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Saturday, January 31, 2015

Bettis in Hall of Fame and other NFL awards thoughts

Finally, Jerome Bettis can officially count himself among the greatest players in NFL history as he was voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame Saturday.

Bettis is part of an eight-man class that includes Junior Seau, one of the best defensive players I've ever seen in person, and Tim Brown.

But the guess here is that Bettis' induction will draw the biggest crowd to Canton for the induction ceremony Aug. 8.

We all know how well Steelers fans travel and Bettis is among the most popular players in team history. The close proximity to Pittsburgh doesn't hurt, either.

Because of that, as I reported a couple of weeks ago, you can expect the Steelers to play in the Hall of Fame game to open the preseason Aug. 9.

That would mean the Steelers would open training camp July 26 or 27, 14 or so days before that first game.

@ My favorite moment involving Bettis came in 2000 - when the Steelers were trying to replace Bettis with Richard Huntley.

Huntley had averaged 6 yards per carry in 1999 - running mostly on third downs - and was stealing carries from Bettis in 2000. But Bettis wouldn't give way without a fight.

In fact, he was playing through a broken rib. This was something that was amazing to Huntley.

When asked if he would play with broken ribs, Huntley said, "Mother$!@#$@# be hitting and stuff out there. $%$# that."

When Bettis didn't play in a game, you knew the injury had to be bad.

@ It would also often take Bettis a good, long while to talk to reporters after a game. But we waited.

And as you stood there watching Bettis sitting on his stool, welts on his back that looked as if he had been beaten with a baseball bat, struggling to put on his shoe and shirt, you couldn't help but respect the man.

He left it all on the field.

@ The NFL announced its season awards on Saturday night and there were no surprises among the winners.

Aaron Rodgers deservedly won the MVP award, while DeMarco Murray and J.J. Watt won the offensive and defensive player of the year awards.

Antonio Brown and Le'Veon Bell got a combined seven votes in OPOY voting, which was quite respectable.

I was, however, surprised that no Steelers got a vote in the Comeback Player of the Year award voting won by Rob Gronkowski.

Initially, I was surprised James Harrison didn't get any votes. Harrison was barely used in 2013 by Cincinnati and rebounded with a very solid season for the Steelers.

And as a former NFL Defensive Player of the Year, he certainly had the name recognition.

As somebody pointed out to me on Twitter, Maurkice Pouncey also would have been a good choice after missing nearly the entire 2013 season with a torn ACL.

Neither got a vote. But Justin Forsett got two and Kyle Orton got one. Heck, Rolondo McClain finished second with seven votes.

Larry Foote even got one.

I've got no problem with Gronkowski winning the award. But Harrison and Pouncey would have been better choices than some of those other guys.

@ Somebody asked me on Twitter about Sean Spence possibly being considered. But he had actually never really played in an NFL game. His is a great story, but he also didn't have the name recognition to win a national award.

Then again, if Rolondo McClain was considered, who knows?

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Super Bowl news, notes

In a couple of days, I expect that Jerome Bettis will take his spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

There has been a bigger push than ever before to get Bettis, the NFL's sixth-leading rusher, into the hall. That push has been led by the Steelers, who have put a full-court press on the issue this season.

Bettis has been passed over in recent years for other running backs - and I can't argue that he should have gotten in over any of those guys.

But the time has come.

@ I've gone back and forth on my pick for this game. Earlier in the week, I picked the Patriots while on ESPN-970.

But I've changed my mind. I'm going with the Seahawks, 24-20.

@ People talk about watching the game and rooting for one team or the other.

Maybe I'm different, but I can just watch a game with no rooting interest, Perhaps covering the NFL for the past 22 seasons has made that possible. I don't know.

But for those who can't find a rooting interest in this game, there's this: One way or another, one of these teams is going to lose.

And that, in itself, could be something to root for.

@ Once the Super Bowl is finished, things will start heating up with free agency and the scouting combine.

Look for the Steelers to open contract talks with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and linebacker Jason Worilds.

I will be attending the combine in Indianapolis this year for the first time, so I'm hopeful to get some interviews in with some potential Steelers draft picks.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Just ignore the dude

Once again, my media brethren fell into the trap of making a big deal out of covering a guy who doesn't want to be covered.

In this case, I'm talking about Seattle running back Marshawn Lynch, a good player who has a bad attitude.

