AFC North: Pittsburgh Steelers

PITTSBURGH -- Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier did not practice on Wednesday, a curious development a day after coach Mike Tomlin said the rookie is "extremely close to returning" to action.

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Shazier practiced on a limited basis all of last week, and the Steelers allowed him to test his right knee Monday night before deactivating the first-round pick for their game against the Houston Texans.

Shazier, who has missed the past four games because of a sprained knee, was held out of the Steelers' first practice of the week along with right tackle Marcus Gilbert (concussion) and nose tackle Steve McLendon (shoulder).

Safety Shamarko Thomas (hamstring) and cornerback Ike Taylor (forearm) were limited participants in practice.

Thomas has missed the past two games, but Tomlin said the second-year man is also close to returning. Taylor took part in some drills for the first time since breaking his forearm in the Steelers' 37-19 win against the Carolina Panthers on Sept. 21.
PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Steelers reached into their bag of trick to score the touchdown that put them ahead for good in a 30-23 win over the Houston Texans.

But coach Mike Tomlin was in no mood to talk about wide receiver Antonio Brown’s 3-yard touchdown pass to Lance Moore the day after it happened -- or at least discuss how the play came about with the Steelers trailing the Texans late in the first half.

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Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger told 93.7 The Fan in Pittsburgh on Tuesday morning that Tomlin called the play in which Brown took a pitch in the backfield, pivoted back to his left and hit Moore in the end zone.

Tomlin refused to confirm that he had indeed made that play call, though he did not deny it either.

“I take responsibility for all calls,” Tomlin said Tuesday at his weekly news conference. “I’m not going to get into the intimate details about how we administer our business on the sidelines during the course of football games. I don’t think that’s prudent. I don’t think that helps us.”

When asked what the Steelers were thinking as a team when they opted for Brown to throw a pass near the goal-line, Tomlin said, “The idea is to score and Antonio has proven to be a guy who is capable delivering plays for us, whether it’s running the ball or throwing the ball. You just want to put the ball in playmakers’ hands, and he is that.”

Brown caught nine passes for 90 yards in addition to his scoring toss, and the two-time Pro Bowler probably should have finished with over 100 receiving yards and a touchdown.

Brown made a spectacular 16-yard catch in the corner of the end zone in the fourth quarter and appeared to get both feet in bounds, if only by an inch, for a touchdown that would have likely put the Texans away.

But the ruling of a touchdown on the field was reversed after a video review and the Steelers had to settle for a Shaun Suisham field goal that gave them a 27-16 lead. Brown took to social media after the game to voice his displeasure with having a touchdown taken away from the Steelers.

The fifth-year veteran posted a picture on his Twitter account that showed both of his feet in bounds and wrote “[bleeping] refs.”

Tomlin said he did not know anything about what Brown wrote on his Twitter account.

“I don’t get into the social media stuff,” Tomlin said. “I thought it was an extremely close play and usually when plays are that close they stay with the ball on the field. I was of the impression that it was going to remain [a touchdown].”

When asked if he has a problem with Brown protesting the call the way he did, Tomlin said, “We’re professionals. I expect them to behave that way both on and off the grass.”
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PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Steelers made a statement Monday night, pulling their season from the brink shortly after boos had rained down on them in their own stadium.

Defensive end Cameron Heyward made an even bigger statement after the Steelers overcame an early 13-0 deficit and held off the Houston Texans 30-23 at Heinz Field.

Heyward, talking about the play of fellow defensive end Brett Keisel, said, "He turned back time. He was the best [No.] 99 out there."

Such a statement would seem ridiculous on the surface.

Keisel, who turned 36 last month, did not even re-sign with the Steelers until late August because of lukewarm interest from the organization. The other No. 99 in the nationally televised game was Texans defensive end J.J. Watt.

Watt is only the best defensive player on the planet and owns a list of NFL accomplishments that is longer than Keisel's beard.

