NFL Nation: Hines Ward

PITTSBURGH -- Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has generally refrained from commenting on criticism of the Pittsburgh Steelers by former coach Bill Cowher and Hines Ward, the organization's all-time leading receiver.

He did fire back a bit at Steelers' critics in a one-on-one interview with ESPN's Lisa Salters, who will be a sideline reporter for tonight's Houston Texans-Steelers game.

"They don't know what they're talking about because they're not here so we kind of just laugh it off," Roethlisberger said. "A lot of people outside of this locker room are going to talk, are going to point fingers. We don't have time for that."

Ward leveled the strongest criticism against Roethlisberger last week, placing blame for the Steelers' offensive struggles on the veteran quarterback.

Ward said Roethlisberger's play-calling is the biggest reason why the Steelers are No. 31 in the NFL in red zone efficiency. Offensive coordinator Todd Haley said last week that Roethlisberger has called less than 30 percent of the plays this season.

Roethlisberger declined to comment directly on Ward's criticism to last week.

He told Salters that he looks at criticism from Ward and Cowher as coming from the media -- even with their deep ties to the Steelers' organization.

"A lot of the media likes to point fingers," Roethlisberger said, "and a lot of times they don't know what they're talking about."
PITTSBURGH -- Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said he respects that Bill Cowher and Hines Ward have jobs to do as NFL analysts, but he shrugged off criticism of their former team after a 31-10 loss in Cleveland.

“I don’t worry about that. That’s elevator music as far as I’m concerned,” Tomlin said Tuesday at his weekly news conference. “I’m concerned about the things that are significant and that’s the men inside this organization right now and how they prepare and how they play. Love those guys, but those guys are on the outside looking in.”

Cowher, who coached the Steelers for 15 seasons before Tomlin succeeded him, said on CBS’ NFL Today on Sunday that Pittsburgh is “soft” on defense and too “finesse” on offense. Ward, the Steelers’ all-time leading receiver, said on NBC that “I look at their personnel; they can’t cover anybody in the secondary. Offensively, I thought I’d never say it, but the Steelers are a finesse offense right now. I don’t even know who these guys are.”

Tomlin and offensive coordinator Todd Haley have endured criticism from a number of different fronts with the Steelers 3-3 following consecutive 8-8 seasons.

Tomlin said he will look at making some changes in personnel but that the Steelers will largely stay the course as far as what they are doing on offense and defense from a schematic standpoint.

The Steelers are fourth in the NFL in total offense (396.5 yards per game) but just 23rd in scoring (20.7 points per game) largely because they have the second-worst red-zone offense in the league.

“Right now it’s not sweeping or drastic changes as far as who and what we are schematically,” Tomlin said. “I will look at who we utilize and where in all three phases.”

Among those players who could see increased roles Monday night against the Houston Texans are cornerback Brice McCain and rookie wide receiver Martavis Bryant.

Bryant has yet to dress for a game but the 6-4, 210-pounder has the size that could help the Steelers’ passing game when they get close to the end zone.

The Steelers have scored touchdowns just 36.8 percent of the time that they have been inside their opponents’ 20-yard line.

“We’ve got to score when we put the ball in scoring position, and we haven’t done it consistently enough and we better fix it,” Tomlin said.
PITTSBURGH -- Dumbfounded and even discouraged are two words that describe how I felt after learning former Pittsburgh Steelers running back Jerome Bettis had been denied entrance into the Pro Football Hall of Fame for the fourth consecutive year.

What I am missing here?

More importantly, what is he missing?

Bettis has the numbers, he has a ring, and he has the strongest of endorsements of those who should matter the most: the coaches and teammates who were around him on a regular basis and know the impact “The Bus” had on the field and in the Steelers’ locker room.

Consider what former Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward told earlier this week: "To be that size and have quick feet was just amazing. Sometimes you found yourself as a teammate watching like a fan to see him get through a hole, side step somebody, run over somebody and then get up and do his patent ‘The Bus’ dance. That is what made him such a special running back. You don’t see many guys be able to maneuver the holes and run somebody over.”

Eh, what would Ward know?

