NFL Nation: Fernando Velasco

PITTSBURGH -- ESPN NFL analyst Ron Jaworski recently ranked all of the starting quarterbacks in the NFL. The Pittsburgh Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger is sixth on his list after Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and Andrew Luck.

"Jaws" performed his usual exhaustive film review in compiling his list, and he offered strong praise for Roethlisberger as well as an astonishing statistic:
I thought Big Ben had one of his best seasons in 2013. We all know he has a unique skill set, with the ability to be a pocket passer but also extend the play when it's necessary. Ultimately, there are two sets of numbers that stand out to me for Roethlisberger. The first is that he has 156 career starts and has won 67 percent of them. That's astonishing. The second is that veteran quarterbacks understand the necessity of coming away with touchdowns and not field goals in the red zone. In the last two seasons, Roethlisberger has 27 TDs and zero INTs inside the 20-yard line."

You can debate where Roethlisberger ranks among NFL quarterback but one thing that can't be disputed: Big Ben is the player the Steeler can least afford to lose for an extended period in 2014.

The 11th-year veteran makes the no-huddle attack go and that will again be an important component of the Steelers' offense. Roethlisberger, who turned 32 in March, is still playing at a high level and he is coming off a season in which he took every snap. Bruce Gradkowski is a capable backup but nothing would help the Steelers more as they try to return to the playoffs after a two-year hiatus than if Gradkowski spends most if not all of the upcoming season on the sidelines.

Here are four other players whom the Steelers cannot afford to lose this season.

WR Antonio Brown: The Steelers' wide receivers become average if Brown is sidelined by a significant injury. The reigning Steelers MVP caught 110 passes for a team-record 1,499 yards last season and he will again make the other wideouts better simply because of the attention he commands from opposing defenses.

C Maurkice Pouncey: The Steelers got lucky that Fernando Velasco and later Cody Wallace played so capably at center after Pouncey tore his ACL eight plays into last season. They cannot count on that fortune again if Pouncey goes down. The three-time Pro Bowler is the unquestioned leader of the offensive line, and he is eager to reward the Steelers for the lucrative contract extension they gave him last month.

LB Lawrence Timmons: Durable and incredibly productive, Timmons should have at least one Pro Bowl on his resume by now. He will call the defense until rookie Ryan Shazier is ready to assume that responsibility. Simply getting lined up properly proved to be a problem for the defense after Larry Foote went down in the 2013 opener with a season-ending arm injury.

DE Cameron Heyward: The 2011 first-round pick is the one proven commodity that the Steelers have at defensive end. Heyward pushed his way into the starting lineup after the fourth game of last season, and he led the Steelers with 31 quarterback pressures in 2013 and tied for the team lead with five sacks. To say there is a significant drop-off after Heyward at defensive end is an understatement.

No-huddle takes offense to another level

December, 26, 2013
PITTSBURGH – Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau on the Pittsburgh Steelers’ playoff chances: “We’ve already worked a little magic last week and [all of the games] fell for us. I’ve seen stranger things happen.”

Offensive coordinator Todd Haley on if one of four things doesn’t happen Sunday and the Steelers miss the playoffs by a game: “It’s easy to look back but we can’t do that.”

The shame if the Steelers miss the playoffs is that they would probably be a tough out because of how their offense has come together since Haley went all in on the no-huddle offense.

[+] EnlargeBen Roethlisberger
Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY SportsGoing without a huddle has helped Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers' offense.
The Steelers are averaging 29.3 points in their last eight games, and Haley can only wonder what might have been had Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey not sustained a torn ACL on Pittsburgh’s first possession of the season.

“We had big plans for the no-huddle coming into the season,” Haley said.

Fernando Velasco, by all accounts, learned the offense faster than could have expected. But it took time for him to get comfortable with everything before Haley felt confident in unleashing the no-huddle attack. And he had to pull the reins back a little bit after Velasco tore his Achilles and Cody Wallace became the third starting center of the season.

But the no-huddle, and how it has transformed the Steelers' offense, is the biggest story of the second half of the season. Ben Roethlisberger has never played better and taken less hits while running the offense in which he calls the plays.

