AFC North: James Farrior

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

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

Riskiest move: The Steelers took just one defensive back in the draft and they didn’t select cornerback Shaquille Richardson of Arizona until the fifth round. That won’t do anything to allay the anxiety of Steelers’ fans about the state of the secondary and specifically cornerback where Ike Taylor isn’t getting younger and where there isn’t much depth. Steelers defensive backs coach Carnell Lake said he is confident free-agent signee Brice McCain and Antwon Blake, who played almost exclusively on special teams last season, can be key contributors this season. They better be since the draft didn’t deliver the reinforcements at cornerback that most thought it would.

Most surprising move: The Steelers bypassed a cornerback and wide receiver in the third round to take speedy but diminutive running back Dri Archer. This looks like a luxury pick since the Steelers had more pressing needs when they selected the 5-8, 173-pounder. Archer ran the fastest 40-yard dash time (4.26 seconds) at the NFL combine, and the Steelers plan to carve out a role for him in the offense. ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr. has compared Archer to Darren Sproles because of his explosiveness and versatility. Steelers wide receivers coach Richard Mann said Archer reminds him of former Browns scatback/receiver Gerald “Ice Cube” McNeil. “He’s not small,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “He’s short.”

File it away: First-round pick Ryan Shazier will be an immediate difference-maker as a rookie -- and will make multiple Pro Bowls if he stays healthy. His speed is such that defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau has said he envisions playing Shazier all over the field. Lake said he will gladly take Shazier as a safety if linebackers coach Keith Butler doesn’t want him. Butler, when told that, smiled and said “I’m not in favor of doing that. Shazier can make mistakes and has make-up speed to get back into position and make plays.” Butler scoffs at the notion that the 6-1, 237-pound Shazier is undersized for an inside linebacker at this level. Butler said former Steelers inside linebacker James Farrior played between 225 and 230 pounds in the latter part of his carer, including 2010 when he made the Pro Bowl. “A lot of times young linebackers get in their head, ‘I have to weigh 250 or I have to weigh 260 [pounds] but can they move? Can they get where they need to be when they need to be there? This guy can do that.”
PITTSBURGH -- The Steelers made an earlier-than-usual foray into free agency.

In the process they got younger and faster in the secondary and found a new running mate for Troy Polamalu on the back end of their defense.

The signing of Mike Mitchell -- the former Panthers safety agreed to a five-year, $25 million contract per ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter -- confirms that the Steelers weren’t just willing to address their defensive backfield through the draft.

[+] EnlargeMike Mitchell
Bob Donnan/USA TODAY SportsMike Mitchell will replace Ryan Clark in Pittsburgh's secondary.
Mitchell, who turns 27 in June, fits the profile of the defensive backs that the Steelers had inquired about prior to the start of free agency. He is young but has starting experience and will help the Steelers immediately, something they are loathe to expect out of rookies.

Mitchell spent his first four seasons with the Raiders but came into his own after signing a one-year deal with the Panthers last year. Starting on a regular basis for the first time in his career, Mitchell recorded 66 tackles while intercepting four passes and forcing a pair of fumbles in 15 games.

The 6-foot, 215-pounder will take over at free safety for Ryan Clark, and the Steelers hope they get a return from Mitchell similar to what they received from Clark after signing him to a four-year, $7 million contract in 2006.

Clark started eight seasons after signing with the Steelers as an unrestricted free agent, and he and Polamalu became close friends and played as well off one another as any safety tandem in the NFL before age starting catching up with the duo.

The Mitchell signing drops the curtain on Clark’s Steelers career though he said on ESPN’s "NFL Live" on Tuesday that he intends to keep playing.

It is also the latest move that will shape the Steelers’ secondary in 2014 and the first one that should provide stability beyond next season.

The Steelers had previously re-signed Polamalu to a three-year contract and restructured cornerback Ike Taylor's contact with the 11th-year veteran accepting a $4.5 million pay cut.

Taylor’s new deal put the Steelers around $7 million under the salary cap, allowing them to sign the biggest free agent from a financial standpoint since Mike Tomlin took over as head coach in 2007.

The Steelers generally wait until after the frenzied first wave of free agency before going shopping.

They have made exceptions as far as pursuing higher-profile free agents, and the Steelers hit pay dirt in the early 2000s when they signed center Jeff Hartings and linebacker James Farrior in back-to-back years.

