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

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Wednesday news, notes

Le'Veon Bell, who could barely walk on Monday, was not only walking on Wednesday, but he felt good enough to walk around and watch all two hours of the Steelers' practice.

While that's not exactly a sign that he's going to be ready to play this Saturday against Baltimore, it does bode well for his availability the following week at Denver should the Steelers get past the Ravens.

At this point, the Steelers are still preparing for Josh Harris to start and be backed up by Dri Archer and newly signed Ben Tate.

However, as head coach Mike Tomlin said Tuesday, that's what the team has to do. It knows what it can do with Bell at running back. The Steelers have had a full season to figure that out.

But if Bell can't go, they have to be prepared.

Bell, by the way, doesn't necessarily need to practice to be ready to play. It's going to come down to a pain tolerance issue since there his no structural damage in his knee.

There is a chance that the Steelers could come up with a limited package of plays for Bell.

@ Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor were both full participants in practice on Wednesday, but don't read too much into that.

Polamalu has gone through full practices in the past couple of weeks, only to be shut down again later. If he can practice Thursday and Friday, it's likely he could play against the Ravens.

Taylor, meanwhile, wasn't nearly as active as Polamalu. At this point, it's going to take an injury to another corner for Taylor to get playing time.

@ Some have suggested that the Steelers' defense is better with Will Allen at safety rather than Polamalu.

Polamalu isn't what he once was, but a playoff game against the Ravens is exactly the kind of stage where Polamalu has shone brightly in the past. Also, the weather could be a factor Saturday, meaning it could be a heavy run game.

Polamalu is still a very effective player in the box.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Steelers sign Tate

The Steelers brought in veteran running back Ben Tate Tuesday and signed him to a contract, releasing wide receiver Justin Brown.

Of course, that means that the Steelers are highly skeptical that Le'Veon Bell, whom I reported could barely walk on Monday, will play Saturday against the Baltimore Ravens.

But don't get too crazy with the idea of Tate riding in on a white horse to save the day for the Steelers.

Pittsburgh has just three practices and a walk through or two before Saturday's game. That wouldn't give him a ton of time to be ready.

Head coach Mike Tomlin said he does believe Tate can have a role, but said that Josh Harris is at the top of the depth chart. That will leave Dri Archer and Tate providing a backup options.

Tate will be working with his fourth team in the past 12 months. And he had 119 carries for 361 yards - a 3.0 yards per carry average - in stints with Cleveland and Minnesota this season.

@ For those who are dismissing the Steelers winning this game without Bell, realize that, in 2012, when Pittsburgh played the Ravens with Byron Leftwich at QB in one game and Charlie Batch in another - and Jonathan Dwyer was the team's leading rusher for the season with 623 yards, they lost, 13-10, to Baltimore in Pittsburgh and beat them, 23-20, on the road.

@ Mike Tomlin would not commit to Troy Polamalu returning to the lineup when he's healthy.

He's still not completely healthy at this point. He's dealing with a muscle pull in his lower leg.

But with Will Allen playing well - and Polamalu was not - the Steelers are in no hurry to bring him back.

It would be a shame if Saturday is the Steelers' final home game of the season. Polamalu will likely not be back next season, either by his choice or that of the team.

He's been a model pro throughout his career and is an iconic player. But Father Time catches up with us all.

@ The weather forecast isn't great for Saturday night, with temps in the 30s and rain expected. But, as we often see in Western Pa., the forecast isn't always right, especially during this time of year.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Post-Cincinnati thoughts Part II

There seemed to be a prevailing feeling in the Steelers locker room following this game that running back Le'Veon Bell will be OK and could possibly play in the team's playoff opener next Saturday at Heinz Field against the Ravens.

Bell was diagnosed with a hyperextended right knee and was walking fine on his own following the game. That's a good sign.

The Steelers also said there is no structural damage. It would be better for Pittsburgh if the game was being played on Sunday, since it would give Bell an extra day of healing.

But the schedule is what it is - and was announced prior to the injury - so we'll be on the Bell watch all week long.

(Editor's note): I just saw Bell at the Steelers' practice facility. He could barely walk.

@ The Steelers' DBs did a nice job on A.J. Green in this game, even though he finished with eight catches for 82 yards.

All three Cincinnati turnovers came on plays that were either intended for Green - both interceptions - or when the ball was stripped away from Green.

"We just didn't allow him to get behind us," said Steelers cornerback Brice McCain, who had both interceptions while covering Green, who had gone for over 200 yards in their previous meeting. "It wasn't anything he did the last time. We left him wide open on both plays. We didn't do that this time."

@ The Steelers didn't allow a passing play of more than 19 yards in this game.

@ Pittsburgh did allow Jeremy Hill to break off a 22-yard run early. And he had nearly 50 yards on Cincinnati's opening drive - most of it around right end. But the Steelers did a much better job on him the rest of the game, forcing Andy Dalton to beat them.

