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Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Who I like, Ravens part I

Oh the story lines for this game.

The Steelers will be playing without starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger once again against the Ravens. It will mark the seventh time they've faced the Steelers without Roethlisberger since he became the starter in 2004. Baltimore has won five of the previous six matchups.

I think the Steelers will be OK in the long term with Vick at quarterback - and it will be long-term as Roethlisberger is expected to miss closer to six weeks than he is four - but this is a tough spot for the Steelers to get Vick prepared.

They had one "regular" practice on Tuesday and it was more of a glorified walk through. Considering Vick's talents do not mimic those of Roethlisberger, it's a lot to expect to have him be a finished product at this point.

But the Ravens have some issues of their own. In addition to having defensive star Terrell Suggs out for the season, Baltimore will be without tight end Crockett Gillmore, left tackle Eugene Monroe and defensive end Chris Canty.

Monroe is overrated in my opinion, but he is the starter, so anytime you get the backup out there, that's not a good thing.

The big loss is Gillmore, who has emerged as a secondary target behind Steve Smith. Justin Forsett is second on the team with 12 catches, but is averaging four yards a catch.

Does that even things out?

A bit. But not enough in my mind for the Steelers to win this one on a short week.

The Ravens are in circle-the-wagons mode right now at 0-3. I'm not surprised they are struggling. I thought they would be the team in the AFC that would take a step back this year to, say, 8-8. But I didn't expect them to be 0-3 at this point.

If the Steelers can exploit Baltimore's horrid pass defense - you think Pittsburgh's pass defense is bad, wait 'til you get a load of these guys - they can win this game. But I just don't think that Vick, on a short week, will be able to completely do that.

The Steelers will have more than a full week of practices before playing against in two Mondays against San Diego and I expect Vick to be better prepared for that one.

The Ravens are 2 1/2-point favorites for this game and I expect them to cover that line and win, 23-17.

* A housekeeping note: The Steelers waived defensive end Caushaud Lyons Wednesday and elevated linebacker Anthony Chickillo to their 53-man roster.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Mid-week news and notes on a short week

Ben Roethlisberger said today that he feared the worst when he was initially hit in the Steelers' 12-6 win at St. Louis.

According to Roethlisberger, he felt something very wrong with his leg and feared he had broken it. Even after that was ruled out, Roethlisberger was concerned he had torn his ACL.

The initial pop that he felt was attributed to the bones in his knee banging together, something that caused the bone bruise that went along with his MCL sprain.

Roethlisberger wouldn't put a timetable on his return but did say he'd like to return sooner rather than later, Thursday, in fact, against the Ravens.

* Offensive coordinator Todd Haley admitted that he'll have to change things somewhat to tailor the offense toward Mike Vick.

The biggest change for Haley? He said that will be adjusting to a left-handed quarterback.

The Steelers haven't had many lefties over the years - the last was Tyler Palko, who had a cup of coffee here a few years ago.

Haley said because of that, he has to kind of flip his mentality when it comes to where the ball is placed. They will adjust their formations to make the left side the strong side in many cases.

* Haley said he and Vick met Monday night to go over the plays with which Vick is most comfortable and that they will go from there.

But on a short week, Haley said he can't make big changes to the playbook to take advantage of Vick's skill set.

* Another issue will be catching passes with a left-handed spin on them. But that didn't seem to be a problem Tuesday.

The Steelers also adjusted their jugs machine to simulate a lefty, allowing the receivers to get accustomed to that spin.

* Vick still throws a pretty deep ball. It's effortless when he flicks the ball deep.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Tuesday with Tomlin/Monday edition

Mike Tomlin didn't have a lot of time to either celebrate the Steelers' win Sunday at St. Louis or lament the loss of Ben Roethlisberger for at least the next month.

He's got a game Thursday night against an 0-3 Baltimore Ravens team for which to prepare his team.

And Tomlin expects the Ravens to be angry.

"I would imagine that they are not demoralized," Tomlin said. "Quite frankly, I would imagine that they are angry."

That's all well and good. The Ravens should be angry. They should be angry that they laid an egg at Oakland in Week 2. They should be angry that they were shut out at home by Cincinnati and then blew a pair of fourth quarter leads to the Bengals.

* Tomlin did admit the Steelers might have to adjust their offense some to make things easier on quarterback Mike Vick, who has been with the team for just over a month.

It was a rare admittance for Tomlin, who typically wouldn't say something like that about a backup playing.

But the reality is that the quarterback position is the most important position on any football team. People who say it isn't typically don't have one and are trying to trick themselves into believing that isn't true.

The Steelers are 10-8 in games not started by Roethlisberger since they selected him in the first round of the 2004 draft. They are 9-7 overall without him since he took over for an injured Tommy Maddox three weeks into that 2004 season.

A healthy portion of those missed games have, ironically, come against the Ravens, the team against which he saw his first NFL action in place of Maddox.

Since 2004, Thursday's game will mark the seventh game he's missed in his career against the Ravens, though one of those games came because the Steelers chose to sit him. The Steelers are 2-4 against the Ravens without Roethlisberger at quarterback. They are 9-6 against the Ravens when he starts.

* If Roethlisberger is, indeed, out for a month, this game Thursday is an important one. The Steelers have to win at least one of the next four games without Roethlisberger if they hope to still have a shot at the playoffs.

After Baltimore, they travel to San Diego, host Arizona and play at Kansas City. That's a tough stretch.

* Tomlin said linebacker Ryan Shazier is experiencing weakness in his injured shoulder, which would be in line with my initial report of it being a stinger.

A stinger is weakness or numbness caused by a nerve being pinched. It's just lingering with Shazier.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Post-St. Louis thoughts

The big news coming out of Sunday's 12-6 win by the Steelers is obviously the state of Ben Roethlisberger's left leg.

Roethlisberger was knocked out of Sunday's game in the third quarter on a play that should have been penalized in former head of officiating Mike Pereira's opinion.

