AFC North: Darren Sproles

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PITTSBURGH -- A wrap-up of the Pittsburgh Steelers' draft. Click here for a full list of Steelers draftees.

[+] EnlargeNotre Dame
AP Photo/Frank Franklin IIThe Steelers expect big things from Notre Dame defensive lineman Stephon Tuitt.
Best move: Taking Notre Dame defensive lineman Stephon Tuitt in the second round. The Steelers had no bigger need than at defensive end, and they were smart to pounce on Tuitt, who had been widely projected to go late in the first round. The 6-foot-5, 303-pounder has the ideal build for a five-technique defensive end, and he also has the pass-rushing skills to move inside when the Steelers go to their nickel package. Tuitt had 21 career sacks at Notre Dame, and the Steelers are convinced his play slipped last season because recovery from double-hernia surgery compromised his training and caused him to put on too much weight. Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert said Tuitt is back to his 2012 playing weight when he dominated for the Fighting Irish, and they expect him to play significantly as a rookie if not start at some point in 2014.

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.”
PITTSBURGH -- The Steelers hosted Baylor running back Lache Seastrunk for a visit earlier this week, and while that position isn’t a pressing need they figure to address it later in the draft.

The Steelers should be able to find a back who can help them and complement Le’Veon Bell and newly signed LeGarrette Blount given how much the value of that position has slipped.

The first running back in the 2013 draft wasn’t taken until the second round -- the Bengals started a run on them when they selected North Carolina’s Giovani Bernard -- and players at that position could be pushed down even further in this year’s draft.

“Every year there’s third- to sixth-round running backs that are outstanding backs and this year [that is the case] more than any other because there’s not many teams now that really need a running back,” ESPN NFL draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said. “There’s three to five [teams] maybe that could take one within the first four rounds.”

That prediction bodes well for the Steelers, who are unlikely to take a running back before the fifth round given the other holes they have to fill with their first four picks.

The Steelers are likely to target a speedy, shifty player at the position since they have a pair of big backs in Bell and Blount.

One back whom Kiper really likes is Kent State’s Dri Archer, though he could be gone before the Steelers draft a running back.

Archer ran the fastest 40-yard dash time (4.26 seconds) at the NFL scouting combine and Kiper ranks the 5-foot-8, 173-pounder as the fourth-best running back in the draft despite questions about his size.

Archer had 854 rushing and receiving yards combined last season for Kent State and scored 11 touchdowns, and his speed and versatility would allow the team that drafts the scatback to create mismatches for him.

“Dri Archer could be Darren Sproles in the third round,” Kiper said.
PITTSBURGH -- Calvin Johnson won’t be the only Detroit Lions player who presents serious matchup problems for the Pittsburgh Steelers Sunday at Heinz Field.

Reggie Bush has just under 1,000 rushing and receiving yards in eight games this season, and Ryan Clark said Bush is so good in open space that he reminds the Steelers' free safety of LaDainian Tomlinson.

Bush
Bush
“As far as his ability to make guys miss, I think it’s LaDainian-like,” Clark said.

That is high praise considering Tomlinson is fifth all-time in the NFL with 13,684 rushing yards and is a future Pro Football Hall of Famer.

Like Tomlinson was during his decorated playing career, Bush is a dual threat, and he has added balance to the Lions’ offense after signing with Detroit in the offseason.

The eighth-year veteran has rushed for 623 yards and added 343 receiving yards.

Clark said Bush is also comparable to Saints’ scatback Darren Sproles, because of his receiving and open-field skills.

“He’s a guy who’s cat-quick, extremely elusive in the open field, and so they feel like any opportunity with Reggie in space against a defender other than a corner they have an athletic advantage," Clark said. "They try to get him in space.”

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said Bush is more than just a running back who also has good hands.

“He’s one of those few running backs that has wide receiver skills in terms of his ability to drop his weight and create separation at break points,” Tomlin said.

Many of the Steelers will play against Bush for the first time.

The only other time he faced the Steelers was during his rookie season in 2006.

Bush rushed for 49 yards and a touchdown on 10 carries, and caught seven passes for 50 yards in helping the Saints beat the Steelers at Heinz Field.

He has never quite lived up to the hype that accompanied him to the NFL, but Bush has carved out a solid career.

And the former Southern Cal start is still one of the more feared players in the NFL when he gets into the open field.

