AFC North: Markus Wheaton

PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Steelers offense broke out in 2014, finishing second in the NFL with 411.1 total yards per game and establishing a new franchise record for points (436) in a season.

The Steelers control the contract rights of every starter through next season and young wide receivers Martavis Bryant and Markus Wheaton could come into their own in 2015. An offensive line that made significant progress has enough youth to it to think that will continue to improve, especially with position coach Mike Munchak back for a second season.

The danger for the Steelers’ offensive players is thinking that just because so many pieces are in place that everything will fall into place next season.

“You think we had a good season, it’s going to happen every year. That’s not the case,” left guard Ramon Foster said. “It’s going to be the leaders that have to let them understand that they can’t get complacent. We have to work to get better.

“A lot of guys grew up this year, and I’m happy to see that. We’ve got coaches in place, we don’t have to go searching for certain guys and worry about that so as far as the offense as a whole we should be better.”

Coach Mike Tomlin is counting on that, which is why he did not try to lower expectations when asked if the Steelers’ offense can be better in 2015.

“Why can’t we get better in all areas? Not only offensively but defensively and special teams,” Tomlin said. “It’s amazing how we as humans are capable of limiting ... just simply because we set parameters on our own expectations. I try to consciously not do that. What areas can we not get better in? That needs to be our mentality and hopefully it will be.”
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PITTSBURGH -- Can a team exceed expectations without even matching their own?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grading the Pittsburgh Steelers

December, 15, 2014
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ATLANTA -- Here are the marks after the Pittsburgh Steelers improved to 9-5 with a 27-20 win against the Atlanta Falcons.

Quarterback: Ben Roethlisberger showed sublime patience for the second week in a row, taking what the defense gave the Steelers. He didn't miss many throws even with the Falcons blitzing early and often. Roethlisberger again threw for well over 300 yards while completing just over 77 percent of his passes. Grade: A

Running backs: The Falcons held Le'Veon Bell to 47 yards -- his second-lowest total this season -- and just 2.4 yards per carry. The Falcons were determined to shut down the run and left very few openings for Bell. He did score a 13-yard touchdown on the Steelers' favorite running play, following blocks by pulling right guard David DeCastro and Will Johnson, who had lined up as a tight end, into the end zone. Grade: C

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Receivers: Antonio Brown caught all 10 passes thrown his way and finished with 123 receiving yards. The two-time Pro Bowler showed tremendous footwork in making a 28-yard sideline grab near the end of the first half, which set up a 1-yard touchdown run by Bell. Markus Wheaton and Heath Miller each made timely grabs and Bell chipped in 72 receiving yards. Grade: A-

Offensive line: The Steelers did not get enough of a push against a defense that had been allowing just under 123 rushing yards per game. But the Steelers ran the ball when they had to and the line allowed just one sack in a noisy stadium and against a defense that blitzed Roethlisberger on 40 percent of his throws. Grade: B

Defensive line: The Steelers allowed 4.9 yards per carry and did not get enough of an inside rush when they played their nickel package. Defensive end Cameron Heyward had one of the Steelers' four quarterback hits, but Ryan had too much time to throw and was not sacked in a game for the first time this season. Grade: C

Linebackers: Vince Williams and Sean Spence continued to play ahead of rookie first-round pick Ryan Shazier at weakside inside linebacker and they showed why at the Georgia Dome. The two combined for 10 tackles, and Williams made the biggest stop of the game when he buried Harry Douglas after a third-down catch in the fourth quarter, 2 yards short of the first-down marker. Outside linebacker Jason Worilds got robbed of what could have been a game-changing sack in the second quarter. Grade: B

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Defensive backs: William Gay starred for the defense, returning a pick 52 yards for a touchdown and setting a franchise record with his third interception return for a score in a season. Gay also broke up two passes but it was a pretty rough day for the rest of the Steelers' cornerbacks, especially nickel back Antwon Blake. The Steelers did not get enough out of their safeties as neither Troy Polamalu nor Mike Mitchell broke up a pass. Gay's big day saves the grade here. Grade: C

Special teams: Shaun Suisham made both of his field goal attempts. Brad Wing averaged 43.0 yards per punt and dropped two of his three kicks inside the 20-yard line. Antonio Brown returned a punt 31 yards and Markus Wheaton averaged 25.0 yards on both of his kickoff returns. Take away a 43-yard kickoff return by Devin Hester -- and that was erased by Gay's interception -- and the Falcons' return man did very little. The Steelers would take a performance like this one from their special teams every week. Grade: B+

Coaching: The Steelers handled the Falcons' blitz and stuck with the run enough to make the passing game effective from start to finish. The defensive statistics weren't pretty but the Steelers consistently made stops and twice forced field goals. The Steelers did not play to lose at the end of the game and Mike Tomlin won a key challenge. Grade: A-
PITTSBURGH -- Wide receiver Markus Wheaton is in his second season with the Pittsburgh Steelers and he has learned one important lesson.

