NFL Nation: Curtis Brown

PITTSBURGH -- Two cornerbacks who should interest the Pittsburgh Steelers cemented their standing as the top two players at their positions on the final day of the NFL scouting combine.

Oklahoma State’s Justin Gilbert posted blazing times of 4.35 and 4.38 seconds in the 40-yard dash Tuesday morning, while Michigan State’s Darqueze Dennard checked in with times of 4.42 and 4.46.

Gilbert
Dennard
The times are unofficial -- the official one for each player is likely to be higher -- but both Gilbert and Dennard showed that speed won't be an issue when it comes to their pre-draft evaluations.

The bigger question is did each help himself enough at the combine to move out of the Steelers’ range at No. 15?

At least one team ahead of the Steelers -- the Lions at No. 10 -- has a glaring need at cornerback, and the position has taken on even greater importance with teams increasingly using three cornerbacks to counter pass-centric offenses in the NFL.

ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr. has Gilbert and Dennard ranked No. 16 and No. 18, respectively, on his list of the top players in the draft. Kiper has said the two should jockey for the top position at their position all the way up to the draft.

Dennard, who won the Jim Thorpe Award in 2013, which is given to the top college defensive back in the country, is the more physical of the two players. He recorded 62 tackles and intercepted four passes last season.

Gilbert intercepted seven passes last season while playing in the pass-happy Big 12, and he said playing in a conference where cornerbacks can do anything but hide should help him make the transition to the NFL.

“I think that Big 12 defensive backs are some of the best DBs in the country and college football,” Gilbert told reporters in Indianapolis. “Sometimes we're overlooked because we give up plays, but at the same time we have way more plays coming at us instead of say, for instance, the SEC. They have a lot of run attacks where the corners are not being a lot pressured. So we have a lot to live up to.

History says that neither Gilbert nor Dennard will be the Steelers' first-round pick in May.

The Steelers have not used a first-round pick selection on a cornerback since 1997, when they chose Chad Scott. Also, the draft appears to be a deep one at cornerback, and the Steelers should be able to fetch a couple of quality prospects in later rounds, something they did in 2011 when they picked Curtis Brown and Cortez Allen in the third and fourth round, respectively.

On the flip side, if there is ever a year for the Steelers to take a cornerback in the first round -- this is it.

They only have three experienced cornerbacks on their roster, and 11th-year veteran Ike Taylor is going to have to accept a big pay cut to return to the Steelers. Allen is the only cornerback on the roster with any upside, making it a must that the Steelers add young talent at a position where general manager Kevin Colbert has said the team is lacking depth.

Dennard over Gilbert or Gilbert over Dennard?

It would be real interesting to see what the Steelers do if they are in a position to make that choice.
Here is the latest edition of the Steelers' mailbag. Any questions that I received but did not answer here are at the top of the list for next week. Great questions again, and please keep them coming. Send to @ScottBrown_ESPN with hashtag #steelersmail.

Colbert busy scouting college seniors

January, 20, 2014
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PITTSBURGH -- The Senior Bowl is often seen as the unofficial start of the pre-draft process, a grueling evaluation period that lasts more than three months for the players who are eligible for the NFL draft.

That is because teams’ entire coaching and scouting staffs descend on Mobile, Ala., as is the case with the Steelers this week.

The annual all-star game, which will be played Saturday at 4 p.m. ET, and the practices that precede it give teams a chance to evaluate the top seniors in the country.

That doesn’t mean the Steelers haven’t been busy scouting all college seniors.

General manager Kevin Colbert headed a group that scouted the East-West Shrine Game last week while the Steelers also evaluated players in the NFLPA game.

Neither game generates the interest of the Senior Bowl or the NFL scouting combine, which will he held next month in Indianapolis.

But the Steelers have unearthed players from both major colleges and small schools who were overlooked for some reason during the pre-draft process. That is what happened with starting cornerback Cortez Allen in 2011, and the Steelers really took an interest in The Citadel product after The East-West Shrine Game that year.

“We got to the East-West game and he looks like he belongs competing against guys from Division I schools,” Colbert told Steelers.com. “That was another step in our evaluation of him.”