There was no penalty on the play and things were left up to the defense to close this one out.

There is a possibility Barron could draw a fine for lunging at Roethlisberger's knee.

As for Roethlisberger's injury, the Steelers are assuming it's a sprained knee and that he'll be out four weeks. That's best-case scenario.

Roethlisberger had an MRI Sunday night to make sure the ACL is not torn, but team doctors are cautiously optimistic that it's not.

In the meantime, the Steelers will turn to Mike Vick.

* There have still be protests outside of Heinz Field regarding Vick, just in case you're wondering.

* The Steelers can all but bury the Ravens with a win over Baltimore Thursday night.

* The way Pittsburgh's defense is playing right now, I wouldn't bet against them. The players have a way of rallying around a backup quarterback.

And the young defense is playing well. Stephon Tuitt and Cam Heyward have been beasts.

In fact, the whole defensive line is continually making plays. Yes, Cam Thomas, I saw you busting through the line into the backfield to force the back to change directions and get stuffed.

* The special teams coverage units also give the Steelers an excellent chance to win each week. The coverage against very dangerous Tavon Austin Sunday was very good.

* The sledding was tough out there for Le'Veon Bell in his first game back, but it will get better. I know Rams were gouged the previous week by Washington, but they did shut down Seattle's run game in Week 1.

* St. Louis came in allowing opponents to complete 81 percent of their passes. Roethlisberger and Vick were a combined 25 of 30, so the Rams lowered their completion percentage allowed.

* The offensive line had its hands full, particularly in the second half with St. Louis' pass rush.

The Rams' defensive line is very, very good, probably the best the Steelers will see.

* It was funny watching Twitter erupt when the Steelers finally missed on a two-point conversion. Yeah, because they were never going to miss.

* At that point, the Steelers had pretty much done what they wanted on offense. Why not go for 2?

* Ryan Shazier had his arm in a sling Sunday. That wasn't the case all week, so there's something going on there that the team was letting on.

I thought Vince Williams would start in his place. The team instead went with Sean Spence. I can't say that was a bad choice. Spence played well.

But I really like Williams' game.

Steelers-Rams game-day thread

Rookie L.T. Walton will see his first  NFL action today for the Steelers against the Rams as he's active with Daniel McCullers out with a knee injury.

Cortez Allen also is out today for the Steelers, meaning the corners will be William Gay, Antwon Blake and Brandon Boykin.

Also inactive for the Steelers are Landry Jones, Ryan Shazier, Chris Hubbard, Jesse James and Caushaud Lyons.

For the Rams, rookie running back Todd Gurley is active. It will be interesting to see how much he's used today. Remember, he hasn't taken a snap since tearing his ACL last November while at Georgia.

Ryan Shazier has his right arm in a sling today on the field. That was not the case all week.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Who I like, Steelers vs. Rams

Guess who's back? No, not just Le'Veon Bell, but Todd Gurley as well. That's the only reason I can figure the line moving this week from the Steelers being favored by 2 1/2 to this being a pick-em game.

Then again, the Steelers' offense over the past two seasons hasn't been as prolific on the road as it has been at home.

Ben Roethlisberger has thrown 26 TD passes and four interceptions in his past nine home games. On the road over the past nine games, those numbers are 10 an 6.

For this Steelers team to truly be a Super Bowl contender - and I believe they are - they have to get more even performances from Roethlisberger in his home-road splits.

This week would be a good time to start.

As mentioned, the Steelers get Bell back. That should be a huge boost. He's yet another difference maker in an offense loaded with them.

But the Rams will see Gurley make his debut. The top back selected in this year's draft, Gurley was the best running back in college last year before tearing his ACL.

As we have seen, however, even when a player returns from an ACL injury, it typically takes some time to round into form.

St. Louis can get after the quarterback, but the Steelers have done a nice job protecting the passer and the insertion of Bell into the equation should only help that. Opponents have to be aware of where he is at all times.

If the Steelers can continue to protect Roethlisberger as they have - he's been hit an NFL-low five times in two weeks - they should win this one going away. The Steelers have done a nice job thus far of stopping the run and I don't see how the Rams keep up unless Pittsburgh turns it over two or three times.

I like the Steelers to win this one, 31-17.

The Dale Lolley Steelers podcast

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Mid-week news and notes

Tyler Murphy was the player released by the Steelers on Wednesday to make room for Le'Veon Bell on the 53-man roster.

It was a bit of a surprise only because I figured the team would wait and release Murphy in two weeks when Martavis Bryant returns.

For this roster spot, I thought L.T. Walton or Caushaud Lyons would be the one released, since the team doesn't need seven defensive linemen.

But Daniel McCullers' knee injury and possible unavailability this week might have cost Murphy his job and saved Walton or Lyons a roster spot for at least a couple of weeks.

Some felt Dri Archer was going to be released. I didn't see that happening and actually had some side bets on it - I won.

The Steelers aren't about to give up on a third-round pick 18 games into his career. Archer also hasn't exactly gotten an opportunity to show one way or another if he's capable of being the kick return guy this season.

Archer got four opportunities to return kicks in the preseason. He averaged 24.5 yards per return - not great, but not bad. And it's a small sample size.

He's gotten one chance to return a kick in the regular season and picked up 22 yards on that one.

The point is, we don't know for certain that Archer can't do it this season. Yes, he stunk doing it last season, but that was just that, last season.

Some fans - and media members - were ready to move on from Archer. The Steelers, however, are not.

* Ben Roethlisberger while talking about the two-point conversion success the team has had early on said the players finally talked Mike Tomlin out of opening Wednesday's practice sessions with 7 Shots - their two-point conversion practice.

He did say they will continue to open with it Thursdays and Fridays.

The Steelers credit their success with two-point conversions to 7-Shots and Roethlisberger said they go into each game with 7 to 10 two-point conversion plays in their back pocket each week.

