Wednesday, September 28, 2011
While the Pittsburgh Steelers continue to blow off any serious concerns on the offensive line, the majority of Pittsburgh sees them as a huge concern, bordering on crisis. With three more linemen going down with injuries last week, Mike Tomlin announced the team would look for some linemen to add as backups. And who can blame them? At this point in the season, there aren't any talented veterans sitting at home waiting for a phone call. And if any were, the Baltimore Ravens signed them already. But the fact remains, the Steelers did not do enough to bolster the offensive line in the offseason. While they drafted Maurkice Pouncey in the first round last year and Marcus Gilbert in the second round this past April, the glaring holes were still heavily noticeable. With Jonathan Scott starting at left tackle, the Steelers tried to build off their winning formula of building a championship team and getting by with a terrible O-line. Will this work again? We'll have to see. But for the health of their franchise quarterback, things need to change.
As the Steelers' strength moves from defense to offense, Ben Roethlisberger needs a great offensive line. Not just from a team standpoint but from a "we need our franchise player to last more than the next three years" standpoint. Everyone talks about football age opposed to real age when grading football players. How many times have you heard James Harrison is 33 but his football age is 28 because he started playing later in his career? If that's true, then Roethlisberger's football age must be 35 in response to the pounding he has taken over his career thus far.
In the 101 games Roethlisberger has started in his career, he has been sacked 283 times. This does not take into account the amount of times he's been pounded after a pass or during a run. The inordinate amount of hits has resulted in injuries to both knees, a separated shoulder, sprained thumb, broken foot, broken nose and multiple concussions over eight seasons. He was also knocked unconscious and carted off the field in 2008, and punched in the face by Haloti Ngata and Richard Seymour in 2010. Oh, and don't forget he was nearly killed by a car when his body was launched from a motorcycle in 2007. Even by football standards, that's a beating.
By comparison Peyton Manning, in 208 career starts, has been sacked 231 times and now faces the potential of retirement due to neck spasms that eventually led to a cervical fusion. In 12 NFL seasons, Troy Aikman was sacked 259 times and was eventually forced into retirement due to multiple concussions. While Brett Favre has been sacked the most times in NFL history (525), another stat proves that number misleading. So far, Roethlisberger (2.77) is averaging more than one sack per game than Brett Favre (1.73). At this current pace, if Ben were to play as many games as Favre (302), he would be sacked 837 times. However, this point is moot if the Steelers don't improve their protection because Ben will never sniff 300 games in his career.
Obviously, many of the hits Ben takes are due to his double-edged sword competitiveness to make every play on the field. But at some point he will not have the physical ability to make some of the amazing plays we see today. When it comes time for Ben to survive, more or less, as a pocket passer, will the Steelers have the pieces up front to protect him? Also, will they have the right gameplan in mind to build an offense with a solid ground game and short, quick passes?
For right now, the Steelers need to focus on winning games with the same familiar formula of solid defense and above average offense with a terrible offensive line. In the next few years, as the defense starts to soften, the Steelers will need to invest more money on the offensive line. The idea should be to protect the offense and the offense's second oldest player. While Ben is in his prime, he will continue to scramble, improvise and make plays, all the while getting pounded into the turf. As he gets older, the offensive line needs to be significantly better. Ben Roethlisberger is the franchise quarterback who has delivered two Super Bowls to a town that had last seen a title in 1979-1980 before his arrival. His continued success will only help the franchise and it should be the franchise's goal to find suitable players to protect him.
Monday, September 26, 2011
Since his hiring in 2007, I rarely criticized Steelers' offensive coordinator Bruce Arians for his game planning and play calling. Even when the offense sputtered and the playcalling seemed questionable, you could always point to execution as a reason of fault. After Sunday night's game against the Colts, enough is enough.
The Steelers faced a rushing defense which had been terrible for the better part of the last two decades. Yet, Sunday night, Pittsburgh came out throwing and became one dimensional from start to finish. Consequently, the Colts teed off on a bad offensive line who was protecting a quarterback with a high tendency to hold onto the ball too long. While that offensive strategy worked in the first quarter, by the end of the first half, the Steelers had turned the ball over three times leading to 13 points for the Colts.
When the Steelers did try to run, they pulled guards, tight ends, wide receivers and just about anything else they could get their hands on. Why is this a bad idea?
1) If the Colts have a strength on defense, it's their speed and athleticism. Running a play that takes time to develop plays into that speed. Imagine how dumb a team would look if they tried to run wide on the Steelers every play.
2) You're putting your trust in a line with no chemistry. Even before Doug Legursky, Jonathan Scott and Marcus Gilbert went down, this was only the second game where they all played together.
3) With a defense so fast and athletic, they are also extremely light. A power run game would tire out the defense, especially when you know their offense will be held in check.
While the bomb to Mike Wallace is an awesome play, it does nothing to wear down the defense. A solid running game would not only wear down the defense, it would set up playaction for Ben to throw deep to the fastest receiver in the league.
But the lack of rushing has been a problem since Arians took over the offense. Since 2008, the Steelers have not finished above 11th in the league in rushing. Since Arians refuses to implement a fullback, the offense has not only struggled to run, but struggled to score in the red zone. At one point, last season, the Steelers were ranked 27th in the league in red zone efficiency. Last week against Seattle, the Steelers were stuffed four straight times inside the five yard line. How many years are the Steelers going to struggle at the goal line before they finally make the adjustment?
While Roethlisberger and his electric wide receivers are among the best in the NFL, their usage in the offense mismatches their talent. The Steelers probably throw more wide receiver screens than any team in the league. But they throw the screens to Hines Ward and Heath Miller, the two slowest pass catchers on the team. Twice, against the Colts, Heath Miller caught the ball on a delay screen.
Both plays went for three yards.
As someone who has never played or coached in the NFL, it is hard for me to call for a coach's head. However, the offense has struggled for the last four years, in Pittsburgh. The offensive game plans are, well, offensive. With an elite level quarterback, running back and core of wide receivers, the offense should be further along by now. The goal should be to win the game and you win by attacking your opponents' weaknesses. The Steelers avoid adapting their game plan and they, at times, become too stubborn to switch things up when the offense is struggling. If you are facing a team that is tremendously undersized on defense and unmanned on offense, pound the football. If you are facing a team that has a strong front seven and weak secondary (like, the Texans?) then the game plan should focus on a balanced attack with quick passes to neutralize the threat of a pass rushing defensive lineman.