Watt, as the Steelers could attest after improving to 4-3, can be contained only to a certain degree. The Steelers largely did a good job against the 6-foot-5, 289-pounder, and he still finished with three tackles, a sack, two quarterback hurries and a fumble recovery.

[+] EnlargePittsburgh's Brett Keisel
Justin K. Aller/Getty ImagesBrett Keisel's interception led to the third Steelers touchdown during the final two minutes of the first half.
His stat line easily trumped the one turned in by Keisel.

His impact on the game, however, did not.

Keisel's fingerprints were all over one of the more bizarre stretches in the history of Heinz Field, one in which the Steelers needed just five plays and less than two minutes of possession to put together three touchdown drives.

That sequence changed everything -- maybe even the Steelers' season.

It seemed so out of place coming from a team that managed just two offensive touchdowns over its previous two games, against the Jacksonville Jaguars and Cleveland Browns, that you half expected to see cows flying over Heinz Field at halftime.

Less improbable, though maybe only slightly so given how much the NFL is a young man's game, was Keisel making more of an impact on Monday night than Watt.

Keisel hurried Texans quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick into a third-down incompletion that forced a punt with the Steelers trailing 13-3 and just less than two minutes left in the second quarter. Two plays later, Ben Roethlisberger threw a 35-yard touchdown pass to rookie wide receiver Martavis Bryant.

After a takeaway by the Steelers defense led to another quick touchdown, Keisel turned in one of the plays of the game. With just more than a minute left in the first half, Keisel redirected a Fitzpatrick pass when the Texans weren't content to run out the clock and go into the locker room trailing by four points. After Fitzpatrick's pass clanked off the face mask of linebacker Lawrence Timmons, it landed in one of Keisel's ample mitts.

He started rumbling toward the end zone and made it to the 8-yard line. Two plays later, Roethlisberger found Le'Veon Bell for a 2-yard touchdown pass with 14 seconds to spare in the second quarter.

The Texans never recovered from that barrage of points.

After the Steelers survived a late rally and an onside kick attempt that almost went in the Texans' favor, Keisel was asked if the three-minute stretch at the end of the first half, which started with a field goal at the 3:08 mark and resulted in 24 unanswered points, saved the season. "I don’t know," he said, "It's still early [in the season] -- well, about halfway."

It is late enough for Keisel to know the Steelers have to start stringing together victories.

That is why he didn't plan on allowing himself or his teammates much time to celebrate a win the Steelers had to have on Monday night.

"We can't just win and lose one, win and lose one," Keisel said. "We've got to be able to have the same urgency after a win as we have after a loss."
PITTSBURGH -- Wide receiver Martavis Bryant and nose tackle Daniel McCullers will each dress for their first NFL game when the Pittsburgh Steelers host the Houston Texans tonight at 8:30 ET.

Bryant takes the game-day roster spot of Justin Brown, who is inactive for the first time this season. McCullers, who is also a rookie, is dressing with starting nose tackle Steve McLendon out because of a shoulder injury.

The Steelers will wait another week to bring back Ryan Shazier, who has been out since spraining his right knee in a Sept. 21 game.

Shazier, who ran on the field before the game and tested his knee under the watchful eye of trainers John Norwig, joins McLendon, cornerback Ike Taylor (forearm) and Shamarko Thomas on the Steelers’ inactives list because of injuries.

The Steelers' three healthy scratches are Brown, quarterback Landry Jones and guard Chris Hubbard.

Texans outside linebacker Jadeveon Clowney will miss his sixth consecutive game because of a right knee injury. Clowney, the No. 1 overall pick of the 2014 NFL draft, tested his knee before the game but the Texans will err on the side of caution.
PITTSBURGH -- Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has generally refrained from commenting on criticism of the Pittsburgh Steelers by former coach Bill Cowher and Hines Ward, the organization's all-time leading receiver.

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He did fire back a bit at Steelers' critics in a one-on-one interview with ESPN's Lisa Salters, who will be a sideline reporter for tonight's Houston Texans-Steelers game.

