AFC North: Shamarko Thomas

LATROBE, Pa. -- The opportunity that Troy Polamalu has rarely if ever offered one of his younger teammates can be traced to a text message.

Shamarko Thomas sent one to his mentor, telling Polamalu that he wanted to be great. That led to Polamalu talking to the second-year man about how he carries himself off the field. And the eight-time Pro Bowler eventually extended an invitation to Thomas to work out with him in California.

[+] EnlargeShamarko Thomas
Jason Bridge/USA TODAY SportsShamarko Thomas is looking to benefit after participating in recent workouts with Troy Polamalu.
Thomas took Polamalu up on the offer and the two safeties trained together for a week between the end of offseason practices and the start of training camp.

“It felt like a month because he trains so hard,” Thomas said. “For a guy like that who’s going to be a Hall of Famer to take me out there and show me the ropes, it was an amazing experience.”

The player whom cornerback Ike Taylor nicknamed “Headache” around this time last year because of his hitting ability is expected to make a big jump in 2014.

Thomas has shown how serious he is about emerging in his second NFL season by doing things such as traveling across the country to train with one of the game’s premier safeties. What also bodes well for Thomas is that Polamalu apparently thinks the 5-foot-9, 217-pounder has as much promise as the Steelers do.

Hence, the extra attention he has paid to Thomas since the Steelers took the Syracuse product in the fourth round of the 2013 draft.

“I was the first person ever to work out with him [in California],” Thomas said. “I changed a lot from my first year to my second year and that’s from Troy talking to me every day or staying in my ear about God or the way I train and carry myself.”

Thomas played a significant number of snaps in the first half of last season. He barely saw the field in the season half of the season -- except for special teams -- after spraining his ankle and falling behind veteran Will Allen on the depth chart.

Thomas will be given every opportunity to become the Steelers’ primary backup at safety this season, and he will get extra work through the first week of camp with starting free safety Mike Mitchell sidelined by a groin injury.

“Everything’s slowed down and I’m confident and I’m just ready to play," Thomas said. "Last year it was a fast game and there were a lot of things going through your head. It’s calming down and I’m just ready for everything. I’ve matured a lot.”

The training sessions with Polamalu have been a part of the maturation process and they left a lasting impression on Thomas for several reasons.

“They were like a karate movie,” Thomas said. “It’s like some ninja stuff, but it works for him and I felt like it worked for me, too.”

Steelers' biggest key to success

July, 10, 2014
Jul 10
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The key for the Pittsburgh Steelers over the next three years is developing young players such as outside linebacker Jarvis Jones, safety Shamarko Thomas, inside linebacker Ryan Shazier and defensive end Stephon Tuitt.

They will be the cornerstones of a defense that has been almost completely overhauled over the past couple of years -- and may not have strong safety Troy Polamalu and cornerback Ike Taylor beyond the 2014 season.

Shazier, the Steelers' first-round pick this year, has the look of a future Pro Bowler, and he did well during the offseason practices. The key for the former Ohio State star is continuing that in training camp when the pads go on and the hitting starts.

Jones, the team's first-round pick in 2013, is a crucial part of the Steelers' future given how vital it is that their outside linebackers generate a consistent pass rush. Jones struggled while learning the Steelers' defense on the job last season and recorded just one sack despite starting eight games.

He will be better this season, especially with former Steelers great Joey Porter mentoring him, but will Jones establish himself as a premier pass-rusher over the next couple of seasons?

The 6-foot-6, 312-pound Tuitt already has an NFL body, and the 2014 second-round pick will make a nice pairing with defensive end Cameron Heyward if he realizes the potential that has the Steelers so excited about him.

The hard-hitting Thomas is the likely successor to Polamalu, and the Steelers have high hopes for the 2013 fourth-round pick.

Pittsburgh also needs to develop some cornerbacks. The Steelers would love nothing more than if rookie Shaquille Richardson, a fifth-round pick, becomes their latest midround find at the position.

Cornerback may also be the Steelers' top priority in the 2015 NFL draft after many thought they would use a high pick on one this year.
PITTSBURGH -- Shamarko Thomas has made quite an impression on the player he is expected to eventually succeed at strong safety.

Per veteran cornerback Ike Taylor, Thomas is training in California with Troy Polamalu after accepting an invitation from the eight-time Pro Bowler to work out together following the conclusion of Pittsburgh Steelers’ offseason practices.

