´ Steel Curtain Rising: January 2012

Who gets the game ball for the win over the Colts?

Monday, January 30, 2012

Keith Butler to the Colts?

Steelers Linebackers coach Keith Butler is not a man driven by impulse. He passed on the chance at the defensive coordinator’s headset in Pittsburgh West. He also had a shot in 2009 to join Tony Soprano’s staff in Miami. Again he said no.

At the time the word was that Butler had been tapped as Dick LeBeau’s heir apparent, and seemed content to wait his turn in Pittsburgh. And Ed Bouchette reported in the Post-Gazette that Butler has a handsake agreement that he'll get the job when LeBeau retires.

Butler’s patience, however, may have worn out as reports indicate that he will follow Bruce Arians to join Chuck Pagano’s staff in Indianapolis. Butler confirmed that he will interview for the position, and makes no secret about his desire to coach as a defensive coordinator, however Bouchette reported that Bulter insisted that a move to the Colts is not a "done deal."

The move marks the second significant shift in Mike Tomlin’s coaching staff, following Arian’s departure and it is likely the their will be more turnover, as Randy Fitchner and Sean Kugler are the top candidates fill the offensive coordinator slot which of course means that Tomlin would need to fill their positions as well.

Rumors that Jim Cadwell, who coached with Tomlin in Tampa, might be taking the Steelers offensive coordinator job have turned out to be false, as it was announced that the Ravens had named Cadwell as their quaterbacks coach.

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Monday, January 16, 2012

Watch Tower: Conspiracy Theories on Hines Ward, Kordell Stewart, and Russ Grimm

The Watch Tower was quiet during much of 2011. Rest assured lack of time and not lack of motive explains the absence. Unfortunately the long layoff means a lot will go uncovered, but those are the breaks. The media has given us plenty to chew over, and the Watch Tower first shines its light on the Hines Ward situation.

Having It Out for Hines?

Steelers Nation knew the day would at some point, and the juncture was reached in 2011 when Hines Ward lost his starting job. It was a sobering moment to be sure, but one that came with a captivating back story.

Writing on PG Plus, Ed Bouchette was the first to note Ward's demotion, commenting on Ward’s lack of play at Cincinnati, and discounting Mike Tomlin’s denial that Ward had dropped on the depth chart, reminding readers that Tomlin had spun the same line about Randel El a year earlier.

A few days later, Bouchette wrote an impassioned post on PG Plus strongly criticizing the Steelers coaches for not having the decency to inform Ward of his benching prior to the fact. Bouchette continued the full court press with the Ward story throughout the season, although he did appear to shift his tone when it suited him, observing on November 16th that:
It's not wrong that he lost his starting status or has been dropped to No. 4 or even No. 5 on the depth chart. But someone owed him at least a heads-up that it was going to happen and maybe even an explanation as to why. [Emphasis added.]
The “Dean” of the Steelers press corps is pretty consistent here. However, writing on December 21st, Bouchette, discussing Ward’s quest to get break the 1,000 catch mark, flatly changed his tone charging “They're not even giving him the chance.” It would appear that Bouchette, it was in fact wrong that Ward was now the 4th or 5th wide receiver.

It only took Bouchette another sentence, however, to drop a bigger bomb shell when he asserted:
It seems to me, someone has it out for him.
Going from not giving a player his due to actively trying to keep him from breaking milestones is a huge leap, and one which Bouchette made without offering any type of reporting or indirect reporting to support such a bold assertion.

The season’s final two games made it quite clear in fact, that the Steelers were going to try to do everything to give Hines Ward is 1000 catches, in fact if memory serve, Mike Tomlin even went into the finale having informed the TV broadcast team that this was his intention.

Bouchette’s bravado looked quite foolish, at this point.

Dale Lolley to the Rescue

However, in his post season write up, veteran Washington Observer scribe Dale Lolley scooped the competition with this:
There are some on the coaching staff who don't want Ward back. In fact, one member of the staff didn't want him back in 2010.
Lolley then went on to explain that management put its foot down and insisted that Ward be welcomed back, and predicted (as did Bouchette) that they will do so again in 2012.

This is a tremendous piece of reporting by Lolley (why he put this in his blog and not his paper is mind boggleing). If Lolley’s right, and there is every reason to suspect he is, someone on the Steelers coaching staff really does not like Hines Ward, because Number 86 caught 95 catches in 2009.

The said coach is also more than a little stupid, because Ward followed that up with 59 catch effort in 2010, scored a key touchdown in the playoffs vs. the Ravens, and would have been the Super Bowl MVP had the Steelers defeated the Packers.

