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GREEN BAY, Wis. — Marquez Valdes-Scantling pegged the exact moment when he realized he would be able to make an impact as a Green Bay Packers rookie receiver.

“Day 1,” he said recently.

Which might explain why he sees no reason Year 2 should be a difficult transition, even though the Packers will install a new offense under first-year head coach Matt LaFleur and offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett.

The ultra-confident Valdes-Scantling is like the rest of the Packers’ offense; he doesn’t know exactly what LaFleur’s offense will entail or how it will vary from what previous coach Mike McCarthy employed.

But he’s not concerned about the transition.

In fact, in at least one way he’s relishing it.

“I don’t know anything about the offense we’re going to be running; I don’t know what to expect when we walk in there,” Valdes-Scantling said last week in an interview from the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl and Panini Trading Card rookie appreciation event.

“I haven’t spoken with our head coach yet, so I don’t know what we should be expecting and what will be changing, if anything. But it’s just going to be like learning a new system all over again, if it is that way, and we’ll all be on an equal playing field now. You won’t have vets who’ve been in the system for four, five or 10, 11 years. We’ll all be at the same level learning at the same time.”

It was the way Valdes-Scantling was able to learn McCarthy’s offense that gave him the first chance to make an impact ahead of fellow rookie receivers Equanimeous St. Brown and J’Mon Moore. It led to early opportunities after injuries to Randall Cobb and Geronimo Allison. The fifth-round pick became the first Packers receiver since Max McGee in 1959 to post two 100-yard receiving games in the same season with three or fewer catches in each games.

A year ago at this time, he was trying to woo scouts at that all-star game. This year, he was back there to mentor draft prospects and to autograph trading cards from his rookie year, when he became Aaron Rodgers’ most reliable deep threat, averaging 15.3 yards per catch, the highest average by a Packers rookie (with at least 25 catches) since James Lofton’s 17.8-yard average in 1978. Overall, his average was fourth best among all NFL rookies last season. He ranked seventh among all 2018 rookies in yards (581) and ninth in catches (38). He caught at least four catches for 40-plus yards, tied for the most among rookies last season with Atlanta’s Calvin Ridley and Buffalo’s Robert Foster.

That’s in contrast to Moore, a fourth-round pick who was the highest selection among the three receivers the Packers drafted last season. Moore couldn’t get on the field and admitted it was because he failed to grasp the offense. It also took St. Brown, a sixth-round pick, longer than Valdes-Scantling to make an impact.

“I was able to produce with a steep learning curve, probably steeper last time, because guys had been in the system for many years, and I’m coming in having to learn like eight years of a system in three months,” Valdes-Scantling said. “So now, if we do have to learn a completely different system, it won’t just be for the rookies this time.”

While Valdes-Scantling won’t technically get his hands on LaFleur’s playbook until the offseason program starts in April, he plans to refine his mental game between and now then while he works out in Florida.

“I have all the physical traits,” said the 6-foot-4, 206-pounder. “You can always get better, but physicality doesn’t get you a long way in this league playing wide receiver. If I was an O-lineman, it would be a little bit different, but going in the weight room and lifting 500 pounds is not going to make me a better receiver. Mentally is the next step for my game. Obviously you have to keep in shape, but I think mentally preparing myself to be able to battle a full NFL season again.”

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PHILADELPHIA — A 48-7 loss to the New Orleans Saints in Week 11 was the low point of the season for the Philadelphia Eagles, but quarterback Nick Foles says it was also the turning point.

“That game has helped us become the team we are today,” Foles said Wednesday as the Eagles began preparations for this weekend’s divisional playoff against New Orleans. “Going through that, that’s not easy as a team to lose like that. But there was never a pointing of the finger. It actually brought us closer. It can separate a team or it can bring us closer, and it brought us closer.”


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That loss dropped the Eagles to 4-6 and put their postseason hopes in peril. They responded by winning five of six to capture the sixth and final playoff seed.

