´ Steel Curtain Rising: December 2013

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

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for Victory Over Browns @ Heinz Field

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is pleased with the student’s work on the final exam, even if they didn’t quite qualify for the next level, this is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the victory over the Browns at Heinz Field. As a caveat, no other Steelers Report Cards were consulted prior to this posting.

Mike Tomlin went into the game saying 2013 had been Ben Roethlisberger’s best year. It may have been. But the Browns game wasn’t his best game, it wasn’t even one of his better ones. Roethlisberger threw one touchdown pass after several tries, but Roethlisberger was off often on Sunday, and threw two very ugly interceptions. Late in the game he suffered from several drops. A winning effort, to be sure, but nothing special. Grade:  C

Running Backs
Perhaps the training camp comparisons with Franco Harris were fair after all. Le’Veon Bell did not have a hundred yard game, but he came close and he caught a pass, and in doing so he broke Franco’s rookie total yards from scrimmage record. Bell completely owned the Browns on the Steelers second touchdown drive; such as it was, it put Cleveland away. Jonathan Dwyer and Felix Jones did what they’ve done all year, run hard and make show that they’re excellent supporting cast for the feature back. Will Allen blocked well and caught a pass. Grade:  A

Wide Receivers
A mixed bag for the wideouts, Antoino Brown tied the single season record for games with 5 or more catches and generally did what was asked of him although he had a drop late. Much can be said for Jerricho Cotchery, who caught his 10th touchdown of the season. In what was probably his last game of the season, Emmanuel Sanders caught two passes for 26 yards. Grade:  B-

Tight Ends
Heath Miller only caught two passes, but one started the Steelers first touchdown drive and the second kept its first field goal drive going. Matt Spaeth was not targeted in the passing game, but he was a force as a blocker. Grade: B

Offensive Line
Marcus Gilbert gave up a sack on a play where there was a miscommunication. But that was the only sack of the game, as Ben Roethlisberger had plenty of time to throw, and the running backs had space to run. Grade:  A-

Defensive Line
Cameron Heyward continues to come on like a one man wrecking crew, disrupting everything in his path. Brett Keisel had a strip sack in what might be his final game as a Steeler. Al Woods batted down a pass. Ziggy Hood registered a tackle and Steve McLendon was in on 3 before getting hurt. Grade: B

Lawrence Timmons may have gotten a Pro Bowl snub, but Steelers Nation knows what it has in 94 as he intercepted a pass, recorded a sack, and otherwise disrupted the Browns backfield. Chris Carter got his second start and recovered a fumble. Stevenson Sylvester also got plenty of playing time, and probably got himself an invitation to Latrobe next summer as a result. All in all a solid day for the linebackers. Grade:  B+

Troy Polamalu didn’t have any “splash plays” but was all over the field. Ryan Clark put in a solid game as did Will Allen. Cortez Allen defensed a pass and along with Ike Taylor, they helped contain Robert Gordon. Although this unit did have a good day, they must take some responsibility for the late Browns touchdown, where no one in the secondary was in position.  Grade:  B

Special Teams
After several weeks of sound and fury, it was a quiet day on special teams. Shaun Suisham was 2-2 and none of his kickoffs were returned. Brown was solid in punt returns. More importantly, the Steelers did not allow a long pick or punt return. Grade:  B+

The Cleveland Browns amassed a lot of yards vs. the Steelers in the first outing. Granted, some of that was glorified garbage time, but not all of it. Either way, Dick LeBeau ensured that it did not happen again. Todd Haley’s offense only put 20 points on the board, but that would have been higher had it not been for drops. Such was the tempo of the game that the Steelers only held a slight advantage in time of possession – but the Steelers offense dictated the tempo of the game, and the defense ensured that it stayed turning back four Brown 4th down attempts.

Mike Tomlin kept his team focused. Watching the sideline he continued coaching until the very end and took nothing for granted. His team didn't dominate, but it delivered. Grade:  B+

Unsung Hero Award
This young man entered the season facing a seemingly impossible situation. First round picks are expected to start as rookies. Rookies are not supposed to start in Dick LeBeau’s defense. This man was asked to do both, and when he lost his starting role it appeared that he might have made a step back. But this young player has learned and steadily, if not always visibly, gotten better during the season. Vs. the Browns he lead the team in tackles, defended a pass, got a tackle for a loss and and otherwise looked every bit like the rookie who’ll make the big second year jump. And for that Jarvis Jones wins the Unsung Hero Award for the victory over Cleveland.

Thanks for visiting. Click here for other Steelers Report Cards. Or, click here to follow Steel Curtain Rising on Twitter @SteelCurtainRis.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Steelers Defeat Browns, 20-7; Finish 8-8 But Out of Playoffs

For the second time in 364 days the Pittsburgh Steelers looked to close their season by reaching 8-8 with a win over the Cleveland Browns.

As it was last year, this looked to be Steelers Nation’s chance to say farewell to a number of Super Bowl veterans. While this symmetries make for a nice narrative, the true story lies in the differences between the Steelers situation now, and that of December 30th 2012.
  • First, unlike 2012, the Steelers had a thread-the-needle-on-a-roller coaster chance at making the playoffs.
A Steelers playoff appearance after the 0-4 start would have rivaled the comeback made by Steel Curtain Rising’s beloved 1989 Steelers. While that have would been nice, alas, it was not to be.
  • The real difference is in the direction the team is heading.
The 2012 Steelers started at 6-2 and finished 2-6. The 2013 Steelers have reversed that result. And perhaps more encouragingly, they’ve done so largely on the backs of emerging talent, which was evident in the win over the Browns.

