McCain Reverting To Old Form

Today's notebook leads off with Brice McCain, a diamond in the free-agency rough for the Steelers.

PITTSBURGH -- Brice McCain had never heard of Pro Football Focus. Or at least he said he hadn't.

It's the Internet site that rates players off TV tape, and last year PFF had McCain rated as the worst cornerback in the NFL.

"Really?" McCain said with a chuckle. "That's cool."

All's cool with McCain this week because on Sunday he made the play of the game for the Steelers. It was the play of the year for McCain -- possibly the play of the last two years, maybe longer -- when he intercepted Jacksonville quarterback Blake Bortles and returned it 22 yards for a Steelers touchdown.

"It was the second pick-six of my career and I was really happy. I did it for the team," McCain said.

Why didn't he spike the ball?

"I was thinking about it, but then no, no," he said. "I was happy just to get ready for the next snap. I knew I had to come back out there so I wanted to stay focused and get the W."

McCain said he's the healthiest he's been since 2011, his best pro season since coming out of Utah as a sixth-round pick of the Houston Texans in 2009.

He broke his foot late in the 2012 season and struggled through the 2013 season. A new coaching staff was hired in Houston and McCain was released. The cornerback signed a one-year contract with the Steelers on April 1.

His opportunity came when Ike Taylor suffered a broken forearm in Game 3. McCain beat out Antwon Blake and B.W. Webb in an open competition for the nickel back job, and it paid off last Sunday.

"I was just being me," McCain said of winning the job. "I'm the same every day. That's all. Whatever coaches want to do, I do. If they wanted to keep Antwon in, that's fine. I can play; he can play. They picked me. That's how I'm looking at it.

"I'm blessed. I'm blessed to be out there. I don't take any day for granted. That's why I work hard every day."

PRACTICE PICKS

McCain enjoyed his best week of practice last week. The highlight was a leaping interception during a red-zone drill, which served as a precursor to his big play on game day. So perhaps one of two interceptions during Wednesday's practice will serve the same purpose this Sunday in Cleveland.

"Hey, man, I hope it's true," said Robert Golden, who intercepted a pass Wednesday at the goal line and sped down the sideline in a play that would've gone 100 yards had it not been whistled dead for practice purposes.

"If I get my opportunity that's exactly what I want to do," said the backup free safety.

One of the backup defensive ends also showed off his hands. Rookie Stephon Tuitt leaped to bat down a screen pass from Bruce Gradkowski, but the ball stuck to Tuitt's hands and the big man rolled into the end zone.

"I wasn't surprised," said Tuitt. "I can catch but I can't even tell you how I did it. It was a natural reaction. But it was pretty cool."

Tuitt said he was receiving first-team nickel reps Wednesday because Brett Keisel sat out of practice.

Will that play help Tuitt earn more playing time on game days?

"Interceptions help," the big rookie said with a laugh. "Interceptions help."

BUSY, BUZZING BEES

The communication on defense has to be better Sunday in Cleveland than what it was in the opening-day game against the Browns.

The Browns, of course, rallied from a 27-3 halftime deficit to tie the Steelers with 2:35 remaining, but the Steelers won on a 41-yard field goal as time expired. The problem, most noted, was poor communication during the Browns' hurry-up approach in the second half.

"Everybody communicate!" Cameron Heyward roared to start Wednesday's scrimmage period, and his defensive mates responded with a steady buzz of talk.

"Man, that's a beautiful thing that we have now," said Tuitt. "When we first started training camp, it was about teaching communication. Right now it's better than ever. Everybody kind of knows what everybody's doing. Nobody's nervous to talk to the partner beside them. We're now like brothers with everybody communicating and understanding the defense as one."

INJURY REPORT

Of the seven Steelers who missed Wednesday's practice, four weren't injury related: Keisel, Heath Miller, Mike Mitchell and Troy Polamalu.

Missing with injuries were LB Ryan Shazier (knee), CB Ike Taylor (forearm) and SS Shamarko Thomas (hamstring).

The Browns suffered a big loss when massive defensive tackle Phil Taylor underwent knee surgery. He's been ruled out of Sunday's game.

"It's a lot harder with him in there, and that's good for us," said Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey. "But to tell the truth, it sucks. He's a good player. He makes a lot of plays but I don't wish injuries on anybody."

THE DEAD ZONE

The Steelers rank 26th in the NFL with a touchdown percentage of 43.8 inside the red zone. Ben Roethlisberger admitted he could use another big receiver down close.

"I think so," he said. "When you get down there it’s not always about the speed and the quickness, it’s about bodying somebody up. I think we’ve seen over the years, especially in the Tampa game, Heath (Miller) catches two bang-bang touchdowns (one called back). That’s when tight ends can really help you is in the red zone."

The Steelers also have the backs to score, but didn't run once inside the red zone against Jacksonville. Of the 14 red-zone offensive snaps, the Steelers knelt three times and threw 11 times (one touchdown).

The Steelers had six plays from the seven-yard line and closer and opted not to run.

"That's me calling plays," Roethlisberger said. "Last week, we felt like we had the advantage in the pass game and I called passes. I don’t regret any of it."


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