Pittsburgh Steelers: Ben Roethlisberger
“He’s a lot better athlete than I am. He can throw it further than I can,” Roethlisberger said. “So I don’t know where the comparisons are. I guess they just say [that] because he’s big, and he’s bigger than me, too. So I guess I’ll take that as a compliment, that coaches compare me to him.”
The Steelers gave the hard sell this week when it comes to Newton, the former Heisman Trophy winner and No. 1 overall draft pick.
Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau called Newton the “quintessential modern quarterback” because he can beat teams with his arm and his legs.
Newton already has thrown for more than 11,500 yards, and the 6-foot-5, 245-pound quarterback has rushed for more than 2,000 yards and is averaging 5.6 yards per carry for his career.
When veteran Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor refers to Newton as “Cam Mutant,” it is actually the ultimate sign of respect.
“It’s rare when you find a quarterback that has a basketball build, a LeBron [James] build,” Taylor said. “He can make all the throws, and it’s going to take more than one guy to get him down.”
What has drawn the Newton and Roethlisberger comparisons is that each is hard to get on the ground, even when the pocket collapses around them.
And Newton, as athletic and fast as he is, isn’t just a threat to run when teams blitz him.
The former Auburn star has improved steadily against the blitz, as he showed last Sunday. In the Panthers’ 24-7 victory over the Detroit Lions, Newton completed 9 of 11 passes when Detroit sent at least five pass-rushers after the quarterback, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
“He’s a much better passer than maybe people give him credit for,” LeBeau said. “He can throw the pocket balls, but I would never call him a pocket passer. He can do it all, and he’s a big guy. We’ll have to play well to keep this offense in check. I think we can do it, but we’ll have to play well.”
Jerricho Cotchery is in his first season with the Panthers after playing for the Steelers from 2011-13.
The veteran wide receiver pleaded the fifth earlier this week when asked whether there are comparisons between Newton and Roethlisberger.
“You see the ball coming out of their hands, and they are both big guys,” Cotchery said, “But as far as comparing all of their other skills, I don’t want to get into that. I just want to be respectful when it comes to both of those guys.”
It is anything but that this week.
The Carolina Panthers, who host the Steelers on Sunday night, have been the NFL’s hottest team since last October, and they have been particularly good at home.
The Panthers are an NFL-best 13-1 in their last 14 regular-season games, and during that span, they lead the NFL in turnover differential (plus-17) and points allowed per game (14.6), according to ESPN Stats & Information.
The Panthers limited the Detroit Lions’ high-powered offense to a mere touchdown in a 24-7 victory last Sunday, and they held All-Pro wide receiver Calvin Johnson to six catches for 83 yards.
Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford targeted Johnson 13 times in the game, but Johnson was pretty much taken out of the game.
And what stood out to Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger when watching film of the Panthers is how they limited Johnson.
“It’s not like they put two or three guys on Calvin,” Roethlisberger said. “They basically just said, “We are going to line up and if you can beat us, then beat us. If not, we are going to beat you.’ They are one of the best defenses, statistically speaking, and it’s not like it’s an exotic type of defense. They just flat-out beat you.”
The Panthers are sixth in the NFL in rushing defense (86.0 yards per game), but they are giving up 4.0 yards per carry.
Bell has been the Steelers’ best offensive player through two games, and the second-year running back is tied for fourth in the NFL with 168 rushing yards. He is averaging 5.3 yards per carry.
“I think our offensive line should be able to handle their defensive line and I should get space to do what I can,” Bell said. “Our goal is really to be balanced. We don’t want to force it if it’s not there.”
“I know the person (Gilbert) is and the competitor he is,” Roethlisberger said Wednesday. “He’s going to come out and be ready to play.”
The 6-foot-6, 315-pounder has given up four of the five sacks allowed by the Steelers, including a pair to Ravens outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil in a 26-6 loss at Baltimore.
Dumervil’s second sack last Thursday was the basketball equivalent of dunking ferociously on someone. He bull-rushed Gilbert and dropped the fourth-year veteran on his back, taking down Roethlisberger in the process.
The play was such an unmasking that Gilbert’s teammates didn’t even subject him to some good-natured ribbing while watching film of it this week.
“I think it was more humbling to Marcus,” Roethlisberger said.
Gilbert and the rest of the Steelers' offensive line will have to play better Sunday night at Carolina against a defensive front that regularly humbles the opposition.
