AFC North: Pittsburgh Steelers
This offseason has seen plenty of high-profile additions and departures in the AFC North.
The Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Ravens brought more excitement to their offenses. The Browns drafted quarterback Johnny Manziel in the first round, and the Ravens signed wide receiver Steve Smith.
The Cincinnati Bengals and the Pittsburgh Steelers dealt with some significant losses. Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer left to become the head coach of the Minnesota Vikings, and three starters (Brett Keisel, LaMarr Woodley and Ryan Clark) are gone from the Steelers defense.
How will these changes affect the teams in the division? That's the focus for ESPN's AFC North reporters: Scott Brown in Pittsburgh, Coley Harvey in Cincinnati, Jamison Hensley in Baltimore and Pat McManamon in Cleveland.
Johnny Manziel will be the starting quarterback for the Browns in the season opener in Pittsburgh.
Scott Brown: Fiction. Johnny Football has too much ground to make up to overtake Brian Hoyer as the starter by the time the Browns open the regular season in Pittsburgh. Manziel will start at some point this season, but it won't be Sept. 7 at Heinz Field. Even if it is a toss-up between Hoyer and Manziel leading up to the season opener, the Browns will be wise enough to go with the player who has NFL starting experience over the one who will have a Texas-sized bullseye on his jersey. Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau generally torments rookie quarterbacks and definitely doesn't take selfies with them. The Browns wouldn't put Manziel in a position in which he has little chance of succeeding ... would they?
Jamison Hensley: Fiction. There are too many factors going against Manziel starting right away. Browns coach Mike Pettine was on the Bills' sideline this past season when he watched EJ Manuel struggle as a rookie. The Browns have a legitimate alternative in Brian Hoyer. And the Browns' first game is against the Steelers, who are known to rough up young quarterbacks. Including the playoffs, the Steelers are a league-best 17-2 vs. rookie quarterbacks since 2004, when coordinator Dick LeBeau re-joined the Steelers as defensive coordinator. Plus, Manziel hasn't done much to prove to the coaching staff that he's mature enough to handle the starting job after becoming Johnny Las Vegas on holiday weekends. It just makes too much sense to sit Manziel as a rookie. Then again, the Browns aren't known for making logical moves
Pat McManamon: Fiction. The Browns simply do not want Manziel to start the opener, and Mike Pettine has made no secret of that. Over and over, he's said that though Manziel can start at some point, he does not believe it's ideal. Given that the first three opponents are the Steelers, Saints and Ravens, it's even more reason not to rush him. Those three opponents have chopped up a lot of veterans, not to mention rookies. If Josh Gordon is not on the team, the quarterback's challenge is even more difficult. The Browns want to take things slowly with Manziel, and right now he admits he's not the best quarterback on the team. The only way he starts in Pittsburgh is if Brian Hoyer is hurt.
The Bengals have a top-10 defense even without coordinator Mike Zimmer.
Brown: Fact. With all due respect to Zimmer, he didn't make one tackle in the six seasons he coordinated the Bengals' defense. Not to marginalize coordinators, but Dick LeBeau has one of the keenest and most imaginative defensive minds in NFL history, and he somehow forgot how to coach defense this past season, when injuries and age caught up with the Steelers. The Bengals have plenty of talent, assuming defensive tackle Geno Atkins and cornerback Leon Hall make a healthy return from their respective injuries. And the adjustment to new defensive coordinator Paul Guenther should be a relatively smooth one since Guenther coached the Bengals' linebackers before succeeding Zimmer. If the Bengals don't field a top-10 defense this season, it will be because they can't make up for the free-agent loss of defensive end Michael Johnson or their secondary springs too many leaks.
Harvey: Fact. Zimmer was rightfully deified during his time in Cincinnati, but his exit for Minnesota doesn't mean there's now a sudden end to the Bengals' era of defensive dominance. Cincinnati will be bringing back a defense that mostly mirrors the group it had last year. The only absences of note are Michael Johnson, James Harrison and Chris Crocker. Johnson was signed by Tampa Bay in free agency, and Harrison was released. Signed to a one-year deal when he emerged from retirement this past September, Crocker was a free agent this offseason who didn't have his contract renewed. Still, knowing Crocker's track record of signing as a September off-of-the-couch call-up the past two years, you can't fully rule out an appearance from him in Cincinnati at some point this year. Of all the Bengals' defensive departures, Zimmer's was certainly the biggest. The coordinator who helped revolutionize the Bengals' defensive system and turned them into a perennial power implemented unique rotations, lineups and blitz and coverage packages. As the league's No. 3 defense this past season, the Bengals pulled off a franchise feat that hadn't been replicated in more than 30 years. Under new coordinator Paul Guenther, who formulated many of the blitz packages for Zimmer, the Bengals are hoping to be even better than that No. 3 ranking this year. While they probably won't get ranked as high as No. 3, they still will be among the top 10.
