Sorry for being overly negative although it’s hard not to be since for the first time in a very long time, the Pittsburgh Steelers are playing an utterly meaningless football game. The last time the Steelers entered the last week of the season with absolutely nothing to play for was the final game of the Bill Cowher era. Actually, there was something to play for that weekend.
The Steelers had been eliminated from playoff contention the week prior but the Cincinnati Bengals needed a win to get in. When asked what would motivate his team to play with nothing on the line, Cowher famously said “Misery loves company.” And his team responded by sending their long-time coach out a winner (and dumping the Bungles from the playoff race) with a clutch TD by Santonio Holmes in overtime.
While this week’s opponent, the Cleveland Browns, aren’t playing for anything either, I have a hard time imagining Mike Tomlin motivating his players in a similar fashion. After all, Fraud Tomlin couldn’t get these guys to play hard when the playoffs were on the line, how’s he gonna get them fired up for a glorified exhibition game?
How bad has it gotten? Local talk shows are taking call after call from members of Steeler Nation who actually WANT the Steelers to lose so they improve their draft position. I can’t say that’s a bad idea. Never forget the 2007 draft where Darrelle Revis went with the 14th pick and while we took Lawrence Timmons one pick later. Timmons has finally realized his potential this season although I don’t think anybody would be crazy enough to argue they’d rather have him over Revis Island. So who knows, perhaps a loss on Sunday is the difference between drafting a shutdown corner or a chronically underachieving linebacker.
Good grief, we’re talking about draft position and hoping for losses. Yes, it has come to this.
STEELERS DEFENSE vs BROWNS OFFENSE
The Browns offense will finish the year near the bottom of the league in points per game and total yards. Rookie QB Brandon Weedon has shown flashes of being a competent signal caller but enters the game having thrown more INTs (17) than TDs (14). Of course, it’s not all Weedon’s fault. Other than fellow rookie RB Trent Richardson, who was on track for 1,000+ rushing and 400+ receiving yards before he got banged up, the Browns don’t have much in the way of offensive weapons. Whoever takes over in the front office will definitely be looking to upgrade the skill positions this off-season.
EDIT: And of course late news out of Cleveland is both Weedon and Richardson are nursing injuries and won’t be active on Sunday. Evidently the Browns want to ensure they’re in position to take the next Revis so they’re endeavoring to field the WORST TEAM EVER. Even back-up Colt McCoy is sitting out because his testicles haven’t descended or some such nonsense. Which means all you loyal season ticket holders will get to see the NFL debut of rookie QB Thad Lewis. THAD LEWIS! SMELL THE EXCITEMENT!
Which brings us to the Browns’ sole motivation this weekend, rescuing coach Pat Shurmur’s job. Shurmur’s only been in Cleveland two years (although Cleveland years are like dog years, one feels like seven) but with a new owner used to winning – he was a minority owner of the Steelers – Shurmur’s wretched 9-22 mark may do him in. Knowing the Browns, they’ll probably fire Shurmur only to hire another retread like Norv Turner although we’ll
worry laugh about that when the time comes. For now Shurmur is their coach and he may very well need a win this Sunday to have any hope of keeping his job.
For the Steelers, this may be the last hurrah for some familiar faces. Casey Hampton took a pay cut to come back one more year and although the team doesn’t really have a heir apparent waiting in the wings – unless you count that drunken imbecile Alameda Ta’amu – he may not be back next season. Then there’s James Harrison. Although our old pal Hennessy will be heartbroken to hear this, there is real talk that Harrison and his $9 million salary will not be back in 2013. I think that would be a mistake since Deebo has shown he can still play at a very high level when he’s reasonably healthy but remember this is the same team that cut Greg Lloyd and Joey Porter when they still had a little gas left in the tank.
It’s the Steeler Way.
Despite a season filled with injuries to key players and lacking in game-changing plays, the Steelers D will almost certainly finish the year ranked first overall for the third time in the past six years. Dick LeBeau has been telling his guys that he intends to come back next season so barring another Bruce Arians fiasco from Art II, our D should still be pretty good next season no matter who he has to coach.
STEELERS OFFENSE vs BROWNS DEFENSE
The only upside to having one more game left in the season is you only have one more game to watch the Steelers’ excruciatingly pitiful excuse for an offense. The defense certainly struggled the first month or so of the season but when the story of 2012 is written our inept offense is going to bear the brunt of the criticism for things going so horrible wrong. And deservedly so.
Todd Haley was brought in to take them to the next level. Instead, everything has gone backwards. Ben Roethlisberger regressed. The Young Money crew regressed. The running game regressed. I don’t know if Boss Todd will be back next year – my money, or rather the money inherited by the Deuce, says yes – but let’s hope things improve next year.
Contrasted with the last appearance in the Black and Gold of some veterans on D, this may be the last time we see some young players on offense in our colors.
Mike Wallace (EDIT: Wallace has a sore hammy and is sitting out. Wow, this really is a glorified exhibition game. Do you guys really expect me to watch this?) and Rashard Mendenhall are undoubtedly playing their last home games in Pittsburgh. Wallace simply wants too much money and while I think he’s a very skilled receiver, he’s not the kind of difference maker worth throwing a huge contract at to keep around. Mendy, well, I don’t think Tomlin likes him and as time has gone on the feeling has become mutual. I think he’s a perfect example of a guy who needs a change in scenery to get their career back on track.
Where that leaves the Steelers, however, is anybody’s guess. If Haley truly wants the Steelers to run the ball more often and effectively than his predecessor, the team probably needs to invest in a top flight back. Neither Jonathan Dwyer nor Isaac Redman have looked like they should be considered featured backs. Meanwhile, we once thought the Steelers receiving corps was an embarrassment of riches but subtracting Wallace and with Manny Sanders spectacular flame-out, we’re left with Antonio Brown and… Jerricho Cotchery?
The Steelers aren’t going to make any off-season decisions based on one game. Mendy can gallop for 250 yards or Wallace can catch 200 yards worth of passes and I’m sure it won’t affect what the team does with them this off-season. What we do know is tough decisions have to be made so we don’t find ourselves in this exact same situation next year. And what is certain is the team that takes the field next September will look quite a bit different than the one we see on Sunday.
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Do or die. Not much more needs be said about the importance of this Sunday’s game against the Cincinnati Bengals. We can argue about how good this Pittsburgh Steelers team actually is but you’d be hard pressed to make a convincing case that this team shouldn’t at least make the playoffs. With a loss on Sunday, that disastrous scenario would indeed become reality.
STEELERS DEFENSE vs BENGALS OFFENSE
Andy Dalton hasn’t had great success against the Steelers. Part of that is Dick LeBeau owning young quarterbacks. Part is the Steelers just seem to have the Bengals’ number. Whatever freaky mojo the Black and Gold hold over the Ginger Rifle, it’ll be something if it continues through this weekend.
