´ Steel Curtain Rising: August 2010

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

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Watch Tower: Tomlin’s Quarterback Juggling OK

You’ve gotta love it.

Mike Tomlin is managing a quarterback derby unlike any the NFL has ever seen, as no NFL team has ever begun the season knowing it will be without its starter for a pre-determined number of games.

Byron Leftwich took the pole position early, which surprised a few, but the word was that Dixon was good, but still not ready.

Then Dixon began to tear it up in preseason, prompting calls for him to get a fair shot at starting. When Tomlin threw a little cold water on that idea, he got more criticism. Thankfully, as mentioned here earlier, Gene Collier observed that only Pittsburgh would have a backup quarterback controversy.

Going into the third preseason game against Denver tonight, the word is the Ben Roethlisberger will start, but that Dixon will see time with the first unit.

This is what the pundits have been calling for, so of course they must be happy, right?

  • Not so fast.

In PG Plus earlier this week, Ed Bouchette confessed to being “bewildered” by Tomlin’s quarterback rotation. In his blog, Bob Smizik, warned that Tomlin was courting a quarterback controversy.

  • It is time for everyone to take a step back on this one.

There is no operating manual for dealing with the situation in which the Steelers are in. And at this point, we know that Mike Tomlin is doing a good job. Here’s how we know:

All of the Steelers quarterbacks look sharp and have played well.

Perhaps this might change when the regular season arrives. Perhaps the disjointed nature of the quarterback rotation will negatively impact the offense’s ability to function as a unit once the games begin to count.

  • But if that happens, they’ll be ample opportunity for second guessing the head coach.

Until then, let’s watch and see how Dennis Dixon does against some first string competition, let’s see if Flozell Adams finally starts stepping it up, let’s see if Leftwich immobility will be his undoing.

It would be a mistake to come down too hard on the press for these inconsistencies. As explained in a previous Watch Tower post analyzing coverage of the Steelers running game, some of this is simply inherent to the need for “content” in a 24/7 news cycle with multiple outlets.

And so are posts, like this one, that urge everyone to keep things in perspective.

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Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Perils of [Not Being Able to See] Preseason Football

As any NFL fan registering a pulse knows, the four game preseason is going the way of the doe-doe. Debates on the merits and drawbacks of playing 18 regular season games will come later (perhaps here on Steel Curtain Rising). This is about something else.

Long-time readers know that I have lamented my inability to watch preseason football in the past (as you’d expect, they do not show Steelers preseason games in Buenos Aires). My reasons are simple.

  • Preseason gives fans a real chance to evaluate talent for themselves

And while many moan about the starters getting pulled early, there is an upside:

  • The guys playing after the starters depart are busting their assess ‘cause they want to make the team

Today, the Post-Gazette’s gave me another reason to miss preseason.

A Punishing... Punter?

Just a few days ago Steel Curtain Rising took exception with Mike Tomlin’s [apparent] decision to end punter Daniel Sepulveda's foray into kicking off after only one game.

Ron Cook added fuel to the fire today.

When the Steelers shocked the world by drafting Sepulveda in the 4th round of the 2007 draft, they explained themselves by arguing that he wasn’t just a punter, he was a complete athlete.

Sepulveda started out as a linebacker at Baylor and never shed that mentality. Don’t believe me? Take a look:

Sepulveda did something similar last weekend against the Giants, as Cook explains:

….Sepulveda made one of the signature plays in their 24-17 exhibition win against the New York Giants Saturday night. All that stood between Giants punt returner Aaron Ross and the end zone was Sepulveda. Worse, Ross had a lead blocker -- cornerback Courtney Brown -- looking to hurt someone.

"I'm on the field thinking, 'This really isn't good,' " Sepulveda said.

But darned if Sepulveda didn't fight off Brown to hurl Ross out of bounds. Forget for a moment that it came after a 45-yard return, which means the Steelers still haven't solved all of their special teams issues from last season.

Cook reinforces the point made here in Steel Curtain Rising and in other places:

  • Even if Sepulveda cannot kick the ball much deeper than Jeff Reed, he should be handling kickoff duties, because he can and will hit.

Dangers of Dependency

What, pray tell, does this have to do with the dearth of preseason football that members of Steelers Nation living outside the US suffer?

It is simple. I did not find out about the Giants almost punt return for a touchdown until reading Cook’s column, published five days after the game.

To be fair, I might have missed Ross’ 45 yard return in one of the post-game summaries I read, and I certainly did not pour over the box score too closely. No door prize for attention to detail for me, and no unleashing the Watch Tower on the press.

