Thursday, November 30, 2006

Tampa Bay v. Steelers: Team Matchups

There is no doubt that last Sunday's loss was one of the worst performances that any Steelers team in recent memory has produced, and some of my enthusiasm for analyzing what has turned into a bad football team (albeit with talented players) has wavered.

But let's press on, and hope for good things against a team that hates cold weather.

Tampa Bay Offense v. Steelers Defense
Average total yards per game: TB "O", 30th (254.2) v. Steelers "D", 11th (306.1)

Average net rushing yards per game: TB "O", 29th (92.1) v. Steelers "D", 11th (99.8)

Avg. net passing yards per game: TB "O", 29th (162.1), v. Steelers "D", 17th (206.3)

Third down conversions: TB "O", 24th (34.0%) v. Steelers "D", 20th (40.0%)

Average points per game: TBs "O", 31st (12.91) v. Steelers "D", 26th (23.1)

Steelers Offense v. Tampa Bay Defense
Average total yards per game: Steelers "O", 5th (353.7) v. TB "D", 23rd (340.6)

Avg. net rushing yards per game: Steelers "O", 13th (107.6) v. TB "D", 22nd (122.7)

Average net passing yards per game: Steelers "O", 4th (246.1) v. TB "D", 22nd (217.9)

Third down conversions: Steelers "O", 5th (41.4%) v. TB "D", 13th (37.0%)

Average points per game: Steelers "O", 8th (21.73) v. TB "D", 24th (22.91)

Special Teams
Average yardage per punt return: TB 28th (6.7), Steelers 30th (6.3)
Average yardage allowed per punt return: TB 24th (9.9), Steelers 11th (7.5)

Average yardage per kick return: TB 20th (21.8), Steelers 13th (23.0)
Average yardage allowed per kick return: TB 2nd (19.6), Steelers 26th (24.5)

Net yardage punting average: TB 21st (36.4), Steelers 19th (36.6)
Opponent net yardage punting average: TB 7th (35.5), Steelers 31st (40.0)

Turnovers: TB 28th (-8), Steelers 32nd (-12)

Time of possession: TB 3rd (30:14), Steelers 11th (30:48)

Red Zone Touchdown Efficiency: TB 11th (54.5%), Steelers 19th (50.0%)
Red Zone (Touchdowns) Defense: TB 27th (62.5%), Steelers 14th (50.0%)


Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Jerome Bettis' Father Dies

The following is from the Associated Press"

"Johnnie Bettis, the father of retired NFL running back Jerome Bettis, died Tuesday at a suburban Detroit hospital of an apparent heart attack, police said.

Johnnie Bettis, 61, of Detroit, was stricken while driving in a suburb north of the city around noon, police Lt. Carl Fuhs said.

'He apparently felt it coming on,' Fuhs said. 'He was able to pull his vehicle off to the side of the road and stop it, which probably saved injury if not another person's death. That's a very busy two-lane road.'

Another motorist stopped and administered CPR, and a passing nurse and physician also stopped to help before police and paramedics were called, Fuhs said.

Bettis was taken to Huron Valley Sinai Hospital, where he was pronounced dead at 12:58 p.m., hospital spokeswoman Annessa Carlisle said. She said she did not know the cause of death or whether an autopsy would be performed.

Fuhs said he notified Jerome Bettis' wife that the player's father had died. Family members were arriving at the hospital Tuesday evening, Carlisle said.

Jerome Bettis retired after helping the Pittsburgh Steelers beat the Seattle Seahawks in last season's Super Bowl in his hometown of Detroit. He is now a studio analyst for Sunday night football games on NBC.

Johnnie Bettis worked as an electrician for the city of Detroit. He and his wife Gladys attended every one of their son's regular-season and postseason games, dating back to ninth grade.

They had a dinner for the Steelers at their home four days before the Super Bowl and hosted about 65 people in their home for a Thanksgiving dinner in 1998 when Pittsburgh played the Detroit Lions, a game remembered for a botched coin flip in overtime with Jerome Bettis as a captain.

When their son offered to buy them a new home, the Bettises spurned the suburbs and moved about six miles to a house on the city's west side, trying to lead a normal life.

'When Jerome found out we were going to the laundromat, he said that wasn't acceptable and told us to go get a new washer and dryer,' Johnnie Bettis said a few days before the Super Bowl. 'But I kind of liked the laundromat because you get to meet so many interesting people
.' "


Monday, November 27, 2006

Steelers v. Baltimore: The Good, the Bad, & the Ugly

During the thirteen months that Pittsburgh Steelers Fanatic has been up-and-running I have always been able to find something positive say about the team's performance, even in the aftermath of the most disappointing losses.

Sunday's game versus Baltimore proves that there is a first time for everything.

The Good
Now before I get off an a rant here the Baltimore Ravens have to be congratulated for playing an absolutely perfect football game. Their defensive scheme was perfect and the players executed it flawlessly. And as utterly hateable as Brian Billick is, he has transformed his offensive unit into an effective, power football unit.

The Bad
It's not as if the Steelers have ever gone undefeated in a season, so it isn't the loss that has left the Steelers and their fans so dispirited, but the way they lost.

Never in the game, never showing any spark of life -- some might argue that this team appears to have quit on their season, and their coach.

Anyway, it was all bad and for the very first time since starting this blog I simply don't want to dwell on the game any longer.


Sunday, November 26, 2006

Steelers @ Baltimore: Instant First-Half Analysis

Craig Wolfley, the sideline reporter for the Steelers' radio network, indicated that he didn't like the body language of the Steelers' players during the first half. His observation was that there seemed to be no enthusiasm, no fire in Pittsburgh's players.

Imagine how Steelers fans feel.

