One of the biggest areas of weakness for the Pittsburgh Steelers last year was depth on the defensive line.
With the defense likely to be in nickel over 70 percent of the time this upcoming season, pass-rushers are needed behind Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt, something Steve McLendon, Cam Thomas and Dan McCullers couldn’t offer much of last season.
Enter Javon Hargrave, the explosive, albeit undersized rookie who's made a strong early impression during camp.
“He’s got some great tools,” said Heyward. “He comes off the ball really well and he’s got built-in leverage. It’s just about the learning process for him, and becoming more consistent. We understand there are going to be growing pains, and times where it won’t be perfect, but it’s about getting over those humps. We don’t want him to be the same player he is now at the end of the season.”
Hargrave, who once had six sacks in a single game during FCS play, is joined by a new-and-improved L.T. Walton and free agent Ricardo Mathews as the second-team line at this point. Walton appears to be in great shape, adding muscle and showing a non-stop motor to consistently track down runners during 11v11 sessions at camp. Mathews could be on the bubble, however, as the seventh-year pro has only four sacks in his career and offers little juice as a pass-rusher.
The Steelers undoubtedly hope to see one of their younger “long shots” emerge to challenge Mathews, and here are some of my thoughts on those players:
* Devaunte Sigler -- Explosive off the ball and has shown a nice spin move throughout camp. Today he made Matt Feiler whiff badly. If he can stay healthy through the next few weeks, I feel he has the best chance of beating out Mathews for that sixth and likely final defensive line spot.
* Caushaud Lyons -- Typically moves up and gets some run with the second team over the rest of the group, showing better leverage and power at the point of attack than you would expect for a 6-5, 284-pound defensive linemen.
* Roy Philon, Lavon Hooks, Johnny Maxey and Giorgio Newberry round out the group. Preseason games will be the strongest indicator, and right now it looks like a three-man race between Sigler, Lyons and Mathews for the last roster spot.
- Injury roundup: Travis Feeney, Cole Manhart, Artie Burns, Ben Roethlisberger and Markus Wheaton didn't practice today. Burns and Feeney had their left quads wrapped after practice, and Manhart iced his right shoulder. Mike Mitchell missed work, and Bud Dupree did some light work at the beginning of practice but sat out all the 11v11s with a bruised groin. Donald Washington and Ramon Foster were limited.
-- It looked like Jarvis Jones sat out the last couple of team sessions, as Anthony Chickillo took his reps with the first-team defense.
- For the second straight day Sean Davis played mostly at safety, with Montell Garner taking the first snaps in the nickel spot. The coaching staff is likely trying to get a feel for Garner’s competence in the slot, while still giving Davis important reps at safety. I noticed Davis jumped in with the third-team defense as a nickel a few times as well.
- Watched a lot of OL/DL 1v1s today and the run-blocking drills revealed a few things. The defensive linemen were trying to establish position and hold their gaps, while the offensive linemen were charged with getting their opponent turned and creating a rush lane. Alejandro Villanueva did an excellent job of using those long arms to initiate contact against Mathews, bullying the veteran out of the gap. “Stay square, Ricardo!” defensive line coach John Mitchell shouted.
- B.J. Finney continues to impress me. Last year he was overly aggressive at the point of contact, often becoming off-balance and losing his center of gravity. This year, however, Finney has been much more controlled, showing the ability to stay upright and recover even when he loses initial contact. He’s likely competing with Chris Hubbard for a ninth spot on the O-line, but Hubbard also had a nice day, giving Hargrave all he could handle on a couple of reps. Hubbard’s versatility as a center, guard or tackle might make it a close and difficult call with Finney if they don't keep 10.
- Lyons had a good rep in 1v1s, tossing Feiler to the ground when the guard got overextended. Lyons flashes at times, but putting it together consistently is the key.
- Caught the end of the wide receiver vs. defensive back blocking drills. Levi Norwood was blown up twice and Eli Rogers struggled as well. Sammie Coates stood out on the one rep I watched, bullying a smaller defender off the line of scrimmage.
