´ Steel Curtain Rising: November 2011

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

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Steelers Report Card vs. the Chiefs

From the grade book of a teacher who watched the Steelers escape from Arrowhead and issues a report card replete with the stinking feeling that his star students are coasting when they should be putting the pedal to the metal. Here goes the Steelers report card for their Escape from Arrowhead.

Ben Roethlisberger’s performance on the touchdown pass was something to behold – how many other quarterbacks can make that play? And can you imagine Brady/Rodgers/Brees throwing a block to save a botched reverse the way he did? Those positive must be weighed against an ugly, costly interception, piss poor third down conversion rate, and a costly miscue with the punt team. Grade: C+

Running Backs
When the Steelers running backs had holes, they hit them and made things happen. When they didn’t, they were stuck. The group did not get much help from its offensive line, but they made up for it with their performance on check downs. That said, Mewelde Moore’s fumble drops the grade for the whole group. Grade: B-

Wide Receivers
Another great game by Antonio Brown. The rest of the receiving corps however did not distinguish itself, although it was certainly nice to see Hines Ward come down with one of the team’s 3 third down conversions. Mike Wallace dropped a touchdown and appears to have problems with double coverage deep. Health Miller had a nice catch but also at least one drop. Give the Kansas City secondary credit, but this team needed more plays form its receivers than it got, Weslye Saunders outstanding TD not withstanding. Grade: C+

Offensive Line
Steel Curtain Rising commented on the fact that a stealer performance by the offensive line vs. the Ravens was wasted. Since then the group has played as if it were wasted. Another sub-par performance from the line. Roethlisberger’s fancy footwork saved innumerable sacks he had no protection. Holding penalties either put the Steelers in into holes or nullified positive gains. Run blocking was “inconsistent” to say the least. Line play has steadily improved since Max Starks return. It has steadily slid since the Raven’s game. Sean Kugler must reverse this trend. Grade: C-

Defensive Line
The Chief’s game plan was going to be simple: Run and dare the Steelers to stop them. The Chiefs pounded the ball 34 times yet failed to crack the century mark. The stat sheet might say that Casey Hampton only had one tackle – but he was a force. Ziggy Hood, Cameron Heyward and Steve McLendon all got into the action. Brett Keisel also recovered another fumble. Grade: B+

Jason Worlids got his first NFL sack and seemed to applying pressure registering 4 QB hits. James Harrison did well in run coverage, but failed to be a force in the pass rush. Lawrence Timmons and James Farrior also played well in run coverage. All those are good things, but the Steelers needed more pressure on Plako than they got. Grade: B.

Troy Polamalu must learn to be smarter about making tackles. ESPN is already questioning whether he should consider retirement. Ryan Mundy was all over the field leading the team in tackles and recording an interception. Ike Taylor got an interception and had his hands on another. Keenan Lewis also joined the club.

The fact the Plako moved the ball effectively during his final drive is reason to frown. However, the fact the Chief’s final drive meant anything says a lot more about the Steelers offensive impotence than it does the secondary. For the second straight game, the Steelers secondary made a pick to stop a last-gasp drive. Grade: A-

Special Teams
Emmanuel Sanders averaged 25 yards and change returning kicks last year. Against KC it was closer to 18. KC also got some punt return yardage. Holding penalties forced the offense to start with its back to the end zone on a night when it needed help from specials teams, not hindrance. The Chiefs also telegraphed, then converted a fake punt. All of these negatives are partially modified by Shaun Suisham’s making a 49 yarder that no one in Steelers Nation figured he could make. His difference making kick brings an otherwise dismal grade up to respectability. Grade: B-

Two penalties for 12 men on the field. A botched 4th down conversion opportunity with a wasted time out to boot. The Kansas City rush defense looking like the 85 Bears for portions of the game. Holding penalties, false start penalties. You name it, the Steelers were out of sorts whereas the Chiefs played with the passion, if not always the execution, of a team contending for the top spot in the AFC. Dick LeBeau’s unit did him proud, but Mike Tomlin, Bruce Arians, and Al Everest have all had far better “days at the office.” Grade: D

Unsung Hero
The quality and quantity of the depth chart at corner was the raging concern of Steelers Nation during the 2011 season. Nary a word was uttered with respect to the depth at safety behind Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark. And perhaps their was good reason for it. All season long the Steelers number 3 safety has quietly assumed a role as the defenses unofficial 12th starter. The starting role became official vs. the Chiefs, and Ryan Mundy distinguished himself smartly, and for that he wins the Steelers Unsung Hero award.

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Monday, November 28, 2011

Steelers Escape Arrowhead with 13-9 Victory

Two years ago it was against Kansas City that the Steelers late-season meltdown became official. If you’ve blotted it out of your memory, here’s a refresher:

  • Give up the opening kickoff for a TD,
  • Sacrifice scoring opportunities with turnovers that KC turns into points,
  • Squander numerous chances to put the game away

Ultimately the Steelers committed the cardinal sin of a would-be contender giving an inferior team a Reason the Believe and allowing them to transform that into an upset.

Fortunately, this time the outcome was different, but if this latest trip to Arrowhead didn’t signal another melt down, if this is any indication of how the Steelers play on the road, Steelers Nation had better double down on the Rosary Beads praying for Baltimore to slip.

Hail to Haley and Yes, Tyler Plako

Saying that “aside from four turnovers, the quarterback played really well” is kind of like saying “aside from everything else, Mrs. Lincoln enjoyed the play.” Plako did play poorly.

But in spite of that Plako maintained his poise, and watching him in the huddle at barking out orders at the line of scrimmage, he gave every impression of a quarterback who was still leading his team.

