´ Steel Curtain Rising: December 2011

Saturday, December 31, 2011

Antonio Brown Wins Pittsburgh Steelers 2011 MVP Award

In what amounts to a minor shock, the 2011 Pittsburgh Steelers have elected Antonio Brown as its 2011 MVP. Brown won the award despite not starting until mid-November, and not even leading the team in key receiving categories.

Brown, however, is reputed to be one of the hardest working members on the team, and has shown himself to be an incredible talent during the course of 2011. Brown is learning how to get himself open on key downs, moves well after the catch, and has some of the best hands this team has ever seen.

So congratulations to Antonio Brown.

With that said however, it is hard to argue that Brown really deserved the award, although perhaps its easy to understand how it came to him.

The 2011 Steelers are a team in flux. Veterans like Aaron Smith, Chris Hoke, Bryant McFadden, and yes, Hines Ward, are waning, and younger players are coming to the forefront.

  • 2010 Steelers MVP Troy Polamalu has had a fabulous year, but has played much of the year at the line of scrimmage, and hasn’t had the interceptions of a year ago.
  • Mike Wallace started the year off gang busters, but saw his production dip on the second half.
  • Both James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley have raised hell in opponents back fields, but both men have missed large portions of the season to injury.

The only player that really stands out is Ben Roethlisberger, whose play has been consistent throughout the year, and has shown incredible toughness in playing with injuries that would fell a lesser soul. Roethlisberger won the Steelers MVP award in 2009, and in Steel Curtain Rising's view, deserved it this year.

My guess is that the voting was spilt pretty evenly, with Brown having the fortue to come out on top.

Marcus Gilbert, James Farrior Also Honored

Second round pick Marcus Gilbert, who stepped in to start after Willie Colon’s season ended because of an injury suffered in the Debacle at Baltimore, won the 2011 Rookie of the Year Award. (Now, someone tell me, when did they stop calling it the PNC Bank Joe Greene Rookie of the Year Award? Dropping the corporate sponsorship is one thing, but Joe Greene is Joe Greene).

While Gilbert is not the only rookie to contribute – Cameron Heyward has played well as well as Cortez Allen and Curtis Brown, but Gilbert has been the most consistent.

The Pittsburgh press Corps also named James Farrior as the 2011 “Chief Award” winner, given to the member of the Steelers locker room who is most cooperative with the media.

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Steelers Current Plight No Justification for Changing NFL Playoff Format

The conversation took place on New Years Eve 1997. Ironically, it was in Cincinnati, in Clifton, on a balcony overlooking towards the city’s downtown area. The participants were myself and a good friend named Greg, and two innocent bystanders, Dave and Melanie who had zero interest in the topic at hand.

The topic was the NFL playoffs. The 1997 the Pittsburgh Steelers had secured the second seed and a first round bye in the playoffs.

The Denver Broncos had also secured a playoff berth, but as a Wild Card, by virtue of twin losses to the Kansas City Chiefs.

The Steelers were 11-5, the Broncos 12-5. My friend Greg, a Columbus native was a football fan without strong rooting loyalty. I can’t pretend to remember his exact words, but they went something like this:
I am not sure who I am going to back this year. I mean, I like the Steelers, I like Kordell Stewart, I love Bill Cowher, but I can’t shake the fact that they’ve got a first round bye that they don’t deserve.
My retort was, of course they deserve it – they’re division champions. Greg fired back, calling into question the NFL’s playoff format, going so far as to say that if the Steelers were to win the Super Bowl that year, their victory would be tainted, because they got an unjust advantage over a team with a better record.

So the argument ensued, with my friend Greg even accusing me of, what in Spanish we would say is “Double Discourso” which is to say, hypocrisy as he insisted, “Come on, you know that if the situation was reverse, and the Steelers were a wild card with a better record than a division champion, you’d be agreeing with me.”

No, I wouldn’t, I stood firm.

Well, 1997 was a long time ago (makes one feel less old to throw out the year than to calculate the number of years).

And, barring a major upset in the Queen City, the Steelers will find themselves in the very same place – having to go on the road against a division winner who has a worse record than they do.

Divisonal Play Should Mean Something

While this fact is unfortunate, especially given the Steelers tremendous difficulties on the road, I nonetheless stand pat behind the NFL’s current playoff format.

My argument then and now is simply this: If you’re going to have divisional play, division titles should mean something. In addition to fostering natural rivalries and helping the league forge an indentity, divisional play provides an excellent crucible for classifying teams.

A home playoff game is a big deal not only to the team in question, but to the community. This is particularly true for small and mid-sized markets, where a home playoff game can mean millions of more dollars for local merchants, restaurants, and hotels.

In a competitive sense, home field does provide an advantage, but not an overwhelming advantage. As there are times when a team struggles at one point during the season, gets its act together enough to qualify for a Wild Card and makes a successful run as the ’05 Steelers, ’10 Packers and ’97 Broncos did.

The two top dogs in the AFC North are the Steelers and the Ravens. Both teams are similar, both in terms of talent, style and, this year, on the field performance. Both the Steelers and the Ravens have been strong home teams, but weak road teams.

It is fitting then than the right to host a home playoff game will fall to the team that performs the best in its final game on the road.

Hopefully, although perhaps not likely, that will be the Steelers. If not, so be it, the Steelers had their shots at locking up the division without neededing help and they fell short. Everyone in the organization is well aware of that, and the NFL should not be asked to alter its playoff format as a consequence.

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Friday, December 30, 2011

Browns Game at Cleveland Stadium Gives Steelers Dress Rehearsal for Playoffs

NFL Week 17 finds Steelers Nation not focusing on Cleveland Stadium, where the Black and Gold will conclude their season, but 250 miles or so down I-71 at Paul Brown Stadium.

The reason of course is that the Cincinnati Bengals need to win to qualify for the playoffs, and to do so they conveniently need to vanquish the Baltimore Ravens, who if they lose can cede the AFC North Division championship to the Steelers.

…If the Steelers win at Cleveland, of course.

Steel Curtain Rising is certainly not looking past the Browns, a team who just two years ago gave Pittsburgh the most bitter upset of the Mike Tomlin era on the shores of Lake Eire.

But the Steelers should beat the Browns and probably will. (And if they don’t, they richly deserve whatever early playoff exit awaits them.) Given that, how the Steelers win might be just as important.

Time to Count Style Points...?

“We don’t add style points.” Mike Tomlin’s right. All of the Steelers wins and losses hold equal value. For tie breaking purposes the Debacle in Baltimore might as well have been an overtime loss decided by a safety scored with one second remaining.

True as that is, the 2011 Pittsburgh Steelers have a Dr. Jekyll-Mr. Hyde quality to them. At home they’re legitimate Super Bowl contenders. On the road they’re more like a team lucky to be at .500.

The 2011 Pittsburgh Steelers at Home

Record: 7-1
Avg. Points Scored: 25
Avg. Points Allowed: 10
Turnovers: 8
Sacks: 28

The 2011 Pittsburgh Steelers on the Road

Record: 4-3
Avg. Points Scored: 15
Avg. Points Allowed: 20
Turovers: 18
Sacks: 5

Certainly, those road numbers are a little skewed by the opener vs. Baltimore which alone counts for 40% of the turnovers. But the Steelers wins vs. the Colts and Chiefs were far like escapes than “victories.” Even the win vs. Arizona got to be a lot closer than it should have been. The Steelers pass rush on the road is a mere shadow of its Heinz Field presence.

And even in the best-case scenario, at shot at Lombardi Number Seven is going to require the Steelers to win once on the road, and quite probably 3 games. And the quarterbacks in question won’t have last names like Painter and Plako, but rather names like Palmer, Flacco and Brady.

