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Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Tuesday with Tomlin

Mike Tomlin addressed a myriad of things at his press conference today, going through many of the key moments in Sunday's 27-24 loss step-by-step.

Tomlin said the Steelers' final offensive play was called by him. It was a run-pass option play for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who chose to run the ball based on what he saw from Tampa Bay's defense.

Tomlin said the look was five defenders against five run blockers up front, but the Steelers had a breakdown up front.

On the 41-yard pass to Louis Murphy to set up the game-winning touchdown, Tomlin said it was a failure on all three levels. The defensive front was a step slow to get pressure. The zone defense behind them lost its depth - Mike Mitchell bit up on an underneath route - and then the Steelers did a poor job of getting Murphy on the ground - Mitchell and Troy Polamalu both took bad angles on the tackle, allowing Murphy to get to the 5.

As for some of the pre- and post-snap penalties, Tomlin singled out some guys without mentioning them specifically - ie. Arthur Moats, Antonio Brown, etc.

But one player he did give a pass to was Cam Heyward, who drew an unsportsmanlike penalty for yelling at officials after it appeared that Sean Spence was held on a touchdown run by Doug Martin in the third quarter.

Tomlin said he felt everyone in the stadium thought there was a hold against Spence and that had the play been closer to him or he had been on that sideline, he might have drawn an unsportsmanlike penalty as well.

@ Speaking of penalties, Tomlin said he will have officials at practice this week as the Steelers prepare to face Jacksonville.

@ Tomlin said the team will start working with rookie linebacker Ryan Shazier towards his return, but to not expect that return to be this week.

@ The Steelers terminated the contract of punter Adam Podlesh Tuesday. Podlesh, signed in the offseason, was placed on the did not report list when he didn't show up at training camp while his wife dealt with a difficult pregnancy.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Post-Tampa Bay thoughts

I've been a defender of Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley because I like what he's done overall with the team's offense.

The Steelers can use multiple formations and multiple ways to beat a team.

But I was not a fan of the team's play-calling on the Steelers' next-to-last possession with less than two minutes remaining in this game.

Actually, I just wasn't a fan of the team's final play call on third-and-five, a handoff to Le'Veon Bell.

I realize that Tampa Bay had just used its final timeout after the previous play and the Steelers wanted to run some clock, but they had just thrown the ball on second down to Markus Wheaton for an 8-yard gain.

Are you telling me a team that runs at least 10 screens per game couldn't run another one in that situation? The completion percentage on those is about 90 percent.

Maybe it gets the first down, maybe it doesn't, but it would have had a better chance of working than another run by Bell, who was limited to minus-4 yards on four fourth quarter carries.

The Bucs were really biting hard on the run all day. The Steelers used that to their advantage, running a lot of play-action passes after their first couple of drives.

That, in turn, opened up the running game in the second and third quarters. But the Bucs were back to crashing the line over the final 15 minutes.

A five-yard completion would have ended the game. Heath Miller was open all day long. Are you telling me the Steelers couldn't have connected on a 6-yard game to Miller?

Instead, the Steelers punted.

@ That punt, by the way, was a 29-yarder by Brad Wing.

I umpired a fall Bronco game behind the plate by myself and saw about 300 pitches Saturday. My hamstrings are killing me today, and I'm pretty sure I could have hit a 29-yard punt.

@ I've been saying for three weeks that the Steelers are taking too many penalties. They had 13 in this game.

And there's no doubt that's too many.

The word undisciplined was thrown around the locker room a lot following the game. And there is some of that with the taunting penalties and post-play stuff.

Those are on the coaching staff, who have to crack down on guys doing dumb stuff - though much of it has been by star players, ie. Le'Veon Bell, Antonio Brown and Cameron Heyward Sunday.

But to me, focus is just as big an issue. And focus, in my opinion, falls on the shoulders of the players.

They are paid a lot of money to do a job. If they can't stay focused to do that job who else would be at fault? The coaches?

Put it this way, if you are unfocused in your job, is it your problem or is it because of your boss?

@ The Steelers have had a rash of facemask penalties already this season, including two more Sunday.

Those are a result of guys reaching to make tackles rather than being in the right position to make those tackles. When you reach, you're more likely to grab the facemask.

@ Tampa Bay quarterback Mike Glennon is about as statuesque a quarterback as you'll see.

Yet the Steelers managed just one sack.

They had decent pressure at times, but at other times, not so much.

Arthur Moats and James Harrison both drew holding penalties, but was the only time they had any kind of impact. The duo combined for one tackle, that being by Moats.

Jason Worilds had a team-high two pressures and one tackle.

So, in 64 plays in which at least some combination of Worilds, Moats and Harrison was on the field at all times, the outside linebackers combined for two tackles, two pressures and two holding penalties, one of which was declined because Heyward had a sack.

That was one more tackle and one more pressure than the much-maligned Cam Thomas had Sunday.

The Steelers rotated Moats and Harrison every other series Sunday. But they need more out of that duo and Worilds.

@ I know the Steelers say they want to use Justin Brown as their slot receiver because of his blocking, but I'm baffled why Lance Moore isn't getting more playing time, at least on obvious passing downs.

Brown might eventually develop into a decent NFL receiver. But he's not giving this team much as a No. 3 receiver right now.

@ Tampa Bay scored 10 points in the first 4:59 of this game and seven points with seven seconds remaining.

They had 10 points and did little in between. The Steelers handily won 50-plus minutes of this game. Unfortunately for them, they were badly outplayed in those other 5-10 minutes.

