AFC North: Cameron Heyward

Grading the Pittsburgh Steelers

December, 15, 2014
Dec 15
ATLANTA -- Here are the marks after the Pittsburgh Steelers improved to 9-5 with a 27-20 win against the Atlanta Falcons.

Quarterback: Ben Roethlisberger showed sublime patience for the second week in a row, taking what the defense gave the Steelers. He didn't miss many throws even with the Falcons blitzing early and often. Roethlisberger again threw for well over 300 yards while completing just over 77 percent of his passes. Grade: A

Running backs: The Falcons held Le'Veon Bell to 47 yards -- his second-lowest total this season -- and just 2.4 yards per carry. The Falcons were determined to shut down the run and left very few openings for Bell. He did score a 13-yard touchdown on the Steelers' favorite running play, following blocks by pulling right guard David DeCastro and Will Johnson, who had lined up as a tight end, into the end zone. Grade: C

Receivers: Antonio Brown caught all 10 passes thrown his way and finished with 123 receiving yards. The two-time Pro Bowler showed tremendous footwork in making a 28-yard sideline grab near the end of the first half, which set up a 1-yard touchdown run by Bell. Markus Wheaton and Heath Miller each made timely grabs and Bell chipped in 72 receiving yards. Grade: A-

Offensive line: The Steelers did not get enough of a push against a defense that had been allowing just under 123 rushing yards per game. But the Steelers ran the ball when they had to and the line allowed just one sack in a noisy stadium and against a defense that blitzed Roethlisberger on 40 percent of his throws. Grade: B

Defensive line: The Steelers allowed 4.9 yards per carry and did not get enough of an inside rush when they played their nickel package. Defensive end Cameron Heyward had one of the Steelers' four quarterback hits, but Ryan had too much time to throw and was not sacked in a game for the first time this season. Grade: C

Linebackers: Vince Williams and Sean Spence continued to play ahead of rookie first-round pick Ryan Shazier at weakside inside linebacker and they showed why at the Georgia Dome. The two combined for 10 tackles, and Williams made the biggest stop of the game when he buried Harry Douglas after a third-down catch in the fourth quarter, 2 yards short of the first-down marker. Outside linebacker Jason Worilds got robbed of what could have been a game-changing sack in the second quarter. Grade: B

Defensive backs: William Gay starred for the defense, returning a pick 52 yards for a touchdown and setting a franchise record with his third interception return for a score in a season. Gay also broke up two passes but it was a pretty rough day for the rest of the Steelers' cornerbacks, especially nickel back Antwon Blake. The Steelers did not get enough out of their safeties as neither Troy Polamalu nor Mike Mitchell broke up a pass. Gay's big day saves the grade here. Grade: C

Special teams: Shaun Suisham made both of his field goal attempts. Brad Wing averaged 43.0 yards per punt and dropped two of his three kicks inside the 20-yard line. Antonio Brown returned a punt 31 yards and Markus Wheaton averaged 25.0 yards on both of his kickoff returns. Take away a 43-yard kickoff return by Devin Hester -- and that was erased by Gay's interception -- and the Falcons' return man did very little. The Steelers would take a performance like this one from their special teams every week. Grade: B+

