AFC North: Dick LeBeau

PITTSBURGH -- James Harrison did not have to introduce himself to the reporters hovering over him as he sat in front of his locker earlier this week.

But the veteran outside linebacker felt the need to do so anyway following a question about whether there are enough snaps to go around at a position that has legitimate depth for the first time this season.

“My name is James Harrison. I’m a player,” he said. “You’ve got to ask the coaches about that.”

The Pittsburgh Steelers will have a four-man rotation at outside linebacker on Sunday against the visiting Kansas City Chiefs if the coaches choose to go that route.

Harrison, who is expected to return to action after missing the past two games because of a knee injury, Jarvis Jones and Arthur Moats have all started at least one game at right outside linebacker.

Jones, who opened the season as the starter, may be in line to play the most snaps there as he continues to get his football legs back after missing nine games because of a dislocated wrist. Moats, who has started 10 games at right outside linebacker, may actually be the odd man out there with Harrison returning.

The Steelers could use Moats at left outside linebacker to spell Jason Worilds, who played every snap in a 27-20 win at Atlanta last Sunday.

“They’ll all play,” Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said. “You can never have too many good players. Early part of the year we were looking around to see if we four [outside linebackers to play].”

The injury that Jones sustained in a Sept. 21 win at Carolina left the Steelers perilously thin at outside linebacker and compelled them to coax Harrison out of retirement.

Jones and Harrison will play together for the first time on Sunday, and the former is hoping to make more of an impact after registering just one quarterback sack in the Steelers’ past two games.

“I really haven’t done much,” said Jones, who has been playing in the nickel package while working his way back into football shape. “Being in football pads is totally different than just running on the field and changing direction. I’m excited to see how it’s going to look when James comes back with the four-man rotation.”
Pittsburgh Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said he expects rookie linebacker Ryan Shazier to play more Sunday when the Kansas City Chiefs visit Heinz Field.

Shazier has played primarily on special teams the last two weeks after missing the previous three games with a high-ankle sprain.

Shazier, a first-round draft pick, has missed seven games because of knee and ankle injuries. The Steelers are making Shazier earn his spot back, and Vince Williams and Sean Spence have been playing ahead of him alongside Lawrence Timmons.

Shazier played just four defensive snaps in the Steelers’ 27-20 win at Atlanta last Sunday. The 6-1, 234-pounder could play a bigger role this week since the tight ends are a big part of Kansas City’s passing game.

“We’d like for him to get a few more snaps,” LeBeau said. “I think he’s about 100 percent now and that’s good to see. He’s a tremendous athlete, can really run, and we really like him.”

A couple of notes:
  • If Todd Haley has an opinion about which one of the Steelers’ Big Three has been the team’s most valuable player, the offensive coordinator isn’t saying. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and running back Le'Veon Bell are second in the NFL in passing yards and rushing yards, respectively. Wide receiver Antonio Brown leads the NFL in catches and receiving yards. “I am not really paying attention to any of that,” Haley said in regard to team MVP discussion. “These guys are performing at a high level though. But they need to continue to do that because we have the biggest game of the year this week. We probably have to play our best game.”
  • Cornerback William Gay has returned all three of his interceptions this season for touchdowns to thrust himself into consideration for the Pro Bowl. LeBeau, who had 62 interceptions during a Hall of Fame playing career, said, “Will has always been a really intelligent player and if he gets close to the ball he’s going to get his share of interceptions. I think we’re just seeing Will doing what Will Gay does.”
  • Roethlisberger has been voted NFL FedEx Air Player of the Week for the second week in a row. Roethlisberger won the award after throwing for 360 yards and completing just over 77 percent of his passes in the Steelers’ win over the Falcons.
PITTSBURGH -- Pittsburgh Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said Thursday that linebacker Lawrence Timmons is deserving of a trip to the Pro Bowl.

Offensive coordinator Todd Haley essentially said the same thing about right guard David DeCastro.

