NFL Nation: A.Q. Shipley
On paper, it looks like a downgrade. Osemele is a second-round pick from a year ago, and Shipley is on his third team since being a seventh-round pick in 2009.
It doesn't look good for the Ravens on the eye test, either. Osemele is a powerful 6-foot-5, 330 pounds. Shipley resembles a bouncer at a bar at 6-1, 305 pounds.
Still, it's hard to overlook what coach John Harbaugh said Friday when announcing Osemele was likely done for the season.
"I'm excited to see how [the offensive linemen] play going forward," he said. "We'll actually be better there with a healthier player."
Harbaugh isn't putting a positive spin on this development. You could see he actually believes this. Osemele is clearly the best option when he wants to be out there. But you got the sense that he wasn't mentally committed to playing anymore.
Heading into the bye, Osemele told reporters, "They feel like I'm the best chance to win games at my position. So, I'm going to deal with it."
This sounded like a player being told to play, not one wanting to play. There are no such questions with Shipley, a blue-collar journeyman. He was pressed into the starting lineup for Osemele four weeks ago in Miami, where the Ravens had their best rushing game (133 yards) of the season.
"He’s definitely proven we can win with him and he can play," right guard Marshal Yanda said.
The Ravens are going with Shipley for now, but there's no guarantee he'll remain the starter. Harbaugh mentioned Jah Reid "will be in the mix." There's been questions whether Reid, a third-round pick in 2011, has the toughness to be a starter in the NFL.
There's going to be a transition period with Shipley, whose natural position is center. He has never started a game at guard in the NFL. His teammates are going to help him as much as possible.
"You have to communicate a little more with the cadence and the calls when we’re running the checks," Yanda said. "You don’t want him to be mentally thinking about the play too much instead of just coming off the ball."
It's been quite a change for the Ravens' offensive line. For the first five games this season, the left side of Baltimore's offensive line was Osemele and tackle Bryant McKinnie. Now, the Ravens are going forward with Shipley and tackle Eugene Monroe.
"That's the thing -- you want your guys at 100 percent," Harbaugh said. "A.Q. has played very well when he's been in there. He's a football player."
Whether this change is for the better remains to be seen.
Osemele has been dealing with a back injury for the past two seasons and acknowledged last week that he would need surgery after the season. His status changed this week when he couldn't practice the past two days.
Harbaugh said the chances of Osemele playing the rest of the season "are probably pretty slim."
"The back was just getting a little worse and a little worse as we went," Harbaugh said. "We went back in and looked at it, and there are some things that may need to get taken care of."
It was four weeks ago when Shipley was pushed into the starting lineup after Osemele abruptly left with back spasms in the opening series. Since then, Shipley has received reps at left guard in case Osemele went down again.
"I’m ready. I know the position," said Shipley, who acknowledged center is his natural position. "It’s a little different (than center) and a little easier in terms of the mental aspect. It’s just a little more space to deal with now."
Durability had been a strength for Osemele. He had started 27 straight games, including playoffs, since he was selected in the second round by the Ravens last year.
"I’ve been on three different teams and he’s one of the toughest guys I’ve been around," Shipley said. "To be able to push through it, we all know how hard back injuries are. The fact that he’s been fighting, he’s a heck of a player."
Osemele becomes the 11th starter from the Ravens' Super Bowl team to either retire, sign elsewhere in free agency, get cut, get traded or go down with a serious injury. He joins linebacker Ray Lewis (retired), safety Ed Reed (signed with Houston), wide receiver Anquan Boldin (traded to San Francisco), left tackle Bryant McKinnie (traded to Miami), center Matt Birk (retired), tight end Dennis Pitta (hip injury), nose tackle Maake Kemoeatu (not re-signed), linebacker Dannell Ellerbe (signed with Miami), cornerback Cary Williams (signed with Philadelphia) and safety Bernard Pollard (cut).
The struggles of the Baltimore Ravens' starting offense this preseason has led to interceptions, three-and-outs and even a shouting outburst by running back Ray Rice.
