AFC North: Keith Butler

PITTSBURGH -- Mike Tomlin has another coaching spot to fill, and this time he has to replace one of his most trusted lieutenants.

Running backs Kirby Wilson is leaving Pittsburgh for the same position with the Minnesota Vikings, a source confirmed to ESPN.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette first reported Wilson's departure, which is not yet official, hours after reporting that Wilson was no longer a candidate to become the Ravens’ offensive coordinator.

Wilson twice interviewed for the opening in Baltimore -- he was one of three finalists for the job -- and his departure leaves just five assistants on the staff who have been with Tomlin since he became the Steelers’ head coach in 2007.

The Steelers permitted Wilson to pursue other jobs even though he had one year left on his contract and was significantly involved in crafting game plans.

The one question that will trail Wilson out of Pittsburgh is what might have been for the well-traveled assistant.

Wilson would have been one of the top candidates to take over at offensive coordinator in 2012 after the Steelers did not renew Bruce Arians’ contract. But Wilson was badly burned in house fire about a month earlier, and he couldn’t start working again -- even on a limited basis -- for more three months after the blaze that nearly cost him his life.

The Steelers hired Todd Haley to replace Arians, and when it became apparent that Haley would return in 2014 Wilson started looking around for other opportunities with Tomlin’s blessing.

The loss of Wilson comes three days after the Steelers hired Mike Munchak as their next offensive line coach. Running backs coach is the only position Tomlin is expected to have to fill with both coordinators returning as well as linebackers coach Keith Butler.

Butler had been a candidate to join Ken Whisenhunt’s staff in Tennessee as the defensive coordinator but he never interviewed for the position.

Wilson joins his sixth NFL organization after coaching running backs such as Willie Parker, Rashard Mendenhall and Bell with the Steelers.

Bell, under Wilson’s tutelage, rushed for 860 yards in 2013 despite missing the first three games of the season. The second-round draft pick also broke Franco Harris’ Steelers’ record for yards from scrimmage by a rookie with 1,259 yards and established himself as a focal point of the offense in the coming seasons.

Wilson will join first-year coach Mike Zimmer in Minnesota, and he will work with the best running back in the NFL in Adrian Peterson.

Peterson rushed for 1,266 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2013 despite weathering foot and groin injuries, the latter of which sidelined him for two of the Vikings’ last three games.

Peterson had groin surgery last week but the Vikings said he should be fully healthy after a six-week recovery period.
PITTSBURGH -- A surprising name has surfaced in connection with the opening the Baltimore Ravens have at offensive coordinator.

Coach John Harbaugh announced on Tuesday that Pittsburgh Steelers running backs coach Kirby Wilson is among four finalists for the job that became open when the Detroit Lions hired Jim Caldwell as their head coach.

Wilson is eminently qualified for the job, and he probably would have been promoted to offensive coordinator in Pittsburgh had he not been badly burned in a house fire in January, 2012.

The surprise is that the Steelers have granted Wilson permission to interview with their chief rival. Wilson is to meet with Harbaugh this week, presumably in Mobile, Ala., where NFL coaches are scouting Senior Bowl practices and interviewing draft prospects.

The Steelers could have blocked Wilson from interviewing with the Ravens since it is not for a head-coaching job. The guess here is that Mike Tomlin does not want to deny Wilson, who has been with him since 2007 in Pittsburgh, an opportunity given how loyal Wilson has been and what he persevered through to return to coaching.

Wilson would be attractive to the Ravens because of Baltimore's need to fix a running game that faltered badly in 2013. The Ravens averaged just 83.0 rushing yards per game, ranking 30th in the NFL in that cateogry. They averaged just 3.1 yards per cary, last in the NFL.

Wilson is the second Steelers assistant coach who has been linked to a coordinator job elsewhere.

Linebackers coach Keith Butler was considered one of the favorites to become new coach Ken Whisenhunt’s defensive coordinator in Tennessee. But Butler, who is considered the heir apparent to Dick LeBeau in Pittsburgh, never interviewed for the job.

In addition to Wilson, the other finalists for the job in Baltimore are former Rams head coach and Lions offensive coordinator Scott Linehan, former Redskins offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, and Ravens wide receivers coach Jim Hostler.

