NFL Nation: Daniel Sepulveda

AFC North Game Balls

October, 11, 2011
10/11/11
10:30
AM ET
We're handing out game balls after Week 5 and here is who's getting them:

OFFENSE: Steelers offensive line. After a dreadful start to the season, it's time to give this group some credit. Pittsburgh's offensive line opened up holes to allow backup running backs to gouge a tough defense in the Titans and protected a banged-up Ben Roethlisberger like he was the president. Not sure if the return of left tackle Max Starks was the miracle cure, but it certainly did stabilize this unit for at least a week.

DEFENSE: Bengals linebackers. With the game tied 7-7 in the second quarter, Andy Dalton's interception gave the ball to the Jaguars at the Cincinnati 2-yard line. But middle linebacker Rey Maualuga broke up a pass in the end zone on first-and-goal and outside linebacker Thomas Howard dropped Maurice Jones-Drew for a seven-yard loss on second down. It's the type of defensive stand you would expect from the top-ranked defense.

SPECIAL TEAMS: Steelers punter Daniel Sepulveda. Even though he had a punt blocked later in the game, Sepulveda provided the turning point in the win over the Titans. With Pittsburgh up 7-3, Sepulveda completed a 33-yard pass on a fake punt, which continued the Steelers' momentum and eventually led to their second touchdown. The play was essentially the same one where Sepulveda completed a 32-yard pass during his 2007 rookie season.

Matt HasselbeckJared Wickerham/Getty ImagesMatt Hasselbeck had problems connecting with his receivers and ended the day with a 72.0 rating.
PITTSBURGH -- The angry words built up in a somber locker room, and reserved players contemplating an awful loss started to spit them out.

The Tennessee Titans were “disgusted” over their 38-17 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field. They were ticked off that they “got kicked around" and were recipients of “an old-fashioned butt whooping.”

“They kicked our butts and we kicked our own butts,” defensive end Dave Ball said, referring to a scene where Jim Carrey’s character beats himself up in a bathroom in the movie “Liar Liar." "It was a perfect s--- storm."

But Ball and others who so eloquently discussed the result were quick to sandwich it with resolve regarding the potential for it to be duplicated.

“You’re not going to see this Titans team again,” Ball said. “I guarantee that. You’re not going to see the same thing happen again.”

Tennessee is 3-2 heading into its bye, and with Houston, Jacksonville and Indianapolis all dropping games too, the Titans didn’t lose any ground in the AFC South standings.

“That’s good,” quarterback Matt Hasselbeck said.

That’s about all that’s good from the day.

A look at three elements of the disaster:

The start: Tennessee marched 69 yards on 13 plays on a game-opening drive but stalled badly in the red zone with two penalties, an incomplete pass and a sack.

Rob Bironas' 29-yard field goal felt like a win for the Steelers, and when Antonio Brown returned the ensuing kickoff 52 yards to midfield, things really started to lean in Pittsburgh’s favor.

“After that we really stalled,” Hasselbeck said. “We didn’t look like we looked on the first drive.”

The Titans' next five series produced two first downs and 49 yards. It was 28-3 by the time they put together another effective drive.

The timing was off, with Hasselbeck frequently throwing behind guys -- some of it inaccuracy, some of it bad communication or lingering unfamiliarity. The team was in two-minute drive mode starting with its second drive of the second half.

“I just have more questions than answers right now,” Hasselbeck said.

Coach Mike Munchak didn't like the idea that a field goal instead of a touchdown was that big a letdown at the start.

"I hope we're not going to go into the tank because we got held to three points instead of seven," he said.

It wasn't the only reason but it helped.

Ben Roethlisberger: Cornerback Cortland Finnegan knew the Titans were thoroughly outplayed, but the corner who picked Roethlisberger's one really bad pass raised his eyebrows in surprise when he was told the Steelers' quarterback threw five touchdowns.

Coming into Pittsburgh, the Titans had faced Luke McCown, Joe Flacco, Kyle Orton and Colt McCoy. Hardly a murderer’s row of quarterbacks.

The Steelers smartly adjusted their offense for their quarterback, who has a sprained left foot. He didn’t hold the ball for a long time and scramble around like he typically does. He got rid of it pretty quickly while benefiting from some max protection that aided a beat-up line.

In such circumstances, the defense then needs to keep things in front of it, hit pass-catchers quickly and limit first downs.

The Titans didn’t.

“They used a different game plan than last week against the Texans,” end Jason Jones said. “They were going to max protect or they were going to get it out quick. We had our opportunities to get to him and didn’t. But it was dink and dunk and max protect.”

Rookie defensive tackle Jurrell Casey had the Titans' lone sack.

Special teams: The Steelers crushed the Titans with that big kickoff return from Brown and a fake punt where Daniel Sepulveda threw a 33-yard pass to Ryan Mundy.

Even when the Titans did good things on special teams, they turned bad.

The Titans recovered a third-quarter onsides kick after cutting the lead to 28-10, but Steelers defensive end Brett Keisel got a piece of Hasselbeck’s throw on the very next play and LaMarr Woodley picked it off. When linebacker Tim Shaw blocked a Sepulveda punt in the fourth quarter, Finnegan returned it 30 yards for a touchdown. But an illegal block in the back call against Jamie Harper wiped away the score.

“It’s a three-phase game, and special teams we’ve got to pick it up,” said linebacker Gerald McRath. “We’ve definitely got to pull our weight. We let the team down.”

Moving forward ...

The Titans pulled off a 3-1 first-quarter record after dropping their opener with a lousy performance in Jacksonville. Hasselbeck said they hope to match it in the season's second quarter. They'll have to win three in a row at home after their bye to do so: against Houston, Indianapolis and Cincinnati.

That good start began to create some hype, and the Titans said they hadn’t bought in. But if any self-satisfaction had crept in anywhere, the Steelers snuffed it out.

“I just feel that you can feel people patting you on the back and that’s not what helps you win games,” Hasselbeck said. “I think typically what helps you in games is hard work and feeling like you’ve got something to prove and feeling like you’ve got to give everything you’ve got.

“I’m just slow to accept that stuff.”

After this dud, you can see why that’s the safe route.

There was a presumption by some in Jacksonville that Adam Podlesh would be back. Re-signing the punter, some fans said based on team comments, was a mere formality.

Free agent signings are never mere formalities.
http://twitter.com/#!/Adampodlesh03/status/96568557885857792

And Chicago has agreed to terms with Podlesh on a five-year deal that Sean Jensen reports is worth over $10 million.

I don’t know if the Jags were in the running. But they put a serious premium on special teams, so this is a bit of a blow because they liked Podlesh.

Who’s available?

Well one of their 24 undrafted rookie free agents is Brian Saunders from Virginia Tech.

He put up some nice numbers as a senior, but saw no action in his first three seasons. (Side bonus: He has a degree in horticulture.)