DeCastro has emerged as one of the better guards in the NFL, and the 2012 first-round draft pick was a big reason why Le'Veon Bell gashed the Cincinnati Bengals for 185 rushing yards and two touchdowns in a 42-21 win last Sunday.

Bell ran behind a pulling DeCastro early and often, and Haley said DeCastro would have been the first one he singled out for praise after the Steelers’ eighth win of the season.

"The Bengals’ guys were tired of seeing him coming around by the end of the game," Haley said.

DeCastro might face a numbers crunch as far as making the Pro Bowl.

Bell and wide receiver Antonio Brown are locks to make the team. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and center Maurkice Pouncey are strong candidates to earn Pro Bowl nods.

Will the Steelers place more than four offensive players on the team?

Timmons faces a different problem.

The Steelers’ defense has struggled this season and might not send any players to the Pro Bowl.

Timmons, however, has been a stabilizing force on a unit that has been scrambled by injuries.

The eighth-year veteran started his 66th-consecutive regular-season game last Sunday and leads the Steelers with 104 tackles.

Timmons has recorded at least 10 tackles in six games this season.

"I’ve said the last several years that he plays at a Pro Bowl-level, and I feel that he’s doing that again," LeBeau said. "He’s a very, very good player. He does a lot of things for us. I think he can go and play with any group of athletes and hold his own, whether it’s across the ocean over there in Hawaii or this Sunday where we’re going to need him."
CINCINNATI -- The Pittsburgh Steelers activated outside linebacker Jarvis Jones from the injured return/designated to return list Saturday, and his return couldn't come at a better time.

 James Harrison is expected to miss the Steelers’ 1 p..m. game ET Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals because of a knee injury, meaning Jones and Arthur Moats will split duties at right outside linebacker.

Moats had started at the position after Jones dislocated his right wrist in September before giving way to Harrison, who played all but three of the Steelers’ defensive snaps last Sunday in a 35-32 loss to the New Orleans Saints.

Jones, the Steelers’ first round draft pick in 2013, recorded two sacks before going down in the Steelers’ 37-19 win at Carolina.

Both defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau and linebackers coach Keith Butler said Jones was starting to come into his own before getting hurt.

“He improved steadily last year. You can go from the middle of the [2013] season on, and he was playing really good football,” LeBeau said last Thursday. “He was playing pretty good football [this year]. He got hurt early [in the season]. He was looking good in camp. He’s probably going to be a little rusty, but he’s a developing, good football player.”

The Steelers placed cornerback Cortez Allen on injured reserve to make room for Jones on the 53-man roster.

Allen had surgery to repair a broken thumb last month, but the fourth-year veteran practiced every day last week and had been listed as probable for the Bengals game on the Steelers final injury report of the week.
PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Steelers will continue to put a patchwork defense on the field Sunday when they visit the Cincinnati Bengals.

Starting outside linebacker James Harrison is doubtful for the 1 p.m. ET game after hurting his knee last Sunday. With Harrison expected to miss his first game since re-signing with the Steelers in September, the Steelers will likely go with a rotation of Arthur Moats and Jarvis Jones at right outside linebacker.

Jones is still on the injured reserve/designated to return list, but the Steelers are expected to activate the second-year man from that list, something that would probably happen Saturday.

Jones has been out since dislocating his right wrist in a Sept. 21 win at Carolina, but defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said Thursday there is a "good chance" that Jones plays against the Bengals.

The Steelers will be without a starter on the other side of the ball as right tackle Marcus Gilbert has been ruled out for Sunday because of an ankle injury. Gilbert, who said he is also dealing with a knee injury, will miss his second consecutive game and third one this season.

Mike Adams will start in his place at right tackle.

All of the other players on the Steelers’ final injury report of the week are listed as probable for the first of two games they will play against the AFC North-leading Bengals this month. That includes linebacker Ryan Shazier (ankle), nose tackle Steve McLendon (shoulder), and cornerback Cortez Allen (thumb).

