Pittsburgh Steelers: Jonathan Dwyer

Antonio Brown climbs in #NFLRank

August, 26, 2014
Aug 26
Antonio Brown finished second in the NFL with 1,499 receiving yards and 110 receptions in 2013 yet he is only the 14th-ranked wide receiver on the ESPN.com list of the top 100 offensive players.

Brown is No. 38 overall, a number that is hard to fathom since the fifth-year veteran made the Pro Bowl last season as both a wide receiver and a returner.

Brown joined DeSean Jackson (2010) as the only players to make the Pro Bowl at two different positions in the same season. It should be noted that Brown made one of the biggest jumps in the top 100, moving up 57 spots.

Among the wide receivers ahead of Brown in the latest release of ESPN.com’s top 100 player on offense and defense are the Buccaneers’ Vincent Jackson (No. 37), the Packers’ Jordy Nelson (No. 35) and the Bears’ Alshon Jeffery (No. 32).

Getting overlooked is nothing new for Brown.

The two-time Pro Bowler lasted until the 195th pick of the 2010 draft, and he wasn’t even the Steelers’ first sixth-round pick that year.

The Steelers took Brown after selecting running back Jonathan Dwyer earlier in the sixth round.

All Brown has done since then is make the Pro Bowl as a kickoff returner, punt returner and wide receiver and twice won the Steelers’ MVP Award. He also holds team records for most receiving yards in a season as well as most all-purpose yards in a season (2,211 in 2011).

I’m guessing the Steelers don’t think there are 13 wide receivers better than Brown.
Training camp start starts today as the Pittsburgh Steelers have to report to St. Vincent College in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, by 4 p.m. ET. A run test is scheduled for 6 p.m. ET, and the Steelers will hold their first practice of 2014 on Saturday afternoon.

This is the final offseason mailbag and during camp I will post a mailbag on Tuesdays since the players are off that day. Send questions to @ScottBrown_ESPN with #steelersmail.

And away we go...

@ScottBrown_ESPN: Chris Rainey, the player with whom Archer is most comparable because of his speed and versatility, averaged just over five touches per game in 2012. Almost half of those (39) came on kickoff returns, and Rainey averaged only 2.5 touches per game on runs or receptions. I think Archer is a better player than Rainey and that the Steelers will try to utilize him more than they did Rainey. The rub, however, is this: the Steelers are significantly better at running back than they were the one season Rainey played with the team. Rashard Mendenhall missed the first 10 games of 2012 while he was still recovering from a torn ACL, and the Steelers leaned heavily on Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer that season. Archer has stiffer competition than Rainey did for carries with Le'Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount ahead of him on the depth chart. I’d like to think that the Steelers will get Archer the ball eight to 10 times a game, but that depends a lot on him and the progress he makes during training camp.

@ScottBrown_ESPN: I’m with you regarding Lance Moore. He looked really good during offseason practices, and he is such a solid player and one of those guys who just knows how to get open. I don’t see much of a difference between the No. 2 and No. 3 wide receivers since the Steelers will use a three-wideout formation frequently. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if Moore gets the majority of the snaps opposite Brown when the Steelers use only two wide receivers. Markus Wheaton will be given every opportunity to win a starting job in camp but it won’t be given to him. If he stays healthy I think he will emerge this season and become a big part of the passing game. Wheaton wants to be great and he has the physical talent to succeed at this level.

@ScottBrown_ESPN: I will get a better read on that Friday or Saturday after we get a chance to talk to Kelvin Beachum. I would imagine his confidence level is high, and not just because he played well in the 11 starts he made at left tackle last season. Beachum is an incredibly hard worker and is very studious. He is mindful that his technique has to be a strength since he is not a prototypical left tackle, and I guarantee you he will be nothing but prepared once he gets to camp. One thing I really like about Beachum: He is not assuming the starting job at left tackle is his even though he enters camp as the No. 1 left tackle. He knows he still has to win the job and welcomes the competition for it since it will only make him better. I’d be surprised if he doesn’t win the starting job, and if I’m the Steelers I let Mike Adams compete with Marcus Gilbert for the starting job at right tackle.

@ScottBrown_ESPN: I think we will see a different player. As much as Jarvis Jones played in 2013 it took him a while to figure out just how to line up properly, and he admittedly spent most of his rookie season thinking instead of reacting. His confidence level should be much higher going into this season and he should play faster given his comfort level with the defense. How much of a jump he makes in sacks after notching just one last season remains to be seen. Joey Porter, who will mentor Jones, went from 2.5 to 10 in his second NFL season. I think the Steelers will be happy with seven or eight sacks from Jones as long as he puts consistent pressure on the quarterback.