But the Steelers special teams were an appalling liability last year. If they can cover the opening kick off against Kansas City, Ryan Clark doesn’t need to worry about holding on to an interception, Ben Roethlisberger doesn’t get a concussion, and Charlie Batch doesn’t break his hand.

The “what if’s” only begin here.

The press didn’t make a big deal about Aaron Ross’ 45 yard return. They had other stories to cover.

But had I seen it you would have seen it discussed in Steel Curtain Rising and a lot sooner than 5 days after the game, because if the Steelers fail to right the ship on special teams, a lot else will go wrong in 2010.

Alas, those are the opportunities that those of us deprived of preseason football miss….

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Steelers Training Camp 2010 “The Good, the Bad, and the Undetermined”

The Steelers have broken camp at Latrobe and finished half of their preseason games with Saturday’s victory over the Giants. Conclusions would be fool hardy at this point, but it is not too early note some positive and negative trends, as well as issues that remain, decidedly undecided.
Gaining Latitude Coming Out of Latrobe

  • The Quarterbacks are Alright

Roethlisberger looks sharp and in shape. Leftwich and Dixon look strong. Perhaps it is a testament that, were it not for questions about his durability, Charlie Batch could beat out a dozen or so back ups on other teams and yet Batch might not make the final cut.

  • Redman Looks Like the Real Deal

Isaac Redman gained the nick name “Redzone Redman” and cult-hero status during the Steelers 2009 preseason. The Steelers cut and resigned Redman to the practice squad and no other NFL team took a shot at him.

A world of difference exists between doing it in preseason and doing it when its real. Redman has given himself a shot at making those other 31 team rue their decision.

  • The Joy of Debating Difficult Decisions

Many sites, including Steel Curtain Rising, questioned the Steelers decision to take 3 linebackers and 2 wide receivers in the 2010 NFL draft.

Jason Worilds will make the team by virtue of his second round status. No one is cutting Pro Bowl berths yet, but Emmanuel Sanders, Antonio Brown, Thaddeus Gibson, and Stevenson Sylvester figure to provoke furious debates among Steeler coaches as cut down day approaches.

This is a good problem to have.

Invoking St. Vincent’s Intercession

The Steelers went into training camp hoping to solidify their offensive line but, put charitably, a lot of work remains.

  • Motel Six

The decision to sign Flozell Adams was hailed here and parts elsewhere. But either Adams is having difficultly making the transition from left to right tackle, and/or he has nothing left in the tank, and/or he’s mailing because its "just training camp" it in thinking he’s made the team.

None of it bodes well for the Steelers.

  • Kraig Who?

As a third round draft pick in 2009, Kraig Urbik was one player the Steelers entered training camp needing to see progress from for the long-term health of their offensive line. Going into the Steelers first preseason game, Urbik, who was drafted as a guard, was buried on the Steelers depth chart – at center.

That should tell you what you need to know.

  • Dwyer the Dud

When the Steelers OTAs ended Ed Bouchette mentioned that Jonathan Dwyer looked poised to contend for the number two spot at RB. This week Bouchette suggests that Dwyer might not survive the first round of cuts. Not good.

Still Up in the Air

  • No Corner on This Market...

Just a short time ago, Steel Curtain Rising postulated that it would be a very good thing were Bryant McFadden to put a vice-grip lock on the starting corner slot.

Keenan Lewis is apparently giving him a run for his money. Lewis is another player that the Steelers needed develop during training camp. The pros say he’s been so-so, fans rate his performance higher. Regardless, Lewis’ challenge is real, but it remains to be determined whether that is a good thing or a bad thing.

  • What Me Worry?

Rashard Mendenhall tripled his rushing average between the first and second preseason game. The problem is he went from 0.4 yards per carry to 1.4 yards per carry.

OK, it is only preseason. OK, those averages are skewed by tackles for losses. He didn’t look good in preseason but then went gang busters as soon as he started. Still, one would expect and there is the issue of fumbles…

  • An Upside to Tony Hills?

A complete after thought when Willie Colon tore his Achilles, Tony Hills summarily written off early in camp. However, word is he “flashed” in two preseason games. Might the Steelers salvage something out of 2008’s fourth round draft pick….?

What Else?

There is more to mention in each category. For the sake of brevity, always in short supply here, Pouncey’s development Sepulvedas’ kickoffs got their own post.

That’s where you come in. Steel Curtain Rising is written out of Buenos Aires, Argentina, where the sun does not shine on preseason games. So we draw on your analysis and ask you share your opinions.

So please, take a moment to leave a comment, share you thoughts, and join the debate.