Steelers-Bucs gameday thread

It's a beautiful day here at Heinz Field. The sun is shining. there's very's little wind and conditions are perfect for an afternoon football game.

Martavis Bryant, Ike Taylor, Ryan Shazier, Daniel McCullers, Wes Johnson and Ramon Foster are out for the Steelers.

Foster is kind of a surprise, since he was able to practice all week. Cody Wallace will start in his place.

For Tampa Bay, Mike Glennon will obviously start in place of quarterback Josh McCown.

Danny Lansanah will start at linebacker in place of Jonathan Casillas, while Dane Fletcher will start at linebacker in place of Mason Foster.

As you already know, I picked the Steelers to win this one big. I expect it to be somewhat close and for the Steelers to pull away late.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Who I like, Tampa Bay version

On paper, this game looks like a mismatch.

After all, the Steelers are coming off the demolition of Carolina, a team that defeated Tampa Bay, 20-14, in Week 1 with backup quarterback Derek Anderson running the show.

But the Bucs also are coming off a game in which they were thoroughly embarrassed, 56-14, by Atlanta in a Thursday night game.

And we all know how the Steelers responded to having a few extra days off to stew about a Thursday night beating in Baltimore.

Tampa Bay is also switching things up at quarterback. Josh McCown, whom head coach Lovie Smith brought over with him from Chicago is out with a thumb injury. In steps Mike Glennon, a second-year quarterback who actually did OK last year with the Bucs as a rookie, throwing 19 TD passes and just nine interceptions.

The Steelers will be dealing with three new starters on defense, and more importantly, in their nickel defense.

I expect Sean Spence to capably replace rookie Ryan Shazier, who is out with a sprained knee, and Arthur Moats to possibly provide more as a pass rusher - at least right now - than Jarvis Jones, who is on injured reserve with a designation to return with a wrist injury.

But finding a replacement for Ike Taylor on passing downs could be problematic.

I expect William Gay to do a good job of subbing for Taylor, who is out indefinitely with a broken arm, in the base defense. But in the nickel, Brice McCain, Antwon Blake or B.W. Webb will be forced into action.

And that, my friends, is the unknown.

Pittsburgh is a 7 1/2-point favorite in this game, which is an interesting number. On one hand, I think the Steelers will have success moving the football and scoring. On the other, Tampa Bay, with 6-5 rookie receiver Mike Evans and 6-4 veteran Vincent Jackson on the outside, can create some matchup issues down the field.

The spread is big enough that you have to be concerned about a backdoor cover, as we saw with Cleveland in Week 1.

But I think the Steelers score plenty in this one and the Bucs have had fumbling issues - nine already this season.

Take Pittsburgh to win, 31-16

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Would Shazier have been drafted?

Sean Spence will make his first career start in the NFL on Sunday, an amazing feat for a guy who suffered a devastating knee injury a couple of years ago in the preseason.

It's been a long recovery for Spence, but it's obviously been worth it for the former third-round draft pick and the Steelers, as well.

The team could have easily given up on him at any number of times.

And you could argue that the Steelers will be better off right now with Spence in the lineup instead of rookie Ryan Shazier. After all, Spence spent the past two seasons not only rehabbing, but learning his duties in the Steelers' defense.

For Shazier, that learning process is ongoing.

Spence's recovery also begs the question: If the Steelers had known in the spring that Spence was going to make a complete recovery, would they still have drafted Shazier?

Shazier is an amazing athlete. He's the fastest linebacker in the NFL and a possible future star.

But the Steelers liked Spence enough a few years ago to select him in the third round.

@ The Steelers didn't figure on having to replace Ike Taylor until next season. But his broken forearm certain changed that quickly.

And it left the team a little short at a very important position in more ways than one.

First and foremost, Taylor and Cortez Allen were being counted on to play well this season. Losing Taylor for an extended period of time certainly affects the team's depth at a position that was already thin.

Secondly, the team's options at cornerback to replace him aren't guys who can bring the same size as the 6-1 Taylor.

And that could be a bigger problem, particularly this week against Tampa Bay, which has 6-5 rookie Mike Evans and 6-4 Vincent Jackson at wide receiver.

Pittsburgh's current options include Brice McCain and Antwon Blake, a pair of 5-9 corners, and 5-11 B.W. Webb.

Blake was signed last season when he was released by Jacksonville, while McCain came over from Houston as a free agent in the offseason.

Webb, meanwhile, has only been with the team a few weeks after being released by Dallas at the end of the preseason.

McCain, a sixth-year pro, has the most experience of the group, with 10 career starts. But he has worked largely in the slot since joining the Steelers, and the team seems intent on keeping William Gay inside in its nickel defense.

Gay will play outside in the base defense, but will likely slide back inside on passing downs.

The guess here is that the Steelers could use the next couple of games to test out both Blake and Webb on the outside and see which one does the better job.

It's not ideal, but if the Steelers are intent on keeping Gay in the slot on passing downs, it's the best scenario - at least for now.

@ When asked today if he thought linebacker James Harrison would dress Sunday against Tampa Bay, defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau first said he had to defer to head coach Mike Tomlin on that subject.

But, LeBeau did add, "I don' think Mike brought him in not to dress him."

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Harrison won't be a savior

The excitement among Steelers fans regarding the re-signing of James Harrison has been similar to that of a month ago surrounding the return of defensive end Brett Keisel.

Keisel has played well in a reserve role for the Steelers, who needed his help on the defensive line.