He only played, fought and bled with Bettis for eight seasons and actually cried for the man after the Steelers fell short of the Super Bowl in 2004.

Bettis fell short of the Hall of Fame again though he did make the cut of modern-day finalists, along with former Steelers outside linebacker Kevin Greene, from 15 to 10.

That isn’t -- and shouldn’t be -- any consolation to the player who is sixth on the NFL’s career rushing list (13,662 yards) and is on a very short list of those who can be considered the best big back of all-time.

If Bettis is paying the price for the perception -- flawed as it is -- that too many Steelers are already in the Hall of Fame, that is hogwash.

It is also a disservice to Bettis as well as the Steelers’ organization.

Want to know why there are so many Steelers in the Hall of Fame? They owned the 1970s and probably didn’t get enough deserving players from the teams that won four Super Bowls from 1974-79 into the Hall of Fame.

Bettis is among the players who laid the foundation for another glorious run that linked the Steelers teams of the 1970s to the ones that won two Super Bowls and played in another from 2005-10.

True, he played on only one of those teams -- Bettis famously retired after Pittsburgh won the 2005 Super Bowl in his hometown of Detroit -- but his influence on the Steelers lingered long after he had stopping pushing piles and displaying the kind of footwork that belied a man of his size.

“When I first got here it was the time the WWJD bracelets, What Would Jesus Do, came out and I would laugh when I was doing things and think, What Would Jerome Do,” Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger told earlier this week. “He is someone I tried to mold myself after. That is what made him so special, outside of the talent he had on the field.”

Like Bettis, Greene can only wonder what it will take for him to receive the call from the Hall of Fame.

One of the greatest pass-rushers of his generation fell short of Canton, Ohio, for the 1oth year despite leading the NFL in sacks with two different teams, including the Steelers in 1996, and earning a spot on the NFL’s All-Decade team of the 1990s.

Greene ranks third on the NFL’s all-time sacks list (160), and, like Bettis, he put up the kinds of numbers that should one day land him in the Hall of Fame.

The question with both remains when.

Retirement not on Brett Keisel's mind

January, 28, 2014
PITTSBURGH -- Brett Keisel took part in Super Bowl Media Day on Tuesday asking hair-related questions as part of a promotion for Head & Shoulders.

The Steelers defensive end, however, made it clear after the media extravaganza/parody that he is not in the New York City area this week auditioning for post-football jobs such as professional pitch man or some sort of NFL analyst.

Keisel, nearly a month after his 12th NFL season ended, told ESPN's SVP & Russillo that retirement isn't on his radar even though he is 35 and has played out the five-year contract he signed in 2009.

"I think I've got a couple [of seasons] left in me," Keisel said on the syndicated talk radio show. "I feel great and still feel like I can play and we'll see what happens."

The question Keisel may soon face is how far he is willing to go to continue his career -- and that could be literally.

Keisel has said he can't imagine donning a different uniform, and he and his wife have fallen so in love with Pittsburgh that they plan to raise their family here after his playing days are over.

But the Steelers are more likely than not to move forward without Keisel. It is something they have done the last two years with other cornerstones from the teams that won two Super Bowls and played in another from 2005-10.

Hines Ward, James Farrior, Casey Hampton and Aaron Smith, Keisel's onetime mentor, are among those whom the Steelers released or did not re-sign, and Keisel could soon join that list.

He would have to accept a drastic pay cut -- he made $4.9 million in 2013 -- and probably a reduced role for the Steelers to even considering bringing him back for another season.

If Keisel is amenable to both I think the Steelers should re-sign the 6-5, 285-pounder, especially since fellow defensive ends Ziggy Hood and Al Woods are also set to become unrestricted free agents on March 11 and face uncertain futures.

Keisel had four sacks last season and 26 quarterback pressures, third most on the Steelers, despite missing four games and playing sparingly in another because of a nagging foot injury.

Bringing him back as a situation pass rusher, a role he filled before becoming a full-time starter in 2006, would make a lot of sense.

That is if the dollars and cents work for the Steelers and Keisel.

There are a lot of variables at play as far as Keisel's future with with the Steelers.

