AFC North: A.Q. Shipley

It's time to click open this weekend's Baltimore Ravens mailbag ...

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There was a lot of playoff talk in our weekly Baltimore Ravens chat. It should be a hot topic with all of the races remaining tight with seven games left. The Ravens (4-5) are 1 1/2 games behind the Cincinnati Bengals (6-4) in the AFC North, and one game behind the New York Jets (5-4) for the last playoff spot in the AFC.

If you want a full transcript of the chat, you can click here. Here are some highlights:

Rich (New Jersey): Great win for the Ravens on Sunday. But with everyone in the division within two games of each other, for the Ravens to get into the playoffs, do they need to win the division or go 5-2 over the last seven and get in as a wild card if they wind up with a 9-7 record?

Jamison Hensley (ESPN): I feel 10-6 still wins the division. That being said, the Ravens will have to go 5-1 leading up to the season-ending game at Cincy. If they beat the Bengals, they'll sweep and take the AFC North. As far as the wild card, I wouldn't be surprised if 9-7 gets the last playoff spot in the AFC.

James (Baltimore): The Ravens running game has struggled since Week 1, and when one breaks down the film, one sees an ineffective blocking scheme. John Harbaugh insists that changes are being made. Quite frankly, he downplays the role of the ineffective O-line play on the poor seasonal record. Is this a case of doing the same thing and expecting different result or are they doing something behind the scene to correct it?

Jamison Hensley (ESPN): I've seen changes as far as formations. The Ravens have tried two tight ends, I-formation with Vonta Leach, using an extra blocker with Rick Wagner as well as shotgun/pistol formations. Baltimore also has a new left side of the line since the season started with Eugene Monroe and A.Q. Shipley. I know fans are quick to criticize Castillo, but this line hasn't executed all season.

PJ (Midlo): Hi Jamison, well it was one of those drive over the cliff only to be saved by a parachute games this past Sunday - Wow! What poison does the Raven Defense takeaway from the Bears this week (Matt Forte or Brandon Marshall ?) Thanks.

Jamison Hensley (ESPN): Has to be Forte. The Bears are starting McKown, who is more of a game manager. He doesn't have the arm to stretch the field to Marshall, if the wind in Chicago gusts over 20 mph (which likely will be the case). The biggest thing with Marshall is getting him to the ground after he makes the catch. As far as Forte, the Ravens have to make sure they know where he's at whether it's running or passing. He has to be the priority of the Ravens' defense.

Renn (Columbia): Do you think the Ravens could still feasibly take the AFC North? The Bengals have played better than the Ravens overall but still have had their fair share of struggles.

Jamison Hensley (ESPN): The Ravens have to get to 10 wins. That's how they win the North. The Bengals have lost two games but both have been on the road and in overtime. What they have to prove is their defense can withstand the loss of Geno Atkins and Leon Hall. Injuries have hurt Cincy this month.
Back in 2011, the Baltimore Ravens rarely spread out defenses, using three wide receivers one-quarter of the time. What a difference a couple of years make.

According to The Baltimore Sun's Matt Vensel, the Ravens have gone with three-receiver sets 63.6 percent of the time. In the loss at Pittsburgh, the Ravens used three-wide on 55 of their 61 offensive plays. In last Sunday's loss at Cleveland, Baltimore lined up in three-wide on 64 of its 67 offensive plays.

As The Sun pointed out, the player hurt the most in this change has been fullback Vonta Leach, who has played just 14 snaps in the past two games. But reduced playing time hasn't cost Leach. Based on his $840,000 salary, Leach earned $7,058 per play against the Steelers and Browns.

I advocated the Ravens spreading out defenses before they relied on it so heavily the past two games. The reason is that coach John Harbaugh always stresses that the Ravens will put the best 11 offensive players on the field, and that includes the No. 2 and No. 3 receivers Marlon Brown and Jacoby Jones.

