Youth movement over, Steelers defense is now all grown up
LATROBE — Mike Tomlin’s word choice was specific. That way, nothing would get lost in translation.
The Pittsburgh Steelers coach believes the generational shift his defense was forced to undergo over the last five years is officially over. No more grinning and bearing the growing pains as the next wave learned on the job.
The time to stop making strides and start making a difference is now.
“I think that we have the pieces in place to be a dominant group, to be one of the best,” Tomlin said Saturday as the defending AFC North champions opened training camp.
That’s a phrase Tomlin hasn’t uttered much during Pittsburgh’s run of three consecutive playoff berths, a resurgence built on Ben Roethlisberger’s right arm, Le’Veon Bell’s quicksilver feet and Antonio Brown’s weekly brilliance.
For the Steelers to end New England’s grip on the AFC, a defense that was ranked outside the top 10 four straight years for the first time since the late 1980s needs to recapture some of the swagger that for so long was the franchise’s trademark. And the men at the forefront know it.
“We set lofty goals and we want to hit them,” said defensive end Cam Heyward, who missed the second half of last season with a torn pectoral muscle. “But we’re not going to be measured by what anybody else says. We have our goals in mind and what we want to do on the field. The only way to accomplish that is to go out and do it. The talking is done.”
And — the Steelers hope — the learning curve the defense was forced to endure as the likes of Troy Polamalu, Brett Keisel, Ryan Clark and Casey Hampton retired is starting to level off.
The 2012 defense led by Polamalu that finished No. 1 in yards allowed featured seven starters over 30 and none under 25.
How quickly things have changed.
Only one of Pittsburgh’s 11 projected defensive starters — seemingly ageless 39-year-old linebacker James Harrison — will be over 30 when the Steelers visit Cleveland in the season opener on Sept. 10. Seven will be under 26. Oh, and none will be rookies.
“We’re young and experienced, that’s freaking scary, right?” said defensive end Stephon Tuitt, who wants to reach double-digit sacks in 2017 after four last fall. “Every year we’ve gotten better. Every year we took a step. We got a taste of some things.”
And a blunt reminder of how far they have to go. The proof came in a 36-17 AFC championship game loss to the Patriots, when Tom Brady threw for 384 yards and three touchdowns.
The Steelers sat back in a zone on that chilly Sunday night, and Brady picked them apart like he was conducting a seven-on-seven drill.
Six months later, the pain remains fresh. The lessons learned too. Pittsburgh wants to have its secondary play more press coverage in 2017. The evidence was on the field at Latrobe High School on Saturday as second-year cornerback Artie Burns shadowed Brown all over the field, challenging Brown in a way he rarely did as a rookie last summer.
“I’m going to try and follow him wherever I can, as much as I can,” Burns said. “If I want to try and be the best I’ve got to guard him.”
That’s what Tomlin had in mind when he decided to spend the opening days of camp watching Burns keep Brown’s ever-elusive No. 84 within arm’s reach. Burns won as much as he lost, which was kind of the point.
“I’m just interested in creating a good environment, one that’s geared toward competition. Those two guys like to compete,” Tomlin said. “I think it’s contagious. I think it turns others on. It helps cultivate the environment we’re looking for.”
Rookie first-round pick T.J. Watt is doing his best to fit into that environment. The linebacker (and younger brother of Houston Texans star J.J. Watt) has become Harrison’s latest apprentice. Asked if big brother had any advice as he prepared for his first camp, Watt responded, “keep your mouth shut and be a sponge and soak up as much information as possible.”
Because Harrison remains a threat even as 40 looms, Pittsburgh doesn’t need Watt and rookie cornerback Cameron Sutton to do the heavy lifting that Burns, safety Sean Davis and defensive tackle Javon Hargrave did during their first seasons last year.
All three were thrown right into the mix. All three were vital parts of a defense that improved as the team ripped off nine straight wins to reach the title game. It was impressive, but it was just a start.
Sacks need to go up. Turnovers need to go up. Do both and the gap between the Steelers and the Patriots could narrow significantly.
“We can’t always rely on the offense to go out and win the game for us,” Burns said. “We’ve got to go out and win the game too.”
NOTES: Rookie WR Juju Smith-Schuster will be out several days after spraining his left ankle on Friday. … Sutton left practice with a lower-body injury. … The team practices in pads for the first time Sunday.