There are free agents to sort through as well. Scouts Inc. ranks Ben Graham, Daniel Sepulveda and Steve Weatherford as just a bit better than Podlesh.

Weatherford played five games for the Jaguars in 2008.

Troy Polamalu is always on time

December, 6, 2010
12/06/10
2:37
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James Harrison, Troy PolamaluMitch Stringer/US PresswireSafety Troy Polamalu (43) delivered with another key play for the Steelers.
BALTIMORE -- The visiting locker room had emptied out at M&T Bank Stadium late Sunday night with the exception of one player.

Before boarding the team bus, Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin took one last peek inside the room and noticed a large group of media was still hovering around a locker while the shower was still running in the bathroom.

"You all waiting on Troy Polamalu to wash his hair?" asked a smiling Tomlin. "It's going to be a while."

Tomlin then walked over to the bathroom and screamed in the shower to Polamalu: "Are you washing your hair? I'm not leaving you, man. Take your time."

The entire Steelers team and the media were willing to wait for Polamalu, because he's always on time when it counts during the game.

Polamalu made another huge play Sunday night, forcing a fourth-quarter fumble by quarterback Joe Flacco that led to Pittsburgh's 13-10 come-from-behind victory over the Baltimore Ravens. The Steelers (9-3) now have the inside track to win the AFC North over the Ravens (8-4) with a month left in the season.

Trailing 10-6 and with the Ravens facing second-and-5 from their 38-yard line, Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau called a "Cover Zero," which is a blitz with no safety help over the top. It was a gutsy call that could have resulted in a big play for Baltimore or Pittsburgh. But thanks to Polamalu, the game swung in Pittsburgh's favor.

The Steelers said they were anticipating a running play by the Ravens, who already led and could have run more time off the clock. But when Flacco dropped back to pass, Polamalu shot in unblocked on the quarterback's blind side and forced the ball out. Steelers linebacker LaMarr Woodley recovered and took it to the Baltimore 9, and Pittsburgh took the lead three plays later on a 9-yard touchdown pass to Issac Redman.

Polamalu's well-timed blitz could be the biggest play in Pittsburgh's regular season. It also could be the sequence that gives Pittsburgh at least one postseason game at Heinz Field and potentially a first-round bye and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

Many players can make plays. But very few can make them consistently when the game is on the line.

That is the rare category that Polamalu is in.

"That's the thing; that's what makes him a star," Steelers safety Ryan Clark said of Polamalu, who had five tackles, one sack and one forced fumble.

"He watches film like no other player," said Steelers defensive end Ziggy Hood. "In practice, you can see that he knows exactly what to do. And when you see him flying around in practice, you just know he's going to do it in the game."

While Polamalu's teammates boarded the bus in a celebratory mood, Polamalu walked to his locker and the flock of media as though nothing happened. Polamalu expects to make special plays and spent his time crediting others.

"It was all Coach LeBeau," Polamalu said in a very quiet voice. "We were anticipating run, but Coach LeBeau remained a step ahead."

That's about all you're going to get out of Polamalu in terms of his personal greatness.

Last week, Polamalu saved the Steelers with a fourth-quarter interception that helped force overtime against the Buffalo Bills. This week he caused the fumble that may have won the division.

Few expected the Steelers to be in this position, especially after quarterback Ben Roethlisberger began the season on a four-game suspension. Now the Steelers control the AFC North with four games to go, thanks to No. 43.

"They were doubting us then [at the beginning of the season], and from what I hear the talking heads were doubting us [Sunday]," Clark said. "Nobody gave us a chance to win. I don't see how you do that, but they did. We like to fly under the radar and just play football."

Here are some other notes from Pittsburgh's win over the Ravens:

Should Baltimore have kicked a field goal? There will be a lot of debate this week about whether the Ravens should have attempted the potential game-tying field goal instead of going for it on fourth-and-2 with less than a minute remaining in the game. Baltimore coach John Harbaugh declined to try about a 48-yard field goal and instead Flacco threw an incomplete pass. Harbaugh felt kicker Billy Cundiff needed a closer distance considering the weather.

"It was just a tough wind up there," Harbaugh said. "It was really outside of our range, as we designated going in. We felt like we had a better chance to get the first down."

Sepulveda likely done for the season: I talked with Steelers punter Daniel Sepulveda after the game and he suspects he has a torn ACL in his right knee, which would sideline him for the season. The Steelers on Monday will have to confirm the severity of the injury. But Sepulveda said he knows exactly how the injury feels, because he has experienced it twice before. He was hurt in the first half and kicker Shaun Suisham had to punt for the remainder of the game.

More injuries: According to Tomlin, Roethlisberger suffered a broken nose after being hit in the face by Ravens Pro Bowl defensive lineman Haloti Ngata; Steelers tight end Heath Miller suffered a concussion and will have to be monitored before next week’s game; Pittsburgh right tackle Flozell Adams has a high ankle sprain; and Ravens tight end Todd Heap has a hamstring injury.

Upcoming schedule: Expect both teams to watch the standings closely. The Steelers and Ravens each play one team with a winning record in the final month, on Dec. 19. That week Pittsburgh plays host to the New York Jets (9-2), and Baltimore will play host to the New Orleans Saints (9-3). In their other remaining games, both teams will be heavily favored to win.

AFC North: Free-agency primer

March, 4, 2010
3/04/10
9:49
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Baltimore Ravens

Potential unrestricted free agents: DL Justin Bannan, DL Dwan Edwards, CB Corey Ivy, WR Derrick Mason, TE L.J. Smith, WR David Tyree, CB Frank Walker, WR Kelley Washington

Potential restricted free agents: OT Jared Gaither, K Billy Cundiff, S Dawan Landry, CB Fabian Washington, P Sam Koch, OG Chris Chester, QB John Beck, QB Troy Smith, OT Tony Moll, FB Le'Ron McClain, LB Prescott Burgess, WR Mark Clayton, WR Demetrius Williams

Franchise tag: None

What to expect: The Ravens have a ton of quality free agents. It will be interesting because Baltimore is the only division team which has to abide by the "Final Eight Plan" for making the divisional playoffs. This will restrict Baltimore from making a lot of moves. Therefore, expect the team to keep most of its key restricted free agents while trying to explore the trade market. On the unrestricted side, the Ravens are negotiating with receiver Derrick Mason and are expected to keep him. But two players who could get some interest in the open market are defensive linemen Dwan Edwards and Justin Bannan. Baltimore likes both players but could lose at least one.

