AFC North: Pittsburgh Steelers
But speed can apparently be overvalued in football, even when it comes to the defensive side of the ball.
“Good defense is really predicated on being where it is you’re supposed to be and good tackling,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “Speed is an awesome asset but it’s not going to be the defining asset for us. It’s going to be our ability to play smart collectively and be a good tackling group. It’s football. It’s not a track meet.”
The Steelers’ improved speed on defense emerged as one of the early themes of training camp as several players, including veteran cornerback Ike Taylor, talked about it after reporting to St. Vincent College.
Taylor said the Steelers’ speed on defense reminds him of the 2004 and 2005 teams. Defensive end Cameron Heyward said the speed that the Steelers have added through the draft and free agency stood out during offseason practices.
“I think that’s the one thing you can take from OTAs and minicamp,” Heyward said, “but I think I think you want to see the speed with the physicality of it and see how the wear and tear goes being in pads full-time now.”
The Steelers will see plenty of that.
Tomlin has already said that it will be a physical camp and he hinted that there could be tackling as early as Monday – the first day that the Steelers are allowed to hit.
As for all of that speed on defense, Tomlin said, “Obviously we’ve got some young people that are capable of infusing some speed into the unit, but we’re not going to be talking too much about it. It seems like too much has been talked about it already.”
Alexander, who spent last season on the Steelers’ practice squad, is also nursing an injured groin.
Both can come off the PUP list at any time, and coach Mike Tomlin said the Steelers expect Mitchell to be sidelined for the first week of training camp.
“We’ll monitor him day to day,” Tomlin said late Friday afternoon.
Two Steelers players did not report to camp by the 4 p.m. ET deadline and each was excused by the team. Punter Adam Podlesh is staying with his wife until she gives birth to their child, and starting left guard Ramon Foster is coping with the death of his mother.
Tomlin did not give a timetable for the return of either player.
Tomlin addressed the media after the Steelers’ conditioning test, and he seemed pleased with his first look at the players since the end of offseason practices.
“I like the look in the eye of the group,” the eighth-year coach said, “and the way that they performed at the run test was impressive.”
Also of note from Tomlin’s first news conference of training camp.
- Tomlin plans on running a physical camp after watching the players take part in non-contact practices during the offseason.
“I enjoyed the spring and summer, but that’s the spring and summer. Now that we’re here in training camp we’re going to do what we do in this type of setting, which is compete,” Tomlin said.
When asked if there will be tackling, Tomlin smiled.
“Absolutely,” he said. “See you on Monday.”
Monday is the first that that the Steelers are allowed to practice in full pads and hits. The team will conduct non-contract practices on Saturday and Sunday, something that is mandated by the collective bargaining agreement.
- Tomlin said he won’t take a slower approach to installing the playbook despite the Steelers’ youth, particularly on defense.
“We expect those guys to catch up. It’s professional football, they don’t have an academic workload to worry about,” Tomlin said. “Obviously we’re willing to adjust when it’s time to play football in September. It’s just smart football to do what your guys are capable of doing, but as we step into Latrobe we do not have that mentality. We need to see what they’re capable of handling. And in order to so that we’re going to install at our normal pace.”
- Center Maurkice Pouncey won’t be eased into practice even though he is still less than a year removed from tearing the ACL in his right knee.
The Steelers gave Pouncey periodic days off during the offseason practices as a precaution, but Tomlin said the three-time Pro Bowler won’t be limited in camp.
“He’s ready to go,” Tomlin said.
Taylor, after reporting Friday afternoon for his 12th training camp at bucolic St. Vincent College, said he does not think the days of him shutting down wide receivers are bygone ones despite his struggles last season. And while he acknowledged that he is not getting any younger, Taylor said he wants to play beyond this season, which happens to be the last one on his Pittsburgh Steelers contract.
That Taylor arrived for camp in good spirits not to mention a star shaved into his head == “superstar,” he said with a smile -- is a good sign considering how ticked off he seemed last month when he went on the Jim Rome Show and sounded off about having to accept a pay cut to return to the Steelers.
Taylor shrugged off his comments as just venting and said his unhappiness over taking a pay cut won’t affect his preparation during camp or his play this season.
“You pout about it and you handle yourself on the field,” said Taylor, whose base salary this season was cut from $7 million to $2.5 million. “I can’t see myself nowhere else. I live and bleed Pittsburgh. I’m a yinzer. The only thing I don’t really do to be a yinzer is eat Primanti Brothers.”
(Note: Yinzer is a term often applied to hardcore Pittsburgh residents and Primanti Brothers’ most famous sandwich includes coleslaw and fries on a hamburger and is considered a Pittsburgh signature).
“Other than that I’m Pittsburgh all the way down. I wear my 412 clothing. I’ve got a 412 [area code), my nickname is ‘Lil Rooney.’ What else you want from me?”