If he wants to catch extra balls after practice from a JUGGS machine he needs to do everything he can to make sure he gets in line ahead of Antonio Brown.

“With him,” Wheaton says with a smile, “there’s no telling how many he catches. Usually you’re out there waiting for a while.”

Brown’s tireless approach to getting better has made him one of the best wide receivers in the NFL.

Brown has made the Pro Bowl twice in his first four seasons even though he lasted until the 195th pick of the 2010 NFL draft. And, barring injury, he will hold team records for the most catches, receiving yards and all-purpose yards by a player in his first five seasons before the end of 2014.

[+] EnlargeDominique Franks
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesDespite being 5-foot-10, 185 pounds, Antonio Brown is known for stiffarming opponents in the open field.
And, says the 26-year-old Brown, “You still ain’t getting the best part of my game yet. I’ve still got room to grow.”

In many ways, yes.

But Brown stopped growing physically after he reached 5-10, and his relative lack of size is the biggest reason why he is just starting to get mentioned among the top players at his position.

The NFL has long been enamored with tall wide receivers, and Brown is at the forefront of smaller players re-asserting themselves as premier pass catchers. After the 10th week of the season six of the top 10 players in wide receiving yards were 6-feet or shorter.

Brown topped the list in both catches and receiving yards heading into Week 11, and no less an authority than Jerry Rice has said he is the best young wideout in the game. Steelers safety Mike Mitchell says he is the best wide receiver, period.

“I know others guys are bigger and maybe have better career numbers, but if you look at who’s doing it right now who’s doing it better?” said Mitchell, who is in his first season with the Steelers after previously playing for the Carolina Panthers and Oakland Raiders. “He plays like he’s 7-feet tall. He stiff arms safeties when he’s running the ball, and have you seen him lose a jump ball?”

Watching Brown stiff-arm an opponent or run with the ball in the open field makes it clear that the 5-10, 186-pounder is blessed with exquisite instincts.

And he did not get stiffed in the gene pool either, as his father, Eddie Brown, is a former standout wide receiver who in 2006 was voted the best player in the history of the Arena Football League.

But ask those who are around Brown on a regular basis the secret to his success, and they contend that there is no secret: Brown simply refuses to let anybody outwork him.

He never slows down, not even in offseason practices. Brown sprints to the end zone every time he makes a catch in the non-contact practices, a habit that the Steelers coaches make sure to point out to his teammates. During the season Brown puts in a full day at Steelers’ headquarters, and then two nights a week he will also go to a local gym to get in another workout.

“Just my regimen,” Brown says with the easy smile that is also one of his signatures. “That’s what I do.”

His teammates aren’t nearly as nonchalant about what Brown does.

“How many No. 1 receivers in the NFL are catching punts in practice and running it all way back for a touchdown?” Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger says. “Then Dri [Archer] steps up and [Brown] tells him to get out because he wants another one. His work ethic and demeanor and attitude are just unbelievable. He’s literally nonstop and I’ll grab him and pull him aside and make up a fake conversation just to keep him out of running so many (punts) back and wearing himself down. His work ethic and attitude are just unbelievable.”

Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley, who has been coaching in the NFL since 1997, agreed.

“He works as hard as anybody that I have seen,” Haley says. “He is very driven to prove that he is among the elite guys at his position right now. I think from a big picture standpoint, he is one that they will talk about for a long time.”

Ravens vs. Steelers preview

October, 31, 2014
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The Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers renew one of the NFL’s fiercest rivalries on Sunday night at Heinz Field. Both teams are 5-3 and a half-game out of first place in the AFC North. The Ravens beat the Steelers, 26-6, when the teams met in early September and they will try to sweep their bitter rival for the first time since 2011.

ESPN Ravens reporter Jamison Hensley and ESPN Steelers reporter Scott Brown take a closer look at the 8:30 p.m. ET game.

Brown: Jamison, how will the Ravens compensate for the loss of Jimmy Smith at cornerback and how bad is the timing for the Ravens to face Ben Roethlisberger when they are so thin at cornerback?

Hensley: To characterize losing Smith as “bad timing” is an understatement. It’s atrocious. Smith, who is sidelined with a foot injury, is not only the Ravens’ best cornerback but he’s also among the top five cornerbacks in the NFL. The Ravens have no one who can replace his combination of size, speed, aggressiveness and intelligence. Even the most optimistic supporter of the Ravens couldn’t think Dominique Franks, who was out of football for the first five weeks, can fill the void left by Smith.

The only way the Ravens can lessen the blow is with their pass rush. When Roethlisberger threw 522 yards and six touchdowns, he was hit twice by the Colts. The Ravens’ top three pass-rushers -- Terrell Suggs, Elvis Dumervil and Pernell McPhee -- have combined for 14.5 sacks and 23 quarterback hits. Over the last five meetings with Roethlisberger, the Ravens have sacked him 10 times. If they can put that pressure on Roethlisberger, it will give him less time to find the open receiver.

