Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Tuesday with Tomlin

Mike Tomlin didn't have a lot to say at his weekly press conference Tuesday, less than 12 hours after his team defeated Houston, 30-23, Monday night to improve to 4-3.

But he did say that he expects both linebacker Ryan Shazier and safety Shamarko Thomas to return this week from injuries.

Shazier has missed the past four games with a knee injury, while Thomas has been out a couple of weeks with a hamstring issue.

Getting Shazier back for Sunday's game against Indianapolis will be a big boost.

The Colts throw more to their receivers and tight ends than perhaps any team in the NFL, especially near the goal line. Tight ends and running backs account for 14 of the Colts' 19 touchdown passes this season and 17 of the team's 25 total touchdowns for the season.

Shazier's speed and explosiveness could be a factor in helping defend those kind of plays.

@ On his weekly radio bit with a local station, Ben Roethlisberger said that it was Tomlin who called the end around option pass by Antonio Brown that resulted in a 3-yard touchdown pass from Brown to Lance Moore.

I'm told that was not the case, and Tomlin brushed off questions about who made the call to run that particular play, saying only that he takes responsibility for all of the play calls.

It seems silly, but A. That's a play that the Steelers work on all the time because it's one of their core 2-point conversion plays. And B. Offensive coordinator Todd Haley made the play call.

Some have taken issue with the Steelers calling that play at that time.

But this was a team that had been struggling in the red zone. Why not put the ball in the hands of your best playmaker - who was a high school quarterback, by the way - and let him make a play?

Brown is smart enough that he knows to throw the ball away or tuck it and run in that situation if nothing is there.

Sometimes, Roethlisberger baffles me with the things that he says and why he says them.

@ Tomlin said he felt that Brown's touchdown catch in the fourth quarter should not have been overturned.

The play was originally ruled a catch and there didn't seem to be enough to overturn the play. In fact, Brown later tweeted a photo that showed some separation between his feet and the sideline.

A photo by Pittsburgh Tribune-Review photographer Chaz Palla also showed Brown had both feet in bounds cleanly with the ball in his possession.

But Brown stepped over the line when he tweeted the photo and also made a derogatory comment towards the officials.

He will likely draw a fine from the NFL for that.


Post-Houston thoughts

I've been doing this for a long time and have never seen a game turn so dramatically in such a short period of time.

The Steelers went from dead in the water to up 11 points at halftime before the Texans had time to realize what had happened.

Right after the Steelers kicked a field goal with just over three minutes remaining to cut the Texans' lead to 13-3, I tweeted that the best thing to happen at that point was that Houston was going to have to forego the run from its own 20 if it wanted to put more points on the board.

To that point, the Texans had rushed for 99 yards on 17 carries in the first half.

That's exactly what they did as Arian Foster was stopped for a two-yard gain on first down and the Texans attempted passes on second and third down, resulting in a sack and incompletion.

The Texans took just over a minute off the clock and punted the ball back to the Steelers.

Two plays later, Ben Roethlisberger connected with Martavis Bryant for his first career catch, a 35-yard touchdown. And just like that, the momentum had turned.

Momentum in football is funny. And unlike any other sport, it's tough to stop once it gets rolling.

In basketball, you can call a timeout to try to change the momentum. In baseball, you can change pitchers. But in football, it has a tendency to feed into itself.

We've seen that a couple of times already this season happen the other way for the Steelers, who have gotten overwhelmed by a wave of momentum in losses at Baltimore and last week at Cleveland.

This time around, however, it was the Steelers who were riding the wave and the Texans who were rolled over.

@ It was interesting to watch the Steelers make changes on defense and with their receivers like a hockey team doing line changes.

They rotated defensive linemen freely, alternating between a nickel and base defense regardless of what package Houston had on the field - attempting, it seemed, to dictate to the Texans what they would do on offense.

And the receiver pairings were interesting. Often times on third downs, the Steelers would take Lance Moore and Markus Wheaton off the field to bring in Bryant and Darrius Heyward-Bey.

Only Antonio Brown was a constant.

@ A week after being targeted 11 times at Cleveland and coming up with four receptions, Wheaton was targeted just two times and did not catch a pass.