Taylor said he hasn't felt this good physically in years and that renowned speed coach Tom Shaw, whom he works with during the offseason, actually had to tell him to ease up on his training.
If this is his last season with the Steelers -- the 6-foot-2, 195-pounder intends on playing somewhere in 2015 -- Taylor feels good about making a run at his third Super Bowl ring.
“This team as far as young guys and the energy it’s like the [2004-05] feeling,” Taylor said in reference to the seasons in which the Steelers made the AFC championship game and won the Super Bowl. “We talked about speed on defense and from OTAs through minicamp you saw the speed on defense and I think in ’04 and ’05 we were pretty speedy on defense.”
Worley wore a long-sleeved collared shirt and black slacks when he told his story to Tennessee Titans rookies on June 6. But he hit just as hard as when he wore shoulder pads and a helmet on the way to becoming an All-America running back at Georgia and the seventh overall pick of the 1989 NFL draft.
Worley, who never lived up to his immense promise while with the Pittsburgh Steelers, shined an unsparing light on himself as he told the Titans rookies how he frittered away a playing career through a toxic confluence of youth, money and fame.
The message Worley, 47, is spreading has allowed him to get his foot back in the door of the league he couldn't wait to exit almost two decades ago.
He is pursuing a career as a life skills consultant for NFL rookies through Worley Global Enterprises, the company he owns with his wife, Dee. It is a calling as much as anything since the repercussions of throwing away his NFL career nearly crushed him.
"It took my going down the gutter and almost to the point of death to realize who I am," Worley said.
Crashing and burning
The Steelers had been searching for a rightful heir to Franco Harris for nearly a decade by the time they drafted Worley in 1989, four picks after the Detroit Lions selected Barry Sanders. And it looked they like they might have found Harris' successor after Worley, who had size and sprinter's speed, rushed for 770 yards and five touchdowns as a rookie.
Worley, however, regressed instead of building on a promising rookie campaign.
A propensity for fumbling led to him quickly falling out of favor in Pittsburgh -- he played four seasons for the Steelers and two more for the Chicago Bears -- but that was just a symptom of a larger problem.
A nightlife replete with drinking, drugs, women and new so-called friends beckoned the young millionaire in a city where the Steelers are worshipped. And Worley eventually got caught in the undertow of it.
"I was given an opportunity to set the tone for my life and the people that loved me, and I blew it," said Worley, the first rookie in Steelers history to receive a million-dollar signing bonus.
Worley bounced around after retiring from football in 1996, working in various factories and warehouses, dabbling in coaching and making a living from 2003 through 2005 digging graves in his hometown of Lumberton, North Carolina.
"I buried people for almost three years," he said.
The cruel irony of that job: Worley almost buried himself. He continued to drink and abuse cocaine and said he spent about 10 years "in a fog."
The former NFL bonus baby bottomed out on April 23, 2008 -- a date that Worley will never forget.
Pulled over after leaving an Atlanta club in the wee hours of the morning, Worley took a swing at a police officer. Worley spent the next 23 days behind bars and said he has been totally clean since he got out of jail.
"I got down on my knees in my jail cell and I rededicated myself to the Lord," Worley said. "It's by the grace of God that I am here."
A second chance
Dee Foster was 12 years old when she was summoned to the office of legendary Alabama football coach Paul "Bear" Bryant.
Bryant had read about Foster becoming the first elite gymnast in the history of the state and that she trained with Alabama women's gymnastics coach Sara Patterson in Tuscaloosa.
He congratulated the young girl, who was with her equally wide-eyed father, and told her he expected her to compete for the Crimson Tide one day.
Foster never forgot that meeting and later became a 17-time All-American at Alabama as well as an individual national champion. Despite all of that success, Foster lost the love of her life when Worley ended their relationship while she was still in school.
The two had met at Georgia when Worley was a student there and Foster was competing at a meet in Athens while still in high school. But they lost touch after Worley broke things off while he was with the Steelers.
The two reconnected through Facebook after 18 years apart, right as Worley was pulling his life together. They got married a year later, in 2010, adding another layer to Worley's story of redemption.
The Worleys, who live in Huntsville, Alabama, share a strong faith, and Dee Worley has helped her husband confront the guilt that he had not been able to shake after washing out in the NFL.
"Tim went through a lot of years of severe depression because he felt that he had not provided the proper return on what the Steelers and Bears invested in him," Dee Worley said. "It tore him up."
She is helping him try to repay that debt through their consulting company (she rolled her marketing and public relations company into Worley Global Enterprises in 2010). Worley's focus is on public speaking, while his wife handles marketing and other promotional aspects of the company.
Worley and his wife have designed a multipronged program that includes talking to rookies during training camp and throughout the season and also making himself available for one-on-one sessions with players.
Worley's message to young players can be distilled into something simple yet powerful.
"Let my wisdom that I learned from my mistakes be your teacher," Worley said. "Don't let pain that will come from your negative choices be your teacher, because I learned the hard way."
