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Who gets the game ball for the Steelers win over the Texans?

Friday, October 24, 2014

Colbert, Tomlin, Steelers Made Correct Call on LaMarr Woodley

To put it mildly, critiquing Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert’s decision making is in vogue now within Steelers Nation. And, truth be told, some of the personnel decisions the two men have made are open to question (Who exactly decided to trade up to get Alameda Ta’Amu, for example?)
  • But when it comes to LaMarr Woodely, Colbert and Tomlin called this one spot on.
NFL Draft Diamonds couldn’t have chosen a more apt photo. A year ago the Steelers suffered their latest meltdown at Oakland’s Black Hole, and as you can see, Woodley was rushing Terrell Pryor. Which is what the Steelers had in mind when they resigned him to 6 year 61.5 million dollar contract in 2011.
Woodley, put simply, was a sack machine. At that point in his career, Woodley’s sacks-per-game pace far outstripped Steelers legends such as Joe Greene, L.C. Greenwood, Greg Lloyd, Joey Porter, or James Harrison. And it continued that way for a while. Woodley opened up 2011 on a tear, with 9 sacks in the first 8 games, including two drops of Tom Brady in the Steelers upset of the Patriots.
  • But that’s when Woodley suffered his first soft tissue injury.
It’s been downhill ever since. 2012? Ruined by injury. 2013? Ruined by injury. By the 2014 off season, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin had seen enough and made the collective decision to bite the bullet. The Steelers cut LaMarr Woodley, but it’s a move that’s costing them $5.6 million against their 2014 salary cap and 8.6 million in 2015.
  • But it was clearly the correct move.
Woodley was a total bust in Oakland, massing all of 5 tackles in six games. Yes, he’d moved from outside linebacker to defensive end, but these are numbers that do not lie.

Time to Take Our Own Medicine

Regular readers are familiar with Steel Curtain Rising’s Watch Tower, which analyzes the job done by those who cover the Steelers. The chief focus on the Watch Tower is to seek to understand what makes the press tick – what gets covered (or not covered) by who and why. But, truth be told, the Watch Tower does like to play a little bit of “gottacha” now and then, pointing out when journalists get things wrong.
  • Well, Steel Curtain Rising got this one wrong, and in a big way.
In our 2014 Steelers Free Agent Focus run up, Steel Curtain Rising reviewed the pro’s and con’s of keeper or cutting Woodley. And while we correctly read the tea leaves which indicated the Steelers were going to cut him, our final conclusion was:
The Curtain’s call is that the Steelers stick with Woodley for one more year, but the Steelers themselves seem inclined to take the cap hit move on.
It’s time for the Watch Tower to take its own medicine -- there’s a reason why Colbert and Tomlin get paid to do what they do and this is just a non-commercial fan site. They were right on Woodley, I was wrong.

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Thursday, October 23, 2014

Steelers Report Card for Win vs. Texans @ Heinz Field

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who has become more than a little gun shy of rewarding the upsides of a very sporadic student, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the victory over the Houston Texans at Heinz Field.
Pittsburgh Steelers, Report Card, Texans, Grades

Statistically speaking, Ben Roethlisberger had a strong night, with two touchdowns, no interceptions, and a solid 265 yards passing. While those numbers are solid, Roethlisberger again put the ball on the ground, and missed on a key throw when the team was trying to kill the clock. These types of mistakes are becoming too common. Grade:  B

Running Backs
For two straight years, no running backs were selected in the NFL Draft. If Le'Veon Bell and DeMarco Murray continue to produce at the level they’re producing that will change. Bell only had 57 yard rushing, but two long receptions by him sparked the Steelers first two scores. LeGarrette Blount only managed 9 yards on 7 carries, but made a critical grab. Dri Archer had one nice run and one poor run. Grade:  A

Tight Ends
Heath Miller only had one catch but it was good for 13 yards and effectively positioned the Steelers for their first score. Miller got no more catches or targets, however he was held back to block far more frequently than in the past. Grade:  B