One that isn't: his desire to keep playing.

Polamalu, Steelers still a good fit

January, 16, 2014
PITTSBURGH -- The last two years show that sentimentality has nothing to do with Art Rooney II's desire for Troy Polamalu to retire as a Steeler.

[+] EnlargeTroy Polamalu
AP Photo/Tom UhlmanMoney may be the only thing in the way of Troy Polamalu retiring as a Steeler.
Hines Ward, Aaron Smith, James Harrison, James Farrior and Casey Hampton are among the players whom the Steelers have either cut or not re-signed since 2012. Like Polamalu, all were cornerstones on the teams that won two Super Bowls and played in another from 2005-10.

True, Polamalu is the most iconic of those players with the flowing locks that have morphed into their own brand and a game that is a study in angles, kinetics and flash.

But the 2010 NFL Defensive Player of the Year is also still playing at a high level even if he has slipped a bit in coverage. That was never the strongest part of his game anyway. and Polamalu is still arguably the most valuable piece the Steelers have on defense given how defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau deploys him all over the field.

Any doubts the Steelers may have had about wanting Polamalu back in 2014 were erased by a season in which he displayed remarkable durability.

Consider that a significant number of the 1,041 snaps Polamalu played came at inside linebacker in the Steelers' quarter package. And yet the 11th-year veteran did not come off the field a year after he missed more than half of the 2012 season because of a calf injury.

Necessity is also a factor in the Steelers wanting Polamalu back in 2014. The team is unlikely to re-sign free safety Ryan Clark, and there is no way the Steelers can go into next season with two new safeties.

Shamarko Thomas, the eventual successor to Polamalu at strong safety, showed promise during his rookie season. But the fourth-round draft pick did not play a defensive snap in the final seven games after sustaining a high ankle injury and getting supplanted by veteran Will Allen in the quarter package.

Money is the one thing that could complicate Polamalu finishing his career in Pittsburgh.

His cap hit of just under $10.9 million is prohibitive for a team that needs to shed salary in the offseason. And the Steelers wanted to re-sign Harrison last year but the two sides couldn't agree on the amount of a pay cut the outside linebacker take, and he is now playing in Cincinnati.

It is possible that a similar scenario could play out with Polamalu but I think it is highly unlikely.

Polamalu wants to finish his career in Pittsburgh. Rooney expressed, in as strong of terms possible, that he wants the same thing.

The two sides will find a way to make it happen.
PITTSBURGH -- Defensive end Brett Keisel, like safety Ryan Clark, has probably played his last game as a Steeler at Heinz Field. And Keisel, like Clark, isn't thinking about retirement right now.

He made very clear after the Pittsburgh Steelers' 20-7 win over the bumbling Cleveland Browns that whatever nostalgia he experienced Sunday shouldn't be mistaken for Keisel giving serious thought to retiring after more than a decade of playing in the NFL.

"I'm not saying it's over for me at all," Keisel said. "I still feel like I can play and we'll see."

Keisel and Clark are in remarkably similar situations.

Each just finished his 12th NFL season and each has to make a minimum of $955,000 next season per the collective bargaining agreement regarding veteran salaries.

Like Clark, Keisel is aware of what has happened in recent years with the Steelers either releasing or not re-signing defensive stalwarts such as linebackers James Farrior and James Harrison, defensive end Aaron Smith and nose tackle Casey Hampton.

If Keisel is the next to go he at least went out in memorable fashion.

He recorded a sack and a forced fumble on the same play early in the game. Keisel then delivered what had become one of his signatures after dropping a quarterback. The avid outdoorsman mimicked shooting a bow and arrow after sacking Jason Campbell, and he had the presence of mind to not drop to his knee and avoided getting a taunting penalty.

"I had to shoot one more," Keisel said. "I'm glad I had the opportunity."

He would love nothing more than to get more opportunities with the Steelers but Keisel is well aware that he could soon confront a dilemma that others such as Farrior, Smith and wide receiver Hines Ward faced before him: retire as a Steeler or try to extend his career elsewhere.

