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.


  • 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.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Jamaal Charles Factor

A strong case could be made that Kansas City's Jamaal Charles has been the best running back in the NFL the past few years. In 2010, he had 1,467 yards. His 2011 season was cut short by a knee injury after two games. He rebounded in 2012 with 1,509 yards. In 2013: 1,287 yards, with 12 touchdowns. Dating to 2008, Charles's career average is 5.5 yards per carry.

Jamaal Charles
This year, hampered by assorted injuries, Charles's number of carries is down, just 182 carries, or 14.2 per game, but his average yards per carry is still a lofty 5.2 for 950 yards, which comes to 73.1 yards per game through 14 games.

Charles has nine touchdowns, which is third in the league among running backs (Le'Veon Bell is tied for fifth, with 7 TDs).

Make no mistake: Charles is key to Kansas City's offense, and he remains a great running back. Still a breakaway threat, Charles has had six runs this year over 20 yards, two over 40 yards, and a longest run of 63 yards for a touchdown.

One knock on Charles, though, is his four fumbles this season. His backfield running mate, Knile Davis, also has four fumbles. Eight fumbles in 14 games from two running backs? That ain't good. By comparison, Le'Veon Bell has zero fumbles.

On the other hand, Charles and Davis score touchdowns: Charles's nine touchdowns are complemented by Davis's six touchdowns.

At 5'10" and a solid 225 pounds, Davis was clocked at 4.37 in the 40-yard dash at the 2013 NFL Combine. He was a third-round pick out of Arkansas. While Charles is a smooth, shifty glider, Davis punches through holes with impact in a straight-ahead, power/speed combination that makes him tough, extremely tough, to knock off his feet.

Davis had a 70-yard touchdown catch-and-run last Sunday against Oakland. Davis is also a lethal kickoff returner -- very dangerous.

Charles and Davis will be a challenging duo for the Steelers to shut down.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The Chiefs Bring a Fierce Pass Rush

Tamba Hali (91) and Justin Houston (50)
converge on Miami QB Ryan Tannehill
One Big Reason the Kansas City Chiefs are 8-6 and remain in the playoff hunt is their pass rush, led by linebackers Justin Houston, who is tied for the league lead with 17 sacks, and Tamba Hali.

Allowing only 18.1 points per game, the Kansas City defense is keyed by those two pass rushers, who are relentless and have tortured the Steelers in prior meetings.

In a mid-November 2012 Monday night game at Heinz Field, Houston and Hali knocked Ben Roethlisberger out of a game with a shoulder injury, and Roethlsberger was never the same that year.

The Chiefs' outside pass rush is augmented by a good push up the middle from nose tackle Dontari Poe, who is a force. So far this year, the Chiefs defense has 38 sacks. By comparison, the Steelers' defense has 24 sacks.

With the Steelers operating a prolific passing offense, ranked second in the NFL in passing yards, "obviously" the Chiefs will want to pressure Roethlisberger.

The Chiefs' run defense, however, is rated 27th in the NFL, allowing 132.6 yards per game and 4.9 yards per carry.

With that in mind, this may be a good game for the Steelers to run more -- which is something we keep saying more and more often as the season plows through December.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

In a serious WR TD drought, the Chiefs can still bring grief

The Kansas City Chiefs are tough to figure, even for their own followers.

The 8-6 Chiefs still haven't thrown a touchdown pass to a wide receiver this season. If they make it through the entire season, they will have matched an "accomplishment" set by only one other NFL team, your 1950 Pittsburgh Steelers, who played just 12 games (with a 6-6 record) and attempted only 255 passes.

During Sunday's 31-13 over the Oakland Raiders, quarterback Alex Smith threw two TD passes, one to tight end Travis Kelce, and the other to running back Knile Davis. He also completed a couple of deep passes (but not touchdowns) to his receivers, a 37-yard pass to Dwayne Bowe and a 48-yard pass to receiver Albert Wilson.

Against the Raiders, Smith completed 18 of 30 passes for 297 yards, the two TDs, and no interceptions.

Smith's history has shown that he can be the kind of cooly efficient, mobile-enough quarterback that typically gives the Steelers fits. But he's not gotten the ball deep to his wide receivers much this year, which head coach Andy Reid says doesn't concern him too much.

Still, the Chiefs are merely 2-3 over their last five games and just 3-4 on the road. While they've scored a middling 322 points (vs. the Steelers' 389), their defense has allowed just 254 points (vs. the Steelers' 339).

