Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The Ol' Fumblerooski

Trickery, chicanery and hijinks. 

Anybody who's played football knows the slippery spheroid (the football itself) can be tricky to handle at times. It can be especially tough to hold onto, especially in wet, cold conditions that frequently occur in places like Pittsburgh and, yes, Foxboro, Mass.

Fumbles happen ... but it always helps if the football is a little under-inflated, making it softer and easier to grip.

A hat tip to our pal Richard over at YinzBurgh BBQ, the best Southern-style barbecue in Pittsburgh, for pointing out this massively stat-backed analysis by Warren Sharp at Sharp Football Analysis.

Mr. Sharp analyzed the New England Patriots' amazing ability to avoid fumbling the football since 2007.  Detailed research by Mr. Sharp includes this tidbit:
"The 2014 Patriots were just the 3rd team in the last 25 years to never have lost a fumble at home!  The biggest difference between the Patriots and the other 2 teams who did it was that New England ran between 150 and 200 MORE plays this year than those teams did in the years they had zero home fumbles, making the Patriots stand alone in this unique statistic."
A coincidence? Does Bill Bellichick cheat in the woods?

This all gets back to the absurd, preposterous NFL policy of allowing the teams to supply and control the footballs they use on offense.

The NFL, which controls every last detail down to the type of socks worn on the field, does not have game-day officials or its own equipment people supplying the footballs used in a game. The NFL created this mess; now the lawyers Goodell & Co. get to stew in it during the very week the league is in the world's media spotlight.

Monday, January 26, 2015

The NFL Looks Foolish in its "Culture of Cheating"

Distractions? What distractions?

During the build-up to the Super Bowl, the media-consuming public is usually subject to non-stop minutiae of the most tedious sort about all the possible storylines, players, coaches, quirks, proposition bets, Xs and Os, and other minutiae in the most agonizing detail.

Not this year.

The New England Deflatriots have seen to that.  This year, virtually the only story has been the one about Deflated Footballs, splashed all over the mainstream news channels in addition to the usual sports outlets (except for the NFL Network, and even they can't totally ignore it).

Good. Coaches hate distractions during game week, and this is the grand-daddy of them all.

Bill Belichick, the ultimate mastermind control freak, can deny and declaim all he wants, but he looks foolish in all his sheepish "Don't know" statements. Tom Brady, in all his wide-eyed "candor," cannot bask in all the wonderfulness that usually accrues to him.

Best of all, the New England Patriots once again are tainted and tarnished by the label of Cheats. They embody what former Carolina Patriots GM Marty Hurney called "a culture of cheating." Even Don Shula has been heard describing Bellichick as "Bill Bellicheat."

And the NFL itself looks foolish because of how colossally stupid it's been for the league to have ever allowed footballs used in a game to be managed by anybody but league officials. Why?

This is supposed to be the NFL's undisputed week in the spotlight. It is, but for the wrong reasons. It's not been a good year for Roger Goodell.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The Purple Browns Get Their Man

So, the Ravens landed Marc Trestman to succeed Gary Kubiak as offensive coordinator.  This is a reasonable hire for Baltmore, at the very least, making the best of a bad predicament in the wake of Kubiak's departure.

It would be unfair, possibly, to judge Trestman completely on his failure as head coach in Chicago with that jackaloop Jay Cutler.

Trestman moves to a much more talented team in Baltimore, with a much better quarterback and a stable, winning head coach at the reins. Trestman gets to work behind the scenes, where he is most comfortable. He won't have to oversee the defense, or special teams, or deal constantly with the media.

It's good for Flacco, too.  Trestman, whose nickname is "The Quarterback Whisperer," has worked successfully with Steve Young, Rich Gannon and Bernie Kosar, among others. He is known to be cerebral and hard-working. Flacco should get all the care and feeding he needs.

Kubiak's departure still hurts the Ravens, though. Trestman has always been known for finesse offenses, and Chicago ran the ball fewer than all but four NFL teams last season, and that's with Matt Forte. Baltimore may lose running back Justin Forsett to free agency following his breakout, Pro Bowl season, and that would also hurt. Another ripple effect of Kubiak's departure is the loss of two other offensive assistants, quarterbacks coach Rick Dennison and tight ends coach Brian Pariani.

