Chris Adamski (@C_AdamskiTrib) takes us around the horn on the Steelers squad to discuss depth and roster questions/issues early in the offseason.
First, let’s start with defense and the scheme – inn speaking with some of the players this week it seems like the one common theme on defense is improved communication and some changes in scheme. Thoughts?
Well – if you consider that 40% of the starters (I consider five defensive backs with the slot corner to be starters) are entering their second year in the secondary, that’s big. The Steelers were not hiding their communication issues last year. It was the rallying cry all off season – fix the communication issues. Which makes sense since they started two rookies – one of which was out of position early on.
In terms of scheme, testing things is routine now. They have the whole off season to get it together, especially with this part as an emphasis.
How do you think they fixed the slot position with all these new players coming in?
We all watched the particular game on a Sunday in January in Massachusetts. William Gay has been an underrated corner for the Steelers for almost a decade. It seems like they perpetually try to replace him but he holds on, but we’re finally seeing more this year in that attempt with the drafting of two cornerbacks and bringing in a free agent. Sutton has been practicing on the outside right now but he expects to get some work in this slot. No disrespect to William Gay, but they do need an upgrade there, preferably with a younger guy with a longer future that they can develop.
Golson is the wildcard here. I was surprised when Colbert said they had to get back their trust with Golson – how candid he was. It’s understandable though considering his health issues. They drafted two cornerbacks and brought in a free agent – so it’s a crowded group right now. They brought in Sensabaugh for a reason and they are excited about Brian Allen – what he can develop in to. Golson has to show something. How does he fit in with limited spots. Maybe you can sneak Allen to the practice squad but its not easy to stash good guys away. Golden did look good though – he moved well in OTAs. But fair or not, he has to stay healthy to make the team.
How does the scheme changes affect these guys?
They are doing a bit more disguising in OTAs and mini-camp than last year. Progressively more disguising as the OTAs and camp go on. You could pick up on some of those changes – but it’s a trial run really. They’re not opening up the playbook yet. The man coverage is the big storyline of course – it’s become bigger than it’s own weight though. But its not as big as people think. In a perfect world if you can man up you’re better off – but you have to have the personnel to do it. We’ll see if they got those guys now. If they have the personnel they’ll do it more. If they had the guys before they would have no matter what the team may have said before – they just didn’t have those guys.
Moving to Vince Williams – any concerns with him at inside linebacker – it seems they’ve looked at a few guys to replace him…?
It’s awkward for sure. The contract Vince signed – the Steelers may have exploited the situation maybe… if they believed he was a high-caliber linebacker they would have given him more. Or maybe they were just smart with their money and he wanted to stay that bad. It doesn’t mean he can’t be a reputable starter – he just won’t likely be a Pro Bowler. But the defense has enough playmakers – he doesn’t have to be. He did lose weight to be leaner and faster to fit into the defense. When Shazier missed time they weren’t afraid to use him in coverage. They are comfortable with him – it won’t be a glaring hole.
So talk a bit about the few guys looking for contracts – Tuitt, Bell, Villinueva….?
It’s very rare that if the Steelers like someone they don’t keep them. Cherry-picking who they may have lost over the last decade, Chad Brown may be the one guy. I can tell you they really like Tuitt. They didn’t really want to keep Timmons, but they do want Tuitt. I think he will get a contract, but it always comes close to the end of camp. They even signed Cam Heyward right before camp ended two years ago.
The Bell situation is different. He was hurt every year and hasn’t finished a season yet, so it’s up in the air there. You can’t deny the historic numbers though, and how much he means to the team. He’s still young, and they like to draft young guys so that when they get to the second contract it doesn’t go into their declining years. They’ll let it play out, but if the agent presses them, that could change things. At least with Bell, we’ll know by the July 15th deadline.
With Villinueva there’s a mutual incentive to get him signed. The Steelers do like him – even if they’d win a standoff this year they’ll have to pay the piper next year. I think it makes sense to give him the money this year – get a discount now on his contract – and save on the ensuing years. So that’s the incentive to get the deal done now. It’s common sense – they have time to get the deal done in these eight weeks.
Yet Villinueva came to camp without a contract…
Well, he only has 27-28 games of NFL experience. He’s three years removed from playing defensive line for the Eagles. The Steelers picked him up after he was waived and moved him to offensive tackle. At 28 he still has less experience at tackle than some guys who are playing at Pitt.
There is altruism too in his coming to camp without a contract – he’s a good guy and a hard worker. But he’s also expected to do what he is doing. He needs the work, he needs every rep he can get. He has insurance if he gets hurt, but it’s good that he wasn’t. All’s well that ends well, and he ended up earning the support of the team and the players. It was a win-win.
So tell us a bit about a very crowded, wide-receiver corps. Who do you think makes the squad and who doesn’t?
It’s tough because even a guy like Canaan Severin – that’s a guy they like – but has zero chance to make the squad. Maybe he makes the practice squad.
The Steelers were spooked. Can anyone say with 100% certainty that Martavis Bryant will play week one vs Cleveland? They felt they needed insurance so drafted Schuster and signed Hunter in free agency. They have Coates too. Hamilton’s a great guy and he made some plays, but the Steelers don’t want him getting as many snaps as he did last year. That’s not a knock on him. Coates – does he have Steve Blass disease? Has he lost it? I know a lot of people blamed his drops on his broken finger, but he has to prove himself this year. He started off last season strong and ended up third in the league in catches over 40 yards, – and yet he only had three catches in the last half of the season!
It’s tough. DHB is the wild card. He’s well-respected and the coaches love him. He transformed himself from an over-drafted player to a hard worker and special team’s ace. I think he makes the team, but if a guy like Ayers has a good camp, will they cut him? You can’t sneak a guy like Ayers on the practice squad. Sometimes the Steelers overvalue their own guys, but when cuts are made the waiver wire is flooded with talent, so maybe you can keep guys like that. Hunter has to show something. He certainly was signed as an insurance policy for Bryant. He’s like Bryant light. I can’t imagine that if Coates looks good that Hunter would make the team. In the end, things work themselves out. When you have 90 guys and 3 are set to make the team, there are 6 spots that guys are fighting for.
Any part of the team we should be more concerned about than we’ve addressed so far?
Well the defensive line. Tuitt has been out. Hargarve missed time, and Hayward is still recovering from his surgery. So that’s all three starters. It does help that the younger guys get more reps, so that’s good – guys like Walton are getting more reps and he especially has been playing confidently. He played nose tackle above McCullers last year, so that does pose questions about where Dan is at on this team. Alualu – I’m high on him, but this time last year we looked at Matthews and I was high on him too and that didn’t work out well. I guess then we were comparing him to Cam Thomas then and anyone would look good. But Walton looked good, he wants to be that guy, it’s just going to be hard for him to break in over Alualu.
And what are your last thoughts about outside linebacker?
They have depth now at outside linebacker. They won’t want to ride Harrison too hard early in the season. They want to treat him just like they did last year. The Steelers know that one of these years it will catch up to him, but it hasn’t yet amazingly. But this year it might not be so much that Harrison’s play downgrades – if Watt is as expected he could take more time away from Harrison. You see signs of it with this athleticism and he just seems to get it. But keep in mind right now it’s all in shorts, and I thought the same thing about Jarvis Jones four years ago, who didn’t pan out, so you take it all with a grain of salt.
I’m also interested to see if Keion Adams fits in. There are rumblings of moving Moats inside, but I don’t see it happening. I guess I could see it if there are issues with injuries at inside linebacker.
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