Unfortunately, Bruce Arians will probably try to fit a square peg into a round hole against the Houston Texans. The Steelers will most likely reshuffle their offensive line due to the injuries from Sunday's game. And, again, the Steelers will face a hostile crowd and a difficult pass rush. If the Pittsburgh Steelers start the game trying to stretch the field, Ben will get crushed.
After seeing the Steelers manhandle a team that had no quarterback and a bad defense, last week, their game against the Colts seemed to be a letdown.
Shaun Suisham nailed a 38 yard field goal with 4 seconds left to win the game and place the Steelers in a 3-way tie with the Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Ravens for first in the AFC North. It was a win that did not come easy for the Steelers despite the absence of the Colts' future hall of fame quarterback, Peyton Manning. Kerry Collins got the start for Indianapolis and was eventually knocked out of the game, replaced by Curtis Painter.
The Steelers got off to a 10-0 start after Roethlisberger hit Mike Wallace for an 81 yard bomb in the first quarter. However, Roethlisberger fumbled twice and threw an interception in the second quarter to vault the Colts ahead before the half, 13-10. After a quiet third quarter, the Steelers scored 10 straight points after a sack fumble by James Harrison was picked up by Polamalu and walked into the end zone for a touchdown.
It was the first turnover the defense created all season.
When all seemed to be in hand, the Colts drove 80 yards down the field and quickly scored to tie the game at 20. With just over two minutes remaining, Roethlisberger marched the team down to the 21 yard line where Shaun Suisham nailed the game winning field goal.
In all, it was a poorly played game by the Pittsburgh Steelers. They struggled against one of the worst teams in the league and, at times, were manhandled at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. Aaron Smith looked old, as did James Farrior who was replaced by Larry Foote halfway through the game. Casey Hampton was completely ineffective due to being cut blocked on nearly every play. What resulted was Joseph Addai racking up 86 yards on 17 carries despite lacking a quarterback to balance out the offense.
Meanwhile, the offensive line lost three starters and Jonathan Scott was completely dominated by Dwight Freeney who recorded two sacks and a fumble. The offense never got the running game going as Mendenhall was held to 37 yards on 18 carries. Roethlisberger turned the ball over three times in a matter of minutes which lead to 13 Indianapolis points.
A win is a win. The Steelers' next opponent (Texans) looked great against the Saints but, in the end, lost. It's better to win ugly than lose pretty and, as fans, we can only hope this was a bad game rather than a trend for the 2011 Pittsburgh Steelers. Mike Wallace finished with 144 receiving yards, giving him 377 for the year as he marches towards 2000 for the season.
On the defensive front, James Harrison looked good. Real good. Not only did he have a sack fumble, the former defensive mvp dominated the line, making tackles when he was being double teamed. Troy Polamalu was a menace in the second half of the game. On multiple occasions, he perfectly timed the snap count and disrupted plays before they could even develop. Ike Taylor had another solid game, although he was nearly torched on a shuffle and go route by Pierre Garcon. Fortunately for Taylor, the ball was over thrown by Curtis Painter.
The Steelers will face the 2-1 Houston Texans next week on the road.
Saturday, September 24, 2011
The last time the Pittsburgh Steelers faced the Indianapolis Colts on the road they were underdogs in the playoffs against a team that threatened to go undefeated during the regular season. The defense had the particularly difficult task of stopping arguably the best quarterback in the history of the league in his prime: Peyton Manning. The Steelers dominated three quarters of the game and went into the final quarter up 21-3. From there, the game turned into pure chaos and eventually one for the ages. Troy Polamalu had an interception reversed due to Pete Morelli's misinterpretation of the rules. Jerome Bettis, in what would have been the final game of his career, fumbled at the goal line to give the Colts an improbable chance to come back.Mike Vanderjagt's first miss inside the 40 yard line all season, however, sealed the deal.
And the Steelers went off to Denver and eventually Detroit to claim their fifth franchise championship.
Steelers on Offense
Indianapolis comes into this match up ranked 15th in total defense. While the passing defense has been respectable (ranked 10th), the rushing defense has been dreadful (29th). Peyton Hillis only averaged 3.5 yards per carry, the Cleveland offense consistently pounded the Colts defense and wore them down. The Pittsburgh Steelers have a much more dynamic duo at runningback with Rashard Mendenhall and Ike Redman. Ben Roethlisberger, on the other hand, is the player that will put Pittsburgh over the top on the offensive side of the ball. While he took somewhat of a beating against the Seahawks, Ben was able to get in a rhythm and sustain long, successful drives last week. As Mike Wallace continues his quest to 2000 total yards (albeit nearly impossible), he will draw most of the attention from the secondary, opening up routes to Hines Ward, Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown. The only match up that makes me cringe is Jonathan Scott against Dwight Freeney on the left side. If Heath Miller needs to stay on the line to help Scott, so be it. The big plays will eventually open up for the Steelers against an undersized defense.
Steelers on Defense
Six years later, many players still remain on both teams since the time of their epic matchup in the playoffs. One of those players, unfortunately, will not be playing. Peyton Manning's neck issues have forced him out for the entire season and maybe his career. Seeing Kerry Collins under center for this game on Sunday Night Football is nauseating from a football fan's prospective. From a Steelers' fan, however, it's a sigh of relief. Although Manning has had mixed results against the Steelers-he defeated them three seasons ago at Heinz Field- the Pittsburgh secondary has problems against up-tempo passing offenses. With Kerry Collins at quarterback, Pittsburgh will feast. Period.
Since 2002, the Colts have never ranked higher than 15th in total rushing, a stat obviously centered around the fact that Peyton Manning was lighting up defenses like pinball machines. Now that Manning is out of the equation, how does this offense operate? The Steelers have always built their gameplan around stopping the run to make teams one dimensional. The fact that the Colts are already one dimensional helps Pittsburgh's cause. The key for the defense is simple: get to Kerry Collins and knock him around. If Collins gets on a good pace to start the game, the Steelers defense will have a tough time throughout the night. Last week, the Steelers forced Seattle to go three and out on their first drive from the one yard line. This week, the defense needs to do the same.