Three big things the Chiefs  have going for them:
  1. They have a serious running game with Jamaal Charles (14 TDs) and Knile Davis. The Chiefs rank seventh in the NFL in team rushing, with 127.3 yards per game.
  2. They can bring a heavy pass rush.
  3. And their kick returners can do some serious damage; Knile Davis on kickoffs and De'Anthony Thomas on punt returns. At 5'10" and 227 pounds, Davis is a hard knot of a blur who can be extremely tough to bring down when he gets up to speed, which is fast (4.37 40-yard dash at the 2013 NFL Combine); and Davis is a change-of-direction jukester who had an 81-yard punt return for a TD against the Raiders. The Steelers' coverage teams will need to be on their game.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Two to Go

Key play: William Gay's pick-six TD early in the second quarter.
It's a big step in the right direction: For the first time since 2011, the Steelers have nine wins in a season.

The Steelers' solid win in Atlanta on Sunday whittles their magic number to two. The competition, however, gets stiffer than the 5-9 Falcons, who were playing without star wide receiver Julio Jones.

The Steelers will host the 8-6 Kansas City Chiefs next Sunday and the 9-4-1 Cincinnati Bengals the Sunday after that. If the Steelers win both games, they win the AFC North.

Antonio Brown, hauling it in at the one
For now, Steeler Nation can enjoy the win over Atlanta.

Antonio Brown was his usual, dazzling self; Le'Veon Bell continued his great, breakout season; and William Gay returned his third pick-six INT return of the season, a franchise record.

Ben Roethlisberger was accurate (77.1% on 27-35 passing for 360 yards passing; no interceptions) with more than half his total passing yards going to two targets (Brown for 123 yards, and Bell for 72 yards receiving).

Roethlisberger also connected for 138 yards on nine of 10 targets to Heath Miller and Marcus Wheaton.

Jason Worilds, nailing Matt Ryan
The offensive line did a decent job protecting Ben, and the Steelers kept a lid on their penalties, committing just three, one of which was a bogus call on Jason Worilds*.

Without Julio Jones, Atlanta's diminutive Harry Douglas stepped up with 10 catches for 131 yards. That amount of yardage from the six-year veteran who was a college teammate of William Gay at Louisville, indicates the Steelers' thin secondary remains vulnerable to a decent passing attack.

Antwon Blake, sticking Harry Douglas
But it was an errant Matt Ryan pass intended for Douglas on the first play of the second quarter that was arguably the pivotal play of the game. Gay's interception return gave the Steelers a 13-0 lead, coming as it did on the heels of two stalled drives that ended in the red zone and produced field goals for the Steelers instead of touchdowns, another season-long trend.

Yet the defense stepped up when it needed to, limiting the Falcons to field goals on two long drives that produced just six points.

“We fought in a big way, defensively," Mike Tomlin said after the game. "I thought we did a good job of keeping a lid on it that prevented some of the big plays that have hurt us in the past. Obviously, they created some big plays with some shorter passes but that is life. We are who we are and we are not a perfect group by any stretch but we will fight the fight until the end together.”

They'll have to. The depth in an already-thin secondary may be tested yet again. It remains to be seen whether Mike Mitchell's groin injury late in the game will keep him out of action next week. Mitchell hasn't been good this year, but if he can't suit up, it will mean very limited options behind Will Allen. Robert Golden would be the next man up. We might even see a Shamarko Thomas sighting, although his role is as backup to Troy Polamalu.

Steeler Nation and William Gay, after a TD
  • *Jason Worilds got jobbed on a roughing-the-quarterback penalty. Worilds did everything by the NFL's impossible book, nailing Ryan with his shoulder pads square in the sternum.  Anybody who saw the play knows Worilds shouldn't have been flagged. The NFL needs to look at how officials are calling these hits, or it need to adjust the rules. 
  • When the Steelers' offense took possession of the ball with 4:34 remaining in the game, Steelers' radio broadcaster Tunch Ilkin said, "Now we get to see if the Steelers can run their four-minute offense and end the game here." They did, converting two critical third downs. The second conversion came on a well-designed formation that left Heath Miller wide open for a crucial 25-yard pass on third-and-one.
  • Ben Roethlisberger has 29 touchdowns against just eight interceptions this year. On Sunday, in the 14th game of the season, he once again set the franchise record for passing yards (now 4,415 yards) in a season.
Le'Veon Bell, into the end zone
  • Le'Veon Bell went over 2,000 total yards for the season, surpassing Barry Foster's record. Bell finished with 47 yards rushing, 72 yards receiving, no fumbles and no injuries. He's been great this year.
  • Antonio Brown just continues to dazzle. With 10 receptions for 123 yards, his 115 catches this year also set a franchise record (115, passing Hines Ward's 112 in 2002). Brown leads the NFL with 1,498 yards receiving. A terrific season.
  • Second-year inside linebacker Vince Williams played a strong game, and he's looked mostly solid during the past several games, which is a very encouraging sign.

Good stuff, and congrats all around. 

Next up: The Kansas City Chiefs at Heinz Field, 1 p.m., next Sunday, Dec. 21st.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Game Day 14: Steelers at Atlanta Falcons

Can Todd Haley resist the temptation to show how smart he is today in Atlanta?

