Know Thy Enemy: Cincinnati Bengals

 Posted by at 5:55 am  Game Preview, NFL Playoffs, Secondary, Wide Receivers  Comments Off on Know Thy Enemy: Cincinnati Bengals
Dec 212012
 

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.

 

Week 15 Recap: Walkin’ The Tightrope

 Posted by at 8:22 am  Antonio Brown, Big Ben, Circle of Hate, James Harrison, NFL Playoffs, Offensive Line, Recaps, Young Money  Comments Off on Week 15 Recap: Walkin’ The Tightrope
Dec 172012
 

Well, at least that makes things a lot simpler…

The Pittsburgh Steelers lost their second straight, fourth of the last five, with a soul-crushing 27-24 loss in overtime to the Dallas Cowboys. I feel kinda dumb even talking about the playoffs considering the way this team is playing, they’re just going to be one-and-done anyway but the loss does clarify things quite a bit. The margin for error is now officially zero. The Steelers must win their last two games against the Bengals and Browns. If they lose either game, they’re out.

Yesterday’s loss was yet another miserable performance aided and abetted by the Black and Gold’s annoying habit of shooting themselves in the foot. When it’s not turnovers, it’s penalties. When it’s not penalties, it’s stupid mistakes. Worse yet, every week brings us a new goat.

This week’s wearer of the horns is Antonio Brown. AB had what may have been the worst game by a wide receiver since the glory days of Limas Sweed. Steeler Nation has been brutal towards Mike Wallace, with good reason. However, they really need to start looking at the other members of Young Money, a group of arrogant little pricks who are fast revealing the fact their actual skills aren’t nearly as high as their opinions of themselves.

AB got paid this off-season, mostly because Wallace turned down a reasonable contract due to delusions of grandeur. Brown has definitely been the team’s best WR this season but that didn’t stop him from almost single-handedly costing us the game yesterday. With the Steelers up 7 and about 8 minutes left in the game, the defense forced a punt. AB reversed field and broke off a huge return which would’ve set the Steelers up at mid-field except he forgot one thing: how to secure the football. A Dallas player who wasn’t even in position to make a tackle reached out and grabbed Brown’s arm like one might stop a passerby at the supermarket to ask where they keep the peanut oil and that jarring impact knocked the ball loose.

A field goal at that point probably locks up the game. Instead, Dallas got the ball right back and scored the game-tying TD. But Brown wasn’t done. With less than two minutes left, the Steelers D again forced a punt. Dallas kicked from their own 20 so even with a good punt you’d expect the Steelers to get the ball somewhere around the 35-40 yard line leaving them in decent position to drive for a late game-winning FG. Instead, Brown, bonehead that he is, let the ball bounce and roll all the way to the 20 for a whopping 59 yard punt.

What was he doing? Did he not know what do? Or was that the doing of Amos Jones, Mike Tomlin’s handpicked – and stunningly inept – special teams coach?

Brown did end up leading the team with 8 catches, including a nice lunging TD which put the Steelers ahead for the first time all afternoon. Mike Wallace had a typical Mike Wallace game, only catching 4 of the 10 passes thrown his way (although to be fair only two of those were CLANGS) but one of the four was a deep bomb (pretty much the only route he’s good at running) that went for 60 yards. Manny Sanders came in for one play, caught a deep pass over the middle and shades of the Baltimore game, fumbled it away. The refs bailed him out by claiming he didn’t “complete the catch” but whatever, that’s the last we saw of him and it’s the last I hope to see of him until he LEARNS TO CATCH THE FREAKIN’ BALL.

And don’t give me any bullshit about “his shoulder is hurt so he can’t secure the football.” Dez Bryant played the entire game with a broken finger. He missed some catches because of the finger but he sure as hell didn’t fumble the ones he did make either. Sanders is putz, just like the rest of Young Money Cash Droppahs. But make sure you get up and pose and thump your chest when you do make a catch, guys.

What I wouldn’t give to have Hines Ward back. I don’t even care if he can’t get open. At least Hines didn’t act like a big shot and then go out on the field and accomplish nothing.

Speaking of guys we want back, while Bruce Arians is in discussion for Coach of the Year (yes, really), we’re stuck with Todd Haley and his anemic offense. Ben Roethlisberger continues to be a big baby about it, complaining to reporters after the game that the team didn’t run enough no-huddle (where he gets to call plays). Of course, the team did run no-huddle once, in overtime, two plays into which Ben threw a terrible pass behind Wallace and was picked to basically end the game.

