Bryant McFadden was a career nickelback before finally cracking the starting line-up for the eventual Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers. That off-season, he left for a big money free agent contract from the – who else? - Arizona Cardinals. McFadden quickly crashed back down to planet mediocrity as the Cardinals looked to unload him at the first opportunity. They got that chance when the Steelers swung a draft day deal to bring B-Mac back home.
Fast forward several years later. William Gay was a career nickelback before finally cracking the starting line-up. The Cardinals signed him to a pricey free agent deal which they immediately regretted when they saw him play. They also unloaded him at their earliest opportunity, cutting him shortly after the start of the off-season. And once again, the Steelers brought their wayward son back into the fold.
The only difference is when the B-Mac deal was announced, Steeler Nation was ecstatic. When news of Gay signing a 3 year $4.5 million deal was announced yesterday, it was met with a collective groan. I’m not sure why.
Gay’s replacement in the starting line-up, Kennan Lewis, is an unrestricted free agent. Rumor is the Steelers want to re-sign Lewis but aren’t going to break the bank to do so. Lewis played well last year, his first as a starter, even serving as the team’s most consistent shut down corner during the early part of the season. However, the team also has a youngster named Cortez Allen, who when given the chance to start forced something like five turnovers in two weeks. Allen doesn’t have the physical tools Lewis possesses but he’s the kind of smart athletic ballhawking corner the team hasn’t had in ages. Given the Steelers D is in desperate need of playmakers, they’d be insane not to afford Allen a shot at starting in 2013.
And therein lies Gay’s value. Steeler fans were upset that Gay’s signing signaled they were raising the white flag on re-signing Lewis. The way I see it, they’ll still try to sign Lewis to a reasonable deal, likely in the ballpark of what they gave to Gay. But if somebody else wants to pay him veteran starter money, see ya later Keenan. Allen can easily slide into the starting line-up with Gay playing the nickel, a position in which he’s both familiar and very solid. If Lewis returns, the secondary will remain some combination of Lewis, Allen and Ike Taylor, a trio who comprised the best pass D in the NFL last year, with Gay serving as injury insurance in place of inept stinkbombs like Curtis Brown or Josh Victorian.
Best of all, I get to dust off my all-time favorite nickname. After the aforementioned Super Bowl victory, the Steelers held a parade downtown attended by nearly 100,000 fans. At one point, Gay decided to treat the crowd to his tone deaf rap stylings for which I dubbed him Will.i.am Gay. I never thought I’d say this but after last year’s massive disappointment, I’d gladly listen to an entire album of Gay’s dope rhymes in exchange for another Lombardi Trophy.
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The NFL Playoffs will begin two weeks from now. The Pittsburgh Steelers will not be playing in them. Yes, the unthinkable has happened. With a miserable 13-10 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, the Steelers are officially eliminated from post-season contention.
As they say, you reap what you sow.
I’m a Steeler fan. I wouldn’t be writing this blog if I didn’t bleed Black and Gold. However, I can’t really get too worked up over the fact we aren’t going to the playoffs. When you lose four games to four of the worst teams in the league, you don’t really deserve to be in the playoffs.
I will be interested in hearing sports talk radio tomorrow to see how the Ben Roethlisberger fans spin this loss in a way which exonerates their man. For the second time in two weeks, Little Ben had the ball in his hands with a must-win game on the line. For the second time in two weeks, he made an idiotic decision which led to an interception. And for the second time in two weeks, that interception cost the Steelers the game.
Maybe he can blame Todd Haley for not calling enough no-huddle again.
There has been this absolutely ridiculous meme going around that says the Steelers defense isn’t really that good and that the team has to start leaning on the offense to win games. I call bullshit on that. When the story of the 2012 season is written, the record will show the Steelers finished with the #1 ranked defense. Yes, they don’t generate a ton of splash plays but they perform more than well enough for the team to win.
If only this team had an offense worth a damn.
Yesterday, the Steelers had splash plays. Three of them, two interceptions and a fumble recovery. The inept Pittsburgh offense generated a grand total of ZERO points off those turnovers. Meanwhile, Cincy had two interceptions of their own. The first was a pick-six off a terrible throw by Ben (their only TD of the game) and the second was a head-slappingly dumb decision by Ben with less than 30 seconds left in the game. That second pick resulted in the Bengals kicking the game-winning FG with only seconds left to spare.
Todd Haley was brought in to improve the Steelers offense. The offense has been nothing less than terrible this season with yesterday’s performance perhaps the worst of the season. Nothing was working. The running game was anemic with only a couple nice carries from Rashard Mendenhall keeping the day from being a total failure. The passing game never got on track. Mike “LarryFitz Money” Wallace caught one pass. ONE PASS.