Browns Offer Spirited Fight

Since returning to the NFL in 1999, the Cleveland Browns have largely been the NFL’s doormat, save for a burst of competiveness under Butch Davis in 2002 and a tease at in in 2007. But aside from that the Browns have been drafting well, and adding quality players to their roster.
  • The wise money in the AFC North has been that at some point the Browns would awaken.
That awakening did not occur in 2013, but that didn’t stop Cleveland from putting up a strong fight against the Steelers. While the Steelers offense might not have transformed itself into a juggernaut, the Browns held Pittsburgh to 20 points, and they did so on a day when their offense could do next to nothing.

The Steelers opened the game as Ben Roethlisberger directed a drive with machine line efficiency highlighted by a 24 yard pass to Antonio Brown and a 9 yard touchdown strike to Jerricho Cotchery in the end zone.

Cleveland appeared to be putting a similar drive together of its own, when Brett Keisel, in what is probably his final game as a Steeler, stripped Jason Campbell of the ball and Chris Carter recovered. The Steelers could not convert, as Roethlisberger threw an interception. The Browns however could not capitalize on the repossession, when their attempt on 4th and four failed.

The two teams traded three and outs, when the Steelers put together what was to be the definitive drive of the game, and one that perhaps previews what is to come in 2014.
  • Le’Veon Bell carried the ball 7 times and gained 41 yards as the Pittsburgh Steelers imposed their will on the Browns.
The drive consumed 8:17 off of the clock, and ended with a 5 yard touchdown run by Bell. Although Ben Roethlisberger hit Brown and Jonathan Dwyer on the drive with quick passes, the drive belonged to Bell, the young rookie who drew compraisons to Franco Harris before even touching the ball in preseason, ended up tying Franco’s total yards from scrimmage record before the day was over.

Saluting to the Past, Turning Towards the Future

CBS provided Steelers Nation with a great shot at the end of the game – Troy Polamalu, Brett Keisel, and Ryan Clark all seated on the bench together. As mentioned earlier, all three could be gone by next year.
  • It is fitting then that those three combined to for 15 total tackles and one of the team’s three sacks.
Add in contributions from other veterans such as Will Allen and Ike Taylor, and the defense that was “Old and Slow” got it done….
  • …But they didn’t do it alone, which is the important factoid to take out of the game.
Jarvis Jones led the team in tackles, and added in one for a loss and a pass defense. In some ways, Jones play in this finale brought back memories of Polamalu’s play in ’03 finale when he was a rookie

Lawrence Timmons was right behind Jones, and was all over the field as he has been all year, getting drive ending sack, tackling people behind the line of scrimmage, and defending a pass.

Cameron Heyward was back to his wrecking crew routine, registering a sack, stopping people for losses, and getting to the quarterback two other times.

Cortez Allen, while not having a perfect day, defended two more passes and had a hand in keeping Josh Gordon below 100 yards.

Kelvin Beachum, Ramon Foster, Cody Wallace, David DeCastro, and Marcus Gilbert only allowed one sack – completing one of the all time in-season turnarounds in NFL history.

Steelers 2014 Offseason Now Begins

The Pittsburgh Steelers entered the day needing a win. They got it. They needed Baltimore and Miami to lose. Both lost.

But Kansas City’s back ups, with nothing to gain, came close to beating San Diego, but alas they came up short. (Sorry, I did NOT see the runner’s knee down before the ball popped out on the fake punt; his helmet apparently popped off before he crossed the line. Another NFL blunder.)

For the second consecutive year, the Steelers finish 8-8 and out of the playoffs, which is a disappointment in a city that measures success in Super Bowls.
  • But this group of Pittsburgh Steelers has ever reason to hang their heads high.
This is a team that started 0-4 and then 2-6. From those ashes a team that couldn’t protect its quarterback, hold on to the ball, pressure opposing quarterbacks or create turnovers transformed itself into a team that was playing playoff caliber football.

And for that, Pittsburgh, Steelers Nation, and every member of the Steelers organization should be proud.

Thanks for visiting. Click here to check out the rest of Steel Curtain Rising. Or... 

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Steelers Prepare for Browns; Steelers Nation Prepares to Bid Farewell to Super Bowl Veterans

There’s something unique about high school sports – You know when someone’s playing time is done. My high school wrestling team had a tradition. During the final home match of the season, seniors would be called out to the mat, and recognized for wrestling one final time.
  • Sadly, the dynamic of personnel changes in the NFL rarely lends itself to such send offs.
This is unfortunate because as the Pittsburgh Steelers prepare to close their 2013 regular season vs. the Cleveland Browns, Steelers Nation is preparing to say farewell to several Steelers starters.

Fully 1/3 of the Steelers roster are unrestricted free agents. That figure includes some budding younger stars, in addition to several Super Bowl veterans.

New Meaning to “Young Money”

Ziggy Hood, Emmanuel Sanders, and Jason Worilds are just a few younger Steelers who will finish their time with the team, and look for their payday. NFL players do not reach free agency until after their fourth season. The average NFL career lasts fewer than four seasons. While that represents a harsh reality for younger players, it also means that second NFL contracts can leave a player set for life, if they manage their money properly.

The Steelers will look to retain some of those players, most notably Worilds, but salary cap realities dictate that they can’t retain everyone.
  • The three players mentioned have had interesting trajectories.
Ziggy Hood is the only first round draft pick and, although he’s flashed, his body of work is largely a disappointment, although Hood is far from an outright bust. Ironically, that fact might make it easy for the Steelers to retain him.

Emmanuel Sanders contributed early as a rookie, and Bruce Arians singled out his injury in Super Bowl XLV as a major complication in that losing effort. Yet Sanders has had injury issues, and has never quite reached a consistent level of play. With Markus Wheaton waiting in the wings, the Steelers are likely to let Sander walk.

Jason Worlids spent his first three NFL seasons fighting off injuries and comparisons to Dallas linebacker Sean Lee. Some of that is unfair, as he entered the league playing behind what, at the time, was the NFL’s best 1-2 outside linebacking duo in the form of LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison. Yet Worilds exploded this year to lead the team with 8 sacks. The Steelers would clearly like to keep him, but Woodley’s contract makes that complicated.