@ From what I've seen of Joe Flacco this season - and his play this season is the one that matters - he's having an Andy Dalton-type season.

@ Antonio Brown has three career punt returns for a touchdown. All three have come against the Bengals.

Did Marvin Lewis make him mad at some point?

@ The Steelers' much-maligned offensive line did not allow Ben Roethlisberger to be sacked again Sunday and allowed just 33 sacks this season.

That's not bad when you consider Roethlisberger - who finished tied with Drew Brees for the most passing yards in the NFL this season - attempted 608 passes.

It was also huge Sunday since Roethlisberger was fighting a stomach ailment that sent him to the locker room at least twice during this game to relieve himself. That could have been bad if he had taken a big hit at the wrong time.

@ That fake punt the Steelers ran has looked better in practice. Really, it has.

And they've basically run it every day since training camp.

Could have been a big moment there considering it didn't work, but Blake saved the day.

@ James Harrison said following the game that the AFC North championship "follows him."

Who was I to argue with him about what happened in 2012 when Baltimore won it?

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Steelers-Bengals game day thread

Greetings from Heinz Field.

It's a chilly night here but not too windy.

Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor are among the Steelers inactives, meaning Will Allen will start again at strong safety.

For Cincinnati, Terence Newman is inactive. Dre Kirkpatrick will start in his place.

The winner will get the No. 3 seed and host Baltimore. The loser goes to Indianapolis to face the Colts.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Who I like, Cincinnati version

There's plenty at stake when the Steelers host the Bengals Sunday night at Heinz Field, first and foremost, a home playoff game.

That's significant, at least for the Steelers, who are 14-3 all-time in a home game to open the playoffs.

It would also be significant because the winner of this game is likely the third seed heading into the first round of the playoffs, which means it would avoid a second-round matchup with New England.

Given the way Denver has played over the past month - in particular, Peyton Manning - there's no question you'd rather have to play the Broncos over the Patriots in round two and then take your chances against New England in the AFC Championship.

The Steelers and Bengals met just three weeks ago, with Pittsburgh coming away with a 42-21 victory. But that game was much closer than the final score indicated, as Cincinnati scored to go ahead 21-17 on the final play of the third quarter before all hell broke loose.

The Steelers ended that game with more than 500 yards of total offense and completely destroyed the Bengals in the fourth quarter, scoring 25 unanswered points.

Cincinnati, however, has rebounded to win its past two games in convincing fashion, shutting out Cleveland and then beating Denver at home on Monday night.

But star receiver A.J. Green suffered an injury to his arm in that game and though he barely practiced this week, he'll play in this game.

The Bengals have been dealing with a number of illnesses, though, including one that forced quarterback Andy Dalton to be sent home early on Wednesday.

Pittsburgh ran the ball very well against Cincinnati, churning out 193 yards, 185 of which came from Le'Veon Bell, with much of it coming on the same play, a counter to the left that basically wiped out that entire side of the Bengals defense.

That has been the only 100-yard rushing game by a team in Cincinnati's past five games.

Can the Steelers do it again? We'll see. But Bell has been bottled up in each of the past two weeks.

Cincinnati also has discovered a running game of its own, meanwhile, using rookie Jeremy Hill. Hill has rushed for 148 and 147 yards in the past two games.

He has, however, fumbled three times in those two contests - Bell has fumbled once in his career.

The Steelers are 3 1/2-point favorites in this one and I like them to win and cover that spread, 27-17, setting up a first-round playoff game with . . . the San Diego Chargers, who will beat the Kansas City Chiefs Sunday to clinch the sixth, and final, playoff spot in the AFC and send Baltimore into its offeseason.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Steelers get 5 in Pro Bowl; Bell named MVP

It was a big day for running back Le'Veon Bell, who was named team MVP on the same day he was voted to the Pro Bowl for the first time.

Bell, of course, has set team records for total yards, receptions by a running back and receiving yards by a running back this season. He has been, arguably, the best running back in the NFL this season.

Most importantly, he has saved his best for last, scoring seven touchdowns in the past five games.

The Steelers are 18-10 in games in which he plays and, perhaps most impressively, Bell has fumbled once in his career and hasn't done so at all this season.

But there were certainly other candidates. And they made the Pro Bowl as well.

Ben Roethlisberger was named to his third Pro Bowl, as was wide receiver Antonio Brown. Center Maurkice Pouncey will be making his fourth Pro Bowl trip, while linebacker Lawrence Timmons will go for the first time.

Any of that foursome could also have been the team's MVP, as could have cornerback William Gay.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Rare Monday with Tomlin

Mike Tomlin held his weekly press conference on Monday this week because of Christmas. Obviously, with so little time between Sunday's game and the Monday press conference, there wasn't a lot of news.

Kelvin Beachum is dealing with a lower back injury and Vince Williams has an ankle injury, but Tomlin doesn't expect either to miss Sunday night's game against Cincinnati.