@ Arian Foster rushed for 73 yards on seven first quarter carries. He had 29 yards on his next 13 attempts.

The defense, as a whole, played much better after that first quarter. In fact, 59 of Foster's yards came on five carries on the opening drive.

@ Bryant made an impact in his first game. The Steelers tried four deep passes to him, connecting on just the 35-yard touchdown pass.

But those deep balls helped free up Le'Veon Bell underneath. The Texans tried to cover Bell one-on-one with a linebacker and he made them pay to the tune of eight receptions for 88 yards.

@ That was a gutsy effort by the Steelers offensive line.

Right tackle Marcus Gilbert left in the second quarter with a concussion and Kelvin Beachum and Marquise Pouncey also suffered minor injuries later in the game only to return.

While linebacker Wesley "Ming the" Mercillus was active and made a couple of plays on Roethlisberger with a pair of sacks, J.J. Watt had just three tackles and a sack.

So much for putting Watt in the Hall of Fame by the end of the game, as announcer John Gruden, the king of overstatement, said early on.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Steelers-Texans game thread

The weather tonight in Pittbsurgh is perfect for the Steelers-Texans game, though there is a chance of rain later in the night.

Landry Jones, Justin Brown, Ike Taylor, Shamarko Thomas, Ryan Shazier, Chris Hubbard and Steve McLendon are down for the  Steelers.

Justin Brown takes a seat in order  to get Martavis Bryant on the field.

Jadeveon Clowney is down for the Texans.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Who I like, Houston version

The Steelers are an angry team after being beaten, 31-10, last week in Cleveland.

In the aftermath of that loss, they were called out first by they head coach in a team meeting for not being tough, mentally or physically, and soft by former head coach Bill Cowher and teammate Hines Ward on national television.

The moves by all three were meant to prod this team to play even harder, or, as James Harrison said, "If you don't want to be called soft, don't put soft on tape."

The Steelers won't put soft on tape this week against Houston on Monday night.

But this is a tough matchup for them, especially on defense. Houston does well - run the zone stretch - what Pittsburgh doesn't defend well.

A lot of the talk in this game has centered on how the Steelers will block Texans defensive end J.J. Watt. Look, Watt's good. He's scored three touchdowns this season, though one came while lining up as a tight end.

He's got 20 QB hits this season, but just four of Houston's 10 sacks.

Watt's presence hasn't helped the Texans be a great defense. He's a great player. The rest of the defense is truly awful, especially the secondary.

Pittsburgh's defense is 12th in the league in total yards against. Houston is 27th.

So the Texans have some issues of their own.

I think the Steelers offense will break out of its two-game slump and actually score some points at home. But after last week's game I just can't pick them to win, though it wouldn't surprise me if they came out and won for the 16th consecutive time at home on Monday night.

Pittsburgh is a 3-point favorite, but I'll take Houston to win, 27-24

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Thursday news, notes

Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau confirmed today that cornerback Brice McCain will start in the team's base defense Monday night against Houston.

This, of course, means that Cortez Allen has been bumped. But it does not mean he has been benched.

And there is a difference.

Allen will still play in the Steelers' nickel defense, which means he'll play at least 60 percent of the time against the Texans, so it's not a true benching.

Allen had a tough game last Sunday against the Browns, while McCain has been playing well. McCain also is quite familiar, if not with Houston's offense because of the new coaching staff, then at least with the players. He spent the previous five years covering them in practice.

So it makes sense for the Steelers to get McCain on the field as much as possible against the Texans.

But that certainly doesn't mean Allen is a bust or no longer in the Steelers plans.

In fact, he's hardly the first guy to be replaced, only to come back and be a solid starter. If he needs any help in that department, he need only walk over and ask Ike Taylor about it.

@ Rookie linebacker Ryan Shazier was limited today after being pretty active Wednesday in practice. He also appeared to shed the knee brace that he practiced with on Wednesday.

@ Todd Haley said today that rookie Martavis Bryant will get some opportunities this week. Of course that has to come at the expense of someone.

