´ Steel Curtain Rising: October 2013

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

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Steelers Waive Mesko, Sign McBrair

The Steelers weren’t quite sold on Drew Butler’s punting abilities after ’12, so they brought in ex-Dallas Cowboy’s punting ace Brian Moreman. Mooreman didn’t make the cut, after getting a thorough audition in training camp.
The Zoltan Mesko, an immigrant from Romania, apparently always wanted to play for the Steelers. Unfortunately his wished lasted only 7 weeks, as the Steelers waived him yesterday. After the Steelers victory over Baltimore, Mike Tomlin characterized Mesko’s punts as “Junior Varsity.” After a partial block and a shanked punt during the Steelers loss to the Raiders at Oakland’s Black Hole, the Steelers parted ways with Mesko.

But former Dallas Cowboys players are apparently in vogue at the south side, as the Steelers signed Matt McBrair. McBrair made the Pro Bowl in 2010, but his punting average has dropped steadily since then. Last year he kicked for the Eagles, and has yet to kick for an NFL team during the 2011 season.

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Sunday, October 27, 2013

Steelers Shallowed by Raiders in Black Hole, 21-18

The Pittsburgh Steelers and the Oakland Raiders defined the concept of “rivalry” in the 1970’s. From the Immaculate Reception to the “Criminal Element” their games are the stuff of legend. In the 21st century their match ups have been far less dramatic but equally significant for the Steelers.

If the Steelers-Radiers games of the current millennium haven’t carried the weight in the standings of their ‘70’s predecessors, they have served as an important bell weather for the direction of the franchise….

…And as Steelers Nation knows too well, the latest trip to Oakland’s Black Hole confirms that the Pittsburgh Steelers are a team headed in the wrong direction.

From Varsity in Jeanette to J.V. in Pittsburgh

Exactly 364 days ago the Steelers were faced with the task of stopping Robert Griffin III, one of the NFL’s most dangerous quarterbacks. The stat sheet shows that the Steelers were up to the task. The Steelers traveled to Oakland faced with a similar task, stopping double threat Jeanette native Terrelle Pryor.

They couldn’t.
  • On the first play from scrimmage Darren McFadden executed a perfect play fake while Pryor burned through the entire Steelers defense for 93 yards.
It went down hill from that point on for the Steelers. The Steelers went three and out and then David Paulson missed a block allowing Junior Varsity punter Zoltan Mesko to suffer a partially blocked punt.

5 plays later, McFadden was waltzing into the end zone, and the Steelers were down 14-0, and there were still 12 minutes left to play in the first quarter.

Credit the Oakland Radiers staff for devising and excellent game plan and credit the men on the field for executing it. The Steelers were completely unprepared to defend Pryor during the first half.
  • When they covered well down field Pryor took off and ran
  • When the Steelers attempted to pressure him, Pryor either broke out ran or found men down field
Aside from being out executed and out coached during the first half, the Steelers also couldn’t cut a break.
  • The Steelers looked to get a break with a special teams fumble recovery, but the ruling went against them.
  • Ramon Foster suffered a concussion and had to be replaced by Guy Whimper
  • Guy Whimper got injured and had to be replaced by Cody Wallace
  • David DeCastro got injured and had to be replaced by Kelvin Beachum who was replaced by Mike Adams
Clearly the injury gods have it in for the Steelers offensive line.

An inability to create turnovers has bedeviled the Steelers all year long. The Steelers defense created three vs. the Raiders. It didn’t matter. The first turnover resulted in a field goal. The next a missed field goal.

The Steelers did manage cause and recover a fumble, yet that only brought the score to 21-10 with 12:11 left to play. Like the loss in London, the Steelers offense would put it together just enough to give Steelers Nation a tease.
  • When the Steelers did things right, things still went wrong. 
The Steelers defense forced a 3 and out with about 7 minutes left to play, and Antonio Brown answered with an electrifying 44 yard punt return.  The Steelers had the ball at Oakland’s 31 yard line, only to see Brown fumble the ball on a pass that would have converted a 3rd and 3.
  • Yet even then, the Steelers still wouldn’t go quietly into the night.
The Steelers defense forced a three and out, and the Steelers got the ball back at the 17. Ben Roethlisberger went to work. He completed passes to Brown, Emmanuel Sanders, Le’Veon Bell, Jerricho Cotchery.

Yet, at 2nd and 3 at the 12, Roethlisberger burned a time out, later explaining the officials had wasted too much of the game clock deciding not to call a horse collar tackle on Bell.

Roethlisberger’s next pass was intercepted… but wait, no, the play was over turned. Le’Veon Bell scored on the next play. Emmanuel Sanders attempted to set up for a pass on the two point conversion failed, but ran it in anyway.

Sticking to the script, the Steelers failed to get the on-sides kick, yet Oakland couldn’t run out the clock. The Steelers got the ball back but again, true to form, Roethlisberger threw to Emmanuel Sanders in the middle of the field, and time expired.

More Than Just Black Hole Bad Luck

The Steelers had their share of bad luck vs. Oakland. While they did get a few calls, several more questionable ones went against them. And by game’s end they had played all eight offensive lineman dressed.

But the Steelers had their chances.
  • Heath Miller’s end zone drop wasn’t a stroke of bad luck
  • Shaun Suisham’s two missed field goals can’t be blamed on the officials
  • The failure to adjust to Pryor’s unique skill set for an entire half didn’t come down to someone else’s judgment call 
  • No one pushed poor clock management at the end both halves on the Steelers
The Oakland Raiders tried with all of their might to give the game to the Steelers in the second half. Yet through the dropped passes, sacks, and bad decisions the Steelers refused to accept the offer.

