AFC North: Paul Ernster

Steelers grab punter Berger again

November, 24, 2008
11/24/08
1:15
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com'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.

Steelers survive and advance

November, 21, 2008
11/21/08
1:31
AM ET
 
 Chris Gardner/US Presswire
 Ben Roethlisberger completed 17 of 30 passes for 243 yards and one touchdown in the Steelers' win Thursday night.

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

PITTSBURGH -- The Steelers brought their "B-minus" game to Heinz Field Thursday night. But that was more than enough to beat up on the lowly Cincinnati Bengals (1-9-1).

Pittsburgh continued its trend of surviving and advancing with a 27-10 victory over the Bengals to improve to 8-3. It was the second win in five days for the Steelers.

Perhaps style points are not important this time of year. But for three quarters the Steelers struggled in two phases of the game -- offense and special teams -- against an inferior team at home.

But the Steelers will take the win, and there were plenty of smiles in Pittsburgh's locker room Thursday night. The Steelers stretched their lead to 1 games in the AFC North.

So, in many ways, it was mission accomplished.

"It was by no means perfect," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said of the performance. "I thought we stumbled out the gate a little bit both offensively and defensively. They got up on us but the guys didn't blink. We stuck to the plan."

Here is what else we learned Thursday night:

Steelers still searching for offensive identity

In the past, everyone knew what they were getting from the Steelers' offense. Pittsburgh was going to run the football effectively and make big plays in the passing game if opponents decided to stack the box.

This year the Steelers seem unsure. They started Thursday's game running the football, then abandoned it after one quarter. Pittsburgh threw the ball a lot in the middle quarters until it got the lead in the final period, then it went back to the running game again to milk the clock.

The plan seemed sporadic against a subpar Bengals defense, which the Steelers torched for 38 points in their previous meeting.

With the Steelers' offense, there's nothing you can count on consistently week to week. Sometimes the Steelers are a run-first team. Sometimes quarterback Ben Roethlisberger throws 41 times. Thursday they were somewhere in between.

(Read full post)

Reed keeps on kicking for Steelers

November, 19, 2008
11/19/08
4:07
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com'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
11/05/08
4:06
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

Holmes

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
8/28/08
3:00
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com'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

Steelers-Eagles primer

August, 8, 2008
8/08/08
5:00
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

The Pittsburgh Steelers will host their preseason opener Friday night against the Philadelphia Eagles at Heinz Field, and we will be there to take in the action.

Here are some things to look for:

  • Most of the attention Friday will be on Pittsburgh's offensive line. The unit is widely regarded as the biggest glaring weakness on the team and could be the difference in Pittsburgh being just a good team or becoming great team. In particular, watch the competition between Willie Colon and Max Starks, who are battling for the right tackle spot.
  • Look for starting tailback Willie Parker, who is playing in his first game situation since suffering a broken leg this past December. The Steelers have brought Parker along slowly the past few months but are beginning to turn him loose in preparation for the regular season. So far Parker has looked great in camps.
  • Also keep an eye on punter Paul Ernster, whose last punts in a game situation were a disaster as a member of the Cleveland Browns. It took him nearly a year to get another tryout, and in light of Daniel Sepulveda's knee surgery, Pittsburgh is looking for a replacement.
  • This will be the professional debut for highly-touted rookies Rashard Mendenhall and Limas Sweed. Both players have a lot of potential and are expected to get extensive time with the second team.
  • If you're an Eagles fan or just curious, quarterback Donovan McNabb is coming off another injury-plagued year and has to prove he's healthy in 2008. McNabb also experienced shoulder soreness during the offseason.

Steelers training camp notes

August, 5, 2008
8/05/08
9:30
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

LATROBE, Pa. -- The Pittsburgh Steelers wrapped up their second day of practice this week with a morning session followed by a night practice that wrapped up around 7:30 p.m. Tuesday.

Here were some observations:

  • Cornerback Bryant McFadden is working with the first team this week, because Deshea Townsend is sitting out of practice with a groin injury. McFadden had a banner practice in the evening, where he recorded an interception off quarterback Charlie Batch and a pass breakup against tight end Heath Miller in team drills.
  • Overall the quarterbacks struggled Tuesday. The coaches gave starter Ben Roethlisberger a light day of practice by leaving him out of team drills, and Batch and rookie Dennis Dixon combined to throw four interceptions.

"We've been talking about being opportunistic on defense with catching balls, and that's a good sign," Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said. "But at the same time, we can't be as careless with the football on offense at the quarterback position ...Four interceptions in practice is unacceptable."

  • Newly-acquired punter Paul Ernster made some nice punts in replacement of the injured Daniel Sepulveda (knee). He had three punts Tuesday of 50-plus yards.
  • During some down time in practice, Roethlisberger asked a photographer if he could borrow their camera to take some live shots of special teams. Teammate and defensive end Brett Keisel then jumped in front of the tri-pod.

"Oh, no," Roethlisberger said as he jumped back from the lens. "That is waaaay too scary."

  • Notable players who returned to practice from injury Tuesday included starting offensive guard Kendall Simmons (shoulder), linebacker James Harrison (groin) and rookie receiver Limas Sweed (hamstring).

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

Sepulveda

The Pittsburgh Steelers are favorites to once again win the AFC North. But the team suffered a significant blow Tuesday with loss of punter Daniel Sepulveda to a torn ACL in his right knee.

Sepulveda will be out for the season and the Steelers are scrambling to find a viable replacement. They signed four-year journeyman Paul Ernster, who's had an inconsistent career with the Cleveland Browns and Denver Broncos.

Most teams are not prepared for season-ending injuries with punters because it rarely happens, yet that is the new reality in Pittsburgh. The Steelers' only glaring weakness coming into training camp was a makeshift offensive line, but they now have a second flaw.

The AFC North will be competitive on special teams this year. The Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Ravens have two of the top special teams units in the AFC, particularly with exciting returners Joshua Cribbs and Yamon Figurs, respectively.

The Steelers, even with Sepulveda, were average on special teams in 2007.

There will be a lot of close games played between division rivals this season, and several will be won and lost by field position and special teams. If the Steelers struggle to find an answer at punter this year, it could hurt Pittsburgh in the long run.

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

Here is your one-stop shopping for the best storylines in the AFC North:

  • Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette writes Steelers punter Daniel Sepulveda is out for the entire 2008 season with a torn ACL in his right knee.

Morning take: This is a big blow if the Steelers fail to find a suitable replacement. The team signed Paul Ernster off waivers, and the last time I saw Ernster, he was a complete disaster in Cleveland. Where is Chris Gardocki when you need him?

Morning take: Perry has always looked impressive whenever he's healthy and on the field. He just hasn't been on the field enough.

  • Tony Grossi of the Cleveland Plain Dealer writes that return specialist and backup receiver Joshua Cribbs lined up everywhere Tuesday, including at quarterback.

Morning take: Buyer beware! Although it is tempting to use Cribbs' unique talents as often as possible, the Browns have the best special teams in the AFC and should be very cautious not to wear Cribbs down to the point that it takes the edge off his electric returns.

  • In what's becoming a daily occurrence, Jamison Hensley of the Baltimore Sun notes that offensive tackle Adam Terry (ankle) is the latest Raven to go down.

Morning take: This is getting ridiculous. At this rate, the Baltimore Ravens may not have enough players to fill a 53-man roster at the start of the regular season.

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