Before the Ravens' backups rallied for a 27-23 preseason win over the Atlanta Falcons, Joe Flacco and the offense provided another instance in which Baltimore misses its top two tight ends (Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson are injured) and has yet to find a No. 2 wide receiver.
In five drives in the first half, the Ravens managed 131 yards of total offense and three first downs. Take away Torrey Smith's 77-yard touchdown -- the only highlight for the first-team offense in three quarters of play this preseason -- and Baltimore had 54 yards in the first half.
Flacco finished 7-of-9 for 118 yards, but the Ravens were 1-of-5 on third downs in the first half. Flacco's second interception of the preseason came when he forced a pass to Jacoby Jones, who was double covered on that play.
Rice didn't have much running room and was held to 10 yards on eight carries. When he was dropped 4 yards in the backfield late in the second quarter, a visibly upset Rice shouted as he headed to the sideline.
"That's about as bad as we can play," coach John Harbaugh told WBAL Radio while coming off the field at halftime, when the Ravens trailed 20-7.
In three quarters this preseason (eight total drives), the Ravens' starting offense has produced one touchdown, two turnovers (both interceptions) and three three-and-outs.
"We were just sloppy," Flacco said. "We never got into a rhythm."
Here are some other thoughts on the Ravens:
- Jimmy Smith, who is trying to win a starting cornerback job, had a rough night against wide receiver Julio Jones. Smith gave up three completions to Jones on a first-quarter drive that resulted in gains of 32, 15 and 8 yards. On the 8-yard touchdown to Jones, it looked like Smith was expecting inside help from a safety.
- Torrey Smith looked like a No. 1 receiver for the Ravens and accounted for two of the team's three third downs in the first half. On his touchdown, he caught a quick pass from Flacco and outran the Falcons defense for the score. Smith then converted a third-and-6 when he picked up 8 yards on a crossing route.
- The Ravens were penalized seven times for 68 yards. A.Q. Shipley, who got the start at center, drew two flags. He was called for a 15-yard personal foul and was flagged for a false start when the Ravens were backed up to their own end zone. LaQuan Williams also ran into the punter in the third quarter, which allowed the Falcons to convert and fourth-and-3.
- The Ravens defense is expected to be much stronger against the run this season. But the Falcons' Steven Jackson picked up yards in between the tackles, gaining 42 yards on eight carries, a 5.3-yard average.
- David Reed had a solid showing as the kickoff returner. He averaged 31.3 yards on three returns, including a 38-yarder. Reed is trying to win one of the final roster spots.
- Asa Jackson helped his cause for sticking around when he returned a punt 78 yards for a touchdown, putting the Ravens ahead 27-23 with 6:18 left in the fourth quarter. Jackson has been suspended for the first eight games this season for violating the NFL's policy on performance-enhancing drugs.
Satele got a three-year, $10.8 million contract with $4 million guaranteed and a $2.7 million base salary in 2013.
He started 11 games, missing action with knee and ankle injuries. A.Q. Shipley, who replaced Satele, was better when he played.
Pro Football Focus’ advanced grading stats put Satele 33rd among centers, with a minus-7.1 grade, minus-9 in pass blocking. Shipley was 15th with a 6.9.
The Colts dealt Shipley to Baltimore after the draft, when they selected Khaled Holmes out of USC in the fourth round.
Perhaps Satele makes a significant jump in his second season in Indianapolis, when the guys around him should be better and could include three newcomers. Perhaps he improves on a pre-snap head bob that surely helps tip off when a play is about to start.
If he doesn’t, Holmes could well beat out the veteran.
I had the chance to speak with Holmes recently, and he said Satele has been great to him.
“Samson’s a great player and I think we have a bunch of great players up front,” Holmes said. “My only goal is to keep my head down and keep working. I’m always going to compete in everything I do, so there is that factor. But I’m not looking forward to anything besides camp.
“From Day 1 he’s been a great leader and a great help to me in particular. He’s been playing the position for so long at such a high level, he’s really got a firm grasp on technique and the scheme. He’s been nothing but a great help for me.”
