Pittsburgh Steelers: Martavis Bryant

Wow, a ton of great questions. The second part of the mailbag will run Monday morning and my apologies to those who sent a question about the Steelers trading for New Orleans Saints cornerback Keenan Lewis. I got four or five of them and give my thoughts with the first question of the mailbag. If you have a question, please send to @ScottBrown_ESPN with the #mail.

@ScottBrown_ESPN: My ESPN colleague Mike Triplett, who covers the Saints, reported that Lewis wants New Orleans to guarantee the rest of his contract. He is due base salaries of $5 million and $5.5 million in the final two years of the deal, and I can't see the Steelers guaranteeing those if they have interest in Lewis. If Lewis is willing to give up his demands, then re-acquiring him is something the Steelers should look into. But right now I think it is a long shot, at best, of him returning to Pittsburgh.

@ScottBrown_ESPN: The Steelers found their backup to Le'Veon Bell when they signed DeAngelo Williams to a two-year contract. I think they could still draft a running back, even with youngsters Dri Archer and Josh Harris also on the roster. It is a deep draft for running backs and they always seem to slip in the draft, so the value might be too great to pass on one in the fifth or sixth round. Landon Collins would be a logical long-term replacement for Troy Polamalu if the Steelers are not sold on Shamarko Thomas. If he is available at No. 22 overall, Collins will tempt the Steelers. But if they have a cornerback or outside linebacker close to or on par with Collins as far as a draft grade, I think they address one of those positions in the first round.

@ScottBrown_ESPN: I don't think there will be any seismic shifts as far as how the Steelers play defense. Keith Butler is a 3-4 guy who spent more than a decade learning under Dick LeBeau. I'm sure he will make some changes and put his own imprint on the defense. The biggest change, as I have written before, is that Butler now has more of a say in the draft. He used to give his opinions on linebackers. Now he will offer his input on any defensive player the Steelers consider drafting.

@ScottBrown_ESPN: I get the sense that they are very happy with the improvement he made in 2014 after playing sparingly as a rookie. And Markus Wheaton is only going to get better, given his work ethic and the confidence he gained after catching 53 passes for 644 yards and two touchdowns last season. I think Wheaton and Martavis Bryant will be interchangeable as No. 2 and No. 3 wide receivers next season, depending on the package the Steelers use. The Steelers have to feel very good about their top three wide receivers with those two and Antonio Brown. They need some depth at the position, but it is another strong draft for wide receivers and the Steelers will sign a wide receiver in free agency or re-sign Darrius Heyward-Bey.

@ScottBrown_ESPN: Jordan Cameron received a nice pay-day from the Miami Dolphins, though I'm a little surprised the $15 million deal wasn't for longer than two years. That is probably the Dolphins protecting themselves if Cameron has concussion issues in Miami. If he stays healthy, Cameron can hit the open market in two years while he is still in his 20s or sign a long-term deal with the Dolphins. I doubt the Steelers were involved with Cameron, given the money it would have taken to sign him. No word on Nate Washington, though I agree with you that it would make a lot of sense for the Steelers to bring him back to Pittsburgh as a No. 4 wide receiver if he agrees to a reduced role and his asking price isn't too high.

@ScottBrown_ESPN: He has certainly made the offseason interesting, and Eagles beat writers have probably lost part of their minds trying to keep up with all of the news coming out of Philadelphia. It is obviously too early to tell whether Kelly's roster makeover will be a success, but I will give him this: if he goes down in Philly, he will do so on his terms.

@ScottBrown_ESPN: The Steelers got their free agent - and a proven backup to Bell - when they signed Williams on Friday. I still think there is a good chance they also draft a running back. Consider that since Mike Tomlin took over as head coach in 2007, the Steelers have taken a running back in seven of eight drafts. The lone exception is 2007. That recent history and a draft that is strong at running back is why it wouldn't be a surprise if the Steelers addressed the position again this year. I wouldn't expect them to take one, however, before the fifth round, given their needs on defense.

@ScottBrown_ESPN: He is scheduled to visit the Steelers on Monday, so that is a good sign if the team really wants to make a play for the fifth-year veteran. There aren't a lot of cornerbacks left on the open market, so it could be Robinson or bust unless the Steelers go bargain-shopping, as they did last year when they signed Brice McCain to a one-year, $795,000 contract.
The Pittsburgh Steelers added an intriguing quarterback to their roster Friday when they signed Tajh Boyd to a one-year contract.

Boyd is the ACC’s all-time leading in passing yards (11,904) and passing touchdowns (107) and the former Clemson star was a sixth-round draft pick by the New York Jets last year.

The Jets cut Boyd at the end of preseason practice and he played for two FXFL teams before signing with the Steelers, where the 6-foot-1, 225-pound quarterback will be reunited with former Clemson wide receiver Martavis Bryant.

The addition of Boyd all but rules out the Steelers' drafting a quarterback or signing an undrafted free agent.

And there could be an opportunity for Boyd to make the roster.

Landry Jones, the Steelers’ No. 3 quarterback, has yet to dress for a game in two NFL seasons or seriously push Bruce Gradkowski for the No. 2 job behind Ben Roethlisberger.

