NFL Nation: Antwaan Randle El

LATROBE, Pa. -- The first stop on the AFC North blog training camp tour starts with the reigning AFC North champion Pittsburgh Steelers. Players are scheduled to report by 3 p.m. ET, and will have the always-fun conditioning drills later this evening.

There will be a lot to look forward to this weekend with the Steelers. They've had an interesting offseason, to say the least. Here are a few early notes from Pittsburgh and other teams throughout the division:
  • Pittsburgh officially announced the release of veteran offensive tackle Max Starks and wide receiver Antwaan Randle-El. The Steelers have several tough decisions to make to get under the salary cap. And these were the first two casualties.
  • Among the first players to show on Thursday were nose tackle Casey Hampton, linebacker Lawrence Timmons and center Doug Legursky. Players, naturally, were asked about the explosive comments made recently by linebacker James Harrison. "He's going to say what he wants to say," Hampton said. "But I know one thing: On Sundays, he's going to be ready to play, and that's all that matters."
  • Also, in terms of draft picks, the Cincinnati Bengals have reached an agreement with No. 4 overall pick A.J. Green. In addition, the Baltimore Ravens reportedly have reached deals with all of their draft picks with the exception of first-rounder Jimmy Smith and third-rounder Jah Reid.

AFC North union reps

March, 3, 2011
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Here are the player reps for each AFC North team, according to the NFLPA:

Baltimore Ravens: WR Derrick Mason

Alternates: CB Chris Carr, C Matt Birk

Skinny: Mason is one of the most experienced and outspoken players on the Ravens. Therefore he fits great in this role. Carr and Birk are also two great alternatives from Baltimore.

Cincinnati Bengals: LT Andrew Whitworth

Alternates: G Bobbie Williams, TE Reggie Kelly

Skinny: This trio comprises Cincinnati's locker room leaders. Whitworth has taken an increased role and is usually the one who briefs the rest of the Bengals on player issues. Williams and Kelly are both elder statesmen and combine for 25 years of NFL experience.

Cleveland Browns: TE Robert Royal

Alternates: OT Tony Pashos, CB Sheldon Brown, TE Ben Watson

Skinny: Lately the Browns have been a strange team when it comes to union reps. With three regime changes the past few years, it's been a rotating door. Royal was recently released by the Browns, meaning Cleveland will have another player rep next season. All the alternatives spent their first year with the Browns in 2010.

Pittsburgh Steelers: S Ryan Clark

Alternates: WR Antwaan Randle El, LT Max Starks

Skinny: Like Mason, Clark is never afraid to speak his mind. He recently had a lot to say on the pending NFL lockout during Super Bowl week. Randle El and Starks are both intelligent alternatives, as well.

Steelers cut deficit, Sanders out

February, 6, 2011
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ARLINGTON, Texas -- The Pittsburgh Steelers will be without receiver Emmanuel Sanders, who suffered a foot injury in the first half of Super Bowl XLV.

Sanders has made big plays for Pittsburgh this year as the No. 3 receiver. Antwaan Randle El is playing in his place in the second half.

The Steelers have come out strong in the second half and scored an early touchdown by Rashard Mendenhall to cut the deficit to 21-17.

Stars align for Wallace and Holmes

January, 20, 2011
1/20/11
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Santonio Holmes & Mike WallaceUS PresswireWhen Santonio Holmes, right, was traded to New York, fellow receiver Mike Wallace took on a bigger role in Pittsburgh's offense.
PITTSBURGH -- Steelers receiver Mike Wallace was sitting in his apartment in Pittsburgh when he first heard the news.

He was dumbfounded when teammate Keenan Lewis told him that friend and fellow receiver Santonio Holmes had been traded to the New York Jets.

"It was during offseason workouts," Wallace told ESPN.com's AFC North blog. "Keenan said, 'We traded Tone,' and I was like, 'Nah.' So I turned on the TV, and as soon as I did, it was flashing all across the screen. At first I was [shocked]. I didn't want to see him go, because that's my good friend."

Nine months later, Holmes and the Jets return to Heinz Field -- for the second time this season -- to face Wallace and the Steelers in Sunday's AFC Championship Game. The winner will advance to Super Bowl XLV in Arlington, Texas.

Rarely does a trade work out so perfectly for both parties.

Holmes had various off-field issues and was facing a four-game suspension this season for violating the NFL's substance-abuse policy. The Steelers were tired of the problems. But instead of releasing Holmes, Pittsburgh found a willing trade partner in New York, which in turn got the receiver at a bargain (a fifth-round pick). Holmes is now New York's most clutch playmaker and caught another huge touchdown last week against the New England Patriots, which helped get the Jets to the AFC title game.

For Pittsburgh, the trade provided an opportunity for Wallace to be a first-time starter. The second-year pro racked up more yards (1,257) and touchdowns (10) this season than Holmes ever did in a Steelers uniform. With Holmes gone, Wallace has quickly developed into one of the NFL's fastest-rising stars and is a big reason Pittsburgh is knocking at the door of its second Super Bowl appearance in three seasons.

"We're both where we want to be," Wallace said. "I think everything worked out for the both of us just fine. He's doing well where he is, and I'm doing well over here."

Thirteen-year veteran and future Hall of Famer Hines Ward has helped develop many receivers in Pittsburgh. One of the NFL's smartest players, Ward tutored Plaxico Burress, Antwaan Randle El and both Holmes and Wallace while with the Steelers over the past dozen years.

Both of Ward's prized pupils will be on the field Sunday but playing for opposite teams.

"I'm so proud of him to go out there and do the things he's done," Ward said of Holmes this week. "But he wants to win just as bad as we want to win."