While a lot of the focus has been on Roethlisberger, how have his weapons improved in the passing game? With the Ravens being without their top cornerback, will it be tough for them to match up with the Steelers?

Brown: The Steelers and Roethlisberger have to be salivating over the prospect of attacking the Ravens’ secondary. No Smith and a defense that is thin at cornerback has to reckon with a receiving corps that has changed considerably since the Ravens soundly beat the Steelers in Baltimore. Justin Brown, who lost a fumble inside the Ravens’ 20-yard line early in the teams’ Sept. 11 game, isn’t even in the picture at wide receiver right now.

Rookie Martavis Bryant, who has been a revelation in his first two NFL games, and reliable veteran Lance Moore will play against the Ravens after not dressing the first time the two AFC North rivals played. Those two along with Markus Wheaton should make the Ravens pay if they focus too much attention to two-time Pro Bowler Antonio Brown. Brown, meanwhile, opens things up for the other receivers, including tight end Heath Miller, who is coming off his third career 100-yard receiving game.

Baltimore ran the ball effectively against the Steelers on Sept. 11 and it looks like Justin Forsett has really emerged for the Ravens. Has he been one of the NFL’s biggest surprises this season and how are the roles defined in the Ravens’ backfield?

Hensley: It would’ve been difficult for anyone to predict this type of production from Forsett. In training camp, he was the No. 4 running back behind Ray Rice, Bernard Pierce and rookie Lorenzo Taliaferro. Halfway through the Ravens’ season, Forsett is fourth in the NFL with 571 rushing yards. The Ravens needed Forsett to step up after Rice was cut and Pierce struggled to stay healthy. What stands out about Forsett is his vision to find the running lanes in the zone blocking scheme and determination to break tackles. The reason the Ravens signed Forsett was his familiarity with Gary Kubiak’s offense after playing in Houston two years ago. He has remained atop the depth chart by averaging 5.5 yards per carry, the third-best average in the league.

Forsett is the primary ball carrier and gets about 70 percent of the snaps. His work could be affected this week by a knee injury that kept him out of Wednesday’s practice. Pierce had been the Ravens’ back when they get in the red zone. But he was a healthy scratch last Sunday after averaging less than three yards per carry in three of five games. So, Taliaferro has become the top backup and scored two red zone touchdowns in Cincinnati.

The run game has been one of the most improved areas on offense, along with the Ravens’ line. Joe Flacco wasn't sacked in the first meeting, but the Steelers were able to get a lot of pressure Sunday on Andrew Luck. Should the Ravens expect a significantly better pass rush on Sunday night?

Brown: That depends on whether the Steelers can get a big lead early against the Ravens. The Steelers’ defense fed off the offense’s fast start Sunday and an early 21-3 lead forced the Colts to throw, throw and throw some more. Indianapolis had just 10 rushes in its 51-34 loss to Pittsburgh and two of those were scrambles by Luck. Making the Colts one-dimensional on offense allowed the Steelers to really go after Luck and they hit him a lot.

The Steelers probably won’t be as fortunate against the Ravens. They struggled to stop the run when the two rivals played earlier this season and teams with zone-blocking schemes have given the Steelers fits. Unless the Steelers jump out to a big lead early for the second consecutive game they will get a steady dose of Forsett and Taliaferro. That alone should temper the pressure they are able to put on Flacco.

Coach John Harbaugh made a comment earlier this week about how the Ravens are comfortable playing at Heinz Field. What did you make of that comment and can it be traced to the Ravens winning in Pittsburgh in 2010, 2011 and 2012?

Hensley: That’s exactly what Harbaugh meant by that comment. He was saying that the Ravens know what it takes to win in Pittsburgh. You can’t blame Harbaugh for taking a confident stance, especially considering the circumstances. It was just a week ago when the Ravens sat atop the AFC North after winning five of their previous six games. Now, after losing in dramatic fashion in Cincinnati, the Ravens could potentially drop to last place with a loss in Pittsburgh. By saying the Ravens are comfortable at Heinz, Harbaugh is telling his players that they can win in Pittsburgh because they’ve done it before.

The Ravens beat the Steelers earlier this season by keeping them out of the end zone. While the Ravens rank second in the league in fewest points allowed, the Steelers defense uncharacteristically ranks 16th in yards allowed and 21st in points given up. Do these numbers truly reflect how the defense is playing?

Brown: Unfortunately for the Steelers, they do. There were questions about the defense, and that was before the Steelers lost starting outside linebacker Jarvis Jones and cornerback Ike Taylor to significant injuries. Cornerback Cortez Allen, whom the Steelers signed to a five-year, $25 million contract right before the start of the regular season, has struggled so much that the fourth-year veteran has been demoted twice in the past two weeks.