Dale Lolley of course didn’t divulge who that coach is – he couldn’t lest he lose every friend he has in the locker room, but in responding to a reader’s comments he did offer that:
As for the coach who wanted to cut him, let's just say it was somebody who had some say in those things, but not the final say.
If nothing else, Lolley is, most likely, telling his readers that Mike Tomlin is not the one who has it out with Ward. That would leave the other offensive coaches. It wasn’t Scotty Montgomery, who joined the staff as wide out’s coach in the spring of 2010 ,and likely would have no standing to make such a bold claim.

Randy Fichtner is also an unlikely candidate, if for no other reason than one of the enduring images from the horrid loss at Cleveland in 2009 was Fichtner comforting Ward on the sidelines. So I guess that leaves us with Bruce Arians, although that’s only a guess….

Bouchette Beats a Dead Slash

During the 2011 off season season the Watch Tower took exception with Ed Boucette’s insistence that Bill Cowher showed too little patience with Kordell Stewart (click here to read.)

Bouchette, apparently couldn’t let it go. But while the first case was a clash of opinions, Bouchette followed up with some statements that were flat out wrong.

Comparing Kordell Stewart to Tim Tebow, Bouchette offered this:
He [Kordell] would start the next five seasons at quarterback, off and on, even though Cowher and his offensive coordinators did everything they could to find someone else, such as that big walruss Kent Graham, a Kevin Gilbride favorite. [Emphasis added.]
Just how does Bouchette conclude that Cowher and his coaches “did everything they could to find someone else…?” Reality fails that statement. After his awful 1998 season, the Steelers, with Cowher’s assent, gave Kordell a new, lucrative long-term, contract.

In the 1999 draft the Steelers made attempt to move up to take one of the five quarterbacks taken before their first round pick. Kordell’s 1999 season was worse than his 1998 season, yet the Steelers passed on the chance to take Chad Pennington during the 2000 NFL draft.

And after a strong, but not spectacular 2000 season, the Steelers again opted to allow Drew Breees and Quincy Carter to remain on the board, taking Casey Hampton and Kendrell Bell instead during the 2001 NFL draft.

Ed Bouchette is entitled to his opinions about how the Steelers coaches mishandeled Kordell Stewart – he’s right to a certain extent and he's got plenty of facts on his side – but he’s not entitled to ignore basic facts that happen to be inconvenient to his argument.

Did the Steelers Snub Russ Grimm?

Now that the Watch Tower has thrown Bouchette under a bus over Kordell Stewart, let’s give the man credit for some truly excellent reporting.

As most Steelers fans know, there was initially some confusion over who would succeed Bill Cowher, with conflicting reports that the job had been offered to Russ Grimm and Mike Tomlin.

Art Rooney II explained afterwards that he had gotten as far as discussing prelimary contract numbers with Grimm, but insists that no offer had been extended.

And that’s where the story stood for four years.

Russ Grimm was portrayed in the press as disappointed at not getting the job, but said all of the right things leading up to the Steelers game vs. Arizona in 2007 and again repeated all of the right things before Super Bowl XLIII.

However, prior to this year’s Cardinals game, Bouchette added something that was potentially explosive to the mix:
He [Russ Grimm] believes he was told by Art Rooney that the job was his after Bill Cowher quit. He even had a part to celebrate. Later, he was told that it wasn't a done deal and then that Mike Tomlin was hired. Bitter doesn't describe it. He is the Cardinals line coach and assistant head coach, just as he was in Pittsburgh.
Still pretty innocuous stuff, although the news of Grimm having held a party and his bitterness (in contrast to public statements) are new news.

Later on, responding to a fan’s question, Bouchette dived deeper:
Grimm believed all along the job was his because, in my opinion, they led him to believe it. Now it comes down to specifics. Those close to Grimm say Art Rooney told him "Congratulations, you are the new Steelers coach" and Grimm and his friends and family celebrated. However, the Rooneys insist that he was never told that and what he was told he misinterpreted.
The “’Congratulations’” quote amounts to an impressive, and unprecedented piece of reporting. Clearly it Bouchette’s sources are 3rd and 4th hand, but he takes the story farther than it’s ever been and in doing so he delivered the goods that make PG Plus worth the 17 Argentine pesos it costs monthly to subscribe.

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Saturday, January 14, 2012

Mularkey the Latest Bill Cowher Disciple to Rebound

Bill Cowher's coaching tree is neither as prosperous or successful as Bill Walsh's, but give them credit for one thing: It is resilient.

