Saturday, October 15, 2011

A Bunch of Jagoffs Coming to Town


The Steelers might want to continue to throw short passes to guys like Heath Miller until the offensive line gets healthy.

It seems like every Sunday, the music stops and a different set of offensive linemen grab a seat and get their chance to start for the Steelers.  This Sunday will be no different.  Marcus Gilbert was declared out of this week’s game versus the Jacksonville Jaguars.  The Steeler offensive line will look like this from left to right:

Max Starks, Doug Legursky, Maurkice Pouncey, Ramon Foster, Jonathan Scott

Mewelde Moore, Aaron Smith and James Harrison will also ride the pine this weekend.  Casey Hampton looks doubtful right now so expect the defensive line to look like this:

Brett Keisel, Chris Hoke, Ziggy Hood with Steve McLendon and Cam Heyward seeing significant playing time. 

It has been interesting to see the change coming at defensive line.  Smith, Hampton and Keisel have relied mostly on a power/bull pass rush where they literally shove the offensive linemen into the backfield and QB.  Ziggy Hood and Cam Heyward have that kind of power but they also have a lot more quickness.  Ziggy was literally all over the field last Sunday in pursuit of running backs running the ball and wide receivers catching short passes.  Heyward was unstoppable on multiple plays getting into the backfield and forcing Matt Hasselbeck to throw the ball before he wanted to. 
There were several plays last week which featured inside linebacker Chris Carter, the Steelers 5th round draft pick out of Fresno State.  As the season rolls on, expect to see more of him and possibly Stevenson Sylvester in the lineup spelling James Farrior and Larry Foote.  Both Foote and Farrior are in their 30’s which means “old” in the NFL (to Warren Sapp it means “finished as well). 
Big Ben will continue to wear his boot to protect his left foot (wasn’t that the name of a movie?) and hopefully he will be as accurate as he was last week (sans the last pass before halftime).  Rashard Mendenhall will be back in the lineup and Bruce Arians, the Steeler offensive coordinator, stated that Mendy is his man.  This coming even though the Steelers had their best running output of the season last week via Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer.  Arians never disappoints.  When something is going right, he immediately stops doing it.  I still expect Redman to get several touches and, if Mendy struggles, Redman could get half or more of the carries.

The Jacksonville Jaguars used to be a strong and intimidating team.  They had huge and nasty defensive linemen like John Henderson and Marcus Stroud.  Now, they are rebuilding that defense and, in the process, are giving up 23 points per game.  Now that’s not bad (12th in the league) but when your offense only scores 11.8 points per game, it could hurt your chances of making the playoffs.

The offense is “led” by rookie quarterback Blaine Gabbert.  Gabbert was thrown into this debacle after the Jags unexpectedly cut their starting QB David Garrard and Luke McCown displayed his best Luke McCown impression during weeks 1 and 2.  Now I don’t have all of the details but the story goes like this. The Jags said that they expected to have Garrard as their starting QB this season.  One morning, less than a week before the start of the regular season, Garrard was making an appearance in downtown Jacksonville to encourage fans to buy season tickets.  Just a few hours later, the Jags cut Garrard and sent him packing.  Now if you knew you were going to cut your star QB, why would you send him on a public relations campaign to generate season ticket sales?  All I can say is CLASSLESS.  That’s what this organization always has been and it always will be as long as Wayne Weaver is the owner of the franchise. There are other incidents with this franchise like when they signed a former Steeler backup QB for the week they played the Steelers.  They pumped him for as much knowledge about the Steelers as they could get, then cut him the day after the game.  JAGOFFS, I tell you!

The best player on the team, without question, is Maurice Jones-Drew AKA pocket Hercules.  He can run, he can catch and he can knock your teeth out with a block—right Shawne Merriman?  Is Merriman still suspended for juicing? 

At any rate, I’m not going to mince words here.  Even though the Steelers have a bunch of guys banged up or just plain injured, this should be a reasonably routine win.  I know my fellow superstitious Steeler fans, I just jinxed us.  But if the Steelers can’t play as well this week as they did last week against a much better opponent, then maybe the Steelers aren’t that good this year. 

I would love to hear your thoughts on the game and the team.  Feel free to leave comments on the blog.  Thanks for reading!  And remember, no matter where you go in this world, you’re ALWAYS in Steeler Country!


Photo courtesy of the AP

Monday, October 10, 2011

On the typical Sunday during the fall and winter, I am a prime candidate for a heart attack or stroke.

