Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Tuesday with Tomlin

Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin had some good news on the injury front today, saying that the only two guys who were having issues this week were Dri Archer and Steve McClendon.

But, Tomlin said that both Archer (ankle) and McClendon (shoulder) practiced on a limited basis Monday and could be available to play Sunday against Carolina.

In my eyes, McClendon has a better chance to play than Archer.

Lance Moore was not on Tomlin's injury report and the Steelers head coach said the team will keep a close eye on the receiver, who is coming off a month off with a groin injury.

In 11 career games against Carolina, Moore has 44 receptions for 641 yards and four touchdowns. His first career reception also came against the Panthers in 2006.

@ Tomlin said the biggest issues for the Steelers at this point  have been fundamental things such as tackling, taking care of the football and penalties.

It's surprising that tackling would be an issue for this team since it does more live tackling in practice during training camp than any other team in the league.

That leads me to believe that the issue is more of players not being where they are supposed to be.

If someone gets out of position, you wind up with guys reaching to make tackles. And NFL players are going to run through arm tackles.

@ Tomlin was asked about the early play of right tackle Marcus Gilbert.

Tomlin admitted Gilbert has struggled, but said last week was more of just being a Dumervil issue, in reference to Baltimore's Elvis Dumervil.

Tomlin did say that he expects Gilbert to bounce back "like Rocky."

It should be noted that Rocky got knocked down a lot in his fights.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Where things stand two weeks in

Two weeks into the 2014 season, the AFC North looks like this: Cincinnati 2-0 and everyone else 1-1.

The biggest surprises thus far?

The Bengals' win at Baltimore in Week 1 and Cleveland's win over New Orleans in Week 2.

This is why you never take anything for granted in the NFL.

As for the Steelers, they are exactly where I thought they would be two weeks into this season, 1-1.

And as we learned Sunday, the dome teams of the NFC South aren't quite so formidable outdoors on grass.

@ Maybe I'm in the minority, and that's fine, but Cleveland's last-minute victory over New Orleans makes that win by the Steelers in Week 1 look a lot better.

After all, New Orleans' high-powered offense never really got things going against Cleveland's defense. And Cleveland's offense certainly looked decent - better than anyone expected.

That's not to forgive Pittsburgh's second-half meltdown against the Browns. It was bad.

But at least the Steelers righted the ship and won that one.

@ Pittsburgh's biggest issue right now are the penalties. The Steelers have 20 in two games. They had 80 all of last season.

The Steelers haven't typically been a highly penalized team, so I expect that to get better.

The Steelers also have not forced a turnover this season. That's nothing new. The team has an NFL-low 51 since the start of the 2011 season.

Mike Mitchell and Ryan Shazier were added to this defense to help improve that. As they get more comfortable with what they are doing, that could change.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Lolley's post-Ravens thoughts

After a 4-hour drive and a one-hour nap, I've had enough time to digest what I saw Thursday night in Baltimore.

When I made my game prediction, I picked the Ravens with a couple of big reasons. Baltimore was going to rally the troops around what has been a tough week on the players - through the fault of a former teammate and the front office - and the road teams in Thursday night games have struggled.

I think we saw that to be the case on both fronts.

With Pittsburgh's loss, road teams are now 24-42 in these Thursday night debacles Roger Goodell created back in 2006. That's enough of a track record to show that there is a decided advantage for the home team in these games.

Of course, Goodell helped create the other issue, as well, by giving Ray Rice on a slap on the wrist for his elevator escapades.

@ While we're on the subject of taking my favorite Washington & Jefferson College graduate behind the wood shed, his rules on hitting have also turned the game into one that is no longer recognizable.

If Courtney Upshaw's hit on Ben Roethlisberger in the first quarter is no longer legal, I have no idea how a defender is supposed to tackle somebody.

Same goes for the hits that Troy Polamalu and Mike Mitchell were flagged for.

But somehow, the hit that knocked Antonio Brown woozy for a quarter and the one that Heath Miller took to the head that dislodged the football as he was being held up by another player are OK?

Ed Hochuli's crew should have been embarrassed to make any of those calls.

As Polamalu said after the game, "I think it's kind of funny because that is what you are used to seeing in this type of game."

Apparently, we can't see them any more.

@ Cam Thomas, I don't even know what to say about him other than I'm shocked it took the San Diego Chargers nearly a full season to put him on the bench if his play here was indicative of how he played the nose there.

I know he was signed to be a rotation guy here. The time for that has come. I don't care how many mistakes Stephon Tuitt makes, he should be seeing more time. At least he's athletic enough to not take out three teammates who are on their way to the football.

And there's the possibility he'll get better.

@ In all actuality, the defense wasn't horrible in this game. There, I said it.

The Ravens had 323 total yards and score two touchdowns. They had a first-and-goal from the 1 and didn't score a touchdown.

In fact, Justin Tucker kicked field goals from 30, 23, 22 and 20 yards in this game.

And if not for the aforementioned penalties on Polamalu and Mitchell, they might not have scored their second TD.

Everybody knew this defense was going to be a work in progress. There was, at least, some progress between the first and second games.

