´ Steel Curtain Rising: November 2008

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

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Steelers Defeat Patriots 33-10

The Steelers traveled to Foxboro today and came away with their first victory in New England since 1997, and they did so in resounding fashion, trouncing the New England Patriots by a score of 33 to 10.

Although the Steelers started the game slow, trailing for most of the first half until they tied it just inside the two minute warning, they exploded for 23 points in the second half, as the offense pounded the ball, Ben Roethlisberger threw prescision strikes, and the defense totally dominated a hapless Patriot offense.

Going into the game, Steel Curtain Rising had offered that Mike Tomlin had still yet to defeat a contender during his time in the NFL.

The Steelers romp over the Patriots may not have changed that, because New England looked anything like a contender out there today.

It was the Steelers most complete game of the season, save perhaps for the opener against New England, as Ben Roethlisberger found Santonio Holmes, Hines Ward, Heath Miller, Nate Washington on key throws, and Willie Parker, Mewelde Moore, and Gary Russell made signifgant contributions to the running game.

What's more, the offensive line not only opened up holes for the running backs, it protected Ben well against the vaunted New England pass rush.

The defense was lead by James Harrison, Troy Polamalu, Lawrence Timmons, James Farrior, and LaMarr Woodley, who all had a hand in created four New England turnovers on an afternoon where the New England Patriots would fail to convert a single third down.

The Steelers improve to 9-3, keeping them one game ahead of the Baltimore Ravens. But the Black and Gold will get no rest, as Dallas will travel to Heniz Field next week.

Thanks for reading Steel Curtain Rising. Check back for a more complete write up in a day or so (we are working with limited internet access this week... A wrath of God thunderstrom burned out our cable modem....)

Can Mike Tomlin Knock Off a Contender?

Mike Tomlin has done a lot of things right since he was hired. Yet three quarters into his sophomore season, something still eludes him.

He's said the right things:

  • “I am a football fundamentalist”
  • “I believe in winning by establishing the run and stopping the run”

He made the right moves from the get go:

  • He revealed his self-assuredness, by taking charge of the team, without attempting to remake it in his image.
  • Tomlin oversaw the successful rehabilitation of Ike Taylor
  • He negotiated the Alan Fanaca minefield with the skill of a seasoned pro

When it came time to stop talking and start playing, Tomlin delivered.

  • The Steelers started 2007 3-0
  • The days of double digit wins returned to Pittsburgh
  • The Steelers reclaimed the AFC North title

The Steelers weak finish and early playoff exit in 2007 closed Tomlin’s rookie season on a down note. But, eleven games into the 2008 campaign, Tomlin has shown signs of correcting much of what ailed the Steelers in 2007.

  • Special teams, while not a team strength, have not been a glaring weakness
  • Several times the Steelers have shown the ability to win, rather than lose games in the final minutes
  • Similarly, unlike 2007, the 2008 Steelers has thus far avoided the so called “trap” games

The Elusive Victory...

With all of that, there is something that Mike Tomlin has still failed to do.

Mike Tomlin has 18 wins to on his professional resume, and that justifies praise.

Yet not one of those wins comes against a contender.

That’s right. After 28 games with Mike Tomlin at the helm, the Pittsburgh Steelers have failed to defeat a contender. Contender is a subjective term. We’ll simply define that as a team that has a realistic chance of making the Super Bowl.

  • Tomlin has won big games, Seattle in 2007, the 75th Anniversary game...
  • but the Steelers performance against New England and Jacksonville last year was woefully inadequate

2008 has brought much the same. The victories against the Ravens, Jaguars, and Redskins were big. And while the Ravens still might establish themselves as “contenders,” the Steelers came up short against the Giants and Colts, the two true heavyweights that they’ve faced.

  • Fortunately, Tomlin’s chance to change all of that has arrived.

First comes long time nemesis New England on the road, then the newly resurgent Dallas back at Heinz field, followed by the conference leading Tennessee Titans and division rival Baltimore Ravens on the road.

The Steelers faded down the stretch in 2007, and while this team surely seems tougher and stronger, they’ve played with enough inconsistency to leave room for a “reasonable doubt” in Steelers Nation’s collective mindset.

There are two things that Mike Tomlin must see to if they are to erase that doubt.

Keep the Pedal to the Metal on Defense

The Steelers defense started the 2007 strong, and although they managed to finish with the number one ranking, no one was really fooled into thinking that the Steelers really had the best defense going into the 2007 playoffs.

Unlike last year, the Steelers enter their critical late-season stretch with Tory Polamalu, Ryan Clark, and Aaron Smith. Add the fact that LaMarr Woodley replaces Clark Haggins, and Steelers fans have a lot of reasons to be hopeful.

But turning transforming that hope into reality depends on execution. The Steelers defense has certainly executed this year, but to prevail against the Patriots, Cowboys, Titans, and Ravens the Steelers defense cannot afford to let any opportunity slip through their fingers.

To understand what this means, look no further than the Colts game where both Ike Taylor and Troy Polamalu lost interceptions that easily could have provided a 14 point swing in the Steelers favor.

The Steelers defense cannot afford to leave any such opportunities on the field.

Establish the Run

The Steelers are in route to their worst rushing season since the 2003 disaster. Yes, Willie Parker has been hurt, and Rashard Mendenhall has been out since week four.

But Mike Tomlin relentlessly preaches that injuries are no excuse, and the simple fact means that Steelers ground game is not up to snuff.

Does Bruce Arian’s lack a commitment to the run? That’s been suggested here and elsewhere. Does he have the personnel up front to establish the run? The team’s failure to convert 4th and one’s against the Colts and Chargers can be traced directly to losing control of the line of scrimmage.

One question that is not up question, is even if Parker is limited (and missing a guy who can go the distance on any down is no small matter) in Mewelde Moore, Gary Russell, the Steelers have two reliable running backs, with Carey Davis and Najeh Davenport also capable of contributing.

As Bob Labriola of the Steelers Digest has mentioned, calling a few more running games at strategic moments of the game can benefit the team, even if those runs to not yield additional yards.

  • Running the ball will not only keep the defense off balance, but it reduces the punishment that Ben Roethlisberger takes.

Ideally the Steelers can and will establish the ground game. But even if the running game does not come to resemble the hey days of Franco, Foster, and Bettis, a commitment to running the ball bodes will for the offense.

Tomlin Has the Tools, Now He Needs To Transfrom the Steelers Into Contenders

Mike Tomlin is about to embark on the toughest stretch of games of his tenure as Steelers head coach. He’s given every indication that he has the coaching ability. And he has to tools at his disposal.

Now is the time for him to field a finished product.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Two Must Reads on the Steelers Running Game

The blogsphere has supplied Steelers Nation with two must reads on the Steelers running game. Yours truly had wanted to write about that this week, but time did not allow.

But the site Behind the Steel Curtain has two pieces that should both probably be required reading for the Steelers coaching staff.

“Blitzburgh” has done us the favor of doing a painstaking analysis of the Steelers running tendencies on third and short. I will not steal the man’s thunder, but I will tell you that anyone looking to build a case that Bruce Arians hasn’t committed to running the ball should start here.

The second article is by Ncoolong, formerly of “On the Black Side.” In “Get Gary the Ball, He’s Earned It” Neal takes makes that argument that it is time for the Steelers to see what Gary Russell can do.

If you haven’t come across those articles yet, go check them out now.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

McFadden to Play? - Steelers Cut Roy Lewis Re-sign Najeh Davenport

The Steelers continue to play musical chairs with their 53rd roster spot today, giving running back Najeh Davenport something to be thankful for, as he returns to the team, while cutting reserve cornerback Roy Lewis.

The Steelers released Davenport following their victory over the Washington Redskins. Lewis, who joined the Steelers as an undrafted rookie free agent had played on the team's practice squad all year, until being activated prior to the San Diego game, when both starting corners Deshea Townsend and Bryant McFadden were injured.

Davenport's return does not necessarily mean that Willie Parker will not play against New England. Parker has missed five games to injury and was taken out at half time against the Bengals when he "tweaked" his sprained MCL. It was reported that Parker suffered from swelling around the knee earlier this week, but it was reported that he returned to practice today.

In contrast, Lewis' departure could possibly signal that Bryant McFadden will return to the line up against the Patriots this week. McFadden has been nursing a broken arm in recent weeks, and began practicing a week ago. McFadden's return could give a boost to a secondary preparing to face off against a Matt Cassel who has passed for 400 yards in consecutive games.

Assuming he clears waivers, Roy Lewis will likley return to the Steeler practice squad.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

The Steelers vs. the Patriots -- A History of Milestones and Turning Points

In recent years the outcome of Steelers vs. the Patriots has carried a certain magnitude felt into the post-season.

Interestingly enough, while the Patriots are not historic rivals, games against New England have almost always marked milestones or turning points for Pittsburgh or, at the very least, they revealed something important about the Steelers.

