Steelers postcard (cont.)
New Face, New Place
You know a team feels pretty good about its Super Bowl championship roster when the only real free agent of note is coming in to compete for the third wide receiver spot. The Steelers signed Shaun McDonald to vie for playing time with Sweed and others. The Steelers drafted a younger version of McDonald in Mississippi speedster Mike Wallace in the third round, so McDonald's role on the team is not yet defined. The good thing for McDonald is that when the Steelers bring in a free agent to supplement their roster, whether it be James Farrior, Justin Hartwig or Ryan Clark, it is usually with a purpose. At a minimum, the additions of McDonald and Wallace add significant speed to the receiving corps and provides some depth for the unit in case Sweed never comes around.
In typical Steeler fashion, no rookies are slated to crack the starting lineup. The most likely candidate, third-round pick Urbik at right guard, had a slow start, which makes it more likely that incumbent Darnell Stapleton or veteran challenger Trai Essex will start. That means the "rook" with the best chance for playing time early is first-round pick Evander "Ziggy" Hood.
Hood is athletic enough to play defensive end. However, the beauty of his body type and skill set is that he's also strong enough to hold down the nose tackle position if necessary. That means he will likely get significant snaps in the defensive line rotation as a rookie and then probably man one of the defensive line spots in 2010 since Hampton and Brett Keisel are in the final years of their contracts and long-time trench warrior Aaron Smith has seen his best days.
Watching James Harrison and James Farrior screaming at the third-string defense as it attempted to keep the third-string offense from scoring toward the end of practice. It epitomized what Steeler football is all about. Both guys, each of whom already has a pair of Super Bowl Rings, implored the backups to keep the offense out of the end zone. You could tell the catcalls from the veterans got the younger players excited, knowing the starters were watching.
The best part of the scene was how pure the furor was. They were dead serious. They did not want the offense to score and they wanted the young Steeler defenders to know what it means to be a Steeler. The ensuing couple of plays were the most intense of the day. Though the offense finally scored on third down, the real winners were the Steeler fans and everyone who believes the mentality in Pittsburgh is just a little bit different.
Things are going well for a franchise when it can extend the contracts of two of its starters at the game's highest paid positions, other than quarterback, at well below market value. Both left tackle Max Starks and pass rushing outside linebacker James Harrison signed long-term deals that are decidedly less than what their peers at those elite positions around the NFL are getting paid these days. People have long talked about how the Patriots are able to get players to play or stay for less. Well, the Steelers now have the same dynamic unfolding. "I really just wanted to have some security and know that I was going to a part of a team with legitimate championship expectations every season, and as soon as they gave me something that showed they really wanted me here, I was happy," said Starks.
The master of defensive ingenuity in the NFL is over 70 and his name is Dick LeBeau. I mean, think about that for a second, in an era of technological advances from devices like the iPod to the social networking platform available via Twitter, the guy coming up with the most new schemes on defense in the NFL is a septuagenarian. LeBeau shows absolutely no signs of slowing down. With a talented returning roster, why should he?
The signing of tight end Heath Miller was stabilizing for a position where the Steelers have long had talented, versatile performers and depth. And even though the team seems pleased with backup Matt Spaeth, his subpar blocking performance in the Super Bowl had to contribute to the Steelers feeling they needed to keep Miller as the starter.
New projected starting corner William Gay has adopted the physical mindset his mates in the secondary displayed the last couple of seasons. During one team period, Gay smoked Wallace in the back after he caught a pass; it was the best hit of the day, by far.
It might be a surprise, but the truth is that the Steelers don't really talk about last year's Super Bowl season very much. No talk about defending their title, no discussion about starting anew, they just move on like nothing happened at all. They feel like they get their opponents' best every week because they are the Pittsburgh Steelers, so they don't anticipate this season being any different.
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