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Labriola on playing time for rookies

Posted May 18, 2014

Once upon a time, rookies had a very tough time cracking the Steelers' lineup on defense

The Pittsburgh Steelers went into the 2014 NFL Draft in need of playmakers, really, at every position except quarterback and center. They believe they added some of those kinds of players with the nine selections they made, but it always seems that the same coaches who will gush about whomever was just drafted inevitably will be explaining just a couple of months later how that same guy isn’t quite ready to play.

Don’t expect that to be the case this year. Not because the picks in this draft are somehow extra special, but because there just aren’t as many impediments to their paths to immediate playing time.

Remember when the accepted narrative had to do with defensive linemen needing considerable seasoning before they were ready to play in the Steelers’ 3-4? That they had to learn to do it the way the Steelers wanted it done, and sometimes that required a year or two of study and practice?

Was that it, or was it the presence of Aaron Smith and Casey Hampton and Kimo von Oelhoffen and Brett Keisel? Do college pass-rushers actually require a long apprenticeship before they can handle the job of outside linebacker in the Steelers’ 3-4, or was it because the top of the depth chart at their position always seemed to be manned by people like Greg Lloyd and Kevin Greene and Chad Brown and Jason Gildon and Joey Porter and James Harrison?

“If you look at the men that we had an opportunity to select this weekend, their size, their speed, their versatility, obviously those are things that we value,” said Coach Mike Tomlin at the end of the three-day draft. “We buy into the upside of these young men, and we look forward to getting down to business and working with them and putting them in the group that’s already here.”

When that happens, when the nine young men the Steelers added via this draft are in fact added into the group already living in the team’s locker room, what will be discovered quickly is that just about all of the guys whose skills were in fact impeding a rookie’s progress toward playing time are gone.

“I think rookies have a chance to start if they earn it,” said Tomlin. “That’s just the reality of it. There have been some years where we’ve had an extremely strong unit, and that makes it a tough nut to crack. We’ll see what this unit is made of. I’m not going to pre-judge and go into it with any preconceived notions. I’ll let those guys sort themselves out on the grass of Latrobe like we always do.”

Over time, a theory evolved that young players are incapable of contributing right away to a Dick LeBeau defense because of the complex nuances, or is it the nuanced complexities, but that’s over-thinking things. It’s not the playbook, not solely anyway, because while all schemes have to be somewhat complex as a result of the on-the-fly adjustments that can become necessary during that time between the huddle breaking and the ball being snapped, the reality is more games are decided by the one-on-one physical matchups than they are by cagey strategy and timely adjustments.

Certainly, players have to understand and execute their assignments or the whole framework of an offense or defense can collapse, but in the NFL these days it takes more than that. Reading the defensive back’s coverage correctly and then running the appropriate pass route mean nothing if you drop the ball, just as that defensive back playing the proper technique and being in good position only pay off if he makes a play on the football.

Over the past 10 seasons, the Steelers defense finished among the NFL’s top five in yards allowed eight times; five times it posted 40-plus sacks; and five times it posted 29-plus takeaways. If a defense is relatively stingy, and it averages two-plus sacks and two-plus takeaways per game, it’s going to put its team in position to win just about every weekend of a season.

But the takeaways and sacks have been on the decline since 2011, and in 2013 the Steelers were tied for 25th in the league in sacks, tied for 28th in total takeaways, and tied for 29th in interceptions. With fewer takeaways and splash plays come more snaps for the offense and more yardage gained, and when all of this came together in 2013 the Steelers defense was not a unit that put its team in position to win just about every week of the season.

Not long after the Steelers had picked Ryan Shazier on the first round Tomlin was in the process of answering a question about whether Shazier would begin by learning the Buck or the Mack when he offered an assessment of what really was the reasoning behind making this player the No. 1 pick.

“What we needed was a defensive playmaker, and he fits the bill in that regard, not only in terms of his skill-set but in terms of what he did on the field,” said Tomlin. “He gets after the quarterback, he’s rushed the passer, and he makes plays in coverage as well. That’s what he is – he’s a defensive playmaker. Bigger than anything, bigger than any position needs, what we needed was a defensive playmaker.”

On the second round, the pick was defensive end Stephon Tuitt, who averaged seven sacks and nine quarterback pressures during each of his three seasons at Notre Dame. In the aftermath of that selection, coordinator Dick LeBeau was talking about the realities of a depth chart on defense that has absorbed the loss of seven Pro Bowl players over the course of just a few years.

“Sometimes in the past, we’ve been in a position where our draft choices don’t necessarily have to play for a year or so,” said LeBeau. “That is definitely not the case in this situation. Both of these players – Shazier and Tuitt – if all develops as anticipated, are going to get a lot of playing time.”

And so it will be for Shazier and Tuitt, and also maybe Shaquille Richardson and Daniel McCullers on defense, and for Dri Archer and Martavis Bryant on offense.

In the NFL, the best players will play. It just so happens that this year the Steelers are going to need a number of their draft picks to be their best players.

 

 

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