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The Pittsburgh Steelers have rebuilt their defense and believe it's battle-ready

Take a stroll around the locker room with Jim Wexell in search of the heart and soul of the Pittsburgh Steelers defense

"Every team needs badasses. When you came in the locker room, you knew these are the kind of guys that you needed to fit in with."
                                                                                        -- Dan Hampton, DE, Chicago Bears

OK, it's not a quote from the great Steel Curtain defense but the above quote from an ESPN documentary on the '85 Bears kind of sums up, to me anyway, how one goes about building a championship defense.

The 2016 Steelers have spent the last five or six years trying to rebuild a defense that carried the team to three Super Bowls and two championships. And they're close. The last unit to receive draft attention, the secondary, finally got it in the last two drafts.

So I thought it might be a good time to sample a handful of defenders with this quote, because even though the term "badasses" won't please my bosses when they see it in a headline, it's a necessary evil.

I also like Mike Tomlin's term "energy bringers" as an important part of the team-building process, so in the ZZ Top tradition of "Beer Drinkers & Hellraisers," I bring you "Energy Bringers & Badasses."


"Energy Bringers and Badasses, all right, I like that. Which one am I?" asked Arthur Moats after he was done talking with Mark Kaboly about serious football stuff.

I told Moats that for now I am listing him with Maurkice Pouncey as an energy-bringer.

"People want to know what's going on over at your locker," I told him. "Kaboly, doesn't like anybody and even he's drawn to you."

"True, true," said Moats. "We just got a good chi. It's all about our chi. We keep our balance right. Everybody's uplifted over here. If you've got bad chi, things are all gloomy, people don't want to be around you. Can't have that. Can't have that vibe, man. Keep that smile. Look at Canaan (Severin) here. He went to UVA. Even though he's sad his Cavaliers lost to the Richmond Spiders, a 1-AA team that's in our conference, he's still smiling."

Severin, the injured rookie packing a bag two lockers down, couldn't stop smiling, even thought he battled back with a comment about Moats' James Madison team.

"Now look over there. Look over there," Moats said excitedly, as he pointed me in the other direction to the just-showered James Harrison. The big man was looking into a bag placed in front of his locker.

"We just gave him a gift," Moats said while suppressing laughter. "Ask him about that gift in his locker."

I told Moats that I would rather not ruin my interview with him before it began. Moats understood.

"Yeah, he kicks ass," Moats said.

Was Moats worried about fitting in with guys like Harrison when he first came here?

"Nah. I didn't think about anything like that," he said. "For me it was all about being productive. It doesn't matter what team you're on, if you're a productive guy the guys are going to respect you. They're going to embrace you. I felt like we already had a relationship from competing against each other. The guys on offense knew me and I obviously knew about the guys on defense. Once I came in and made some plays, I felt like they were able to trust me, I was able to trust them and ultimately you build the rapport throughout the practices."

What about the high-energy guys? Are guys like you and Pouncey necessary tempo-setters?

"Obviously, when you speak about Pouncey from an offensive standpoint, but the guy I think about defensively is Cam Heyward. He's another high-energy guy. He does it in walk-throughs. He's out there full tilt and that's what you want to see. He sets that charge and ultimately we all are going to follow. We respect his play. We respect his preparation also. He's not just a guy who does it sometimes. He does it all the time."

It's a championship environment when the best and biggest asskickers are the hardest workers, isn't it?

"Oh, absolutely, absolutely," Moats said. "It makes it easy. I feel we have a good group in that sense here. When you speak with those guys who are some of the top players in this league, for them to be some of the hardest workers as well, it really helps us out. It helps the young guys out, too, because it sets that tone for a younger guy. I think of a (Javon) Hargrave, or J. Wobble -- make sure it says J. Wobble in the quote -- but you think about a guy like him, who's new to this league, who's trying to find his way and learn how to practice, how to prepare every day, when you've got a guy like Cam -- and you see how he took (Stephon) Tuitt under his wing -- it makes it easy. And it went on even before Cam. You think about how Brett Keisel did the same thing for Cam. Those guys before us taught the way and then we're able to pass that down to the next wave. Ultimately that's why the Steelers' legacy is what it is. I mean, it's just a bunch of guys that it doesn't matter when their number's gonna be called because they've been trained and learned so much from the guy ahead of him, they're able to come in and make plays when their number's called."

Moats, who signed as a reserve free-agent from the Buffalo Bills only two-and-a-half years ago, gets it. But he was preoccupied with Harrison and the "gift." Moats has become so comfortable, he plays tricks on the baddest dude on the team.

"Yeah, man," he said with his happy chi. "I told you, James he gives everybody that 'Grrrrrrr' look, but deep down inside he's a teddy bear. He just wants to be hugged, and you gotta hug him. Who's going to hug him? Somebody has to hug him, man."