There has been only one change to Tomlin's coaching staff so far, as he fired offensive line coach Jack Bicknell Jr., this month.

Former Titans coach Mike Munchak interviewed for the job of offensive line coach last week in Pittsburgh.

LB coach likes what he sees from Woodley

September, 16, 2013
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CINCINNATI -- Andy Dalton is just 1-3 in his career against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

If the Steelers are to saddle the Cincinnati Bengals quarterback with another loss, they are going to have to make things very uncomfortable for him tonight at Paul Brown Stadium.

And nothing would help the Steelers more in that department than if LaMarr Woodley re-introduces himself to the nation as one of top pass-rushers in the NFL.

[+] EnlargeLaMarr Woodley
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarThe Steelers need linebacker LaMarr Woodley to get back to being a feared pass-rusher.
Woodley hasn’t been the same since suffering a serious hamstring injury midway through the 2011 season.

The seventh-year veteran recorded the Steelers’ only sack in a season-opening loss to the Tennessee Titans, and linebackers coach Keith Butler likes something else about Woodley when he looks at the bigger picture.

“LaMarr is probably in as good a shape as he has been since I’ve been here,” said Butler, who arrived in Pittsburgh long before Woodley.

“He looks like he is almost 265, but I know he isn’t,” Butler said with a laugh. “But he’s not far from it. This is as close as he’s been in awhile.”

Woodley is listed in the Steelers’ media guide at 265 pounds. But those weights are nothing if not dated as they rarely change following a player’s arrival in Pittsburgh.

The 6-2 Woodley has probably played closer to 285 than 265 in recent seasons. His weight became an issue in the offseason when an anonymous teammate ripped his work ethic in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

The withering criticism was more of a surprise since it came from inside a locker room where players often describe their solidarity as a brotherhood.

It nonetheless shed additional light on the fact that Woodley registered just four sacks in 2012, his lowest total since his rookie season, and missed three games because of hamstring and ankle injuries.

Butler said the high-ankle sprain that Woodley suffered in the 10th game contributed most to what turned out to be a lost season for one of the highest-paid players in franchise history. That dreaded sprain happened a month after Woodley returned from a hamstring injury.

“It wasn’t something that you could say ‘OK, LaMarr’s fat butt was out of shape.’ That wasn’t necessarily the case when he did his ankle,” Butler said in defense of Woodley. “That (injury) has nothing to do with his will or the type of condition he’s in.

"The biggest thing is for him to try and stay healthy, and that’s what we’re going to do with those outside linebackers and I think we’ll be OK.”

The Steelers will spell Woodley at left outside linebacker with Jason Worilds in an attempt to keep Woodley fresh and healthy for the entire season.

That doesn’t mean they have lowered expectations for Woodley, whose 52 sacks in his first six seasons are the most of any player in franchise history since sacks became an official statistic in 1982.

Butler has talked to Woodley about how the fast start to his career -- as well as the six-year, $61.5 million contract he signed in 2011 -- has raised the bar for him.

“You see countless number of players on the waiver wire that’s had great contracts that you’re saying, ‘What are those guys doing on the waiver wire?’ The reason they’re on the waiver wire is their productivity hasn’t matched what they’re making,” Butler said. “And that’s just a fact of life in the league. I wasn’t trying to challenge him. I was trying to reiterate those facts, but he knew them before I told him. He knows.”

Future is now for Jarvis Jones

September, 15, 2013
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PITTSBURGH -- Jarvis Jones will make his first career start Monday night, and Steelers linebackers coach Keith Butler may be just as excited about that as the team’s first-round pick in the 2013 NFL draft is.

“We just want to see this young guy, and we think he’s going to be productive,” Butler said. "The more he plays the better off he’s going to be and so we’re going to try to get some improvement out of him. At the same time, Jason [Worilds] played well for us last week and hopefully he’ll continue to play well.”

Worilds giving way to Jones at right outside linebacker isn’t an indictment of the former as much it is as an endorsement of the latter.

Indeed, the Steelers will continue to use a three-man rotation at outside linebacker so they can also keep LaMarr Woodley fresh. But Jones, barring injury, will play the majority of the snaps at right outside linebacker against the Bengals.

