AFC North: Carnell Lake
The Pittsburgh Steelers might bring in Waynes for a pre-draft visit. Or maybe they saw enough Wednesday at Michigan State's pro day and simply hope that they have a chance at drafting the player who is widely considered the best cornerback in the draft.
Waynes ran the 40-yard dash in 4.31 seconds at the NFL scouting combine last month. He ran well in other drills at the Spartans’ pro day with Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, general manager Kevin Colbert and defensive backs coach Carnell Lake watching.
What pleased Waynes as much as anything: The 6-foot, 186-pound cornerback got a good review after his workout from close friend and former Spartans cornerback Darqueze Dennard.
“I’m just trying to be like him,” Waynes told reporters. “When I was here, he was one of those guys that was hardest on me just because he saw my potential early on and he pushed me to be the player I could.”
The Steelers might not have a chance to draft Waynes unless they trade up from No. 22 overall. They have only traded up once in the first round for a defensive player since Colbert joned the organization in 2000.
They drafted a transcendent talent in 2003 when they moved up from No. 27 to No. 16 to take Troy Polamalu. Waynes does not project as the same kind of game-changer, but the Steelers' need at cornerback is so acute that they could consider trying to move up in the first round to get a shot at taking Waynes.
ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay each rank Waynes as the 16th-best player in the draft. The overall need for cornerbacks in what has become a passing league could push Waynes into the early teens of the draft, if not higher.
And Waynes, who played just three seasons at Michigan State, said his best football is ahead of him.
“I feel like I tackle well and run with people, but everything can use improving, obviously,” he said. “I’m not at the best or highest level right now.”
Allen’s talent is undeniable but consistency has eluded the 6-foot-1, 196-pounder. The frustration that has caused among the Steelers’ coaches has led to Allen’s benching, even if it is only temporary.
I had a chance to ask Steelers defensive backs coach Carnell Lake about Allen recently and a little context about this interview: It took place after Allen had intercepted a pass against the Jacksonville Jaguars -- and played arguably his best game of the season -- and before the former fourth-round draft pick gave up a long touchdown catch in Cleveland and struggled in a loss to the Browns.
Here is what Lake said about Allen.
Is Cortez Allen where you want him to be?
CL: Not yet but we’re working on it every week. He’s making the necessary corrections quickly in order to get himself to the next level. I think if he can kind of stay focused he has the potential to be pretty good in this league.
Is he anywhere close to his ceiling?
CL: I think he’s still learning the game. I think he’s got a lot more in him just from an understanding standpoint. Athletically I’m not really concerned so much. I think he has ability to tie that with the understanding of football in general and what offenses are trying to do. With his hands and his instincts for the ball, I’m hoping when it comes together it’s going to be something where people go, ‘Wow, this is a pretty good corner.’
Is he still learning because he played at a smaller school in college?
CL: I think his athleticism at that level, playing for The Citadel, he could kind of get away and not really lock in because he just had so much more talent than a lot of people. He could put it on auto pilot and still make a lot of plays. Up here, playing against receivers like [Antonio] Brown, you’ve really got to focus because as soon as you think they’re one way they’re another way and that’s how they play the game. Schematically as well, from a big-picture standpoint, there’s a lot of that going on with offensive coordinators and they’re going to pick on a relatively new corner. They’re going to test their mettle to see if they’re paying attention.
So as a coach you are constantly telling him to stay focused as a way of becoming more consistent?
CL: I think that’s the only way to be as a corner because as soon as you lapse for a minute somebody’s making a play on you. 'Tez has a long stride, he’s playing against a variety of receivers from tall and big to short and quick. 'Tez has to learn to hone his game in to be able to have the depth to say, ‘OK, this is how I can play successfully against this type of receiver and this is how I have to change my game to be successful against this type of receiver.’ You’ve got a Steve Smith or you’ve got a Megatron [Calvin Johnson]. That’s a totally different set of skills you need to start developing. But there are some fundamentals that you can carry between those two types of receivers. He needs to strengthen those fundamental skills and also have more tools in his toolbox.
And then there is Troy Polamalu, the pup, if you will, of the trio.
The veteran strong safety is third on the Steelers with 31 tackles, and the eight-time Pro Bowler has gotten better with each game. Polamalu, at the age of 33, is not the disruptive force he had been while winning the NFL Defensive Player of the Year award in 2010.
But Steelers defensive backs coach Carnell Lake sees Polamalu producing the big plays that have been his hallmark -- and doing it in bunches at some point this season.