It will be a period of adjustment in Baltimore. No guarantees.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Good News for the Steelers

The best news for the Steelers this young off-season comes out of Baltimore.

Ravens offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak is now head coach of the Denver Broncos. Not only is Kubiak departing the Purple Browns, he's also taking two of Baltimore's assistant coaches with him to Denver. Good news for the Steelers and everybody else in the AFC North.

Kubiak's departure hurts the Ravens. Badly.

Continuity in a coaching staff is important, and Kubiak was the best offensive coordinator Baltimore has had in years. Guided by Kubiak, the Ravens scored 409 points, their most ever. Working with Kubiak, Flacco had his most productive season: 27 touchdowns and 3,986 yards passing. Under Kubiak, the Ravens ramped up their running game with Justin Forsett, who hits free agency after his breakout season in Baltimore -- another hit to Bawlmore.

Ozzie Newsome and John Harbaugh might hire somebody every bit as effective as Kubiak, but there's no guarantee. There's going to be a period of adjustment not just for the new coordinator, but for Harbaugh and, especially, Joe Flacco, whose fragile psyche will be asked to adjust, once again, to a new coordinator -- his fourth in four years (Cam Cameron, Jim Caldwell, Kubiak and the next guy).

Yup, this is good news for the Steelers and an unwelcome development for the Purple Browns. At least for the moment, Kubiak's departure must be causing some considerable consternation and hand-wringing in Owings Mills and the surrounding cesspool that is Baltimore.

How Deflating

LeGarrette Blount, in the locker after walking off the
field before the end of the Steelers-Titans game.
LeGarrette Blount. Deflated footballs.

Of course.

Of course the quitter shitheel Blount was the hero of the day for New England, after he trampled the Colts for three touchdowns and 148 yards on 30 carries. It's tough to see a guy like that succeed after he was such a shitstain in Pittsburgh, but give BilB Bellicheat Bellichick credit for one thing: He knows how to game-plan.

Everybody knows the Colts are weak against the run, so Bellichick gave Blount 30 carries.  No brainer, right? Yeah, except we see time and again that offensive coordinators stray from game plans and so rarely commit to the run in today's NFL.

Speaking of committing to the run, the Seahawks deserve credit for staging a Conference Championship comeback win for the ages. How did they do it? They ran the ball. Even when they were down by 16 points at halftime.

Commitment to the run.  It's kind of refreshing to see.

"The time is always right to do what is right."
-- Martin Luther King, Jr.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Playoff Game Day Observations & Coaching Carousel Thoughts

Something to keep in mind today, as the Colts visit New England: Before joining the Colts, Indianapolis head coach Chuck Pagano was the defensive coordinator in Baltimore.  The Ravens play the Patriots tougher than anybody in the NFL, last week's loss in New England notwithstanding.

If Pagano's defensive schemes evoke Baltimore's approach to playing New England, don't be surprised.  The Ravens give the Patriots fits, and Pagano comes to Indianapolis directly from Baltimore. The question is, whether Indianapolis has the horses, so to speak, to beat the Patriots.

Speaking of the Ravens, once again there are a lot of "ifs" surrounding that team right now.  The biggest "if," perhaps, is whether offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak moves to Denver. If so, who will become Baltimore's offensive coordinator?

Kubiak would be a big loss for the Ravens, but that organization has a knack for finding the perfect replacements for key roles on both the player roster and the coaching staff.  Kubiak isn't a slam dunk to become Denver's next head coach, but preliminary talk is that former Cleveland offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan has the inside track to succeed Kubiak in Baltimore, if Kubiak moves on.

Shanahan's Browns gave the Steelers all they could handle, and more, in both games during 2014. He'd be a good get for Baltimore, but losing Kubiak would hurt the Ravens. And that would be good for the Steelers, just as losing defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer hurt the Bengals last season, and there's no question about that.

