Monday, January 30, 2012
One week into 2012, the Pittsburgh Penguins were in the midst of a six game losing streak, had just received news that Jordan Staal would be out for a month with a knee injury, and had no answers involving Sidney Crosby's condition.
To say the least, things looked bleak.
Instead of going in the tank, the Penguins rebounded and strung together seven straight wins before the All-Star break. The reason for the quick turnaround was largely due to the success of Evgeni Malkin. After recording just 3 points during the 6 game losing streak, Malkin went on a tear recording 13 points over the last 7 games. Meanwhile, his line mate, James Neal, has tallied 11 points during the 7 game win streak.
The biggest goal, however, may have come from Steve Sullivan in Florida.
Hockey can be a funny sport. Sometimes, when a team is struggling to score (6 total goals in 6 games), the best way to break out is to get a lucky or "dirty" goal. Steve Sullivan took a pass from Matt Cooke who had stolen the puck from Panthers goaltender, Scott Clemmensen. With a wide open net, Sullivan rifled the puck into the twine to give the Penguins the lead. From there, the Penguins exploded with 25 goals over the past 7 games.
The Penguins also got a familiar face back on the blue line in Kris Letang. The star defenseman missed nearly two months with a concussion but has returned to put up a point per game since his recovery.
And now it appears Jordan Staal is getting closer to joining the team. The 23 year old center has been out since January 6th since going knee to knee with former Penguin, Mike Rupp. Staal has 21 points in 34 games this season and has missed games due to lower body injuries before. With his return looming, the Penguins are looking to get stronger defensively and on the penalty kill.
Then there's Sidney Crosby who has missed time with a concussion and what appeared to be a fractured neck. Crosby's return is just as big a question mark as it was this time last year. While coaches, front office employees and trainers believe 87 will return this season, they really have no idea. Either way, you have to believe Pens' GM Ray Shero will be buying at the trade deadline and if Crosby is deemed out, the Pens will have more room to bring in a bigger piece.
The Penguins are certainly heading towards their peak at the right time. They are currently in 5th place in the Eastern Conference, three points back from the Philadelphia Flyers, and six points back from the New York Rangers. With players getting healthy at the right time and Evgeni Malkin continuing to dominate, the Penguins look to enter the postseason with a ton of momentum.
Thursday, January 26, 2012
You can criticize the Pittsburgh Pirates for a lot of things; A LOT of things. The way they have seemingly mishandled developing Pedro Alvarez, failing to bring in mid-level free agents (looking at you Edwin Jackson), or failing to keep star players in Pittsburgh longer than a few years. However, there is one thing that is not the franchise's fault: they do not have 214 million dollars to spend.
"Oh the small market excuse, here we go again."
A valid point made by most fans in the Steel City, the team has been bad for more reasons than not having money. Yet, realistically, does anyone truly expect them to spend $24 million a year on one player? As good as the Pittsburgh Penguins are, and as committed as the Lemieux-Burkle partnership is to putting a winning product on the ice, do you think they would really be able to put $24 million dollars on one player while also paying several millions to the rest of the team? I am skeptical and judging by how badly the organization floundered in the NHL's pre-salary cap age, I don't believe I'm off base.
According to stationindex.com, Pittsburgh has the 23rd largest TV market in the country, between Portland and Charlotte. The Detroit Tigers -aside from being owned by Mike Illitich who is worth $1.7 Billion- show their games to the 11th largest market in the country. Combine the market size with the ridiculous TV deals, and you have the ability to strike gold and spend it on the franchise.
In 2009, Forbes had an article on baseball's monster television deals. The first example given was Detroit's deal, worth a collective $1 billion, split between the Red Wings, Pistons and Tigers. Among other teams, the Angels were also listed in the article (hello, Albert Pujols).
This year, the Texas Rangers -winners of the last two American League pennants- announced a TV deal worth $3 billion, effective 2014. With that type of money, the Yankees, Red Sox, Mets and Philies may see a new villain in town. Not too bad, considering the ownership had changed once Tom Hicks put the team up for sale a few years ago. It also doesn't hurt that the Dallas-Fort Worth area is made up of nearly 6.5 million people.
The mega-TV deals are extremely profitable for big market clubs, who have the ability to gain that much moola. To be honest, placing blame on these franchises for simply taking advantage of their fortunate situation is ill-advised. The real blame goes to the league's front office who, in one hand, punish the small markets for spending millions in the draft and, in the other hand, allow big market teams spend over $20 million per year on one player, something no small market will encounter until the value of the dollar drops.
