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Steelers opt for youth, speed while revamping roster

| Saturday, Aug. 30, 2014, 9:51 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Trib Total Media
Steelers receiver Markus Wheaton makes a catch against the Bills on Saturday, Aug. 16, 2014 at Heinz Field. Wheaton's role has expanded to returning kicks.
Chaz Palla | Trib Total Media
Steelers receiver Markus Wheaton looks back to the officals as a interference penalty was call on the Eagles' Bradley Fletcher on Thursday, Aug. 21, 2014, at Lincoln Financial Field.

Meet your new Pittsburgh Steelers. With the emphasis on “new.”

The Steelers, who reshaped their veterans-heavy roster only grudgingly for years, are undergoing one of their most intense roster shakeups in decades. Twenty-two of the 53 players weren't on their final cutdown roster a year ago, a 42 percent change.

Who said the Steelers couldn't create a turnover?

But are they new and improved? They'll begin to find out a week from Sunday against Cleveland, when they try to end a three-year losing streak in season openers. They've never lost four in a row in franchise history.

A position-by-position look following a second successive losing-record preseason (1-3) and a training camp that emphasized speed, the no-huddle offense, stopping the run and elevating the pass rush:

Offense

Wide receivers — It's Antonio Brown, one of the lesser-appreciated elite NFL players, and a lot of question marks. Can Markus Wheaton, who has only six career catches, provide enough of a threat to prevent two-man coverage on Brown? Can Lance Moore effectively replace slot receiver Jerricho Cotchery and his 10 touchdown catches? Can Darrius Heyward-Bey translate all that downhill speed into some downfield catches? Can rookie Martavis Bryant's red-zone success in practice translate into games? Don't think Ben Roethlisberger isn't wondering all of the above.

Offensive line — New line coach Mike Munchak wanted nine linemen and got them. The five-man starting line returns intact (Kelvin Beachum, Ramon Foster, Pouncey, David DeCastro, newly re-signed Marcus Gilbert).

“I think we're just really together. We're on one accord and really fighting for each other, fighting for our quarterback, playing hard for each other,” left tackle Beachum said. “I think that's all over the team.”

Cody Wallace is the first plug-in at center or guard, and rookie Wesley Johnson plays multiple positions. Chris Hubbard, a practice squad player last season, was kept instead of veteran Guy Whimper, who lost out to Mike Adams for the swing tackle's job.

Pouncey already is a Pro Bowl player. The Steelers believe DeCastro is next.

Tight ends — Unlike last year, Heath Miller and Matt Spaeth are healthy at the start of the season, so the Steelers kept one fewer tight end. They believe this substantially helps their passing game (Miller caught the ball well in camp) and running game (Tomlin loves Spaeth as a blocker). Michael Palmer helps on special teams.

Quarterbacks — The only unit to return intact. Roethlisberger, at 32, shows no decline in his game and, for the first time, starts a season with the no-huddle as key component of the offense. Now, he needs to blend his new toys (Dri Archer's speed, LeGarrette Blount's point-of-attack running) with his old ones (Brown's remarkable ability to consistently get open, Miller's reliable receiving skills, Le'Veon Bell's versatility). Landry Jones kept his job backing up veteran Bruce Gradkowski.

Running backs — The Steelers went through backup after backup behind Bell last season, but no one succeeded. They were certain they had a keeper in Blount — only eight months ago, he ran for 166 yards and scored four TDs against the Colts in a playoff game — but he's off to a rough start because of marijuana charges filed against him and Bell. They also wanted a more mature and improved Bell, but this was a major off-field setback for him, too. Fullback Will Johnson serves as an occasional blocker and an even more occasional receiver.

Defense

Defensive ends — Cam Heyward, emerging as a defensive leader, starts a season in the lineup for the first time. Ultra-promising rookie Stephon Tuitt splits playing time with Cam Thomas, who also spells nose tackle Steve McLendon. Brett Keisel provides the depth and experience that clearly were lacking in this group throughout training camp.

Linebackers — Welcome to the NFL, Ryan Shazier. Now, the Steelers hope he's the all-over-the-field linebacker he was against the Bills and not the out-of-position, sometimes confused rookie he was against the Eagles. Jason Worilds finally starts, and in a contract year. Was his big second half of 2013 the sign of things to come or a brief flash?

Jarvis Jones (one sack in '13) could be the key player on either side of the ball. The Steelers absolutely must get sacks and pressure from him, or much around him fails. Arthur Moats is a reliable backup outside or inside, and Sean Spence — injured and out for two years —finally makes the roster.

Defensive backs — The top three cornerbacks (Ike Taylor, Cortez Allen, William Gay) return. Allen also is in a contract year and must prove he can play effectively over a full season. Cornerback might be the biggest question-mark position on the team, given the struggles of Taylor and Allen at times last year in man coverage.

Troy Polamalu, coming off a Pro Bowl season, and Mike Mitchell, a takeaway machine in Carolina, must show only that they can work together. Shamarko Thomas won't start but will find his way onto the field — a lot. Backup cornerback Brice McCain tries to rebound from a bad season in Houston in which he lost his starting job.

Special teams

Shaun Suisham has a new contract. Now, the Steelers will find out if a kicker who didn't attempt a single 50-yard field goal last season has long-distance skills. Rookie punter Brad Wing is hoping he's a keeper. The Steelers signed a veteran punter the week of the opener last year. Long snapper Greg Warren (knee) hopes to be ready by Sunday.

Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at arobinson@tribweb.com or via Twitter @arobinson_Trib.

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