My prediction: 27-10 Steelers
Car over Jax
Cle over Mia
NO over Hou
Det over Min
Atl over Tb
Was over Dal
Current record 11-4
I'd really like to take the Rams over the Ravens but I just cannot see Baltimore going 1-2 to start the season.
Monday, September 19, 2011
Over the past eight months, the University of Pittsburgh has dragged their feet in making key decisions that majorly affect their sports programs. The football program, to be precise, suffered as Pitt AD Steve Pederson took his time in relieving Dave Wannstedt of his coaching duties, last season. Then the Panthers hired Mike Haywood at the end of the season, only to fire him two weeks later in response to allegations of a domestic dispute. Eventually, Pitt would hire Todd Graham in hopes that he would resurrect a once proud football program. Since Pitt waited so long to hire him, Graham lost time on his first recruiting class. Many wanted Steve Pederson fired because when it came to hiring coaches, Pitt delayed and nearly struck out.
When it came time for Pittsburgh to switch conferences, they hit a home run.
On Sunday, it was announced the Pittsburgh Panthers and Syracuse Orange were leaving the Big East to join the ACC, one of the four "Superconferences" that will rule college football in the near future. Along with the likes of Duke, UNC and Maryland, the Panthers will be reunited with former Big East schools such as Boston College, Virginia Tech and Miami. On Friday, rumors started to swirl that Syracuse and Pitt applied to join the ACC. Two days later, the Atlantic Coastal Conference accepted both schools to join their healthy conference.
And just like that, the Big East conference was put on life support. Many believe other Big East schools such as Rutgers and UConn will be next to join. For that reason alone, Pitt acted quickly when approached about the possibility of switching. Worse than being a middle of the road football team is playing in an illegitimate conference with minimal TV revenue. Had the Pitt Panthers waited as long to transition conferences as they did to hire a football coach, they might have been left in the dust, competing against Louisville, Cincinnati and South Florida for a meaningless conference title.
While Pitt's future is exciting, not everyone is ecstatic about the move. Notre Dame AD Jack Swarbrick, puzzled of Pitt's departure, said, "I don't understand it. How do you vote as a collegiate president on something that has the potential to provide some benefit for your institution and the conference you're affiliated with but has a very negative consequence for a host of other members of the academy?"
That's easy Jack, because the reality of college football is caring more about yourself and how much revenue you can generate for your program than the integrity of college athletics. Had Notre Dame accepted the invitation to join the Big East in football sixteen years ago, maybe Boston College, Miami and Virginia Tech would still be in the Big East, picking off ACC teams to create a Superconference instead of the other way around. But, due to Notre Dame's wish to remain independent and opportunistic to accrue an unbelievable amount of TV revenue, the Big East failed to acquire college football's biggest client and the surrounding schools left.
And, oh yes, Pitt will get their TV money.
Going against conventional wisdom, the Big East held out on accepting a TV deal with ESPN/ABC last year. Conversely, the ACC accepted a 12 year contract with the biggest sports network in the world. In that span, ESPN/ABC will pay roughly $37.6 million a year to the ACC. That's certainly more than anything the "Big East Network" will generate. Plus, with games being aired on ESPN, the Pitt Panthers will gain more national exposure. Increased revenue and TV exposure gives Pitt the resources to pursue better recruits and a chance to become a top tier program. Even if they finish fifth every year in the conference standings, at the very least, Pitt will compete in a prestigious conference. In the case of college footbal, it is better to be mediocre in an excellent conference, than to be excellent in a mediocre conference.
With the possibility of Big East basketball programs emerging into the ACC, Pitt has the potential to compete in one of the greatest conferences in sports history. When the smoke clears, the ACC could potentially house elite programs such as Pittsburgh, Syracuse, UConn, Duke and UNC. College basketball would be at its peak as rivalries, both new and old, would be secured under once conference. Remember Pitt's thrilling overtime win against Duke in 2007? The magic between both teams will be recreated twice a year in front of both the Cameron Crazies and the Oakland Zoo. Combine that with the possibility of a UNC/Pittsburgh match up and the entire city of Pittsburgh could have college basketball fever. Buckle up.
For those nostalgic of the Big East years when the conference tournament was held in Madison Square Garden, do not lose hope. The ACC could add that venue to the rotation of tournament hosts. After all, it was in Madison Square Garden where Levance Fields nailed a fade away three pointer to give the Panthers a 65-64 win over Duke four years ago. And playing in New York City is much more intriguing to college athletes than paying at UNC Greensboro. Adding northern schools to the mix will make cities such as New York, Washington D.C. and Philadelphia more appropriate to host the ACC tournament.
As it stands, the Big East will make Pitt and Syracuse honor their contract through 2014. However, if the SEC and Pac-12,14,16 fall into place sooner, both teams will be forced out of the Big East and into the ACC. Money talks in college football and the rest of the country will not wait for the ACC to get their teams in place. The next few weeks could see more prestigious schools, such as Texas and Oklahoma, push for the Pac-12. While those schools scramble to find a home, Pittsburgh, for once, will sit and wait, with a comfortable and clear future.
Sunday, September 18, 2011
A statement game. That was what this game was all about for the Pittsburgh Steelers, a team that needed to rebound in a big way after their poor showing in week one. The defense, in particular, needed to show they were still young enough to become a dominant force in the NFL. At least against the Seattle Seahawks, they were. While shutting out one of the worst offenses in the league is not a major accomplishment, the Steelers dominated to the best of any defense's ability.
With roughly nine minutes to go in the fourth quarter, the Seahawks finally crossed the fifty yard line into Steelers territory. However, two sacks quickly put an end to any threat they could muster. The Steelers sacked Tavaris Jackson five times and held Marshawn Lynch to 11 yards on 6 carries. In the end, the "too old, too slow" defense returned back to mid-season form to avoid starting 0-2.
Pittsburgh's offense was efficient, not flashy. The Steelers scored three touchdowns with Ben Roethlisberger methodically leading the charge down the field. The only time the offense scuffled was on the opening drive when Rashard Mendenhall was stuffed at the one yard line on fourth and goal. After the Seahawks punted, Pittsburgh marched down the field and took the lead with a one yard touchdown from Mendenhall. Pittsburgh never looked back, getting touchdowns from Ike Redman and Mike Wallace.