Camp preview: Pittsburgh Steelers

July, 17, 2014
Jul 17
» NFC Preview: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

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.
PITTSBURGH -- This is the next in a series that takes a post-free agency, post-draft look at the all of the positions with the exception of quarterback.

Our third look is at a position that has two a pair of intriguing additions.

Running back

Who is new: LeGarrette Blount and Dri Archer. A market that was anything but bullish for running backs allowed the Steelers to land the bruising Blount and at a bargain rate (two years for $3.85 million). They pretty much went to the other end of the running back spectrum when they drafted the small but speedy Archer in the third round. He stands just 5-8 and weighs 173 pounds but Archer ran the 40-yard dash in 4.26 seconds at the NFL scouting combine.

Who is gone: Jonathan Dwyer, Felix Jones and LaRod Stephens-Howling. Dwyer signed with the Cardinals shortly after the start of free agency and Jones remains unsigned. Stephens-Howling tore his ACL in the 2013 season opener and the drafting of Archer ended any chances of the Steelers re-signing the veteran scatback.

Returning starter: Le'Veon Bell. The second-round pick -- and second running back taken in the 2013 draft -- showed why the Steelers were so excited about him after just a couple of weeks of training camp. Bell broke Franco Harris' record for most yards from scrimmage by a rookie (1,259) despite missing the first three games with a foot injury. He also showed he is a back for every down given his polish as a receiver and willingness to block blitzing linebackers. Bell improved as a runner as he adjusted to the speed at this level and he has the patience and power to develop into a perennial 1,000-yard rusher.

Most significant addition: Blount. The 6-foot, 250-pounder gives the Steelers a proven back who can ease Bell's workload. Blount is also capable of handling the bulk of the carries if Bell misses any time because of an injury. The only question with Blount is how many carries he will receive with the Steelers committed to Bell and Archer also in the mix.

Most significant loss: Dwyer. He played his role well after re-signing with the Steelers last season, backing up Bell and also contributing on special teams. The Steelers, however, were clearly looking for an upgrade behind Bell and they appear to have gotten one in Blount.

On outside looking in: Alvester Alexander. The undrafted free agent spent the entire 2013 season on the practice squad, and he has his work cut out for him as far as convincing the Steelers to carry more than three running backs in 2014.

Hidden number: Of the 22 running backs who had more than 200 carries in 2013, only four had a lower yards per carry than the 3.5 yards Bell averaged on 244 carries.

Outlook: A position that had been a weakness through the first three games of 2013 has turned into a strength. Bell should only get better in his second season, and Archer offers a nice complement to him and Blount with his blazing speed. It will be interesting to see how the Steelers use Archer, whose versatility and pass-catching skills also allow him to play wide receiver.

Draft position need: Running back

April, 28, 2014
Apr 28
PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Steelers have nine picks in the 2014 NFL draft and this is the first in a series that looks at the nine positions they could address in less than two weeks. Keep in mind the Steelers are likely to draft two cornerbacks so they may not take a player at every position covered in this series.

Our first look is at running back:

Added: LeGarrette Blount

Lost: Jonathan Dwyer

Skinny: The Steelers will hammer teams with a 1-2 punch of Le'Veon Bell and Blount, who signed with the team as an unrestricted free agent, next season. They still need depth at the position and could use a speedy back -- and preferably one with kickoff return skills -- to complement Bell and Blount. The Steelers hosted running backs Lache Seastrunk of Baylor and Jerick McKinnon of Georgia State for pre-draft visits, and both would provide an element that the backfield lacks. Running backs have become devalued to the point that the Steelers can wait until after the fourth round to take one and still get a very good prospect. The team could also re-sign scatback LaRod Stephens-Howling to provide depth once he is close to full strength after coming back from the torn ACL he sustained last September.

Draft likelihood: Medium

Extra points

Last RB drafted by the Steelers: Bell, second round in 2013

Last RB drafted by the Steelers in the first round: Rashard Mendenhall, 2008

Last RB taken 15th overall in the draft: John L. Williams, Seattle, in 1986

RBs drafted under Kevin Colbert/Mike Tomlin: Six

RBs drafted under Colbert/Tomlin still with the Steelers: One

Steelers' draft review: 2010

April, 16, 2014
Apr 16
PITTSBURGH -- The is the fourth in a series that reviews the Pittsburgh Steelers' drafts under general manager Kevin Colbert and coach Mike Tomlin.

Next up is the 2010 draft:

Total picks: 10

Picks still with the team: 3

Best pick: WR Antonio Brown. The Steelers got an absolute steal when they landed Brown with the second of their two sixth-round picks. The fourth-year veteran has already made a pair of Pro Bowls and has twice been voted Steelers MVP by his teammates. Brown set a Steelers’ single-season record with 1,499 receiving yards in 2013, and he came within three receptions of also establishing a franchise mark for catches in a season. Not bad for the 195th pick of the draft.

