Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Run, run, running blues

Steelers' great John Henry Johnson,
circa 1963, getting it done.
The Steelers are tied with Tampa Bay for 26th in the NFL in Rushing Attempts, with just 47 rushing plays in the first two games.

Some teams talk about committing to the run. Other teams do it. All during the off-season, Cincinnati offensive coordinator Hue Jackson insisted the Bengals would commit to the run this year.  Now, the Bengals rank second in the league with 71 attempts, behind only Houston's 80. On Sunday vs. the Falcons, the Bengals ran the ball 45 times for 171 yards, led by Giovanni Bernard's 27 carries and Jeremy Hill's 15 caries. The Bengals won convincingly.

Even the Dallas Cowboys demonstrated a newfound commitment to the run during their convincing win over Tennessee. Dallas's defense was on the field for only 49 snaps, as the Cowboys racked up 241 yards rushing and a whopping 41 minutes time of possession behind DeMarco Murray's 167 yards rushing on 27 carries. Dallas is tied with Buffalo for fourth in the league with 66 rushing attempts.

Cleveland is 8th in the league with 60 rushing attempts. Just ahead of them is San Diego, with 61 rushing attempts. San Diego had the ball for a whopping 42:15 time of possession during the team's convincing victory over Seattle on Sunday.

The Steelers are running the ball okay, with a 4.8 yard average per attempt, which is ninth in the league. Todd Haley, Ben Roethlisberger and Mike Tomlin just can't commit to it.

More NFL idiocy, ugliness and situational ethics

Nice timing, Zygi Wilf, Mark Wilf, Rick Spielman and all the other Minnesota Vikings decision-makers who announced yesterday afternoon that, yes, accused child abuser Adrian "Whoopin'" Peterson will play on Sunday.

The Vikings need to find a new sponsor-backdrop screen
for their news conferences, now that Radisson has suspended
its sponsorship of the team. Shown: Vikings GM Rick Spielman
Wolf, the team owner and a notorious sleazebag, and Spielman, the general manager, weren't at all clear on what factors went into their decision, so we can only surmise it had nothing to do with, or everything to do with the fact that Minnesota running backs averaged 2.0 yards per carry on Sunday.

Clearly, Wolf and Spielman, however, would have us believe their decision to welcome back Peterson had little to do with Sunday's abysmal on-field performance by the Vikings' offense, which looked dreadful without the star running back in a 30-7 loss at home to the New England Patriots. The Vikings' owner and management team want Peterson on the field to help the team be more competitive. Winning, or attempting to win, trumps everything. It seems to be a classic example of flexible, situational ethics.

Karma Trumps Situational Ethics?
Then, to spice things up later on Monday, a Houston TV station reported a second mother of another four-year-old son of Peterson's has come forward to also accuse him of accusing that boy in a separate incident. The television station reported that other mother of the second four-year-old filed a report with Child Protective Services but no charges have been filed yet.

And, in an announcement that must have surprised the Vikings late Monday, one of their "sponsor partners," the hotel chain Radisson, displayed uncommon good sense by issuing a statement to the effect that they were suspending their sponsorship of the team, effectively disassociating themselves from the Vikings.

Evidently, Radisson takes all this more seriously than the Vikings do:
"Radisson takes this matter very seriously particularly in light of our long-standing commitment to the protection of children," said the company's statement. "We are closely following the situation and effective immediately, Radisson is suspending its limited sponsorship of the Minnesota Vikings while we evaluate the facts and circumstances."
Sponsorship money. Now that's something the NFL understands.

Meanwhile, the Steelers' next opponent, the Carolina Panthers, left it to head coach Ron Rivera to announce yesterday that star defensive end Greg Hardy remains with the team and is not suspended, but may or may not play on Sunday night vs. the Steelers in a prime-time nationally televised game.

We'll get around to talking about on-the-field football at some point soon. We still like the game itself and some of the people playing it.

Monday, September 15, 2014

The Steelers' defense doesn't sack the QB or force turnovers

Antwon Blake & Co. struggled vs. the Panthers
in the pre-season game at Heinz Field.
It's been only a few weeks since the Steelers hosted the dreaded Carolina Panthers in their annual meaningless final pre-season match-up.

Because so few regulars played in that game and the coaches kept things vanilla, it's impossible to take much out of that dreadful August 28th exhibition and extrapolate how the two squads may fair Sunday night (prime time! yippee! ugh) in Charlotte, N.C.

Maybe even Greg Hardy will play for the Panthers! Something for Carolina fans to look forward to!

This past Sunday, Carolina starting QB Cam Newton played for the first time this season in the Panthers' win at home over the enigmatic yet problematic Detroit Lions, and Newton did okay. Trailing 7-6 in the third quarter, Newton led a scoring drive, completing five of six passes, including a nice 14-yard TD throw to Jason Avant. On the day, Newton went 24-34 passing for 281 yards, one TD and no interceptions.

The Lions' formidable defensive front sacked Newton five times, but he shouldn't have to worry too much about getting sacked by a Steelers defense that has just two on the season and has forced zero turnovers in the first games (vs. Cleveland and Baltimore).

The lack of turnovers by the Steelers is a point that's been hammered on many people the past few days, and rightly so.  It's an alarming trend.

In each of the past three seasons, the Steelers' defense failed to record as many as 20 turnovers. If the Steelers fail to record 20 turnovers this year, the fourth straight year, they will be the first team in NFL history to go four straight seasons without forcing at least 20 turnovers in any one of those years.

Something's wrong. It's either the talent or the scheme, and possibly both, which is really bad. Any way you look at it, the sample size is large enough and has been compiled for long enough to conclude this defense doesn't sack the quarterback or force turnovers with any consistency or forcible impact.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

The NFL has major problems, as on-the-field football news takes a back seat ... and actually seems pretty trivial right now

Because this week's Steeler game was the weekly made-for-TV-that-nobody-wants-to-watch unless-it's-your-team-Thursday night special, Steeler Nation has a few extra days to brood over the state of our team, in which we all have an emotional investment, at the very least, if not a financial investment, not to mention the Black 'n Gold blood that runs through our collective veins.