"They don't know what they're talking about because they're not here so we kind of just laugh it off," Roethlisberger said. "A lot of people outside of this locker room are going to talk, are going to point fingers. We don't have time for that."

Ward leveled the strongest criticism against Roethlisberger last week, placing blame for the Steelers' offensive struggles on the veteran quarterback.

Ward said Roethlisberger's play-calling is the biggest reason why the Steelers are No. 31 in the NFL in red zone efficiency. Offensive coordinator Todd Haley said last week that Roethlisberger has called less than 30 percent of the plays this season.

Roethlisberger declined to comment directly on Ward's criticism to ESPN.com last week.

He told Salters that he looks at criticism from Ward and Cowher as coming from the media -- even with their deep ties to the Steelers' organization.

"A lot of the media likes to point fingers," Roethlisberger said, "and a lot of times they don't know what they're talking about."
PITTSBURGH -- Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback Cortez Allen will likely play a reduced role Monday night against the Houston Texans.

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Allen appears to have lost his starting job to Brice McCain and will probably be relegated to nickelback in the 8:30 ET game at Heinz Field.

Allen’s talent is undeniable but consistency has eluded the 6-foot-1, 196-pounder. The frustration that has caused among the Steelers’ coaches has led to Allen’s benching, even if it is only temporary.

I had a chance to ask Steelers defensive backs coach Carnell Lake about Allen recently and a little context about this interview: It took place after Allen had intercepted a pass against the Jacksonville Jaguars -- and played arguably his best game of the season -- and before the former fourth-round draft pick gave up a long touchdown catch in Cleveland and struggled in a loss to the Browns.

Here is what Lake said about Allen.

Is Cortez Allen where you want him to be?

CL: Not yet but we’re working on it every week. He’s making the necessary corrections quickly in order to get himself to the next level. I think if he can kind of stay focused he has the potential to be pretty good in this league.

Is he anywhere close to his ceiling?

CL: I think he’s still learning the game. I think he’s got a lot more in him just from an understanding standpoint. Athletically I’m not really concerned so much. I think he has ability to tie that with the understanding of football in general and what offenses are trying to do. With his hands and his instincts for the ball, I’m hoping when it comes together it’s going to be something where people go, ‘Wow, this is a pretty good corner.’

Is he still learning because he played at a smaller school in college?

CL: I think his athleticism at that level, playing for The Citadel, he could kind of get away and not really lock in because he just had so much more talent than a lot of people. He could put it on auto pilot and still make a lot of plays. Up here, playing against receivers like [Antonio] Brown, you’ve really got to focus because as soon as you think they’re one way they’re another way and that’s how they play the game. Schematically as well, from a big-picture standpoint, there’s a lot of that going on with offensive coordinators and they’re going to pick on a relatively new corner. They’re going to test their mettle to see if they’re paying attention.

So as a coach you are constantly telling him to stay focused as a way of becoming more consistent?

CL: I think that’s the only way to be as a corner because as soon as you lapse for a minute somebody’s making a play on you. 'Tez has a long stride, he’s playing against a variety of receivers from tall and big to short and quick. 'Tez has to learn to hone his game in to be able to have the depth to say, ‘OK, this is how I can play successfully against this type of receiver and this is how I have to change my game to be successful against this type of receiver.’ You’ve got a Steve Smith or you’ve got a Megatron [Calvin Johnson]. That’s a totally different set of skills you need to start developing. But there are some fundamentals that you can carry between those two types of receivers. He needs to strengthen those fundamental skills and also have more tools in his toolbox.
PITTSBURGH -- Knee injuries likely won’t prevent Pittsburgh Steelers free safety Mike Mitchell and defensive end Brett Keisel from playing Monday night against the Houston Texans.

Mitchell and Keisel are listed as probable for the 8:30 p.m. ET game at Heinz Field in the Steelers’ final injury report of the week.

Starting inside linebacker Ryan Shazier is listed questionable after missing the past three games because of a sprained right knee.

Safety Shamarko Thomas will miss his second consecutive game because of a hamstring injury. Starting nose tackle Steve McLendon (shoulder) and cornerback Ike Taylor (forearm) were declared out at the beginning of the week.