Safety Malcolm Jenkins, stinging from what he described as an embarrassing loss to his former team, took issue with the Eagles’ demeanor during that game and suggested some players lacked fight.

“At that point in time, obviously, that’s the low point of our season. But at no point did we doubt that we have the locker room,” Jenkins said. “We just knew that we had to put it together. Since then, I think we responded and earned our opportunity to go back down there.”

Late in that game, Jenkins made an obscene gesture, extending his middle finger toward Sean Payton following a Saints touchdown because he believed his former coach was running up the score — a sentiment others in the Eagles locker room, including tackle Jason Peters, have shared.

Coach Doug Pederson, however, did not play into that angle when addressing the media Wednesday.

“No, I did not [think they ran up the score]. Listen, we get paid to play, just like they do. We just didn’t make enough plays,” Pederson said. “We have to keep them out of the end zone and we have to score. We didn’t do either one very well.”

Foles has been a key part of the Eagles’ turnaround since that loss. He has won four straight in place of the injured Carson Wentz, including a 16-15 thriller over the Chicago Bears in the wild-card round last weekend.

As Bears kicker Cody Parkey lined up for the potential game-winner at the end of the game, center Jason Kelce found Foles on the sideline to let him know that he was going to miss him if this was in fact the end. Then came the Treyvon Hester tip and the double doink, extending Foles’ time in Philly and setting up a rematch with a Saints team that sparked the turnaround.

“”It means the world,” Foles said. “I’m not worried about the future, but at the same time, I understand where I stand. And every time I wear that jersey is special and to play with guys like Jason, that’s special. I’ve been fortunate to play with the best center in the game.

“I’ll never forget that. Fortunately, we tipped the field goal and it didn’t go in, which was a huge play by Hester. But we get one more week together, at least.”

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CINCINNATI — Marvin Lewis was composed and smiling when he sat at his usual spot at the podium in Paul Brown Stadium on Monday morning. He cracked a few jokes and seemed as relaxed as he could be considering the circumstances.

If it weren’t for the tears visible in his eyes at times, it would’ve seemed like any postseason news conference he has given over the past 16 years.

Lewis was officially out as head coach of the Bengals. It was a decision both the Bengals and Lewis said was mutual, although it is unclear who proposed the split.

“Mike [Brown] and I both decided that it’s time. It was a tough moment for both of us, but I think we both realized … ” Lewis said.

Things happened quickly in the hours after the Bengals concluded their season with a loss to the Steelers in Pittsburgh. While the Bengals have dragged their feet in previous years about Lewis’ future, they already had a clean break by 10 o’clock Monday morning.

As Lewis sat down to talk to the media, players were already packing their things and heading out. Lewis had just addressed the team in what he said was one of the toughest moments of the morning. Players said he stayed composed during the talk and spent most of it telling them that he believed in a bright future for them.

Lewis won’t be around to see that future realized. The Bengals had a young roster this season that became even younger due to injuries. Lewis recalled how he walked off the practice field last weekend and remarked how young everyone seemed.

Throughout the season, Lewis seemed equal parts invigorated and exhausted by the youthfulness of the team.

“Our players got younger this year, as we know, and you enjoy that part of them,” Lewis said. “I told [public relations director Emily Parker] as we were walking off the field Friday or Saturday, ‘It’s the same thing, they’re kids.’ I wish they were more hardened veteran kids, but they’re kids. They ran around yesterday and played their tails off.”

Lewis also addressed many of the players individually that morning.

“He said he was proud of me and I had a good season and take care of myself, my body. And he said I’m a good player. That’s good to hear from him,” linebacker Nick Vigil said. “He’s been here for so long. He gave all of us a chance. He’s the one who picked us. He’s the one that wanted us to be here. Bummer deal.”

Said linebacker Preston Brown: “He just told us that they mutually decided that he wasn’t going to be the coach anymore, and that we have a lot of talent in the room, and whoever comes in is going to get us over that hump. … He told us all to just stay safe and continue to get better. He had a good message for us and … whoever comes in is going to get a good team.”