Todd Haley also deserves cudos. Michael Bean of Behind the Steel Curtain is right to call out Haley (and Plako) for their poor clock management at the end, but that error aside, Haley coached a good game.

From the very outset, the Chiefs looked like a team that it believed in itself, and played as if it had a chance to win. 4-6 teams don’t do that too often, and Haley gets the credit.

But Haley’s cudos go beyond the old “well, they played with a lot of energy and enthusiasm” hat on the head.

The Chiefs played aggressive, opportunistic defense. They dominated on third downs, making the Steelers offense look amateur. Say what you want, but the Kansas City Chiefs were in the game until the final gun, and they can thank their defense for that.

An Offensive Pittsburgh Performance

What was that? The Steelers offense is supposed to be developing into an elite NFL unit, won with an All Pro Quarterback with an arsenal that he couldn’t have dream of even a few short years ago.

Instead, the offense Steelers looked as lost and baffled as they have since the days of Joe Walton. That may sound harsh, but the Steelers converted all of 3 of 11 third downs. Worse the offense turned the ball over twice in scoring situations.

ESPN’s stat sheet says that the Steelers only committed 6 penalties between the offense and defense. Numbers don’t lie nor does that obscure the fact that holding and false start calls either nullified important gains or regularly put the Steelers offense in the hole.

Sloppy does not even begin to define the Steelers performance when the had the ball against Kansas City – offensive is the only apt term.

Strutting Instead of Sputtering

Two years ago the “shaky” was the word to describe the Steelers secondary that walked into Arrowhead Stadium.

The unit had had its ups and downs, but clearly wasn’t the same without Troy Polamalu, whom they’d lost the week before in a home loss to Cincinnati. A shell-shocked Steelers secondary left Arrowhead that afternoon, a shadow of its former self.

My what a difference two years makes.

The Steelers defense wasn’t flawless in Kansas City. The Chiefs converted a few too many third downs for my tastes, and they failed to get consistent pressure on Plako.

But those were minor blemishes on an otherwise outstanding, mostly Polamaluless, performance.

Everyone knew the Chiefs were going to run the ball. The only question was, would the Steelers be able to stop them?

Kansas City did have some success on the ground with their top three rushers ripping off 9 and 8 yard runs. But the Chiefs pounded it 34 times yet could not break the century mark. Those long runs were off set by the sight of Casey Hampton and company pancaking numerous rushes at the line of scrimmage.

The real stars of the game were of course the Steelers secondary. Yes, the Chiefs receivers made some nice catches, Yes, this was Tyler Plako throwing the ball and not Joe Flacco let alone Tom Brady.

But the once-turnover starved Steelers secondary came away with three picks. In short, Ike Taylor, Keenan Lewis, and Ryan Mundy did what they were supposed to do – come up with big plays against an inferior opponent.

And ultimately that was the difference in this ball game.

Steelers Must Bring Their ‘A’ Game Every Week Now

Five games await the 2011 Pittsburgh Steelers. The Steelers are capable of beating everyone of these opponents. By the same token, if the Steelers come out with a performance like they did vs. the Chiefs, everyone of these opponents is capable of beating them.

The AFC North crown is probably out of reach for the Steelers, but with the Bengals breathing down their neck, a Wild Card is no certainty.

The lesson from Kansas City is clear: The Steelers must bring their ‘A’ Game every week, against every opponent.

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Steelers Escape with Win Over Chiefs

What was that?

Ok, a win is indeed a win. And they don't add style points.

But if this is any indication of how the Steelers are going to play on the road, Steelers Nation had better double down on the Roseary Beads in hopes that the Ravens stumble - big time.

Not a bad game by the defense. Hats off to the secondary who came up with three picks w/o their fearless leader, but the Steelers offense largely looked lost....

....Its 2:00 am here in Buenos Aires, and although tomorrow is a holiday here, yours truly is quite tired. Come back for more Monday morning quarterbacking on the said day.

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Friday, November 25, 2011

Doug Legursky Starts, Kemoeatu Benched

Its been said that Mike Tomlin is a mix of Bill Cowher and Chuck Noll.

Noll, for all his well earned reputation as a demanding, hard-driving coach, could be an old softy when it came to benching or cutting his veterans. (See the Dwaine Board story that Ed Bouchette trots out each and every time the Steelers cut a young defender).

Cowher, on the other hand, could sometimes be callous. Levon Kirkland’s departure was common knowledge to many in the Steelers organization long before it happened, and Kirkland himself discovered the news from Ed Bouchette of the Post-Gazette.

On this front, Tomlin it appears is indeed a mix of the two. During the 2009 mid-season meltdown Tomlin promised/threatened all important roster changes.

Steel Curtain Rising even reflected on how this meant so much more than would were it to occur in an organization like the Washington Redskins.

Then his changes amounted to playing Joe Burnette a few extra snaps in an awful loss at the Mistake by the Lake.

Two years later, Tomlin is taking a decidely different approach. He's not mentioning much about personnel changes to the press, but he certainly isn't shy about making them.

Heads are Rolling

Bryant McFadden started the year at corner, went out due to injury, and now plays special teams. Chris Hoke played quite well in relief of Casey Hampton until he too got hurt. Enter Steve McLendon, and Hoke no longer dresses.

And of course, as we know, Hines Ward now finds himself deep inside the Steelers depth chart.

After starting the year as a glaring liability, the return of Max Starks and a break in the constant stream of injuries, the offensive line has seen some stability and some improvement.

However, stability alone is not what interests Mike Tomlin. Tomlin apparently isn’t satisfied with the line’s over all play, and has made another change, as Doug Legursky returns from injury and claims Chris Kemoeatu’s left guard spot as a consequence.