I know this is a broken record argument and yes, the Pirates DO need to be more aggressive and, more fair to their fans when it comes to the free agent market. But the league needs to throw the low-end teams a bone. A salary cap? Great idea but the owners would never approve. Revenue sharing? It hardly seems to be working now. A strike? Doubtful but is it wrong to dream, at this point?
Monday, January 23, 2012
And yet, the biggest play that altered the Steelers' championship dreams may not have come in the AFC Wild Card round, but in Week 9 against the Baltimore Ravens.
With 14 seconds remaining in the game, Joe Flacco connected with Torrey Smith for a 26 yard touchdown pass down the right sideline to win the game and sweep the season series against the Steelers. The Steelers had taken the lead with a 25 yard strike to Mike Wallace and the defense was eventually given the task to stop the Ravens from driving 92 yards for a score. Instead, Smith's go route burned cornerback, William Gay, who was expecting help from his free safety, Ryan Clark.
The Ravens took the season series en route to an AFC North title, first round bye, and a home game in the divisional round of the playoffs. Meanwhile, the Steelers had to face the Broncos on the road, without Ryan Clark, and without a week off to rest injured stars Ben Roethlisberger, Lamarr Woodley and Maurkice Pouncey.
It was a similar heartbreaking play the Steelers are used to doing against the Ravens. In week 15 of the 2008 season, Roethlisberger found Santonio Holmes, who crossed the goal line by a millimeter with the football, to cap off a 92 yard drive. The win clinched the AFC North title and eventually a Super Bowl victory two months later. Last season, with the Ravens up 10-6 late in the game, Troy Polamalu stripped the ball from Flacco which was returned to the Ravens' 9 yard line by Lamarr Woodley. The play set up a game winning touchdown catch and run by Ike Redman. The Steelers were granted the AFC North title and a first round bye, once again.
The last minute touchdown by Flacco was not the only opportunity the Steelers had of snatching the division and home field advantage. After all, Pittsburgh was blown out by Baltimore in week 1 as well as San Francisco in week 15. And yet, week 9 may have been their best opportunity to do what previous championship teams have done: take advantage of the situation at hand. Pittsburgh didn't do that this year and maybe if they had, they would be the ones representing the AFC in the Super Bowl instead of New England. Maybe this will be a lesson learned for seasons to come.
Monday, January 16, 2012
Seemingly lost in all of the concussion talk involving Sidney Crosby is the recovery process of Kris Letang who has missed 20 games due to a concussion.
Now, it appears #58 is ready to make his highly anticipated return to the Penguins. Multiple sources have confirmed that Pens GM Ray Shero has openly stated that Kris Letang has been cleared to play and will undergo a few practices before possibly returning as soon as this week. While Sidney Crosby remains the obvious top story, maybe the the focus should be on Letang. After all, the Penguins have proven that they can win without Crosby (at least in the regular season) as long as they have Staal, Malkin and Fleury.
Since Letang's injury, the Penguins are 9-11-0 and have moved from the top seed in the East to the eighth seed. The reason? Obviously the injuries to Michalek, Staal and Crosby haven't helped, but the biggest problem is the lack of a playmaker on the blue line. Statistically, it hasn't been close. Despite playing in 20 less games, Kris Letang still leads all Penguins defensemen in points. While Matt Niskanen and Paul Martin are capable of being puck moving defensemen, neither of them possess the shooting ability nor the creativity in the offensive zone. Martin, especially, has allowed too many odd-man rushes due to his ill-timed and poorly executed pinches on the offensive side.
And then there's Brooks Orpik who BADLY misses Kris Letang, at times. Orpik has recently picked up his hitting which is the basis of his defensive ability. However, it has become noticeable that he has been uncomfortable moving the puck out of his own zone. With a system that functions on puck control, Orpik needs Kris Letang, a player he has been paired with in the past.
Overall, the Penguins looked to be trending upward. With the news of Kris Letang on the cusp of returning, along with Sidney Crosby visitng Dr. Carrick to relieve his dizziness, the Pens could get on a streak before going on a run after the trade deadline. While it is still too early to predict if, much less when, Sidney Crosby will return, it looks as though Penguins fans will have Kris Letang back on the Penguins' blue line sooner rather than later.
Thursday, January 12, 2012
The Pittsburgh Steelers head into the 2012 offseason with some major decisions on the horizon. After another 12-4 record, the Steelers were bounced from the first round of the playoffs. While they played well enough to be the number 1 defense in the league, the team was left with more questions after the season than before the season.
