Pittsburgh Steelers: Ben Roethlisberger

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

DE Cameron Heyward: The 2011 first-round pick is the one proven commodity that the Steelers have at defensive end. Heyward pushed his way into the starting lineup after the fourth game of last season, and he led the Steelers with 31 quarterback pressures in 2013 and tied for the team lead with five sacks. To say there is a significant drop-off after Heyward at defensive end is an understatement.
PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Steelers report to training camp in three days and it looks like coach Mike Tomlin has pre-ordered heat and humidity, two of his favorite ingredients for the practices that will take place at St. Vincent College in Latrobe, Pennsylvania.

Here is a different kind of primer for camp, and it is the first of two posts recapping the Steelers' offseason in the words of the coaches and the players.

Here is what the players said during the offseason practices.

Polamalu
“We could put Usain Bolt and the whole track team out there but that doesn't make us a good football team. So, we'll see how everything works out.” – strong safety Troy Polamalu on what an infusion of speed will mean for the defense

“I’m excited about this team and the direction we’re headed. I think that we have a lot of speed. That’s running the ball, that’s throwing the ball, whatever. I want us to be fast and to put a lot of points on the board. I feel younger than ever." – quarterback Ben Roethlisberger on expectations for the offense after the Steelers averaged just under 28 points in their final eight games last season

“You see guys finishing to the end zone, the whole defense running to the ball, everyone coaching each other. I think we’re just a hungry young group that’s aspiring to win games. When you’ve got a young motivated group that everyone bought into what we’re trying to do it just speaks highly when you see it on the practice field.” – Pro Bowl wide receiver Antonio Brown on the urgency the Steelers showed during offseason practices

“I’m in his head every day, always asking questions, always trying to figure out the best way to do it. He’s always on my butt about just grinding. Not saying that I don’t push myself, but there’s always a next level and that’s what he’s brought to our whole unit.” – outside linebacker Jarvis Jones on new defensive assistant Joey Porter

Miller
“I expect to be better than last year for sure. That’s better because I should be able to put more preparation in, should be able to work like I’m used to working. Last year was about trying to find a new normal for myself and I’m a creature of habit so that wasn’t easy for me.” – tight end Heath Miller on participating in offseason practices after missing them the previous year while recovering from a torn ACL

“You’ve got a few guys and there time is right now. Cortez Allen is one of those guys. Will Gay is still one of those guys regardless of what people don’t want to say about him. The man’s real solid.I think last year was the best year of his career. And Cortez Allen toward the end was breaking out to what we all thought he could be -- a ball hawk.” – veteran Ike Taylor on the Steelers’ cornerbacks

“It’s nothing right now and I say that in the sense that that’s been talked about the last few years. The talent is there but if we come out here and [falter] we’ll be saying the same thing next year. You can’t just say because we have the high-round talent or guys that have experience that it’s supposed to be special. We’ve got to make it that way.” – left guard Ramon Foster on the whether offensive line’s strong finish in 2013 will translate into a big season for the unit this year

“He’s one of my better friends on the team now. It’s crazy the relationship I built with him over the last couple of months. He’s a lot like I am, outgoing, more jokes. Dri is the same way. It’s crazy how we all mesh together and get along.” – starting running back Le'Veon Bell on new backfield additions LeGarrette Blount and Dri Archer


“Think about it. You’ve got a Hall of Famer in waiting and I’m coming in to play right after him. That’s pressure. Everybody knows what Casey was. He’s on a top five defense his whole career. I’ve seen the man play. There’s nothing else like him. I’m far from Casey. I’m never going to try to be Casey. The only thing I can do is work every day, do my best and just be the best Steve that I can be.” – nose tackle Steve McLendon on replacing five-time Pro Bowler Casey Hampton last season

Mitchell
“I don’t really care about Pro Bowl. I want to be All-Pro. I have to do what I did last year again plus get better. A lot of times last year people were talking about the front seven I played with and they were very talented but this defense here is very talented. Sometimes you’re overlooked but that’s just another chip to put on my shoulder and play football.” – new free safety Mike Mitchell on his goal for this season

“He’s like a sponge right now. The coaches tell him, ‘Don’t say much at all. Just try and soak everything up right now.’ It’s going to be tough on him but he’s the type of athletic he can do it. He’s willing and able to do whatever it takes.” – inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons on first-round draft pick Ryan Shazier

“I feel like I was overlooked by a lot of teams. A lot of guys that went ahead of me aren’t even on teams right now so that gives me a chip on my shoulder every day. When I get to the point where I’m that No. 1 guy and I’m an All-Pro cornerback I’m going to think back to the days when I was sad because I didn’t get drafted.” – cornerback Antwon Blake on what drives him

“I’ve gotten a chance to see who wore this number before me and the person who wore the number before me was a great player for the Steelers. With that comes a great opportunity to become the best and that’s somebody I want to become as great as or greater than. I love pressure. I thrive off that.” – rookie defensive end Stephon Tuitt on wearing No. 91, Aaron Smith’s old number