And in doing so they looked every bit like an 0-4 team that’s found a way to make it 2-5.

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Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Has Mike Tomlin Found his Darrell Green in Emmanuel Sanders?

When called upon, he’s capable of delivering. Obviously, he’s a starting wide receiver for us and it’s not something we want to do all the time. But at the appropriate time we’ll dial his number, and I thought he delivered. – Mike Tomlin on using Emmanuel Sanders as a kick returner.
  • Upon reading that, one has to wonder if Mike Tomlin has found his Darrell Green.  
Darrell Green you ask? Yes, Darrell Green.

Green of course was a Hall of Fame cornerback for the Washington Redskins whose career spanned 20 years, 6 Head Coaches, 3 owners and included seven Pro Bowls, 3 trips to the Super Bowl and 2 Lombardi’s. As a cornerback in the heyday of the NFC, Green covered the likes of Jerry Rice, Michael Irvin and defended passes thrown by Hall of Famers such as Phil Simms, Joe Montana, Troy Aikman, and Steve Young.
  • What in the world could Green have in common with Emmanuel Sanders?
One fact often forgotten is that Green also returned punts. No, he didn’t do it on a regular basis the way Rod Woodson did, which is was probably a good thing. Long time Washington, DC WMAL/WTEM sport radio commentator Ken Beatrice once explained to a caller that Joe Gibbs didn’t have Green return punts often because he didn’t want to over-use him.
  • But when Gibbs deployed Green as a punt returner, he Green returned them with impact.
The best example was the 1987 NFC Divisional playoff, Walter Payton’s final pro game, where Green returned a 52 yard punt to win the game. In his 20 years, Green only returned 51 punts in 9 seasons. But he had a 12.0 yard average, which ties him for 10th all time (Green doesn’t have enough attempts to make the list.)

Writing in the Steelers Digest, Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell shared this observation:
Sanders returned kickoffs in practice prior to the Jets game, and ran harder than I had ever seen him run before. I just assumed he would return kickoffs against the Jets and when it didn’t happen I expected him to return kicks against the Ravens. Finally with the season on the line he returned a kickoff. 
Wexell quoted Jerricho Cotchery as saying “He’s lighting. We just bring him out when we really need something.”

Emmanuel Sanders returned both kicks and punts during his rookie year, but injuries and promotion into the top tier of receivers have limited those since then. Tomlin wisely does not want to press his luck with using his number two receiver as a kick returner.

But Tomlin has a good track record with using his starters in spot-return duty. People forget that the Steelers started their 2008 AFC Divisional playoff game sluggishly until Santonio Holmes broke things open with a 67 yard punt return for a touchdown.
  • Vs. the Ravens, Sanders of course didn’t make it (officially) to the end zone, but his return unequivocally announced to the Ravens that the Steelers were in it to win it.
Steelers Nation looks forward to many more such returns.

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Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Steelers Report Card vs. Ravens @ Heinz Field

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is crossing his fingers in the hopes that he has just seen his pupils take a step beyond simply avoiding self destruction and one towards self fulfillment, here is the Steelers Report card for the victory over the Baltimore Ravens. As a Caveat, no other Steelers report cards were consulted prior to this posting.

Ben Roethlisberger went his second game without an interception and without a turnover. He was sharp, on target, moved out of the pocket and ran for yards when necessary. Early in the game he executed the quick passing game extremely well. He moved the chains. Most importantly he was flawless with the game tied and 2 minutes left to play. Grade:  A

Running Backs
During training camp, the Steelers press corps tripped over themselves to find new ways to extol Le’Veon Bell. Vs. the Ravens the rest of Steelers Nation got to see what they were talking about. Bell ran with cunning, power and determination and came in just short of 100 yards. Felix Jones was did well in relief, and Jonathan Dwyer appears to be treating every carry as if it might be his last. With Isaac Redman gone, “its what you see is what you get” with this trio. If Bell stays healthy, there’s a lot to like. Grade:  B

Tight Ends
David Paulson caught a 17 yard pass that got the Steelers going to start the second half and did well in blocking near the goal line. Heath Miller had two catches for 17 yards, including a touchdown, but showed that he was mortal, fumbling the ball which essentially gave the Ravens three. He had a drop. Grade:  B-

Wide Receivers 
 Mike who? The comparisons between Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown must stop simply because Brown is quickly and clearly showing himself to be a far, far superior receiver. Brown simply made plays each time he touched the ball. Jerricho Cotchery also had two key catches to set up the Steelers first touchdown. Derek Moye came down with a phenoinally tough catches that begged  the question as to why he was not injured, although he did have a drop in the end zone. Emmanuel Sanders had one catch, but made his presence felt elsewhere. Grade:  A-

Offensive Line
From the day the Steelers signed him, Steelers Nation, from the press down to the fans, have quaked in fear at the prospect that Guy Whimper would have to actually play. Well, Marcus Gilbert went down and in came Whimper, and the more than held his own. As did Kelvin Beachum. Ramon Foster, Fernando Velasco and David DeCastro did a masterful job in opening up holes in the middle for the running game. Pass protection was good in the first half but slipped in the second. Grade:  B-

Defensive Line
This position area is a little bit of a misnomer, because for much of the game the Steelers played one down lineman, that being Cameron Heyward. Part of that was the Raven’s plan to keep Steve McLendon off the field, as McLendon imposed his will on the Ravens while in the game. The Ravens running game had been ineffective coming into Pittsburgh. It left that way too. Grade:  B