The offensive line was still below average in pass protection. Roethlisberger was sacked twice and hit multiple times. Late in the second quarter, defensive end Chris Clemons fell into Roethlisberger's knee causing Big Ben to bend backward. The play was eerily similar to Tom Brady's injury in 2008 against the Kansas City Chiefs. Ben walked off on his own power and returned in the second half to throw a touchdown to Mike Wallace. As the game progressed, Roethlisberger's limp appeared to become less obvious, however the injury may have affected his accuracy.
- For the first time, the Steelers will head to Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis to face the Peyton Manning-less Colts; a team who lost to Cleveland this week and is 0-2 to start the season.
- The Steelers shutout the Seahawks for the second straight meeting between the two teams. In 2007 they beat Seattle 21-0 at Heinz Field.
- Mike Wallace finished with exactly 126 yards. He will need to average 126 yards per game in order to reach his goal of the NFL's first 2000 yard season for a wide out.
Saturday, September 17, 2011
Both teams lost their season openers last week in convincing fashion. The difference: the Steelers were blown out against one of the AFC's best teams and true rivals, while the Seahawks were blown out by a team that hasn't been good since Jeff Garcia was slinging the ball. While neither team looked particularly strong last week, the Steelers are head and shoulders better than the Seahawks. After week one, the Steelers have a cloud of doubt surrounding them as to how legitimate they are to win the Super Bowl. Winning may not be the only important result of this game. A win on a last second field goal does not convince the football world that the Steelers are looking for a seventh ring. The talent disparity between both teams should result in a blowout win for the Steelers. Either way, this week will shed a little more light as to how high our expectation should be on the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Steelers on Offense
Before things got out of hand last week in Baltimore, Rashard Mendenhall had 48 yards on his first 6 carries. Expect Mendenhall to have a big game against a Seattle defense that surrendered 85 yards to Frank Gore, despite knowing that San Fransisco's passing game is almost non-existent. As good as Mendenhall may be, however, Ben Roethlisberger could post huge numbers if his offensive line gives him time to throw the ball. While the O-line may have gotten worse from last week, the benefit of not having to face Haloti Ngata and Terrell Suggs still gives the line a chance to hold their own. The Seahawks have two young, talented safeties in Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor which may prevent Pittsburgh from throwing down field on a consistent basis. However, Mike Wallace is still tough to stop and the Steelers will throw plenty of slants to get Wallace going early on. Especially if the line fails to hold off the Seattle pass rush, led by Chris Clemons and third year linebacker Aaron Curry.
Steelers on Defense
This match up defines the term "Perfect Storm". Let's see, one of the best defenses over the last ten years, coached by the greatest defensive coordinator in football history, playing against a career back up quarterback (Tavaris Jackson) who is without his biggest weapon (Sidney Rice), and is protected by one of the youngest offensive lines in the last fifteen years. Oh, and the entire week the defense has had to hear from retired 300 pound linemen, fans and the media about how they're too old to play.
What made Baltimore so effective last week was their ability to run the football. Ray Rice rushed for 107 yards and the defense was never able to get a solid pass rush on Joe Flacco. Lamarr Woodley told the media, yesterday, that the Steelers made their corrections. When asked what would happen if the Seahawks tried to perform the same gameplan as the Ravens, he responded, "It wont work." We'll see. It is hard not to be skeptical when you look back on last Sunday's game and see Aaron Smith and Casey Hampton completely blown off the ball on every play. Still, Marshawn Lynch shouldn't be as tough as Ray Rice, at the same time he's no picnic. The Steelers thrive on making teams one dimensional by shutting down the run and if they are successful, the Seahawks will be forced to win the game with Tavaris Jackson. Good luck.
The last time the Steelers and Seahawks met (2007), the Pittsburgh defense pitched a shutout in a 21-0 victory. While predicting another shutout is naive, I would be surprised if the Seahawks scored double digit points. Like I said, the Seahawks lack offense and they are facing an angry defense who was embarrassed on national TV last week.
Buffalo over Oakland
Detroit over KC
Minnesota over Tampa Bay
New Orleans over Chicago
Washington over Arizona
New England over San Diego
Bold Prediction: Tennessee over Baltimore . The Titans host the Ravens in their first home game of the year. If Rashard Mendenhall can run on the Ravens, maybe Chris Johnson will find some holes as well. Also, do not underestimate the fact that a team could have a let down after a huge emotional win the week before. Am I being a homer? Maybe, but there could be merit to this prediction.
Wednesday, September 14, 2011
Despite all the excitement and drama of being in first place in late July, the Pittsburgh Pirates extended their North American sports record of consecutive losing seasons to nineteen. With yesterday's 3-2 loss against the St. Louis Cardinals, the Pirates reached 82 losses to ensure their fate; a mark that was reached August 20th of last season. Although the season was more exciting and competitive, the end result was the same.
Was the season a success based on their ability to stay in a pennant race for four months? Of course not. Believe it, Pirates fans, the record does matter when the consecutive losing streak reaches long enough that today's teens were not alive to see Pittsburgh's last winning season. Make no mistake, despite the first half of the season, the Pirates were not successful and this season cannot be labeled an improvement based on a 10-15 more wins at the end of the road. In all honesty, I would be surprised if "The Streak" ended next year. The farm system has made significant improvements through the draft and development stages of young, talented prospects. The next step is to not only get these prospects to Pittsburgh, but to make them superstars at the big league level. Whether or not that will happen is still a question mark. However, as ugly as this sounds, patience is the right temperament to show.
How do you lose for nineteen straight years? Ugly drafts, bad signings and a slew of general managers who have no idea how to build a winning program. As much as we all wish to blame the current ownership for this mess, however, the fact remains that he will not give up his product to a billionaire and he will not jeopardize another decade of losing to create one winning year in Pittsburgh. When Bob Nutting brought Frank Coonelly and Neal Huntington aboard, the franchise lacked sustainable talent at the minor and major league levels. While the plethora of moves has yet to yield a winning season, the overall direction of the franchise is forward with the brightest moments still a few years away.
Still, this stings. More so than in year's past.
The Pirates, after going 53-47 midway through the season, are now 67-82 with plenty of losses still on the table. The epic collapse we all thought wouldn't happen this year, happened. The pitching folded, the bullpen crumbled, and the hitting remained consistently bad. Along the way, the Pirates never overcame the errant call by Jerry Meals and possibly felt the pressure of being the team to end "The Streak". While two pieces of the future improved, (Neil Walker and Andrew McCutchen) two of the other pieces took giants steps back (Jose Tabata and Pedro Alvarez). Next year, that simply cannot happen.