Wide Receivers
Antonio Brown is making his case as one of the NFL’s best receivers, with another 9 catch performance which included some tough ones. Markus Wheaton had two targets and no catches. Martavis Bryant made good in the end zone on his first NFL catch. Darrius Heyward-Bey had one catch for 17 yards and Lance Moore had two catches including a touchdown. Overall a good night for the receivers, but they’re still somewhat out of sync with their quarterback. Grade: B-

Offensive Line
Mike Adams stepped in for concussed Marcus Gilbert, and did an admirable job. Overall the line performed well and contained JJ Watt. Run blocking could have been more consistent. Grade B-

Defensive Line
Brett Keisel, interception, Steelers vs. Texans, Monday Night FootballThis unit got a new look, as Stephon Tuitt got his first start and Daniel McCullers saw his first NFL action. McCullers looked good in his playing time, as did Tuitt. Cameron Heyward helped set up the Steelers first touchdown by stopping Arian Foster. The real hero of the unit was Brett Keisel, who batted away two passes and took caught the deflection to set up the Steelers 3rd TD in 0:73 seconds. The line struggled in the first quarter, but bounced back quite well. Grade:  B

Lawrence Timmons was everywhere, getting one sack making two tackles for a loss, and laying in another quarterback hit. Jason Worilds forced a fumble and had a strong night. Arthur Moats got in a quarterback pressure while James Harrison got in 3, although Harrison’s roughing the passer penalty helped Houston make a run at coming back in the end. Grade:  B

For the second straight week, Michael Mitchell forced a fumble and appears to be settling in on the defense. Brice McCain started at corner, and his name was not heard much during the night – which is good in this case. William Gay was solid. Cortez Allen, however struggled at times. Troy Polamalu recovered a fumble but gave Houston a free timeout with his goal line leap. Grade B-

Special Teams
Shaun Suisham was perfect on the night place kicking and his kickoffs had good depth. The Steelers got nothing from their kick return game, although Brown’s punt return helped spark the Steelers first touchdown. Brad Wing had a solid night punting, and for the first time all year, managed to pin Houston down deep. The kick return coverage team was excellent. The unit did give up a fake punt. The final on-sides kick was touch and go, although there is an “X-Factor” that goes with on sides kicks.  Grade:  B

Let’s be honest, the Steelers looked dazed and confused at the beginning of the game. During the first quarter it looked like the Steelers would not only lose their first home at on Monday Night Football since 1991, it had the makings of a blow out.

But to Mike Tomlin’s credit, the Steelers did not flinch. First the defense buckled down, then the offense got on the board in workman like fashion, and then it exploded.

Dick LeBeau’s defense is not going to be a Steelers-shut down unit. He sacks, turnovers and, at the end of the talent, to do that. But perhaps it is capable of growing into a bend-but-don’t break group, which isn’t so bad.

While Todd Haley's offense was “above the line” it still has issues, as suggested by its 5-14 effort on third downs and inability to put the game completely out of reach, either by scoring, or by burning out the clock. The reverse turned pass by Brown worked, but was touch and go. The Steelers can’t afford such risks vs. the Colts. Grade:  C+

Unsung Hero Award
The Steelers sputtered badly to start the game, but the defense quickly bore down. The Texans efforts to rally at the beginning of the second half were halted in large part but a couple of big stops from a linebacker who might be making his last start. If it is, he redeemed some of his early missteps and more with those tops and a fumble recovery, and for that Sean Spence is the Unsung Hero of the win over the Texans.

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Un temporal de 88 segundos para los PittsburghSteelers

Semana 7

En el Monday Night Football, por la 7° jornada de la temporada regular 2014 de la NFL, se encontraron en Heinz Field, dos equipos con marca de 3-3: los Houston Texans y los Pittsburgh Steelers.

Los primeros mostrando como carta de presentación el juego terrestre comandado por Arian Foster, con poco más de 128 yardas de promedio por partido que lo colocaban 9° en el ranking general de la NFL.