The Steelers are coming off a win when they ran the ball impressively. Atlanta's woeful pass defense, however, is ranked 32nd in the NFL. It may be tempting for Haley and Ben Roethlisberger to go after that secondary, even though such a plan almost certainly would lead to a shootout with Matt Ryan, Julio Jones and Roddy White.

So, the question is: Will the Steelers forget about what worked so well for them in Cincinnati last week? ... when Le'Veon Bell ran for 185 yards and 7.1 yards per carry? ... when 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.

As Ralph Paulk reported in his fine article on DeCastro in Friday's edition of the Tribune-Review, “It's something teams are going to have a hard time stopping,” right tackle Marcus Gilbert said. “We run it so well. We can run it 10 or so times a game. We're confident (in) Dave pulling, so we don't see it slowing down any time soon. We got to get a body on a body, and Dave is the best guard in the league. Once you pull him, he's going to open up holes.”

The Steelers can run the counter-sweep 10 times or so a game, but will they run it that often?

David DeCastro
Paulk reported that DeCastro is finally feeling healthy and confident in the knee he injured in his 2012 rookie season, so the Steelers are starting to feel confident in the kind of pulling, trapping and counter running schemes that suit the talents of Bell, DeCastro and Pouncey.

DeCastro's mobility is one reason the team drafted him, even giving him Alan Faneca's old uniform number (#66).

The ability of the blockers to move laterally plays to their strengths, as opposed to straight-ahead push-blocking against massive nose tackles like Baltimore's Haloti Ngata and and others throughout the NFL, including Kansas City's Dontari Poe, whom the Steelers will see next week.

While Steeler running backs Le'Veon Bell and Josh Harris combined for 30 carries last week, Bengals running backs Jeremy Hill and Giovanni Bernard combined for only 14 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.

Will Haley make the same mistake today that Hue Jackson made last Sunday?

The Bungles vs. the Clowns
Speaking of the Bengals, there is perhaps no more interesting game on the NFL's Sunday schedule than Cincinnati at Cleveland.

In the first meeting between the teams on Nov. 6th, Cleveland's defense coerced Andy Dalton into a miserable QB rating of 2.0 for the night. Two! Dalton completed only 10 of 33 attempts for a mere 86 yards but also threw three interceptions. Dalton had more yards per attempt running (2.67) than he had yards per attempt passing (2.61). It was an historically miserable performance, but one from which he had rebounded reasonably well -- until he fumbled early in the fourth quarter last Sunday vs. the Steelers, who went on to score 22 unanswered points. Dalton's fumble was the turning point in the game and fueled more talk in Cincinnati and elsewhere that he doesn't have what it takes to win big games.

Johnny Manziel, starting quarterback for the Cleveland Browns
For both Cincinnati and Cleveland, today's matchup is a big game. They both need to win, but especially Cleveland. If they lose, they're post-season aspirations are done.

Yet the Browns, being the Browns, chose this day to start rookie Johnny Manziel against a Cincinnati defense that can be pretty good, or at least has a lot of talent (on paper), despite the 42 points they surrendered to the Steelers last week.

Cleveland's defense can be fierce, too. In fact, last week, the Browns produced four takeaways and two defensive touchdowns -- and still lost, 25-24, to the Indianapolis Colts.

That was with Brian Hoyer at quarterback for most of the game. Today, with Dalton and Johnny Football tossing the pigskin around, it may be that both defenses will outscore both offenses.

Should be interesting. 

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Secondary Concerns

Irrespective of the looming matchup with Julio Jones, Roddy Smith and Matt Ryan, the Steelers' secondary has issues that must be addressed. The problems are such, however, that no quick fix will provide a solution before Sunday's game in Atlanta.

Going over the top.
The safeties have not produced takeaways this season, and opposing offenses have become emboldened to attack deep. Over the past four games, the back end of the defense has surrendered touchdown passes of 67, 80, 69 and 81 yards.

With Julio Jones coming off a game in which he caught 11 passes for 259 yards, what do you think Atlanta is going to do? ... especially after they saw Cincinnati's A.J. Green amass 224 yards against the Steelers last Sunday?

Safety Mike Mitchell pointed the finger at himself for being out of position on Green's 81-yard jaunt past a struggling Ike Taylor. While Mitchell's mea culpa and sense of accountability are admirable in this instance, his struggles this year have not been fun to watch. Mitchell has been out of position and/or late to plays all season. And Ike Taylor may be well less than 100 percent this Sunday, if he even plays (although he is projected to be available).

Still, the Steelers currently have just three reasonably healthy cornerbacks who have seen playing time this season: William Gay, Brice McCain and Antwon Blake. Considering the extent to which the defense usually has a nickel (slot) corner on the field, that means no depth behind those three.

