The Pittsburgh Steelers are hot right now. Their offense is on absolute fire but the oft-criticized defense has also come around in recent weeks. They’re not shutting people out like in days gone by although I’m not sure in today’s NFL such a thing is even possible. With all the current rules where basically scowling at a receiver results in a flag, I’m not sure it’s even possible to have a shut down unit anymore.
Good teams still play good D, it’s just a different kind of defense. They don’t give up the big plays, make the other guys work for the scores they do get, and above all generate splash plays by sacking the QB and forcing turnovers. Those are all areas the Steelers struggled mightily in for going on a two season now. They’re also areas the team has steadily improved in over the past few weeks. Perhaps not coincidentally, that improvement has coincided with the resurgence of one player in particular.
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If at first you don’t succeed…
Pittsburgh West once again lived up to their nickname by signing running back Jonathan Dwyer on Wednesday. Dwyer won’t start for the Arizona Cardinals – Andre Ellington took hold of the job last season after the signing of uber-bust Rashard Mendenhall predictably blew up in Bruce Arians‘ face. Mendenhall recently announced his retirement at 26 years of age which shocked those in the media not familiar with what a colossal nutcase that soft baby really is. Hopefully, Mendy can find some joy traveling the world like Caine in Kung-Fu or whatever the hell he plans to do with all that money he stole from the Rooneys.
Dwyer was the first ex member of the Pittsburgh Steelers to sign elsewhere but he would not be the last. Over the past 24 hours, two more longtime Steelers found employment with new teams. Recently cut LaMarr Woodley didn’t remain on the market long, signing a two year deal with the Oakland Raiders. He won’t win many games out there although he’s almost guaranteed of beating the Steelers should the they play in the near future. Defensive end Ziggy Hood also found work with one of the league’s bottom-feeders, joining the Jacksonville Jaguars.
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And here we thought the heavy lifting was over…
When the 2014 NFL season officially begins this afternoon, the Pittsburgh Steelers will be well under the league mandated $133 million salary cap. In fact, they may even have enough money to go out and sign a couple free agents when free agency kicks off later today. The moves they made to get to this point, however, are quite noteworthy. One in a good way and one in the bad.
First, to the surprise of virtually nobody, All-Pro linebacker LaMarr Woodley was given his walking papers. When Jason Worilds signed his transition tag before the ink was dry, I theorized that he and the Steelers may have the basic framework of a long-term deal in place and were just waiting until the team got it’s salary cap ducks in a row. Regardless, despite Kevin Colbert‘s nonsensical smoke-blowing about keeping both linebackers, there was no way the Black and Gold were going to pay two OLB big money with first round pick Jarvis Jones also needing playing time. Woodley was odd-man out from the word go.
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Finally, some action…
The Pittsburgh Steelers made their first big move of the off-season, placing the transition tag on free agent linebacker Jason Worilds. I’m sure many of you are asking, “What the hell is a transition tag?” Well, it’s basically the Franchise tag’s wacky distant cousin. Where the Franchise tag comes in two flavors – exclusive and non-exclusive – and all but guarantees the player stays with his original team, the transition tag is more of a high stakes game of chicken.
Franchise tags either prevent the player from negotiating with other teams (exclusive) or come with two first round picks compensation if he signs elsewhere (non-exclusive). The transition tag comes with no such protection. Worilds is free to negotiate with other teams with the only catch being the Steelers have the right to match any offer. The transition tag will save them a couple million against the cap – transition players are paid the average of the top ten players at their position vs top five for Franchise players. In Worild’s case, he’ll get $9 million as a transitioned linebacker vs $11 million he’d get as a Franchise.
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The Pittsburgh Steelers placed linebacker LaMarr Woodley on injured reserve yesterday, thus ending his 2013 season. I know what you’re thinking, “Woodley played this season?” I can barely remember myself.
In my recap of Sunday night’s game, I mentioned Woodley falling farther faster than nearly any player I can remember. He was an absolute beast his first three seasons, amassing 35 sacks playing opposite James Harrison. Since signing a six year $61 million extension in 2011, however, he’s been a shadow of his former self. Surely a lot of it has to do with the decline and eventual departure of Deebo, who was one of the best linebackers of the current era. But a lot also has to do with the whispers of Woodley being a lazy unmotivated fatass whose near constant stream of injuries are directly related to his poor work ethic.