Dom Capers was Cowher's first assistant to break into the NFL's head coaching ranks when he left after the 1994 season to coach for the Carolina Panthers. Capers started with a bang in Charlotte, bringing the expansion Panthers to the NFC Championship in just his second season. But alas a back to back bad seasons in 1997 and 1998 fallout with Kerry Collins cost Capers his job in.

  • Capers, however got another shot with the Houston Texas when they joined the league in 2002 where Capers coached until 2005.

Chain Gailey was Jerry Jones surprise choice to lead the Dallas Cowboys after the Barry Switzer meltdown. Despite leading the Cowboys to two playoff seasons Jones unceremoniously gave Gailey the boot after the 1998 season.

  • Gailey bounced around at a couple of jobs, and was back in the NFL as the Buffalo Bills head coach in 2010 where he’ll get at least one more shot after 4-12 and 6-10 seasons.

Jim Haslett coached the New Orleans Saints from the 2000 to 2005 season, and found himself as the interm head coach of the St. Louis Rams 2 games into the 2008 season.

Mike Mularkey left Pittsburgh after 2003 to become the Buffalo Bills head coach. Mularkey exceeded expectations in his first year but resigned after a disappointing second season.

If nothing else, this proves that that coaching under Bill Cowher if nothing else seem to guarantee you two shots at a head coaching gig.

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Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Hines Ward Denies Retirement Rumors, Max Starks, Casey Hampton Tear ACL's, Brent Kiesel Also Might Need Surgery

No one within the Steelers organization would ever say “yes” to this question in front of a camera or tape recorder, but “Did the Steelers get lucky by losing to Denver?”

That’s a germane question. At his post-season press conference yesterday Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin revealed that Max Starks and Casey Hampton suffered ACL tears during the Broncos game while Brett Keisel suffered a very serious groin injury that may require surgery.

Losing both Hampton and Kesiel during the 4th quarter left the Steelers with three healthy defensive lineman in uniform. Al Woods was the only other defensive lineman on their active roster.

The “Standard May Be the Standard” but such a principle requires having available bodies to put it into practice.

Hines Ward Denies Retirement Rumors

Communicating through his Facebook page, Hines Ward flatly denied any rumors that he is preparing to retire. As reported by Behind the Steel Curtain Ward’s statement read like this:
I'm also getting lots of questions about retirement so let me set the record straight: I have no plans on retiring right now. I want to win another Superbowl. I don't know where the media is getting this info from but rest assured that when I decide to retire, you'll hear it from ME first. – HINES
For sentimental reasons Steel Curtain Rising certainly hopes that Ward finishes his career as a Steeler and not as an Arizona Cardinal.

There are mixed reports as to whether the decision will entirely be up to him. If Ward does want to return for another year in Pittsburgh, he will most certainly need to renegotiate down to the veteran minimum.

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Steelers Report Card vs. Broncos

From the grade book of a teacher who sees that their star pupil gave it all, but just couldn’t get it together when it counted, so goes the Steelers report card for their Wild Card loss to the Denver Broncos.

Ben Roethlisberger stepped up and made some conragous plays during a game where the offensive line protection was shaky at best. He nonetheless threw a costly interception that fed the Broncos momentum when the Steelers could ill-afford it (and should have had at least one other pick.) He also got lucky with a blown call on a botched lateral. For some unknown reason, Roethlisberger’s timing with Mike Wallace has been off in the second part of the season, and that as much as anything else hurt. Grade: C

Running Back
Isaac Redman was a senseation. This man has a motor that simply does not quit, and he more than lived up to the standard set by Merril Hoge in this same city back in 1989. Redman had to carry the load all by himself, and he was more than up to the task, running for 121 yards on just 17 carries. Ball protection, however, is becoming an issue with Mr. Redzone. Grade: A

Wide Receivers
Emmanuel Sanders justified the coaches wisdom in making sure he was healthy for the playoffs. Antonio Brown likewise looked sharp in his catches. Heath Miller was Mr. Dependable as usual. Jerico Cocherty was great on the TD catch but dropped another ball. Mike Wallace was largely a non-factor, and failed to control the ball on what could have been a game-changing 50 yard completion. Hines Ward had a couple of drops and no catches in what might have been his final game. Grade: B-

Offensive Line
Another week, another injury to the offensive line. This time it was Max Starks who fell with Jonathan Scott stepping in to take his place. The line blocked well for Redman, but Ben Roethlisberger suffered repeated sacks when the team was trying to run its two minute drill at the end of both halves. And Doug Legursky’s errant snap was another costly, untimely mistake. This unit had its moments and weathered some adversity, but ultimately the Steelers needed more. Grade: C-