The Bengals come in with the 9th best offense in football by points scored per game, which is really the only stat that counts when it comes to winning. The Steelers statistically still hold the best defense in football but that is determined in terms of yardage. There are actually a half-dozen defenses who give up fewer points per game. Still, despite the onslaught of injuries to LeBeau’s crew, the Steelers have epitomized a bend-but-don’t-break philosophy.
For whatever reason, there’s a meme going around that the defense hasn’t been good this season. In terms of sacks and splash plays, that’s definitely true. However, they’ve kept the team in games which is really all you can ask of your defense, especially one ravaged by injury. If your team has a mediocre QB running an average offense, then you need a defense which creates turnovers and scores points. If the Steelers think they’re in the same league as teams like Green Bay or New England (who have average defenses), they should be perfectly fine with a defense that plays well enough to not lose the game. Which this defense certainly has.
The Bengals have some weapons. As I said before our first meeting, I think AJ Green might be the best receiver in football. He’s certainly in the top five. Ike Taylor absolutely shut him down last time. The secondary expects Cortez Allen back this weekend which should help immensely as even at 50%, he’s probably a whole helluva lot better than the two-headed suck monster known as Josh Victorian and Curtis Brown. One of those human traffic cones will be playing the nickel, though, so there will be plays for Dalton to make.
Let’s just hope for once the Steelers make a few more.
STEELERS OFFENSE vs BENGALS DEFENSE
Which brings us to Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers offense. The D is giving up on average 21 points a game. Considering we have a $150 million quarterback, a crew of receivers led by one guy making $8 million per year and another who thinks he’s worth more than that, and a posse of running backs led by a former first round draft pick, three touchdowns per game should be the least of our worries. Yet this team has struggled mightily to score points all season. Even when Ben is playing and fully healthy.
At some point Steeler fans will step out of 1970 and start asking the offense to WIN games for us instead of expecting the defense to do it (as always). The amount of money invested and the level of (alleged) talent is certainly there. The time for excuses and finger-pointing are over. The time to produce is now.
The Bengals have a pretty decent defense themselves. They actually lead the entire NFL in total sacks. Despite also being ravaged by injury, the Steelers offensive line has done a fairly good job all season. Granted the dink-and-dunk offense helps. Last week against Dallas (who also boast a pretty good pass rush) was really the first time Ben was routinely running for his life. David DeCastro struggled in his first start although I’m sure the first rounder will improve as his reps increase.
DeCastro along with fellow rookie RT Kelvin Beachum have acquitted themselves admirably although they’re clearly not the run blockers Willie Colon and Mike Adams were. As a result, the Steelers running game has been non-existent for almost a month now. There’s flashes here and there but no consistent threat. Mike Tomlin hasn’t named a starter and the assumption is Jon Dwyer will keep starting. I do believe Rashard Mendenhall will dress (Ike Redman is always banged up), however, as this may be his last best chance to audition for a job here or elsewhere next season.
The people who really have to come through are the
Young Money Cash Droppah crew. They talk a big game and like to preen and pose after every 5 yard catch (I’m looking at you, Antonio Brown) yet their play hasn’t backed up their posturing. The Steelers recent swoon which has seen them lose 4 out of their last 5 has been punctuated by mistake after mistake from this group of arrogant miscreants. Manny Sanders can’t hold on to the ball, Mike Wallace can’t catch it and AB may be the dumbest football player alive. I don’t know how we went from “best young receiving corps in football!” to “these guys need to get their shit together” but here we are.
Although, really, the latter can be said about the Steelers as a whole. If this team doesn’t at least make the playoffs with all the big contracts and big name players, well, something is certainly rotten on the Southside. This year has already been a bad soap opera, the accusations and recriminations if the unthinkable happens would no doubt increase tenfold.
Today is the final day of the Mayan calendar. I don’t know if they were Steeler fans but their prediction was remarkably accurate for a culture that existed two centuries before the first pig was skinned and fashioned into an oblong ball. For the Pittsburgh Steelers, the end is also nigh. Come Sunday, there is no tomorrow.
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There’s an old saying that timing is everything. That’s especially true when it comes to the NFL. Two stories broke yesterday, both of which will have a direct bearing on this Sunday’s game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and San Diego Chargers. As usual, only one of which benefits the good guys.
The positive news for the Steelers is that quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has practiced without incident and is officially the starter this weekend. Charlie Batch did a
good legendary job in his absence but this team has a very small margin of error going forward. The win at Baltimore doesn’t mean they have to totally win out to make the playoffs although doing so keeps them in the driver’s seat. Realistically, they can still lose one of their last four games and still make the playoffs so long as that loss doesn’t come against Cincy the last week of the season.
The bad news is a story surfaced yesterday that Chargers coach Norv Turner and GM AJ Smith will both be fired at the end of the year. Norv has had nine lives as a head coach, handed a team on the verge of a Super Bowl and doing just barely enough to keep his job every year since. It appears this year’s miserable 4-8 effort is finally the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back.
Some of you may be thinking, why is that bad news? Doesn’t imminent firing mean the team stinks? Well, yeah, it does. And while being rid of Norvellus is good news for Chargers fans, it’s bad news for the Steelers because we’ve seen time and time again that teams tend to play their best when everybody counts them out. From all accounts, Norv is well-liked by his players so I can see them extra motivated this week to go out and score a big win for their beleaguered coach. We want to face teams demoralized and ready for winter vacation, not eager to send their man out a winner.
STEELERS DEFENSE vs CHARGERS OFFENSE
What happened to Philip Rivers? The third wheel in the celebrated QB Class of 2004 remains the only one not to have won a Super Bowl. While Ben and Eli have progressed to where they’re undoubtedly franchise QB, Rivers has regressed badly. At this point, Matt Schaub (third rounder) probably has a better chance of winning a Lombardi any time soon.
Last year, Rivers tossed 20 INTs to nearly off-set his 27 TDs. He’s on a similar track this season with a 18-15 split. He’s also fumbled a whopping 11 times although the team lost only 5 of those. Still, these numbers paint a picture of a QB under duress and given to being reckless with the football. I’ve liked Rivers ever since his heroic performance in the AFC Championship Game where he nearly ended the Patriots undefeated season playing with a torn ACL but something has definitely gone awry for him.
Part of it is the lack of talent around him. Years ago, the Chargers had a bunch of weapons on offense. Those weapons have slowly drained away to where TE Antonio Gates remains the last man standing. Star WR Vincent Jackson departed to Tampa while LaDainian Tomlinson succumbed to injury and age long before he became a Jet. Their replacements, Denario Alexander and Ryan Matthews simply aren’t the same caliber. Malcolm Floyd was fine as a #2 WR but that he’s their current #1 says a lot about the dearth of talent. When two of your top four receivers are running backs that’s not a good sign.
It’s good for the Steelers, though, as the banged up secondary will be without Ike Taylor for the first time in a long long time (135 games to be exact). Neither Ryan Clark nor Troy Polamalu have practiced all week so who knows what their status is in the Mao-esque Tomlin regime. Veterans usually are cut slack in regards to mid-week practice with Friday being the deadline for proving you’re ready for Sunday.