The guess here is that Justin Brown is going to lose some PT. The Steelers finally seem settled in on using Lance Moore more often, so Bryant will likely take some of Brown's snaps - if, in fact, Brown is even active.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Wednesday news, notes

Steelers linebacker James Harrison had some interesting takes on his team being called out not only by Bill Cowher and Hines Ward, but head coach Mike Tomlin as well.

Here's what Harrison and others had to say about Tomlin saying the team wasn't tough enough mentally or physically:

http://www.observer-reporter.com/article/20141015/SPORTS0403/141019663

@ Rookie linebacker Ryan Shazier was back at full speed at practice today for the Steelers after missing the past three games with a sprained knee.

Shazier said he saw some time with the starters while he was out there and that he felt pretty good.

@ Cornerback Brice McCain said he also worked with the starters at times Wednesday. But he slid back inside when the Steelers went to their nickel defense.

But, as McCain noted, "it was just the first day of practice."

That could certainly change. And even if McCain does play outside in the base defense, Allen would still see plenty of time in the nickel defense.

@ There were some other changes in the lineup, but due to practice reporting  requirements, I cannot report them without confirmation from the players.

It was, however, difficult to ascertain exactly what the Steelers were leaning toward at some positions since the team doesn't put out an injury report until Thursday - because it doesn't play until Monday - and Wednesday was a typical veteran's day off for a number of players, some of whom have actual injuries this week.

Suffice it to say, the Steelers are, indeed, turning over every rock to look at their options, as head coach Mike Tomlin said Tuesday.

@ I looked up the Steelers stats today running the ball in the red zone.

As a team, they have 19 red zone carries, not counting three Ben Roethlisberger knee downs. They have gained 57 yards on those attempts, an average of 3.0 yards per carry, well below their average of 4.9 yards per carry.

Opponents also are not blitzing the Steelers much this season, choosing instead to play coverage against quarterback Ben Roethlisberger,

Roethlisberger is 15-23 for 250 yards, one touchdown and one interception when blitzed this season. But 10 of those pass attempts came against Cleveland in the opener.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Tuesday with Tomlin

Mike Tomlin called out a number of players both in name and deed this week at his press conference.

The culprits were receivers Markus Wheaton, Justin Brown and Lance Moore, running back Le'Veon Bell, linebacker Jason Worilds and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

Some of the criticism from Tomlin was due to direct questions, as was the case with Worilds, whom Tomlin said has had "pockets" or games of good play. But Tomlin noted the Steelers are compensating  Worilds well to have consistently disruptive play and that's not happening right now.

As for the receivers and Bell, Tomlin said they could have done a better job of catching some passes that were either dropped or they didn't get their feet down along the sideline.

Tomlin said Roethlisberger played well, at times, but wasn't consistent.

The issue right now seems to be an offense that is just making a mistake here or there that is hurting the team.

For example, on Wheaton's third-down drop that led to the botched field goal attempt early in the second quarter, Wheaton ran his pattern two yards too deep.

That wouldn't seem like such a big deal, but Roethlisberger threw the pass when he expected Wheaton to turn and come back to the ball. Wheaton went deeper than expected, so the ball was on him when he turned, causing the drop.

@ Tomlin said the team will "turn over every stone" to look for answers to their current issues, whether that be lineup changes or changes in what they're doing.

Steve McLendon is out this week due to an injured shoulder, which will mean that rookie Daniel McCullers will be active for the first time this season.

More importantly, it means that the Steelers will have no choice but to play Stephon Tuitt more.

I don't think McCullers is the answer necessarily, especially against teams that run the zone stretch. He just doesn't move well enough - though if he doesn't take out his teammates on those plays, it will be an improvement over Cam Thomas.

Tomlin also said that rookie receiver Martavis Bryant could finally get a chance to see some action this week in an attempt to help the team's struggling red zone offense.

@ Rookie linebacker Ryan Shazier will see more practice time this week, but he's not necessarily ready to return. That will be a wait-and-see proposition.

Cam Heyward is OK, but Tomlin said that Brett Keisel and Mike Mitchell could be slowed by their injuries and would be considered questionable.

