AFC North: Plaxico Burress

PITTSBURGH -- A number of underclassmen who figure to be high picks have declared for the 2014 NFL draft, and one in particular should intrigue the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Allen Robinson needed just two seasons to rewrite the receiving part of Penn State’s record books, and there is a lot to like about him for a team that might make wide receiver a priority in the draft.

Robinson has been incredibly productive -- he caught 97 passes for 1,432 yards in 2013 despite playing with a true freshman at quarterback and regularly facing double coverage -- and has good size and ball skills. The 6-foot-3, 210-pounder is also athletic enough that he could have played basketball at a Division I school had he taken that route.

[+] EnlargeAllen Robinson
Matthew O'Haren/USA TODAY SportsPenn State's Allen Robinson had 97 catches for 1,432 yards in 2013.
What should really put Robinson on the Steelers’ radar: he could be available when they make their second-round pick.

He has been projected to go anywhere from the first to the third round, and my guess is that Robinson is selected in the second round as I think questions could be raised about his speed -- or at least enough of them to drop him into the second round.

I think the only way the Steelers go offense with the 15th overall pick of the draft is if there is a left tackle prospect they feel they cannot afford to pass on, or if there is a transcendent wide receiver that gives quarterback Ben Roethlisberger the big downfield target he has long coveted.

Other than that, I think the Steelers take a playmaker on defense, whether it is for the back end of their secondary, their linebacking corps, or a nose tackle who fits the prototype more than incumbent Steve McLendon does.

Assuming they don’t take a wide receiver in the first round for the first time since Plaxico Burress in 2000, the Steelers could seriously be in play for one in the second round.

Emmanuel Sanders is, at best, 50-50 to return next season , and if he signs elsewhere the Steelers should bring in a taller wide receiver or give 6-foot-5, 210-pound Derek Moye a serious look there.

There is a lot to like about Robinson, who is already polished as a receiver, but doesn’t turn 21 until next August and still has plenty of upside.

General manager Kevin Colbert said the Steelers do extra homework on NFL prospects in their backyard, so they don’t miss on a player who is right in front of them. You can bet Colbert and the Steelers coaches and scouts will take plenty of interest in Robinson, as they should.
The Steelers play their second preseason game Monday night at Washington, and they will try to be sharper on all fronts after a sloppy 18-13 loss to the Giants on Aug. 10. Here are three things to look for in the 8 p.m. game that will be televised by ESPN:

1. Jonathan Dwyer’s bid to become team’s featured back: The Steelers’ leading rusher last season has been on the outside looking in at the battle for the No. 1 running back. Dwyer can change that tonight as the former Georgia Tech star is likely to start and get the bulk of the work with the first-team offense. Isaac Redman (neck) and rookie Le’Veon Bell (knee) will play sparingly, if at all, against the Redskins, providing a huge opportunity for Dwyer.

Dwyer
Mitch Stringer/US PresswireJonathan Dwyer should get plenty of chances to run against the Redskins.
He has shown flashes -- Dwyer had back-to-back 100-yard games in 2012 -- but the 5-foot-11, 230-pound running back also has battled the bulge during his three-year career. That has made it difficult for Dwyer to earn the trust of the coaches, and he is third on the Steelers’ depth chart with Baron Batch.

The two could be battling for a roster spot, and while Dwyer (623 rushing yards last season) is more talented than Batch, the latter is a good special-teams player and the better blocker of the two.

Dwyer must show he can be a viable option in the running game. He should get plenty of chances to do that against the Redskins, a team he gashed for 107 yards on 17 carries last October.

2. The Jason Worilds/Jarvis Jones battle at right outside linebacker: Worilds is trying to hold off Jones, the prized rookie, and Worilds produced mixed results in the Steelers’ first preseason game.

Worilds, who has 10 sacks in three seasons, more than held his own against the Giants before drawing penalties for roughing the quarterback and unnecessary roughness in a span of three plays. Coach Mike Tomlin dressed down Worilds after those flags and banished him to the bench. Tonight will be Worilds’ first action since those penalties.

Jones, the Steelers’ No. 1 draft pick last April, is still finding his way in coordinator Dick LeBeau’s complex defense. It showed against the Giants as Jones recovered a fumble but also struggled to shed blocks and get to the quarterback.

Worilds still has the inside track to take over for the departed James Harrison at right outside linebacker, but he has to avoid the kind of penalties that drive Tomlin batty. The Steelers also would love for the former Virginia Tech standout to win the starting job on his own merits -- and not merely because Jones has to be brought along slowly in LeBeau’s defense.