Wallace came to Pittsburgh as a raw talent. Despite blazing straight-line speed, he fell to the third round because his game wasn't polished coming out of Ole Miss. But Wallace had great teachers starting ahead of him, and he proved to be a willing student and a good listener.

Like big brothers, Ward and Holmes were constantly on Wallace to learn how to run better routes. If Wallace did something wrong in practice, it didn't take long for one of the two former Super Bowl MVPs to chew Wallace out to make sure he got it right by game time. Ward treated Holmes the same way when he entered the league in 2006.

Today Wallace credits Ward and Holmes for his rapid development.

"That was the main thing that he taught me was route running," Wallace said of Holmes. "And I'm always trying to steal some tips from somebody."

During Wallace's rookie year, Pittsburgh primarily made him go deep as the third receiver, while Ward and Holmes ran more complicated route combinations. But being a starter meant Wallace would have to fill Holmes' role in the offense.

Wallace remains Pittsburgh's deep threat, averaging an astounding 21 yards per catch. But his career-high 60 receptions showed that he also can make more intermediate plays underneath.

Holmes thrives in the short and intermediate areas. Despite playing just 12 games, Holmes (52 receptions) was just one reception shy of leading the Jets and averaged 14.6 yards per catch in the regular season.

The two communicate regularly, mostly via text. But Wallace says all of that stopped this week.

"We're always going to be cool, but it's all business," Wallace said of Holmes. "There's no need to talk to him right now, just like he doesn't want to talk to me right now until after the business is done."

Young receivers money for Steelers

January, 17, 2011
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Brown/SandersJared Wickerham/Getty ImagesAntonio Brown, left, and Emmanuel Sanders have made an impact for the Steelers as rookies.
PITTSBURGH -- Mike Wallace has a nickname for Steelers teammate and rookie receiver Antonio Brown.

"You saw him with the game on the line; you saw 'Young Money,'" a jubilant Wallace said after Pittsburgh's 31-24 divisional playoff win over the Baltimore Ravens.

The "Young Money" moniker is fitting. Brown, 22, is young and he was certainly money in Pittsburgh's first playoff victory of the season. The last person anyone in Heinz Field -- including Baltimore -- expected to make the biggest play of the game was Brown, a relative unknown and former sixth-round draft pick.

But on third-and-19, Brown zipped past Ravens cornerback Lardarius Webb and made an incredible 58-yard reception with 2:07 remaining in the game. Brown's catch set up the game-winning touchdown four plays later, helping the Steelers advance to the AFC Championship Game, where they will host the New York Jets on Sunday.

In a rivalry involving teams that know each other very well, the element of surprise turned out to be the difference. Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger went to offensive coordinator Bruce Arians and came up with the idea to send Brown deep while most of the attention was on other receivers like Wallace and Hines Ward. Brown received little playing time during the regular season.

"That speaks volumes for [Brown] to be ready then," Roethlisberger said. "He usually gets short routes and he's only in for a handful of them. He stepped up big when his number was called and he made a play."

"It was a great play at the right time, at the right moment," said Brown, who also added 101 yards against Baltimore on punt and kickoff returns.

The Steelers have hit big on drafting receivers the past two years. Wallace, who fell to the third round in 2009, had a breakout season, recording 60 receptions for 1,257 yards and 10 touchdowns. Including playoffs, Brown has 19 receptions for 242 yards, and third-rounder Emmanuel Sanders has 32 receptions for 430 yards and two touchdowns.

Sanders had four catches for 54 yards against the Ravens. There were questions during the bye week about whether Pittsburgh's two rookie receivers would be ready for the playoff atmosphere, and they combined for seven catches for 129 yards.

"We knew the rookies had to step up," Sanders said. "Me and Antonio, we worked hard all this week because we knew what was at stake, and to see him catch the game-winning [pass] was a blessing. I'm so proud of [him]."

Sanders and Brown have been pleasant surprises for Pittsburgh (13-4). Outside of returning kicks, not much was expected from either rookie as mid-round draft picks.

But you could see right away in training camp that both were extremely competitive. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin noticed, and would often pit them against each other and let them battle for practice reps against Pittsburgh's vaunted first-team defense.

By midseason, Sanders came along a little faster and was eventually moved into the third receiver role in place of veteran Antwaan Randle El. Now Brown has caught up and is making plays as the Steelers' No. 4 receiver.

Both were standouts in college. Brown had an extremely productive career Central Michigan. He had 110 catches for 1,198 yards and nine touchdowns as a junior and declared for the NFL draft. But Brown's lack of size (5-10) and small-school status were reasons few scouts took notice. The Steelers selected him in the sixth round, No. 195 overall.

Sanders joins Wallace as receivers taken by Pittsburgh in the third round (No. 82 overall) for two straight years. The Steelers also liked Sanders' production, as he caught 98 passes for 1,339 yards and seven touchdowns at Southern Methodist University. Making plays is nothing new to these receivers, because they had done it throughout their college careers.

Solid play from Sanders and Brown will be needed again for Pittsburgh to continue to make a Super Bowl run. Wallace, Ward and tight end Heath Miller will get most of the coverage from the Jets this week, which means Sanders and Brown could get some opportunities.

"I don't even second-guess when I drop back and throw. Those guys make plays," Roethlisberger said of his two rookie receivers. "The stage isn't too big for them. I'm really proud of the way they play."