“You have to get to him as a unit,” said Steelers outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley, who isn’t expected to play Sunday because of a calf injury, “because he does a great job of breaking tackles and finding a lane and taking it to the house.”
It's good to be back on the blog after taking Thursday to concentrate on the family. I can happily report all is well, and the baby is still due in about five weeks. It's also about five weeks before the first AFC North team kicks off the regular season. So, let's not waste any time and get our wake-up call:

BENGALS: Despite going to his first Pro Bowl last season, tight end Jermaine Gresham told the Cincinnati Enquirer that he's "very, very average, below average right now." The reason for this harsh assessment comes from the play of Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham, who became the first tight ends in league history to produce over 1,300 receiving yards in a season. When asked if he could put up similar numbers, Gresham said: “I believe so, but until I do it, you can’t even compare. … I just put things in perspective.” Hensley's slant: Gresham will have a chance to put up career numbers this year. The Bengals lost two of their top three wide receivers last season (Jerome Simpson and Andre Caldwell) and don't have a clear-cut No. 2 wide receiver. That's why it's expected that Gresham will be the No. 2 target in the offense behind A.J. Green.

BROWNS: Tennessee businessman Jimmy Haslam III finalized his reported $1 billion-plus deal with Randy Lerner to take over the Browns. Haslam told ESPN's Adam Schefter that he won't make any decisions on changes until the league approves his purchase of the team, which is expected by October. "This is a critical time of year for the team and we don't want to be a distraction," Haslam said. "The story after today needs to be about the Browns, not about the change in ownership." Hensley's slant: I will provide my take on the change in ownership later this morning, but Browns fans should know that he will divest his ownership in the Steelers (between 10 percent to 16 percent) over the next couple of months. He'll bring some of the principles on building a team from the Steelers, just not a Terrible Towel.

RAVENS: With Bryant McKinnie still on the Non-Football Injury list, Kelechi Osemele is making a good impression at right tackle, which the rookie second-round pick considers his most natural position. "He’s going to just keep getting better, better and better for the next three or four years," offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said, via the Carroll County (Md.) Times. "I would imagine he’ll be just like Michael [Oher], every snap get better, every day get better, every week, every game. It’s just a matter of getting his fundamentals down and getting him some game experience. As you guys know, we draft people around here for a reason. We’ve got us another one.” Hensley's slant: Osemele has a future with the offensive line and represents good insurance if the Ravens can't count upon McKinnie. But coach John Harbaugh's preference is to start the five best offensive linemen, so that means McKinnie, Oher, left guard Bobbie Williams, center Matt Birk and right guard Marshal Yanda.

STEELERS: In describing his running backs, offensive coordinator Todd Haley referred to having "sports car-type bodies that offer some different weapons." He's talking about Chris Rainey, a rookie fifth-round pick out of Florida who lacks size (5-foot-8, 178 pounds) but not speed (ran 40-yard dash in 4.3 seconds). "He's going to be awesome," center Maurkice Pouncey told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "He's a smaller guy, but he's been dealing with that his whole life. We can use him like Darren Sproles." Hensley's slant: The Steelers would be ecstatic if Rainey gives them a Sproles-like presence. That would mean being the top receiver out of the backfield, a spark in the running game (averaging over five yards on a handful of carries per game) and a dangerous threat in the return game. That would be an impressive triple threat.

Morning take: Big-play Ray

September, 21, 2009
9/21/09
9:00
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com’s James Walker


Here are the most interesting stories Monday in the AFC North:
  • Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis says his fourth-down stop of San Diego Chargers tailback Darren Sproles was one of the greatest plays of his career.
Morning take: It was definitely a signature play that should be added to Lewis’ career highlight reel. Just two weeks in, the Ravens are the only undefeated team standing in the AFC North.
  • Pittsburgh Steelers kicker Jeff Reed was embarrassed by missing two field goals in the fourth quarter of a 17-14 loss to the Chicago Bears.
Morning take: It’s rare for Reed to have a bad kicking day. But Sunday was definitely one of them.
  • Cincinnati Bengals defensive end Antwan Odom dominated the Green Bay Packers with a career-high five sacks.
Morning take: Odom did not live up to his large contract when the Bengals signed him as a free agent last year. But performances like that will quickly make up for lost time.
  • The Cleveland Browns have a lot of issues early in the season with an 0-2 start.
Morning take: Basically, Cleveland can’t score or stop anybody with any consistency. That’s not a good sign.

