The Pittsburgh Steelers rescued wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders from the nefarious clutches of the New England Patriots by matching their offer sheet late Sunday night. By tendering Sanders an additional $1.2 million on top of the $1.3 they already offered, the Black and Gold avoid losing what is expected to be their #2 receiver to a hated conference rival. They also roll the dice in the sense that had they let Sanders go, they would’ve received the Patriots’ third round pick in this year’s draft. Manny will be an unrestricted free agent after this season and with his agent already making noise about wanting a decent chunk of change in order to sign a long term deal, it’s entirely possible the Steelers will lose him next winter and get next to nothing in return.
The Sanders Saga has been one of the more mystifying developments of this off-season. There has been an inordinate amount of discussion devoted to a player 90% of football fans have probably never heard of, most of it driven by muckraker Mike Florio over at ProFootballTalk. Florio is a noted Steeler hater so it’s not surprising he gleefully chronicles their every move looking for barbs to throw but over the past week he’s followed the Sanders Saga like it’s Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier. While I get that the Patriots and Steelers are two of the most popular fanbases and popularity = clicks, no less than seven posts on a guy who’s caught a grand total of five touchdowns seems ludicrous.
By the way, I have a correction to make on my original Sanders post from a few days ago. The $2.5 million in cap room PFT listed the Steelers having left was as of the current date. It doesn’t take into account the $5 million in space they’ll get when Willie Colon‘s salary comes off the books on June 1st. So while giving another million to Sanders hurts their ability to add an Ahmad Bradshaw or linebacker depth, they should be in good shape to sign all their draft picks.
Of course the burning question is did the Steelers do right by retaining Sanders? I was torn a few days ago but the more I think about it, it was the right move to make. I’m amazed a whopping 57% of fair-weather yinzers voted in a P-G poll to let him go. I’m even more amazed by the people calling into talk radio bemoaning Kevin Colbert turning down a third round pick in exchange for him. Since when did third round picks turn into precious gold?
Do the names Willie Reid or Dallas Baker ring any bells? How about Limas Sweed? Sweed should be familiar if only because Sanders had a couple Sweed-like moments last season when he dropped a pass then feigned injury to cover for his blunder. However my point is, a third round pick (91st overall) is not exactly a can’t miss prospect. For comparison purposes, last year’s 91st pick was an OT who didn’t see the field last year. Two years ago, it was a linebacker who has started 13 games in two season and has yet to record a sack. With the 91st pick last year, the Steelers could’ve gotten a fine young receiver like the Colts’ TY Hilton (taken one pick later) or they could’ve gotten a guy like Carolina’s Joe Adams (taken nine picks later) who made one whole catch all season.
Point is, the NFL draft isn’t an exact science. The Steelers could’ve found a receiver every bit the equal of Sanders. They also could’ve wasted the pick on yet another shitbum. Furthermore, this team has a number of holes that need filled at OLB, ILB, CB, RB and WR. Subtract Sanders and you almost have to draft at least two wide receivers, burning a pick that might be better spent addressing another position. They might still take two young wide outs but at least now there is some flexibility.
Whether Sanders gets his act together and fulfills some of the potential we saw his rookie year when people forget he looked like the emerging star until Antonio Brown broke through during the post-season remains to be seen. At this point, it’s a gamble the Steelers had to take.
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The New England Patriots aren’t satisfied with stealing AFC Championship games from the Pittsburgh Steelers. Now they’re out to steal our players. After cutting ties with Wes Welker earlier this off-season, the Fighting Belicheats have been looking everywhere for weapons to add to Tom Brady‘s arsenal. Evidently they found one in wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders.
New England signed Manny to one year $2.5 million offer sheet yesterday afternoon. Since Sanders is a restricted free agent, the Steelers now have five days to match their offer or else Sanders becomes Patriots’ property in exchange for their third round pick in the upcoming draft. Since the Steelers have already tendered him $1.3 million, they actually only need to offer another $1.2 million to keep him. Early word from ESPN No-Nothing Ed Werder is the Steelers are expected to match.
At this point, it seems like the Steelers are in a lose-lose situation either way.
