NFL Nation: Trai Essex

Injury-report implications

September, 21, 2012
9/21/12
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Implications from the injury reports around the AFC South …

Indianapolis remains without inside linebacker Pat Angerer and guard Joe Reitz. Jerrell Freeman’s been a great fill-in for the defense, but Reitz’s replacement, Seth Olsen, is poor. Dwight Freeney, Cory Redding and Mike McGlynn are all questionable. Jerry Hughes and Mario Addison would work for Freeney, Ricardo Mathews probably for Redding and Trai Essex for McGlynn. Big drop-offs all.

Jacksonville will be without left guard Eben Britton, which means another start for Herb Taylor. Daryl Smith will miss his third game, putting Kyle Bosworth into the lineup as an outside linebacker. Cameron Bradfield is questionable, and should be an upgrade at right tackle if he can play and push Guy Whimper back to the bench. Cornerback Derek Cox is probable and should be a boon to the pass defense.

Tennessee will be without middle linebacker Colin McCarthy, a defensive captain. The Titans also have two questionable players on the interior defensive line: Sen’Derrick Marks and rookie Mike Martin. If both are out it’ll mean more snaps for undrafted rookie DaJohn Harris. Detroit tight end Tony Scheffler is doubtful. If he’s out the Lions could play less two-tight or use reserve Will Heller. Strong safety Louis Delmas is also doubtful. His backup is John Wendling.

Houston is quite healthy. Backup inside linebacker Tim Dobbins is questionable. Denver right guard Chris Kuper is out and Manny Ramirez is in line to replace him.

Final Word: AFC South

September, 14, 2012
9/14/12
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NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 2:

[+] EnlargeAnthony Castonzo
AP Photo/Tom GannamThe Colts' Anthony Castonzo has a rather tough assignment on Sunday -- contain the Vikings' Jared Allen.
Line makeup: We came into the week thinking Colts newcomer Trai Essex could take over for Winston Justice at right tackle, but Justice seems to have bounced back from the concussion he suffered Sunday in Chicago. He’s practicing and it’s left guard Joe Reitz who remains a question. Seth Olsen is not a quality replacement, and Essex is versatile enough to play either guard or tackle spot. Perhaps he replaces Olsen rather than Justice? The No. 1 question on the offensive line will be how left tackle Anthony Castonzo can do against end Jared Allen, who was largely held in check last week by Jacksonville’s Eugene Monroe.

Line makeup, II: The Jaguars are banged up in a big way on the offensive line. Starting right tackle Cameron Bradfield and starting left guard Eben Britton could both miss the game with ankle injuries, which would mean Guy Whimper or waiver claim Troy Kropog at right tackle and undrafted rookie Mike Brewster at left guard. That’s hardly an ideal scenario against the Texans’ swarming front. It looks like a big mismatch. But often what looks like a big mismatch in a divisional game during the preparation week doesn’t turn out to be the major issue.

Struggling in Cali: The Titans have lost eight in a row against the Chargers, dating all the way to 1993. San Diego’s 3-4 front has given Tennessee problems in recent years, and first-round draft pick Melvin Ingram, an outside linebacker, is a part of packages that will be another complicated thing for Jake Locker to sort through. The quarterback will be playing with a banged-up left (non-throwing) shoulder. But he will be throwing against a banged-up secondary too, so if he can get protection he may be able to find plays downfield with Kenny Britt back in the lineup.

Playing stout: The Colts allowed 3.5 yards a carry in their season-opening loss to the Bears. That wasn’t as bad as some of us anticipated it could be. But Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson will be a different level of challenge. He found the end zone twice in his first game back with a reconstructed knee in the Vikings' win over Jacksonville. The Colts remains susceptible to the run and are going to get tested. If and when they can get the Vikings into tough passing downs, will Dwight Freeney be available to chase Christian Ponder? If his ankle injury holds him out, the Colts are then deficient in that area as well, which would be bad news.

Improvement: Good teams respond to week-to-week problems. Texans coach Gary Kubiak wasn’t pleased with the way his team ran the ball and the way it performed on special teams, even though it posted a 20-point win over Miami in the opener. His players should respond to points of emphasis and show improvement in those areas. Jacksonville’s big point of emphasis has been better tackling, and it will need to wrap up the likes of Arian Foster and Andre Johnson to have a chance in this game. Outside linebacker Daryl Smith would be a boon, but he looks unlikely to make it back from a groin/abdomen injury. If corner Derek Cox is back from his hamstring problem, coverage should be a strong suit.
Click here for the complete list of Pittsburgh Steelers' roster moves.

Most significant move: The Steelers are going with undrafted rookie Drew Butler (son of former NFL kicker Kevin Butler) as their punter. Injuries essentially forced this move. Pittsburgh parted ways with Daniel Sepulveda in the offseason because he couldn't stay healthy and waived Jeremy Kapinos on Friday after a back issue sidelined him this summer. Butler averaged 45.9 yards a punt this preseason and placed six of his 28 punts inside the 20-yard line. The other noteworthy move was keeping Charlie Batch, who was not expected to see his 11th season with Pittsburgh after Byron Leftwich won the backup job. The Steelers decided to keep three quarterbacks and just four wide receivers. Chris Rainey, who has lined up in the slot this preseason, is a hybrid running back-receiver.