General manager Kevin Colbert said recently that Jones made significant improvement in his second season, so the signing of Boyd is not necessarily an indictment of Jones, a 2013 fourth-round pick.

But Boyd’s pedigree also suggests that he will be more than just an extra arm for training camp and will have a legitimate shot of making the 53-man roster if he performs well.
Here is the first half of the Pittsburgh Steelers mailbag. The rest of it will run Monday. If you have a question please send to @ScottBrown_ESPN with the #mail.

@ScottBrown_ESPN: I think the only way Troy Polamalu returns for another season is if he takes a significant pay cut -- and I'm not sure the eight-time Pro Bowler will be back even if he is amenable to a salary reduction. At some point the Steelers have to move on from aging players no matter how much they have meant to the organization. They did it in 2012 when they not only cut ties with Hines Ward, their all-time leading receiver, but also released linebacker James Farrior and defensive end Aaron Smith. It might be time with the Steelers making a change at defensive coordinator to fully commit to the youngsters on their roster. Of the three you asked about, I actually think Brett Keisel is the most likely to return. It won't surprise me, though, if none is back with the Steelers in 2015.

@ScottBrown_ESPN: It has to be an outside linebacker since Jason Worilds has almost certainly played his last down for the Steelers and the uncertainty at the position in general. The Steelers are not going to use a transition tag on Worlids and have no plans to negotiate with him before the start of free agency. They obviously think they can upgrade at his position and they better do so in free agency since it is too much of a risk to draft a plug-and-play pass rusher. Brandon Graham, Pernell McPhee, Brian Orakpo and Jabaal Sheard are among the outside linebackers headed for unrestricted free agency. To me, Graham is the most interesting one of the group as he is a former first-round pick who has been productive but hasn't received regular snaps because of scheme changes in Philadelphia as well as having other players ahead of him. Graham's combination of youth -- he only turns 27 in April -- and potential should have him on the Steelers' radar.

@ScottBrown_ESPN: He is well on his way to impacting games the way Mike Wallace did in Pittsburgh as a deep threat. Martavis Bryant caught five passes that covered at least 40 yards and three that netted at least 50 as a rookie. The fourth-round draft pick averaged 21.1 yards per catch -- compared to 19.4 yards for Wallace his rookie season in 2009. Bryant isn't as fast as Wallace but he is considerably taller and his combination of size and speed make him a unique talent. Coach Mike Tomlin used to call Wallace a "one-trick pony" as a way to motivate the latter to become a complete wide receiver. Here is what Tomlin said in January when asked if he ever applies that moniker to Bryant: "I am going to stop short of using [those] words, which are complete. I saw growth in him. And that growth came with snaps. I would imagine he is going to get more opportunities to grow with those snaps. The thing is, he has to continue to grow and have an open mind. He has to acknowledge that he doesn't have all the answers." Translation: Bryant better not think he has arrived just because he played so well after not dressing for the first six games of the season. I think Bryant has the desire and will to make a significant jump in his second season, and that would be huge for the Steelers.

@ScottBrown_ESPN: I wouldn't expect major changes. The Steelers will still employ a 3-4 base defense -- and will still place a premium on making offenses one-dimensional by stuffing the run as well as getting after the quarterback. Keith Butler will put his own imprint on the defense and one thing he has said will be a top priority is creating more turnovers. Maybe he plans to make the Steelers more opportunistic by using different blitzes and coverages. Butler's biggest impact in his new role will take place behind closed doors. He will have a significant voice in what defensive players the Steelers signs as free agents and draft. As the linebackers coach he gave his opinion on players at the position he liked or didn't like. Now, Butler will do that with every position on defense.

@ScottBrown_ESPN I'm not sure there is a tight end worth taking No. 22 overall. The position wasn't highly regarded going into the NFL scouting combine and the tight ends did not collectively work out real well in Indianapolis. Minnesota's Maxx Williams is clearly the No. 1 tight end in the class -- I am counting Michigan's Devin Funchess as a wide receiver -- but he looks more like a late first-round or early second-round pick. The Steelers should try to move down if they want Williams but they have to find a trade partner to do that. I would not rule out the Steelers using their first-round pick on an offensive or defensive lineman, particularly the latter. It would not hurt the Steelers to add young talent to a group headed by defensive ends Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt. A big tackle who has the ability to disrupt and could also play defensive end doesn't sound bad at all to me if I am the Steelers. Oregon's Arik Armstead and Texas' Malcolm Brown fit that description and could be first-round targets if the Steelers don't take a defensive back or outside linebacker prospect with the 22nd overall pick.

@ScottBrown_ESPN: Brice McCain. The Steelers' best play, in my opinion, is to re-sign the player they know, the player who is only 28 years old and the player who is coming off a season in which he intercepted a career-high three passes. It isn't shaping up as a great year to find cornerbacks in free agency, which will only drive up the price for those who are regarded as the top available players at the position. Bring back McCain, maybe take a flyer on a low-risk signing like the Steelers did last year with McCain and target an outside linebacker in free agency who can start next season.
The Pittsburgh Steelers would be crazy not to do a little homework on Jacoby Jones, who was released Wednesday by the Baltimore Ravens, if not bring him in for a visit.