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Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Thoughts on Pouncey Starting, Sepulveda’s Kick Offs

If there is one thing (in fact there are many) that Steelers Nation can smile about with the regular season fast approaching, it is the rapid development of first round pick Maurkice Pouncey.

The Steelers had high hopes when they drafted him.

No team in the history of the NFL can match the Steelers distinguished the lineage at center.

For over 30 years Ray Mansfield, Mike Webster, and Dermontti Dawson established the NFL's Gold Standard for play at center. When they weren’t making Hall of Fame caliber performances, Mansfield, Webster and Dawson were merely excelling at the All-Pro Level.

Perhaps the Steelers slid just a notch with Jeff Hartings, but Hartings distinguished himself over seven seasons, earning a couple of Pro Bowls in the process.

Sean Mahan and Justin Hartwig have carried on since, and suffice to say, they have not met the Steelers standard.

Pouncey was supposed to do a one-year apprenticeship at guard and then graduate to center.

But the Steelers are set to pronounce Pouncey as qualified for early graduation. He has exceeded everyone’s expectations. Mike Tomlin has said as much. Post-Gazette beat writer Ed Bouchette thinks Pouncey can be the best center in the league.

The Steelers have been rotating Pouncey and Hartwig with the rest of the first unit, but everything indicates that it is only a matter of time before Pouncey is named the starting center.
Pouncey can only provide a shot in the arm to a line much in need of help.

Sepulveda Kickoff Experiment Apparently Over…

The warm glow generated by Pouncey’s rapid assent is perhaps dulled a little by the news, again from Ed Bouchette, that the Steelers experiment with letting punter Daniel Sepulveda kick off is ending.

Sepulveda kicked off against the Giants on Saturday night, but was not able to get his kicks appreciably deeper than Jeff Reed does.

Fair enough. But why limit the experiment to one game? This is preseason after all. It is not like Reed is going to forget how to kick off, but Sepulveda might improve with more experience.

There’s been talk that having your punter kick off can disrupt his punting rhythm…

…I’ll let experts debate that point, but I will simply note that in 1987 the Washington Redskins punter Steve Cox also handled kickoff duties (as well as kicking a few long field goals), although Joe Gibbs apparently relieved him of kickoff duty during the season. (That may have been due to the arrival of place kicker Ali Haji-Sheikh.)

A reader on PG Plus’ weekly chat sealed the argument, observing that even if their kickoffs are of the same distance, Sepulveda can tackle, which should break the tie.

The Steelers invested a fourth round pick in Sepulveda in 2007 and Sepulveda has not yielded good value. It is Mike Tomlin’s fault that they picked him so high and by the same token Tomlin should not be so quick to take away a chance for Sepulveda to redeem himself.

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Friday, August 20, 2010

Alarm in Arians Words on Dennis Dixon?

Although they’re only one game into preseason, the Pittsburgh Steelers may have found a solution to surviving Ben Roethsliberger’s suspension, if they can avoid tripping over their own two feet.

Few, if any NFL teams have entered a season knowing that their starting signal caller will be absent for a defined period. When it became clear that Roger Goodell would don his Mr. Hyde persona in meting out Roethlisberger’s punishment the Steelers immediately brought back Bryon Leftwich.

Leftwich’s arrival left them with a quandary.

On the one hand they have an experienced, proven veteran NFL quarterback whose chief weakness is his lack of mobility. On the other, they have a talented upstart youngster in Dennis Dixon who is mobile, perhaps to a fault. Dixon is also green.

Mike Tomlin installed Leftwich as his de-facto starter upon his return. But Dennis Dixon’s perfect passer rating against Detroit electrified Steelers Nation, and that’s where the story gets interesting.

Jockeying for Second Fiddle

I did not see the game, but Dixon must have looked really good, as both reporters and fans have scrambled to assemble arguments advocating that Dixon, and not Leftwich, begin the season as the starter.

Gene Collier of the Post-Gazette, however, is not one of them. Collier, displaying his uncanny knack for wit, restored a bit of sanity to the conversation offering this:
“This is Pittsburgh baby. Only in Pittsburgh could you have a backup quarterback controversy. In the preseason. After one game.”
Fortunately, the man whose opinion counts the most agrees with Collier, as Mike Tomlin indicated to reporters:
"It was a nice start, guys, and that's what it was. He was productive. Half of that production came in the fourth quarter, so we're not going to get carried
Thankfully, Tomlin is not content to let Dixon’s ability wither on the pine.

The Dynamic Duo?

Dixon, it appears, will see the field. When asked if he might work Dixon into the game, Tomlin responded, "That's why we've continually worked on a package (of plays) solely for him not only here in training camp but back in the spring at our place."

