NFL Nation: Darnell Stapleton
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.
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.
|Gregory Shamus/Getty Images|
|Veteran receiver Hines Ward promises the Steelers will stay focused this season.|
Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker
LATROBE, Pa. -- University of Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari knows a title contender when he sees one.
"They are a championship organization because of the people," said Calipari, a native of suburban Pittsburgh. "That means the people that own it, the people that manage it and the people that coach it. They make sure the players are quality people and they take care of everybody. That's why they are what they are."After returning 20 of 22 starters, Pittsburgh is in a prime position to become the first group since the 2003-04 New England Patriots to win back-to-back Super Bowls. But it won't be easy.
They have a shot if they can answer "yes" to these key questions.
1. Will the offensive line improve in 2009?
The knee injury this week to guard Darnell Stapleton already hurts the depth of a unit that has struggled in recent years. Stapleton, who started in the Super Bowl, will have arthroscopic knee surgery Friday and will miss a good portion of the preseason.
Pittsburgh's offensive line remains one of the team's few glaring weaknesses. The Steelers have allowed quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to be sacked an astounding 139 times the past three seasons. The running game, normally a Steelers staple, stalled in 2008.
Knowing that Roethlisberger cannot continue to take a pounding at this clip, the Steelers have been working on improving pass protection this summer. Although Stapleton is injured, the Steelers return all five starters from the Super Bowl and hope another year together improves chemistry and helps the line's overall performance.
Pittsburgh also has backups who have the potential to contribute, including versatile guard/tackle Trai Essex and rookies Kraig Urbik and A.Q. Shipley, who were taken in the third and seventh rounds, respectively.
2. Can Pittsburgh handle distractions?
In terms of distractions, the Steelers did not get off to a glowing start. About a week before camp opened, Roethlisberger was hit with a civil lawsuit alleging sexual assault in Nevada. Pittsburgh's offseason was relatively quiet up until that point, and Roethlisberger apologized to his teammates and the organization last week for shifting the attention from football.
Whether the Steelers learned anything from 2006 remains to be seen. That was the last time the Steelers were coming off a Super Bowl victory, and the wheels came off quickly and completely as distractions, injuries and poor play led to a 2-6 start and an 8-8 finish.
But this group seems very business-like in its approach. Key veterans such as receiver Hines Ward, linebacker James Farrior and safety Troy Polamalu were also on that disappointing team in 2006 and claim to have learned from that humbling experience. Training camp practices have been crisp and players, including Roethlisberger, appear focused.
3. Will the special teams be good?
The Steelers don't have many holes, so we're just nitpicking. But Pittsburgh's special teams were the weakest of the three units (offense, defense, special teams) last season.
Kicker Jeff Reed, in the final year of his contract, is solid. But beyond that, Pittsburgh's special teams were weak.
The Steelers are trying to find a boost in the return game. In camp, Pittsburgh is working out several new players at returning kicks, including former CFL running back Stefan Logan and receiver Shaun McDonald. The goal this year is to take every-down players such as Santonio Holmes off special teams to help the offense.
Perhaps the biggest addition to special teams will be the return of punter Daniel Sepulveda, who missed all of 2008 with a torn ACL in his knee. Pittsburgh's punting was one of the league's worst last year and Sepulveda should change that. The team also is giving Sepulveda an occasional day off from punting in camp to make sure he doesn't rush back.
Second-year receiver Limas Sweed was an enigma last season. First, he couldn't find his way on the field. Then when his number was called late in the year, Sweed wasn't ready.
But last season's disappointment led to Sweed become one of the hardest-working players on the team this offseason. In camp, the former second-round pick looks more confident and continues to make plays.
Sweed has the inside track to open the season as Pittsburgh's No. 3 receiver and knows his number will be called early if he holds onto the job. This time Sweed believes he's prepared to produce.
|AP Photo/Michael Conroy|
|Rookie defensive tackle Evander Hood should have time to prove himself this season.|
Newcomer to watch
The Steelers do not often take defensive linemen high in the draft, but they broke that mold with first-round pick Evander "Ziggy" Hood.
Pittsburgh likes Hood's motor and versatility. He is expected to spell both starters at defensive end and possibly play some nose tackle.
The three starting defensive linemen for the Steelers are all over 30, so it will be vital for Hood to provide depth and inject some youthful exuberance. The fact that he's not expected to start puts him in a good spot to produce without the normal pressures of a first-round pick.
