Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Tuesday with Tomlin

Mike Tomlin addressed a myriad of things at his press conference today, going through many of the key moments in Sunday's 27-24 loss step-by-step.

Tomlin said the Steelers' final offensive play was called by him. It was a run-pass option play for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who chose to run the ball based on what he saw from Tampa Bay's defense.

Tomlin said the look was five defenders against five run blockers up front, but the Steelers had a breakdown up front.

On the 41-yard pass to Louis Murphy to set up the game-winning touchdown, Tomlin said it was a failure on all three levels. The defensive front was a step slow to get pressure. The zone defense behind them lost its depth - Mike Mitchell bit up on an underneath route - and then the Steelers did a poor job of getting Murphy on the ground - Mitchell and Troy Polamalu both took bad angles on the tackle, allowing Murphy to get to the 5.

As for some of the pre- and post-snap penalties, Tomlin singled out some guys without mentioning them specifically - ie. Arthur Moats, Antonio Brown, etc.

But one player he did give a pass to was Cam Heyward, who drew an unsportsmanlike penalty for yelling at officials after it appeared that Sean Spence was held on a touchdown run by Doug Martin in the third quarter.

Tomlin said he felt everyone in the stadium thought there was a hold against Spence and that had the play been closer to him or he had been on that sideline, he might have drawn an unsportsmanlike penalty as well.

@ Speaking of penalties, Tomlin said he will have officials at practice this week as the Steelers prepare to face Jacksonville.

@ Tomlin said the team will start working with rookie linebacker Ryan Shazier towards his return, but to not expect that return to be this week.

@ The Steelers terminated the contract of punter Adam Podlesh Tuesday. Podlesh, signed in the offseason, was placed on the did not report list when he didn't show up at training camp while his wife dealt with a difficult pregnancy.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Post-Tampa Bay thoughts

I've been a defender of Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley because I like what he's done overall with the team's offense.

The Steelers can use multiple formations and multiple ways to beat a team.

But I was not a fan of the team's play-calling on the Steelers' next-to-last possession with less than two minutes remaining in this game.

Actually, I just wasn't a fan of the team's final play call on third-and-five, a handoff to Le'Veon Bell.

I realize that Tampa Bay had just used its final timeout after the previous play and the Steelers wanted to run some clock, but they had just thrown the ball on second down to Markus Wheaton for an 8-yard gain.

Are you telling me a team that runs at least 10 screens per game couldn't run another one in that situation? The completion percentage on those is about 90 percent.

Maybe it gets the first down, maybe it doesn't, but it would have had a better chance of working than another run by Bell, who was limited to minus-4 yards on four fourth quarter carries.

The Bucs were really biting hard on the run all day. The Steelers used that to their advantage, running a lot of play-action passes after their first couple of drives.

That, in turn, opened up the running game in the second and third quarters. But the Bucs were back to crashing the line over the final 15 minutes.

A five-yard completion would have ended the game. Heath Miller was open all day long. Are you telling me the Steelers couldn't have connected on a 6-yard game to Miller?

Instead, the Steelers punted.

@ That punt, by the way, was a 29-yarder by Brad Wing.

I umpired a fall Bronco game behind the plate by myself and saw about 300 pitches Saturday. My hamstrings are killing me today, and I'm pretty sure I could have hit a 29-yard punt.

@ I've been saying for three weeks that the Steelers are taking too many penalties. They had 13 in this game.

And there's no doubt that's too many.

The word undisciplined was thrown around the locker room a lot following the game. And there is some of that with the taunting penalties and post-play stuff.

Those are on the coaching staff, who have to crack down on guys doing dumb stuff - though much of it has been by star players, ie. Le'Veon Bell, Antonio Brown and Cameron Heyward Sunday.

But to me, focus is just as big an issue. And focus, in my opinion, falls on the shoulders of the players.

They are paid a lot of money to do a job. If they can't stay focused to do that job who else would be at fault? The coaches?

Put it this way, if you are unfocused in your job, is it your problem or is it because of your boss?

@ The Steelers have had a rash of facemask penalties already this season, including two more Sunday.

Those are a result of guys reaching to make tackles rather than being in the right position to make those tackles. When you reach, you're more likely to grab the facemask.

@ Tampa Bay quarterback Mike Glennon is about as statuesque a quarterback as you'll see.

