AFC North: Mike Wallace

LATROBE, Pa. -- Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton’s new contract won’t change the Steelers’ approach to Ben Roethlisberger and that includes their intention to reward their franchise quarterback when the time is right.

Roethlisberger
The Steelers have concluded that is after the season when room under the salary cap isn’t expected to be an issue -- and they can pay Roethlisberger, whose base salary is $12.1 million thie year, top dollar without putting too much strain on the cap.

Roethlisberger turns 33 in March but he is still playing at a high level, and general manager Kevin Colbert said he has never seen the Steelers’ franchise quarterback look better.

“I think he’s had as good a spring as I’ve ever seen him have,” Colbert told ESPN.com on Monday. “I think he’s continued to move that into training camp and right now he’s getting acclimated to the young guys we have at wide receiver and at running back.”

Roethlisberger has been nothing if not engaged when working with the wide receivers, and he has coached them during training camp as much as he has thrown to them.

The Steelers are brimming with talent at wide receiver and there may not be a more intriguing player at the position than rookie Martavis Bryant.

The 6-foot-4, 210-pounder has a unique blend of size and speed, and Bryant has flashed that in recent practices.

He dominated a red zone drill on Saturday. The next day Bryant stretched out to make a sideline catch of a Bruce Gradkowski pass that initially looked like it had been way overthrown.

“He’s faster than what most people think he is,” Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor said. “He just has a few routes he needs to work on and I’m sure the coaches are going to use his ability.”

Taylor went as far as to say that Bryant has a chance to make an impact similar to what former Steelers wide receiver Mike Wallace did as a rookie in 2009. Wallace emerged as the Steelers’ No. 3 wide receiver that season and caught 39 passes for 756 yards and six touchdowns.

“Nobody has Mike Wallace’s speed but as far as having that kind of ability, yes, I do think [Bryant] has that kind of ability,” Taylor said. “When you’ve got a guy who’s 6-4, who can pretty much run with anybody and can jump and catch, that’s a good sign.”
The Steelers have nine picks in the 2014 NFL draft after adding three compensatory selections based on free-agent losses last year.

The Steelers were awarded third-round, fifth-round and sixth-round picks Monday by the NFL. They effectively recovered the pick they traded last year when they dealt their 2014 third-round selection for the Browns’ fourth-round pick.

The Steelers used the pick to draft safety Shamarko Thomas.

The Steelers’ received the highest compensatory pick as their third-round selection is 97th overall. The other two picks they were awarded are 173rd and 215th overall, respectively.

Wide receiver Mike Wallace, cornerback Keenan Lewis and running back Rashard Mendenhall were among the players the Steelers lost via free agency last year.

The extra picks come at a good time for the Steelers.

General manager Kevin Colbert has said this is the deepest draft he has seen since he broke into the NFL, and the Steelers have to replenish a defense that is in transition. It's also a team that has needs on offense.

The Steelers have a pick in each of the seven rounds. They have two selections apiece in the fifth and sixth rounds of the draft.

Steelers players vote Brown team MVP

December, 26, 2013
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PITTSBURGH -- Wide receiver Antonio Brown has been voted the Pittsburgh Steelers’ MVP, marking the second time in the past three seasons he has won the award.

The award clearly came down to Brown and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, and the former became the Steelers’ first two-time winner of it since James Harrison in 2007-08.

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Brown
Roethlisberger, surprisingly, has only won the award once in 10 seasons -- in 2009 when he set a franchise record with 4,328 passing yards.

To me, the award was a coin flip between Roethlisberger and Brown, so I’m certainly not going to argue against Brown -- or that the vote was some sort of referendum on Roethlisberger’s standing in the locker room.

Brown has simply been outstanding this season and, in the words of coach Mike Tomlin, “ridiculously consistent all year.”

Brown has answered any questions about whether the Steelers had a No. 1 wide receiver following the departure of Mike Wallace, and Brown has already established a single-season Steelers record with 1,412 receiving yards.

Brown has at least five catches and 50 receiving yards in every game this season, and he has an outside chance of breaking Hines Ward's Steelers record for receptions in a season.

Brown needs 12 catches Sunday against the Browns to surpass the 112 grabs that Ward had in 2002. The fourth-year veteran is also one of only four players in franchise history with at least two seasons of 1,100 or more receiving yards.

Brown, who is also one of the top punt returners in the NFL, is a lock to make the Pro Bowl for a second time.

The Pro Bowl teams will be announced on Friday.

Steelers wary of Wallace's speed

December, 8, 2013
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PITTSBURGH -- Ryan Clark has a problem with Mike Wallace, and it has nothing to do with how the latter left Pittsburgh following four seasons with the Steelers.

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"He has terrible running form and it's so frustrating," Clark said. "I do all that work in the offseason working on my form, pulling sleds and he just runs dumb. His hands are too low, he doesn't have knee drive and he's faster than everybody."

Wallace's speed is as much a storyline today as his return to Pittsburgh for two reasons: the Steelers have been susceptible to the deep ball and Wallace would love nothing better than to stick it to his former team.

The Steelers will be on high alert for Wallace, and they could get some help from the weather. A light snow is already falling, and the forecast is calling for cold temperatures, including sleet.

Wallace is not putting up the kind of numbers yet to justify the five-year, $60 million contract he signed last March, but Clark said he is dangerous as ever.

"(Dolphins quarterback Ryan) Tannehill's going through what Ben (Roethlisberger) kind of went through once you start playing with Mike, having to realize that you can't overthrow him," Clark said. "It's not like other plays when they get behind a guy you have to try to hang a ball up so he can get to it. When Mike's out there you have to throw it before he gets behind a guy because if you wait it's going to be short. He's still getting behind people at the same type of rate (when) he was here."

