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  • Checkdown Audible: Mike Tomlin getting more involved with Butler, Steelers defense

    steelers-keith-butler-defendive-coordinator-ap-rta-sports-photo
    Checkdown Audible

    Don’t be fooled.  Once Dick LeBeau parted ways with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Keith Butler took firm control of a defense he’d been waiting to run as the defensive coordinator.  Since becoming head coach in 2007, Mike Tomlin – a ‘defense guy’ – has kept a pulse on the defense, but allowed his coordinators and coaching staff to micromanage for the most part.  The relationship between Butler and Tomlin, however, has created a unique opportunity for the two to mesh.  Tomlin has been more outwardly participating during training camp this year, something he didn’t do out of respect for Hall of Fame player and assistant coach LeBeau.  Part of the change has been a level of comfort Tomlin has with Butler – a man he spent time coaching with at the University of Memphis and Arkansas State in the 1990s.  With a cooperative effort, the two men may just jump start a Steelers defense that has needed a jolt over the past couple of seasons.

    When Butler was the defensive coordinator at Arkansas Stake, Tomlin was a secondary coach.   Granted, Butler has Carnell Lake and former corner Ike Taylor in camp to assist as well, but he isn’t opposed to having Tomlin step in to work with the defensive backs.  At this point, any improvement in a secondary that bled consistently in 2014, especially in pass protection, would be welcome.

    “I always thought the best chance for me to win a Super Bowl as a coordinator would be (in Pittsburgh),” said Butler.  And his approach is the coach the team to a Super Bowl.  Although Tomlin has given Butler the green light to reign the defense, Butler isn’t opposed to Tomlin giving him extra insight.

    ”I’ve known him for a long time and I look for his input,” said Butler.  ”It would be foolish for me not to get advice from him when his expertise is defense.”

    Butler understands that with a changing of the ‘old guard’ to new, younger players will be part of his challenge, especially in creating an effective plan that utilizes their skills individually and as a unit.  “It’s important that they know I care about them and want them to be successful,” said Butler.  His policy is honesty and fairness.

    Several times during the first week of training camp, Tomlin was seen spending time working with the corners and safeties on zone coverages, something he is familiar with and utilized as a secondary coach with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.  The zone allows defensive backs to read the quarterback instead of focusing on often difficult route assignments.  Butler had hinted that he was willing to change things up, and looks to be implementing a one-gap style along the defensive line that is intended to be more disruptive by penetrating opposing offensive lines, giving the defensive backs time to prepare for teams that employ a zone-blocking scheme that allows the stretch play – like the Baltimore Ravens and Denver Broncos.  In the past, the Steelers focused on a two-gap style that required defensive linemen to read a play before reacting, often forcing them to be slower off the snap.  The goal is to take advantage of the youth and aggressive playing style of defensive ends Stephon Tuitt and Cam Heyward as well as a talented group of linebackers with high potential.

    It simplifies a lot of things,” Butler said. “If you’re reading routes, there is some stuff people can do when reading routes that gives you problems and, mentally, it taxes you. If you drop back and read the quarterback, how simple is that? I think it simplifies our defense, lets us be more aggressive and helps us use our speed.”

    Former Steelers linebacker Joey Porter, now in charge as an assistant in coaching the linebackers, says that Butler is ready to lead.  “He’s been preparing himself for this situation for awhile,” said Porter.  “He knows the ins and outs of the defense…He’s definitely ready for it.” Porter is familiar with Butler’s perseverance after spending years playing under him.

    As for Tomlin, Butler fully believes that his input is not only critical but has been a good thing for them as a coaching tandem.  “That hardest thing about being a head coach is you don’t get the opportunity…” Butler said of Tomlin spending more time focused on helping the defense.  “This is his opportunity.  He’s happy doing it and he’s good at doing it.  It’s going to help us a lot.”

    The Steelers aren’t ‘old and slow’ anymore and with a younger defense learning a system that has been tweaked to their athletic abilities, things are looking up.  The players are buying into the system and part of that comes from the level of trust they have in both Butler and Tomlin.

     
  • Steelers bolster defense by signing Brandon Boykin

    Brandon-Boykin-Eagles-Steelers-Cornerback
    On Saturday, the Pittsburgh Steelers announced that they have signed young cornerback Brandon Boykin in a trade from the Philadelphia Eagles.  The addition became necessary as one by one Steelers cornerbacks, including Doran Grant and Senquez Golson (rookies) went on the injury report.

    The trade gives the Eagles a conditional fifth-round pick in the 2016 NFL draft, but could be moved up to a fourth-rounder based on how much playing time Boykin receives; plus his value.  Boykin is the latest veteran player to be bailed out of Chip Kelly’s haberdashery – we’re talking notions, not clothing goods here.  Kelly’s medicine show has found Nick Foles, LeSean McCoy, James Casey, Evan Mathis, Todd Herremans, Cary Williams and a handful of other players headed other directions.