The Steelers are sixteen games into the 2011 NFL season and they still find themselves unable to play their best ball while on the road.

Coaches are fond of saying that a team starts a new season when the playoffs begin. For the 2011 Pittsburgh Steelers to make good on that old coaching proverb, they must they must excel in the final road contest of their old one.

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Thursday, December 29, 2011

Steelers Report Card vs. the Rams

My 8th Grade World Stuides teacher Mr. Baker used to have what he called “Gimmies” meaning, I give you the assignment, you do it, and you get an ‘A.’ More often than giving ‘A’s’ Mr. Baker gave us “This was a gimme, and you blew it” brow beatings. The Steelers game the Rams amounted to the NFL’s equivalent of a “Gimmie” and the Steelers took full advantage. Here goes the Steelers Report Card for their Christmas Eve shut out of the Rams; as always no other report cards have been consulted.

Charlie Batch got his first start in well over a year, and did respectably. He evaded pressure, directed three touchdown drives, and hit 7 receivers. His interception was not “his fault,” but then he also had a couple of other near interceptions. While Batch was certainly “above the line” the Steelers 1-7 third down conversion rate brings his grade down. Grade: B

Running Backs
Rashard Mendenhall had a career game. Even if you take out his 52 yard run he still had a respectable 3.7 yard per carry average, and he was fabulous on his 35 yard catch and run. Isaac Redman ran hard on his 8 carries, and John Clay hit pay dirt on his first NFL carry. Grade: A

Wide Receivers
Mike Wallace gave a plesant reminder of why he’s one of the NFL’s most dangerous receivers. Hines Ward had four grabs as did Antiono Brown who also turned what looked to be a broken reverse/pass option play into a nice 8 yard run. Health Miller and David Johnson also got into the act. This group did well, but like Batch, they must bear some responsibility for the poor third down conversion rate. Grade: B

Offensive Line
Raise your hand if you held your breath when Doug Legursky got hurt. In spite of yet another line up change, the offensive line did well, with Jonathan Scott subbing for Marcus Gilbert, and Chris Kemoeatu returning to the starting line up without drawing attention to himself. Through it all, the pass protection remained solid and the run blocking crisp. Grade: A-

Defensive Line
Ziggy Hood had a nice stat sheet, but had difficulty in run support. Brett Kiesel had two defensed passes. Cameron Heyward got playing time on key downs. The unit did well, but their grade must nonetheless reflect Steve Jackson’s 100 yard rushing performance. Grade: B-

James Harrison was a beast, wreaking havoc in the backfield. Lawrence Timmons also made his presence known, while James Farrior and Larry Foote held up well on the inside. Jason Worilds, however was largely invisible during the game and his run support ability must improve. Still, Harrison and Timmons ability to make impact play save this unit from getting a minus attached to its letter. Grade: B

St. Louis signal caller Kellen Clemens was 37.5% pass on the day. In addition to shutting down the Ram’s passing attack, Troy Polamalu, William Gay, registered tackles for losses, while also defending passes. Keenan Lewis also had a key pass defense. An excellent outing for the Steelers secondary. Grade: A

Special Teams
Shaun Suisham nailed a 49 yard field goal when the score was only 10-0, and did well on kickoffs. Justin Kapinos boomed the ball off for a 47 yard punting average, and Antonio Brown made good on his lone kick return by bringing the ball back 30 yards. The coverage units were solid. The Steelers didn’t need any fireworks from their special teams, but got quality play all around, including a fake punt which could have given St. Louis the momentum needed to make a game of it. Grade: B+

This game went as scripted, and credit for that in large part goes to the coaches. The Steelers were playing without a number of key starters and injuries took their toll during the game, but you wouldn’t know it looking at the score board. St. Louis success at rushing the ball is the lone eye brow raiser here, but all in all Mike Tomlin and his coaching staff did a very good job. Grade: B+

Unsung Hero
Third round picks are supposed to develop into starters in today’s NFL. And the Steelers certainly had that in mind when they picked this young man. Unfortuantely, the said individual, despite multiple shots, has never been able to nail down a starting job. And maybe that’s for the best, because in his fighting to justify a roster spot year in and year out, this gentleman quietly enabled himself to bring another asset to the table – versatility.

Trai Essex will never be a stud offensive lineman in the NFL, but he’s grown into a player who can, has and does step into any of the five offensive line positions at a moment’s notice, and that versatility was on display yet again this past Sunday, and for that Trai Essex is the Unsung Hero for the Steelers victory over the St. Louis Rams.

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Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Reflections on the Steelers Win Over St. Louis

The Pittsburgh Steelers have had a checkered history playing on Christmas Eve.

In 1994, they lost a seemingly meaningless game to a San Diego Chargers team that would inflict one of the worst playoff losses in franchise history just a few weeks later.

In 1995 the Steelers, playing basically their second team, went toe-to-toe vs. the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau and came within a dropped pass of winning.

The Steelers took care of business against the Rams in fine fashion. Be very clear on one point – shutting out another NFL team is not to be taken lightly.

Yes, the Rams have one of the worst offenses in the NFL. But the Steelers did what they were supposed to – dominate the scoreboard.

This group of Pittsburgh Steelers certainly has a couple of games and, specifically one drive, that they would like to have back. They’ve won ugly at times. But they’ve avoided dropping a game to a manifestly inferior team, which is the mark of a winner.

Steve Jackson of course did gain 100 yards, and I’ll point you to Neal Coolong’s analysis of that breakdown over at Behind the Steel Curtain.

But if the lapse in the run defense is nothing to ignore, nor is it worth tying yourself up in knots over – Steve Jackson is a phenomenal rusher who has had the misfortune to be trapped on some mediocre teams.

With an eye towards the playoffs, several postives stood out:

  • James Harrison makes this defense so much better

Yours truly is of course not the first to say this (the forementioned Neal Coolong did just that), but there is no denying it. Harrison was a force as aways, despite getting held, and his presence as much as anything else contributed to forcing St. Louis to lay eggs in its Christmas stockings.

  • Mike Wallace got back to doing what he does.

Earlier in the week Ed Bouchette had chronicled on PG Plus how this season had broken down neatly in two halves for Wallace, one spectacular, the other pedestrian.

Wallace was back to spectacular Saturday vs. St. Louis. He only had 4 catches, but one of those was for 46 yards, and it iced the game.

Doing it against the Rams is one thing and doing it against New England, Oakland, and Baltimore in the post season is another. But if Sunday was a sign of the way Wallace is trending, then the Steelers can go places in the playoffs

  • Rashard Mendenhall ran like a stud.

When Mendenhall is hot, he’s among the top 6 or 7 rushers in the league. When he’s not its difficult to distinguish him from the rest.

Mendenhall simply tore it up on Sunday, both as a rusher and as a receiver, notching gains of both 35 and 52 yards. It was one of Mendenhall’s career performances, and if Mendenhall is similarly motivated in the playoffs, the Steelers will have a shot at the mountain top.

  • Charlie Batch played well

Charlie Batch did a lot of good things against St. Louis. His only interception was not his fault. He managed the game well, and took advantage of the weapons at his disposal. On the negative side, and perhaps this is why the coaches stubbornly kept Ben in vs. San Francisco, the Steelers were woeful on third down.

  • Welcome to the NFL, John Clay

Clay, according to Neal Coolong, looked bad in practice, but tearing 10 yards through the middle of the defense to score a touchdown on your first NFL touch is a good way tos start….

  • Alert - Lawrence Timmons sighting

Lawrence Timmons played well, at least in the pass pressure game, leading the team for in tackles, making two tackles for losses and registering a sack and two more QB hits. Timmons is most certainly one of the players the Steelers need to see more from in the playoffs, adding more zing to the bounce back.

