AFC North: Pittsburgh Steelers

Pittsburgh's Ryan ShazierPeter G. Aiken/Getty Images"I see myself as a linebacker," Ryan Shazier said. "If the team needs me to do anything, I can do it."

PITTSBURGH -- The way players recall it, Mike Tomlin teased that Ryan Shazier wasn't among the 10 fastest Pittsburgh Steelers, so linebacker Vince Williams told him Shazier was indeed the fastest.

That exchanged prompted the foot race that hyped the locker room last week. Shazier, a 240-pound linebacker, outran receivers Antonio Brown, Markus Wheaton and Sammie Coates in the 40 by a convincing margin.

"I just know a lot of people respect my speed now," said Shazier, who added that Darrius Heyward-Bey is the undisputed speedster on the team. "Some might be scared to race [me now]."

Shazier's "certified freak" status widens the potential for a breakout performance in his third NFL season. When healthy, Shazier is the prototypical linebacker for today's NFL. He has the speed to cover receivers and tight ends downfield, the quick burst to rush the passer and the willingness to shoot a rushing gap for a tackle at the line of scrimmage.

The Shazier experiment has taken time to launch. Injuries forced him to miss a combined 11 games in 2014-15 and 2015-16. As a rookie, Shazier was sometimes in the wrong spots while trying to force a big play.

Now, he is cleaning those things up, and he has earned the trust of defensive coordinator Keith Butler, who tasked Shazier with calling the defense in the huddle late in the previous season. Shazier feels like "kind of the voice of the defense" from play to play, he said.

His speed is there, but it's not all about that. Shazier knows mastering the nuances of the game will take his play to a new level before anything else.

"I definitely feel I was starting to peak at the end of last year," Shazier said. "I was starting to understand things a lot better. I just feel more at home in my decision-making."

As Williams sees it, Shazier gets too much credit for his speed because often he's making plays -- including 87 tackles, two forced fumbles and an interception in 2015-16 -- with his mind.

Shazier wants to be aggressive, but going full speed can get him into trouble, as he realized early in his career. Unless they are chasing down a player, Steelers linebackers are reading and reacting before sprinting.

"He's not running 4.3 every play out there," Williams said. "He's just a good all-around linebacker. He's a big, physical [linebacker] who can play in the A gap and play inside the box, then he's extremely rangy and athletic and [can] cover those athletic tight ends."

The operative word is "linebacker." Shazier considers himself a linebacker first -- not the hybrid safety/linebacker that recent NFL drafts have popularized. Butler acknowledges that constant three-receiver sets from offenses can blur the line between safety and linebacker. Basically, the more guys who can cover like a defensive back on the field at once, the better. Sometimes, NFL teams draft a safety who is more like a smaller, quicker linebacker, so they move him closer to the line of scrimmage.

Shazier sort of looks like that hybrid model, at 6-foot-1 without the bulk of some players at his position. But he makes clear that he wants to be a throwback, nasty tackler.

"I see myself as a linebacker," Shazier said. "If the team needs me to do anything, I can do it."

The team will need a whole lot if Shazier is to help fulfill his plans for the defense.

"We feel we can be one of the best," he said.

Bud DupreeKirby Lee/Kirby Lee-USA TODAY SportsEntering his second season with the Steelers, linebacker Bud Dupree says he hopes to be more explosive and rack up more sacks.

The Pittsburgh Steelers' draft strategy is taking shape. They are traveling the country at various pro days, spending significant time with cornerback Mackensie Alexander in Clemson and cornerback William Jackson III in Houston. Mike Tomlin even tried icing FSU kicker Roberto Aguayo between 50-yard attempts. Pre-draft visits have begun, including Duke defensive back Jeremy Cash. Here's to guessing the Steelers visit West Virginia's pro day next week to check out safety Karl Joseph.

However, nothing the Steelers do in the next month will be as important as the development of outside linebacker Bud Dupree, the No. 22 overall pick in last year's draft who played valuable snaps in 2015 but couldn't avoid his collision with the rookie wall. Despite a few bright moments, Dupree went sackless in his final 10 games (he had four total sacks in 2015). "I feel I could have had way more sacks," Dupree said. "My expectations are high," Dupree told me late last season. "I felt I should have had more sacks, should have made more plays."

