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Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Steelers take some days off

The Steelers got their final practice of their bye week in today with one conspicuous absence - linebacker James Harrison.

After practicing Tuesday, Harrison left the team facility on Wednesday before the team completed its late morning session.

That doesn't bode well, but it's not crushing, either.

It might come down to pain management for Harrison, who has shown in the past that he has a high tolerance.

On the positive side, strong safety Troy Polamalu was out there again for the second consecutive day and appears to be on track to play when the team returns to the field Oct. 7 against Philadelphia.

@ Ryan Mundy got rung up to the tune of $21,000 for his hit on Darrius Heyward-Bey last weekend in Oakland.

Given the one-game suspension of Denver's Joe Mays this week for illegal hits in back-to-back games, Mundy could be looking at a similar penalty for another illegal hit this season.

Good news for Steelers

It appears that both James Harrison and Troy Polamalu will be back on the field for the Steelers when they return to action against the Philadelphia Eagles.

That's good news for a defense that has been cheesy soft on the road.

There has been some question as to how much Harrison can help this team because of his health.

Remember, this is a guy who started last season at about 50 percent due to two offseason back surgeries.

Harrison on one leg is better than 75 percent of the pass rushers out there.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Post-Oakland thoughts

This game reminded me of on in Chicago in 1995 when the Steelers got into a shootout with the Bears. The last team to have the ball was going to win it.

Only that Steelers team had a great defense to go along with an emerging offense.

This team has established stars all over on offense and Ben Roethlisberger is playing the best football of his life.

As for a great defense, not so much - at least on the road.

As Brett Keisel said after this one, this team needs to find a way to win on the road if it is going to get to where it wants to go.

That being said, Denver and Oakland are two tough places to open. There are easier road games coming, and the Steelers had to be pleased that they put up 31 points in a very hostile environment.

But the defense allowed scores on five consecutive possessions. Can't somebody, anybody, make a play?

While the Steelers have spent some big money on offensive players in recent years, they've also dropped some heavy coin on a couple of defensive players - LaMarr Woodley and Lawrence Timmons - as well.

They're not getting their money's worth right now.

Sure, Woodley had the team's lone sack Sunday and also had a tackle for a loss. But he finished with four tackles.

That was still better than Timmons, who had three tackles. In fact, after recording seven sacks and four forced fumbles in 2009, Timmons has five sacks and two forced fumbles - in the past two-plus seasons.

At this point, he's not even as impactful on a game as Larry Foote, who doesn't have nearly the athleticism of Timmons.

Often times, tackles are a matter of opportunity. But there's something to be said about players who make their own opportunities as well.

@ If you had any question about Mike Tomlin's faith in his defense to stop the Raiders in the second half, you only needed to see him go for a fourth-and-1 at his own 29.

At that point, it was the right call. As we saw, the Steelers couldn't stop Oakland's offense.

With that in mind, I'd have given serious thought to going for it on fourth-and-9 from the 36 as well.

@ Ben Roethlisberger played an outstanding game, leading the team to 31 points while continuing his hot play on third downs, where the Steelers converted 8 of 14 for the game.

But he once again had a chance to lead a fourth quarter, game-winning drive and failed.

In the past two seasons, Roethlisberger has led exactly one game-winner, and that came against lowly Indianapolis last season.

In his first seven seasons, Roethlisberger led 26 such drives, many of which came when he was, you know, just a game manager.

@ This is still a pretty good team with a chance to get much better coming out of the bye when it gets Rashard Mendenhall, Troy Polamalu and James Harrison back.

Mendenhall has looked good in practice and has to be able to give the team something better than the 2.6 yards per carry it's currently averaging.

Polamalu is still Polamalu, while even a one-legged Harrison would give this team some kind of pass rush outside of Woodley.

The Steelers are on pace to allow more touchdown passes (32) than they have sacks (27).

You want to know what's wrong with this defense? That's it in a nutshell. The lack of pressure is killing it.

@ That was a bad fumble for Jonathan Dwyer. With Mendenhall coming back and Barron Batch showing a little something as a third-down back Sunday, Dwyer could find his opportunities dwindling quickly.