Legursky started the season at right guard and struggled at times (as did every member of the unit.) But injuries forced him into the left guard spot and he played well.

Kemoeatu’s play has always been inconsistent, and his penchant for idiotic penalties has hurt the team on a number of occaisions.

Mike Tomlin has apparently seen enough. He’s dead serious about trying to put together another Super Bowl run, and he’s showing he’s not afraid to upset the apple cart, ruffle a few feathers, or relegate the offensive line’s highest paid player to the bench in his quest to bring home Lombardi Number Seven.

Good for him.

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Steelers Nation Can Give Thanks for Antonio Brown

Thanksgiving is a wonderful holiday in the US that cuts across all races, colors and creeds. Here at Steel Curtain Rising we initiated a Thanksgiving Day tradition two years ago, singling out something that Steeler Nation had to be thankful for.

In 2009, two games into their 5 game mid-season melt down, we recognized the development of Rashard Mendenhall and praised him for his hustle

In 2010, it was the arrival of Emmanuel Sanders, Maurkice Pouncy, and special team coach Al Everest (although ironically special teams performance dropped off shortly there after.)

Here in 2011, Steel Curtain Rising recognizes Antonio Brown.

Long before the world became enamored with the whole Suck For Luck phenomenon it was common to hear friends and foes alike whine about the perils of poor draft position.


Good players are there to be had in every round.

Antonio Brown offers proof. Drafted in the 6th round of the 2010 NFL draft out of Central Michigan, Antonio Brown had a promising rookie year, complete with the team’s first kickoff TD since 2007:

and an incredible side of the helmet catch in the playoffs vs. Baltimore.

Those plays were tremendous, but fortunately they were simply a warm up act.

Antonio Brown simply improves with each game and exhibits an almost uncanny pass catching ability that could easily grow to surpass that of any other Steelers wide receiver in history.

The Steelers are a small, but important part of our lives. I both trust and hope that all of you reading this have far more important blessings to be thankful for and share in with friends and family on this special day.

Yet as Steelers fans, the development of Antonio Brown is one thing we can all be thankful for.

Happy Thanksgiving.

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Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Georgia Bulldog in Winter: Hines Ward's Career Winds Down

Hines Ward, Super Bowl XL MVP, 14 year veteran, future Hall of Famer, and the most decorated wide receiver in Steelers history caught one pass in the Steelers recent victory over the Cincinnati Bengals.

That fact in-and-of-itself, is not remarkable. Ward’s production has been down this year, and his missed some time due to injury.

But against the Bengals he missed time for another reason – the coaches chose to play not only Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown ahead of him, but also Jericho Crotchety. However, Ward had injured his ankle earlier in the year and suffered concussion like symptoms vs. the Ravens the week before.

During the Bengals game most fans figured that coaches were merely protecting Ward against further injury.

That, however, was not the case.

After the game Ward confirmed that he was fine, and could have played a full game. He also revealed that neither Mike Tomlin nor Bruce Arians had discussed his demotion with him before or after the game.

Beating the “Not For Long” System

Longevity is a virtue, and a rarity in the NFL.

The average career is less the four years. You can safely assume that anyone who makes it past the four year mark either has some semblance of serviceable skills and/or has simply avoided injury.

80% of life might be just showing up for most mortals, but it does not work that way in the NFL. The NFL is a young man’s game whose motto is "what have you done for me lately." If you can’t cut the mustard, or if the coaches see a younger man who can do it as well as you and has a greater upside and/or can do it for less of a salary cap hit, you’re history.

In a similar vein one successful season in the NFL, be it as a role player or as a starter, means next to nothing. Think about it:

  • How long did the Tommy Gun phenomenon last?
  • Gary Russell scored the first TD of Super Bowl XLIII and seemed to have found his niche as a short-yardage specialist – where is he now?
  • In 2001, a rookie sensation at inside linebacker promised to make people forget Levon Kirkand; today everyone struggles to remember Kendrell Bell
  • No one would ever confuse Darnell Stapleton with Alan Fanaca, but he did start for a Super Bowl team and that was his last game in the NFL

And that is one of the things that make Hines Ward so special. He’s been a Steeler for 14 years and for 12 of those he’s been the go-to guy when Pittsburgh had to have a completion.

  • During Ward’s tenure three 1st round picks came, and three 1st round picks went. Ward remained. Ward delivered.

Ward epitomized Steelers Football. Work hard in practice. Dive into film study. Hit hard. Team first. Gut it out when the game is on the line.

Georgia Bull Dog in Winter

Steelers Nation knew the day would come. It was inevitable. It happens to everyone.

Sometimes injuries grind players down (see Aaron Smith.) Sometimes players “get old fast” (see Willie Parker.) Sometimes a once consistent performer will lose “it” without age or injury as an apparent factor (see Levon Kirkland.)

The fortunate ones age gracefully.

Ward falls into this category, although it doesn’t make his decline any easier to swallow.

You could see this coming last year. Wards number were down a little, but he was still making clutch catches.

Ward’s production in 2011 has been down more so, and while he’s had a few drops, he’s still make catches that counted.

But the truth is the Steelers best two wide receivers now are Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown. Emmanuel Sanders isn’t far behind. Jericho Crotchety’s injury has healed and made the most of his opportunity.

  • Someone has to be the odd man out, and that sadly someone is Hines Ward.

Ward, as prideful of a player as you can find, has to be hit hard by this. But he’s handled his demotion by following his own example putting the team first.

Where Ward’s Wrong

Hines Ward has gone on the record as saying that the Steelers owe him nothing. These are no idle words from a player within striking distance of Hall of Fame assuring milestones in receptions, yards receiving, and touchdowns.