Rotating more than one quarterback onto the field can be tricky business. It almost conjures up the old baseball saying, “I’ve heard its never been done before but that it usually doesn’t work.”

Except sometimes it can. The recent rise of the Wildcat and the Steelers more distant success with the "Slash" phenomenon offer proof.

Harnessing Dennis Dixon’s speed can give the Steelers an edge to make their offensive truly dynamic in Roethlisberger’s absence. Bruce Arians, like his boss, seems to embrace just that, explaining:

"When you play without Ben, you're going to utilize all the players you have. He'll have a package, and how he plays within that package will determine how
much he plays."
That should seem to settle it. Except it doesn’t.

Déjà Vu Sur Le Numéro Dix

Following Dixon's first start, Argentina’s esteemed Dr. Vallegos texted me saying, “Dixon me hace de acordar de Kordell.” In English, “Dixon reminds me of Kordell.” The comparison wasn’t a complement.

I explained that Dixon was starting with little more than a day’s notice and did well under the circumstances.

Dennis Dixon deserves judgment on his own merits, but comparisons to Kordell Stewart became all the more inevitable when he switched his jersey to Number 10.

And now, unfortunately, Bruce Arians seems intent on making the Kordell-Dixon/Dennis Stewart paradox a self-fulfilling prophecy. Asked about Dixon’s running ability, Arians was openly dismissive:
"If he's your starter, you're not going to expose him to running the football, because they're going to break him up. That stuff, you can forget about that if he's the starter. He wouldn't last two ballgames."
To keep true to context, these remarks preceded the Detroit game, but Ed Bouchette confirmed in a chat on Behind the Steel Curtain that Arians was unhappy that Dixon had run so much against the Lions.

The danger of developing at mobile quarterback like Dixon is that relying on their legs gives them an easy out over learning to read defenses. So prudence is warranted.

But Arians would also be prudent to heed a lesson from the Steelers own history.

Kordell Stewart suffered from his own short comings, but Ray Sherman and Kevin Gilbride’s attempts to transform him into a pocket passer did Stewart irreparable harm.

Arians would be advised to listen to the man in the mirror. Arians has refused, time and time again, to restrain Roethlisberger’s tendency to hold onto the ball too long in the hopes of netting the big play. The extra sacks, Arians explains are simply the price of doing business.

He needs to apply the same logic to Dixon. Put him on a leash, and you take away what makes Dennis Dixon dynamic.

During the off season I declared myself as an Arians’ agnostic. If Bruce Arians doesn't damage Dixon's development he'll go a long way towards converting that agnosticism into faith.

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Thursday, August 19, 2010

Calling Out Roger Goodell

When Roger Goodell took over from Paul Tagliabue continuity was largely the watch word. With one (ok, two) big exceptions – Goodell was going to get tough.

The story was that whereas Tagilabue was worried about off field issues as a PR question, Goodell really wanted to lay down the law.

And for a time, it seems like that is just what he did.

However, Behind the Steel Curtain’s Mary Rose has now taken Roger Goodell to task. I’ll let Mary Rose speak for himself (yes, Mary Rose is a man apparently), but his article exposes Goodell’s shameful hypocrisy for what it is.

Rest assured, this is not dime store defense of Ben Roethlisberger, but it is a pointed portrait of Goodell’s unequal administration of justice in the NFL.

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Monday, August 16, 2010

Redman, Brown, Dixon Shine as Steelers Defeat Lions in Preseason

A year ago when Isaac Redman grabbed headlines for his ability to score in the Redzone during the Steelers first preseason game Steelers Nation’s response was a collective “Who?”

The question was short lived as Isaac Redman Steelers fans quickly dubbed him “RedZone Redman.” The fact that Redman failed to make the 53 man roster did nothing to slow his cult hero status.

The coaches have been talking up Redman in the off season, and Redman delivered in the Steelers 27 to 7 victory over the Detroit Lions. Redman ripped off a 31 yard gain where he broke several tackles, gained 13 yards on a screen, and scored on the goal line from a yard out.

Running Game in Focus

The Steelers coaches signaled their commitment to the running game last night, calling 16 running plays to 11 pass plays during the first half.

Whether the team’s personnel has the ability to back that quantity with quality remains an open question. Rashard Mendenhall’s five carries netted all of two yards, including a failed scoring attempt at the goal line. More worrisome, Mendenhall lost a fumble.

Mewelde Moore carried once for 3 yards, but coughed up the ball, although the fumble was overturned. And Jonathan Dwyer carried six times for 8 yards.

Brown, Dixon to Force Tough Decisions?