Hensley: Fiction. It's true that a defense is only as good as its players on the field. But let's not disregard the impact of Zimmer on the Bengals' defense. In Zimmer's first season in Cincinnati (2008), the Bengals jumped from No. 27 to No. 12 in defense. The Bengals then went on to finish in the top 10 in yards and points allowed in four of the next five seasons under Zimmer. He's a fiery leader who got the most out of his players. Many expect a smooth transition with Paul Guenther being promoted to defensive coordinator, but he's never been in charge of a defense in the NFL. His job won't be made any easier by the fact that defensive end Michael Johnson left in free agency and defensive tackle Geno Atkins is still recovering from an ACL injury. The Bengals secondary is dealing with aging veterans (Terence Newman and Adam Jones), injury (Leon Hall) and unfulfilled potential (Dre Kirkpatrick). Don't be surprised if the Bengals slip out of the top 10 this season.
Pat McManamon: Fact. The Bengals have too many good players and too good a system to falter with Zimmer's departure. He'll be missed, but defenses are as good as the players on the field, and with stalwart Geno Atkins coming back from injury to go with a crew that includes Vontaze Burfict, the Bengals should still be formidable. Also, new coordinator Paul Guenther knows the system, knows the blitzes and worked closely with Zimmer. It always hurts to lose a coordinator like Zimmer, but the Bengals seemed to be as prepared as a team can be. The other thing to remember is that offenses can help defenses by possessing the ball, and new offensive coordinator Hue Jackson will run the ball more than Jay Gruden did.
Steve Smith will become Joe Flacco's top target this season.
Brown: Fiction. I'm tempted to say fact here because of the trust and rapport that Flacco developed with Anquan Boldin before the Ravens traded the veteran wide receiver to the 49ers this past year. Boldin, however, is bigger and more physical than Smith and doesn't rely as much on speed as the latter still does, even at the age of 35. Look for tight end Dennis Pitta to re-establish himself as a big part of the Ravens' offense after missing all but four games this past season because of a dislocated hip. Pitta caught 61 passes and was targeted 93 times by Flacco in 2012, while Boldin caught just four more passes than Pitta, despite getting targeted 112 times. A healthy Pitta becomes Flacco's go-to receiver again.
Harvey: Fiction. Another Smith will end up being Flacco's top passing target this season. Torrey Smith, the man who saw 139 throws directed his way this past season, will remain the go-to receiver in an offense that hopes for increased production from 2013. During the mostly down year for Baltimore's offense, Torrey Smith caught 65 of the 139 balls thrown his way, leading the team in receptions. While at Carolina last year, Steve Smith caught 64 passes on just 109 targets from Cam Newton. The longtime Panther was one of the stars of an offense that also relied on Newton to make plays with his feet, in addition to spreading the ball to other receivers. The Ravens had difficulty getting any kind of rushing offense going, which made it easy for defenses to sell out on guarding their receivers. If Ray Rice struggles to perform out of the backfield again this year -- or if he ends up missing considerable time due to a possible suspension from commissioner Roger Goodell following his arrest in Atlantic City this offseason for assault on his now-wife -- much the same could happen to the Ravens' receivers in 2014. Even if that happens, Steve Smith's addition ought to help Flacco and the Ravens. Still, don't look for the 35-year-old to take over as the team's dominant receiver. That title ought to remain Torrey Smith's.
Hensley: Fact. There's a chance tight end Dennis Pitta or wide receiver Torrey Smith will end up being Flacco's go-to receiver. In the end, Flacco will spread the ball around to Pitta, Torrey Smith and Steve Smith. But if you're asking who will be Flacco's top target, the best bet is Steve Smith. All you needed to do was watch one practice this offseason, and you'd see the chemistry building between Flacco and Smith. Many have compared Steve Smith to Anquan Boldin because both are tough receivers. Smith, though, stacks up more favorably to Derrick Mason, who averaged 71 receptions in three seasons with Flacco. Like Mason, Smith can get open on the comeback route as well as slants. A prideful player such as Smith will also do everything in his power to show the Carolina Panthers he can still play. The Ravens will get the best out of Smith this year.
Pat McManamon: Fiction. The Ravens still have this guy Torrey Smith, right? He's a little younger than the 35-year-old Steve Smith. A little bigger too. And he should be ready to be the No. 1 receiver on the team. This is not to say Steve Smith won't help. He will. He brings a veteran presence the Ravens lacked -- though it's curious they gave away Anquan Boldin before last year and signed another aging guy who fits the "crafty veteran mold" a year later. Ozzie Newsome said Smith is not the "typical aging player," which is good, because he'll catch a lot of passes and open up the field more to provide opportunities for Torrey Smith and tight end Dennis Pitta. The Ravens also seem to be a team well-suited to getting the most from veterans. But if Baltimore brought Steve Smith in to be the top guy, it's a problem. That role and responsibility belongs to Torrey Smith.
