AFC North: David Paulson



PITTSBURGH -- It certainly looked like a fourth preseason game, from the swaths of empty seats at Heinz Field to the uneven play with many starters from each side playing sparingly, if at all.

Carolina parlayed a big pass play into the game’s only touchdown ,and the Panthers beat the Steelers 10-0 Thursday night with the specter of final cuts looming for fringe players on each side.

Landry Jones started at quarterback and completed 14 of 18 passes for 97 yards before giving way to Brendon Kay midway through the third quarter. Jones, a fourth-round pick in 2013, didn’t lead any scoring drives but probably did enough to make the 53-man roster as the Steelers’ No. 3 quarterback.

No Steelers player battling for a roster spot made a particularly compelling argument to stay with the team beyond 4 p.m. ET Saturday, the NFL deadline for finalizing 53-man rosters.

Brad Wing looked like he was on his way to nailing down a roster spot after pinning the Panthers deep in their own territory several times. Then the Aussie unleashed a 25-yard clunker, something that will make the coaches ponder whether Wing is consistent enough to be trusted.

Players such as Wing have made their final argument as far as making the team.

The Steelers’ coaches and front office personnel will meet on Friday to start paring down the roster and could make some cuts then, with the rest coming on Saturday. The Steelers have to cut 22 players to get to the 53-man limit by late Saturday afternoon.

Some other thoughts from the Steelers’ fourth preseason game:
  • It was a very nice bounce-back game for starting outside linebacker Jarvis Jones after the second-year man struggled a week ago in Philadelphia. Jones made his presence felt early against the pass and the run, and the Steelers coaches had to love his hustle after a snap sailed over the head of Panthers quarterback Derek Anderson in the second quarter. Anderson tried to pick the ball up, and when he couldn’t get a handle on it Jones made a diving recovery. He then got up and started to rumble downfield, drawing a personal foul penalty when former Steelers center Fernando Velasco dragged Jones down by his hair. Jones recorded three tackles, including one for a loss, and the fumble recovery before calling it a night.
  • If the Steelers only keep five wide receivers Justin Brown might be headed back to the practice squad. The wide receiver who created such a buzz during offseason practices caught five passes for 32 yards in four preseason games despite playing more snaps than any other Steelers skill player. Hard-charging Darrius Heyward-Bey caught six passes for 44 yards against the Panthers and solidified his spot on the 53-man roster even if the Steelers only keep five wideouts. His speed and experience -- and his production in the Steelers' final two preseason games -- will make Heyward-Bey too difficult to cut
  • David Paulson and Rob Blanchflower needed to beat Michael Palmer for the No. 3 spot at tight end, and neither was able to do it. Palmer had a couple of nice blocks early when the Steelers were able to run the ball, and the fifth-year veteran is solid on special teams. He solidified his spot on the 53-man roster, and Blanchflower looks like a strong candidate for the practice squad.
  • Cornerback Antwon Blake had played well before getting beat badly on a 53-yard catch by wide receiver Philly Brown, setting up the Panthers’ only touchdown. Blake will make the Steelers as a core special-teams player but Brice McCain has clearly established himself as the No. 4 cornerback assuming the groin injury he suffered against the Panthers isn’t serious.
  • The Steelers showed an interesting defensive look late in the second quarter. Josh Mauro, Roy Philon, Daniel McCullers and Ethan Hemer were up front with Vince Williams and Terence Garvin as the only linebackers in the game. However, Shamarko Thomas played close enough to the line of scrimmage that it looked like the Steelers had their big nickel package on the field with four down linemen.
PITTSBURGH – Derek Moye spent all of last season on the Steelers' 53-man roster and two of the wide receivers ahead of the Penn State product signed with other teams during the offseason.

Moye
Despite this, it is hard not to wonder if Moye actually lost ground in his bid to make an impact this season. Moye, as it turns out, will have a hard time simply making the team again because of the crowd that the Steelers have at wide receiver.

They signed veterans Lance Moore and Darrius Heyward-Bey in March and drafted Clemson’s Martavis Bryant in the fourth round. The Steelers also saw 2013 sixth-round pick Justin Brown, who spent last season on their practice squad, make a significant jump during offseason practices.

So where does all of that leave Moye? Pretty much in the same position as last season when the former undrafted free agent had to play his way onto the 53-man roster.

“That’s the way it is,” Steelers wide receivers coach Richard Mann said. “He knows that. Each time he gets on the field he gets better. He has a chance.”

The good news for Moye, who caught just two passes for 25 yards and a touchdown last season, is that the competition at wide receiver won’t really start until Monday when the Steelers wear pads for the first time.

Also, the 6-foot-4, 210-pounder made the team last season after entering camp as a long shot. There is no reason to think Moye can’t do it again with another strong camp and playing well in the preseason games.

Here are four other players who also need to flash during training camp.

OLB Chris Carter. The Steelers’ lack of depth at outside linebacker gives the 2011 fifth-round draft pick an inside track to making the 53-man roster. But Carter is vulnerable because he played primarily on special teams in three seasons and has yet to record a sack for the Steelers. Carter received praise from linebackers coach Keith Butler during offseason practices. He has to show the Steelers during camp that he can play extensive snaps at outside linebacker in the event of an injury.