Antonio Brown made a strong case for himself, scoring on a beautiful 68 yard pass and catching two other balls to bring his total to 84 yards on the night. Brown also gained six yards rushing.

Emmanuel Sanders, who has also looked good in camp, caught one ball for 5 yards in contrast. As a third round pick Sanders is a lock to make the team. When the Steelers selected Brown in the sixth round many assumed he was a slated for the practice squad. It is unlikely the Steelers will be able to move him there now.

The night’s other star was Dennis Dixon, who relieved Bryon Leftwich and played until late in the 4th quarter. Dixon was outstanding, going six for seven in passing, and rushing for 31 yards.

Dixon’s smart play already has started a quarterback controversy in both the press in within Steelers Nation.

Bob Smizik suggested that Dixon should get a look at as the starter. Ed Bouchette opined that Tomlin should not commit to a single starter in Roethlisberger’s absence, suggesting (first in PG Plus and then two days later in the regular Post-Gazette) that Tomlin rotate both men based on situation.

The Tribune-Review’s John Harris, never one above stoking up the fire, went as far as to argue that the Steelers are intentionally denying Dixon time with the first team for fear of creating genuine quarterback controversy upon Tomlin’s return.

What Do You Think

To no great surprise, the Steelers-Lions preseason game was not broadcast down here in Buenos Aires, so I cannot offer my own analysis.

Based on reports of the game, the real culprit appears to be the offensive line, which left Leftwich running for his life. The protection wasn’t much better for Dixon, but Dixon is more mobile which of course does nothing to weaken the case the Dixon get a look as starter….

This is where readers like you come in.

You’ve seen the game, let us know what you think.
  • Did Leftwich really look so bad?
  • Did Dixon look better or was he just going up against Detroit’s second string? Was the offensive line really that bad?
  • Did any second stringers show they merited a shot at starting up front?

    And what of the defense? We’ve heard very little about their performance Saturday night, did anyone standout?

Please take a moment to leave a comment, and share you thoughts.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Watch Tower: Steelers Running Game... Resurrection?

Rest assured regular readers, the irony of the headline is fully intentional, all others please continue and you will quickly understand.

As noted late last week, the Post-Gazette and PG Plus ran any number of stories casting serious doubt on the Steelers ability to run the ball. We were told that:

This was quite a story, coming as it did more than a week before the first preseason game.

Week two of training camp brought a different tone. With dizzying rapidity we learned that:

What a dramatic change in the fortunes of the Steelers running game -- in less than a week!

Seriously. I try to maintain an objective and level tone with Watch Tower posts, but times like these make it tough. One week the sky is falling and hitting the Steelers running game on the head, and the next week everything is ‘A’ Okay.

Product of the Times?

Perhaps it is the nature of the 24/7 news cycle.

Today you’ve got fans Tweeting from the hillsides overlooking Chuck Noll Field. Pittsburgh has 3 or 4 Sports Talk stations broadcasting from St. Vincents. The Post-Gazette now has its reporters cutting daily videos to complement their stories and blog entries.

20 years ago only those in Greater Pittsburgh got any serious training camp news. The part of Steelers Nation outside of Western Pennsylvania either had the Steelers Digest (man, was that a Godsend in the pre-internet age), whatever snippets you could get from USA Today, ESPN Sports Center (and their was only one ESPN back then) or Sports Illustrated.

Maybe the ideal situation is somewhere in between. Hard as it may be to believe, there is a finite amount of “real” information out there to be had (something I discovered 11 summers ago with my first prolonged exposure to high speed internet) so sites have to creatively provide “content.”

Steelers PR Machine in Action?

Another explanation is that the Steelers PR team saw the team’s running game get negative press and went into action.

It is hard to exactly know how this process works, or how their relationship with the press works. But it is not too much of a stretch to figure that they could ensure that an Isaac Redman praising Mike Tomlin found his way in front of a group of beat writers. And they could certain do the same with Kirby Wilson and Rashard Mendenhall.

Regardless of the cause, the truth is that the Post-Gazette is a good paper that provides excellent Steelers coverage and it owes it to its readers to go beyond implying that the Steelers running game is on life support one week, and then turn tables and imply something approaching the opposite the next.

The silver lining to all of this is that preseason games start tomorrow, so they'll be real news to write about.

Check out the Watch Tower for more analysis of the Steelers press coverage. You can follow us on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SteelCurtainRis.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Six Who Must Ascend for the Steelers to Contend

The second week of camp Tomlin is underway at St. Vincent’s. Steel Curtain Rising opened camp by zeroing in on the players whose development was crucial to the Pittsburgh Steelers long-term future.