We still love our Steelers, warts and all, but there's other stuff going on in the cesspool that has become the NFL, never mind that the games themselves (on the field) have become a mostly unwatchable mess ...

Holy cow. 

Ray Rice, Janay Rice, the Baltimore Rayvens and their prideful Baltimoron No. 27 jersey-flaunting fans -- they just don't get it -- may be taking some twisted, misguided solace and relief in the knowledge that the latest ugly, ugly news from the NFL has at least temporarily bumped their own sordid, disgraceful Domestic Violence story and the NFL's self-appointed "independent investigation" off the front pages for the moment.

The Steelers' own Art Rooney II and the New York Giants' John Mara, both lawyers, are overseeing that investigation, by the way, to be run by former FBI Director Robert Mueller, who has ties to a law firm that has done business with the NFL for years.

And for as much heat as Roger Goodell has been taking (deservedly so), let's not overlook Ray Rice's culpability in all this. Those punches to Janay's face came too easily, too casually, and he expressed absolutely no concern after cold-cocking her. He was entirely too comfortable slugging her.  Think he hasn't done that sort of thing before?

But for now ...

The NFL now has to deal with star running back Adrian Peterson facing charges of child abuse (and an arrest warrant), as reported by TMZ, Deadspin and other national media outlets, as well as immediate NFL Player Twitteridiocy... from the likes of Roddey White.

All this follows, of course, on the heels of assorted sordid, ugly, unsavory, unseemly and unwanted news from the NFL over the past few days: (Ray McDonald, Greg Hardy, Roger Goodell); ... weeks: (Jerry Jones; Johnny Manziel, Le'Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount); ... months: (Darren SharperJosh Gordon, Jimmy Haslam, Davone Bess, the Pouncey Brothers); ... and recent years: (performance-enhancing drugs, HGH, Richie Incognito, Aaron Hernandez, Michael Vick, Terrell Suggs, concussions, Jovan Belcher, Alameda Ta'amu, Chris Rainey, Riley Cooper, Mike Adams, Jonathan Vilma, Ben Roethlisberger, Donte Stalworth, the Bountygate scandal, Gregg Williams, Spygate, Bill Belichick, Ray Lewis, Michael Irvin, Warren Sapp, Leonard Little, taxpayer-funded stadiums, various other ignominious absurdities, etc.), etc., etcetera, ad infinitum, ad nauseum.

The parade of arrests just goes on and on.

A fine little rogue's gallery you've got there in your playpen, Roger Goodell (lawyer) and the association of billionaire franchise owners that employ you -- an association of franchisees ("League") that may be even more powerful, exclusive and unsavory than the U.S. Senate, complete with an anti-trust exemption, taxpayer-funded stadiums and an unbelievable "non-profit status" that boggles the mind and is disingenuous at best on the face of it.

It's getting tougher and tougher to buy what the NFL is selling. 

Phil Mushnick: "Ray Rice, Ray Lewis, and the Absurdity of the NFL"

Chicago Tribune: "NFL's Bogus Investigation Further Soils Reputation"

PFT: "Mara, Rooney to Oversee Investigation"

Colin Dunlap: "Rooney II in No-Win Situation"

Yahoo Sports: "Just How Independent is 'Independent Investigation Going to Be?"

ABC News: "Who's in Charge of NFL Investigation"

Bill Plaschke:  "Goodell needs to be cut, quickly and coldly"

The Daily Kos: "Dear Roger Goodell"

Yahoo Sports: "Contradictions in the Ray Rice Scandal"

Friday, September 12, 2014

Mistake City

Justin Brown's early fumble set the tone.
Three turnovers and nine penalties are no way to win a game.

Neither will scoring just two field goals. And neither will allowing 157 yards rushing, or allowing the other team a glaring time-of-possession advantage (35:08 to 24:52), which may explain in part why running back Le'Veon Bell got only 11 carries.

For the night, the Steelers tried just 18 runs vs. 36 by the Ravens. Guess who won? Ravens, 26-6.

A Costly Early Fumble
The first of the three turnovers, Justin Brown's early fumble at the Baltimore 15-yard line, killed any fledgling momentum the Steelers had on their opening possession and let the Ravens off the hook. Brown's fumble quashed a 14-play drive that felt a little off-kilter the whole way and was actually kept alive by a ticky-tacky roughing the passer call on the third play of the game, way back at the Steelers' 11.  David Decastro's subsequent penalty for being too far downfield nullified a 19-yard pass play to Heath Miller. Antonio Brown got racked hard on a 23-yard catch but held onto the ball.

Two plays later, however, Justin Brown's fumble ended the drive and galvanized the home crowd. Justin Brown wasn't hit particularly hard -- he just had the ball poked out while getting tackled. Breathing new life, the Ravens marched right down the field to take an early 7-0 lead, assisted greatly by cornerback Cortez Allen's 38 penalty yards.

Down goes Roethlisberger.
Worrisome Trends
The Steelers' nine penalties for 75 yards on the night came on the heels of last week's 11 penalties against Cleveland, and that's not a good trend. "Obviously."

Oh, and the Steelers allowed the Ravens 157 yards on the ground after giving up 183 yards rushing to Cleveland. That's as alarming as anything we've seen so far in 2014. If Dick LeBeau's defense is going to keep allowing teams to run the ball, it's going to be a long, torturous season.

A Soft Middle
On defense, too, the Steelers should have foreseen Joe Flacco would be going to his tight ends over the middle of the field. The Ravens love to do that, if they can, and against a Steelers defense starting a rookie inside linebacker (Ryan Shazier) and a new safety (Mike Mitchell), the Steelers should have seen it coming. And the Ravens took what the Steelers gave them. All night long. It was reminiscent of the 2011 season opener in Baltimore, when Joe Flacco went to Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson all day during a 35-7 beatdown of the Steelers.

