The Pittsburgh Steelers are stockpiling pass-rushers

Second-year outside linebacker and second-year outside linebacker coach in the mutual respect society, that and a full practice report from Jon Ledyard.

Coming out of college, Anthony Chickillo was a puzzle for scouts.

A five-star recruit ranked by Rivals.com as the third-best defensive end in the country coming out of high school, many would claim Chickillo was misused at Miami, as he was asked to add weight and play more of a 3-4 defensive end position during his time with the Hurricanes.

“I didn’t play the position I wanted to play in college,” said Chickillo. “I just did what the coaches asked me to do there. I was really fortunate to come here and have the coaches that I do, coaches that believe in me and what I can do. I just love being here.”

A huge factor in Chickillo’s renewed love for the game has been Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebackers coach Joey Porter, who becomes excited when talking about the young linebacker’s progress from Year One to Year Two.

“I think Chickillo made a whole lot of headway transforming from a D-lineman to a true outside linebacker,” said Porter. “He looks good and moves good.”

The affinity is mutual, as Chickillo credits Porter with not only his physical and athletic development, but also his growing awareness of “the game within the game," and how he can exploit certain matchups as a pass rusher.

“I’m better at having a plan and using my hands now,” Chickillo said. “Coach Porter helps me a lot at seeing what kind of guy you have in front of you and figuring out different ways you can beat that guy. Seeing how he’s lined up, what kind of stance he’s in, down and distance, that determines a lot. All those ways you can get that edge before the ball is snapped.”

Like fellow second-year outside linebacker Bud Dupree, Chickillo has dropped a considerable amount of weight to adapt to his new position, and it shows when watching him move around on the field.

“Right now I’m right around 250,” he said. “I was 285 in college, so I’m down a good bit. I feel better, more explosive. I’ve always been able to get off the ball fast, but right now I feel really good. A lot better than I have in the past.”

The past is a place Chickillo will fortunately never have to re-visit as a football player. He’s an outside linebacker now, a true edge rusher, and he’s enjoying every step of the transition.

“It’s awesome working with Coach Porter,” he said. “He’s made football fun for me again from where I was at in college. Every day you’re learning from a guy who did it at a really high level, has played in Pro Bowls, has played in Super Bowls and knows what it takes to be the best.”

PRACTICE NOTES

- I would be remiss if I did not begin this report with some exuberant praise of Sammie Coates, who had a training camp practice for the ages today. After making excellent catches all day, Coates laid out to haul in a tough grab down the sideline while falling out of bounds, dragging his feet in the process. A few minutes later the receiver did it again, making a full extension snag on the far side of the field on a deep shot from Ben Roethlisberger. Everything about Coates’ demeanor is different this year. He’s excited about every play, much more confident in his abilities, and very vocal on and off the field. It’s just Day Two, but the early signs are that Coates is ready to step into a much bigger role in Pittsburgh this season.

- I sang Ross Cockrell’s praises quite a bit yesterday in my practice report, but few Steelers worked harder in and out of season to improve at their craft than the Duke product. At the end of positional periods, Cockrell is always off to the side putting in extra reps, usually refining his press technique and hand usage against receivers, something he worked on a lot this offseason.

“One of the things that I’ve tried to work on is my combativeness at the line of scrimmage,” said Cockrell. “Whether we’re playing Cover-2 or whether we’re playing man-to-man or some of our other coverages, I just want to be somebody that is gonna disrupt receivers and disrupt timing.”

- Buttttt, Cockrell’s game still has holes in it. Darrius Heyward-Bey blew by the pressing corner with some sweet footwork during Seven Shots, prompting wide receiver coach Richard Mann into a jubilant reaction. “Good release! Good release!” Mann said, pointing demonstratively at Heyward-Bey.

Ryan Harris got all of the first-team reps at left tackle after Alejandro Villanueva had them yesterday. I expected to see them alternate on at least a day-to-day basis, so we’ll see how tomorrow goes.

- Perhaps vexed by his position on the second team, Villanueva nearly tore Artie Burns’ jersey off during one corner blitz, locking up the rookie defensive back with those long arms.

- While the top three tackle spots seem set in stone, it is tough not to get a little bit excited by 6 feet 9, defensive end convert Brian Mihalik, who has the length, size and quick feet to eventually grow into the offensive position. He fell down trying to stymie a Jarvis Jones inside counter move at right tackle during one team session (the conditions were bad), but looked much more natural on the left side, shooting a ferocious punch to outside linebacker Mike Reilly’s chest on the next rep.

- Tight end Xavier Grimble continued to impress today, with another tough one-handed grab in the flat during positional drills on a pass that was thrown well behind him.

- Poor Doran Grant. The second-year cornerback was tasked with covering Antonio Brown on a few occasions with less than favorable results. But even when his coverage was sound, Coates made a few acrobatic grabs to complete the play anyway. All part of the learning process for the former fourth-round pick.

Demarcus Ayers broke Jordan Dangerfield’s ankles badly on a PCP (Post-Corner-Post) route from the slot during one 11v11 period, but quarterback Dustin Vaughan missed the wide-open rookie, instead forcing a pass into a non-existent window for Coates, which Donald Washington broke up. It’s only been two practices, but I don’t think any quarterback here is worried about Vaughan taking their job.

Sean Davis again played all over the defense, even seeing a couple of reps as a single-high safety with the second-team defense. I think I saw him manning the slot with the third-team secondary.

Eli Rogers is the trendy pick to win the No. 5 receiver position, and he did see some first-team reps as a slot, although Mike Tomlin said after practice he was simply managing Markus Wheaton’s snaps. Rogers dropped a tough catch on a deep post, then punished himself by doing a plethora of push-ups back with his position group. Tomlin did praise the former Louisville  Cardinal earlier in practice, after Rogers squared up nicely to successfully snag a tough punt return catch.

Jordan Zumwalt spent the day with the outside linebackers. He was a 4-3 OLB in college, but the rust was evident when used Saturday as a pass rusher. Tough spot to be in though, especially before the pads go on when you’re feeling out the physicality of line play.

- I know you’ve been dying to hear what is going on with rookie defensive tackle Javon Hargrave, but until the pads go on there just isn’t much to report. I did see one rep in which he worked down the line of scrimmage beautifully against Maurkice Pouncey to defend an outside zone run. That’s what Hargrave gives you at the nose, a powerful, squatty body with the athleticism to move laterally and re-establish the point of attack all the way to the sideline.

- In a classic “every second of every practice means everything” moment, Washington sprinted 70 yards after an equally hard-charging Brandon Brown-Dukes on one play, punching the ball out at the last second before the running back crossed the goal line. Back at the line of scrimmage, the players had already broken the huddle for the next rep, but you can bet the coaches noticed Washington’s heady play and commendable effort.

Shamarko Thomas missed the practice with an illness.


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