With the departure of a plethora of key veterans over the years, the Pittsburgh Steelers defense has become younger and faster across the unit.
The 2016 draft, of course, suggested the age movement is not yet complete.
The five defensive draft picks have combined for some encouraging performances during OTAs, and Thursday’s final practice before minicamp next week was no exception.
After practice, defensive coordinator Keith Butler talked about the progress of the first-year defenders, particularly Artie Burns, who once again scrimmaged that day against Antonio Brown.
“I want him to (face Brown) as much as he can,” said Butler. “Ross Cockrell did that last year and it helped him. I told Antonio he’s probably our best coach out there because of the routes he’s going to run on them. As much as they can, they need to single up with him. If they can guard him, they can guard just about anybody.”
Butler stopped short of saying Burns will be a key contributor right away, but the defensive coordinator did mention that the rookie cornerback has displayed the work ethic needed to pick up NFL concepts quickly.
“I don’t want to make any predictions right now, but I like what I’ve seen so far with him,” Butler said. “He’s really battling the receivers that we have and he’s learning a lot. The good thing about him that I think I do like is his work ethic. He’s always wanting to learn. He’s always asking questions. He’s always in meetings a little bit after sometimes. So he’s doing the right things in terms of trying to be better and becoming an NFL corner.”
Defensive backs coach Carnell Lake has obviously had the opportunity to work closely with Burns throughout OTAs, and Lake has been impressed.
“I think he is progressing very well,” said Lake. “He has a mentality that he wants to be here and be productive and do things that we want him to do. If he doesn’t get it, he wants more reps added. That’s a good sign.”
THE NUMBER TWO
Some have been surprised to see rookie defensive back Sean Davis working from the slot so often during OTAs, but Butler made it clear that Davis is a safety simply learning to play the nickel position in order to wear a few necessary hats.
“We’re not playing him at corner. We don’t plan to play him at corner,” said Butler. “He played corner last year (at Maryland), I understand that, but he played safety the three years before that, so we think that by playing him inside in the nickel and playing him at strong safety they are very similar positions. So we’re gonna see how he does there.”
A versatile role could be in store for Davis, who offers a rare combination of size and speed that may be capable of playing in the box, in the slot, and on the back end.
“His size, his speed, all that stuff is going to be helpful to us,” Butler said. “Nowadays safeties have to do a lot, kind of in between a linebacker and a corner. They have to be more like a corner, have to be able to cover, have to be able to blitz, have to be able to be physical in the running game. So he’s got a lot of things in front of him that he needs to get better at.”
Lake nearly echoed Butler’s sentiments.
“I like having Sean work at the nickel because a nickel, in our defense, does a lot of very similar things to what a strong safety does,” he said. “So he’s just really doing safety work/corner work on third down. The more he understands that in-the-box nickel concept, the more it is going to help him at safety.”
It's difficult to gauge play in the trenches until the pads go on, but third-round pick Javon Hargrave is already showing off the athleticism and explosive traits that caused the Steelers to draft him. The way he's used will probably vary a little bit early on, but Butler said Hargrave has already caught his eye a few times.
“Quick, really nimble feet,” said Butler. “He moves really well for a big man. You don’t think a guy that big can move the way he does. He’s really good with that, and we think it’s going to translate. He’s a pretty good rusher, another pretty good rusher for us, so we’ll see.”
Hargrave figures to fit the Steelers’ nickel-heavy defensive looks as an interior pass rusher, but Butler said he'll see time in the middle of the Steelers' 3-4 front as well.
“But he’s a rookie and you never know," Butler said. "Like I said, everybody looks good in shorts, so we’ll see how they do when we get to training camp.”
PRESSURE ON THE PASS-RUSHER
Since the Steelers declined the fifth-year option on Jarvis Jones’ contract, there's been plenty of speculation whether this will be his last season in Pittsburgh. The pressure to produce isn’t lost on Jones, according to Butler.
“We hope he can, and we hope he will (take the next step),” Butler said. “I like the fact there’s some pressure on him that he needs to perform, just like everyone else in the league. There’s pressure at every position, including the coaches. If he performs, then fine. If he doesn’t, then find another job.”
Outside linebackers coach Joey Porter is happy with Jones’ growth heading into his fourth season, particularly on the cerebral side.
“I see nothing but him being ready to have a good year,” said Porter. “He knows what is expected of him. He has more expectations for himself. So as far as what I need to see, it’s him being in shape and being ready to go to Latrobe and have a good camp and start the season off like we need him to. He understands, mentally. He knows what he's doing. But we haven’t played any football yet, no real contact. So when you ask if I see anything different, no. There’s nothing that can be shown at this point. Right now it’s just a mental game.”
* It’s tough to imagine that many teams around the league are as close-knit and energy-oriented as the Steelers. Even at OTAs, the chatter during stretches and throughout every drill is absolutely non-stop. From Ryan Shazier's and William Gay’s constant banter during warm-ups, to Ramon Foster greeting everyone in the stretch line, to Cameron Heyward playfully getting in DeAngelo Williams’ face after a goal-line stand by the defense, the energy level has simply been through the roof here.
* Mike Tomlin noted during the get-off drill that Shazier "should win all of these, from what my sources tell me.” Tomlin, of course, was joking about the much-publicized race between Shazier, Antonio Brown, Markus Wheaton and Sammie Coates on Wednesday. Shazier, a linebacker, beat the wide receivers, and was in fact first off the ball several times Thursday.
* Defensive line coach John Mitchell is clearly the boss of his positional group, but Heyward has developed into such a veteran leader he almost seems like another assistant coach. Heyward encourages younger players to communicate and jumps in for an extra rep when spots open up. He also talked through scheme approaches with Mitchell.
While Shazier, Lawrence Timmons and Gay are vocal presences on the field, Heyward's the unquestioned leader of the defense. If his play during OTAs is any indication of how his 2016 season will go, Heyward may finally get the recognition he deserves.
* Steelers fans may wonder whether Ross Cockrell is ready to run with the first team, but the young corner’s work ethic is undeniable. Cockrell is the last cornerback to leave every positional drill, almost always asking assistant Terry Cousin for a few more reps or pointers on the exercise. Cockrell’s clearly bulked up this offseason, and remains out on the far practice field well after most of his teammates have headed indoors. Cockrell’s also been a turnover machine in practice this week, and he nearly came up with another interception during Wednesday's scrimmage.
* Antonio Brown was brilliant again Thursday, not that it should come as a surprise to anyone. But he ran past Burns for a long touchdown and also made a dazzling, toe-tapping, leaping sideline grab on a pass that appeared to be well overthrown. Such a special player.