In Thursday night's 26-6 loss, it was Pitta and Owen Daniels doing the damage, with Daniels scoring two touchdowns. Daniels used to play for Gary Kubiak, Baltimore's new offensive coordinator, and the Steelers did not account for him. Inexcusable.

The middle of the field was there for the taking. It makes you wonder why the Steelers' offense didn't try the same strategy against a Ravens defense also starting a rookie inside linebacker (C.J. Moseley) and a pair of young safeties. Then again, the Ravens have two legitimate receiving tight ends in Pitta and Daniels. The Steelers have only Heath Miller, who is great, but they simply do not have two legitimate receiving tight ends.

Getting Pushed 
Around Up Front
Pittsburgh's defensive line and offensive line got pushed around too much. On defense, once again, Cam Thomas did next to nothing, and an aging Brett Keisel seems to have the youngest legs on the line.

The entire offensive line failed to get much of a push vs. the Ravens in the running game, and we're still trying to figure out why the Steelers gave  contract extensions this year to Maurkice Pouncey and Marcus Gilbert. Neither did much to provide a surge in the running game, and Gilbert got tossed around in pass protection. Again.

Gilbert also committed a costly false start on 3rd-and-four at the Baltimore 36 in the second quarter. That hurt. It put Roethlisberger in 3rd-and-nine, and the Steelers couldn't convert. Brad Wing punted to the Baltimore 11 and, on the next play, Joe Flacco kneeled on the ball to end the half.

Gilbert allowed two sacks and it sure looked like he was responsible for no help at all on the hit to the sternum Roethlisberger took on the third play of the first series. That hit was penalized unjustly; otherwise, Gilbert might have been "credited" with allowing another sack.

Steve Smith, running free through the secondary.
Major Questions 
About the Secondary
Speaking of mystifying contract extensions, Cortez Allen certainly hasn't looked like a shutdown corner the first two games, or even a competent one. He didn't even look good in the pre-season games, yet the Steelers awarded him with the questionable contract extension on the eve of the season opener.

Allen struggled again vs. the Ravens, committing a 15-yard face mask penalty on the first play after Justin Brown's fumble, committing pass interference on a deep pass, and failing to corral an interception early in the fourth quarter. Two plays after the bungled interception, Justin Tucker kicked a field goal to make the score 23-6, effectively putting the game out of reach.

Allen wasn't the only one to commit a facemask penalty. Safety Mike Mitchell also committed one, and he added an unnecessary roughness penalty later for good measure. He hasn't done anything in the first two games to justify being signed to big money. Based on what we've seen so far, he stinks.

All in all, it was a disjointed, sloppy and ugly effort by the Steelers. And a well-deserved loss. They went into Baltimore with a chance to send the Ravens reeling, and they blew it.

Not that it helps, but Mike Tomlin summed up the entire night pretty well during his opening statement of the post-game news conference:
"Obviously a disappointment for us, a lot of self-inflicted wounds are going to prevent you from being in football games. We turned the ball over too often, we were highly penalized, particularly, on the drives that they were able to manufacture and produce points. We were highly penalized defensively. Those two things are a lethal combination. When you turn the ball over, and you’re highly penalized, and you’re extending drives, you’re going to lose football games like that, and we did tonight."
Next up: At Charlotte, N.C., vs. the Carolina Panthers, at 8:30 p.m., Sunday, Sept. 21. As of this writing, more than 4,000 tickets remain available, starting at $100 a ticket. It should be exciting.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Just what will Terrell Suggs never forget?

For so many Americans, Sept. 11th is a solemn and poignant day; a day of reflection and mourning.

Sept. 11, 2001 carries a special significance and resonance.

So do the words, "We will never forget."

Given that tonight's NFL game in Baltimore is actually on Sept. 11th, it is unfortunate but still callous and ignorant that the Baltimore Ravens' Terrell Suggs decided to co-opt, trivialize and debase the statement, "We will never forget" by placing it on his stupid t-shirt aimed at lampooning Mike Tomlin for stepping on the field last year during Jacoby Jones's punt return.

In the great scheme of things, we have to ask, "It's that important to you, eh, T-Sizzle? Just what will you never forget, Terrell?"

To say Suggs is tone-deaf and ignorant is an understatement.

Suggs's sheer ignorance is evident, too, in his choice of selecting Monday, the day the Ray Rice news broke, to Tweet out the photo of his "We will never forget" t-shirt. In fact, the Ravens' own Twitter account publicizes and promotes the t-shirt, as well, as if to distract the public from the Ray Rice disgrace.

Suggs has a history, too
In light of the timing, Suggs's lame attempt at humor was especially tone-deaf, given his own documented history of having been accused of assaulting his longtime girlfriend,  Candace Williams.

In 2009, Candace Williams filed court papers and a request for a protective order. Suggs was alleged to have punched her in the neck and dragged her with his car.

Related to that case, according to court papers and as reported by the Baltimore Sun
"Williams said Suggs threw a soap dispenser at her head, hit her in the chest with his hand, and held a bottle of bleach over her and their 1-year-old son, which spilled on them and caused a rash. Baltimore City District Court Judge Ronald Alan Karasic wrote that a laceration was visible on Williams' chest."
In December 2012, the Baltimore Sun reported on a court order that required Suggs to turn over his collection of firearms after a series of ongoing domestic disputes and two 911 calls made from Suggs's address the previous Nov. 21.

Terrell Suggs will wear the black and purple of the Baltimore Ravens tonight.

We Will Never Forget

"All the darkness in the world cannot extinguish the light of a single candle." 
-- St. Francis of Assisi

It is a solemn and poignant day.  We will never forget.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Steelers Can Put the Ravens in Very Deep Hole

The Steelers have a chance to bury the Ravens on Thursday. It's tough for a team to recover from starting the season 0-2 in the division -- with both losses at home, no less -- and that's what Baltimore is facing at home on Thursday vs. the Steelers.