“One thing I found out about Troy is just when you think, ‘Oh, he’s not really going to [do] that much this year,’ boom, he starts making plays just like he did last year,” Lake said. “He’s building. It’s like our team in general. The gears are turning.”
Harrison is the most unlikely of those gears.
Keisel and Polamalu helped talk Harrison out of retirement after starting outside linebacker Jarvis Jones went down in a 37-19 win over the Carolina Panthers last month with a dislocated wrist.
Harrison played almost 30 snaps in his first game back with the Steelers and 20 in the 17-9 win at Jacksonville last Sunday. Harrison dropped Jaguars running back Denard Robinson for a 2-yard loss the play before cornerback Brice McCain returned an interception for a touchdown.
“I’m not where I want to be right now but week in, week out it gets a little better,” Harrison said Thursday before practice. “We’ll see how far and how fast I progress.”
When asked if he is progressing slower than he had anticipated, Harrison said with his typical bluntness, “If you were trying to lose weight, you’re not going to lose all the weight you want to in two weeks are you? It takes time.”
Despite the process of working his way back into shape and playing a supporting role on defense, Harrison said he doesn’t regret coming out of retirement, even though he had been content to walk away from the game.
"Everything happens for a reason,” Harrison said. “I’m here because that’s what was meant to be. It’s the right decision.”
“I can sharpen myself in the film room, take every mental rep [in practice] which I wouldn’t do if I was practicing,” Mitchell said Sunday. “Now I literally pay attention on every snap. To have [football] taken away it's kind of frustrating. It’s making me hungrier.”
Mitchell said he had never injured his groin before getting hurt between the end of offseason practices and the start of training camp. He wouldn’t offer any details on how he got hurt other than that it happened while he was preparing for his first training camp with the Steelers.
Mitchell, who signed a five-year, $25 million contract with the Steelers in March, has been standing next to Carnell Lake in practice to get the defensive backs coach’s view of drills and so he can ask Lake questions.
Coach Mike Tomlin said at the start of camp that Mitchell, who is on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list, will likely miss the first week of practice.
The biggest downside to Mitchell’s injury is it cuts into the on-field work he will get with strong safety Troy Polamalu. The two only practiced together during minicamp last month since Polamalu didn’t take part in the organized team activities.
It is critical that the two build a strong rapport, but Mitchell said that won't be an issue.
“I know the playbook very, very well and you’ve just got to get out there and practice and when I’m back, we’ll be fine,” Mitchell said. “But we talk a lot, and I think our relationship is getting better every single day. When you’ve got one of the best safeties in the league to play with, your job isn’t that hard.”
Troy Polamalu has skipped organized team activities, which are voluntary, so he can train in California. And no one is more excited to get a preview of his pairing with Mike Mitchell on the back end of the Steelers' defense than Mitchell himself.
Mitchell has been mindful to pace himself, something this time of year allows him to do.
The sixth-year veteran puts in his time at Steelers' headquarters watching film and peppering defensive backs coach Carnell Lake with questions when he is not practicing with his new teammates.
But Mitchell spends no more than half an hour a night studying his playbook, and he leaves it alone on the weekends so he doesn't get overwhelmed.
"If you do a little bit every night eventually you have it mastered," said Mitchell, who signed a five-year, $25 million contract with the Steelers two months ago. "It's kind of like back in college or in high school when you know you have an exam coming up. My exam doesn't start until August when we start playing preseason games."
Mitchell appears to be a quick study through the first two weeks of offseason practices.
The 6-foot, 210-pounder already looks like a good fit on a defense that needed to add playmakers, and the Steelers will be thrilled if Mitchell can build on the breakout season he enjoyed in 2013 with the Carolina Panthers.
Mitchell, who signed with the Panthers after spending his first four NFL seasons in Oakland, intercepted four passes and recorded 3.5 sacks and 66 tackles. The former second-round draft pick combines speed with the kind of mindset that the Steelers need to generate more turnovers after intercepting 20 passes in the past two seasons combined -- only four more than Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman during that span.
"I pride myself on creating turnovers and making positive plays for my team," Mitchell said. "I think if you throw at me I have a good chance to take the ball away from you."
Like Ryan Clark, his predecessor at free safety, Mitchell is not lacking for confidence. But he is also mindful he will have to play within a defense that will employ him in multiple ways.
"I'm not here to work any miracles or anything like that," Mitchell said. "We already have a bunch of good players, guys that have been doing it a long time and guys that are ready to do it so I don't have to try and come in here and save the world by myself."
