With development, Chris Carter ready to make big contributions for Steelers

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Chris Carter was lost.

Why shouldn't he have been? Learning Dick LeBeau's fabled defense as a rookie three years ago was like trying to earn an A in organic chemistry.

"A lot of us come in with the athletic ability but don't know what to do with it," Carter said, recalling his first minicamp. "You know, in college, you win because of mismatches.

"People aren't just as athletic as you, so it's easy to win a lot. Once you get up here, everyone is as good as or better, so you've got to find different ways and different paths to success."

Carter is hoping to find a way to stick on the roster he has been on for the past three seasons and truly make an impact for the first time in his NFL career.

Drafted out of Fresno State in the fifth round of the 2011 draft, the 6-foot-1, 248-pound linebacker has had every chance to make it as a regular for the Steelers.

He's appeared in 29 games for the Steelers, starting in four. When James Harrison was unable to go for the Steelers opener against the Broncos in 2012 because of knee surgery, it was Carter who was called to start.

Despite being in the rotation for the past three seasons, he has amassed just 16 tackles and zero sacks.

So what's missing?

"For me, I was fast, but I always want to get faster," Carter said. "I think that's an element of my game that separates myself from a lot of people.

"I have to work on perfecting that and making it superior to everybody else's speed. I don't want to just be as fast as everyone else, I've got to be a lot quicker."

Carter added that, above all, he needs to be a more complete player. He said he has pretty good pass rushing abilities, but he needs to "get out the toolbox" to add more skills and work on his pass coverage, issues which he said he has worked on a lot in the offseason.

"Chris Carter looks great, man," defensive lineman Steve McLendon said. "It's not for me to decide; it's for his coach, coach Tomlin and those guys. But he looks great.

"I can just say from a player's point of view, he looks good on the field and he's doing the necessary things off the field to put himself in the best situation on the field.."

While the Steelers have gotten considerably younger and much faster on defense, talk of Harrison re-signing was fueled by cornerback Ike Taylor's statement that Harrison wants to come back.

With former starter LaMarr Woodley gone, outside linebackers on the roster include Jason Worilds, Arthur Moats and Jarvis Jones.

While Carter said there's "no question" he can make a leap like Worilds did when he recorded eight sacks last season, he's bothered by speculation that Harrison needs to return to help the linebacker corps.

"Absolutely," Carter said. "I respect James and I have all the admiration in the world for him. He's a great dude and a great veteran when I got here and showed me a lot of things he didn't have to, but at the end of the day, this is a job, and we're all competing."

It wouldn't just be to his own benefit to have a breakout year. The Steelers tied for 25th in the league with 34 sacks last season.

Few know more about rushing the passer than Steelers great and current defensive assistant Joey Porter, who has been a mentor to players such as Carter and Jones to help them improve some of those numbers.

"Pass rush is all [about] believing that you can beat the guy and execute your craft," Porter said. "You've got to work on it. You just can't go out there and not do pass rush during the week and go out there and expect to get a sack on Sunday. It's not that easy, so you have to really work."

Going into his fourth year in the NFL, Carter isn't lost anymore. Soon enough, those 8-8 records could be the only thing getting lost.

"I have all the optimism in the world for us," he said. "I know that we have a lot more athletic ability on our team this year then we did last year, so, I mean, 100 percent in my mind I know we can beat [8-8] and exceed our expectations tremendously."

R.J. Schaffer: Rschaffer@post-gazette.com and Twitter @rjschaffer.

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