AFC North: Doug Legursky

Double Coverage: Bills at Steelers

November, 8, 2013
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Roethlisberger/ManuelUSA TODAY SportsBen Roethlisberger, left, and EJ Manuel are trying to guide their teams through difficult seasons.
Two teams that have combined for five wins and don’t appear to be going anywhere this season meet Sunday at Heinz Field. The Pittsburgh Steelers will be angry after getting routed Sunday in New England, but the Buffalo Bills might be equally desperate after losing four of their past five games.

It looks like EJ Manuel will return for the Bills, but rookie quarterbacks have not fared well against Dick LeBeau defenses. But no rookie quarterback has faced the Steelers defense when it has been this vulnerable under LeBeau.

ESPN.com reporters Mike Rodak (Bills) and Scott Brown (Steelers) take an in-depth look at the first meeting between the teams since the Steelers won a 19-16 overtime game at Buffalo in 2010.

Brown: Mike, is this team Pittsburgh North? There are a lot of Steelers connections there with general manager Doug Whaley and a handful of the players. The two I’m interested in hearing about are the starting guards -- Doug Legursky and Kraig Urbik. How have the two played, and how has the offensive line played overall?

Rodak: Scott, I think Whaley would like it to be Pittsburgh North, eventually. The Steelers are one of the most successful franchises, and Whaley comes from that background. Defensively, there are similarities between Mike Pettine's blitz-heavy scheme and much of the zone blitzing that LeBeau uses. And offensively, Manuel is a big, mobile quarterback with some speedy receivers, much like Ben Roethlisberger and his pass-catchers in Pittsburgh. Ultimately, though, I think the Bills want to forge their own identity, and the Steelers connections don't run much deeper than Whaley and a few others.

As far as Urbik and Legursky, they haven't been Pro Bowlers by any stretch. Returning from a knee injury last month, Legursky helped stabilize a left guard position that has been reeling since losing Andy Levitre in free agency last offseason. But as a whole, the offensive line has allowed more sacks -- the seventh most in the NFL, to be precise -- than it would prefer.

Looking at the Steelers' big picture, what has gone wrong this season? From an outside perspective, an aging defense appears to be part of it, but that can't tell the whole story. What are the biggest problem areas?

Brown: Age is only part of the equation when looking at the Steelers’ struggles. The other half is that the Steelers were so good for so long at developing younger players to step in for veteran stalwarts who retired or signed elsewhere. That hasn’t happened in recent years, in part because the quality of Steelers’ drafts has slipped.

The drop-off in talent hasn’t been as severe as it would seem for a team that has lost 11 of its past 15 games, which leads me to perhaps the Steelers’ biggest problem on the field: This team is simply allergic to momentum. The Steelers, when they were winning regularly, played so well off one another as far as the different units. This season, more often than not, the offense has not been able to bail out the defense and vice versa.

I’m curious what has held back the Bills, aside from the instability and inexperience at quarterback. This team seems to have its share of talent, so why aren’t the Bills winning more?

Rodak: The quarterback situation is a big part of it, like you said. No matter who's been out there -- Manuel, Thad Lewis or Jeff Tuel -- they haven't been able to make enough plays to win in the NFL. It's really been the defense that has picked up the slack in two of the Bills' three wins this season. Against the Baltimore Ravens, it intercepted Joe Flacco five times, and just when it looked like the Miami Dolphins were going to win a few weeks ago, Mario Williams came up with a game-changing strip-sack. So when dissecting why the Bills are 3-6, their quarterback play is the overriding factor.

Otherwise, I think the story is similar to Pittsburgh's. The defense has played well at times, but when it hasn't played well, the offense hasn't been up to snuff. And when the offense has started cranking -- and that's been rare -- the defense has dropped off. Doug Marrone referenced Wednesday the need for the defense to generate more turnovers -- it hasn't forced one in more than two games -- which has caused the Bills' turnover differential for the season to turn negative this week.

What has been the problem offensively for the Steelers? I've always counted Roethlisberger among the top 10 quarterbacks in the league, and at least on paper, there is some serious talent between Le'Veon Bell, Heath Miller and Antonio Brown. Is the offensive line really that bad to drag everyone down?

Brown: The offense played without Bell and Miller for the first two games, and it showed as the Steelers managed just two touchdowns in those contests. Bell has stabilized the running game, and Miller’s return has been huge considering his value in the running and passing game.

The offense’s struggles stem most from the ongoing shuffling along the offensive line. The unit, for whatever reason, is consistently decimated by injuries, and this season is no different. Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey went down with a season-ending knee injury in the opener. The Steelers even lost a lineman (Levi Brown) to a season-ending injury in pregame warm-ups. Those kinds of things have happened to the Steelers’ offensive line, it seems, every season since Mike Tomlin took over as head coach in 2007.

The line has played better in recent weeks, and I thought it did fairly well in New England even with the crowd noise forcing the Steelers to use a silent snap count. It faces another challenge this week as the Bills have the kind of defensive line that can really give the Steelers fits.

Williams has been a beast, and the Steelers will probably have to give left tackle Kelvin Beachum some help with Williams. Mike, what about the two interior lineman, Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus? They seem like they can be plenty disruptive.

