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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I don’t even know where to begin with last night’s debacle.
Might as well start with the positives I guess. The Pittsburgh Steelers pulled out a 16-13 win against the Kansas City Chiefs on Monday Night Football after Lawrence Timmons intercepted Matt Cassel’s first pass in overtime. One play later, Stonecold Shaun Suisham booted a 23 yarder to end the misery. And that’s about all the good things I have to say about what happened last night.
Ben Roethlisberger left the game in the third quarter with what preliminary reports are saying is a “sprained” throwing shoulder. I’m so glad we brought in Todd Haley‘s boring dink and dunk offense to protect him from getting injured. That’s sarcasm by the way. Of course, Ben has been remarkably healthy all season so it totally makes sense he’d suffer a serious injury a week before the Steelers play the Baltimore Ravens.
Ben wasn’t exactly lighting up the scoreboard before the injury. If not for a circus catch by Mike Wallace in the end zone, Ben would’ve departed with two FGs to show for his efforts. All week, fans and talking heads alike were calling this game Boss Todd’s shot at revenge against the team that canned him last season. What we failed to take into account is that familiarity is a two way street. Teams practice against each other all week for months on end meaning the Chiefs defense probably has taken hundreds of snaps against Haley’s offense during his tenure there. The result, as Max Starks later told reporters, was that KC’s D recognized practically every play they called last night.
Let’s not make excuses for the offense, though. The tone was set early when they went three and out on their first two possessions and Willie Colon was flagged for “cussing.” Swearing is a crime? What the f#ck?
Any questions about Antonio Brown‘s worth to the team were answered as Manny Sanders repeatedly failed to step up in his absence. The running game was absolutely atrocious the entire game. Isaac Redman was pathetic, fumbling the ball to gift wrap a FG early then getting stoned on a crucial 4th and inches early in the second half. Jon Dwyer relieved him and only did slightly better, averaging 2.9 ypc to iRed’s sad 2.6 ypc. Dwyer had a couple decent runs and he was running into a 7 man box after Ben got hurt but it still was far from an acceptable performance.
Let’s talk about the post-Ben offense. For whatever reason, Steeler Nation seems to have turned on Charlie Batch, mocking him as a broke washed-up bum. Well, if you’re comfortable with Byron Leftwich after what we saw last night then I don’t know what say. The guy plays quarterback like he’s trying to win a stuffed giraffe for his girlfriend at Kenneywood.
Okay, this was Lefty’s first action in like three years. Back-ups are rusty enough since they only get a handful of snaps at practice. And when he gets a nice clean pocket and about five seconds to wind up, he does throw a pretty ball. At the same time, he looked even more immobile than the last time we saw him. Leave it to Mike Tomlin to sign the only immobile black quarterback in NFL history. Lefty took about four or five vicious shots in about a quarter and half of work. He’s never going to survive if he has to play a significant stretch. What’s more, his goofy throwing motion and lousy accuracy is all wrong for an offense that relies on timing and accuracy.
Gotta love that with Ben under center, Haley went deep twice all season, then Leftwich comes in and his first pass is a bomb to Wallace.
I haven’t yet mentioned the Steelers defense. On paper, it looks like they had a good game. In reality, Kansas City’s incompetence was the only thing which saved them from a horrible loss. While we’re on the subject of terrible games, Ziggy Hood played like absolute shit. The Chiefs ran Jamaal Charles (23 carries 100 yards) right at him time after time for big chunks of yardage. Only when Dick LeBeau started switching up Hood and Bret Keisel did the bleeding stop. How bad does Ziggy have to play before Ironhead Junior gets more than a handful of snaps?
Did LaMarr Woodley play yesterday? How about James Harrison? You didn’t hear either name at all. If KC had receivers who didn’t fall into the fetal position when faced with contact and stopped shooting themselves in the foot with stupid penalties, this game wouldn’t have been close. In fact, the key series of the game occurred early in the third when a 22 yard TD to Dwayne Bowe was wiped out on a ticky-tack holding penalty then the KC kicker missed the ensuing FG wide right.