@ On the positive side, with the return of Mendenhall, this offense has a chance to be one of the more dynamic ones in the NFL. If the defense can play average football the rest of the way and the offense continues to click, the Steelers still have the look of a 10 or 11-win team.

But unless they figure out how to win a big game on the road, any hopes of another Super Bowl run are just that, hopes.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Greetings from Oakland

It's a beautiful day here in Northern California and a perfect day for football.

Inactive for the Steelers today are Rashard Mendenhall, James Harrison, Troy Polamalu, Stevenson Sylvester, Charlie Batch, Alameda Ta'amu and Mike Adams.

No surprises there, but Adams being inactive means that Kelvin Beachum is the third tackle today. I would expect that if the Steelers have an injury at tackle, though, they would bring in Legursky and slide Ramon Foster to right tackle.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Who I like, Oakland version

The last time the Steelers visited Oakland, Ben Roethlisberger threw four interceptions, two of which were returned for touchdowns, in a 20-13 Raiders victory.

The Steelers have manhandled the Raiders twice since that time - both at Heinz Field - including a 35-3 dismantling in 2010.

Like those two other teams the Steelers beat up on, this Oakland team looks like a mess.

The Raiders can't run the ball, putting up 68 yards in their first two games, can't stop the run, allowing 142 yards per game on the ground, and can't rush the passer, picking up just two sacks.

Other than that, they're fine.

Troy Polamalu and James Harrison will sit out again for the Steelers, but Roethlisberger and his receivers are healthy.

The Steelers haven't had much of a running game themselves, but they'll find one against the Raiders as they adjust from all of the outside runs they've attempted in the first two weeks to a more straight-ahead style.

Take Pittsburgh, which is favored by four points, to win this one, 24-13.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Thursday news, notes

The good news for the Steelers is that Marcus Gilbert, Jonathan Dwyer, Mike Wallace and Emmanuel Sanders were all back at practice today after sitting out Wednesday.

That wasn't altogether unexpected for any of those players.

But James Harrison, Troy Polamalu, Heath Miller and Mike Adams were all sitting out.

I don't expect Harrison or Polamalu to play again this week. There's no reason with a bye waiting. The Steelers want those two healthy for the long haul.

Miller should practice - at least in some form Friday - and play Sunday. The needle cures a lot of ills, especially torn rib cartilage.

As for Adams, his missing practice might be the most serious.

The Steelers' top backup tackle, it's unlikely the Steelers dress the rookie unless he practices Friday. He's sitting out with a sore back.

With Gilbert also suffering from a strained groin, that could leave the team short at tackle.

The guess here is that if push comes to shove, they will move Ramon Foster to right tackle and put Doug Legursky at guard if something happens to Gilbert Sunday at Oakland.

Rookie Kelvin Beachum didn't show anything in the preseason to warrant getting any playing time.

@ Interesting to note that the line on this game has dropped to 4 points after the Steelers opened as 6-point favorites.

But there is some basis. The replacement officials have called home teams for 44.9 percent of the penalties. Compare that to a 51-49 split for the regular officials.

Possibly because of that, home teams are 23-9 straight up and 19-12-1 ATS through two weeks this season.

On average over the previous three seasons, the home teams were 19-13 straight up and 16-15-1 ATS.

Coincidence? Maybe. It's something we'll keep an eye on this week.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Tuesday with Tomlin

It was a short Mike Tomlin press conference today. And since more than half of that was eaten up by Tomlin heaping praises on the Raiders, there wasn't a lot of information passed.

But we did learn that Rashard Mendenhall will get some contact this week, a big step forward for the running back as he comes back from a torn ACL.

With the Pittsburgh running game struggling, the Steelers might be tempted to bring Mendenhall back sooner than they originally planned.

The plan when he was activated off the PUP was to wait until after the bye, but that could change to at least get Mendenhall a handful of carries this week and see how he responds.

The results couldn't be much worse than what we've seen.

@ Tomlin said the Steelers will take a similar approach with Troy Polamalu and James Harrison as the one they took last week when neither wound up playing against the Jets.

But what Tomlin meant is that the Steelers will take things day to day.

Like Mendenhall, the plan with Harrison was to bring him back after the bye.

The Steelers have been playing along with Harrison telling him he had a chance to play because that's how Tomlin feels you handle great players. You never tell them never.