Few teams are more acquainted with what Jones can do as a return man than the Steelers.

[+] EnlargeJacoby Jones
Doug Kapustin/MCT/Getty ImagesJacoby Jones ranked in the top 10 in the NFL in kick and punt returns in 2014.
Jones returned a kickoff 108 yards for a touchdown last November at Heinz Field. He turned in a more memorable kickoff return against the Steelers a year earlier when he had to change direction after Steelers coach Mike Tomlin stepped onto the field.

The play created national headlines and raised questions about whether the Steelers coach had done it intentionally, something Tomlin vehemently denied. That Jones had to settle for a 73-yard return did nothing to take away from his reputation as one of the best return men in the NFL.

He bolstered that this season by joining Cincinnati’s Adam Jones as the only players to finish among the NFL’s top 10 in both kickoff and punt returns.

Jones averaged 30.6 yards per kickoff return in 2014, second-best in the NFL. The Steelers averaged 21.7 yard per kickoff return last season, tied for 26th in the NFL.

The Ravens balked at paying Jones $2.5 million in 2015 since the eighth-year veteran did not give them much as a receiver last season.

But the Steelers do not need pass catchers for the back end of their wide receivers rotation. They are set at their top three spots with All-Pro Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant and Markus Wheaton.

Add tight end Heath Miller and running back Le'Veon Bell to quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's stable of targets and there aren’t many more balls to go around.

Lance Moore found that out the hard way after signing a two-year, $3 million contract with the Steelers last March. Moore played limited snaps and caught 14 passes – Jones had five less for the Ravens in 2014 – and he wants out of Pittsburgh.

The Steelers are likely to grant Moore his request and now have even more impetus to do so.

They could take the money they save by releasing Moore – it is a little north of $1 million – and put it toward a short-term contract for Jones if he is amenable to one.

Jones turns 31 in July and he would give the Steelers a tried and true return man while serving as the No. 4 or even No. 5 wide receiver depending on what Pittsburgh adds in the draft.

It makes a ton of sense for the Steelers to upgrade at kickoff return after Dri Archer faltered so badly last season before losing his job.

Jomes might be the right guy at the right time and the right price.

And it wouldn’t hurt the Steelers to at least look into that possibility.
Under contract: Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant, Markus Wheaton and Lance Moore are all signed for 2015.

Free agents: Darrius Heyward-Bey will be an unrestricted free agent if the Steelers don’t re-sign the sixth-year veteran before March 10.

The good: The Steelers appear to be in excellent shape at the front end of their wide receiver rotation. Brown, who led the NFL in 2014 in catches (129) and receiving yards (1,698), is signed through 2016. Bryant is coming off a season in which his eight touchdown receptions fell one short of tying Louis Lipps’ record for most scoring catches by a Steelers rookie. Bryant should only get better as he gets more comfortable in the offense and Wheaton is still on the rise after the second-year man caught 53 passes for 644 yards and a pair of touchdowns in 2014.

The bad: There is uncertainty after the Steelers’ top three wide receivers. Lance Moore wants out of Pittsburgh after playing a bit role in 2014 and the Steelers are likely to release the veteran from the final year of his contract. Heyward-Bey contributed primarily on special teams, so even if the Steelers bring him back he probably won’t be a significant factor in the passing game.

The burning question: How big of a jump will Bryant make in his second season? The 2014 fourth-round draft pick has a chance to be special. The 6-foot-4, 211-pounder has a rare blend of size and speed and he appears willing to work for it. Only the depth at wide receiver and the fact that Bryant was overshadowed at Clemson dropped him as far in the draft as he fell.

The money: This is another position where the Steelers get a lot for their money. Brown will make a base salary of $6 million in 2015 while Wheaton and Bryant have base salaries of $605,000 and $510,000, respectively. Moore is due to make $1.5 million but will only count $322,500 against the salary cap if the Steelers release him.

Draft priority: Medium. This is another deep draft for wide receivers, so it would make a lot of sense for the Steelers to address the position in the later rounds when they could find another steal. The Steelers have taken at least one wide receiver in nine of their past 10 drafts.

He said it: “I saw growth in him and that growth came with snaps. The thing is, he has to continue to grow and have an open mind. He has to acknowledge that he doesn’t have all the answers. Sometimes that is seemingly more difficult than it appears.” – Steelers coach Mike Tomlin on Bryant.
Le'Veon Bell played high school football in the shadow of Ohio State, but the Buckeyes never showed much interest in the Pittsburgh Steelers running back.

And Bell, who had only a handful of scholarship offers before signing with Michigan State, was pursued like a five-star recruit by schools compared to Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown.

Brown, one of the premier wide receivers in the NFL, was so lightly regarded coming out of high school that he did not receive any stars by Rivals.com, a national recruiting service.

The Miami native played at a North Carolina prep school before receiving a scholarship to Central Michigan.

The stories of Bell and Brown should – but won’t -- temper the celebrations that have taken place across the country on Wednesday, the first day that high school players are officially allowed to sign with schools.

