AFC North: Ben Roethlisberger

PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Steelers report to training camp in three days and it looks like coach Mike Tomlin has pre-ordered heat and humidity, two of his favorite ingredients for the practices that will take place at St. Vincent College in Latrobe, Pennsylvania.

Here is a different kind of primer for camp, and it is the first of two posts recapping the Steelers' offseason in the words of the coaches and the players.

Here is what the players said during the offseason practices.

Polamalu
“We could put Usain Bolt and the whole track team out there but that doesn't make us a good football team. So, we'll see how everything works out.” – strong safety Troy Polamalu on what an infusion of speed will mean for the defense

“I’m excited about this team and the direction we’re headed. I think that we have a lot of speed. That’s running the ball, that’s throwing the ball, whatever. I want us to be fast and to put a lot of points on the board. I feel younger than ever." – quarterback Ben Roethlisberger on expectations for the offense after the Steelers averaged just under 28 points in their final eight games last season

“You see guys finishing to the end zone, the whole defense running to the ball, everyone coaching each other. I think we’re just a hungry young group that’s aspiring to win games. When you’ve got a young motivated group that everyone bought into what we’re trying to do it just speaks highly when you see it on the practice field.” – Pro Bowl wide receiver Antonio Brown on the urgency the Steelers showed during offseason practices

“I’m in his head every day, always asking questions, always trying to figure out the best way to do it. He’s always on my butt about just grinding. Not saying that I don’t push myself, but there’s always a next level and that’s what he’s brought to our whole unit.” – outside linebacker Jarvis Jones on new defensive assistant Joey Porter

Miller
“I expect to be better than last year for sure. That’s better because I should be able to put more preparation in, should be able to work like I’m used to working. Last year was about trying to find a new normal for myself and I’m a creature of habit so that wasn’t easy for me.” – tight end Heath Miller on participating in offseason practices after missing them the previous year while recovering from a torn ACL

“You’ve got a few guys and there time is right now. Cortez Allen is one of those guys. Will Gay is still one of those guys regardless of what people don’t want to say about him. The man’s real solid.I think last year was the best year of his career. And Cortez Allen toward the end was breaking out to what we all thought he could be -- a ball hawk.” – veteran Ike Taylor on the Steelers’ cornerbacks

“It’s nothing right now and I say that in the sense that that’s been talked about the last few years. The talent is there but if we come out here and [falter] we’ll be saying the same thing next year. You can’t just say because we have the high-round talent or guys that have experience that it’s supposed to be special. We’ve got to make it that way.” – left guard Ramon Foster on the whether offensive line’s strong finish in 2013 will translate into a big season for the unit this year

“He’s one of my better friends on the team now. It’s crazy the relationship I built with him over the last couple of months. He’s a lot like I am, outgoing, more jokes. Dri is the same way. It’s crazy how we all mesh together and get along.” – starting running back Le'Veon Bell on new backfield additions LeGarrette Blount and Dri Archer


“Think about it. You’ve got a Hall of Famer in waiting and I’m coming in to play right after him. That’s pressure. Everybody knows what Casey was. He’s on a top five defense his whole career. I’ve seen the man play. There’s nothing else like him. I’m far from Casey. I’m never going to try to be Casey. The only thing I can do is work every day, do my best and just be the best Steve that I can be.” – nose tackle Steve McLendon on replacing five-time Pro Bowler Casey Hampton last season

Mitchell
“I don’t really care about Pro Bowl. I want to be All-Pro. I have to do what I did last year again plus get better. A lot of times last year people were talking about the front seven I played with and they were very talented but this defense here is very talented. Sometimes you’re overlooked but that’s just another chip to put on my shoulder and play football.” – new free safety Mike Mitchell on his goal for this season

“He’s like a sponge right now. The coaches tell him, ‘Don’t say much at all. Just try and soak everything up right now.’ It’s going to be tough on him but he’s the type of athletic he can do it. He’s willing and able to do whatever it takes.” – inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons on first-round draft pick Ryan Shazier