When Heath Miller left the game with what preliminary reports is a torn ACL (ugh), the only consistently dependable facet of the offense left right along with him.
The Bengals came in leading the NFL in sacks. They added another four to that total as the guard tandem of David DeCastro and Ramon Foster were human traffic cones. It’d be unfair to totally blame the line, however, as when they did provide decent pass protection Ben would hold the ball for far too long. For the first time in years, Ben looked confused and gun shy, like he was playing his first game in a new offense, not running a system he’s practiced for almost 10 months now. I don’t know if he’s seriously hurt or if the Bengals’ defense is just that good but this was the worst game Ben has played in years.
Which is fitting because this is the worst season he’s had in years. I like that Ben apologists (*cough* Mark Madden *cough*) point to the Steelers’ D and call it a “stats defense” but don’t apply the same standards to Ben. His final numbers will not look all that bad when the season is over but anybody watching objectively has to agree that Ben regressed this year. He hasn’t made the plays when they needed to be made. A $150 million quarterback has to make plays.
Yesterday’s game was kind of a microcosm of the Steelers season. Ben made a dumb mistake leading to a pick-six. The Steelers put together a nice drive down to the Bengals 15 but couldn’t finish it off. Then the special teams (coached by Mike Tomlin‘s buddy after Tomlin fired a perfectly capable special teams coach because he didn’t like him) botched a snap which led to Shaun Suisham shanking a 24 yard FG.
Over the next 2+ quarters, the defense came away with three turnovers and made stop after stop only to watch the bumbling offense do absolutely nothing. The first turnover, a nice INT by Cortez Allen (who, along with Keenan Lewis, played a very strong game) set the Steelers up on the Cincy 32. They couldn’t even get a FG out of that thanks to Ben taking yet another “I think I’ll hold the ball forever” sack. After a defensive struggle left the game tied with two minutes left, Marvin Lewis went for an insane 64 yard FG which naturally fell short. Starting at mid-field, Ben couldn’t manage the Tomczakian feat of leading the team into reasonable FG range (Suisham’s 53 yarder also fell short). When the D came up with one last stop, Ben put the finishing touches on this shit sandwich and the team’s season with a final ill-timed turnovers in a season full of them.
So much for Little Ben’s rep as “the best clutch QB in football.”
And so much for the Steelers season. This team is going to have a lot of work to do over the off-season. Unlike the “Super Bowl Hangover” year, there are no easy excuses for the swoon. Injuries certainly played a part. However, the team had plenty of talent on the field and yet still couldn’t win games they should have won never mind winning the games they had to win. In the end, the coaches from Mike “the Fraud” Tomlin and Todd “SooperGenius” Haley too often didn’t have this team ready to play and too often the players didn’t play up to the level we expected.
Steeler Nation has received a lump of coal in their stocking this year. I’ll be around to wrap up this fiasco of a season but I probably won’t post much until next week. In the meantime, I hope all my loyal readers have a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. Bah Humbug.
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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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Guess what? Another key member of the Pittsburgh Steelers is hurt! Shocking!
Did they install ladders over the tunnel in Heinz Field? Did the entire team decide to engage in a mass mirror breaking exercise during training camp? I realize every team battles injuries but this season has been downright ridiculous.
The year starts with James Harrison on the bench where Troy Polamalu joins him almost right away. Harrison comes back and out goes LaMarr Woodley. Just to make things more interesting, Antonio Brown also gets hurt. Brown and Troy start feeling better, out goes Ben Roethlisberger. And that’s not even mentioning other notable guys who’ve missed time like Jonathan Dwyer, Jerricho Cotchery, Willie Colon, Marcus Gilbert, Mike Adams and on and on…
I’ll talk more about the Ben situation when we hear what happened at practice later this afternoon. Word is Ben is actually going to practice this week, not mill around the sidelines casually tossing soft lobs to Mike Tomlin‘s son like he did last week when the morons at ESPN excitedly proclaimed his “return to practice.” If Ben stands behind center and runs the offense at full speed while demonstrating he can heave the ball more than 5 yards down field without clutching his midsection like Richard Harrow just shot him in the gut, he’ll start.
If not, well, in Charlie Batch we trust. Suck it, haters.