Here's the rest of your wake-up caw ...
  • The Ravens still feel they are one breakout game away from going on a run similar to last season, according to the team's official website. “Any one of these games can be the one where it finally clicks for us and we start playing like we know we can,” linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "We’re just holding onto that.”
  • Left guard A.Q. Shipley isn't guaranteed a starting spot the rest of the way, but Comcast SportsNet believes it's his job to lose. “I felt really good,” Shipley said. “I’m sure I got beat at times, and I think there’s obviously a lot to improve upon, but for the first time really starting at guard, I think it was pretty solid.”
  • Safety James Ihedigbo neither confirmed nor denied receiving "pain" chips (which aren't banned by the NFL) from the same man who said he supplied Ray Lewis with deer-antler spray. "I personally have never done anything, never failed a drug test or anything of that manner that would put myself or my team in jeopardy," Ihedigbo told The Baltimore Sun.
  • Rookie defensive end Kapron Lewis-Moore returned to practice Wednesday, his first with the Ravens since tearing his anterior cruciate ligament while playing in the BCS national title game for Notre Dame in January. The Ravens have three weeks to decide whether to place the sixth-round pick on the active roster or keep him on the non-football injury list for the remainder of the season. "I feel like I'm pretty ready," Lewis-Moore told The Baltimore Sun. "My progress is going good. My rehab is going great. My leg feels great. My big thing is knocking some rust off and I'm excited."
OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- The Baltimore Ravens' only lineup change coming out of the bye is replacing injured offensive lineman Kelechi Osemele with A.Q. Shipley.

On paper, it looks like a downgrade. Osemele is a second-round pick from a year ago, and Shipley is on his third team since being a seventh-round pick in 2009.

It doesn't look good for the Ravens on the eye test, either. Osemele is a powerful 6-foot-5, 330 pounds. Shipley resembles a bouncer at a bar at 6-1, 305 pounds.

Still, it's hard to overlook what coach John Harbaugh said Friday when announcing Osemele was likely done for the season.

"I'm excited to see how [the offensive linemen] play going forward," he said. "We'll actually be better there with a healthier player."

Harbaugh isn't putting a positive spin on this development. You could see he actually believes this. Osemele is clearly the best option when he wants to be out there. But you got the sense that he wasn't mentally committed to playing anymore.

Heading into the bye, Osemele told reporters, "They feel like I'm the best chance to win games at my position. So, I'm going to deal with it."

This sounded like a player being told to play, not one wanting to play. There are no such questions with Shipley, a blue-collar journeyman. He was pressed into the starting lineup for Osemele four weeks ago in Miami, where the Ravens had their best rushing game (133 yards) of the season.

"He’s definitely proven we can win with him and he can play," right guard Marshal Yanda said.

The Ravens are going with Shipley for now, but there's no guarantee he'll remain the starter. Harbaugh mentioned Jah Reid "will be in the mix." There's been questions whether Reid, a third-round pick in 2011, has the toughness to be a starter in the NFL.

There's going to be a transition period with Shipley, whose natural position is center. He has never started a game at guard in the NFL. His teammates are going to help him as much as possible.

"You have to communicate a little more with the cadence and the calls when we’re running the checks," Yanda said. "You don’t want him to be mentally thinking about the play too much instead of just coming off the ball."

It's been quite a change for the Ravens' offensive line. For the first five games this season, the left side of Baltimore's offensive line was Osemele and tackle Bryant McKinnie. Now, the Ravens are going forward with Shipley and tackle Eugene Monroe.

"That's the thing -- you want your guys at 100 percent," Harbaugh said. "A.Q. has played very well when he's been in there. He's a football player."

Whether this change is for the better remains to be seen.
OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- Baltimore Ravens left guard Kelechi Osemele has been ruled out for Sunday's game at the Cleveland Browns and is likely done for the season, coach John Harbaugh said after Friday's practice.
Osemele
A.Q. Shipley told reporters that he will be starting Sunday at Cleveland. It will mark the first start at guard for the second-year lineman.

Osemele has been dealing with a back injury for the past two seasons and acknowledged last week that he would need surgery after the season. His status changed this week when he couldn't practice the past two days.

Harbaugh said the chances of Osemele playing the rest of the season "are probably pretty slim."

"The back was just getting a little worse and a little worse as we went," Harbaugh said. "We went back in and looked at it, and there are some things that may need to get taken care of."

Shipley
Osemele was limited in practice Wednesday but sat out Thursday and Friday. Shipley said he took most of the reps Thursday and was told he would start Friday.

It was four weeks ago when Shipley was pushed into the starting lineup after Osemele abruptly left with back spasms in the opening series. Since then, Shipley has received reps at left guard in case Osemele went down again.

"I’m ready. I know the position," said Shipley, who acknowledged center is his natural position. "It’s a little different (than center) and a little easier in terms of the mental aspect. It’s just a little more space to deal with now."