Roethlisberger said the Steelers will continue to be steady users of the two-point conversion because they are comfortable with it. And more importantly, they are good at it.

* Much is being made about how the Steelers will utilize DeAngelo Williams now that Le'Veon Bell is back.

I don't think it really matters.

Bell is the horse. He needs to be on the field all the time. If there are times when he's spelled by Williams, so be it.

But Williams isn't going to pout if he's not utilized. He knows what he was brought he to do. And he knows who the main guy is.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Tuesday with Tomlin, other thoughts

Mike Tomlin couldn't talk enough about the St. Louis defensive line, and most notably, Aaron Donald, today at this weekly press conference.

The Rams have five former first-round draft picks on their defensive line and Jeff Fisher has does what he typically does, build his defense from the front to back.

Fisher's defenses have always given the Steelers fits, both because they've typically done a nice job of stuffing the run and getting to the quarterback.

But this group did allow a bunch of rushing yards on Sunday against Washington, which might have the worst roster in the league, losing 24-10.

The Rams stop the run on the way to the quarterback. And if the Steelers can get Le'Veon Bell out on the edge, he could have a lot of success.

The Steelers offensive line also has done an outstanding job both in run blocking and pass blocking in the first two weeks.

That should be a premiere matchup.

* Tomlin spoke a lot about going into a hostile environment this week but I don't know that will be the case.

The Rams announced a crowd of 50,000 or so for their opener against Seattle two weeks ago but that seemed like a stretch.

People in St. Louis aren't supporting this team because it has one foot out the door to Los Angeles.

I have a feeling the stadium could be filled a little closer to capacity this week, but it will be filled with Steelers fans, not those wanting to see the Rams.

* Tomlin said only Daniel McCullers (knee swelling) is on the injury report at this time. He was also asked about Cortez Allen, who also has had issues with knee swelling and missed last week's game.

Tomlin said he's not sure that the current knee issue is the same one Allen was dealing with in the preseason, though it is. I asked if there was a possibility of surgery being needed, but Tomlin said that wasn't the case.

* Tomlin said he's not concerned with placekicker Josh Scobee at this point. Scobee has missed two of four field goal attempts and missed a PAT against the 49ers.

Part of the problem could be new punter Jordan Berry, who is the holder, but that's just a theory on my part. I, and the Steelers, expect Scobee to be better as the season moves on.

* The Ravens, Seahawks and Colts are all 0-2 and history says that 0-2 teams make the playoffs just under 12 percent of the time.

The Colts have the best chance of bucking that trend. They started 0-2 last season and made the playoffs thanks to playing in the AFC South, where they get what should be six easy wins.

Seattle also has a chance to rebound in a pretty wide-open NFC playoff race.

The Ravens, however, are in deep trouble. They host Cincinnati this week and play the Steelers on the road on a short week next Thursday.

An 0-4 start would leave them finished. A 1-3 start is barely passable.

* The Houston Chronicle is reporting that Martavis Bryant is in Houston working with former NBA player and coach John Lucas during his 4-game suspension for marijuana use.

Lucas is well-known for his work with athletes who have issues with drug abuse. This is a good step for Bryant, who is one failed test away from a 10-game suspension.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Post-San Francisco thoughts

I thought the Steelers would come away with a relatively easy victory Sunday against the 49ers. I didn't, however, think it would be as easy as it wound up being.

The key, at least to me, was the defense's ability to do a nice job against the run again.

After limiting the Patriots to 80 rushing yards last week, the Steelers gave up 111 on 31 attempts Sunday. But that doesn't tell the true story.

Nearly half of those rushing yards - 51 - came on eight carries by quarterback Colin Kaepernick. San Francisco's running backs had 60 yards on 23 carries.

We didn't see as many missed tackles as we saw last week, too.

Yes, the 49ers finished with just over 400 yards of total offense, but that number was just over 100 yards and three points in the first half and two third quarter possessions resulted in no scores for the 49ers, as well.

* The Steelers defensive backs came with an attitude in this one as well.

Mike Mitchell had a hit on Carlos Hyde early that some were calling dirty on Twitter. I didn't see that as being the case, as Hyde was still up and fighting for yards when Mitchell came in and hit him on his leg.

Hyde later left with a head injury and did not return.

But the defensive backs were aggressive and that aggressiveness led to some pass breakups, something we didn't see last week at New England.

* Ben Roethlisberger not only wasn't sacked Sunday, he wasn't touched.

There wasn't a lot of running room in this game - though the run game did produce 84 yards - but Roethlisberger had all day to sit back and scan the field. And he made the 49ers pay time and again.

* With all due respect to J.J. Watt or Tom Brady or anyone else, Antonio Brown is the best player in the NFL regardless of position.

Opponents know he's getting the ball. And yet he's constantly open.

Roethlisberger attempted 11 passes to Brown Sunday. He caught nine of them for 195 pounds and a touchdown.

* What does a team do a day after scoring 43 points? How about bench the NFL's second-leading rusher?

The Steelers offensive line is playing really well and so has DeAngelo Williams.

But LeVeon Bell comes back Monday.

That can't be comforting to any opponents.

* Ryan Shazier had 15 tackles, three for a loss, a sack, a fumble and a fumble recovery. And he's still just scratching the surface of what he can do.

The Steelers didn't use Shazier as a spy on Kaepernick. They didn't have to.

He played a short zone and used his speed to run Kaepernick or whoever was carrying the ball, again and again.

Yes. Kaepernick averaged 6.4 yards per rushing attempt. But if Shazier doesn't tackle him on some of those rushing attempts, he might still be running.

Shazier is going to be a special, special player.

* Yes, there is some concern about Josh Scobee's misses. He banged a PAT off the upright Sunday, giving him three misses in two games.

