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Friday, October 31, 2014

Who I like, Baltimore part II

This, as usual, should be another interesting chapter in the Steelers-Ravens rivalry.

There are many reasons why, but here's the big one for me.

The loser of this game will likely find itself in last place in the ultra-competitive AFC North.

Cleveland hosts Tampa Bay Sunday, a game the Browns will likely win to get to 5-3, while Cincinnati hosts Jacksonville with a move to 5-2-1 likely.

The loser of the game between the Steelers (5-3) and Ravens (5-3) will fall to 5-4.

If it's the Ravens, it could be a big fall for a team that was alone in first place just two weeks ago. I don't know if a team has ever gone from first to last in the matter of two weeks this late in a season.

More importantly, the loser of this game can likely count itself out of the race for the division title.

Both Pittsburgh and Baltimore currently find themselves with two losses in AFC North games this season.

The Steelers have split with Cleveland and lost at Baltimore for a 1-2 record. Baltimore, meanwhile, owns victories over Cleveland and Pittsburgh, but was swept by Cincinnati.

It's highly unlikely that a team with three losses in the division will win the division, though it's not impossible.

But at 5-4 with three losses in the division, it will be very tough.

Sunday's game will mark Baltimore's fourth on the road in its past five games. The Steelers had a similar stretch earlier this season. The final road game of that stretch was at Cleveland, and we all know how that worked out.

The Steelers looked like a tired team in that 31-10 loss to the Browns and looked to be dead in the water.

So for all of the talk, coming out of Baltimore this week about how the Ravens are "comfortable" playing at Heinz Field, I think that's just the head coach and some key players trying to convince themselves it's true.

I don't know how comfortable a tired Baltimore team will be in front of what promises to be a rowdy night crowd on the night Joe Greene's jersey is being retired.

And then there's this: Since 2005, the Steelers have been underdogs at home eight times previously, including last week against Indianapolis. Their record in those games is now 6-1-1 against the spread and 5-2 straight up.

Baltimore is a two-point favorite in this game, but I'll take the home team, 27-24

Thursday, October 30, 2014

ESPN gets to bottom of Podlesh story

When punter Adam Podlesh didn't report for training camp at the end of July, we were told it was because he was staying in Jacksonville to be with his wife for the birth of their second child.

What happened after that is every husband's nightmare.

After a week or so, I was told privately that Podlesh's wife had experienced a "very difficult pregnancy." The punter wouldn't be reporting to the Steelers anytime soon.

Little did we know exactly what that "difficult" pregnancy entailed.

ESPN did a story with the Podlesh family that can be seen here:

Some people, including posters on this board, questioned why Podlesh wasn't reporting. Those people should feel about 1-inch tall after reading this story.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Wednesday news, notes

The Steelers looked to be in pretty good shape from an injury standpoint on Wednesday.

Marcus Gilbert, Steve McLendon and Shamarko Thomas were all back at practice. Gilbert and McLendon were back at their usual spots in the starting lineup.

An interesting exchange took place when head coach Mike Tomlin walked through the locker room following practice.

Tomlin yelled over to Mike Adams as he walked by him, telling him to keep "his arrow pointed up," and not to let his lack of a defined role get him down.

It was almost as if he was giving the offensive tackle a pat on the back - as he also did on Tuesday at his press conference - while telling him he was headed to the bench.

Part of being a coach is knowing which guys need a kick in the butt and which ones need a softer touch.

Adams seems like a softer touch kind of guy judging by the way he moped through training camp when he wasn't given a chance to win a starting job.

@ The Steelers have gone with a receiver-by-committee approach in the past two games instead and it's working pretty well.

While Antonio Brown has done his usual damage, catching 19 passes for 222 yards and two touchdowns, Markus Wheaton, Lance Moore, Martavis Bryant and Darrius Heyward-Bey have combined to catch 18 balls for 257 yards and four touchdowns.

@ Upon further review, James Harrison was given his sack back on Wednesday.

Harrison lost a sack he should have had on Sunday when Troy Polamalu came in and knocked the ball free from Andrew Luck's hand as the quarterback was being dropped from behind by Harrison.

Because of the forced fumble, the stats crew gave the sack to Polamalu, even though it was obvious Harrison had made first contact and was in the process of taking Luck to the ground.

That was corrected Wednesday and it gave Harrison his 15th two-sack game as a member of the Steelers. Only LaMarr Woodley and Jason Gildon had more.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Tuesday with Tomlin

Mike Tomlin had some high praise for a lot of guys this week as the Steelers come off their 51-34 win over Indianapolis.

But, just because Tomlin doled out praise to Mike Adams, doesn't mean Adams is keeping the starting right tackle job.

Marcus Gilbert will return this week after sitting out against the Colts with a concussion. And he'll move back into the starting lineup, with Adams, whom Tomlin said played a very solid game, will go back to the bench.

I don't have a problem with that. Gilbert has played well this season after a slow start. But for Adams, playing well in his start was a big step.

@ Tomlin said he still has faith in Cortez Allen at cornerback and Allen will have a chance to compete for a spot to play again this week against the Colts.

With Allen right now, the issue is confidence. He's been in position to make plays. He's just not making them.

Tomlin said he's directed Ike Taylor, who went through similar struggles early in his career, to speak with Allen.

I would expect Allen to sit this week, at least to allow him a week to watch and get his mind right.

Allen is a really, really nice guy. Everything he says is answered with yes sir or no sir.

