Visit NFL from the sidelines on the new Observer-Reporter site:

Friday, December 30, 2011

Who I like this weekend

It should be a very interesting weekend in the NFL with all but a handful of games being meaningful in some way, shape or form.

Of course, here in Pittsburgh, the games everyone will be keeping an eye on will be at 4:15 p.m.

That's when Cleveland will host the Steelers, Cincinnati hosts Baltimore, Denver hosts Kansas City and Oakland hosts San Diego.

The Steelers will be as healthy as they've been in quite some time with only LaMarr Woodley sitting this one out.

Pittsburgh should be plenty motivated and the Browns are, let's face it, not very good. Cleveland will be inspired by the idea of helping to put a bump in Pittsburgh's playoff road, but the Browns are 4-11 for a reason - they earned it.

Take the Steelers, who are favored by 7, 23-13.

In Cincinnati, Marvin Lewis owns a 10-7 record against the Ravens as the Bengals' head coach and they probably would have won the game in Baltimore if not for the league's silly rule about receptions in the end zone.

The Bengals match up well against the Ravens and will have a full house for only the second time this season. The other was in a seven-point loss to the Steelers when they were driving late before being stopped by Pittsburgh.

Baltimore is a 3-point favorite but is just 3-4 on the road.

I like Cincinnati, 21-17

In Denver, Kyle Orton returns and will exact some revenge on the Broncos for cutting him to go with Tim Tebow.

The Chiefs also seem to be inspired to play for interim coach Romeo Crennel.

Kansas City is getting three points and I like the Chiefs to win, 16-14

Finally, the Raiders can win the AFC West with a win and a Denver loss.

They are three-point favorites over San Diego, which will be playing what is surely the last game of the Norv Turner era.

I like the home team in this one, 24-20.

That will leave the AFC playoff seeds as so: 1. New England 2. Pittsburgh 3. Houston 4. Oakland 5. Baltimore 6. Cincinnati

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Brown named Steelers' MVP

In somewhat of a surprising vote, Antonio Brown was named the Steelers MVP after a vote of his teammates.

Not bad for a player who started three games this season.

But Brown broke the team record for yards from scrimmage in a season and has the highest kick return average for the Steelers since Mel Blount in 1970.

There were, however, a number of good candidates on this team this season, Ben Roethlisberger, Mike Wallace and Ike Taylor among them.

You could also make a case for Max Starks as well. The Steelers were 2-2 without him and have gone 9-2 with him.

© Marcus Gilbert was named the team's top rookie in somewhat of an awkward moment.

The vote, which is made by the writers who cover the team, was done before last Saturday's game.

That was also prior to anyone learning Gilbert had been benched in that game.

Gilbert, who has started 12 games this season, still deserved the award, but getting benched because you missed a meeting and apparently have a sleeping problem - ie. falling asleep in meetings - is an issue.

Hopefully, Gilbert learned his lesson here and starts going to bed a little earlier - or at least drinks some coffee.

© James Farrior won The Chief award, which is given to the player who works the best with the media that covers the team.

I voted for Casey Hampton, but it was purely for personal reasons. I wanted to see Hampton step up in front of a podium.

Hampton is always funny to talk to and really doesn't hold anything back.

But Farrior, who's a guy others look up to in that locker room, was a good choice as well.

© James Harrison returned to practice Thursday and Ben Roethlisberger and Maurkice Pouncey both went through a full practice for the second consecutive day.

Troy Polamalu sat out again with his knee issue, but I expect him to return Friday.

© It appears Chris Kemoeatu, who somehow was named third alternate to the Pro Bowl, will be back in the starting lineup Sunday for the Steelers.

Trai Essex is too valuable to have out there every down, particularly since the Steelers would like to get Pouncey out of the game if they can build a big lead.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Wednesday news and notes

Ben Roethlisberger went through a full practice on Wednesday and appears to be on course to start for the Steelers Sunday at Cleveland.

It's the first time Roethlisberger has practiced since suffering a sprained ankle Dec. 8 against the Browns.

It's also a needed step for Roethlisberger. He needs to be on the field to be ready for the playoffs.

