Category Archives: Pittsburgh Steelers

An interview for the ages

I don’t know how else to say this.

If you like things that are awesome, you’ll love this interview with Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor and Steelers chairman Dan Rooney.

The fist bump at the beginning is just the start.

Who doesn’t sometimes need a 90-minute nap in the boss’s office?

I don’t think it can be embedded, so here’s the link. Enjoy

Ike Taylor interviews Dan Rooney – from Steelers.com

AFC North getting richer in NFL Draft

Two days in, I think all four AFC North teams have to be pleased with what they’ve accomplished in the NFL Draft.

You’re supposed to love your own draft, I know. But these teams have added pieces and filled needs without huge reaches, desperate trades or interesting, um, logic.

The Browns haven’t had a spectacular two-pick draft. But they’ve had a solid one, adding pieces at key position and resisting the urge to chase a quarterback who isn’t ready or mortgage future selections. The Browns are building assets, slowly, with an eye on 2014 and beyond.

The Bengals are ready to compete for the division title. They might have scored a big-time runner in Gio Bernard on Friday, a night after adding Tyler Eifert to the pass-catching mix and the pick before they got a tantalizing project of a pass rusher in Margus Hunt. Safety Shawn Williams should come game ready; he’ll need to.

There are pieces in place for a big season (or few seasons) in Cincinnati. It’s still about beating the Ravens, first, and playing like the Bengals belong, not like they’re always trying to prove that they do.

The Ravens traded up in the second round to get Arthur Brown, who must have had medical concerns to drop that far. He plays linebacker, by the way, and the Ravens just lost one of those, right? The Ravens track record says it was a gamble worth taking. They’ve added three defensive players in looking to reload, not rebuild, a defense that finally took a back seat to the offense last season — and the Ravens won a Super Bowl.

The Steelers are still the Steelers. They still need to protect Ben Roethlisberger and they still have age and money issues, but they filled needs Friday with Columbus native Le’Veon Bell at running back and an absolute flyer at receiver in Markus Wheaton, who isn’t Mike Wallace – who is? – but can be an instant impact guy.

Once upon a time, not so long ago, the Steelers got Wallace in the third round, too.

The Browns are playing for the future and drafting to eventually keep pace with the quarterbacks their division rivals have; eventually, too, they’ll get one of their own. The Steelers are trying to maximize the years their quarterback has left. The Bengals need their quarterback to be ready for the big games and big expectations ahead.

I really, really like what the Bengals have done in this draft. They — the Browns, too — need to do it every year since the Ravens and Steelers pretty much have for a long time, with few exceptions (and fewer in Baltimore).

The Ravens finally found a quarterback, and they’re the team everybody is chasing. Come fall, we’ll see if the Bengals are ready to be division royalty and if the Steelers can show that last year was simply that one year they have every now and then.

James Harrison? And the Bengals?

James Harrison? And the Bengals?

Let me try again.

James Harrison. And the Bengals?

Maybe it will happen. Apparently, the sides met this week in Cincinnati.

Harrison needs a chance to extend his career after being released by the Steelers in a move that certainly was salary related but was performance related, too. He’ll be 35 next season and isn’t the pass rusher he used to be. The Bengals feel like they’re ready to take the next step, already have a veteran locker room and — most importantly — can afford Harrison.

Even at a well reduced rate from what he’s been making, Harrison is still looking to get paid. If a team thinks he can get his body ready each week to contribute and bring his brand of violence, leadership and playmaking, it will pay him.

That James Harrison? In Cincinnati?

This is the NFL. Stranger things have happened.

Harrison has had a remarkable career, going from prop 48 and paying his own way at Kent State to undrafted to cut multiple times to NFL Europe to 2008 NFL Defensive Player of the Year, multiple-time Pro Bowler and Super Bowl hero.

Especially because the market has probably dictated that Harrison won’t get a ton of money, this potential pairing makes sense on many levels — except that the Bengals play a 4-3 base defense. They need linebackers, though, as right now at outside linebacker they have Vontaze Burfict (who might be best as a middle linebacker) and a bunch of either backups or developmental-type players. Or maybe both.