Seven-step drop: Bengals' implosion

November, 22, 2010
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Here are seven notes and observations from Week 11 in the AFC North:

  • [+] EnlargeMarvin Lewis
    AP Photo/Thomas E. WitteMarvin Lewis has had a disappointing season in Cincinnati.
    Although stranger things have happened, I would be very surprised if Marvin Lewis gets another contract extension with the Cincinnati Bengals. Cincinnati (2-8) lost its NFL-high seventh straight game, and I'm told there are no new negotiations behind the scenes between Lewis and the team. It's also starting to show on the field. In giving up 35 straight points in Sunday's embarrassing loss to the Buffalo Bills, Cincinnati looked like a team playing with an exiting coach. The Bengals didn't respond to adversity in the second half and fell apart. As I mentioned weeks ago, it's time to blow up the Bengals. Cincinnati proved that it is so far away from title contention that it will not be a quick fix. It's time to start over.
  • Credit Bengals receiver Terrell Owens for finally telling it like it is. Cincinnati players have been putting a good face on this losing streak for weeks publicly. Just recently Owens said "this is the best 2-6 team I've been on." But as the frustration and losing kept adding up, Owens stopped putting spin on the situation.
"What's crazy is the fact that we're just terrible. That's just plain and simple," Owens said after the Buffalo game. "When I say we, that's me included. Let me look you in the eyes and emphasize, we are terrible. Terrible. I have no answers for you. I have no sound bites for you. All I know is, right now, we are terrible."

  • I have another quick note on the poor officiating in the game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Oakland Raiders, then we will move on because we don't want referees to be the focus of the blog. But look for the NFL to get at least two appeals this week if the league decides to hand out fines. Linebacker James Harrison and safety Ryan Clark were wrongly called for personal fouls on a pair of clean plays against Oakland. The flags usually raise the NFL's antennas. But I expect both Steelers to file an appeal this week if they are penalized -- and both have good cases.
  • Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin made a subtle but effective change on special teams against Oakland. The Steelers replaced veteran Antwaan Randle El as a punt returner, inserting rookie Antonio Brown. Randle El hasn't given Pittsburgh much as a returner this season, but the Steelers like that he's dependable and doesn't fumble. But Brown, a sixth-round pick, has more big-play ability and returned seven punts for 66 yards. He also had a touchdown return called back because of holding.
  • The Baltimore Ravens have struggled with ball security recently, and that's something the coaching staff must re-emphasize down the stretch. Baltimore won convincingly over the Carolina Panthers, but the Ravens fumbled four times, losing two. In their previous game against the Atlanta Falcons, the Ravens put the ball on the ground twice, losing one on Lardarius Webb’s punt return. This isn’t the time of year when you want to get shaky in that department, especially when inclement weather becomes a factor.
  • Just when the AFC North blog started to give the Cleveland Browns’ offensive coaching staff kudos for a string of solid performances, the unit produced another clunker in a loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars. I'm still scratching my head on how the Browns could get only one offensive touchdown after Jacksonville committed six turnovers. Cleveland continued to run tailback Peyton Hillis up the middle for little or no gain when it was clear the Jaguars were gearing up to stop him. But lack of adjustments when things aren’t going well has been an issue for Cleveland all season, and it’s one reason the Browns are 3-7.
  • The good news is Cleveland has a chance to get hot with an easier slate of games. The Browns' next four opponents have a combined record of 10-30, starting with next week’s game against the Carolina Panthers (1-9). With president Mike Holmgren evaluating head coach Eric Mangini's job status, the goal is to win as many games as possible and finish close to .500. Last year the Browns were 5-11, and they need more than five wins this season to show improvement.
NFC High Energy: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

A look at a player who gave his team a significant boost in Week 8.

[+] EnlargeEmmanuel Sanders
AP Photo/Gerald HerbertEmmanuel Sanders' big returns set the Steelers up with good field position against the Saints.
It was pretty slim pickings this week as half the division was on a bye, and the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals both suffered losses. But Pittsburgh rookie receiver Emmanuel Sanders gets the nod as the AFC North's High Energy Player of the Week after a pair of solid returns against the New Orleans Saints.

With Pittsburgh's offense struggling most of the game, Sanders provided a boost on special teams by returning a kickoff 41 yards and a punt 38 yards to help change field position. His punt return led to a second-quarter field goal, which accounted for Pittsburgh's only points in the first half. Sanders also caught one pass for 21 yards.

Playing behind receivers Hines Ward, Mike Wallace and Antwaan Randle El, Sanders has found his niche as the Steelers' primary kick returner. He was the AFC Special Teams Player of the Week for Week 7 and followed that up with a pair of good returns this past Sunday.

Sanders still needs to work on ball security. The third-round pick fumbled twice in the past two games, losing one. But otherwise he has provided an upgrade on Pittsburgh's special teams.

Steelers at Dolphins halftime observations

October, 24, 2010
10/24/10
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MIAMI -- Halftime thoughts from Sun Life Stadium, where the Miami Dolphins trail the Pittsburgh Steelers 17-16 on Sunday afternoon:
  • Dolphins quarterback Chad Henne has hung in there against the vaunted Steelers pass rush. The Steelers haven't recorded a sack. Henne has looked a little jumpy at times, but he's 12 of 20 for 153 yards and one touchdown with no interceptions.
  • Dolphins cornerback Jason Allen was victimized on a 53-yard Ben Roethlisberger strike to Mike Wallace in the second quarter. Allen gave Wallace a nice cushion, yet still got scorched by Wallace, who simply flashed past for a touchdown.
  • As you'd expect, the Dolphins are having trouble against the NFL's top-rated run defense. Ronnie Brown has five carries for 2 yards. Ricky Williams has six attempts for 20 yards.
  • There's been some bad tackling by both teams. Steelers receiver Hines Ward ducked and dodged his way into the end zone from 21 yards out, and Dolphins receiver Davone Bess juked past a couple Steelers defenders for a 26-yard score to pull the Dolphins within a point.
  • Here's a quirky stat: Thanks to the Steelers fumbling the opening kickoff and going three and out on their first possession, the Dolphins scored six points on 7 total yards in the first quarter. The Dolphins went three-and-out field goal, three-and-out field goal and then three-and-out punt.
  • That first-quarter punt was an impressive example of how to flip the field. With Miami on its 14-yard line, Brandon Fields crushed a 66-yarder. Antwaan Randle-El lost a yard on the return, plus a holding penalty put Pittsburgh on its 10-yard line.
  • Steelers right tackle Flozell Adams suffered an apparent left ankle or Achilles injury early in the second quarter and was replaced by former Buffalo Bills tackle Jonathan Scott.