He's got to be better then that. Then again, the Steelers shouldn't be settling for field goals or kicking PATs with this offense.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Friday notes and who I like vs. San Francisco

The Steelers list Brandon Boykin as probable to play this week despite sitting out practice Wednesday and Thursday with a groin injury. Cortez Allen is questionable with his knee issue, which has been an ongoing problem.

Despite Boykin being probable, look for second-year player Ross Crockrell to get the nod as the team's nickel cornerback Sunday against the 49ers.

Cockrell played just a handful of defensive snaps for the Buffalo Bills last season and was released at the end of training camp and quickly scooped up by the Steelers. He's a lanky corner who appears to have good hands.

All of that said, the 49ers are more of a double tight end team than they are one that will go three wide and spread the field. Last week against Minnesota, their No. 3 receiver saw 17 snaps in 60 plus plays from scrimmage.

* If I'm calling the plays for the Steelers in this one, I take a page out of the book teams used against the Steelers in early 2002.

The Steelers were coming off a 13-3 season with Kordell Stewart at quarterback. But they relied heavily on their defense and running game to control game, much like this 49ers team appears with Colin Kaepernick and its 3-4 defense.

I would spread the 49ers out and throw nearly every down as New England and Oakland did to start that season, something that led to Stewart's eventual benching.

I think Kaepernick is a more refined passer than Stewart, but Stewart, with a young Hines Ward and Plaxico Burress had better receivers.

The plan should be to score and keep scoring to force the 49ers' limited offense to throw the ball to keep up.

If the game stays close, the 49ers will be content to continue hurling Carlos Hyde into the line. The Steelers allowed just 80 rushing yards last week against New England, but they did get hurt on a couple of runs by Dion Lewis.

Hyde isn't as shifty as Lewis, but he's more shifty than you might think.

I would want to put the game on Kaepernick's shoulder's and force him to win it. In 40 career starts, he has 14 games with fewer than 200 passing yards and three with more than 300.

He also was sacked 52 times last season on 478 pass attempts.

Get the lead, make him throw and go after him.

I think the Steelers will do that, break the game open in the second half and come away with a 26-20 victory with San Francisco getting a late window dressing score.

* Here's my podcast on this week's game

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Mid-week news and notes

So much for Brandon Boykin getting into the lineup.

Boykin was sidelined by a groin injury today, joining Cortez Allen (knee) on the sidelines.

That left Will Gay, Antwon Blake and newcomer Ross Cockrell as the Steelers' top three corners.

I hadn't paid much attention to Cockrell since he signed last week after final cutdowns following his release by Buffalo, but he's a long, lanky corner and it looks like he has good hands.

I don't know that the Steelers will be in a ton of nickel defense this week since San Francisco's not exactly going to use a lot of three-wide sets and try to spread the Steelers out, but from what I saw, Cockrell wouldn't be a bad fallback. At this point, he's certainly a better option than Doran Grant.

That's no knock on Grant. Cockrell just has more experience.

* Saw Shaun Suisham at the facility today. He's out of his knee brace and walking normally. It looks like his surgery was a success.

That's good news for Suisham, who's one of the nicest guys you'll find.

* Will Allen was cleared of his concussion and was back on the practice field.

That's good news, since the Steelers remain intent on starting him over Shamarko Thomas, at least in the short term.

But they'll have to keep a close eye on Allen. San Francisco's Carlos Hyde is a very physical runner.

*Antonio Brown has caught seven or more passes in 12-straight games. That's an NFL record. He just might be the most unstoppable force going in football today.

He had nine catches in the opener. If he averages nine catches per game, he'll break Marvin Harrison's single-season receptions record.

Is that possible? Sure. If Bill Belichick didn't devise a way to slow Brown, can anyone else?

* Bonus pick: The Broncos visit the Kansas City Chiefs Thursday night having won 12 consecutive road games within the division.

But Kansas City is a 3-point favorite in this one.

I like Kansas City's pass rush against a revamped Denver offensive line, especially in that stadium, which is the loudest in the NFL.

Take Kansas City to go to 2-0 with a 24-17 victory.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Tuesday with Tomlin

While Brandon Boykin confirmed Monday that he had worked as the nickel corner with the first-team defense here, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin, not wanting to tip his hand, would only say that Boykin is under "strong consideration" for more playing time this week against San Francisco.

Tomlin was asked today why Boykin didn't play last week against New England, as the team went with William Gay, Antwon Blake and Cortez Allen against the Patriots.

He simply replied, "We chose to go with other guys."

That explanation won't satisfy, well, anyone, but Tomlin doesn't have to divulge his reasons, either.

It could have been a myriad of things. But most notably, it shouldn't have surprised anyone. Boykin got very little work with the No. 1 nickel unit in the preseason because he hadn't beaten any of those guys out. There were some thoughts he was dealing with a minor, nagging injury.

Now, after last week's game, Tomlin has reason to make a move. Like it or not, this is typically how the Steelers work.

They rarely just move a guy out of a starting spot because they think someone else might be better. I can only think of it happening a couple of times since I've covered the team.

One was Ryan Shazier last season. The other was Jarvis Jones in 2013.

Shazier started from the opening day of OTAs over Vince Williams, while Jones was inserted as a co-starter with Jason Worilds.

Other first-round picks, star rookies or even free agents had to earn their spots. Boykin got a late start coming in a week into training camp. It wasn't out of character for the Steelers to start the guys who had been here longer.

* Tomlin noted that the Steelers pass rushers had better be ready to keep San Francisco QB Colin Kaepernick in the pocket this week.

Kaepernick scrambled seven times for 41 yards against Minnesota Monday night, converting some of those runs on third down into first downs.

The 49ers also ran the ball well with Carlos Hyde. This will be a game to break out the big boy pads.

* Conversely, Tomlin also noted that the 49ers stuffed Adrian Peterson, limiting him to 31 yards on 10 carries.

San Francisco's line dominated the Vikings. The Steelers had better be prepared to attack the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball.