Durability had been a strength for Osemele. He had started 27 straight games, including playoffs, since he was selected in the second round by the Ravens last year.

"I’ve been on three different teams and he’s one of the toughest guys I’ve been around," Shipley said. "To be able to push through it, we all know how hard back injuries are. The fact that he’s been fighting, he’s a heck of a player."

Osemele becomes the 11th starter from the Ravens' Super Bowl team to either retire, sign elsewhere in free agency, get cut, get traded or go down with a serious injury. He joins linebacker Ray Lewis (retired), safety Ed Reed (signed with Houston), wide receiver Anquan Boldin (traded to San Francisco), left tackle Bryant McKinnie (traded to Miami), center Matt Birk (retired), tight end Dennis Pitta (hip injury), nose tackle Maake Kemoeatu (not re-signed), linebacker Dannell Ellerbe (signed with Miami), cornerback Cary Williams (signed with Philadelphia) and safety Bernard Pollard (cut).

Observation deck: Ravens-Falcons

August, 15, 2013
8/15/13
10:46
PM ET

The struggles of the Baltimore Ravens' starting offense this preseason has led to interceptions, three-and-outs and even a shouting outburst by running back Ray Rice.

Before the Ravens' backups rallied for a 27-23 preseason win over the Atlanta Falcons, Joe Flacco and the offense provided another instance in which Baltimore misses its top two tight ends (Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson are injured) and has yet to find a No. 2 wide receiver.

In five drives in the first half, the Ravens managed 131 yards of total offense and three first downs. Take away Torrey Smith's 77-yard touchdown -- the only highlight for the first-team offense in three quarters of play this preseason -- and Baltimore had 54 yards in the first half.

Flacco finished 7-of-9 for 118 yards, but the Ravens were 1-of-5 on third downs in the first half. Flacco's second interception of the preseason came when he forced a pass to Jacoby Jones, who was double covered on that play.

Rice didn't have much running room and was held to 10 yards on eight carries. When he was dropped 4 yards in the backfield late in the second quarter, a visibly upset Rice shouted as he headed to the sideline.

"That's about as bad as we can play," coach John Harbaugh told WBAL Radio while coming off the field at halftime, when the Ravens trailed 20-7.

In three quarters this preseason (eight total drives), the Ravens' starting offense has produced one touchdown, two turnovers (both interceptions) and three three-and-outs.

"We were just sloppy," Flacco said. "We never got into a rhythm."

Here are some other thoughts on the Ravens:
  • Jimmy Smith, who is trying to win a starting cornerback job, had a rough night against wide receiver Julio Jones. Smith gave up three completions to Jones on a first-quarter drive that resulted in gains of 32, 15 and 8 yards. On the 8-yard touchdown to Jones, it looked like Smith was expecting inside help from a safety.
  • Torrey Smith looked like a No. 1 receiver for the Ravens and accounted for two of the team's three third downs in the first half. On his touchdown, he caught a quick pass from Flacco and outran the Falcons defense for the score. Smith then converted a third-and-6 when he picked up 8 yards on a crossing route.
  • The Ravens were penalized seven times for 68 yards. A.Q. Shipley, who got the start at center, drew two flags. He was called for a 15-yard personal foul and was flagged for a false start when the Ravens were backed up to their own end zone. LaQuan Williams also ran into the punter in the third quarter, which allowed the Falcons to convert and fourth-and-3.
  • The Ravens defense is expected to be much stronger against the run this season. But the Falcons' Steven Jackson picked up yards in between the tackles, gaining 42 yards on eight carries, a 5.3-yard average.
  • David Reed had a solid showing as the kickoff returner. He averaged 31.3 yards on three returns, including a 38-yarder. Reed is trying to win one of the final roster spots.
  • Asa Jackson helped his cause for sticking around when he returned a punt 78 yards for a touchdown, putting the Ravens ahead 27-23 with 6:18 left in the fourth quarter. Jackson has been suspended for the first eight games this season for violating the NFL's policy on performance-enhancing drugs.
SOMEWHERE IN WESTERN PENNSYLVANIA -- I'm making my way to Pittsburgh Steelers training camp for the last stop on my AFC North tour. For Steelers fans, you know I saved the best for last. Or did I just go in my predicted order of the division? As you ponder that, I have the GPS set for St. Vincent College. If I can get players before practice, I will have a Steelers post on the blog by early afternoon. If not, I will put up a post after the team's afternoon workout. Here's your wake-up call ...

