AFC North: Dick LeBeau

PITTSBURGH -- Pittsburgh Steelers president Art Rooney II reiterated what new defensive coordinator Keith Butler told the team’s website last week: the defense won’t fundamentally change even though the Steelers and Dick LeBeau have parted ways.

The Steelers will continue with the 3-4 as their base defense and the emphasis will remain on stopping the run and getting after the quarterback.

“I am not sure I see anything dramatic other than to acknowledge that the game is changing,” Rooney said in regard to Butler succeeding LeBeau. “Keeping up with offenses these days is a real challenge. But I think Keith is very knowledgeable and has been around a long time. He has seen a lot of defensive football in his days. We are excited to have him as our defensive coordinator.”

Butler will run the Steelers’ defense after coaching the team’s linebackers since 2003. His challenge isn’t just following LeBeau, one of the great defensive minds in NFL history.

It is also getting more big plays out of a defense that managed just 33 sacks in 2014 and had 21 takeaways.

Only six NFL teams had fewer sacks than the Steelers in 2014.

“We need to be able to pressure the quarterback more consistently,” Rooney said. “Some of the games that we were successful in this season, I think we were able to do that. I think that’s the key to stopping these high-powered offenses. You have to be able to pressure the quarterback. We need to create some more turnovers [too], those kinds of things.”

The Steelers have to get more out of their outside linebackers next season and that position is fraught with uncertainty.

Jarvis Jones, the Steelers’ first-round pick in 2013, is the only outside linebacker on the roster with NFL experience who is signed beyond 2014. And he has just three career sacks though Jones essentially lost this season after dislocating his right wrist in the third game.

Jason Worilds, who has 15.5 sacks in the past two seasons, will be an unrestricted free agent if the Steelers don’t sign or tag the fifth-year veteran before March 10.

The Steelers paid Worilds $9.754 million in 2014 after using the transition tag on the 2010 second-round pick. They have the option of tagging him again though the Steelers would like to sign Worilds to a multi-year contract that would be more cap friendly than the deal he had in 2014.

“We would like to keep Jason,” Rooney said. “He had a good year. Like anything else, if the two sides can come to an agreement on a contract we would like to keep him.”
PITTSBURGH -- The stability and continuity of the Pittsburgh Steelers compelled Keith Butler to patiently wait his turn and not pursue defensive coordinator jobs outside of the organization.

Little surprise then that Butler isn’t planning on implementing sweeping changes now that he has succeeded longtime Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau.

Butler, in an interview with’s Bob Labriola, said his philosophy will be to stop the run and get after opposing quarterbacks.

Sound familiar?

“We have to make offenses one-dimensional if we can, and we have to put pressure on the quarterback,” Butler told the team’s website on Tuesday, not long after the Steelers announced his promotion from linebackers coach. “If we can do those things, then we can help the offense. We have to get the ball back for the offense -- that’s our main goal.”

Only six teams had less than the 11 interceptions that the Steelers managed in 2014. The Steelers, meanwhile, tied for 15th in the NFL with 10 fumble recoveries.

One way for the Steelers to create more turnovers is to get more players around the football.

“There’s nothing that pleases me more than to see the guys surrounding the ball, and gang tackling,” Butler said, “and playing what I call team defense, and relying on each other to be where they’re supposed to be when they’re supposed to be there.”

Butler said the Steelers will be multiple on defense and play both the 3-4 and 4-3. That is something they have done for years, essentially going to a 4-3 when they employ their nickel package in passing situations.

Butler promised an attacking defense though not necessarily a change in scheme and certainly not one in general philosophy.

“Everybody says the best pass defense is pressure on the quarterback, and that’s probably true,” said Butler, who was the Steelers' linebackers coach from 2003-14. “If the quarterback can’t get the ball off, your pass defense is going to be pretty good. You want to put pressure on the quarterback, but you still have to have those athletes along the back end who can cover.”

  • The Steelers signed safety Isaiah Lewis on Tuesday. Lewis signed with the Cincinnati Bengals last May after going undrafted. The Bengals waived the 5-foot-10, 211-pound Lewis in August. Lewis developed a reputation as a big hitter at Michigan State and he earned an invitation to the NFL scouting combine last year.

PITTSBURGH -- What had been inevitable when the Pittsburgh Steelers and Dick LeBeau parted ways became official Tuesday when the organization promoted longtime linebackers coach Keith Butler to defensive coordinator.