Grading Ben Roethlisberger

October, 19, 2010
10/19/10
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Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is back. But is he all the way back? Not quite.

The AFC North blog covered Roethlisberger's 2010 debut Sunday against the Cleveland Browns and later broke down the game film of every throw to grade his performance. It's a new feature that we will do periodically in the blog.

Points are awarded or deducted on a five-point scale, depending on how Roethlisberger performed each play. Here is what we found:

[+] EnlargeRoethlisberger
Jason Bridge/US PresswireBen Roethlisberger was 16-for-27 with 3 TDs and one pick in his 2010 debut.
Roethlisberger's first drive

  • Roethlisberger's first throw was a quick out to tailback Rashard Mendenhall, who gains 3 yards to get a first down. Nice play call to get Roethlisberger warmed up. (+1 point)
  • Good pump fake by Roethlisberger and read to spot receiver Antwaan Randle El in single coverage deep against cornerback Sheldon Brown. Roethlisberger causes Brown to bite and draws a pass interference penalty. (+2 points)
  • Browns blitz to Roethlisberger's left. He sees it, shuffles to the right to buy an extra second to hit Mendenhall out of the backfield, who gains 4 yards. (+1 point)
  • On third down, the Browns field seven defensive backs, four linebackers and zero defensive linemen. Roethlisberger is confused by the formation and calls a timeout. (-2 points)
  • Browns bring same formation after the timeout. Cleveland only rushes three and Roethlisberger's pass intended for Mewelde Moore sails high and into the hands of Browns rookie cornerback Joe Haden, who returns it 62 yards. (-5 points)
Grade for drive: -3 points

Second drive

  • Roethlisberger throws another quick hitch to receiver Hines Ward for 3 yards. Basic play to get Roethlisberger back in rhythm after the pick. (+1 point)
  • Good hook route by receiver Mike Wallace. Roethlisberger throws it in the open area of Cleveland's zone for 11 yards. (+2 points)
  • Browns read the screen play and it's not there. Roethlisberger scrambles for 5 yards to make something out of a broken play. (+1 point)
  • On third-and-13, Cleveland rushes three and Roethlisberger still finds rookie receiver Emmanuel Sanders for 22 yards. Ball has good zip. Sanders is celebrating his first NFL catch as though he won the Super Bowl. (+3 points)
  • Browns blitz again and Roethlisberger holds the ball a little too long this time, which he's prone to do. He barely avoids the sack by throwing the ball out of bounds. (-1 point)
  • Browns blitz again and Matt Roth goes untouched to the quarterback. Roethlisberger shows great strength and toughness by taking a hit and still getting enough on the ball downfield to Mike Wallace for a 29-yard touchdown. Not many quarterbacks can make that play. (+5 points)
Grade for drive: +11 points

Third drive

  • Roethlisberger throws a pass a little high but Ward catches it for 7 yards. Some basic timing throws are sailing on Roethlisberger. (+1 point)
  • Pass protection breaks down and Browns linebacker Chris Gocong wraps Roethlisberger up but can't make the tackle. Roethlisberger still looking down the field, throws incomplete and gets hit by three Browns in the process. He tries too hard to make something happen. (-2 points)
  • Steelers max protect against Cleveland's blitz and Roethlisberger has time. Just overthrows Ward for what could have been a big gain on third down. Pittsburgh punts. (-1 point)
Grade for drive: -2 points

Fourth drive

  • In the first throw of the second half, Browns blitz and Roethlisberger finds Ward open on the hot route for 10 yards and a first down. Good read and throw. (+2 points)
  • Mendenhall picks up the safety blitz with a great block on T.J. Ward. Roethlisberger finds Hines Ward, who beats Wright for 26 yards. Roethlisberger is picking on Wright for big plays. (+3 points)
  • Another screen call doesn't work and Roethlisberger throws it away. It's apparent the Browns did a good job of studying Pittsburgh's screen game this week. (-1 point)
  • On a long third down, Roethlisberger tries to force the ball into double coverage and it's batted away. Poor read, poor throw. Steelers punt. (-1 point)
Grade for drive: +3 points

Fifth drive

  • Deep in Pittsburgh's territory, Roethlisberger eludes the cornerback blitz and finds Wallace, who blows by the safety with ease for 50 yards. Roethlisberger took a tough shot on the arm but the throw was still on a rope. It's another play not many quarterbacks can make under that kind of duress. (+4 points)
  • On next play, Roethlisberger drops in a touch pass to tight end Heath Miller for 36 yards against Cleveland's zone. Last two passes accounted for 86 yards. (+4 points)
  • On the same hot read from the previous drive, Roethlisberger points out the pre-snap blitz and finds Ward on a square in against -- guess who? -- Wright. Ward easily shakes off Wright's attempt to strip the ball and barrels in for an 8-yard touchdown. Three sterling throws and the best drive of the day for Roethlisberger. (+4 points)
Grade for drive: +12 points