“I feel like I was overlooked by a lot of teams. A lot of guys that went ahead of me aren’t even on teams right now so that gives me a chip on my shoulder every day. When I get to the point where I’m that No. 1 guy and I’m an All-Pro cornerback I’m going to think back to the days when I was sad because I didn’t get drafted.” – cornerback Antwon Blake on what drives him

“I’ve gotten a chance to see who wore this number before me and the person who wore the number before me was a great player for the Steelers. With that comes a great opportunity to become the best and that’s somebody I want to become as great as or greater than. I love pressure. I thrive off that.” – rookie defensive end Stephon Tuitt on wearing No. 91, Aaron Smith’s old number

“Ben is strong-armed with a sense of boldness. He’s going to throw some balls that maybe some other guys wouldn’t, even guys with strong arms. I love that as a receiver.” – new wide receiver Lance Moore on playing with Roethlisberger

“He’s like Paul Bunyan. He’s huge. He’s thick but he’s definitely agile. I think we can get a lot out of him. His potential is out of the roof. It’s about getting him to the next level.” – defensive end Cameron Heyward on rookie defensive tackle Dan McCullers

Camp preview: Pittsburgh Steelers

July, 17, 2014
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NFL Nation’s Scott Brown examines the three biggest issues facing the Pittsburgh Steelers heading into training camp:

Continued growth on offense: The Steelers averaged 26.6 points in winning six of their final eight games last season, and the foundation is in place for them to build on that. It all starts with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who didn’t miss a snap last season and is still in the prime of his career. Roethlisberger never looked more in control than when he was running the no-huddle offense, something the Steelers did frequently in the second half of the season. The offseason practices were critical for Roethlisberger and new wide receivers (Lance Moore) and younger ones (Markus Wheaton) to work together in the no-huddle offense. Roethlisberger said the Steelers will add to their no-huddle playbook during the offseason and training camp before picking the best plays. He must be in sync with the wide receivers; Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery must be replaced for the no-huddle attack to hum again. Repetitions during training camp and preseason practice are critical, especially because the players will be in pads and hitting one another. That means the Steelers’ wide receivers especially have to stay relatively healthy during the most important time for team building, developing a rapport with Roethlisberger and earning his trust.

Getting after the quarterback: The Steelers managed just 34 sacks last season, their lowest total since 1990, and they must get more production from their outside linebackers. Jason Worilds supplanted LaMarr Woodley at left outside linebacker the second half of last season and led the Steelers with eight sacks. Worilds, hampered by a nagging calf injury during offseason practices, has to show that he can be a pass-rushing force for more than half a season. The former second-round pick has no one blocking his path to the field with Woodley now in Oakland. Jarvis Jones has to justify the Steelers using the 17th overall pick of the 2013 draft on him. The former Georgia All-American managed just one sack as a rookie but has improved his strength both physically and in regard to his grasp of the playbook. Jones also has Joey Porter mentoring him, and the Steelers will give Jones every opportunity to succeed. Depth is a concern at outside linebacker, so in addition to providing a consistent pass rush, Worilds and Jones have to stay healthy. If general manager Kevin Colbert is looking to add depth, Steelers fans will be quick to remind him that James Harrison is only a phone call away. What would most help the defense, however, is if Jones can provide the same kind of pass rush that Harrison supplied from the right side of the Steelers’ defense when Harrison made the Pro Bowl in five consecutive seasons.

Improving their run game and rushing defense: The Steelers struggled running the ball and stopping it in 2013. Both still matter, even at a time when NFL teams are slinging the ball early and often and using the pass to set up the run. Le’Veon Bell should improve on his 3.5 yards per carry in his second season, and the Steelers have improved their overall talent at running back. LeGarrette Blount is a significant upgrade over Jonathan Dwyer and third-round pick Dri Archer is a burner who gives the Steelers a home-run threat in the backfield. The Steelers should significantly improve on the 86.4 rushing yards they averaged in 2013. Not as certain is whether the Steelers will be appreciably better in stopping the run after yielding 115.6 rushing yards per game last season. Nose tackle Steve McLendon has gotten bigger and appears ready to assert himself this season, but defensive end opposite Cameron Heyward is a question mark. First-round pick Ryan Shazier should be an upgrade at weakside inside linebacker, but he will inevitably endure some rookie struggles, even if he is ready to start this season. Everything with the Steelers’ defense starts with shutting down the run, so it has to do a much better job this season.
Santonio Holmes, Aaron FranciscoKirby Lee/USA TODAY Sports
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This is the third of three plays nominated as the most memorable play in team history. Please vote for your choice as the Steelers' most memorable play.