The Panthers have seven sacks and 20 quarterback hurries through the first two weeks of the season, and Roethlisberger said Carolina’s defense is so stout because its players consistently win one-on-one matchups.
That will challenge the Steelers' offensive line as much as playing a second consecutive night game on the road.
“There’s no panic right now,” Gilbert said. “It seems like everybody is in panic mode and worrying, but we just have to grow together and play team ball and things will work out.”
The first two weeks of the season have reinforced a cruel reality to Gilbert.
As well as the former second-round pick may have played in the first two games, he is defined by the sacks he allowed because of the Steelers' high profile -- and the fact that Gilbert signed a five-year, $26.2 million contract last month.
“If you watch the film (from the Ravens loss) we did a lot of great stuff,” Gilbert said, “but those two (sacks) you can’t just give up and I can’t let that happen. It’s something that can be fixed. There’s no panic over here. I’m very excited for what’s ahead of me Sunday night.”
“I’m not concerned about Marcus and his ability to rebound,” Tomlin said Tuesday at his weekly news conference. “I expect him to come back fighting like Rocky.”
Dumervil recorded both of the Ravens’ sacks in a 26-6 win over the Steelers, and he beat Gilbert badly on the second one. The 5-foot-11, 255-pound Dumervil bull rushed Gilbert and knocked the 6-6, 315-pounder on his back on the way to a sack of Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
Tomlin gave credit to Dumervil, an accomplished pass rusher, but he also said Gilbert needs to play better.
“When I coached college football I used to say they have scholarships, too. I think the same applies to the National Football League,” Tomlin said in reference to Dumervil’s success against Gilbert.
The Steelers, however, are expecting more out of Gilbert after signing the former second-round draft pick to a five-year, $26.2 million contract last month.
Gilbert played well in camp and the preseason, never allowing Mike Adams to mount a serious challenge to his starting job. The Steelers need Gilbert to show that his struggles in the first two games of the regular season are an aberration.
“If you play 60-plus snaps and you give up two sacks, it’s a bad game,” Tomlin said. “That’s the nature of our business, and I’m sure as a tackle that’s a challenge [Gilbert] embraces.”
Rookie running back Dri Archer also is questionable after missing the Ravens game because of a sprained ankle.
McLendon and Archer each practiced on a limited basis on Monday.
Wide receiver Lance Moore was a full participant in practice on Monday after missing the first two games because of a groin injury. The ninth-year veteran is optimistic that he will play against the Panthers, though Tomlin said a lot will depend on how Moore’s body responds to practicing this week.
“We’ll watch his response to yesterday’s work and formulate a plan,” Tomlin said. “Obviously Lance is a guy who’s capable of helping us. He knows how to play football. When we get him back out there we expect him to be a positive contributor to our efforts.”
Tomlin did not mention quarterback Ben Roethlisberger among the Steelers' injured players. But Roethlisberger said on his weekly radio show that he is still “very sore” after getting drilled in the chest last Thursday night by Ravens linebacker Courtney Upshaw.
“That was a significant shot that comes with the territory that he’s embraced over the years,” Tomlin said of his quarterback.
Roethlisberger struggled with his accuracy in the Steelers’ 26-6 loss to the Ravens but Tomlin brushed off a question about whether the early hit affected Roethlisberger’s play.
“He’s not going to make excuses and I’m not going to either," the eighth-year coach said. "He’s capable of playing better and we look forward to working hard so that it occurs this weekend.”
And away we go ...
@ScottBrown_ESPN: I think it's personnel more than anything. Not to give Dick LeBeau a pass, because either opposing teams have figured him out or he has to adjust his schemes to fit his players. I refuse to believe the game has passed him by, but LeBeau is arguably facing his greatest challenge as the Steelers' defensive coordinator, because I'm not sure how much talent he has with which to work. Name the difference-makers on the Steelers' defense. Linebacker Lawrence Timmons and maybe defensive Cameron Heyward qualify. Linebacker Ryan Shazier will become one, but he is going through the typical rookie growing pains right now. The biggest problem the Steelers have defensively right now is they are not winning up front. They have to fix that and work from there. And last I checked, LeBeau, a Hall of Fame cornerback, hasn't made a tackle in decades. The Steelers, as a whole, have to do a better job of tackling, and that is incumbent upon the players.