Shazier started alongside Lawrence Timmons from the outset of offseason practices, and he looked anything but lost despite learning a new defense on the run.
Not that Shazier will be exempt from the requisite rookie growing pains. Or that Butler wouldn’t prefer the Steelers easing the former Ohio State All-American into the NFL.
That is not an option in large part because Shazier’s speed and playmaking ability are both badly needed on a defense that slipped appreciably last season. Shazier, the Steelers’ most significant addition during the offseason, made it look easy at times during offseason practices. He turned in a couple of breathtaking plays, including a leaping interception of a pass that backup quarterback Bruce Gradkowski thought he could throw over Shazier in the middle of the field.
The caveat with how good Shazier has looked: the 6-1, 237-pounder has only practiced with the Steelers in shorts. That changes Monday, when the Steelers don the pads at training camp following two non-contact practices.
If Shazier makes the same kind of progress at camp as he did during offseason drills he will start Sept. 7 in the season opener against the visiting Browns.
Here are the four other significant additions that the Steelers made during the offseason.
Offensive line coach Mike Munchak. The Steelers have too often fielded suspect offensive lines under coach Mike Tomlin, though constant injuries up front haven’t helped. A line that came together in the second half of last season will start a pair of former first-round draft picks and two second-round selections. Nobody is more qualified to bring the group together then Munchak. There are no excuses this season -- unless mass injuries consistently scramble the line.
S Mike Mitchell. As with Shazier, the Steelers added speed and a playmaker when they signed Mitchell to a five-year, $25 million contract in March. They badly needed both elements on the back end of their defense, and Mitchell will be a significant upgrade over Ryan Clark at free safety. He has aspirations of becoming one of the best safeties in the NFL, and the Steelers would love to see Mitchell achieve that goal in Pittsburgh.
RB/WR Dri Archer. The Steelers added a bolt of lightning to their offense when they drafted the ultra-fast Archer in the third round. He will return kickoffs and could allow the Steelers to relieve Pro Bowl wide receiver Antonio Brown of his duties as the primary punt returner. Archer’s speed and versatility gives offensive coordinator Todd Haley the kind of player he can use to exploit mismatches. If Archer is Chris Rainey 2.0 the Steelers will be more than happy with the investment they have made in the former Kent State star.
OLB Arthur Moats. The former Buffalo Bill has starting experience and versatility and gives the Steelers a promising option should there be injuries or ineffective play at outside linebacker. Moats can also play inside, though the Steelers are pretty deep there, and he is expected to establish himself as a core special-teams player. The importance of depth in the NFL can't be overstated, and the Steelers improved themselves in that area with the signing of Moats.
They signed veterans Lance Moore and Darrius Heyward-Bey in March and drafted Clemson’s Martavis Bryant in the fourth round. The Steelers also saw 2013 sixth-round pick Justin Brown, who spent last season on their practice squad, make a significant jump during offseason practices.
So where does all of that leave Moye? Pretty much in the same position as last season when the former undrafted free agent had to play his way onto the 53-man roster.
“That’s the way it is,” Steelers wide receivers coach Richard Mann said. “He knows that. Each time he gets on the field he gets better. He has a chance.”
The good news for Moye, who caught just two passes for 25 yards and a touchdown last season, is that the competition at wide receiver won’t really start until Monday when the Steelers wear pads for the first time.
Also, the 6-foot-4, 210-pounder made the team last season after entering camp as a long shot. There is no reason to think Moye can’t do it again with another strong camp and playing well in the preseason games.
Here are four other players who also need to flash during training camp.
OLB Chris Carter. The Steelers’ lack of depth at outside linebacker gives the 2011 fifth-round draft pick an inside track to making the 53-man roster. But Carter is vulnerable because he played primarily on special teams in three seasons and has yet to record a sack for the Steelers. Carter received praise from linebackers coach Keith Butler during offseason practices. He has to show the Steelers during camp that he can play extensive snaps at outside linebacker in the event of an injury.
TE David Paulson. He has just 13 catches for 153 yards in two seasons and Paulson isn’t going to make the team as a blocking tight end. The 2012 seventh-round pick has to show he can become a bigger part of the passing game as he is a prime candidate to fall victim to a numbers crunch. The Steelers return four tight ends from last season and they added to the position by drafting Rob Blanchflower in the seventh round and signing Eric Waters as an undrafted free agent.
DE Nick Williams. Williams did very little during offseason practices because he was still recovering from a knee injury he sustained almost a year ago. The Steelers like Williams’ potential but the 6-4, 309-pounder needs to get on the field during camp and get as much work as possible at a position that is hard for young players to master. The Steelers, meanwhile, need an end to emerge from a young group that includes Williams, Brian Arnfelt and undrafted free agent Josh Mauro.
