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Kovacevic: Shazier, Tuitt can shore up ... secondary?

| Sunday, May 18, 2014, 10:21 p.m.

“Football in shorts” is more than just one of Mike Tomlin's many pet phrases. It has a distinct beauty, this one. It's the coach's derisive, default comeback for any question that seeks analysis of any of the Steelers' various offseason workouts, and it doesn't even take the requisite verb.

“Coach, what did you of think of Joe Sixth-Rounder?”

“Football in shorts.”

“Coach, anyone out there who …?”

“Football in shorts.”

It's fair, too. No one's wearing pads. No one's hitting. It's all motions.

At the same time, be certain the Steelers' three-day rookie camp, which wrapped up Sunday on the South Side, represented at least the start of something essential for this franchise.

“A pass rush and coverage work together on a defense. They have since the beginning of time, and they always will,” Tomlin came back to one my decidedly non-football-shorts questions this weekend. “You've got to apply pressure to the quarterback. Doesn't matter how many people you do it with. You've got to use as many as is required for consistent pressure to assure that the ball comes out in a timely manner. Because when it doesn't, it means yards and points for the offense. That's just the reality of football at any level.”

It has been a harsh reality around here for a couple of 8-8 seasons now.

My question for the coach, by the way, was chicken-and-egg variety: Which comes first, quality pass rush or quality pass coverage?

And while Tomlin's thoughtful reply was appreciated, I'll offer one that's a whole lot simpler: Seattle.

The Super Bowl champs ranked No. 1 in passing defense (172 yards per game), No. 1 in interceptions (28) and No. 8 in sacks (44). And the Seahawks achieved that, at the risk of another Richard Sherman rant, through the NFL's most athletic and versatile front seven. Linebackers blitzed from all over the Pacific Northwest. Defensive tackles dropped into coverage. Even the base scheme would switch from 4-3 to 3-4 or 2-5, anything to disrupt, disrupt, disrupt.

In the Super Bowl, the Seahawks beat the Broncos by giving Peyton Manning 2.4 seconds to throw, compared to Russell Wilson's 2.81. Manning was pressured on 20 of 51 throws, Wilson on 4 of 27. Manning misfired on all six deep balls, including a pick. And no coincidence, Pro Football Focus' highest grades for Seattle's defense went to ends Chris Clemons (sack, QB hit, four hurries) and Cliff Avril (three QB hits, six hurries), and linebacker K.J. Wright (seven tackles). Even the game's most brilliant on-field mind had no idea what was about to hit him.

Any of that sound familiar?

It should, because that's what Dick LeBeau was doing before being saddled with a lot of aging, immobile pawns and rooks on his chess board.

Well, enter Ryan Shazier and Stephon Tuitt.

The Steelers' top two picks in this month's draft were expressly added to be the “defensive playmakers” Tomlin and Kevin Colbert repeatedly have stated they covet. But their true value will be best measured by the impact on the defense as a whole, in particular whether the front seven can resume — after a two-year hiatus — looking dangerous, unpredictable, maybe even a little menacing.

That's No. 1 here. Make no mistake.

The secondary will be much the same, except for Mike Mitchell taking Ryan Clark's place. The defensive line will have younger legs in Tuitt, Cam Heyward, Cam Thomas and Steve McLendon but no clear nose tackle yet. The linebackers have Lawrence Timmons, a maybe/maybe not sequel for Jason Worilds, Jarvis Jones seeking his second sack and Shazier learning on the fly.

That's a lot of ifs. But at least the pieces aren't glued down anymore.

If the speedy, smart and versatile Shazier meets high expectations, he'll allow Troy Polamalu to stop playing linebacker for good, a huge plus all by itself. He'll also help stunt the run. And he'll add a fourth dimension to the pass rush, preventing teams from ganging up on Worilds. He can lighten Timmons' load in pass coverage, too.

“I know I can drop into coverage,” the kid was telling me this weekend. “I've always considered it a strength.”

Tuitt's a bigger man, but he's athletic enough to use in various ways, as well.

Both will need to be quick studies, of course.

“As much as you think you know, there's a long way to go,” Shazier said.

“I've got a lot to learn,” Tuitt said. “This is a defense where you've got to take that playbook with you 24/7.”

Good. That's how it used to be.

I'd tell you how those two looked out there at rookie camp, except that their pants weren't long enough. That'll come soon enough.

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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