Worst pick: OLB Thaddeus Gibson. The Steelers took the former Ohio State defensive end in the fourth round with the plan of converting him to outside linebacker. Gibson didn’t establish himself as a player who could at least contribute on special teams, and the Steelers lost him during his rookie season when they released Gibson with the intention of signing him to their practice squad. The 49ers claimed Gibson, but it didn’t turn out to be a significant loss. Gibson has bounced around the league, appearing in just four games for two different teams.

Best value pick (not named Antonio Brown): OLB Jason Worilds. The Steelers took some criticism for picking the former Virginia Tech star over linebacker Sean Lee, who had starred at a Pittsburgh-area high school as well as at Penn State. Such second-guessing only intensified when Lee emerged a Pro Bowl-caliber player in Dallas while Worilds didn’t contribute much his first three seasons because of injuries and the fact that James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley were blocking him. Worilds, however, emerged as the Steelers’ best pass-rusher last season, notching a career-high eight sacks. The Steelers chose Worilds over the oft-injured Woodley in March when they used the transition tag on the fourth-year veteran and released Woodley.

Also of note: The Steelers hit big on first-round pick Maurkice Pouncey, No. 18 overall, as he became the first center in NFL history to make the Pro Bowl in each of his first three seasons ... Wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders (third round) and running back Jonathan Dwyer (sixth round) were among the players the Steelers lost to free agency this year ... Every player the Steelers drafted has appeared in at least one NFL game.

Final analysis/grade: It’s hard to quibble much with the Steelers’ first three picks as they netted Pouncey, Worilds and Sanders. The Steelers didn’t fare as well in the middle rounds, but added great value in the sixth round. Brown has established himself as a star, and Dwyer had his moments in Pittsburgh, leading the Steelers with 623 rushing yards in 2012. I’ll give the Steelers a ‘B+’ for this class.
PITTSBURGH -- A month into free agency few could have expected the Steelers to be as active as they have been in reshaping their roster. They have signed more than 10 free agents, including seven from other teams.

The Steelers are around $300,000 under the salary cap and are done signing players for now, having shifted their focus to the draft. With free agency having slowed to a crawl following a furious spending spree, let’s take a closer look at the outside free agents that the Steelers added with ESPN NFL analyst and former NFL scout Matt Williamson weighing in on each player:

Mike Mitchell

Position: S

Age: 27

Ht/Wt.: 6-0, 210

Deal: five-year, $25 million contract with $5.25 million guaranteed

2013 statistics: Set career-highs in tackles (66), interceptions (4), sacks (3 1/2) and forced fumbles (2) for the Panthers, blossoming after leaving Oakland for Carolina.

Skinny: The Steelers signed Mitchell to take over for Ryan Clark at free safety and get younger in the secondary. Mitchell prepares and plays with an edge. Next up for one of former Raiders owner Al Davis’ most infamous drat picks is proving those wrong who say his breakout season had more to do with the talent around Mitchell than his growth.

Matt Williamson’s take: “I think the arrow is very much going up on him because he’s big and fast and now he knows how to play the game. I think he’s a better coverage player than he is a run defender. I think he’s going to be your deep centerfield more often than not and let Troy (Polamalu) do his thing. Tackling is one thing he needs to work on but he can blitz.”

Cam Thomas

Position: DL

Age: 27

Ht/Wt.: 6-4, 330

Deal: two-year, $4 million contract with $1 million guaranteed

2013 statistics: Recorded 23 tackles while starting 10 of 16 games at nose tackle for the Chargers and also made his first career interception.

Skinny: The Steelers signed Thomas to provide depth at nose tackle and defensive end. The player known as “Baby Zilla” could get an opportunity to start at the defensive end spot opposite Cameron Heyward depending on the players that the Steelers draft or sign in free agency.

Matt Williamson’s take: “I thought it was a decent pick up. I think he’s versatile enough to play any of their defensive line spots as is (Steve) McLendon. They certainly need d-line help but it’s not like boy they have to get a Casey Hampton or boy they have to get a (Brett) Keisel. It’s giving them more options going into the draft and he’s young, big body, fits the mold of what they want from that position.”

Lance Moore

Position: WR

Age: 30

Ht/Wt.: 5-9, 190

Deal: two-year, $3 million contract with $645,000 million guaranteed

2013 statistics: Caught 37 passes for 457 yards and two touchdowns while starting five of the 13 games he played in his final seasons with the Saints.

Skinny: The Steelers moved quickly to fill their opening at No. 3 wide receiver after Jerricho Cotchery signed with the Panthers. They landed Moore, who was a 1,000-yard receiver in 2012, and had some other good seasons in New Orleans. Moore, like Cotchery, knows how to get open and has reliable hands. He is a little younger than Cotchery but isn’t as effective as Cotchery is in the red zone. Eight of Cotchery’s 10 touchdown receptions last season were from inside the opponents’ 20-yard line.

