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|Mike Mitchell brought bluster and a physical if occasionally volatile presence to the Pittsburgh secondary. William Gay was a steady hand and contributed a decade of consistency to the Steelers. Robert Golden had the hard-to-quantify intangibles that made him a special teams ace and reliable backup. And now they’re gone.
The two-time defending AFC North champions released all three players Wednesday Kony Ealy Jersey , signaling a shift in direction in a defensive backfield that faltered in key moments last season.
The Steelers won 13 games but also allowed Tom Brady to light them up late in a mid-December loss that determined home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs. They couldn’t stop Jacksonville’s Blake Bortles from orchestrating a playoff upset at Heinz Field that brought a season filled with Super Bowl expectations to an emphatic and sudden halt.
The moves freed up about $7 million in cap space, money Pittsburgh can now use in part to retool around veteran cornerback Joe Haden, promising if erratic cornerback Artie Burns, and safety Sean Davis.
Mitchell spent four uneven seasons with the Steelers, who made a rare splurge in free agency when they brought him in from Carolina in 2014, signing him to a five-year, $25 million deal. Mitchell picked off four passes and recovered four fumbles in Pittsburgh. He also reined in the questionable hits that cost him tens of thousands of dollars in fines earlier in his career.
He also served as a firebrand for a secondary in transition following the retirement of stars Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor. Yet he would occasionally go for the big hit when a routine tackle would have sufficed, an issue that popped up at inopportune times.
Gay’s departure leaves quarterback Ben Roethlisberger as the only player from Pittsburgh’s last Super Bowl victory nearly a decade ago. Gay carved out a niche as a reliable and versatile defensive back. He has played in 176 consecutive games while spending 10 of his 11 seasons with the Steelers. Gay’s playing time decreased last season as rookie Mike Hilton took over his spot as the nickel back.
Golden filled in at various spots in the secondary, though his real impact was on special teams Bill Bates Jersey , a unit he served as the captain from 2014-16.
The moves came a month after Tom Bradley replaced Carnell Lake as defensive backs coach. Lake stepped down shortly after the playoff loss to Jacksonville to spend more time in California to watch his son play high school football.
Pittsburgh, as has long been its custom, stayed quiet on the first day of the league’s new year. The Steelers have focused most of their work over the last six weeks trying to get under the 2018 salary cap, something they’ve done largely through restructuring existing contracts.
While Pittsburgh has depth concerns at safety and inside linebacker, it’s likely the Steelers will rely heavily on the draft to address those needs. Davis and J.J. Wilcox are the only safeties on the current roster with serious NFL experience. Pro Bowl linebacker Ryan Shazier has already been ruled out for 2018 as he recovers from spinal surgery in December.
Kevin Harvick warned he was charging for the lead with taps on Kyle Busch's rear bumper over the waning laps. Harvick had failed to methodically work his way around the race leader with a clean pass, so he set aim with his Ford on Busch for the knockout shot.
Harvick nudged the right side of the Toyota and jostled Busch out of his groove and three lanes up the track. He zipped to the front with a textbook bump-and-run that led to a beer-soaked celebration and left Busch fuming 鈥?the move of the race in another stellar showcase for the leader of the Big Three.
Harvick outdueled Busch over the final 10 laps to win a thrilling battle of two of NASCAR's dominant drivers Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
"I felt like it was my best opportunity to do what I had to do to win," Harvick said. "I didn't want to wreck him. But I didn't want to waste a bunch of time behind him."
Busch, the temperamental 2015 series champion, had a different view.
"I think he could have made the move work cleaner than that Justin Blackmon Jersey ," Busch said.
Busch said he expected for Harvick to keep trying for the decisive pass until there were about two or three laps left.
"I figured that's exactly what he was thinking," Harvick said, smiling. "I knew I needed to take the opportunity as soon as I could get it. We needed to do it when he wasn't expecting it."
Harvick crew chief Rodney Childers had exhorted Harvick over the radio to do what he needed to do to snag that checkered flag.
"He was in the lane that I needed to be in and as you get to the end," Harvick said, "you've got to be aggressive."
Harvick raced to his sixth victory of the season for Stewart-Haas Racing and finished in the top two in some order with Busch for the fourth time this year.
Harvick, Busch and Martin Truex Jr. 鈥?NASCAR's Big Three 鈥?have won a combined 15 times in the 20 Cup races. Busch has five wins and Truex, who was fourth Sunday, has four.
There was nearly an outlier in a race delayed more than three hours by rain.
Aric Almirola, who replaced retired Danica Patrick this season in the No. 10 Ford Demaryius Thomas Jersey , threatened to crash the party and win his second career Cup race. He led for more than 40 laps late until he was derailed by a poor pit stop and then spun his tires on a restart that likely cost him his first win since July 2014.
"You think I'd be happy," he said.
Not in this race.
But it was a banner weekend for SHR: Kurt Busch won the pole and finished eighth; and Harvick and Almirola placed in the top five.
Almirola, though, was the latest also-ran to realize drivers have to be flawless to catch either of the Big Three.
Harvick, who won his 43rd career race, made the perfect pass in New Hampshire.
Harvick reeled off three straight victories at Atlanta, Las Vegas and Phoenix and went back-to-back in May at Dover and Kansas. It had been seven races since he reached victory lane.
He found the way again in the No. 4 Ford to celebrate again for Stewart-Haas Racing. His six wins are a career-best, topping the five he reached in his 2014 championship season and 2006.
ONE AND DONE
New Hampshire hosted its only Cup weekend of the season because track owner Speedway Motorsports Inc. transferred the fall playoff race to Las Vegas Motor Speedway. New Hampshire ran its first Cup race in 1993 and got a second date in 1997.
The track will fill the open date in September with the NASCAR Modified Tour. New Hampshire also plans to hold a country music festival in 2019.
Track general manager Dave McGrath said there was a modest ticket bump from Sunday's race compared to last July. He did not reveal attendance numbers.
"There's no significant drop year over year. We're holding our own," McGrath said. "I wish that everybody that was here in September was here in July but I think that's going to take a few years for that to truly take hold. The good news is Ndamukong Suh Jersey , that level, steady (crowd) is a big win in my book. That clearly shows we're keeping those that we had and it's our job now to find that next group to come and be part of the weekend."
WORKING FOR THE WEEKEND
Loverboy played the pre-race concert in the rain.
Loverboy's song "Heaven in Your Eyes" was on the "Top Gun" soundtrack in 1986 and Tom Cruise recently started filming the sequel "Top Gun: Maverick."
Lead singer Mike Reno said he recorded a song he hoped would be used in the movie.
"We recorded it and I sent it out. I don't know if they're going to take it," Reno said. "I'm hoping they pick some nice retro music, rather than go with the new stuff. When you listen to the song we recorded for the new 'Top Gun,' you can almost hear the jets flying by."
New England Patriots safety Patrick Chung had been scheduled to drive the pace car for the race until rain hit.
Chung declined to discuss the NFL's national anthem debate that was reignited this week.
"Can't worry about things you can't control. It is what it is," Chung said.
Chung said he was ready for the Patriots to start training camp and put the Super Bowl loss to the Philadelphia Eagles behind them.
"That game sucked," he said.
The series heads to Pocono Raceway where Kyle Busch is the defending race winner.
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