Sixth drive

  • Roethlisberger stands patient in the pocket and finds Sanders again for 15 yards and the first down. Sanders doesn't celebrate his second career catch like he did his first. (+2 points)
  • Randle El runs a quick out to the sideline and Roethlisberger throws it to the wrong (inside) shoulder. Randle El still makes the catch but is hit pretty hard by Brown. (+1 point)
  • Browns continue to blitz on third down, and the pressure forces Roethlisberger to throw an incomplete pass to Randle El. Steelers punt. (-1 point)
Grade for drive: +2 points

Seventh drive

  • Steelers come out in a tight run formation and fool the Browns badly with a play-action pass. Wallace streaks down right sideline but Roethlisberger misses him by throwing several yards out of bounds. Roethlisberger smiles to the sideline, because he can't believe how badly he missed the open target. (-3 points)
  • On third down Roethlisberger throws too high again for Ward. Rust is definitely a factor. (-1 point)
Grade for drive: -4 points

Eighth drive

  • After Browns receiver Chansi Stuckey fumbles the punt, Roethlisberger finds Mendenhall coming out of the backfield three plays later for a first down. Mendenhall runs it in on next play to give Pittsburgh a 21-3 lead. (+1 point)
Grade for drive: +1 point

Ninth drive

  • Steelers running out the clock on first and second down. But Roethlisberger throws incomplete to Miller on third down. (-1 point)
Grade for drive: -1 point

Tenth drive

  • Steelers stay aggressive on final possession. On third down Roethlisberger finds Miller, who beats Brown in the corner of the end zone for final pass of the day. Steelers win, 28-10. (+3 points)
Grade for drive: +3 points

Roethlisberger's game grade: +22 points

AFC North blog's analysis: This was a great starting point to build on for Roethlisberger, who had not played in a meaningful game since January. As you can see above, there were some vintage plays but also several missed throws that Roethlisberger will probably make once he gets back in midseason form. I've covered plenty of Roethlisberger's starts over the past three seasons, and this was more of a B-level performance by his standards. When Roethlisberger gets back on his "A" game, the Steelers will be very tough to beat.

Camp Confidential: Steelers

August, 2, 2010
8/02/10
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ESPN.com NFL Power Ranking (pre-camp): 19

LATROBE, Pa. -- Are the Pittsburgh Steelers in for a free fall or primed for a bounce-back season?

Coming off a Super Bowl title just two seasons ago, the Steelers have a veteran-laden group that looked very talented and professional during the first weekend of training camp. The team is healthy again and quietly confident about its chances to make a playoff run this year.

But there is an elephant in the room for Pittsburgh. Quarterback and two-time Super Bowl champion Ben Roethlisberger will serve a conditional six-game suspension to start the season. It's the primary reason many pundits already have written off the Steelers and believe they'll have to wait another year to get back in the hunt as a legitimate threat in the AFC.

But Pittsburgh is relishing its role as underdog in 2010.

"I look at the times we've been our most successful have been when we're under the radar -- when people don't expect that much from you," Steelers left tackle Max Starks said. "I think for us, we just have a blue-collar mentality. We're just going to put our head down, and we're just going to march forward and let everything else drop where it may."

THREE HOT ISSUES

[+] EnlargeByron Leftwich
AP Photo/Keith SrakocicQB Byron Leftwich is the favorite to start for the Steelers while Ben Roethlisberger is suspended.
1. Will the Steelers properly handle QBs? How do you manage a $100 million quarterback who won't play for at least a month, a veteran who is the favorite to replace him, and a talented youngster with very little experience?

There is no handbook for what the Steelers' coaching staff is going through this summer. Roethlisberger's suspension has put Pittsburgh in a unique situation in which the team has to delicately balance preparing for Week 1 and the entire season.

In all likelihood, "Big Ben" will have his suspension reduced to four games for good behavior. But he will be forced to stay away from the team during that span, which means he will miss reps and practice time for at least a month before he returns. That is why training camp is so important for Roethlisberger. Meanwhile, the team also has to find out if Byron Leftwich or Dennis Dixon is the best option for the Steelers in the immediate future.

"We want to make sure that at the end of this thing that Ben has a productive camp," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "But as we proceed at this juncture, our focus, of course, is who's going to be playing quarterback for us the week of the opener. I like where the guys are right now."

2. Is safety Troy Polamalu back? Polamalu is a special talent. No other NFL player closely resembles his playing style or offers his versatility.

Last year the Steelers missed that versatility when Polamalu was sidelined for 11 games with a knee injury. Pittsburgh still finished in the top five in defense, but its inability to close out games in the fourth quarter without Polamalu led to several bad losses that kept the Steelers out of the postseason.

[+] EnlargeTroy Polamalu
AP Photo/Keith SrakocicThe Steelers missed the versatile Troy Polamalu last season, especially in the fourth quarter.
But Polamalu was healthy for the start of training camp and looks ready to go. He has made sudden cuts without issues, looks fast and was making plays in camp.

"He just kind of opens the playbook to anything you want to do," Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said. "It's just a matter of how far off the diving board you want to go."

3. Can the Steelers stay afloat early? The first four to six games could make or break Pittsburgh's season.

A slow start, such as 1-3 or 2-4, will have the Steelers playing catch-up the rest of the year in a competitive AFC North division. But a .500 record or better during Roethlisberger's suspension could set the table for Pittsburgh to make a playoff push in the second half.