Today, we take a look at those who must take steps forward for the Steelers to contend in the here and now. These players are somewhat obvious, hence the post on the others came first, but these men hold, at least to one degree, the Steelers margin for success or failure in 2010 in their hands.

Here goes the list, in no particular order.

Troy Polamalu

OK. The last statement is a lie. Here’s what you need to know:

Polamalu only played in parts of five games last year, yet he tied for the team lead in interceptions.

The Steelers have zero chances of climbing the Stairway to Seven if Polamalu suffers an injury even half as severe as the one that cost him the bulk of the 2009 season.

Ziggy Hood

Ed Bouchette is a great writer whose opinion commands respect. But he was a little off-base when he sounded the alarm when Mike Tomlin declined to start Hood after Aaron Smith was lost for the year.

That was then, this is now. The Steelers need Hood to be starter-capable in 2010. Aaron Smith, Brett Kiesel and Casey Hampton, whose age was cited a liability at the outset of the 2008 off season, are 34, 32 and 33.

If their abilities have yet to appreciably decline, perhaps we cannot say the same about their durability. The Steelers must be able to rotate Hood into the line up without a loss in quality.

Early indicators show that Hood will meet the challenge.

Mike Wallace

Wallace was a rookie sensation, but he also benefited from twin advantages:
  • He was playing behind two Super Bowl MVPs
  • No one expected much because he was a rookie

Mike Wallace will sneak up on no one this year. Now he faces the responsibility of squaring off against the opposing team’s best DB and a slew of double coverage.

When Wallace won the Steelers 2009 rookie of the year award, Steel Curtain Rising mused about his future, observing that just under half of Steelers rookie of the year award winners went on to become super stars. The rest either became OK players (Jon Witman), disappointed (Kordell Stewart), or were one-year wonders (Kendrell Bell).

To succeed this season, the Steelers need Wallace follow in the footsteps of other rookies of the year like Troy Polamalu, Heath Miller, Carnell Lake and Ben Roethlisberger.

Bryant McFadden

Bryant McFadden’s draft day return shocked and surprised. Getting a starting corner for a 5th round pick is great value. On paper. Now McFadden must deliver.

Although the Steelers never said so, McFadden was expendable because he was never quite able to unseat Deshea Townshend until the 2008 season. Nor was he able to entirely reclaim his starting status from William Gay after in injury forced him to miss six games.

As mentioned here before, it is imperative that Keenan Lewis (and/or Joe Burnette) develop quickly, but if McFadden never gives coaches second thoughts about starting him during 2010, things will have gone well for the defense.

Maurkice Pouncey

It might sound dire to say that a rookie must step up if the Steelers are to have serious Super Bowl aspirations, but this is the truth.

Prior to Willie Colon’s injury, the Steelers two weakest positions on offensive line were right guard and center. (Although Behind the Steel Curtain’s Neal Coolong argues vehemently that the order should be center and right guard.)

Pouncey was expected to serve a one-year apprenticeship at guard before moving on to center. The early read out of Latrobe is that Pouncey might challenge at center now.

Steel Curtain Rising will leave the guard/center decision to Sean Kulger, Bruce Arians and Mike Tomlin. But one way or another, the caliber of the Steelers interior lineman must improve this year, and Pouncey must be that source of improvement.

Rasshard Mendenhall

Four games into the 2009 season Mendenhall was marked by doubts about his ability and his attitude. Then he exploded for 1100 yards, and his touchdown-saving length of the field run and tackle against Kansas City showed Mendenhall is all about heart.

Still, in 2010 Mendenhall must do more.

Steel Curtain Rising has argued that the quality of the offensive line play steadily declined following the Denver game. There were many times when it looked like Mendenhall was just a block away from breaking a big one. At other times, he seemingly turned losses into modest gains.

Fair enough.

Willie Parker’s ability to pound the Miami Dolphins for 7.5 yards per carry during his final drive as a Pittsburgh Steeler suggest that Mendenhall still has something to learn about finishing his runs.

And then there’s the reason why Parker carried on that crucial drive. Tomlin knew Willie Parker would hold onto the ball, a skill that has thus far eluded Mendenhall. That has to change in 2010.
Honorable Mentions

The Steelers of course need Bryon Leftwich and Fozell Adams to play well, just as they need either Isaac “Red Zone” Redman, Jonathan Dwyer, or Frank “The Tank” Summers to step forward as a backup running back. But none are as vital to the Steelers success as the six players mentioned above.

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Sunday, August 8, 2010

Steelers Running Game in Crisis? Week 1 Wrap Up From St. Vincents

The first week of training game brought Steelers Nation something they had not had since the Steelers victory over Miami: News about what happens between the white lines.