The Steelers picked Allen, who had played in the lower tier of Division I football, in the fourth round of the 2011 draft. And Allen, not third-round pick Curtis Brown of Texas, has emerged as the cornerback who could anchor the secondary in the coming seasons.

Colbert told Steelers.com that he was impressed by the defensive backs he scouted in the East-West Shrine Game, something that is encouraging for a team that is likely to address its secondary early and often in the 2014.

“The defensive backs group is an interesting group,” Colbert said. “It seems like there’s better talent than they’ve had in recent years.”

McLendon may have broken ankle

November, 24, 2013
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CLEVELAND -- The Pittsburgh Steelers may have lost a defensive starter for the rest of the season.

Nose tackle Steve McLendon left a 27-11 win against the Cleveland Browns with an ankle injury, and the fourth-year veteran as well as the Steelers are hoping he didn't sustain a fracture when he got hurt at the end of the first quarter.
McLendon
McLendon left FirstEnergy Stadium with the Steelers on crutches.

Cornerback Curtis Brown may have also suffered a major knee injury when he went down after covering a punt. Brown’s injury was a non-contact one.

Coach Mike Tomlin will provide updates on each player Monday at his weekly news conference. The briefing has been moved up a day since the Steelers play Thursday night at Baltimore.

The Steelers were without two defensive starters against the Browns as defensive end Brett Keisel (foot) and outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley (calf) each missed his consecutive game because of an injury.

Jason Worilds had another big game while playing at left outside linebacker in place of Woodley. Worilds had a game-high six quarterback hits against the Browns, and the fourth-year veteran was a major reason why the Steelers registered five sacks.

No suprises among Steelers inactives

November, 3, 2013
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- There are no surprises among the Pittsburgh Steelers' healthy scratches Sunday.

Inside linebacker Kion Wilson is inactive for the second game in a row since the Steelers promoted him from the practice squad.

Wilson’s status just confirms that when the Steelers released Isaac Redman a couple of weeks ago they did so because they had no use for the veteran running back.

Wilson benefited from Redman’s release but if the Steelers really needed another linebacker on the 53-man roster he would have suited up in each or at least one of the past two games.

Also inactive for the Steelers are right guard David DeCastro (ankle), wide receiver Markus Wheaton (finger), cornerback Curtis Brown, nose tackle Hebron Fangupo, tight end Richard Gordon and quarterback Landry Jones.

Wheaton did some light catching with the other wide receivers a couple of hours before kickoff, and he appears to be moving closer to returning to the field.

Wheaton will miss his fourth game in a row after having surgery to fix a broken right pinkie.

The Patriots will be without top cornerback Aqib Talib (hip) while wide receiver Kenbrell Thompkins is inactive after playing just 14 snaps last Sunday.

David DeCastro still out for Steelers

October, 31, 2013
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PITTSBURGH -- Injuries decimated the Pittsburgh Steelers' offensive line in a 21-18 loss at Oakland.

But the Steelers’ starting front five could be intact Sunday when the team visits New England for a 4:25 p.m. ET game.

DeCastro
“I expect all guys to get back, especially (David) DeCastro who has been busting his tail in rehab,” starting right tackle Marcus Gilbert said. “He’s walking a lot better.”

DeCastro has yet to practice this week because of a right ankle injury he sustained in Oakland. The Steelers’ starting right guard is expected to try and practice on at least a limited basis Friday. Starting left guard Ramon Foster is on track to play in New England after leaving last week’s game with a concussion.

Foster was a full practice participant on Thursday though he will still need to pass mandated concussion tests before he is cleared to play against the Patriots.

Guy Whimper, who also left the Raiders game with an injury, practiced Thursday for the second consecutive day. Whimper, who hyperextended his left knee in Oakland, and Cody Wallace will be the guards if DeCastro is unable to play at New England and Foster suffers a setback and is also not able to go.

Whimper will likely start at right guard if DeCastro is the only lineman who can’t play against the Patriots.

DeCastro and cornerback Curtis Brown (coach’s decision) were the only players who didn’t practice on Thursday.

Wide receiver Markus Wheaton (finger) was the only player who was limited in drills.

