Pittsburgh Steelers: Hines Ward

PITTSBURGH -- Dumbfounded and even discouraged are two words that describe how I felt after learning former Pittsburgh Steelers running back Jerome Bettis had been denied entrance into the Pro Football Hall of Fame for the fourth consecutive year.

What I am missing here?

More importantly, what is he missing?

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

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

Eh, what would Ward know?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The question with both remains when.
PITTSBURGH -- Brett Keisel took part in Super Bowl Media Day on Tuesday asking hair-related questions as part of a promotion for Head & Shoulders.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Polamalu, Steelers still a good fit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The two sides will find a way to make it happen.

Antonio Brown named to All-AFC team

January, 13, 2014
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PITTSBURGH -- Antonio Brown added another honor after authoring the best season ever by a wide receiver in Steelers history.

Brown joined the Browns’ Josh Gordon on the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA) All-AFC team.

Gordon, who led the NFL with 1,646 receiving despite Cleveland’s instability at quarterback, and Detroit’s Calvin Johnson were the wide receivers on PFWA’s All-NFL team.

Brown set a Steelers’ single-season record with 1,499 yards. The fourth-year veteran came up just three catches shy of breaking Hines Ward’s team record for most catches (112) in a season.

Brown made the Pro Bowl as a wide receiver and a punt returner, and his teammates voted him Steelers’ MVP for the second time in the last three seasons.

Brown was a second-team All-Pro pick, and among the wide receivers he beat out for a spot on the PFWA’s All-AFC team were Cincinnati’s A.J. Green and Denver’s Demaryius Thomas.
PITTSBURGH -- Defensive end Brett Keisel, like safety Ryan Clark, has probably played his last game as a Steeler at Heinz Field. And Keisel, like Clark, isn't thinking about retirement right now.

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

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

Keisel and Clark are in remarkably similar situations.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Steelers players vote Brown team MVP

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Pro Bowl teams will be announced on Friday.

Antonio Brown chases records, greatness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Every day I get up and walk the Earth, that’s motivation for me to go out and make something of myself,” he said.

The Brett Keisel dilemma

December, 10, 2013
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PITTSBURGH -- It is not something he will have to confront right after the season ends but a decision Brett Keisel dreads may be on the horizon.

And the dilemma the veteran defensive end potentially faces is this: Retire so he doesn’t have to leave Pittsburgh or finish his career elsewhere since Keisel feels like he still has some good years left in him.

“I don’t think I could wear any other colors,” Keisel said. “I’m a Steeler.”

Keisel
Keisel
He is also a competition junkie, which is why it won’t be easy for Keisel to walk away from football if the Steelers decide that he is no longer in their plans.

Keisel’s situation is a complicated one, and it has little to do with his standing as one of the most respected Steelers -- as well as a fan favorite because of his blue-collar ethos and the beard that has made him something of a cult figure in Pittsburgh.

Keisel is in the final year of his contract, and he fits the profile of the kind of veteran that the Steelers have released or not re-signed in the past two offseasons. As much as he has meant to the organization, Keisel is in his 12th NFL season and he is 35 years old.

The Steelers need to get younger on defense, but they also need a viable replacement at right defensive end if they decide against bringing Keisel back.

Ziggy Hood is the obvious choice to take Keisel’s spot. But he is also in the final year of his contract so there is no guarantee the former first-round draft pick will return to the Steelers.

If there is any veteran the Steelers should consider bring back for one more season it is Keisel. His play has not slipped appreciably despite his age, and he had been leading the Steelers in quarterback hurries before getting sidelined by plantar fasciitis.

Keisel is the undisputed leader of the defensive line, a player who is held up as a model to younger ones by position coach John Mitchell. And he would likely agree to the kind of short-term contract that would be favorable to the Steelers and allow him to finish his career in Pittsburgh.

What is working against Keisel, aside from the encroachment of age, is recent history.

Hines Ward, James Farrior, Aaron Smith and Casey Hampton are among the veterans the Steelers released or didn’t re-sign over the past two years. If Keisel is among the next to go will he follow those players in retiring instead of trying to play for another team?

It’s a decision Keisel hopes to put off as long as possible.

“I still feel like I’m a good player,” Keisel said, “and I still love competing. What’s hardest for me in the offseason is when I don’t have something that I’m competing in all the time because I’ve been doing this for so long. That’s what probably scares me most about not having this every day is finding something that I can get an adrenaline rush from.”
PITTSBURGH -- Ryan Clark wasted little time acknowledging an uncomfortable truth after the loss that all but eliminated the Steelers from postseason contention.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Upon Further Review: Steelers Week 7

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

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

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

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

Return to form: The Steelers were as effective at stopping the run as they were running the ball. They held the Ravens to 82 yards rushing and limited them to 3.1 yards per carry. On half of Baltimore’s 26 runs, it gained 2 yards or fewer. The Steelers have allowed 165 rushing yards in the two games since Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson gashed them for 140 rushing yards and two touchdowns.

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