´ Steel Curtain Rising: October 2011

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

Monday, October 31, 2011

Steelers Puncture Patriots 25-17

Many of our guys were not a part of this history when it started, because you are talking about 2001 and 2004. So, it's not similar in that way.” Mike Tomlin, prior to the Patriots game

Mike Tomlin majored in history at William and Mary. The day he was hired the claimed the credential of being a “football historian.”

Mike Tomlin’s study of the history of football has served him well but, ironically, the most important lesson he has learned is that sometimes it pays to forget the past.

If the New England Patriots deserve the title of the NFL’s most important team in the last decade, and they do, then it is a fair statement that the Steelers have been their whipping boy.

You know the drill, the Steelers are 6-1 vs. the Tom Brady led Patriots. The NFL keeps no style points, but the Patriots have stung the Steelers on special teams, sizzled their secondary, and pushed them around physically on both sides of scrimmage.

Mike Tomlin and his staff devised a game plan par excellence, but his biggest coup was getting his players to exorcise the demons from their Patriot's past before taking the field.

Roethlisberger, Young Money Take Flight

Steelers Nation knew this could be special. Thus far in 2011, fans have seen flashes, steps forward and sputters back ward, glorious long TD’s couple with frustrating downfield misfires.

  • Against the New England Patriots the Pittsburgh Steelers offense made a major statement.

Ben Roethlisberger and Young Money can play with anyone.

Yes, Baltimore and Cincinnati and perhaps 12 other AFC teams have better pass defenses. But 7 games into the NFL season the New England Patriots have been the class of the AFC.

All of those bombs to Mike Wallace and clutch catches by Antonio Brown count for nothing if the Steelers offense fails to deliver against New England.

New England won the toss and elected to defer.

  • Think Bill Belinick might wish he had that one back?

In one drive Ben Roethlisberger threw 8 passes, connecting on 6 as the Steelers scored a touchdown on their opening drive. But they did more than simply take the lead, the Steelers offense established control of the game in a way that they have probably not done since the 2005 divisional playoff against the Colts.

Ben Roethlisberger has always played second fiddle Manning-Brady-Rodgers-Brees-Rivers et. al. But at Heinz Field vs. the Patriots, Ben Roethlisberger was the best quarterback on the field.

Ben hit every receiver he could have hit with the exception of Weselye Saunders. Roethlisberger kept the Patriots off balance mixing short passes with long ones, but most importantly he delivered on target.

More importantly, he receivers came up with play after play keeping the chains moving, and keeping the ball out of Tom Brady’s hands.

As Ben Roethlisberger himself said after the game, the Steelers offense was not perfect. There were some mistakes and ugly miscommunications.

  • Translation: This unit can and will get better. Let the rest of the NFL take note.

Steelers Secondary Shifts into Primary Focus

The word from the press was that the Steelers defensive coaches had more or less resigned themselves to Brady’s excellence. Brady was going to do his damage the word was, the key was simply to limit that damage.

Fortunately, Carnell Lake declined to fill his defensive backs in on that part of the plan.

Following Super Bowl XLV any Steelers fan who could register a pulse knew that the team’s strength lay in its front seven and that, barring an upgrade at corner, the Steelers would win in 2011 in spite of its secondary and certainly not because of it.

Then a funny thing happened. Seven games into the season, the Steelers were leading the NFL in pass defense.

  • “Oh, but just wait until they get challenged by a real quarterback,” the retort rang.

Sunday brought the NFL’s very best quarterback and arguably its best receiver in the form of Tom Brady and Wes Welker.

At the end of the day the Steelers secondary was the unit left standing. It is hard to say enough good things about the performance put in by the Pittsburgh’s defensive backfield.

These players confronted the AFC’s if not the NFL’s most potent passing attack and refused to flinch. If you’re looking for a telling statistic, look no further than the fact the Steelers held both Welker and Deon Branch under 40 yards.

Everyone expected the Steelers offense to put points on the board, and the did that. NO ONE expected the Steelers defense to hold Brady and company to just 17 points and only 3 out of 13 third down conversions.

Timely Plays in a Timely Fashion

All of the accolades on defense however do not go the secondary.

The Patriots rushing attack was a non-factor all game – credit the defensive line and linebackers. New England’s famous tight ends led the team in receiving, but they were no where near the dominating force that they had been in spanking Pittsburgh suffered one year ago – credit the Steelers linebackers in large part.

All of that was necessary for the Steelers to win but, in itself, not sufficient.

The key to stopping Tom Brady is to get in his face. LaMarr Woodley help derail two New England drives with sacks on third downs, and Brett Kiesel’s strip-sack snuffed out any chance that Brady would do what he does best – transform defeat into victory.

In Position to Turn a Page?

The Steelers defeated New England because they refused to let the ghosts of Patriot’s past haunt them. In doing the evolution of their offense took a major step forward, and they played some of the best pass defense Pittsburgh has seen since the days of Lake, Woodson, and Perry.

But just as sins committed in past defeats do not bind Pittsburgh in the present, the real significance of the victory over the Patriots will be told in the Steelers ability to consolidate it next week against the Ravens.

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Saturday, October 29, 2011

Stevenson Sylvester to Start, Farrior to Sit Out?

Corbin Bryant’s stint on the Steelers 53 man active roster did not last long. Promoted from the practice squad last week when the Steelers put Aaron Smith on IR, this week Bryant finds himself the odd man out.

The Steelers Digest reported today via Twitter that the Steelers waived Bryant today and promoted Monte Ivy from their practice squad.

This move at least raises the possibility that James Farrior, who was “limited” in practice this week, will not start which would also signal the first start of Stevenson Sylvester, whom the Steelers took in the fifth round of the 2010 NFL draft.

It is also possible that the Steelers plan to start Farrior but are also hedging their bets.

With Bryant gone from the roster, Steelers fans should also expect to see Casey Hampton return to the line up.

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Thursday, October 27, 2011

Steelers Should Hacka to Beat Patriots

We all know of the Steelers tortured history vs. the New England Patriots.

The Pittsburgh Steelers have beaten the duo of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick precisely once.

You’d better believe that first Bill Cowher and then Mike Tomlin, along with their respective staffs, have logged some major over time watching tape strategizing, and other wise scratching the earth trying to find a way to beat Brady.

Fortunately the newly crowned World Cup Rugby Champion New Zealand All Blacks might have just provided a solution. Prior to each match, the All Blacks, in homage to New Zealand’s Maori heritage, perform the Hacka, a Maori war dance.

Perhaps its time for the Steelers to emulate their example. Watch for yourselves and decide:



…Back to Reality

Of course there is little, no zero, chance of this happening, but it would be awesome.

Imagine a bearded Brett Keisel calling the cadence, with Troy Polamalu, James Harrison, Casey Hampton, and Maurkice Pouncey throwing down the gauntlet to Brady and Welker in such primal fashion….

…Nope, its not going to happen, but would it ever be a sight to see.

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Monday, October 24, 2011

Steelers Report Card vs. the Cardinals

From the grade book of a teacher who wonders whether his student is really gifted or is simply a big fish in a small pond. For another week that remains an academic question, next week is another subject however. Here is the Steelers Report Card for the victory over Arizona. No other grades have been consulted.