A Steelers offense that finished second in the NFL in total yards last season (411.1) – and led Pittsburgh to its first AFC North title since 2010 – also provides proof the top-rated prep players in the country often fall short of later making a name for themselves in the NFL.

Or are surpassed by less ballyhooed recruits at the next level.

Here is a look back at how five Steelers skill players who project as starters next season were rated coming out of high school.

I will have a post later on Wednesday that looks at the offensive line and tight end Heath Miller coming out of high school.

QB Ben Roethlisberger: Rivals.com’s player rankings go back only to 2002 but it is well-documented how Roethlisberger did not start at quarterback until he was a senior in high school. The 2000 Findlay High School graduate signed with Miami (Ohio), a mid-major program, because higher-profile schools either got in on Roethlisberger too late or recruited him for another position.

RB Le’Veon Bell: Bell starred at Madison High School, which is in a suburb of Columbus, Ohio, but Rivals.com rated him as only a two-star prospect in 2010. Bell, who finished second in the NFL with 2,215 yards from scrimmage last season, was not rated among ESPN’s RecruitingNation top 100 running backs in the country coming out of high school.

WR Antonio Brown: It’s pretty easy to see how Brown slipped through the cracks since he did not have great size or blazing speed and hails from Miami, which is overflowing with young football talent. But not receiving any stars from Rivals.com? The three-time Pro Bowler continues to have the last laugh at all who doubted him – from high school to college to the NFL where Brown lasted until the 195th pick of the 2010 draft.

WR Markus Wheaton: Wheaton received three stars from Rivals.com coming out of Chandler High School in Arizona in 2009. Wheaton, who signed with Oregon State, was ESPN RecruitingNation’s No. 67 wide receiver nationally. An interesting note: ESPN’s 10th-ranked wide receiver in 2009 was Terry Hawthorne, who played cornerback at Illinois and was a fifth-round pick by the Steelers in 2013 – two rounds after they selected Wheaton. The Steelers cut Hawthorne after his only training camp and preseason with the team.

WR Martavis Bryant: The 2014 fourth-round pick was highly regarded coming out of high school. Rivals.com gave Bryant four stars. ESPN RecruitingNation ranked him the No. 8 wide receiver nationally in 2010. Bryant played a season at Hargrave Military Academy in Virginia before joining 2014 No. 4 overall draft pick Sammy Watkins in Clemson’s 2011 recruiting class.
The emergence of so many rookies wide receivers in 2014 -- six had more than 750 receiving yards -- should not have come as a surprise in one sense.

Analysts had said leading up to the draft that it was unusually flush with talented wideouts, and the depth at the position allowed the Steelers to wait until the fourth round to take Clemson’s Martavis Bryant.

Bryant caught 26 passes for 549 yards and eight touchdowns despite only dressing for the last 10 games. The 6-foot-4, 212-pounder has a rare blend of size and speed and is on his way to becoming one of the top deep threats in the NFL.

Any other year, ESPN NFL analyst Matt Williamson said of Bryant, and “I guarantee you he’s a second-round pick. He happened to fall and (the Steelers) jumped on him. I think that will be even more of a case this year with running backs.”

That is excellent news for the Steelers, who are in the market for running back depth -- and should have learned from the LeGarrette Blount debacle not to bring in a veteran who has expectations of playing significant snaps.

Le'Veon Bell is clearly an every-down back as he showed during a breakout season that merits MVP consideration, and only turns 23 next month.

But Bell’s absence in the Steelers’ AFC wild-card loss to the Baltimore Ravens due to a hyperextended knee also magnified the need for the team to upgrade behind him.

This may be the perfect year to do it even with the Steelers expected to focus on defense in the draft.

A running back hasn’t been selected in the first round of the draft since 2012 and ESPN Minnesota Vikings reporter Ben Goessling recently wrote about how devalued the position has become in the NFL.

What that means for the Steelers is that quality running backs will get pushed down the draft through no fault of their own and should be available in the middle of the draft, if not later.

Consider that St. Louis Rams running back Tre Mason, who led all rookies with 765 yards rushing, was a third-round pick. The second-best rookie rusher, New York Giants running back Andre Williams (721 yards), was selected in the fourth round.

The Steelers would be crazy to consider drafting a running back before the fourth round. But in a draft class that ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. agrees is deep at running back they should be able to find one in those middle rounds who can help them.
Mel Kiper Jr. loved the Pittsburgh Steelers' 2014 NFL draft last May, giving it a grade of an A- in his post-draft report card.

Kiper dropped the grade after re-visiting every team’s most recent draft in large part because the Steelers did not get much out of first-round pick Ryan Shazier and third-round pick Dri Archer in 2014.

Shazier, the No. 15 overall pick, missed seven games because of knee and ankle injuries and lost his starting job at inside linebacker to the combination of Sean Spence and Vince Williams.

Archer, the fastest player in the 2014 draft, lost his job as the Steelers’ primary kickoff returner in the first half of the season and played sparingly on offense. The speedy running back managed just 63 yards from scrimmage and will be a major question mark heading into next season.