Wheaton has missed the last three games after having surgery to fix a broken pinkie on his right hand, and he is unlikely to play at New England.
PITTSBURGH -- Steelers coach Mike Tomlin made sure to lavish praise on Le'Veon Bell a couple of days after the rookie running back rushed for just 34 yards in the Week 6 win over the Jets.

After Bell gashed the Ravens for 93 yards last Sunday, Tomlin, unprompted and with a noticeable edge, asked: "Any questions about Le'Veon Bell?"

Tomlin may not be sensitive to outside criticism but he acknowledged that it could affect younger players such as Bell. That is why he gave the former Michigan State star a public vote of confidence.

"I felt the need to assure him that he's doing the right things, that's he's doing what we're asking him to do in a manner of which we ask him to do it," Tomlin said Tuesday. "I don't want him listening to the elevator music. I want him to listen to what matters and that's the opinion of the people that evaluate him."

Here are other notable topics that Tomlin addressed at his weekly news conference:
  • The Steelers released running back Isaac Redman and signed Kion Wilson, Tomlin said, because the latter gives them more flexibility on special teams. Wilson also provides depth at linebacker with Jarvis Jones coming back from a concussion. Tomlin did not provide an update on Jones and said the team will know more about his status Wednesday.
  • Tomlin said the offensive line played well against the Ravens, but asked if it has jelled, he said, "It would be premature to say that. Largely how they do and how we do is going to be determined how we move forward." Tomlin said pre-snap penalties are a concern, and he attributed those to the struggles the Steelers' offense has had in the red zone.
  • Zoltan Mesko's only punt against the Ravens covered just 36 yards and ended up as a net kick of 24 yards. Tomlin said Mesko's inconsistency has been an issue and that he has had a "junior varsity punt" in each of the last three games. "We need more consistency there," Tomlin said.
  • The decision Sunday to dress Isaiah Green over Curtis Brown resulted from Tomlin wanting to get the latter's attention. "Curtis is a top-flight special teams player but hadn't been playing that way over the last several weeks," Tomlin said.
  • Tomlin said he was told there was no "mechanism" in place to review the kickoff return after officials ruled that Emmanuel Sanders stepped out of bounds on the way to the end zone. Had the ruling on the field been a touchdown it would have automatically been reviewed. Asked if the proper time was put back on the clock after the ball was placed on the Steelers' 34-yard line, Tomlin said, "I have no idea. I was too pissed to notice."

Steelers play it safe with Jarvis Jones

October, 20, 2013
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PITTSBURGH -- Right outside linebacker Jarvis Jones will miss his first NFL game after suffering a concussion in the Steelers’ 19-6 win over the Jets last Sunday.

Jones
That Jones is among the seven Steelers inactives today does not necessarily mean he didn’t receive medical clearance to play against the Ravens. The Steelers may have de-activated Jones as a precaution, especially after he said he did not take part in any team drills on Friday, even though the team listed him as a full participant in practice.

Jason Worilds will start in place of Jones.

Just as noteworthy is the Steelers are dressing eight offensive linemen today with Mike Adams and Cody Wallace joining Guy Whimper as the backups. The decision reflects the Steelers’ desire to leave Kelvin Beachum at left tackle if there is an in-game injury along the line.

It is also an indication that coach Mike Tomlin learned his lesson last week after a pregame injury to Levi Brown left the Steelers with six offensive linemen while a dislocated wrist sidelined tight end and emergency offensive tackle David Johnson early in first quarter.

Running back Isaac Redman, who opened the season as a starter, is inactive for a third consecutive game. Cornerback Isaiah Green got the nod over Curtis Brown, who is not dressing today.

RB Le'Veon Bell to 'ramp up activity'

September, 17, 2013
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PITTSBURGH – Heath Miller isn’t the only injured player the Steelers are hoping takes a significant step forward this week.

Le’Veon Bell will “ramp up his activity,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said Tuesday at his weekly news conference, and the rookie running back will at least take part in individual drills this week in practice.

Bell has been out with a Lisfranc injury since the Steelers’ second preseason game on Aug. 19, and the team could increase his workload as the week progresses depending on how his foot responds.

