NFL Nation: David Johnson
OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- In stark contrast to Ray Rice's awkward news conference in May, the Baltimore Ravens running back showed Thursday that he finally understood the weight of his actions from the alleged altercation with his then-fiancée in February.
He delivered the correct message, one the NFL failed to do last week with the two-game suspension, by not only apologizing to his wife, Janay Palmer, but also expressing a desire to become an advocate for domestic-violence causes.
Rice was compelling in his contrition, calling it the biggest mistake of his life. He stood in front of the microphone alone, without his wife standing by his side, and took full responsibility for the incident. Perhaps more importantly, Rice actually said the words "domestic violence," which weren't heard in his statement two months ago.
"My actions were inexcusable," Rice said. "That's something I have to live with the rest of my life."
Before anyone pats Rice on the back, this is what he should have said the first time when he broke his silence in May. Instead, Rice nervously fumbled through notes on his phone and apologized to team officials and his sponsors. That debacle of a news conference came across as damage control to his image.
His 17-minute news conference Thursday hit the right tones. He apologized to all women affected by domestic violence. He accepted the blame for losing the respect of fans. Rice came across as genuinely sorry.
"I let my wife down, I let my daughter down, I let my wife's parents down, I let the whole Baltimore community down," Rice said.
Rice's biggest misstep was not talking about what happened in the elevator. He was asked twice about it and declined to answer both times. His stance against domestic violence would have resonated stronger if he had explained his transgressions.
"I'll be honest: Like I said, I own my actions," Rice said. "I just don't want to keep reliving the incident. It doesn't bring any good to me. I'm just trying to move forward from it. I don't condone it. I take full responsibility for my actions. What happened that night is something that I'm going to pay for the rest of my life."
The only way Rice can move forward from this incident and show he's truly sincere is through his actions. It's not by his words. It's not by a hefty donation, which is merely a gesture. It's by proving this will remain a "one-time incident" and by supporting domestic-violence causes.
Thursday represented a small step forward for Rice. But it was an important one.
Jonathan Dwyer has signed a one-year contact with the Arizona Cardinals, leaving the Steelers with depth issues behind Le’Veon Bell.
Dwyer wrote on his Twitter account on Wednesday night:
Dwyer, released at the end of the 2013 preseason, re-signed with the Steelers in September and rushed for 197 yards on 49 carries while backing up Bell.
The only other running back on the Steelers' roster is Alvester Alexander, who spent all of last season on the practice squad.
Felix Jones and LaRod Stephens-Howling, who tore his ACL in the Steelers’ season opener last season, are both unrestricted free agents.
The Steelers have lost three free agents, with defensive end Al Woods signing with the Titans, tight end David Johnson signing with the Chargers and Dwyer becoming the latest former Steelers player to relocate to Arizona.
Key free agents: WR Emmanuel Sanders, DE Ziggy Hood, WR Jerricho Cotchery, DE Al Woods, DE Brett Keisel, S Ryan Clark, RB Jonathan Dwyer, C Fernando Velasco, OT Guy Whimper, C/G Cody Wallace, TE David Johnson, LB Stevenson Sylvester.
Where they stand: General manager Kevin Colbert has said the Steelers may be more active in free agency than in recent years, but don’t expect their philosophy to fundamentally change. The Steelers will focus on their own players and are likely to sit out the first wave of free agency and target midlevel free agents after the marquee names have signed with other teams. Colbert hinted that the Steelers could try to land a potential starter via free agency, and they could use immediate help as well as depth at just about any position on defense. Nothing would help the Steelers more than if they could sign a free agent who will make an impact like Ryan Clark (2006) or James Farrior (2002) did, though they would have to splurge to get a free agent the caliber of Farrior.
What to expect: Wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders, the team's top free agent, is going to command more money than the Steelers are willing to pay. He will almost certainly sign elsewhere, though look for veteran Jerricho Cotchery to re-sign with the team after catching 10 touchdown passes last season. Defensive end Ziggy Hood is likely to sign elsewhere, making it imperative that the Steelers bring back Al Woods. They could also re-sign Brett Keisel for one more season if the two sides can find common ground on compensation. The Steelers have a good chance of signing most of their free agents with the exceptions of Sanders and Hood, and that is how they will add depth to their offensive line. Free agents they could target include former Seahawks defensive end Red Bryant, Dolphins defensive tackle Paul Soliai and 49ers cornerback Tarell Brown. The Steelers met with former Lions safety Louis Delmas last month, but his knee issues may be too much of a red flag for them, and they have since re-signed veteran Will Allen.