Thomas
Polamalu
As Taylor said on TribLive Radio this week, this is not something Polamalu does on a regular basis -- and that Thomas should respect the opportunity to work closely with one of the best safeties of his generation.

“I was telling Shamarko before he went out there, ‘Shamarko, that’s something huge because the dude don’t ever do that. As far as learning tendencies and the defense, just the way of life, or just learning how to be a good person, you’re walking with Jesus on earth right there,’ ” Taylor said on his weekly radio show.

The invitation Polamalu extended represents as strong an endorsement as Thomas could receive from one of the players he attached himself to last season as a rookie.

It certainly is a promising sign after Thomas worked his way into the Steelers’ quarters package as a third safety in 2013 only to lose the spot to veteran Will Allen in the second half of the season.

Thomas played 184 defensive snaps last season but none in the Steelers’ final seven games. Allen, who re-signed with the Steelers last October, played well after a high-ankle sprain sidelined Thomas, and he held onto the job as third safety in the quarters package.

Allen, who is entering his 11th NFL season, continued to play ahead of Thomas during offseason practices, taking Polamalu’s spot at strong safety during organized team activities. Polamalu skipped the voluntary practices so he could train in California, though the eight-time Pro Bowler took part in mandatory minicamp, which ended last week.

The Steelers have high hopes for Thomas, a fourth-round pick in 2013, and the 5-foot-9, 217-pounder should stand out more at training camp where players will wear pads and hit after doing neither during offseason practices.

“Shamarko is known for knocking people out,” Taylor said, “and the only way you’re going to see him knock someone out is in training camp, preseason games, regular-season games. That’s what Shamarko Thomas excels at.”
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PITTSBURGH -- The pick: Stephon Tuitt, DE, Notre Dame

My take: The Steelers addressed one of their most glaring needs, and they did so without taking a cornerback or wide receiver with their second-round pick. I like the pick, though I would have thought long and hard about taking Indiana wide receiver Cody Latimer or Nebraska cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptise with this selection.

Tuitt will help fill a gaping hole at defensive end. Tuitt, who doesn't turn 21 until later this month, had been widely projected as a late first-round pick. He put on weight in the 2013 offseason after recovering from a hernia injury and didn't play up to expectations as a junior. The Steelers worked out Tuitt in Atlanta and are confident that his weight issues are a thing of the past. "We feel like we got a steal," Steelers defensive line coach John Mitchell said.

Tuitt has the size and physical talent to excel as a 5-technique defensive end, and he will get an opportunity to learn under Mitchell, who molded Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel, among others. Tuitt had 21.5 career sacks at Notre Dame, so he can push the pocket as well as hold up physically against the run. Mitchell said Tuitt would have been a top-10 pick in the draft had he been healthy in 2013 and built on a sophomore season in which he had 47 tackles and 12 sacks. "When you're drawing up an end for our defense, that's the guy you want," Mitchell said of Tuitt.

Still no CB or WR: The Steelers have yet to address two of their biggest perceived needs, and part of that is probably because of the draft's depth at wide receiver and cornerback. Teams seem to be content to wait until later to take a wide receiver because there are so many quality ones in this draft. The Steelers figure to take a cornerback or wide receiver later Friday.

What's next: The Steelers don't pick again until late in the third round since it is a compensatory selection. They traded their third-round pick last year to the Browns for a fourth-round selection. They used the pick on safety Shamarko Thomas, and the Steelers made the trade because they were confident they would get a third-round pick this year as compensation for free-agent losses in 2013. The pick is No. 97 overall, and the Steelers are not allowed to trade it.
PITTSBURGH -- A lot of Steelers fans probably won’t like to hear this: Kevin Colbert said the team won’t go into the NFL draft expecting to land an immediate starter.

“I don’t think we can say that there’s going to be an impact guy that’s going to come in and be a starter,” the Steelers general manager said on Monday. “I think they’ll certainly be able to compete and maybe to contribute in some of the sub-packages and they’ll continue to develop."

Such a conservative outlook for the players the Steelers will draft this week is seemingly at odds with Colbert’s assessment of how deep and talented this class is. But it is actually consistent with the approach the Steelers take with the players they draft.

No matter how much it frustrates fans, the Steelers firmly – or stubbornly, depending on your vantage point – stick to the philosophy that it is better to be too patient with a rookie rather than to rush him.

Not that there haven’t been exceptions as far as rookies playing right away and not just on special teams.