Click Below or Scroll Down for a look back at some of the past match ups with the Patriots and what they’ve meant:

1989 - Road Kill on the Run to the Playoffs
1990 - Noll Breaks the 200 Win Barrier
1991 - Isn't This Why We Draft Guys Like This?
1993 - The Goal Line Stand Saves the Season
1995 - My How the Steelers Offense Has Changed
1996 - Fog Bowl II Sends Donahoe and Cowher Heading to the Rocks
1997 - Bledsoe Beaten by the Zone Blitz
1997 Playoffs - Cowher Trumps Carroll in Chess Match
1998 - The Steelers REFUSE to Accept a Game Gift Wapped by the Patriots
2001 - AFC Championship Game – Yes, Special Team IS Part of the Game Too...
2002 - Steelers Dread the Spread
2004 - Roethlisberger is for Real...
...2004 - AFC Championship Game - Roethlisberger is a Rookie After All
2005 - Ben Roethlisberger's Prophetic Wisdom
2007 - Will Someone Please Shut Anthony Smith's Mouth?
2008 - Stepping Stone to Lombardi Number 6
2010 - Steelers Get A Good Old Fashioned Spanking
2011 - Steelers Exorcise a Demon Named "Brady"

1989 - Road Kill on the Run to the Playoffs

Everyone knows that the 1989 Steelers lost their first two games by a combined score of 92-10, yet made the playoffs. At 4-6, Chuck Noll refused to write off the year as a rebuilding season, and declared that the Seelers were aiming for the playoffs. Everyone rolled their eyes.

They shouldn’t have.

The Steelers won five of their last six games. In the fifteenth game of the season, the Steelers upset the Patriots 28-10.

  • Milestone: Although the Steelers are in the midst of one of the most impressive late season runs in franchise history, only 26,594 fans show up, marking the game one of the lowest non-strike home game attendance records in franchise history.

1990 - Chuck Noll's 200th Win

The Steelers followed the glory of 1989 with a season filled frustration for their fans. When a reporter asked Noll why the Steelers had failed to defeat a winning team in 1990, he responded: “We did beat a winning team, we beat ourselves a number of times.”

Once again, Noll was right.

One of the losing teams that the Steelers dispatched that year was the Patroits, winning 24-3 on December 9th.
  • Milestone: Chuck Noll wins his 200th game against New England, putting him into an elite company of coaches who can make that claim.
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1991 - Who Was it that Blocked that Punt?

In perhaps the most ho-hum match up of them all, the Steelers defeated the Patriots 20-6 in the 1991 season’s third contest.
  • Milestone: Its a strech to call this a milestone, but... Ernie Mills blocks a punt for a touchdown in the end zone. Although Pittsburgh had invested a third round pick in Mills and the Steelers offense struggled mightily that year, this was to be one of the few times Mills’ name was to be heard.
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1993 - The Goal Line Stand Saves the Season

After devastating the defending AFC Champion Buffalo Bills 23-0 on Monday Night Football, the Steelers got manhandled in successive weeks by the Broncos and then the Oilers. Late in the season, New England begins to respond to Bill Parcells and starts winning games. The Steelers prevail 17-14.
  • Turning Point: Rookie Drew Bledsoe fails to convert a 4th and goal with a QB sneak. Replays reveal Bledsoe might have made it; the Steelers reliance on pure luck shows just how precarious their situation was. Bledsoe find himself at the pivotal moments of several succeding games.
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1995 - “I’ll match you a DB for every WR”

The Steelers defeat the Patriots 41-27 in a wild game that sees Curtis Martin become one of the few runners to rush for 100 yards against the Steelers.
  • Milestone: Bill Parcells activates every defensive back that he has in an attempt to combat the Steelers five wide receiver spread consisting of Yancy Thigpen, Ernie Mills, Andre Hastings, Charles Johnson, and rookie “Slash” Kordell Stewart. Parcell’s gambit underscores just how much the Steelers offense under Ron Ernhardt has evolved from “its run on first, run on second, and if its 3 or less, run on third” days.

1996 - Fog Bowl II Sends Donahoe and Cowher Heading to the Rocks

Although visiting Foxboro for the first time since 1979, the Steelers enter the divisional playoff game as favorites. But Jerome Bettis plays hurt. Kordell Stewart fails to complete a single pass in relief of Mike Tomzack. A thick fog envelops the playing field, and this aptly describes the Steelers performance.
  • Milestone: Rod Woodson’s final game as a Pittsburgh Steeler.
  • Turning Point: Steelers Director of Football Operations Tom Donahue criticizes the team for coming out flat. This does not sit well with Bill Cowher, and if the Cowher-Donahu rift between did not start here, this was the day it certainly became public.

1997 - Bledsoe Beaten by the Zone Blitz

The 1997 versions of the Steelers and Patriots were about as evenly matched as you’ll ever see two NFL teams. The game features Bill Cowher going for it on fourth deep in his own territory early in the game. Despite converting this gamble, the Steelers never lead in regulation. Leading 21-13 late in the game, New England only needs to covert one more third down to run out the clock.

Dropping back into coverage on third down, defensive end Kevin Henry intercepts Bledsoe’s pass and returns it far down field. In the ensuing position Yancy Thigpen makes an acrobatic 4th down conversion, to set up a Steelers touchdown followed by a 2 point conversion that ties the game. Steelers win in overtime.
  • Milestone: This game is by far the most exciting Steelers win of the late 1990’s. In fact, it is arguably the last time the Steelers would “win a big game” during that period.

1997 Playoffs - Cowher Trumps Carroll in Chess Match

The Steelers and Patriots would meet again in the playoffs. The second meeting proved definitively that an almost metaphyiscal parity existed between these two teams. Kordell Stewart scored the games’ only touchdown and team’s only points on a planned run in the first half. But the story is defense and field position, as Bill Cowher and Pete Carroll match wits throughout the contest. Late in the game, Cowher goes for it on fourth and goal and the Steelers are stuffed, but the defense holds for a 6-7 win.
  • Turning Point: The play of game, a sack/strip of Drew Bledsoe as time runs out is made by a man who would return to haunt the Steelers -- none other than reserve rookie defensive lineman Mike Vrabel….
  • Milestone: This was Steelers final playoff victory at Three Rivers Stadium.

1998 - The Game The Pats CANNOT GIVE Away

One week after the infamous “heads-tails” fiasco in Detroit the Steelers offense is beyond deflated, and the team loses 23-9.
  • Turning Point: Multiple turnovers, solid special teams, and excellent defense give the Steelers possession deep in New England territory numerous times in the second half, yet the team converts none of these into a touchdown. The tailspin which will eventually see the team lose its final five is in full force.

2001, AFC Championship – Yes, Special Team IS Part of the Game Too...

At this point the football world does not yet believe in Tom Brady, and most of Steelers Nation views Bill Belichick as a retread who the Steelers used to beat up on when he was dismally failing as head coach of the Cleveland Browns.

My how reality rears its ugly head…. The Patriots completely outplay the Steelers in the first half, but the story is Drew Bledsoe coming off the bench to lead a 40 yard 11 play drive that resulted in a touchdown with less than a minute to go in the first half, and two special teams breakdowns that resulted in 14 New England points, as the Patriots won 24 to 17.
  • Milestone: With his final throws as a Patriot, Drew Bledsoe gets revenge on the Steelers....
  • Turning Point: Kordell Stewart’s final playoff game. Stewart had a Pro Bowl season in 2001, stepping up big time when Jerome Bettis went down. His teammates voted him MVP. Although Stewart did not “lose” the game, he does throw 2 picks as the Steelers attempted to come back, showing that he is simply incapable of playing under pressure.

2002 - Steelers Dread the Spread

The Steelers returned to Foxboro to start the year on Monday Night Football with revenge on their mind. Instead they got another rude awakening, as New England picked off the Stewart’s first pass and did not even bother to attempt to run the ball in the second half as they won 30-14.
  • Turning Point: Bill Belichick decimates the Steelers secondary with the spread offense, revealing just how vulnerable the Steelers once vaunted pass defense has become. Although he lacks quality personnel, Tim Lewis' failure to adjust over the next two years paves the way for his departure as defensive coordinator, and the Steelers commit to revamping their secondary, beginning with drafting Troy Polamalu...

2004 - Rookie Roethlisberger is for Real...

The Patriots bring one of the NFL’s longest winning streaks to Heinz Field, but Ben Roethlisberger has his own streak, having won his first five starts. With a lot of help from the defense and Jerome Bettis and Duce Staley, Roethlisberger improves his streak winning streak to six.
  • Milestone: Although it would take at least two more years to shake the “game manager” label, Ben gets his first win over a legitimate contender.

2004 AFC Championship Game - ...Roethlisberger is a Rookie After All

The Steelers are at home, but everyone knows that that Patriots are the favorite. Tom Brady plays some flawless ball, while Ben looks every bit the rookie throwing three interceptions, losing his first game in 16 starts.
  • Turning Point: Bye, bye Burress! Plaxico Burress drops a difficult, but catchable pass in the end zone, yet has the gall to complain about not getting the ball enough. It is his last game as a Steeler. Addition by subtraction.

2005 Ben Roethlisberger's Prophetic Wisdom

The third game of the season brings the Patriots to Pittsburgh, and they leave winners 23-20.
  • Turning Point: Many in Steelers Nation see the loss as evidence that the Steelers cannot overcome the Patriots, and therefore the Super Bowl is out of reach. But the season ends with the Steelers bringing home their fifth Lombardi Trophy. As Big Ben when the 2005 season started, “We can finish at worse than 15-1 and still be a better team.” Fortunately, Ben was right.