Good for Butler, who has patiently waited for his chance to run a defense.

And probably good for the Steelers, who get continuity with Butler as well as someone who brings his own ideas on how to run Pittsburgh's 3-4 defense.

The challenge facing Butler, who turned down a handful of opportunities to interview for other defensive coordinator jobs in past years, is considerable.

The iconic LeBeau casts a long shadow at Steelers headquarters. And he did some of his finest work in 2014 when he cobbled together a defense beset by injuries and not exactly overflowing with talent before some key players got hurt.

[+] EnlargeKeith Butler and Ryan Shazier
AP Photo/Keith SrakocicKeith Butler will likely lean on Ryan Shazier and other linebackers in his first season as the Steelers' defensive coordinator.
The Steelers finished 18th in both scoring (23.0 points per game allowed) and total defense (353.4 yards per game allowed), but the defense improved as the season progressed.

Butler has to build on that and will need help from young players such as linebackers Jarvis Jones and Ryan Shazier.

The Steelers' first-round draft picks in 2013 and 2014, respectively, have to succeed for Pittsburgh's defense to take a significant step forward next season.

The Steelers still don't know what they have in Jones, who has three career sacks and essentially lost the 2014 season when he dislocated his wrist in Pittsburgh's third game.

He has to emerge as a pass-rushing force since putting more pressure on the quarterback will be Butler's top priority -- and since Jones is the only outside linebacker on the 53-man roster who is signed for next season.

The speedy Shazier had his own injury issues this season -- the Ohio State product missed seven games with knee and ankle injuries -- but he has to become a playmaker in the middle of a defense that is in need of them.

Butler, who has to coax more out of Jones and Shazier, will give the Steelers a different dynamic as far as personality.

Whereas LeBeau was beloved by players, who didn't want to fail him because it would be like letting down their father, Butler is a straight talker with a Southern drawl who won't hesitate to be blunt with his players.

He bided his time as an NFL assistant, coaching the linebackers for four seasons in Cleveland and the past 12 in Pittsburgh.

Now it is his time for Butler to manage what LeBeau left in place with the Steelers while also putting his own imprint on the defense.

PITTSBURGH -- It finally looks like the end of an era for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The Steelers appear poised for a complete overhaul of their defense, following the resignation of defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. It's an overhaul that has been ongoing since 2012.

The departure of LeBeau, who wanted to return for another season, all but assures outside linebacker James Harrison, defensive end Brett Keisel and cornerback Ike Taylor won't be back in 2015.

[+] EnlargeLeBeau
Ronald C. Modra/Getty ImagesThe departure of Dick LeBeau might signal the exit of several prominent defensive players.
It will also be a surprise if strong safety Troy Polamalu returns for a 13th NFL season. Polamalu, after Pittsburgh's loss to the Baltimore Ravens in an AFC wild-card game, said it is fair to question whether he has played his last game for the Steelers.

The departure of LeBeau might be a tipping point for Polamalu, if the eight-time Pro Bowl is still mulling his future.

That is how beloved LeBeau is by his players and how much his exit will sting for them.

The Steelers, however, were in a near-impossible position as long as LeBeau wanted to continue coaching.

The Steelers could not keep linebackers coach Keith Butler -- long believed to be LeBeau's successor as the team's defensive coordinator -- waiting forever, and at some point someone other than Dick LeBeau was going to coach Pitsburgh's defense.

If the decision not to bring LeBeau back for another season has anything to do with an organizational belief that his coaching has slipped in recent years, then shame on the Steelers.

The 77-year-old LeBeau defies birth certificates and conventional thinking about age. He inspires his players, who hated to fail him because they felt they were letting down their own fathers.

That is his legacy as much as his zone-blitz innovation and his Pro Football Hall of Fame playing career with the Detroit Lions.

LeBeau is probably as proud of the personal relationships he developed with his players as he is of what he accomplished on the field. Under LeBeau, the Steelers set the standard for NFL defenses while playing in three Super Bowls from 2005 to 2010 and winning two of them.

The Steelers, as much as they embrace the family atmosphere that has been cultivated inside and outside of team headquarters, are also known for making tough decisions. They have cut ties with iconic players going back to the early 1980s (see running back Franco Harris).

