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Monday, December 30, 2013

Tomlin refuses to play what if

Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin watched the events of the Kansas City at San Diego game unfold Sunday night in his basement with his two sons.

And according to Tomlin, he immediately recognized that the Chargers were in an illegal formation when Kansas City placekicker Ryan Succop pushed a potential game-winning 41-yard field goal attempt wide to the right with four seconds remaining.

San Diego went on to win the game, 27-24, in overtime, sending the Chargers into the playoffs at 9-7 and ending the Steelers season at 8-8.

What did Tomlin say as the foul was occurring?

"I'll leave that between myself, my sons and our basement," Tomlin said.

The NFL issued a statement Monday that said referee Bill Leavy’s crew erred in not penalizing the Chargers five yards for having too many men on the right side of the ball at the line of scrimmage, a violation of a new rule instituted this season to help increase player safety. The Chargers overloaded the right side of the line with seven players.

“On the play, San Diego lined up with seven men on one side of the snapper,” the NFL said in a statement. “This should have been penalized as an illegal formation by the defense.

“Rule 9, Section 1, Article 3(b)(1) of the NFL Rule Book (page 51) states that ‘No more than six Team B players may be on the line of scrimmage on either side of the snapper at the snap.’ The rule was adopted this year as a player safety measure.

“The penalty for illegal formation by the defense is a loss of five yards. This rule is not subject to instant replay review. Had the penalty been assessed, it would have resulted in a fourth-and-7 from the San Diego 18 with 0:04 remaining, enabling the Chiefs to attempt a 36-yard field goal.”

Leavy’s crew also blew a play dead on a fake punt by the Chargers in overtime as Eric Weddle continued to fight forward for yardage. The Chiefs stripped Weddle of the ball and returned it for a touchdown.

Former NFL head of officiating Mike Pereira tweeted Sunday night that he felt the play should not have been blown dead and the fumble and touchdown should have stood.

Game officials have made a number of crucial errors this season, and Tomlin, who is a member of the league’s competition committee, feels those issues will be addressed in the offseason.

"Obviously, there is a lot of work that needs to be done from an officiating standpoint," Tomlin said. "I think it has been played out and well documented over the last several weeks ... I look forward to being part of the process in helping it improve.'

Had Leavy's crew made the correct call in either of those situations, the Steelers would be preparing to play the Bengals this weekend in Cincinnati.

Instead, they're preparing for their offseason.

"We stepped into 16 stadiums this year with an opportunity to state our case, and we didn't state a strong enough case, so I am not going to lose a lot of sleep over something that went on in a stadium that we weren't even in," Tomlin said.

@ The Steelers went 6-2 in the second half, the best record in the AFC. Only Carolina, at 7-1, had a better second half record.

@ Cornerback Curtis Brown will have surgery to repair his torn ACL on Friday. Tomlin said Brown had to wait until his MCL healed before he could undergo the surgery.

@ Tomlin spoke highly of Kelvin Beachum's play at left tackle but said he'd like to continue to see him improve. It definitely sounds, however, as if the Steelers are preparing to go into 2014 with Beachum at left tackle.

@ Tomlin refused to comment on the future of any players or coaches, but unless somebody really wants to leave, I doubt there will be any big makeovers on the staff.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Post-Cleveland thoughts Part II

We saw the end of an era Sunday at Heinz Field.

Brett Keisel and Ryan Clark might have both played their final games for the Steelers. Larry Foote might have played his final game in the opener.

If that is the case - and I'm going to say Keisel is 50-50 to come back one more year while Clark is likely gone after saying he's not willing to play here for the minimum - that will leave only Ben Roethlisberger, Heath Miller, Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor as players who have won a pair of Super Bowls with the Steelers.

Foote could be back. He is, after all, under contract at a cap-friendly cost of just $1.1 million, but you get the idea. The Steelers' makeover is just about done.

@ A lot of the focus from Sunday's San Diego-Kansas City game is on the missed field goal at the end of regulation. And apparently, it should be.

Not only did Kansas City's Ryan Succop miss the 41-yard field goal attempt the end of regulation, but apparently Bill Leavy's officiating crew missed the fact that the Chargers were in an illegal formation.

NFL rules state on field goal and extra point attempts that you cannot have more than six players on one side at the line of scrimmage, basically preventing an overload.

The Chargers had eight players on the line, but only one was to the right of ball. The other seven were all on the left side, a clear rule violation. A flag should have been thrown and Kansas City should have been moved five yards closer.

Leavy's crew also apparently, at least according to former head of officiating Mike Pereira, were too quick to the whistle in overtime when San Diego's Eric Weddle was stripped of the football on a fake punt run.

@ But hey, all of that is water over the bridge, as former Steelers head coach Bill Cowher once famously said, mixing his metaphors.

Had the Steelers won one more game - most importantly against Miami a few weeks ago, they wouldn't have needed any help to get into the playoffs.

Or won at Baltimore.

That 0-4 start completely killed the Steelers' margin of error.

@ That said, Pittsburgh finished the season 8-4 after its 0-4 start. The Steelers were also 8-5 with rookie running back Le'Veon Bell in the lineup this season.

Bell only got better as the season went on. He'll rush for 1,400 yards in 2014 if he can stay healthy.

Had he not missed the first three games this season, Bell would have finished with about 1,100 yards this season.

@ The Steelers' offseason priority is signing Jason Worilds to a new contract.

They'll also be looking for a veteran in the secondary. And it might not necessarily be at free safety.

William Gay could shift to free safety, meaning a corner could be added. Ike Taylor also said Sunday that he spoke to the coaching staff about moving to safety at some point.

I don't see that happening, though. Once the team took the responsibility of facing the opposing team's best receiver all over the field off of Taylor, he played solid down the stretch.

Plus, Taylor doesn't have great ball skills - as he points out himself - and the Steelers really need someone back there who can take the ball away.

Certainly it's different playing safety, where you're facing the quarterback most of the time as opposed to playing with your back to the ball, but the Steelers need a free safety who can pick at least four passes.

@ Kudos to Emmanuel Sanders for finding a way to get back on the field in this game. He's been ripped a lot by fans, but 67 catches for 740 yards and six scores isn't bad out of your No. 2 receiver.

And had he not suited up in this game, after Jerricho Cotchery went down with a rib injury, the Steelers would have been down to Antonio Brown, Markus Wheaton and Derek Moye at wide receiver.

They could have activated Justin Brown off the practice squad, but that would have meant cutting somebody else.

@ If you're looking for a silver lining, try this: The Steelers actually finished ahead of Baltimore in the division standings. But thanks to the NFL's draft rules, the Steelers have the 15th pick in the draft, while Baltimore will have to flip a coin to see who picks 16th.

And Baltimore didn't make the playoffs, either. The Joe Flacco-John Harbaugh playoff myth is over.

@ Cam Heyward played the second half of this season like a young Aaron Smith. His bull rush - watch him shove Pro Bowl tackle Joe Thomas into Jason Campbell on his sack while also drawing a holding penalty on Thomas in the fourth quarter - is as powerful as any I've seen.

@ The Steelers allowed seven sacks in their final seven games this season. Remember that in the offseason when you're reading from draft pundits and national media types that the Steelers are going to take an offensive linemen in the first round.

Steelers-Browns Game Day thread

The big news for the Steelers today is that linebacker Jason Worilds is inactive today. Wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders is active.

Joe Haden and Phil Taylor are inactive for the Browns.

It's a rainy day here at Heinz Field, but it's been a steady rain. The field was covered until about two hours before game time, but has had plenty of time to soak up water. It's drenched.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Who I like, Cleveland version part II - and the rest of the Steelers' playoff hopes

When the Steelers dropped to 2-6 after a fourth quarter meltdown in New England – remember, they were within a touchdown of the lead heading into the fourth quarter before losing 55-31 – many fans checked out on this season.

It’s understandable. They didn’t think the Steelers were going anywhere this year, and they still likely aren’t, despite having a glimmer of hope heading into this weekend. 

The scenario that would put the Steelers into the AFC playoffs is about as likely as Barack Obama inviting Ted Cruz over to discuss government policy over a beer.

But even if they don’t make the playoffs, the Steelers have a chance to get to .500 today with a win over the Cleveland Browns, and that is significant.

Not only would they avoid a losing season, getting to 8-8 would also mean the Steelers went 6-2 in the second half of this season.

For a team that is using a number of young players at key positions out of necessity, that is important.

While many will look at this season simply at its 8-8 face value, that doesn’t tell the real story.

Pittsburgh started the season 0-4 playing its first two games without 2012 MVP Heath Miller and its first three games without running back Le’Veon Bell.