But when it comes down to it, Tomlin is going to protect the player from himself. He's not going to allow him to come back too early just because his competitive fire is pushing him to do so.

As for Polamalu, I'm not going to be so quick to write him off.

If he practices by Friday, he'll play. If he doesn't he won't. It will be that simple.

@ Stevenson Sylvester will return to practice at some point this week and could possibly play Sunday.

Heath Miller has torn cartilage between his ribs. The Steelers will rest him in practice this week, but he'll play through the pain.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Post-Jets thoughts

Lawrence Timmons takes a lot of heat on Steelers message boards - some of it deserved - for his lack of big plays.

But he might have made the biggest play in Sunday's win over the Jets when he decked quarterback Mark Sanchez just after the QB had scrambled toward the line of scrimmage and released a pass.

Prior to that hit - which drew a penalty - Sanchez had completed 4 of 5 passes for 80 yards and a touchdown. After the hit, Sanchez was 6 of 22 of 58 yards.

Coincidence? I think not.

Timmons will likely be fined for his hit - which was much like the one James Harrison put on Colt McCoy last season - but it says here his teammates should kick in some money.

Without Harrison and Troy Polamalu in the lineup, the Steelers needed a tone-setting hit - even if it did cross the line. Timmons provided it.

@ I have defended the replacement officials thus far as not being all that much different than the regular officials.

But Sunday's game was a travesty.

Not only were their several bad calls made against both teams, but there seemed to be a huddle anytime a flag was thrown.

Referee Jerry Frump also took  f...o...r...e...v...e...r every time he went under the hood for a replay.

The stat sheet said this game took just 3:08 to play, but it seemed more like three days with all of the stoppages.

@ I like the Steelers' new-look offense. Ben Roethlisberger seems to have bought into it as well.

He's spreading the ball around and using a lot of different options.

I also might add that while Roethlisberger was completing 16 of his 21 passes Sunday to his wide receivers for 192 yards and a touchdown, Joe Flacco was connecting on 4 of 11 for 79 yards to his wideouts.

@ I was a little surprised the Steelers didn't use their four wideout sets a little more to take advantage of not having Darrelle Revis on the field.

After all, wouldn't you think they would want, say, Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery matched up on 5-9 Ellis Lankster and 5-8 Isaiah Trufant, the Jets' third and fourth corners?

@ Will Johnson is proving to be a weapon out of the backfield and will continue to be so. He's a matchup nightmare for linebackers - especially when they don't cover him as the Jets failed to do.

@ Drew Butler has placed four of his first eight punts inside the 20. The kid's going to be all right.

@ Shaun Suisham banged a pair of 45-yard field goals at Heinz Field. Suisham struggled from the 40 to 50-yard distance last season, so that was a good sign.

@ The Steelers scrapped their outside running attack in the second half and started running right at the Jets.

It says here they should continue along that path until Rashard Mendenhall comes back and shows he's healthy.

Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer are not east-west runners.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Game day thread

As expected, Troy Polamalu and James Harrison are inactive for the Steelers.

With New England looking like a loser today against the Cardinals - go figure - the Steelers have a chance to run their winning streak in home openers to an NFL-best 10.

New England had won its past 10 home openers.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Who I like, Steelers-Jets

This game could be all about who is not playing as much as it's about who is on the field.

For the Jets, All-Pro corner Darrelle Revis, tight end Dustin Keller and outside linebacker Bryan Thomas are out.

For the Steelers, it appears highly unlikely that Troy Polamalu and James Harrison will play. Both missed practice again Friday and are listed as questionable. But considering they haven't practiced all week, they are likely out as well.

While not having Polamalu and Harrison will obviously affect the Steelers, it says here that the Jets not having Revis and Keller is a much bigger deal.

The Jets defense is built to shut down opposing passing games with their three solid cover corners. And Revis is the best in the business.

Because the Jets don't generate much of a pass rush, they count on those corners covering. That won't happen now.

And Keller is New York quarterback Mark Sanchez's security blanket. Not having him on the field will be a major blow for New York's offense.

The Steelers will miss Polamalu and Harrison for sure, but with the Jets defense at much less than full strength, Pittsburgh should have a big advantage, especially playing at home.