Score: Steelers 27, Cardinals 23
Date: Feb. 1, 2009 Site: Raymond James Stadium

Ben Roethlisberger and Santonio Holmes played pitch and catch so effortlessly that it seemed as if they were in a backyard.

The two were, in fact, on one of sports’ biggest stages, and the Arizona Cardinals were powerless to stop them at the end of Super Bowl XLIII.

A Larry Fitzgerald 64-yard touchdown reception had given the upstart Cardinals a 23-20 lead with 2 minutes, 30 seconds left in the game. After a holding penalty moved the Steelers back to their own 12-yard line, Roethlisberger and Holmes went to work.

They connected three times in moving the Steelers to the Cardinals’ 6-yard line with less than a minute to play.

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A first-down pass from Roethlisberger to Holmes in the back left corner of the end zone looked like it would give the Steelers the go-ahead touchdown. But a leaping Holmes could not hang on to the ball.

“When I threw it and it looked like he had it, I was celebrating and I just remember, ‘Oh man,’ but coming back to the huddle I was encouraging. He wasn’t down at all,” Roethlisberger said recently. “He was disappointed he didn’t catch it, but there was no worry about going to him on the next play.”

Roethlisberger did just that.

After eluding the Cardinals’ pass rush and going through his progression of reads, Roethlisberger spied Holmes in the opposite corner of the end zone where he had almost made the game-winning catch a play earlier.

Three Cardinals defensive backs were also in the area, but Roethlisberger threw the pass anyway.

“When it came off my hand, I thought the defender (cornerback Ralph Brown) in front was going to turn around,” Roethlisberger said. “I really thought it was intercepted when I let go of it, but it ended up just over his hand and where [Holmes] could make a play.”

Roethlisberger had thrown the ball where only Holmes could make a play on it. And Holmes turned in one of the greatest catches in Super Bowl history when he leaped for the ball and then got both feet inbounds by inches after pulling it in.

The toe-tapping reception stood up after an official review, and it put the exclamation point on Holmes' nine-catch, 131-yard performance.

The defense stifled a last-gasp drive by the Cardinals, giving the Steelers their sixth Super Bowl victory, and Holmes earned game MVP honors.

 
PITTSBURGH -- As excited as the Steelers’ offensive linemen are by the addition of Mike Munchak, their enthusiasm may be trumped by someone else at team headquarters.

[+] EnlargeTennessee's Mike Munchak
AP Photo/Wade PayneNew Steelers offensive line coach Mike Munchak has used his head coach and Hall of Fame player experience to make a great early impression.
“Really nobody was happier when Coach [Mike] Tomlin, Kevin Colbert and Mr. [Dan] Rooney were able to pull off getting him to come on board," offensive coordinator Todd Haley said of the Steelers' new offensive line coach. "He’s a great teacher. He’s great at what he does, the best in the league in my opinion. He seamlessly transitioned into our staff. He's a stud.”

Haley and Munchak join Dick LeBeau as three former NFL head coaches on Tomlin’s staff, giving it some heft. And Haley has good reason to be thrilled that Munchak will mentor and mold the Steelers’ offensive line this season.

The line came together at the end of last season and is still young with left guard Ramon Foster, who is only 28, the oldest projected starter up front. Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey returns after missing most of last season with a torn ACL, and the line will be counted on to keep quarterback Ben Roethlisberger upright and open holes for running backs Le'Veon Bell, LeGarrette Blount and Dri Archer.

Stellar offensive line play has often eluded the Steelers during Tomlin’s tenure, and some of that can be blamed on injuries. But with Munchak, a Pro Football Hall of Fame guard, pulling everything together, the Steelers’ line could be poised to lead the way for an offense that averaged just under 28 points in its final eight games of 2013.