Speaking of the Steelers, Joey Porter's Pit Bulls would love to see the organization add Deshea Townsend as a defensive backs coach. There's an opening on the staff, and Carnell Lake needs all the help he can get with a secondary in transition.  Townsend is savvy, was a very good cornerback, and he is a terrific communicator. He is currently an assistant coach at Mississippi State.

Monday, January 12, 2015

The NFL has Stupid Rules

Joey Porter's Pit Bulls has no love for Jerry Jones's Dallas Cowboys, but that was a catch.

Dez Bryant made the catch that was first ruled a catch but overturned on replay by indecisive officials who were following the letter of the law, as they interpreted it according to the NFL rule book. And that rule book is part of why the NFL continues to stand for "No Fun League." It's lawyer-ball.

Too bad for Cowboys' fans; while in Detroit, Lions' fans are loving the schadenfreude.

At this point, we have no choice but to pull for Indianapolis to beat New England; Green Bay vs. Seattle, eh.

Knowing that the Steelers whomped the Colts in the regular season does not make us feel any better about the state of the playoffs or what might have been.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

End of an Era: Dick LeBeau Resigns

The Urbana Daily Citizen in Ohio broke the news today that Dick LeBeau has resigned his position as defensive coordinator of the Steelers.  This marks the end of an era in Steeler history.
At least LeBeau got to say for himself that he's resigning instead of having the Steelers announce he's retiring, as they did "on behalf of" Bruce Arians, who promptly went on to find gainful employment has since gone on to win NFL Head Coach of the year honors.

As reported in the newspaper: “I’m resigning this position, not retiring,” LeBeau, 77, said in an exclusive interview with the Daily Citizen. “I had a great run in Pittsburgh. I’m grateful for all the things that have happened to me and thankful for all the support I had in Pittsburgh.”

It's sad that the revered LeBeau, a Hall of Famer as a player, coach and person, was unable to go out on top, as Super Bowl Champion.

In other ways, it feels right: The one thing we've been uneasy about for some time is that LeBeau would linger on and on and on to the point of irrelevance -- to the point of becoming embarrassingly, there is no other word for it, elderly, like Joe Paterno.

The lack of talent on defense this past year was indisputable -- the Steelers just don't have the same quality or depth that we're used to seeing. LeBeau could only do so much with the talent that was made available to him.

By the same token, it's fair to point out that the Steelers' defensive schemes have gotten a bit stale or predictable. It seemed like opposing offenses knew how to attack the Steelers, and nobody feared this defense over the past couple of years, at least.

All the same, fare thee well, Dick LeBeau, and many thanks for the incredible legacy you built in Pittsburgh. It will be tough to find as fine a gentleman or as smart a defensive coordinator.

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Tackle the catch?

The Ravens had only 55 offensive plays vs. 77 run by the Steelers.

Yet, playing without both of their starting offensive tackles, the Ravens offense put together scoring drives of 80, 70, 57 and 69 yards.

The long drives suggest Pittsburgh's defensive scheme of the corners playing off the ball and tackling the catch didn't work.

When Baltimore was on defense, playing with a secondary that has started seven different cornerbacks and four safeties this season, the Ravens limited the Steelers to three field goals and one touchdown.

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

Penalties: An old bug-a-boo surfaced again

In Saturday night's loss to Baltimore, penalties hurt the Steelers as much as anything.

The eight penalties for 114 yards negated Antonio Brown's nine catches for 117 yards. You take away Antonio Brown and Le'Veon Bell, and what do you have? A loss.

The penalties are an old-bug-a-boo that bit the Steelers badly early this season but had been mitigated for the most part over the second half of the season.

Unfortunately, the flag-fest on Saturday night brought to mind the early part of the season, when the Steelers committed penalty after penalty: Eleven penalties in the season opener vs. Cleveland; nine penalties in the second-game loss at Baltimore; a whopping 13 penalties against Tampa Bay on Sept. 28th; seven penalties vs. Jacksonville, including four on special teams; six bad penalties in the October blowout loss at Cleveland.

Following the loss to Tampa Bay, Mike Tomlin said, "We kicked our own butt today with penalties."

The same could be said about the playoff loss to the Ravens -- although penalties weren't the only reason the Steelers lost. Still, they were a big factor.