Over the past few weeks, the reactions of players have ranged from defense of Lewis to shrugging and saying it was out of their control. But the overwhelming reaction from the locker room was that the team would be OK no matter who was in charge. Running back Joe Mixon went so far as to confidently proclaim Sunday night the Bengals would be in the playoffs next year.

Marvin Lewis shares a moment with Steelers coach Mike Tomlin after Sunday’s loss in Pittsburgh. Joe Sargent/Getty Images
“This definitely is going to sting for seven or eight months, but I know one thing,” Mixon said. “Next year, our team is definitely going to the playoffs, and you can put whatever you want on that. I know that.”

Lewis also sent an email to the Bengals’ staff telling them to keep chasing the Super Bowl dream he couldn’t achieve in Cincinnati.

“They have to keep chasing that, you want to chase that. The gleam in their eye for everybody that does all the hard work in this building, to have that opportunity,” Lewis said.

And in an unusual move, Lewis chose to address the media one last time even though he was no longer obligated to, declining to wax nostalgic or talk about his hopes for the future. He conceded that he never delivered on his goal to win the Super Bowl, and that was bittersweet.

The Bengals certainly stuck by Lewis through the difficult years, long past the point that most front offices would have given up. And on the other side, there were times Lewis stuck by the Bengals as well, even when it seemed he might want out.

A mutual parting of ways seemed entirely possible after the 2010 season, but instead Lewis signed a new contract, drafted A.J. Green and Andy Dalton and took the team to five straight playoff appearances. It almost seemed as if he would coach in Cincinnati for the rest of his career.

So why did it end now?

“’It’s been a lot — this season has been a lot,” Lewis said. “From Indianapolis [in Week 1] and the ride home on the bus, all the way through. It’s been a lot.”

The season had to take its toll on the 60-year-old Lewis, who saw a promising 4-1 start slip through his fingers. The Bengals looked like they had the makings of a promising team in September, with a defense that could force turnovers and an offense that seemed poised behind Dalton, who flourished under new quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt.

The Bengals forced last-minute turnovers to seal wins against the Colts and Ravens. They defeated the Falcons on the road with a game-winning drive after Tyler Eifert, John Ross and Giovani Bernard all went down. They scored 17 straight points to upend the Dolphins. It seemed they were on their way to being something special.

“Even in camp we thought this year would be different,” Bernard said. “I’m sure every team says the same thing, but we really believed that at the beginning of the season. Guys go down. Next man has to step and we just couldn’t keep up with that. But we definitely felt in the beginning of the season we had a roster full of playmakers.”

But if the Bengals were being honest, they probably would have admitted it all went south on Oct. 14 when they failed to hold off the Steelers in the final 1:18. The Steelers have always been Lewis’ albatross, and his failure to beat them will define his legacy as much as his 0-7 playoff record.

“We started out at 4-1 and then we could’ve won that Pittsburgh game and been 5-1 but after that it was just downhill from there,” Preston Brown said. “I think once we get over that Pittsburgh hump, we can beat anybody. So we’ve got to find a way to win those type of games.”

When the Bengals gave up another heartbreaking loss to Pittsburgh, it was not only the beginning of the end for defensive coordinator Teryl Austin, who was fired less than a month later, but it embodied the lack of change that had come to define the Lewis era.

It got worse quickly. The Bengals had no answer for the Chiefs or the Saints, who blew them off the field. They struggled against rookie quarterbacks Baker Mayfield and Lamar Jackson. Their inspired performance against the Chargers was stymied by coaching decisions that seemed desperate at the time.

Although Lewis had always erred on the conservative side of two-point conversions and fourth-down tries, he flipped the script against the Chargers and failed in what ended up as a four-point loss. The Bengals didn’t seem to be able to do anything right.

