AFC North: AFC

The Pittsburgh Steelers do not have a lot of free agents. But whether they re-sign starting cornerback Ike Taylor will be one of the biggest decisions made this offseason.

In our latest edition of "Poll Friday," we ask if the reigning AFC champions will keep Taylor, their No. 1 cornerback?

Although not elite, Taylor is a solid corner who could get interest from several teams. With the going rate for good players at that position approaching $10 million, will the Steelers let Taylor walk and avoid paying top dollar? Pittsburgh also drafted two rookie corners in Curtis Brown and Cortez Allen last week.

Or will the Steelers and Taylor come to an agreement after Taylor spent his entire career in Pittsburgh? He could fit back into the starting role next season and help develop the younger players on the roster.

Cast your vote on whether Pittsburgh will keep Taylor in free agency and share your thoughts in the comment section below. By the way, the third option is a joke. The Steelers will not be in the running for free agent Nnamdi Asomugha.
After months of hype, Day 1 of the NFL draft is finally in the books. We now have four new players in the division who are expected to make an immediate impact with their respective teams.

But which AFC North club had the best first-round pick Thursday night? That is this week's "Poll Friday" question in conjunction with ESPN's SportsNation.

Was it the Cincinnati Bengals? They turned down a significant trade offer from the Atlanta Falcons to keep the No. 4 overall pick and selected Georgia wide receiver A.J. Green. He is expected to replace Chad Ochocinco as the No. 1 target in Cincinnati.

What about the Cleveland Browns? They accepted Atlanta's generous trade package, which included five draft picks over the next two years and eventually selected Baylor defensive tackle Phil Taylor to anchor the middle of their 4-3 defense. Did the Browns have the best first day?

The Baltimore Ravens missed a spot after a trade went awry with the Chicago Bears but they eventually took Colorado cornerback Jimmy Smith at No. 27. Smith is talented but comes with character concerns. But is he the best pick in the division?

Or did the reigning AFC champion Pittsburgh Steelers get the most for their value at No. 31 by selecting Ohio State defensive end Cameron Heyward? The Steelers are good at capitalizing on prospects other teams miss at the end of rounds. Is Heyward Pittsburgh's next gem?

Cast your vote on which AFC North team had the best first round Thursday night and share your thoughts in the comment section below. We'd love to hear everyone's honest, homer-free assessment of the first round.

Morning take: It's draft day!

April, 28, 2011
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Here are the most interesting stories in the AFC North as we approach Thursday's NFL draft: Morning take: Baltimore has it right. The Ravens are a great team, but they come up short year after year to Pittsburgh in big games. Those recent losses have been the difference in Baltimore getting out of the AFC.
Morning take: The Steelers have well-defined needs at cornerback and the offensive line. But picking at No. 31, most top players will be off the board. It's also possible Pittsburgh could trade the pick.
Morning take: Cincinnati doesn't trade much in the first round. The last time was in 2004. But the Bengals would be wise to keep their options open in case an offer comes along that they shouldn't refuse.
Morning take: This draft may go down as the most important of the Holmgren-Tom Heckert regime. They don't plan for the Browns to be at the top of the draft every year. So they must hit on this sixth pick.

Troy Polamalu turns 30

April, 19, 2011
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The AFC North blog would like to wish a happy birthday to Troy Polamalu of the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Pro Bowl safety turns 30 today.

Polamalu
It seems like a distant memory when Polamalu joined the Steelers eight years ago and struggled as a rookie. Six Pro Bowls and two championships later, Polamalu will go down as one of the most dynamic safeties to play in the NFL.

The age of 30 is significant for NFL players. But Polamalu, when healthy, has showed no signs of slowing down. He is the NFL's reigning defensive player of the year after recording 63 tackles and seven interceptions this past season, and many of his big plays came in clutch moments.