2007 - Will Someone TAPE Anthony Smith's Mouth Shut?

The Steelers take a 9-3 record into Foxboro against a Patriots team that is in route to the NFL’s first 16-0 regular season mark. Safety Anthony Smith (someone tape his mouth shut) guarantees a victory but gets torched by Tom Brady twice, as the Patriots won 34 to 13. The game was even more lopsided than the score might make it appear.
  • Milestone? Steelers Nation hopes (prays?) this does not become a milestone, but the fact that the Steelers are forced to resort to trick plays on the goal line underlines the difficulty that Bruce Arians’ offense is having controlling the line of scrimmage.
  • Turning Point: After the game, Mike Tomlin observed: “If this is the measuring stick, we’re not even close.” He’s right. This game marks a very weak finish to an otherwise strong start for Mike Tomlin during his first year.

2008 - Prelude to Things to Come

The Steelers travel to Foxboro and defeat the Patriots for the first time there since 1997. The Steelers are dominant on both offense and defense, and while their special teams did allow for a couple of long run backs, they did also secure a bobbled kick return, which the offense turned into points.
Milestone/turning point? Well, its too hard to say if this game will present milestones or turning points, but this win marks:
  • Milestone - Mike Tomlin gets his first win over a legitmate contender, or at least a team that looked like a contender going into the game.... :)
  • Turning Point - For one game at least, the Steelers return to Steelers football, as Willie Parker, Mewelde Moore and Gary Russell team up to ensure that the Steelers dominate time of possession.
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2010 - Steelers Get A Good Old Fashioned Spanking

There’s no other way to describe the Patriots 39-26 defeat of the Steelers at Heinz Field. Forget about the Steelers late scoring surge, that was tantamount to crying “no I’ll be good!” at the point that the reality of an Old Fashioned Spanking sets in.
  • Turning Point -- For as bad as this game was, it became a rallying point for the Steelers. Jeff Reed was cut. Dick LeBeau adjusted his defense to bring the corners closer to the receivers. Ziggy Hood entered what has been the best stretch of his career. The Steelers bounced back and ultimately made it to Super Bowl XLV
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2011 - Steelers Exorcise a Demon Named "Brady"
The story before this game was Tom Brady’s ownership of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Mike Tomlin heard none of it. That story belonged to an earlier generation. The Steelers boasted the NFL’s number one defense, yet no true quarterback had tested them. And no quarterback was hotter than Tom Brady in the fall of ’11.

Tom Brady was supposed to bring the Steelers defense down to earth. Dick LeBeau and Carnell Lake elected not to pass that on their team.

The Steelers went on the attack, scoring on the opening drive, taking control of a game in a way they had not since the ’05 divisional playoffs vs. the Colts. Ben Roethlisberger threw 50 passes, hitting 9 different receivers as the Steelers dominated the tempo.
  • But the real story was on defense.
Dick LeBeau opened his bag of tricks, playing more press coverage that anyone had seen him play before or since. And it worked. Playing without James Farrior and James Harrison, the Steelers defense managed to harass Tom Brady, as LaMarr Woodley sacked him twice. Deion Branch and Wes Welker had been tearing up the NFL, but Dick LeBeau kept them both under 40 yards catching, with the help of youngsters like Cortez Allen.

The Steelers sealed the game when Brett Keisel strip sacked Brady, and Troy Polamalu knocked the ball out of bounds.
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Take a moment to leave a comment to share your thoughts or memories on Steelers-Patriots contests of the past.

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Saturday, November 22, 2008

Steelers Ownership Restructuring: Art Jr. and John Rooney in, Tim and Pat to Sell Shares

The final details of the Steelers ownership restructuring are beginning to emerge. Ealier this week, the Post-Gazette reported that Tim and Pat Rooney, who each control 16% of the Steelers, will completely divest themselves of any ownership stake in the team, allowing them to focus on the Rooney family race tracks in Florida and New York. This comes as Dan Rooney and his son Art II are finalizing a transaction to take controling interest in the Steelers.

As has been speculated here in Steel Curtain Rising and in other quarters, Art Rooney Jr. and his brother John will continue as part owners of the Steelers. In early August both Tim and Pat resigned for Steelers Board of Directors, but Art Jr. and John did not follow suit, indicate that both men were not ready to part ways with the team their father founded.

Size and Structure to Change, but Rooneys and McGinley's to Remain

Art Jr. and John Rooney will apparently only sell a little less than half of their shares, leaving each man with an eight percent of the stake. The McGinley family, nephews of Art Rooney Sr. currently controls 20% of the team, divided between Aunt Rita McGinley and Jack McGinley’s six sons. John McGinley Jr. confirmed that while he and Rita McGinley are keeping his shares, some of this brothers and sisters will likely sell theirs.

Identity of Other Minority Investors "Names that we will recognize..." Still Unknown

No names have been released, but Dan Rooney has apparently lined up between three and five major investors, in a group that will total ten or fifteen. When news of the ownership restructuring first broke, it Dan Rooney confirmed that he and Art II were lining up investors, promising that they would be “names you will recognize.”

Given the current financial climate, it will be interesting to see exactly who is both willing and able to pony up millions upon millions to own a part of the Steelers, an investment which brings a lot of prestige, but reportedly little in the way of returns.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Steelers Defeat Bengals, 27-10, But "Half Full/Half Empty" Questions Persist

The Steelers completed the final leg of their three game home stand by defeating the Cincinnati Bengals 27-10.

Despite the lopsided score, the pundits in the press sought fit to pan the team’s performance.

The Post-Gazette’s Bob Smizk summed it up this way:

The Steelers came out of their game against the Cincinnati Bengals last night with their eighth win and still in undisputed possession of first place in the AFC North Division. But there were as many questions as there was jubilation surrounding this 27-10 victory. It was not a performance befitting a team with Super Bowl ambitions.
His colleague Gene Collier was more upbeat in his evaluation (choosing to focus on the role that Santoino Holmes had in getting the offense moving) but he did offer this caveat:

Crocker ended his night, but if Holmes doesn't remember any of it, let's at least do him the courtesy of remembering it for him. And let's not understate it, because when this offense again showed up with no apparent purpose -- it finally broke 123 minutes and five seconds of touchdown-free football when Roethlisberger found Miller with a 3-yard scoring toss early in last night's second quarter -- it was Holmes who cleaned its fuel injectors just enough to pull away from the worst team in the AFC.
Commentary at the Tribune-Review was more positive, but the national media got into the act as well, as James Walker of ESPN started his article off this way:

The Steelers brought their "B-minus" game to Heinz Field Thursday night. But that was more than enough to beat up on the lowly Cincinnati Bengals

Pittsburgh continued its trend of surviving and advancing with a 27-10 victory over the Bengals to improve to 8-3. It was the second win in five days for the Steelers.

Perhaps style points are not important this time of year. But for three quarters the Steelers struggled in two phases of the game -- offense and special teams -- against an inferior team at home.
Paints a rather grim picture, doesn't it? But is the portrait of "the struggling Steelers" accurate?

Black Out in Latin America

It is hard to know what to make of this for one who has not seen the game. As you might expect, Direct TV Latin America does not carry the NFL Network and they of course don’t make the Thursday night games part of the “pay full price and get half the games” Sunday Ticket offering that Direct TV offers customers in this part of the world.

On paper there is no way that a team like the Steelers should let the Bengals hang around like they did. But there is a reason why you play games.

If it is disturbing that the Bengals succeeded in shutting down Willie Parker, it is encouraging that the Ben was able to beat them with his arm, and he did it be throwing downfield. Heath Miller was also back in the line up, making his precense known by scoring the team’s first offensive touchdown in several quarters.

Sure the defense gave up an opening drive touchdown. Sure LaMarr Woodley’s sack was the only one of the night. But they held Cedric Benson to 35 yards on 16 carries. They also hauled in another interception, something which have not been in abundant supply.

The defense also kept Cincinnati off of the board after Limas Sweed gift wrapped good field position by muffing a punt at Pittsburgh’s 39 yard line with one minute left to play in the half. (And you know the NFL Network was cuing up that stat about how the Steelers have been outscored at the ends of halves.)

Your Chance to Sound Off

Adding to the mystery of this game is some rather eerie symmetry between the 2007 and 2008 seasons. Last year the Steelers played the Dolphins in a downpour, and escaped with a 3-0 win. They followed that a week later with a game against the Bengals, again in foul weather, where they won 24-10. That victory seemed to indicate progress, but the Steelers proceeded to lose the next three out of 4 (or 4 out of 5.)

Despite these similarities, my feeling is that the 2008 Steelers are different, if for no other reason than their defense is the real deal.

So, to my fellow members of Steeler’s Nation, ask not what Steel Curtain Rising can tell you, ask what you can tell Steel Curtain Rising…. (OK, that was cheesy.)

Seriously, if you watched the game please take a moment to leave a comment with your analysis. Did the Steelers simply escape with a win, or did they take a step forward?

Monday, November 17, 2008

Steelers Offense Reaches Crossroads in Chargers Game

Despite dominating in almost every statistical category the Steelers were forced to rely on another last minute field goal by Jeff Reed to eek out 11-10 victory over the San Diego Chargers on Sunday. Whether you see the Chargers game from the half-empty or half-full perspective, there is no mistaking that ten games into the season, the Pittsburgh Steelers offense is at a crossroads.