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- A few thoughts on the Pittsburgh Steelers' 19-6 win over the New York Jets at MetLife Stadium.
What it means: The Steelers' season still has life. Let's not go all Ryan Clark and say the Steelers are on their way to the playoffs, but they finally stopped the bleeding following a shaky start at MetLife Stadium. The Steelers controlled the game after falling behind 3-0 in the first quarter. The offense didn't piece together a Picasso, but it made drastic improvement after netting 8 yards on its first two possessions.
Stock watch: The defense is trending up after keeping the team in the game until the offense settled down. It also atoned for an atrocious performance in the London loss to the Vikings that dropped the Steelers to 0-4 for the first time since 1968. The Steelers limited the Jets to 165 yards through the first three quarters while building a double-digit lead. They also avoided becoming the first team in NFL history to go the first five games of a season without a takeaway. Clark ended the turnover drought in the third quarter when he intercepted a pass that Geno Smith threw into heavy coverage. But he also dropped an interception in the fourth quarter, and the Steelers later needed a Lawrence Timmons pick to put away the Jets.
Getting by at LT: Kelvin Beachum is clearly not the long-term answer at left tackle after getting flagged twice for holding and nearly yielding a sack that would have given the Jets an early safety. The problem for the Steelers is their options are really limited when it comes to protecting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's blind side. Levi Brown, acquired from the Cardinals in a recent trade, injured his right triceps during pregame warm-ups, and he couldn't play against the Jets. Brown missed the 2012 season with a torn right triceps so his injury could be a worrisome one for the Steelers. Starting defensive end Brett Keisel (ribs) and tight end David Johnson (wrist) sustained injuries during the game.
What's next: The Steelers hope to build off their momentum next Sunday when they play the Ravens in a 4:25 p.m. ET divisional game. The defending Super Bowl champions dropped to 3-3 following a loss to the Packers in Baltimore, but they have beaten the Steelers the past three times the fierce rivals have met during the regular season at Heinz Field.
If he is limited Sunday against the Titans or isn't able to play, tight end David Johnson could play fullback as he has experience at the position. The Steelers, however, are already thin at tight end with starter Heath Miller still working his way back from reconstructive knee surgery and Matt Spaeth on the short-term injured reserve list.
Miller is listed as doubtful for the 1 p.m. game, but it's hard to imagine any scenario in which he plays. The Steelers' 2012 MVP is only a week removed from the physically unable to perform (PUP) list and has only been practicing on a limited basis.
Outside linebacker Jarvis Jones (chest) and defensive end Brett Keisel (non-injury related) are listed as probable.
Rookie running back Le'Veon Bell (foot) is the only Steelers player who has been ruled out for Sunday.
The guy has less than a week to make the team, and the Pittsburgh Steelers are likely to give him a look as a kickoff returner as well as as a running back against Kansas City.
Isaac Redman (stinger) will apparently miss his second consecutive preseason game, meaning Jonathan Dwyer will start at running back against the Chiefs.
Tight end David Johnson will play, less than a week after the Steelers activated the fifth-year veteran from the physically unable to perform list. Cornerback Cortez Allen also will play after missing last Monday night’s game with a sprained ankle.
Allen will open the regular season as the starting cornerback opposite Ike Taylor, assuming he doesn’t have any setbacks. Johnson missed last season with a torn ACL, and the Steelers are likely to ease him back into action. His return is a welcome development for a team that will open the season without its top two tight ends, Heath Miller (knee) and Matt Spaeth (Lisfranc sprain).
The rest of the division says: Welcome to the club, Steelers.
With DeCastro getting hurt, the top pick for each AFC North team has now been injured for an extended period. Browns running back Trent Richardson (knee), Bengals cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick (knee) and Ravens outside linebacker Courtney Upshaw (shoulder) all missed a large chunk of training camp and have yet to start a game in the preseason.