TE David Paulson. He has just 13 catches for 153 yards in two seasons and Paulson isn’t going to make the team as a blocking tight end. The 2012 seventh-round pick has to show he can become a bigger part of the passing game as he is a prime candidate to fall victim to a numbers crunch. The Steelers return four tight ends from last season and they added to the position by drafting Rob Blanchflower in the seventh round and signing Eric Waters as an undrafted free agent.

DE Nick Williams. Williams did very little during offseason practices because he was still recovering from a knee injury he sustained almost a year ago. The Steelers like Williams’ potential but the 6-4, 309-pounder needs to get on the field during camp and get as much work as possible at a position that is hard for young players to master. The Steelers, meanwhile, need an end to emerge from a young group that includes Williams, Brian Arnfelt and undrafted free agent Josh Mauro.

P Brad Wing. His talent is undeniable and the Steelers think he has matured since going undrafted out of LSU in 2013 and failing to make the Philadelphia Eagles’ team last season. That he is a lefty helps – coach Mike Tomlin seems to prefer those kinds of punters – but Wing has to beat out veteran Adam Podlesh, who signed a one-year contract with the Steelers in April. Since Podlesh has a track record in the NFL Wing will have to clearly outplay him in training camp and preseason games to make the team.

Steelers re-sign Michael Palmer

March, 21, 2014
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PITTSBURGH -- The Steelers added depth at tight end Friday when they re-signed Michael Palmer to a one-year contract.

Palmer, whom the Steelers signehttp://proxy.espn.go.com/blogadmin/pittsburgh-steelers/wp-admin/edit.php?page=statusPaged last August, played in every game last season and caught one pass for eight yards. He was a core special teams player in 2013, and the fourth-year veteran joins Heath Miller, Matt Spaeth and David Paulson as the tight ends on the roster.

The Steelers lost tight end David Johnson last week when the fifth-year veteran signed a two-year contract with the Chargers.

Palmer is the fifth of the Steelers' free agents to re-sign with the team, joining center Cody Wallace, offensive tackle Guy Whimper, safety Will Allen and long snapper Greg Warren in that group.
PITTSBURGH -- This is the fourth in a series in which I will examine every position relative to the 2013 season -- and take a look ahead.

TIGHT ENDS:

2014 free agents: David Johnson and Michael Palmer

Spaeth
Miller
The good: Heath Miller came back sooner -- and played better -- than anyone could have expected less than a year after he tore several ligaments in his right knee, including his ACL. Miller played the fifth-most snaps (874) among offensive players despite missing the first two games of the season and seeing limited action in the third. Miller caught 58 passes, third most on the Steelers, for 593 yards. He also proved to be just as valuable as a blocker, and Miller and Matt Spaeth really bolstered the ground game when they were on the field together.

The bad: Miller had uncharacteristic drops and scored just one touchdown. Spaeth played in only four games, missing the first 12 because of a foot injury. The Steelers did not get much out of David Paulson and Palmer beyond special teams, and Johnson played in just five games before dislocating his wrist and landing on injured reserve. Miller's absence at the start of the season exposed the Steelers' lack of quality depth at the position.

The money (2014 salary-cap numbers): Miller's cap hit will be just under $9.5 million but the Steelers can lower that number by signing the ninth-year veteran to a new deal. Miller is going into the final year of his contract, and I will be shocked if the two sides don't reach an agreement on a new deal sooner rather than later. The drop-off after Miller is significant, and he is still one of the best all-around tight ends in the NFL. The work ethic that allowed Miller to return to the field less than a year after reconstructive knee surgery also bodes well for him continuing to play at a high level despite the advancement of age. Spaeth's cap hit this year is just over $1 million, making him a bargain if he can stay healthy. My guess is the Steelers will bring Johnson back since the price will be right given that he has played just five games in the last two seasons. The Steelers would probably feel pretty good going into training camp if Miller, Spaeth and Johnson are their top three tight ends and they add another one in the draft.

Draft priority: Higher than it looks. Miller isn't getting any younger and the Steelers certainly aren't oblivious to the matchup problems big, athletic tight ends with soft hands create in a league that is clearly a passing one. There are a couple of tight ends in this year's draft with the potential to be that kind of player. Eric Ebron tops that list, and the former North Carolina star looks like a transcendent talent. Ebron could be in play with the 15th overall pick even though the Steelers have more pressing needs, particularly on defense. I think the Steelers draft a tight end this year, but where they take one is anybody's guess.
PITTSBURGH -- The Steelers' season is riddled with what-ifs. In (dis)honor of their eight losses here are eight things that shaped their fate.

Near miss in opener: The Steelers took a shot deep down the right sidelines after getting a safety on the opening kickoff, but Emmanuel Sanders couldn't haul in Ben Roethlisberger's pass. It would have been a good catch but it turned into the kind of near-miss that defined Sanders' season as much as the big plays he delivered. You have to wonder if the Titans would have recovered had that play led to a touchdown and an early 9-0 Steelers lead. Instead the Steelers lost Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey to a season-ending knee injury on the first drive of the season and didn't score when Isaac Redman fumbled out of the end zone.

