By Alex Kozora
Brief player-by-player of how each of the Pittsburgh Steelers on the defensive side of the ball throughout training camp and the first preseason game.
Steve McLendon: McLendon is another guy the jury is out on though I like his chances in a league where every defensive player has to be able to move. We haven’t gotten to see much out of McLendon after he suffered a concussion. Plus, much like center, nose tackles get swept up in the mob of bodies. I’m excited to see him in the rest of the preseason. Also offers value as a nickel end.
Hebron Fangupo: Not much to note for Fangupo. Overall, he bided his time behind Daniel McCullers as the third team nose tackle although it’s worth noting he ran second-team in Saturday’s game. However, he played significantly fewer snaps than the rookie nose tackle. I can’t see any reason the team would keep him.
Daniel McCullers: A polarizing player, McCullers has surprised me in a good way. More than just a big body, McCullers has shown a better than anticipated first step and pad level. He handled himself well on the 10 plays he had to endure on one drive against the Giants. What I perhaps admire most about him is his willingness to run to the football. Players that weigh 350 pounds shouldn’t do it as well as McCullers. Think he has an excellent chance to crack this 53. I try to avoid the phrase because it’s become a crutch, but McCullers is one guy who might not make it through waivers.
Roy Philon: Capable of playing end and nose tackle, Philon’s snaps have been sparse. He has occasionally made noise in practice with a few TFL and the ability to rip and dip the edge, but he obviously hasn’t panned out the way I thought he would when I took a shot and placed him on my 53 before camp. He’ll be an easy cut.
Al Lapuaho: Compared to Lapuaho, Philon might as well be playing starters snaps. I’ve seen Haley’s Comet more often than Lapuaho on defense in team drills. Lapuaho had one nice day against Chris Elkins in one on one, there’s nothing of note. He’ll be cut on the 26th.
Cameron Heyward: Though he hasn’t had the most exciting camp, Heyward showed well in one-on-ones against the Buffalo Bills. He’s a guy I don’t worry about and stand by my thought that he’ll be a league-wide star by the end of the season. One of the best players on this defense.
Cam Thomas: I was incredibly worried about him before the first game. Thomas did show well, getting arm extension and working off his blocks. But my long-term concerns won’t budge that much just because of one game. Over a season, can Thomas consistently excel at five tech? No one can say for sure.
Stephon Tuitt: I feel similar about Tuitt as I do Thomas. Nice start to camp and you the player he could become is evident. His game is very similar to Heyward. But as a 21 year old, you’re not going to be judged by what you do in the first four weeks as you will over the last four. Giving 500 snaps for a rookie is a tall task. No matter how good he looks right now.
Josh Mauro: I’ll admit that I dogged him pretty good in my UDFA scouting reports, giving him a 10% chance to make the roster. That number should severely be increased to better than 50%. Mauro passed up Brian Arnfelt as the second-team RE and had a nice debut against the Giants, getting some penetration while running to the ball. He’s still not a guy you want to play many snaps on defense in 2014, obviously, but he’s making a case to be a UDFA that fights his way onto a roster
Ethan Hemer: I won’t change my scouting report or feelings on Hemer though. He’s logged some decent playing time and does have a motor, but on the whole, he’s a lumbering “athlete” that doesn’t really stick out.
Nick Williams: I was hoping to see Williams snag some reps away from Hemer this week but didn’t see it. Williams did flash that first step and the ability to work off blocks. But there are moments where he will disappear and get run out of plays. Still remember when Mike Adams took him five yards off the ball on one play in practice. Williams is just a year removed from a torn ACL, a fact that has been overlooked by many. His shot at making this team comes through the practice squad.
Brian Arnfelt: If this was the stock market, Arnfelt would be Enron. He’s crashed down the depth chart, running as the third team RE. Chances of making the squad look slim. At least he is still PS eligible.
Lawrence Timmons: What else is there to say that already hasn’t? Consistent, a leader, doesn’t miss a snap in practice or in a game, and now he’s working as the Buck and calling out the signals. Sometimes writing little about a player is a high compliment. It sure is for Timmons.
Ryan Shazier: The knee bruise gave Steelers’ nation quite the scare but at no point did it seem realistic the injury was anything more than minor. Before the boo-boo, the team was using Shazier like a veteran. He has started since day one and the team hasn’t held any punches with him. He’s been used on Fire X stunts, rushed off the edge, all the complicated intricacies you’d expect from a Dick LeBeau defense.
He returned to team drills on Thursday and the odds of him playing now seem pretty high. One of the top stories, obviously.
Sean Spence: I’d go into a long-winded write up but Spence overcoming his knee injury but the bigger compliment is to not talk about it. He’s healed, healthy, and looks pretty much the same. Let’s talk about how he can help this team win. He still shows that “see to do”, the IQ and explosion to find the ball and meet him in the hole. He’ll get plenty of work on special teams. And should there be an injury to Shazier again, there should be plenty of comfort in Spence filling in admirably.