“Ben is strong-armed with a sense of boldness. He’s going to throw some balls that maybe some other guys wouldn’t, even guys with strong arms. I love that as a receiver.” – new wide receiver Lance Moore on playing with Roethlisberger

“He’s like Paul Bunyan. He’s huge. He’s thick but he’s definitely agile. I think we can get a lot out of him. His potential is out of the roof. It’s about getting him to the next level.” – defensive end Cameron Heyward on rookie defensive tackle Dan McCullers

Camp preview: Pittsburgh Steelers

July, 17, 2014
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NFL Nation’s Scott Brown examines the three biggest issues facing the Pittsburgh Steelers heading into training camp:

Continued growth on offense: The Steelers averaged 26.6 points in winning six of their final eight games last season, and the foundation is in place for them to build on that. It all starts with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who didn’t miss a snap last season and is still in the prime of his career. Roethlisberger never looked more in control than when he was running the no-huddle offense, something the Steelers did frequently in the second half of the season. The offseason practices were critical for Roethlisberger and new wide receivers (Lance Moore) and younger ones (Markus Wheaton) to work together in the no-huddle offense. Roethlisberger said the Steelers will add to their no-huddle playbook during the offseason and training camp before picking the best plays. He must be in sync with the wide receivers; Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery must be replaced for the no-huddle attack to hum again. Repetitions during training camp and preseason practice are critical, especially because the players will be in pads and hitting one another. That means the Steelers’ wide receivers especially have to stay relatively healthy during the most important time for team building, developing a rapport with Roethlisberger and earning his trust.

Getting after the quarterback: The Steelers managed just 34 sacks last season, their lowest total since 1990, and they must get more production from their outside linebackers. Jason Worilds supplanted LaMarr Woodley at left outside linebacker the second half of last season and led the Steelers with eight sacks. Worilds, hampered by a nagging calf injury during offseason practices, has to show that he can be a pass-rushing force for more than half a season. The former second-round pick has no one blocking his path to the field with Woodley now in Oakland. Jarvis Jones has to justify the Steelers using the 17th overall pick of the 2013 draft on him. The former Georgia All-American managed just one sack as a rookie but has improved his strength both physically and in regard to his grasp of the playbook. Jones also has Joey Porter mentoring him, and the Steelers will give Jones every opportunity to succeed. Depth is a concern at outside linebacker, so in addition to providing a consistent pass rush, Worilds and Jones have to stay healthy. If general manager Kevin Colbert is looking to add depth, Steelers fans will be quick to remind him that James Harrison is only a phone call away. What would most help the defense, however, is if Jones can provide the same kind of pass rush that Harrison supplied from the right side of the Steelers’ defense when Harrison made the Pro Bowl in five consecutive seasons.

Improving their run game and rushing defense: The Steelers struggled running the ball and stopping it in 2013. Both still matter, even at a time when NFL teams are slinging the ball early and often and using the pass to set up the run. Le’Veon Bell should improve on his 3.5 yards per carry in his second season, and the Steelers have improved their overall talent at running back. LeGarrette Blount is a significant upgrade over Jonathan Dwyer and third-round pick Dri Archer is a burner who gives the Steelers a home-run threat in the backfield. The Steelers should significantly improve on the 86.4 rushing yards they averaged in 2013. Not as certain is whether the Steelers will be appreciably better in stopping the run after yielding 115.6 rushing yards per game last season. Nose tackle Steve McLendon has gotten bigger and appears ready to assert himself this season, but defensive end opposite Cameron Heyward is a question mark. First-round pick Ryan Shazier should be an upgrade at weakside inside linebacker, but he will inevitably endure some rookie struggles, even if he is ready to start this season. Everything with the Steelers’ defense starts with shutting down the run, so it has to do a much better job this season.

Not forgetting Big Ben's tackle

July, 14, 2014
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Franco Harris' "Immaculate Reception" proved to be a landslide winner in a recent ESPN.com poll of the Steelers' most memorable plays, and that was a foregone conclusion.

A discussion of the other two most memorable plays in Steelers' history generated a lot of debate and for good reason.

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There were so many worthy ones that did not make the final three, from John Stallworth's over-the-shoulder touchdown catch in Super Bowl XIV and any number of Lynn Swann grabs in the Super Bowl to Troy Polamalu's interception for a return touchdown in the 2008 AFC Championship Game.

"Where is Ben's tackle?" Polamalu asked when I talked to him about the greatest plays in Steelers history and specifically James Harrison's 100-yard interception return in Super Bowl XLIII.

That is a great question.

Of all the plays that did not make the final three, none received more nominations or mentions from Steelers fans via Twitter than Ben Roethlisberger's touchdown-saving tackle in a 21-18 win over the Indianapolis Colts in a 2005 AFC divisional playoff game.