Hartings, who signed with the Steelers in 2001, continued the line of excellence that the Steelers have enjoyed at center. Farrior, who signed with the Steelers the year after Hartings, blossomed into one of the best inside linebackers in the NFL and became one of the driving forces behind a run in which the Steelers won a pair of Super Bowls and played in three of them from 2005-10.

The Steelers didn’t do nearly as well in 2007 when they signed former Buccaneers center Sean Mahan to a five-year, $17 million contract. Mahan lasted just one season in Pittsburgh, and the Steelers traded him to the Buccaneers in 2008 after he lost his starting job to Justin Hartwig.

Free-agency primer: Steelers

March, 7, 2014
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» AFC Free-Agency Primer: East | West | North | South » NFC: East | West | North | South

 
Key free agents: WR Emmanuel Sanders, DE Ziggy Hood, WR Jerricho Cotchery, DE Al Woods, DE Brett Keisel, S Ryan Clark, RB Jonathan Dwyer, C Fernando Velasco, OT Guy Whimper, C/G Cody Wallace, TE David Johnson, LB Stevenson Sylvester.

Where they stand: General manager Kevin Colbert has said the Steelers may be more active in free agency than in recent years, but don’t expect their philosophy to fundamentally change. The Steelers will focus on their own players and are likely to sit out the first wave of free agency and target midlevel free agents after the marquee names have signed with other teams. Colbert hinted that the Steelers could try to land a potential starter via free agency, and they could use immediate help as well as depth at just about any position on defense. Nothing would help the Steelers more than if they could sign a free agent who will make an impact like Ryan Clark (2006) or James Farrior (2002) did, though they would have to splurge to get a free agent the caliber of Farrior.

What to expect: Wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders, the team's top free agent, is going to command more money than the Steelers are willing to pay. He will almost certainly sign elsewhere, though look for veteran Jerricho Cotchery to re-sign with the team after catching 10 touchdown passes last season. Defensive end Ziggy Hood is likely to sign elsewhere, making it imperative that the Steelers bring back Al Woods. They could also re-sign Brett Keisel for one more season if the two sides can find common ground on compensation. The Steelers have a good chance of signing most of their free agents with the exceptions of Sanders and Hood, and that is how they will add depth to their offensive line. Free agents they could target include former Seahawks defensive end Red Bryant, Dolphins defensive tackle Paul Soliai and 49ers cornerback Tarell Brown. The Steelers met with former Lions safety Louis Delmas last month, but his knee issues may be too much of a red flag for them, and they have since re-signed veteran Will Allen.

Joey Porter will turn up the volume

February, 11, 2014
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PITTSBURGH -- The volume just got turned up at Steelers headquarters, and that can only be a good thing for a team that has missed the playoffs in each of the past two seasons.

Joey Porter is returning to the organization as an entry-level assistant coach whose responsibilities have not been defined -- at least publicly -- by the Steelers.

It doesn’t matter.

Just having Porter in the building should restore some swagger and attitude to a defense that could use a little of both after giving up too many big plays in 2013 and recording too few sacks, Porter’s specialty when he played for the Steelers from 1999 to 2006.

Porter, only two seasons removed from his playing career, has relatively little coaching experience. His hiring is a curious one considering Mike Tomlin had a voice in the organization releasing Porter in 2007, less than two months after the Steelers hired Tomlin to succeed Bill Cowher.

The Steelers saved $6 million by releasing Porter, and they had James Harrison ready to play right outside linebacker at a significantly lower price. But what also sealed Porter’s playing fate in Pittsburgh is that a 34-year-old first-time head coach probably needed to get Porter out of the Steelers’ locker room to make it his own.

That is how dominant of a personality Porter was when he played for the Steelers.

Loud, profane, sometimes politically incorrect, Porter’s was the mouth that roared and stirred a defense that helped the Steelers win a fifth Super Bowl title in 2005.

Teammates fell in line behind him like no other player with maybe the exception of James Farrior, who was ice to Porter’s raging fire.

Porter will now be on a different side than the players, some of whom were his teammates and know him as "J Peezy."

But his fierce will to win should serve him as well as a coach, and Porter will add raw emotion to a veteran coaching staff that could use a little of it.

Turning up the volume a little could be just what the Steelers need following back-to-back 8-8 seasons.

Polamalu, Steelers still a good fit

January, 16, 2014
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PITTSBURGH -- The last two years show that sentimentality has nothing to do with Art Rooney II's desire for Troy Polamalu to retire as a Steeler.