P Brad Wing. His talent is undeniable and the Steelers think he has matured since going undrafted out of LSU in 2013 and failing to make the Philadelphia Eagles’ team last season. That he is a lefty helps – coach Mike Tomlin seems to prefer those kinds of punters – but Wing has to beat out veteran Adam Podlesh, who signed a one-year contract with the Steelers in April. Since Podlesh has a track record in the NFL Wing will have to clearly outplay him in training camp and preseason games to make the team.
Here is a different kind of primer for camp, and it is the first of two posts recapping the Steelers' offseason in the words of the coaches and the players.
Here is what the players said during the offseason practices.
“I’m excited about this team and the direction we’re headed. I think that we have a lot of speed. That’s running the ball, that’s throwing the ball, whatever. I want us to be fast and to put a lot of points on the board. I feel younger than ever." – quarterback Ben Roethlisberger on expectations for the offense after the Steelers averaged just under 28 points in their final eight games last season
“You see guys finishing to the end zone, the whole defense running to the ball, everyone coaching each other. I think we’re just a hungry young group that’s aspiring to win games. When you’ve got a young motivated group that everyone bought into what we’re trying to do it just speaks highly when you see it on the practice field.” – Pro Bowl wide receiver Antonio Brown on the urgency the Steelers showed during offseason practices
“I’m in his head every day, always asking questions, always trying to figure out the best way to do it. He’s always on my butt about just grinding. Not saying that I don’t push myself, but there’s always a next level and that’s what he’s brought to our whole unit.” – outside linebacker Jarvis Jones on new defensive assistant Joey Porter
“You’ve got a few guys and there time is right now. Cortez Allen is one of those guys. Will Gay is still one of those guys regardless of what people don’t want to say about him. The man’s real solid.I think last year was the best year of his career. And Cortez Allen toward the end was breaking out to what we all thought he could be -- a ball hawk.” – veteran Ike Taylor on the Steelers’ cornerbacks
“It’s nothing right now and I say that in the sense that that’s been talked about the last few years. The talent is there but if we come out here and [falter] we’ll be saying the same thing next year. You can’t just say because we have the high-round talent or guys that have experience that it’s supposed to be special. We’ve got to make it that way.” – left guard Ramon Foster on the whether offensive line’s strong finish in 2013 will translate into a big season for the unit this year
“He’s one of my better friends on the team now. It’s crazy the relationship I built with him over the last couple of months. He’s a lot like I am, outgoing, more jokes. Dri is the same way. It’s crazy how we all mesh together and get along.” – starting running back Le'Veon Bell on new backfield additions LeGarrette Blount and Dri Archer
“Think about it. You’ve got a Hall of Famer in waiting and I’m coming in to play right after him. That’s pressure. Everybody knows what Casey was. He’s on a top five defense his whole career. I’ve seen the man play. There’s nothing else like him. I’m far from Casey. I’m never going to try to be Casey. The only thing I can do is work every day, do my best and just be the best Steve that I can be.” – nose tackle Steve McLendon on replacing five-time Pro Bowler Casey Hampton last season
“He’s like a sponge right now. The coaches tell him, ‘Don’t say much at all. Just try and soak everything up right now.’ It’s going to be tough on him but he’s the type of athletic he can do it. He’s willing and able to do whatever it takes.” – inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons on first-round draft pick Ryan Shazier
“I feel like I was overlooked by a lot of teams. A lot of guys that went ahead of me aren’t even on teams right now so that gives me a chip on my shoulder every day. When I get to the point where I’m that No. 1 guy and I’m an All-Pro cornerback I’m going to think back to the days when I was sad because I didn’t get drafted.” – cornerback Antwon Blake on what drives him
“I’ve gotten a chance to see who wore this number before me and the person who wore the number before me was a great player for the Steelers. With that comes a great opportunity to become the best and that’s somebody I want to become as great as or greater than. I love pressure. I thrive off that.” – rookie defensive end Stephon Tuitt on wearing No. 91, Aaron Smith’s old number
“Ben is strong-armed with a sense of boldness. He’s going to throw some balls that maybe some other guys wouldn’t, even guys with strong arms. I love that as a receiver.” – new wide receiver Lance Moore on playing with Roethlisberger
“He’s like Paul Bunyan. He’s huge. He’s thick but he’s definitely agile. I think we can get a lot out of him. His potential is out of the roof. It’s about getting him to the next level.” – defensive end Cameron Heyward on rookie defensive tackle Dan McCullers
RUNNING BACKS (4)
This is the one position where someone under the radar has a chance to play his way onto the 53-man roster. The Steelers can probably afford to go with three running backs -- Johnson is a fullback/tight end -- and stash a back or two on the practice squad in the event of injuries.
WIDE RECEIVERS (5)
Darrius Heyward-Bey makes the team if the Steelers keep six wide receivers because of his ability to play special teams. The Steelers may need an extra spot at wide receiver this year if Bryant isn’t ready to contribute as a rookie.
