How's The Backbone?

And other such questions are answered by Jim Wexell for this Memorial Day weekend, the eve of a busy month of Steelers coverage.

Sgtrobo: My biggest question will be how does Jarvis Jones look? Does he look like he really hit the weight room and added some strength?

JW: Haven't seen him yet. He wasn't allowed to practice at minicamp. I'm not expecting Hercules. I'm sure it will be analyzed to death this spring by everyone else.

Jewelsongs: Coach Mitchell takes linemen apart and puts them back together in "the Steelers way." Is that the reason it takes so long for them to get significant playing time? Or is it that they had very good linemen? What does "the Steelers way" entail?

JW: I'm not a big proponent/propagandist of "The Steelers Way." When you're winning, you can use it to describe the steps you took to get to that point. As for the linemen, yes, you are right about the other good linemen in front of these guys. As I've mentioned previously, Brentson Buckner, Aaron Smith and Ziggy Hood started for Mitchell in their second years. Maintaining their gaps and allowing linebackers to make plays in a more passive read-and-react scheme is a big change for most college linemen.

Donte52: How did Jordan Hall look?

JW: Did not watch him. Sorry. At a rookie camp there are so many new players to follow that you don't want to lose sight of what's important. And then sometimes you just try to take in an overview of a play so that you don't miss the play on the ball. Forgot all about Jordan.

Danimal: What are your thoughts on the upcoming competition amongst Ryan Shazier, Vince Williams, and Sean Spence? Mike Tomlin said Spence had a clean bill of health and would not be starting at ground zero.

Also, you wrote that Rob Blanchflower looked like a load, but did not appear to be slow. I read that he is a tenacious blocker and twice team captain. Any other impressions from seeing him and your thoughts on his likelihood of displacing either Michael Palmer or David Paulson?

JW: I really don't have many thoughts yet on whether Blanchflower can displace a vet. I did see Paulson working out in the hallway with Cameron Heyward, but that's about it. I'm just going to watch it unfold. Same with the ILB spot. I don't want to have any preconceived notion about Spence. That seemed to steer the entire kingdom of reporters off the Shazier trail. Let it play out. Williams has the edge in understanding the scheme, but it appears they'll use Lawrence Timmons at the buck, so that would take Williams out of the running from the outset.

Steelmann58: What impact will Mike Munchak have on the OL, especially Marcus Gilbert and Mike Adams? Secondly, I know everyone wants the defense to get younger but will they be better? Also is that a sign of rebuilding? I would figure the Steelers would have tried to sign Deebo or Brett to a one-year deal since we lack veterans at those positions and I believe both can still help.

JW: I hate to blow off questions with "I'm going to watch what happens," but I beg you to do the same. That's a big question, what Munchak will do with the tackles. Well, let's let it happen first. As for the defense, they had no choice but to revamp. It's been ongoing for a few years now. As I've said many times, I don't see them re-signing James Harrison or Brett Keisel unless there's an injury.

BlueMeanies: Is Nick Embernasty fully healed? If he is, and shows enough, could he replace Ramon Foster? How does Markus Wheaton look? Healed and more confident? Ben Roethlisberger worked with Justin Brown in the off- season. Has that helped Brown?

JW: Nik Embernate wasn't allowed to participate at rookie camp. That's a question for later. I give him about a .01 percent chance of replacing Foster this year. Nik's the kind of guy who's going to have to work his way up.

Wheaton wasn't at rookie camp, either. Justin Brown was, and he looked OK. Still a big body over the middle. I'm sure working with the boss will prove to be helpful, but there was no way of knowing how as he worked in shorts with Brendon Kay.

NebbSteeler: It seems we have an overload of C-G types, and not many OTs. We didn't draft any, so what's the plan? Fernando Velasco would be a nice addition, but that's what 7-8 interior guys now? Who are the OTs? It seems the most important position of the online (so it's said) is T, and we have Beachum-Gilbert-Adams. Yikes.