Everything shouldn't be put on the quarterback position. Sure, Leftwich or Dixon has to do his part. But the running game and defense also have to step up for Pittsburgh to win early.

The Steelers' first four games are against the Atlanta Falcons, Tennessee Titans, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Baltimore Ravens. Tampa Bay is the only team in this group that had a losing record last season.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

Although it's very early, there is a noticeable difference already in 2009 first-round pick Evander "Ziggy" Hood. The defensive lineman looks to be in great shape and more sure of his role in Pittsburgh’s defense. He's thinking less and playing faster, which could be a huge plus for the Steelers.

"He looks like a second-year player," Tomlin said. "He, of course, is markedly better than he was a year ago, as it is expected. The standards of expectations of him change, as it does everyone in his draft class. To this point, he's meeting those challenges."

Pittsburgh's defensive line needs an influx of youth as starters Brett Keisel, Casey Hampton and Aaron Smith are all over 30. Hood is looking to play a much bigger role in the rotation after recording only eight tackles and a sack last season.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

I don't think you can truly pick a disappointing player a few days into training camp. But based on the opening weekend, I wasn't particularly overwhelmed by Leftwich.

The veteran quarterback shared snaps with Roethlisberger with the first team, and there is clearly a difference when each player runs the offense. When Roethlisberger was in, the ball rarely touched the ground. Meanwhile, Leftwich missed several throws in team drills that I felt he should have made.

But again, it's very early in camp. A stronger indication will come during the preseason.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • Roethlisberger may be in the best shape of his career. The quarterback often uses the offseason to rest his body and recover from injuries. But as a result, Roethlisberger usually shows up to camp on the heavy side. That's not the case this year as he's thin and looks like he's in midseason form. Roethlisberger said his offseason incident and time away from the team motivated him to show up in shape as a sign of dedication.
  • [+] EnlargeMaurkice Pouncey
    AP Photo/Keith SrakocicFirst-round pick Maurkice Pouncey is getting reps at both right guard and center.

  • First-round pick Maurkice Pouncey appears to be a good fit. He suffered a hamstring injury that kept him out of practice Sunday. But in the first couple of practices, Pouncey looked very fluid and was showing a mean streak by finishing his blocks. He will most likely play right guard this year, but Pouncey is also getting reps at center.
  • Look for Pittsburgh to put a stronger emphasis on the running game, especially with Roethlisberger out early in the season. Starting tailback Rashard Mendenhall recorded his first 1,000-yard season in 2009 and should get a lot of carries behind this revamped O-line.
  • Speaking of the running game, second-year player Frank "The Tank" Summers is getting a good look at fullback. Summers did not contribute his rookie year. But offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, who rarely utilizes fullbacks, seems to be open to seeing if Summers can man the role. Summers made a really good block on outside linebacker James Harrison over the weekend.
  • Pittsburgh has two potentially sticky contract situations, but neither player plans to cause a distraction. Pro Bowl outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley and kicker Jeff Reed are both disappointed they did not get long-term extensions. The Steelers informed both players before training camp that nothing will be done with their deals before the start of the 2010 season, but both reported to camp on time.
  • Keep an eye on rookie receivers Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown. Both are very competitive and making plays early in camp. Sanders, a third-round pick, looks smooth running his routes and coming out of his breaks for a first-year receiver. He may be able to contribute at some point this season. Brown, a sixth-round pick, is more raw but always gives good effort.
  • Do not underestimate the addition of cornerback Bryant McFadden. He's played well in Pittsburgh’s system in the past, and McFadden can help fill one of the team's few glaring holes on the defense.
  • Veteran receiver Antwaan Randle El was fielding punts this weekend and has to be considered one of the favorites to win the job. The kick return game is one area Pittsburgh struggled in last season. Randle El has five punt returns for touchdowns in his career.

AFC North rookie surprises

June, 22, 2010
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Jordan ShipleyFrank Victores/US PresswireJordan Shipley stood out at Cincinnati's recent minicamp and could be a contender to be the Bengals' No. 3 receiver.
Every year there are rookies around the league who, seemingly out of nowhere, quickly develop and contribute to their respective teams. Pittsburgh Steelers receiver and 2009 third-round pick Mike Wallace was a perfect example last season.

So who could be this year's version of Wallace in the AFC North?

Here are seven rookies drafted in the third round or lower who could surprise in 2010:

1. Jordan Shipley, WR, Cincinnati Bengals

Draft status: Third round (No. 84 overall)

Analysis: Shipley was one of the stars of Cincinnati's mandatory minicamp last week. The receiver caught everything from the slot position and already looks like a good fit for the Bengals' offense. Shipley has a knack for manipulating the middle of the field and finding openings in coverage. Cincinnati has lacked this type of receiver since the departure of T.J. Houshmandzadeh. Look for Shipley to have a good competition with third-year veteran Andre Caldwell for the No. 3 receiver spot behind Chad Ochocinco and Antonio Bryant.

2. Ed Dickson, TE, Baltimore Ravens

Draft status: Third round (No. 70 overall)

[+] EnlargeDennis Pitta
Tim Heitman/US PresswireDennis Pitta will battle with fellow rookie tight end Ed Dickson for playing time in the Ravens' offense.
Analysis: Dickson was one of the top receiving tight ends in this year's draft, and he should be able to stretch the field for Baltimore's offense. At this point, Dickson is a luxury as a backup to starter Todd Heap. That should allow the Ravens to bring Dickson along and only put him in positions to be successful. He will have an interesting competition with rookie teammate Dennis Pitta, who is also on this list.