Kiper did not drop the Steelers’ draft grade much because of what the team got out of fourth-round pick Martavis Bryant. The sleek wide receiver caught 26 passes for 549 yards and eight touchdowns despite not dressing for the first six games of the season.

Bryant tied for fourth among NFL rookies with eight touchdown catches. The Clemson product came within one scoring grab of tying Louis Lipps' Steelers record for most touchdown receptions by a rookie.

Defensive end Stephon Tuitt, meanwhile, came on strong after a slow start. The second-round pick started the final four games after Brett Keisel went down with a season-ending triceps injury. Tuitt recorded 17 tackles and a sack and improved as much as any player on the Steelers.

Team president Art Rooney II said on Wednesday that he was pleased with the contributions the Steelers received from their rookies last season.

“Shazier had some injury issues, which I think slowed him down, but certainly showed the potential to make plays on the field,” Rooney said. “Tuitt, once he got in there did a nice job. Martavis did a nice job. We had some rookies come in and make significant contributions.”

As for my take on the Steelers’ 2014 draft, ask me in three years.

Just as it is too early to criticize the Steelers for drafting Shazier over Ravens linebacker C.J. Mosley, who made the Pro Bowl, or advocate dumping Archer, it is also premature to put Bryant in the elite class of NFL deep threats or anoint Tuitt as a worthy heir to No. 91, which former Steelers great Aaron Smith wore before him.

The Steelers certainly got some promising returns from their rookies. Now is a critical time for all of them, especially linebacker Jordan Zumwalt, who spent last season on injured reserve, and tight end Rob Blanchflower, who was on the practice squad in 2014.

Coach Mike Tomlin has said players generally make the most improvement from their first to second NFL season.

That is yet another reason why there is still a ways to go before a fair assessment can be made of the Steelers’ 2014 draft class.
This is the 10th in a series that looks at 17 plays that shaped the Pittsburgh Steelers' season -- one from every game.

For this series we will go in chronological order.

No. 1: Le'Veon Bell's 38-yard touchdown run in a 30-27 win over the Cleveland Browns.

No, 2: Wide receiver Justin Brown's lost fumble after a 6-yard reception in a 26-6 loss to the Baltimore Ravens.

No. 3: Outside linebacker Jarvis Jones' sack of quarterback Cam Newton for an 8-yard loss in a 37-19 win over the Carolina Panthers.

No. 4: Wide receiver Antonio Brown's drop of a sure touchdown pass in a 27-24 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

No. 5: Cornerback Brice McCain's 21-yard interception return for a touchdown in a 17-9 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars.

No. 6: Cornerback Cortez Allen getting beat for a 51-yard touchdown catch by Cleveland Browns tight end Jordan Cameron.

No. 7: Running back Le'Veon Bell's 43-yard reception in a 30-23 win over the Houston Texans.

No. 8: Cornerback William Gay's 33-yard interception return for a touchdown in a 51-34 win over the Indianapolis Colts.

No. 9: Wide receiver Markus Wheaton's 47-yard touchdown catch in a 43-23 win over the Baltimore Ravens.

No. 10: Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger throws a rare interception at a most inopportune time.

[+] EnlargeNew York Jets
Al Bello/Getty ImagesA diving interception by Jaiquawn Jarrett epitomized the Steelers' flat performance against the lowly Jets.
The setting: The Steelers showed once again that prosperity doesn't necessarily agree with them, much to the consternation of their fans. Fresh off a three-game winning streak that saved their season, the Steelers came out completely flat against the lowly New York Jets. They fell behind 17-0 after the first quarter but were driving when the Jets came up with a rare takeaway.

The play: With the Steelers facing second-and-8 from the Jets' 10-yard line midway through the second quarter, wide receiver Martavis Bryant ran a skinny post. Bryant did not run a crisp route and cornerback Marcus Williams got enough position inside to bat Roethlisberger's pass into the air. Safety Jaiquawn Jarrett made a diving interception in the shadow of the end zone, the first of two picks he made in the Jets' 20-13 upset of the Steelers.

What it meant for the bigger picture: The desultory loss again called into question how much the Steelers could be trusted, especially against lesser opponents. The Jets had won one game and forced three turnovers entering the contest at MetLife Stadium. They had four takeaways in the win over the Steelers, who inexplicably were not ready to play after their most impressive stretch of the season. Roethlisberger had gone three games and 145 consecutive passes without an interception before tossing two of them against the Jets. Normally reliable kicker Shaun Suisham missed a 23-yard field goal at the beginning of the fourth quarter. Curse of the Biebs? Pop singer Justin Bieber visited a Steelers' worship service the night before the game and that somehow surfaced as one of the reasons why the Steelers lost to the Jets.
PITTSBURGH -- Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Sean Spence played every game this season after returning from a career-threatening knee injury, and started nine of them, including the AFC wild-card loss to the Baltimore Ravens.

But Spence has a strong challenger for the most unlikely season authored by a Steeler, considering rookie wide receiver Martavis Bryant did not dress for the first six games and still tied for 18th in the NFL with eight touchdown receptions.

