Steelers training camp observations: Can the D replace James Harrison?

By Ryan Wilson | CBSSports.com


Timmons (94) and Foote (50) look on as Woodley (56) and Jones (95) work with the OLBs. (Ryan Wilson, CBSSports.com)

LATROBE, PA -- Inside linebacker Larry Foote is in his 12th NFL season. But in 2002, he was a wide-eyed fourth-round pick trying to make the roster. When he arrived in Pittsburgh, Jason Gildon and Joey Porter were entrenched at the outside linebacker positions. By 2004, Clark Haggans had replaced Gildon, and Mike Tomlin's arrival in 2007 coincided with Porter's departure -- and James Harrison's emergence as one of the league's most ferocious players.

Now there's another changing of the guard; Harrison was released this offseason and Jason Worilds, Harrison's backup since 2010 -- or possibly the Steelers' first-round pick from this April, Jarvis Jones -- will have the opportunity to fill that void.

Harrison's first full season as a starter yielded 8.5 sacks and 7 forced fumbles, none of which came as a surprise to Foote.

"That was his third or fourth year and I knew by the time he became a starter that he was capable," Foote told CBSSports.com. "Whenever he was on the field as a part-time player he always dominated, and I knew he was a force. And he just exploded [in 2007]. That's what Worilds should be looking at. That position is a unique position because if you get sacks, you play. It's that simple."

And what about Jones, who struggled to get off blocks when we watched him during Wednesday's practice.

TE Jamie McCoy gets the best of Jarvis Jones as coach Mike Tomlin looks on. (Ryan Wilson, CBSSports.com)

"It's wide open," Foote continued. "In preseason and early in the season, if you're sacking the quarterback, you gotta play. Coach can't keep you off the field if you're sacking. So if Worilds wants to keep Jarvis behind him, you got to sack the quarterback."

Worilds, a former second-rounder out of Virginia Tech, has flashed that ability in limited opportunities, registering five sacks in three starts last season. Jones, meanwhile, arrived in Pittsburgh as one of the best players in college a year ago. In his senior season at Georgia, Jones racked up 14.5 sacks, 24.5 tackles for loss, and seven forced fumbles. Learning the nuances of outside linebacker in Dick LeBeau's scheme is notoriously difficult -- even for Jones, who lined up at the position in college.

But as Foote pointed out, when you break it down, replacing Harrison comes down to one thing: Sacks.

More observations

* Cornerback William Gay returned to the Steelers this offseason after spending 2012 in Pittsburgh West (also known as the Arizona Cardinals). Pittsburgh drafted him in the fifth round back in 2007, and Gay was a capable slot corner for much of his first five years in the league. Now that he's back, Gay will again be part of a three-man rotation that includes veteran Ike Taylor and new starter Cortez Allen. Allen enters his third season and he'll take over for Keenan Lewis, who signed with the Saints this spring.

Like Worilds or Jones, from the perspective of early August, the question is a simple one: Can Allen handle the responsibility of being a starter? For Gay there's no question.

"I have high expectations for him," Gay told CBSSports.com. "He has high expectations for himself, and he's ready for the challenge. He's a Citadel grad so you can't get much past him. No pressure is too big for him. …

"I've been training with [Allen] all offseason," Gay continued, "and I've seen him develop his skill, his craft, and he's looking very much like a cornerback that's supposed to be a starter in this league."

* Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark aren't in danger of losing their jobs anytime soon, but the Steelers lost their two backup safeties -- Will Allen and Ryan Mundy -- to free agency. It's why they traded up in the fourth round of April's draft to take Syracuse's Shamarko Thomas, a 5-9, 213-pound fire hydrant who has drawn comparisons to Bob Sanders. But like most rookies, the transition from college to the NFL is a process and Thomas admits that he's in the early stages of making those adjustments.

S Shamarko Thomas (29) covers fellow rookie WR Markus Wheaton (11) during team drills. (Ryan Wilson, CBSSports.com)

"It's crazy," he told CBSSports.com. "It's a lot faster. You have to learn how to communicate more. In college, you play with athleticism. Here you have to play with technique and smarts. …

"I'm thinking more than I'd like to," he continued. "I'm not playing at my full speed right now -- the game is going, people are flying around, knowing what I'm supposed to be doing -- I just have to learn how to adjust and make the game slower for myself."

