Defensive info prior to camp......
Q. Is this going to be the year when the Steelers actually follow through on what seems to be the annual promise to rotate the outside linebackers in an attempt to keep fresh bodies on the field to rush the passer?
This actually has been going on long enough for Jason Gildon to have been a part of it from both ends — as a promising situational pass rusher as a rookie in 1994 who couldn’t get many repetitions because he was behind Kevin Greene, to Gildon being the established veteran of 10 seasons who rarely came off the field despite the presence of another capable young guy named Clark Haggans.
In 2007, Haggans was the starter and rookie LaMarr Woodley was the promising newcomer who couldn’t get onto the field, at least not as much as his production early in the season warranted. After three games last season, Woodley had two sacks, but in the ensuing two games he played little on defense. In the sixth game, he got
his third sack, but then again, in the ensuing three games he played little.
Woodley and James Harrison will be the starting linebackers this season, and behind them is No. 3 pick Bruce Davis, of whom Coach Mike Tomlin said, “He had a distinguishing characteristic that stood out — he applies pressure off the edge and offensive tackles had a problem with him.”
Since pressuring the quarterback is critical to the success of the Steelers’ style of defense, it would seem a good idea to keep the pass rushers as fresh as possible with the same type of rotation system used along the defensive line. But that has seemed to be a good idea for the last 15 years.
Q. Five of the top six defensive linemen are over 30. How is that going to be managed
during camp and the preseason?
A lot of the nagging, camp-common injuries are located in the leg muscles, and the hamstring strains and groin pulls usually happen to the guys doing a lot of the sprinting and cutting. That said, the health of the top six defensive linemen — Aaron Smith, Casey Hampton, Brett Keisel, Chris Hoke, Travis Kirschke and Nick Eason — should be monitored. Not one of those guys, Smith particularly, shies away from repetitions, but there should be times when the decision is made for them.
Q. Are there going to be any changes made to the starting 11?
The obvious competition to watch is the one between Larry Foote and Lawrence Timmons at inside linebacker in the 3-4. Timmons was the first No. 1 pick of the Mike
Tomlin era, and he was chosen that high because he is seen as a run-hitcover guy whose skill set would give coordinator Dick LeBeau options for his zone blitzes. After a
start slowed by a nagging groin issue, Timmons finished his rookie season as an improving player. He will come to camp this summer as a much more confident individual with a
higher comfort level of the scheme.
Foote originally got his chance when Kendrell Bell couldn’t get off the sideline during camp in 2004, and since then he has been nothing but a quality starter on a defense that
consistently ranked among the league’s best for a team that won a lot of games, as well as a good teammate and a solid citizen off the field. Foote played very well during the 2005 postseason, and he hasn’t missed a start since breaking into the lineup full time.
The battle ultimately could be decided by who makes more of what Tomlin calls “splash plays.”
Q. Any others?
Every summer for the past few, there has been some thought that Deshea Townsend will be unseated as the starting right cornerback, but every time he has been up to the challenge, most recently from Bryant McFadden. Townsend has the best ball skills among the cornerbacks, he’s smart, a good tackler, and he has missed only six starts since breaking into the lineup full time in the ninth game of 2003.
His ability to play the ball could have made Townsend a good safety, but he’s been too valuable as a cornerback for the team to experiment.
Q. How about a sleeper?
As mentioned earlier, five of the top six returning defensive linemen are on the other side of 30, and the team didn’t draft any or sign any as free agents. That could create some opportunity for Martavius Prince, an undrafted rookie from Southern Mississippi.
While Prince better fits the definition of a sleeper, Ryan McBean should be in a better spot to compete as a defensive end. A fourth-round pick in 2007, McBean was on the practice squad for 13 games as a rookie and then the early part of his offseason was
ruined by a foot injury. But that healed, and McBean was working out at the team’s facility a lot between the end of OTAs and the start of camp.