Roethlisberger’s command of the no-huddle isn’t the only reason why the Steelers’ offense could really take off next season. Youth abounds on offense and, as Haley observed, “especially up front. A lot of guys have a lot of playing time. Not only that, they’ve shown they can play in the league. We have a lot of bodies on hand and, as everybody gets healthy [that] should bode well for what we are trying to do.”

It seems a foregone conclusion that Haley will return next season, and as much as his relationship with Roethlisberger has been scrutinized, consider what the veteran quarterback said earlier this week.

“I think all of the coordinators have been open to input, but I think this is probably the most that they've accepted [from him]. We’ve used it and tweaked it to benefit the team,” he said.

It has also benefited Roethlisberger. He has been sacked just six times in the last six games after getting dropped 35 times in the first nine games.

Roethlisberger praised his line for keeping him clean but also acknowledged that the no-huddle is conducive to keeping him upright.

“When I’m calling plays I can call it based off what the defense is giving us,” Roethlisberger said. ”The ball will come out quicker because I’ve kind of predetermined where I’m going with the ball.”

The Steelers would love nothing more than to sneak into the playoffs and see how far Roethlisberger and the offense takes them.

If they fall short, the one consolation they have is the offense could be even better next season.
PITTSBURGH -- Mike Tomlin gave the Steelers' Plan C at center a vote of confidence during the part of his weekly news conference not devoted to sideline interference.

Ben Roethlisberger did the same a day later.

And the Steelers quarterback relayed an illuminating story of what happened when he conducted something of a background check on Cody Wallace, who will make his first NFL start Sunday against the visiting Miami Dolphins.

Roethlisberger did some early homework on Wallace on the plane ride home from Baltimore last week, shortly after he learned that starting center Fernando Velasco had been lost for the rest of the season because of a ruptured Achilles tendon.

“I checked with the other linemen, asked them what they think about Cody, does he know [the offense]? And every single person said the same thing: ‘He's a really smart player, there will be no issue, he'll be good to go,'” Roethlisberger said on Wednesday. “When I've talked to him I've had that same confidence in him that he'll be ready to rock with it.”

He better be.

The Steelers don't have time for the 6-foot-4, 300-pound Wallace to get up to speed, given their precarious situation.

They need to win out to extend their season beyond December -- Roethlisberger said he is treating every game now like a playoff contest -- and their ability to run the no-huddle offense effectively will go a long way toward the Steelers running the table.

As banged-up as the Steelers' offensive line is, one thing that doesn't appear to be a concern is how the middle of it will fare with Wallace.

“He's prepared for this week in and week out whether he's been starting or not,” left guard Ramon Foster said. “His time has come right now. He knows everything that's going on. He'll just have to get the game speed down if anything.”

Wallace said he is confident his conditioning level is such that he will be able to handle playing an entire game. The fourth-year veteran is also comfortable working with Roethlisberger, and the biggest thing for those two this week is making sure they get the snap exchange down.

“He walks into our [meeting] room from time to time and bounces some things off of us to make sure it all sounds good to us so we are all on the same page,” Wallace said. “I think I will be fine out there.”

So does Tomlin.

“I have no problem in expecting Cody Wallace to play winning football for us at the center position,” the seventh-year coach said, “because he's going to practice and prepare all week.”

Steelers sign another offensive lineman

December, 3, 2013
PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Steelers’ offensive linemen get together every Thursday night to build camaraderie. They may need name tags this week, given what the latest wave of injuries has done.

The Steelers signed their third offensive lineman since Saturday when they agreed to terms with David Snow, who started two games at center last season for the Buffalo Bills. Snow, who was released by the Bills at the end of August, takes the place of offensive tackle Rashad Butler on the 53-man roster.

Butler left the Steelers for personal reasons before ever practicing with the team, and Pittsburgh used a roster exemption it was granted on Snow.

Snow and Eric Olsen, who signed with the Steelers on Saturday, are the newest members of an offensive line that has lost centers Maurkice Pouncey and Fernando Velasco to season-ending injuries.

Olsen is likely to dress Sunday against the Miami Dolphins and provide depth for the interior of the line.