The reports of Hines Ward's demise were highly inaccurate.

On the typical Sunday during the fall and winter, I am a prime candidate for a heart attack or stroke. Being a Steeler fan isn't easy when your coach says, "Style points don't matter", which translates into--you can forget about winning by 2 touchdowns. Don't get me wrong, I am a huge Mike Tomlin fan, but it is nice to win with comfort once in a while. On Sunday, the Steelers manhandled the Tennessee Titans winning 38-17.

On their initial drive, the Titans amassed 69 yards and the Steeler defense looked poised to remain in their recent, human form. Over the next five drives, the Titans could only muster 49 yards. It seemed like Dick LeBeau set the bait by allowing the Titans their first drive, only to stifle them for most of the balance of the game.

On the other hand, the Steeler offense attacked its prey in a less than normal fashion. Gone were the 5 step drops, 40 yard throws and tiptoe-through-the-tulips running game and in its place was a surgical dismemberment via short, quick passes and punishing runs up the middle.  Yes, the prodigal Steeler running game found its way home in the form of Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer. Redman ran like a man possessed, bulling his way through the teeth of the Titans' stingy defense for 49 yards. Jonathan Dwyer acquitted himself of the charge that he was a chubby, out of shape running back who, by the grace of God, was bestowed a roster spot in early September. Dwyer accounted for 107 of the Steelers 174 total rushing yards which included a 76 yard burst off right tackle. Even if you subtracted Dwyer's big run, the Steelers still averaged 3.6 yards per carry. That's pretty good when you have a patchwork offensive line facing the league's 8th best rushing defense coming into this week. The Steeler passing attack looked more like Brady to Welker than Big Ben to Wallace (or Brown or Sanders or Ward). Big Ben's big arm was rifling passes before the Titan defensive backs could react. The Titans never adjusted enough to stop the Steeler assault and a decisive win was in the books.

Dissecting the Dwyer Run
I went back and watched the Dwyer run several times.  This is the Steelers bread-and-butter play off the right side that tends to bust big runs. 
Marcus Gilbert—absolutely buried the defensive tackle.  The only thing that stopped Gilbert from blocking his man into the 3rd row was Pouncey putting a Titan on the ground.  A+++ block
David Johnson—sealed the inside linebacker and then went downfield trying to hit more people.
Heath Miller—pushed the outside linebacker about 3yds downfield sealing the outside.
Doug Legursky—pulled and made an excellent trap block on the inside linebacker
Jonathan Dwyer—hit the hole fast and didn’t break stride until he was tackled at the 15yd line.

Here are some of my thoughts on other performances from Sunday:

Big Ben—excellent timing and decision-making.  Got the ball out fast and anticipated the receiver breaks.  Often Ben waits until the receiver makes his break and then throws the ball.  Sunday, he was on fire (except for the last pass before halftime which was picked off).
Isaac Redman—his desire to get the extra yard was Bettis-like and ignited the Steeler offense.  You almost never see him tackled by one guy.  That was 49 tough and admirable yards.
Hines Ward—after reading my blog last week, some Steeler fans said that I didn’t know what I was talking about when I said that the Steelers should throw short passes to Hines Ward.  They were right, I have no idea what I am talking about. 7 catches, 54 yards, 2 TD’s.  I hope I’m wrong right through the Super Bowl.
Heath Miller—he is the King of the middle of the field.
Doug Legursky—he’s a great backup but (unless he is playing hurt) he just can’t be a starter.  Great block on the Dwyer run but he gets pushed around too much.
Antonio Brown—I have a feeling that he will have 2 kickoff returns for touchdowns this season.  He’s close, reeeeeaaaal close.
Special teams—speaking of special teams, great job on the fake punt, I loved it.  But what’s up with the blocked punt, not getting the onside kick and allowing a kickoff returner to get to the 43 yard line?  Might need some extra practice this week. 
Brett Keisel—remember when I said that we were lacking a push from the defensive line?  The Deisel push is back!
Chris Hoke—played like a brick wall yesterday.  Excellent job.
Ziggy Hood—I saw Ziggy all over the field.  If he wasn’t making a tackle, he was pursuing the ball carrier until he was on the ground.
Lamarr Woodley—maybe I should call him out every week.  He was un-blockable.  Some people thought that he was playing poorly because his wallet was weighing him down.  Others said it was injuries to the defense that was taking him out of the mix.  Or that the opposing offense was scheming to get him to drop into coverage so that they would only have to worry about blocking Harrison.  Whatever it was, the Titans couldn’t handle it.
Troy Polamalu—if you just watched what Troy did yesterday, you can see why the Steeler defense isn’t the same when he’s not there.
Bruce Arians—last but not least is the man with the plan.  Bruce Arians was a maestro calling plays.  He had the offense establish the run and short passing game (the Titans had 8 and sometimes 9 in the box to stop the run) and then used play fakes to pass on deeper routes later in the game.  Ben looked as comfortable as he has ever looked in the pocket and the offensive line held up when not being asked to block for 5, 6 or 7+ seconds.  This is exactly the type of game plan that I mentioned in previous blog posts.  It helps the offensive line because they don’t have to hold their blocks as long, it helps Ben with timing and not getting hit and it keeps the defense on its heels not knowing where the ball is going to go next.  Bravo Bruce, don’t change a thing!