It took Miller, who was coming off a major knee injury suffered at the end of last season, a while to round himself into football shape. And Bell, after missing almost all of the preseason and the first three games, was basically learning to play running back in the NFL on the fly.

And then there is the offensive line. Everyone knew there would be growing pains with a young, inexperienced line early in this season. That was only exasperated when Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey, the line’s leader and most experienced player, was lost to a knee injury eight plays into the season.

But the line has gotten better as the season has worn on. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, sacked 35 times in the first nine games, has gone down just six times in the last six.

Kelvin Beachum has been a revelation at left tackle, and though he won't likely make the Pro Bowl, guard David DeCastro probably deserves that recognition.

Because of the improved line play and Roethlisberger completely buying into offensive coordinator Todd 

Haley’s quick passing game, the quarterback will start all 16 games in a season for just the second time in his career.

Were there some issues with an aging secondary? Sure. And the run defense hasn’t been its usual stout self, leading to some of those breakdowns in the secondary – it’s tougher to pressure the quarterback when he’s always in second-and-5.

But the Steelers have made progress this season. They are 7-point favorites to finish off their 6-2 second half today against the Browns.

They should cover that margin.

Take Pittsburgh, 27-16

Baltimore (plus 6)
at Cincinnati
At least Steelers fans can take solace that Baltimore won’t be going to the playoffs. Cincinnati, which has scored 40 or more in four consecutive games at Paul Brown Stadium, completes an 8-0 season at home.
Take Cincinnati, 31-17

Kansas City (plus 9)
at San Diego
Chiefs are locked in as the No. 5 seed in the AFC playoffs and will be resting many key starters. San Diego could be eliminated by the time this game kicks off, but will still play hard.
Take San Diego, 30-13

New York Jets (plus 6)
at Miami
Ryan Tannehill is expected to start at quarterback for Miami, despite getting banged up last week. But, more importantly, the Jets are 1-6 on the road this season.

Take Miami, 20-13

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Brown named MVP and other stuff

Antonio Brown was named the Steelers MVP by a vote of his teammates Thursday.

Brown, of course, is third in the NFL in receptions, receiving yards and punt return average, but some are viewing Brown winning the award as a snub for Ben Roethlisberger.

I'm not in that camp. Realistically, a team's starting quarterback could be named MVP every season.

Roethlisberger has been very, very good this season. But he was also a big reason behind the team's 0-4 start.

Brown has been very consistent this season, catching at least five passes in every game. The argument could be made that he wouldn't be putting up the numbers he has without Roethlisberger, but good receivers are good receivers. Look at A.J. Green or Larry Fitzgerald over the years for an example of that.

To me, Brown's game-breaking ability in the return game is what helps set him apart.

If Roethlisberger had won, it wouldn't have been a bad choice, either. But saying that Roethlisberger is being snubbed by the choice of Brown discounts what Brown has done this season.

@ Guard David DeCastro did not practice Thursday due to a back issue. He was limited at practice on Tuesday, so this would be a step backward.

@ Terence Garvin, Emmanuel Sanders and Jason Worilds did not practice on Thursday. I don't expect Garvin or Sanders to play Sunday, but look for Worilds to do so and play Sunday.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Tomlin special edition and other stuff

Before I get into the Tomlin press conference today, I was questioned on why I thought the Steelers offseason cap problems were an easy fix:

Here's the breakdown.

Pittsburgh has 43 players under contract for next season at $131 million and change. The cap is expected to be between $126 and $127 million.

The first order of business will be to release Levi Brown at a savings of $6.25 million. That's perhaps the easiest cap cut in the history of cap cuts. That move alone puts the Steelers under the 2014 cap.

But wait, that means they'll only have 42 players under contract. OK.

A conventional restructure of Lawrence Timmons' contract, turning his base salary into bonus money would be an additional savings of $3.9 million. They could also do the same with Antonio Brown and pick up another $3.9 million.

In the matter of three moves, we just trimmed about $14.5 million off the cap, with the only release being a player who's never played a down for the Steelers.

The Steelers have no restricted free agents this season, so they won't have to worry about clearing space for any tender offers.

They can also gain further money by extending Ben Roethlisberger's contract.

In this case, you offer Roethlisberger a six-year deal - in reality four new years since he's still got two remaining - at between $100 and $110 million with a $30 million bonus.

Now, on this, I'm using cap expert Ian Whetstone's numbers. So in this case, you lower his base salary in 2014 to $2.1 million, which would shave another $4 million off your 2014 cap.

That brings the cap savings with now four offseason moves to $18.5 million without working up too much of a sweat.

BTW, Roethlisberger's future numbers, in this scenaro would be $5.6 in 2015, $14.8 in 2016, $15.5 in 2017, $17.2 in 2018 and $19.8 in 2019. His cap hit in 2015 would remain what it is now ($18.4) and going up to $20.8, $21.5, $23.2 and $19.8 in the final seasons.

They are big future numbers, but that's the going rate for a franchise quarterback who seems to be finding his groove in Todd Haley's offense.

And there are still some other moves the team could make - asking some vets to take pay cuts or releasing LaMarr Woodley after June 1 - that would free up even more cash.

This is why I don't feel the Steelers are in dire straights with their cap this year.

And now, on to Tomlin.

@ Tomlin said today that the injuries suffered by Terrence Garvin (knee sprain) and Emmanuel Sanders (lateral meniscus) aren't as serious as feared, but that both will be questionable to play against Cleveland.

@ Tomlin was grilled extensively on his clock management at the end of Sunday's game.

Here's what he had to say:

"I just had a concern of kneeling under the circumstances with the weather conditions being what they were. [Mason] Crosby, their kicker, had a kick blocked earlier on that end of the field. And to be honest with you, it wasn’t anything that we did. I just think it was a low-hit ball and you’re talking about a guy who’s been kicking great all year. I was concerned about the weather conditions from that standpoint. Also, when they utilized their last timeout, I was more comfortable with putting the defense on the field under those circumstances after getting a touchdown. If I had to do it all over again, I’d probably do it the same. Obviously, if I knew they were going to return the kickoff 70 yards, I’d probably have a different approach. But I don’t anticipate them doing that, although they did."

@ Le'Veon Bell was named the Steelers rookie of the year on Tuesday, while cornerback Ike Taylor won The Chief Award.

Bell was a no-brainer despite more competition than usual. Jarvis Jones and Vince Williams have both started the majority of the team's games this season at linebacker, while safety Shamarko Thomas has seen significant time, especially early in the season, in the pass defense as well as being a solid special teams contributor.

Taylor has had some rough patches to this season, though that will happen when you're matching up against the other team's best receiver  on a consistent basis. The Steelers scrapped that plan after their last meeting with Cleveland, when Taylor struggled with Josh Gordon, and he's responded with better overall play.

Throughout it all, however, Taylor has remained accessible to the media - win or lose, good game or bad, which is what The Chief Award is all about.

Post-Packers thoughts

Many have wanted the Steelers to open things up offensively for a number of years. They've certainly done that.

Pittsburgh is looking like an offensive juggernaut having now scored 27 or more points in six of its past eight games.

It's helped cover for a defense that has been spotty - but opportunistic.

@ You want opportunistic? How about Troy Polamalu's forced fumble with just under two minutes remaining?

That was Polamalu's fifth forced fumble of the season. That's why you don't even consider cutting him at the end of this season. He's one of the few guys on that defense that can consistently take the ball away from the other team.

Add in his two interceptions and you've got a guy basically averaging a takeaway - or potential takeaway - every two games.

@ Shaun Suisham had two more tackles on special teams Sunday and now has seven for the season.

Think about that for a minute. Suisham doesn't cover punts. He's only on the field for kickoffs. The Steelers have had 55 kick returns against them this season. And Suisham has been involved in seven tackles.

@ The Steelers had been working on that fake punt play for about the last two months and were champing at the bit to run it at some point.

I'm not so sure that fourth-and-2 from your own 44 in a 14-10 game in the snow is the right time, but it worked. Kudos to Mike Tomlin and special teams coach Danny Smith for having the guts to make that call.

McBriar had only thrown one career pass before that, and it had fallen incomplete.

@ It wasn't all good for the special teams units, though. Green Bay entered this game averaging 18.8 yards per kick return with a season-long of 31.

Michael Hyde averaged - AVERAGED - 33.4 yards per return Sunday.

The weather was a factor, but you can't give a team that has struggled all season returning kicks that many yards. And you can't give up a 70-yard return after scoring to go up 38-31.

@ Don't think the fact that Hyde had come close to breaking a couple of other returns earlier in the game hadn't played a factor in Tomlin's decision not to play for a field goal at the end.