LaMarr Woodley had the unit’s only sack of the game, but he planted Joe Flacco at a critical time, knocking them out of field goal range. He also defensed a pass. Vince Williams didn’t get his name called much, but that was also a good thing. And then there was Lawrence Timmons, who was simply all over the field, leading the Steelers with 17 tackles. Jason Worilds got the start and failed to give the coaches a reason to keep him in upon Jarvis Jones return.  Grade:  B+

The Steelers defensive backs were out in force, with Shamarko Thomas and Cortez Allen seeing plenty of action and delivering on the tackles. Troy Polamalu shifted from essentially playing middle linebacker to deep safety, and was wreaking havoc all over the field. Ryan Clark’s play was solid. William Gay pass defensed not, one but two touchdown passes in the end zone. This entire until played a huge role in keeping the Ravens out of the end zone for 58 minutes, although the late TD must also be reflected in their mark.  Grade:  B+_

Special Teams
Antonio Brown helped set up the Steelers first touchdown with an 18 yard punt return. Felix Jones did the same with another nice kick return. Emmanuel Sanders touchdown run might have been called back, but he logged 44 yard setting the Steelers up with excellent field position. More importantly, the Steelers carried his momentum into the 2 minute drill. Shaun Suisham was 4-4 and logged another game winner. The Ravens got a just a little more in their return game than you’d like, but this was special teams finest day of the season by a long shot.  Grade:  A-

After serving (undeservedly) as the whipping boy of the for the first 4 games of the season, Todd Haley continues to innovate. Early on he found ways to get the ball out quickly and keep the defense off balance. Moreover, he’s using play action to the Steelers benefit and his attempts to improve pass protection via schemes and personnel are working. Dick LeBeau’s defense has had a little bit of the “break but don’t bend” element to it. But they neutralized the Raven’s in the Red Zone time after time, including after Millers fumble. Mike Tomlin would be the first to admit that the Steelers are still very deep down in the hole that they dug them. But he clearly has his team focused. Grade: B+

Unsung Hero Award
There are many many players who could stake claim to this award. The Steelers victory against the Ravens came down to the ability to adapt to the unexpected and transform disadvantage into advantage. After the Ravens scored their last field goal, John Harbaugh decided to get cute and call a surprise on sides. In years past the Steelers special teams have been caught asleep at the switch in such situations. But not this time. Stevenson Sylvester KOed his man giving Vince Williams a shot at the recovery, which he made, setting up the Steelers 3rd field goal, a score that would prove critical and for that they share the Unsung Hero Award.

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Monday, October 21, 2013

Steelers Make Mistake in Cutting Isaac Redman

Pundits have long joked that “NFL”stands for “Not for Long.” The 2013 Pittsburgh Steelers roster appears to embody that idea. Just ask Isaac Redman.

Isaac Redman began the Steelers season as the starter. Injuries limited him in training camp, but that was because the coaches want to keep him fresh. Redman of course started in the Trashing vs. Tennessee, but did not play well.

An injury to Stephens LaRod-Howling forced Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin to shallow some pride and welcome Jonathan Dwyer back, only days after cutting Dwyer. Redman was slated to play vs. Cincinnati, but injured his head on the kickoff. That limited him in action for the rest of the game. Redman got into the game vs. Chicago but was ineffective.

The Steelers deactivated for the victory against the Jets and then the victory over the Ravens.
  • Now its over for Redman, at least in Pittsburgh.
Steelers Err in Letting Redman Go

ESPN’s Scott Brown said that the Steelers decision to waive Redman was “inevitable.” Redman was apparently fourth on the depth chart, and had no clear special teams role.

It make little business sense to pay a man 1.3 million dollars to stand on the sidelines in street clothes. But if the Steelers think that this is all that Redman was going to be required to do during the year, they’re fooling themselves.
In three games Le’Veon Bell has clearly shown he is the most talented of the Steelers running backs. Should he remain healthy for the year, all signs point to Bell establishing himself as a feature back. But the phrase “if he can stay healthy” is the operative one. Bell suffered a Lisfranc injury in training camp. LaRod-Howling has already been lost for the year.

Felix Jones is playing well and Jonathan Dwyer is running on every carry as if it is his last chance to show that he belongs in the NFL, which it is. But Isaac Redman has already shown he belongs in the NFL.
No, Redman is not a starting caliber NFL running back. But over three seasons on the active roster Redman has shown himself to be a gamer – someone who steps up when its all on the line. As a runner Redman showed a motor that did not stop, and his ability as a short yardage back was a true asset to the team. Dwyer has been taking up that role recently, but with Dwyer the issue has always been his commitment and his consistency.
  • Redman’s commitment has never been at issue, and Dwyer doesn't have nearly a "highlight roll" like the one cited for Redman above.
None of the reports comment on the salary cap implications of the move. The Steelers have salary cap issues. If they’re not obligated to pay Redman the balance of his salary for 2013 then perhaps, perhaps the move makes sense from a numbers perspective.

But given his pedigree and the potential for injury, this move looks like a case of the Steelers being pennywise and dollar foolish.

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Suisham Sends Steelers Past Ravens 19-16 at Heinz Field

The Pittsburgh Steelers entered the 2013 season facing a plethora of “if’s.” IF the offensive line can stay healthy…. IF the running game can be reestablished…. IF the youngsters brought on to replace aging Super Bowl veterans can deliver….

The Steelers 0-4 start revealed that the answers to those individual “if’s” were all in the negative. Worse yet, the collective meaning of provided a portrait of a team learning to lose.
But one win in the NFL means a little. The “On Any Given Sunday” cliché holds currency in the NFL vernacular for a reason.

