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Monday, December 31, 2007

What we learned: Baltimore (again)

It used to be I felt I always had a pretty good finger on the pulse of what was going on with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

This year’s team, however, has me a bit perplexed. Whereas in the past, you could count on the Steelers to put forth a solid effort in games like the one they had Sunday – meaningless in every way except for pride – now, even that is not guaranteed.

The Steelers laid down like dogs against the Ravens Sunday.

In fact, the guys who actually took the field looked like players attempting to get through the game without getting hurt.

There were some notable exceptions. James Harrison played hard as usual, as did Tyrone Carter and some others. But generally, the Steelers looked like they were going through the motions in this one.

Heck, nose tackle Casey Hampton got caught offsides, one two occasions, despite the fact he lines up directly over the ball.

I know Baltimore rookie QB Troy Smith is a cagey guy, but you can’t tell me that he’s already learned the nuances of changing his cadence to draw players offsides.

And the tackling, as it has been the past month and a half, was atrocius once again.

This team has all the looks of a team that is just happy to make the playoffs, one that will be one-and-done in the postseason.

© I think we need to put out and APB on that player who torched Penn State a few years ago in a bowl game for Florida State.

He’s either gone missing, or that was somebody else in Willie Reid’s uniform that day.

Reid looks like a bust as a return man and he doesn’t offer enough as a wide receiver to warrant a roster spot as a wide receiver. It looks like a wasted third-round draft pick.

© The Steelers didn’t get much of a chance to learn a whole lot about their new-look running game in this one as they fell behind early.

Najeh Davenport had 27 yards on just 12 carries, while rookie Gary Russell had just six carries, gaining 20 yards.

Hey, what better time to find out if you can run the ball than in the first round of the playoffs?

© If there was one positive to Sunday’s game, it was that Baltimore failed to record a sack. That’s just the second time this season the Steelers did not allow a sack, with the other being against Cincinnati Dec. 2.

Of course it does make you wonder – again – how much of the protection problems the Steelers have had this season are the line and how much should be laid at the feet of Ben Roethlisberger.

If it’s not Roethlisberger’s fault, then we’re to believe that Trai Essex, who played about three and a half quarters at left tackle after Max Starks was injured, did a good job on Terrell Suggs. I don’t know if I’m ready to make that leap of faith.

© How much better is LaMarr Woodley going to be next season when he actually figures out what he’s doing?

Woodley gets himself out of position in the run game and has missed some tackles this season because of it, but he sure can rush the passer.

© The most shocking thing about the Ravens rushing for 180 yards in this game was that Baltimore really should not have been much of a passing threat.

Smith was 16 of 27 for 171 yards and was a rookie playing in just his third game. Of course the Steelers helped him out by dropping a couple of interceptions, including one by Ike Taylor that Smith threw right to him.

Had Taylor caught that ball – I know, it’s a stretch – he would have been gone for about a 90-yard touchdown. Instead, he dropped it and Baltimore kicked a field goal at the end of the first half. That was the difference between the Steelers going into the locker room down 17-14 instead of 20-7.

Taylor needs to spend the offseason working hard to improve his hands – again. You can’t drop the easy ones.

© Even though the Steelers have made the playoffs, this is a team in need of a serious offseason makeover.

It lacks defensive playmakers and the offensive line just isn’t that good.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Monday's notes

Since there's no newspaper Tuesday, I'll give you a brief rundown of what happened Monday:

The Steelers have signed Verron Haynes, as expected, to replace Willie Parker, who was placed on IR. Parker had surgery over the weekend to help hasten the repair of his broken leg and is expected to be back in time for mini-camp.

Haynes could see some time as a third-down back and on special teams, but Najeh Davenport and Gary Russell are expected to see the bulk of the carries.

Carey Davis will see time as a third-down back as well.

Tomlin said he does not expect to rest any starters Sunday at Baltimore unless they are really hurting. The team wants the No. 3 seed and could still lock that up with a San Diego loss and a Pittsburgh win.

Marvel Smith could miss the rest of the season. He won't be back this week, for sure.

Friday, December 21, 2007

What we learned, St. Louis

The loss of running back Willie Parker for the season is a big one, but it’s not something that has to be a season-killer for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Head coach Mike Tomlin famously said earlier this season he was going to run Parker “until the wheels came off.”

The wheels are now off and the training wheels should also be gone from the Pittsburgh offense.

With Parker out, the Steelers should turn to Ben Roethlisberger to carry the offense, for better or worse. He’s a franchise quarterback and should be treated as such. If he has to throw the ball 35 or 40 times, then so be it.

Najeh Davenport and Carey Davis did a credible job against St. Louis of providing a running game, breaking tackles and getting extra yardage. But it’s doubtful the Steelers will be able to count on getting that kind of production out of that duo on a regular basis.

Besides, the Steelers didn’t beat St. Louis, 41-24, because of the 151 yards Davenport and Davis combined for on the ground – though it helped. The Steelers beat the Rams because Roethlisberger was 16 of 20 for 261 yards and three touchdowns.

He hit the Rams with some long passes early and forced St. Louis from bringing their safeties down to the line of scrimmage.

Without Parker, the Steelers may not be as balanced offensively, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Roethlisberger had a perfect passer rating against the Rams, the third time in his four-year career that he’s accomplished that rare feat. That, by the way, is the same number of perfect passer ratings that Peyton Manning has in his career.

© The ironic thing about Parker’s injury was that when reporters were asking players about their preference between playing on grass or artificial turf, Parker was the only player I spoke to who said he preferred an artificial surface.

© Speaking of Davenport, the coaching staff had to be out of its mind to send him out there on special teams after Parker’s injury.

Davenport was very slow to get up after a third quarter punt. He gingerly made his way to the sideline favoring his foot after the play.

I know it difficult to change those kind of things on the fly, but somebody had to realize that it wasn’t a good idea for the starting tailback to be out there covering kicks.

© Another aside to Parker’s injury: Many of the players didn’t know what was wrong or that he was lost for the season.

Parker’s best friend on the team, wide receiver Nate Washington, had to be told by reporters that Parker had broken his leg. Washington was speaking about Parker in terms of him possibly being available next week.

Guard Kendall Simmons told me after the game that he didn’t know in the first half.

“I knew Najeh was getting the ball a lot and I saw the running backs coach (Kirby Wilson) walking by on the sidelines in the second quarter and he told me what happened. I didn’t know anything was wrong.”

That kind of tells you what kind of vacuum these guys are in on game days.

© I wrote it last week and I’m doing so again this week, Max Starks should be a priority signing for this team.

Starks was the team’s best offensive lineman Thursday night and is really settling in as a left tackle.

He’ll command a big salary, but given this team’s offensive line problems, they can’t possibly allow both he and left guard Alan Faneca to leave in the offseason.

© Another post-game aside: On the bus after the game, linebacker James Harrison got on long after most of the other players and there were no seats available.

He looked around, pointed at rookie punter Daniel Sepulveda and pointed to an empty seat beside another player. Sepulveda got up and moved.

© Harrison and several other players needed IVs during the track meet at Edward Jones Dome. It was that kind of game.

© Rams running back Steven Jackson is the kind of dynamic player that would put the Steelers over the top in terms of closing the gap with Indianapolis and New England.

He had the power to run through tackles and the speed to sprint past defensive backs.

Jackson even made St. Louis’ makeshift offensive line look good.

© I loved the call by Tomlin for the fake punt in the first quarter. I would have liked it even if it had failed.

St. Louis’ offense was as close to being at full strength as its been all season. Tomlin knew the Rams were going to score points.

He coached accordingly.

© Santonio Holmes had four catches for 134 yards, but it was Hines Ward who had the big night.

Ward had a 19-yard catch on third-and-18 in the first quarter and a pair of catches on third down during a fourth quarter field goal-drive that allowed the Steelers to move the chains and put the game away.

In fact, Ward’s two catches for 19 yards in the fourth quarter were the only two completions the Steelers had or needed.

© The Steelers have now allowed 47 sacks this season and are close to setting a new benchmark for sacks allowed.

But as we saw in this game, the line is not solely to blame.

Roethlisberger’s biggest fault is that he holds the ball always looking to make a play. It’s what makes him so dangerous as a quarterback. It’s one of those things the Steelers will just have to live with.

Monday, December 17, 2007

What we learned, Jacksonville

Sunday was an opportunity for the Steelers to show they belonged in the conversation when talking about the big boys in the NFL.

They failed miserably.

Not only that, but Jacksonville's victory over the Steelers put those two teams on a collision course for a first-round meeting in the playoffs as well, something that can't be too pleasing for anybody who watched the Jags dismantle the Pittsburgh defense Sunday.

The Steelers did very little in that game that showed why they should be favored in a possible rematch. The were beaten physically.

Mike Tomlin said Monday he was upset with the offense's early struggles because he felt the Steelers would have been able to run the ball on Jacksonville. After a slow start, they did have some success doing that. But some of the running was fluky.

The Steelers certainly didn't beat the Jaguars at the line of scrimmage on either side of the ball.

© Things won't be any easier this week against St. Louis.

The Rams' offensive line is a weak point, but Steven Jackson is one of the best running backs in the NFL and he's healthy and on a roll.

Considering the Steelers will be playing without Clark Haggans and Travis Kirschke, that won't be easy.

Actually, the loss of Kirschke will be bigger than Haggans.

Eason proved earlier this season to be a weak link in a game in which he played in place of injured Aaron Smith, which prompted the Steelers to go with Kirschke at that spot in the following game and when Smith was lost for the season.

And Haggans really hasn't been playing that well, so getting Woodley on the field could be a positive. At least he's a playmaker.

Opponents have been paying James Harrison more attention, giving him the double teams and allowing Haggans to rush the passer one-on-one. He's not winning those battles.

© Troy Polamalu is taking some heat for a couple of missed tackles against the Jaguars. But he was very disruptive in that game and certainly wasn't the only guy whiffing on Fred Taylor.

It was also Polamalu's first game in nearly a month, so I'm willing to give him a bit of a pass.

He was also responsible for the Steelers' first touchdown, coming up to tackle David Garrard inches short of the sticks when it looked like Garrard had a sure first down on a scramble.

The Jags bungled the ensuing punt and the Steelers got great field position and scored.

Nobody else on that team could have made that play.

© That's one of the problems with the Steelers' defense right now. If Harrison isn't making plays and forcing turnovers, they're not getting them from anywhere else.

Maybe Woodley can be that guy.

© In a way, it was good to hear that Marvel Smith's back was bothering him. I'd hate to think he would have played as badly as he did Sunday without a reason.