“I’m ready for it,” the former Georgia star said. “I’m going to take full advantage of it and just try to make it count. It’s all about staying focused and prepared.”

Jones has done well enough in both areas to ascend to the starting lineup -- something that rookies rarely do so early in their career while playing in Dick LeBeau’s complex defense.

And he has consistently made an impact when he has been on the field, whether in preseason games or last Sunday when both tackles that Jones registered went for losses.

The first one came in the second quarter when Jones blew up Titans running back Chris Johnson and dropped him for a 2-yard loss. That kind of play could be a preview of things to come from the player whom the Steelers drafted as James Harrison's successor at right outside linebacker.

Jones spent part of his offseason working out with cornerback Ike Taylor at Tom Shaw Performance Camp in Orlando, Fla., and Butler said, “He’s in real good shape; better than I thought he would be.”

What has Butler really excited about Jones is how much better the latter will be once he gets stronger. Jones is listed at 6-foot-2, 245 pounds, and his frame can clearly handle more bulk without compromising his speed.

“He’s a big, tall, long basketball-looking type of guy, and I told him he needs to start looking like a football player instead of a basketball player,” Butler said. “He will. He’s a great kid. He’s confident but humble, and that’s a great combination in my opinion.”
Nearly six months ago, an unnamed teammate called out Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley, saying the reason he was always hurt was because he was out of shape. While this led to the perception of a fractured locker room, maybe the silver lining from this can finally be seen.

Woodley
Woodley
Perhaps more motivated to work out after being called out, Woodley reported to Steelers training camp in good shape, according to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

“Right now, Wood is where we need to have him,” linebackers coach Keith Butler said. “He looks good. He looks real good.”

This shouldn't come as a major surprise. In early May, Woodley said he was "getting after it" with his offseason conditioning. And Butler wouldn't be saying this to appease Woodley. He was a brutally honest critic of Woodley last training camp, when he said Woodley "needs to get his big butt into shape."

But this is just the first step for Woodley. The bottom line is producing on the field. Woodley needs to revert back to his form in 2011 before the hamstring injury. He began that season with nine sacks in his first eight games.

Since that time, Woodley has missed nine games due to hamstring and ankle injuries. To make matters worse, he has four sacks in the past 13 games that he's played.

The Steelers made it clear this offseason with James Harrison that they're not going to keep a player around at a high salary if he isn't meeting expectations. Woodley is scheduled to make $8 million in 2014, which only trails quarterback Ben Roethlisberger ($12.1 million) and safety Troy Polamalu ($8.25 million).

“We talked about it,” Butler said. “You think about the logistics of the NFL: A team is paying you $7-8 million dollars and they aren’t paying you to watch from the sidelines. I am a coach and they don’t pay me $7-8 million to stand on the sidelines and that’s what he’s been doing. If you are not on the field, you can’t earn your money. They might pay for one year, but they aren’t going to pay for the next year. That is the matter-of-fact of the NFL.”
If you want to read the entire chat, you can click right here. These are some highlights:

CINCINNATI BENGALS

Todd (Minneapolis): In most articles on my beloved Bengals, Andy Dalton's arm strength and third-down efficiency is always the main reason why the Bengals will struggle to make the playoffs (for a third year in a row might, I add). Will the additions of tight end Tyler Eifert and running back Giovani Bernard really spread teams out enough where Andy will be able to see the field better and make those deep throws and third-down conversions? Do you see either player (Eifert or Bernard) getting 50-plus catches this season?

Jamison Hensley (ESPN): I don't see Bernard or Eifert making 50-plus catches this year. That's a lot to ask of a player who won't be starting. Where these guys will help is in the short and intermediate passing games. Bernard can take a short pass, break tackles and make a big play. Eifert can stretch the field more than [Jermaine] Greshamand will contribute more 12 to 15-yard plays. Both will make impacts this year.

CLEVELAND BROWNS

Andrew (Cleveland): Is the Browns' Tashaun Gipson enough of a ballhawk to lock down the starting free-safety job in Cleveland? Or do you see Johnson Bademosi or Jamoris Slaughter as legit competition?