Wallace has made a relatively smooth transition to Miami, and he has apparently been a good fit in the locker room. Wallace is so gracious with the media that he may win the Dolphins' Good Guy Award in his first season with the team.

"He's a fun guy to have on the ball club," Dolphins coach Joe Philbin said. "I think he's acclimated himself well in the locker room. I think he's real respected by his teammates and he likes his teammates. It really doesn't matter what profession you're in it's always good to work with people you enjoy being with on a regular basis. I'm happy about the chemistry that he's found here."
Hartline/WorildsGetty ImagesBrian Hartline, left, and Miami face Jason Worilds and Pittsburgh in a game with playoff implications.
The postseason has started early for several teams around the NFL. The Miami Dolphins (6-6) and Pittsburgh Steelers (5-7) are two of those clubs, and they will meet Sunday at Heinz Field in what could amount to a playoff eliminator.

Miami and Pittsburgh are fighting for the final wild-card spot in the AFC, which is currently held by the Baltimore Ravens (6-6). The winner of Sunday’s game will remain firmly in the playoff hunt, while the loser falls behind the pack.

ESPN.com’s Dolphins reporter James Walker and Steelers reporter Scott Brown weigh in on who will prevail in this important game.

Walker: Scott, I think much of this game will be determined by the matchup between Miami’s ninth-ranked pass defense against Pittsburgh’s eight-ranked passing offense. This is a strength vs. strength clash. The Dolphins are very wary of Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Miami defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle knows Roethlisberger well from his days with the Cincinnati Bengals and has a healthy respect for “Big Ben.” He’s unlike any quarterback Miami has faced this season because of his ability to extend plays to throw deep, not necessarily to run for extra yards. There is a lot of pressure on Miami’s cornerbacks and safeties to maintain their coverage longer than usual to prevent big gains on broken plays.

Speaking of which, Steelers receiver Antonio Brown is Pittsburgh’s best playmaker, and leads the NFL in receptions. What makes him so dangerous?

Brown: It’s funny that Brown still doesn’t get his due as a No. 1 wide receiver, even from some media types in Pittsburgh, despite the phenomenal numbers he has put up this season. Brown might not have the size associated with No. 1 receivers, and he does not have blazing speed, but he has excellent quickness, is a superb route runner, and Roethlisberger has said he’s never seen a receiver who is able to adjust to a ball while it’s in the air the way Brown regularly does. Above all, Brown works at it. I mean really works at it. He is maniacal about training, and it’s not uncommon for Brown to hit the gym for a workout after spending all day at Steelers’ headquarters.

James, you have been immersed in one the biggest stories of the season, and I’m sure Steelers’ fans would appreciate your take on how the Dolphins have dealt with the turmoil and distractions caused by the Jonathan Martin bullying allegations. Have the Dolphins settled into any semblance of normalcy, or is their a new normal in Miami?

Walker: Things have been as close to normal this week as it's been since Martin left the team Oct. 28. There was a huge dark cloud hanging over the Dolphins, and things intensified and became very uptight the week NFL lead investigator Ted Wells visited the team. I expect things to be relatively calm for a couple more weeks until Wells completes the report and releases his findings. After that, all bets are off. There will be no winners in this complex situation. I don't expect Richie Incognito or Martin to return to Miami. So the Dolphins have already taken a hit. More heads could roll if others are found culpable.

Scott, one Dolphin who is excited about this matchup is former Steelers receiver Mike Wallace. What type of reception do you think he will receive, and how will Pittsburgh's secondary defend Wallace?

Brown: I think Wallace will hear his share of boos. I think he is perceived, fair or not, by a lot of Steelers fans as selfish and a player who did not produce enough last season or help the team chemistry because of his contract situation. I’m real interested to see how the Steelers try to defend Wallace. His speed is going to be a problem for a defensive backfield that has lost a collective step given the age of its starting safeties, not to mention top cornerback Ike Taylor.

Taylor usually draws the assignment of shadowing the opposing team’s No. 1 wide receiver, but I’m not sure the Steelers will do that with Wallace, since coach Mike Tomlin has a lot of respect for Brian Hartline as well. Whoever draws Wallace will get help from a safety, but he could have a big game at Heinz Field. The Steelers have given up seven passing plays of at least 50 yards this season, and I’m sure Wallace would love nothing more than to add to his former team’s total.

James, what are the early reviews on Wallace? It doesn’t seem like the Dolphins are getting the return from the investment they made in him, though I know it’s early.

Walker: It’s still a work in progress, Scott. Wallace hasn’t put up the production many in Miami expected, but there is plenty of blame to go around. Starting with Wallace, the drops are on him. Wallace had too many drops early in the season, although he’s gotten better in the second half of the year. But other factors such as scheme and quarterback Ryan Tannehill's inability to throw a consistent deep ball has made it tough for Wallace to make the same plays he made in Pittsburgh. Tannehill doesn’t have Roethlisberger’s arm strength or ability to extend plays. Wallace thrived off broken plays that Roethlisberger created. Tannehill doesn’t have near the same elusiveness and ability to out-throw the coverage. Wallace is getting open, but many of Tannehill’s deep balls have been underthrown, which allows defenders to recover. There are some things involved that Wallace cannot control. But he does have momentum coming into this game. Wallace has totaled 12 catches for 209 yards and two touchdowns in his past two games. I expect him to be amped for Sunday.

Finally, Scott, what do you think of Pittsburgh’s playoff chances, and how it relates to this game?

