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Thursday, January 31, 2008

Feb. frenzy set to begin

With February here, the post-Super Bowl frenzy is getting set to begin for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

What is the post-Super Bowl frenzy, you may ask?

Feb. 7 the period begins where teams can name their franchise and transition players. The deadline for doing so is Feb. 21.

Also, the NFL combine will be held in February this year in Indianapolis, from the 20 through the 26.

Yep, it’s a big month all right.

The Steelers have not yet re-opened serious negotiations with Pro Bowl guard Alan Faneca, but will do so after the Super Bowl as they make one last-ditch effort to sign him to a contract before he reaches free agency.

The chances of something being worked out before free agency begins aren’t great, but they also aren’t dead, either.

Faneca would like to remain in Pittsburgh, but unless the Steelers are willing to give him what he feels is market value, that’s not going to happen.

And given that the market value is far more than the Steelers have ever before paid a lineman – let alone one on the wrong side of 30 – the team has begun its preparations for life without Faneca.

Because of that, you can expect much of the team’s focus at the combine later this month to be on the linemen available. Heck, even if Faneca does return, the Steelers want to beef up their offensive line.

And given what happened with the market for guards during free agency last year – where even run-of-the-mill guys were getting upwards of $40-million, don’t expect the Steelers to dive into that pool either.

If you’re not going to give Faneca $50 million, then it would be silly to pony up the $35 or $40 million it would likely take to sign a young, unproven player such as Cincinnati’s Stacy Andrews.

Given what other guards got on the open market last year, that’s likely what a player like Andrews will want.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Steelers to sign QB

After bringing him in for a workout last week, the Steelers are going to sign former Boise State QB Jared Zebransky to compete for their No. 3 spot.

Zebransky is expected to compete with Brian St. Pierre and a young quarterback the Steelers acquire through the draft or as a rookie free agent for the backup spot to Ben Roethlisberger and Charlie Batch.

Friday, January 25, 2008

South Alabama sniffing around Mitchell

South Alabama is reportedly interested in interviewing Steelers assistant head coach/D-line coach John Mitchell for their vacant coaching position. Mitchell is in Mobile for the Senior Bowl.

If this turns out to be the case, the Steelers could lose Mitchell, a key member of their coaching staff.

For years, Mitchell has turned low-round draft picks into solid players and he knows exactly what the Steelers need their defensive linemen to do in Pittsburgh's 3-4.

The school is located in Mobile and Mitchell is a Mobile native.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Money matters

When asked about Tony Romo’s contract extension in the days after the Dallas quarterback signed his new deal, all Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said was, “Interesting.”

Roethlisberger wasn’t saying much about Romo’s contract, but the sly smile and look he gave me when I asked him about it said it all: He knows he’s about to take the step from being rich to very rich.

For all the hype surrounding Romo, Roethlisberger has several things that Romo does not, namely a Super Bowl ring and several playoff victories. Those are some pretty important credentials that Roethlisberger has and Romo does not.

So when the Steelers start negotiations with Roethlisberger, it’s very likely the two parties will start with Romo’s six-year, $67.5-million deal and work up from there.

That deal included $30 million in guaranteed money, something the Steelers have been slow to include in their contracts, but something that is now a part of doing business in today’s NFL.

There are those who think Roethlisberger may be inclined to give the Steelers the home-town discount since he’s also come forward with a laundry list of things he’d like to see this offseason – namely a tall wide receiver and the retention of guard Alan Faneca.

But the hometown bargains that have been cited really aren’t.

Tom Brady’s contract – the one most often talked about – was a six-year, $60-million contract with New England that included a $14.5-million signing bonus.

That deal was only considered a bargain because Peyton Manning had just signed a nine-year, $99.2-million deal – with a $35.4-million bonus – with Indianapolis, and Atlanta had gone crazy and given Michael Vick a 10-year, $130-million deal with a $37-million signing bonus.

In the grand scheme of things, Manning’s deal now seems like a bargain price, while Vick’s seems as crazy now as it did then.