Vontaze Burfict, who was once considered their best linebacker, was kept off the field due to suspensions and injuries and played poorly when he was on the field. Eighteen players ended up on injured reserve, and the Bengals lost their quarterback, two best receivers, two starting linebackers and their best tight end.

There was also Austin’s departure and a scramble to try to correct a defense that was on the path to being one of the worst in NFL history. Lewis took up the coordinator position with almost childlike enthusiasm and optimism. Lewis, who once coordinated one of the best defenses in NFL history in Baltimore, seemed positive he could turn things around.

Slowly the defense appeared to right itself toward the end of the season, but too much time had been wasted. Paul Brown Stadium was half filled to see the Bengals’ final win of the season on Dec. 16, the same day the team was eliminated from playoff contention.

And even though it was clear the remaining players were still giving it their best, the weight of the failures from the previous years and the frustration of the fan base were the final nails in the coffin. At the end of the day, the best the Bengals had to give simply wasn’t enough anymore.

“I worked my tail off. Everybody has,” Lewis said simply when asked if he was given every chance to succeed.

In his final comments on Monday morning, Lewis said he was proud of his work with the Marvin Lewis Community Fund. He thanked reporters for the coverage over the years. He told everyone he still hoped to coach but didn’t know what the future would bring.

Lewis shook hands, gave out a few hugs, then walked through the locker room in the direction of his office, perhaps to pack up his things. For the first time in 16 years, the Bengals and Lewis were looking toward a future that didn’t include each other.

“I wish I had all of you working [here] for another month [in the playoffs], as I know you want to work, and I certainly do too,” Lewis said. “That’s what I told the rookies today — imagine this is what you want. You want today to be an off day because you’re maybe playing a Saturday night home playoff game. That is what you’re training for moving forward. They’ll get there. Thank you.”

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Count Eli Manning among the quarterbacks who could be available this offseason after the New York Giants benched the two-time Super Bowl winner Wednesday, naming Geno Smith the starter. Manning would have to be released or traded by the Giants to play for another team during the 2018 season.

Here’s a look at which teams could have interest in Manning:

Denver Broncos

After Manning’s benching, the most asked question in and around the Broncos for, oh, roughly the next four months will be, “Will John Elway go for a repeat?” Consider drive-time air time filled until March. The bottom line is: With the Broncos 3-8 and on a seven-game losing streak, there is likely little Elway won’t consider when the inevitable roster makeover comes. Elway signed Peyton Manning in 2012 and the Broncos won four division titles and went to two Super Bowls. Eli Manning is 36 years old — he’ll turn 37 in January — and Peyton was 36 when the Broncos signed him. Peyton still spends plenty of time in Denver, so consider it all a possibility until those involved say it’s not. — Jeff Legwold
ESPN Stats & Info
Jacksonville Jaguars
There can’t be a more natural fit for Eli Manning in 2018 than the Jaguars, mainly because of Tom Coughlin. He was Manning’s coach for the first 12 seasons of his career with the Giants, and the two won a pair of Super Bowls together. The Jaguars have exactly what the Giants’ two title-winning teams had: a great pass rush. The Jaguars’ defense is the best in the NFL, they’ve got a workhorse back in Leonard Fournette, and the division isn’t exactly stacked with elite teams. One drawback to Manning is that he commits turnovers at the same rate as current Jaguars QB Blake Bortles. Both average 1.3 per game (Bortles has 74 in 57 games and Manning has 272 in 212 games), and limiting turnovers was the main thing Coughlin and coach Doug Marrone wanted Bortles to do this season. The two quarterbacks also are pretty close in terms of interceptions. From 2004-16, Manning averaged 16.5 per season; Bortles averaged 17 per season in his first three years. Manning, however, has proven to be a clutch player in the postseason and led the Giants on game-winning drives in both Super Bowl victories. — Michael DiRocco