Watching some of the penalties committed on Saturday night -- particularly Jason Worild's punch to the (helmeted) head of Crockett Gilmore; David DeCastro's false start; Shamarko Thomas's hit out-of-bounds -- brought to mind Tomlin's words following the haunting loss to Tampa Bay:
"The bottom line is we are an undisciplined group," Tomlin said at the time. "We're too highly penalized. ... It's unacceptable; it's inexcusable. Some of the pre-snap penalties and post-snap penalties are just lack of discipline. It's ridiculous. False starts, encroachment. That we have full control over."
Apparently not. All those types of penalties came back into play at the worst possible time on Saturday night, either derailing Steelers' drives or giving new life to the Ravens.

It's something that should be a point of emphasis in training camp and throughout next season.

Sunday, January 04, 2015

Pffffttt ...season over

That's it, Fort Pitt.  Not much point over-analyzing this one.
  • The Ravens brought a pass rush; the Steelers didn't. 
  • The Ravens protected their quarterback; the Steelers didn't. 
  • The Ravens scored sevens; the Steelers settled for threes. 
  • The Ravens collected three turnovers; the Steelers got just one. 
  • The Ravens drew just two penalty flags; the Steelers were penalized eight times for 114 yards.  Some stupid penalties, too, Jason Worilds, Shamarko Thomas.

Not a formula for winning football.

The loss removes whatever luster, such as it was, that was attached to winning the AFC North Division ... especially when two division rivals remained standing following the Steelers' loss.

It's going to be tough to muster much interest in the playoffs from here on out.  Joey Porter's Pit Bulls despise both New England and Baltimore, and we can't stand Peyton Manning. Knowing the Steelers demolished the Colts doesn't help, either.

In the coming weeks and months, there will be plenty of time to try to figure out where the Steelers can be improved. It's going to be a long off-season, especially with the NFL Draft pushed back to May.

Friday, January 02, 2015

Jacoby Jones Redux

Here we go again.

The Steelers have contained some of the NFL's most dangerous kick returners the past several games: Atlanta's Devin Hester; Kansas City's Knile Davis and De'Anthony Thomas; and Cincinnati's Adam Jones.

Now here comes Jacoby Jones, an old nemesis, and every time the Steelers kick off -- and let's hope it's often -- we'll no doubt be reminded of Mike Tomlin's sideline two-step at Heinz Field in November 2013.

As a wide receiver, Jacoby Jones has become mostly irrelevant, having caught just nine passes. Curiously, somehow he's coughed up four fumbles in 2014, losing two.

He remains one of the NFL's most dangerous kickoff returners, however, ranking second (behind Adam Jones) in average yards per return (30.6), with one touchdown and a longest return of 108 yards. He ranks ninth in the NFL in punt return average (9.2 yards, one spot behind Antonio Brown's 10.6 yards).

The Steelers' kick return coverage units will have to on top of their game. Again.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Ravens' Victimhood Mantra

John Harbaugh, mouthing off.
The Baltimore Ravens are dangerous when they invoke their "victimhood" mantra ("Everybody is against us! Roger Goodell hates us!! The NFL doesn't even want us in the playoffs!!!") and espouse their "us against the world" bluster.

That's basically what we saw in the wake of the Ray Rice ugliness, when they rallied to an adrenaline-charged victory over the Steelers in the season's second game in Baltimore on Sept. 11th.

They'll try to use that rallying cry again this week, guaranteed ... except it's wearing thin and the game is in Pittsburgh this time. Also, the Ravens have been dragging their sorry asses the past couple of weeks, and it's gotta be tough for them to feel too self-righteous or excited about a shady front office guy, Darren Sanders, the team's director of security, who this week faces being charged with a fourth-degree sex crime.

No, this time the Ravens have to travel to Heinz Field in January, and they have never beaten the Steelers in three previous playoff games.

The Steelers are waiting and ready for them -- even without Team MVP Le'Veon Bell -- and even the Ravens, as brazen and bullying and thuggish as they are, have to know it's likely to get ugly for them, and their season is going to come crashing quickly and hard to an ignominious end, with off-season finger-pointing directed particularly, we are guessing, at Joe Flacco.