Tomlin said the team will take a wait-and-see approach with Troy Polamalu, Ike Taylor and Matt Spaeth.

I don't expect any of those three to play. Polamalu is dealing with a muscle pull of some type in his leg, which could use another week of rest, while Taylor is unlikely to play again this season unless the Steelers have some injuries at cornerback. And Spaeth's elbow hyperextension has robbed him of some strength in that arm, something that could use another week of rest.

@ Tomlin said he has not given any thought to calling New York for clarification regarding the William Gay taunting penalty and nor will he do so.

The Steelers do not think Gay did anything wrong and thus don't feel they need an explanation.

@ Tomlin's best line of the press conference came when asked about James Harrison and if he looked like James Harrison circa 2008: "You guys have to remember the mid-2000s (and) the type of animal that he was. I’ll take the guy that played yesterday. James plays with a great deal of emotion and desire. He’s got great football character. Obviously he’s got a lot of talent. But he’s got 36-37 year old talent as opposed to late 20-year old talent like he used to have and there’s a difference."

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Post-Kansas City thoughts

Playoffs? We can now talk about playoffs?


The Steelers locked up their spot in the 2014 AFC postseason with their victory Sunday over the Chiefs. The final score in this one was only 20-12, but it might as well have been 100-0.

The Steelers and Chiefs could have played another eight quarters and Kansas City wouldn't have gotten into the end zone.

Pittsburgh's defense was that good in this game.

A season-high six sacks. Holding Jamaal Charles to 29 yards rushing.

Those were a couple of highlights. But the icing on the cake was Kansas City going 0-4 in the red zone.

Kansas City had the league's second-best offense in the red zone entering this game. But the Steelers held up all day against it.

The defense has now allowed 21, 20 and 12 points in the last three games. Given what this offense can do, that's winning football.

@ The Steelers just might - might - be playing the best overall football of any team in the AFC right now when you look at what they're doing on both sides of the ball.

Yes, the defense is still suspect and the offense goes in fits and spurts - despite its gaudy numbers - but if they beat the Bengals next week, they'll wrap up no worse than the No. 3 seed in the AFC playoffs.

@ I don't get the NFL sometimes. I have viewed the William Gay "taunting" penalty several times and am not quite sure who exactly he was supposed to be taunting.

Was it Lawrence Timmons? I don't know.

I'm no fan of taunting and I know it when I see it. That was not it.

@ James Harrison had his way with second-year left tackle Eric Fisher, the top pick in last year's draft.

Actually, the Steelers pretty much owned everyone on the Chiefs' offensive line.

The only thing that kept Alex Smith from being sacked 20 times in this game was Andy Reid's sideways passing game.

@ That short passing game, however, also resulted in the game's only turnover.

As we saw from the Steelers when they played the Jets and Anontio Brown fumbled when smacked from behind by a defensive lineman following a short pass over the middle, big guys running down small guys close to the line of scrimmage sometimes results in bad things.

In this case, it was 300-pound Stephon Tuitt destroying Charles and forcing a fumble that the Steelers recovered.

@ The Chiefs devoted a safety to Le'Veon Bell when he came out of the backfield as a receiver.

That, however, freed up tight end Heath Miller to catch seven passes for 68 yards.

That doesn't sound like a lot until you consider KC came into this game having allowed an NFL-low 43 receptions by tight ends this season.

Pick your poison with this team.

@ Martavis Bryan caught just one pass in this game, but it was a big one. Bryant got deep out of the slot for a 44-yard gain on Pittsburgh's first possession.

I thought offensive coordinator Todd Haley called a very good game. He mixed things up and Kansas City's defense never really got a finger on the pulse of what the Steelers were doing offensively.

Ben Roethlisberger was sacked just one time and though the Steelers produced just 68 rushing yards, they ran the ball effectively enough that KC had to respect it.

@ It's official. The Steelers and Bengals will play at 8:30 p.m. next Sunday. Place should be rocking.

Steelers-Chiefs Game Day thread

Greetings from Heinz Field.

It's a nice December day here. Little wind and temps in the 40s.

Troy Polamalu, Ike Taylor, Justin Brown, Clifton Geathers, Chris Hubbard and Matt Spaeth are down for the Steelers.

Spaeth, to me, is the big one today. With him down, the Steelers could be forced to use Mike Adams some at tight end as an extra blocker.

For Kansas City, no real surprises on the inactive list. Dwayne Bowe and Tamba Hali were questionable coming into this game, but both are active.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Who I like, Kansas City version

This is perhaps the most critical game of the Steelers' season.

Win, and they're in the playoffs. Lose, and they're back in the same situation they found themselves in a year ago, needing to win and get help to get into the postseason.

Here's why:

A loss to Kansas City would give the Chiefs the tiebreaker over the Steelers and give them identical records.

If the Steelers lose to Kansas City and Cincinnati beats Denver Monday night, Pittsburgh is in trouble.

