AFC North: Ziggy Hood

Steelers offseason wrap-up

May, 23, 2014
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With free agency and the NFL draft in the rearview mirror and training camp just a couple of months away, we assess the Pittsburgh Steelers’ offseason moves.

[+] EnlargeMike Mitchell
Bob Donnan/USA TODAY SportsSigning Mike Mitchell gives the Steelers another speedy playmaker in the secondary.
Best move: The Steelers wasted little time in getting younger and faster in the secondary as they landed former Panthers safety Mike Mitchell on the first day of free agency. Mitchell, who turns only 27 next month, blossomed last season in Carolina as he intercepted four passes and recorded 3.5 sacks. He gives the Steelers a playmaker to pair with Troy Polamalu on the back of their defense. And Mitchell was cost-effective for a team that had limited room under the salary cap. Only $5.25 million of the five-year $25 million deal that Mitchell signed is guaranteed, and the contract is backloaded to make it cap friendly.

Riskiest move: The Steelers shopped more than usual in free agency, but they added only one player to their defensive line while losing defensive ends Ziggy Hood and Al Woods. Cam Thomas, who signed a two-year, $4 million contract, would ideally fill Woods’ role as a swing man between nose tackle and defensive end. But right now he is the Steelers’ best option at defensive end opposite Cameron Heyward. The Steelers need second-round pick Stephon Tuitt to develop quickly and at least play in a rotation at defensive end. They would also be wise to keep Brett Keisel’s number handy.

Most surprising move: The Steelers didn’t draft a cornerback until the fifth round, and that is a position where they have only one long-term starter in Cortez Allen. The prevailing thought prior to the draft was that the Steelers would take a cornerback early and select two of them. Shaquille Richardson, their fifth-round pick, and free-agent signee Brice McCain are the only addition they have made at cornerback. That means the Steelers better be right that the answers at cornerback are already in their building,

What’s next: The Steelers appear to be done adding -- for now -- and most of the $8 million they'll receive in salary cap savings after June from the release of outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley will be used to sign draft picks. They have a handful of players going into the final year of their contracts that they should try to sign to long-term deals. The list includes center Maurkice Pouncey, outside linebacker Jason Worilds and Allen. The Steelers could also try to sign quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to a new contract, though nothing is imminent on that front. The Steelers may wait until after the 2014 to sign Roethlisberger to a new deal since he still has two years left on his contract.

Free-agency review: Steelers

March, 18, 2014
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Mitchell
Most significant signing: The Pittsburgh Steelers didn’t wait long to get younger and faster in the secondary as they lured Mike Mitchell away from the Carolina Panthers with a five-year, $25 million contract. Mitchell, who turns 27 in June, will replace Ryan Clark at free safety, and the Steelers are hoping they added a playmaker to a defense that intercepted 10 passes last season, tied for the third-fewest in the league. Mitchell, who picked off four passes in 2013, has the speed to cover ground in the secondary and is also a good blitzer. Did everything come together for him last season because he played on a defense that led the NFL with 60 sacks or was the jump he made a natural progression for a player with an impressive skill set? The Steelers are banking on the latter.

Most significant loss: Steelers fans grumbled about Emmanuel Sanders and his lack of consistency, but his signing with the Broncos cost them a starter and left them Kleenex thin at wide receiver. Second-year man Markus Wheaton is the most experienced wide receiver on the roster after Pro Bowler Antonio Brown but he played just 157 snaps last season. Jerricho Cotchery, who led the Steelers with 10 touchdown receptions last season, is no lock to return. The 10-year veteran is visiting Carolina and it could be a good fit for both sides. The Panthers needs wide receivers in the worst way and Cotchery badly wants the chance to play in a Super Bowl.

Biggest surprise: The Steelers probably anticipated losing Ziggy Hood but they couldn’t have predicted that Hood and Al Woods would sign with other teams so early in free agency. The losses of those defensive ends left the Steelers in need of sheet bodies at the position, and yet it didn’t seem like they were any more inclined to bring back 12-year veteran Brett Keisel for one more season. Maybe that changes if they don’t land Alex Carrington, who visited the Steelers last Friday but is also meeting with other teams before signing somewhere.