RAVENS: The battle for the starting center position took an interesting turn when the Ravens revealed A.Q. Shipley will start Thursday's preseason game. Gino Gradkowski, who has long been considered the favorite to win the job, started the preseason opener. "The nice thing right now is everybody says, 'Who's the guy?'" Ravens run-game coordinator Juan Castillo said, via The Baltimore Sun. "We're talking to them and we say, 'We need to have some separation, somebody has to come to the top.' The problem is they're both playing real well right now. They're both doing a good job. They're both in the pass protection, both using their hands real well."

BENGALS: Outside linebacker James Harrison still insists there isn't much of a difference going from Pittsburgh's 3-4 defense to Cincinnati's 4-3 scheme. "I’m basically doing the same things, I’m just doing it from a different alignment," Harrison said, via the team's official website. "The hardest part is getting used to lining up stacked off of the line and having to read centers, tackles, guards, all of that, where normally I’m just reading the tackles and tight ends. I don’t rush as much, especially on tackles now, but I’m doing the same things as some point in time that I did in Pittsburgh. Even when we were in our nickel coverages in Pittsburgh, sometimes I lined up stacked. Now I’m just doing it down after down."

STEELERS: Nose tackle Alameda Ta'amu hopes to repay the Steelers for sticking with him after his late-night, drunken-driving rampage 10 months ago. "I just want to keep working and, hopefully, that the next time people start talking it will be about football," Ta'amu told The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "I just want to keep quiet and let my work do the noise." Ta'amu added, "All the mistakes were because of me. It's up to me to fix them and try to do better this year."

BROWNS: Running back Trent Richardson will play in his first preseason game for the Browns, according to an Associated Press report. Coach Rob Chudzinski said Richardson, who has been slowed by a shin injury, will be used for "a couple of series. Richardson told reporters after practice: "I kind of had a feeling he was going to say, 'Yeah' today because he had me going in there with starters today. It felt good when I was out there and I'm happy coach told y'all I can play."
If you want to read the entire chat, you can click right here. These are some highlights:

CINCINNATI BENGALS

Todd (Minneapolis): In most articles on my beloved Bengals, Andy Dalton's arm strength and third-down efficiency is always the main reason why the Bengals will struggle to make the playoffs (for a third year in a row might, I add). Will the additions of tight end Tyler Eifert and running back Giovani Bernard really spread teams out enough where Andy will be able to see the field better and make those deep throws and third-down conversions? Do you see either player (Eifert or Bernard) getting 50-plus catches this season?

Jamison Hensley (ESPN): I don't see Bernard or Eifert making 50-plus catches this year. That's a lot to ask of a player who won't be starting. Where these guys will help is in the short and intermediate passing games. Bernard can take a short pass, break tackles and make a big play. Eifert can stretch the field more than [Jermaine] Greshamand will contribute more 12 to 15-yard plays. Both will make impacts this year.

CLEVELAND BROWNS

Andrew (Cleveland): Is the Browns' Tashaun Gipson enough of a ballhawk to lock down the starting free-safety job in Cleveland? Or do you see Johnson Bademosi or Jamoris Slaughter as legit competition?

Jamison Hensley (ESPN): Gipson is an average starter in this league. But he's the best one they have right now. Slaughter could develop down the road. Bademosi is more of a special-teams player, and a very good one. When the season starts, I expect Gipson to be back there with T.J. Ward.

BALTIMORE RAVENS

Ravenous128 (Columbia, MD): What are you hearing about Gino Gradkowski's transition to starting center? Is he the answer, or will the Ravens look to free agency as a fallback?

Jamison Hensley (ESPN): I believe this is going to be Gradkowski's job to lose. But remember, the Ravens traded for A.Q. Shipley in early May. He started down the stretch for the Colts last season. If Gradkowski doesn't show he can start this year, Shipley is the fallback option.

PITTSBURGH STEELERS

Luke (Carlisle, PA): Do you have any inclination this may be Dick LeBeau's last season at the helm of the Steelers defense? With a lot of expected age turnover (Brett Keisel, Ryan Clark, Ike Taylor, Larry Foote) at the end of the coming season, do you feel it would be the right time for him to walk away, with Keith Butler in the wings?