What the Steelers victory over Baltimore showed was that life in the NFL is a series of “Ifs” and the question isn’t so much if the answers are negative or positive, but in how you deal with them.

Setting a Tone

The Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens yield nothing to the rest of the NFL when it comes to the intensity of their rivalry. The NFL Flims writers who are scribes of era of Vince Lombardi and the Ice Bowl could not have scripted Steelers-Ravens games better:
  • Hard hitting
  • Down to the wire action
  • Dramatic, game-changing plays
  • Overcoming odds
Ray Lewis, James Harrison, Ed Reed, and Hines Ward may have moved on, but the Steelers and Ravens showed early on that even their absence would not change the tempo of this game, as so eloquently illustrated by the third and fourth series of the game.

After exchanging punts, the Steelers got the ball on their 40 thanks to an 18 yard punt return by Antonio Brown. With Marcus Gilbert injured, Todd Haley went to his bag of tricks, which included reverses to Brown, splitting Ben Roethlisberger wide, and pounding Le’Veon Bell either via handoff or direct snap.
  • The Steelers rewarded the creativity of their offensive coordinator with a touchdown on a shovel pass to Health Miller.
The Ravens of looked to answer quickly, and the Steelers they marched all the way down the field to the Steelers 26.

In what was one of the key plays of the game, on 3rd and 1 Steve McLendon overpowered the Ravens offensive line to completely stuff Bernard Pierce for a one yard loss.
  • The Ravens responded with a field goal, but the Steelers responded in kind.
For the second time in the game, the Steelers special teams came up big (how often do we say that) as Felix Jones returned the kickoff for 42 yards. The Jones return and the McLendon stuff set the tone for this game:
  • Like other Steelers-Ravens game, this one was going to be about who wanted it more – and a little something else
The Steelers took Jone’s long return and moved all the way to the 16, but then the drive stalled, and the Steelers had to settle for a field goal. Somewhere along the way they also lost Marcus Gilbert, leading Guy Whimper to enter the game, splitting time with Mike Adams, who was also reporting as an eligible receiver.
Normally you’d criticize settling for field goals instead of touchdowns in the Red Zone – but if you get lemons, make lemonade.
  • The next drive it was the Steelers defense’s turn to drive that lesson home. 
After the Steelers field goal the Ravens again moved smartly down the field. They made it to the Steelers 34 – just inside field goal range and a chance to bring the game to within 4. On 3rd and 8 LaMarr Woodley sent Joe Flacco to the turf, putting the Ravens out of field goal range.
  • Unlike the Steelers, the Ravens were unable to squeeze any juice out of their lemon.
But the Steelers were in a giving mood. Looking to burn out the clock en route to a half-closing score, Heath Miller fumbled, giving the Ravens the ball at the Pittsburgh’s 38 with 39 seconds to go and two time outs.
  • That’s a very, very dangerous gift to give the defending Super Bowl Champions.
But the Steelers defense clamped down, holding the Ravens to three. Both Pittsburgh and Baltimore got a little juice out of that exchange, but the real question was who learned the lesson better?

Ravens Rebound

While the Steelers were attempting to close out the first half, Behind the Steel Curtain Editor Neal Coolong offered this precautionary tweet:
You don’t ascend to the status of defending Super Bowl Champions for by accident. The Baltimore Ravens title defense has been rocky, but they’ve made second half adjustments.

In the first half the Steelers protected Ben Roethlisberger fairly well…
  • In the second half the Ravens got to him.
In the first half the Steelers got pressure on Flacco…
  • In the second half, not so much.
In the first half the Steelers ran the ball efficiently in general and with authority at times…
  • In the second half, the Ravens took much of that away.
In the first half the Steelers managed to strike Red Zone gold once, and shut out the Ravens…
  • In the second half the Ravens turned the tables and reversed the Red Zone score card.
In the Ravens final possession Joe Flacco showed the NFL why he belongs in the NFL’s 100 million dollar QB club. He was perfect. He completed all of one of his passes. He converted three third downs. He burned over seven minutes off the clock.
  • Flacco willed the Ravens to a tying touchdown
Just Wanting IT Isn't Enough....

And so it was. The Ravens had just tied the game with 1:58 remaining, and Emmanuel Sanders was deep into his own end zone to return a kick. Sanders fielded the kick. He took off. He didn’t stop until he got to the End Zone. Touchdown Steelers!
  • But not so fast.
Sanders stepped out of bounds. Steelers Nation wanted a touchdown. What it needed, however, was a game winning score. Roethlisberger hit Jerricho Cotchery for 7. He hit Antonio Brown for 13, and then again for 11. Bell run up the middle for no gain. Shaun Suisham took the field to attempt a 42 yard field goal.
Suisham split the uprights.

And the Pittsburgh Steelers won 19-16. And therein lies the lesson.

On their final two possessions, the Steelers and Ravens both demonstrated how much they “wanted it” Flacco with his poise, Sanders with his return. Both teams encountered their share of adversity. Both teams make mistakes.
  • But the Steelers won because they transformed adversity into advantage more consistently than Baltimore. 
And in that, for whatever flaws they put on display vs. the Ravens, this group of Steelers have completed another lesson in the art of learning to win football games.

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Sunday, October 20, 2013

Steelers Look to Snap Raven's Heinz Field Winning Streak

When the Pittsburgh Steelers take to the field vs. the Baltimore Ravens this afternoon at Heinz Field they’ll be attempting to improve their record to 2-4. To accomplish that, they’ll need to buck what has become a disturbing trend:
  • Lately, the Baltimore Ravens have owned the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field.
To be certain, the Steelers games vs. Baltimore in Pittsburgh have never been a “gimmie” for the Steelers.