Then there is how Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback Antwon Blake sees his career playing out.
“When I get to the point where I’m that No. 1 guy and I’m an All-Pro cornerback I’m going to think back to the days when I was sad because I didn’t get drafted,” Blake said.
Blake played just four defensive snaps in 2013, and a big reason why the Steelers were perceived to have a glaring need at cornerback prior to the draft is because of players such as Blake, who lack pedigree and experience at the position.
Blake signed with the Steelers last September after the Jacksonville Jaguars did not include the 5-9, 198-pounder on their 53-man roster.
Blake established himself as a core special-teams player while learning the defense, and the Steelers are hoping he can make a big jump this season. They don’t have a long-term starter at cornerback after Cortez Allen, so the opportunity is there for Blake, who only turns 24 in August.
“I feel like they have confidence in me enough, my work ethic and abilities,” Blake said. “In time I can shock the world and show them I’m someone who will emerge from being an undrafted free agent to the sky’s the limit.”
If Blake’s skills come anywhere close to matching up with his confidence he could be quite a find for the Steelers.
His size doesn't exactly help him, especially with NFL teams coveting taller wide receivers. But Blake has excellent speed and defensive backs coach Carnell Lake told Steelers.com last week that the third-year veteran is among the fastest players on defense.
After the Steelers didn't take a cornerback in the first two rounds of the draft, defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau expressed confidence in current roster players who simply need an opportunity.
When asked if he interpreted the Steelers waiting until the fifth round to draft a cornerback as a vote of confidence in him, Blake said, “It is to a certain extent, but I know I have to come out here every day and earn my keep, continue to improve on my technique because on the field it’s what have you done for me lately. One of my strong points is my speed and my ability to stay with guys.”
How far those attributes take Blake, who went undrafted coming out of UTEP, remains to be seen. But when reminded that his goal of becoming an All-Pro cornerback is a rather lofty one, Blake said, “it is but I’m going to work every day until I get to it.”
An unheralded recruit in Los Angeles, Richardson caught then-UCLA assistant coach Carnell Lake's eye at a summer camp with the way he stuck to wide receivers like paparazzi. On Lake's recommendation, the Bruins brought Richardson back for another camp.
Richardson signed with UCLA in 2009, but neither he nor Lake stuck around Westwood -- though both for different reasons.
Their football paths have finally crossed again and this much is certain: the Steelers need their defensive backs coach to nurture the talent that he was one of the first to discern.
Richardson will receive more scrutiny than any fifth-round draft choice should, in large part because he is the only cornerback the Steelers drafted this year. The Steelers were expected to select a cornerback early in the draft and take two of them, something they have twice done since 2009.
They waited until the draft's third day to take the Arizona product. And the Steelers drafted Richardson in the same round that they selected Illinois cornerback Terry Hawthorne last year.
Hawthorne didn't make it out of training camp, and he was the only draft pick the Steelers gave up on after preseason practice.
They better have done a better job of evaluating Richardson given their lack of depth at cornerback and need to get younger at the position.
"He’s definitely a good prospect that’s got the measurables that you’re looking for," Arizona defensive backs coach David Lockwood said of Richardson. "He’s a smart player. He picks up things fast and he has some cover skills, which of course you need at that level."
Richardson started 37 of 49 games at Arizona and recorded 189 career tackles while intercepting 10 passes and breaking up 30 of them.
The 6-1, 194-pounder has good size, and he runs the 40-yard dash in the 4.5 seconds range, which Lake said, "is fast enough, especially if he is a good technician."
Lake never got to work with Richardson on the finer points of playing cornerback.
Richardson was arrested (along with three others) for felony theft before his freshman season -- charges were later dropped -- and he transferred to Arizona. Lake left the Bruins' coaching staff after the 2009 season to spend more time with his family, but he kept an eye on Richardson. The Steelers hired Lake in March 2011 to coach the defensive backs.
Lockwood, meanwhile, said Richardson never had any off-the-field issues the two seasons the two were together at Arizona.
"He’s got a good personality and you can hold a conversation with him," Lockwood said. "He likes to have fun and joke around, but when it’s time to work you go to work."
The Steelers hosted Richardson for a pre-draft visit last month, and Lake said he was "instantly likeable."
The Steelers liked Richardson enough that they were content to wait until the fifth round to select a cornerback and hope Richardson was still available.
"I did get a good vibe from coach Lake when I was there," Richardson said of his visit. "I'm so happy to be back under him, learn from him and be a Pittsburgh Steeler."
The Steelers are counting on Richardson -- and Lake -- for that to be the case for a long time.