And maybe he's just too nice right now. He needs to play with more of an edge.

@ Steve McLendon is expected to be back at nose tackle this week. Just in time for the Ravens.

Shamarko Thomas also will be back after sitting the past two games with a hamstring injury. His replacement, Ross Ventrone, will be out this week with a hamstring injury.

@ Ike Taylor is still probably at least another week away from coming  back. But he's getting closer.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Post-Colts thoughts

Boy, I'd hate to be working an Indianapols Colts message board right now. I'd detest having to answer questions about how the defense stinks, the team played down to an inferior opponent and the coaching staff doesn't know what the heck it's doing and didn't have the team prepared.

I've been there and done that.

Instead, this week, we can talk about an offense that has now scored 81 points in its past two games, a defense that beat the bejeezus out of Andrew Luck and a coaching staff that came up with a great game plan and has been pushing the right buttons.

All of those things tie together.

The coaching staff has been force-feeding things to rookie receiver Martavis Bryant. Two weeks ago in practice, the Steelers attempted deep pass after deep pass to Bryant in preparation for the game against Houston.

Last week, it was working him on slants, outs and screens.

Who knows what this week will bring. Bryant is still make a mistake here or there, but his presence on the field sure does open things up for others.

Bryant had five receptions for 83 yards and two scores on Sunday, making him the first rookie to catch TDs in back-to-back games since Emmanuel Sanders in 2010, and the first to have a multiple TD game since Mike Wallace in 2009.

Did the coaching staff wait too long to play the rookie? Maybe.

But right now, it seems like they did it at just the right time.

That's seven receptions for 123 yards and three scores in the past two games.

As for the defense, it seemingly hit Andrew Luck every other time he dropped back to pass - though they did allow the Colts some big plays in the passing game.

The reason for that was because the Pittsburgh corners were jamming the Colts receivers hard at the line of scrimmage to knock them off their timing routes and the short stuff they like to run.

That was resulting in some pressure. But when the Steelers didn't get there, Luck was good enough to make them pay. Ben Roethlisberger and company were just better on this day.

Again, that was a solid coaching move.

Finally, head coach Mike Tomlin, who made the decision to get Bryant into the lineup, seems to be making some other correct moves with his lineup as well.

Sunday, it was taking rookie Dri Archer off the kick returns and then benching Cortez Allen after he allowed a third-quarter touchdown pass.

Archer and Allen both seem to be dealing with the same issue - a lack of confidence.

Allen, in particular, is in position most of the time to make a play on the ball. He's just not doing it right now.

But both he and Archer are and will be in the team's plans.

Remember, all of those people who were saying Mike Adams would never amount to anything have been proven wrong as well.

@ Speaking of Adams, how about the way he and the rest of the offensive line kept Roethlisberger clean in this one?

The Steelers dominated the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball.

@ I've seen all but one of every game Ben Roethlisberger has played as a pro live and in person.

He played the best game of his career Sunday.

Playing against other top-notch quarterbacks seems to bring the best out in Pittsburgh's quarterback.

Perhaps that's the reason for the Steelers' inexplicable losses at times to "inferior" teams.

Roethlisberger won't need much convincing that next Sunday's game against Baltimore is a big one.

@ Food for thought: Roethlisberger reached 100 career wins in 150 career starts. Only Terry Bradshaw, Joe Montana and Tom Brady have also done that.

That's pretty good company to keep.

@ Roethlisberger is now 18-1 at home in his career in the month of October. Who knows why that's the case, but it's certainly a trend worth noting.

So, too, is this one. The Steelers are now 6-1-1 against the spread as home underdogs since 2005. And they've now won five of those games outright.

@ At the midway point of the season:

Antonio Brown is on pace for 120 receptions, 1,700 yards and 14 TDs.

Le'Veon Bell is on pace for just under 1,400 yards rushing to go along with 84 receptions for another 800 or so yards.

Roethlisberger is on pace for 4,700 passing yards with 32 TDs and just 6 interceptions.

Most importantly, the Steelers are on pace to go 10-6.

Yes, this is still a team that has lost to Tampa Bay - and Cleveland, though Cleveland is going to win six or seven games this season, so there's no shame in that.

But it also owns a win over Cleveland, Carolina, Houston and now Indianapolis. That's two division leaders - Carolina and Indianapolis - and two teams that don't have losing records.

Still remaining on the schedule are games against just three teams that are at .500 or better, including two with Cincinnati.

The other four games are against the Jets, Titans, Saints and Falcons.

Those are all very winnable games. Steal one or two of the others, and this turns into a very nice season.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Steelers-Colts thread

As expected Marcus Gilbert is out today for the Steelers. Mike Adams will start in his place.

That will leave Pittsburgh with no reserve offensive tackles.

Cam Thomas will start at nose tackle in place of Steve McLendon, who is also out again, while Brett Keisel gets the start at defensive end.

Also down are Justin Brown, Ike Taylor, Shamarko thomas, B.W. Webb and Landry Jones.

Trent Richardson is active for the Colts, but Ahmad Bradshaw will start at running back. Richardson missed all week in practice with a hamstring injury.

Hakeem Nicks will start at WR in place of Reggie Wayne, who is out, while Ricky Jean Francois gets the nod over Arthur Jones at DT. Jones is healthy.

The weather here is perfect, sunny with a light breeze.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Who I like, Indianapolis version

First of all, there are plenty of key players who will be out of this game.