Cincinnati Bengals

Potential unrestricted free agents: K Shayne Graham, FB Jeremi Johnson, RB Larry Johnson, DT Tank Johnson, TE Reggie Kelly, OG Bobbie Williams, S Roy Williams, TE J.P. Foschi

Potential restricted free agents: LB Brandon Johnson, LB Rashad Jeanty, OL Evan Mathis, C Kyle Cook, DE Frostee Rucker, CB David Jones, LB Abdul Hodge, QB Jordan Palmer, TE Daniel Coats, DT Shaun Smith

Franchise tag: None

What to expect: The Bengals have yet to announce their tenders, so this list could change by Thursday evening. But traditionally they are not big spenders in free agency and will stay true to that even with an uncapped year. Cincinnati could make one or two decent outside signings that may help the team. Finding a receiver would be the most likely target. The most interesting in-house name is offensive guard Bobbie Williams, who likely will test the market. Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer also would like to keep veteran Roy Williams and Tank Johnson. But the team hasn't made a major push for either player before they're let loose Friday.

Cleveland Browns

Potential unrestricted free agents: WR Mike Furrey, TE Michael Gaines, OG Rex Hadnot, CB Hank Poteat, OL Ryan Tucker, OG Billy Yates

Potential restricted free agents: RB Jerome Harrison, LB D'Qwell Jackson, FB Lawrence Vickers, S Brodney Pool, S Abram Elam, DE Matt Roth

Franchise tag: None

What to expect: Cleveland has the money to spend and the biggest talent deficit. So look for the Browns to attempt to make up ground in free agency. Major names like defensive end Julius Peppers and tailback Thomas Jones have been mentioned as possibilities for Cleveland, but that remains to be seen. Internally, the Browns should be interested in keeping Harrison and Vickers in their backfield. Jackson also has value. None of their unrestricted players are priorities for the team and will be allowed to hit free agency.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Potential unrestricted free agents: QB Charlie Batch, LB Rocky Boiman, S Tyrone Carter, S Ryan Clark, DE Nick Eason, WR Joey Galloway, DE Travis Kirschke, RB Willie Parker, CB Deshea Townsend , FB Carey Davis, OG Darnell Stapleton

Potential restricted free agents: OT Willie Colon, CB William Gay, P Daniel Sepulveda, TE Matt Spaeth

Franchise tag: K Jeff Reed

What to expect: The Steelers are pretty predictable. Pittsburgh intends to keep all of its restricted free agents, get a long-term deal complete with Reed, who has the franchise tag, and let nearly all of their unrestricted free agents test the market. The exception is Clark, who the Steelers targeted as a priority but has yet to reach a long-term extension before Friday's deadline. Negotiations have been ongoing and should go to the final hour to decide whether both sides can come to an agreement or allow Clark to test the market.

More Steelers observations

September, 11, 2009
9/11/09
12:15
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Posted by ESPN.com’s James Walker


PITTSBURGH -- With Troy Polamalu’s knee injury and the Steelers’ overtime victory over the Tennessee Titans, there were several things I was unable to get to late Thursday night.

So now that I’ve had more time to reflect on the game, here are several additional observations on the Steelers:
 
 Scott Boehm/Getty Images
 Santonio Holmes was a reliable target Thursday night, hauling in nine passes for 131 yards.
  • Let’s start with the good: Santonio Holmes looks primed for a 1,000-yard season. Against the Titans the receiver had nine receptions for 131 yards and a touchdown, which were the same totals from his Super Bowl-MVP performance. The difference I’m seeing now from Holmes is he’s making all the routine plays in addition to the spectacular ones. Holmes didn’t leave any opportunities on the field Thursday. He was thrown to 11 times and nine were receptions. The Steelers won’t pass 43 times every week (at least I don’t think they will). But it’s clear Holmes is capable of putting up big numbers when needed.
  • As indicated in the preseason, the Steelers were much improved on special teams against the Titans. In a field-position battle punter Daniel Sepulveda turned out to be one of Pittsburgh’s most important players. He punted seven times for an average of 42.7 yards per punt. But most importantly he placed four kicks inside the 20. Stefan Logan added 127 yards in returns and a blocked field goal by defensive end Aaron Smith made a huge difference in a close game. Veteran Jeff Reed also made two clutch kicks in the fourth quarter and overtime to seal the victory, capping a banner night for Pittsburgh's third phase of the game.
  • Looking ahead the Steelers really needed this win over Tennessee. Pittsburgh goes on the road two straight weeks against the Chicago Bears and Cincinnati Bengals and doesn’t return to Heinz Field until the month of October. Playing the next three to six weeks without Pro Bowl safety Troy Polamalu also will be a challenge for the Steelers. But it’s a little easier when you’re the first NFL team to get in the win column this season.
  • Now for the bad: Loyal readers of the AFC North blog know I’ve been skeptical of Pittsburgh’s offensive line entering the year and Thursday’s performance confirmed my skepticism. Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was sacked four times by the Titans. By my account, two were on Roethlisberger for holding the football and scrambling too long, and two were from lack of protection. But what jumped out most Thursday was the run blocking. The Steelers weren’t physical and couldn’t hold their blocks very long. They have nine days to straighten out those issues. Of Pittsburgh's five up linemen, I thought starting guard Trai Essex had the most problems against Tennessee.
  • Finally, I’m going to offer the Steelers some free advice: Call up Isaac Redman from the practice squad. After watching Pittsburgh’s running backs get stuffed at the line of scrimmage time after time, I’m convinced “Redzone” is the best short-yardage option the team has. It’s not the end of the world to carry four tailbacks, and Redman rightfully won’t be the primary option. But even if he gets two carries a game that result in two first downs, he's worth the roster spot. The Steelers cannot expect to win every week going 4 of 14 on third-down conversions.

Three and out: Steelers

September, 9, 2009
9/09/09
9:00
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Posted by ESPN.com’s James Walker


Three quick hits on the Pittsburgh Steelers:

1. For the past few seasons, the offensive line has been the biggest question in Pittsburgh and that remains so this year. Statistically, the Steelers’ pass protection has ranked among the league’s worst in allowing sacks. Ben Roethlisberger’s penchant for holding the ball too long has contributed to those numbers, but the offensive line certainly isn’t without blame. The coaching staff feels this unit will improve with another year together, but that remains to be seen. The loss of guard Darnell Stapleton (knee), who was put on injured reserve, hurts the team’s depth.
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2. If the preseason is any indication, Pittsburgh’s special teams will be better. Kicker Jeff Reed and the coverage teams were solid a year ago, but the return game and punting were horrible most weeks. A healthy Daniel Sepulveda is a significant upgrade at punter, and after bringing in a host of returners via the draft and free agency, CFL import Stefan Logan proved to be the best of the lot. Logan has been electric returning kicks this preseason and should help Pittsburgh win the field-position battle.

3. The Steelers must figure who their short-yardage and goal-line tailback will be. Running backs Willie Parker, Rashard Mendenhall, Mewelde Moore and Frank “The Tank” Summers are vying for that role. A case can be made that Pittsburgh’s best short-yardage option might be on the practice squad in Isaac Redman, who was successful in getting tough yards in the preseason. But with Redman inactive, the coaching staff must hope someone emerges.
 
  Rick Stewart/Getty Images
  Limas Sweed hauls in one of his two receptions in Thursday night's game.