And of all the great plays Roethlisberger has made over the last decade none may be more significant than his tackle of Colts cornerback Nick Harper following a Jerome Bettis fumble as the Steelers were going in for the game-clinching touchdown.

It was such a stunning turn of events with the underdog Steelers poised to seal an upset over the Peyton Manning-led Colts, and only a shoestring tackle by Roethlisberger saved Pittsburgh from one of the most devastating losses in franchise history.

As for Roethlisberger's take on his best-ever tackle, he said, "Because it's a quarterback making a tackle I think that's why it's so unusual. But in the grand scheme of championship runs, if I make that play and we lose the game no one's talking about it. But because we won the game it became such a big deal."

That is precisely why it is such a big deal.

The Steelers went on to win the Super Bowl for the first time since the dynastic teams of the 1970s, and there is no telling how things would have played out beyond 2005 if they had lost that game.

The Steelers had endured so much playoff heartbreak under coach Bill Cowher. Losing a game they had dominated at the now razed RCA Dome might have allowed serious doubt to creep in about whether they could take that final step from contenders to Super Bowl champions.

The Steelers did get some help after Roethlisberger's tackle, most notably from Mike Vanderjagt.

The Colts kicker shanked a 46-yard field goal attempt on the final play, sending the Steelers to the AFC Championship Game.

And there was no stopping them from that point with Bettis' fumble becoming a mere footnote to his retiring as a Super Bowl champion.

"It was just so unbelievable when it happened," Roethlisberger said of one of the defining sequences of his career, "and it was just find a way to make a play."

He did and the rest is history.
Santonio Holmes, Aaron FranciscoKirby Lee/USA TODAY Sports
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This is the third of three plays nominated as the most memorable play in team history. Please vote for your choice as the Steelers' most memorable play.

Score: Steelers 27, Cardinals 23
Date: Feb. 1, 2009 Site: Raymond James Stadium

Ben Roethlisberger and Santonio Holmes played pitch and catch so effortlessly that it seemed as if they were in a backyard.

The two were, in fact, on one of sports’ biggest stages, and the Arizona Cardinals were powerless to stop them at the end of Super Bowl XLIII.

A Larry Fitzgerald 64-yard touchdown reception had given the upstart Cardinals a 23-20 lead with 2 minutes, 30 seconds left in the game. After a holding penalty moved the Steelers back to their own 12-yard line, Roethlisberger and Holmes went to work.

They connected three times in moving the Steelers to the Cardinals’ 6-yard line with less than a minute to play.

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A first-down pass from Roethlisberger to Holmes in the back left corner of the end zone looked like it would give the Steelers the go-ahead touchdown. But a leaping Holmes could not hang on to the ball.

“When I threw it and it looked like he had it, I was celebrating and I just remember, ‘Oh man,’ but coming back to the huddle I was encouraging. He wasn’t down at all,” Roethlisberger said recently. “He was disappointed he didn’t catch it, but there was no worry about going to him on the next play.”

Roethlisberger did just that.

After eluding the Cardinals’ pass rush and going through his progression of reads, Roethlisberger spied Holmes in the opposite corner of the end zone where he had almost made the game-winning catch a play earlier.

Three Cardinals defensive backs were also in the area, but Roethlisberger threw the pass anyway.

“When it came off my hand, I thought the defender (cornerback Ralph Brown) in front was going to turn around,” Roethlisberger said. “I really thought it was intercepted when I let go of it, but it ended up just over his hand and where [Holmes] could make a play.”

Roethlisberger had thrown the ball where only Holmes could make a play on it. And Holmes turned in one of the greatest catches in Super Bowl history when he leaped for the ball and then got both feet inbounds by inches after pulling it in.

The toe-tapping reception stood up after an official review, and it put the exclamation point on Holmes' nine-catch, 131-yard performance.

The defense stifled a last-gasp drive by the Cardinals, giving the Steelers their sixth Super Bowl victory, and Holmes earned game MVP honors.

 
This is the next in a series that look at every position on offense and defense with training camp approaching. Our fifth look is at offensive tackle.

Returning starters: Kelvin Beachum and Marcus Gilbert. Beachum stabilized left tackle after Mike Adams floundered there in the first four games last season, and it is his position to lose heading into training camp. Gilbert started every game last season at right tackle and was the only Steelers’ offensive lineman to start every game in 2013.

On the bubble: Guy Whimper. A lot would have to happen for the 6-foot-5, 318-pounder not to make the team. Whimper proved to be a dependable reserve last season, and he has the flexibility to play inside as well. Whimper could be competing with rookie Wesley Johnson, a fifth-round draft pick, if the Steelers keep only eight offensive linemen when they finalize their 53-man roster.

Beachy
Beachum
By the numbers: Ben Roethlisberger got sacked 24 times in the 11 games that Beachum started at left tackle last season. He was dropped 18 times in the five games that Adams started at the position.

Did you know: The Steelers averaged 124 rushing yards in the six games that Adams started at right tackle as a rookie in 2012. Their season rushing average was 96.1 yards.

Quotable: “I’m not a big-frame guy. I never have been. I’m not a 320- or 330-type of offensive lineman. I know I have to keep my weight down, keep my body fat down, stay lean, stay fast, use technique. That’s something that I’ve used since college and have to continue to fine-tune that. I think with the addition of Coach [Mike] Munchak, technique is really going to be a thing that he focuses on and makes sure that we do a good job of.” -- Beachum

Outlook: It will be interesting to see where Adams gets to compete for a starting job at training camp. Beachum is not a prototypical left tackle but the 2012 seventh-round pick got the job done there last season. Adams has played considerably better at right tackle and Gilbert is going into the final year of his contract. Whoever is the odd man out at tackle as far as starting should give the Steelers a quality reserve there.
This is the start of a series that looks at every position on offense and defense with training camp approaching. Our first look is at quarterback.

Returning starter: Ben Roethlisberger. The two-time Super Bowl winner played every snap last season and has said he feels younger than ever despite turning 32 in March. No matter where experts rank Roethlisberger among his peers, he is still unquestionably a top-tier quarterback.

[+] EnlargeBen Roethlisberger
Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY SportsBen Roethlisberger is entering his 11th season as the Pittsburgh Steelers' starting quarterback.
New face: Brendon Kay. The former Cincinnati Bearcats standout signed with the Steelers as an undrafted free agent after throwing for 3,3302 yards and 22 touchdown last season and completing 66.3 percent of his passes.

On the bubble: Kay. The 6-foot-4, 228-pound passer has the build of a prototypical NFL quarterback and he impressed during offseason workouts. Still, he will have to clearly – if not vastly – outplay second-year man Landry Jones to make the 53-man roster. Jones, a fourth-round pick in 2013, probably has to flop during training camp and in preseason games to put his standing as the Steelers’ No. 3 quarterback in jeopardy.

By the numbers: Roethlisberger’s career regular-season winning percentage of .669 ranks third among active NFL quarterbacks with at least 50 starts. He also ranks third among active quarterbacks with 95 regular-season victories, trailing only Peyton Manning (167) and Tom Brady (147).

Did you know: Bruce Gradkowski, Roethlisberger’s backup, went to high school in Pittsburgh, and as a senior at Seton-LaSalle in 2000, his 30 touchdown passes broke Dan Marino’s Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League record for most touchdown passes in a season.

Outlook: The Steelers are fine at quarterback as long as Roethlisberger stays healthy. Now one of the most tenured Steelers, Roethlisberger is still playing at a high level. Big Ben set a team record with 375 completions last season and threw for 4,261 yards, the second-highest total of his career, with 28 touchdowns with 14 interceptions. His health is also vital to the Steelers’ running their no-huddle offense frequently in 2014, and there could be a correlation between the two. Roethlisberger was sacked just seven times in the final seven games in 2013, when the Steelers employed more of an up-tempo offense, and he generally got rid of the ball quicker when running the no-huddle attack.

NFL QB survey: Big Ben No. 7

July, 2, 2014
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Ben Roethlisberger is the seventh-best quarterback in the NFL, according to a wide-ranging ESPN survey.

Roethlisberger
ESPN NFL Insider Mike Sando took an interesting approach to this project as he asked 26 coaches, executives and talent evaluators to give every projected starting quarterbackInsider a ranking between one, the highest, and five based on their overall attributes.

Roethlisberger received six one votes and his average of 1.85 ranked seventh among the 32 quarterbacks.

Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees all averaged 1.04 to top the list. They were followed by Andrew Luck (1.50), Philip Rivers (1.77) and Roethlisberger.

Rivers and Roethlisberger, each of whom were drafted in 2004, are at the top of the second tier of quarterbacks.

Here is what Sando wrote about Roethlisberger:
One of the offensive coaches placed Rivers and Roethlisberger in the top tier. He noted that Rivers wins with his mind while Roethlisberger wins with his physical abilities. Several GMs said they thought Roethlisberger had declined into the second tier over the past couple seasons. "If you were there in Pittsburgh, you saw him run the no-huddle, you saw the command, you saw him run and make plays," a coordinator said. "Other people will not think as much of him. He is a very good quarterback, able to get himself out of tough positions."

Said one GM: "Ben plays big-boy football -- and regardless of what you think, he knows how to win the game."
PITTSBURGH -- As excited as the Steelers’ offensive linemen are by the addition of Mike Munchak, their enthusiasm may be trumped by someone else at team headquarters.

[+] EnlargeTennessee's Mike Munchak
AP Photo/Wade PayneNew Steelers offensive line coach Mike Munchak has used his head coach and Hall of Fame player experience to make a great early impression.
“Really nobody was happier when Coach [Mike] Tomlin, Kevin Colbert and Mr. [Dan] Rooney were able to pull off getting him to come on board," offensive coordinator Todd Haley said of the Steelers' new offensive line coach. "He’s a great teacher. He’s great at what he does, the best in the league in my opinion. He seamlessly transitioned into our staff. He's a stud.”

Haley and Munchak join Dick LeBeau as three former NFL head coaches on Tomlin’s staff, giving it some heft. And Haley has good reason to be thrilled that Munchak will mentor and mold the Steelers’ offensive line this season.

The line came together at the end of last season and is still young with left guard Ramon Foster, who is only 28, the oldest projected starter up front. Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey returns after missing most of last season with a torn ACL, and the line will be counted on to keep quarterback Ben Roethlisberger upright and open holes for running backs Le'Veon Bell, LeGarrette Blount and Dri Archer.

Stellar offensive line play has often eluded the Steelers during Tomlin’s tenure, and some of that can be blamed on injuries. But with Munchak, a Pro Football Hall of Fame guard, pulling everything together, the Steelers’ line could be poised to lead the way for an offense that averaged just under 28 points in its final eight games of 2013.

“Not all great players are great coaches, but he’s definitely one of those great players that transitioned into being a great coach,” Haley said. “The head-coaching experience is a benefit because he doesn’t just see it from his position group or his perspective. He sees the big picture, which I take pride in doing, having been there. He is a very good teacher that believes in hard work, like we all do.

"Great players want to be coached. They want to be pushed to see how good they can be, and these guys are eating it up.”
Here is the latest Steelers mailbag. If you have a Steelers' question please send to @ScottBrown_ESPN with #steelersmail. And away we go ... @ScottBrown_ESPN: I think Le'Veon Bell could get 300-plus carries this season but not much more than that even if he plays every game. The Steelers say they are committed to running the ball this season, and I don't think that's just lip service from offensive coordinator Todd Haley and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. However, I doubt that the Steelers lean as heavily on Bell as they did last season because of the additions of LeGarrette Blount and Dri Archer. Bell will start at running back but the other two will get touches as well. I like that approach because I think it will extend the number of productive seasons Bell has in the NFL. That's probably not good news for fantasy football owners who covet Bell, but he will still be a prominent part of the offense and the Steelers will put his receiving skills to good use too. @ScottBrown_ESPN: I think he will because I expect Mike Adams, who may be the Steelers' most physically gifted offensive tackle, to benefit as much as anyone from offensive line coach Mike Munchak's tutelage. Kelvin Beachum and Marcus Gilbert got most of the first-team snaps at left tackle and right tackle, respectively, but the real competition along both the offensive and defensive line won't start until training camp. Adams has said he wants the opportunity to start whether it is at right or left tackle and I'd like to see the Steelers give him a shot at unseating Gilbert. I thought Adams played well at right tackle when he made six starts there as a rookie and he could be the future there if the Steelers don't sign Gilbert to a long-term contract before the start of the regular season. @ScottBrown_ESPN: Still pretty quiet on that front but I think the Steelers will re-sign Brett Keisel though it might not be until right before the start of training camp. He would be a terrific mentor for second-round pick Stephon Tuitt and Keisel's presence would allow the Steelers to bring Tuitt along slowly. I agree too that Keisel still has something left, and he could play in a rotation with Cam Thomas and Tuitt with the limited snaps keeping him fresh throughout the season. I know the Steelers are committed to getting younger on defense but Keisel would contribute both on and off the field. I think if defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau has his way Keisel will be back for one more season. @ScottBrown_ESPN: I think Cortez Allen gets a new contract and that the Steelers let Marcus Gilbert play out the final year of his rookie deal. Allen is the only long-term starting cornerback on the roster right now and the Steelers can't afford to lose him. I think the two sides can reach a deal that is good for both and ensures that Allen is a Steeler well beyond the 2014 season. As for Gilbert, I just haven't seen enough from the former second-round pick to warrant the Steelers locking him up with a long-term deal. Much like outside linebacker Jason Worilds, I think the Steelers want to see more from Gilbert and will take their chances on getting a deal done after the season if he fits into the team's long-term plans. If Gilbert walks after the 2014 season the Steelers have Mike Adams to plug in at right tackle. @ScottBrown_ESPN: I believe that is the case since players are allowed in the building during the span that bridges the end of a season and the start of the team's offseason program. It would make sense too for the coaches to be available to rookies or first-year players who may have questions about the playbook. That availability, however, is limited in the sense that coaches take lengthy vacations not long after the conclusion of offseason practices since it is really the only extended break from football they will get all year. The building is mostly empty too since a lot of players travel somewhere to continue working out, often ratcheting up their training regimen to get ready for camp.
PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Steelers came into their own in the second half of last season when the no-huddle attack became a staple of their offense and not just something they used when circumstances dictated it or as a change of pace.

But Todd Haley attributed the offense averaging just under 28 points in the Steelers’ final eight games to something more basic: taking care of the football.

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The Steelers committed a whopping 11 turnovers in their first four games, all losses. They turned the ball over seven times in their final eight games, winning six.

“We just had to put an emphasis on protecting the football at all costs because when you turn the ball over in this league you really hurt your chances of winning games,” said Haley, the Steelers’ offensive coordinator. “I think the guys just took to it to heart and focused on protecting the football.”

It is probably not a coincidence that as the Steelers started cutting down on turnovers Haley cut loose on the no-huddle attack, giving Roethlisberger more ownership of the offense than he has ever had.

Roethlisberger rewarded Haley’s faith, and in addition to his play it helped that Le'Veon Bell stabilized the running game and Fernando Velasco and then Cody Wallace filled in capably at center for Maurkice Pouncey, who was lost to a knee injury eight snaps into his season.

“We obviously had some adversity with injuries and things like that, but the turnovers stopped. That’s really when we started playing better football,” Haley said. “The second half of the season, we did a lot of good things, as we worked our way through adversity when you couldn’t see much light at the end of the tunnel. I think a lot of good came out of that. I think a lot of the guys that were here and are still here, feel that and know what we have to accomplish. We are all interested in building off of that finish.”

One area in which the Steelers’ offense will need to improve is starting games.

The Steelers managed just one touchdown on their 16 opening drives last season and 10 overall points.

A key to starting faster is the Steelers’ establishing the run, something that should be helped by the improvement Bell is expected to make in his second season, and the offseason additions of LeGarrette Blount and Dri Archer and offensive line coach Mike Munchak.

“We have to run the football better, which we started to do in the second half of the season,” Haley said. “When you can throw it as well as we did with the run game not exactly where we wanted it (in the first half of 2013) that tells you that you have a chance to be good. When you are running the football it makes throwing it a heck of a lot easier. Running is a big part of what we have to do here going forward successfully.”
Here is the second part of the latest Steelers' mailbag. If you have a question please send to ScottBrown_ESPN with #steelersmail.

And away we go...

 

@ScottBrown_ESPN Breathe easy because there is nothing to them. I have no idea why those rumors haven’t been put to rest by now but they won’t seem to go away even though there is little or no basis to them. Yes, Mike Tomlin comes from the Tony Dungy coaching tree but he hasn’t coached a 4-3 defense since 2006. And last I checked Dick LeBeau is still the defensive coordinator with linebackers coach Keith Butler his likely successor. It just doesn’t make sense from a personnel standpoint either. Jarvis Jones, as an example, isn’t big enough to play with his hand in the ground and I’m not sure he plays well enough in space to be an outside linebacker in a 4-3 defense. The Steelers, assuming there were right about Jones when they drafted him 17th overall in 2013, should try to build around the 6-2, 245-pounder, not transition to a defense that could phase him out. The whole 3-4, 4-3 debate is becoming moot anyway with teams playing their bases defenses with less and less frequency. The Steelers will play a lot of 4-2-5 this season, as they did in 2013, with offenses spreading defenses out more than ever.

 

@ScottBrown_ESPN I think Markus Wheaton will emerge as a significant contributor this season but he has some work to do to win the starting job opposite Antonio Brown. Justin Brown, who spent last season on the practice squad, looked really good during offseason practices, and he will be among those who push Wheaton in training camp. I also think that Lance Moore and Brown could be the primary wideouts when the Steelers go with just two wide receivers. That is not a knock on Wheaton as much as it is a nod to how good Moore looked during offseason practices – and how valuable I think the seasoned veteran will be in the passing game this season. Wheaton will get plenty of playing time if he establishes himself as one of the top three wide receivers, and I think he will do that in camp. All he needs, in my opinion, is an opportunity and good health, to show what he can do.

 

@ScottBrown_ESPN It better if the Steelers want to return to the playoffs following a two-year hiatus. Consider that in the Steelers’ eight losses last season they threw the ball 42.3 times per game. In their eight wins, they threw the ball an average of 30.8 times. Ben Roethlisberger, as much as he likes to run the no-huddle attack, has always been a staunch advocate of offensive balance. And the no-huddle offense and a commitment to the ground game are not mutually exclusive concepts if the player running the former is cognizant of the importance of the latter. The Steelers’ running game should me much better this season due to the additions of LeGarrette Blount and Dri Archer and the improvement starter Le’Veon Bell is expected to make in his second season. That should translate into the kind of balance that will bode well for the Steelers.

 

@ScottBrown_ESPN The Steelers added that mentor when they hired Joey Porter as a defensive assistant. Porter has already been a terrific addition to the coaching staff, especially for Jones, who plays the position where Porter made his indelible mark in Pittsburgh. Harrison is a terrific leader by example given his work ethic and preparation but I’m not sure it’s in his DNA to throw an arm around a younger player and give him pointers. If the Steelers bring back Harrison – and I think the odds are slim barring an injury – it is because they need help at outside linebacker, not because they want him to mentor the youngers players.

 

@ScottBrown_ESPN My guess is Cortez Allen though I’m not sure the Steelers do anything with any of the candidates for long-term deals before training camp. Allen, to me, became the Steelers’ top priority after they signed center Maurkice Pouncey to a five-year contract extension. I think he is ready to really come into his own, and the Steelers can’t risk losing another rising young cornerback, something that happened last year with Keenan Lewis. It wouldn’t surprise me if Allen is the next and last player the Steelers sign to a long-term contract this year. I think they will take a wait-and-see approach with outside linebacker Jason Worilds and right tackle Marcus Gilbert. And they still have plenty of time to get a deal done with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who still has two years left on his contract.
Thanks for all of the great questions. I got enough of them that a second mailbag will run Monday. If you have a question please send to @ScottBrown_ESPN with the #steelersmail. And away we go ... @ScottBrown_ESPN: I'd say it has to do with his position as much as anything. Inside linebackers aren't nearly as valued as quarterbacks, offensive tackles, defensive ends/outside linebackers and cornerbacks. That is why many of the Pittsburgh writers, myself included, were so surprised when the Steelers used their first-round pick on Ryan Shazier. I think a lot of us fixated on a position, such as cornerback, while coach Mike Tomlin said the Steelers were looking to add a playmaker on defense. They think they did that with Shazier, who just happens to play a position that frequently produces good players later in the draft. Also, Shazier still went high in the draft even if he was not a top 10 selection, and the guy has had to practice in pads let alone play in a game. We are far from knowing just what the Steelers have in Shazier though he looked really good in the offseason practices. @ScottBrown_ESPN: Put it this way: I like your side of the wager. I see the Steelers going 10-6 or even 11-5 this season for myriad reasons. I think the offense builds on what it did in the second half of last season when it led the Steelers to a 6-2 finish. The defense should be better too based on the speed that the Steelers have added. The schedule is favorable as the Steelers, who haven't traveled long distances well, play just one game out of their time zone. And the AFC North is there for the taking given some of the losses the Bengals sustained and the questions I still have about Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton. What worries me about the Steelers is the lack of depth at outside linebacker and whether they will get a consistent pass rush from starters Jason Worilds and Jarvis Jones. To me, Jones is the key to the defense improving significantly in 2014. If he doesn't make a big jump in his second season the defense could have problems. Injuries are an X-factor, as always, but I think you made the right call. @ScottBrown_ESPN: Antonio Brown looked fantastic, and he is really a fun player to watch even in practice without pads. Brown is such a smooth route runner, seems to catch everything and is so good in the open field. He is also a tireless worker, and during the offseason practices he was almost always one of the last players off the field. The extra work he puts in is a strong indication that Brown doesn't think he has arrived even though he has already made two Pro Bowls. A lot of that has to do with his not forgetting that he lasted until the sixth round of the 2010 draft. I see another big season for Brown, barring injury, though it will be tough for him to even approach the numbers he put up in 2013. @ScottBrown_ESPN: It is really tough to tell, especially with linemen like Wesley Johnson and Daniel McCullers, since the Steelers did not practice in pads. We did see Johnson's position flexibility, which will be a key to his making the 53-man roster, and he didn't back down the day the fifth-round pick and defensive end Cameron Heyward got into a fight during an 11-on-11 drills. McCullers is a project, and we will find out a lot more about him during training camp, particularly if the 6-7, 352-pounder can consistently stay low enough, something that is a challenge for a man of that size. Blanchflower looked good during the offseason practices and I think the Steelers like him. If he performs well when they put the pads on he could win a roster spot over Michael Palmer and David Paulson. At worst, I think Blanchflower makes the Steelers' practice squad. @ScottBrown_ESPN: I think Cortez Allen is the most likely of the players you listed to sign a multi-year contract. The Steelers, in my opinion, have little choice since he is the only long-term starting cornerback on the roster right now. The Steelers have not approached Jason Worilds about a new deal since he signed the one-year, $9.754 million contract they had to offer the outside linebacker when they used the transition tag on him. I think they will wait to see what he does this season, which will be his first one as a full-time starter, before offering the kind of deal Worilds is likely seeking. I think Ben Roethlisberger signs a new deal after this season since he still has two years left on his contract, and I'm wondering if the Steelers take a wait-and-see approach with Marcus Gilbert. He has been OK at right tackle but I'm not sure the Steelers make a long-term investment in him, especially since they can turn to Mike Adams if Gilberts walks after this season.
PITTSBURGH -- The offense and defense traded big plays Wednesday in the Pittsburgh Steelers' second minicamp practice of the week.

Ben Roethlisberger threw long touchdown passes to Antonio Brown and Markus Wheaton during a two-plus hour practice, but the Steelers' defensive backs also had their moments on a hot and humid day that it made it feel like training camp.

Starting cornerbacks Ike Taylor and Cortez Allen each intercepted Roethlisberger. Allen had a pair of picks while inside linebacker Sean Spence returned an intercepted Landry Jones pass for a touchdown.

Practice concluded with rookie wide receiver Martavis Bryant showcasing his speed by blowing past the Steelers' defensive backs and hauling in a long touchdown pass from Jones.

That play, free safety Mike Mitchell said, ultimately allowed the offense to get the better of the defense, though it was close.

"They ended with a high note," Mitchell said. "It would have been nice to knock that ball down but we're battling. I think we've been playing really good in the secondary as a unit. We're all kind of learning each other's strengths and what each other likes to do. We're getting better."

Also of note from Wednesday:
  • Justin Brown continues to get work with the first-team offense, and the 2013 sixth-round pick stood out during a 7-on-9 pass drill. Brown caught a long pass from Roethlisberger and then capped the drive with a short touchdown reception.
  • Roethlisberger is optimistic Dri Archer will help the offense but he isn't sure how the Steelers will deploy the fleet-footed rookie. Archer, Roethlisberger said, has been splitting time between playing running back and wide receiver. The third-round draft pick has also been among the players who have fielded punts during offseason practices. The Steelers are hoping to get more out of Archer than they did Chris Rainey, a fifth-round pick in 2012 who lasted just one season in Pittsburgh. "Is he a better runner than Rainey?" Roethlisberger said. "We won't really know until we get some pads on and get on the field."
  • Outside linebacker Jason Worilds, who practiced on a limited basis of a lingering calf injury, is a good example of how much younger the Steelers have gotten on defense in recent years. Worilds turned just 26 in March, but he is one of the more experienced players on the Steelers' defense. "I'm one of the elders in the room now," Worilds said. "It's an interesting role to be in. I'm just helping some of the younger guys, making sure they know how to go about being a professional and taking care of themselves."
PITTSBURGH -- Steelers players from multiple eras -- including this one -- attended Chuck Noll's funeral on Tuesday morning in the Oakland section of Pittsburgh.

[+] EnlargeRoger Goodell, Mel Blount
John Heller/AP PhotoNFL commisioner Roger Goodell and former Steelers CB Mel Blount embrace before Tuesday's funeral service for Chuck Noll in Pittsburgh.
Former Steelers greats such as Joe Greene, Franco Harris and John Stallworth were there. So were current players such as Ben Roethlisberger, Maurkice Pouncey and Ike Taylor.

Commissioner Roger Goodell represented the NFL at the service that lasted just over an hour and turned out to be the simple goodbye that Noll, who passed away Friday at the age of 82, would have wanted.

Make that demanded.

Dan Rooney, Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin also attended the funeral with Rooney II, the Steelers' president, joining Greene as one of the pallbearers.

No players spoke at the service but a handful of them talked afterward about what Noll meant to them and his legacy:

Hall of Fame defensive tackle Joe Greene played for the Steelers from 1969-81 and was Noll's first-ever draft pick.

"I used to be very, very bad-tempered with officials and Chuck said, ‘You know Joe, those guys have families and kids and they probably don't like you talking to them like that,' and I stopped doing it. He just had a way of sharing information with you that was long lasting. There's not many days that go by when I don't think back on something that Charles Henry Noll said. Anytime I was around Chuck it was a learning experience. Just an outstanding person."

Offensive tackle Jon Kolb played for the Steelers from 1969-81 and then coached under Noll with the Steelers from 1982-91.

"I got to coach with him also for 10 years and he made the point to coaches that the game is about the players. We're here to help the players prepare. That was what he wanted to do and I believe just from the talks I had with him, he didn't just want to prepare for the moment and the season but preparation for life, which is not the norm."

[+] EnlargeJohn Banaszak
Keith Srakocic/AP PhotoJohn Banaszak recalls the opportunity Chuck Noll provided for him as a Steelers' defensive lineman.
John Banaszak played defensive tackle and defensive end for the Steelers from 1975-81.

"I was an undrafted rookie free agent and there were 17 draft choices in front of me, but Chuck gave me an opportunity and a chance to make that football team and I took advantage of it. I think whether or not I would have played seven years or I would have been (cut) two weeks into (his first) training camp he would have had a very big impact on me anyway. I learned that whether you're in business or you're a football coach or a football player, fundamentals are the essential parts of being successful. He stressed that regularly."

Tight end Mike Mularkey played for the Steelers from 1989-91 and coaches tight ends for the Tennessee Titans.

"You like to be around guys that like playing football and want to do it the right way. That's all he ever asked of his players, and I just told that to my guys in my (meeting) room this past week. He's the best coach I was fortunate to play for but I've gotten more from Chuck off the field about how to do things the right way. Family was important and a balance in life was important, and he showed that every day in his life. I hate to be here under these circumstances but I'm glad I got a chance to be here."

• Read more: A collection of memories from Steelers who played for or coached with Noll.

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