Cleveland Browns

Manning, a 36-year-old quarterback, to the Browns? The odds seem slim, except in one crazy scenario. Imagine if Peyton Manning is hired to take over the Browns. He might want his brother to step in for a couple years while he grooms/finds Cleveland’s long-term quarterback. It’s a long shot, with a lot of moving parts. But with the Browns, nothing should be discarded. The odds? Extremely low. Maybe 5 percent. Which means there’s at least a chance. — Pat McManamon

New York Jets

If Eli wants to stay in New York, then the Jets could be a perfect landing spot. While current Jets quarterback Josh McCown has played well at times this season, it would make a lot of sense for the Jets to sign Manning, whose $21 million annual salary would fit under the Jets’ estimated salary cap for 2018. Also, Manning would be a good mentor for USC’s Sam Darnold or UCLA’s Josh Rosen if either falls to the Jets in the draft. — ESPN

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Eric Winston is back in Cincinnati.

NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero reported that the veteran offensive tackle re-signed with the Bengals on a one-year deal after the team released him in September. The club later confirmed the signing.
2017 SEASON: WEEK 10
▹ Which division leaders could slide?
▹ Power Rankings: Chiefs slide, Saints rise
▹ Debrief: ‘Boys America’s Team more than ever
▹ Schein: Jags, Titans, Bills all playoff-bound
▹ Chadiha: ‘Boys can win with or without Zeke
▹ Battista: Eagles only dominant team
Winston was added to make up for the loss of right tackle Jake Fisher, who was placed on the reserve/non-football illness list Wednesday after leaving Sunday’s loss to the Jaguars with an illness that landed him in the hospital.

While doubling as president of the NFL Players Association, Winston started six games for the Bengals over the past three seasons, part of a 12-year pro career that has also included stops in Houston, Kansas City and Arizona.

At 33, Winston is a patch for a Bengals team that has struggled at both tackle spots. Bookend Cedric Ogbuehi and Fisher rank 65th and 58th, respectively, among the 78 qualifying players at their position, per Pro Football Focus. Veteran Andre Smith lands at No. 53.

Quarterback Andy Dalton has paid the price, taking 24 sacks on the year, which ties him for the sixth most among quarterbacks. He’s spent the season on the run for an offense that borders on the unwatchable.

The tackle position remains one to track for the Bengals, a team desperately trying to save their season with a victory this weekend in Tennessee.

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As I watched Monday night’s preseason affair between the Giants and Browns (you can’t say I’m not a pro), I found myself appreciating the enduring grace of one Eli Manning.

You want to start a spirited debate? Come down hard on one side or the other on Eli’s Hall of Fame candidacy. It gets the people going. Less debate is necessary on the subject of Manning’s durability.

The Giants landed Eli Manning in the 2004 NFL Draft and haven’t had to worry about the quarterback position since. Manning has never missed a game since taking over the starting job midway through his rookie season. If he stays upright in 2017, he will have played in 215 consecutive regular-season games — fifth all-time on the league’s ironman rankings. He’ll hopscotch big bro Peyton (208) in November. Brett Favre, No. 1 on this list, will be the only quarterback ahead of Eli.

Manning’s aforementioned opponent on Monday night represents the dark opposite end of the spectrum. Cleveland’s inability to locate a franchise passer has doomed their post-1999 existence. Either Brock Osweiler or rookie Deshone Kizer will start in Week 1. And when that individual steps into the huddle, he will become the 35th different starting quarterback the Browns have turned to since Eli’s rookie season. Thirty. Five.

Not surprisingly, teams with a long-term solution behind center in this league tend to prosper. For the first time in NFL history, eight teams will be going into this season with the same starting quarterback for at least their 10th straight season.

Perhaps Osweiler or Kizer — OK, Kizer — can be the guy who finally provides Cleveland with stability at the game’s most vital position. Without it, you are doomed to perennial also-ran status. History is instructive, my friends.

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Given all of the moves made by the Patriots during their monster offseason, landing longtime adversary David Harris could get lost in the shuffle.