JW: First of all, I'm glad they didn't reach for a tackle. You know how that usually goes. Now, fifth-round pick Wesley Johnson worked at left tackle primarily during rookie camp. He's the fifth guy behind Kelvin Beachum, Gilbert, Adams and Guy Whimper, who played fairly well as a No. 4 tackle last season. His play at guard -- after watching him struggle there at camp -- was a bonus.

Kadagan: Is there anyone left on the defense that can be a VOCAL leader? Someone who can pump up the rest of the team? It seems like anyone who was outspoken is no longer with the team. Who steps into that role? Can Joey Porter help to develop that quality and some nastiness in the players we currently have?

JW: My guess is Shazier has leadership skills, but that's a long way away. Heyward has emerged. Mike Mitchell probably will emerge eventually. Troy Polamalu is an outsanding leader, and thankfully he doesn't yell. He inspires by being himself. Porter is learning to coach. I assume he'll tell the guys how important it is to play with energy, but I really don't see him attempting to instill nastiness. Competitiveness? Probably, but the true competitors are born that way.

ErnieHolmes: What do we think of Timmons taking over the buck and the green dot? Didn't he try this once before, and it didn't seem to work out real well, or am I imagining this? Is the thought that a full off-season will allow him to be more successful this time? Count me as worried.

JW: Well, it is a worry. That was the worry I had with drafting a light inside backer, that the buck would suffer from a lack of either leadership or stoutness. So, in moving the stouter Timmons over, the problem could be leadership. And, yes, Timmons hasn't impressed anyone in previous assignments. Time to try again. Appears to be no other choice. Besides, he's not THAT quiet anymore. And the coaches probably know his limitations and have a plan to work around them.

FeCity: Unlike past years, the coaches seem to be saying that a few of these rookies could see significant playing time and possibly earn starting jobs. It reminded me of what Jason Worilds said a couple months ago -- about how he was discouraged to hear that the coaches thought he had no chance to start. Is this new attitude toward the rookies a product of trying to give more encouragement/incentive to young players in general? Excitement over this particular crop of rookies? Realization that the roster has more holes than anytime in the past decade? Or a combination of these?

JW: Let me just say that I mistrust a library of quotes from other reporters that are paper-trailed to a storyline. So I strike the entire Worilds testimony here from the record. Yes, the defense that led the way to three Super Bowls in six years done got old. It's easier to make the starting lineup now.

IACAPA: Which of the linebackers play teams, because this almost has to decide who makes the roster. Our back-up running backs aren't blocking on returns or covering kicks (no way Le'Veon Bell does this, Dri Archer will be returning and not blocking and would probably get crushed if he tried to cover, and LeGarrette Blount doesn't cover kicks) and neither are our Tiny Toon wide receivers. So if you spot the team Jones, Worilds, Timmons, and Shazier, the other 3-5 linebacker spots have to be game-day actives who play both side of teams. So who is it: Jordan Zumwalt, Williams, Spence, Garvin, Carter, Moats.

JW: I took a heavy breath and decided to go with this answer: It's May 23. They've been signing young, aggressive safeties and CBs and LBs for a while now. I have no such worries. Terence Garvin, for instance, was very good covering kicks last year.

Stillerfreak: Playoff team?

JW: Yes. Have to believe the second half was an indicator. The run game will be greatly improved. The OTs and the young defenders will progress as the season goes on. As with any team, health will be important.

McSteel: I'm extremely curious as to who was next in line on their board after Shazier in Round 1 and Stephon Tuitt in Round 2. Have you heard any musings?

Worilds, Gilbert, Maurkice Pouncey and Cortez Allen are free agents-to-be. Of Pouncey, Worilds, and Allen, do they extend two of them during training camp so that they can tag the remaining after the season? Of the three, how many do you see getting extended? Of the four starters, what is your order of most likely to least likely to receive extensions?