@ScottBrown_ESPN when are they going to realize that the no huddle works for them?— Dane (@Urunderarrest) September 12, 2014
@ScottBrown_ESPN: The Steelers used a silent snap count on Thursday night, and maybe the crowd noise was too much of a factor for them to use the no-huddle on the road. And, to be fair, the Steelers didn't have trouble moving the ball against the Ravens. They just killed themselves with turnovers, a couple of untimely penalties and some missed passes that Ben Roethlisberger usually completes in his sleep. I'm not sure how much the Steelers will use the no-huddle next Sunday since they are playing at Carolina. But if the offense struggles early, they will have to try something to shake things up.
@ScottBrown_ESPN: Tough to argue with you, but I would play Brett Keisel at defensive end in the base defense instead of Cam Thomas and get Stephon Tuitt snaps when the Steelers go to the nickel. I think Tuitt will play more as the season progresses, but right now Keisel is their second best defensive lineman. I'm not sure what the Steelers were thinking in waiting so long to bring Keisel back -- and thinking Thomas is starter material at defensive end after he lost his starting job at nose tackle last season in San Diego. It's still early, but Thomas looks best suited to provide depth at defensive end and nose tackle, something Al Woods did last season.
@ScottBrown_ESPN: I think the Steelers signed Thomas as a stop-gap with the hopes that he could hold down a starting job until a younger defensive end was ready to take over opposite Heyward. It's not like the Steelers paid a ton of money for him, but certainly they expected more from Thomas than what they have gotten through the first two weeks of the season. No question the Steelers have to improve up front or they don't have a chance defensively. Everything with LeBeau's defense starts with stopping the run. They have been gashed in the first two games by Terrence West, Isaiah Crowell, Bernard Piece and Justin Forsett. Yikes.
@ScottBrown_ESPN: I think the offense is going to be good, and that it is simply going through a rough spot at a bad time. The return of Lance Moore, assuming the ninth-year veteran is able to play next Sunday night at Carolina, will be huge. Justin Brown isn't ready to play as many snaps as he has been getting and Moore is the kind of savvy veteran who should thrive as the Steelers' No. 3 wide receiver or at least be productive. More problematic is the defense. The Steelers haven't been able to stop the run or put consistent pressure on the quarterback. They have yet to force a turnover in two games, and free safety Mike Mitchell, their prized free-agent signing this year, has really struggled. Yeah, other than that Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play? I'm still standing by my prediction of 10-6 for the Steelers, because I think the offense will start to carry the team and that the defense will improve as the season progresses. But, as you know, there is a fine line between 10-6 and 8-8 -- and even 10-6 and 6-10..
But Roethlisberger had some interesting things to say in the NFL Network interview that aired prior to the Steelers-Ravens game Thursday night.
"But I think the Pittsburghers appreciate me. I think that it's going to be one of those things when I'm done playing people will look back and say, 'Wow, he was a lot better than we gave him credit for,'" Roethlisberger said. "I've won two Super Bowls, I've been to three. There are a lot of greats that have never been and have never won. I'm just going to continue giving everything I have and try and get back and when another one."
The Steelers are coming off consecutive 8-8 seasons and have looked like anything but a playoff team through the first two weeks of the season.
Roethlisberger represents the biggest hope the Steelers have of re-establishing themselves as Super Bowl contenders. If that doesn't happen it won't be because of a perception of a strained relationship with offensive coordinator Todd Haley, the veteran quarterback said.
"People made a big deal about us not liking each other or getting along -- that wasn't it at all. It's just a new transition thing," Roethlisberger said. "Now I think that we're starting to really understand each other. I think that things are going well."
Here are a few odds and ends with the Steelers off until Monday:
- The Steelers were determined not to give up the deep ball against the Ravens, but at what cost? The Steelers held Ravens deep threat Torrey Smith to one catch for 10 yards last Thursday night and Joe Flacco's longest completion was 24 yards. That came on a pass to tight end Dennis Pitta in the middle of the field where the Ravens exploited a defense that wanted to keep everything in front of it. "I know I worked hard this week staying deep," Steelers free safety Mike Mitchell said. "Coach [Carnell] Lake worked with me a lot playing everything top down so we had a lot of great coverages. Our corners did a great job of staying on top. We forced [the Ravens] to check it down."
- The Steelers came out of the Ravens game in relatively good shape from an injury standpoint. Nose tackle Steve McLendon hurt his shoulder but coach Mike Tomlin said that was the only the potentially significant injury that the Steelers sustained.