Hard to handle in Cincinnati: The Steelers were leading 3-0 in the second quarter when tight end David Paulson lost a fumble at the end of a 34-yard catch and run. Had Paulson held onto the ball the Steelers would have had a first down on the Bengals' 16-yard line. They would have been looking at least a 6-0 lead with Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton struggling with his accuracy. That play pivoted the game toward the Bengals and loomed large in a 20-10 loss at Paul Brown Stadium.

[+] EnlargeTerrelle Pryor
AP Photo/Marcio Jose SanchezTerrelle Pryor left the Pittsburgh defense in his wake en route to a 93-yard TD run.
Off and running in Oakland: Terrelle Pryor broke free for a 93-yard touchdown run on the first play from scrimmage and that set the tone for another bad trip to Oakland. A handful of Steelers were caught out of position on the scamper, and that run exceeded the number of passing yards Pryor had (88). It also set an NFL record for longest run by a quarterback. The Steelers seemed to be a step slow all afternoon and the loss blunted any momentum they had generated following back-to-back wins.

Not so automatic: Shaun Suisham missed just two field goals all season and was as good as any kicker this side of Justin Tucker. But his misses couldn't have been timed any worse as both came in what turned out to be a three-point loss in Oakland. Nothing is as hard to comprehend about what happened this season then Suisham losing it for one game -- and one game only in an otherwise outstanding season. Both of his misses came inside of 35 yards and Suisham blamed himself for the worst loss of the season afterward.

Costly drop in Baltimore: The Steelers nearly rallied from a 12-point fourth-quarter deficit, but Sanders dropped a 2-point conversion pass that would have tied the game, and the Ravens recovered the ensuing onside kick. The Steelers were nearly out of offensive linemen by the end of another brutal battle of attrition with their archrivals, and the injuries that decimated them up front might have put them at a disadvantage in overtime. On the other hand, the Steelers clearly had the Ravens on their heels after scoring three touchdowns in the second half. And they would have loved to take their chances in overtime.

No doubting Thomas: A backup running back playing on a bad wheel turned in the biggest play of the game when he broke free for a 55-yard run to set up the Dolphins' go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter. The Dolphins blocked the play well though Troy Polamalu said after the Steelers' 34-28 loss that he had not gotten to his assigned gap. The run propelled Daniel Thomas, who played on an injured ankle, to only the second 100-yard game of his career and first since his rookie season in 2011. It also led to another improbable loss for the Steelers.

Almost a miracle: The Steelers came within inches of pulling off what would have been one of the greatest endings in NFL history. Sanders caught a pass at around the Steelers' 40-yard line and triggered a series of laterals after he gained about 5 more yards and tossed the ball back to Jerricho Cotchery. The ball reversed field and ended up tucked under Antonio Brown's left arm. Brown weaved his way through the Dolphins defense with no time left on the clock and reached the end zone. Officials however, correctly ruled that he stepped out of bounds at the 12-yard adding another heartbreaking chapter to the Steelers season. Brown probably could have avoided stepping out and still scored but snow made it difficult to tell where he was on the field. No single play epitomized the Steelers' near-miss season than this one.

No call shuts door on Steelers: Wouldn't you have loved to hear what Mike Tomlin was yelling at his TV when he noticed the Chargers were lined up illegally before Ryan Succop's 41-yard field goal attempt? Succop should have gotten a mulligan -- and moved 5 yards closer -- after barely missing the field goal that would sent the Steelers to the playoffs but no penalty was called. A quick whistle may have also cost the Steelers in overtime when Eric Weddle was ruled down before a Chiefs player ripped the ball out of his arms and raced into the end zone. Tomlin is a member of the NFL's competition committee and you can bet he will have plenty to say on the state of officiating.

Locker Room Buzz: Pittsburgh Steelers

November, 17, 2013
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PITTSBURGH -- A few thoughts on the Pittsburgh Steelers' 37-27 win against the Detroit Lions.

Polamalu
Staying the course: The Steelers did not make any drastic adjustments after giving up almost 300 passing yards in the second quarter alone to Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford. So how did they limit Stafford to 3-of-16 passing for 35 yards in the second half while holding Calvin Johnson without a catch after intermission? “It was just being more sound,” Steelers strong safety Troy Polamalu said. “They weren’t drawing up any great schematics things against us. We just did our jobs better. We got a much better pass rush in the second half as well from the four-man rush. We weren’t blitzing or anything like that.”

A win and a keepsake: The two wide receivers who put on a show swapped jerseys after the game. Antonio Brown holds Johnson in such high esteem that leaving Heinz Field with the Lions’ wide receiver’s jersey ranked second -- albeit a distant second -- to exiting with a comeback victory. “To get his jersey was icing on the cake,” Brown said. “Excited to get his jersey. Hopefully I’ll get some work with him next offseason down in Atlanta.” Brown and Johnson combined for 13 catches for 326 yards and four touchdowns.