The former Jets linebacker was cut by the team on June 6, just one week before minicamp. Despite spending his first 10 seasons with Gang Green, he didn’t hesitate at the chance to become a Patriot, signing a two-year deal with New England two weeks later.
“They reached out to me and I pretty much accepted on the spot that I wanted to play there,” Harris told Saturday at his 11th annual football camp in Grand Rapids, MI. “Great organization. They’re the gold standard of the NFL. Why wouldn’t you want to be a part of that?”

Taken in the second round of the 2007 NFL Draft (a rare hit in that round by the Jets in this millennium), Harris was a staple at middle linebacker during an up-and-down stretch for New York. He missed only one game over the past eight seasons, and was a model of consistency. Even in his age-33 campaign in 2016, Harris led the team with 62 solo tackles.

Harris’ first crack against his old team takes place on Oct. 15 at MetLife Stadium. A majority of Jets fans will be weirded out that he’ll be wearing a color other than green. While Harris did choose his new team, if it were up to him, he would have stayed put until hanging up his cleats.

“When I got released by the Jets, it was kind of disappointing,” Harris said. “I wanted to finish my career there.”

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Heading toward training camp, football fiends thirst for breakout potential. Who or what is the next big thing in football? In Around The NFL’s “Making the Leap” series, we spotlight emerging players and units to keep an eye on in 2017.

Mike Tomlin has been waiting for this defense, his defense, for a decade.

Two years removed from legendary Steelers coordinator Dick LeBeau’s exit, Tomlin is running a scheme in Pittsburgh closer to the one that helped build his reputation as a coaching prodigy. Unsung Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert has constructed a foundation of defensive players entering their primes who combine explosiveness and continuity, led by front-seven disrupters Cameron Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, Ryan Shazier and Bud Dupree. Three promising defenders from last year’s rookie crop look ready to take the next step. Pittsburgh’s offense possesses an unfair amount of talent, taking pressure off the defense.
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▹ Head Coach Power Rankings
▹ Steelers | Bengals | Ravens
▹ Falcons | Saints | Panthers | Bucs
▹ Seahawks | Cards | Rams | 49ers
▹ Cowboys | Giants | Redskins | Eagles
▹ Packers | Lions | Vikings | Bears
▹ Steelers Defense
If Tomlin doesn’t deliver a return to Steelers defensive dominance now, it’s never going to happen.

A strong core
Tomlin has identified his guys. The same 11 Steelers defenders barely left the field during two playoff victories last season, largely because they stopped drives by the Dolphins and Chiefs so quickly. Ten of those 11 players are back this season, with the exception being linebacker Lawrence Timmons, a veteran whose departure was telling.

Colbert previously made mistakes by holding on to Steelers stalwarts too long. Timmons was a great contributor for a decade, but keeping him would have slowed down an otherwise-speedy linebacker group. Not to mention, Timmons’ old position as an every-down inside linebacker might no longer exist in Tomlin’s vision.

This is not your drunk uncle’s Steelers 3-4 defense. Tomlin and defensive coordinator Keith Butler mix up their alignments like most of the rest of the NFL, playing with four down linemen often (depending on the opponent’s strength). The secondary incorporates more of the Cover 3 and Cover 2 zone-defense looks Tomlin grew up with. He’s able to get more creative up front because his foundation players are so versatile.

The Steelers were a different defense after outside linebacker Bud Dupree returned from a sports hernia surgery in Week 12. Dupree picked up sacks lining up from three different positions and had a surprisingly big role in coverage.