The biggest issue with Polamalu is injuries. He plays with reckless abandon, which makes him unique and unpredictable for opponents. But Polomalu's playing style also has resulted in knee, hamstring, ankle and Achilles ailments the past few seasons. Polamalu spends a lot of time in the box banging around with much bigger players, and the wear and tear is taking its toll.

Polamalu will be starting his ninth season with Pittsburgh in 2011. Perhaps the Steelers should consider playing Polamalu more in coverage and less in the box, which is what Pittsburgh did last season during its playoff run when Polamalu wasn't 100 percent.

Polamalu will continue to be one of the top defensive players in the NFL, but the Steelers have to do their part in keeping him fresh for a full season.
Will the Pittsburgh Steelers clean up their special-teams gaffes from their regular-season meeting with the New York Jets?

Your resident AFC North blogger asked Steelers coach Mike Tomlin on Tuesday what the Steelers need to do better on special teams in their rematch against the Jets.

[+] EnlargeBrad Smith
AP Photo/Keith SrakocicBrad Smith's 97-yard kick return for a touchdown was key in the Jets' Week 15 win over Pittsburgh.
"We need to stop Brad Smith from going 97 yards," Tomlin said. "That's a good start."

Contrary to popular belief, the Steelers didn't lose to the Jets in Week 15 because of poor offense or poor defense. The Steelers outgained the Jets by 101 yards, and Pittsburgh's offense outscored New York's 17-13.

But hidden yards on special teams and Smith's 97-yard kickoff return for a touchdown proved to be the difference in New York's 22-17 victory. New York gained 177 total yards on kickoff and punt returns, which had an impact on field position and consistently gave the Jets a short field. This will be an area to watch for Pittsburgh in the AFC Championship Game.

Pittsburgh's coverage teams have been an issue in previous seasons, so much so that the Steelers fired former special-teams coach Bob Ligashesky and hired Al Everest this season. Pittsburgh's special teams have made strides in the first year under Everest. But his unit probably had its worst game of the season against the Jets.

Smith missed the Jets' divisional-round victory over the New England Patriots on Sunday with a groin injury. His status for this Sunday's game is still to be determined, but the Steelers know the Jets are still dangerous in the third phase of the game.

"They're a very good group," Tomlin said. "It doesn't matter whether Brad Smith is back there or [Antonio] Cromartie is back there. You saw what [Cromartie] did against Indianapolis at a critical time. He's a very capable and dangerous return man, but they have a team of potentially capable return men."
Here are the latest happenings Wednesday evening in the AFC North:

Seven-step drop: Ray Rice explodes

December, 20, 2010
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Here are seven notes and observations from Week 15 in the AFC North:
    [+] EnlargeRay Rice
    Mitch Stringer/US PresswireRay Rice rushed for 153 yards in Sunday's win over the Saints.