Here's a guarantee: The Ravens, with their collective back to the wall and reeling from the disgraceful Ray Rice situation, are going to adopt the requisite "Us Against the World" mentality. Somebody in that locker room is saying "Nobody's giving us a chance!"

Against this backdrop, at home and on national primetime TV, the Ravens are going to be very, very tough for the Steelers to beat.

No-huddle Coming
Baltimore fans must be very proud.
Another guarantee: The Ravens' offense will go no-huddle early and often. The Browns showed that the hurry-up offense works against the Steelers, and until Dick LeBeau's defense proves it can stop the no-huddle, other teams will press it, too.

There's a catch here for the the Ravens, though, and a hopeful sign for the Steelers. The Ravens panicked early in their game vs. the Bengals, missed chances and failed to establish any sort of identity on either offense or defense.

It's almost never a good thing when your quarterback passes 62 times in a game, as Baltimore's Joe Flacco did on Sunday vs. the Bengals in Baltimore for the season opener between the two AFC North rivals.

In the first half, the Ravens held Cincinnati out of the end zone, but the Bengals compiled five goals en route to a 15-0 halftime lead. After an early fumble by running back Bernard Pierce and with no Ray Rice, Flacco went to the air.

Flacco completed 35 of 62 pass attempts (56.5%) for 345 yards and one touchdown. The  Ravens' receivers did Flacco no favors, though, dropping seven passes. The Bengals sacked Flacco three times.

The Ravens had no rhythm on offense and a sense of disconnect across the board.

As John Eisenberg on the Ravens' website noted, "Their first game of 2014 felt a lot like 2013. That’s not a compliment. The offense experienced an early power outage marked by a rash of mistakes. The defense struggled to get off the field, yet fought hard and kept the score reasonably close. A late rally showed heart and gave the Ravens a chance to win, but the other team made a key play and won, deservedly so. It’s a familiar narrative, one the Ravens didn’t want to reprise."

Where was the Ravens' running game?
During the off-season, the Ravens, Bengals and Browns all stated, repeatedly, their commitment to the run. Of the three, only the Browns backed up that commitment, despite trailing by 24 points at halftime. The Browns ran 30 times for a total of 183 yards (6.0 avg.) vs. the Steelers. The Bengals ran 26 times for only 79 yards (3.0 average) in Baltimore. The Ravens attempted just 20 runs for a mere 91 yards (4.0 avg.) at home vs. the Bengals.

The Steelers? They had 28 running plays (for 127 yards) and 34 pass attempts (for 365 yards) vs. the Browns. We'll see if they can keep scoring 30 points a game, but it wont be easy on the road against a Ravens squad desperate to avoid going 0-2 in the division.

How important is it to avoid going 0-2 in the division to start the season? According to Terrell Suggs, “It’s everything. It’s everything. You don’t want to come out of an 0-2 hole, especially giving up two at home. Wins in the NFL are hard to come by, so that’s why you’ve got to win your home games.”

This is the Steelers' chance to bury the Ravens. Beat them on Thursday, and they'll be forced to climb uphill the rest of the season.

Monday, September 08, 2014

The Baltimore Ray-vens

Here is all you need to know about Ray Rice and the Baltimore Ravens AND Roger Goodell and his NFL:

From one Ray-Ray accused of murder, to Ray Rice, shown in the video above.

And all the apologists surrounding this very ugly Ray/Janay incident.

It's time for Roger Goodell to resign.
From the way Goodell handled the New England Cheatriots' "Spygate" B.S. to the way he failed to handle the New Orleans Saints' "Bountygate" crap, to the rules changes, the over-saturation of the NFL on TV, all the way through the toothless drug policy, HGH, PEDs testing, to Richie Incognito, to the disingenuous and backpedaling domestic violence policy, and now this.  Goodell's got to go.

Goodell's got some 'splaining to do.

Sunday, September 07, 2014

STOMP, Stomped, and then a Win. "Obviously."

Antonio Brown stomps Spencer Lanning.
Photo Credit: Gene Puskar / AP
The final score almost doesn't matter.  Yes, it was a win, thankfully, but the second half is pretty much all anybody will talk about, and it was alarming. As ESPN.com's Scott Brown wrote, "The Steelers were unstoppable in the first half and unwatchable in the second half."

Final score: 30-27, in favor of the Steelers, but ... mistakes, 11 penalties, poor choices, plays allowed and plays not made, including Ike Taylor's trademarked interception-drop to be followed by an opponent's touchdown a few plays later.

It almost doesn't matter what the Steelers did in the first half. They stunk up their own stadium in the second half. The defense let the Cleveland Stinking Browns come back from a 24-point halftime deficit. That was Disgusting.

Good defenses don't blow 24-point halftime leads.

Granted, there were numerous good plays by more than a few Steelers, and several players were downright outstanding: Antonio Brown, Markus Wheaton, Heath Miller, LeVeon Bell, Justin Brown and Ben Roethlisberger.  Even the Special Teams were mostly good.

In some positions, however, maybe the Steelers just don't have the right talent. The front office gave contract extensions to Cortez Allen (why?), Maurkice Pouncey (?) and Marcus Gilbert (??). The offensive line anchored by Pouncey and Gilbert allowed four sacks, which is too many. "Obviously."

Let's see, four sacks a game for 16 games = 60 sacks. Obviously. Numbers like that rarely extrapolate so neatly, but, still, the idea is to protect Ben, isn't it?

And the defense? Ugh. In Joey Porter's Pit Bulls' posts during the week before the game, it was noted the Steelers must stop the run. They didn't.

The Browns racked up 183 yards on the ground, including runs of 29 and 25 yards, and 6.1 yards per rush.