Keisel can't imagine wearing another uniform and he loves Pittsburgh so much that he and his wife plan to raise their family here. But he is also an admitted competition junkie so walking away from football won't be easy, especially since Keisel still feels like he can still play.

If he suited up for the final time as a Steeler on Sunday, he didn't leave anything to chance.

Keisel gathered the defensive linemen before the game and told them to savor the moment because it would be the last time they would all play together with change inevitable after every season.

Keisel -- and the linemen who see him as their unquestioned leader -- then helped a defense stymie the Browns and keep them off the scoreboard until the waning minutes of the game.

"It was emotional," Keisel said of is meeting with the linemen, "but I'm just proud to be a Steeler and proud to have helped finish this thing strong. You never know what's going to happen. But it's a great feeling to come off the game with a big win. I'm a happy camper."

Steelers players vote Brown team MVP

December, 26, 2013
PITTSBURGH -- Wide receiver Antonio Brown has been voted the Pittsburgh Steelers’ MVP, marking the second time in the past three seasons he has won the award.

The award clearly came down to Brown and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, and the former became the Steelers’ first two-time winner of it since James Harrison in 2007-08.

Roethlisberger, surprisingly, has only won the award once in 10 seasons -- in 2009 when he set a franchise record with 4,328 passing yards.

To me, the award was a coin flip between Roethlisberger and Brown, so I’m certainly not going to argue against Brown -- or that the vote was some sort of referendum on Roethlisberger’s standing in the locker room.

Brown has simply been outstanding this season and, in the words of coach Mike Tomlin, “ridiculously consistent all year.”

Brown has answered any questions about whether the Steelers had a No. 1 wide receiver following the departure of Mike Wallace, and Brown has already established a single-season Steelers record with 1,412 receiving yards.

Brown has at least five catches and 50 receiving yards in every game this season, and he has an outside chance of breaking Hines Ward's Steelers record for receptions in a season.

Brown needs 12 catches Sunday against the Browns to surpass the 112 grabs that Ward had in 2002. The fourth-year veteran is also one of only four players in franchise history with at least two seasons of 1,100 or more receiving yards.

Brown, who is also one of the top punt returners in the NFL, is a lock to make the Pro Bowl for a second time.

The Pro Bowl teams will be announced on Friday.

Antonio Brown chases records, greatness

December, 20, 2013
PITTSBURGH -- Hines Ward left the NFL as a two-time Super Bowl winner, a Super Bowl MVP and with his name etched all over the Steelers record book.

His parting gift to the organization he played his entire career for may have been Antonio Brown – or at least the impact Ward had on Brown the two seasons they were teammates.

“He brought it every day,” Brown said of the Steelers’ all-time leading receiver. “He always had a goal in mind. He was always after something.”

[+] EnlargeAntonio Brown
Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY SportsThe dedication of Antonio Brown has earned the receiver respect within the Steelers organization.
Ward, it can be argued, may have done too good of a job in mentoring Brown and helping him develop.

Brown supplanted Ward in the starting lineup during the 2011 season. Now he is after the Steelers records that Ward set.

One of the few that Ward didn’t establish – receiving yards in a season – is within Brown’s grasp. The fourth-year veteran also has an outside chance of breaking Ward’s record for receptions in a season (112).

Brown needs 18 catches in the Steelers’ final two games to finish with 113. He needs just 92 receiving yards to break Yancey Thigpen’s record for receiving yards in a season (1,398).

“I tend not to think about it,” Brown said of the record he is chasing. “I’m just trying to go out and execute my assignment, and most importantly, help the team win. I feel like if I go out and do that, those things will fall into place. I don’t spend time consuming myself with what’s in front of me.”

Brown spends most of his time when he's in the Steelers’ locker room at the corner stall that used to belong to outside linebacker James Harrison. The symbolism of Brown moving into Harrison’s old digs became apparent earlier this week when Steelers coach Mike Tomlin compared the two in terms of work ethic.

"Ridiculous" was the word Tomlin used to describe it.

“I know and hear what he is doing on his own time, and it’s off the charts,” Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley said of Brown. “I think the guy comes to work every day and works as hard as anybody I’ve ever seen work.”