The Bengals will be without Vontaze Burfict, their top linebacker, as he has been ruled out for Sunday because of a knee injury.
PITTSBURGH –Stephon Tuitt's wait is almost over.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m not expecting him to play like a young guy,” Heyward said. “We’ve talked about it a little bit and this is a moment where you can excel and take a hold of it or regress. I look for him to play sound and know he's not going to understand [the defense] all right now, but don’t be overwhelmed by it.”

When: 1 p.m. ET Sunday. Where: Paul Brown Stadium, Cincinnati. TV: CBS

December football is here.

In the regularly contentious AFC North, close games turn competitive and there's an added concern that weather could play a role in dictating schemes and the outcome. Forget the "12th Man," in this part of the country Old Man Winter is the extra element that can either be a benefit or a detriment in these always physical late-year contests.

Ahead of the first of two end-of-season meetings between these longtime foes, we turn to ESPN Pittsburgh Steelers reporter Scott Brown and ESPN Cincinnati Bengals reporter Coley Harvey to preview Sunday's matchup:

Harvey: We'll let you answer the first one, Scott. With December's unpredictable weather now here, the big question is should teams run more or pass more? Running back Le'Veon Bell has been an answer for Pittsburgh much of the season, but I seem to remember something about Ben Roethlisberger throwing 12 touchdowns in two games. How heavy might the Steelers lean on his arm the rest of the season, especially if conditions are poor?

Brown: I expect the offense to run through Bell here in December and not just because the weather will add varying degrees of difficulty to throwing the ball extensively. Bell has been an absolute stud and he is the only player in the NFL with at least 1,000 rushing yards and 600 receiving yards. Bell is so valuable to the Steelers that they cannot take him off the field, leading to questions of whether they are going to wear him out. They will deal with that problem after the season since there is no proven depth behind Bell at running back, and since the Steelers need to win three of their last four games to give themselves a realistic shot of making the playoffs. Roethlisberger has been mired in a bit of a slump, but he is too good of a quarterback not to play well down the stretch. The Steelers would love to strike a balance between running and throwing that will keep defenses on their heels, and that is probably the formula to them finishing strong and returning to the playoffs for the first time since 2011.

Speaking of the playoffs, Coley, the Bengals are in excellent position to reach the postseason for a fourth consecutive year, but there are still questions about how far Andy Dalton can take them. What's your assessment of where he is at this point of his career and whether he is the guy to lead them deep into the playoffs?

Harvey: While the Bengals won't admit it, Scott -- their extension of his contract earlier this summer is a sign of that -- there is uncertainty about whether he's the guy upon whose shoulders you can ride a deep postseason run. He keeps showing signs of inconsistency. One week, he's the best quarterback this side of the Ohio River, and the next, he looks like the worst to have played the game. Cincinnati's 10-4 December record since Dalton became the starter in 2011 is a testament to him knowing how to win with a lot of pressure on the line. But he still hasn't shown he can consistently handle the big, prime-time stage. He can take a big step toward proving that in three weeks when the Bengals play the Broncos on a Monday night. As for where Dalton is in his career, I'd say he's taken significant leaps this season, both as a player, and a leader. While he didn't play his best Sunday at Tampa Bay, the fact he gutted out a winning performance while feeling sick earned a lot of respect in the locker room.

Brett Keisel's loss earlier this week was a big blow to a defense that rallied around the vet. In what ways will his absence affect Pittsburgh, namely with the Bengals still tinkering with the right tackle position following Andre Smith's own season-ending injury? Keisel certainly would have exploited a Bengals' weakness there.