Quarterback:
Ben Roethlisberger had one of his better days of the season. He distributed the ball well, made things happen with his feet, and used his release valves when warranted. He did have a couple of "almost" interceptions and still must improve delivery on deep balls. Grade: A-

Running Backs:
Don't let the stats fool you. Rashard Mendenhall has little room to run, and made something out of nothing on occasions. This group did not put up pretty numbers, but Mendenhall, Isaac Redman and Mewelde Moore's ability to run the ball late in the game allowed the Steelers to asphyxiate any Arizona comeback hope. Grade: B

Wide Receivers:
This was a banner day for the entire Steelers receiving corps. not only in terms of quantity of catches but also quality of catches. Mike Wallace is quickly establishing himself as one of the game's most dangerous receivers while Antonio Brown's ball catching ability continues to impress. Health Miller, Manny Sanders, and Hines Ward also made key catches. Grade: A+

Offensive Line:
Another week and other offensive line configuration. This week's O-Line provided good protection for Ben early on but couldn't run block. Later, things reversed, Ben found himself on the run while the Steelers rushed the ball better later in the game. Overall an above the line but still inconsistent performance from the offensive line. Grade: C

Defensive Line:
Already down to their third nose tackle, the Steelers got an emotional jolt with Aaron Smith went on IR. Arizona has run the ball fairly well this year, and while their rushers did get some double digit runs, the Steelers contained them well. The line, however, will need to get more pressure on Tom Brady next week. Grade: B

Linebackers:
Lawrence Timmons made an appearance as his pressure forced Kevin Kolb into an early interception. LaMarr Woodley had another monster game acting as a one man wrecking crew. James Farrior also made his presence known, although Larry Foote had a subpar afternoon. Grade: B+

Secondary:
The secondary of the NFL’s number one pass defense had a hot and cold day. Ike Taylor managed to contain Larry Fitgerald well enough but committed some drive-sustaining penalties. The secondary also benefited from some woefully inaccurate passes from Kevin Kolb. This unit needs to play better against the Patriots. Grade: C+

Special Teams:
Where is Antonio Brown playing better, as a return man or as a receiver? Perhaps more importantly, the coverage units were excellent against Arizona as they have been all season. Shawn Suisham made three field goals in a range that he’d been having difficulty with. Grade: A

Coaching:
Arizona would figure to have an edge, given that they’ve got 5 coaches and 4 former Steelers under their employ. No such edge was apparent after the whistle blew. Mike Tomlin had his men focused and Bruce Arians and Dick Lebeau came in with good game plans that their units executed. Grade: B+

Unsung Hero Award
The Steelers offense scored three touchdowns and the defense contributed a safety. The final score was 32-20. Take away field goals of 41, 42 and 39 and Arizona is in more than a position to win the game in the fourth quarter.

The Steelers watched makable kicks go astray this year, but that did not happen against Arizona, and that provided the Steelers with their comfort zone which is why Shawn Suisham is Steel Curtain Rising’s Unsung Hero for the Cardinals game.

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Steelers Atomize Arizona 32-20

Pittsburgh vs. Pittsburgh West. Three years ago these two teams met in The Big Dance, but few hyped this game as some sort of Super Bowl rematch.

No, the question wasn’t whether the Steelers could replicate their past success against Arizona, but rather whether they could avoid a repeat of a movie that has already been played too many times only seven games into the 2011 season.

Starting Out as Scripted

When the Steelers haven’t been falling flat on their faces, as they did in the Debacle in Baltimore or the Thrashing in Texas their script has been as simple as it has been maddening:

  • Start fast and build up a solid lead vs. an inferior opponent
  • Allow the said inferior opponent into the game penalties, errors, turnovers and inopportune sacks
  • Hold on for dear life as the clock ticks towards zero

Against the Cardinals the Steelers began in familiar form, albeit with the wrinkle that they, gasp, secured a turnover which the offense promptly turned into 7 points.

The Steelers defense held up its end of the bargain forcing three straight punts.

Midway through the second quarter, Steelers Nation was treated to another familiar sight:



If Ben Roethlisberger to Mike Wallace deep for 6 is a familiar, and pleasant, sight what came next was equally familiar but all too unpleasant.

Arizona got the ball back and almost on cue the Steelers defense started to commit penalties that helped the Cardinals get into scoring range, and ultimately score inside the two minute warning.

Sure Steelers managed to make some lemonade out of lemons with their last minute field goal, but that fact that those points were more due to Arizona’s own penalties than the Steelers own efforts lent to the feeling that the Steelers had only set themselves up for a second half stumble.

Arizona Shines in Act II

Both Pittsburgh’s and Arizona’s first possessions in the second half only lasted 6 plays – and that was a problem. After converting a third down the Steelers were forced to punt.

Arizona looked much sharper, rebounding from a LaMarr Woodley sack by catching the Steelers defense flat footed for a screen pass that they converted into 73 yard touchdown.

Suddenly, what was once a two-touchdown lead was now a meager three points. Once again it seemed, the Steelers were letting an inferior team guided by an inexperienced quarterback threaten to upset them.

Act III

Classic Greek drama has the protagonist finish Act I on a high note, find himself in dire straights in Act II, only to rebound to triumph in Act III.

If there is an appropriate word to describe the Steelers in Act III this season, “survival” is far more fitting than “triumph.”

However, against the Cardinals, the Steelers broke the template by answering Arizona’s score in decisive fashion.

On the ensuring drive, Ben Roethlisberger hit Health Miller, Emmanuel Sanders, and Antonio Brown for gains of 21, 17, 13, and 20 yards to bring the team to the goal line, where Roethlisberger fired a bullet to Emmanuel Sanders to lengthen the lead to 10.


  • LaMarr Woodley took over from there, forcing an intentional grounding call on Kevin Klob, tacking on two more points to the lead.

The Steelers still refused to lift their foot from the gas pedal. Up to that point the men in Black and Gold had been unable to run the ball, but Mewelde Moore and Rashard Mendenhall led a drive 55 yard drive the ended in a field goal and more importantly, burned 7:12 off of the clock.

After a three and out by Arizona they did it again, running the score up to 32 to 14.

Arizona did bounce back to mount a respectable 71 yard drive that theoretically gave them a chance to get back into the game. Ken Whisenhunt gambled that his defense would get him the ball back.

  • Ben Roethlisberger made his old mentor pay.

Credit Isaac Redman and Mewelde Moore for some impressive runs on the Steelers final drives, but on three obvious running situations Ben Roethlisberger threw the ball converting each of those for first downs. The Steelers executed perfectly on that drive, allowing them to finish by taking a knee.

The Steelers Varsity Schedule Begins

Steel Curtain Rising took a cautionary tone following the Steelers victory over the Jaguars, but concluded that what troubled the Steelers was a set of loose ends to be tied up rather than a set of fundamental flaws.

The Steelers were far from perfect against Arizona where they:

  • struggled to run the ball consistently,
  • gave up too many sacks,
  • were sloppy in the secondary

But they looked sharper in the passing game, didn’t suffer a special teams snafu and, most importantly, they put their opponent away.

The Pittsburgh Steelers must consolidate those gains quickly, because next week brings Tom Brady and the New England Patriots to Heinz Field. If the Pittsburgh Steelers history against the Patriots suggests anything, it is that the men in Black and Gold will need every edge they can muster.

