Steelers filling needs quickly in NFL draft


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It may be a passing league, the rules may reward those teams who love to throw the ball, but the Steelers told the rest of the NFL through the first two rounds of the draft where they stand, and it's a philosophy that hasn't changed much through the years:

Run the ball, play good defense.

After bypassing the best tight end and some of the best receivers available to draft a pass-rushing linebacker Thursday, the Steelers followed by taking a big running back on the second round Friday.

Le'Veon Bell, who is 6-1 and down to 230 pounds after carrying 244 pounds at Michigan State last season, helped fill the Steelers' biggest need on offense.

"It puts us back in a place where we can have a chance to run the ball and throw the ball out of the backfield successfully,'' said offensive coordinator Todd Haley.

They did not forsake their need at wide receiver, however, and drafted Oregon State's Markus Wheaton in the third round, where they have hit big many times in the past including the man he likely will replace on the roster, Mike Wallace.

In fact, with the pick of outside linebacker Jarvis Jones on the first round, the Steelers filled what likely were their three biggest needs in the first three rounds of the draft.

The Steelers wanted to run the ball better in 2012 than they did the previous few seasons and instead they regressed, partly due to injuries to their backs and in their offensive line. They were 26th in the NFL with 1,537 yards rushing last season.

Earlier in the day, they also added former Pitt halfback LaRod Stephens-Howling, a Johnstown native. He was an unrestricted free agent from the Arizona Cardinals, where he rushed for 652 yards in four seasons after they drafted him in the seventh round in 2009. He will add depth to their backfield and becomes the prime candidate to return kickoffs.

Bell, 21, started 19 straight games at Michigan State, where he had 3,346 career yards and a 5-yard average per carry. He led the Big 10 last season with 1,793 yards, fifth best in the country and second-most in Spartans history. He also had 32 receptions in 2012.

Haley compared the Columbus, Ohio native to Eddie George, the former Heisman Trophy winner at Ohio State who played nine seasons in the NFL, because of his size and how he plays.

"He is a good athlete. We love the fact that he catches the ball really well and he still has that big-back presence.''

Bell was the second back drafted after none went in the first round for the first time in 50 years. Cincinnati grabbed Giovani Bernard with the fifth pick in the second round. Haley said the Steelers rated Bell highest among the backs. Alabama's Eddie Lacy, considered possibly the only back of first-round quality, was not drafted until Green Bay took him at No. 29 of the second round, the fourth back to go.

"Eddie probably had arguably the best offensive line in front of him as you watch the draft,'' Haley said.

Bell had dinner with Mike Tomlin at the Spartans pro day and said while he did not know who would draft him, his mother told him it would be the Steelers.

"She grew up a Pittsburgh Steelers fan, my whole family did,'' Bell said. "I guess she just had a feeling.''

Bell said while he weighs 230 pounds now, he will follow the advice of the Steelers as to what weight would be most effective for him.

"I'm a balanced runner . . . I can go in there and get tough yardage and short yardage. A lot of people look at me like, 'He's just a short-yardage back.' But I don't look at myself like that. I can get to the outside and beat you with speed. I can catch the ball out of the backfield. I can pass protect. I can play special teams.''

Those are qualities the Steelers say they can put to good use, but Haley would not anoint Bell as his starting halfback. He joins the returning group of Jonathan Dwyer, Isaac Redman and Baron Batch.

"We have really good competition again at the position. We have competitive-type guys that I think will blend well with the type of personalities they are.''

Wheaton, who is 5-11, 182, ran only a 4.5 at the combine, but Haley warned everyone not to be fooled by that.

"He's a good, solid football player who brings speed to the team,'' Haley said. "He is a fast guy, make not mistake about it, he can stretch the field."

Wheaton started 30 consecutive games for the Beavers and holds their career record with 227 receptions. He played both in the slot and on the outside and had 83 carries for 631 yards as well.

"When you put on the tape, he plays fast,'' Haley said. "He's a fast player and quick.''

Wheaton claims he has and can run a 4.3 in the 40, and can't wait to catch passes from Ben Roethlisberger.

"I'm excited to get on the field with those guys and show them what I can do.''

Other wide receivers the Steelers chose in the third round who had success with them besides Wallace include Emmanuel Sanders and Hines Ward.

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For more on the Steelers, read the blog, Ed Bouchette on the Steelers at www.post-gazette.com/plus. Ed Bouchette: ebouchette@post-gazette.com and Twitter @EdBouchette. First Published April 27, 2013 4:30 AM


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