Haley said that ethos isn’t the only reason why Brown emerged as a No. 1 receiver following the departure of Mike Wallace.

“The cohesiveness between him and Ben Roethlisberger, you can see it building as the year has gone on,” Haley said. “Brown is doing a lot of the little things the right way, which early on would get him in trouble a little bit at times and break that trust a little bit. When you break it down he is a terrific player with outstanding ability.”

Haley added that Brown is “breaking the trend” for No. 1 receivers. The 5-foot-10, 186-pounder is not the tall, rangy prototype. He is also not what Tomlin would call a pedigreed player as Brown lasted until the sixth round of the 2010 NFL draft.

Brown wasn’t even the Steelers’ first sixth-round pick that year as they selected him after taking running back Jonathan Dwyer.

If Brown uses that slight as fuel, he is not saying.

“Every day I get up and walk the Earth, that’s motivation for me to go out and make something of myself,” he said.
PITTSBURGH -- Ryan Clark wasted little time acknowledging an uncomfortable truth after the loss that all but eliminated the Steelers from postseason contention.

Change is coming sooner rather than later, and it could sweep away most of the remaining veterans who won at least one Super Bowl with the Steelers and played in another.

“Any time you're in the last year of a contract and a team is playing a certain way you never know what moves they want to make,” Clark said Sunday after the Steelers' 34-28 loss to the Dolphins. “I think guys need to realize, and I have realized probably because I am older, faces change. You lose James Farriors and you lose Aaron Smiths, and it hurts and it's tough but everybody's time comes. For me I want to enjoy bit, keep playing, have fun.”

The Steelers have their share of pending free agents and they fall into two groups: veterans they may not try to re-sign and younger players they may not be able to re-sign because they command more money somewhere else.

Clark is clearly in the first category as he is in his 12th NFL season, turned 34 in October and is part of a secondary that desperately needs an infusion of youth.

He saw the Steelers make tough business decisions a couple of years ago when they released Farrior and Ward, two players who meant everything to the organization.

The same thing happened after last season when the Steelers did not try to re-sign Casey Hampton, a locker room favorite and one of the best run-stuffing nose tackles of his generation.

The Steelers rarely let sentiment get in the way of making difficult personnel decisions, and they don't figure to start now.

The franchise that has won a record six Lombardi Trophies is at a crossroads, and it faces another offseason that will be marked by turnover. Letting Clark walk may be one of the easier decisions it faces given his expiring contract and declining play.

That reality is the reason Clark is looking at the Steelers' final three games as anything but meaningless.

“I know (they) matter to me because for some of us this may be the last however many games in a Pittsburgh Steeler helmet, so you want to play well, you want to enjoy the time with your friends,” Clark said. “You just continue to play hard, you continue to have fun and for me that's what I'm going to do and then what happens with that happens.”

Upon Further Review: Steelers Week 7

October, 21, 2013
An examination of four hot issues from the Pittsburgh Steelers' 19-16 win over the Baltimore Ravens:

[+] EnlargeEmmanuel Sanders
Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY SportsEmmanuel Sanders' clutch kick return set up the Steelers' winning drive in the fourth quarter.
Making a statement: An offensive line that provided a consistent push up front and protected quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is what the Steelers envisioned before the start of the season. That finally translated into the Steelers controlling the line of scrimmage, and they did it against a defense that had been giving up fewer than 100 rushing yards per game. Right guard David DeCastro, who is really starting to come into his own, said the Steelers used some inside zone blocking on the way to a season-high 141 rushing yards. But it didn’t take a Stanford education for DeCastro to break down why the Steelers were so successful on the ground. “Winning one-on-one blocks,” the second-year man said. “I think we’re finally starting to jell. We’re communicating really well. It’s a positive.”