If anything, it will be the Steelers who come together to rally around their injured MVP, whom we assume won't play.

The Ravens may be dangerous, but, honestly, they're not very good.

Addendum: We posted this earlier this season, before that Sept. 11th game, and just because Joey Porter's Pit Bulls can't stand Terrell Suggs, we're linking to it again:


Tuesday, December 30, 2014

So much to dislike about the Baltimore Ravens

Ugh. The entire loathesome Baltimore Ravens organization wouldn't even exist if they hadn't been the Cleveland Browns not so long ago.

Ravens fans proudly sporting
woman-beater Ray Rice's jersey
From bottom to bottom ... from the slimy, smarmy owner, Stephen J. Bisciotti, to the double-talking PR flack, Kevin Byrne (Sr. VP, Public & Community Relations and Chief Apologist in the Ray Rice woman-beating ugliness), to the unctuous, egotistical, obnoxious, insufferable John Harbaugh, to their legacy of miscreants, criminals and loathsome cretins (Ray Lewis and Ray Rice), to the current crew that includes thuggish blowhard Terrell Suggs, the hard-partying, misogynistic Twitter-idiot Will Hill the mouthy push-off artist Steve Smith, Sr. ... and let's not overlook the wooden statue Joe Flacco, ugh, Joey Porter's Pit Bulls despise and detest the Baltimore Ravens.

Never did like 'em. Never will. And that goes for their ignorant fans, too.


Addendum: Now we learn of reports emerging this week from The Baltimore Sun's Baltimore Crime Beat that Baltimore Ravens Director of Security Darren Sanders is being officially charged with a sex crime. Their director of security. Nice little operation you have there, Baltimore Ravens.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Home, Sweet HOME

Let's keep our fingers crossed for Le'Veon Bell.

As painful, scary and hideous-looking as Bell's knee injury appeared, the initial diagnosis of "hyperextended" indicates no "structural" damage. Still, the status of Bell's health has to be a major concern, as the Steelers work a short week to prepare for the sixth-seed Wild Card Baltimore Ravens in Saturday's first-round playoff game at Heinz Field. Bell is the team's MVP, and there's no replacing his multifaceted skill set.

Reggie Nelson's hit on Le'Veon Bell's knee
(Photo credit: Don Wright, AP)
The good news is ... the Steelers get to host Saturday night's game at Home Sweet Heinz Field. This year, the Steelers are 6-2 at home; the Ravens are 4-4 on the road.

Anybody who witnessed Baltimore's struggles against Cleveland on Sunday, or in their loss to the Houston Texans last week, knows the Ravens aren't all that. The Ravens beat the Steelers in Baltimore already this year, though, way back in Week Two on Sept. 11th. As bitter as the rivalry is between the two teams, you've got to respect them. They're dangerous. Getting the Ravens in Pittsburgh is better than having to go on the road to Indianapolis, which is what the Bengals must do.

Cincinnati's only two losses in their last seven games have been to the Steelers. Considering Andy Dalton's history in the playoffs and in the prime-time spotlight (including last night), Cincinnati fans can't be feeling too optimistic.