Just one win: Coach Mike Tomlin refused to give more weight to the win even though the Steelers showed a lot of mettle in rallying from a seven-point halftime deficit to beat the team that is in first place in the NFC North. “I don’t want to play ball,” Tomlin said. Translation: The seventh-year coach did not want to give even the hint of appearing like he thinks the Steelers are poised to go on the kind of run they need to become a legitimate playoff contender.

Big Ben's bad throw: As good as Ben Roethlisberger was in throwing for 367 yards and four touchdowns, he took the blame for overthrowing a wide-open David Paulson in the end zone in the third quarter. “I have to make that throw,” Roethlisberger said of perhaps the easiest throw he had all game. “Heath Miller is our first read in the flat. He was double-covered, so I looked back to Paulson. I couldn’t see if there were any defenders that inside, so my safe throw was high and away where only he could make [the catch]. I put it a little too high for him. That’s on me. I have to make that play.”

Rapid Reaction: Bengals 20, Steelers 10

September, 16, 2013
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CINCINNATI – A few thoughts on the Pittsburgh Steelers' 20-10 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium:

What it means: The Steelers played better Monday night than they did in a season-opening loss to the Tennessee Titans, but it will still be a quiet plane ride back to Pittsburgh. The Steelers are 0-2 for the first time under seventh-year coach Mike Tomlin, and the offense hasn’t looked this challenged since 2003, when Pittsburgh went 6-10.

The defense again played well enough, but it will have to dominate games for the Steelers to beat playoff-caliber teams this season. Through two games, the Steelers have not forced any turnovers, and they have notched one quarterback sack.

Stock watch: The offense produced a few spasms of productivity, and it actually looked like a legitimate NFL unit late in the second quarter when quarterback Ben Roethlisberger led a five-play, 65-yard touchdown drive.

But even when Roethlisberger completed a pass, he had to fit the ball into a tight window, and the Steelers again got very little from their running game. Felix Jones led the way with 37 yards on 10 carries -- and that was a marked improvement from what Steelers running backs did the previous week. Yikes.

Offensive coordinator Todd Haley provided more fodder for frustrated Steelers fans with some of his play calls. A reverse to a 31-year-old possession receiver (Jerricho Cotchery)? Really?

Spike it, will ya? What were the Steelers thinking after tight end David Paulson got stripped at the end of a 34-yard catch-and-run in the first quarter? The Steelers took their time getting to the line of scrimmage when they should have been hurrying to snap the ball, since Paulson had been ruled down before he fumbled.

The dawdling gave Bengals coach Marvin Lewis enough time to watch a replay and throw the challenge flag. The call was reversed, and Cincinnati needed just five plays to cover 87 yards and score the first touchdown of the game after the turnover.

What’s next: The Steelers play another prime-time game when they host the 2-0 Chicago Bears on Sunday night, and it is not too early to call it a must-win situation for Pittsburgh. The team has missed the playoffs all three times it has started a season 0-3 since 1970.

The Bears couldn’t give a hoot about the Steelers’ problems, and their opportunistic defense will be able to take its share of chances against an offense that simply doesn't have enough playmakers.
For a full transcript of the AFC North weekly chat, you can click here. For some highlights, simply continue reading ...

BALTIMORE RAVENS

Zack (Baltimore): Do you see Arthur Brown competing for a starting linebacker spot this year?

Jamison Hensley (ESPN): Right now, Brown is going to see time on the nickel defense. His speed and athleticism suits coverage. He'll work his way up to playing early downs and stopping the run. Josh Bynes has the starting job for right now.

CINCINNATI BENGALS

Bob (Dayton, Ohio): Do you think the Bengals are a bit overrated considering seven of their 10 wins were against the Browns, Jags, Chargers, Raiders, Chiefs, Eagles and a gimme against the Ravens at the end of the season? Doesn't playing teams like these inflate statistics like defensive and offensive rankings. Just tempering expectations.

Jamison Hensley (ESPN): If the Bengals surprisingly struggle, this point becomes more valid. This was also the team that won at Pittsburgh in a must-win situation and won at the Redskins, who won the NFC East. That's why I don't consider the Bengals to be overrated. They're one of the top 10 teams in the NFL this year.

CLEVELAND BROWNS

Harry (North Carolina): Do the Cleveland Browns have a serious shot at going .500 this season?

Jamison Hensley (ESPN): That should be the goal. With their schedule, I'm skeptical of them finishing with a winning record even if the team has improved. And, with how the past five seasons have gone, reaching .500 would be considered a success. I would be interested if the Browns stick with quarterback Brandon Weeden if he gets the team to eight wins.

PITTSBURGH STEELERS

Bernard (Philly): Given the injury to tight end Heath Miller, the offseason loss of Mike Wallace and the inconsistent play of the offense in the preseason, would the Steelers have been better served drafting tight end Tyler Eifert in the first round rather than linebacker Jarvis Jones?