If they don’t match, Antonio Brown will be the last member of Young Money left standing. While breaking up that group of underachieving punks isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it does leave the team’s wide receiving corps dangerously thin. Subtract Manny and our current depth chart looks like this: AB and Jerricho Cotchery starting with Plaxico Burress playing the slot. Sure Sanders had his problems last season but that’s the kind of line-up nightmares are made of. If we lose Sanders, the Steelers will have to use one of their first two picks in the upcoming draft on a wide out.
If they do match, well, they still need to take a wide receiver. But before they can sign any of this year’s draft picks, they’ll have some work to do to get under the salary cap. According to ProFootballTalk, the Steelers are currently a measly $2.5 million under the cap. Giving Sanders another million plus means they’ll need to clear another chunk of space in order to sign their picks.
$2.5 million under the cap. Seriously, I can’t get over that number. Where the bloody blue hell is all their money going? Don’t say Ben because the Patriots have Tom Brady and they’re still a whopping $10 million under the cap. We haven’t signed a single name free agent. We let Rashard Mendenhall and Mike Wallace walk away. We cut James Harrison and re-worked a bunch of other high priced contracts. I could see if this was a team coming off a Super Bowl victory but the Steelers got Tebow’d out of the playoffs two years ago and went 8-8 last year. Why are they paying a bunch of mediocre shitbums all of this money?
What the f*%k is this team doing?
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In a little less than two hours, the NFL free agency period officially begins. If you believe the rumors, sometime shortly thereafter the Pittsburgh Steelers will lose at least two and more likely three starters. Mike Wallace and Rashard Mendenhall are certainly gone. Wallace is reportedly taking his talent to South Beach for somewhere north of $10 million per season. By “talent,” I of course mean his one and only talent of running really fast in a straight line. Mendenhall won’t be overpaid nearly as much although word is he’s being viewed as the best running back available this off-season. Several teams have been tied to him with the Denver Broncos being the early favorites to enjoy his butterfingers and hip-hop stylings behind the line of scrimmage.
The third departure will certainly hurt more than the first two. The Steelers would like to bring CB Keenan Lewis back but in a thin market and with good young secondary talent at a premium, it’s likely they won’t be able to offer him what some other team does. The Steelers have other options at corner as I’ve already written although Lewis is the kind of guy good teams keep around. While I personally think Cortez Allen is too good not to start, it hurts to spend years drafting and developing a guy like Lewis only for him to go elsewhere while we’re stuck bringing back a mediocre retread like William Gay.
The Steelers have deviated from the Steeler Way and are paying for it now and likely in the immediate future. They used to have no qualms about jettisoning expensive veterans in favor of reloading with younger guys. For whatever reason, they held the current team together long past it’s expiration date and those big money veteran contracts have left the team in salary cap hell. While those with tons of money to spend are almost always teams that suck (Miami, Cleveland) or successful teams winning with a lot of guys in their first few years in the league who are still on their relatively cheap rookie contracts (Seattle, San Fransisco), it can’t be argued that the Steelers paid too much money to too many guys who were either past their prime or too injury prone to reach it.
With James Harrison‘s recent release and the earlier contract reworkings, the Steelers managed to get themselves around $10 million or so under the cap. They offered minimum tenders to four restricted free agents (meaning any team that signs them has to surrender a pick equal to the round they were picked in if the Steelers opt not to match) and re-signed G Ramon Foster to a three year/$6 million deal and ILB Larry Foote to a two year/$5 million deal which knocks that number down to around $2.5 million or so.
Manny Sanders, Steve McClendon, Isaac Redman, and Jonathan Dwyer all received $1.3 million tenders. Dwyer signed his right away which is unusual since players usually wait to see if a better offer is forthcoming. Dwyer clearly wanted to show the Steelers he was serious about wearing the Black and Gold and serious about being the team’s featured back next year. Sanders is probably safe under the minimum tender since he was a third round pick and it’s unlikely a team would want to surrender a premium pick for him. McClendon and Redzone aren’t sure things since they were undrafted and thus teams can sign them without losing a pick. If McClendon goes elsewhere, the Steelers nose tackle options will be limited to squeezing another year out of broken down Casey Hampton or rolling the dice with homicidal maniac Alameda Ta’amu.