One of their biggest questions involves re-signing Mike Wallace who is a restricted free agent this summer. In his first eight games of the season, Wallace was unstoppable catching 43 passes for 800 yards and 5 touchdowns. Two of his touchdowns came on passes of 81 yards and 95 yards. However, down the last half of the season, Wallace was constantly double covered which led to Antonio Brown's emergence as the first player to have a 1000 yards receiving and returning.
Wallace is one of the top receivers in the game and, at age 25, he's only going to get better. His explosive speed is a natural gift while his route running has improved over his first three seasons. With the prime of his career still in front of him, Wallace has a chance to make a lot of money in the offseason.
But, here is the problem.
- The Steelers, as it stands, are almost $20 million over the salary cap.
- Some of the best receivers in the league (Larry Fitzgerald, Calvin Johnson, Andre Johnson) make $10-15 million per YEAR.
- Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders will be restricted free agents after next season.
While Hoke's contract is up and he is expected to retire, Hampton may want to come back. But, with $5 million still counting against the cap, would the Steelers be able to afford him? And if they did bring him back would he really make a difference? If you thought the rushing defense was bad earlier this year, just wait until next year if the Steelers have to rely on Steve Mclendon.
The Steelers also have to address the middle linebacker position as James Farrior may also retire in the offseason. If that is the case, then either Larry Foote takes over for Farrior or Stevenson Sylvester gets a crack at the starting lineup. Foote will be 32 in June while Sylvester hasn't shown enough that he belongs in Dick Lebeau's system.
The Steelers also need a left tackle since Max Starks went down with a torn ACL as well. Ben was constantly getting pounded to start off the first month of the season. It was only until Max Starks showed up that he started finding ways to injure himself by not throwing the ball away (too soon?). Starks will be gone giving Willie Colon yet another chance to start at Roethlisberger's blindside. Since Colon has barely played the last two seasons, it is hard to predict whether or not he can stay healthy for a full season. Also, throw in the fact that Chris Kemoeatu will likely get cut and you have more holes at the O-line with very little money to spend on fixing them.
So where does Mike Wallace fit in all of this? As a trade piece:
Stay with me on this. Trade Mike Wallace for a first round pick and use both picks to shore up the defense.
At 6'5, 350 lbs, Memphis' Dontari Poe fits the perfect mold for a nose tackle and he could instantly replace Casey Hampton (assuming he lives up to his potential). Then, with your second first round pick, select either Dont'a Hightower from Alabama or Vontaze Burfict from Arizona State. Hightower was the captain to one of the greatest defenses in the last 50 years of college football, while Burfict has been touted as the greatest player to come out of ASU since Terrell Suggs in 2003. Since Burfict has a history of taking stupid penalties, the Steelers would probably err on the side of caution and take Hightower who, theoretically, could be the better player.
Selecting both players instantly turns one of the older defenses in the league to an extremely youthful defense; well, in the front seven, anyway.
The Steelers can then turn their sights on finding more offensive linemen, a runningback and maybe another late-round wide receiver. At the same time, Antonio Brown slips into the wide receiver spot, Emmanuel Sanders moves into the second spot, and Jerricho Cotchery becomes a reliable pass catcher in the slot. While the offense would miss the big play ability of Mike Wallace, maybe the trio of Brown, Sanders and Cotchery will make them gameplan for shorter, higher percentage completions which will also give Heath Miller the chance to make an impact as a pass catcher.
I know, the idea seems insane. Really? Trade away one of the best wide receivers in the game? What would Ben do without a flashy wide receiver who can catch 80 yard bombs?
Probably the same thing he did in the 2008-2009 season.
Monday, January 9, 2012
Well, here we are; the end of the football season a month earlier than Steelers fans are accustomed to. In what is usually a down year, following their Super Bowl appearance last season, the Steelers still rebounded to post a 12-4 record. It was the same 12-4 record that got them a first round bye in 2008 and 2010, but crushing losses to Baltimore gave the Ravens the tie-breaker by the end of the season. Looking back, this season definitely had fewer headlines that last year's Super Bowl run, but there were still some storylines, nonetheless. Here's a list:
Say what you want about not making excuses for injuries and "the standard is the standard", the Steelers entered the playoffs in bad condition and exited the playoffs in worse condition. The season started with Willie Colon tearing his triceps in week one against the Baltimore Ravens.