Brown: In spite of the latest wave of injuries to hit the offensive line, I actually think the Steelers have a chance to win their final four games and make the playoffs -- if they get the help they are going to need with the Ravens. My outlook probably changes if Aaron Rodgers is playing quarterback in the Steelers’ Dec. 22 game at Green Bay. But if the Packers drop out of playoff contention, does Rodgers play against the Steelers? That is a big if as of right now.

Green Bay is the only remaining road game for the Steelers, so the schedule sets up favorably, especially given Rodgers’ uncertain status. Roethlisberger is really locked in right now, and I think he is capable of carrying the Steelers and masking a lot of problems assuming an offensive line that is held together by duct tape can do a reasonable job of protecting him.

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Steelers' Friday leftovers

December, 6, 2013
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A hodgepodge of topics from this week at the Steelers:

Bracing for Wallace: Teams have been throwing deep on the Steelers, who have given up 11 passing plays that have covered at least 40 yards. You can bet the Dolphins will take a couple of shots on Sunday with Mike Wallace, one of the fastest players in the NFL. Wallace has not gotten behind opposing defensive backs with as much regularity this season as he has just nine catches of 20 yards or longer -- the same number as Steelers' No. 3 wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery. The Steelers, however, are a favorable matchup for Wallace given how they have struggled with the speed of Calvin Johnson, Josh Gordon and Torrey Smith the past three weeks. When asked if teams are challenging the Steelers with the deep ball more, defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said, "I would say that they're not really throwing it deeper any more than they ever have. It just appears to me that they're catching it a little more often than they did. We've got to cut that out. The games that we've been successful defensively are the games that we have done that."

Keeping the faith: Dropped passes were an issue for Emmanuel Sanders in the Steelers' 22-20 loss to the Ravens but Ben Roethlisberger doesn't sound like his confidence in the fourth-year veteran has wavered. "We cannot afford to have guys get down if they do have a drop because I have bad passes," Roethlisberger said. "Everyone makes mistakes. That's why we're human. I'm proud of the way those guys have played this year." The Steelers used their no-huddle offense to get back into the Ravens game in the second half, and they scored three touchdowns after intermission. Injuries along the offensive line has raised questions about how much the Steelers will be able to use the no-huddle offense against the Dolphins. But Roethlisberger said he doesn't think the injuries will force the Steelers to rein in the no-huddle offense on Sunday.

Biding his time: Markus Wheaton's potential has not translated into much production, and offensive coordinator Todd Haley said part of the reason for that is there aren't enough snaps to get the rookie wideout more involved in the passing game. Wheaton has caught just six passes for 64 yards. He missed four games following surgery to fix a broken right pinkie. "He was showing a lot of signs that he was going to help us," Haley said. "He had some setbacks. When they occurred the guys that played were playing at a high level. He's continued to work and get better. He knows when his opportunity comes he has to make plays."

Welcome back: Sunday will be something of a homecoming for Joe Philbin. The Dolphins coach played his college ball at Washington & Jefferson in suburban Pittsburgh, and he nearly became the head coach at his alma mater in the late 1990s. Philbin said he was about 12 hours from accepting the head coaching job at W&J when Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz offered him a job. Philbin went from Harvard to Iowa where he coached the offensive line and that move put him on a path toward the NFL. Philbin recalled how he gauged his wife's reaction to going to Iowa instead of W&J. "I asked her if she liked corn. She had certainly never been to Iowa," said Philbin, who spent four seasons at Iowa before moving onto the Packers. "It's funny how things work out."

Scouting Tannehill: Second-year Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill has thrown 17 touchdown passes but also 13 interceptions. Tannehill ranks 24th in the NFL in passer rating (83.2) though he is two sports ahead of Indianapolis' Andrew Luck, the first overall pick of the 2012 draft. "His mobility is surprising for me," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "He's capable of creating when plays break down."

Passing game just fine without Wallace

December, 5, 2013
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PITTSBURGH -- Remember predictions that the Pittsburgh Steelers' passing game would flounder without a bona fide deep threat?

The Steelers’ receivers apparently do.

“They took to heart (questions of) how good are we going to be on offense without Mike Wallace,” Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. “I’m proud of the way they’ve handled things. We’ve had guys that have stepped up.”

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Brown
No one has stepped up more than Antonio Brown, who leads the NFL with 85 catches and is on pace to break the Steelers' single-season record for receiving yards (1,398 held by Yancey Thigpen.).

Brown’s ascension and Roethlisberger staying healthy are the biggest reasons why the Steelers’ passing game has thrived in spite of the loss of Wallace, one of the fastest players in the NFL.

The Steelers are averaging 261.8 passing yards per game, compared with 236.7 last season. Roethlisberger has played every snap -- he is the only Steelers’ offensive player to do so -- and he already has 21 touchdown passes. Steelers quarterbacks had 27 last season when three of them started games because of injuries that sidelined Roethlisberger.

The passing game not only had to overcome the loss of Wallace, but also do without a legitimate receiving threat at tight end for the first two weeks of the season.

In addition to Brown's emergence as a No. 1 receiver, Jerricho Cotchery has rejuvenated his career -- the 10th-year veteran has a career-high eight touchdown catches -- and the Steelers can only imagine how good their passing game would be if they could coax more consistency out of Emmanuel Sanders.

Getting open hasn’t been a problem for the speedy Sanders, but he has struggled with drops, and his recent one came on a game-tying 2-point conversion attempt last Thursday in Baltimore.

Sanders appears to be doing fine after the fallout from that missed opportunity, and he pledged to become more reliable in the final four games of the season.