Jamison Hensley (ESPN): I'll put it this way: I wouldn't be surprised if this was LeBeau's final season. It's going to happen over the next year or two. When the Steelers retained Keith Butler, it showed he was the defensive coordinator in waiting. That, I feel, started the clock on LeBeau.
All this week, the AFC North blog has taken a look back at the 2009 draft for each team in the division. For Friday, we'll wrap up the draft reviews with the Pittsburgh Steelers:

First round: Ziggy Hood, DE

Third round: Kraig Urbik, G, Mike Wallace, WR, and Keenan Lewis, CB

Fifth round: Joe Burnett, DB, Frank Summers, RB

Sixth round: Ra'Shon Harris, DT

Seventh round: A.Q. Shipley, C, and David Johnson, TE

Thumbs up: The Steelers came away with one of the steals of the 2009 draft by getting Wallace at the 84th pick. He was the 11th wide receiver taken in this draft after the likes of Darrius Heyward-Bey (Raiders), Mohamed Massaquoi (Browns), Brian Robiskie (Browns), Derrick Williams (Lions) and Brandon Tate (Patriots). Wallace's 3,206 yards receiving are the second-most by an active wide receiver in his first three seasons (ranks only behind Anquan Boldin). Hood has quietly stepped up as a starter the past two years when Aaron Smith was injured. Some suggest he's been a disappointment. Hood was the lowest graded 3-4 defensive end, according to Pro Football Focus. The Steelers have gotten some use out of Johnson, who could become the team's fullback this season.

Thumbs down: Urbik was a bust for the Steelers, getting cut after one full season when he lost the backup job to Ramon Foster. But Urbik proved to be one of the top pass-protecting guards in the NFL after making 13 starts last season for the Bills. Maybe the Steelers gave up on Urbik too quickly. Lewis, the last of the Steelers' three third-round picks in this draft, has been a role player behind William Gay and Bryant McFadden. With those veterans gone, this year will tell a lot about Lewis and his future with the Steelers. Burnett is now playing for the CFL's Edmonton Eskimos after playing 15 games and recording no interceptions for Pittsburgh.

Hensley's grade: B-minus. The only established starter in this draft has been Wallace, who happens to be the AFC North's best player from this draft. It's not even close. Hood has been adequate as a fill-in starter, and Lewis has yet to make a significant impact. Johnson has provided production as a seventh-round pick, which is a pleasant surprise.

Steelers: Cutdown analysis

September, 5, 2009
9/05/09
3:00
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com’s James Walker


Biggest surprise: Rookie free-agent tailback Isaac Redman did all he could to impress the Steelers this summer to make the 53-man roster. But the numbers game was too much as Pittsburgh already has three quality tailbacks in Willie Parker, Rashard Mendenhall and Mewelde Moore. The Steelers won’t hesitate to place Redman on their practice squad if no team claims him.


Recently released Carey Davis was the team’s starting fullback last year, so that also counts as a surprise. But Davis has been in the doghouse for Pittsburgh since last year, and with the arrival of rookie Frank “The Tank” Summers, Davis became expendable.

No-brainers: Linebacker Bruce Davis was a third-round pick in 2008 with potential. But he didn’t show much in more than a year in Pittsburgh, so the Steelers were tired of waiting for him to come around. This year’s seventh-round pick, A.Q. Shipley, came in with high hopes but struggled physically at the NFL level as most scouts projected. The Steelers might like to spend more time teaching Shipley the NFL game if he isn’t claimed. Others like Justin Vincent, Scott Paxson and Donovan Woods were not surprises.

What’s next: With starting guard Darnell Stapleton (knee) out for the year and on injured reserve, don’t be surprised if the Steelers search the waiver wire for some depth on the offensive line. That’s really the only glaring weakness Pittsburgh has entering the season. The center position behind starter Justin Hartwig is particularly thin now that both Stapleton and Shipley were taken off the active roster.

We will have more analysis Saturday as the rest of the AFC North makes its announcements.

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

The Pittsburgh Steelers make their preseason debut Thursday night at 8 p.m. against the Arizona Cardinals in a Super Bowl rematch at Heinz Field.

It will be the first time both teams take the field since quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's game-winning drive to earn Pittsburgh's sixth NFL title.