Yet the Steelers managed just one sack.

They had decent pressure at times, but at other times, not so much.

Arthur Moats and James Harrison both drew holding penalties, but was the only time they had any kind of impact. The duo combined for one tackle, that being by Moats.

Jason Worilds had a team-high two pressures and one tackle.

So, in 64 plays in which at least some combination of Worilds, Moats and Harrison was on the field at all times, the outside linebackers combined for two tackles, two pressures and two holding penalties, one of which was declined because Heyward had a sack.

That was one more tackle and one more pressure than the much-maligned Cam Thomas had Sunday.

The Steelers rotated Moats and Harrison every other series Sunday. But they need more out of that duo and Worilds.

@ I know the Steelers say they want to use Justin Brown as their slot receiver because of his blocking, but I'm baffled why Lance Moore isn't getting more playing time, at least on obvious passing downs.

Brown might eventually develop into a decent NFL receiver. But he's not giving this team much as a No. 3 receiver right now.

@ Tampa Bay scored 10 points in the first 4:59 of this game and seven points with seven seconds remaining.

They had 10 points and did little in between. The Steelers handily won 50-plus minutes of this game. Unfortunately for them, they were badly outplayed in those other 5-10 minutes.

Steelers-Bucs gameday thread

It's a beautiful day here at Heinz Field. The sun is shining. there's very's little wind and conditions are perfect for an afternoon football game.

Martavis Bryant, Ike Taylor, Ryan Shazier, Daniel McCullers, Wes Johnson and Ramon Foster are out for the Steelers.

Foster is kind of a surprise, since he was able to practice all week. Cody Wallace will start in his place.

For Tampa Bay, Mike Glennon will obviously start in place of quarterback Josh McCown.

Danny Lansanah will start at linebacker in place of Jonathan Casillas, while Dane Fletcher will start at linebacker in place of Mason Foster.

As you already know, I picked the Steelers to win this one big. I expect it to be somewhat close and for the Steelers to pull away late.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Who I like, Tampa Bay version

On paper, this game looks like a mismatch.

After all, the Steelers are coming off the demolition of Carolina, a team that defeated Tampa Bay, 20-14, in Week 1 with backup quarterback Derek Anderson running the show.

But the Bucs also are coming off a game in which they were thoroughly embarrassed, 56-14, by Atlanta in a Thursday night game.

And we all know how the Steelers responded to having a few extra days off to stew about a Thursday night beating in Baltimore.

Tampa Bay is also switching things up at quarterback. Josh McCown, whom head coach Lovie Smith brought over with him from Chicago is out with a thumb injury. In steps Mike Glennon, a second-year quarterback who actually did OK last year with the Bucs as a rookie, throwing 19 TD passes and just nine interceptions.

The Steelers will be dealing with three new starters on defense, and more importantly, in their nickel defense.

I expect Sean Spence to capably replace rookie Ryan Shazier, who is out with a sprained knee, and Arthur Moats to possibly provide more as a pass rusher - at least right now - than Jarvis Jones, who is on injured reserve with a designation to return with a wrist injury.

But finding a replacement for Ike Taylor on passing downs could be problematic.

I expect William Gay to do a good job of subbing for Taylor, who is out indefinitely with a broken arm, in the base defense. But in the nickel, Brice McCain, Antwon Blake or B.W. Webb will be forced into action.

And that, my friends, is the unknown.

Pittsburgh is a 7 1/2-point favorite in this game, which is an interesting number. On one hand, I think the Steelers will have success moving the football and scoring. On the other, Tampa Bay, with 6-5 rookie receiver Mike Evans and 6-4 veteran Vincent Jackson on the outside, can create some matchup issues down the field.

The spread is big enough that you have to be concerned about a backdoor cover, as we saw with Cleveland in Week 1.

But I think the Steelers score plenty in this one and the Bucs have had fumbling issues - nine already this season.

Take Pittsburgh to win, 31-16

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Would Shazier have been drafted?

Sean Spence will make his first career start in the NFL on Sunday, an amazing feat for a guy who suffered a devastating knee injury a couple of years ago in the preseason.

It's been a long recovery for Spence, but it's obviously been worth it for the former third-round draft pick and the Steelers, as well.

The team could have easily given up on him at any number of times.