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The Pittsburgh Steelers have managed to claw their way back into the AFC playoff discussion. As I mentioned in yesterday’s game recap, a large part of their resurgence is due to recent line-up changes. A few of those changes were coach Mike Tomlin demoting guys due to poor performance but most of them came about because of injuries. In nearly every instance where a starter has gone down, his replacement has come in and been an improvement.
Baseball has what is called a Lou Gehrig situation. Basically, Gehrig was a bench warmer until one fateful day when the starter was ill and couldn’t play. Gehrig took his place and performed so well he’d play every game thereafter for the next fourteen years. It’s a tremendous achievement but also a cautionary tale about how quickly and unexpectedly a player can find themselves replaced.
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Last week, I wrote about growing discontent amongst the Pittsburgh Steelers. Naturally, I’ll begin this week writing about growing discontent amongst the Pittsburgh Steelers. What? You thought I’d do five hundred words on some college kid’s 40 time at the Combine?
When last we left this ridiculous controversy, an unnamed player called linebacker LaMarr Woodley a fatass. Regardless of his off-season workout regiment, there’s absolutely no denying Woodley has been an injury prone disappointment since signing his big money contract extension a couple seasons back. These unattributed comments riled up team leader/annoying loudmouth Ryan Clark, who was offended someone would break the code of locker room omerta. Shockingly, Clark did make one valid observation; that the team had a clear leadership vacuum in the wake of last season’s purge of veterans.
Since no controversy is complete until we hear from the wide receivers, not one but two Steelers wide outs chimed in on this issue. First there was Antonio Brown, wearing the swankiest pimp hat this side of the Godfather. He appeared on ESPN’s First Take but since I try to avoid ESPN and I especially try to avoid First Take, I only caught his comments when they were uploaded to their website. In between his various assaults on the English language, AB managed to reveal the Steelers had a “fractured” locker room with guys more worried about their stats and impending free agency than winning football games.
In other words, Mike Wallace and Rashard Mendenhall were the bad guys. Shocking, I know. And convenient. Since both of those goofs are long gone, it very nicely puts all questions about a divided locker room to rest. At least until the team loses two in a row to bottom feeders they should’ve crushed.
Hines Ward, who is no longer a Steeler although for some reason the media runs to get his opinion on every move they make, went on the NFL Network to weigh in on this controversy. Hines reiterated Clark’s point about losing veteran leaders and talked about the team losing track of the Steeler Way. He also provided every headline writer their money quote by saying the backbiting was a sign the team was in “total disarray.” Impressive insight for a man who spent most of last season in Los Angeles preparing sweet and sour spare ribs for Guy Fieri and Rachel Ray.
Look, the Steelers definitely have a problem. When they cut Hines and James Farrior, yinzers called local sports talk shows worried about leadership and were dismissed by hosts who (rightfully) pointed out teams don’t have to like each other or be compromised of good guys to win. Now that the players themselves are pointing out the problems in the locker room, those same hosts are all over this topic. This is why I started this blog, the reporters and sports personalities in this town suck.
You don’t need a team full of choir boys or a team wide lovefest to win. However, the good guys need to outnumber the bad guys. The Steelers have had idiots on the team before but with Hines or the Bus leading the locker room and a hard-ass head coach in Bill Cowher, the Steeler Way prevailed. In recent years, the guys who were all about winning have faded away and a bunch of chest-thumping me-firsters have taken their place. And instead of the head coach reining them in, we have hear-no-evil see-no-evil Mike Tomlin. There is a systematic flaw within this team. Unfortunately, a flaw I don’t see being corrected any time soon.
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Here I was hoping for a nice quiet off-season for the Pittsburgh Steelers…
Then again, I guess the off-season hasn’t truly started until Ryan Clark shoots his big mouth off about something. I’d really like to know how and when that assclown became the official spokesman for the Steelers’ players. Granted football players tend to have IQs somewhere north of a turnip and, as we saw during the lockout, aren’t really that particular about picking their leaders. Still, one would think there is at least one level-headed guy in that locker room who can step forward and talk to the media without being a divisive influence.
