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Camp preview: Role reversal as Steelers’ strength is offense

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The Sports Xchange

LATROBE, Pa. — The Pittsburgh Steelers enter the 50th training camp they have held at Saint Vincent College with one of their more unique situations during that half century.

Their dynamic offense is far and away the strength of the team that won the AFC North Division last season while their defense continues its transition from the veteran-laden great ones from most of this century.

Pittsburgh’s offense has no jobs open. The Steelers were the No. 2 offense in the league last season in yardage production and feature a Big Three of Pro Bowl quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and two All-Pros, wide receiver Antonio Brown and halfback Le’Veon Bell, although he currently must serve a three-game suspension to start the season pending his appeal.

Also, their line is set, as is tight end Heath Miller and they have a receiving corps they believe is second to none.

The real questions lie on defense, which almost always was the strength of their team back into the 1970s and beyond. Not so much this year. They ranked 18th in the NFL last season in total yards, their lowest in the 21st century. They had only 33 sacks, which not only ranked 26th in the league but were their fewest in 25 years. Add only 11 interceptions and that defense ranks among the worst they’ve had in Pittsburgh in quite some time.

Gone from that defense: safety Troy Polamalu, cornerback Ike Taylor and defensive end Brett Keisel, the last ones of the old guard who helped produce three Super Bowl visits and two Lombardi Trophies.

The Steelers have remade their defense with only two players left with any Super Bowl experience — Pro Bowl linebacker Lawrence Timmons and former defensive player of the year James Harrison at outside linebacker.

They will count on a number of young players to take that defense to better times, including their past three first-round picks, all linebackers: rookie Bud Dupree, Ryan Shazier and Jarvis Jones. Shazier and Jones were hurt much last season and were unable to contribute. Both will open as starters this season.

The secondary, which has not played well for several seasons, will count heavily on a Cortez Allen bounce-back at cornerback. After signing a five-year, $25 million contract last summer, he was benched by mid-season for performance reasons. The Steelers are hoping he does better this time around. They also drafted two cornerbacks in their top four picks — Senquez Golson (second round) and Doran Grant (fourth).

Shamarko Thomas will get the unenviable task of replacing Polamalu at strong safety and while they were excited to make a trade in order to draft him in 2013, injuries also have held him down. Free safety Mike Mitchell, the Steelers’ top free-agent signing in 2014, played hurt last season and after surgeries on both groins, they hope he will recover nicely in 2015.

Their defensive line is relatively set and strong, led by veteran end Cam Heyward and second-year end Stephon Tuitt, who showed well late as a rookie.

The Steelers have plenty of questions on defense, but they also have some talented young players who could boost them into the next era of good play on that side of the ball.

CAMP CALENDAR

July 25: All players report, and have run test.

July 26: First practice.

July 29: First day in pads.

Aug. 22: Camp ends.

–Team Strength: Offense. The entire thing, from quarterback to wide receiver to halfback to line, they may have the best offense in club history. They ranked No. 2 in the league last season and have everyone back. It was their highest NFL ranking other than they’re No. 1 in 1979 since at least the 1970 NFL merger.

–Breakout player: Linebacker Ryan Shazier. Their first-round pick in 2014, knee and ankle injuries reduced his effectiveness as a rookie even though he opened as a starting inside linebacker. He was the fastest linebacker in the draft by far and he will team with Pro Bowler Lawrence Timmons inside and they are counting on him to make an impact there.

–Work in progress: Secondary.

The secondary lost three starters and the search to replace them and a return to competency will hit high speed in training camp.

Cornerback Ike Taylor and safety Troy Polamalu, who each joined the team in 2003, retired. Brice McCain, who became a starter because of Cortez Allen’s failures at mid-season, left as a free agent.

Safety Mike Mitchell, who said he played all last season with two groin injuries, had surgeries on both and looked good in the spring. The jury remains out on Allen, who dealt with a confidence issue last year. Shamarko Thomas, in his third season, is trying to replace Polamalu and no one has any idea how he will do based on his limited showing so far.

The Steelers probably tipped their hand about a concern in the secondary when they drafted three defensive backs — cornerbacks Senquez Golden in the second round and Doran Grant in the fourth and safety Gerod Holliman in the seventh. They looked good at times in the spring, but then no one has seen them make a tackle yet.


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