Gamble pays off: Emmanuel Sanders received the green light from special teams coordinator Danny Smith to return the game’s final kickoff no matter how deep he fielded it in the end zone. That confidence and Sanders’ speed almost delivered a dramatic touchdown. Even though Sanders stepped out of bounds -- and it appears that his left foot touched the chalk, albeit barely -- his return set up the offense with good field position at Pittsburgh's 37-yard line. That allowed the Steelers to employ a methodical approach to their game-winning drive instead of forcing Roethlisberger to take chances down the field. “It was one of those ones where [Sanders] started running out [of the end zone] and you said to yourself no, no, no and then yes, yes, yes,” Roethlisberger said. “What a heck of a play by him.”

A trick and a treat: The Steelers used a trick play to score their only touchdown. But the 2-yard touchdown pass to tight end Heath Miller on a left-handed flip from Roethlisberger had been a part of the Steelers’ offensive repertoire for years. The Steelers used the shovel pass with Hines Ward, and Roethlisberger lobbied the coaches early last week to bring the play out of retirement. The Steelers executed it perfectly and Miller crashed into the end zone for his 40th career touchdown. “We knew that their ends like to come up the field,” Roethlisberger said. “As a quarterback you love those short, easy passes and let Heath do all the work.”

Return to form: The Steelers were as effective at stopping the run as they were running the ball. They held the Ravens to 82 yards rushing and limited them to 3.1 yards per carry. On half of Baltimore’s 26 runs, it gained 2 yards or fewer. The Steelers have allowed 165 rushing yards in the two games since Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson gashed them for 140 rushing yards and two touchdowns.
Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Jacoby Jones became the latest NFL player to have success on "Dancing With The Stars," finishing third on the ABC television series this month. Jones is back practicing with the Ravens and is looking to avoid following in his predecessors' footsteps.

The four active NFL players to participate on DWTS before Jones -- Jason Taylor, Chad Johnson, Hines Ward and Donald Driver -- failed to play a full season in the year they competed on the show and all were either on different teams or retired by the following season.

Does Jones worry about suffering a similar fate?

“I’m on the younger side,” Jones told the team's official website. “I’ll be fine.”

Jones does have youth on his side. At 28, Jones is the youngest NFL player in "Dancing With The Stars" history (according to DWTS Stats & Information).

Taylor, who was 33 when he went on the show in 2008, finished with 3.5 sacks for the Washington Redskins after recording 11 the previous season. He was released in 2009 and signed with the Miami Dolphins.

Johnson, who was 32 on DWTS and had the last name Ochocinco in 2010, managed 67 catches for 831 yards, the second-lowest during his nine seasons as a starting receiver for the Cincinnati Bengals. He was traded to the New England Patriots in 2011.

Ward, who was 35 on the show in 2011, caught 46 passes for 381 yards and two touchdowns, his lowest numbers in more than a decade. He was released in 2012 and later retired with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Driver, who was 37 on DWTS in 2012, had eight receptions for 77 yards, his worst season since his rookie year. He retired with the Green Bay Packers in 2013.

The Ravens can't afford for Jones to decline this season. He has a chance to become a starting receiver for the Ravens after the team traded Anquan Boldin this offseason. At the very least, Jones will be Baltimore's primary returner, which earned him Pro Bowl honors last season.

Jones only missed one week of on-field workouts because of the show. But he hasn't been part of the team's offseason conditioning program, which began April 15.

“My conditioning is good and I’m not sore,” Jones said. “I’ve just got to get my legs back under me, football-wise. It’s not like dancing. I still don’t feel like me. In a week, I’ll feel like me.”
For 14 years, Hines Ward was a Steeler. Now, his goal is to be an Ironman.

Ward, 37, is training for the biggest stage in triathlon, the Hawaii Ironman, which consists of a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile ride and 26.2-mile run. My guess is this takes a little more endurance than his previous off-the-field ventures -- winning "Dancing With The Stars" and playing a zombie on "The Walking Dead."

Getting ready for the world championships in October has been a grueling process for Ward. Dropping 18 pounds in two months, Ward ran his first race at 210 pounds. He even beat his time goal by three minutes. By the time he runs his half-Ironman in June, Ward should be down to 195 pounds.

Ward is being coached by Paula Newby-Fraser, who has won the Ironman World Championship a record eight times. There is no thought of Ward winning the race or even coming close to it. Success for Ward is finishing the race before the 17-hour cutoff.