Of course, unless the Steelers can learn to play better on the road, a lesson they must learn very quickly, few will remember any of the stats and trends to come out of the St. Louis game, but you can’t ask for much more than 27-0 victory on Christmas Eve performance.

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Saturday, December 24, 2011

Steelers Shut Out Rams 27-0

The Steelers closed out their home games with a resounding win over the St. Louis Rams. Like many, I had to watch the game while doing preparing for Christmas.

What else can we say, good game for the defnese, good game for Charlie Batch, good game for Mike Wallace, good game for Lawrence Timmons.

Steel Curtain Rising will be back in a few days with a complete analysis.

Until then, Merry Christmas everyone!

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Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Steelers Report Card vs. 49ers

From the grade book of a teacher whose sorely disappointed that his star pupil squandered term paper that he needed to give him a much needed cushion heading into final exams, so goes the Steelers report card for going splat against the 49ers. As always, no other grades have been consulted.

What were Ben Roethlisberger’s final numbers? Who knows. They are unimportant. The important stat that sticks out is 4 turnovers and 3 sacks. Ben Roethlisberger was playing with an injury that left him unable to deliver the deep ball, unable to evade pressure, and inaccurate much of the rest of the time. Does he deserve credit for sucking it up under such trying circumstances? Yes, and that’s what prevents his grade from being an out right failure. Grade: D

Running Backs
Rashard Mendenhall only ran for 64 yards, but he did that in just 15 carries against the NFL’s number one rushing defense. Its not his fault that the team chose to run merely 18 times on the night when their quarterback was hurting. Issac Redman seems to have played better than ESPN’s statistics note, but number don’t like. Mewelde Moore had a nice 21 yard run before he got hurt. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
Health Miller was the best player in this unit, although he should have caught the ball that ended up being Ben’s second pick – yes the ball was high. Jericho Cotchery did well late in the game. Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown also played well on a difficult night. Still, if the Steelers got good play out of their receivers, they needed exceptional play. Grade: B-

Offensive Line
The offensive line missed Maurkice Pouncey out there, but nonetheless played well. They did get called for several penalties in the second half, but those were largely academic. The unit actually gave Ben Roethlisberger decent time to throw, but Roethlisberger was unable to take advantage. Likewise, Mendenhall had room to run, but line wasn’t controlling the line of scrimmage with the kind of conviction that was necessary to control this kind of game. Grade: C+

Defensive Line
The San Francisco’s rushers didn’t dominate, but did do enough to keep drives moving. The defensive line did seem to get some pressure on Alex Smith early on, but that pressure was neither consistent nor effective down the stretch. Still, this unit gets credit for forcing two field goals early in the game. Grade: B-

Lawrence Timmons got burned repeatedly and looked nothing like the dominating player he appeared to be growing into during the first half of 2010. LaMarr Woodley was not effective. Jason Worilds was a non-factor. James Farrior got beaten badly when the Steelers could least afford it. The Steelers had no sacks and one QB knock down against a quarterback that will let you beat him if you apply enough pressure. Grade: D+

The effort of the secondary was inconsistent. Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark made key tackle after key tackle, and the Steelers kept San Francisco to 4-13 on third down conversions. Still, things could have been better had Alex Smith not missed some wide open receivers. All in all, however, the secondary’s performance was above the line. Grade: B

Special Teams
Keenan Lewis forced what should have been a potentially game changing fumble. Lawrence Timmons got called on a penalty that ultimately made the score 20-3 instead of 16 to 3. Suisham was 1-1 on long kicks – about the best you can expect. Antonio Brown made a few mistakes but put in a solid game. Special teams could have given the Steelers a spark, but it is hard to find fault with their performance. Grade: B-

Mike Tomlin coached the worst game of his professional life. Starting Ben Roethlisberger was a good move, keeping him in the game cost the Steelers a shot at home field advantage in the playoffs. Keeping him in the game was inexcusable. With Bruce Arians you have a mixed bag – throwing 44 times against the NFL’s number 1 defense is understandable, throwing 44 times with a wounded quarterback is not. Grade: F

Unsung Hero
To paraphrase Gerry Dulac’s words, there were lots of chances for someone from the Steelers defense to be a hero against the 49ers, yet that hero never materialized.

Nonetheless, on a night when the offense was struggling as bad as it has in recent memory, the defense kept the Steelers in the game deep into the fourth quarter. Absent “splash” plays, that only happens if guys are making quick, smart plays on a down-by-down basis. One man did that through the whole game, registering two tackles for losses and defensing two passes. For his consistent, productive play, Ryan Clark is Steel Curtain Rising's unsung hero of the 49ers game.

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Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Steelers Go SPLAT in San Francisco, Squander Opportunity

As coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Mike Tomlin has steadfastly deflected credit for his player’s accomplishments. “Coaches simply put players in position to make plays” is one variation of Tomlin’s oft repeated mantra.

The Pittsburgh Steelers had a golden opportunity to leap ahead of Baltimore and New England by beating the San Francisco 49ers.

Taking advantage of that opportunity involved many factors, but none bigger than the decision to play Ben Roethlisberger or not.

  • Tomlin mishandled that decision.

“Mishandled,” is generous, Mike Tomlin perhaps made his worst decision in almost 5 years as the Steelers head coach.

Meet Ben Roethlisberger, The Mortal

Ben Roethlisberger is the toughest quarterback in the NFL. Ben’s toughness is both physical and mental. Ben’s ability to excel in the face of injury is legendary, from the Jacksonville game in 2008 all the way to his performance on Thursday night two weeks ago, is legendary.

Ben Roethlisberger is one of the great gamers in league history. And if the medical staff cleared him to play, and if the coaches thought he’d shown enough in practice, then Mike Tomlin made the right decision in start him.

  • It is one thing decide start a wounded quarterback, it is another thing to stubbornly stick to that decision.

And in Yoda speak, stubborn stick Mike Tomlin did.

Yes, the Steelers moved the ball well against the 49ers. But the Ben Roethlisberger interceptions killed the first two drives, which offered promise. That alone should have jolted Tomlin towards considering a switch.

The end of the first half should have clarified the need to switch. Down only by 6, the Steelers had a chance to get on the board.

  • But Ben Roethlisberger was too injured to run the hurry up offense.

During the second half there were numerous times when Ben attempted to evade passers in the way that only he can do, and nearly all of those times he either took a sack, threw the ball away, or couldn’t deliver it to his receivers.

The Steelers have one of the deepest quarterbacking bull pens in the NFL. (No, they do not have the Joe Montana-Steve Young tag team that the 49ers had in the late ‘80’s, but then again, who does?)

But Charlie Batch is 4-2 as a starter and Dennis Dixon is 2-1 as a starter. Why not play one?

If Charlie Batch shouldn’t have started the second half for the Steelers (and he should have) then he certainly should have gone in the game as soon as the 49ers went up 13 to 3 late in the third quarter, making the game a two-score contest.

The Steelers needed to get on the board twice. Shaun Suisham is a crap shoot, and Roethlisberger wasn’t leading any quick strike offense. Yet, Tomlin stuck with Roethlisberger.

Almost on queue, the next series played out like this:

  • Ben Roethlisberger took the Steelers from their 20 to the San Fran 30, where they ran once for no gain, threw two incompletion, and Suisham missed a 48 yarder
  • The defense, responded, forcing a 49ers 3 and out

By this point the 4th quarter had begun with Roethlisberger still under center.

  • After moving the Steelers from the 8 to the 28, Ben Roethlisberger suffered a strip-sack.

