Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Tomlin Tuesday

Mike Tomlin said today that Willie Parker, Brett Keisel, Casey Hampton, Rashard Mendenhall and Kendall Simmons are out for Sunday's game at Jacksonville.

There's a chance Carey Davis could play, but I think it's unlikely after seeing him in a boot and on crutches Monday night.

Tomlin also said Trai Essex and Darnell Stapleton will compete for the starting job in place of Simmons.

As expected, Najeh Davenport will likely sign here today. And Gary Russell will be activated off the practice squad.

They'll team with Mewelde Moore and Sean McHugh to fill the running back positions against Jacksonvillle.

Costly win

The 23-20 win by the Steelers Monday night over Baltimore was a costly one as rookie running back Rashard Mendenhall and right guard Kendall Simmons were lost for the season.

Mendenhall, the team's top draft pick, suffered a fractured shoulder against the Ravens. He was starting in place of Willie Parker, who was out with a knee injury.

Simmons, meanwhile, suffered an Achilles tendon injury. He was replaced during the game by second-year pro Darnell Stapleton, but it's likely that veteran Trai Essex will likely be the starter at right guard the remainder of the season - though that decision has yet to be made.

Fullback Carey Davis suffered an ankle injury in the fourth quarter and did not return. He was on crutches following the game and his return looks like it will be a ways off as well.

There was some good news, however. Linebacker Andre Frazier, who was taken off on a stretcher and back board after being hit hard on the opening kickoff was walking around the locker room following the game and looks like he's OK. It was announced that Frazier had a spine injury, but it appears it's nothing serious.

© Ben Roethlisberger gave a motivational speech at halftime after the team played a listless first half. It's a big moment in the leadership progress of Roethlisberger.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Key matchup

Troy Polamalu vs. Joe Flacco: Polamalu moves all over the field prior to the snap of the ball. It will be hard on the rookie to identify where Polamalu eventually winds up. Polamalu has three interceptions in three games this season and could add to that total tonight if the rookie fails to properly identify where Polamalu is going to drop into coverage at.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Friday update

Strong safety Troy Polamalu returned to practice Friday after sitting out Wednesday and Thursday with a quad injury. Polamalu is expected to play Monday night against the Ravens.

Baltimore got some bad news when starting cornerback Samari Rolle for Monday night’s game because of shoulder and neck injuries.

In Rolle’s place, the Ravens could go with a combination of reserve cornerbacks Fabian Washington, Corey Ivy and Frank Walker.

Not having Rolle is a huge blow for the Ravens, who will also be playing without safety Dawan Landry.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The one constant

The time has come to point the finger at the real blame for much of the Steelers problems with protection of the quarterback.

In 2006, Ben Roethlisberger was sacked 46 times working behind the same offensive line that had given up 32 sacks the previous season - eight of which were recorded against potted plant Tommy Maddox.

Roethlisberger's 23 sacks came on 268 pass attempts in 2005, while his 46 sacks the next season came on 469 attempts. By comparison, Charlie Batch, who threw 53 passes in 2006, was sacked just three times.

In 2007, Roethlisberger went down 47 times on 404 pass attempts, more than one time per 10 pass attempts. Batch threw 36 passes and was not sacked.

The line was a little different. Sean Mahan replaced Jeff Hartings at center and Willie Colon was in place of Max Starks at right tackle. Marvel Smith also missed some time at left tackle, with Starks replacing him.

But remember, Smith missed some time in 2005 and was replaced by Trai Essex, then a rookie. And still, the Steelers gave up 32 sacks on 379 pass attempts that season.

Roethlisberger has already been sacked 12 times this season, including eight on Sunday against Philadelphia.

Again, the line is different, with Justin Hartwig replacing Mahan and Chris Kemoeatu in for Alan Faneca.

The only constant has been Roethlisberger.

The biggest problem on Sunday against the Eagles was that on a number of occasions, Philadelphia sent more guys after Roethlisberger than the line could block.

But when the defense is sending six pass rushers and you have five blockers, the quarterback is responsible for the extra man.

But Roethlisberger trusts his scrambling ability too much. How many times on Sunday did we see him try to scramble up into the pocket to escape on oncoming rusher only to step into a sack? Five, six?

Think he would have been better served getting rid of the ball or taking a shot throwing to a receiver working on one-on-one coverage?

Certainly not all of the blame lies with Roethlisberger. The line play was not good - particularly once the Eagles got rolling.