  • Baltimore Ravens tailback Ray Rice entered Week 15 with fewer than 20 carries in each of his previous five games. But it appears that helped Rice, as he showed he had fresh legs in late December. Rice looked energized and was ready for the heavy workload in a 30-24 win over the New Orleans Saints. He rushed for a season-high 153 yards and a touchdown on 31 carries. He also led the team in receiving with five catches for 80 yards. It was a throwback performance for Rice, who put up these kind of numbers more often last season when the Ravens didn't have as many weapons. But getting the ball back in Rice's hands should continue to be a focal point for Baltimore's offensive coordinator Cam Cameron.
  • If the season ended today, the Ravens (10-4) would travel to face the Indianapolis Colts (8-6) in the playoffs at Lucas Oil Stadium. Despite Indianapolis' record, we like Baltimore's chances better against any other playoff contender. The Colts have been an awful matchup for the Ravens. Quarterback Peyton Manning is 8-2 in his career against Baltimore, including Indianapolis' playoff win last season. The Kansas City Chiefs or Jacksonville Jaguars would be easier playoff opponents.
  • We received a lot of emails regarding Carson Palmer's future since the AFC North blog reported the quarterback would not accept a pay cut to stay with the Cincinnati Bengals in 2011. Although there are no guarantees, it does increase the possibility that Palmer will wear another uniform next season. We came up with several logical destinations for Palmer. The Oakland Raiders, where former Bengals assistant Hue Jackson is the offensive coordinator, could be one option. The San Francisco 49ers, Minnesota Vikings and Arizona Cardinals are teams that could be searching for quarterback help. It's very early, however. The Bengals may choose to pay Palmer $11.5 million and make him one of the NFL's highest-paid players next season. But investing that much in a struggling quarterback is very risky.
  • The Bengals did a smart thing by giving young, unproven players meaningful reps in their 19-17 victory over the Cleveland Browns. Tailback Bernard Scott (eight carries, 40 yards) and receivers Andre Caldwell (four catches, 89 yards) and Jerome Simpson (two catches, 30 yards) contributed, as Cincinnati tries to figure out who stays and who goes this offseason. Caldwell was particularly impressive. After Terrell Owens (knee) went down, Caldwell led Cincinnati in receiving and made big receptions, including a well-designed 53-yard screen pass.
  • Browns rookie quarterback Colt McCoy reached a contract escalator Sunday. McCoy needed to play 35 percent of Cleveland's offensive snaps this year -- which is the equivalent of 5.6 games -- for his fourth-year salary to increase from approximately $500,000 to $1.15 million. That's a $650,000 raise. McCoy made his sixth start against the Bengals and will remain Cleveland's starter the rest of the season. Considering McCoy was not expected to play this season, it's an unexpected accomplishment for the third-round pick.
  • Here are several additional things I learned about the Browns: McCoy has nice touch and a good play-action fake, Pro Bowl kick returner Josh Cribbs is more hurt than he's letting on, and John St. Clair is not the answer at right tackle.
  • The Pittsburgh Steelers' loss to the New York Jets likely ensures Pittsburgh won't have the option to rest starters in Week 17. Baltimore and Pittsburgh (10-4) share the same record, but the Steelers own the tiebreaker. The Steelers host the Carolina Panthers (2-12) and the Ravens travel to face the Browns (5-9) in Week 16. Both 10-win teams are favored, which would set up a division race down to the final weekend.

Morning take: NFL Week 10

November, 14, 2010
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Here are the most interesting stories Sunday in the AFC North: Morning take: With the Baltimore Ravens' loss, the winner of this game will have the best record in the conference in a race for home-field advantage. Potential tiebreakers also are at stake.
Morning take: Although the Browns are playing better in the secondary, they are last in the AFC North and 25th overall in pass defense. Also look out for Jets receiver and former Steeler Santonio Holmes, who knows Cleveland well and is capable of making big plays.
Morning take: A combination of injuries and a veteran team have made for little impact. Defensive lineman Terrence Cody and tight end Ed Dickson are the only two getting decent playing time thus far.
Morning take: Although this wasn't mentioned, special teams definitely needs to get its act together. This phase doesn't have to win the game for Cincinnati, but it can't lose it like last week against Pittsburgh.

Take your pick: Ravens vs. Falcons

November, 10, 2010
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The NFL's first Thursday night game of the season is a big one and the subject of our latest "Take your pick" in the AFC North blog.

Who will win this week's battle of first-place teams between the Baltimore Ravens (6-2) and Atlanta Falcons (6-2)? Both clubs have several quality wins and are strong Super Bowl contenders from the AFC and NFC, respectively.

Will Baltimore continue its hot streak by winning for the sixth time in seven games? The Ravens are one of the NFL's most balanced teams and can beat you with offense or defense on any given week.

Or will the Falcons continue to play well in the Georgia Dome, where they are 4-0 and have been dominant in recent years? Atlanta likes to turn the game into a track meet on turf, which is not Baltimore's style.

Also, what do you think about the great quarterback matchup between Baltimore's Joe Flacco and Atlanta's Matt Ryan? Both were taken in the first round in 2008 and have become cornerstones for their franchises.