The Colts will have a new starting right tackle for certain in free-agent addition Gosder Cherilus. Another free agent, Donald Thomas, and a third-round draft pick, Hugh Thornton, could displace Joe Reitz and Mike McGlynn in battles for guard jobs.
If Holmes beats out Satele, left tackle Anthony Castonzo could be the lone starter from 2012 who stays in place on the starting job a year later.
Yes, Shipley was better in his five starts last season than Samson Satele was.
Satele got a three-year, $10.8 million deal from the Colts last year with $4 million guaranteed and a $3.2 million signing bonus. He’s due a $2.7 million base salary this year.
Ryan Grigson won NFL executive of the year for his rookie season as Colts GM. The Satele move was one that didn’t pan out.
Perhaps he’ll be far better in his second season. But Grigson used a fourth-round draft pick on USC’s Khaled Holmes, a center. If the Colts don’t look for Holmes to start right away, they surely expect him to start by 2014.
The Colts don’t need three centers, so dealing Shipley for a conditional pick -- we don’t know what it can be -- is completely reasonable. Being better than Satele last year wasn’t some giant achievement. I don’t mean that to demean Shipley -- I respect the work he did.
But if the Colts don’t view him as a long-term piece of the franchise, it’s smart to get something for a guy who may not have made it out of training camp.
Shipley was a seventh-round pick by the Steelers in 2009 and spent time on their practice squad before he moved to the Eagles in 2010 when he was also a practice squader.
He was out of the league in 2011 before the Colts picked him up in late January 2012.
Now he may factor in the Ravens' plans while Indianapolis looks to pave a path for Holmes.
They’ve had three picks so far, and have used the last two on linemen: Third-round guard Hugh Thornton and now fourth-rounder Khaled Holmes from USC, 121st overall.
The Colts signed Samson Satele as a free agent last year, but he had a disappointing season. When he was hurt, he was actually outplayed by undrafted rookie A.Q. Shipley.
Now both could lose out to Holmes, who came off the board in a round packed with interior offensive linemen.
He was better in 2011 than in 2012, like most of USC, and was hampered by an ankle injury.
Scouts Inc. rates him as above average in awareness:
"Makes pre-snap line calls and keeps head on a swivel once set. Quickly recognizes defensive line stunts and identifies pressure from the second level. Smart run blocker who understands angles and positioning. Flashes ability to adjust on the fly as a run blocker but inconsistent in this area and occasionally has a tough time locating second level blocks. Too quick to abandon combo blocks and release up to the second level at times."
Welcome to Eight in the Box, a new NFL Nation feature that will appear each Friday during the offseason. This week’s topic: Who will be each team’s biggest salary-cap casualty this offseason?
Houston Texans: The one team in the division that could need some cap relief is the Texans, who currently have $5.768 million in space. But if they re-sign safety Glover Quin, outside linebacker Connor Barwin and fullback James Casey as they’d like to, that space will disappear quickly and they’ll need to find an avenue to gain room. I understand that the general public undervalues a lot of what Kevin Walter does. But a $4.5 million cap number and a scheduled base salary of $3.5 million is simply too much for what he does. A dynamic receiver is still on the Texans' list of needs, which seems to make Walter expendable.
Indianapolis Colts: The Colts don’t need to cut anyone. General manager Ryan Grigson has $43.427 million in cap room. So don’t expect anyone to be released. (Outside linebacker Dwight Freeney was not a cap casualty -- he was a pending free agent who was informed he wouldn’t be offered a new deal.) But are there players who are scheduled to make too much? Sure. Center Samson Satele is due $2.7 million in base salary, and his play in his first year as the team’s center wasn’t $2.22 million better than A.Q. Shipley's in 2012. I doubt it will be in 2013. Parting ways with Satele would save only $1.734 million.