The Ravens first victory in Pittsburgh came during the dark days of the 1999 campaign, when Qadry Ismael burned the Steelers for 258 yards receiving and 3 touchdowns. In the 2000 opener the Ravens kicked the Steelers teeth in to the turn of a 16-0 shutout which was not nearly as close as it appeared. The Ravens also won their 2001 regular season match up at Heinz Field.
That’s one that the Ravens might want back, because it was the last Baltimore victory at Pittsburgh during the Bill Cowher era, including the 2001 AFC Divisional Championship game, until Cowher’s final year.
  • The Steelers domination of the Ravens deepened during the beginning of the Mike Tomlin era.
Who can forget the Steelers 75h Anniversary game? In 2008 the Steelers first beat Baltimore in a regular season street fight that cost the team Rashard Mendenhall and Kendall Simmons, and then again in the AFC Championship.

In 2009, the Steelers defeated the self-destructing Ravens in a late season game at Heinz Field notable mainly for keeping the Steelers playoff games alive, at least mathematically, for another week. The Steelers of course didn’t get make the playoffs and….
  • Pittsburgh also hasn't beaten Baltimore at Heinz Field in the regular season since then.
That statistic of course ignores a the Steelers 2010 Divisional Playoff victory over Baltimore.

And while a playoff ‘W’ is worth a lot more than any regular season victory, consider:
  • Charlie Batch did his damdest, but the Steelers couldn’t hold back Joe Flacco in October 2010
  • The Steelers gave up a last second victory vs. Baltimore in 2011
  • Despite Byron Leftwich’s galloping heroics in 2012, the Steelers again lost to Baltimore at home
Since that fateful 2009 game, all of the Steelers regular season wins vs. the Ravens have come at Baltimore, including the 2010 December victory and Charlie Batch’s inspiring road upset.

If the 2013 Pittsburgh Steelers are to salvage their season, they must first begin by defending their turf against Baltimore.

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Friday, October 18, 2013

Mike Tomlin Right to Ban End Zone Somersault

Prelude - January 2, 2000, Three Rivers Stadium – The 6-9 Pittsburgh Steelers are en route to becoming the 6-10 Pittsburgh Steelers in a meaningless game vs. the Tennessee Titans. 

The game is sloppy. 

Both teams return fumbles for touchdowns. But it also features such low lights as Levon Kirkland getting muscled out of bounds by Neil O'Donnell, Wayne Gandy giving up yet another safety, and that of Bobby Shaw basking in garbage time glory by lifting his jersey to reveal a Superman shirt. Reflecting on the  erosion of discipline inherent in Shaw’s escapade  Bob Labriola of the Steelers Digest remarks, “This must never be repeated.”

The Pittsburgh Steelers have come a long way since then. And while it remains to be seen if the ’13 Steelers can improve on the ’99 Steelers mark for futility, they are exhibiting some similarities.

Witness Le’Veon Bell’s first touchdown during the loss in London (available as of 10/18/13):

Never let it be said that wide receivers conceded the spot light to running backs on the Steelers, and Emmanuel Sanders seemed intent on proving vs. the Jets (available as of 10/18/13):

There are a number of things wrong with these end zone somersaults:
  • At the very best, they’re a sign of excessive showboating the Steelers Nation loathes
  • In the middle, they create an unnecessary risk of an end zone fumble
  • At the worst, players are exposing themselves to potentially life altering injuries
Shaw’s Superman stint happened during the last game of the season, so their was no way to immediately address it. But, as Jerome Bettis often remarked, Bill Cowher reacted to that ’99 season by becoming more demanding. Such lapses of discipline disappeared during the Cowher-Colbert era.

Mike Tomlin said nothing publically about Bell’s end zone backflip after London. But he responded swiftly to Sanders’ imitation by banning such displays.

Tomlin made the right move.

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Thursday, October 17, 2013

NFL Injury Gods Hath No Mercy on the Steelers

Veteran Pittsburgh sport print and broadcast journalist John Steigerwald holds a well-earned reputation for controversy. But love him, hate him, agree or disagree with him everyone must accept that he has a way with words. Just ask Levi Brown:
Oh Levi, it feels like Steelers Nation hardly knew you. Which we did. After Jared Allen literally ran circles around Mike Adams in the Steelers Loss in London, Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert went looking for help, and their search took them to Pittsburgh West aka the Arizona Cardinals.

Bruce Arians sent his former employer a former number 5 overall pick in the form of Levi Brown for, well nothing.

Brown of course never saw action as a Pittsburgh Steelers, injuring his triceps in pre-game warmups ending his season as the Steelers put him on IR.
  • The injury gods were far from done with Pittsburgh, however.
David Johnson, who’d struggled back from a 2013 preseason ACL tear and was working his way into a quality No. 2 tight end injured his wrist vs. the Jets and will have season-ending surgery.

The “causes” of these injuries are anyone’s guess. But this is not the first time the Steelers have seen their roster devastated by injury. 2011 was one of the worst on record, 2012 was worse yet.
  • In 2013, the Pittsburgh Steelers are averaging one season ending injury per game.
Season ending injuries are up all over the NFL, but the Steelers have to figure to be one of the team’s pushing that average up.

Gordon, Green Signed as Replacements

To replace Levi Brown and David Johnson the Pittsburgh Steelers (again) activated Isaiah Green from the practice squad, and also signed former Oakland Raiders tight end Richard Gordon. Gordon is very much a blocking tight end, although he did catch his only touchdown vs. the Steelers in the upset at Oakland in 2012.