Texans outside linebacker Jadeveon Clowney is listed as questionable. The No. 1 overall pick of the 2014 NFL draft has missed the past five games after having early season knee surgery.

Texans coach Bill O’Brien has said Clowney will be a game-time decision.
PITTSBURGH – Pittsburgh Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau gave cornerback Cortez Allen a vote of confidence, but he also acknowledged it might do the fourth-year veteran some good to step back while he is struggling.

Allen is expected to lose snaps to Brice McCain and probably his starting job when the Steelers play the Houston Texans Monday night at Heinz Field. The two will likely flip positions, with McCain starting at left cornerback and Allen playing nickelback when the Steelers go with five defensive backs.

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The Steelers might not play a lot of nickel with shutting down Texans running back Arian Foster, the NFL’s third-leading rusher, their biggest challenge in the nationally televised game.

Coach Mike Tomlin said earlier this week that there would be some lineup changes following a 31-10 loss at Cleveland. He also said McCain is a candidate to play more because of the “inconsistency” of other players.

It didn’t take any master code-breaking to figure out that Allen is in line for a demotion, even if it is only a temporary one. Allen leads the Steelers with two interceptions but consistency has eluded him.

The 6-foot-1, 196-pounder had a tough outing against the Browns, giving up a 51-yard touchdown catch to tight end Jordan Cameron, one of the key plays in the game.

“He’s still basically a young player and he’s at a difficult position and sometimes there are ups and downs there,” LeBeau said of Allen. “I have great confidence that he’ll find himself through it and be a very strong player.”

He better.

The Steelers signed Allen to a five-year, $26 million contract right before the start of the regular season, and they need to build around the former fourth-round draft pick at cornerback.

When asked if sometimes it helps struggling plays to take a step back and watch for a week, LeBeau said, “I’m thinking that it does. We’ll see.”
PITTSBURGH – Offensive coordinator Todd Haley is well aware that the Pittsburgh Steelers have to become much more efficient when they are inside the opponents’ 20-yard line.

But Haley also reviewed where else the Steelers are squandering points, and he said he came up with more than 10 plays outside of the red zone that cost them about six points per game.

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“I did a study [Wednesday] night,” Haley said. “It’s easy to statistically point at the red zone and say we just aren’t good in the red zone. But I came up with 11 plays, getting knocked out with a sack or a penalty, in the fringe area, that we got no points. We dropped balls in the end zone that cost us four points because we had to settle for a field goal. Touchdowns came off the board against Cleveland the first game. I counted 37 points [from] non-red zone plays that you would statistically look at that we left out on the field by getting no points in most cases.

“We would take those 37 points in a heartbeat. Yes, we want to score when we get in the red zone. We want to score touchdowns. But we have to be a smart football team in that fringe field-goal area because we can’t afford not to get those three points, and we end up with zero, like it has happened too many times this season in six games.”

Haley said the study affirmed to him that the Steelers are taking the right approach offensively even though they are sixth in the NFL in total yards (396.5 yards per game) but just 23rd in scoring (20.7 points per game).

"It really did, because again, that’s just getting the minimum points. That’s not counting the times we could have scored a touchdown. That was based on kicking the ball through the uprights and taking the three points,” Haley said. “We would be averaging 26.5 points and it would match up with 400 yards per game, and we would be up there where we need to be scoring points, and we would probably have at least one, maybe two more wins.”
PITTSBURGH -- Pittsburgh Steelers defensive end Brett Keisel and starting safety Mike Mitchell did not practice on Thursday, but inside linebacker Ryan Shazier participated in drills on a limited basis for the second consecutive day.

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Keisel and Mitchell are working their way back from knee injuries, and the latter said on Wednesday that he plans on playing Monday night against the Houston Texans.

Starting nose tackle Steve McLendon (shoulder) and cornerback Ike Taylor (forearm) have already been ruled out for the 8:30 p.m. ET game at Heinz Field.

