NFL Nation: Chris Rainey

PITTSBURGH -- He still uses his GPS to make his way around Pittsburgh, but rookie inside linebacker Ryan Shazier didn’t need nearly as much navigational assistance when he was on the Pittsburgh Steelers practice fields in late May and June.

Shazier started alongside Lawrence Timmons from the outset of offseason practices, and he looked anything but lost despite learning a new defense on the run.

[+] EnlargeRyan Shazier
Joe Sargent/Getty ImagesRookie linebacker Ryan Shazier was a star in minicamp, but will his progress continue when the pads come on?
“He understands concepts very well,” linebackers coach Keith Butler said of the Steelers’ first-round draft pick. “He reminds me a lot of Larry Foote in terms of football intelligence, and he’s a very sharp guy.”

Not that Shazier will be exempt from the requisite rookie growing pains. Or that Butler wouldn’t prefer the Steelers easing the former Ohio State All-American into the NFL.

That is not an option in large part because Shazier’s speed and playmaking ability are both badly needed on a defense that slipped appreciably last season. Shazier, the Steelers’ most significant addition during the offseason, made it look easy at times during offseason practices. He turned in a couple of breathtaking plays, including a leaping interception of a pass that backup quarterback Bruce Gradkowski thought he could throw over Shazier in the middle of the field.

The caveat with how good Shazier has looked: the 6-1, 237-pounder has only practiced with the Steelers in shorts. That changes Monday, when the Steelers don the pads at training camp following two non-contact practices.

If Shazier makes the same kind of progress at camp as he did during offseason drills he will start Sept. 7 in the season opener against the visiting Browns.

Here are the four other significant additions that the Steelers made during the offseason.

Offensive line coach Mike Munchak. The Steelers have too often fielded suspect offensive lines under coach Mike Tomlin, though constant injuries up front haven’t helped. A line that came together in the second half of last season will start a pair of former first-round draft picks and two second-round selections. Nobody is more qualified to bring the group together then Munchak. There are no excuses this season -- unless mass injuries consistently scramble the line.

S Mike Mitchell. As with Shazier, the Steelers added speed and a playmaker when they signed Mitchell to a five-year, $25 million contract in March. They badly needed both elements on the back end of their defense, and Mitchell will be a significant upgrade over Ryan Clark at free safety. He has aspirations of becoming one of the best safeties in the NFL, and the Steelers would love to see Mitchell achieve that goal in Pittsburgh.

RB/WR Dri Archer. The Steelers added a bolt of lightning to their offense when they drafted the ultra-fast Archer in the third round. He will return kickoffs and could allow the Steelers to relieve Pro Bowl wide receiver Antonio Brown of his duties as the primary punt returner. Archer’s speed and versatility gives offensive coordinator Todd Haley the kind of player he can use to exploit mismatches. If Archer is Chris Rainey 2.0 the Steelers will be more than happy with the investment they have made in the former Kent State star.

OLB Arthur Moats. The former Buffalo Bill has starting experience and versatility and gives the Steelers a promising option should there be injuries or ineffective play at outside linebacker. Moats can also play inside, though the Steelers are pretty deep there, and he is expected to establish himself as a core special-teams player. The importance of depth in the NFL can't be overstated, and the Steelers improved themselves in that area with the signing of Moats.
PITTSBURGH -- Kent State coach Paul Haynes and Northern Illinois coach Rod Carey shared a memory -- and a laugh -- recently when they recalled Dri Archer's 100-yard kickoff return for a Kent State touchdown last season in a game between the Mid-American Conference rivals.

"Dri went down his sideline and [Carey] said he was going so fast and he was just thinking, ‘We are so stupid for kicking to this guy,'" Haynes said. "They were the only team that kicked deep to us. Everybody else pooched."

That anecdote neatly distills why the Pittsburgh Steelers were enamored enough with Archer’s breathtaking speed and big-play ability to draft him in the third round -- yet also why taking him that high might be a luxury they couldn't afford after consecutive 8-8 seasons.

[+] EnlargeDri Archer
AP Photo/G.M. AndrewsThe Steelers hope Kent State's
Dri Archer can cause matchup problems for opposing defenses.
Archer already had been compared to former great kick returners such as Mel Gray and Gerald "Ice Cube" McNeil, and that was just in the Steelers' building.

But since NFL kickers have been able to boom the ball out of the end zone with regularity since kickoffs were moved to the 35-yard line, how much of a weapon will Archer be if teams simply decide to play keep-away?

That is what teams did last season when Archer managed just two kickoff returns for 128 yards and a touchdown. Haynes said Kent State didn’t even bother practicing kickoff returns once it became apparent that opposing teams weren’t going to let Archer beat them in that phase of the game.

Despite his limited opportunities last season, the Steelers placed a premium on Archer as a return man during their pre-draft evaluation of him.

"In my mind, return guys are starters," Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert said. "His kick-return ability is unique. It really is special. Whatever he can add to us offensively, we see some value there."