- Tomlin did not buy into the thinking that a lost fumble by wide receiver Justin Brown on the opening possession set the tone for the mistake-prone Steelers against the Ravens. "It's a game of 60 minutes," Tomlin said. "The outcome of the game's not going to be defined in the initial moments of the game, whether it's positive or negative."
But Steelers defensive end Cameron Heyward said the siege mentality that has probably taken root at the Ravens' practice facility could actually bring Baltimore's players closer together -- and sharpen their focus on the 8:30 p.m. ET game Thursday night at M&T Bank Stadium.
"It's probably chaotic over there," Heyward said, "but you've just got to stay together as a team, focus on the task at hand and just continue to grow."
The Steelers did that a season before Heyward joined the team.
They played the first four games in 2010 without Ben Roethlisberger and closed ranks when the four-game suspension of the Steelers quarterback added TV cameras at the team's practice facility.
The Steelers went 3-1 without Roethlisberger, and only a late touchdown drive that Joe Flacco engineered at Heinz Field prevented them from winning all four games.
One reason the Steelers were able to play so well at the beginning of 2010 is they had ample time to prepare for the opening stretch without Roethlisberger. A dominant defense that took it upon itself to carry the team while Roethlisberger was out didn't hurt either.
The same holds true for the Ravens -- at least the part about preparing for the first part of the season without Rice.
"The simple fact (is) nothing changes because we knew he wasn't going to be able to play this week," Ravens outside linebacker Terrell Suggs said.
Indeed, Rice had been suspended for the first two games of the season before this week's video surfaced. It's not like his release has led to even longer hours this week for coach John Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak.
The Rice saga will only bring the Ravens closer together, as counterintuitive as it seems that a distraction could actually galvanize a team.
If the Ravens lose Thursday night, it won't be because of Rice.
"It definitely kind of blindsided us," Suggs said. "Ray is our brother and we're not going to abandon him internally now. We still have a job to do. The season must go on and we're getting ready to play the Pittsburgh Steelers."
PITTSBURGH -- His quiet nature allowed him to slip out of the home locker room Sunday afternoon, accept a few congratulations and then slide onto one of the golf carts parked in a tunnel at Heinz Field.
Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Markus Wheaton sat on the cart for a few minutes and checked his cell phone.
His messages surely included more than a few congratulations after a breakout performance, and Wheaton seemed to bask in an anonymity he won't have moving forward.
The second-year man needed just one game to equal the total number of catches he had last season and well eclipse his total receiving yards in a frustrating rookie campaign.
Wheaton's six catches for 97 yards in a 30-27 win against the Browns didn't just help the Steelers avoid what would have been an epic collapse against one of their archrivals. The production and timely catches he delivered in his first NFL start may also portend big things for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers' passing game.
Roethlisberger threw for 251 yards and a touchdown and completed 88.2 percent of his passes when he targeted wide receivers against the Browns, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The 11th-year veteran also averaged 14.8 yards per attempt with zero drops when throwing to his wideouts.
Compare that to last season when Roethlisberger averaged 8.0 yards per attempt when targeting wide receivers and completed 63.1 percent of his passes with 10 drops.
Granted one game is a small sample size but Wheaton's promise is immense.
The 2013 third-round pick hauled in a 40-yard pass from Roethlisberger in the first half, a grab that required him to keep both feet in bounds on a ball that sailed toward the Steelers' sidelines. Wheaton's 20-yard catch late in the fourth quarter set up Shaun Suisham's 41-yard game-winning field goal, and it came after Roethlisberger changed the play at the line of scrimmage with precious seconds left on the play clock.
That he targeted the player whose locker is next to his at Steelers' headquarters spoke volumes about the trust Roethlisberger has developed in Wheaton.
"I threw it to him before he came out of his break," Roethlisberger said. "He turned his head and found the ball and made a great catch."
There should be many more such plays if Wheaton's play in the opener is any indication.
The 5-11, 182-pounder has everything the Steelers could want in a wide receiver to pair opposite Pro Bowler Antonio Brown.
Wheaton is fast, a polished route runner, incredibly conscientious and healthy after a recurring finger injury stunted his development last season and limited him to six catches for 64 yards.
His performance against the Browns may provide the one ingredient Wheaton needs to tie everything together: the belief he can play at this level.
"Markus is building confidence in himself," Roethlisberger said, "and that I have in him."