The Steelers have also had issues stopping the run and an offense that can stay balanced is going to give them problems. The defense has shown signs of improvement and it has generated consistent pressure on the quarterback as well as takeaways during the Steelers’ two-game winning streak. If that continues against the Ravens the Steelers have a great chance of improving to 7-4 with games against the lowly Jets and the two-win Titans next up on the schedule.

PITTSBURGH -- Is Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown the best player at his position in the NFL?

Pro Football Focus' Sam Monson builds a strong case for Brown, who leads the NFL with 719 receiving yards this season after finishing second in the league with 1,499 receiving yards last season.

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Monson calls Brown a "modern day version of Jerry Rice" since he doesn’t have the greatest measurables but makes the game look easy at times because of his innate understanding of it.

The PFF piece is the latest example of Brown starting to get his due as a premier wide receiver. In the past there were questions about whether the fifth-year veteran was a legitimate No. 1 receiver, because he is 5-foot-10 and 186 pounds in a league that covets tall wide receivers.

"From the day I got here he wasn’t a household name other than special teams, and you’ve just seen the guy ascend and put himself up there with the great receivers in the game right now," said Todd Haley, who took over as the Steelers' offensive coordinator in 2012. "He continues to get better, and that’s the exciting thing."

Brown is having an All Pro-caliber season even though no one has emerged as the Steelers' clear cut No. 2 wide receiver, something that would help divert some attention from Brown. Markus Wheaton, who starts opposite Brown, has slumped after a promising start, and former No. 3 wide receiver Justin Brown was a healthy scratch last Monday night.

Wheaton, Brown, Lance Moore, Darrius Heyward-Bey and rookie Martavis Bryant are all trying to solidify roles, and for now the Steelers are content to play their receivers -- well, at least the ones not named Antonio Brown -- based on situations.

"You’d love to see somebody jump up and say, 'Hey, we can’t have this guy off the field,' and that’s usually the way it works, so right now we’re kind of in that process and we just need guys to make plays," Haley said. "When your number’s called you need to step up and make the play, and if you don’t there’s some guys champing at the bit to show that they can do it."

The Steelers don’t seem to be in a hurry to set a hierarchy after Brown, the two-time Pro Bowler. It could change on a weekly basis, but quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said he doesn’t have a problem with a largely rotating cast at wide receiver.

"We work every day with all of them, so it’s really just knowing who’s out there on a particular play, because each guy may run a route a little bit different," Roethlisberger said. "As long as I know who’s in there as we’re going, I’m fine and I feel confident with whoever’s in there is going to make a play."
PITTSBURGH – Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin has been patient with Markus Wheaton but that might be running a little thin after the second-year wide receiver caught just four passes last Sunday in Cleveland despite getting targeted 11 times.

Wheaton caught six passes for 97 yards against the Browns in the season opener, but he didn’t make anywhere near that impact in the second meeting between the AFC North rivals, something Tomlin bluntly pointed out on Tuesday.

“We made plays in the opener, particularly [with] Markus Wheaton being one of the central guys in that area,” Tomlin said. “We didn’t make situational plays last Sunday and that’s why we lost.”

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Wheaton was the biggest offender in that area, at least on an offense that managed just one touchdown in each of the last two games. He and Ben Roethlisberger seemed to be operating off different scripts, something that became painfully obvious to the Steelers on a critical third down early in the second quarter.

With the Steelers at the Browns’ 17-yard line and needing 3 yards for a first down, Roethlisberger whipped a pass that Wheaton wasn’t expecting in the middle of the field. A surprised Wheaton knocked it down more than anything.

Tomlin flatly characterized it as a drop, putting the onus from the lack of execution squarely on Wheaton.

Roethlisberger said before the Steelers' first practice of the week that Wheaton is still adjusting to the speed of the NFL game after playing just 152 snaps as a rookie and missing four games because of a broken finger.

“In college you can kind of wait for a receiver to come out of a break before you throw it,” Roethlisberger said. “Here you have to throw it before they come out of their break. He’s working hard to make sure he gets the proper depth, to get his hands around with his head and make the play. I know he will.”

Wheaton followed through on a promise he made after the Steelers’ 31-10 loss to the Browns. The 5-foot-11, 182-pounder showed up at the Steelers’ practice facility early Wednesday morning so he could watch film of the game with his quarterback.

“I think that speaks volumes about him wanting to get in there, wanting to learn, to be corrected,” Roethlisberger said. “I broke down every single pass play that he did and told him what I thought he did right and what he did wrong. He’s the type of guy that’s going to take that and make him better. I have all the confidence in the world that Markus will come out and be better than ever.”
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CLEVELAND -- Ben Roethlisberger beat the Cleveland Browns in 18 of his first 19 starts against them, including once while playing on only one good leg. He has so gleefully tormented the team that passed on drafting him in 2004 that what transpired Sunday at FirstEnergy Stadium is proof something is very wrong with Roethlisberger.

Roethlisberger completed just 21 of 42 passes in a 31-10 loss to the Browns and he led the Pittsburgh Steelers to one touchdown -- a late, meaningless one at that. The 11th-year veteran struggled with his accuracy so much, and in weather that was ideal for football, that Roethlisberger may have had trouble hitting Lake Erie even if he had been standing on its shores.