Lynch has had a couple of run ins with the law during his career - carrying a concealed weapon without a permit and, worse, a hit-and-run. He's not a particularly smart guy.

But in this case, he outfoxed the media.

Lynch doesn't want to fulfill his contract and talk to the media. He's been fined for his ducking of his duties by the NFL.

But Tuesday at media day, a number of the morons who attend that event - and believe me, it's a circus, not a media event - made a point of peppering Lynch with questions at his podium.

He gave the same stock answer to every question, as he has done all season - "I'm here so I don't get fined."

Great. But he also did so with a bad of candy that he has become associated with and while wearing his own brand of clothing.

Had the media paid no attention to him, nobody would have noticed the candy or his hat. Instead, Lynch got the publicity both of those companies wanted - for doing nothing.

Here's a better idea. Nobody cares what this moron has to say. And if nobody pays attention to him, the endorsements will dry up. Companies want their product out in front. If nobody pays attention to Lynch, that doesn't happen.

Lynch also has lashed out at the NFL for coming down on him with fines for not talking and other incidents. Here's an idea, Marshawn, quit.

Nobody is forcing you to play in the NFL. You are doing so because you are being well compensated to do so. And part of that compensation is to play under the rules set forth by the NFL - one of which is to make yourself available to the media. It's in the contract that YOU signed.

But I could care less if Lynch speaks or doesn't speak. I wouldn't talk to him anyway. There have been Steelers in the past to whom I did not speak. They made it obvious that they didn't want to talk to me - or anyone else. So I didn't talk to them.

It only hurt them because they didn't get any stories written about them. I once turned down a large sum of money from a national magazine in 1995 to write a story after the Super Bowl about a member of the Steelers because I didn't talk to him.

Instead, they asked me to write a story about Bill Cowher.

And guess what? When that player now comes back to Pittsburgh for Steelers events, he can't wait to talk to the media. He's as nice about it as can be. It's almost like he's begging to be relevant again.

But those days have passed. Marshawn Lynch will learn that soon enough.

That's my rant for the day. I don't expect some people to understand it. And this isn't a member of the media "crying" because a player doesn't want to talk to me. As stated, if they don't want to talk to me, fine. But they shouldn't get angry because there are repercussions.

Monday, January 26, 2015

I'm afraid to open this can of worms, but . . .'s Monday Morning Quarterback did an in-depth story on Pro Football Focus.

It should be noted that two summers ago, MMQB's Peter King permitted the head of Pro Football Focus to travel around with him on his bus as he toured NFL training camps, so there's definitely a relationship between King and PFF owner Neil Hornsby.

Here's the story on PFF and what it does:

As many of the followers of this blog know, I don't take what I read on PFF as the be-all, end-all of the NFL. As the story correctly notes, the guy sitting next to his computer has no idea what a certain player's responsibilities were on a given play.

That makes judging offensive linemen, defensive linemen and coverages difficult, in my opinion. It's also not always apparent when a wide receiver runs an incorrect route, etc.

Does this mean I don't look at their stats? No. They can be helpful when looking at player participation, quarterback pressures, pass defenses, etc.

But I don't use their grading to tell me whether a player had a good or bad game. I can see that with my own eyes.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Time to do away with the Pro Bowl

The Pro Bowl will be played this weekend.

I know. You're waiting on pins and needles to see whether Team Carter, which includes Antonio Brown, Maurkice Pouncey and Lawrence Timmons, will best Team Irvin, which includes a bunch of other guys.

The fact that the NFL decided to do away with playing the game by conference and using guys, who happen to work for the NFL Network, to pick the teams is only part of the problem.

At least in the old days, the Pro Bowl was an AFC vs. NFC thing. Now, it's who knows what.

It's just made the game more of a farce than it already was.

I'll admit. I've never watched more than five minutes of a Pro Bowl. That's all I needed to see to figure out it was nothing more than a glorified touch football game.

And even at that, injuries happen. Former Steelers All-Pro center Dermontti Dawson suffered a hamstring injury during 1998 Pro Bowl and was never the same after.

New England rookie running back Robert Edwards blew his knee out during a rookie beach football game - when the game was still in Hawaii - and nearly had to have his knee amputated. Seriously.

The latter injury forced the NFL to end its rookie touch football game on the beach. And the time has come to end the farce of a Pro Bowl game as well.