Late in the quarter, the pitiful Steelers offense was going nowhere fast when pass interference and roughing the passer penalties let them drive for the game-tying FG. Even at the end of the game KC tried their damnedest to snatch defeat from the jaws of
victory mediocrity. Cassel hit Bowe for a nice gain but Bowe lost the ball when Ryan Clark concussed himself while dislodging the ball. Then TE Tony Moeki got flagged for offensive PI which took them out of FG range and left them with 4th and 15. Of course, Ike Taylor played it too loose and let them convert a 27 yard pass play.
The Chiefs came in having never led during regulation all season. They led for almost half the game. The Chiefs came in leading the league in turnovers. Until Cassel threw the pick to Timmons in OT (which was tipped by the Diesel, btw), they had zero giveaways. Yeah, they were a desperate team. Yeah, maybe this was a trap game. Injuries, Haley, their Super Bowl, yadda yadda…
No excuses. Any good feelings from last week’s game against the Giants are long gone. This was an abominable effort that would’ve resulted in a loss against any halfway competent team. And now an offense which has already been average at best needs to find a way to score points with their back-up QB. On top of all this, two of the next three games are against the Ravens. Suddenly this season isn’t looking so promising.
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Every Tuesday, Mike Tomlin holds his weekly press conference. As I’ve stated many times in the past, I tend to ignore whatever “news” comes out of it. I don’t do this because I prefer to be an uneducated fan; on the contrary, writing a Pittsburgh Steelers blog makes it doubly important I stay informed. No, I ignore the Mike Tomlin presser because experience has shown you can’t believe what you hear.
In simpler terms, Tomlin tells a lot lies.
I don’t blame Tomlin for lying to the press. He’s one of those ultra-secretive coaches who believes information is power and if it’s good enough for Bill Belichick, it’s good enough for Tomlin. I just get aggravated when people fail to take what he says with a grain of salt. He regularly downplays injuries that are much more serious than he lets on (James Harrison’s broken orbital last season comes to mind) and hints at personnel moves that he has no intention of following (When Bryant McFadden struggled a couple seasons back, he said it was time to see what some of the youngsters could do. They never saw the field).
Which is why yesterday brought a rare moment of honesty from Tomlin. Granted it was couched in typical Tomlinspeak – he follows the political model of never let three words suffice when grand eloquent sentences with opaque meanings can be used instead – but honest it was nonetheless.
Addressing the Steelers defensive performance on Sunday night, Tomlin said “The reality is that we didn’t play well enough post-snap. Forget about whether or not they huddle between plays, we’ve got full control over how we play once the ball is snapped and it wasn’t up to snuff in many instances.” He also cautioned fans against blaming the absence of Ryan Clark and James Harrison for the defensive inadequacies. “Obviously, those guys are capable of helping us. They’re quality veteran players. They know how to play and, specifically in Ryan’s case, not only his play but his communication and leadership. That remains to be seen and we’re not going to assume anything.” sayeth Coach T.
In other words, don’t expect the D to suddenly start dominating teams just because two guys come back.
The fact is, the normally stout Steelers defense has some serious question marks this season. A big part of the problem is they’re just plain old. Seven starters are over the age of 30. Contrast that with another long-time defensive juggernaut, the Ravens, who’ve so successfully infused fresh talent into their team that only Ed Reed and Ray Lewis remain as elder statesman.
The problem with old players isn’t just the natural decline which comes with age. Even when they are still capable of playing at a high level, their bodies inevitably start to break down. Last season, Harrison and Troy Polamalu were clearly the team’s defensive standouts. However, both have also battled a host of ailments the past couple years. Harrison had two back surgeries during the off-season, then came down with a knee issue when training camp started. Tomlin says he’s expected back this week but it’s clear he’s become alarmingly injury prone. Then we have Troy, who looked great the first half against the Broncos before fading away. Evidently he strained his calf which limited him as time went on. He’s also expected to play on Sunday.
Still, here we are one week into the season and both are already showing up on injury reports.