Bell is unlikely to play Sunday night against the Chicago Bears, and the second-round draft pick may not return to action until the Steelers’ fifth game of the season, which comes after the team's bye week.

Tomlin said he is also “optimistic” that starting cornerback Cortez Allen will return after missing the Steelers’ 20-10 loss at Cincinnati on Monday night with a sprained ankle. Allen did not practice at all last week.

Cornerback Curtis Brown is expected to return after an illness kept him out of Monday night’s game.

Several players are nursing minor injuries, including rookie outside linebacker Jarvis Jones (heel contusion) and nose tackle Steve McLendon (mild hamstring strain).

The Steelers are likely to limit both during the early part of the week, but each is expected to play against the Bears.

Miller is scheduled to practice fully this week, roughly nine months after the veteran tight end tore several ligaments in his right knee, including his ACL.

There is a chance that Miller, the Steelers’ 2012 MVP, could play Sunday night against the Bears.

“We are looking forward to watching him work,” Tomlin said, “and letting that work guide us in terms of how we proceed throughout the week.”
PITTSBURGH -- Steelers starting cornerback Cortez Allen (ankle) missed practice for the third consecutive day, and the third-year man is unlikely to play Monday night in Cincinnati.

Rookie running back Le’Veon Bell (foot) won’t play against the Bengals after missing practice on Friday. Also not expected to play is tight end Heath Miller (knee), who was again a limited participant in practice.

The Steelers got some good news on the injury front when starting nose tackle Steve McLendon (hamstring) and kicker Shaun Suisham (hamstring) were able to practice fully after being limited on Thursday.

The Steelers signed veteran kicker Shayne Graham last Monday in case Suisham is unable to play against the Bengals. The Steelers don’t have to make a decision on Suisham’s availability until a couple of hours before kickoff on Monday night.

Cornerback Curtis Brown returned to practice after missing Thursday’s drills because of an illness.

Cortez Allen misses practice again

September, 12, 2013
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PITTSBURGH -- Starting cornerback Cortez Allen didn’t practice for a second consecutive day because of a sprained ankle, making Friday a critical day if the third-year veteran is to play Monday night at Cincinnati.

Allen
If Allen does not play against the Bengals, William Gay will start at opposite Ike Taylor and rookie safety Shamarko Thomas will again play nickel back.

Along with Allen, running back Le'Veon Bell (foot) and cornerback Curtis Brown (illness) did not practice on Thursday.

Tight end Heath Miller (knee), nose tackle Steve McLendon (hamstring) and kicker Shaun Suisham (hamstring) were limited participants in practice.

Miller is unlikely to play in Cincinnati, but he continues to get closer to returning to action following offseason knee surgery.

“It’s just great to see him out here practicing with the guys,” offensive coordinator Todd Haley said. “He looks like he’s making progress.”

Suisham sustained a minor hamstring injury in pre-game warm-ups last Sunday, and the Steelers signed veteran kicker Shayne Graham a day later as insurance.

The Steelers don’t have to make a decision on whether Suisham or Graham kicks against the Bengals until early Monday evening when teams have to set their active roster for the game.

“Tweaked it,” Suisham said of his left hamstring. “I’ll be fine.”