Coaching: The Steelers handled the Falcons' blitz and stuck with the run enough to make the passing game effective from start to finish. The defensive statistics weren't pretty but the Steelers consistently made stops and twice forced field goals. The Steelers did not play to lose at the end of the game and Mike Tomlin won a key challenge. Grade: A-
ATLANTA -- Observed and heard in the locker room after the Pittsburgh Steelers' 27-20 win over the Atlanta Falcons at the Georgia Dome:
  • The Steelers’ final road game of the regular season seemed like a home contest at times -- and the players and coaches noticed. “I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Steeler Nation,” coach Mike Tomlin said after the Steelers improved to 9-5. “They were special in the building today. We are used to seeing it, but it never gets old. Terrible Towel-waving fans were noticeably loud -- whether Steelers players were trotting onto the field for pregame warm-ups or the Steelers were making a big play on offense or defense. Steelers fans were loud enough that some of the Falcons players were asked if they felt like they had a home-field advantage Sunday. “I know that Pittsburgh fans travel well since I am from Philadelphia and I know that Philly fans travel well, too,” Falcons cornerback Robert McClain said. “The fans were there for us. We did not execute.”
  • Worilds
    The Steelers were generally tight-lipped about a penalty that went against outside linebacker Jason Worilds and helped the Falcons get back into the game. With the Steelers leading 13-0 in the second quarter, Worilds sacked Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan for an 11-yard loss. The play was wiped out, however, after Worilds was called for roughing the passer, even though it appeared to be a legal hit. Three plays later, Ryan threw a 17-yard touchdown pass to Devin Hester. Worilds declined to answer questions about the call after the game. So did Tomlin. “I’m not going to talk about that call because it was horrendous,” Steelers defensive end Cameron Heyward said. The Falcons weren’t entirely happy with the officiating, either. A questionable holding call on Falcons cornerback Desmond Trufant with just over three minutes left in the game saved the Steelers from punting. And the Steelers were able to run out the rest of the clock. “You guys question a number of things. We have the same thing about the game as well, and officiating is one [part] of it,” Falcons coach Mike Smith said after his team fell to 5-9. “Unfortunately that’s not anything that we can talk about as the head coach in the National Football League.”
  • Several Steelers sustained minor injuries during the game, including inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons (back), strong safety Troy Polamalu (knee) and free safety Mike Mitchell (groin). All, however, returned to the game. Right tackle Marcus Gilbert missed his third consecutive game despite practicing every day last week. Gilbert, who is working through ankle and knee injuries, had been listed as probable on the Steelers’ final injury report of last week. Tomlin said Gilbert did not have a setback Saturday that caused him to miss the Falcons game but that, “We’ve got to go with the most healthy bodies.”
PITTSBURGH -- Pittsburgh Steelers right tackle Marcus Gilbert practiced Wednesday, putting the fourth-year veteran on track to play Sunday in Atlanta.

Gilbert, who has missed the past two games because of ankle and knee injuries, was a full participant in drills a day after coach Mike Tomlin said the Steelers need to see how well he moves in practice before deciding on his availability for Sunday.

A handful of Steelers players did not practice because of injuries Wednesday, including outside linebacker James Harrison (knee) and cornerbacks Ike Taylor (shoulder, forearm) and William Gay (quadricep).

Tomlin did not mention Gay Tuesday when he gave a Steelers' injury report. Gay's health is worth monitoring for several reasons. He is the Steelers' best cornerback and Taylor is questionable to play Sunday against the Falcons.

Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, tight end Heath Miller and defensive end Cameron Heyward were all given veteran's days off as far as practice.
PITTSBURGH –Stephon Tuitt's wait is almost over.

The rookie defensive end said he has been taking snaps with the Pittsburgh Steelers first-team defense, and he will play extensively Sunday in Cincinnati.

Tuitt could play most of the snaps at left defensive end if Steve McLendon misses a third consecutive game because of a shoulder issue and Cam Thomas starts in his place at nose tackle. Even if McLendon plays against the Bengals, Tuitt figures to take Brett Keisel ’s spot as one of the tackles in the Steelers’ nickel defense.

Keisel, who had been blocking Tuitt from significant playing time, hurt his triceps last Sunday and is out for the rest of the season.

“You don’t ever want anything like that to happen to any of your teammates, but I’ve worked hard all season and worked under his wing,” Tuitt said. “It’s time for me to take that step and grow as a player and keep it going. Play for him, play for the Steelers and do what we have to do to get to the playoffs.”

There are a lot of reasons to think that Tuitt just needs an opportunity to show why the Steelers were so excited last May when he was available at their pick in the second round of the draft.