As said above, that’s simply Ward being Ward.

Ward is both right and wrong. Right in that Mike Tomlin owes it to Hines to do all he can to get him a third Super Bowl ring, even if that means benching him.

If Ward’s demotion is to be permanent and not simply a product week-by-week game planning, then the Steelers coaches owed it to Ward to break the news to him face to face.

As a franchise, the Pittsburgh Steelers yield to no one when it comes to great players.

Men like Joe Greene, Terry Bradshaw, Jack's Ham and Lambert, Ernie Stautner, Andy Russell, Rockey Harris, Lynn Swann, John Stallworth, Mike Webster, Rod Woodson, Dermonti Dawson, Greg Lloyd and Jerome Bettis were legends who litterally helped make the game what is today.

In 14 years, Hines Ward has earned his place as a peer among this elite group.

If the Steelers were to opt to chisel their own version of Mt. Rushmore into the face of Mount Washington or on rock faces that under hang the bluffs of Duquesne we’d all have a hard time which four players belonged.

  • You’d have an even more difficult time arguing that Ward did not belong.

Hines Ward is at least owed a quick sit down with Mike Tomlin or Bruce Arians over his new found role with the team.

Ward Waiting to Hear His Number Called

Accustomed to starting since 1999, Hines Ward now must wait for his number to be called. Who knows when or how often that will be?

But one thing is certain. When the coaches call number 86, Hines Ward will be ready. And Hines Ward will deliver.

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Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Steelers Report Card vs. the Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium

From the grade book of a teacher who is pleased to see his star pupil has moved to the head of the class, here goes the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for their victory over the Bengals. No other grades have been consulted.

Ben Roethlisberger
was flawless on the Steelers three touchdown drives, and his lone interception was decidedly not his fault. With that said, he had at least one other "should have been an interception" took too many sacks, and was not terribly effective on third down. Ben's performance was "above the line" but the Steelers need more from him over the next six games. Grade: B

Running Backs
Look at the stat sheet. Rashard Mendenhall only ran for 44 yards with a seemingly pathetic 2.8 average. And Isaac Redman and Mewelde Moore were only a little better. And stats can be misleading. Mendenhall punched in not one, but two touchdowns and both were examples of power rushing par excellence. Redman also ground out a key 11 yard carry on the go ahead touchdown drive. All three running backs blocked well. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
Hines Ward apparently has slipped to the 4th receiver position a bittersweet reality made palatable by the emergency of Antonio Brown. Antonio Brown’s development is taking on phenomenal proportions. This guy simply catches EVERYTHING. Mike Wallace again showed he’s now one-note Johnny. And, after 6-7 weeks of functioning as little more than a paper weight Jericho Cotchery is emerging as a weapon. Wesleye Saunders came through with a big play. Grade: A

Offensive Line
It seems like individual units are prone to let downs. After turning in its best performance of the season against the Ravens, if not perhaps several seasons, the offensive line slumped badly. Credit Cincinnati wearing down the line with their constant defensive line rotation because as the game wore on, the Steelers offensive line began to lose the battle at the line of scrimmage more consistently and the run and pass blocking suffered accordingly. Grade: C-

Defensive Line
Cincinnati might not have piled up a lot of yards, but they ran the ball effectively, particularly Bernard Scott. The Steelers likewise got little or no pressure on Andy Dalton. That’s not completely the fault of the defensive line, but the responsibility starts with them. Grade: C

James Harrison wasn’t much of a factor, although he was blatantly held for most of the day. Jason Worlids got a lot of time looking a lot more like the next Carlos Emmons than the next Woodley. James Farrior was back in action and looked OK. Lawrence Timmons defense a pass and came down with a difficult interception. Grade: B-

William Gay had a whale of a game with defensed passes, 5 tackles, and an interception. Ike Taylor, Keenan Lewis, Cotez Allen, and Curtis Brown all made plays. AJ Greens touchdown catch in double coverage vs. Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark was ugly, and the inability of either play to attempt a play drops the grade for this group. But Troy Polamalu was a force in run support registering two tackles for losses and limiting several others to short gains. Grade: B

Special Teams
On the plus side, both Justin Kapinos and Shaun Suisham kicked well. However, Antonio Brown was average in the return game and Cincinnati got some daylight on both its punt and kick returns. Last year at about mid-season the quality of the Steelers covrage units began to slip. Let’s hope this isn’t the beginning of a repeat performance. Grade: B-

Prepping your team to ride the roller coaster that is the NFL season is an under aperciated talent. The Steelers loss against the Ravens could have been brutally deflating, but Mike Tomlin kept that from happening. Likewise, as Zimmer’s defense began to wear down the Steelers offense, Bruce Arians made adjustments. They may not have scored a lot in the second half, but they burned up a lot of lock. Dick LeBeau can now notch another victory over a rookie quarterback on his belt. Grade: B

Unsung Hero
The only highlight reels that this player is going to get this week are for a botched play that allowed the Bengals to cut had been a 14-0 lead to 14-10. And while you never want to see such plays, Heath Miller more than made up for it with other plays. His 18 yard catch set up the Steelers second touchdown and then he paved the way for Mendenhall to make it into the end zone. He also made the key block on Mendehall’s go ahead touchdown, and for that Heath Miller is the Steelers Unsung Hero of the week.

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Sunday, November 13, 2011

Steelers Defeat Bengals, (Momentarily) Recapture AFC North Lead

The Pittsburgh Steelers bookended their biggest regular season victory in recent memory with a heart breaking last minute loss to their division rivals. How would the men in Black and Gold react?