Brown: It's a shame what happened to Keisel, not only because of how well he had been playing but also how much he has meant to the Steelers for so long. Keisel embodies their blue-collar ethos and he is the consummate professional in everything he does, including dealing with the media. He is a huge loss, especially on a defensive line that may be without starting nose tackle Steve McLendon for another week as he works to regain strength in the shoulder that has been a recurring problem for the fourth-year veteran. With Keisel out, it is time for rookie defensive end Stephon Tuitt to assert himself. The second-round draft pick already has an NFL body and is immensely talented. Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau raved about him during training camp and has continued to say Tuitt is going to be a big-time player in this league. Keisel had blocked Tuitt from playing time but now that he's out, the former Notre Dame standout has to emerge in the last quarter of the season.

Coley, like Bell, Jeremy Hill is another young back who has emerged this season. Has he overtaken Giovani Bernard as the Bengals' top back, and what are their respective roles?

Harvey: That appears to be the case looking strictly at numbers from last week's game -- Hill had 17 touches and Bernard only had 11. Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson contends he's still easing Bernard back into the flow of things after a series of injuries kept him out for three games earlier this season. This will be Bernard's third game since his return. As far as their roles, the Bengals use both in similar ways. Both can run between the tackles. Both can hit the edge and go. Bernard has the edge in receiving, although he hasn't been used in that regard much lately. I think you'll see the backs alternate drives through the first three quarters, but by the fourth, Hill will reprise his role grinding out late yards as "the closer," especially if the Bengals are leading.

Scott, how prepared is LeBeau's defense for the possibility of misdirection and gadget plays? The Bengals used three consecutive such plays to get their offense on track last Sunday, and it worked. Many here thought that by running them, the Bengals may also have been trying to get LeBeau to think about a few extra things this week.

Brown: Unfortunately for LeBeau, he has enough to worry about following a 35-32 loss to the New Orleans Saints. The run defense sprung major leaks in that game, and the Steelers did not build on a strong start as far as pressuring Saints quarterback Drew Brees, who torched them for five passing touchdowns. Dalton is not Brees, but if the Steelers cannot stop the run their defense just doesn't work, and the Bengals will burn a suspect secondary with play-action passes. The Steelers certainly have to be on guard for gadget plays, especially since the Bengals have a very capable thrower in receiver Mohamed Sanu. But, again, if the Steelers cannot stop the run, they have no chance of winning unless they outscore the Bengals.

Steelers fans were screaming for Pittsburgh to use its first-round draft pick on a cornerback. They bypassed Darqueze Dennard and he ended up in Cincinnati. How has he looked, and a bigger picture question, what is the biggest reason for why the Bengals have allowed an NFL-low 11 touchdown passes?

Harvey: Steelers fans wanted a corner and Bengals fans wanted linebacker Ryan Shazier. Looks like the two players are in the wrong cities! Dennard has looked great in the time he's been on the field -- which has been seldom. He's only played 46 defensive snaps all season, and he missed two games due to various injuries. In his brief defensive action, he has six tackles, one sack and a deflected pass. Special teams is where he's been a star. One of the Bengals' featured gunners, he has regularly gotten downfield to help keep Cincinnati's net punting yards in check. You won't see much Dennard this season because the Bengals have four other former first-round pick cornerbacks who were already here. As for why Cincinnati's kept its passing touchdowns low? The Bengals' defense, namely safety George Iloka, has done a great job clinging to its philosophy of not letting passes get over their heads. Solid pressure up front has helped, too.

CINCINNATI -- Ahead of his first game at Paul Brown Stadium since his one-year stay with the Cincinnati Bengals ended in March, Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison was reflective Wednesday when asked about his brief stint in stripes.

He called the 11 months he spent in the Queen City "good."

"It was a new learning experience, meeting new people and making new friends," Harrison said on a conference call with Bengals media. "It was a good experience."

On the field, he didn't appear to have gained much from his time as a Bengal.

It was his worst season statistically since 2004, and a year in which he had his lowest participation numbers since ESPN Stats & Information started tracking snaps in 2008. He wasn't necessarily bad in Cincinnati, he just had a tough time finding his role and carving out a niche in the Bengals' 4-3 defensive scheme. Before last year, the majority of his career had been spent in Pittsburgh's 3-4 scheme that's been managed since 2004 by defensive coordinator and former Bengals head coach Dick LeBeau.

