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The Pittsburgh Steelers can contend for a title if the defense comes of age

The Steelers defense is nearly rebuilt and has plenty of interesting darkhorse candidates ready for training camp.

Let's jump right into Part II of our Post-Spring/Pre-Camp breakdown of the Pittsburgh Steelers with the defense.

The race to make the 53-man roster begins at St. Vincent College on July 28. The number in parenthesis indicates my perceived roster locks at the position.

DEFENSIVE LINE (4) -- The Steelers have two brilliant young starters in Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt, a nose tackle in 350-pound Daniel McCullers and a third-round draft pick in Javon Hargrave, who should help early as a rush tackle in the nickel but who appears to need a year before helping on runs downs. Of course, that perception may change once the pads come on.

Behind them, the Steelers have built some depth with last year's sixth-round pick, L.T. Walton, showing improvement in the spring. He only needs to continue doing what he's been doing to become lock No. 5. The sixth spot will be contested by free-agent pickup Ricardo Mathews and last year's pre-opener waiver claim Caushaud Lyons, who was kept as the No. 7 lineman on the roster until being moved to the practice squad in October.

The rest of the group includes street and rookie free agents who didn't move the meter much in the spring. Johnny Maxey out of Mars Hill received favorable commentary from sources right after the draft. Again, coaches are awaiting the onset of live hitting.

OUTSIDE LINEBACKERS (3) -- I'm not going to count Jarvis Jones as a lock since the Steelers refused to pick up his option for next season or extend his contract. Imagine how dynamic the defense would be if Jones, the No. 1 pick in 2013, and last year's No. 1 pick, Bud Dupree, were developing the way Heyward and Tuitt have.

Jones and Dupree combined for six sacks and nine hurries/pressures last season while the just-turned 38-year-old, James Harrison, produced five sacks and 13 hurries/pressures. Even Arthur Moats had four sacks and nine hurries/pressures. Dupree, of course, was a rookie and has the athleticism to develop, but he missed spring workouts with a minor injury.

Anthony Chickillo might be more of a roster lock at this point than Jones. Last year's 6-B draft pick has finally settled into a position and a weight after being miscast in college as a 5-tech lineman. He's entering his second season at this position in his natural weight range of 245 to 250.

A sixth outside linebacker who'll be with the club in some capacity, whether it's on the practice squad or injured reserve, is sixth-round rookie Travis Feeney, who played his senior season at Washington with a sports hernia and spent the spring rehabbing. A speedball, Feeney needs to add weight even if healthy.

The other contender is spring pick-up Mike Reilly, who played at Mike Tomlin's alma mater, William & Mary, before a brief stint with the Cleveland Browns. Reilly received plenty of work in the spring opposite Chickillo due to injuries and absences.

INSIDE LINEBACKERS (3) -- The Steelers kept an extra ILB last year but lost both Sean Spence and Terence Garvin in free agency. That leaves the three locks -- Lawrence Timmons, Ryan Shazier and Vince Williams -- but there's some impressive depth fighting for the fourth and possibly fifth spots.

Steven Johnson and L.J. Fort are terrific special-teams players and seventh-round rookie Tyler Matakevich may have locked up a spot on at least the practice squad with his diligence to the playbook and overall enthusiasm in the spring. Jordan Zumwalt has spent two years on IR with a hip injury but believes he's finally ready to have a healthy camp and to put forth his best effort this year.

SECONDARY (8) -- Tomlin kept 10 defensive backs last year and 11 the previous year in what's become a seemingly neverending search for hidden talent. He may have some this year, but the obvious locks include two rookies (Artie Burns and Sean Davis), a second-year man who spent last season on IR and who missed most of the spring with a minor injury (Senquez Golson), a cornerback claimed off the waiver wire less than a year ago (Ross Cockrell) and a young safety who lost his starting job right before the opener last season (Shamarko Thomas).

Entering camp, it appears that Gay and Cockrell will start outside with Golson and Davis sharing the nickel/slot job. Davis would be a third safety in front of starters Mike Mitchell and Robert Golden. That gives Burns time to develop, while Thomas remains one of the team's best athletes and should help on special teams.

The frontrunners for the two or three open jobs are second-year corner Doran Grant and veteran safety Rusty Ventrone.

Grant lost 12 pounds since the end of last season and said he's never felt faster, but he took a backseat in the spring to a group of interesting street free agents at cornerback. Montell Garner appears to be the best of the bunch, with 30-year-old veteran Donald Washington trying to make an NFL comeback and king-sized Al-Hajj Shabazz (6-2, 200) also in line to become camp surprises. We'll profile all three, along with former Pitt safety Ray Vinopal, in the coming weeks.

Jordan Dangerfield has been on the practice squad for a couple of seasons and could challenge Ventrone for a job, as could 6-3, 205-pounder Jacob Hagen, a street free agent out of Liberty.


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