Meanwhile, where is the infusion of young talent? One thing that bugged me following the Broncos loss were Steeler fans on twitter repeating Warren Sapp’s “They’re old, slow and done” comment from last season. The D is old but the line-up they put on the field last Sunday against Denver sure wasn’t. Harrison was replaced by 23 year old Chris Carter and 24 year old Jason Worilds. Clark was replaced by 27 year old Ryan Mundy. Casey Hampton, who’s become a two down player anyway, split time fairly evenly with 26 year old Steve McClendon.
Worilds had a sack when Peyton Manning screwed up a protection call and gave him a free shot at the QB. The only legitimate sack they got was from veteran Larry Foote. Other than that, where was the pressure? LaMarr Woodley got a big contract a couple off-seasons ago but his sack totals have declined every year for the past three years. He only seems to generate pressure when Harrison is on the other side. Worilds has been a bust. Inside, we have Foote, who’s a stop-gap until the team finds a young ILB to groom in his place. Opposite him is Lawrence Timmons, who was supposed to be that ILB but has consistently underperformed since being drafted in the first round back in 2007. He’s supposedly this super-athlete on par with Troy but Troy would never let Peyton Manning OUTRUN HIM to the sticks.
Wait, you may say, Dick LeBeau‘s zone blitz depends on the D-linemen opening up gaps for the linebackers. Fair enough. McClendon isn’t stout at the point of attack. He gets pushed around in the run game which is why Big Snack usually plays the first two downs. He’s not a starter. And what’s up with Ziggy Hood? Was his name even called? Looking at the box score from Denver, he had 2 tackles, no assists. TWO TACKLES. Aaron Smith could make more plays on one leg.
Then we have the secondary. The Steelers have tried to find a second corner to pair with Ike Taylor for years. Of course, their search usually involves a mid-to-late round project they hope to coach up. The light bulb finally came on for Willie Gay last season but the team let him go to
Pittsburgh West Arizona. His replacement, Keenan Lewis, was an average at best nickel last year and so far has looked like another B-Mac with his generous 10 yard cushions. The team is high on second year man Cortez Allen but he didn’t exactly distinguish himself against the Broncos, either. Meanwhile, Mundy remains the teams go-to safety off the bench even though he gets beat like Justin Bieber at a biker rally every time he’s on the field.
The bottom line is the Steelers D is a big question mark. Veteran stars are facing an inevitable decline while the young guys don’t appear ready for prime time. Steeler Nation may need to face the fact that for the first time in a very long time, it may be the offense which needs to carry the team. Play to your strengths. And right now, the defense is anything but a strength.
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Chris had his (long-winded) say, it’s my turn.
Antonio Brown vs Mike Wallace – Given the offseason, the 2012 Steelers roster will most likely include all three members of Young Money. AB and Wallace are no-doubt the most proven of the three, and their 2012 success or failures will be at the top of the Offensive report card. Wallace has been a fleeting superstar for two seasons, and showed he may be worth reaching deep in your pocket for. However, last season his 8 touchdown 1,000 + yard performance was overshadowed by a late-season slip in production. While he’s sitting on top of a $2.7M tender, his eagerness to get Larry Fitzgerald money before proving his long term value has all but signed him up for another year in Black and Gold. Antonio Brown showed he can step up when needed, and proved his durability by being thrown to only 3 times less than Fitzgerald Jr. Though he only crossed the endzone twice, he showed signs of being the go-to-guy for Ben. If Wallace proves his value with a 3rd superstar season, there could be owners opening their checkbook next year. Because I don’t think that owner will be Deuce Rooney, I look forward to draining out another season of Flash Speed from MW and putting my money on the equally capable and seemingly more consistent Antonio.