"The sky’s the limit as long as I continue to work," Bryant said. "I’m not setting (any) bars for myself."

Nor should he.

Bryant has a rare blend of size and speed, and the 6-foot-4, 211-pounder emerged as a premier deep threat despite getting a late start to his first NFL season.

Bryant averaged 21.1 yards per catch, and that would have led the NFL had Bryant met the minimum numbers of receptions (30) for consideration.

The 2014 fourth-round draft pick finished the season with 26 receptions for 549 yards, and this week coach Mike Tomlin came close to praising Bryant, something he rarely does with first-year players.

"I saw growth in him and that growth came with snaps," Tomlin said. "The thing is, he has to continue to grow and have an open mind. He has to acknowledge that he doesn’t have all the answers. Sometimes that is seemingly more difficult than it appears."

Bryant’s work ethic is a reason to think he will do anything but approach the offseason as if he has made it.

The Clemson product impressed his teammates with his willingness to work and learn, and during the Steelers’ bye week in late November Bryant traveled to California for MMA training with Jay Glazer.

Bryant plans to incorporate that into his offseason work so he can improve on using his hands as well as strengthening them.

As for what he gained from his play in the Steelers’ final 11 games, Bryant said, "It let me know that I do have what it takes to play up here, and if I continue to work hard and continue to grind I’m going to be fine."

Tomlin said there is a possible downside to a young player such as Bryant experiencing success so early in his career.

"He probably has less anxiety now than he did nine or 10 months ago, because there are less unknowns," the eighth-year coach said. "Sometimes that’s a good thing for men, and sometimes that’s a bad thing for men. I am going to be watching him very closely as he proceeds."
PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Steelers offense broke out in 2014, finishing second in the NFL with 411.1 total yards per game and establishing a new franchise record for points (436) in a season.

The Steelers control the contract rights of every starter through next season and young wide receivers Martavis Bryant and Markus Wheaton could come into their own in 2015. An offensive line that made significant progress has enough youth to it to think that will continue to improve, especially with position coach Mike Munchak back for a second season.

The danger for the Steelers’ offensive players is thinking that just because so many pieces are in place that everything will fall into place next season.

“You think we had a good season, it’s going to happen every year. That’s not the case,” left guard Ramon Foster said. “It’s going to be the leaders that have to let them understand that they can’t get complacent. We have to work to get better.

“A lot of guys grew up this year, and I’m happy to see that. We’ve got coaches in place, we don’t have to go searching for certain guys and worry about that so as far as the offense as a whole we should be better.”

Coach Mike Tomlin is counting on that, which is why he did not try to lower expectations when asked if the Steelers’ offense can be better in 2015.

“Why can’t we get better in all areas? Not only offensively but defensively and special teams,” Tomlin said. “It’s amazing how we as humans are capable of limiting ... just simply because we set parameters on our own expectations. I try to consciously not do that. What areas can we not get better in? That needs to be our mentality and hopefully it will be.”
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PITTSBURGH -- Can a team exceed expectations without even matching their own?

The Pittsburgh Steelers put that riddle to the test in 2014 as they won the AFC North after consecutive 8-8 seasons, but fell well short of the Super Bowl.

The Steelers' goal is to contend for a Super Bowl title every season. That might not be in line with reality, but no other team has six Lombardi Trophies.

The Steelers looked like they might make a postseason charge after winning eight of their final 10 games to finish 11-5 and secure the No. 3 seed in the AFC playoffs. But winning their first division title since 2010 came with a heavy cost. Pittsburgh lost All-Pro running back Le'Veon Bell to a hyperextended knee in the regular-season finale.

Bell did not play in the Steelers' 30-17 loss to the Baltimore Ravens in an AFC wild-card game at Heinz Field.

Team MVP: The loss to the Ravens magnified Bell's value to the Steelers' offense. Forget for a moment the running aspect -- and the fact that Bell finished second in the NFL with 1,361 rushing yards -- and consider how his loss impacted the passing game. Bell is terrific at picking up blitzing linebackers and he led all NFL running backs in 2014 with 811 yards after the catch, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger pressed against the Ravens without Bell. The second-year running back emerged as one of the NFL's most complete players, and is the biggest reason why the Steelers' offense rose to another level this season.

Best moment: Roethlisberger threw six touchdown passes in consecutive games, leading the Steelers to big wins over the Indianapolis Colts and Ravens. The hottest stretch of Roethlisberger's career came shortly after a desultory loss in Cleveland dropped Pittsburgh to 3-3 -- and .500 in the 38 regular-season games that followed its most recent playoff appearance in 2011. Roethlisberger completed 75.6 percent of his passes for 862 yards and 12 touchdowns with no interceptions in the two games against the Colts and Ravens. That stretch helped him share the NFL passing title with Drew Brees (4,952 yards).

Worst moment: What goes up inevitably comes down, as the Steelers found out when they traveled to East Rutherford, New Jersey, in the second week of November. Pittsburgh followed a three-game winning streak with a performance against the New York Jets that was as listless as it was inexplicable. The Jets won their second game of the season by flashing the opportunism that had been noticeably absent in their trudge to a 1-9 start. The Steelers committed three turnovers in the 14-10 loss against a team that entered the game with the fewest takeaways in the NFL. The Steelers had a handful of bad losses in 2014; none was worse than the one to the Jets.