Hopefully they’ll both be okay since the young corners will need all the veteran leadership they can get. Keenan Lewis and Cortez Allen will start with Curtis Brown playing the nickel. This was the line-up Kevin Colbert hoped for when he drafted all three in the middle rounds of recent drafts. I guess we’ll finally get a chance to see if they can play. Allen was picked on mercilessly against Baltimore, steadily getting better as the game went along. Hopefully that carries over to this week.
STEELERS OFFENSE vs CHARGERS DEFENSE
Ben picked a good week to return as San Diego seems to be okay against the run and lousy against the pass. They’re not abysmal in either category but neither area is an overwhelming strength. Actually, the Chargers are allowing less than 100 yards per game on the ground which is pretty good for any team. The sledding may be tough for Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman, who proved to be a very effective 1-2 punch against Baltimore last week.
It won’t help that the team’s bulldozer in the middle, Willie Colon, continues to struggle with a balky knee. He’s had it drained twice this week (OUCH!) although holds out hope of playing. If Colon returns, Maurkice Pouncey will return to center. If not, the Steelers will probably go back to last week’s formula with Pouncer moving over to LG and Doug Legursky sliding in at center.
Meanwhile, Mike Adams continues to miss time with his foot/ankle issue meaning rookie Kelvin Beachum will probably start his second straight game. You probably noticed Heath Miller not getting many catches during the first half in Baltimore and that’s because the Steelers were worried about Beachum so they kept Heath in to block. They must’ve seen something they liked because in the second half Heath was out catching balls while they left Beachum all by himself one-on-one. Despite the patchwork line, Baltimore only had 2 sacks, both of which came because Charlie held on to the ball way way too long.
Ben should have a full complement of weapons with Antonio Brown working through the ankle injury and Emmanuel Sanders nursing bruised ribs. Mike Wallace also has a sore knee which still doesn’t explain why so many passes clang off his hands. Regardless, if Ben is anywhere near his usual self (and not the Shadow Ben we saw in San Fran last year), he should make some plays. San Diego has some decent pass rushers (23 as a team led by Shaun Phillips with 7) and have come down with 11 INTs but overall have struggled this season.
Last week’s victory over Baltimore was the kind of game that can propel a team toward a big run deep into December. It doesn’t erase the horrible losses to Cleveland, Tennessee or Oakland but it does set alter the momentum of the Steelers’ season. Let’s hope they keep that ball rolling this week.
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Sometimes I really don’t understand football. I suppose I shouldn’t admit that here since for whatever reason people who read blogs automatically assume the writer know as much about football as Chuck Noll. Truthfully, the best any of us can do, from the guys who write for SI or ESPN all the way down to lowly bloggers, is offer our best guess. I sure would like to a fancy title like Senior NFL Insider, though.
Anyway, all week we’ve waited with baited breath for any scrap of information about Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Granted, Ben has a history of making Terminator-like comebacks just when things seem the bleakest so it’s not altogether crazy to hope he has one more in him. And we are playing the Baltimore Ravens in a pivotal game, a game where a loss not only puts a division title out of reach but makes it so the Steelers pretty much have to run the table to make the playoffs.
All that said, what I don’t understand is how anybody can seriously endorse the idea of Ben coming back on Sunday. Does nobody remember last year’s Monday night fiasco in San Francisco? Ben toughed it out that week and continued toughing it out until the team got bounced in the first round of the playoffs. Maybe it wouldn’t have mattered if Ben took an extra week off to rest up. Maybe his foot was just too far gone and he was going to play at 50% no matter what. But at some point you have to put the big picture ahead of the right now.
Would I love to see #7 jog onto the field in Baltimore on Sunday afternoon? Absolutely. Would it be the smart thing for the team? Absolutely not.
STEELERS DEFENSE vs RATBIRDS OFFENSE
The last time these two teams met, Dick LeBeau‘s crew did a fantastic job keeping them off the scoreboard. It’d be foolish to expect the exact same level of dominance this time around. Unfortunately, that’s what we may need to have any realistic shot at winning.
With few exceptions, Joe Flacco has struggled mightily against the Steelers. LeBeau has basically figured out what the rest of the league is slowly catching on to; when you take away Ray Rice and put the game entirely on Flacco’s arm, you have a better than 50-50 shot at pulling out a win. I’m not going to rehash my critique of Flacco (you can read it in my previous Know Thy Enemy) except to say he is what he is. He’s not the worst QB in the league but he’s not the kind of singular talent that can take over a game through sheer talent either. Last week’s 29 yard catch and run by Rice which snatched victory from the jaws of defeat is the perfect encapsulation of the Ravens offense.
Troy Polamalu continues to practice normally as it looks like he’ll definitely be back Sunday. Troy hasn’t been his old self for a couple seasons now but playing the Ravens usually brings out the best in him. If there’s any Steeler who causes Flacco to wake up in a cold sweat, it’s Troy. Throughout the rivalry, Troy has frequently been the one who makes that one game-changing play which spelled the difference between a win and a loss.
It was exactly that kind of game changing play the defense needed to make last time and didn’t. Will they make it now that Troy’s back in the line-up? I like their chances a lot more.
Since the Football Gods can never give without taking away, LaMarr Woodley will be out with a re-aggravation of the leg injury which knocked him out earlier in the season. Jason Worilds has come on this season to where he’s actually the team leader in sacks (5). Other than a momentary flash of his old self, Woodley hasn’t done much of anything this year so playing Worilds is probably a good thing in the scheme of things. James Harrison is starting to look like his old self and the inside duo of Larry Foote and Lawrence Timmons have been strong all season. I’m not sure the Steelers D can play better than they did in the first meeting but I definitely wouldn’t be shocked if they did.
STEELERS OFFENSE vs RATBIRDS DEFENSE
Where do I start? How about the good news? Assuming Charlie Batch starts as expected, at least he’ll have a full complement of weapons to toss his wounded ducks at. Antonio Brown has practiced all week and is going to start. Any questions about who the Steelers #1 wide out is have been answered in AB’s absence. Mike Tomlin decided to play some mind games this week by listing Emmanuel Sanders and Mike Wallace as co-starters on the depth chart. For some reason, media types have been on radio all week trying to argue that Steeler fans are being too hard on Wallace for his lack of production. Boo hoo, cry me a river. I don’t care that he held out. What I do care about is that he strutted around like he was one of the best receivers in football and hasn’t played anywhere close to that.
Another Tomlin mandate is that the team will feature Jonathan Dwyer as the primary back with Isaac Redman backing him up. Again, the media has been reacting aghast that he’d demote Rashard Mendenhall to third string despite the fact he’s done absolutely nothing to merit playing time. Mendenhall isn’t a good back. He tip toes too much and doesn’t run aggressively to daylight. His only selling point is this mythical “breakaway speed” people keep mentioning yet I can count on one hand how many long TD runs he’s had during his entire career here. Dwyer has shown that when you give him 15-20 carries he’ll run hard, wear down a defense and give you respectable YPC.