Richardson, the third overall pick who had his knee scoped Aug. 9, is expected to play in the regular-season opener, albeit in a limited role. Kirkpatrick, the 17th pick of the 2012 draft, hurt himself before reporting to camp and just began practicing a week ago. Upshaw, a second-round pick, was out for seven days in camp and has yet to unseat Albert McClellan for the rush linebacker job since his return.
The difference with DeCastro is that his injury might leave him sidelined for his entire rookie season. After having a rough start to camp, DeCastro has looked more than solid in the preseason. Now, after watching his right knee bent awkwardly, the Steelers will have to wait for the MRI to see if they'll get him back this season.
While this continues the bad luck for the top picks in the division, it also could extend the Steelers' rough streak with knee injuries. Since the regular-season finale on Jan. 1, Pittsburgh has seen four starters (running back Rashard Mendenhall, offensive tackle Max Starks, nose tackle Casey Hampton and fullback David Johnson) suffer torn anterior cruciate ligaments.
Roethlisberger is blaming the playing surface at Buffalo's Ralph Wilson Stadium.
"This is a great field, but it's FieldTurf, and it's just killing guys because they can't get their feet out of the ground," Roethlisberger told the NFL Network, "and it's just another reason we should get rid of FieldTurf."
Unfortunately for Roethlisberger and the Steelers, they are going to play half of their eight road games this season on artificial surfaces: Cincinnati (FieldTurf), New York Giants (FieldTurf), Baltimore (Sportexe Momentum turf) and Dallas (Matrix RealGrass artificial turf).
The Steelers, though, have lost more players to severe knee injuries on grass in the past year. Running back Rashard Mendenhall injured his knee in last regular season's finale in Cleveland. Nose tackle Casey Hampton and offensive tackle Max Starks hurt their knees in the playoff game in Denver. And fullback David Johnson blew out his knee in the preseason opener in Philadelphia.
Maybe it's safer for the Steelers to play on FieldTurf.
The Steelers opened the preseason with a 24-23 loss at Philadelphia, where the Eagles kicked a 51-yard winning field goal with 12 seconds remaining. Here are my thoughts and observations on a game the Steelers led 13-0 at halftime:
- The Steelers had three players (two starters) knocked out of the game: fullback/tight end David Johnson (knee); left tackle Mike Adams (knee); and backup running back Jonathan Dwyer (shoulder). Pittsburgh is using the fullback more under new offensive coordinator Todd Haley, but Johnson's injury appeared to be the most serious of the night.
- Pittsburgh showed its depth at running back with starter Rashard Mendenhall on the physically unable to perform list. Isaac Redman ran hard in between the tackles, rookie Chris Rainey showed his elusiveness in converting a third-and-13 on a draw and Dwyer broke a 33-yard gain. Rainey later scored a 57-yard touchdown off a quick screen pass. The Steelers produced 68 rushing yards on the first two drives, which led to two marathon drives (16 and 10 plays).
- The offensive line showed some major growing pains, specifically in pass protection. Adams gave up two sacks (which led to two fumbles) as well as another pressure in two drives. The second sack on Ben Roethlisberger was the result of a miscommunication between center Maurkice Pouncey and left guard Ramon Foster. Right tackle Marcus Gilbert allowed a pressure on the first drive when he failed to connect on a cut block.
- The Steelers defense had no trouble with Eagles quarterback Michael Vick, who left with a hand injury. Pittsburgh forced Vick into two three-and-outs. Nose tackle Steve McLendon, who was starting for the injured Casey Hampton, was able to get off blocks, recording a sack and a tackle for a loss.
- As far as the quarterbacks, Roethlisberger was efficient in his one series, completing 7 of 8 passes for 49 yards. His only incompletion was overthrowing Emmanuel Sanders deep down the sideline. Backup Byron Leftwich showed his experience in the Steelers' only touchdown drive of the first half. Checking off a play, he hit an uncovered Sanders for a 2-yard touchdown pass. It was a broken coverage by Nnamdi Asomugha, who had a rough night. He also got beat by Antonio Brown on a quick 14-yard slant.
