Gene Collier: LeBeau's young defense under construction

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On Chuck Noll Field, the one nearest the grandstand at Saint Vincent College, all football matters seemed in perfect order Wednesday as this 2014 Steelers training camp lurched past its midpoint.

The crowd ooh-ed and aah-ed at the emergence of anything resembling offensive fireworks, and much encouragement was voiced along with some gentle reminders about timing relative to the passing game.

"Too long Ben!" somebody screeched at No. 7, as though that could be helpful.

Roethlisberger acknowledged nothing, primarily because on this end of campus, where the offense cavorts and measures its considerable aptitudes on a perfect August day on a perfect lawn, all seemed perfectly well.

But, if you could see all the way across the meadow, to where Dick LeBeau's defense toiled below the S-A-I-N-T V-I-N-C-E-N-T topiaries, things weren't exactly bucolic.

No, that's a construction zone over there, with blasting, and heavy lifting, and cranes, and all the things you would expect to see where a defense is torn up like a bad stretch of Route 30, you'll excuse that redundancy.

I'm speaking metaphorically. Seek no detour particulars.

"We're fast and we've got good athleticism," chief engineer LeBeau was saying. "Sometimes, we don't go in the right direction, but that's because we're young. They're working hard and making good progress. They're a good bunch of men and they are not averse to hard labor.

"We've already got a large percentage of the defense in, and there is a considerable percentage of it that is new."

From a distance, you might expect that the new part of this engineering project would be replacing the part that allowed three 100-yard receiving performances in the same game last season (see New England, Nov. 3), that allowed deposed Cleveland quarterbacks Brandon Weeden and Jason Campbell to throw for 333 yards Nov. 24, and that allowed the Baltimore Ravens to convert 10 of 17 third-down predicaments Thanksgiving night.

That's just to identify a sampling of atrocities rarely ever seen against a LeBeau-designed Steelers defense.

So this is why we're right in the middle of a Steelers training camp like few others in history. It's practically an atmospheric inversion. It has got a jet-powered offense that's expected to frolic despite generating exactly one 100-yard rusher in the past 24 games, but the typically high-efficiency defense is based largely on promises, and perhaps too many.

LeBeau believes rookie Ryan Shazier will start at inside linebacker, which is pretty much unheard of in these parts, that rookie defensive end Stephon Tuitt will get a boatload of snaps, and, since he was revealing portions of some starting lineups 4½ weeks before the regular-season opener, that rookie Johnny Manziel will start at quarterback for Cleveland Sept. 7 at Heinz Field.

"We're taking a good look at him, let's put it that way," LeBeau said, smiling. "He impressed me with his college career. He makes plays and he played against some really talented athletes in that [Southeastern] conference on defense, and, from what I could see, they were getting up around 45 or 50 points a game, so your quarterback's gotta be doin' something right. He can keep the play alive.

"I'm not coaching Cleveland, I don't know what they're gonna do; I'm just tellin' ya what I'm doin'."

What he's doing and what a lot of people on Mike Tomlin's coaching staff are doing this summer is hoping that people such as Shazier and Tuitt and a dozen or so others of a similar age, which is barely the drinking age, can fulfill some outlandish potential at a rate faster than has ever been required around here.

And while Shazier's done little to dispel the notion that he should start the first NFL game he'll ever dress for, Tuitt's done just about everything possible to demonstrate that he shouldn't have to wait, either.

"Even though I knew he could run," LeBeau said of Tuitt, 21, from Notre Dame, "when I see him myself I don't know that I've seen a guy his size move like that."

I'm compelled to let that statement sink in for a few seconds.

Do you know how many defensive players LeBeau has seen? This is, if I'm counting correctly, his 56th NFL training camp.

Tuitt overpenetrated in an 11-on-11 drill Wednesday, missing Le'Veon Bell badly and opening a lane Bell rode for 30 yards, but, on the next two plays, Tuitt collapsed the blocking and forced the running back the other way, one of which resulted in linebacker Lawrence Timmons delivering a thunderous blow to running back LeGarrette Blount.

Those final two were the kinds of plays the Steelers need pretty desperately. This team allowed 18 rushing touchdowns in 2013. Among its divisional rivals, Baltimore allowed 7, Cincinnati 6.

"We can play a whole lot better and we can coach a whole lot better," LeBeau said of the working solution for this project. "We have speed. Our safeties and linebackers can run a race against anybody in the league, but it ain't a race, it's a football game."

Uh-huh. And too often for local tastes, it has been a high-scoring football game. That will have to change if this team is going to pull itself from this familiar 8-8 rut.

The work continues in the far fields.


Gene Collier: gcollier@post-gazette.com.

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