He was trying to score a touchdown and make sure the Packers could do no better than tie the game - unless Mike McCarthy decided to score and go for a two-point conversion.

Tomlin could have had Ben Roethlisberger take a knee on second down at the 1 and ran another 40 seconds off the clock and then tried to score from the 1 again, but that would have left the Packers with some time remaining.

We can play what ifs all day long with how that game was managed from a clock standpoint. But the bottom line is that the Steelers won.

That's all that really matters.

Don't give me this could have happened or that could have happened. None of it did. Pittsburgh kept the Packers out of the end zone. Period.

Was it how I would have done things? Probably not. I would have had Roethlisberger take a knee at least once.

But it worked for Tomlin.

@ I didn't have an issue at all with the Steelers kicking the field goal on third down at the end of the first half or taking a timeout into the locker room.

They got a gift return from Emmanuel Sanders to the Green Bay 45.

After getting to the 13, Roethlisberger allowed a little too much time to tick off following a Le'Veon Bell run on third-and-1, but I wouldn't have used the timeout there.

As we've seen way too many times over the years, teams like to send blitzers in those situations. Had Roethlisberger burned that timeout and then been sacked, the Steelers wouldn't have gotten a field goal off.

I wouldn't have spiked the ball, either. Pittsburgh had some momentum there. They had the Packers on their heels. But Jerricho Cotchery couldn't come down with a short pass on first down, and Roethlisberger overthrew Antonio Brown in the end zone on second down.

The Steelers knew they were getting the ball back to start the second half. Take the gift field goal and keep playing.

@ The Steelers need to win next week and have Baltimore, Miami and San Diego lose. If that happens, they get into the playoffs.

And that's why you don't give up on the season as many suggested after a 2-6 start.

This team is gaining a lot of momentum. The salary cap issues aren't as dire as many would have you believe. In fact, it's a way easier fix than it was last year.

And the Steelers should be able to create enough cap space to sign any of their free agents that they choose.

This team is 7-4 since the 0-4 start and a couple of plays away from being 9-2 or 10-1 over that stretch. OK, it's also a couple of plays away from being 5-6 as well, but this team isn't as far away from competing as some Steelers fans seem to think.

@ Bell and the offensive line just keep on getting better. And that's a reason to look from further improvement in 2014.

Yes, Green Bay's defensive front is bad, but Bell was seeing things well Sunday and making some very nice cuts. We forget that he basically missed the entire preseason, so, in effect, he's learning this all on the fly.

His fumble Sunday - though in a bad spot - was the first of his career. That's in 267 touches.

As for the line, it allowed one sack Sunday and has now given up just six in the past six games.

Roethlisberger has been a big part of that, getting rid of the ball quickly,  but even when he doesn't, he's not getting hit.

@ With Jarvis Jones out with the flu, Chris Carter and Stevenson Sylvester rotated at right outside linebacker.

Sylvester had a sack negated by offsetting penalties and Carter drew a holding penalty with a good burst off the line that the Steelers declined when Polamalu forced a fumble. That was an OK performance by those two, neither of whom could have really expected to play until about 9 a.m. Sunday.

@ All I'm going to say about the blocked field goal fiasco is this: If that play cannot be reviewed to see if Ryan Clark had possession of the ball, then replay should be scrapped entirely.

OK, I'll say two things. The other is this: Clark should know better than to attempt a lateral that deep in his own territory.

@ One thing I forgot about last night: Green Bay called timeout with 1:25 remaining. The Steelers then ran Bell on a draw and he scored with 1:25 remaining.

Either he's really fast, or the clock never started on that play.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Steelers-Packers gameday thread

The Steelers had to put Jarvis Jones on their inactive list today after he fell ill with the flu Saturday night at the team hotel.

With Jones down, Chris Carter will get his first start of the season at outside linebacker. The only other outside linebacker on the roster - Jammal Westerman - was signed this week when LaMarr Woodley was placed on injured reserve. Westerman is inactive  as well.

Lawrence Timmons and Stevenson Sylvester would presumably be the backups at outside linebacker.

It is cold and snowy here in Green Bay. There was a pretty steady wind early on, but that seems to have died down a bit.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Who I like, Green Bay version

OK, we now know that Aaron Rodgers isn't going to play this week for the Packers.

That's a substantial thing because as well as Matt Flynn played last week at Dallas, it was, after all, Dallas, which would have issues stopping some major college football teams.

Flynn had four touchdown passes against the Cowboys after a horrible first half that saw the Packers fall behind 26-3.

And even with that game, in four games for the Packers, he has six touchdowns and three interceptions. Green Bay might run the same plays with Flynn as they do Rodgers, but it's not the same offense.

Snow, however, will be a factor. Green Bay is expected to get hit with three to six inches of snow Saturday night into Sunday.

That will favor the team that runs the ball better. The Packers have an edge there with Eddie Lacy, but it's not as big an advantage as you might think.

Though the Packers average 4.6 yards per carry this season, they also allow 4.6 yards per rushing attempt. In fact, defensively, the Packers stink. They allow 12.6 yards per catch - and 26 touchdown passes - as well. Those numbers are 4.2 and 11.5 for the Steelers and everyone is talking about how bad their defense is this season.

Green Bay's never been a defensive stalwart but the one thing the Packers always used to have was players in the secondary who took the ball away. They don't do that any longer, either. The Packers have just nine interceptions this season. That's one more than the Steelers, but it's still not good.

Without Rodgers to help compensate for that shoddy defense, the Steelers should win this game.

The snow won't affect their short passing game all that much and Le'Veon Bell should have some success running the ball against a soft defensive front.

The Steelers are 2 1/2-point underdogs, but I expect them to win this one, 23-17.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Thursday news, notes

Players who did not want to face the Packers on Sunday with temperatures in single digits might get their wish. The forecast for Sunday has been changed from frigidly cold to the possibility of a snowstorm with 3 to 6 inches of accumulation.

The Packers have already sent out a notice for 650 people at $10 per hour to clear the snow from Lambeau Field.

What could be better than Lambeau Field in December in the snow?

@ Green Bay head coach Mike McCarthy continues to play games with the issue of his starting quarterback.

Thursday, Matt Flynn took all the snaps with the first team in the portion the media is allowed to watch.

But McCarthy said after practice that Aaron Rodgers looked "sharp and ready to go."

Rodgers has still not received medical clearance to play, though McCarthy said he will announce the starter Friday.

@ Interesting sight following the Steelers' practice on Thursday: Jason Worilds talking at length with Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert.

They might have been exchanging holiday blessings, but the conversation lasted several minutes.

@ Brett Keisel was back at practice today and admitted he was really trying to get back onto the field because these next two games could be the last of his career.

Keisel has missed three of the past four games with a foot injury.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Packers subterfuge

The Steelers began preparations for this weekend's game against Green Bay with the idea that Matt Flynn will be the quarterback they face.

That could change, of course, depending on the availability of quarterback Aaron Rodgers.

The Packers are playing things close to the vest at this point. The media in Green Bay is only permitted to see the team stretch portion of practice, which means that Rodgers could, in fact, be taking all of the first-team snaps.

But the report out there now is that he's working with the second team and Matt Flynn is taking all of the first team snaps.

What the Packers run offensively doesn't change because of the quarterback. But the Packers are certainly more effective offensively with Rodgers running the show.

We'll know more about the situation Friday when the Packers have to make some kind of designation with Rodgers, who is dealing with spiral fracture in his clavicle.

At this point, it's been six weeks since he was injured.

@ Rookie linebacker Terence Garvin was fined $25,000 by the NFL for hitting Cincinnati punter Kevin Huber high with a block last Sunday, with his helmet coming under on Huber's facemask.

Huber suffered a broken jaw and cracked a vertebrae due to the hit.

It's illegal for punters and kickers to be hit in the head at any time, hence the fine. If that's the case - and it is - they should have a different colored uniform or helmet to let would-be blockers know they are off limits.

At the speed the game is played at, it's impossible to identify a kicker with bodies flying everywhere. And spare me the "poor little punter" stuff. Huber is 6-1, 200 pounds, hardly a little guy. Half the guys on the field for kickoffs and punts are defensive backs and wide receivers, most of who are the same size or smaller than Huber.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Steelers place Woodley on IR

The Steelers on Tuesday placed linebacker LaMarr Woodley on injured reserve with a calf injury, his second calf injury in the past month and a half - to different legs.

The move, in effect, will end Woodley's career with the Steelers. Expect him to be released with a designation for the move to be made after June 1.

They will move forward with Jason Worilds at left outside linebacker and do whatever they need to keep Worilds, a free agent at season's end, in Pittsburgh.