As part of LeBeau's scheme, Harrison flew around his quadrant of the field making plays seemingly at will. He was an enforcer both in coverage and against the run, and an adept pass-rusher in blitzing situations. In 2008, he had 16 sacks.

But in Cincinnati, as a "Sam" linebacker in a defense that spent much of last season in nickel, he wasn't as productive. Harrison's pass-rush opportunities were nonexistent, and he was primarily asked to pitch in and stop the run. As a result, he had trouble getting into the flow of the defense and didn't contribute quite the way he and the Bengals had hoped.

After the season was over, he was released, and retirement seemed a certainty. That is, until a group of Steelers started putting the seed in his ear: we want you back.

Veterans Brett Keisel, Ike Taylor and Troy Polamalu were among those who started pleading for Harrison not to give up on playing just yet.

"I didn't want to feel like I was letting them down," Harrison said.

So, on Sept. 23, he came back. In the nine games he has played since, he already has passed some of the stats he achieved while in Cincinnati and is on pace to finish the season having blown past others. He has 34 tackles this season (four more than last year) and four sacks (two more than last year).

Harrison said he had been content to stay out of the NFL because it allowed him to be close to his children, who stayed in Pittsburgh last year. When his teammates started yammering in his ears, though, it was time to consult his proudest fans to see if it were OK to play again.

"If they had said no then it would have been no," he said. "I asked them and they said no at first, and then they realized that I would be home and that they would get to see me every day."

So it ended up being a "yes."

"Basically I had a 4- and 5-year-old making the decision," Harrison said.

Harrison said he isn't sure what insight he'll be able to provide the Steelers about the Bengals. After all, Cincinnati has two new coordinators in Hue Jackson and Paul Guenther, even if they were both on staff in other roles when he played there.

The Film Don't Lie: Steelers

November, 18, 2014
Nov 18
A weekly look at what the Pittsburgh Steelers must fix:

Tennessee Titans quarterback Zach Mettenberger looked like anything but a rookie in throwing for 263 yards and two touchdowns without taking a sack in a 27-24 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers on Monday night.

Imagine what a seasoned quarterback like the New Orleans Saints' Drew Brees might do to the Steelers on Nov. 30 at Heinz Field following Pittsburgh’s bye week.

The Steelers did not consistently pressure Mettenberger, who was making his third start, even though they blitzed him often. He stepped up in the pocket with confidence and moved well in it even when the Steelers generated pressure from their outside linebackers.

The Steelers were credited with just five quarterback hurries against the Titans, and it’s not like they didn’t try to pressure Mettenberger. They sent five or more pass-rushers on 62.5 percent of Mettenberger’s dropbacks, according to ESPN Stats & Information, their highest rate since a Dec. 19, 2011, loss at San Francisco.

The Steelers have to find a way to generate the kind of pass rush that consistently harassed the Indianapolis Colts' Andrew Luck and Baltimore Ravens' Joe Flacco in earlier wins.

The bye week provides extra time to heal for injured starters such as strong safety Troy Polamalu, linebacker Ryan Shazier and nose tackle Steve McLendon.

Getting Polamalu and Shazier back against the Saints would add speed and give Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau more flexibility as he tries to find a way to pressure Brees, who has been sacked just 13 times in 10 games.

The Steelers have to make Brees uncomfortable in the pocket by hitting him early and often.

If the perennial Pro Bowler gets as much time to throw as Mettenberger did Monday night, the Steelers may well have to win a shootout against a Saints team that is currently 4-6 but sure to play with a sense of urgency when it visits Pittsburgh.
PITTSBURGH -- Comparisons have been made between Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and Tennessee Titans rookie signal-caller Zach Mettenberger because of their size and arm strength.