So Long to Super Bowl Veterans

Saying goodbye is always difficult, but some goodbyes are more difficult than others. And the game against the Browns figures to be the last for at least two – if not more, Super Bowl veterans.

During 2012 and 2011 Ryan Clark was probably the most underrated defensive back in the league. Clark was in on every play, laying in the wood on big hits, causing turnovers, and leading the defense. Yet Clark has slowed a step in 2013, and the Steelers invested their 2014 third round pick in trading up to get Shamarko Thomas.
  • Sunday’s game vs. the Browns will almost certainly be Clark’s last at Heinz Field.
Someday someone will probably make a movie about Brett Keisel. From 7th round pick to Super Bowl starter. Keisel joined the Steelers as part of Kevin Colbert’s best ever 2002 draft. He did his time on special teams, worked in spot duty, and assumed the starting role after Super Bowl XL. Keisel was once looked at as simply someone who could “hold his own” along side stars Aaron Smith and Casey Hampton. Yet by 2010 Keisel was the stud on the defensive line, and a leader off the field as well.
  • Like Clark, Steelers Nation will almost certainly say goodbye to Keisel on Sunday.
But the personnel upheavel may not be limited to free agents. And that’s where it really hurts….

Just like James Harrison last year, Troy Polamalu has one year remaining on his contract. Just like James Harrison he has injury history. Just like Harrison, Polamalu possess the unique On the Field Presence that allows him to make game changing plays. And just like Harrison, Polamalu represents a huge salary cap hit.
  • While the odds are probably greater than 50/50 that he’ll return, there’s still a very real possibility that Sunday’s game will be Polamalu’s final one in Pittsburgh.
And no, that does not exhaust the list. The emergence of Vince Williams and Terence Garvin coupled with the possibility of a Sean Spence return will likely make Larry Foote expendable. And Ike Taylor too could find himself a cap casualty, although Taylor will most likely be back.

Roster upheaval is always painful.  But Ben Roethlisberger will be 33 next year, the same age Joe Montana was when he won his last Super Bowl, making roster renewal a necessity.

Thanks for visiting. Click here to check out the rest of Steel Curtain Rising. Or... 

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Steelers Post-Thanksgiving Experience Reveals Roger Goodell's Hypocrisy, Endangerment of NFL's Integrity

Thanksgiving marks a critical juncture in the NFL schedule.

The 2012 Pittsburgh Steelers began Thanksgiving weekend with a 6-4 record, not world beating but something to be built upon, and finished the season at 8-8. In contrast, the '05 Steelers and '08 brethern put the pedal to the metal between Thanksgiving and New Years.

While it remains to be seen if the Steelers can right their ship to 8-8 once again at Heinz Field vs. the Browns the Steelers post-Thanksgiving experience has made one thing abundantly clear:
  • The NFL’s hypocrisy and Kangroo Court nature of justice under Roger Goodell are plain for the world to see.
Before continuing, let’s make one thing clear. Steel Curtain Rising does not subscribe to the idea that Goodell has a vendetta vs. the Steelers. In 2008 Goodell made it abundantly clear to Tim, John, Pat and Art Rooney, Jr. that he would do everything in his power to ensure that Dan Rooney and not Stanley Druckenmiller, owned the Steelers.
  • But the Steelers, like the rest of the NFL, are victims of his mercurial whims and rules that defy logic.
Let’s review the evidence.

Helmet Gate

In front of a national TV audience Le’Veon Bell scored a touchdown vs. the Baltimore Ravens on Thanksgiving night. Four officials signaled it.
  • Except he didn’t score.
In the ensuring helmet-to-helmet collision, Bell’s helmet came off. He and the defender left the game concussed. Yet, because the helmet came off before he crossed the goal, the touchdown was void.

The officials were sticking to the letter of the law. Declaring a play over when a helmet comes off makes sense. To allow helmetless playing to continue would open players to serious injury.
  • But in this case it creates a perverse incentive.
Defenders in goal line situations now have an reason to try to remove a ball carrier’s helmet. Sure, that would involve a penalty, but similar to intentional use of the hands by a non-goalie in soccer (see Uruguay’s team in the 2010 World Cup) some players might decide its worth the risk.

This is a hard case to legislate, and wouldn’t be a “Big Deal” if it were the worst. But its not….

Tomlin Sideline Shuffle Squared

That same Thanksgiving game saw Mike Tomlin step out on the field illegally. No flag was thrown, but Tomlin was fined, as he should have.
  • But of course in Goodell’s NFL, justice neither fair nor or consistent.
But the NFL made it clear, well no it didn’t actually, that they weren’t going to stop at a fine. No, the Steelers might lose draft picks. Why? Well, that was nebulous. Reporters gathered from NFL sources that the loss of picks would be determined if the Raven’s playoff chances were impacted by the 4 points they potentially lost on Jacoby Jones return (Cortez Allen was going to get him anyway.)
  • At least that was the early word.
A week later, the reports indicated that the Steelers would in fact lose draft picks. Of course there was nothing official about this, all news came via leak. Steel Curtain Rising has already called Goodell out for the Kangaroo Court nature of this incident, but the NFL’s hypocrisy has gotten worse since then.

See for yourself:

Darren Rizzi is illegally on the field vs. Steelers
That’s a Miami special teams coach Darren Rizzi clearly standing on the field of play during the Dolphin’s last second field goal attempt at the end of the first half. You know, the one where the Steelers almost scored on the return?