So take your pick this week between Baltimore and Atlanta. You can share your thoughts below, or send them to our division inbox and AFC North Twitter. We will run the best responses throughout the week.
Ben RoethlisbergerRon Chenoy/US PresswirePittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger is eager to get on the field again after returning from suspension.
After a one-month hiatus, Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger returned to work this week. Roethlisberger, who was suspended four games for violating the NFL's personal conduct policy, will make his 2010 debut Oct. 17 against the Cleveland Browns.

But plenty of issues remain for the two-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback. In anticipation of Roethlisberger's return, here are seven questions and answers before he takes the field:

1. How long will it take Roethlisberger to get in sync with the offense?

Analysis: Not long. This offense was built for and around Roethlisberger by offensive coordinator Bruce Arians. Roethlisberger simply has to step back into the driver's seat and run the machine. The Steelers have several factors going for them. They were wise to give Roethlisberger plenty of first-team reps in training camp and work with the starters in the preseason. Roethlisberger also will benefit from the bye week, which gives the Steelers two weeks to shake the rust and work on timing. Roethlisberger has been working out at a Pittsburgh-area high school and says he's thrown more footballs per day than he would in practice. Early reports have been good in practice. If Roethlisberger had his choice, he wouldn't have to wait until Oct. 17.

"I want to play this week. That's the hard part; I want to be out there right away," Roethlisberger said at his news conference this week. "But it's a good thing to have two weeks of practice. But my arm is ready. I'm not worried about my arm."

2. What kind of changes will the offense make?

Analysis: The first and biggest change is Pittsburgh will be less conservative. There was only one way the Steelers could win consistently without Roethlisberger, and that was to play it safe on offense and be lights out on defense. Pittsburgh executed its plan to near perfection and got off to a 3-1 start. Now Arians can take more chances and open his entire playbook. Roethlisberger said Monday that he doesn't want to throw it "60 times." But throwing it 30 to 35 times is a good number for Pittsburgh. The Steelers are 31st in passing offense through four games. Look for that ranking to improve dramatically with Roethlisberger under center.

3. Will Roethlisberger be accepted by his teammates?

Analysis: Everything looks good so far. Roethlisberger received a warm greeting from teammates when he arrived this week. It's no secret Roethlisberger wasn't Pittsburgh's most popular player in the past. His irresponsibility this offseason also resulted in his captain status being stripped this year. But absence can make the heart grow fonder, and Roethlisberger's effort to improve as a person is being well-received by the team. Everyone knows Roethlisberger is a gamer, and he has always earned his teammates' respect in the locker room with his toughness and football ability. Now he has to work on the personal side and being more responsible, and it appears he's taking steps in the right direction.

"Every single one of the guys I've seen gave me a big hug," Roethlisberger said. "I was just so happy to see that and they were so happy to see me as well."

4. What about the fans?

Analysis: This is the X factor. Roethlisberger was asked about this during a news conference Monday and he said he wasn't sure. Many in Steeler Nation were upset by Roethlisberger's actions. Most stuck with him during the first sexual assault allegation and were turned off that he would put himself in a precarious position twice in less than a year. Getting suspended four games also put the team in jeopardy of having a slow start. But the offseason ire has seemingly worn off. The Steelers are off to a great start and there are good vibes in Pittsburgh about the chances of this year’s team, especially now that Roethlisberger is back. Winning will help, and Roethlisberger knows that. That is why he has worked extremely hard in the interim to stay sharp.

5. Who benefits most from Roethlisberger's return?

Analysis: There are plenty of beneficiaries when a team gets its best offensive player back. But if I had to pick two players who it impacts the most, it would be starting receiver Hines Ward and tight end Heath Miller. Both players sacrificed production and were forced to take reduced roles in the offense. Miller is averaging 2.5 receptions a game and Ward is averaging 3.0 catches. Their biggest contributions so far have been in the running game, as Ward and Miller are among the best blockers at their positions. Their specialty is making tough catches in coverage over the middle, but neither Dennis Dixon nor Charlie Batch took those kinds of risks. Meanwhile, Roethlisberger trusts his arm and will have more freedom to throw over the middle to Ward and Miller and give his playmakers a chance.