One person the team will definitely be without is cornerback Ike Taylor. I think we all knew Ike was seriously hurt when CBS cut to a sideline shot of him being placed in a walking boot. Tomlin revealed he suffered a hairline fracture of his ankle, an injury should shelve him for 2-4 weeks. Steeler Nation has a real love/hate relationship with Face Me Ike (mostly hate) but there’s no doubt the team will miss him. Since starting the season in a Tebow-induced funk, Ike has returned to his status as the lead shut down corner on the league’s best pass defense. AJ Green, Victor Cruz and Torrey Smith all disappeared under his watch so to think his absence won’t be felt is foolish.
Cortez Allen will take his place in the starting line-up with Curtis Brown taking Allen’s slot as the nickel corner. As soon as Ike left, Joe Flacco couldn’t wait to test Allen. And he kept testing him all afternoon, targeting him a whopping 12 times before all was said and done. Of Flacco’s sad 188 yard output, 100 of those yards came at Allen’s expense. Allen did come on in the second half and the presence of Troy will certainly make any secondary better. Still, the Steelers aren’t going to play a mediocre quarterback every week so Allen either needs to step up his game or the team is going to struggle if Ike misses more than a couple weeks.
The Steelers are in a precarious position as it is. They’re holding tight to a Wild Card spot and the general mediocrity of the AFC means that a 9-7 record will probably slip in to at least one playoff slot. It’s looking like the pesky Bengals will be the Steelers biggest obstacle for that spot. The teams meet the final week and it’s very possible the winner will go on to the post-season. Sure the Bungles are the Bungles but I’d feel a lot better about that game with Ike covering AJ Green than Cortez Allen. Let’s just hope it doesn’t come to that.
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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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The Pittsburgh Steelers have lost yet another player in an off-season that’s proving a huge boon to our local U-Haul franchises. Starting cornerback William Gay has signed with – I hope you’re sitting down – the Arizona Cardinals. Shocking news, I know. Somewhere, Hines Ward has to be kicking a chair and wondering how was it that Pittsburgh West couldn’t find a place for him.
Ironically, this isn’t the first time Ken Whisenhunt has imported a starting corner from his former team. Following our victory in Superbowl XLIII, the Cards signed then starting CB Bryant McFadden to a big money free agent deal. B-Mac flamed out spectacularly and was eventually traded back to the Steelers the following season. McFadden started for a Steeler team that was once again Super Bowl bound but was injured this past pre-season and by the time he was healthy he had lost his starting job to, yes, William Gay.
Let’s hope Will.i.am fares better than his predecessor.
For the newbies who wonder why I’ve always spelled Gay’s first name with strategically placed periods, the video above should answer your question. When he made an idiot of himself by treating the crowd at our last Super Bowl victory parade to his impromptu musical stylings, I decided to dub him Will.i.am in tribute to his budding music career. The gig in Arizona better work out because I don’t think all the Auto-Tune in the world could salvage that singing voice. At least Kanye has some sick flow, yo.
Truth be told, though, I will miss Will.i.am. His is one of the better redemption stories of recent years. When B-Mac left, Gay was thrust into the starting line-up where he became far and away the most picked on corner in the NFL. After a season long demotion back to nickel, a position he’s always filled admirably, Will.i.am battled back to reclaim his starting job this season. The second time was the charm as he played very solid corner and was a big reason the Steelers finished the year with the league’s top ranked pass defense. Who can forget his Big Gay Interceptions against Cincy and Cleveland which effectively put those games away for us?
Scuttlebutt has it
Arizona Pittsburgh West is going to use Gay as their nickelback behind second year player AJ Jefferson and rising star Patrick Peterson. If anybody should know how to use him, it’s former Steelers secondary coach and current Cards defensive coordinator Ray Horton.
Meanwhile, the Steelers will go into this season with a new look secondary. Keenan Lewis did a decent job playing the nickel and the former third round pick will be given every opportunity to claim the starting job opposite Ike Taylor. Lewis has talent but he’s been slightly injury prone over his short career and has a times looked lost in man coverage. Cortez Allen had an impressive rookie season, becoming the rare newb who sees significant playing time in Dick LeBeau’s complicated defense. He has the size (6’1) you like in a corner and has a definite nose for the football but 2012 will still be only in his second year as a pro. Barring the Steelers drafting a corner early in this year’s draft, it appears Taylor, Lewis, and Allen will comprise the secondary.
From cutting Greg Lloyd and letting Barry Foster walk to releasing Joey Porter and ridding themselves of Santonio Holmes, the Steelers have never been afraid to turn over their roster. And more often than not, the players they bring in are as good or better than the ones they let go. Still, by my count the team has now lost, either to age, injury or free agency, five starters from last year’s squad. When’s the bleeding going to stop?