McCain Ready For Old Mates

The new Steelers cornerback isn't the only new look for the team, according to Jim Wexell's Thursday notebook.

PITTSBURGH -- Brice McCain won't go all in when asked whether he's the Steelers' starting cornerback in place of Cortez Allen.

The player must confirm what reporters see in practice, so McCain's been asked that question several times in the last couple of days.

"It's a long week," is the start of what McCain sees as fit to state. "Right now I'm working some plays with the ones but that doesn't mean anything. We've got a long week to go. I'm working my butt off to get it."

Players normally don't gain and then lose a starting assignment within the space of one practice week. So the Steelers' free-agent acquisition from the Houston Texans goes about preparing to start against those Houston Texans with Andre Johnson in mind.

Johnson, of course, is the Texans' star receiver. The 6-3, 230-pounder has caught 961 career passes for 13,080 yards and 62 touchdowns. He's been with the Texans for 12 years since being drafted third overall out of Miami in 2003.

McCain, a 5-9, 185-pound cornerback, spent five years with the Texans after being drafted in the sixth round out of Utah in 2009. He started 10 games with the Texans and intercepted four passes, and he covered Johnson just about every day in practice during his five seasons with the team.

"Lotta coverage on Andre," McCain said. "That's my boy. He made me a good corner. He made me better."

Will that familiarity benefit either player?

"DBs are DBs and receivers are receivers," McCain said. "It's just who will make the play. Everybody's got skills. It doesn't really matter. It's different than last year, which was different than the year before. People are different. People run different, run different routes. It's different every year. There's nothing the same. When I went against Andre in practice every day, it's not going to be the same when I see him on Monday. And a game situation is a lot different than practice. It's live, you've got to tackle him to the ground. It's way different. I'm just looking forward to playing against him in a game. It should be very exciting."

McCain has been an exciting cornerback with the Steelers when given the opportunity. He left Houston after a miserable 2013 season in which he struggled to recover from a broken foot suffered late in 2012. But he said he's as healthy as he was during his pinnacle 2011 season, and showed off those skills in returning an interception for a touchdown to seal the Steelers' win over Jacksonville two weeks ago.

McCain had moved up to become the nickel back when Ike Taylor was injured, and this week he's swapping roles with the struggling Allen.

Does McCain believe the Steelers are poised to begin playing consistently good football?

"We think that every week, but you've got to do it on game days," he said. "We go all through the week thinking this is the game we're going to turn it all around, this is the game we're going to ball out. We think that every week. When we don't do it, it's a disappointment but we come back the next week thinking the same thing."

CAN TUITT DO IT?

With NT Steve McLendon out and top reserve DE Brett Keisel missing recent practice with a knee injury, second-round pick Stephon Tuitt is poised to become the first rookie to start on the Steelers' defensive line since Casey Hampton in 2001.

Is he ready?

"I think he's ready," said the man who goes against Tuitt every day in practice, guard Ramon Foster. "His conditioning may not be ready, but I think he's fine."

Conditioning?

"It's just hard for a guy to get a full load like that, if he's getting a full load," Foster said. "Our defense does a good job of subbing in and out anyway."

What makes this defense so difficult for rookie linemen?

"You've got to be very disciplined," Foster said. "Young guys, they tend to go rogue sometimes."

That would be a calamity against a zone-stretch team such as Houston. Running back Arian Foster, Ramon's former college teammate, excels in that scheme and has picked his way for 5,576 career rushing yards at 4.5 per carry. This year he's second in the AFC behind Le'Veon Bell with 513 rushing yards at a 4.8 clip.

"He should be fine," Ramon Foster said of Tuitt. "Like I said, as long as he holds his gap integrity the way guys like Cam Heyward do it, he'll be fine. As long as he doesn't go rogue he'll be fine."

Going rogue?

"That's a young guy thing," Foster said. "There are always one or two plays at any position where you say to a rookie, 'What the hell were you doing?' But I'm sure Coach Mitch (DL coach John Mitchell) is on top of that."

BIG DAN

Because of the injuries on the defensive line, 6-7, 352-pound nose tackle Daniel McCullers could see his first game action. Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said he would be comfortable with the rookie getting an extended number of snaps.

"I would be, yes," LeBeau said of the giant who's repeatedly been told to get his pads lower.

"He’s got enough strength that he doesn’t always have to be the lowest guy," LeBeau said. "He’s still very difficult to move even if sometimes they do get under him. But he’s got strength and I think you’ll see that."

And his agility?

"I think he’s moving well for a man his size. I think Coach Garret Giemont has done a good job down there in the strength and conditioning area of things."

BRYANT IMPROVES

Rookie Martavis Bryant had a much better practice Thursday than his first of the week, and season, in working with Ben Roethlisberger's receivers.

Bryant is the 6-4 speedster with the scary skills and an even scarier lack of pro understanding.

"So far, so good," said offensive coordinator Todd Haley. "There have been some ups and downs but it’s a little different when you aren’t on cards (running scout team), because you have to start thinking more a little bit. But he has done a good job. He is working hard. He is studying. He made some plays today. We will see as the week goes on."

If Bryant plays, it's likely that second-year receiver Justin Brown would be inactive.

FRINGE ZONE MATH

Haley broke down the red-zone and what he calls fringe-zone plays to gain a better understanding of why the Steelers rank sixth in yards per game but 23rd in points per game.

"It’s easy to statistically point at the red zone and say we just aren’t good in the red zone," he said. "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 that non-red-zone plays that you would statistically look at that we left out on the field by getting no points in most cases. Like I said we would get a penalty on the 33-yard line that put us out of field goal range. We don’t even get to kick the field goal twice. That’s six points. We would take those 37 points in a heartbeat. We would be averaging 26.5 points and the output would match the point total. The point production would match the yardage output. 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."

Did the study affirm that it's a lack of execution?

"It really did," he said, "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. 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. Those are things we can control. We need guys to make plays in the red zone but like I said the book is out. We are going to see eight in the box and man-to-man coverage. We are going to have to have guys make plays in the red zone also. Most importantly we have to get three points in the bank once we hit whatever the field goal range is for that day. You aren’t going to make them all but we have a pretty good kicker that makes a lot of them. We have to bank those points whenever we can."

QUOTABLE

Haley on game-planning:

"It’s a little bit of everything. Coach Tomlin is in it a bunch with us in the beginning of the week, talking from a defensive perspective and kind of how he sees it, which is very helpful for us as a staff. And the rest of it is us as an offensive staff. There is some input from Ben, who puts work in on the tape, and he definitely has some input. But it’s the group bouncing things off each other and figuring out what gives us the best chance to succeed. What is the mode of operation we want to be in? Is this a no-huddle week? Do we have to pound it and run the ball? There are a lot of good discussions. I’ve touched on this, I love our staff. Our offensive staff is probably as tight as it has been in the time I have been here. There is great dialogue and communication throughout the week. And game day is just as important because we are making those adjustments we need to make to have a chance to be our best."


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