“Not all great players are great coaches, but he’s definitely one of those great players that transitioned into being a great coach,” Haley said. “The head-coaching experience is a benefit because he doesn’t just see it from his position group or his perspective. He sees the big picture, which I take pride in doing, having been there. He is a very good teacher that believes in hard work, like we all do.

"Great players want to be coached. They want to be pushed to see how good they can be, and these guys are eating it up.”
PITTSBURGH -- The offense and defense traded big plays Wednesday in the Pittsburgh Steelers' second minicamp practice of the week.

Ben Roethlisberger threw long touchdown passes to Antonio Brown and Markus Wheaton during a two-plus hour practice, but the Steelers' defensive backs also had their moments on a hot and humid day that it made it feel like training camp.

Starting cornerbacks Ike Taylor and Cortez Allen each intercepted Roethlisberger. Allen had a pair of picks while inside linebacker Sean Spence returned an intercepted Landry Jones pass for a touchdown.

Practice concluded with rookie wide receiver Martavis Bryant showcasing his speed by blowing past the Steelers' defensive backs and hauling in a long touchdown pass from Jones.

That play, free safety Mike Mitchell said, ultimately allowed the offense to get the better of the defense, though it was close.

"They ended with a high note," Mitchell said. "It would have been nice to knock that ball down but we're battling. I think we've been playing really good in the secondary as a unit. We're all kind of learning each other's strengths and what each other likes to do. We're getting better."

Also of note from Wednesday:
  • Justin Brown continues to get work with the first-team offense, and the 2013 sixth-round pick stood out during a 7-on-9 pass drill. Brown caught a long pass from Roethlisberger and then capped the drive with a short touchdown reception.
  • Roethlisberger is optimistic Dri Archer will help the offense but he isn't sure how the Steelers will deploy the fleet-footed rookie. Archer, Roethlisberger said, has been splitting time between playing running back and wide receiver. The third-round draft pick has also been among the players who have fielded punts during offseason practices. The Steelers are hoping to get more out of Archer than they did Chris Rainey, a fifth-round pick in 2012 who lasted just one season in Pittsburgh. "Is he a better runner than Rainey?" Roethlisberger said. "We won't really know until we get some pads on and get on the field."
  • Outside linebacker Jason Worilds, who practiced on a limited basis of a lingering calf injury, is a good example of how much younger the Steelers have gotten on defense in recent years. Worilds turned just 26 in March, but he is one of the more experienced players on the Steelers' defense. "I'm one of the elders in the room now," Worilds said. "It's an interesting role to be in. I'm just helping some of the younger guys, making sure they know how to go about being a professional and taking care of themselves."
PITTSBURGH -- Steelers players from multiple eras -- including this one -- attended Chuck Noll's funeral on Tuesday morning in the Oakland section of Pittsburgh.

[+] EnlargeRoger Goodell, Mel Blount
John Heller/AP PhotoNFL commisioner Roger Goodell and former Steelers CB Mel Blount embrace before Tuesday's funeral service for Chuck Noll in Pittsburgh.
Former Steelers greats such as Joe Greene, Franco Harris and John Stallworth were there. So were current players such as Ben Roethlisberger, Maurkice Pouncey and Ike Taylor.

Commissioner Roger Goodell represented the NFL at the service that lasted just over an hour and turned out to be the simple goodbye that Noll, who passed away Friday at the age of 82, would have wanted.

Make that demanded.

Dan Rooney, Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin also attended the funeral with Rooney II, the Steelers' president, joining Greene as one of the pallbearers.

No players spoke at the service but a handful of them talked afterward about what Noll meant to them and his legacy:

Hall of Fame defensive tackle Joe Greene played for the Steelers from 1969-81 and was Noll's first-ever draft pick.

"I used to be very, very bad-tempered with officials and Chuck said, ‘You know Joe, those guys have families and kids and they probably don't like you talking to them like that,' and I stopped doing it. He just had a way of sharing information with you that was long lasting. There's not many days that go by when I don't think back on something that Charles Henry Noll said. Anytime I was around Chuck it was a learning experience. Just an outstanding person."