The standard is still set at winning baseball, regardless of the embarrassment the franchise has brought the city over the last two decades. Whether the fans kick and scream or simply numb themselves of the pain of futility, the prospect of winning must always be the focal point for the Pittsburgh Pirates.
With that being the obvious, the ownership must live up to their word on building a winning team. While the draft remains to be a strong suit for the franchise, it is time to take care of our current major leaguers. Particularly, Andrew McCutchen. He must be given an extension to eat up arbitration years and go beyond into his free agent period. McCutchen is the star in Pittsburgh, a fan favorite, and the marquee player in representing the Pirates "turn around".
We can dream that, one day, all the pieces will fall into place and the Pirates will contend for a championship. Until then, we must live with reality of rooting for the worst franchise in North American sports history. The proverbial monkey of a winning season remains on the backs of Pittsburghers for one more year.
Sunday, September 11, 2011
This was a good old fashion butt whopping by the Baltimore Ravens. Heading into this season, the defending AFC Champion Steelers heard about how their defense was too old and their offensive line was terrible. The Ravens didn't just prove those critics right, they made them look like Einsteins.
Ray Rice ran for 107 yards on just 19 carries and scored 2 touchdowns in part of the Raven's biggest blowout in the franchise's history against the Steelers. While the Steelers defense was dominated up and down the field, the offense had just as many turnovers as points. Ben Roethlisberger threw three picks of which two were thrown right at Ravens free safety Ed Reed. Every time the Steelers seemed to move the ball down field, a turnover would kill the drive and all hope of making a dramatic comeback.
Down 21-7 to start the second half, the Steelers looked to create another dramatic come from behind win as they did in last year's divisional playoff round. This time, it was not going to happen. Pittsburgh fumbled on the first play from scrimmage. Baltimore quickly capitalized when Flacco's playaction burned Polamalu as he threw to a wide open Ed Dickson for an 18 yard touchdown. John Harbaugh decided to run a fake extra point which led to an easy two point conversion. The following play from scrimmage, Roethlisberger's pass was tipped by Haloti Ngata and intercepted by Ray Lewis. The Steelers D held Baltimore to a field goal, but the offense never recovered.
Adding salt to the wound, was the physical dominance of the Ravens over the Steelers. In Tomlin's five seasons as Pittsburgh's head coach, this was the worst physical beating the Steelers had experienced. Hines Ward was blind sided by Jarret Johnson on a broken screen play that eventually led to Reed's second interception. Rashard Mendenhall was blasted by Ngata on a play in which it seemed Roethlisberger and Maurkice Pouncey were crossed up on the snap cadence. The Steelers weren't just beaten, they were bludgeoned in every aspect of the game and downright intimidated.
Still, we can take a few positives out of this game. Other than James Harrison's knee, which did not look serious, the Steelers somehow managed to come out of this game healthy. Next week, they face the Seattle Seahawks at home. The Seahawks lost to the 49ers today and should be an easy win for the black and gold. However, the Steelers need to come out hitting on all cylinders. If the defense plays half as bad as they did in week one, there should be cause for concern. Usually, week two of the NFL season is not too important, but the Steelers need to show whether they are contenders or pretenders to make another run at a championship.
If this game did anything, it showed the window of opportunity is starting to close. The defensive line was constantly blown off the ball by a Ravens offensive line that hadn't been practicing together for more than a month. They looked weak. They looked...old.
Update: Apparently Willie Colon tore his triceps and is out for the year. So much for injuries not affecting the Steelers in week 1.
Saturday, September 10, 2011
The first week of football is finally among us. I'm talking about real football. You know, that physical game between two teams that try to win by pounding each other into submission? In other words, not what I saw on Thursday night between the Packers and Saints. When I watched that game, my first reaction was pure excitement. "Finally," I thought, "They're going to show the Pittsburgh Power on primetime television next year." Then I saw the stadium, the uniforms, the bad color commentary. This wasn't the Arena Football League. This was the future of the NFL.
What a way to kickoff the 2011 season with the Steelers and Ravens playing each other. The last time these teams met, the Steelers stole victory from the jaws of defeat in large part to the Ravens' offense committing three turnovers in the second half to erase a 21-7 deficit. A very stunned and upset Ray Lewis stood in the locker room after the game, "I tell you time and time again, you can never turn the ball over and be successful. And that will never change. EVER." The loss not only marked the third time the Steelers had beaten Ray Lewis in the playoffs but it also showed the frustration of an offense that had let him down after the defense did everything to stop the bleeding.
Now, in 2011, these two teams are on the verge of writing another chapter to football's biggest rivalry in present time NFL. While the Ravens did some summer cleaning through trades and free agency, the Steelers have stuck with the same team.
And why not? After all, the Pittsburgh Steelers were one drive away from claiming their seventh Lombardi Trophy, last season. Their defense, although a year older, is healthy to start the season while their offense has the potential to be one of the best in franchise history. Here's a breakdown of the matchup between these two teams:
Although Joe Flacco has progressed steadily over his first three seasons in the NFL, he is nowhere near the caliber of Ben Roethlisberger. Roethlisberger has won his last seven starts against the Baltimore Ravens and now has a core group of wide receivers as strong as any team in the NFL. With toughness, determination and skill, Big Ben is a nightmare for Baltimore. If this game, for whatever reason, turns into a shootout, Ben Roethlisberger will most likely come out on top.
Ray Rice is the most talented running back in this matchup. He is a key ingredient not only to the running game but passing game as well. He ran wild on Pittsburgh two years ago in Heinz Field although was ineffective the last three games against the Steelers. Rashard Mendenhall has looked very good in preseason but Ike Redman is the X-factor in all of this. His remarkable touchdown against the Ravens last season gave Pittsburgh the lead and the win in Week 13. Regardless, both defenses are so good, any contributions from the backfield will be a major boost.
The Ravens cut Derrick Mason and Todd Heap this offseason and traded for Lee Evans from Buffalo. While Mason and Heap were getting old, they always caused the biggest problems for the Steelers' defense. Evans is a great vertical threat but his only route is straight down the field. Anquan Boldin is an excellent player, but his lack of support will draw double teams and force Flacco to look elsewhere. One wideout who will not play is slot receiver, David Reed, who has been suspended by the league due to marijuana use.