Jamison Hensley (ESPN): The Steelers couldn't have gone wrong with either Eifert or Jarvis Jones. You can make the case that the Steelers' biggest need on defense was improving the pass rush and generating more turnovers, which is what Jones did in college. In the Steelers' mind, Miller should be back by October and the team can get by with David Paulson.
The Steelers play their second preseason game Monday night at Washington, and they will try to be sharper on all fronts after a sloppy 18-13 loss to the Giants on Aug. 10. Here are three things to look for in the 8 p.m. game that will be televised by ESPN:

1. Jonathan Dwyer’s bid to become team’s featured back: The Steelers’ leading rusher last season has been on the outside looking in at the battle for the No. 1 running back. Dwyer can change that tonight as the former Georgia Tech star is likely to start and get the bulk of the work with the first-team offense. Isaac Redman (neck) and rookie Le’Veon Bell (knee) will play sparingly, if at all, against the Redskins, providing a huge opportunity for Dwyer.

Dwyer
Mitch Stringer/US PresswireJonathan Dwyer should get plenty of chances to run against the Redskins.
He has shown flashes -- Dwyer had back-to-back 100-yard games in 2012 -- but the 5-foot-11, 230-pound running back also has battled the bulge during his three-year career. That has made it difficult for Dwyer to earn the trust of the coaches, and he is third on the Steelers’ depth chart with Baron Batch.

The two could be battling for a roster spot, and while Dwyer (623 rushing yards last season) is more talented than Batch, the latter is a good special-teams player and the better blocker of the two.

Dwyer must show he can be a viable option in the running game. He should get plenty of chances to do that against the Redskins, a team he gashed for 107 yards on 17 carries last October.

2. The Jason Worilds/Jarvis Jones battle at right outside linebacker: Worilds is trying to hold off Jones, the prized rookie, and Worilds produced mixed results in the Steelers’ first preseason game.

Worilds, who has 10 sacks in three seasons, more than held his own against the Giants before drawing penalties for roughing the quarterback and unnecessary roughness in a span of three plays. Coach Mike Tomlin dressed down Worilds after those flags and banished him to the bench. Tonight will be Worilds’ first action since those penalties.

Jones, the Steelers’ No. 1 draft pick last April, is still finding his way in coordinator Dick LeBeau’s complex defense. It showed against the Giants as Jones recovered a fumble but also struggled to shed blocks and get to the quarterback.

Worilds still has the inside track to take over for the departed James Harrison at right outside linebacker, but he has to avoid the kind of penalties that drive Tomlin batty. The Steelers also would love for the former Virginia Tech standout to win the starting job on his own merits -- and not merely because Jones has to be brought along slowly in LeBeau’s defense.

3. An extended look at the passing game: Starters on both sides of the ball are expected to play the first half, and that will provide a better gauge of where the offense is in Todd Haley’s second year as coordinator.

Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has raved about how the offense has come together as he and Haley have built more trust in one another. The passing game will need more than that, though, to thrive in 2013. The Steelers must replace deep threat Mike Wallace, and the receiving corps took a hit last week when veteran Plaxico Burress was lost for the season to a torn rotator cuff. The Steelers are perilously thin at tight end as starter Heath Miller is still working his way back from a major knee injury.

The Steelers could use significant contributions this season from second-year tight end David Paulson and rookie wide receiver Markus Wheaton. They also need Emmanuel Sanders to emerge at split end to keep teams from loading up against No. 1 receiver Antonio Brown. Keep an eye on those three tonight.
LATROBE, Pa. -- Nestled in the rolling hills surrounding St. Vincent College, the Pittsburgh Steelers seem as though they're isolated from the football world for training camp. But make no mistake, they hear everything.

When it comes to the debate over who's winning the AFC North, the talk is either about the defending Super Bowl champions (Baltimore Ravens) or the team on the rise (Cincinnati Bengals). The Steelers? They're considered too old on defense and too young on offense.

If you expected the Steelers to make a rebuttal, you'd be wrong. They have embraced the underdog role.

"When you lose Mike Wallace, James Harrison and Casey Hampton on a team that went 8-8, you’re supposed to say they’re about to fall," linebacker Larry Foote said. "If I was a writer, I would write the same thing. But football is not played behind a computer in a nice cozy office. It’s played on the field. [General manager] Kevin Colbert doesn’t have two Super Bowls for nothing and this organization has six overall. They know what they’re doing. As players, we have to take it personally."

One player told me that this team was humbled by last season's 8-8 record, especially the losses to Oakland, Tennessee and Cleveland. The confidence, though, remains.

This defense has finished the past two seasons ranked No. 1. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had won 17 of 24 starts before suffering a serious rib injury in November. And the Steelers haven't forgotten about beating the eventual Super Bowl champions in December with third-string quarterback Charlie Batch.

Just don't expect the Steelers players to promote these facts.

"We got our poker face on," defensive end Brett Keisel said. "It’s one of those things where we’re all aware of the talent we have and we’re all aware of what we’re capable of. It’s a matter of doing it."

History is on the Steelers' side. The last two times the Steelers failed to finish with a winning record, they won the division the next season. After the Steelers went 6-10 in 2003, they rebounded to go 15-1 in 2004. Pittsburgh finished 8-8 in 2006 but came back with a 10-6 record in 2007.