Tomlin asks Steelers inside linebacker Ryan Shazier to similarly wear a number of hats. “Shoot the Gap: The Ryan Shazier Story” is a tale of a young man finding himself by attacking running plays with blinding confidence. It is breathtaking when Shazier takes over a game, like when he knocked Buffalo’s No. 1 rushing attack backwards almost on his own. There aren’t many humans who cross the line of scrimmage, then drop back into coverage on the same play before stealing a pass from a bewildered quarterback, like Shazier did against Matt Moore in the playoffs:
Shazier is an All-Pro waiting to happen, a player on the cusp who has yet to put it all together in one season. The same is true of so many Steelers defenders. Nose tackle Javon Hargrave was a beast down the stretch as a rookie, beating double-teams and showing surprising pass-rush savvy. Stephon Tuitt, only 24 years old like Shazier, can play inside or out depending on the formation. Tuitt was Pittsburgh’s best overall defender last season, a title that 28-year-old Cameron Heyward held in 2015. (A torn pectoral muscle ended Heyward’s season in Week 10 of last year.)

This trend of losing crucial players like Heyward is just one of the things Tomlin has to worry about …

Pittsburgh’s biggest obstacles
The Steelers have struggled to get all their best defenders on the field at once. Whether the group is injury-prone or unlucky, the key pieces have all missed significant time over the last two seasons. It is beyond preposterous that the most durable, most reliable Steeler on this side of the ball is James Harrison — the last defensive remnant of the Bill Cowher era in Pittsburgh.

Harrison is a walking folk tale, a man worthy of the legacy of his larger-than-life Steelers forefathers. Now 39 years old, Harrison was the single biggest reason Pittsburgh was so tough to run against down the stretch last season. (Not counting Week 17, when Pittsburgh rested its starters, the defense held opponents under 80 yards rushing in six of its final seven games — that included three playoff games where the Steelers gave up just 170 ground yards combined.) Harrison’s performance in Pittsburgh’s AFC wild-card win over Miami ranked among the best single-game efforts by any NFL defender a season ago.
Counting on Harrison to play at that level again is asking too much, so the Steelers drafted Wisconsin outside linebacker T.J. Watt in the first round. For all this unit’s talent, there is some risk Pittsburgh doesn’t have enough edge rushers.

The pass rush needs to excel to take pressure off an untested secondary. The team found instant, valuable snaps for 2016 rookies Artie Burns and Sean Davis a year ago. These two picks, along with 2017 third-rounder Cameron Sutton, show Tomlin putting a greater stamp on his defense. Tomlin spent his first five NFL seasons as a defensive backs coach and is looking to recapture his old magic with this group.

Davis showed toughness playing through a torn labrum and intelligence handling a variety of roles as a rookie safety. He made his biggest impact crashing down near the line of scrimmage, showing a heady feel for the game. Burns was not as raw as his reputation suggested. He competed well and has the size and athleticism to hold up if the Steelers mix in more man coverage this season. Tomlin’s reliance on his zone defense came back to haunt him in Foxborough last January.

This is generally a young Steelers secondary — with elder statesmen, like Mike Mitchell and William Gay, who make their share of mistakes. Will Pittsburgh be ready to handle the deepest Patriots receiver group yet when the teams face off on Dec. 17 or in the seemingly-inevitable AFC playoff game to follow?

The looming Patriots problem is why this Pittsburgh team may be strangely under-hyped. This 53-man roster rivals any that Tomlin has coached, yet the typically chatty Steelers fans appear to have a defeatist attitude when it comes to Belichick and Brady.

Those fans should take solace in the reality that it only takes one game to flip a one-sided rivalry; just ask Peyton Manning and the 2006 Indianapolis Colts. Dismissing this Steelers team’s chance is disrespectful to Ben Roethlisberger’s ability and to what Tomlin is building with this defense.

Tomlin’s time

Back in 2007, Tomlin was mature and confident enough to retain Dick LeBeau to run the defense. The team responded by ranking in the top two in points allowed in four of the next five seasons, but the decision delayed Tomlin’s development of his own set of Steelers defensive stars. After half a decade of regrouping on defense, Tomlin and Colbert have the recipe to make this team balanced again.

Tuitt, Heyward, Hargrave, Shazier and Dupree form the rarest of NFL assets in this free agency era: A talented, versatile group of guys who can come of age together. A third Super Bowl appearance for Tomlin is within reach, this time with a defense he molded from Day 1.