For the Steelers, nose tackle Steve McLendon is out once again, while right tackle Marcus Gilbert is doubtful with a concussion.

This is interesting because the Steelers don't have a backup offensive tackle on the roster and have only Alejandro Villanueva on the practice squad. I felt they would make a move to at least add a tackle to the practice squad during the week, but they didn't do that, either.

They could activate Villanueva from the practice squad to serve as a backup, but he has mostly played tight end in his time on other teams practice squads.

Center Maurkice Pouncey said he was the next option at tackle last week if something else had happened. As the team's most athletic lineman - though David DeCastro is close - that would make some sense, especially with Cody Wallace as the most experienced backup.

But there's no doubt the Steelers are thin up front.

On Indianapolis' side, Reggie Wayne is out with an elbow injury, while running back Trent Richardson is questionable with a hamstring injury. Richardson, the Colts' leading rusher, hasn't practiced all week, so it's highly questionable that he'll play.

While Ahmad Bradshaw has been more valuable than Richardson, he also has a tendency to get hurt. It will be interesting to see if the Colts are comfortable giving him 20-plus touches.

Now, on to the game itself . . .

This is an interesting matchup in that the Colts have a high-powered offense, but also one that turns the ball over at times. Andrew Luck has thrown 19 touchdown passes - 14 of which have gone to the backs and tight ends - but he also has thrown seven interceptions and lost two fumbles.

As a team, the Colts have turned it over 13 times as a team, which is nearly two times per game.

In contrast, the Steelers have turned the ball over eight times in seven games, while forcing nine. Considering it took the Steelers nearly a month to get their first turnover, the nine turnovers - bolstered by three last week - isn't bad.

The Colts have covered up for those turnovers by shutting down opposing offenses. They have allowed just four third down conversions in the past 41 attempts and are allowing just 26 percent to be converted this season.

The Steelers have been decent on third down this season, converting at a 40 percent clip and have two of the NFL's better third-down players in Antonio Brown and Le'Veon Bell.

With those two, particularly Bell, the Steelers should have some success.

The Steelers are three-point underdogs at home in this game, marking just the eighth time since 2005 that Pittsburgh has been an underdog at home.

In those games, the Steelers are 5-1-1 against the spread, with four wins outright.

Despite all of that, I'll take the Colts to win this one, 31-23

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Wednesday food for thought

The Steelers are going to have their hands full with the Colts on defense Sunday.

Not only has Indianapolis allowed just four third down conversions in 41 attempts in their past four games, they have 21 sacks.

Amazingly, the Colts have gotten those 21 sacks from 11 different guys. The Steelers have 10 sacks as a team.

@ Of Indianapolis' 19 touchdown passes this season, 14 have gone to the running backs and tight ends.

That doesn't bode well for the Steelers.

Though Pittsburgh has allowed just 10 touchdown passes this season, six of those have gone to opposing running backs and tight ends.

@ Marcus Gilbert, Steve McClendon and Ryan Shazier did not practice for the Steelers on Wednesday, but they did have a surprise partial participant in cornerback Ike Taylor.

Taylor, out the past four weeks with a broken forearm, was able to go through some position drills and did some running today.

A timetable hasn't been set yet for his return, but he's getting close.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Tuesday with Tomlin

Mike Tomlin didn't have a lot to say at his weekly press conference Tuesday, less than 12 hours after his team defeated Houston, 30-23, Monday night to improve to 4-3.

But he did say that he expects both linebacker Ryan Shazier and safety Shamarko Thomas to return this week from injuries.

Shazier has missed the past four games with a knee injury, while Thomas has been out a couple of weeks with a hamstring issue.

Getting Shazier back for Sunday's game against Indianapolis will be a big boost.

The Colts throw more to their receivers and tight ends than perhaps any team in the NFL, especially near the goal line. Tight ends and running backs account for 14 of the Colts' 19 touchdown passes this season and 17 of the team's 25 total touchdowns for the season.

Shazier's speed and explosiveness could be a factor in helping defend those kind of plays.

@ On his weekly radio bit with a local station, Ben Roethlisberger said that it was Tomlin who called the end around option pass by Antonio Brown that resulted in a 3-yard touchdown pass from Brown to Lance Moore.

I'm told that was not the case, and Tomlin brushed off questions about who made the call to run that particular play, saying only that he takes responsibility for all of the play calls.

It seems silly, but A. That's a play that the Steelers work on all the time because it's one of their core 2-point conversion plays. And B. Offensive coordinator Todd Haley made the play call.

Some have taken issue with the Steelers calling that play at that time.

But this was a team that had been struggling in the red zone. Why not put the ball in the hands of your best playmaker - who was a high school quarterback, by the way - and let him make a play?

Brown is smart enough that he knows to throw the ball away or tuck it and run in that situation if nothing is there.

Sometimes, Roethlisberger baffles me with the things that he says and why he says them.

@ Tomlin said he felt that Brown's touchdown catch in the fourth quarter should not have been overturned.

The play was originally ruled a catch and there didn't seem to be enough to overturn the play. In fact, Brown later tweeted a photo that showed some separation between his feet and the sideline.

A photo by Pittsburgh Tribune-Review photographer Chaz Palla also showed Brown had both feet in bounds cleanly with the ball in his possession.

But Brown stepped over the line when he tweeted the photo and also made a derogatory comment towards the officials.

He will likely draw a fine from the NFL for that.

Post-Houston thoughts

I've been doing this for a long time and have never seen a game turn so dramatically in such a short period of time.

