the Steelers

OFFBEAT OBSERVATION: As you go up the hill at Saint Vincent College you’re greeted by many helpful signs: where to find the merchandise tent, where to park, where VIPs go. You’re also warned NO ALCOHOL ON CAMPUS and BAGS & COOLERS WILL BE SEARCHED. While the Catholic school does allow its students of legal drinking age to have some alcohol in their living space, the public possession and use of alcoholic beverages are prohibited on campus. (Also while researching this note, I found that not only is beer pong not permitted on campus, but mock drinking games like water pong are banned.)

PARTING THOUGHTS: It’s both humbling and inspiring to see Ryan Shazier at practice. We all remember those days when we didn’t know if Shazier would even walk again. On Wednesday he was walking all over campus with a cane and a monitor of sorts wrapped around his left knee. Several of his teammates wore SHALIEVE shirts during the day. That he’s out at practice is a testament to both modern medicine and his indomitable spirit.

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