“Ben put a lot of great balls out there that I didn’t (catch) that I usually (catch) that I’ve got to make and that I will start making,” said Sanders, who has 54 catches for 604 yards and four touchdowns.

Fans lit up Sanders following the Steelers’ 22-20 loss to the Ravens on Twitter and other social media venues. He shrugged off the vitriol directed at him as something that “comes with the territory.”

“It’s been alright,” Sanders said on what the last week has been like for him. “People are going to say what they want to say, but I don’t really care. I’m just here to play football and win.”
Andy Dalton and Dannell EllerbeGetty Images, AP PhotoIt will be up to Dannell Ellerbe and the Miami defense to slow down Andy Dalton and the Bengals.
Two teams streaking in opposite directions will meet on Halloween night when the Miami Dolphins host the Cincinnati Bengals.

The Dolphins (3-4) enter this game on a four-game losing streak, while the first-place Bengals (6-2), one of the NFL's hottest teams, are on a four-game winning streak.

Will the Bengals continue their winning ways? Can Miami save its season at home?

ESPN.com Bengals reporter Coley Harvey and Dolphins reporter James Walker weigh in:

James Walker: Coley, I expect an entertaining game between these two teams. Not only do they match up well, but the fact that one team is so hot (Bengals) and the other can’t buy a win (Dolphins) makes it intriguing. This is really a must-win game from Miami’s perspective. I think this team could be on the verge of losing its confidence if things don't change soon. The Dolphins haven’t won a game since Sept. 22, and each week it appears more challenging to get over the hump. The Dolphins gave the New England Patriots their best shot this past Sunday by taking a 17-3 lead at halftime. Then, New England scored 24 unanswered points to deflate the Dolphins. That’s a shot in the gut that could be tough to recover from on a short week. It also doesn’t help that Miami starting center Mike Pouncey is causing a legal distraction after his recent subpoena in relation to the Aaron Hernandez investigation.

I’m sure things are more rosy in Cincinnati, Coley. What’s the mood of the Bengals entering Thursday night’s game?

Coley Harvey: Those are some pretty rough odds the Dolphins are facing Thursday, James. Still stunned about that Pouncey subpoena. Crazy stuff. As far as the mood in Cincinnati is concerned, Bengals fans are on Clouds 9, 10, 11 ... do they make a Cloud 100? Seriously, the Queen City is all abuzz about the statement Andy Dalton and the comparatively obscure Marvin Jones -- compared to A.J. Green, at least -- made in Sunday's 49-9 pummeling of the New York Jets. Not only does it appear the quarterback has found a nice mechanical passing rhythm, but he’s been in better sync with his receivers the past four weeks than he has been all season. In the last three games alone, he’s passed for 1,063 yards and 11 touchdowns. He’s connected with a minimum of seven receivers in each of those games. Along with that offensive production, the defense has been pretty stout, as well. The Bengals haven’t allowed a touchdown in two of their last four games. Those performances happened to come against AFC East teams (the Patriots and Jets).

So yes, plenty of reasons for people in southwest Ohio to be excited. But what about in South Florida? How are things there? I can’t imagine the mood has been very peaceful since this collapse began. As a former Florida resident, I’ve got tons of Dolphins fans for friends. I’ve had to talk several off the ledge recently.

Walker: Many South Florida fans are glad it’s basketball season. The Dolphins have frustrated football fans for so long that they are used to quickly turning the page when the Miami Heat get their season started. The defending NBA champs are now the biggest source of pride in Miami when it comes to sports. It’s been a while since the Dolphins held that claim. The Dolphins are having trouble packing their stadium and will need to produce consecutive winning seasons for most fans to stay on board longer than a few games. It’s a harsh sports town in that respect.

Another topic I want to touch on is the quarterbacks. Dalton has caught fire recently. Is this sustainable for the rest of the year or just a short-term fluke?

Harvey: It’s hard to tell, James. I get asked this very question or some variation of it every week, and just when I think he’s hit his ceiling and played the best game he possibly could, Dalton comes out and rips off another impressive performance. I’m hesitant to say it’s a short-term fluke now; I’m starting to think he’s got something special going. What has led to such solid, consistent play of late from him? If you ask the Bengals, they’ll say it has to do with trust and confidence. Dalton feels much more at ease with knowing that any of his receivers, not just Green, will make big plays. Sunday’s franchise-record four-touchdown effort from Jones showed just that. If I had to guess, though, I’d say Dalton just finally got fed up with all the negative press he had been getting. After posting a 29.7 QBR in the Bengals’ 17-6 loss at Cleveland in Week 4, he took quite a beating. Since then, he’s been a completely different player.

What has been Ryan Tannehill’s issue of late? It’s kind of surprising to see that Mike Wallace and Brian Hartline have only three touchdown receptions between them.

Walker: Just like Dalton in Cincinnati, Tannehill also is a hot topic weekly in Miami. I don’t doubt his natural ability. He has most of the things you look for in a quarterback: strong arm, good mobility, can throw on the run, steady demeanor. However, I’m starting to see some recurring weaknesses after 23 career starts that make me question Tannehill’s long-term prospects. Tannehill’s pocket presence is subpar. He doesn’t have a good feel or that sixth sense for the pass rush. That’s led to Tannehill holding the ball too long and often taking clean shots, which have resulted in a team-high five lost fumbles. If Tannehill can learn how to slide in the pocket and feel the rush better, that will increase his chances of taking the next step. But to some degree, it’s also hard to fully evaluate Tannehill when he’s been sacked 32 times and his rushing attack is ranked 23rd in the NFL. He isn’t getting consistent help from his supporting cast.