Center Maurkice Pouncey established himself as a starter before the start of his first NFL season in 2010 and outside linebacker Jarvis Jones started eight games last season while running back Le'Veon Bell started as soon as he was healthy.

But the Steelers will go into the 2014 season expecting major contributions from second-year players such as Jones, wide receiver Markus Wheaton and safety Shamarko Thomas -- and hoping they don’t have to rely too heavily on the players they draft later this week.

"Depending on how mature [the rookies] are and how smart they are I think will determine how quick they contribute more than their talent," Colbert said. "There’s still going to be some growing that’s going to have to happen.”

Colbert said the Steelers have ruled out a couple of positions as far as addressing with their first-round pick if they stay at No. 15 overall. If they trade down, Colbert said, any position is in play with the Steelers’ first pick.

When asked if the Steelers are less likely to take an outside linebacker with their first-round pick since they used their top selection on Jones last year Colbert said, “Not if they’re a great player.”
The Pittsburgh Steelers have the 15th overall pick in the NFL draft after finishing 8-8 last season. A cornerback, wide receiver or defensive lineman would make sense for the Steelers.

Mel Kiper Jr.’s Grade A 2014 mock draftInsider is out on ESPN NFL Insider today, and his choice is a position that has been linked to the Steelers, though not necessarily a player they have been presumed to be targeting.

ESPN draft analysts Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay talked in-depth about the Steelers' draft earlier this week, and the two agree that cornerback is probably the team's biggest need.

But McShay isn't as enthused as Kiper is about the Steelers taking one with the 15th overall pick of the draft.

McShay said he is not sure there is a cornerback worth taking that high even if players such as Oklahoma State's Justin Gilbert and Michigan State's Darqueze Dennard are available.

“I think I would probably go wide receiver or offensive line in the first round depending on what's available and then maybe coming back cornerback in Round 2,” McShay said on ESPN's First Draft podcast.

Kiper and McShay agree that the Steelers have to focus on defense in this draft with the former saying that defensive line joins cornerback as the team's most pressing need. McShay offered more pointed comments about what the Steelers are facing as they re-tool their defense.

“They've had to get younger fast,” McShay said. “I thought for awhile they were doing that effectively but it hasn't worked out. I do think they are getting younger. I think they have to continue to get faster and more athletic in the back end and I think they know that.”

One of the biggest keys for the Steelers' defense this season is outside linebacker Jarvis Jones taking a huge step after he struggled as a rookie.

Jones, the Steelers' first-round pick last year, started eight games in 2013 but managed just one sack. The former Georgia star played better later in the season as he started thinking less on the field, but Jones needs to add strength as well as more pass-rushing moves during the offseason.

The development of secomd-year players such as Jones, safety Shamarko Thomas and inside linebacker Vince Williams is critical since the Steelers don't like to rely too much on rookies -- something they had to do at a couple of positions last season out of necessity.

“Dick LeBeau's defense takes time to understand it and apply what you know to the field,” Kiper said.
PITTSBURGH -- The Steelers have not taken a cornerback in the first round of the NFL draft since 1997, often finding players in the middle to late rounds they developed into serviceable to quality starters.

That will change this year for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the Steelers need more help to counter passing attacks that increasingly force teams out of their base defense and demand five or six defensive backs on the field at the same time.

The Steelers addressed safety with their most significant free-agent signing, bringing in Mike Mitchell to replace Ryan Clark at free safety. They also have high hopes for 2013 fourth-round pick Shamarko Thomas on the back end of their defense.

The Steelers showed interest in a handful of cornerbacks prior to the start of the free-agent signing period. But the only move they have made at that position is agreeing to a pay cut with Ike Taylor that will bring the 11th-year veteran back for one more season.

Taylor, who turns 34 in May, will help develop the cornerbacks the Steelers select in the draft -- yes, plural. One of those is likely to be Oklahoma State's Justin Gilbert or Michigan State's Darqueze Dennard in the first round.

Whether the Steelers have their choice between the two players widely considered the top cornerbacks in the draft remains to be seen.

Fourteen teams pick ahead of the Steelers, and the Lions at No. 10 are among those who could go with a cornerback in the first round. One thing working in favor of the Steelers is enough teams ahead of them have such an acute need at quarterback that three or four of them could be picked early, pushing higher-rated players down in the draft.

On paper, it doesn't seem like the Steelers could go wrong with either Gilbert or Dennard.