Baltimore has completely dominated the first half of the game, in every phase of the game; so much so that there isn't much to analyze (and yet there is SO MUCH to analyze, isn't there?). Baltimore's domination of the first half off the game is reflected in any number at which someone would care to look.

First Downs: Steelers 3, Ravens 15
Net Rushing Yards: Steelers -14, Ravens 95
Passing Yards: Steelers 22, Ravens 121

The only good news for the Steelers is that they didn't commit any turnovers in the first half.

Perhaps most surprising has been the Steelers' inability to stop Baltimore's running game. Indicative of their ineffectiveness is the fact that their leading tackler in the first half was Bryant McFadden. Whatever else happens in the last two quarters the Steelers simply need to play with more passion.


Thursday, November 23, 2006

Steelers @ Baltimore: The Team Matchups

Happy Thanksgiving to all of you!

As I count my blessings on that comes immediately to mind is this: I thank God nearly everyday (this week) that I'm not a Blatimore Ravens fan.

However, heading into Sunday's game the numbers are definitely seem to be in favor of Baltimore. Indeed, Baltimore's offensive averages and the Steelers defensive averages appear to be a perfect match. And as for the matchup between Baltimore's defense and the Steelers' offense . . . let's just say it doesn't bde well for Sunday.

Ravens Offense v. Steelers Defense
Average total yards per game: Ravens "O", 22nd (304.6) v. Steelers "D", 12th (309.2)

Average net rushing yards per game: Ravens "O", 25th (98.5) v. Steelers "D", 8th (98.4)

Average net passing yards per game: Ravens "O", 16th (206.1), v. Steelers "D", 19th (210.8)

Third down conversions: Ravens "O", 8th (41.1%) v. Steelers "D", 22nd (40.6%)

Average points per game: Ravens "O", 11th (22.2) v. Steelers "D", 22nd (22.7)

Steelers Offense v. Ravens Defense
Average total yards per game: Steelers "O", 5th (375.7) v. Ravens "D", 2nd (326.6)

Average net rushing yards per game: Steelers "O", 13th (116.3) v. Ravens "D", 3rd (82.1)

Average net passing yards per game: Steelers "O", 4th (255.6) v. Ravens "D", 8th (192.2)

Third down conversions: Steelers "O", 5th (44.4%) v. Ravens "D", 3rd (31.3%)

Average points per game: Steelers "O", 8th (23.89) v. Ravens "D", 5th (14.7)

Special Teams
Average yardage per punt return: Ravens 3rd (13.0), Steelers 30th (5.7)
Average yardage allowed per punt return: Ravens 19th (7.6), Steelers 16th (8.9)

Average yardage per kick return: Ravens 5th (25.1), Steelers 9th (23.9)
Average yardage allowed per kick return: Ravens 20th (23.2), Steelers 26th (24.4)

Net yardage punting average: Ravens 11th (38.7), Steelers 22nd (36.2)
Opponent net yardage punting average: Ravens 14th (36.3), Steelers 31st (40.2)

Turnovers: Ravens 1st (+12), Steelers 32nd (-9) -- tied with New Orleans & Oakland

Time of possession: Ravens 3rd (30:14), Steelers 11th (30:48)

Red Zone Touchdown Efficiency: Ravens 24th (44.4%), Steelers 15th (51.4%)
Red Zone (Touchdowns) Defense: Ravens 1st (30.4%), Steelers 15th (50.0%)


Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Bill Cowher Press Conference: November 21, 2006

I've made it a habit to watch Bill Cowher's press conference on Tuesday morning and offer a recap of the more important points here on Pittsburgh Steelers Fanatic. Unfortunately the press conference was not available via the internet today, so I am reduced to posting the transcript created by NFL for

"Opening Statement: I'll give you the injury update for the game against Baltimore. One player is doubtful, that's Willie Reid. He is getting better but it's been a very slow process. He is doubtful for this week. Two players are questionable, Najeh Davenport with a groin and Hines (Ward) with a knee. All the preliminary tests were done. He basically has a hyperextension of his knee. We'll see how he progresses as the week goes on. We have four players that are probable: Jeff Hartings with a knee, Deshea Townsend with an ankle, Clark Haggans with a quad and James Harrison with an ankle.

Last week's game was a big win considering how it unfolded and how we were able to finish it for two consecutive weeks, coming from behind. I will say this, we have to play better than we have these last two weeks if we are going to compete against Baltimore. This is one of the premier teams in the AFC. They have no weaknesses. They're solid from top to bottom. They're playing with a lot of confidence. They're playing very well. We're going to have to play at a very high level and play our best game to even have a chance to compete with this team. They're playing that good. Those are the facts. It will be a big challenge for us going there, and we'll see what happens.

Q: How much of a difference has Steve McNair made to the Ravens?

A: That's something you would have to ask them. Last year they had a lot of injuries. They came back this year with Steve McNair. Just the confidence they have, you can see some of the comeback wins early in the season. Those are big. You come to a new team do what you've been known to do, what Steve has done throughout his career. It just strengthens the confidence that they have in you. They're a confident football team. They've had some comeback wins. They were down by almost 20 points to Tennessee a couple weeks ago. They came back and got that win. They're a confident football team that's playing well right now.

Q: Have you noticed a difference with the play-calling since coach Billick took over?

A: Quite honestly, I haven't looked at all the games. We've looked at the last four and I think they're averaging 28 points a game these last four games. That's hard to say. I haven't studied it to that extent. They are who they are now, and right now they're a productive team.

Q: Can you evaluate B.J. Sams and the Ravens' special teams?

A: He's a Pro Bowl returner, as a punt returner and kickoff returner. They have created outstanding field position. Where we are right now, we're going to have a big challenge because our coverage team has not been very good. That's going to play a big part. He's a guy that makes people miss. He has outstanding vision. He has strength. He has everything you're looking for. They have a very good kicking game. I think Matt Stover missed his first field goal in the decade this last week. They're very sound in all the things they're doing right now. They're not turning the football over. They lead the league in the turnover/takeaway ratio, plus-12, second in the league in defense, good kicking game with a solid kicker and premier returner. We're going to have to be at our best to even have a chance to compete.