@ On his weekly radio show on which I am a co-host, wide receiver Antonio Brown said that Tomlin told the team on Monday that it is not tough, either mentally or physically.

That was apparent in the second half of the game against Cleveland. The Steelers didn't look like a team with any fight in it.

Tomlin was basically challenging this team. We'll see how it responds.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Post-Cleveland thoughts, part II

The Steelers offense is continuing to put up yards and Le'Veon Bell and Antonio Brown are rolling up stats at a record pace.

But it's added up to just 10 offensive points in each of the past two weeks against a pair of defenses that, statistics tell us are at the bottom of the NFL.

It just doesn't add up.

Ben Roethlisberger isn't playing real well right now. Of that, there is no doubt.

But the Steelers should still have enough to score points against the likes of Jacksonville and Cleveland. And it's not happening.

The easy excuse is to blame offensive coordinator Todd Haley. But that's lazy.

Did Haley suddenly forget how to coach in the red zone, where the Steelers entered the game ranked 26th in the league in scoring?

After all, Pittsburgh ranked 12th in the league in red zone scoring in 2013 and 17th in 2012. Either would be a huge upgrade right now.

Perhaps the front office underestimated just how big of a loss Jerricho Cotchery and his 10 red zone touchdowns in 2013 would be missed.

Or perhaps, it's just a bad mix right now for the Steelers, who roll up plenty of yards, but can't seem to get out of their own way in the red zone.

@ Once again, the defense was doing a decent job Sunday against the run ... until it wasn't.

The defense seemed so intent on shutting down Cleveland's outside zone runs early in the game that it completely forgot about tight end Jordan Cameron.

At least defensive end Brett Keisel had the wherewithal to run Cameron down at the Pittsburgh 4 following a 42-yard completion.

Too bad both safeties didn't keep that in mind on Cleveland's next possession, when they gave Cortez Allen no help over the middle of the field on third-and-1 and Cameron caught a 51-yard TD pass.

@ On Cleveland's next possession, the Browns lost Pro Bowl center Alex Mack to a broken leg. Unlike the Steelers, who took an entire game in 2013 to recover from the loss of Maurkice Pouncey, the Browns finished off the drive in which Mack was likely lost for the season with the first of two Ben Tate touchdown runs.

@ Last week, it was three pass plays from the 4-yard line in a possession on which the Steelers didn't score.

This week, it was three runs from the 7 that had everyone, including me, wondering what the team was doing.

Then, Tate scored on a run from the 8 on the series in which Mack was injured. So there's that.

@ Brian Hoyer only completed 8 of 17 passes in this one. But they went for 217 yards.

That, coupled with a running game that produced 158 yards on 38 carries, was too much for this Pittsburgh defense, which got absolutely no help from the offense.

Neither unit had a strong game, but can't the offense answer just one score? One?

@ The real swing in this game came when the Steelers were unable execute a proper field goal snap.

Punter Brad Wing mishandled what should have been a 35-yard field goal. A handful of plays later, Cleveland, which had minus-8 yards to that point, scored to go ahead 7-3.

And the rout was on.

It's tough enough to win when you are kicking field goals instead of scoring touchdowns. It's even more difficult when you can't even execute a field goal properly.

@ Cam Heyward, Brett Keisel and Steve McLendon were all injured in this game, Heyward and Keisel with knee sprains and McLendon with a should injury.

Heyward was especially hot, yelling at offensive tackle Joe Thomas as he was helped off the field.

After the game, Heyward called Thomas' block on him, "cowardly."


Steelers-Browns game day thread

Greetings from Cleveland.

It's sunny, but chilly here at FirstEnergy Stadium. There does not appear to be much wind.

Inactive for the Steelers are Landry Jones, Shamarko Thomas, Daniel McCullers, Ike Taylor, Chris Hubbard, Martavis Bryant and Ryan Shazier.

Ross Ventrone, activated Saturday from the practice squad when Wes Johnson was released - he'll be added to the practice squad or re-signed Monday, is active today.

Both Joe Haden and Paul Kruger are active for the Browns. Terrence West, who rushed for 100 yards on 16 carries against the Steelers in the opener, is a healthy scratch.