Onward and upward: Pittsburgh should have no problem signing David Gilreath to the practice squad. If the Steelers went with a fifth receiver, it would have been Gilreath. He separated himself from an undistinguished group of reserve receivers with four catches for 78 yards in the second preseason game. The other benefit of keeping Gilreath is his ability as a returner. He led Wisconsin in punt and kickoff returns two years ago and could be promoted if Rainey got injured. Receivers Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders can return kicks as well.

What's next: The Steelers may address depth at inside linebacker after placing rookie third-round pick Sean Spence on injured reserve Friday. With Stevenson Sylvester out for a couple of weeks with a torn MCL, Pittsburgh is down to former Bengals linebacker Brandon Johnson as the top backup inside. The Steelers could bring back Trai Essex, after cutting the eight-year veteran Friday, when they place first-round pick David DeCastro on injured reserve Tuesday, allowing the team to activate DeCastro after eight weeks under the new IR rule. Pittsburgh is expected to waive rookie tight end David Paulson after Weslye Saunders serves his four-game suspension for violating the league's performance-enhancing drug policy.
The Steelers' offensive line is facing a familiar problem, and it's not just that constant pressure it allowed in the preseason opener.

With rookie left tackle Mike Adams out a couple of weeks with a mild sprain of his anterior cruciate ligament, Pittsburgh is already reshuffling the offensive line. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Steelers used a league-high 25 different offensive-line combinations during the 2011 regular season. Now they're on their second one heading into their second preseason game.

Pittsburgh's starting lineup for the preseason opener was Adams, left guard Ramon Foster (because Willie Colon was injured), center Maurkice Pouncey, right guard David DeCastro and right tackle Marcus Gilbert. When the Steelers took to the field Sunday, Gilbert went from right to left tackle, Colon returned to left guard and Foster moved to right tackle. The decision to go with Foster at right tackle likely was influenced by the shaky performance by Trai Essex in the opener.

Pittsburgh could also face another decision if veteran left tackle Max Starks (offseason ACL surgery) is ready for the regular season. There has been increased talk about the available of Starks after the opener. Adams had a rough preseason debut, giving up 2 1/2 sacks in a span of nine plays even though the Eagles sat their starting defensive ends.

This isn't a surprise because all rookie linemen endure growing pains. DeCastro struggled in training camp but he had the best showing of all the starting Steelers offensive linemen Thursday. On a positive note, Adams looked solid in run blocking, sealing off the side and getting to the second level.

"He did some pretty impressive things,” Gilbert said of Adams, via the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “Obviously, the sacks stand out, but he did some impressive things in run blocking. He’s going to improve. He’s a player who’s going to bounce back."

Gilbert added, "I just told him to relax and let it come to you. Being too amped up, being overly hyped, is not going to help you in a game. You have to be very calm and very detailed with what you're doing."
ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. named the Pittsburgh Steelers among his winners in Thursday night's first round. No other AFC North teams made his list of winners or question marks.

It's an Insider piece Insider, so you'll need a subscription to read the entire article. Here's what Kiper had to say about the Steelers, who selected Stanford guard David DeCastro at No. 24:
Nothing sexy about this, but the value is off the charts. For instance, the first six guys on my Big Board Insider make up the first six picks in the draft. Only two guys in my top 10 didn't get drafted in the top 10. Melvin Ingram fell to No. 18, and DeCastro falls all the way to No. 24. Again, nothing thrilling -- no nifty trade to swoop in and get top value, but look at the interior of that offensive line now. Maurkice Pouncey and DeCastro are both studs, and I had guard as a key need for Pittsburgh.

DeCastro certainly adds stability to the Steelers' offensive line. Last season, four linemen started at least two games at guard for Pittsburgh: Chris Kemoeatu, Ramon Foster, Doug Legursky and Trai Essex.
Gary Horton of Scouts Inc. broke down the top six needs remaining Insider for each of the AFC North teams. You'll need an Insider subscription to view the entire post, but here's a glimpse of the top three needs:

CINCINNATI BENGALS

Horton's top three needs: Cornerback, guard and safety.

Horton on cornerback: The starters in 2011 were Leon Hall, who will be coming off an Achilles injury, and 32-year-old Nate Clements. When Hall went down, Adam Jones filled in, but none of these three make you comfortable in man coverage. Newly acquired free agent Jason Allen will help, but there is a lot of work to be done here.

Hensley's comment: I wouldn't put cornerback as the top need because the Bengals added Allen and re-signed Jones. Allen is an upgrade over Kelly Jennings. Guard is the bigger concern. If the season started today, the Bengals' starting right guard would either be Otis Hudson, Clint Boling or Anthony Collins (who would shift over from tackle).

CLEVELAND BROWNS

Horton's top three needs: Quarterback, wide receiver and running back.