3. An extended look at the passing game: Starters on both sides of the ball are expected to play the first half, and that will provide a better gauge of where the offense is in Todd Haley’s second year as coordinator.

Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has raved about how the offense has come together as he and Haley have built more trust in one another. The passing game will need more than that, though, to thrive in 2013. The Steelers must replace deep threat Mike Wallace, and the receiving corps took a hit last week when veteran Plaxico Burress was lost for the season to a torn rotator cuff. The Steelers are perilously thin at tight end as starter Heath Miller is still working his way back from a major knee injury.

The Steelers could use significant contributions this season from second-year tight end David Paulson and rookie wide receiver Markus Wheaton. They also need Emmanuel Sanders to emerge at split end to keep teams from loading up against No. 1 receiver Antonio Brown. Keep an eye on those three tonight.

Video: Storylines for Giants, Steelers

August, 10, 2013
8/10/13
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Jeannine Edwards reports from Heinz Field and discusses the top headlines leading up to Saturday night's preseason matchup between the New York Giants and the Pittsburgh Steelers.
It's time to break up the AFC North. Of course, that's an exaggeration. Nonetheless, you can admit to being a little impressed that this division went 3-0 in preseason openers on Thursday night. The combined score: 105-45. Here's your triumphant wake-up call ...

RAVENS: Backup running back Bernard Pierce and wide receiver Deonte Thompson both left with injuries in the first half of the Ravens' 44-16 preseason victory at Tampa Bay. Pierce had his knee wrapped and Thompson had a soft boot on as they left Raymond James Stadium, according to The Baltimore Sun. Asked about injuries after the game, coach John Harbaugh said, "We look pretty good right now. We’ll have some things we’ll have to see about tomorrow -- X-rays, MRIs, things like that. So we’ll have to see.”

BENGALS: Wide receiver Dane Sanzenbacher was a surprise star of the Bengals' 34-10 preseason win at Atlanta. He scored two touchdowns, including one on a 71-yard punt return, and caught two passes for a team-best 59 yards. “It was nice to make good on the opportunities,” Sanzenbacher told The Cincinnati Enquirer. “Obviously it’s the first preseason game so it’s nothing to get crazy about but it’s nice to start off fast.”

STEELERS: Wide receiver Plaxico Burress has a torn rotator cuff, which could end his season, a source familiar with the injury told ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter. Burress, who turns 36 next week, was hurt Thursday in practice when he landed awkwardly on his right arm while trying to make a catch over defensive backs Da'Mon Cromartie-Smith and Ryan Steed, according to multiple reports. Of all the injuries that the Steelers have had this camp, this ranks near the bottom of the list as far as importance. Burress wasn't even guaranteed a spot on the team because Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders, Markus Wheaton and Jerricho Cotchery were ahead of him on the depth chart.

BROWNS: In the Browns' 27-19 preseason win over the Rams, Brandon Weeden had a strong start to the preseason, leading two drives that resulted in 10 points and showing a command of the offense. He completed 10 of 13 attempts for 112 yards and a two-yard touchdown pass to Dion Lewis. "I thought he did a good job," coach Rob Chudzinski said, via The Plain Dealer. "He was efficient and led us to some drives. Ultimately, doing that is what his job is all about."

Wide receiver Plaxico Burress didn't have much of a role last season when he returned to the Pittsburgh Steelers. He also didn't have much in the way of numbers.

What Burress doesn't lack is confidence.

Burress
"I know I can still play," Burress told The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "I know I can dominate in the red zone."

While I'm skeptical that Burress can "dominate" in any phase of the game at this point of his career, I believe he can be a factor in the red zone. That is going to be the only way he gets on the field.

Burress won't beat out Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders, but he gives the Steelers something those starting receivers don't -- height. Brown and Sanders are under 6 feet. Burress is 6-5, which serves him well in the red zone.

Last season, Burress' only touchdown was a 12-yard grab from Ben Roethlisberger. In 2011, when he was with the New York Jets, here's the distance on his eight touchdowns: 26, 16, 3, 4, 3, 7, 4 and 9 yards. Since returning to the NFL, eight of his nine touchdowns have come in the red zone, including six inside the 10-yard line.

Burress, who turns 36 in August, was nearly invisible in four games last season for the Steelers. He had three catches for 42 yards, although you got the sense that Roethlisberger wanted to use him more in the offense. Burress will probably be the fourth or fifth receiver on the team behind Brown, Sanders, Jerricho Cotchery and rookie third-round pick Markus Wheaton.