That gave the ball to San Fran at the 17 and 6 plays and, get this -- a leaping penalty on Lawrence Timmons – later, they went up 20-3.

Scoring 17 points in 9 minutes in the 4th quarter on the road in the NFL is difficult but possible. But it is pure fantasy when your quarterback can’t throw beyond 15 yards and takes 30 seconds to get down field after a gain of more than 10 yards.

Yet Tomlin refused to put in Charlie Batch, which only served to subject Ben Roethlisberger to even more punishment.

A Word About the Steelers Defense

The Steelers defense has played better. Lawrence Timmons confirmed himself as 2011’s tremendous disappointment. LaMarr Woodley was inconsistent and ineffective. The Steelers needed something special from its defense, and did not get it from Troy Polamalu or any of the emerging players in the secondary.

But the defense only allowed 20 points against a San Francisco offense that benefited from 4 turnovers and started drives at its 27, 38, 47 and 47 yard lines in addition to starting two others at Pittsburgh’s 45 and 17 yard lines.

A “splash” play or two from Pittsburgh’s defense could have been a difference maker, and none was forthcoming. Considering the load they were asked to carry, coming down too hard on the defense is unfair.

Just Down or Down and Out?

The Steelers squandered a tremendous opportunity against San Francisco. Players take their cue from their leaders, and Ben’s slow, wounded and ineffective performance set the tone for the rest of the troops.

The 49ers game had a make or break feel to it.

  • The question now is this loss devastating enough to take the wind out of the Steelers sails?

The answer lies with Mike Tomlin. His stubborn refusal to switch quarterbacks cost his team a chance to dramatically alter the AFC playoff calculus in their favor.

With Pittsburgh back to facing Wild Card status, Tomlin’s challenge is to find a way to coax road wins out of a team that plays far better at home.

In meeting that challenge Mike Tomlin must prove to be more flexibile than he was Monday night vs. the 49ers.

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Tomlin Chokes on Roethlisberger Decision, Steelers Lose to 49ers

It's 3:00 am here in Buenos Aires. Thank God for the use or lose vacation day I am taking on Tuesday. We'll have more in the morning here is my quick take, and it ain't pretty:

Steel Curtain Rising is a Mike Tomlin fan. Steel Curtain Rising is on record saying it is tantamount to a crime that he's never gotten serious consideration for NFL coach of the year. Beyond that, Steel Curtain Rising:

But Mike Tomlin perhaps saw his worst night of coaching vs. the San Francisco 49ers. Ben Roethlisberger wanted to play, and Tomlin wanted to play him. That's easy to understand. Tomlin decided to give it a shot. No argument here. When things got rough, Mike Tomlin refused to give into knee-jerk reactions. All well and good.

If one concedes that Ben showed enough to be given a chance to make a go of it, one can also argue about when Ben Roethlisberger should have been taken out.

But there is no disputing "IF" Ben Roethlisberger should have been taken out.

The Steelers have invested heavily, if in terms of decision making if not acutal money and salary cap space, in quarterbacking bull pen. Charlie Batch and Dennis Dixon are there for a reason.

In fact, Charlie Batch is 4-2 in relief of Ben, having won against some long odds.

By the middle of the third quarter the game was still quite winnable for Pittsburgh, it was clear that Ben Roethlisberger did not give them their best chance to win.

As the second half wore on the need for a miracle became more and more apparent, and it was more and more apparent that Ben was not going to deliver that miracle. Worse yet, with no need to fear the run the 49ers brought a heavy pass rush, and Ben absorbed more and more punishment -- how his ankle cannot be worse after tonight is beyond me.

Mike Tomlin is an excellent coach who inspires his men, commands their respects, and knows how to win football games.

But on this night Tomlin had a key decision to make, and he made the wrong decision.

Standing behind your man is one thing, being constant as the North Star is another, and Mike Tomlin's obstinacy very well may have cost the Steelers the AFC North.

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Monday, December 19, 2011

Steelers at Make Or Break vs. 49er's?

If you haven't read Neal Coolong's article on Behind the Steel Curtain the Steeler-49er's match up yet, go do so now.

His point is that the Ravens loss to the Chargers means nothing if the Steelers do not win.

He's right. Now is the time when the true contenders seperate themselves from the Pack.

While it might be going out on a limb to say that tonights game is make or break for the Steelers, the blunt truth of the matter winning this game, and taking care of business in the next to weeks, makes it infintely more plausable that the Steelers can successfully trek the road that ends in Lombardi Number Seven.

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Steelers Make Playoffs, Shot at AFC North Championship Open...

The Pittsburgh Steelers qualified for the NFL's 2011 playoffs by virtue of the Tennessee Titans loss to the Colts. But that was not the only early Christmas present that the Steelers got.

The San Diego Chargers defeat of the Baltimore Ravens gives the Steelers a shot at the AFC North Championship.

While that is a welcome development, it also sharpens Mike Tomlin's dilemma -- Does he start Ben Roethlisberger and give his team a better shot at beating the San Francisco 49ers, or does he rest Roethlisberger to ensure that he's at full health for the playoffs?

During game days, Mike Tomlin rarely coaches scared, and he is already on record as saying that the Steelers are optimistic that Roethlisberger will play.

Regardless, the Steelers have their work cut out for them as the rejuvenated San Francisco 49ers are playing at home with their own fish to fry -- a shot at a first round bye in the NFC playoffs.

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Saturday, December 17, 2011

Pittsburgh Steelers vs. San Francisco 49ers History

The Pittsburgh Steelers and the San Francisco 49ers. The Steelers represented the Gold Standard for excellence in the 1970’s and the 49ers dominated the 1980’s. Time of course robbed history for a definitive match up between Titans of separate decades.

Nonetheless, the two franchises have played some memorable games, which we recount here. Click on the links below to relive a specific game, or simply scroll down to read them all.

1984, Chuck Noll & Mark Malone vs. Bill Walsh & Joe Montana I
1987, Chuck Noll & Mark Malone vs. Bill Walsh & Joe Montana II
1990, Rod Woodson vs. Jerry Rice I/YES, Kickoffs ARE Live Balls, Mr. Foster
1993, Rod Woodson vs. Jerry Rice II
1996, You Can’t Spot the 49ers 16 Points
1999, The Solar Flare, Before a TOTAL Eclipse
2003, Tommy Gun Misfires
2007, Make that 3-0 for Mike Tomlin...

Chuck Noll & Mark Malone vs. Bill Walsh & Joe Montana I"
Steelers 20, 49ers 17; October 14, 1984, Candlestick Park

Is there a more celebrated Steelers victory of the 1980’s? Who can say, but no matter what, this game nearly tops the list. The year was 1984, and the 49ers were steamrolling the league. In fact, were it not for one game, the 49ers would have been perfect.

This would be the first time that the duo of Chuck Noll and Mark Malone would square off against Bill Walsh and Joe Montana, and this game shows you why we play games instead of leaving the contest to Madden-like computer simulations. The Steelers matched San Fran with tough defense with smart ball control to keep the 49ers off balance the entire day, and in the process added the lone blemish to the 49ers would-be perfect season.

Chuck Noll & Mark Malone vs. Bill Walsh & Joe Montana II
Steelers 30, 49ers 17; September 13th, 1987, Three Rivers Stadium

Joe Montana finished the 1987 season with a 102.1 passer rating. Mark Malone finished the 1987 season with a 46.6 passer rating. And although Montana did outplay Malone on this fateful day, it wasn’t enough.