Jamison Hensley (ESPN): Gipson is an average starter in this league. But he's the best one they have right now. Slaughter could develop down the road. Bademosi is more of a special-teams player, and a very good one. When the season starts, I expect Gipson to be back there with T.J. Ward.

BALTIMORE RAVENS

Ravenous128 (Columbia, MD): What are you hearing about Gino Gradkowski's transition to starting center? Is he the answer, or will the Ravens look to free agency as a fallback?

Jamison Hensley (ESPN): I believe this is going to be Gradkowski's job to lose. But remember, the Ravens traded for A.Q. Shipley in early May. He started down the stretch for the Colts last season. If Gradkowski doesn't show he can start this year, Shipley is the fallback option.

PITTSBURGH STEELERS

Luke (Carlisle, PA): Do you have any inclination this may be Dick LeBeau's last season at the helm of the Steelers defense? With a lot of expected age turnover (Brett Keisel, Ryan Clark, Ike Taylor, Larry Foote) at the end of the coming season, do you feel it would be the right time for him to walk away, with Keith Butler in the wings?

Jamison Hensley (ESPN): I'll put it this way: I wouldn't be surprised if this was LeBeau's final season. It's going to happen over the next year or two. When the Steelers retained Keith Butler, it showed he was the defensive coordinator in waiting. That, I feel, started the clock on LeBeau.
PITTSBURGH -- There are questions every year about whether Dick LeBeau will retire as the Pittsburgh Steelers defensive coordinator. And, every year, he returns to direct one of the top defenses in the NFL.

Asked about his future at the Steelers' mandatory minicamp Wednesday, the 75-year-old LeBeau was noncommittal, saying, "I don't think, because of the situation I'm in, it would be very productive to think about it. I go one day at a time really and one year at a time and feel blessed that I'm still in the game and surrounded with young people that are working hard. I don't worry too much about the future. Some of us don't have as much future as some of the others."

The speculation of LeBeau retiring has increased since January 2012, when linebackers coach Keith Butler turned down the opportunity to become the Indianapolis Colts' defensive coordinator. Butler is considered the coordinator-in-waiting because of his experience with the Steelers and knowledge of their 3-4 defense.

Under LeBeau, the Steelers have consistently ranked among the best defenses in the league. Over the past five seasons, the Steelers have finished No. 1 in fewest yards allowed and fewest points allowed three times. Last season, Pittsburgh allowed 275.8 yards per game, which was 15 yards per game fewer than any other defense in the NFL.

Some suggest the Steelers haven't been the most dominating defense. Pittsburgh has struggled to generate consistent pressure on the quarterback as well as turnovers the past two years.

Still, linebacker LaMarr Woodley doesn't think he will see LeBeau retire during his playing days.

"It's like Paterno at Penn State," Woodley said.

What Woodley admires most about LeBeau is his knowledge of the game.

"Not only from his playing experience from all of those years and all of those years from being a coach, he's speaking from both sides," Woodley said. "The thing I like about him is when he makes a play call, he does it off top of his head. He doesn't actually look at his sheet and do it."
They say no news is good news. But what do they say about conflicting news? That's the situation in Pittsburgh with inside linebacker Sean Spence.

Spence
During the NFL draft, Steelers linebackers coach Keith Butler said it would be "miraculous" if Spence came back from a devastating knee injury. A week later, coach Mike Tomlin weighed in on the outlook for the 2012 third-round pick.

"I did hear the opinion regarding Spence. My opinion differs," Tomlin said during rookie minicamp. "I think he’s going to have a full recovery. But now you have two opinions, neither of which are expert medical opinions. Do with it what you wish."

It would surprise me if Spence's position coach decided to paint such a grim picture (and do it publicly) without being informed by someone from the medical staff or another high-ranking official. So, why did Tomlin say something completely different? We already know the Steelers are going to keep Spence around for the 2013 season to give him every chance to rebound from a knee injury that involves two torn ligaments (ACL and LCL) and a damaged nerve. My take is Tomlin is giving some hope to a 22-year-old who couldn't have been inspired by Butler's comments.