Gilbert intercepted seven passes last season while playing in the pass-happy Big 12. He burnished his pro credentials by running an official time of 4.38 seconds in the 40-yard dash at the NFL scouting combine.

Dennard ran a 4.52 in the 40-yard dash at the combine, which isn't great but hardly raised any red flags. And the 2013 Jim Thorpe Award winner is the more physical corner of the two, something that could give him an edge when the Steelers assign final draft grades, because their cornerbacks also have to provide run support.

Does the fact that the Steelers have only three cornerbacks on their roster with significant NFL experience mean they are locked into the position with their first pick? Hardly, though they will have a strong group to pick from even if Gilbert and Dennard go off the board in the first 14 picks.

Wide receiver will also receive strong consideration from the Steelers, and it would be really easy to pencil in Texas A&M's Mike Evans as their pick. Johnny Manziel's favorite target at A&M is 6-foot-5 and he was incredibly productive in college.

For a team that appears to be all in as far as maximizing Ben Roethlisberger's remaining seasons as a franchise quarterback, adding a tall wide receiver to an offense that has long lacked one would be a no-brainer.

The problem is Evans ran well enough at the combine to allay any concerns about his speed, and even in a draft flush with wide receivers he will likely be gone before the Steelers make their first pick.

They could try and trade down in the draft and address their defensive line, which has a gaping hole at defensive end opposite Cameron Heyward. The problem with that, as Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert has noted, is a lot of teams could try to do the same thing in an attempt to collect extra picks in a draft that is unusually deep across the board.

Assuming the Steelers stay at No. 15, there doesn't appear to be a defensive lineman worth taking that high. Yes, they have and will do their homework on Pitt's Aaron Donald, one of the top linemen in the draft and one who has been compared to no less a player than the Bengals' Geno Atkins.

Unfortunately for the Steelers, Donald does not fit their 3-4 scheme as he is more of a penetrating lineman, not an immovable, hold-the-point-of-attack one.

There are still more than five weeks before the draft, an eternity for teams to fall in and out of love with prospects, and what the Steelers do with their first pick depends on how the selection process shakes out in front of them.

But cornerback is the most logical position for them to address with the 15th pick. They need both immediate and long-term reinforcements at the position. They also need playmakers there -- Steelers cornerbacks intercepted just three passes last season.

The draft is deep enough that they will find a cornerback later in the draft.

But for a team that needs to draft two cornerbacks this year, it is also time for them to take one with their first-round pick.
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.
PITTSBURGH -- The Steelers announced the re-signings of safety Will Allen and long snapper Greg Warren on Wednesday morning with each agreeing to one-year contracts.

Neither is the kind of move that elicits much more than a collective yawn from the Steelers’ fan base, but the signings are significant.

Allen provides depth in the secondary as well as competition for second-year man Shamarko Thomas for the position of safety in the Steelers’ sub-packages.

Allen thrived as the safety in the quarter package after re-signing with the Steelers last October. In the process the 10th-year vereran showed that he can still play after getting released by the Cowboys.

The key with Allen is that he is also a core special-teams player so even if Thomas wins the competition for safety in the Steelers’ sub-packages Allen can still contribute.

Warren will return for a 10th season and the best thing you can say about him is that you never hear his name. Nothing could be better for a long snapper whose anonymity is crucial to his job security.

The Steelers signed long snapper Bryce Davis to compete with Warren. But the latter has become so used to fending off challenges for his position that there is no reason to think he won’t be snapping for the Steelers in 2014.

Warren is one of just five players on the roster who were part of the Steelers’ Super Bowl-winning teams in 2005 and 2008.

The others are quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, safety Troy Polamalu, cornerback Ike Taylor and tight end Heath Miller.
The Pittsburgh Steelers made a smart though hardly a splash move on Wednesday when they re-signed veteran safety Will Allen, according to ESPN NFL Insider Adam Caplan.

Allen resuscitated his career in Pittsburgh last season after Dallas released him, and he provides a bit of a safety net in the secondary with the Steelers unlikely to re-sign Ryan Clark.

Allen worked his way into the role of third safety after returning to the Steelers, and he played extensively in the quarter package. His signing follows a report by ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter that the Steelers won't consider releasing Pro Bowl safety Troy Polamalu as they work to get in compliance with the salary cap.

Allen recorded 42 tackles in 12 games last season, and his interception in a November game against the Lions helped preserve Pittsburgh’s 37-27 win over Detroit.