The blocking for Dwyer may be a problem. The team’s most beastly run blocker, Willie Colon, hasn’t practice much this week and is looking doubtful. To the team’s credit, they’ve finally realized Doug Legursky sucks at guard but is perfectly capable at center (probably because you can get away with being a small quick center but not really at guard). So if Colon can’t go, they’ve taken the extreme option of moving Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey to guard and inserting the Big Legursky at his natural position. I haven’t seen Pouncey play guard but if David DeCastro isn’t ready to play (and this radical re-alignment suggest he’s an emergency option at best) this seems to be the best arrangement.
Last game, the Steelers had nothing happening on the ground while Byron Leftwich missed wide open receivers left and right. On the flipside, the Ravens offense did a whole bunch of nothing with the their lone TD coming on a punt return. Let’s say the Steelers D slips a little this time and gives up two whole TDs. Can Charlie realistically put up 17-20 points on the Ratbirds? Off what we saw in Cleveland, the answer would be no. However, this is almost certainly the final start of Charlie Batch’s long career. He’s not going to go out without taking a couple swings. Let’s hope one or two connect.
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Don’t look past the Cleveland Browns. When you stop laughing, I’ll try to explain. Yes, the Browns are 2-8. Yes, the Browns are in the midst of yet another miserable season in a long run of them. Yes, the Browns have already given Mike Holmgren the axe with former Pittsburgh Steelers minority owner Jimmy Haslam likely to make more changes after the season. I know all this doesn’t sound like a team ready to give the Steelers a fight on Sunday but despite everything the Browns aren’t ready to wave the white flag.
Oh, wait… Maybe they are…
One thing the Browns are successful at is getting psyched for the Steelers. I’ll spare you the painful trip down memory lane, suffice to say, when the two teams meet you can almost throw out the records. Cleveland has treated their annual meetings with us like their own little Super Bowl and it’s almost like a rivalry game in college where it doesn’t matter how bad your team is on paper, the two teams always find a way to make things interesting. Throw in the fact Cleveland has been sneaky bad (as in, they lose but put forth highly competitive efforts) and the Steelers are injury ravaged and you have a recipe for anything to happen.
STEELERS DEFENSE vs BROWNS OFFENSE
On draft day, I sorta laughed at the selection of quarterback Brandon Weedon. In reality, Weedon has looked like a pretty solid signal caller despite being a rookie on a team with very few offensive weapons. I still think it was a silly pick because if you look across the NFL, a whole bunch of rookie QBs have done well this season, from Andrew Luck and RGIII to lesser publicized names like Ryan Tannehill and Russell Wilson and they’re all 5-6 years younger than Weedon so they’ll have more time to grow. Right now, however, I think given the chance to re-draft teams like the Eagles or Cardinals would take Weedon over the QBs they chose because he’s shown the kind of poise that suggests he could step right in and do a capable job of running an established offense.
Unfortunately, he doesn’t have an established offense in Cleveland. In fact, he doesn’t have much to work with at all. When a RB leads your team in receiving, that’s not good. Their nominal #1 WR is Greg Little but he drops as many passes as he catches. The rest of the receiving corps is a collection of has beens and never weres. Weedon’s numbers don’t look particularly impressive (11 TDs 12 INT 2,300 yds) until you factor in the collection of riff raff he has to catch his passes.
The lone bright shining light in this oasis of suck is fellow rookie RB Trent Richardson. Browns legend Jim Brown dissed Richardson prior to the draft which must’ve lit a fire under him as he’s accounted for 670 yards on the ground and another 280 through the air. Richardson has fast become a weapon in the Ray Rice mold. He’s easily Cleveland’s most dangerous offensive player and must be contained if the Steelers hope to dash any thoughts of an upset.
Dick LeBeau‘s crew is coming off unarguably their finest effort of the season. I feel Joe Flacco and company are grossly overrated but to hold any team without an offensive touchdown, let alone a team one year removed from the AFC Championship game while your own offense is actively sabotaging your efforts, is a damn impressive feat. Ziggy Hood rebounded from the KC debacle and the D-line were the quiet heroes in stifling Ray Rice. Ike Taylor has shook off the early season funk and teamed with Keenan Lewis, who improves by the week, form a very fine secondary. While LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison haven’t played up to previous levels, the inside tandem of Larry Foote and Lawrence Timmons have picked up a lot of slack. Although Cleveland doesn’t have the talent Baltimore has, the team will need nearly the same effort because I don’t foresee our offense scoring a ton of points.
STEELERS OFFENSE vs BROWNS DEFENSE
Charlie Batch makes his first start of the season after Byron Leftwich flushed a very winnable game down the crapper last Sunday. I have faith in Chaz. Every time Steeler Nation counts him out, he comes off the bench to prove the haters wrong. Given Todd Haley’s short quick West Coast style offense, I think Batch is an even better fit than Lefty and as long as his guys get open, he’ll get them the ball.
Of course, it’d be nice if the Steelers can continue their strong running attack. Mike Tomlin hasn’t committed to a starter but I think at this point you have to go with Jonathan Dwyer. Rashard Mendenhall may have the breakaway speed but he was back to his tap-dancing tricks against Baltimore. Dwyer has been by far the team’s most consistent back and I think he’s earned the chance to be the featured starter (when healthy) for the rest of the year. The Browns rank near the bottom of the league in run D so whoever starts should produce.
The receivers also need to start producing. I know the catch in the corner of the end zone against the Ravens was a tough play but Mike Wallace needs to make it. I caught a little of the Tampa game on Red Zone last Sunday and was struck by how much of a difference Vincent Jackson makes to the Bucs offense. That’s what $10+ million a year receivers do. They make the catches nobody else can make and they make them with frequency. Wallace had a brilliant catch against KC but those sort of big plays have been far too few for a guy who thinks he’s the best WR in football.
Antonio Brown is back practicing so I expect he’ll be a game time decision. Jerricho Cotchery is definitely out so we’ll probably see the return of Plaxico Burress in the Black and Gold. He likely won’t play much, probably just in the red zone (assuming we ever get there), but he should be plenty motivated after signing a 1 year deal when nobody else wanted him. Plax doesn’t have the skills he once had but this team needs all the red zone threats they can get so if he’s even a fraction of his old self he can’t do anything but help.
The Steelers are in a very precarious position. I’ve said all along that the losses to Tennessee and Oakland may come back to haunt them and unfortunately that is proving true. The Steelers can’t really afford to fall much farther back to the pack, especially with only a few very winnable games remaining on their schedule. Had they won the games they should of won earlier this year, we could afford a mid-season nose dive until Ben heals up. At this point, though, they really can’t.
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Every hero needs a villain. Batman has the Joker. Steve Austin had Vince McMahon. Optimus Prime has Megatron.
And if you think I’m referring to Calvin Johnson and Richard Sherman, you really watch too much football.