But Roethlisberger's got to realize that when the defense is rushing six or seven guys, he's got one-on-one coverage.

He's got to recognize that and take a shot at beating the one-on-one. That's the only way teams will stop sending the house at him.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Bad news

Everybody went to the Mike Tomlin press conference looking for an injury update on Ben Roethlisberger.

What they got instead was news that running back Willie Parker will miss Monday night's game agianst Baltimore - and possibly more - with a sprained knee.

Rookie Rashard Mendenhall will make his first career start in place of Parker, a tall task against the No. 1-rated Ravens defense.

Parker's injury could also keep him out of the following week's game at Jacksonville as well.

© As expected, Casey Hampton is also out. Chris Hoke will get the start at nose tackle, with Travis Kirschke backing him up. Trouble is, Kirschke took the majority of the snaps at defensive end last week in place of Brett Keisel, who was also out.

© The Steelers will likely bring Gary Russell back on the active roster later this week with Parker out.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Post-Philadelphia thoughts

I've been covering the Steelers since 1993. I've never seen a Pittsburgh team beat up like it was Sunday in Philadelphia.

There were nine sacks and it just as easily could have 15. The running game went nowhere. And the Steelers made precious few changes to stop it.

Keeping Heath Miller in the backfield was the only visible adjustment in the blocking scheme and, as Kendall Simmons pointed out, all that did was bring another blitzer into the fold since the Eagles now only needed to cover two or three receivers.

The Eagles knew the Steelers running backs weren't receiving threats, so they jammed the wideouts at the line of scrimmage and kept Ben Roethlisberger from hitting his hot reads. And then they hit Roethlisberger.

A few passes to the backs would have slowed that down.

© The Steelers began the game in a three tight end package and opened the second half in the same package.

Roethlisberger threw nine yards to Heath Miller in the first half out of that package. Willie Parker gained four yards on a run in the second half.

And then we didn't see the package again.

© Ike Taylor does an awful lot of jawing after every play for somebody who constantly gives up catches.

Make a play Ike, then you can talk.

© A lot will be made out of Ben Roethlisberger's banged-up hand, but the bigger injury may have been to Casey Hampton, who suffered a groin injury.

The defensive line depth was already being tested with Brett Keisel out with a calf injury. Now Hampton could be out as well.

That's not good.

© The first few sacks Sunday were just on overloads, bringing more guys than the Steelers could block. But as it kept happening, guys started getting beat in their individual matchups as well.

It turned into a feeding frenzy and the Steelers were the meal.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Key matchup, roster move

OLB LaMarr Woodley vs. RT Jon Runyan
If you remember back to the first quarter of the preseason meeting between
the Steelers and Eagles, Woodley dominated Runyan, a 13-year veteran.

Woodley was getting a lot of pressure on QB Donovan McNabb and
Runyan responded with a couple of penalties. The Eagles were forced
to bring a back over to help Runyan out with Woodley. If Woodley can
have the same kind of day, he can keep McNabb from throwing those deep
balls he loves so much.

Roster move: The Steelers made a roster move today when they promoted
rookie LB Patrick Bailey to their active roster. The team needed Bailey this week
because linebacker Donovan Woods is out with a hamstring injury.

Bailey (6-4, 235) spent the first two games of the season on the
Steelers' practice squad after originally signing with the team as an
undrafted rookie free agent from Duke. He started 26 games and recorded
191 tackles (24.5 for losses), 8.5 sacks, one interception and four
forced fumbles during his college career.

The Steelers made room on their roster for Bailey by releasing
second-year RB Gary Russell. Russell originally made the Steelers roster
as an undrafted rookie free agent in 2007. The Steelers will likely re-sign
Russell on Monday.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Thursday thoughts

Unlike many in the media, I never really took the Stanley Druckenmiller offer to buy up shares of the other Rooney brother's stock in the Steelers instead of taking Dan Rooney's offer all that seriously.

The NFL is a bit of a closed boy's club and the league most certainly didn't want to ace Dan Rooney out of ownership of the Steelers. It just wasn't going to happen. Dan Rooney has done too much and brokered too many deals in this league to suddenly be on the outside looking in.

There's also the whole thing with the other Rooney brothers likely not wanting the team to leave family hands.

In fact, there stands a good chance they were using Druckenmiller's deep pockets to get Dan Rooney to sweeten his offer.