Titans wide receiver Nate Washington offered another parallel last week.

Washington, who played for the Steelers early in Roethlisberger’s career, said Titans coach Ken Whisenhunt is just as hands on with Mettenberger as he was with Big Ben.

Whisenhunt was the Steelers’ offensive from 2004-06, Roethlisberger’s first three years in the NFL.

“He still holds Zach accountable just as he did Ben,” Washington said of the Titans’ first-year coach. “He teaches him relentlessly and harps on him about making sure he is technically sound with his drops, he makes sure he keeps the ball up and makes sure he is throwing the ball properly with his form. I constantly see him preaching to him about that as I did when Ben was growing up in this league.”

The Steelers should provide a measuring stick of how much Mettenberger has grown since taking over for the injured Jake Locker late last month.

The Steelers have been tough on rookie quarterbacks since Dick LeBeau returned as the team’s defensive coordinator in 2004, going 17-2 against them during that span.

And to put into perspective how inexperienced Mettenberger is, consider that his 495 career passing yards are 27 less than what Roethlisberger produced in a 51-34 win over the Indianapolis Colts last month.

The day Roethlisberger made a run at the NFL’s single-game passing record was the day Mettenberger made his first career start.

The fourth-round draft pick out of LSU has shown promise despite his inexperience and here is what the Steelers are saying about the 6-foot-5, 224-pound Mettenberger:

Free safety Mike Mitchell: “He has a really strong arm and seems to be very professional (as) a young guy by the way he controls the line of scrimmage type stuff. He doesn’t seem like he’s young and doesn’t know what he’s doing. He’s not going to be as mobile as (Michael) Vick obviously so that will help us out. I feel like it’s always a little bit easier when you have to defend a pocket passer.”

Coach Mike Tomlin: “He has a ridiculously strong arm. He is your classic pocket passer. He is a talented young man. I really got a chance to get to know him at LSU while he was in school because I annually go to their pro days.”

Defensive end Brett Keisel: “He’s got a strong arm and they’re kind of simplifying things for him. The potential’s there and Whisenhunt has had success with young quarterbacks. We have one in here that he did well with and they have a good feel for us and our schemes so it’s going to be a challenge.”

Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau: “He’s got a real strong arm. He’s big so he’s got real nice vision of the field. I haven’t seen a ball that he can’t get there. Watching him in college he was definitely a winner there (at LSU). (He) had a lot of big, deep throws. He throws a wonderful deep ball.”
PITTSBURGH -- Comparisons have been floated this week between Tennessee Titans quarterback Zach Mettenberger and Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who will duel Monday night in Nashville.

They are premature -- if not patently absurd -- since Mettenberger has as many NFL starts (two) as Roethlisberger has Super Bowl victories.

But Nate Washington, who has played with both quarterbacks early in their respective careers, said he can see some parallels, starting with arm strength.

"(Mettenberger) can make those tight throws like Ben can," said Washington, who has been with the Titans since 2009 after playing parts of four seasons with the Steelers. "You see those types of plays develop in order to give them a chance. He is one of the guys when plays break down, he seems to find a way to make a play with his arm. Those are a lot of things that kind of remind me of Ben, seeing those types of things and that type of play from him."

Mettenberger will have to buck history in order to beat Big Ben in the nationally televised game on ESPN.

Rookie quarterbacks have won just two of 17 games against the Steelers since 2004, according to ESPN Stats & Information, the year Dick LeBeau returned to Pittsburgh for a second stint as the defensive coordinator.

Of course, if anyone can prepare Mettenberger for a LeBeau-coached defense, it is Titans head coach Ken Whisenhunt.

He and LeBeau matched wits for three years in training camp and practices when Whisenhunt was the Steelers’ offensive coordinator.

They were also golfing buddies off the field -- both are excellent players -- and Whisenhunt said LeBeau’s influence helped him when he became a head coach in 2007.

