´ Steel Curtain Rising: January 2008

Who gets the game ball for the win over the Colts?

Saturday, January 19, 2008

In Memory of Ernie Holmes

News travels fast these days, and today the news was not good.

As we all now know, Ernie “Fats” Holmes, one of the founding members of the Steel Curtain has passed away.

The truth is that I am not old enough to have real memories of Holmes. All I really know is from the lore inspired by his legend. Still his name was always familiar to me.

My grandparents bought me a Steelers 50 seasons poster back in 1982, and it hung on my walls until I was in my mid-20’s. I can still see the poster, there on my wall, complete with the quad-colored image of the four members of the Steel Curtain, with Holmes picture shadowed in blue, complete with the arrow shaved into his head.

My only other real memory of him is sitting there in the Captial Centre, watching WrestleMania 2 on Closed Circuit TV, and my shock at seeing him introduced as a participant into the Battle Royal in Chicago as a last minute substitute for Too Tall Jones (or was it William Perry?)

I can also remember leafing through my first Steelers media guide on my 17th birthday, and my surprise at learning that Holmes had been traded to Tampa Bay. Later, when I learned of Holmes larger than life personality, it was not hard to understand why he was traded nor should it have been surprising that he wound up dabbling in the squared circle.

Comments are open on this blog, and any of you reading this who DO have memories of Holmes are invited to share your stories.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Watch what they do, not what they say?

In the course of making his off season press rounds, Kevin Colbert recently made a jaw dropping statement. Colbert, as quoted by the Post Gazette, went on record saying “To say you need that position and that it is a glaring need, I don't think it's really fair to that group of guys. That being said, sure you want to add depth….”

Excuse me? This is the same unit that gave up 47 sacks in 2007, on the heels of giving up 49 sacks in 2006…. About the only reason why Ben wasn’t sacked more was because he did not start the last game of the season. And for all of Colbert’s bravado about “this is the same line that blocked for the league’s leading rusher through 14 games…” we consistently failed to run the ball inside the entire year.

Colbert is delusional right?

That was the first reaction here, a reaction no doubt shared elsewhere.

Yet, while Colbert’s words do raise the eyebrow, take them with the proverbial grain of salt.

Case in point, the 2002 season. The Steelers opened the year getting trounced by Oakland and New England. Oakland, with Gannon throwing to Tim Brown and Jerry Rice, tearing us up. As for New England, they don’t even run the ball. It’s good that Tommy Gun had his day in the sun then, because our secondary had become a sieve. (Who can forget the painful image of the once proud Lee Flowers running with all his might – and getting burnt – in the playoffs.)

The secondary was as weak then as the offensive line is now. Right?

Following the 2002 season Kevin Colbert declared that the Steelers were happy with their secondary as it was….

Although “Steel Curtain Rising” did not exist then, this writer roundly criticized Colbert for that statement one year later, when the Steelers secondary was shredded like Swiss Cheese in route to a 6-10 record.

And therein lies the lesson.

In the 2003 draft, the Steelers first three picks went SS, LB, CB. We also picked corners in the second round of the two successive drafts.

Alonzo Jackson and Ricardo Colclough were busts, but Tory Polamalu, Ike Taylor, and Bryant McFadden made substantial contributions toward bringing home one for the thumb.

In 2003 Colbert dismissed the Steelers needs to the press, then promptly acted toward filling them at the first chance he got. Ed Bouchette suggested in his on-line chat that Colbert was just being politic, and Colbert’s history suggests that that is exactly the case.

Let’s hope this is one case where past performance is an indication of future results, as we need to improve the offensive line in the worst way.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

The Watch Tower: Wouldn't Have Been The Greatest Playoff Comeback

Nothing sells a newspaper (or generates hits on the web) like a disaster. So it should come as no surprise that much of the season-ending coverage on the Steelers boils down to one form of gloom and doom or another

Doubtlessly, there is real cause for concern. In losing 3 of their final 4, and in letting yet another game slip away in the last two minutes, Steelers Nation is right to cast a weary eye to the coming off season. It follows then that that much of the press coverage along these lines is on the mark.

Nonetheless, it is hard not to wonder if certain quarters of the Fourth Estate might be getting a little too over zealous.

Case in point, an article titled “Steelers Season Ends with a Thud,” published on January 8th in the Tribune Review. As stated above, the basic premise of the article is not in dispute.