The Pittsburgh Steelers represent everything good about the NFL. The most successful franchise with the most loyal fanbase. Their greatest nemesis is clearly the Baltimore Ravens, a gang of thugs and cowards who are detested by anybody outside their own filthy crime-ridden city.
Ratbird Week is usually a fun time for me because there’s normally a lot of trash talking from both sides. Most of the time, “rivalries” are more a thing that fans create than something the players actually embrace. Not so with the Steelers and Ravens. The players have made it very clear on many occasions that they really do hate each other.
Unfortunately, a lot of the fun has been sucked out of this particular Ratbird Week. First, a lot of the guys who fueled the fire are gone. Hines Ward has retired while Ray Lewis is out for the season, possibly never to return. Meanwhile, the Steelers are dealing with injuries to almost half their starting line-up, led by this fella you may of heard of by the name of Ben Roethlisberger.
It’ll read Steelers versus Ravens on the marquee Sunday night and while the hate will still be real the teams taking the field may only be mere hollow echoes of what they once were.
STEELERS DEFENSE vs RAVENS OFFENSE
Joe Flacco. He’s lucky he plays for a relatively low profile team otherwise his name would be debated on the Four Letter every ten minutes like the names Mark Sanchez or Tony Romo. Flacco is in that nebulous second tier of quarterbacks who argue they’re elite and fans of their team think of as elite but don’t have the results to earn that designation. Win a Super Bowl, even get to one, and then you can start using the E-word.
Until then, you’re just another QB.
The dirty little secret is the Ratbirds seem to be hedging their bets on Bert, as well. He’s in the final year of his contract and over the off-season the two sides couldn’t reach an agreement on an extension because Flacco wanted elite QB money while Baltimore management argued he wasn’t quite at that level. Flacco is having a pretty typical season for him, a 60-40 TD/INT ratio (13 TDs against 7 INTs) and he’s on pace for about 3,500 yards (2,300 going into Sunday) which is right around his career high. They Ravens have tried everything from trading for name wide receivers to letting Bert grow a pornstache in hopes he can hit another level.
At this point, I think it’s safe to say he is what he is and nothing can change that.
It certainly would help any QB to have a weapon like Ray Rice in the backfield. As usual, Rice is a tremendous dual threat, leading the team in rushing while being Captain Checkdown’s third favorite target. Rice has averaged over 1,200 yards rushing and 500 yards receiving the past three years and is well on pace to make it four in a row. Needless to say, if the Steelers have any hope of winning Sunday, they have to find a way to contain this serial Stiller Killer.
Outside Rice, the Ravens offensive weapons aren’t nearly as scary as some of the other teams we’ve faced this season. Torrey Smith, who memorably caught the game winning touchdown in our last meeting, is their nominal #1 wide out. He’s pretty much a deep threat, though, averaging 17 yard per reception. A few years ago they spent big money to bring in Anquan Boldin but he’s been more or less a bust. The Ravens parted ways with another longtime irritant, TE Todd Heap, a couple seasons ago and it appears they’ve finally found another short yardage possession threat for Flacco to dump off to in TE Dennis Pitta.
The Steelers defense needs a helluva better performance this week if they don’t want embarrassed on national tv. After getting the run D straightened out, KC gashed them repeatedly until Dick LeBeau figured out Ziggy Hood was a liability and started moving him around. LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison were MIA and that simply can’t happen two weeks in a row. There will be even more pressure on the inside backers to support the run D and take away the middle of the field for those short throws Flacco lives for.
Ryan Clark passed all his concussion tests and will play on Sunday. He’ll be easy to spot as he’s resorted to wearing that extra thick Great Gazoo helmet. Clark has been the team’s defensive MVP this year so hopefully he’s able to stay on the field this week. If the Steelers have any hope of pulling out a victory, they’ll need every healthy defensive player not only on the field but playing their best possible game.
STEELERS OFFENSE vs RAVENS DEFENSE
Maybe the Ravens should change their symbol back to the horseshoe a team from Baltimore wore once upon a time. They certainly have a lot of luck. The Ratbirds have beaten the Steelers twice since 2008 when Ben Roethlisberger started at QB. They’ve won three other times, however, when Dennis Dixon and Charlie Batch have started in Ben’s place.
On Sunday, they’ll get their first taste of Byron Leftwich. I’m already on record about thinking Leftwich is a poor fit for the Todd Haley offense but I guess we’ll see. Boss Todd has said he’s tailoring things to better suit Lefty. In other words, he’s quick passing timing based offense needs to account for a guy with a longer wind-up than AJ Burnett.
Rashard Mendenhall is expected to make his return. I wasn’t too enthused about Mendy’s return but after iRed and Dwyer played miserably against the Chiefs, it certainly can’t hurt. If the Steelers have one chance offensively, it’ll be on the ground. The Ravens run D has been absolutely atrocious, even worse than our run D. They’re currently averaging 132 yards against per game. Yes, 132!
While the Steelers have battled injury, the Ravens have had more than their fair share as well. NT Haloti Ngata has been playing hurt and it shows. He’s not nearly as stout at the nose as usual. Lewis was useless in pass coverage although he did a good job against the run. And Terrell Suggs may have made an admirable return from off-season ACL surgery but he’s clearly not himself. Much like James Harrison has been a step behind all year, Suggs just can’t get his body to do what it’s accustomed to doing.
The Ravens have also been hit in the secondary with the loss of top corner Lardarius Webb. Much like their run D, their secondary has been giving up huge chunks of yardage all season. Safeties Bernard Pollard and Ed Reed are strong but corners Cary Williams and Paul Kruger can be exploited. If Ben were healthy, I could foresee something of a shoot-out. Whether Leftwich can make some plays in the passing game remains to be seen. Antonio Brown hasn’t practiced this week although he’s been telling reporters he’s going to give it a shot this afternoon. Getting him back on the field would be a huge boon to whoever plays QB.
I know I make every game out to be a make or break week. In this case, the hyperbole is actually appropriate. As usual, the AFC North is coming down to Ravens and Steelers. And, as usual, the eventual champion may very well be decided by tie breaks. It’s going to be an uphill battle for sure but why not shock the world and demoralize the Ravens in the process by pulling out a game with our back-up QB on national TV?
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The phrase of the day is “trap game.” If I had a dollar for every time I heard that spoken on sports talk radio the past few days, I could probably afford season tickets to Heinz Field.
I’m not really sure Monday night’s game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Kansas City Chiefs qualifies as a trap game. Granted, it does come on the eve of the Black and Gold’s first meeting with the hated Baltimore Ravens. And it does come on the heels of the team surging to a three game winning streak, topped by an impressive victory over the defending Super Bowl champions. Actually, maybe this is a trap game…
After losses to two of the most abysmal teams in the NFL, I’m sure the Steelers know better. There’s no way to justify losing to crap teams like the Titans and Raiders but there were mitigating circumstances. For whatever reason, the trip out to Oakland always messes up the Steelers while the Tennessee game came on a short week (Thursday) which has also proven to trip up the Black and Gold (see the Browns game a few years back).