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin was pleased with his team's preseason debut, and his satisfaction went much deeper than the final score.

The Steelers defeated the Arizona Cardinals, 20-10, in a Super Bowl rematch at Heinz Field. The game doesn't count in the standings but it did provide some insight into what to look forward to in the coming months.

Here are five observations:

1. Sweed up to speed

Perhaps the biggest winner in Pittsburgh's preseason opener was second-year receiver Limas Sweed. After struggling with drops and concentration during his rookie year, Sweed has a lot to prove this summer as he tries to fill a role in the Steelers' offense.

Sweed made an early and convincing claim for the vacant No. 3 receiver spot by recording two catches for 56 yards. Both were difficult receptions, as the first was leaping over the middle in traffic and the second was a 45-yard reception where Sweed made a late adjustment.

"Just like in practice," said Sweed, who has made plays throughout training camp. "I saw the ball, got it at the highest point and made a play."

2. Rookies are productive

When you think of high-profile draft classes, the Steelers are not the first team to come to mind. Coming off a Super Bowl victory, they had the final pick in most rounds and made just one selection on the first day.

But Pittsburgh's 2009 rookie class looked strong against the Cardinals. First-round pick Evander "Ziggy" Hood recorded a sack in the second half. Third-round receiver Mike Wallace caught two passes for 35 yards and returned a kickoff for an additional 35 yards, and rookie cornerback Joe Burnett intercepted a pass that set up a fourth-quarter touchdown.

"I feel like I did pretty good," Wallace said of his NFL debut. "But I still missed a couple things. I need to go back to training camp in Latrobe, watch this film, learn from it and not make the same mistakes next week."

3. Sepulveda boosts special teams

 Sepulveda

Punter Daniel Sepulveda was all smiles after being back on the field for the first time in about 20 months with a knee injury. The home crowd of 58,330 was excited, too. Sepulveda received one of the biggest ovations of the night when he stepped on the field.

"It's nice to be well-received liked that," Sepulveda said afterwards. "But I'm surprised they didn't wait until after the kick."

Sepulveda stayed busy during his first game back with six punts averaging 49.5 yards per attempt. Two of his kicks were placed inside the 20. It was the type of punting not seen in Heinz Field during last year's Super Bowl run.

4. Offensive line still looks shaky

Although the offense played just two series, that was long enough to see a few missed assignments on the offensive line. Arizona's starting defense was able to get decent pressure on Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who finished 4-for-6 for 33 yards. He wasn't sacked but had to scramble on occasion.

"We still have some things to work on," Pittsburgh left tackle Max Starks said. "We need to shore up some protection things."

The running game also didn't look stout early as Rashard Mendenhall had nine carries for 24 yards (2.7 average) with the starting offense. On several of Mendenhall's carries, he was hit at or behind the line of scrimmage.

5. Dixon gets extended look

It was obvious that Pittsburgh's coaching staff wanted to get an extended look at second-year quarterback Dennis Dixon. He played nearly three quarters and finished 10 of 19 for 112 yards.

Dixon showed some good things. He had good chemistry with backup receiver Shaun McDonald (six catches, 69 yards) in the second half. But it's clear Dixon still has some work to do if he wants to be the No. 2 quarterback this season.

Veteran Charlie Batch was 1 of 2 for 45 yards and has the edge right now to backup Roethlisberger. Batch played sparingly Thursday after throwing in his first game since breaking his collarbone last season.

 
  Gregory Shamus/Getty Images
  Veteran receiver Hines Ward promises the Steelers will stay focused this season.

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

LATROBE, Pa. -- University of Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari knows a title contender when he sees one.

Fantasy Football: 32 Questions
ESPN.com fantasy expert Christopher Harris wonders why the Super Bowl champs don't have more fantasy stars. Story
Calipari, who has led two different programs to the Final Four, was in Steelers training camp this week to see what he could incorporate into his program.

"They are a championship organization because of the people," said Calipari, a native of suburban Pittsburgh. "That means the people that own it, the people that manage it and the people that coach it. They make sure the players are quality people and they take care of everybody. That's why they are what they are."

After returning 20 of 22 starters, Pittsburgh is in a prime position to become the first group since the 2003-04 New England Patriots to win back-to-back Super Bowls. But it won't be easy.

They have a shot if they can answer "yes" to these key questions.

Camp Confidential: AFC North
Bengals: Sun., Aug. 2
Steelers: Fri., Aug. 7
Browns: Mon., Aug. 17
Ravens: Sat., Aug. 22
Training Camp index

Key questions

1. Will the offensive line improve in 2009?

The knee injury this week to guard Darnell Stapleton already hurts the depth of a unit that has struggled in recent years. Stapleton, who started in the Super Bowl, will have arthroscopic knee surgery Friday and will miss a good portion of the preseason.

Pittsburgh's offensive line remains one of the team's few glaring weaknesses. The Steelers have allowed quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to be sacked an astounding 139 times the past three seasons. The running game, normally a Steelers staple, stalled in 2008.

Knowing that Roethlisberger cannot continue to take a pounding at this clip, the Steelers have been working on improving pass protection this summer. Although Stapleton is injured, the Steelers return all five starters from the Super Bowl and hope another year together improves chemistry and helps the line's overall performance.

Pittsburgh also has backups who have the potential to contribute, including versatile guard/tackle Trai Essex and rookies Kraig Urbik and A.Q. Shipley, who were taken in the third and seventh rounds, respectively.

2. Can Pittsburgh handle distractions?

In terms of distractions, the Steelers did not get off to a glowing start. About a week before camp opened, Roethlisberger was hit with a civil lawsuit alleging sexual assault in Nevada. Pittsburgh's offseason was relatively quiet up until that point, and Roethlisberger apologized to his teammates and the organization last week for shifting the attention from football.

Whether the Steelers learned anything from 2006 remains to be seen. That was the last time the Steelers were coming off a Super Bowl victory, and the wheels came off quickly and completely as distractions, injuries and poor play led to a 2-6 start and an 8-8 finish.

But this group seems very business-like in its approach. Key veterans such as receiver Hines Ward, linebacker James Farrior and safety Troy Polamalu were also on that disappointing team in 2006 and claim to have learned from that humbling experience. Training camp practices have been crisp and players, including Roethlisberger, appear focused.

3. Will the special teams be good?

The Steelers don't have many holes, so we're just nitpicking. But Pittsburgh's special teams were the weakest of the three units (offense, defense, special teams) last season.

  Reed

Kicker Jeff Reed, in the final year of his contract, is solid. But beyond that, Pittsburgh's special teams were weak.

The Steelers are trying to find a boost in the return game. In camp, Pittsburgh is working out several new players at returning kicks, including former CFL running back Stefan Logan and receiver Shaun McDonald. The goal this year is to take every-down players such as Santonio Holmes off special teams to help the offense.