But the Bengals believe in their core, and they believe in their locker room, and they believe in the abilities of defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer to be creative and get the most out of what he has. Zimmer has never been scared of taking on a guy on his last chance, and for Harrison this almost certainly is that.

Last December, Zimmer had the Bengals playing about as well as any defense in the league. He has some tinkering to do and some guys to replace, but he has players who know him and believe in what he’s doing, too. If he sees Harrison as a rusher or as a spot player or whatever, he’ll make it work if there’s any way to make it work. Based on what we know about his other job prospects, it’s probably in Harrison’s best interests to try to make it work.

Again, stranger things have happened.

Again, it’s ALWAYS about the money. So, we’ll see.

Maybe Harrison’s body is only cut out for a certain number of snaps from here on out. Or, maybe he’ll play special teams ’til he’s 50 because football is what he knows.

For the Bengals, finding out might be a chance worth taking. Where the Bengals want to go goes through Baltimore and Pittsburgh, and even if Harrison isn’t cut out for full-go over a full season, he’ll be more than ready for those games.

Cardinals cut Beanie Wells

Akron native and former Ohio State star Chris “Beanie” Wells is now a part of the NFL’s free agent market.

The Cardinals released Wells on Monday, a day before the start of the league’s calendar year, when every team must be under the salary cap and the player movement period begins.

Wells had just 88 carries for 234 yards and 5 touchdowns last season, when he played in eight games. Keeping Wells healthy has always been an issue, though he’s just 14 months removed his only 1,000-yard season. Wells scored 10 touchdowns and ran for 1,047 yards in 2011.

The Cardinals selected him in the first round in 2009. He played in all 16 games as a rookie, averaging a career-best 4.5 yards per carry and scoring 7 touchdowns.

Wells getting a fresh start is probably a good thing for his career. More teams are running the ball by committee, and Wells is big, athletic back who doesn’t turn 25 until this summer. He won’t get a huge contract and might not be a workhorse-type runner, but he won’t be out of work for long.

The timing might be right for Wells. Beyond Steven Jackson, the free agent market for running backs lacks sizzle.

Among the teams who could take a look at Wells include the Bengals, Jets, Raiders, Cowboys, Steelers and Packers.

On Harrison, Cribbs and the free-agent market

James Harrison getting released by the Steelers was probably inevitable.

I’m not sure the Joshua Cribbs – Browns divorce had to happen, but it is clear that the parties are headed their separate ways.

A couple old Kent State guys are looking for new homes.

No, Mr. Harrison, I’m not calling you old. No sir. But age comes quickly in the NFL, and age plus a big contract leads to these decisions. Harrison will be 35 by next season, and the Steelers were over the salary cap until he was released.

Cribbs will be 30 this summer, and he’s not the same player he was two or three years ago. But money isn’t the issue here; he played for $1.4 million last year, will probably end up making about that or less for 2013, and the Browns have plenty of cap room.

Both Harrison and Cribbs have some football left. It will be interesting to see where it is played.

Among the teams that have shown in interest in talking with Cribbs when the NFL’s free agency period opens on Tuesday are the Cardinals, Cowboys, 49ers and Patriots. The kickoff return has been all but taken out of the NFL game by rule changes, but Cribbs is still a very good overall special teams player, would provide an upgrade in the return game for at least half of the league’s 32 teams and can be a utility player/backup receiver.

Even if he doesn’t return any kickoffs for touchdowns, a healthy Cribbs will give a team a healthy return on a $1 million investment.

We don’t really know what the Browns are thinking and/or planning in any regard, because they’ve been holed up and apparently are using extra-secure phone lines to make whatever free agency calls they’re making. All we know is new coach Rob Chudzinski knows Cribbs from his first stint with the Browns, new offensive coordinator Norv Turner has coached against him, and Chudzinski retained special teams coordinator Chris Tabor from the previous regime.