    The Steelers began training camp with an announcement that 2015 second-rounder Golson was placed on the PUP list due to a shoulder injury that may or may not be a lingering issue from college.  Golson is expected by many insiders to miss significant time, not just in training camp, with the Steelers.

    Additionally, as the first week of camp practices went into the books, veterans Cortez Allen and Mike Mitchell both had injuries, as did rookie Grant.  Leaving Will Allen, who hasn’t been put through too vigorous of training by the coaching staff, and Antwon Blake as the lone wolves in the defensive backfield.  Whether Boykin’s hiring is a sign that Golson may be a wash for 2015 altogether remains to be seen.

    At 25, Boykin has seen his share of downtime.  He missed the second half of the 2014 season and was seen by some receivers, including Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown as a bit soft early in his career.  In 2012, Brown referred to Boykin as a ‘candy bar’, inferring it was a treat to go one-on-one against him. Brown made his point by snagging a late third-down reception in the second half of the game that was key to the Steelers’ 16-14 win.

    As a fellow teammate and after seeing Boykin mature as a player, Brown may be thankful to have him on the roster.  Boykin grades higher than any Steelers corner currently on the roster in pass coverage (based on 2014 totals).  At five feet, nine inches, Boykin isn’t an ideal height for an NFL corner but has shown the ability to go vertical with taller receivers.  Heading into the final year of his rookie contract, Boykin has developed into a competitive slot corner; one of just eleven players to play at least 50% of their time at that position between 2012-2014.

    In a list that includes slot corners Chris Harris, Jimmy Wilson, Nickell Robey, Darius Butler, Orlando Scandrick, Captain Munnerlyn, Buster Skrine, Josh Wilson, Leonard Johnson and Brice McCain (who spent time with Pittsburgh in 2014) – Boykin ranked second with 139 targets, 85 receptions, two touchdowns on seven interceptions and held opposing quarterbacks to a 67.1 QB rating.  Only Harris held opposing quarterbacks to a lower rating at 63.5.

    In June, Boykin said, “I’m just going to continue to be the best slot in the NFL…I feel like I am. I feel like my statistics show that and that’s what I’m focused on.”. Boykin has verbalized his desire to play on the outside as well as in the slot, but it wasn’t going to happen in Kelley’s system.  Whether Keith Butler sees Boykin as a potential outside corner will likely be addressed as camp progresses.

    With Pittsburgh fielding one of the league’s worst pass defenses in 2014 -ranked 23rd in completion percentage allowed, 28th in yards per pass allowed, 27th in passing yards allowed per game – the team saw opponents put up passing touchdown over touchdown with little answer, giving some of the most statistically deficient quarterbacks they faced a big boost in rating.

    Golson and Grant were drafted to address serious depth questions, but Boykin’s addition may be the healing balm the Steelers need at cornerback.  Pittsburgh made a sound financial deal as well.  To keep Boykin around past this upcoming season, the Steelers likely will look at a similar contract offered to Skrine of four years for $25 million (with the Jets).  Boykin has overshadowed Skrine thus far, but will have to prove himself to hunt for a figure above that.

    The Steelers snagged Shaquille Richardson and Terry Hawthorne in the fifth round of the  2013 and 2014 draft (Richardson in 2014), but neither made the rookie roster and are no longer playing in the league.  The fact that they were able to reverse those moves by grabbing Boykin, drafted in a similar situation, out of Philadelphia’s pocket looks like not only a smart investment but a move that could have high returns.

     
  • Blast Furnace: Don’t get caught up in training camp storylines

    Blast Furnace

    It’s hot. Martavis Bryant put on some weight (in a good way). All of the signal-callers not named Ben are having trouble mastering the intricacies of the center-quarterback exchange. Mike Tomlin is back in front of the microphone speaking those carefully crafted (if not recycled) and smoothly delivered catchphrases we’ve all come to know. Did I mention it’s hot?

    Not sure about the rest of you, but through the first few days of training camp, that’s about all I’ve learned about the 2015 Pittsburgh Steelers. And quite honestly, that’s about all I need to know when we haven’t even flipped our calendars to August yet.

    Sure, we’re all thrilled that Tom Brady won’t be under center when the Steelers open the regular season in New England and that Le’Veon Bell’s suspension was reduced from three games to two, but I’ve always been hesitant to focus solely on the things the media at large has latched on to or rely on second- and third-hand accounts of the goings-on at St. Vincent as a means of gauging the quality of this year’s iteration of the black and gold.