Along with the realization that Young Money isn’t worth ten cents on a dollar, it may be time we start re-evaluating the whole “Big Ben is the best clutch QB in football!” meme. Once again, Ben was handed the ball with the game on the line and once again he failed. Not once, but twice. Despite AB’s boner, the team completed a couple passes with time winding down in regulation to get near mid-field. Then Ben took two consecutive sacks to force a punt. One of the sacks was on David DeCastro, who blocked the wrong man because the coaching on this team also sucks. However, at some point Ben has to learn to get rid of the ball.

Yes, the scrambling TD to Heath Miller was one of the most awesome plays you’ll ever see. Yes, Ben is a great QB and definitely the team’s best offensive player. So what? For years we’ve argued that stats aren’t the be-all, end-all, it’s the Ws that count. Ben isn’t pulling out these close games anymore, he’s actually gift-wrapping them to the opponent. That has to stop.

There was a lot more wrong yesterday I don’t really feel like belaboring. Once again, the running game was a non-factor. I don’t like Rashard Mendenhall but Jonathan Dwyer isn’t looking like the answer. The defense wasn’t good, giving up a whopping 415 total yards, although they practically defined bend-but-don’t-break. One long Dallas drive ended in a FG, another ended on a fumble caused by James Harrison. They still don’t generate enough splash plays but only an insane Ben apologist like Mark Madden would seriously argue the defense cost us this game.

Nope, that dubious honor would fall to the $100 million quarterback and $50 million dollar wide receiver. Let’s hope they get their act together in time for this weekend’s pivotal match-up with Cincinnati. If they do, well, I’m sure another goat will emerge anyway. It’s just that kind of year.

 

Know Thy Enemy: Dallas Cowboys

 Posted by at 8:23 am  Circle of Hate, Injury Report, LaMarr Woodley, Offensive Line, Secondary, Steeler Nation  Comments Off on Know Thy Enemy: Dallas Cowboys
Dec 142012
 

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?

Dec 102012
 

I’ve been a fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers for a very long time. I’m not going to claim I haven’t missed a game in 35 years or anything like that (I was a teenager once and the Steelers did start Bubby Brister). However, since I started following them in the late 80s, I can honestly count on one hand the number of times I’ve turned off a game before the clock hit zero. Well, much like the Steelers, now I have one for the thumb.

Yesterday’s 34-24 loss to the San Diego Chargers was the worst kind of drubbing. It was one of those games where literally nothing went right and your team was never in the game. The Steelers pathetic offense didn’t cross mid-field until there were 30 seconds left in the first half. At the start of the 4th quarter, the Chargers had possessed the ball for roughly 30 of the first 45 minutes. This was as thorough an ass-whupping as the Steelers have had in a long time.

Except instead of coming at the hands of an elite franchise like Baltimore or New England, it was handed to them by a going nowhere 4-8 team about to fire their head coach at season’s end.

Unlike in those other embarrassments, Ben Roethlisberger was the least of the culprits in yesterday’s debacle. Ben actually looked pretty good coming off a three game layoff due to catastrophic injury. He moved around well, scrambled without fear and didn’t look rusty or limited at all. It’s only too bad the rest of the team decided to offer him less support than they offered Charlie Batch in Cleveland.

Young Money should change their name to Cash Droppahs. Once again, they dropped an obnoxious number of passes, several of which would’ve went for big gains in the first half when the game was still within reach. Mike Wallace put up a nice fantasy game with garbage time stats (7 catches 112 yards 2 TDS) but in reality he came up small when the catches counted. He was wide open on at least three occasions in the first half only for the ball to CLANG off his stone hands.

But perhaps the biggest goat was Antonio Brown. Ben made a nifty move to scramble away from danger and launched a perfect throw 30 or so yards down field which hit AB right in the chest before bouncing harmlessly to the turf. As if that drop wasn’t bad enough, AB later gift-wrapped 7 points to the Chargers when a bubble screen hit TE David Paulsen and bounced into the end zone. Brown tried to pick it up which was stupid because he was 5 yards deep and about to be swarmed. Being tackled in the end zone is the same as kicking the ball out of the end zone (a safety) so the result would’ve been the same except by trying to be a hero, he let the ball get away from him and 2 points became 7. What a maroon.