Can Harrison serve a similar role with the linebackers?

I'm not so sure.

There's a difference in the situations regarding Keisel and Harrison.

Keisel always wanted to come back. He never cleared out his locker at the Steelers' facility. He repeatedly said he felt he had another year of football in him.

In other words, he wasn't ready to call it quits on his career.

Harrison? Not so much.

Not only did Harrison announce his retirement a few weeks ago, he was at peace with his football career being over.

"I really didn't miss it," Harrison said of football."The only thing I really missed was the teammates, the camaraderie, being with the guys. The game itself, I really didn't miss.

"I really can't say I missed the actual game itself."

For Harrison, the decision to return to football was a difficult one, made only after speaking with Keisel, Ike Taylor, Troy Polamalu, head coach Mike Tomlin and his family.

That's a lot of convincing.

"To be honest with you, it was a real difficult decision," Harrison said. "If my kids had said no and stuck with it, it wouldn't have mattered how much I talked to Keisel, Ike and Troy."

As former Steelers head coach Chuck Noll used to say, if you're thinking about retirement, you probably should. Harrison was more than thinking about it, he had actually gone through with it and was OK with that decision.

Harrison was a great player for a long time for the Steelers. But he's not that player any longer. And it seems like he was OK with that.

@ Ramon Foster and Dri Archer were both back at practice today for the Steelers.

Darrius Heyward-Bey sat our with an illness.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Big news Tuesday

The Steelers have officially signed former NFL Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison to a contract to return to the team and help improve the depth at a position that was beaten up in the win over Carolina with injuries to Ryan Shazier and Jarvis Jones.

Harrison, an outside linebacker, will improve the team's depth at outside linebacker, where the backup would have been inside linebacker Terence Garvin had nothing been done.

Jones was placed on injured reserve with a designation to return after suffering a wrist injury in the 37-19 win at Carolina.

Harrison, 36, last played for the Steelers in 2012. He spent the 2013 season with the Cincinnati Bengals after being released when he refused to take a salary cut.

Harrison is no longer the pass rusher he once was, but he is still a very good run defender. I would expect the Steelers to use both he and Moats, who has shown himself to be a solid pass rusher after coming over from Buffalo in the offseason, in a rotation opposite Jason Worilds.

Head coach Mike Tomlin said Harrison likely won't play this week when the Steelers host Tampa Bay, as the team eases him into things and finds out how much of the defense he has retained while also testing his conditioning.

In other news, Tomlin said Sean Spence will replace Shazier at inside linebacker until the rookie is ready to return from his sprained MCL in a couple of weeks.

At cornerback, the situation is a little more in flux.

While Antwon Blake moved into the cornerback rotation against the Panthers, Tomlin said the team will take a look at Brice McCain and B.W. Webb there as well.

The team is intent on keeping William Gay in the slot on passing downs, and he's done a great job there the past two seasons. But Blake and McCain are both 5-9, while Webb is 5-11.

Webb would seem to be the best suited to play on the outside, though Blake does have a 40-plus-inch vertical leap.

Rookie Shaq Richardson could also be activated from the practice squad, but it's doubtful he would be an option on the outside just yet. That would be more of a move to help out on special teams.

Safety Shamarko Thomas played the nickel role at times as a rookie, but he was in the slot and has not done any work there this year with Gay playing well and Blake and McCain also learning that position.

@ Tomlin also said that rookie receiver Dri Archer and guard Ramon Foster, both of whom missed the game against the Panthers will ankle injuries, could return this week.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Post-Carolina thoughts

I don't want to say I told you so, but I will. I told you so.

I told you the Panthers wouldn't come out and spread the field against the Steelers and then run the ball. I told you they could be run on.

I told you their offensive line wasn't very good and was banged up.

It all came to fruition.

Now, that certainly doesn't mean I'm right all the time. But in this case, Carolina was a perfect elixir for what was ailing the Steelers.

Now, can the Steelers keep this up? Well, they certainly should be able to against their next two opponents, Tampa Bay and Jacksonville.

But this victory came at a cost, as well. Ike Taylor could be done for the season - and his career - after suffering a broken forearm.

And linebackers Ryan Shazier (knee) and Jarvis Jones (wrist) also could have suffered significant injuries, though we won't know the extent for a couple of days.

Taylor and Jones were two popular guy for fans to rip on. We'll find out at some point just how important those guys are.

@ The Steelers offensive line has been getting ripped for a long time for not being very good. This game should have been a coming out party on national TV.

After a slow start, they wore the Panthers down. And regardless of what you saw in this game, that's a really good defensive front.

@ For all those people who were quick to point out Eddie Lacy's stats versus Le'Veon Bell last season, here's where they currently stand. Bell has 315 yards rushing and another 146 receiving in three games this season. Lacy has 113 rushing and 38 receiving.

Now, there's still a lot of season left, but would anyone trade Bell for Lacy right now?

@ Lance Moore played one snap in this one. He was healthy, but Justin Brown lined up in the slot throughout the night.

It appears the Steelers like Brown's downfield blocking better than than of Moore at this point. But both guys will have roles moving forward.

@ Speaking of Bell, he won the chess match with Carolina middle linebacker Luke Kuechly throughout the night in this one.

The Panthers are sure tacklers, Kuechly especially, but  Bell said the Steelers used their patience against them.

Carolina will give you four and five yards at a time, but doesn't give up big plays.

The Steelers chipped away and chipped away, until finally getting the Panthers to start gambling a little bit.