As the photo reveals, the official collided with Rizzi. Yet no flag was thrown. The NFL did announce a 10k fine.
  • So a head coach almost bumping into someone on the field is worth 100k, but a special teams coach actually bumping into an official is only worth 10k?
The difference in fines is defensible, but yhe worst part of this is that the NFL refuses to apply its own logic. Miami should have been penalized for the coach-official collision. It wasn’t. A half cannot end on a defensive penalty. So the Steelers should have gotten the ball on Miami’s 26 yard line with a free play.
  • That means the Steelers were denied a shot at a 43 field goal – not a gimmie in the snow, but makeable
Or Tomlin might have decided to let Ben Roethlisberger see if he could hook up in the end zone with Emmanuel Sanders, Jerricho Cotchery, or Heath Miller. Although Miami beat Pittsburgh by 6, 3 points could have changed the dynamic dramatically of the second half.
  • This doesn’t excuse the Steelers poor play which led the loss.
But given that Miami’s fine is less than the Steelers and they’re not losing draft picks, it does expose the horrendous hypocrisy behind Roger Goodell’s administration of NFL justice.

Charging Defenders Are Defenseless Players Too...

As everyone knows, the Steelers first return for a touchdown in eons, thanks to Antonio Brown, was made possible by an illegal hit by Terence Garvin on the Bengals punter. Garvin made contact with the helmet, but that wasn’t his only infraction.
  • Kickers and punters are considered to be defenseless players, and hence cannot be hit above the shoulders.
That’s  right. Even though Kevin Huber was trying to tackle Brown, even though Shaun Suisham has the same number of tackles as Curtis Brown, kickers are defenseless.

This is totally inane. There’s no way kick return teams can be expected to stop and check to see if a would-be tackler is a kicker or not. That’s not even good science fiction.

The rule defies logic. Don’t expect it to change soon. This is Goodell’s NFL.

What? Change of Possession Not Reviewable?

Then of course there was a blocked field goal vs. Green Bay. You know the sequence of events:
Steelers get hit with an illegal batting penalty – you’re not allowed to bat a loose ball to your own end zone. But wait, Clark had possession and was down by contact, Mike Tomlin protested.
  • No, argued the ref, possession on this play is not reviewable. What?
That’s right, you can review whether a quarterback’s arm moved a millimeter forward, you can challenge an inch or two on the spot of the ball, but you apparently can’t review change of possession on a blocked kick?

Sadly that’s the case.

Justice in Goodell’s NFL Not about Fairness

Justice should be blind and impartial. Yet, justice in Roger Goodell’s NFL, vision is selective and it is very partial, partial to Goodell’s whim of the moment.

There’s an ugly fact that NFL fans might we wise to accept:
  • Roger Goodell wants it that way
This observation was made by Neal Coolong of Behind the Steel Curtain who declared:
Goodell is not concerned with "fair." He's never said he doles out "fair" punishment. He doles out punishment intended to make headlines and deter players/teams from repeating similar behavior.
But as the above incidents highlight, Goodell’s not having that effect. These Steelers-centric examples of illogical rules, uneven punishment, and blown calls have plagued the rest of the NFL this entire season.

Goodell would do well to begin focusing on being fair, because his arbitrary administration of justice combined with illogical rules have reached a point where even the most avid NFL fans are questioning the integrity of the game.

Does Roger Goodell really want that as his legacy? Because right now this is the direction he is heading in.

Thanks for visiting. Click here to check out the rest of Steel Curtain Rising. Or... 

Steelers Pro Bowl Honors for Brown, Polamalu; Snubs for Roethlisberger and Worilds

A day after being named the Pittsburgh Steelers MVP for the second time in just four years, wide receiver Antonio Brown received another honor – he was voted to the Pro Bowl, also making this his second appearance.

Pro Bowl voters also honor Steelers safety Troy Polamalu, naming him to his eighth Pro Bowl appearance.

Pro Bowl Voters Snub Roethlisberger

One Pittsburgh Steelers who most certainly deserved Pro Bowl honors but was denied them was quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. As Neal Coolong of Behind the Steel Curtain indicated, Roethlisberger has a higher passer rating (93.7) than Cam Newton and Tom Brady and has more touchdown passes and passing yards than Russell Wilson, all three of whom made the cut.

What Other Steelers Got Snubbed?

Given that the Steelers enter their week 17 match up vs. the Browns and for the second consecutive year are looking for a victory over Cleveland to save them from a losing season, Pittsburgh did not figure to field many Pro Bowlers.

Still, Jason Worilds who has recorded 8 sacks in only 11 starts should have been given consideration. Another player who came on strong is Cameron Heyward who has four sacks, multiple pass defenses, and has been a one man wrecking crew on the defensive line.

Fellow linebacker Lawrence Timmons who has been a force in the middle and made plays consistently all year, despite having to make the defensive calls and help rookies like Vince Williams and Terence Garvin, should have gotten an invite as well.

Steelers guard David DeCastro, their 2012 first round draft pick who is starting his first full season, has established himself as a force to be reckoned with as an interior offensive lineman, also should have been considered.

Realistically, the only other Steelers player who might have had an outside chance at selection was tight end Heath Miller, but he missed four games, and did suffer some key drops, although his play has been strong all season and was one of the big factors fueling the Steelers rebound from the 0-4 start.

Thanks for visiting. Click here to check out the rest of Steel Curtain Rising. Or... 

Friday, December 27, 2013

Two Time Steelers MVP Antonio Brown Stands in Elite Company

Wide receiver Antonio Brown may only be in his fourth year in the NFL, but yesterday he equaled the accomplishments of John Stallworth, Louis Lipps, and Terry Bradshaw when his teammates selected him as the Pittsburgh Steelers Most Valuable Player for the second time in his career.

And Antonio Brown is having a fine season indeed.
  • Brown has had at least five catches in each of the 15 games he has played in
  • Brown is third in total receiving yards and catches, and 4th in catches of 20 yards plus
  • Brown is also third in the NFL in punt returns, where he has also scored a touchdown
Just two years ago, when Antonio Brown won his first Steelers MVP award, the franchise faced a decision. Would they opt to resign the budding second year player in Brown or would they lean towards Mike Wallace. Wallace’s drops and his hold out made the issue easy for the Steelers.