The Steelers match up vs. the Cincinnati Bengals promised to reveal a lot about this team. And in beating the Cincinnati Bengals 24-17 at Paul Brown Stadium, Pittsburgh gave Steelers Nation a lot of lessons.

When Focused…

The Bengals won the toss but the Steelers defense forced a quick 3 and out and the offense seized the opportunity as Ben Roethlisberger directed Mike Wallace, Heath Miller, and Jericho Cotchery on a near picture perfect 8 play touchdown drive.

The Steelers secondary again shut out Andy Dalton’s for another second consecutive three and out.

It only took Ben Roethlisberger 8 plays to bring his team down to the two yard line, and one play later Rashard Mendenhall rammed it in to bring the score to 14-0.

The first quarter had not yet finished and the Steelers had a 14-0 lead….

Lesson Number 1:

  • When this group of Pittsburgh Steelers focuses with singleness of purpose, very few football teams can stop them.

A Future Force to Be Reckoned With?

Down 14-0 in the fourth quarter during the Shula or Coslet era generally often meant that the Bengals would simply mail it in.

But Marv Lewis is not David Shula nor is he Bruce Coslet. And Andy Dalton is no Akili Smith or David Klingler.

Without batting an eye this rookie took his team to the Steelers 36. From there he stole a page from Ben Roethlisberger-Mike Wallace script, he threw the ball deep and dared the Steelers to stop him.

Both Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark were on the coverage and in perfect position. And while you can quibble about the fact that neither man took a solid shot at the ball, the fact is that Dalton placed the ball perfectly, and Green’s catch was flawless.

Just like that Cincinnati was on the board with 7 and back in the game.

Mike Zimmer and the Bengals defense began the second half by giving the Steelers a taste of their own medicine, forcing a three and out of their own.

Andy Dalton took over at his 33 and with a poise of an experienced veteran, he methodically marched Cincinnati down to the Steelers 1, and tied up the score.

Not even 5 minutes in the first half had elapsed, and the Bengals had tied what was once a 14-0 game.

Lesson Number 2

  • Its way to early to proclaim Andy Dalton’s “arrival,” but this kid’s poise and pocket presence today suggests that he will be a force the Steelers must reckon with in the future.

Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

Against the New England Patriots, the Steelers defensive backs perhaps performed better than any Steelers secondary had in a generation.

The followed by laying a gigantic egg against Baltimore.

This week it was the offensive line’s turn on the Merry Go Round.

The offensive line was one of the Steelers unequivocal bright spots vs. the Baltimore Ravens. Instead of simply not being a weakness, it was a team strength.

Alas, against the Bengals the Steelers offensive line regressed. To be certain a couple of those sacks that Ben took were his fault, but this until got beaten up front too many times, and sacks derailed too many drives.

Lesson Number 3:

  • The Pittsburgh Steelers have steadily improved after a shaky first four weeks, but they still have work to do.

Roethlisberger, Steelers Resilient

While the Bengals have had their success against the Steelers, as recently as 2009, Cincinnati has long served as the AFC North’s punching bag.

Sometimes the puncher freezes when the punchee begins hitting back. Mike Tomlin, however, made sure his men avoided that trap.

Immediately after Andy Dalton’s stunning touchdown, Health Miller, normally Mr. Reliable, bobbled a catch which give Cincinnati an interception. Just two years ago a similarly uncharacteristic error by Health Miller gave Kansas City a pick six signaling an upset in the making.

The Bengals had the ball at the Steelers 41, and Dalton was licking his chops. The Steelers defense stopped them cold at the 26, forcing Cincinnati to settle for 3.

Ben Roethlisberger and the offense showed their own resiliency by answering the Bengal’s game tying score.

The Steelers defense hung tough from there on out, intercepting Andy Dalton twice during the fourth quarter, including William Gay’s perfectly timed defense of a slant pattern.

The Steelers offense converted two first downs and then it was time for that oh so wonderful sight of Troy Polamalu standing 10 yards behind Ben.

Lesson Number 4

  • This group of Steelers will take their knocks but will respond by coming out fighting.

The Question Sometimes Isn’t How You Deal With Failure, Its How You Deal With Success.” – Mike Tomlin, on the day he became Steelers head coach

The Steelers have made it to their bye week with a 7-3 record that few would have predicted following the week one Debacle in Baltimore. They’ve gotten knocked down a few times, but each time they’ve bounced back.

That ability is important, but it is equally important that they keep their foot on the gas pedal. Although the Baltimore Ravens stumbled today vs. Seattle, they can reclaim the AFC North lead while the Steelers remain idle.

The victory over the Bengals' final lesson of the day is that while the bye week might give the Steelers some much needed rest, it is no time to let up.

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Friday, November 11, 2011

Comparing Steelers Report Cards vs. the Ravens

Regular readers are familiar with Steel Curtain Rising’s Report Card series, inaugurated in 2009. The genesis of the Report Card was simple and similar to the genesis of much of the rest of the material on this site: Looking at the stuff that the pros do and thinking, “Hey, I can do this.”

An additional reason is that keeping post game summaries to a reasonable length often times means neglecting to recognize individual accomplishments or tendencies.

I thought it would be interesting compare Steel Curtain Rising’s grades to that of Gerry Dulac of the Post-Gazette and Bob Labriola of Steelers Digest.

The first thing the jumps out is that the only area of agreement is with regard to the secondary.

Beyond that there’s a lot of variation.

It is no surprise that Steel Curtain Rising stands out on the quarterback rating. Ben Roethlisberger won lavish praise for his play against the Ravens, and his ability to bring them back from behind is commendable.

But he had a really shaky first half and his turnover came back to haunt the Steelers badly. Those two factors as much as anything else put the Steelers “below the line.”