Matt Williamson’s take: “I think having a veteran in that room is really important, but I just wish he was a bigger guy. Cotchery was a pretty good red zone weapon where now they’re extra small at receiver. Moore had a bad year last year. He didn’t play much because of injuries but the few seasons before that he was a good player. He was always very reliable.”

Arthur Moats

Position: LB

Age: 26

Ht/Wt.: 6-2, 250

Deal: one-year, $795,000 contract with $65,000 guaranteed

2013 statistics: Played in every game last season, starting 12 at inside linebacker, and recorded a career-high 54 tackles.

Skinny: This under-the-radar signing could turn out to be a significant one for the Steelers. Moats will provide depth at outside linebacker and play special teams. He also could get a shot at challenging Vince Williams for the starting job at left inside linebacker, though Moats has said the Steelers will first try him at outside linebacker.

Matt Williamson’s take: “He’s unique. I can’t really come up with a guy off the top of my head in the league who can play all four linebacker spots at a 3-4. They’re very different skill sets. At a minimum he’s your fifth linebacker. He’s a very good special teamer. He’s still really young.”

Brice McCain

Position: CB

Age: 27

Ht/Wt.: 5-9, 187

Deal: one-year, $795,000 contract with $65,0000 guaranteed

2013 statistics: Started a career-high four games for the Texans and recorded 32 tackles with an interception and seven passes defended.

Skinny: The Texans cut ties with McCain after opposing teams picked on the fifth-year veteran a good bit last season. The Steelers only had three other cornerbacks with significant NFL experience before signing McCain so he gives them some insurance and will be plenty motivated to bounce back from a rough 2013 campaign.

Matt Williamson’s take: “He’s a fourth or fifth guy that plays sparingly and might not even make the team if they draft one or two (cornerbacks) that are real impressive. He has at least played a lot of snaps in this league. He’s good enough to get on the field but bad enough to get burned when he’s on there and he’s little. He’s the (signing) I’m least excited about.”

LeGarrette Blount

Position: RB

Age: 27

Ht/Wt.: 6-0, 250

Deal: two years, $3.85 million, with $950,000 guaranteed

2013 statistics: Rushed for 772 yards and seven touchdowns and averaged 5.0 yards per carry while emerging as the Patriots’ best back by the end of the season. Blount went off in a Patriots playoff win over the Colts, rushing for 166 yards and four touchdowns.

Skinny: The Steelers were looking for a proven back to provide depth and injury insurance behind Le'Veon Bell and they found a young one at a reasonable price. If Blount can shoulder some of the workload at running back that should keep Bell fresh throughout the season and perhaps add some seasons to his career.

Matt Williamson’s take: “If you watch SportsCenter and watch his highlights you think he’s better than he is. There’s times that he doesn’t play as big and strong as he really is. If there isn’t a hole there he doesn’t make his own, but he is powerful and I think he’s got really good feet. He doesn’t really offer anything in the passing game but the best thing is he’s better than (Jonathan) Dwyer and (Isaac) Redman. They upgraded there.”

Darrius Heyward-Bey

Position: WR

Age: 27

Ht/Wt.: 6-2, 219

Deal: one-year, $795,000 contract with $65,000 guaranteed

2013 statistics: Played a career-high 16 games, starting 12 of them, and caught 29 passes for 309 yards and a touchdown in his only seasons with the Colts.

Skinny: The seventh overall pick of the 2009 draft has never lived up to expectations with suspect hands often neutralizing his unique blend of size and speed. Heyward-Bey gives the Steelers a bigger wide receiver and one who is still young enough to have some upside. If he doesn’t work out the Steelers took virtually no risk in signing Heyward-Bey

Matt Williamson’s take: “Highly unreliable and it really only comes down to drops. He drops so many passes. It wasn’t his fault that he was the seventh pick of the draft and didn’t live up to it. Nobody thought he should be (picked that high) except for Al Davis. He may not even make the team.”

Lance Moore to visit Steelers

March, 17, 2014
Mar 17
PITTSBURGH -- The Steelers, faced with losing yet another veteran free agent, will host former Saints wide receiver Lance Moore for a visit on Tuesday, a source confirmed to ESPN.com.

Moore's visit will come a day after the Panthers meet with Steelers wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery in Charlotte, N.C.

Cotchery, who turns 32 in June, caught a career-high 10 touchdown passes last season, and he appeared to be among the most likely unrestricted free agents to re-sign with the Steelers.

With Cotchery, who caught 46 passes for 602 yards, also considering other options the Steelers have turned their attention to Moore, 30, who was released earlier this month by New Orleans.