On his 81-yard run in the third quarter, Bell, who might be among the most patient runners in the NFL, made Kuechly think he was going outside. And when the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year vacated the middle of the field, Bell burst back inside.

"When he guessed wrong, it was 81 yards," Bell said.

@ The Steelers' offensive line did an outstanding job in this one. Marcus Gilbert was trashed by just about everyone, but was a big part of an effort in which the Steelers rushed for over 200 yards and Ben Roethlisberger was sacked just once.

"You guys were down on Marcus," head coach Mike Tomlin said. "We like Marcus."

@ With games against Tampa Bay and Jacksonville coming up next, there is no reason to believe the Steelers won't be 4-1 heading into a rematch at Cleveland.

We'll see how much this team has grown in the rematch with the Browns. Boy, that seems weird to write.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Steelers-Panthers game-day thread

The Steelers will be without the services of guard Ramon Foster this week. He'll sit out with an ankle injury.

Cody Wallace is expected to start in his place.

Dri Archer also is out with an ankle injury. Also among the Steelers inactives are Martavis Bryant.

The bigger news is on Carolina's side of things. Both running back DeAngelo Williams and receiver Jerricho Cotchery will not play for the Panthers.

Williams was the one back that the Panthers have who could have seriously tested Pittsburgh's run defense. His backup, Jonathan Stewart, is averaging 2.5 yards per carry this season.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Who I like, Carolina version

The Steelers got embarrassed last week in Baltimore, just as Green Bay was routed in Seattle on Thursday night to open the season and Tampa Bay was destroyed in Atlanta Thursday night.

Actually, what happened to the Steelers was closer to what happened to Green Bay than it was Tampa Bay.

The bottom line, however, is that it's awfully difficult for NFL teams to travel and play on a short week. In fact, since the league started playing regular games on Thursdays in 2006, road teams are now 24-43 in those games. And that includes an above average 7-7 record last year.

So yes, I'm dismissing some of what I saw from the Steelers last week, particularly from the offense.

The defense? It still has some issues to be sure. But even that hasn't been as bad as the numbers suggest.

Yes, the Steelers have allowed seven runs of 15 or more yards. That's too many.

On the other 59 carries it has faced, opponents are averaging 2.9 yards per carry. That tells me this defense can stop the run - when everybody is supposed to be where they are at.

In fact, the defense was doing a good job of slamming Baltimore's running game last week until Justin Forsett broke off a 41-yard run. To that point, the Steelers were allowing, you guessed it, 2.9 yards a carry in that game.

Then they had a breakdown and the average was out the window.

But Forsett's run went to the 1-yard line. And the Steelers forced the Ravens to kick a field goal from there. In fact, Baltimore was just 2-for-6 scoring touchdowns on red zone possessions last week, showing me, again, that this defense is capable of coming up with some stops.

Will it this week?

The thinking here is yes.

I have reason to believe this. Carolina will likely come out in a traditional NFL set with a tight end, two receivers and two backs. It's how the Panthers are built. They're not built to be a team that spreads the field and tries to run out of that set.

And the Steelers have shown that they can limit teams who try to attack them in that manner.

Are they a shutdown defense? Not by any stretch.

But I think the addition of Lance Moore will make a difference for this team this week.

Nothing against Justin Brown, but the Steelers brought Moore in for a reason. They wanted a veteran as their slot receiver to replace Jerricho Cotchery.

Moore will make a difference in this game.

The Panthers are also very banged up. Seven starters were on the injury report as limited or missing practices this week with various injuries.

Pittsburgh, meanwhile, is rested, healthy and angry after its showing in Baltimore last week.

The Steelers are 3 1/2-point underdogs in this game, but I think run more of their own spread offense and Le'Veon Bell has another game of 100-plus total yards.

Take the Steelers to win a close one, 23-21

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Wednesday news, notes

I asked Le'Veon Bell if he had seen what Josh Gordon did Tuesday night on the eve of the NFL passing its new drug enforcement rules.

Gordon, already suspended for a violation of the league's drug policy, was arrested for DUI a few months ago and facing another possible suspension.

But under the new rules the league has now instituted, a DUI would be an immediate two-game suspension.

So Gordon plead guilty to avoid getting another two games.

Bell said he hadn't heard that. And he also did not do that with his own DUI charges that came in August.

So under the new rules, if convicted of DUI - in Bell's case it was marijuana - he will eventually receive a two game suspension.

Of course, Bell could also still beat the rap on his DUI charge as well. But at least now, a possible suspension is spelled out by league rules.

@ Nose tackle Steve McLendon practiced fully for the Steelers on Wednesday and will try to play Sunday despite suffering a shoulder injury last week against Baltimore.

McLendon is, however, wearing a brace on the injured shoulder.

Wide receiver Lance Moore made it through another day of practice and looks as if he'll be back this week.

Guard Ramon Foster was a new addition to the injury list. He's dealing with an ankle injury that had him limited in practice today.

Also limited was running back Dri Archer (ankle). It's beginning to look like it will be another week before he's ready to return.

@ The Panthers had a bevy of players who did not practice Wednesday, led by wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin (knee), left tackle Byron Bell (toe), right tackle Nate Chandler (toe), linebacker Thomas Davis (hip), fullback Mike Tolbert (chest) and running back DeAngelo Williams (thigh).

All of those guys are starters.

Tight end Greg Olsen, the Panthers' leading receiver, also was limited with a calf injury.