For awhile now Steeler fans (myself included) have sang the praises of the Steelers receiving corps. All receivers drop passes now and then but at what point do we start wondering if maybe we’ve overrated them a bit? Wallace is definitely an one trick ass clown with delusions of grandeur (LarryFitz money my ass…) but what’s going on with AB and Manny Sanders? And why do the Steelers bother signing guys like Plax and the Cotch Rocket if they aren’t going to play them?

Of course, I’ve long said the passing game needs a good running attack to complement it in order to be effective. The Steelers couldn’t run at all yesterday. Jonathan Dwyer finished with 8 carries (EIGHT!) for 32 yards. He narrowly led the team in rushing over Ben who ended up scrambling for 31 yards because he was constantly running for his life. The offensive line allowed only 2 sacks but Ben’s 5 scrambles were due to pressure and there were another half dozen times he got away long enough to throw the ball away. Willie Colon tried to tough it out but had to leave early on with Maurkice Pouncey shifting to LG and Doug Legursky coming in at center.

This will come as shocking news but Colon is injured and reports are he’s LOST FOR THE SEASON. Yes, I know that the guy who is always injured and never plays a full season yet got a big fat contract anyway being injured is totally unexpected but there you go. We’ll talk about where this leaves the O-line and running game going forward later.

All this misery and I haven’t even gotten to the defense yet. I don’t want to hear Steeler fans bitch about Ike Taylor ever EEEEVVVER again. The D loses Troy and still leads the league in pass defense. The D loses James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley and still leads the league in total D. The D loses Ike and goes to complete shit.

The way Curtis Brown played yesterday almost defies description. It literally looked like they took a guy out of the stands an hour before game time and put him in the starting line-up. That’s how clueless Brown looked. This is the guy’s second full year with the Steelers and he didn’t appear to have any idea where he was supposed to be or who he was supposed to be covering. It got so bad that in the second half they actually inserted Josh Victorian, a guy fresh off the practice squad, as the nickel because Brown was such a liability.

When the Chargers scored early in the 4th to go up 34-10, I figured it might be good to take out Ben since the game was lost. Mike Tomlin kept him in, risking both injury and the season in a lost effort. Ben led a TD drive but instead of going for 2 (and possibly cutting the lead to two scores instead of three), he kicked the XP. Why? “I didn’t want to reveal my secret 2 point plays,” Tomlin later said in a lie so hilarious, only the rah rah cheerleader Pittsburgh media could swallow it.

If you’re not trying to win, WHY WAS BEN PLAYING? I can believe you have some 2 point trick plays but, I dunno, you couldn’t just run a regular goal line play? The truth is Tomlin had given up on the game but he didn’t want to justify keeping Ben in and admit he wasn’t playing to win. I was on Twitter and a minor war broke out amongst Steeler fans as a #fireTomlin hash tag started making the rounds. I’m not saying Tomlin should be fired but I’m sick and tired of the Tomlin apologists acting like nothing that happens to this team is his fault. Losing to teams we shouldn’t lose to and putting out performances like this one or the one in Cleveland or a whole bunch back in 2009 are inexcusable. And that falls on the head coach.

The only good news to emerge from Sunday is the Bengals also lost (as did the Ravens but they’ve clinched the division with our loss). Which means the status quo holds over from last week. The Steelers must win out if they want to control their own destiny but one more loss, as long as it isn’t to the Bengals, will still probably get them in the playoffs. PLAYOFFS? (Insert Mora rant here).

 

Know Thy Enemy: San Diego Chargers

 Posted by at 10:04 am  Big Ben, Game Preview, Injury Report, Offensive Line  Comments Off on Know Thy Enemy: San Diego Chargers
Dec 072012
 

There’s an old saying that timing is everything. That’s especially true when it comes to the NFL. Two stories broke yesterday, both of which will have a direct bearing on this Sunday’s game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and San Diego Chargers. As usual, only one of which benefits the good guys.

The positive news for the Steelers is that quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has practiced without incident and is officially the starter this weekend. Charlie Batch did a good legendary job in his absence but this team has a very small margin of error going forward. The win at Baltimore doesn’t mean they have to totally win out to make the playoffs although doing so keeps them in the driver’s seat. Realistically, they can still lose one of their last four games and still make the playoffs so long as that loss doesn’t come against Cincy the last week of the season.