The 5-9, 190-pounder caught 37 passes for 457 yards and two touchdowns last season, but Moore is less than two years removed from his only 1,000-yard season in the NFL.

Moore caught 65 passes for 1,041 yards and six touchdowns in 2012.

The Steelers are thin at wide receiver with Emmanuel Sanders signing a three-year contract on Sunday that could be worth as much as $18 million with the Broncos. The Steelers have little in the way of experience at wide receiver behind Pro Bowler Antonio Brown.

In addition to Moore, the Steelers are scheduled to host former Packers running back James Starks on Tuesday. Wide receiver and running back are among the positions where the Steelers are most lacking depth.

The Steelers have already lost a handful of free agents, including Sanders, defensive ends Ziggy Hood and Al Woods, running back Jonathan Dwyer and tight end David Johnson.

They have signed two free agents from other teams, safety Mike Mitchell and nose tackle Cam Thomas.
PITTSBURGH – Add running back to the position at which the Steelers have a need.

Jonathan Dwyer has signed a one-year contact with the Arizona Cardinals, leaving the Steelers with depth issues behind Le’Veon Bell.

Dwyer wrote on his Twitter account on Wednesday night:

Dwyer, released at the end of the 2013 preseason, re-signed with the Steelers in September and rushed for 197 yards on 49 carries while backing up Bell.

Dwyer, ironically, will provide depth at running back for the Cardinals following the retirement of former Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall.

The only other running back on the Steelers' roster is Alvester Alexander, who spent all of last season on the practice squad.

Felix Jones and LaRod Stephens-Howling, who tore his ACL in the Steelers’ season opener last season, are both unrestricted free agents.

The Steelers have lost three free agents, with defensive end Al Woods signing with the Titans, tight end David Johnson signing with the Chargers and Dwyer becoming the latest former Steelers player to relocate to Arizona.

Free-agency primer: Steelers

March, 7, 2014
Mar 7
» AFC Free-Agency Primer: East | West | North | South » NFC: East | West | North | South

Key free agents: WR Emmanuel Sanders, DE Ziggy Hood, WR Jerricho Cotchery, DE Al Woods, DE Brett Keisel, S Ryan Clark, RB Jonathan Dwyer, C Fernando Velasco, OT Guy Whimper, C/G Cody Wallace, TE David Johnson, LB Stevenson Sylvester.

Where they stand: General manager Kevin Colbert has said the Steelers may be more active in free agency than in recent years, but don’t expect their philosophy to fundamentally change. The Steelers will focus on their own players and are likely to sit out the first wave of free agency and target midlevel free agents after the marquee names have signed with other teams. Colbert hinted that the Steelers could try to land a potential starter via free agency, and they could use immediate help as well as depth at just about any position on defense. Nothing would help the Steelers more than if they could sign a free agent who will make an impact like Ryan Clark (2006) or James Farrior (2002) did, though they would have to splurge to get a free agent the caliber of Farrior.

What to expect: Wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders, the team's top free agent, is going to command more money than the Steelers are willing to pay. He will almost certainly sign elsewhere, though look for veteran Jerricho Cotchery to re-sign with the team after catching 10 touchdown passes last season. Defensive end Ziggy Hood is likely to sign elsewhere, making it imperative that the Steelers bring back Al Woods. They could also re-sign Brett Keisel for one more season if the two sides can find common ground on compensation. The Steelers have a good chance of signing most of their free agents with the exceptions of Sanders and Hood, and that is how they will add depth to their offensive line. Free agents they could target include former Seahawks defensive end Red Bryant, Dolphins defensive tackle Paul Soliai and 49ers cornerback Tarell Brown. The Steelers met with former Lions safety Louis Delmas last month, but his knee issues may be too much of a red flag for them, and they have since re-signed veteran Will Allen.
PITTSBURGH -- This is the second in a series in which I will examine every position relative to the 2013 season -- and take a look ahead. I didn't include fullbacks here with Will Johnson under contract in 2014 and the position being one that receives limited snaps


2014 free agents: Jonathan Dwyer, Felix Jones and LaRod Stephens-Howling.

The good: Rookie Le'Veon Bell established himself as an every-down back who should anchor the running game for years provided he stays healthy. Bell missed the first three games of the season because of a foot injury, but he was exactly what a sickly running game needed once the second-round draft pick got on the field. Bell broke Franco Harris' record for yards from scrimmage by a rookie (1,259), and he earned quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's trust as a receiver and with his ability to pick up blitzing linebackers. Bell averaged just 3.5 yards per carry, but he showed steady improvement -- not to mention toughness, patience and power as well as the athletic ability he flashed with his signature hurdle over would-be tacklers -- and the 6-foot-1, 244-pounder rushed for 214 yards in the Steelers' final two games.