Offensive tackle Jon Kolb played for the Steelers from 1969-81 and then coached under Noll with the Steelers from 1982-91.

"I got to coach with him also for 10 years and he made the point to coaches that the game is about the players. We're here to help the players prepare. That was what he wanted to do and I believe just from the talks I had with him, he didn't just want to prepare for the moment and the season but preparation for life, which is not the norm."

[+] EnlargeJohn Banaszak
Keith Srakocic/AP PhotoJohn Banaszak recalls the opportunity Chuck Noll provided for him as a Steelers' defensive lineman.
John Banaszak played defensive tackle and defensive end for the Steelers from 1975-81.

"I was an undrafted rookie free agent and there were 17 draft choices in front of me, but Chuck gave me an opportunity and a chance to make that football team and I took advantage of it. I think whether or not I would have played seven years or I would have been (cut) two weeks into (his first) training camp he would have had a very big impact on me anyway. I learned that whether you're in business or you're a football coach or a football player, fundamentals are the essential parts of being successful. He stressed that regularly."

Tight end Mike Mularkey played for the Steelers from 1989-91 and coaches tight ends for the Tennessee Titans.

"You like to be around guys that like playing football and want to do it the right way. That's all he ever asked of his players, and I just told that to my guys in my (meeting) room this past week. He's the best coach I was fortunate to play for but I've gotten more from Chuck off the field about how to do things the right way. Family was important and a balance in life was important, and he showed that every day in his life. I hate to be here under these circumstances but I'm glad I got a chance to be here."

• Read more: A collection of memories from Steelers who played for or coached with Noll.
PITTSBURGH -- Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said no coach did it better than Chuck Noll following his annual youth football camp on Monday.

Roethlisberger
"He's the greatest coach of all time," Roethlisberger told reporters. "For any guy that comes in and knows the tradition and history of the Pittsburgh Steelers it started with him."

Noll, the only coach to win four Super Bowls, died Friday night in his Pittsburgh-area home at the age of 82. His passing has produced a torrent of heartfelt testimonials, from former players and Pittsburgh civic leaders to those who covered the Steelers when Noll transformed teams that had been perennial also-rans into the ones that won four Super Bowls from 1974-79.

The Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, lowered its flag to half-staff on Saturday in honor of Noll.

Noll's funeral will be held Tuesday at 10 a.m. ET at St. Paul's Cathedral in the Oakland section of Pittsburgh.

Roethlisberger, who has led the Steelers to a pair of Super Bowl victories, said he met Noll one time early in his career.

But he added, "That's family. As everyone knows around here Steelers family is Steelers family. Whether you met him once or never met him or knew him well it's a tragic loss for everybody so our thoughts and prayers are with him and Steelers nation."

Roethlisberger said Noll continues to impact the Steelers even though he retired in 1991.

"Look at what he did and what he's done for the Pittsburgh Steelers' organization," Roethlisberger said. "I think I saw a quote from Mr. (Dan) Rooney saying that he made the Steelers who they are. People that know football know how special he was. His legacy is why we play today."
PITTSBURGH -- Rookie linebacker Ryan Shazier has impressed the Pittsburgh Steelers with his physical ability during offseason practices. The first-round pick drew praise from Ben Roethlisberger on Friday for what the Steelers quarterback said is an overlooked part of Shazier's game.

"He's going to be fun to watch," Roethlisberger said on WDVE 102.5 in Pittsburgh, "and the thing about him that is most underrated that people don't talk about is he's very smart on the field. I think he's going to be a guy that's going to be calling the defense pretty soon."

That assessment will only add to the growing hype surrounding Shazier, who turned in the play of offseason practices on Wednesday when he made a leaping interception of a pass that Bruce Gradkowski threw because he didn't think Shazier would get to it.

Shazier put his knowledge of the Steelers' playbook at a "five or six” on a scale of one to 10 earlier this week, and the 6-1, 237-pounder is only going to get better as his comfort level in the defense increases.

Shazier still has to show he can play well when the pads go on at St. Vince College in Latrobe, and the Ohio State product will have to work through the grind of training camp along with the rest of the rookies.

