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Versatile Steeler Thomas grateful for new opportunity

| Friday, June 6, 2014, 11:21 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Steelers' Cam Thomas practices at offseason workouts Wednesday, June 4, 2014, on the South Side.

Steve McLendon didn't answer the question, but it was more like he couldn't answer it about new teammate Cam Thomas.

“I would rather not say what he brings because I want people to see what he brings,” McLendon said.

Maybe a better answer might be from where will Thomas bring it?

The Steelers signed the 330-pounder nicknamed “Baby Zilla” to a two-year, $4 million free-agent deal in March to help a depleted defensive line that lost Ziggy Hood and Al Woods to free agency and didn't ask Brett Keisel back.

But where Thomas will help is an open question.

Thomas played almost exclusively as a 3-4 nose tackle in San Diego, but he is athletic and powerful enough to play the five technique (outside shoulder of the tackle) and the three technique (outside shoulder of the guard) in sub packages.

“It's football,” Thomas said. “At the end of the day, it is still the same thing. You have to play ball. Line up and try to do the best I can to let the linebackers flow and make the play.”

Initially, Thomas has been plugged in at left defensive side — the strong side — during organized team activities to take advantage of his size and strength.

Teams typically run the ball more to their right, making the left defensive end position critical when it comes to stopping the run.

It's been so far so good for Thomas.

“He's learned a lot, but it is an ongoing process for him,” defensive end Cameron Heyward said. “It's different terminology, different scheme but he is picking it up. You constantly see him getting better, and that's all you can ask.”

Thomas got his first chance to start last year and it didn't quite go as expected.

Thomas lost his starting nose tackle position over the final month to Sean Lissemore, but played more snaps (53-51) than Lissemore in the subsequent three games before Lissemore injured his shoulder.

Thomas started 10 games and finished with 23 tackles as the Chargers made a late push to make the playoffs.

He took the change in rotation well.

“The coaches wanted to play a certain scheme and the coaches know what's best,” Thomas said. “They wanted me to play a certain amount? OK, that's cool. I can't be mad about it because at the end of the day, you are still playing football.”

The Steelers would like to see somewhat of a rotation with Thomas again this year with rookie second-round pick Stephon Tuitt. Ultimately, they would like Thomas be a swing guy who can play multiple positions.

“Cam is going to give us a few options,” defensive line coach John Mitchell said. “He gives us a lot of flexibility as an end and a nose tackle.”

Thomas knows the first thing he needs to do as a defensive end is hold up blocks so that the linebackers can run to the ball and make a play.

But after that …

“When the opportunity comes, get to the ball,” said Thomas, who had six sacks in limited time during his first two years. “Play your gap first and after that, go try to make the play. I feel like I am a pretty decent athlete, so I can do some of the scheme stuff.

“I am looking forward to every bit of the opportunity. I know there are some great guys out there looking for jobs, so I am blessed to be home somewhere. I am just ready to play ball.”

Mark Kaboly is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at mkaboly@tribweb.com or via Twitter @MarkKaboly_Trib.

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