Wrap-up: Ravens 31, Chargers 26

September, 20, 2009
9/20/09
8:33
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com’s James Walker


The final outcome Sunday came down to 250-pound linebacker Ray Lewis and 185-pound tailback Darren Sproles.

And when both stars collided, it was Lewis and the Baltimore Ravens that prevailed with a 31-26 victory over the San Diego Chargers.

The Chargers (1-1) tried to catch Baltimore by surprise on fourth down by running the lightning-quick Sproles up the middle. But a hard-charging Lewis easily read the play and punished Sproles in the backfield to seal the win.

Baltimore (2-0) is now in a very good spot in the AFC North to start the 2009 season. The Ravens are the only undefeated team in the division and will host the struggling Cleveland Browns (0-2) next week.

The Ravens have been overlooked by pundits all offseason despite advancing to last year’s AFC title game. But Sunday’s quality road victory against San Diego should open a lot of eyes around the league.
AP Photo/Rob Carr



The Ravens' offense made significant strides last season, and is looking to take the next step this year under the direction of offensive coordinator Cam Cameron.



Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker


BALTIMORE, Md. -- Cam Cameron has a quiet confidence about him this season. It's a type of optimism that comes from a coach feeling he knows a secret that the rest of the league has yet to discover.

The reason for Cameron's enthusiasm is the Baltimore Ravens' offense. For the first time in a long time, it was a watchable unit in 2008. The Ravens were No. 11 in points scored (24.1 per game) and No. 18 in yards (324 yards per game), which were both improvements from the previous season.

Now the engine behind it believes Baltimore's offense is ready to take the next step. As an organization, the Ravens have always been dominated by defense, but it's Cameron's goal to balance the team and put more points on the board in 2009.

"I know our personnel a lot better now and I think it's critical," Cameron said. "Everything we do is based on what our guys can do -- period. It all starts with that. We try to take what everybody does best and then blend it together. We don't really try to make guys something they aren't. There are certain things we'd prefer to do, but if it doesn't fit a player, we don't do it."








AP Photo/Gail Burton



Cam Cameron's creative offense helped the Ravens average 24.1 points per game last season.


Baltimore certainly had its limitations last year. The Ravens played a rookie quarterback and just one Pro Bowl skill player -- fullback Le'Ron McClain. But Cameron used his creativity to get the most out of his players as the Ravens advanced all the way to the AFC title game.

The Ravens incorporated a "Suggs package," which was their version of the Wildcat offense. There were tricky misdirections, the use of an unbalanced line, and a three-headed monster featuring running backs McClain, Willis McGahee and Ray Rice.

"The guy is a genius," McClain said. "He makes it all look easy. He's one of the smart ones, and I think he's one of the best [offensive coordinators] in the league."

Offensive coordinators are usually tied closely with their quarterbacks, and that is certainly the case with Cameron and second-year player Joe Flacco. Cameron protected his rookie quarterback at the start of last season and slowly began to loosen the reins.

Cameron continued to give Flacco more and more information this offseason to see what he could handle. The results are impressive.

"
He's improving at such a fast rate that I'm trying not to put any preconceived ideas on what he is," Cameron said. "I think his potential is almost limitless."

New wrinkles are constantly being added to the offense.

In Monday's 24-23 preseason victory over the New York Jets, Baltimore ran a Statue of Liberty play at the goal line for the first time. Flacco faked a quick pass, hid the ball, then gave Rice a behind-the-back handoff up the middle for a 3-yard touchdown run.

"My ballhandling was kind of wrong," Flacco said after the game. "We did a little bait-and-throw handoff and I didn't do it right. It still worked. So I'm happy."

Many of Cameron's inspirations are a product of previous stops during his career.

Cameron said he learned a variation of the Wildcat not from last year's Miami Dolphins, but way before that when he coached with Norv Turner with the Washington Redskins. In the 1990s, Turner occasionally put return specialist and former college quarterback Brian Mitchell in the backfield.

"We used to do all that stuff with Mitchell," Cameron said. "I remember one year he got two touchdowns against Denver running the option. There were some versions of it, but Brian Mitchell ... was the first time I was ever exposed to it. Then we ran a ton of versions of it in college at Indiana when I had Antwaan Randle El."

Cameron wants to get all of his players involved. So when Troy Smith returned from a viral infection last season and was the backup quarterback, Cameron went back to his college roots to incorporate Smith into the offense.