"Shaquille Richardson has the prototypical size you want in a starter-capable corner," Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert said. "He's fast, he's athletic. He's got a chance."
Yes, they do.
"When we took Ryan, we talked about a defensive playmaker over anything else," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "He fit the bill in that regard."
The speedy Shazier is also the kind of player defenses need in order to counter offenses that spread out and increasingly force defenses out of their base set.
"What's happening today is there are multiple receiver personnel groupings, like 60 to 65 percent of the time," Steelers linebackers coach Keith Butler said. "[Shazier] fits the part of the game that is starting to put faster people on the field."
Shazier ran a sub-4.4 seconds in the 40-yard dash at Ohio State's pro day, and he is so fast that Steelers defensive backs coach Carnell Lake asked Ohio State cornerback Bradley Roby during a pre-draft visit if Shazier could play safety.
And he wasn't joking.
"There is no reason why he couldn't play safety," said Lake, the former Steelers standout who played safety and cornerback during his 13-year NFL career. "This guy is big and fast and aggressive. If for some reason Keith Butler doesn't like him, I'll take him."
That's not going to happen.
But Shazier is going to line up at different spots because of his speed, versatility and ability to play in space.
"He has the athleticism to drop back into coverage and match up," Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said. "He has speed. He's going to get on people quicker than they know because he's very fast."
Shazier is not even the fastest player in the Steelers' draft class -- third-round pick Dri Archer takes that honor -- which shows how much of a premium Pittsburgh put on adding speed through the draft.
"I think you covet speed, but it's football, not a track meet," Tomlin said. "If you get a capable football player who happens to be fast, it's an asset. Speed players that we were able to acquire in this draft fit that bill: football players first who happen to be extremely fast."
PITTSBURGH -- A wrap-up of the Pittsburgh Steelers' draft. Click here for a full list of Steelers draftees.
Riskiest move: The Steelers took just one defensive back in the draft and they didn’t select cornerback Shaquille Richardson of Arizona until the fifth round. That won’t do anything to allay the anxiety of Steelers’ fans about the state of the secondary and specifically cornerback where Ike Taylor isn’t getting younger and where there isn’t much depth. Steelers defensive backs coach Carnell Lake said he is confident free-agent signee Brice McCain and Antwon Blake, who played almost exclusively on special teams last season, can be key contributors this season. They better be since the draft didn’t deliver the reinforcements at cornerback that most thought it would.
Most surprising move: The Steelers bypassed a cornerback and wide receiver in the third round to take speedy but diminutive running back Dri Archer. This looks like a luxury pick since the Steelers had more pressing needs when they selected the 5-8, 173-pounder. Archer ran the fastest 40-yard dash time (4.26 seconds) at the NFL combine, and the Steelers plan to carve out a role for him in the offense. ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr. has compared Archer to Darren Sproles because of his explosiveness and versatility. Steelers wide receivers coach Richard Mann said Archer reminds him of former Browns scatback/receiver Gerald “Ice Cube” McNeil. “He’s not small,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “He’s short.”
File it away: First-round pick Ryan Shazier will be an immediate difference-maker as a rookie -- and will make multiple Pro Bowls if he stays healthy. His speed is such that defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau has said he envisions playing Shazier all over the field. Lake said he will gladly take Shazier as a safety if linebackers coach Keith Butler doesn’t want him. Butler, when told that, smiled and said “I’m not in favor of doing that. Shazier can make mistakes and has make-up speed to get back into position and make plays.” Butler scoffs at the notion that the 6-1, 237-pound Shazier is undersized for an inside linebacker at this level. Butler said former Steelers inside linebacker James Farrior played between 225 and 230 pounds in the latter part of his carer, including 2010 when he made the Pro Bowl. “A lot of times young linebackers get in their head, ‘I have to weigh 250 or I have to weigh 260 [pounds] but can they move? Can they get where they need to be when they need to be there? This guy can do that.”
The Steelers have inquired about Tennessee’s Alterraun Verner, Carolina’s Captain Munnerlyn and Miami’s Nolan Carroll, according to multiple sources, and it looks like they are serious about replenishing one of the thinnest positions on their roster through free agency as well as the draft.
Pittsburgh has only three cornerbacks on the roster with meaningful NFL experience. And Ike Taylor’s future is uncertain with the 11th-year veteran scheduled to make $7 million in base salary in 2014.