Rookie cornerback Delton Hall, linebacker Mike Merriweather, and veteran cornerback Dwayne Woodruff all picked off Montana’s passes. Delton Hall, who won the Steelers rookie of the year award only to fade, opened the game with a 50 yard fumble return to put the Steelers up by 7. Mark Malone only completed 9 of 33 passes, but one of those was for a touchdown to tight end Preston Gothard (who?). Ernest Jackson, Walter Abercrombie, Frank Pollard, Harry Newsome teamed to rush for 184 yards and a rookie named Merril Hoge caught his first NFL pass for 27 yards.

  • With this win, Chuck Noll passed his mentor (and Walsh's mentor) Paul Brown on the NFL's all time win list

Rod Woodson vs. Jerry Rice I/YES, Kickoffs ARE Live Balls, Mr. Foster
49ers 27, Steelers 7; October 21st, 1990, Candlestick Park

The 49ers entered the game at 6-0 looking every bit the team en route to a 3 peat, while Pittsburgh entered with a 3-3 record, looking every bit like the team suffering from a hangover following the Steelers storybook 1989 season.

Joe Montana was on fire that year, but the Steelers came with a secret weapon – the NFL’s number one defense that had only given up 3 touchdown passes in 6 games. The Steelers felt they could win this game, if only they could avoid mistakes….

…And mistakes the Steelers made. Although Rod Woodson and Thomas Everett intercepted Montana twice, Joe Walton’s offense failed to capitalize. Barry Foster ‘forgot’ that uncaught kickoffs are live balls, setting up an easy San Fran TD, and a Charles Haley strip sack of Bubby Brister set up another. A 49er’s interception would stop any chance of a Pittsburgh comeback.

  • In their first face off, Rod Woodson held Jerry Rice to 3 catches for just 31 yards.

Rod Woodson vs. Jerry Rice II
49ers 24, Pittsburgh 13; September 5th, 1993, Three Rivers Stadium

After taking the league by storm in 1992, the NFL scheduled what was to be one of their marquee match ups of opening day by pitting the Steelers vs. the 49ers on opening day at Three Rivers Stadium. With Neil O’Donnell on the sidelines with tendonitis during the first half the 49ers built up a 17-3 lead.

Neil O’Donnell came off the bench to get Pittsburgh back in the game narrowing the score to 17-13, before Steve Young connected with Brent Jones for a touchdown, making the Steelers regret that Chuck Noll cut tight end whose sin was to be a better pass catcher than run blocker.

  • In his second match up with Rice, Rod Woodson held him to just 78 yards, but 2 of Rice's 8 catches were for touchdowns…

You Can’t Spot the 49ers 16 Points (and Expect to Win)
49ers 25, Steelers 15; December 15th, 1996, Three Rivers Stadium

It was a tricky time for the Steelers. Already with 10 wins and the division title in the bag, a first round playoff bye remained in their grasp…

…But Mike Tomzack was faltering as the team’s starter, and injuries had ravaged the team all season. The Steelers gave up a quick touchdown, and then a safety to spot the 49ers 9 points. If memory serves, another turnover set up the 49ers next score, putting the Steelers in the hole 16-0.

The Steelers rebounded scoring 15 with touchdowns from Jerome Bettis and Kordell Stewart. But it was not enough as the 49ers also scored a Terrell Owens touchdown and kicked a field goal.

  • In their final match up, Rod Woodson again held Jerry Rice under 100 yards, although Rice did score a touchdown with one of his 8 catches.

Solar Flare, Before a Total Eclipse
Steelers 27, 49ers 6; November 7, 1999, Candlestick Park

After watching the 49ers both beat them 3 straight times and beat them to one for the thumb this was supposed to be the one that Steelers fans had been waiting for. And on paper it was. The Steelers jumped to a 17-3 first half lead on the strength of Jerome Bettis and Hines Ward touchdowns and a field goal. The Steelers dominated the score board winning the game 27-3.

After a 2-3 start, the Steelers had now won 3 straight to improve to 5-3. All looked well but… the 49ers Charlie Garner rushed for 166 yards. The following week Kordell Stewart’s fumbled snap led to the upset at the hands of the expansion Browns.

  • The ensuring quarterback controversy would dominate the news, but the failing defense, as Joel Steed’s knees gave way, was one of the under reported stories of the Steelers 1999 meltdown.

Tommy Gun Misfires
49ers 30, Steelers 27; November 17, 2003, Candlestick Park

Tommy Maddox had been the 2003 version of Tebowmania having gone from out of football, to the XFL, to resurrecting the Steelers 2002 season. Alas, 2003 was not as kind to Maddox, as the Steelers pass defense struggled, injuries decimated the offensive line, and Cover 2 defenses frustrated Maddox. The ’03 Steelers had gone 2-1 before losing five straight. By the time they were 2-6 they mounted the “win a game, lose a game” see-saw.

Unfortunately, the Steelers trip to San Francisco came on the downside of that see-saw. San Francisco opened a 14-0 lead at the end of the first half, and the Steelers feigned making go at it by scoring the first touchdown in the second half, but the 49ers would score 20 unanswered points until Tommy Maddox hooked up with Randel El for a final, face saving touchdown.

Make that 3-0 for Mike Tomlin...
Steelers 37, 49ers 15; September 23, 2007, Heinz Field

Just two weeks earlier Steelers Nation had no idea about what to make of Mike Tomlin, the man who leapfrogged Russ Grimm to succeed Bill Cowher. By the time the 49ers arrived at Heinz Field, Tomlin was already 2 and 0 and notched his third win at San Francisco’s expense.

What stands out when looking at the stat sheet is that role players made all of the splash plays for the Steelers that day. Allen Rosseum got his 15 minutes of fame as a Steeler with a 98 yard kickoff return for a touchdown. Jerame Tuman caught the only touchdown pass, and Najeh Davenport ran for 39 yard touchdown, while Bryant McFadden had a 50 yard pick six.

On defense the story was a little different, as then starter Bryant McFadden had a 50 yard pick six and veteran James Farrior and rookie LaMarr Woodley both sacked Alex Smith.

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Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Roger Goodell Suspends James Harrison

"Justice is blind."

It is a principle that has guided western jurisprudence for millennia. “All men are bad judges in their own cases” wrote James Madison in Federalist Number 10. Madison was right of course. When deciding between what is just and what is unjust it is near impossible to divorce oneself from self-interest.

So we insulate judges from the political process. We try people with anonymous juries. Parties are represented in courts by professional advocates with a limited personal stake in the outcome. The system of blind justice, while imperfect, has served western civilization well.

Over the last several years evidence has mounted on the disastrous, long-term impact that concussions and repeated head trauma can have an NFL player. The NFL took note, encouraged players to keep a watchful eye on their teammates, put posters up in locker rooms, and prohibited players from returning to games after suffering concussions.

But on the field things continued as normal. That is, until October 6, 2010. The big news that weekend was not the return of Ben Roethlisberger, but two hits by James Harrison.

Those hits led NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to implement an arbitrary policy aimed at cracking down on hard hits, particularly hits to the head.

And he made James Harrison his whipping boy, fining him a record $125,000 dollars. The record reflects that the first several fines that James Harrison drew did not even warrant flags on the field.

Harrison did himself no favors, admitting that while he never sought to injure a fellow player, he did seek to inflict pain. There’s a fine line between the two, particularly when you’re talking about 250-300 pound men running at each other at full speed.

Whether Harrison knew it or not he was throwing the gauntlet down to the NFL, and Roger Goodell and his lackey Ray Anderson were only too happy to pick it up. The James Harrison fine fest began.

The Steelers stood by James Harrison. Art Rooney II was clear that he had no problem with protecting against helmet-to-helmet hits: Rooney's quibble was with the way the league was changing the rules in mid-season.