I would love to hear your thoughts on the game and the team.  Feel free to leave comments on the blog.  Thanks for reading!  And remember, no matter where you go in this world, you’re ALWAYS in Steeler Country!

Photo courtesy of Getty Images

Saturday, October 8, 2011

...most Steeler fans last longer in bed than the weekly starting offensive line for the Steelers


Not even Hawkeye and Trapper John could patch up the Steeler roster this week


The Tennessee Titans will visit Heinz Field on Sunday to play our Hometown Steelers.  The Titans are a much different team than in recent years.  Gone are Jeff “sunglasses at night” Fisher, LenDale “I fought the towel and the towel won” White and “Dream Team” member Vince Young.  The brash and whiny squeal of Fisher, a constant complainer to referees, has been replaced by the calm, cool and collected Mike Munchak.  Munchak was born and raised in Scranton PA and was an offensive lineman at Penn State.  Munchak continued his career in the NFL playing for the Oilers, then coaching for the Oilers and Titans.  The Titans have maintained a very business-like attitude so far this year, letting their on-field play do the talking.  Although they are only ranked 18th in scoring (22 points/game), they have been efficient on offense.  Matt Hasselbeck is the new sheriff in town and he has been resurrected with a strong offensive line.  He is ranked 6th, 7th or 8th in most passing categories but the key might be that he has thrown 8 TD’s and only 3 interceptions.   Chris Johnson has been very quiet this year, rushing for only 199 yards in 4 games.  But this week, he gets his fullback back in the lineup.  Ahmad Hall served a 4-game suspension for putting something naughty in his Cheerio’s.  He returns this week to lead Johnson against the Steeler defense.
 
The Titan defense is lethal, allowing only 14 points/game which is the best in the NFL.  They allow only 87 yards rushing and 212 yards passing per game.  Gone are the big mouth’s like Albert Haynesworth and Keith Bulluck and a more win-first, talk-later mentality is led by Barrett Ruud, Will Witherspoon and Jason Jones (who has had some great days against the Steelers).  Yes, Cortland “Andre Johnson’s beotch” Finnegan is still on the team and running his mouth.  Hopefully, a couple of teeth-rattling blocks from Hines Ward will shut him up.  The Titans have a handful of former Steelers on the roster, including: Chris Hope; Nate Washington; Anthony “I guarantee a win” Smith; and Patrick Bailey.

It, quite possibly, couldn’t be a worse time for the Steelers to play the best scoring defense in the NFL.  The first line in a Yahoo Sports article about the Steelers injuries started like this, “Counting the preseason, the Pittsburgh Steelers will have used nine different combinations of starting offensive linemen in nine games this season.”  And people wonder why the offensive line is playing poorly?  Heck, most Steeler fans last longer in bed than the weekly starting offensive line for the Steelers.  Here is this week’s list of casualties:

Max Starks will start at Left Tackle after signing this week

Doug Legursky will start for Chris Kemoeatu at Left Guard

Casey Hampton (shoulder), Aaron Smith (foot), James Harrison (facial surgery) and Mewelde Moore (ankle) are out of the lineup

Jason Worilds is out but no one can figure out how a guy who doesn’t play can be hurt all the time.

Rashard “twinkletoes” Mendenhall is listed as questionable (I think he could play but they want to give Isaac Redman the start). 

Big Ben will play with something resembling a steel-toe boot on his foot.