- Pittsburgh's coverage teams need some work. The Steelers, who ranked 16th in kickoff coverage, gave up 46 yards on their first return of the night. They also allowed a long punt return, which was negated by a block in the back.
- The Steelers, who struggled in getting turnovers last season, got a gift from the Eagles. Backup defensive lineman Al Woods stepped in front of screen pass by Mike Kafka for an interception and ran it back 52 yards to the 5-yard line. That led to a field goal.
- Shaun Suisham got off to a strong start. He hit a 46-yard field goal after going 6-for-11 from beyond 40 yards last season. He also kicked a 39-yarder.
The opening of training camp was business as usual for the reigning AFC champion Pittsburgh Steelers. Despite offseason incidents that ranged from Hines Ward's arrest to Rashard Mendenhall's misuse of Twitter to James Harrison ripping commissioner Roger Goodell and teammates, players quickly deflected any issues and seemed genuinely happy to get back to work.
The Steelers believe their off-the-field problems are a thing of the past, and the team is ready to move forward and attempt to make another title run in 2011.
"Any time we come to training camp, our goal is the Super Bowl," Ward said. "Anything less than the Super Bowl is a down year for us. Having experienced and tasted a loss in the Super Bowl is not a good feeling. So, hopefully we can get back there and come out on the winning side."
The Steelers have a lot of work to do before the start of the regular season. Here are some early questions:
THREE HOT ISSUES
1. How will the Steelers get under the cap?
According to the new collective bargaining agreement, the Steelers have until Thursday to get under the $120 million salary cap. Despite a flurry of roster moves last week, Pittsburgh remains about $7 million to $10 million over, which is where the team started this summer.
The Steelers made several key salary cuts, including veteran receiver Antwaan Randle El and offensive tackles Max Starks and Flozell Adams. But the re-signings of in-house free agents such as cornerback Ike Taylor have basically nullified those moves.
Expect more tough decisions to be made this week.
"We have to find ways to get under [the cap] and in compliance," Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert said. "We're going to look at every and all possibilities."
There is some good news for the Steelers.
The new CBA allows teams to use three $1 million exceptions in 2011, and Colbert says he will use them all. Teams have this onetime flexibility to add an extra $3 million to the cap, which essentially brings the Steelers' number up to $123 million. This could allow Pittsburgh to retain some veterans it otherwise would lose.
The last memory Steelers fans have of their defense is Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers carving up the secondary for 304 yards and three touchdowns in Super Bowl XLV. Since then, Pittsburgh hasn't made any significant additions to the secondary, leaving many to wonder whether this problem is fixed.
Because Pittsburgh is fielding the same players in the secondary, it's difficult to imagine the pass defense being better than it was last season. The Steelers re-signed veteran corners Taylor and William Gay and drafted rookies Curtis Brown and Cortez Allen.
"You can't worry about what people think outside the locker room, because we've been so successful on the field," Taylor said of the criticism. "So it really doesn’t matter. Everybody has their own opinion. It comes with the territory."
Expect many teams to spread the Steelers out this season by using three- and four-receiver sets. That will force backups such as Gay or some of the young corners to play important roles on the defense.
3. How thin is Pittsburgh's offensive line?
Pittsburgh's offensive line could be the thinnest group in the league.
Outside of second-year center Maurkice Pouncey, who is a stud, the rest of the line is littered with questions. Jonathan Scott plays the important role of left tackle and was inconsistent last year. Guards Ramon Foster and Chris Kemoeatu are decent run-blockers but struggle in pass protection. And right tackle Willie Colon is coming off an Achilles injury that forced him to miss the entire 2010 season.
Cutting Starks and Adams severely hurt the talent and depth of this group. Those were two of the most experienced linemen Pittsburgh had. Cap issues make it unlikely the team will sign another starting offensive lineman in free agency.
"You can't go into it and expect to have veteran depth at every position," Colbert admitted. "It just doesn't work out financially. You have to trust some of your young guys."
It's only the first weekend of camp, but backup cornerback Keenan Lewis has been a pleasant surprise. Lewis is gaining valuable experience working with the first-team defense. Taylor signed a four-year contract in free agency and isn't allowed to practice with the team until later this week.