They would then need to beat Cincinnati and hope that San Diego knocks off the Chiefs in Kansas City in Week 17 to get into the playoffs, much the same way they needed Kansas City to beat San Diego lats season.

The Steelers can assure they don't need to worry about any of those scenarios by taking care of business Sunday.

And as it has been all season, the key will be their offense.

The Steelers need to get off to a fast start and force the Chiefs out of their comfort zone.

Kansas City wants to play things close to the vest, run the ball, play the field position game and win the war of attrition.

But if the Steelers come out and, say, score on their first couple of possessions, Kansas City will be forced to reassess its attack.

If they get the feeling they aren't going to be able to slow Pittsburgh, they'll be forced to open things up. And that's not what you want to do when Alex Smith is your quarterback.

Smith is a fine game manager. But he's not going to win a shootout with Ben Roethlisberger and company - at least not with the weapons Kansas City employs,

Le'Veon Bell will be the key.

Kansas City allows 4.9 yards per carry and has been torched over the past month by far lesser backs than Bell.

The Steelers need to establish Bell and then have Roethlisberger attack off of that.

If Kansas City is effective on early downs, that allows Justin Houston and Tamba Hali to get after the quarterback. And that's when bad things happen.

I think the Steelers will control the line of scrimmage and win this game.

Pittsburgh is a 3-point favorite and I like the Steelers to win, 30-21.

@ The Steelers will have a limited number of tickets available for a potential home playoff game the weekend of Jan. 3 or 4.

Tickets will be available beginning at 10 a.m. Sat., Dec. 20. Tickets can be purchased at or by calling 1-800-745-3000.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Mid-week news

After sitting out the past two games with a knee injury, James Harrison looks like he's more than healthy enough to return for the Steelers this week against Kansas City.

The  question now is whether or not the Steelers will play him?

At this point, it looks like they will, something I wasn't so sure of earlier in the week.

But if they do play Harrison, who sits?

The Steelers have dealt with a similar issue at inside linebacker the past two weeks with everyone finally healthy. They have dressed all four the past two games, with rookie Ryan Shazier playing sparingly.

Head coach Mike Tomlin said that Shazier hasn't been used more defensively because of he hasn't been where the team wants him to be in practice.

He also said that even though Marcus Gilbert practiced at right tackle last week, he decided to keep Mike Adams there because Adams had looked better - and more healthy - at practice last week.

The Steelers might be putting Harrison, Arthur Moats and Jarvis Jones in similar situation this week.

All three have been full participants at practice. The Steelers could take a look at who looks the best and go with those two, putting the other on the inactive list.

@ Kansas City is something of an enigma.

The Chiefs are one of just five NFL teams that enter this weekend averaging less than 200 yards passing per game. They haven't had a wide receiver catch a touchdown pass all season.

And yet they are second in the NFL in red zone offense in touchdown percentage, scoring TDs at a 67.5 percent rate.

Defensively, they allow 4.9 yards per rushing attempt but have given up just two rushing touchdowns this season. They rank first in the NFL in red zone defense.

And though they do get after the passer, recording 38 sacks, they have allowed 39, a big number for a team that doesn't really throw the ball deep all that often.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Tuesday with Tomlin

Mike Tomlin met with the media today in advance of the Steelers' huge game with the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday and had plenty to say.

In regards to the decision to play Mike Adams at right tackle last week at Atlanta over Marcus Gilbert, who practiced Thursday and Friday, Tomlin said Adams looked better in practice than Gilbert, who has been out three of weeks with an ankle injury.

That will be looked at closely again this week.

@ Tomlin said similar decisions will be made with James Harrison and Ike Taylor, though I'm hearing the Steelers aren't in a hurry to push either one back into the lineup.

That's somewhat surprising with Harrison in particular. But the Steelers are working toward getting Jarvis Jones back on the field more moving forward.

Tomlin said he's been pleased with what he's seen of Jones since he's returned from injured reserve two weeks ago.

@ Tomlin said he's been happy with how his team has responded in what is, essentially, the first playoff-type race for a number of the younger players.

Remember, the Steelers have had a lot of turnover from the last time they made the playoffs - 2011 - and for a number of these guys, this has been their first exposure to this type of atmosphere.

"I just liked the way out young guys, in particular, wore the urgency of the moment," said Tomlin.

@ Tomlin also commented on Shamarko Thomas' lack of playing time saying that he's stuck behind some veteran players, and more importantly, "His progress was slowed in the middle portion of the season. He had a high-ankle (injury) that not only caused him to miss some games but miss some quality practice time and limit that practice time. ... this journey that we're on is much like a moving train. Sometimes injuries get you off that train and it's difficult to get back on."

@ Tomlin spoke similarly of rookie linebacker Ryan Shazier, who has played sparingly the past two weeks despite now being recovered from an ankle injury.