Burress' impact in the red zone will increase if tight end Heath Miller is sidelined or slowed by ACL surgery five months ago. Last season, of Roethlisberger's 67 throws inside the 20-yard line, 19 went to Miller (28 percent), according to ESPN Stats & Information. Miller accounted for over one-third of Roethlisberger's touchdown passes in the red zone.

How does Burress expect to dominate in the red zone?

"Just go out and play at a high percentage," Burress told the paper. "In those one-on-one opportunities, just succeed at a high rate. I know I can. Being out there last year, I drew double coverage in the red zone without hardly playing, I think teams will have to respect that."
The Pittsburgh Steelers re-signed wide receiver Plaxico Burress, which was a move likely pushed by quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

Burress
Pittsburgh didn't use Burress much last season, when he had three catches and one touchdown in four games. But there were subtle hints dropped by Roethlisberger after games that he didn't understand why Burress' involvement was limited.

The Steelers are going to need depth because Mike Wallace is expected to leave in free agency in a couple of hours. They're also going to need depth at a bargain price, which makes Burress a good fit in that regard.

If the Steelers are going to stick with this short passing game, they can use Burress' size more than they did last year. Pittsburgh doesn't need speed. The Steelers have that in Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown. Burress can add a different wrinkle. The key, of course, is whether the Steelers use Burress, especially in the red zone.

In other news, the Steelers restructured the contract of linebacker LaMarr Woodley. That move cleared over $5 million in cap space.

Woodley joins Roethlisberger, Brown and linebacker Lawrence Timmons as players who have reworked their deals. Those four players cleared $18.473 million of cap room.
Here's what the Pittsburgh Steelers should do with their prime free agents. The NFL free-agency period begins March 12.

SHOULD RE-SIGN

ILB Larry Foote, QB Charlie Batch, G/C Doug Legursky, S Will Allen.

The Steelers need to bring back Foote because they can't be confident that Stevenson Sylvester can start and they can't be certain Sean Spence can move into a starting role this season after last year's severe knee injury. The other names on this list won't have fans rushing to make reservations for the Super Bowl, but they are valuable to the team's depth. The Steelers won't go with two aging backup quarterbacks like last year, and Batch earned the right to stay. Legursky is the backup to Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey, who has dealt with injuries the past two seasons, and he can also play guard. The Steelers were fortunate to have Allen after Ryan Mundy flopped in a starting role.

SHOULD LET WALK

WR Mike Wallace, NT Casey Hampton, RB Rashard Mendenhall, OT Max Starks, G/T Ramon Foster, QB Byron Leftwich, S Ryan Mundy and WR Plaxico Burress.

The Steelers don't have enough salary-cap room to keep Wallace, and he's not a good fit for Todd Haley's style of offense. And even though there have been reports that the Steelers have had contract talks with Mendenhall, Pittsburgh needs to cut ties with him. His play has declined the past two seasons, and it's time for the Steelers to get a younger back in the draft.

It would be more accurate to put Hampton and Foster in the "Have to let walk" category because the Steelers don't have the cap room to retain them. Hampton showed last season that he has more left than originally believed. The Steelers need to get younger on the offensive line and at backup quarterback, which means the end for Starks and Leftwich, respectively.

DECISIONS, DECISIONS

CB Keenan Lewis. There's no question that Lewis is the Steelers' top priority in free agency. But it's going to be difficult to keep him considering he's a rising player at a coveted position and the Steelers are cap-strapped again. Lewis stepped up in his first season as a starter, leading the AFC with 23 passes broken up. If the Steelers can't keep Lewis, they'll go with Ike Taylor and Cortez Allen as starters with Curtis Brown as the nickel back.
CLEVELAND -- The Pittsburgh Steelers announced wide receivers Antonio Brown (ankle) and Jerricho Cotchery (ribs) are out for Sunday's game against the Cleveland Browns, which could elevate recently signed Plaxico Burress to the No. 3 receiver spot.

The only healthy receivers for the Steelers are Mike Wallace, Emmanuel Sanders, David Gilreath and Burress. Brown was listed as questionable for this game.

For the Browns, the only surprise inactive was backup receiver Josh Cooper. He had been active for four of the past five games, catching seven passes for 98 yards. Cooper had one catch for six yards last Sunday at Dallas.

STEELERS: QB Ben Roethlisberger, QB Byron Leftwich, WR Antonio Brown, WR Jerricho Cotchery, OT Marcus Gilbert, S Troy Polamalu and CB DeMarcus Van Dyke.