Vince Williams: A guy who hopefully has shown his worth to Steelers’ fans, even if the odds of him playing on defense are remote. With a year under belt, the game has slowed down a ton for him and he’s finding the ball on every play. You started to get that sense later into last year and it’s only carried over through camp. I do admit that I don’t think he ever will be much of an asset in coverage, his hips are very tight, and that’s a terrible trait for a defense that is going to play a lot of nickel, but he’s a guy that creates intensity at every practice. Respect players that do that.
Terence Garvin: Still see a guy that lacks upper body strength and can get pushed around. But his athleticism makes him very valuable on special teams and only adds to the depth the Steelers’ have. He helps make this the strongest position on the roster.
He’ll never be a full-time starter but you have to think he’s one of the better #5 ILBs around the league.
Jordan Zumwalt: As expected, Zumwalt has thrown his weight around. But it’s not going to be enough to crack this group. A groin injury forced him to miss several practices, and for a player who missed a good chunk of the spring due to graduation rules, it was time he really couldn’t miss. Now he’s in serious danger of missing tonight’s game after missing both joint practices.
That would make two games of the rookie not playing a snap on special teams. There’s a one-way ticket for the practice squad.
Dan Molls: Kid you root for because he has a knack for being around the ball. Did it at Toledo and you see it in camp. But the team won’t keep two inside linebackers on the practice squad. So unless Molls really stands out with Zumwalt on the shelf, he’ll be cut, albeit perhaps a slightly difficult one.
Also, he won the Steelers’ home run derby. The Pirates’ bench could use some help…
Jarvis Jones: Outside linebacker is a position that can be difficult to judge in practice because they can’t do the one thing they love the most…crunch the QB. For as critical as I’ve been, and we clearly can’t reach any conclusions for a while, I’ve seen improvement. He’s developed a stronger first punch, something that was evident on the first day in pads when he knocked Kelvin Beachum off his base. His sack against the Giants showed some hand fight and ability to rush inside instead of speed rushes up the arc.
Want to see that hip/ankle bend on coaches’ tape and to make sure he doesn’t fall back on what he knows – trying to win the edge – if he hits a bump in the road in the season. But it’s a nice start for JJ.
Jason Worilds: A guy I didn’t learn a lot about. He was sure playing with a mean streak against the Bills, using nothing but bull rushes in backs on backers while mixing it up with CJ Spiller in team drills. Worilds’ mission is to show he can get to the QB over a full season. Not just an eight week stretch.
Arthur Moats: A low-key signing but a really important one. Hope he becomes the next man up at LOLB and ROLB if for nothing else, his ability to set and hold the edge against the run. He’s not going to bend the edge very often but shows nice conversion from speed to power on his bull rush.
He also should be a core special teamer.
Chris Carter: It’s still conceivable that Carter loses his roster spot, it’s not like his play demands to stay on this team, but the odds still look better than not of him being here Week One. Again, falls back on that special team’s value. But if Howard Jones continues to run over Carter on units like first team kick coverage, as was the case last week, his roster spot will heat up.
Howard Jones: Another edge rushing camp darling. I get the love with him and he did nab my 53rd spot on my latest roster prediction. We have to be careful not to get too wrapped up in him; he is a D2 kid that is clearly raw. Monitor his special teams snaps more than what he does on defense to figure out how good of a chance he has to stick. Even if he fails, he should land on the practice squad.
No, he’s unlikely to be claimed. There’s 31 other cities franticly excited about the great pass rusher you never heard of that will definitely never make it through waivers.
Vic So’oto: He’s disappointed me. Was interested by a guy tipping the scales at over 260 pounds who has been on 53 man rosters before. While he is a guy who won’t get shoved up the arc because he tries to counter, his pressure on the QB has been scant. Stiff hipped in coverage and it really shows up rushing as well. He made his name on a fluky fumble return for a TD. There won’t be anything more notable than that. He could be an August 26th cut as the team might put a roster spot on the line between Chris Carter and Howard Jones in the final exhibition.
Ike Taylor: I wouldn’t classify it as a glowing camp for Taylor who again grabbed headlines for his dropped interceptions in camp. Antonio Brown unsurprisingly defeated him in camp. He may have lost some talent but he still has that edge. Ultimately, that coupled with a CB friendly scheme, will get Taylor through one more year.
Cortez Allen: He didn’t have a splash play until the first pass in the joint practice, picking off a pass on a zany bounce. But when you pay close attention to his game, you see why he’s primed to have a big season. For a guy with some length, he’s got extremely quick feet who can break out his pedal and back into it against double-moves. No Steelers’ cornerback can ever have a “great” year by NFL standards, but Allen should serve this secondary well.