Rooney was right of course. He also might have added that Goodell’s enforcement of his 2010 seat-of-the-pants helmet-to-helmet hit policy was arbitrary. Referees started throwing flags for love taps on quarterbacks, at the request of the Tom Brady and Peyton Mannings of the league and, on the flip side, fines started being awarded for plays that no one even thought warranted a flag.

Clarified Rules, Fuzzy Enforcement

The NFL did clarify his rules and procedures aimed at of minimizing head trauma. This is completely the right thing to do, as head trauma could do to the NFL what an incoherent Muhammad Ali did for pro boxing.

Nonetheless, enforcement has been spotty.

In 2011 the NFL has issued ticky tacky fines, reasonable and justified ones, but turned a blind eye to other helmet-to-helmet hits, such as the one James Harrison suffered in Houston. (Interestingly enough, no You Tube video of that hit seems to be available – could it be that the NFL PR people don’t want people to know that all helmet-to-helmet hits are equal, but some helmet-to-helmet hits are more equal...?)

Precedent Breaking Suspension

James Harrison, for all his bravado, has altered his style of play this season, and going into the Browns game he had not been flagged for a helmet-to-helmet hit.

In suspending Harrison, the NFL cited his past history dating back to 2009, and clarified that players had been informed they were not entering 2011 with a clean slate.

Yet, as Neal Coolong of Behind the Steel Curtain documented, several other players with a past history have been guilty of far more blatant violations of the helmet-to-helmet hits. Worse yet, players like Richard Seymour continue to punch people out post whistle hits, and continue to draw smaller fines than ones levied for actions taken in the heat of a game.

The Harrison suspension is without precedent.

The last NFL player to be suspended* for a pre-whistle illegal tackle on a quaterback was Charles Martin. Look at the video for yourself (available as of 12/13/11 – not sure how long before the NFL’s lawyers force YouTube to take this down).

A couple of things stand out:

  • Jim McMahon had clearly released the ball before being hit
  • Charles Martin knew McMahon had thrown the ball
  • McMahon had his back to the rusher
  • Martin not only had time to stop, but adjusted his momentum to deliver a late hit

For this Martin got suspended two games.

Now, look at James Harrison’s offense (video available as of 12/13/11):

Let's make a few points

  • Colt McCoy had clearly tucked the ball and was running
  • McCoy was facing Harrison
  • Harrison began his tackle while McCoy was still a runner
  • McCoy tossed the ball away at the last moment

No one can argue that Harrison did not lead with the helmet. But that is legal against an open field runner (whether it should be is different question).

You can say that Harrison should have adjusted his strike zone, given that when it comes to quarterbacks, the burden of proof is on the defender. Ok, but unlike Martin, can you reasonably say that Harrison had time to alter his actions when it was clear that McCoy was going to throw the ball?

Regardless, there is no way anyone can argue that Harrison’s act was anywhere near as malicious as Charles Martin’s was 25 years ago.

Eye on Harrison’s Explosion

James Harrison doesn’t say much, but when he does speak, words explode from his mouth. This past off season Harrison took NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to task in an interview with Paul Solotaroff.

Later, the Solotaroff confirmed that Harrison was merely saying on the record what scores of other NFL players were too timid to publicly.

Harrison’s comments went public while the lockout was on, and Roger Goodell could do little to act, and when the lockout ended, Goodell issued no punishment.

One wonders why?

Is it too much to surmise that Goodell simply sat quiet and bided his time until James Harrison gave him an excuse to get even?

There’s no way to prove that of course, but it would be equally hard to disprove the fact that, far from being blind, in the NFL justice is guided by the selective gaze of Goodell’s eye.

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Monday, December 12, 2011

From Black to Gold: A Pittsburgh Steelers Transformation

From Black to Gold

The title feigns simplicity. At a glance one quickly concludes that Tim Gleason’s 260 page volume simply covers everything Steelers, from Black to Gold.

But From Black to Gold tells a more profound story, lending its title deeper significance.

Perhaps it’s appropriate then that I read the book on a trip to Uruguay that included a day in Piriapolis, the city founded by Francisco Piria the New World’s most famous Alchemist.

Why you ask?
  • Because medieval Alchemists sought to turn lead into gold.
While Gleason never mentions Alchemy, he might as well have, because one of the most remarkable transformations in sports history – the metamorphosis of the Pittsburgh Steelers from a 40 year perennial loser into North America’s most prestigious professional sports franchise is From Black to Gold’s tale.

He Knows Enough to Write a Book…

How often do we hear, “So-and-So knows enough to write a book…”? Perhaps no one ever told Gleason that, but he separated himself from the pack by having the guts to go out and self-publish his own book on the Pittsburgh Steelers.

I first found Gleason’s work, under the pseudonym of Mary Rose, on Behind the Steel Curtain, one of the net’s best, if not simply the best fan-based Steelers sites (full disclosure, I am an occasional contributor to BTSC.)

Mary Rose first caught my attention with a retelling of the Rocky Blier story that was at once fresh and engaging. Since then he’s told and retold many stories of Steelers Nation in prose that always captivates.

If you seek an example look no futher than his article on the Immaculate Reception. All of us know the story, but the hair on everyone’s neck will stand straight up by the time you’re done with Gleason’s rendition.

The quality of Gleason’s writing in From Black to Gold is perhaps a smidge bit below the standard he sets for himself at Behind the Steel Curtain, but he did not alter his style explaining, “I only know how to write one way, so whatever and wherever I write, it’s pretty much the same style,” although he does concede that “There is a difference in the way you write based upon the subject matter.”

All of which simply means that prose of From Black to Gold is good or very good, and it is certainly well above the watered-down mushy middle schoolesque writing that plagues too many sports books.

Pittsburgh’s Story. The Steelers Story. Our Story.

The Pittsburgh Steelers count themselves as one of the NFL’s most storied franchises, anchored by a wide-spread and fiercely loyal fan base. Steelers Nation faces no shortage of reading material. A simple search for “Steelers Books” on Amazon.com brings back 468 results.
  • Storytellers have spun and re-spun the yarns that comprise the Steelers 79 years countless times.
Gleason follows in step, telling stories of World War II’s Stegals, Johnny Unitas getting cut, Jack Lambert’s confrontation with Chuck Noll over a short-lived health-food kick one summer at St. Vincents, and the all-important inclusion of Bill Nunn Sr. into the Steelers scouting department.
  • What then, sets From Black to Gold apart?
From Black to Gold stands apart from other Steelers literature because Tim Gleason narrates it with his own voice.

The first rule they teach in Journalism 101 is “Never Make Yourself Part of the Story.” Tim Gleason breaks this rule with relish throughout From Black to Gold.

Into each of the Steelers well-trod stories, Gleason weaves tales from his life, and that of his family. Don’t be fooled. Not all of these anecdotes end happily. In fact, one of the Steelers greatest moments, perhaps the franchise’s pivotal play, happened just two weeks after his family suffered a terrible tragedy.

But if you’re reading this, you’ll understand how that lends Gleason’s narrative both depth and authenticity. The Steelers hold great importance for all of us, and key moments in Steelers history not only remind us of our Beloved Black and Gold’s glories or failures but also serve as touchstones for remembering personal aspects of our lives that happened to coincide with events on the gridiron.

For example, Gleason shares how watching the late John Henry Johnson upset the mighty 1964 Cleveland Browns served as a key bonding moment between him and his father.

A generation later, he tells of how his daughter Mary Rose grew into a natural affinity for the Steelers, and he relives how watching the Steelers shocking upset of the Colts in the 2005 playoffs served as an important bonding moment between him and his daughter.

