Pittsburgh Steelers turning up expectations for the James Gang

Inexperienced trio played well for Steelers against 3-4 defense Monday night, but a bigger, stronger challenge awaits

PITTSBURGH -- The offensive line was in a meeting, so that meant most of the normal post-practice partying was gone from the Steelers locker room.

The defensive line was busy hassling Javon Hargrave about his namplate, which he had secretly changed from "J. Wobble" to "Hargrave."

The DBs had left as soon as they could because they were no doubt tired of answering the same old questions.

And the media was crowding its notebooks, cameras and boom mikes around the week's offensive skill position star, DeAngelo Williams.

In the corner sitting quietly on his stool, bent over halfway into his locker, was Xavier Grimble. He was scribbling furiously into a binder notebook and had no time to talk.

It's a big week for the tight ends, isn't it?

"Yeah," Grimble said as he looked up to see a reporter. "Definitely."

Is this what it means when they say you're in your playbook?

"Yeah," Grimble said, this time without looking up. "Gotta stay on top of it."

Of course, these young tight ends seem to be cramming every week, and on Monday night it paid off with a winning performance at Washington. Jesse James caught five passes for 31 yards and made some key blocks. David Johnson made even more blocks and seemed to fit right in with a group of pulling offensive linemen who would've made the old Hogs proud.

Grimble made his professional debut without any glaring mistakes, and that's not to be trivialized considering the rocky preseason he and the rest of the group had in trying to replace Heath Miller, Matt Spaeth and injured free agent Ladarius Green.

But now, their bosses want more.

"That’s an element of the matchup that’s a significant one this week," Mike Tomlin said at his weekly press conference. "The Bengals have some enormous defensive ends, some guys who create ridiculous and physical mismatch issues on the ends of the line of scrimmage. Guys like (Carlos) Dunlap, (Michael) Johnson, (Margus) Hunt and (Will) Clarke are all 6-5, 6-6, long guys who are 275-290 pound men, who are generally capable of dominating tight ends. The work of Jesse and Coach (James) Daniel and others are going to be put on display this week, so keep an eye on that one."

Thanks for the tip, coach.

But why?

Why are the tight ends more important this week than last?

"Because they're a 4-3 team," said Johnson. "It's a different scheme. Instead of outside linebackers, we'll be going against D-ends."

Makes sense.

"It’s always a key when we play these guys," said offensive coordinator Todd Haley. "I thought last week was a good step for our guys. Now we are in the AFC North. We are playing a defense that has been ranked near the top for a number of years. This will be a real test."

The Steelers have a history of being able to run on the Bengals, and they have a history of using their tight ends to do so, particularly out in space. The counter trey featuring guard David DeCastro often included Miller on the move and Spaeth sealing the edge.

Of course, those two are gone and it's up to James and particularly Johnson, who appears to be the best blocker of the trio.

With the Steelers from 2009 through 2013, Johnson caught 22 passes, served as an H-back/fullback and left for San Diego in free agency. He spent two years with the Chargers and caught two passes. When he signed a one-year deal with the Steelers this past March, there was little fanfare among the media and/or fans, but the Steelers felt differently.

"DJ was a favorite before he left," Haley said. "Not just of the coaches but the players. He's a tough guy that does a lot of dirty work, much like Matt Spaeth did. I heard he was coming back, and everybody was excited.

"The big thing is, he came back in terrific shape. When he left here he was pretty beat up. He had been hurt for two years straight with one thing or the other. It was slowing him down. He came back in really good shape. He was moving around good, and he continues to. Once we saw him in person, and we got to camp, I think everybody was like, 'I’m glad he is here.'"

And with the loss of Spaeth and then Green, that feeling has grown.

At 245 pounds, Johnson claimed to be in the best shape of his life, and during camp Tomlin exclaimed that Johnson's route-running had improved appreciably since he was in Pittsburgh the last time. Suddenly, he's the veteran leader of the misfit bunch that proved itself in Week One. And with Cincinnati tight end Tyler Eifert expected to miss Sunday's game, he and his guys are the ones to watch.

NOTES -- Ryan Shazier (knee) returned to practice and is expected to play Sunday. ... Ben Roethlisberger, who slipped and limped out of Wednesday's practice, worked with a brace on his knee Thursday. ... Even though WR Markus Wheaton is back practicing, Haley said that Eli Rogers will remain the slot receiver "predominantly now." ... Haley called the game played Monday night by right tackle Marcus Gilbert "as good a game as I have seen him play, or really a right tackle in general with what we asked him to do. To see a tackle pull around there two or three times, smashing linebackers, creating holes, pass protection, was excellent." ... Alan Faneca, who lives in Washington D.C., hitched a ride with the team back to Pittsburgh to work with the offensive line this week. He's still pondering a career in coaching and Tomlin appreciated the offer to help.


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