Meanwhile, James Harrison and Lamarr Woodley, two of the premier pass rushers in the league, only played four games together, without injury. Harrison broke an orbital bone in week 4 against the Houston Texans and Lamarr Woodley severely pulled his hamstring in week 8 against the New England Patriots. While Harrison eventually returned, Woodley was in and out of the lineup through the rest of the season and was highly ineffective.
Ben Roethlisberger was limited early in the year with a sprained foot, only to become immobile by the end of the season with a sprained ankle. The offense also lost Maurkice Pouncey before the playoffs started, as well as feature back, Rashard Mendenhall. Max Starks, who came in to replace the terrible Jonathan Scott, tore his ACL in the playoff game against Denver.
Then there's the defensive line, as a whole. Aaron Smith went on IR with a neck injury after week five, Casey Hampton suffered a serious knee injury on the first drive against the Broncos, Chris Hoke had season ending neck surgery, and Brett Keisel -arguably the best defensive lineman all season for the Steelers- had a severe injury to his groin.
Losing to Good Teams
In year's past, the Steelers were always able to seize the moment and come up with the play to win big games. This season, that did not happen. Other than their win against the New England Patriots, the Steelers failed to win a pivotal game during the regular season. In week nine, the Steelers had a chance to even the score against the Ravens after getting demolished in week one. With roughly two and a half minutes remaining in the game, the Steelers defense allowed Joe Flacco and the Ravens to drive 92 yards down the field for a game winning touchdown. The loss ensured that the Steelers would have to have a better record than the Ravens to win the division, losing any chance of a tiebreaker situation. Six weeks later, the Steelers had an opportunity to take the division as well as home field advantage throughout the playoffs. Instead of beating the 49ers to improve their record to 11-3, they were bludgeoned in one of the worst performances on Monday Night Football in recent team history.
With all of the hype surrounding Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown was even more impressive by the end of the season. Last year's sixth round pick out of Central Michigan, Brown became the first player in NFL history to record over 1000 yards receiving and returning in one season. He was the perfect disruptor for defenses that decided to focus solely on Wallace. Not only was Brown voted team MVP but he was also elected to the Pro-Bowl. His biggest play of the year was his 79 yard touchdown to seal the game against the Cleveland Browns in week fourteen.
The Steelers were ranked dead last in turnover differential in the AFC at -13. The offense committed a combined 13 turnovers in their week one match up with Baltimore and week fifteen match up against San Fransisco. Ben Roethlisberger, alone, had 19 turnovers (14 int's, 5 lost fumbles) and the defense only forced 15 turnovers ALL SEASON. It's one thing to be the best defense against the pass, as the Steelers, statistically were, but the downfall of their season hinged on their inability to take the ball away. The biggest reason? No pressure on the quarterback. As mentioned before, the Steelers were missing James Harrison and Lamarr Woodley for most of the year which also explains why the team ranked 17th in sacks. Conversely, the Steelers were ranked first in sacks, fifth in interceptions and first in forced fumbles in 2010.
The biggest story of 2011-2012 season will actually come a few months down the road. Who will be in Pittsburgh and who will not? Casey Hampton's injury certainly places his career in jeopardy. While Hines Ward has already publicly stated that he is coming back for a fifteenth season, Aaron Smith, Chris Hoke, Brett Keisel and James Farrior could all retire. Also, the draft in April will be interesting since it is loaded with defensive players in the back half of the first round. With the 24th pick, the Steelers will surely look to find a defensive tackle or inside linebacker.
Wednesday, January 4, 2012
Now fast forward to 2011.
That same back as had two season-ending injuries (cracked shoulder; torn ACL), stirred up controversy and unnecessary attention via social media, and is going into a contract year with one solid season of work in four years.
Rashard Mendenhall is a Pittsburgh Steeler, but maybe his time is quickly running out. The running back suffered a torn ACL last week against the Cleveland Browns, an injury which zaps speed and agility from running backs. Just look at Terrell Davis; Super Bowl MVP, 2000 yard rusher, 3-time Pro Bowl, 3-time All Pro. In 1999, Davis tore two ligaments in his knee and was forced to retire by 2002. While Mendenhall's injury may not be as severe, would the Steelers benefit from paying him a healthy contract, or would they be better suited to draft running backs in the late rounds like they have with wide receivers?