He was that bad in the loss that dropped the Steelers to 3-3, and he knew it.

“I hold myself to a higher standard and I’ve got to be better,” Roethlisberger said.

That is two games in a row Roethlisberger has not played well. That and the continued disconnect between the yards the Steelers are piling up and the meager numbers they are posting on scoreboards are sure to renew questions about the union between Roethlisberger and third-year offensive coordinator Todd Haley.

Something is amiss with an offense that has managed just 20 points in the past two weeks, and the Roethlisberger-Haley dynamic is usually where disgruntled fans point first when the Steelers struggle.

The play calling has been curious with the Steelers becoming pass-happy when they were inside the Jaguars' 20-yard line last Sunday and then going to the other extreme against the Browns.

Haley has to take his share of blame for the offense's struggles but certainly not all of it.

A blown assignment up front on an early third-down run from the Browns' 3-yard line left LeGarrette Blount no chance to score, and the Steelers had to settle for a field goal.

On a third down from Cleveland's 17-yard line in the second quarter, Roethlisberger threw a pass that Markus Wheaton clearly was not expecting. The incompletion forced the Steelers to settle for a field goal attempt that holder Brad Wing botched.

The game turned on those two plays as the Steelers had been in command before the ill-fated field goal attempt. Yet the Steelers might not have had to attempt a field goal had Roethlisberger and Wheaton been in sync, something they weren’t all day.

Roethlisberger threw 11 passes Wheaton’s way and he caught only four of them.

“I think we had a good plan,” Roethlisberger said. “We came in with the right attitude and mindset. I didn’t play well enough. It’s very frustrating. We’re all frustrated but we’ll stay together.”

Such solidarity following a bitter loss was the one place where all of the Steelers’ offensive players were actually in the same place -- at least publicly.

Roethlisberger took the blame for the loss. Wheaton said Roethlisberger covered for him in regard to the communication issues the two had against the Browns. Running back Le’Veon Bell said to point the finger at him for the offense’s struggles.

“I think I’m frustrated like we all are because we are capable of moving the ball and possessing the ball, but the points aren’t reflective of that,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said.

When asked if the Steelers are going about playing offense the right way -- a thinly veiled reference to whether Haley is the right coach to lead it -- Tomlin said, “I am sure of it but we are not executing. We’ve got to look at all areas.”

They have to start by looking at how to get Roethlisberger to play better.

The Steelers' plan of remaining competitive while they rebuild a once fearsome defense hinges on Roethlisberger keeping them in games because he is a top-tier quarterback.

He has looked like anything but a franchise quarterback the past two weeks.
PITTSBURGH – Pittsburgh Steelers left guard Ramon Foster expects to play Sunday after missing the last two games because of an ankle injury.

Foster practiced Wednesday, putting the sixth-year veteran on track to play against the Jacksonville Jaguars.

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Of course, Foster practiced fully last Wednesday and Thursday but didn’t play in the Steelers’ 27-24 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers after coach Mike Tomlin made a pregame decision to sit him for another week.

“Personally I thought I could have [played],” Foster said, “but it’s one of those things where it was a little too early in the season to push it like that. We’ve got a long way before the bye week so it was better to rest it than to push it.”

Foster said he does not feel any pressure to get back onto the field with the Steelers at .500 at the quarter point of the season.

“We’re not going to put Ike [Taylor] back out there because we’re 2-2,” Foster said with a laugh.

Taylor is out indefinitely as he recovers from a broken forearm and linebacker Ryan Shazier is expected to miss his second consecutive game because of a sprained knee.

Neither practiced Wednesday and outside linebacker James Harrison (illness) and wide receiver Martavis Bryant (illness) also missed drills. Offensive tackle Marcus Gilbert (ankle) and wide receiver Markus Wheaton (groin) were limited in practice.

Wide receivers Cecil Shorts (hamstring) and Marqise Lee (hamstring) didn’t practice Wednesday for the Jaguars. Also out for Jacksonville were cornerback Dwayne Gratz (concussion) and tight end Mickey Shuler (illness).

Cotchery influence helps Wheaton emerge

September, 18, 2014
9/18/14
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PITTSBURGH – They still exchange occasional text messages, but it’s a wonder Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Markus Wheaton did not experience some separation anxiety after Jerricho Cotchery signed with the Carolina Panthers in March.

Wheaton attached himself to Cotchery last season, shadowing the veteran wide receiver the way a cornerback would as Wheaton made the transition from college to the NFL.

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The two were as natural a pairing as peanut butter and jelly. Both are soft-spoken and hard-working, and Cotchery was as eager to mentor as Wheaton was to learn from him.

What Wheaton gleaned from Cotchery is starting to pay off in his second NFL season.