Also, trap games usually occur when you’re playing a scrappy opponent. The Chiefs are circling the drain right now. They’re shuffling quarterbacks in and out. Romeo Crennel, who replaced Todd Haley as head coach last season, just recused himself as defensive coordinator. The team is in utter disarray. If anybody is motivated this week, it’s Boss Todd, who surely wants to make KC pay for making his life a living hell.
STEELERS DEFENSE vs CHIEFS OFFENSE
For whatever inexplicable reason, the Chiefs think they have something in Brady Quinn. Perhaps it has something do with Crennel being the same coach who made the mistake of drafting him in the first round when he was the head coach of the Browns. Whatever the logic, KC has all but given up on the Matt Cassel experiment. With the frail and effeminate Quinn nursing a concussion, Monday night may very well be Cassel’s final shot as a starter.
When Patriots GM Scott Pioli moved over to KC in 2009, he brought Cassel with him to be his QB. Cassel was coming off the season where he led the Patriots to 11 wins after Tom Brady was lost for the year. He got off to a rocky start, throwing 16 TDs and 16 INTs but rebounded in 2010 to toss 27 TDs against only 7 INTs. It’s been all downhill since then. Injuries marred his 2011 campaign and Haley’s insistence on starting former Pitt Panther Tyler Palko in place of Kyle Orton after Cassel was placed on season ending IR eventually led to his ouster.
Cassel has struggled this season, leading one of the league’s most anemic offenses (29th in points scored) and throwing a ton (11) of picks in the process. Chiefs fans had gotten so fed up that they cheered when Cassel was knocked out of a game a few weeks back, drawing scorn from one of their own players. I would’ve said something about it at the time but Pittsburgh is the city that cheered when Terry Bradshaw got knocked out so we don’t really have room to talk.
The bottom line is Cassel has struggled mightily this season. On paper, the Chiefs have the weapons to be a decent offense. WR Dwayne Bowe is a big time playmaker. Former Pitt standout Jon Baldwin is lazy but talented. And the Chiefs have one of the most dangerous weapons in the league in RB Jamaal Charles. Charles is among the league’s rushing leaders and is also a force out of the backfield.
If the Steelers can keep Charles under wraps, they should have a pretty evening. Early in the year, the D was getting gashed on the reg. They’ve tightened that up as of late so let’s hope the pattern continue. The secondary was also victimized by big plays but Ike Taylor has shaken off his early season malaise and returned to the shut down Ike of old. As long as they don’t Charles move the sticks on the ground or Bowe get loose for a big hitter in the secondary, I don’t see Cassel being able to make enough plays to hang in.
STEELERS OFFENSE vs CHIEFS DEFENSE
Ben Roethlisberger has already told reporters that Boss Todd is almost salivating at the opportunity to put the screws to his former team. Some NFL coaches play by a set of unwritten rules which dictate respect for the game and their opponent. Then there are the assholes like Todd Haley. I’m sure Mike Tomlin would rein Haley in if he looked to run up the score but then again Tomlin has no control over his players, why should he try to control his coaches?
The Chiefs have a couple decent linebackers in Tambla Hall and Justin Houston. They inexplicably cut a pretty good corner in Standford Routt so a secondary that was a nominal strength may not be any longer. They’re in the bottom third of the league against the run although they have forced a surprising number of turnovers (6 INTs and 12 fumbles).
If Big Ben and the offense can avoid shooting themselves in the foot, they should have a pretty good game. The revolving door at RB continues as Jonathan Dwyer returns with Rashard Mendenhall said to be another week away from reclaiming his starting job. Isaac Redman will start but unlike last week will probably have to share some carries with the Minibus.
Antonio Brown is probably going to sit out after suffering a dreaded high ankle sprain last Sunday. High ankles only heal with rest so I suspect we may not see him for a couple weeks. Luckily the Steelers are extremely deep at WR with Jerricho Cotchery, who could probably start for most teams, ready to slide in the slot. Manny Sanders, who’s quietly putting together a nice season, will start. For those who remember back, Sanders actually played a ton as a rookie while AB didn’t come on until the playoffs. Sanders has been set back by injuries but now is his time to shine in front of a national audience.
In fact, it’s time for the entire team to introduce themselves to the nation. After getting off to a slow start this season, the Steelers have quietly crept back into the playoff conversation. If the season were to end tomorrow, they would be one of the AFC’s two Wild Cards. For the Black and Gold to firmly establish themselves as Super Bowl contenders, they need to string together wins. A victory on Monday night and a four game win streak going into a showdown with Baltimore would be a nice place to start.
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As of this writing, the match-up between the Pittsburgh Steelers and New York Giants is slated to kick-off in MetLife Stadium Sunday afternoon as scheduled. Not to get all soap boxy on yinz but that’s kind of insane. While MetLife has a generator, word is the surrounding area is still without public transportation. The New York/New Jersey area is only now beginning to dig their way out of the devastation wrought by Hurricane Sandy. To play a football game amongst such chaos is nuts.
To further the craziness, word out of NY is many Giants players have been living at the Giant’s training complex because their homes have been amongst those without power. From our side, the Steelers’ team hotel is also powerless so the team has made the call to forgo flying in the night before and will instead fly in on Sunday morning, go directly to the stadium, play the game and head home. Craziness.
Okay, hopping off the box now. So what might we see when this game kicks off?
STEELERS DEFENSE vs GIANTS OFFENSE
In my piece about Eli Manning this morning, I called him Elite Eli. The joke is in reference to the always obnoxious NY media who asked Eli before last season if he considered himself an elite QB and he said yes. They snickered at the answer but the laughing stopped when he led the team to a second Super Bowl victory with a second epic last second comeback victory of the Patriots. Eli had his ups and downs his first few seasons in the league but he has definitely blossomed in to a truly elite QB.
For proof, you need not look any further than the focus of the Giants offense. Much like here in Pittsburgh, in Eli’s early years the offense relied on a strong running game and a conservative passing game. The past couple years, the running attack has dropped off considerably while the Giants put the game in Eli’s hands. And he’s responded. Last year was Manning’s third straight 4,000+ yard game (in fact, he was less than a 100 yards short of 5,000) season.
Manning is on pace to surpass that mark yet again this year. What’s more, he’s doing it with a constantly rotating cast of receivers. He isn’t much like his brother Peyton except in one regard. They both have the knack of making any receiver look like a superstar. The 2007 Champion Giants featured Plaxico Burress and Amani Toome. The 2011 G-Men starred Mario Manningham and Victor Cruz. Manningham is gone but the passing game keeps on rolling with Cruz and Hakeem Nicks. Domenik Hixon has more than replaced Manningham while Cowboys castoff TE Martellus Bennent has emerged as a red zone threat.
The Giants are a passing team. As such, they feature a duo of backs toting the rock. Ahmed Bradshaw is the nominal starter but he’s battled injury this season. Back-up Andre Brown has notched a 100 yard game in his absence. David Wilson is the change of pace back. All three are capable of catching balls out of the backfield, as is perhaps the best fullback in the league, former Pitt star Henry Hynoski.