* Depth chart change: Will Allen is now officially listed as the starter at strong safety and Tomlin said Shamarko Thomas needs to be better "above the shoulders."

The Steelers aren't giving up on Thomas by any stretch. But he's struggling with some of the new concepts he's being asked to play.

* At right cornerback, it lists Cortez Allen or Blake as the starter. Allen was listed as the starter last week, but Blake actually started.

I thought Allen - who got called for a terrible pass interference penalty - had a better game than Blake last week, but it was very close.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Week 1 musings

Half the fan bases in the league right now are singing the blues while the other half are printing playoff tickets.

It's way too early for both.

But we did see some things in the opening week of NFL play - Monday night's games aside - that give us a glimpse of the way of things.

Steelers fans are going nuts about the team's secondary after Tom Brady threw four TDs against Pittsburgh  in the opener.

I've even seen comments where people are saying they wish Dick LeBeau was back. I respect the hell out of Dick LeBeau. He's probably the greatest defensive mind I've ever been around.

But the last time the Steelers visited New England, the Patriots hung 28 points on the Steelers - IN THE FOURTH QUARTER - and put 55 points on the board.

And before you say that the Patriots took their foot off the gas and could have kept scoring, realize that they threw the ball 10 times in the fourth quarter. They ran it seven times. They were still trying to score.

* Peyton Manning might be done. He looked much the same as the Manning that finished the 2014 season.

The Broncos later said Manning was dealing with a leg injury that led to his poor play in December. But Denver's offensive line stinks. And Manning can't get anything on the ball.

* Tough blow for the Ravens losing Terrell Suggs for the season with a torn Achilles' tendon.

That's the second time Suggs has torn his Achilles. That's not good for a guy who turns 33 in October.

Steelers fans hate Suggs. I get that. He's brash and he's been a very good player for a long time for a hated rival.

But you have to respect the way he plays the game and the heat he brings to the rivalry between the two teams.

It won't be the same this year.

* Tyler Eifert had nine catches for 104 yards and two scores for the Bengals in the opener after missing his rookie season with an elbow injury.

It's an embarrassment of riches on offense for the Bengals right now. Two good running backs, three very good receivers and now Eifert.

Andy Dalton might not have to be anything special with all of those offensive weapons.

* The Colts were a chic pick to win the Super Bowl or at least get there - note, I picked them to win the AFC myself.

But the offensive line is garbage. Andrew Luck will be running for his life all season.

* The most impressive AFC team of the day might have been Kansas City, which was my pick to win the AFC West.

I'm not going to count the Titans since they were playing a garbage team in Tampa Bay, though Marcus Mariota did play well.

Titans coach Ken Whisenhunt knows how to handle rookie quarterbacks.

* Odell Beckham has been compared to Antonio Brown. And for good reason. They're the same size and have a very similar skill set.

But with the game on the line Sunday night against the Cowboys, the Giants chose not to go to their best receiver. In fact, Beckham got just eight targets in that game altogether.

He finished with five catches for 44 yards.

People make fun of Brown's streak of 33 consecutive games with at least five catches and 50 yards, calling it a made up NFL record. OK, it is.

But he also has a streak of at least five catches for 70 yards that is now 20 consecutive games.

That's because the Steelers don't care if he's double teamed - he almost always is - they still find ways to get him the ball.

The Giants didn't do that with Beckham - easily their best offensive weapon - and lost.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Post-Patriots thoughts

Mike Tomlin was very upset that his team's coaching headsets were picking up only the Patriots' radio broadcast in the first half of Thursday night's game.

In fact, Tomlin said it's something that seems to happen in New England every time the Steelers play here.

The Steelers asked the league to look into the situation and NFL Vice President of Communications Michael Signora released a statement following the game.

"In the first quarter of tonight's game, the Pittsburgh coaches experienced interference in their headsets caused by a stadium power infrastructure issue, which was exacerbated by the inclement weather. The coaches' communications equipment, including the headsets, is provided by the NFL for both clubs' use on game day. Once the power issue was addressed, the equipment functioned properly with no additional issues."

So there's that.

* The Steelers did have some communication problems in this game - at least from a coaching standpoint.

On Tom Brady's first TD pass to Rob Gronkowski, the Steelers had just 10 defenders on the field.

* Tomlin when asked if he has any concerns about placekicker Josh Scobee said he has none.

That's fine. Kickers aren't going to be perfect.

But those six points the Steelers left out there were costly.

Then again, so were the two touchdowns the team missed - one when Roethlisberger threw late to Darrius Heyward-Bey in the end zone and Heyward-Bey stepped out of bounds as he went to the ground, the other when left tackle Kelvin Beachum false started inside the 1-yard line on third and goal.

Score a TD in either situation and it's a different game.

Actually, when the Steelers scored to make it 21-11, had they scored on the Heyward-Bey play and made both field goals, it would have been tied at 21-21.

* I don't understand the teeth gnashing over the defense in this one. That was Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski the Steelers were playing against.

And the defense gave up 28 points. This was a game in which many people were saying they expected the Patriots to hang 50 on this defense.

Yes, Brady completed 19 passes in a row at one point, but most were short passes. And they actually sacked him twice and got decent pressure considering he was getting the ball out quickly.

There were some positive signs there.

* The Steelers' offensive line really dominated the line of scrimmage against the Patriots. DeAngelo Williams averaged 6.0 yards per carry and really only got stuffed a couple of times as he had 127 yards on 21 attempts.

That bodes well for things down the road.

* The Steelers could have done a better job on Gronkowski but that's why that guy is who he is.

Put a defensive back on him and he's going to win the physical battle. Put a linebacker on him and he's going to use his speed and agility to get free.

We saw all of that in this one.

Gronkowski's a hall-of-fame talent. And the Steelers got burned by him.

* The defending Super Bowl champions are now 10-0 when they open the season at home on a Thursday night.