For goodness sakes, so many quarterbacks backed out of this year's game that Andy Dalton, who finished 13th in the Pro Bowl voting at his position, will play in the game.

While we're at it, they can end the all-star games in hockey and the NBA, as well. There's no defense played by anyone at the games and they're nothing more than glorified skills competitions.

Only the Major League Baseball All-Star game bears any resemblance to a regular season game - and that's only in passing.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Rooney speaks about number of subjects

Steelers president Art Rooney II met with a few media members today to talk about the 2014 season and what he expects in 2015 - among other things.

Rooney said he was pleased that the team achieved one of its goals - winning the AFC North - but that the other goals were not reached so there was obvious disappointment.

He said he was especially happy with how the team responded down the stretch in some critical games.

Rooney said the team obviously needs improvement on defense and cited the pass rush as one of the areas where the biggest improvement is needed.

He said the team would like to keep outside linebacker Jason Worilds but wouldn't commit one way or another to tagging Worilds again this season.

@ When asked about former defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, Rooney said he appreciated everything LeBeau did for the Steelers and will miss having him around.

Rooney did say that if LeBeau had stayed, he would have been in a different role. It sounds as if LeBeau was given the choice of staying and Keith Butler moving into the defensive coordinator role with LeBeau as an adviser, or leaving.

LeBeau chose to leave. You can call that forced out or whatever you'd like, but it sounds as if it was LeBeau's choice.

He's likely to serve in an advisory role wherever he lands. He just chose not to do so in Pittsburgh, likely out of respect for Butler.

Had LeBeau stayed, it would have been assumed that he was still the defacto defensive coordinator, with Butler holding the title.

This way, Butler gets to do things his way with no confusion about roles.

@ Rooney said he'd like to get a deal done with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger sooner rather than later for obvious reasons.

It would give the team a better feel where it is at in terms of cap space being first and foremost.

He did say that negotiations have not yet begun but that he expects the deal to get done.

One thing that he did note was that contracts signed by other quarterbacks around the league this offseason would not matter to the Steelers. He admitted that Roethlisberger's agent might try to use them as a starting point, but that the Steelers wouldn't be swayed by them.

@ The team expects the roughly 3,000 additional seats at Heinz Field to be in place for the start of next season. Construction has already begun, though Rooney said it is a tight window.

Those tickets will be offered to people on the waiting list. And there will be a PSL as well. So if you've been on the waiting list, you could be contacted soon if that hasn't happened already.

@ The Steelers had been scheduled to go to New York in training camp to practice against the Bills this summer as Buffalo did at Saint Vincent College last summer.

That is now up in the air with Doug Marrone leaving and being replaced by Rex Ryan.

The joint practices came due to an agreement between Mike Tomlin and Marrone. Ryan might not want to hold the joint practices.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Steelers news, notes

Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown and running back Le'Veon Bell will be honored as the AFC co-offensive players of the year at the NFL 101 Awards in Kansas City next month.

It marks the first time in the 45 years of the award that it will be given to two players - let alone two players from the same team.

Brown and Bell will be the first Steelers to win the award since Kordell Stewart in 2001. Barry Foster also won the award in 1992.

@ The Steelers will likely name Jerry Olsavsky their inside linebackers coach and Joey Porter their outside linebackers coach in the next two days.

@ The Steelers have officially signed former CFL linebacker Shawn Lemon.

The 6-2, 250-pound Lemon, a former star at Akron, had 13 sacks and a CFL-record eight forced fumbles in 2014.

Lemon ran a 4.77 40-yard dash at his college pro day and did 26 reps of 225 but went undrafted.

With James Harrison, Jason Worilds and Arthur Moats all scheduled to become free agents, the Steelers needed some depth at outside linebacker. Lemon could provide some depth  with possible upside and was worth a roll of the dice.

@ I'm scheduled to sit down with Art Rooney II tomorrow - unless he has to reschedule. Have quite a few topics to touch on, including Ben Roethlisberger's contract, the state of the team and the LeBeau replacement.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Second-guessing the Blount decision

There were a lot of people on Twitter Sunday night second-guessing Mike Tomlin's decision to release running back LeGarrette Blount after he walked off the field early following the Steelers' win at Tennessee midway through the season.

But it was more than just that.