The 6-foot-5, 303-pounder already has an NFL body and Tuitt caught defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau’s attention early in training camp with how well he moved for someone his size.

"He’s going to get more snaps, without a doubt. I think he’ll do well,” LeBeau said Thursday. “He is a developing young football player who I think has a very solid future. There’s nothing he’s done that we’ve been unhappy with.”

Nor has Tuitt been unhappy with having to bide his time, as most Steelers rookies do.

“I trained as if I was starting every week. I didn’t once complain because I knew there would be an opportunity for me,” the former Notre Dame standout said. “I’m ready. At the same time, I’ve still got stuff I’ve got to learn. The best thing about me is I compete against myself every day.”

Tuitt has shown flashes, especially as an inside pass rusher, in the limited snaps he has received.

As he prepares for a bigger role, teammates such as McLendon and Heyward have simply told Tuitt to trust in himself and the technique he has been honing since he joined the Steelers.

“I’m not expecting him to play like a young guy,” Heyward said. “We’ve talked about it a little bit and this is a moment where you can excel and take a hold of it or regress. I look for him to play sound and know he's not going to understand [the defense] all right now, but don’t be overwhelmed by it.”
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- "Same old Steelers" is a phrase that predates the glorious rise of the organization in the 1970s, and the context of it is hardly flattering.

It is what local sports fans would often mutter when the Pittsburgh Steelers would lose, something they had a habit of doing before Chuck Noll arrived as head coach in 1969 and transformed the franchise.

The current Steelers are in danger of dusting off the phrase that has mothballs on its mothballs because of their maddening inconsistency and tendency to follow a big win with a loss to an underwhelming opponent.

[+] EnlargeBen Roethlisberger
Ed Mulholland/USA TODAY SportsOf their four losses this season, the Steelers have fallen to two teams with losing records.
It happened again on Sunday when the Steelers spotted the New York Jets 17 first-quarter points and never recovered in a 20-13 loss at MetLife Stadium.

Pittsburgh has now lost 10 of their last 18 games to teams that had a losing record when the Steelers played them, dating back to 2012.

That trend is what most threatens the Steelers' bid to return to the playoffs after consecutive 8-8 seasons, and the players are at a loss to explain it.

"If I had an answer for that I would give it," veteran defensive end Brett Keisel said.

The Steelers better find some answers.

They are in a division that is the first one to have all teams in it at least two games over .500 at any point of the season since 1935, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Eleven out of 16 teams in the AFC, meanwhile, will take a winning record into the 11th week of the season. A team that suffers a bad loss could be left on the outside looking in when the playoff field is set.

The Steelers have two such losses, falling to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the fourth week of the season and now the Jets.

The Steelers remain the only team the Buccaneers have beaten. The Jets doubled their victory total by doing to the Steelers what teams have done to them: winning the turnover battle in resounding fashion.

"I don't want to be looking down the road and saying, 'Hey, just because we didn't win this game it came back to bite us,'" defensive end Cameron Heyward said.

Coach Mike Tomlin said last week that how the Steelers played against the-then 1-8 Jets after winning three consecutive games would "define" them.

Well, this is what we know about the Steelers since 2012: they can never be counted out but they can't be trusted, either.

The team that has responded well to adversity has fumbled prosperity.

It's up to the Steelers to reverse the current trend with a game at 2-7 Tennessee next on the schedule.