Perhaps the biggest addition to special teams will be the return of punter Daniel Sepulveda, who missed all of 2008 with a torn ACL in his knee. Pittsburgh's punting was one of the league's worst last year and Sepulveda should change that. The team also is giving Sepulveda an occasional day off from punting in camp to make sure he doesn't rush back.

Market watch

Second-year receiver Limas Sweed was an enigma last season. First, he couldn't find his way on the field. Then when his number was called late in the year, Sweed wasn't ready.

But last season's disappointment led to Sweed become one of the hardest-working players on the team this offseason. In camp, the former second-round pick looks more confident and continues to make plays.

Sweed has the inside track to open the season as Pittsburgh's No. 3 receiver and knows his number will be called early if he holds onto the job. This time Sweed believes he's prepared to produce.

 
  AP Photo/Michael Conroy
  Rookie defensive tackle Evander Hood should have time to prove himself this season.

Newcomer to watch

The Steelers do not often take defensive linemen high in the draft, but they broke that mold with first-round pick Evander "Ziggy" Hood.

Pittsburgh likes Hood's motor and versatility. He is expected to spell both starters at defensive end and possibly play some nose tackle.

The three starting defensive linemen for the Steelers are all over 30, so it will be vital for Hood to provide depth and inject some youthful exuberance. The fact that he's not expected to start puts him in a good spot to produce without the normal pressures of a first-round pick.

Observation deck

Roethlisberger is struggling with his arm strength early in camp. After taking a pounding and playing so deep into the postseason, Roethlisberger didn't do any throwing independently away from the Steelers this offseason, choosing to rest instead. But many of his deep throws are coming up short and intercepted. With the preseason starting next week, it will be interesting to see how long it takes for Roethlisberger to regain his form. ... Tailback Rashard Mendenhall appears to have recovered from his season-ending shoulder injury. The former first-round pick lost significant weight in his upper body last year because he was unable to lift weights after surgery. But he has regained his bulk and looks more sure of himself in his second training camp. ...Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau is using inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons in a variety of ways now that the former first-round pick is a full-time starter. Timmons has great range to patrol the middle of the field. But LeBeau also likes Timmons' skills as a pass-rusher and has been turning him loose in pressure packages. ...Look out for rookie receiver Mike Wallace. The third-round pick from Mississippi is making a good impression in camp. Teammates are already calling him one of the fastest players on the team.

AFC North 2009 sleepers

July, 29, 2009
7/29/09
1:00
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  Getty Images/US Presswire
  Baltimore's Ray Rice and Pittsburgh's Limas Sweed could be poised for big seasons.

 Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

When it comes to spotting this year's breakout players, most are aware of the usual targets such as Cleveland Browns quarterback Brady Quinn, or linebackers Lawrence Timmons of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Keith Rivers of the Cincinnati Bengals. As former first-round picks, each has received plenty of attention from the AFC North blog and other national outlets despite their lack of playing time or starting experience.

But being a true NFL sleeper is a little different. Consider it a step or two below the label of breakout player.

Expectations aren't nearly as high for a sleeper. Unlike Quinn, Timmons and Rivers, a sleeper can avoid the hype and enter the season without much fanfare.

Although fans may not be talking about these players at the moment, here are the top 10 AFC North sleeper players you might be discussing by season's end:

10. Daniel Sepulveda, P, Steelers

Why: Most casual fans outside of Pittsburgh are not aware of how poor the Steelers' punting was last season. On a bad week, it was horrendous. On a good week, it was average. Pittsburgh's No. 1 defense last year overshadowed this issue. But help is on the way in Sepulveda, who averaged 42.4 yards a punt in 2007 (38.4-yard net). He missed all of 2008 with major knee surgery and has become a free-agent pickup of sorts for the Steelers.

Walker's projected 2009 numbers: 16 games, 43.4-yard average, 21 inside the 20-yard line.

9. Paul Kruger, DE/LB, Baltimore Ravens

Why: One of just two rookies to make this list, Kruger is a second-round pick who appears to have an NFL motor and size. Also keep in mind that Kruger got extensive work with the first team this offseason as starting defensive end/linebacker Terrell Suggs missed minicamp and organized team activities. Now, Kruger gets to find his niche as a situational player while learning from some of the best defenders in the league.

Walker's projected 2009 numbers: 34 tackles, four sacks.

8. Dawan Landry, S, Ravens

Why: A little-known fact in Baltimore is that Landry was having an impressive offseason for the Ravens before the 2008 season. The coaching staff really liked the progress he was making, but it was cut short by an early season neck injury that sidelined him for the season. The Ravens are hoping Landry can gradually get back his confidence this season. The team was confident enough in Landry not to overpay for veteran safety Jim Leonhard, who followed coach Rex Ryan to the New York Jets. That should tell you something.

Walker's projected 2009 numbers: 55 tackles, two interceptions.

7. Brian Robiskie, WR, Browns

Why: The Browns aren't expected to air it out much this season, but Robiskie should be ready to make plays when the opportunity presents itself. Robiskie remains unsigned as of Wednesday, so it's important that he gets into training camp on time when the full team takes the practice field Saturday. Cleveland's No. 2 receiver job is wide open this season, and with Braylon Edwards currently sidelined with an unspecified leg injury, Robiskie will get plenty of early reps with the first team. If he is as polished as scouts and the Browns believe he is, Robiskie could earn a starting job with Cleveland at some point in his rookie season.

Walker's projected 2009 numbers: 35 receptions, 484 yards, two touchdowns.

6. Tavares Gooden, LB, Ravens

Why: Entering his second year, Gooden has become the latest linebacker to fill the role next to future Hall of Famer Ray Lewis. Can he do it? The Ravens believe he can. Gooden is speedy, athletic and very high energy. But injuries during his rookie season prevented people from seeing his potential. Gooden enters training camp as the favorite to replace Bart Scott and could have a solid second season on a veteran unit stocked with playmakers.

Walker's projected 2009 numbers: 64 tackles, two sacks, two forced fumbles.

5. Limas Sweed, WR, Steelers

Why: There is not as much pressure on Sweed as some may think. He is expected to fill a role as Pittsburgh's No. 3 receiver, so that doesn't require him to start. But the Steelers and offensive coordinator Bruce Arians love to use the trips package, which helped Nate Washington earn a big contract with the Tennessee Titans this offseason. It is much more difficult to get open in the NFL than it is to catch the football. So Sweed already has the difficult part figured out.

Walker's projected 2009 numbers: 39 receptions, 528 yards, four touchdowns.

4. Brodney Pool, S, Browns

Why: For four years, the Browns have been waiting for the light to come for Pool. He has above-average ability, but so far has been just an average NFL safety. Pool is arguably the best athlete Cleveland has on its roster. But to date no one has been able to get the best out of his abilities. Now that new coach Eric Mangini and defensive coordinator Rob Ryan have their hands on Pool, this sleeper could be primed for
his best season to date.