The game’s bizarre finish dominated cyberspace this morning, but the bigger story is the uncanny paradox that was the Steelers offense last Sunday.

Ben Roethlisberger returned to practice this week, and it showed.

  • One can only look at the 13 penalties and wonder if the rest of his teammates joined him.

Plot these numbers of a map, and the zig zagging will make you dizzy:

  • A quarterback who threw for three hundred yards, and completed 75 of his passes...
  • A Pro Bowl half back returning to gain 115 yards on 25 carried, running on a wet field...
  • Two 100 yard receivers...
  • A defense that produced three turnovers...

...Yet the only points came off of Jeff Reed’s leg and James Harrison’s safety.

The Empty Half

Confronted with this dichotomy, the Pittsburgh press opted to embrace the negative.

Consider Mike Prisuta’s lead in the Tribune-Review to an article titled "Win Does Not Mask Steelers Problems:

  • “The Steelers didn't so much as beat the San Diego Chargers as they did survive them Sunday. And themselves.”

In the same vein, the Post-Gazette headlined Gene Collier’s column:

  • “The Steelers Barely Get it Done.”

There are real caution signs in the Charger’s game. Anytime your offense only manages nine points against an underachieving defense you have to be concerned.

The fact that penalties are suddenly a concern is alarming.

The Steeler's failure to convert yet another fourth and goal at the one rightly bothers the faithful in Steelers Nation.

Mike Prisuta’s lead is on target in a certain sense. The Steelers themselves created much of the adversity that weathered on Sunday. But the way the Men of Steel responded offers hope.

Improvising, Adapting and Overcoming

"Part of that [the game's difficult circumstances] is our doing, and it's discouraging. We're not a finished product, but maybe we found something today in Gary Russell." - Steelers Coach Mike Tomlin on the Chargers game

The failed 4th down conversion in the red zone provides the perfect example. Getting stuffed at the one, this is Steelers football mind you, is never pleasant, but it might have been the best thing that happened to them because the coaches responded by using Gary Russell in two other short yardage situations. Russell delivered in both cases, converting both of those opportunities.

Willie Parker is back to form, and Mewelde Moore impressed in his absence, but its good to see the Steelers coaches recognize that those two are not their only options.

Much was made about the fact that Roethlisbergerdidn’t throw downfield” for a second straight game. That’s not quite true, as he did try to hit Santonio Holmes deep twice, and neither pass was on target.

So perhaps we’re right not to believe the coaches when they insist that the short passing game was only a function of “what was being given to us.” And no Iron City swigging Steelers fan wants to see the West Coast Offense make its home in Pittsburgh.

But Ben was better. He may not have thrown the deep ball well, but he made clutch throw after clutch throw, threading needle after needle.

This improved play allowed the Steelers to covert 50% of their third downs; going into the game were only converting 38.5% of their third downs.

Stepping Up

Football is a game defined by situation. When you respond well, you win. When you don’t you lose.

Down 7 to 2 at as the first half was winding down, the San Diego Chargers were threatening to make it 14 two.

  • James Harrison had other ideas, intercepting a Philip Rivers pass and returning it 33 yards.

Given the ball at their own 43 with 1:23 left to go, Roethlisberger answered by completing 6 of 7 passes, the last of which put the Steelers into position to score with 0:11 seconds left.

The Steelers strong finish to the first half didn’t result in much of a momentum shift, as penalty after penalty sabotaged drive after drive in the second half.

This kind of football frustrates fans, but the men on the field maintained their poise.

The Chargers marched from their 18 to the Steelers four yard line. Drives like that can demoralize, but the defense dug in when San Diego reached the red zone. Larry Foot and James Harrison limited L.T. to two yards before Ike Taylor and Fernando Bryant broke up consecutive pass plays to force a field goal.

Once again, Ben responded as he did in the Baltimore and Jacksonville games. Starting at his own 13 he directed a 15 play drive that brought the Steelers to San Diego’s two to set up Jeff Reed’s game wining field goal.

Can the Steelers Offense Put It Together?

Throughout the 2008 season the Steelers offense has had a maddening Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde character to it. Just two weeks ago ESPN’s Football Outsiders did a story that could be summed up this way: Steelers have one of the best offenses inside the 20, but one of the worst outside the 20.

And there they were Sunday, wracking up 400 yards of total offense, zero no turnovers, yet with nary a touchdown to show for it.

One way or another, the San Diego game will be looked at as the week where the Steelers offense reached a fork in the road.

Mike Tomlin must ensure that Steelers move in the right direction.

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Steelers Defeat Chargers 11-10

The Pittsburgh Steelers came from behind against the San Diego Chargers to win on a last second Jeff Reed field goal that brought final score to 11-10. 11 to 10, however does not even begin to suggest the topsy turvy nature of the game.

Likewise, it would be exaggerating to say that the one point difference makes it look closer than it was -- this one was in doubt till the end -- it does obscure the fact that the Steelers dominated in several staistical categories.

This victory snapps a two game home losing streak for the Steelers, and gives them a one game lead in the AFC North race, as the Baltimore Ravens were shot down by the New York Giants today.

Perhaps more importantly, the game marked a return to health by Willie Parker, a return to form by Ben Roethlisberger, another well-called game by Bruce Arians, and another inspiring performance by James Harrison and the rest of the defense....

The game ended at 10:30 pm in my part of the world. Please check back with Steel Curtain Rising tomorrow for comprehensive commentary.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Roy Lewis in, Dallas Baker Out

Faced with the prospect of going up against a San Diego Charger's team loading with weapons in the passing game, the Steelers cut Dallas Baker and signed corner back Roy Lewis from their practice squad, reports the Post-Gazette.

The Steelers are missing starters Desha Townsend and Bryant McFadden, and had signed veteran corner back Fernando Bryant earlier in the week.

Drafted in the 7th round of the 2007 draft, Dallas Baker won high praise from Mike Tomlin during the off season. He did play in eight games as the Steelers 4th wide receiver, but only managed one catch.

Roy Lewis was an undrafted rookie free agent who impressed during the preseason. He did not make the final cut, but the Steelers were able to keep him on the practice squad. In cutting Baker and elevating Lewis, the continues the trend that has seen undrafted free agent rookies out shine the Steelers day two draft picks.

Dallas Baker's departure with the team could be short lived, however, as the Steelers could resign him as early as next week, if he clear waivers. The Steelers would likely make such a move, as they only have four wide receivers on their roster, and tight end Health Miller is out with a dreaded "high ankle sprain."

Dan Rooney and Art II to Keep Steelers – Final Details Yet to Emerge

The four Rooney brothers, Art Jr., Tim, Patrick, and John have agreed in principle to sell their shares of the Pittsburgh Steelers to their older brother Dan and his son Art II.

Thus it appears that a process which as been underway for some years, but only became public back in mid-July, will apparently close before year’s end.

All sides involved in the deal have repeatedly expressed a desire to complete the final terms of the transaction before any change of administration in Washington might lead to unfavorable changes in tax law. Beyond that, the need to restructure the Steelers ownership arose from twin sources: The youngest of the Rooney brothers is 69 and all must plan for their estates, and the fact that the race tracks owned by the Rooney family in New York and Florida have video slots, which runs afoul of NFL anti-gambling rules.

Dan Rooney to Pay 480 Million to Brothers

To complete the deal Dan Rooney has assessed the total value of the Steelers at 800 million dollars, and based his offer for his brothers 64% on that figure. However, Dan’s offer discounts business debts, which brings the total value of the franchise to 750 million. According to Steel Curtain Rising's calculations, That would mean that Dan would pay out need to shell out 480 million to buyout his brothers.

Earlier this year the four Rooney brother rejected an offer by Wall Street Financier Stanley Druckenmiller. According to the Post-Gazette, Druckenmiller’s offer was based on a 840 million dollar value for the team; the Tribune-Review reports that Druckenmiller valued the Steelers at 820 million.

How Dan and Art II Are to Finance the Deal is Still a Little Nebulous

Carl Prine of the Tribune Review is reporting that “280 million of the deal will come from loans arranged by PNC bank, and Dan Rooney will need to bring in a number of equity partners he has yet to name.”

If Dan is paying out 750 million and is borrowing 280 million, that leaves a difference of 200 million. No one has reported on how Dan is to bridge that gap. Equity investors might play a part of, and if that is the case then we still do not know how much of the Steelers Dan and Art II will end up owning.

It’s also conceivable that Dan and Art II are paying a part of that 200 million in cash. Dan owns 20% of the family race tracks, and has divested or will divest (press reports conflict) that 20%. The race tracks are more valuable and more profitable than the Steelers, so it is more than conceivable that Dan’s share of the tracks could come to 200 million dollars.

With Continuity Comes Change

Even with Dan and Art II getting controlling interest of the team, things will change. This deal is going to require Dan and Art II to take on a tremendous amount of debt, and its also reported that the four Rooney brothers will receive payments over a number of years. This could easily mean that the Steelers will have less money to spend on player salaries.

