AFC North: Mitch Berger

Stone's penalty hurts Ravens

January, 18, 2009

Posted by's Tim Graham

PITTSBURGH -- The Baltimore Ravens had momentum. They had scored a touchdown on their previous drive to cut the Pittsburgh Steelers' lead to 16-14 in the AFC Championship Game. The Ravens' defense then held the Steelers to a three-and-out.

Ravens returner Jim Leonhard took Mitch Berger's punt to the Baltimore 39-yard line, a nice starting point with seven minutes left.

But Ravens safety Daren Stone was flagged 15 yards for mugging Steelers gunner Anthony Madison out of bounds when the ball was in the air. The penalty was assessed from the spot Leonhard fielded the punt, pushing the Ravens back to their own 14.

The Terrible Towels responded accordingly.

Instead of having comfy field position and plenty of time to remain conservative, Steelers safety Troy Polamalu eventually intercepted a desperation third-down pass by Joe Flacco and returned it for a touchdown.

Notes around the AFC North

December, 19, 2008

Posted by's James Walker

Here are some thoughts, news and notes from around the AFC North division this week:

 Eric Hartline-US PRESSWIRE
 Braylon Edwards' future may not be in Cleveland.
  • From the day he was drafted, I always got the sense that receiver Braylon Edwards wasn't happy in Cleveland, and this is all coming to the surface now with his recent comments. The losing certainly doesn't help. But Edwards has a big-city personality, and northeast Ohio doesn't fit the bill. Only a player of LeBron James' stature can really be a huge star in a non-glitz city like Cleveland, and that probably bothers Edwards to some degree. He is articulate, engaging and marketable. But he is also in a small market playing for a consistently-losing team. Edwards nearly got his wish to go to a large market when the Miami Dolphins considered him with the No. 2 overall pick in the 2005 draft. Instead, the team chose tailback Ronnie Brown. Now Edwards will probably have to wait until he's a free agent in 2010 to move on.
  • Here is another sign that Cleveland Browns coach Romeo Crennel will be let go after the season. I'm hearing that, behind the scenes, the Browns are beginning to compile a list of future head-coaching candidates. Although many of the names are hard to come by, defensive coordinator Rex Ryan of the Baltimore Ravens is one on Cleveland's radar. It appears the Browns will move very quickly with the coaching search and tread slowly with their situation with general manager Phil Savage. This might be a sign that Savage has the best chance of the two to make it through this turbulent season.
  • I've been told by numerous people in Pittsburgh that this is the tightest group the Steelers have had in several years. There is a special chemistry and belief developing that's shared between the players and coaching staff. Head coach Mike Tomlin also has a keen sense of when to swiftly address issues, such as recent cases with Willie Parker and Santonio Holmes, and when to give his players some rope. Great leadership and chemistry cannot be underrated in the NFL.
  • Pittsburgh needs to be very careful with its special teams. No one is talking about it, because Pittsburgh is winning. But the Steelers have been average at best in the third phase of the game for most of this season. The punting has been terrible, but the defense is so good at getting three-and-outs that it hasn't mattered. And the Ravens beat Pittsburgh last week in the return game, which also is an issue.
  • I'm wondering if Saturday's game between Baltimore and the Dallas Cowboys could be an elimination game of sorts, or will both teams get into the postseason regardless of the outcome? For now, both teams control its own destiny. But a loss by the Ravens would open the door for one of the three AFC East teams to potentially sneak into the final wild card spot with one game remaining. Dallas also has challengers in the NFC, including a dangerous road game against the Philadelphia Eagles (8-5-1) in the season finale.
  • The price tags of potential Baltimore free agents Terrell Suggs and Ray Lewis just went up this week after the pair earned Pro Bowl bids. Suggs already expects to be among the highest-paid linebackers/defensive ends in the NFL and just added another notch to his belt. Lewis means so much to the franchise and also expects to be fairly compensated. His representatives can fend off age concerns at the negotiating table with his Pro Bowl-level of play this season.
  • Also, expect an interesting battle in the offseason over the value of Cincinnati Bengals receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh. I picked the brain of two respected people around the NFL the past few weeks and their opinions differed. One said teams could try to peg Houshmandzadeh's worth somewhere around the contract of New England Patriots receiver Wes Welker (five years, $18.1 million) because they are similar, possession-type receivers. Another NFL insider believes Houshmandzadeh will get a deal significantly better than Welker's with all the big-time money being thrown at receivers lately. The Bengals also could use the franchise tag to keep Houshmandzadeh for one more year.

Steelers-Cowboys halftime notes

December, 7, 2008

Posted by's James Walker

PITTSBURGH--The Steelers and Dallas Cowboys are tied 3-3 at halftime of this defensive struggle at Heinz Field.