Rodak: They certainly can be, Scott. Each has four sacks this season, which puts both on pace for career highs. It seems like each week, when we talk to opposing head coaches, they start off by mentioning Dareus, Mario Williams and Kyle Williams. They're the strength of the team. Kyle Williams in particular has shown a knack for being disruptive in the backfield at the right time, while Dareus has improved from what some felt were subpar seasons since being drafted third overall in 2011. The Steelers' offensive line will need to hold its ground and allow Roethlisberger to take shots at the weaker points of the defense.

What do the Steelers need to do to turn this season around? Does any hope remain that they will make the playoffs?

Brown: Believe it or not, the players still believe they have a shot at the playoffs given how mediocre the AFC has been aside from a few teams. But they are also realistic that their focus has to stay squarely on what is in front of them.

The biggest thing the Steelers need to do to turn around their season is get back to what has worked for them for so long. That starts with stopping the run. As much as some Steelers fans want to lay blame for the defense’s failings on LeBeau -- and the fact that he is 76 -- the reality is this: LeBeau didn’t suddenly forget how to coach. However, his defense doesn’t work if the Steelers can’t stop the run and force teams into obvious passing situations.

Offensively, the Steelers have been at their best this season when they have established balance. If they want to take better care of Roethlisberger, who is taking another beating this season, they need to limit his passing attempts. The best way to do that is establish the ground game and run Bell early and often. Sounds easy enough, no?

 
Here's what the Pittsburgh Steelers should do with their prime free agents. The NFL free-agency period begins March 12.

SHOULD RE-SIGN

ILB Larry Foote, QB Charlie Batch, G/C Doug Legursky, S Will Allen.

The Steelers need to bring back Foote because they can't be confident that Stevenson Sylvester can start and they can't be certain Sean Spence can move into a starting role this season after last year's severe knee injury. The other names on this list won't have fans rushing to make reservations for the Super Bowl, but they are valuable to the team's depth. The Steelers won't go with two aging backup quarterbacks like last year, and Batch earned the right to stay. Legursky is the backup to Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey, who has dealt with injuries the past two seasons, and he can also play guard. The Steelers were fortunate to have Allen after Ryan Mundy flopped in a starting role.

SHOULD LET WALK

WR Mike Wallace, NT Casey Hampton, RB Rashard Mendenhall, OT Max Starks, G/T Ramon Foster, QB Byron Leftwich, S Ryan Mundy and WR Plaxico Burress.

The Steelers don't have enough salary-cap room to keep Wallace, and he's not a good fit for Todd Haley's style of offense. And even though there have been reports that the Steelers have had contract talks with Mendenhall, Pittsburgh needs to cut ties with him. His play has declined the past two seasons, and it's time for the Steelers to get a younger back in the draft.

It would be more accurate to put Hampton and Foster in the "Have to let walk" category because the Steelers don't have the cap room to retain them. Hampton showed last season that he has more left than originally believed. The Steelers need to get younger on the offensive line and at backup quarterback, which means the end for Starks and Leftwich, respectively.

DECISIONS, DECISIONS

CB Keenan Lewis. There's no question that Lewis is the Steelers' top priority in free agency. But it's going to be difficult to keep him considering he's a rising player at a coveted position and the Steelers are cap-strapped again. Lewis stepped up in his first season as a starter, leading the AFC with 23 passes broken up. If the Steelers can't keep Lewis, they'll go with Ike Taylor and Cortez Allen as starters with Curtis Brown as the nickel back.

Steelers' Pouncey injures right leg

October, 11, 2012
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The banged-up Steelers are dealing with another injury to a starter. Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey is currently out with a right leg injury and is questionable to return.

Pouncey
Doug Legursky, who replaced Pouncey when he was injured the past two playoffs, has taken over for him Thursday night against the Titans.

Pouncey went down in the first quarter when right tackle Marcus Gilbert rolled on the back of his right leg. After laying on the ground in pain, Pouncey walked off the field by his own power.

This was similar to two months ago when Gilbert rolled into the back of right guard David DeCastro's right leg. The rookie first-round pick is on injured reserve and could return in the second half of the season.

The Steelers are already playing without two starters on defense, safety Troy Polamalu and linebacker LaMarr Woodley.

Willie Colon confirmed what has been speculated since the NFL draft -- the Pittsburgh Steelers intend to have two rookies start on their offensive line this year.

Colon told WDVE in Pittsburgh that he is officially moving from right tackle to left guard. "I like it," Colon said. "It's just a matter of learning the verbiage."

This move allows first-round pick David DeCastro and second-rounder Mike Adams to start immediately. Based on what Colon said, the Steelers' offensive line likely will look like this: Adams at left tackle, Colon at left guard, Maurkice Pouncey at center, DeCastro at right guard and Marcus Gilbert at right tackle.

The end result is the Steelers are much stronger with this lineup as long as Adams shows he's strong enough to start right away. There's no doubt that DeCastro, the best guard in the draft, is ready to start from Week 1. The key to keeping this offensive line this way is the development of Adams. I'm in favor of not waiting to make the switch. The Steelers drafted these linemen to add stability and get away from what happened last season. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Steelers used a league-high 25 different offensive line combinations in 2011.