Where exactly the 5-foot-8, 173-pound Archer fits into the offense remains to be seen. The Steelers feature Pro Bowl wide receiver Antonio Brown, and they have an emerging running back (Le'Veon Bell) and a bruising back (newly signed LeGarrette Blount).

"This is a guy that is going to create some unique opportunities for us from a package standpoint in terms of him getting identified," coach Mike Tomlin said. "Is he a running back? Is he a wideout? Regardless of position, I think he’s a playmaker. He's a guy that gets yards in chunks and rings up the scoreboard."

Such talk sounds great in May, but how will it translate in actual games when there are a limited number of snaps and Archer is not a primary option at running back or wide receiver?

"We are all going to work together to make sure this guy is in the right place," running backs coach James Saxon said. "The kid is a special football player with the ball in his hands."

Indeed, Archer rushed for 1,429 yards and 16 touchdowns as a junior, leading the country with 8.99 yards per carry. His rushing totals plummeted to 527 yards last season, but much of that can be attributed to the fact that Kent State played him extensively at wide receiver to showcase his versatility to NFL teams.

"I think one of the biggest mistakes we made here is flexing him out," Haynes said. "We needed to keep him at running back just because we could have gotten him more touches. He has great vision, he has great feet, he has great burst -- all the things a good running back needs to be."

That includes strength and toughness.

It is easy to fixate on Archer’s size and speed and label him a gimmick player, but that evaluation doesn't fit. He ran the fastest 40-yard dash time (4.26 seconds) at the NFL scouting combine in February, but Archer also bench-pressed 225 pounds 20 times.

That's only seven shy of the combine bench-press total for defensive tackle Daniel McCullers, the 6-7, 352-pounder the Steelers drafted in the sixth round.

Haynes said Archer is strong and thick enough to absorb a pounding in the NFL, and Tomlin said, “He is not small. He is short.”

It remains to be seen how many touches Archer will get in an offense that returns all but one starter from last season.

Bell averaged 17.2 carries per game in 2013, and he is a legitimate feature back because of his pass-catching abilities. The Steelers also have to find carries for Blount, who as recently as January bulled his way to 166 rushing yards and four touchdowns while leading the Patriots to a playoff victory.

That leaves Archer as a situational player, albeit a unique one, and the Steelers didn’t get favorable results the last time they drafted a ridiculously fast player with plans to use his speed to exploit mismatches.

Chris Rainey, even before he fell out of favor in Pittsburgh because of off-field incidents, didn’t make much of an impact on the offense. In 2012, his only season with the Steelers, the former Florida speedster rushed for 102 yards on 26 carries and caught 14 passes for a mere 60 yards.

There might turn out to be no comparison between Archer and Rainey aside from sheer speed. And one thing Archer won’t have a problem with, Haynes said, is representing the Steelers -- on the field and away from it.

"You think of toughness, you think hard-nose, you think of discipline," Haynes said of the Steelers. "That’s why I think Dri is going to fit in so well there, because a lot of those things are how I would describe him. Besides the football, he’s going to be a great ambassador for that program.

"You don’t have to worry about him off the field. He’s going to work, he’ll study the game, he’ll surround himself with the great pros that are already there and teach him how to be a great pro himself."

Steelers pick Dri Archer in 3rd

May, 9, 2014
videoPITTSBURGH -- The pick: Dri Archer, RB, Kent State

My take: The Steelers added more speed, and arguably the fastest player in the draft, when they took Archer in the third round Friday night. This seems like a little early to take a running back, even one who could add a dynamic element to the offense. Archer is a blur -- running backs coach James Saxon said the Steelers timed him in under 4.2 seconds in the 40-yard dash at the NFL combine -- but he is also small. Not that the Steelers will ask the 5-foot-8, 173-pounder to shoulder much of a workload. Archer will be used as a situational back as well as a kick returner, and he averaged 7.8 yards per carry last season while also catching 25 passes for 327 yards.

The Steelers tried this two years ago with ultra-fast Chris Rainey, and he was pedestrian even before they cut ties with him due to off-the-field issues. They must think Archer is a much better player, and his versatility and production at Kent State impressed the Steelers as much as his sheer speed. Archer rushed for 2,342 career yards and had 1,194 career receiving yards while also starring as a return specialist for the Golden Flashes. He should at least make an impact in the return game as a rookie.

Still waiting: Who would have guessed this? Two days and three rounds into the draft, the Steelers have yet to take a cornerback or a wide receiver. They have addressed inside linebacker, defensive end and running back, with only the middle position qualifying as one of serious need. Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said he is not worried about the Steelers' depth at cornerback. "I feel good about the cornerbacks that we have, and we have more numbers there than people realize," LeBeau said. "We may have great players in the building; they just haven’t had the chance to show us they are greater."

What’s next: The Steelers will be plenty busy Saturday. They have one pick in the fourth round -- which starts at noon -- two in the fifth, two in the sixth and one in the seventh. The Steelers have made some late-round finds in recent years, getting wide receiver Antonio Brown, left tackle Kelvin Beachum and linebacker Vince Williams in the sixth round or later since 2010.