Blount exited the field just a few seconds early, as the Steelers were taking a knee to end the game. That, in itself, could have been excused.

But Blount then quickly dressed and went to the team bus, not waiting for Tomlin to speak to the team. And when coach Joey Porter and teammate Mike Mitchell tried to coax him off the bus, he did so grudgingly.

Yes, Blount is a good player. Yes, he might have helped the Steelers in the postseason against Baltimore when Le'Veon Bell was out with a knee injury.

But at what cost?

Nobody in the Steelers' locker room stood up for Blount following his release - even the players he considered and still considers close friends, Bell and Antonio Brown.

And many were glad to see him go, feeling he exhibited selfish behavior.

Think that would have gotten any better had the Steelers kept him around and he continued to see just a play here or there?

Blount considered he and Bell options 1 and 1A. He told me just that while sitting in on the Antonio Brown show five days before the game against the Titans.

Tomlin did not feel the same.

Perhaps Blount could have helped the Steelers in the playoffs. Or perhaps his behavior would have gotten even worse and he would have become a bigger distraction.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

What to look for in mock drafts

Now that the college football season is over, the mock drafts will start taking over the internet with basically anyone who has a laptop coming out with their version of how they think things will go in a few months.

So what should you look for in a mock draft?

I always take a look at the Steelers' pick first. If it's something completely off the wall, I immediately discount the rest of the mock.

What would a crazy pick for the Steelers be this year? How about a nose tackle in the first round, for instance.

CBSSportsline has two regular mock drafters who do them throughout the year. One of their mockers, Dane Brugler, has had the Steelers taking Washington's Danny Shelton for about the past two months - no matter where they have been picking.

Shelton is a good player. He might be the best pure nose tackle available in this draft. But the Steelers aren't going to take him.

With Steve McLendon and Daniel McCullers already in place, the Steelers don't have a need for a nose tackle.

And with more pressing needs at outside linebacker and corner, taking a nose tackle - who would be on the field for 15 or so plays in some games - would be folly.

If the Steelers' pick makes some sense to me, I'll take a look at the rest of the draft. But even then, it can sometimes be discounted.

Last year, for me that included any draft that had Johnny Manziel going in the top 3. I wasn't a Manziel fan - though I could see how some teams might go for the hype.

The bottom line with mocks is to take them for what they are, somebody's guess about what is going to happen. There's a reason I don't start doing my mocks until after the combine, however.

Teams don't begin to set their boards until after they've had the chance to poke and prod these guys. There's no sense in getting to worked up about the draft until that point.

Besides, for me at least, free agency is just as much fun to look at.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Steelers hire Butler

As expected, the Steelers have hired Keith Butler as their defensive coordinator, one day after he met with head coach Mike Tomlin.

Butler, who had coached the Steelers' linebackers since 2003, said he if happy to accept a "once-in-a-lifetime" opportunity.

"This is a dream come true for me, and it would be for a lot of people," Butler told

Butler said his philosophy wouldn't differ greatly from that of former coordinator Dick LeBeau, with whom he had worked since 2004.

But that doesn't necessarily mean their defenses will function exactly the same - although that's not a bad thing. LeBeau's defenses ranked in the top 10 11 times in his 13 seasons as the Steelers defensive coordinator, including No. 1 five times.

"I would consider myself a whatever-it-takes-to-win guy," Butler said. "If it's a 3-4, that's fine, if that fits your players. I think you have to be able to fit your defense around the players you have. With what offenses are doing nowadays in the National Football League, they're playing a lot of three wide receivers and a tight end and a running back, for the most part. In those situations, we're going to be in kind of a 4-3 anyway, but we're still going to run the 3-4 also. It gives you a bit more versatility, I think."

To Butler's point, when the Steelers have been in their base defense, it has been a 3-4. But when they go to their nickel defense, it includes two defensive linemen - typically the defensive ends moving inside - and the outside linebackers serving as rush ends.

That's why it's always made me laugh when fans talk about the Steelers switching to a 4-3 defense. They already are about 50 to 60 percent of the time!

Monday, January 12, 2015

Steelers DC thoughts

Now that things have settled down a bit from the news that Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau would not be back in 2015, we can look a bit at this whole thing a little more clearly.

This is what I know. In the weeks leading up to the end of the season, the Steelers wanted LeBeau back and LeBeau wanted to continue coaching.

At some point, however, that changed.