Horton on quarterback: Right now, their options at QB are starter Colt McCoy and veteran backup Seneca Wallace, but nobody expects it to stay that way. With two first-round draft picks, they will almost surely pick a QB with one of them.

Hensley's comment: You could make a strong argument that quarterback, wide receiver or running back should rank as the No. 1 need. My top need for Cleveland is right tackle. The Browns can at least start McCoy, Greg Little, Mohamed Massaquoi and Montario Hardesty at those other positions. Right tackle was a weak spot for the Browns last season with Tony Pashos and Artis Hicks, both of whom are now gone. The Browns' starting right tackle at this point is Oniel Cousins, a third-round bust from Baltimore.

BALTIMORE RAVENS

Horton's three needs: Inside linebacker, left guard and safety.

Horton on inside linebacker: The Ray Lewis era will be ending soon, and the Ravens need to find his replacement. Jameel McClain was re-signed, and he can play inside or outside, but a three-down linebacker who can play solid pass defense is sorely needed.

Hensley's comment: Left guard is the biggest need on the team, and it's not even close. The Ravens couldn't keep Ben Grubbs and failed to sign Evan Mathis. The fallback option is Jah Reid, a backup offensive tackle last season. Going from a Pro Bowl guard (Grubbs) to a converted tackle (Reid) is a major step down.

PITTSBURGH STEELERS

Horton's top three needs: Offensive tackle/guard, nose tackle and running back.

Horton on offensive tackle/guard: Center Maurkice Pouncey is the only stable starter on this unit. Veteran tackle Max Starks is coming off an ACL injury and T Willie Colon can't stay healthy, though the coaches hope he can get through a full season at RT with young Marcus Gilbert moving from RT to LT. There is also a big hole at left guard. The Steelers need to get at least one, and maybe two, starters up front.

Hensley's comment: You can't really disagree with this assessment. Left guard Doug Legursky is a backup who performed admirably when Chris Kemoeatu was benched. Gilbert has a good chance of succeeding on the left side, but it's hard to depend on Colon at right tackle with his injury history. The Steelers' options are limited because there is no depth. Jonathan Scott, who has struggled mightily, is the top backup at tackle, and there's no reserves at guard with Trai Essex (free agent) and Jamon Meredith (not tendered as a restricted free agent) off on the roster.

Wrap-up: Steelers 23, Colts 20

September, 25, 2011
9/25/11
11:41
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Thoughts on the Pittsburgh Steelers' 23-20 win at the Indianapolis Colts:

What it means: It wasn't as easy as many expected, but Pittsburgh did just enough to improve to 2-1. The Steelers are in a three-team tie atop the AFC North with the Ravens and Browns.

Thumbs up: Ben Roethlisberger once again showed why he is one of the best clutch quarterbacks. On the game-winning drive, he completed 3 of 4 passes for 39 yards and scrambled for 11 yards to get the Steelers in range for Shaun Suisham's 38-yard field goal with four seconds left in the game.

Thumbs down: Pittsburgh struggled all game to protect Roethlisberger. Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis both forced fumbles in the first half, which led to a field goal and a 47-yard fumble return for a touchdown.

First takeaway: The Steelers defense finally forced a turnover this season, and it was a timely one. James Harrison stripped Colts backup quarterback Curtis Painter, and Troy Polamalu returned it for a 16-yard touchdown to take a short-lived 20-13 lead in the fourth quarter.

Banged-up line: Pittsburgh had three starters on the offensive line leave the game, including the entire right side at one point. Right guard Doug Legursky and right tackle Marcus Gilbert both had shoulder injuries and were replaced by guard Ramon Foster and tackle Trai Essex. When left tackle Jonathan Scott was forced out late in the fourth quarter with a leg injury, Gilbert had to come back into the game.

What's next: The Steelers play at Houston, which wraps up a stretch of three road games in the first four weeks of the season.

NFC West free-agency breakdown

July, 25, 2011
7/25/11
3:31
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NFC: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South Unrestricted FAs

A look at the free-agent priorities for each NFC West team:

Arizona Cardinals

1. Sign or acquire a quarterback: You've heard all the potential names by now. Kevin Kolb, Kyle Orton, Carson Palmer, Marc Bulger and Matt Hasselbeck all could be available. The same goes for Donovan McNabb, but the Cardinals aren't interested in him. How much interest they have in the others remains less clear. They liked Bulger as an option last offseason, but the timing wasn't right. Kolb reportedly stands atop their wish list now, although price is a consideration. One way or another, the Cardinals will go into the 2011 season with fresh veteran blood at the position.

2. Firm up the offensive line: Left guard Alan Faneca retired. Center Lyle Sendlein and right guard Deuce Lutui have expiring contracts. Brandon Keith showed promise at right tackle, but he's coming off knee surgery. A better quarterback would help take pressure off the line, but Arizona isn't going to find another Kurt Warner. The team has loaded up at running back, adding second-round choice Ryan Williams to an already crowded backfield. The Cardinals need to re-sign Sendlein. Letting Lutui depart would put them in the market for veteran help. I've looked through the free-agent lists for guards already familiar to the Cardinals. Pittsburgh's Trai Essex, a starter in 21 games over the past two seasons, played for Arizona's Ken Whisenhunt and Russ Grimm with the Steelers.