[+] EnlargeTroy Polamalu
AP Photo/Tom UhlmanMoney may be the only thing in the way of Troy Polamalu retiring as a Steeler.
Hines Ward, Aaron Smith, James Harrison, James Farrior and Casey Hampton are among the players whom the Steelers have either cut or not re-signed since 2012. Like Polamalu, all were cornerstones on the teams that won two Super Bowls and played in another from 2005-10.

True, Polamalu is the most iconic of those players with the flowing locks that have morphed into their own brand and a game that is a study in angles, kinetics and flash.

But the 2010 NFL Defensive Player of the Year is also still playing at a high level even if he has slipped a bit in coverage. That was never the strongest part of his game anyway. and Polamalu is still arguably the most valuable piece the Steelers have on defense given how defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau deploys him all over the field.

Any doubts the Steelers may have had about wanting Polamalu back in 2014 were erased by a season in which he displayed remarkable durability.

Consider that a significant number of the 1,041 snaps Polamalu played came at inside linebacker in the Steelers' quarter package. And yet the 11th-year veteran did not come off the field a year after he missed more than half of the 2012 season because of a calf injury.

Necessity is also a factor in the Steelers wanting Polamalu back in 2014. The team is unlikely to re-sign free safety Ryan Clark, and there is no way the Steelers can go into next season with two new safeties.

Shamarko Thomas, the eventual successor to Polamalu at strong safety, showed promise during his rookie season. But the fourth-round draft pick did not play a defensive snap in the final seven games after sustaining a high ankle injury and getting supplanted by veteran Will Allen in the quarter package.

Money is the one thing that could complicate Polamalu finishing his career in Pittsburgh.

His cap hit of just under $10.9 million is prohibitive for a team that needs to shed salary in the offseason. And the Steelers wanted to re-sign Harrison last year but the two sides couldn't agree on the amount of a pay cut the outside linebacker take, and he is now playing in Cincinnati.

It is possible that a similar scenario could play out with Polamalu but I think it is highly unlikely.

Polamalu wants to finish his career in Pittsburgh. Rooney expressed, in as strong of terms possible, that he wants the same thing.

The two sides will find a way to make it happen.
PITTSBURGH -- Ryan Clark wasted little time acknowledging an uncomfortable truth after the loss that all but eliminated the Steelers from postseason contention.

Change is coming sooner rather than later, and it could sweep away most of the remaining veterans who won at least one Super Bowl with the Steelers and played in another.

Clark
“Any time you're in the last year of a contract and a team is playing a certain way you never know what moves they want to make,” Clark said Sunday after the Steelers' 34-28 loss to the Dolphins. “I think guys need to realize, and I have realized probably because I am older, faces change. You lose James Farriors and you lose Aaron Smiths, and it hurts and it's tough but everybody's time comes. For me I want to enjoy bit, keep playing, have fun.”

The Steelers have their share of pending free agents and they fall into two groups: veterans they may not try to re-sign and younger players they may not be able to re-sign because they command more money somewhere else.

Clark is clearly in the first category as he is in his 12th NFL season, turned 34 in October and is part of a secondary that desperately needs an infusion of youth.

He saw the Steelers make tough business decisions a couple of years ago when they released Farrior and Ward, two players who meant everything to the organization.

The same thing happened after last season when the Steelers did not try to re-sign Casey Hampton, a locker room favorite and one of the best run-stuffing nose tackles of his generation.

The Steelers rarely let sentiment get in the way of making difficult personnel decisions, and they don't figure to start now.

The franchise that has won a record six Lombardi Trophies is at a crossroads, and it faces another offseason that will be marked by turnover. Letting Clark walk may be one of the easier decisions it faces given his expiring contract and declining play.

That reality is the reason Clark is looking at the Steelers' final three games as anything but meaningless.

“I know (they) matter to me because for some of us this may be the last however many games in a Pittsburgh Steeler helmet, so you want to play well, you want to enjoy the time with your friends,” Clark said. “You just continue to play hard, you continue to have fun and for me that's what I'm going to do and then what happens with that happens.”

Locker Room Buzz: Pittsburgh Steelers

October, 20, 2013
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PITTSBURGH -- Observed in the locker room after the Pittsburgh Steelers' 19-16 win over the Baltimore Ravens.

Sanders
Oh so close: Mike Tomlin didn’t hide his displeasure about the late kickoff return for a touchdown that was called back after Emmanuel Sanders stepped out of bounds at the Steelers’ 37-yard line. Sanders, who brought a deep kickoff out of the end zone, came within inches of successfully staying in bounds along the Steelers sideline and scoring. What upset Tomlin is that the call could not be reviewed per NFL rules, which seems silly considering the impact the play had on the game and how close it was. “I’ve got to go back and look at it,” Sanders said when asked if he stayed in bounds. “I saw it on the replay board. It seemed like I tiptoed the boundary but it was so close.”