Signing Draughn means Brown might sit

December, 17, 2013
INDIANAPOLIS – Lost in the news of linebacker Pat Angerer going on injured reserve because of a knee injury was that the Indianapolis Colts signed running back Shaun Draughn to take Angerer’s spot on the roster.

The signing gives the indication that the stinger Donald Brown suffered against the Houston Texans last weekend could cause him to miss some time.

If that’s the case, Trent Richardson, who rushed for 64 yards against the Texans, would move back into the starting lineup and Tashard Choice, whom the Colts signed last week after Chris Rainey was lost for the season, would likely back him up against Kansas City this weekend.

“Really don’t have a choice,” Colts coach Chuck Pagano said Monday when asked about putting Choice in the rotation. “I wouldn’t have any regardless, but it’s really all we have. He’s going to have to. And I like what he did [Sunday] coming in and had the good return on the kickoff return and got some carries in the back. He’s a smart guy, he’s a tough guy, he’s ran the ball before, so I have no problems.”

Draughn has appeared in 20 games, rushing 63 times for 235 yards and two touchdowns while bouncing around with the Chiefs, Washington Redskins and Baltimore Ravens. He can also return kickoffs.
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Here are four storylines (outside of the Chuck Pagano-Bruce Arians reunion) to pay attention to in Sunday’s game between the Indianapolis Colts-Arizona Cardinals.

Start fast: This has been an area of concern for the Colts most of the season. It’s really been a problem the past three games. They’ve been outscored 66-9 in the first half of their past three games. Yes, the Colts won two of those games, but relying on a strong second half isn’t the right way to go about things, especially since that approach won’t work in the playoffs. Offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton scripts the first 15-20 plays. The Cardinals have outscored their opponents 49-37 in the first half of their current three-game winning streak. The Colts don’t have the offensive weapons outside of quarterback Andrew Luck and receiver T.Y. Hilton to come back against a team like the Cardinals, who have two dangerous receivers in Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd.

Pressure Palmer: Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer threw for 419 yards against Jacksonville on Nov. 17. He threw for that many yards because the Jaguars allowed him to sit back in the pocket and pick them apart. Put pressure on Palmer and it’s a different game. Memo to Colts linebacker Robert Mathis, the league leader in sacks: The Cardinals have an atrocious offensive line. Palmer has been sacked 27 times and he’s thrown 15 interceptions. The Colts will be without starting linebacker Erik Walden (suspended) and cornerback Greg Toler (groin) on defense.

Play with urgency: Win Sunday and the Colts will be able to wrap up their first AFC South title since 2010 with a victory over the Tennessee Titans at Lucas Oil Stadium on Dec. 1. The Colts will likely still win the division if they stumble against the Cardinals, but the sooner they win it, the better their odds will be to get one of the top two seeds -- likely the second seed -- and a first-round bye in the playoffs.

Chris Rainey: The David Reed experiment at returning kicks has to stop at some point, right? Reed has been more of a disaster than an impact player in that area this season. Reed is 12th in the league in kickoff returns at 23.8 yards, but what’s not accounted for is how many times he’s attempted to return kicks 7 or 8 yards deep in the end zone. So why not give Rainey, who the Colts signed last week, a shot? He possibly can’t do any worse. Pagano said late last week that no decision had been on if Rainey will be active for the game. But Rainey did have a good first week of practice. “He’s very explosive for a guy being out for the amount of time that he’s been out,” Pagano said. He’s really been amazing, to be honest with you. He’s a great athlete. He’s got tremendous quickness, speed, acceleration, burst, football instincts. Catches everything -- punts and kickoffs, catching balls out of the backfield, running the card team, the look team for us. Didn’t miss a beat. It looked like he’d been playing for somebody for the last whatever, so he looked good.”
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

How does each AFC North team look at running back, and what still needs to be done?

Baltimore Ravens: Ray Rice is only 26, but he has taken a lot of hits. Although he put together a fantastic season, as usual, in 2012, he looked worn down late in the year and during the Ravens’ Super Bowl run. He has four straight regular seasons with more than 250 carries, and has caught at least 61 passes in each of those seasons. Even though he is still extremely potent, Baltimore might be wise to deflect a few more early down carries toward Bernard Pierce to extend Rice’s effectiveness. Pierce isn’t close to the receiver Rice is, and is still learning pass protection. However, he was very impressive late in the season, and you could argue he was running more effectively than Rice in the postseason. A bigger back than Rice, Pierce averaged 4.9 yards per carry as a rookie, and could make a big impact in games in which Baltimore has the lead. Bobby Rainey enters his second season as well. He is a shorter back with a thick build, good balance and good feet. Expect him to take a step forward in his second season, but he helps the Ravens mostly on special teams.