Here are some things to look for:

 
  Getty Images
  Ben Roethlisberger and Kurt Warner meet Thursday night in a rematch of Super Bowl XLIII.
  • The starters won't play much for Pittsburgh, but it will be interesting to see if the offensive line sets the tone early. The Steelers struggled up front all last season yet opted to keep the unit together for continuity. The team believes playing together another year will strengthen this weakness, and Thursday against the Cardinals will be the initial test of that theory.
  • Roethlisberger has been up-and-down during the early portion of training camp. In particular his deep throws haven't been crisp. Roethlisberger recently complained that his arm doesn't feel as strong due to his inactivity in the offseason. This doesn't seem to be a major concern for the Steelers, as throwing every day in training camp should eventually help Roethlisberger regain his form. Still, his performance early in the preseason will be something to monitor.
  • How will new starters Lawrence Timmons and William Gay fit in at linebacker and cornerback, respectively? Pittsburgh is very confident that these two young players will easily replace dependable veterans in Larry Foote and Bryant McFadden. McFadden happens to return to Heinz Field as a member of the Cardinals.
  • Preseason always provides a good opportunity to get an extended look at rookie players. For Pittsburgh, first-round pick Evander "Ziggy" Hood and third-round receiver Mike Wallace have been the most impressive rookies so far in training camp. Look for them to get a lot of playing time. Also, rookie offensive linemen Kraig Urbik and A.Q. Shipley will get a chance to see if they can eventually contribute on the offensive line.
  • Pittsburgh punter Daniel Sepulveda will see his first game action Thursday in nearly two years. Sepulveda tore his ACL in his knee and sat out the entire 2008 season. The Steelers struggled with punting all last year, but the special teams expect to get a big boost in that area with Sepulveda's return.
 
  Gregory Shamus/Getty Images
  Veteran receiver Hines Ward promises the Steelers will stay focused this season.

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

LATROBE, Pa. -- University of Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari knows a title contender when he sees one.

Fantasy Football: 32 Questions
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Calipari, who has led two different programs to the Final Four, was in Steelers training camp this week to see what he could incorporate into his program.

"They are a championship organization because of the people," said Calipari, a native of suburban Pittsburgh. "That means the people that own it, the people that manage it and the people that coach it. They make sure the players are quality people and they take care of everybody. That's why they are what they are."

After returning 20 of 22 starters, Pittsburgh is in a prime position to become the first group since the 2003-04 New England Patriots to win back-to-back Super Bowls. But it won't be easy.

They have a shot if they can answer "yes" to these key questions.

Camp Confidential: AFC North
Bengals: Sun., Aug. 2
Steelers: Fri., Aug. 7
Browns: Mon., Aug. 17
Ravens: Sat., Aug. 22
Training Camp index

Key questions

1. Will the offensive line improve in 2009?

The knee injury this week to guard Darnell Stapleton already hurts the depth of a unit that has struggled in recent years. Stapleton, who started in the Super Bowl, will have arthroscopic knee surgery Friday and will miss a good portion of the preseason.

Pittsburgh's offensive line remains one of the team's few glaring weaknesses. The Steelers have allowed quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to be sacked an astounding 139 times the past three seasons. The running game, normally a Steelers staple, stalled in 2008.

Knowing that Roethlisberger cannot continue to take a pounding at this clip, the Steelers have been working on improving pass protection this summer. Although Stapleton is injured, the Steelers return all five starters from the Super Bowl and hope another year together improves chemistry and helps the line's overall performance.

Pittsburgh also has backups who have the potential to contribute, including versatile guard/tackle Trai Essex and rookies Kraig Urbik and A.Q. Shipley, who were taken in the third and seventh rounds, respectively.

2. Can Pittsburgh handle distractions?

In terms of distractions, the Steelers did not get off to a glowing start. About a week before camp opened, Roethlisberger was hit with a civil lawsuit alleging sexual assault in Nevada. Pittsburgh's offseason was relatively quiet up until that point, and Roethlisberger apologized to his teammates and the organization last week for shifting the attention from football.

Whether the Steelers learned anything from 2006 remains to be seen. That was the last time the Steelers were coming off a Super Bowl victory, and the wheels came off quickly and completely as distractions, injuries and poor play led to a 2-6 start and an 8-8 finish.

But this group seems very business-like in its approach. Key veterans such as receiver Hines Ward, linebacker James Farrior and safety Troy Polamalu were also on that disappointing team in 2006 and claim to have learned from that humbling experience. Training camp practices have been crisp and players, including Roethlisberger, appear focused.

3. Will the special teams be good?

The Steelers don't have many holes, so we're just nitpicking. But Pittsburgh's special teams were the weakest of the three units (offense, defense, special teams) last season.