However, in chronicling what we already know, the author makes a rather egregious error. Quoting directly from the article:

"[Ben Roethlisberger] did almost orchestrate the biggest comeback in NFL playoff history, but it would not have been necessary in the first place if not for three first half interceptions and a fumble on the final drive of the game when he was being sacked for the sixth time." [Emphasis Added.]

Really drives the argument home, doesn’t it?

Alas, the writer’s point would be more potent it were correct….

The Steelers were 18 points down at one point. It would have been quite a come back had they held on. Alas, the largest comeback in NFL playoff history was lead by former University of Maryland Quaterback Frank Reich. Standing in for Jim Kelly, he led the Bills back from a 35-3 deficit to victory against the Houston Oilers on January 3, 1993.

Had the Steelers pulled it out, it would have been the best comeback in Steelers playoff history. By a nose. Tommy Maddox brought us back from a 17 point deficit on January 5, 2003 against the Cleveland Browns. While we were down by one point less that day, the Browns were up on us on their own merits. In contrast, we basically spotted the Jags 21 points.

This is simple fact, and one has to wonder if this was just a simple error (given how easily the facts were verified – by someone down in Buenos Aires) or an example of someone who was just a little too eager to paint a portrat of vultures circling.

The Steelers are facing a very difficult off season. Even had we finished a little stronger, the team would have a lot of tough questions to answer about both free agents and aging veterans.

But there’s no need to make things out worse than they are, no need to exaggerate, no need to stray from the facts.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

The Watch Tower: The Alan Fanaca Situation

From time to time we will run "The Watch Tower" a series of posts that review the press coverage of the Steelers with a critical eye. Sometimes that will be negative, sometimes that will be positive, sometimes it will just be analytical.

Today’s focus is Alan Fanaca. The press seems unanimous in their opinion that he has played his last game for the Steelers. Sadly, given that no big name free agent other than Bettis has ever reached free agency and then decided to stick with the Steelers, they’re probably right.

Without the benefit of the time to go back and review the archives of the PG and the Trib. Review, let me just say that the general tone of the coverage during training camp was “Fanaca is waiting for a fair offer. His gripes about being hurt and insulted are just posturing. The Steelers should do something to sign him.”

That seemed to be the party line until about two months ago. Ed Bouchette wrote a very interesting, if little noticed comment in one of his Sunday columns…. He went on record, without citing a source, reporting that Kevin Colbert had personally sat down with Faneca to see if a deal could be worked out, but left empty handed.

In the “Q/A” section of the PG I asked Ed if he’d known about this in September, but had not published by agreement with his source, or if it was new information. He did not accept the question.

While it does not change the fact that the Steelers are losing their only All-Pro offensive lineman, more insight into this leak would be interesting.

Was it at preemptive PR damage control move by the Steelers? Was Fanaca’s agent sending signals to the other 31 teams to open their wallets? Or did Ed just come about it through good, old fashioned digging? Likewise, was Ed or the PG withholding this information, and if so, why?

It would be interesting to know.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Tomlin Was Right to Go for 2

A lot of people, in private, in public and in the press, are knocking Mike Tomlin’s decision to go for two after scoring the 4th quarter's second touchdown.

With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, it looks simple. The extra point gives them 24, and the next TD and extra point give them 31, which means Jacksonville can only tie with field goal instead of putting it away.

Hindsight is 20/20. Given the dynamics of the game at the time, Tomlin made the right move. A successful two point conversion would have made it a three point game. That would have given Pittsburgh the ability to tie the game. Although our defense had been shutting Jacksonville down, give the way they ran on us three weeks ago there was no guarantee we’d be back in the end zone.

You might say that after the penalty, he still should have kicked. Why? Certainly, Reed’s kick was a sure thing. But that only gets us to 24 to 28, with ten minutes to play against the perhaps the best one-two rushing tandems in the NFL.

Tomlin’s decision to go for it was the simple embodiment of his “We live in our hopes, not our fears” philosophy. For all his differences with his predecessor, Tomlin’s actions and attitudes are not that much different. Bill Cowher used to say “I’d always prefer to walk off the field saying “I wish I hadn’t done that, as opposed to ‘I wonder what if….’”