The Steelers did manage to reel in one big free agent to off-set the loss of Wallace. “Big” as in literally large, not a big name unless you’ve just stepped out of Delorean that came from 2003. Plaxico Burress re-signed with the team that originally drafted him way back in 2000. He’s being brought back to give Ben Roethlisberger the tall wide receiver he’s wanted for several years now. Plax is old (35) and slow but he’s still 6’5 so he could be a decent red zone threat. Best of all, he’s dirt cheap.
Cheap is where the Steelers are right now. Yeah, winning the off-season is usually zero indication of actually winning when the 2013 season kicks off six months from now. However, the Steelers are an aging group with plenty of holes to fill. It would be nice to have a little money to spend instead of the traditional dumpster diving. Unfortunately, dumpster diving it is.
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When the season ended for the Pittsburgh Steelers a couple months back, I wrote that it appeared we were in for an off-season filled with upheaval. I said that because with something like a dozen unrestricted free agents, a half dozen restricted free agents and a number of overpaid veterans, it seemed a pretty safe bet the roster was going to see significant changes. I never thought those changes would extend to the coaching staff as well. Looking back, change was probably inevitable coming off such a massively disappointing season.
We knew the Steelers were losing offensive line coach Sean Kugler since he announced during the season he was leaving to become head coach at his alma mater (UTEP) at year’s end. Kugler might be the most significant loss as he’s done a tremendous job with the Black and Gold’s offensive line since replacing the awful Larry Zierlein in 2010. Every year we talk about the team’s “new look” line and every year one player goes down almost immediately with several more falling as the campaign marches on. Last year, the team used a different starting O-line combination nearly every week. The line didn’t exactly remain steady no matter who they plugged in – the run blocking, for example, fell apart when Willie Colon was lost – but the fact they could throw an untested undrafted rookie like Kelvin Beachum out there and watch him hold his own speaks well of Kugler’s coaching ability.
Kugler is being replaced by Jack Bicknell Jr. That name probably means more to college football fans than those of us who follow the NFL. Bicknell is the son of longtime Boston College head coach Jack Bicknell. Bicknell Jr. was a starting O-lineman for his dad during the Doug Flutie years before moving into coaching himself. He’s been a career OL coach with the exception of a seven year head coaching stint at Terry Bradshaw‘s alma mater, Louisiana Tech. In recent years, Bicknell Jr. was an assistant OL coach for the Giants for a few seasons before moving on to the Chiefs last season. I don’t pay attention to KC but the G-Men have had some really good lines so let’s hope he was a big part of that.
The Steelers most recent loss was wide receivers coach Scottie Montgomery. The official story is Montgomery left to become offensive coordinator at Duke. However, Uncle Eddy Bouchette at the P-G in his role of unofficial PR man has floated the story (no doubt fed to him by team officials) that the team actually booted him out the door. It sounds a lot like the Bruce Arians story where instead of straight out firing BA, they encouraged him to “retire.” And like the Arians situation, word is the reason Montgomery fell out of favor with Steelers brass as they saw him as too buddy-buddy with the Young Money crew. I’m not enamored with Art Rooney II‘s idea that coaches should be hard on their players but those idiots definitely need someone who will put boots to asses.
The new WR coach is Aliquippa native Richard Mann. Mann is a 30 year veteran of the NFL coaching ranks although he has been out of the league the past three years, working as a consultant who prepares college guys for the draft. Mann prior job was as the WR coach/assistant head coach for the Tampa Bay Bucs under Raheem Morris. Mann spent 8 seasons in Tampa, several of which saw him coaching on the same staff as Mike Tomlin. During his tenure, the Bucs won a Super Bowl and had at least one 1,000 yard receiver every year except the last. He’s known as a very detail oriented guy so let’s hope he can bring some discipline to that group of underachievers.
Now, I’ve saved the best for last. The Steelers special teams were an absolute joke last season yet ST coach Amos Jones was inexplicably brought to Arizona by his old buddy Bruce Arians as the ST coordinator down there. I don’t think a single member of Steeler Nation lost sleep over that development. After reaching out to a number of candidates, the Black and Gold finally hired Washington Redskins ST coach Danny Smith. Smith, who started his coaching career at Central Catholic, has bounced around the league since then, coaching ST for the Eagles, Bills and Skins while also enjoying short stints as TE coach for the Lions and DB coach for Philly.