Shazier also missed time earlier in the season with a knee sprain and Tomlin said he's been pleased with the play of Sean Spence and Vince Williams.

And then there was this telling statement, "Detail, detail, detail. It's more about that for a young guy than the physicality of it anyway. ... If you don't understand your leverage and where your help is, you are going to be exposed. So much of that is above the neck and so much is displayed in a practice setting."

In other words, the Steelers haven't been happy with Shazier's practice and preparation.

This doesn't mean he's a bust or anything like that. Remember, Troy Polamalu took a year to get up to speed in the Pittsburgh defense, as well. And Williams struggled last season when he was basically thrown into the lineup in place of injured Larry Foote. But he's stepped in and played very well this season.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Post-Falcons thoughts

Sunday's game had a familiar feel to it as the Steelers dominated the first quarter only to lead 6-0. They had already done that in losses at Cleveland and to New Orleans at home this season.

But William Gay had other plans.

Much-maligned over the years, Gay has quietly turned into a very good cornerback. I say quietly because Gay refuses to talk about himself.

Even after Sunday's game-changing interception return for a touchdown, Gay refused to talk about anything but what a great team win this was and how it was a much-needed victory.

In many cases, you appreciate a guy who puts the team before himself. But come one, Will, you can open up and talk about how you're the only corner in Steelers' history to have three pick-6s in one season.

@ That interception was huge. It was the game's lone turnover, and the fact the Steelers scored off of it was big.

The offense had put up a bunch of yards in the first quarter but had already stalled twice. Gay showed the way to the end zone.

@ Atlanta really sold out on stopping the run and doubling Antonio Brown.

And some of the other guys stepped up and made big contributions.

Ben Roethlisberger was 9 of 10 when targeting Markus Wheaton and Heath Miller for 138 yards.

It was a big step forward for Wheaton, in particular. All too many times this season, Wheaton has looked out of sync with Roethlisberger in road games.

That was not the case Sunday.

* The defense gave up some yards, but came up with some big stops, as well.

Holding Atlanta to a pair of short field goals in the third quarter was huge, as was a three-and-out in the fourth quarter.

Gay and Vince Williams deserve credit for hammering Harry Douglas to the ground on second and third down to keep him from getting the first down.

* Head coach Mike Tomlin said he basically made Marcus Gilbert a healthy scratch because Mike Adams was healthier than Gilbert.

He might want to re-think that strategy moving forward, though Gilbert will certainly be really healthy now.

Same goes for James Harrison.

* I've watched football a long time and covered the NFL for nearly half my life. If Jason Worilds did anything to warrant a penalty flag for his sack of Matt Ryan in the second quarter, I'm not aware of it.

In fact, it was a nearly textbook hit. He didn't lead with his helmet. He didn't hit Ryan high. He did put him to the ground in a not-so-nice way, but that's kind of the idea of football - at least it used to be.

* The Steelers won a game in which Le'Veon Bell was limited to 47 yards on 20 carries. That's significant.

Equally as significant was the fact that while the Steelers struggled running the ball overall, they were able to convert on third-and-short running it a number of times and score a pair of rushing touchdowns.

It wasn't a strong running game. But it was effective when it needed to be.

* If things play out the way they currently look, the Ravens will have played three rookie quarterbacks to close out their season.

They faced Blake Bortles Sunday, will get Tom Savage next week at Houston and Johnny Manziel in Week 17.

Baltimore doesn't have any healthy defensive backs but it won't matter.

The Steelers had better keep winning if they want a home playoff game.

Steelers-Falcons game day thread

Greetings from Atlanta.

James Harrison, Ike Taylor and Dri Archer are among the Steelers inactives.

Marcus Gilbert also is a late scratch for the Steelers. He was probable for this game and practiced all week, so he must have had a setback Saturday or in warmups.

For the Falcons, Julio Jones and corner Robert Alford are out. I'm also hearing that starting safety William Moore will be down as well.

I expect the Steelers to have plenty of success attacking this secondary.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Who I like, Atlanta version

First things first, I do not expect Julio Jones to play for the Falcons in this game, not that he won't want to.

But Atlanta's path to the playoffs is a simple one. If the Falcons win their final two games, they will be the NFC South champions.

If they beat the Steelers and lose the following week at New Orleans, they likely won't.

Because of that, I expect the Atlanta coaching staff to sit Jones.

That certainly helps the Steelers, but the Falcons have enough other dangerous offensive players that they can beat Pittsburgh.

But I don't expect that to happen (I know, I wrote here Sunday night that I wouldn't pick the Steelers again this season, but I have to follow my gut).

Atlanta's defense is, well, horrible. The Falcons are the only defense in the NFL allowing more than 400 yards per game. It's only saving grace is that it does force some turnovers - 24 this season.

But if the Steelers take care of the football, they'll be fine.

While Atlanta's offense is explosive, the Steelers' has been better this season. And Pittsburgh's defense, for all of its flaws, is better than Atlanta's as well.