That’s a philosophy which got us a lot of victories during the last two decades, and I am glad to see it being continued, even if we did come up short.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Self Inflicted Wounds Lead to Playoff Loss

It’s ironic that, in a year where many claimed the Steelers had gotten away from their Smash Mouth identity on offense, an attempt to stay true to our roots may have well cost us the fist playoff victory of Mike Tomlin Era.

Jacksonville was on the ropes after we forced a punt with 3 minutes or so remaining. We were getting to Garrard, their receivers were dropping balls. We were in control with the lead.

The last thing we needed was three and out. Conventional strategy dictates that you keep the clock running, forcing an opponent burn time outs. In the past, with Jerome Bettis and an Pro Bowl offensive line, embracing the conventional wisdom would have been a no brainer.

The Bus has retired. And suffice to say, our only Pro Bowl lineman was playing his last game. Against Jacksonville, a “riskier” strategy would have been the wiser course. Ben owned the Jaguars in the second half. We’d moved the ball decisively on Ben’s throws to Miller and Ward. When the game is on the line, you stick with your prime time players.

Even saying that, I can see running on first and second, to keep the clock running. And I credit Davenport for getting five yards on his first carry. He got nothing on second, which should be no surprise, as EVERYONE knew it was coming. But I take serious exception to the third down call.

Ben executed the run poorly. Nobody was fooled. It came across as a half-hearted effort to keep the clock running. You have to throw the ball in that situation, in fact, the situation screamed for a play action pass. The risk of stopping the clock with an incompletion is minuscule against the benefit of moving the chains.

Alas, we didn’t do that. Jacksonville got the ball back. Our defense did a decent job of stopping them, until Garrard burned us with his run on fourth down.

While it probably wouldn’t have changed the outcome, I fault Tyrone Carter on that play. When Garrard broke through for the first down, he was going for more and Carter was the only person standing in his way.

Safety vs. quarterback. The safety should relish that battle. He should win it. Instead of pursuing, Carter hesitated and Garrard ended up taking an extra 10 or 15 more yards. That play was huge, and it sealed Jacksonville’s victory.

As a whole, the game was representative of the entire season. The Steelers showed flashes of a championship caliber football. They also gave clinic on how to lose a playoff game.

If Rothlesberger’s failed third down run was the (non) play of the game, Jacksonville’s 96 yard kickoff return was a very, very close second. We opened the game by taking control, throwing our way downfield and then pounding in a score. That was EXACTLY what we needed to do…..

Then we invited them back into it the game. Pundits wax ad nausea about “momentum changing plays,” but this was one of them. It energized Jacksonville and threw us off balance for the rest of the half. Add that play Jacksonville’s points off of Ben’s interceptions and we spotted them 21 points.

You can’t do that. The Jaguars only went the length of the field once, twice if you count the last field goal. That’s 10 points to our 29.

I credit our players and coaches for making crucial second half adjustments, including playing Harrison on kickoff coverage. In the first half, when Ben wasn’t getting planted on the turf, he was trying to do too much to win the game himself.

In the second half, we improved pass protection and Ben calmed down and led us to a lead. Those are all positives. In spite of a long drive in the third quarter, overall the defense played well. They created turnovers, they attacked Garrard, they stuffed the run.

In the end, it wasn’t enough. It should have been.

The middle 50 minutes was classic NFL playoff football. Two teams slugging it out. Control of the line of scrimmage changing hands. Capitalizing on turnovers. But the game’s bookends killed the Steelers. First, our chronic inability to execute on special teams cost us, again. Then we abandoned what had erased an 18 point deficit.

Self-inflicted wounds are the most painful, particularly in the playoffs. Now instead of New England, the Steelers face an off season of difficult decisions. I guess that’s what makes this loss sting even worse….

Pittsburgh Steeler Fan Club of Buenos Aires

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Saturday, January 5, 2008

Welcome All!

Today on January 5th, 2008, we are proud to kick off "Steel Curtain Rising" the latest blog dedicated to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

It will also serve as the unoffical website of the Pittsburgh Steeler Fan Club of Buenos Aires. The FAA - the Argentine Association of American Football may also be discussed from time to time.

For years now, I have been doing my own e-mail commentary on the Steelers, and now it is time to expand. In launching this Blog I'd like to tip the hat to a man I have never met -- Tim McMillen of McMillen and Wife, who has one of the best Steelers fan websites out there.