Take the Steelers, 27-17

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Thursday news and notes

James Harrison was not on the practice field today as he continues to sit out with knee soreness. At this point, it doesn't appear as if Harrison is going to play again this week against the Jets.

Troy Polamalu was also out again Thursday with a calf strain. I would be surprised if he doesn't suit up this week.

As for good news, Jonathan Dwyer was back today and appears to be on track to receive more playing time - he could even start against the Jets.

Left tackle Max Starks had to sit out practice after suffering an allergic reaction to some medication. He'll be fine.

@ For the Jets, All-Pro corner Darrelle Revis continues to sit out with a concussion. This will be a tricky one for the Jets.

Because he has a concussion, Revis must be cleared by a neurologist before he's permitted to return to practice.

Rex Ryan said Thursday that if Revis isn't cleared before their plane leaves on Saturday, he's not playing because he won't be making the trip to Pittsburgh.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Tueday news and notes

Mike Tomlin correctly said today that the Steelers' biggest problem was not so much stopping Peyton Manning in the no-huddle offense, but stopping Denver's run game.

Willis McGahee averaged 4.0 yards per carry and consistently gained yardage. That left the Broncos in a lot of second and third-and-short, allowing Manning to throw a lot of short stuff, negating the Pittsburgh pass rush.

Add to that a QB such as Manning, who has a quick release and is accurate, and you have a recipe for disaster.

@ Tomlin also said that Jonathan Dwyer has earned more playing time. Look for Dwyer to be the primary ball carrier this week against the Jets.

The Steelers have been working in that direction for a couple of weeks now.

Of course, Rashard Mendenhall is also getting closer to a return. After watching Adrian Peterson rush for 84 yards and two scores last week, the Steelers might be a little more inclined to allow Mendenhall to come back.

Peterson tore his ACL a week before Mendenhall last year.

@ James Harrison ran on Monday and didn't experience any discomfort. He'll do the same Wednesday, with an eye on returning to practice Thursday or Friday.

@ Marcus Gilbert (hyperextended knee) and Ramon Foster (orbital migraine) checked out OK and are expected to return to practice at some point this week. Same goes for Troy Polamalu (calf strain).

Monday, September 10, 2012

Post-Denver thoughts

Sunday's game was about missed opportunities for the Steelers.

The Steelers recovered a fumble in the first quarter at the Denver 47, made a first down and then punted from the Denver 45.

You have to turn that into some points.

If the Steelers at least get a field goal there, they go into the half up 13-7 and have the ball to open the third quarter.

That changes the entire complexion of the game.

@ Through three quarters, Ben Roethlisberger was 10 of 11 for 129 yards on third downs and the Steelers converted 10 of 16 third downs.

Roethlisberger converted his first third down in the fourth quarter - a 3-yard TD pass to Mike Wallace - but then missed Heath Miller on third-and-three on his next attempt, giving the ball back to the Broncos.

That allowed Peyton Manning and company to eat up a bunch of clock on a field goal drive.

When you're playing a future Hall of Fame quarterback on the road, you've got to be nearly perfect. Roethlisberger was just short of that on third downs.

@ I thought it was a curious decision that Casey Hampton got so much playing time over Steve McLendon.

Not that Hampton necessarily played poorly, but McLendon is more of a pass rusher than Hampton, who had barely played in the preseason.

Speaking of pass rush, where was it? Larry Foote had a sack and a couple of QB hits and Jason Worilds had a sack and hit, but that was it.

Nothing from anyone else.

Peyton Manning completed just one pass more than 20 yards down the field, so they were getting the ball out quickly. But how about knocking a ball or two down at the line of scrimmage?

@ The Steelers gambled with their offensive line, keeping just eight healthy guys and going into Sunday's game with just seven guys active.

Ramon Foster got poked in the eye and was unable to return, while Marcus Gilbert suffered a hyperextended knee.

They were one injury away from Heath Miller playing tackle.

@ I've been beating this drum for a while now, but Jonathan Dwyer has got to get the ball more than Isaac Redman.

@ I have no problem with Mike Tomlin challenging Eric Decker's 17-yard catch at the 1. The ball was fumbled through the end zone and the Broncos hurried to the line of scrimmage to run another play before Tomlin or any of his coaches upstairs could see a replay.