The Steelers are going to have a very tough decision to make at season's end. They had planned to allow Max Starks to walk at the end of the season as a free agent.

They may want to rethink that position.

According to some estimates, they'll be $18 million under the 2008 salary cap. They want to extend Ben Roethlisberger's contract this offseason, and that will eat up roughly $4 to $5 million of that – though it could be less if they get creative with the signing bonus.

That will leave them with a good deal of money to sign free agents, with offensive linemen being the top priority. And bringing Starks back – with Smith's back now a concern – should be a priority.

The team won't re-sign Alan Faneca and will take a young lineman in the draft to help fill that spot at left guard. But Starks could be one of their top five offensive linemen returning in 2008. Then again, he's probably one of their top five right now and they're not playing him.

© The Steelers need a better complimentary running back to pair with Willie Parker as well.

They liked Maurice Jones-Drew in the draft last year, but the Jags took him in the second round.

Jones-Drew isn't a big guy, but he's a hard-nosed runner capable of being a short-yardage back and a third-down threat. That's what this team is missing.

Jones-Drew is also a solid return man, something else this team needs.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Roethlisberger will play

Ben Roethlisberger's sore right shoulder kept him out of practice a couple of days this week, but it won't be enough to keep him out of a big game against Jacksonville.

Roethlisberger is champing at the bit to get another shot at the Jags, who embarrassed him last season, shutting the Steelers out in Jacksonville.

The Steelers will also have Troy Polamalu back for this one.

BTW, the reason for no power rankings this week has been a busy shopping week since I have two games in four days to cover next week.

But the power rankings look something like this:

1. New England (13-0)
2. Indianapolis (11-2)
Everybody else except Miami
32. Miami.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

What we learned: New England

Sorry this was so late, but apparently there was a problem with blogspot.

But that does allow me to talk about the latest Steelers news, which is the fact Aaron Smith is out for the year with a torn biceps.

That's bad news for the Steelers, who face a very physical Jacksonville team this week.

© After playing the Steelers in a semi-conventional way in the first half of their game Sunday, the Patriots adjusted at halftime and went back to their game plan from 2002.

New England threw the ball on 25 consecutive plays against the Steelers in that game, a 30-14 Patriots’ victory, was strangely reminiscent of Sunday’s 34-13 win at Gillette Stadium.

New England had quarterback Tom Brady drop back to pass on 33 consecutive plays. That’s right, the Patriots dropped back to pass 33 consecutive times, including their first 26 plays of the second half.

Until their final possession of the game, when they were just trying to burn some clock, Tom Brady attempted to pass on every play, throwing 25 times and scrambling for a four-yard gain on another.

It was a game plan that rendered the strength of the Pittsburgh defense, its front seven, totally useless.

For most of the game, Pro Bowl nose tackle Casey Hampton stood on the sidelines watching. Backup defensive end Nick Eason got more snaps in the second half than Hampton did as Pittsburgh countered by playing a lot of nickel.

And Brady was getting rid of the ball so quickly, the Steelers rarely even pressured him.

In fact, the Steelers failed to register a sack Sunday and had just four pressures.

That’s not going to get it done.

Perhaps getting Troy Polamalu back for a possible rematch in the playoffs – Playoffs? Did you say playoffs? – will make a difference.

With Polamalu back, the Steelers can play more dime, with Tyrone Carter coming in as the deep safety and William Gay staying on the sidelines. And Pittsburgh can also go with its big nickel as well, with a line of Brett Keisel, Aaron Smith, Hampton and Chris Hoke.

In fact, I’m not sure why we didn’t see that formation Sunday. Hampton and Hoke may have been able to use their bulk to push the pocket up in Brady’s face.

What the heck, nothing else the Steelers did Sunday worked.

© Actually, the reason the Steelers didn’t use the big nickel was because they didn’t want to take linebackers James Harrison and Clark Haggans off the field.

OK, they didn’t want to take Harrison off the field.

© As big a game as Sunday’s matchup was, it’s not nearly as big as this week’s game against Jacksonville.

Jacksonville is a team that could quite possible come to Heinz Field in the playoffs in the opening round.

And the Steelers have to prove they can be effective against the Jacksonville defense, which totally shut Pittsburgh down in a meeting last season.

In fact, a victory by the Steelers Sunday would drop the Jaguars into a tie with Cleveland for the top wildcard spot in the AFC.

Not to mention, Sunday’s loss puts the Steelers just a game ahead of Cleveland in the AFC North standings.

Given that the Browns finish up with games at home against Buffalo and San Francisco sandwiched around a game at Cincinnati, Cleveland could very well finish at 11-5.

Pittsburgh holds the tiebreaker over Cleveland, but a loss to Jacksonville would also be the Steelers’ fourth conference loss and open the possibility that they could fall to the No. 4 seed in the AFC playoffs.

San Diego has a 7-3 conference record and still has to host Detroit and Denver before finishing up its season at Oakland in three very winnable games.

And, of course, the fourth seed in the playoffs – should it win its playoff opener – stands a good shot of having to go to Gillette Stadium to face the Patriots, who will be coming off a bye.

You want to delay that trip as long as possible.

© The Steelers used Ike Taylor to shadow Randy Moss all over the field Sunday.

Taylor didn’t have bad coverage on Moss a couple of times, but still gave up the reception.

Moss is that good.

© Brady is that good as well.

© Willie Colon had his hands full with Mike Vrabel all day long. The rest of the line actually played pretty well, but Colon struggled with Vrabel’s quickness to the outside.

© The Steelers should continue to use Willie Parker the way they did Sunday for the remainder of this season.

Many times, they passed when they should have run and ran when they should have passed. And Parker was able to get outside more Sunday than he had all season.

Then again, the Steelers outrushed the Patriots, 181 to 22, and it didn’t make a difference.

When you can’t punch the ball in from inside the 10, you don’t deserve to win.

In fact, the Steelers were 0-for-3 in the red zone Sunday and lost by 21 points. You do the math.

© Wouldn’t you have liked to have seen the Steelers try a gadget play or two – I mean other than an end around with an empty backfield on fourth-and-goal from the one – as the Patriots did?

Thursday, December 06, 2007

The guarantee

Anthony Smith guaranteed a win Sunday over the Patriots.

Hey, why not. Everybody else this season has blown smoke up New England's collective behind, talking about how great they are and how it's so awesome to get a chance to get to be on the same field as such a fantastic display of talent.

Smith's comments are certain to be bulletin-board material for the Patriots, who love that kind of thing.

But he's also put the onus on himself and the rest of the defense to step up with a big game.

Week 13 Power rankings

1. New England (12-0) If they can get by the Steelers this week, it could be smooth sailing the rest of the way in the regular season.

2. Indianapolis (10-2) The win over the Jags was more impressive in my eyes than Dallas' win over Green Bay.

3. Dallas (11-1) The Cowboys are playing well, but the defense has holes.

4. Pittsburgh (9-3) Need to let Big Ben open things up because the running game is struggling.

5. Green Bay (10-2) Brett Favre played very poorly before getting hurt at Dallas.

6. Jacksonville (8-4) Among the league's elite.

7. Tampa Bay (8-4) That was an impressive win last week with the backup QB in.

8. Seattle (8-4) The Seahawks are coming on strong.

9. San Diego (7-5) The Chargers could make a run.

10. Cleveland (7-5) Tough loss last week at Arizona.

11. N.Y. Giants (8-4) Eli Manning still makes too many mistakes.

12. Tennessee (7-5) A different team with Albert Haynesworth in the lineup.

13. Minnesota (6-6) Can you win with just a running game? Apparently so.

14. Arizona (6-6) The injuries continue to mount.

15. Buffalo (6-6) An amazing 6-6.

16. Detroit (6-6) Fading fast.

17. Philadelphia (5-7) McNabb comes back this week.

18. Chicago (5-7) Still in the playoff hunt in the NFC.

19. New Orleans (5-7) A division title is out now, but still could be a wild card.

20. Denver (5-7) Too inconsistent to matter.

21. Washington (5-7) If you can't win an emotional game like last week …

22. Baltimore (4-8) Showed a little something last week, but still too many knuckleheads.

23. Houston (5-7) When five wins is your benchmark, you're a bad franchise.

24. Carolina (5-7) Just off this year.

25. Cincinnati (4-8) There's no toughness on this team at all.

26. Oakland (4-8) Two wins in a row.

27. St. Louis (3-9) Playing better now that Steven Jackson is back.

28. Kansas City (4-8) Turns out, the Chiefs are who we thought they were.

29. N.Y. Jets (3-9) OK, so you beat the Dolphins.

30. San Francisco (3-9) Just awful.

31. Atlanta (3-9) Can Bobby Petrino be fired after one season?

32. Miami (0-12) Slip sliding away.

Monday, December 03, 2007

What we learned, Cincinnati (again)

The Cincinnati Bengals must have read the quotes from Pittsburgh Steelers safety Anthony Smith about how he was going to light them up if they came across the middle.

I have never seen a less-inspired effort from a group of wideouts in my 15 years of covering the NFL.

Chad Johnson, T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Chris Henry could not have played a weaker game than the one they played here Sunday night.

At one point, Henry laid down like a baby getting ready to take a nap after catching a pass over the middle with Smith bearing down on him.

And Cincinnati’s last offensive play of the game was Johnson backing out of bounds for a 13-yard gain rather than fighting for extra yardage when the Bengals needed 17 yards on fourth down to keep their fading hopes alive.

I guess Johnson was just trying to get an early start on his offseason.

© Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer may throw a prettier pass, but I’ll take Ben Roethlisberger on my team anytime over Palmer.

Don’t get me wrong, Palmer is a good quarterback. But Roethlisberger is a football player.

The next time Palmer drops his shoulder and dives into the end zone from four yards out to score, going over a defender to get there, let me know.

© The Steelers had a lot of success against the Bengals by rushing three and dropping eight into coverage.

That won’t work next week against New England.

The key to beating the Patriots is putting pressure on Tom Brady and forcing him out of his comfort zone. He’s way too accurate and patient to allow him to sit back and look for the open receiver.

© Look for the Patriots to employ a similar game plan to the one they did in 2002 against the Steelers when they came out and didn’t even attempt to run the ball.

© I know, we’re supposed to be talking about the Cincinnati game here, but I’m just getting a jump on the national media, who will begin hyping the Pittsburgh-New England game immediately after the Patriots put the Ravens away Monday night.

That moment will come when New England scores its first points because there’s no way Baltimore’s popgun offense will be able to keep up.