Los Acereros, en cambio, ranqueaban 4° en ese rubro, con una de sus apuestas fuertes: Le'Veon Bell.
Sin embargo, los Steelers habían mostrado una verdadera falta de regularidad, intercalando sucesivamente, semana tras semana, victorias con derrotas, aún contra equipos de menor categoría.

La decepción en la Nación Acerera era superlativa: Coach Bill Cowher expresó el sentir de los fans al denominar como “floja” a la defensiva de la escuadra que alguna vez dirigió.
  • Por cierto que nosotros solemos prestar atención a la  “música de ascensor”, sobre todo si los que la ejecutan son el dúo Cowher-Hines Ward.
Sin embargo, no creo que sus palabras hayan querido ofender a nadie sino más bien, mojar la oreja de un equipo que se mostraba falto de carácter y convicciones para que expusiera el corazón en la cancha.

Desafortunadamente, el inicio del partido mostró el peor perfil de los Steelers: los Texans llevaron adelante tres series ofensivas anotadoras (dos GdeC y un TD) acumulando 160 yardas totales mientras que las 3 series iniciales de los locales fueron punt, fumble perdido y punt.
La visita, que se caracterizaba por iniciar tibiamente los partidos, ganaba prematura pero merecidamente por 13 a 0 al promediar el 2do cuarto.

Es que restando 2:28 por jugar en la primera mitad, viene la jugada que tal vez cambió el curso del partido: Lawrence Timmons capturó al QB Ryan Fitzpatrick (la única captura del partido)  en la yarda 22 de Houston y la defensiva detuvo por primera vez a la ofensiva forzando un despeje.
3 y fuera.

El restante minuto y 46 segundos del 2do cuarto fue de lo más intenso e increíble que ví en todos los años que sigo a los Steelers.
  • Football total
Apoyados en una defensiva que dió un cambio tan sorprendente como inesperado, la ofensiva se sacudió el óxido, rompió el maleficio de la zona roja y comenzó a anotar puntos.

Muchos puntos:
21 puntos en 88 segundos.

La segunda mitad fue más equilibrada, mostrando unos Steelers más afianzados. A la ofensiva produjeron series importantes que incluyó una en la que, si bien terminó en punt, pudieron avanzar desde la yarda 1 hasta pasada la propia yarda 30. En otras dos  sumaron 6 puntos producto de dos goles de campo de Shaun Suisham (No se convalidó un TD de Antonio Brown por considerarse que el jugador pisó la línea blanca con la punta de sus pies. Fallo muy polémico).

Cerdos volando en el cielo de Heinz Field

Durante este MNF ocurrieron sucesos poco frecuentes en esta campaña de los Steelers.
Sin pretender ser irónico, la ofensiva atacó.

Aprovechó las oportunidades producidas por la defensiva. Todas y cada una de ellas. De los 3 turnovers se obtuvieron 17 puntos. Tan importante como los puntos anotados fue la capacidad que tuvieron para consumir el tiempo del reloj durante la segunda mitad, permitiendo controlar el juego y asegurar el resultado.
  • Asimismo la línea ofensiva controló, hasta cierto punto, la amenaza que representaba para Big Ben, el DE J. J. Watt, líder en capturas de los Tejanos.
  • Un ítem negativo para anotarle a esta escuadra fue el bajo porcentaje de conversión de terceros intentos. Apenas el 35%
Por el lado de la defensiva, esta provocó  3 cambios de posesión.
  • Este fue el hecho más significativo de la noche ya que ni detuvieron el ataque terrestre ni el aéreo. 
En efecto, permitieron 393 yardas totales, 132 por tierra y 261 por aire. Esto significa que los Texans acumularon más yardas que los Acereros, y que en realidad fue un partido de una paridad absoluta.