Door Open For Starks….?

Somewhat conspicuous in the Steelers that the Steelers replaced Brown with a tight end. It also leaves the door open for the return of Max Starks, who is currently on the unemployment line. Starks recently confirmed that he remains available and assumes that although his good friend Ben Roethlisberger has almost certainly put a good word in for him, the Steelers have not contacted him.

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Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Steelers Report Card vs. Jets at MetLife Stadium

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who for the first time all year, saw his students avoid those same-old self destructive tendencies here is the Steelers Report Card for the victory over the New York Jets. As a caveat, no other report cards have been consulted prior to this posting.

Ben Roethlisberger has shown he can move the ball, in spite of a terrible offensive line, but moving the ball and winning games are not the same thing. Vs. the Jets, Roethlisberger didn’t pass for as many yards, but he made each throw count, and on a day when the running game couldn’t get into second gear the Steelers racked up an enormous time of possession advantage. Clearly his best of 2013. Grade: B+

Running Backs
Le’Veon Bell got his second start and while he looked sharp on some runs, he struggled on others, although he did play well in the passing game. Felix Jones made the most of his carries, as did Jonathan Dwyer. While this unit’s play was “above the line” the Steelers had to punt the ball away several times while defending a lead in the second half. The Steelers will need more from this until. Grade:  C-

Tight Ends
Heath Miller really got things going for the Steelers with his 31 yard catch. Moreover, it is clear that everyone in the offense is better with Health on the field. David Paulson saw his time increase due to the injury to David Johnson, and did not attract attention to himself for the wrong reasons. Grade:  B

Wide Receivers
Antonio Brown again validated the Steelers decision to choose him over Mike Wallace, although his drop in the end zone was not helpful. Emmanuel Sanders likewise validated the coach’s move to convince the front office to match New England’s offer, although the end zone backflips need to stop. Brown also executed on a fake reverse with a completion to Bell, and avoided a costly mistake on another attempt. Overall a solid performance.  Grade:  B+

Offensive Line
Another week, another offensive line injury and configuration. The Steelers lost Levi Brown before the game started, and for one quarter this until looked “lost” in the first quarter of the season. But that changed after that, and Ben Roethlisberger found more time to throw as the game progressed. The improvements in pass blocking did not carry over the run blocking however. Kelvin Beachum’s holding class notwithstanding, this group put together an “above the line” performance. Grade:  C

Defensive Line
Brett Keisel led the unit in tackles despite not playing most of the second half. Cameron Heyward was making his first start, and if his stat sheet didn’t dazzle, it was his pressure that helped force Geno Smith into the Steelers first interception of the season. Ziggy Hood reacted to his demotion by getting a sack, a tackle for a loss, and a QB hit. While this unit’s play was solid, the Jets had enough success rushing the ball to suggest that Willie Colon was right in saying New York abandoned the run too soon. Grade:  B-

Lawrence Timmons’ interception sealed the victory for Pittsburgh and he was a force all over the field. LaMarr Woodley recorded another sack that ended a drive, and was in the backfield all day. Vince Williams smoked out a Jets attempt at trickery and improved. Jarvis Jones pressure helped secure another turnover and played well. Splash plays have been missing from the Steelers defense for too long, and the linebackers helped bring them back in a big way, even if they must shoulder some blame for the Jets success on the ground.  Grade:  B+

Early in the week the word out of the South Side via BTSC was that Ryan Clark would see his time reduced and might possibly be benched in favor of Shamarko Thomas. Whether that threat was real or mere rumor, Clark responded by leading the team in tackles and securing the first turnover of 2013. Troy Polamalu played well and kept Smith confused. Ike Taylor and William Gay’s names were not mentioned much, which is a good thing for cornerbacks. The Jets were 3-13 on third downs, and the secondary had a huge role in that. Grade:  B+

Special Teams
The Steelers did not give up a big return, but the Jets did enjoy some success in both their punt and kick returns. The Steelers return game did little of note. And there was the matter of the kick out of bounds. On the flip side, Zoltan Mesko’s punted deep, and Shaun Suisham was 4-4 including 2 from more than 40 yards out. It all balances out to an above the line performance. Grade:  C+

Technically, Dick LeBeau improved his record against rookie quarterbacks. His defense, even if it did give up yards, held the Jets to two field goals and shut them out in the second half. And if the Jets did move the ball a little more easily than one would like, LeBeau’s unit stopped two of those drives cold with turnovers. Todd Haley’s game plan was solid and the execution of it was above the line. The Steelers offense didn’t put points or yards up on the board in gobs, but they did protect both the ball and their quarterback.

Then their come the “style points.” There are no manuals for NFL coaches to consult when their teams start 0-4. Mike Tomlin made roster changes a plenty, and gave his team a fire and brimstone approach, going so far as to take away their pool cue sticks and ping pong balls. Such moves are easy to make, but results are not automatic. The fact that the Steelers hung in and continued to play in spite of a poor start, and then refused to take their foot off the gas when they had a lead is to Tomlin’s credit. Most importantly, for one week at least, Mike Tomlin found a way to keep his team from losing games. Grade: B+

Unsung Hero Award
The Steelers linebackers made plenty of noise, registering sacks, tackles for losses, and pulling in interceptions. Steelers Nation heard the names “Woodley” “Williams” “Timmons” and even “Jones” aplenty. But which linebacker led the unit in tackles? It wasn’t one of the four starters. Which linebacker made a key sack that prevented the Jets from answering the Steelers first field goal? It was none other than Jason Worilds and for that he is the Unsung Hero of the Pittsburgh Steelers victory over the New York Jets.