    This being my first full football season as a (somewhat) active member of social media, I honestly don’t know what to do with the drips and drabs of “news” that clog my Twitter feed. It’s all fine and good that Heath Miller catches everything that comes out of the Jugs machine, that Antonio Brown is dedicating himself to becoming the best wide receiver on the planet and Bud Dupree prefers to scratch his behind with his left hand (OK, maybe I made up that last one), but everything that happens between now and Sept. 10 is just details.

    Sure, every commentator from Al Michaels to Greg Gumbel to Jon Gruden will recycle tales from training camp to fill the dead air between plays during their broadcasts this fall and winter as a means of illustrating the grit, toughness or humanity of a particular player. But when it comes down to it – when a drive, a game, a season is on the line this December – I could care less who dominated the backs-on-backers drill, what kind of car they drove to Latrobe or which cartoon character adorned their dorm-room pillow five months earlier.

    I’ll concede that those types of anecdotes do add context (and help fill the countless hours of pre-, post- and in-game programming), the fact that Cortez Allen has two pet turtles named Starsky and Hutch shouldn’t mean a thing to the members of Steeler Nation.

    OK, you got me. I made up that one too. Enjoy the rest of training camp!

     
  • 2015 Pittsburgh Steelers Training Camp: Defensive Line

    Cam-Heyward-Steelers-Defensive-Lineman-2014  Another interesting position to look out for during the 2015 Steelers training camp is the defensive line. This group contains the unsung heroes for Pittsburgh on the defensive side of the ball.

    The Steelers employ a 3-4 defense and the defensive line job is much different from most teams. Typically these groups in past years were asked to protect the linebackers, stay in their gaps and provide a constant push up front. That might change under the tutelage of Keith Butler.   The Steelers have a formidable group of starters that work well together. The weakness with this group is the lack of depth. There is a strong chance that you might see some new blood amongst the last few spots.

    Cameron Heyward (Defensive end) – The undisputed leader of the defensive unit, Heyward was rewarded with a 6 year 59 million dollar extension 2 weeks ago. Tied for the team lead last year with 7.5 sacks, he will be asked to take on a bigger role this year. You can argue that he is the face of the defense.

    Steve McLendon (Defensive tackle)- A 6-year undrafted pro from Troy, McLendon is in the final year of his contract. I think he will be motivated to have a good year. At times he’s unfairly compared to Casey Hampton. A good pro – the starting DT spot is his.

    Stephon Tuitt – (Defensive end) – He should start opposite of Cam Heyward now that Brett Kiesel is gone. Starting at the halfway point of last year, I think he has the potential to be a really good one. Was drafted last year in the 2nd round from Notre Dame. His time is now.

    Cam Thomas – (Defensive tackle) – Signed last year to provide depth. Thomas could be a camp casualty if some of the younger guys step up. He has been somewhat of a disappointment and is usually the target of Steelers fans. Needs to have a good camp just to stick.

    Clifton Geathers – (Defensive end) – a 6 year pro, Pittsburgh is his 7th team. More of a camp body because of his experience. Has a chance to make the roster if the younger guys don’t impress.

    Daniel McCullers – (Defensive tackle) – ‘Big Dan’ got his feet wet and did well in limited action in 2014. He should have a bigger role this year. His development could force the Steelers’ hand with McLendon.

    L.T. Walton – (Defensive end) – Drafted in the 6th round of the 2015 draft from Central Michigan – the same school that produced Antonio Brown – Walton has nice size and moves very well for a man his size. He might need a year of experience to contribute. Should make the team.
    Intangibles/Long-shots
    Joe Kruger – (Defensive End) – Originally drafted by the Eagles in the 7th round of the 2013 draft, he played his college ball at Utah. Kruger needs to make an impact early to open some eyes.
    Nico Davis – (Defensive end) – A 25 year old rookie that played his college ball at Liberty. Undrafted rookie free agent.
    Matt Conratt –(Defensive end) – Conratt is a 3 year pro that got a taste of the big leagues with the Rams. Nice size at 6-7 and 306 lbs. Could impress and has some experience.
    Summary
    The starters of this unit are a solid group. A lot depends on how this group gels as a collective unit in training camp. If one of the starters get injured, the Steelers are thin up front. Pittsburgh needs to have some of the younger guys step up just for depth purposes.

     
  • Steelers RB Le’Veon Bell’s Suspension Reduced from Three Games to Two

    Pittsburgh Steelers v Cincinnati Bengals

    The Steelers got good news on two sides on Tuesday – First they won’t be playing against Tom Brady opening night, as the NFL upheld the Patriots QB’s suspension, and then it was announced that Steelers RB Le’Veon Bell’s suspension has been REDUCED from 3 games to two.

    Bell will miss the opener against the Patriots in New England, and in week two he will have to sit at home against the 49ers, and will be able to return in week 3 vs the Rams in St.Louis.

     
 
 

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