The Steelers, as mentioned before, have one of the best receiving corps in the NFL. Mike Wallace will once again, be the fastest player on the field. Look for Ben to go to Wallace early and often. Hines Ward has always been good at finding soft spots in coverage while Antonio Brown has been electrifying in preseason. If all else fails, Ben can check down to Mewelde Moore or Heath Miller.
Edge: Steelers big time
The Ravens have a much better offensive line since signing Bryant McKinnie and Andre Gurode (both multiple pro bowlers). But the lack of time to work with the offense has to pose a problem here in week 1. Down the road, Flacco will be tough to hit, but for right now it is going to be a serious challenge to hold off the Pittsburgh defense when your line hasn't had more than three weeks to gel. In the meantime, Jonathan Scott will be facing Terrell Suggs. You will probably be able to count on one hand the amount of times Scott will face Suggs 1-on-1. This could pose a big problem for the Steelers in protecting Ben long enough to throw deep down the field.
Haloti Ngata is one of the best defensive tackles in the league. He his big, strong and extremely athletic. While his job is usually to gum up the middle, his ability to tip passes at the line and intercept them are an added bonus for the defense. Still, Casey Hampton and a healthy Aaron Smith are tough to block and with the emergence of Ziggy Hood, last season, the Steelers will be able to give Smith a breather every now and then.
Don't tell the Steelers defense that they're getting old. Don't tell Ray Lewis he's getting old either. While Ray-Ray has lost a step over the years, he's still one of the league's best linebackers. This game could be a microcosm to a breakout year for Lawrence Timmons. Timmons will be flying everywhere on defense and could make the play to give the Steelers the advantage. Lamar Woodley and Terrell Suggs have both been nightmares for their respective opponents; particularly Suggs who has 10 sacks in 11 games against the Steelers. James Harrison's effectiveness will be based on the health of his back.
While the Steelers did not get any stronger in the secondary, neither did the Ravens. Ike Taylor has been excellent over the last few seasons while Baltimore lacks a strong cornerback. Ed Reed, although aging, is still an elite free safety while a healthy Troy Polamalu has haunted Joe Flacco throughout his young career. Rookie corner Jimmy Smith has the talent to be an elite defensive back for the Ravens in the future, but he's going up against veteran receivers who are excellent route runners. The fact is, the Baltimore secondary has no answer for Mike Wallace and if the pass rush does not reach Ben Roethlisberger in time, Ben and Wallace will have a field day.
Edge: Steelers, slightly but both are pretty bad.
My prediction: 27-16 Steelers. I would like to think this game will be a nail biter as most of these contests usually are, but at the same time, I think the Steelers are much more talented than the Ravens this year. Still, it will be an emotional day with the 9/11 ceremony and the first week of football in Baltimore. The crowd could definitely be a factor in this game, but I wouldn't count on it. Ben talked about the importance of establishing the run early in the game, but I don't that buy either. I think the Steelers come out firing with no answer from the Ravens.
Falcons over Bears
Cleveland over Cincinnati
Houston over Indy
SD over Minnesota
Redskins over Giants
Jets over Cowboys
Friday, September 9, 2011
“It’s a Great Day for Hockey” - “Badger Bob” Johnson
It is a quote that has held so much significance among the hockey community for years since spoken by Johnson in 1991. Its meaning speaks of love, passion and optimism for a game that is so respected and appreciated from players, coaches and fans alike. But the tragedy of an entire team, 43 people including 27 players of Lokomotiv of the KHL, losing their lives after their team plane crashed shortly after takeoff, is an unspeakable tragedy that has taken its toll an entire hockey community and changed the word “great” to tragic. The crash comes on top of an already sorrowful year for hockey which saw three NHL enforcers found dead: Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien and recently retired Wade Belak. That list has now grown thanks to this unspeakable crash. Among those notable in the crash were former NHL players Pavol Demitra, Brad McCrimmon, Ruslan Salei, Josef Vasicek, Karlis Skrastins, Karel Rachunek, and Alexander Vasyunov. The summer of 2011 has made us fans of hockey, take a step back from looking at results on the ice and put our focus on what is happening off it.
Know one thing, it is not the names of people that make a tragedy, but the tragedy itself. It is human nature to have an emotional reaction to a tragedy if you know, or have heard of, someone who died. All we can do is mourn. Words are extremely hard to come by right now when trying to put all of these tragic events over the past few months into perspective. It is easy to understand what death means, but very difficult to express such tragedies into words and form sentences that have actual and purposeful meaning that will do diligence to death. Chilling is the one word that does it best for me to describe the past eight months of hockey disaster.
What makes this even worse is that that not all of this tragedy involves death. The careers of NHL players such as Mark Savard have come into question over the now popular concussion talk. Savard is just one example of how concussions affect player’s foreseeable futures as he will sit out the upcoming year and ponder what is to become of his NHL future. Retirement is a very serious possibility for him. There is obviously the ongoing health of Sidney Crosby who is also recovering from a concussion. The outlook for Crosby seems positive after a press conference updating the NHL world on what has been going on since January 5th. But in reality, we have no idea what his return date will be and can only hope he comes back as the dominate force he was. The NHL needs him, or more importantly, hockey needs him. From now on, concussions sustained by players on any team at every level will be looked at with cause for concern, no matter how slight it may seem. We have seen the lives and careers of players, past and present, end all too soon. In a way, these concussions have sparked positive talk about change for the game and how the approach of each injury must assume the highest form of caution. A ban on all head shots, harsh penalties and suspensions seem like obvious answers to ending this talk, but it is the awareness that has been raised that is most beneficial.
When the passing New York Ranger winger Derek Boogaard died in mid-May, shock struck the NHL world. A well liked guy among the league whose job night in and night out was to fight. He died of a drug overdose at the age of 28. Former Vancouver Canuck tough guy Rick Rypien died in mid-August at the age of 27, the cause of death having been reported as suicide. It is well known that he had struggled from depression. This can’t be happening again the hockey world thought. The latest player was Wade Belak, who recently retired, was working on becoming a broadcaster and was set to appear on a television competition in Canada. A man who was described as upbeat, always happy and a jokester was secretive about his condition, depression, and took his own life by hanging himself. This is the one that put this into tragic. Is there a link? All three performed the NHL's most dangerous and perhaps difficult job, that of the hockey enforcer. So many questions can be raised and asked about these players’ deaths, the most obvious being about the ban of fighting. But the focus should shift to the off the ice problems these players had, not who they encountered on it.