What’s next: The Steelers are less than $3 million under the salary cap, which means they have to free up more cash since the $8.58 million they saved this year by releasing outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley doesn’t become available to them until after June 1. Inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons could be on deck as far as a contract restructure. His base salary in 2014 is $6.75 million, according to ESPN Stats & Information, and the Steelers can lower his cap number ($11.82 million) by converting a big chunk of that into a signing bonus. The Steelers could also reduce Jason Worilds’ cap hit of $9.754 million by signing the outside linebacker to a long-term contract.

Lance Moore to visit Steelers

March, 17, 2014
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PITTSBURGH -- The Steelers, faced with losing yet another veteran free agent, will host former Saints wide receiver Lance Moore for a visit on Tuesday, a source confirmed to ESPN.com.

Moore
Moore's visit will come a day after the Panthers meet with Steelers wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery in Charlotte, N.C.

Cotchery, who turns 32 in June, caught a career-high 10 touchdown passes last season, and he appeared to be among the most likely unrestricted free agents to re-sign with the Steelers.

With Cotchery, who caught 46 passes for 602 yards, also considering other options the Steelers have turned their attention to Moore, 30, who was released earlier this month by New Orleans.

The 5-9, 190-pounder caught 37 passes for 457 yards and two touchdowns last season, but Moore is less than two years removed from his only 1,000-yard season in the NFL.

Moore caught 65 passes for 1,041 yards and six touchdowns in 2012.

The Steelers are thin at wide receiver with Emmanuel Sanders signing a three-year contract on Sunday that could be worth as much as $18 million with the Broncos. The Steelers have little in the way of experience at wide receiver behind Pro Bowler Antonio Brown.

In addition to Moore, the Steelers are scheduled to host former Packers running back James Starks on Tuesday. Wide receiver and running back are among the positions where the Steelers are most lacking depth.

The Steelers have already lost a handful of free agents, including Sanders, defensive ends Ziggy Hood and Al Woods, running back Jonathan Dwyer and tight end David Johnson.

They have signed two free agents from other teams, safety Mike Mitchell and nose tackle Cam Thomas.
Alex MackAP Photo/David RichardCleveland Browns center Alex Mack is the top free agent in the AFC North.

It's not a particularly strong free-agent class in the AFC North, although the top ones rank among the best in the NFL.

The free-agent group in the division took a hit when tight end Dennis Pitta, outside linebacker Jason Worilds and linebacker D'Qwell Jackson all signed before the official start of free agency.

So who's left? ESPN's four team reporters in the division -- Scott Brown, Coley Harvey, Jamison Hensley and Pat McManamon -- compiled a list of the top 15 free agents in the AFC North.

The Baltimore Ravens have the most free agents on this list with eight players. The Cleveland Browns have two of the top three free agents in the division, and the Cincinnati Bengals have two of the top five. The Pittsburgh Steelers placed one free agent in the top 10.

Here are the top 15 free agents in the AFC North:

1. Alex Mack, Browns center: At 28, the two-time Pro Bowler is in the prime of his career. Mack was so coveted by the Browns that they placed a $10 million transition tag on him. It will be interesting whether another team can pry him away from Cleveland.

2. Michael Johnson, Bengals defensive end: He was better in 2012 (11.5 sacks) than he was in 2013 (3.5 sacks). Still, his size, athleticism and age (27) will make him one of the most coveted pass-rushers this offseason.

3. T.J. Ward, Browns safety: Considered one of the top 10 safeties in the NFL, Ward will draw interest from teams looking to get more physical in the secondary. He makes an impact on run defense and has improved in coverage.

4. Eugene Monroe, Ravens offensive tackle: Some believe Monroe is the top offensive tackle in free agency, but ESPN's Bill Polian has five tackles ranked ahead of him. His athleticism and upside will command a big-money contract even though he's never been to a Pro Bowl.

5. Anthony Collins, Bengals offensive tackle: He is an underrated left tackle who didn't allow a sack last season. The question mark with Collins is how he'll play as a full-time starter. He made seven starts last season and has 25 starts in six seasons in Cincinnati.

6. Jacoby Jones, Ravens receiver-returner: He was one of the top playmakers in the Ravens' 2012 Super Bowl run, and he ranked among the top five returners in the league last season. Jones is inconsistent and one-dimensional as a wide receiver, but he made a lot of clutch plays for the Ravens in two seasons.