© Tyrone Carter has played well in place of strong safety Troy Polamalu, Max Starks was admirable in his replacement of left tackle Marvel Smith and Cedrick Wilson and Nate Washington were OK in place of wide receiver Santonio Holmes.

There, we gave those guys the praise the deserve for filling in for injured starters the past two weeks.

But the Steelers will need all of their starters when they line up to play the Patriots.

Word is, all will be ready to go Sunday.

© Najeh Davenport apparently had some numbness in his foot in the hours leading up to Sunday’s game, which was why he was inactive and rookie Gary Russell got a shot to play.

© Roethlisberger pass to Hines Ward during the Steelers’ final touchdown drive, zipping the ball in between two defenders, was a thing of beauty.

So was Ward holding onto the ball after getting popped.

If the Cincinnati receivers weren’t taking notes, they should have been.

© I thought the Bengals would come in and give the Steelers stiffer competition.

I guess they weren't who we thought they were.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Goodbye Danny

We've probably seen the last of Dan Kreider in a Steelers uniform as the eight-year vet went on the disabled list with a knee injury Thursday.

Kreider has been phased out of the Pittsburgh offense this season in favor of Carey Davis, who's a better runner and receiver out of the backfield.

But the Steelers still used Kreider when they wanted to line up and punish opponents or late in games when they were milking the clock.

But Kreider is an unrestricted free agent after this year and his knee injury was his third injury this season in limited playing time. Running into brick walls head first for eight years will do that to a guy.

It was good while it lasted for Kreider, a true class act.

And yes, that was former Steelers fullback John Kuhn lead-blocking for Green Bay Thursday night.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Week 12 Power Rankings

1. New England (11-0) Survived a scare against Philadelphia.

2. Dallas (10-1) Will beat Green Bay this week because it's in Dallas.

3. Green Bay (10-1) I think the Packers are a better all-around team than Dallas, but they have to play the Cowboys in Big D.

4. Indianapolis (9-2) Starting to get healthy.

5. Pittsburgh (8-3) Survived in the mud. Face a good test this week with Cincinnati.

6. Jacksonville (8-3) This team is really playing well, but has to travel to Indy this week.

7. San Diego (6-5) Don't forget about the Chargers.

8. Seattle (7-4) Found a way to win on the road.

9. Cleveland (7-4) The defense is playing better, but still isn't where it needs to be.

10. Tampa Bay (7-4) Tampa's defense is playing very well.

11. N.Y. Giants (7-4) The annual second-half swoon may be starting.

12. Detroit (6-5) Needs to right the ship.

13. Tennessee (6-5) In the same boat as Detroit.

14. Philadelphia (5-6) Could sneak into the playoffs in the NFC.

15. Minnesota (5-6) No QB, but it might not matter in the NFC.

16. Chicago (5-6) Why does anybody kick to Devin Hester if they don't have to.

17. Houston (5-6) Still not ready for prime time.

18. Denver (5-6) This team just can't seem to bring it all together.

19. New Orleans (5-6) The Saints could still make a playoff push.

20. Washington (5-6) How do you lose to a team that fails to record a first down in the second half?

21. Arizona (5-6) How do you lose to San Francisco twice?

22. Buffalo (5-6) The Bills could win seven or eight games this season by default because the rest of the divison is so bad, or they may not win again. It's that close.

23. Cincinnati (4-7) The offense is getting healthy. If they only had a defense.

24. Kansas City (4-7) That loss to the Raiders will haunt them.

25. Carolina (4-7) How do you fail to win a home game in more than a year?

26. Baltimore (4-7) The wheels have come off.

27. Oakland (3-8) A commitment to Justin Fargas.

28. San Francisco (3-8) Is Fank Gore finally healthy? If so, they could play a spoiler role.

29. Atlanta (3-8) Bobby Petrino could be one and done in Atlanta if the right college program comes calling.

30. St. Louis (2-9) If Bulger comes back, this is as dangerous a two-win team as there is in the league.

31. N.Y. Jets (2-9) Forget the win against the Steelers coming out of their bye, the Jets are who we thought they were.

32. Miami (0-11) The Dolphins have problems and they are great.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

What we learned, Miami

I tried to post this Monday night at Heinz Field, but apparently, the rain delayed the posting.

© We had a Lawrence Timmons sighting on defense Monday night and the rookie replaced, of all people, Troy Polamalu in the nickel defense.

Timmons made some plays, too, picking up a couple of tackles and recovering a fumble.

That team rookie of the year award is still hanging in the balance.

© Then again, punter Daniel Sepulveda may have wrapped it up with his effort against the Dolphins.

Sepulveda punted five times and all five were downed inside the Miami 20 with no returns thanks to excellent hang time.

Considering Miami’s only real chance to score Monday night would have come on a return by Ted Ginn, that was huge.

© A win is a win is a win, but that one was as ugly as any of the Bill Cowher era.

The Pittsburgh Steelers slogged through a 3-0 win against the Miami Dolphins at Heinz Field Monday night.

Many will blame the sloppiness of the game on the turf at Heinz Field, which was re-sodded following Saturday’s Pitt game here. But the field actually held up well after the rain stopped.

The problem was that the rain didn’t stop all that much. And no matter what kind of surface you have, when you get about three inches of rain in the course of a day, the field is going to be treacherous.

Anybody remember the famous Terry Bradshaw slide against the Houston Oilers at Three Rivers Stadium during which Bradshaw spun round and round as he slid on the soaking wet turf? That was on Astroturf.

Monday night’s game could have been played on the finest surface known to man, but unless it was going to be played indoors, it wasn’t going to matter.

© Willie Parker carried the ball 24 times for 81 yards, but I didn’t see too many carries where he could have gotten more.

Parker’s game is cutting and going and in this game, that wasn’t going to be possible. He was sticking the ball up in the middle against the Dolphins defense and getting what he could, even breaking some tackles.

That was a great effort.

© Hines Ward is a mudder, pure and simple.

© If James Harrison doesn’t make the Pro Bowl this season, it’s a crime. He’s been that good.

© Larry Foote and James Farrior were also outstanding Monday night. They spent more time in the Miami backfield than Dolphins’ running back Ricky Williams, who was knocked from the game in his return from an 18-month suspension after just six carries.

© Marvel Smith’s sore back kept him out of this game and Max Starks started at left tackle in his place. Starks looked much better at left tackle in this game than he did in the preseason.

Of course he was playing for a contract in this one, showing that he can be a serviceable offensive tackle in this league.

Starks, by the way, also deflected the Dolphins’ field goal attempt in the fourth quarter, a three-pointer that would have been nullified anyway by a delay of game penalty.

© It’s hard to believe, but Ben Roethlisberger was 18 of 21 for 165 yards passing in this game, completing 15 in a row at one point to tie his own team record.

Of course none of those passes were more than 10 yards downfield as Roethlisberger’s long pass before the Steelers’ game-winning drive was a 15-yard completion to – egads – Dan Kreider.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Week 11 Power rankings

1. New England (10-0) Rolling right along.

2. Dalls (9-1) Struggled against Washington at home, but won.

3. Green Bay (9-1) The best team nobody is talking about.

4. Indianapolis (8-2) Banged up but found a way to win.

5. Jacksonville (7-3) Getting healthy at the right time.

6. Steelers (7-3) Should be angry after last week's debacle.

7. N.Y. Giants (7-3) Losing Kiwanuka for the season will hurt.

8. Seattle (6-4) Starting to turn it on now that Alexander is out.

9. Cleveland (6-4) The Browns are 6-2 against everyone in the league that doesn't wear black and gold.

10. Tampa Bay (6-4) Playing outstanding defense.

11. Detroit (6-4) We'll find out how good they are on Thanksgiving against Green Bay.

12. San Diego (5-5) Something's just not right with this team.

13. Denver (5-5) Don't look now, but here come the Broncos.

14. Arizona (5-5) The defense is playing great.

15. Philadelphia (5-5) A 23-point underdog at New England!

16. Houston (5-5) Andre Johnson is back and so is the passing offense.

17. Tennessee (6-4) Struggling without Haynesworth in the middle. Young's passing is erratic.

18. Washington (5-5) A middle-of-the-road team.

19. Buffalo (5-5) How will the Bills respond to last week's whooping?

20. Kansas City (4-6) May wish they hadn't made that Michael Bennett trade.

21. New Orleans (4-6) Just when you thought the Saints had righted the ship …

22. Chicago (4-6) Injuries have made this a lost season.

23. Minnesota (4-6) Maybe it's the o-line, but I think I could go for 100 for the Vikings.

24. Baltimore (4-6) Upon further review, the Ravens should be lower. Nah.

25. Carolina (4-6) Bill Cowher could be coaching here by the beginning of January.

26. Cincinnati (3-7) Fading, fading, fading.

27. Atlanta (3-7) Maybe Steve Bartkowski can come out of retirement.

28. St. Louis (2-8) The Rams won, but struggled against the hapless 49ers.

29. N.Y. Jets (2-8) Played their game of the season against the Steelers.

30. Oakland (2-8) Maybe the NFL should leave the Bay area.

31. San Francisco (2-8) That's eight losses in a row.

32. Miami (0-10) The Dolphins have now lost 13 straight dating back to last season.

Monday, November 19, 2007

What we learned, Jets

People will look at the seven sacks registered by the New York Jets in their victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers Sunday and point the finger solely at the offensive line.

And to be sure, the offensive line deserves the blame for at least half of the sacks and pressures against Ben Roethlisberger in New York’s 19-16 overtime win.

But Roethlisberger and the wide receivers have to shoulder some of the blame as well.

Roethlisberger is believing in his ability to scramble and keep plays alive perhaps too much.

Instead of getting rid of the football on a four or five count, Roethlisberger tried to keep plays alive too much against a Jets defense Sunday that was using its ends to keep him hemmed in and bringing pressure via stunts and blitzes from different points. The Jets also spied Roethlisberger with a linebacker or lineman in the middle of the field to keep him in the pocket.

So on several occasions when Roethlisberger couldn’t find somebody open downfield, he began to move around in the pocket and ran himself into pressure and/or sacks.

There were also times when Roethlisberger stood in the pocket – such as on the Jets’ second sack of the game – where the quarterback had plenty of time to throw the ball, but couldn’t find anyone open downfield.

The offensive line can’t be blamed in those situations.

Considering the success New York had with that defense, the Steelers had better expect to see more of it the remainder of this season.

© All of that said, I wouldn’t be surprised to see some changes up front when the Steelers line up to play Miami next Monday night.

