Back to Basics.

Back to Basics.

After a season which saw the vaunted Pittsburgh Steelers….

A) Missing the playoffs only one season after winning the Super Bowl

B) Embarrassed nationally, while cleaning up off field issues.

It provided the perfect opportunity to return to their roots.   Under the tenure of Mike Tomlin as head coach, the team has strayed from their winning formula to varying degrees.  During recent draft classes, the team opted to choose high end athletes instead of continually fitting to their previous winning formula.  Their recent back-to-basics approach during the 2010 NFL Draft earned them the highest grade of any AFC North squad.  Brent Sobleski finishes this week’s conference spotlight.

Ray Mansfield.  Mike Webster.  Dermotti Dawson.  Jeff Hartings.  Only four manned the starting pivot in Pittsburgh from 1964 until 2006.    One of the NFL’s greatest, albeit unheralded, traditions.  While Justin Hartwig has proven to be a solid professional and a starter for a Super Bowl Championship team; the position itself has been downgraded from the previous greatness it once knew.   The tradition could possibly start anew with the selection of Florida’s Maurkice Pouncey eighteenth overall.  Recent NFL trends have shown a renewed importance of added talent along a team’s offensive interior, especially with the prevalence of 34 based defenses in which Pittsburgh themselves made en vogue.  Pouncey would seem to possess the size at 6-feet-4-inches tall, bulk at 304 pounds, and playing strength to hold up individually against many of the defensive studs now occupying zero technique status.  Whereas there are very few in the league who even present this option at center, this pivot’s actual strengths as a prospect are his quickness off the snap and agility to get to the second level consistently.  This all may be jumping the gun ever so slightly since early returns will likely see Pouncey starting at guard initially before sliding over the football.  Guard being a position in which he started as a freshman in college.  Once again, this proves directly in line with the tradition discussed earlier as Webster, Dawson, and Hartings all saw time at guard prior to manning pivot duties. As the Steelers look to rebuild their strength through the middle of the line of scrimmage, Maurkice Pouncey was the ideal selection for a roster clearly lacking overall talent along their offensive front.

Penn State may be known as “Linebacker U” when it pertains to the collegiate level, but the nomenclature of “Blitzburgh” has just as strong a positive connotation in Pennsylvania as their Nittany Lion brethren.   Pittsburgh has achieved their status by continually drafting linebacker projects to be assembled along the team’s factory line of talent.  LaMarr Woodley and Lawrence Timmons may be young bucks along this unit, but James Harrison, James Farrior, and returnee Larry Foote certainly are not. In round two, the team chose Virginia Tech defensive end Jason Worilds. Another ideal candidate to transition to the team’s heralded outside linebacker position.  Worilds has the athletic tools one asks for in regards to making this particular transition.  At 6-feet-1-inch tall, 254 pounds, possessing 4.7 speed off the edge, a 6.95 cone drill, and a 4.29 short shuttle; the future linebacker has the movement skills needed to develop nicely.  At Virginia Tech, the former Hokie displayed an explosive first step off the edge, gaining a lot of ground, while getting up field.   His motor continually kept humming.  Being an undersized defensive end, his issues came when at times being engulfed by much larger offensive linemen.  Also after a strong junior campaign, his numbers dipped as a senior due to becoming the focal point of opposing offenses.  Because of Worilds abilities and body type, it would not be completely surprising to see this prospect project inside in this particular defense.  Whatever the case Jason Worilds has the potential to be another in a long storied history of talented linebackers in the Steel City.

With the departure of top target Santonio Holmes via trade, expectations were to see the team draft another wide receiver prospect early in the process.   Southern Methodist’s Emmanuel Sanders became the team’s object of affection in the third installment of this year’s draft.  Sanders became a late riser among scouting circles due to impressive workouts.   Some wrote him off because of June Jones’ pass happy system where this receiver caught almost 100 passes a season ago.   As one watches his game closely; his short area quickness, route running, and ability to adjust on the football are what make this prospect quite intriguing to add to his top end speed.  Doubling as a punt returner, Sanders could also help a unit which finished in the bottom half of the league in 2009.  Referring back to his system in college and a lack of size, Sanders may best be served as a slot or even fourth receiver due to an early inability to beat the jam at the line of scrimmage.  Another talent which will slide nicely into Pittsburgh’s downfield passing attack already hoping to see a rise in play by second year target Mike Wallace, while continuing to rely on Hines Ward, and use the many tools of recently returned Antwan Randle-El to keep defenses honest.

Earlier, the discussion centered about the Steelers’ affinity for drafting linebackers and they did so once again midway through round four.   This time, the team chose Ohio State’s Thaddeus Gibson. A hybrid even during his time in Columbus, Gibson was a linebacker recruit, converted to defensive end, but still took most of his snaps from a two point stance.  From a talent perspective, Gibson could have potentially selected a round or two higher.  In actuality, some of his Combine tests were better than the earlier selected Jason Worilds.  His overall quickness off the edge is impressive.  His pass rush repertoire has been limited throughout his career which resulted in only nine quarterback sacks over the past two years despite his impressive physical skills.  The main concern around this prospect over the past two seasons is size.  At the Combine, he tipped the scales at 243 pounds.  While at Ohio State, Gibson played at a lower weight most of his career.  As such the ability to set the edge and hold up against bigger offensive lineman in this particular defense is clearly in question.  His final role on this team may eventually become as a pass rush specialist taking advantage of the athleticism Gibson does present.