The bad news is a story surfaced yesterday that Chargers coach Norv Turner and GM AJ Smith will both be fired at the end of the year. Norv has had nine lives as a head coach, handed a team on the verge of a Super Bowl and doing just barely enough to keep his job every year since. It appears this year’s miserable 4-8 effort is finally the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back.

Some of you may be thinking, why is that bad news? Doesn’t imminent firing mean the team stinks?  Well, yeah, it does. And while being rid of Norvellus is good news for Chargers fans, it’s bad news for the Steelers because we’ve seen time and time again that teams tend to play their best when everybody counts them out. From all accounts, Norv is well-liked by his players so I can see them extra motivated this week to go out and score a big win for their beleaguered coach. We want to face teams demoralized and ready for winter vacation, not eager to send their man out a winner.

STEELERS DEFENSE vs CHARGERS OFFENSE

What happened to Philip Rivers? The third wheel in the celebrated QB Class of 2004 remains the only one not to have won a Super Bowl. While Ben and Eli have progressed to where they’re undoubtedly franchise QB, Rivers has regressed badly. At this point, Matt Schaub (third rounder) probably has a better chance of winning a Lombardi any time soon.

Last year, Rivers tossed 20 INTs to nearly off-set his 27 TDs. He’s on a similar track this season with a 18-15 split. He’s also fumbled a whopping 11 times although the team lost only 5 of those. Still, these numbers paint a picture of a QB under duress and given to being reckless with the football. I’ve liked Rivers ever since his heroic performance in the AFC Championship Game where he nearly ended the Patriots undefeated season playing with a torn ACL but something has definitely gone awry for him.

Part of it is the lack of talent around him. Years ago, the Chargers had a bunch of weapons on offense. Those weapons have slowly drained away to where TE Antonio Gates remains the last man standing. Star WR Vincent Jackson departed to Tampa while LaDainian Tomlinson succumbed to injury and age long before he became a Jet. Their replacements, Denario Alexander and Ryan Matthews simply aren’t the same caliber. Malcolm Floyd was fine as a #2 WR but that he’s their current #1 says a lot about the dearth of talent. When two of your top four receivers are running backs that’s not a good sign.

It’s good for the Steelers, though, as the banged up secondary will be without Ike Taylor for the first time in a long long time (135 games to be exact). Neither Ryan Clark nor Troy Polamalu have practiced all week so who knows what their status is in the Mao-esque Tomlin regime. Veterans usually are cut slack in regards to mid-week practice with Friday being the deadline for proving you’re ready for Sunday.

Hopefully they’ll both be okay since the young corners will need all the veteran leadership they can get. Keenan Lewis and Cortez Allen will start with Curtis Brown playing the nickel. This was the line-up Kevin Colbert hoped for when he drafted all three in the middle rounds of recent drafts. I guess we’ll finally get a chance to see if they can play. Allen was picked on mercilessly against Baltimore, steadily getting better as the game went along. Hopefully that carries over to this week.

STEELERS OFFENSE vs CHARGERS DEFENSE

Ben picked a good week to return as San Diego seems to be okay against the run and lousy against the pass. They’re not abysmal in either category but neither area is an overwhelming strength. Actually, the Chargers are allowing less than 100 yards per game on the ground which is pretty good for any team. The sledding may be tough for Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman, who proved to be a very effective 1-2 punch against Baltimore last week.

It won’t help that the team’s bulldozer in the middle, Willie Colon, continues to struggle with a balky knee. He’s had it drained twice this week (OUCH!) although holds out hope of playing. If Colon returns, Maurkice Pouncey will return to center. If not, the Steelers will probably go back to last week’s formula with Pouncer moving over to LG and Doug Legursky sliding in at center.

Meanwhile, Mike Adams continues to miss time with his foot/ankle issue meaning rookie Kelvin Beachum will probably start his second straight game. You probably noticed Heath Miller not getting many catches during the first half in Baltimore and that’s because the Steelers were worried about Beachum so they kept Heath in to block. They must’ve seen something they liked because in the second half Heath was out catching balls while they left Beachum all by himself one-on-one. Despite the patchwork line, Baltimore only had 2 sacks, both of which came because Charlie held on to the ball way way too long.