The bad: Depth is an issue, especially if Dwyer signs elsewhere as an unrestricted free agent. Alvester Alexander is the only other running back on the roster who is signed for 2014, and he spent all of last season on the practice squad. The Steelers aren't expected to bring back Jones and Stephens-Howling is a question mark after missing most of the 2013 season with a torn ACL. Dwyer carved out a niche for himself as a backup whose physical running style can further wear down opposing defenses when Bell needs a breather as well as a key special-teams player. But with Bell entrenched as the Steelers' feature back will Dwyer seek out a larger role elsewhere?

The money (2014 salary-cap numbers): Bell will be a bargain again next season when he is scheduled to make a base salary of $495,000 and will count just $936,500 against the cap. The Steelers' top priority should be re-signing Dwyer though they will likely let the fourth-year veteran test free agency and let the market set his price. Stephens-Howling is a strong candidate to re-sign with the Steelers if they are satisfied with the progress he has made recovering from the knee injury he sustained in the 2013 season opener.

Draft priority: It isn't a high one but the Steelers' need for depth as well as recent history suggests that the team will draft a running back. The Steelers have taken a running back in six consecutive drafts, and given how many good ones have been unearthed in the latter rounds of the draft league-wide they are likely to add a back with one of their later picks.
PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Steelers have 21 players who are scheduled to become unrestricted free agents on March 11th, the start of the NFL’s new year. Here is a quick look at 11 of those unrestricted free agents – and the priority the Steelers should place on re-signing them.

OLB Jason Worilds: The former second-round pick led Steelers with eight sacks and came into his own after a calf injury sustained by LaMarr Woodley provided an opening at left outside linebacker. Priority: Keeping Worilds should be at or near the top of Steelers’ to-do list.

WR Emmanuel Sanders: Showed flashes in his first year as a starter but also was plagued by inconsistency. Priority: Let market determine Sanders’ value and then see if he is worth bringing back.

DE Brett Keisel: Unlikely to return but I think the Steelers should seriously consider bringing back Keisel for one more season if the price is right. Priority: The Steelers can be patient here as Keisel, 35, won’t draw a lot of interest, at least initially, on the free-agent market.

DE Ziggy Hood: Hasn’t lived up to expectations as a first-round draft pick but I wouldn’t call him a bust either. He is one of the tougher ones to call since Hood has been serviceable and is one of three defensive ends who are impending free agents. Priority: Much like Sanders, the Steelers should let the market determine Hood’s value and then see if they are willing to pay it.

S Ryan Clark: He has had a tremendous run in Pittsburgh – and in the NFL in general considering he is still playing 12 seasons after making the Giants as an undrafted free agent. Priority: The Steelers need to get younger in the secondary and that almost certainly spells the end of Clark’s playing days in Pittsburgh.

WR Jerricho Cotchery: Is coming off a career-best 10-touchdown season. Loves Pittsburgh, loves playing for Mike Tomlin and catching passes from Ben Roethlisberger. Is a consummate professional and great locker-room guy. Priority: The Steelers need to make this happen as they should be able to find common ground with Cotchery in terms of bringing the 10th-year veteran back in 2014.

DE: Al Woods: Woods saw the first significant playing time of his career and started a pair of games at nose tackle for the injured Steve McLendon. He can play both end and nose tackle and still has upside. Priority: The Steelers, assuming the price is right, should bring back Woods. I don’t see both Keisel and Hood returning and there is a chance each has played his last game in Pittsburgh. Uncertainty at defensive end beyond Cameron Heyward makes re-signing Woods a key.

RB Jonathan Dwyer: Love him as a No. 2 running back who can be a spot starter if Le’Veon Bell goes down with an injury. The question is will Dwyer seek a larger role elsewhere and will there be much interest in him as a potential starter? Priority: Dwyer is another player whom the Steelers will let test the market and then see if they want to make a run at bringing him back.

C Fernando Velasco: One of the most unsung players of the season, Velasco stabilized the center position following the loss of Pro Bowler Maurkice Pouncey. Ruptured Achilles ended his season after 11 games. Priority: Velasco would be ideal as the first center/guard in reserve, and recent history shows how important depth is along the offensive line. The Steelers should have a good chance of re-signing Velasco because of his injury.

G/OT: Guy Whimper: Proved to be a valuable fill-in and started a game at each guard spot. Whimper would bolster the offensive line depth if he returns. Priority: The Steelers should be able to bring back Whimper, assuming he wants to return, and his position flexibility is a bonus.

S Will Allen: The veteran rejuvenated his career after re-signing with the Steelers following his release by the Cowboys. Allen played significant snaps as a third safety in the quarter package and was a core special-teams player. Priority: Allen wants to return and I think there is a good chance that the Steelers bring him back for another season because of their comfort with him and his ability to play special teams.