The Steelers took an unprecedented step in extending Brown’s contract as he was entering his third season. And while it would be a unfair to say that Brown played poorly in 2012, he was inconsistent along with the rest of “Young Money.” Some wondered if they Steelers had jumped the gun in offering the contract.

Today there is no need to debate the question.

Brown Now in Elite Company 

In his fourth season Brown has grown beyond being simply a bright young receiver, he’s now on the verge of establishing himself as one of the NFL’s elite players.
  • And that would be fitting with the honor just bestowed upon Brown by his teammates. 
Since the Pittsburgh Steelers began recognizing Most Valuable Players in 1969, ten players have won the MVP Award more than once:

Jack Lambert, 2 (HOF)
Terry Bradshaw, 2 (HOF)
John Stallworth, 2 (HOF)
Louis Lipps, 2
Rod Woodson, 2 (HOF)
Greg Lloyd, 2
Jerome Bettis, 2
Levon Kirkland, 2
Hines Ward, 3
James Harrison, 2

As the list above indicate, good players don’t win Pittsburgh Steelers MVP awards. Great ones do.

Bell Named Rookie of the Year

Brown was not the only award winner this week at the South Side. Le’Veon Bell was named by the Pittsburgh Steelers Pro Football writers associate as the “Joe Greene Great Performance Award Winner” aka Rookie of the Year. Past award winners who remain with the Steelers include Ben Roethlisberger, Troy Polamalu, Maurkice Pouncey, Marcus Gilbert, and Mike Adams.

The same group awarded Ike Taylor the “Chief Award” given to the member of the Steelers who cooperates the best with the media.

Thanks for visiting. Click here to check out the rest of Steel Curtain Rising. Or... 

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Merry Christmas to Everyone in Steelers Nation

Well, here we are, Christmas 2013. For the first 21 years of my life, Christmas meant one thing with almost complete certainty – a trip to Pittsburgh. No, we never spent Christmas day itself in the ‘Burgh, (except perhaps for once, when I was very little), but we always drove up there the day after Christmas.

When I was young, Steelers gear, and Steelers posters were frequent presents from my grandparents, and aunt and uncle. My grandparents were not big sports fans, but this was the end of the first Super Bowl era, and support for the Steelers was a natural part of civic pride. I can remember going up to my grandpa Bill one year, him sitting in his green chair, wearing a Steelers sweatshirt and him asking “Who are you, Rocky Bleier?” I said yes, having no idea about Rocky’s incredible story.

One year it snowed, and there are pictures of my cousin David towing me around my aunt and uncle’s first house in Monroeville with a Steelers jacket on – a jacket I’d later inherit and proudly wear in future winters down inside “Redskins Territory” despite the plunge the franchise took in the 80’s.

When I got older, and had made a conscious decision that the Steelers were “My team” and began following the club long distance from Maryland (mind you, no internet on those days, although the Washington Post did have good national NFL coverage) those trips to Pittsburgh gave me a window into some key moments of the club’s history.

1987 brought my introduction to Myron Cope, as the Steelers eliminated themselves from the playoff’s vs. the Browns at Three Rivers Stadium in Mark Malone’s final game as a Steeler. More significantly, the game was also John Stallworth and Donnie Shell’s finale with the franchise, leaving only Mike Webster and Dwayne Woodruff as the last holdovers of the Super Steelers.

1988’s entrance to Grandma’s house on Ceadercove was met by a KDKA news anchor leading off with this:
  • “Rumors are flying around faster than a quarterback can throw them. Is Chuck Noll out a Steelers head coach?”
The Steelers had just finished 5-11, and Noll buckled when Dan Rooney asked him to fire some coaches. It was the intervention of Joe Greene that got both men to step back from the ledge.

1991’s arrival coincided with Chuck Noll’s retirement. We didn’t make it into the city in time for the press conference, but I remember my Grandmother telling me that Noll had been visibly ready to cry.

1992’s trip brought us there in time for the regular season finale vs. Cleveland. This was the game where Barry Foster broke the franchise’s rushing record, which in spite of everything that Jerome Bettis accomplished, stands today.

It also marked Bubby Brister’s final game with the Steelers. A week early the fans at Three Rivers Stadium had been booing him, but they were chanting “Bubby, Bubby, Bubby” before he was done. After the game, he made his famous declaration that he was glad to answer his critics, saying “I won’t mention any names, just initials, O.J. Simpson.”

Merry Christmas, Steelers Nation

Whether this Christmas finds you in Pittsburgh, as a product of the Diaspora celebrating in parts elsewhere, or simply as a citizen of Steelers Nation without any familial or geographic tie to the City of Pittsburgh, everyone here at Steel Curtain Rising wishes you a very Merry Christmas.

Thanks for visiting. Click here to check out the rest of Steel Curtain Rising. Or... 

Steelers Report Card for Victory over Green Bay @ Lambeau

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is beginning to wonder if some all night cramming might just allow his student to thread a needle on a rollercoaster, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the victory over Green Bay at Lambeau Field. As a caveat, no other Steelers grades or report cards have been consulted prior to this posting.
Steelers Grading Scale

Ben Roethlisberger only threw for 167 yards doing that in 28 attempts with 16 completions. However, Roethlisberger threw for two touchdowns and ran for another and was quite impressive in each instance. While each of those is a positive, Roethlisberger's accuracy issues late in the game, both before and after the costly, and wholly inexcusable, interception that got Green Bay back into the game. While those errors do not negate a strong performance in a hostile environment in the face of the elements, those are the kind of mistakes that separate the "good" performances from the truly great. Mat McBriar went 1-1 and became the first Australian to complete an NFL pass. Grade: B