The retooled defense is enough to get the Steelers back to the playoffs.
Brown: Fact: The Steelers got younger and faster and will be better on that side of the ball if their outside linebackers provide some semblance of a pass rush. The Steelers don't need dramatic improvement from their defense if their offense builds on its strong finish in 2013. The Steelers averaged just under 28 points in their final eight games this past season, and they only lost one starter (wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders) on offense. Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey returns from a torn ACL to lead an offensive line that allowed just seven sacks in the final seven games last year. And the Steelers have enough talent at the skill positions for Ben Roethlisberger and the offense to carry the defense.
Hensley: Fact. The Steelers got younger and quicker with their first two draft picks this year, linebacker Ryan Shazier and defensive end Stephon Tuitt. Cam Thomas, a free-agent addition, will be a space-eater on the interior of the line. What will help this retooled defense become even better are the moves made on offense. The Steelers stockpiled their backfield by signing free agent LeGarrette Blount and drafting Dri Archer in the third round. Plus, Le'Veon Bell was beginning to hit his stride at the end of his rookie season. This commitment to the run will control the clock and take pressure off a defense adjusting to its new parts.
McManamon: Fact. There is no team in the league that finds personnel to fit its system better than the Steelers. With three new starters defensively, Pittsburgh continues its transition from the James Harrison-James Farrior-Casey Hampton-Brett Keisel days. Kevin Colbert's drafting is usually logical and sound, and in Ryan Shazier the Steelers believe they found an immediate starter. One thing will be true about Pittsburgh this season: They will be faster on the field and they will not start slow. Pittsburgh will build on the momentum of an 8-4 finish in 2013 (after an 0-4 start), and as they build the defense will grow..
Score: Steelers 13, Raiders 7
Date: Dec. 23, 1972. Site: Three Rivers Stadium
Franco Harris' "Immaculate Reception" won that designation in fan voting on ESPN.com by a landslide over James Harrison's 100-yard interception return in Super Bowl XLIII and Santonio Holmes' toe-tapping touchdown catch in the same game.
The fans got this right, even though the play that went in the books as a 60-yard touchdown catch did not come in any one of the six seasons in which the Steelers won the Super Bowl.
First and foremost, it gave a franchise that had never won a playoff game and its long-suffering fans belief. That had been in short supply in the near four decades that followed the Steelers' founding in 1933 by Art Rooney.
Harris changed that when he snatched a pass that had ricocheted back with the Steelers facing certain defeat in an AFC playoff game and then rumbled down the left sideline for the winning touchdown.
The 1974 NFL draft, when the Steelers took four future Pro Football Hall of Famers with their first five picks, ultimately put them over the top and led to four Super Bowl victories in six seasons.
But Harris' miraculous play put the Steelers on the course that transformed them from perennial also-rans to the team of the 1970s.
How much it is still a part of Pittsburgh lore -- and how it transcends sports -- can be seen in Pittsburgh International Airport. There are two life-sized statues in the main concourse. One is of our first president, George Washington, who fought in the French and Indian War in Western Pennsylvania. The other statue is of Harris making the most famous shoestring catch in NFL history.
It remains one of the NFL's most iconic plays and is a timeless reminder of playing to the final whistle -- in life as well as in sports.
In the end, every other Steelers play is still vying for second place when it comes to the most memorable one in franchise history.
They will be the cornerstones of a defense that has been almost completely overhauled over the past couple of years -- and may not have strong safety Troy Polamalu and cornerback Ike Taylor beyond the 2014 season.
Shazier, the Steelers' first-round pick this year, has the look of a future Pro Bowler, and he did well during the offseason practices. The key for the former Ohio State star is continuing that in training camp when the pads go on and the hitting starts.
Jones, the team's first-round pick in 2013, is a crucial part of the Steelers' future given how vital it is that their outside linebackers generate a consistent pass rush. Jones struggled while learning the Steelers' defense on the job last season and recorded just one sack despite starting eight games.
He will be better this season, especially with former Steelers great Joey Porter mentoring him, but will Jones establish himself as a premier pass-rusher over the next couple of seasons?
The 6-foot-6, 312-pound Tuitt already has an NFL body, and the 2014 second-round pick will make a nice pairing with defensive end Cameron Heyward if he realizes the potential that has the Steelers so excited about him.
The hard-hitting Thomas is the likely successor to Polamalu, and the Steelers have high hopes for the 2013 fourth-round pick.
Pittsburgh also needs to develop some cornerbacks. The Steelers would love nothing more than if rookie Shaquille Richardson, a fifth-round pick, becomes their latest midround find at the position.