Let’s rewind back to Sunday. Ron Cook wrote a piece for the Post-Gazette that was highly critical of linebacker LaMarr Woodley. Cook used a bunch of words to point out what all of us fans already knew; since signing his big money contract extension in 2011, Woodley’s level of play has fallen off the map. What got people’s attention was a quote about Woodley attributed to an anonymous teammate. “He tells us he works out, but we didn’t see it. He wasn’t in shape. That has to be a reason why he was always hurt.”
Clark, who never met a microphone he wouldn’t talk into, immediately decried the comments as “cowardly.” Again, that’s not really shocking as pro athletes love to invoke this code of silence gimmick like they’re a team of Navy SEALS charged with conducting a raid on an al-Qaeda compound. I have no desire to see the Steelers turn into a back-stabbing circus like the Eagles or Cowboys but the feigned outrage whenever somebody criticizes a member of their own locker room is total bullshit.
The ironic part of Clark’s comments were after decrying a player for criticizing the brotherhood, he proceeded to criticize the brotherhood. Even more shockingly, what Clark said was actually pretty smart.
Clark went on to tell NFL.com that the Steelers clearly have a “a fracture” within their ranks. “That shows that this team that is normally close, you had the Joey Porters, the Alan Fanecas, just down the line, leader after leader, this team was close-knit. It shows there is a fracture in that. I think that is the most disappointing thing about that coming out.” said Clark. So by fracture he meant leadership void. We worried this might happened as the old guard retired and handed the team off to the young guys. Now for the first time there is concrete proof that something is amiss with the Black and Gold.
Hines Ward retired and the wide receiver corps became a group of me-first chest-thumping underachieving idiots. James Farrior retired and LaMarr Woodley went from one half of the best linebacking duo in Steelers history to overpaid and injury prone. Local radio host Stan Savran mentioned on his show this morning that he heard from team sources that Woodley got up to nearly 290 pounds last year. Some of that may be due to not being able to do cardio after suffering his hamstring injury. But as the anonymous Steelers points out, he’s constantly coming down with strains and pulls which are telltale signs of a guy being out of shape.
Going into the final week of the season, rumor had it that James Harrison was playing his final game in Pittsburgh. When the Steelers gave Woodley the contract extension, I’m sure they envisioned him being the guy the defense reloaded around as Deebo faded off into the sunset. In reality, Harrison has been the more effective player by far the past couple seasons. Despite the team being in the salary cap danger zone, I don’t see how the Steelers get rid of Harrison and not worry that a defense already struggling to generate turnovers and sacks gets even worse.
Run a lap, LaMarr.
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This Sunday, the Pittsburgh Steelers face the Dallas Cowboys in a game brimming with playoff implications for both teams. A Steelers-Cowboys match-up really needs no added incentive. Steeler fans hate the Cowboys, Dallas fans detest Pittsburgh. Even though the two teams only play each other once in a blue moon, it doesn’t dissipate the level of animosity and anticipation between the fan bases.
The Cowboys have adopted the moniker of “America’s Team.” No two words inspire more bile to well up in the stomach of Steeler Nation. The fact Jerry Jones and his merry band of miscreants have adopted that as both marketing slogan and credo will never cease to anger us. Usually these rivalries mean more to fans than they do to the players but it seems that isn’t always the case.
Ben Roethlisberger gave an interview on Wednesday where he was asked about the “America’s Team” moniker. Ben suggested if the Cowboys represent American, perhaps the Steelers should be referred to as the “World’s Team.” Not the cleverest bit of trash talk although you have to admire that Ben’s heart is in the right place. Certainly no team has a larger or more passionate fan base be it in the US or around the world than do the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Bragging right are all well and good but that’s a secondary concern come Sunday afternoon. As I said, both teams are in the thick of a playoff race. Both teams need a win to keep pace. A loss at this juncture could severely cripple their post-season plans. In fact, a loss could very well wind up knocking a team out of the picture altogether.
