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Steelers hope defensive changes bring new stars


The Sports Xchange

PITTSBURGH — Not your father’s Steelers’ defense might not be entirely correct.

Perhaps it would be better to stay this isn’t your grandfather’s defense. After all, defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau was nudged out the door in the offseason at age 77.

Linebackers Lawrence Timmons and James Harrison are the last remaining players on the defense who have played in the Super Bowl after defensive end Brett Keisel, cornerback Ike Taylor and strong safety Troy Polamalu played their final games in January when the Steelers lost to the Baltimore Ravens in an AFC wild-card playoff game.

The Steelers are counting on a number of inexperienced players to take on bigger roles in the defense. Linebackers Jarvis Jones, Ryan Shazier and Bud Dupree are the franchise’s past three first-round draft picks. Yet, the trio has yet to gain traction in the NFL.

Third-year strong safety Shamarko Thomas and second-year defensive lineman Stephon Tuitt, who is likely to miss the final two preseason games with a sprained left ankle, are still learning their way.

However, the Steelers feel the defense has nowhere to go but up after finishing last season 23rd among the 32 NFL teams in takeaways (21) and 26th in sacks (33) and 28th in yards per play (6.0).

Coach Mike Tomlin has taken to yelling “6.0.” to his defense when it allows big plays during training camp.

That is why the Steelers were so encouraged by their performance last Sunday in a 24-19 victory over the Green Bay Packers in a preseason game at Heinz Field.

The Steelers had six sacks, which normally wouldn’t be a big deal in a game in which the Packers had their first-team offense in the game for just two series. However, one of the sacks, by Harrison of Aaron Rodgers, resulted in a safety, and the Steelers have not had as many as six sacks in a regular-season game since 2012.

The Steelers were particularly thrilled that almost all of the pressure came out of the base defense. They have avoided blitzing much in their first three preseason games because new defensive coordinator Keith Butler, who was promoted from linebackers coach, wants his defenders to hurry the quarterback as a natural part of the scheme.

“That’s what football is all about,” Harrison said. “There’s no need to scheme and get zigzag patterns and run a bunch of games. It’s about trying to beat the man across from you.”

Jones and Dupree each had a sack, which was a good sign for the Steelers. Jones has registered just three sacks in 21 regular-season games and Dupree’s biggest impact in training camp prior to Sunday was getting thrown out of practice for fighting.

A case could have made that Dupree deserved to be credited with a half-sack on the safety.

“I just didn’t try to think a lot,” Dupree said. “I just tried to go out there and just do my assignment and don’t worry about what’s going on around me too much — just focus on my keys.”

Jones is trying to hit the reset button on his professional career after having difficulty adjusting the Steelers’ 3-4 defense. Butler has been experimenting with four-man fronts in the preseason and would like to show varied looks during the regular season, something that should help Jones.

“We’re going to have things that we feel will give people problems,” Butler said. “We’re going to use our personnel to get some mismatches if we can. Offenses are going to do that to us. They’re going to try to do the same thing.”

One setback the retooled defense has sustained is the loss of ball-hawking cornerback Senquez Golson, who was expected to start after being drafted in the second round from Mississippi. He is expected to miss the season with a shoulder injury.

While that was a disappointment, one positive in the secondary during the preseason has been the improved play of Thomas, who looked lost through much of his first two seasons. He has been solid in pass coverage and made five tackles, including one for a loss, against the Packers.

Thomas realizes he is a tough spot in trying to replace Polamalu, a future Hall of Famer. However, he stays in the contact with his predecessor and draws strength from encouragement.

“I talk with Troy all the time, and all I do is listen,” Thomas said. “He just says to do my job and everyone else will fall into place. I’m doing what the coaches expects me to do and I want to show my teammates that I can be consistent.”

While defense has driven the Steelers to six Super Bowl titles, they are only looking for consistency on that side of the ball because they figure to have an explosive offense that features quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, wide receiver Antonio Brown and running back Le’Veon Bell.

“We just need the defense to hold use close because we’ve got guys who can make plays all over the field,” Bell said. “The sky is the limit for us. I really believe that.”

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