Likewise, outside investors are going to have to be given a role in running the team. Art Rooney brought in minority investors from time-to-time, but the NFL is a far different place now than it was in the 30’s and 40’s.

Technically Dan has answered to the Board of Directors, comprised of himself, his four brothers, and the McGinnely family. Now the composition of the group figures to change greatly.

As Art Rooney Jr. himself said to the blog Behind the Steel Curtain:

It may be awkward for him down the road. Right now we let him do whatever
he wants. He doesn't have to answer to anyone. When he gets outside partners that will all change. Those partners won't be happy about giving a guy a hundred million and then watching him get killed. He'll need to answer to his partners, even if he is primary owner.
Dan Rooney is known for his ability to build consensus and find compromise in even the most difficult situations, so the fact that he’ll have to deal with outside investors is not worrisome, but there will most likely be changes to the way the Steelers operate, even if the differences are not visible to the eyes of the average Steelers fan.

Other Art Jr. and/or John Rooney Maintain a Stake?

It is also possible that some of the brothers would retain a small number of shares in the Steelers. Art Jr. has openly discussed this possibility, and the other likely candidate is John Rooney. It was John Rooney has been pushing for his brothers to accept Dan’s offer, and he, unlike his brother’s Tim and Pat, did not resign from the Steelers Board of Directors in August.

John, however, remains heavily involved in the family’s racetrack business, and it is unknown if the NFL would allow him to continue to play a roll in the Steelers ownership.

Dotting the i’s and Crossing the t’s

By all accounts this deal is likely to finalized before the NFL finance committee meets on December 17th in Dallas, but the perspective on those final steps differs slightly, depending on which brother you talk to.

Art Rooney Jr. characterized it this way in the Tribune-Review:

We have a board meeting in December, but we hope that's just a formality and everything is out of the way by then.

His brother Tim was also positive, but there was a hint of caution in his words as reported by the Post-Gazette:

There are more than a few loose ends to be solved but are or should be doable. It is very important to solve the problem before the end of the year because of taxes.

Tim Rooney, the middle child, is seen as being the one brother most open to selling to outside investors, so perhaps he is not 100% happy at accepting less money. Nonetheless, it would appear that Tim is on board with the sale.

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Friday, November 14, 2008

Precedent Exists for Sitting Ben Roethlisberger

Mike Tomlin apparently began the week by giving Ben an ultimatum, “Practice or stay put on the pine.” This was the right move by Tomlin, and the fact that Ben has returned to practice rightly encourages the faithful in Steelers Nation.

For whatever its worth, Ed Bouchette reported that Ben was throwing well, hitting deep balls. Take that with a grain of salt, if Ben had been stinking up the joint and Bouchette even hinted at that, he’d lose his press credentials pronto.

Steelers fans can only hope that Ben's return to practice full time signals a return to the performance he exhibited during the first six games of the season.

Neither Ben, nor the Steelers coaches will admit that Ben’s lingering shoulder injury has anything to do with his poor play recently, but the numbers tell a different tale.

As Bob Smizk pointed out, and Steel Curtain Rising mentioned after the loss to the Colts, Ben three for nine scores and three picks in the first six games, and had followed up by throwing eight interceptions and one touchdown in the last three.

If Ben really looks like he’s not hampered by injury then what follows here is moot.

However, if Roethlisberger is struggling in practice because of the injury then there is a franchise precedent for sitting Ben, and it is one that a veteran like defensive line coach Johnny Mitchell would do well to remind Tomlin of.

Starting When He Should've Sat

The Steelers took the NFL by storm during Bill Cowher’s rookie season in 1992. This burst was fueled in no small part by smart play by quarterback Neil O’Donnell, (yeah, I’ve called him Kneel O’Dummel plenty of times myself, but bear with me.)

Going into December, the Steelers were 10-3 when O’Donnell went down with a knee injury. Reserve quarterback and former starter Bubby Brister stepped in. Prior Brister’s first start, Cowher was asked what would happen when Neil got better, and his response was clear:

“Neil’s our starter.”

(Although, in typical Cowheresque way, when asked “what if Bubby comes in and plays like Sammy Baugh?” he responded, “I don’t really remember how Sammy Baugh played, so I can’t really answer that question….)

Brister's play in his first two starts was disastrous, as the Steelers lost successive games to Chicago and Minnesota, although he did finish the season with a strong, and winning performance against Cleveland.

Cowher stuck to his refrain: “Neil’s our starter.”

The playoffs brought the Bills to Three Rivers Staidum.

O’Donnell started, but it became obvious early on that he was not ready to play. The Steelers crossed the 50 at least a half dozen times during the game, and only managed to score 3 points. Barry Foster racked up 100 yards, but the Steelers passing game was ineffective. The Bills went on to win that day, 24-3.

The BillsThey were simply the better team that year, and probably would have prevailed no matter who started. But O’Donnell simply wasn’t healthy enough to give Steelers a shot at winning so he shouldn't have played.

Iron Mike in Relief

By the 1994 season the Steelers had already established themselves as contenders. Ten games into the season, the Steelers were 7-3, but their offense was lack luster. The pressure on Neil O’Donnell was relentless, but Cowher stoutly backed his man.

In truth, Neil was part of the problem. He had Yancy Thigpen, Ernie Mills, Andre Hastings, and Charles Johnson at his disposal, but he kept insisting on trying to force the ball to Eric Green, despite the fact that Green had taken to skirting out of bounds when he didn’t need to.

At mid-season, in his Steelers Digest column “Coping” Myron Cope speculated that the Steelers had been concealing an injury to O’Donnell Neil, reminding readers that “you don’t have to list a player as long as he starts.”

Week eleven brought a showdown with Miami and a surprise. Mike Tomzack would start for the “injured O’Donnell.” The internet was in its infancy then, so perhaps this move had been hinted at during the week. But to the hard core Steelers fans in Waltham's Bambino's, this was a minor shock.

Tomzack started and won that game, and the game that followed against the Raiders.

The nature of O’Donnell’s injury was nebulous,* but two weeks later he was back in the starting lineup and began a stretch that would see him play his best football (unfortunately, that stretch ended with a thud in Super Bowl XXX.)

The Lesson Tomlin Should Take

There’s no question that Ben is nursing an injured shoulder. How serious it is, on one will say. Roethlisberger is obviously going to say that he is ready to play no matter what, and that is to his credit. But if he is, as Bruce Arians estimated last week, only 80% he should not play.

In one half against the Redskins, Byron Leftwich showed he is capable of guiding the Steelers offense.

But Ben Roethlisberger is a team leader.

Sitting Ben for a game, if he’s isn’t 100%, neither going to tarnish Ben’s standing in the eyes of his teammates, and nor disrupt the locker room.

Quite to the contrary, it could be the key that keeps the Steelers 2008 season on track.

*It always seemed like Neil's benching wasn't entirely due to injury, although Steelers Digest's Bob Labriola insisted much later that O'Donnell was in fact pretty banged up.

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Thursday, November 13, 2008

Watch Tower: So the Steelers DID Try to Make an 11th Hour Signing After All

Steel Curtain Rising has pledged to banish all talk of contracts and free agents until the off season, but that doesn’t have to mean that the media’s coverage of the issue is off limits….

In his Sunday column about the Steelers, the Post-Gazette’s Ed Bouchette reported that the Steelers had made a last ditch-effort to resign Marvel Smith to a long term deal before the beginning of their self-imposed regular season contract negotiation blackout.

During the final week of the preseason, the Steelers traded center/guard Sean Mahan back to Tampa Bay, and Steel Curtain Rising speculated at the time that they were attempting to free up salary cap space to resign a player. While the Steelers do not negotiate during the regular season, it was been their practice in each of the past years to make a final, 11th hour signing shortly before the first game of the year.

They resigned Hines Ward, Ike Taylor, Kendall Simmons in the final weeks of the 2005, 2006, and 2007 pre-seasons.

Bouchette reported that the Steelers did attempt to resign Smith, but that Smith rebuffed them in hopes of cashing in when he becomes a free agent in March of 2009.

Steelers Dodge a Bullet

Smith unwittingly did the Steelers a favor, at least it seems that way now. Smith missed the last several games of the 2007 season due to back problems, and underwent back surgery in the off season.

Both the team and Smith pronounced him to be back to 100% health. He started the season out strong, only to leave the Jacksonville game with back spasms, and has not returned since.

Smith is in his 30’s and his injury issues are mounting. There is little doubt that his value on the free agent market as dropped with each game that he has missed. Conceivably he could be facing the end of his playing days, although no one seems ready to make that pronouncement.

The Steelers offensive line is clearly their most glaring liability, and many (Steel Curtain Rising included) felt that they should have taken moves to shore it up, given that they face up to four potential free agent defections in 2009.

Had the Steelers committed serious money to Smith, they’d now be on the hook for a huge salary cap hit for a player who may no longer be a full time starter. They might decide to bring Smith back, but if they do, they will most certainly get him for far less money. Regardless, the money they did not spend on him will allow them to seek someone else.

Why Now?

The interesting thing about this from a media analysis standpoint is that we’re only finding out about this nine weeks into the season.

It’s a horrendous exaggeration to say “Steelers Nation has the right to know,” but this is real news.

  • Did Bouchette know about it at the time?
  • If so why not report it then?