But at this point it's hard to imagine a scenario in which Shazier is not the starter alongside inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons when the Steelers open the season Sept. 7 against the visiting Browns.

"We've got some guys on defense that look special," Roethlisbeger said of the Steelers' rookie class.
PITTSBURGH -- The tears that made it hard for Maurkice Pouncey to talk Thursday afternoon also cut short what should have been a celebratory news conference.

Emotion choked the Pittsburgh Steelers center, and it emanated from the day last September when a teammate crashed into his right knee and left Pouncey in the kind of pain that made him wonder if he would ever walk well enough to play football again -- or at least at a high level.

What also had to overwhelm Pouncey: Steelers chairman Dan Rooney, team president Art Rooney II, general manager Kevin Colbert and coach Mike Tomlin all attended the official announcement of the five-year contract extension he signed nine months after tearing several ligaments in his right knee, including his ACL.

[+] EnlargeMaurkice Pouncey
David Dermer/Diamond Images/Getty ImagesMaurkice Pouncey is the only center in NFL history to make the Pro Bowl in each of his first three seasons.
Their presence as much as the new deal that could be worth as much as $44 million, affirmed to Pouncey that he is a Steeler.

And there is a difference between that and playing for the Steelers.

“It’s true love here,” Pouncey said shortly after the Steelers concluded organized team activities. “I’ll do anything for this team and I’m ready to lead us to where we’ve got to get back to.”

The Steelers concluded that Pouncey is one of the keys to them re-establishing themselves as perennial Super Bowl contenders following consecutive 8-8 seasons.

They made a bold move with the contract that is now the most lucrative for a center in the NFL.

They also made the correct move in locking up Pouncey long-term after the Jaguars had raised the ante at the position by signing Alex Mack to a five-year, $42 million contract (the Browns later matched it to retain Mack).

Pouncey is the only center in NFL history to make the Pro Bowl in each of his first three seasons. His teammates respect him so much that they voted Pouncey a captain last season, not much more than a month after he had celebrated his 24th birthday. And Pouncey is the kind of player you build around on the offensive line, especially if your goal is to maximize Ben Roethlisberger's remaining seasons as a top-tier quarterback, something that Colbert has stated.

Questions have been raised about Pouncey and whether the 2010 first-round pick is prone to injury. But he had missed just three regular-season games prior to 2013.

And the injuries he suffered in the Steelers’ season opener were a result of nothing more than rotten luck, as friendly fire took Pouncey out after right guard David DeCastro whiffed on an attempted cut block.

The Steelers are obviously comfortable with Pouncey’s injury history as well as where he is from a health standpoint nine months after hurting his right knee. Pouncey’s teammates, meanwhile, were nothing short of ecstatic about his new deal.

And not because Pouncey is likely to pick up the next couple of dinner tabs.

“He worked his butt off so we’re glad to have the team commit to him like that,” Steelers left guard Ramon Foster said. “We’re more excited than he is about it.”

Just not as emotional.

“I was just telling coach (Tomlin) it seems like five years all over again, and I’m ready to start this path and help this team get back to where we need to,” said Pouncey, who turns 25 the day before the Steelers report to training camp. “This is really an awesome feeling and words can’t really say enough about it.”
PITTSBURGH -- Ben Roethlisberger merely confirmed after the Pittsburgh Steelers' final practice this week what his actions on the field the last two weeks have shown.

"I feel younger than ever," the Steelers quarterback said Thursday.

[+] EnlargeBen Roethlisberger
Keith Srakocic/AP PhotoQB Ben Roethlisberger has high expectations for the Steelers' offense in 2014.
That much is evident by Roethlisberger doing some extra jogging in when he is not running the Steelers' offense during organized team activities. Or directing a two-minute drill that ends with him firing a touchdown pass to Pro Bowl wide receiver Antonio Brown on a slant pattern, something Roethlisberger did Thursday.

The only time Roethlisberger shows his age -- he turned 32 in March -- is when the 10th-year veteran is directing an offense that is his now more than at any point of his decorated career.

Roethlisberger may not be Peyton Manning with all of the hand gestures and barking of signals, but he is not far off.

And it is only June.