Finally, the Bengals are much less dominant on the road than they are at home. What’s been the difference and what has to go right Thursday night for Cincinnati to improve to 7-2, Coley?

Harvey: It is true that both of the Bengals’ losses this season came on the road, but they came before the massive Dalton turnaround and at least one of them should have been a win. Down 24-21 and out of timeouts with just more than a minute to go in their season opener at Chicago, the Bengals' defense had just made a crucial third-down stop when middle linebacker Rey Maualuga got tangled up with a Bears offensive lineman. The lineman kept blocking after the whistle, Maualuga didn’t like that and retaliated with a body slam. The refs saw the body slam and flagged him for unsportsmanlike conduct. Had that play not occurred, the Bengals would have gotten the ball back and might have been able to stage the type of last-minute rally that led to their last road win.

The other loss came when they just didn’t show up at all at Cleveland in Week 4. While their recent road success -- games won in back-to-back weeks on field goals in overtime and as time expired in regulation -- is reason enough for Bengals fans to feel good about Thursday night’s game, some are worried they’ll see a flat Cincinnati team at Sun Life Stadium. The Bengals were beat up Sunday and are just hoping to survive this short week. Maualuga is one of four defensive starters who won’t be playing in this game.

Cotchery high on Steelers receivers

September, 6, 2013
9/06/13
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To fans fretting over how the Pittsburgh Steelers' passing game will overcome the loss of Mike Wallace, Jerricho Cotchery offers this message: Have a little faith in the team’s brain trust.

Cotchery
“One year they’re trading away Santonio Holmes and they’ve got Mike Wallace waiting in the wings,” the veteran wide receiver said. “They prepare for situations like that, so you have to give the organization credit for drafting guys, developing guys. We’ve got guys that are more than capable, man.”

They'd better, because the Steelers lost one of the top deep threats in the NFL when Wallace broke the bank and signed with the Miami Dolphins last March.

Consider that quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has completed 73 passes that were at least 30 yards over the past four seasons, according to ESPN Stats & Information, tied for eighth in the NFL during that span. Nearly half of those (36) were caught by Wallace.

Antonio Brown becomes the Steelers’ No. 1 receiver and should also provide Roethlisberger with a deep threat. Emmanuel Sanders, meanwhile, isn’t lacking for confidence as he takes over for Wallace at split end.

“I felt like last year I was starting,” said Sanders, who caught 44 passes for 626 yards and a touchdown as the Steelers’ No. 3 wideout in 2012. “Toward the middle of the season, we were really a three-wide receiver team if you go back and watch the film.”

That bodes well for Cotchery increasing his playing time and production, each of which fell off considerably after he signed with the Steelers in 2011.

Cotchery has 33 receptions in two seasons in the Steelers after averaging more than 66 catches a year from 2006-2010 with the Jets.

The 10th-year veteran should get plenty of snaps this season as the No. 3 wide receiver, and Cotchery will be particularly important on third down.

“I said I’ve been resting for two years,” he said with a chuckle. “But I’m ready to do the job. I’ve been preparing for it. I spent the offseason getting my body right and all of that stuff.”

Cotchery is the graybeard of a young group that also includes rookie Markus Wheaton and Derek Moye, in his second year out of college.

One thing that has impressed Cotchery is the workmanlike approach Brown and Sanders have taken with each expected to play bigger roles in the offense.

“It all started in the offseason and they haven’t swayed from it one bit," Cotchery said. "I know the coaches appreciate it. We’re a tight group and I just like the (wide receivers meeting) room. Just a hard-working group.”
Tannehill-WeedenGetty ImagesSecond-year quarterbacks Ryan Tannehill and Brandon Weeden will be worth watching Sunday.

The Miami Dolphins and Cleveland Browns finished with a combined record of 12-20 last season, so both teams have plenty to prove and are looking for fast starts in 2013.

Cleveland will host the Dolphins on Sunday in an interesting matchup of AFC teams. Both are starting second-year quarterbacks who are looking to take the next step.

Can the Browns utilize their home-field advantage? Will Miami pick up a key road win to start the season? ESPN.com's Matt Williamson and Dolphins team reporter James Walker debate.

James Walker: Matt, we can't start this debate without examining both second-year quarterbacks in this matchup. Miami's Ryan Tannehill and Cleveland's Brandon Weeden were forgotten players in the famed 2012 quarterback class. Neither put up numbers or led their teams to the playoffs, like Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson did. Tannehill and Weeden, however, showed flashes at different times throughout their rookie seasons. I've watched Tannehill up close since the day he arrived in Miami. You can see he has all the tools. Tannehill can make every throw and is a solid athlete who can use his feet when needed. Consistency is where he needs to take the next step in Year 2. Tannehill did a lot of good things in the preseason and had a 98.6 passer rating in exhibition games. He is coming into this Cleveland game with momentum, but I still want to see it in the regular season. Matt, what's your take on Weeden entering his second season?

Matt Williamson: I, too, am high on Tannehill and think this will be the season he puts himself squarely in the conversation with those names you mentioned as young star quarterbacks in this league, for now and the long term. I am also growing fond of Weeden. There wasn't a quarterback and offensive group -- personnel wise -- as miscast as this one in last year's West Coast offense. Weeden, with his big arm, is much better suited to stand in the pocket and make downfield throws -- which is exactly what quarterback guru Norv Turner will have Weeden doing behind an excellent offensive line. While I wish Weeden, 29, was a younger quarterback like Tannehill, I do expect a major step forward from Weeden in Year 2.