If he didn’t, then why is he reporting it now?

  • Why are sources leaking it now?

In the larger scope of things this is a pretty small issue, but that does not make the questions any less interesting.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Steelers Loss to Colts Brings Tomlin's Dilemma into Focus

Steel Curtain Rising spent the better part of last week lavishing praise on the Steelers defense, zeroing in on Bruce Arians for his inability to adapt and, to some extent, defending Ben Roethlisberger from his critics.

No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

As if on cue, the defense had its worst day of the season, Arians showed some flexibility, and Ben continued to disappoint. Steel Curtain Rising took a respite from criticizing the pass protection, but had we not, one can safely assume that the Colts would have been held sackless.

If it was that kind day for the one lonely writer in the blogesphere, the loss to the Colts was far worse for the Steelers.

The Steelers hosted the Colts at Heinz Field for the first time since 2002 and despite leading for much of the game, they are left with a bunch of could haves, should haves, and would haves that all add up to the fact that, for the first time since opening day, Pittsburgh now shares the lead in the AFC North with someone else.

Its hard to interpret exactly what the loss to the Colts means. While the Colts entered with a 4-4 record, they showed that they are still a talented team with playmakers who can rise to the occasion. The Steelers of course showed progress in some areas, only to regress more in others.

Steelers Defense Against the Colts

The same defense that so thoroughly dominated the Washington Redskins Monday night followed up by giving up season highs in yardage against the Colts, and it gave up not one, but two big plays, something which it had not done much of this season.

  • Yet it is hard to criticize them too harshly.

The ball was simply not bouncing their way on Sunday.

Ike Taylor got “beaten” twice on big plays. One for a touchdown in the 1st quarter, and the other was a key third down conversion in the second half. In both cases Taylor’s coverage could not have been better. In the first case he got a hand on the ball, which he unwittingly deflected right into Reggie Wayne’s hands. In the second instance Taylor was in perfect position, Manning simply threw a perfect ball and the receiver made a phenomenal play.

That’s the difference between defending Peyton Manning to Marvin Harrison/Reggie Wayne as opposed to defending Eli Manning to Plaxico Burress.

And while the defense did not torment Manning the way they have other quarterbacks, they did keep Manning’s completion percentage below 50, and forced the Colts off the field late in the fourth quarter, for what could have been Pittsburgh’s kill the clock possession.

Arians Adjusts -- The Steelers Offense Against the Colts

Accentuate the positive.

Ben was only sacked twice. Bruce Arians seemed determined to mitigate the pass rush by calling more three step drops. Ben got rid of the ball quickly, and was quite accurate (accept for when he wasn’t.) And if receivers weren’t able to get open downfield, they did a better job of holding on to the balls that were thrown to them. Arians even stayed faithful to the run.

Staying faithful to the run…. Ah, the offensive line does seem to be able to put together a complete day. The Colts came in with the league’s 25th rated run defense, yet the Steelers managed a measly 55 yards. Credit Mewelde Moore for giving all he had. He did, but in many cases there was just not room to run.

The Steelers fourth quarter redzone gambit provides a perfect example. Faced with a first and goal at the five the Steelers strategy was Punch It In. Such displays were once a staple of Steelers football. Their first run got them four yard. Just what you like to see. But on the next to Moore was stuff for no gain, and then got pancaked backwards for a loss.

The Steelers had punched it in in two similar situations prior to the game, but in both cases Moore had room to run. In the fourth quarter drive, when the Steelers were in a position to put the game away, he got none, and was unable to overpower the Colt’s defensive linemen.

Big Ben

Ben Roethlisberger is hurt. He separated his shoulder in the first week of the season, and has been nursing it since. Ben isn’t just a franchise quarterback, he’s a tough franchise quarterback.

But the injury is taking its toll.

As the Post-Gazette’s Bob Smizk pointed out:

  • In the first six games Ben threw 9 touchdown passes and three interceptions.
  • In the last three he has thrown one touchdown and eight interceptions.

Ben did an excellent job of finding receivers underneath. Its quite probably because the Colt’s coverage downfield was excellent. But it’s also possible his ability to throw the deep ball was limited.

Roethlisberger reinjured his shoulder on Monday night against the Redskins. He did not play the second half and missed a few days of practice. There was lots of talk that Mike Tomlin might sit Ben for a game….

Tomlin’s Dilemma

….Tomlin insisted if the Doctor’s gave Ben the greenlight, and that if Ben said he felt ok, Ben would play.

Ben played.

That was most probably a mistake.

Ben Roethlisberger is a gamer. If you ask him if he wants to play, he is going to say “yes.” He was in situations like this back in 2006, and Bill Cowher and company got him back into the lineup ASAP. It was a mistake the team should have learned from.

The first interception represented a very poor decision on Ben’s part, (as well as perhaps a poor play call on 3-2, but that debate is academic) and the second one was a miscommunication between Ben and Santonio Holmes.

Given that Ben played so well there rest of the game, were these attributable to the injury?

They quite possibly were.

The fact that Ben can play this well without practice speaks to his natural talent. But talent cannot entirely substitute for practice. Miscommunications can happen like this under any circumstance, but their probability is reduced through practice.

Beyond that, there lies the simple fact that Ben, when he’s in these types of situations, tries to do too much by himself. He tries to force things when he shouldn’t. He has as much admitted that this was the root of his poor play in 2006.

Steel Curtain Rising will wager here that this, as much as anything else, is the root of Ben’s current slump.

The Steelers face San Diego next Sunday, another team that, like the Colts, has underachieved but certainly has the talent to make a playoff run.

Tomlin constantly preaches that “injuries are not an excuse” and “we will win and lose with the eleven men who represent us on the field.”

When Charlie Batch broke his collarbone Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert did not hesitate to bring in the best available back up. They did it because they wanted to give themselves a shot at a championship in the event that Ben got hurt.

  • The logic was sound then and is even more sound now.

There is no shame, nor is there any reason to believe the Steelers will want to offer excuses, if Byron Leftwich ends up being one of those 11 men in the event that Ben is less than 100% come kickoff against the Chargers.

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Sunday, November 9, 2008

Bruce Arians in the Bulls Eye

Last week Steel Curtain Rising focused on what ails the Steelers offense, looking at both Ben’s play and the play calling of Bruce Arians. The Steelers offense again struggled, at least in the first half, against and it seems that both Ben and Bruce’s critics are starting to mount.

Before putting Bruce in the bulls eye, let’s first turn out attention to Ben Roethlisberger.

Ben Beginning to Draw Criticism

The season did not start this way. Ben started strong, and after the Jacksonville game people were hailing his resiliency, and declaring him to be on par with Manning and Brady. Yet, after two consecutive bad games against New York and Washington, some fans are calling for him to be benched.

What’s going on?

Is it his shoulder bothering him more than he lets on? Are the sacks taking their toll? Is Ben trying to do too much?

Ben did not play well against the Redskins. Statistically he had his worst game as a pro, although numbers might be misleading in this case.

Against Washington, Ben was under a lot of pressure, but Byron Leftwich was sacked less. A friend of mine (a Redskins fan) at the game attributed this to better pass protection and shared that he did not think Leftwich was releasing any faster than Roethlisberger.

Tomlin of course is on the record as saying that Leftwich had a quicker release than Ben.

There’s also the fact that Ben suffered from several drops Monday night. The catchability of a few of those balls is debatable, but the receivers let several go that they should have caught.

Andre Fraizer’s blocked punt gave everyone a spark, including Ben. He turned around a series that started with a sack and a holding penalty into a touchdown, including a precision 14 yard strike to Hines Ward between two defenders.

Case Builds Against Against Arians

In assessing Ben’s performance Monday night it also needs to be pointed out that he got no help from Bruce Arian’s play calling.

  • Mewlede Moore disappeared from the both the rushing and passing game in the first half.
  • Ben’s difficulties became obvious early on yet Arian’s stubbornly stuck to his “throw first” philosophy, calling passes on four first downs.
  • He also called pass plays on two third and two situations. Both attempts failed. One ended in a sack.

Steel Curtain Rising has already admitted to an affinity for Smash Mouth football. But our critique of Arians goes far beyond a “way things ought to be” mind set.

No one is advocating return to Ron Erhardt’s run on first, run on second and, if its three yards or less, run on third approach, but a commitment to establishing the run would ease things for the passing game, even if the Steelers are not running on all cylinders. Steelers Digest’s Bob Labriola puts things in perspective:

What if they [Mewelde Moore and Gary Russell] had combined for 30 carries [against the Giants]? Maybe it wouldn’t have resulted in an appreciable increase in rushing yards, but the extra running plays would have cut down on the number of times Ben Roethlisberger was exposed to the pass rush as well as the times he had the potential to turn over the ball over. Roethlisberger was sacked five times and threw four interceptions against the Giants in a game where the difference on the scoreboard never was more than seven points.

The flaws in Arian’s game plan go beyond failure establish the ground game. According to Jim Wexell, the Steelers have attempted six screen passes all season. This comment came in Wexell’s “Just My Opinion” column in Steelers Digest, so it may have been tongue and cheek, but his over all point is dead serious.

Screens, quick outs, and hot reads are ways in which the passing game can counter the blitz. All are in short supply in the Steelers offense.