Yes, the Steelers have stubbed their collective toe a few times this season - I don't want to hear about past losses against poor teams. Anything that happened before this season is ancient history.

But the Jets had a defense that could challenge the Steelers. And New Orleans had a future Hall of Fame quarterback and an emerging running game.

Only the Tampa Bay loss is completely inexcusable. And had the Steelers worked things a little differently in the fourth quarter, they win that game.

Matt Ryan is not Drew Brees. He's a good but not a great quarterback - one that's a lot closer to Andy Dalton than he is Tom Brady.

And the Falcons don't have a running game to compliment Ryan as the Saints did with Brees.

The Steelers should score plenty in this game - Vegas agrees, the over-under in this game is 56 1/2 - and so should the Falcons.

But I like the Steelers, whop are favored by 1 1/2 points, to pull out a 41-34 win.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Steelers think they can stop Jones

When the Steelers signed Brice McCain as a free agent in the offseason, few thought much of the move.

But McCain has played pretty well for the team this season.

He also has quite a bit of swagger.

The Steelers go into Sunday's game at Atlanta needing a victory.

Here's what McCain and others had to say about stopping Atlanta wide receiver Julio Jones:

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Steelers mid-week news, thoughts

Much of the focus in Pittsburgh has centered on how the Steelers are going to possibly deal with Atlanta's explosive offense.

The question should be the other way around. How are the Falcons going to deal with the Steelers?

Pittsburgh's offense is actually better than Atlanta's. And the Steelers' defense is better as well.

Steelers fans might not want to believe either of those things but they are the reality.

The only areas where the Falcons are better than the Steelers are in the return game, where Devin Hester is as scary as anyone in the NFL, and in turnovers, where the Falcons have forced 24.

But the Steelers are much more dynamic on offense. As good as Julio Jones has been this season, he's got six touchdowns. Martavis Bryant has seven in seven games.

And the Falcons don't run the ball well.

In fact, the Steelers could play a lot of nickel in this game, daring the Falcons to run the ball.

@ The Steelers are going to have a tough decision to make at outside linebacker, assuming James Harrison comes back this week.

Harrison worked out on the field before last Sunday's game at Cincinnati and actually looked OK moving around, but did not practice Wednesday.

The Steelers have dressed three outside linebackers in every game this season, but if Harrison is healthy, they would suddenly have four.

They have had a similar issue at inside linebacker a couple of times this season when everyone has been healthy. And they've dressed four, including against the Bengals.

But that forced them to sit Dri Archer.

To dress four outside linebackers, they really don't have any other expendable guys on the roster - unless they decide to sit Daniel McCullers, who is limited to playing nose tackle.

If the Steelers play a lot of nickel, McCullers would be on the field for just a few snaps.

@ I spoke with Mike Mitchell today and he explained what he saw on the 81-yard TD last week to A.J. Green, which he admitted was partly his fault.

I saw Mitchell drift to his right at the snap to where the Bengals had two receivers. Mitchell explained that his responsibilities on that play as the single deep safety is any pattern 19 yards or beyond.

The Bengals ran their slot receiver into that intermediate range and Mitchell slid up on it. That's when Green ran the deep post on the other side.

Mitchell admitted he should have realized that Green was where the Bengals wanted to go with the ball and that the Steelers would rather give up the 20-yard gain underneath than the 80-yard TD.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Tuesday with Tomlin

Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin today said that linebacker James Harrison (knee), cornerback Ike Taylor (shoulder, forearm) and right tackle Marcus Gilbert (ankle) will have their status determined in practice this week.

Harrison worked out for team doctors Sunday morning on the field and looked like he could have played, if necessary.

I also expect Gilbert to be back this week.

Taylor, on the other hand, might be a little more limited, though the Steelers lost some options when they placed Cortez Allen on IR.

Tomlin said the Steelers used Taylor to shadow A.J. Green Sunday because he was the corner who was most familiar with the Bengals' star and had matched up one-on-one with him in the past.

The theory was that Taylor is also their best tackling cornerback and since Cincinnati throws so many underneath passes, having Taylor come up and make the tackle on Green was better than having him get a bunch of yards after the catch.

Of course, that blew up in their face when they had no safety help for Taylor on the final play of the third quarter when he was beaten over the top for an 81-yard TD. Prior to that, Green had eight receptions for 55 yards against Taylor. That, the Steelers could have lived with.

@ Tomlin praised Arthur Moats, Antwon Blake, Stephon Tuitt, Darrius Heyward-Bey and Terrance Garvin for their play against the Bengals.

@ It will be interesting to see if Julio Jones is able to play this week. Jones had a monster game Monday night at Green Bay, but suffered a hip injury and did not return.

If he doesn't play, the Steelers' chances of victory in this game are greatly increased.

That said, Martavis Bryant, with seven, has more TD catches this season than Jones.