Cornerback may also be the Steelers' top priority in the 2015 NFL draft after many thought they would use a high pick on one this year.
This is the third of three plays nominated as the most memorable play in team history. Please vote for your choice as the Steelers' most memorable play.
Score: Steelers 27, Cardinals 23
Date: Feb. 1, 2009 Site: Raymond James Stadium
Ben Roethlisberger and Santonio Holmes played pitch and catch so effortlessly that it seemed as if they were in a backyard.
The two were, in fact, on one of sports’ biggest stages, and the Arizona Cardinals were powerless to stop them at the end of Super Bowl XLIII.
A Larry Fitzgerald 64-yard touchdown reception had given the upstart Cardinals a 23-20 lead with 2 minutes, 30 seconds left in the game. After a holding penalty moved the Steelers back to their own 12-yard line, Roethlisberger and Holmes went to work.
They connected three times in moving the Steelers to the Cardinals’ 6-yard line with less than a minute to play.
“When I threw it and it looked like he had it, I was celebrating and I just remember, ‘Oh man,’ but coming back to the huddle I was encouraging. He wasn’t down at all,” Roethlisberger said recently. “He was disappointed he didn’t catch it, but there was no worry about going to him on the next play.”
Roethlisberger did just that.
After eluding the Cardinals’ pass rush and going through his progression of reads, Roethlisberger spied Holmes in the opposite corner of the end zone where he had almost made the game-winning catch a play earlier.
Three Cardinals defensive backs were also in the area, but Roethlisberger threw the pass anyway.
“When it came off my hand, I thought the defender (cornerback Ralph Brown) in front was going to turn around,” Roethlisberger said. “I really thought it was intercepted when I let go of it, but it ended up just over his hand and where [Holmes] could make a play.”
Roethlisberger had thrown the ball where only Holmes could make a play on it. And Holmes turned in one of the greatest catches in Super Bowl history when he leaped for the ball and then got both feet inbounds by inches after pulling it in.
The toe-tapping reception stood up after an official review, and it put the exclamation point on Holmes' nine-catch, 131-yard performance.
The defense stifled a last-gasp drive by the Cardinals, giving the Steelers their sixth Super Bowl victory, and Holmes earned game MVP honors.
@ScottBrown_ESPN 7 to 10: Perfect throw, better catch, best feeling of all-time. Ben's first TD pass in a Super Bowl brought home ring six.— J.C. 9(/ 'DDG (@SteelCityArab) June 12, 2014
This is the second of three plays nominated as the most memorable play in team history. Please vote for your choice as the Steelers' most memorable play.
Score: Steelers 27, Cardinals 23
Date: Feb. 1, 2009 Site: Raymond James Stadium
There is some delicious irony to one of the most defining plays in Super Bowl history.
Had Troy Polamalu improvised after correctly diagnosing what the Arizona Cardinals were going to do at the end of the first half in Super Bowl XLIII, there is a good chance he would have collided with outside linebacker James Harrison.
And there is an even better chance that the Steelers would not have won a sixth Super Bowl title.
Kurt Warner pass that would have given the upstart Cardinals a halftime lead, and rumbled from one end zone to the other. When the Cardinals finally tackled the 2008 NFL Defensive Player of the Year with no time left in the second quarter, he had completed one of the most astounding plays in NFL history. Harrison scored the touchdown that allowed the Steelers to take a 17-7 lead into halftime.
The Steelers ultimately beat the Cardinals 27-23 in Super Bowl XLIII, and given the 10- or 14-point swing at the end of the first half, simple math is all that is needed to determine the significance of Harrison’s 100-yard interception return.
“We don’t win the Super Bowl if he doesn’t catch that and score,” Polamalu said. “If he catches it [but doesn’t score], we lose the Super Bowl.”
That is anything but hyperbole, and Harrison's play came after the Cardinals had driven to the Steelers’ 1-yard line near the end of the second quarter.
Arizona wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald lined up in the slot with Anquan Boldin to the outside on the left side of the field. Polamalu correctly deduced that Fitzgerald would clear out the coverage, with Boldin slipping in behind him.
But there was a problem: Polamalu was on the right side of the field.
"In my mind I’m like, 'If I leave my guy and I go over there and they don’t throw it, Coach [Dick] LeBeau is going to be really mad at me,'" Polamalu said. "So in my mind I’m like, 'Do I go, do I not go? Do I go, do I not go?'"
That indecision forced Polamalu to stay put and Harrison ended up dropping into coverage, even though he was supposed to blitz. He intercepted the pass that was intended for Boldin, who had single coverage and probably would have scored had Harrison rushed the passer.
Harrison’s pick was only the start of what Polamalu called “the greatest play in Super Bowl history.”