Clearly, the Browns had a full evaluation of Cribbs and chose to let him walk. If the evaluation is that he can’t play the way he used to play, that’s their evaluation and they’re right to move on. If there are any other reasons or motives involved, like Cribbs’ penchant for speaking up when the Browns don’t win or he doesn’t get the ball — or if Joe Banner is afraid of any player questioning Joe Banner — then the Browns are taking a risk. The NFL is a business on every level, but the Browns don’t have enough good players to be in the business of letting productive ones walk.

Again, we can only guess on the reason. We can only guess, too, that Cribbs would have even taken a home-team discount given his tenure with the team and how he could benefit down the road from having played his whole career in Cleveland. If it’s a football decision, it’s one of the first of many that the Browns had better get right. If it’s a decision based on anything else, I’m not sure it’s a smart one.

If you don’t think every NFL player is selfish (to a degree) and treats this league like the business at is, try asking one to take a pay cut. Even a miniscule one.

Which is why James Harrison is back on the job market for the first time since the last time the Steelers cut him.

Next.

While the teams listed above have reached out to Cribbs’ agent this weekend, I’m strictly guessing with Harrison. The 49ers make sense because they play a 3-4 defense and have a championship-level team. The Ravens make sense because they’re losing Paul Kruger in free agency, probably, and their defensive coordinator, Dean Pees, was Harrison’s college coach.

Harrison knows Browns defensive coordinator Ray Horton and the Browns are switching to a 3-4, but it doesn’t appear likely a 35-year old would be in the Browns plans. Again, we don’t know. But Harrison the pass-rush specialist seems more likely than Harrison the mentor, doesn’t it?

Maybe the Patriots will call. Maybe the Colts. Maybe the Saints. Probably, teams will wait, make sure Harrison is of sound mind and body and explore their options after the first wave of free agency. Maybe even after that. You’re not signing Harrison for minicamp and OTAs.

I suspect the Steelers have a fear that he has one very good year left, but they were left with little choice. It seems that now, some playoff team is going to pay $3 million or so (plus incentives) to find out.

Will Cribbs get run in his last run?

I’d expect Joshua Cribbs to play some quarterback today for the Browns, who can’t expect to move the ball at all on the Steelers by handing it off to running backs not named Trent Richardson and dropping quarterback Thaddeus Lewis back to pass.

Then again, I expected Cribbs to get more touches all season.

We’ve seen this movie before — specifically the one where the Browns end the season in Pittsburgh with backups playing and the Steelers feasting. The night before Bruce Gradkowski played the 2008 finale, then-general manager Phil Savage was informed he would be let go, about ten months after signing a contract extension that went through, ironically, today’s game.

The day after that 2008 finale, head coach Romeo Crennel was let go. He, too, had signed an extension after that 10-win season in 2007.

While the Browns played in Pittsburgh that day, then-team president Mike Keenan sent orders back to staffers in Berea to get rid of reminders of Savage and Crennel, specifically symbolic ropes that were placed outside the locker room and at the players’ entrance. Now, of course, the Browns are on their third president since Keenan.

Monday, the newest new era — the one with new owner Jimmy Haslam and CEO Joe Banner — begins. We think we know how it begins, too, in regard to the head coach and general manager.

Cribbs is eligible for free agency in March and turns 30 in June, and though he’s not the same player he once was, he should go to the market and/or the next phase of his career fresh. There’s a chance he’ll get more touches today than he has all season — and there’s certainly a chance that a Steelers team that’s seen what Cribbs can do and figures to be in the market for a veteran backup receiver and kick return help will be a suitor. That would make for a heck of a story.

Today, though, the Browns will try to survive with Lewis, apparently. As for what tomorrow brings, never be surprised by anything that happens in Berea in late December and January.

The importance* of all these NFL roster moves

Some of them are obvious. The Browns might need a quarterback — or, even scarier, quarterbacks! — for Sunday’s season finale in Pittsburgh, so they’ve made moves this week involving placing players on injured-reserve, promoting them from the practice squad and bringing them off the emergency list.

The Browns are experienced in such scenarios, sadly, but it’s happening throughout the NFL.

Why do so many NFL teams make so many roster moves at this time of year, when less than half the league is actually playing for something? Partially because the remaining games still have to be played, but mostly because all 32 teams are coming back to play next year.

