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Kovacevic: Steelers' D growing baby teeth

| Thursday, June 13, 2013, 11:53 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Linebacker Jarvis Jones, the Steelers' first-round pick, works out at rookie camp Friday, May 3, 2013, on the South Side.

There isn't much definitive to be discerned from the Steelers' minicamp that broke up Thursday in the South Side. It's “football in shorts,” as Mike Tomlin routinely dismisses.

And yet, there is something to be said for the coach wrapping it up as “a very positive offseason;” for the newly formed fist-bumping duo of Ben Roethlisberger and Todd Haley; for mostly good health news; and, really, for a generally upbeat feel. If there's any residual pouting over 8-8 or all those prominent departures, it was even harder to detect than the word “transition.”

Which is wonderful, right?

Look, let's face it: This is a flawed team, if only because of the uncertainty on offense. Roethlisberger will be without Mike Wallace and Heath Miller, the latter at season's start. Running back is a crapshoot. The tackles are too green for comfort.

But let's face this, too: The NFL's No. 1-ranked defense could be better, mathematically daunting as that sounds.

And if you ask me, nothing will mean more to the Steelers than resetting some snarl to that defense, than regaining their intimidating identity.

“It's our job to be Pittsburgh Steelers, and we know what that means,” new nose tackle Steve McLendon said. “One man passes that to the next and, like Coach says, the standard is the standard.”

The standard last season was mediocrity in most phases except for points and yards allowed, hence the defense's ranking. But even there, the actual product performed abysmally in the areas of interceptions, fumbles forced and recovered, sacks … pretty much anything that could have led to a takeaway more often than, oh, once a month.

That's going to change, I think, in part because of three players Brett Keisel playfully called the Steelers' “fresh faces” on defense: McLendon, Jarvis Jones and Cortez Allen.

McLendon's limited usage by Tomlin last season was among his most maddening decisions. Time after time, he'd make some big splash play or other, only to give way immediately to Casey Hampton. The numbers are jarring: In only 139 snaps, McLendon recorded two sacks, two other tackles for losses and two forced fumbles.

Now, Big Snack gives way to Big Mac.

“No, sir,” McLendon gently said. “I'm not Casey Hampton. I just have to be me.”

Right. Hampton's excellence in the 3-4 came from absorbing the principal point of attack by taking up two, even three offensive linemen and allowing his linebackers to roam free. McLendon will be asked to do some of that, but his game is built on his own attack and, as if to underscore that, he's 15 pounds lighter than last season at 320.

Dick LeBeau loved Hampton like a son, but he'll adjust. The best defender last season was Lawrence Timmons, and having two charging threats up the middle opens up all kinds of fun from the outside.

Which means Jones, the No. 1 draft pick.

Yeah, I know the coaches and even fellow linebackers are downplaying his chance of starting in James Harrison's old spot. But I'm not buying it. You don't label a guy as one of the handful of “special” players in the draft, then have him watch Jason Worilds from the sideline. If Jones can square up a wonky hamstring, he'll win the job in Latrobe.

Like McLendon, Jones is keeping quiet.

“My only expectation is to show everyone my best,” Jones said. “I'm humbled to have a chance with this team.”

Allen has been part of it more than McLendon or Jones, but he, too, is getting his first big chance. And he might have, in the short term, the highest upside of all.

Pro Football Focus, a specialist in film study, this week hyped up Allen as the Steelers' “secret superstar.” That's heady praise, but Allen's ability to get a hand on one of every seven balls thrown his way earned it. So did those stirring five takeaways in the final two games filling in for Ike Taylor on the outside.

It was enough that the team let Keenan Lewis and his zero picks — despite 23 passes defensed! — walk with no offer.

Allen, another unassuming sort, won't even concede that he'll start. But he'll also add, “I believe I have the ability to make plays.”

The kind that count most.

Dejan Kovacevic is a sports columnist for Trib Total Media. Reach him at dkovacevic@tribweb.com or via Twitter @Dejan_Kovacevic.

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