Snow shuttled between the practice squad and 53-man roster last season in Buffalo after signing as an undrafted free agent. The University of Texas product played in five games for the Bills in 2012.
PITTSBURGH -- The Steelers will have to try to beat the Dolphins Sunday while they are shorthanded.

How many starters they will be missing for the 1 p.m. ET game, however, remains to be seen.

Defensive end Brett Keisel isn’t expected to play Sunday, and the Steelers could also be missing left tackle Kelvin Beachum and right guard David DeCastro because of knee and ankle injuries, respectively.

The Steelers are optimistic that running back Le’Veon Bell will be able to play despite sustaining a concussion from a nasty goal-line collision last Thursday night in Baltimore. Bell did some running on Monday and Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said the rookie is on track to practice at some point this week.

“Thus far it’s been very positive with him, which is good,” Tomlin said Tuesday at his weekly news conference. “We’ll continue to march him back to health and make sure he goes through the necessary checkpoints to return.”

Bell has to pass a battery of tests throughout the week before he is cleared to play against the Dolphins.

Tomlin all but ruled out Keisel, who lasted just a handful of snaps last Thursday night before the plantar fasciitis that has plagued the 12th-year veteran sidelined hm.

“He had a step backwards, obviously, when he returned to action and I think he’ll be out this week,” Tomlin said.

Tomlin said Beachum and DeCastro are questionable for Sunday.

Outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley (calf), nose tackle Steve McLendon (ankle) and offensive tackle Mike Adams (ankle) are at least expected to practice on a limited basis this week with an eye toward playing against the Dolphins.

In other injury news, center Fernando Velasco had surgery last Saturday to repair a ruptured Achilles tendon. Velasco had been one of the Steelers’ most unsung players as he helped stabilize the offensive line after the loss of Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey to a torn ACL in the season opener.

Cody Wallace takes over for Velasco at center, and he will make his first NFL start on Sunday.

“I can’t say enough about what he’s done for us and the manner in which he’s done it,” Tomlin said of Velasco.

What has to happen for the Steelers

December, 2, 2013
PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Steelers' playoff hopes didn’t die on a cold night in Baltimore. A 22-20 loss to the Ravens last Thursday did leave the Steelers no margin for error if they want to join the 1992 Chargers as the only teams in NFL history to make the playoffs after an 0-4 start.

ESPN’s playoff machine offers all kinds of postseason permutations based on different criteria, but for the Steelers, the only realistic way they play beyond December is if they win their final four games, starting Sunday against the visiting Dolphins.

Here are 10 things that have to happen for the Steelers to win their final four games and make the playoffs.

[+] EnlargeBen Roethlisberger
Matt Sullivan/Getty ImagesProtecting Ben Roethlisberger remains the top priority for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Keep Big Ben healthy: As much of a beating Ben Roethlisberger has taken, he is on track to play in every game, something he has done only one time in his career (2008). Roethlisberger is playing well enough to carry the team, and, as usual, he is the player the Steelers can least afford to lose.

Overcome another offensive line injury: The Steelers can’t expect to be as fortunate as they were when Pro Bowler Maurkice Pouncey went down in the opener with a season-ending injury and Fernando Velasco stabilized the center position not long after signing with the team. Cody Wallace is next up with Velasco (foot) lost for the season, and he cannot be a liability or the line’s play will again become an issue despite the strides it made this season.

Get LaMarr Woodley back on the field: The highest-paid defensive player in team history has missed the past three games because of a nagging calf injury, and it is imperative that the Steelers get their two best pass-rushers playing together. Jason Worilds is in the midst of a breakout season and having Woodley opposite him for the majority of snaps would go a long way toward the Steelers putting more pressure on opposing quarterbacks.

Win the turnover battle, particularly against the Bengals and Packers: The Steelers are plus-eight in turnover differential in their five wins and minus-12 in seven losses. Their two toughest remaining opponents, at least on paper, are the Bengals, who visit Heinz Field on Dec. 15, and the Packers, assuming Aaron Rodgers has returned from a broken collarbone for a Dec. 22 game at Lambeau Field. The Steelers cannot give either team extra possessions or short fields.