Observation deck: Steelers-Panthers

August, 30, 2013
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Some thoughts from the Pittsburgh Steelers' 25-10 loss to the Carolina Panthers in Thursday's preseason finale:
  • The only way Derek Moye doesn't make the 53-man roster is if the Steelers keep just four wide receivers. The 6-foot-5, 210-pounder clearly separated himself from the other receivers vying for a spot behind Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders, Jerricho Cotchery and Markus Wheaton. Moye caught two passes for a team-high 55 yards Thursday; he received bonus points for chasing down Josh Norman from behind after the Carolina cornerback intercepted a Landry Jones throw and had nothing but green grass in front of him. Moye's hustle saved a touchdown and the Panthers settled for a field goal.
  • Jones played the entire game and finished with a thud after a great start. The former Oklahoma star looked masterful in directing an eight-play, 80-yard touchdown drive on the Steelers' opening possession. Jones looked like the rookie he is after that. He completed just 13 of 32 passes for 149 yards and three interceptions. The last pick came on his final pass of the game and, the Steelers have to hope, the foreseeable future. Wide receiver Justin Brown fell down on the play, but Jones still looked a long way from being NFL-ready. If injuries force Jones -- the No. 3 quarterback -- to play, the Steelers are in trouble anyway.
  • The toughest roster decisions the coaches and front office have to make might come at linebacker. Undrafted rookie Alan Baxter again put consistent pressure on the quarterback, and he will be tough to cut. But do the Steelers like him enough on special teams to keep a fifth outside linebacker? There appear to be at least four solid candidates for two backup spots at inside linebacker, and it probably comes down to special teams when sorting through those players.
  • If veteran Brian Moorman had to beat out Drew Butler, I think the latter hangs on to his job as punter. Neither one stood out during preseason play, and Butler is younger. He is also the incumbent.
  • Felix Jones ran well, gaining a game-high 56 yards on 14 carries and presenting the coaches with a tough decision at running back. Jones is probably the odd man out if the Steelers keep four running backs on their 53-man roster as well as fullback Will Johnson. But the former first-round pick could have convinced Pittsburgh to keep another running back while rookie Le'Veon Bell recovers from a mid-foot sprain.
  • I don't think Curtis Brown is in trouble as far as making the team, but the former third-round pick didn't help himself at Carolina. He was beaten twice for touchdowns by Ted Ginn Jr., who torched the Steelers with 149 receiving yards.
  • Wheaton saw his most extension action of the preseason, and the rookie third-round draft pick produced mixed results. He dropped three passes, including one that Jones put right on his hands. But Wheaton also showed why the Steelers are so high on him. He blew past a Panthers defensive back in the first half and would have caught a long touchdown pass had Jones not put too much air under the ball.
  • I know fans were screaming when Reggie Dunn fielded a punt inside the Steelers' 5-yard line and got tackled for a safety after he went backward while trying to reverse field. But Dunn isn't going to make the team anyway, and the undrafted rookie was just trying to make a play. The Steelers were intrigued by his speed, but one thing worked against Dunn from the start: the frequency of touchbacks in the NFL has de-emphasized kickoff returners.
  • What will the 53-man roster look like? I will take a shot at projecting it Friday in a post that will be up before noon. I expect the Steelers to make some cuts Friday afternoon, and they could do as they did in 2011, when they made the majority of their roster moves a day before the 53-man rosters had to be finalized.
LATROBE, Pa. -- Watching the Pittsburgh Steelers practice at St. Vincent College takes you back to the time when NFL teams held training camps at picturesque small colleges in the countryside. The Steelers, though, are going even more old school this year with how they're practicing.

During Pittsburgh's two-hour session Wednesday, I saw more hits than I witnessed in all of my previous visits in the division combined. And it's not simply putting a hit on a teammate. Three tacklers ganged up to bring running back Jonathan Dwyer to the ground. Cornerback Josh Victorian gave a shot to the head of rookie wide receiver Markus Wheaton. Cornerback Curtis Brown delivered a shot on running back LaRod Stephens-Howling so hard in the open field that it put him on his back.

[+] EnlargeGuy Whimper and LaMarr Woodley
AP Photo/Keith SrakocicThe Steelers have been especially physical in camp this year. "What better way to evaluate them?" coach Mike Tomlin said.
The Steelers are taking this aggressive approach -- coach Mike Tomlin calls it "training camp mode" -- for a reason.

"We got a lot of young people, ones that we're trying to sort out and we're trying to get as many ways as we can to distinguish themselves," Tomlin said after the team's evening practice. "To be quite honest with you, when you introduce physicality to a practice session, it's an opportunity for people to distinguish themselves. We have a lot of young linebackers and safeties and it's the nature of those position. The abiltiy to get people on the ground is a big part of the evaluation process. So, we're practicing in that manner."

Tomlin added, "Obviously, we have some young running backs trying to distinguish themselves. What better way to evaluate them? It just made sense for us. There is some risk involved in it; such is life. We got some things that we have to find out in Latrobe and we have a short amount of time to do it."

Here are some quick notes from Wednesday:

  • The Steelers welcomed back one of their injured cornerbacks when Brown had a full practice. He injured his ankle nine days ago and hadn't practiced since. Brown moved around well while working with the second team.