He started trucking down the field, ignoring calls from some of his faster teammates to give them the ball. A convoy of blockers helped Harrison weave his way through the Cardinals players who were desperately trying to get him on the ground. He collapsed in the opposite end zone with Fitzgerald and Cardinals wide receiver Steve Breaston draped all over him, completely drained following the 100-yard return.
“I was behind him telling him to pitch me the ball,” Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor said. “After about 20 yards I’m like, ‘All right, he ain’t going to give me the ball,’ so I just happened to block Fitzgerald off of default. He tripped over me and fell, but I call that a block.”
@ScottBrown_ESPN the Harrison return was just surreal. A total 180 emotionally. Plus, a 240 pd LB outrunning an entire O for 100 yds.— Jeff Beck (@Jbeck73) June 12, 2014
This is the first of three plays nominated as the most memorable play in team history. Please vote for your choice as the Steelers' most memorable play.
Score: Steelers 13, Raiders 7
Date: Dec. 23, 1972 Site: Three Rivers Stadium
Steelers founder Art Rooney was already headed to the elevator by the time Terry Bradshaw unleashed the last-gasp pass that started perhaps the most memorable play in NFL history.
The gregarious, stogie-chomping owner wanted to get to the field to congratulate his coaches and players on a successful season.
The Steelers were facing a fourth-and-10 from their own 40-yard line with no timeouts and a dying clock working against them when Bradshaw dropped back to pass.
Bradshaw escaped a heavy rush before firing a pass down the middle of the field.
Raiders safety Jack Tatum and Steelers running back Frenchy Fuqua arrived at the same time as Bradshaw’s throw, and the ball shot back from the Raiders’ 35-yard line.
Rookie running back Franco Harris had been trailing the play, and, in one of the seminal moments in Steelers history, heard the voice of the man who, ironically, had turned down Pittsburgh’s head-coaching job in 1969, which later went to Chuck Noll.
Penn State's Joe Paterno had always exhorted his players to run to the ball, and in that moment, Harris followed his college coach’s voice to the ball. He scooped it up just before it hit the rock-hard turf at Three Rivers Stadium and, with mere seconds left on the clock, started galloping down the left sideline.
Harris outraced several Raiders to the end zone and stiff-armed defensive back Jimmy Warren before scoring the touchdown that produced the first playoff victory in Steelers history.
Had instant replay reversal rules been in place then, Harris’ score might not have stood since it would have been an illegal pass if Fuqua had touched the ball first.
But the officials ruled it a legal catch on the field after confusion and hysteria had initially ensued, imbuing the dramatic play with controversy and fueling a Steelers-Raiders rivalry that came to define the NFL in the 1970s.
The Steelers lost to the Dolphins the following week in the AFC Championship Game, but "The Immaculate Reception," as it was dubbed by legendary Pittsburgh sportscaster Myron Cope, is widely credited with putting the Steelers on a track to win four Super Bowls from 1974 to 1979.
"I rank it as high as it could be for giving the Steelers the feeling they could be a great team," Steelers chairman emeritus Dan Rooney has said, "that there might be divine intervention, because that play was so remarkable that is hard to believe."
@ScottBrown_ESPN The changing of the direction of the ball changed the direction of a franchise from that moment on.— Mark S. (@MarkMizzouSteel) June 12, 2014
“I think he’s going to be a head coach in this league one day,” Foote told ESPN.com earlier this week. “I think he has that ‘it’ factor to be a head coach if he stays the course. He has an enthusiasm and excitement that you can’t teach, you can’t develop, you’ve just got to be born with it and I’m excited. Hopefully he grows from the coaching side, X's and O's, organization and stuff like that. But shoot, he’s on the fast track because he can lead men, he can get men to run through a wall.”
Porter has returned to Pittsburgh to do that and learn his new trade as a Steelers defensive assistant. Porter, who joined coach Mike Tomlin’s staff in February, has already shown the same kind of enthusiasm for coaching as he did for playing.
“He brings it every day like he’s a player and guys respect that," said Steelers outside linebacker Jarvis Jones, who has become one of Porter's proteges. "When the linebackers hit the field you can see the energy and positivity and that’s what we need and that’s how we’re going to continue to get better.”
That comes as no surprise to Foote, who was teammates with Porter from 2002-06.
Foote signed with Arizona in March, and he has already heard plenty about Porter there. He said Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald told him that Porter is the best leader he has ever seen.
Porter spent two seasons with the Cardinals before retiring in 2012.
Fitzgerald’s praise only reaffirmed to Foote that Porter’s contributions in Pittsburgh transcend his 60 sacks in seven seasons, which rank fifth on the organization’s all-time list.
“Through my time in Pittsburgh there was no better leader,” said Foote, who played for the Steelers from 2002-08 and 2010-13. “He wasn’t on that second Super Bowl team [in 2008] but his imprint was still on that team and it still lives in that locker room a little bit.