Boogaard was addicted to pain killers. It would be an addiction he would never beat. He had checked into rehab via the NHL/NHL Players' Association's Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health Program under the advice of his brother. Because of the privacy in the NHL and NHL Players Association rehab program, teammates did not even know why Boogaard disappeared for a month in 2009. It was reported as a concussion. He struggled with his addiction post rehab and succumbed to his death with a toxic mix of alcohol and pills. Not to take this the wrong way, but maybe Boogaard thought of himself as indestructible because of his results on the ice. It is strictly a tough guy mentality and to admit he was weak, in his mind, would damage his tough guy persona and thus his image would take a hit. In reality, I think he was afraid since most of his teammates did not know, let alone most of his family about his problem, and he was unsure what the consequences would be if they found out. If there is one thing that the NHL needs to address and educate its players on, it is prescription pill drug abuse. Former and current players have come out recently over these tragedies and stated just how bad it is. Awareness needs to be raised about what exactly these drugs do to a person.
As for Rypien and Belak, both of them suffered from cases of depression. Rypien was the more well know of two who had depression. He had struggled for years from it and it was well known in the NHL community about his disease. Players and doctors provided him with as much support and help he needed, but obviously there is only so much that can be done and ultimately, Rypien felt the need to end his life. He was on team leave last year and it was obvious he was not himself after an incident of attacking a fan one game. Things are never really as they appear. There can be good days, good weeks, good months, but all of that can change in an instant. If there is one thing Rick did well, it was openly discuss his illness. It let us inside his mind a bit and he was in a way, reaching out to someone who may be dealing with the same problem and encouraging them to speak up about it. Rypien may not have left and impact in the NHL history books, but he did impact the league in a way he will always be remembered for; by becoming the face of depression for the NHL.
Belak had retired no more than a few months before his death and the common sentiment was he was happy. Always a jokester and in good spirits and then suddenly, he was gone. Belak never let on about his depression and you have to wonder how he hid it so well. My only guess is that on the outside everything can appear fine, but Belak had been battling inner demons for a year’s according to his mother and just had enough. Only he can answer why he did it. He leaves behind a wife and two kids. Belak's death has brought up another problem every former player deals with, the transition into retirement. Hockey is all consuming and does little to prepare for a life that doesn't include it. Most players retire and wonder what to do. It is one of the hardest transition phases in their life. Think about it, they have been going through the same routine for decades and decades, it is all they know. It will never be known or at least at this current moment if Beklak was having problems with this. He left the game under his own terms and had post career aspirations lined up in broadcasting.
But did fighting play a role in these players’ deaths? It depends on what way you want to take that question, but ultimately the answer is no. Their deaths, it has got nothing to do with fighting in hockey. Players have been dropping the gloves for more than a century and we as fans have come to embrace it (not all of us however, each group will have their opinion it) as part of the game. Each of these cases should be treated individually. The obvious talk of banning fighting will be brought up, and that is a fair argument to bring to the table but let me keep this short. If you take away fighting, you take away jobs. So called tough guys would become extinct from hockey and a slow movement of skilled players would be brought in. In theory it sounds great, but for those who would lose their job, remember, all they know is hockey and how to fight. It is their career and I can see problems coming from that. We just need to understand that these players all had a disease, and that disease is something they could not control. That is what needs to be taken away from these players’ deaths.
All of these tragedies should help put aside ones personal angst against a certain player or team. It goes beyond sports and touches on life. No one actually wishes failure on a player or team and actually means for it to happen to them in real life. Sports are supposed to be an escape from real life. The athlete symbolizes a hero who goes above and beyond personal failures in life. But sometime we must remember that all of us are still human. We have vices of addiction; depression can happen to even someone who seems to have it all and human tragedies can occur. But these heroes, they are not supposed to die, especially in such horrible ways at such a young age. These players are people with the same needs and weakness as the rest of us, and that must change the way we as fans look at the game. Hockey gives us entertainment but it also gives us a sense of community as fans. Embrace that feeling.
By: Chris Dazen
Wednesday, September 7, 2011
Most GMs would be panicked if their franchise player had a career threatening injury in the midst of becoming a once in a generation type player. That panic would probably set in tenfold if that particular player was not only the face of your team but of the league your team plays. Most GMs would feel that, if said player was to announce he probably wont be ready until three months into the season, his job would be in serious trouble because his team would falter.
Not Ray Shero.
Pens GM Ray Shero said as plainly as he could on Wednesday that the Pittsburgh Penguins will be as patient as needed for Sidney Crosby to fully recover from his concussion. Since his concussion eight months ago, Crosby has taken the ice several times in an attempt to test how his mind would react to certain efforts in his practices. While he still continues to suffer setbacks, the symptoms appear to be diminishing in magnitude.
Wednesday, he clarified all rumors that had been swirling over a very arduous summer. When asked if he had any thoughts on retiring he replied, "not really." Also, the two accompanying doctors, Dr. Ted Carrick and Dr. Michael Collins, confirmed that Crosby's vertebrae were fine and that the only problem was his head; a problem Collins later clarified. "The prognosis is excellent that he won't have long-term problems from this injury."
So why the calmness from Ray Shero?
For one, the Penguins, without Crosby, are still extremely good. The Pens boast one of the top five goalies in the league with Marc Andre Fleury and one of the best defensive units in front of him. Returning to camp is a healthy, rejuvenated and motivated Evgeni Malkin, who is two and half years removed from his best season in which he became the first player since Mario Lemieux to lead the regular season and playoffs in scoring in the same season. As he continues to train, one has to think he's looking for his best season to date.
Meanwhile, role player and hockey villian, Matt Cooke returns to the ice to help ratchet up the Pens penalty killing that sorely missed his presence in the playoffs last Spring. Jordan Staal and Tyler Kennedy will probably join Cooke as they try to recreate the same chemistry that led to a Stanley Cup. Meanwhile, James Neal is prepared to give the same effort with different results as he scored only two goals for the Penguins since being traded from Dallas. Also, the emergence of young talent in Dustin Jeffrey and Mark Letestu look to build on the successes they each experienced as they were forced into starting roles after Crosby and Malkin went down last season.