The 10th-year veteran is also a core special teams players providing the Steelers value on another front.

Shamarko Thomas, whom Allen supplanted in the quarter package last season, could get the first crack at replacing Clark, who has started at free safety since 2006. He and Allen could share time at the position, and the Steelers are expected to draft at least one safety they can develop.

Allen is the second impending free agent to re-sign with Pittsburgh.

Outside linebacker Jason Worilds signed a one-year, $9.54 million contract on Tuesday, one day after the Steelers placed the transition tag on the fourth-year veteran.

Louis Delmas visits Steelers

February, 17, 2014
Feb 17
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PITTSBURGH -- The Steelers are not expected to be major players in free agency.

But they are taking an early look at one of the top safeties on the open market.

Delmas
Former Detroit Lions free safety Louis Delmas visited the Steelers’ practice facility on Monday, a source confirmed to ESPN.com, and the fifth-year veteran is free to sign with any team since he was released last week.

The Lions parted ways with Delmas, 26, after he started all 16 games last season and intercepted three passes while recording a pair of sacks. Detroit released Delmas and wide receiver Nate Burleson last Thursday in moves that created flexibility under the salary cap.

Delmas, known as a big hitter, had signed a two-year, $9.5 million contract prior to last season.

The biggest question the Steelers probably have with Delmas is how he checks out medically. The 2009 second-round draft pick has battled knee problems, and health issues last season precluded Delmas from practicing much during the season.

The Steelers need to get younger in the secondary, and they are not likely to re-sign 12th-year veteran Ryan Clark, who has started the last eight seasons at free safety.

The Steelers took Shamarko Thomas in the fourth round of the 2013 NFL draft but he projects as a strong safety and is likely the eventual successor to eight-time Pro Bowler Troy Polamalu.

Players who have been released are free to sign with a new team at any time. Players who will be unrestricted free agents at the start of the NFL’s new year have to wait until March 11 to sign with a new team.

Polamalu, Steelers still a good fit

January, 16, 2014
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PITTSBURGH -- The last two years show that sentimentality has nothing to do with Art Rooney II's desire for Troy Polamalu to retire as a Steeler.

[+] EnlargeTroy Polamalu
AP Photo/Tom UhlmanMoney may be the only thing in the way of Troy Polamalu retiring as a Steeler.
Hines Ward, Aaron Smith, James Harrison, James Farrior and Casey Hampton are among the players whom the Steelers have either cut or not re-signed since 2012. Like Polamalu, all were cornerstones on the teams that won two Super Bowls and played in another from 2005-10.

True, Polamalu is the most iconic of those players with the flowing locks that have morphed into their own brand and a game that is a study in angles, kinetics and flash.

But the 2010 NFL Defensive Player of the Year is also still playing at a high level even if he has slipped a bit in coverage. That was never the strongest part of his game anyway. and Polamalu is still arguably the most valuable piece the Steelers have on defense given how defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau deploys him all over the field.

Any doubts the Steelers may have had about wanting Polamalu back in 2014 were erased by a season in which he displayed remarkable durability.

Consider that a significant number of the 1,041 snaps Polamalu played came at inside linebacker in the Steelers' quarter package. And yet the 11th-year veteran did not come off the field a year after he missed more than half of the 2012 season because of a calf injury.

Necessity is also a factor in the Steelers wanting Polamalu back in 2014. The team is unlikely to re-sign free safety Ryan Clark, and there is no way the Steelers can go into next season with two new safeties.

Shamarko Thomas, the eventual successor to Polamalu at strong safety, showed promise during his rookie season. But the fourth-round draft pick did not play a defensive snap in the final seven games after sustaining a high ankle injury and getting supplanted by veteran Will Allen in the quarter package.

Money is the one thing that could complicate Polamalu finishing his career in Pittsburgh.

His cap hit of just under $10.9 million is prohibitive for a team that needs to shed salary in the offseason. And the Steelers wanted to re-sign Harrison last year but the two sides couldn't agree on the amount of a pay cut the outside linebacker take, and he is now playing in Cincinnati.

It is possible that a similar scenario could play out with Polamalu but I think it is highly unlikely.

Polamalu wants to finish his career in Pittsburgh. Rooney expressed, in as strong of terms possible, that he wants the same thing.

The two sides will find a way to make it happen.