Cameron recalled that Smith ran a lot of shotgun option/handoff plays at Ohio State. So Cameron put in similar option plays for Smith to get him back in his comfort zone, and Baltimore's variation of the Wildcat offense was born.








John Sommers II/Icon SMI



Joe Flacco's "potential is almost limitless" according to Cameron.


"Troy did it right off the bat. He made it look easy," Cameron said. "We could run it every down if we wanted to. He's that good at it."

Other unconventional looks in the offense such as the unbalanced line and three-headed monster came from prior experiences.

Using an extra tackle in place of a tight end to create a run strength has been around for approximately 100 years, Cameron said. A lot of college teams use it, but you rarely see it in the NFL. Cameron implemented it at Indiana.

The three-headed monster was an idea born way before Cameron's coaching career. Cameron said that when he was a high school quarterback, his team had three very good running backs and it was his job to keep everyone happy while still winning games.

"I was fortunate enough to call my own plays in high school," Cameron said. "Basically, I had to keep all three involved, know what their strengths are and let them all get a few touchdowns. It's not as easy as it seems. Running backs want the ball and they should. The great ones do."

Before arriving in Baltimore, Cameron first tried the three-headed monster approach on a lesser scale as offensive coordinator of the San Diego Chargers. There he had LaDainian Tomlinson, Michael Turner and Darren Sproles.

But Tomlinson, a future Hall of Famer, was the feature back and received the bulk of the carries while Turner and Sproles fought for the scraps. Cameron is more balanced with the Ravens, where he can go with the hot hand and change his feature back depending on the game.

"As a running back, you can't be selfish," McClain said. "You never know. It could be one guy this week, and the next week we have to go out and do other stuff. So it may be my week, Willis' week or Ray's week. You got to go with the flow. You just always know that Cam has a plan."

Cameron said winning helped the system work last year. But Cameron and the Ravens are pushing to be better and not rest on last year's success.

"No matter what happened last year we came up short of our goal, which was to win the Super Bowl," Cameron said. "I think we have the right kind of veteran leadership here. We definitely have the right mindset coming from [head coach] John Harbaugh. There is nobody here that's satisfied with what happened last year, and we're not about to let any of the young players be satisfied because we're not playing for second place. Nobody else is in the league either. But here it's real."

Steelers-Chargers halftime notes

January, 11, 2009
1/11/09
6:17
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Steelers lead the San Diego Chargers, 14-10, after two quarters at Heinz Field.

Here are some first-half observations:

  • The pace of this game has been odd so far, which sometimes happens when you have two teams with very different styles. The up-tempo Chargers started very fast and began airing it out early in the first quarter. Then the plodding Steelers began controlling the pace by running the ball and fighting for field position in the second quarter. Whichever team continues to control the pace likely will prevail in the second half.
  • The Steelers aren't having many problems bottling up Chargers tailback Darren Sproles, who is coming off a monster game in the wild-card win over the Indianapolis Colts. He is being battered nearly every time he touches the ball and has just 15 rushing yards on 11 attempts. He is replacing the injured LaDainian Tomlinson (groin) in this game.
  • The decision for Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin to call a fake punt at midfield in the second quarter was a bad one. The Steelers were playing (and winning) the field-position battle all period and gave the Chargers unnecessary momentum. The failed fake led to San Diego's 42-yard field goal in the final two minutes that gave the Chargers a 10-7 lead.
  • Pittsburgh set a few franchise marks in the first half. Receiver Santonio Holmes' 67-yard punt return in the first quarter was the longest in Steelers' postseason history. Teammate Hines Ward also has caught a pass in 12 straight postseason games, which is Pittsburgh's third-longest streak. Ward jumped to second in Steelers history with 938 playoff reception yards.

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

Now that you read every inch of analysis during the week, let's wrap up the predictions with the AFC North version of "Take Your Pick."

After a two-week hiatus, the Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4) will host the San Diego Chargers (9-8) in a divisional matchup at Heinz Field. Pittsburgh won the first meeting, 11-10, with a late field goal by kicker Jeff Reed.

Injuries could be key in this game. For the Chargers, tailback LaDainian Tomlinson (groin) is not expected to play, making way for exciting backup Darren Sproles. Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger will be returning from a concussion in his last game against the Cleveland Browns.

San Diego is sharp, winning five in a row, while Pittsburgh is well rested. So who has the advantage?

Take your pick.