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Monday, October 14, 2013

Steelers Defeat Jets 19-6 - What It Means and Doesn't Mean

The 13th year of the 21st century has been unlucky for the Pittsburgh Steelers indeed. They lost three players for the year during the first game of the season alone.

But the roots of the 0-4 start suffered by the Steelers went far beyond simply bad luck. With each successive loss, in both what they did and what they failed to do, the Steelers actively lost games.

Against the New York Jets the Steelers, for one game at least, began to break that cycle.

Here We Go Again...

After the Steelers 19-6 victory over the Jets, Ben Roethlisberger mentioned that the NFL season divides into quarters, and that the Steelers after going 0-4 in the first quarter had started the second 1-0.

The metaphor of quarters is useful because the first quarter of the Steelers game against the Jets presented Steelers Nation with a rehash of the first quarter of the season.
  • The Steelers lost Levi Brown before the game even started
  • David Johnson would likewise be lost to injury
  • The Steelers offense couldn’t move
  • The addition of Kelvin Beachum to the offensive line did nothing to improve pass protection
  • Pittsburgh began each possession deep inside its own territory
Every NFL team encounters such adversity; the Steelers are hardly unique. As Mike Tomlin said after the Trashing vs. Tennessee, the Steelers opponents would in fact be glad the for the Black and Gold’s problems.

How would the Steelers react? Would they delve deeper into the rut that got them to 0-4 or would they, or perhaps the better question was, “could they” find a way to break out.

Moving the Chains, Clapping Down in the Red Zone, But….

The Steelers rally was neither spectacular nor transformational but rather workman like.

The Jets seems to smell blood in the water after forcing the Steelers to go three and out on Pittsburgh’s first two opening possessions the second of which resulted in them getting the ball 45.

As other teams have done, New York nickeled and dimed its way down the field, all the way to the Steelers 2. Yet on third and goal at the two, Cameron Heyward and Brett Keisel accomplished something that had been in short supply in 2013 – they kept an opposing team out of the end zone.
  • On the ensuring drive the Steelers shucked off sacks and holding penalties as Roethlisberger hooked up with Heath Miller and Antonio Brown for big gains in a drive that tied the game at 3.
On the next series the Steelers defense added novel element to their game – ending a drive via sack, as Jason Worilds brought down Geno Smith on third down. Another workman like drive and the Steelers were up by 3.
  • The cycle repeated itself.
The Steelers defense forced a three and out, this time with a LaMarr Woodley sack while the Steelers offense stitched together another field goal drive.

A 9 to 3 lead at the half isn’t much in today’s NFL, but it looks pretty good when you’re sitting on an 0-4 record. But the problem with that is that 0-4 teams get that way because of their inability to even hold on to such meager advantages.

And so it was that Geno Smith moved his team from the Steelers 28 and into field goal position, in spite of a hellacious (and legal) hit by Troy Polamalu.
  • The Jets closed the half down 9 to 6 and they were set to get the ball back.
How would the Pittsburgh Steelers respond? Would they learn yet another lesson in losing or would they break the mold?

“T” Marks the Spot for the Steelers in the Second Half

The Jets got the ball to start the second half in a possession which former Pittsburgh Steelers head coach declared would be the key to the game. The Steelers forced a three and out.

The Steelers next drive also consisted of 3 plays, but on third and one they drew blood as Emmanuel Sanders burned Antonio Cromartie on a 55 yard touchdown run.

Impressive as it was, this was not the key play for the Steelers in the second half, as the team, for all its troubles, had shown an ability to get into the end zone in the losses to the Bears and Vikings.

No, the key play would come on the next drive by the Jets who looked to answer the Steelers score by marching right down the field. The drive saw the Steelers give up a 29 yard gain and several other medium to short gains.

At 1st and 10 on the Steelers 23 the Jets looked poised to score again, and then the unspeakable occurred:
  • Ryan Clark secured the first turnover for the Steelers of the 2013 season.
In a blink of an eye, with Heyward pressuring Smith and Clark’s interception, the Steelers went from looking at least a 16 to 9 lead if not a more meager 16 to 13 lead to holding it to 16-6.

And that’s the story of the game. The Steelers didn’t dazzle for the rest of the half. The offense only scored 3 more points. But they protected their quarterback, protected the ball, and moved the chains efficiently enough to suck the oxygen out of the game.

Late in the 4th quarter the cycle repeated itself. The Jets, with just enough time to give the Steelers a run for their money, marched down to the Steelers 12. This time it was Jarvis Jones turn to apply the pressure while fellow linebacker Lawrence Timmons came up with the game sealing interception at the three.

What This Game Means, What It Doesn’t

It’s important that Steelers Nation and, more precisely, the Steelers locker room understand the true meaning of this victory.

The Pittsburgh Steelers triumphed over a Jet’s team that has and 7-9/8-8 third in its divisionish look to it.

The Steelers failed to run the ball effectively, at least until the final clock killing drive. An NFL offense that musters 3 field goals and 1 touchdown will not beat many contenders. The interceptions salvaged drives where the Jets moved the ball with startling ease.

Yet, if those negatives are real, so Pittsburgh's play revealed positives that have the potential to be just as real:
  • For the final three quarters the Steelers offensive line protected Roethlisberger pretty well
  • The Steelers defense applied decent (although far from dominating) pressure on the quarterback for the first time all season
  • The Steelers didn’t turn over the ball, and secured 2 turnovers in its own right
This game was very, very far from being a “statement game.” Yet the Steelers did shake the “no turnovers, no victories” monkey off their backs.