TIGHT ENDS (3)
I went a little light here because Johnson could play a significant amount at tight end this season. David Paulson and Michael Palmer are incumbents but neither has shown enough to hold off Blanchflower, who could be another late-round find for the Steelers.
OFFENSIVE LINEMEN (9)
- Maurkice Pouncey
- David DeCastro
- Ramon Foster
- Marcus Gilbert
- Kelvin Beachum
- Mike Adams
- Cody Wallace
- Guy Whimper
- Wesley Johnson
I could see the Steelers going with eight offensive linemen if they think they can sneak Johnson, a fifth-round draft pick, onto their practice squad. This group will be among the hardest to crack given how many returners the Steelers have up front.
DEFENSIVE LINEMEN (7)
Yep, I see Keisel making the Steelers' 53-man roster, whether the Steelers re-sign the 12th-year veteran before the start of training camp or during it. A surprise player or two always makes the team. I’m thinking Lapuaho has a chance to be that guy with sixth-round pick Daniel McCullers needing a year on the practice squad.
- Lawrence Timmons
- Ryan Shazier
- Jason Worilds
- Jarvis Jones
- Vince Williams
- Arthur Moats
- Sean Spence
- Jordan Zumwalt
The Steelers could have some tough choices at linebacker, especially if Spence’s knee holds up during training camp and the former third-round pick looks as good practicing in pads as he did in shorts. Terence Garvin may be the odd man out inside while veteran outside linebacker Chris Carter could get bumped from the roster by Zumwalt.
McCain could be in trouble here if the Steelers go with five cornerbacks because Blake is so valuable on special teams. Richardson is no lock to make the roster after Terry Hawthorne, the cornerback the Steelers drafted in the fifth round in 2013, didn’t even make the practice squad last year.
I think the first four safeties are set barring injury. A couple of spots are reserved every year based solely on special-teams play. That’s how Golden makes the 53-man roster again this season.
The only battle is at punter where Podlesh will try to hold off Brad Wing. The latter is an intriguing prospect because of his physical ability and his past work at LSU. Given that Podlesh has a track record in the NFL, Wing will have to clearly outperform him to make the team.
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.
Both the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Baltimore Ravens have advanced to the round of 16 in the ESPN.com bracket challenge that will determine the most memorable play in NFL history.
Each were resounding winners in the first round with the Steelers' Immaculate Reception capturing 88 percent of the fan vote and knocking out the Texans' pick-six in an AFC playoff win over the Bengals.
The Ravens’ Mile High Miracle also cruised into the second round, garnering 71 percent of the vote against the Vikings’ missed field goal in the 1999 NFC Championship Game, which cost them a chance of going to the Super Bowl.
Voting in the second-round matchup between the Steelers and Ravens should be high given the rivalry between the two teams. Cast your selection by clicking here.
This offseason has seen plenty of high-profile additions and departures in the AFC North.
The Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Ravens brought more excitement to their offenses. The Browns drafted quarterback Johnny Manziel in the first round, and the Ravens signed wide receiver Steve Smith.
The Cincinnati Bengals and the Pittsburgh Steelers dealt with some significant losses. Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer left to become the head coach of the Minnesota Vikings, and three starters (Brett Keisel, LaMarr Woodley and Ryan Clark) are gone from the Steelers defense.
How will these changes affect the teams in the division? That's the focus for ESPN's AFC North reporters: Scott Brown in Pittsburgh, Coley Harvey in Cincinnati, Jamison Hensley in Baltimore and Pat McManamon in Cleveland.
Johnny Manziel will be the starting quarterback for the Browns in the season opener in Pittsburgh.
Scott Brown: Fiction. Johnny Football has too much ground to make up to overtake Brian Hoyer as the starter by the time the Browns open the regular season in Pittsburgh. Manziel will start at some point this season, but it won't be Sept. 7 at Heinz Field. Even if it is a toss-up between Hoyer and Manziel leading up to the season opener, the Browns will be wise enough to go with the player who has NFL starting experience over the one who will have a Texas-sized bullseye on his jersey. Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau generally torments rookie quarterbacks and definitely doesn't take selfies with them. The Browns wouldn't put Manziel in a position in which he has little chance of succeeding ... would they?
Jamison Hensley: Fiction. There are too many factors going against Manziel starting right away. Browns coach Mike Pettine was on the Bills' sideline this past season when he watched EJ Manuel struggle as a rookie. The Browns have a legitimate alternative in Brian Hoyer. And the Browns' first game is against the Steelers, who are known to rough up young quarterbacks. Including the playoffs, the Steelers are a league-best 17-2 vs. rookie quarterbacks since 2004, when coordinator Dick LeBeau re-joined the Steelers as defensive coordinator. Plus, Manziel hasn't done much to prove to the coaching staff that he's mature enough to handle the starting job after becoming Johnny Las Vegas on holiday weekends. It just makes too much sense to sit Manziel as a rookie. Then again, the Browns aren't known for making logical moves
Pat McManamon: Fiction. The Browns simply do not want Manziel to start the opener, and Mike Pettine has made no secret of that. Over and over, he's said that though Manziel can start at some point, he does not believe it's ideal. Given that the first three opponents are the Steelers, Saints and Ravens, it's even more reason not to rush him. Those three opponents have chopped up a lot of veterans, not to mention rookies. If Josh Gordon is not on the team, the quarterback's challenge is even more difficult. The Browns want to take things slowly with Manziel, and right now he admits he's not the best quarterback on the team. The only way he starts in Pittsburgh is if Brian Hoyer is hurt.