The Steelers had high expectations for Spence before he injured his knee last preseason. He would have been one of the core special teams players last year and he might have been in line for a starting job this year.

Now, the Steelers are unsure, or at least not on the same page, as to whether Spence will ever play a meaningful game for the franchise. If I took one thing away from Tomlin's comments, it's that Butler, who is considered the heir apparent to defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, won't be revealing medical updates anytime soon.
Every morning, grab a cup of coffee and get your AFC North wake-up call here:

In a surprising twist, Pittsburgh linebackers coach Keith Butler decided not to interview for the Indianapolis Colts' defensive coordinator position and remain with the Steelers, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Butler was the clear frontrunner to take over the defense under new Colts coach Chuck Pagano and had a meeting planned for Tuesday in Indianapolis. But the interview was canceled after Butler met Monday with team president Art Rooney II and head coach Mike Tomlin, the Post-Gazette reported.

According to the paper, Butler was told two years ago that he will be the team's defensive coordinator when Dick LeBeau retired and received a handshake agreement when he turned down the Miami Dolphins' defensive coordinator job.

Hensley's slant: Butler's loyalty was likely rewarded with a substantial raise and a more definitive timetable on when he's replacing the 74-year-old LeBeau. Continuity is a valuable commodity to the stable and winningest franchises. The Steelers know there will be a seamless transition with Butler. Now, if Pittsburgh could only fill their vacancy at offensive coordinator as quickly. It's assumed that the Steelers will hire from within for this position as well, but there's increasing questions the longer it takes to Pittsburgh to fill this opening.

BENGALS: While Cam Newton is the frontrunner to be the NFL's Offensive Rookie of the Year, the Bengals' Andy Dalton outplayed the Carolina quarterback in Sunday's Pro Bowl. The difference was turnovers and accuracy. Newton got picked off three times while Dalton had no interceptions and misfired on two of his nine passes. “I’ve been able to do a lot given some great opportunities, but I feel like it’s just the beginning, though,” Dalton told the team's website. “We’ve got a lot of young talent. We just have to get it all together.” Hensley's slant: Newton had the superior stats (35 total touchdowns). Dalton had more wins and played against tougher defenses. The only thing anyone can agree on is it's nearly impossible to compare the two quarterbacks. They have different styles but those styles work for them. It'll be interesting to see how they compare five years down the road.

BROWNS: The Browns are interested in re-signing running back Peyton Hillis, a league source told the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Hillis, who is an unrestricted free agent on March 13, impressed the Browns enough over the final six games on and off the field to change the team's mind about keeping him at the right price, the paper reported. Hensley's slant: This just reeks of desperation on the Browns' part. When a player reportedly needs an intervention-style meeting from teammates, it's a strong sign that he has become a distraction. Sure, the Browns need playmakers on offense in the worst way. But building the right chemistry in the locker room has to become a priority, too.

RAVENS: Backup running back Ricky Williams intends on playing next season, which will be his 12th in the NFL. Williams, who turns 35 before next season, had career lows in carries (108) and total rushing yards (444) in 2011. “My body feels good and I know I’m going to train hard and so I’m excited about next year,” Williams said, via the team's website. “I’ve grown a lot, kind of falling into a new role and a new city and a new organization, and I’ve gotten better. And like everyone else, I feel like I have something to build on for next year.” Hensley's slant: The Ravens eventually have to look for a long-term backup to Ray Rice, whether that's Anthony Allen or someone else. The key is finding a compliment to Rice, a big-back like Williams or Le'Ron McClain. But Williams, who is under contract for one more season, can hold down the job for 2012.
There's a full-blown AFC North reunion going on with the Indianapolis Colts' coaching staff this year.

The Colts plan to hire Steelers linebackers coach Keith Butler as their defensive coordinator, according to ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter. In his nine years with Pittsburgh, Butler has been instrumental in the development of three Pro Bowl linebackers: James Farrior, James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley.

This comes a day after the Colts added former Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians to run their offense. So, new Colts head coach Chuck Pagano, the former Ravens defensive coordinator, is bringing along two Steelers coaches to run his offense and defense.