Running Backs
All season long Mike Tomlin has been promoting and defending his second round draft pick. While Tomlin's praise has not been hollow, it has long hinged on the premises such as "staistics can lie," "considering the line blocking in front of him," and/or "also taking into consideration is pass catching." NONE of those qualifications are necessary today. Le'Veon Bell ran for 124 yards, and did so in impressive fashion, including a 25 bust the immediately followed his first NFL fumble. While Bell rightly draw praise for his performance. Jonathan Dwyer continues to run like each touch is his last, helping set up a go ahead score with back-to-back 7 yard rushes and catches, respectively. Felix Jones had one carry for 7 yards. Grade: A

Tight Ends
Heath Miller led the group with three catches for 17 yards. Matt Spaeth came in second, pulling down 1 catch for 11 yards -- for a touchdown. The rushing game has picked up for late and that has coincided with Spaeth's return to the line up. Actually, the two events are far from coincidental. Playing on special teams, tight end David Paulson caught one pass for 30 yards, and drew a 15 yard unsportsman like conduct penalty to boot, setting up a Roethlisberger's touchdown run. All in all, a very strong night for the tight ends. Grade: A

Wide Receivers 
During the Packer's game, Ben Roethlisberger targeted Antonio Brown with short, medium and long passes. Brown caught them all and about the only thing he did not do was to score a touchdown, although he set up a couple. Other than that, it was a quiet night for the receivers, with Emmanuel Sanders catching two passes -- although one was for a touchdown, while Jerricho Cotchery caught another pass. Cotchery did have an important drop late in the game. Markus Wheaton got into the game, but broke another finger. Grade: B

Offensive Line
My has this unit continued to evolve, in the face of roster shuffles and injuries. Ben Roethlisberger was only sacked once which is notable because it stands in contrast to other recent games where he was not sacked at all. Outside of a momentary lapse by Kelvin Beachum, the line's performance was strong all day long - and this includes plenty of plays when Green Bay's secondary kept the Steelers receivers blanketed. More important, on a snowy day when it was essential to get the running game established, the Steelers offensive line did just that. Grade: A-

Defensive Line
Measured by pure numbers, Cameron Heyward lead the unit with 6 tackles and a pass defensed, but the real start was Brett Keisel, who sacked Matt Flynn and two plays later recovered his fumble. Ziggy Hood and Steve McLendon each registered a tackle apiece. The truth is that the Packers enjoyed a lot of success running the ball, and their ability to do so was one of the facets which kept them in the game. This doesn't solely rest on the shoulders of the defensive line, but responsibility beings there. Grade: C

LaMarr Woodley went on IR early in the week. Jarvis Jones got the flu in Green Bay. Terence Garvin was lost during the game. Jason Worilds also fell injured and had to come out for a time, but he returned and his pressure set up Keisel's sack. Worilds himself had a sack, as did Lawrence Timmons. Stevenson Sylvester, who saw time at OLB, had a sack negated by a penalty. Vince Williams made another key, behind the line of scirmmage tackle. All and all, a respectable performance by a depleted linebacking corps.  Grade: B

Ryan Clark led the team in tackles. Troy Polamalu defended a pass and forced the fumble that set up the Steelers game-winning score. The real star of the show was Cortez Allen, who defended two passes, and notched the secondary's second pick six of the season. William Gay, Will Allen, and Ike Taylor all posted strong games. Grade: B+

Special Teams
On the plus side, Danny Smith's special teams units are starting to show themselves capable of making waves. A week after an electrifying punt return for a touchdown, the Steelers converted a fake punt, pulling it off masterfully. Smith's unit also blocked a field goal, which should have been a critical play after an awesome defensive stop. Add to that Antonio Brown's 41 yard punt return and Emmanuel Sanders 54 yard kickoff return, and the Steelers special teams was a potent strike force.

From these pluses the successes of Green Bay's kick return team must be subtracted. Michael Hyde had a 70 yard kick return that would have gone for six had it not been for Shamarko Thomas impressive run down. Even if you subtract that long gain, Green Bay still averaged 25 yards a kick return, which is far too high of an average. Shaun Suisham's two tackles are two too many. Special teams splash plays are nice, but the goal is to be the splasher, not both the splasher and the splashee. Grade: C+

Dick LeBeau's defense continues to be vulnerable to the run, a weakness which at this point can only likely be contained instead of cured. Still, the Steelers played smart defense, as the unit both created turnovers and got Green Bay off the field on special teams. For the second straight week the Steelers offense had good overall production numbers, but poor third down conversions. Given that one game remains in the season, we'll likely never know if this is a statistical anomaly or some under the radar trend. Regardless, Todd Haley's offense put 31 points on the board, registering scores in each and every quarter. They also produced a 100 yard rusher and protected their quarterback.

To the credit of both coaching staffs, both squads had been written off for dead early in the season, and both were playing with fire and gusto. Yet with so much riding on the line, it was Mike Tomlin's squad that showed the greater poise, as Green Bay hurt itself with several unsportsman like conduct penalties, its two pre-snap penalties on its last defensive and offense series were literally killers. Tomlin's men kept their cool under fire and avoided those mistakes. The only real critique of the coaching can be moving away from the running game late in the game. Grade: A-

Unsung Hero Award
Over the better part of the last two seasons the phrases "The Standard is the Standard" and "Next Man Up" have been mocked by the more cynical factions within Steelers Nation. And with good reason. The 2012 Steelers defense was noticeably better with Troy Polamalu, Will Allen, and James Harrison than it was without them, just as the 2013 offense improved greatly with the additions of Miller, Bell, and Spaeth.

These contrasting examples notwithstanding, Mike Tomlin's insistence that anyone who reaches the NFL should be capable of a "winning performance" is a valid philosophy, and the play of these two men shows why. Both of these players woke up on game day without even knowing if they'd be dressing, let alone playing, let alone starting. Yet that is what happened. Chris Carter ended up getting the start for Jarvis Jones and Stevenson Sylvester got a lot of playing time on the outside when Worilds went down. While neither man will be confused for the second coming of Chad Brown, both put in a winning performance and for that they're the Unsung Hero Award winners for the victory over Green Bay.