The 5-11, 182-pound Wheaton has caught 11 passes for 135 yards in two games, already doubling his production from 2013, when a recurring finger injury sabotaged his rookie season.

True to his nature, Cotchery did not take any credit for Wheaton’s early success this season, saying the rookie simply needed to an opportunity to show what he can do.

“Every time he got on the field [last season], he made plays,” Cotchery said. “We saw that early on in the year last year before he broke his finger. Going into the Minnesota game in London, we had a good package for him and he was ready to go. I think he played a good game in that Minnesota game, but unfortunately he got hurt and it kind of set him back.”

The broken pinkie finger – and the depth chart with the players ahead of Wheaton at wide receiver, including Cotchery – limited the 2013 third-round pick to six catches and 64 yards.

But Wheaton said learning the game from Cotchery proved to be invaluable, and the veteran -- now in his 11th NFL season -- taught him how to watch game film as well as take notes during meetings.

Taking notes sounds easy enough, but imagine sitting in a class and writing down everything the professor says. That is what Wheaton initially tried to do, and he often found himself lost as he scribbled furiously in his notebook.

“It was a little bit overwhelming, so [Cotchery] taught me what to pay attention to,” Wheaton said. “He taught me how to focus on what’s important and what’s not.”

Cotchery has since moved on to Carolina and started mentoring another rookie wide receiver in Panthers first-round pick Kelvin Benjamin. Cotchery said he expects great things from Benjamin.

The same can also be said for Wheaton, whom Cotchery now follows from afar.

“I knew once he got on the field, he was going to go out there and make plays,” Cotchery said.

Steelers' Markus Wheaton is on the rise

September, 9, 2014
9/09/14
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PITTSBURGH -- His quiet nature allowed him to slip out of the home locker room Sunday afternoon, accept a few congratulations and then slide onto one of the golf carts parked in a tunnel at Heinz Field.

Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Markus Wheaton sat on the cart for a few minutes and checked his cell phone.

His messages surely included more than a few congratulations after a breakout performance, and Wheaton seemed to bask in an anonymity he won't have moving forward.

The second-year man needed just one game to equal the total number of catches he had last season and well eclipse his total receiving yards in a frustrating rookie campaign.

Wheaton's six catches for 97 yards in a 30-27 win against the Browns didn't just help the Steelers avoid what would have been an epic collapse against one of their archrivals. The production and timely catches he delivered in his first NFL start may also portend big things for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers' passing game.

Roethlisberger threw for 251 yards and a touchdown and completed 88.2 percent of his passes when he targeted wide receivers against the Browns, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The 11th-year veteran also averaged 14.8 yards per attempt with zero drops when throwing to his wideouts.

Compare that to last season when Roethlisberger averaged 8.0 yards per attempt when targeting wide receivers and completed 63.1 percent of his passes with 10 drops.

Granted one game is a small sample size but Wheaton's promise is immense.

The 2013 third-round pick hauled in a 40-yard pass from Roethlisberger in the first half, a grab that required him to keep both feet in bounds on a ball that sailed toward the Steelers' sidelines. Wheaton's 20-yard catch late in the fourth quarter set up Shaun Suisham's 41-yard game-winning field goal, and it came after Roethlisberger changed the play at the line of scrimmage with precious seconds left on the play clock.

That he targeted the player whose locker is next to his at Steelers' headquarters spoke volumes about the trust Roethlisberger has developed in Wheaton.

"I threw it to him before he came out of his break," Roethlisberger said. "He turned his head and found the ball and made a great catch."

There should be many more such plays if Wheaton's play in the opener is any indication.

The 5-11, 182-pounder has everything the Steelers could want in a wide receiver to pair opposite Pro Bowler Antonio Brown.

Wheaton is fast, a polished route runner, incredibly conscientious and healthy after a recurring finger injury stunted his development last season and limited him to six catches for 64 yards.

His performance against the Browns may provide the one ingredient Wheaton needs to tie everything together: the belief he can play at this level.

"Markus is building confidence in himself," Roethlisberger said, "and that I have in him."
Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin praised Darrius Heyward-Bey on Tuesday and said he particularly likes what the veteran wide receiver has done on special teams.

That clinches it for me: the Steelers will keep six wide receivers when they finalize their 53-man roster at the end of the week.

Heyward-Bey
Look for Heyward-Bey to join Antonio Brown, Markus Wheaton, Lance Moore, Martavis Bryant and Justin Brown in making the team.

Heyward-Bey, who signed a veteran minimum contract with the Steelers in March, had a quiet training camp in part because he missed significant practice time after sustaining a concussion.

Heyward-Bey flashed in the Steelers' 31-21 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles last Sunday, catching three passes for 54 yards and a touchdown.

"He's done some really good things of late, after he came back from his concussion," Tomlin said. "I'm just as pleased with he's providing us from a special teams standpoint as I am what he's doing at wide receiver. I really like some of the things he's shown us in the kicking game, some things that, quite frankly, I didn't know he had in terms of his willingness and ability to cover punts, his willingness and ability to block for punt returners. It's attractive."