"Everyone's upset. Everyone's frustrated," Keisel said. "But there’s still six games left and we're still in the mix of this thing."
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Observed and heard after the Pittsburgh Steelers' 20-13 loss to the New York Jets on Sunday at MetLife Stadium:
  • Mitchell
    Mike Mitchell walked out of the visiting locker room at MetLife Stadium wearing a hoodie and a pair of sunglasses. The incognito look did not prevent the Steelers free safety from stopping at Brett Keisel’s locker and talking with the veteran defensive end while reporters waited near Keisel’s stall. The two had a private conversation, but the hug they shared made it obvious that Mitchell and Keisel settled some disagreement they had on the field. The Jets, to be sure, were not happy with Mitchell at the end of the game. He dived over the line of scrimmage as quarterback Michael Vick took a knee, touching off shoving between the Steelers and Jets.
  • The Steelers did not force a turnover for the first time since the second week of the season, though they thought they came up with what would have been a key takeaway late in the second quarter. Vick lost the ball near the end of a 7-yard run, and defensive end Cameron Heyward came up with it inside the Jets’ 40-yard line. The officials ruled Vick down, and the Steelers lost when they challenged the call. “I thought we had a fumble and clear recovery, but evidently I was wrong,” Tomlin said.
PITTSBURGH -- Seen and heard after the Pittsburgh Steelers' 43-23 win over the Baltimore Ravens at Heinz Field:
  • Steelers coach Mike Tomlin had Joe Greene address the team before the game, and defensive end Cameron Heyward was among those ready to jump out of his cleats after hearing from one of the NFL's all-time greats. "That's one of my heroes," Heyward said. "I wouldn't be here today if it wasn't for him, just because of the way he played the game. That's a role model you want to live up to." The Steelers officially retired Greene's No. 75 at halftime, and he picked the Ravens game as the one at which he received one of sports' ultimate honors. Tomlin declined to talk about what Greene told the Steelers' players. "Go out there, and play Steelers ball. That was basically his message," outside linebacker James Harrison said.
  • Polamalu
  • Strong safety Troy Polamalu did not play in the second half after he sprained his left knee late in the second quarter. Polamalu briefly returned after hopping off the field at the two-minute warning of the second quarter. Tomlin said he does not know if the eight-time Pro Bowler got an X-ray at halftime. "I just know that he wasn't able to continue, and it became pretty evident to us at the half," he said. Rookie inside linebacker Ryan Shazier left Heinz Field in a walking boot. Shazier hurt his right ankle and then re-injured it in the second quarter. The first-round pick did not play in the second half.
  • Rookie wide receiver Martavis Bryant has five touchdown catches in his first three NFL games, and Tomlin said it is not hard to figure out why. "Antonio Brown is playing at a pretty high level and gets a lot of attention," Tomlin said, "and if you are just competent, you are going to get opportunities when you are on the field with him." Brown caught 11 passes for 144 yards and a touchdown against the Ravens. His 996 receiving yards lead the NFL.

PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Steelers made a statement Monday night, pulling their season from the brink shortly after boos had rained down on them in their own stadium.

Defensive end Cameron Heyward made an even bigger statement after the Steelers overcame an early 13-0 deficit and held off the Houston Texans 30-23 at Heinz Field.

Heyward, talking about the play of fellow defensive end Brett Keisel, said, "He turned back time. He was the best [No.] 99 out there."

Such a statement would seem ridiculous on the surface.

Keisel, who turned 36 last month, did not even re-sign with the Steelers until late August because of lukewarm interest from the organization. The other No. 99 in the nationally televised game was Texans defensive end J.J. Watt.

Watt is only the best defensive player on the planet and owns a list of NFL accomplishments that is longer than Keisel's beard.

Watt, as the Steelers could attest after improving to 4-3, can be contained only to a certain degree. The Steelers largely did a good job against the 6-foot-5, 289-pounder, and he still finished with three tackles, a sack, two quarterback hurries and a fumble recovery.

[+] EnlargePittsburgh's Brett Keisel
Justin K. Aller/Getty ImagesBrett Keisel's interception led to the third Steelers touchdown during the final two minutes of the first half.
His stat line easily trumped the one turned in by Keisel.

His impact on the game, however, did not.

Keisel's fingerprints were all over one of the more bizarre stretches in the history of Heinz Field, one in which the Steelers needed just five plays and less than two minutes of possession to put together three touchdown drives.