  • It was a tough day for the backup quarterbacks in the two-minute drills. Bruce Gradkowski hung a pass to the sideline, where it was intercepted by Victorian. Landry Jones suffered the same fate when safety Shamarko Thomas picked him off across the middle.

  • Pittsburgh spent about 20 minutes of practice on special teams. That was a major area of weakness in the preseason opener.

  • As I wrote earlier, the most noticeable change to the Steelers' depth chart was rookie Le'Veon Bell being listed as a co-starter with Isaac Redman at running back. "I wanted it to represent how we intend to work in the game," Tomlin said. "It speaks for itself."
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

How does each AFC North team look in the secondary, and what still needs to be done?

Baltimore Ravens: I expect the Ravens’ secondary, like the rest of their defense, to be vastly improved from a year ago. Of course I realize that nine-time Pro Bowler Ed Reed is gone, along with fellow starting safety Bernard Pollard and starting cornerback Cary Williams. I felt Williams’ value was overblown during the Ravens’ Super Bowl run, and, while he is an enforcer, Pollard is a liability in coverage. As for Reed, well, he isn’t what he once was, but of course his ability to quarterback the secondary and make plays on the ball is still very valuable. Reed and Pollard were replaced by veteran Michael Huff and Matt Elam, the 32nd overall pick of the draft. Expect Huff to more often than not play the Reed role, as a deep middle player, but Huff also has cornerback skills and can play man coverage against wide receivers. Elam is a great hitter like Pollard, but is much younger and has tons more upside. Baltimore’s safeties are better in 2013. But the key here is the return of Lardarius Webb, one of the best corners in football who no one seems to know. Corey Graham was very solid for the Ravens last year, but it is Jimmy Smith who needs to step up. If that happens, this secondary should be among the league’s best, but depth here overall isn’t great.

Cincinnati Bengals: Overall, this looks like a fine group, with a lot of able bodies and depth. The safety spot next to Reggie Nelson, who has played at a Pro Bowl level since arriving in Cincinnati, might have been the Bengals’ worst starter in 2012, but the drafting of Shawn Williams in the third round should improve that situation. Expect Williams to unseat Taylor Mays before long. At corner, Leon Hall is the top guy, but the Bengals also get 2012 first-round pick Dre Kirkpatrick back from injury, so this will more or less be his rookie season. Terence Newman should start if Kirkpatrick isn’t ready; Newman proved to have quite a bit left in the tank during the 2012 season. Adam Jones obviously entered the NFL with a ton of physical ability. At this stage of his tumultuous career, Jones has established himself as one of the top No. 3 cornerbacks in the league. There might not be a true star on the back end of Cincinnati’s defense, but overall it is a quality, well-coached unit with a good blend of veterans and youth. If Kirkpatrick hits big, this secondary could be exceptional.

Cleveland Browns: Joe Haden is the star here. He is a top-five-type corner and is capable of shutting down the opponent’s No. 1 wideout -- and could get better. The only other top-flight member of Cleveland’s secondary is T.J. Ward, a very capable two-way safety who could be on the verge of a true breakout in 2013. Beyond Haden and Ward, the Browns’ secondary has a lot of question marks. Third-round cornerback Leon McFadden is a good-looking prospect, and Cleveland picked up Chris Owens on the cheap for cornerback depth. Is McFadden ready for a starting role that will be sure to attract attention from every quarterback the Browns face? Also in the mix is Buster Skrine, who is best suited as a third corner. Several players will be fighting for playing time at safety alongside Ward, with sixth-round pick Jamoris Slaughter possessing the most long-term upside of that group of relative unknowns. Overall, the Browns’ secondary might be a major priority for upgrade after the 2013 season, but at least Cleveland looks to have significantly improved its pass rush, which could mask some coverage problems.