The Steelers basically gave everyone a look at what direction they were leaning with that decision a couple of weeks ago when Woodley returned from his first calf injury and they kept Worilds at left outside linebacker instead of simply putting Woodley back at his old spot. Woodley was rotated with rookie Jarvis Jones at right outside linebacker, with that also being the plan last Sunday against Cincinnati.

Woodley lasted just two plays against the Bengals before injuring his calf attempting to bat down a pass.

The Steelers are about $7 million over the 2014 cap with 41 players signed, including Woodley, who accounts for $13.5 million of that number. By releasing him post June 1, they can push $8.6 million of his cap hit into 2015.

Woodley's 57 career sacks rank seventh on the Steelers' all-time list, but he has just nine sacks in his last 26 games, including five this season, after suffering a hamstring injury in Week 8 of the 2011 season. He had 44 sacks in his previous 56 games prior to the hamstring injury.

To replace Woodley on the roster, the Steelers signed fifth-year linebacker Jamaal Westerman, who was released Dec. 10 by Buffalo.

@ Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said he expects defensive end Brett Keisel to return from a foot injury this week against Green Bay. Keisel has missed three of the past four games.

@ Tomlin expects rookie linebacker Terence Garvin to be fined by the NFL for his hit on Cincinnati punter Kevin Huber. Tomlin said he liked the position Garvin put himself into to deliver the block to Huber but that the execution was not what the Steelers teach.

Huber suffered a fractured jaw and cracked vertebrae when Garvin's helmet caught the bottom of his facemask on the block. NFL rules prohibit any hits to the head or neck are on kickers at all times.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Post Cincinnati thoughts, Part II

The Bengals, as it turns out, aren't quite ready for prime time.

The fans might not have showed up for this game, just over 45,000, but the Steelers sure did.

Say what you want about getting the young guys in the game or tanking to get a better draft position, but, at least to this coaching staff and these players, these games still matter, regardless of the team's slim playoff hopes.

It matters to Ben Roethlisberger that he's never had a losing season in any sport.

It matters to the Steelers that they're unbeaten at home in division games and have a chance to finish this season with the best divisional record in the AFC North.

It matters to the veterans on this team that they show the young guys that you don't quit, you don't give up on a season, regardless of the odds.

That's why these guys are still playing hard. They might not always win, but the effort is going to be there.

@ Terence Garvin. Enough said.

@ OK, a little more about Garvin, whose hit on Bengals punter Kevin Huber was the last big block needed on Antonio Brown's punt return for a touchdown.

Garvin went undrafted. Then, when everybody went out and signed rookies following the draft, nobody called the former safety turned linebacker out of WVU.

But the Steelers had a rookie tryout just before their first mini-camp, mostly for local players and invited Garvin.

He impressed the team enough with his speed and coverage ability that they kept him around. Then, he beat the odds and beat out a number of more proven players to earn a spot on the team as a special teams guy.

The Steelers have used him at times when they've played a nickel defense, as they did Sunday night against the Bengals.

You think there's going to be any quit in that guy?

@ The Steelers passed on Eddie Lacy to take Le'veon Bell as their potential feature back.

Seems like a bad miss at this point, right?

Not so fast. Bell now has 1,034 yards from scrimmage and six touchdowns in 11 games. Lacy has 1,264 yards and eight scores in 13 games.

That's 94 yards per game for Bell and 97.2 for Lacy.

Is Lacy the better pure runner? Sure. But Bell's contributions in the passing game, both receiving and blocking, can't be overlooked.

It's not the knockout in favor of Lacy that some might think.

@ I continue to see Tweets and hear questions about Todd Haley's offense.

The Steelers have now scored 20 or more points in seven consecutive games. That's the first time that has happened since they opened the 2007 season scoring 20 or more in nine straight games.

Roethlisberger likes this offense, which is giving him more control than ever, ala. Peyton Manning. It's what he's always wanted.

And Bell fits what they do perfectly, though I'd still like to see him do a better job closing things out late in games. But the Steelers were able to use Jonathan Dwyer to do that on their final drive Sunday night.

Kelvin Beachum looks like he could be the answer at left tackle. And the Steelers can decide whether they want to continue with Marcus Gilbert or Mike Adams at right tackle.

A big receiver, and there are a lot of good ones in this year's draft, would really be the icing on the cake, helping with the red zone issues.

@ The Bengals, for some reason, decided to just rush two on Roethlisberger's only touchdown pass of this game.

Why in the world would you give the world's best playground football player five-plus seconds to run around and look for somebody to get open?

@ The Steelers are still alive in the playoff hunt.

Basically, what needs to happen is for the final wildcard spot to come down to a group of 8-8 teams and the Jets be one of those clubs.

It's a longshot, to be sure, but it's still a shot.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Steelers-Bengals gameday

It's a chilly night at Heinz Field, but there's little wind on the field. Should be a decent night for throwing the football.

Steve McLendon and Brett Keisel are down for the Steelers. Terence Newman is the big  inactive for Cincinnati.

The Steelers' fading playoff hopes took a big hit today with Miami's win against New England. The Dolphins have games remaining at Buffalo and against the Jets. If they win one of those, they eliminate the Steelers - even if Pittsburgh wins out.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Who I like, Cincinnati part II

Pride is a funny thing. Have too much of it and it can be a detriment. But just the right amount of pride is considered a positive attribute.

Over the final three weeks of the 2013 season, we’ll see where the Steelers fall on the pride scale.

The past two seasons have been a direct shot to the pride of the Steelers, particularly for players who have been with the team for several seasons and been a big part of Super Bowl runs.

It is because of that pride, both among the players and the organization, that the Steelers won’t “tank” their final three games as many fans want them to do in order to get a better draft pick.

Players and coaches don’t think that way. They don’t go into any game expecting to lose. If they did, they wouldn’t have made it to the highest level of their respective sport.

As former New York Jets coach Herm Edwards once famously said, “You play to win the game.”

Many have also suggested the Steelers use the final three games to take a look at young players. But other than safety Shamarko Thomas and wide receiver Markus Wheaton, the team’s “young guys” are already playing.

Which brings us to today’s game against Cincinnati. The Bengals, at 9-4, lead the AFC North by two games over Baltimore and have an outside shot at getting a bye in the first round of the playoffs.

The Steelers would love nothing more to damage those hopes.

And if you think division opponents damaging one another’s playoff hopes don’t matter, look no farther than San Diego’s win in Denver Thursday night as an example. The Chargers, like the Steelers, are a long shot to make the playoffs, but they went into Mile High Stadium and held the high-scoring Broncos to a season-low 20 points.

This will not be a cakewalk for the Bengals, who are 6-0 at home, but 3-4 on the road, in large part to quarterback Andy Dalton’s struggles away from Paul Brown Stadium. Dalton has thrown 16 interceptions this season, 14 of which have come in road games.

There’s also this, AFC North teams are 1-9 in road games against other AFC North teams, with the only victory being Pittsburgh’s win at Cleveland Nov. 24.

Cincinnati is a three-point favorite to sweep the Steelers for the first time since 2009, but that won’t matter.

Take the Steelers to pull out a 24-23 victory

@ As an aside, I picked Cincinnati in the first meeting between the two teams.

@ The Steelers on Saturday signed defensive end Brian Arnfelt from their practice squad and released linebacker Kion Wilson.

The activation of Arnfelt tells me that the Steelers don't expect Brett Keisel, who has already been declared out, or Steve McLendon to play Sunday.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Thursday news, notes

Defensive end Brett Keisel, nose tackle Steve McLendon and Troy Polamalu all sat out practice on Thursday, a troubling trend for a Steelers defense getting ready to face the Cincinnati Bengals.

It  would appear that Keisel will definitely not play again this week with his foot injury, while McLendon and Polamalu were out Thursday after being limited on Wednesday.

@ Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said Thursday he's been really pleased with the way that Cam Heyward and Jason Worilds have emerged.

The more I hear and the more I see, I believe the Steelers will make a big push to re-sign Worilds.

The salary cap is expected to go up - there are conflicting reports - to $126 to $127 million. That would be an increase of a few million dollars, something helpful to the Steelers.

The more I hear, the more I think the Steelers might try to keep both Worilds and LaMarr Woodley to play along with Jarvis Jones. As we've seen over the past few years, the Steelers typically need three outside linebackers.

And there's nothing to gain from releasing Woodley after this season. It would actually cost the team about $500,000 more against its salary cap.

Woodley could be asked to take a pay cut, but I don't think releasing him will be an option. There's too much dead money involved.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Wednesday news, notes

Center Cody Wallace, caught on camera grabbing the crotch of Miami defensive lineman Randy Starks from behind while in a scrum following a Ben Roethlisberger fumble on Sunday claimed the incident was an accident.