James Harrison vs LaMarr Woodley – Silverback and Woodley could shake the ground if they faced off against each other in a chess game. The Linebacker tandem has wreaked havoc on opposing offenses more than any other pairing in recent NFL history. 2011 gave us a wide angle at their individual abilities rather than as a tandem, with Harrison and Woodley finding it hard to take the field on the same Sunday as his pass rushing compatriot. Both put up impressive pass-rushing seasons with 9 sacks, but Silverback managed to tackle 22 more men than Woodley, despite playing in only one more game during the campaign. One thing that sets these two apart for me is Harrison’s ferocity and availability on every play. He jumped out of the ESPN highlight reels late in the season, but still managed to compile an impressive record having only played 11 games. If he can come out healthy in 2012 alongside a hopeful healthy Woodley, I’m picking the man with the iron orbital bone to lead the 2012 defense to success.
WINNER: Ironface James Harrison
THE NEW GUYS BRACKET
Baron Batch vs John Clay – Who? It wouldn’t surprise me if a handful of readers have little more knowledge of these two than they do their fifth cousin. Batch was sidelined with an ACL tear before his first NFL campaign got off its feet, and John Clay did little more than squeeze into the gameday roster when CB hopeful Curtis Brown was sent to the IR. He punched a 10-Yard TD on his first NFL run against St. Louis, and went on to touch the ball a few more times to close out the year. Baron Batch spent his 2011 writing wordy excerpts and giving convincing insight into his distinguished character on his excellent blog. If he slips out of the NFL, that man could make a living putting together awesome playlists. He showed great promise in the pre-season, and between the two, I’m hedging my bets on Batch being the future of the elusive running game. He had a great career at Texas Tech, and god knows we need to fill the hole left by a man named Jerome.
WINNER: Baron Batch
Ziggy Hood vs Cam Heyward – James Farrior is arguably the biggest loss on the defensive side of the ball this year, but following in his wake was DE Aaron Smith. Smith was the glue that forged Lebeau’s legendary defense in its infancy. Filling that gap will take leadership, performance, and the general bad-assery Smith carried out on the field with him. OSU native Cam Heyward played 16 games in his rookie year, but is still trying to prove his starting worth. Three year vet Evander Ziggidy-Diggity Hood convinced coaches to start him 7 times, and registered time on the clock for all 16 games as well. Heyward is regarded as the second coming of Iron-Head Heyward, and he needs to start proving it after being overshadowed by Hood last season. Hood registered almost 50 tackles last year. Get with the program, Cam – I don’t care if you’re a rookie or not. With the veterans we lost this year, the defense needs a DE with balls. Both are capable of performing, but so far Hood has showed more promise in carrying the load shouldered by Smith.
WINNER: Ziggy Hood
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Bravo, Steeler Nation.
The recent rise and fall of Aaron Smith combined with CBS repeatedly cutting to Hines Ward standing on the sideline being the NFL’s highest paid cheerleader (to his credit, he probably dances better than most of them even though his ass doesn’t look nearly as good in a tiny skirt) has gotten me to thinking. Thinking about the future. A future that doesn’t include Hines or James Farrior or several other players who were a huge part of the Pittsburgh Steelers run as one of the most dominant teams of the past decade.
I can’t help but be reminded of Rod Woodson. A 2009 Hall of Famer, Woodson was one of the best defensive backs to ever play the game. He possessed unbelievable speed for a man his size, routinely baiting quarterbacks by letting wide receivers run past him only to turn on the jets and close on the receiver when he saw the ball in the air. In 1995, Barry Sanders juked his ACL off his knee and when he returned the following year, he didn’t have that same freaky closing speed. After watching him repeatedly get beaten on deep bombs, the Steelers thought his career was on a downhill slide and asked him to take a pay cut and move to safety, both of which he allegedly refused. While the Rooneys and Woodson eventually buried the hatchet, at the time this resulted in a divorce so ugly it would’ve made Mel Gibson wince.
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No, no, James… A BLACK eyepatch…
The [intlink id=”23″ type=”category”]Pittsburgh Steelers[/intlink] began to address their offensive line woes with the signing of [intlink id=”85″ type=”category”]Max Starks[/intlink] yesterday. To give you an idea how poor they’ve been playing, Starks ran with the first teamers on his first day back. Not shabby for a guy the team released because they thought he was washed up. Or maybe he is and a has-been is still a helluva lot better than never-was like Jonathan Scott.
Now let’s get to work on that defense.