BROWNS: CB Dimitri Patterson, RB Brandon Jackson, S Ray Ventrone, FB Owen Marecic, DL Ronnie Cameron, OL Jarrod Shaw and WR Josh Cooper.
Hope everyone had a better Thanksgiving than Rex Ryan. We'll resume our normal Friday coverage, which includes my predictions and the Final Word later today. Here is your wake-up call ...

RAVENS: Chargers linebacker Jarret Johnson will play against his former team for the first time Sunday. Johnson, who played 398 games for the Ravens from 2003 to 2011, said he would have preferred to finish his career in Baltimore but he realized it was time to move on in free agency. "I kind of knew the writing on the wall going into the year -- the way that [Paul] Kruger was coming on, the way things were kind of working out, other guys' contracts," Johnson said, via The Baltimore Sun. "You can't pay everybody. So I kind of expected it, and they made it pretty clear pretty early that it wasn't going to work out. I was just fortunate enough to have a team like San Diego. They were extremely interested in me." Johnson has 27 tackles, one sack and one forced fumble for the Chargers.

STEELERS: The most immediate impact from wide receiver Plaxico Burress should come in the red zone. He scored seven of his eight touchdowns last season inside the 20-yard line as the Jets were the NFL's top red zone offense. The Steelers need help in that area of the field, ranking 20th in red-zone efficiency. “He brings us size. Now we’ve got to get him up to speed,” Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. “That’s the challenge.”

BENGALS: Rookie cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick, the 17th overall pick, saw his most extensive work on defense last Sunday, playing 26 snaps on defense, according to The Cincinnati Enquirer. He recorded the first two tackles of his career in Kansas City. “It was pretty much my first time just getting thrown out there,” said Kirkpatrick, who missed most of training camp and the first seven games of the season with a knee injury. “I wanted to get used to the speed, and when I got used to the speed everything kind of slowed down for me. I wasn’t worried about those throws. As long as there weren’t any balls over my head and all the balls were contested balls and I was in the right position. So I felt pretty good out there.”

BROWNS: Cleveland has 27 sacks this season, five off last year's total. The Browns' seven sacks Sunday at Dallas were their most in one game since they sacked Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger eight times in a 13-6 victory Dec. 10, 2009. The increased pass rush was the result of interior linemen Phil Taylor and Ahtyba Rubin playing together for the first time this season. One of the most damaging things about a pass rush when you have big, physical guys [in the middle] is the push in the quarterback's face," coach Pat Shurmur said, via The Plain Dealer. "When the pocket collapses in front of him, that's what restricts the quarterback's vision, more than what he knows is happening off the edges."

The Pittsburgh Steelers signed wide receiver Plaxico Burress after the team's former first-round pick worked out for the team Tuesday.

Judging the injuries at wide receiver for the Steelers, Burress could have a chance to be the team's No. 3 wide receiver. Jerricho Cotchery has been ruled out for Sunday's game against the Browns because of multiple rib fractures, and it doesn't look like Antonio Brown will be back from an ankle injury.

The Steelers will continue to start Mike Wallace and Emmanuel Sanders but there is no experienced option for the No. 3 spot. The only other healthy wide receiver on the roster is David Gilreath, who was promoted to the active roster two games ago.

Burress played last season with the New York Jets after spending nearly two years in prison for illegal possession of a firearm. The Steelers can expect to get a receiver who will be productive in the red zone (eight touchdowns last season) but one who won't stretch the field (six catches over 20 yards and none over 40 yards).

Pittsburgh is desperate for wide receiver depth but this isn't a desperate move. Signing a wide receiver like Terrell Owens or Chad Johnson is a much bigger risk because of the distractions they bring.

Schefter also reported that the Steelers plan to sign Brian Hoyer, who will become the primary backup to Charlie Batch. The Steelers worked out Hoyer and Mike Kafka at quarterback Tuesday. Hoyer, 27, had been with the Patriots for the past three seasons, throwing 24 passes in 13 games. He has one career touchdown and one interception.

There's depth concerns for the Pittsburgh Steelers beyond the quarterback position. With Antonio Brown and Jerricho Cotchery injured, the Steelers are eyeing a reunion with Plaxico Burress to help out at wide receiver.

Burress, 35, who played for the Steelers from from 2000 to 2004, is expected to go to Pittsburgh to take a physical for the Steelers. This is the right move by the Steelers, and I'm surprised that Burress is still available.