"Playing in Pittsburgh, you don’t go 8-8 twice," cornerback Ike Taylor said.

So, what would happen if the Steelers ended up 8-8 again this year?

"It’ll be a clearance sale," he said. "Everyone must go."

THREE HOT ISSUES

[+] EnlargeLe'Veon Bell
AP Photo/Keith SrakocicThe starting running back job looks to be Le'Veon Bell's to lose -- as long as he can stay healthy.
1. Battle for starting running back job. The only reason this remains a battle is that Le'Veon Bell hasn't been able to stay healthy this summer. It has become clear that the Steelers want the rookie second-round pick to be the starting running back. The team tabbed him as the co-starter with Isaac Redman on the depth chart a week after Bell was held out of the preseason opener.

The problem is, Bell can't win the job on the sideline. He aggravated a knee injury from last week on Thursday and looks questionable for Monday's preseason game. Durability wasn't a question with Bell at Michigan State. Despite nagging injuries, he led the nation last year with 383 carries.

The Steelers have high expectations that Bell can revitalize their run game, something Redman and Jonathan Dwyer failed to do last season. Bell is the best fit in the Steelers' new outside zone blocking scheme. He has the experience (he ran the stretch play repeatedly in college), patience and footwork to excel in this ground attack, where it's find the hole, make one cut and run.

"We're excited about everything but the fact that he's now had a couple of little nicks," offensive coordinator Todd Haley said.

2. Injuries at tight end. Heath Miller is on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list after ACL surgery seven months ago, and Matt Spaeth is out eight to 10 weeks with a foot injury. So, if the Steelers are without their top two tight ends just like the Ravens, why haven't they made any additions like their division rival? It's because of the Steelers' confidence in David Paulson, a seventh-round pick from a year ago. He has impressed the coaching staff with his ball skills and sure hands.

"He's playing behind the right guy in Heath," Haley said. "And he's smart enough to follow Heath around and learn every possible thing he can from him. Guys like that have a way of sticking. He's someone that we're all excited about getting more seasoning."

Fullback Will Johnson also can be used as a tight end after significantly improving as a receiver. Plus, there's a chance that Miller could be back by the fourth or fifth game of the season if he follows Rashard Mendenhall's timetable from last year.

3. A ticked-off defense. The numbers say the Steelers finished as the No. 1 defense in the NFL last season. The perception is this wasn't the best defense in the NFL.

Pittsburgh allowed the fewest yards in the league last season, and it wasn't even close. The Steelers gave up 15 fewer yards per game than any other team. But this wasn't a playmaking defense. The Steelers forced 20 turnovers last season; only seven teams caused fewer. Pittsburgh also recorded 37 sacks, which was tied for 15th in the NFL.

"I have never heard of a No. 1 defense get talked about so negatively ever," Foote said. "The last two years, we’ve been No. 1 but we get shots at us. I don’t understand. Some organizations have never had a No. 1 defense. They’re still throwing stones at us. They want more turnovers and more splash plays. We’re going to give them what they want."

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

The keys are a healthy locker room and a healthy Roethlisberger. Five of Pittsburgh's eight losses last season were by a field goal. The players believe repairing a fractured locker room will go a long way in making this team hold up better in close games, especially in the fourth quarter. The other part of the equation is making sure Roethlisberger doesn't get hurt, which has been a major problem the past two seasons. The Steelers were 6-3 before Roethlisberger's rib injury last season, 2-5 after it.

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

There are questions about how the Steelers will fare without linebacker James Harrison and wide receiver Mike Wallace. Although Harrison's play had begun to decline, he was the embodiment of toughness on this defense for years. That's going to be harder to replace than his pass-rush presence, a void that can be filled with first-round pick Jarvis Jones. Some wouldn't consider Wallace a major loss because he was such a distraction last year. What people forget is that no one on the Steelers had more receiving yards or touchdown catches than Wallace in each of the past three seasons. Lack of depth also makes the Steelers vulnerable. Injuries to the offensive line and cornerback position would be a crushing blow.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • [+] EnlargeEmmanuel Sanders
    Jason Bridge/USA TODAY SportsEmmanuel Sanders could emerge as the No. 1 receiver to replace Mike Wallace.
    The assumption is Antonio Brown would take over Wallace's role as the No. 1 receiver. But in my two of days at camp, Emmanuel Sanders was the one who stood out the most. Roethlisberger's best deep throws went to Sanders, and the quarterback was in a better rhythm with Sanders on crossing routes. This is a big year for Sanders, who will be a free agent after the season.

  • Safety Troy Polamalu has repeatedly said it doesn't matter if you're healthy during the summer. It's the regular season that counts. Still, watching Polamalu at practice, there were flashes of the old Polamalu, the one who bounced all over the field. The key is staying on the field. He hasn't played a full season in five of his past seven years.

  • All you have to do is watch Bell run one-on-one routes against linebackers and safeties to see why the Steelers are excited about him as a three-down back. He's extremely light on his feet, and no defender could keep up with him. The Steelers haven't had a running back catch more than 26 passes in a season since Mewelde Moore in 2008.