© Things don't look quite so good for LaMarr Woodley. I spoke to Woodley at length today and he sounded like a player who was resigned to sitting out again this week to get another week's rest for his injured hamstring.

© Maurkice Pouncey was also back on the field today and says he's pain free.

© Missing from practice most notably was safety Troy Polamalu, who is said to be suffering from a knee injury.

That's a new one. Polamalu had been playing through a hamstring problem, but he was very active last Sunday against the Rams.

© Interesting to note that the Steelers finished their home schedule with 28 sacks at Heinz Field, but have just five in seven road games this season.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Tuesday with Tomlin

Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said Tuesday that there's a good chance Ben Roethlisberger, Maurkice Pouncey, LaMarr Woodley and Emmanuel Sanders will suit up and play in the team's critical game at Cleveland on Sunday.

Tomlin said the the foursome practices this week, they'll play, which would be a boost for the Steelers, who need a win over Cleveland and a loss by Baltimore at Cincinnati to clinch the AFC North title and No. 2 seed in the playoffs.

Tomlin said he expects Pouncey, Woodley and Sanders to practice on Wednesday, but would not commit to Roethlisberger doing so.

© Doug Legursky and Mewelde Moore were the only two players declared out against the Browns.

© If Trai Essex starts at left guard as expected, the Steelers would start their eighth different grouping of offensive linemen this season. They started seven different variations in 2010.

© Since averaging 3.0 yards per carry in Pittsburgh's first four games, Rashard Mendenhall has averaged 4.4 yards per carry.

That coincides with the team's signing of Max Starks to play left tackle.

© Pouncey, Roethlisberger, Troy Polamalu, Antonio Brown and Mike Wallace were named to the Pro Bowl Tuesday night.

James Harrison and Ryan Clark were among the alternates at their positions.

Getting the snub for the Steelers: Ike Taylor and Brett Keisel.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Post-Rams thoughts

Not a lot to say about this one. The Rams flat-out stink other than Steven Jackson.

As much as Maurice Jones-Drew is Jacksonville's entire offense, Jackson is the same for St. Louis.

It is somewhat troubling that, knowing that, the Steelers still permitted Jackson to rush for 100 yards and the Rams to go for 164 as a team.

The defense had been trending toward better showings against the run after some horrendous efforts early in the year.

It took a step back in that regard Saturday.

© Rashard Mendenhall takes a lot of flak from Steelers fans, who apparently prefer their runners to be 250-pound plodders.

But he made some outstanding runs in this one.

Yes, it was against St. Louis, which is awful against the run.

But coupled with Mendenhall's recent efforts - including a strong game last week at San Francisco – and you have a unit that has to at least keep opponents on edge heading into the playoffs.

Mendenhall's yards and carries are way down this season - 890 on 220 heading into Week 17 – but he's been kept fresh from having just one 20-plus carry game all season.

© Chris Kemoeatu played an entire game without a penalty

There's your early Christmas gift.

© Charlie Batch played OK in this one. Not great, but not bad.

But he didn't enough to show me that he would have led the Steelers to a win at San Francisco last week.

I'll stick with my original feeling that starting Roethlisberger in that game gave the Steelers the best chance to win. It didn't work out that way, but it's the truth.

© Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin send a message to rookie offensive tackle Marcus Gilbert, benching him because he wasn't happy with his preparation.

I've got a feeling, however, that if Baltimore would have been the opponent, Gilbert would have been out there.

© Kudos to Antonio Brown for breaking the team record for all-purpose yards in a season.

© The Steelers-Cleveland game has been moved to 4:15 p.m. and will be played at the same time as Cincinnati-Baltimore.

© Merry Christmas everyone. Enjoy your friends and family if you have the opportunity.

Who I like, St. Louis version

I know this one is up late this week, but there's a reason.

I wanted to see what the atmosphere at Heinz Field would be like on Christmas Eve before making a pick.

After seeing that, I like … nobody!

On, head coach Mike Tomlin made a strong comment that this game isn't all that meaningful for the Steelers, saying that while the standard is the standard, he also wants to make the most of opportunity.

The opportunity he is speaking of is not winning the AFC North or securing a first-round bye, but instead is allowing Ben Roethlisberger, LaMarr Woodley and Maurkice Pouncey to sit out against what he feels is an inferior opponent.