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Saturday, October 22, 2011

Aaron Smith Goes on IR; Steelers Activte Corbin Bryant

During training camp this summer All-Pro Steelers defensive end Aaron Smith made it clear he was not one to go gently into this good night. When asked about retirement plans he was very open with the Post-Gazette's Ed Bouchette:
No, I don't think I'll know. They'll have to tell me. My personality is I feel I can do anything. I've always felt anything is possible; you can always turn things around. I'm kind of an optimist. Maybe, it's denial to a point. It would be hard for me to admit it to myself.

"Someone would have to say, 'Hey, Aaron, you're not doing this, you're not doing that. You need to hang it up or something.'

One must wonder if just such a conversation has already taken place on the South Side between Smith and the Steelers braintrust as the Ed Bouchette is reporting that the Steelers have ended Smith's season by placing him on injured reserve.

To take his place on the roster, the Steelers have activated practice squad player Corbin Bryant, who joined the team as an unrestricted free agent who played so well in camp that some observers doubted the Steelers would be able to "sneak him on to the practice squad."

From No Where to Starter

Aaron Smith joined the Steelers in 1999 as part of Tom Donahoe's final draft class as a fourth round pick out of North Colorado.

Smith drew the ire of fans by staging a mini-hold out during his rookie training camp, and only played six games as a rookie recording all of one tackle.

But it was during the 2000 summer at Latrobe that Smith exploded out of no where to establish himself as a starter. He started opening day in 2000, missed the following week, and then returned on week 3 vs. the Tennessee Titans. From there Smith started every game for the next seven seasons until injuries caused him to miss a game in the middle of the 2007 season.

During that time Smith established himself as one of the best, if not the best 3-4 ends in the league. 3-4 defensive ends don't normally pile up pretty statistics, but during 2004 Smith registered 8 sacks 3 forced fumbles in 2004. Not concidentally the 2004 Steelers won 15 straight games that year.

Injuries Take Their Toll

During Mike Tomlin's rookie campaign the Steelers lead the NFL in defense overall, but by the end of the year they'd lost much of their edge, finishing the year at number one due to the tremendous advantage they'd built up earlier in the year.

Some naysayers even claimed the unit had "gone soft" in allowing the Jaguars to run over them in late December. The simpler truth was that the Steelers defense wasn't the same without Aaron Smith.

In 2008 and the Steelers led the NFL in defense and came within a hair of setting a number of all-time defensive records on their way to Super Bowl XLIII. Again, there's no coincidence that this happened with Aaron Smith back as a full-time starter in peak form.

However, against Detroit in 2009 Aaron Smith torn his rotator cuff and quickly went on injured reserve. He was back again in 2010, but this time after six games he tore his triceps. Although Aaron Smith did not go on IR, he never played another down.

Smith returned in 2011 - many thought the Steelers might part ways with him, but did not look the same. Smith injured his foot during the Thrashing in Texas, and missed both the Titans and Jaguar's games.

The End of the Line?

Little information circulated about Aaron Smith's injury and prior to today no press reports indicated that it was potentially season-ending.

It is possible that Smith's injury worsened but it is just as probable that the Steelers have concluded that Smith can no longer help the team.

With Chris Hoke and Casey Hampton both declared out for the game vs. The Cardinals the Steelers needed to activate someone from their practice squad, which also meant someone on the roster needed to go.

If the Steelers thought Smith could still contribute in 2011, it is unlikely that they'd have ended his season. And, sadly, it is even more likely that this spells the end of Aaron Smith's career.

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Thursday, October 20, 2011

Has the NFL Neutered the Steelers?

Prologue -December 7th, 2005

In just 3 weeks Pittsburgh has fallen from 7-2 to 7-5. Crucial losses to AFC contenders Baltimore, Indianapolis, and Cincinnati rob the Steelers of their swagger. The final game ends egregiously, with Chad Johnson taunting the Heinz Field faithful by wiping his cleats with a stolen Terrible Towel.

The morning after the Post-Gazette speculates as to whether Jerome Bettis was second guessing his decision not to retire and, worse yet, fans learn that the Steelers could run the table yet fail to make the playoffs.

That Wednesday morning the Steelers return to the South Side to a surprise. Bill Cowher announces a practice in full pads. Long time veterans cannot remember a full pads practice this late in the season. But order it he does, and the Steelers go on an 8 game winning streak that ends on the podium in Detroit at Super Bowl XL....



Does This Impact the Steelers?

Ask Mike Tomlin how this affects the Steelers and he’d likely dismiss any impact, pleading lack of concern, as long as the rules apply to everyone….

Sounds like common sense, but the Steelers, more than many teams, have established a foundation in being physical.

The new CBA between the owners and the NFLPA stipulates that during the 17-week regular season, teams are only permitted a maximum of 14 padded practices. Moreover, coaches can practice in pads 11 times during the first 11 weeks with a single two-padded practice permitted once during that span.

During the final six weeks of the season, only 3 padded practices are permitted.

Those are the restrictions. How might they be impacting the Steelers?

Neal Coolong, of Behind the Steel Curtain (full disclosure, I also write for BTWC) offered this assessment in a personal email following the Trashing in Texas.
The direction of this game is becoming an absolute joke. We are [explicative] year because we cannot practice with pads on, and our defenders are so freaked out about getting fined every game they aren't hitting. Add that with the lack of practice time on the things, you know, you DO IN THE GAME YOU'RE PLAYING, you have a weak team that [sic] supposed to be physical.

In other words, they've Steeler-proofed the NFL.

Look at that screen play [vs. the Texans] on third and long in a must-stop situation for Pittsburgh's defense. Polamalu doesn't want to hit Foster the way he's supposed to be hit, because that involves the helmet and could lead him to a penalty, or another fine. Instead, he literally jumps on top of him and lets gravity do the rest.


Pittsburgh is facing a running concept they hadn't seen much of, and they can't practice in pads to truly replicate what it feels like in the trenches when guys are cutting you. Because of that, every team is doing it to them, and they can't keep up.... Their practice time in pads has been reduced 200 percent, and the physical defenses (Pittsburgh, Jets, and yes, the Patriots).

Our offensive line is in the same position. When will you get to know a person better, when you spend a day with them or when you exchange instant messages? Not being in pads and hitting their opponents during the week hinders their ability to learn each other's tendencies and work together on their weaknesses. They could last year, which is why they kind of held up despite all the injuries. Same amount of injuries, most of the same guys, completely different results.

Neal's logic flows flawlessly and he makes quite a compelling argument. But as Yoda might say “Reality not always does coherent logic add up to.” Aristotle argued that if you drop two objects the heavier one will fall to earth first. It made so much sense that no one thought to challenge him until Gallieo tested it from the Tower of Pisa and discovered Aristotle was wrong….

Neal was hardly the first fellow member of the blogging community to comment about the dramatic reduction of physical contact in NFL practices, so I thought it best to bounce his observations off of someone who has been watching the Steelers practice for decades. In his weekly PG Plus chat of two weeks ago this was how Gerry Dulac responded:


Clearly Dulac doesn’t think new rules on contact in practice are an issue. I don’t want to wade too much into a shadow debate between a friend and a serious journalist whom I respect. At this point Steel Curtain Rising will lay both issues out and comment that this is a story that will continue to develop.

The issue of how teams coach their players to avoid helmet-to-helmet hits is another issue.

The ironic thing about this is that after the Texans game Mike Tomlin reportedly ordered is two-pad practice and the Steelers rebounded with their best and most physical game of the year by far vs. the Titans.