The Steelers must must must control Eli Manning if they have any hopes of winning this game. The good news is Ryan Clark has practiced normally and would seem clear to play on Sunday after leaving the Washington game with a concussion. Clark has been a dominant force for a secondary that is statistically ranked first in the NFL. Ike Taylor and Keenan Lewis have quietly strung together a couple strong games and it’ll be imperative they bring their A game to New Jersey.
The Giants boast perhaps the best O line in football. The passing game is so effective because Eli is seldom touched. LaMarr Woodley‘s hammy has been acting up and even if he plays, his effectiveness will be limited. No matter, the Steelers haven’t been getting the to QB much even with him and James Harrison finally on the field together anyway. The team doesn’t need to sack Eli or pick off his passes (although that would be nice) but they can’t let him set up a hammock and take a nap in the pocket either. If they can at least rush him a little, it would go a long way to disrupting their offense.
STEELERS OFFENSE vs GIANTS DEFENSE
This is a bad match-up for the Steelers. Our offensive line struggles against teams with good defensive lines and the Giants have perhaps the best D-line in football. Justin Tuck, Osi Umenyiora, Mathias Kiwanuka and Jason Pierre-Paul are arguably the most dangerous front four since the glory days of the Steel Curtain. Yes, they’re that good. They’re so good, I didn’t even mention a guy like Linval Joseph, who rotates at DT and has more sacks than anybody on the Steelers.
Our o-line has done fantastic work the past few weeks. Marcus Gilbert is likely out another week which I wouldn’t ordinarily care about because Mike Adams has done a fantastic job in his absence. I would rather have an experienced guy in there against that d-line but it’s not like Gilbert is a 10 year vet. The o-line, who are always a little fired up thanks to hotheads like Willie Colon and Maurkice Pouncey, have extra motivation this week after Justin Tuck told ESPN that they’ve only played well because they’ve gotten away with a ton of holding. Hey, as Jesse Ventura once wisely said, “it’s only cheating if you get caught.”
Ben Roethlisberger may be thanking the stars for the dink and dunk offense come game time. The best way to combat a hellacious pass rush is to get the ball out quick. Todd Haley’s offense is nothing if not quick. Mike Wallace has been chirping to the media about the lack of long bombs but those of us who remember Bruce Arians insanely dialing up deep ball after deep ball while Ben takes hit after hit prefer this method. Besides, the best defense is a ball control offense.
The Giants don’t have a great secondary. Some point to their 11 interceptions but when you play turnover machines like Michael Vick and Tony Romo (who’s gifted them 6 of the 11), the numbers will be skewed. There will be plays to be made against a secondary that’s in the bottom half of the league in yards given up.
Who will run the ball for the Steelers is a little murky. Jonathan Dwyer and Rashard Mendenhall have been limited at practice. I suspect the starter will be a game time decision. Either way, Mike Tomlin will likely deactivate one or the other and then blame their injury. Isaac Redman seems good to go so he’ll likely back-up whomever starts.
This game isn’t a make or break week for the Steelers. At the same time, this team really needs a signature win over a quality opponent. The past couple weeks we’ve seen an upswing in their play as they’ve done a good job against some capable opposition. But this week we face not only a playoff caliber team but a championship level club. A win this week will firmly establish the Steelers belong in that conversation as well.
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The Pittsburgh Steelers will host the Washington Redskins at Heinz Field on Sunday. Two storied franchises. The Redskins were founded back in 1932 although they didn’t move to DC until 1937. As we all know, the Steelers were started in 1933 after the Chief, Art Rooney, had a good day at the track (or so the legend goes).
And on Sunday we’ll get to see what the Chief saw waaaay back when the franchise was only in its second year. Except we get to see it in glorious high definition. Yes, the dreaded 1934 bumblebee throwbacks make their debut this weekend. Adjust your brightness levels with due diligence.
STEELERS DEFENSE vs REDSKINS OFFENSE
Robert Griffin III. What more can I say about him that hasn’t been said? He is truly the NFL’s ultimate weapon. He has more rushing yards than all the Steelers backs combined. And lest you think he’s a run first/pass second QB, his current passer rating is third behind only Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers.
Funny thing is, RGIII isn’t the only rookie making an impact on the Redskins. Running back Alfred Morris is currently third in the league in rushing. The sixth round pick has piled up over 600 yards and scored 5 TDs.
While that should add up to a potent offense, and indeed Washington is fifth in the NFL in total offense coming into this week’s game, some question marks have emerged. Griffin’s favorite target, TE Fred Davis, was lost for the season after tearing his ACL. The Skins signed former Colt Pierre Garcon to shore up their receiving corps but he’s been hurt and isn’t expected to play Sunday. That leaves former Niner Josh Morgan and old warhorse Santana Moss as the teams starting wide outs.
Of course mediocre receivers can start looking like world-beaters when a team has a dominating running game. The first order of business for the Steelers will be to contain both RGIII and Morris. I know, I know, easier said than done. The Steelers haven’t been very good against the run this season; last week Benjarvis Green-Ellis was gashing them until the Bengals inexplicably abandoned the run.
Stopping the run hinges on two things. First, the defensive line. Ziggy Hood and Casey Hampton have played poorly this season and the results have been big holes for backs to romp through. On the bright side, ILBs Lawrence Timmons and Larry Foote have been standouts but if the D-line doesn’t hold their water, they’re stuck tackling guys 5-8 yards down the field.
I think the secondary will be fine against the pass unless they start getting gashed so badly Dick LeBeau is forced to stack the box. Timmons will probably be used as a spy on RGII so it’ll also be important for him to maintain his gaps and not over-pursue as he tends to do because that’s how 10 yard scrambles turn into highlight reel 40 yard TDs.
Once upon a time, LeBeau ate young QBs for breakfast. RGIII has certainly never seen the kind of things the Steelers will throw at him on Sunday. But the Steelers haven’t exactly had to deal with a threat like RGIII, either.
STEELERS OFFENSE vs REDSKINS DEFENSE
On Sunday Night Football, Cris Collinsworth mentioned that Ben Roethlisberger told him he was tired of asking the defense to put games away. Big Ben later repeated as much to local reporters. I think he’s on to something.
Back in the Bill Cowher era, the Steelers never blew leads. Yeah, they had great defenses but that wasn’t the only reason they were the best closers in football. A lot of it had to do with Jerome Bettis. When you have a back that can grind it out at the end of games, it’s hard for the other team to win when their offense is sitting on the bench.
Last week, the Steelers showed a bit of that old magic. Jonathan Dwyer had the best game by a Steelers back in almost two full seasons. Incredibly, there has been some talk that he might not even be ACTIVE for this week’s game. Mike Tomlin doesn’t believe in benching guys due to injury so Rashard Mendenhall will start as soon as he’s healthy. Additionally, Mendy and Dwyer are viewed as similar backs while Ike Redman is viewed as a change-of-pace so if he’s healthy, they’d want him in the line-up. Which leaves Dwyer odd man out.