It could have been a situation that happened while LeBeau was meeting with head coach Mike Tomlin. Both men could have had the intentions of staying together. But during the course of their conversation, that could have changed on the part of one or both.

It also could have been a change of heart on LeBeau's part. Once he figured out that Troy Polamalu, Ike Taylor, Brett Keisel and James Harrison would not be back in 2015, he figured it was also a good time for him to move on.

Either way, from what I hear, the changing of the guard was indeed amicable.

@ That leads us to Keith Butler.

Butler already met with Tomlin to discuss taking over the Steelers defense.

The Steelers linebackers coach has been with the team since 2003 and knows the defense inside and out.

I don't like the assumption, however, that he would simply do things exactly as LeBeau did. After all, has Ray Horton simply copycatted LeBeau?

Horton, unlike Butler, truly is a LeBeau disciple. He not only played for LeBeau, he coached under him in both Cincinnati and Pittsburgh.

But his defense is ultra-aggressive. It is similar to what LeBeau runs/ran, but with his own personal touches to it.

Butler, meanwhile, played at Seattle before turning to coaching. His only other pro experience is at Cleveland from 1999-2002. He joined the Steelers in 2003, a year before LeBeau returned as the DC.

Would he run a similar defense? Yes. Would it be exactly the same? Probably not.

@ If Butler moves up, Jerry Olsavsky would be the likely hire to coach linebackers.

Olsavsky, the team's defensive assistant, does a lot of in-practice work with the Steelers' inside linebackers already. He could assume the role of overseeing the whole group and continue to work with Joey Porter.

@ If you're looking for a name to replace Olsavsky, how about Deshea Townsend?

Townsend served as a defensive assistant under Horton in Arizona and spent this season coaching defensive backs at Mississippi State.

I'm told he has contacted the Steelers a number of times about returning as a coach.

@ If Butler is not hired immediately, it's not a sign he doesn't want the job or the Steelers don't want him.

If I were in Tomlin's shoes, even if Butler is my guy, I'd still want to talk to a couple of outside candidates to see what they think about my defensive personnel and scheme.

I would use this as a good guide to perhaps gauge outside interest in some of my potential free agents, Jason Worilds, in particular.

@ Arizona has already spoken with LeBeau about joining its staff and that would seem to be the most likely landing spot.

The Cardinals could lose defensive coordinator Todd Bowles and LeBeau, even if he weren't the coordinator, could serve in an advisory role much like the one Tom Moore serves in with their offense.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Dick LeBeau out as Steelers defensive coordinator

Saying that it was a mutual parting of ways, Dick LeBeau has resigned as Steelers defensive coordinator.

Knowing, however, that LeBeau wanted to return, I can only assume that after meeting with head coach Mike Tomlin over the past couple of days, LeBeau had a change of heart.

That's a shame.

In 13 seasons as the Steelers defensive coordinator - spanning two tenures - LeBeau's teams led the NFL in total defense five times. They were in the top 10 in 11 of those seasons, falling to 13th in 2013 and 18th in 2014.

Is that LeBeau's fault? Possibly, since he's the man in charge. But the body of work far outweighs the past two seasons, in my opinion, especially when you consider the Steelers were obviously in transition.

In fact, the Steelers have been to four Super Bowls in the 22 seasons I've covered the team, winning twice. All four trips were made with Dick LeBeau as the team's defensive coordinator.

Perhaps this move was made because the Steelers felt they couldn't deny linebackers coach Keith Butler - the heir apparent - any more jobs.

Arizona defensive coordinator Todd Bowles is a hot head coaching prospect and it's likely that Bruce Arians was going to come knocking about Butler again if Bowles departs.

If that's why this happened, that's too bad.

A Hall of Fame player, outstanding strategist and even better person, LeBeau will be missed.

Friday, January 09, 2015

The Bettis vs. Davis debate

Now that both are among the 15 finalists for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the debate will begin over which running back is most deserving of induction, Jerome Bettis or Terrell Davis.

Bettis, as we know, has the better career numbers, while Davis had the better individual seasons.

Bettis supporters will correctly point out that he is the NFL's sixth all-time leading rusher and that of the top 10 players on that list, only Bettis and LaDanian Tomlinson - who is not yet eligible - are not in the Hall of Fame.