"I have the mentality as a football player that I want to win every time, but you got to put things in reality when you come out here," Ward said.
For the past couple of weeks, every time a Steelers player opened his mouth, the team looked more and more splintered.

Safety Ryan Clark said there was a "fracture" in the locker room. Wide receiver Antonio Brown talked about a divided locker room. Even former Steelers receiver Hines Ward chimed in, calling it a locker room in "total disarray" last season.

The only player so far to shoot down this perception is quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, which is the first promising sign of the offseason. Roethlisberger insists the demise of the Steelers' locker room has been greatly exaggerated. More importantly, he sent a message through The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: Move forward, guys.

[+] EnlargeBen Roethlisberger
Tim Heitman/USA TODAY SportBen Roethlisberger, a leader on the field, is taking on that role for the Steelers off it, too.
"I'm hoping by doing this to put a stop to it, to say, listen, everybody, as a leader in this locker room, as a guy who has been around here for a long time, I'm hoping that by saying there is no issue and this is fine, that this could be our exclamation point," Roethlisberger told the paper. "Let's move on with this offseason, to training, to getting ready. I don't think there's a reason to look back anymore. That's what I'm hoping to just say: Done."

Whether you believe him or not about the locker room, you have to admire the way Roethlisberger stepped forward and took control of the situation. The Steelers need Roethlisberger to be the leader, and he certainly played that role perfectly in this instance. The Steelers have been their own worst enemy in February, and Roethlisberger essentially told teammates to shut up and stop rehashing the past. This sure seemed like the matured Roethlisberger, who became a husband in 2011 and a father last year.

Though Roethlisberger became the starting quarterback in 2004, he didn't have to take charge until last season. There was always Jerome Bettis or Hines Ward on offense. With both gone, Roethlisberger was far from the model leader last season. There was speculation of friction throughout the season between him and offensive coordinator Todd Haley, and there was also the time that Roethlisberger openly questioned the play calling in an overtime loss at Dallas.

There have been fewer questions about Roethlisberger's leadership on the field. He's won 87 regular-season games in nine seasons in Pittsburgh and guided the Steelers to two Super Bowl titles. He's orchestrated 22 fourth-quarter comebacks (although he showed some late-game lapses after coming back from injury last season). Now, it's apparent that Roethlisberger has to assert himself off the field. And he said all the right things in addressing the strong comments made by Clark and Brown.

"For anybody to say there are locker-room issues or leadership issues are completely off base," Roethlisberger told The Post-Gazette. "I believe that's the frustration. I believe that it's frustration of last year, I honestly do."

Roethlisberger can say there wasn't a problem in the locker room. But there was obviously something wrong with the Steelers last season. Pittsburgh finished 8-8 and half of those losses came against teams with losing records.

There are painful memories like the eight turnovers in Cleveland and Roethlisberger's interception in overtime in Dallas. Maybe the losses were more the result of a lack of focus than a fracture in the locker room. Either way, the only way the Steelers can turn it around is with Roethlisberger leading the way.

"I want it to be known there is no locker-room issue, there is no leadership issue," he said. "Even if guys say it out of frustration, they're trying to find something to say. I think it's important to know we all have each other's back."
A year removed from being part of the Steelers, Hines Ward sees "a locker room in disarray."

Ward, who retired after the 2012 season, told the NFL Network that you wouldn't hear quotes about in-house friction -- like the anonymous one about LaMarr Woodley -- if he was still part of the team. The Steelers parted ways with several strong leaders in Ward, linebacker James Farrior and defensive end Aaron Smith at the same time, which many think is a reason why the locker room is coming unglued.

"When you lose so much leadership in the locker room, that's when things present itself like that," Ward said. "Guys start finger-pointing, calling out other guys. That is not the Steeler way. We've always had a rule: We are a band of brothers. We've always collectively kept everything in house. ... But there was no finger-pointing and calling each other out. That's a total disarray, a locker room in disarray."