Ben should have a full complement of weapons with Antonio Brown working through the ankle injury and Emmanuel Sanders nursing bruised ribs. Mike Wallace also has a sore knee which still doesn’t explain why so many passes clang off his hands. Regardless, if Ben is anywhere near his usual self (and not the Shadow Ben we saw in San Fran last year), he should make some plays. San Diego has some decent pass rushers (23 as a team led by Shaun Phillips with 7) and have come down with 11 INTs but overall have struggled this season.

Last week’s victory over Baltimore was the kind of game that can propel a team toward a big run deep into December. It doesn’t erase the horrible losses to Cleveland, Tennessee or Oakland but it does set alter the momentum of the Steelers’ season. Let’s hope they keep that ball rolling this week.

Week 13 Recap: Cryin’ Like A Batch

 Posted by at 10:07 am  Charlie Batch, Jonathan Dwyer, Ratbirds, Recaps, Redzone Redman, Secondary, Young Money  Comments Off on Week 13 Recap: Cryin’ Like A Batch
Dec 032012
 

Charlie Batch.

Man, Charlie friggin’ Batch. All we heard during the week was he’s too old, he can’t play, he’s washed up, how bad can Brian Hoyer be? And all Charlie friggin’ Batch did yesterday was go out and lead the Pittsburgh Steelers to a 23-20 win over the Baltimore Ravens. If this is indeed Chaz’s swan song, what better way to go out than with a victory over your hated rivals in what will forever be remembered as “the Charlie Batch game.”

The first half was an almost carbon copy of last week’s debacle in Cleveland. The defense completely stifled Joe Flacco and company, even coming away with a Ryan Clark interception early in the 2nd quarter. The Steelers squandered that by turning it right back over on a poorly designed trick play where Antonio Brown threw up a duck which was easily picked off. Ike Taylor left with a leg injury so Flacco kept going after his replacement Cortez Allen. Allen and Curtis Brown acquitted themselves well all day but had their lone hiccup on the ensuing drive, allowing Anquan Boldin to get free for a 28 yard TD.

Down 13-3 with five minutes in the half, the Steelers offense finally sprang to life. Chris Rainey started things with a huge 40 yard kickoff return to begin at mid-field. Batch converted two long first downs with passes to Heath Miller. Then the Ratbirds had a monumental mix-up in the secondary, some how letting Mike Wallace run to the end zone all by himself. There literally wasn’t a purple jersey within ten yards. Batch had plenty of time to make the 20 yard throw for an easy six but instead sailed the ball over Wallace’s head and into the waiting parabola of a sound tech squatting five yards behind the goal post.

At that point, Steeler Nation let out a collective groan. Anybody who says they didn’t start thinking this was going to be another one of those games is lying. You only get so many gifts in a big game like this and to not take advantage of them is lethal.

Call it  heart, call it veteran leadership, call it what you will but instead of being demoralized, the Steelers started the second half on fire. The suddenly competent offense that closed out the first half opened the second with an excellent TD drive highlighted by a 43 yard catch-and-run by Heath. The capper was a brilliant 16 yard TD run by Jonathan Dwyer, who was stopped at the line but bounced it outside and picked up a block from Batch on his way to the end zone.

Suddenly, a 10 point deficit was a tie game.

The Ravens continued to do nothing on offense as Flacco’s entire arsenal consisted of short dump offs to his running backs. Other than the one deep pass (28 yards being “deep”) to Boldin, he misfired on pretty much every throw of 10+ yards. I’ve said it before and I’ll say again, Dick LeBeau has figured out the secret to containing Captain Checkdown is to make quick tackles on his devastating variety of screens and dump-offs and force (dare) him to beat you down the field.

The sizzling Steelers offense got the ball back and Batch immediately hit Emmanuel Sanders streaking down the middle of the field for 21 yards which could’ve been a lot more, possibly even a touchdown. Except Sanders lost control of the ball trying to switch hands and a huge gain turned into yet another Steelers miscue. The Ravens took the gift back for a TD as the defense lost contain on Ray Rice and he burned them for a 34 yard TD.

Again, I defy anybody to say they didn’t have visions of Cleveland running through their head. It’s hard enough to win in the NFL when you play a good team. It’s even harder when you play a good team with your back-up quarterback. It’s damn near impossible to win when you’re playing a good team with your back-up and you continue to make mistake after mistake.