La secundaria sigue jugando de manera inconsistente porque permite que el adversario concrete jugadas grandes por aire de manera que si se tratara de equipos más competitivos (como lo son los próximos dos rivales por venir, los Colts y los Ravens) se comprometería seriamente el resultado.
Lawrence Timmons se va transformando en un estandarte de esta defensiva con sus 63 tackles combinados (45 en solo), líder de los Steelers y el 6° mejor de la liga.

Hay por delante dos rivales de fuste. Indianapolis y Baltimore, ambos con marcas de 5-2.
En el duelo contra los Colts, la historia favorece ampliamente a los Steelers (14-6 en temporada regular, 5-0 en postemporada y 9-2 cuando se disputa en Pittsburgh).

Pero la historia está en los libros. El presente de los Acereros es bastante más pobre que esa historia.
Pero los partidos no se pierden hasta que se pierden. Y la Nación Steeler confía. La confianza será lo último que perdamos.

El Dr de Acero

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Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Confidence: The Key to Turning the Steelers Victory over Houston into Something More...

The 3-3 Pittsburgh Steelers hosted the 3-3 Houston Texans at Heinz Field last night on Monday Night Football in a game that Steelers Nation had hoped would provide a little clarity to what has been a topsy-turvy season.

Instead, the Steelers found themselves out scored 23 to 9 during 58:47 minutes of the game, while outscoring the Texans 21-0 during the intervening 1:13.
  • Yes, when you add those totals, up, the Steelers come out on top 30-23.
The win improved he Steelers to 4-3, but the importance boosting the Steelers “W” tally by one will pale  in comparison if Mike Tomlin ensures that this win boosts the team’s confidence.

Pittsburgh Steelers, Monday Night Football, Texans,A Question of Confidence

Confidence. Here’s how Webster’s defines the word:  “A feeling or belief that you can do something well or succeed at something.”

Confidence can be a curious concept. Sometimes, people come to it naturally. In 1969 a young rookie lined up for his first foray into Chuck Noll’s dreaded Oklahoma Drill with a chip on his shoulder. A few minutes later the entire offensive line lay discarded to the side, while the young rookie remained standing, hungry for more.
  • Joe Greene’s natural confidence grew in proportion to his unnatural abilities.
While his example inspires, Greene is the exception and not the rule.

Confidence is something which most often must be built, particularly on the team level, and especially in football the ultimate team sport. In football, confidence can’t completely compensate for a lack of ability, but the right dose of confidence can propel a team far beyond the limits of how far its talent is supposed to take it. (See the 1989 Steelers.)

On the flip side, the absence of confidence will utterly devastate a football team. (See Steelers secondary’s poor play during 2009 losing streak.)
  • The question of confidence is particularly important to the 2014 Pittsburgh Steelers.
Behind the Steel Curtain editor Neal Coolong offered this takeaway from the Steelers loss to the Browns:
Cam Heyward and Sean Spence were dominant in this game early. The defense, as we've probably forgotten thanks in part to a complete meltdown in the second quarter, was playing very well early. Six plays run for -8 yards, and a defensive front-seven that looked powerful against a good offensive line. It seemed like the big play to Jordan Cameron really shook the defense up. They didn't play with the same sense of confidence after that.
Coolong’s right. While talent is an issue (see Cam Thomas getting blocked to kingdom come here), After the field goal fiasco, the Steelers played as they were the Little Engine the Couldn’t.

Before the Frantic 73 Seconds…

Steelers began playing the Texans as the same confidence-challenged unit that struggled for 3 quarters against the Browns. Arian Foster had 99 yards in the blink of an eye. Brad Wing was getting a work out. Truth be told, the Steelers were lucky to only be down 7 at the end of the first quarter. It looked to be a long night.
  • The short hand version of this story would have you believe that the Steelers did nothing until suddenly springing to life at the tail end of the 2nd quarter. 
Truthfully, that’s not quite what happened.

First, the defense went into “Bend but don’t break” mold, and forced the Texans to settle for two field goals. Second, Ben Roethlisberger began to get into a bit of a groove. Throwing from his own 14 he hit Le’Veon Bell who exploded for 43 yards. The Steelers couldn’t convert this into a touchdown, but they got on the board 3 three.