A plethora of talent was acquired in the fifth round.   The team looked to further address their offensive line issues with the choice of tackle/guard prospect Chris Scott one hundred and fifty first overall.  The former Tennessee Volunteer is prototypical to the Steelers’ trench warfare:  a large, overpowering, straight line run blocker.   In fact this lineman is just a nasty down blocker whom can cave in an entire side of the line.  Scott may have been a tackle most of his collegiate career, but his NFL future is certainly at guard since he does not have the feet to stay outside.  Solid overall player whom may have had underrated in the right system.   Later in the round, Crezdon Butler of Clemson was chosen.    In need of improvement along the secondary, the Steelers did more to help said area by re-acquiring Bryant McFadden in a draft day deal than they did via the draft process itself.  Butler has nice size and is rather physical but struggles to turn and run in coverage.   Two selections later, Utah linebacker Stevenson Sylvester became the next linebacker added to the mix.  Unlike the two prospects which proceeded, Sylvester definitely projects inside; particularly to the Mack position used by Pittsburgh.   He will struggle to find a roster spot this season with the likes of both Keyaron Fox and Larry Foote already entrenched in the two deep behind the starters.  Sylvester should embrace special teams until an opportunity may arise.  With this bevy of prospects chosen in this particular round, each should help try and establish quality depth behind somewhat struggling units.

One of the biggest surprises of the draft may have been the slide seen with Georgia Tech running back Jonathan Dwyer. The former ACC Offensive Player of the Year was projected by many, including this site, to land anywhere in the second or third round.  Instead in round six, the Steelers finally called.  From a talent perspective there is a lot to like about Dwyer.   A big physical runner that was very productive at the collegiate level while showing a little burst for a big man in the hole.  There were some areas of his game which were generally overlooked.   For example, the triple option at Georgia Tech made Dwyer the focal point of the offense as the team’s “B back”.  As such, he was continually hit on every down by opposing defenses with or without carrying the football.  Also, his aiming points were different from an NFL style running attack lining up only four yards behind center.  Then perceived weight issues came into play.  All these played a factor in Dwyer’s draft demise.  Of any situation he could have potentially chosen despite the disappointment, Pittsburgh is ideal.   Lacking a true power runner in which this offense was predicated upon for so long; Dwyer should have the opportunity in short yardage situations to take some repetitions away from last year’s one thousand plus yard back Rashard Mendenhall.  Currently, the depth chart is relatively thin behind the team’s incumbent starter.

As Pittsburgh’s draft came to a close, two more talents were chosen.  One acquired late in the sixth round, and a final piece selected in the seventh round.  Earlier, discussion was raised about improving the team’s special teams; seemingly a consistent sore spot for this particular franchise. With the one hundred and ninety fifth selection in the 2010 NFL draft, the Steelers’ landed arguably the best player out of the MAC conference and one of the nation’s all time elite return man in Central Michigan’s Antonio Brown. As a receiver, Brown is explosive but has to work continually to hone his craft coming out of a spread system.   As a return man, Brown led the nation in punt return average in 2008.  He has been nationally ranked all three years in college regarding all purpose yardage.  While his straight line speed is not necessarily jaw dropping, his ability to change directions is as good as anyone in this draft class.   Last but not least, a final addition was made along the team’s aging defensive line.  Both Nick Eason and Ziggy Hood gained playing time last season as it progressed, but a bulk of the play along the team’s five technique still relies on Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel.  Neither of whom will be younger than thirty two years of age this season.   As the team looks to add quality depth and youth to the position, the team’s seventh round choice of Ohio State defensive lineman Doug Worthington was a quality decision late in the process.   Possessing ideal size and a style of play which translates nicely to the position, Worthington was a prospect whom quite a few scouts were high on as the process played itself out.   Down the road, the former Buckeye should be able to provide depth to the position as they transition up front.

Grade:  B+

Three linebackers, three linemen, and one power back were chosen in Pittsburgh’s 2010 draft class.  When those looking around the league think of the Steelers, immediate thoughts of linebackers flying all over the field and a huge power running attack pop to mind.  Which makes this particular class the epitome of a “Steelers’ draft”.  After seeing talented players such as Rashard Mendenhall, Lawrence Timmons, and even Ziggy Hood struggle to a degree during their early rookie returns; getting back to what the team does best is a feather in their cap as they look to overcome what appears to be a potential early season swoon.   Without the services of superstar quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for at least a quarter of this upcoming season, the team needed this approach to get them back to what won games for them previously.