3. Carlton Mitchell, WR, Cleveland Browns

Draft status: Sixth round (No. 177 overall)

Analysis: Someone has to catch passes in Cleveland. Why not Mitchell? The Browns have arguably the worst receiving depth in the league. So this is a good opportunity for Mitchell to step up and impress Cleveland's coaching staff in training camp. He’s a bit unpolished but has good size and a good burst. If Mitchell can show some potential, that could be enough to earn playing time in Cleveland's offense, which is lacking playmakers.

4. Emmanuel Sanders, WR, Steelers

Draft status: Third round (No. 82 overall)

Analysis: The Steelers found Wallace in the third round last year. Could they find another solid contributor in the third round this season with Sanders? Pittsburgh's receiving depth took a hit with the offseason trade of Santonio Holmes and the season-ending Achilles injury to Limas Sweed. Each instance has moved Sanders up the depth chart. Wallace and Hines Ward are the starters, and veteran Antwaan Randle El probably is set as the No. 3 receiver. But Pittsburgh will give Sanders an opportunity in training camp to earn a role with the team.

5. Dennis Pitta, TE, Ravens

Draft status: Fourth round (No. 114 overall)

Analysis: In a bit of a surprise move, the Ravens took tight ends in back-to-back rounds. The organization felt the value for Pitta in the fourth round was too good to pass up. He had outstanding production at Brigham Young, and what Pitta lacks in athleticism, he makes up for with savvy and great hands. Pitta will compete with Dickson to back up Heap. The Ravens only need one of these rookies to pan out this season and put up numbers in what should be a very good offense.

6. Shawn Lauvao, G, Browns

Draft status: Third round (No. 92 overall)

[+] EnlargeJonothan Dwyer
Richard C. Lewis/Icon SMIJonathan Dwyer could make an impact for the Steelers in the red zone.
Analysis: The middle and left side of Cleveland's offensive line are set with tackle Joe Thomas, guard Eric Steinbach and center Alex Mack. But the two right positions are still undecided, which provides an opportunity for third-rounder Lauvao to produce in his rookie year. For what it's worth, Lauvao has looked good in non-contact practices and is getting quality reps in Cleveland's offense. But it's difficult to mark the progress of offensive linemen until there's full contact in training camp. Browns coach Eric Mangini likes to use various linemen in games, so Lauvao could see playing time regardless.

7. Jonathan Dwyer, RB, Pittsburgh Steelers

Draft status: Sixth round (No. 188 overall)

Analysis: Dwyer was very productive in college, rushing for 1,395 yards and averaging 5.9 yards per carry at Georgia Tech last season. But right now, Pittsburgh is more interested in Dwyer's nose for the end zone; he rushed for 26 touchdowns the past two seasons. The Steelers lacked a short-yardage running back who could move the chains last year. The team also struggled in the red zone, and if Dwyer proves he can move the pile, he could have an immediate role with Pittsburgh.

Not all of these players will surprise in their rookie year, but there's a decent chance some from this group will be productive.

Which mid- to late-round draft pick do you think will surprise in 2010?
PITTSBURGH -- Steelers receiver Mike Wallace was streaking down the field Tuesday when quarterback Ben Roethlisberger hit him in stride between two defenders for a big play.

[+] EnlargeBen Roethlisberger
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarBen Roethlisberger returned to Steelers practice this week for the first time since April 20.
"It always feels good to have one of the best in the game back with you," Wallace said after practice.

Roethlisberger -- and the Steelers -- completed the first step in the recovery process from arguably the most chaotic offseason in franchise history. After recently being cleared to practice, Roethlisberger rejoined the team Tuesday for organized team activities. It was his first practice since April 20.

The star quarterback will serve a conditional six-game suspension for violating the league's personal conduct policy following the second sexual-assault allegation against him in less than a year. But everything seemed somewhat normal in practice considering the circumstances.

Roethlisberger looked happy and excited to be back, and so were his teammates. He worked with the first-team offense. He also joked with players and even head-butted his offensive linemen before team drills.

Add to the fact that Roethlisberger made several great throws rarely seen this offseason with Byron Leftwich, Dennis Dixon and Charlie Batch running the offense, and it was a good day overall for the embattled quarterback.

"It's another step," Steelers offensive tackle Willie Colon said. "We're all trying to get over this -- I think we're already over it.

"We want to get ready for the season. We got a lot of people we got to knock down, and our focus is being world champs again."

Another pleasant surprise for Pittsburgh was that "Big Ben" looked slim, particularly compared to his physique earlier this offseason. Roethlisberger, who didn't speak with the media, usually takes it easy in the offseason to recover from injuries. But based on his appearance Tuesday, it's clear that he has put in some work during his time away from the Steelers.

For the most part, Roethlisberger's throws were accurate. He missed a couple of timing routes here and there, which was expected. But Roethlisberger more than made up for it with long completions to Wallace, Arnaz Battle and Pro Bowl tight end Heath Miller. The throws to Wallace and Battle, in particular, were both ropes that made it nearly impossible for defenders to make a play.

It was a display of what Pittsburgh still has at quarterback. But it also showed what the Steelers will miss for a maximum of six games this year. Roethlisberger's suspension could be reduced to four games if he stays clear of trouble.

That leaves an interesting dilemma of how to divide snaps between four quarterbacks.

Leftwich, who had an excused absence Tuesday, has worked all offseason with the first team. Roethlisberger worked with the starters in his return, as he has for most of his career. And Dixon is waiting his turn to work with the starters because he wants to compete for the quarterbacking job in Week 1.