So much for the old line about how the other guys are getting paid as well!

It will be interesting to see how the Steelers respond to that when the head coach dismisses an opponent in that manner.

The line on the game is 12 1/2 points and I don't like the Steelers to cover it.

Take Pittsburgh, 17-9

Thursday, December 22, 2011

If Roethlisberger sits, what message does it send?

It now appears to be at least a 50-50 proposition that the Steelers will rest Ben Roethlisberger this weekend against St. Louis.

Roethlisberger did not practice again Thursday and offensive coordinator Bruce Arians called him a game-time decision.

But what message does it send to the team if Roethlisberger, who said he feels better this week than he did last, doesn't play against the lowly Rams?

They don't need their best players to win?

They can afford to take the Rams lightly?

Roethlisberger did not suffer any kind of setback and if I were coaching the Steelers, he would at least start and hand the ball off a lot to Rashard Mendenhall and Isaac Redman.

© It now appears the Steelers will keep Maurkice Pouncey out of this game as well. But at least Pouncey didn't play last week.

© It is probable that the Steelers will activate running back John Clay from their practice squad to replace injured Mewelde Moore.

Moore's injury, coupled with that of Jonathan Dwyer, leaves the Steelers with only Mendenhall and Redman.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Roethlisberger laughs off report he won't play

Ben Roethlisberger was surprised by an NFL Network report that he will not play Saturday against the St. Louis Rams.

The report, made via Tweet by Jason La Canfora, claimed that team officials told him Roethlisberger would sit out against the Rams.

"The NFL Network said that? Not really, they always like to say things," Roethlisberger said when asked if he was surprised by the report.

"Unless coach has said something, I’m going to wait to hear it from him."

Roethlisberger said he expects to play.

© Maurkice Pouncey also expects to play this week. He's been fitted with a brace for his injured ankle.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Post-SF thoughts

Starting Ben Roethlisberger Monday night was absolutely the right call for the Steelers.

Roethlisberger is the Steelers' franchise quarterback, a two-time Super Bowl winner.

He said he was healthy enough to play. If that happens, he plays.

© The fact that Baltimore lost Sunday night had nothing to do with Roethlisberger playing. That decision had already been made.

© Really, there's not a lot to say about this game.

The Steelers did the one big thing against the 49ers that they absolutely needed not to do - turn the ball over.

They didn't force any of their own - though that call against Keenan Lewis for interfering with the return man was a bad one and should have resulted in a fumble recovery for the Steelers.

You can't beat anyone at minus-4.

© Steelers fans should be rooting for the Bengals.

Given Baltimore's struggles on the road this season, there's no reason a motivated Cincinnati team can't beat the Ravens at Paul Brown Stadium in Week 17.

© All the Rashard Mendenhall haters need to watch Monday night's game. He ran the ball well and hard against the league's top-rated rush defense in a game in which the Steelers needed a running game to protect their quarterback.

© The offensive line did an outstanding job keeping Roethlisberger clean until late in the game.

© The Steelers' rush defense was solid for the most part against a very good rushing attack. But where was the pressure?

The few times the Steelers did get pressure on Alex Smith, Smith threw the ball wildly.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Roethlisberger is active

Ben Roethlisberger is active tonight and will start against the 49ers.

But, the Steelers also have both Charlie Batch and Dennis Dixon active as well.

Cornerback Curtis Brown, Maurkice Pouncey, Chris Carter, Al Woods, Jamon Meredith and Emmanuel Sanders are inactive.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Who I like, San Francisco version

Who will play and who won't?

That is always a key heading into any game. And for the Steelers and 49ers, it's critical.

Being here in Pittsburgh, we all know about the question marks for the Steelers.

Obviously, James Harrison is out, suspended by the NFL for this game. But quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, safety Troy Polamalu and center Maurkice Pouncey are huge question marks for the Steelers as well.

For San Francisco, running back Frank Gore, linebacker Patrick Willis and left tackle Joe Staley are hurting.

That's a lot of star power.

Polamalu, Gore and Willis, in my opinion, are the three biggest factors there.