Eddie George, who rushed for almost 10,500 yards and 78 touchdowns during his NFL career, waited to congratulate fellow Ohio State products such as linebacker Ryan Shazier and Cameron Heyward after the Steelers’ 30-27 win over the Browns.
“I’m surprised at how lean he looks,” George told ESPN.com. “He looks like a totally different back. Quicker and leaner.”
Bell looked nothing like the back who averaged a plodding 3.5 yards per carry last season as a rookie.
The 2013 second-round pick gashed the Browns for 5.2 yards per carry and also caught six passes for 88 yards. Bell showed his trademark patience but also exhibited some wiggle and repeatedly slipped out of tackles.
He powered a running game that churned out 128 yards and gave the Steelers the kind of balanced they have too often lacked in recent seasons.
“I thought this was a game that everyone got to see what he can do,” quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said after leading his 34th career fourth-quarter drive that resulted in a Steelers win. “I thought his endurance and conditioning was superb.”
It needed to be and not just because Bell’s play helped make the difference in a win that the Steelers had to have.
Bell let down his teammates with his arrest for marijuana possession and driving under the influence a couple of hours before the Steelers flew to Philadelphia for their third preseason game. He went a long way toward re-gaining the trust he broke with his career day.
Of the Steelers standing behind him after his arrest, Bell said, “It means a lot. Those guys put trust in me so I’ve obviously just got to keep moving forward and try to get better.”
Gruden once compared Bell and George because of their similar builds and running styles. George, who made four Pro Bowls during his career, said Bell is on his way to becoming a Steelers great at running back.
“He’s next in line to do it,” George said.
The veteran quarterback could only laugh off a tweet, which surfaced earlier this week, that has the Steelers dealing him before the trade deadline if they get off to another slow start this season.
Roethlisberger – and the Steelers – can each say until they are blue in the face that the shared goal is for him to play his entire career in Pittsburgh, and it still won’t stop speculation about his future.
If team president Art Rooney II is looking to unload the most important Steelers’ most important player since the dynastic teams of the 1970s, he sure doesn’t sound like it.
“I don’t see anything physically that would lead you to believe [Roethlisberger] is starting to tail off in any way,” Rooney told ESPN.com recently. “So I think maybe some of his best years are still ahead of him here.”
Roethlisberger, who turned 32 in March, still certainly appears to be in his prime.
He is coming off a season in which he threw for the most second-most yards (4,261) and touchdowns (28) in his career. The 6-foot-5, 241-pound quarterback is also taking fewer hits with the Steelers running the no-huddle offense more frequently.
Just as significant: Roethlisberger and Todd Haley are in a good place after an, ahem, adjustment period when the latter succeeded Bruce Arians as the Steelers’ offensive coordinator in 2012.
For all of the talk about how the two aren’t exactly golfing buddies, they have in fact hit the links a couple of times together this year, Haley said.
“He’s as competitive as they come,” said Haley, who has a similar reputation. “It doesn’t matter whether it’s on a Sunday or on the golf course. That’s a trait that you love to see guys have. He’s competitive when you start naming '80s music too. He is surprisingly good.”
He’s not bad at playing quarterback, either.
Roethlisberger is in the process of rewriting the Steelers’ record book, and he has the best winning percentage (.669) this side of Tom Brady and Peyton Manning among active NFL quarterbacks.
Cornerback Ike Taylor said Roethlisberger is the most underrated quarterback in the NFL even though Big Ben, Brady and Eli Manning are the only active quarterbacks who have won multiple Super Bowls.
“Just being a tough, hard-nosed guy, I don’t think he gets the credit,” Taylor said of Roethlisberger. “How he plays, the injuries he plays through, that’s why he’s a Steeler.”
Until they trade him to the Rams, anyway.
The good news for the Pittsburgh Steelers: Brown said “We’ll see” 10 times by my count -- and this was in a span of about five minutes and in between tidying up his pearly whites.
Brown might not have wanted to say anything that will catch the attention of Joe Haden. The Cleveland cornerback could well stake out the Steelers' player entrance Sunday morning so he can start following Brown as soon as the Pro Bowl wide receiver arrives at Heinz Field.
And certainly his antenna is already up when it comes to Brown.
Or Brown is simply ready for the talking to stop and for the games -- the real ones, that is -- to begin.
My guess is the latter reason since Haden didn’t exactly shut down Brown last season.