And you could argue that the Steelers will be better off right now with Spence in the lineup instead of rookie Ryan Shazier. After all, Spence spent the past two seasons not only rehabbing, but learning his duties in the Steelers' defense.

For Shazier, that learning process is ongoing.

Spence's recovery also begs the question: If the Steelers had known in the spring that Spence was going to make a complete recovery, would they still have drafted Shazier?

Shazier is an amazing athlete. He's the fastest linebacker in the NFL and a possible future star.

But the Steelers liked Spence enough a few years ago to select him in the third round.

@ The Steelers didn't figure on having to replace Ike Taylor until next season. But his broken forearm certain changed that quickly.

And it left the team a little short at a very important position in more ways than one.

First and foremost, Taylor and Cortez Allen were being counted on to play well this season. Losing Taylor for an extended period of time certainly affects the team's depth at a position that was already thin.

Secondly, the team's options at cornerback to replace him aren't guys who can bring the same size as the 6-1 Taylor.

And that could be a bigger problem, particularly this week against Tampa Bay, which has 6-5 rookie Mike Evans and 6-4 Vincent Jackson at wide receiver.

Pittsburgh's current options include Brice McCain and Antwon Blake, a pair of 5-9 corners, and 5-11 B.W. Webb.

Blake was signed last season when he was released by Jacksonville, while McCain came over from Houston as a free agent in the offseason.

Webb, meanwhile, has only been with the team a few weeks after being released by Dallas at the end of the preseason.

McCain, a sixth-year pro, has the most experience of the group, with 10 career starts. But he has worked largely in the slot since joining the Steelers, and the team seems intent on keeping William Gay inside in its nickel defense.

Gay will play outside in the base defense, but will likely slide back inside on passing downs.

The guess here is that the Steelers could use the next couple of games to test out both Blake and Webb on the outside and see which one does the better job.

It's not ideal, but if the Steelers are intent on keeping Gay in the slot on passing downs, it's the best scenario - at least for now.

@ When asked today if he thought linebacker James Harrison would dress Sunday against Tampa Bay, defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau first said he had to defer to head coach Mike Tomlin on that subject.

But, LeBeau did add, "I don' think Mike brought him in not to dress him."

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Harrison won't be a savior

The excitement among Steelers fans regarding the re-signing of James Harrison has been similar to that of a month ago surrounding the return of defensive end Brett Keisel.

Keisel has played well in a reserve role for the Steelers, who needed his help on the defensive line.

Can Harrison serve a similar role with the linebackers?

I'm not so sure.

There's a difference in the situations regarding Keisel and Harrison.

Keisel always wanted to come back. He never cleared out his locker at the Steelers' facility. He repeatedly said he felt he had another year of football in him.

In other words, he wasn't ready to call it quits on his career.

Harrison? Not so much.

Not only did Harrison announce his retirement a few weeks ago, he was at peace with his football career being over.

"I really didn't miss it," Harrison said of football."The only thing I really missed was the teammates, the camaraderie, being with the guys. The game itself, I really didn't miss.

"I really can't say I missed the actual game itself."

For Harrison, the decision to return to football was a difficult one, made only after speaking with Keisel, Ike Taylor, Troy Polamalu, head coach Mike Tomlin and his family.

That's a lot of convincing.

"To be honest with you, it was a real difficult decision," Harrison said. "If my kids had said no and stuck with it, it wouldn't have mattered how much I talked to Keisel, Ike and Troy."

As former Steelers head coach Chuck Noll used to say, if you're thinking about retirement, you probably should. Harrison was more than thinking about it, he had actually gone through with it and was OK with that decision.

Harrison was a great player for a long time for the Steelers. But he's not that player any longer. And it seems like he was OK with that.

@ Ramon Foster and Dri Archer were both back at practice today for the Steelers.

Darrius Heyward-Bey sat our with an illness.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Big news Tuesday

The Steelers have officially signed former NFL Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison to a contract to return to the team and help improve the depth at a position that was beaten up in the win over Carolina with injuries to Ryan Shazier and Jarvis Jones.

Harrison, an outside linebacker, will improve the team's depth at outside linebacker, where the backup would have been inside linebacker Terence Garvin had nothing been done.

Jones was placed on injured reserve with a designation to return after suffering a wrist injury in the 37-19 win at Carolina.

Harrison, 36, last played for the Steelers in 2012. He spent the 2013 season with the Cincinnati Bengals after being released when he refused to take a salary cut.