The Steelers went from dead in the water to up 11 points at halftime before the Texans had time to realize what had happened.

Right after the Steelers kicked a field goal with just over three minutes remaining to cut the Texans' lead to 13-3, I tweeted that the best thing to happen at that point was that Houston was going to have to forego the run from its own 20 if it wanted to put more points on the board.

To that point, the Texans had rushed for 99 yards on 17 carries in the first half.

That's exactly what they did as Arian Foster was stopped for a two-yard gain on first down and the Texans attempted passes on second and third down, resulting in a sack and incompletion.

The Texans took just over a minute off the clock and punted the ball back to the Steelers.

Two plays later, Ben Roethlisberger connected with Martavis Bryant for his first career catch, a 35-yard touchdown. And just like that, the momentum had turned.

Momentum in football is funny. And unlike any other sport, it's tough to stop once it gets rolling.

In basketball, you can call a timeout to try to change the momentum. In baseball, you can change pitchers. But in football, it has a tendency to feed into itself.

We've seen that a couple of times already this season happen the other way for the Steelers, who have gotten overwhelmed by a wave of momentum in losses at Baltimore and last week at Cleveland.

This time around, however, it was the Steelers who were riding the wave and the Texans who were rolled over.

@ It was interesting to watch the Steelers make changes on defense and with their receivers like a hockey team doing line changes.

They rotated defensive linemen freely, alternating between a nickel and base defense regardless of what package Houston had on the field - attempting, it seemed, to dictate to the Texans what they would do on offense.

And the receiver pairings were interesting. Often times on third downs, the Steelers would take Lance Moore and Markus Wheaton off the field to bring in Bryant and Darrius Heyward-Bey.

Only Antonio Brown was a constant.

@ A week after being targeted 11 times at Cleveland and coming up with four receptions, Wheaton was targeted just two times and did not catch a pass.

@ Arian Foster rushed for 73 yards on seven first quarter carries. He had 29 yards on his next 13 attempts.

The defense, as a whole, played much better after that first quarter. In fact, 59 of Foster's yards came on five carries on the opening drive.

@ Bryant made an impact in his first game. The Steelers tried four deep passes to him, connecting on just the 35-yard touchdown pass.

But those deep balls helped free up Le'Veon Bell underneath. The Texans tried to cover Bell one-on-one with a linebacker and he made them pay to the tune of eight receptions for 88 yards.

@ That was a gutsy effort by the Steelers offensive line.

Right tackle Marcus Gilbert left in the second quarter with a concussion and Kelvin Beachum and Marquise Pouncey also suffered minor injuries later in the game only to return.

While linebacker Wesley "Ming the" Mercillus was active and made a couple of plays on Roethlisberger with a pair of sacks, J.J. Watt had just three tackles and a sack.

So much for putting Watt in the Hall of Fame by the end of the game, as announcer John Gruden, the king of overstatement, said early on.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Steelers-Texans game thread

The weather tonight in Pittbsurgh is perfect for the Steelers-Texans game, though there is a chance of rain later in the night.

Landry Jones, Justin Brown, Ike Taylor, Shamarko Thomas, Ryan Shazier, Chris Hubbard and Steve McLendon are down for the  Steelers.

Justin Brown takes a seat in order  to get Martavis Bryant on the field.

Jadeveon Clowney is down for the Texans.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Who I like, Houston version

The Steelers are an angry team after being beaten, 31-10, last week in Cleveland.

In the aftermath of that loss, they were called out first by they head coach in a team meeting for not being tough, mentally or physically, and soft by former head coach Bill Cowher and teammate Hines Ward on national television.

The moves by all three were meant to prod this team to play even harder, or, as James Harrison said, "If you don't want to be called soft, don't put soft on tape."

The Steelers won't put soft on tape this week against Houston on Monday night.

But this is a tough matchup for them, especially on defense. Houston does well - run the zone stretch - what Pittsburgh doesn't defend well.

A lot of the talk in this game has centered on how the Steelers will block Texans defensive end J.J. Watt. Look, Watt's good. He's scored three touchdowns this season, though one came while lining up as a tight end.

He's got 20 QB hits this season, but just four of Houston's 10 sacks.

Watt's presence hasn't helped the Texans be a great defense. He's a great player. The rest of the defense is truly awful, especially the secondary.

Pittsburgh's defense is 12th in the league in total yards against. Houston is 27th.

So the Texans have some issues of their own.

I think the Steelers offense will break out of its two-game slump and actually score some points at home. But after last week's game I just can't pick them to win, though it wouldn't surprise me if they came out and won for the 16th consecutive time at home on Monday night.

Pittsburgh is a 3-point favorite, but I'll take Houston to win, 27-24

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Thursday news, notes

Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau confirmed today that cornerback Brice McCain will start in the team's base defense Monday night against Houston.

This, of course, means that Cortez Allen has been bumped. But it does not mean he has been benched.

And there is a difference.

Allen will still play in the Steelers' nickel defense, which means he'll play at least 60 percent of the time against the Texans, so it's not a true benching.

Allen had a tough game last Sunday against the Browns, while McCain has been playing well. McCain also is quite familiar, if not with Houston's offense because of the new coaching staff, then at least with the players. He spent the previous five years covering them in practice.

So it makes sense for the Steelers to get McCain on the field as much as possible against the Texans.

But that certainly doesn't mean Allen is a bust or no longer in the Steelers plans.