Walker: For Weeden to be successful, it will up to Browns tailback Trent Richardson to set the tone and keep Miami's defense honest. I really like this matchup between Cleveland's running game and the front seven of Miami's defense. I'm an old-school guy at heart, and this part of the game will be vintage, tough-man football. I've talked to various defensive players in Miami's locker room this week, and all of them have great things to say about Richardson. The Dolphins' defense prides itself on not allowing 100-yard rushers, and keeping Richardson bottled up will be a challenge. I think the winner of this battle at the line of scrimmage between Miami's defense and Cleveland's running game will heavily impact the outcome of this game. Matt, what is the biggest single matchup you look forward to watching?

Williamson: James, that is a great one for sure, and let's not overlook what an effective receiving threat Richardson can be as well. But I would say the matchup I most look forward to is Cleveland's top cornerback, Joe Haden, against Miami's No. 1 receiver, Mike Wallace. These two know one another well from numerous AFC North battles when Wallace played for Pittsburgh. If Haden, who is among the best in the league at his position, can more or less handle Wallace one-on-one, the Browns should be able to bring T.J. Ward into the box with regularity to stifle Miami's running game. If that is the case -- and I have my doubts how well the Dolphins will be able to run anyway in this contest -- Miami could be in for a long day trying to generate consistent offense and points.

Walker: Good point, Matt. I also think home-field advantage could be a factor in this game. If you look on paper, I don't think many can argue against Miami having more talent. But when you consider a young quarterback (Tannehill) going on the road to Cleveland, where the Browns will be hyped up with a rowdy environment for their opener, anything is possible. The Dolphins were 2-6 on the road last year. Miami was competitive in some road games but failed to do the little things and pay attention to detail. I don't know if the Dolphins have matured on the road in one offseason, and that will be one of the under-the-radar storylines to keep an eye on for Miami. Finally, Matt, what under-the-radar element of this game do you consider important?

Williamson: I am eager to see the play in the trenches on both sides of the ball. I have plenty of questions about Miami's offensive line, and the Browns are stout and powerful up the middle with Phil Taylor leading that charge. Cleveland also was highly dedicated to improving its pass rush this offseason and that could pay off immediately in Week 1 against Miami's protection. On the other side of the ball, Cleveland has a great offensive line that doesn't get talked about enough. But Cameron Wake should prove to be a massive challenge, and the rest of the Dolphins' defensive front is also quite impressive. The team that wins at the line of scrimmage should win this contest.

PITTSBURGH -- The injuries that have hampered running back Le'Veon Bell have also obscured the early returns on the Steelers' 2013 NFL draft haul are promising. It is way too early to evaluate the rookies as I am a firm believer that it takes at least three years to accurately gauge a draft class.

But first-round pick Jarvis Jones is pushing Jason Worilds at right outside linebacker after playing extensively with the first-team defense last Monday night at Washington. The former Georgia star looks like he will contribute this season even if he doesn't beat out Worilds.

Fourth-round pick Shamarko Thomas, meanwhile, should provide much-needed depth behind Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark at safety. He has impressed with his physical style of play, and Thomas had six tackles and a forced fumble in a 24-13 loss to Washington.

Then there is third-round pick Markus Wheaton.

The wide receiver has been a quick study after missing most of the Steelers' offseason practices because of a rule that doesn't allow draft picks to report to their new team until their school's spring quarter has ended.

"We're going to get some good work from [No.] 11," quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said of Wheaton. "I believe that."

Roethlisberger and Wheaton didn't start working together until training camp but the latter has made quite an impression on the Steelers' franchise quarterback -- and the player whose locker is next to Wheaton's at the team's practice facility.

There is a lot to like about Wheaton. He was extremely productive in college -- his 227 career catches are the most in Oregon State history -- and he put his blazing speed to use as a wide receiver and return man as well as a sprinter for the Beavers' track team.

What has resonated with Roethlisberger is how much Wheaton carries himself like a professional.

"You don't see him make the same mistake twice," Roethlisberger said. "So when you tell him something he works on it and to me that's big when it's a young guy. If they make the same mistake over and over it means they're not focused, they're not working at it. He works hard and wants to be great, and that's what you want to see from a young guy."

It is way too early, and probably unfair, to tab Wheaton as a successor to the departed Mike Wallace, perhaps the top deep threat in the NFL. But there are similarities between the two.

Both have excellent speed and both were third-round picks by the Steelers. Like Wallace in 2009, Wheaton will have a chance to contribute right away.

The Steelers have nothing in the way of experience behind starters Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders and No. 3 receiver Jerricho Cotchery, and Wheaton is more than just a speed guy.

The 5-foot-11, 182-pounder has drawn good reviews from teammates for his polished route running, and he caught three passes for a game-high 52 yards last Monday night at Washington. That included a 45-yard catch after Wheaton blew by a Redskins cornerback on a go route.

Look for the Steelers to try and get Wheaton more involved Saturday when Kansas City visits Heinz Field for a 7:30 p.m. game. And look for Wheaton, who is also getting a look as a punt returner, to make the most of the opportunities he receives.
For a full transcript of the AFC North weekly chat, you can click here. For some highlights, simply continue reading ...

BALTIMORE RAVENS

Zack (Baltimore): Do you see Arthur Brown competing for a starting linebacker spot this year?

Jamison Hensley (ESPN): Right now, Brown is going to see time on the nickel defense. His speed and athleticism suits coverage. He'll work his way up to playing early downs and stopping the run. Josh Bynes has the starting job for right now.