Epilogue

The issue of the lack of contact was discussed on CBS both before and after the game. The exact flow of the conversation escapes memory, but Bill Cowher clearly said that were he still coaching, he’d want an extra padded practice in his back pocket.

One can imagine he would, if for no other reason than his famous full-pads December practice that sparked his Super Bowl run wouldn’t be possible in 2011.

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Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Chuck Noll vs. Jerry Glanville Revisited

Bill Cowher won the affection of Steelers Nation because the fist-pumping, Chin Out, spit in your face coach acted out what every fan felt.

Chuck Noll personified stoicism. Noll neither ranted nor raved, didn’t high five, and rarely raised his voice. His glare, however, could melt iron.

The news of the NFL this week was of course the post-game handshake fracas between Jim (don’t call him John) Harbaugh and Jim Schwartz.

Nice little bit of three-penny theater no doubt, but seriously, is this the best you can do guys?

Back in the old AFC Central, head coaches knew how to call one another out.

On December 20th 1987 the Steelers traveled to the Houston Astrodome in a must-win game vs. the Oilers. The Steelers of course lost that day 24-16.

But that’s not what angered Chuck Noll. Oilers head coach Jerry Glanville was new the league, and made little pretension about being one of the league’s bad boys.

Glanville, it was accused, not only encouraged his men to hit hard, but to attempt to injure. After the game, Noll let him know what he thought about it (need to wait 20 seconds):



It took a lot to get a rise out of Chuck Noll, but Jerry Glanville did it. It’s hard to know what he said, but one can almost discern “go after your as_.”

The Post-Gazette ran an AP article at the time which reported that Noll said such “tactics “will come back to haunt you. I’m serious.’” The Post-Gazette as reorted that Noll had also apparently issued a challenge via Oilers cornerback Steve Brown to go toe-to-toe with Glanville on the slide lines.

The Chuck Noll – Jerry Glanville feud would rage on for three more seasons, with Glanville’s Oiler’s delivering some bitter beatings at Three Rivers Stadium in ’88 and ’89, and Noll striking back with stunning upsets in 1988 and of course in the 1989 Steelers Divisional Playoff victory over the Oilers at the Astrodome which cost Glanville his job.

It Harbaugh vs. Schwarts made for good television, no doubt.

But those guys were amateurs.

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Monday, October 17, 2011

Steelers Report Card vs. the Jaguars

From the Grade Book of a teacher who can't help but think his students start strong then slack off. Here is the Steelers Report Card for their Juke with Jacksonville. As always, remember that no other grades were consulted prior to this posting.

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger started the game on fire, torching the Jaguars for 181 yards in just 11 throws in the first half.... He then proceeded to complete 1 pass out of 5 for 19 yards for the rest of the day. Some of is likely the play calling, but Ben bears the brunt of the responsibility. Grade: C-

Running Back
Give Rashard Mendenhall this. When he's on, he is on. He was on against the Jaguars, running for 100 yards with just under 12 minutes left in the third quarter. Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer. Grade: A

Wide Receivers
Like their quarterback, they started out strong and finished with a whimper. Its hard to tell who is more at “fault” for some of the later mis-fires, but while most of the burden appears to fall on Ben, some of those balls could have been caught. Grade: B-

Offensive Line
Another game another offensive line configuration and yes, another in-game injury. But the line played well, opened holes and blocked for Mendenhall and gave Ben good time. With that said, Roethlisberger was sacked on third down in three straight series in the 4th quarter. While those sacks have more to do with Roethlisberger and his receivers, the line does bear some responsibility. Grade: B-

Defensive Line
Maurice Jones-Drew ran well, especially after Chris Hoke went out of the game. But the defensive line got excellent pressure on the quarterback and had plenty of tackles for losses. To quote that old addage from ESPN's NFL PrimeTime, "They didn't stop Jones-Drew, but they did contain him." Grade: B

Linebackers
James Farrior and LaMarr Woodley continue to deliver comeuppance to everyone who questioned them during the first four games. The unit go pressure on the quarterback and did well in run-containment for the most part. Where is Lawrence Timmons? Grade: B

Secondary
Ike Taylor gave up his first touchdown pass and it wasn't even close. Jacksonville’s passing numbers didn't look pretty for most of the day, but a big part of that was that he kept missing open receivers. Troy Polamalu had a big game as always. Where are the turnovers? Grade: B-

Special Teams
This was by far the worst outing for the Steelers special teams in 2011. Pittsburgh got no spark from its return game. The attempted reverse looked clumsy and yielded nothing. Discretion is the better part of valor, and so is knowing when to go for a blocked punt and when not to. The roughing the kicker call gave Jacksonville life, marking yet another failed opportuinty to put them away. Ditto Daniel Sepulveda's 20 yard punt. And we had anothe missed field goal....
Grade: D

Coaching
The Steelers started out strong but things went downhill as soon as the coaching staff abandoned the 3 step drops. Dabbling with a return to 7 step drops is fine, but why Bruce Arians and Mike Tomlin insist on sticking with that when it wasn't working befuddles. Defensively the Steelers played well, but several special teams decisions were head scratchers. Grade: C-

Unsung Hero
Larry Foote left Pittsburgh with a lot of noise in 2009, returned in 2010 to great fanfare, and then has largely been forgotten. Larry Foote might not have made splash plays that his counterparts LaMarr Woodley and James Farrior made, but he was there plugging up the middle and helping the defense contain Maurice Jones-Drew, and for that Larry Foote is Steel Curtain Risings Unsung Hero of the Jacksonville game.

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Steelers Juke by Jacksonville 17-13

The Pittsburgh Steelers and Jacksonville Jaguars once stood as bitter rivals, a rivalry which continued after Jacksonville left to form the AFC South as the AFC Central transformed itself into the AFC North.

Even into the Tomlin era, the Steelers and Jaguars played several intense games, including a bitter playoff loss at Heinz Field and a dramatic October show down that set the tone for the Steelers 2008 Super Bowl season.

The question facing the Steelers today is whether Pittsburgh’s sputtering 17-13 victory over the Jaguars set a tone for the rest of 2011 or merely reflected much of what Steelers Nation has seen six weeks into the season.

Following a Familiar Tune….

Mike Tomlin’s allegedly hung up on Jacksonville press over their insistence on questioning him about the Jaguar’s January ’08 playoff victory. The fact that the hang up was the big “news” leading up to the game shows just how far this Jaguars franchise has fallen.

And to that end, the game’s first 20 minutes or so went exactly as it was scripted:

  • The aging, yet still relevant Super Bowl contender dominating a franchise who'd lost its way and was led by a rookie quarterback.

During much of the first half the Steelers performed like clock work on both sides of the ball.

  • Rashard Mendenhall ripped off enough runs to top 100 yards before the end of the first half
  • Ben Roethlisberger to Mike Wallace torched Jacksonville catches of 25 and 48 yards
  • The Steelers defense sacked hapless Bruce Gabbert four times in the first half

The Pittsburgh Steelers played flawless football for the game’s first 20 minutes.

Just as they had done vs. the Colts, the Steelers gave every indication that they were going to rout an inferior opponent. And just as their AFC South brethren had done, the Jaguars turned the tables and gave the Steelers a run for their money.

Seven Step Sputter

The Steelers non-existent pass blocking, particularly on the ends, is what allowed the Colts back into the game.