The Bengals have a top-10 defense even without coordinator Mike Zimmer.
Brown: Fact. With all due respect to Zimmer, he didn't make one tackle in the six seasons he coordinated the Bengals' defense. Not to marginalize coordinators, but Dick LeBeau has one of the keenest and most imaginative defensive minds in NFL history, and he somehow forgot how to coach defense this past season, when injuries and age caught up with the Steelers. The Bengals have plenty of talent, assuming defensive tackle Geno Atkins and cornerback Leon Hall make a healthy return from their respective injuries. And the adjustment to new defensive coordinator Paul Guenther should be a relatively smooth one since Guenther coached the Bengals' linebackers before succeeding Zimmer. If the Bengals don't field a top-10 defense this season, it will be because they can't make up for the free-agent loss of defensive end Michael Johnson or their secondary springs too many leaks.
Harvey: Fact. Zimmer was rightfully deified during his time in Cincinnati, but his exit for Minnesota doesn't mean there's now a sudden end to the Bengals' era of defensive dominance. Cincinnati will be bringing back a defense that mostly mirrors the group it had last year. The only absences of note are Michael Johnson, James Harrison and Chris Crocker. Johnson was signed by Tampa Bay in free agency, and Harrison was released. Signed to a one-year deal when he emerged from retirement this past September, Crocker was a free agent this offseason who didn't have his contract renewed. Still, knowing Crocker's track record of signing as a September off-of-the-couch call-up the past two years, you can't fully rule out an appearance from him in Cincinnati at some point this year. Of all the Bengals' defensive departures, Zimmer's was certainly the biggest. The coordinator who helped revolutionize the Bengals' defensive system and turned them into a perennial power implemented unique rotations, lineups and blitz and coverage packages. As the league's No. 3 defense this past season, the Bengals pulled off a franchise feat that hadn't been replicated in more than 30 years. Under new coordinator Paul Guenther, who formulated many of the blitz packages for Zimmer, the Bengals are hoping to be even better than that No. 3 ranking this year. While they probably won't get ranked as high as No. 3, they still will be among the top 10.
Hensley: Fiction. It's true that a defense is only as good as its players on the field. But let's not disregard the impact of Zimmer on the Bengals' defense. In Zimmer's first season in Cincinnati (2008), the Bengals jumped from No. 27 to No. 12 in defense. The Bengals then went on to finish in the top 10 in yards and points allowed in four of the next five seasons under Zimmer. He's a fiery leader who got the most out of his players. Many expect a smooth transition with Paul Guenther being promoted to defensive coordinator, but he's never been in charge of a defense in the NFL. His job won't be made any easier by the fact that defensive end Michael Johnson left in free agency and defensive tackle Geno Atkins is still recovering from an ACL injury. The Bengals secondary is dealing with aging veterans (Terence Newman and Adam Jones), injury (Leon Hall) and unfulfilled potential (Dre Kirkpatrick). Don't be surprised if the Bengals slip out of the top 10 this season.
Pat McManamon: Fact. The Bengals have too many good players and too good a system to falter with Zimmer's departure. He'll be missed, but defenses are as good as the players on the field, and with stalwart Geno Atkins coming back from injury to go with a crew that includes Vontaze Burfict, the Bengals should still be formidable. Also, new coordinator Paul Guenther knows the system, knows the blitzes and worked closely with Zimmer. It always hurts to lose a coordinator like Zimmer, but the Bengals seemed to be as prepared as a team can be. The other thing to remember is that offenses can help defenses by possessing the ball, and new offensive coordinator Hue Jackson will run the ball more than Jay Gruden did.
Steve Smith will become Joe Flacco's top target this season.
Brown: Fiction. I'm tempted to say fact here because of the trust and rapport that Flacco developed with Anquan Boldin before the Ravens traded the veteran wide receiver to the 49ers this past year. Boldin, however, is bigger and more physical than Smith and doesn't rely as much on speed as the latter still does, even at the age of 35. Look for tight end Dennis Pitta to re-establish himself as a big part of the Ravens' offense after missing all but four games this past season because of a dislocated hip. Pitta caught 61 passes and was targeted 93 times by Flacco in 2012, while Boldin caught just four more passes than Pitta, despite getting targeted 112 times. A healthy Pitta becomes Flacco's go-to receiver again.