Jacksonville Jaguars: The Jaguars are in solid cap shape -- they have $23.807 million in space. But they have plenty of players with big deals that the old regime gave them. New general manager Dave Caldwell may be unwilling to pay out some of those contracts. Receiver Laurent Robinson is still dealing with concussion-related issues and although he’s due $2.6 million in base salary, he has the club’s fourth-highest cap number in 2013 at $6.3 million. Cutting him, though, would actually cost the team $100,000 more against the cap in 2013 than keeping him, because his remaining prorated bonus would result in an accelerated $6.4 million hit.
Tennessee Titans: GM Ruston Webster said at the combine Thursday that Tennessee won’t be cutting anyone as the new league year starts, but that once the team adds upgrades in free agency and in the draft, such moves may occur. Webster and coach Mike Munchak are talking about the need to rebuild the interior offensive line. So the top candidates to be cut down the road have to be guard Steve Hutchinson (due a $4.75 million base, he would cost $3 million in dead money cap hit) and guard/center Eugene Amano (due a $3.935 million base, but they’d save only about $1 million by cutting him).
The offense will be introduced in a regular fashion unless players in the locker room force Pagano to lead them out. The plan at this point is for a video that’s about a minute long to run after the coin toss. It highlights the season and touches on Pagano’s plight.
Then the cameras that provide video for the JumboTrons at Lucas Oil Stadium will focus on Pagano, and Indianapolis will have a chance to salute his return.
Once things kick off, Indianapolis has line issues that are likely to be a factor against the Texans.
A.Q. Shipley will start again at center. And two of the three starters on the defensive line are out, with Cory Redding and Antonio Johnson inactive. Lawrence Guy will start for Redding and Martin Tevaseu will be the nose tackle.
The inactive lists:
- CB Alan Ball
- CB Stanford Routt
- OLB Brooks Reed
- G Antoine Caldwell
- T Andrew Gardner
- G Cody White
- NT Terrell McClain
On the telecast he heard his old coach from Tampa Bay, ESPN commentator Jon Gruden, assess J.J. Watt.
“He said he thought [Watt] was the best player at any position in the NFL,” Ruud said. “You could maybe put Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, but I don’t think anybody else is even in the same category.
“Gruden is pretty sharp. I played for the guy. He’ll say some weird things. But when it comes to football he doesn’t exaggerate too much."
The Texans signed Ruud just a few days after that game, and Sunday he joined Watt in celebrating a 29-17 win over the Colts that gave Houston its second consecutive AFC South title.
“I’ve watched [Watt] since I’ve been here,” Ruud said. “His bad games are better than anybody else’s good games. It’s pretty impressive. ...It’s almost comical how much he took over this game.”
Leading into Sunday's game, Watt was like the rest of America: A sad citizen trying to come to grips with the elementary school massacre that took place Friday in Newtown, Conn.
He scribbled Newtown on his cleats to do a little bit to honor victims, families and first-responders, then had perhaps his best game of a stellar season.
Watt had 10 tackles, six of them for a loss, including three sacks. He also forced a Mewelde Moore fumble at the Texans’ 1-yard line.
He had fun, he said. While he’s thrilled to have the division wrapped up, bigger things await, he hopes. He declined to classify Sunday’s work as his best of the year.
“There were a couple plays I left on the field,” he said. “I know I missed two sacks.”
If that wasn’t his best, what was?
“Probably the first Jacksonville game,” he said. “I only played 37 plays but I went out there and had a couple good ones.”
The Colts don’t have a very good offensive line. It’s not a position they had many resources to address as they reshaped their roster. As they bid unsuccessfully for their 10th win in a surprising season, they were down two starters, center Samson Satele and right tackle Winston Justice.
Watt did much of his damage against the interior of Joe Reitz, A.Q. Shipley and Mike McGlynn.
On a third-and-20 from the Indianapolis 34 in the third quarter, Watt moved McGlynn aside and blew past him so quickly it appear he surprised himself -- overrunning quarterback Andrew Luck, who threw incomplete.
“He’s a good player, obviously,” McGlynn said. “Got to look at the film. We play them again in a couple weeks and we’ve got to neutralize him. They do some good things schematically that lets their D-line go ahead and pass rush."