Here are some first-half observations:

  • For two teams expected to contend for a Super Bowl, this has been a very sloppy game through two quarters. Both sides have combined for six turnovers, which include a pair of fumbles from quarterbacks Ben Roethlisberger and Tony Romo. Neither signal caller is playing particularly well, but you also have to give both defenses credit.
  • Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor is doing a tremendous job of containing Dallas receiver Terrell Owens in the first half. Owens has zero catches thus far and Taylor had an interception in the second quarter that set up Pittsburgh's only field goal. The Steelers are also helping over the top and keeping defenders around Owens when playing zone.
  • Pittsburgh outside linebacker James Harrison earned a key third-down sack and tied Pittsburgh's single-season record for 15 in a season. Former Steelers Mike Merriweather also recorded 15 sacks in 1984, but Harrison likely will break that mark with three games remaining.
  • Pittsburgh's punting woes continue. Mitch Berger, who is in his second stint with the Steelers this season, hit just one good punt in the entire first half and is costing Pittsburgh field position with nearly every attempt.

Steelers grab punter Berger again

November, 24, 2008

Posted by's James Walker

The rotating door between two punters continued Monday in Pittsburgh.

The Steelers have signed veteran Mitch Berger, who was on the team earlier this season and in training camp. To make room for the move, Pittsburgh released struggling punter Paul Ernster, the team announced.

Both punters have been back and forth with the team since Pittsburgh lost Daniel Sepulveda to a season-ending knee injury. It was clear the team would make another move after Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin described Ernster's punting in last week's win over the Cincinnati Bengals as "horrible."

Heinz Field is not an easy place to punt and kick this time of year, but Pittsburgh will need someone capable to help its top-notch defense win the field-position battle down the stretch.

Reed keeps on kicking for Steelers

November, 19, 2008

Posted by's James Walker

PITTSBURGH -- Steelers kicker Jeff Reed has seen more curveballs in Pittsburgh than your typical Pirates slugger.

This season, Reed has had a change of long-snappers, following a knee injury to teammate Greg Warren.

  AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar
 While his holders have rotated, Steelers kicker Jeff Reed has been a constant.

Reed's place-holders have been a rotating door among Daniel Sepulveda (injured), Paul Ernster (cut), Mitch Berger (cut) and Ernster (re-signed) again.

Add the fact that the field conditions in Heinz Field are getting uglier by the day and Pittsburgh's offense has sputtered, and it's amazing that Reed's kicking remains the one constant.

The seven-year veteran is quietly having the best season of his career for the 7-3 Steelers. In his most recent outing, Reed kicked through snowy conditions and made three clutch field goals during an 11-10 victory over the San Diego Chargers. He is 16-of-17 on field goals this year, and his percentage (94.1) is fourth in the NFL among kickers with at least 14 attempts.

Most fans simply watch Reed kick on game day but fail to understand the work needed to seamlessly make the transition to a new long-snapper (rookie Jared Retkofsky) and three different holders in one year.

"When you talk about adversity for a kicker," Reed said, "it doesn't get much more adverse than this."

Reed is accustomed to curveballs. He got first got a taste of the unpredictability that is the NFL during his rookie year in 2002.

Following a solid college career at the University of North Carolina, Reed went undrafted and was unable to land on an NFL roster. So the Charlotte native went back to the Tar Heel state to work on a dairy farm cleaning debris.

"Everyone thinks I was a farmer, which is not true," Reed said, smiling. "I was just working on a farm for a friend who was actually a true farmer."

Reed then took the winding path to Pittsburgh.

An injury to former Steelers kicker Todd Peterson earned Reed a tryout for the Steelers in November 2002. Pittsburgh was the seventh team Reed tried out for that year.

It was a typical winter mosh pit at Heinz Field when Reed joined three other kickers to try out. Through sleet and approximately 30-degree weather, Reed had perhaps his worst kicking display before an NFL team.

"It was cool to get a tryout but you're thinking, 'Man, why couldn't it be a different day?'" Reed said. "We all kicked about equally. ...We all missed some that we should have made and were slipping all over the place."

Reed admits that none of the kickers were impressive enough to earn the job, but he got the nod that day. Reed said former Steelers coach Bill Cowher still jokes with him occasionally, saying he has no idea why he chose the rookie kicker six years ago.

But Cowher's intuition is still paying dividends. Reed has a career 83-percent success rate on field goals, despite kicking half his games at home on arguably the toughest surface in the NFL. The past two years Reed has made 39 of 42 field-goal attempts (92.8 percent) for Pittsburgh.