For some fans, seeing Mendenhall leave the city may create a feeling of relief; from twitter and"fumble machine", to not hitting the hole fast enough and tip toeing, Rashard has not endeared himself to the Pittsburgh faithful. In my opinion, Mendenhall is a very talented player whose most recent injury was plain bad luck. At the same time, his first four seasons in Pittsburgh have been uninspiring for the most part. Yes, he ran for nearly 2400 yards in the last two season while scoring 20 rushing touchdowns, but he is 24 years old and has already received two major injuries; the second injury, capping off a below average season. In a position that already involves a short career span, Mendenhall has proven to lack durability from the beginning.
The timing of his injury is extremely detrimental to his chances of returning considering, it takes about 6-8 months to recover from an ACL injury which means he will have a late start to the 2012-2013 season. Chris Johnson, who was selected right after Mendenhall in the 2008 draft, just finished the worst season of his career thanks to a late start in training camp. While Johnson's holdout was the reason for his ineffectiveness on the field, it only further proves how difficult it is going to be for Mendenhall to return to mid-season form after recovering from a major knee injury.
With his contract season looking more and more daunting, Mendenhall will have two choices in the Spring of 2013: A) Receive a contract considerably lower than most feature backs in the league; B) Go somewhere else and hope a team offers him a ton of money.
Obviously, the rest of the market affects whether or not he decides to choose B but, given how cocky and arrogant he appears to look on twitter, my guess is that he will not choose option A. This is the same player who lost his endorsement to Champion after the controversy involving his Bin Laden tweets became a nationwide story. He's also the same player who agreed with Adrian Peterson over the analogy that the NFL was "modern day slavery"; a statement the Rooneys weren't too fond of, I'm sure. He also has not endeared himself to some of his teammates, such as James Harrison who called Mendenhall a "fumble machine" in his interview with Men's Journal.
The Steelers took Rashard Mendenhall in what was considered a steal on draft day. He was projected to go in the middle of the first round but fell to 23 after the Cowboys selected Felix Jones. Rashard has shown, at times, that he is a talented and capable back but it appears his four years in Pittsburgh have been mired with injuries, inconsistencies and general "misunderstandings". Although he ran for nearly 1300 yards in the 2010-2011 season, he'll most likely be remembered for fumbling the ball in Super Bowl XLV which effectively ended a possible game winning drive and secured the franchise's second Super Bowl loss in eight chances.
Monday, January 2, 2012
The Pittsburgh Steelers will make their 27th playoff appearance in franchise history when they take on the Denver Broncos in Mile High Stadium on Sunday. In their previous 26 appearances, the Steelers have a combined record of 33-20 which includes 8 AFC titles and 6 Super Bowl trophies, unmatched by the rest of the league.
The driving force behind their accolades has been the defense, starting with the Steel Curtain in the 1970's and continued today with the likes of James Harrison, Troy Polamalu and many others.
This time around, it may be the offense's turn to carry the load. The defense is still playing at a championship level despite missing their pass rushers for most of the season. However, the offense, spearheaded by an elite quarterback and three electrifying wide receivers, as been stuck in neutral all season. While Ben Roethlisberger threw for over 4000 yards this year, his 21 turnovers (14 int, 7 fum) should be the bigger story.
The Steelers ranked 12th in offensive yards but 21st in total scoring. Averaging 20.3 points per game, the Steelers have only scored more points than the Denver Broncos of the 12 playoff teams. Furthermore, they have averaged just 15.6 ppg on the road, an alarming stat going into a matchup with a defense that plays well at home.
Why aren't the Steelers scoring? Turnovers. With 27 turnovers during the regular season, the Steelers finished -13 in turnover ratio, the worst of any playoff team in history. Say what you want about the defense failing to take the ball away. They have. But the Steelers, playing against two tough defenses on the road (Baltimore and San Fransisco) turned the ball over 12 combined times.
The time is now for the offense to step up and make enough plays to win games. Their task doesn't get any easier with the recent news of Rashard Mendenhall tearing his ACL. But, as Mike Tomlin always says, "the standard is the standard". Ben Roethlisberger needs to dig for the same road playoff magic that led the Steelers to Super Bowl XL. That year, Ben's passer rating in three AFC road games was 148.7, 95.3 and 124.9 respectively. With the Patriots, Packers, Lions and Saints all possible opponents for the Steelers, assuming they get past Denver, the offense needs to play at a level where they can survive in a high scoring game.
The Steelers' defense has been the staple for decades but, with the "new" NFL being geared towards the offense, it's time for the Steelers to get with the times. They have the talent to win with their offense, but the scheming and execution will be the biggest challenge as it has been all season.