Such stories bring back my own memories, such as my 79 year old Argentine father-in-law staying up late in solidarity to watch Super Bowl XL, his first American football game. As nice as that was, it paled to the richness of enjoying the glory of Super Bowl XLIII in Buenos Aires with my Argentine wife. Likewise, the back injury my wife suffered while in Brazil during Super Bowl XLV left me with no need to be reminded that “it was just a football game.”

Fresh Insights Gleamed from Old Stories

From Black to Gold goes beyond simply repackaging the Steelers experience from Gleason’s view point. Very few will fail to learn something new while reading it.

Do you know why players like Len Dawson and Earle (Greasy) Neal get listed (in lower case letters) as part of the Steelers Hall of Fame contingent while Bobby Layne of Detroit Lions glory joins Joe Greene-John Stallworth et. al. in all upper case letters?

For decades I’d seen this in Steelers Media guides, and figured that some over zealous Steelers PR guy pulled a fast one by in claiming Layne was one of their own. Alas I was wrong, and I learned why reading Gleason’s book.

People under 40, such me, likely grew up needing to be convinced that the Steelers were atrocious during their first 4 decades. Could things have been different? Gleason convincingly making the case for a baker’s dozen of could have, would have, should have been history changers in a poignant chapter titled “If Only They Had Stayed.”

Everyone knows the story of Myron Cope’s Terrible Towel, and how proceeds of it sales benefit a home for the developmentally disabled in Western Pennsylvania. All of us have our superstitions about both how to use this talisman for greatest effect, as well as excusing it in the face of inconvenient truths.

But do you know why opposing players might really want to think twice about abusing the Terrible Towel? Gleason spins a yarn of players who’ve abused the golden towel at their own peril – the record is so consistent that it’s hard to write these off as mere coincidence.

Believe it or not, men whose names were not Noll, Cowher or Tomlin did once coach the Steelers. Gleason goes to the trouble of rating the seven of them who lasted more than a season – the only such rating I know of in existence.

Gleason devotes a chapter to stories on how he acquired a memorabilia/autograph collection that would be the envy of any Steelers fan. He’s got two Steelers helmets, one Black, one Gold, adorned by autographs of everyone from a member of the Steelers first squad in 1933 to players who started in Super Bowl XLV.

A Personal Primer on the Pittsburgh Steelers

From Black to Gold exemplifies the fact that you can tell a complete and compelling story in just a few words. Gleason begins his tale by recounting his meeting with Ray Kemp, the first African American NFL player and a member of the inaugural 1933 Pittsburgh Pirates squad, and then Gleason takes the reader through to the end of the first decade of the 21st century.

If Gleason’s book is complete, it is not all-inclusive. It contains very little on the Steelers of the ‘80’s, a period about which I was hoping to learn more.

Likewise material from the 1990’s is surprisingly thin, especially when one considers this was a decade where Pittsburgh returned to contender status. This represents a deliberate decision by Gleason as he explains “but I didn’t want to give equal time just to give equal time. There really was no correlation between the team being good and the amount of ink I used.”

Those who cut their teeth as Steelers fans during the Cowher-power inspired renaissance of the 1990’s will likely quibble that Gleason did not rank the Alfred Papunu AFC Championship loss more prominently on his list of playoff heart breaks.

While Gleason empathizes to some degree, he reminds us that the ’95 49ers team won the Super Bowl that year explaining: “For some reason, knowing that San Francisco would be the next opponent, that loss didn’t hurt as much as some others.”

While From Black to Gold is many ways a first-person story told by Gleason, he meticously researched the book admitting “My memory gets distorted with time. It was amazing how many things were a bit different than what I remembered.”

Beyond his own research, Gleason shares that he sent a manuscript to be vetted by the man he calls Mr. Steeler aka Dick Hoak, and was impressed that the only error Hoak found in 80,000 words was the fact it was in Palm Springs, and not in San Diego, that Frank Sinatra enjoyed his induction into Franco’s Italian Army.

A number of good Steelers history books have hit the market over the past few years. Dan Rooney’s self-titled autobiography and Art Rooney Jr. Ruanaidh provide an excellent inside view. The Ones Who Hit the Hardest by Chad Millman and Shawn Coyne tells many of same Steelers stories from the ground up.

From Black to Gold covers much of the same ground, but does in a way that allows it to serve as an almost personalized primer on Pittsburgh Steelers history, making it must read for every serious Steelers fan.

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Sunday, December 11, 2011

James Harrison to Be Suspended?

Neal Coolong of Behind the Steel Curtain is sharing a report from ESPN that the NFL is considering a "1 to 2 game suspension" for James Harrison's helmet-to-helmet hit on Cleveland Browns quarterback Colt McCoy.

You can see a replay of the hit itself.

The fact that Harrison made helmet-to-helmet contact is inarguable.

McCoy of course had been running with the ball tucked, and then tossed it out at the last moment. NFL rules stat, however, that in those situations the burden is on the defender, not the quarterback.

Ealier, Bob Smizik of the Post-Gazette cited a Mike Florio article that at least in principle argued merits that Harrison might be innocent. Later, Smizik cited another Florio article that indicated the NFL was indeed planning to punish Harrison.

That Harrison would get a stiff fine from the NFL seems to be an accepted fact, but the ESPN report is the first to suggest that a suspension is in the works.

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Seeing Ourselves in this Pittsburgh Dad Video

The secret behind the success of the ground-breaking show All in the Family wasn't simply in the fact that the show dared to go where others hand not gone, but rather that it played on cultural sterotypes so well that the audience got a chance to laugh at itself.

I won't put this video up on the same plane as All in the Family, but I have no doubt that if you're reading this, you'll get a chance to see a little of yourself.


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Friday, December 9, 2011

Steelers Report Card vs. Browns at Heinz Field

The Steelers Thrusday Night matchup was not shown here in Buenos Aires, so we'd like to thank Tony Defeo for doing this week's report card. You can read Tony's work regularly on Behind the Steel Curtain.

What more can be said about Ben Roethlisberger? Just when we all thought he couldn't enhance his reputation as one of the toughest players in the league, he outdoes himself by returning to play in the second half after leaving late in the first half with a very serious ankle injury. I thought Roethlisberger played a great game, and if not for the injury and many miscues by his teammates, may have had an even more impressive night than his line of 16/21 for 280, two touchdown passes and an interception. Grade: A-

Antonio Brown and Company were making it look like it was going to be an easy game of Pitch and Catch between them and Roethlisberger over the better part of the first two drives to start the game. But then two reliable veterans--Hines Ward and Heath Miller--fumbled the football away on successive trips inside the red zone and it seemed to take the zip out of the passing game at that point, and it was a while before things got back on track. All-in-all, though, a solid performance by the receivers as a whole. Roethlisberger and Mike Wallace haven't connected on a deep ball in a while, but I believe Wallace's presence is the best thing to happen to the development of the other young receivers. Brown had 5 catches for 151 yards and salted things away with his 79 yard touchdown catch and run with under three minutes left. Grade: B.

Running Backs
On paper, the running backs did OK if not great last night against the league's 31st ranked rush defense -- Mendenhall, Redman and Moore rushed for a combined 126 yards on 26 carries--but there were those four stuffs of Mendenhall from inside the two yard line early in the 4th quarter. Mendenhall is normally a pretty decent goal line back, but he was running too straight up and down during that critical sequence of plays. It's hard to say what may have happened if Mendenhall would have had some early cracks at the goal line, but thanks to those red zone turnovers, we never got to find out. Grade: C

Offensive line
The running game averaged 4.6 yards a carry, and Roethlisberger was only sacked one unfortunate costly time--and it was a coverage sack--but the group didn't get a great push on the infamous goal line failure (not all the blame was on Mendenhall's straight up style), and those penalties, man, they were drive killers. Marcus Gilbert had two false start penalties, and Chris Kemoeatu was a real buzz kill with two holding penalties and a hands to the face infraction. Just when it looked like the coaching staff had finally had enough of Kemoeatu, Maurkice Pouncey suffered a high ankle sprain, and now, it looks like the staff may have to deal with Kemo's undisciplined style for at least a couple of games. Grade: D+

Defensive Line
The Browns had some success rushing in the first half (mostly on a 28 yard draw play on 3rd and 20), but things settled down in the second half, and Cleveland really couldn't get much going on offense. I thought Cam Heyward played a solid game while filling in for an injured Ziggy Hood. Bottom line, the Browns only rushed for 98 yards, and the defense had two pretty impressive stands at the beginning and the end of the game, so things couldn't have been too bad up front. Grade: B.