In making the move, Pittsburgh is bumping two formerly undrafted guards (Doug Legursky and Ramon Foster) in favor of its top two picks in this year's draft (DeCastro and Adams). That's a major upgrade in talent level.

The Steelers showed their commitment to making this move by how long it took for them to make it. The team called Colon right after the draft to inform him of the change. "My only issue would have been don't move me midway through camp," he said.

Colon also revealed more about the scheme with him and DeCastro at the guard positions. "You should expect both of us pulling," Colon said. "I think we're going to be a lot more balanced."

Here are some highlights -- because there are never any lowlights -- for this week's AFC North chat. If you want more, click here for a full transcript.

Kris (Missouri): How devastating is the loss of Terrell Suggs? Ray [Lewis] and Ed Reed only have how many more shots at a title.

Jamison Hensley (ESPN): When Suggs got hurt, most talked about how the Ravens would miss him in the pass rush. But Suggs was a really good run defender as well. I think people are underestimating his absence when it comes to stopping running backs.

Brian (Philadelphia): Assuming the Bengals follow up last season with a successful 2012 season, who do you think would be more likely to leave for a head coaching position: defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer or offensive coordinator Jay Gruden?

Jamison Hensley (ESPN): I say Gruden. He has the name recognition plus he has the advantage of having developed a young QB on his resume. Whatever team is looking for a head coach is probably in a position to take a QB in the first round. That's why Gruden would be more enticing.

Jordan (Raleigh): What are Mike Wallace's options? Sign or sit out? Can he be dealt? Can teams even make trades at this point in the offseason?

Jamison Hensley (ESPN): Wallace can sit out as long as he wants if he doesn't sign the tender. He is technically not under contract until he signs it. Wallace has until June 15 to sign it or the Steelers can reduce his RFA tender after that point.

Bodman34 (Ada,OH Home of the Wilson Football Factory): Is there any reason the Browns shouldn't take a look at Terrell Owens and offer a minimum salary with incentives? He would be an instant upgrade at receiver, and if it didn't work out, not much invested.

Jamison Hensley (ESPN): Have you seen the effect of T.O. on the other teams he played for? Not happening.

Brad (Berkeley, CA): Maurkice Pouncey was the first Steelers rookie to start 13 or more games in like 30 years (he started all 16, I know). Will [David] DeCastro be the only Steelers rookie this year to do the same?

Jamison Hensley (ESPN): DeCastro is battling two players who were originally undrafted rookies, Doug Legursky and Ramon Foster. It would be a major surprise if DeCastro doesn't start from the first day of camp.

Andre (Tallahassee, FL): Is John Harbaugh on the hot seat if Baltimore misses the playoffs? And will Joe Flacco be gone too?

Jamison Hensley (ESPN): Are you not aware that the Ravens and Flacco have made the playoffs for the past four seasons? If you think they would be on the hot seat after missing the playoffs for one year, you have crazy expectations.

Dillion (Ohio): Should the browns sign T.O to help show the younger reciver on the team how to catch the ball and he can catch the ball

Jamison Hensley (ESPN): Again, has anyone else except me seen the negative effect of TO on teams?

Aaron (Bloomington IL): With Pittsburgh upgrading its offensive line, there appears to be few weaknesses remaining from the three teams pushing for the AFC North title. Which unit from Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Baltimore do you see as having the greatest weakness this year?

Jamison Hensley (ESPN): Steelers: Cornerback. Bengals: Wide receiver. Baltimore: Left guard and outside linebacker (Suggs' absence).

Michael (Cincinnati): Can you ban people who think the Browns should sign TO?

Jamison Hensley (ESPN): Only [NFL commissioner Roger] Goodell has the power to ban people in football. Sorry.
ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. named the Pittsburgh Steelers among his winners in Thursday night's first round. No other AFC North teams made his list of winners or question marks.

It's an Insider piece Insider, so you'll need a subscription to read the entire article. Here's what Kiper had to say about the Steelers, who selected Stanford guard David DeCastro at No. 24:
Nothing sexy about this, but the value is off the charts. For instance, the first six guys on my Big Board Insider make up the first six picks in the draft. Only two guys in my top 10 didn't get drafted in the top 10. Melvin Ingram fell to No. 18, and DeCastro falls all the way to No. 24. Again, nothing thrilling -- no nifty trade to swoop in and get top value, but look at the interior of that offensive line now. Maurkice Pouncey and DeCastro are both studs, and I had guard as a key need for Pittsburgh.

DeCastro certainly adds stability to the Steelers' offensive line. Last season, four linemen started at least two games at guard for Pittsburgh: Chris Kemoeatu, Ramon Foster, Doug Legursky and Trai Essex.
The Baltimore Ravens and the Pittsburgh Steelers engage in the NFL's best grudge matches every year. This week, that rivalry could cross over into the NFL draft.

The Ravens and the Steelers have similar needs and could be targeting some of the same players. The Steelers will have the first shot at a player with the 24th overall pick, but the Ravens could decide to trade up in front of Pittsburgh from the No. 29 spot.

Both teams are looking at guards like Georgia’s Cordy Glenn and Wisconsin’s Kevin Zeitler. The Steelers should upgrade at left guard from Doug Legursky, and the Ravens still have to replace Ben Grubbs at that same spot.