In addition to Keisel and Mitchell, fullback Will Johnson did not practice on Thursday because of an illness. Strong safety Troy Polamalu was given a veteran’s day off.

Shazier, who has missed the past three games with a sprained knee, is still limited as he tries to work his work way back to the field.

Strong safety Shamarko Thomas (hamstring) and defensive end Cameron Heyward (ankle) were also limited in practice. Heyward has said he will play against the Texans.

In Houston, linebackers Jadeveon Clowney (knee), Brian Cushing (knee), and Brooks Reed (groin) did not practice because of injuries. Cornerback Darryl Morris (ankle) also missed drills.

Running back Arian Foster (groin), wide receiver Andre Johnson (ankle), cornerback Johnathan Joseph (knee) and linebackers Mike Mohamed (calf) and Jeff Tarpinian (knee) all practiced on a limited basis.
PITTSBURGH -- Former Pittsburgh Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians did not see his forced retirement coming in 2012.

ESPN’s Tim Keown wrote an excellent profile on Arians and chronicled the winding road Arians took to a head coaching job in the NFL.

The part of the piece that will really resonate with Steelers fans is when Arians recalls getting a phone call from coach Mike Tomlin, not long after Pittsburgh had been bounced out of the playoffs by Tim Tebow and the Denver Broncos.

“I thought he was calling about a raise,” Arians told Keown. “Tells you what I know.”

After Tomlin informed Arians that his contract would not be renewed, the latter went along with the company line that Arians had decided to call it a coaching career. The Steelers eventually hired Todd Haley to take over for Arians.

When former Baltimore Ravens defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano landed the head job in Indianapolis, it also resurrected Arians’ coaching career.

He joined Pagano’s staff as an offensive coordinator and served as the interim head coach when Pagano was getting treated for leukemia.

The job that Arians did that season in Indianapolis led to his hiring by the Arizona Cardinals, and he has been one of the NFL’s most successful head coach since 2013.

Keown has a terrific statistic in his story: The Steelers were 55-25 with Arians as the offensive coordinator and they are 19-19 with Haley.

That comparison does require a little context.

The Steelers generally had really good to great defenses when Arians was the offensive coordinator from 2007-11. The Steelers have fielded middling defenses since Haley joined he organization in 2012.

As much as some want to bash Haley, it would be revisionist to suggest that Arians was beloved by Steelers fans when he was calling the plays.

It is also worth remembering that the Steelers won their share of game from 2007-11 in spite of their offense though Arians often had to make do with a banged-up offensive line.
PITTSBURGH – Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin has been patient with Markus Wheaton but that might be running a little thin after the second-year wide receiver caught just four passes last Sunday in Cleveland despite getting targeted 11 times.

Wheaton caught six passes for 97 yards against the Browns in the season opener, but he didn’t make anywhere near that impact in the second meeting between the AFC North rivals, something Tomlin bluntly pointed out on Tuesday.

“We made plays in the opener, particularly [with] Markus Wheaton being one of the central guys in that area,” Tomlin said. “We didn’t make situational plays last Sunday and that’s why we lost.”

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Wheaton was the biggest offender in that area, at least on an offense that managed just one touchdown in each of the last two games. He and Ben Roethlisberger seemed to be operating off different scripts, something that became painfully obvious to the Steelers on a critical third down early in the second quarter.

With the Steelers at the Browns’ 17-yard line and needing 3 yards for a first down, Roethlisberger whipped a pass that Wheaton wasn’t expecting in the middle of the field. A surprised Wheaton knocked it down more than anything.

Tomlin flatly characterized it as a drop, putting the onus from the lack of execution squarely on Wheaton.

Roethlisberger said before the Steelers' first practice of the week that Wheaton is still adjusting to the speed of the NFL game after playing just 152 snaps as a rookie and missing four games because of a broken finger.

“In college you can kind of wait for a receiver to come out of a break before you throw it,” Roethlisberger said. “Here you have to throw it before they come out of their break. He’s working hard to make sure he gets the proper depth, to get his hands around with his head and make the play. I know he will.”