3. Work toward a deal with Larry Fitzgerald: Ideally, the Cardinals would have landed their next quarterback in March, then spent the offseason working toward extending Fitzgerald's contract beyond the 2011 season. Fitzgerald is an NFL rarity. He's in line to sign three massive contracts during the course of his career. He signed the first one as the third player chosen in the 2004 draft. That deal ultimately became untenable for the Cardinals, giving Fitzgerald the leverage to get $40 million over four seasons, plus assurances Arizona would not name him its franchise player once the deal ended. Fitzgerald, still only 27, will cash in at least one more time.

Top five free agents: Sendlein, Lutui, receiver Steve Breaston, defensive lineman Alan Branch, defensive lineman Gabe Watson.

St. Louis Rams

1. Upgrade the run defense: The Rams could use another defensive tackle to take their promising defensive front to another level. Adding Fred Robbins in free agency last offseason was a good start. Barry Cofield (New York Giants) and Brandon Mebane (Seattle Seahawks) are scheduled to become free agents this offseason. Cofield played for Steve Spagnuolo and would transition to the Rams' system easily. The Rams could use an in-the-box safety, something they addressed later in the draft. They need to find one and possibly two starting outside linebackers. Chase Blackburn projects more as a backup, but he was also with Spagnuolo on the Giants. Blackburn has played all three linebacker positions. Minnesota's Ben Leber would make sense as well. Paul Ferraro, the Rams' linebackers coach, was with the Vikings previously.

2. Help out Steven Jackson: Adding a third-down back such as Darren Sproles would lighten the load for Jackson, who has played through several injuries in recent seasons. Jackson has 654 rushing attempts over the past two seasons despite missing one game and playing for a team that has often trailed its opponents. Only Chris Johnson (674) has more carries during that span. Sproles isn't the only viable potential option. Jason Snelling, DeAngelo Williams and Reggie Bush also could become available. Upgrading at right guard would also help out Jackson.

3. Figure out the situation at receiver. It's questionable whether the Rams will find any clear upgrades at receiver in free agency. That could lead them to stand pat at the position. They have quantity, but not enough high-end quality. Adding more quantity wouldn't solve much. Plaxico Burress gets mentioned as an option for his ties to Spagnuolo, but he's been out of the game and might not offer much. The Rams thought about claiming Randy Moss off waivers last season. Moss could make more sense for the Rams now that Josh McDaniels is offensive coordinator. He worked well with Moss in New England. Sidney Rice could also have appeal.

Top five free agents: receiver Mark Clayton, guard Adam Goldberg, defensive tackle Clifton Ryan and tight end Daniel Fells.

Seattle Seahawks

1. Sign or acquire a quarterback: Bringing back Hasselbeck remains an option. The team expressed interest in Kolb last offseason. The team could also add a lower-profile veteran to the mix -- perhaps a Matt Leinart type -- for an open competition with Charlie Whitehurst. That would not excite Seattle fans, of course. Getting a young quarterback to build around would be ideal, but the Seahawks are adamant they will not force the situation in the absence of viable options. They weren't going to do it in the draft, when they passed over Andy Dalton for tackle James Carpenter. They probably aren't going to do it in free agency, either.

2. Solidify the offensive line: Tom Cable's addition as assistant head coach/offensive line puts the Seahawks in position to court Oakland Raiders guard Robert Gallery in free agency. Gallery has said he's not returning to the Raiders. Seattle has drafted its starting tackles, starting center and starting right guard in the past few seasons. Max Unger and Russell Okung need better luck with injuries. Okung would also benefit from an experienced presence next to him at left guard. Gallery qualifies as such and he would fit the zone system Cable wants to run. Green Bay's Daryn Colledge could be available, too. He has ties to Seahawks general manager John Schneider. Former Seattle starters Chris Spencer, Sean Locklear, Chester Pitts and Ray Willis might not return.

3. Plug holes on defense. Mebane appears headed for free agency. The Seahawks want him back, but how badly? Mebane could fit better in a purer 4-3 defense. He also might command more money elsewhere. Injuries along the defensive front could also affect the Seahawks' needs. Red Bryant is coming off season-ending knee surgery. Injuries affected Colin Cole and Chris Clemons last season as well. Cornerback is another area to monitor once free agency opens. Does Marcus Trufant still fit at his relatively high price? The Cincinnati Bengals' Johnathan Joseph and other free-agent corners could appeal.

Top five free agents: Hasselbeck, Mebane, Locklear, linebacker Will Herring, defensive end Raheem Brock.

San Francisco 49ers

1. Re-sign Alex Smith: Smith and the 49ers renewed their vows informally this offseason. The official ceremony should come when free agency opens and Smith signs with the team. Smith's name continues to show up on free-agent lists in the interim, but there's no chance he'll sign elsewhere. He's given his word to the 49ers. The team, in turn, has entrusted him with its playbook. Smith even took the lead in teaching what he knew of the offense to teammates. Re-signing Smith takes pressure off rookie quarterback Colin Kaepernick. With a new coaching staff, a young prospect in Kaepernick and no access to players during a lockout, this wasn't the year for San Francisco to make a bold play for a veteran passer from another team.