That's no fluke.

But I thought the Steelers represented themselves well. They left some plays on the field that could have changed the outcome of this game. They dominated the line of scrimmage. They were a couple of plays here or there from having a chance to win.

And I think that will help this team, especially defensively, with its confidence.

As Antonio Brown said to some Patriots fans as he walked to the team bus, "We'll see you again."

He meant it.

Yes, this was a loss. But the Patriots didn't simply outclass the Steelers, as they did back in 2013, when they beat them 55-31.

This was a bit of a dogfight. And that bodes well for the Steelers the rest of the way.

They won't play in too many situations where the environment will be more hostile. They won't face many quarterbacks or receivers who are better. And they held their own.

They were beaten, yes, but they weren't embarrassed.

* One of the big questions for fans was why Brandon Boykin didn't play in the defense. Quite frankly, they felt Antwon Blake has outplayed Boykin to this point.

That doesn't mean Boykin won't be out there at some point, but remember, he's still only been with the team a month.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Steelers-Pats game-day thread

Welcome from Gillette Stadium.

It's rainy and chilly here with thunder storms in the area until about 10:30 p.m. Hopefully, we don't have a lightning delay tonight.

The Steelers inactives include Landry Jones, tight end Jesse James, wide receiver Sammie Coates, cornerback Ross Cockrell, defensive end L.T. Walton, offensive lineman Chris Hubbard and defensive end Caushaud Lyons.

Coates is a bit of a surprise. He has more special team ability than Tyler Murphy. But obviously Murphy is viewed as a more complete receiver at this point,

New running back Jordan Todman getting a hat also is a surprise. He's been with the team for less than a week. We'll see what kind of playing time he gets, if any.

For New England, the big deactivation is Ryan Wendell, who is listed as the starter at right guard. With starter Bryan Stork already on IR with a designation to return, it was assumed Wendell would start at center. Now, it appears that job will fall to rookie David Andrews.

The Patriots also are expected to start rookie Shaq Mason at guard in place of Wendell, who was not on the injury list all week.

Should make things interesting.

Tuesday, September 08, 2015

Thoughts going into NE game

Pretty much everyone is writing this game off as a loss for the Steelers.

And they're pointing at the defense as the main culprit.

Guess what? It hasn't mattered how good of a defense the Steelers have taken to New England. The Patriots have still rung up a bunch of points on them. That's what they do, particularly at home.

The defending Super Bowl champions also are 9-0 with an average winning margin of 11 points in Thursday night openers at home since the league started kicking off its season in this fashion in 2004.

At some point, the champions have to lose one of these games, right?

I don't think it will happen in this case, but I expect the Steelers defense to play better this season than most people seem to think.

The preseason showed us little in terms of what this defense will be like in 2015.

Mike Mitchell played 22 snaps. Lawrence Timmons didn't play after the opener. Stephon Tuitt sat out the final two games. Will Allen, who will start at strong safety, started only the opener.

The Steelers were both 18th in total and scoring defense in 2014, not last as many would lead you to believe.

I believe they have, at worst, a middle-of-the-pack defense again this season. But it also is one with some upside potential.

And it doesn't have to be a top-5 defense for this team to win games, not with the offense the Steelers will put out there on a weekly basis.

The Patriots are 7-point favorites in this game and I think they'll cover, 37-28, but it will be closer than many think.

* Plenty of people are pointing at the benching of Shamarko Thomas as a failure by him to win the starting job and thus a failure of the front office.

I don't think that's the case on either point.

Will Allen gives this team the best chance to win at New England because he not only has more playing experience, he's got more experience playing the Cover-2.

I truly believe the Steelers looked at Thomas' preseason - he struggled in space in the Cover-2 - and decided Allen gave them a better chance to win now.

That doesn't mean that Thomas is being given up on. He was, however, drafted to play a different style of safety than what the Steelers are currently asking of him.

That doesn't mean he can't learn that and be part of the equation at some point this season. It just means he wasn't ready now.

* I wouldn't be surprised to see the Steelers play some dime defense against the Patriots, who will likely be starting James White or Brandon Bolden at running back with LeGarrette Blount suspended.

Both White and Bolden are bigger threats as pass catchers than they are as runners. Getting an extra defensive back on the field who can cover and yet also tackle, say Robert Golden, could be the way to go.

* Antwon Blake also told Jim Wexell of that he expects to start in the base 3-4.

That's all well and good, but I don't expect the Steelers to play a whole lot of base in this game. Cortez Allen, who has been bothered by a sore knee throughout training camp, will see plenty of playing time.

* I also don't expect newly signed running back Jordan Todman to be active on Thursday. Todman was signed Sunday and could play if he absolutely had to, but the Steelers feel comfortable with Will Johnson and Dri Archer backing up DeAngelo Williams.

Williams is going to have to shoulder a big load the next two weeks. Despite being 32 and a 10-year veteran, he's had 20 or more carries in a game just 14 times in his career. Ten of those 20-plus carry games have been 100-yard games for him.

Sunday, September 06, 2015

Sunday news, notes

Shamarko Thomas told me this morning that the coaching staff has decided to go with Will Allen over him at strong safety this week against the Patriots.

It's a demotion to be sure, but it doesn't necessarily mean that Thomas is done as a player.

He was visibly upset when I spoke to him, but I don't think he'll just give up. I think Thomas will continue fighting and trying to get better.

In the meantime, the Steelers will go with a more experienced player at strong safety - one who is especially more experienced in the Cover-2 defense that Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler want to run.

Allen has long been a Tomlin favorite. He was the defensive backs coach in Tampa back in 2004 when Allen was drafted and Tomlin then brought Allen to Pittsburgh in 2010.

Allen is a stay-at-home safety. He trusts his eyes and instincts. He's not going to make a bunch of big plays for you, but he'll play the defense as it's called and won't make many mistakes, either.