Next, the defense did its part, as Cameron Heyward held Roster for a 2 yard loss and Lawrence Timmons sacked Ryan Fitzpatrick. The two minute warning stuck, and Houston had to punt….

Steelers, Antonio Brown, Touchdown Pass, Texans, Red Zone73 Frantic Seconds of Steelers Football

Regardless of how the 2014 turns out, the final 1:22 of the second quarter vs. Houston will go down as one of the most eventful 82 second bursts in Steelers history.
And so it should.

Teams do not score 21 points in the space of 73 seconds. Forget about football teams – basketball teams are not supposed to score so quickly.  But it happened.
And For a second straight week, Brett Keisel made a play that 36 year old defensive lineman are not “supposed to make.”

That’s 1 week’s worth of highlights in less that 2 minutes.

...After  the 73 Frantic Seconds

The poetic way to spin the story would be to say that after going on its scoring binge, the Steelers methodically closed out the game, and that after the 21 barrage the final result was never in doubt.
  • But this was a football game, not a Hollywood movie, and these are the 2014 Steelers.
The truth is the remainder of the game offered both reasons for Steelers fans to hope and worry.
In two more red zone opportunities the Steelers settled for two more field goals
The outcome was in doubt late in the game

But to put that into context, one must also accept that Antonio Brown was robbed of a touchdown when his feet were clearly in bounds. And the Steelers defense did end one Texan possession when Michael Mitchell forced a fumble, a welcome sight for a turnover starved defense.

Remember, Houston’s rally was aided by a failed end zone shot when a run or a high percentage short pass could have kept the clock running and by a foolish roughing the passer call by James Harrison.

Neither factor serves as an excuse, but both issues are correctable.

Tomlin’s Test

At the end of the day, the real meaning of this win has yet to be decided. 21 points in 73 is nice, but the Steelers aren’t going to score 3 touchdowns in 73 seconds against the Colts and Ravens. Neither are they going to score 3 touchdowns in 146 seconds against Indy and Baltimore.

By the time those teams arrive at Heinz Field, the ink on that impressive stat will have long since dried.

You can’t catch lighting in a bottle. Instead, the key to sustaining the win over the Texans lies in looking at what made it possible: Confidence.
  • The confidence allows a quarterback to lop a ball 35 yards down field with the faith that his receiver will both be there and make the play
  • The confidence that drives a defender to make a play on the ball, because he knows even if he can’t recover it, his teammate will
  • The confidence that young players like Daniel McCullers and Stephon Tuitt gain from seeing that staying in their gaps and sealing their corners, really can shut down an All-Pro rusher
Ultimately, it’s about the confidence it takes to look at being down by 2 scores early and believing – knowing you fight back if you can remain focused.

If Mike Tomlin can use this game to coax this kind of confidence out of his young team, then the importance of this victory can grow beyond a single “W.”

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Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Steelers Defeat Houston Texans 30-23 @ Heinz Field - Rapid Reaction

The Pittsburgh Steelers hosted the Houston Texans at Heinz Field facing as much of a “must win” situation as any 3-3 team could face. While the Black and Gold were officially favored, Houston had going for it:

their zone rushing scheme with Adrian Foster would test Pittsburgh’s shaky run defense
JJ Watt had scored more touchdowns his season than the Steelers offense had in the last two games
the Steelers were facing accusations from Bill Cowher that they’d gone soft and were a finesse team
Steelers, Texans, Antonio Brown, Pass

For the first 28 minutes it looked like Hines Ward and Cowher were right. The Texans were running at will, and the Steelers were settling for field goals. Yet, just inside the two minute warning, the Steelers showed why you never take your foot off of the gas pedal.
Truthfully the Steelers would find fewer moments of glory in the second half, as the offense only managed 6 points (although Brown got screwed out of a touchdown), but the defense held the Texans to 10 points, and the Steelers walked away with a 30 to 23 victory.

