Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Tuesday with Tomlin

If I've been asked once, I've been asked a thousand times already this season about the Steelers' cornerback situation.

Why isn't Brandon Boykin playing? What's up with Cortez Allen? It goes on and on.

Mike Tomlin said Tuesday that Ross Cockrell is the team's nickel cornerback - at least at this time. That could certainly change since the Steelers have other options there in Boykin and Allen.

But for now, Cockrell is the guy in the nickel and Antwon Blake is going to continue to play.

Save all the analysis from Pro Football Focus, that's what the Steelers are going with for now.

"As we sit here today, but obviously we have some preparation time," Tomlin said of Cockrell remaining as the team's nickel. "We have to evaluate Cortez and his practice performance and availability.

Boykin, as you can see, wasn't part of the equation.

The Steelers haven't necessarily been unhappy with Boykin, but he had an opportunity after Week 1 to get into the lineup and strained his hamstring the Monday after the opener against New England. That gave Cockrell an opportunity to show what he could do in practice and he has done nothing to lose the job.

But that doesn't mean the Steelers won't use or need Allen or Boykin moving forward.

At this point, however, the Steelers have allowed an NFL-low five passes of 20 or more yards - they gave up 50 such plays in 2014 - and are 13th in the NFL in pass defense, with a large chunk of the passing yards having been allowed in the fourth quarter of a blowout win over San Francisco.

The pass defense has been good and the Steelers aren't about to make a change to mess with that.

* Speaking of defense, Tomlin said today that the issues with the run defense against the Ravens last week were because the Steelers were intent on shutting down Baltimore's play-action passing game.

That meant the safeties and corners basically ignored the running backs coming out of the backfield and stuck with their coverage responsibilities.

In the first three games, the Steelers allowed 162 yards on 57 rushing attempts by opposing backs - a 3.2 yards per carry average. Justin Forsett nearly had that himself for the Ravens, hitting the Steelers for 150 yards on 27 carries.

"They got significant chunks via play-action pass going into the game, so we wanted to attack that to minimize those chunks," Tomlin said. "We realized in doing so, we might expose ourselves to some run. We probably exposed ourselves to a little more run than we anticipated, but you give them credit for executing from that standpoint."

* Tomlin said Ryan Shazier will open the week as questionable to return against San Diego from his shoulder injury but did note that the linebacker had improved "dramatically."

Expect Shazier to play. But Tomlin's wording is to make sure the second-year linebacker continues to practice all week.

* Daniel McCullers (knee) and Markus Wheaton (ankle) are also expected to be back this week, while Matt Spaeth is probably more on the doubtful side of questionable with a broken hand.

* Tomlin said the Steelers don't have to activate Martavis Bryant's until 4 p.m. Monday if they want to play him against the Chargers and said they probably wouldn't make an announcement about their intentions until 3:58 on Monday.

Expect Bryant to play.

Sunday, October 04, 2015

Roethlisberger looks good

Lost in Thursday night's debacle against the Ravens was the fact that Ben Roethlisberger was permitted to be on the sideline.

Roethlisberger had said earlier in the week that head coach Mike Tomlin had a rule that nobody on crutches is permitted on the sideline.

Roethlisberger was not on crutches and was on the sideline against the Ravens.

Having seen Roethlisberger earlier in the week, it was surprising. He was in obvious pain moving around the team's practice facility on Tuesday and needed the crutches to get around.

That was not the case Thursday.

While the MCL sprain is obviously a problem, there were some in the organization who felt the bone bruise might the thing that kept Roethlisberger out for more than four weeks - the typical healing time for an MCL sprain.

The fact that Roethlisberger was able to capably - and apparently painlessly - on the sideline Thursday night shows the bone bruise might not have been as bad as previously thought.

Roethlisberger could, in fact, be back in three more weeks.

Saturday, October 03, 2015

News, notes and nuggets

I've now re-watched the Steelers' game against the Ravens a couple of more times today and I really only have a couple of minor issues with the coaching job done in that game by Mike Tomlin and his staff.

One would be attempting a third-down pass to Sammie Coates late in the game on a quick slant. I don't know that Coates was the primary target, but that's where Mike Vick went with the ball.

Coates isn't known for having great hands and asking him to catch a ball in traffic in what is his first real NFL playing time is a risk I wouldn't have taken.

But again, I don't know that Coates was the top target there.

And you expect Josh Scobee to make a 41-yard field goal.

The other was the attempted keeper call by Vick in overtime. You've got Le'Veon Bell. Use him in that situation.

Outside of that, it's easy to second-guess things that don't work. But I didn't have an issue with Tomlin's decisions in those cases.

@ Speaking of Scobee, the Steelers will begin trying out kickers, as I wrote here.

Kai Forbath, Chris Boswell and Randy Bullock will all get a shot at replacing Scobee.

Breaking: The Steelers have signed Boswell.

And no, Jeff Reed was not an option.