Davis, meanwhile, ranks 53rd on the all-time rushing list, tucked in between Chris Warren and Mike Pruitt, a pair of good, but not great, running backs.

In terms of individual seasons, Davis had one good season and two great ones. After his first four seasons, in which he rushed for 1,000 or more yards each year, including a 2,000-yard season in 1998, Davis didn't appear in more than eight games in a season over his final three years.

He led the NFL with 2,008 yards and 21 touchdowns in 1998 after rushing for 1,750 yards and a league-best 15 touchdowns in 1997.

Those are two great seasons, to be sure. But do they outperform Bettis' best seasons and longevity?

Bettis' best two seasons came in 1996 and 1997 when he rushed for 1,431 and 1,665 yards and scored 18 combined touchdowns.

He also had 1,429 yards as a rookie in 1993 and 1,341 in 2000, two other strong seasons. So the argument that Bettis was never a "dominant" running back don't hold water. Those are four very dominant seasons.

In fact, the totals from those seasons - 5,886 yards - compare very well with Davis' best four seasons - 6,413 yards.

Add in the fact that Bettis had eight 1,000-yard seasons compared to four for Davis and Bettis wins in that area.

But, his supporters argue, Davis had a Gayle Sayers-like career. Short but great. Yes, Davis was great - for three seasons.

In his rookie season in 1995, he was OK. Do the names Olandis Gary and Mike Anderson ring a bell?

Gary rushed for 1,159 yards in 1999 in the same system in which Davis flourished, while Anderson had 1,497 in 2000 and scored 15 touchdowns.

Not that any running back could be a star in Denver's system, but it certainly seems like it was conducive to that happening.

The Broncos had a very good blocking scheme and still had John Elway at quarterback when Davis was having his best seasons. Bettis' best seasons came with Jim Everett (and T.J. Rubley), Mike Tomczak, Kordell Stewart and Kent Graham at quarterback.

None of those guys were going to be confused with Elway at any point in their career.

I'm not saying that Davis isn't worthy of Hall of Fame consideration. His four-year run was a good one.

But Bettis' career was better and he deserves to get into the Hall of Fame this year.

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

Tomlin wrap-up notes

Mike Tomlin held his season-ending press conference today and wouldn't comment on the future of any of his coaches or players, saying he wanted to wait until he had completed his exit interviews with everyone.

Tomlin was specifically asked about 78-year-old defensive Dick LeBeau. But Tomlin said he also has not spoken with LeBeau about his future.

Know this: LeBeau wants to coach in 2015, if not in Pittsburgh, then somewhere. And he would get another job if the Steelers cut him loose, which they are not likely to do.

With what promises to be a much younger defense, it makes a lot of sense to bring back LeBeau, one of the greatest defensive coordinators in league history, than force a team that could have as many as four new starters, to have everyone start over with a different coordinator.

And the Steelers would just turn things over to defensive coordinator-in-waiting Keith Butler, anyway.

@ Tomlin said he met with general manager Kevin Colbert on Monday to begin going over the team's cap situation and early draft prep.

The Steelers hold the 22nd pick in the draft and currently have an estimated $5 million in cap space - if the cap comes in at just under 140.8 million. But that projected cap number could go up and the Steelers can easily clear more space.

For example, if Troy Polamalu retires or is released, the cap number goes up to $8.9 million. Releasing Cam Thomas would raise that number to $10.9 million. Lance Moore would take it to $12.45 million.

And those are easy moves to make.

@ I found it interesting that Tomlin mentioned that he brought up Sean Spence's struggles to return to the field to rookie Ryan Shazier when they had their exit meeting.

The Steelers felt that Shazier could have come back sooner from his initial knee injury. Tomlin used Spence as a way to point that out to the rookie, stating that some people in the organization didn't think Spence would ever come back but Tomlin didn't write him off.

@ When asked about his biggest disappointment with his team, Tomlin was quick to point out the lack of big plays in the return game.

Antonio Brown had big punt returns in the opener against Cleveland and regular season finale against Cincinnati and little in between.

Dri Archer and LeGarrette Blount didn't work out as kick returners - though I'm not ready to give up on Archer yet in that regard - and Markus Wheaton worked out only in that he was better than the other guys.

@ Ben Roethlisberger (knee), Matt Spaeth (elbow) and Mike Mitchell (groin) were the only players Tomlin said might require minor "clean-up" surgeries.