Not me. He would throw me all the way back over here into your locker.

Moats laughed. "Just walk up to him and give him a hug one day, man. That's all he needs."


He was up for an interview, but did he want to reach inside and intellectualize the otherworldly skills and attitudes needed to play championship defense in the NFL?

Well, I wasn't sure, so I read him the quote about badasses.

"Yeah," he said. "I guess I would have to agree with that, depending on if you're talking about an actual person who's doing everything correctly and not a badass doing anything they want to."

There's a fine line, isn't there?

"No question."

But you definitely need badasses, don't you?


When you came here, did you feel the need to find a way to fit in with those kind of guys?

"No," he said. "I mean, they were leading by example. They did what they did and you followed suit, like Joey (Porter), Jason Gildon, all them boys."

Harrison also added the names Aaron Smith, Kimo von Oelhoffen and Casey Hampton.

"We had a big group of guys who were doing it," he said. "They grind. They worked from sun up to sun down. That's what you got used to doing. If you want them in here at 6, 7 o'clock in the morning working out, that's what they were expecting."

Is that how Harrison tried to fit in? Just by doing the right thing.

"Yeah," he said with a laugh. "I don't need to come out in a suit and try to walk in and talk s**t when I don't talk s**t."

Harrison, of course, is a lone wolf type, or at least has given off the perception of being one, if we are to believe his career path. But didn't he feel that he needed to be accepted to a certain degree?

"I don't feel the need to be accepted by anybody. That's peer pressure," he said. "The fact of the matter is you're coming into an environment and that's what it is and if you want to fit in or be there you're going to do the same things. It's not like you're trying to do it to appease anybody. That's just the work you've got to put in. If everybody's out there drinking and smoking and doing drugs, I'm not going to go do it, too. No."

It's just common sense then.

"RIGHT," he shouted.

What about this defense now? Are there enough badasses here on this defense?

"Are there enough BADasses here on this defense? I don't know. I can't compare this defense to other defenses. The process that we're in with this defense is we're heading in the right direction but we still have a ways to go."

When new guys come in, do they have to find a way to fit in with you?

"They ain't gotta find a way to fit in with me. They just -- "

Harrison shook his head and laughed as if this whole topic was just now becoming a bit too ridiculous.

"They gotta come in here and do their job," he said. "That'll impress me. By any means you want to do it. If you're a guy that you don't do certain things that I do, I'm not going to knock you 'cause you don't. As long as you're getting your job done, I don't care."

I probably should've ended the interview there, but Antonio Brown and Vince Williams -- Harrison's neighbors in this corner of the locker room that's a bit squared off from the rest -- began listening in and tugging at Harrison a bit. I thought another quote from the '85 Bears might interest them.

I probably should've tried to hug him instead, but I read him this:

"When there's a pack of wild dogs, if one of them's mean they're all going to be mean."

Do you agree with that?

Harrison shook his head. "This wild dogs s**t you talking about. I ain't never heard this s**t."

That's when A.B. jumped in with a comment.

"Right!" Harrison said. "You heard that s**t?!

"Never heard that," said Brown.

"If one wild dog in the pack, the whole pack is wild or some s**t. I ain't never heard that one," said Harrison. "If you want to talk an actual pack of wild dogs and the actual dynamics behind dogs and canines, there's one alpha. Everyone else follows suit so you can't really use that analogy because it's not true."

"I don't know what he trying to get right now," said Brown.

OK, James, but do you agree with the concept that mean badasses make great defenses?

"You can be mean, you can be a badass, but if you can't play football you ain't s**t!" he said. "You can take the baddest MMA fighters and put 'em on a football field. Them m***********s mean, but --"

Williams interrupted with an inaudible comment that caused Harrison to shout, "Exactly! Exactly!"

It had become obvious that I lost control of the interview as the three began shouting about the MMA.

My time was up anyway. But I walked away thinking that I might've found the very core of badassery in the entire football universe right here in that corner of the Steelers' locker room.


On the same side of the locker room, but in the opposite corner, formerly known as "Kickers Corner," Cam Heyward was stretched out leisurely while bouncing comments off a couple of guys the front office hopes will grow together for the next decade.

Stephon Tuitt was about three lockers up the side and Javon Hargrave was about five away from Heyward.

Strategic planning, no doubt, and Heyward's emergence as a leader has given him this privilege of having two lockers in the corner, as Hines Ward and Troy Polamalu used to enjoy, and Ben Roethlisberger still does.

Heyward cordially invited me to pull up a chair and ask anything I wanted. And Cam always enjoys delving into the psychological analysis of the game, much the way Joe Greene used to back in the 1970s.

Or so I've read.

Anyway, I read Cam the quote about building the '85 Bears.

