No time to wait for Steelers rookies
The Steelers defense isn't giving out internships any longer.
Not that long ago, not even the early round draft picks were expected to start right away. Troy Polamalu didn't. Cam Heyward didn't. Ziggy Hood didn't. Lawrence Timmons didn't. Even Rod Woodson didn't.
Once these Steelers report to training camp July 25, inside linebacker Ryan Shazier and defensive end Stephon Tuitt are expected to push their way into the lineup and stay there. There's not only room for them, there's a great need for them.
When a defense declines during successive 8-8 seasons, there's no time for apprenticeships.
“Sometimes in the past, we've been in a position where our draft picks don't necessarily have to play for a year or so,” defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said. “This is definitely not the case in this situation.”
If Shazier and Tuitt start in Week 1 and stay in the lineup all season, it would be the first time since 1971 the Steelers had multiple rookie starters on defense.
“Both of these players, if all develops as anticipated, are going to get a lot of playing time,” LeBeau said.
In 1971, linebacker Jack Ham, defensive end Dwight White and safety Mike Wagner became starters right away and remained so for about a decade. Thirty years later in 2001, inside linebacker Kendrell Bell started every game, and nose tackle Casey Hampton started 11 games, but Hampton didn't break into the lineup until after five games.
They've been with the Steelers for barely a week, but already there has been much for Shazier and Tuitt to learn. They began learning the basics during the three-day rookie minicamp that winds up Sunday.
“The information is flying at you,” said Shazier, the former Ohio State linebacker who led the Big Ten with 143 tackles last season. “You just learned a little bit of it not long ago, and now you're out there trying to digest it and play. It's kind of fast.”
Things are moving much faster on the Steelers' defense than they were a year ago too, as Shazier and Tuitt add speed and athleticism that were missing last season.
Shazier wasn't just one of major college football's top defensive playmakers last season, with 22 1⁄2 tackles for a loss and six sacks, his 4.38 speed in the 40 was the fastest of any linebacker at the NFL Combine. Shazier, who is 6-foot-1 and 237 pounds, ran a 4.36 at Ohio State's pro day.
“It's going to be fun with him, to be honest,” LeBeau said. “He has the athleticism to drop back into coverage and match up. He has speed. I think it's going to be a problem.”
Coach Mike Tomlin added: “When you start talking about guys at the linebacker position running sub-4.5s, that's rare air.”
The Steelers were precariously thin in talent and depth along the defensive line — only Heyward and Steve McLendon have started there for them —- before drafting the 6-foot-5, 303-pound Tuitt, who had 19 1⁄2 sacks for Notre Dame the past two seasons — 12 in 2012.
“You want a guy, especially with the height that he has, that can push the pocket,” defensive line coach John Mitchell said. “He gets his hands up; he's knocked down a lot of passes. You're going to see a guy who has had a lot of production.”
How badly did the Steelers need another pass-rushing end? Their defensive line produced only 14 sacks in more than 900 combined pass-rush attempts last season.
Tuitt thinks the Steelers' defense is a good fit for him, but he said it's hard not to get overwhelmed early. It's already evident to him that, compared to college football, the NFL “is more of an adult game.”
“I have a lot to learn,” he said. “This defense, you've got to take the playbook and 24/7 look at it. You've got to get in the playbook.”
Especially when there's no time to wait.