“He’s one of the premier D-tackles in the league and we just didn’t do a good enough job executing on our blocks,” Reitz said. “Obviously we let him get loose a couple times. ...He’s got a lot of different moves, power and speed and quickness. He’s a big guy in there. They have as good of a front as there is in the league.”
Praise of Watt has been effusive this season, and leading into last week’s loss to the Patriots, Bill Belichick added Antonio Smith to the conversation. But minus inside linebacker Brian Cushing for the season and outside linebacker Brooks Reed for a stretch, it’s been some time since the front seven made such an impression and earned such a rave.
Out of the series where Watt had a tackle for a loss, the Colts scored one field goal and the Texans got a blocked punt from Bryan Braman, who returned it 8 yards for a score. The home team was actually plus-4.
On the 10 plays where Watt was credited with a tackle or sack by game statisticians, the Colts had just two positive plays: A 1-yard run by Vick Ballard and a 3-yard scramble by Luck.
For years, AFC South teams looked at how the Colts operated with Peyton Manning and drafted with an emphasis on running backs who could help them play keep-away and defensive backs who increased their chances of slowing one of the NFL's best quarterbacks.
Luck may wind up dictating some of the same things.
But the three teams of the AFC South looking to end a two-year reign by the Texans would be wise to raise the value they put on interior offensive linemen going forward.
"You need elite offensive line play to block elite defensive linemen like Watt with any consistency," Colts general manager Ryan Grigson said. "If you don't play near-perfect from a technique standpoint, he will eat you alive. Six-foot-six, 290 with motor and instincts. A true game wrecker."
“I’ve been preparing my whole life for this stuff and it’s just starting to come to fruition,” Watt said. “One thing I’m excited about is that it’s not over. I have a lot of football left and there is so much better I can get. I can get those two sacks. I can go out there and play better and the fun is just beginning.”
Smith plays opposite Watt on the Texans’ three-man line. I wrote early in the year about Watt’s goals for redefining the position of 3-4 end.
But when the Texans go into nickel, Watt is really playing tackle.
Reitz called Watt a tackle. So does Smith.
“We’ve got him labeled as a defensive end, so everybody is judging him on the measuring stick as an end, but he’s beating two guys every play to get to 20 sacks,” Smith said. “He’s not out on the edge free on one guy every time. ...He might end up ending the season with the most tackles out of a defensive lineman and the most sacks. Where have you heard of that before? I’ve never heard of it.”
Before the season Watt shared some goals with Smith, who told him, “I hope you get them.”
“I turned around and I was like, ‘He’s never going to get that,’” Smith said. “A tackle has never gotten those kind of numbers. But he put the numbers down. He believed in them. And I think he’s going to make them.”
The big lineup/personnel question is about the Colts' offensive line, where A.Q. Shipley is in at center for the injured Samson Satele and Jeff Linkenbach is in at right tackle for the injured Winston Justice.
The Texans’ pass rush beyond J.J. Watt has largely stalled, and it would be giant if the outside linebackers, Connor Barwin and Whitney Mercilus, could generate some consistent pressure or make some big plays against quarterback Andrew Luck.
It was pouring outside when I came in at about 9:30 a.m. CT. The Reliant Stadium roof is pretty much always closed, so there was no doubt it was going to be closed today. Fans here often stay away rather than venturing out into the rain, the Houston Chronicle's John McClain tells me. It will be interesting to see if the weather manages to help the Colts by keeping some people away and making it a bit less loud. The over-under for when I dry out is halftime. I'm taking the over.
A couple notes of interest heading into this game, thanks to ESPN Stats & Information:
- Luck needs 260 passing yards to break Cam Newton’s rookie record of 4,051 set last season.
- The Colts have allowed 3.2 yards per rush before first contact this season, the fourth-worst rate in the NFL. The Texans have rushed by design 48.1 percent of the time this season, second-highest in the NFL.