In that respect the first week perhaps brought a slight disappointment. At least for those living outside of Greater Pittsburgh and who do not benefit from the 24/7 radio and news coverage.

We did learn that Troy Polamalu, Ziggy Hood and Maurkice Pouncey came in looking very good and that was welcome news. We also heard good things about Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown. And if you didn’t hear anything about a player, he was probably out with a Hamstring injury.

PG Plus Previews

Perhaps we should expect that. After all, training camp isn’t what it used to be.

Steel Curtain Rising’s Watch Tower has argued that the Post-Gazette’s premium PG Plus site offered plenty of value, but at the beginning of last week much of that value was missing, beyond the fact that Ed Bouchette’s weekly chat had been moved to the premium site.

Otherwise, PG Plus functioned mainly as a vehicle for promoting the next day’s stories for regular Post-Gazette. At least that’s how things started.

Sounding Alarm Bells on the Running Game

Things changed at mid-week, when Ed Bouchette called the Steelers ability to make good on Art Rooney II’s mandate to run the ball better into question.

Initially, his point was simply that the Steelers only had two backs on the roster with an NFL carry on their roster.

Most fans seemed to agree that Bouchette was jumping the gun.

But then Bouchette delivered the goods.

Late in the week he informed us that Jonathan Dwyer, the Steelers sixth round pick, reported to camp 20 pounds overweight – this was after showing up in excellent condition to spring practices. Without getting into too many specifics, Bouchette also made it clear that Steelers coaches had issues with Dwyer’s attitude.

Responding to reader criticism that he was prematurely sounding the alarm, Bouchette delivered yet another piece of inside news Sunday morning, explaining that:
Many of you thought I went overboard with a post critiquing the Steelers ground game last week. You should hear what many in the Steelers’ organization are privately saying. You should be worried, very, very worried.
Before analyzing the Steelers running game, Bouchette reported another interesting tid-bit, offering that in contrast to the Jacksonville Jaguars, the Steelers are having a much more physical camp – the Jags apparently are allowing little if any contact.

Is Concern about the Steelers Running Game Legitimate?

Bouchette’s the man on the scene, able to see everything in practice, and he benefits from all sorts of “off the record” conversations with scouts, players, coaches, and front office staff. So he would not be critiquing the running game without cause.

But should Steelers nation be “very, very worried” about the Steelers running game.

No, not yet. Let’s take Bouchette’s reports for what they are, a yellow flag.

Mendenhall still has room to grow (see Steel Curtain Rising’s next post), but Mendenhall gave every indication that he is capable of being a star running back last season.

And why write off Mewelde Moore so quickly? Moore was the unsung hero of the Steelers 2008 Super Bowl Championship season. Sure, in 2009 he fell short of the par he set in 2008, but, then again, who didn’t?

The reports on Dwyer are disturbing, and one must conclude the Isaac Redman has not made as much progress as had been hoped. After one week of camp.

Do not discount concerns about Dwyer, but let’s keep one thing in mind. Four games into the 2009 season, many professional journalists were saying that Rasshard Mendenhall had bust written all over him.

Mike Tomlin managed to motivate Mendenhall, and now those same journalists are saying the Steelers cannot live without him.

As long as the questions at this point are about Dwyer’s attitude and not his ability it is way, way too early to write him off.

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Saturday, August 7, 2010

Super Bowl XL Excuse Making Continues

You’d think it was the football equivalent of Diego Maradona’s “Hand of God” goal, or perhaps something on par with the mysterious ending to the 1976 Olympics Gold Medal Basketball game.

It is not, however.

Not even close.

You know the drill. Mere hours after Super Bowl XL, a tearful head coach Mike Holmgren shirked responsibility by hiding behind the following exuse, “I didn’t know we were going to have to play guys in the striped shirts as well.”

Sports Illustrated heavyweight Peter King lent aid and comfort to Holmgren’s cause, and that diarrhea mouthing (sorry, no other description is apt) continued for years, until finally fading away.

Until now.

Bill Leavy has now stepped forward and offered a mea culpa. Speaking to reporters at Seattle’s training camp, he spontaneously offered this:
It was a tough thing for me. I kicked two calls in the fourth quarter and I impacted the game, and as an official you never want to do that….It left me with a lot of sleepless nights, and I think about it constantly. I'll go to my grave wishing that I'd been better.
Thanks Bill. We really needed that.

Step forward and say you made mistakes, but no, not by any means, do you specify which calls they were because that just might end speculation. Or it might provide enough context to show how nonsensical all it of really is.