Both teams could use an inside linebacker like Alabama’s Dont'a Hightower. Pittsburgh has a leadership void there since cutting James Farrior, and Baltimore has to start thinking of an heir apparent to Ray Lewis.

Both teams could also consider an outside linebacker like Alabama’s Courtney Upshaw. The Steelers might look ahead with James Harrison turning 34 next month, and the Ravens could use an Alabama player to replace a departed one in Jarret Johnson.

Theses scenarios should bring AFC North drama to the bottom half of the first round. The Steelers could take a coveted Ravens prospect at No. 24, or Baltimore could jump ahead of Pittsburgh to do the same.

According to the trade chart, the Ravens would give up a third-round pick to move up to the Detroit Lions' No. 23 spot.

AFC North Sunday mailbag

April, 15, 2012
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Teams can begin their voluntary offseason workout programs Monday, but that doesn't mean we're taking the day off here on the AFC North blog. Let's buckle up our helmets and open some mail ...

...

DogPound32 (Rocky River, Ohio) writes: Call me crazy, Jamison, but why in the world would any Browns fan want us to draft a QB, unless it was a late late round pick? Give my boy [Colt] McCoy a chance and surround him with [running back Trent] Richardson, [wide receiver Stephen] Hill, and [offensive tackle Bobby] Massie in this year's draft. Then if you want to pick up a QB in the seventh round, pick up Kellen Moore and call it a day. Wasting anything more than a late round pick on a QB is not worth it for the Browns this year. Moore may be smaller, but he's a proven winner with ice in his veins. He can definitely be a solid backup for Colt this year and it comes at a low risk. Thoughts?

Jamison Hensley from AFC North headquarters: You're not crazy. That is, unless your real name is DogPound32. Your argument, however, is a valid one. I see two franchise quarterbacks in this draft, Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III. After failing to get RG3, the Browns should focus their energy on upgrading the surrounding talent on offense. That would put Cleveland in the best position to go all-in for a franchise quarterback next season. I do have to admit that Oklahoma State quarterback Brandon Weeden intrigues me more and more as the draft approaches. But getting Weeden at the bottom of the first round or early in the second would mean missing out on a wide receiver or offensive tackle. And that doesn't make sense to me.




Ben (Pensacola, Fla.) writes: Even if the Steelers draft a guard in the first round, they should pass on a running back to draft another guard in the second. Somehow I doubt any back in the draft is going to help much if Big Ben gets injured again. Doug Legursky and Ramon Foster are nice backups, but neither belongs as a starter. Frankly, I'd be perfectly happy if the Steelers passed on Dont'a Hightower to grab guards in both the first and second rounds: Amini Silatolu in the first and Kelechi Osemele in the second. Isaiah Pead would be worth a look in the fourth round, but that's the earliest I would go for a running back with the bigger needs on the roster.

Jamison Hensley from AFC North headquarters: Silatolu is my sleeper pick for the Steelers in the first round. He's a nasty offensive lineman who has Pro Bowl potential. I agree that Legursky needs to be replaced; his strength is being a versatile backup. But Foster is serviceable at right guard, so you don't need to draft a guard in the second round. I think a back who is tougher and more decisive than Rashard Mendenhall could make this line look a lot better. I like the idea of taking Virginia Tech's speedy David Wilson or Boise State's powerful Doug Martin in the second round.




Brian (Cincinnati) writes: What are the chances the Bengals have an All-Stanford first round this year with guard David DeCastro at No. 17 and tight end Coby Fleener at No. 21? The Bengals desperately need a No. 2 tight end in Jay Gruden's offense. Considering the free agents available and the fact that this draft class is not deep at all at tight end, why not take the best available?

Jamison Hensley from AFC North headquarters: The Bengals are bringing back their top three tight ends after re-signing Donald Lee. Like you, I would like to see another pass-catching tight end, but I wouldn't classify Cincinnati as desperate for one. The Bengals just took a tight end (Jermaine Gresham) in the first round in 2010, so it's highly unlikely they would use one on another tight end so soon. If the Bengals draft DeCastro, which would be a great move for the Bengals, the second first-round pick can be used on a wide receiver, safety, cornerback or outside linebacker. Those are bigger needs than a No. 2 tight end.




Ben P (Boston) writes: What do you think are the chances that the Ravens trade up to the 23rd or 22nd pick in the first round? Both Detroit and Cleveland are probably just looking for best available players at that point and so they might be willing to trade back for extra picks. It would give Baltimore a chance to fill a need and keep a really good player like offensive lineman Cordy Glenn or linebacker Dont'a Hightower away from the Steelers.

Jamison Hensley from AFC North headquarters: I would say there is a greater chance of the Ravens moving back than moving up. Baltimore covets draft picks and it only has eight, which is the fewest among AFC North teams this year. The only way the Ravens trade up -- and they indicated they would only go as high as No. 19 -- is if one of their top 15 prospects slides into the 20s. I got the impression from the team's pre-draft press conference that the Ravens want more picks, which means moving back.