They rarely, if ever, let sentiment override business. That approach is what has made the Steelers one of the NFL's most successful franchises and the only one to win six Super Bowls.

It also led to the tough decision to move on from LeBeau, who might have deserved better and in a perfect world would have left on his own terms.
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PITTSBURGH -- Can a team exceed expectations without even matching their own?

The Pittsburgh Steelers put that riddle to the test in 2014 as they won the AFC North after consecutive 8-8 seasons, but fell well short of the Super Bowl.

The Steelers' goal is to contend for a Super Bowl title every season. That might not be in line with reality, but no other team has six Lombardi Trophies.

The Steelers looked like they might make a postseason charge after winning eight of their final 10 games to finish 11-5 and secure the No. 3 seed in the AFC playoffs. But winning their first division title since 2010 came with a heavy cost. Pittsburgh lost All-Pro running back Le'Veon Bell to a hyperextended knee in the regular-season finale.

Bell did not play in the Steelers' 30-17 loss to the Baltimore Ravens in an AFC wild-card game at Heinz Field.

Team MVP: The loss to the Ravens magnified Bell's value to the Steelers' offense. Forget for a moment the running aspect -- and the fact that Bell finished second in the NFL with 1,361 rushing yards -- and consider how his loss impacted the passing game. Bell is terrific at picking up blitzing linebackers and he led all NFL running backs in 2014 with 811 yards after the catch, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger pressed against the Ravens without Bell. The second-year running back emerged as one of the NFL's most complete players, and is the biggest reason why the Steelers' offense rose to another level this season.

Best moment: Roethlisberger threw six touchdown passes in consecutive games, leading the Steelers to big wins over the Indianapolis Colts and Ravens. The hottest stretch of Roethlisberger's career came shortly after a desultory loss in Cleveland dropped Pittsburgh to 3-3 -- and .500 in the 38 regular-season games that followed its most recent playoff appearance in 2011. Roethlisberger completed 75.6 percent of his passes for 862 yards and 12 touchdowns with no interceptions in the two games against the Colts and Ravens. That stretch helped him share the NFL passing title with Drew Brees (4,952 yards).

Worst moment: What goes up inevitably comes down, as the Steelers found out when they traveled to East Rutherford, New Jersey, in the second week of November. Pittsburgh followed a three-game winning streak with a performance against the New York Jets that was as listless as it was inexplicable. The Jets won their second game of the season by flashing the opportunism that had been noticeably absent in their trudge to a 1-9 start. The Steelers committed three turnovers in the 14-10 loss against a team that entered the game with the fewest takeaways in the NFL. The Steelers had a handful of bad losses in 2014; none was worse than the one to the Jets.

2015 outlook: The arrow, as coach Mike Tomlin is fond of saying, is pointing up for the Steelers. The offense returns every starter from this season, and young wide receivers Martavis Bryant and Markus Wheaton are only going to get better. The caveat with the Steelers, though, is two-fold. The defense remains in transition and there are major questions in the secondary as well as at outside linebacker, where only Jarvis Jones is signed beyond this season. Also, next season's schedule isn't nearly as favorable it was this year. Trips to Seattle, San Diego and Kansas City loom after the Steelers' farthest trip west in 2014 was Tennessee. Pittsburgh also has to play at New England.
PITTSBURGH -- James Harrison said he will take some time before deciding whether he wants to play a 13th NFL season.

Head coach Mike Tomlin did not commit to the Pittsburgh Steelers bringing back Harrison even if the veteran outside linebacker wants to return.

“I’m going to discuss that with James before I discuss that with you guys, and I mean that sincerely,” Tomlin said Tuesday at his season-ending news conference. “I appreciate what transpired this year, but what transpired this year is not going to have a bearing on how we move forward.”

The Steelers brought Harrison out of retirement in September, and the five-time Pro Bowler recorded 5.5 sacks in 11 regular-season games. Harrison said his body responded so well after he came back that he hasn’t ruled out playing in 2015.

Tomlin is conducting exit interviews with his players and coaches this week. He said he won’t comment on the future of any of them until he has completed all of those talks.

Tomlin isn’t expected to make major changes to his coaching staff. The biggest question is whether longtime defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, who is 77, will return.

When asked if he wants LeBeau back if LeBeau wants to return in 2015, Tomlin said, “I haven’t talked to Dick, and I’m not going to get into that for the many reasons that I’ve already outlined.”
PITTSBURGH -- Today is critical for Le'Veon Bell as it will be the last chance the second-year running back has to get some work with the offense before the Pittsburgh Steelers’ AFC wild-card playoff game.