Interestingly, Smith was the team’s first choice back in 2010 but Washington wouldn’t let him go so we ultimately settled on Al Everest. Also, as this comprehensive look at Smith’s eight year stint in Washington mentions, he was the man in charge when Shaun Suisham endured one of his notable meltdowns. Suisham has revitalized his career here in Pittsburgh so it’ll be interesting to see if his resurgence continues under the man who oversaw one of his biggest failures. To be honest, I’d almost be willing to trade a slight drop-off in accuracy if it means a kickoff unit that doesn’t get flagged for holding on every return.
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And never brought to mind?
The more quickly the Pittsburgh Steelers 24-10 victory over the Cleveland Browns is forgotten the better. I have to confess, I lost interest in this game about ten minutes in and started flipping to Red Zone in order to watch games that actually mattered. Considering nearly 15,000 fans attended yesterday’s season finale at Heinz Field disguised as empty seats, I have to think I’m not alone in my crippling apathy.
Pittsburgh is a football town. I would be insane to deny it. At the same time, Pittsburgh also backs winners. Oh, we still support our Pirates or Penguins when they fail but not nearly with the same fervor or in the same numbers as we do teams that win. The Steelers first meaningless game in six years and 15,000 people opted to skip it. The Rooney family, and by that I mean bungling meddler Art II, better not take this town’s support for granted or we’ll be seeing a lot more Pitt size crowds in the near future.
As I said, I didn’t watch every minute of this titanic confrontation but I’ll give some thoughts on the bits and pieces I did see. The reason my will was broken early on had much to do with a mind-numbing first quarter which saw Todd Haley‘s stunningly inept offense piss around while rookie nobody Thad Lewis drove 70 yards on Dick LeBeau‘s top ranked defense. The Browns’ drive came to a screeching halt thanks to a Troy Polamalu interception.
Well, at least Troy made one play this season.
Speaking of finally making a play, Ziggy Hood finally made an impact himself. Unfortunately, it came in the form of taking out the knee of teammate Brett Keisel, who will undergo an MRI tomorrow due to fears he may have injured his MCL (which may or may not require surgery). On the plus side, with Diesel out, Mike Tomlin was forced to play Cam Heyward. Young guys on defense, what a crazy concept!
The defensive standouts, if you can call them that considering they were playing against a guy who has been cut from three different teams’ practice squads, were Lawrence Timmons and Cortez Allen. Timmons put the cherry on top of his break out season with two sacks and a fumble recovery. It only took 5 years but LT is finally playing like a mid first round draft pick. So I guess we should expect next year’s first to finally make an impact some time around 2018.
Meanwhile, Allen continues to make me look like a genius for tabbing him as a future starter – and a high-level one at that – in the secondary. Last week he caused three turnovers (2 INTs and forced fumble), this week he added another two FFs, one of which he recovered himself. Five turnovers in two weeks. That’s nearly more than the rest of the defense combined. Keenan Lewis played well this year but I don’t see how they can possibly limit Allen to a nickel role next year.
Lewis, by the way, is going to be a free agent at season’s end. The balky knee which limited him the past month acted up so if this was his last appearance in the Black and Gold it was a brief one. I imagine the team will try to keep him although they’d be foolish to overpay for a guy destined to be a #3 corner. Lewis’s probable exit will likely be part of a roster purge that made last year’s Veteran Armageddon look tame by comparison.
Casey Hampton was replaced for almost the entire second half by Steve McClendon. McClendon even got some good pressure on young Thaddeus begging the question why he sat on the bench for 16 weeks while all the old immobile guys stood around like their feet were stuck in mud. Even though the team doesn’t have a legit heir apparent at NT, it seems certain we’ll go into next year with McClendon and (provided he doesn’t kill anybody over the summer) Alameda Ta’amu.
The linebacking corps will also be undergoing a bit of an overhaul. Reports on NFL.com are that yesterday’s game was James Harrison‘s swan song in Pittsburgh. If so, Deebo made sure to get one final late hit cheap shot in for old time’s sake. Guess he’ll have to sit out his first regular season game as a Dolphin due to suspension. Ironically, that hit came on the very play where Thad Lewis threw his first (and only) career TD pass. While it looks like Jason Worilds will step in opposite the chronically injured LaMarr Woodley, the Steelers will have to use the draft or *gasp* free agency to find another ILB to pair with Timmons when they part ways with veteran Larry Foote.