Allowing 183 yards on the ground is unacceptable by anybody's criteria.

The porous defense allowed running back Terrance West, a small-college (Towson) rookie playing his first NFL game, to run for 100 yards, and another small-college rookie, Isiah Crowell (Alabama State), to score two touchdowns. West averaged 6.8 yards per carry; Crowell averaged 6.4 yards per carry, and starter Ben Tate averaged 6.8 yards per carry before leaving with an injury.

Mike Mitchell, in trail
Backup and no-name receivers running free made us wonder why Cortez Allen got an extension.

And, we have to ask, where was Mike Mitchell, the big-money free agent safety? He was in on seven tackles, but if anybody thinks he had anything resembling a good game, uh, no. Same goes for Ike Taylor, Jason Worilds, Cam Thomas and Steve McClendon.

Each of the linebackers had at least one good, noteworthy play, but there were plays and tackles left unmade, and that was obvious by the numbers.

The Steelers had better get their act together by Thursday.

Next game: Thursday night in Baltimore vs. the Ravens, who clearly have problems of their own.

Game Day 1: Browns at Steelers. "Singular Focus. Obviously."

You'd think, hope and expect the Steelers will be ready to start the 2014 season today. At home. Versus the stinking Cleveland Browns, the Black 'n Gold's historical and geographical arch-rival, never mind the 24-4 record vs. the Browns since 2000.

The Steelers should stomp this team.

Then again, you'd think the Steelers would have been ready to open the season in 2013. At home. Versus a mediocre Tennessee Titans team that had no business coming into Pittsburgh and beating the Steelers.

The Steelers also lost their 2012 season opener, 31-19, in Denver. And they got walloped in an ugly, 35-7 beating by the Ravens in the 2011 season opener in Baltimore.

The concern for today's game, though, goes back to last year. There's no disputing the Steelers weren't ready for the 2013 season. They went 0-4 to start the regular season.

And the Steelers didn't look particularly crisp this pre-season.

The Browns have been worse than the Steelers in season openers. In fact, the Browns have lost nine season openers in a row. When they lose their 10th today, it will set an NFL record. For what it's worth, Vic Carucci on the Browns' website noted, "the last time the Browns began a season in Pittsburgh, 1989, they also had a first-year head coach in Bud Carson. They won, 51-0. "

On the other hand, Mike Pettine, Cleveland's rookie head coach, surely is aware that the last seven Browns head coaches have lost their debut with Cleveland.

What about today?
To win today, the Steelers must stop the run. Last year, opponents averaged 4.4. yards per carry vs. the Steelers. The Browns are going to try to run the ball. It's all they have on offense. The Steelers must stop the run.

On offense, the Steelers would do well to score early and force the Browns to play catch-up, on the road in a noisy, hostile environment, with a new coaching staff and a squad comprised of 12 rookies, 23 undrafted free agents, numerous first-time starters, and a whopping 26 players who weren't on Cleveland's roster at the end of last season.

The Steelers can and should win this game ... IF Mike Tomlin has them ready this time around.

Friday, September 05, 2014

Browns Week: With Baltimore looming, let's not look past the Browns, although they stink

As bad as the Browns have been in recent years and, more crucially, with Game 2 vs. Baltimore looming just four days after the season opener vs. Cleveland, let's all hope that nobody on the Steelers is looking past the Browns, as incredible and absurd as that sounds for a home opener vs. the team's historical and geographical rival.

The Steelers have lost their past three season openers, however, and came out flat last year in their loss to the Titans at Heinz Field.  If there was ever a team to stomp, it is this year's Browns.

Cleveland Browns fans
The Browns have been a rolling clown car of a franchise for quite a while now and this past off-season in particular.  Their quarterback situation has received so much focus, it's easy to overlook some of their better attributes. Their defense was in the NFL's top 10 last year. The offensive line is anchored by two Pro Bowlers, tackle Joe Thomas and center Alex Mack. Their running game could be good. Tight end Jordan Cameron is a Pro Bowler and is a capable receiving threat.

Their wide receivers, though, are question marks, and some observers have derided this corps as the worst receiver group in the NFL. Starters Miles Austin and Andrew Hawkins have had some success in the NFL, but Austin has been slowed by injuries the past couple of years, and Hawkins has always played in the slot.  He will start on the outside for the Browns. The third receiver, Travis Benjamin, is a smallish, pure speedster (4.29) who is coming off a year lost to an ACL. He has mostly specialized in kick/punt returns. He will get some snaps at wide receiver, but Hawkins is their most dangerous receiver right now.

One thing about the pre-season games: The Browns' quarterbacks, Brian Hoyer and Johnny Manziel, took almost no shots downfield.  We're not sure they can. Neither have cannon arms, and Cleveland's scheme may not be set up for long downfield passes.  That's the perception, anyway, as most observers assume the Browns will rely mostly on their running game and quick, relatively safe passes to sustain drives and eat up the clock. They'll try to and avoid sacks and turnovers, which could be a real bugaboo for the Browns this year, given their QBs.

Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan is aware of all this, of course, and Joey Porter's Pit Bulls expect that he will indeed have Hoyer try to get the ball to Hawkins, occasionally. The 5'7" Hawkins (a Johnstown, Pa. native) is one of those quick, slippery, nimble guys with short strides and a good, explosive first step. Whether he has long speed? Maybe. Whether he can battle a cornerback all the way downfield and out-jump or battle for a long pass is another thing. He is, after all, just 5'7" tall.

“You need a lot of speed to play outside,” Shanahan said of Hawkins. “He’s got the speed. You’ve got to have quickness to play inside. He’s got the quickness.

Shanahan continued: "You can’t just go out and run, run, pass every play. I don’t think you’re going to do well. The key to this league is keeping defenses off balance. If you’re one dimensional – I don’t care how good you are in that dimension – defenses will find a way to stop you. The players are too good. The coaches are too good. You have to do everything.”