CINCINNATI BENGALS

Bob (Dayton, Ohio): Do you think the Bengals are a bit overrated considering seven of their 10 wins were against the Browns, Jags, Chargers, Raiders, Chiefs, Eagles and a gimme against the Ravens at the end of the season? Doesn't playing teams like these inflate statistics like defensive and offensive rankings. Just tempering expectations.

Jamison Hensley (ESPN): If the Bengals surprisingly struggle, this point becomes more valid. This was also the team that won at Pittsburgh in a must-win situation and won at the Redskins, who won the NFC East. That's why I don't consider the Bengals to be overrated. They're one of the top 10 teams in the NFL this year.

CLEVELAND BROWNS

Harry (North Carolina): Do the Cleveland Browns have a serious shot at going .500 this season?

Jamison Hensley (ESPN): That should be the goal. With their schedule, I'm skeptical of them finishing with a winning record even if the team has improved. And, with how the past five seasons have gone, reaching .500 would be considered a success. I would be interested if the Browns stick with quarterback Brandon Weeden if he gets the team to eight wins.

PITTSBURGH STEELERS

Bernard (Philly): Given the injury to tight end Heath Miller, the offseason loss of Mike Wallace and the inconsistent play of the offense in the preseason, would the Steelers have been better served drafting tight end Tyler Eifert in the first round rather than linebacker Jarvis Jones?

Jamison Hensley (ESPN): The Steelers couldn't have gone wrong with either Eifert or Jarvis Jones. You can make the case that the Steelers' biggest need on defense was improving the pass rush and generating more turnovers, which is what Jones did in college. In the Steelers' mind, Miller should be back by October and the team can get by with David Paulson.
LATROBE, Pa. -- Nestled in the rolling hills surrounding St. Vincent College, the Pittsburgh Steelers seem as though they're isolated from the football world for training camp. But make no mistake, they hear everything.

When it comes to the debate over who's winning the AFC North, the talk is either about the defending Super Bowl champions (Baltimore Ravens) or the team on the rise (Cincinnati Bengals). The Steelers? They're considered too old on defense and too young on offense.

If you expected the Steelers to make a rebuttal, you'd be wrong. They have embraced the underdog role.

"When you lose Mike Wallace, James Harrison and Casey Hampton on a team that went 8-8, you’re supposed to say they’re about to fall," linebacker Larry Foote said. "If I was a writer, I would write the same thing. But football is not played behind a computer in a nice cozy office. It’s played on the field. [General manager] Kevin Colbert doesn’t have two Super Bowls for nothing and this organization has six overall. They know what they’re doing. As players, we have to take it personally."

One player told me that this team was humbled by last season's 8-8 record, especially the losses to Oakland, Tennessee and Cleveland. The confidence, though, remains.

This defense has finished the past two seasons ranked No. 1. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had won 17 of 24 starts before suffering a serious rib injury in November. And the Steelers haven't forgotten about beating the eventual Super Bowl champions in December with third-string quarterback Charlie Batch.

Just don't expect the Steelers players to promote these facts.

"We got our poker face on," defensive end Brett Keisel said. "It’s one of those things where we’re all aware of the talent we have and we’re all aware of what we’re capable of. It’s a matter of doing it."

History is on the Steelers' side. The last two times the Steelers failed to finish with a winning record, they won the division the next season. After the Steelers went 6-10 in 2003, they rebounded to go 15-1 in 2004. Pittsburgh finished 8-8 in 2006 but came back with a 10-6 record in 2007.

"Playing in Pittsburgh, you don’t go 8-8 twice," cornerback Ike Taylor said.

So, what would happen if the Steelers ended up 8-8 again this year?

"It’ll be a clearance sale," he said. "Everyone must go."

THREE HOT ISSUES

[+] EnlargeLe'Veon Bell
AP Photo/Keith SrakocicThe starting running back job looks to be Le'Veon Bell's to lose -- as long as he can stay healthy.
1. Battle for starting running back job. The only reason this remains a battle is that Le'Veon Bell hasn't been able to stay healthy this summer. It has become clear that the Steelers want the rookie second-round pick to be the starting running back. The team tabbed him as the co-starter with Isaac Redman on the depth chart a week after Bell was held out of the preseason opener.

The problem is, Bell can't win the job on the sideline. He aggravated a knee injury from last week on Thursday and looks questionable for Monday's preseason game. Durability wasn't a question with Bell at Michigan State. Despite nagging injuries, he led the nation last year with 383 carries.

The Steelers have high expectations that Bell can revitalize their run game, something Redman and Jonathan Dwyer failed to do last season. Bell is the best fit in the Steelers' new outside zone blocking scheme. He has the experience (he ran the stretch play repeatedly in college), patience and footwork to excel in this ground attack, where it's find the hole, make one cut and run.

"We're excited about everything but the fact that he's now had a couple of little nicks," offensive coordinator Todd Haley said.

2. Injuries at tight end. Heath Miller is on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list after ACL surgery seven months ago, and Matt Spaeth is out eight to 10 weeks with a foot injury. So, if the Steelers are without their top two tight ends just like the Ravens, why haven't they made any additions like their division rival? It's because of the Steelers' confidence in David Paulson, a seventh-round pick from a year ago. He has impressed the coaching staff with his ball skills and sure hands.

"He's playing behind the right guy in Heath," Haley said. "And he's smart enough to follow Heath around and learn every possible thing he can from him. Guys like that have a way of sticking. He's someone that we're all excited about getting more seasoning."

Fullback Will Johnson also can be used as a tight end after significantly improving as a receiver. Plus, there's a chance that Miller could be back by the fourth or fifth game of the season if he follows Rashard Mendenhall's timetable from last year.

3. A ticked-off defense. The numbers say the Steelers finished as the No. 1 defense in the NFL last season. The perception is this wasn't the best defense in the NFL.