Ben Roethlisberger – making sure to clutch his ribs in crippling agony after every throw so we knew the Big Drama Queen was TOUGH~! – played to the bitter end. Ben, who threw for only 134 yards but 3 TDs, managed to put together a couple nice drives in the fourth quarter, including his 23rd and final TD pass of the season to Plaxico Burress. Eight years, three Super Bowl championships and a prison stint later, the season ends with Big Ben to Plax for a TD. Fitting.
The only drawback to yesterday’s win (besides Keisel and Kelvin Beachum getting hurt. Since when did playing Right Tackle for the Steelers become the equivalent of wearing a red shirt on the USS Enterprise?) was the victory dropped the Steelers all the way to the 17th overall pick in the 2013 draft. That’s still plenty high to get a quality player, one who may be counted on to contribute a lot faster than rookies have in recent years. Whoever they take, this is going to be among the most important off-seasons in Steelers history.
Will Art II admit the Todd Haley experiment has been an utter failure? Or will Boss Todd be given another year to electrify us with his vast array of bubble screens and end arounds? Who will replace the aforementioned losses on defense? Likewise, what will the team do with Rashard Mendenhall and Mike Wallace? Assuming both are gone, do they stick with what they got or introduce some fresh faces to the mix? Remember, every back except Chris Rainey is a free agent along with Manny Sanders. And for the love of pete, will they please fire special teams bungler Amos Jones? He’s so bad, the name “Bobby April” was actually trending locally when the team failed yet again to correctly defend a fake punt.
On a personal note, I want to thank my readers for allowing me to vent this season. It’s been a maddening year but being able to express my frustrations here certainly does my blood pressure a world of good. Even though you guys seldom comment, I appreciate all of you reading, from the old timers who’ve been with me since NPC to the newbies who stumbled upon this blog this season. I’ll still be updating whenever Steeler news dictates (and as I’ve said, we should be making a lot of moves this off-season) although not on a regular schedule. I hope you check in from time to time.
Thanks for reading. Hope you all enjoy a very happy New Year. And Let’s Go Steelers in 2013!
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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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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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Mike Tomlin held his weekly press conference yesterday afternoon. As I’ve mentioned about a billion times, I tend to ignore what he says because when he’s not lying, he’s using a bunch of words to say nothing. Well, surprise of all surprises, he actually used the time productively yesterday. It looks like there’s a whole bunch of changes in store for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
First, we have the state of the offensive line. I already talked about this quite a bit yesterday but it appears I was in error. I thought for sure they’d re-arrange things however they could to avoid starting rookie RT Kelvin Beachum. Tomlin says Beachum will start against the Baltimore Ravens with Mike Adams nursing a high ankle sprain and Marcus Gilbert out for the year. Of course, the plan is subject to change since there are still a bunch of question marks regarding who’s healthy and who’s not.
Willie Colon is expected back at LG although they probably won’t be sure until an hour before game time. If Colon can’t play, my best guess (and I’ve been misfiring on my predictions more often than Bob Kudzma so take it for what it’s worth) is Doug Legursky would be first man off the bench. First round pick David DeCastro is cleared to return but I have to think if he was 100% healthy and ready to play, he’d be starting. That means we’re looking at either Starks-Colon-Pouncey-Foster-Beachum or Starks-Legursky-Pouncey-Foster-Beachum as your starting line. If there is another injury, DeCastro would probably be pressed into service at RG with Ramon Foster sliding out to tackle. I can’t imagine they’d play recently signed T Tony Moeki unless he was the last man standing.
The line will be blocking for starting running back Jonathan Dwyer. It only took Tomlin and offensive coordinator Todd Haley twelve weeks to realize this committee approach where each back gets 3-4 carries doesn’t work. The only time they’ve gotten good results from the running game is when they’ve started one back and stuck with him to the tune of 15-20 carries. Dwyer, who’s been the team’s most effective back, will start with Isaac Redman serving as the back-up. No word whether Rashard Mendenhall is planning a jihad on the coaching staff for busting him all the way down to third string.