Harvey: Fiction. Another Smith will end up being Flacco's top passing target this season. Torrey Smith, the man who saw 139 throws directed his way this past season, will remain the go-to receiver in an offense that hopes for increased production from 2013. During the mostly down year for Baltimore's offense, Torrey Smith caught 65 of the 139 balls thrown his way, leading the team in receptions. While at Carolina last year, Steve Smith caught 64 passes on just 109 targets from Cam Newton. The longtime Panther was one of the stars of an offense that also relied on Newton to make plays with his feet, in addition to spreading the ball to other receivers. The Ravens had difficulty getting any kind of rushing offense going, which made it easy for defenses to sell out on guarding their receivers. If Ray Rice struggles to perform out of the backfield again this year -- or if he ends up missing considerable time due to a possible suspension from commissioner Roger Goodell following his arrest in Atlantic City this offseason for assault on his now-wife -- much the same could happen to the Ravens' receivers in 2014. Even if that happens, Steve Smith's addition ought to help Flacco and the Ravens. Still, don't look for the 35-year-old to take over as the team's dominant receiver. That title ought to remain Torrey Smith's.
Hensley: Fact. There's a chance tight end Dennis Pitta or wide receiver Torrey Smith will end up being Flacco's go-to receiver. In the end, Flacco will spread the ball around to Pitta, Torrey Smith and Steve Smith. But if you're asking who will be Flacco's top target, the best bet is Steve Smith. All you needed to do was watch one practice this offseason, and you'd see the chemistry building between Flacco and Smith. Many have compared Steve Smith to Anquan Boldin because both are tough receivers. Smith, though, stacks up more favorably to Derrick Mason, who averaged 71 receptions in three seasons with Flacco. Like Mason, Smith can get open on the comeback route as well as slants. A prideful player such as Smith will also do everything in his power to show the Carolina Panthers he can still play. The Ravens will get the best out of Smith this year.
Pat McManamon: Fiction. The Ravens still have this guy Torrey Smith, right? He's a little younger than the 35-year-old Steve Smith. A little bigger too. And he should be ready to be the No. 1 receiver on the team. This is not to say Steve Smith won't help. He will. He brings a veteran presence the Ravens lacked -- though it's curious they gave away Anquan Boldin before last year and signed another aging guy who fits the "crafty veteran mold" a year later. Ozzie Newsome said Smith is not the "typical aging player," which is good, because he'll catch a lot of passes and open up the field more to provide opportunities for Torrey Smith and tight end Dennis Pitta. The Ravens also seem to be a team well-suited to getting the most from veterans. But if Baltimore brought Steve Smith in to be the top guy, it's a problem. That role and responsibility belongs to Torrey Smith.
The retooled defense is enough to get the Steelers back to the playoffs.
Brown: Fact: The Steelers got younger and faster and will be better on that side of the ball if their outside linebackers provide some semblance of a pass rush. The Steelers don't need dramatic improvement from their defense if their offense builds on its strong finish in 2013. The Steelers averaged just under 28 points in their final eight games this past season, and they only lost one starter (wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders) on offense. Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey returns from a torn ACL to lead an offensive line that allowed just seven sacks in the final seven games last year. And the Steelers have enough talent at the skill positions for Ben Roethlisberger and the offense to carry the defense.
Hensley: Fact. The Steelers got younger and quicker with their first two draft picks this year, linebacker Ryan Shazier and defensive end Stephon Tuitt. Cam Thomas, a free-agent addition, will be a space-eater on the interior of the line. What will help this retooled defense become even better are the moves made on offense. The Steelers stockpiled their backfield by signing free agent LeGarrette Blount and drafting Dri Archer in the third round. Plus, Le'Veon Bell was beginning to hit his stride at the end of his rookie season. This commitment to the run will control the clock and take pressure off a defense adjusting to its new parts.
McManamon: Fact. There is no team in the league that finds personnel to fit its system better than the Steelers. With three new starters defensively, Pittsburgh continues its transition from the James Harrison-James Farrior-Casey Hampton-Brett Keisel days. Kevin Colbert's drafting is usually logical and sound, and in Ryan Shazier the Steelers believe they found an immediate starter. One thing will be true about Pittsburgh this season: They will be faster on the field and they will not start slow. Pittsburgh will build on the momentum of an 8-4 finish in 2013 (after an 0-4 start), and as they build the defense will grow..
Score: Steelers 13, Raiders 7
Date: Dec. 23, 1972. Site: Three Rivers Stadium
Franco Harris' "Immaculate Reception" won that designation in fan voting on ESPN.com by a landslide over James Harrison's 100-yard interception return in Super Bowl XLIII and Santonio Holmes' toe-tapping touchdown catch in the same game.
The fans got this right, even though the play that went in the books as a 60-yard touchdown catch did not come in any one of the six seasons in which the Steelers won the Super Bowl.