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Post-Cincinnati thoughts

Just as an early Christmas present for you guys, I'm going to continue picking against the Steelers for the remainder of this season.

I thought they had a good chance to win this game - anytime Andy Dalton is the QB of the other team, you've got a chance.

But given their recent play, I just couldn't pick them in this game, on the road.

This team continues to confound everyone.

@ BTW, that's 11 consecutive seasons of eight or more wins for the Steelers. Only New England, with 14, has a longer streak.

And Mike Tomlin has been at the helm for seven of those seasons, making him just the seventh coach in NFL history and fourth with the same team to start his career off in that manner.

But he stinks, right?

Sometimes I just think Steelers fans don't know how good they've really got things. Even in this team's down seasons, it finds a way to stay relevant.

I've covered the Steelers for 21 seasons and have had just a handful of games that were completely meaningless.

Believe me, talking to reporters from other NFL cities, you don't realize how special that really is.

@ It's almost as special as Le'Veon Bell and Antonio Brown.

@ Bell became the only the second player in NFL history - joining Walter Payton - to gain over 200 yards in three consecutive games.

And he's just 22 years old.

Think about that.

@ Bell has gained 1,925 total yards this season. Two guys he can be readily compared to, Cincinnati's Giovanni Bernard and Green Bay's Eddie Lacy, have combined for 1,903, pending Lacy's game Monday night against Atlanta.

The Steelers didn't have a chance to draft Bernard, but they took a lot of heat for passing on Lacy to take Bell.

@ Kevin Colbert and Tomlin take a lot of heat for their missed draft picks. I get that. But all teams miss on draft picks.

Shouldn't it be noted that they got Bell, whose in the conversation for being the best all-around running back in the league, and Brown, whose in the same conversation at wide receiver, in the second and sixth rounds?

@ The Steelers did not allow a sack and ran for 193 yards Sunday. And yet on Twitter, people were complaining about the play of the offensive line.

@ Dri Archer was inactive Sunday.

It's a little early to call him a bust, something that people are starting to do. Many of those same people were questioning Bell last season when he was struggling at times.

Archer was inactive, by the way, because he doesn't play special teams.

I still think he can be a dynamic player - once the Steelers figure out exactly how to use him.

@ Think Steve McLendon doesn't make a difference on this defensive line?

Throw out a 20-yard run by Andy Dalton on a read-option play the defense completely botched, and the Bengals had 66 yards rushing on 20 carries.

Stephon Tuitt was a big part of that as well.

I've said all along that Tuitt should be playing more. But the people who think the Steelers don't have a true nose tackle in McLendon are underestimating that guy.

@ By beating the Bengals, the Steelers gained an important tiebreaker over the Ravens.

Baltimore already has three division losses, two to Cincinnati, one to Pittsburgh. The Steelers are now 3-2 in the division.

The Steelers are also now 7-3 in the conference, another important tiebreaker.

Steelers-Bengals game day thread

Greetings from sunny by chilly Paul Brown Stadium.

The temperatures are in the low 40s/high 30s today and there is a slight wind that could affect things.

James Harrison and Marcus Gilbert are both out for the  Steelers.

With Harrison out, the Steelers activated Jarvis Jones from the short-term injured reserve list and placed Cortez Allen on injured reserve.

Arthur Moats will start at outside linebacker, but the Steelers will use Jones in some pass rushing situations.

Mike Adams will get the start at right tackle.

Dri Archer is also inactive today for the Steelers, which is surprising.

The Bengals will be on their third starting right tackle as guard Clint Boling will slide outside to replace Marshall Newhouse, who was replacing Andre Smith.

Jason Worilds needs to take advantage of that matchup.

Friday, December 05, 2014

Who I like, Cincinnati version

This is an important game in the grand scheme of things in the AFC North.

The winner, in fact, will have the inside track on winning the division, particularly if it's Cincinnati, which would move to 9-3-1 with a victory and pair of wins in hand against Baltimore.

For the Steelers, if they hope to make a push at the division title, they must win their final four games. Doing so would guarantee two losses for the Bengals, meaning Cincinnati could finish no better than 10-5-1.

But which Steelers team will show up? The one that defeated Houston, Indianapolis and Baltimore a month ago, or the one that has struggled in its past three games, going 1-2 against the Jets, Titans and Saints?

There has been a lot made recently of the heavy workload Le'Veon Bell has had in the past two games, when he has touched the ball 64 times.

If the Steelers are going to beat the Bengals, Bell is going to need another 30-touch game.

The Bengals have been very good against the pass this season, allowing an NFL-low 11 touchdown passes.

But Cincinnati gives up 125 yards per game on the ground and has allowed 13 rushing touchdowns.

For the Steelers to win, Bell has to have another strong game. He's gone over 200 total yards in each of the past two games and can become the first running back since Walter Payton in 1977 to top 200 total yards in three consecutive games. That's heady company.