The Steelers most certainly need to raise their game vs. the Colts and then again vs. Baltimore. But for a team that limped to a 3-3 record and was facing a hostile fan base, the Steelers got a much needed victory to begin their 3 game home stand.

It’s already 1:16 am here in Buenos Aires, and work looms tomorrow morning. Check back for more later.

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Monday, October 20, 2014

Watch Tower: Pittsburgh Media Puts Tomlin's Talent Evaluation Skills Under Microscope

The Ben Roethlisberger’s first loss at Cleveland since 2009 sent the Pittsburgh Steelers soul searching. While Steelers Nation searches for a scapegoat, the Watch Tower shines its light on more level-headed attempts to discern “what’s wrong” and uncovers something interesting about practice reporting requirements.

Tomlin as a Talent Evaluator Under the Microscope

It used to be that the Steelers press corps fanned the flames of fan passion in Steelers Nation. Often times that makes good business sense, as nothing sells newspapers – or generates web hits, like a fire and brimstone article filled with bad news.

During the 1990’s, when seemingly every off season was punctuated by an exodus of premium free agents (think of Chad Brown, Yancey Thigpen and Rod Woodson’s departures), and fans were treated to a steady stream of “The Sky is Falling in Pittsburgh” themed articles.

It got to the point where, during the 1999 off season, Tom Donahoe, who had great press relations, told a reporter that one of the things he loved about his job was proving the press wrong. (Of course the 1999 season was a disaster, and cost Donahoe his job, but that’s another story.)

Nonetheless, the tone of the Pittsburgh press has shifted over the last decade or so.
  • If anything reporters push back against knee-jerk reactions on the part of the fan base.
Still, the 2014 Steelers are not playing very good football, and two reporters have opted to looks past the “Fire Tomlin,” “Fire Haley,” “Fire LeBeau” and “Fire Colbert” brigades in hopes of offering a more reason-based analysis of what ails the Steelers.

ESPN’s Scott Brown was the first to move in that direction, making his effort in response to one of the weekly “Why Hasn’t Rooney Fired Everyone Already” questions in his weekly Steelers Mail Bag. After indicating that he think Mike Tomlin’s job is safe – barring a total meltdown – Brown makes an interesting observation:
The Steelers would also have to take a hard look at their drafting process. Whatever the setup is in regard to Kevin Colbert and Tomlin doesn't appear to be working. The Steelers have made too many questionable draft picks since the two have been together. I think the Steelers would be wise to give Colbert the final say -- there appears to be 50/50 split between him and Tomlin -- and give him ownership the draft.
Whether Brown has sources to base this upon or he’s simply offering his own opinion (the Watch Tower speculates it’s the second) is unknown. But Mike Tomlin’s ability as a talent evaluator, and perhaps his drafting philosophy, is open to question.

During his first season, Tomlin pushed for Sean Mahan and Allen Rossum, in addition to pushing to draft Matt Spaeth in the third round and pushing for the team to pick Daniel Sepulveda in the 4th round. Three out of four moves were disasters, and Spaeth, while OK, hasn’t produced at the level you expect out of a third round pick.

Beyond that, it is hard to peg a specific personnel move that has a clear Tomlin footprint on it, other than the Mewelde Moore free agent signing, which was excellent.

A day later, Alan Robinson took a look at the same question, albeit from a slightly different angle. He and the staff at the Pittsburgh Tribune Review took a long look at the first eight drafts of Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe and compared those to the results of the first 7 drafts of Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert.

Robinson renders his verdict this way:
The answer: At comparative stages of the draft picks' careers, the Tomlin/Colbert drafts of 2007 and '10 were the best two, but the Cowher/Donahoe drafts were generally better from top to bottom and produced more star-caliber players.
And except for the 2010 draft that yielded Maurkice Pouncey, Jason Worilds and Antonio Brown, the Tomlin/Colbert drafts have declined since the first draft in 2007 yielding Lawrence Timmons and LaMarr Woodley.
By assigning points to players based on playing time and performance – and punishing player washouts, the Cowher-Donahoe drafts amassed 302 points while the Tomlin-Colbert drafts only ended up with 258.