Le’Veon Bell stays on track: A brutal goal-line collision with Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith left Bell concussed, and the Steelers have to hope there aren’t any lingering physical and psychological effects from that injury. The Steelers have leaned heavily on Bell since the fourth game of the season, and he has given them a credible running game while also helping out in the passing game.

Get some help with their archrival: The Ravens are a game ahead of the Steelers, and they have a better conference record. Their standing is all the reason more why a 3-1 finish and 8-8 overall record probably won’t be enough for the Steelers to finish ahead of the Ravens for the second wild-card berth in the AFC. The Ravens finish with a home game against the Patriots, sandwiched by trips to Detroit and Cincinnati, so a 2-2 finish for Baltimore is certainly within reason.

Stop the run: The Steelers have given up an average of 84.4 rushing yards in their five wins and an average of 137 rushing yards in their seven losses. The good thing for the Steelers is the only likely 1,000-yard rusher they will face down the stretch is Packers rookie Eddie Lacy.

Continue to use the no-huddle offense extensively: The Steelers might well be 6-6 with a season sweep of the Ravens had they not waited until the second half to use the no-huddle extensively last Thursday. Three of four games at home will make it easier to run the up-tempo attack, but Wallace won’t have nearly the command of the offense as Velasco did given how little he has played and the limited practice repetitions he has gotten with the first-team offense.

Defensive backs holds up: Nowhere has the Steelers' defense shown its age more than in the secondary. They have given up seven pass plays of at least 50 yards this season, and 12th-year cornerback Ike Taylor has struggled to shadow opponents’ No. 1 receiver in the past three games. The Steelers don’t need their defensive backs to be opportunistic down the stretch as much as they need them to keep pass plays in front of them and force teams to try to score on extended drives.

Stay focused on task at hand: This is probably the easiest for the Steelers to accomplish since the tunnel vision they embraced after starting 0-4 and 2-6 helped them dig out of both holes. They haven’t looked ahead or at what is going on around them, and the veterans in the locker room have really cemented that mindset. There is no need for the Steelers to get away from that -- and I don’t expect them to -- as they try to win their final four games.
PITTSBURGH – Another brutally physical game against the Ravens has cost the Steelers another starting center.

The Steelers placed Fernando Velasco on injured reserve Saturday afternoon, less than two days after he sustained a right Achilles injury in a 22-20 loss at Baltimore.

Velasco, signed to take over for injured Pro Bowler Maurkice Pouncey in early September, left M&T Bank Stadium in a walking boot and on crutches after the Steelers’ fourth-quarter rally fell just short. He is out for the rest of the season.

Velasco had been an excellent find for the Steelers after Pouncey tore his ACL in the season opener, and his loss means Cody Wallace is next up at center.

Wallace has played sparingly this season though he was pressed into duty at the end of the Ravens game.

The Steelers signed a pair of offensive linemen, center Eric Olsen and tackle Rashad Butler, Saturday and released cornerback DeMarcus Van Dyke to make room for them on the 53-man roster.

The 6-foot-3, 305-pound Olsen has four career starts in 17 NFL games, and he had been with the Saints before getting released on Sept. 9. Butler had been with the Browns before getting released on Nov. 5. The 6-4, 310-pounder has played in 50 career games with four starts.

The signing of Butler signals that either starting left tackle Kelvin Beachum or backup tackle Mike Adams is out for the foreseeable future.

Beachum left the Ravens game with a knee injury, while Adams was knocked out of the game with an ankle injury.

The Steelers are off this weekend, and they resume practice Monday. At 5-7 the Steelers likely need to win their final four games to make the playoffs.

Upon Further Review: Steelers Week 13

November, 29, 2013
A review of four hot issues from the Pittsburgh Steelers' 22-20 loss to the Baltimore Ravens.