In fact, he's hardly the first guy to be replaced, only to come back and be a solid starter. If he needs any help in that department, he need only walk over and ask Ike Taylor about it.

@ Rookie linebacker Ryan Shazier was limited today after being pretty active Wednesday in practice. He also appeared to shed the knee brace that he practiced with on Wednesday.

@ Todd Haley said today that rookie Martavis Bryant will get some opportunities this week. Of course that has to come at the expense of someone.

The guess here is that Justin Brown is going to lose some PT. The Steelers finally seem settled in on using Lance Moore more often, so Bryant will likely take some of Brown's snaps - if, in fact, Brown is even active.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Wednesday news, notes

Steelers linebacker James Harrison had some interesting takes on his team being called out not only by Bill Cowher and Hines Ward, but head coach Mike Tomlin as well.

Here's what Harrison and others had to say about Tomlin saying the team wasn't tough enough mentally or physically:

@ Rookie linebacker Ryan Shazier was back at full speed at practice today for the Steelers after missing the past three games with a sprained knee.

Shazier said he saw some time with the starters while he was out there and that he felt pretty good.

@ Cornerback Brice McCain said he also worked with the starters at times Wednesday. But he slid back inside when the Steelers went to their nickel defense.

But, as McCain noted, "it was just the first day of practice."

That could certainly change. And even if McCain does play outside in the base defense, Allen would still see plenty of time in the nickel defense.

@ There were some other changes in the lineup, but due to practice reporting  requirements, I cannot report them without confirmation from the players.

It was, however, difficult to ascertain exactly what the Steelers were leaning toward at some positions since the team doesn't put out an injury report until Thursday - because it doesn't play until Monday - and Wednesday was a typical veteran's day off for a number of players, some of whom have actual injuries this week.

Suffice it to say, the Steelers are, indeed, turning over every rock to look at their options, as head coach Mike Tomlin said Tuesday.

@ I looked up the Steelers stats today running the ball in the red zone.

As a team, they have 19 red zone carries, not counting three Ben Roethlisberger knee downs. They have gained 57 yards on those attempts, an average of 3.0 yards per carry, well below their average of 4.9 yards per carry.

Opponents also are not blitzing the Steelers much this season, choosing instead to play coverage against quarterback Ben Roethlisberger,

Roethlisberger is 15-23 for 250 yards, one touchdown and one interception when blitzed this season. But 10 of those pass attempts came against Cleveland in the opener.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Tuesday with Tomlin

Mike Tomlin called out a number of players both in name and deed this week at his press conference.

The culprits were receivers Markus Wheaton, Justin Brown and Lance Moore, running back Le'Veon Bell, linebacker Jason Worilds and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

Some of the criticism from Tomlin was due to direct questions, as was the case with Worilds, whom Tomlin said has had "pockets" or games of good play. But Tomlin noted the Steelers are compensating  Worilds well to have consistently disruptive play and that's not happening right now.

As for the receivers and Bell, Tomlin said they could have done a better job of catching some passes that were either dropped or they didn't get their feet down along the sideline.

Tomlin said Roethlisberger played well, at times, but wasn't consistent.

The issue right now seems to be an offense that is just making a mistake here or there that is hurting the team.

For example, on Wheaton's third-down drop that led to the botched field goal attempt early in the second quarter, Wheaton ran his pattern two yards too deep.

That wouldn't seem like such a big deal, but Roethlisberger threw the pass when he expected Wheaton to turn and come back to the ball. Wheaton went deeper than expected, so the ball was on him when he turned, causing the drop.

@ Tomlin said the team will "turn over every stone" to look for answers to their current issues, whether that be lineup changes or changes in what they're doing.

Steve McLendon is out this week due to an injured shoulder, which will mean that rookie Daniel McCullers will be active for the first time this season.

More importantly, it means that the Steelers will have no choice but to play Stephon Tuitt more.

I don't think McCullers is the answer necessarily, especially against teams that run the zone stretch. He just doesn't move well enough - though if he doesn't take out his teammates on those plays, it will be an improvement over Cam Thomas.

Tomlin also said that rookie receiver Martavis Bryant could finally get a chance to see some action this week in an attempt to help the team's struggling red zone offense.

@ Rookie linebacker Ryan Shazier will see more practice time this week, but he's not necessarily ready to return. That will be a wait-and-see proposition.

Cam Heyward is OK, but Tomlin said that Brett Keisel and Mike Mitchell could be slowed by their injuries and would be considered questionable.

@ On his weekly radio show on which I am a co-host, wide receiver Antonio Brown said that Tomlin told the team on Monday that it is not tough, either mentally or physically.

That was apparent in the second half of the game against Cleveland. The Steelers didn't look like a team with any fight in it.

Tomlin was basically challenging this team. We'll see how it responds.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Post-Cleveland thoughts, part II

The Steelers offense is continuing to put up yards and Le'Veon Bell and Antonio Brown are rolling up stats at a record pace.

But it's added up to just 10 offensive points in each of the past two weeks against a pair of defenses that, statistics tell us are at the bottom of the NFL.

It just doesn't add up.

Ben Roethlisberger isn't playing real well right now. Of that, there is no doubt.

But the Steelers should still have enough to score points against the likes of Jacksonville and Cleveland. And it's not happening.

The easy excuse is to blame offensive coordinator Todd Haley. But that's lazy.

Did Haley suddenly forget how to coach in the red zone, where the Steelers entered the game ranked 26th in the league in scoring?