Cincinnati Bengals: BenJarvus Green-Ellis will open training camp as the Bengals’ top running back. But don’t expect him to keep that distinction for long, as Giovani Bernard is sure to pass him. Green-Ellis gets what is blocked, has some power to drag tacklers, and is very reliable with his ball security. What you see is what you get with Green Ellis -- and it isn’t good enough. Bernard is an exciting prospect with loads of big-play ability. He can run inside with quick feet and more power than you might suspect, but also is very dangerous on the perimeter with his long speed and elusiveness in the open field. Green-Ellis will surely be superior in pass protection than Bernard to start the season, but Bernard is far more dangerous as a receiving option. Cincinnati also brought back Bernard Scott before the draft, but with the selection of Bernard, Scott’s roster spot is far from certain. The Bengals also drafted Rex Burkhead, who does everything well and is an underrated prospect overall. In time, I expect Burkhead to be a fine complement to Bernard as Cincinnati’s second running back.

Cleveland Browns: Trent Richardson battled numerous injuries during his rookie campaign, and that is the only concern I have about this 21-year-old. New offensive coordinator Norv Turner has an outstanding history of utilizing a true feature back, and Richardson fits that mold with his rare blend of vision, power, lateral agility and speed to go along with excellent receiving skills. There isn’t much on Cleveland’s depth chart behind Richardson, so maybe the Browns will keep their eyes out for a veteran who gets released. For now, Montario Hardesty is No. 2. Injuries have been a big problem for him, but he does have a fair amount of ability. Also in the mix are Dion Lewis, Brandon Jackson and Chris Ogbonnaya. Jackson is bigger and runs with much more power than Lewis, but isn’t as quick. Both do their best work on third down, while Ogbonnaya is a big runner with some power, but he lacks any particular skill to wow you. A scat back with big-play ability would be a welcomed addition here.

Pittsburgh Steelers: The Steelers used this year’s second-round pick on Le'Veon Bell, as they felt that their running backs from 2012 were simply not getting the job done. Bell is very young, has good size and is quite established in the passing game, which is something Pittsburgh wasn’t getting from Isaac Redman or Jonathan Dwyer. Redman and Dwyer are similar players. They both have good size and initiate contact. They get what is blocked, but not much more and lack dynamic qualities. They are backups in the NFL. Last year, the Steelers drafted Chris Rainey to help as a returner and add a running back/wide receiver hybrid to their offense. Rainey didn’t work out, but Pittsburgh signed LaRod Stephens-Howling this offseason for the same reasons. Baron Batch is also in the equation. His most notable contributions come on special teams, but he is a serviceable runner, receiver and blocker. The Steelers were in talks with Ahmad Bradshaw before the draft. With the selection of Bell, you would think that ship had sailed, but you never know. Bradshaw will end up somewhere this season. It is also likely that either Redman or Dwyer is gone before the season.
The Pittsburgh Steelers have changed one small part of their draft process a year after having off-the-field issues with two picks, nose tackle Alameda Ta'amu and running back Chris Rainey. The Steelers have stepped up their interaction with prospects' families as part of their pre-draft evaluation.

In addressing how the team assesses character, Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert said the process has remained the same, starting with reports they get from colleges and then conducting interviews, whether it's at the NFL scouting combine or pre-draft visits, as well as background checks. The one change is speaking to the people closest to the prospect.

"Coach [Mike] Tomlin and I did a lot of follow-up work this past spring when we visited the pro days. We actually tried to be a little more proactive in trying to meet families," Colbert said. "It is something that Coach Tomlin started three years ago. After we draft players, we start to bring their families in to get to know the kids that we drafted. Sometimes you get the opportunity at a pro day and sometimes you don’t, depending on where the kid’s family lives. We did try to make a conscious effort to extend the program Coach Tomlin started three years ago."

The Steelers should be more careful this year in taking risks on draft picks after two of their first five selections in 2012 got into legal trouble. Ta'amu, a fourth-round pick, was sentenced to 18 months of probation earlier this month after he pled guilty to reckless endangerment, resisting arrest and drunken driving stemming from a police chase last fall. Pittsburgh suspended him for two games and waived him but re-signed Ta'amu by the end of the season.

Rainey, a fifth-round pick, was released by the Steelers hours after he was arrested for a second time on a domestic violence incident. He hasn't been signed by another team and remains a free agent.

Asked about the idea of visiting families, Tomlin said: "I just think it helps us develop a more complete picture about who and what a player is, and maybe more importantly, what he is capable of being. I think the more you look at where they come from and who they come from, it helps you paint that well-rounded picture."

The Steelers sent the right message in waiving Chris Rainey and it goes beyond just parting ways with a running back who was arrested for a second time on a domestic violence incident.

Pittsburgh kicked Rainey off the team only hours after he was arrested for, according to witnesses, slapping a woman in the face with an open hand. Along with the swift decision, the Steelers made it clear why they were waiving Rainey.

“Chris Rainey’s actions this morning were extremely disappointing,” Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert said in a statement released by the team. “Under the circumstances and due to this conduct, Chris will no longer be a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers."