Walker's projected 2009 numbers: 85 tackles, three interceptions.

3. Rashard Mendenhall, RB, Steelers

Why: Can a former first-round pick be a sleeper? Yes, when you are a backup tailback coming off a major injury with the defending Super Bowl champions. Mendenhall is actually in a good spot. The pressure is on him to contribute, not to take over games. He didn't show much in his first season. But combined with Willie Parker and Mewelde Moore, Mendenhall should help Pittsburgh restart its ground attack.

Walker's projected 2009 numbers: 107 carries, 440 yards, four touchdowns.

2. Chris Henry, WR, Bengals

Why: Quarterback Carson Palmer is already calling Henry a mini version of Randy Moss. That is probably stretching it. But considering Palmer has played with his share of Pro Bowl receivers, his words carry some merit. Henry has always been a talent-in-waiting. He has size, speed and athleticism, but immaturity on and off the field have held him back. According to the Bengals, Henry has matured knowing he is down to his final shot in the NFL. A contract year also helps Henry's focus, as he is expected to produce for a full season in a pass-happy offense.

Walker's projected 2009 numbers: 44 receptions, 681 yards, five touchdowns.

1. Ray Rice, RB, Ravens

Why: How confident is Rice? He recently switched agents in anticipation of putting up good numbers in just the second year of a four-year contract. Part of the deep running back class of 2008, Rice often got lost in the mix of strong rookie seasons by contemporaries Chris Johnson, Matt Forte and Steve Slaton. Rice showed flashes last season with 454 yards as part of Baltimore's three-headed monster. This year he is the favorite to start in Baltimore behind a solid and physical offensive line. With Willis McGahee returning from injuries and Le'Ron McClain playing more at fullback this year, look for Rice to get plenty of opportunities in his sophomore season.

Walker's projected 2009 numbers: 170 carries, 710 yards, four touchdowns.

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

Baltimore Ravens/McDaniel College: Westminster, Md.

 
  Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images
  Baltimore running back Le'Ron McClain might not get as many carries this season.
Campfires: Coming off an appearance in the AFC Championship Game, Baltimore is a veteran-laden team set at a lot of positions. So there aren't many training camp battles to look forward to.

One of the few open competitions is the battle to replace Bart Scott, involving young linebackers Tavares Gooden and Antwan Barnes. Gooden, with his energy and athleticism, is the early favorite but will have to solidify the starting job with a good camp this summer.

Although the Ravens' coaching staff has downplayed it this offseason, there seems to be a shift in the backfield toward giving more carries to the tailbacks -- Ray Rice and Willis McGahee -- and fewer carries to Le'Ron McClain, who is a natural fullback. McClain was the hot hand last year and led Baltimore in rushing with 902 yards, while Rice and McGahee were in and out of the lineup with injuries. But McClain only averaged 3.9 yards per carry and it appears Baltimore is hoping for more big rushing plays from its tailbacks. But similar to last year, all three components of the "three-headed monster" will get their share of opportunities.

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Wednesday: NFC East | AFC East
Thursday: NFC South | AFC South
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Camp battles: AFC | NFC

Schedule: Training camp dates

Camp will be a downer if ... the Ravens fail to find a replacement for retired receiver Derrick Mason. Baltimore already had the tall task of finding a young receiver to fill the No. 3 option. Mason's surprise announcement this month leaves the team in search of a top receiver. The team also plans to meet with Mason to see if it's possible he could have a change of heart.

Baltimore could stay in-house and hope Mark Clayton develops into a No. 1 receiver this season, which is a risky proposition. Or the Ravens could look outside at a veteran free agent such as Marvin Harrison, who is similar to Mason in terms of skills. Making a trade for a receiver such as Anquan Boldin or Brandon Marshall doesn't appear likely.

The Ravens have high aspirations this year and a starting lineup of Clayton and possibly Demetrius Williams isn't good enough to win a Super Bowl this season. Baltimore doesn't have many glaring weaknesses, but the hole at receiver could become a major issue if it is not addressed.

Camp will be a success if ... rookie right tackle Michael Oher adjusts to the NFL game quickly. Oher has a major responsibility of protecting one of the edges for second-year quarterback Joe Flacco.

Baltimore traded up in the first round to draft Oher, which shows how much the team likes the rookie from Mississippi. Barring injury, Oher will be the Week 1 starter at right tackle. So the Ravens coaching staff would love to see continual progress from the rookie during training camp.

Getting a kick: This year could mark the first time in franchise history that Matt Stover is not Baltimore's kicker. The 18-year veteran who has been with the team from its inception in 1996 was not re-signed by the Ravens because of declining leg strength on kickoffs.

The Ravens kept an additional kicker on their roster for most of last season to help with kickoffs, while Stover handled field goals and extra points. But Baltimore doesn't want to do that again, so they have Steve Hauschka and rookie Graham Gano battling it out for both duties.

Neither kicker got off to a great start this offseason. So Stover remains on call in case Hauschka or Gano do not perform well in the preseason.


Cincinnati Bengals/Georgetown College: Georgetown, Ky.

 
  AP Photo/David Kohl
  Cincinnati linebacker Rey Maualuga will be given every opportunity to compete for a starting job.
Campfires: When a team is coming off a four-win season, naturally there are a lot of interesting camp battles to look forward to the following year.

Perhaps the most compelling battle will be at outside linebacker between incumbent Rashad Jeanty and hotshot rookie Rey Maualuga, whom the Bengals were thrilled to land in the second round. Maualuga is a natural inside linebacker, but that position is already filled by team leader Dhani Jones. So Cincinnati's coaching staff is giving the former USC linebacker every opportunity to see the field, and Maualuga's best chance is to beat out Jeanty in training camp.

Also look for an interesting three-way competition at center between Kyle Cook, Dan Santucci and rookie Jonathan Luigs, and an interesting battle at safety between veteran free-agent signing Roy Williams and the underrated Chinedum Ndukwe.

Camp will be a downer if ... the offensive line fails to get it together. There are expected to be four players at new positions on the offensive line this season. That means developing continuity will be vital during training camp.

First-round pick Andre Smith comes in with a gaudy résumé and is expected to start at right tackle. The Bengals also will have a new center between the aforementioned Cook, Santucci or Luigs. Andrew Whitworth is moving from left guard to left tackle this season, and Nate Livings probably will take Whitworth's place at guard. That is a lot of new faces in new places for Cincinnati.

Camp will be a success if ... quarterback Carson Palmer returns to form and remains healthy. It sounds simple, but two of the past four years Palmer has suffered season-ending injuries.

Last year alone, Palmer had his nose broken in the preseason and later suffered an elbow injury that forced him to shut it down for the year. With Palmer approaching 30 in December and Cincinnati's poor performance on the offensive line the past couple of seasons, getting Palmer to the regular season without a scratch should not be taken for granted.