Prior to Justin Forsett's 41-yard run through a hole created by Thomas standing straight up and wiping out the other Steelers defensive linemen, the Ravens were averaging 2.7 yards per carry.

And four stops in the red zone isn't bad - though you'd like to get a few more pre-red zone stops.

But the offense has to live up to its end of the bargain as well.

And it just couldn't sustain drives.

Maybe that was because of Upshaw's hit early in the game. Roethlisberger just seemed to be off after that.

I still think this offense has the ability to be special, though. Le'Veon Bell again looked fantastic and Antonio Brown, despite taking what should have been a penalized shoulder to the head, came back and still produced. It would have been nice to have a nice, calming veteran such as Lance Moore out there to compliment things.

@ Once again, the Steelers are forcing no turnovers. And they now have four of their own.

Equally damning are the 20 penalties in two games. I've already said that two of those calls were highly questionable. But can somebody tell me why the Steelers seemingly thought the only way to tackle Steve Smith was by his facemask?

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Steelers-Ravens game thread

Greetings from Baltimore.

The weather has cleared up here after the threat of rain early.

Inactive for the Steelers tonight are Landry Jones, Martavis Bryant, Lance Moore, Wes Johnson, Chris Hubbard and Daniel McCullers.

With Archer out tonight, look for Markus Wheaton to return kickoffs.

The big news for Baltimore is that cornerback Lardarius Webb is out. There was a chance that he'd play after sitting out the preseason and first game with a back issue.

With Webb down, Chykie Brown will start at corner. That's a juicy matchup for the Steelers.

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Who I like, Baltimore version 1.0

I was feeling very good about my Steelers pick of a 27-13 win at halftime last week. I figured the Steelers would start to slow things down and the Browns might get a score or two to get me right on my number.

And then . . .

So here we go again this week.

The Ravens are three-point favorites against the Steelers Thursday night in Baltimore in a series in which nine of the past 10 meetings have been decided by three points or less.

So basically, in this game, you just try to pick the winner and don't worry about points.

The Ravens, of course, have dealt with the self-induced distraction of the Ray Rice situation all week.

But as much as Rice's situation has been a distraction, it could also serve as a rallying point. Some teams have a way of rallying around these kind of situations.

I think the Steelers are a better team than Baltimore. Let's get that out of the way. Both teams have defensive issues.

Baltimore gave up 380 yards last week against Cincinnati at home and did little itself offensively until late in the game.

After fighting back to take a lead - after holding the Bengals to five field goals - the Ravens were beaten over the top by A.J. Green for a 77-yard game-winning score.

Joe Flacco was terrible in the game. Yes, he threw for 345 yards, but it took him 62 attempts to do so. And remember, one of his 35 completions was an 80-yard catch by Steve Smith.

Take that away and Flacco averaged 4.3 yards per passing attempt. As it was, his 5.56 yards per passing attempt. By comparison, Ben Roethlisberger averaged 10.74 yards per attempt in last week's win over Cleveland.

Can that change against the Steelers?

Certainly.

But something tells me the Ravens will be a desperate team this week. They can't afford to fall to 0-2 with a pair of home losses coming to division teams.

And they are playing at home while the Steelers must travel on a short week. Since the NFL began regularly playing games on Thursday nights in 2006, road teams are just 24-41, including a 1-2 record by the Steelers.

It's a difficult turnaround, even for a short flight.

The Steelers were forced to have a full practice Wednesday morning, instead of their usual travel-day walkthrough, just to make sure they got two days of practice in this week.

Because of that, I'm going to pick the Ravens to win this one, 26-23.

Monday, September 08, 2014

Monday with Mike (Tomlin)

Because of the Thursday night game this week, Mike Tomlin's weekly press conference was today.

Tomlin was understandably troubled by the 11 penalties the Steelers committed on Sunday in their 30-27 victory over Cleveland.

By comparison, the team's high for penalties last season was nine in a loss to Miami. Eleven penalties is not a good way to start.

Tomlin properly noted that the penalties were particularly troubling for the offense in the second half and led to the team's struggles sustaining drives in the final two quarters.

There were also a couple of penalties that helped the Browns sustain drives.

Cleaning them up moving forward will be critical.

@ Tomlin had good news on safety Shamarko Thomas and running back Dri Archer.

Both sustained only ankle sprains - though Thomas' was to his Achilles tendon.

Thomas' injury was announced as an Achilles issue, which immediately makes you think of a tear, which would have ended his season.

As it is, both are listed as questionable to play this week, as are wide receivers Lance Moore and Martavis Bryant and corner Brice McCain, all of whom missed the game against the Browns.

@ The talk of the day was the Ray Rice video finally being  released.

Like we actually needed to see it to realize that Rice had assaulted his then-fiance, now wife.

What did people think happened in that elevator? That he had hit her was never the issue, though apparently, he had tried to sell it to his teammates, team and NFL that she was attacking him.

That was obviously not the case and the Ravens released Rice and the NFL quickly followed suit by suspending him indefinitely.

