Steelers Rookies Are Ready

It's been 43 years since multiple rookies started an opener for the Pittsburgh Steelers' defense. This year's rookies are ready.

PITTSBURGH -- The last time the Pittsburgh Steelers started multiple rookies on defense in an opener was 1971 when Dwight White, Mike Wagner and Glen Edwards started for Chuck Noll.

Stephon Tuitt's mother hadn't even been born in 1971.

Noll also started three rookies -- Joe Greene, Charles Beatty and Clancy Oliver -- in the opener in 1969. And the Steelers beat the Detroit Lions and Dick LeBeau for their only win of the season. LeBeau remembers that game.

"I remember they caught a pass on me," said LeBeau, "and the defensive coordinator said to me, 'What the hell are you doing?' And I said 'I was trying to lay back a little bit and make them think he was open and then intercept the ball.' 'Well they thought he was open all right!'

"That was in that game. It was a while ago."

It's been a long time since the Steelers have started even one rookie on defense in a season opener. Kendrell Bell started at the mack linebacker position in 2001 and became Defensive Rookie of the Year.

But it wasn't LeBeau who made that call. He's never started a Steelers rookie in an opener as a two-term defensive coordinator.

"I've been kind of blessed," LeBeau said. "These rookies, I don't mind starting them."

Ryan Shazier, an Ohio State Buckeye like LeBeau, will start at the same mack linebacker spot that spawned Bell 13 years ago.

And if the Steelers open in their "Big Nickel" package, Stephon Tuitt could also start on the defensive line. It would mark the first time in 43 years multiple Steelers rookies started on defense in an opener. Even if Tuitt doesn't start, "He'll play a lot," LeBeau said.

Are they ready?

"They're ready to play," LeBeau said. "Are they going to be a finished perfect work? No. But they're good football players."

Shazier and Tuitt, of course, were the Steelers' first and second-round draft picks this year. Shazier started all four preseason games and led the team with 20 tackles. He also had an interception, another pass break-up, and two tackles on special teams.

Tuitt started the first preseason game as part of the nickel package, but the Steelers opened in their "Okie" in the next two games, and Brett Keisel joined the team for the fourth. Tuitt had eight preseason tackles and a quarterback pressure.

Tuitt won't start Sunday unless the Cleveland Browns open in a particular offensive package, but the 21-year-old man-child said he' ready.

"Oh, I'm ready," he said. "With the way I practice, they have me ready for anything that could happen. Anything."

Ike Taylor had a comparison to make for Tuitt, but paused to re-think.

"He's a young," Taylor said before pausing. "In between Aaron Smith and Richard Seymour. Right in between those two."

Taylor had high praise for Shazier, too. "Shazier is a Troy, a Pouncey kind of guy," Taylor said. "Can't keep him off the field. Can't hold him back. Gotta let him go through his learning curves. Those kind of guys come around every blue moon. When you got one, you've got to let him play."

Shazier, who'll turn 22 on Saturday, said he feels like he's a good fit, that he's ready, that he has enough help around him if he gets confused, that he's getting better at getting off blocks, and that the coaches are happy with his progress.

Is he nervous?

"I'm not going to say I'm not nervous," he said. "Everybody gets nervous. I'm just more excited than anything."

Does it mean anything to be this franchise's first rookie defender to start an opening game in 13 years?

"I'm just focusing on helping this team win championships," he said.

That's been done, too. Jack Lambert and four years later Ron Johnson started opening games of championship seasons as rookies.

"I think we've given them all the tools," said defensive end Cameron Heyward. "Now let's see what they do with them. It's going to be a growing process. I know a lot of guys have said that, but in this league you have to deal with ups and downs and you have to understand what you can and cannot do. It's a part of learning and a part of making yourself better.

"We've seen them do it in preseason, but now we've got to see what's going to happen in the regular season. This is the first true test to see where we are."

Heyward said that if rookies aren't ready for the increase in the speed of the game this week, "they're in for a real headache."

Has he told them that?

"I think they've known since they've gotten here," Heyward said. "It's like preseason's one speed, regular season's one thing, playoff speed's another. To get to that playoff speed you've got to get that regular-season speed dealt with.

"I have full confidence in the guys we put out there. I know our coaches do. If they didn't, they wouldn't put them out there."

NOTES -- Steelers missing Thursday's practice were WR Martavis Bryant (shoulder), CB Brice McCain (groin), WR Lance Moore (groin) and C Cody Wallace (finger).

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