Chris Kemoeatu and Max Starks on the right side can’t be any worse than what we’ve seen this season out of Willie Colon and Kendall Simmons.

And at some point, you’ve just got to send a message.

© For all of the talk from the Steelers in the week leading up to it, it was obvious that they took the New York Jets lightly.

It’s probably only human nature that it happens. But you had better believe that it won’t happen anytime soon again.

© The run defense, for the first time in the past two seasons, was awful.

And it’s hard to figure out why.

Despite a 56-yard completion off a flea-flicker on his first pass, Kellen Clemens didn’t break 100 yards passing until the fourth quarter.

So with little threat of the pass, the Steelers still allowed the Jets to run for 151 yards, mainly because they missed tackle after tackle.

© Willie Parker continues to have problems with his footing. And on the turf at Giants Stadium, there was no real reason for it.

Everybody likes to complain about the field conditions at Heinz Field, but Parker, apparently, is struggling with his footing everywhere.

He’s also doing a little too much dancing at the line of scrimmage instead of just hitting the ball up in there.

The Steelers went with Najeh Davenport a little more than usual against the Jets and he had more success because he did just find a seam and hit it.

Parker may be thinking a little too much instead of just allowing his natural ability to take over.

Tomlin said earlier this season that he will run Parker until the wheels come off. It’s possible that is in the process of happening.

© If you were to forced to pick an MVP for the Steelers, Jeff Reed would have to do. Reed kept the ball out of Leon Washington’s hands on kickoffs most of the day with some perfectly placed pop-up kicks and was perfect on three field goal attempts in a tough place to kick.

© Santonio Holmes looked fine after the game after getting his ankle rolled up on in the fourth quarter on a short pass play.

But Troy Polamalu looked very banged up in the locker room. Polamalu was walking very stiffly and appeared to have some kind of leg injury.

© That 33-yard punt return that Washington had to set up New York’s game-winning score was as much punter Daniel Sepulveda’s fault as it was the coverage unit’s. Sepulveda hit a short line-drive kick that allowed Washington to catch the ball on the run.

© You could also credit some poor play calling in that situation.

Parker ran for three yards on first down and Roethlisberger was sacked for a six-yard loss on second down that moved the ball back to the 14.

On third down and 14, the Steelers ran a draw with fullback Carey Davis, who has just a handful of carries all season.

That’s a give-up play. And in overtime, when all the opponents needs is a field goal to win, you can’t run a give-up play deep in your own territory.

Even if Sepulveda hit a 45-yard punt and Washington called for a fair catch, the Jets were going to get great field position.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Week 10 rankings

1. New England (9-0) Nothing to say here.

2. Dallas (8-1) Looking strong for the top seed in the NFC, though Green Bay is playing well too.

3. Pittsburgh (7-2) A top-five offensive and defensive team and Ben Roethlisberger is playing as well as any QB in the league. The special teams could be a downfall if not fixed.

4. Indianapolis (7-2) If Freeney is indeed out for four weeks, the Colts could be in trouble.

5. Green Bay (8-1) And to think, Brett Favre was actually thinking about retirement.

6. Jacksonville (6-3) Found a way to win two of three without Garrard, who should be back this week.

7. N.Y. Giants (6-3) There's just something missing with Eli Manning.

8. Tennessee (6-3) Teams are forcing Vince Young to throw on them. He has precious few receivers to get the ball to.

9. San Diego (5-4) Philip Rivers needs to play better.

10. Cleveland (5-4) The Browns are better, but not ready to handle the big boys yet.

11. Detroit (6-3) Stumbled in the desert last week.

12. Seattle (5-4) Still need to play better on the road.

13. Tampa Bay (5-4) The bye came at a perfect time for a banged-up team.

14. Washington (5-4) This is a Jekyl and Hyde team to be sure, but so are a lot of teams in the teens.

15. Buffalo (5-4) The win streak ends this week at New England.

16. Arizona (4-5) This team could make a push for the playoffs in the second half.

17. New Orleans (4-5) All the momentum they acquired by winning four in a row was lost last week.

18. Philadelphia (4-5) Is the old Donovan McNabb back?

19. Denver (4-5) Dominated the Chiefs without Larry Johnson.

20. Chicago (4-5) Don't count the Bears out in the NFC just yet.

21. Kansas City (4-5) Johnson's out and they now have big trouble at QB. Not a good sign.

22. Houston (4-5) Should finally get Andre Johnson back.

23. Carolina (4-5) John Fox has to be on the hot seat. Bill Cowher anyone?

24. Cincinnati (3-6) Two of three wins have come against the Ravens.

25. Baltimore (4-5) Remember when people thought the Ravens were still good?

26. Atlanta (3-6) Believe it or not, the Falcons have won two in a row.

27. Minnesota (3-6) In trouble without Adrian Peterson.

28. Oakland (2-7) If they combined both teams on the Bay, they still wouldn't have a QB.

29. San Francisco (2-7) Putrid offense.

30. St. Louis (1-8) Starting to get healthy.

31. N.Y. Jets (1-8) Only hope of another win comes against Miami.

32. Miami (0-9) Challenging for the spot of the worst team in history.

Monday, November 12, 2007

What we learned, Cleveland (again)

Some things just seem to be destined to happen.

The sun rises. The seasons change. The Steelers beat the Browns.

That's why, even when the Browns were up 21-6 against the Steelers Sunday, there was little doubt Pittsburgh was going to win the game.

Cleveland is, well, Cleveland. You knew the Browns would find a way to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

© I liked seeing big Chris Kemoeatu in there at fullback down by the goal line.

What I didn't like was the pass Willie Parker threw on second and goal with Kemoeatu in there.

With Max Starks at tight end and Kemoeatu at fullback, there were precious few options for Parker to throw to on that play.

© Once again, Ben Roethlisberger proves why he's one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL, even though he doesn't get credit for it.

The Steelers are winning games because of him this season, just as they did down the stretch in 2005 and in the second half of last season.

© Alan Faneca spoke up in the huddle when the Steelers needed a score to go ahead, yelling at his teammates to get them going. Most of what Faneca said is unprintable, but the message was received.

So much for all the bozos out there who thought Faneca would be mailing it in this season, his final one in Pittsburgh.

© Heath Miller is a better tight end than Kellen Winslow, even though it will be Winslow who joins Antonio Gates in Hawaii for the Pro Bowl.

Unforuntately, the Pro Bowl voters only look at catches as the measure of a tight end. Milller may be the best all-around tight end in the AFC, if not the NFL.

© Braylon Edwards' TD catch in the second quarter was an outstanding play. But if Edwards hadn't made it, you wouldn't have known he played Sunday.

He did nothing else.

© James Harrison continues to be a force. That's two more fumbles he forced against the Browns, giving him five in the past two games.

Joey Porter will be coming back to town later this season. Steelers fans should cheer him. Had he not declined so much in the past couple of seasons, Mike Tomlin may not have cut him and Harrison would not be starting right now.

© I usually don't comment on things that happen in other games, but I did watch the San Diego-Indianapolis game Sunday night.

First, Antonio Cromartie's second quarter one-handed interception of Peyton Manning was perhaps the best defensive play I've seen in some years.

Second, people who were giving Indianapolis the No. 2 seed in the playoffs may have been a bit premature.

If the playoffs began right now, the Steelers would be No. 2 based on a better conference record than Indianapolis.

The Steelers will be favored in all but one of their final six games this season. Indianapolis will be favored in all of its final six games. But you never know.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Update on Clark

After talking to Ryan Clark today and seeing him in the locker room the past couple of weeks, I can only come to the conclusion that it may be weeks or even months before he's ready to play football again.

The spleen problem he has – which was brought on by playing football in high altitudes while carrying the sickle cell trait – is a painful one and Clark is still struggling to move around in everyday life.

It's a difficult situation, especially considering what a good guy Clark is and how well-liked he is by his teammates. You can only hope that he gets well enough to move on from this setback.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Week 9 Power Rankings

1. New England (9-0) It wasn't necessarily pretty, but the Pats won in Indianapolis.

2. Indianapolis (7-1) You can't blow a 10-point lead with nine minutes and change remaining in the game, even to New England.

3. Dallas (7-1) Big game with the Giants looms. Dallas should win.

4. Pittsburgh (6-2) Should head to New England in a month with just two losses in what will be billed as the next game of the century.

5. Green Bay (7-1) Winning a road game is difficult following a Monday night road game. But the Packers did it.

6. Tennessee (6-2) I like how this team is playing defense.

7. N.Y. Giants (6-2) I'm not sold on this team just yet. But the record is good.

8. Detroit (6-2) Jon Kitna predicted 10 wins before the season and everyone laughed. Who's laughing now?

9. Jacksonvile (5-3) That was a blip on the radar last week. This is still a good team.

10. Cleveland (5-3) We'll see just how far the Browns have come this week. I still expect a two touchdown-win by the Steelers this week.

11. New Orleans (4-4) Could end up winning the NFC by the time it's all said and done.

12. Tampa Bay (5-4) The defense dominated against a good Arizona offense.

13. Washington (5-3) That was not how I expected the Skins to rebound from the New England loss, but at least they won.

14. San Diego (4-4) What the heck was that against Minnesota? We'll chalk it up to the wildfires.

15. Kansas City (4-4) Tough loss last week. Even tougher considering Larry Johnson was injured.

16. Seattle (4-4) Still the best team in an awful division.

17. Buffalo (4-4) Maybe the win over the Ravens two weeks ago wasn't all that strange.

18. Baltimore (4-4) This season could really get away from Brian Billick fast.

19. Carolina (4-4) The Panthers finally lost one on the road last week. Now maybe they'll get their first home win.

20. Arizona (3-5) Need a win this week in the worst way.

21. Houston (4-5) Better than they were last season, but the Texans are still struggling.

22. Minnesota (3-5) Will only go as far as Adrian Peterson can take them.

23. Philadelphia (3-5) This has turned into a lost season in Philadelphia.

24. Denver (3-5) The defense is awful and now Cutler is out.

25. Cincinnati (2-6) Should draft all defensive players this year.

26. Chicago (3-5) Maybe they fixed things over the bye, but I doubt it.

27. Oakland (2-6) Slipping back into a familar role.

28. Atlanta (2-6) May not have many wins left on the schedule.

29. San Francisco (2-6) I can't believe they're still this bad and New England gets their first-round draft pick.

30. N.Y. Jets (1-8) Nearly pulled off the upset last week.

31. St. Louis (0-8) Didn't lose last week because they were on the bye.

32. Miami (0-8) See above.

What we learned: Baltimore

While all the hype this weekend in the NFL surrounded the Colts and Patriots, there was an important game being played in Pittsburgh Monday night.