Rest of the free agents: RB LaRod Stephens-Howling, RB Felix Jones, WR Plaxico Burress, TE David Johnson, TE Michael Palmer, C Cody Wallace, LB Stevenson Sylvester, LB Jamaal Westerman, P Mat McBriar and LS Greg Warren.

Grading the Pittsburgh Steelers, Week 15

December, 16, 2013
PITTSBURGH -- High marks all around after the Steelers’ most impressive win of the season, given the opponent and the circumstances.

Quarterback: Ben Roethlisberger wasn’t spectacular, but he didn’t need to be after the Steelers built an early three-touchdown lead. Roethlisberger completed 20 of 25 passes for 191 yards and a touchdown, and finished with a passer rating of 95.2. The only marks against him were the interception he threw on a deep ball that became caught up in the wind, and the Steelers’ inability to score touchdowns when they were twice inside the Bengals’ 10-yard line. Grade: B+

Running backs: Le'Veon Bell scored the first touchdown of the game, but he averaged just 2.4 yards on 22 carries. Despite his limited production on the ground, Bell still flashes the kind of ability to make you think he is going to be a very good running back in this league, such as when he planted Bengals defensive end Michael Johnson with a wicked stiff-arm. The Steelers got some nice production out of Jonathan Dwyer and Felix Jones. Grade: B-

Receivers: They caught just about everything that came their way, and weren’t asked to do too much after the Steelers seized control of the game early. The receivers made a couple of key catches after the Bengals had crept back into the game. Antonio Brown again found the end zone, and he has caught six touchdown passes in the past seven games. Grade: B

Offensive line: The unit didn’t open up a lot of holes for Bell, but it kept Roethlisberger clean. The Bengals managed just one sack and two quarterback pressures, and Roethlisberger has been dropped just five times in the Steelers’ past five games. There were a couple of in-game injuries, but nothing that caused the kind of shuffling that has happened all too often this season. The line did not commit a holding penalty despite playing against a physical defense. Grade: B+

Defensive line: It might have played its best game of the season despite the absence of two starters. Ziggy Hood and Al Woods shined while filling in for Brett Keisel and Steve McLendon, respectively, and the Bengals averaged just 2.6 yards per carry. Cincinnati’s longest run was 9 yards, and that came off a read-option by quarterback Andy Dalton. Hood recorded the Steelers’ only sack of the game. Grade: A

Linebackers: Vince Williams made a textbook read and tackle early in the game, stuffing BenJarvus Green-Ellis for no gain on third-and-1. That led to the muffed punt attempt that set up the first touchdown of the game. The linebackers were stout against the run all night, though they could have put more pressure on Dalton. Grade: B

Secondary: A.J. Green caught nine passes for 93 yards, but the Steelers were more than happy to keep the Pro Bowler in front of them after jumping out to a 21-0 lead. Green averaged just 5.2 receiving yards per target, and the Steelers excelled at tackling after the catch. They did not allow a catch of 20 yards or longer, and their two leading tacklers, cornerbacks Cortez Allen and Ike Taylor, combined for 14 stops. Grade: A-

Special teams: They received a couple of gifts -- punter Kevin Huber dropping a snap and Cedric Peerman getting penalized running with the ball after calling for a fair catch on a kickoff that negated a lengthy return. Brown broke free for his first punt return for a touchdown since 2011, and Shaun Suisham banged home all three of his field-goal attempts despite the swirling winds. Grade: B+

Coaching: So much for the Steelers mailing it in with little to play for in a stadium that had its share of empty seats. They dominated the game for three quarters, then made the necessary stops and first downs to blunt the Bengals’ fourth-quarter rally. All three units played well off one another, and the Steelers simply wanted the game more than a playoff-bound team that had everything to play for Sunday night. Grade: A

Upon Further Review: Steelers Week 11

November, 18, 2013
An examination of four hot issues from the Steelers' 37-27 win over the Lions:

Running on empty: The Steelers won for the first time this season when they weren't able to establish the running game and had to depend on quarterback Ben Roethlisberger slinging passes all over the field. The Steelers ran the ball on just 37.5 percent of their snaps. Le'Veon Bell struggled despite a promising start. The rookie gashed the Lions for 13 yards on the Steelers' first offensive play of the game. He gained only 23 yards on 17 carries the rest of the way, and Jonathan Dwyer hardly played until late in the game. It was puzzling that the player coach Mike Tomlin called a "spark plug" last week didn't get some carries earlier in the game. Dwyer is averaging 4.6 yards per carry this season while Bell is averaging a pedestrian 3.1 yards per tote.