Wallace said he was reaching for the football when he put his hands between Starks' legs. And when he realized that the ball - at least not that one - wasn't there, he stopped.

"I was reaching under there and when I realized I couldn't reach it, I pulled my hand out," Wallace said. "It's unfortunate that it looked like it did."

Wallace, who was making his first career start, said he's taken quite a bit of ribbing from his teammates.

"Yeah, definitely," Wallace said.

Starks is, as well.

 "They are getting on me `Check the prostate' and stuff like that," Starks said. "I'm hearing it."

Wallace also drew a personal foul in the fourth quarter for blasting a Miami defender following a run by Roethlisberger. He would not speculate on whether he'll be fined for one or or both of the incidents, but the bet here is yes.

Offensive tackle Kelvin Beachum (knee), wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery (shoulder) and guard David DeCastro (foot) were full participants in practice Wednesday.

Defensive end Brett Keisel (foot), offensive tackle Marcus Gilbert (ankle), defensive end Ziggy Hood (ankle), nose tackle Steve McLendon (ankle) and safety Troy Polamalu (shoulder) were limited.

@ Rookie linebacker Jarvis Jones said today that he's learned a lot in his rookie season, mostly that he needs to get bigger and stronger.

Jones said rushing against Miami's Bryant McKinnie on Sunday - whom he called the biggest human being he's ever seen - was like trying to play against Shaquille O'Neal.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Tuesday with Tomlin

Mike Tomlin in his opening statement said the Steelers are going to play to win and not experiment with their lineup. But that didn't mean he didn't have to answer a number of questions about possible lineup changes for Sunday night's game against Cincinnati.

To be clear. The Steelers have never made changes just "to get a look at a guy," at the end of the season. If they didn't play starters in the regular-season finale, etc., it was because they were resting starters for a playoff game or because the starter was injured. That's the way it was under both Bill Cowher and Chuck Noll. That's the way it will be under Tomlin.

For those who think the Steelers should, say, start Landry Jones at quarterback over Ben Roethlisberger to "see what they have," there's this:

"I am continually evaluating young talent in the midst of doing the things we desire to do, which is prepare and win this week," said Tomlin. "It's not like it's a one or the other proposition. The evaluation of young talent is not only within stadiums, it's also within this building in terms of some of the things they do on the practice field. That's forever. It's always ongoing. I really think it's kind of naive and not realistic to assume that you either do one of the other."

@ The Steelers appear to be pretty healthy going into Sunday's game with Cincinnati.

Brett Keisel and Kelvin Beachum will be limited early in the week, but could return by week's end to play.

And Tomlin said LaMarr Woodley, who was limited Sunday because he hadn't played in nearly a month, should be a full go this week.

It will be interested to see what the Steelers will do at outside linebacker. The guess here is that they use a lot of the hybrid package they've drawn up to have Woodley, Jason Worilds and Jarvis Jones on the field in sub packages. Cincinnati uses enough three receiver sets to justify that option.

Mike Adams also played well at left tackle last week, but I think the Steelers will go back to Beachum if he's healthy.

@ Ray Graham was released off the practice squad so that the Steelers could sign defensive end Hall Davis.

Davis, a fifth-round pick of St. Louis in 2010, has spent time with five NFL teams.

Sunday, December 08, 2013

Post-Miami thoughts

I've been cautious in calling it a season for the Steelers, but this latest loss certain did it.

And the worst thing is that they probably should have won this one on a play that would have been right up there as the greatest of all-time.

If Antonio Brown hadn't inexplicably caught the edge of the sideline as he readied to run into the end zone for what would have been the game-winning touchdown with no time remaining.

Brown is a fabulous player and the Steelers' best playmaker.

But he blew it on that one.

@ The Steelers allowed two 40-plus-yard runs Sunday and have now given up five of them this season. Not surprisingly, they are 0-4 when they give up a 40-plus-yard run.

@ If I'm Kevin Colbert, and thank goodness for Steelers fans that I'm not, I'm taking the best defensive playmakers available on the first two days of the draft.

Mike Adams played a solid game at left tackle Sunday, and the Steelers have been pleased with the play of Kelvin Beachum. There's no way I'd spend a pick on anyone who doesn't run a sub 4.8 40 unless he's a 6-5, 290-pound defensive lineman. Or a nose tackle.

@ And no, there's no way the Steelers can afford to allow Jason Worilds to walk.

There really isn't a comparison between Worilds and Keenan Lewis. Lewis made some plays last season, but nothing nearly as impactful as the way Worilds has played. Lewis is also 27 this season, while Worilds is 25 and would play an entire 4-year contract extension under the age of 30.

The Steelers might have tipped their hand with what they're planning with Worilds when they kept him at left outside linebacker and moved LaMarr Woodley to the other side.

@ Some might question Mike Tomlin's decision to go for it on fourth-and-10 from his own 10 with just over two minutes to play, but what did he have to lose?

If the Steelers got the first down, great. If not, he had a pretty good idea the Dolphins were going to play things conservative and run the ball three times because they wouldn't want to stop the clock.

A field goal kept it within two scores and nearly set the table for a fabulous finish.

As for his decision to not call a timeout before the two-minute warning, that cost all of eight seconds, which, at the end of the day, didn't matter.

@ If there was one braintrust decision I do have to question, it was the lack of use of Le'Veon Bell after the first quarter. Bell had eight carries for 32 yards on Pittsburgh's first touchdown drive.

He got seven carries after that. In fact, the Steelers ran the ball nine times on that first touchdown drive, but just 12 more times after that. And one of those was an 8-yard run by Ben Roethlisberger on fourth-and-10.

Before you start killing Todd Haley on that, realize that the Steelers were running a lot of no-huddle in the second half, which means Roethlisberger was making many of those calls.

Bell looks like a younger version of Matt Forte and it should be the goal to get him 25 touches every game, with 20 or so carries and five or so receptions.

@ I don't have a problem with Tomlin putting a guy back deep on a long field goal attempt at the end of the first half. But I don't know if I would have put Troy Polamalu back there.

If you're going to do that, why not put Brown back there. I realize that guy is also responsible for playing safety if it's a fake, but Brown would have given the Steelers the best chance to score there.

And he probably wouldn't have lateraled the ball to Steve McLendon.

@ Speaking of Polamalu, his interception and touchdown will be a career highlight lost in the malaise of a loss and a bad season for the team.

Steelers-Dolphins game day thread

Kelvin Beachum and Brett Keisel are among the Steelers inactives today. With Beachum down, Mike Adams will make the start at left tackle for the Steelers.

Also down are Landry Jones, Derek Moye, Isaiah Green, Kion Wilson and David Snow.

It's snowy and cold at Heinz Field, with worse weather coming judging from what they're getting in Cincinnati.

As I noted earlier, Miami QB Ryan Tannehill said this week that he's never played a game in the snow.

Friday, December 06, 2013

Who I like, Miami version

The Steelers have a banged up offensive line heading into the game with Miami.

David DeCastro will be back at right guard after injuring his foot last week against Baltimore, but center Fernando Velasco and left tackle Kelvin Beachum are out.

That means Cody Wallace will get his first career start at center, while Mike Adams will be at left tackle for the first time since being pulled after week four.

Against a Miami defensive front that has 37 sacks, that could be tough.

The Dolphins have also given up just one touchdown pass to an opposing wide receiver this season, though Miami has allowed seven scores to opposing tight ends.

The Steelers, meanwhile, should have some success getting after Miami quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who has been sacked 45 times this season.

The Steelers have been getting good production out of Jason Worilds in the past month and should get LaMarr Woodley back this week, at least on a limited basis.

Tannehill also has never played a game in the snow before, which should be interesting considering the snow that hit the area Friday night.

The Steelers are 3-point favorites in this game and actually need it worse than Miami - who also needs it pretty badly.

I'm picking the Steelers to win, 24-16.

@ The Steelers on Saturday activated tight end Matt Spaeth from the injured reserve/designated to return list and released tight end Richard Gordon.

It's an important move for the team, which will have Mike Adams at LT Sunday. Adams had been used as an extra blocker in three tight ends packages. Spaeth graded out as one of the top blocking tight ends in the NFL in 2012.

Thursday, December 05, 2013

Mid-week news, notes

Steelers rookie running back Le'Veon Bell has been cleared by doctors to return to action Sunday against Miami.

Bell went through full practices on both Wednesday and Thursday and has had no ill effects from the concussion he suffered last Thursday night in Baltimore.

Bell said the initial hit at the goal line wasn't the main cause of the concussion. After that blow, his helmet came off and his head bounced off the turf. Bell said he believes that was the blow that was the serious one.