Q: Will you consider using starters in the kicking game?

A: I'm considering anything and everything. Something has to change somewhere and somehow. The results right now are not where they need to be. It's disappointing. I understand this time of the year, with the kicking game outside. Unless you have two or three guys in this league that are just kickoff guys, you're going to have to deal with the field position being higher. But you can't give up the returns that we gave up the other day. You go back to New Orleans we gave up a 50-yard return there. Denver was the best kickoff coverage that we've had all year. It seems like there has been those one or two returns every game and that's not acceptable at this point.

Q: Have the problems in coverage been consistent?

A: It's different. We've consistently had breakdowns. That's been consistent. If it was one thing you'd be able to pinpoint it. It just takes one guy out of the lane and them hitting the right return and then you have what you have.

Q: How much of a big return is the returner vs. the blocking scheme?

A: It's hard to say. It varies. When you look at some returns, B.J. Sams had one last week where he made six or seven people miss. The other day, (Joshua) Cribbs returned it and it looked like he was running on air. Sometimes it's the scheme and people get the right timing and execution. Other times it's just a great effort.

Q: Will you change the return guys?

A: I'm very pleased with the kickoff return. That is the only phase that I feel that we've made progress. Sean (Morey) made a big return the other day. We had a big return called back because of a penalty. That's been the one phase that I've been comfortable with. We've gotten nothing out of our punt return. I don't know how many true opportunities we've had. Where we are at this point, we haven't gotten much out of it.

Q: Will you use Ike Taylor on kickoff return if Davenport is hurt?

A: At this point.

Q: How good is the Ravens' secondary?

A: They're excellent. When you look at their defense on a whole, they do a good job of disguising things. They're always moving around. They've gotten Adalius Thomas and (Terrell) Suggs are two good edge rushers. Kelly Gregg is stout in the middle. Bart Scott has been all over the field. They'll probably get Ray Lewis back. He's their emotional leader on the field. But their secondary, Ed Reed is one of the top safeties in the National Football League. Samari Rolle and (Chris) McAlister tackle well, play the ball well. They have a lot of playmakers on that team. They've been there week-in and week-out. You're going to have to be very careful and patient against this defense because they thrive on taking the ball away, create field position, scoring touchdowns. We had two returns against us the other week. It's been well documented. You give up a return for a touchdown since 2000 you win about two out of every 10 games. You can't give up returns for touchdowns. You can't give up points like that, even field position in the kicking game. Those are some of the things that we've been doing that we can't afford to do against this football team.

Q: Do they use Reed the way you use Troy Polamalu?

A: There are some similarities. You'll see Ed come up and move around a lot. They'll bring him. He blitzes, I wouldn't say frequently but enough. He's just got a great feel for the ball. He's a true center fielder. You'll see Troy more around the line of scrimmage than Ed Reed, if you go through a series of games. One thing about both of these players, they're both very instinctive. They have great instincts and a great feel for the game. That's what separates them from other safeties.

Q: What is Baltimore doing to stop the run?

A: They've got (Haloti) Ngata, he's a big guy inside that they picked up, their No. 1 draft choice. They have Kelly Gregg and linebackers that can move. (Trevor) Pryce is in there from Denver. They are very sound in what they do. They create a lot of havoc. They bring eight-man fronts. They have some corners that they aren't afraid to leave out in one-on-one. It's just a case that they try to stuff the line of scrimmage and force you into a one-dimensional game. Once they can do that and get some negative plays, they get you into third down, and they've been creating a lot of turnovers that way. They have some good run defenders, coupled with some guys that can make plays and that's a good combination to have.

Q: What are the negatives to using the no-huddle all the time?

A: You're limited to what you can run. We'll try to use it as a change of pace as we did the other day. It's nice to know that it's something that you can use at some point. It's not something that we want to live by. We're not the Indianapolis Colts. We feel good with our offense in how we have it designed. There are different ways to do different things. It is a nice option to have. (Ben Roethlisberger) did a good job the other day, which was used more out of necessity because of the time frame that we had to work with in that fourth quarter. It certainly is good to have the success that we've had so you know that when you get behind you know that you've been there before.

Q: Did the team remain poised despite the deficit in Cleveland?

A: It's been good. The past two weeks we've dealt with the whole ebb and flow deal. They have done a very good job. If you look at the other day, in the fourth quarter, we didn't covert a third down. We were zero-for-six in the first three quarters and we were six-for-six in the fourth quarter,twenty-one points in the fourth quarter and we came up with some big stops on defense. There were a lot of positives from that standpoint. Again, the team we will play this week we can't dig ourselves in a hole like we did last week and expect to get out of it. It will take a complete game in all three phases to have a chance to compete against this team. There was a lot to be said for what took place the other day.

Q: What about Ben Roethlisberger allows him to come back from a bad half?

A: I think it's a confidence that you have to have, number one. You have to be able to not lose confidence in yourself, and more importantly, the people around you and stay within yourself. Sometimes there is a tendency to do too much. I know a couple times he got out of the pocket and threw the ball away. I thought those were some of the better throws he had. He wasn't trying to force it. He hit some check-downs and I think that's what I like about where he's at. He's seeing the field and at times, he's not forcing the ball. If you look at the three interceptions the other day, the first one was a high throw to Santonio (Holmes) that got tipped. The one hit off of Cedrick (Wilson's) face-mask and the other one, and the guy comes in an knocks it from behind. He's decisions have been good. He had a couple throws that got away from him, but I like his decision making. I think, at times, that's what has gotten him in trouble at the beginning of the year. He's going to have to be careful this week because they have some good ball hawks and Ed Reed is a guy that if he stares someone down, he will get there before the ball gets there.