No one is more responsible for an offense that came into its own in the second half of last season integrating new players and inexperienced ones than Roethlisberger.

Gone are two of his top three wide receivers from last season -- and the 1,342 receiving yards and 16 touchdowns that Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery combined for in 2013. The backfield has also undergone change with the Steelers signing LeGarrette Blount and drafting speedy fast Dri Archer to complement Le'Veon Bell.

Roethlisberger is charged with pulling everything together, and he has clearly embraced that responsibility while not tempering his expectations for the offense in 2014.

"I think we have a lot of speed," said Roethlisberger, who played every snap last season while throwing for 4,261 yards, the second-highest single-season total of his career. "That's running the ball, that's throwing the ball, whatever. I want us to be fast and put a lot of points on the board."

The Steelers averaged just under 28 points in the final eight games last season. Roethlisberger is the key to them building on that and he has been nothing but a leader during OTAs. Roethlisberger has been front and center at the offseason practices, missing only one of them because of a family obligation.

"I love being out here. I love the game," Roethlisberger said. "I'm excited about this team and the direction we're headed."
PITTSBURGH -- The Steelers again worked on their no-huddle offense Thursday, and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger appears to have more peace of mind about the attack than he did a couple of weeks ago.

“I think everybody’s doing a good job and that we can get back on track pretty quick,” Roethlisberger said following the Steelers’ final practice of this week.

Roethlisberger
Roethlisberger expressed some reservation about the no-huddle offense at the start of organized team activities. He said how much the Steelers use the attack that worked so well for them last season would depend on how quickly the new wide receivers became comfortable with it.

So far, so good on that front, said Roethlisberger, who added that the Steelers have worked more on their no-huddle offense in OTAs than they have in past years when it comes to the voluntary practices.

“I think it’s something that we’ve realized what we can be and what we did last year,” Roethlisberger said on one of the nicest days of the year in Pittsburgh. “We’ll use it more. I don’t want to call it our base offense but I think you’ll see more of it so I think it was important for us to get in it early and often.”

Roethlisberger, running the no-huddle offense at the end of practice, led the Steelers on a scoring drive that he capped with a short touchdown pass to Antonio Brown. It was a good way for the first-team offense to end practice, especially since Will Allen had stopped an earlier drive when the veteran safety intercepted a Roethlisberger pass along the left sideline.

“I thought it was a good play and Will came and picked it off,” Roethlisberger said. “We’re not going to score on every series that we go no-huddle.”

Also of note from Thursday’s OTA session:
  • Roethlisberger didn’t bite when asked about the six-year, $110 million contact that quarterback Colin Kaepernick signed with the San Francisco 49ers. “Congratulations to him and his family and the 49ers franchise,” Roethlisberger said. “We’re on opposite sides of the coast. I’m over here just worried about being a Steeler and that’s all that matters with me. It’s just about getting better out here with these guys.” Roethlisberger has two years left on his contract – the same number he had left on his rookie deal when he signed an eight-year, $102 million contract in 2008. The Steelers are expected to sign their franchise quarterback to a new deal at some point though nothing is imminent.
  • Center Maurkice Pouncey and wide receiver Markus Wheaton were among the players who didn’t practice on Thursday. Fullback Will Johnson was out of the walking boot he wore Wednesday but he watched practice on Thursday, as did tight end Michael Palmer. Outside linebacker Jason Worilds, who is nursing a calf injury, spent part of the practice riding a stationary bike.
PITTSBURGH -- Ben Roethlisberger missed the Steelers’ first organized team activities (OTAs) session of this week because of a family obligation. It is not known if Roethlisberger will attend the voluntary practice on Wednesday.

Strong safety Troy Polamalu continues to stay in California to train, and the eight-time Pro Bowler isn’t expected to attend offseason practices until minicamp in a couple of weeks, which is mandatory.

Not that Steelers fans should be worried about Polamalu’s absence, said his teammate of 11 seasons.

“He’s probably somewhere up in the mountains with the monks praying,” cornerback Ike Taylor said. “When he comes back he’s going to be Jesus on the field.”

