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Labriola on Spence, nickel CB, feistiness

  • Ike Taylor, Jarvis Jones, and Ryan Shazier all were injured last Sunday, and it's likely the Steelers will be without all three of those defensive starters through Halloween, at which time they may begin to trickle back into the lineup. But there are a lot of games to be played between now and then, and as the first of those approaches – against the Buccaneers – the Steelers will go with Sean Spence for Shazier, Arthur Moats for Jones, and William Gay for Ike Taylor in the 3-4 base alignment. The story of Spence's return from a severe knee injury has had a bunch of inspiring twists to it, but maybe the most amazing aspect of it is that less than one month into his first NFL regular season he is perceived as an adequate replacement for the guy who was a No. 1 pick in the most recent draft.
  • Certainly the landscape could change starting with what happens Sunday against the Buccaneers, but right now the biggest question mark would have to do with the role of nickel cornerback. The current options are Antwon Blake, Brice McCain, and B.W. Webb, and during his Tuesday news conference Coach Mike Tomlin left the door open for the job to be won during the week's practices. Blake was the guy who got the call in Carolina after Taylor was injured; McCain is the most experienced – four career interceptions and 32 passes defensed over the course of 10 starts and 72 games played – and Webb is the tallest at 5-foot-11.
  • The Steelers schedule would appear to provide the team with some time to figure out this nickel cornerback issue, because after facing quarterback Mike Glennon on Sunday it will be rookie Blake Bortles in Jacksonville on Oct. 5. After a trip to Cleveland and a rematch with Brian Hoyer, the Steelers host the Houston Texans and Ryan Fitzpatrick.
  • I'm guessing it's going to be McCain when the dust settles.
  • Speaking of the upcoming schedule, the 2-1 Steelers are about to hit a stretch of games that would seem to provide them with the opportunity to post a won-loss total at the midway point of this season that would be the antithesis of the 2-6 that handicapped them so at the midway point of last season. In order, it will be the 0-3 Buccaneers, at the 0-3 Jaguars, a rematch with the 1-2 Browns in Cleveland, and a Monday night game at Heinz Field vs. the 2-1 Texans. The first half of 2014 then will conclude with a visit from the Indianapolis Colts on Oct. 26.
  • There were a lot of things to like from the Steelers' win over the Panthers last Sunday night, and my personal highlight was the attitude the team displayed on the field throughout the game. The most obvious example – because it drew a penalty flag – came when David DeCastro picked Luke Kuechly off the pile when the Panthers linebacker wouldn't allow Justin Brown to get up after catching a short pass with the clock running during a hurry-up sequence at the end of the first half. There were many others, times when Steelers players flashed some feistiness, when they refused to back down from any physical challenge initiated by the opponent. That is something these young players and newbies to the Steelers have to establish for themselves, because as Joe Greene once said, "This is not an 'excuse me' profession."
  • One of the anomalies from the game in Carolina was that Troy Polamalu – by virtue of being the deep safety in victory formation – played more offensive snaps (two) than Lance Moore (one). Apparently the combination of Moore's long absence with a groin injury and Justin Brown's willingness to engage in the physical demands of wide receiver has moved the first-year pro from Oklahoma ahead of the veteran who came here with 346 career receptions from the New Orleans Saints during the offseason. Brown's work as a blocker notwithstanding, there's going to come a time in the not-too-distant future when Ben Roethlisberger will need someone to convert a third-and-6. Moore is the better man for that job.
  • Any contention that the Steelers had a master plan to bring back James Harrison at some point this season is refuted by something very simple: they allowed some other player to take jersey No. 92. When the season began, Daniel McCullers switched from the No. 74 he wore during training camp to No. 92, and if there had been any thought at that time to bringing back Harrison, McCullers wouldn't have been issued that number.
  • Would anyone trade Markus Wheaton for Emmanuel Sanders, right now, one-for-one? Me neither.
  • In the three games so far in 2014, special teams has executed a fake punt – a pass from Robert Golden to Antwon Blake – it turned a short field goal attempt into a touchdown by drawing the Panthers offside on a fourth-and-4 from the 11-yard line, and it scored a touchdown when Shamarko Thomas forced a fumble by punt returner Philly Brown that Robert Golden eventually recovered in the end zone. Shaun Suisham hasn't missed a field gal attempt, and Brad Wing is tied for 12th in the league with a net punting average (40.5 yards) that would break the franchise record if it's maintained. Given the franchise's dismal history of special teams, that's quite a string of successes.
  • It has been pointed out that this 0-3 Tampa Bay group is the worst team to visit Heinz Field since the 2009 Oakland Raiders, who blew into town with an offense that was No. 31 in the NFL and a defense that was No. 26. But Louis Murphy's 11-yard touchdown catch with nine seconds left keyed a 27-24 upset win for the Raiders, who were 15-point underdogs. And, to bring some symmetry to the story, the Buccaneers this week signed Murphy, who had four catches for 128 yards and two touchdowns on that Sunday in 2009, to bolster their receiving corps.
  • If Murphy plans on an encore on Sunday at Heinz Field, he's going to have to do it without the guy who threw him both of those touchdown passes on the way to a 308-yard afternoon. That's because Bruce Gradkowski now is Ben Roethlisberger's backup.
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