The Pittsburgh Steelers needed Monday night’s victory over the Baltimore Ravens to prove that they could slay the dragon.

The dragon, in this case, was a Baltimore team that dominated the Steelers 58-7 last season, whipping them in every facet of the game.

There will be bigger games for this team down the road. A game at New England and one against a Jacksonville team that physically manhandled the Steelers last season come to mind. And then there’s the playoffs – that’s right, I said it.

But consider Monday night’s 38-7 domination of the Ravens a big hurdle that has been crossed.

© If there is a quarterback in the NFL playing better than Ben Roethlisberger right now, I don’t know who it is.

There, I said it – I guess I’m into making statements tonight at 2:44 a.m.

That includes Tom Brady and Peyton Manning.

If you gave Roethlisberger Brady weapons or offensive game plans, he’d be putting up crazy numbers right now too. Think Randy Moss could get open with Roethlisberger scrambling around, buying extra time?

Roethlisberger could have thrown 10 touchdown passes against the Ravens Monday. He could have piled up 400 yards passing.

But because the Steelers have some class, he didn’t. And it’s been that way for much of this season.

© Roethlisberger is OK, by the way. He banged his hip and shoulder in the third quarter on a hit from Terrell Suggs, but is fine after the initial shock.

Roethlisberger, if you haven’t figured it out yet, is a bit of a hypochondriac. You never really know if he’s near death or ready to come back into the game.

© OK, now we can get to James Harrison.

That was one of the most dominant games I’ve seen a defensive player have in 15 seasons of covering the NFL, bar none.

Harrison was unblockable, unstoppable and unflappable.

All right, he was flapped a little by the media throng that waited by his locker after the game.

Harrison, you see, is not a guy who particularly likes to talk to the media. In fact, he likes to try to intimidate those who are easily intimidated by a guy who’s built like a brick wall and owns a stare that could stop traffic.

But really, Harrison’s a pretty shy guy. He can also be funny when he wants to be.

He also happens to be a pretty good NFL linebacker, one who likely earned himself a spot in the Pro Bowl Monday night.

© Part of the reason Harrison felt he was so effective was that the coaching staff took him off of two of the three special teams coverage units.

He claimed to be fresher. Of course he was still out there covering punts as we saw when he body slammed Ed Reed, forcing a fumble.

No, he didn’t recover that one.

© Were there any Ravens that Hines Ward didn’t put on their behinds?

Just asking.

© It would do the Steelers well to play with that same swagger and ferocity when they play the Patriots later this season.

We saw a little bit of that from the Colts against the Patriots and they didn’t necessarily handle that physical style of play very well.

Heck, even Jeff Reed was going after people Monday night.

© Of the teams in the AFC North, the Ravens might be in the most trouble.

The Steelers, Browns and Bengals all have a quarterback they can build around. Baltimore, on the other hand, does not.

And the defense is getting old, as is left tackle Jonathan Ogden. In fact, Ogden isn’t getting old. He is old.

The Ravens should have let him stay in retirement and started the rebuilding process this season rather than prolonging the process another year.

© The resurgent Browns are up next. Considering the Steelers have won all four of their home games by at least 20 points, there’s no reason to believe the Steelers won’t dominate them at Heinz Field as well.

Derek Anderson may be a nice story in the NFL right now. And sure, he’s playing well, as are Braylon Edwards and Kellen Winslow. But how are the Browns going to run the football? How are they going to stop the run? How are they going to slow down Roethlisberger?

They aren’t.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Who's in, who's out

Ryan Clark has been declared out for Monday's game against the Ravens as he continues to struggle to recover from his spleen problem. I saw him in the locker room this week and he still doesn't look like himself.

Jerame Tuman is out as well with a sprained back.

Aaron Smith hasn't practiced all week and it's looking like he won't play, either. The Steelers will practice Saturday, so there's still a chance Smith could play, but he has to get on the field first.

Alan Faneca missed practice Friday with a back problem, but is probable to play.

For Baltimore, tight end Daniel Wilcox is out, while cornerback Chris McAlister is doubtful. McAlister has been limited at practice all week and it's looking like he won't play.

Samari Rolle is questionable and missed practice Friday with an illness.

Tight end Todd Heap has also been limited at practice this week and remains questionable.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Week 8 Power Rankings

1. New England (8-0) OK, the offense impressed me last week against Washington, a tough defense.

2. Indianapolis (7-0) Had a strong showing at Carolina without Marvin Harrison.

3. Dallas (6-1) The Cowboys hold down the No. 3 spot, for now. A week 10 meeting with the Giants looms.

4. Pittsburgh (5-2) That was more like it last week against a desperate Cincinnati team.

5. Green Bay (6-1) Did what Pittsburgh couldn't do, win in Denver, by doing what the Steelers refused to do, run the ball.

6. San Diego (4-3) Rolling along now.

7. N.Y. Giants (6-2) That was less than impressive against a sorry Miami team.

8. Jacksonville (5-2) Found a way to win at Tampa Bay.

9. Tennessee (5-2) Aren't going to win with less than 100 yards passing every week.

10. Washington (4-3) Last week was an anomaly.

11. Baltimore (4-3) Tough matchup with the Steelers this week.

12. Detroit (5-2) Starting to get on a roll.

13. Kansas City (4-3) Jared Allen has made a big difference.

14. Seattle (4-3) Starting to get healthy again.

15. Cleveland (4-3) Beating Miami and St. Louis in back-to-back weeks doesn't prove much.

16. Tampa Bay (4-4) Falling off the map.

17. Denver (3-4) Playing better, but still has defensive holes.

18. Carolina (4-3) The Panthers are 4-0 on the road, 0-3 at home. Go figure.

19. Philadelphia (3-4) McNabb's starting to come around and Westbrook is healthy.

20. New Orleans (3-4) Slowly coming out of its early season slump.

21. Arizona (3-4) Warner's elbow should be a lot better this week.

22. Buffalo (3-4) Two of the three wins have come against the Jets.

23. Houston (3-5) Could get Andre Johnson back this week.

24. Cincinnati (2-5) The wheels are coming off.

25. Chicago (3-5) The wheels have already come off.

26. Minnesota (2-5) All the Vikings have is wheels. Can't throw the ball at all.

27. Oakland (2-5) Looked like the Raiders of old last week with 14 penalties. Some of those teams were good enough to overcome those kind of things. This team is not.

28. San Francisco (2-5) Remember when this team was 2-0?

29. Atlanta (1-6) Maybe it's time for overrated DeAngelo Hall to go.

30. N.Y. Jets (1-7) The Kellen Clemens era begins.

31. St. Louis (0-8) Just seems to be snakebit this year.

32. Miami (0-8) No end to losing in sight.

Monday, October 29, 2007

What we learned, Cincinnati

Here's what we learned in Cincinnati.

Maybe the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 24-13 victory over the Bengals wasn’t perfect, but it was pretty close to it considering the circumstances.

Here’s the good:

© The Steelers rolled up 390 yards on offense and held the Bengals under 300, limiting Cincinnati’s high-powered offense to just one touchdown.

© Ben Roethlisberger was sharp, completing 19 of 26 passes for 230 yards and two touchdowns with one interception.

© Willie Parker gained 126 yards on 22 carries with a touchdown.

© The big three pass catchers – Hines Ward, Santonio Holmes and Heath Miller – combined for 16 catches for 217 yards and two touchdowns.

© The secondary – led by Anthony Smith – was flying around nailing the Bengals receivers at every opportunity.

© That was a heck of a play by James Harrison to take the ball away from Kenny Watson in the fourth quarter.

© Three penalties for 20 yards in a loud venue like Paul Brown Stadium is outstanding.

Now for the bad:

© This defense apparently really needs Aaron Smith. The Bengals spent a lot of time running right, where Nick Eason was starting in place of Smith.

Giving up 88 yards to Watson is unacceptable. Then again, the Steelers were very concerned about the pass and playing a lot of cover-2, so I’m sure that had something to do with it.

© The kick coverage was spotty. William Gay lost outside contain in the second quarter that allowed the Bengals to return the ball to midfield after the Steelers had gone ahead 14-3.

© The interception Roethlisberger threw in the third quarter is one that he can’t make against a good team. The Steelers have to get at least three points out of that trip. If they go up 24-6 there, the game’s over.

I know with Roethlisberger you have to live with the bad because there’s an awful lot of good when he starts moving around in the pocket, but at least he’s learning.

Sunday he admitted that maybe he’s becoming too reliant on running around and is doing so a little early and more often than he actually has to.

Now for the bad news, good news:

© The defense got very little pressure on Carson Palmer, but really didn’t blitz all that much. Palmer was also getting rid of the ball very quickly.

Those quick throws aren’t a bad thing for a defense. Cincinnati’s long gain was 28 yards as the Bengals averaged 8.9 yards per catch.

© Dan Kreider didn’t last a quarter as the starting fullback. But Carey Davis had some big blocks in this one.

© The Steelers’ four leading tacklers in this game were defensive backs. That’s usually the sign of a bad game by a defense.

But in this case it was because the secondary was doing a pretty good job of tackling. They missed a couple of times, but that’s going to happen when you get so many opportunities.

And many of the missed tackles came against Watson, who had a full head of steam after running through the holes where Eason was supposed to be.

As a side note, I got a good chuckle out of the idiot Bengals fan who was running alongside our buses on the way out giving us the finger. He was so intent on flipping the buses off that he never saw that tree he ran face-first into. It typified Cincinnati's day and season.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Friday update

It looks like Ryan Clark will sit along side Aaron Smith this weekend when the Steelers play the Bengals. Clark didn't practice all week as he continues to recover from the spleen inflamation brought on by playing in Denver while carrying the sickle cell anemia trait.

I did some research on the sickle cell trait after talking to Clark this week and he actually could have died had the Steelers doctors not treated him quickly.