Here are some other takes from Tomlin's news conference:
  • Tomlin said running backs Le'Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount will play Thursday night against the visiting Carolina Panthers. The eighth-year coach has not ruled out playing any of his starters even though quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said on Monday he does not expect to play in the Steelers' final preseason game. "If they need to work they're going to get it, whether it's individual or collective," Tomlin said of the game against the Panthers. "That's just my approach to preparation."
  • Defensive end Brett Keisel, who re-signed with the Steelers last Wednesday, will play against the Panthers. And Tomlin strongly hinted that Keisel will play an extended numbers of snaps on Thursday. "I'm interested in taking him to the deep end of the pool to see if he can swim a little bit," Tomlin said. "We'll see how he does."
  • Tomlin said third-string quarterback Landry Jones will play extensively against the Panthers and may start the game. Jones might be battling for a roster spot after playing poorly in an Aug. 16 game against the Buffalo Bills and not getting any snaps last Thursday night in Philadelphia. When asked what he needs to see from Jones, Tomlin said, "Just consistent, above the line play in all areas. That's about as straight of an arrow as I can fire."
  • The Steelers do not plan on bringing in another punter against the Panthers. Brad Wing has been the team's only punter since the start of training camp with Adam Podlesh out because of a family issue. Wing's net punting average in three games is only 35.8 yards, but Tomlin gave him a vote of confidence. "I like what Brad has done," he said.
PITTSBURGH -- Ben Roethlisberger anticipates playing the first half Thursday night in the Pittsburgh Steelers' third preseason game, and he would like to get at least one series of running the no-huddle offense at Philadelphia.

"I'd like to get a little more road work," Roethlisberger said, "see if we'll do no-huddle on the road, which is usually a little different."

Roethlisberger
The Steelers play the Eagles Thursday at 7:30 p.m. ET, and the starters will see their most extensive action of the preseason at Lincoln Financial Field.

Roethlisberger played three series last Saturday night against the Buffalo Bills and the Steelers ran their no-huddle offense almost exclusively when he was in the game. Roethlisberger completed 8 of 11 passes for 128 yards and a pair of touchdowns, and film review of the Steelers' 19-16 win confirmed that the no-huddle offense was as good as it looked against the Bills.

"There was only one (mental) mistake and it was a very minor one," Roethlisberger said.

Roethlisberger threw a 16-yard touchdown pass that highlighted the growth second-year wide receiver Markus Wheaton has made since last season.

Wheaton
Wheaton turned around Bills cornerback Stephon Gilmore with a double move and then dragged his feet after hauling in Roethlisberger's pass near the out of bounds line. Roethlisberger, whose locker is next to Wheaton's at the Steelers' practice facility, expects big things from the player who has all but won the job of No. 2 wide receiver.

"He's learning and growing fast and we need him to," Roethlisberger said of Wheaton. "He doesn't make the same mistake twice and he's busting his butt every day in practice. I grabbed him upstairs today and talked to him about something he did a little wrong in the game. He had nothing to do with the play but he was like heartbroken that he kind of screwed something up that he probably shouldn't have."

A couple of notes:
  • Greg Warren is on the mend after having surgery late last week to fix a torn meniscus in his right knee. The veteran long snapper said he expects to miss about a month, which means he is unlikely to play in the Steelers' season opener on Sept. 7 against the visiting Browns. Warren hurt his knee last Wednesday during the Steelers' joint practice with the Bills at St. Vincent College. "I was just blocking and braced on it and it kind of popped and I knew something was abnormal when it happened," said Warren, who is in his 10th season. "I think it could have been a lot worse and I think after the surgery they were very happy with the way things went."
  • There are no significant changes on the depth chart that the Steelers released Monday. Brian Arnfelt is still ahead of Josh Mauro at right defensive end and Hebron Fangupo is ahead of Daniel McCullers at nose tackle. Martavis Bryant is fourth on the depth chart at one of the wide receiver spots, behind Antonio Brown, Justin Brown and Darrius Heyward-Bey.
LATROBE, Pa. -- A seemingly forgotten linebacker has hit harder than some of the storms that swept through the area during the Pittsburgh Steelers' first week of training camp.

Vince Williams jolted Le'Veon Bell several times during a back-on-'backers drill last Friday night, leading to the first fight of camp. The next day Williams walloped running back Miguel Maysonet and Tauren Poole in separate drills, putting him among the players who have stood out since the pads have gone on and started popping.

"Vince brings a great deal of emotion and intensity to his work. He has that distinguishing characteristic," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "He had it at Florida State and it continues. It's a good thing to build his game around."

Williams started 11 games last season following the loss of Larry Foote, and the sixth-round draft pick made significant progress during his rookie campaign. But he opened offseason practices behind rookie first-round pick Ryan Shazier on the depth chart at weakside inside linebacker, and Shazier has only tightened his grip on Williams' former job.