Brown caught 15 passes for 179 yards and one touchdown the two times he matched up against Haden. The two will go mano a mano again Sunday when the Browns visit the Steelers for a 1 p.m. ET game.
“To me, that’s one of the better matchups of the year,” Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. “You get one of the best cornerbacks in the world against one of the best wide receivers in the world.”
Haden has the strength to jam wide receivers at the line of scrimmage and the speed to also run with them. Haden, who made the Pro Bowl for the first time last season, shadows the opponents’ top wide receivers, which is why he and Brown will see a lot of one another.
Brown, for his part, will try to be as elusive in the Steelers’ opener as he was on most things pertaining to it on Thursday. A sampling:
Brown when asked if there are receiving numbers he would like to hit this season after catching 110 passes for 1,499 yards in 2013: “We’ll see.”
Brown when asked if he can come close to his production in 2013: “We’ll see.”
Brown on whether the Steelers will use the no-huddle extensively from the start of season...
Oh, never mind.
And something has to give in the game in which Johnny Manziel is expected to make his NFL debut. The Browns have lost 10 consecutive games at Heinz Field, while the Steelers haven't won a season opener since 2010.
ESPN NFL Nation Browns reporter Pat McManamon and ESPN NFL Nation Steelers reporter Scott Brown take a closer look at the 1 p.m. ET game.
Brown: Pat, how many times have you written the surname Manziel since the Browns drafted Johnny Football in early May? Well, let's get the obligatory Manziel chatter out of the way. How do you see the Browns using Manziel on Sunday and how much do you expect him to play?
McManamon: As for the first part, Scott, let's say more than five and less than 10,000, but just barely less. I would be surprised if Manziel does not see the field for a play or a series in each half. The Browns and coach Mike Pettine have been coy about how he'll be used, but he does bring a different element than Brian Hoyer, and the Browns could put him on the field the same way the Steelers first used Kordell Stewart. Certain down-and-distance situations might be good for the read-option, or certain spots on the field might be good for a quarterback who can move. I don't think Manziel will play a lot, but I do think he'll play in the right spot, as judged by the coaching staff.
Scott, a slow start doomed the Steelers last season. How determined are they to avoid that slow start again, and how much bad luck is it for the Browns to draw the Steelers in the opener?
Brown: For the record, I am not going to start calling you Pat McFootball no matter how many times you privately lobby me to do so. Take a picture with the Biebs in it and we will talk. With that order of business out of the way, I will say the schedule-makers did not do the Browns any favors by having them open in Pittsburgh. I suspect the Steelers will publicly downplay the notion that this is a must-win game, but in reality it is. The Steelers cannot start slow again this season, and with road games against the Ravens and the Panthers looming, they have to beat the Browns. As hard as it is to win in the NFL, nothing is more served on a platter than an opponent that hasn't won in Pittsburgh in more than a decade and has an offense riddled with question marks. Did I mention Ben Roethlisberger, who has never forgiven the Browns for passing on him in the 2004 NFL draft, has lost just one time to Cleveland?
Getting back to the Browns' offense, who do the Steelers have to worry about beating them with wide receiver Josh Gordon out for the season?
McManamon: Nobody, really. The Browns will try to run the ball and use tight end Jordan Cameron creatively, but there is no real outside threat even close to the threat Gordon provided. And Cameron better get used to consistent double coverage. It's almost unfair to throw a quarterback into a game with these circumstances. Running back Ben Tate probably will be the offensive bell cow. He'll be featured prominently in the game plan. But the Steelers stop the run in their sleep. This game will be a serious challenge for the Browns' offense and offensive coaches.
Speaking of offense, how has and how will the marijuana possession charges against Le'Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount affect the team, if at all, this weekend?
Brown: It is a footnote to this game. Not to minimize the stupidity that the Steelers' top two running backs showed -- and they are worthy of all of the unflattering nicknames that have surfaced on social media, among other places -- but the issue has presumably been dealt with from the Steelers' end. If Bell and Blount had been suspended for the season opener, we would have seen Roethlisberger throwing a ton of passes and a one-dimensional offense. But with both Bell and Blount slated to play against the Browns, the Steelers' offense will be at full strength.
I am real interested in seeing whether the Steelers try to set up the pass through the run or vice versa. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin predictably gushed about Cleveland's defense at his news conference earlier this week, and certainly that unit is the strength of the Browns. Will that defense be as good as advertised?