Following up my blog article on Monday, it was interesting to see Mike Martz, the Bears offensive coordinator (who just so happens to be Bruce Arians’ mentor), used a fullback last week to block for Matt Forte.  Forte had one of the best games of his career, rushing for 205 yards and catching 4 passes for another 23 yards.  Hmmmmm, I wonder what the Steelers could do if they had a fullback to block for our running backs?  Just in case you are scoring at home, the Steelers have won all 6 of their Super Bowl titles with a fullback blocking for the tailback.  Bruce Arians says that his offense does not have a fullback position.  Typically, tight ends are forced to block in place of fullbacks in the Arians offense.  One other offensive mention this week was interesting to me.  Ron Jaworski said that the lockout affected offensive line play most of all in the first quarter of the season.  He said that the timing and cohesiveness that is key to offensive line play has been a glaring weakness throughout the league this year.  Whether you like Jaws or despise him, you would be hard-pressed to find another analyst who watches more game film than he does. 

I spent a lot of time talking about the Titans and not much time about the Steelers.  That’s because I think we all know where the Steelers are right now.  They aren’t desperate for a win but you hate to lose home games to a conference opponent.  Those losses tend to bite you in the backside when it comes to making the playoffs and who plays where if you earn a berth.  Can the Steelers win this week?  Of course.  Will they?

Photo courtesy of Cacchieressa.tumblr.com

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The First Quarter is Over!


Ndamukong Suh is a total beast.

We have seen some amazing events occur in the first 4 weeks of the season.  Some can be explained and others are called the Detroit Lions.  Here is a little review of what has happened.

AFC East
Buffalo Bills—Buffalo still has a team?  The Bills haven’t made the playoffs since 1999.  Do they have staying power or will they need Cialis by week 15?
New England Patriots—despite losing to the Bills, the Pats probably have the easiest schedule in the league (what a coincidence).  I still think they win the division but that defense will keep them out of the Super Bowl.
New York Jets—Mark Sanchez will determine whether the Jets make the playoffs.  If he plays like he did versus the Ravens, the Jets will have great seats (in their living rooms) for the playoffs.
Miami Dolphins—Chad Henne might be out for the year.  That just means that Brandon Marshall won’t be dropping his passes.  Tony Sparano is toast and Jeff Ireland should be out of the league.

AFC North
Baltimore Ravens—They couldn’t ask for much more by starting the season at 3-1.  Joe Flacco is the Mark Sanchez of the AFC North.  Their early bye week doesn’t help if that veteran defense needs rest late in the season.
Pittsburgh Steelers—just read my blog.  I don’t have enough space here.
Cleveland Browns—They have beaten two teams who are struggling and they lost to two teams that are better than they are right now.  8-8 will be a good record for them since they have 3 trips to the Pacific time zone left on the schedule.
Cincinnati Bengals—This team is more competitive than I thought they would be.  A big win over the Bills and a tough loss to the Niners.  Same deal with Cincy, 8-8 is a good record if they can squeeze it out.
AFC South
Houston Texans—They are playing at a pretty high level right now.  Wade Phillips has the defense coming around and with Andre Johnson out, Arian Foster will have to pick up the slack.  A tough road in the next few weeks gives way to an easier schedule down the stretch.
Tennessee Titans—No one picked them to be 3-1 right now.  They should be 4-0 but lost a tough game in week 1 versus Jacksonville.  The last game of the year against Houston could be for the division title.
Jacksonville Jaguars—It is a good thing they got rid of David Garrard.  Now they are averaging under 10 points/game.  Duh, losing!  There is a reason why they can’t fill the stands in Jax.
Indianapolis Colts—Without Peyton, they are just an average football team.  Check out my blog post from 9/23/11 as to why Peyton is so valuable.

AFC West
San Diego Chargers—They beat three of the worst teams in the league and lost on the road to a scoring machine.  Their division is weak and they will win it. 
Oakland Raiders—They are scoring with Jason Campbell at QB (doesn’t everyone play better after they leave the Redskins?—except McNabb).  If they just play a little bit of defense………uh, not gonna happen.
Denver Broncos—The fans won’t be happy until Tim Tebow is the starting QB.  Then, when they go 1-7 under Tebow, they will beg Kyle Orton (or someone else to save them from “the savior”.  I like John Fox but he is in a turrible situation.
Kansas City Chiefs—They let Brian Waters go, Tony Moeaki got hurt, then Eric Berry got hurt, then Jamaal Charles got hurt.  Wow, no wonder they are 1-3.  Better luck next year Todd Haley…….if you are still there.