If Decker had fumbled out of the end zone, it would have been Pittsburgh ball with a 19-14 lead. It was a risk worth taking.

Sunday, September 09, 2012

Steelers inactives

Steelers inactives for tonight's game include James Harrison, Rashard Mendenhall, Ryan Clark, Kelvin Beachum, Charlie Batch, Alameda Ta'amu and Stevenson Sylvester.

Baron Batch is active - presumably as a third back and special teamer.

Friday, September 07, 2012

Who I like, Steelers-Broncos

This is an interesting matchup in that Denver will be breaking in 12 new free agent players.

Typically, teams that add that many veteran free agents take some time to gel. Of course, one of those free agents is QB Peyton Manning, so perhaps he will make up for some of those issues.

The Steelers will be without James Harrison and Ryan Clark on defense, which makes them a little vulnerable. But you can bet that Dick LeBeau will come up with something different on his 75th birthday to help make up for who's missing.

The Broncos will be without guard Chris Kuper (arm) and linebacker D.J. Williams (suspension). The absence of Williams is a big one. He's been tough on the Steelers over the years.

I like the Steelers, 24-20.

@ The Steelers finally placed rookie guard David DeCastro on injured reserve on Friday when they signed cornerback DeMarcus Van Dyke.

DeCastro will be eligible to return in eight weeks.

Van Dyke, meanwhile, will be used to help bolster the special teams unit, which was spotty in the preseason.

With that move, the Steelers now have just eight active offensive linemen and 10 defensive backs. That means a move could be coming next week when safety Ryan Clark is ready to play against the Jets.

There's no way the Steelers are comfortable having rookie Kelvin Beachum as one of their active players at this point.

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Wednesday news, notes

The Steelers held their second practice of the week Wednesday and it wasn't all good news.

Linebacker James Harrison was limited Wednesday as he continues to work his way back from knee surgery.

Harrison shooed reporters away from his locker after practice, saying he would let everyone know Friday what his status is.

Harrison could still wind up playing, but at this point, it doesn't look good.

On the other hand, Jason Worilds was back as a full participant and looks like he's ready to go. Worilds, who had offseason wrist surgery, is listed as the top backup to LaMarr Woodley, but has more experience than Chris Carter.

@ Isaac Redman was back as a full participant on Wednesday and looks to be ready to go against the Broncos.

Redman said he doesn't know if it will be him or Jonathan Dwyer as the starter in Denver.

@ Linebacker Larry Foote was out today with an ankle issue, but it was just as likely the team wanted to get Brandon Johnson as many snaps as possible at Foote's spot inside.

@ The fact the Steelers haven't done anything with David DeCastro yet in terms of injured reserve tells me that they are indeed looking to bring in a veteran to replace him.

That veteran is likely Trai Essex, despite some reports to the contrary. Right now, they have just three healthy backup linemen. And two of those are rookies Mike Adams and Kelvin Beachum.

I can guarantee you they aren't confident in putting Beachum in a regular season game at this point.

Essex will be back next week when the Steelers won't be on the hook for his entire salary.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Tuesday news and notes

Pretty much everyone was left on the table as a possibility to play Sunday against the Broncos by head coach Mike Tomlin Tuesday, including running back Rashard Mendenhall.

I wouldn't expect Mendenhall to play - I'm still hearing they want to wait until after the bye week - but Mendenhall has looked good in practice coming off the ACL injury and is making the decision a tough one.

James Harrison, on the other hand, made it through practice Monday OK and looks as if he will play.

@ Tomlin said Keenan Lewis will be the starting CB, while Cortez Allen will be the third corner.

That's not exactly surprising. Allen has plenty of upside, but still needs some polish.

@ It's beginning to look like Mike Wallace will start over Emmanuel Sanders. That's a surprising move by Tomlin, who usually likes to send messages through his actions.

I'm sure the fact that Wallace spent all day Friday and Saturday with receivers coach Scottie Montgomery had something to do with the decision.

@ The Steelers, by the way, continue to try to bang out a new deal for Wallace.

This could go down to the wire. A couple of years ago, the Steelers had strong safety Troy Polamalu sign his new deal on the plane before takeoff for their regular season opener.