2. Make a decision on Aubrayo Franklin. The 49ers' plans on defense remain a bit mysterious. Coordinator Vic Fangio did not distribute playbooks to players. The team's needs could change based on whether Franklin, a solid nose tackle, leaves in free agency. Franklin's status as a franchise player last season raised the stakes for a new contract. What does Fangio think of him? What specifically does Fangio want from his defensive linemen? How much will Fangio change to suit the 49ers' personnel? How much new personnel might he want? General manager Trent Baalke said the 49ers will not be aggressive in free agency. The team has shown restraint on that front in recent seasons. Losing Franklin would hurt.

3. Figure out the secondary: The pass defense was problematic last season. Personnel changes in the secondary are on the way. Veteran cornerback Nate Clements stands to earn more than $7 million in base salary in 2011. That price appears prohibitive. The team could release Clements or find a way to keep him at a lower rate. Free safety Dashon Goldson does not have a contract for 2011. How much is he worth? Baltimore's Chris Carr is one free-agent cornerback with ties to the 49ers' staff. He and Fangio were together in Baltimore.

Top five free agents: Smith, Franklin, outside linebacker Manny Lawson, center David Baas, linebacker Takeo Spikes.

What's next for the Steelers?

February, 12, 2011
2/12/11
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SteelersNelson Chenault/US PresswirePittsburgh will need to improve its secondary and offensive line if it wants another shot at the title.
As the confetti fell at the conclusion of Super Bowl XLV at Cowboys Stadium, a look of despair and disappointment immediately came over the faces of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The newly crowned Green Bay Packers were in full celebration mode, while Pittsburgh felt the sting of falling short of its seventh championship.

History weighs heavily against the Steelers -- seven of the past 10 Super Bowl runners-up have failed to make the playoffs the next year.

How do the Steelers avoid becoming another statistic? It will take some smart moves and solid upgrades in the offseason.

"Our goal is to try to get into [the Super Bowl] again, and just don't be on this side again," Steelers receiver Mike Wallace said. "Just get back in the lab and work harder. That's all."

Here is a preview of what's next for the Steelers:

Where are Pittsburgh’s biggest needs?

[+] EnlargeAaron Rodgers
Al Bello/Getty ImagesAaron Rodgers took advantage of Pittsburgh's secondary -- completing 24-of-39 for 304 yards and a 111.5 passer rating.
Coming off a Super Bowl appearance, the Steelers are in better shape than most teams. But they are by no means perfect.

Three losses this season -- to the Packers, New England Patriots and New Orleans Saints -- have provided a blueprint of how to beat the Steelers. It takes a top-flight quarterback and a precise, short and intermediate passing game to put enough points on the board against Pittsburgh's vaunted No. 2 ranked defense.

Forcing the Steelers' offense to play from behind makes the team one-dimensional and susceptible to the pass rush. Pittsburgh's offensive line is one of the weakest areas of the team. Those three losses to Green Bay, New England and New Orleans all played out in similar fashion.

To counter these tough matchups, the Steelers need to improve their roster in several areas.

Pittsburgh's two biggest needs are at cornerback and offensive line. Upgrades to both positions would help the Steelers combat opponents like New England and Green Bay. The Packers and quarterback Aaron Rodgers (304 yards, three touchdowns) beat Pittsburgh's defense by running a lot of three- and four-receiver sets, which exposed the Steelers' lack of depth in the secondary.

Pittsburgh starting cornerback Ike Taylor is solid, but he will be an unrestricted free agent (we will get to that later). After Taylor there is a dropoff to Bryant McFadden and backups William Gay and Anthony Madison. High-powered passing offenses will continue to give Pittsburgh fits unless it addresses this issue. I wouldn't be surprised if the Steelers draft a cornerback in the first two rounds.

The Steelers need to improve at guard and tackle on the offensive line. Starting left tackle Max Starks is solid and returning from a season-ending neck injury. He will replace the inconsistent Jonathan Scott. Right tackle Flozell Adams, 35, is under contract for one more year with Pittsburgh and is uncertain about his future. Guard Chris Kemoeatu and center Maurkice Pouncey are set, but the Steelers could use another starting-caliber guard.

The Steelers traditionally are not big players in free agency, so don't expect a lot of turnover. Most of their needs will be addressed in April's NFL draft.

"I think we still have a core group of players that we can build around and hopefully make another run at it," Steelers president Art Rooney II said after the Super Bowl loss. "I don't think we'll be sitting there saying we're going to make a lot of changes. We'll prepare for the draft and add some players here and there, and be ready to go."

Who are the Steelers' key free agents?

[+] EnlargeLaMarr Woodley
Andrew Weber/US PresswireRetaining LaMarr Woodley is one of Pittsburgh's top priorities.
Where Pittsburgh does spend its money is retaining its key free agents. The Steelers have two big ones this year in Taylor and outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley.