And the mistakes kept on coming as instead of lifting Batch, his teammates seemed hellbent on sabotaging him. Charlie hit AB for 34 yards and it looked like the Steelers would answer the Baltimore score. Two plays netted only 6 yards. On third down, Batch delivered a perfect throw to Sanders only for him to drop it. And in true Sweed-like fashion, he immediately fell to the carpet feigning injury, as if some crippling ailment were to blame for utter ineptness.

Not that Charlie was totally blameless on the miscue front. Early in the 4th quarter Dwyer and Isaac Redman began chewing up huge chunks on the ground. Batch had been good since the Wallace misfire but on first down from the Baltimore 20, he made a poor thrown into double coverage and ended up being picked by Ed Reed.

The Steelers needed one more big play from the defense. And James Harrison delivered. A perfectly timed strip-sack got the ball right back and set the offense up deep in Raven territory. Sanders finally held on to a pass, making a nice 17 yard catch over the middle to inch the team closer to evening the score. Two plays later, Batch rolled out and found Heath, who made a fantastic diving lunge at the pylon to tie the game.

Once again, the defense held so Batch had five minutes to be a hero. And he delivered, leading the team on an epic 12 play 51 yard drive. Mike Wallace was the man, catching three passes for 15, 7 and 10 yard gains despite at one point having to leave after being shaken up. Batch took two heavy shots from Ravens pass rushers, the second of which finally drew a flag for unnecessary roughness. The mix of pass and run combined with idiot coach John Harbaugh having blown through his time outs early in the half, allowed the Steelers to milk the clock down to the end.

With the game on the line, out came Stonecold Shaun Suisham to attempt a 42 yarder. His aim was true. When the ball sailed through the uprights, an emotional scene played out on the sideline as Charlie Batch embraced long time protege Ben Roethlisberger. I happened to catch the game a Steeler bar and I think there were a few people blinking back tears there as well.

Me? I just had, uh, some dust in my eye.

Know Thy Enemy: Baltimore Ravens

 Posted by at 8:07 am  Big Ben, Charlie Batch, Circle of Hate, Game Preview, Maurkice Pouncey, Offensive Line, Troy Polamalu, Wide Receivers  Comments Off on Know Thy Enemy: Baltimore Ravens
Nov 302012
 

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.

 

Line-up Changes? Mike Tomlin Has Your Line-up Changes

 Posted by at 7:33 am  Antonio Brown, Charlie Batch, Injury Report, Jonathan Dwyer, Mike Wallace, Offensive Line, Roster Moves, Wide Receivers  Comments Off on Line-up Changes? Mike Tomlin Has Your Line-up Changes
Nov 282012
 

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.

Nov 262012
 

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.

Know Thy Enemy: Cleveland Browns

 Posted by at 4:50 am  Charlie Batch, Game Preview, Todd Haley, Wide Receivers  Comments Off on Know Thy Enemy: Cleveland Browns
Nov 232012
 

Don’t look past the Cleveland Browns. When you stop laughing, I’ll try to explain. Yes, the Browns are 2-8. Yes, the Browns are in the midst of yet another miserable season in a long run of them. Yes, the Browns have already given Mike Holmgren the axe with former Pittsburgh Steelers minority owner Jimmy Haslam likely to make more changes after the season. I know all this doesn’t sound like a team ready to give the Steelers a fight on Sunday but despite everything the Browns aren’t ready to wave the white flag.

Oh, wait… Maybe they are

One thing the Browns are successful at is getting psyched for the Steelers. I’ll spare you the painful trip down memory lane, suffice to say, when the two teams meet you can almost throw out the records. Cleveland has treated their annual meetings with us like their own little Super Bowl and it’s almost like a rivalry game in college where it doesn’t matter how bad your team is on paper, the two teams always find a way to make things interesting. Throw in the fact Cleveland has been sneaky bad (as in, they lose but put forth highly competitive efforts) and the Steelers are injury ravaged and you have a recipe for anything to happen.