@ This is just a feeling on my part, but if LaMarr Woodley plays on Sunday, which is a possibility after he was a full participant in practice Thursday, he could line up quite a bit on the right side of the defense, allowing Jason Worilds to continue on the left side.

@ Cornerback Ike Taylor called Miami's receiving  group the best the Steelers have faced to this point.

Some might scoff at that, but the numbers say Taylor might be right.

Brian Hartline has 62 receptions for 804 yards and three scores. Mike Wallace is at 56-743-3. Tight end Charles Clay has 53 catches for 581 yards and four scores.

The Dolphins have five players with at least 30 receptions and seven different players have scored touchdowns.

Young quarterback Ryan Tannehill is spreading the ball around in Miami's West Coast offense, though Hartline, Wallace and Clay are the main cogs.

Because of that, I look for the Steelers to play the Dolphins straight up, with Taylor staying on the right side and William Gay playing at left corner. The Steelers could also use Cortez Allen a lot on the outside and move Gay inside to cover Clay.

It will be an interesting chess match.

@ An interesting note: The Dolphins have given up one TD pass to a wide receiver all season. But they have also given up eight to opposing tight ends.

Could be a big game for Heath Miller.

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

League hands down Tomlin punishment

Mike Tomlin was fined $100,000 by the NFL on Wednesday with the league leaving open the possibility that some draft picks could also be in play in the future.

The fine was handed out for Tomlin's sideline fiasco in Baltimore that has been replayed to death on the NFL Network and ESPN for the past six days.

For his part, Tomlin apologized again in a statement released on the team web site, adding: "I accept the penalty that I received. I will no longer address this issue as I am preparing for an important game this Sunday against the Miami Dolphins.

Good for Tomlin.

He addressed the situation at length on Tuesday at his press conference. There was really nothing  more to say on the subject.

As for the possible loss of draft picks, I believe the league is leaving that open just in case another film of the incident surfaces or more evidence comes out that proves some kind of intent on Tomlin's part.

I believe it was an honest mistake for which a fine was deserved. The fine was in line with what other head coaches received for past incidents - Mike Tice was fined $100,000 for scalping tickets - though I do believe it could have been more.

@ Some questions were asked on a previous post about Tomlin saying he didn't read the NFL memo that was reportedly released last Wednesday.

Some questioned how that could happen.

The biggest issue is that we don't know what time the reported memo was released.

The day before a road game, the Steelers hold team meetings early in the morning, then a walk through before heading to the airport for a 2:30 p.m. flight.

Once they arrive at the team hotel, they have further team meetings and meetings with the TV network commentators who will be calling the game. Tomlin also has to tape a coaches show for the team radio network sometime in that time period - something that's usually done Friday during a normal week but is done Wednesday in a condensed week such as it was.

Doesn't leave a lot of free time to read memos that come out the day before you play.

@ Brett Keisel was in a walking boot today. He's already been declared as out against Miami. But this appears is if it could be something that could keep him out even longer.

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Tuesday with Tomlin

Mike Tomlin basically had a double press conference today, spending 25 minutes talking about the sideline fiasco in the Ravens game and 10 minutes talking about upcoming events.

Tomlin was contrite when talking about what happened along the sideline in Baltimore, stating that he was embarrassed over his "blunder," a word he used at least 10 times when describing the event.

Tomlin said he had spoken with league officials, including Roger Goodell and Ray Anderson, who will be in charge of policing the event and meting out any penalties, and they told him they had looked at past games to see if where Tomlin was standing was out of character.

It was not. Tomlin normally stands around the 40 where the ball is kicked off. And this video (brought to us by blogger Ryan Wilson) shows that Tomlin never really turns to watch the kickoff, watching the entire play unfold on the JumboTron:

@ As for the game against the Dolphins, Tomlin called left tackle Kelvin Beachum and right guard David DeCastro both questionable. Beachum has a knee injury, while DeCastro is dealing with a left foot sprain.

Brett Keisel is out with his foot injury, while LaMarr Woodley and Steve McLendon both could be back.

Tomlin was also optimistic about running back Le'Veon Bell, although Bell must pass a number of concussion tests this week and that can be a day-to-day thing.

@ With Woodley coming back, Tomlin acknowledged that Jason Worilds has played well on the left side and that moving Woodley to the right side could be in play.

@ The Steelers signed center/guard David Snow, who appeared in five games, making two starts, last season in Buffalo, to replace Rashad Butler on their roster.

Butler was signed Saturday, but left the team Monday for personal reasons. The Steelers received a roster exemption for Butler.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Bell OK but Steelers lose Velasco

Much of the focus following the Steelers' 22-20 loss Thursday night at Baltimore was on the health of running back Le'Veon Bell, who took a vicious hit at the goal line that left him with a concussion.

But the real injury was to center Fernando Velasco.

Bell is going to be OK, though he must now pass concussion protocol.

But Velasco was placed on injured reserve Saturday with an Achilles' tendon injury.

That's a big blow. Velasco had played well in 11 games in place of Maurkice Pouncey and had been a stabilizing factor.

He hadn't been the team's best lineman - that distinction goes to David DeCastro, but he's been close.

DeCastro (foot), left tackle Kelvin Beachum (knee) and tackle Mike Adams (ankle) were also injured against the Ravens, though none was as serious as Velasco, who was in a walking boot following the game.

With all of that in mind, the Steelers released cornerback DeMarcus Van Dyke and signed offensive tackle Rashad Butler and center Eric Olsen.

Butler, who has appeared in 50 career games and made four starts, gives them some depth. Olsen, who has appeared in 17 games and made four starts, gives them another option at center.

Currently, Cody Wallace is the backup, but he's appeared in just 14 career games with no starting experience.

The Steelers could also shift left guard Ramon Foster to center and play Guy Whimper at left guard. They could also move Beachum to center and put Adams at left tackle.

It will be interesting to see which direction they go.

On a side note, Velasco's injury could help the Steelers in the long-term. He was only signed to a one-year deal and will be a free agent at the end of the season.

Since he'll be rehabbing with their doctors, they'll have a better idea of his progress than any other team. And other teams might balk at giving him a new contract without some knowledge of his rehab process.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Post-Ravens thoughts part II

The NFL has been playing games on Thanksgiving for a long time, but Thursday night's game between the Ravens and Steelers just might have been one of the best ever played.

It was that great of a game.

Even Steelers fans, who are no doubt disappointed, have to admit it was an enjoyable viewing.

@ Both Emmanuel Sanders and Ben Roethlisberger took the blame for the failed two-point conversion play, but that would not have been as easy catch - not with Chykie Brown face guarding Sanders.

Sorry, but that should have been a penalty.

@ Many will focus on that failed conversion as the reason for this loss. But there were plenty of other reasons that were far more important.

How about the special teams coverage unit, which has been solid all season, giving up a 73-yard return following Sanders' touchdown catch that cut the lead to 13-7?

When your head coach comes the closest to tackling the return man before he's finally dragged down, that's not a good thing.

And then there was the botched field goal attempt.

The defense has to shoulder some blame as well. The Steelers forced one punt. Two other Baltimore possessions ended with the clock running out at the end of the halves.

The other six possessions were finished off with the Ravens scoring - one touchdown and five field goals.

To be fair, though, the Ravens had just two drives in the game that were over 50 yards. They had field goal drives of 48, 31, 52, 37 and 36 yards thanks to good field position.

Baltimore had just two possessions that started inside its own 20. It didn't score on either one.

The Steelers had six of eight possessions start inside their own 21.

@ Jason Worilds had more tackles (10), sacks (2) and QB hits (3) than Baltimore's Terrell Suggs (0 sacks, 1 tackle, 1 hit) and Elvis Dumervil (3-0-0) had combined.

@ As badly as the Steelers would have liked to have won this game, it doesn't kill their playoff hopes.

The Ravens get the Vikings at home next, then have road games at Detroit and Cincinnati sandwiched around a home game against New England. Can you say 1-3? They'll go 2-2 at best.

The schedule for the other 5-6 teams aren't much easier.

The Steelers have three home games, including one against the Bengals, who are much better at home than one the road, and a road game at Green Bay.

The Ravens needed this game at lot more than the Steelers, who should be able to finish out 3-1 at worst, especially if they continue to protect Roethlisberger.

He's now been sacked just once in the past three games.

@ A number of fans went after Sanders on Twitter, with those telling him he stinks being the nicest.

There were also some downright nasty tweets thrown his way.

What kind of life do you have if you think it's your mission in life to tweet a player to rip him?

Seems a bit silly and childish. Then again, I get similar tweets all the time. Come to think of it, that might be more sad.