We don't know if that has happened, but there's little doubt Dan Rooney has been speaking to some money men of his own and will retain ownership of the team.

© I don't look for Deshea Townsend to play again this week and that's a problem for the Steelers. Bryant McFadden is a capable replacement for Townsend, but now, they'll be asking William Gay to play plenty against Philadelphia's pass-happy offense.

Townsend told me he probably couldn't have even played last week against Cleveland even if it had been a playoff game because he can't take a pain-numbing shot where the injury is at because it could tear his Achilles tendon. That doesn't sound good.

© Marvel Smith got a little indignant in the locker room this week while talking to reporters about Mike Tomlin's comments that the offensive line is playing more physically and with a greater edge.

It's understandable. Smith always gives his all out there and is a true professional. The way Tomlin made things sound was like the line wasn't trying as hard last season - or at least that's what Smith thought.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Latest Steelers book should be a hit

I haven't read this book yet - I just got my copy today - but I can tell you, from some of the stories Jim has told me about the trip, it should be a good read.

Last year, on September 17, Pittsburgh sportswriter Jim Wexell embarked on a road trip to chronicle Steeler Nation.

The book, Steeler Nation: A Pittsburgh Team, An American Phenomenon, is now available at PittsburghSportsPublishing.com.

The book tells the tale of a six-week football road trip that swung south from Pittsburgh through Atlanta and Mobile, west through New Orleans, Phoenix and Los Angeles, north to Seattle, and then back east through Yellowstone Park, Denver, St.
Louis and Cincinnati.

The trip covered nearly 10,000 miles as Wexell talked to Steelers fans, players, ex-players, as well as their family, friends and rivals, while the Steelers played their way to a division championship. The author found fans in the most remote outposts of the country and he walked in the footsteps of the current Pittsburgh Steelers.

The lives of 19 current Steelers are examined, including James Harrison, Heath Miller, Willie Parker, Lawrence Timmons, Hines Ward, Ike Taylor, Casey Hampton, Troy Polamalu, Brett Keisel, Aaron Smith, and Ben Roethlisberger, and the result is
plenty of fresh information about the group that made up the core of the 2005 championship team.

Along with pre-game tailgates and post-game interviews, included in Wexell's trip are visits with the greatest Steelers bars and fans in the country, and interviews with former Steelers greats such as Greg Lloyd, who discusses his past, present and
future with typical Lloyd passion.

Wexell spent the first two weeks of the trip with friend and RV owner Jan "Pappy" Jones. The two rode in a 35-foot motor home with Wexell's car in tow. Jones dumped the load in Tombstone, Arizona, but Wexell and his car made it home with all but a muffler and common sense intact. The trip continued into the northeast corner of the country to complete the season, the Steelers' landmark 75th in the NFL.

Wexell hosts a radio talk show on Fox Sports Radio 970 in Pittsburgh and has covered the Steelers since 1995 for numerous area newspapers, Steelers Digest, Pro Football Weekly, and SteelCityInsider.com.

It's the trip every Steelers fan would love to make, and Jim Wexell takes you with him in this 256-page journey. Steeler Nation: A Pittsburgh Team, An American Phenomenon, is available only at PittsburghSportsPublishing.com.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Tuesday Tomlin

Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin was incredulous over the reports during the Steelers' win over Cleveland Sunday night that said quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had a sprained shoulder.

He questioned where the report came from, saying it wasn't from him or his medical staff. The answer was in his own locker room.

Roethlisberger is to blame. He always overstates his injuries. Always has. There's no doubt Roethlisberger told the TV guys during production meetings he had a sprained shoulder.

And there's no doubt Tomlin knows that.

He was sending a message to his quarterback to shut up without telling him to his face to shut up.

Tomlin said the injury is a slight AC sprain.

© Tomlin has some Bill Belichick in him when it comes to injuries.

Sources are telling me that Brett Keisel is out at least a month and more likely closer to two months.

Tomlin said he's week-to-week.

Aren't we all?

© Tomlin praised his offensive line and new starters Chris Kemoeatu and Justin Hartwig in particular for their physical play.

Tomlin apparently prefers brawlers on the offensive line rather than technicians. That would explain, at least in part, why he prefers Willie Colon at right tackle over Max Starks.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Thoughts on Cleveland

Cleveland spent a lot of money on its defense during the offseason to improve its defense, but couldn't stop the Steelers at the end of the game with everything on the line.

Back to the drawing board, boys.