* The Steelers signed veteran running back Jordan Todman, who was waived by Carolina Saturday, and claimed rookie defensive end Caushaud Lyons off waivers from Tampa Bay.

Todman, you'll remember, torched the Steelers for a 49-yard run in the preseason finale, when he had 72 yards on five carries. He's also spent time with Jacksonville and has 450 yards and three TDs on 111 carries.

Lyons (6-5, 295) was considered a prototypical 3-4 defensive end prospect in this year's draft. The Tusculum product is, however, raw.

To make room for them on the roster, the Steelers waived both Doran Grant and Anthony Chickillo.

The Steelers will try to get both of those guys back on their practice squad.

* It was interesting that the team didn't IR Maurkice Pouncey to make either of those moves. There should be another coming, with Pouncey designated to return at some point this season.

* The practice squad - at least for now, is running back Dominique Brown, defensive back Jordan Dangerfield, offensive linemen Reese Dismukes and Antonio Johnson, linebackers L.J. Fort and Shayon Green, defensive end Ethan Hemer, wide receivers Shakim Phillips and Jarrod West, and tight end Harold Spears.

* Ben Roethlisberger, Cam Heyward, Will Gay and Robert Golden were voted team captains on Sunday.

This is the first time Gay and Heyward have been so honored, while Golden was special teams captain last year.

* According to Mike Tomlin, Lawrence Timmons and Mike Mitchell were back at practice today. Stephon Tuitt also confirmed his participation.

Saturday, September 05, 2015

Steelers cuts are in

The Steelers have made several roster moves, trimming their roster to the league-mandated 53 players prior to today’s 4 p.m. deadline, the team announced.

Released were running backs Jawon Chisholm and Josh Harris, defensive linemen Matt Conrath, Ethan Hemer and Mike Thornton, safeties Jordan Dangerfield, Alden Darby and Gerod Holliman, offensive linemen Reese Dismukes, B.J. Finney and Doug Legursky, cornerbacks Kevin Fogg and B.W. Webb, linebackers L.J. Fort, Shayon Green and Howard Jones, and wide receivers Shakim Phillips and Jarrod West.

The Steelers placed offensive linemen Kelvin Palmer and Mitchell Van Dyk on the team’s Waived/Injured List. Both were injured in Thursday's preseason finale against Carolina.

Legursky likely will be re-signed Sunday after Maurkice Pouncey is placed on injured reserve with a designation to return.

The Steelers also signed free agent cornerback Ross Cockrell to a one-year contract. The 6-0, 190-pound Duke University product entered the NFL as a fourth-round (109th overall) draft selection of the Buffalo Bills in 2014 and appeared in seven games during his rookie season. He was released by Buffalo last month. Cockrell will wear No. 31.

* Mike Tomlin said today that Dri Archer and Antonio Brown will both return punts this season and that Archer and Markus Wheaton will both return kicks.

* My initial thoughts on the Steelers' roster are that there are still some moves to be made.

This is a team that needs to find an upgrade at defensive end for sure. Another veteran offensive lineman would help as well.

Some are concerned about running back - but it's a short-term need. Same thing at wide receiver.

The Steelers could address those positions from the players released Saturday, but it's likely that they will wait until next Friday or Saturday to make any moves.

A veteran who is signed before Week 1 has his whole base salary guaranteed. If you wait until after the first week, it is not.

Unless it's a player who is getting a lot of action on the market, the team will likely wait and let the roster ride this week.

* Gerod Holliman was the only draft pick who was released.

Thursday, September 03, 2015

Post-Carolina thoughts

Thank God that ugly, ridiculous preseason is over.

In their final two preseason games, the Steelers gave up more than 1,000 yards of offense in losses to Buffalo and Carolina, as their backups proved that many of them don't belong in the NFL.

That's not to say there aren't some guy who can play on those units, but the Steelers don't have much of a JV squad this season.

That might not bode well over the course of a 16-game season. Some of the backups will be pressed into action at some point. And unless it's at the right position - inside linebacker, perhaps CB - they will be in deep trouble defensively.

I've been saying all along the Steelers only have four NFL-caliber defensive linemen. But after watching Daniel McCullers get moved around by the Panthers reserves Thursday night, they might not even have that.

The Steelers had better scour the waiver list Friday and Saturday and come up with one or even two defensive linemen and another offensive linemen.

* Shamarko Thomas, one of just two defensive starters to play in this game along with linebacker Arthur Moats, was getting killed on social media for taking a bad angle on Jordan Todman's 49-yard touchdown run in the second quarter.

Thomas did take a bad angle, but part of the problem was that Todman came through completely untouched through the line. Gotta at least get one hand on him up there, don't you?

* Mike Tomlin singled out Roosevelt Nix as a guy who stood out to him in this game thanks to a blocked punt. That's the kind of thing that will win you a roster spot, regardless of position.

And the fact that fullback Will Johnson got four carries late in the game tells me the Steelers might be leaning toward keeping Nix over Josh Harris.

Harris was hurt a lot this preseason and didn't do much against Carolina or Buffalo.

Could they go with DeAngelo Williams, Johnson, Nix and Dri Archer to open the season until Le'Veon Bell gets back in Week 3?

Why not? Unless there's another back cut loose that can really help them - in which case, he'll be in demand - that's still better than what they went into the playoff game against Baltimore with last season.

* Tomlin also said the picking a punter will be difficult not because both guys stunk, but because both guys really kicked well.

It's a good problem to have. I'd keep Jordan Berry. I saw how Brad Wing's kicks got shorter and shorter as the weather got colder last season.

Wing has kicked well in this preseason, but Berry has better hang time and, as we saw Thursday night, he can kick a knuckleball that is difficult to catch,

* I expect the Steelers to cut down Friday. They will then scan the waiver wire after putting Maurkice Pouncey on short-term IR and see what's available.

