PITTSBURGH (AP) – The Pittsburgh Steelers won the AFC North last season almost in spite of a defense that couldn’t get to the quarterback or the ball with any regularity.
Rather than splurge in free agency, the Steelers did what they almost always do when it’s time to rebuild: they threw young legs at the problem instead.
Senquez Golson, Doran Grant and Jerod Holliman weren’t the biggest or fastest secondary prospects in the NFL Draft. Yet they knew what to do when the ball is in the air, combining for 29 interceptions during their final college seasons last fall. For a team in dire need of the kind of “splash” plays that can alter the course of a season, it’s a start.
“We had a desire to improve competition and playmaking ability in the secondary,” Tomlin said. “We didn’t talk a lot about … height/weight and speed but productivity.”
There was plenty to go around between the three. Holliman led the nation in picks with 14 for Louisville and was a first-team All-American. So was Golson, who tied a school record with 10 for Mississippi. Grant had to settle for first-team All-Big Ten after coming down with five interceptions for Ohio State. Compare that with the Steelers, who managed all of 11 as a team last fall.
“We felt good about tangible evidence that these guys were good,” Tomlin said.
Even if the other measurable weren’t quite as impressive. Golson, taken in the second round, is listed at 5-foot-9. Grant, selected in the fourth round, is 5-10. Holliman, a seventh-round pick, ran a sluggish 4.62 40-yard dash and isn’t exactly a willing tackler. Tomlin can deal with the shortcomings. Last he checked, that’s why he’s getting paid.
“We’re just going to provide them the information,” Tomlin said. “They have a very good chance to prove that they can belong … the ball will be in their court.”
And, the Steelers hope, eventually in their hands.
The trio of defensive backs provided the core of a defense-heavy draft. Pittsburgh used six of its eight selections to give a defense in the midst of transition a needed influx of talent. In addition to Golson, Grant and Holliman the Steelers took linebacker Bud Dupree (Kentucky) in the first round and defensive lineman L.T. Walton (Central Michigan) and Anthony Chickillo (Miami) in the sixth, though Chickillo will transition to outside linebacker.
“We thought it was going to be a 6-2 ratio,” general manager Kevin Colbert said. “If it was close, we were always going to favor the defense.”
Pittsburgh really didn’t have a choice following the retirements of Troy Polamalu, Ike Taylor and Jason Worilds and Brice McCain’s departure for Miami as a free agent. They were among the more productive players for a unit that finished 18th in yards and points allowed, 26th in sacks and 25th in interceptions.
“There concerns when you have so many starters leave you at once,” secondary coach Carnell Lake said. “You want to make sure you replace them and make sure you replace them with quality players.”
There certainly won’t be a lack of enthusiasm. Grant shouted “Steelers, bro” during a conference call with the media shortly after becoming the fifth Buckeye in the last six years taken by Pittsburgh. Grant proved productive and durable with the Buckeyes, totaling 63 tackles last season played in 54 games in during his collegiate career. That kind of versatility should help him find a spot on special teams while he learns the ins and outs of new defensive coordinator Keith Butler’s 3-4 scheme.
Lake said there’s a chance the Steelers could give Grant a look at safety, where Mike Mitchell and Shamarko Thomas are slated to start. Grant has never played safety in an actual game but is willing to learn if that’s what it takes to see the field.
It’s the same situation Chickillo will face after spending his career with the Hurricanes at defensive end. He will ditch the three-point stance for a stand-up position on the edge for the Steelers. Assistant coach Joey Porter doesn’t expect to burden Chickillo by making him learn how to cover tight ends. Pittsburgh needs players that can apply pressure in the backfield. The rest can wait.
“If you’re a guy that is going to come in and get sacks for us, we’ll take it,” Porter said.
The youth movement underway in the secondary will soon happen at tight end, where steady veteran Heath Miller is entering his 11th season. Pittsburgh will give Penn State’s Jesse James a shot after taking the 6-7, 261-pound 20-year-old in the fifth round. James caught 38 passes for 396 yards in 2014. He left Penn State early hoping his size would provide teams looking for help at the end of the offensive line while also using his frame to create mismatches in tight spaces.
“I didn’t get a chance to show how athletic I was,” James said. “I’ll get a shot to do that in the future.”
So will wide receiver Sammie Coates, a third-round pick out of Auburn who torched Alabama for 206 yards receiving and two scores last November. Coates and James will have time to learn behind experienced playmakers. That might not be the case for the rookies on a defense hoping to recapture some of its former menace.
“We’re going to provide a competitive atmosphere so that the guys know the playing field is level,” Tomlin said. “We don’t care how they get here.”
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