But the Steelers' final practice of the week won’t necessarily determine whether Bell plays Saturday night against the visiting Baltimore Ravens. Offensive coordinator Todd Haley said Bell could play against the Ravens even if he does not practice this week.

Bell has yet to practice since hyperextending his right knee last Sunday night, and he has only done some light running since getting hurt in the Steelers’ 27-17 win over the Cincinnati Bengals.

The Steelers usually don’t dress players who have not practiced leading up to a game. But it’s easy to see why they would make an exception for Bell, who led the AFC with 1,361 rushing yards and was voted MVP by his teammates last week.

“I don’t know if he could go in and execute everything,” Haley said if Bell is unable to practice today, “but he could handle a bunch.”

Still, the Steelers are expecting the worst and hoping for the best when it comes to their running back situation. That is why they are preparing a committee to make up for the loss of Bell if his streak of playing in 29 consecutive games is snapped.

“It’s not just one guy coming in and doing what he does,” Haley said. “I think it’s a group effort and that includes other positions. That would be too much to put on any one guy what he’s given us.”

A couple of notes:
  • The weather is supposed to be nasty Saturday night with forecasts calling for freezing rain. When asked how bad weather could affect the Steelers’ offense, Haley said, “We’ve got a quarterback that’s a mudder, so to speak, and can play in all conditions. It’s a matter of coaching the guys and making sure everyone understands the focus that’s required whether you’re carrying the bowl, throwing the ball, catching the ball.”
  • Jarvis Jones has played behind James Harrison at right outside linebacker since the former returned from a dislocated wrist in early December. But defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said Jones, the Steelers’ first-round pick in 2013, is still very much a part of the Steelers’ future. “Jarvis is going to be a very good NFL football player. Very good,” LeBeau said. “He’s just back picking it up. At the end of last year he was starting to impact games pretty regularly and he’s going to get back to that level, in my mind, without a doubt.”
PITTSBURGH -- Mike Mitchell has a message for those who think the Pittsburgh Steelers are better off defensively without safety Troy Polamalu.

"You don't disrespect [future] Hall of Famers like that," Mitchell said. "That's just absurd."

Polamalu is expected to be healthy enough to play Saturday (8:15 p.m. ET, NBC) when a team he has tormented over the years visits Heinz Field. Polamalu has practiced both workouts this week and defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said he anticipates the eight-time Pro Bowler suiting up against the visiting Baltimore Ravens in the AFC wild-card playoff.

Polamalu has missed the past two games because of a knee injury, and Will Allen has started in his place at strong safety.

The secondary has been a strength during that stretch and LeBeau acknowledged Thursday that Allen played one of his better games for the Steelers last Sunday night. The 11th-year veteran recorded seven tackles and made several key plays early in the Steelers' 27-17 win against the Cincinnati Bengals.

"There's only one Troy," LeBeau said, "but Will Allen is a very good football player. I think with both in there we have some good safeties."

What makes Mitchell, Pittsburgh's starting free safety, scoff is the notion that Polamalu is a liability on the field as the Steelers pursue a seventh Super Bowl title.

Mitchell, who is in his first season with the Steelers, said Polamalu has had a significant impact on him.

"His selflessness and his humility, that's what makes him a great football player," Mitchell said. "How can I make my teammate better? What can I do to put him in a better position? When you start thinking like that, giving more of yourself, more of your mind, more of your body you become a better player because you're thinking about something bigger than just yourself, and I think that's the one thing I've learned from Troy that's made me a better player.

"It's not about my jumping a route and getting a great interception. It's about me staying over the top and somebody else gets the interception because I took away the deep pass. That is what makes him a Hall of Famer."

Mitchell said any perception that Polamalu hurts the Steelers' defense by freelancing is way off base. He said there is a method to the perceived madness that is one of Polamalu's hallmarks.

"If you don't know him you think he's a guy making all kind of crazy plays but you talk to him and get to know him as a person and understand how he thinks you're thinking, 'Wow," " Mitchell said. "It's really mesmerizing."

When asked if Polamalu, who is 33 and in his 12th NFL season, can still play, Mitchell did not hesitate to answer.

"No question," he said. "No question."
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.”



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