NFC East—Washington Redskins—Silver Spoons, I mean Dan Snyder, loves to tinker with his team.  It looks like they might have tinkered themselves into a winning record this year.  A tough loss at Dallas is the only blemish on their record.  This usually difficult division is not as hard so far with the Giants having so many injuries and the Dream Team in the cellar.
New York Giants—Could Tom Coughlin be a nominee for coach of the year?  It is possible after all the injuries the Giants have suffered so far.  They could be the Green Bay story of this season if they make the playoffs.
Dallas Cowboys—No General manager, no common sense on how to play with a lead (head coach’s fault) and a QB playing through ridiculous pain.  It should be a soap opera.  Wait, it is.
Philadelphia Eagles—The Dream Team has become the Nightmare Team.  With all the free agents they signed, maybe the Eagles should change their name to the Redskins.  Andy Reid is in trouble if they don’t make the playoffs.

NFC North
Detroit Lions—Before the season started, Ndamukong Suh said that the Lions would go undefeated this year.  Is this even possible?  I wish Einstein was still alive so he could explain how all of this works.  Right now, the most interesting game of the 2011 NFL season looks like Thanksgiving Day when the Packers face the Lions at Ford Field.  No one has watched the Lions Thanksgiving game with interest since Barry Sanders retired--this year will be different.
Green Bay Packers—All offense, all the time.  Aaron Rodgers must have gotten his hands on that drug from the movie “Limitless”.  But if their defense doesn’t improve, it will be very difficult for them to repeat as Super Bowl champions.
Chicago Bears—This week’s game versus the Lions is HUUUUGGGEEE.  They can’t afford to fall to 2-3 and have the Lions sitting at 5-0.  Look for Jay Cutler to literally run for his life against Suh and co.
Minnesota Vikings—Does anyone have Brad Childress’ phone number?  It is getting ugly fast in the twin cities.  You don’t want to be 0-4 and asking taxpayers to help pay for your new multimillion dollar stadium when the economy is still in the crapper.

NFC South
New Orleans Saints—They put up points like it is a video game.  Their only problem is that they haven’t played defense since they won the Super Bowl.  This is the toughest division in football and the Saints schedule is not easy.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers—This is a young, mentally tough ball club.  They don’t get flustered when they fall behind.  In fact, it almost seems like a strategy for them.  Let the other team take the lead and let LeGarrette Blount be the tortoise.
Atlanta Falcons—Yeah, they can pass the ball, but they usually win when they run it.  Will they be able to stay with the Saints and Bucs?
Carolina Panthers—Cam Newton is fast becoming a star.  But usually when new players hit the league, they can start fast until defensive coordinators get some quality game film to work with.  Then the star falls.  Keep an eye on this one.

NFC West
San Francisco 49ers—A close loss to Dallas puts them at 3-1.  Maybe that was a game they should have won.  Then again, they won one that they probably should have lost (Eagles).  The division is theirs to win or lose.
Arizona Cardinals—Come on, Whiz!  AZ can’t win the close one.  NFL history is littered with good teams who ended up in the dumpster because they couldn’t finish.  Right now, you can add these guys to the pile.
Seattle Seahawks—Do I really have to talk about them?  Do they have a QB or a QB controversy?  Does anyone on the team even know?
St Louis Rams—The whole franchise is collapsing.  I feel bad for Spags.  The owner is a Dan Snyder wannabe and guys keep getting injured.  It is a long season in St Louie.

Feel free to comment on these thoughts.  I really appreciate you reading my blog.
Photo courtesy of Stlouisramfan.blogspot.com

Monday, October 3, 2011

What Needs to Change to Get the Steelers Back to the Super Bowl


The Steeler game plan did not include a way to keep Mario Williams out of the backfield on Sunday.


Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

The quote has been attributed to Albert Einstein who, I assume, was probably smarter than most of us in Steeler country.  Yet this does not deter Bruce Arians from repeatedly steering the Steeler offense down the same path.  Coming into this week’s game with the Texans, the Steelers were ranked 26th in the NFL in scoring with an average of 18.3 points per game.  This coming in a season where scoring a touchdown is about as easy as ordering chicken wings at your local sports bar.  If the Steelers are going to contend for another Lombardi trophy, some changes must be made on both the offense and defense. 