“He is selfless, putting his team first and that just sets the tone for the team and the way he played week in and week out. He was an established Pro Bowl guy and he was hungry every week. He loved the game.”
Porter has transferred that love to coaching, and his enthusiasm as well as his expertise at playing outside linebacker and rushing the passer should only help players like Jones and Jason Worilds.
“That’s the thing about Joey, he has one speed,” Foote said. “The game is changing. You need coaches coming in with that energy. A lot of players can feed off the coaches’ energy and what a perfect guy to do it.”
Haley and Munchak join Dick LeBeau as three former NFL head coaches on Tomlin’s staff, giving it some heft. And Haley has good reason to be thrilled that Munchak will mentor and mold the Steelers’ offensive line this season.
The line came together at the end of last season and is still young with left guard Ramon Foster, who is only 28, the oldest projected starter up front. Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey returns after missing most of last season with a torn ACL, and the line will be counted on to keep quarterback Ben Roethlisberger upright and open holes for running backs Le'Veon Bell, LeGarrette Blount and Dri Archer.
Stellar offensive line play has often eluded the Steelers during Tomlin’s tenure, and some of that can be blamed on injuries. But with Munchak, a Pro Football Hall of Fame guard, pulling everything together, the Steelers’ line could be poised to lead the way for an offense that averaged just under 28 points in its final eight games of 2013.
“Not all great players are great coaches, but he’s definitely one of those great players that transitioned into being a great coach,” Haley said. “The head-coaching experience is a benefit because he doesn’t just see it from his position group or his perspective. He sees the big picture, which I take pride in doing, having been there. He is a very good teacher that believes in hard work, like we all do.
"Great players want to be coached. They want to be pushed to see how good they can be, and these guys are eating it up.”
Just don’t ask the Pro Football Hall of Fame guard and highly respected offensive line coach if he is the most significant free agent signing for the Steelers since the end of the 2013 season.
“I think they’re seeing the skill around them, the plays that we can make down the field and they’re excited knowing that our big play is giving Ben (Roethlisberger) an extra second to throw a football or opening a hole. So I think together it’s going to be fun. It’s been fun for me so far me and I’m hoping that they’re enjoying it, too.”
No one is more qualified than Munchak to help an offensive line that is young and has shown promise get to the next level. He will be entering his 33rd season in the NFL as a player or a coach, and he has excelled as both an offensive lineman and an offensive line coach.
Munchak spent the previous three seasons as the Tennessee Titans’ head coach. When the Titans organization removed him from that position the Steelers moved quickly to bring the Scranton native and former Penn State All-American back to Pennsylvania.
His new players have raved about Munchak and they seemed to hang on his every word during offseason practices. Here are three observations Munchak made near the end of offseason practices:
- On Pouncey and right guard David DeCastro: “They’re smart football players and they adjust to things quickly. They have great vision, and that’s the things I’m learning now is what they are good at. What can they see when their hand is on the ground (and) under stress? Those type of things. I inherited a really good young group that wants to be the best, and that’s very fun to be part of.”
- On the competition at tackle: “I think the best thing an offensive coach can have is competition, and I think we have that. We have Kelvin Beachum and Mike Adams and Marcus Gilbert. I think you got some guys that can really do some good things, and again I’m asking them to do different things than they’ve done in the past. They’ve had three line coaches in three years so everything is not going to change overnight and what we want to do.”
- On the Steelers’ depth at tackle: “Mike has been playing both sides. He’s been the one pushing on both sides, so we’ll see. Guy Whimper has been, obviously, the fourth guy. We’ve got four veteran tackles. We’re going to have some good football players and some tough decisions.”
I couldn't agree more with ESPN.com NFL columnist Ashley Fox, who recently questioned why the extra point is even on the radar of the league's competition committee. I would be in favor of getting rid of it altogether and rewarding teams with an extra point, which is almost automatic anyway, for scoring a touchdown.
Getting into the end zone in the NFL should be respected even with offenses becoming more and more prolific and scoring showing no sign of abating.
Moving extra-point attempts back -- teams will snap them from the 15-yard line instead of the 3-yard line for their first two preseason games this season -- could actually create a competitive disadvantage albeit a minor one as Steelers' special-teams coordinator Danny Smith pointed out recently.
"A long extra point becomes an issue when you're in Pittsburgh in December, when you're in Cleveland, when you're in Baltimore, when you're in Cincinnati or you're going to New England," Smith said.
Translation: Dome and warm-weather teams will have an advantage if the extra point is moved back.
As for the preseason experiment with extra points, Smith said, “I don't think it's going to really tell us a whole lot in the preseason because we're all going to be kicking in sunny days and hot days like that. I would question fooling with the game at this point I don't have a vote so I don't have an opinion."