Old reliable: Jerricho Cotchery's 20-yard touchdown catch sealed the Steelers' win and also established a new career high for scoring catches in a season (seven) by the 10-year veteran. Roethlisberger often talks about how much he trusts Cotchery, and free safety Ryan Clark added his own unique spin on what makes the player known as "J Co" to his teammates so valuable. "Sometimes they have Ferraris out there and sometimes you've got some Bentleys," Clark said of wide receivers in general. "Jerricho is a conversion van. He's always going to be there. He's going to tote the family well. He's going to be safe. He makes every catch he's supposed to and makes all the plays he should make. He's an awesome player. He's underrated in this league but he's eating people up in the slot."

Bouncing back: Ike Taylor looked completely overmatched in the second quarter when he gave up a pair of touchdown passes to Calvin Johnson and dropped an easy interception. The veteran cornerback looked like he needed extra help with Johnson. It turned out he just needed to get to the locker room to regroup along with the rest of the Steelers defense. Both were considerably better in the second half as Johnson did not catch any of the three passes that Matthew Stafford threw to him in the half. "We weren't drawing up anything different," strong safety Troy Polamalu said when asked about the adjustments the defense made at halftime. "We just needed to do our job better. It wasn't just Ike who gave up those plays. There were some broken coverages." Said Taylor: "We stuck with [the game plan]. It's not how you start. It's how you finish."

Injury update: The Steelers came out of the game in pretty good shape on the injury front. Wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders left the game in the second quarter with a foot injury and didn't return. But Sanders indicated that the injury wasn't serious and said he did not need to get an MRI on his foot. He said the Steelers held him out of the game in part because they didn't want him making the foot worse on the wet field. "I could have went back in," Sanders said. Linebacker Stevenson Sylvester sustained a hamstring injury in the game.

Dwyer pushing for more playing time

November, 15, 2013
PITTSBURGH -- Jonathan Dwyer didn’t look at his release by the Pittsburgh Steelers as a wake-up call.

“All it did was just basically piss me off,” Dwyer said, “and want to prove everybody else wrong and make them regret everything they did.”

[+] EnlargeJonathan Dwyer
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarJonathan Dwyer is averaging 4.8 yards per carry this season.
It is safe to say that Dwyer has channeled his anger over a mistake made by the Steelers and turned it into a positive.

Dwyer has emerged as a tone-setter since re-signing with the Steelers in early September, and the fourth-year running back has supplied jolts of energy -- whether he is running over a defender or throwing a key block.

A lot of unlikely things have happened since the Steelers cut ties with Dwyer when they set their 53-man roster.

An errant cut block by a teammate ended center Maurkice Pouncey’s season only a handful of snaps into it. Recreational guidelines in the Steelers’ locker room drew national attention. The Steelers’ gave up 93 yards rushing on the first play of a game and 95 yards rushing the entire game two weeks later against a solid running attack.

That Dwyer would play his way into the good graces of coach Mike Tomlin a little more than two months after the Steelers released him, has to rank as one of the biggest surprises of the season.

And a welcome one for the 3-6 Steelers.

“I like the energy he brings, not only on offense, but he’s been a spark plug for us in term of the things we’ve asked him to do on special teams,” Tomlin said of Dwyer. “I like where he is.”

The seventh-year coach hasn’t always been able to say that, and that is probably an understatement.

Dwyer’s struggles with his weight during the offseason tested the Steelers’ patience, and they gave up on their 2012 leading rusher after trading for Felix Jones less than a week before final cuts.

That seems like a long time ago, and not just for Dwyer.

“He’s come back with a clear heart and up for anything,” Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley said. “He said that from Day 1 once he came back, and it showed. Every opportunity whether it’s one snap, three snaps, five snaps, special teams, you see him and you notice him out there. “I think that when guys do that and show that on a consistent basis, they earn the respect of their teammates and they earn the respect of their coaches.”

They also earn a bigger role, something Tomlin said Dwyer has done given his success when spelling starting running back Le’Veon Bell.

Dwyer is second on the Steelers with 139 rushing yards, and the 5-11, 229-pounder is averaging 4.8 yards per carry. What can’t be quantified is the value of the emotional lift Dwyer provides the Steelers when he batters an opposing defense.

The former sixth-round pick hasn’t just won back Tomlin with runs that have proven to be as punishing as they are timely, but also fans who criticized Dwyer last season for coming out of games after tapping his helmet.

Dwyer said those gestures weren’t an indication that he was tired, but an acknowledgement that the next back in the Steelers’ rotation was up.

“It aggravated me,” Dwyer said of the perception created by his helmet taps. “Everybody thought I was out of shape. That doesn’t mean I’m gassed or tired or out of shape. I don’t really care about it anymore. I’m just worried about what my teammates and what coach Tomlin and other people around the league expect out of me.”