- Vince Williams got some first-team reps today and made the most of his opportunity, blowing up Fitzgerald Toussaint with a huge hit during the start of 11v11. Williams made several other big hits throughout practice, but his best play may have come during the two-minute drill with the second-team defense when he blew by a frozen Ryan Harris for a sack of Dustin Vaughan.
- It was a rough practice for Harris, who continues to labor at left tackle. A few plays before Williams roared past Harris off the edge, Mike Reilly easily ripped under his punch for another sack of Vaughan. You can’t give up two sacks off the edge during a two-minute drill against an inside linebacker and a third-team outside linebacker and expect to win a starting job.
- Harris just barely got enough of Reilly on the last play of the period to push the defender past a scrambling Vaughan, but the quarterback was then forced to step up into a would-be sack of Walton. No one blew the play dead, however, so Vaughan launched a deep shot to Demarcus Ayers, who had scampered away from everyone for an uncontested touchdown. Of course, an argument ensued between offensive and defensive personnel over whether the play should have been blown dead or not, so the verdict was unclear.
- Vaughan really struggles to play within the offense’s structure and often freezes in the pocket, but he has a strong arm. He zipped a deep throw to Norwood in the corner of the end zone, but the receiver could only get one foot down in bounds, and may have pushed off to create separation from Al-Hajj Shabazz. Still, it was easily the best throw I’ve see from Vaughan this camp.
- Walton made a great play during one 11v11 session, knifing through the offensive line to drop Cameron Stingily for no gain. Walton continues to impress me with his improvements this offseason, showing much better awareness in terms of positioning himself as plays develop.
- Jordan Berry is running away with the punting job. Really strong performance by the second-year punter today. Will Monday shanked a line-drive punt so far out of bounds it landed on the adjacent field.
- Not to be outdone by Vaughan’s performance, Bruce Gradkowski also had his best throw of camp, dropping an excellent corner route throw over James Harrison’s head and into the waiting mitts of Norwood on the far sideline.
- Williams and Timmons were apparently competing for the hit of camp, as the latter absolutely destroyed Daryl Richardson with a massive shot during the second team period. L.J. Fort wasn’t about to be shown up, however, standing up the powerful Stingily in the hole with a stout tackle and holding the back to a short gain. Tyler Matakevich and Stevie Johnson hustled in as the third-team linebackers to get in their licks as well, both meeting Brandon Brown-Dukes in the lane for a big stop during a session that the defense dominated. Cutting one of these six inside linebackers is going to be brutal.
- Antonio Brown ended the first-team offense’s two-minute drill by boxing out William Gay at the goal line, reeling the pass in despite the corner being draped all over him. Brown has been ridiculous for some time now, but this camp has reminded us all just how unstoppable he really is. He also got his first opportunity to return punts this year during one of the special teams periods.
- Not the best 1v1 period for McCullers, who was stood up twice by Valerian Ume-Ezeoke. He just has no moves other than a bull rush, and Ume-Ezeoke anchored well against it.
- The goal-line session was the last period of practice, always a highlight of camp. Here’s your play-by-play breakdown:
1. Timmons and a few others smashed Toussaint at the right pylon on a stretch play. It was ruled a touchdown but Toussaint fumbled late and an argument ensued.
2. McCullers blew up everything, landing the first hit on Ricahrdson before Chickillo finished the tackle.
3. Robert Golden made an excellent play, laying out Xavier Grimble just as the big tight end extended for a diving catch at the goal line. The pass bounced off his fingertips incomplete, and Golden was mobbed by the rest of his unit.
4. Jordan Dangerfield knifed off the edge to drop Stingily in his tracks a few yards deep in the backfield.
5. Toussaint followed David DeCastro through the left side for a touchdown.
6. David Johnson planted outside linebacker Jordan Zumwalt to the ground with a ferocious block on the edge. Shamarko Thomas alertly stepped up but Richardson cut it up and in for a touchdown. In my opinion, he didn't get in.
7. Stingily burrowed through trash up the middle to sneak the ball across the goal line for the score to give the offense a 4-3 win.