For the Bengals, it doesn't appears as if Rudi Johnson will play.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Week 7 Power Rankings

1. Indianapolis (6-0) Change at the top. Sorry, Patriots, but Indy's win at Jacksonville was much more impresside.

2. New England (7-0) The offense is great, maybe the best ever. The defense has shown some holes, though.

3. Dallas (6-1) Here by default at this point.

4. Green Bay (5-1) Maybe the Pack found a running game during the bye week. Then again, they play at Denver this week, so …

5. Pittsburgh (4-2) I still think they are the third-best team in the AFC, which makes them pretty good.

6. Tennessee (4-2) Winning without Vince Young was huge last week.

7. Jacksonville (4-2) If Garrard is out an extended period of time, this team is in trouble.

8. San Diego (3-3) Going to have a tough time this week with the wildfires.

9. N.Y. Giants (5-2) I'm not as high on this team as some others. Who have they beaten?

10. Washington (4-2) OK, the Giants have beaten the Redskins, but this team is really offensively challenged.

11. Kansas City (4-3) I'm starting to believe in this team a little.

12. Seattle (4-3) Should still have enough to win the NFC West.

13. Carolina (4-2) Needs to be more consistent.

14. Tampa Bay (4-3) Tough loss at Detroit last week.

15. Detroit (4-2) The defense showed some signs of life against Tampa Bay.

16. Houston (4-3) The defense is still pretty good and Andre Johnson should be coming back soon.

17. Baltimore (4-2) How in the world do you lose to Buffalo?

18. Denver (3-3) Had their backs against the wall last week and pulled one out, but has still been outscored 106-164 this season.

19. Cleveland (3-3) Still has to show me a road win.

20. Chicago (3-4) Don't count this team out in the NFC.

21. Arizona (3-4) Tough loss at Washington last week.

22. Cincinnati (2-4) Saved the season last week, but then again, it was just the Jets.

23. New Orleans (2-4) Not a great efffort considering it was just the Falcons last week.

24. Oakland (2-4) Reverting back to form.

25. San Francisco (2-4) No offense and the defense is starting to follow suit.

26. Philadelphia (2-4) Can't score against anybody but Detroit.

27. Buffalo (2-4) At least the Bills are getting better.

28. Minnesota (2-4) The Vikings have a running game and nothing else.

29. N.Y. Jets (1-6) Blew a 23-10 lead at Cincinnati.

30. Atlanta (1-6) Ick.

31. St. Louis (0-7) Gets Steven Jackson back this week. Could beat Cleveland.

32. Miami (0-7) Could go winless, except for the fact they get to play the Jets and Buffalo.

Monday, October 22, 2007

What we learned: Denver

Denver enters the game worst in the league against the run. And so the Pittsburgh Steelers, of course, come out passing.

A game plan that included just three running plays in the first quarter – compared to 10 passes – just makes no sense to me against a team that had been giving up five yards per carry and 187.6 yards per game.

“We knew they would come out in preparation to stop the run and they were,” said Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin following the team’s 31-28 loss at Denver Sunday night.

“It’s the same cat and mouse chess game. … That’s just football.”

Sorry, but in my mind, it’s just not very smart.

Unless the Broncos came up with all 11 men in the box, the game plan for the Steelers should have been to run the ball again and again until Denver proved it could stop it. Three carries in the first quarter doesn’t tell me whether they could stop the run or not.

That’s neither cat and mouse nor chess. The Steelers outsmarted themselves.

Maybe they looked out there and didn't see Champ Bailey playing and thought that was a better matchup. But the Steelers are a running team. Why go away from your strength?

© Despite all of that, the lack of running the ball early in the game wasn’t the reason the Steelers lost. The defense, which had been stout all season long, showed some holes.

Just about every time the Steelers put points on the board, Denver responded with a score of its own.

Against a defense that entered the game No. 1 in the league in both points against and yardage allowed, that was unacceptable. There was very little pressure on quarterback Jay Cutler in the first half and the Steelers only got their hands on two passes the entire game – both of which were interceptions.

Considering the Steelers have Cincinnati up next, the pass defense better tighten up or it’s going to be a long day.

© What in the world were Najeh Davenport and Allen Rossum doing on that kick return on the first play of the fourth quarter?

Rossum came up like he expected Davenport to field it and Davenport let the ball go over his head. By the time Rossum came back and picked the ball up, Denver’s coverage teams were there and he was stopped at the 6.

I guess it was miscommunication.

The Steelers went down and scored on the ensuing drive, but that 1:03 the Steelers ate up getting the ball out to the 34 sure would have come in handy at the end of the game.

© Now that we’ve seen it happen a couple of times, we can surmise that center Sean Mahan has some trouble with the shotgun snap.

He snapped the ball low in the second quarter to Ben Roethlisberger, forcing Roethlisberger to come up and pick the ball up off the ground. By the time he was able to set up in the pocket, it had collapsed, he was sacked and the ball was returned 50 yards for a touchdown.

That’s a game-changing play that, in my mind, doesn’t happen if the ball is snapped where it’s supposed to be at.

© Roethlisberger isn’t without blame in this one. He didn’t have a very good first half, though he kept several plays alive by breaking tackles in the pocket. But he still hasn’t realized that sometimes it’s OK to just throw the ball away.

Roethlisberger keeps a lot of plays alive by shucking would-be tacklers. But Sunday night, a lot of those scrambling throws were sailing high on him. He threw two interceptions and could have had several more.

“You live by the sword, you die by the sword,” Roethlisberger said. “You make plays with it, other times you don’t. You’re not going to look back and second guess.”

© Even with Sunday’s loss, the next three games are the important ones for the Steelers as they face Cincinnati before hosting Baltimore and Cleveland.

Win all three – or even two of three – and they’ll be sitting pretty for the stretch run.

Anything less than two wins in those games, however, is going to have this team fighting for a playoff spot all the way down the stretch.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Wednesday update

The Steelers had a surprise participant at practice Wednesday as cornerback Bryant McFadden was working in the team portion of drills as he continues to recover from a high ankle sprain.
McFadden is listed as doubtful to play Sunday at Denver and likely won't play as he'll take another week to rest his ankle injury, but the fact he was able to get on the field and run and cut was a promising sign.

Troy Polamalu was icing the left side of his rib cage following practice Wednesday, but will be good to go Sunday in Denver.

Hines Ward proclaimed himself at 100 percent.

Casey Hampton will try to practice Thursday and will definitely be ready to go by Friday.

Week 6 rankings

1. New England (6-0) Had their way with the Cowboys.

2. Indianapolis (5-0) Tooling along unbeaten while the Patriots get all the fanfare.

3. Pittsburgh (4-1) I told you the Steelers were better than the Cowboys. Dallas is a fraud as a Super Bowl contender.

4. Jacksonville (4-1) The Jags play the same style of football the Steelers did in the '90s.

5. Green Bay (5-1) Won despite an off day by Brett Favre.

6. Dallas (5-1) Couldn't put the Pats away at home. The secondary is awful.

7. San Diego (3-3) Finally getting the ball to LT.

8. Washington (3-2) I like the defense and running game. The passing game is coming along.

9. Baltimore (4-2) The defense isn't as dominating as previous seasons, which helps expose a putrid offense.

10. N.Y. Giants (4-2) Starting to turn it around.

11. Tampa Bay (4-2) Jeff Garcia is playing very well.

12. Tennessee (3-2) Need Vince Young healthy to thrive.

13. Carolina (4-2) Vinny, Vinny, Vinny.

14. Arizona (3-3) Need to get Warner back as soon as possible.

15. Seattle (3-3) That's two stinkbombs in a row.

16. Kansas City (3-3) Could the Chiefs be turning it around? Probably not.

17. Cleveland (3-3) Could finish 8-8 with a soft schedule ahead.

18. Detroit (3-2) Have to get the offense figured out again to have a chance to win.

19. Houston (3-3) Needs to get Andre Johnson back soon.

20. Denver (2-3) The Steelers could run for 300 yards this week against this defense. There's no reason for this team to be that bad.

21. Oakland (2-3) Got exposed by the Chargers.

22. Minnesota (2-3) Surprised the Bears - and me - last week.

23. Philadelphia (2-3) Struggled to beat the Jets.

24. San Francisco (2-3) Gets Alex Smith back this week.

25. Chicago (2-4) How low can the Bears go?

26. Cincinnati (1-4) The implosion is beginning.

27. New Orleans (1-4) Nice win last week, but I need to see more.

28. Buffalo (1-4) Sticking with Trent Edwards is probably a good idea. J.P. Losman stinks.

29. N.Y. Jets (1-5) Will win a couple of more games, but only since Miami and Buffalo are in the division.

30. Atlanta (1-5) How long can they stick with Joey Harrington?

31. St. Louis (0-6) Marc Bulger and Steven Jackson will be back soon.

32. Miami (0-6) Old and bad can't get any better.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Week 5 power rankings

1. New England (5-0) Will finally face a stiff challenge this week at Dallas, provided Tomo Romo doesn't turn it over five times.

2. Indianapolis (5-0) Tooling along unbeaten while the Patriots get all the fanfare.

3. Pittsburgh (4-1) Surprised? The Steelers are just plain better than the Cowboys.

4. Dallas (5-0) Should have lost to Buffalo. Buffalo!

5. Jacksonville (3-1) I don't know why, but I just like this team more than Green Bay.

6. Green Bay (4-1) Found a bit of a running game, but it wasn't enough to beat the depleted Bears at home.

7. Tennessee (3-1) The Titans have done nothing but win with Vince Young at the helm.

8. Washington (3-1) Playing solid ball.

9. Arizona (3-2) Another team playing solid ball. Will be better with Kurt Warner running the show.

10. Baltimore (3-2) A very flawed team.

11. Seattle (3-2) Didn't show up in Pittsburgh last week.

12. Tampa Bay (3-2) Defense is playing well, but the Bucs have no healthy running backs left.

13. San Diego (2-3) Will Norv Turney turn the defense loose?

14. N.Y. Giants (3-2) Plaxico Burress has been unstoppable.

15. Houston (3-2) A decent, but not great, team.

16. Carolina (3-2) Julius Peppers is still looking for his first sack.

17. Detroit (3-2) The offense is suddenly sputtering.

18. Chicago (2-3) The once-vaunted defense is very banged up.

19. Denver (2-3) Would be 0-5 if not for two last-second field goals.

20. Oakland (2-2) Better than some thought, but still not good.

21. Cincinnati (1-3) Maybe the Bengals found some linebackers during the bye.

22. Cleveland (2-3) Getting better, but still not good.

23. Philadelphia (1-3) Has to protect Donovan McNabb.

24. San Francisco (2-3) The defense is pretty good, the offense stinks.

25. Kansas City (2-3) Larry Johnson has to get more carries to be effective.

26. Minnesota (1-3) Tavarius Jackson is back this week. Yawn.

27. Buffalo (1-4) Couldn't take advantage of Tony Romo's career bad night.

28. N.Y. Jets (1-4) Mangenius huh? More like Manmoron.

29. New Orleans (0-4) Maybe they are this bad.

30. Atlanta (1-4) The old Joey Harrington was back last week.

31. St. Louis (0-5) Incredibly beaten up.

32. Miami (0-5) The Cleo Lemon era begins.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

What we learned: Seattle

Early in the week, Mike Tomlin called out Nate Washington and Cedrick Wilson for their poor play the week before at Arizona.