@ Vick struggled waiting for things to develop in this game. He got off his initial read too quickly, especially when that read was Antonio Brown.

And Vick also didn't utilize Heath Miller at all.

He'll get better at those things the more comfortable he gets in this offense. Having Martavis Bryant back won't hurt, either.

@ I meant to make mention of it but forgot. Dri Archer got an opportunity to return a kick - at the start of overtime - and made a nice 31-yard return out to the 31.

Was it a great return? No, not great. But it was solid.

@ A lot is being made about the Steelers' missed tackles in this game - and there were a bunch - but the Ravens certainly missed their share as well. It's a league-wide dilemma.

@ I didn't make note of it at the time, but a mishandled snap by Vick late in the game was costly, as well.

In the grand scheme of things, it wasn't huge, but it was a lost play.

Friday, October 02, 2015

Post-Baltimore thoughts

That one hurts, at least from the standpoint for the Steelers that they had the Ravens on the ropes - several times, in fact - and did not put them away.

A big part of the reason for that is because the coaching staff just didn't trust Mike Vick to make a lot of throws down the field.

And Vick didn't trust Antonio Brown enough.

Vick and Brown just weren't on the same page all the time in this one, missing by a few inches here or a few feet there.

None was as big as Vick's fourth-and-1 pass from the Baltimore 33 in overtime, when he overthew Brown by a lot on what should have been an easy completion for a first down.

"That one is going to haunt me for a long  time," Vick said.

Vick is now 3-13 in his past 16 starts. Quarterbacks always get too much credit for the wins and too much blame for the losses, and Vick hasn't been awful in those games, throwing 19 touchdown passes and nine interceptions.

But he lost this one much in the same way Joe Flacco "won" it.

Neither was great.

@ Much of the blame for this loss will be placed at the feet of placekicker Josh Scobee, and while that is fair, it's not the only reason the Steelers lost.

They couldn't convert some first downs late in the game despite having good field position and the defense, which had been solid against the run in the first three weeks, allowed Justin Forsett to go for 150 yards on 27 carries. Forsett was averaging 3.2 yards per attempt and had 124 yards in three games coming into this one.

That won't do.

@ I thought the Steelers did a nice job in pass defense overall in this one and while Ross Cockrell came up with two big plays, making an interception and fumble recovery, the latter of which set up a Pittsburgh touchdown that made it 20-7 early in the third quarter, he also gave up a TD on the ensuing possession.

Forsett hit a 33-yard run and then Cockrell allowed a 17-yard TD catch by Kamar Aiken that made it 20-14.

"From all aspects of the game, we could have all done something," said Steelers linebacker Lawrence Timmons. "We gave up 191 yards rushing. I feel like we could have done something better there. We look at it all across the board. We all could have done something better. It was definitely a team loss."

@ Can the Steelers get it together and rebound from this? I think so. The defense is still showing flashes of being better. It sacked Joe Flacco five times and forced a pair of turnovers.

Vick, with a full week of practice before the Steelers play again - and actually a couple of extra practices since they don't play until Oct. 12 at San Diego - will get plenty of practice time with the receivers.

And there's a guy named Martavis Bryant that will be back for the next game. That should help as well.

@ Dri Archer and Brown both had big returns in overtime that should have helped the Steelers to a win. They didn't.

And punter Jordan Berry had an off game that should have cost the Steelers points, especially when he hit one that only went 40 yards standing on his own goal line. It was returned to the Pittsburgh 33.

But for some reason, John Harbaugh decided to attempt a fake field goal after the Ravens stalled. And Sean Spence sniffed it out.

It was one of three failed fourth-down attempts for the Ravens in the second half. And the Steelers didn't make them pay.

They let Harbaugh off the ropes for his stupidity.

@ The Steelers continue to have issues with tackling. But it's a problem around the league.

I get the fact that fans focus on what their team is doing. But the Ravens missed plenty of tackles in this game as well.

In fact, watch any game around the league and you'll see plenty of missed tackles.

But it doesn't change the fact the Steelers seem to be missing them at inopportune times. Yes, I'm talking about you, Arthur Moats.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Who I like, Ravens part I

Oh the story lines for this game.

The Steelers will be playing without starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger once again against the Ravens. It will mark the seventh time they've faced the Steelers without Roethlisberger since he became the starter in 2004. Baltimore has won five of the previous six matchups.

I think the Steelers will be OK in the long term with Vick at quarterback - and it will be long-term as Roethlisberger is expected to miss closer to six weeks than he is four - but this is a tough spot for the Steelers to get Vick prepared.

They had one "regular" practice on Tuesday and it was more of a glorified walk through. Considering Vick's talents do not mimic those of Roethlisberger, it's a lot to expect to have him be a finished product at this point.

But the Ravens have some issues of their own. In addition to having defensive star Terrell Suggs out for the season, Baltimore will be without tight end Crockett Gillmore, left tackle Eugene Monroe and defensive end Chris Canty.