While I agree with Ward that the Steelers need leaders to step up, let's not forget that Ward created some turmoil himself when he was in Pittsburgh. In November 2009, he called out quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for not playing against the Ravens with a concussion. But, for the most part, Ward was viewed as a solid leader.

Ward also gave the Steelers some advice that they probably won't be able to follow: Pay Mike Wallace.

"The guy is a phenomena," said Ward, who clearly hasn't heard about the Steelers' cap problem. "He changes the defense. He makes you play Cover-2 all the time. You put this guy in one-on-one coverage and not too many guys who can run toe to toe with Mike Wallace. For the Pittsburgh Steelers, they need to try to find a way to keep this guy. He helps the other guys, Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders, and opens things up for them. Hoefully he can sign and stay with Pittsburgh."

The problem is, without Ward's leadership, the Steelers young wide receivers (who were known to be selfish and focused on numbers) might have played a role in the splintering inside the locker room.

Final Word: AFC South

January, 4, 2013
NFC Final Word: East | West | North AFC: North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about wild-card weekend:

Rematch in Houston: This is the fourth time under the current playoff format that teams are meeting in the wild-card round in back-to-back seasons. In each of the previous three instances, the team that won the first game also won the second game. Houston won on Jan. 7, 2012, at Reliant Stadium 31-10. The Bengals haven’t won a playoff game since 1990. Every other NFL franchise has won a playoff game since then. Cincinnati is 0-5 all-time on the road in the postseason, tied with the Saints (also 0-5) for the worst road record in NFL postseason history. If the Bengals lose, Marvin Lewis will become the first head coach to lose his first four playoff games since Wade Phillips (now the Texans' defensive coordinator) lost his first four before earning his postseason victory in 2009.

[+] EnlargeAndrew Luck
AP Photo/Rick OsentoskiColts QB Andrew Luck hasn't thrown an interception since Dec. 9 in a win against Tennessee.
Playing cleaner: Colts rookie quarterback Andrew Luck led the NFL with 23 turnovers in his first 13 games. But in the last three, he’s protected the ball well and not turned it over at all. Can he stay clean against the Ravens and ball hawking safety Ed Reed, or does he fall back into bad plays? Luck has thrown 10 interceptions on passes 15 or more yards downfield this season, tied with Mark Sanchez and Drew Brees for most in the league. Seven of Luck’s interceptions on such throws have come on the road, the most in the NFL.

Big plays from Andre: Andre Johnson has 10 receptions of 30 or more yards this season, tied for fourth most in the league. The Bengals' defense has allowed only 10 such passing plays all season, the fewest in the NFL. The Texans' ability to find such a play could be a gigantic factor in what I expect to be a defensive game. Matt Schaub has looked to Johnson too much in the Texans’ three recent losses. If the Texans are able to spread the ball around better, it can actually increase opportunities for the throws to Johnson to result in back-breaking, field-flipping plays.

Wayne in the end zone: As good as Reggie Wayne has been this season, less than 5 percent of his 105 catches and less than 3 percent of his 180 targets have been for touchdowns. ESPN Stats & Info says his one touchdown every 36 targets is Wayne’s lowest touchdown rate in the past five seasons, and the sixth-lowest rate in the NFL this season among receivers with at least three touchdowns. (The Colts' Donnie Avery has the fourth lowest with one touchdown every 38.7 targets.) Wayne needs 162 receiving yards to pass Cliff Branch for the third most in NFL postseason history and he needs one touchdown reception to tie Fred Biletnikoff, Antonio Freeman, Randy Moss and Hines Ward for third most touchdown receptions in NFL postseason history.

Also: A.J. Green has four touchdown catches this season on play-action passes, tied for third most in the league. Andy Dalton has not thrown a touchdown pass to any other receiver out of play-action this season. … The Ravens are trying to become the fourth team in NFL history to win a playoff game in five straight seasons. … Of the 16 teams he has faced more than once since 2008, Schaub’s Total QBR of 89.4 against the Bengals is his best against any team. … Arian Foster’s 285 rush yards are the most ever by a player in his first two career playoff games. … Joe Flacco’s not been pushing the ball downfield as much since Jim Caldwell took over as offensive coordinator.