Q: Are the pass attempts a function of the game, or are you getting away from the run?

A: A little bit of both. I don't think it's a blanket statement that I can say. I feel like we are running the football when we have a chance, maybe not as efficiently as you'd like. I know the numbers are really getting swayed from home and I don't really have an answer for that. Going into the games, we are trying to stay balanced early in the game and try to keep a team on their toes and back from their heels more than less. As the game unfolds, the passing game certainly the circumstances were more dictating of the ratio than anything.

Q: Do you think you have some momentum?

A: Well you have to get momentum this time of year. Right now, we have no margin of error. This is a big game for us, as I know it is for Baltimore. We are playing one of the elite teams right now in the AFC and maybe in the National Football league with the way they are playing. This will be a measuring stick for us to see where we are. We're going to their place and I don't think we've won there for three years and there are a lot of challenges ahead of us. We're going to have to have a good week of work and we're going to have to go out there and play our best football game. That's where we are this time of year. There are a lot of teams clumped right now and the next month will have a way of separating a lot of teams.

Q: Evaluate Bryant McFadden?

A: Bryant did some good things. He did a nice job of playing the ball. I thought he played a very solid game.

Q: Did any of the Browns wide receivers step out of bounds on the Hail Mary pass at the end of the game?

A: Braylon Edwards did step out of bounds so if he would have caught it or not it would have been irrelevant.

Q: Can he re-establish himself?

A: Once you step out of bounds you are an ineligible receiver.

Q: Is Santonio Holmes pushing for more playing time?

A: He's embraced the role he has right now. I think he's getting comfortable. Ben's getting comfortable with him. I just like the mix we have. Ced(rick) Wilson has done a great job. Hines and Nate Washington, those are four pretty solid receivers for us. I'm comfortable with where we are and we'll see how the game unfolds.

Q: What is the rule when a receiver steps out of bounds?

A: On a kick you can't be (the first to touch the ball) but once you're out of bounds you are no longer an eligible receiver.

Q: Regardless of if it's touched by someone else?

A: Correct.

Q: Can you evaluate Jamal Lewis?

A: No, he's running well. He's running with great balance. The line is doing a great job of coming off (the ball). They're doing a great job with McNair. Look at their receivers, between (Mark) Clayton, (Derrick) Mason and (Todd) Heap there are four receptions that separate those guys. They're spreading the ball around, running the ball efficiently. They're not turning the football over. You're not seeing a lot of sacks against them. They're offense is eighth in the National Football League in third-down efficiency. It would probably be higher than that if they don't shut down the offense late in some of their wins. They're playing very solid, very sound football.

Q: Are you considering wearing a suit?

A: No, not me. I don't even wear one to church. I'm not a trend setter with fashion statements. I just wear what they put in my locker. It really doesn't matter to me. If it's cold I'll put layers on. I'm not looking into the process. I'm not interested with all due respect.

Q: What are your thoughts on McNair as an athlete and a competitor?

A: He's a leader. Steve McNair is a football player. He is a leader. He has a presence on the field. There's no question the people around him have confidence in him. He's got the arm, which everyone sees. He's got mobility. He'll do it when he has to. You see all the comebacks he has through the years. He's a leader. He's a guy that gets on the field and inspires the people around him. His productivity and what he's done speaks volumes for who he is. I have nothing but the utmost respect for him. I always have from Tennessee. I thought we lost him when we went to the new (divisional) alignment and then he came back into our division again. He's a good football player. I have a lot of respect for him, a class guy.

Q: Baltimore is playing without turnovers and winning?

A: We know that and we understand that. You can't control what has taken place to this point. The one thing that we can control is what we have ahead of us. We have an opportunity. Is it a challenge? You're darn right it is. At this time of year it's something you have to embrace. We have to show an ability to sustain plays. We have to up the level of play in certain areas. We have to do it against good football teams. It's a really big challenge for us. This will be a measuring stick and we'll find out where we are


Looking at Things From a Baltimore Perspective

Apparently the Ravens have all but pronounced themselves division champs, and they are beginning to consider the possibility of going to the Super Bowl.

The Ravens, more than any other Steelers rival, are perfectly hatable.

In this article by the Baltimore Sun's Jamison Hensley the author considers the reasons why the Ravens may secure a high seed for the playoffs, and also considers factors that are working against them as well.

"With the Ravens already allowed to mail out playoff ticket invoices to their fans, it seems like a formality before they clinch a fourth trip to the postseason and a second AFC North title.

The next step is uncharted territory for the Ravens.

A team that has never earned a playoff seed higher than No. 4, the Ravens are vying for the top record in the conference and home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs. With a franchise-best 8-2 record, the Ravens have moved within one game of the Indianapolis Colts (9-1).

Ravens coach Brian Billick doesn't mind his players targeting the No. 1 seed, though he stressed that the focus must always remain on the immediate goals and not future ones.

'We've put ourselves in position where there's potential for that, and that's exciting. But we haven't done anything yet,' Billick said a day after the Ravens' 24-10 win over the Atlanta Falcons. 'Regardless of how we play, it will take until the last game of the season for the playoff picture to be set. So, that's a long, long way off for us.'

After a two-year layoff from the playoffs, the Ravens couldn't ask for a better situation at this point.

They have a daunting three-game lead over the Cincinnati Bengals with just six weeks remaining. If the regular season ended today, the Ravens would be the AFC's second seed (they own the tiebreaker over the San Diego Chargers because of the Ravens' Oct. 1 win), which would give them a bye as well as a proven route to the Super Bowl.

In the past five seasons, eight of the 10 teams to make the Super Bowl were either the top or No. 2 seed in their conferences.