6. How much pressure is on Roethlisberger after Pittsburgh's fast start?

Analysis: This is a tricky question because the answer has two sides. In some ways, Roethlisberger's teammates did a great job of taking the pressure off him by not digging an early hole. If the Steelers were 1-3 instead of 3-1, most of the blame would have been put on Roethlisberger's absence, and it would have put immense pressure on him to come in and try to save Pittsburgh's season. Instead, the Steelers are in a great position and Roethlisberger can simply keep the team rolling in the right direction. But with a fast start also come increased expectations. Many prognosticators thought this was an eight- or nine-win team that barely had a chance to make the playoffs. Now the bar is much higher for this season, and it's up to Roethlisberger to help the Steelers meet those increased expectations.

"I think there's a lot of great chemistry on this team right now," Roethlisberger said. "They are playing great football on offense, defense and special teams from what I've been able to watch of the games. I'm not coming to try to be anything more than what I am. I'm just trying to be helpful and do whatever I can to help this team win football games."

7. Are the Steelers really Super Bowl contenders?

Analysis: Yes. The AFC is deep, but Roethlisberger is one of the NFL's top five quarterbacks and one of the few with two Super Bowl rings. He knows how to get it done, and it doesn't hurt that he has a large chip on his shoulder and a lot of making up to do with his teammates and the city. I covered the Steelers during their last Super Bowl run in 2008, and you could sense the chemistry and talent were there to make a run. Barring any significant injuries -- which are always possible -- I'm getting the same feeling about this year's team early on. The Steelers are good enough to make another playoff run as long as Roethlisberger holds up his end.
Our latest version of "Thought of the Day" in the AFC North focused on the Cleveland Browns. With this division known for its sleeper teams the past two seasons, we asked if the Browns have potential to surprise in 2010.

Here are responses from our division inbox and AFC North Twitter page:

Browns are a sleeper!

Jake from Youngstown, Ohio, writes: I think the Browns can be the sleepers of the whole NFL. They have a great running game and they have a surprise for all of the teams: The new and improved wildcat with Joshua Cribbs and Seneca Wallace. Being able to run the ball and throw the ball at the same time is such a weapon. Jake Delhomme is doing fine so far and the defense is good, too. As long as the play-calls are good and Jake Delhomme doesn't do anything stupid, we will be great.

Craig from Tampa writes: Browns a sleeper? You bet. Behind a strong offensive line, they dominated on the ground to close out 2009 with four straight wins. With improvements at quarterback and throughout the secondary, this team just might find a way to compete in the brutal AFC North.

Jason Dawg from Prescott Valley, Ariz., writes: The Browns will be better than the "so-called" experts are predicting. Will they win the division? I seriously doubt it but anything is possible. A few years ago they came off a 6-10 season and expectations were very low. You'll probably remember they won 10 games.

MikeAmmo via Twitter writes: The Browns have all the makings of a sleeper. They're a tough, physical ball club full of overachievers.

Kovacs from Santa Monica, Calif., writes: We know that the Browns are going to play hard and play physical. They at least have an identity now, which is more than could be said since 1999. They have arguably the best O-line in football and an up-and-coming secondary. They should at least be competitive enough to take most teams to the fourth quarters of games where anything can happen. Any given Sunday.

Browns will be sleeping!

Bryan from Baltimore writes: Simply put, no. The Browns will finish last with a 5-11 mark at best. Sorry Cleveland, just like always you're still a couple seasons away.

Bob from Midland, Texas, writes: As an avid Browns fan I would like to say "yes" to them being the sleeper, but their schedule against AFC East and NFC South is harder than what the Bengals and Ravens have had. So it looks like another 5-11 season at best.