Ben Roethlisberger has began throwing and ESPN is saying there’s a “50-50 chance” he makes the superhero comeback this Sunday. Tomlin said he’s proceeding with Charlie Batch as the starter so I wouldn’t get my hopes up for a Big Ben miracle. I haven’t parsed out all the playoff scenarios but barring a massive collapse, the Ravens have firm control of the AFC North whether they win this week or not. I’d rather Ben avoid the beating Baltimore is sure to dish out and be ready for the final three game stretch run against three very beatable teams than rush him back for one game which potentially won’t matter anyway.
Batch will have one important weapon back this week in Antonio Brown. Brown is by far the team’s best receiver so having him back will be huge for whoever plays QB. Tomlin also decided to play some mind games with the receivers, listing Mike Wallace and Emannuel Sanders (who has played very well in AB’s absence) as co-starters opposite Brown. I don’t think Tomlin has the stones to actually start Sanders ahead of Wallace but for those who thought I’ve been too hard on Wallace, clearly the coaching staff isn’t happy with his play either. We can worry about repercussions after the season ends, I’ll just say the team’s treatment of Wallace and Mendy doesn’t exactly bode well for their future here in Pittsburgh.
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Perhaps the most shocking information to emerge in the wake of Sunday’s debacle against Cleveland is the fact that if the season were to end today, the Pittsburgh Steelers would still be in the playoffs. Despite losing two straight games in ugly fashion and being hampered by injuries and miscues, the Steelers are still holding on to the AFC’s second Wild Card spot. Of course, that’s only because they beat the Bengals in their lone match-up this season so if Cincy were to even the score a few weeks from now, the Bungles would leapfrog us by virtue of a superior conference record. While it’s hard to quibble with a playoff berth, I think our current ranking speaks more to the relative mediocrity of the AFC than the strength of the conference.
Later this afternoon, Mike Tomlin will conduct his weekly misinformation session where he answers a bunch of questions with empty platitudes while saying nothing of substance. An ESPN report saying Ben Roethlisberger may return this Sunday in time for a huge showdown with Baltimore Ravens will surely be addressed. I have a feeling we’re not going to like the answer but I’ll wait until tomorrow to address that.
While the sinking Steelers prepare for a head-on collision with the Iceberg Baltimore, they’ve already started re-arranging some of the deck chairs. First round pick RG David DeCastro has been activated off the injured reserve as it appears he’ll be making his first NFL start on Sunday. The offensive line wasn’t good against the Browns with Doug Legursky playing absolutely retched in place of Willie Colon. I never much liked Colon but the move to LG has been nothing short of a career changer as he’s an absolute beast at run blocking. His absence was a big factor in our pitiful run game in Cleveland.
If Colon is healthy, DeCastro will start at RG (where he was expected to play all season) while current RG Ramon Foster can slide over to tackle if RT Mike Adams can’t play due to the high ankle sprain which knocked him out of Sunday’s game. If Colon can’t play, I expect Foster to move to LG while DeCastro stays slotted on the right side. However, if Adams is hurt, I think they’d rather play Legursky at LG and go ahead with moving Foster to RT instead of playing rookie Kelvin Beachum. We know Marcus Gilbert won’t be in the mix because he’s been placed on IR, ending his season. To think, the Steelers braintrust actually went into this year thinking that scrub would be the team’s starting left tackle.
Thank goodness for Max Starks.
Perhaps learning from past mistakes, the Steelers will actually carry eight o-lineman this weekend instead of the usual seven. The team optioned WR David Gilreath back to the practice squad so they could activate T John Malecki. This is also a good sign for Antonio Brown. Unless they plan on using Chris Rainey or Heath Miller as a wide out, the Steelers need at least four active WRs which they wouldn’t have if AB were expected to miss another game with the bum ankle. Ditching Gilreath reunites the Young Money trio with Plaxico Burress assuming the veteran fourth receiver role previously held by the Jerricho Cotchery.
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The Pittsburgh Steelers were defeated by the Cleveland Browns, 20-14. I can accept a loss. Every team suffers injuries and while it’s nice to say “the standard is the standard” and all that nonsense you can only lose so many key players before it eventually catches up to you. The fact is the Steelers went into the game starting their third string quarterback, without their top wide receiver (and missing two of their top four wide outs overall), starting a second string left guard (Willie Colon was scratched pre-game due to a swollen knee) and later pressed into playing their third string right tackle, not to mention fielding a defense missing two multiple time Pro Bowlers (Troy Polamalu and LaMarr Woodley, who started but left after a handful of snaps).