Defensive Line
The Steelers lost Casey Hampton and Brett Kiesel early in the game, leaving them with just three healthy lineman. Ziggy Hood, Steve McLendon and Cameron Heyward did an excellent job of containing the Denver running game, but contributed next to nothing in the pass rush. Given the set of cirumstances they were forced to work with, this unit did OK. Grade: B-

LaMarr Woodley was not a pass rushing force but came up with a key fumble recovery, and Lawrence Timmons was second on the time in tackles with one tackle for a loss. And the unit did well in containing the run. But James Harrison was not a factor in the pass rush, and seemed bewildered as to how to read Tebow’s options. James Farrior was not much of a factor. The bottom line is the Steelers needed much, much more from this unit, and that was not to be found. Grade: D.

Let’s give them this, Ryan Clark was out, Keenan Lewis was playing on a bad hamstring, and Cortez Allen was out. Even if you take all of these mitigating factors into account, the until still had a nightmare performance unlike anything that has been seen in decades. Ike Taylor topped off his career year with the worst game of his career. William Gay did play well, but where were the safeties on the Tebow’s multiple 40 plus throws? Whether by coaching, cockiness or happenstance, the DB’s were attempting to be ball hawks when they should have been focusing on limiting yards after the catch. Grade: F

Special Teams
Shaun Sushiam was 3-3 including a 45 yarder that hooked at just the right moment. Justin Kapionos boomed off punts with authority and the Denver return units never made any noise. That said, hats off to Denver’s kickers, as Antonio Brown didn’t get a chance to attempt any returns. The Steelers had a lot of weaknesses on display in Denver, but specials teams was not one of them. Grade: B

The logic behind Dick LeBeau and Mike Tomlin's decision to force Tebow to beat the Steelers throwing is understandable, but his failure to adjust as Tebow’s 40 yard plus throws is not. Where was the pass pressure? Why was Tebow able to consistently draw blood with his option plays? The Steelers wracked up 400 yards but only 23 points, under performing on the road yet again. Over all, the Steelers did not appear to be focused or well prepared, although their persistence in the face of injury was impressive. Grade: D

Unsung Hero
Had the Steelers won the game Ben Roethlisberger, Isaac Redman, or perhaps even Shaun Suisham would have gotten the game ball. But this young man led the Steelers receiving crops, and did it and impressive way, reminding everyone of why he, and not Antonio Brown was the player coaches were touting for greatness heading into 2011, and for that Emmanuel Sanders is Unsung Hero for the Steelers Wild Card game.

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Monday, January 9, 2012

Tebow Sears Steelers in OT, Broncos Win Wild Card 29-23

In the run up to the Steelers Wild Card game vs. the Denver Broncos at Mile High Stadium, I invoked the ’89 Steelers, offering that with the odds against Pittsburgh getting to the Super Bowl, this was their chance to claim redemption for the ’89 playoff loss.

Unfortunately, it was underdog Tim Tebow who captured the mojo of the 1989 Steelers, as he and Demaryius Thomas sent the Steelers 2011 season to a crashing halt, and ending that was eerily similar to another Steelers team from that era.

By any measure, the Steelers loss to Denver counts as a tremendous upset and a huge let down, but in a sense loss served as a microcosm for the Steelers 2011 season.

Yes, We Have Seen This Movie Before

When the NFL’s number one pass defense limits the NFL’s worst passer to 10 lowly completions you’d generally concluded that things are playing out as they “should.”

The problem is that with those ten lowly pass Tim Tebow torched Ike Taylor and the Steelers secondary for 310 yards. During the entire season, which included games against the like of Tom Brady and Joe Flacco, the Steelers only gave up 2 completions for longer than 40 yards.

  • Tim Tebow more than surpassed that total in the second quarter alone.

For as shocking as that may be this kind of turnaround has its precedent in Steelers history. The 1990 Steelers finished number one in defense overall and number one vs. the pass. During the season they allowed a league-low nine touchdown passes.

The problem was that they gave up three of those in a final, must win game at the hands of Cody Carlson, a journeyman back up who was subbing for Warren Moon. (Carlson, in fact finished 22-29 on the night.)

Ending the Way We Started

The reasons for Carlson’s success are of course different from the reasons why Tebow was so successful.

Carlson faced a young defense, led by the likes of Lloyd, Lake and Woodson, who’d been carrying a slightly better than .500 team who simply got caught by the law of averages.