After all, Pittsburgh ranked 12th in the league in red zone scoring in 2013 and 17th in 2012. Either would be a huge upgrade right now.

Perhaps the front office underestimated just how big of a loss Jerricho Cotchery and his 10 red zone touchdowns in 2013 would be missed.

Or perhaps, it's just a bad mix right now for the Steelers, who roll up plenty of yards, but can't seem to get out of their own way in the red zone.

@ Once again, the defense was doing a decent job Sunday against the run ... until it wasn't.

The defense seemed so intent on shutting down Cleveland's outside zone runs early in the game that it completely forgot about tight end Jordan Cameron.

At least defensive end Brett Keisel had the wherewithal to run Cameron down at the Pittsburgh 4 following a 42-yard completion.

Too bad both safeties didn't keep that in mind on Cleveland's next possession, when they gave Cortez Allen no help over the middle of the field on third-and-1 and Cameron caught a 51-yard TD pass.

@ On Cleveland's next possession, the Browns lost Pro Bowl center Alex Mack to a broken leg. Unlike the Steelers, who took an entire game in 2013 to recover from the loss of Maurkice Pouncey, the Browns finished off the drive in which Mack was likely lost for the season with the first of two Ben Tate touchdown runs.

@ Last week, it was three pass plays from the 4-yard line in a possession on which the Steelers didn't score.

This week, it was three runs from the 7 that had everyone, including me, wondering what the team was doing.

Then, Tate scored on a run from the 8 on the series in which Mack was injured. So there's that.

@ Brian Hoyer only completed 8 of 17 passes in this one. But they went for 217 yards.

That, coupled with a running game that produced 158 yards on 38 carries, was too much for this Pittsburgh defense, which got absolutely no help from the offense.

Neither unit had a strong game, but can't the offense answer just one score? One?

@ The real swing in this game came when the Steelers were unable execute a proper field goal snap.

Punter Brad Wing mishandled what should have been a 35-yard field goal. A handful of plays later, Cleveland, which had minus-8 yards to that point, scored to go ahead 7-3.

And the rout was on.

It's tough enough to win when you are kicking field goals instead of scoring touchdowns. It's even more difficult when you can't even execute a field goal properly.

@ Cam Heyward, Brett Keisel and Steve McLendon were all injured in this game, Heyward and Keisel with knee sprains and McLendon with a should injury.

Heyward was especially hot, yelling at offensive tackle Joe Thomas as he was helped off the field.

After the game, Heyward called Thomas' block on him, "cowardly."

Steelers-Browns game day thread

Greetings from Cleveland.

It's sunny, but chilly here at FirstEnergy Stadium. There does not appear to be much wind.

Inactive for the Steelers are Landry Jones, Shamarko Thomas, Daniel McCullers, Ike Taylor, Chris Hubbard, Martavis Bryant and Ryan Shazier.

Ross Ventrone, activated Saturday from the practice squad when Wes Johnson was released - he'll be added to the practice squad or re-signed Monday, is active today.

Both Joe Haden and Paul Kruger are active for the Browns. Terrence West, who rushed for 100 yards on 16 carries against the Steelers in the opener, is a healthy scratch.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Who I like, Cleveland Part II

I think the Steelers learned a valuable lesson last week in Jacksonville last week, that being they need to get the ball into the hands of their best playmakers if they want to put up big points.

Having Ben Roethlisberger complete passes to 11 different receivers is nice, but would you rather have the ball in the hands of Michael Palmer or Antonio Brown?

And therein was part of the problem for the Steelers last week in Jacksonville.

Entering the fourth quarter, Brown had four receptions. Running back Le'Veon Bell had touched the ball 13 times - 10 rushes and three receptions.

That pair is among the top five in the NFL in total yards per game. And yet they had combined for 16 touches.

Running back LeGarrette Blount had one fewer reception than Brown. And he and Dri Archer had combined for 12 touches, one fewer than Bell.

You have to get the ball into the hands of your best playmakers. But against the Jaguars, it seemed the Steelers got too cute. They figured Jacksonville's defense was so bad, they could get everyone involved and still put up points.

Instead, they faltered in the red zone - completely abandoning Bell - and had to throw a pass to Brown at the end of the game to get him his fifth reception.

Looking ahead at Cleveland this week, the Steelers will be reminded of what they did that worked well against the Browns in the opener.

Bell and Brown combined for over 200 yards of total offense in the first half as the Steelers took a 27-3 lead.

In the second half, they had just over 60 yards - all by Bell - and scrambled to score three points.

The Steelers will get the ball to their stars in this one.

Pittsburgh opened as a 2-point underdog and it has moved to 1 1/2 points. I expect it to be at 1 or even by game time.

Yes, the Browns pulled off a comeback from a 25-point deficit last week. But it was in Tennessee against a backup quarterback.

They won't face a backup this week. In fact, they will face a quarterback who has beaten them 18 times in 19 games.

I'll take the Steelers in this one, 27-24

Thursday, October 09, 2014

Which was the better kick?

While hosting the Antonio Brown show this past week, I asked him what kind of reception he expects in Cleveland this weekend after his accidental kick of Browns punter Spencer Lanning in their first meeting this season.

Brown replied that he expected the fans to give him the usual business he gets when he's there - plenty of boos and other kinds of heckling.

But it got me to thinking about other great athletes who have accidentally kicked an opponent.