Pittsburgh has every intention of retaining Woodley, who was one of the NFL's best bargains after making just $550,000 in the final year of his rookie contract. Including playoffs, Woodley recorded 60 tackles, 13 sacks, two interceptions and got stronger as the season went on.

The Steelers are expected to use their franchise tag on Woodley, 26, while trying to negotiate a long-term deal. The deadline to tag Woodley is Feb. 24. But it will be challenging for Pittsburgh to work out a large extension until a new collective bargaining agreement is reached. Under the current CBA, the 30-percent rule is a major holdup in working out an extension with Woodley, who is a former second-round pick.

Taylor's situation is more fluid. The unrestricted free agent will be 31 in May and has spent his entire career with Pittsburgh. Returning will be Taylor's first preference, but he will certainly garner interest from other teams. Pittsburgh has to determine what is the right price to try to keep its No. 1 cornerback.

Other free agents of note for Pittsburgh include backup quarterback Dennis Dixon, tailback Mewelde Moore, kicker Shaun Suisham and offensive linemen Willie Colon and Trai Essex.

Can Pittsburgh remain a contender?

As we mentioned earlier, history is not kind to Super Bowl runners-up. Pittsburgh also will have to overcome its own negative history The last two times the current Steelers made the Super Bowl -- both victories -- they missed the playoffs in the following seasons, 2006 and 2009.

The Steelers are usually at their best as underdogs. That was the case this season; most experts wrote off Pittsburgh because of franchise quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's four-game suspension at the beginning of the season. But the Steelers showed they could overcome setbacks and made it to Super Bowl XLV.

Expectations will be high for Pittsburgh next season, because a lot of talent and veteran leadership remain. But is it enough to get to Super Bowl XVLI in Indianapolis?

"I love this group; I think it is a heck of a group," said Steelers linebacker and captain James Farrior. "There is a lot more football left in us. We just have to stay together. Hopefully, everything works out in the offseason and we get back here next season."

AFC East observations on the Super Bowl

February, 7, 2011
2/07/11
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Some AFC East-oriented thoughts after the Green Bay Packers defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers 31-25 in the Super Bowl:

[+] EnlargeBen Roethlisberger
AP Photo/Patrick SemanskySteelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had a mediocre game in Super Bowl XLV.
Ben Roethlisberger is not in Tom Brady's league yet. There had been some talk over the past two weeks that if Roethlisberger won the Super Bowl he would stand next to Brady and Peyton Manning in the pantheon of uber-elite NFL quarterbacks.

Roethlisberger has been sensational in the postseason, but not this postseason. Aside from a couple clutch throws, he was below average in beating the New York Jets in the AFC Championship Game. He had another pedestrian outing Sunday.

He threw two interceptions, one that Nick Collins returned for a touchdown. Roethlisberger overthrew Mike Wallace twice in key situations in the third quarter: a would-be touchdown after Wallace got behind the Packers secondary and a third-and-2 play right before the fourth quarter. Roethlisberger also failed to take advantage of a defensive backfield missing its best player, Charles Woodson, the entire second half.

Roethlisberger is 10-3 in the postseason and has been to three Super Bowls in his seven NFL seasons. Brady won his first three Super Bowls and his first 10 postseason games before a defeat. Plus, Brady has appeared in a fourth Super Bowl.

I understand Brady has lost three straight postseason games, but he still has more championship rings and conference titles.

The New England Patriots were the Packers' springboard. The Packers have won every game since losing 31-27 at Gillette Stadium in Week 15. Super Bowl MVP Aaron Rodgers was hurt and couldn't play, but the Packers still gave the scalding-hot Patriots a scare with backup quarterback Matt Flynn.

"The New England game was a big game for us," Rodgers said on ESPN's Super Bowl set Sunday night. "We lost that game, a game we were double-digit underdogs. I was out. Matt played great, and our defense played pretty well also.

"That was the game where, I think, [we said] 'We got a good team. Let's not lose this opportunity.'"

Howard Green quietly made one of the game's biggest plays. The former Jets defensive lineman didn't register a tackle. But he bull rushed Steelers guard Chris Kemoeatu and, in a great individual effort, harassed Roethlisberger into a bad throw that turned into Collins' pick six. Green started only six games in the regular season and playoffs.

It wasn't quite Thurman Thomas losing his helmet at the start of Super Bowl XXVI, but Steelers left tackle Jonathan Scott -- not good enough to remain with the Buffalo Bills despite starting eight games in 2009 -- had to come off the field with the game on the line because his shoe came off.

Scott missed the Steelers' third-and-5 play with 62 seconds remaining and their fateful fourth-and-5 with 56 seconds left. Trai Essex replaced him as Roethlisberger's blindside protector and did OK while on his heels, but the switch was one more thing for Roethlisberger to worry about.

Roethlisberger threw incompletions on both plays.