A new wrinkle: The Steelers ran the Wildcat offense four times with rookie running back Le’Veon Bell taking a direct snap from center. Bell, who ran three times out of the formation and once handed off to wideout Antonio Brown, said the Steelers had not practiced the Wildcat until last week. That’s right, the Steelers did not work on the Wildcat in any of their offseason practices or during training camp, which is why the Ravens didn’t expect it. “I’m comfortable with it,” said Bell, who ran the Wildcat at Michigan State and played quarterback at high school. “We can get better at it.”

Injury update: Steelers outside linebacker Jarvis Jones (concussion) didn’t dress even though the rookie passed an imPACT test on Friday. Tomlin said renowned concussion doctor Micky Collins expressed reservations about Jones playing against the Ravens following a check-up on Saturday. “We didn’t second-guess it,” Tomlin said. “We moved on. It is my assumption that he’ll be ready to go next week.” Right tackle Marcus Gilbert aggravated a quadriceps injury early in the game and did not return. Tomlin opted for Guy Whimper over Mike Adams at right tackle because the latter had figured prominently into the Steelers’ plans to use a lineman as an extra tight end, and the coach did not want to disrupt that.

Welcome back: James Farrior, a stalwart on the teams that won a pair of Super Bowls and played in three of them from 2005 to 2010, shared a long hug with Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. The former linebacker caught up with different teammates in the victorious locker room and said he is plenty busy even though he is no longer involved with football. Farrior and his wife have 12-week-old twins and are raising them in Houston. Since she works, Farrior, who retired in 2012 after the Steelers released him, is now a full-time dad. His smile suggests he is loving every minute of it.
The Steelers named their captains for this season, and for the first time since 2005, it didn't include wide receiver Hines Ward or linebacker James Farrior. Ward had been a captain for the offense for the previous seven seasons, and Farrior had been one for the defense for the past eight years.

With Ward and Farrior both released in the offseason, it was time for the Steelers to select their new leaders. The players voted on quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and defensive end Brett Keisel.

This is the fourth time that Roethlisberger has been named a captain, but it's the first time he hasn't shared that title with Ward. Keisel, who is entering his 11th season, has never been selected as a captain. The team didn't name a special teams captain. Last year, the special teams captain was Arnaz Battle, who was released this offseason like Ward and Farrior.

The Browns players recently named their captains: offensive tackle Joe Thomas (offense), linebacker D'Qwell Jackson (defense) and kicker Phil Dawson (special teams). "They chose wisely," coach Pat Shurmur said.
So, I'm glad to be back but I am a little upset. I take off one week and miss Kordell Stewart retiring as a Steeler. This made me check my calendar to make sure it was 2012 and not 2002. Maybe I'll get lucky this week and Neil O'Donnell will do the same this week.

Thanks for the responses regarding the blog, and I'll have a post today on some of the feedback.

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

The Pittsburgh Steelers remain confident that Larry Foote can replace friend and mentor in James Farrior as a starting inside linebacker.

“Larry Foote knows this defense in and out,” linebackers coach Keith Butler told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. “He’s been in this defense for 10 years. If anybody knows this defense, it’s Larry Foote. Larry Foote is a very capable starter for us, and there won’t be much drop-off by having him in there.”

According to the Tribune-Review, Foote played 40 percent of the Steelers' defensive snaps last season while Farrior logged 73 percent. “I can hold my own,” Foote said. “I’ve taken the huddle of this team before in my 10 years. I know the defense. I can play.”

Hensley's slant: The Steelers showed confidence in Foote when they decided to release Farrior instead of him in their offseason salary-cap purge. Foote then caught a break when Pittsburgh drafted guard David DeCastro instead of linebacker Dont'a Hightower in the first round. In terms of performance, I agree there shouldn't be much of a drop-off from Farrior to Foote. The big question is how much the defense will miss one of its leading voices on the field and in the locker room.