Monday, January 05, 2015

Steelers news, notes

The Steelers held their final meetings on Monday and prepared to head into the offseason.

The general feeling among the players seemed to be that this season had been a big step - but only the first one.

After all, while the Steelers had 27 players who had been in the postseason before, for a large portion of this roster, especially the guys that mattered, Saturday's game against the Ravens was really their first taste of playoff football.

And given that that Steelers have now lost their last three playoff games - including a pair of one-and-dones in 2011 and 2014 - there aren't many guys on the roster who have tasted playoff success.

But, as Troy Polamalu said following Saturday's game, the teams that he was on that won Super Bowls were turned away in the previous seasons.

In 2004, the Steelers lost in the AFC Championship, a defeat that made them a more hungry group that offseason.

In 2007, the Steelers - though a playoff-tested group that had won the Super Bowl just two years earlier - lost in the opening round of the playoffs to Jacksonville. And that group had missed the playoffs altogether in 2006.

The Steelers feel like they are a team on the rise. And at least offensively, that is certainly the case.

Of the offensive players who matter, only Ben Roethlisberger and Heath Miller are over 30. Heck, running back Le'Veon Bell doesn't turn 23 until next month. There will be players coming out in this year's draft who are older.

And all 11 starters and a number of key contributors are under contract for next season.

Defensively, there will be some questions. But we saw a number of young players thrust into bigger roles this season and they got better as the year wore on.

Yes, Troy Polamalu, James Harrison, Brett Keisel and Ike Taylor will all be gone, but only Harrison played a significant role this season. And he still appeared in just 12 games counting the playoffs.

@ I keep seeing and hearing people talk about the possibility of Taylor moving to safety - including Taylor.

Yes, Taylor stays in great shape. But he doesn't have the ball skills to play safety. Period, End of discussion.

@ Bell said he would have been ready to play this week against Denver had the Steelers advanced. He plans on playing in the Pro Bowl.

@ Yes, Mike Mitchell had a tear in his groin. No, it was not enough to keep him from playing.

Mitchell had a tough season in his first year in Pittsburgh. But he was asked to do different things than he had done in Carolina or Oakland.

I expect him to be better in 2015. And yes, he'll still be part of this team.

@ Cortez Allen also will get a chance to show that he can play.

To me, his issue in 2014 was confidence. He drew a number of penalties early in the season as the league cracked down on defensive holds and illegal use of hands to the face.

He's just 26 and I believe he'll adjust and be better in 2015.

The same people wanting to run Mitchell and Allen out of town are likely the same people who couldn't wait for William Gay to leave and trashed the team for re-signing him.

How'd that work out.

@ Not that the front office is without fault. The Cam Thomas signing was a very, very bad one. And Lance Moore has obviously lost whatever he once had as well.

But give the front office credit for finding Brice McCain, Antwon Blake and Arthur Moats on the scrap heap. All were key contributors to this season.

Sunday, January 04, 2015

Post Steelers-Ravens playoff thoughts

Tip of the hat to the Ravens. They were better than the Steelers in this game.

I still feel like the Steelers are a better team, all things being equal. But things weren't equal in this game.

Baltimore had plenty of injuries to deal with this season, particularly in its secondary. The Ravens did not, however, have to deal with the loss of 34 percent of its offense on a short week.

I felt the Steelers would have enough on offense to get by in one game - at home - without Bell. But the Ravens had no respect for the Pittsburgh running game, which showed when it continually dropped six or seven into coverage.

Bell would have made the Ravens pay in some of those situations.

@ That said, Baltimore's pass rushers made a difference in this game. If I'm running the Steelers, my top priority this offseason is improving the pass rush.

@ The Steelers offensive line, which I felt would need to play one of its best games, most certainly did not.

@ Penalties didn't help. But I can't argue with any of the penalties that were called on the Steelers. They were legit.

At the same time, it seemed like the Ravens got away with some things the Steelers did not - ie. holding on the edge and a pass interference that was not called on Martavis Bryant.

I realize Lardarius Webb had his head turned around on the deep throw to Bryant in the third quarter, but the only way he was going to break up that pass was if he happened to get his feet tied up with Bryant.

@ If that was the final game for Troy Polamalu, James Harrison, Brett Keisel and Ike Taylor, I tip my hat to all four.

Those guys were key members of some great defenses.