@ Count me among the people who buy Mike Tomlin's explanation for being on the edge of the field for Jones' kickoff return.

Tomlin was clearly watching the return when Jones was fielding the kick in the end zone. Not that you'll see that on ESPN or the NFL Network. They need to drive some ratings with the latest controversy.

That said, Tomlin will be hearing from the league office and will likely face a fine.

@ Le'Veon Bell has had his two best games this season against the Ravens.

The concussion Bell suffered at the end of this game was one of the worst I've seen in 20-plus years of covering the NFL.

@ It's now 6 a.m. and I've got to get to bed and digest this one a little more.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Happy Thanksgiving from Baltimore thread

Happy Thanksgiving from Baltimore.

The weather here is chilly but there's very little wind.

Landry Jones, Derek Moye, DeMarcus Van Dyke, Richard Gordon, Stevenson Sylvester, LaMarr Woodley and Steve McLendon are inactive for the Steelers.

Al Woods will start at nose tackle, while Jarvis Jones will be at outside linebacker for the Steelers.

There are no notable inactives for the Ravens.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Who I like, Baltimore version Part II

Coming down to Baltimore today, I couldn't help but think about how much this trip was like the  Steelers' visit to New York last year to face the defending Super Bowl champion Giants.

Because of the storms that ripped the New York/New Jersey area last November, the Steelers were unable to get in for the game until that morning. They met in their hotel after the short flight and headed off to the stadium, where they beat the Giants, 24-20.

It's much like the scenario this year, only the storm that has rolled through is the NFL.

The Steelers are the first team to have to play on the road on Sunday, then have to turn around and travel for a Thursday night road game four days later. And they're playing the defending Super Bowl champions to boot.

Baltimore is a three-point favorite in this game and the Ravens have only given up three touchdowns at home all season. Of course, they've also played the Jets, Browns and Texans in three of their five home games, so maybe it's understandable.

The winner of this game is going to be in good shape in the AFC playoff race, where six teams currently are vying for the sixth and final playoff spot, tied at 5-6.

And if the Steelers win this game, they could be in solid position to make a run at winning the AFC North. Current division leader Cincinnati (7-4) comes to Pittsburgh in two weeks, and with a victory Thursday, the Steelers would guarantee themselves a non-losing record in the AFC North, along with a regular season split with the Bengals.

I've looked at this game a hundred different ways and keep coming back to this: The Steelers are 10-5 against the Ravens with Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback. Included in that record is a 7-2 record against the Ravens when Joe Flacco is Baltimore's quarterback.

Linebacker LaMarr Woodley won't play, but Brett Keisel will be back for the Steelers.

Remember, too, that rookie Le'Veon Bell had his best game - 19 carries for 93 yards - against these same Ravens at Heinz Field.

I like the Steelers to pull out a close one, 16-13

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Mid-week news, notes

Brett Keisel was a full participant in practice Tuesday as the Steelers held their final practices for Thursday night's game at Baltimore. Linebacker LaMarr Woodley, however, was only a partial participant.

The guess here is that Keisel will play - at least sparingly - as the Steelers try to nurse him back from a painful plantar fasciitis injury, while Woodley will sit out again and come back against Miami Dec. 8.

The Steelers are thin on the defensive line with Steve McLendon out and need as many of their defensive linemen ready to go as possible.

But remember this, McLendon played just 17 snaps in the first meeting with the Ravens, a 19-16 Pittsburgh win, as the Steelers played a lot of their sub-package against Baltimore's three wide receiver sets.

@ Speaking of the sub packages, Will Allen told me today that he will stay in as the third safety for the time being in place of rookie Shamarko Thomas.

Thomas is returning from an ankle injury and had 22 tackles in the Steelers' first nine games.

Allen has made 12 tackles, an interception, forced one fumble and recovered another in two games in Thomas' absence.

Can't argue with the move. You have to play the hot hand.

@ The key to Sunday's game could be rookie running back Le'Veon Bell for the Steelers.

Bell had his best rushing game of the season against the Ravens, running for 93 yards on 19 carries earlier this season.

Bell has averaged 88.9 total yards per game in his eight starts this season.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Post-Cleveland thoughts

I took a good amount of heat here for much of this season for sticking with my original assessment that the Steelers weren't a bad football team.

I continue to stick by that assessment.

Are they a great team? Nope. But there also aren't many of those around in today's NFL.

Are they a good team? They might be as close to what passes for good in today's NFL, where there are about four or five very good teams and then everybody else.

The Steelers have now won five of their past seven heading to Baltimore Thursday night.

If they can make that six out of eight, they will make the playoffs. In fact, with three home games remaining after playing Baltimore, the Steelers might just push Cincinnati hard for the division title.

@ The NFL schedule makers didn't do the Steelers any favors. With the league adding Thursday night games every week this season - except in Weeks 16 and 17 - there are 17 Thursday night games this season, including three this week.

The Steelers are the only team among the 17 visiting teams in those games who will be playing back-to-back road games.

@ I wonder if people still think Jason Worilds is a bust?

That word is thrown around way too much in today's NFL.

Limas Sweed was a bust. Worilds, even if he signs somewhere else after this season, is most certainly not.

He can play some football.

I am continually asked if I think the Steelers will re-sign Worilds after this season. Will they re-sign him? That I don't know given their cap situation.

Should they re-sign him? Given LaMarr Woodley's recent injury history and the fact that you always need three solid outside linebackers, absolutely.

The Steelers didn't want to simply hand Jarvis Jones a starting job this season. And I just can't see them wanting to hand him a job with no competition next year either.

Sunday's game marked the 17th start of Worilds' career. He has 14 career sacks.

He didn't have a sack Sunday, but might have had one of the biggest impacts of any Steelers defender getting six hurries.

@ William Gay's touchdown on an interception return was the first return for a score of any kind for the Steelers this season.

Yet Pittsburgh is averaging 25.25 points per game since Week 4. That is the week Le'Veon Bell returned to the lineup.

Somehow, though, people still want to complain about offensive coordinator Todd Haley, or at least want to downplay his contributions.


@ The Steelers have now allowed just one sack in their past two games. Against Detroit, which only had 15 sacks entering last week's game, at home, that wasn't a big deal. But at Cleveland, which had 31 sacks entering Sunday's game, not giving up a sack was huge.

So was Bell rushing for 43 yards on 10 carries in the first half. The Steelers had to establish some kind of running game on this cold, windy day.

@ Every time I see something written about the possibility of the Steelers cutting Troy Polamalu after this season, I just laugh.

He finds a way to make an impact in nearly every game.

Polamalu has had one bad game this season - at New England. But as I sit here watching Denver blow a 24-0 halftime lead at New England, I can't help but come to the realization that the Patriots do that to a lot of future Hall of Famers.

Doesn't mean they are done. Just means they had a bad game.

Steelers-Browns gameday thread

It's a chilly, windy day here in Cleveland, though the wind on the field doesn't appear to be as stiff as it was outside the stadium.

LaMarr Woodley and Brett Keisel are both out for the Steelers. They are joined on the inactive list by Landry Jones, Derek Moye, Shamarko Thomas, Richard Gordon and Stevenson Sylvester.

Starting inside linebacker Craig Robertson is inactive for the Browns.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Who I like, Cleveland version part I

The Steelers and Browns both find themselves on the cusp of being in the middle of they playoff race with both teams holding 4-6 records heading into Sunday's game.

Only the two teams appear to be heading in different directions.

After an 0-4 start, the Steelers have won four of their past six to get to 4-6. The Browns, meanwhile, started 3-2, but have lost four of five since.

The Steelers will likely be without linebacker LaMarr Woodley and defensive end Brett Keisel again for this one after both sat out - along with guard Ramon Foster - in last week's win over Detroit.

Woodley and Keisel were both limited in practice Friday, so there's a chance both could play, but with a short week coming up with a game against Baltimore next Thursday, the Steelers might be better off allowing both to sit on Sunday with an eye on returning against the Ravens.

Not that either game is less important than the other.

The Steelers need wins in these two games to stay alive in the AFC playoff race. A loss in either would be a killer since it would not only be a division loss, but one within the conference as well.

The Steelers are currently 3-4 in the conference with five conference games remaining. If they win their five remaining conference games, they'll make the playoffs. A loss in one of those games, even coupled with a win at Green Bay, would make things tough.

But know this, no AFC North team has won a divisional game on the road this season. Even Cleveland is 2-0 at home after beating both Cincinnati and Baltimore.

But the Browns have also never beaten the Steelers and Ravens in the same season. And the Steelers are 23-5 against Cleveland since the Browns returned to the NFL in 1999, with Tim Couch owning three of those wins. And he hasn't quarterbacked the Browns in 10 years.