Antonio Brown's 71-yard punt return for a
first-quarter touchdown set the tone and gave the Steelers
an early lead.
A few other things were evident in last night's win over the Bengals:
  • The Steelers' offensive line is looking more and more solid and cohesive each week. Assistant coach Mike Munchak's work is evident.
  • The linebacking corps also is looking better and better as the season progresses. Jason Worilds has stepped up his pass rush in recent games; Lawrence Timmons continues his sustained excellence; James Harrison remains a menacing, fierce presence; Sean Spence and Vince Williams are playing soundly and with intensity.
Sean Spence's second-quarter sack of Andy Dalton put the
Bengals in a 3rd-and-17 situation, after which they punted..
  • The national TV cameras caught Dri Archer's whiff on a pass-protection block, and now we all know why he hasn't been getting more playing time. Feeling the pressure coming from his blind side, Ben Roethlisberger threw an interception.
  • Despite being ill with a stomach virus, Roethlisberger played well and finished with 317 yards passing. He would have had more but for a few drops by the receivers, which happens to every quarterback in every game. He finished the regular season with 4,952 yards passing, tied with Drew Brees for the most passing yards by an NFL quarterback in 2014.
Antonio Brown with a clutch grab on the sideline
  • Antonio Brown was his usual dazzling self. His 71-yard punt return showed the playmaking skills that make him an annual candidate to be the team's MVP, and his 128 yards receiving cemented his rank as the NFL's most productive receiver this year, with 129 receptions for 1,698 yards. He had 14 touchdowns.
  • Until Reggie Nelson's helmet-to-knee hit on Le'Veon Bell, the 22-year-old second-year running back showed why his teammates voted him team MVP.  Bell adds a dimension to the offense that cannot be replaced.
  • Stepping in at running back following Bell's third-quarter injury, Josh Harris had five rushing attempts for just seven yards. But it was a fourth-quarter play that was called back because of a holding call on Ramon Foster that gave Steeler Nation a glimpse of what the young man can do. Harris's 59-yard burst off-tackle showed the kind of explosiveness, strength and speed that merit him playing time over Archer.
  • Coming out of Wake Forest, the stocky, speedy Harris (listed at 5'10", 210) was overlooked in May's NFL Draft and signed with the Steelers as an undrafted free agent following a Spring workout. He was cut at the end of training camp but signed to the practice squad and then promoted to the regular roster on Nov. 17th, after the Steelers released LeGarrette Blount
  • No matter what Harris or anybody else does at running back, there is no replacing Le'Veon Bell.
  • Mike Tomlin on the matchup vs. the Ravens: "It’s typical AFC North ball. We take a lot of pride in being from the North. I look forward to it. It’s going to be typical Steelers/Ravens. Steelers/Ravens in January, it’s been a while since we had that. I know we’re going to be excited. We’re probably going to have to educate some of our guys to what that means. And I’m sure they’re going to have to do the same thing (and) educate some of their guys to what that means because it’s been a while."
  • There's a history: The Steelers have beaten the Ravens all three times the teams have met in the playoffs (2001, 2008 and 2010). 

Friday, December 26, 2014

A big weekend for returns?

Millions of shoppers will head to stores this weekend for the sole purpose of returns. On Sunday, the Steelers kick-coverage units will have their hands full trying to prevent returns.

This Sunday at Heinz Field, in the final game of the regular season, the Steelers face the NFL's No. 1 kickoff returner, Adam Jones of the Cincinnati Bengals. Jones leads the NFL with an impressive 33.2 yards per kickoff-return average on 22 returns. He also ranks third in the NFL with an 11.9 yard average on 22 punt returns, including a 47-yarder.

Jones, who was formerly known as "Pacman" Jones, was the sixth overall selection in the 2005 NFL Draft; yes, that long ago, almost 10 years. Much of his pro career has been marked by trouble and "off the field" problems. He was actually out of the NFL in 2009. Over the past couple years, however, he appears to have found a home in Cincinnati.

Jones had a big game last Monday night against the Broncos in the rain at Cincinnati. He returned three kickoffs, including one for an 80-yard return. He returned two punts, including one for 21 yards. And he intercepted an errant Peyton Manning pass and returned it for 11 yards.

Jones's three kickoffs, two punts and one interception produced 168 total return yards.

Cincinnati's other punt returner is Brandon Tate, and he can be effective, too. On Monday night against Denver, Tate returned one punt for 49 yards.

The last couple weeks, the Steelers effectively contained two of the league's top kick returners, Devin Hester of the Atlanta Falcons and Knile Davis of the Kansas City Chiefs. This Sunday, once again, the Steelers' kick-coverage units will have be on top of their game.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Will the Bengals try to run the ball against the Steelers? That is the question.


Finally, the Cincinnati Bengals seem to be committed to the run.

We'll see if that continues on Sunday at Heinz Field. For some reason, you will recall, the Bengals gave the ball to their running backs only 14 times during the Steelers' 42-21 win at Cincinnati on Dec. 7th.