Both Labriola and Dulac seemed hesitant to give out a good grade to the offensive line, to that I can only say: The Steelers offensive line neutralized a defensive front that has terrorized the Steelers backfield of late, “What more did you want them to do?”

In reading Dulac and Labriola’s commentaries, its also clear that perhaps I rated the linebackers a little too highly – although I thought that the outstanding performances by James Harrison and Larry Foote needed recognition. Still, the linebackers do deserve to carry some blame for Flacco’s superhuman 3rd down performance.

Ditto on the Special Teams. In truth, Baltimore had more success with its return game then I had given them credit for, and the special teams grade could be lower.

Labriola, who works at the Steelers complex on the South Side, never grades the coaches (surprise, surprise) and Dulac was a little less demanding than I.

The only other minor surprise is Dulac’s low grades for the running backs and wide receivers, as he commented on the fact that they were not used more in the game. I agree completely that the Steelers would have done well to have run more, but that is the fault of the coaches, and not the players themselves.

Time permitting, Steel Curtain Rising will do more report card comparisons in the future.

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Thursday, November 10, 2011

Steelers Sign Al Woods, Cut Monte Ivy

Mike Tomlin sees something he likes in Al Woods.

Woods was drafted by the New Orleans Saints in the fourth round of the 2010 NFL draft but was cut before opening day.

The Steelers wasted little time in signing him to the practice squad where he stayed until Tampa Bay signed Woods to their active roster in November 2010. Woods caught on with Seattle, and even had the privilege of getting clipped by Doug Legursky in the Steelers shut out victory over the Seahawks earlier this year.

With only three healthy defensive ends, the Steelers claimed Woods off of waivers from Seattle, and cut Monte Ivy to make room for him on the roster.

The move likely indicates that the linebacking corps is returning to health, as Ivy had been activated from the practice squad to provide depth there.

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Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Steelers Report Card vs. the Ravens at Heinz Field

From the Grade Books of a teacher who has been reminding his students that in the NFL you don't get graded on improvement or effort but solely on results. Thus comes the Steelers report card for their second loss of the year to Baltimore. As always, no other Steelers reports cards have been consulted.

Ben Roethlisberger was spectacular on the Steelers two touchdown drives, his final TD pass being a play that few other NFL quarterbacks can make. As good as that was, the Steelers needed more from Roethlisberger, especially in the first half. The Steelers were a respectable 7-12 on third down conversions but respectable wasn’t enough. Ben's interception likely cost the team at least three points and facilitated to a 10 point swing, and the miscommunication between him and Mewelde Moore put Baltimore back in the game. Grade: D

Running Backs
Statistically Rashard Mendenhall had the best day that a Steelers back has had against the Ravens in a long, long time. The fact that he didn't get more carries isn't his fault. However, Isaac Redman didn't do much with his carries, and as mentioned the Moore-Roethlisberger miscommunication was costly, which does drop the grade for this group. Grade: B-

Wide Receivers
The wideouts have had better days, and Antonio Brown's pass catching ability is approaching scary. Mike Wallace made a great play in the end zone. Health Miller was Mr. Reliable as ever. Jerricho Cotchery looked good in his first extended action of the year. David Johnson had one good catch, then dropped at a most inopportune time. Grade: B

Offensive Line
Was this the same unit that provided little more resistance than road kill during the Debacle in Baltimore in week one? It sure did not look like the same until as Ben Roethlisberger had ample time and the running game even had decent holes for most of the night. A little in the way of "road grading" would have been helpful on the Steelers final possession, but that does little to tarnish a fine offensive line performance. Grade: A-

Defensive Line
Who said Ray Rice could run on the Steelers at will? The Steelers defensive line contained the Ravens rushing attack and again, looked like a compeletely different unit than the one who appeared in week one. One knock against them is that with so many injuries to the line backing corps, more pressure from the line would ahve been useful. Grade: B

James Harrison wasted little time in establishing himself as a disruptive force. Larry Foote also looked good for another week, although he missed a chance to end the Raven's winning TD drive. Jason Worilds, Lawrence Timmons, and Stevenson Sylvester however were invisible on a night when just a little more pressure on Flacco might have made the difference in crucial passing situations. Grade: B

Was this the same until that just one week ago not only forced Tom Brady, Wes Welker, and Deon Branch to genuflect at the statue of Art Rooney Sr. but made them like it? Certainly could have fooled me.

The Steelers corners looked clueless and committed drive sustaining penalties on two of the Raven's three touchdown drives. Ryan Clark had another personal foul penalty. Troy Polamalu stopped Ravens rushers in their tracks any number of times, although perhaps using him deep would have been wiser. One week after looking all-world, the Steelers secondary appeared to be every bit of a liability that many feared they would be during the off season Grade: F

Special Teams
We can absolve this unit of blame for the delay of game penalty. Suisham made his two field goal attempts although the second did not lend a lot of confidence in his ability to make a third. Justin Kapinos punting was mediocre. The Ravens did OK in kick return yardage. Grade: B-

Hats off to Sean Kugler for coaching his unit to a 180 degree turnaround from week one. Similarly, Dick LeBeau, Johnny Mitchell and Keith Butler’s plan to neutralize Ray Rice worked. But the secondary played similar schemes to what they had played vs. New England and was awful. Likewise, save for the fourth quarter, the offense was ineffective in a game where even a field goal would have made a difference.

When the Steelers found themselves at 4th and 5 Mike Tomlin committed the ultimate sin a coach can commit in those cirumstances - he vacilated. The Ravens came ready to play and kept their composure for 60 minutes. The Steelers did not. That’s on the coaches. Grade: F

Unsung Hero
When a “skill” player plays well, everyone knows about it. Then there are those whose best work often goes unnoticed. The Ravens swept the Steelers twice this year for the first time since 2006. But they did it in spite of the fact that the second time around Steelers offensive line had its best performance of the year, and that’s why that unit is the Unsung Hero for the Ravens game.