That feeling should carry Dupree through the offseason at a critical time for the Steelers' defense. Yes, Pittsburgh needs corners. They need a safety, too. But at least there are three defensive backs expected to be starting for the next few years -- William Gay, Mike Mitchell and Senquez Golson. At No. 25 overall, there's no guarantee the team will get one of the draft's top-three corners. Trading up isn't the Steelers' style.

At Dupree's outside linebacker spot, Jarvis Jones enters the final year of his rookie contract with hardly a guarantee the team will pick up his fifth-year option, James Harrison is 37 and unconfirmed to return for a 14th season. Arthur Moats is a valuable rotation rusher but not expected to start long term.

The Dupree experiment has to work, more so than any other piece on the defense. The consensus was Dupree "fell" to the Steelers at No. 22 overall. If Dupree's truly a top-15 talent, the next two years will set the stage for his transition from role player to anchor.

Dupree seems eager to accept the challenge, telling he's training for explosion this offseason and spending time in a hyperbaric chamber to enhance endurance.

"I try to use my get-off as an advantage and my speed and quickness," Dupree said. "I try to be the most explosive person on the field. I want to work on getting faster, stronger."

During the season, Dupree seemed bummed he couldn't train for live NFL action as much as he'd hoped, immersed in a world of 40-yard dashes and three-cone drills until May.

Now that Dupree has a full slate, let's see what he can do with Year 2. Last season, Dupree showed his combination of strength and speed but also had moments where he was flushed out of a play. Often, tackles would force him far wide, and suddenly he's nowhere near the action. Part of Dupree's training will likely include the refinement of counter moves and the one trait that makes many pass-rushers so great -- bend-ability off the edge.

Eric Weddle is a dynamite fit for the Pittsburgh Steelers' defense. Just ask right tackle Marcus Gilbert.

The problem would be money. Weddle can command a lot of it, and the Steelers are less inclined than most to spend on free agency. They align more with the Patriots, Packers and others -- build through the draft, use free agency for extra toppings on the shake. The Steelers are frugal spenders outside of their own players. Giving new tight end Ladarius Green $4.75 million in signing bonus money isn't a common thing for them.

But it seems Weddle wants to play for a contender, and reports say there are four teams in play.

Are the Steelers one of the four?

This is what we know: They've at least called Weddle's reps to check on Weddle. Might just be a feeler. Might be more. I think they are players to some extent. If Weddle draws a bidding war, I don't think the Steelers would go crazy.

But if they can make this happen, perhaps coach Mike Tomlin was setting the stage for all this back in October. Read about Tomlin's affection for Weddle before the Week 5 matchup with the Chargers:

"I love Eric Weddle, always have. He's so versatile. He's a sub-package linebacker. He plays strong safety. He plays free safety. He plays half-field, middle of the field. They blitz him. He's a do-everything type of a player, and a good one."

Tomlin gives detailed scouting reports on many players each week during the season, but he's also a smart guy -- he knew back in October the Steelers had safety issues alongside Mike Mitchell, and he knew Weddle would be available in the spring.

Look, the Steelers have options here. The signing of Green frees them up to draft regardless of need, and they came away impressed with Ohio State defensive backs Vonn Bell and Eli Apple at the Buckeyes' pro day Friday. There's also been talk of moving fourth-rounder Doran Grant to safety -- they are playing him at corner but believe he could be a hybrid option. And if Shamarko Thomas can ever clean up his neck-up game, the natural ability is there.

But at the least, the Steelers are intrigued by Weddle, who would give the defense a ton of flexibility and alleviate pressure off the corners. Tomlin implied as much himself.

Stay tuned on this. I don't think the Steelers/Weddle concept is dead by any stretch.

Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell received support from an unexpected source as he rehabs from a season-ending knee injury he suffered last November.

Vontaze Burfict, the controversial Cincinnati Bengals linebacker who injured Bell with a tackle in last season's meeting in Pittsburgh, sent Bell a private message Tuesday night offering his support. Earlier in the day, Bell tweeted a picture of himself running on a treadmill for the first time since the serious injury.

"Good to see you back running," Burfict said to Bell in a private Twitter message, "see you next year, bruh."