One can quibble with Robinson’s methodologyCharles Johnson for example gets 11 points starting, but that ignores the fact that his performance was below what one would expect and need out of a first rounder. Likewise, undrafted rookie free agents are not taken into account, and undrafted rookie free agents have played a tremendous part in Colbert’s personnel success under both Cowher and Tomlin.

Still, the Watch Tower has called the professional press on the carpet time and time again for not delivering these sorts of analytical pieces which are a staple on sites like Behind the Steel Curtain (full disclosure I also write for BTSC.)

The Tribune Review turned out an excellent one here – kudos to you Alan Robinson.

A Closer Look Inside the Steelers Practice Facility 

The last edition of the Watch Tower asked whether the Steelers PR team was combating the storm of negativity in Steelers Nation by loosening practice reporting requirements. This week, after Mike Tomlin implied that Brice McCain would replace Cortez Allen, Dale Lolley reported that McCain in fact was running with the first time.

Then he observed, “There were some other changes in the lineup, but due to practice reporting  requirements, I cannot report them without confirmation from the players.”

Reporters are allowed to observe practice, and have a shot at interviewing them as they walk from practice to the locker room, which is when reporters would get a chance to get confirmation from a player.

That of course doesn’t explain the fact that reporters are suddenly reporting details about Stephon Tuitt’s interceptions and/or Matavias Bryant’s drops (as Jim Wexell did last week), but it does shed some light on the restrictions under which beat writers work.

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Sunday, October 19, 2014

Does Ben Roethlisberger Have Too Much Autonomy?

“Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the most despised in Steelers Nation of them all?”
“Why Todd Haley, of course.”

The Pittsburgh Steelers might 3-3, but the natives in Steelers Nation are getting mightly restless. While there are no shortages calls for the heads of Mike Tomlin, Dick LeBeau and even Kevin Colbert, no Steeler has been vilified more than Todd Haley.
  • Haley’s offense’s twin 10 point performances against two terrible defenses leave him open to plenty of criticism. 
His seemingly will-nilly “Today pass, tomorrow run” play calling in the Red Zone would begin any list. But if Haley does deserve some blame, then it’s fair to ask if too many fingers might be pointed in his direction.

And to begin answering that question, perhaps its best to take a look back in time, way back in time…

October 21st, Steelers @ Broncos

Fans remember Mike Tomlin’s first trip to Denver for the injury that exposed Ryan Clark’s sickle cell trait. It was also Tomlin’s second loss, and the beginning of a trend which would make Bruce Arians, rightly or wrongly, one of the most unpopular figures in Steelers Nation.
Ben Roethlisberger, Bruce Arians, Todd Haley, Ken Whisenhunt

Ken Whisenhunt deserves credit for overseeing Ben Roethlisberger’s formative years, but in doing so he kept Ben on a short leash. Bruce Arians changed that, bringing him into the game planning process, and giving him greater freedom on the field.

The 2007 Denver Broncos had the NFL’s 30th rated run defense. The Steelers, with Willie Parker in top form, planned to exploit that weakness. Ben made no secret about that, "I told the wide receivers I'll get my throws in before practice,” Roethlisberger said. "It might be the last throwing I do all week.”
  • Yet when all was said and done the Steelers had called 3 rushing plays in the first quarter, Roethlisberger threw 2 picks, and the Steelers lost 31 to 28.
The site Steelers Fever pointed out that the common thread in the Steelers two losses that year was Roethlisberger throwing for over 30 passes.
  • Fans focused their anger on Arians, despite the fact that Roethlisberger, pointing to Denver crowding the box, had changed run plays into passes at the line of scrimmage.
And perhaps that overlooked fact was the beginning of a trend that appears troublesome today….

