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). 

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