  Reed

Kicker Jeff Reed, in the final year of his contract, is solid. But beyond that, Pittsburgh's special teams were weak.

The Steelers are trying to find a boost in the return game. In camp, Pittsburgh is working out several new players at returning kicks, including former CFL running back Stefan Logan and receiver Shaun McDonald. The goal this year is to take every-down players such as Santonio Holmes off special teams to help the offense.

Perhaps the biggest addition to special teams will be the return of punter Daniel Sepulveda, who missed all of 2008 with a torn ACL in his knee. Pittsburgh's punting was one of the league's worst last year and Sepulveda should change that. The team also is giving Sepulveda an occasional day off from punting in camp to make sure he doesn't rush back.

Market watch

Second-year receiver Limas Sweed was an enigma last season. First, he couldn't find his way on the field. Then when his number was called late in the year, Sweed wasn't ready.

But last season's disappointment led to Sweed become one of the hardest-working players on the team this offseason. In camp, the former second-round pick looks more confident and continues to make plays.

Sweed has the inside track to open the season as Pittsburgh's No. 3 receiver and knows his number will be called early if he holds onto the job. This time Sweed believes he's prepared to produce.

 
  AP Photo/Michael Conroy
  Rookie defensive tackle Evander Hood should have time to prove himself this season.

Newcomer to watch

The Steelers do not often take defensive linemen high in the draft, but they broke that mold with first-round pick Evander "Ziggy" Hood.

Pittsburgh likes Hood's motor and versatility. He is expected to spell both starters at defensive end and possibly play some nose tackle.

The three starting defensive linemen for the Steelers are all over 30, so it will be vital for Hood to provide depth and inject some youthful exuberance. The fact that he's not expected to start puts him in a good spot to produce without the normal pressures of a first-round pick.

Observation deck

Roethlisberger is struggling with his arm strength early in camp. After taking a pounding and playing so deep into the postseason, Roethlisberger didn't do any throwing independently away from the Steelers this offseason, choosing to rest instead. But many of his deep throws are coming up short and intercepted. With the preseason starting next week, it will be interesting to see how long it takes for Roethlisberger to regain his form. ... Tailback Rashard Mendenhall appears to have recovered from his season-ending shoulder injury. The former first-round pick lost significant weight in his upper body last year because he was unable to lift weights after surgery. But he has regained his bulk and looks more sure of himself in his second training camp. ...Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau is using inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons in a variety of ways now that the former first-round pick is a full-time starter. Timmons has great range to patrol the middle of the field. But LeBeau also likes Timmons' skills as a pass-rusher and has been turning him loose in pressure packages. ...Look out for rookie receiver Mike Wallace. The third-round pick from Mississippi is making a good impression in camp. Teammates are already calling him one of the fastest players on the team.

Steelers ink three draft picks

June, 18, 2009
6/18/09
3:15
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

In between a pair of minicamp practices with the Cincinnati Bengals, I want to make sure I pass along some notes on the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The defending champions announced Thursday they signed three draft picks.

Third-round receiver Mike Wallace, sixth-round defensive end Ra'Shon Harris and seventh-round center A.Q. Shipley all agreed to three-year deals with the team. Pittsburgh now has six draft picks signed, which also includes running back Frank Summers and cornerbacks Keenan Lewis and Joe Burnett.

Pittsburgh in turn released six players in quarterback Kevin McCabe, long snapper Mark Estermyer, defensive end Jeff Bradley, fullback Ryan Powdrell and receivers Jayson Foster and Cedric Goodman.

I'm off to watch the second Bengals practice. Expect a complete recap of Thursday's minicamp action once the next session ends.

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

Here are the top stories Wednesday in the AFC North:

Morning take: Because of his pedigree, the Moon Township native and former Penn State center has a chance to become a fan favorite in Pittsburgh. But Shipley must first prove he can play at the next level.

Morning take: Palmer is extremely confident in his team this season. It will be interesting to see if that optimism translates to on-the-field success.

Morning take: Sypniewski was a decent addition to Baltimore's offense when healthy. But in the past couple of months, the Ravens signed veteran tight end L.J. Smith and drafted Davon Drew, putting Sypniewski's roster spot at risk this summer.

Morning take: Last year, young corners Brandon McDonald and Eric Wright had no starting-caliber players behind them when they struggled. Now competition at the position should help the Browns.

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