BENGALS: A.J. Green became the first rookie wide receiver to make the Pro Bowl since 2003, but there's still room for improvement. A focus for the Bengals has been fine-tuning Green's route-running. “He’s always been such a good receiver that he could beat guys a lot of times just by running around them,” Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden told the National Football Post. “There were times last year when he wasn’t as detailed as he should be in terms of getting off the line, his depths and his route running. I think some of those routes will be cleaned up. He’s working on it. He’s so receptive to it. Has a ways to go, but he wants to be great. With the talent he has, throw in the desire he has, the work ethic he has, and the sky is the limit.” Hensley's slant: It's great that Green wants to improve. The key to this piece, however, is Green being present for the offseason workouts. The Bengals usually didn't have their No. 1 receiver around this time of year when Chad Ochocinco was the top target.

BROWNS: The Cleveland Plain Dealer's Mary Kay Cabot sees Dimitri Patterson rotating with Sheldon Brown at cornerback in the team's base defensive formations and gives Eric Hagg the early edge at free safety. She also reports that strong safety T.J. Ward is fully recovered from his foot injury. "I still think a premier box safety is valuable, but Ward needs to create more turnovers (two interceptions, two forced fumbles so far)," Cabot wrote. Hensley's slant: The spot to watch is free safety. I see Patterson stepping into a starting role this season and Ward developing into an impact defender if he stays healthy. The Browns need either Hagg, a seventh-round pick from a year ago, or Usama Young to fill that final spot in the secondary. This is Hagg's time to show he is more than a special-teams player.

RAVENS: Running back Ray Rice reunited with teammates over the weekend. It just happened to be at a charity softball game and not the football field. Rice did not provide an update on negotiations. "Honestly, I just let my agent take care of all of that stuff," Rice told the Baltimore Sun. "I just stay in shape and come out on days like this to get some fresh sun. I know the business side always takes care of itself. I know I've put myself in that position to kind of let it dwindle out and whatever it is at the end of the day, hopefully I'll be out there soon." If the sides don't reach a new deal by July 16, Rice would play under the $7.7 million franchise tag. Hensley's slant: As we've talked about plenty of times this offseason, the challenge is bridging a $10 million gap in guaranteed money. Rice probably feels he deserves a contract similar to the one given to Chris Johnson (six years with $30 million guaranteed). The Ravens are likely looking at a deal closer to the one signed by Arian Foster (five years, $43.5 million with $20.75 million guaranteed) and LeSean McCoy (five years, $45 million with $20.76 million guaranteed).

AFC North links: Bengals' Sanu a starter?

May, 29, 2012
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Cincinnati Bengals

A.J. Green is establishing himself as a team leader in just his second season, writes Joe Reedy of the Enquirer.

Third-round pick Mohamed Sanu is making a push to be the team's No. 2 receiver opposite Green, writes Sam Ingro of the National Football Authority.

Cleveland Browns

The Browns will adapt their version of the West Coast offense to suit rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden's talents, writes Mary Kay Cabot of the Plain Dealer.

Cabot's position-by-position breakdown of the Browns.

Baltimore Ravens

Continuity will be the key to improvement for the Ravens' offense, which returns 10 starters this season, writes Matt Vensel of the Baltimore Sun.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Veteran offensive lineman Willie Colon says switching from tackle to guard should be no problem, writes Ray Fittipaldo of the Post-Gazette.

Linebacker Larry Foote, who turns 32 next month, is now an elder statesman on a defense that lost leaders James Farrior and Aaron Smith, writes Fittipaldo.

The playoff loss in Denver still motivates the Steelers, writes Joe Starkey of the Tribune-Review.

Troy Polamalu thinks about the end of his career "all the time," writes Will Brinson of CBS Sports.
Unlike the other all-time great safety in the division, the Steelers' Troy Polamalu is committed to playing this season. But Polamalu did acknowledge to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that he thinks of the end of his career "all the time."

Polamalu
"People have asked me how many years do you think you can play? My reaction is always, when you live day to day, it's hard to talk years," he said. "It's always been my mantra in life, whether it was my first year as a rookie or year 10, I just live day to day."

It's fair to say that Polamalu, who turned 31, has fewer years ahead in his playing career than behind him. But that won't impact this season. The fact that Polamalu was there for voluntary workouts will.

Polamalu usually skips these practices because he prefers working out with his trainer in Los Angeles. He said he chose to come this year "for obvious reasons."

"We had a lot of our major leadership leave, people that we count on," he said. "I think it's nice for the younger guys to see a familiar face, and, honestly, to get myself better."

This older Polamalu might think of retirement more, but he is also more mature and responsible. He understands the effect of losing the likes of James Farrior, Aaron Smith and Chris Hoke on defense. He understands that the Steelers need him in Pittsburgh and not on the West Coast.