Is it possible we could have a B.W. Webb sighting? Uhhhh, as we said, there is no quick fix in sight.

Footnote/Addendum: Long ago and far away, William Wilson Webb, Jr., aka B.W. Webb, averaged 18.2 yards per punt return as a senior in high school and had three returns for touchdowns.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

What a hot mess Hot 'lanta and the NFC South is right now.

The Steelers will be in Atlanta on Sunday to face the 5-8, first-place Falcons, who are the last of the four NFC South teams to face Pittsburgh this season.

The Falcons just surrendered 43 points to the Packers in Green Bay last night. To their credit, however, the Falcons scored 37 points against the Packers.

The Falcons also scored 37 points while losing to the New Orleans Saints, who beat the Steelers.

Probably the highlight of Atlanta's season was scoring 56 points at home vs. the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who beat the Steelers.

On the other hand, the Steelers beat the Carolina Panthers, who bludgeoned the New Orleans Saints ... who beat the Steelers. And the Falcons beat the Panthers, too.

We don't know what to expect from the Steelers on Sunday. One thing that's worrisome is the secondary, particularly the play of the safeties. They still don't have an interception this year, and the Steelers have surrendered at least one pass of 60 yards or more in each of the past four games.

Still, if Good Ben shows up, the Steelers have a pretty good chance of winning. But if it's the same Bad Ben who showed up for the games vs. Tampa Bay and New Orleans and the New York Jets and Cleveland and Baltimore and Jacksonville and Tennessee, look out. Not particularly good performances by Big Ben in any of those games.  The Steelers need Good Ben to show up on Sunday in Atlanta.

Monday, December 08, 2014

Can the Steelers stand success?

Let's hope the Steelers aren't thinking they passed their biggest test of the last quarter of the season by beating the Bengals in Cincinnati yesterday. With Sunday's demonstrative victory, the Steelers proved they can get it together to win challenging games on the road. And the Bengals proved they are the Bengals. They can be caught.

Now the Steelers have to prove they can win an "easy" game on the road next Sunday in Atlanta. Not that it will be easy, even though the Falcons will be coming off this evening's Monday night road game in Green Bay. Tough for them.

The 5-7 Falcons are not a particularly good team. But neither are the Buccaneers, Jets and Saints, all of whom beat the Steelers.

The Falcons can be dangerous at home. Three of their wins have been at home, where they've beaten the Bucs, Saints and Cardinals. They rang up 37, 56 and 29 points in those three wins.

Next Sunday's game in Atlanta may not be the toughest remaining game on the Steelers' schedule, but it won't necessarily be easy.

Sunday, December 07, 2014

What it is

"Bipolar" is a word that's been used to describe the Steelers a lot lately. Apparently, it also applies to the Bungles.

Steeler Nation has all week to wonder which Black 'n Gold team will show up next week in Atlanta. Never mind that the Falcons are a bad team. We'll worry about that next Sunday.

For now, let's all enjoy the win over the mistake-prone, mystifying Cincinnati Bengals, whose fans must be dumbfounded and confounded. It's going to be a long week for Andy Dalton, who can't win the big game, the latest instance of which was Sunday's tilt vs. the Steelers. The Bungles bungled a perfect opportunity to extinguish the Steelers' playoff hopes, slam the coffin lid, nail it down and bury the Steelers for the 2014 season. They failed, miserably.

Andy Dalton was occasionally brilliant, as on almost every pass he threw to the formidable A.J. Green (11 catches for 224 yards) and on his own 20-yard TD run off a perfectly executed play-fake handoff where Dalton tucked the ball and ran past a faked-out Troy Polamalu into the end zone.  Despite going 21 of 29 for 302 yards and two touchdowns, Dalton didn't do enough to overcome the failures and miscues of a highly touted, much-hyped Cincinnati defense featuring five first-rounders in the secondary. And, of course, Dalton made a crucial mistake, botching a handoff to Jeremy Hill. The fumble was recovered by Arthur Moats, and a few plays later, the Steelers converted the miscue into seven points.

Good Ben showed up for the Steelers in Cincinnati, as opposed to the Bad Ben who took the field last week in Pittsburgh vs. the Saints. Antonio Brown was electric, again, and the offensive line played cohesively for the most part, thank you, Mike Munchak.

But the star of the game, of course, was Le'Veon Bell*, who joined the immortal Walter Payton as among the backs in NFL history to tally three consecutive games of 200 total yards from scrimmage. Elite company, indeed, and hope for Steeler Nation that maybe this Steelers team can stand a measure of success, after all, and build on it to attain some semblance of consistency.

A good win, and hopefully one that foreshadows three more just like it over the next three weeks.

*Le'Veon Bell: 185 yards on the ground, six pass receptions for 50 yards; three touchdowns; no fumbles.