Siz07 via Twitter writes: The entire team is a sleeper. They sleep on Sundays. Enjoy 3-13 Browns fans.

Jeremy from St. Louis writes: While I respect the Browns, I do not anticipate them being able to duplicate what the Ravens and the Bengals did. There are simply too many holes to fill. The Ravens had a stellar defense and a decent run game. The only thing they were missing was a franchise quarterback to throw the football to their receivers. The Bengals just needed to stay healthy and keep adding talent. The Brown have a decent running game but their defense will struggle at times against other AFC North teams. I don't see them making a huge improvement over last year. They'll be lucky to win a game in the division this year. However, I wouldn't be surprised if they won six or seven games.

Darnell from Halifax, Nova Scotia, writes: I can't see Cleveland as a sleeper because they are in a tough division. Even with all acquisitions this year, defensively they aren't even close to the other three teams in the division. And once the season begins, Delhomme is going to see blitzes and schemes that are out of this world.

AFC North final say

James Walker: The Browns have a chance to compete but not to the point where they will be a sleeper in the NFL. The biggest difference between Cleveland and the 2008 Baltimore Ravens and 2009 Cincinnati Bengals is talent. The Browns do not have enough on their roster at this point to win consistently. It also doesn't help that the AFC North is stacked with good teams. I'm picking the Browns to finish fourth in the division, which means the sleeper streak in the AFC North ends this year.

If you have any future "Thought of the Day" ideas for the AFC North, send them to our division inbox.

Graham: Facing Bengals 'will be fun'

August, 18, 2010
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WESTMINSTER, Md. -- It's August. But don't think for one second Shayne Graham isn't aware of when the next time the Baltimore Ravens play the Cincinnati Bengals.

The Week 2 division matchup in Cincinnati will be interesting for a variety of reasons. But Graham potentially kicking at Paul Brown Stadium against the team he left unceremoniously should be one of the major storylines.

[+] EnlargeShayne Graham
James Lang/US PresswireRavens kicker Shayne Graham is looking forward to the opportunity to kick against his former team.
"I can only imagine what the reaction will be when I first play there in Cincinnati, so it will be fun," Graham told the AFC North blog. "It's always fun to go somewhere when you don't know what the reaction is going to be. I can have my predictions that they'll probably be some boo birds out. But that's what makes it fun. It's nice to be in that kind of driver's chair and knowing you still have control over things."

Despite being one of the most accurate kickers in the NFL, Graham developed a reputation for not being clutch following several misses in key spots for the Bengals.

The most recent came in January's 24-14 playoff loss to the New York Jets. Graham missed two important field goals, and the performance turned out to be his last in Cincinnati.

"A lot of the fans remembered the ones that I missed," Graham explained. "But I made a lot more than I missed -- that's the thing."

Graham says there's no ill will towards the Bengals, but he's happy to be in Baltimore. He signed with the Ravens in June and is competing with incumbent kicker Billy Cundiff. Graham entered training camp as the favorite and believes the competition is bringing out the best in him this summer.

Graham also said that he's very impressed with the overall culture and atmosphere of his new team.

"They invest a lot in the team and the facility. You can tell they don't spare any expense for anything," Graham said of the Ravens. "They treat their players, their trainers, to the people working in the ticket office -- everyone is treated first class. So it's a great organization. It's great to be around that, and I feel very welcomed here."

We also presented Graham with this scenario: Down two points against the Bengals in the final seconds, what if he's called to kick the potential game-winning field goal?

Said Graham: "It would be nice if it came down to that."

Brandon McDonald vs. T.O.?

August, 8, 2010
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Occasionally, there are NFL stories that make you say, "Where in the world did this come from?"