That sequence changed everything -- maybe even the Steelers' season.

It seemed so out of place coming from a team that managed just two offensive touchdowns over its previous two games, against the Jacksonville Jaguars and Cleveland Browns, that you half expected to see cows flying over Heinz Field at halftime.

Less improbable, though maybe only slightly so given how much the NFL is a young man's game, was Keisel making more of an impact on Monday night than Watt.

Keisel hurried Texans quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick into a third-down incompletion that forced a punt with the Steelers trailing 13-3 and just less than two minutes left in the second quarter. Two plays later, Ben Roethlisberger threw a 35-yard touchdown pass to rookie wide receiver Martavis Bryant.

After a takeaway by the Steelers defense led to another quick touchdown, Keisel turned in one of the plays of the game. With just more than a minute left in the first half, Keisel redirected a Fitzpatrick pass when the Texans weren't content to run out the clock and go into the locker room trailing by four points. After Fitzpatrick's pass clanked off the face mask of linebacker Lawrence Timmons, it landed in one of Keisel's ample mitts.

He started rumbling toward the end zone and made it to the 8-yard line. Two plays later, Roethlisberger found Le'Veon Bell for a 2-yard touchdown pass with 14 seconds to spare in the second quarter.

The Texans never recovered from that barrage of points.

After the Steelers survived a late rally and an onside kick attempt that almost went in the Texans' favor, Keisel was asked if the three-minute stretch at the end of the first half, which started with a field goal at the 3:08 mark and resulted in 24 unanswered points, saved the season. "I don’t know," he said, "It's still early [in the season] -- well, about halfway."

It is late enough for Keisel to know the Steelers have to start stringing together victories.

That is why he didn't plan on allowing himself or his teammates much time to celebrate a win the Steelers had to have on Monday night.

"We can't just win and lose one, win and lose one," Keisel said. "We've got to be able to have the same urgency after a win as we have after a loss."
PITTSBURGH -- Pittsburgh Steelers defensive end Brett Keisel and starting safety Mike Mitchell did not practice on Thursday, but inside linebacker Ryan Shazier participated in drills on a limited basis for the second consecutive day.

Keisel and Mitchell are working their way back from knee injuries, and the latter said on Wednesday that he plans on playing Monday night against the Houston Texans.

Starting nose tackle Steve McLendon (shoulder) and cornerback Ike Taylor (forearm) have already been ruled out for the 8:30 p.m. ET game at Heinz Field.

In addition to Keisel and Mitchell, fullback Will Johnson did not practice on Thursday because of an illness. Strong safety Troy Polamalu was given a veteran’s day off.

Shazier, who has missed the past three games with a sprained knee, is still limited as he tries to work his work way back to the field.

Strong safety Shamarko Thomas (hamstring) and defensive end Cameron Heyward (ankle) were also limited in practice. Heyward has said he will play against the Texans.

In Houston, linebackers Jadeveon Clowney (knee), Brian Cushing (knee), and Brooks Reed (groin) did not practice because of injuries. Cornerback Darryl Morris (ankle) also missed drills.

Running back Arian Foster (groin), wide receiver Andre Johnson (ankle), cornerback Johnathan Joseph (knee) and linebackers Mike Mohamed (calf) and Jeff Tarpinian (knee) all practiced on a limited basis.
PITTSBURGH -- A Pittsburgh Steelers defense that is reeling after giving up four touchdowns and 360 yards after the first quarter in a 31-10 loss to the Cleveland Browns is also banged up.

Starting nose tackle Steve McLendon won’t play Monday night against the visiting Houston Texans because of a sprained shoulder. Starting free safety Mike Mitchell (knee) and defensive end Brett Keisel (knee) will be monitored this week in practice, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said, putting their participation Monday in question.

Keisel said after the loss to the Browns that he will be fine.

Rookie linebacker Ryan Shazier (knee) and strong safety Shamarko Thomas (hamstring) will practice in some capacity this week, Tomlin said.

