On the Steelers: If nothing else, the defense will be younger
April 29, 2014 10:17 PM
Steelers safety Troy Polamalu will be one of the last veteran stalwarts on what should be a much younger defense in 2014.
By Ed Bouchette / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Troy Polamalu is the last man standing for the Steelers defense, the only defender on their roster who has made a Pro Bowl.
Where once their defense brimmed with Pro Bowl resumes, now there is one — and no Steelers defensive player has appeared in the past two Pro Bowls.
The makeover of the defense has been sudden and shocking. As their depth chart now stands, only three starters remain from their 2012 defense — Polamalu at strong safety, Ike Taylor at cornerback and Lawrence Timmons at inside linebacker.
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The defense went from old and slow seemingly overnight to young and unsung. It has been reshaped so much that one of its best players and perhaps new leaders has 13 NFL starts under his belt, all last season — 24-year-old defensive end Cameron Heyward.
“It’s a new team,” Heyward said Tuesday afternoon, “and we’re just learning to grow together and trying to bring up the younger guys and the newer guys and work on becoming a better defense.”
Heyward was the only defensive player among the three the Steelers made available to the media at their facility in sort of pro football’s version of the hot stove league.
Last season, Heyward cracked the starting lineup for the first time since they drafted him in the first round in 2011. One reason it took so long is he sat behind Brett Keisel and another first-round pick, Ziggy Hood. Both are gone now, Hood to Jacksonville as a free agent and Keisel to the indifference of free agency, where he remains in limbo. Gone, too, from the 2013 defense are two former Pro Bowlers, safety Ryan Clark and outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley, and 12-year veteran Larry Foote.
Their defense tumbled from No. 1 and perennial status among the league’s most feared to No. 13 last season with fewer big plays, a drop in sacks and a reduction in forced turnovers. The transition from old to new has not been a smooth one.
“If it was smooth, we would’ve been winning championships,” Heyward said. “It’s definitely just different. Every year, new guys in, old guys out. Whoever is here, we’ve always just kept it going.”
Except that it stopped. The defensive line that seemingly forever was an impenetrable wall of Aaron Smith, Casey Hampton and Keisel, now consists of Heyward, Steve McLendon and … who? They signed Cam Thomas in free agency from San Diego, where he started and lost his job at nose tackle.
“It’s definitely different,” Heyward said of that line. “I’m an older guy. That’s different. Me and Steve are old, and that’s weird.”
Heyward turns all of 25 next Tuesday. McLendon, with one year as the starting nose tackle, is 28. Other young players in the line include Brian Arnfelt, 24, and Nick Williams, 24, who spent his rookie season on injured reserve.
“We’re just trying to grow,” Heyward said. “It’s trying to pick them up where guys haven’t played or have played at different places and just trying to get them used to playing Steelers football, getting used to our schemes and just trying to make sure they’re ready by the time we hit minicamps.”
Moore steps into familiar slot
Lance Moore says he will do anything the Steelers ask as he joins another position in transition, that of wide receiver, but he figures he will play in the slot opened by the loss of Jerricho Cotchery in free agency.
“I am hearing that I am playing a lot of the slot-receiver position. That’s something I am comfortable with. I have moved all around in my career, playing from the inside and the outside. But playing that slot-receiver role, I am going to try to open up some things in there, and, hopefully, do a good job trying to do a lot of things that Jerricho Cotchery did when he was here the last couple of years.”
Moore, 30, was released by the New Orleans Saints, even though he caught 65 passes for 1,041 yards in 2012 and had been with them the past eight seasons. Money, he figures, was a factor.
So now he goes with catching passes from Drew Brees to Ben Roethlisberger, a fellow Ohio native.
“I definitely count my blessings every day to be able to play with somebody like a Brees or a Roethlisberger,” Moore said. “Honestly, leaving New Orleans was kind of scary for me because I had that comfort in a quarterback that had broken so many records, and obviously won a Super Bowl. And to get somewhere like the Pittsburgh Steelers that has a quarterback that has won a couple of Super Bowls — and I’m from Ohio.”
The Columbus, Ohio, native rejoins his college roommate from Toledo, backup quarterback Bruce Gradkowski.
“Bruce is one of my best friends … he was one of the first people that I told I was getting released. He right away said, ‘I’m going in the office tomorrow.’ I would imagine he probably didn’t wait until then.”
Munchak looms large
Teaching technique was not a strong point of Jack Bicknell Jr. in his one year as the offensive line coach. That will change under Mike Munchak.
“With the addition of coach Munchak, technique is really going to be a thing that he focuses on and makes sure that we do a good job of,” tackle Kelvin Beachum said.
Many consider Munchak to be one of the most important signings this year by the Steelers, including players. He was a Hall of Fame guard who went on to coach the offensive line in Tennessee before becoming the head coach.
“Instant credibility,” is how Beachum described it. “To have a Hall of Famer in the room really just speaks volumes because he’s played the game. He knows what you’re going through, he knows what to expect, he knows you’re going to get beat sometimes, which is part of the National Football League.
“Then, he also knows how to excel. He’s done it a very high level. He’s known for it, and I think he’s going to bring a lot to the room and I know he will.”
Beachum expects the Steelers to use various blocking schemes, including the outside zone they tried and then quickly abandoned last season. “I think we’re still going to be varied a little bit, the inside zone and the outside zone and still using the gap scheme. So, I’m looking forward to the running game just really taking off in general.”
Ed Bouchette: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @EdBouchette.
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