The Steelers have talent on offense. The offensive line might be a liability, but unit as a whole has a corps of players who can, have, and will rise to the occasion when a game is on the line. What they lack, however is consistency, and it is the coaches’ job to ensure consistency.

It seems, as Wexell says at another point in the same column, that Bruce Arians is an “offensive coordinator who refuses to adjust to the problems surrounding him.”

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Steelers Cut Davenport, Sign Donovan Woods

ESPN is reporting that the Steelers have waived reserve running back Najeh Davenport to make room for the return of linebacker Donovan Woods on the roster. This is the second time in less than six months that the Steelers have cut Davenport..

This move comes as a surprise given that it has been reported that Willie Parker will not play against the Colts, and that it was only two weeks ago that Mike Tomlin described Davenport as “the only option” as a kick returner.

Davenport was waived by the Steelers in early June when he became expendable after they signed Mewelde Moore and drafted running back Rashard Mendenhall in the first round of the NFL draft. They quickly resigned Davenport in October after Mendenhall and running back Carey Davis were injured in a game against the Ravens, while Willie Parker was already nursing a sprained MCL.

During his second stint with the team, Davenport only carried twice for five yards, but he returned ten kickoffs garnering a respectable 21.5 yard average.

Linebacker Donovan Woods will play on special teams.

Friday, November 7, 2008

The "Should Be" Rivalry Between the Steelers and Redskins Makes Victory at FedEx Field All the More Special

The Steelers last visited Washington in 1988, making the Steelers romp over the Redskins in their own home all the more special. The Steelers and Redskins are not rivals, in the traditional sense, but in a lot of ways they should be natural rivals. Consider:

  • Blue collar vs. White collar
  • Art Rooney Sr. vs. George Preston Marshall – Let’s just say their attitudes were… distinct
  • Jack Kent Cooke vs. Art Rooney Sr. – The former’s flair for flamboyance stood in stark contrast to the later’s disdain for “putting on the dog.”
  • Joe Gibbs vs. Chuck Noll – Two of the greatest coaches of all time: One built his reputation on offense. He took very good talent and did great things with it. The other’s team defined dominating defense. He found exceptional talent and established standards of excellence.
  • The draft vs. free agency – No team, since 1969, has been more committed to the draft than the Steelers. Even before the days of free agency Jack Kent Cooke spent lavishly to bring in back ups cast off from other teams.
  • Dan Rooney vs. Daniel Snyder -- Need we explain?

Special for Steelers Fans Living in the DC Area

That game is significant for me, and most probably to other Steelers fans living in the DC area. Although I grew up in the DC area, never having lived in Pittsburgh, I’ve been a Steelers fan all my life. My formative football years were spent there during the height of the Joe Gibbs era, but I was not to be swayed. As my father used to say:

  • “my son has no divided loyalties whatsoever, he bleeds Black and Gold.”

I really wasn’t old enough to follow the team until about 1987 or so, and the Steelers didn’t make national TV much in those days. So in effect, the Steelers 1988 visit to Washington was one of the few games I got to see at an age when I was really old enough to understand.

It was the second game of the season and the Redskins were coming off of their second Super Bowl and the Steelers were coming off an 8-7 season, and the hope was that with Bubby Brister replacing Mark Malone under center, the Steelers would improve in 1988.

For a time it looked like those hopes would be realized. Brister hooked up with Dwight Stone and Louis Lipps for long touchdown plays and the Steelers were leading up until the last moments of the game.

Alas, the Doug Williams burned the Steelers secondary for 400 plus yards, and led them to score in the final moments as the Steelers lost 30-29. (Interestingly enough, a bobbled snap caused Gary Anderson to miss an extra point that day. I remember telling my father that would be the difference in the game, only to be chided for being too pessimistic….)

  • 20 years later the memory remains fresh, which makes the Steel Curtain’s dominate performance on Monday night something to cherish.

Redskin Territory….?

James Harrison lifting his hands up to get the crowd cheering while the Redskins were in the red zone was a sight to behold, for me and for any Steelers fan who has ever lived in the DC area.

I’ll limit my comments about Redskins fans (they have their quirks, but so do all of us) to this: Redskins fans are loyal. But they would certainly be the NFL’s most loyal fans if they were as devoted as they think they are. (I’ve talked to several DC natives who’ve moved out of the area who’ve all told me variations on: “You know, I followed them with a passion for a while, but after Gibbs left I just gradually lost interest….”)

Fortunately Steelers fans are more loyal, and that was on display Monday night. On Tuesday the Washington Post ran an article titled “Steelers Make Themselves At Home.” Wednesday Michael Wilbon followed up with another column titled "Fan Deprecation at FedEx." Wilbon’s critique is telling:

I got a text message during the first few plays from a friend in Chicago asking me when the NFL started staging neutral-field games. I assured him we were at FedEx Filed. They like an infestation of cicadas, the Steelers fans, so loud they effectively drowned out Redskins fans. They were like a storm of pirates who satisfied themselves at the expense of home folks who just sat and watched. That the Redskins had to use a silent count because they couldn’t hear signals through all of the Steelers nose is, well, alarming. It remains the lasting impression of Monday night’s Redskins-Steelers game….

….The Redskins like to say the have the best fans in the league. Please, they’re not even in the game for consideration of that distinction. You think Steelers fans, no matter how late the game time or how much they hate the stadium, would sell their tickets and let Redskins fans gobble them up?

Wilbon’s actually wrong, because the lasting impression of the game is of the Steelers linebackers repeatedly planting Jason Campbell on the turf.

Nonetheless, the sight of the Terrible Towel waving in FedEx field did exorcise one lasting impression from my youth.

One of the things that kids did throughout elementary school (and into Jr. High, if the truth is to be told) would be to ask:

“Are you a Redskins fan?”


“Well then you’re a Cowboy* trapped in Redskins territory.”

Pithy wasn’t it?

20 years later we have a retort:

FedEx Field might be Redskin territory, but its still part of Steelers Nation!

*That’s right, at least in the 1980’s it was taken as an article of faith that if you didn’t root for the Redskins, you HAD to be a Dallas fan.

Steelers 23-6 Victory Over Redskins Reveals Defense Can Be Special

We have a philosophy of give us a blade of grass to defend, and we will defend it” -- Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin

When the Steelers last traveled to Washington, it was a Presidential election year (1988,) their ownership was in transition (Art Rooney Sr. had just passed away), Sonny Jergenson was still doing play-by-play, they squared off against a Redskins team led by an African-American quarterback and their normally automatic place kicker suffered a missed extra point.

The similarities, however, end there.

Going into the game, both the Steelers and Redskins had compiled 5-2 records against inferior opponents. Pittsburgh had struggled mightily against NFC East teams, while the Redskins, I am told, had been looking at this game for weeks as their “statement game.”

Who Is Making a Statement?

The Steelers defense had a statement of its own to make.

Mike Tomlin began by going for the surprise on-sides kick to open the game. The Steelers completely botched the execution spotting the Redskins excellent field position to start the game (you really didn’t think Bob Ligashesky’s special teams were capable of pulling this off, did you?)

It didn’t matter. You can take such risks when you field the kind of defense that Mike Tomlin and Dick LeBeau have put together.

Both on that and the ensuring series where Pittsburgh’s offense turned the ball over deep in Redskin territory, the Steelers defense mitigated, what for most teams would have been a 14 point gift to the opposition, to a mere 6 point deficit.

In the first quarter Washington showed a lot of poise. Its players were pumped and looked ready for PrimeTime. Greg Blanche’s defense was swarming, and while the Redskins offense wasn’t moving the chains very well, their offensive line was keeping Campbell clean, Clinton Portis ripped off a 22 yard run, the longest against the Steelers to date, and the fans at FedEx field were making themselves heard.

Perhaps its only fitting then that the first play of the second quarter saw the Redskins begin with an attempt to convert a 3rd and 6 and ended when James Farrior and Sliverback decided to meet up 5 yards behind the line of scrimmage with Campbell in between….

And that set the tone for the rest of the game.

The Redskins offense is not a dominate unit yet, but it is clearly on the rise. Jason Campbell looks like he will justify Joe Gibbs decision to draft him. Jim Zorn is either providing evidence that Daniel Snyder really is turning over a new leaf or he’s the living embodiment of the infallibility of the law of averages. Either way, he looks to be one NFL’s bright young minds. Clinton Portis has simply been running roughshod over everything and everybody that has tired to slow him down, let alone stand in his way.

Again, it didn’t matter.

Three statistics tell the story:

  • The Steelers picked off Jason Campbell for the first time in 271 passes
  • James Farrior, LaMarr Woodley, Lawrence Timmons, Nick Eason, Aaron Smith and James Harrison sacked Jason Campbell 7 times
  • If you take away his one 22 yard burst, the Steeler held Clinton Portis to 2.4 yards a carry

Jim Zorn’s game plan itself betrays the fact the he himself must have been trying to make a statement. But for all of his boldness and budding wisdom, he was no match for Dick LeBeau’s tried and tested genius. Washington Post reporter Jason La Cafora couldn’t have put it any better:

After weeks of more conventional play-calling, riding the running game and the occasional deep pass to a 6-2 record, Zorn gambled more often with protection in his Monday Night Football debut as head coach, and quarterback Jason Campbell often paid the price….