This is a challenge Pittsburgh's coaching staff will have to figure out. There are five more days of OTAs, which will conclude for the Steelers next week. But Pittsburgh also has to determine who gets the first-team snaps throughout training camp and who plays with the starters in the preseason.

"It's a tricky situation," Pittsburgh receiver Antwaan Randle El admitted. "But you basically have to come up with a plan and work it. It's going to be hard to juggle, but we'll see how it works."

But dividing snaps with Roethlisberger is a problem for another day. This week the team was happy to have its best offensive player back in the huddle and seems ready to move forward with its 2010 season.

"He's a man and everybody makes mistakes," Wallace said. "I just feel like he's the leader of our team. Any time he comes back we accept him for who he is."
The Pittsburgh Steelers nearly got out of their 2010 mandatory minicamp without incident. But on the final practice of the weekend, the team potentially suffered a significant setback to its receiving corps.

Such is life during the Steelers' wild and crazy offseason.

On Sunday, Pittsburgh third-year receiver Limas Sweed suffered an Achilles injury that could be serious, according to head coach Mike Tomlin. Sweed recently overcame family issues and was looking forward to this season. He also changed his jersey this week to No. 80 to symbolize a fresh start.

Depending on the severity, an Achilles injury could sideline Sweed for part or all of this upcoming season. It would be the latest setback for a receiver who's struggled during his tenure in Pittsburgh.

But the offseason trade for starter Santonio Holmes opened the door for Sweed to possibly earn playing time again. He was in competition with Antwaan Randle El, Arnaz Battle and rookie Emmanuel Sanders to be the No. 3 receiver, which plays an important role in Pittsburgh's offense.

If Sweed cannot return, the Steelers' depth is drastically hurt behind starters Hines Ward and second-year standout Mike Wallace. It's yet another blow to a passing game that's already severely hindered without star quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who is serving a conditional six-game suspension.

Is Faneca next for Steelers?

April, 24, 2010
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In the process of reshaping their roster, the Pittsburgh Steelers are going back to the future.

Larry Foote, Antwaan Randle El, Bryant McFadden and Byron Leftwich were all former Steelers who were acquired via trade or free agency this offseason.

Could Alan Faneca be next?

The former Steeler and nine-time Pro Bowl guard is available after being released by the New York Jets Saturday. Faneca was drafted in the first round by the Steelers in 1998 and played in Pittsburgh for a decade before bolting to New York in free agency.

Two years ago Pittsburgh felt Faneca, 33, had too much tread on the tires. The price tag also was high at the time, and that played a factor as well.

Perhaps the Steelers still feel the same about Faneca. But with the retro movement currently going on in Pittsburgh, you can't completely rule out the possibility.

Scouts Inc. on Steelers WRs

April, 12, 2010
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The Pittsburgh Steelers sent shockwaves throughout the AFC by trading former Super Bowl MVP Santonio Holmes to the New York Jets for a fifth-round pick.

Holmes was in Pittsburgh's doghouse after various off-the-field incidents, so much so that Steelers assisted another AFC contender.

So where does this leave Pittsburgh's receiver corps? The AFC North blog checked in with Scouts Inc.'s Matt Williamson for answers.

[+] EnlargeWallace/Ward
AP Photo/Gene PuskarWith Santonio Holmes out of the picture, Hines Ward (86) and Mike Wallace (17) look to be the top two receivers in Pittsburgh.
For starters, what did Pittsburgh's offense lose when it traded Holmes?

Williamson: They lose a potentially great player -- I don't know how else you can say it. He was especially great when Ben Roethlisberger was buying time and extending the play. Holmes would get you deep and Ben would find him often, and I think Roethlisberger trusted him. Holmes was effective off play-action, and I don't see a massive weakness with him. He had to share a lot of catches with [Hines] Ward, and earlier in his career Pittsburgh was a run-heavy team. So his numbers aren't quite where you think they would be. I don't know if that will ever be the case with the Jets, either, but that doesn't mean Holmes isn't incredibly effective.

Where do you feel Mike Wallace is in his development, and is he ready to be a starter in Year 2?

Williamson: I think Wallace is very ready to be a starter. He's only getting better and his ability to take the top off a defense [get deep] is tremendous. He's very fast and he plays very fast. Wallace is going to abuse single coverage, and I do like him as a starter.

Hines Ward isn't getting any younger. Can Pittsburgh still be successful with Ward, 34, as the team's No. 1 receiver?

Williamson: I worry more about Ward now. If I'm defending the Steelers last year, I'm more afraid of Holmes than Ward. The thing is Ward is still playing very well, but he's only going to get slower. He's never been the fastest guy around. So when coverage is rolled in his direction or Ward's facing the No. 1 corner on the opposing team, is he able to be as productive? I don't know that he is, so that worries me.

How do you evaluate the Steelers' depth at WR with backups Antwaan Randle El, Arnaz Battle and Limas Sweed?

Williamson: I think the Steelers really need to add a guy. They need a big body. They have Sweed. But I don't think they can trust him at all, although it would be great if he could live up to that second-round billing and plays like he did at Texas with more of an opportunity now. Randle El could be a competent slot guy. I wouldn't want him starting, and I think Battle might be a No. 4. He could play some and get his jersey dirty on special teams, but the Steelers don't want him out there an awful lot.

Any good options in the draft?

Williamson: They have a ton of picks (11), and they can't get that many guys on the roster. They're going to really be primed to move up once or twice in this draft. I don't think the Steelers can use a first-round pick on a receiver. But there are some receivers out there who are interesting. A guy like Eric Decker comes to mind from Minnesota in the second or third round. But it would also be nice for them to use a second- or third-round pick right now on a running back or a guard or a cornerback.

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