Now about that contract extension…
William Gay: Like Mike Tomlin would describe multiple players in his secondary, Gay is low-maintenance. He’ll be available, support the run, tackle the catch, and even give you a little bit on special teams if need be. Realizing that nickel has become the new base defense, Gay will need to have another good year. Bad cornerback depth gets exposed today. Although some fans will disagree, Gay offers the team that.
Antwon Blake: The kid brother that is always eager to compete but gets picked on when he tries. Blake does have perhaps the quickest hips of anyone on this secondary and his straight-line speed makes him a potent gunner. But on contested catches, he struggles. Justin Brown and Martavis Bryant ate him up in practice. Want to get a long look at him through the rest of the preseason but not sure if I ever see starting-material. But we’ll give him his due.
Brice McCain: It’s obvious McCain had a tough year in Houston. No one wants to see this guy log 200 snaps at cornerback. But in a pinch, he can play the slot or RCB. He played on the first team kick coverage unit and logged time as the backup gunner. Veteran experience on the back end of the roster. Not bad to have.
Isaiah Green: Look, I’m not an Isaiah Green fan. It’s unlikely he even ends up on the practice squad, getting swept in the numbers crunch of the position. But I won’t write him off from what occurred in the Giants’ game. A lot of that wasn’t his fault. Want to see him again, his response on the heels of a “bad” game. But in the end, Green will have to hand in his playbook by August 30th. So it’s all a moot point.
Devin Smith: Smith is a player that is rarely talked about but made his way onto the practice squad despite being signed during camp. Of course, he did bounce on and off it throughout the year, being released by Pittsburgh multiple times. But the Steelers had enough interest to give him a futures contract.
In less than 30 plays last week, Smith played all three cornerback spots.
He could be a sneaky selection for the practice squad. Guys that can play three spots are always handy for the scout team.
Shaq Richardson: Maybe the most disappointing rookie so far because on the whole, he has been healthy. I’ve written before that I’m not convinced Richardson has yet to leapfrog Smith, playing behind him against the Giants. It’s an uphill battle and I have to peg Richardson for the practice squad.
Lew Toler: Not much to say. A play here and there but he hardly logs playing time in practice and was the only non-receiver to sit out of Saturday’s game entirely.
At least we know he has one fan on this website…
Troy Polamalu: Did have two interceptions in camp but spent a lot of time on the sidelines or sitting out of full-contact drills. The Steelers are justify being very cautious with him. Once the games matter, the team will let him loose. Being able to play in his normal safety spot – as normal as you can get for a guy who runs around pre-snap – will be huge for 43.
Mike Mitchell: A groin injury forced him to miss about a week of camp, starting the season on the PUP. Like so many of these safeties, it’s best to judge them in-game when they can take someone’s head off. That’s what Mitchell did to Andre Williams, losing his own helmet in the process. Mitchell should help repair the broken safety play that plagued the team in 2013.
Will Allen: An up and down camp. Received a lot of first team reps when Mitchell and/or Polamalu was down, a positive sign for the veteran. Had the best practice of anyone in the first joint practice against the Bills. But he looked his age against the Giants and injured his hamstring late in camp.
But Mike Tomlin loves him for that comfort he brings. He’ll stay on this team.
Shamarko Thomas: Like Mitchell, Thomas wants to hit people. Done it when allowed in camp and terrorized the Giants. His close on the swing pass was Thomas at his best. His reps have fluctuated, the team perhaps really getting under his skin to push him. Expect him to act as the #4 CB in addition to playing on multiple special teams’ units.
Robert Golden: Probably won’t see him at safety much this year, he got his chance last year and Jerome Simpson destroyed them, but the first team upback on punts – the signal caller – gives him loads of value. He’ll make the roster with ease.
Jordan Dangerfield: A short-lived camp darling who still had one of the biggest hits in camp when he lit up Michael Palmer on the first pass of padded practices way back on Day Three. The Steelers’ keeping five safeties makes it feel unlikely they’ll keep one on the practice squad but Dangerfield could be a hard guy to cut. We’ll let the rest of the preseason tell that story.
Ross Ventrone: Nice guy and honestly, a reliable tackler. But won’t make the team. Hopefully he gets to make one big play before he is axed.
Brad Wing: Hangtimes have been pretty but will need to see consistency in games. We know he can boom it on any given punt. Can he do it time after time? That’s the test. His job is not necessarily secure.
Adam Podlesh: Still hasn’t shown up to camp, understandably opting to stay with his wife. Wish him and his family well.
Greg Warren: Get well soon, Greg. We could use you.
Luke Ingram: Was on the field late in practice Thursday. Expect him to be the long-snapper in Warren’s absence.
1. Sean Spence
2. Stephon Tuitt
3. Daniel McCullers
4. Vince Williams
1. Brian Arnfelt
2. Shaq Richardson
3. Jordan Zumwalt
4. Chris Carter