4th Quarter Calls in Question

At issue in the fourth quarter were a holding call that negated a pass that brought Seattle within one yard of a go ahead touchdown, and then a low block call on Ike Taylor’s interception return.

Holding calls are, “interesting.” Offensive lineman regularly hold James Harrison, often blatantly, but those rarely are called. But let’s leave that aside.

Sean Locklear gets called for holding, negating a Seahawks play that goes to the one.

Guess what – Seattle lives to fight another day.

Situations like this need not be the be all and end all of the game, because if the offenses steps up, it does not matter. (How many times did we see the Steelers defense blow third and long, fourth and long last year?)

How did Seattle respond?

Matt Hasselbeck threw one right to Ike Taylor. Maybe Bill Leavy will step forward and admit he telepathically forced Hasselbeck to throw to the guy in the white jersey.

The low block call was controversial, and probably should not have been called.

But again, how did Seattle respond?

The got suckered on a gadget play they should have known was coming, and Randel El connected with Hines Ward for the game-sealing TD.

Does Bill Leavy want to accept blame for that too?

Why stop there?

Why not take responsibility for Seattle’s two missed field goals or letting Will Parker run 75 yards untouched?

Deal With It

The most egregious call in the 2005-2006 playoffs was the decision to negate a clear Troy Polamalu interception against the Colts in the playoffs. The NFL even admitted that the interception should have never been overruled by instant replay.

During the review, Bill Cowher gathered his team and told them that regardless of the call, they needed to execute on the next series.

Then a funny thing happened.

The Steelers defense sacked Peyton Manning, forced and incompletion, and then sacked him again for a ten yard loss on fourth down.

Officiating errors happen. Sometimes the Steelers have benefited, sometimes they’ve been screwed.

Whether a call goes for you or against you, you still need to line up ready to play.

It is a shame that no one ever explained that to Mike Holmgren or Ed Leavy.

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Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Steelers Sign Dwayne Wright, Waive Demetrius Taylor

Give Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert credit for their creativity -- They attempted to take the nearly 300 pound college defensive tackle Demetrius Taylor and attempting to turn him into an NFL fullback.

Alas creativity only goes so far, as Steelers management pulled the plug on this experiment just four days into training camp when they waived Demetrius Taylor and claimed Dwayne Wright off of waivers from the Philadelphia Eagles.

Dwayne Wright entered the league in 2007 as a fourth round pick of the Buffalo Bills and played in 15 games as a rookie gaining 94 yards on 29 carries.

Wright’s performance understandably failed to impress Bills management who cut him prior to the 2008 season. The New York Giants took him to camp in 2009 and he had been in camp with the Eagles this summer.

Clearly, the Steelers are not picking up a would-be world beater, but Wright's arrival does give them a pure fullback.

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Sunday, August 1, 2010

Steelers Decision on Jeff Reed Perplexing

Unsettled contract situations have now made for two unhappy campers at St. Vincents. LaMarr Woodley would like a long term deal that pays him fair market value. But the complexities of the league’s soon to expire CBA all but prevent that from happening.

As good as Woodley is, the Steelers would have to fork over a 40 million dollar bonus – they’re not going to do that, good for them.

The situation with Jeff Reed, however, is a little more complicated.

The Steelers designated Reed as their franchise player just before free agency started in March, but both sides apparently agreed to seek a long-term deal.

The Steelers decision to sign offensive tackle Flozell Adams now apparently complicates the Steelers ability to reach a deal with Reed.

Reed reported in an interview with the Post-Gazette that the news came to him from no less a source than Art Rooney II.

Now the operative question remains, why?

Under normal circumstances, it would be a question of simple math. You don’t expect to lose your starting tackle in June, as the Steelers lost Willie Colon, and be forced to find a new one. Offensive tackles, even veterans past their prime, are expensive, and therefore eat up valuable cap space. (Although at 2.25 million, he Adams is coming in “cheap,” anyone reading this should be so unlucky….)

Not in Kansas Todo….

But these are not normal circumstances.

This is an uncapped year. The Steelers did enter the uncapped year saying they were going to operate with their own, self-imposed cap.

OK, so they’re up against it now.

But the loss of Willie Colon was totally unforeseen. And while, “a few million here, and a few million there” sooner or later ads up to a lot of money (to paraphrase William Fullbright’s famous statement), you’d think given Reed’s ability to make clutch kicks, the Steelers would take advantage of the chance to get him locked down.

One way or another, this is unlikely to affect the either Reed’s or the team’s fortunes this year, but that does not make their decision easier to understand.

He Said, She Said…

Ed Bouchette wrote about Reed’s contact situation in PG Plus, and suggested that this could all boil down to different interpretations of what “we’ll take care of you means.”

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