When you’re missing that many guys, I can accept the fact anybody can beat them.
What I can’t accept is HOW the Steelers were beaten yesterday.
The Steelers put forth one of their most embarrassing performances in decades. They committed eight turnovers. EIGHT TURNOVERS. There is simply no excuse for that level of ineptitude.
People are going to point a finger at Charlie Batch. I’m not going to defend Chaz or claim he played well. At the same time, anybody who pins this loss entirely on him has absolutely no clue what they’re talking about. Yes, he missed a bunch of throws he should have made. Yes, he made some terrible decisions which led to two of his three interceptions. He could have and should have played better.
However, he is the Steelers third string QB. No team is going to have a starting caliber QB sitting on their bench as the third option. Batch’s performance was about what you could realistically expect from a back-up, to say nothing about what most teams have a third stringer.
What you don’t expect is for every one of your running backs to commit a turnover. To Mike Tomlin‘s credit, he immediately benched any back that fumbled. Unfortunately, he only had four backs on the roster so after turnover #4 he had to start the turnover-go-round all over again. And Rashard Mendenhall happily obliged.
Mendy gifted the Browns with two fumbles yesterday. He continues to start despite contributing in no positive way whatsoever. Isaac Redman relieved Jonathan Dwyer just long enough to deliver an early Christmas present of his own. When it appeared Dwyer would be the lone reliable back, he let the ball get away. Chris Rainey, yes, Chris Rainey became the Last Back Standing and even made a nice goal line run for the team’s lone offensive TD. He did fumble a few carries in but it went out of bounds which only delayed the inevitable since he would eventually fumble on the Steelers final possession to seal the crushing defeat.
In between all the fumbles, we had Batch’s three picks. As I said, only two were bad throws as the third was a short slant pattern which Mike Wallace batted around until it fell into a Browns player’s waiting arms. When you’re playing with a short roster, it’s incumbent on your star players to step up but Wallace was MIA yesterday. He was targeted 7 times, only managing one catch for 9 yards. Several of the misfires were miscommunication with Batch while at other times he appeared to simply give up on the play.
Heath Miller and Manny Sanders performed admirably and even Plaxico Burress contributed by drawing a pass interference which set up Rainey’s 1 yard TD run. There is absolutely no excuse for Wallace’s disappearing act.
As if the turnovers weren’t enough of a handicap, we had penalties. Oh did we have penalties. There were 19 penalties called altogether with 9 going against the Steelers. No word on whether yesterday’s ref made an appointment with Dr. James Andrews to check his rotator cuff. Perhaps the most costly flag occurred early in the third quarter when the Steelers converted a big second and long to Heeeeeaatth only for it to be wiped out thanks to a holding call on rookie RT Kelvin Beachum, who was playing in place of injured Mike Adams.
So before we put all the blame on Charlie Batch, let’s remember we also had a posse of backs who couldn’t hold on to the ball, a “star” receiver who didn’t bother showing up, and a beat up offensive line which kept putting an already sputtering offense into third and long situations.
Truth be told, if not for another heroic effort from the Steelers defense, this would’ve been a one-sided ass-whupping. When an offense commits eight turnovers, many of which came deep in their own zone, I don’t know that you can do much better than hold the opposition to two TDs and two FGs. For the record, Cleveland’s first TD drive started at the Pittsburgh 10 and the other began on our 31. One of their two FG drives began on our 44. Not to mention 7 of our 14 points were scored on a pick six by Lawrence Timmons (with an assist from Bret Keisel). I’m not sure how much more they could have done faced with that 50 pound lead weight called an offense weighing them down at every turn.
The defense has nothing to be ashamed of. The offense? I know they’re missing key players but there is no excusing what we saw yesterday. That was the kind of effort that gets players cut and coaches fired. It was a total humiliation at the hands of a team that was 2-8 going into the weekend.
Where do we go from here? Unless Ben magically heals between now and Sunday, there is no way this team is beating the Ravens. A loss next week drops them to 6-6 which mathematically doesn’t eliminate them from playoff contention but certainly means the division is lost. It also means they’d probably need to run the table to finish 10-6 and be in the mix for a Wild Card at season’s end. At this point, though, I think we need to worry less about January and worry more about next week. Because the way this team is playing, I’m not sure they can beat ANYBODY right now.