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Steelers Choke, Ravens Fly to 23-20 Victory

When the Steelers last faced off against the Ravens, they waltzed into Baltimore with the swagger of defending AFC Champions and got their clocks cleaned by a Raven's team that had a superior game plan, executed it better, was more physical, and quite frankly wanted it more.

The Baltimore Ravens saw a different Pittsburgh Steelers team Sunday night at Heinz Field, but the end result was equally damming.

Against the Baltimore Ravens the Pittsburgh Steelers did a lot of good things and offered a lot to like, but they committed the ultimate sin for a team fancying itself as a contender - they consistently failed to make plays when they needed to.

In colloquial terms, the Steelers choked.

The Flip Side of "Not Adding Style Points"

Mike Tomlin loves saying: "we don't add style points." This Tomlinism generally follows an ugly win. His point is that it matters little if you throttle the Titans or hold on for dear life against Jacksonville or Indianapolis because collectively they all increase your sum in the "W" column by 3.

The same logic applies to losses. As Steel Curtain Rising has said before,

  • Unlike high school algebra, the NFL awards no partial credit for "showing your work."

Against the Ravens the Steelers showed the tremendous strides they'd made since the Debacle in Baltimore:

  • The Steelers offensive line played its best game of the season, neutralizing Terrell Suggs and Haloti Ngata
  • Rashard Mendenhall ran as well against the Ravens as any Steelers back has run in memory
  • The Steelers rendered Ray Rice and the Ravens rushing attack an essential non-factor game's final outcome
  • James Harrison played with the passion of a animal in heat

Each of these represents an exponential improvement from the Steelers first outing and, had the final score remained 20-16 each would have been an impressive accomplishment.

Alas, all went for naught and these efforts were wasted.

Big Ben, Taking Some Flacco….

ESPN America Latina’s pre-game show focused on the quarterback duel. For those of you who missed it (or wouldn't have been able to understand), the summary was simple:

  • Ben Roethlisberger is reaching the prime of his career and worthy of elite status
  • Joe Flacco is struggling to show he even merits consideration in the conversation

After thoroughly outclassing Tom Brady, the NFL Gold Standard at quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger got a classic schooling in quarterbacking essentials from Joe Flacco Sunday night.

“Quarterbacking essentials” is the operative phrase here, because Flacco was hardly flawless against the Steelers. He struggled in the red zone and first and second down Flacco looked every bit the journeyman his critics have tried to make him out to be.

But Joe Flacco delivered when it mattered, his play defined quarterbacking excellence on third down and again during the two minute drill.

Roethlisberger conversely struggled to convert third downs for much of the night. In the first half alone he had three near-interceptions, and his third quarter pick ended a drive that most likely would have resulted in at least a field goal.

  • Instead, it sparked a Raven’s touchdown.

That’s a ten point swing in a game decided by 3. If Ben is even aware of Terrell Suggs he renders the Ravens last minute heroics meaningless.

What They’re Really Asking Is, Why Don’t You Win? – Chuck Noll

During the depths of the 1989 Steelers 92-10 start, Chuck Noll answered away Pete Axehelm’s “Has the game passed you by?” question by explaining “Questions like that are similar to ‘why don’t you throw to the tight end, why don’t you use the shot gun?’ what they’re really asking is ‘Why don’t you win?’”

The Steelers didn’t win, so here come the questions.

When the Raven’s needed 12 yards, Flacco found a receiver that was 12 yards deep. When they needed six, he threw it six.

Joe Flacco, Cam Cameron and the Baltimore receivers deserve full credit for this.

  • Why, however, did the same coaches and players who just seven days earlier smothered a superior passing attack, fail to execute on any sort of adjustment?

The same goes for the offensive staff. Rashard Mendenhall looked pretty damm sharp against the Ravens yet only got 13 carries.

  • Why not at least attempt to lean on the running game more while Roethlisberger was struggling?

Their recent winning streak notwithstanding, the Steelers have committed some avoidable penalties of late. It was only a question of if and not when it was going to cost them, therefore….

  • How in the hell do you allow a delay of game penalty to push you out of field goal range in when defending a 4 point lead closing in on the two minute warning?

Once Again, NFL = Not For Long

Just seven days ago pundits began declaring the Steelers as “the team to beat in the AFC.”

Today tie breakers place them at third in the AFC North. Instead of poll position for an first round bye the Steelers will likely need help to make the playoffs unless they run the table.

Mike Tomlin has started every season at 6-2. Save for his rookie campaign, 6-2 has always led to 6-3. Tomlin railed the team week nine losses against in '08 to Indianapolis and in '10 New England into Super Bowl appearances.

  • The ’09 loss to Cincinnati started a five game losing streak.

Tomlin has done a good job of taming the emotional roller coaster that forms part of any NFL season.

He’d better be able to do so again because the Steelers have left themselves with little margin for error.

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Monday, November 7, 2011

Ravens Defeat Steelers, 23-20

Hats off to the Baltimore Ravens for being better than the Pittsburgh Steelers tonight. While they certainly didn't dominate like they did in week 1, they made the plays when they had to.

Interestingly enough, what had been the Steelers strengths during their now ended winning streak. Ben Roethlisberger was wild and inaccurate early on, and their secondary suffered a series of major breakdowns.

Its now 2:10 am here in Buenos Aires, and work looms tomorrow morning. Check back tomorrow evening for Steel Curtain Rising's full analysis.