Bell publicized the direct message Wednesday afternoon when he tweeted to his followers a screenshot of the brief conversation. Adding the "100" emoji, Bell clearly appreciated Burfict's acknowledgement of this latest step in his recovery.

It was at the end of an 8-yard pass last November when Burfict caught Bell and wrestled him down. After the game, the Steelers learned the running back tore his MCL. During a post-game session with reporters, some Steelers took exception to the way Burfict hopped up immediately after the tackle and ran to the middle of the field to celebrate the stop with a teammate.

"He's that type of guy. That type of guy gets his sooner or later. So, wait and see, I guess," Steelers offensive lineman Ramon Foster said of Burfict. "If you're on the field with him, you know what I mean by that. They'll play it off, he'll act dumb about it. But you don’t run across the field hyped, celebrating, jumping up and down when a guy goes down like that."

Burfict later said it wasn't his intent to injure Bell and that he didn't know the player was hurt when he ran off to celebrate the stop. Having just returned from his own serious knee injury, Burfict was playing in his first game in more than a year. To him, the second-quarter tackle was a sign he was back and he wanted to celebrate.

After his role in two other contentious Bengals-Steelers meetings later in the season, Burfict was suspended in January for three games of the 2016 season. Along with the suspension, he has been fined six times and drawn 16 personal-foul penalties in his four-year career.

In a meeting last month with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, Burfict was told he needed to start better respecting his opponents.

"His info with me is I have to care about my opponent," Burfict told ESPN's Josina Anderson in a televised interview that ran this week. "And I understand where he's coming from. Because if you care about your opponent, you'll probably play cleaner."

Chad JohnsonPhoto courtesy of Chad JohnsonChad Johnson has been a NFL team pastor for 13 years, nine with the Arizona Cardinals and the last four with Pittsburgh.

Chad Johnson isn't ever really on the clock. He doesn't have a time sheet. The Pittsburgh Steelers don't pay his salary. But there's Johnson every season, fielding 2 a.m. calls from players who might need guidance, a chance to vent about a family issue, legal trouble, whatever.

He's prayed over shattered knees, broken legs, dislocated shoulders. This time of year, he's following up with players who expressed interest in making a mission trip to Haiti. All this is done on the side from the usual in-season services -- Saturday night chapel, pregame prayers, couples ministry for players and coaches once a week, coach-specific Bible study on Fridays.

The life of an NFL team pastor is far from glamorous, but Johnson has proven his worth with 13 years in the league, nine with the Arizona Cardinals and the last four with Pittsburgh after Mike Tomlin recruited him. He also pastors the Los Angeles Dodgers for spring training.

The job description for Johnson, 38, is simple: Teach the Bible, add the "life" element to the football grind. On game days, he quietly roams the sideline. But his work is done well before kickoff.

"These guys need somebody that's not just football that they can trust that isn't weighing their stat sheet or looking at their performance and equating value to their performance," Johnson said. "Hopefully I could provide a breath of fresh air in a very pressurized situation."

A Southwest New Mexico native turned point guard at Arizona Christian University, Johnson got his NFL break when former Cardinals coach Denny Green told a mutual friend he was looking for a "reverend." Johnson was the recommendation.

He's funded by the missionary group Athletes in Action. Everything he does inside the Steelers' walls is optional for players and coaches. Johnson said most team pastors are not paid by the team, though the Steelers cover certain expenses during the season.

NFL teams are mandated to accommodate expression of worship within the team context. Johnson fulfills that role, though he adds there are appropriate channels and resources for non-Christians, as the Steelers "respect whatever belief system anybody has."

The Steelers' locker room includes many practicing Christians. As Johnson estimates, about 30 to 35 players and coaches regularly attend his chapel services. Johnson can't talk about his personal relationships with specific players because of confidentiality/trust issues.

Technically, Johnson isn't part of the team. But it doesn't feel that way.

Chad JohnsonPhoto courtesy of Chad JohnsonThere are several ways pastor Chad Johnson interacts and works with the Steelers, including pregame prayer, couples ministry and Bible study.

"Coach Tomlin has fully integrated me, made me basically a part of the coaching staff, allows me to be fully accessible for the guys at all times," said Johnson, who also spent time with the New York Giants during their Super Bowl XLVI run. "Coach Tomlin is an avid supporter. He believes in it. He's really the reason why I'm there. I do think that's a big part of his values. He looks for well-rounded men in all aspects of life."