We all know the Steelers' struggles over the past few seasons without Polamalu. They are a Super Bowl team with him, a sub-.500 team without.

On the other hand, they proved last season they could win without Roethlisberger in the lineup – at least in the short term. And Doug Legursky is a capable replacement for Pouncey, even if he's not the Pro Bowl player Pouncey is.

Gore is San Francisco's entire offense. He's dealt with ankle and knee injuries over the past six weeks and without his running, the 49ers' offense relies solely on Alex Smith. That could be difficult without Staley at left tackle.

Gore should play, but he managed just 10 carries last week in a loss at Arizona.

And Willis is the heart and soul of San Francisco's defense. While Ray Lewis may get the publicity, it's Willis who is the best inside linebacker in football.

He's a big reason why the 49ers are allowing 3.2 yards per carry and haven't given up a rushing touchdown this season.

Regardless of who plays and who doesn't, the Steelers are the better team.

Take Pittsburgh, 17-16

© Update: Polamalu practiced today and is probable to play.

Roethlisberger was again limited and will be a game-time decision.

Pouncey is out.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

No news remains good news for Harrison

Defense attorneys will tell you that the longer a jury deliberates, the better the chance is that their client will get off on whatever he is being charged with.

So it seems to be with Steelers linebacker James Harrison.

Harrison had his appeal conference call with Ted Cottrell on Wednesday at 2 p.m. And more than 24 hours later, Cottrell still had not made a ruling on Harrison's suspension for a helmet-to-helmet hit on Cleveland's Colt McCoy.

It would seem that if Cottrell was inclined to go along with the league's suspension, he would have already made an announcement in that regard.

But the longer Cottrell considers the appeal, the more it appears he is looking for a way to rescind the suspension without leaving the league with egg on its face.

© Ben Roethlisberger, Troy Polamalu and Maurkice Pouncey did not practice again on Thursday.

And that's OK. As long as they can get on the field by Saturday, they will be OK to play Monday night at San Francisco.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Wednesday news and notes

James Harrison had his appeal heard by Ted Cottrell on Wednesday and a ruling is expected to come on Thursday.

The Steelers aren't too optimistic Harrison's suspension will be lifted.

That means Jason Worilds will slide over to Harrison's spot after starting four of the past five games in place of LaMarr Woodley, who was nursing a hamstring injury.

© Woodley went through a who practice on Wednesday with no issues and looks ready to go on Monday at San Francisco.

Same goes for Emmanuel Sanders.

© Ben Roethlisberger, Troy Polamalu and Maurkice Pouncey did not practice Wednesday. But expect that to change by Friday.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Tuesday with Tomlin

As I'm sure everyone now knows, James Harrison has been suspended by the NFL for one game.

Harrison will not be permitted to be at the team facility until Dec. 20 - pending an appeal, if there is one.

Harrison Tweeted Tuesday: "Thank you to all of my fans and supporters, I'm just going to move on from here and get ready for my next game."

Harrison and his agent had earlier talked about appealing any fine/suspension, but that statement makes it sound as if Harrison will not do so. We'll see where this goes.

© I didn't think what Harrison did rose to the level of a suspension - given that he has not been fined this season.

And in that regard, the NFL has been inconsistent this season.
The league came out with a chart detailing its fine process this summmer.

Here is the link:

The fines listed are the minimums.

As we've seen this season, other "repeat offenders," which is what Harrison - who has been fined five times since the start of the 2009 season – was not given the same leeway the league gave some other repeat offenders, teammate Ryan Clark among them.

You can't help but wonder if Harrison's statements in a magazine article released in the offseason had an affect on this.

© Mike Tomlin said Tuesday that he expects LaMarr Woodley back again this week, which will help lessen the blow of losing Harrison.

Woodley and Jason Worilds would likely start at OLB for the Steelers against the 49ers next Monday night.

Troy Polamalu (hamstring), Ben Roethlisberger (ankle) and Maurkice Pouncey (ankle) are among those who are questionable.

Tomlin said he expects Emmanuel Sanders (foot) to play as well.

Friday, December 09, 2011

I don't see Harrison being suspended

I just don't see linebacker James Harrion getting suspended for his hit on Cleveland quarterback Colt McCoy Thursday night. A stiff fine in the $40,000 range? Sure.