Whether the Browns can do everything isn't what they should be worrying about. It's whether they can do anything.

Thursday, September 04, 2014

The Browns aren't equipped to play catch-up

It will serve the Steelers well to get off to a fast start on Sunday. 

Here's a suggestion, Mike Tomlin: If your team wins the coin toss, accept the kick for a change.

We all know Tomlin will defer, if he gets the chance, figuring it smart to put Cleveland's shaky offense on the field first in front of a hostile and hopefully noisy Heinz Field crowd. And maybe that is the conventionally "football-smart" thing to do.

But Joey Porter's Pit Bulls would love to see Dri Archer have a chance to return the kickoff all the way and really set the tone.

C'mon, Steelers, if there was ever a game to be aggressive, this is it: Administer a beat-down on the Browns so bad, it will make Cleveland fans long for 43-0 (the 1999 "return of the Browns" season opener) and 41-0 (Christmas Eve, 2005, when James Harrison body-slammed a Cleveland fan running around on the field)

The Cleveland Browns are not built to play catch-up football. Opening on the road with a first-time head coach, a new starting quarterback, and a new set of receivers, the Browns hope to play a ground-it-out game of attrition: Pound the ball on the ground with running back Ben Tate, eat up clock, hope its defense can force the Steelers into a series of three-and-outs, keep the game close and hope to find a way to pull it out at the end.

Stop the Run
The Steelers cannot allow any of that. On defense, the Steelers' run defense -- which allowed an alarming number of big plays last year and an uncharacteristic number of plus-100-yard rushing games both last year and this pre-season -- must stop the run. It's all the Browns have (besides tight end Jordan Cameron).

On offense, the Steelers need to stomp the Browns early and often, and then put the pedal to the metal. Get up early, and the Browns will panic. And make mistakes. And fold.

To counter the Steelers' passing game, the Browns are going to lean heavily on its pass rush. Kevin Jones, a staff writer on the Browns' team website, makes this point:
"The Steelers posted a 3-6 record in 2013 when their quarterback was sacked three times or more. The team who dropped Big Ben to the floor the most? The Buffalo Bills sacked Roethlisberger four times and of course the unit was led by Mike Pettine. ... A strategy the Browns might employ in sacking Roethlisberger is attacking Steelers right tackle Marcus Gilbert. The fourth-year pro gave up 11 total sacks in 2013, third worst in the entire NFL. Even though Cleveland is fond of rotating their outside linebackers on various sides, the Browns coaching staff should go into the game with an idea of whether Paul Kruger, Barkevious Mingo or Jabaal Sheard presents the toughest challenge for Gilbert." 
That may be, but the Steelers still have enough firepower to keep the pressure on a Browns' defense that finished in the top 10 last year, but which Joey Porter's Pit Bulls suspect is over-rated and will struggle this year, in part because Cleveland's offense will not be able to sustain drives or control time of possession.

Here's another thing the Browns have going against them: History. The Browns have had no stability in the coaching ranks over the past decade, and the fact is, the last seven Cleveland head coaches have lost their debut NFL game. Rookie head coach Mike Pettine brings a Cleveland squad into Heinz Field that has a whopping 22 undrafted free agents and question marks all over the roster, especially at quarterback.

After last Saturday's "final" roster cutdown, the Browns were still scrambling to fill holes and promptly made four additional roster moves. There are a lot of moving parts on that team, and a lot of question marks, and that is not usually a good sign for any team.

It's been 11 years since the Browns won a game in Pittsburgh, and the Steelers should be primed and ready to break their own ignominious and inexcusable streak of losing their last three season openers. The Steelers, shamefully, weren't ready to open last season, losing at home to Mike Munchak's Tennessee Titans and then going 0-4. There is no reason for them not to be ready this time around.

This is one game the Steelers should not fool around with.

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Something you may not know about the Browns ...

Twenty-two (22!) players on Cleveland's 53-man roster are undrafted free agents (UFAs). Yikes. By comparison, the 2014 Steelers have 10 UFAs.

Somebody else can look this up, but Joey Porter's Pit Bulls wouldn't be surprised if Cleveland's 22 UFAs are an all-time NFL high.

Alejandro Villaneuva: A Tight End in the Making?
Speaking of undrafted free agents, one of the Steelers' new practice squad members is 25-year-old Alejandro Villaneuva, 6'9", 277, who is listed as an offensive tackle but sounds like he has the makings of a tight end (and target in the red zone).

Alejandro Villaneuva, as a wide receiver for Army.
Photos courtesy of MMQB.SI, which provided the following caption:
"As a receiver at Army, Alejandro Villanueva pulled in a one-handed grab against VMI in November 2009 (left) and soared against Navy a month later. (Frank DiBrango/Icon SMI and Matt Slocum/AP)"

A graduate of West Point, Villaneuva spent three tours of duty in Afghanistan, where he was awarded a Bronze Star for valor. Currently, he is a captain in the U.S. Army Rangers Reserve. Here's what ProFootballTalk.com had to say about him:
"Villanueva, who played at West Point and served as an Army Ranger in Afghanistan before returning to football, has been added to the Steelers practice squad. The Steelers list Villanueva as an offensive lineman, which he played in college before making the rare move from tackle to wide receiver, while the Eagles were trying the 6-foot-9 prospect as a defensive lineman."
Let's see: A 6'9", 277-lb. guy who has experience playing both tackle and wide receiver? To Joey Porter's Pit Bulls, that sounds like: "Tight end and red zone target."

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Browns Week: Hello, Cleveland.

What do we really know about the 2014 Cleveland Browns? ... other than that, from top to bottom, they are probably the most dysfunctional organization in the NFL and that they had probably the most tumultuous off-season of any franchise. On the field, however, what can we expect to see on Sunday at Heinz Field?

What we do know is that the Browns have a rookie head coach, Mike Pettine, about whom questions are already being asked.  And it is fair to question the way he's handled the two-headed quarterback monster that is the combination of Brian Hoyer and Johnny Manziel.