'They're very cognizant,' Billick said. 'I don't mind them thinking, "What would it be like to have home-field advantage? What would it be like to have a bye?" But not to the point where you're looking ahead.'

Why the Ravens will earn No. 1 seed
1. This is not a defense-driven team anymore. The Ravens have one of their most well-rounded teams in years, with offense and special teams making weekly impacts.

Special teams have been a major factor in the past two wins, from the blocked field-goal attempt in Tennessee to three long returns by B.J. Sams against Atlanta. Meanwhile, the Ravens' offense has scored 24 or more points in four straight victories for the first time since November 2000, their Super Bowl season.

'We're a football team, and that's the great thing,' defensive coordinator Rex Ryan said. 'Some weeks the defense has helped us out probably more than the offense, and then other times the offense has had to do it. And then our special teams had their turn [Sunday]. It's great to be on a team that does have each other's back like this.'

2. The Ravens haven't peaked yet. They have won four straight games despite not putting together a complete performance. They beat the New Orleans Saints and Bengals with strong starts before fading late. Then they defeated the Titans and Falcons with second-half comebacks after struggling early.

As a result, there is no sense of complacency in the locker room. "Offensively, in particular, the guys get a sense that there is more out there for us," Billick said.

3. There's better focus. The Ravens acknowledge that off-the-field distractions have hurt them the previous two seasons. But this year, the Ravens have only two starters - linebacker Adalius Thomas and running back Jamal Lewis - who likely will become free agents at the end of the season. That means the players are more focused on team goals rather than personal ones.

'We had an inordinately large number of guys that were in that situation [last year], so that vested self-interest, particularly in a tough season, is kind of hard to hold off,' Billick said. 'We don't have near as many guys this year in that same flux. So, that's an advantage right now in terms of keeping that tight 'We're-in-this-together' mentality.'

Why the Ravens won't earn No. 1 seed
1. The Colts might not lose again. The pressure of a perfect season is now removed for the Colts, who could easily win out the rest of the way. The biggest challenge in their stretch run is at Jacksonville.

Indianapolis' remaining schedule - their opponents are 26-34 with the Jaguars' win last night - is slightly easier than the Ravens'. For instance, next up for the Colts: the Donovan McNabb-less Eagles.

2. Age could be a factor for Ravens. The average age for the starters is 29, including seven over 30. The Ravens began to look tired this season before their bye, which could be a bad sign during the tail end of the schedule.

But Billick is meticulous when it comes to taking care of his team. During November and December, the players are given two days off after a win and rarely hit during practice, keeping them fresh late in the season.

'The physical and mental state of your team is always a concern,' Billick said.

3. The Ravens hit their most grueling stretch of the season. The Ravens face their two big division rivals - the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Bengals - in the next nine days and then play at Kansas City, which is 4-1 at home. The Ravens likely would be content to come out of this three-game grind with two wins.

Said Billick: 'Any two games in 10 days is a lot, but the fact that they are division games - and what they represent - are huge'


Monday, November 20, 2006

Braylon Edwards Crys Like Carson Palmer, Goes T.O. on His Coordinator

In the aftermath of last season's playoff game Cincinnati quarterback Carson Palmer bemoaned the fact that the Steelers went on to win the Super Bowl. He felt as though his team was better and should have been the team to move on in the playoffs. This season we have Braylon Edwards who, in the aftermath of an outstanding individual performance but a Cleveland loss, is stomping his feet and displaying his inner child.

In this is a portion of an item, written by Steve Doerschuk, from the Canton Repository Mr. Edwards infers that he has issues with the offensive play calling during the game:


The Browns squandered a 57-yard interception return by Daven Holly and a 92-yard kickoff return by Joshua Cribbs by going 2-of-3 on field goals and producing no TDs on offense.

They gained 302 yards, beating their previous season high of 301 at Cincinnati. Why couldn’t they finish series?

'I’m not the offensive coordinator,' Edwards said. 'Go talk to him. I just play receiver.'

Jeff Davidson, 2-2 since replacing Mo Carthon as the play caller, was not available.

The Browns blew some chances in the first half and led, 10-0, at halftime.

With just over three minutes left in the game, they had a 20-17 lead with the ball near midfield. This wasn’t the Dec. 24 disaster.

'We’re not the same Cleveland Browns,' linebacker Andra Davis said. 'We know that. They know that.

'It’s a rivalry again.'

Perhaps. But there was still something numbing about a 12th loss in the last 13 Pittsburgh games.

The Steelers still aren’t going anywhere, at 4-6. The Browns are 3-7, leaving Kellen Winslow Jr. to reach a little ... or a lot.

“We can’t lose again,” he said. “We’ve gotta win six straight and be 9-7
.' ”

And comments atributed to Mr. Edwards in an article by Mary Kay Cabot of the Cleveland Plain Dealer indicate that Mr. Edwards doesn't think much of the Steelers abilities.

" 'They're not a good team," Edwards said. 'I mean, what does it say? They were 3-6 and we were 3-6. To hell with the Steelers. They're not doing anything right now. They still have a losing record just like us.'

Edwards admitted he was as down after this loss as any other.

'It's hard,' he said. 'I've never really been hurt after a loss. And this hurts
.' "


Cleveland Still Sucks: The Good, the Bad, & the Ugly

In my more lucid moments I have been known to argue against the Steelers winning any more games this season. After all with each win by Baltimore, San Diego and/or Denver the chances of the Steelers making it to the playoffs this season become more remote. But something comes over me during the games, and I find myself rooting for the Black & Gold with the same fervor as though winning the division was still a possibility.

Such is the lot of a Steelers fan.