2015 outlook: The arrow, as coach Mike Tomlin is fond of saying, is pointing up for the Steelers. The offense returns every starter from this season, and young wide receivers Martavis Bryant and Markus Wheaton are only going to get better. The caveat with the Steelers, though, is two-fold. The defense remains in transition and there are major questions in the secondary as well as at outside linebacker, where only Jarvis Jones is signed beyond this season. Also, next season's schedule isn't nearly as favorable it was this year. Trips to Seattle, San Diego and Kansas City loom after the Steelers' farthest trip west in 2014 was Tennessee. Pittsburgh also has to play at New England.
PITTSBURGH -- Lance Moore ended one of the least productive and most frustrating seasons of his NFL career by watching the Pittsburgh Steelers lose to the Baltimore Ravens in an AFC wild-card game.

And the veteran wide receiver watched the game in street clothes.

Moore did not dress Saturday night -- the Steelers had to play an extra running back because of the injury to Le'Veon Bell -- and it proved to be fitting epitaph to his season.

And possibly his brief Steelers career since Moore mostly watched this season as Pittsburgh's offense rolled up 411.1 total yards per game, second-most in the NFL.

The ninth-year veteran caught just 14 passes for 198 yards and two touchdowns and Moore rarely had more than a bit role in the offense.

Moore had significantly higher expectations when he signed a two-year, $3 million contract with the Steelers last March.

"It didn't go the way I'd hoped it would go but that's life in the NFL sometimes," said Moore, who spent his first eight seasons with the New Orleans Saints. "It's unfortunate that it unfolded the way that it did but I enjoyed my time here this season."

The season tested Moore's patience from the start.

The 5-9, 190-pounder played behind Justin Brown early. The emergence of rookie Martavis Bryant later usurped playing time at wide receiver, leaving Moore wondering if there is still a place for him in the Steelers' offense.

The Steelers will absorb a minimal cap hit ($322,500) in 2015 if they release the 31-year-old Moore in the offseason.

"I just want to play so whether that's here or somewhere else," Moore said. "I'd love to be here, I'd love to be a part of this offense but I think those are decisions that have to be made down the line."

PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Steelers dominated time of possession in the first two quarters of their AFC wild-card playoff game Saturday night against the Baltimore Ravens. Yet they trailed 10-9 at halftime, and their inability to finish conjured up memories of their most recent loss, a 35-32 defeat the visiting New Orleans Saints laid on the Steelers three days after Thanksgiving.

Sure enough, the Steelers are home for the rest of the playoffs, in part because they relied too much on Shaun Suisham's right leg, accurate as it is, early in the game.

Suisham booted three field goals before the Steelers found the end zone on a damp night at Heinz Field, and that proved to be costly in a 30-17 loss to the Ravens. After the Ravens advanced to the divisional round, it was fair to wonder if the outcome would have been different, had star running back Le'Veon Bell been able to play in the third meeting between the AFC North rivals this season.

[+] EnlargeBen Roethlisberger
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarThe inability of Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers to find the end zone early proved costly against their AFC North rival.
Bell, who led the AFC with 1,361 rushing yards, did not play against the Ravens because of a hyperextended right knee.

Not that coach Mike Tomlin would be party to anything that went near that notion, even though a player as dynamic as Bell could have been the difference between the Steelers' scoring touchdowns and settling for field goals.

"We're not going to let that be the story of the game," Tomlin said after the Steelers' first loss in four playoff games against the Ravens. "Somebody goes down, the next man steps up. You move on, and there will be no excuses. We're not going to allow you to push us in that direction. We're not going to lean on that."

Nor should they because the reality is this: The Steelers lost their third consecutive postseason game dating to the 2010 Super Bowl because they beat themselves as much as the Ravens beat them.

Reliable tight end Heath Miller dropped a pass on the Steelers' opening possession that forced a punt when a field goal could've been attempted.

Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger put a little too much air under a pass to a wide-open Antonio Brown early in the second quarter. That gave free safety Darian Stewart just enough time to push Brown out of bounds before he could get both feet down in the end zone, and the Steelers eventually settled for a short field goal.

Then there were the penalties.

The Steelers had eight of them for 114 yards. To give those figures the kind of context that won't go down well with Steelers fans' Sunday breakfast, consider Pittsburgh had seven penalties for 104 yards in their previous four games combined.

The penalties Saturday ranged from untimely to flat-out stupid.

Shamarko Thomas belted kickoff returner Jacoby Jones, who was going out of bounds early in the fourth quarter after the Steelers had cut the Ravens' lead to five. The unnecessary roughness penalty gave Baltimore the ball at its own 37 instead of its 22-yard line.

A holding penalty against left tackle Kelvin Beachum later in the quarter nullified a 19-yard catch-and-run for a touchdown by Dri Archer.