  • The reasons for the Steelers failure vs. Tebow are far more damming, unfortunately.

Mike Tomlin’s rational behind “the standard is the standard” is that the fact that someone is in the NFL to begin with means that they’re already in the top one half of the one percent of the world’s football playing population. Therefore, the expectation is that everyone in that talent pool is capable of winning football.

The Steelers have embraced that credo when it comes to their own personnel, but made the deadly sin of forgetting it when it comes to others. We perhaps saw glimpses of that vs. the Colts, Jaguars and Chiefs, but that reality was painfully obvious at Mile High.

The Steelers stacked the line and dared Tebow to throw on him and Tebow made him play. As my friend and colleague Neal Coolong of Behind the Steel Curtain writes:

Taylor's failures were not technique, they were with overconfidence. And frankly, every Steelers defender can be accused of that today. They didn't respect the Broncos offense, and were going for the interception on every pass.

I'm ok with it. Why? Because I was saying all week they can gamble and force turnovers. They gambled and they lost.

Before the game week Brett Keisel said that Dick LeBeau and company were not doing anything special to prepare for Tebow which I took to be pregame boiler plate misinformation. Its obvious now that Keisel was telling the truth.

In September an unprepared and overconfident Steelers team opened the season by traveling to Baltimore and got its asses handed to it. The sad fact is that the Steelers pass defense closed the season in the same fashion.

Overcoming Injuries

The Standard is the Standard. True enough. The Steelers failed to take advantage of the chances they had to win this game. But let’s also keep in mind that the Steelers opened the game without:

  • Rashard Mendenhall, their number one running back
  • Maukice Pouncey, their Pro Bowl Center
  • Ryan Clark, their leading tackler
  • Cortez Allen, a stand out rookie cornerback

Ben Roethlisberger played on an injured ankle, Keenan Lewis on a bum hamstring, and during the first quarter the Steelers lost Casey Hampton and Brett Keisel, and during the course of the game Max Starks would also fall injured.

LaMarr Woodley was playing, but did not seem to be himself and had to be spelled by Jason Worilds.

In the face of such adversity the Pittsburgh Steelers withstood a withering attack on their secondary, found themselves litteraly short of bodies on the defesnive line, yet fought back valiantly.

  • Isaac Redman played a phenomenal game, living every bit up the standard for Steelers running backs at Mile High that Merril Hoge set in 1989
  • Emmanuel Sanders also let it be known that Antonio Brown isn’t the team’s only up and coming stud receiver.
  • Ben Roethlisberger led three scoring drives, including one of his patented game-tying fourth quarter touchdown specials
  • Ryan Mundy, who must share of the blame for the secondary’s breakdown, forced the fumble that made the game tying touchdown possible.

While the 2011 Steelers had better luck than some other teams with injuries, all season long they’ve had to shift men in, out and around the line up. Rarely has a week gone by where the Steelers didn’t need to shift one offensive lineman out of one position and into another.

And so it was vs. the Broncos. No, the Steelers didn’t get the job done, but that in no way diminishes the valor of their efforts.

Great teams don’t need to be great all of the time, just when they need to be.” – John Facenda, NFL Films commentary on Super Bowl XIV

The 1979 Los Angeles Rams gave the 1979 Steelers a very strong run for their money in Super Bowl XIV. But as John Facenda explained in leading up to John Stallworth’s go ahead 4th quarter touchdown catch, the Steelers made plays when it counted.

In a similar vein, the 2008 Super Bowl Champion Steelers played their very best football when it was all on the line time and time again during their season.

In contrast, their 2011 successors did just the opposite – they came up short at the wrong times, whether it was the final drive vs. Baltimore or keeping Roethlisberger in the game in San Francisco (and arguably vs. Cleveland) instead of making sure he was healthy to start the playoffs.

And so it was vs. the Broncos.

The Steelers succeeded in neutralizing Denver’s running attack but lost badly by gambling in the secondary. Offensively the Steelers had some great individual performances, but couldn’t quite get the job done.

The 2011 Pittsburgh Steelers had all of the elements of greatness at their disposal, but ultimately couldn’t put the pieces together when it mattered.

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Friday, January 6, 2012

Maurkice Pouncey Out, Kirby Wilson Injured in Fire

Art Rooney II has got to be asking himself, “What next?”

With each passing day the news out of the South Side gets worse. First Ben Roethlisberger revealed that he suffered a set back vs. Cleveland. Then Maurkice Pouncey showed up on the injury report. Then word came that Pouncey was out for the playoff game vs. Denver.