Smith did recently offer his take on two subjects more pertinent to the Steelers' special teams than the future of the extra point:
- On the pool from which the Steelers will choose their primary punt returner in 2014: “Obviously Dri Archer is going to be a big factor. He has a lot to learn, a lot to work on and he does and he will. His speed speaks for itself but there will be a big pool of numbers and again you can never have enough of those kind of guys. We'll filter that down as we get into camp and we get into preseason of who is going to do it and who's not and that will be again a tough decision. We have more to choose from than we've had in the past. That's a great situation to be in."
- On having Antwon Blake for an entire season and adding Arthur Moats as a free agent helps the kick coverage units: "We've upgraded at that position really from a personnel standpoint and it's my job to get it all on the same page. And I think those guys are going to be great contributors as well with the rookie class coming (and) with those kinds of seasoned vets that you're talking about that have some experience in this business. It's an upgrade and we're going to have to make some tough choices. It's a good situation to be in."
What the Steelers also have to love about their most significant free-agent acquisition is his makeup.
One thing that stood out during Mitchell’s introductory news conference in March, shortly after he signed a five-year $25 million contract with the Steelers, is his desire to be great. And the competitiveness he showed during the practices that were in helmets and shorts only reinforced how much Mitchell wants to establish himself as one of the top safeties in the NFL.
He also added this: “I don’t really care about Pro Bowl. I want to be All-Pro. I have to do what I did last year again plus get better. A lot of times last year people were talking about the front seven I played with and they were very talented. Sometimes you’re overlooked, but that’s just another chip to put on my shoulder and play football.”
Mitchell has already collected his share of chips -- from playing his college ball at a Mid-American Conference school, the widespread derision heaped on the Oakland Raiders when they took the little-known Ohio University product in the second round of the 2009 draft, to being overshadowed on the Panthers’ defense last season.
Whether Mitchell’s success stemmed from a front seven that included sack master Greg Hardy and tackling machine Luke Kuechly is irrelevant. That there is a perception that Mitchell’s spike in performance can be attributed to the players who were around him following four nondescript seasons in Oakland is another perceived slight that drives the 6-foot, 210-pounder.
Mitchell will get plenty of opportunities to show his worth on a Steelers’ defense that badly needed to add playmakers. And his speed and versatility gives defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau another chess piece he can move around to outwit opposing offenses.
“Mike Mitchell is very fast and a good, solid tackler. An excellent blitzer, actually,” LeBeau said. “I looked at quite a bit of his tape during the free agency period and you had to look pretty far to find any weaknesses.”
That includes above the shoulders.
Mitchell is a heady player who seems to have a pretty seamless transition while learning a new defense and adjusting to new teammates and a new city.
Mitchell is working out in Miami prior to the start of training camp and no doubt spending extra time in his playbook. His pursuit of greatness starts in earnest once the Steelers report to St. Vincent College in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, on July 25.
And the Steelers would love nothing more than if Mitchell takes the next step while wearing black and gold.
“I’m at the point of my career where it’s time to prove it,” said Mitchell, who turned 27 earlier this month. “If we could play Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Matt Ryan, [Joe] Flacco in that order I’d want to run through it. I want to be the best.”
The majority of fans on both sides would love to see him start Sept. 7 when the Browns visit Heinz Field for the regular-season opener between the bitter rivals.
Browns fans might be just as eager to see Manziel in Pittsburgh, though obviously for a different reason.
The Browns have gone through quarterbacks at an alarming rate since the NFL returned to Cleveland in 1999. They desperately need someone to stop the cycle, and Browns fans might want to see if Manziel can conjure up the magic that made him a legend at Texas A&M right from the start -- even if the circumstances for his NFL debut in Pittsburgh could be a recipe for disaster.
Manziel, speaking to Browns reporters at the NFL Rookie Symposium, said his goal is to start this season. But the former Heisman Trophy winner conceded that he is still well behind Brian Hoyer, who will enter training camp as the No. 1 quarterback.
I asked a handful of Steelers defensive starters before the end of offseason practices whether they would like to see Manziel under center for the season opener, and I didn’t get much more than a collective shrug of the shoulders.
“It don’t matter,” veteran cornerback Ike Taylor said. “We’re trying to win ballgames. It doesn’t matter who is at quarterback.”
Mike Mitchell agreed.
“To be honest I just want someone that’s going to throw me a pick,” the Steelers free safety said. “I don’t really care who it is. I want the quarterback that’s the most confident, the most prepared, so when I take it from him, no excuses. That’s what I want every week.”
Defensive end Cameron Heyward played his college ball at Ohio State, so he can understand, even if only to some degree, the scrutiny Manziel is already under in the Buckeye state.
“It’s tough. Everybody’s looking for him to mess up,” Heyward said. “He’s a great player. I wish him the best.”