The Browns did earn a split with the Steelers in 2012, thanks to an eight-turnover game by Pittsburgh in Cleveland last season. And even with the eight turnovers, the Browns only won that game, 20-14.

Add in the fact that Ben Roethlisberger owns a 15-1 record in games started against Cleveland, and you can see why this is the first time the Browns have been favored in a game against the Steelers since 2003, the year before Roethlisberger arrived.

The line opened with the Steelers getting two points, but that has since dropped to one. I expect by the time the game starts, it will be a pick 'em game or the Steelers might even be favored by a point.

Either way, I'm taking Pittsburgh to win, 20-13.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Good news/bad news day for Steelers

The good news for the Steelers today was that tight end Matt Spaeth, who has been out since training camp after suffering a lis franc injury, returned to practice on Thursday for the first time.

The Steelers now have 21 days from Thursday to decide whether to activate Spaeth, who was placed on injured reserve with a return designation, or place him on season-ending IR.

The bad news was that, after practicing Wednesday, LaMarr Woodley sat out today. Brett Keisel also sat out for the second day in a row and it appears that neither might be ready to play against the Browns.

Guard Ramon Foster, however, did return.

@ When asked about whether he thought Cleveland cornerback Joe Haden would shadow him all over the field this weekend, Steelers receiver Antonio Brown said, "Hopefully."

Brown should be careful what he asks for. Haden held A.J. Green to two catches for 7 yards last week and earlier this season limited Calvin Johnson to three receptions for 25 yards.

Here's the complete story: Brown hopes for Haden

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Mid-week news and notes

Ben Roethlisberger said Wednesday that he'll do whatever he has to do to stay in Pittsburgh. That will likely head off the next big rumor that the NFL Network was working on in regards to Roethlisberger, who has two years remaining on his current contract.

"I would do whatever I needed to do, but that's something that can be discussed when the time comes," said Roethlisberger. "That's not really my thing. I play football. I have people that deal with all of that stuff. I'll do whatever it takes to stay here and to be a part of this team and help this team out."

@ Brett Keisel and Shamarko Thomas were the only Steelers to miss practice Wednesday.

Keisel's foot was a little worse than the Steelers had hoped. He could be out again this week.

@ Emmanuel Sanders said his foot got stepped on last week and twisted it a little, which is why he sat out the remainder of the game.

But everything checked out OK and Sanders fully participated in practice Wednesday.

@ Jason Worilds had some interesting things to say to me today about the comparisons between him and Dallas linebacker Sean Lee.

Here's what Worilds had to say:

Worilds calls comparisons to Lee foolish

@ The NFL announced the 25 semifinalists for the Hall of Fame Wednesday night. They include former Steelers running back Jerome Bettis and linebacker Kevin Greene.

Bettis has a very good shot at making this year, though former Denver running back Terrell Davis will also get a push.

If I were voting - and unlike the voting for the baseball hall of fame, all of the member of the Pro Football Writers of America don't get to vote - I would back Bettis, Derrick Brooks, Marvin Harrison, Jimmy Johnson and George Young.

Claude Humphrey will probably make it as a veterans' committee nominee, but I don't see Ray Guy getting in. He wasn't even the best punter of his era.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Tuesday with Tomlin

It appears that LaMarr Woodley, Brett Keisel and Ramon Foster could be back for the Steelers this week against the Browns.

All three missed last week's win over Detroit. 

Woodley is the most likely to return this week from his calf strain.

Keisel is fighting  through a foot injury that was a little worse than the team thought. He didn't practice at all last week and might not do so this week until Friday.

Same goes for Ramon Foster, who is dealing with a mild high-ankle sprain.

The Steelers are also optimistic about wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders' foot. He checked out OK after leaving  Sunday's game.

Sanders and the Steelers are always concerned when he has any kind of foot pain.He's had surgery on both feet since joining the team in 2010.

Shamarko Thomas and Stevenson Sylvester were the only players Tomlin said were doubtful to play.

@ While much of the focus the past two days has been on the effectiveness of the no-huddle, which the Steelers ran 50 percent of the time Sunday, Ben Roethlisberger's numbers weren't really any different in the no-huddle as opposed to when the Steelers huddled.

Here's what I wrote about it today.

I was as surprised as anyone when I broke everything down. It seemed the no-huddle was much more effective. But the reality was different.

Ben Roethlisberger had a good game no matter what the Steelers did offensively.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Post-Detroit thoughts

This was the kind of win we've been waiting  for out of these Steelers in 2013. Backs against the wall - as it has been the past month-and-a-half, working against a team that looked superior on paper, the Steelers came out and dominated the second half.

Did I write dominated? Yep.

Even if Jim Schwartz doesn't inexplicably try a fake field goal and fail, the Lions were having issues stopping the Steelers from driving the length of the field. The Steelers went through a little bit of a lull at times. But so did the Lions early in the third quarter.

And when they did drive to the Pittsburgh 10, Schwartz knew he couldn't settle for a field goal. He saw that his defense was having issues stopping the Steelers and that Matthew Stafford was starting to see more pressure thanks mostly to Jason Worilds.

Worilds had four QB hits and a sack subbing on the left side for LaMarr Woodley.

Jarvis Jones had a couple of passes batted down at the line of scrimmage in the second half as well.

It all added up to a second half in which Stafford, who was 16 of 30 for 327 and two touchdowns in the first half, most of which came in an impressive second quarter, saw those numbers change considerably in the second half.

Stafford was just 3 of 16 for 35 and one interception after the intermission.

The Steelers defensive backs insist they didn't change anything in the second half, they only did a better job of disguising what they were doing pre-snap.

Ike Taylor was still matched up on Calvin Johnson for the most part, but didn't allow a single reception.

There was one little nugget from Ryan Clark, however, on how things changed. According to Clark, the Lions dipped into their playbook to try to run some of the same plays in the second half that had worked in the first half.

You know what they say, "fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me."

@ Ben Roethlisberger threw four touchdown passes in this one, but could have had six or seven. In fact, he probably should have had that many.

Le'Veon Bell, Heath Miller and Antonio Brown had drops in the end zone - though the Steelers did score their go-ahead TD after Brown's drop.

Roethlisberger also overthrew a wide open David Paulson in the back of the end zone before the Steelers kicked another field goal.

The Steelers scored 37 points, yet still only rushed for 40 yards. They also left another 12 points on the field with the dropped passes and overthrow.

@ Only five teams in the AFC currently have winning records.

The Steelers, at 4-6, are currently one game out of the sixth and final wildcard spot and play many of the teams they are tied with or chasing down the stretch.

And when you look at the race for that final spot, the Steelers might be playing the best football right now, having  won four of six.

The others? The 5-5 Jets and Dolphins, and 4-6 Browns, Ravens and Chargers.

One of those six teams is going to be in the playoffs. The bet here is that it's the Steelers, who have home games remaining against Cleveland, Miami and Cincinnati, and road games at Baltimore, Green Bay and Cleveland this week.

Wins in five of those games will all-but guarantee a playoff spot. Wins in four of them, with the right combination, could also get the Steelers in at 8-8.

They already hold a tiebreaker over the Jets, who can't win two games in a row, and one win over Baltimore.

And it says here that if the Steelers find a way to get in, they'll be a dangerous out. To get to 9-7, they would have had to have strung together a 9-3 finish after their 0-4 start.

In fact, I'll got out on a limb and predict that the two wildcards this season will win in the first round of the AFC playoffs over Indianapolis and Cincinnati, both of which are likely to win their divisions.

The only way that changes is if the Steelers somehow overcome the Bengals to win the division, which is also a possibility. The Bengals are winning some games right now in spite of themselves. Andy Dalton has really taken a step backward as a quarterback.

Roethlisberger is starting to heat up and I liked offensive coordinator Todd Haley's decision to allow the team to use the hurry-up today as its main offensive package.

I also liked how the Steelers kept trying to score once they got the ball back with just over three minutes to play up 30-27.

The safe thing to do would have been to try to run the ball three times, force Detroit to use up its timeouts, and kick a field goal.

Instead, the Steelers put the Lions away.

@ The Steelers should give serious consideration to keeping Jason Worilds at the end of this season and playing him at outside linebacker with LaMarr Woodley, with Jarvis Jones sliding to the inside.

Jones is a natural in zone coverage over  the middle and could really be a force in the middle teamed with Lawrence Timmons on blitzes.

@ The Steelers are now averaging 24.8 points per game over their past seven games. That coincides with having both Heath Miller and Le'Veon Bell in the starting lineup.

That total, over the course of the season, would rank the Steelers 12th in scoring in the league right now. That's not great, but it's also not bad.