Pittsburgh Steelers: Keenan Lewis emerged at cornerback for the Steelers last season, but he is now playing for the Saints. Pittsburgh also allowed its depth safeties, Ryan Mundy and Will Allen, to depart via free agency. The only prominent secondary signing was former Steeler William Gay, who is obviously familiar with the system. Gay isn’t starting caliber, but he can play outside or in the slot as a third or fourth cornerback. Ike Taylor often shadows the opponent’s top wideout and overall has done a very good job. He rarely secures the interception, but Taylor is a high-end coverage player. The Steelers are counting on Cortez Allen to replace Lewis opposite Taylor. From what we saw from Allen in 2012, he should be ready for full-time action. Lewis, Gay, Taylor and Allen were all Pittsburgh mid-round picks that the Steelers developed. This past draft they again used a mid-round pick on the position with Terry Hawthorne. They did the same in 2011 with Curtis Brown. As most of these mid-rounders do, Hawthorne will likely "redshirt" during his rookie season, but Brown’s role could increase. At safety, the Steelers have one of the best starting pairs in the league -- when Troy Polamalu is healthy. Still a superb player, Polamalu just has to stay on the field. The Steelers’ defense with and without Polamalu is remarkably different. Ryan Clark has been Polamalu’s partner in crime for some time and has somewhat quietly put together a very impressive career, including an excellent 2012 season. Wisely, the Steelers drafted Shamarko Thomas, who could be Polamalu’s successor -- or his injury replacement. In the meantime, expect this young heat-seeking missile to be a dominant special-teams player.

PITTSBURGH -- Thoughts on the Pittsburgh Steelers' 34-24 loss to the San Diego Chargers at Heinz Field:

What it means: The momentum from last week's win over the Ravens is gone. The return of Ben Roethlisberger inspired nothing. Pittsburgh (7-6) flopped against what had been a crumbling Chargers team. The only thing that went right for the Steelers was the Bengals losing in the final seconds to Dallas. That means Pittsburgh and Cincinnati remain tied for the last playoff spot in the AFC. The Steelers also stay two games back of the AFC North-leading Ravens (9-4), who lost at Washington in overtime. San Diego (5-8) had lost four straight games and had never won a regular-season game in 14 previous trips to Pittsburgh.

Rough return: Roethlisberger hurt the Steelers more than he helped them in his first game back after missing three games with rib and shoulder injuries. He didn't get much support from his receivers or line in the first half, but he made two costly mistakes in the second half. Both occurred deep in his own territory and led to touchdowns. A lateral bounced off tight end David Paulson's back and was recovered by San Diego in the end zone. Then, Roethlisberger was picked off at the Steelers' 17-yard line and the Chargers quickly converted that into a 15-yard touchdown pass by Philip Rivers. That put the Chargers up 34-10. Roethlisberger finished 22-of-42 for 285 yards and three touchdowns, but most of that production came in a meaningless fourth quarter.

Marathon drive: The Steelers are among the best in time of possession this year, but the NFL's top-ranked defense couldn't get the ball away from the Chargers to open the second half. San Diego went on a 17-play, 78-yard drive that ended with a 3-yard pass from Rivers to Malcom Floyd, who beat Keenan Lewis in the end zone.

Wallace bounces back: After getting booed for dropping a deep pass in the first half, Mike Wallace caught a 40-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter to cut the deficit to 27-10. It was Wallace's first touchdown since Nov. 12, which was also the last time Roethlisberger played. He also added an 11-yard touchdown during garbage time.

Trickery trips up Pittsburgh: It looked like the Steelers were going to force a three-and-out after that Wallace touchdown and keep the momentum. But, on fourth-and-2 from the San Diego 28-yard line, the Chargers made a gutsy call with a fake punt and it paid off. It was a direct snap to Eric Weddle, who turned the corner for a 4-yard gain.

Bad day for Brown: Last Sunday, Cortez Allen was picked on when Ike Taylor left with an ankle injury. This time, Curtis Brown was the one who got burned. After getting beat for some third-down conversions, Brown bit on a double move by Danario Alexander for a 39-yard touchdown. That staked the Chargers to a 10-0 lead in the second quarter.

Offensive line still hurting: Left guard Willie Colon, who hadn't played the past two games with a knee injury, left in the middle of the second quarter. That forced the Steelers to move Maurkice Pouncey to left guard and put Doug Legursky at center. The line struggled to give Roethlisberger time in the pocket all game.

What's next: The Steelers play at Dallas, their third road game in four weeks.

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