Morning take: Ngata vs. Haynesworth

January, 8, 2009
1/08/09
8:30
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

Here are the most interesting stories Thursday in the AFC North:

Morning take: Haynesworth right now is the gold standard for defensive tackles. But don't be surprised if the fast-rising Ngata is playing at a similar level in a year or two.

Morning take: This is an advantage for Pittsburgh, which should still have an interesting challenge in Darren Sproles. But at least the Steelers know for sure who to prepare for.

  • The Cleveland Browns formally hired Eric Mangini to be their fourth head coach in 10 years.

Morning take: Mangini is a tireless worker and a good hire, but something still feels odd with the Browns. More on that in the next blog post.

Morning take: If the Bengals are to build off their fast finish, the healthy return of these two will be key. Expect Palmer and Rivers, two USC Trojans, to be the team's cornerstones in 2009.

Posted by ESPN.com's Bill Williamson and John Clayton

This is a debate on Sunday's AFC divisional playoff game between San Diego and Pittsburgh. We will tackle topics on the game. AFC West blogger Bill Williamson will debate the side of the Chargers and senior writer John Clayton will debate the side of the Steelers.

Here we go:

Which quarterback will have a bigger impact?

 
 Harry How/Getty Images
 Philip Rivers and the Chargers ride a five-game winning streak into Pittsburgh Sunday.

Bill Williamson: John, it's going to be San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers. The Chargers are the hottest team in the NFL and Rivers is one of the hottest players in the league. He's playing out of his mind. Why shouldn't he? It's the playoffs and Rivers is a late-season player.

Rivers, taken seven picks higher than Roethlisberger, has developed into one of the great late-season players. He is 14-0 in December games and he is 3-2 in the postseason. While Indianapolis' Peyton Manning got his numbers Saturday night, it was Rivers who led the Chargers to 10 points in the final minute of regulation and in overtime.

Rivers is a big-game player. Yes, Big Ben has his Super Bowl ring and he knows how to get it done in the clutch as well. But Rivers is red hot. His statistics far surpass Roethlisberger's numbers in 2008. Rivers is playing with a purpose. He is a fantastic leader. He will not be intimidated by the vaunted Pittsburgh defense or the miserable weather. Rivers has willed the Chargers to victory during this five-game win streak, and there's no reason not to think Rivers won't do it again, Mr. Clayton.

John Clayton: Billy, you can throw me all the stats you want, but Ben Roethlisberger was the first of the top three quarterbacks taken in the 2004 draft to go to the Super Bowl and win, beating Eli Manning and Philip Rivers to the punch. The 14-0 December stat is nice, but Roethlisberger did get the field goal drive to beat Rivers in Pittsburgh this year. He's a big-time player in big-time games. Rivers is a quarterback who is learning the playoffs. Last year, he learned how to win a playoff game, beating the Titans. Roethlisberger is one of the best in football in the final two possessions of the fourth quarter. He has a presence in those situations that is one of the best in football. He has a strong arm that doesn't have problems in windy conditions. I'm not going to make a pick in this game, but Roethlisberger has the edge during his career in one key stat -- wins. He's 51-20 during the regular season and he's done it against tough schedules. Drew Brees has better stats than both those guys, but don't bet against Roethlisberger in the final four minutes of any game.

(Read full post)

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

Sproles

In this week's visit to the film room, we check in with Scouts Inc. to get their take on Sunday's matchup pitting San Diego Chargers tailback Darren Sproles against the top-rated defense of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Sproles looks to be the starter this week in place of the injured LaDainian Tomlinson.

Here is comprehensive film analysis of Sproles from Scouts Inc.'s Keith Kidd:

The Steelers have the best defense in the NFL. However, with the uncertainty of running back LaDainian Tomlinson due to a groin injury, the Chargers will rely even more on running back Darren Sproles. Sproles is extremely quick with excellent speed and elusiveness. He has a low center of gravity, good vision, excellent balance who does his best work in open space. He is tough to find in a crowd behind his blockers due to his size, and he is a decisive cutter who gets vertical quickly. Can Sproles expose creases within Pittsburgh's defense due to his excellent burst through the hole? The key to stopping Sproles for the Steelers' defense will be its ability to control the edges, get off blocks, tackle well in open space and play under control while maintaining gap discipline and leverage within its 3-4 defenses. On top of that, without a healthy LT, the Steelers can focus even more on stopping Sproles, which gives them the edge in this matchup on Sunday.

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