Most importantly, they broke the cycle of learning to lose. Next week at Heinz Field the Steelers have the chance to continue unlearning that lesson from a far more demanding teacher – the Baltimore Ravens.

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Sunday, October 13, 2013

Steelers Defeat Jets 19-6 - Rapid Reaction

Steelers Nation has waited a long time for this. Too long. And it is only 1 win that brings us to 1-4. But the Pittsburgh Steelers defeated the New York Jets 19-6, and that sure feels better than anything else seen in a long, long time.

To be sure, the Steelers were far from flawless in this contest. The first quarter was no different than the first four games, no running game, zero protection for the quarterback, 0-3 on offense, defense unable to make stops.

But the Steelers dug in and fought back. A lot of guys dug deep, and simply found it in them to make the plays necessary for victory. Among the highlights:
Todd Haley also called a phenomenal game, and his offensive line made the necessary adjustments to keep their quarterback up right for the bulk of the final three quarters. 

Steel Curtain Rising will be back later with a more complete analysis, but for now this is the Rapid Reaction - It feels good to win again.

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Steelers Nation Bids Farewell to LC Greenwood; The Steel Curtain Stands at Quarter Strength

Pittsburgh was never always synonymous with “Defense.” Chuck Noll began to changing that in 1969.

Noll inherited the 4th pick in the 1969 NFL draft thanks to Bill Austin’s “error” in not allowing him to pick O.J. Simpson. The Emperor picked Joe Greene instead in the first round.
  • Piece one of the Steel Curtain was in place
  • Nine rounds later he added piece two:  L.C. Greenwood
In 1971 he added Dwight White in the 4th round and then Ernie Holmes 4 rounds later.

And in an ironic twist of destiny, the good Lord has decided to take them back from us in reverse order.
Art Rooney Jr. Finds the Man with the Yellow Shoes

Chuck Noll employed many means in transforming the Pittsburgh Steelers from doormat to dominance. But one often overlooked aspect is his total colorblindness when it came to selecting players.
  • Noll didn’t care if you were black, white, yellow, or purple, he only cared if you could play.
With Noll’s attitude and Bill Nunn’s connections in the HBC network the Steelers uncovered gem after gem in the drafts of early 70’s while many other teams handicapped themselves with color quotas.

Art Rooney Jr., head of the Steelers scouting department, fully embraced this philosophy, having fought Noll’s predecessors who refused to pick African American players simply because they had already taken two of “them.”

And so it was that Art Rooney Jr. found himself on the campus of Arkansas A&M in late 1968. He was down there to check out some halfback whose name history has forgotten. He was also interested in looking at a defensive end named Clarence Washington.

But while he was watching tape of Washington, some other kid caught his attention. The kid was 6’6”. Rooney had noted that the kid was too tall for his position. Defensive ends that tall aren’t supposed to have leverage.
  • But this kid had leverage, and nothing stopped him in getting to the quarterback.
The Kid’s name was LC Greenwood, and he became the second most recognizable name on famed Steel Curtain Defense.

Unlike Greene, Greenwood didn’t start immediately, but when he did break the Steelers starting lineup in 1971 he made noise, quickly. Greenwood:
  • Forced five fumbles in 1971
  • Lead the team with 8.5 sacks in 1973
  • Notched another 11 sacks in 1974
  • Batted down two Fran Tarkenton passes in Super Bowl IX
  • Sacked Roger Staubach four times in Super Bowl X
When Greenwood was cut by the Steelers in 1982 he had 73.5 sacks, then a franchise high and still the number two mark.
  • Steelers Digest described Greenwood as “Cool. Confident. Smooth.” 
How confident?

Shortly before the 1974 AFC Championship game, Greenwood sat in the hallway outside the lock room in the Oakland Coliseum watching the Vikings and the Rams duke it out for the NFL crown. Gene Upshaw walked by and asked, “Whatta watchin LC?”
  • Greenwood deadpanned:  “Just watching to see who we’re going to play in the Super Bowl.”
Greenwood was also a leader both on and off the field, and one of the first Super Steelers to find commercial success. His Miller Light commercials were legendary.

But like so many of the Super Steelers, Greenwood’s off the field success was not simply a bi-product of his on the field fame. Chuck Noll wanted self-starters and hard workers on his team, and those traits carried the Super Steelers to success off it.

Greenwood was no exception, founding Greenwood Enterprises, which operated out of West Main Street in Carnegie and worked in engineering, coal, natural gas and highway operations. After that he led Greenwood-McDonald Supply Co., Inc., which supplied of electrical equipment to retail outlets and manufacturers.

Band of Brothers

The quartet of Greene, Greenwood, White and Holmes started out as teammates. They grew to be friends and ultimately brothers, sticking close together long after their playing days ended.

Dwight White’s wife recalled Joe Greene being so upset he could not even speak when he learned of “Mad Dog’s” death. And the first two people at White’s funeral were Greene and Greenwood.

White of course had gone into the hospital for back surgery, and ended up dying of a lung clot. As reported by Rick Gosselin of the Dallas Morning News, the normally upbeat Greenwood told Joe Greene he was apprehensive about his own back surgery due to what had happened to White.

But Greenwood, hobbled by a back injury, in pain and walking around on a walker and needed the surgery. Midway through the Steelers embarssing 0-4 loss in London to the Vikings, Greene got a call from Mel Blount informing him that Greenwood had died of kidney failure.

Now only Joe Greene remains, and the Steel Curtain permanently stands at quarter strength.

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