Wheaton followed through on a promise he made after the Steelers’ 31-10 loss to the Browns. The 5-foot-11, 182-pounder showed up at the Steelers’ practice facility early Wednesday morning so he could watch film of the game with his quarterback.

“I think that speaks volumes about him wanting to get in there, wanting to learn, to be corrected,” Roethlisberger said. “I broke down every single pass play that he did and told him what I thought he did right and what he did wrong. He’s the type of guy that’s going to take that and make him better. I have all the confidence in the world that Markus will come out and be better than ever.”
PITTSBURGH -- A Pittsburgh Steelers defense that is reeling after giving up four touchdowns and 360 yards after the first quarter in a 31-10 loss to the Cleveland Browns is also banged up.

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Starting nose tackle Steve McLendon won’t play Monday night against the visiting Houston Texans because of a sprained shoulder. Starting free safety Mike Mitchell (knee) and defensive end Brett Keisel (knee) will be monitored this week in practice, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said, putting their participation Monday in question.

Keisel said after the loss to the Browns that he will be fine.

Rookie linebacker Ryan Shazier (knee) and strong safety Shamarko Thomas (hamstring) will practice in some capacity this week, Tomlin said.

Shazier, who has missed the Steelers’ last three games, practiced on a limited basis last week. There is an outside chance the first-round pick could play against the Texans.

If Shazier is unable to play Monday night, the Steelers will be missing at least four starters on defense.

With McLendon out, rookie nose tackle Daniel McCullers is likely to dress for his first game.

Defensive end Cameron Heyward hurt his ankle late in the loss to the Browns but is expected to be OK. Heyward was furious after getting chop blocked by Cleveland left tackle Joe Thomas, and after the game the fourth-year veteran said it is “cowardly” for teams to chop block.

Tomlin said Thomas’ block was a legal one even though Heyward got hurt on the play.

“He was upset, but I think his anger had to do with how the game was going as well,” Tomlin said Tuesday.
PITTSBURGH -- Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said he respects that Bill Cowher and Hines Ward have jobs to do as NFL analysts, but he shrugged off criticism of their former team after a 31-10 loss in Cleveland.

“I don’t worry about that. That’s elevator music as far as I’m concerned,” Tomlin said Tuesday at his weekly news conference. “I’m concerned about the things that are significant and that’s the men inside this organization right now and how they prepare and how they play. Love those guys, but those guys are on the outside looking in.”

Cowher, who coached the Steelers for 15 seasons before Tomlin succeeded him, said on CBS’ NFL Today on Sunday that Pittsburgh is “soft” on defense and too “finesse” on offense. Ward, the Steelers’ all-time leading receiver, said on NBC that “I look at their personnel; they can’t cover anybody in the secondary. Offensively, I thought I’d never say it, but the Steelers are a finesse offense right now. I don’t even know who these guys are.”

Tomlin and offensive coordinator Todd Haley have endured criticism from a number of different fronts with the Steelers 3-3 following consecutive 8-8 seasons.

Tomlin said he will look at making some changes in personnel but that the Steelers will largely stay the course as far as what they are doing on offense and defense from a schematic standpoint.

The Steelers are fourth in the NFL in total offense (396.5 yards per game) but just 23rd in scoring (20.7 points per game) largely because they have the second-worst red-zone offense in the league.

“Right now it’s not sweeping or drastic changes as far as who and what we are schematically,” Tomlin said. “I will look at who we utilize and where in all three phases.”

Among those players who could see increased roles Monday night against the Houston Texans are cornerback Brice McCain and rookie wide receiver Martavis Bryant.

Bryant has yet to dress for a game but the 6-4, 210-pounder has the size that could help the Steelers’ passing game when they get close to the end zone.

The Steelers have scored touchdowns just 36.8 percent of the time that they have been inside their opponents’ 20-yard line.

“We’ve got to score when we put the ball in scoring position, and we haven’t done it consistently enough and we better fix it,” Tomlin said.

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