When Mike Tomlin was asked what was the difference in his team's pass defense last week in a win over the Browns, he immediately pointed to getting some injured players back into the lineup.
As expected, Morgan Burnett was mentioned. The Steelers' biggest offseason signing in free agency, that was not a surprise.
But Tomlin also mentioned getting L.J. Fort. back into the lineup. And that was a surprise.
Now in his fourth season with the Steelers, Fort is finally getting the opportunity for which he longed. It's what kept him going through being released eight times by six different teams, including three times by the Steelers.
"It was just my dream of playing linebacker in the NFL," Fort told me earlier this week. "I just wanted to play ball."
For whatever reason, he's been told time and again to go away. His services were no longer needed. It's amazing, really, considering he made the Browns' roster as an undrafted free agent out of Northern Iowa in 2012 and started the team's regular season opener that season.
Chris Gocong, James-Michael Johnson and Emmanuel Acho all were injured and Scott Fujita was suspended. That put the surprising rookie in the starting lineup for that game in 2012 against Michael Vick and the Eagles.
All Fort did was record two tackles, a sack and an interception in the 17-16 Cleveland loss -- one of the best rookie debuts for a Browns' rookie in the past decade.
"I was an undrafted guy. It really was unlikely," Fort told me. "I had a sack and an interception against Mike Vick. But I also dropped what would have been a game-winning interception. It was definitely the highs and lows all in one game, my first career game."
He finished that season with 20 tackles but was released, then signed by the Broncos in 2013, but didn't make it out of training camp. Then came the Seattle Seahawks in 2014. They tried to convert him into a fullback and he spent the season on the practice squad, being activated for one game before being released again and signed by the Bengals.
Cincinnati released him in April of 2015 after the draft and it was on to New England for two weeks of training camp before being released again. The Steelers signed him the next day and he's been with them since, albeit bouncing back and forth off their 53-man roster and practice squad.
"It's not been easy," Fort admitted. "It was definitely a learning experience and it definitely humbled me. But I guess it was a good thing."
He even got the opportunity to be reunited with Vick, who signed briefly with the Steelers in 2015. Fort reminded Vick of that 2012 meeting.
"Yeah. I had him sign the ball he threw me and the picture I had sacking him," Fort told me.
That had been the highlight of his career to that point to be sure. He hopes to make new highlights now with the Steelers, with whom he carved out a niche as a special teams ace.
Fort has long been a solid coverage linebacker. He's got good hands and moves well in space, a reason why Seattle tried him at fullback.
But he's a linebacker at heart. And when Ryan Shazier was injured last season, Fort saw time at the end of the season on passing downs in the sub packages.
This season, however, the Steelers went back to Vince Williams as their nickel and dime package linebacker, largely because he had replaced Shazier as the defensive play caller. But when Williams was injured for a game against the Falcons, Fort was used in the sub packages on passing downs.
He had six tackles, a sack, three quarterback hits and a fumble recovery for a touchdown despite playing just 27 defensive snaps. But he also suffered a hamstring injury that kept him out the following week against Cincinnati, causing some to wonder if he would get a chance to be a regular in those defensive packages.
Against Cleveland last week, he and Burnett were the team's sub-package linebackers, replacing Williams and fellow inside linebacker Jon Bostic. He added three more tackles on just 21 defensive snaps.
It's been a long time coming for the 28-year-old. And it begs the question: What took so long for the coaching staff to finally show faith in him?
"Good question," he said when I asked. "I've been frustrated with it in the past. But you can't worry about that. You trust the coaches. I sat behind two first rounders (Shazier and Lawrence Timmons) for most of the time I was here. Those are two freaky guys, so you can't be too upset with that. I'm trying to stay ready for my opportunities.
"It's cool to get back out there and prove myself."
• I wrote a piece earlier this week on the Steelers' remaining options with Le'Veon Bell. But I did get one thing a little wrong: If the Steelers were to place the franchise tag on him again next season, it would be at the salary equivalent of the average of the top five in the NFL, even if Bell doesn't report and sign his franchise tag this season. Though this year wouldn't count as an accrued season if he doesn't report and sign by Nov. 13, in the league's eyes, the Steelers would still be tagging him for a third consecutive season. The Steelers won't use the franchise tag on him a third time, but I wanted to clarify that point. -- Lolley
• Artie Burns has shut down when it comes to talking to the media. And some have viewed that as Burns having lost confidence in himself. He's giving a lot of short answers, which gives that appearance. But his interaction with his teammates on the field is much different than that and he's had two good weeks of practice. He just so happened to be late to the team walkthrough last Saturday and that was enough for Tomlin to put him on the bench for the game against the Browns. The Steelers, however, aren't giving up on him. In fact, if anything, they showed a vote of confidence in their cornerback situation by not making a move at the trade deadline. They are getting healthier in the secondary with Burnett finally back after missing a month. They also were without nickel corner Mike Hilton in their previous game against the Ravens, a 26-14 defeat that was their last loss. They'll continue to give Burns a chance to redeem himself, which is a far better option than to trade for someone such as Oakland's Gareon Conley, who is the Raiders' version of Burns. -- Lolley
• The Steelers' offensive linemen aren't getting any younger and, in Ramon Foster's case, they might not be here beyond this year. In that context, it's been really neat to see how passionately they've supported the fill-in performances of B.J. Finney and Matt Feiler, the latter of whom was terrific in Marcus Gilbert's absence against the Browns. Foster is the first to support Finney on and off the field. And when I tried to bring up some other topic with Gilbert -- can't remember what, exactly -- he pointed a few stalls away and said, "How about Feiler, huh? Did you see him out there? How about Feiler?" It's a good group in so many ways. -- Dejan Kovacevic
• NHL players have been wearing contraptions around their chests for the last few years that measure their heart rate. On days where they practice harder, they will wear GPS tracking monitors in their equipment. However, thanks to an agreement reached between the league and MGM Grand Resorts, some of that information -- player tracking -- will be made available to gamblers. Theoretically, a baseline could be established where bettors will know how a player's performance might be improving or dipping over the course of a season.