So, would Heyward like to get the first crack at Johnny Football, so to speak?
“Whoever’s in there I’m going to have fun either way,” Heyward said with a smile.
Per veteran cornerback Ike Taylor, Thomas is training in California with Troy Polamalu after accepting an invitation from the eight-time Pro Bowler to work out together following the conclusion of Pittsburgh Steelers’ offseason practices.
“I was telling Shamarko before he went out there, ‘Shamarko, that’s something huge because the dude don’t ever do that. As far as learning tendencies and the defense, just the way of life, or just learning how to be a good person, you’re walking with Jesus on earth right there,’ ” Taylor said on his weekly radio show.
The invitation Polamalu extended represents as strong an endorsement as Thomas could receive from one of the players he attached himself to last season as a rookie.
It certainly is a promising sign after Thomas worked his way into the Steelers’ quarters package as a third safety in 2013 only to lose the spot to veteran Will Allen in the second half of the season.
Thomas played 184 defensive snaps last season but none in the Steelers’ final seven games. Allen, who re-signed with the Steelers last October, played well after a high-ankle sprain sidelined Thomas, and he held onto the job as third safety in the quarters package.
Allen, who is entering his 11th NFL season, continued to play ahead of Thomas during offseason practices, taking Polamalu’s spot at strong safety during organized team activities. Polamalu skipped the voluntary practices so he could train in California, though the eight-time Pro Bowler took part in mandatory minicamp, which ended last week.
The Steelers have high hopes for Thomas, a fourth-round pick in 2013, and the 5-foot-9, 217-pounder should stand out more at training camp where players will wear pads and hit after doing neither during offseason practices.
“Shamarko is known for knocking people out,” Taylor said, “and the only way you’re going to see him knock someone out is in training camp, preseason games, regular-season games. That’s what Shamarko Thomas excels at.”
They simply don’t need the 30-year-old wide receiver, who won the MVP Award in their last Super Bowl victory but has been plagued by injuries in recent seasons.
“It’s as deep a group as I’ve been around from top to bottom,” Haley said near the end of offseason practices. “I think some guys that are pretty good football players probably won’t make the team.”
Haley tempered his assessment of the Steelers' wide receivers with the acknowledgement that the current group has yet to show what it can collectively do in pads.
And, of course, everything looks better in June when every team is still undefeated and pass-rushers are wearing shorts and are prohibited from hitting quarterbacks.
But Haley’s comment about the overall quality of the Steelers' wide receivers resonates even at this time of year because of his resume.
He coached the wide receivers in Dallas and Chicago while climbing the coaching ladder, and the Arizona Cardinals had arguably the best wide receiver tandem in the NFL in 2008 when Haley was their offensive coordinator. Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin helped the Cardinals to their first Super Bowl appearance and nearly led them to an upset of the Steelers in Tampa.
Whether the potential Haley sees in the Steelers' wideouts translates into production, one season after the loss of Jerricho Cotchery and Emmanuel Sanders, who combined for 1,342 receiving yards and 16 touchdowns in 2013, remains to be seen.
Here are a few things to like about the Steelers’ wide receivers following organized team activities and minicamp:
- Lance Moore, who signed a two-year, $3 million contract in March, stood out as much as any player during offseason practices. The former Saints wide receiver proved to be a quick study while learning a new offense, and he could put up big numbers if opposing teams pay too much attention to Pro Bowler Antonio Brown. Moore reminds me of Cotchery in the sense that he is a pro’s pro.
- Markus Wheaton still has a ways to go to win the starting job held down by Sanders last season, and that is a good thing. Wheaton had a solid offseason, but he will have a lot of competition during training camp. Justin Brown, who stood out during offseason practices, will be among those who push Wheaton. The 6-3, 209-pound Brown spent all of last season on the practice squad, but wide receivers coach Richard Mann said, "He’s just a different guy. He understands the concepts. He’s smoother. His body language is different.”
- The Steelers have so much depth at wide receiver that Darrius Heyward-Bey, the seventh overall pick of the 2009 NFL draft, will have trouble making the team. Heyward-Bey has to be consistent catching the call during training camp. But if he does that and makes the team, he would become a nice player to have as a No. 4 or No. 5 wide receiver. "He has the speed. He has the talent,” Mann said. Hopefully we will put him in a position to succeed with his speed and smartness, and we will take advantage of what he does best.”
Plenty is still unknown about the wide receiving corps. What exactly will the Steelers get out of Martavis Bryant this season? Is Wheaton ready to emerge as a significant contributor after catching six passes for 64 yards as a rookie? Will Brown build on his strong offseason and make a serious push for a roster spot?
These are among the questions that won’t be answered until after the Steelers report to training camp on July 25.
As Mann said, “When we start playing tackle, we will figure out what we have.”