As for the coordinators, Cleveland's offensive coordinator is the polarizing Kyle Shanahan.

The Browns have some good personnel on defense, but, in Jim O'Neil, they have a first-time NFL defensive coordinator. Nobody knows how he's going to handle the defense, which also happens to be Pettine's specialty, so we can expect to see his stamp on it to some extent.

Back on offense, this will be the first time former Steeler (for about 20 minutes) Brian Hoyer opens a season as an NFL starting quarterback. The Browns plan to do a "running back by committee" approach, according to Pettine, and they have a pretty good offensive line.  But they have a receiving corps that is questionable, at best, except for Jordan Cameron, who is a very good tight end.

For what it's worth, Vic Carucci on the Browns' website noted, "the last time the Browns began a season in Pittsburgh, 1989, they also had a first-year head coach in Bud Carson. They won, 51-0. "

The last time the Browns beat the Steelers was in 2012, in Cleveland, when they forced eight turnovers on a windy day with Charlie Batch at QB for the Steelers.

The Steelers should win this game, but what do we really know about the 2014 Pittsburgh Steelers? ...  If they don't win this game, at home, look out below.

Monday, September 01, 2014

It all starts with the quarterback ...

In Cleveland, the Browns have had 20 starting quarterbacks since 1999. That's right, 20 starting quarterbacks.

In the past six years, the Browns have had five different opening day quarterbacks.

This year, the Browns will open with former Steeler Brian Hoyer at QB. Hoyer was with Pittsburgh for about 20 minutes, you might recall, in 2012.

Turnabout is fair play, and it's worth noting (or not) that current Steelers' backup QB Bruce Gradkowski started for Cleveland against the Steelers in Week 17 of the 2008 season.  Gradkowski completed 5 of 16 passes for 18 yards. He three two interceptions and had a quarterback rating of 1.0. The Browns lost, 31-0.

It will be interesting to see whether Hoyer fares better against the Steelers this Sunday than Gradkowski did against the Steelers in 2008.

Since 2008, the Browns have had the following head coachs: Mike Pettine (2014), Rob Chudzinski (2013), Pat Shurmur (2011-12), Eric Mangini (2009-10) and Romeo Crennel (2008).

The Browns' offensive coordinators: Kyle Shanahan in 2014, Norv Turner in 2013, Pat Shurmur in 2011-12; Brian Dabol in 2009-10.

In Cleveland, the Factory of Sadness grinds on.

Work: Ironic, isn't it, that Labor Day is a holiday?

"Find a job you love, and you'll never have to go to work."
      -- Mom

Lyrics from the song, "U.S. Steel," by Tom Russell:
"You made their railroads, rails and bridges.
You ran their driving wheels.
And the towers of the Empire State are lined with Homestead Steel.
The Monongahela valley no longer hears the roar.
There is cottonwood and sumac weeds,
inside the slab mill door.
And this mill won’t run no more."

Labor Day is a uniquely American holiday. 
For many people, Labor Day isn't even a "holiday" -- they go to work: on farms, in retail stores, convenience stores, in public safety, sports, entertainment, news, construction, mining, etc. These people have to work on Labor Day, whether they want to, or not.

Lots of people without jobs don't have that opportunity. Others choose to work -- self-employed entrepreneurs, artists, writers, musicians, etc.; they can't help themselves.

Granted, work is something you do, not talk about, but Labor Day is a good day to reflect on the nature and meaning of work. Work, any kind of work, represents opportunity. It puts food on the table; a roof over the head; toys for the dog.

Work can be enervating, energizing and inspiring. Or it can be soul-sucking; energy-depleting; drudgery. Work can be something you do because you want to do it -- because it gives you the satisfaction of a job well done, of achievement, of accomplishment, of something to be proud of. By work, we can make a difference; a better place of the world.

Mining: dirty, dark and dangerous
That holds true whether your work is "play" (pro sports), or entrepreneurship, craft, blue collar, white collar, gray collar, pink collar, sweat-stained collar, on the farm, in the factory, in the plant, at the waterworks, in the snakepit of politics, in the cloud of academia, or the gray of Cubicle City, Dilbert's world. Work is work.

One thing for sure: If you've ever been in deep coal mine, you'll appreciate working above ground.

There's such a thing as "Pittsburgh work ethic," and anybody from Pittsburgh knows what that is. You work.

The unemployment line
If you're fortunate enough to have gainful employment, to have work that enables you to support yourself and the ones who rely on you, you're blessed, lucky, fortunate. Anybody who's been poor can relate. Work is good. It's good to have the opportunity to apply your talents and skills, your blood, muscle, corpuscles, neurons, hands, brainpower, energy. It's good to work up a sweat.

Even if you're unemployed, you have an opportunity: Your job is to get a job, or to make a job -- which more and more people are forced to do in this economy of self-employment.

Work is an opportunity. What you do with it is your business.

Our late friend Mickey McGovern once said of a neighborhood slacker who avoided work at all costs, "He thought Manual Labor was a Mexican waiter!"

Or, as Maya Angelou said, "Nothing will work unless you do."

Labor Day: Time to get to work.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Roster Composition (for now)

Looking at the composition of this team, "positional flexibility" notwithstanding ...

Let's start at the back end of the defense: Five safeties and six corners.  Five inside linebackers. Three outside linebackers. Six defensive linemen.

The offense: Six wide receivers. Three tight ends. Three running backs. One fullback. Nine offensive linemen. Three quarterbacks.

A kicker. A punter. A long-snapper.

That's it. Make of it what you will.  2014 Pittsburgh Steelers.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Not-so-final roster cuts

Remember last year's "final" roster  cuts announced on the Saturday following the final pre-seaon game? They weren't so final. By the following Tuesday, the Steelers had made another five roster moves. The five players added in those few days after the initial "final" roster cuts were Terence Garvin, Antwon Blake, Kion Wilson, Vince Williams, and Zoltan Mesko.