Roethlisberger is struggling with his arm strength early in camp. After taking a pounding and playing so deep into the postseason, Roethlisberger didn't do any throwing independently away from the Steelers this offseason, choosing to rest instead. But many of his deep throws are coming up short and intercepted. With the preseason starting next week, it will be interesting to see how long it takes for Roethlisberger to regain his form. ... Tailback Rashard Mendenhall appears to have recovered from his season-ending shoulder injury. The former first-round pick lost significant weight in his upper body last year because he was unable to lift weights after surgery. But he has regained his bulk and looks more sure of himself in his second training camp. ...Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau is using inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons in a variety of ways now that the former first-round pick is a full-time starter. Timmons has great range to patrol the middle of the field. But LeBeau also likes Timmons' skills as a pass-rusher and has been turning him loose in pressure packages. ...Look out for rookie receiver Mike Wallace. The third-round pick from Mississippi is making a good impression in camp. Teammates are already calling him one of the fastest players on the team.
Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky and James Walker
The Steelers' visit to Nashville Sunday for a game against the Titans is just the kind of late-season game the league, and the networks, love. On the line, the No. 1 seed and home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs.
Our AFC South blogger, Paul Kuharsky and AFC North blogger, James Walker, will both be at the game. As part of the build-up, they went back and forth on a variety of game-related topics for a joint venture shared by their two pages.
Paul Kuharsky: Sunday's giant AFC showdown features two starting quarterbacks I'd call tough, but Ben Roethlisberger and Kerry Collins are different kinds of tough. Every time I've seen pieces of Steelers games this year, I've seen Big Ben throwing passes with defenders hanging off his limbs or dusting himself off as he gathered himself after a hit. Kerry Collins isn't so sturdy tough; he's more life-experience and game-smart tough. Where Roethlisberger will stand in as long as it takes, sometimes too long, Collins' internal clock tells him to get rid of the ball or give up on a play and live for the next. Watching them and how they react to what two very good defenses throw at them will be one of the best story lines of this game.
James Walker: The physical ailments that Roethlisberger (shoulder, thumb) have dealt with this season are well-documented. But his mental toughness should be noted as well. Roethlisberger never gets down. I've seen several games this year where he cannot make a significant play for three-and-a-half quarters but keeps his head in the game for the key moments in the fourth quarter. That was the case in the two wins against the Dallas Cowboys and Baltimore Ravens. Roethlisberger has a certain mental toughness and clutch factor that permeates Pittsburgh's entire team. The Steelers play very well from behind and they never feel they are out of it.
PK: I've been thinking in the weeks leading up to this matchup that while the Titans would have problems moving the ball against the Steelers, Tennessee's biggest strength -- its ability to rush the passer with only its front four -- would line up well with the one thing Pittsburgh isn't very good at -- protecting Roethlisberger. I really expected Albert Haynesworth, while he'd also see one of the guards -- Chris Kemoeatu or Darnell Stapleton -- to make life extremely difficult on center Justin Hartwig. At a much different stage of his career when the two were both Titans, Haynesworth kicked Hartwig in a training-camp fight. Alas, we don't get to see the matchup as Haynesworth is out for the remainder of the regular season. And with end Kyle Vanden Bosch also out, the Titans' pass rush can't be as good as it would have been at full strength. It's a big break for the Steelers.
JW: I agree, Paul. A week ago this would have been a much tougher matchup, but this is no longer a big mismatch. As you mentioned, Tennessee's defense hinges on getting pressure with its front four, and without Haynesworth and Vanden Bosch, it could force the Titans to alter their scheme and compensate by bringing extra defenders more often than they would like. That could compromise the back end and leave more room for Roethlisberger to make plays in the passing game against man-to-man coverage. The absence of Haynesworth and Vanden Bosch also helps Pittsburgh's running game, which hasn't been consistent all season.
Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker
Here are the most interesting story lines in the AFC North:
- Cleveland Browns quarterback Derek Anderson was grilled pretty good Wednesday -- despite the bye week.
Morning take: "My brains are fine" was a pretty funny remark from Anderson. But will the offense be fine when it takes the field next week against the New York Giants?
- Newly signed Bengals running back Cedric Benson looked good in his first practice Wednesday and will play Sunday against the Dallas Cowboys.
Morning take: The Bengals are ranked No. 30 in the league in rushing, so they need all the help they can get.
- The Baltimore Ravens' top-ranked defense will be without defensive tackle Kelly Gregg and defensive backs Samari Rolle and Dawan Landry this week against the Tennessee Titans.
Morning take: Health will be an important part of the success of Baltimore's defense, particularly in the secondary where injuries hurt the team last year.
- The race to replace offensive guard Kendall Simmons in Pittsburgh starts this week with Darnell Stapleton and Trai Essex.
Morning take: Keep in mind if neither Stapleton nor Essex pan out, the Steelers also have the option of moving the versatile Willie Colon to guard and starting backup tackle Max Starks.