Show and prove: Cincinnati's defense finished 12th in the NFL last season despite little help or points scored from its offense.

Defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer has done a tremendous job with this scrappy group, and now that the Bengals expect to score points again, there is some talk of Cincinnati's defense becoming a top 10 group. With good, young players such as linebacker Keith Rivers, defensive tackle Domata Peko and cornerback Johnathan Joseph, Cincinnati's defense will be out to prove that last year was not a fluke.

(Read full post)

 
  ESPN.com Illustration
  Who should be No. 1 heading into the season: the reigning Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers or perennial contenders the New England Patriots? Our bloggers debate.

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker and Len Pasquarelli

When it comes to NFL dominance and consistency, few teams rival the New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers. With five Super Bowl titles between them since 2000, they're the two contenders for the mythical title of "Team of the Decade."

But which franchise deserves top billing heading into the 2009 season?

Does the return of superstar quarterback Tom Brady from a knee injury make New England the early favorite? Or should the defending champion Steelers, who return 20 of 22 starters, be considered the team to beat until proven otherwise?

To debate these topics and more, we bring in ESPN.com NFL writers Len Pasquarelli and James Walker.

In ESPN.com's May Power Rankings, the Steelers topped the poll of our experts -- despite a No. 9 overall ranking from Pasquarelli. He deems the Patriots the best team entering the season.

Who is the favorite heading into the 2009 season and why?

 
  Donald Miralle/Getty Images
  The Steelers return 20 of 22 starters from last year's Super Bowl team, including receiver Santonio Holmes.
James Walker: Not much has changed since Pittsburgh hoisted its sixth Lombardi Trophy in February. The Steelers were the NFL's best team just three months ago and still deserve top honors as the preseason favorites.

Pittsburgh lost just two starters from its championship team, and a strong case can be made that replacements Lawrence Timmons and William Gay will be more productive than their predecessors, linebacker Larry Foote and cornerback Bryant McFadden. Key Steelers such as quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, receiver Hines Ward and tailback Willie Parker are healthy again. Second-year players Rashard Mendenhall and Limas Sweed appear primed to make contributions in reserve roles, which didn't happen last season.

The few weaknesses from last season also have been addressed. Pittsburgh punter Daniel Sepulveda is returning from injury and will be a major upgrade in the kicking game. Rookie first-round pick Evander Hood should provide youthful depth for an aging defensive line, and the team now has a plethora of speedy kick returners competing to fill that role.

If Pittsburgh stays healthy and the offensive line jells in 2009, as the coaching staff suggests, you'd be hard pressed to find a glaring weakness with the defending champs.

Len Pasquarelli: As an old Chuck Noll disciple, I still believe that many games are won at the line of scrimmage. And the Patriots averaged the second most points per game in the league in a season when the NFL's best quarterback, Tom Brady, played less than one full game. Perhaps more importantly, the Pats also have an edge up front on both offense and defense. From 2005-2007 -- Brady's last three full seasons in the league -- he was sacked only 73 times. That's 66 fewer times than his counterpart, Ben Roethlisberger, was sacked over the same span. Pass protection is a synergistic thing, as dependent on the quarterback unloading the ball as it is on the linemen blocking. Still, the New England offensive line, under the direction of Dante Scarnecchia, is one of the best in the league, with standouts like left tackle Matt Light, left guard Logan Mankins, and center Dan Koppen.

But the area where the Patriots own the biggest edge is on the defensive front. Both teams employ the 3-4 scheme, and the Pittsburgh line is both experienced and good. Still, their New England counterparts can be downright dominating at times. The Patriots almost always seem to choose a defensive lineman high in the draft, and that has paid off handsomely for them, with players like Richard Seymour, Vince Wilfork, and Ty Warren. Remember the old adage from cigarette commercials: "It's what's up front that counts?" New England coach Bill Belichick is a proponent of building a team from the inside out, kind of in the Noll image, and he has assembled terrific up-front units on both sides of the ball. Players at the skill positions aren't bad, either, but the Pats generally own the line of scrimmage, and that's a big plus for them.

Both teams are proponents of the 3-4 defense. How can New England's defense be any better than Pittsburgh's unit, which led the NFL in 2008?

 
  AP Photo/Stephan Savoia
  Patriots coach Bill Belichick will figure out how to make New England's defense competitive.
Pasquarelli: Gra
nted, the Patriots' secondary was shaky in 2008, and allowed a ton of touchdown passes. Add to that the fact that New England has lost both starting cornerbacks (Asante Samuel and Ellis Hobbs) the last two offseasons, and that safety Rodney Harrison might not return for 2009. Yeah, the Pats have to "scheme up" a pass rush, since they don't really have an upfield force off the edge.

But with apologies to Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, the Pats have Belichick, and he is a master at switching his fronts and disguising coverages. There aren't many 3-4 linemen who can take over a game, but as noted above, the Patriots have three of them. Certainly the performance of the Steelers' unit, which defends every blade of grass like it's their fortune, is an admirable outfit. But their secondary problems aside, the Patriots are still plenty good enough, particularly if the offense removes some of the pressure by scoring big.

Walker: Len, Pittsburgh had the NFL's best defense in 2008 and the Patriots were No. 10. I don't see a comparison.

Sure, both teams run 3-4 defenses. But when you look at every component -- be it yards, points allowed, or sacking the quarterback -- it wasn't even close. For instance, New England had 31 sacks as a team last year. Pittsburgh outside linebackers James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley combined for 27.5 sacks and the Steelers amassed 51 sacks total. The Steelers simply play defense on a much higher level.

In fact, New England's defense has been somewhat overrated in recent years. Brady's ability to put up points offensively, particularly in 2007, made a lot of opponents one-dimensional and easier to defend. If you noticed without Brady last year, the Patriots dropped six spots defensively in 2008 from No. 4 to No. 10.

Speaking of Brady, does his return shift the balance of power to New England?

Pasquarelli: Brady and Roethlisberger are both members of a small subset, the truly elite quarterbacks in the game. But as noted above, Brady is afforded better protection, and his playmakers are much more explosive. In his last three seasons before the knee injury, Brady threw 100 touchdown passes and only 34 interceptions. In his past three seasons, Roethlisberger has 67 touchdown passes and 48 interceptions, and has been sacked an incredible 139 times.

New England finished fifth in the league in total offense in 2008, second in scoring, and won 11 games, despite playing most of the year with an inexperienced backup quarterback in Matt Cassel. It would be naïve and foolhardy to think they won't do even better with their main trigger man back in the lineup. Of the Patriots' five defeats last season, two came by seven points or less, and Brady will take care of that small difference.

Walker: Anyone who automatically makes New England the Super Bowl favorite in May is making a bold assumption that Brady is 100 percent recovered from major reconstructive knee surgery. But many questions remain.