Make no mistake, the Penguins are fringe Stanley Cup contenders without Sidney Crosby, meaning they will make the playoffs with or without him (as evident of last season). Ray Shero has built this team around Crosby but has done so in a way that removing #87 from the roster will not make the team collapse like a house of cards. For that reason, alone, there is no rush for Crosby's return. If he is ready to play, he puts Pittsburgh over the top as favorites to win the Eastern Conference. Unlike the Washington Capitals, the Penguins play for April, May and June. If it takes until St. Patrick's Day for Crosby to return, the Penguins will gladly welcome him as they make a run for a fourth Stanley Cup.
Until then. Patience. Don't Panic.
Monday, September 5, 2011
After April, the Pirates were a mediocre 13-15. After posting a .500 record in May and .593 win percentage in June, the Pirates were Pittsburgh's favorite team. Then came the collapse. Jerry Meals calls Julio Lugo safe in a 19 inning marathon against the Braves, the rotation gets pummeled by the Padres and their NL worst offense, Derrek Lee breaks his wrist and the lineup suffers tremendously.
No, that's not Matt Diaz's season high batting average. It was the Pirates' win percentage in August. As I stated before, the season would hinge on the Pirates' ability to survive the month of August. Obviously, they did not and now, with one month left in the season, a 19th straight season of losing seems likely.
Still, the Buccos can fight to the finish in the season's final month. To start September, the Pirates look to be on the right track with a 3-2 record while Derrek Lee is 9-13 with 2 home runs and 7 RBI's since his return from the DL. With a brutal August schedule behind them, the Pirates have a lighter load in September. After taking 2 of 3 from the Cubs, the Pirates defeated the Astros in a rain soaked afternoon game. While Tropical Storm Lee may provide issues with games this week, inevitably, the Pirates will face the Astros two more times before hosting the last place Florida Marlins. In their remaining 21 games, the Pirates will play 9 against teams with winning records. While the Pirates are still winless on the road against the Milwaukee Brewers, where they will finish their season, they are 6-7 against the Cardinals, 2-1 against the Diamondbacks and 8-4 against the Reds.
The Pirates will need to win 17 of their final 21 games to finish with a winning record. While that seems doubtful, it can be argued a 70+ win season would be a huge improvement. Especially if Andrew McCutchen, Jose Tabata and Neil Walker finish strong down the final stretch and James McDonald can continue his second half surge to complete the year. Since the All Star break, McDonald has a 3.26 ERA with a .234 batting average against. He will definitely be one of the favorites to be Pittsburgh's opening day starter in 2012.
Down on the Farm
2010 first round pick Jameson Taillon finished his first full professional season with Class-A West Virginia. The 19 year old had a solid season posting a 3.98 ERA while striking out 97 and walking just 22 over 92.2 innings pitched. Taillon's fastball was consistently in the mid 90s throughout the season while his curveball and slider remained devastating and he never missed a start. If Jameson Taillon had any difficulty, it was locating his electric fastball within the strike zone. He did not miss in and out as much as he missed up and down. The Pirates would still like to see Taillon pound the lower half of the strike zone with his fastball but overall, he had an excellent first year. He could finish next season in AA Altoona if all goes well.
Meanwhile, Robbie Grossman prepares for the first round of the playoffs down in Bradenton for A+ Marauders. A sixth round bonus baby in the 2008 draft, Grossman had a breakout season, setting a high-A record with 104 walks, 127 runs scored and 13 home runs. The 104 walks speak volumes to Grossman's plate discipline, an aspect in developing hitters that has been undervalued until the last ten years. Robbie Grossman should start in AA Altoona next season and has a serious chance to be a top-10 prospect in the organization.
Saturday, September 3, 2011
Coming into last season, the Steelers knew they would be without their $100 million quarterback for the first four games. In Roethlisberger's absence, the Steelers went 3-1 but the offense, particularly the passing game, was ranked towards the bottom of the league as expected. When Big Ben returned, the offense picked up and eventually finished in the middle of the league in yardage and points. Considering the Steelers were in the process of developing two rookie wide receivers and a rookie center, inconsistencies were to be expected.
Now, with a healthy quarterback who is expected to play in all sixteen games, a third year wide receiver in Mike Wallace who is one of the fastest players in the league, veterans Jerricho Cotchery and Hines Ward, second year players Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders, and Heath Miller, the Steelers have all the weapons in place to put up big passing numbers. Antonio Brown, part of the explosive "Young Money Family" receiving core, is looking like he may have a breakout sophomore season as he has been the offensive spark plug during preseason. A solid number 2 receiver on some teams, Brown will probably play in the slot on passing situations. His speed can be a deadly factor against other team's third/fourth defensive backs.
Oh yeah, they have Rashard Mendenhall too.
Mendenhall has looked extremely sharp this preseason. While his numbers may not be too impressive, Mendenhall looks quicker and more agile than what we've seen in the past. It's conceivable to believe he will pass 1200 yards again this season. More importantly, he turns a passing offense into a balanced attack. Typically a "grind it out" team over the decades, today's Steelers are more balanced. However, Rashard Mendenhall combined with Ike Redman, can give you that "grind it out" aspect when trying to secure a win.
The league is more pass oriented nowadays, the Steelers have all the pieces in place to be one of the best passing offenses in the league. In 2009, Roethlisberger became the first quarterback in franchise history to throw for over 4000 yards in a season. In the same vein, he was sacked 50 times, a career high. While the offensive line is projected to, once again, be the weak link, it is doubtful they will be nearly as bad as they were in 2009 allowing Roethlisberger more time to make plays.
The vaunted defense will still get the majority of airtime on ESPN, FOX and CBS, however look for the offense to pick up the slack, what little there is, if the team goes into a shootout. Considering their schedule includes playing New England, Indianapolis and Houston, the Steelers may look more like the Pittsburgh Power playing against the Iowa Barnstormers.
In the end, all that matters for Steelers fans is wins. With the fourth easiest schedule, Pittsburgh will have a multitude of chances to put up W's, although this was an eerily similar thought in 2009 when the team finished 9-7. Still, with an offense as balanced, talented, and fast as the Steelers, it shouldn't be a surprise if they finish among the best in the league in yards and points. And at 29, maybe Ben Roethlisberger will have another trophy in his cabinet. An individual award stating three small letters that could push his career into certain Hall of Fame status.