All parties involved needed high character to get through a 2015 season that saw injuries to several key players. The season involved "a lot of praying, a lot of talking, a lot of reasoning with the guys," Johnson said.

For couples' studies, a different player each week will host teammates and their spouses at his home. The group caters food while Johnson provides guidance on how to maximize the married experience.

"The trenches, for me, is more so in the personal discipleship or mentorship," Johnson said. "Most of my time is spent with players."

During teaching time, Johnson reminds players of their unique platform and the potential pitfalls of NFL fame. He offers them context to Philippians 4:13, a popular Bible verse among professional athletes -- "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me." The verse applies to contentment in all circumstances, not how many sacks you can get in a season.

"I don't treat them like they are stars, but people," Johnson said. "As an athlete, you get served all the time. It's easy to develop a serve-me mindset, even if they aren't selfish guys, because they are used to that either day. So when guys serve others, I light up."

For Johnson, the reward comes not from wins on the field, but when players start families or get involved in their church.

He wants those 2 a.m. calls.

"That reminds me, 'Yes, I'm here for a reason,'" Johnson said.

PITTSBURGH – The Pittsburgh Steelers wish they were still playing, but the playoff exit gives several key players the chance to heal.

Six Steelers will have offseason arthroscopic surgeries, according to coach Mike Tomlin, including five starters.

The list and the length of recovery: safety Mike Mitchell (left shoulder, four-month recovery), punter Jordan Berry (right shoulder, four months), linebacker Ryan Shazier (knee, a few weeks), tight end Matt Spaeth (knee, a few weeks), guard David DeCastro (ankle, a few weeks), offensive tackle Marcus Gilbert (ankle, a few weeks).

Mike MitchellAP Photo/Don WrightSafety Mike Mitchell will be out four months after surgery to repair his left shoulder.

Arthroscopic surgeries are not considered major for a player’s long-term health.

More serious injuries to center Maurkice Pouncey (fibula) running back Le'Veon Bell (torn MCL) and left tackle Kelvin Beachum (torn ACL) have progressed according to plan, Tomlin said. All three players missed the season with those injuries.

Running back DeAngelo Williams does not need surgery on the foot injury that sidelined him for two playoff games.

“The necessary time to restore their bodies, that’s an element to this,” Tomlin said about a successful offseason.

The Steelers won 10 regular-season games and advanced to the AFC divisional round despite injuries to several key players.

Tomlin recognizes the fight in his team, but he’s still “disappointed” in the team’s season, for one reason.

“When we said to be world champion is our goal, we meant it,” Tomlin said.

Tomlin is conducting player exit interviews and evaluating his roster and coaching staff, which he says he wants back in its entirety.

PITTSBURGH -- Ben Roethlisberger doesn't scramble as much as he used to, but that's in part because the scrambling isn't necessary. The Pittsburgh Steelers' quarterback lets his arm strength guide each play. He made a few throws in this year's practices that looked like they came straight from the pitching mound. That 50-yard attempt he threw to Markus Wheaton to open the Denver game Sunday was five yards over Wheaton's head, the sign of an amped quarterback with a huge arm.

So it's no surprise how Roethlisberger answered when asked during his weekly appearance on 93.7 The Fan Pittsburgh about his offseason goals.

Ben RoethlisbergerChristopher Hanewinckel/USA TODAY SportsBen Roethlisberger said he's going to work on his arm strength as he recovers from a separated shoulder he suffered during the playoffs.

Roethlisberger feels he's playing his best football, and he wants to preserve it.

"For me, I want to keep my arm strong," Roethlisberger said. "I felt like it’s been, last year and this year, the strongest it’s been. I’m going to keep working on arm strength and quick release. That’s key to being successful at the quarterback position."

The arm strength has aided Roethlisberger's accuracy. His completion percentages of 67.1 and 68.0 the past two seasons were the best of his career. Part of that is offensive coordinator Todd Haley's system being friendly to Roethlisberger's skill set, but Roethlisberger certainly deserves credit for those numbers.