The Panthers appear to be a beaten up bunch.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Tuesday with Tomlin

Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin had some good news on the injury front today, saying that the only two guys who were having issues this week were Dri Archer and Steve McClendon.

But, Tomlin said that both Archer (ankle) and McClendon (shoulder) practiced on a limited basis Monday and could be available to play Sunday against Carolina.

In my eyes, McClendon has a better chance to play than Archer.

Lance Moore was not on Tomlin's injury report and the Steelers head coach said the team will keep a close eye on the receiver, who is coming off a month off with a groin injury.

In 11 career games against Carolina, Moore has 44 receptions for 641 yards and four touchdowns. His first career reception also came against the Panthers in 2006.

@ Tomlin said the biggest issues for the Steelers at this point  have been fundamental things such as tackling, taking care of the football and penalties.

It's surprising that tackling would be an issue for this team since it does more live tackling in practice during training camp than any other team in the league.

That leads me to believe that the issue is more of players not being where they are supposed to be.

If someone gets out of position, you wind up with guys reaching to make tackles. And NFL players are going to run through arm tackles.

@ Tomlin was asked about the early play of right tackle Marcus Gilbert.

Tomlin admitted Gilbert has struggled, but said last week was more of just being a Dumervil issue, in reference to Baltimore's Elvis Dumervil.

Tomlin did say that he expects Gilbert to bounce back "like Rocky."

It should be noted that Rocky got knocked down a lot in his fights.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Where things stand two weeks in

Two weeks into the 2014 season, the AFC North looks like this: Cincinnati 2-0 and everyone else 1-1.

The biggest surprises thus far?

The Bengals' win at Baltimore in Week 1 and Cleveland's win over New Orleans in Week 2.

This is why you never take anything for granted in the NFL.

As for the Steelers, they are exactly where I thought they would be two weeks into this season, 1-1.

And as we learned Sunday, the dome teams of the NFC South aren't quite so formidable outdoors on grass.

@ Maybe I'm in the minority, and that's fine, but Cleveland's last-minute victory over New Orleans makes that win by the Steelers in Week 1 look a lot better.

After all, New Orleans' high-powered offense never really got things going against Cleveland's defense. And Cleveland's offense certainly looked decent - better than anyone expected.

That's not to forgive Pittsburgh's second-half meltdown against the Browns. It was bad.

But at least the Steelers righted the ship and won that one.

@ Pittsburgh's biggest issue right now are the penalties. The Steelers have 20 in two games. They had 80 all of last season.

The Steelers haven't typically been a highly penalized team, so I expect that to get better.

The Steelers also have not forced a turnover this season. That's nothing new. The team has an NFL-low 51 since the start of the 2011 season.

Mike Mitchell and Ryan Shazier were added to this defense to help improve that. As they get more comfortable with what they are doing, that could change.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Lolley's post-Ravens thoughts

After a 4-hour drive and a one-hour nap, I've had enough time to digest what I saw Thursday night in Baltimore.

When I made my game prediction, I picked the Ravens with a couple of big reasons. Baltimore was going to rally the troops around what has been a tough week on the players - through the fault of a former teammate and the front office - and the road teams in Thursday night games have struggled.

I think we saw that to be the case on both fronts.

With Pittsburgh's loss, road teams are now 24-42 in these Thursday night debacles Roger Goodell created back in 2006. That's enough of a track record to show that there is a decided advantage for the home team in these games.

Of course, Goodell helped create the other issue, as well, by giving Ray Rice on a slap on the wrist for his elevator escapades.

@ While we're on the subject of taking my favorite Washington & Jefferson College graduate behind the wood shed, his rules on hitting have also turned the game into one that is no longer recognizable.

If Courtney Upshaw's hit on Ben Roethlisberger in the first quarter is no longer legal, I have no idea how a defender is supposed to tackle somebody.

Same goes for the hits that Troy Polamalu and Mike Mitchell were flagged for.

But somehow, the hit that knocked Antonio Brown woozy for a quarter and the one that Heath Miller took to the head that dislodged the football as he was being held up by another player are OK?

Ed Hochuli's crew should have been embarrassed to make any of those calls.

As Polamalu said after the game, "I think it's kind of funny because that is what you are used to seeing in this type of game."

Apparently, we can't see them any more.

@ Cam Thomas, I don't even know what to say about him other than I'm shocked it took the San Diego Chargers nearly a full season to put him on the bench if his play here was indicative of how he played the nose there.

I know he was signed to be a rotation guy here. The time for that has come. I don't care how many mistakes Stephon Tuitt makes, he should be seeing more time. At least he's athletic enough to not take out three teammates who are on their way to the football.

And there's the possibility he'll get better.

@ In all actuality, the defense wasn't horrible in this game. There, I said it.

The Ravens had 323 total yards and score two touchdowns. They had a first-and-goal from the 1 and didn't score a touchdown.

In fact, Justin Tucker kicked field goals from 30, 23, 22 and 20 yards in this game.

And if not for the aforementioned penalties on Polamalu and Mitchell, they might not have scored their second TD.

Everybody knew this defense was going to be a work in progress. There was, at least, some progress between the first and second games.

Prior to Justin Forsett's 41-yard run through a hole created by Thomas standing straight up and wiping out the other Steelers defensive linemen, the Ravens were averaging 2.7 yards per carry.

And four stops in the red zone isn't bad - though you'd like to get a few more pre-red zone stops.

But the offense has to live up to its end of the bargain as well.

And it just couldn't sustain drives.