© The wind at this game was as heavy as I've ever seen it. It took my breath away as I walked into the stadium. And it nearly swept the members of the armed services who were there for the pre-game flag festivities into Lake Erie, lifting them off the ground.

The Steelers were smart to give the ball to Cleveland when Pittsburgh won the coin toss. That allowed the Steelers to force the Browns to play into the wind.

It took Derek Anderson a while to figure that wind out.

Actually, he never really did, as it died down late in the second quarter only gusting into the 20 MPH range.

© I'd give Justin Hartwig a solid B in his handling of Shaun Rogers.

The Browns knew the Steelers were going to be running the ball and Rogers still wasn't that much of a factor.

© Ben Roethlisberger isn't getting sacked as much as previous years, but he does still take some vicious hits. Rogers nailed him in the third quarter – late in my opinion – with a shoulder than had the QB hurting.

You want to make the big bucks of an NFL quarterback, you've got to take the big hits.

But Roethlisberger was walking gingerly in the locker room following the game.

© Troy Polamalu's interception at the end of the first half was his second of the season in two games after not having one all of last season. It's also the kind of game-changing play the Steelers desperately needed from their Pro Bowl strong safety.

Polamalu was very active in this game, as he was last week against the Texans.

© Aaron Smith's two sack-game was his first since recording 2.5 sacks at Tampa Bay in 2002.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

A couple of restructures

The Steelers have restructured the contracts of nose tackle Casey Hampton and defensive end Brett Keisel according to some research dug up by SteelCityInsider.com capologist Ian Whetstone.

The Steelers converted $2 million of Hampton's 2008 salary and $1.85 million of Keisel's salary into signing bonuses spread out over this year's and next year's caps.

The moves would cut Hampton's cap number this year from $6,377,083 to $5,377,083, and bumps next year's number from $5,652,084 to $6,652,084. Keisel's 2008 number drops from $4,072,500 to $3,147,500, and next year's gets bumped from $4,072,500 to $4,997,500.

That frees up $3 million or so in cap space this year for the team. Part of that money may have gone to James Farrior's new deal.

The move also shows that the team is happy with both Hampton and Keisel. That's a big statement for Hampton, in particular, after he banged heads in training camp over his weight with head coach Mike Tomlin.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Key matchup

Here's this week's key matchup for the Steelers against Cleveland:
Ben Roethlisberger vs. the Cleveland secondary. Brandon McDonald and Eric Wright are second-year corners. Roethlisberger has admitted to having a chip on his shoulder for the Browns passing on him in the draft. The Browns are also banged up at safety. Roethlisberger could have a field day.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Some mid-week thoughts

Ben Roethlisberger, Hines Ward, Marvel Smith and Deshea Townsend took the veteran's Wednesday off from practice. All should be back at practice Thursday.

© Willie Parker said today that he had known for a little while that he was going to be the goal-line back, but the team was keeping it a secret. After Parker scored three TDs Sunday, the secret is out.

The team had been hiding it pretty well. Even fullback Carey Davis got more short-yardage carries in the preseason than Parker.

© Nate Washington of all people gave me an honest answer when asked about attacking Cleveland's young secondary. The Steelers are going to attack, attack, attack those two second-year corners.

© Casey Hampton's suggestion to teammate Justin Hartwig for blocking Shaun Rogers? Hold on for the ride.

Rogers is a force when he wants to be. Trouble is, he doesn't always want to be.

Hampton and Rogers were teammates at Texas. Rogers was the talented one. Hampton the overachiever. Kind of funny, isn't it, that Hampton took so much heat for coming to camp overweight?

© The Steelers' schedule continues to look better and better. Jacksonville put both of its starting guards on IR this week and Shawne Merriman is out for the season.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Tuesday news

Not a whole lot of earth-shattering news to come out of the Tomlin PC today.

Roethlisberger will be limited in practice early in the week with a sore shoulder. Not a big deal.

Townsend has a bruised heel and Marvel Smith a sore groin. They'll be limited early in the week as well but should play.

© Tomlin made it quite clear they are very concerned with Josh Cribbs. Cribbs, though, did not play last week and is questionable to play again this week with an ankle injury.

With Donte Stallworth also questionable with a hamstring, the Browns could be very limited at wide receiver.

© Not surprisingly, he was unconcerned with what else is going on around the AFC.