Harrison is no longer the pass rusher he once was, but he is still a very good run defender. I would expect the Steelers to use both he and Moats, who has shown himself to be a solid pass rusher after coming over from Buffalo in the offseason, in a rotation opposite Jason Worilds.

Head coach Mike Tomlin said Harrison likely won't play this week when the Steelers host Tampa Bay, as the team eases him into things and finds out how much of the defense he has retained while also testing his conditioning.

In other news, Tomlin said Sean Spence will replace Shazier at inside linebacker until the rookie is ready to return from his sprained MCL in a couple of weeks.

At cornerback, the situation is a little more in flux.

While Antwon Blake moved into the cornerback rotation against the Panthers, Tomlin said the team will take a look at Brice McCain and B.W. Webb there as well.

The team is intent on keeping William Gay in the slot on passing downs, and he's done a great job there the past two seasons. But Blake and McCain are both 5-9, while Webb is 5-11.

Webb would seem to be the best suited to play on the outside, though Blake does have a 40-plus-inch vertical leap.

Rookie Shaq Richardson could also be activated from the practice squad, but it's doubtful he would be an option on the outside just yet. That would be more of a move to help out on special teams.

Safety Shamarko Thomas played the nickel role at times as a rookie, but he was in the slot and has not done any work there this year with Gay playing well and Blake and McCain also learning that position.

@ Tomlin also said that rookie receiver Dri Archer and guard Ramon Foster, both of whom missed the game against the Panthers will ankle injuries, could return this week.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Post-Carolina thoughts

I don't want to say I told you so, but I will. I told you so.

I told you the Panthers wouldn't come out and spread the field against the Steelers and then run the ball. I told you they could be run on.

I told you their offensive line wasn't very good and was banged up.

It all came to fruition.

Now, that certainly doesn't mean I'm right all the time. But in this case, Carolina was a perfect elixir for what was ailing the Steelers.

Now, can the Steelers keep this up? Well, they certainly should be able to against their next two opponents, Tampa Bay and Jacksonville.

But this victory came at a cost, as well. Ike Taylor could be done for the season - and his career - after suffering a broken forearm.

And linebackers Ryan Shazier (knee) and Jarvis Jones (wrist) also could have suffered significant injuries, though we won't know the extent for a couple of days.

Taylor and Jones were two popular guy for fans to rip on. We'll find out at some point just how important those guys are.

@ The Steelers offensive line has been getting ripped for a long time for not being very good. This game should have been a coming out party on national TV.

After a slow start, they wore the Panthers down. And regardless of what you saw in this game, that's a really good defensive front.

@ For all those people who were quick to point out Eddie Lacy's stats versus Le'Veon Bell last season, here's where they currently stand. Bell has 315 yards rushing and another 146 receiving in three games this season. Lacy has 113 rushing and 38 receiving.

Now, there's still a lot of season left, but would anyone trade Bell for Lacy right now?

@ Lance Moore played one snap in this one. He was healthy, but Justin Brown lined up in the slot throughout the night.

It appears the Steelers like Brown's downfield blocking better than than of Moore at this point. But both guys will have roles moving forward.

@ Speaking of Bell, he won the chess match with Carolina middle linebacker Luke Kuechly throughout the night in this one.

The Panthers are sure tacklers, Kuechly especially, but  Bell said the Steelers used their patience against them.

Carolina will give you four and five yards at a time, but doesn't give up big plays.

The Steelers chipped away and chipped away, until finally getting the Panthers to start gambling a little bit.

On his 81-yard run in the third quarter, Bell, who might be among the most patient runners in the NFL, made Kuechly think he was going outside. And when the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year vacated the middle of the field, Bell burst back inside.

"When he guessed wrong, it was 81 yards," Bell said.

@ The Steelers' offensive line did an outstanding job in this one. Marcus Gilbert was trashed by just about everyone, but was a big part of an effort in which the Steelers rushed for over 200 yards and Ben Roethlisberger was sacked just once.

"You guys were down on Marcus," head coach Mike Tomlin said. "We like Marcus."

@ With games against Tampa Bay and Jacksonville coming up next, there is no reason to believe the Steelers won't be 4-1 heading into a rematch at Cleveland.

We'll see how much this team has grown in the rematch with the Browns. Boy, that seems weird to write.