Every morning, grab a cup of coffee and get your AFC North wake-up call here:

The Pittsburgh Steelers are looking to expand Heinz Field by 3,000 seats, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

The city-Allegheny County Sports & Exhibition Authority board signed off on the resolution to explore the addition, and the Steelers can now take that proposal to the NFL for approval next month.

All seats would be added in the stadium's south end zone near the scoreboard. While the team has yet to decide how to pay for construction of the new seats, the Post-Gazette reported that possible sources could include revenue from a surcharge on tickets.

In other news, versatile backup offensive lineman Trai Essex re-signed on a one-year deal and left guard Doug Legursky signed his $1.26 million restricted free-agent tender.

Hensley's slant: It's surprising that the Steelers haven't expanded sooner. In terms of capacity, Heinz Field (65,050) is the seventh-smallest venue in the NFL and the smallest in the division -- ranking behind Cleveland Browns Stadium (73,200), Baltimore's M&T Bank Stadium (71,008) and Cincinnati's Paul Brown Stadium (65,535). I'm sure kickers would like the stadium to expand by another 10,000 seats if that means enclosing the open-end part of Heinz.

BENGALS: Defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer is making it seem like recently signed free agent cornerback Terence Newman could make a bigger impact than many expect. Newman turns 34 during the season and was reportedly picked on by quarterbacks toward the end of last season. "If he can still run and get out of breaks, I know he can do some big things for us in this defense," Zimmer told the team's official website. "I don't know what's happened lately, but all I know is I've talked to enough people in Dallas that I trust that say he can still run. And I'm talking to people who saw him every day in practice and that means more to me than anything. We'll see how he is when he gets here, but I'm excited to have him." Hensley's slant: With the most salary-cap room in the NFL, the Bengals aren't hurting themselves by adding Newman and seeing firsthand whether he can still contribute. But he has something to prove. According to Pro Football Focus, Newman rated 57th out of 66 cornerbacks who played at least half of his team's snaps.

BROWNS: Pro Football Weekly analyst Nolan Nawrocki doesn't think the Browns will take Texas A&M quarterback Ryan Tannehill with the fourth overall pick, but he believes the team has Oklahoma State quarterback Brandon Weeden on its radar. “I do think Weeden is a guy they are targeting, and whether they select him with the 22nd or the 37th pick, I think he would definitely bring more size to that position,” Nawrocki told the Akron Beacon Journal. “He ran a similar style offense at Oklahoma State. I think he’s flown under the radar a little bit." Hensley's slant: I'm in favor of upgrading the Browns' quarterback position, but Cleveland missed out on its best chance to do so when it failed to trade up for Robert Griffin III. The Browns' focus should be on upgrading the talent around the quarterback position. If the right prospects are available, the Browns should attempt to get a running back, wide receiver and right tackle with their first three picks.

RAVENS: Former Ravens coach Brian Billick revealed that one of the biggest busts in NFL draft history was the one the team liked the most. In talking about how quarterbacks rise up draft boards, Billick told ESPN Radio (via the Baltimore Sun): "We did a pretty decent job, and obviously they continue to do a phenomenal job in Baltimore, with Ozzie Newsome and his group. JaMarcus Russell was the highest-rated player I’ve ever seen on any of our boards. So we all missed on JaMarcus Russell. Make no mistake.” Billick was Baltimore's head coach for nine drafts (1999 to 2007). Hensley's slant: This is nothing more than a cautionary tale because the Ravens drafted No. 29 in the 2007 draft and never had a chance at taking Russell. While the Ravens were off on Russell, that was a draft where they picked up two Pro Bowl guards in Ben Grubbs (first) and Marshal Yanda (third) as well as Pro Bowl fullback Le'Ron McClain (fourth round).
Mike TomlinMichael Hickey/US PresswireMike Tomlin and the Steelers need to tap into their draft magic this year more than many.

Nearly a full month into free agency, the Steelers finally signed their first player Tuesday. It was -- yawn -- Leonard Pope.

Not excited about adding a backup tight end? Well, this is essentially a repeat of last year, when the Steelers' big free-agent signing was wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery. Let's face it, Steelers free agency contains as much action as a Sarah Jessica Parker flick. Everyone knows this, and that's why no one is wringing their Terrible Towel over the inactivity.

The Steelers find players in April, not March. They hit on first-round picks every year -- at least in recent memory -- and develop undrafted prospects into starters. No one has built their team through the draft quite like the Steelers this decade. If the season started today, only one of the projected starters (safety Ryan Clark) joined the Steelers as an unrestricted free agent.

The Steelers need this remarkable track record in the draft to come through for them again. In some ways, this is the most important draft of the Mike Tomlin era. I'm not saying this is a crucial draft in terms of finding immediate starters. But the pressure is on the Steelers to find "potential" starters for the 2012 season.

The organization lost a piece of its history when it parted ways with wide receiver Hines Ward, linebacker James Farrior, defensive end Aaron Smith, nose tackle Chris Hoke and guard Chris Kemoeatu this offseason. Some have downplayed these departures because none were major contributors last season. Farrior was a part-time player, Ward was being phased out, Kemoeatu was benched and Smith and Hoke were both injured. The Steelers, though, could have used their experience as backups this season.