Fortunately, against the Jaguars Pittsburgh’s offensive line provides no such scapegoat. Yes, Ben Roethlisberger was sacked 3 times on third down during the 4th quarter, which is troubling.

But the Steelers offensive line kept Roethlisberger clean enough that those 4th quarter sacks should only be statistical anomalies. You can trace the fact that they weren’t anomalies directly back to the fact that after the game’s first 20 minutes, the Steelers offense got away from what had made it so successful in the first place.

The Steelers opened the game following the same template that had led it to success against the Titans: running the ball and calling short, three step drop passing plays.

Either because he was nursing a lead or because Jacksonville wasn’t mounting much of a pass rush, Bruce Arians got away from and started calling plays using Ben's normal seven step drop, and as a consequence Ben Roethlisberger and his receivers never seemed to recover their rhythm.

The Steelers continued to run the ball well, as Mike Tomlin acknowledged, the Steelers “were in some manageable third downs” but they couldn’t convert.

Given how thoroughly the Steelers had dominated the Jaguars in the early going, it is easy to understand why Arians loosened the reins on Roethlisberger. Big Ben fired deep four times but failed to connect with Saunders, Brown or Wallace.

  • Complete any one of those passes, the Steelers go up by another touchdown and we write a different story

But as misfires mounted, the offensive staff should have gone back to what worked so well in the early going. They never did and Jacksonville consequently hung around till the final gun.

As Rush Defense Goes, So Goes the Steelers Defense

The good news is that the Steelers extended their no streak of not allowing a 100 yard rusher by one game.

  • The bad news is that Maurice Jones-Drew ran for 99 yards.

The Jacksonville Jaguars certainly did not “impose their will” on the Steelers, but they ran consistently enough to take pressure off of their quarterback.

It might be a tad bit unfair to heap too much on one of eleven, but Chris Hoke went out with a stinger during the second quarter, and Steve McLendon took his place for the rest of the game and that’s when Jacksonville’s running game found its rhythm.

Nonetheless, down to its third nose tackle, the defense was forced to carry the offense during the second half and did they did enough to win, with Troy Polamalu making a key stop on third down and Brett Kiesel making a key sack on the Jaguars final drive.

I think the jury is still out on us. I don’t run away from that. As a matter of fact, I encourage it.” – Mike Tomlin, following the Jacksonville game

Bill Cowher used to preach a team “finds its identity” during the season’s first six weeks.

Mike Tomlin has echoed similar sentiments before, but he clearly isn’t ready to buy into that line of thinking at this juncture. That’s justified given the Steelers performance against Jacksonville.

  • The Steelers do have issues they must address, but after the Jacksonville game, those needs appear much more as loose ends as opposed to glaring needs.

Playing the schedule game is of course a no-no, but it would behoove the Steelers to tie those loose ends next week against Arizona before New England comes to town…

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Friday, October 14, 2011

Hines Ward Will Not Play After 2013

No one can play for ever, not even Hines Ward. While Ward is not ready to retire, he also confirmed on the Jim Rhome show that he will not play beyond his current contract, which expires in 2013.

Should Ward decide to play out the last two years of his contract, the Steelers may face a tough decision. Speculation is that salary cap considerations will either force the team to part with many of its veterans in 2012 or at least get them to accept greatly reduced salaries.

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Monday, October 10, 2011

Steelers Report Card vs. Titans

From a teacher who suspects his pupils got a stern talking to after receiving their mid-semester report. Here goes the Steelers report card for their Tumbling of the Titans. As always, no other grades have been consulted.

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger’s first two passes were off, and the interception before the half seemed foolish. But beyond that, Roethlisberger was damm near perfect, throwing five touchdown passes for the second time in his careeer. Moreover, he adjusted his game, and got the ball out smartly. Grade: A-

Running Back
Overall rushing averages might fail to impress, but Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer did something that had yet to be done in the first four games – make the Steelers running game relevant. And that made a huge difference as Ben Roethlisberger used play-action to perfection. Grade: B+

Wide Receivers
Seven different receivers caught balls, and all of them made plays, from Hines Ward and Heath Miller returning to their roles as Mr. Dependable I and Mr. Dependable II, to Antonio Brown’s catch which set up the first TD, to Mike Wallace burning Tennessee deep after he burned them underneath. Against the Titans, Steelers Nation glimpsed what Pittsburgh’s offense could be with a compotent running game and decent pocket protection. Grade: A

Offensive Line
Who says that you can’t sign quality left tackles off of the street? Turthfully, it is possible to give Max Starks too much credit for the line’s rebound, as Pouncey played markedtly better and Foster looks to settle back into a starting role. But Starks did make a difference on any number of plays. The line opened up holes for the runners and give Ben what he needs, time. Grade: B+

Defensive Line
Cameron Heyward got his first NFL sack, Ziggy Hood got part of another, Brett Kiesel batted a pass that got intercepted and Chris Hoke had two tackles for losses. Outside of one quality 21 yard run, Chris Johnson was not a factor. The Steelers defensive line played head and shoulders over what it had done before, and that allowed other things to click for the defense. Grade: B+

Linebackers
James Farrior played as if he took all of those “over the hill” comments personally. His career may be winding down, but Farrior seems determined to go out with a bang. LaMarr Woodley atoned for his past misdeed with 3 splash plays. Lawrence Timmons also had a tackle for a loss and a pass defense. Grade: B+

Secondary
Statistically Matt Hasselbeck didn’t have a bad day, but he also did not move his team effectively until garbage time rolled around. Still, there were a few miscues that lead to the late touchdown and the defense needs to guard against those. Grade: B

Special Teams
The successful fake punt and another moster game by the return team are nice. A blocked field goal and the failure to recover an on-sides kick are not so nice. While its gone unnoticed because of everything else and because of some dumb penalties, the Steelers special teams breakdowns are happening with alarming familiarity. The breakdowns must stop. Grade: C-

Coaching
Mike Tomlin said after the Texans game that their was nothing that ailed the Steelers that couldn’t be solved with a little better blocking and better tackling, and he was one to something. Really, it looked like a different team out there between the improved run defense, improved offensive line, and flawless play calling by Bruce Arians on offense. Grade: A

Unsung Hero
This award could go to a lot of different guys. With young studs blossoming into super stars around him we have not seen a lot of him, but with 7 catches 2 touchdowns and a number of key third down conversions, Hines Ward is Steel Curtain Rising’s Unsung Hero of the Titans game.

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Sunday, October 9, 2011

The Standard Is the Standard: Steelers Tumble Titans 38-17

Four games into the 2011 season found Steelers Nation a wash in clichés. “Old and Slow.” “Sieve-Like Offensive Line.” “Lost Their Edge.” “Walking Wounded.”

The glory of a cliché is in the truth it conveys. Late in the 4th quarter Greg Gumble reported that Ben Roethlisberger confided in him the dread and panic projected onto the team by media and fans was absent in the Steelers locker room.

After watching the Steelers 37-17 thumping of the Tennessee Titans it is easy to understand. And you can trace the reason why back to another time-honored Tomlin cliché: The Standard Is the Standard.

The translation of “The Standard” is simple: Injuries are no excuse. Play above the line. Play winning football.

In a league whose season is routinely and, correctly, described as a “battle of attrition” those are bold words. How are injuries not the deciding factor let alone an excuse? Against the Titans, the Steelers showed just why “Injuries are no excuse.”