Bruce Arians has been the Steeler offensive coordinator since 2007.  His reign as offensive coordinator has been filled with the highest of highs and some frustrating lows.  Yes, Arians was the offensive coordinator for the Steeler Super Bowl season of 2008-2009 and last season’s Super Bowl run.  But the prevailing belief throughout Steeler Country was that the Steelers appeared in those two Super Bowls because of their amazingly stingy defense, not because of a scintillating offense.  Here is  Arians’ resume as the offensive coordinator in Pittsburgh:


Year        Rushing Rank       Passing Rank       Scoring Rank
2007       3rd (135.5)           22nd (191.9)         9th (24.6)
2008       23rd (105.6)         17th (206.3)         20th (21.7)
2009       19th (112.1)         9th (259.2)           12th (23)
2010       11th (120.2)         14th (225.1)         12th (23.4)
2011       20th (93.8)           11th (265.5)         27th (16.0)

*Yards per game and Points per game in parentheses


As you can see, the Steeler scoring output was best in Arians’ first year and has, at best, been mediocre since then.  Last week, Arians was asked about how the Steeler offense could generate more points.  He told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that he would like to run the ball better and, if that happens, play action passes should produce a better passing game—I agree with that statement.  He also said, “And I think with the lockout, it's much easier to throw it than it is to run it. I think most people would think it's easier the other way, but guys can throw and catch in shorts all the time. It takes some time to grind out that running game and now, with only one day a week in pads, it even slows the process down."  That didn’t seem to stop the Texans from running the ball on Sunday.  And there are 19 teams that are running the ball better than the Steelers right now.  My beef with Arians is not what he said above, but how his offense translates on the field.  The job of a coach is to put his players in the best position to succeed.  I don’t believe Arians is doing that.  I outlined some of the ways in which the offensive coordinator could help the offensive line succeed in last Monday’s blog post.  This included chipping the defensive ends.  I didn’t see much of that this week and there were a few times where rookie tackle Marcus Gilbert was tasked with blocking Mario Williams on his own.  After last week’s offensive debacle in Indianapolis, one would think adjustments would be made to help the offensive line block pro bowl quality players from dominating a game.  Williams had 2 sacks and was routinely in the Steeler backfield.  Insanity Bruce, insanity.  One other strategy that seemed to work well was the short passing game.  Bruce, if the offensive line can’t block long enough for Ben to throw the ball 40-50 yards downfield, then you will have to settle for what the defense gives you.  Yes, chicks dig the long ball but Steeler country digs wins.  Hines Ward is one of the best in the league at catching quick slants in the middle of the defense.  If you need an introduction to Hines, I will be glad to set up a meeting.

This might be a moot point with the hamstring injury to Rashard Mendenhall but, right now, the Steelers need to sit him and allow Isaac Redman be the workhorse.  After Mendenhall left the game, Redman promptly carried the ball six times for 40 yards and Mewelde Moore toted the rock four times for 34 yards.  Between them, they averaged 7.5 yards/carry whereas Mendenhall averaged 2.8 yards/carry (9 carries for 25 yards).  There didn’t appear to be any drastic changes in the offensive line or the blocking scheme, just the fact that Redman and Moore hit the holes hard or ran to daylight when the holes weren’t where they should be.  Everyone wants to blame the offensive line for everything from Steeler losses to the National Debt.  The offensive line was not pathetic when Redman and Moore were in the game.  In addition, establishing the run game would enhance cohesion among the offensive linemen and build confidence as a unit.  Also, this would take pressure off of the passing game as teams would have to play the Steelers as a run-first team which should be the offensive identity to begin with.  We didn’t draft Mendenhall in the first round so he could dance (we already have 1 dancer on the roster), we drafted him to run the ball, no matter if it was in the open field or in the middle of a pile of bodies.  He’s not doing his job right now, so he has to sit.