Maybe that was because of Upshaw's hit early in the game. Roethlisberger just seemed to be off after that.

I still think this offense has the ability to be special, though. Le'Veon Bell again looked fantastic and Antonio Brown, despite taking what should have been a penalized shoulder to the head, came back and still produced. It would have been nice to have a nice, calming veteran such as Lance Moore out there to compliment things.

@ Once again, the Steelers are forcing no turnovers. And they now have four of their own.

Equally damning are the 20 penalties in two games. I've already said that two of those calls were highly questionable. But can somebody tell me why the Steelers seemingly thought the only way to tackle Steve Smith was by his facemask?

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Steelers-Ravens game thread

Greetings from Baltimore.

The weather has cleared up here after the threat of rain early.

Inactive for the Steelers tonight are Landry Jones, Martavis Bryant, Lance Moore, Wes Johnson, Chris Hubbard and Daniel McCullers.

With Archer out tonight, look for Markus Wheaton to return kickoffs.

The big news for Baltimore is that cornerback Lardarius Webb is out. There was a chance that he'd play after sitting out the preseason and first game with a back issue.

With Webb down, Chykie Brown will start at corner. That's a juicy matchup for the Steelers.

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Who I like, Baltimore version 1.0

I was feeling very good about my Steelers pick of a 27-13 win at halftime last week. I figured the Steelers would start to slow things down and the Browns might get a score or two to get me right on my number.

And then . . .

So here we go again this week.

The Ravens are three-point favorites against the Steelers Thursday night in Baltimore in a series in which nine of the past 10 meetings have been decided by three points or less.

So basically, in this game, you just try to pick the winner and don't worry about points.

The Ravens, of course, have dealt with the self-induced distraction of the Ray Rice situation all week.

But as much as Rice's situation has been a distraction, it could also serve as a rallying point. Some teams have a way of rallying around these kind of situations.

I think the Steelers are a better team than Baltimore. Let's get that out of the way. Both teams have defensive issues.

Baltimore gave up 380 yards last week against Cincinnati at home and did little itself offensively until late in the game.

After fighting back to take a lead - after holding the Bengals to five field goals - the Ravens were beaten over the top by A.J. Green for a 77-yard game-winning score.

Joe Flacco was terrible in the game. Yes, he threw for 345 yards, but it took him 62 attempts to do so. And remember, one of his 35 completions was an 80-yard catch by Steve Smith.

Take that away and Flacco averaged 4.3 yards per passing attempt. As it was, his 5.56 yards per passing attempt. By comparison, Ben Roethlisberger averaged 10.74 yards per attempt in last week's win over Cleveland.

Can that change against the Steelers?


But something tells me the Ravens will be a desperate team this week. They can't afford to fall to 0-2 with a pair of home losses coming to division teams.

And they are playing at home while the Steelers must travel on a short week. Since the NFL began regularly playing games on Thursday nights in 2006, road teams are just 24-41, including a 1-2 record by the Steelers.

It's a difficult turnaround, even for a short flight.

The Steelers were forced to have a full practice Wednesday morning, instead of their usual travel-day walkthrough, just to make sure they got two days of practice in this week.

Because of that, I'm going to pick the Ravens to win this one, 26-23.

Monday, September 08, 2014

Monday with Mike (Tomlin)

Because of the Thursday night game this week, Mike Tomlin's weekly press conference was today.

Tomlin was understandably troubled by the 11 penalties the Steelers committed on Sunday in their 30-27 victory over Cleveland.

By comparison, the team's high for penalties last season was nine in a loss to Miami. Eleven penalties is not a good way to start.

Tomlin properly noted that the penalties were particularly troubling for the offense in the second half and led to the team's struggles sustaining drives in the final two quarters.

There were also a couple of penalties that helped the Browns sustain drives.

Cleaning them up moving forward will be critical.

@ Tomlin had good news on safety Shamarko Thomas and running back Dri Archer.

Both sustained only ankle sprains - though Thomas' was to his Achilles tendon.

Thomas' injury was announced as an Achilles issue, which immediately makes you think of a tear, which would have ended his season.

As it is, both are listed as questionable to play this week, as are wide receivers Lance Moore and Martavis Bryant and corner Brice McCain, all of whom missed the game against the Browns.

@ The talk of the day was the Ray Rice video finally being  released.

Like we actually needed to see it to realize that Rice had assaulted his then-fiance, now wife.

What did people think happened in that elevator? That he had hit her was never the issue, though apparently, he had tried to sell it to his teammates, team and NFL that she was attacking him.

That was obviously not the case and the Ravens released Rice and the NFL quickly followed suit by suspending him indefinitely.

Rice will probably never play in the league again, which is fine. Playing in the NFL is not a right. It's an honor.

@ Of course, the hot story was William Gay's interview regarding Rice. I spoke to him about the same subject a couple of weeks ago and he said basically the same things he did Monday - about an hour before Rice was released.

Gay, whose mother was the victim of a murder-suicide when he was 7, believes in not only helping the victims of abuse but in counseling the abusers as well. In fact, he's spoken to groups of abusers himself, trying to help them understand the fallout of their actions.

@ The Steelers talked a lot today about how they have to work on getting their defensive play calls into the game more quickly.

That was an issue against the Browns, who were running a fast-paced no-huddle. There were several times in the second half where players just didn't know what the play was because things were happening so quickly.

That is a solvable problem.

Sunday, September 07, 2014

Post-Cleveland thoughts 1.0

It's really easy to rip the Steelers defense after Sunday's second-half effort. Actually, it was more of a bad third quarter that was the problem.