Meanwhile, the Steelers have to slow Cincinnati's two-headed rushing attack of Giovanni Bernard and Jeremy Hill. If they can do that and force Andy Dalton, who has thrown 13 touchdown passes and 13 interceptions, into some mistakes, they'll have a chance to win.

If not, they're in for a long game.

Cincinnati is a 3-point favorite in this game, showing that Las Vegas doesn't really trust the Bengals, either.

But who knows with this Pittsburgh team?

I like the Bengals, 27-23, but could see the Steelers winning this game as well.

And even if the Steelers do lose, they won't be out of the playoff chase in the AFC.

One, and possibly two, AFC teams will be in as wildcards at 10-6. There's still a lot of football left to be played.

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Wednesday news, notes

The big news today was a story that wasn't a story. Once again, a "national" writer, this time from Bleacher Report, reported a Ben Roethlisberger story that didn't ring true.

The writer said on a podcast that Roethlisberger suffered a fractured hamate bone in his right wrist but that the injury isn't expected to sideline the Steelers quarterback.

I, along with some other writers, requested to speak with head coach Mike Tomlin about the issue after practice today - in which Roethlisberger did not partake.

Tomlin refused to comment on the report, saying that he wasn't going to comment on every little thing that hits the internet.

Then, as we walked back from the team's indoor practice facility, he pretty much let it be known that there was no truth to the report.

Roethlisberger also denied there was anything wrong.

Some might make a big  deal out of the fact he didn't practice Wednesday but the Steelers often give him some Wednesdays off during the regular season. And he did throw lightly with the receivers and running backs following the practice as he often does on Wednesday throughout the season.

This report is much akin to the Roethlisberger might be traded rumors from last season. The writers throw some stuff against the wall using words like "might" and, in this case, Roethlisberger is injured, but it won't sideline him.

The Steelers disagree. And as one person in the organization put it, if he was, in fact, suffering from a broken bone in his wrist, the team would have to put him on the injury report with a wrist injury or be subject to a fine from the NFL if it comes out later.

@ Steve McLendon was a surprise participant in practice today and said that he took a strength test earlier in the day and has been cleared to play.

That's good news for the Steelers, who are better at stopping the run when McClendon plays.

@ Stephon Tuitt said today that he expects to start at defensive end against the Bengals. Perhaps the fact that McLendon might be available could change that, but the fact remains Tuitt is going to be playing a lot more. And that's a good thing for now and for the future.

@ Jarvis Jones is expected to be activated this week. His role has yet to be determined. At the very least, getting him and Ryan Shazier back should be a boost to the special teams units.

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Tuesday with Tomlin

Mike Tomlin said today that quarterback Ben Roethlisberger hasn't been as accurate in recent weeks as he was earlier in the season.

That was particularly evident in the first half of last Sunday's 35-32 loss against the Saints, when Roethlisberger went 8-22 and badly overthrew a number of open receivers.

Tomlin said mechanics were a big reason for that, but said part of the reason for the poor mechanics were because of pressure directly in Roethlisberger's face that did not allow him to step into some throws.

There are easy solutions to that, however. Block better, get rid of the ball more quickly or have the quarterback move around in the pocket a little more.

It's hard to fathom that after having a three-game stretch in which he threw 14 TDs with no interceptions that Roethlisberger has four TDs and five interceptions in the past three games.

@ Tomlin also said he's not concerned about the heavy workload running back Le'Veon Bell has carried the past two games. After touching the ball 35 times in a win over Tennessee, Bell had 29 touches against the Saints.

Tomlin cited the heavy workload Bell handled in his final season at Michigan State, when he had nearly 400 touches, as evidence that the second-year running back can handle that kind of effort.

"That was one of things that attracted us to him," Tomlin said.

Bell is still a young pup and he wants the ball. But the Steelers should be careful not to run him into the ground.

He's proven to be a dynamic player. Maybe he's one of those rare people who can handle this kind of workload. If so, someday he'll be heading to Canton, Ohio.

@ Ryan Shazier and Marcus Gilbert are expected back in the lineup this week.

Brice McCain has a shot to play as well.

But it still doesn't sound so good for Steve McLendon. Tomlin said today that McLendon is dealing with a loss of strength in his shoulder.

That tells me it's a nerve issue, which can be tricky.

If McLendon doesn't play, here's hoping Daniel McCullers gets the start over Cam Thomas.

Then again, Thomas has been better at the nose than he has been at end, where he looks like a fish out of water - literally flopping around on the ground at times.

There is a plus to all of this. If Thomas has to play the nose, that will mean more playing time for rookie Stephon Tuitt at defensive end - finally.

@ Tomlin also sounded optimistic about the possibility of Jarvis Jones being activated this week off the short-term IR.

I watched Jones in practice last week and he actually looked pretty good. He looked like a player with fresh legs.

James Harrison would obviously get the start - though he's dealing with some knee soreness. But Jones might be able to give the Steelers a little something as a pass rusher.