Speaking of not doing their jobs, I would like to address the Steeler linebacking corps.  I don’t have to tell anyone in Steeler country that the organization has a long and proud history of game-changing linebackers.  Some of them have been inducted into the hall of fame and many others have been regulars at the Pro Bowl.  This unit is failing the defense right now.  James Harrison is not 100%.  He doesn’t have the burst of speed or the herculean strength that we usually see from him.  He is not getting to the QB as often as he has in the past and, in my estimation, he is not seeing as many double teams as he has faced in the past (I say this because I do not have solid numbers to back this opinion).  Harrison was quoted after the game by the AP “We played like garbage.  Period.  We stink right now.”  At least he is honest about it.  Lawrence Timmons is not playing poorly, but his impact is being limited by teams running their tight end or running back down the middle of the field.  Timmons must cover these routes because James Farrior can’t do it anymore.  I hate to say this but James Farrior is done.  Since 2002, James Farrior has been the heart and soul, as much as anyone else has been the heart and soul, of the Steeler defense.  James can’t keep up with the running backs and tight ends that run pass routes in the middle of the field.  Last week when Joseph Addai ran for the Colts only offensive TD, James took an angle to the hole that was so far off, he didn’t even get a hand on Addai.  He would have easily made that play just last year.  On Arian Foster’s 42 yard touchdown run, James cheated too far to his right, then was hit so hard by the tight end that it took him three steps to regain his balance.  By that time, Foster was breaking to the outside and Farrior was left in his dust.  Speaking of being out of position, Lamarr Woodley was another Steeler linebacker who failed to contain Foster on that play.  Lamarr, made a beeline to the QB, then was so far inside that he couldn’t lay a hand on Foster even though Foster cut back towards Woodley’s gap.  The Steeler defense is set up to prevent big plays.  By playing the run first, and playing a version of cover two deep, the Steeler defense prevents long runs and passes and forces offenses to try and beat them using short passes (this is one reason why the Patriots are so successful versus the Steeler zone blitz).  Woodley has 1.5 sacks this year which, at this rate, would give him 6 sacks for the year.  $61 million for 6 sacks/year?  Nice work if you can get it.  With James Harrison being hurt, Woodley needs to turn up the heat.  The reason why Woodley was drafted was due to his combination of size, strength and speed.  He could play the run, bull rush or speed rush.  I have followed Lamarr since he was at the University of Michigan.  In 2010 and so far in 2011, he has basically given up on the speed rush and simply engages the tackle, sometimes initiating a bull rush.  If the tackle doesn’t have to worry about Lamarr’s speed rush, then Lamarr just blocked himself.  Time to step up, Lamarr.  Let me just make one final point about the linebackers.  If you notice in the past two games, Troy Polamalu has been sneaking up to the line and making plays in the offensive backfield.  If the linebackers were doing their jobs, Troy could play safety and not have to take huge risks like this.  Maybe it is time for younger players to get some playing time.  Stevenson Sylvester played well in the pre-season and Larry Foote is playing better than James Farrior right now.  I'm not panicking, I just think that if your starters are not making plays then other players need to step up and contribute.

As far as the defensive line goes, I already said after the Seattle game that we aren’t getting a big enough push in the middle.  Brett Keisel is hurt right now and that is a bigger problem than most of us realize.  I think Ziggy Hood can be a quality defensive tackle/defensive end.  One of the reasons why he was drafted is that he is big enough to play inside at defensive tackle but he is quick enough to play defensive end.  What is very disconcerting is that when Hood plays a significant portion of Sunday’s game and Antonio Brown finished the game with one more tackle than Ziggy.  There were ample opportunities to make a play on Arian Foster and Ziggy just didn’t make a difference.  Aaron Smith made some decent plays but I think it is obvious that he is just about done.  He no longer gets that surge into the backfield like he used to.  I wasn’t able to isolate Chris Hoke’s play but there was one play when Houston was in the red zone, Hoke was pushed a good five yards off the ball by the center.  That never used to happen and can’t continue if the Steelers want to return to the Super Bowl. 

Change can be good.  This team will find it hard to win by repeating the same behavior for the rest of the 2011 regular season.  If they do, you will see many new faces next year.  Some folks concluded that the Steelers came into this season with almost the identical roster as last year due to the NFL lockout.  Whether that was a factor or they were just plain giddy over their current players only Kevin Colbert can reveal.  The fact is, the Tennessee Titans are coming to town and they are playing much better football than the Steelers right now.  If the Steelers expect to win, they better bring a better game plan and execution to Heinz Field on Sunday. 

I would like to hear your comments both positive and negative.  Thanks for reading!

P.S. I did not lay into the offensive line because there are enough people blaming them for the struggles of this team.  I think they are part of the problem but not entirely the problem.  Some of it is due to coaching, some to play calling and some to a lack of quality time together (like mini-camp and OTA’s).  Is there a lack of talent?  Maybe, but I am not ready to concede that at this time. 