JW: C'mon, Matt, it's Memorial Day weekend. The question is way more complex than my answer could be. I presume Pouncey and Allen are extended, with a wait-and-see on Worilds and Gilbert. Maybe even a wait-and-see on Allen. In Pouncey, the Steelers believe they got the better of the twins. I know people like to lump the Pounceys together, but it's becoming more clear that Maurkice is the smarter one. He's also a true leader, and a vocal leader. He should be extended, and I believe he will be their No. 1 target in training camp.

BigSteelz: Re: "Guys already in the room," what second year guys are ready to take the next step? Who has been noticeably doing the work this offseason?

JW: Again, I've only watched rookies and the "ones." I liked the way Antwon Blake played special teams last year and I'll be watching him play cornerback in the coming month. Another interesting CB might be Devin Smith. A "one," he started opposite Shaquille Richardson at rookie camp. Smith's listed at 5-11, 186, a thicker and more polished zone corner than Richardson, but he should be because Smith has been through this. He signed with the Dallas Cowboys after the 2013 draft, out of Wisconsin. In 30 starts at Wisconsin he made 155 tackles and intercepted seven passes. Snubbed by the combine, Smith measured 5-10.3, 182 at his pro day and according to Gil Brandt ran his 40s in 4.50/4.49, had a 6.67 3-cone, and 4.06 short shuttle. He had a 10-3 broad jump, a 35 1/2 vertical, and repped 17 times. He was released by the Cowboys in early August and the Steelers began a sign/cut relationship with him that resulted in six signings -- from Aug. 7 to Jan. 7 -- in six months.

Phranque: Are Mike Adams' problems poor technique or lack of physical ability?

JW: Some experts say Adams' upper body is too weak. I'll take that under consideration, but I watch his drive blocking and think it's got to be poor hand technique that causes his poor pass pro. That's where the coach will pay off. And, after two years and no job, Adams will likely be a good pupil.

KentuckySteeler: Will Dick LeBeau have to get more creative to generate pressure given that our LBs are of a much different type than LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison?

JW: I'm excited about what LeBeau will come up with for Shazier. Don't know if he needs to be creative or not, but he definitely has a chess piece. As for the OLBs, it's paramount that Jones take the next step. I have a feeling he will. Worilds can be Jason Gildon -- even Clark Haggans -- good. That's been enough in the past, and now they have faster inside guys.

Terp41: I'm a Shepherd U. guy. How did Howard Jones do at rookie minicamp? And Mike Franklin?

JW: Jones is a skinny, leggy guy who might be good but is processing too much. It's only natural. He's said to be a straightahead guy only, but I saw some potential in coverage. I didn't notice Franklin.

WestPalmStiller: Could the special teams actually be "special" this year? No Felix Jones returning kicks, oh, lord; Jordan Zumwalt and his reckless abandon on kick and punt coverage (hopefully); and the possibility that Brad Wing can kick like he did at LSU.

JW: You're close to the answers. Felix Jones has been replaced by a guy who's faster than Willie Parker. But Zumwalt has a way to go. And I'm thinking Adam Podlesh is the punter, but I haven't seen him yet.

WildBill151: Outside Linebacker? Our starters are a one-year wonder on a one-year contract and an unproven second-year player who needs a lot of improvement in strength and technique to realize potential at the most critical position. No. 1 backup is Chris Carter, who does not play well enough to have a roster spot, and the No. 2, Arthur Moats, isn't that great and playing out of position. Please talk me off the ledge when it comes to OLB that drives our defense.

JW: Again, Shazier will help this. I'm not as down on Jarvis as much as I was on draft day. He showed me signs that he can do this. I'm also not as down on Carter as everyone else. He'll be serviceable, particularly behind Worilds. Zumwalt is a longshot to come on at a new position as a 235-pounder. Howard Jones is a project. Moats is a veteran who'll give them some more depth. It's not the greatest scenario but it's not all that bad.

Archangel67: What is your gut feeling for 2014?

JW: Playoffs, maybe a win in the playoffs, maybe even two in this weaker conference. Veteran QB would then give them a puncher's chance against Arizona, or whichever team wins the NFC West. I think that's all possible. My concerns are buried in some of these answers, at least I hope.


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