Cleveland's fast-paced no-huddle kept the Steelers off-balance and, perhaps just as importantly, there was a key penalty on the first-two touchdown drives that either helped the Browns to a first down or a chunk of yardage.

In fact, penalties were kind of the flavor of the day for the Steelers, who also had a touchdown called back in the first quarter on a holding penalty on Kelvin Beachum that was indeed a hold, but ticky-tacky nonetheless.

The Steelers were forced to kick a field goal instead, otherwise their first-half lead would have been 31-3.

But the third quarter defense was clearly bad. There were too many missed tackles and defenders overrunning plays.

Those are things the Steelers should be able to clean up, at least to a certain degree.

The quick pace of the Cleveland attack, however, also caused issues in the secondary. You get the idea that the Browns saw the issues the Steelers had with Philadelphia in the preseason and decided to incorporate a little of that in their offensive attack.

It took some time for the Steelers to adjust to it, but they did finally get some stops when it counted, notably with William Gay coming up with a couple of big pass defenses.

But you'd better believe the Steelers are going to see more of that style of attack. It's a big reason why the team's offense can't take its foot off the pedal as it did Sunday.

Ben Roethlisberger said the Steelers wanted to slow things down a little and take some time off the clock. Watching the Browns score 24 unanswered points to tie the game should change that theory moving forward.

@ I really liked all of the diversity I saw in the Steelers offense in the first half of this game. Empty sets with Le'Veon Bell split wide, pistol formations, no-huddle looks, inside screens, outside screens, we saw a little bit of everything.

But again, the Steelers tried to take the air out of the ball in the second half instead of keeping the pedal on the floor.

@ The Steelers weren't the only team to give up big a lead Sunday.

Jacksonville blew a 17-0 halftime lead at Philadelphia to lose, 34-17, while the Patriots allowed 23 unanswered points at Miami to lose to the Dolphins, 33-20.

Cincinnati nearly blew a 15-0 second-half lead before rallying to beat the Ravens, 23-16.

In other words, it happens.

The good news, at least in Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, is that both teams recovered to get the win.

They are feeling a little different about things in New England and Jacksonville.

@ Antonio Brown didn't purposely kick Cleveland punter Spencer Lanning in the face, but it might cost him some money, anyway.

Brown said he decided to hurdle Lanning when he saw Lanning trying to go low on him. Lanning, however, kind of pulled up at the last moment and Brown's cleats hit him right in the face.

It looked like an attempted kick, but it wasn't.

The league office might not see it that way. But Brown isn't a dirty player.

The bad thing was that Brown didn't need to attempt to hurdle Lanning. Had he just cut back to the outside, he probably scores.

@ The Steelers had to be very pleased to see Markus Wheaton have such a big day.

The Browns couldn't have been happy about the day rookie Justin Gilbert had. Gilbert, taken after the Browns traded down with Buffalo, which selected Sammy Watkins, was repeatedly victimized Sunday.

Had the Browns had Watkins instead of Gilbert, there's a good chance they would have won this game.

@ Some other area reporters bought into the preseason talk that the Steelers were committed to splitting carries and playing time between Le'Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount.

I wasn't buying it. In fact, I went on record as saying Bell was going to get 80 percent of the carries this season and could be primed to put up 1,600 total yards.

The breakdown in this game? Bell had 21 carries. Blount got 4.

Bell had 197 total yards in this game, gaining 109 yards on the ground and getting another 88 on six receptions.

Is he going to do that every game? Maybe not. But he's certainly off to a strong start.

@ Marcus Gilbert got paid during training camp. He's going to have to play better than he did in this game to earn that money.

Steelers-Browns game-day thread

It's a gorgeous day at Heinz Field today. Sunny with very little wind and temps in the 70s.

There are no real surprises for the Steelers on the inactive list with Landry Jones, Martavis Bryant, Lance Moore, Brice McCain, Wes Johnson, Chris Hubbard and Daniel McCullers down.

For Cleveland, it's interesting that they have just five defensive linemen up today with Desmond Bryant and John Hughes down.

Look for the Steelers, with Moore out, to feature Dri Archer a little bit as a slot receiver.

Enjoy . . .

Saturday, September 06, 2014

Steelers reach deal with Allen

The Steelers signed cornerback Cortez Allen to a five-year, $26-million contract on Saturday night, locking up one of their starting corners for the future.

Allen had been mentioned by general manager Kevin Colbert as one of four players the team would like to extend in training camp. He had been entering the final season of his contract.

Offensive tackle Marcus Gilbert, placekicker Shaun Suisham and outside linebacker Jason Worilds were the others. All but Worilds, who was transition tagged in the offseason, have now signed extensions.

A former fourth-round draft pick, Allen had 57 tackles and two interceptions in 14 games last season.

His deal is slightly less than the one signed by Keenan Lewis following the 2012 season. Lewis signed a 5-year, $26.3 million deal to leave the Steelers as a free agent for New Orleans.

The difference was that the Steelers now had the cap space to lock up one of their promising young players to a long term deal. Lewis is 28. Allen will turn 26 in October.

Friday, September 05, 2014

Who I like, Cleveland version 1.0

First, let's take care of the injuries for the Steelers.

Wide receiver Lance Moore is out with his groin injury, as is cornerback Brice McCain. With Moore, this is likely a precautionary thing more than anything.

He's been running during practice, so with the short work week coming with the next game Thursday night against Baltimore, the Steelers likely don't want to push things.