And Sunday's game against Cleveland was no exception. Like any good fan of the Steelers I revel in defeating the Browns, no matter how hapless (or helpless) they might happen to be. But as enjoyable as the outcome of Sunday's game was getting to that final outcome proved far more difficult than almost anybody had anticipated. Perhaps in this game more than any other the Steelers were good . . . and bad . . . and ugly at various times, and in various ways. With that in mind, here is some of what I saw in Sunday's game.

The Good
It is as amazing as it is rare when a football team can win a game in which its offense played one quarter. Sunday was such a day for the Pittsburgh Steelers. So, before launching into a critical dissection of the offensive unit let us celebrate all that went well in the fourth quarter.

For the entire game the Steelers gained 338 net yards, and 236 of those were gained in the fourth quarter (69.8%).

For the entire game the Steelers ran off 66 offensive plays, and 37 of those were in the fourth quarter (56%).

For the game the Steelers were 6-for12 on third down conversions, all six of those occurred in the fourth quarter (100%).

For the game the Steelers offense possessed the ball for 27:47, and 12:02 of that occurred in the fourth quarter (43.75% -- and even more amazingly the Steelers' offense had the football for 80.13% of the fourth quarter).

Finally, and most importantly, the Steelers scored 24 points in the game, 21 of those in the fourth quarter.

Obviously the individual performances of the Steelers' offensive players reflected the amazing play in the fourth quarter, none more so than the Steelers' embattled quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. His 6.439 QB rating in the first half really did say all that needed to be said about the absolute terrible quality of his play. At the same time, however, his fourth quarter statistics (18/19, 224 yards, 2 TDs, 0 INTs, 109.0 QB rating) also speak volumes of how spectacular he was during those final fifteen minutes.

Another statistic that underscores both how well Mr. Roethlisberger played in the fourth quarter, and how much better his supporting cast (i.e. his receivers) played is how many different receivers caught passes. In the first half three different players -- Najeh Davenport, Santonio Holmes, and Hines Ward -- caught balls. In the fourth quarter six different receivers were the recipients of passes.

And thanks to the improved offensive output the Steelers defense also enjoyed their best stretch in the fourth quarter. After giving up 87, 103, and 81 net yards respectively in quarters 1, 2, and 3 the defensive unit held Cleveland to 31 yards on 9 plays in the final stanza of the game.

Also earning "Good" status this week was my whipping boy, Chris Gardocki. Though his net average was a pathetic 33.8 he managed to keep the ball away from Denis Northcutt (who had one return for six yards on the day), and very nearly pinned the Browns inside their own five-yard line with one of his kicks.

And while we're celebrating the kicking game, here's to Sean Morey! His 50 yard average on two returns is terrific; and had it not been for Mr. Roethlisberger's intercepted pass that return would have been an even bigger play than it turned out to be.

Finally, the defense performed wonderfully in limiting the Browns, on those occasions when they had opportunities to score, to the minimum. On six different occasions the Browns had the ball at or inside the Steelers' 35-yard line. However, they managed to score a total of only six points, and turned the ball over twice.

The Bad
Ben Roethlisberger has earned all of the criticism sent his way, but it is only fair to point out that neither is he getting much help from some of his receivers; and chief amongst those is Cedric Wilson. It appeared that the third intercepted pass hit Mr. Wilson in the facemask before it was picked off by Daven Holly. Like his quarterback, Mr. Wilson made plays in the fourth quarter (i.e. all three of his catches on the day occurred in the fourth quarter), but he has a way of disappearing for much of the game that is maddening in a veteran receiver. It has been argued here before that at least some of the blame for the poor play turned in by Mr. Roethlisberger has to be laid at the feet of the receivers. And while that can be expected from young receivers more is expected of the veterans. Despite early struggles Hines Ward has 53 receptions on the season for 753 yards and 6 touchdowns. Santonio Holmes is beginning to flash the ability that motivated the Steelers to draft him, and he has 29 catches for 455 yards and 1 touchdown. Cedric Wilson is third in receptions (26 catches, 384 yards, 1 TD). Not what one would expect from an experienced receiver, and indeed he has the same number of receptions as Willie Parker, two more than Heath Miller, and three more than Nate Washington. However Willie Parker, Heath Miller, and Nate Washington have three receiving touchdowns each.

Also bad was Ike Taylor's attempt to defend a second quarter pass to Braylon Edwards that turned into a 63 yard pass play. Offenses are going at Ike Taylor with a gusto usually reserved for stealing candy from small children, and he just doesn't seem to be able to respond effectively.

The Ugly
The running game, what there was of it, was pretty poor. The Steelers ended the day with 77 yards rushing, but 20 of those were from a scrambling Ben Roethlisberger. Willie Parker and Najeh Davenport combined for 57 net yards on 18 carries (3.17 yards per carry); and while I can appreciate a coaching philosophy that embraces taking what the defense is giving (something quarterback coach Mark Whipple alluded to in his post game comments), what is it that defenses are doing this season that they have never done before?

But ugliest of all was the kick coverage. The Browns averaged 32.4 yards per return, and the Steelers allowed them to score a touchdown immediately after the offense had scored its first touchdown, thereby drawing to within three points. Giving up special teams scores has been occurring regularly for the Steelers for the last five or six years so it isn't a surprise anymore when it does happen; but to give up a score at that point in the game is inexcusable.

As good as it feels to see them win, the Steelers are still a game below .500 and now travel to Baltimore for what is always a tough matchup -- even when they are playing well (and they are obviously not doing that this season). On the other hand the Steelers have managed to put together back-to-back wins for the first time this season. But unless they can figure out how to sustain a ground attack (the Ravens' defense is third in the NFL in average rushing yards allowed, and eighth in average passing yards allowed), then Ed Reed and his friends are likely to add to Ben Roethlisberger's woes.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Steelers @ Cleveland: Instant First Half Analysis

Early in the game (specifically the first quarter) this game was reminiscent of last season's first game against Cincinnati (i.e. the Bengals outplayed the Steelers during the first half but found themselves trailing because of missed opportunities). But it wasn't long before this game began to appear frighteningly similar to this season's game versus Oakland.