Turning an Important Corner

After the Trashing in Texas, the Tribune-Review’s Dejan Kovacevic was alarmed by the Steelers lack of urgency and challenged Mike Tomlin’s diagnosis that the Steelers could cure what ailed them with better blocking and tackling.

Mike Tomlin was on to something.

The Titans began the game by following the blueprint left by their successors in Houston. A 21 yard run by Chris Johnson sparked a 67 yard, 6:46 min drive with the Titans reaching Steelers 4.

At that point LaMarr Woodley took matters into his own hands, blowing by a blocker and sacking Matt Hassellbeck for a 5 yard loss. Troy Polamalu struck next limiting Chris Johnson to a 1 yard gain.

The Titans would have to settle for a field goal, and the Pittsburgh Steelers had turned an important corner – they’d maintained The Standard controlled the game from there on.

Improvising, Adapting, and Overcoming on Offense

Going into a game with an ailing quarterback, your 5th offensive line configuration in as many weeks (and that doesn’t even touch the intra-game reshuffling), and your lead running back out, you’d have to figure that things would be different on offense.

And that’s not such a bad thing.

Between injuries and ineffectiveness, the Steelers have failed to establish any kind of offensive rhythm in 2011 thus far. Against the Titans, the Steelers offense marched to the cadence of a new drummer.

  • Isaac Redman led the way. 49 yards might fail to impress, but this kid can play.

Redman didn’t simply run the ball, he took the point of attack to the defenders. For traditionalists like yours truly Redman’s 2nd, 3rd, and 4th efforts were a sight for sore eyes.

Jonathan Dwyer also impressed. His 76 yard scamper was a thing of beauty, and while he did make some mistakes, he also showed that he can combined speed with power.

Hats off to Bruce Arians and the rest of the offensive staff for calling one of their best games ever.

Whether it was the return of Max Starks, improved play by Pouncey, or the simple fact that this line had enough, the pass protection was far, far better than it had been all season.

Nonetheless, Arains stuck to his game plan, which mixed short, quick developing pass plays, straight ahead, between the tackles rushing, aided by timely misdirection. The Steelers netted 18 yards on reverses and executed play-action to perfection.

This only works if the running game keeps the Titans honest and if the receivers come down with catches on third downs, which they did. The offense maintained The Standard to the tune of 38 points.

The Adults Are Alright

When you have the NFL’s oldest defense and play poorly, pundits point to the Age Issue. When that same unit plays well, the team benefits from its "maturity."

Against the Titans the Steelers defense didn’t looked aged, they looked experienced.

Need proof?

  • James Farrior led the team in tackles.
  • Chris Hoke recorded two tackles for losses.

How did Chris Johnson fair after the opening drive?

  • The Steelers defense limited him to all of 30 yards.

The Steelers defense didn’t play a perfect game, but they responded whenever again whenever the Titans threatened to return to the game. The Titans post on-side kick recovery lasted all of one play, as the Steelers recorded their first interception of the season.

What Makes the Standard "The Standard"

Admit it. In 2007 when the Steelers were giving up games in the 4th quarter and Tyrone Carter and Anthony Smith were getting torched in Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark’s absence Mike Tomlin’s credo of “Injuries are no excuse” sounded pretty hollow.

“The Standard is the Standard” is no motivational aimed at getting the uninjured to step up. In Steelers Digest last year Tomlin explained merely playing in the NFL puts a player in the top 0.5% of the population of football players. The difference in talent from starter to back up is miniscule by comparison.

In other words, Tomlin means what he says.

But Tomlin relies on his players to put deed behind his word. They did it against Jacksonville in 2008; they did it down in Tennessee last year, and they did it again against the Titans.

In Week 5 the winning football is once again the standard of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

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Saturday, October 8, 2011

Al Daivs, Steelers Nemesis, 1929-2011

Al Davis, long time Steelers nemesis, has passed away at age 82, as the Oakland Raiders have announced and numerous sources have confirmed.

The Pittsburgh Steelers have enjoyed their share of rivalries during their 79 years of existence, from their historic rivalry with the Browns, from rivalries in the ‘70’s and ‘80’s with the Oilers and Bengals, to the inter-conference rivalry with the Cowboys, and of course their current rivalry with the Bengals.

But with the Raiders it was different. Certainly the Steelers other rivalries have had their heros and vilians. But no one, not even someone as arrogant as Brian Billick or as obnixous as Jerry Glanville could personify the entire rivalry.

With the Raiders, it was different. Different because it was personal at its core, and it all came down to Al Davis. Davis didn’t like Pittsburgh, didn’t like the Steelers and make no secret about it.

In his book, My Steeler Odyssey, Andy Russell talks about how when he got drafted by the Chargers of the AFL and the Steelers of the NFL, Al Davis attempted to entice him not by selling him on the Chargers, but rather by bad mouthing the Steelers organization and the city of Pittsburgh.

From the Immaculate Reception to the Criminal Element

The 1970’s gave Al Davis the perfect opportunity to channel his hatred of the Black and Gold onto the field – to the delight of NFL Fans every where.

It was against Al Davis’ Raiders that Franco Harris made the greatest play in NFL, if not sports, history, the Immaculate Reception. In a single play, the fortunes of a franchise changed.

Five more times the Steelers and Raiders would meet in titanic clashes in the playoffs during the 1970’s. The Steelers would get the better of their West Coast rivals 3 times.

Davis simply refused to accept the Steelers were in fact the better team, never tiring of making excuses, questioning the legitimacy of the Immaculate Reception, or complaining that the Steelers have iced down the field prior to the 1975 AFC Championship game.

It was during that game that Lynn Swann suffered such a tremendous illegal hit at the hands of George Atkinson that Chuck Noll labeled him part of the NFL’s “Criminal Element.”

At Al Davis’ prodding, George Atkinson sued Chuck Noll for libel. Although Davis recruited rising political star Willie Brown to try the case, the California jury exonerated Chuck Noll. Still, the case was tried in the summer, disrupting the Steelers training camp and the rest of their season.

Al Davis may have won the battle, but he lost the war. The Steelers closed the decade with 4 Super Bowls to the Raiders 1.

Al Davis and The Rooneys

Al Davis relationship with the Rooneys saw its ups and downs. Art Rooney Sr. went out of his way to comfort Davis when his wife Carol suffered a stroke. Davis was sure to send flowers to Dan Rooney after a car accident in 1980.

Yet Dan Rooney fought Al Davis tooth and nail as Davis thumbed his nose at the league, not to mention the fans in Oakland, in establish the awful precedent that allows NFL to abandon their fans in search of a new home.

Davis, publicly and falsely castigated Rooney for “…flagrantly cheating on the salary cap” in 2001, to which Dan Rooney defend himself by calling Davis a “lying creep.” (Quotes as reported by Jim O'Brien in Art Rooney.)

In the end, it appears that Rooney remained true to his Catholic faith and made his peace with Davis, saying good things about him in his autobiography Dan Rooney, but reminding readers that “Al is Al,” and upon learning of Davis’ death, Rooney issued the following statement:
Al Davis was a good man and we were friendly rivals. He was a football man and did a lot for the game of football. I had a lot of respect for him and he will be missed throughout the entire NFL.
How much the rest of the NFL will “miss” Al Davis is an open question. But neither the NFL nor the Steelers-Raiders rivalry will ever be the same.