Roethlisberger's exact methods for arm strengthening are uncertain. Throwers can improve their arm with refined mechanics, upper-body-specific stretching, core workouts and Jobe exercises for shoulder strength, among many options. Roethlisberger told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in the 2014 offseason that he planned to work rigorously with a personal trainer.

As the Steelers navigate the process of turning a very good team to a great one, keeping the heater fresh is crucial, especially as Roethlisberger turns 34 in March and played through a separated shoulder during the playoffs.

What will help Roethlisberger is improved protection. Roethlisberger mentioned this on 93.7, citing the impact of offensive line coach Mike Munchak. Roethlisberger's ratio of 1.66 sacks per game in 2015 was the best of his career.

"I feel like I’m playing my best football," Roethlisberger said. "That’s a big credit to the guys around me."

Roosevelt NixCharlie Riedel/AP PhotoThe Steelers re-signed fullback Roosevelt Nix, who made three starts in 2015.

PITTSBURGH -- Roosevelt Nix is quite the story. He went from undrafted linebacker out of Kent State in 2014 to a starting fullback for the Pittsburgh Steelers, fresh off a one-year contract extension.

That extension came Tuesday, as the team announced the signings of Nix and reserve offensive guard Chris Hubbard, who has played in eight games from 2014-15 after spending the previous season on the practice squad.

Nix played in 15 games in 2015, making three starts and recording eight tackles on special teams. The Steelers still value the fullback position when many teams have gone without one.

The team also signed 10 players to reserve/futures contracts: safety Jordan Dangerfield, offensive tackle Matt Feiler, center/guard B.J. Finney, defensive back Isaiah Frey, tight end Xavier Grimble, defensive end Caushaud Lyons, running back Rajion Neal, wide receiver Shakim Phillips, running back Abou Toure and safety Ray Vinopal, the only player of the bunch who wasn't on the Steelers' practice squad in 2015.

The Steelers didn't wait long after the heartbreaking playoff loss to Denver to get busy with transactions.

James Harrison, Ronnie HillmanHelen Richardson/The Denver Post via Getty ImagesJames Harrison was disruptive in a platoon role at outside linebacker for the Steelers this season.

PITTSBURGH -- After watching James Harrison in Sunday's loss to the Broncos, it's hard to think that he couldn't help the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2016.

Harrison was disruptive. He sacked Peyton Manning, which rarely happens. He had three tackles for a loss and seven tackles and was in the Broncos' backfield more than any other Steeler.

The 38-year-old Harrison would provide a spark for the defense in a part-time role, but Harrison's future job prospects are more complicated than simply assessing his on-field ability.

The Steelers and Harrison each must answer one important question before next season.

For the Steelers, it's this: Will Harrison's presence stunt the growth of first-round pass rushers Bud Dupree and Jarvis Jones?

For Harrison, it's this: Does he want to go through the grind again? Harrison admitted to reporters Monday that if he knew that, "I wouldn't be sitting here trying to figure out what I'm going to do." At the center of Harrison's evaluation seems to be his willingness to maintain his maniacal training regimen in the offseason.

"In season, that's the easy part," Harrison said.

Harrison finished the season with 40 tackles, five sacks, two forced fumbles and one interception. Those are solid numbers. In fact, that was the best regular-season stat line among the four rotation pass rushers.

It goes beyond numbers with Harrison, though. The Steelers must decide whether Dupree and Jones -- who were disruptive in two playoff games -- should play every down, or at least most of the game. The Steelers still have Arthur Moats as a versatile option. Perhaps they want to roll with the four-man crew, which would make Harrison's return a no-brainer, while possibly weaving in sixth-round pick Anthony Chickillo.

Harrison looms large in the locker room and on the field as an embodiment of the hard-edged 2000s Steelers teams. Would that presence affect Jones and Dupree as they try to develop their NFL personalities through trial and error? It doesn't have to -- in fact, both players say Harrison has been helpful to their careers -- but that could be an inadvertent effect because Harrison can still produce. These are the things general manager Kevin Colbert and coach Mike Tomlin will likely discuss. Tomlin generally favors the leadership of trusted veterans, so he could be in Harrison's corner here.

Harrison didn't learn anything new about his game. He played his role well and had fun doing it, he said. He told his younger teammates to "remember the feeling" of a playoff loss.