From Ben Buddy Buddying with Bruce to Ben Bubby Buddying with Todd?

2007 is a long, long time ago. Ben Roethlisberger and the Pittsburgh Steelers have won a lot of games since then not the least of which includes Super Bowl XLIII. Bruce Arians remained a lighting rod for controversy through it all for his refusal to use a fullback, being too pass happy, and for Ben taking too many sacks.
Sadly, things have gone downhill since then, but one of farthest reaching events of the day occurred on the sideline when Patriots offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien called out Tom Brady on the sideline.

Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has said that it was that scene that convinced Art Rooney II to force Mike Tomlin’s hand in firing Bruce Arians. Rooney’s exact reasons forcing Arians out are unknown, but Rooney’s concern about Ben taking too much punishment is well documented; it’s also well-known that Arians had zero inclination to push Ben to change.
  • Rooney, it appears thought that Ben was just a little too cozy with his offensive coordinator.
Mike Tomlin hired Todd Haley, a coach not always known for his ability to work and play well with others. Ben and Haley talked the talk about getting along in 2012, but none other than Steelers Digest editor Bob Labriola outed the tension between the two.

Hints of Ben-Todd stories appeared in 2013, but nothing ever came of them as the Steelers offense improved, and indeed carried the team on the back end of its 6-2 finish.

2013 has arrived, and network commentators have gone at great pains to say how well Ben and Haley are getting along, and how the level of trust between the two has grown.
  • Which may be a problem.
Over on Jim Wexell’s Inside the Steel City site “Matt C. Steel” has been issuing a steady, progressive and scathing critique of the Steelers offense. While Steel is critical of Todd Haley, he backs up his arguments with detailed analysis of the play calling.

In synthesis, Steel shows how the Steelers and Roethlisberger are best when balancing the pass and the run, and using play action from under center instead of the empty backfield sets and shotgun formations.

After the narrow victory over Jacksonville, Steel went a step further:
That ability to make something happen on play-action when the initial play isn't there is why I believe he is one of the greatest play-action quarterbacks of all time. His propensity to want to hold the ball and try to make a play in a pass heavy, empty backfield/shotgun-heavy offense is why I believe he will likely never lead a top-5 scoring offense. He'll make plays in those situations every now and then. But those situations are a ticking, drive-stalling time bomb. Every coach and coordinator since Bill Cowher left seems to want to appease the $100 million man who so badly wants to be viewed and treated in the same fashion as Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. No one seems to be willing to tell the franchise what is best for him. [Emphasis added]
Steel may have been the first to voice such thoughts in print, but he is hardly alone.

Neal Coolong of Behind the Steel Curtain pointed out that, vs. Cleveland, Roethlisberger changed numerous plays at the line of scrimmage, and his film review showed that at least one of those played right into the Browns hands.

Jason La Canfora of CBS Sports went a step further:
Now that they’ve become much closer, and there’s a whole lot of trust there, some people around the league are like, ‘Is there too much trust? Is Todd deferring too much to Ben?’ And too many decisions are being made at the huddle or right at the line of scrimmage, and that has something to do with the lack of offense. I think those are valid questions to ask.
It is hard to really assess Canfora’s arguments without knowing who “some people around the league” are, but a pattern has emerged.

Tomlin’s Tight Rope to Walk

Clearly, and offense cannot succeed when the offensive coordinator and the quarterback are at each other’s throats. Steelers fans with long memories will recall the days of Bubby Brister and Joe Walton, or of Kordell Stewart and Ray Sherman and/or Kordell and Kevin Gilbride.
  • No easy answer to this situation exists.
Ben Roethlisberger is a successful quarterback precisely because of his ability to improvise and his ability to make plays under the gun (see Super Bowl XLIII.)

But it also seems to be clear that Ben is truly at his best when he can do that, but with someone who can and will occasionally say “No” to him.

Mike Tomlin’s duty is find a way to strike that balance. The Steelers success or failure the remainder of 2014 will hinge on his ability to do so.

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