Running back Jeremy Hill vs. the Broncos on Monday night
On Monday night vs. the Denver Broncos, the Bengals ran the ball 37 times for 207 yards.

Rookie Jeremy Hill gained 147 yards, including 85 yards on one touchdown burst.

The previous week, vs. Cleveland, the Bengals racked up 244 yards on the ground.

Offensive coordinator Hue Jackson has been paying lip service to the importance of the run since before training camp began in July, but the Bengals didn't start to truly run the ball in earnest until mid-November -- with the notable exception of the game against the Steelers.

Clearly, running the ball well helps quarterback Andy Dalton: Monday night's win over the Broncos made Dalton 29-3-1 when Cincinnati has at least 30 rushes in a game.

Examples: 

  • Against New Orleans (a win), they ran the ball 36 times. 
  • Against Houston (a win), they ran the ball 43 times. 
  • Against Cleveland (a win), they ran the ball 45 times. 
  • Against Pittsburgh (a loss) their top two running backs got the ball only 14 times.

Clearly, running the ball is a formula for winning, so ... one would think the Bengals will want to run the ball against the Steelers next Sunday night.

Whether they will be able to or not, remains to be seen


Footnote from the "Stupid Comments by a Player" Category 


Players will believe what they want to believe and will look for motivation where they can find it.

After Monday night's game, Cincinnati defensive end Wallace Gilberry said, “I heard before the game they moved our game Sunday (against Pittsburgh) to a late night game because they don’t have much confidence in us. We take that as a slap in the face and it’s up to us to — I’m not going to say prove anybody wrong because we put the work in all week and we know what we’re capable of doing — it’s just a matter of going out and doing it.”

Hey, moron, the NFL moved Sunday's game to prime time because it is considered an attractive, compelling matchup between two winning teams who have a lot at stake, not because moving the game was intended as a "slap in the face" to one team or the other. Simpleton.

Things have changed

It was only on Dec. 7th that the Steelers defeated the Cincinnati Bengals, 42-21, at Paul Brown Stadium. It seems long ago, however, and it feels like a lot has happened since then.

That win was the first of a three-game resurgence that has the Steelers on the verge of winning the AFC North Division title -- if the Steelers can defeat the Bengals again at Heinz Field on Sunday night.

Since that Dec. 7th win in Cincinnati, the Steelers beat the Falcons in Atlanta, 27-20, and the Chiefs in Pittsburgh, 20-12. The Bengals demolished the Johnny Manziel-led Browns, 30-0, in Cleveland, and beat the Peyton Manning-led Broncos, 37-28, in Cincinnati on a rain-slogged Monday night.

Reviewing the arc of this season's trajectory, the Steelers seem to have solidified their game following what had been an uneven, up-and-down pattern leading to the Dec. 7th game in Cincinnati. A few weeks before that, it's fair to say that after the Steelers had hit their high-water mark of the season with lopsided wins over the Colts and Ravens, in which Ben Roethlisberger shredded the record books.

Then, the Steelers went into a down phase for the four weeks between those two victories and that key win over the Bengals.  In those four weeks, the Steelers: (1) lost to the woebegone New York Jets; (2) eked out a 27-24 win over the dreadful Tennessee Titans; (3) had a bye week; and (4) coming off the bye week, looked flat and unprepared as they lost, 35-32, to a bad New Orleans Saints team at Heinz Field.

It was at that point that Joey Porter's Pit Bulls said, "Stick a fork in 'em; they're done." To the Steelers' credit, however, they weren't done, and we are very happy about that.

Le'Veon Bell, scoring against the Bengals, Dec. 7th
The resurgence started with the win over Cincinnati, which was a game the Bengals knew that if they won, they would have buried the Steelers right then and there.

Instead, the Steelers' Le'Veon Bell ran for 185 yards and 7.1 yards per carry. Ben Roethlisberger, hampered by some sort of hand or wrist injury, often lined up in the short shotgun (pistol) formation with Bell behind him. And the Steelers repeatedly ran the counter sweep with David DeCastro and Maurkice Pouncey pulling behind Heath Miller and/or Matt Spaeth to clear lanes for Bell to find open lanes or simply trample Bengals defenders.