"It's not a guarantee you'll get back to that point," Harrison said.

Harrison isn't sure if he's willing to find out firsthand.

"I’m not ready to make a decision," Harrison said. "When that time comes, you guys will hear about it, I guess."

Let everyone know when you're ready, James.

CINCINNATI -- The throwdown at Paul Brown Stadium was the type of game that either galvanizes a team or buries it.

The Pittsburgh Steelers are about to find out which category they fall into.

After 60 minutes of haymakers, a $100 million shoulder to the turf, concussion protocols, helmets to the head, back-of-the-leg touchdown catches, Steelers assistant coaches barking at Bengals and insane momentum shifts, the Steelers left Cincinnati bruised and battered before Sunday's AFC divisional round game against Denver. Pittsburgh's two best players, Ben Roethlisberger (shoulder) and Antonio Brown (concussion), are now questionable.

Bontaze Burfict, Antonio BrownAaron Doster/USA TODAY SportsAntonio Brown (84) suffered a concussion after taking a helmet-to-helmet hit from Cincinnati's Vontaze Burfict (55).

At least the Steelers had a heckuva time -- when they weren't freaked out.

"That's probably the funnest, scariest game I've been in," said linebacker Ryan Shazier, who prolonged the Steelers' season with a strip of Jeremy Hill late in Pittsburgh's 18-16 AFC wild-card win.

You know it was a wild game when Vontaze Burfict running through the tunnel and all the way to his locker room after a fourth-quarter interception is about the eighth-most newsworthy item of the night. The game was bonkers.

The Steelers have found ways to win games such as this. They can take the pounding. They can take the hits. They can roll with the wild swings of a game. The defense, despite playing brilliantly for three quarters, looked uncomfortable defending the pass late, and the Bengals marched downfield twice. Even so, the Steelers got the ball back to the offense when the game appeared over.

"We didn't break," linebacker Jarvis Jones said.

What they can't do, however, is survive a playoff run without Roethlisberger, who gave no indication after the game of the severity of his injury. Guard David DeCastro said the injury looked "pretty bad," which made him wonder if Roethlisberger had a sprained AC joint, similar to Tony Romo's recent injury. If Big Ben's injury is anything close to Romo's, his chances to perform are not good.

"I'm going to give everything I can, like I always do," Roethlisberger said of playing in Denver.

This year's Steelers average 22.4 points per game when Roethlisberger doesn't start, compared to 28.3 points when he does. Entering Saturday, Roethlisberger had thrown 454 of the Steelers' past 458 pass attempts in the playoffs.

Landry Jones instilled little confidence with his 2-of-5, 11-yard relief performance that included an interception to Burfict. Perhaps a full week of prep would help him, but the Steelers would be two-score underdogs without Roethlisberger -- and especially so without Brown.

Unlike the Bengals, the Broncos won't gift wrap 30 yards of penalties in the game's final seconds. After Cincinnati made up a 15-0 deficit, there was no reason the Bengals shouldn't win. But the Steelers will take the victory, especially considering Roethlisberger finished the game while unable to throw the ball more than 10 yards.

"You can never lose hope," safety Mike Mitchell said.

This whole season has been a prize fight for Pittsburgh, which is constantly dealing with physical play and injuries. The Steelers seem to thrive off the resilience required to shake those issues and win games.

That process is getting increasingly difficult.

Antonio BrownGregory Shamus/Getty Images The Steelers got the best of the Broncos in their Dec. 20 meeting, which gives Pittsburgh confidence going into Sunday's rematch.

CINCINNATI -- Here are three reasons the Pittsburgh Steelers can beat the Denver Broncos on Sunday in the AFC divisional round playoff game at Mile High Stadium (4:40 p.m. ET, CBS).

Mental edge on Denver: The Broncos looked helpless in the second half of a 34-27 loss last month in Pittsburgh. After jumping to a quick double-digit lead, the Steelers roared back in the second half. The Broncos had no answer for Antonio Brown, who completely took over the game and humbled the usually excellent Chris Harris Jr. The Steelers like the way they match up with Denver. Martavis Bryant can occupy the bigger Aqib Talib, and with Denver depleted at safety, that leaves room for Brown to operate. Assuming the offensive line holds up against a very good Broncos pass rush, the Steelers can get yards on Denver downfield -- and they know it.