The loss of these veteran safety nets makes injuries a major concern. Two starters -- running back Rashard Mendenhall and nose tackle Casey Hampton -- are candidates to start the regular season on the physically unable to perform list (and miss at least the first six games) after ACL surgeries this offseason. Tomlin has expressed concern about whether right tackle Willie Colon and wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders can shake their injury histories. And the Steelers have to be worried about Maurkice Pouncey's ankle, LaMarr Woodley's hamstrings and Doug Legursky's shoulder.

If Hampton is placed on the PUP, the starting nose tackle would likely be an out-of-position Ziggy Hood. If Legursky is hurt, the current top backup at guard is John Malecki. If Colon goes down, the Steelers have to turn to the often-struggling Jonathan Scott. If Sanders can't play, the third receiver would be ... well, no one right now. These are all painful scenarios for the Steelers.

This is where the draft comes into play for Pittsburgh. Taking the right college player has always kept the Steelers in the mode of reloading, not rebuilding. No one knows whom the Steelers will select with the 24th overall pick. It could be Alabama inside linebacker Dont'a Hightower, Georgia offensive lineman Cordy Glenn, Stanford tight end Coby Fleener or someone not even linked to Pittsburgh. Based on the Steelers' history, the only certainty is that the pick will become an impact player.

[+] EnlargeBrett Keisel
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesDefensive end Brett Keisel, taken in the seventh round, is just one of the Steelers' draft finds.
Since 2000, the Steelers' first-round selections have been wide receiver Plaxico Burress, Hampton, guard Kendall Simmons, safety Troy Polamalu, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, tight end Heath Miller, wide receiver Santonio Holmes, linebacker Lawrence Timmons, Mendenhall, Hood, Pouncey and defensive end Cameron Heyward. The only one who didn't quite live up to expectations is Mendenhall, and he is hardly a major disappointment, having led the team in rushing for the past three seasons. This great run is more amazing when you consider that only two (Burress and Roethlisberger) were selected in the top half of the first round. Even the Ravens, who are known for excelling in the draft, have had two busts during this span with quarterback Kyle Boller and wide receiver Travis Taylor.

Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert, one of the underrated decision-makers in the NFL, can't explain this string of success.

"We've been fortunate," he told reporters at the NFL owners meetings. "We are capable as anybody of making a mistake. We never keep score. There's only one score that matters and that's the last game of the year."

If the Steelers had been keeping score, they would realize their success goes beyond the first round. They have come away with current starters in the second round (linebacker Woodley), third round (wide receiver Mike Wallace), fourth round (cornerback Ike Taylor), sixth round (wide receiver Antonio Brown) and seventh round (defensive end Brett Keisel). And don't forget about the undrafted finds like Legursky, right guard Ramon Foster and running back Isaac Redman.

This is why the Steelers don't have to write a $100 million check to free agents. This is why the Steelers can sign one player in the first 28 days of free agency and not sweat about it. Pittsburgh's way of business is about patience and faith. The Steelers believe in their front office to select the right college players and they believe in their coaching staff to develop them. It's a proven system that has led to five AFC North titles in 10 seasons and three trips to the Super Bowl during that span.

As players come and go, the Steelers' goals never change. Like Tomlin always preaches: "The standard is the standard."

"If you have a desire to be in this league for a length of time, you are going to roll with the punches and the ebb and flow, the evolution of the game," Tomlin said at the NFL owners meetings. "Thankfully, I've been in the game long enough to see a little bit of that. Those who are able to sustain success are pliable and flexible."

And the organizations that are able to sustain success are often quiet in free agency and make the most noise in the draft.
Every morning, grab a cup of coffee and get your AFC North wake-up call here:

There has been no progress in contract talks between the Ravens and quarterback Joe Flacco, according to the NFL Network.

Representatives for Flacco traded contract proposals with the Ravens and plan to get back to the negotiating table this week, multiple league sources told the NFL Network. There hasn't been "a big push" to strike a deal with Flacco because cornerback Lardarius Webb (who agreed to a five-year extension last week) had been more of a priority, the NFL Network reported.

Flacco, who is entering the final year of his contract, said he understands the ramifications of going unsigned for the entire season.

“You don’t want to get to the point where you play out your contract and you get to those complicated situations where they can put the franchise tag on you and things like that," Flacco said.

Hensley's slant: Flacco is right that the Ravens wouldn't let him hit the free-agent market. They would use the franchise tag on him like they did with Ray Rice this year. It would be surprising to see talks drag into the season because both sides -- the Ravens want immediate salary-cap room and Flacco wants the security of a long-term deal -- are motivated to get it done. But it won't be easy. There is a significant pay gap between the second- and top-tier NFL quarterbacks.

BENGALS: Strong safety Taylor Mays, who is the top candidate right now to replace Chris Crocker in the starting lineup, told the team's official website that he has shed seven pounds even before the team's offseason workout program begins Monday. Mays decided to drop the pounds after coach Marvin Lewis teased him so much about his weight last year (238 pounds). "I'm down to 231 pounds, but those last five pounds are tough," Mays said. "I've got to really watch the diet 24-7 to do it. It’s like, 'Eat a french fry, miss a tackle.'" Hensley's slant: If Mays wants to take over Crocker's starting job, he has to do more than drop weight. The biggest concern about Mays is his ability to cover. That was reportedly the biggest reason why the San Francisco 49ers gave up on a second-round pick after one season.