[+] EnlargeBen Roethlisberger
AP Photo/Nick WassPittsburgh's offensive line took good care of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger against the Ravens.
O-line keeps Big Ben clean again: I thought the offensive line played one of its better games of the season. It is difficult to understand why the Steelers didn’t use their no-huddle offense more before the second half, because the line did not seem all that bothered by the crowd noise. It certainly wasn’t rattled by it. The Steelers had just one pre-snap penalty -- right guard David DeCastro was flagged for a false start in the second quarter -- and the Ravens did not sack quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. The line has given up one sack over the past three games, and Roethlisberger has not been sacked in the past two games. Not that any of that mattered to DeCastro after the Steelers fell to 5-7. "It’s a tough one to swallow," he said. "I thought we played OK. We didn't run the ball efficiently in the first half. We protected Ben OK, but it wasn’t enough."

O-line dealing with more injuries: How healthy the offensive line is moving forward will be an issue considering four players from that unit left the game with injuries. Coach Mike Tomlin provided the minimum on those injuries (ankle, knee, etc.), and it looked like starting center Fernando Velasco might have been the only one to suffer a potentially serious injury. Velasco hurt his right ankle, and he left M&T Bank Stadium in a walking boot and crutches. Injuries to Kelvin Beachum (knee) and Mike Adams (ankle) forced the Steelers to use three players at left tackle, and DeCastro hurt his foot. Defensive end Brett Keisel left early in the first quarter after aggravating a foot injury that had sidelined him the previous two games.

They like Ike: Torrey Smith ended up 7 yards shy of becoming the third consecutive wide receiver with at least 100 receiving yards and a touchdown while getting covered primarily by cornerback Ike Taylor. And Smith drew a 26-yard pass interference penalty on Taylor on a third-and-7 play in the second quarter. The Ravens were 6-of-8 on third-down conversions in the first half, and Taylor's penalty led to one of five Justin Tucker field goals in the two-point game. Smith's 54-yard catch set up the Ravens' only touchdown. It also went down as the 10th play of at least 50 yards that the Steelers have given up this season.

Not so special: The Steelers' special teams gaffes were costly -- and will likely hit Tomlin's wallet after he almost wandered onto the field during Jacoby Jones' 73-yard kickoff return while watching it on a scoreboard Jumbotron. I think Tomlin made an honest mistake and that there was no intent by the seventh-year coach to slow down Jones, who flashed through a huge opening on the left side on the way to the longest play of the game. What hurt the Steelers more than Jones' return was the botched field goal attempt in the second quarter. Kicker Shaun Suisham started his approach too early, and he never had a chance to attempt a 50-yard field goal. "We were doing it on a slow cadence to slow their pass rush," Tomlin said. "I don’t think Shaun heard the cadence." The Ravens took advantage of the short field after Suisham, who ended up with the ball, was tackled for a 12-yard loss, and they kicked a field goal. "I don’t think he did anything to beat himself up [over]," long snapper Greg Warren said of Suisham.
Emmanuel SandersRob Carr/Getty ImagesEmmanuel Sanders was unable to hold onto the conversion attempt that would have tied the game.

BALTIMORE -- Fernando Velasco sat in front of his locker as a trainer fit his right foot for a boot and then adjusted the crutches that the Steelers center needed to walk out of M&T Bank Stadium.

The Steelers were a lot like Velasco at the end of another classic slugfest with their bitter rivals and mirror image.

Banged up following a valiant effort, the Steelers are also in need of some assistance after losing a 22-20 heartbreaker to the Ravens in a game each team badly needed to win.

For all that prevented the Steelers from sweeping the Ravens for the first time since 2008 -- the early play-calling was as mystifying as it was conservative and there were assorted special-teams blunders -- they had the home team right where they wanted it after Ben Roethlisberger calmly flipped a 1-yard touchdown pass to Jerricho Cotchery on fourth down.

The Steelers called the same exact play on the two-point conversion that would have tied a game. Roethlisberger went to the other side of the field this time, noting that that Chykie Brown had just entered the game at cornerback for the injured Jimmy Smith and had man coverage on Emmanuel Sanders.

Roethlisberger threw a quick, back-shoulder pass to Sanders, and the ball sailed through the hands of the player who fashions himself as a No. 1 receiver.

A lame onside kick attempt by Shaun Suisham sealed the Steelers' seventh loss in 12 games, and the defeat means Pittsburgh has to win its final four games just to give itself a chance of making the AFC playoffs as a wild-card team.