They would rather have his services against Baltimore.

Rookie Martavis Bryant is doubtful with his shoulder injury.

With those guys out, look for Justin Brown and Dri Archer to play more prominent roles.

It will be interesting to see how the Browns attack the Steelers' passing game. Last year, they shadowed Antonio Brown with Joe Haden, but that didn't work out so well as Brown had 15 receptions for 179 yards and a touchdown in the two meetings.

But with so many new receivers for the Steelers this season, Cleveland could choose to double Brown, even with Haden on him, and make somebody else win their battle.

As I noted in my story in Friday's Observer-Reporter, new Cleveland head coach Mike Pettine has been on the sideline 12 times against Ben Roethlisberger between his time with the Ravens, Jets and Bills. Roethlisberger has won nine of those matchups, but his passer rating is nearly 10 points lower than his career mark when facing a Pettine-coached defense.

The big thing has been sacks. Pettine-coached defense have 41 sacks against Roethlisberger in those 12 meetings, though nine came in one game against the Ravens in 2006. Still, Pettine's Buffalo defense got to Roethlisberger four times last season.

Offensively, the Browns figure to try a trick play or two in an attempt to make something happen. That could include Johnny Manziel in some form or fashion.

If the Steelers can keep Roethlisberger upright and shut down Cleveland's trick plays, they should come away with a relatively easy win in this one.

They are 6 1/2-point favorites and I like them to come away with a 27-13 victory.

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Wednesday news, notes

Martavis Bryant and Lance Moore did not practice Wednesday for the Steelers and Moore's injury was finally revealed.

While Bryant suffered a sprained shoulder in the preseason finale, Moore had been held out of the last two preseason games.

At first, it was played off  as if nothing was wrong with him. But today, he was officially listed as having a groin injury.

He is running, however, so he's a lot closer to returning than he is having this turning into a multi-week thing. In fact, he could still play this week if he can get back to practice by week's end.

@ Cornerback Brice McCain was limited with his groin injury.

@ During the Antonio Brown show Tuesday night, news broke of the J.J. Watt contract.

Brown noted that Watt actually started his collegiate career at Central Michigan as a tight end. He left for Wisconsin because he didn't feel he was getting the ball often enough.

According to Brown, Watt was a leader, even as a freshman, getting all of his fellow freshmen, including Brown, to do extra workouts.

@ It will be interesting to see how the Steelers use their receivers if  both Bryant and Moore cannot play.

We might see more Dri Archer split wide than the Steelers had normally planned if that's the case.

@ Cam Heyward said today the team is getting a little tired of talking  about last season's 0-4 start. Then again, he also said it's in the mind of everyone who was a member of last year's team to avoid a similar start to this season.

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Season-opening Tuesday with Tomlin

Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin held his season-opening press conference today and was his usual guarded self with his answers to the media.

Still, there was some information to be gleaned from the session.

Tomlin said he expects to use both Antonio Brown and rookie Dri Acher as punt returners this season. The Steelers really wanted Archer to show something to take that job away from Brown, but that didn't happen.

Archer will still be the primary kick return man, but the Steelers will likely pick their spots with Brown.

"He's a Pro Bowl-caliber return man, so that's what you do with those guys, you play them," Tomlin said of using his No. 1 receiver on punt returns.

Archer didn't mishandle or muff any punts in the preseason, but he also returned four of the nine punts he fielded for just six total yards.

* Tomlin said no set package or role has yet been determined for defensive end Brett Keisel.

Also, I'm told we shouldn't read too much into Cam Heyward being listed as the left defensive end with Cam Thomas at right defensive end. Things are still being sorted out, but they want Heyward in the spot in which he is most comfortable and can be most effective.

Heyward started at left defensive end for most of 2013, but switched to the right side in the offseason and training camp. Prior to that, he was a backup at both spots.

Heyward will be on the field 95 percent of the time, with the other guys filling in around him.

* Tomlin sounded iffy only on the prospects of rookie receiver Martavis Bryant playing this weekend with a sprained shoulder.

He said everyone else on the roster has a good chance to play.

* The Steelers expect to see the Browns utilize rookie quarterback Johnny Manziel in some form or fashion, though they're not sure if it will be for a series or two or as a specialty package.

* My favorite Tomlinism of the day was when he was talking about Cleveland cornerback Joe Haden: "Joe Haden has been Joe Haden for a number of years."

Monday, September 01, 2014

Steelers news, notes

The Steelers released their depth chart heading into the regular season opener against Cleveland and it had one change from the previous ones in the starting lineup.

Cam Thomas is now listed as the starter at right defensive end ahead of Brett Keisel. Rookie Stephon Tuitt, who had been listed as the starter at right defensive end, is now listed as the backup at left defensive end behind Cam Heyward.

* The Steelers named their captains on Monday. Ben Roethlisberger was voted the lone captain for the offense. Troy Polamalu, for the first time in his 12-year-career, will captain the defense. Shaun Suisham and Robert Golden are the special teams captains.

Polamalu has never been an outspoken leader, but he's been a leader nonetheless. It's good to see him finally be honored by his teammates, though as he said, "the best time to be a captain is at the Super Bowl."

* The Steelers will honor Chuck Noll with a ceremony prior to the start of Sunday's game. Marianne Noll and Chuck Noll's son, Chris, will be present.

The team also will wear decals on the back of their helmet that read "CHN" this season to honor Noll.

* Martavis Bryant and Brice McCain were the only Steelers who did not practice Monday.