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The young and the relentless

 

 

LATROBE _ The deployment was calculated and in a couple of instances temporary, but no less significant or symbolic.

Stephon Tuitt at defensive end.

Shamarko Thomas at safety.

And on the other side Markus Wheaton as an anointed starter at wide receiver opposite Antonio Brown.

The youth movement to which the Steelers have committed was on full display over the weekend at St. Vincent College.

And it brought into focus a vision of the future that will become reality sooner rather than later.

There was Tuitt on Saturday, playing defensive end with the first-team defense. With nose tackle Steve McLendon being given a day off (and, as it turned out, another on Sunday), the Steelers’ slid Cam Thomas from end to nose and inserted Tuitt in Thomas’ vacated spot at end.

It was an exploratory ploy but it was also a reflection of the progress Tuitt has been making.

Tuitt, this year's No. 2 draft pick, might not start on Sept. 7, as No. 1 pick and inside linebacker Ryan Shazier will. But there nonetheless figures to be a second rookie contributing significantly on defense in 2014.

Like Tuitt, Shamarko Thomas lined up with the first-team defense for the first time over the weekend. Safety Troy Polamalu is routinely held out of 11-on-11 tackling periods, but the Steelers had previously been going with Will Allen (filling in for Mike Mitchell) and Robert Golden (for Troy) in such situations.

Thomas, a second-year pro, is on the come.

He’s the heir apparent to Polamalu, and Thomas will find the field in the interim in some sub-package configuration, or so it appears.

Wheaton, another second-year pro, has been the presumptive starter at wide receiver ever since Emmanuel Sanders left for Denver. The release of the Steelers’ first depth chart for 2014 on Sunday confirmed what Wheaton has been doing on and off the field since Sanders departed, and what will be expected of Wheaton this season.

Saturday’s practice also suggested Wheaton might not be the only high-profile, youthful contributor at the position.

Fourth-round pick Martavis Bryant put on quite a show, one that was highlighted by a one-handed catch in the back corner of the end zone at the expense of starting cornerback Cortez Allen.

Previously inconsistent and somewhat enigmatic, as young receivers often are, Bryant all of a sudden looked like a guy who knew exactly how to exploit his 6-foot-4, 211-pound frame against smaller cornerbacks.

And all of the cornerbacks are smaller than Bryant.

Topping the weekend off was third-round pick Dri Archer’s improvisational cutback that turned a doomed toss-right into about a 40-yard gain during Sunday’s 11-on-11 tackling period. Archer weaved his way through the defense, establishing again that he can apply his beep-beep speed in more than just straight-line situations.

We’re still just talking about practice.

But that said the Steelers’ vision of what they want to become and how quickly they can make it happen is beginning to take shape as the young players they’ll be counting on continue to show up and demand to be noticed.

It’s getting interesting out here, intriguing, even.

And a significant step up from back-to-back 8-8s is getting a little less difficult to envision.

 

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