BROWNS: The Cleveland Plain Dealer's Terry Pluto wrote his "hunch since January" has been the Browns taking LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne with the fourth overall pick even though Cleveland needs help on offense. "I still think he's a serious candidate," Pluto wrote. "The Browns love good cornerbacks, it's why they took Joe Haden in the first round in 2010. I can imagine them saying, 'With Haden and Claiborne, our secondary can be set for years. These guys can cover and we can then bring heat on the cornerback.'" Hensley's slant: I still contend the Browns' decision at No. 4 is between Claiborne and Alabama running back Trent Richardson. Claiborne could have a longer career (because of the nature of the two positions), but Richardson is the better talent and fills a bigger need.

STEELERS: The Steelers need to address the lack of depth along the entire offensive line in the draft, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Ed Bouchette. The notable backup tackles are Jonathan Scott and Chris Scott, and the top reserve guard is John Malecki. "They may not draft an offensive lineman first, but they surely must draft several of them," Bouchette wrote. Hensley's slant: Backups could play a big role on Pittsburgh's offensive line this year. Left guard Doug Legursky has never started more than 10 games in a season, and right tackle Willie Colon has been sidelined with injuries for 31 of the team's past 32 regular-season games.
Gary Horton of Scouts Inc. broke down the top six needs remaining Insider for each of the AFC North teams. You'll need an Insider subscription to view the entire post, but here's a glimpse of the top three needs:

CINCINNATI BENGALS

Horton's top three needs: Cornerback, guard and safety.

Horton on cornerback: The starters in 2011 were Leon Hall, who will be coming off an Achilles injury, and 32-year-old Nate Clements. When Hall went down, Adam Jones filled in, but none of these three make you comfortable in man coverage. Newly acquired free agent Jason Allen will help, but there is a lot of work to be done here.

Hensley's comment: I wouldn't put cornerback as the top need because the Bengals added Allen and re-signed Jones. Allen is an upgrade over Kelly Jennings. Guard is the bigger concern. If the season started today, the Bengals' starting right guard would either be Otis Hudson, Clint Boling or Anthony Collins (who would shift over from tackle).

CLEVELAND BROWNS

Horton's top three needs: Quarterback, wide receiver and running back.

Horton on quarterback: Right now, their options at QB are starter Colt McCoy and veteran backup Seneca Wallace, but nobody expects it to stay that way. With two first-round draft picks, they will almost surely pick a QB with one of them.

Hensley's comment: You could make a strong argument that quarterback, wide receiver or running back should rank as the No. 1 need. My top need for Cleveland is right tackle. The Browns can at least start McCoy, Greg Little, Mohamed Massaquoi and Montario Hardesty at those other positions. Right tackle was a weak spot for the Browns last season with Tony Pashos and Artis Hicks, both of whom are now gone. The Browns' starting right tackle at this point is Oniel Cousins, a third-round bust from Baltimore.

BALTIMORE RAVENS

Horton's three needs: Inside linebacker, left guard and safety.

Horton on inside linebacker: The Ray Lewis era will be ending soon, and the Ravens need to find his replacement. Jameel McClain was re-signed, and he can play inside or outside, but a three-down linebacker who can play solid pass defense is sorely needed.

Hensley's comment: Left guard is the biggest need on the team, and it's not even close. The Ravens couldn't keep Ben Grubbs and failed to sign Evan Mathis. The fallback option is Jah Reid, a backup offensive tackle last season. Going from a Pro Bowl guard (Grubbs) to a converted tackle (Reid) is a major step down.

PITTSBURGH STEELERS

Horton's top three needs: Offensive tackle/guard, nose tackle and running back.

Horton on offensive tackle/guard: Center Maurkice Pouncey is the only stable starter on this unit. Veteran tackle Max Starks is coming off an ACL injury and T Willie Colon can't stay healthy, though the coaches hope he can get through a full season at RT with young Marcus Gilbert moving from RT to LT. There is also a big hole at left guard. The Steelers need to get at least one, and maybe two, starters up front.

Hensley's comment: You can't really disagree with this assessment. Left guard Doug Legursky is a backup who performed admirably when Chris Kemoeatu was benched. Gilbert has a good chance of succeeding on the left side, but it's hard to depend on Colon at right tackle with his injury history. The Steelers' options are limited because there is no depth. Jonathan Scott, who has struggled mightily, is the top backup at tackle, and there's no reserves at guard with Trai Essex (free agent) and Jamon Meredith (not tendered as a restricted free agent) off on the roster.
Every morning, grab a cup of coffee and get your AFC North wake-up call here:

The Chicago Bears and Seattle Seahawks have made inquires about free-agent guard Eric Steinbach, sources told ESPNChicago.com. The site also reports that the Ravens might be interested in the former starting left guard for the Browns.

It's unclear if Steinbach will make any visits before the NFL draft at the end of the month as he continues to recover from a back injury that forced the guard to miss the entire 2011 season.

Steinbach, 32, started 124 games for the Bengals and Browns over the span of eight years, before undergoing a procedure that removed a disc fragment from his spinal nerve in August of last summer. He was cut by the Browns on March 14 after refusing to take a pay reduction.

