LeBeau: Young Steelers defense making strides

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LATROBE – Dick LeBeau is growing a little tired of playing mad scientist in his lab.


The Steelers’ longtime defensive coordinator is ready to see if his latest creation is fit for consumption or if it’s time to go back to the drawing board.


“We’ve got good athleticism,” LeBeau said Wednesday at the Steelers’ training camp at Saint Vincent College. “Sometimes we don’t go the right direction with it because we’re young. They’re working and making good progress. I’m glad we’re going to start playing some games. It makes the evaluation process a little easier and perhaps (we’ll) identify some of the areas we need to focus on.”


LeBeau will get an opportunity to take a look at his revamped defense, which will include five new starters, when the Steelers open their preseason Saturday at the New York Giants.


Not usually a team that has a lot of roster turnover, the Steelers felt the need to almost completely retool their defense after they allowed 11 plays of 50 or more yards last season, when they were 13th in the NFL in total yards and 14th in points allowed.


“We can play a whole lot better and coach a whole lot better,” LeBeau said. “A minimum of five or six plays would have totally changed the look of our statistical picture. Every play counts and we did give up too many big plays. That’s always been one of our strengths.”


For a team that has finished first in the league in total defense five times under LeBeau’s direction, last season’s middle-of-the-pack rankings were akin to finishing dead last.


“We take that very seriously,” said cornerback Cortez Allen. “We have to clean that up and be more focused on the little things.”


Gone are starters Ziggy Hood and Brett Keisel on the defensive line, Larry Foote and LaMarr Woodley at linebacker and Ryan Clark at safety.


In their places are a mix of veteran free agents, such as Mike Mitchell at safety and Cam Thomas on the defensive line, and rookies such as Ryan Shazier at linebacker and possibly even Stephon Tuitt on the defensive line.


The progress of Shazier and Tuitt, the team’s top two draft picks, has been especially pleasing to LeBeau. Shazier will start at inside linebacker next to Lawrence Timmons, and Tuitt is in the mix to start at defensive end.


“I don’t want to overload their plate, but I would say they’re ahead of schedule,” LeBeau said. “They’ve been a pleasure for the whole coaching staff because of the type of people they are. They’re hard workers. They know they’ve got a lot to learn, and that’s not always the case. They’re open to coaching. I don’t know when, but we’re expecting some pretty good things from those guys. Ryan’s gonna start, and I could see Tuitt playing a lot of snaps.”


Shazier, who ran a sub-4.4 40-yard dash at the NFL combine, and Tuitt, a big, physical run defender who can also rush the passer, are part of the next generation of football players. They might not need to come off the field, regardless of what formation the opposing offense utilizes.


Unfortunately for the Steelers, Shazier remained out of practice with a sore knee, which means he likely won’t play against the Giants.


But with all of the no-huddle offenses and spread formations that are in use around the league, having speed at every position is a necessity.


The days of being able to substitute players based on down and distance are quickly going away.


“We better be ready for them because that’s what we’re going to see,” LeBeau said of the no-huddle spread attacks. “Nobody huddles in football, even high school football. We’ve been working on it since Day 1 of the coaching sessions, so it’s not going to be something they’re not comfortable with. We’ll have to prove we can execute and handle it.”


That’s where an improvement in team speed, particularly on defense, will come into play. Most of the newcomers offer an upgrade in speed.


But, speed alone doesn’t win in the NFL.


“We could run a race with anybody in the NFL,” LeBeau said. “Problem is, it ain’t a race. It’s a football game.”


Odds and end zones

Head coach Mike Tomlin confirmed Wednesday that nose tackle Steve McLendon, who has sat out the last four practices, has a concussion. … Right tackle Marcus Gilbert and defensive end Cam Heyward both left practice early with minor injuries but are expected to practice today. … The Steelers waived injured wide receiver Danny Coale (broken finger) and signed receiver James Shaw. Shaw played for the Arena League’s Pittsburgh Power during their recently completed season after being released by Carolina in training camp last year. … The Steelers will practice today (3 p.m.) before leaving for New York Friday. The practice is open to the public.


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