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Casey Hampton, Chris Kemoeatu, Aaron Smith Out for Titans Game

Perhaps reporters should conserve ink (and pixels) by reporting on who is playing for the Steelers vs. the Titans.

Because the injury list is horrendously long.

James Harrison is of course out with an orbital fracture. So is Aaron Smith. Chris Kemoeatu is out. So is Casey Hampton.

Rashard Mendenhall is listed as doubtful with a hamstring injury. Hamstrings generally do not heal quickly, and a hamstring would seem to be a bigger issue for a running back than say, a lineman (which isn’t to say it would be insignificant for the lineman.) Don't expect Mendenhall to play.

Ben Roethlisberger is going to suit up using his special protective boot.

Chris Scott Returns, via Practice Squad

The Steelers 2010 5th round draft pick Chris Scott was a roster casualty in the wake of Max Starks return. This was a shame, because the Steelers need to develop young lineman.

Scott returned to the Steelers today, via the Practice Squad. Welcome back Chris.

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Friday, October 7, 2011

Watch Tower: The Story Behind Max Starks Signing, Running Game, Woodley

It has been anything but a slow news week for Steelers Nation in light of the Thrashing in Texas giving the Watch Tower plenty to focus its bright lights upon.

A Stark Reminder

The biggest news of course was the return of left tackle Max Starks. Gerry Dulac of the Post-Gazette get kudos for breaking the news, or at the very least he got his story that the Steelers were “close” to resigning Max Starks up before any of the other major competitor sites did. Good for your Gerry.

The story then took a couple of complicated twists.

During his PG Plus chat Dulac did his best to put the Stark into context, first explaining:
No, nor do they think he is the answer. But they need some players in their offensive line who know what they're doing, and Chris Scott was too young and Jamon Meredith is too new.
The questions, of course kept coming, to which Dulac clarified:
Well, I expect to see him uniform on Sunday, but only as an extra lineman. And the reason he will likely dress is because LT Jonathan Scott is not fully recovered from his ankle injury, even though he will likely start. Otherwise, Starks faces the very real possibility of being one of the two O-linemen who typically sits out each game. [Emphasis Added]
All of that made sense. After all, the Steelers just a week ago had committed themselves to playing with the men they had.

A short time later, however, Ed Bouchette dropped a bomb on PG Plus, revealing that Max Starks had taken snaps with the first team. Of course now the word is that Starks will likely start.

The football element of this – that someone could come off of the street after 11 months of inactivity to start an NFL game speaks for itself. But it also calls into question who was feeding Dulac this information about Starks role and why he seemed so sure of it.

Running with the Colts

The Steelers inability to run the ball (not to mention stop the run) has been at issue all season. A little tid-bit came to light after the Colts game, when Ed Bouchette revealed:
One source on the team said the run calls against the Colts looked nothing like the ones they practiced the week leading up to the game.
The curious part of this is the “one source on the team.” Enquiring minds of course want to know “who.” Of course we won’t find out now. But this is the job of the beat writer – to find out what is happening behind the scenes.

Its way too early to make too much of this kind of a “leak.” It could be that the offensive staff simply shift its game plan based on the looks the Colts defense gave it.

However, we know that, in contrast to his first few season, Mike Tomlin has been less shy about overruling his offensive staff. In fact, Bruce Arians almost decided to leave because of it.

Again, this might mean nothing. But if the Steelers fortunes do not improve it will be interesting to see if anonymous sources releasing similar pieces of news.

Laying the Wood on Woodley

This was not a good week for LaMarr Woodley. He looked stone footed against the Texans and easily had his worse game in a season where he’s done nothing to justify his status as the highest paid player in defensive history.

The first to take aim was Behind the Steel Curtain’s Michael Bean (full disclosure, the Watch Tower’s alter ego also writes for BTSC), who devoted an entire post to critiquing Woodley’s performance against the Texans.

Bean got company, although that was a little slow in coming. As mentioned here before, Steel Mill Blog’s column “After Further Review” on the Tribune-Review is one of the best we features out there.

What was curious was that none of the Tribune Review’s writers updated the blog with any new content for several days after the game.

However, when “After Further Review” did get published, it spared no quarter in going after Woodley, pointing out that in spite of the fact that Woodley failed to draw double blockers during the Texans game, number 56 was regularly out of position and otherwise getting overpowered or shown up.

Old and Slow?

There’s been a lot going on, but it does seem that some of the media have been a little slow to the punch. News of James Harrison’s injury didn’t become public until Mike Tomlin announced it.

Undoubtedly, that makes Tomlin happy, but the Steelers losing James Harrison for a month is a pretty big story.

Ditto the news that Casey Hampton will not play. That may have been mentioned, but was certainly not discussed as a serious possibility early in the week.

Should the Turk Have Cometh....?

Finally, 2-2 is not at all too early to begin the “what went wrong” columns. Bob Smizik entertained the criticism that the Steelers perhaps got too sentimental in their personnel decision making, likening it to the situation in the late ‘70’s or early ‘80s.

He then mentiones a few players whom he things the Steelers should have parted ways with (James Farrior and Aaron Smith.)

Both suggestions are plausible, but it is a little too over simplistic to suggest that both men should have been cut in training camp, unless he has two other players that the Steelers either let go or passed on whom he thinks should have taken their places.

Smizik has never been a Watch Tower favorite (dating back to the late ‘80s, when the Watch Tower read him on weekend trips to Grandma’s house), but this column does provide readers with good food for thought.

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Thursday, October 6, 2011

Max Starks Saved the Steelers Season in 2008. Can He Do It Again?

Prelude: October 5th 2008, Jacksonville Florida. Max Starks had entered the 2008 season as the Steelers transition player carrying a 6.85 salary. And he wasn't even starting.

During the second half the prime time epic that defined the Pittsburgh Steelers 2008 regular season, starting left tackle Marvel Smith went down to injury....

...and in came, not Max Starks, but rather Trai Essex. The Steelers after paying him the average of the other top ten tackles in the league and calling him "starter capable" still didn't think enough of Max Starks to name him as the number 3 tackle.

Trai Essex barely slowed the Jaguar defenders who sacked Ben Roethlisberger 3 times that night and subjected him to numerous after the throw hits. All Max Starks could do was to stand there and watch....


Crisis on the Steelers Offensive Line, 2011 Edition

Four games into the 2011 season and the Pittsburgh Steelers have made an abrupt "About Face." After the team lost Willie Colon in the Debacle in Baltimore many in Steelers Nation expected the Pittsburgh to hit the red phone to either Starks or Flozell Adams. After all, the team had been rumored to be interested in bringing both men back well before Colon's injury.

Mike Tomlin instead made a commitment to starting rookie Marcus Gilbert, and in doing so the team seemed to be indicating that they were turning away from the "Patch and Pray" offensive line building strategy in favor of a more methodical approach.

Steel Curtain Rising applauded them for the more deliberate strategy.

Fear rarely motivates the decision making of Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert and they stuck to the plan even as the line play became more and more of a glaring liability after the Shut Out of Seattle and Escape from Indy game.

Such steadfastness is admirable, but knowing when to stand your ground and knowing when to stand down is something that separates organizations like the Packers and the Steelers from the Bengals and the Rams.

The Steelers demonstrated that today when the resigned Max Starks, waving rookie Chris Scott to make room for him on the roster.