“I don't expect any quit,” a resolute Roethlisberger said after almost pulling off one of his patented fourth-quarter comebacks. “We haven't quit to this point. I know what I'm going to do. I'm going to fight my butt off all the way to the end.”

The Steelers did just that after falling behind 13-0 and after injuries scrambled their offensive line more than usual. They also saw one of their players knocked out cold but were, oddly enough, the team penalized in the name of safety.

Le'Veon Bell, who had the best game of his promising career, appeared to score a touchdown with less than two minutes left in the fourth quarter. It came after a frightening collision with Smith near the goal line that caused Bell's helmet to pop off just before he fell across the goal line. A prayer circle quickly formed as medical personnel tended to the concussed Bell, and by the time he had been helped to his feet a rule that is supposed to protect players had taken the touchdown off the scoreboard. Since plays are ruled dead the moment a runner's helmet comes off, the ball was placed at the 1-yard line following a booth review of Bell's score.

The Steelers needed two more plays to score their third touchdown of the second half against a Ravens team that has one of the best red-zone defenses in the NFL. But they ultimately came up a play short in yet another Steelers-Ravens game that was was tighter than a shrunken turtleneck.

One thing that bodes well for the Steelers staying together and at least making a run at 9-7 is how quickly players were to accept blame for the loss.

“It's my fault that we lost,” Sanders said. “It's something I've got to deal with, but I'm not going to let it hold me down. Redemption Sunday is coming up.”

Sanders acknowledged that Brown did a good job of shielding the ball from his line of vision on the two-point conversion, but added, “That's no excuse. I consider myself a big-time player. I've got to come up with those plays.”

Troy Polamalu said the Steelers' defense didn't make enough plays even though it kept the Ravens out of the end zone after Baltimore's first possession of the game.

“Their defense played better than ours,” the Pro Bowl strong safety said. “That's what won them the game.”

Roethlisberger, meanwhile, said he could have done more to help he Steelers win even though he played brilliantly in leading the Steelers back from double-digit deficits twice in the second half.

Roethlisberger completed 28 of 44 passes for 257 yards and two touchdowns, and he had the Ravens' defense on its heels by the end of the game.

Had the Steelers attacked more in the first half than they did in the final two quarters they may have never needed Sanders to make what would have been a tough catch to send the game into overtime.

But an insipid offensive game plan made it look like the Steelers were playing not to lose when they had every reason in the world to do whatever it took to win.

The Steeler managed just 98 yards on total offense in the first half, and they didn't score before halftime for the first time this season. The Steelers went with a no-huddle attack almost exclusively in the second half.

“Maybe we should have done it earlier and maybe I should have voiced that more, so I'll take that [blame] myself as well,” Roethlisberger said.

Such selflessness in defeat isn't easy to muster, especially given all that was on the line and all of the good the Steelers did only to wind up with a loss.

As Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said, “I appreciate the effort of the guys, but we didn't come down here with effort in mind. We came here to win.”

That's what made Roethlisberger and Sanders such a compelling sight as the latter walked to his locker after the loss that the Steelers may not be able to overcome. Roethlisberger pulled Sanders close and talked to him.

"That's for us," Roethlisberger later said of the conversation. "In general [it was], 'Keep your head up.'"

The Steelers will try to do the same.

Woodley, Keisel questionable for Sunday

November, 22, 2013
PITTSBURGH -- The Steelers could again be without two defensive starters Sunday when they visit the Browns.

Defensive end Brett Keisel (foot) and outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley (calf) have been officially listed as questionable for the 1 p.m. game.

Each was listed as limited participants in the Steelers' final practice of the week. Keisel, who is dealing with plantar fasciitis, said he wanted to test his injured foot after not playing in the Steelers' 37-27 win over the Lions last Sunday.

"I did enough to where I'm engaging with an offensive lineman, putting weight on it, moving laterally, all of the things you need to do on Sunday," Keisel said. "I don't know if [the injury] can get worse or not. It's just one of those things you are going to have to deal with and go out work."

Keisel and Woodley are likely to be game-time decisions.