Williams lacks Shazier's speed and athleticism, two attributes that are vital with offenses increasingly spreading out defenses, but man can he deliver a shot. The Steelers will count on Williams doing that in a reserve role at linebacker as well as on special teams.

THREE REASONS FOR OPTIMISM

1. The Steelers have an abundance of talent at inside linebacker a year after they had to start a player who had previously worked as an insurance adjuster for two games at the position. Williams gives them solid depth inside and Sean Spence looks like he will contribute two years after suffering a career-threatening knee injury. The Steelers are so deep at inside linebacker that Terence Garvin, who played 15 games as a rookie last season, will have to battle to make the team. One of the final roster spots could come down to Garvin and rookie sixth-round pick Jordan Zumwalt.

[+] EnlargeVince Williams
Jason Bridge/USA TODAY SportsSecond-year linebacker Vince Williams has made an impact during Steelers training camp this summer.
2. Ben Roethlisberger has looked sharp and focused despite talk swirling around him about his contract situation and former teammate Emmanuel Sanders' claim that Peyton Manning is a far better leader than Roethlisberger. Sanders, who is now with the Denver Broncos, might reassess his evaluation if he watched Roethlisberger for a couple of days during training camp. The 11th-year quarterback has been coaching the Steelers' wide receiver as much as he has been throwing to them, barking at them if they run a wrong or sloppy route or drop a ball, but also praising them when they make a good play. He has also stayed after practice to throw to his receivers.

3. The offensive line has a chance to be really good if it can stay relatively healthy. The Steelers already appear to be set with their starting five, and that group can use camp and the preseason games to work together on the new technique and schemes the line is learning from new position coach Mike Munchak. The line, which returns four starters from 2013 as well as Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey from a knee injury, has taken to the coaching of Munchak. It has also taken personally that the Steelers averaged just 86.4 rushing yards per game last season. One of the offensive line's goals this season is for the Steelers to rank among the NFL's top 10 teams in rushing.

THREE REASONS FOR PESSIMISM

1. Running back LeGarrette Blount's on-field behavior has been a little unsettling, and you have to wonder if the raw emotion that he couldn't check when he dived onto Vince Williams during the first fight of camp will resurface if he doesn't get the ball enough during the regular season. Bell is entrenched as the starter and he is clearly the better all-around back then Blount. The Steelers also want to get speedy rookie Dri Archer involved in the running game. How many carries that leaves for Blount remains to be seen. If he becomes unhappy with his role in the offense that could become an issue.

2. Groin injuries haven't become an epidemic but they have been an issue at camp and cost several players valuable practice time. New starting free safety Mike Mitchell, who arrived at camp with a groin injury, has yet to practice and he needs to develop a good on-field rapport with strong safety Troy Polamalu. The two did not practice together much during the offseason since Polamalu skipped the voluntary organized team activities (OTAs) and it has to be at least a small concern to the Steelers that they have yet to work together in camp. Jordan Zumwalt also missed significant practice time with a groin injury stunting his development. Zumwalt has a real chance to make the 53-man roster, but after missing OTAs because UCLA's school year hadn't ended, the sixth-round pick needs to get as many repetitions as he can during camp.

[+] EnlargePittsburgh's Antonio Brown
Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY SportsAntonio Brown, who caught 110 passes for 1,499 yards last season, has been a popular target for Ben Roethlisberger during training camp.
3. Roethlisberger seems to be targeting Antonio Brown a lot during 11-on-11 drills, which is understandable considering the latter caught 110 passes for 1,499 yards last season. But Brown is going to need some help this season to keep defenses from throwing all kind of coverages his way. The reality is that the young wideouts who have looked so promising in camp have yet to prove themselves at this level. The Steelers will probably feel a lot more at ease about their wide receivers if Markus Wheaton and Justin Brown, among others, flash in preseason games instead of just practice.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • Rookie outside linebacker Howard Jones has helped himself through the early part of camp. Jones, who signed with the Steelers as an undrafted free agent, has stood out during back-on-'backers drills, and last Friday night he twice beat tight end Heath Miller. "He has a chance to be a player," a veteran Steelers player said of Jones.
  • One of the young running backs is going to emerge and make the 53-man roster and my guess is it is either Tauren Poole or Miguel Maysonet. Both have had their moments running the ball, though special teams may be the biggest consideration as far as who the Steelers keep as a fourth running back.
  • Wide receiver Martavis Bryant is making the team. The question is will the Steelers essentially redshirt him during his rookie season by deactivating him for games. The answer at this time last week would have probably been yes. But Bryant has come on after a slow start to camp and the Steelers could badly use a 6-4 wide receiver inside the 20-yard line. Bryant dominated a red zone drill late last week.
  • The Steelers are through the grind of camp. They are off today following six consecutive days of practice, and they will only practice two more times this week before holding a walk through for their first preseason game. After playing the New York Giants on Saturday night, the Steelers will practice four more times at St. Vincent College before breaking camp.

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