First and foremost, it gave a franchise that had never won a playoff game and its long-suffering fans belief. That had been in short supply in the near four decades that followed the Steelers' founding in 1933 by Art Rooney.
Harris changed that when he snatched a pass that had ricocheted back with the Steelers facing certain defeat in an AFC playoff game and then rumbled down the left sideline for the winning touchdown.
The 1974 NFL draft, when the Steelers took four future Pro Football Hall of Famers with their first five picks, ultimately put them over the top and led to four Super Bowl victories in six seasons.
But Harris' miraculous play put the Steelers on the course that transformed them from perennial also-rans to the team of the 1970s.
How much it is still a part of Pittsburgh lore -- and how it transcends sports -- can be seen in Pittsburgh International Airport. There are two life-sized statues in the main concourse. One is of our first president, George Washington, who fought in the French and Indian War in Western Pennsylvania. The other statue is of Harris making the most famous shoestring catch in NFL history.
It remains one of the NFL's most iconic plays and is a timeless reminder of playing to the final whistle -- in life as well as in sports.
In the end, every other Steelers play is still vying for second place when it comes to the most memorable one in franchise history.
They will be the cornerstones of a defense that has been almost completely overhauled over the past couple of years -- and may not have strong safety Troy Polamalu and cornerback Ike Taylor beyond the 2014 season.
Shazier, the Steelers' first-round pick this year, has the look of a future Pro Bowler, and he did well during the offseason practices. The key for the former Ohio State star is continuing that in training camp when the pads go on and the hitting starts.
Jones, the team's first-round pick in 2013, is a crucial part of the Steelers' future given how vital it is that their outside linebackers generate a consistent pass rush. Jones struggled while learning the Steelers' defense on the job last season and recorded just one sack despite starting eight games.
He will be better this season, especially with former Steelers great Joey Porter mentoring him, but will Jones establish himself as a premier pass-rusher over the next couple of seasons?
The 6-foot-6, 312-pound Tuitt already has an NFL body, and the 2014 second-round pick will make a nice pairing with defensive end Cameron Heyward if he realizes the potential that has the Steelers so excited about him.
The hard-hitting Thomas is the likely successor to Polamalu, and the Steelers have high hopes for the 2013 fourth-round pick.
Pittsburgh also needs to develop some cornerbacks. The Steelers would love nothing more than if rookie Shaquille Richardson, a fifth-round pick, becomes their latest midround find at the position.
Cornerback may also be the Steelers' top priority in the 2015 NFL draft after many thought they would use a high pick on one this year.
This is the third of three plays nominated as the most memorable play in team history. Please vote for your choice as the Steelers' most memorable play.
Score: Steelers 27, Cardinals 23
Date: Feb. 1, 2009 Site: Raymond James Stadium
Ben Roethlisberger and Santonio Holmes played pitch and catch so effortlessly that it seemed as if they were in a backyard.
The two were, in fact, on one of sports’ biggest stages, and the Arizona Cardinals were powerless to stop them at the end of Super Bowl XLIII.
A Larry Fitzgerald 64-yard touchdown reception had given the upstart Cardinals a 23-20 lead with 2 minutes, 30 seconds left in the game. After a holding penalty moved the Steelers back to their own 12-yard line, Roethlisberger and Holmes went to work.
They connected three times in moving the Steelers to the Cardinals’ 6-yard line with less than a minute to play.
“When I threw it and it looked like he had it, I was celebrating and I just remember, ‘Oh man,’ but coming back to the huddle I was encouraging. He wasn’t down at all,” Roethlisberger said recently. “He was disappointed he didn’t catch it, but there was no worry about going to him on the next play.”
Roethlisberger did just that.
After eluding the Cardinals’ pass rush and going through his progression of reads, Roethlisberger spied Holmes in the opposite corner of the end zone where he had almost made the game-winning catch a play earlier.
Three Cardinals defensive backs were also in the area, but Roethlisberger threw the pass anyway.
“When it came off my hand, I thought the defender (cornerback Ralph Brown) in front was going to turn around,” Roethlisberger said. “I really thought it was intercepted when I let go of it, but it ended up just over his hand and where [Holmes] could make a play.”
Roethlisberger had thrown the ball where only Holmes could make a play on it. And Holmes turned in one of the greatest catches in Super Bowl history when he leaped for the ball and then got both feet inbounds by inches after pulling it in.
The toe-tapping reception stood up after an official review, and it put the exclamation point on Holmes' nine-catch, 131-yard performance.
The defense stifled a last-gasp drive by the Cardinals, giving the Steelers their sixth Super Bowl victory, and Holmes earned game MVP honors.
@ScottBrown_ESPN 7 to 10: Perfect throw, better catch, best feeling of all-time. Ben's first TD pass in a Super Bowl brought home ring six.— J.C. 9(/ 'DDG (@SteelCityArab) June 12, 2014