Hensley's slant: The Ravens hinted they won't make any more free-agent moves until after the draft. So if the Ravens don't use a first- or second-round pick on a guard, they should make a call to Steinbach. The alternative is starting a backup offensive tackle (Jah Reid) at left guard.

BENGALS: Bengals coach Marvin Lewis sent a letter in support of Jerome Simpson to the judge before the free-agent wide receiver was sentenced to 15 days in jail for a drug-related charge, according to the Associated Press. Lewis said last month that the team is open to offering Simpson another contract despite his legal problems. The Bengals said in a statement after the hearing that they believe Simpson "has, and will continue to, deal accountably with the consequences of his actions." Hensley's slant: The chances of Simpson returning increased when the Bengals ignored the wide receiver position in free agency. Cincinnati had the cap room to upgrade over Simpson at the No. 2 spot, but the Bengals failed to add Robert Meachem or Mario Manningham.

BROWNS: LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne made a pre-draft visit to the Browns on Thursday, according to the Akron Beacon Journal. Claiborne made headlines this week when it was reported that he scored 4 out of 50 on the Wonderlic test. "At the end of the day I will be a top 10 pick," Claiborne posted on his Twitter account, which has since been switched to private. "You guys don't no me #Top10." Hensley's slant: I still see the Browns taking running back Trent Richardson with the fourth overall pick and it has nothing to do with Claiborne's test score. The Browns, who averaged 13.6 points per game last season, need an offensive playmaker and not the best defensive player in the draft.

STEELERS: Restricted free-agent guard Ramon Foster has signed his tender, according to a report from ESPN Radio in St. Louis. Foster received the low tender ($1.26 million), which meant the Steelers wouldn't have received any compensation if they refused to match an offer sheet. Entering his fourth season with Pittsburgh, Foster is expected to remain the team's starting right guard. He will be an unrestricted free agent in 2013. Hensley's slant: Foster was surprisingly serviceable at right guard last season. If the Steelers draft an interior lineman, they should replace left guard Doug Legursky, whose best position is center.
Every morning, grab a cup of coffee and get your AFC North wake-up call here:

Tony Pashos is "really upset" about being released by the Cleveland Browns because the team failed to support him after he played injured last season, the agent for the right tackle told the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

Pashos failed his exit physical, and the Browns are expected to announce his release today. He played with a ruptured tendon in his left foot and had surgery last Tuesday.

The Browns will save $2 million in salary-cap room by cutting Pashos, who was scheduled to make $3.35 million in 2012. He will receive $1 million in an injury settlement, but his value in free agency is hurt by the fact that he needs nine to 10 months of rehab.

"Because the team lacked depth on the offensive line, especially at right tackle, Tony wanted to help the team," agent Rick Smith told the Plain Dealer. "But in order to be able to do that, he had to be given an enormous amount of pain pills and shots. It was an enormous amount, to the point where at Christmas, he went into the hospital with three ulcers from the pain medication. You can see that he missed the final regular season game, because he was in the hospital with the ulcers."

Hensley's slant: There's no loyalty among players (the bounty program proves that), so Pashos shouldn't expect any loyalty from the Browns. It's a tough story, but it's the business side of the NFL. The Browns need a better right tackle than Pashos. In 12 games, Pashos allowed nine sacks and committed six penalties.

BENGALS: Three of the Bengals' top free agents -- safety Reggie Nelson and defensive ends Frostee Rucker and Jonathan Fanene -- will test the market, according to the Cincinnati Enquirer. “We will continue to have discussions with the Bengals but we will explore all options," Nelson’s agent, Hadley Engelhard, said. The Bengals also announced the signing of fullback Chris Pressley to a two-year extension. Hensley's slant: Nelson will be the toughest one for the Bengals to keep because he is the second-best safety available in free agency. But there shouldn't be any excuses if the Bengals really want to hold onto him. Cincinnati has the most salary-cap room of any team in the NFL.

RAVENS: The team extended contract offers to their three top restricted free agents, giving a first-round tender to cornerback Lardarius Webb and second-round ones to cornerback Cary Williams and linebacker Dannell Ellerbe, according to the Baltimore Sun. "I'm very blessed to get a first-round tender!" Webb said on his Twitter page. "I guess everything is up in the air now!" Hensley's slant: By giving such a high tender to Ellerbe, it says to me that the Ravens don't expect to keep unrestricted free agent Jameel McClain. The second-round tender virtually guarantees that Ellerbe will return and will be given a shot at starting next to Ray Lewis. Ellerbe, though, has been one of the biggest underachievers on the team.

STEELERS: As expected, the Steelers put a first-round tender on wide receiver Mike Wallace, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported. The Steelers' other restricted free agents received the low tender, including starting guards Doug Legursky and Ramon Foster. Because they were undrafted, the Steelers wouldn't receive any compensation if they allowed Legursky or Foster to sign elsewhere. Hensley's slant: The Steelers don't have much depth at guard after Chris Kemoeatu was cut and Trai Essex heads to free agency. But I don't see it as a risk to give low tenders to Legursky and Foster. The Steelers can still match any offer.

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