It would seem the going rate for a star-caliber NFL quarterback starts at a little over $10 million per year on average and goes from there.

And that’s what Roethlisberger will want and get.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Dawson shafted

That Dermontti Dawson did not make the cut as on of the 17 finalists for the Peo Football Hall of Fame this year shows what a flawed process hall of fame voting in the NFL really is.

As it currently stands, just one person in each NFL city and a handful of "at-large" voters make up the panel that chooses who gets in and who doesn't. The final number of voters is 40.

And knowing a number of the voters – they are mostly writers for the large metros – they come with their own biases.

But how Dawson is being overlooked is beyond me.

The guy was the dominant center of his time. He played in playoff games. He played in Super Bowls. He was a Pro Bowl player and made the All-Pro team.

He was also everything that is right about professional athletes.

At the Steelers' 75th Anniversary celebration, I was standing in the hall waiting go in and interview the members of the team. I hadn't seen Dawson in five or six years – since his retirement.

But as he was walking by, he stopped, shook my hand and, with his trademark smile, asked how I had been. Dermontti Dawson was not only a great player, he's an even better human being.

Major League Baseball's Hall of Fame vote is a sham. It enlists hundreds of voters. But the NFL's vote is too small.

Forty people should not be deciding who should get in and who shouldn't. In fact, living members of the hall should have a vote.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Anybody notice

Did anybody notice that the grass surface at Lambeau Field is now DD Grassmaster, the same stuff that is used at Heinz Field?

Somehow, it held up well during a game in a snowstorm Saturday when the Packers downed the Seahawks in the playoffs.

Perhaps the biggest problem with the turf in Pittsburgh is not the surface itself, but some other factor – such as the surface's proximity to the rivers or incompetence by the field workers.

I'm just saying.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Locking up offseason rosters

The Pittsburgh Steelers signed eight players to its Reserve/Future Roster, the team announced.

The Steelers signed wide receiver Dallas Baker, wide receiver Jeremy Bloom, offensive guard Matt Lentz, safety Mike Lorello, linebacker Anthony Trucks, running back Justin Vincent and wide receiver Gerran Walker to contracts. Each player spent part or all of the 2007 season on Pittsburgh’s practice squad.

Tight end Cody Boyd, who was with the Steelers throughout 2007 training camp, also signed a reserve/future contract. After training camp, Boyd was signed to the Washington Redskins’ 53-man roster and spent the entire 2007 season on their active roster or practice squad.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

What we learned: Jacksonville (again)

Saturday night’s playoff loss by the Pittsburgh Steelers was a microcosm of the team’s season.

They gave up a long kickoff return, failed to get anything out of their own return game, couldn’t run the ball to ice the clock, and the defense failed to stop the Jaguars late in the game with everything on the line.

Yep, that’s the 2007 Steelers in a nutshell.

But there’s nothing wrong with this team a few offseason moves can’t fix.

The Steelers don’t need a total overhaul on their offensive line, they just need to make a move or two there – starting with getting Sean Mahan out of the starting lineup.

Mahan is a good guy to have around on game days because he can play some center and guard. But he proved this season he’s not somebody to be counted on in a game-in, game-out basis.

The Steelers can fix that problem, however, by sliding Kendall Simmons – who played some very good football in the second half of this season – to center, moving Willie Colon to guard and re-signing Max Starks to play right tackle.

The fact that the coaching staff didn’t make that move during the season may be its biggest mistake of 2007, one Tomlin likely will learn from.

Even when Jacksonville lost defensive tackle John Henderson early in the first quarter of the game, Mahan wasn’t even what would pass for adequate, getting pushed around by Grady Jackson and Rob Meier. That kind of stuff can’t happen.

© Mike Tomlin went to that little card that all coaches seem to use when deciding to go for a two-point conversion down 28-23 with 10:25 left in the game.

In most cases, the little card is right that the two-point conversion to try to cut the lead to three points. But in this case, it wasn’t.