This is the Steelers' way of telling their current players and future ones that this type of behavior won't be tolerated, and even those who don't like the Steelers have to applaud the team for taking this type of hard stance. Pittsburgh also released nose tackle Alameda Ta'amu in November after his drunken driving arrest, but the Steelers did bring him back for the final game of the season (it was his first off-the-field incident).

It's valid to criticize the Steelers for drafting Rainey in the fifth round after an incident in 2010 when he was arrested for threatening his girlfriend. But, sadly in the NFL, you couldn't field a team these days if you didn't give second chances. The Steelers decided to take a chance on Rainey, and that mistake cost them a fifth-round pick.

Going forward, the Steelers need to either put a bigger emphasis on character or getting a better feel for players before bringing them to Pittsburgh. The arrests of two 2012 draft picks is an indication that something is wrong in the Steelers' pre-draft process.
Pittsburgh Steelers running back Chris Rainey was arrested Thursday morning in Gainesville for slapping his girlfriend in the face during an altercation over a cell phone, Gainesville Police told the Miami Herald.

Rainey, a fifth-round pick out of Florida who just completed his rookie season for the Steelers, was charged with one count of simple battery (dating violence), a first-degree misdemeanor.

Witnesses told police that Rainey and a female got into an argument because she took his cellphone and got into the vehicle of Rainey's roommate. According to the police report, Rainey went to the passenger side of the car where he pulled the woman out of the car and slapped her across the face. The woman was later identified as Rainey's girlfriend of nine months.

This isn't the first time Rainey has been in trouble. In September 2010, Rainey was arrested and charged with aggravated stalking. He reportedly went to a woman's house and the two spoke for 10 minutes and then the receiver was told to leave. According to a Gainesville, Fla., police officer, Rainey sent the woman a text reading "Time to die," which prompted her call to police. He had been dating the woman on and off for "about three years," according to the report.

Rainey's latest arrest raises character issues with the Steelers' 2012 draft class. Nose tackle Alameda Ta'amu, a rookie fourth-round pick, was involved in an embarrassing drunken driving arrest in October. According to police, Ta'amu was driving an SUV the wrong way at about 2:30 a.m. on Oct. 14 when he fled from officers and crashed into four parked cars, injuring a woman. He then tried to run away before he was restrained by four officers and arrested, authorities said. The Steelers released Ta'amu in November but re-signed him by the end of the season.
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger put the blame on himself for Pittsburgh failing to make the playoffs for only the fourth time since 2001.

"A lot of it just has to do with me not playing well enough down the stretch," Roethlisberger said. "Fourth-quarter drives or last-minute throws, I'm just not making it happen, so my best answer would be that I just didn't play well enough."

It's easy to point the finger at Roethlisberger. He threw two interceptions late in games (in overtime in Dallas and with 14 seconds left against the Bengals) that led to losses the past two weeks. Roethlisberger did the right thing as a leader to take the blame. But it would be wrong for everyone to do the same.

Here's a quick list of who should share in the Steel City blame game ...

The defense. Yes, the NFL's top-ranked defense played a part in this disappointing season. For the second straight season, the Steelers didn't force enough turnovers. Pittsburgh took the ball away 16 times this season, which meant Roethlisberger had to continually drive the length of the field to score points. Only the Eagles, Colts and Chiefs forced fewer turnovers this season.

Offensive line. This banged-up group allowed Roethlisberger to get banged up again. Its failure to block the Chiefs led to Roethlisberger getting sandwiched on Nov. 12, when he injured his rib and shoulder. He was never the same after that, throwing six touchdowns and four interceptions in three games since coming back. Left tackle Max Starks has given up 36 quarterback hurries, eighth-most in the league.

Mike Wallace. His drops continually let down Roethlisberger. He is only credited with six by ESPN Stats & Information, but it seemed like a lot more. To Roethlisberger's credit, he never lost confidence in Wallace.

Greg Warren. For those who don't know, Warren is the usually solid long snapper. But Warren's poor snap led to the 24-yard field goal miss in last Sunday's three-point loss to the Bengals. You remember Roethlisberger's interception because it happened at a crucial time, but Warren's mistake was just as big in the Steelers losing an elimination game.

All of the running backs. Roethlisberger had to carry the offense because he didn't get any help from his supporting cast. It didn't matter who the Steelers handed the ball off to -- Jonathan Dwyer, Isaac Redman, Rashard Mendenhall and Chris Rainey -- Pittsburgh couldn't run the ball consistently, or at the very least, force defenses to respect the ground game. The Steelers are 26th in rushing yards per game (96.4) and per carry (3.8). Here's the most disturbing stat: the Steelers had as many fumbles (eight) as 20-yard runs.
CLEVELAND -- My thoughts on the Cleveland Browns' 20-14 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers at Cleveland Browns Stadium:

What it means: The Browns (3-8) delivered a hit to the Steelers' hopes of capturing the AFC North, beating Pittsburgh for just the second time in 18 meetings. The Steelers (6-5) dropped into tie with the Bengals and fell 2 1/2 games behind the Ravens, who play at San Diego this afternoon. Pittsburgh looked ragged on offense without its top two quarterbacks, Ben Roethlisberger and Byron Leftwich, who were both out with rib and shoulder injuries. The Steelers' offense turned the ball over eight times, which included fumbles by all four running backs (Rashard Mendenhall, Jonathan Dwyer, Isaac Redman and Chris Rainey), three interceptions by third-stringer Charlie Batch and a game-ending fumble by receiver Emmanuel Sanders. The Browns' 20 points against the Steelers are their most in a game against Pittsburgh since November 2007, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Capitalizing on Steelers mistakes: The Browns scored 17 points off eight turnovers by the Steelers. Two of Pittsburgh's turnovers (Batch's first interception and Redman's fumble) gave the ball to Cleveland deep in Steelers territory. Three plays after Sheldon Brown picked off Batch (his first interception), rookie running back Trent Richardson ran a 15-yard touchdown to put Cleveland ahead, 20-14, with 5:19 left in the third quarter.

Weeden hurt: Rookie first-round quarterback Brandon Weeden was hurt in the fourth quarter and left the game with a head injury. Colt McCoy played the final two series and didn't throw a pass. Weeden finished 17-of-26 for 158 yards with one touchdown and one interception.

Batch struggles mightily: In his first start since last December, Batch was 19-of-33 for 188 yards. He was picked off three times, including twice in the fourth quarter. Batch's record as a fill-in starter for the Steelers fell to 5-3.

No whistle: Despite turning it over three times in the first half, the Steelers still went into halftime with a 14-13 lead. After Brown's pass interference penalty on Plaxico Burress in the end zone, Rainey got stuffed on a run up the middle by Kaluka Maiava and D'Qwell Jackson. But the whistle didn't blow and Rainey bounced to the left side, where he scored easily.

Becoming offensive on defense: The Steelers' defense has been the best in the NFL in not allowing yards but it has been among the worst in causing turnovers. That changed 71 seconds into the game when defensive end Brett Keisel tipped Weeden's pass and linebacker Lawrence Timmons returned it 53 yards for a touchdown. Entering Week 12, the Steelers had five interceptions. Only the Colts had fewer.

Still Mr. Perfect: Browns kicker Phil Dawson converted from 28 and 32 yards to remain perfect for the season (21-of-21). He extended his streak to 27 straight field goals, which ties Dawson's career long.

More injuries for Steelers: Steelers linebacker LaMarr Woodley injured his ankle in the first half and didn't play after halftime. Woodley missed one game earlier this season with a hamstring injury. Later in the game, rookie right tackle Mike Adams went down with a bad ankle injury. He was replaced by rookie seventh-round pick Kelvin Beachum.

What's next: The Steelers play at the AFC North-leading Ravens just two weeks removed from losing to them. The Browns travel to Oakland in search of their first road win since September 2011.
CLEVELAND -- The Pittsburgh Steelers gave the Browns the lead with three fumbles in the first half, but the Browns gave it right back on a questionable touchdown right before halftime.

Chris Rainey, the only Steelers running back not to lose a fumble, scored on a one-yard touchdown run with one second remaining in the first half to put Pittsburgh ahead, 14-13.

What made the score controversial was Rainey getting stuffed on a run up the middle by Browns linebackers Kaluka Maiava and D'Qwell Jackson. But the officials didn't blow the whistle, and Rainey bounced to the left side where he scored easily.

The Browns were upset because they thought Rainey's forward progress was stopped. But forward progress is not reviewable, so it couldn't be overturned by replay.

The Steelers got the ball to the one-yard line because Steelers wide receiver Plaxico Burress drew a pass interference penalty from Sheldon Brown in the end zone.
Mike TomlinAP Photo/Tom Uhlman"We were able to settle down and get our jobs done," coach Mike Tomlin said of Pittsburgh's efforts.
CINCINNATI -- No one in the Pittsburgh Steelers locker room proclaimed that they're back. No one talked about this 24-17 win over the Bengals becoming the turning point that will lead Pittsburgh back to the playoffs. And no one should after that ragged performance.

The reality of the situation -- or the craziness of it in the AFC North -- is that the Steelers (3-3) will wake up 1.5 games back of the division-leading Baltimore Ravens (5-2).

Despite all of their injuries, penalties and sloppy play, the Steelers can salvage this season if they play like they did in the fourth quarter. If they play like they did in the first half, the Steelers will be lucky to break even this season. Anyone who has watched the Steelers play this year knows it's that cut-and-dried.

Over the final 10 weeks, it's about finishing the season the way Pittsburgh finished off Cincinnati. For the final 15 minutes of the game, Pittsburgh pounded the Cincinnati Bengals defense into submission with a resourceful running game and never gave the Cincinnati offense any hope of coming back. For a brief moment, the Steelers looked like the Steelers on the road.

"I think it was a testament to will," left guard Willie Colon said. "(Offensive line coach Sean) Kugler brought up Peyton Manning in his Monday night game and said, 'If you look at Peyton's eyes, it was the look of you refusing to lose.' I think I kept saying that all week. You've got to refuse to lose, and that's what we did."