- The Texans are coming off a 28-point loss to the Patriots, their largest margin of defeat since 2008. According to Elias Sports Bureau, only four of the 46 Super Bowl winners lost a game by at least 28 points: the 2003 Patriots, 1994 49ers, 1979 Steelers and 1976 Raiders.
- Arian Foster has 46 touchdowns over the past three seasons, 12 more than any other player.
- Over the last four games, the Texans are allowing a league-high 439.0 yards per game. Through nine games this season, the Texans were second in the NFL in total defense, allowing 281.6 yards per game.
The full list of inactives:
- WR Nathan Palmer
- S Tom Zbikowski
- RB Delone Carter
- ILB Kavell Conner
- C Samson Satele
- DE Clifton Geathers
- T Winston Justice
Safety Tom Zbikowski, right tackle Winston Justice, inside linebacker Kavell Conner, center Samson Satele and running back Delone Carter are out.
Of the new missing guys, replacements will be right tackle Jeff Linkenbach, inside linebacker Pat Angerer, center A.Q. Shipley and running back Mewelde Moore.
Running backs Rashad Jennings, Maurice Jones-Drew and Jordan Todman, cornerback Aaron Ross and defensive end George Selvie are out. Montell Owens will start at running back again.
Austin Pasztor is expected to start at let guard, where Mike Brewster is done for the season and Eben Britton is seemingly out of chances. Receiver Cecil Shorts is expected to play.
Outside linebacker Brooks Reed and cornerback Alan Ball are out. Whitney Mercilus will continue to work as the outside linebacker replacing Reed.
Inside linebacker Darryl Sharpton, safety Glover Quin (hip) and right tackle Derek Newton are questionable. Quintin Demps would replace Quin.
Designations come tomorrow since they play Monday night. Middle linebacker Colin McCarthy is not expected to play and Tim Shaw would start for him again. Receiver Damian Williams and end Scott Solomon also missed Friday practice.
INDIANAPOLIS -- Thoughts on the Colts’ 27-23 win over the Titans at Lucas Oil Stadium:
What it means: The Colts ensured a winning season, moving to 9-4 and staying in ideal position for an AFC wild-card berth. They are still in play for the division title and would benefit if the Texans lose Monday night in New England. The Titans assured themselves of a losing season, falling to 4-9. They have yet to win a game in the AFC South and have only one more chance -- on the last day of the regular season against Jacksonville.
What I liked: The Colts’ ability to come from behind, as has so often been the case. They were down 20-7 at the half and rallied to take leads of 21-20 and 24-23. Andrew Luck was under all kinds of pressure and made some mistakes, including a big pick-six to Will Witherspoon (that looked to have been aided by a missed call). But once again, he engineered the drives the Colts needed. And the defense produced as well, with a crucial interception and 3-yard return for a score by Cassius Vaughn and another pick from Darius Butler, which just about sealed the result.
What I didn’t like: Referee Pete Morelli and his crew didn’t have a great day. I felt like they let defensive backs get away with being handsy on receivers often -- particularly on early third-quarter Colts throws to Reggie Wayne and Donnie Avery and a Titans pass for Nate Washington a bit later. Bigger than that was Witherspoon’s second-quarter 40-yard interception return. Luck should have swallowed it, but as he was being taken down by Derrick Morgan he tried to throw it and put it right in Witherspoon’s gut. When a very good freeze frame finally was shown -- and showed Luck with a knee down and the ball still in his hand -- Morelli had already ruled that the play stood.
What I didn’t like, Titans: Following a disastrous outing against Houston last week, Jake Locker played a really nice first half for Tennessee, hitting on 15 of 20 passes for 213 yards and a touchdown. But he threw a terrible pass for Washington coming out of his own end zone that Vaughn jumped for a score, then threw behind Washington to Butler for a pick that set up Adam Vinatieri’s 40-yard field goal that made it 27-23 with 3:48 to play.