But he hasn't had a helmet-to-helmet hit this season.

Heck Ray Lewis has had two in the past two years as well, but he got fined the minimum for the hit on Ward, his second in two seasons.

The NFL seems to have reset the clock this year, even though it says it didn't.

Steelers safety Ryan Clark's big fine came on his second offense, even though he had also been fined last season.

People are comparing this to Ndomukong Suh, but Suh had multiple infractions both this year and last. And, I might add, what he did came after a play was over. His stomp that was the final straw wasn't done in the context of playing the game.

© Ben Roethlisberger was in a walking boot today. So was Maurkice Pouncey.

Some have questioned why Roethlisberger was able to return to the game with the same injury that Pouncey was unable to come back from.

It's simple, really. Roethlisberger isn't pushing on a 320-pound defensive tackle on every play like Pouncey needs to be able to do.

Roethlisberger's mobility was very limited following the injury. But he got by.

Pouncey would not have been able to do the same thing.

Post-Clevleand thoughts

I predicted 27-10 in this one and it should have been a three-score win had the Steelers not turned the ball over three times in the red zone - four counting an interception at the 15 by Ben Roethlisberger. I count turnovers on downs as turnovers, even though the Steelers don't.

When I asked Mike Tomlin if he had any doubt about going for it on fourth-and-goal from the 1, he replied, "None. If you can't score on four shots from the 2, you potentially deserve to lose the game."

© If there was any doubt about who the toughest QB in the league is, just watch the tape of this game.

© Chris Kemoeatu should be cut, re-signed, and then cut again.

Three penalties in two and a half quarters of play? Are you serious?

I was watching Full Metal Jacket the other night and had several of R. Lee Ermey's famous lines come to mind while watching that.

The worst thing about it was that Kemoeatu was getting called for holding penalties and still allowing his man to hit Roethlisberger.

If you're going to hold the man, hold him so he doesn't hit your quarterback.

© Even though the score was 7-3 through three quarters, you never really had the idea that the Browns were going to even kick a field goal to make it interesting.

That was still the case even after James Harrison's roughing the passer penalty against Colt McCoy.

Did Harrison hit the quarterback in the head after he threw? Yep.

But McCoy had also tucked the ball and started running with it prior to dumping the ball off when he saw Harrison peel off of Montario Hardesty.

Tough call, but he's going to be fined for it.

© Same goes for James Farrior, who called McCoy a "good actor" after Farrior was penalized for knocking him down three yards out of bounds.

Farrior said he barely brushed McCoy when he went sprawling.

When I asked him if he wished he'd have just drilled McCoy – since he drew the penalty and likely a fine anyway – Farrior replied, "I wish I would have."

© Ziggy Hood said he didn't feel like his sore groin was serious and that he will be back by the time the Steelers play San Francisco.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Who I like, Cleveland version

The Steelers continually made a point of saying that the Browns are No. 1 in the league against the pass and eighth overall in total defense.

It's a farce. Cleveland's pass numbers are so good because everybody is running like crazy against them, particularly in recent weeks.

Over the past five games, the Browns have given up 1,098 rushing yards, nearly 220 per game.

Why throw the ball a lot when you can do that?

The Steelers will have a similar game plan tonight. They'll come out throwing and use the no-huddle to build a lead and then turn things over to Rashard Mendenhall and Isaac Redman to finish it off.

And on the short week against a team with five rookies in the starting lineup, this could get ugly.

Take the Steelers to win 27-10

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Tuesday news and notes

A bevy of Steelers did not practice today. In fact, the Steelers really didn't practice. It was more of a glorified walkthrough using a Nerf ball instead of a normal one for most of the session.

But two players who did not work were linebacker LaMarr Woodley and wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders.

The bet here is that neither will play Thursday against Cleveland.

Offensive coordinator Bruce Arians said Sanders favored his sore knee and ended up with a sore foot. Sanders had surgery on both feet in the offseason and likely will sit until the Steelers travel to San Francisco.

One player who did practice was guard Ramon Foster. He looks like he'll play against the Browns.

© Nose tackle Chris Hoke will have neck surgery next week and his season is done.