What the Steelers refused to lose was a fourth-quarter lead. In all three road games this season, the Steelers had the lead in the fourth quarter and failed to hold onto it. On Sunday night, Pittsburgh ran for 87 yards in the fourth quarter (12 yards more than the team's per-game average this season) without three starters on the offensive line and their top two running backs. Third-string Jonathan Dwyer and rookie Chris Rainey averaged 9.2 yards per carry in the final quarter behind backups at center, right guard and right tackle.

This was far from a statement game. This was more like one step in the right direction. This was a day when the Steelers regained confidence while their division rival Ravens lost some in a 30-point defeat in Houston.

Pittsburgh had blown leads in all three of their losses, which led the NFL. This time, the Steelers went ahead 44 seconds into the fourth quarter on an 11-yard run by Rainey and weren't ever really threatened after that. Pittsburgh controlled the clock in the fourth quarter (10:33 to 4:27 in time of possession) and never let the Bengals get past their own 39-yard line.

Still, the Steelers hedged when asked if this was their breakthrough moment.

"We can tell you in January, I guess," said tight end Heath Miller, who scored a touchdown and a two-point conversion. "We first have to do something we haven’t done this year, win two games in a row."

The Steelers know they have to play much better to be considered legitimate contenders again this year. Dropped passes, turnovers and penalties on special teams could have easily dropped the Steelers to 2-4 and pushed them into panic mode.

On a trick play, running back Baron Batch failed to catch a perfectly thrown pass from wide receiver Antonio Brown with no one between him and the end zone. Wide receiver Mike Wallace channeled Limas Sweed in dropping four passes, including a deflected throw in the end zone.

"I’ve made a lot of plays for my team," said Wallace, who had eight catches for 52 yards. "You can’t be good every week. Sometimes you have an off weekend. It was one of those for me."

Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger threw an interception in the end zone and fumbled at his own 10-yard line. Pittsburgh also hurt itself in field position by committing four holding calls on returns (three of them had the Steelers starting at their own 9, 11 and 13-yard lines).

Even though the Steelers have so many challenges with injuries, they make it tougher on themselves with carelessness.

"When you're highly penalized and you turn the ball over, you put yourself behind the eight ball," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "But the guys didn't blink. They didn't. It's a testament to them. We were able to settle down and get our jobs done."

If this does turn around the Steelers' season, they have Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton to thank. The Bengals had a first down with 1:30 left in the first half and a 14-6 lead. But they went into halftime tied at 14.

How does that happen? Dalton, who has been picked off in every game this season, threw a pass off the back of right guard Kevin Zeitler's helmet and fell into the arms of Steelers linebacker LaMarr Woodley. The Steelers converted that into a 9-yard touchdown pass to Miller, who also caught the two-point conversion to tie the game.

That got the Steelers back into the game but they were the ones who finished it. Pittsburgh cornerback Ike Taylor, who had struggled all season, limited the NFL's leading receiver A.J. Green to one catch for eight yards and broke up a third-down pass to Green in the fourth quarter.

From there, it was left to the Steelers' ground game, which was ranked next-to-last in the league. Holding a touchdown lead with 2:40 left, the Steelers handed the ball off to Dwyer on the four straight plays to close out the game. The last run was a 32-yarder which officially broke the Bengals.

"I don't want to sit here and say that we had something to prove because we just wanted to win the game," Roethlisberger said. "Of course, there was a sense of urgency because it was a divisional game. All we had to do was win, which is what we did."

The Steelers are just as flawed and banged-up as the rest of the AFC. Many of their games will be close because of their inconsistency. How they finish this season will ultimately depend on how they finish games.


Final Word: AFC North

September, 7, 2012
NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 1:

Steelers’ inside running game: Pittsburgh lost first-rounder David DeCastro (knee), but their interior offensive line trio of Willie Colon, Maurkice Pouncey and Ramon Foster is a massive group that could be able to dominate Denver’s suspect interior triangle, which could be the team’s biggest weakness. Also, DE Elvis Dumervil will be at a disadvantage in the running game against Steelers OT Max Starks, and LB D.J. Williams will miss this game because of a suspension. That leaves the Broncos very vulnerable against a power running game, particularly up the middle. Pittsburgh will mix in small doses of Chris Rainey, but for the most part look for it to feature Isaac Redman and/or Jonathan Dwyer, two heavier power backs who could wear the Broncos down. Of course, this approach also would be very beneficial for keeping Peyton Manning on the sidelines as well as possibly opening shots deep downfield off play-action to Mike Wallace or Antonio Brown.