The Steelers will get one starter back barring a setback as left guard Ramon Foster fully practiced Friday for the second consecutive day. Foster, who did not play last Sunday because of a sprained ankle, is listed as probable for the Browns game along with center Fernando Velasco (knee) and left tackle Kelvin Beachum (hip).

Wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders also appear to be good to go after getting knocked out of the Lions win with a foot injury. Sanders practiced all week and was a full participant in drills the last two days.

The only Steelers players that have been ruled out for Sunday are safety Shamarko Thomas (ankle) and linebacker Stevenson Sylvester (hamstring).
PITTSBURGH -- Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley did not practice Thursday, sitting out drills a day after he took part in them on a limited basis.

The Steelers are hoping both Woodley and defensive end Brett Keisel play in Cleveland, a week after each missed the team’s 37-27 win against the Lions.

Keisel has yet to practice this week, making Friday a critical day for the 12th-year veteran. He and safety Shamarko Thomas (ankle) were the only Steelers who didn’t practice on Thursday.

Left guard Ramon Foster (ankle) is on track to play Sunday after practicing fully on Thursday. The same is true of wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders (foot), who has practiced both days this week.

Also participating fully in practice on Thursday were tight end Heath Miller, center Fernando Velasco (knee) and left tackle Kelvin Beachum (hip). Linebacker Stevenson Sylvester (hamstring) was limited.

Tight end Matt Spaeth practiced for the first time since suffering a Lisfranc injury in early August. Spaeth has been on the short-term injured reserve list, and the Steelers have three weeks to add the seventh-year veteran to their 53-man roster or put him on injured reserve.

“Didn’t do a lot, but did a little bit of everything,” Spaeth said. “It felt good to be back.”
PITTSBURGH -- Coach Mike Tomlin is optimistic that the Pittsburgh Steelers will get three starters back for their 1 p.m. ET game Sunday at Cleveland.

Outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley (calf), defensive end Brett Keisel (foot) and left guard Ramon Foster (ankle) will be limited in practice this week, but Tomlin said he “anticipates” all three returning to action against the Browns.

None of the three played in the Steelers’ 37-27 win against the Lions last Sunday.

Tomlin is also hopeful wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders will be able to play Sunday despite a foot injury that knocked the fourth-year veteran out of the Lions game.

Sanders will try to practice on a limited basis on Wednesday.

“He’s feeling much better than he was on Sunday,” Tomlin said.

If Sanders is unable to play, a combination of Jerricho Cotchery, Markus Wheaton and Derek Moye will replace him.

Safety Shamarko Thomas (ankle) and linebacker Stevenson Sylvester are doubtful for the Browns game, Tomlin said.

Left tackle Kelvin Beachum (hip) and center Fernando Velasco (knee) are among those who will be limited in practice, but each is expected to play in Cleveland.

Tight end Matt Spaeth is getting his foot evaluated Tuesday, and he could try to practice this week. Spaeth is on the short-term injured reserve list because of a Lisfranc injury.

Steelers could be down three starters

November, 15, 2013
PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Steelers may be without three starters Sunday when they host the Detroit Lions for a 1 p.m. game.

Outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley (calf), defensive end Brett Keisel (foot) and left guard Ramon Foster (ankle) all missed practice Friday for the third consecutive day.

Woodley is listed as doubtful on the Steelers’ injury report though the seventh-year veteran is holding out hope of playing against the Lions.

“There is a great chance,” Woodley said of playing. “Two days left [to heal].”

Keisel, who is battling plantar fasciitis, and Foster are listed as questionable but each is also a long shot to suit up against Detroit.

Guy Whimper said he practiced all week at left guard with the first-team offense and is preparing to start on Sunday. Ziggy Hood will start in place of Keisel if the latter can’t go.

Among the Steelers listed as probable are left tackle Kelvin Beachum (hip), right guard David DeCastro (ankle), right tackle Marcus Gilbert (ankle), center Fernando Velasco (knee), offensive tackle Mike Adams (ribs) and tight end Heath Miller.

Six offensive linemen are listed on the Steelers’ injury report but Foster is the only one expected to miss Sunday’s game at Heinz Field.

Rookie safety Shamarko Thomas (ankle) had been ruled out for the game earlier this week.