7. Art Jones, Ravens defensive end: His impact as a run defender and interior pass-rusher makes him one of the top defensive tackles available. Teams, though, have to wonder whether he'll be the same type of player without Haloti Ngata drawing double-teams next to him.

8. Daryl Smith, Ravens linebacker: He was quietly one of the NFL's top comeback stories. In his first season with the Ravens, Smith led the team with 123 tackles and finished with five sacks, three interceptions, 19 passes defensed and two forced fumbles. His age (32 this month) could be a drawback.

9. Michael Oher, Ravens offensive tackle: His play never reached the expectations placed on a first-round pick. Oher is a throwback type of player whose strengths are durability and toughness. The biggest knocks against him are mental mistakes and pass protection.

10. Emmanuel Sanders, Steelers wide receiver: He is almost 27, brings a lot of quickness and is coming off a season where he dropped just two passes (according to ESPN Stats & Information). What works against Sanders is the fact that he's never had more than 740 yards receiving in a season and averaged a career-low 11 yards per catch last season.

11. Jameel McClain, Ravens inside linebacker: He isn't among the most talented linebackers, but he prides himself on outworking others. Even though he came back from a spinal cord contusion last season, some teams will be wary of a player who had such a serious injury.

12. James Ihedigbo, Ravens safety: Known more for his special-teams play, Ihedigbo finished as the team's second-leading tackler. He'll try to find a team that will give him an opportunity to play defense now that the Ravens moved Matt Elam to his strong safety spot.

13. Ziggy Hood, Steelers defensive lineman: He never became the difference-maker the Steelers envisioned when they drafted him in the first round, but it would be unfair to call him a bust. One of the strongest players on the team, Hood lost his starting job to Cameron Heyward last season.

14. Corey Graham, Ravens cornerback: He was a starter on the Ravens' 2012 Super Bowl team and led Baltimore with four interceptions last season. Graham has proved to be a dependable nickelback, but he doesn't have the size or speed to be a full-time starter.

15. Brett Keisel, Steelers defensive lineman: He had four sacks last season and 26 quarterback pressures, third most on the Steelers, despite missing four games and playing sparingly in another because of a nagging foot injury. His age (35) will scare away a lot of teams.

Free-agency primer: Steelers

March, 7, 2014
Mar 7
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» AFC Free-Agency Primer: East | West | North | South » NFC: East | West | North | South

 
Key free agents: WR Emmanuel Sanders, DE Ziggy Hood, WR Jerricho Cotchery, DE Al Woods, DE Brett Keisel, S Ryan Clark, RB Jonathan Dwyer, C Fernando Velasco, OT Guy Whimper, C/G Cody Wallace, TE David Johnson, LB Stevenson Sylvester.

Where they stand: General manager Kevin Colbert has said the Steelers may be more active in free agency than in recent years, but don’t expect their philosophy to fundamentally change. The Steelers will focus on their own players and are likely to sit out the first wave of free agency and target midlevel free agents after the marquee names have signed with other teams. Colbert hinted that the Steelers could try to land a potential starter via free agency, and they could use immediate help as well as depth at just about any position on defense. Nothing would help the Steelers more than if they could sign a free agent who will make an impact like Ryan Clark (2006) or James Farrior (2002) did, though they would have to splurge to get a free agent the caliber of Farrior.

What to expect: Wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders, the team's top free agent, is going to command more money than the Steelers are willing to pay. He will almost certainly sign elsewhere, though look for veteran Jerricho Cotchery to re-sign with the team after catching 10 touchdown passes last season. Defensive end Ziggy Hood is likely to sign elsewhere, making it imperative that the Steelers bring back Al Woods. They could also re-sign Brett Keisel for one more season if the two sides can find common ground on compensation. The Steelers have a good chance of signing most of their free agents with the exceptions of Sanders and Hood, and that is how they will add depth to their offensive line. Free agents they could target include former Seahawks defensive end Red Bryant, Dolphins defensive tackle Paul Soliai and 49ers cornerback Tarell Brown. The Steelers met with former Lions safety Louis Delmas last month, but his knee issues may be too much of a red flag for them, and they have since re-signed veteran Will Allen.

