So far, the 2015 version of the annual Steelers training camp has been combative and physical. The Steelers are looking to return to their physically intimidating roots and if early camp practices, which include goal line drills and backs on backers, is any indication, their opponents this season better stand by for pain. The early list of camp casualties seems to be growing by the day, as Jarvis Jones (bicep contusion) and Ryan Shazier (back soreness) recently joined Ramon Foster, Antwon Blake, Josh Harris, Shamarko Thomas, Mike Mitchell and Markus Wheaton, who are all suffering from minor ailments that range from stingers and shoulder injuries to hamstrings. Martavis Bryant, who has been rather impressive to this point, will also be out for ten days due to an elbow infection.
Despite these injuries the message remains the same, the Steelers’ defense is looking to return to beating teams into submission this season. So much so that Mike Tomlin has been getting involved with helping to coach the defense for the first time since he has been named head coach of the Steelers. I’m sure his previous lack of involvement had everything to do with Dick LeBeau being the defensive coordinator and not wanting to get in his way. With first time defensive coordinator Keith Butler running the show now, Tomlin (a former defensive coordinator himself) has found the perfect opportunity to incorporate his cover-2 background into Keith Butler’s philosophy, which should help maximize the talent on that side of the ball.
For the last quarter of a century, the Steelers’ defense has been built around the linebackers, but the success has always started up front with guys from Joel Steed and Ray Seals, Casey Hampton and Aaron Smith to Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt. A new defensive approach like the one Keith Butler is bringing could allow a guy like Daniel McCullers to step up and be the new force in the middle. In the past, the biggest issue for young players was the difficulties in picking up Dick LeBeau’s scheme. To get young talent on the field quicker, Keith Butler has simplified the playbook and pared it back. He believes players who react to what they see are faster than those who have to think about what they see before they can react, and the defense has a lot of young players who can bring the business very quickly and very hard. Getting Tuitt and McCullers to that point will give the Steelers a very physical and formidable defensive line that can consistently get more pressure on the quarterback in addition to shutting down the run.
Expect the Steelers to line up in more four man fronts this season than they have before, as they look to wear out the opponents up front with their size. Between the 6′-7″/352 pound McCullers and the 6′-8″/ 325 pound Clifton Geathers, the twin towers look to be beating down passes at the line of scrimmage as they do running backs who unwisely pick their gap looking for daylight. Cam Heyward, coming off his breakout season which included 7-1/2 sacks, is only going to get better under Butler’s simplified scheme. Lining up in more four man fronts should allow Heyward to make more plays in the backfield, which could see him in the ten to twelve sack range. There aren’t very many tackles or tight ends who are going to manhandle him without double teaming him. If they choose to double Heyward up, that just frees up Tuitt on the other side to continue making the type of plays he was making towards the end of last season and putting him in the five to seven sack range.
The projected success of the defensive line should really allow the linebackers the freedom to do what they are built to do, tee off on quarterbacks and would-be ball carriers and receivers to create turnovers. Jarvis Jones, a key to defensive success this season, is entering his third year and has declared that the light is coming on after openly admitting his difficulty in picking up LeBeau’s defense. He has the physical tools, especially after bulking up with 15 added pounds of muscle during this past offseason. Jones was off to a pretty decent start last year until his season was derailed by a dislocated wrist, suffered on a play in which he recorded a sack against the Carolina Panthers. If he can remain healthy, Jones will start living up to the hype he created for himself while at the University of Georgia.
Ryan Shazier and rookie Bud Dupree are two more linebackers who have freakish size/speed combinations and love to hit. Shazier showed flashes of his playmaking abilities last year before injuries slowed him down. He also seems to be quickly grasping what Butler has put in the playbook, which bodes well for his second season. While Bud Dupree may not earn a starting role, he can expect to see a lot of playing time if he can continue to impress like he has so far. He may not always be in the right spot when he’s supposed to be there, but by all indications he’s getting better everyday and is dedicated to it. At 6′-4″/269 lbs, he is a chiseled and imposing figure who loves throwing his body around. This young group of linebackers has the potential to be as physical a group as we have seen in Pittsburgh and they sure look the part.
The defensive line has people that will beat on you, the linebackers will hammer you, so what do the defensive backs bring to the table? Shamarko Thomas will belt you, Antwon Blake will light you up and Cortez Allen, who’s working on getting his confidence back, is more than capable of jarring the ball loose at anytime. It’s a good sign that he was able to out muscle Martavis Bryant for an end zone interception recently. Newly aquired CB Brandon Boykins is also pretty feisty in his own right. This group. which has drawn early concerns, actually performed better last year when both Ike Taylor and Troy Polamalu were out of the lineup and should be a better unit this season. Last season, Mike Mitchell improved and became more physical as the year progressed, even as he was limited by two torn groin muscles. He should pair up nicely with Shamarko Thomas. Both have good ball skills and willingly provide solid run stuffing abilities.
Cortez Allen has been working hard with Carnell Lake to get his confidence and game back on track, and I’d be willing to bet a dollar for a dime that he rebounds nicely this season. Gerod Holliman, with 14 interceptions in his final collegiate season, claims he loves to hit, but that his reputation for not being a tackler comes from trying to protect a shoulder injury and that he is more than willing to mix it up. As far as I’m concerned, Ed Reed made a heck of a career for himself without being much of a hitter. Rookie Doran Grant, who also has a nose for the ball, doesn’t mind smacking people around either. All in all, the secondary has individuals who don’t want to be left out of the hit parade and expect to help give the football back to the offense as much as they can.
Throughout the first two weeks of this year’s training camp, the bodies on the injured list have been piling up on both sides of the ball, and as they do there has been no letting up on the hitting. Now it’s time to start hitting people who are not wearing the black n’ gold. To all Steelers’ opponents in 2015, if the Steelers players are beating the snot out of each other like they are in camp, just wait until they get a hold of you. Minnesota, you’re on deck.