Whisenhunt, who was the Steelers’ offensive coordinator in Roethlisberger’s first three NFL seasons, has tried to downplay comparisons between Roethlisberger and Mettenberger. But Whisenhunt admitted that, like Roethlisberger, Mettenberger did not take long to open his eyes.

"I know one of the things that impressed me very early with Ben, and I remember talking with Coach (Dick) LeBeau about it on the field, was some of the throws he made in practice," said Whisenhunt, who is in his first season with the Titans. "I would say that it is fair to say that some of the throws that Zach has made in practice were the kind of things that got your attention."
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PITTSBURGH -- Frustrated Pittsburgh Steelers fans were fitting offensive coordinator Todd Haley for a dunce cap and planning for defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau’s imminent retirement after an embarrassing 31-10 loss at Cleveland on Oct. 12 dropped them to 3-3 and into last place in the AFC North. Boos rained down on the Steelers the following week at Heinz Field after they fell behind the Houston Texans 13-0.

A flurry of touchdowns at the end of the first half vaulted the Steelers into the lead against the mistake-prone Texans, and they haven't looked back since. The Steelers have won their past three games by an average of 14.7 points and they are only .021 behind the first-place Cincinnati Bengals in the AFC North.

MVP: Wide receiver Antonio Brown. For those wondering what the two-time Pro Bowler could do for an encore after setting a Steelers record with 1,499 yards in 2013, Brown has been even better this season. The fifth-year veteran is on pace to catch 126 passes for 1,771 yards and 14 touchdowns. Coach Mike Tomlin compared Brown’s impact on games to that of Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt, and consistent double-teams have done anything but slow down Brown. He gets the nod over quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who has thrown an NFL-record 12 touchdown passes in his past two games.

Biggest disappointment: Cornerback Cortez Allen. The player whom the Steelers signed to a five-year, $25 million contract in early September has been demoted twice this season. Allen leads the Steelers with two interceptions, but he played only one snap in a 43-23 win over Baltimore Ravens on Sunday night after losing his job at nickel back to Antwon Blake. It is way too early for the Steelers to give up on Allen, who turned 27 last week. But they have to hope he weathers this tough stretch because the Steelers are lacking in developmental cornerbacks right now.

Best moment: Trailing the Texans 13-3 in a Monday Night Football game, the Steelers exploded for 21 points late in the second quarter. The defense, offense and special teams all fed off another as a Steelers team that had managed three touchdowns in the previous two games scored three in a span of 1 minute, 36 seconds. A season obituary was ready to be written after the Texans controlled most of the first half at Heinz Field. But the Steelers scored 24 unanswered points, propelling them to a 30-23 win that saved their season.

Worst moment: The Cleveland Browns, already missing several key players on defense, lost Pro Bowl center Alex Mack to a season-ending knee injury during their Oct. 12 game against the Steelers. That still didn’t stop them from drilling their archrivals at the Dawg Pound. It got worse for the Steelers after their 31-10 loss when Browns left tackle Joe Thomas said, “We had so many injuries across the board it’s hard to believe we could have beaten a college team.” Ouch. The loss was only the Steelers' third to the Browns in their past 23 meetings and marked the low point of the season.

Key to the second half: The Steelers will go as far as their offense takes them. It has finally played up to its potential during a three-game winning streak in which the Steelers have averaged 41.3 points. The defense has shown marked improvement while the Steelers have gone from 3-3 to 6-3, and Pittsburgh is starting to get after opposing quarterbacks. The Steelers can score with any team if the offense continues to play at a high level. The emergence of rookie wide receiver Martavis Bryant only adds to the riches that the Steelers have at the skill positions.
PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Steelers are No. 16 in the NFL in total defense (357.9 yards allowed per game) and No. 21 in scoring defense (24.5 points allowed per game).