  • The wide receiver who has impressed the Steelers defensive backs the most is rookie third-round pick Markus Wheaton. He is currently the slot receiver on the second-team offense. It wouldn't surprise me if he gets a chance at taking over for Jerricho Cotchery at the No. 3 receiver spot this year. "He doesn’t look like a rookie. He doesn’t play like a rookie," Taylor said. "I can’t wait to see him playing in the season."

  • First-round pick Jarvis Jones has a knack for being around the ball and will make an immediate impact as a pass-rusher. After watching him in full-team drills, I wonder how he will hold up against the run. The Steelers can't play him on early downs if he lets runners get to the outside on him.

  • The hope is that cornerback Cortez Allen (knee) will be ready in time for the season opener. The Steelers can't afford to be without him. I knew there was a major drop-off from Allen to the likes of William Gay, Curtis Brown and Josh Victorian before I made my way to St. Vincent College. But it's an even bigger disparity when you watch them try to match up against Pittsburgh's receivers.

  • Kicker Shaun Suisham had a career year for the Steelers last season. His 90.3 percent success rate was the second-best in Steelers history, and he tied his career long with a 52-yard field goal. Suisham looked strong in camp, hitting one from 60 yards.
The Pittsburgh Steelers will be without Matt Spaeth for eight to 10 weeks due to a foot injury, the latest hit to the tight end position and one that could force the team to look for an experienced free agent.

Spaeth
Spaeth was carted off the field Wednesday and on Friday was diagnosed with a Lisfranc sprain, which is a dislocation of a bone in the middle of the foot, according to The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. That leaves Pittsburgh with David Paulson, a seventh-round pick from a year ago, and a cast of unproven backups.

The Steelers now have as many injured tight ends as healthy ones. Heath Miller, the team leader in receptions last season, is on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list with a knee injury and there's no timetable for his return. David Johnson is also on PUP with a knee injury. Now, the Steelers won't have Spaeth until the fifth game of the regular season, which is the current best-case scenario.

Paulson is a pass-catching tight end with long arms and dependable hands, which makes him a strong candidate to fill in for Miller. What the Steelers lose in Spaeth is a strong run-blocking tight end. The other tight ends on the roster are Jamie McCoy, who has played in one NFL game (last year with Steelers); Peter Tuitupou, an undrafted rookie out of San Jose State; and John Rabe, an undrafted rookie from Minnesota.

Injuries have been hitting the Steelers hard this training camp. Wide receiver Plaxico Burress tore his rotator cuff on Thursday, a shoulder injury that could end his season and possibly his career. Starting cornerback Cortez Allen had minor knee surgery last Friday that could sideline him for all of the preseason. Three other cornerbacks are banged up -- Curtis Brown (ankle), Terry Hawthorne (knee) and DeMarcus Van Dyke (undisclosed) -- and likely won't play in Saturday's preseason opener.

While the Steelers always want to get out of games healthy, they really can't afford to lose another tight end or cornerback Saturday night against the New York Giants.
Everyone knows playing in the NFL can be dangerous. But the most dangerous position in the AFC North seems to be tight end.

Just like the Baltimore Ravens, the Pittsburgh Steelers are now without two top tight ends. Matt Spaeth, who is considered the No. 1 tight end with Heath Miller (knee) on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list, was carted off the practice field Wednesday. Coach Mike Tomlin offered no update on Spaeth on Thursday.

"He's being evaluated in Pittsburgh," Tomlin said.

Spaeth, who was re-signed by the Steelers this offseason, had just returned to practice after having his knee drained. While the Steelers would prefer to have Spaeth available, David Paulson is the tight end who is going to really replace Miller if Miller's not ready to play at the start of the regular season.

Spaeth's strength is run blocking, and Paulson can make more of an impact in the passing game, especially in the red zone. The Steelers have yet to give a timetable on Miller, who is on the PUP list along with tight end David Johnson.

Without Miller and Spaeth, the only healthy tight end with any extensive NFL experience is Paulson. A seventh-round pick from a year ago, Paulson made seven catches for 51 yards in 16 games as a rookie.

The other tight ends on the roster are: Jamie McCoy, who has played in one NFL game (last year with Steelers); Peter Tuitupou, an undrafted rookie out of San Jose State; and John Rabe, an undrafted rookie from Minnesota.

The Steelers are unlikely to get any sympathy from the Ravens, who are without Dennis Pitta (hip) and Ed Dickson (hamstring).
The AFC North blog is continuing its rankings of each position for the next week. This is a projection on how the group will fare this season. It's not an evaluation based on last year. For Thursday, let's look at the tight ends.

1. Baltimore Ravens: The loss of wide receiver Anquan Boldin will lead to a monster year for tight end Dennis Pitta. He is expected to lead the Ravens in receptions and possibly touchdown catches as well. In the final year of his contract, Pitta knows his value increases with a big year. Ed Dickson, who was drafted a round before Pitta in 2010, had a disappointing regular season last year before playing his best ball during the playoffs. He is only a season removed from catching 51 passes and five touchdowns.