Despite a rocky two years in Pittsburgh, Lewis is a good athlete. He has good size and quickness and is making fewer mental mistakes, which is key. The competition for the important nickel role in the secondary will be intense this summer, and Lewis could have the inside track.
With the lengthy NFL lockout, someone was bound to show up out of shape. Backup running back Jonathan Dwyer was that person for the Steelers.
I expected to see more from Dwyer, a sixth-round pick in 2009. But he struggled mightily during the conditioning evaluations and hasn't done much in the practices. The Steelers' running back corps is deep, and Dwyer is definitely on the roster bubble.
- I like the swagger this year of Pittsburgh's "Young Money" crew of receivers. Last year, Mike Wallace was going into his first year as a starter, and Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown were rookies just trying to fit in. But you can see that last year's success, particularly in the second half of the season and the playoffs, has helped this group and improved confidence. Instead of getting yelled at by Ward, Wallace is on top of everything so far in practice and is even helping Ward tutor other receivers. Sanders and Brown look much more comfortable in their roles and are displaying the same quickness and competitiveness they showed last year.
- Pouncey already looks scary-good in his second season. In my seven years covering the NFL, I've never seen a center who moves as well and fluidly as Pouncey. Last week, longtime NFL writer Damon Hack of Sports Illustrated and I were sitting next to each other watching Pittsburgh's conditioning evaluation. We were amazed with how easily Pouncey, who is listed at 304 pounds, was running 100-yard sprints, while the rest of the linemen were lagging far behind. Pound for pound, Pouncey is easily one of the top athletes on the Steelers.
- Linebacker Lawrence Timmons appears to have added considerable muscle in his upper body. Timmons, who is in a contract year, said he trained mostly in Florida this summer. Timmons also is one of the best pure athletes on the team. The key will be for him to maintain his quickness and acceleration while also adding strength.
- The fact that the Steelers tried hard to recruit big receiver Plaxico Burress says a lot about the status of Limas Sweed. The former second-round pick enters this training camp on thin ice and is down to his last shot. Sweed is coming off a season-ending Achilles injury and had issues with drops before that. Pittsburgh is taking the approach that anything it gets from Sweed is considered a bonus. He is currently the No. 5 receiver.
- Keep an eye on rookie seventh-round pick Baron Batch. The running back has showed good explosiveness through the hole and the ability to pass-protect, which is very valuable. He has been a pleasant surprise in camp so far.
- Overall, Pittsburgh's situation at running back is getting crowded. Mendenhall, Isaac Redman and Batch were all impressive during the first weekend of training camp. The Steelers also re-signed veteran backup Mewelde Moore. There were rumors about Tiki Barber being interested in the Steelers, but I don't see it. Pittsburgh has considerable depth at that position.
- Finally, another sleeper who is actually having a good camp is backup tight end and de facto fullback David Johnson. What the third-year veteran lacks in athleticism he makes up in effort. Although not his specialty, he's made several nice receptions in practice and remains one of the best run-blockers on the team. The Steelers are still in the market for a No. 2 tight end after the departure of Matt Spaeth to the Chicago Bears.
» Draft Watch: Biggest needs (2/17) | Busts/gems (2/24) | Schemes, themes (3/3) | Recent history (3/10) | Needs revisited (3/17) | Under-the-radar needs (3/26) | History in that spot (3/31) | Draft approach (4/7) | Decision-makers (4/14) | Dream scenario/Plan B (4/21)
Each week leading up to the NFL draft (April 22-24), the ESPN.com blog network will take a division-by-division look at key aspects of the draft. Today's topic: Under-the-radar needs.
The Ravens posted a tremendous No. 3 ranking in total defense in 2009. But often lost in that ranking was the fact Baltimore had just 32 sacks in 16 games, which was 18th in the NFL. The Ravens need to generate a better pass rush, either by acquiring help via the draft or getting more production from their current players. For example, three-time Pro Bowler Terrell Suggs suffered through injuries and had a career-low 4.5 sacks. He needs to have a bounce-back season. The lack of pass rush also hurt Baltimore's pass coverage.