Some kickers can be outcasts in their locker rooms, but Reed is not one of them. When he arrived six years ago, teammates and coaches didn't know his name. Now he's a fan favorite. Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger often praises Reed, saying earlier this year that he has "the utmost confidence in him." Reed also was chosen to be a captain this year by his peers.

Without a doubt, it has been a long road for the Steelers' kicker who, after college, was working on the farm for $12 per hour.

But in a blue-collar town like Pittsburgh, Reed is an ideal fit.

"It would be great to be a first-round pick ... but I kind of like it better when you have to earn what you got," Reed said. "Coach Cowher's saying was 'It's hard to get there, but it's harder to stay.' If that's not reality, then I don't know what is."

Holmes inks deal with Reebok

November, 5, 2008

Posted by's James Walker


Santonio Holmes experienced a rough patch recently this season. But it appears things are looking up once again for the Pittsburgh Steelers' starting receiver.

Holmes signed a multiyear endorsement deal with Reebok this week, according to a source familiar with the negotiations. The deal was in a holding pattern the past couple of weeks after police found marijuana in Holmes' car during a routine traffic stop last month.

But the Steelers held Holmes out for one game and eventually Reebok decided to iron things out and go forward with the deal. Holmes previously had an endorsement contract with Nike when he entered the NFL in 2006.

In another Steelers note, the team re-signed punter Paul Ernster and cut veteran Mitch Berger after a shaky performance Monday against the Washington Redskins.

AFC North bubble watch

August, 28, 2008

Posted by's James Walker

With the final week of preseason games starting Thursday night, it's a good time to keep close tabs on bubble players from each AFC North team. Rosters will be trimmed from 75 to 53 players by Saturday, which means there are a lot of big decisions to be made on players in the next 48 hours.

Here are some notable bubble players that could help their cause with big preseason games this week:

Pittsburgh Steelers

Players: Receivers Willie Reid and Dallas Baker

Skinny: Both young players have been around, know the system well and have shown flashes. But Pittsburgh is stacked with skill players and don't have to wait for both to develop. Receivers Hines Ward, Santonio Holmes, Nate Washington and Limas Sweed will be the top four in this group. Our guess is the Steelers only take five receivers into the regular season.

Prediction: Reid stays, Baker goes

Players: Punters Mitch Berger and Paul Ernster

Skinny: This competition was created by the season-ending knee injury to punter Daniel Sepulveda. Ernster has been around a little longer and has the edge, especially after last week's performance with three punts inside the 20. But he still could use a strong finish.

Prediction: Ernster stays, Berger goes

Cincinnati Bengals

Players: Fullbacks Daniel Coats and Jeremi Johnson

Skinny: Coats, a former tight end, has been impressive this summer making the move to fullback. He earned most of the reps, and most likely a roster spot, because Johnson's weight kept him out for most of camp. The Bengals are tired of dealing with Johnson coming into camp out of shape every year. But he's been too good a player for the Bengals to let go so far.

Prediction: Coats and Johnson (barely) stay

Players: Receivers Glenn Holt and Antonio Chatman

Skinny: There are a lot of young receivers on this roster behind starters Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh. So don't be surprised if one of the proven veterans is let go. Holt and Chatman are both on the bubble because they're undersized and don't fit the system -- Cincinnati prefers bigger, stronger pass catchers. Injuries to Johnson (shoulder) and rookie Andre Caldwell (toe) may scare the team into keeping both Chatman and Holt, but we doubt it.

Prediction: Chatman stays, Holt goes

Cleveland Browns

Players: Receivers Travis Wilson, Steve Sanders and Paul Hubbard

Skinny: The battle for the No. 3 receiver spot in Cleveland has been underwhelming, to say the least. Now all three of these players could use a big performance tonight against the Chicago Bears to solidify a roster spot. With Syndric Steptoe likely on the 53-man roster, at least two of these receivers, if not all three, will be cut by Saturday.

Prediction: Hubbard stays (or practice squad), Wilson and Sanders goes

Players: Linebackers Kris Griffin, David McMillan and Alex Hall

Skinny: This decision is more important than it appears on the surface. Hall, a rookie, has been a nice sleeper this summer, and Griffin and McMillan are important cogs on special teams. Luckily, they all play linebacker and Cleveland is a 3-4 team. But one still has to go.

Prediction: Hall and Griffin stay, McMillan goes

Baltimore Ravens

Player: Fullback Le'Ron McClain

Skinny: The banged-up Ravens have seven guys already on injured reserve, so there aren't as many significant bubble players. But McClain is one because the team recently signed Pro Bowler Lorenzo Neal. New offensive coordinator Cam Cameron wants more of his style of players to run his offense. The question is, with Neal's injury history, does Baltimore want to risk taking one fullback into the season? Probably not.

Prediction: McClain stays