2. Cincinnati Bengals: The Bengals potentially have the best tight end tandem in the division. They certainly have invested in the position, selecting a tight end in the first round in two of the past four drafts. Jermaine Gresham has admittedly not lived up to expectations, even though his catches and receiving yards have increased every year. The problem with Gresham is his lack of explosiveness and increased drops, especially in the playoff loss at Houston. It was a wise move for the Bengals to draft Tyler Eifert in the first round. He can stretch the field and make an impact in the red zone.

3. Pittsburgh Steelers: Heath Miller was the best tight end in the division last season. The switch to Todd Haley's offense led to a resurgence for Miller, who caught 71 passes and eight touchdowns. The reason you can't put the Steelers higher on the rankings is because you don't know Miller's health status. He tore knee ligaments late in the season and had surgery Jan. 2. It's uncertain when Miller will play this year, although many speculate he won't miss much time after the Steelers didn't draft a tight end. There is questionable depth at the position with Matt Spaeth and David Paulson.

4. Cleveland Browns: The breakthrough player at this position is going to be Jordan Cameron, who gets the starting job after the Browns didn't replace Ben Watson. Cameron is the type of athletic target who often flourishes in Norv Turner offenses. For that reason, it was tempting to put the Browns at No. 3, given the uncertainty with Miller. The Browns added some depth in free agency by signing Kellen Davis and Gary Barnidge. Davis was a two-year starter with the Bears who is considered an underachiever. Barnidge is a blocking tight end who is familiar with Rob Chudzinski's system from their days together in Carolina.

In case you missed the other AFC North position rankings this week, you can click here for quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers.
Every team talks about taking the best player available in the NFL draft, but filling a need does play a factor. Not all needs were addressed over three rounds of drafting. Here are the biggest post-draft questions facing each AFC North team:

CINCINNATI BENGALS

Who's starting at strong safety next to Reggie Nelson?

The Bengals addressed safety, but not as early as many predicted. Cincinnati waited until the third round to take Georgia's Shawn Williams. He'll compete against Taylor Mays and Jeromy Miles for the starting job. This wouldn't be a question if the Bengals had chosen to take Florida International's Johnathan Cyprien or Florida's Matt Elam in the first round. The Bengals have never made strong safety a priority in the draft or free agency the past couple of years. That's why it wasn't much of a surprise to see Cincinnati pass on safety in the first round in favor of tight end Tyler Eifert, who was clearly the higher-rated player on the team's draft board. The Bengals had Kerry Rhodes in for a free-agent visit earlier this month, but coach Marvin Lewis indicated there are no plans to sign a free-agent safety. Plus, as the Bengals have shown in the past, you can always bring back Chris Crocker.

CLEVELAND BROWNS

What's going on with the defensive backfield?

There are question marks for half of the starting spots in the secondary, and the Browns obviously weren't going to be able to address them by making two picks in the first five rounds of the draft. It's crazy to think the Browns have over $30 million in salary-cap space and they don't know with any certainty who is starting at cornerback and free safety. At cornerback, the top candidates are rookie third-rond pick Leon McFadden, penalty-prone Buster Skrine, Trevin Wade and Chris Owens. The prospects are slightly better at free safety, where the Browns will decide between Eric Hagg and Tashaun Gipson. In other words, it's a major step down after cornerback Joe Haden and safety T.J. Ward. The Browns had better hope their much-improved pass rush won't allow quarterbacks to look downfield.

BALTIMORE RAVENS

Who is starting at left tackle and wide receiver?

No one really believed the Ravens were going to find the answer at left tackle when drafting at the bottom of each round. There was hope, however, the Ravens would bring in someone to complement Torrey Smith. But Baltimore didn't draft a wide receiver until the seventh round. The Ravens' decision now is whether to start Jacoby Jones (which would likely reduce his role as a returner) or go with an unproven young receiver like Tandon Doss. Another option is to go with more two tight-end sets and use Dennis Pitta in more of a wideout role by splitting him out. At left tackle, the Ravens have Kelechi Osemele penciled in that spot for right now. Baltimore can always bring back Bryant McKinnie, but he may only be re-signed if Osemele shows he can't play left tackle in minicamps. This is what the Ravens' lineup could look like heading into spring workouts: Osemele at left tackle, Jah Reid at left guard, Gino Gradkowski at center, Marshal Yanda at right guard and Michael Oher at right tackle.

PITTSBURGH STEELERS

What happens if tight end Heath Miller isn't ready for the start of the season?

The Steelers have been vague on Miller's recovery from knee surgery and have yet to comment on whether he'll miss a significant amount of time in the regular season. By Pittsburgh not taking a tight end in this draft -- and passing over Notre Dame's Eifert in the first round -- you could see that as a message that the Steelers believe Miller won't miss a chunk of time at the start of 2013. But, by not adding a tight end, the Steelers have put themselves in a predicament if Miller is sidelined for an extended period. This is the depth at tight end: Matt Spaeth and David Paulson. Spaeth has averaged eight catches per season, and Paulson had seven catches last season as a rookie. That's not exactly going to replace Miller's eight touchdowns from last season.

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