Max Starks and the Steelers, Then and Now

Making the move all the more interesting is the fact that Max Starks rejoined the Steelers on October 5th, three years to the day that his predecessor’s career ended in injury.

The coaches 2008 experiment with Trai Essex as the starting left tackle lasted all of a few quarters. By the next week in Cincinnati, Max Starks started at left tackle where he went on to start 34 more games, including Super Bowl XLIII.

It is fair to say that Max Starks entered the 2008 season as an overpaid afterthought and ended up saving the season.

Can he do it again? Is it fair for Steelers Nation even to expect him to?

The answer remains far from clear. Starks weight ballooned during the off season, and he finished 2010 on injured reserve with a neck injury – the same type of injury that ultimately ended Marvel Smith’s career.

But the fact is that the offensive line did play better with Starks in the lineup in 2010, as Jim Wexell calculated that Ben Roethlisberger got sacked twice as often with Jonathan Scott starting at left tackle.

The Steelers themselves don’t seem to be clear on Starks role. During his PG Plus chat Gerry Dulac indicated that Starks would “only provide depth” and later indicated that Starks might not even be dressing were it not for the rash of injuries on the offensive line.

That at least, we’ll assume, is the word Dulac got before mid-day. But the end of the day Ed Bouchette took to PG Plus to inform readers that Max Starks took about half of the snaps with the starting unit.

That could mean many things, of course.

In the final analysis the Steelers have plenty of other issues besides the offensive line bedeviling them a quarter of the way into 2011. (How about two critical errors by the place kicking unit in four games?)

Even before his most recent injury no one would ever confuse Max Starks for Tony Boselli. So any messianic aura that accompies Starks’ return is sorely misplaced. If Max Starks can't be a savior for the line, he can bring it some much needed stability.

As the injuries have mounted and Ben Roethlisberger has taken more and more hits fans have wondered aloud “Isn’t there at least a chance that Starks [or Adams] would be better?”

Management has asked itself this question and their answer is obvious. Welcome back Max.

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Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Max Starks "Close" to Resigning with Steelers

Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette is reporting that the Pittsburgh Steelers are “close” to resigning Max Starks.

The Steelers drafted Starks in the 3rd round of the 2004 draft and he started two Super Bowls XL and XLIII at right and left tackle respectively. The Steelers resigned Starks to a four year deal in 2009, but injuries forced him to on to IR in 2010. Starks’ weight ballooned to more than 400 pounds in the off season, and the Steelers released him.

Dulac reports that Starks worked out with the Steelers. It is not known if the Steelers would plan to reinsert Starks at one of the tackle positions, or keep him on as a reserve.

Either way the Steelers offensive line is in desperate need of help.

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Tuesday, October 4, 2011

James Harrison Suffers Orbital Fracture, Out 'Weeks'

If the cliché adversity builds character has any merit to it, then the Steelers are in for some major character building.

Already reeling from the Trashing from the Texans, Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin announced that All Pro Linebacker James Harrison has an orbital fracture around his right eye. Team doctors will operate on Harrison Wednesday, he will miss “several weeks.”

Harrison will not get lonely on the injured list. His back up, 2010 second round pick Jason Worilds has a quad strain and is doubtful while Aaron Smith is “extremely questionable.”

And this only sums up the Steelers injuries on defense.

Halfback Mewelde Moore has a right ankle sprain which could keep him from playing, and Rashard Mendenhall has a hamstring injury.

That leaves the Steelers with all of two healthy running backs – Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer.

The “good” news is that starters Jonathan Scott and Doug Legursky are expected to return to the Steelers starting sieve. Bryant McFadden’s health has also returned, although Ed Bouchette indicated during his PG Plus chat that he might not recover his starting job.

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Monday, October 3, 2011

Steelers Report Card vs. Texans

Translated into scholastic terms the Steelers recent offensive line building strategy has been the football equivalent of “craming pulling all-nighters.” In light of the Trashing in Texas, this Steelers report card carries a tone of “I warned you.” As usual, no other report cards were consulted.

Quarterback
It is not easy to throw from your back. Still, Ben Roethlisberger missed some open receivers on plays the Steelers needed to have and according to Dale Lolley, Ben had check downs open on some of the sacks he took. He also had a couple of three turnovers nullified by penalties. Grade: C-

Running Backs
So it isn’t just the poor run blocking. Mewelde Moore and Isaac Redman gave the offense a real shot in the arm when it needed it. Mendenhall has only been effective when reach the line of scrimmage. Grade: C+

Wide Receivers
Mike Wallace made a brilliant play that got called back on a taunting penalty – the Steelers can’t have this. Antonio Brown showed some fancy footwork. Overall the receivers were “above the line” but that alone was not enough. Grade: B-

Offensive line
No one on the line is playing well. No one. Maurkice Pouncey perhaps played a little better this week, but he’s still way below last year’s standard. And Pouncey's penalty took the Steelers out of scoring distance. Trai Essex left no doubt as to why he got zero interest in the free agent market, and Marcus Gilbert seemed to break off his blocks just as his man was getting to Ben or else he simply got beat physically. If the Steelers don’t have the worst offensive line in football, show me who does. Grade: F-

Defensive Line
Differing theories abound as to the Steelers sudden vulnerable to the run. What is clear is that the Texans ran inside, run outside, ran around and over the Steelers defensive line and none of the lineman could cope. Injuries or no, Aaron Smith’s continuing claim to a roster spot remains tenious at best, but Cameron Heyward and Ziggy Hood got plenty of snaps and they did not help. Grade: F

Linebackers
Why is it that James Harrison, he of 33 years of age and back surgery, appears to be the only noticeable player in the group? Age may be catching up with James Farrior, but what about Lawrence Timmons and LaMarr Woodley? The Steelers invested over 100 million dollars in these youngsters and neither has delivered. Grade: F

Secondary
Troy Polamalu was all over the place as usual, but his angles were off and Neal Coolong of Behind the Steel Curtain has suggested this arises for his desire to avoid fines. Keenan Lewis made a nice pass defense, William Gay and Ike Taylor looked good. Still, four games into the season, the secondary has produced ZERO turnovers. As bad as the rest of the team played, one turnover could have made the difference in Houston. Grade: C-

Special Teams
The Steelers had some nice punt returns although some work on when to field and when to fair catch is needed. But what is it with the blocked kick? In four games this is the second time one of the place kicking units has suffered a total breakdown. This cannot continue. Grade: D

Coaching
Perhaps the NFL’s new rules on dangerous hits have neutered the Steelers defense. Perhaps the mandated reduction of physicality in practice has had a similar effect on both the defense and the offensive line. It is difficult to argue with Mike Tomlin’s assessment that the Steelers problems trace back to the fundamentals – blocking and tackling. Except why would one say that about a defending conference champion? Either way the Steelers have been caught totally flatfooted by the NFL in 2011. Grade: F

Unsung Hero
David Johnson’s presence in the backfield helped get the running game going in the second half although it did nothing to help the pass protection. Either way Gerry Dulac gave him a nod in The Post-Gazette's Two Minute Drill.

The Steelers coverage units have played well this year, and yesterday they were led by rookie corner Curtis Brown who made three special teams tackles and forced a fumble which the Texans recovered. Age is an issue for the Steelers defense, and signs of hope from the youth are welcome, and for that Curtis Brown is Steel Curtain Rising’s Unsung Hero of the week.

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