The fans at Heinz Field howled when Steelers cornerback Antwon Blake got called for pass interference after tight coverage in the second quarter -- and when officials did not throw a flag later in the quarter when Lardarius Webb tripped Martavis Bryant.

Officials ruled the two had gotten their legs tangled, even though Bryant had gotten a step on Webb in the middle of the field.

But just like Tomlin on the Steelers not having Bell, All-Pro center Maurkice Pouncey did not want to hear anything about the discrepancy in penalties, even though the Ravens were penalized just twice for 14 yards.

"Officiating happens. We're not blaming officials," Pouncey said. "We just didn't execute. You've got to give [the Ravens] credit, but it sucks, man."

What magnified that feeling even more is the Steelers thought they had the kind of team that could make a run at the Super Bowl, after they won their final four regular-season games to capture the AFC North title.

"This team's not going to be the same next year," Steelers defensive end Cameron Heyward said, "and it breaks my heart."

Grading the Pittsburgh Steelers

December, 29, 2014
PITTSBURGH -- Here are the marks for the Pittsburgh Steelers after they beat the Cincinnati Bengals, 27-17, to win the AFC North and snag the No. 3 seed in the AFC playoffs.

Quarterback: Ben Roethlisberger missed some throws in completing 24 of 38 passes for 317 yards and two touchdowns and one interception. But he also missed pregame warm-ups because of a stomach virus and played well considering the circumstances. His 63-yard touchdown pass to Antonio Brown sealed the win that delivered the Steelers' first AFC North title since 2010. Grade: B

[+] EnlargeBrown
AP Photo/Don WrightSteelers receiver Antonio Brown has been reliable in the red zone this season, scoring once against the Bengals in Week 17 and 13 overall this season.
Running backs: Le'Veon Bell managed just 20 yards on eight carries before leaving the game in the third quarter with a hyper-extended right knee. But the AFC's leading rusher caught six passes for 80 yards, showing what a weapon he is in the passing game. Josh Harris had a 59-yard run negated by a holding penalty and Dri Archer made a couple of key catches after Bell got hurt. Grade: C+

Receivers: Running out of superlatives when it comes to Brown, who turned in one of the finest seasons by a wide receiver in NFL history -- as well as the catch and run that allowed the Steelers to hold off the Bengals. Tight end Heath Miller caught three passes for 41 yards, and he and wide receiver Markus Wheaton executed textbook seal blocks on Martavis Bryant's 21-yard catch and run for a touchdown. Grade: A-

Offensive line: The Steelers have averaged just 43.3 rushing yards in their last three contests and they need the line to impose its will more in the ground game. A bad snap by center Maurkice Pouncey led to a costly turnover and left guard Ramon Foster's holding penalty wiped out what would have been the longest run of the game. But the line did not allow a sack and provided excellent protection on a night when its quarterback was already dealing with a stomach virus. Grade: B-

Defensive line: The Steelers allowed only their second 100-yard rusher in their last nine games but they shored up the run after Jeremy Hill gashed them for 71 yards and 6.5 yards per carry in the first half. Cameron Heyward forced the Bengals to settle for a field goal early in the second quarter when he sacked Andy Dalton. Heyward finished the season with 7.5 sacks, tied for the team lead, and also led the Steelers with 21 quarterback hurries. Grade: B-

Linebackers: Lawrence Timmons recorded a game-high 11 tackles and Jason Worilds helped preserve the Steelers' win with a late sack of Dalton. Worilds tied Heyward for the team lead in sacks. And the fifth-year veteran would have finished with 8.5 quarterback takedowns -- the same number as last season -- had a sack in Atlanta not been taken away from him by a highly questionable roughing the passer penalty. Grade: B-

Cornerbacks: All Brice McCain and Antwon Blake did was combined for two interceptions, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. The pair along with William Gay limited Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green to eight catches for 82 yards, three weeks after the perennial Pro Bowler scorched the Steeler for 224 receiving yards and a touchdown. Grade: A

Safeties: Will Allen has been an upgrade over the injured Troy Polamalu at strong safety the past two games and the 11th-year veteran turned in several key plays early and finished with seven tackles. Free safety Mike Mitchell added five stops and a few big hits and the back end of the defense did not give up a big play. The Bengals' longest completion was a 19-yard pass from Dalton to H-back Ryan Hewitt. Grade: B+

Special teams: A lot to like here even with the failed fake punt at a critical juncture in the fourth quarter. Brown's 71-yard punt return for a touchdown showcased his magical skills with the ball in his hands. But the Steelers also did an excellent job of blocking the play. They also limited Adam Jones to an average of 22.8 yards on five kickoff returns. Jones had averaged 44.3 yards on three kickoff returns in the Bengals' previous game. Grade: B+

Coaching: Can we please put to rest any silly claims that Mike Tomlin's early success as a head coach was a result of his inheriting Bill Cowher's players? The man can coach and his teams have gone 12-4 combined in the second half of the past two seasons. One sign of how the Steelers improved as the season progressed under Tomlin: they were penalized 31 times in the first three games and just 11 times in the last four contests. This grade gets knocked down a bit because of that dubious decision to attempt a fake punt. Grade:A-