Tebow exorcism: On a crisp January evening in Denver about four years ago, Tim Tebow reached back with that baseball delivery and launched the best slant route of his life to Demaryius Thomas: 80 yards, game over, playoff loss for Pittsburgh. Think the Steelers might be eager to get back to Mile High? That game haunted Pittsburgh for a while. The throw showed the age of Pittsburgh’s defense, and the Steelers posted back-to-back eight-win seasons after that trip. This defense is better now and will want to show it on the road.

Hitting Peyton Manning: The Steelers were third in the league with 48 sacks. Memories of Kansas City applying pressure on Manning in the pocket two months ago, which resulted in one of the worst performances of his career, are still fresh. Manning might be back to normal, but there’s hardly a guarantee his body -- or his arm -- will hold up. Manning, of course, is one of the best ever at deciphering what a defense is doing at the line of scrimmage, but the Steelers should be able to get into Manning’s backfield against Denver’s relatively young offensive line.

Ben RoethlisbergerAP Photo/Fred VuichWith Ben Roethlisberger at the helm, the Steelers always have a chance.

PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Steelers are far from content with simply squeezing into the AFC wild-card round.

"We’re trying to go out here and win it and win for each other," linebacker Lawrence Timmons said.

Getting to the top will be a serious climb. If the top two seeds hold serve, the Steelers must win road games at Cincinnati, Denver and New England.

Good luck.

Here are three reasons, in numbers form, the Steelers believe they can do it.

328.1: The Steelers' average passing yards per game when Ben Roethlisberger starts. On a ho-hum, average day, Roethlisberger is throwing for 300-plus. He completed 11 games, and he's thrown for fewer than 300 yards in only two of them. Turnovers have been an issue, as he's thrown six interceptions in his past three starts. The red zone offense will stall on occasion. But the passing totals are significant because Roethlisberger consistently gives the Steelers chances -- chances for field goals, for touchdowns, to control the game. Those chances travel, too.

48: Number of sacks by the Steelers, the third-highest total in the league and the Steelers' highest total since 2010. The Steelers are an imperfect defense that gives up nearly 300 passing yards, but it's sort of designed that way. Safety Will Allen admitted this defense is built on sacks, run defense and turnovers. When the Steelers flourish in those areas, they are tough to beat. When they struggle in those areas, it gets ugly on the back end. But sacks have been the constant. What's interesting is that they don't have a true sack master. Arthur Moats' sack at Cleveland this past Sunday was the first from a Steelers outside linebacker in four weeks. Defensive end Cameron Heyward leads the team with seven sacks. But the Steelers also have eight different players with at least 3.5 quarterback takedowns. If the Steelers get no pressure, they'll have no chance Sunday. But usually they do.

3: Number of road losses for Pittsburgh against high-caliber teams -- a seven-point loss to New England, a nine-point loss to Seattle and a 10-point loss to Kansas City (without Roethlisberger, who was injured). This doesn't seem like a positive, right? But the Steelers feel they learned from those experiences, which translated well in their best road performance of the season, a 33-20 win at Cincinnati on Dec. 13. Not many teams are more battle-tested than Pittsburgh, which played a difficult schedule stocked with playoff teams and did so without several key players because of injuries. "Guys just stepped up and did everything they could to not miss a beat," Roethlisberger said about his lineup. Resilience and flexibility, the Steelers hope, will prevail in January.

Fitzgerald ToussaintAP Photo/Ron SchwaneFitz Toussaint had to scratch and claw his way to the NFL, but he now might find himself playing meaningful snaps in a playoff game.

In less than two years, Fitz Toussaint went from undrafted free agent looking for a tryout to potential starting running back in a playoff game for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Starter DeAngelo Williams is dealing with an ankle injury that doesn’t appear serious but could hinder him this week in practice leading up to Saturday’s AFC wild-card game with Cincinnati at 8:15 p.m.

Here are five things to know about Toussaint, 25.

1) He overcame a gruesome injury at Michigan: The Iowa-Michigan game on Nov. 17, 2013, was not a good day for Toussaint, who broke his left tibia and fibula in the first quarter. Toussaint told ESPN’s Michael Rothstein in early 2014, "I kind of looked down and went into shock. I looked at it, and it was an ugly look. All out of whack."