Monroe is overrated in my opinion, but he is the starter, so anytime you get the backup out there, that's not a good thing.

The big loss is Gillmore, who has emerged as a secondary target behind Steve Smith. Justin Forsett is second on the team with 12 catches, but is averaging four yards a catch.

Does that even things out?

A bit. But not enough in my mind for the Steelers to win this one on a short week.

The Ravens are in circle-the-wagons mode right now at 0-3. I'm not surprised they are struggling. I thought they would be the team in the AFC that would take a step back this year to, say, 8-8. But I didn't expect them to be 0-3 at this point.

If the Steelers can exploit Baltimore's horrid pass defense - you think Pittsburgh's pass defense is bad, wait 'til you get a load of these guys - they can win this game. But I just don't think that Vick, on a short week, will be able to completely do that.

The Steelers will have more than a full week of practices before playing against in two Mondays against San Diego and I expect Vick to be better prepared for that one.

The Ravens are 2 1/2-point favorites for this game and I expect them to cover that line and win, 23-17.

* A housekeeping note: The Steelers waived defensive end Caushaud Lyons Wednesday and elevated linebacker Anthony Chickillo to their 53-man roster.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Mid-week news and notes on a short week

Ben Roethlisberger said today that he feared the worst when he was initially hit in the Steelers' 12-6 win at St. Louis.

According to Roethlisberger, he felt something very wrong with his leg and feared he had broken it. Even after that was ruled out, Roethlisberger was concerned he had torn his ACL.

The initial pop that he felt was attributed to the bones in his knee banging together, something that caused the bone bruise that went along with his MCL sprain.

Roethlisberger wouldn't put a timetable on his return but did say he'd like to return sooner rather than later, Thursday, in fact, against the Ravens.

* Offensive coordinator Todd Haley admitted that he'll have to change things somewhat to tailor the offense toward Mike Vick.

The biggest change for Haley? He said that will be adjusting to a left-handed quarterback.

The Steelers haven't had many lefties over the years - the last was Tyler Palko, who had a cup of coffee here a few years ago.

Haley said because of that, he has to kind of flip his mentality when it comes to where the ball is placed. They will adjust their formations to make the left side the strong side in many cases.

* Haley said he and Vick met Monday night to go over the plays with which Vick is most comfortable and that they will go from there.

But on a short week, Haley said he can't make big changes to the playbook to take advantage of Vick's skill set.

* Another issue will be catching passes with a left-handed spin on them. But that didn't seem to be a problem Tuesday.

The Steelers also adjusted their jugs machine to simulate a lefty, allowing the receivers to get accustomed to that spin.

* Vick still throws a pretty deep ball. It's effortless when he flicks the ball deep.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Tuesday with Tomlin/Monday edition

Mike Tomlin didn't have a lot of time to either celebrate the Steelers' win Sunday at St. Louis or lament the loss of Ben Roethlisberger for at least the next month.

He's got a game Thursday night against an 0-3 Baltimore Ravens team for which to prepare his team.

And Tomlin expects the Ravens to be angry.

"I would imagine that they are not demoralized," Tomlin said. "Quite frankly, I would imagine that they are angry."

That's all well and good. The Ravens should be angry. They should be angry that they laid an egg at Oakland in Week 2. They should be angry that they were shut out at home by Cincinnati and then blew a pair of fourth quarter leads to the Bengals.

* Tomlin did admit the Steelers might have to adjust their offense some to make things easier on quarterback Mike Vick, who has been with the team for just over a month.

It was a rare admittance for Tomlin, who typically wouldn't say something like that about a backup playing.

But the reality is that the quarterback position is the most important position on any football team. People who say it isn't typically don't have one and are trying to trick themselves into believing that isn't true.

The Steelers are 10-8 in games not started by Roethlisberger since they selected him in the first round of the 2004 draft. They are 9-7 overall without him since he took over for an injured Tommy Maddox three weeks into that 2004 season.

A healthy portion of those missed games have, ironically, come against the Ravens, the team against which he saw his first NFL action in place of Maddox.

Since 2004, Thursday's game will mark the seventh game he's missed in his career against the Ravens, though one of those games came because the Steelers chose to sit him. The Steelers are 2-4 against the Ravens without Roethlisberger at quarterback. They are 9-6 against the Ravens when he starts.

* If Roethlisberger is, indeed, out for a month, this game Thursday is an important one. The Steelers have to win at least one of the next four games without Roethlisberger if they hope to still have a shot at the playoffs.

After Baltimore, they travel to San Diego, host Arizona and play at Kansas City. That's a tough stretch.

* Tomlin said linebacker Ryan Shazier is experiencing weakness in his injured shoulder, which would be in line with my initial report of it being a stinger.

A stinger is weakness or numbness caused by a nerve being pinched. It's just lingering with Shazier.