Verner is one of the top cornerbacks in the free-agent class, and the fourth-year veteran is set to cash in after intercepting five passes and making the Pro Bowl last season. Verner, who has ties to Steelers assistant coaches Mike Munchak and Carnell Lake, will probably be too pricey for the Steelers, who are less than $4 million under the cap but can create more room by releasing Taylor.
Munnerlyn and Carroll may be the more realistic options for the Steelers from an economic standpoint, as neither is among the cornerbacks who will command top dollar on the open market.
The 5-foot-8, 195-pound Munnerlyn, who turns 26 next month, recorded 73 tackles and three sacks while also intercepting two passes last season for Carolina. The 6-1, 205-pound Carroll recorded 47 tackles and intercepted three passes last season for the Dolphins, and he is young, having turned 26 in January.
The Steelers are familiar with Carroll having hosted him for a pre-draft visit in 2010. The Dolphins picked Carroll in the fifth round that year while Munnerlyn was a seventh-round pick by the Panthers in 2009.
The free-agent signing period starts Tuesday at 4 p.m. ET, and that is when teams are also allowed to host free agents for visits.
Jim Wyatt of the Tennessean first reported the Steelers' interest in the Titans cornerback.
The Steelers have a serious need at cornerback, and Verner is coming off a Pro Bowl season in which he intercepted five passes for the Titans, including one against the Steelers. The 5-foot-10, 187-pounder is only 25, and he has played every game in his four NFL seasons.
What’s more, the Steelers have more familiarity with Verner than most teams.
New offensive line coach Mike Munchak was Verner’s head coach in Tennessee for three seasons. Defensive backs coach Carnell Lake was Verner’s position coach his senior year at UCLA.
Working against the Steelers when it comes to Verner is dollars and sense.
The market will not be an accommodating one for cornerback-needy teams that don’t have much room under the salary cap like the Steelers (they are about $3.7 million under the cap, according to ESPN roster management).
Sam Shields established the price range for the top available cornerbacks when he signed a four-year, $39 million contract that will keep him in Green Bay.
That is a big number, and the price could be higher for Verner, becausre a handful of teams reportedly have already expressed interest. The Steelers could find a way to sign Verner given how effective they are at massaging the salary cap, and with increases in the spending ceiling anticipated over the next couple of years.
But can they afford to invest so much in one player, even one as talented as Verner, when they have so many other needs as well on defense?
I would be surprised if the Steelers engage in a bidding war for Verner, and with the start of free agency almost here, that might be the only way they can land him.
As for his future in Pittsburgh, Taylor put it best when he said in an interview with FOX Sports that, “I would love to retire as a Steeler but you just never know. Time will tell.”
But Taylor is also facing a similar reality as Keisel if he wants to continue his career in Pittsburgh.
Taylor is due a base salary of $7 million in 2014, and the 11th-year veteran has an enormous cap hit ($11.94 million) due to the contract restructures that turned salary into signing bonus money.
He will have to accept a pay cut to return to the Steelers and a couple of things Taylor said on Thursday make it seem like he is open to one.
Taylor is well aware that age -- he turns 34 in May -- and the Steelers' salary-cap situation will shape upcoming discussions between the organization and his agent, Joel Segal. And he said he won't let pride get in the way of decisions he has to make regarding his future.
“You've got to understand it's a business,” Taylor said. “You've got to understand as a business it will always be a young man's sport and I understand that.”
One of the Steelers' top priorities this offseason is getting younger in the secondary, and Taylor's play slipped enough last season that near the end of it defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau stopped flipping his cornerbacks so Taylor could shadow marquee wide receivers.
But if the Steelers don't bring Taylor back for another season they will go into the 2014 season with Cortez Allen and William Gay as their starting cornerbacks. And there is no experienced depth behind them unless the Steelers sign a free-agent cornerback.
The Steelers are going to draft at least one cornerback early, and Taylor would give them the luxury of not having to depend on rookie cornerbacks next season while also helping those players adjust to the NFL.
As for playing safety, the Steelers have not given any indication that Taylor could move to the back end of their defense. But he is serious enough about doing it that he has talked with Steelers defensive backs coach Carnell Lake and Rod Woodson about what such a transition would entail.
Lake and Woodson each played cornerback and safety during their respective NFL careers.
“I want to play football so if they ask me (to play safety) I'm doing it regardless,” Taylor said.
Taylor’s base salary is $7 million in the final year of the four-year deal he signed in 2011, and the Steelers cannot justify paying him that for several reasons.
They have to shed significant salary this offseason because of the cap, and Taylor is no longer a No. 1 cornerback.