It's likely Hoke's career is finished as well.

Apparently his stinger issue was not getting any better and the best course of action was surgery.

© Arians said today that its a priority for him to get Hines Ward the 10 catches he needs to get to 1,000 career receptions - so long as its in the context of winning football games.

The Steelers wanted to get Ward some more catches against Cincinnati, but the Bengals doubled him all over the field, knowing what the Steelers were up to.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Post-Cincinnati thoughts part II

It's funny how a game is looked at as total domination and the Steelers had just 295 yards of offense, their third-lowest total of the season.

Then again, many of the starters were pulled midway through the fourth quarter.

The most impressive thing about this victory for the Steelers was that their running game was highly effective. Pittsburgh picked up 136 yards on the ground of 33 carries against a good Cincinnati front seven.

That set up a lot of the other things the Steelers did offensively.

And Pittsburgh's domination up front was never more apparent than on its final scoring drive in the third quarter when Rashard Mendenhall and Isaac Redman combined for five carries for 48 yards during a 93-yard drive.

If the Steelers can keep that up, they are going to be tough to beat in January.

© The Steelers have been looking for ways to get talented rookie corner Cortez Allen into their dime package and may have found it.

They brought safety Ryan Clark off the field at times in the dime in favor or Allen, giving them four corners and Troy Polamalu on the field at the same time.

That's a lot of coverage.

© It was nice to see Hines Ward get his 12,000 yards in front of the home crowd, which gave him a nice ovation for the feat.

It also didn't seem like the Steelers forced the issue, just allowing it to happen.

© The Steelers have now won seven of their past eight games and beaten Cincinnati (twice) and New England during that stretch.

That doesn't look to bad on the résumé.

The win over Kansas City wasn't all that inspiring, but there was plenty to be optimistic about following the dismantling of the Bengals.

© LaMarr Woodley told me after the game that he could wind up being a part-time player for a period of time until he gets his wind back.

That's the trouble with hamstring injuries. Unlike James Harrison, who was out with an eye injury and therefore able to keep his cardio up, Woodley's exercises have been limited to stretching and such to build his hamstring strength.

He said his hamstring felt "tired" Sunday, so the Steelers shut him down.

Having Jason Worilds prove that he can be competitive out there helps the situation.

© Steelers special teams coach Al Everest was taken aback when asked if he thought Curtis Brown had a block on in the back on Antonio Brown's 60-yard punt return touchdown at the end of the first half.

"You could call three of those on any play," said Everest. "We've had them go against us."

But not on this occasion.

In the grand scheme of things, it wouldn't have mattered. It's likely that with two timeouts, the Steelers would have gotten the ball at their own 30 and at least gotten into field goal range. But even if they didn't, this game was never in question.

Nate Clements down for the Bengals

Nate Clements is inactive for the Bengals today, meaning Kelly Jennings will be in the starting lineup.

In the first meeting with the Bengals, the Steelers went into the game hoping to target Jennings, who stinks.

Now, he's starting opposite Pac Man Jones.

I originally predicted a 24-20 Pittsburgh win, but we can bump that a bit and make it 27-17 Steelers.

Friday, December 02, 2011

Who I like, Cincinnati version II

It's rare that two division opponents meet so soon after playing just a couple of weeks before, but that is what faces the Steelers and Bengals this week.

The Bengals have gone 1-1 since losing to the Steelers Nov. 13, while the Steelers have played just once, winning last week in Kansas City, 13-9, coming off their bye.

The Bengals suffered a big loss in the previous meeting, a 24-17 Pittsburgh victory in Cincinnati, as cornerback Leon Hall was lost for the season to an Achilles' tendon injury.

That's huge considering Hall is their best cover corner.

Against the Steelers, that's a considerable loss. While Baltimore and Cleveland, Cincinnati's past two opponents, aren't built to exploit the loss of Hall, the Steelers are.

Pittsburgh is getting healthy as well, as linebacker LaMarr Woodley will make his return after sitting out three games with a hamstring injury.

The Steelers are 6 1/2-point favorites and that's a pretty big spread against a solid Cincinnati club.

I like the Steelers to win, but the Bengals to cover in a 24-20 Pittsburgh victory.