Owens
Owens
McDonald
McDonald
The most recent example occurred Sunday afternoon when Cincinnati Bengals receiver Terrell Owens was informed that Cleveland Browns cornerback Brandon McDonald recently had a profanity-laced tweet aimed at Owens. We're not going to repeat what was said (we're a family-friendly blog, thanks). So you're going to have to click Bengals beat writer Joe Reedy's article to find out.

Owens, a likely Hall of Famer, said he was unfamiliar with McDonald until today.

"Who?" Owens responded. "I don't even know who he is. Is he Ronald McDonald?"

The Bengals will travel to play the Browns in Week 4, where these two players can settle their differences.

For whatever reason, it's been trash-talking season throughout the AFC North division. The Bengals and Pittsburgh Steelers have been going back-and-forth with various comments, and suddenly McDonald and the Browns have entered the fray.

Camp Confidential: Steelers

August, 2, 2010
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ESPN.com NFL Power Ranking (pre-camp): 19

LATROBE, Pa. -- Are the Pittsburgh Steelers in for a free fall or primed for a bounce-back season?

Coming off a Super Bowl title just two seasons ago, the Steelers have a veteran-laden group that looked very talented and professional during the first weekend of training camp. The team is healthy again and quietly confident about its chances to make a playoff run this year.

But there is an elephant in the room for Pittsburgh. Quarterback and two-time Super Bowl champion Ben Roethlisberger will serve a conditional six-game suspension to start the season. It's the primary reason many pundits already have written off the Steelers and believe they'll have to wait another year to get back in the hunt as a legitimate threat in the AFC.

But Pittsburgh is relishing its role as underdog in 2010.

"I look at the times we've been our most successful have been when we're under the radar -- when people don't expect that much from you," Steelers left tackle Max Starks said. "I think for us, we just have a blue-collar mentality. We're just going to put our head down, and we're just going to march forward and let everything else drop where it may."

THREE HOT ISSUES

[+] EnlargeByron Leftwich
AP Photo/Keith SrakocicQB Byron Leftwich is the favorite to start for the Steelers while Ben Roethlisberger is suspended.
1. Will the Steelers properly handle QBs? How do you manage a $100 million quarterback who won't play for at least a month, a veteran who is the favorite to replace him, and a talented youngster with very little experience?

There is no handbook for what the Steelers' coaching staff is going through this summer. Roethlisberger's suspension has put Pittsburgh in a unique situation in which the team has to delicately balance preparing for Week 1 and the entire season.

In all likelihood, "Big Ben" will have his suspension reduced to four games for good behavior. But he will be forced to stay away from the team during that span, which means he will miss reps and practice time for at least a month before he returns. That is why training camp is so important for Roethlisberger. Meanwhile, the team also has to find out if Byron Leftwich or Dennis Dixon is the best option for the Steelers in the immediate future.

"We want to make sure that at the end of this thing that Ben has a productive camp," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "But as we proceed at this juncture, our focus, of course, is who's going to be playing quarterback for us the week of the opener. I like where the guys are right now."

2. Is safety Troy Polamalu back? Polamalu is a special talent. No other NFL player closely resembles his playing style or offers his versatility.

Last year the Steelers missed that versatility when Polamalu was sidelined for 11 games with a knee injury. Pittsburgh still finished in the top five in defense, but its inability to close out games in the fourth quarter without Polamalu led to several bad losses that kept the Steelers out of the postseason.

[+] EnlargeTroy Polamalu
AP Photo/Keith SrakocicThe Steelers missed the versatile Troy Polamalu last season, especially in the fourth quarter.
But Polamalu was healthy for the start of training camp and looks ready to go. He has made sudden cuts without issues, looks fast and was making plays in camp.

"He just kind of opens the playbook to anything you want to do," Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said. "It's just a matter of how far off the diving board you want to go."

3. Can the Steelers stay afloat early? The first four to six games could make or break Pittsburgh's season.

A slow start, such as 1-3 or 2-4, will have the Steelers playing catch-up the rest of the year in a competitive AFC North division. But a .500 record or better during Roethlisberger's suspension could set the table for Pittsburgh to make a playoff push in the second half.