A Lombardi Trophy would've completed a tremendous turnaround tale for Steelers offensive line coach Sean Kugler. He was dismissed from Buffalo's staff at the end of last season. The native of nearby Lockport, N.Y., was living a dream by coaching his hometown team. He was on Dick Jauron's staff and served under interim coach Perry Fewell through an ugly campaign. But new Bills general manager Buddy Nix cleared out the coaches' offices when he took over, and Kugler was snatched up by the Steelers.
PITTSBURGH -- By the end of last Sunday's AFC Championship Game, the Steelers were attempting to punch a ticket to Super Bowl XLV with four offensive linemen who were backups at the beginning of the season.

Trai Essex, Ramon Foster, Jonathan Scott and Doug Legursky all entered training camp without much fanfare or high expectations. But as offensive linemen continued to go down at different points of the season, this foursome was key to leading Pittsburgh to a 24-19 victory over the New York Jets.

On Sunday, the backups joined starting guard Chris Kemoeatu, who stayed healthy virtually from start to finish and started in 17 of Pittsburgh's 18 games, including the postseason. This patchwork group will be key against the Green Bay Packers' tough defense, which ranked No. 5 in the NFL this season.

[+] EnlargeDoug Legursky
Matthew Emmons/US PresswireIf Maurkice Pouncey is unable to play, Doug Legursky (64) will start at center for Pittsburgh.
Blocking Packers defenders such as Clay Matthews and B.J. Raji will not be an easy task. But despite various injuries, the Steelers feel they are up for the challenge.

"I have all the faith in the world in those guys," said Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who has always been supportive of his offensive line. "The last time we were in Tampa [for Super Bowl XLIII] we had a 'makeshift line' and guys filled in. The standard, as coach [Mike Tomlin] says, doesn’t change. Guys know that."

Pittsburgh's MASH unit has battled through injuries well this season. Here is a breakdown:
  • The Steelers suffered their first big loss on the offensive line in the spring when starting right tackle Willie Colon went down with a season-ending Achilles injury while working out. That led to the team signing 13-year veteran Flozell Adams, who will be playing in his first Super Bowl in the home stadium of his former team: the Dallas Cowboys.
  • Pittsburgh starting left tackle Max Starks suffered a season-ending neck injury in Week 9 against the Cincinnati Bengals and was put on injured reserve. He was replaced by Scott at left tackle for the past nine games.
  • And the most recent injury was to Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey, who suffered a high ankle sprain on the opening drive against the Jets. Legursky did a solid job filling in for almost the entire game and helped pave the way for tailback Rashard Mendenhall to rush for 121 yards and a touchdown against New York. Pouncey’s status for the Super Bowl is in question, as players who suffer high ankle sprains typically sit out four to six weeks.

Legursky could play a key role for the Steelers in Super Bowl XLV. Despite being a rookie, Pouncey is Pittsburgh's best offensive lineman. If he cannot play, it would be a big loss in the middle of the offensive line.

Legursky would have the tough assignment blocking Raji, who is becoming one of the NFL's fastest rising stars and is having a breakout run through the playoffs.

"He's a playmaker. You've seen that through the playoffs alone," Legursky said of Raji. “He's a big, old guy, stout there in the middle and we’re going to have our hands full."

If Legursky doesn't start, he will remain one of the first subs off the bench. As Pittsburgh's most versatile lineman, Legursky has the ability to play center, guard, tackle and has played tight end this season in goal-line situations.

Legursky's blue-collar work ethic earned him a spot with the Steelers. Already cut once by Pittsburgh, Legursky entered training camp as a long shot behind Pouncey, a first-round draft pick, and last year's starter, Justin Hartwig.

But Pouncey's rapid development made Hartwig expendable and he was released, while Pittsburgh preferred Legursky's ability to play various positions. The AFC North blog asked Legursky this week if someone told him a few months ago he could start in a Super Bowl, what would be his reaction?

"I would have said you were crazy," Legursky responded.

Legursky isn't the only versatile player. Both Essex and Foster have the capability of playing both guard and tackle positions. Pouncey, when healthy, is a Pro Bowl center but also is a very good guard, as well. There have been times this season, due to injury, where players have been shifted around during games and it's hard to keep up with who's playing where.

"Looking at this group, to see what they've done with the multitude of positions and guys' versatility, I think it's one of the deepest in the NFL," said Starks, who will watch his teammates from the sideline this year.

Offensive skill players such as Roethlisberger, Mendenhall and receivers Mike Wallace and Hines Ward will get most of the acclaim leading up to the game. But the play of a versatile and battle-tested offensive line helped get Pittsburgh this far, and the Steelers need another solid effort for this group in Arlington, Texas, to win an NFL-best seventh Super Bowl title.

Steelers at Dolphins inactives

October, 24, 2010
10/24/10
12:11
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MIAMI -- Here are the inactive players for Sunday's game here between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Miami Dolphins:

Pittsburgh Steelers
Miami Dolphins
Less than three weeks before the start of the regular season, the Pittsburgh Steelers are making significant changes on the offensive line.

[+] EnlargeMaurkice Pouncey
Jason Bridge/US PresswireRookie Maurkice Pouncey is taking over the starting center spot from Justin Hartwig.
This week first-round pick Maurkice Pouncey was promoted to first-team center after spending most of the spring and training camp at right guard. Although the move isn't shocking -- center is Pouncey's natural position -- this will have an impact on Pittsburgh's entire offensive line.