During the first quarter the Browns outgained the Steelers 81 yards v. 28 yards, had five first downs versus the Steelers one first down, and was 2-for-3 on third down conversions versus the Steelers' 0-for-2. However, a missed field goal by Phil Dawson kept the game scoreless. But then Ben Roethlisberger went to work.

Mr. Roethlisberger's fifteenth interception of the season -- albeit on a tipped pass -- was returned for a touchdown by Daven Holly, the third time that has happened this season. Then, following Sean Morey's 76-yard kick return, Mr. Roethlisberger threw his sixteenth interception of the season.

And just to insure that Pittsburgh Steelers Fanatic is perceived as a equal opportunity critic, the Steelers' defense permitted the Browns to escape bad field position when Ike Taylor failed to adequately cover Braylon Edwards on his 63-yard reception, thereby converting a 3rd-and-13 from their own 18-yard line. Now, to the credit of the defense they stiffened, and forced Cleveland to settle for three points.

Then, to top it all off, Mr. Holly came up with his second interception (Mr. Roethlisberger's seventeenth of the season) and was very nearly the fourth touchdown allowed by the Steelers' offense (i.e. would have been a touchdown if not for the roughing the passer penalty).

Overall the defense is playing well. Cleveland's patchwork offensive line has not demonstrated an ability to consistently hold off the Steelers' pass rush. However, Cleveland quarterback Charlie Frye has done a good job of scrambling away from trouble (5 carries for 27 yards), and throwing the ball away when there wasn't a play to be made. Indeed -- excluding the long pass to Mr. Edwards -- the Steelers limited Cleveland's offense to 40 yards on 20 plays.

Of course the problem for the Steelers in this game is not the defense.

Ben Roethlisberger must pull himself together and stop turning the ball over. His first half statistics (4/11, 36 yards, 3 INTs, 0 TDs, 6.439 QB rating) are horrifying; and though it is unlikely to happen, Charlie Batch seems like a viable option at this point. In fact, Tommy Maddox seems like a viable option at this point.

For the few Steelers fans who still believed that the playoffs were a possibility things must seem bleak indeed.

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Saturday, November 18, 2006

Steelers Dodgeball Big in the West

Proving once again that the Steelers are truly America's team, Sam Farmer of the Los Angeles Times offers up an extended homage to the struggling Super Bowl champions. For those fans looking to feel good about a 3-6 record, this surely does help.

And the information about the on-going dodgeball tournament the Steelers are having is great too.

"The Pittsburgh Steelers are in the middle of the worst Super Bowl hangover in NFL history, and the defending champions have yet to break their pattern this season of win one game, lose three. They have been undone by turnovers, and can't seem to find the magic that defined their 2005 season.

So in their locker room, the battle lines are drawn.

Dodgeball battle lines.

On one side are quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and a couple of hulking linemen; on the other is kicker Jeff Reed and a pair of receivers. They dodge a Nerf ball about the size of a grapefruit and heavy enough to sting.

'If one side catches your ball,' Roethlisberger explained with a laugh, 'the only way to get back in is to hit a reporter.'

It's one of many locker-room games the Steelers play when things get slow. Across the cavernous room, in front of safety Troy Polamalu's locker, linebacker Larry Foote and others play H-O-R-S-E by shooting tape balls into a trash can. In another spot, players huddle over a game of dominoes.

When you walk into the Steelers' locker room, some longtime Pittsburgh reporters say, it's nearly impossible to tell whether the team has its current record of 3-6 or is actually 6-3.

'It's a strength,' Foote said. 'We know our record doesn't indicate what type of team we are. We know it's going to turn one day, and why not now?'

The Steelers' unwavering confidence is a tribute to one of the most consistent, even-keeled organizations in sports. It's also a trickle-down from the top. The Rooney family has owned the team for 73 years; Bill Cowher is the league's longest-tenured coach; and most of the key players are Pittsburgh draft picks or undrafted free agents, among them Roethlisberger, guard Alan Faneca, running back Willie Parker, linebacker Joey Porter, receiver Hines Ward and Polamalu.

Make no mistake, this season has been disastrous for the Steelers. At 3-6, they're tied for the worst record for any defending champion. The New York Giants, Denver Broncos, San Francisco 49ers and Washington Redskins got off to identical wobbly starts after winning it all.

But there's something about the Steelers that inspires the feeling this gutter time won't last long. Maybe it's all the confidence in the locker room, or because the team has put up impressive numbers on offense — numbers undone by turnovers — as the loss column swells.

'Because we know we're a good team, that frustrates us,' Roethlisberger said. 'We feel we're a good team with a bad record.'

It has been a wildly tumultuous year for Roethlisberger. He's gone from being the youngest starting quarterback to win a Super Bowl, to suffering a near-fatal motorcycle collision, to an astounding comeback, to an emergency appendectomy, to a player having to fight to hang onto his starting job.

'As a team, we set the bar pretty high,' he said. 'The first year went so well, and then it was, "How can you live up to the way you played your rookie year"' ' in 2004, when the Steelers finished 15-1 in the regular season before losing to New England in the AFC title game.

After the Steelers won their fifth Super Bowl title in February expectations were so high in Pittsburgh, he said, 'that people expect a Super Bowl every year. It's what have you done for me now? Forget about last year that you won a Super Bowl. And that's fine because we don't want to dwell on it. But part of you says, "Man, don't you remember we just won one?" '

Just before going on their astounding run of eight consecutive victories last season, culminating with a 21-10 Super Bowl triumph over Seattle, the Steelers lost three in a row last November. They looked like anything but a playoff team.