Shazier, who has missed the Steelers’ last three games, practiced on a limited basis last week. There is an outside chance the first-round pick could play against the Texans.

If Shazier is unable to play Monday night, the Steelers will be missing at least four starters on defense.

With McLendon out, rookie nose tackle Daniel McCullers is likely to dress for his first game.

Defensive end Cameron Heyward hurt his ankle late in the loss to the Browns but is expected to be OK. Heyward was furious after getting chop blocked by Cleveland left tackle Joe Thomas, and after the game the fourth-year veteran said it is “cowardly” for teams to chop block.

Tomlin said Thomas’ block was a legal one even though Heyward got hurt on the play.

“He was upset, but I think his anger had to do with how the game was going as well,” Tomlin said Tuesday.
CLEVELAND -- Observed and heard in the locker room after the Pittsburgh Steelers' 31-10 loss to the Cleveland Browns.
  • Wallace
    The question caused wide receiver Antonio Brown to pause, but he still delivered a diplomatic answer following a disappointing loss. The Steelers ran the ball early and often Sunday and targeted Brown just three times in the first half. The two-time Pro Bowler finished with seven catches for 118 yards. Asked if he should have been more of a focal point in the game plan because of his past success against Cleveland cornerback Joe Haden, Brown said, “We’re just trying to find a way to win. It’s not about individual matchups.”
  • Defensive end Cameron Heyward didn’t hide his anger in the visiting locker room at FirstEnergy Field, and not just because the Steelers had been embarrassed by one of their archrivals. Heyward was still fuming at getting chop-blocked several times. Late in the fourth quarter, Heyward hurt his ankle and angrily pointed at Browns left tackle Joe Thomas several times as he walked off the field. Heyward did not sustain a significant injury, but that's beside the point, the fourth-year veteran said. "It's a dirty play,” Heyward said of chop-blocking. "We talk so much about safety. We don’t do a good job of keeping it safe for everybody. I think it’s cowardly thing, but if [the Browns are] going to coach it like that, that's their call.”
  • Defensive end Brett Keisel and free safety Mike Mitchell each sprained his knee against the Browns, but neither injury is believed to be serious. “I’ll be fine,” Keisel said. That each player conducted postgame interviews is a strong indication neither is seriously hurt. Nose tackle Steve McLendon sprained his right shoulder in the second half and did not return to the game. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said Keisel, Mitchell and McLendon are still being evaluated.
PITTSBURGH – Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is 8-1 against the Browns in Cleveland and his success in his native Ohio has been well documented.

He is used to hearing boos, especially from Cleveland’s famed “Dawg Pound” seating section. But Roethlisberger said fans might be louder than ever on Sunday with the Browns coming off a 29-28 win over the Tennessee Titans.

Quarterback Brian Hoyer rallied the Browns from a 28-3 deficit last Sunday in leading the largest road comeback in NFL regular-season history. Hoyer has the Browns at 2-2 and they should be brimming with confidence when they host the Steelers in a 1 p.m. ET game.

“This is as big of a game in Cleveland in probably a while, just because of their record, our record, the rivalry that’s there,” Roethlisberger said Wednesday. “I anticipate it being a hostile environment, maybe like nothing I’ve ever seen up there before.”

The Browns have been installed by oddsmakers as slight favorites in the game at FirstEnergy Stadium. They have rarely been favored to beat the Steelers since the NFL returned to Cleveland since 1999, and for good reason.

The Steelers have won 26 of the last 31 meetings between the AFC North foes, but the dynamics in what has been a one-sided rivalry shifted significantly in the last month.

The Browns did not roll over after falling behind the Steelers by 24 points in Pittsburgh on Sept. 7. Hoyer rallied them from a 27-3 halftime deficit and the Steelers needed a field goal by Shaun Suisham at the end of the game to avoid an embarrassing collapse.

