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Steelers' unknown defensive backs trying to stack up

The Steelers' DBs may lack pedigree but not fight. Also, Ben Roethlisberger has returned to the throne. Read how he performed at Wednesday's practice.

PITTSBURGH -- When Ben Roethlisberger goes under center Sunday and scans the Cincinnati Bengals' defense, he'll try to find a hole in a secondary stacked with first-round draft picks.

The first four Bengals cornerbacks have first-round pedigrees, as does free safety Reggie Nelson.

When Andy Dalton gets under center Sunday and scans the Pittsburgh Steelers' defense, he'll try to find an opening between two cornerbacks who've been claimed off the waiver wire, one of whom -- Antwon Blake -- has a cast on his hand.

"We know what it is," said Ross Cockrell, who was an early cut by the Buffalo Bills this past preseason. "We were nobody's first pick and we haven't been for a long time, at least for me and I think for Blake as well. I think that's what can make this defense special."

Special? The Steelers' pass defense ranks 22nd in passer rating, 25th in yards per attempt and 27th in yards per game.

No, it's not special but this patchwork unit is finding some camaraderie. Cockrell answered some of Blake's big plays in practice Wednesday by returning an interception for a touchdown. Cockrell confirmed it in the locker room.

"Yeah, it was definitely great to end practice the way we did," Cockrell said. "We're just trying to come together as a defense, as a unit, and our communication today was the best I've seen since I've been here."

Does the lack of pedigree provide motivation?

"You just got to have a lot of confidence in yourself," he said. "Coach (Mike) Tomlin and guys on this team have really done a great job of supporting and uplifting us, even if things aren't going our way. And when we are making plays they're making sure to come up and congratulate us. It's really a spectacular unit we have here."

Gay, out with a shoulder injury, said he expects to return to practice Thursday.


Roethlisberger expects to play Sunday, but allowed that things could possibly go south, as they did for him late last week.

"It was more just a pain and inflammation setback," Roethlisberger said of last week. "I don't think it was a negative injury or more of an injury-type of setback. It was just putting an extra-heavy load on it and paying for it that night with achiness and inflammation."

Obviously, signs of any such flare-up this week would be a concern.

"I think so," he said. "That's why I've said this whole thing is one day at a time. That's why I'm not getting my hopes up about Sunday. I'm going to get my hopes up for today and see how it goes today."

Practicing in a knee brace, Roethlisberger was a bit rusty, according to teammates.

"Obviously he's still coming back from it," said Le'Veon Bell. "He's going to be out there a little rusty because he hasn't really played, but he looked real good today. I'm excited to have him back in the offense and in the huddle with him making all his calls."

If Bell was excited, Antonio Brown was ecstatic. The guy who's gained 65 percent of his yardage during the 36 percent of the season in which Roethlisberger has played couldn't stop smiling following Wednesday's workout.

"It's a blessing," said Brown. "You know what kind of opportunity it's going to present and you know what it does for your team: It revitalizes, rejuvenates and gets everyone excited."

Was Roethlisberger upset about some of his throws?

"He's a competitor," Brown said. "I don't think he messed up any throw. I just think he wants to be perfect. If things don't go the way he planned, he wants to re-do it and get it right. That's the fun thing about having him in the huddle."


It was Nelson, the Bengals' safety, who ended Bell's 2014 season right before the playoffs with a low blast to the knee. Bell said he still feels some pain.

"A little bit," Bell said. "I don't think it'll ever feel the same again, but obviously I'm still bearing the injury. I'm able to play through it. I take care of it and am still trying to get better from it. It feels a lot better though than it used to be."

Any resentment toward Nelson?

"No. He was just playing football," Bell said. "Earlier in that game I kind of got the best of him and he went high against me. I kind of won that battle. I'm a bigger guy, so if I'm catching the ball over the middle he chose to go low. But I don't feel any certain way about it. He's out there playing football. I don't think he intended to hurt me. I'm just ready to go out there and play football."

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