Both those men are relatively lucky. The Post-Gazette reported that Pittsburgh Steelers running backs coach Kirby Wilson was burned badly when his town home caught fire last night.

The burns are reported to be moderate to severe, but not life threatening. He is reportedly under the care of UMCP-Mercy Hospital.

Steelers Running Game Reeling

This is just the latest blow that the Steelers running game has suffered, dating back to training camp. First rookie Barron Batch, who’d been the star of camp, tore his ACL at St. Vincents.

For the first three quarters of the regular season the position remained stable for the Steelers. Then Jonathan Dwyer injured himself in the Cincinnati game went on injured reserve. Then Mewelde Moore sprained an MCL vs. San Francisco.

Rashard Mendenhall appeared to be coming on strong as the Steelers were entering the stretch run, only to tear his ACL in the season finale vs. Cleveland.

Now they must rely on Isaac Redman to lead them, and Redman must do it without guidance from Wilson, the man whom he credits from helping him grow from being a practice squad wonder to a legitimate NFL running back.

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Injuries Limit Roethlisberger, Pouncey

“He has a high ankle sprain.”

Injury news of course gets much worse, but high ankle sprains appear almost to be a class into themselves. They’re not career threatening, nor (does it appear, yours truly has no medical expertise) does their long-term impact appear to be cumulative.

Nonetheless, high ankle sprains linger and linger.

As a fan it has always seemed that when a player suffers the dreaded “high ankle sprain” he’s effected by it for the rest of the year.

Fate would have it unfortunately that 2011 be the year that both Ben Roethlisberger and Maurkice Pouncey would offer “high ankle sprains.”

Both suffered them during the Thursday night game vs. Cleveland. Pouncey hasn’t played since, and after missing practice on Thursday might not play vs. Denver.

Ben Roethlisberger of course played in the next game vs. San Francisco, and in Steel Curtain Rising’s analysis, Roethlisberger had no business finishing that game after it became clear that injuries had drastically reduced his effectiveness.

At his weekly press conference Mike Tomlin said that Ben was fine, having suffered no further setbacks as a result of playing in the second victory vs. Cleveland.

Ben Roethlisberger told a different story, claiming that he had in fact hurt himself in the third quarter, and he missed practice on Wednesday but was back at it on Thursday.

Roethlisberger is some what of a drama queen when it comes to injuries, but Ed Bouchette noted on PG Plus that Roethlisberger looked hobbled in the locker room on Sunday after the game and he is expected to play.

The 2011 Steelers have over come a lot in terms of injuries, but suffice to say this is not the kind of news you want to read if your team’s about to play its first road playoff game in six years.

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Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Steelers to Put Mendenhall on Injured Reserve, Anthony Madison Returns

Today’s news confirmed the worst for the Pittsburgh Steelers and Rashard Mendenhall, as Ed Bouchette reports on PG Plus, as are numerous other sources reporting, the Mendenhall did in fact tear his ACL.

That leaves the team with 3 running backs heading into the playoffs, in the form of Isaac Redman, John Clay, and Mewelde Moore.

Mendenhall is not the only injury the Steelers suffered in defeating the Browns. They lost cornerbacks Keenan Lewis to a hamstring injury and Cortez Allen to a separated shoulder injury. While neither injury is expected to be season-ending, their availability for the playoff game in Denver has to be in doubt.

Factor in the fact that Ryan Clark will likely be unavailable to play, and the Steelers are mighty thin at defensive back for their first road playoff game since visiting Denver for the 2005 AFC Championship.

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Monday, January 2, 2012

Steelers Report Card vs. Browns at Cleveland Stadium

From the grade book of a teacher who just watched his star pupil do exactly what he needed to close out the semester, heading into final exams, so comes the Steelers report card for their victory over the Browns.

Ben Roethlisberger looked shaky early, missing key targets on several occasions. Roethlisberger was under orders to avoid “John Wayne” like heroics, which he did. But on a day when wind gusts of up to 50 miles an hour made throwing the ball a challenge, Ben Roethlisberger delivered enough to convert 50% of his team’s third downs, and lead his team to the games only touchdown. Ben will need to improve in the playoffs, but he did a very good job vs. the Browns. Grade: B