They didn't have a major impact this season - with Harrison playing the best of the group - but their impact in the locker room cannot be overlooked.

Polamalu talked in the locker room after this game about what it meant to be a Steeler and rattled off the names of players such as Hines Ward, Alan Faneca, Joey Porter, Jerome Bettis, etc.

Players in this locker room can school future young players about what it was like to play with Polamalu, Harrison, Taylor and Keisel.

@ The schedule is more difficult next season, but with an offense that will be back in its entirety, the Steelers can be looked at as a team on the rise.

The defense will need some re-tooling, but I think we saw improvements as this season wore on.

The defensive line, with Cam Heyward, Steve McLendon, Stephon Tuitt and Daniel McCullers, looks like it has four solid pieces. McLendon and McCullers were especially good against the Ravens.

And the Steelers are heavily stocked at inside linebacker.

But Jarvis Jones is the only outside linebacker signed and Will Gay, Cortez Allen and B.W. Webb are the only corners signed for next season.

Mike Mitchell, Shamarko Thomas and Ross Ventrone are the only safeties signed.

Some work will be needed there.

@ Speaking of Ventrone, if there is a player in the NFL who does more with less, I don't know who it is. What a great special teams player he turned out to be.

Saturday, January 03, 2015

Steelers-Ravens playoff thread

Greetings from a dry and unseasonably warm Heinz Field.

The weather will not be a factor in this game. It's in the 50s with no rain and none expected until after midnight.

A surprise inactive for the Steelers is receiver Lance Moore. Ike Taylor, Le'Veon Bell, Clifton Geathers, Chris Hubbard and Michael Palmer also are down.

For Baltimore, left tackle Eugene Monroe is a key inactive, as is DT Timmy Jernigan.

Rookie James Hurst will start at LT, while Marshall Yanda will start at RT. Rookie John Urschel will start at RG.

Those are some key lineup changes for the Ravens.

Thursday, January 01, 2015

Who I like, Baltimore-Steelers playoff version

First, let's touch on the weather. It's expected to be chilly and wet, with as much as a 1/2-inch of rain expected.

That has changed somewhat from earlier in the week, when it was expected to get into the 30s with rain turning to snow. That forms ice, which isn't exactly good for football. Rain, the players can deal with.

The Steelers will likely be without the services of running back Le'Veon Bell, who has accounted for 34 percent of their offense this season. That's the bad news.

The good news is that Antonio Brown and Ben Roethlisberger will play. And unless the Ravens somehow went out and signed Rod Woodson and Deion Sanders in their respective primes, Baltimore has no answer for either one.

The Ravens have allowed 278 receptions this season by opposing wide receivers, which is the most in the NFL, for 3,568 yards, which is the second-highest total permitted.

And they were a team that faced Blake Bortles, Case Keenum and Connor Shaw over the final three weeks - losing to Keenum.

Bell will certainly be missed in the passing game, but he had just 79 rushing yards on 21 carries against the Ravens this season.

The Steelers weren't going to win this game based on their rushing attack.

It's all about the passing game, and even without Bell, the Steelers still have four guys on their roster who had 500 or more receiving yards this season, led by Brown, the NFL leader in both receptions and receiving yardage.

Baltimore had three - barely, as tight end Owen Daniels went over that mark in the final game of the regular season.

With Bell out, the Ravens figure to play the Steelers to throw the ball a lot. But that could help the running game. Josh Harris is unlikely to face any eight or nine-man fronts.

If the Steelers can control Baltimore's pass rush, which was second in the league with 49 sacks, they should have success.

Defensively, the Steelers have to limit the running of Justin Forsett. After giving up 157 yards on ther ground in their 26-6 loss at Baltimore - which much of the damage being done in the fourth quarter - the Steelers limited the Ravens to 63 yards on 18 carries in the rematch in Pittsburgh. The Steelers won that game, 43-23.

The idea should be to force Joe Flacco to win this game and make him go pass for pass with Roethlisberger.

The Steelers are 3-point favorites to win this game. If Bell were playing, I'd favor the Steelers, who went 5-1 vs. playoff teams this season, to win by 10 or more.

Troy Polamalu will be back in the lineup for the Steelers. This could be his final game at Heinz Field. I expect the crowd, and he, will be pumped up accordingly.

I'll take the Steelers, 27-23.