Thanks for visiting. Click here for other Steelers Report Cards. Or, click here to follow Steel Curtain Rising on Twitter @SteelCurtainRis.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Steelers Defeat Green Bay Packers @ Lambeau 38-31, Stay Alive in AFC Playoff Race

The Pittsburgh Steelers and the Green Bay Packers. The NFL’s two most storied franchises. Two monuments to the Frost Belt’s indomitable, enduring spirit. Two franchises fighting for their playoff lives, playing on Lambeau Field the NFL’s most hallowed ground, playing in late December, playing in the snow.
  • As John Madden would have said, “This is what the game of football is all about.”
On top of that, recent history of this series has shown that games between Green Bay and Pittsburgh played under these conditions go down to the wire.
  • In 1995, Yancey Thigpen’s last second drop in the end zone decided it for the Packers
  • In 1998, the Steelers built up a 27 point rally, only to find themselves fending off a furious Brett Favre rally
  • In 2009, it to a Ben Roethlisberger to Mike Wallace hook up with 5 second remaining to break a 5 game Steelers losing streak
  • In 2011, there was of course Super Bowl XLV
This contest brought it all, big plays, smash mouth football, surprises, reversals, and drama.

For Whom the Bell Tolls

Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin threw down a gauntlet of sorts mid week when he took a question asking if the Steelers would pick Le’Veon Bell over Eddie Lacy of the Packers. Tomlin didn’t flinch. The Steelers would take Bell no ifs ands or butts.

While you’d expect a head coach to pubiclly back his player, it was some statement given that Lacy has outrushed Bell, Bell had not posted a 100 yard game, and indeed in 5 of 11 games Bell’s rushing average failed to crack the 3.0 threshold.

Le’Veon Bell entered the game as a man with something to prove, and it was evident early on that he was going to prove it. Numbers don’t lie. To open the game:
  • Bell took his first carry for 11 yards
  • His second went for 5 yards
  • His fourth went for 22 yards and his fifth for another 7
By the end of the first half, Bell had 71 yards. Yet it was in the second half that he would prove his mettle.

NFL games are emotional affairs. Playing with emotion is fundamental, but emotion can be tricky. All emotion to fuel too much of your effort, and you’ll crush yourself in the highs and lows encountered in the course of a normal game.

Students of the game can find no better illustration of this than what transpired in the last 7 minutes of the third quarter. And Le’Veon Bell was a the center of it.

A picture perfect Green Bay punt left the Steelers with the ball at their 2. Bell coughed up the ball on the ensuing play, Green Bay got possession at Pittsburgh’s two. The Steelers defense amazingly held. Danny Smith Special teams delivered a blocked field goal, thanks to Steve McLendon.
  • What followed was yet another exhibition in the utter incompetence of NFL officiating.
Ryan Clark clearly recovered the ball for the Steelers, yet the officials refused to review the play, letting penalty of Ziggy Hood stand, giving Green Bay the ball back at the Steelers two.

Did you have an angry football team after that blocked field goal?
Mike Tomlin: I am not going to speak for them. I was angry.

Bell is of course a rookie, and he chose the worst possible time, in the worst possible field position, to make his first NFL fumble. And it cost his team 7. How would he respond?
  • On his next carry, Bell shot through the Packer’s defense like a cannon for 25 yards.
Emotion, when managed correctly in the NFL, can be a powerful weapon, and 5 plays later, including a great 7 yard run followed by a 7 yard catch from Jonathan Dwyer, and Ben Rothlisberger was hooking up with Matt Spaeth to put the Steelers back ahead, 24-21.

And the Steelers were only getting started. On the next play from scrimmage, Cortez Allen read Matt Flynn perfectly, picked off his pass and speed 40 yards into the end zone for his first pick six.
  • In a span of less than 3 minutes, the Steelers had scored 2 touchdowns, and held a ten point lead
But it wasn’t over yet, not by a long shot.

Spirit of Lombardi Still Runs Strong in Green Bay

Teams that give up such scoring sprees rarely win games, and often times fold. But not these Green Bay Packers. The Packer’s next possession ended in a three and out. Perhaps they were, in fact folding.

Yet the Steelers next possession lasted one play, as Ben Roethlisberger, in trying to hit Heath Miller, threw a bad interception. Green Bay drove all the way to the Steelers 4 yard line, but the Steelers defense held, bringing the Packers within 7.
  • The Steelers next possession ended with a three and out.
It only took Green Bay five plays to move down the field, where John Kuhn ran it in for one yard, making Mike Tomlin regret that Bruce Arians talked him into cutting the kid back on ’07. The score was now tied at 31-31 with 7:14 left to play.

It Pays to Play to Win… And to Focus…

The Steelers couldn’t make anything of their next drive, and were forced to punt. It was time for the Steelers defense to deliver, and they did on a series that belonged to Brett Keisel. Keisel sacked Matt Flynn at the Packers 5. After a 5 yard pass, Flynn seeing no one open opted to run for it. Troy Polamalu stripped the ball, and Keisel recovered.
  • Gaining the ball, at the 17, the Steelers could only move to the 7 before Mike Tomlin was forced to send in the field goal unit, when iron struck.
When questioned about penalties, former Steelers coach Bill Cowher always made a distinction between pre-snap and post-snap penalties.