Injury issues: The Colts lost center Samson Satele (ankle) and right tackle Winston Justice (biceps) during the game, and neither returned. That put reserves A.Q. Shipley and Jeff Linkenbach on the field. Running backs Delone Carter and Robert Hughes couldn’t finish, which left Vick Ballard as the lone healthy back for much of the second half. Inside linebacker Kavell Conner suffered a hamstring injury on a late special-teams play. For the Titans, tight end Jared Cook didn’t finish.
What’s next: The Colts finally face the Texans with a trip to Reliant Stadium to face the division leaders for the first of two meetings in three weeks. Tennessee hosts the New York Jets on "Monday Night Football."
By the time we make it to Lehigh on Tuesday, coach Andy Reid may have to shut things down. This is the second straight year the Eagles have battled injury problems early in camp. But I will say that Samuel provided one of his most memorable quotes when asked when he might return.
"I'm not a mad scientist," Samuel said after practice. "I might be out there tomorrow."
And for those of us who rushed to judgment about Samuel perhaps being a "mad scientist," I think an apology is in order. Samuel rarely addresses reporters, so it's helpful that he brought some clarity to the situation. In other injury news, guard Max Jean-Gilles (dehydration) and center A.Q. Shipley (ankle) also left practice with injuries. Without a mad scientist on hand, it's unclear how much time they will miss.
The Beast will continue to monitor this situation from Albany.
Posted by ESPN.com’s James Walker
Biggest surprise: Rookie free-agent tailback Isaac Redman did all he could to impress the Steelers this summer to make the 53-man roster. But the numbers game was too much as Pittsburgh already has three quality tailbacks in Willie Parker, Rashard Mendenhall and Mewelde Moore. The Steelers won’t hesitate to place Redman on their practice squad if no team claims him.
Recently released Carey Davis was the team’s starting fullback last year, so that also counts as a surprise. But Davis has been in the doghouse for Pittsburgh since last year, and with the arrival of rookie Frank “The Tank” Summers, Davis became expendable.
No-brainers: Linebacker Bruce Davis was a third-round pick in 2008 with potential. But he didn’t show much in more than a year in Pittsburgh, so the Steelers were tired of waiting for him to come around. This year’s seventh-round pick, A.Q. Shipley, came in with high hopes but struggled physically at the NFL level as most scouts projected. The Steelers might like to spend more time teaching Shipley the NFL game if he isn’t claimed. Others like Justin Vincent, Scott Paxson and Donovan Woods were not surprises.
What’s next: With starting guard Darnell Stapleton (knee) out for the year and on injured reserve, don’t be surprised if the Steelers search the waiver wire for some depth on the offensive line. That’s really the only glaring weakness Pittsburgh has entering the season. The center position behind starter Justin Hartwig is particularly thin now that both Stapleton and Shipley were taken off the active roster.
We will have more analysis Saturday as the rest of the AFC North makes its announcements.
|Gregory Shamus/Getty Images|
|Veteran receiver Hines Ward promises the Steelers will stay focused this season.|
Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker
LATROBE, Pa. -- University of Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari knows a title contender when he sees one.
"They are a championship organization because of the people," said Calipari, a native of suburban Pittsburgh. "That means the people that own it, the people that manage it and the people that coach it. They make sure the players are quality people and they take care of everybody. That's why they are what they are."After returning 20 of 22 starters, Pittsburgh is in a prime position to become the first group since the 2003-04 New England Patriots to win back-to-back Super Bowls. But it won't be easy.
They have a shot if they can answer "yes" to these key questions.
1. Will the offensive line improve in 2009?
The knee injury this week to guard Darnell Stapleton already hurts the depth of a unit that has struggled in recent years. Stapleton, who started in the Super Bowl, will have arthroscopic knee surgery Friday and will miss a good portion of the preseason.
Pittsburgh's offensive line remains one of the team's few glaring weaknesses. The Steelers have allowed quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to be sacked an astounding 139 times the past three seasons. The running game, normally a Steelers staple, stalled in 2008.
Knowing that Roethlisberger cannot continue to take a pounding at this clip, the Steelers have been working on improving pass protection this summer. Although Stapleton is injured, the Steelers return all five starters from the Super Bowl and hope another year together improves chemistry and helps the line's overall performance.