STEELERS DEFENSE vs BROWNS OFFENSE

On draft day, I sorta laughed at the selection of quarterback Brandon Weedon. In reality, Weedon has looked like a pretty solid signal caller despite being a rookie on a team with very few offensive weapons. I still think it was a silly pick because if you look across the NFL, a whole bunch of rookie QBs have done well this season, from Andrew Luck and RGIII to lesser publicized names like Ryan Tannehill and Russell Wilson and they’re all 5-6 years younger than Weedon so they’ll have more time to grow. Right now, however, I think given the chance to re-draft teams like the Eagles or Cardinals would take Weedon over the QBs they chose because he’s shown the kind of poise that suggests he could step right in and do a capable job of running an established offense.

Unfortunately, he doesn’t have an established offense in Cleveland. In fact, he doesn’t have much to work with at all. When a RB leads your team in receiving, that’s not good. Their nominal #1 WR is Greg Little but he drops as many passes as he catches. The rest of the receiving corps is a collection of has beens and never weres. Weedon’s numbers don’t look particularly impressive (11 TDs 12 INT 2,300 yds) until you factor in the collection of riff raff he has to catch his passes.

The lone bright shining light in this oasis of suck is fellow rookie RB Trent Richardson. Browns legend Jim Brown dissed Richardson prior to the draft which must’ve lit a fire under him as he’s accounted for 670 yards on the ground and another 280 through the air. Richardson has fast become a weapon in the Ray Rice mold. He’s easily Cleveland’s most dangerous offensive player and must be contained if the Steelers hope to dash any thoughts of an upset.

Dick LeBeau‘s crew is coming off unarguably their finest effort of the season. I feel Joe Flacco and company are grossly overrated but to hold any team without an offensive touchdown, let alone a team one year removed from the AFC Championship game while your own offense is actively sabotaging your efforts, is a damn impressive feat. Ziggy Hood rebounded from the KC debacle and the D-line were the quiet heroes in stifling Ray Rice. Ike Taylor has shook off the early season funk and teamed with Keenan Lewis, who improves by the week, form a very fine secondary. While LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison haven’t played up to previous levels, the inside tandem of Larry Foote and Lawrence Timmons have picked up a lot of slack. Although Cleveland doesn’t have the talent Baltimore has, the team will need nearly the same effort because I don’t foresee our offense scoring a ton of points.

STEELERS OFFENSE vs BROWNS DEFENSE

Charlie Batch makes his first start of the season after Byron Leftwich flushed a very winnable game down the crapper last Sunday. I have faith in Chaz. Every time Steeler Nation counts him out, he comes off the bench to prove the haters wrong. Given Todd Haley’s short quick West Coast style offense, I think Batch is an even better fit than Lefty and as long as his guys get open, he’ll get them the ball.

Of course, it’d be nice if the Steelers can continue their strong running attack. Mike Tomlin hasn’t committed to a starter but I think at this point you have to go with Jonathan Dwyer. Rashard Mendenhall may have the breakaway speed but he was back to his tap-dancing tricks against Baltimore. Dwyer has been by far the team’s most consistent back and I think he’s earned the chance to be the featured starter (when healthy) for the rest of the year. The Browns rank near the bottom of the league in run D so whoever starts should produce.

The receivers also need to start producing. I know the catch in the corner of the end zone against the Ravens was a tough play but Mike Wallace needs to make it. I caught a little of the Tampa game on Red Zone last Sunday and was struck by how much of a difference Vincent Jackson makes to the Bucs offense. That’s what $10+ million a year receivers do. They make the catches nobody else can make and they make them with frequency. Wallace had a brilliant catch against KC but those sort of big plays have been far too few for a guy who thinks he’s the best WR in football.

Antonio Brown is back practicing so I expect he’ll be a game time decision. Jerricho Cotchery is definitely out so we’ll probably see the return of Plaxico Burress in the Black and Gold. He likely won’t play much, probably just in the red zone (assuming we ever get there), but he should be plenty motivated after signing a 1 year deal when nobody else wanted him. Plax doesn’t have the skills he once had but this team needs all the red zone threats they can get so if he’s even a fraction of his old self he can’t do anything but help.

The Steelers are in a very precarious position. I’ve said all along that the losses to Tennessee and Oakland may come back to haunt them and unfortunately that is proving true. The Steelers can’t really afford to fall much farther back to the pack, especially with only a few very winnable games remaining on their schedule. Had they won the games they should of won earlier this year, we could afford a mid-season nose dive until Ben heals up. At this point, though, they really can’t.