* Quarterback Ben Roethlisbergerlooks to be in midseason form -- except he's thinner and healthy.

Big Ben found Antonio Brown on a long bomb down the sidelines (click to enlarge). (Ryan Wilson, CBSSports.com)

But his backups -- Charlie Batch and Byron Leftwich -- are gone, replaced by Bruce Gradkowski, rookie fourth-rounder Landry Jones, and John Parker Wilson. None of the three looked particularly sharp on Wednesday (it's one practice so take that for what it's worth), but Gradkowski did find Plaxico Burress on a deep bomb down the middle of the field for a touchdown. So how did Burress get so wide open? Shamarko Thomas, the safety on the play, got caught looking in the backfield.

"It might have been what the defense didn't do as opposed to what [Burress] did," Tomlin said after practice.

* If Le'Veon Bell runs during the season like he did at practice, the Steelers should have little trouble reestablishing a running game that languished a season ago. New offensive line coach Jack Bicknell, Jr. is also installing a zone-blocking scheme, which relies on having quick linemen. Maurkice Pouncey, David DeCastro and Mike Adams all looked light on their feet during drills. I have questions about Ramon Foster or Marcus Gilbert, but that's what OTAs and training camp are for.

RB Le'Veon Bell treads CB Curtis Brown during 11-on-11, though Brown still makes the tackle. (Ryan Wilson, CBSSports.com)

* One of the storylines we can expect from the national media early in the season will have to do with the loss of Mike Wallace, who left for the Dolphins in March as soon as free agency opened. Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders are still here and both looked like savvy veterans on Wednesday. Another player who also stood out: Rookie third-round pick Markus Wheaton, another 5-11, 185-pound burner in the Brown and Sanders mold who made several nice plays during 11-on-11 drills.

"All of them are quick," Gay said of the Steelers pass catchers. "Almost every receiver is quick off the line. It's going to keep you honest as a DB when you're pressing those guys to make sure you're on top of them because they're quick as lightning. That goes from the rookies up to the veteran starters."

* It's hard to read too much into where a player stands on the depth chart based on watching one practice. But Alan Baxter (6-0, 238), a rookie linebacker out of Northern Illinois, spent much of the 11-on-11 drills in the offensive backfield disrupting plays. Something to keep an eye on.

* Another player who has apparently been impressive so far: Nose tackle Hebron Fangupo. We didn't see him in practice but we saw his calves and … well, the man looks like an action figure.

Even Cortez Allen (28) is amazed at the size of Hebron Fangupo's calves. Which, frankly, are amazing. (Ryan Wilson, CBSSports.com)

* These are Ryan Clark's socks. That is all.

Maybe socks are Ryan Clark's thing. Like bow ties are Dhani Jones' thing. (Ryan Wilson, CBSSports.com)

* Here is a panorama of Chuck Noll Field at Saint Vincent's College (click on the photo to enlarge).

(Ryan Wilson, CBSSports.com)

* I had the pleasure of watching practice with SteelCityInsider.net's Jim Wexell (@JimWexell) and Sports on Earth's Mike Tanier (@MikeTanier). Two really smart football guys worth following on Twitter. Tanier tweeted this during special teams drills and I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't seen it.

* So Adrian Peterson said earlier this week that he'd like to break Emmitt Smith's all-time rushing mark by 2017. Doing the math, that means Peterson will need to average more than 1,900 yards over the next five seasons. That seems ... absurd. But AP is also the guy who gained more than 2,000 yards after shredding his knee the year before. He also did this to William Gay back during the 2009 season.

We don't bring this up to give Gay a hard time. In fact, we asked him about it Wednesday. (Yes, we know, it happened almost four years ago but we really wanted to hear Gay's thoughts on the play.)

"Yeah, I remember that," Gay said. "It was one of those plays where, man, I got caught thinking, 'What should I do?' I'm not a dirty player so I didn't want to go after his knees, and I got caught between 'Should I go for his knees or hit him up top?' Next thing you know, he saw me, ducked his head, and ran me over.

"I know next time I ain't thinking. I ain't thinking at all. I'm just going to pray I don't hurt him and go low."

* One final thought: If Shamarko Thomas does become the next Bob Sanders, we're going to call him Shamarknado, right?

 
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