STEELERS DEFENSE vs COWBOYS OFFENSE
Tony Romo continues to be Tony Romo. What that means is you always have to take the good with the bad. The good is when he’s on, he can be a very competent passer with the kind of arm capable of making all the throws. The bad is he’s still prone to boneheaded mistakes. Romo has throw for 4,000 in every season he’s been healthy and started and he’s less than 100 yards away from eclipsing that total once again. Unfortunately, coming off a year where he posted a career best TD/INT ratio (31/10) he’s fallen back to old habits this year, nearly balancing his stat sheet with 20 TD against 16 INTs.
One bit of good news for Romo and company is that his best target, WR Dez Bryant, is adamant about playing this Sunday despite suffering a broken finger. Bryant is currently 10th in yardage and has caught 9 of Romo’s TDs so his presence would definitely be missed. How effective he’ll be catching balls with a broken finger remains to be seen. Mike Wallace can’t catch balls with two perfectly manicured hands so maybe having all your fingers operational isn’t that big a deal.
The Dallas packing attack remains strong with TE Jason Witten continuing to be one of the most dangerous pass catching targets in the game. He and Bryant are complemented by Miles Austin, whose 2012 campaign has been beset by injury. Perhaps to their detriment, the Cowboys don’t run as much as they should although Felix Jones and DeMarco Murray remain threats out of the backfield.
I’m not gonna lie, Dallas’ passing game scares the heck out of me. Coming off an utter dismantling at the hands of Phillip Rivers (who really didn’t even play that well) and a crew of utter no-name receivers, this game has the potential to get real ugly real fast if the Steelers’ secondary doesn’t play a helluva lot better. To that end, the Steelers have already decided Curtis Brown, who was about as useful as tits on a giraffe against San Diego, will ride the pine in favor of Josh Victorian. Victorian, who spent the entire season on the practice squad, didn’t exactly shine in his brief stint last Sunday but I can safely say it’d be nearly impossible to play worse than Brown did.
LaMarr Woodley has been practicing and it appears the Steelers will have their oft-injured LB back for the game. Of course, the Football Gods have deemed it unfair for us to have both Woodley and James Harrison together for any length of time so look for one (or both) to leave after a handful of plays. On paper, it looks like the defense will be formidable with both Woodley and Troy Polamalu back after extended absences but I think we’ve seen enough of Troy to know he’s playing at half speed. Whether that’s good enough for him or Woodley or Harrison to force another big game-changing turnover remains to be seen.
STEELERS OFFENSE vs COWBOYS DEFENSE
Big Ben and company better bring their A-game or else last week’s anemic offensive effort is gonna look like an ArenaBall game by comparison. I don’t know what has gone wrong with Todd Haley‘s offense but something clearly has. Going back to the game against KC, the offense has been sputtering to a standstill even with Ben at quarterback.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what the problem is because nothing seems to work. The running game doesn’t move the chains. The passing game creates opening only for passes to CLANG harmlessly off the receivers’ hands. The short quick routes still end with Ben running for his life. And the end result is a team with a load of offensive talent on paper struggling to score points.
The offensive line will look different yet again with rookie first rounder David DeCastro finally getting a start at RG. Ramon Foster will slide over to the left while Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey remains in the middle. Whether this line-up will open up some holes for the running game is anybody’s guess. It will certainly help matters if Jonathan Dwyer and iRed can get something going on the ground.
The Cowboys boast perhaps the fiercest pass rush we’ve seen all year. OLBs Demarcus Ware (11 sacks) and Anthony Spencer (8.5) will eat Ben up if the team becomes one dimensional. Corners Brandon Carr and Maurice Claiborne aren’t the flashiest secondary even though they’ve combined to form the 8th best pass D in the league. Dallas has a very strong defense so when the plays present themselves, it’ll behoove the Steelers to not let those opportunities slip through their fingers.
The last time these two teams met during the regular season, a pick six by Deshea Townshend turned the tide of the game and perhaps of the season. The Steelers went on to win and then went on a roll which culminated with a heartstopping victory in Super Bowl XLIII. Will this game be a similar springboard? Or will it be just another stop on the path to diminished expectations?
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It appears the demise of the Steelers defense was greatly exaggerated.
After Sunday’s utter domination of the New York Giants, Dick LeBeau‘s crew finds themselves the top ranked defense in the entire NFL. Not the Bears. Not the Texans. Not the Niners.
The Pittsburgh Steelers.