Assessing three Steelers' free agents

February, 28, 2014
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PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Steelers have 21 players who can become free agents on March 11. Here is a look at the three who figure to draw the most interest on the open market if they do not re-sign with the Steelers before the start of free agency:

Worilds
OLB Jason Worilds: His breakout season couldn't have come at a better time as Worilds is in position to cash in after emerging as the Steelers' best pass-rusher in 2013. Worilds' value will be enhanced if players such as Carolina's Greg Hardy and Washington's Brian Orakpo are tagged or if they sign long-term deals to remain with their respective teams. That would further dilute a free-agent crop that is not exactly flush with pass-rushers. Outside linebacker Paul Kruger fetched a five-year, $40 million contract last year but the Browns way overpaid for a player who has 20 sacks in five NFL seasons. Worilds isn't going to command that kind of money after starting just one season though all it takes if he hits the open market is for one team to break the bank for him. A more realistic point of reference when it comes to assessing Worilds' value may be Brian Robison. The Vikings' defensive end signed a four-year, $28.3 million contract last October with more than $12 million guaranteed. Robison has been more productive than Worilds -- he has 25 1/2 sacks in the last three seasons -- but Worilds only turns 26 on Monday while Robison is 30.

Chances of Worilds re-signing with Steelers: I don't like them if he hits the open market unless the Steelers are willing to pay more than they probably would like to retain the fourth-year veteran. It would be ideal for the Steelers to sign Worilds before March 11 but if you are in his position why not let the market set his price, especially if there is a dearth of pass-rushers in this free-agent class? Worilds has said he wants assurances that the Steelers view him as a long-term starter at outside linebacker. While general manager Kevin Colbert can't make any guarantees as far as his role on the team Worilds will know how highly the Steeler think of him by how much they are willing to pay to keep him off the open market.

Sanders
WR Emmanuel Sanders: The fourth-year veteran had a solid, if sometimes maddening season, after cracking the starting lineup in 2013. Sanders established career-highs across the board, including six touchdown catches, but he also had some key drops. Don't be surprised though if a team is willing to pay him in the $5 million a season range a year after the Patriots were willing to give up a third-round draft pick to sign Sanders, then a restricted free agent, to a one-year $2.5 million contract. Riley Cooper signed a five-year, $25 million contract to stay in Philadelphia, taking a wide receiver out of the free-agent class and perhaps setting parameters for the kind of deal that Sanders, who turns 27 next month, is hoping to ink.

Chances of Sanders re-signing with the Steelers: It's hard to imagine a scenario in which he returns to Pittsburgh. The Steelers will let the market set Sanders' value before deciding if they want to make a run at keeping the former third-round draft pick. Teams are likely to bid on Sanders, one of the top receivers in an underwhelming class. Some team is going to pay Sanders the going rate for No. 2 wide receivers who still have upside, and if that is the case the Steelers are prepared to go with second-year man Markus Wheaton opposite Pro Bowler Antonio Brown.

Hood
Hood
DE Ziggy Hood: The Steelers' first-round pick in 2009 has not lived up to expectations though it would be unfair to call him a bust. Hood is one of the strongest players on the team, and he is the epitome of an effort-guy, but he lacks the athleticism to consistently push the pocket or chase down opposing backs when a play is run away from his side of the defense. Hood lost his starting job to Cameron Heyward last season though he still played a lot and tied his career-high with 40 tackles while adding three sacks. He is one of three defensive ends on the roster who can become an unrestricted free agent in less than two weeks, and lack of depth at the position is the strongest argument for the Steelers re-signing Hood.

Chances of Hood re-signing with the Steelers: Not much better than Sanders'. The Steelers appear willing to let the market set Hood's price as well, and he may be attractive to teams that play 4-3 defenses and need help up front. Hood played nose tackle in a 4-3 defense in college. He did not line up directly over the center, which may be the best position for him. Hood, who just turned 27, could command $3 million a year on the open market. If that is the case the Steelers won't bid on the player who could not establish himself as a long-term starter in Pittsburgh.

Another Steelers coach on the move?