Photo courtesy of Getty Images

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Why the Steelers Need to Bring Their "A" Game to Texas

Just click your heels and the Steeler offensive line will be fixed

If it was only so easy, I would put on those red slippers like Dorothy did in “The Wizard of Oz”, click my heels together and the bad stuff would all go away.  (I know I will get comments from some of my friends about that sentence.)  Right now, the bad news for the Steeler offensive line is like the runaway train in “Unstoppable” (filmed in Pennsylvania in 2009-2010).  Every day, more and more bad news comes rolling down the tracks.

On Friday, Doug Legursky and Jonathan Scott were ruled out of Sunday’s game versus the Texans.  Now there are many Steeler fans who let out a big cheer when that was announced but when they came back to their senses, they realized who would be taking their places, Ramon Foster and Trai Essex, and they popped a few Rolaids to keep their lunch down.  I’m not hating on Foster and Essex, it’s just that if they aren’t starters on an offensive line that is struggling, then how bad can this get?  I didn’t blame all of the problems last week on the offensive line, I thought it was a collective disaster.

The problem with the offensive line is that there isn’t any consistency.  There have been players shifted between positions since day one of training camp.  The offensive line is unique, think of it as a chain on a bike.  If one link is off, the whole bike can’t move forward.  The entire offense is similar, in that everyone needs to be on the same page when it comes to: the snap count; the blocking scheme; the timing of the play; the handoff from the QB; and the patience or urgency of the running back when hitting the hole.  If the timing is off or players are confused or indecisive at the point of attack, then you are in a load of trouble.  The lack of consistency in the offensive line has resulted in a running game that is ranked 23rd in the NFL in yards/game (85.7) and an offense with twice as many turnovers (10) as TD’s (5).  All this is coming at a time when teams are lighting up the scoreboard.  Needless to say, this is NOT Steeler football.

The reason why this is such a big deal is that the Steelers face a pass rusher in Mario Williams who can dominate one side of the offensive line.  On the other side, JJ Watt is proving to be no slouch himself.  He was selected in the first round of the 2011 draft out of Wisconsin, the 11th pick overall.  He is the total package of big, strong and fast.  They also have DeMeco Ryans who would be a starting linebacker on every other NFL team and Brian “Juice” Cushing who can ‘needle’ his way into any backfield. 

Now I know some people might take exception with my assessment here but the numbers and the successes don’t lie.  The brain trust behind the Texans’ defensive improvement this year is none other than Wade Phillips.  Although Wade has had a less than stellar career as a head coach, his defenses have always been much closer to the top than the bottom.  Last year, the Texans defense was 29th overall.  This year, they are 10th…..and that’s after Drew Brees lit them up for 40 points last week (then again, Drew Brees lights most teams up for 35+). 

Offensively, the Texans are loaded with talent.  They are averaging 30 points/game and they are ranked 5th in rushing yards/game (138yds) and 12th in passing yards/game (262yds).  Matt Schaub is everyone’s 2nd level QB behind Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Philip Rivers and Aaron Rodgers.  Andre Johnson is an amazing athlete and wide receiver.  He is big, strong and fast and he has a focus on the field that is unmatched.  The Texans also have a supporting staff that is better than most in the NFL: Owen Daniels; Eric Winston; Arian Foster; Kevin Walter; and Ben Tate (and the only throwing Matt Leinart is doing is throwing beer parties for college girls). 

Is it all gloom and doom?  No.  The Steelers must play their best game of the year.  They need to play like they did against the Eagles in the preseason.  If they can limit their mistakes, play as a cohesive unit and exploit the weaknesses that the Saints pointed out last week, we could see a big Steeler victory deep in the heart of Texas.  Here are some keys to winning.

What the Steelers need to do to win:

1)    Run the football—keep the ball out of the hands of the Texans stars and establish an attitude with the O-line
2)    Get a big play defensively—the Steeler defense has only 1 turnover in 3 games.  Really?
3)    Win the special teams matchup—if the Steeler offense can’t get rolling then field position will be much more important.  A score on special teams would be a big help.
4)    No turnovers—you can’t give the Texans 13 points like the Steelers did with the Colts.
5)    Hit Matt Schaub—Schaub has never been confused with being a tough guy.  Send a message by hitting him hard and often.

Pat Kirwan, a longtime NFL executive and host of “Moving the Chains” on Sirius NFL Radio, said that he likes the Steelers in this game because throughout the Super Bowl era, you rarely see the Steelers play 2 bad games in a row.  He’s right and I hope that this claim holds true on Sunday.  What are your thoughts?  Please comment below.

Photo courtesy of tangoshoedivas.com