The Steelers put three players on IR Wednesday morning and added three to replace them, all of whom had spent time on the Steelers practice squad. Besides making sure they have 46 healthy bodies for Sunday’s game, the playing-for-nothing Steelers can get game experience for young players and make evaluations off that film that can’t be made otherwise.

In the case of now-on-IR cornerback Ike Taylor and Steelers, it seems the Steelers would have loved to have him back for a must-win game or certainly for a playoff game, but being eliminated last week made it easier to shut him down for the season.  The Steelers can use this week to evaluate more than a few guys who wouldn’t be playing if Sunday’s game had postseason meaning.

The situation is a little trickier with the Browns because we don’t know who’s going to be calling the shots in regards to the roster next week, let alone next season. But in the case of Nordonia High and Northwestern alum Jordan Mabin, signed to the practice squad Wednesday, it’s about more than three practices this week and one paycheck.

He can make an impression. So, too, can some players who will be in action in Heinz Field Sunday — guys who probably wouldn’t be if the Browns didn’t have both starting safeties on IR and didn’t have a bunch of other shuffling to do. What Mabin — an undrafted rookie who went to camp last summer with the Ravens — and the other practice squad players can hope for is a chance to be signed to a futures contract sometime in the next couple month, and get the (non-guaranteed) chance to go through a team’s offseason program that comes with it.

Pro free agency doesn’t start until March, but guys who are unsigned now or at the end of a season can be added at any time.  In some cases, teams make IR moves in late December and sign players to two-year contracts to ensure — again, there are no sure things in the NFL — they’ll get to have them on the initial offseason roster as depth is built at each position group.

Throughout the season, some practice squad players face decisions to sign with other teams on the active roster — often in an emergency/temporary situation — or stay with the teams they know, teams that know them, and take their chances. Some are looking for a quick buck, as active roster paychecks are much larger than practice squad checks. Some are looking for a long-term home and have to rely on coaches and personnel staffs who already know them, and vice-versa.

For another example, the Bengals were willing to place Dre Kirkpatrick on IR on Tuesday and claim Dane Sanzenbacher off waivers to get him in, let him learn their system and evaluate how he might fit for 2013. It’s hard to imagine Sanzenbacher helping the Bengals this season, even if they win a playoff game or two.

Teams used to focus more on getting players signed to futures contracts so they could be sent to NFL Europe in the spring, evaluated on game film and then come to training camp under roster exemptions. Those exemptions disappeared when NFL Europe did, but the training camp roster size is now back to 90.

To coaches and personnel folks, all 90 count. There are enough out-of-nowhere success stories to suggest that they really do count.

Way more often than not, life at the bottom of an NFL roster is short-lived. Players have to act accordingly and take the money and opportunity while they can. Teams — especially ones at the bottom of the talent food chain — have to try to maximize every opportunity they get.

Moment(s) of truth for Bengals, plus a TV note

The Bengals would like a sold out crowd and local TV coverage for their Dec. 30 season finale vs. the Ravens, and the team put the word out Monday that it’s “optimistic we can have a full house.”

What will be at stake in that game? That depends mostly on the Bengals.

At 9-5 with two games left, the Bengals trail the Ravens by a game in the AFC North Division and are one game up on the Steelers in the race for the AFC’s second wild card spot. The Bengals are at Pittsburgh this weekend in a game they need very badly.

There are still scenarios to sort through and important games to be played, none more important than the Bengals trying to win in Pittsburgh for the first time since 2009. If the Bengals lose to the Steelers and the Colts — who, at 10-4, currently hold the first wild card — win one of their last two, the Bengals would need to beat the Ravens and have the Browns win in Pittsburgh in the season finale to make the playoffs.

Baltimore at Cincinnati shapes up as a candidate to be flexed to Sunday Night Football given the potential of it being a division championship game, though it’s unlikely it would be chosen over a meaningful Cowboys-Redskins game. That’s just how things work in TV.

Week 17 games don’t have to be flexed until next Monday, the only exception to the NFL’s usual 12-day rule for such announcements and moves.