January, 28, 2014
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Steel City wake-up: morning links

There could be more turnover on the Steelers’ coaching staff.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Gerry Dulac reports that defensive assistant Jerry Olsavsky will interview with the Buffalo Bills for the job of linebackers coach.

Dulac also offers his take on the departure of running backs coach Kirby Wilson, who has accepted the same job with the Minnesota Vikings. I have heard there was some friction between offensive coordinator Todd Haley and Wilson, but that the latter’s desire to leave probably had as much to do with getting more of an opportunity somewhere else.

The shame of Wilson’s departure isn’t as much that the Steelers are losing one of the better coaches on their staff and one who was widely respected in the organization. Rather, Wilson would have received strong consideration to become the Steelers’ offensive coordinator in 2012 after the organization did not renew Bruce Arians’ contract.
  • From the Super Bowl, the Pittsburgh Post Gazette’s Ed Bouchette takes a look at Denver’s John Fox, who learned a few lessons from the legendary Chuck Noll while in Pittsburgh.
  • From Baltimore, ESPN.com’s Jamison Hensley is no longer covering the search for an offensive coordinator. And so much for the four finalists that the Ravens announced last week. Hensley writes about former Texans coach Gary Kubiak, who is joining John Harbaugh’s staff.
  • From Cleveland, ESPN.com’s Pat McManamon is no longer covering a coaching search but he is still tracking the staff that Mike Pettine is putting together.
  • I talked to ESPN NFL Insider Matt Williamson, a former NFL scout, on Monday and he had some interesting things to say about the Steelers. Among the positions he thinks are the team's biggest draft need? Defensive end. Williamson doesn't expect Ziggy Hood or Brett Keisel to return unless the latter comes back at what would essentially be the minimum salary for a 10-plus year veteran. More from Williamson throughout the week.
PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Steelers have 21 players who are scheduled to become unrestricted free agents on March 11th, the start of the NFL’s new year. Here is a quick look at 11 of those unrestricted free agents – and the priority the Steelers should place on re-signing them.

Worilds
OLB Jason Worilds: The former second-round pick led Steelers with eight sacks and came into his own after a calf injury sustained by LaMarr Woodley provided an opening at left outside linebacker. Priority: Keeping Worilds should be at or near the top of Steelers’ to-do list.

WR Emmanuel Sanders: Showed flashes in his first year as a starter but also was plagued by inconsistency. Priority: Let market determine Sanders’ value and then see if he is worth bringing back.

Keisel
Keisel
DE Brett Keisel: Unlikely to return but I think the Steelers should seriously consider bringing back Keisel for one more season if the price is right. Priority: The Steelers can be patient here as Keisel, 35, won’t draw a lot of interest, at least initially, on the free-agent market.

DE Ziggy Hood: Hasn’t lived up to expectations as a first-round draft pick but I wouldn’t call him a bust either. He is one of the tougher ones to call since Hood has been serviceable and is one of three defensive ends who are impending free agents. Priority: Much like Sanders, the Steelers should let the market determine Hood’s value and then see if they are willing to pay it.

S Ryan Clark: He has had a tremendous run in Pittsburgh – and in the NFL in general considering he is still playing 12 seasons after making the Giants as an undrafted free agent. Priority: The Steelers need to get younger in the secondary and that almost certainly spells the end of Clark’s playing days in Pittsburgh.

Cotchery
WR Jerricho Cotchery: Is coming off a career-best 10-touchdown season. Loves Pittsburgh, loves playing for Mike Tomlin and catching passes from Ben Roethlisberger. Is a consummate professional and great locker-room guy. Priority: The Steelers need to make this happen as they should be able to find common ground with Cotchery in terms of bringing the 10th-year veteran back in 2014.

DE: Al Woods: Woods saw the first significant playing time of his career and started a pair of games at nose tackle for the injured Steve McLendon. He can play both end and nose tackle and still has upside. Priority: The Steelers, assuming the price is right, should bring back Woods. I don’t see both Keisel and Hood returning and there is a chance each has played his last game in Pittsburgh. Uncertainty at defensive end beyond Cameron Heyward makes re-signing Woods a key.

RB Jonathan Dwyer: Love him as a No. 2 running back who can be a spot starter if Le’Veon Bell goes down with an injury. The question is will Dwyer seek a larger role elsewhere and will there be much interest in him as a potential starter? Priority: Dwyer is another player whom the Steelers will let test the market and then see if they want to make a run at bringing him back.