If nothing else, he will be a big target in the red zone. The 6-foot-5 Burress caught eight touchdowns last season. The knock on Burress is he doesn't get separation anymore. Still, he had 45 catches last season from Mark Sanchez, so that tells me he can be productive with most quarterbacks. Plus, the Steelers have speed with Sanders and Mike Wallace. Burress can complement them.
There was talk that the Steelers were interested in signing Burress in training camp when Wallace was a holdout. But Burress reportedly wanted too much money. Now, over halfway through the season, Burress needs a job and the Steelers need a productive receiver. It makes sense for the Steelers to sign Burress if he passes the physical.
You thought you were going to get through a day on the AFC North blog without a Mike Wallace update. Well, you thought wrong.

Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger told 93.7 The Fan in Pittsburgh that the holdout wide receiver is staying in shape.

"I gave him a call to wish him happy birthday and see how he was doing," Roethlisberger said, via sportsradiointerviews.com. "And Mike’s training hard. He’s training with his helmet on just like he’d be here. So he’s doing a lot of things. And I have confidence he’ll be here and ready to go for the season.”

So, there you go. Wallace is not only training. He's training with his helmet on. I bet all of you Wallace haters feel silly now to question his dedication.

Roethlisberger also addressed fans who think Wallace isn't a big deal to the Steelers offense.

They’re crazy. No offense, but they’re crazy," Roethlisberger said. "I can’t say enough how good of a teammate he is. And that’s the most important thing when you have as many young guys as we have on our team. Everyone talks about how great Antonio Brown is -- and he is -- but the reason Antonio is going to get open -- not the only reason -- but one of the reasons Antonio is going to get open is because Mike is stretching the field."

Even though Roethlisberger remains a big supporter of Wallace, he wouldn't mind if the Steelers brought back Plaxico Burress. Roethlisberger and Burress were teammates for one season (2004).

"Plax was another guy who I always thought got a bad rap for being a bad teammate," Roethlisberger said. "But that absolutely wasn’t true from anything I saw. He was a great teammate. And if they bring him back, that’s one more weapon than I have in my arsenal already.”
I have a flight back to AFC North headquarters this morning and the Ravens and Steelers kick off the preseason tonight. In short, I'm keeping the wake-up call to short links.

BENGALS: Rookie first-round pick Kevin Zeitler expects to feel some butterflies in Friday's preseason opener, when he will start at right guard. Zeitler believes he's more prepared after going against Pro Bowl defensive tackle Geno Atkins in training camp. “It’s been tough. He’s almost unblockable,” Zeitler told the Cincinnati Enquirer. “He’s just a special player. I’m assuming they’re all like that, or even better. I’m just trying to prepare as best as I can.”

BROWNS: Cornerback Joe Haden repeatedly declined comment on an ESPN Cleveland Radio report that the NFL is reviewing a failed drug test, which could result in him being suspended for four games. "It's really a league matter. I can't comment on it now," Haden told reporters. Asked if he expected to play in the opener on Sept. 9, he said, "I really can't say anything."

RAVENS: About a dozen players won't play in Thursday's preseason opener at Atlanta because of injuries, a list that includes center Matt Birk (back) and cornerback Jimmy Smith (back). But older players like linebacker Ray Lewis and safety Ed Reed could be given the night off despite being healthy. "Some of the more senior veterans guys won’t play at all by design,” coach John Harbaugh said, via the team's official website.

STEELERS: Free-agent wide receiver Plaxico Burress is willing to take one-year contract for the veteran minimum to play this year, but the Steelers have shown no interest yet, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. There has been media speculation that the Steelers might consider a reunion with Burress, the Steelers' first-round pick in 2000, because wide receiver Mike Wallace continues his lengthy holdout.
With wide receiver Mike Wallace far away from Steelers training camp, there has been speculation that Plaxico Burress could and/or should return to Pittsburgh.

The Steelers probably like the talk of Burress coming back because they are in favor of anything that puts pressure on Wallace. But I'm not buying the prospects of this reunion.

Burress isn't Wallace. Actually, Burress isn't Burress from five years ago. He can help in the red zone, but he doesn't give Pittsburgh anything close to what Wallace can deliver. Burress can't separate from corners and can't distance himself from off-the-field baggage.

This talk makes it seem like the Steelers are desperate at receiver, which they aren't. Emmanuel Sanders is healthy and is showing great promise in training camp. Jerricho Cotchery averaged 16.8 yards per catch over the final five games, including a 31-yard touchdown grab in the playoffs. Put them with Antonio Brown and the Steelers can be productive in the passing game.

Bringing back Burress only takes away playing time from Sanders. That's not a smart move. This could be a moot point, too. Burress reportedly wants too much money (note to Burress: aging receivers aren't breaking the bank these days. Just ask Terrell Owens and Randy Moss).

Not having Wallace in camp hurts the Steelers. But the Steelers will do what they've always done: Stick with the guys who have been here.

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