Will Brady be protective of his surgically-repaired knee? Will rust be an issue and cause Brady to get off to a slow start? How will he respond to getting hit? These questions will not be answered until months down the line. But you know exactly what you're getting from Roethlisberger and the Steelers, which is why you have to make them the favorites.

Keep in mind, Brady suffered his knee injury in the opening game last year against the Kansas City Chiefs. Therefore, he hasn't played in a full game since February of 2008, a Super Bowl loss to the New York Giants. With such an extended layoff, I doubt we're going to see the 4,800-yard, 50-touchdown version of Brady this year, and even that version wasn't good enough to win New England a Super Bowl.

Will Pittsburgh and New England meet in the AFC Championship game?

Pasquarelli: After a year out of the playoffs, New England will be poised to try to regain a title that almost seemed like its birthright. Pittsburgh faces a tough haul in its own division from Baltimore. One of the two teams won't make it to the conference championship game and -- hometown loyalties notwithstanding -- we're betting it's the Steelers who will be absent.

Inarguably, these are two of the finest organizations in the NFL, even if one is old-guard authorship and the other is new-age, and the two have terrific front office personnel. Both rely on preparing young players to step into roles as starters or contributors, as Pittsburgh will with linebacker Lawrence Timmons and cornerback William Gay, and New England will with linebacker Shawn Crable and cornerback Terrence Wheatley.

But the Patriots' veteran free agents -- guys like tailback Fred Taylor, tight end Chris Baker, wide receiver Joey Galloway, and cornerbacks Shawn Springs and Leigh Bodden -- will have more of an impact in 2009 than the Pittsburgh additions of spare parts like wide receiver Shaun McDonald and cornerback Keiwan Ratliff.

Walker: Although I easily could see other talented teams such as the Indianapolis Colts, Baltimore Ravens or Tennessee Titans spoiling the party, Pittsburgh and New England are currently the beasts of the AFC. In fact, these have been the top two teams in the NFL this decade, and they have the five combined championships over that span to prove it.

It would be fitting for these two franchises to settle this debate on the field for the right to advance to Super Bowl XLIV, and perhaps, solidify the title of "Team of the Decade." Pittsburgh and New England will not meet in the regular season in 2009. But if the Steelers and Patriots avoid the injury bug and play up to their talent levels, I have a feeling they could cross paths at some point in the postseason with a lot at stake.

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

PITTSBURGH -- Steelers kicker Jeff Reed has seen more curveballs in Pittsburgh than your typical Pirates slugger.

This season, Reed has had a change of long-snappers, following a knee injury to teammate Greg Warren.

 
  AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar
 While his holders have rotated, Steelers kicker Jeff Reed has been a constant.

Reed's place-holders have been a rotating door among Daniel Sepulveda (injured), Paul Ernster (cut), Mitch Berger (cut) and Ernster (re-signed) again.

Add the fact that the field conditions in Heinz Field are getting uglier by the day and Pittsburgh's offense has sputtered, and it's amazing that Reed's kicking remains the one constant.

The seven-year veteran is quietly having the best season of his career for the 7-3 Steelers. In his most recent outing, Reed kicked through snowy conditions and made three clutch field goals during an 11-10 victory over the San Diego Chargers. He is 16-of-17 on field goals this year, and his percentage (94.1) is fourth in the NFL among kickers with at least 14 attempts.

Most fans simply watch Reed kick on game day but fail to understand the work needed to seamlessly make the transition to a new long-snapper (rookie Jared Retkofsky) and three different holders in one year.

"When you talk about adversity for a kicker," Reed said, "it doesn't get much more adverse than this."

Reed is accustomed to curveballs. He got first got a taste of the unpredictability that is the NFL during his rookie year in 2002.

Following a solid college career at the University of North Carolina, Reed went undrafted and was unable to land on an NFL roster. So the Charlotte native went back to the Tar Heel state to work on a dairy farm cleaning debris.

"Everyone thinks I was a farmer, which is not true," Reed said, smiling. "I was just working on a farm for a friend who was actually a true farmer."

Reed then took the winding path to Pittsburgh.

An injury to former Steelers kicker Todd Peterson earned Reed a tryout for the Steelers in November 2002. Pittsburgh was the seventh team Reed tried out for that year.

It was a typical winter mosh pit at Heinz Field when Reed joined three other kickers to try out. Through sleet and approximately 30-degree weather, Reed had perhaps his worst kicking display before an NFL team.

"It was cool to get a tryout but you're thinking, 'Man, why couldn't it be a different day?'" Reed said. "We all kicked about equally. ...We all missed some that we should have made and were slipping all over the place."

Reed admits that none of the kickers were impressive enough to earn the job, but he got the nod that day. Reed said former Steelers coach Bill Cowher still jokes with him occasionally, saying he has no idea why he chose the rookie kicker six years ago.

But Cowher's intuition is still paying dividends. Reed has a career 83-percent success rate on field goals, despite kicking half his games at home on arguably the toughest surface in the NFL. The past two years Reed has made 39 of 42 field-goal attempts (92.8 percent) for Pittsburgh.

Some kickers can be outcasts in their locker rooms, but Reed is not one of them. When he arrived six years ago, teammates and coaches didn't know his name. Now he's a fan favorite. Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger often praises Reed, saying earlier this year that he has "the utmost confidence in him." Reed also was chosen to be a captain this year by his peers.

Without a doubt, it has been a long road for the Steelers' kicker who, after college, was working on the farm for $12 per hour.

But in a blue-collar town like Pittsburgh, Reed is an ideal fit.

"It would be great to be a first-round pick ... but I kind of like it better when you have to earn what you got," Reed said. "Coach Cowher's saying was 'It's hard to get there, but it's harder to stay.' If that's not reality, then I don't know what is."

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

Here is your one-stop shopping for the best storylines in the AFC North:

  • Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette writes Steelers punter Daniel Sepulveda is out for the entire 2008 season with a torn ACL in his right knee.

Morning take: This is a big blow if the Steelers fail to find a suitable replacement. The team signed Paul Ernster off waivers, and the last time I saw Ernster, he was a complete disaster in Cleveland. Where is Chris Gardocki when you need him?

Morning take: Perry has always looked impressive whenever he's healthy and on the field. He just hasn't been on the field enough.

  • Tony Grossi of the Cleveland Plain Dealer writes that return specialist and backup receiver Joshua Cribbs lined up everywhere Tuesday, including at quarterback.

Morning take: Buyer beware! Although it is tempting to use Cribbs' unique talents as often as possible, the Browns have the best special teams in the AFC and should be very cautious not to wear Cribbs down to the point that it takes the edge off his electric returns.

  • In what's becoming a daily occurrence, Jamison Hensley of the Baltimore Sun notes that offensive tackle Adam Terry (ankle) is the latest Raven to go down.

Morning take: This is getting ridiculous. At this rate, the Baltimore Ravens may not have enough players to fill a 53-man roster at the start of the regular season.

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