Velasco
C Fernando Velasco: One of the most unsung players of the season, Velasco stabilized the center position following the loss of Pro Bowler Maurkice Pouncey. Ruptured Achilles ended his season after 11 games. Priority: Velasco would be ideal as the first center/guard in reserve, and recent history shows how important depth is along the offensive line. The Steelers should have a good chance of re-signing Velasco because of his injury.

G/OT: Guy Whimper: Proved to be a valuable fill-in and started a game at each guard spot. Whimper would bolster the offensive line depth if he returns. Priority: The Steelers should be able to bring back Whimper, assuming he wants to return, and his position flexibility is a bonus.

S Will Allen: The veteran rejuvenated his career after re-signing with the Steelers following his release by the Cowboys. Allen played significant snaps as a third safety in the quarter package and was a core special-teams player. Priority: Allen wants to return and I think there is a good chance that the Steelers bring him back for another season because of their comfort with him and his ability to play special teams.

Rest of the free agents: RB LaRod Stephens-Howling, RB Felix Jones, WR Plaxico Burress, TE David Johnson, TE Michael Palmer, C Cody Wallace, LB Stevenson Sylvester, LB Jamaal Westerman, P Mat McBriar and LS Greg Warren.

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."
PITTSBURGH -- Defensive end Brett Keisel again practiced on a limited basis, and the Pittsburgh Steelers are hopeful that he will be able to play in some sort of capacity Sunday in Green Bay.

Keisel
Keisel
Keisel has played in just one of the past five Steelers’ games -- and he lasted less than 10 snaps Thanksgiving night in Baltimore -- because of a recurring foot problem. Keisel, who is second on the Steelers with 23 quarterback pressures, could be nearing the end of his Steelers career.

The 12th-year veteran is in the final year of his contract, and he will have to at least take a major pay cut to return to the Steelers.

Keisel has said he will want to play beyond 2013, but that he can’t envision wearing a different uniform. His more immediate concern is trying to finish the season strong despite the plantar fasciitis that has plagued him.

“He’s been getting a little better every week, and I think he’s in a more positive frame of mind just being around him,” Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said. “I really think that he feels he’s got a real legitimate shot (of playing against the Packers). I think there’s a real chance of him playing some.”

If Keisel is unable to play against the Packers, Ziggy Hood will start at right defensive end.

Keisel was the only Steelers players who didn’t practice fully on Thursday.

Strong safety Troy Polamalu, tight end Heath Miller and wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery (shoulder) all returned to practice after missing drills on Wednesday.

Polamalu and Miller were given maintenance days for the first practice of the week.

Heyward continues to shine for Steelers

December, 12, 2013
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PITTSBURGH -- It seems ludicrous now considering that he may be the Steelers’ best defensive player this season. But it wasn’t too long ago that it was easy to wonder if the Steelers had made a mistake when they used their 2011 first-round pick on Cameron Heyward.

He played sparingly outside of special teams his first two seasons, and it was also easy – or convenient – to forget that Heyward didn’t have the benefit of getting acclimated to a new defense before his first training camp because of the lockout.

[+] EnlargeCameron Heyward
Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY SportsSteelers defensive end Cameron Heyward showed off his tenacity against the Dolphins.
Or that it takes years for ends to master the technique and hand-to-hand combat skills that are necessary to succeed in the Steelers’ 3-4 defense.

Heyward, it can be argued, is actually ahead of schedule. And any questions about whether he has arrived were erased last Sunday against the Dolphins.

Heyward recorded a career-high 10 tackles, and he displayed a brute strength on a couple of them in yanking Dolphins ball carriers to the ground. The former Ohio State star is second on the Steelers with 24 quarterback pressures and third on the team with four sacks.

And yet when asked if development has been a source of satisfaction this season, Heyward said, “No, because it just doesn’t show up on the [score]board. I think I’ve become more confident in what I’m doing out there. I just want it to translate onto the board. I’ll do whatever it takes.”

Heyward is a main reason why the Steelers have hope that their future performances translate into wins – and not just in the final three games of the season.