Does anybody else remember all the way back to one measly month ago? I know many of my readers don’t live in the Pittsburgh area so let me tell you what every other yinzer calling in to sports talk radio was saying. The defense stinks. They couldn’t stop a nose bleed. Dick LeBeau is old and the game has passed him by. Without Troy Polamalu, the defense doesn’t have enough talent to get the job done.
I admit it. I jumped aboard that bandwagon. After the Steelers blew a 23-16 lead against the wretched Titans, surrendering 10 points in the final five minutes, I started thinking maybe the only way this team can win is to run up the score on their opponents and hold on for dear life. In my defense, Ben Roethlisberger must have harbored similar feelings because Cris Collinsworth mentioned about six times that he said he wanted the offense to start closing out games instead of relying on the defense.
Ironically, it was that Sunday Night game against the Bengals where the D finally came to life. Whether Ben’s comments filtered back to them or not, they stepped up. After allowing a field goal on Cincy’s opening drive of the second half, the defense forced five straight punts to close out the game, four of which were three and outs. Granted the Bengals don’t have the greatest offense but Andy Dalton nearly out-dueled Peyton Manning this past weekend. And they do feature AJ Green, the best receiver in football, who much-maligned Ike Taylor held to one catch for 8 yards.
The next week, they did face a supposedly high powered offense. Robert Griffin III was being touted as the most fearsome offensive weapon in the league. The Redskins were coming off a heartbreaking loss to the Giants where they scored 23 points a week after dropping 38 on a solid Vikings unit. The Steelers stuffed RGIII like a three point buck and held Washington to a mere 12 points. Last Sunday, we faced the Giants and another high flying offense. If you subtract the bogus fumble recovery for a TD and the bogus personal foul on Ryan Clark that gave them 7 instead of settling for 3, the D held the G-Men to 9 points.
So dominating were the Steelers that Giants coach Tom Coughlin threw his quarterback under the bus after the game.
Can this last?
Blitzburgh is a thing of the past. Despite the overall #1 ranking, they’re only 22nd in sacks (14 total). This might be concerning except I’m starting to think the sack is the football equivalent of a save in baseball. A closer can come in with a 3 run lead, give up a two run home run and as long as he gets that third out, he’s credited with “saving” the game. Physically dragging the QB down is like a save, it’s a result that doesn’t speak to the action. Sure it would be nice to get sacks because they usually come with big losses but they’re not the be all and end all. The Steelers have been generating pressure on the QB. Forcing QBs to move around in the pocket, rushing throws, and generally disrupting their timing can all be done without registering a sack. And that’s what they’ve been doing.
Then we have Mike Tomlin‘s beloved “splash plays.” Again, the Steelers haven’t been doing well in that category. Their top ranked pass D is third from the bottom in interceptions. They have forced four fumbles which makes them about average but there is no denying the splash plays are few and far between. However, are splash plays truly an accurate measure of a good defense?
I’m not big on statistics because, as the saying goes, there are liars, damn liars, and statistics. When it comes to turnovers, stats are even more misleading. One of the great unspoken truths of the NFL is that turnovers are about 20% scheme and talent and 80% luck. When the Saints won the Super Bowl, they had the most opportunistic D in the NFL. The next year the same players ranked in the bottom third in turnovers and lost in the first round of the playoffs. The Patriots had the last ranked defense last season yet made it all the way to the Super Bowl because they got a lot of turnovers (playing teams like the Jets and Bills helps). This year they’re in the middle of the pack and as a result have had to do a lot of work to overcome a defense ranked 28th against the pass and 22nd in total yards allowed.
What I’m saying is turnovers are nice but they can’t be counted on over the long haul. You can’t say, “well, we give up 350 yards per game but lead the league in red zone INTs!” and think that can last. Eventually you’re not going to get that pick. Like a card counter in Vegas, you have to play the percentages. It’s far preferably to hold the other team to under 200 yards of offense than give up huge chunks on the hope the other team will turn the ball over before they score.
The personnel may be different but the philosophy is still the same. Disrupt the quarterback, stop the run, force the other team to become one dimensional. The Steelers are executing the Dick LeBeau game plan to a T. And the scary part is they’re doing it without the services of Troy Polamalu.
If they’re this good without him, what are they going to do when he comes back for a playoff run?