It's clear this move benefits Pouncey. But will it improve the Steelers' offensive line?

The AFC North blog checked in with Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. to get some answers.

Matt, let's start with Pouncey's switch to center. Good idea or bad idea?

Williamson: Tremendous idea. It's a no-brainer. Pouncey is going to be a fixture there for the next 10-12 years, and he can potentially be a special player. He's already their best player on the offensive line, in my opinion, and he will prove it quickly this season. Before long, I think Pouncey will be one of the better centers in this league this time next year. Can he handle all the O-line calls? That we don't know. But he is smart, he has a lot of experience at the college level and at a really high level, and athletically he's way past Justin Hartwig. I don't think you can allow those other guys with potential short-term problems get in the way of Pouncey, because he's a fixture.

So what's next at right guard for Pittsburgh? Hartwig? Trai Essex?

Williamson: There's not an easy answer, because you can't turn them into better football players. Unless somebody like Kraig Urbik would step up, which doesn't seem like it will happen, I guess you have to live with Essex. He's a little more experienced there, and he played guard last year. I think you give Hartwig a chance in these last two preseason games to see if he shows up as a guard. But I kind of think he won't. Both [Hartwig and Essex] were major liabilities last year. I'm not sure how that will change if you have Hartwig do something he's not as good at. I don't know if there's an answer.

With Ben Roethlisberger's suspension, Pittsburgh will start either Byron Leftwich or Dennis Dixon. Is Pouncey's move worth the risk of having a rookie center teaming with a new quarterback early in the season?

Williamson: I think it is. Pouncey is a way better football player. Maybe you get one or two more mental errors. But in the end, I think Pouncey is going to help your run game more, your pass game and ability to block Shaun Rogers, Haloti Ngata, those type of players. Pouncey is athletically and physically superior, and it's all in front of him. You can't hold back the long-term development of this line just because you're worried about the short-term mental thing. That's why you have coaches coach him up to what needs to be done. There probably will be some growing pains, but he still needs to be in the center of the O-line starting for the next 10 years.
The Pittsburgh Steelers examined their internal options this summer to replace injured right tackle Willie Colon (Achilles). But in the end, they wisely decided it was best to add a proven commodity at such an important position.

Adams
Adams
Pittsburgh agreed to a two-year contract on Thursday with veteran offensive tackle Flozell Adams. This is a team that already has a lot of question marks on offense, and it was able to patch at least one hole before players report to training camp on Friday.

The Steelers will be without star quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (suspension) for at least a month to start the season. Receiver Santonio Holmes was recently traded to the New York Jets and leaves another hole that needs to be filled. The last thing Pittsburgh needed was instability on the offensive line.

Adams, a five-time Pro Bowler, gives Pittsburgh a veteran starter who can step in right away and put an end to the team's question marks at right tackle. Before that, the coaching staff was looking to shuffle the offense line in a variety of ways to get players such as Trai Essex, Jonathan Scott and Ramon Foster reps. With an offense still searching for its quarterback, having another competition at right tackle would not have been ideal.

Getting Adams in camp on time also was a good move and will help make for an easier transition. Adams didn't have his best season in 2009 with the Dallas Cowboys, but he should be an upgrade over any of Pittsburgh's backup options.

On the radar: Trai Essex

July, 8, 2010
7/08/10
1:00
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NFC On the Radar: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

A player, coach or issue that should be on your radar as training camp approaches.

In just one week, offensive lineman Trai Essex has gone from a relative unknown to one of the most talked about Pittsburgh Steelers heading into training camp.

[+] EnlargeTrai Essex
Icon SMITrai Essex may be called on to replace injured right tackle Willie Colon.
The buzz surrounding Essex is whether he's the key component to replace injured right tackle Willie Colon, who was lost for the season after rupturing his right Achilles tendon.

Now Pittsburgh needs answers -- and quickly. With training camp set to begin later this month, the Steelers worked out veteran offensive tackle Flozell Adams but didn't sign him to a contract. If there is no movement in free agency, Essex could be the top choice to replace Colon.

Essex started all 16 games at right guard last season, but his starting job this year was already in jeopardy. Pittsburgh drafted rookie Maurkice Pouncey in the first round (No. 18 overall) with the anticipation that the Florida product would eventually take over for Essex, who has played on the first team this spring. Colon's injury could speed up the process and give Essex a chance to work at right tackle in training camp and the preseason.

"When you look at Essex, I kind of like him because he's smart and he's versatile," said Scouts Inc.'s Matt Williamson. "In a pinch, he can probably play any of the five positions. But he's going to get exposed if he's there too long for any of them.

"He moves pretty well, although I think he carries too much weight and a bigger spare tire than you'd like to see [for an offensive tackle]."

Other in-house options for Pittsburgh include backups Jonathan Scott and Tony Hills. Expect both players to get a look in training camp.

For an offense that recently traded receiver Santonio Holmes and will be without quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for at least four games, solving the right tackle issue this summer would be a huge plus.

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