Which one of these is more egregious to you:

or this

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Wednesday news and notes

It doesn't look good for rookie linebacker Ryan Shazier coming back this week.

Shazier was still in a leg brace today and missed practice. I can't imagine that he will have some kind of miracle recovery to be ready to play in Cleveland.

Next week . . . maybe.

@ Shamarko Thomas said he hopes to be ready to play this weekend. But that might be pushing things as well. But he looks much closer to playing than Shazier.

@ Mike Tomlin has begun giving safety Mike Mitchell Wednesdays off along with some other select veterans.

It's curious considering Mitchell hasn't been here long and, at 27, certainly isn't an aging veteran.

But Mitchell stands back behind the defense - 40 yards or so deep - along with Troy Polamalu, who gets every Wednesday off, and defensive backs coach Carnell Lake.

My best guess is that they are standing back there discussing what Polamalu and Lake see on a given play with Mitchell.

@ Second-year defensive end Nick Williams suffered a knee injury in practice today and had to be taken off on a cart. Williams, a seventh-round pick last season, was on the practice squad this season after missing all of last season with a knee injury.

@ Defensive lineman Phil Taylor had knee surgery today and will be out a few weeks for the Browns.

That's a big blow.

Taylor is Cleveland's best defensive lineman, particularly against the run.

Joe Haden also sat out practice for Cleveland with his hip injury. Even if he plays, he's going to be at less than 100 percent. For a defense that was already struggling, that's not good.

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Tuesday with Tomlin

Mike Tomlin said on Tuesday that he expects Ryan Shazier to do some running today after successfully doing to Monday in a pool. Shazier could practice in some fashion this week, but I don't look for him to play when the Steelers travel to Cleveland.

Tomlin was a little more upbeat about safety Shamarko Thomas' possibilities. Thomas suffered a hamstring injury at Jacksonville, but Tomlin said it wasn't as bad as originally thought.

Thomas could be held out early and get back to practice later in the week.

@ When asked about the decision to throw the ball to Antonio Brown at the end of Sunday's game to extend his 5 and 50 streak, Tomlin said he wanted to help a respected player extend a "significant" streak.

I don't know exactly about the whole significant part of that statement, but I also don't have a problem with the Steelers running a safe play at that point, either.

And actually, wouldn't that have been a good play for the Steelers to run on third-and-five the previous week against Tampa Bay at the end of the game?

As for critics of the play, Tomlin simply said he doesn't care what they think.

@ Tomlin said in retrospect, he wishes the Steelers would have run the ball more inside the Jacksonville 10.

On six plays run inside the 10, the Steelers threw on all six.

@ Tomlin expects the Browns to try to run their fast-paced hurry-up early in the game to test the Steelers and see if they have fixed their issues with that.

The Steelers feel like they have.

@ Tomlin said Lance Moore's penalty for delay of game in the third quarter Sunday came out of frustration.

It appeared to me that Moore was spiking the ball at the Steelers' sideline. If he was frustrated, it might be that he's still running behind Justin Brown, even though he's been healthy the past three weeks.

I understand that frustration on Moore's part. But he also has to know better than to draw that penalty.

Monday, October 06, 2014

Post Jaguars thoughts

The Steelers have basically played one complete game this season and yet are 3-2.

I'm sure fans won't be happy with Sunday's 17-9 victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars, but it was a win.

More importantly, it was a win in which the defense carried the team, something few thought possible, including me.

Yes, it was a rookie quarterback, who has a tendency to stare down one side of the field, but the Steelers slammed the run for the third consecutive game, giving up 56 yards rushing on 15 carries.

That's 161 yards rushing allowed in the last three games combined, or 30 yards less than the Steelers gave up to the Browns in the opener.

We'll see if the run defense is actually better or if it's just been a three-game mirage when the Steelers travel to Cleveland this week.

@ The Steelers ran six plays in first-and-goal-to-go situations against Jacksonville and Le'Veon Bell didn't touch the ball in any of them. LeGarrette Blount didn't either.

How in the world does that happen?

Sometimes coaches just out think themselves.

Perhaps the coaching staff took the Jaguars a little lightly. Bell got just 15 carries in this game, five of which came in the fourth quarter.

It was almost as if the Steelers wanted to give him a light load this week in a game in which they figured they'd put 30 points on the board with little trouble.

@ Jason Worilds was major force in this game, especially early on before Jacksonville finally started giving right tackle Austin Pasztor some help blocking him.

@ Lance Moore, I know you're frustrated by not playing more or getting more passes thrown your way when you do play, but spiking the ball at midfield?

That's not the way to get more playing time or passes.

@ The look on Mike Tomlin's face after the Steelers were offsides on back-to-back kickoffs was priceless.

What was even more priceless was watching him walk down to where Shaun Suisham was kicking off and watching very closely as the Steelers kicked off for a third time.

@ Cortez Allen has taken some heat for his play early on this season, but he's played very well the past two weeks.

And I'm not even talking about his interceptions - though those are nice.

Allen has been solid in coverage. Sometimes, the other team just wins.

Allen's interceptions in back-to-back games, by the way, make him the first Steelers defensive back since Troy Polamalu in 2010 to accomplish that feat. Polamalu did it twice that season.

@ Ben Roethlisberger seemed a little off in this one. I don't know if he was still feeling the effects of banging his wrist on Marcus Gilbert's helmet last week, but he missed some throws high in this game that he usually makes.

@ Yes, the Steelers ran a play at the end to allow Antonio Brown to keep his five-catch, 50-yard game streak going.