Two of the Steelers’ greatest cornerbacks moved to safety later in their career. One of them, Carnell Lake, happens to coach the Steelers' defensive backs and would be invaluable in helping Taylor make that transition.
Coach Mike Tomlin recently downplayed any notion that a move to safety is inevitable for Taylor.
But he did not rule it out either.
“Ike and I talk about that from time to time because a lot of guys that have played his position have extended their career in that manner, particularly guys that have the type of size he has,” Tomlin said. “Nothing has been discussed formally in any form or fashion.”
This time of year is when such discussions take place, and Tomlin figures to at least give the move significant thought.
Taylor just completed his 11th NFL season but he keeps himself in fantastic shape. That augers well for his decline coming gradually instead of drastically, and with starting free safety Ryan Clark unlikely to be re-signed, Taylor could be an option there.
He could serve as a bridge at the position assuming the Steelers take at least one safety in the 2014 NFL draft.
The 6-foot-2, 195-pound Taylor has the physicality to play safety as his 63 tackles in 2013 ranked fourth on the Steelers. The biggest change would be his need to see and read the entire field as a safety instead on just locking down on a receiver, something Taylor has done so well for so long.
Lake could certainly help him do that.
Taylor is well aware that Lake and Rod Woodson moved to safety during the latter part of their respective careers and he thinks he has the attributes to do the same.
“Size, speed, coverage ability. Just knowing football,” Taylor said when asked why he could play safety. “Right now I’m playing corner. We’ll see how they feel.”
Texans fullback Lawrence Vickers said he's "geeked up" to play his former team and admitted to the Cleveland Plain Dealer that he was hurt by the Browns' decision not to re-sign him last year.
"And I know they're pretty much geeked up, too," Vickers told The Plain Dealer. "We all had this game circled on the calendar."
Vickers said he never heard from them after his 2010 exit interview, but he knew his time was up after Cleveland drafted fullback Owen Marecic in the fourth round. Vickers' powerful run-blocking helped Jerome Harrison and Peyton Hillis lead the team in rushing the previous two seasons.
Asked how much the Browns' running game misses him, he said, "My focus is on Lawrence Vickers. I'm on to the next chapter. I wish Peyton and all their running backs the best."
Hensley's slant: Injuries have factored into Cleveland's struggles in running the ball this season, but not having Vickers has contributed to the Browns falling to 29th in the NFL in rushing. His lead blocking was a big reason why the Browns ranked No. 8 in rushing in 2009 and why Hillis ran for 1,177 yards and 11 touchdowns last season. The Browns thought Vickers' style wouldn't fit into their new West Coast offense. Wonder if the front office is rethinking that decision now?
- BENGALS: Middle linebacker Rey Maualuga (ankle) continues to work off to the side, and outside linebacker Thomas Howard (hamstring) remains limited in practice. But the Bengals don't seem too concerned because of their depth at linebacker, according to The Cincinnati Enquirer. Backup middle linebacker Dan Skuta and outside linebacker Brandon Johnson didn't play much in the first five games, but they've filled those spots "seamlessly." Hensley's slant: The way the Bengals have played well without Maualuga and with Howard at less than full strength is more a reflection of the team's defensive line. The strong rotation up front has allowed Cincinnati to plug anyone at linebacker and remain effective. The defensive line is the backbone of perhaps the most underrated defense in the NFL.
- RAVENS: Left guard Ben Grubbs continues to practice and even lined up with the first-team group during drills, according to MASNSports.com. Grubbs hasn't played since the season opener against the Steelers because of a toe injury. "Anytime you can get a player like Ben back, that's big because he played extremely well in the first game," offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said. "We'll see. He is probably going to be a game-time decision. We'll take Ben back at any point in time." Hensley's slant: The loss of Grubbs has been a bad domino effect for the Ravens. Andre Gurode has struggled a lot the past two games at guard, which has cause left tackle Bryant McKinnie to help out more to the inside. Because McKinnie can't put all of his focus on protecting the blind side, the pass protection on the edge has declined. So, the return of Grubbs would be big for the Ravens.
- STEELERS: The first-half Most Valuable Player isn't really a player, according to The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. It's defensive backs coach Carnell Lake. The former Steelers player is receiving the most credit for adding the physical element to the Steelers' secondary. Hensley's slant: When Pittsburgh ranked No. 1 in pass defense in the past, it usually was the result of the Steelers' pass rush. But this year, it's the defensive backs who have really stepped up. Ike Taylor is having a Pro Bowl-type season, and William Gay has rebounded after a rough start.