So, when "final" cuts are announced today, Saturday, August 30th, don't be surprised if they're not so final. Additional roster shuffling is sure to follow. 

It's worth remembering the Steelers entered the season opener at home vs. the Titans with 19 new players. Nineteen! They lost that game, and the next three. They weren't ready. Could the same thing happen this year?

The Dog Days of August
It's Labor Day weekend, so people will be car-shopping and doing lots of fun stuff with family and friends. It's a good weekend to adopt a dog. Natch, Joey Porter's must put in a good word for our brave canine friends awaiting adoption at the Animal Rescue League and Animal Friends.  Visit your local animal shelter today, just for fun, or to volunteer to walk dogs, or even to adopt a dog (or cat, or bunny) into your home and their forever home.  You won't regret it.

And, as if you didn't know it already, Pit Bulls are cool.

Friday, August 29, 2014

"It's time to put the hay in the barn"

Holy cow, last night's wannabe Steelers-wannabe Panthers sham pre-season finale scrum was dreadful to watch. There were lots of empty seats, but anybody who actually sat through that charade should have been paid to watch it, not the other way around. It's amazing the NFL gets away with it.

Antwon Blake struggled vs. the Panthers.
It's hard to read too much into the performance on the field. A lot of the guys who played won't be in NFL uniforms next week. The guys in Steelers uniforms last night got beat by guys like Philly Brown and Fozzy Whitaker. Let's get real.

The next round of cuts shouldn't be too hard in most cases. It's time to end the Mike Adams experiment. And, do Steelers really need more than two quarterbacks on the active roster to start the year?

There are other concerns, of course. These new free-agent signees won't get cut, but to be honest, Joey Porter's Pit Bulls don't see what Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin saw in off-season additions Cam Thomas and Mike Mitchell.  Neither has shown much this camp or in the pre-season games. With Brett Keisel's recent arrival, where does Thomas fit on the defensive line? The run defense has looked awful all pre-season, and Thomas was supposed to bolster it. He's looked slow, fat and a pushover. Mitchell may be able to hit, allegedly, but he can't tackle, apparently; and he takes bad angles in pursuit -- which he seems to be doing a lot (chasing down guys already past him).

Not encouraging.

After the game, Coach Tomlin said, "We’re very much still a team in development like all teams are.  I think you’re kidding yourself if you think you’re a finished product this time of year. We’re going to continue to put the hay in the barn."

Let's hope this team somehow gels before the season opener vs. Cleveland at Heinz Field. Last year, the Seelers lost the season opener at home vs. Mike Munchak's Tennessee Titans, and then proceeded to lose the next three games.

The Steelers weren't ready to start the season last year, and they don't look ready now. It's time to put the hay in the barn.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

The annual dreaded exhibition vs. the Carolina Panthers

Fans will get the torturous privilege of watching quarterbacks Landry Jones and Joe Webb get the bulk of playing time tonight at Heinz Field and the Pittsburgh Steelers and Charlotte North/South Carolina Panthers in the dreaded annual preseason finale between the two teams.

Let's get this over with already and hope nobody sustains a major injury.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

"Witching Hour ... in the Deep End of the Pool"

Not surprisingly, this year's first round of player cuts produced no major shocks, but a few mild surprises. Linebacker Vic So'oto had showed some good things in camp and during the pre-season games.

What Joey Porter's Pit Bulls liked about So'oto was that he played with leverage, ferocity and velocity -- good traits for a linebacker.  We haven't seen that with consistency in the play of some of the higher-pedigree linebackers remaining on the team, but what do we know?  The coaches are at camp every day ... although coaches routinely make mistakes in evaluating personnel (James Harrison and Mike Vrabel come to mind, and both played with leverage, by the way).

Based on everything we'd read and heard about Brian Arnfelt last year and during the off-season, we thought he had a chance. Again, though, the coaches know what they want.

Same goes for nose tackle Hebron Fanguopo. For some reason, every time his name came up, we would hear the little Myron Cope voice in our head calling him "the dear Hebron Fan-GU-po."  But Daniel McCullers is here, and Joey Porter's Pit Bulls wouldn't be surprised if McCullers is the starter by Game 3 of the regular season.

Remaining position battles that bear watching: 

  • Offensive line: Wesley Johnson vs. Guy Whimper vs. Mike Adams
  • Linebacker: Howard Jones vs. Chris Carter

Summer's Almost Gone
In anticipation of the dreaded annual final preseason game against the so-called Carolina Panthers (ugh), head coach Mike Tomlin invoked a couple of new Tomlinisms: "It's the witching hour," for a lot of players on the bubble, he said, and it's time to throw newly signed Brett Keisel into "the deep end of the pool." Good ones, Mike.

Tomlin also may have tipped his hand a bit by sending kudos the way of wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey, whose primary role apparently will be as a gunner on the special teams. Tomlin had this to say about the special teams in general:
“Many of the guys who are fighting to improve their position within the group and carve out roles for themselves at the 11th hour, we’re not talking about defensive backs who are going to play defensive back, or wideouts who are going to play wideout. Usually we’re talking about defensive backs who are going to be gunners or corners in the kicking game. A lot is written and said about how they perform offensively or defensively, but what they do on special teams is going to be a significant element in determining who sticks and who does not.”
About Heyward-Bey, specifically, Tomlin said:

“I’m just as pleased with what he’s provided us from a special teams standpoint as I am what he’s doing at wide receiver. I really like some of the things he’s shown us in the kicking game of late. Some things that quite frankly I didn’t know he had in terms of his willingness and ability to cover punts. His willingness and ability to block for punt returners. It’s attractive and he’ll be given an opportunity to display those things, along with his wide receiver play in this game."

Those words are encouraging for Heyward-Bey; not so much for Justin Brown.