"To be a badass," he said a bit uncomfortably due to the vulgarity of the term, "there's the little bit of a secret behind it because they have to be unselfish. They have to understand what the team needs and they have to be willing. It's not always what everybody wants to hear, and it's not always how they feel. It's what the group needs. I think it becomes a tone-setting group where your tough guys have to set the tone.

"You look at all the great defenses. You look at the Steelers teams of the past. You had Joe Greene. You had the Steel Curtain. You had the 2008 defense and you still had badasses. And I think their main thing was their tough guys, their badasses, set the tone and weren't going to settle for anything less."

So, the badasses have to be intelligent, too.

"Yeah, it's calculated. They're not just doing it just to do it."

It reminded me of this quote in the documentary from Steve McMichael, the raging lunatic of the Bears defensive line:

"We didn't have morons."

"Right," said Heyward. "They were junkyard dogs but they did it accordingly. It wasn't wasted. Everything was methodically used and made up that part of the defense. As much as they talked about it, they backed it up by the way they prepared, by the way they acted. It's all combined together.

"A lot of times you think it's just 'Grrrrr, grrrrrr, grrrrrr,' but some of the times I'm setting the tempo. I want everybody to know what it's about and this is what this defense is going to be like. I think with James (Harrison) and stuff, you see the way he acts, you see the way he is, and that's for good reason because if he's not going to settle for it, why should I settle for it? Or why should another guy settle for it? I think we've got a lot of guys in this room that believe it's about leading by example, but it's still challenging the others."

As aloof as Harrison is perceived, he's still very team-oriented, isn't he?

"Very. Very," Heyward said. "Look at Jack Lambert, one of the biggest badasses of all time. For as much as he did, he was like that, a quiet guy off the field. He didn't say much but, when he talked, it meant something. You could just feel his presence because of that."

Heyward joined the Steelers in 2011, or about three months after the team had appeared in its third Super Bowl in six years. The defense -- the locker room -- was still packed with badasses.

"That whole defense stood out to me," Heyward said. "I was just a fly on the wall back then."

But he had to be soaking it all up.

"You had to," he said. "How could you not come into that situation without being humble? And not just listen? When you're a rookie, it becomes a little chaotic but you understand these guys relish the chaos. They embrace the chaos. And that's what I think those badasses do, they embrace the chaos. They want that messed-up-ness because they know not everybody can hang with it, and those guys really embraced it. Between Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel -- Casey (Hampton) just laughed all the time and had a good time through everything, so you never really thought of him as a badass, but when you turn on the film and he's holding up three guys, you're like 'Damn, this guy's pretty special.' And you had outside backers coming off the edge: You had James, who won a Defensive Player of the Year; you had Wood (LaMarr Woodley), who was getting 11, 12 sacks. On the back end you had Ryan Clark and Troy, who just made plays."

How did you learn to fit in?

"I just always wanted to be near the old guys most of the time," Heyward said. "I always wanted to be part of that group because you want to feel a part of something special. I didn't just want to be around the rookies because they haven't done it long. But being around those older guys, you understand that they know. Sometimes I'm like, 'Wow, how did they even do the stuff they did on the field?' You're just like 'These guys are some of the unsung heroes but they kick ass on Sundays.'

"But they went out of their way all the time. Whether it was just me talking to them or asking about plays or just getting the lay of the land. But they weren't going to settle for just anything on the field. And they weren't going to let me be a cancer to this team. They had the heartbeat of the team and that's some of what the hardass is made of, being the heartbeat of the team and knowing what the teams needs and embracing guys that want to be a part of it."

Do you see that happening here?

"I think so. I think we're going to have a chance to prove it a lot during the season. But I think we have all the guys in place to have that. Now it's just about doing it. We can sit up here and talk about it and say 'Oh, we're going to be this and that' but I'd rather show you on film."

While Moats can be labeled an energy-bringer, and Harrison a badass, Heyward is that rare mix of personality and physical intimidation who can be labeled as both.

"I think your big guys gotta be your tempo-setters," he said. And a Nation that watched "Mean Joe" would agree.

"When you have guys up front who lead and dominate, I think everything else becomes easy. I enjoy when we're out there kicking tail. You can tell and you can feel it as a group."

Another philosophical question gave Heyward pause, but as he gave it some thought, Tuitt interrupted.

It was nothing like the comments from the "peanut section" over in Harrison's corner. Tuitt had a smile and softly asked a question.

"Cam, are you doing a documentary over there?"

Heyward laughed. I laughed. Hargrave laughed. And then Mike Tomlin walked over. The vibe clearly drew him.

"You should conduct that meeting in his office," Tomlin said.

I answered that this seemed like a fine office.

"No, the office is back there," said Heyward as he pointed to the closed door between his two corner lockers.

I remembered that Troy used to go back into the same cubby space in his corner every now and then.