General manager Kevin Colbert said at the NFL owners meetings that he couldn't identify who would become the new leaders on this team. "We're looking for that right now," he said.

Well, the Steelers looked at one when they saw Polamalu entering team headquarters for a workout in May.

Steelers: One big question

May, 4, 2012
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Do the Pittsburgh Steelers still have the best defense in the NFL?

That depends on three factors: the health of nose tackle Casey Hampton, the ability to replace inside linebacker James Farrior, and the emergence of a No. 2 cornerback. The most pressing issue is Hampton, who had ACL surgery in January. It's unknown whether the 35-year-old veteran will be lining up against Denver in the season opener, or starting the season on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list. His absence could force Ziggy Hood to shift from defensive end, or push rookie fourth-round pick Alameda Ta'amu into the starting lineup.

The Steelers already know they must replace Farrior, who was cut March 2. Some would dismiss this as a challenge, because Farrior was a part-time player last season and contributed a career-low 78 tackles. Still, he was a 10-year starter and the top leader on defense. Many expected the Steelers to draft Dont'a Hightower as his replacement, but they chose guard David DeCastro in the first round instead. Now, Pittsburgh will fill that spot with either Larry Foote, who was previously released so Lawrence Timmons could start, or Stevenson Sylvester, who has 21 career tackles.

The other question is at cornerback, where Pittsburgh must fill William Gay's starting spot. It's up in the air right now, and should come down to a three-player race between Keenan Lewis, Cortez Allen and Curtis Brown. Lewis and Allen played on the team's nickel defense last season, but the dark horse to win this battle is Brown, a tenacious defender who led the Steelers in special teams tackles last season. The Steelers' defense ended last season ranked first in fewest yards and points allowed after being criticized early for being too old. So, it's hard to predict much of a falloff as Pittsburgh goes through some transition at a couple of positions.
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.
Breakdown: The Steelers parted ways with big-name veterans in Hines Ward and James Farrior, but they are still in demand. Pittsburgh is one of eight teams to receive five prime-time games.

In a cruel twist by schedule makers, the Steelers begin their season where it ended -- in Denver. Instead of rehashing the memory of Tim Tebow's winning touchdown pass in overtime, Pittsburgh has to deal with Peyton Manning and his Broncos debut. It's then possible that the Steelers will face Tebow in Week 2 when the New York Jets visit.

The division should come down to the final two months of the season. The Steelers finish by playing five AFC North teams over the last seven weeks of the regular season. The most intense part of the schedule is the time when the Steelers battle the Ravens twice in three weeks (Nov. 18 and Dec. 2). That doesn't give the teams too much time to heal.

Complaint department: Pittsburgh starts the season by playing four of six games on the road. In September, the Steelers have one home game and two trips out west. A bye week is sandwiched in that rough opening stretch, but that even hurts the Steelers. Who wants a bye week in Week 4? That means the Steelers have to play 13 consecutive games without a break.

Home cooking: If the Steelers can survive that challenging start, the last month of the schedule works in their favor. Pittsburgh plays three of its final four games at home, which includes contests at Heinz Field against Cincinnati and Cleveland to finish out the regular season.

Steelers Regular-Season Schedule (All times Eastern)
Week 1: Sunday, Sept. 9, at Denver, 8:20 PM
Week 2: Sunday, Sept. 16, NY Jets, 4:15 PM
Week 3: Sunday, Sept. 23, at Oakland, 4:15 PM
Week 4: BYE
Week 5: Sunday, Oct. 7, Philadelphia, 1:00 PM
Week 6: Thursday, Oct. 11, at Tennessee, 8:20 PM
Week 7: Sunday, Oct. 21, at Cincinnati, 8:20 PM
Week 8: Sunday, Oct. 28, Washington, 1:00 PM
Week 9: Sunday, Nov. 4, at NY Giants, 4:15 PM
Week 10: Monday, Nov. 12, Kansas City, 8:30 PM
Week 11: Sunday, Nov. 18, Baltimore, 8:20 PM
Week 12: Sunday, Nov. 25, at Cleveland, 1:00 PM
Week 13: Sunday, Dec. 2, at Baltimore, 4:15 PM
Week 14: Sunday, Dec. 9, San Diego, 1:00 PM
Week 15: Sunday, Dec. 16, at Dallas, 4:15 PM
Week 16: Sunday, Dec. 23, Cincinnati, 1:00 PM
Week 17: Sunday, Dec. 30, Cleveland, 1:00 PM

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