LATROBE -- No one on the Pittsburgh Steelers' 90-man roster has spent time with more NFL organizations than inside linebacker L.J. Fort, who's been with six teams on a journey that's helped shape him on and off the field.
The third-year player is only 26, but stints in Cleveland, Denver, Seattle, Cincinnati and New England have given him a maturity and appreciation for the opportunity he’s received in Pittsburgh that is well beyond his years.
“I love Pittsburgh,” said Fort. “The biggest thing that sets Pittsburgh apart from all the other teams is just how real everything is. Coach will tell you where you’re at on the team, how things are looking for you, and where you need to improve if you want to better your chances. He’ll put your face up in the middle of a team meeting and be like ‘this guy needs to improve!’. That’s something I love about this place. A lot of other places, they keep things a secret or won’t tell anybody what’s going on, you just find out when it comes down to playing time. Here, they call people out and keep it real. You know there will be no politics involved.”
Ironically, Fort’s career got off to an great start, considering his undrafted status. The linebacker started the first game of his rookie season due to a few injuries in Cleveland and was everywhere in that contest, registering three tackles, a sack, an interception and two passes defensed. It wasn’t enough, however, as Fort was eventually waived before the beginning of his second season, despite playing in all 16 games as a rookie.
Fort would sit out the entire 2013 season, waiting for his chance to step on the field and prove himself again. The NFL had different plans, however, as Fort has only appeared in one game since his rookie season. The frustrations of those times are evident in his voice, especially given the lack of opportunity the linebacker was permitted at several of those landing spots.
“Bouncing around the league may have made me a little hungrier, but the biggest difference is reps,” he said. “I would say here I’ve gotten the most reps out of any other place I’ve been. Reps are the most valuable thing there is.”
Fort is certainly making the most of those reps here, starring in the backs-on-backers drill, which he readily admitted is slanted for the linebackers to win, and making his presence felt with several fantastic plays in 11v11 sessions. The inside linebacker competition is fierce in Pittsburgh, where you figure Lawrence Timmons, Ryan Shazier and Vince Williams have three spots locked down, but through four days of camp, Fort has been running with Williams on the second team -- as he had all spring -- and established himself as the frontrunner for that precious No. 4 spot.
- Jarvis Jones was sick today and James Harrison injured an ankle. The injury news of the day involved Senquez Golson, who was carted off the field while visibly frustrated after suffering a mid-foot injury. Mike Tomlin said that Golson will be evaluated this evening. Sean Davis, as he did during OTAs and minicamp, took Golson’s spot as the first-team nickel corner.
- Le'Veon Belldoes not appear to have lost any quickness in and out of his route breaks. The running back looks as explosive and difficult to defend in space as ever before. The defense hasn’t been permitted to contact him much, but Bell has made a habit of cutting hard to avoid defenders regardless, clearly showing no ill-effects from his torn right MCL.
- Antonio Brown was fired up today, playing to the crowd even more than usual and making life miserable for rookie Artie Burns. The corner and Shamarko Thomas bracketed Brown in the end zone, but the receiver found a soft spot between them, and Ben Ben Roethlisberger threaded the needle for a touchdown during seven shots.
- It was a tough day for Burns, who lost contain and struggled to get off blocks against the run, and was whooped by Brown a few times during various drills. The cherry on top came when Darrius Heyward-Bey torched him deep during 7v7.
- Another great day for Anthony Chickillo. He was gifted a Bruce Gradkowski interception during seven shots, but the outside linebacker beat Alejandro Villanueva badly with a stutter-step and edge rip during 1v1s. Tomlin was clearly impressed, yelling, “Wow!”
- Cody Wallace had a bad day, courtesy of Javon Hargrave. The rookie maintained his gap a couple times during zone blocking drills, as Wallace struggled to cross his face and seal off the lane. Then in 1v1s, Hargrave bullied Wallace five yards backward with no hesitation, then got him with another move an instant later. His quickness and power have been difficult for offensive linemen to match so far in camp. Hargrave also got first-team reps as a 3-4 nose today as well.
- We had our first camp fight today! Caushaud Lyons came after 6-9 Brian Mihalik, and Mihalik knocked him back a few steps with a couple shoves to the facemask. The two were quickly separated and practice resumed.
- Fort mowed through Maurkice Pouncey to make a tackle-for-loss during 11v11. Yeah, you read that right. This kid can play.
- Jordan Dangerfield continued to have a strong camp, knocking a corner route pass away from Eli Rogers and laying big hits all over the field. All of these Steelers safeties love to lay the wood, including Ross Ventrone, who unloaded on Fitzgerald Toussaint before being laid out by Xavier Grimble on the next play. Very physical practice.
- Tyler Matakevich continues to impress. His nose for the football and ability to sift through trash in the box makes him a shot to stick on any roster. The Steelers are loaded at inside linebacker, but don’t count out the seventh-rounder just yet.
- Grimble had at least one drop today, but he skied for a tough catch with Shazier draped all over him, and looked much improved on the blocking sled. I’m looking forward to seeing him in game action.
- Based on their reactions to his play, I think all the defensive coaches are intrigued by Mike Reilly, the William & Mary outside linebacker who has flashed quite a bit during 1v1s. He gets low-end matchups, but he’s shown some power and even a nifty spin move during pass rush drills.
- During one team session, I heard defensive line coach John Mitchell yell that he needed more from Daniel McCullers, not the first time I’ve heard him express that sentiment. He could just be lighting a fire under the big nose tackle, but it’ll be worth keeping an eye on.