Can someone who didn't kick in 2009 and who has bounced around with eight teams -- including a brief stint in Cincinnati -- really be the answer? Maybe Dave Rayner comes in this upcoming season and kicks lights out for the Bengals. But he wasn't the answer in Washington, Detroit, Miami, San Diego, Kansas City, Green Bay or Indianapolis. So it's fair to wonder if Rayner can solidify the kicking position during his second stay with the Bengals. Cincinnati hasn't re-signed veteran free agent Shayne Graham, which means a kicker could be a target in the NFL draft. The Bengals have nine picks next month and, at the very least, Rayner should have someone to push him and compete with in training camp.
Coming off a 5-11 season, the Browns have a lot of needs and it's debatable whether any are "under the radar." But while most of the conversation focuses on quarterback, receiver and the secondary, not many in Cleveland talk about the running backs. Last year Jerome Harrison led the Browns with 862 yards thanks to a great stretch toward the end of the season. But can the smallish Harrison handle 30 carries a week over the course of a 16-game season? Cleveland's new regime has its doubts. The Browns need another quality running back to complement Harrison. There is very little tailback depth on the roster after the team released veteran Jamal Lewis. James Davis is coming off a season-ending shoulder injury and the team acquired Peyton Hillis in a trade with the Denver Broncos. Hillis can play both fullback and tailback positions.
With everyone healthy, the Steelers do not have a lot of holes beyond the obvious like offensive line and cornerback. So let's dig deep with a covert need: Pittsburgh could use a good fullback next season. The Steelers struggled in short yardage and in the red zone, in part, because they lacked a devastating lead blocker to bust open holes in the defense. Carey Davis couldn't cut it. Converted tight end David Johnson was average but played out of position. Frank "The Tank" Summers was too green as a rookie last season. Adding to the quandary is offensive coordinator Bruce Arians' reluctance to utilize the position. Pittsburgh often uses three-receiver and single-back sets at the expense of fullbacks, and perhaps the Steelers' lack of talent at the position contributes to that. But if Pittsburgh finds a punishing run-blocker at fullback, third-and-short won't be such a daunting task next season.
Interesting story from Brad Biggs of the Chicago Sun-Times, who reports that linebacker Lance Briggs participated in an autograph session over the weekend with a heavy wrap on his right hand. Briggs told people at the event he had cut the hand while shaving with a straight-edge razor.
The Bears apparently were unaware of the injury. Briggs has been working out in the Bears' offseason strength and conditioning program but was not there Monday. According to the report, Briggs has assured the team the injury isn't serious. He's been asked to report to the Bears' practice facility Tuesday to allow it to be examined.
It would technically be a violation of Briggs' contract if he didn't report a significant injury, but it appears this one won't qualify. Yet it's still a bit jarring to see photos of the Bears' best defensive player with a wrap over his hand in the middle of the offseason.
Continuing around the NFC North:
- Bears quarterback Jay Cutler sent a text message to third-round receiver Juaquin Iglesias on Saturday to begin establishing a rapport, writes David Haugh of the Chicago Tribune.
- New Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford appeared on the "Late Show with David Letterman" Monday night and read the evening's Top Ten list. Here's a link to the list and here's some video.
- Tom Kowalski of Mlive.com examines the Lions' unfortunate penchant for fourth-round busts in the draft.
- Minnesota officials held a conference call with season ticket-holders Monday, according to Judd Zulgad and Chip Scoggins of the Star Tribune. Co-owner Mark Wilf addressed the status of coach Brad Childress (he's very safe) and vice president Rick Spielman explained why the Vikings opted for receiver Percy Harvin in the first round over offensive tackle Michael Oher (they were targeting Phil Loadholt in the second round).
- Sean Jensen of the St. Paul Pioneer Press looks at the Vikings' roster post-draft.
- Green Bay has invited two quarterbacks, Utah's Brian Johnson and Tulsa's David Johnson, to their rookie minicamp on a tryout basis, according to Rob Demovsky of the Green Bay Press-Gazette.
- Wide receiver Jamarko Simmons, who signed a free agent contract with the Packers after the draft, broke all of Greg Jennings' records at Western Michigan. Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports.