Pittsburgh Steelers: Joe Haden

PITTSBURGH -- Cleveland Browns cornerback Joe Haden did not practice on Wednesday because of a hip injury, putting his availability for Sunday in question.

The Pittsburgh Steelers, however, are preparing to see Haden in the 1 p.m. ET game and they expect the Pro Bowler to shadow wide receiver Antonio Brown's every move at FirstEnergy Stadium.

“I anticipate him playing,” Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. “It’s a rivalry game and he’s one of the best in the league.”

The Steelers will almost certainly be without three players who started on defense in the Sept. 7 season opener against the Browns.

Outside linebacker Jarvis Jones (wrist) is on the injured reserve/designated to return list and cornerback Ike Taylor (forearm) is out indefinitely.

Ryan Shazier (knee) is the closest of the three to returning but it probably won’t be Sunday.

Shazier, who sprained his right knee in a Sept. 21 game against the Carolina Panthers, did not practice on Wednesday.

Safety Shamarko Thomas (hamstring) also did not take part in the Steelers’ first practice of the week.

A handful of players were given a veteran’s day off on Wednesday, including strong safety Troy Polamalu, defensive end Brett Keisel, tight end Heath Miller and free safety Mike Mitchell.
PITTSBURGH -- Antonio Brown probably won’t catch as many passes on Sunday as he said “We’ll see” on Thursday during a brief interview in front of his locker.

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.

Wallace
Brown
Brown at least smiled as he gave us very little other than a reminder on the importance of flossing, and that can be interpreted in one of two ways.

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.

We’ll see.

Browns vs. Steelers preview

September, 4, 2014
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Johnny Manziel and Ryan Shazier USA TODAY Sports, Getty ImagesAll eyes will be on these rookies in Week 1: Cleveland's Johnny Manziel and Pittsburgh's Ryan Shazier.
The Cleveland Browns and Pittsburgh Steelers renew their long-standing rivalry Sunday at Heinz Field.

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.

A look at the AFC North

January, 7, 2014
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The lone AFC North team in the playoffs made another early exit Sunday when the No. 3 Bengals lost to the No. 6 Chargers, 27-10, at Paul Brown Stadium. With all four division teams now in offseason mode, here is a quick look at them by order of finish in the AFC North.

Cincinnati Bengals

2013 record: 11-5, 3-3 in division

Key free agents: DE Michael Johnson, OT Anthony Collins

Biggest question: Have coach Marvin Lewis and quarterback Andy Dalton taken the Bengals as far as they can?

Biggest reason for hope: Despite losing in the wild-card round of the playoffs for the third consecutive season, the Bengals have a very good nucleus. Rookie Giovani Bernard showed enough to think his time splitting carries with the plodding BenJarvus Green-Ellis is over.

Why they might disappoint: Dalton has faltered too many times in big games to think he can take the next step, and just making the playoffs is no longer good enough in Cincinnati.

Overall state of the franchise: The Bengals find themselves at a crossroads, but they have little choice but to stick with Dalton -- for now -- unless they want to draft a quarterback in the first round and hand over a veteran team to him.

Pittsburgh Steelers

2013 record: 8-8, 4-2

Key free agents: OLB Jason Worilds, WR Emmanuel Sanders

Biggest question: Will the Steelers re-establish themselves as Super Bowl contenders while re-tooling their defense?

Biggest reason for hope: The offense will be able to mask some of the issues the Steelers have on defense if it builds on its strong second half of the 2013 season.

Why they might disappoint: The defense could get worse before it gets better if younger players don’t emerge in the secondary and Worilds signs elsewhere.

Overall state of the franchise: The Steelers are facing a lot of uncertainty, but a 6-2 finish and the way the offense has come together point to them returning to postseason play in 2014 after missing the playoffs in consecutive seasons.

Baltimore Ravens

2013 record: 8-8, 3-3

Key free agents: TE Dennis Pitta, LB Daryl Smith

Biggest question: Did the Ravens suffer through the dreaded Super Bowl hangover or are they in decline?

Biggest reason for hope: Joe Flacco is a franchise quarterback, and there is still plenty of talent on both sides of the ball.

Why they might disappoint: The Ravens, like the Steelers, are clearly in transition on defense. Two cornerstones of that defense -- outside linebacker Terrell Suggs and defensive tackle Haloti Ngata -- no longer dominate on a consistent basis.

Overall state of the franchise: Ozzie Newsome and John Harbaugh are as good as any general manager-coach tandem in the NFL, and they have to be given the benefit of the doubt even though the Ravens slipped this season.

Cleveland Browns

2013 record: 4-12, 2-4

Key free agents: C Alex Mack, S T.J. Ward

Biggest question: Will a new coach and a quarterback finally stabilize an organization that has floundered, often spectacularly, since the NFL returned to Cleveland in 1999?

Biggest reason for hope: There are some pieces in place, most notably wide receiver Josh Gordon, cornerback Joe Haden and left tackle Joe Thomas, and the Browns have a pair of first-round picks, including the fourth overall selection.

Why they may disappoint: Tim Couch, Brady Quinn and Brandon Weeden are the quarterbacks the Browns have drafted in the first round since 1999. Why should Browns fans think they will get it right in this draft?

Overall state of the franchise: The Browns dumped coach Rob Chudzinski after just one season, and unless they find the right replacement and, oh yeah, a quarterback in the draft, the Browns will continue to bottom feed in the AFC North.
ESPN.com is continuing to reveal its list of the top 100 NFL players. Here are the players from the division that landed in spots 31-40 for offense and defense:

OFFENSE

40. Joe Flacco, Baltimore Ravens quarterback: He's never thrown for over 4,000 yards or 25 touchdowns. But, since 2008, Flacco has won 63 games (including playoffs), which is six more than anyone else in the league.

DEFENSE

33. Troy Polamalu, Pittsburgh Steelers safety: Injuries have forced him to miss 22 games over the past four seasons. He does, however, look like his old self this preseason.

34. Joe Haden, Cleveland Browns cornerback: He's the highest-ranked cornerback in the AFC North, and he deserves to be. He has broken up 37 passes in his first two seasons and has held his own against some of the best receivers in the NFL, from Larry Fitzgerald to Brandon Marshall. His biggest challenge has been A.J. Green.

35. LaMarr Woodley, Steelers linebacker: He looked like the NFL Defensive Player of the Year in the first half of the 2011 season. But a hamstring injury derailed him. Woodley has four sacks in the past 13 games that he's played.

Here's a review of the AFC North players who have already made the ESPN.com list:

OFFENSE

53. Marshal Yanda, Ravens guard

54. Maurkice Pouncey, Steelers center

63. Torrey Smith, Ravens wide receiver

84. Trent Richardson, Browns running back

90. Andrew Whitworth, Cincinnati Bengals offensive tackle

91. Heath Miller, Steelers tight end

95. Antonio Brown, Steelers wide receiver

DEFENSE

50. Lardarius Webb, Ravens cornerback

54. Ryan Clark, Steelers safety

62. Lawrence Timmons, Steelers linebacker

66. Michael Johnson, Bengals defensive end

69. Paul Kruger, Browns linebacker

83. Ike Taylor, Steelers cornerback

84. Leon Hall, Bengals cornerback

89. Carlos Dunlap, Bengals defensive end

99. James Harrison, Bengals linebacker

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