The latter did not worry him as much, because he said you never wanted to temper a players enthusiasm for the game. The former, however indicated a lack of focus. Given that Green Bay has 5 former Cowher assistants, players or draftees on their staff, they might have done well to internalize that bit of The Chin's wisdom.
  • A Steelers field goal would have given them the lead, but would have given Green Bay the ball back with over a minute and a time out.
Green Bay was penalized for on the field goal attempt, and the Steelers got a first down.
  • Mike Tomlin did not hesitate, he instead played to win, and Le’Veon Bell scored a touchdown.
Green Bay got a monster return, and drove to the Steelers 1. Overtime looked to be a certaintly when the Packer’s lack of focus struck again.
  • A false start penalty cost the Packers 5 yards and 10 seconds off of the clock.
All time had run off the clock by the time Matt Flynn tried to hit Jarrett Boykin in the end zone, but his pass was too high.

The Pittsburgh Steelers had just walked into one of the NFL’s most sacred playing fields in late December and won the game. And in doing so the team that started the year at 0-4 gave itself a shot at playing week 17 with a chance to make the playoffs.

As John Madden said, this is what the game of football is all about.

Thanks for visiting. Click here to check out the rest of Steel Curtain Rising. Or... 

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Echoes of Pittsburghese, Cowher Power Heard in Green Bay Packers Coaching Staff

Steelers Nation may never excuse Bill Cowher for his rabid choosing for the Carolina Coyotes over the Pittsburgh Penguins, but they could perhaps forgive their former standard bearer if he showed more divided loyalties in the Steelers upcoming game vs. Green Bay.

Green Bay Packer’s head coach is a Pittsburgh native but, despite deep ties to Western Pennsylvania, he has no connection to the Black and Gold.
  • The same cannot be said for much of his staff.

Both coordinators are former Bill Cowher assistants. Green Bay’s defensive signals caller is none other than Dom Capers, who worked as Cowher’s first defensive coordinator from 1992 to 1994, until he took the head coaching job at Carolina and was replaced by Dick LeBeau.

Supporting Capers are none other than two branches on the Dick LeBeau Coaching Tree, Kevin Greene and Darren Perry, coaching the Packers linebackers and defensive backs, respectively.

Greene of course manned the outside linebacker slot opposite Greg Lloyd from 1993 until Super Bowl XXX in 1995. Derry served as Cowher and Caper’s free safety (who played so well as a rookie in training camp, he made Pro Bowler Thomas Everett expendable) until 1998, and returned to coach defensive backs for Cowher from 2003 to 2006.
  • But Cowher Power’s echo isn’t solely heard on Green Bay's defense.
Tom Clements is the Green Bay Packers offensive coordinator. In 2001, Bill Cowher hired Clements to be the Steelers first quarterbacks coach since Bill Parilli held those duties in 1973. During that time Clements guided Kordell Stewart through the most productive phase of his career.

Further down the coaching roster is Alex Van Pelt. Former Pitt quarterback Van Pelt of course isn’t a former Steeler, technically, but the Steelers did draft him in 8th round of the 1993 draft. Van Pelt couldn’t beat out Rick Strom for the third string quarterbacking position, got cut, and eventually caught on with the Buffalo Bills, where he enjoyed 9 year career as a back up.

With Green Bay fighting for a playoff spot and Aaron Roger’s return pending, you can bet that the Packer’s coaching staff has forgotten any hometown team sentimentalities.

But win or lose, its not hard to imagine “Yinz looked pretty strong ought there” and “So did yinz” being exchanged during post game handshakes.

Thanks for visiting. Click here to check out the rest of Steel Curtain Rising. Or... 

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Steelers Place LaMarr Woodley on IR; Face "Dammed if you do, Dammed if you don't" Situation

So at an early age he hits the street, winds up tied with who he meets and he’s, un-employed! Folks are over joyed…” Van Halen, “The Cradle Will Rock.”

Perhaps the opening quote is somewhat taken out of context and on top of that not quite analogous. But it sums up the sentiment perfectly. With two games remaining in their 2013 season, after Mike Tomlin describing his status as “bleak,” the Pittsburgh Steelers placed outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley on injured reserve, ending his season. To take Woodley's place, the Steelers signed NFL journeyman Jamaal Westerman.
  • The Steelers ladies and gentleman, have a major problem on their hands.
And there’s no easy solution in sight.

When healthy, LaMarr Woodley is one of the best outside linebackers in the NFL. His ability to get to the quarterback in post-season is almost uncanny. He registered two sacks in as a rookie in the ’07 Steelers playoff loss to Jaguars. And he didn’t even start. And for all the link that James Harrison, Ben Roethlisberger, and Santonio Holmes drew for Super Bowl XLIII, it was Woodley who strip sacked Kurt Warner, sealing the game.
  • The Steelers quite logically rewarded these efforts with a six year 61.5 million dollar contract.
Yet in the three years since Woodley signed the deal, he’s missed 14 full games and large parts of 3 others. And in 2011 he was flat out ineffective upon returning from the injury.

As has been the pattern, Woodley started strong, recording 5 sacks in the Steelers first 6 games, but then got injured after the Steelers victory over Baltimore. As Allan Robinson of the Tribune Review pointed out, Woodley has only played in 78 of the Steelers 420 snaps of the Steelers second season.
  • The logical move, not to mention the cold, calculating move, would be to cut Woodley and divert those “resources” to resigning Jason Worilds
The move would be logical, except for the fact that the Steelers have renegotiated Woodley’s contract several times. Cutting him next year would leave them with $14.17 million in dead salary cap space in 2014 – eating up a huge chunk of salary cap space – more than 10 percent of it.
The Steelers have shown little sentimentally in parting ways with injury-prone players, having cut Willie Colon just two years into a four year contract.
  • However, the move to cut Willie Colon also highlights the risk factor involved.
Yes, the Steelers have had good play from Ramon Foster and David DeCastro in the middle, but Colon has started 14 straight games for the New York Jets.

The Steelers have many difficult choices facing them in the impending off season and LaMarr Woodley just made it more difficult for them.

Thanks for visiting. Click here to check out the rest of Steel Curtain Rising. Or...