But the AFC North ties run deeper than that. Pagano, Arians and Butler were together on Butch Davis' Browns coaching staff for two seasons (2001-02). I'm still trying to figure out how the Bengals play a part in this so every AFC North team is represented in this weekend's Colts coaching moves.
The AFC North has done very well lately in ESPN.com’s Power Rankings. Last week, Joe Thomas of the Cleveland Browns claimed the top spot for left tackles. The division also had high placements with defensive players, helmets and stadiums in recent weeks.

But the AFC North was shut out Tuesday when it came to up-and-coming assistant coaches. The highest finish was No. 11 by Cincinnati Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer.

Two AFC North coaches made the final ballot. Zimmer received three votes from our panel, including my No. 7 vote. I was the only person to vote for Steelers linebackers coach Keith Butler, who is viewed as the in-house favorite to eventually replace longtime defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau.

Former Browns defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, who was hired this offseason by the Dallas Cowboys, was No. 2 on this list.

ESPN.com's up-and-coming coaches Power Rankings

1. Perry Fewell, Giants

2. Rob Ryan, Cowboys

3. Brian Schottenheimer, Jets

4. Russ Grimm, Cardinals

5. Dirk Koetter, Jaguars

6. Winston Moss, Green Bay Packers

7. Greg Olson, Buccaneers

8. Rob Chudzinski, Panthers

9. Bill O’Brien, New England Patriots

10. Darren Perry, Packers

Walker's up-and-coming coaches Power Rankings

1. Perry Fewell, Giants

2. Russ Grimm, Cardinals

3. Winston Moss, Packers

4. Brian Schottenheimer, Jets

5. Rob Ryan, Cowboys

6. Kyle Shanahan, Redskins

7. Mike Zimmer, Bengals

8. Mel Tucker, Jaguars

9. Rob Chudzinski, Panthers

10. Keith Butler, Steelers
As expected, the Pittsburgh Steelers lost defensive backs coach Ray Horton to the Arizona Cardinals. Arizona has pursued Horton following Super Bowl XLV and announced Wednesday that he will become the team's new defensive coordinator.

There was speculation the Cardinals and head coach Ken Whisenhunt, a former Pittsburgh assistant, would go after defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau or linebackers coach Keith Bulter, but neither were leaving the Steelers. Butler is considered the top in-house candidate to replace LeBeau if he retires.

Horton will look to bring Pittsburgh's aggressive style to Arizona and did a solid job coaching players such as safety Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor. The Steelers were No. 2 in total defense last season.
Here are the most interesting stories in the AFC North:

Morning take: Here's the same response I gave to the others.

  • Baltimore Ravens safety Ed Reed, who contemplated retirement, recently had hip surgery and will not participate at this weekend's minicamp.
Morning take: The Ravens are confident that Reed is returning and didn’t alter their draft plans, which is further proof of that.

  • Pittsburgh Steelers linebackers coach Keith Butler has a lot of talent to work with.
Morning take: I'm still a bit baffled why Pittsburgh drafted two OLBs in the first four rounds last month. But Butler should definitely be happy about it.

  • Here is more info on Cleveland Browns rookie safety and fifth-round pick Larry Asante.
Morning take: Asante worked his way up from junior college to Nebraska, where he became one of the Huskers' top defenders. The Browns hope he continues to improve.

Morning take: Ravens vs. Colts

January, 16, 2010
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Here are the most interesting stories Saturday in the AFC North:

  • After six days of playoff hype, the Baltimore Ravens will travel to play Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts.
Morning take: This isn't the sexiest playoff game this weekend, but it's still interesting. I’m looking forward to seeing the chess match between smart players like Manning, Ed Reed and Ray Lewis.


Morning take: Here is a hint: Although a lot can change over the next three months, we mentioned this player as an early favorite this week.


  • Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker coach Keith Butler is returning after interviewing with the Miami Dolphins.
Morning take: This is good news for the Steelers. Butler has done a great job with Pittsburgh's linebackers and would be a strong candidate to succeed current defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau when he retires.


  • The Cincinnati Bengals' offensive line has fewer questions today than it did a year ago.
Morning take: That much is true. This unit was one of the major surprises in 2009. But pass protection is still a work in progress.

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