Notebook: Ex-Browns a factor?

PITTSBURGH – The Denver Broncos are the No. 2 run defense in the NFL, which is a pretty hefty ranking for a team with a bunch of Cleveland Browns cast-offs on its defensive line.

"Well, it's not all Cleveland guys," said Pittsburgh Steelers fullback Dan Kreider.

"No, they're solid across the board. Their down linemen do a good job of two-gapping and the linebackers just play downhill. Those backers are fast, athletic and make a lot of plays."

But it's the ex-Browns setting up the linebackers, and those ex-Browns were given away for next to nothing.

The Broncos signed the No. 1 pick of the 2000 draft, Courtney Brown, on the cheap as a free agent who was coming off an injury-plagued 2004 season. Brown starts at left defensive end.

The Broncos acquired Ebenezer Ekuban and Michael Myers from the Browns in a trade for running back Reuben Droughns. Ekuban plays behind right end Trevor Pryce and Myers starts at left tackle.

The Broncos also traded a fourth-round draft pick to the Browns for Gerard Warren. He starts at right tackle.

Have those players improved since their days in Cleveland?

"Oh, I don't think any of them were bad players when they were in Cleveland," Kreider said. "Obviously, if they can go from one team to the next and be starters there, then they obviously weren't the problem in Cleveland."

Steelers tackle Marvel Smith sees a big improvement.

"They're not playing like they did when they were in Cleveland," Smith said. "There's a big difference. They have a lot better players around them."

Are any of the four ex-Browns having an outstanding season?

"It just seems like they're playing a lot harder," Smith said. "You can see it on film: They're giving their all a lot more. Now they've got something to play for. Maybe in Cleveland they weren't as motivated as they are now, but they're playing really well."

Brown has only two sacks this season. That's one fewer than he had in his second pro game, when he beat Smith three times to sack Kent Graham. Both players were rookies at the time, but Smith has gone on to enjoy the better career.

Warren was another bust in Cleveland. Picked third in the 2001 draft, Warren was better known for his mouth than his play in Cleveland. He threatened Ben Roethlisberger last season, but played poorly in a loss. Warren has three sacks and 22 solo tackles in 16 starts this season.

HIDDEN VIGORISH

Nate Washington had never played special teams until last Sunday in Indianapolis. And the undrafted rookie receiver from Tiffin blew a chance to make a name for himself.

"I could've blocked a punt, but I didn't know what was going on," he said. "I didn't go in like I was supposed to. I had no slot over me. Nobody was blocking me and I second-guessed myself."

The Colts got their punt off from deep in their end zone and the Steelers turned it into a touchdown anyway.

Washington will get another chance this week. He remains a part of the punt return team, as well a part of the offense. Washington replaced the injured Quincy Morgan as the Steelers' No. 4 receiver and was on the field for "four or five snaps" at Indianapolis, including the early touchdown pass to Antwaan Randle El.

Washington was active for only one game this season and didn't make a catch. Instead, he spent the season running routes on the show team against the Steelers' first-team defense.

Did he learn anything?

"On that show team I'm running against one of the hardest defenses in the league," he said. "It's taught me a lot. I've learned a lot of maneuvers, different routes to run, different situations, and really I've learned how to concentrate on the game more."

The rookie will need that skill in particular Sunday during the AFC Championship game, where everyone's always a play away from either infamy or immortality.

"I have nothing to lose," Washington said. "A lot of people don't expect me to do it, but at the same time I know my teammates know I can do it and they count on me. I'm not going to let these guys down. We've worked very hard all season long to get to this point, and now that we're here I'm not going to be the one to mess it up."

INJURY REPORT

Steelers reserve linebacker James Harrison (ankle/doubtful) was the only player from either team to miss Thursday's practice. He's the only injured player from either team not listed as probable.


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