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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.