Since the outside linebackers have not done the job the past two seasons, defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau has thrown a wrinkle in his defense to try to make up for it. He wants his defensive ends to alter their technique to enable them to pick up the slack.
In the 3-4 defense the way the Steelers have mostly played it under LeBeau, the ends do the dirty work and the outside linebackers swoop in for the glory of the quarterback sack.
That could change this year.
"We definitely need to get more pressure up front," said Brett Keisel, who revealed the change in attack. "There's been an emphasis more on [ends] getting on the edge rather than just pushing the pocket, getting on the edge and trying to make something happen."
Keisel and other ends often have either led or been high among the team leaders in putting pressure on the quarterback, but not actually bringing him down. That's because if they push a guard or tackle back, forcing the quarterback to scramble out of the pocket, they will earn a "pressure" from their coaches. It was often up to outside linebackers LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison to get the quarterback on the turf after that.
But the sacks for Woodley and Harrison tailed off. Woodley has just four sacks over the past 1 1/2 seasons. Harrison tied for the team lead in each of the past two seasons with six in 2012 and nine in 2011, when all nine of Woodley's sacks came in the first eight games.
The duo each had at least 10 sacks apiece three consecutive years before those drop-offs. Now Harrison, who set the team record with 16 when he was NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2008, is no longer here, and Jason Worilds and/or rookie Jarvis Jones will replace him on the right side.
"We've kind of changed our techniques [from] years past until now," said Keisel, who led the Steelers by a wide margin with 41 pressures in 2012. "In years past, when we had James and LaMarr, it was mostly just push the pocket, try to collapse the pocket, make the quarterback flush and those guys would be there to clean him up. That's what we were taught.
"I think as the year goes on -- there was so much shuffle last year with LaMarr and James -- [we're] just trying to get on the edge, knowing if we get to the quarterback it's going to have an impact in the game. Just trying to help my team."
The previous defensive end to lead the Steelers in sacks was Aaron Smith with eight in 2004. It might still be difficult for one of them to do so, especially since Cameron Heyward likely will rotate with Keisel and perhaps Ziggy Hood on the left side. Keisel had 4.5 sacks in 2012, one off his career high of 5.5 in 2006. Hood had three.
"When we've been at our best, I feel like we've had great players, not only starters, but guys who were able to come in and play. I'll go back to the early days when I was a backup, Travis [Kirschke] was a backup, [Chris] Hoke was a backup. We had a great rotation there where if guys needed a break you could come in and know those guys would play winning football.
"That's what you need. The season's long; it's brutal up front. You have to have guys who can come in and contribute and contribute consistently. That's what we need from Cam and some of these other guys. We're hoping some of these younger guys can step in and rise to the occasion."
So far, Heyward has done that, Keisel said. The team's first-round pick in 2011 has played in all 33 games, including one playoff, but has never started one.
"Cam is having a very good camp. I'm proud of him. I told him coming into this camp he needed to work hard and come in and be ready to go.
"They brought him in here to play, and we need him to play this year, we need him to play great. Usually when that third year comes, you start seeing more consistency, and we're seeing that from Cam right now."
Bet on No. 43
Keisel, the defensive captain, predicted that Troy Polamalu would have a big comeback year this season after playing only seven games in 2012 because of a recurring calf injury.
"Troy worked his tail off this offseason. He looks great. We expect Troy to be Troy and go out there and do all the great things that Troy does that no one else in the league can do.
"If I was a betting man, I'd bet on 43 this year."
Adams likely to stay right
Mike Adams remained at left tackle and Marcus Gilbert at right tackle for the fourth consecutive practice, and that is more than likely how they will line up against the New York Giants Saturday night at Heinz Field.
Adams played left tackle his entire career at Ohio State. Gilbert started at left tackle as a senior at Florida but started at right tackle as a junior.
"I try to go as hard as I can all the time whether it's left or right, but I like it," Adams said.
Coach Mike Tomlin had talked about flip-flopping them in the spring, but that went by the wayside when Adams was stabbed June 1, with two weeks left in spring practices and minicamp.
Another cornerback down: Curtis Brown has an ankle injury that Tomlin said needs to be evaluated. ... Nose tackle Alameda Ta'amu was taken off physically unable to perform list and practiced for the first time since he reported to training camp with a hamstring injury. ... Tight end Matt Spaeth, who has been out since Thursday after having his right knee drained of fluid, returned to practice. ... The Steelers practiced without pads for the first time since July 28. Among the players sitting out were Polamalu, Steve McLendon, LaRod Stephens-Howling, Plaxico Burress and Worilds.
A previous sub-headline in this story incorrectly said tackle Mike Adams was likely to stay on the right side.
For more on the Steelers, read the blog, Ed Bouchette on the Steelers at www.post-gazette.com/plus. Ed Bouchette: email@example.com and Twitter @EdBouchette. First Published August 6, 2013 4:00 AM