"That's just for meditating," Heyward said.

Tomlin laughed, "He's got a beanbag and a flat screen back there!"

I left satisfied with the interview. Tomlin started giving the business to Tuitt about how he had to make some plays before he could get one of those luxury corners.

The energy was rampant. I just needed a few of the younger guys to comment and tidy up this thing.


Jordan Dangerfield isn't quite there. Oh, no, he's all there, but he's not quite there in the starting lineup. Yet.

But he looked like an energy-bringing badass of a safety in the fourth preseason game, when he seemed to single-handedly keep a group of second and third-teamers together for a defense that allowed six field goals instead of the six touchdowns that seemed so likely to happen at the time.

Dangerfield made 10 tackles in the game and was clearly a group leader. His performance probably clinched the roster spot for a guy who had been on the practice squad the two previous seasons.

At the first practice with the 53, Ramon Foster dubbed Dangerfield "Deebo II."

"Yeah, they've been calling me that," said Dangerfield, who not only has the confidence and intelligence of a safety, but the eagle eyes.

Because you hit like James "Deebo" Harrison?

"I was thinking maybe because of the path he took," Dangerfield said.

Harrison of course was released from the active roster and/or practice squad three times in his first two years in Pittsburgh.

"And I've been wearing my sweatsuit," Dangerfield said. "You know those gray sweatsuits he wears? I've been wearing them and they say I'm trying to be like him. I guess it's a little inside joke thing."

Dangerfield called making the roster "a dream come true" and agrees that the last preseason game "had a lot to do with it, but they already knew what I could do. This whole preseason was big, and I got better each year and showed improvement and showed them what they wanted to see."

Which was?

"All-around safety play, coverage-wise, being able to know the playbook and adjust to certain playcalls, be vocal as a safety, know the playbook, defend the run and pass."

As a young player who's kept his mouth shut and just worked hard, how does Dangerfield fit in?

"I feel like I can fit right in," he said. "I think I fit in from Day One. They obviously saw something in me the first year, saw my potential that I could be a part of this defense. I just want to continue to show them. And as long as I get the opportunity, I will continue to show them."

The way Dangerfield hits, there are few doubting he can fit in. Whom does he see as the badasses at the core of this group?

"Vinny Williams, Deebo, of course, Mike Mitch. I think the whole starting 11. That's the Steelers defense and I feel like everybody on the defense brings that. Even the second team. I think everybody has that in them, and that's what makes a great defense.

"It's coming together. We've just got to show it."


If we're going to continue this '85 Bears theme, Ryan Shazier is your Mike Singletary in this series of interviews. Ryan's the ultra-serious playcalling inside linebacker who understands the concept of badassery, but isn't going to mock it or intellectualize it.

In that regard, he's an energy-bringer, and he brought that from the very first day of spring OTAs when he was installed as a starter.

"Yeah I definitely felt like I had to fit in, first of all because I was a first-round draft pick and people were expecting a lot out of me," he said. "I know a lot of these guys earned everything they've got and I didn't want to be given anything so I had to make sure I earned my way. A lot of these guys have been here for a long time and played a lot of great football and the Steelers are known for their defense. I wanted to make sure that when I came here that I could help us continue to be that."

Shazier said Polamalu, Harrison, Heyward and Lawrence Timmons struck him initially as the "baddest" of the group.

"I saw how they played, I saw how they practiced and I just wanted to be able to do the same things that they were able to do. But I definitely agree there's a fine line where you have to play with intelligence. You can go out the and hit everything that moves, and be the toughest guys on the field, but if you don't know what you're doing nothing's going to get done and you're going to get beat by teams that are more disciplined and more sound. So we had to make sure that we're out there making it tough for people but also be intelligent."

Shazier sometimes plays a bit too fast. Take this past preseason, when he repeatedly overran plays at 100 miles per hour. Was he throwing that fine line to the wind?

"That's what the preseason's for," he said. "I was just testing some of the things I wanted to see if I can do. I was testing my limits and I saw a lot of limits that I have and a lot of things I have to work on, but that's what the preseason's for, working out the kinks and all the rust from the break. I was trying to see how fast I could be with certain things and still be effective."

Shazier -- as optimistic as any third-year middle linebacker with his surreal brand of physical skills should be -- believes the entire unit found it's fine line, it's chi, it's badass self, this past preseason.

"I definitely think we found a nice chemistry and I think we're ready," he said. "We have a lot of great guys on this defense. We have some guys that are more bad than smart, and we have guys who are more smart than bad. But I think that little mix up of us together makes us a great defense, because we have some that are just both and no matter what or when they're on the field they're going to take care of their business. And we have some who you know are going to make other guys want to play and we've got some guys who are always going to be in position and make every play we need to make. I feel we have great camaraderie. This defense is definitely looking good."


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