The player who didn’t open the season as a starter -- he supplanted Ziggy Hood in the lineup after the fourth game -- has emerged as a cornerstone whom the Steelers can build around as they re-tool their aging defense. Heyward has also established himself as the next in a line of defensive ends who have distinguished themselves, most notably Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel.

“I’ve had the pleasure of just getting to learn from those guys and there’s so much I’ve learned,” Heyward said. “I’m just trying to live up to the hype. Those guys have set the bar pretty high and just trying to carry it on.”

He has already started doing just that.

“Cam had a lot of God-given ability. It just took him some time to learn what to do," Steelers defensive line coach John Mitchell said. "He’s getting better and better. He feels more comfortable. We wanted to get him on the field because he was making plays.”

Keisel, Beachum may return for Steelers

December, 10, 2013
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PITTSBURGH -- The Steelers' playoff hopes can be listed as doubtful but at least they are relatively healthy.

Defensive end Brett Keisel (foot) and left tackle Kelvin Beachum (knee) will be limited in practice this week but each could play Sunday night against the visiting Bengals.

"We anticipate having most if not all of our guys available," coach Mike Tomlin said Tuesday at his weekly news conference.

Keisel has played in just one of the Steelers' past four games -- and sparingly at that -- because of plantar fasciitis. Tomlin said the 12th-year veteran underwent an extensive workout on Monday and the Steelers will continue to monitor his progress.

Beachum, who sprained his knee in a 22-20 loss Baltimore on Thanksgiving night, will also push to return to action this week. The second-year man will likely be limited during the early part of the week, and even if Beachum is able to play he may not return to the starting lineup.

Tomlin said a decision on whether Beachum or Mike Adams starts at left tackle will hinge on how much the former is able to practice this week. Adams played his best game of the season in the Steelers’ 34-28 loss to the Dolphins after making his first start at left tackle since late September.

In other injury news, defensive end Ziggy Hood (ankle) and wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery (shoulder) will be limited in practice but both are expected to play Sunday.
Steel City wake-up: morning links

Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger played his best game of the season in throwing for 367 yards and four touchdowns in a 37-27 win over the Lions. The 10-year veteran also assured there will be more questions about how much the Steelers should rely on the no-huddle offense given how much success they had using it against the Lions.

Another week, another big game for Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown. The fourth-year veteran caught seven passes for 147 yards and a pair of touchdowns, and he may have outplayed Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson given some of the clutch catches Brown made.

There had been questions about Heath Miller last week and his role in the passing game, but the veteran tight end caught a game-high eight passes Sunday. It will only help the Steelers’ offense if Miller is a bigger part of the passing game down the stretch.

The Steelers play at Cleveland on Sunday with a chance to improve to 5-6. The Browns’ seemingly endless search for a franchise quarterback continues, and they will rely on journeyman Jason Campbell as they try to stay, along with the Steelers, among the frontrunners for the second wild-card berth in the AFC.

The Steelers will try to build on their strong second-half performance against the Lions with defensive end Ziggy Hood coming off his best game of the season.

Steelers could be down three starters

November, 15, 2013
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PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Steelers may be without three starters Sunday when they host the Detroit Lions for a 1 p.m. game.

Outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley (calf), defensive end Brett Keisel (foot) and left guard Ramon Foster (ankle) all missed practice Friday for the third consecutive day.

Woodley is listed as doubtful on the Steelers’ injury report though the seventh-year veteran is holding out hope of playing against the Lions.

“There is a great chance,” Woodley said of playing. “Two days left [to heal].”

Keisel, who is battling plantar fasciitis, and Foster are listed as questionable but each is also a long shot to suit up against Detroit.

Guy Whimper said he practiced all week at left guard with the first-team offense and is preparing to start on Sunday. Ziggy Hood will start in place of Keisel if the latter can’t go.

Among the Steelers listed as probable are left tackle Kelvin Beachum (hip), right guard David DeCastro (ankle), right tackle Marcus Gilbert (ankle), center Fernando Velasco (knee), offensive tackle Mike Adams (ribs) and tight end Heath Miller.

Six offensive linemen are listed on the Steelers’ injury report but Foster is the only one expected to miss Sunday’s game at Heinz Field.

Rookie safety Shamarko Thomas (ankle) had been ruled out for the game earlier this week.

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