I don't have a problem with that. It was no different than the team throwing the ball in a situation a couple of years ago to make sure Hines Ward got his 1,000th catch.

Plus, Brown had a 17-yard catch in the third quarter negated by a penalty.

@ Brice McCain said following the game that he never saw Jacksonville quarterback Blake Bortles make the throw he did that McCain picked off and returned for a touchdown.

McCain, who played the Jaguars twice a year during his five seasons with Houston, said he recognized Jacksonville's audible and knew the Jaguars would be running a pick play. He went over top of the pick and when he turned, the ball was there.

Perhaps that's why McCain had such a good week of practice last week. He was very familiar with everything he was seeing in practice.

Sunday, October 05, 2014

Steelers-Jags game-day thread

Greetings from Jacksonville.

The weather here is perfect. Temps in the low 80s and plenty of sun.

Ramon Foster is currently on the field and warming up. He told me earlier this week that he expects to play in this game and that appears to be the case.

Down for Steelers are Martavis  Bryant, Daniel McCullers, Chris Hubbard, Wes Johnson, Ike Taylor, Ryan Shazier and Landry Jones.

Cecil Shorts and Marqise Lee are down today for the Jaguars, as is starting corner Dwayne Gratz. Wideout Ace Sanders, who was activated Saturday after being suspended for the first four games, is active today.

Friday, October 03, 2014

Who I like Jacksonville version

I had to laugh this week every time I heard someone make their pick for the Steelers' game Sunday at Jacksonville.

Suddenly, the Jacksonville Jaguars were being compared to something that resembled a good NFL team. They're not. They're not even a bad NFL team.

No, Jacksonville is a horrid NFL team.

Through four weeks, Jacksonville is allowing the most points in the NFL, 38 per game. That's more than a touchdown greater than the next closest team,

And only Oakland at 12.8 points per game averages fewer than Jacksonville's 14.5.

Think about that. Jacksonville's average margin of defeat is just over three touchdowns per game.

It gets better. The Steelers are 17-2 since 2004 against rookie quarterbacks. The only two games in which they've lost in that stretch were a pair of games not started by Ben Roethlisberger.

That means Roethlisberger has never lost a game in which the other team has started a rookie quarterback.

But wait, it gets better still. Not only will Jacksonville be starting a rookie quarterback in Blake Bortles, it will be starting two rookie receivers as well. That's a whole lot of inexperience at the skill positions.

It wouldn't be such a problem if the Jaguars had a running game. But they don't have that, either. Free agent pickup Toby Gerhart is averaging 2.6 yards per carry with 114 yards on 44 attempts.

After being torched on the ground in their first two games, the Steelers have given up 105 total rushing yards in the past two games. So don't expect Bortles to get much help there.

Finally, I expect the stadium to be filled to the brim with Steelers fans on Sunday. And unlike the crowds at Heinz Field, about 1/3 of whom leave after the third quarter is completed, the ones who make the trip to Jacksonville to see the Steelers - the only time many of them get that opportunity - will stay until the finish.

The Steelers are 6-point favorites in this game, and I've heard numerous people in Pittsburgh say they not only expect Jacksonville to cover, they expect the Jaguars to win outright. That's coming from the people who have been too lazy to actually look at how bad the Jags have been.

Are the Steelers a great team right now? Nope. They've got issues as they sort things out after losing three defensive starters two weeks ago in a win at Carolina.

But the offense has the two leading yardage gainers in the AFC in running back Le'Veon Bell and wide receiver Antonio Brown. And that should be more than enough to win easily in front of a pro-Pittsburgh crowd.

Take the Steelers, 34-17

Thursday, October 02, 2014

Late week news and notes

Rookie Martavis Bryant missed his second consecutive day of practice for the Steelers on Thursday due to an illness. Bryant hasn't been active yet this season, causing some to wonder about his progress.

But the No. 5 receiver spot - which is currently being handled by Darrius Heyward-Bey, is one that needs to perform a lot of special teams duties. That's not Bryant's strong point at this time.

He'll be down again this week.

More troubling was a hamstring issue that forced No. 2 receiver Markus Wheaton to be limited on Thursday. If Wheaton is unable to play, that bumps everyone else up a spot behind Antonio Brown.

@ This leads me to Justin Brown.

As regular readers of this blog know, I've been high on Brown since late last season when I noticed him making a lot of plays in practice.

He continued some of that into the offseason and won himself a spot on this team.

Once the regular season began, he was holding down the No. 3 receiver spot because A. the Steelers liked his blocking, and B. because Lance Moore was hurt.

But Moore has been back the past two weeks and has seen just 15 total snaps. Fourteen of those came last week against Tampa Bay, while Brown got 46 snaps.

Sorry, but that should be reversed.

I get the fact that the Steelers like Brown's blocking. That's fine.

But the position is called wide receiver, not wide blocker.

And then there is this. Brown was on the field for 27 passing plays last week and caught one pass for five yards, dropping a potential touchdown on third down - though the DB made a nice play on the ball.

Moore was on the field for nine passing plays and made a 12-yard catch on his only target.

Moore has to get increased playing time, though the injury to Wheaton could facilitate that.

@ Dick LeBeau's record against rookie quarterbacks since he returned to the Steelers in 2004 is 17-2. And Ben Roethlisberger didn't start either of the two games the Steelers lost during that stretch.

That means Roethlisberger is unbeaten against rookie QBs.