Pittsburgh also has backups who have the potential to contribute, including versatile guard/tackle Trai Essex and rookies Kraig Urbik and A.Q. Shipley, who were taken in the third and seventh rounds, respectively.
2. Can Pittsburgh handle distractions?
In terms of distractions, the Steelers did not get off to a glowing start. About a week before camp opened, Roethlisberger was hit with a civil lawsuit alleging sexual assault in Nevada. Pittsburgh's offseason was relatively quiet up until that point, and Roethlisberger apologized to his teammates and the organization last week for shifting the attention from football.
Whether the Steelers learned anything from 2006 remains to be seen. That was the last time the Steelers were coming off a Super Bowl victory, and the wheels came off quickly and completely as distractions, injuries and poor play led to a 2-6 start and an 8-8 finish.
But this group seems very business-like in its approach. Key veterans such as receiver Hines Ward, linebacker James Farrior and safety Troy Polamalu were also on that disappointing team in 2006 and claim to have learned from that humbling experience. Training camp practices have been crisp and players, including Roethlisberger, appear focused.
3. Will the special teams be good?
The Steelers don't have many holes, so we're just nitpicking. But Pittsburgh's special teams were the weakest of the three units (offense, defense, special teams) last season.
Kicker Jeff Reed, in the final year of his contract, is solid. But beyond that, Pittsburgh's special teams were weak.
The Steelers are trying to find a boost in the return game. In camp, Pittsburgh is working out several new players at returning kicks, including former CFL running back Stefan Logan and receiver Shaun McDonald. The goal this year is to take every-down players such as Santonio Holmes off special teams to help the offense.
Perhaps the biggest addition to special teams will be the return of punter Daniel Sepulveda, who missed all of 2008 with a torn ACL in his knee. Pittsburgh's punting was one of the league's worst last year and Sepulveda should change that. The team also is giving Sepulveda an occasional day off from punting in camp to make sure he doesn't rush back.
Second-year receiver Limas Sweed was an enigma last season. First, he couldn't find his way on the field. Then when his number was called late in the year, Sweed wasn't ready.
But last season's disappointment led to Sweed become one of the hardest-working players on the team this offseason. In camp, the former second-round pick looks more confident and continues to make plays.
Sweed has the inside track to open the season as Pittsburgh's No. 3 receiver and knows his number will be called early if he holds onto the job. This time Sweed believes he's prepared to produce.
|AP Photo/Michael Conroy|
|Rookie defensive tackle Evander Hood should have time to prove himself this season.|
Newcomer to watch
The Steelers do not often take defensive linemen high in the draft, but they broke that mold with first-round pick Evander "Ziggy" Hood.
Pittsburgh likes Hood's motor and versatility. He is expected to spell both starters at defensive end and possibly play some nose tackle.
The three starting defensive linemen for the Steelers are all over 30, so it will be vital for Hood to provide depth and inject some youthful exuberance. The fact that he's not expected to start puts him in a good spot to produce without the normal pressures of a first-round pick.
Roethlisberger is struggling with his arm strength early in camp. After taking a pounding and playing so deep into the postseason, Roethlisberger didn't do any throwing independently away from the Steelers this offseason, choosing to rest instead. But many of his deep throws are coming up short and intercepted. With the preseason starting next week, it will be interesting to see how long it takes for Roethlisberger to regain his form. ... Tailback Rashard Mendenhall appears to have recovered from his season-ending shoulder injury. The former first-round pick lost significant weight in his upper body last year because he was unable to lift weights after surgery. But he has regained his bulk and looks more sure of himself in his second training camp. ...Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau is using inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons in a variety of ways now that the former first-round pick is a full-time starter. Timmons has great range to patrol the middle of the field. But LeBeau also likes Timmons' skills as a pass-rusher and has been turning him loose in pressure packages. ...Look out for rookie receiver Mike Wallace. The third-round pick from Mississippi is making a good impression in camp. Teammates are already calling him one of the fastest players on the team.