It was a good formula, and it worked well.  Whether they Steelers will reprise that game plan remains to be seen.

One thing we can count on with some reasonable of assurance, is that the Bengals will most definitely not use the same offensive game plan they employed vs. the Steelers the first time around.

In that Dec. 7th meeting, Bengals running backs Jeremy Hill and Giovanni Bernard combined for just 14 carries, with Hill gaining only 46 yards on eight carries. This, despite Cincinnati offensive coordinator Hue Jackson adamantly insisting all during training camp that the Bengals were "committed to the run." Fourteen carries is not "committed to the run." The Steelers won by 21 points.

Jeremy Hill, running vs. the Broncos on Monday night
Since then, however, the Bengals have shown more consistency and commitment running the ball with regularity and success. Jeremy Hill has gotten the bulk of the carries, and he racked up 147 yards on the ground vs. Cleveland.

Now averaging 5.1 yards per carry for the season, the rookie from LSU also ran for 146 yards, including an 85-yard dash, on Monday night vs. the Broncos.

That last performance was the fourth time this year that Hill racked up at least 140 yards rushing, making him only the third rookie in NFL history to do that. He's making a case for Rookie of the Year.

We can expect to see a lot of Hill and Bernard on Sunday night.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Looking Good, Feeling Good

Antwon Blake breaking up a pass intended for Dwayne Bowe
The Steelers' defense looked good on Sunday, coming up with six sacks and forcing a crucial fourth-quarter fumble, as the Steelers secured a playoff spot for the first time since 2011.

For Steeler Nation, the Steelers winning and securing a playoff spot was the best thing that happened on Sunday. The second-best thing was the Baltimore Ravens crapping the bed in an all-time stinker for that franchise.

Both the Steelers-Chiefs and the Ravens-Texans games featured offensive coordinators going up against the teams for which they used to be head coach: Pittsburgh's Todd Haley vs. the Chiefs, and Baltimore's Gary Kubiak vs. Texans. Haley's league-leading Steelers offense acquitted itself quite well; Kubiak's offense stunk up the joint in Houston. 

Joe Flacco completed just 21 of 50 pass attempts and threw three interceptions at Houston. Meanwhile, the Texans were starting a quarterback, Case Keenum, who didn't even qualify as the team's fourth-stringer because he was just signed to the active roster this past week. 

You may recall back in early November, after the Steelers had (inexcusably) lost to the Jets and the Ravens had beaten the Titans, that Baltimore head coach John Harbaugh, blowhard that he is, crowed that his team "knew how to take of business" while the Steelers, he pointed out, lost a game they expected to win. Now, with Sunday's loss to the Texans, the Ravens need help to make the playoffs and stand a good chance of missing out on the post-season. 

Meanwhile, the Steelers are in, and have every opportunity to make some noise in the post-season. Good.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Keep an eye on the return game

The Chiefs' special teams are excellent generally, and the kick return game in particular is good, both kickoffs and punts.

Running back Knile Davis (5'10", 225; 4.37 40) is the primary kickoff return guy. On 25 returns, he has a 29.1 yard return average, with a longest return of 99 yards for a touchdown.

Fellow running back De'Anthony Thomas (5'8", 176), a rookie out of Oregon, has returned 12 kickoffs for a 31.9 yard average, with a long return of 78 yards.

De'Anthony Thomas, breaking free
on a punt return vs. Oakland
Davis also is dangerous on punt returns, as he showed last week with an 81-yard return for a touchdown vs. Oakland.  He was this week's AFC Special Teams Player of the Week.

The punter, Dustin Colquitt, also is very good, with a 44-yard average and 29 punts nailed inside the 20. Rookie placekicker Cairo Santos has been pretty good, too, although he missed two field goals last week against Oakland. For the season, he's made 17 of 21 field foal attempts with a longest of 53 yards. He's made 5 of 8 attempts from 40-49 yards.

It's Davis and Thomas, though, who are the guys who have Joey Porter's Pit Bulls worried, with their return abilities.