Steelers keep playoff hopes alive

December, 22, 2013
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Ben Roethlisberger Wesley Hitt/Getty ImagesBen Roethlisberger and the Steelers survived a wild second half on the road against Green Bay.
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- A punter with a distinct Aussie accent completed arguably the most important pass of the game.

A defensive end who hadn't played more than 10 snaps since the middle of November produced a sack and recovered a fumble that led to the late touchdown that set up a wild finish at snowy Lambeau Field.

A defense that might have taken the field with only some light clean-up work had coach Mike Tomlin played the percentages needed to make a last-second goal-line stand to preserve the Steelers' 38-31 win against the Packers on Sunday, ensuring Pittsburgh's playoff hopes survived another day.

The victory came in spite of the Steelers. But the improbable nature of the win seemed as apropos as the snow that coated the field at legendary Lambeau three days before Christmas.

The Steelers' alter ego has tried to sabotage this season countless times already -- including several times against the Packers -- and yet this team still ticks.

The Steelers are 7-8, and they will go into their final game of the season with a chance to make the playoffs. They still need a lot to happen, but the Steelers should be able to at least take care of their own business next Sunday -- and in less dramatic fashion than what transpired at Lambeau.

They play the 4-11 Browns in a 1 p.m. ET game at Heinz Field, which suddenly will have many fewer empty seats than recently expected.

"There's a chance," defensive end Brett Keisel said with a smile. "And we're going to fight."

And that is the rub on the latest edition of the Steelers, who have shown a knack for responding when pushed to the brink.

And you thought the Steelers had no identity.

"I think tonight showed there's no quit in this team," quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. "That's who we are."

Now let's talk about where they are with just one game left on the schedule.

"Still not going to talk about it, because we have to take care of our business," Roethlisberger said of the "P" word. "I don't even know what the scenario is, but I'm sure it's still pretty crazy."

It got a lot less crazy by the end of the afternoon games Sunday.

The Steelers got what they needed in wins from the Bills and Jets, and they can live with the Chargers beating the hapless Raiders.

They almost didn't hold up their end, squandering a double-digit fourth-quarter lead before scoring a late touchdown and then hanging on for dear life.

A compelling if not always cleanly played game -- the teams combined for 16 penalties -- could have turned following a bizarre sequence in the third quarter.

The Steelers' defense made an inspiring stand after Le'Veon Bell lost a fumble at Pittsburgh's 3-yard line. Steve McLendon blocked a short Mason Crosby field goal attempt, and Ryan Clark scooped up the loose ball.

Clark tried to lateral it to William Gay, but when the ball landed on the turf, Ziggy Hood swatted it out of bounds. Officials ruled that there had never been a change of possession, and they awarded the Packers the ball and a first down after an illegal batting call on Hood.

An irate Tomlin tried to challenge the call, which was made after a lengthy discussion among officials, but it was not reviewable. Tomlin seethed about the call even after the game.

"They screwed it up in my opinion," Tomlin said.

The Steelers nearly did the same after rebounding from that deflating swing with a pair of touchdowns.

They blew a 10-point lead before Keisel pounced on a loose ball that was a result of a Troy Polamalu strip-tackle with just less than two minutes left in the game.

The Packers delivered an early Christmas present when Nick Perry hopped offside before Shaun Suisham's 27-yard field goal attempt.

The Steelers had a first down at the 5-yard line with 1:35 left in the game. With the Packers having only one timeout remaining, Tomlin could have killed much of the clock and sent Suisham out for the equivalent of an extra point.

"I'm not into that," Tomlin said of having Roethlisberger take a knee twice after Bell had reached the 1-yard line. "Given an opportunity to score, we are going to score."

The score held up because rookie Shamarko Thomas chased down Micah Hyde after a 70-yard kickoff return, and the Steelers' defense had one more stand in it -- albeit barely.

The story of the game, at least from the Steelers' vantage point, could have been questionable coaching decisions and the sequence that gave the Packers that ball back after a blocked field goal.

Instead, the story was punter Mat McBriar throwing a 30-yard pass -- on his second read, no less -- after a perfectly called fake punt that served as a precursor to a wild third quarter.

It was Keisel, who still has trouble putting weight on his injured heel, making two of the biggest plays near the end of the game -- and near the end of his Steelers career.

It was about the improbable adding up to what seemed impossible a couple of weeks ago: the Steelers having a chance to play beyond Dec. 29 this season.

"You've got to give our whole team credit for continuing to fight," Keisel said, "for continuing to believe."

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