A month later, Hoyer has the Browns really believing they can win, especially after they stunned the Titans with their comeback last Sunday.

“Cleveland wants to make a statement,” Steelers defensive end Cameron Heyward said. "They want to say that they’re back and they want to say that they can win this game.”

Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown agreed.

“I think they’ve got a lot of momentum going," the two-time Pro Bowl receiver said. "We should look for a great match up in the Dawg House. The intensity keeps rising.”
PITTSBURGH -- Defensive back Brice McCain played in every game last season for the Houston Texans and set career highs in starts (four) and tackles (30).

The Texans finished third in the NFL in passing defense (195 yards allowed per game), yet they deemed McCain expendable after the season and released the 5-foot-9, 187-pounder one year after signing him to a three-year deal.

So what happened?

“I wasn’t healthy, but I can’t blame it on that,” McCain said. “I’m healthy now. I feel as good as I’ve ever felt, so I’ve just got to stay healthy for the whole year.”

The Pittsburgh Steelers really need McCain to stay healthy for the rest of the season after he missed the first game because of a groin injury.

One of the team’s under-the-radar signings in free agency -- the Steelers signed McCain to a one-year, $795,000 contract in March -- has emerged as a key cog in the secondary with cornerback Ike Taylor out indefinitely because of a broken forearm.

McCain has established himself as the nickel cornerback with William Gay filling in for Taylor at right cornerback, and he beat out Antwon Blake and B.W. Webb for the job of slot corner.

To hear coach Mike Tomlin talk, McCain solidified his hold on the spot before returning an interception 22 yards for a touchdown last Sunday in the Steelers’ 17-9 win at Jacksonville.

“I have been probably more satisfied with the quality of work that he has provided us with during the week in terms of the attention to detail and the energy he brings to practice,” Tomlin said. “I think that’s a great recipe for success, and I look forward to that continuing.”

So do the teammates who are still getting to know McCain.

“He competes really hard in practice, and we want that,” Steelers defensive end Cameron Heyward said. “He’s no-nonsense, you don’t hear a lot from him. He does his job and I’m glad he’s on our team.”
PITTSBURGH -- Stephon Tuitt didn’t try to hide a wide smile on Wednesday afternoon and for good reason.

“I literally felt like 90 percent of the plays I was in, I did right,” the rookie defensive end said. “That alone shows progress.”

Tuitt has played sparingly on defense through the first quarter of the season and when asked if a light went on for him during the Steelers’ first practice of the week, he said, “Kind of. I know I can play. What’s holding me back is not knowing the plays. When I start knowing the plays I’ll help my team. Just like anybody in a new system, it’s going to hit sooner or later.”

The sooner the better for Tuitt.

The Steelers, too.

Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said before the start of the season that he expected the immensely talented Tuitt to get significant playing time.

That hasn’t materialized as Brett Keisel, who re-signed with the Steelers six weeks ago, has played in a rotation with starting defensive ends Cameron Heyward and Cam Thomas over Tuitt.

Tuitt played just three snaps in the Steelers’ 27-24 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the second-round draft pick has just one tackle after four games.

But if Tuitt’s demeanor after practice on Wednesday is an indication, the 6-foot-5, 303-pounder is anything but frustrated as he adjusts to the NFL and veteran defensive line coach John Mitchell.

“He’s a tough coach but he really wants all of his players to get better. As long as you give him effort and show that you’re trying to get better every day you’ll always be on the same side,” Tuitt said. “I go hard every day, so it’s exciting.”

What really has Tuitt excited is his belief that he is getting closer to just playing and not thinking as much when he is on the field.

His development will only help a defensive line that has stabilized after getting gashed by the run in the Steelers’ first two games.

The Steelers have allowed just 105 rushing yards and 3.5 yards per carry in their past two games largely because of the improved play of the defensive line.

“Don’t let our record fool you,” Tuitt said. “We are a great team and we’re going to show it when the time comes.”