Running Backs
Rashard Mendenhall had 38 yards on 8 carries and looked to be in route to another great game when he was felled by a season-ending ACL tear. Isaac Redman stepped in and did a masterful job, barreling his way to just under 100 yards, although his two fumbles could have put the team in behind had the defense not been so stout. John Clay ran well on his 6 carries which is a welcome sign given the injury to Mendenhall. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
There looked to be some miscues between Ben and his receivers, but the bottom line is that his unit did enough to make plays. One week after questioning whether Antonio Brown deserved the MVP award, Brown showed his value by making highlight-reel worthy catches which have become a staple of his game. Hines Ward got five catches bringing him to 1000 yards receiving, a tremendous accomplishment that sets him in elite company. Grade: B

Offensive Line
Another week, another offensive line configuration for the Steelers. Maurkice Pouncey returned to action, helping anchor the line, and Trai Essex showed off why his versatility makes him such an asset to the team. Marcus Gilbert also returned to the starting line up, and the fact that he was in position to make a grab at the ball after Redman’s fumble is the mark of impressive hustle. Ben Roethlsiberger was only sacked 2 and the running backs averaged 4.5 yards a carry. The line was doing a lot right. Grade: B+

Defensive Line
The record will reflect that Peyton Hillis did get some long runs to make up his 30 yards. However, more often than not, there was no where to run. The Steelers defensive line did an outstanding job of collapsing the pocket and containing Hillis. Ziggy Hood and Brett Keisel both had batted down passes and Keisel forced a fumble. Casey Hampton had one tackle for a loss. Grade: B+

James Harrison failed to register a sack, but there were plenty of times that Seneca Wallace had to have felt his footsteps. James Farrior provided solid coverage in the middle and Jason Worilds, well, he didn’t make any critical mistakes. But Lawrence Timmons was all over the field, making tackles, defensing passes, tackling men in the backfiled and sacking the quarterback. The linebackers put in a solid effort, but they did let Seneca Wallace get away from them one too many times, something which they cannot allow Tim Tebow to do. Grade: B-

This unit has turned itself around in a way that nobody had a right to predict. The Steelers defensive backs are playing crisp football with confidence. There was simply no way that Seneca Wallace was going to beat them. Every one of the starters made plays, whether it was Ryan Clark getting a sack, Ike Taylor and William Gay batting down balls, or Tory Polamalu knocking away balls, tackling guys in the backfield, or picking off Seneca Wallace. Grade: A

Special Teams
Shaun Suisham missed a long field goal that got caught in the wind, but he made good on his two other attempts. Antonio Brown provided solid, if not spectacular kick returns. Justin Kapinos boomed off four excellent punts. The real story of this game is the coverage units. Joshua Cribbs is a return man capable of hurting you badly, as Steelers fans know all too well. Yet Cribbs was a non-factor in a game where one big return could have been a huge difference maker. Grade: B+

Mike Tomlin
made the right move in starting Ben Roethlisberger. If Ben’s shakiness early in the game is any indicator, he needed to get his rhythm back and it was far better for him to do that vs. Cleveland than in the first quarter of a playoff game in Denver. Bruce Arians still needs to figure out a way to have his units do better in the Red Zone, but beyond that he devised a game plan to exploit Cleveland’s weaknesses. Dick LeBeau’s troops likewise made their coach look proud. Grade: B+

Unsung Hero
Two weeks ago he turned in a performance which led to legitimate questions about whether the Steelers had erred in resigning him before the season’s start. Vs. the Browns he was a force, getting an early sack, knocking away several balls, and making a key tackle on the final drive that kept his man in bounds with the clock ticking away. It was those kinds of little, but important plays that allowed the Steelers to leave Cleveland victoriously and for that reason Lawrence Timmons is the Unsung Hero for the game.

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Steelers Show Strong vs. Browns, Despite 13-9 Score

The Pittsburgh Steelers have been a weak road team in 2011. Going into the final game, Steel Curtain Rising suggested that contest at Cleveland Stadium would serve as a dress rehearsal for what would likely be a series of tests on the road to a shot at Lombardi Number 7.

In effect, the question was “Is it time to count style points?”

Well, the opponent was the 4-11 Browns, and the outcome was 13-9 with the losing team having at shot at an upset in the game final moments. How do you evaluate the Steelers performance in this dress rehearsal? Given that Baltimore took care of business in Cincinnati, is the glass proverbial half full or half empty?

For Steel Curtain Rising, the glass is half full, the reasons for which we explain below.

Steelers vs. the Browns, Football As It Should Be

Credit, (once again) Tim Gleason of Behind the Steel Curtain. In his capacity as Steeler historian, the author of From Black to Gold has done his part to educate the younger members of Steelers Nation on the nature of the Steelers Browns rivalry.