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Saturday, November 5, 2011

Steelers Place Daniel Sepulveda on Injured Reserve (Again)

Nine weeks into the 2011 season, the NFL has been a pretty predictable place.

Somethings, however, you can still count on.

One of those is the Pittsburgh Steelers placing Daniel Sepulveda on injured reserve. Sepulveda, who'd been having a good year, again tore his ACL. Steelers Digest annouced the move on Twitter, indicating that Sepulveda had injured the ligament in his plant leg during practice.

To replace him, the Steelers signed Jermey Kapinos, whom the Steelers signed in 2010 after Sepulveda was injured in the December game against the Ravens.

Sepulveda also spent the 2008 season on the injured reserve list.

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Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Steelers Patriots Poll Shout Out

For those who believe, we’ll have practice here on Tuesday.” – Chuck Noll

Those were apparently Chuck Noll’s words to the team after the 1989 Steelers closed out their final game with a win against Tampa Bay. The ’89 Steelers entered the weekened needing a win and a lot of help to qualify for the playoffs.

They got most of it that Sunday afternoon, but still needed the Benglas to loose that Monday Night. Mike Browns boys complied and the rest is history.

Events, starting this Sunday against the Ravens, of course will reveal whether the Steelers win over the Patriots was historic or just a radar blip.

But that doesn’t mean that those who believed do not deserve a loud and clear shout out.

Few were predicting that the Steelers would puncture the Patriots, few except Steel Curtain Rising’s regular readers, as the poll below reveals (apologies for the blurry screen shot):

As you can see, a solid majority backed the Steelers over the Patriots. I honestly knew this game was going to be different but can claim no bragging rights because I didn’t back that up in print.

You however, my beloved readers, were less shy about declaring your faith. Kudos to you.

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Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Steelers Report Card vs. the Patriots

From the grade book of a teacher who has agnonized as his student slammed his head up against a wall time and time again, only to finally achieve success. Thus comes the Steelers report card for their 25-17 puncturing of the Patriots. As always, no other report cards were consulted prior to this posting.

Ben Roethlisberger threw 50 passes completed 36 of them for 365 yards and two touchdowns. Moreover 39 of those 50 passes were underneath, and Roethlisberger completed 79.5 percent of them according to ESPN and with Roethlisberger guiding them, the Steelers offense converted 10 of 16 first downs with a monster 39:22 time of possession. And the beauty of it is, Roethlisbeger knows he can still improve. Grade: A-

Running Backs
So the Steelers dominated time of possession by almost a two to one margin and 3 running backs totaled 21 carries? Yes, this might be a sign of things to come. But that will be OK if Rashard Mendenhall, Isaac Redman and Mewelde Moore produce continue to deliver when they get their chances. Grade: B+

Wide Receivers
Every member of the Steelers receiving corps (save for Weslye Saunders) not only caught balls, but did their part make catches that counted. This unit kept the chains moving and dominated New England’s secondary. Young Money has yet to master the shoe string catch and there were some communication miscues. Like Roethlisberger, this group can still improve and that’s the beauty of the situation. Grade: A-

Offensive Line
Heavens sake, what a difference a year makes. Last year against the Patriots seemed to collapse the left side of the Steelers offensive line at will. The offensive line gave Roethlisberger time for most of the day, and the sacks were largely Ben’s fault. The line also opened up holes for the rushers. The line could have played better in the Steelers final offensive series as well at the goal line. Grade: B+

Defensive Line
If the Steelers had developed a fundamental weakness against the run, Billy Belinick would have exploited it. As it was the Patriots totaled 53 yards rushing. Tom Brady didn’t face a ton of pressure, but he didn’t have anywhere near the time he did last year. Brett Keisel is playing like a man possessed. Grade: A-

Out go James Harrison, James Farrior, LaMarr Woodley, and in come Larry Foote, Stevenson Sylvester, and Chris Carter…. LaMarr Woodley had a dominating performance until a hamstring fell him. Larry Foote did his part to pick up the slack in the middle and was second on the team in tackles. Timmons also looked “OK.” Sylvester didn’t play much and Cater did about as well as you could expect given the circumstances. Grade: B+

My, my, my, is this the maligned unit that left Super Bowl XLV with its tail between its legs? Ike Taylor totally shut down Wes Welker, Deon Branch failed to a factor and the Steelers secondary played some aggressive press man-to-man converge to send New England’s aerial game crashing down to earth. Pittsburgh has not seen such quality secondary play the man who is not coaching them, Carnell Lake, was playing in the early 1990's with Rod Woodson and Darren Perry. Coincidence? Don't bet on it... Grade: A+

Special Teams
Shawn Sushiam’s out of bounds kick off, idiotic rule aside, could have been lethal were it not for the defense. Nonetheless his field goals gave the Steelers their margin, however the fact that he missed his fourth kick and that the coaches didn’t feel confident enough to let him kick when trying to run out the clock is a little disquieting. Grade: B-

Who was the resident genius at Heinz Field? Bruce Arians rolled out one of the best game plans he has ever produced in Pittsburgh and his players executed it almost to a T. And you can’t say enough of about the way the Dick LeBeau's defense smothered what had been the NFL’s best offense. Mike Tomlin brought it all together by getting the team to forget about “righting history” and focus on “writing history.” Grade: A+

Unsung Hero Award
The Steelers victory over the Patriots may go down as the day that the passing game established itself is the dominant modus operandi of the Steelers offense. But that should not short change the quality contributions made by the running backs. The Steelers ran economically against New England, but they it well when they needed to, and for that Rashard Mendenhall, Mewelde Moore, and Isaac Redman are the Steelers Unsung Heroes of the Patriots game.

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