PITTSBURGH (AP) – The faces Ike Taylor grew so accustomed to seeing line up alongside him over the past decade have disappeared.
Ryan Clark? Gone. Ditto Brett Keisel. And LaMarr Woodley. Larry Foote too.
All Pittsburgh Steelers veterans with Super Bowl rings.
All now are a part of the team’s past after another offseason purge, part of the inevitable churn from which no franchise – not even the one with more Lombardi Trophies than any other – is immune.
Of the 90 players who will report to Saint Vincent College on Friday when the Steelers open training camp, only seven stood on the field in Tampa on that cool February night five years ago when Pittsburgh beat the Arizona Cardinals for its sixth championship.
The 34-year-old Taylor knows he may be part of the next wave out the door. He’s just trying to keep it propped open as long as he can, even if it means the longtime court jester has suddenly become one of the de-facto elder statesmen.
“There are a whole lot of new faces,” the cornerback said with a laugh. “That’s a good and bad thing. It’s a good thing that I am still here. I’ll give a shout out to everybody who left. But football is football. Football, you have to understand as a player, is a business.”
Mike Tomlin talks with cornerback Ike Taylor (24) during the first half of an NFL football game against the Detroit Lions in Pittsburgh, Nov. 17. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
And business wasn’t so hot for the Steelers in 2013. Only a resurgent 6-2 second half allowed Pittsburgh to avoid its first losing season since 2003. The Steelers haven’t missed the playoffs three consecutive years this millennium. To keep that streak alive, they spent the long winter and spring giving the defense a needed jolt of speed and youth.
The early returns are promising. Cornerback William Gay likened practice during organized team activities to a track meet. One in which the defense that finished 13th in the league in yards allowed last year did less chasing and more catching.
“These boys are running,’” Taylor said. “When you look at it on the field and you actually play with them, you can see that they are running.”
Perhaps, all the way back to the postseason. Here’s what to look for as Pittsburgh begins its 47th summer at Saint Vincent.
SLIM SHAZIER: Rookie linebacker Ryan Shazier runs like a safety and hits as if he’s a linebacker. The Steelers can deal with the 6-foot-1, 237-pound Shazier’s relative lack of size if it means he can move sideline to sideline as quickly as he did in three standout years at Ohio State. On a defense where youngsters typically only start when necessary, Shazier could be the exception as the Steelers search for someone to replace Foote.
LOADED BACKFIELD: Le’Veon Bell put together the best rookie season by a Steelers running back since Franco Harris in 1972, with 1,259 yards from scrimmage. He’ll have plenty of help this fall from beefy LeGarrette Blount, who signed after spending last year in New England and rookie Dri Archer, whose 4.27 40-yard dash time at the draft combine has offensive coordinator Todd Haley dreaming of ways to use him.
OUT OF THIS WORILDS: Pittsburgh liked enough of what it saw from outside linebacker Jason Worilds and his team-high eight sacks in 2013 to hand him the transitional player tag and cut ties with the oft-injured Woodley. Worilds and the Steelers, however, have not yet agreed to a long-term deal and the 26-year-old missed most of the offseason workouts because of a nagging leg injury.
NO HUDDLE HYPE: The Steelers rallied from a miserable 2-6 start in 2013 thanks in large part to an uptick in offensive production due to an increased reliance on the no-huddle. Expect quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to be given even more freedom in 2014. Pittsburgh averaged 28 points a game during its 5-2 run to close 2013. Roethlisberger expects the offense to be even more productive with the addition of wide receiver Lance Moore and the potential of 6-foot-4 rookie wideout Martavis Bryant, who gives Roethlisberger the big red zone target he’s lacked since Plaxico Burress left town the first time nearly a decade ago.
HEALTHY LINE: Who knows what 2013 would have looked like in Pittsburgh if center Maurkice Pouncey hadn’t torn up his right knee eight plays into the season? It took the line weeks to stabilize, and by then it was too late. Pouncey is healthy and happy after signing a contract extension in June. His return buoys a group of youngsters – including rapidly improving guard David DeCastro – that was one of the better units in the league by the end of last year even with Pouncey on the sideline in sweatpants.