There could also be more cuts Sunday after guys clear waivers. It's going to be an interesting process.

Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Steelers kick tires on Taylor

The Steelers surprisingly - or not surprisingly - brought in defensive tackle Phil Taylor for a visit, 24 hours after he had been released by Cleveland.

In a way it's a surprising move because Taylor is a nose tackle, a position at which the Steelers have depth.

 At the same time, it shows just how desperate the team is to acquire NFL-caliber defensive linemen. Right now, they have four.

They need at least five and possibly six.

It could just be a case of the Steelers kicking the tires on Taylor, who has had some serious knee issues, in case they need to sign him.

But the Steelers are in a pretty bad spot on the defensive line. They'll be watching the cuts very closely.

@ I've been asked several times for a 53-man roster update. But there's been so much going on with this team in the past couple of weeks, I haven't had time.

Well, here's what I think heading into the preseason finale.

Quarterback (3): Ben Roethlisberger, Michael Vick and Landry Jones - Pretty cut and dried. You can argue until your face turns blue about Jones and/or keeping three QBs. It's what Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin believe in.

Running back/Fullback: (4) DeAngelo Williams, Dri Archer, Will Johnson, Josh Harris - Harris has done nothing to earn this, but Jawon Chisholm hasn't been great, either. Perhaps Roosevelt Nix gets the spot to open the season. He could line up as a lead blocker for Johnson. The Steelers get a roster exemption for two games for LeVeon Bell but I can't see them going to New England next week with three running backs on the roster.

Wide receiver: (5) Antonio Brown, Markus Wheaton, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Sammie Coates, Tyler Murphy - Again, they get a roster exemption for four games for Martavis Bryant. I'm keeping Murphy, who has shown me enough to keep me interested in his future.

Tight end: (3) Heath Miller, Matt Spaeth, Jesse James - The last men standing. Pretty easy.

Offensive line (9): Kelvin Beachum, Ramon Foster, Maurkice Pouncey, David DeCastro, Marcus Gilbert, Cody Wallace, Alejandro Villanueva, Doug Legursky, Chris Hubbard. Steelers will put Pouncey on IR with designation to return.

Defensive line (5): Cam Heyward, Steve McLendon, Stephon Tuitt, Daniel McCullers and Mystery Lineman No. 1 from parts unknown, weight unknown. Walton has promise, I suppose, but he's not ready to play. The Steelers need a DE to back up Heyward and Tuitt. They don't currently have one.

Linebacker (10): Jarvis Jones, Lawrence Timmons, Ryan Shazier, Arthur Moats, James Harrison, Bud Dupree, Sean Spence, Terence Garvin, Vince Williams, Anthony Chickillo. I'm trying to trade Garvin or Williams, if I'm the Steelers, to get back the draft picks I've already dealt away. If that happens, I'm keeping L.J. Fort, who was picked up a couple of weeks ago but has flashed as a special teams guy. But that goes to show that those kind of guys can be had cheap. Fort has already been released by Seattle and New England this year.

Defensive backs (10): Cortez Allen, William Gay, Brandon Boykin, Antwon Blake, Doran Grant and B.W. Webb at CB; Mike Mitchell, Shamarko Thomas, Will Allen, Robert Golden and Ross Ventrone at safety. Tough cuts here. Josh Fogg has consistently made plays throughout training camp and the offseason and has the team's lone interception in the preseason. But he's not beating out one of the top four, so you slide him to the practice squad over Grant, who would get claimed, and Webb, who would be claimed. At safety, it's Ventrone for special teams purposes over anyone else.

Specialists (3): Josh Scobee, Greg Warren and Jordan Berry. I'm keeping Berry because of his big leg. But it wouldn't surprise me if Wing wins it again. It's a very even battle.

Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Kind of a newsy day

It was kind of a newsy day on the South Side today to let's dig into some of the major topics.

I found it interesting that the Steelers cleared about $6 million in salary cap space by restructuring the contracts of tight end Heath Miller, placekicker Shaun Suisham and wideout Antonio Brown.

Brown's deal, in particular, was revealing.

While Miller and Suisham had straight restructures done - turning salary into signing bonus - Brown's deal moved $2 million of his 2016 salary moved to this season to up his pay to $8 million,

He's now scheduled to earn $6.25 million in 2016 and will have one year remaining on his contract after that. But this move tells me the Steelers are likely to negotiate a contract extension with their star receiver after the season is completed.

* The money freed up could be used on a contract extension with left tackle Kelvin Beachum.

The Steelers entered the day with a decent amount of cap space, between $10 and $15 million, though it's tough to keep track at this time of year. Picking up a little over $2 million for new placekicker Josh Scobee was an added expense.

But the Steelers still would like to get something done with Beachum. Perhaps that will happen in the next few days.

* I really think Martavis Bryant is sorry for the position he put the Steelers in with his suspension for smoking marijuana. He has talked to his teammates about it and they are understandably upset with him.

But when Bryant continues with his "I don't know how this happened" act, as he did again Tuesday, it comes off as disingenuous.

Mike Tomlin was forthcoming about the situation Tuesday. Bryant should have been as well. It would make his statements about not wanting to put the team in this situation again a little more believable.

Then again, it doesn't matter if the fans and media believe him. It only matters if he has the trust of the team.

That obviously is shaken. Hence the selection of wide receiver Sammie Coates in the third round of this year's draft, something Tomlin said was a reaction to Bryant's pending suspension.

* Scobee hasn't played for a winning team since 2007. The Steelers haven't had a losing record since 2003.

Think the former Jacksonville kicker is a little happy today?

* Tomlin said he is a little concerned that his presumed starting safeties, Mike Mitchell and Shamarko Thomas, haven't been on the field at lot together in this preseason.

He's not, however, concerned enough to play them together Thursday against the Panthers, saying they got plenty of time together in the offseason.

We'll find out if that's the case in a week and a half in New England.