2) He fought his way into the NFL: Toussaint had a private workout with the Patriots before the 2014 draft but went undrafted. He wasn’t signed as a free agent. He worked out for Miami and Baltimore. No immediate job prospects.

In early summer, the Ravens finally called offering a training camp spot. After 103 yards in the preseason finale against New Orleans, Toussaint secured a spot on the team, spending time on the practice squad and the active roster. He rushed for 12 yards on six carries.

The Ravens cut him before the 2015 season. The Steelers quickly offered Toussaint a practice squad spot. He spent most of the first two months on the practice squad before moving to the 53-man roster, where he is now.

Vince Calo, Toussaint’s agent, classifies Toussaint as a “tough Youngstown [Ohio] kid” who had to “fight, scratch and claw his way into the league.”

3) Toussaint took the No. 2 tailback job away from Jordan Todman: Todman, a five-year NFL veteran with five career touchdowns, had the inside track to back up Williams. Instead, he fell to third string, but not based on his own performance, rather because of Toussaint's performance.

“It’s about the confidence we’re gaining in what Fitz is capable of doing,” said coach Mike Tomlin when discussing the move after the Colts game in Week 13.

4) Teammates have noticed Toussaint’s ability, waiting to see the flashes in games: Wide receiver Markus Wheaton, who said that Toussaint has been “looking good in practice,” thinks “everybody is high on him.”

So far, those flashes haven’t translated to yards. Toussaint has 42 yards on 18 carries, or 2.3 yards per carry.

But teammates are confident he can get more yards once he finds a rhythm with the Steelers' offense and blocking schemes.

5) Playing for the Steelers means supporting his daughter: For fringe 53-man roster guys, one week on the active roster is a huge deal -- because they are fulfilling an NFL dream but also because the game checks are heftier than practice squad money.

During his time with the Ravens, the Baltimore Sun reported that Toussaint was grateful for his games on the 2014 roster (four in regular season, plus playoffs) because of his daughter, Martia, 9.

“I don't see her that often, so this being my motivation -- to support her -- me getting added to the roster, and it being [near] her birthday was kind of surprising,” Toussaint told the Sun in August.

Calo said he has noticed Toussaint is a proud dad who doesn't travel much because he's "all about family and football."

A look at the Pittsburgh Steelers who were "up" and those who were "down" in the 2015 season.


Antonio Brown: He was the team's MVP for this ridiculous stat line -- 136 catches, 1,834 yards, 10 receiving touchdowns. It was one of the best single-season receiver performances of all time. And to think he put up these numbers without Ben Roethlisberger for four games.

DeAngelo Williams: He had one of the best seasons of his 10-year career. Williams led all Steelers playmakers with 11 offensive touchdowns and would have been well over 1,300 yards rushing had he been the starter all year. He was excellent in pass protection, too.

Ben Roethlisberger: The 16 interceptions are the only blemishes on his 2015 performance. Most of the time, Roethlisberger was brilliant. You could argue he's never been better.

Cam Heyward: His seven sacks weren't flashy, but he played better than that. At times, Heyward took over games defensively. His production tapered off late in the year.

Marcus Gilbert: It was a breakout year for Gilbert, who didn't give up a sack until Week 14.

William Gay/Mike Mitchell/Will Allen: Mike Tomlin stuck with his veterans in the defensive backfield, and though it wasn't always pretty, they were timely playmakers that steadied the waters for an otherwise young group.


Antwon Blake: He wasn't as bad as fans made him out to be, but he struggled in coverage for parts of the year. He made it on the "down" list multiple times. Blake just didn't have the breakout year he was expecting. He's a good tackler but struggles in one-on-one settings.

Ryan Shazier: Health contributed to this. He had trouble staying on the field in the season's first 10 games. He flashed playmaking ability but never really established a rhythm.

Jarvis Jones: Five sacks in three years is a hard sell for a first-round pick. The Steelers like his versatility and his ability against the run, but pass rushing was supposed to be his specialty. Jones is part of a four-man outside linebacker rotation, and he was the only one of the four with fewer than four