Pittsburgh allowed the fewest yards in the league last season, and it wasn't even close. The Steelers gave up 15 fewer yards per game than any other team. But this wasn't a playmaking defense. The Steelers forced 20 turnovers last season; only seven teams caused fewer. Pittsburgh also recorded 37 sacks, which was tied for 15th in the NFL.

"I have never heard of a No. 1 defense get talked about so negatively ever," Foote said. "The last two years, we’ve been No. 1 but we get shots at us. I don’t understand. Some organizations have never had a No. 1 defense. They’re still throwing stones at us. They want more turnovers and more splash plays. We’re going to give them what they want."

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

The keys are a healthy locker room and a healthy Roethlisberger. Five of Pittsburgh's eight losses last season were by a field goal. The players believe repairing a fractured locker room will go a long way in making this team hold up better in close games, especially in the fourth quarter. The other part of the equation is making sure Roethlisberger doesn't get hurt, which has been a major problem the past two seasons. The Steelers were 6-3 before Roethlisberger's rib injury last season, 2-5 after it.

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

There are questions about how the Steelers will fare without linebacker James Harrison and wide receiver Mike Wallace. Although Harrison's play had begun to decline, he was the embodiment of toughness on this defense for years. That's going to be harder to replace than his pass-rush presence, a void that can be filled with first-round pick Jarvis Jones. Some wouldn't consider Wallace a major loss because he was such a distraction last year. What people forget is that no one on the Steelers had more receiving yards or touchdown catches than Wallace in each of the past three seasons. Lack of depth also makes the Steelers vulnerable. Injuries to the offensive line and cornerback position would be a crushing blow.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • [+] EnlargeEmmanuel Sanders
    Jason Bridge/USA TODAY SportsEmmanuel Sanders could emerge as the No. 1 receiver to replace Mike Wallace.
    The assumption is Antonio Brown would take over Wallace's role as the No. 1 receiver. But in my two of days at camp, Emmanuel Sanders was the one who stood out the most. Roethlisberger's best deep throws went to Sanders, and the quarterback was in a better rhythm with Sanders on crossing routes. This is a big year for Sanders, who will be a free agent after the season.

  • Safety Troy Polamalu has repeatedly said it doesn't matter if you're healthy during the summer. It's the regular season that counts. Still, watching Polamalu at practice, there were flashes of the old Polamalu, the one who bounced all over the field. The key is staying on the field. He hasn't played a full season in five of his past seven years.

  • All you have to do is watch Bell run one-on-one routes against linebackers and safeties to see why the Steelers are excited about him as a three-down back. He's extremely light on his feet, and no defender could keep up with him. The Steelers haven't had a running back catch more than 26 passes in a season since Mewelde Moore in 2008.

  • The wide receiver who has impressed the Steelers defensive backs the most is rookie third-round pick Markus Wheaton. He is currently the slot receiver on the second-team offense. It wouldn't surprise me if he gets a chance at taking over for Jerricho Cotchery at the No. 3 receiver spot this year. "He doesn’t look like a rookie. He doesn’t play like a rookie," Taylor said. "I can’t wait to see him playing in the season."

  • First-round pick Jarvis Jones has a knack for being around the ball and will make an immediate impact as a pass-rusher. After watching him in full-team drills, I wonder how he will hold up against the run. The Steelers can't play him on early downs if he lets runners get to the outside on him.

  • The hope is that cornerback Cortez Allen (knee) will be ready in time for the season opener. The Steelers can't afford to be without him. I knew there was a major drop-off from Allen to the likes of William Gay, Curtis Brown and Josh Victorian before I made my way to St. Vincent College. But it's an even bigger disparity when you watch them try to match up against Pittsburgh's receivers.

  • Kicker Shaun Suisham had a career year for the Steelers last season. His 90.3 percent success rate was the second-best in Steelers history, and he tied his career long with a 52-yard field goal. Suisham looked strong in camp, hitting one from 60 yards.
ESPN's Ashley Fox wrote a column Monday on how the Pittsburgh Steelers are no longer the pacesetters of the AFC North. They face the unusual position of trailing the Baltimore Ravens and Cincinnati Bengals as far as talent level.

Fox points out that the Steelers have been losing ground in the draft:
"(A)t some point between drafting Ben Roethlisberger and Jarvis Jones, the Steelers' first-round pick in April, Pittsburgh slipped. The Ravens saw it and came to believe that because of a superior scouting department and because of Ozzie (Newsome), they could draft better than the Steelers and thus have better results. And the Ravens were right."

The Steelers' drafts from 2008 to 2011 have taken a toll on the team's depth and ability to promote quality players into starting spots when losing key members in free agency. During that time, the Steelers have drafted 33 players and the only player who has gone to multiple Pro Bowls is center Maurkice Pouncey.

The Steelers have drafted four players who have been the primary starter for more than one season (running back Rashard Mendenhall, wide receiver Mike Wallace, defensive end Ziggy Hood and Pouncey) and eight players who played fewer than nine career games. Pittsburgh has missed on wide receiver Limas Sweed (2008 second round), offensive tackle Kraig Urbik (2009 third round) and linebacker Jason Worilds (2010 second round). Last year, the Steelers' draft class made headlines for injuries and off-the-field incidents (nose tackle Alameda Ta'amu and running back Chris Rainey).

If the Steelers want to bounce back from last year's disappointing 8-8 season, they're going to need to get production from recent draft picks like guard David DeCastro and offensive tackle Mike Adams as well as rookies Jarvis Jones and Le'Veon Bell.

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