Also of note from the Steelers' fourth OTA session:
  • Taylor rejoined his teammates on Tuesday after spending last week training in Florida. Running back Dri Archer also took part in OTAs for the first time on Tuesday. Archer, the Steelers’ third-round pick last month, missed the first three voluntary practices because of an illness and his participation in an NFL Players Association event in Los Angeles, which was mandatory. “I took my playbook [to Los Angeles], still studied,” Archer said. “I’m a little behind.”
  • Tight end Matt Spaeth was a full participant in practice on Tuesday after working off to the side during OTAs last week. Outside linebacker Jason Worilds did some running on Tuesday after missing the final two practices last week because of a calf injury.
  • Tempers flared between linebacker Vic So’oto and rookie guard Will Simmons during practice and the two had to be separated. Coach Mike Tomlin tells his players not to fight during practice but the occasional skirmish is inevitable. “When you step on that field, you just feel the testosterone coming off the grass,” Taylor said. “We’re territorial people and you have to be that way on the field.”
PITTSBURGH -- Cornerback Ike Taylor and running back Dri Archer are among the players practicing today in the first of the Pittsburgh Steelers' organized team activities this week.

Taylor didn't take part in the three OTA sessions last week because he was training at Tom Shaw Performance Camp at Walt Disney World. Archer, the Steelers' third-round pick, missed the three voluntary practices because he was sick and then had to attend a mandatory NFL Players Association event in Los Angeles.

Tight end Matt Spaeth, who worked out on the side last week, is also practicing while outside linebacker Jason Worilds has been doing some running on the side. Worilds hasn't practiced since last Tuesday.

Strong safety Troy Polamalu isn't at OTAs, and the eight-time Pro Bowler isn't expected to practice with the Steelers until mandatory minicamp in a couple of weeks. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger isn't practicing with the team Tuesday after taking part in all three OTA sessions last week.

The Steelers will hold two more voluntary practices this week and then wrap up OTAs next week with four practices.
The oddsmakers at Bovada don’t like the Pittsburgh Steelers' chances of making significant improvement in 2014.

The online sports book set the Steelers’ over/under win total for 2014 at 8.5 following consecutive 8-8 seasons.

First: Breathe, people. Second, we are still more than three months away from the start of the regular season, so these odds are nothing more than something to talk about and debate.

Since the Steelers are undefeated right now, I will stick with my optimistic projection of 10 wins in 2014.

Bet on this at your own risk, but there are plenty of reasons to think the Steelers will go over 8.5 wins. Among them:
  • You always have a chance in the NFL if you have a quarterback, and Ben Roethlisberger is still in the prime of his career and playing at a high level. He will operate behind his best offensive line since early in his career. And it’s hard not to like the skill players Roethlisberger has around him if wide receiver Markus Wheaton makes the jump the Steelers expect this season.
  • The defense will be better in 2014. The Steelers added speed with the additions of free safety Mike Mitchell and linebacker Ryan Shazier. Outside linebacker Jarvis Jones will emerge as an impact player in his second season, and Steve McLendon will assert himself at nose tackle with a year of starting there under his belt.
  • The Steelers, who haven’t traveled long distances well under coach Mike Tomlin, don’t play west of the Mississippi River this season, and they only play one game outside of their time zone. The schedule sets up nicely for them.

Too optimistic? Perhaps, and here is what could go wrong:
  • The offensive line never seems to stay healthy, and while Mike Munchak might be the best offensive line coach in the NFL, wholesale injuries would make his job significantly harder. The Steelers do appear to be better equipped to deal with injuries up front given their depth, but it would be nice if they can develop continuity by staying relatively healthy.
  • The defense could depend on too many young players. Shazier looks great playing inside linebacker in shorts -- OTAs are one thing, training camp quite another. Also, defensive end Stephon Tuitt will probably have to play significant snaps, and the nuances of his position are not easy for a young player to learn.

Here is how the Steelers compare with their division rivals, according to Bovada:

Over/under win totals
Bengals: 9
Steelers: 8.5
Ravens: 8.5
Browns: 6.5

Odds to win the AFC North
Bengals: 2-1
Steelers: 2-1
Ravens: 5-2
Browns: 5-1

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