[+] EnlargeCleveland's Brandon Weeden
David Richard/US PRESSWIREThe Browns will discover in Week 1 what kind of NFL quarterback they have in rookie Brandon Weeden.
Which Ravens’ offense will we see on Monday night? Over the past few seasons, Cam Cameron’s offense in Baltimore has been about as bland and predictable as any in the league. To some degree, that made sense considering Joe Flacco was a young quarterback adjusting to the NFL from a very small college and the fact that Baltimore had Ray Rice at its disposal. So why not feature the running game with some deep shots downfield that often came off play-action? But in today’s NFL, that style of offense can only take you so far. In the preseason, Baltimore featured a lot of no-huddle with Flacco being the focal point of the offense. This change could allow Baltimore to catch opposing defenses, Cincinnati in this case, in favorable personnel groupings and control the tempo of the game. But to run it successfully, Flacco needs to be very adept at exposing the weaknesses that Cincinnati’s defense presents to him and making the correct play calls before the snap. By the preseason indications, Baltimore is ready to trust Flacco with such responsibilities.

Bad draw for Browns, Weeden: The Browns’ Brandon Weeden is my least favorite of the five rookie starting quarterbacks starting across the NFL. He is a very good pocket passer with a big arm, but Weeden doesn’t move his feet well, can stare down receivers and hasn’t shown he is adept at handling pass-rush pressure. Well, the Eagles are a brutal opponent for this aged rookie’s first start, as their pass rush and defensive line rival any in the league. Philadelphia is extraordinarily deep up front and will consistently rotate fresh bodies into the game to attack upfield and disrupt Weeden, who can be statuesque in the pocket. Compounding matters, the Eagles’ corners figure to play a high percentage of press-man coverage, and the Browns’ young wide receivers have yet to show they can consistently beat such coverage at this level. This doesn’t bode well for the Browns or Weeden.

Where’s Ike? Almost as much as any team in the NFL, Pittsburgh likes to match up its top cornerback, Ike Taylor, on the opponent’s No. 1 receiver. When the Steelers and Broncos met last postseason, it was Demaryius Thomas against whom Taylor most often lined up. That ended poorly for Pittsburgh on what was Tim Tebow’s best day as a professional throwing the football. But Eric Decker was knocked out of that game and was not a factor. Because of his sticky hands and precision route running, Decker looks to be the more Peyton Manning-friendly target. It will be very interesting from the start of this game how Pittsburgh views the Broncos’ two starting wide receivers. It could be a tactic that Denver’s future opponents mimic going forward.

Cincinnati’s run game: Bernard Scott is a better outside runner, but BenJarvus Green-Ellis is the reliable between-the-tackles back who can sustain a large workload. Running against the Ravens is never an easy task, but in this matchup, going to the outside might be the preferred route, as Baltimore lost two elite outside run stoppers in Jarret Johnson, who is now with San Diego, and Terrell Suggs, who is sidelined with an Achilles injury. However, Scott might not be healthy for this contest and Cincinnati favors Green-Ellis overall. So assuming Green-Ellis is the main ball carrier, most of the Bengals’ runs should be aimed up the middle. That could be a problem considering Cincinnati’s interior line has been decimated with injuries and simply put, the Ravens are fantastic at stopping the inside run. So expect the Bengals to have to rely on Andy Dalton and the passing game plenty on Monday night.

Carolina Panthers cut-down analysis

August, 31, 2012
Click here for the complete list of Carolina Panthers roster moves.

Most significant move: The biggest move of the day wasn’t the release of a player. Instead, it was a trade. The Panthers will send a future draft pick to San Francisco for safety Colin Jones. I don’t think the Panthers are looking for Jones to come in and start at safety. This move was more about special teams -- and if you saw Pittsburgh’s Chris Rainey have a long punt return against them Thursday night, you saw why the Panthers still have concerns with the unit. Jones should help solve that problem. He was a regular on special teams for the 49ers and had eight special-teams tackles last season.

Onward and upward: Throughout training camp and the preseason games, there was a lot of buzz about undrafted rookie receiver Jared Green. Part of it came because he’s the son of Hall of Famer Darrell Green. But part of it came because the kid can play. The Panthers had a numbers crunch at receiver and wanted to keep guys like Kealoha Pilares and Joe Adams because they have invested draft picks in them in recent years, and both have abilities in the return game. But Green only helped himself with what he did in the preseason. Another team could take a shot and claim him off waivers. If not, Carolina almost certainly will try to get Green on the practice squad.

What’s next: As it stands, I’m not sure the Panthers are completely content with their cornerback situation. Chris Gamble and Captain Munnerlyn are the starters with rookie Josh Norman and second-year pro Josh Thomas as the backups. The Panthers really would like to move Munnerlyn inside and let him match up with slot receivers as the nickel back. Heading into camp, they though Norman might be able to step straight into a starting job. But his development was slowed a little when he missed some practice time with an injury. Brandon Hogan and Darius Butler also were guys the Panthers had high hopes for, but both got injured. I’m not sure the Panthers want to put too much on Norman's plate right away. They could look to bring in another cornerback. I could also see them at least checking to see what’s available as far as defensive-line depth. I know a lot of Carolina fans are shouting for the Panthers to do something at kicker after Justin Medlock missed two long field-goal attempts in the preseason finale. But all indications are the Panthers are planning to stick with Medlock.