And the reality is the Steelers have been a middling defense for the last couple of seasons after playing it at an absurdly high level for the better part of a decade

There are numerous reasons why the unit has fallen off. One James Harrison won't entertain is that age has caught up with defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, who turned 77 in early September.

[+] EnlargePittsburgh's James Harrison
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesJames Harrison was credited with a second sack of Andrew Luck on Wednesday.
"It's nothing about Dick LeBeau is getting too old," the veteran outside linebacker said. "You've got a bunch of idiots that don't know what they're talking about when they say that so I do take it a little personal."

Harrison is doing his part to defend LeBeau's reputation as well as restore the intimidation factor to a defense that has too often lacked it recently.

Harrison recorded his 15th multi-sack game while with the Steelers in a 51-34 win over the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday, though it didn't become official until Wednesday -- three days after Pittsburgh's victory.

Harrison had been credited with a sack of Colts quarterback Andrew Luck and Elias Sports gave the 36-year-old Harrison a second sack on Wednesday, taking one that had been credited to strong safety Troy Polamalu.

"That's messed up," Polamalu said.

Then he laughed and conceded that Elias had been correct in crediting Harrison with both of the sacks that the Steelers managed against the Colts.

It seemed like old times in the Steelers' locker room on Wednesday with Polamalu and Harrison joking around. Moments like the one the two longtime teammates shared after practice almost didn't happen.

Harrison was content to walk away from the game when he officially retired in early September. When Jarvis Jones went down with a dislocated wrist a couple of weeks later and the Steelers needed immediate help at outside linebacker, Polamalu was among those who helped coax Harrison out of retirement.

Harrison said he would not have returned for any other team -- and that he would not have done so had his two sons been against it.

Even more than a month after coming out of retirement, Harrison still seems a little conflicted about having to put on hold his promise to spend more time with his sons.

"The big thing is not having that time with my kids like now. If I'm lucky I may get a few hours a week," Harrison said. "Being back right now it's still kind of hard because you're missing that time with them, you're missing those moments that you can't get back."

What Harrison has been getting back is his legs after not doing any football-related drills for more than nine months and it is showing.

Harrison, who is sharing snaps with Arthur Moats at right outside linebacker, helped the Steelers put consistent pressure on Luck last Sunday. That and the number of times that the Steelers hit Luck could bode well for the defense in the second half of the season.

"I like the direction we're going in," Harrison said. "We still have a lot of things we need to get better at."
PITTSBURGH – Pittsburgh Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau gave cornerback Cortez Allen a vote of confidence, but he also acknowledged it might do the fourth-year veteran some good to step back while he is struggling.

Allen is expected to lose snaps to Brice McCain and probably his starting job when the Steelers play the Houston Texans Monday night at Heinz Field. The two will likely flip positions, with McCain starting at left cornerback and Allen playing nickelback when the Steelers go with five defensive backs.

The Steelers might not play a lot of nickel with shutting down Texans running back Arian Foster, the NFL’s third-leading rusher, their biggest challenge in the nationally televised game.

Coach Mike Tomlin said earlier this week that there would be some lineup changes following a 31-10 loss at Cleveland. He also said McCain is a candidate to play more because of the “inconsistency” of other players.

It didn’t take any master code-breaking to figure out that Allen is in line for a demotion, even if it is only a temporary one. Allen leads the Steelers with two interceptions but consistency has eluded him.

The 6-foot-1, 196-pounder had a tough outing against the Browns, giving up a 51-yard touchdown catch to tight end Jordan Cameron, one of the key plays in the game.

“He’s still basically a young player and he’s at a difficult position and sometimes there are ups and downs there,” LeBeau said of Allen. “I have great confidence that he’ll find himself through it and be a very strong player.”

He better.

The Steelers signed Allen to a five-year, $26 million contract right before the start of the regular season, and they need to build around the former fourth-round draft pick at cornerback.

When asked if sometimes it helps struggling plays to take a step back and watch for a week, LeBeau said, “I’m thinking that it does. We’ll see.”