And it really wasn’t the right move after Mahan’s holding penalty – an iffy one – pushed the ball back to the 12 and negated a Ben Roethlisberger to Hines Ward conversion pass.

“Playing the charts, that is just baseball,” said Tomlin. “Everybody has that chart.”

But all season long, Tomlin talked about going with his gut feeling on decisions. In this case, his gut should have told him that kick from the 12 was the right play.

The Steelers clearly had the momentum at that point and Jacksonville still hadn’t topped 200 yards of total offense.

There was no reason to think that the Steelers wouldn’t come down and score another touchdown – which they did – and trying to score from the 12 just wasn’t the right call to make at that point.

Had the Steelers kicked there, they wouldn’t have needed to go for two after their next touchdown. They would have been up three points just by kicking the PAT.

“If I had a crystal ball and I knew we were going to lose by two, I probably would have kicked the extra point,” said Tomlin.

© The coaching staff’s other blunder in this game was Pittsburgh’s next-to-last offensive series.

There was nothing wrong with the two runs by Najeh Davenport, even though they netted just four yards.

But the third-down keeper by Roethlisberger was a real clunker.

Jacksonville called timeout after the second-down run and the QB sweep was what the Steelers came up with.

“There was, particularly on the third-down play,” said Tomlin when asked if throwing the ball was discussed on that possession. “That was something we worked on all week and we felt good about it. We actually had the look and we didn’t execute it. Good job by them.”

© Let’s see, LaMarr Woodley had three tackles, two sacks and three quarterback hurries splitting time mostly with Clark Haggans. Haggans, meanwhile, had one tackle.

Perhaps inserting Woodley into this defense and getting a healthy Aaron Smith back is all this defense needs to be special again.

© Both Troy Polamalu and Hines Ward talked about how losing Faneca would be detrimental to this team.

The Steelers will make a strong effort to keep Faneca, who was tearing up when talking about the possibility of this being his last game in Pittsburgh.

The Steelers have about a month to get something done before the end of the playoffs. Look for them to try hard to make it happen.

No matter how you look at it, Tomlin's first season with the Steelers has to be seen as a success.

This team went 10-6 and won the AFC North despite being flawed.

And it doesn't need a total overhaul to be back in a similar position next season.

Friday, January 04, 2008

Some random thoughts

Troy Polamalu practiced Friday and will play in Saturday's playoff game against the Jaguars.

© I've gone back and forth on my pick in this game this week, but have settled on the Steelers, 27-24.

Jacksonville played a near-perfect game the last time, while the Steelers played anything but.

And Pittsburgh will come out throwing this time around.

© The Steelers will bulk up to stop the run in this game. Look for backup nose tackle Chris Hoke to see some time at defensive end.

© An AP story this week ws all about how this could be Alan Faneca's last game with the Steelers.

But there are some rumblings now that the Steelers will try everything possible not to let that happen.

Dan Rooney always regretted letting Rod Woodson go after the 1996 season and won't make the same mistake with an icon like Faneca.

Faneca is 31, but is still playing at a reasonably high level. Plus, there's always the possibility they could move him to center later in his career if he starts losing some of the one-on-one matchups on a regular basis. Because of that, it's possible he could play into his late 30s.

Look for the team to also make a strong pitch at keeping Max Starks as well.

This offensive line has been bad this season, but much of it has been a problem at center, where Sean Mahan just hasn't worked out.

The Steelers could go into 2008 with a line of Marvel Smith at left tackle, Faneca or Kendall Simmons at left guard, Faneca or Simmons – likely Simmons – at center, Willie Colon or Chris Kemoeatu at right guard and Starks at right tackle. They would then also take a young tackle in the first couple of rounds of the draft.

This is assuming the team gets good news about Smith's long-term health.

By making those two signings, the Steelers would avoid having to select offensive linemen in the first two rounds of the 2008 draft like they did with the linebacker position in 2007.