Tomlin was particularly upset with their lack of downfield blocking, Washington's tendency to give up on plays and Wilson's constant bitching.

None of those things were evident Sunday. Message sent and received.

© Of course Tomlin wasn't planning on Washington and Wilson needing to be such big parts of the offense Sunday. The third play of the game was supposed to be a deep ball to Santonio Holmes - who was injured in pre-game warmups.

Instead the Steelers' third play was a two-yard run by Willie Parker.

© That win was all Ben Roethlisberger on offense and an inspired defense led by James Farrior and Ike Taylor.

Roethlisberger was as sharp as I've ever seen him - and mind you I've seen every snap he's taken in the NFL in person and seen him in practice for countless hours. Even the passes he missed were just off the finger tips of receivers.

Farrior had 2 1/2 sacks Sunday and already has set his career-high with 4 1/2.

Taylor had one interception Sunday and could have had five if he had better hands.

© Seattle really didn't give Matt Hasselbeck a lot to work with on many occasions.

The Seahawks went max-protect a lot and the receivers who were out in patterns were only getting five or six yards from the line of scrimmage. That's very easy to cover, even when Hasselbeck had plenty of time.

© Once Deion Branch was out, that was pretty much it for anything deep.

© The Steelers dodged a bullet when Marvel Smith got dinged and came back in later. You'd better believe there were a lot of people wearing headsets with black and gold shirts on holding their collective breath on that one.

Smith is the player the team can least afford to lose. And that's why the Steelers' No. 1 pick will be an offensive tackle next year - one who is able to play guard as well. The kid can then challenge Chris Kemoeatu for the starting left guard spot.

© Allen Rossum isn't much of a punt returner, but he is heady.

When he tried to field a punt at the goal line after a Seattle player had touched it, many in the press box wondered what he was doing.

Those of us who actually knew the rule knew that he was being smart. There is no penalty for the offense to attempt to advance the ball after the kicking team touches it. Rossum could try to get the ball off the one with no downside.

© The Steelers have yet to allow a point in the second quarter of a game this season. That's impressive.

© So much for those red zone problems. Three-for-three in this one. Of course those of us who have Jeff Reed on their fantasy team aren't all that happy about that.

You can't please everyone.

© This was a big win for this team as it heads into the bye week. With two weeks off before they head to Denver, the Steelers have an opportunity to get healthy.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Ward out; Polamalu, Hampton iffy

Hines Ward will be out again this week after sitting out practice again Friday. Nate Washington will again start in his place against Seattle Sunday.

Troy Polamalu and Casey Hampton also sat out practice again. I expect Polamalu to play, but Hampton will be a game-time decision with a hamstring injury.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Week 4 Power Rankings

1. New England (4-0) Still dominating on offense, but I saw some chinks in the armor on defense Monday night.

2. Indianapolis (4-0) See above.

3. Dallas (4-0) The Cowboys really haven't been challenged and may not be in the NFC.

4. Green Bay (4-0) Favre's carrying the Packers now, but at some point the lack of running game is going to bite them.

5. Pittsburgh (3-1) Played poorly last week and still had a chance to win on the road.

6. Seattle (3-1) Dominated the 49ers last week. Will face a stiff test in Pittsburgh this week.

7. Tampa Bay (3-1) Forget Green Bay, this is the surprise team in the league.

8. Jacksonville (2-1) The week off should help the passing game.

9. Tennessee (2-1) Good defense and Vince Young.

10. Arizona (2-2) The two wins have come over Pittsburgh and Seattle. But the Cards need to win on the road.

11. Washington (2-1) The defense is pretty good and Jason Campbell is getting better.

12. Denver (2-2) The run defense is atrocious.

13. Carolina (2-2) Perhaps the most inconsistent team in the league.

14. San Francisco (2-2) How good will the 49ers be with Trent Dilfer at QB?

15. San Diego (1-3) Maybe L.J. Smith should have been fired instead of Marty Schottenheimer.

16. N.Y. Giants (2-2) The Giants are still sacking Donovan McNabb.

17. Baltimore (2-2) Where's the defense?

18. Houston (2-2) Too many injuries on offense.

19. Detroit (3-1) Explosive offense, still doesn't have a defense.

20. Oakland (2-2) Going to have to throw the ball more than 11 times to beat anybody other than Miami.

21. Kansas City (2-2) How this team has two wins is beyond me.

22. Cleveland (2-2) Showing signs of life on offense.

23. Cincinnati (1-3) Will be holding open tryouts for linebackers this week.

24. Philadelphia (1-3) Really need Westbrook back.

25. Buffalo (1-3) New England will clinch the division title by the halfway mark.

26. N.Y. Jets (1-3) Should rename the division the AFC Patriots and the Patsys.

27. Chicago (1-3) The injuries are mounting and the offense still stinks.

28. Atlanta (1-3) Still a bad team.

29. Minnesota (1-3) Can't throw the ball at all.

30. New Orleans (0-3) The loss of McAllister really hurts.

31. Miami (0-4) That Joey Porter signing looks really good.

32. St. Louis (0-4) No offensive line and no Steven Jackson. Now, they're benching Bulger.

Monday, October 01, 2007

What we learned, Arizona

The Steelers played about as poorly as I think you'll see them play this season in Sunday's 21-14 loss to Arizona, basicially beating themselves on many fronts.

That's not to say the Cardinals didn't deserve to win. They did. They had a good gameplan - particularly on defense with their changing fronts that seemed to confuse the Steelers' – and they executed it better than Pittsburgh did with its plan.

But when you have 11 penalties, give up a special teams touchdown and don't get any points out of a first-and-goal series from the 4, you're going to lose.

© The Cardinals were very disruptive defensively against the run, getting plenty of penetration. Strong safety Adrian Wilson was a big reason for that. He was very disruptive in the running game and the Cardinals used him much the same way the Steelers use Troy Polamalu.

Fortunately for the Steelers, not every team has a strong safety capable of playing like that.

© Three of the Steelers' four leading tackles Sunday were cornerbacks. That should tell you what kind of day it was.

It could also be a glimpse of what they are going to see in the future.

Because there are few teams out there who can line up and run the ball against the Steelers' base defense, more teams are going to attempt to spread things out and beat the Steelers with short, quick throws.

It only added up to 14 points for the Cardinals, but they did move the ball somewhat effectively with it. And it sure beats running your back into the line 20 times for 50 yards.

© On Steve Breaston's 73-yard punt return, it looked to me like the Cardinals had three guys take out linebacker James Harrison at the line of scrimmage.

If that's what teams are going to do to Harrison, somebody else has to make the tackle.

© Did Cedrick Wilson play Sunday?

I know Nate Washington did because he at least showed up on the stat sheet with a couple of catches – and also just missed on a couple of deep passes.

But Wilson added nothing to the equation.

At least the Steelers were able to run a couple of wide receiver screens with Willie Reid. Maybe it's time Reid is active and Wilson sits when Hines Ward returns.

© Ben Roethlisberger claims he didn't see Wilson when he picked off a pass intended for Heath Miller from the 2.

My only question is, did he see the other two guys?

© That said, I overheard Roethlisberger talking to head coach Mike Tomlin in the locker room after the game, with the quarterback apologizing to the head coach for blowing it.

Tomlin's response? "Don't worry about it. We win as a team, we lose as a team."

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Doesn't look good for Ward

Though Hines Ward remains optimistic, it's unlikely he'll play Sunday in Arizona.

That would mean Nate Washington would likely get the start against the Cardinals.

Sean Mahan has a better chance to play, but the Steelers are working on contingency plans. Kendall Simmons took all the snaps with the first-team offense at center, with Chris Kemoeatu was at right guard.

Week 3 rankings

1. New England (3-0) After a slow start, the Pats wiped out the Bills. Can Cincinnati hold them under 37?

2. Indianapolis (3-0) The champs still finding a way to get it done.

3. Pittsburgh (3-0) Continuing a strong start, but Arizona will be a good test this week.

4. Dallas (3-0) The best team in the NFC without a doubt, though the Packers are closer than any would have thought.

5. Green Bay (3-0) This is the surprise team of the league thus far.

6. Tennessee (2-1) Only a narrow loss to Indianapolis has kept this surprise team from a 3-0 start.

7. Baltimore (2-1) It's a shaky 2-1, but 2-1 nonetheless. Age will catch up with this team.

8. Seattle (2-1) Good win over Cincinnati last week. The defense played very well, especially against the run.

9. San Diego (1-2) This team is better than it's showed. Might be 3-0 if Marty Schottenheimer was still coach. He only loses in the playoss.

10. Jacksonville (2-1) The running game still hasn't clicked, but the Jags are solid.

11. Carolina (2-1) DeShaun Foster is playing well and hasn't gotten hurt - yet.

12. Denver (2-1) The Broncos can't stop the run and Jay Cutler is struggling. Definite danger signs.

13. Washington (2-1) Terrible play calling at the end of last week's loss to the Giants. But the defense is solid.

14. San Francisco (2-1) The defense is solid, but the offense is limited.

15. Chicago (1-2) The injuries are mounting, but at least Brian Griese will be starting now.

16. Houston (2-1) The Texans lost Andre Johnson and now Ahman Green. So much for the good start.

17. Cincinnati (1-2) The defense is just atrocious and now New England is coming to town. The Bengals are staring 1-3 in the face.

18. Tampa Bay (2-1) There's nothing special about this team but it's winning.

19. Philadelphia (1-2) Can't play the Lions every week, but Donovan McNabb looks like he's coming around.

20. Detroit (2-1) Was Mike Martz calling the defense last week too?

21. Arizona (1-2) Took Baltimore to the limit last week.

22. Minnesota (1-2) Good defense and running game, no quarterback.

23. N.Y. Jets (1-2) Mediocre.

24. N.Y. Giants (1-2) Also mediocre.

25. Oakland (1-2) The offense is better than last season, the defense is worse.

26. New Orleans (0-3) Anybody who thinks Reggie Bush is going to carry the load by himself has been partying too much on Bourbon Street.