The interplay between Zorn and LeBeau – an up-and-coming play caller against a defensive mastermind – was the preeminent backdrop for the game, and by early in the second half merely keeping Campbell upright proved difficult as the Steelers delivered at least one crushing hit on drive after drive.

If Zorn's plan was to make a statement, credit him for sticking to his guns.

After a blocked punt rejuvenated the Steelers offense (not to mention giving them a short field) the Steelers went up 10-6, and the Redskins took over at their 32 after the ensuing kick off with :27 seconds remaining. Not content to take a knee, Zorn called a pass play, and LaMarr Woodley rewarded his courage by sacking Campbell for a five yard loss.

You can walk the walk, but you’d better be ready to talk the talk.

Indeed, the Washington Post’s lead articles were titled “Reality Hits Hard,” “In Zorn-LeBeau Chess Match, Campbell Pays the Price,” and “All Burgundy, Like a Bruise.”

Steelers Defense Shines

On a night where the Steelers offense AGAIN struggled to find its way, Pittsburgh's defense responded in kind, by stepping it up again. The Steelers offensive difficulties have been discussed in Steel Curtain Rising before, and another installment is due soon.

But Monday night was the defense’s night.

The Steelers defense in 2007 started the season strong, only to fade as the season progressed.

This year the Steelers defense started off playing well, but it appears to be getting better with each game. Third downs are ending in sacks. The secondary is neutralizing marquee receivers. They are imposing their will on elite running backs and shutting down vaunted running games. Steeler linebackers are terrorizing opposing quarterbacks.

With eight games to go, the "p" word is not yet permissible in Steelers Nation, let alone the initials "L. T." Nonetheless, if the Steelers are to have a shot at making a serious run in January, they will have to protect their quarterback better, and the offense must find consistency.

But offense only wins games. Defense wins championships.

If the offense’s ability to win games for the Steelers remains a concern, the 23-6 smashing of the Redskins in their own backyard reveals that Steelers defense has a chance to become something truly special.

Thanks for reading. Feel free to comment and be sure to check back with Steel Curtain Rising over the weekend for "Steelers vs. Redskins, the Rivalry that Should Have Been," as well as a further look at the Steelers situation on offense.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Steelers Dominates Redskins in 23-6 Victory

The Pittsburgh Steeler overcame early mistakes and a lackluster first half offensive performance to defeat the Washington Redsklins at home 23-6.

The real story of the game was the Steelers defense. Washington Redskins running back Clinton Portis, who had been running roughshod over opposing defenses, was not a factor. Jason Campbell, who has shown himself to be one of the NFL's rising stars this year, wilted under a relentless Steelers pass rush that sacked him 7 times.

On offense the Steelers saw the return of Willie Parker and Santoino Holmes, although it lost Ben Roethlisberger at the half. Byron Leftwich played extremely well in relief, however, leading the Steelers to two touchdown scores.

(Its 3:00 am in my part of the word. Check back in a day or so for a complete write up.)

Monday, November 3, 2008

What Ails the Steelers Offense? Bruce, Ben or Both?

The Steelers are sitting on a 5-2 record, they’ve won all of their division games, not lost inside the AFC, overcome a rash of injuries, and they boast the league’s most relentless pass rush. And yet, they have a problem.

  • The Steelers offense is out of sync.

Sure, the team has put together some heroic drives to close late games, and that is an improvement. The Steelers are also dangerous inside the red zone….

…When they get there.

The offense lacks consistency. It hasn’t consistently established the run, it cannot protect its quarterback, and it is only converting 34.5% of its third downs and that by and large is the reason why the offense is ranked 24th.

  • So where does the source of the Steelers offensive woe lie? With Ben Roethlisberger or with offensive coordinator Bruce Arians?

Bruce Arians

For objectivity’s sake it’s important to say right at the get go the Steel Curtain Rising was suspect of Bruce Arians as soon as he was named offensive coordinator.

The Steelers identity is of smash mouth football team. A team that wins by dominating, by imposing its will.

  • Yet one of Arian’s first moves as offensive coordinator was to phase out the full back, in spite of the fact that the Steelers had the best blocking full back in the league.

While the Steelers offensive backfield isn’t the same without Willie Parker, one gets the feeling that Arian isn’t committed to establishing the run. Thus far, the team has almost 50/50 split between running plays and passing plays.

This would not be a problem if the team were converting third downs, but the Steelers are not doing that. Moreover, this run to pass ratio is resembles the run to pass ratio at this point in the ill-fated 2006 campaign, than the run to pass ratio after seven games in both the 2005 and 2006 seasons.

Mewelde Moore has done everything the Steeler have asked of him. In his first game as a starter, he ripped off four runs that gained double digit yardage.

  • Nonetheless, Moore seems to disappear from the Steelers offensive game plan for entire quarters.

This makes no sense. The fact that the team has not used more Gary Russell also mystifies. Russell has taken advantage of the opportunities he’s been given as well as Moore has, but he has looked impressive at times.

Arian’s insists on three tight end formations, despite fact that the Steelers do not have a tight end troika suited for the power formations that were the staple of NFC East offenses in the heyday of Bill Parcells and Joe Gibbs.

The test of any coach or coordinator is not the schemes he can dream up, but his ability to get the most of the players he’s given. Which brings us too…

Ben Roethlisberger

Unlike Bruce Arians, Steel Curtain Rising is big on Ben Roethlisberger. Ben is a franchise quarterback, and deserve to be revered up there with the Tom Brady’s and Petyon Mannings of the day.

  • Ben deserves the praise and poise he has shown under a relentless pass rush.

Al Michael’s observation that Ben should replace Robert Downey as the next Iron Man only errs in that the analogy might not be strong enough.

  • Nonetheless, Ben is not playing his best football.

His completion percentage is still around 60%, which is about where it was after seven games in the previous four seasons. But his touchdowns are down and his interceptions are up.

One of the things that Arians said he was going to do upon being named offensive coordinator was to turn Ben loose. This meant that he was not only going to allow Ben to make plays, but that he was going to bring Ben into the game planning process, and give him more freedom to freelance on the field.

The result was Ben’s best season ever, as the 2007 campaign should have obliterated any of that garbage “Ben is only a game manager.”

Too Much Freedom, at Least Sometimes…?

One has to wonder if Ben sometimes has too much freedom.

Six games into the 2007 season the Steeler went into Denver with the NFL’s number one rushing offense. The Broncos had one of the league’s worst rushing defenses. The Steelers went and called something like 21 passes in the fist half….

At the time Steel Curtain Rising berated Arians for that, comparing him to Joe Walton, (OK, the blog didn’t exist then, but we did do that in a post-game email.)

Later on that week word got out that those 21 passes had originally been run plays, changed to passes when Ben didn’t like the looks that he saw at the line of scrimmage.

  • Is something similar happening this year?

The Steelers went up early against the Bengals, and then struggled on offense for 2 quarters. Ben’s comments after the game are revealing:

"We killed ourselves in the first half; I called a bad game," said Roethlisberger, who pitched a bad game as well until very late. "I told [offensive coordinator] Bruce [Arians], now I know what it feels like to do that. He told me I did. I should have just stuck to what I saw a lot of times rather than trying to force things. I really felt that we could have had 28, 30 points at halftime."

There you have it “...I should have just stuck to what I saw a lot of times rather than trying to force things.” [emphasis added]

  • If Ben has a definable weakness, aside from perhaps trying show how tough he is by standing in the pocket for too long, its that he some times tries to do too much himself.

Roethlisberger is a stand up guy. He never used the motorcycle accident or the appendectomy as an excuse for his poor play in 2006. But he did admit that at times he felt he went too far in attempting to take games into his own hands.

The same tendency manifested itself last year in the playoffs against the Jaguars. The Steelers special teams let Jacksonville right back into the game after Pittsburgh drew blood on the opening drive, and Ben spent the rest of the half trying to force the ball throwing two interceptions that led to another 14 points for the Jaguars.

Sans Parker and Santoino Holmes, much the same happened last week against the Giants. As the Tribune Review’s John Harris observed:

Manning attacked the Steelers with a scalpel, taking what the defense gave him and picking his spots downfield. Roethlisberger hacked away at the Giants, looking for big plays even when there were none.

If Harris’ diagnosis is on target, then what is the solution?

There’s no easy answer, but the solution must come from both Arians and Roethlisberger.

Arians must commit to establishing the run and, regardless of whether Willie Parker truly is back at 100%, there should be no excuse for him not to. And while it would be foolish to try to handcuff a quarterback of Roethlisberger’s talent, Bruce Arians and quaterback’s coach Ken Anderson need to coach Ben toward making better decisions.

Bill Cowher used to like to say that a team finds its identity during the first 5 to 7 games of a season. If that is correct, then the Steelers 24th ranking offense is cause for concern.

  • Yet if you told that to Mike Tomlin, his answer would likely be, “You know, all of that sounds nice, but the fact is that we are still writing our own story.”

He’s right.

Let’s hope the Steelers offense begins writing a new chapter tonight against the Redskins.

Thanks for reading. Have a different view of things? Think you can offer insight? Please feel free to leave a comment. Steel Curtain Rising welcomes all opinions, just please keep it civil.