One Penguins veteran said there are many opinions on the subject. This was his: "To me, if it's used in a capacity to help players and educate the players, and educate the training staff where you may or may not be needing improvement, I think it can be a good thing," he said. "Obviously, there's situations where its not ideal."
The NHL joins the NBA as the second major North American professional sports league to sign on with MGM since the U.S. Supreme Court paved the way for legalized sports gambling last spring. -- Chris Bradford in New York
• Many veteran players choose not to participate in the morning skates, particularly later in the season. That doesn't mean that they're not at the rink or not working out. One veteran says that he usually tapers off his game day skates, depending on how he feels that particular day, around Christmas time. While this particular player says he'll ride a stationary bike or do stretches, another goes for a walk -- outside the arena. That's why it was a little unusual to see another veteran player walking along Centre Avenue on Tuesday morning in full Penguins workout gear. — Bradford
• Could the Penguins be a better team without Derick Brassard? That was the conclusion of one person inside the organization. It's not that Brassard isn't a good player, he added. It's just that last year's prized acquisition at the trade deadline hasn't been a great fit. With Brassard out, the Penguins have four balanced lines, and no one has to play out of position. -- Bradford
• How's Zach Aston-Reese coming along? Well, according to our Taylor Haase, he's showing the 'swagger' Mike Sullivan wanted to see from him in Wilkes-Barre. He's got three goals in eight games, as well as a game-winning shootout goal, and he's one of the team leaders in shots, averaging 2.8 per game. Perhaps most important, he's shown no aversion to playing physical after being away from the rink for so long. That's all encouraging and, more to the point, it's on schedule. I've been told from the management level that if Aston-Reese was going to do well in bouncing back from his offseason concussion and jaw surgery, the plan all along was to keep him in Wilkes-Barre for around 15 games, then bring him up. He's got to earn it, but that's the target. — DK
• I looked at some shortstops available in free agency in this piece that would both fit the Pirates' budget and the team's desire to have a veteran who could bridge the gap until Kevin Newman is ready or share the position with the rookie next season. Another shortstop is also available if the Pirates are willing to aim higher and take on a potential public relations headache. The Cubs will listen to trade offers for Addison Russell. The problem with Russell, though, is he is suspended for the first 40 games of next season for violating Major League Baseball's domestic abuse policy. His ex-wife alleged in an Instagram post that Russell physically and verbally abused her during their marriage. Russell, 24, also missed the last 10 days of the past regular season and the Cubs' loss in the National League wild card game to the Colorado Rockies after being placed on administrative leave by MLB. Russell was an All-Star in 2016 but hit just .250/.317/.340 with five home runs this year in 130 games. He is eligible for salary arbitration after making $3.2 million. — John Perrotto
• Another shortstop the Pirates are expected to at least inquire about is the Blue Jays' Aledmys Diaz. The Pirates are very familiar with the 28-year-old from when he broke into the major leagues with the Cardinals in 2016. Diaz batted .263/.303/.453 with 18 home runs in 130 games this year but has the reputation of being a below-average fielder. He made $2 million last season, so his salary shouldn't be prohibitive. -- Perrotto
• Though right-hander Trevor Williams had a spectacular second half, almost any scout will tell you he is not as talented or has the upside of fellow Pirates righty Jameson Taillon. The Rotary Club of Pittsburgh apparently agrees, as it has selected Taillon as the winner of its Chuck Tanner Memorial Award, presented to the person who makes the most exceptional contribution to the Pirates each year. Taillon was 14-10 with a 3.20 ERA in 32 starts and led the team with 191 1/3 innings and 179 strikeouts. He will receive his award Nov. 10 during the Rotary Club's Chuck Tanner Awards Banquet at The Rivers Club. Also among those being honored are former Pirates broadcaster Lanny Frattare (Lifetime Achievement Award) and the Athletics' Bob Melvin (MLB Manager of the Year). -- Perrotto
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