Luckily, the Steelers’ hand might not be forced this week as both Mendy and iRed are still working their way back from injury. Redman did practice so I can see him being activated in favor of that useless Baron Batch but I have a feeling the Steelers will be more than happy to have Rashard “rest” another week while they see if Dwyer can recreate his performance.
He’ll have some help with the return of center Maurkice Pouncey. At least, in theory he should be getting help. I’m on record as saying I don’t think Pouncey is as good as the media (or he) thinks he is. I mean, we rushed for 165 yards with the Big Legursky at center, right? And didn’t Legursky start at center for iRed’s big playoff game in Denver?
Ah, who cares. As soon as he stubs a toe, Pouncey will run crying to the sideline to ice down his vagina anyway.
In addition to a running game to keep RGIII on the bench, it would be nice if Mike Wallace decided to catch the ball this week. At the risk of repeating myself, when you let teams hang around, bad things happen. Last week the Steelers escaped with a close win but you can’t play that game forever. It would be nice if this vaunted group of wide outs actually made a couple big plays so we could put TOUCHDOWNS on the board before turning the ball over to Dwyer.
There should be ample opportunity to make plays. As good as Washington’s offense has been, their D has been equally wretched. They’re third from the bottom in total defense, surrendering nearly 30 points per game. They’re dead last against the pass, giving up a whopping 330 yards/game. If Young Money doesn’t show up against this defense, well, maybe it’s time for a name change.
Steelers. Redskins. Old school teams. New school offense. One team is going to leave with a much-needed win. Let’s hope it’s the team dressed like a Yinzer Hamburgular.
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The Pittsburgh Steelers will play the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday Night Football. Well, sorta. Some guys wearing Black and Gold uniforms will take the field against our old rivals although many of the names will not be the ones we normally think of when we say “Steelers.”
I’m not sure what’s happening this season. The AFC is wide open. Only two teams have winning records. One of those two are the Baltimore Ravens, who may be getting Terrell Suggs back but lost Ray Lewis and their best CB for the season. They should win the AFC North but that’s far from a given even after starting the year at 5-1.
Then we have the Bengals. Last season, Cincy surprised everybody by riding a rookie quarterback and rookie wide receiver into a Wild Card playoff berth. That they got drubbed by the Texans was irrelevant. It was supposed to be the beginning of bigger and better things.
Like about half the AFC, they currently find themselves at .500. After getting hammered by the Ratbirds in week 1, they won three straight. Then they lost to a shockingly competent Miami team two weeks ago before being upset by the promising Browns for their first win of the year.
Which leaves us with Sunday night’s match-up. What many saw as two of the AFC’s top teams is now a battle between a couple of reeling teams riding two game skids.
STEELERS DEFENSE vs BENGALS OFFENSE
Andy Dalton is currently the fourth ranked passer in football. Let that sink in a moment. He’s already thrown for 1700 yards and 12 TDs. When Carson Palmer pulled his punk card and got himself ran out of town, many thought Cincy was done for. Turns out, they made out on the deal. Not only did they get a better QB than they had, they also got one of the best receivers in the game.
AJ Green is a beast. We saw it last year when he almost single-handedly beat the Steelers. He’s quickly becoming the most feared receiver in the league, already catching over 600 yards worth of passes and half of Dalton’s TDs. The thing is, Cincy’s receiving corps aren’t deep. Andrew Hawkins, the team’s #2, has only 328 yards so you know teams are keying on Green.
Doesn’t matter. You can’t stop him.
Which makes makes me extremely worried about this week. They say in MMA and boxing, styles make fights. Styles also make football games. Certain teams match-up better than others. Teams with mediocre QBs who try to dink and dunk on the Steelers (like the Jets) tend to struggle. Teams with big fast receivers (like Denver’s Denarious Thomas) do well. Meanwhile, when Cincy plays teams that can rush the QB, they tend to falter. When Dalton has time, they succeed.
The Steelers haven’t been very good at rushing the passer. And Cincy has perhaps the best big fast receiver in football. This is not a good match-up. In fact, on paper this is a fairly disastrous match-up. The only saving grace is the Bungles tend to be the Bungles, meaning no team is better at snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
Still, Ike Taylor has been absolutely brutal this season. While he spent the week bitching about the media, he should’ve been looking at game tape and figuring out how not to get embarrassed this week. The secondary used to have a field day against young QBs but without Troy Polamalu (who rumor has it being shut down until the last half/quarter of the season) a lot of their trickery goes out the window.
The good news is LaMarr Woodley is expected back. How long the Football Gods decide to allow both Woodley and Harrison on the field together is anybody’s guess. If they can stay reunited longer than Guns N Roses last tour, the Steelers MIGHT finally generate a pass rush. As I’ve mentioned many times, Dick LeBeau‘s defense has a very specific design where Person A has to do his job for Person B to succeed. Getting after Dalton will make the secondary look better almost by default.
And, really, at this point could it look any worse?
STEELERS OFFENSE vs BENGALS DEFENSE
The collective gulp you heard on Thursday was Steeler Nation after news broke that Ben Roethlisberger rolled his ankle at practice. He left the field, giving the rest of the first team snaps to Byron Leftwich. Word is he’ll be okay come game time but if there’s one person this team absolutely cannot afford to be without, it’s Big Ben. The season was effectively over when he broke his foot last year (the same ankle he injured, by the way) and 2012 will follow a similar pattern if Ben is significantly less than 100%.
Especially when you figure most of the offense will rest on his shoulders. Rashard Mendenhall is still experiencing problems with his ACL while Isaac Redman is fighting a banged up shoulder. One or both may miss Sunday’s game. The running game was atrocious without Mendy, subtract Mendy and iRed then throw in an offensive line missing at least one, possibly two, starters and I see 40+ passes in Ben’s future.
Maurkice Pouncey has said he is going to try to go on Sunday. I fully expect him to start just like I fully expect him to run to the sideline at the first twinge of pain. He’s a great player but he’s soft. Marcus Gilbert is expected to be out 2-4 weeks although I’m not sure Mike Adams is that much of a downgrade. He’s definitely not as good at run blocking but I thought he did okay in pass pro when pressed into duty last week.
And pass protection will be the name of the game on Sunday. The Bengals have a ferocious pass rush which has accumulated a whopping 20 sacks already. D-linemen Michael Johnson (5) and Geno Atkins (6) will be a handful. Again, I refer to this being a bad match-up. The Steelers O-line struggles against talented d-tackles and Cincy has two of the best. There are plays to be made against a mediocre secondary (1 INT) but not if Ben is flat on his back.
This will be only the Steelers sixth game of the season. It’s hard to make grand statements like “It’s over if they lose!” before you’ve even reached the halfway point. However, if they lose, falling to 2-4 with a 1-4 record in the AFC does not bode well. Especially with tough games against the Ravens (2x) and Giants ahead.