Everything shouldn't be put on the quarterback position. Sure, Leftwich or Dixon has to do his part. But the running game and defense also have to step up for Pittsburgh to win early.

The Steelers' first four games are against the Atlanta Falcons, Tennessee Titans, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Baltimore Ravens. Tampa Bay is the only team in this group that had a losing record last season.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

Although it's very early, there is a noticeable difference already in 2009 first-round pick Evander "Ziggy" Hood. The defensive lineman looks to be in great shape and more sure of his role in Pittsburgh’s defense. He's thinking less and playing faster, which could be a huge plus for the Steelers.

"He looks like a second-year player," Tomlin said. "He, of course, is markedly better than he was a year ago, as it is expected. The standards of expectations of him change, as it does everyone in his draft class. To this point, he's meeting those challenges."

Pittsburgh's defensive line needs an influx of youth as starters Brett Keisel, Casey Hampton and Aaron Smith are all over 30. Hood is looking to play a much bigger role in the rotation after recording only eight tackles and a sack last season.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

I don't think you can truly pick a disappointing player a few days into training camp. But based on the opening weekend, I wasn't particularly overwhelmed by Leftwich.

The veteran quarterback shared snaps with Roethlisberger with the first team, and there is clearly a difference when each player runs the offense. When Roethlisberger was in, the ball rarely touched the ground. Meanwhile, Leftwich missed several throws in team drills that I felt he should have made.

But again, it's very early in camp. A stronger indication will come during the preseason.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • Roethlisberger may be in the best shape of his career. The quarterback often uses the offseason to rest his body and recover from injuries. But as a result, Roethlisberger usually shows up to camp on the heavy side. That's not the case this year as he's thin and looks like he's in midseason form. Roethlisberger said his offseason incident and time away from the team motivated him to show up in shape as a sign of dedication.
  • [+] EnlargeMaurkice Pouncey
    AP Photo/Keith SrakocicFirst-round pick Maurkice Pouncey is getting reps at both right guard and center.

  • First-round pick Maurkice Pouncey appears to be a good fit. He suffered a hamstring injury that kept him out of practice Sunday. But in the first couple of practices, Pouncey looked very fluid and was showing a mean streak by finishing his blocks. He will most likely play right guard this year, but Pouncey is also getting reps at center.
  • Look for Pittsburgh to put a stronger emphasis on the running game, especially with Roethlisberger out early in the season. Starting tailback Rashard Mendenhall recorded his first 1,000-yard season in 2009 and should get a lot of carries behind this revamped O-line.
  • Speaking of the running game, second-year player Frank "The Tank" Summers is getting a good look at fullback. Summers did not contribute his rookie year. But offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, who rarely utilizes fullbacks, seems to be open to seeing if Summers can man the role. Summers made a really good block on outside linebacker James Harrison over the weekend.
  • Pittsburgh has two potentially sticky contract situations, but neither player plans to cause a distraction. Pro Bowl outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley and kicker Jeff Reed are both disappointed they did not get long-term extensions. The Steelers informed both players before training camp that nothing will be done with their deals before the start of the 2010 season, but both reported to camp on time.
  • Keep an eye on rookie receivers Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown. Both are very competitive and making plays early in camp. Sanders, a third-round pick, looks smooth running his routes and coming out of his breaks for a first-year receiver. He may be able to contribute at some point this season. Brown, a sixth-round pick, is more raw but always gives good effort.
  • Do not underestimate the addition of cornerback Bryant McFadden. He's played well in Pittsburgh’s system in the past, and McFadden can help fill one of the team's few glaring holes on the defense.
  • Veteran receiver Antwaan Randle El was fielding punts this weekend and has to be considered one of the favorites to win the job. The kick return game is one area Pittsburgh struggled in last season. Randle El has five punt returns for touchdowns in his career.

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