Gleason’s contention is, that for all of its greatness, the Steelers-Ravens rivalry is more about the two biggest dogs on the block fighting for the same bone. I am not sure if I agree completely with Gleason on this front. I have likewise found it difficult to raise my anti-Cleveland ire ever since Art Modell ripped the heart out of his community by moving his team to Baltimore in 1995.
But Gleason was certainly right on one thing, the Browns take this rivalry seriously, and they proved it on the field.

The game at Cleveland Stadium had everything you could want in a classic AFC North match up. Hard hits, players leaving with injuries, timely turnovers, fierce bone-chilling winds, and to top it all off, snow. These Browns had nothing to play for, but neither team left anything on the field.

A 13-9 win over a 4-12 might not seem to be the ideal dress rehearsal for a Lombardi run, until you consider the context laid out above.

Over Coming Adversity

Ben Roethlisberger was played hurt. LaMarr Woodley was out and in the course of the game the Steelers lost Keenan Lewis, Cortez Allen, and worse yet, Rashard Mendenhall.

That’s a lot to overcome, but the Steelers did want they needed to do to win the game and, if you look beyond the scoreboard, they did it in impressive fashion:

  • A week after gouging the Ravens for 112, Peyton Hillis was ineffective vs. the Steelers defense gaining only 30 yards
  • Isaac Redman fumbled twice in the fourth quarter, but Cleveland got zero points off of it
  • Losing the turnover battle (again) the Steelers won the turnover war by converting Polamalu’s pick into gold in the form of the game’s only touchdown
  • Ben Roethlisberger looked shaky for much of the first half, but was sharp enough to drive the team 70 yards to get Pittsburgh on the board

Meanwhile, on a day when the wind made airing the ball out dicely proposition, the Steelers running backs put up 161 yards rushing, and Ben Roethlisberger managed to connect with nine different receivers.

Strong Secondary

One of the many amazing stories of the 2011 Pittsburgh Steelers is the turnaround of its secondary.

The defensive backs ended 2009 as a shell-shocked unit who had let two games bounce off of their hands. Led by the return of Troy Polamalu, the unit bounced back in 2010, but ultimately Aaron Rogers exposed weaknesses that were so great, that they became to be seen as lethal liabilities during the 2011 off season.

The Steelers, it seemed, had doomed themselves by not trading up to get a top defensive back in the draft, instead "settling" for Cameron Heyward.

No, the Steelers didn’t get a top corner in the draft, but the did something which might have had more impact – they brought back Carnell Lake to coach their secondary.

13 months ago as the Steelers departed the field in Arlington, Texas, William Gay was considered to be a back up nickel back at best and Keenan Lewis a failed project. Under Carnell Lake's guidance, both men have grown into being confident, compotent members of the NFL's number 1 pass defense.

Seneca Wallace had to throw in the same wind as Ben Roethlisberger. Wallace isn’t the quarterback that Roethlisberger is, but also wasn’t hurt. Wallace did however, have the misfortune to throw against the Steelers secondary.

The Steelers defense was all over the Browns receivers, knocking away balls, taking away easy check down routes, and throttling guys after the catch.

  • Troy Polamalu made the defining play of the game with his interception in the third quarter.

The Steelers had just tied the game, after consuming much of the clock, and Polamalu’s pick snuffed out Cleveland’s chance to match Pittsburgh blow for blow.

After that it only took Ben Roethlisberger, Hines Ward, Antonio Brown, and ultimately Isaac Redman to find the end zone.

The Steeler did leave plenty to find fault with in the Browns game – they lost the turnover battle and struggled to score in the Red Zone.

But even if we accept that from Polamalu’s interception onwards, one thing was clear:

  • The Steelers were going to, and did make whatever plays were necessary to win.

That’s not a bad formula to take into the playoffs.

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Steelers Defeat Browns, Mendenhall Feared Lost

The Pittsburgh Steelers closed out there 2011 regular season with a workman like 13-9victory over their historic rivals, the Cleveland Browns.

The victory, however, counts as bittersweet by any measure. The Cincinnati Bengals were unable to upset the Baltimore Ravens, meaning that the Ravens win the AFC North on the strength of tie breakers.

And, perhaps worse yet, the Steelers fear that Rashard Mendenhall has suffered a torn ACL, meaning his season will end.

The torn ACL suggestion was reported by ESPN at 10:23 Eastern Time. The Tribune Review did not report the ACL tear, in a report filed by Scott Brown at 8:23 Eastern time, but they did confirm that the Steelers fear Mendenhall is lost for the post-season.

Check back tomorrow for a Steel Curtain Rising's full-game analysis.

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