© Tomlin had a lot of praise for the special teams units, particularly Anthony Madison and William Gay.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Texans post-game thoughts

Many of the AFC's so-called heavyweights lost Sunday but the biggest loss came in New England, where the Patriots will likely be without quarterback Tom Brady the rest of the season.

Some would call it karma for the Patriots' apparent running up of the score last season during their march to a 16-0 season.

But really, the Super Bowl they didn't win was that.

Brady's knee injury is more about what happens in football.

Not long after Brady went down, Ben Roethlisberger took a shot from Amobi Okoye at the end of the first half that could have knocked him out for the season.

That's why you don't cheer about those kind of things. Don't mess with karma.

© The James Harrison-LaMarr Woodley tandem looks as good as advertised at outside linebacker.

© Any questions anyone had about Willie Parker were answered Sunday.

© Same goes for the offensive line – at least as run blockers.

The pass blocking was mostly OK, but Marvel Smith had his hands full with Mario Williams – not that most tackles don't.

© After Sunday's games, the Steelers supposedly toughest schedule in the NFL doesn't look quite as difficult as it did on Saturday, does it?

Friday, September 05, 2008

Key matchup for Texans game

NFL games come down to individual matchups. Here's the key one in Sunday's season-opener for the Steelers against the Houston Texans:

OLB James Harrison vs. LT Duane Brown: Many were surprised when the Texans took Brown in the first round of the NFL draft and he's far from a finished product. You'd better believe the Steelers like the matchup of their Pro Bowl linebacker against a rookie making his first NFL start - on the road. As Steelers rookie Rashard Mendenhall said in training camp after failing to score in the team's first goal-line drill, there aren't many guys running around college campuses who look like James Harrison. Welcome to the NFL rook.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Steelers add tight end

The Steelers added a third tight end to their active roster
today as they signed veteran tight end Sean McHugh to a one-year deal.

McHugh (6-5, 265) spent the past three seasons with the Detroit Lions on
both their active roster and practice squads. He was originally drafted
by the Tennessee Titans in the seventh round (214st overall) of the 2004
NFL Draft out of Penn State. McHugh was cut by the Titans following
their 2004 training camp and signed by the Green Bay Packers, where he
spent the entire 2004 campaign.

In 25 career games (14 starts), McHugh has 20 receptions for 277 yards
(13.9 avg.). He had his best season in 2007 for the Lions, playing in 15
games (12 starts) and making 17 catches for 252 yards (14.8 avg.).

This was the perfect storm for the Steelers. He not only spent time with the Lions,
he is also a Penn State guy. Both of those factors seem to be a must for free agent pickups.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Steelers trade Mahan

The Steelers traded veteran center Sean Mahan to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for an undisclosed 2009 draft pick, the team announced today.

Mahan, a six-year veteran, signed with the Steelers prior to the 2007 season as an unrestricted free agent from the Buccaneers, who selected him in the fifth round (168th overall) of the 2003 NFL Draft.

Mahan started all 16 games in the regular season and the Steelers’ only postseason game in 2007.

The Steelers presently have 52 players on their active roster and will be able to add one more player prior to Sunday’s (Sept. 7) season opener against the Houston Texans at Heinz Field.

It's a somewhat surprising move considering Mahan's salary and the timing of it all, but the team obviously feels comfortable with Justin Hartwig at center.

News and notes

There was no real earth-shattering news in Mike Tomlin's press conference today, but here are some of the highlights:

© Larry Foote appears to be ready to go Sunday against Houston, but Tomlin did say that Lawrence Timmons will be a part of the base 3-4 package as well. Foote will still start.

© As expected, Rashard Mendenhall will handle kickoffs, Mewelde Moore punts, with Santonio Holmes getting a spot punt return here and there.

© The No. 4 receiver spot is still up for grabs. It was thought when he was drafted that Limas Sweed would wind up being No. 3, but now he's battling Dallas Baker for the No. 4 spot.

© The team is unsure about how it will use Mendenhall in the base offense - at least publicly.

© Moore will be the primary third-down back, with Willie Parker seeing some action there as well.

© Look for Parker to get the majority of short-yardage carries - at least until Mendenhall proves he can hold onto the football consistently. Gay Russell is probably the team's best short-yardage back, but likely won't be active on game days. That's my opinion, by the way.

© Tomlin thinks the offensive line is better suited to protect Ben Roethlisberger.

© For the local football fans, center Dan Mozes, a Washington native, was not added to anyone's practice squad.