There was the good: Larry Foote and James Farrior combined to stop Peyton Hills on 4th and goal on Cleveland's first drive of the game, and Jason Worilds recorded two sacks while filling in for Lamarr Woodley. There was the bad: Lawrence Timmons looked very outclassed while covering Browns' tight end Evan Moore on his 33 yard catch on the first drive of the game. And then there was the ugly: James Harrison and James Farrior were both flagged for personal fouls committed on Colt McCoy. There was enough good stuff to outweigh the bad, but I'd hate to think what the results may have been with a more experienced quarterback. Grade: C+

Troy Polamalu recorded his first interception of the year, and for the second time in the last four games, William Gay made a crucial interception when he picked off McCoy in the end zone. I can't ignore the fact that the NFL Network pointed out Polamalu gambling and being out of position a couple of times, but you have to take the good with the bad with number 43, and I never got the sense that McCoy was ever fully capable of exploiting the unit. Grade: B

Special Teams
Nothing to write home about, and maybe that's a good thing. The Steelers were unable to return a punt the entire game, mainly due to Cleveland's punter doing a great job of angling his kicks deep and out of bounds, but Joshua Cribbs was barely heard from all night, and to me, that's the most important part. Grade: C

Didn't notice any real coaching errors, and when your franchise quarterback is hobbled, your Pro Bowl center is out with a high ankle sprain, and your young defensive end must leave the game with a groin injury, sometimes you just have to survive and get out of dodge with a win. I didn't even have a problem with Tomlin going for it on 4th down early in the 4th quarter. I know the Steelers didn't make it, but I wasn't too worried about the Browns mounting any kind of serious offense from their own one yard line. Grade: C+

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Thursday, December 8, 2011

Steelers-Browns Game Not Shown in Buenos Aires...

As expected, neither Direct TV, nor ESPN, nor FOX are showing the Steelers-Browns game in Buenos Aires.

Domestically the game is being shown by the NFL Network. The NFL's quest to forced cable providers to carry the NFL Network makes their strategy of making a number of games exclusively avaiable on the NFL Network quite logical.

But what sense does it make outside the United States?

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Chris Hoke, Jonathan Dwyer Go On IR

The Pittsburgh Steelers made two roster moves today in advance of their Thursday night game vs. the Browns, one expected, the other a surprise.

As expected, the Steelers placed reserve nose tackle Chris Hoke on injured reserve, ending his season and perhaps his career. Hoke suffered a stinger ealier in the year, and has not played since.

The other moved was to place reserve running back Jonathan Dwyer on IR, ending his season as well. Dwyer was injured in the Steelers victory over Cincinnati, and the move comes as a surprise.

To take their roster spots, the Steelers activated linebacker Mortty Ivy and safety Damon Cromartie-Smith. Those moves leave the Steelers with three lone running backs on their roster, Rashard Mendenhall, Isaac Redman, and Mewelde Moore.

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Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Steelers Report Card vs the Bengals at Heinz Field

Steelers Report Card vs. Bengals at Heinz Field

A report card from the grade book of a teacher who really wonders (and hopes) that his pupils can go from slacking off to hitting their stride in the very week that they enter the home strech. Here goes the Steelers report card for their victory over the Bengals. As always, no other reports were consulted.

Ben Roethlisberger was not perfect against the Bengals, and the Steelers 2 for 11 on third downs shows it. But Ben played smarter, made the throws he needed to make, particularly in the Red Zone. He also avoid what was had disturbingly begun to look at as his “obligatory dumb interception.” All and all a solid performance. Grade: B+

Running Backs
Bruce Arians reportedly challenged his rushers, “You want to run more, run the ball better.” Rashard Mendenhall and Isaac Redman listened. Both men accounted for nearly all of the yards in the Steelers first two trips to the Red Zone, both men broke tackles and ripped off long runs. Mewelde Moore ripped off 13 yard carry in his lone touch and Jonathan Dwyer showed a lot of hustle. Last time around against the Bengals the Steelers averaged 3.5 yards per carry. This time it was up to 4.1. I’ll take that improvement any day. Grade: A

Offensive Line
Three weeks ago at Paul Brown Stadium, Ben Roethlisberger was sacked 5 times, and as usual that number would have been much higher had it not been for his fancy footwork. At Heinz Field that number dropped to 2. While that number is impressive, the Steelers offensive line did something against Cincinnati it had not done all year, including their stand-out performance against Baltimore, they imposed their will. Grade: A

Defensive Line
Since the season opener vs. Baltimore Troy Polamalu has played up front, almost functioning as a linebacker. His role there has been run support as much as anything else. Troy played deep safety vs. the Bengals, and the run game suffered not at all. Casey Hampton, Brett Kiesel and Ziggy Hood did an good job of collapsing the pocket and assisted with pressure on Andy Dalton. Grade: B+

Don’t look now, but Lawrence Timmons led the team in tackles. James Harrison was a one man wreching crew. He’ll rightly get recognized for his 3 sacks, but he also was laying out the wood all over the field. James Farrior provided soild play in the center, and Jason Worilds did a fine job in LaMarr Woodley’s absence. Grade: A-

The secondary got caught badly in the Bengals first drive, but attoned for it by keeping Dalton’s completion percentage below 45% and picking off his replacement. Ike Taylor had an interception for the second consecutive game – perhaps a carreer first. Ryan Clark led the team in tackles, and almost had another pick and 3 defensed passes. Polamalu also defensed a pass. Grade: B+

Special Teams
After slipping for the last three weeks, Al Everest’s men transformed themselves into a special teams strike force to the likes that the Steelers have rarely seen. A blocked field goal, a forced and recovered fumble on a kickoff return, and punt return for a TD. Any of the three has a potential to be a momentum changer and the Steelers special teams brought in all of the above. Grade: A

You can talk all you want about nuances of game plans, personnel shifts, offensive versatility and game day adjustments. The difference in this game had little to do with the X’s and O’s. The Cincinnati Bengals started the day playing like a team that thought it was completing for a playoff spot. The Pittsburgh Steelers finished the game playing like a team that knew it was positioning itself for a hard-fought chance at competing for a championship. And that difference starts with Mike Tomlin and the coaching staff. Grade: A

Unsung Hero
Countless Steelers earned themselves highlight reel honors vs. the Bengals. Kudos to them. But there was something different, and something thus far this season that was unique about these Steelers, and it was clearly apparent in the way the Steelers finished their first two touchdown drives. Attitude. Controlling the line of scrimmage is as much about mind-set as it as about physicality.

Doug Legursky rejoined the Steelers starting lineup last week, but was quickly tapped to play center. It would be unfair to the others to credit Legursky with sole resposiblity for the line’s improvement, but Legursky was the indepdent variable in this equation, and he’s one of those players who may be short on stature, but is long in the heart. His scrappiness was on display vs. the Bengals, and for that Doug Legursky is the Unsung Hero of the Steelers victory over the Bengals.

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