McManamon: Let's tap the brakes on this "good defense." Nobody knows yet. The defense has new names -- and they are good names to have -- but they might not be improved. Also, a defense that was supposed to be good a season ago made a habit of blowing late leads. The weak spot this season is the same as last -- cornerback opposite Joe Haden. First-round pick Justin Gilbert is going through significant growing pains, and Buster Skrine is coming off a thumb injury. The Browns wanted Isaiah Trufant to be the nickelback, but he's on injured reserve. Smart teams pick at weaknesses; it would be surprising if the Steelers don't pick on the second corner. The other concern, which has been an ongoing issue: Will the defense wear down because it's on the field too much due to the offense struggling?
Staying with defense, Steelers rookie linebacker Ryan Shazier is an Ohio State guy, and there's been a lot of positive press on him throughout preseason. Has he been that good?
Brown: He has, but the caveat, of course, is that Shazier has yet to play in an NFL game that counts. That changes Sunday, and most telling about the progress Shazier has made is the fact he will become the first Steelers defensive rookie to start a season opener since Kendrell Bell in 2001. There will be the inevitable growing pains as the first-round pick adjusts to the speed of the game at this level. Probably the biggest concern with Shazier is whether he will consistently be able to shed blocks since the 6-1, 237-pounder is not the biggest linebacker. The Browns' offensive line is one of their biggest strengths, so it will be a good opening test for Shazier. I think the kid is going to be a star, and I predict he will win the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Award.
Pouncey could only watch helplessly last season as the Steelers lost their first four games for the first time since 1968 on the way to a second consecutive 8-8 season.
Pouncey tore his ACL eight snaps into the season, and there initially was so much swelling that he couldn’t even travel with the team. Despite that -- and Pouncey having to watch home games on the sidelines -- the fifth-year veteran was around the team enough to know that he doesn’t want to experience another somber September at Steelers headquarters.
“You lose four in a row, everything’s different at work,” Pouncey said. “You come in and everybody’s on the edge and nobody really has a smile on their face.”
Nothing would do more to wipe the collective smiles off the Steelers’ faces than a loss Sunday against the visiting Browns.
The Steelers haven’t lost to the Browns in Pittsburgh since 2003 and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has never lost to Cleveland at Heinz Field. An end to both trends would be particularly disheartening to the Steelers considering their next two games are on the road and the specter of last year’s start hangs over the team.
“Everybody’s talked about it,” defensive end Cameron Heyward said. “If you were here last year that’s all that’s on your mind. It’s almost [talked about] too much.”
The best way the Steelers can end such talk is to beat an AFC North foe that is almost a touchdown underdog on Sunday.
“It’s one of those things where you can go back down that avenue,” Steelers left guard Ramon Foster said of the 0-4 start in 2013. “That has to be the mentality.”
Jones confidently hung in the pocket on third down and fit a pass into a fairly tight window, hitting Will Johnson on a seam route that initially netted 19 yards. The Carolina Panthers successfully challenged the spot after Johnson was brought down near the 20-yard line, and what resulted in an 18-yard gain left the Steelers a yard short of a first down.
That didn’t take away from what was easily Jones’ best play in the Steelers' final preseason game.
And the question with final cuts looming is whether the second-year man made enough throws like the aforementioned one to earn a spot on the Steelers’ 53-man roster.
“I have no idea,” Jones said late Thursday night. “That’s so far out of my control I don’t even like to think about it because it stresses me out.”
Jones put himself in a precarious situation by only throwing for 224 yards in three preseason games and not once leading a drive that resulted in a touchdown. The 6-foot-3, 221-pounder still holds onto the ball too long as evidenced by the six times he was sacked in the preseason -- or double the combined number that Ben Roethlisberger and Bruce Gradkowski were dropped.
“There’s still some growing pains right now but that’s a part of it,” Jones said after completing 14 of 18 passes for 97 yards in a 10-0 loss to the Panthers, “being in a new offense, being in a new system, playing in the NFL. But I feel like I’ve come a long way from last year.”
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said Jones “did some good things” against the Panthers. But when asked if he is confident that the Steelers’ No. 3 quarterback is on the roster right now, Tomlin said, “I’m not confident of anything right now in that regard.”
I have Jones making the team in my final projection of the Steelers' 53-man roster. They like to carry three quarterbacks and it is too early for them to give up on Jones after investing a relatively high draft pick on him.
He made just enough of a closing argument to stick around for another season as the No. 3 quarterback.