The Bengals have sold out five of seven home games this year. The team also announced Monday it’s sending invoices to season-ticket holders in advance of a possible home playoff game if the Bengals win out and the Ravens lose to the Giants next Sunday, the only scenario in which the Bengals can win the AFC North.

They can clinch a playoff spot if the Jets lose tonight in Tennessee, the Ravens lose to the Giants and the Bengals win in Pittsburgh.

The moments of truth are here, and the Bengals can play their way in by finally beating the divison rivals they’ve been chasing.

AFC playoff race pointing to the North

The AFC playoff race has basically become a race for one spot.

Mathematically, that race includes the 5-8 Cleveland Browns.

The Bengals fell apart in the fourth quarter Sunday; the Steelers apparently didn’t show up. Those teams both lost to slip to 7-6 and remain tied for sixth and the second wild card spot.

The Colts put together another rally to win and move to 9-4 and strengthen their grip on the first wild card spot. They’re not only arguably the NFL’s best story, but they’re darn close to being a playoff lock as they’re two games up on the Bengals and Steelers with three games to play.

The Bengals and Steelers play on Dec. 23 in Pittsburgh. You don’t need to have stayed at a Holiday Inn Express last night to do that math, even if the Colts do run out of Luck — see what I did there? — some time soon.

As for the Browns, they’re two back with three to play, one in Pittsburgh. Lots would have to happen that probably won’t, but they play the Steelers in Pittsburgh in the season finale. If Dallas can beat the Steelers next week and the Bengals lose Thursday night in Philly, it officially gets interesting.

That assumes the Browns winning next Sunday vs. the Redskins and winning out, but it’s now been so long since the Browns lost that assuming such things will no longer get you institutionalized.

Maybe the Mayans were right.

Buffalo is Sunday’s real loser as the Bills showed their true colors and dropped a home game to the Rams, slipping to 5-8. In this year’s AFC, a win would have had them right in it.

The Jets are 6-7 and very much* in it. They would need to win out, have the Bengals lose in Philly, then beat Pittsburgh, then have the Ravens beat the Bengals. It’s plausible because the Jets’ three remaining opponents are the Titans, Chargers and Bills.

It’s just not likely because the Jets aren’t very good. In the Mayan-like event that the Jets, Browns and some other team end up tied, the first tiebreaker is AFC record. It would then come down to common games, common victories and, well, the Mayan calculator died the same day the calendar did.

The Bengals cost themselves in a big way Sunday; with a win, they’d have been one game back of the first-place Ravens. Simultaneous events in Indianapolis and Pittsburgh set up a race that’s probably going to be two teams playing for one spot, probably Dec. 23 in Pittsburgh in a game the Bengals have to have since they already lost to the Steelers once.

Most, but not all signs point to that Dec. 23 game being a one-game playoff.

But in Cleveland, hope lives. Mathematically, anyway, and if Robert Griffin III is hurt and the Bengals happen to lose Thursday, hope lives. Sort of.

Bengals add kicker, waive Faine

The Bengals have added a kicker — and waived a familiar name.

Veteran center Jeff Faine is now a free agent again as the Bengals signed veteran kicker Josh Brown. Mike Nugent’s calf injury is enough of a concern that the Bengals tried out some kickers on Wednesday and signed Brown in time to have him for Thursday’s practice.

Faine, signed just before the season after Kyle Cook’s foot injury, immediately stepped in at center and stabilized the line. But he battled hamstring issues, and rookie Trevor Robinson had come on and started the last four games. Cook is on the injured-reserve but designated for return list, and he’s back at practice.

All Marvin Lewis would say this week is that Cook has “done well” in his return to work.

It’s that time of year for nicks and bruises and teams having to scramble to have enough healthy bodies, and having a healthy kicker is obviously a priority. With Cedric Peerman injured, the Bengals promoted rookie running back Daniel “Boom” Herron from the practice squad earlier this week.

Health is an even bigger priority for the 7-5 Bengals now not only because they’re tied with the Steelers for the AFC’s final wildcard spot, but because they play Dallas Sunday then play at Philadelphia five days later. There’s not much margin for error — or much time to wait if there’s reason to think a player might not be healthy enough to play.