Big Ben says Steelers must not quit

November, 5, 2013
PITTSBURGH – Ben Roethlisberger said after a deflating loss in New England that the one thing he wanted to see moving forward was for the Pittsburgh Steelers to keep battling.

Roethlisberger vowed Tuesday on his weekly radio show that this won't be optional for his teammates as they try to rebound from a 2-6 start.

“If anybody’s ready to quit, then they need to get off this train because I’m going to keep it moving and I think everyone feels the same way,” Roethlisberger said on 93.7 The Fan. “You know you’re not going to get any quit from me, and I’m going to make sure no one else does.”

The losses have piled up at a rate no one inside the Steelers’ locker room could have foreseen a couple of months ago. And Roethlisberger relayed something from Sunday's 55-31 loss to the Patriots that proved the inverse of the axiom that good teams create their own luck.

Roethlisberger lost a fumble on the Steelers’ first possession of the game, and Patriots linebacker Rob Ninkovich was credited with a sack and forced fumble on the play. What actually happened when Roethlisberger tried to throw a pass to running back Felix Jones? He said the ball slipped out of his hand because it had blue paint on it from the Patriots’ logo on the field.

“It’s one thing when you’re playing in the rain and you’re expecting the ball to be wet, but when it’s dry outside and you get a wet ball in your hand it’s not a good thing,” Roethlisberger said. “The guy didn’t do anything crazy to swat at the ball. It just literally slipped out of my hands.”

Roethlisberger said he talked to center Fernando Velasco after the fumble about not getting sweat on the ball before snapping it. But, the quarterback said, he didn’t see Velasco perspiring much. That is when he noticed he had blue paint on his right hand.

Roethlisberger told referees and his coaches about the paint, but at that point there was nothing he could do about the turnover.

"That’s a little thing that’s unfortunate that has happened to us,” Roethlisberger said. “It’s not an excuse, it just happens, and it kept us from really starting as fast as we wanted to do. We all just kind of shook our heads.”

It has indeed been that kind of season for the Steelers.
PITTSBURGH -- The week or so he spent waiting for a call from an NFL team allowed Fernando Velasco to watch his younger brother play a game at Georgia Southern as well as indulge his passion for golf.

“I fell in love with it,” Velasco said of golf. “This offseason I’m going to take a few more lessons and really get into it. I’m still learning.”

If Velasco picks up things as quickly in golf as he does in football, then he might be shooting numbers associated with offensive linemen in no time.

The seamless transition Velasco made from street free agent to starting center for the Pittsburgh Steelers is a major reason why the offensive line is trending upward after a rough start to the season.

Velasco has started all five games since Pro Bowler Maurkice Pouncey went down with a season-ending injury, and he has played well enough that it is hard to believe it hasn’t been much more than a month since he signed with the Steelers and learned the playbook in a week.

“It definitely seems like a long, long time ago,” Velasco said of the week that doubled as a cramming session for the fourth-year veteran. “Everything happened so fast. I won’t give myself any credit. It’s just the guys around me who really made me feel more comfortable. They helped me more than people realize. Nothing is easy, but they really made the transition easier.”

Velasco helped himself, too, by picking up a new offense faster than anyone could have expected.

“He’s done amazing,” right guard David DeCastro said. “It’s a credit to him and his intelligence.”

The Steelers couldn’t have done any better after the loss of Pouncey left a gaping hole in the offensive line.

Velasco started 13 games at center last season in Tennessee, but the 6-4, 312-pounder became expendable after the Titans signed free agent Rob Turner and drafted another center, Brian Schwenke, in the fourth round.

Velasco didn’t just play golf after the Titans released him at the end of August. He also stayed in shape, confident that a call would come from an NFL team sooner rather than later.

The Steelers reached out after Pouncey got hurt, and one thing Velasco does remember from the whirlwind week after he signed with Pittsburgh is walking past the six Lombardi Trophies, that are in the team library, for the first time.

Velasco passed them on the way to general manager Kevin Colbert’s office, and he couldn’t help but stop -- and stare.

“I had never seen (the Lombardi Trophy) in person,” Velasco said with a smile. “Something special, and I want to do what I can to get No. 7.”