27. Cleveland (1-2) The Browns are getting better, but not much.

28. Kansas City (1-2) The Chiefs had to win sometime. But they still stink.

29. Miami (0-3) This is an old, bad team.

30. St. Louis (0-3) I thought the Rams would be a surprise team this season. I was right, they're surprisingly bad.

31. Atlanta (0-3) Joey Harrington played better last week, but it still wasn't good enough to win.

32. Buffalo (0-3) The injuries are mounting, including losing quarterback J.P. Losman. No wait, that's a good thing.

Monday, September 24, 2007

No damage for Ward

Hines Ward said today that the MRI he had on his knee revealed no damage. We'll find out more about it Tuesday from head coach Mike Tomlin.
But that's good news for Ward and the Steelers.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

What we learned, San Francisco

The final score ended up being lopsided, but Sunday's 37-16 victory was no cakewalk for the Steelers.

The 49ers defense was a challenge for the Steelers, particularly with the multitude of blitzes San Francisco ran at quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. It really was a page out of Baltimore's book, as the Steelers said throughout the week.

The only difference was that while Baltimore can also stop the run while sending various blitzers, San Francisco wasn't very stout up fron and Willie Parker was able to gouge the 49ers on the ground.

But I also think we got a look at how the Steelers will attack the Ravens this season as the tight ends caught five passes for 91 yards.

© I have a feeling that Hines Ward's knee injury is a little worse than the bone bruise the team is calling it. Team doctors were showing president Art Rooney X-rays after the game and there was a look of concern on their faces.

On the plus side, the Steelers proved Sunday they can win without much of a contribution from Ward.

© Are the Steelers throwing the ball enough to the tight end for you?

© Willie Parker is emerging as one of the best running backs in the NFL before our very eyes.

He's so much more patient this season and he's making some great cuts, running inside and outside.

© Yes, that was punter Daniel Sepulveda out there on the hands team at the end of the game. There's no truth to the rumor that Sepulveda will be considered as a replacement at wide receiver if Ward can't play next week.

© The Steelers are averaging 5.5 yards per carry this season after picking up 6.2 yards per attempt Sunday. The offensive line is run blocking better than I've ever seen it.

© I think we now see why the Steelers signed 49ers punter Andy Lee to an offer sheet during the offseason. The kid is pretty good.

© That conditional draft pick for Allen Rossum doesn't seem like such a bad thing now, does it. Then again, Rossum didn't do anything special other than run straight upfield very fast on that kickoff return. Of course, that's what you're supposed to do on kickoff returns.

© The Steelers are going to see more teams rolling the pocket on them in the future after San Francisco had some success with it.

But you need a quarterback who can throw on the run to do it.

© The division is Pittsburgh's to lose.

Cleveland stinks. Cincinnati's not much better, especially on defense. And Baltimore is showing its age.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

The mind of Dick LeBeau

The interview seemed innocuous enough in typical Troy Polamalu fashion.

Polamalu, who talks softly but carries a big stick on the field, isn’t one to cause a controversy with something he says. In fact, he’s known for doing anything but that.

But when asked this week whether or not he felt Pittsburgh Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau was being given more freedom this season than in the past under Bill Cowher, Polamalu came out and said what many have thought for a while now.

“I think he has more control (over the defense),” Polamalu said of LeBeau. “I don’t think they have any reigns on coach LeBeau that I know of. We are a lot more active. We’re not as conservative, we’re kind of initiating what the offense needs to do, not just reacting to what they do.”

And there it was. Polamalu didn’t say it and he wouldn’t have said it if pressed, but he obviously felt that Cowher tended to get a little conservative at times on defense.

New head coach Mike Tomlin, a proponent of the cover-2 defense, was supposed to be the more conservative one. But it appears Tomlin is willing to allow LeBeau the freedom that Cowher wouldn’t.

“I think he (Tomlin) has so much respect for coach LeBeau, rightly so, that he just said, ‘Hey, do what you do best,”’ Polamalu said.

For Tomlin, it was a matter of allowing the Steelers to do what they are best suited to accomplish.

“First and foremost, we have players here that have been acquired to fit that scheme and what they do, they do well,” Tomlin said. “That’s coaching to me. Put your guys in a position to do well. It’s no question that we have people that have continuity with the scheme. From a staff standpoint, I have known some of these guys for quite some time. I have a lot of knowledge on and a lot of respect for Coach (Dick) LeBeau.”

Certainly Cowher wasn’t always overly conservative on defense. In fact, when he first became head coach of the Steelers in 1992, he was considered a risk taker and somebody who used a defense that constantly attacked.

But let’s be honest, we all become a little more conservative as we age. And in 15 seasons with the Steelers, there were plenty of times when the players felt they were being reigned in on defense. Remember Joey Porter complaining that the coaching staff had handcuffs on the defense?

Maybe when he gets burned a time or two with the aggressive style of play Tomlin will pull things back a bit. Maybe he won’t.

But for now, we’re just enjoying a look into the mind of Dick LeBeau.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Power rankings

Now that we're two weeks into the season and I've seen most everybody play, here are my NFL power rankings.

1. New England (2-0) Cheaters or not, they're playing well.

2. Indianapolis (2-0) Still the champs, but they have some holes.

3. Pittsburgh (2-0) The Steelers have outscored their first two opponents by a combined score of 60-10.

4. San Diego (1-1) This team is not as bad as it looked Sunday night in New England.

5. Dallas (2-0) Cowboys are looking like the best team in the NFC, which is kind of like having the coolest fanny pack.

6. Baltimore (1-1) The Ravens got robbed in Week 1, but the injuries are mounting.

7. Chicago (1-1) The defense is still dominating, especially at home.

8. Denver (2-0) The Broncos are a very shaky 2-0, but better than the other unbeatens below them.

9. Green Bay (2-0) The defense is pretty good and Brett Favre can still get things done.

10. Washington (2-0) This team is better than I thought it would be.

11. San Francisco (2-0) Barely 2-0, but 2-0 nonetheless.

12. Detroit (2-0) Not being capable of running the ball will affect the Lions at some point.

13. Houston (2-0) I'd have them higher, but the Texans will be without Andre Johnson for a while.

14. Carolina (1-1) Decent all-around team.

15. Cincinnati (1-1) Where's the defense?

16. Tennessee (1-1) Just seem to be a good matchup for Indianapolis, especially at home.

17. Jacksonville (1-1) The defense found its swagger again last week.

18. Arizona (1-1) Should be 2-0, but gacked against the 49ers opening weekend.

19. Seattle (1-1) Still struggles to win on the road.

20. Tampa Bay (1-1) Demolished New Orleans, but still has many problems.

21. Philadelphia (0-2) McNabb showed some signs of life in the second half against Washington.

22. New Orleans (0-2) This team can't be this bad, can it?

23. Minnesota (1-1) The Vikings aren't going to get good QB play all year.

24. St. Louis (0-2) Paging Steven Jackson, Steven Jackson?

25. New York Jets (0-2) The Jets are proving they were a fraud last season.

26. New York Giants (0-2) The Giants can't play a lick of defense, which would be OK if they could score.

27. Cleveland (1-1) One win over Cincinnati does not a season make.

28. Buffalo (0-2) The defense bends but doesn't break. The offense needs J.P. Losman to get going.

29. Oakland (0-2) Still not a very good team.

30. Miami (0-2) Have you seen Ronnie Brown's numbers? Ouch.

31. Atlanta (0-2) How long before Byron Leftwich is ready?

32. Kansas City (0-2) Anybody who saw the show on HBO knew this team was going to be awful. Art imitates life.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

What we learned, Buffalo

Another week, another butt kicking.

How about that offensive line? What was once thought to be a weak point is now turning out to be a strong one. For the second week in a row, the Steelers dominated the line of scrimmage. And Ben Roethlisberger pretty much had as much time as he wanted to throw the ball.

© Willie Parker was down on himself for missing some holes last week in Cleveland. He looked much more patient this week.

© I saw more than one NFL expert who ranked Ben Roethlisberger below the likes of J.P. Losman and Jay Cutler in their rankings of quarterbacks during the offseaosn. I wonder how they feel about that now?

© Are the Steelers throwing enough to the tight ends for you? I don't want to hear that tired complaint any more.

© I took a peek at the stats from the Miami-Dallas game late in the fourth quarter Sunday. Joey Porter had two tackles, no sacks. Once again, James Harrison outplayed Porter - and Harrison only played the first half.

© Harrison, by the way, will be fine. Word has it he tore his neck collar off in the ambulance at halftime and stormed back out to the field.

© You could tell early in the game that the cornerbacks didn't get much open-field tackling practice last week against Cleveland. Both Deshea Townsend and Ike Taylor whiffed on Marshawn Lynch out in space.

© The Steelers are rotating Anthony Smith in at free safety everry third series. Apparently, they were doing it last week at Cleveland as well, but the Steelers weren't in their base enough to notice.

© The biggest news from Sunday? Jeff Reed made all four of his field goal attempts at Heinz Field. Considering he was 10 of 17 there last season, that's a good start.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Ward fined

Hines Ward was fined $5,000 by the NFL for a late hit and unnecessary roughness in Sunday’s game against the Cleveland Browns.

In other news, Casey Hampton has re-structured his contract for this season, taking $2.5 million in bonus money to save the Steelers $1.6 million on their salary cap this season. That money was apparently used to sign Kendall Simmons to his extension.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Wednesday update

Neither Deshea Townsend or Clint Kriewaldt practiced today, but both are expected to play Sunday against Buffalo.

Funny moment of the day was seeing offensive coordinator Bruce Arians wearing an LSU visor on top of his straw hat during practice. Arians, a former Virginia Tech quarterback, lost a bet with guard Alan Faneca, whose Tigers blew out the Hokies Saturday.

The Steelers were pretty upset about the cheating allegations involving the New England Patriots and understandably so. When a team beats you twice in the AFC Championship and many feel it's because of halftime adjustments they made, you can't help but wonder if it was because they were stealing signals.

I had a long conversation with Najeh Davenport today and he admitted that he never really felt 100 percent - physically or mentally - until about 10 weeks into the season last year. Davenport was coming back from a broken ankle when he was cut by Green Bay and picked up by the Steelers after the opening week. And he just didn't run with the pop or determination he did Sunday against the Browns. He looked like a different running back.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Okobi to Arizona

Though it's not particularly surprising, Chukky Okobi is expected to sign with the Arizona Cardinals today, pending a physical.

The move would reunite Okobi with former offensive line coach Russ Grimm.

The Cards have a need for a center after starter Al Johnson injured his knee in Monday night's meltdown loss to San Francisco.