Rice will probably never play in the league again, which is fine. Playing in the NFL is not a right. It's an honor.

@ Of course, the hot story was William Gay's interview regarding Rice. I spoke to him about the same subject a couple of weeks ago and he said basically the same things he did Monday - about an hour before Rice was released.

Gay, whose mother was the victim of a murder-suicide when he was 7, believes in not only helping the victims of abuse but in counseling the abusers as well. In fact, he's spoken to groups of abusers himself, trying to help them understand the fallout of their actions.

@ The Steelers talked a lot today about how they have to work on getting their defensive play calls into the game more quickly.

That was an issue against the Browns, who were running a fast-paced no-huddle. There were several times in the second half where players just didn't know what the play was because things were happening so quickly.

That is a solvable problem.

Sunday, September 07, 2014

Post-Cleveland thoughts 1.0

It's really easy to rip the Steelers defense after Sunday's second-half effort. Actually, it was more of a bad third quarter that was the problem.

Cleveland's fast-paced no-huddle kept the Steelers off-balance and, perhaps just as importantly, there was a key penalty on the first-two touchdown drives that either helped the Browns to a first down or a chunk of yardage.

In fact, penalties were kind of the flavor of the day for the Steelers, who also had a touchdown called back in the first quarter on a holding penalty on Kelvin Beachum that was indeed a hold, but ticky-tacky nonetheless.

The Steelers were forced to kick a field goal instead, otherwise their first-half lead would have been 31-3.

But the third quarter defense was clearly bad. There were too many missed tackles and defenders overrunning plays.

Those are things the Steelers should be able to clean up, at least to a certain degree.

The quick pace of the Cleveland attack, however, also caused issues in the secondary. You get the idea that the Browns saw the issues the Steelers had with Philadelphia in the preseason and decided to incorporate a little of that in their offensive attack.

It took some time for the Steelers to adjust to it, but they did finally get some stops when it counted, notably with William Gay coming up with a couple of big pass defenses.

But you'd better believe the Steelers are going to see more of that style of attack. It's a big reason why the team's offense can't take its foot off the pedal as it did Sunday.

Ben Roethlisberger said the Steelers wanted to slow things down a little and take some time off the clock. Watching the Browns score 24 unanswered points to tie the game should change that theory moving forward.

@ I really liked all of the diversity I saw in the Steelers offense in the first half of this game. Empty sets with Le'Veon Bell split wide, pistol formations, no-huddle looks, inside screens, outside screens, we saw a little bit of everything.

But again, the Steelers tried to take the air out of the ball in the second half instead of keeping the pedal on the floor.

@ The Steelers weren't the only team to give up big a lead Sunday.

Jacksonville blew a 17-0 halftime lead at Philadelphia to lose, 34-17, while the Patriots allowed 23 unanswered points at Miami to lose to the Dolphins, 33-20.

Cincinnati nearly blew a 15-0 second-half lead before rallying to beat the Ravens, 23-16.

In other words, it happens.

The good news, at least in Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, is that both teams recovered to get the win.

They are feeling a little different about things in New England and Jacksonville.

@ Antonio Brown didn't purposely kick Cleveland punter Spencer Lanning in the face, but it might cost him some money, anyway.

Brown said he decided to hurdle Lanning when he saw Lanning trying to go low on him. Lanning, however, kind of pulled up at the last moment and Brown's cleats hit him right in the face.

It looked like an attempted kick, but it wasn't.

The league office might not see it that way. But Brown isn't a dirty player.

The bad thing was that Brown didn't need to attempt to hurdle Lanning. Had he just cut back to the outside, he probably scores.

@ The Steelers had to be very pleased to see Markus Wheaton have such a big day.

The Browns couldn't have been happy about the day rookie Justin Gilbert had. Gilbert, taken after the Browns traded down with Buffalo, which selected Sammy Watkins, was repeatedly victimized Sunday.

Had the Browns had Watkins instead of Gilbert, there's a good chance they would have won this game.

@ Some other area reporters bought into the preseason talk that the Steelers were committed to splitting carries and playing time between Le'Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount.

I wasn't buying it. In fact, I went on record as saying Bell was going to get 80 percent of the carries this season and could be primed to put up 1,600 total yards.

The breakdown in this game? Bell had 21 carries. Blount got 4.

Bell had 197 total yards in this game, gaining 109 yards on the ground and getting another 88 on six receptions.

Is he going to do that every game? Maybe not. But he's certainly off to a strong start.

@ Marcus Gilbert got paid during training camp. He's going to have to play better than he did in this game to earn that money.

Steelers-Browns game-day thread

It's a gorgeous day at Heinz Field today. Sunny with very little wind and temps in the 70s.

There are no real surprises for the Steelers on the inactive list with Landry Jones, Martavis Bryant, Lance Moore, Brice McCain, Wes Johnson, Chris Hubbard and Daniel McCullers down.

For Cleveland, it's interesting that they have just five defensive linemen up today with Desmond Bryant and John Hughes down.

Look for the Steelers, with Moore out, to feature Dri Archer a little bit as a slot receiver.

Enjoy . . .