Now, their prospects look even worse. They are at the bottom of the AFC North, four games behind leader Baltimore, and their final seven games include two against the Ravens and road games at Carolina and Cincinnati. Even if the Steelers run the table, there's no guarantee they will reach the postseason.

There are some positive signs. In the past month, the Steelers have averaged a league-high 451.2 yards a game, and their 127 plays of 10-plus yards this season are second only to the Cowboys' 131. But turnovers have plagued the Steelers. They already have 24 giveaways, most in the league, and higher than their turnovers for each of the last two seasons.

Defenses have intercepted Roethlisberger passes 10 times in the second half of games, and his quarterback rating has nosedived after halftime from 102.7 to 52.4. Although he has never shied from accepting blame, he knows there's an element of luck involved.

'The ball could get tipped three times and your guy could catch it or it could get intercepted,' he said. 'Last year, we got the ball to bounce our way a ton. Sometimes that's the determining factor that gets you over the bar.'

What the Steelers aren't doing is panicking. They're confident they can shake their Super Bowl hangover and seem determined to maintain their spirit. And if that means reporters have to duck when they walk into the locker room, so be it


Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Steelers @ Cleveland: The Key Performers

Let's just go over this one more time -- game previews that discuss "individual matchups" are utterly useless. After all, how often do those writing those types of previews go back and evaluate the ultimate impact(s) of the player v. player matchup(s) that they highlighted before the game?

Instead, Pittsburgh Steelers Fanatic begins what will be a regular feature each game week -- a look at the key players on each side of the ball, for the Steelers and their opponent. So without further adieu, here's a look at this week's key performers.

Ben Roethlisberger & Charlie Frye
Which would you want playing for your team? Obviously Ben Roethlisberger is the more talented quarterback, right? But a look at their respective statistics reveals that, at least this season, there is less of a difference between the two than Steelers fans would like to believe:

Pass AttCompletionsYardsTDsINTsQB Rating



A little too close for comfort Steelers fans, n'est ce pas?

Whichever of these quarterbacks performs better on Sunday will give his team a significant lift, and that team's chances of winning will be enhanced tremendously.

Kellen Winslow Jr.
Up until this season the only things for which he has been notable were his hyperbolic chatter and his bad motorcycle stunts. However this season Mr Winslow is tied for second in the NFL in receptions (56 -- tied with Donald Driver, and behind Houston's Andre Johnson who leads the league with 68 catches) and is averaging 10 yards per catch; but interestingly he has only three touchdowns (by way of comparison his teammate Braylon Edwards also has three touchdowns -- on 33 catches), and only of those in his last five games.

Keeping tabs on Mr. Winslow between the 20-yard lines will likely help the Steelers defense shut down the Browns offense, but if the Browns end up in the red zone it seems likely that the Browns will be looking for a different "go-to" receiver (i.e. Joe Jurevicius and Braylon Edwards). Of course, given the way that Algee Crumpler abused the Steelers' defense in the Atlanta game anything is possible.

Reuben Droughns & Willie Parker
The Cleveland Browns are tied for 30th in the NFL for rushing yards with 731. Their leading rusher, Mr. Droughns, has accumulated 472 -- 225 of those in two games (100 yards against the Raiders on October 1st, and 125 yards against the Jets on on October 29th) -- of those yards placing him 30th in the league. The numerous injuries to the Cleveland offensive line have had the effect that many thought they would.

Meanwhile Willie Parker finds himself the fourth leading rusher in the NFL -- a 213 yard performance will do that for a running back -- but this season has been one of feast or famine for Mr. Parker. Here's a look at his yardage in the nine games to date: 115, 20 (Jacksonville), 133, 57, 109, 47, 83, 70, 213. Mr. Parker has not had back-to-back 100+ yard games this season (and that includes the game against Oakland -- currently 26th in rushing yards allowed per game), but with Cleveland near the bottom of the league in rushing defense (30th in average rushing yards allowed per game) Mr. Parker and the Steelers offensive line have to establish that phase of the game on Sunday.

Sean Jones
Sure, you're saying "who?" Well, Sean Jones, a third year strong safety out of Georgia, is second in the NFL in interceptions (behind Jacksonville's Rashean Mathis who has had three interceptions in his last two games against the Steelers). Given Ben Roethlisberger's propensity for throwing picks it will be important to keep an eye on this outstanding young player.

Kamerion Wimbley
"Who?" Part Two. Mr. Wimbley, the rookie right outside linebacker from Florida State, leads the Browns in sacks (5.5). Max Starks could be in for a long day.

Dennis Northcutt
Mr. Northcutt is the leading punt returner in the NFL -- he is currently averaging 14.8 yarsd per return -- and with Chris Gardocki performing poorly (he is currently 17th in net punting average) there is very little margin for error (i.e. Mr. Northcutt is more than capable of returning one or more kicks for big gains). Containing Mr. Northcutt is going to be one of, if not the biggest, challenges the Steelers will face on Sunday. Indeed, this phase of the game tilts so strongly to the Browns that we could have a repeat of the game against the Raiders (i.e. the Steelers dominate the statistics but lose the game).

Joshua Cribbs & Najeh Davenport
Mr. Cribbs (ESPN's Chris Berman could nickname him "They call me Mr. Cribbs!" in honor of Sidney Poitier's performance in the movie "In the Heat of the Night") is Cleveland's kick returner, and is currently fourth in the NFL (averaging 26.8 yards per kick).

Meanwhile Najeh Davenport is beginning to emerge as the Steelers' primary kick returner. In the last three games he has returned seven kicks for 160 yards (22.86 yards per return -- which would places him 25th in the league), but his per kick return average has risen in each of those games: 20.0, 23.0, 24.3.

The Bottom Line
Before the season began the prediction here was that the Steelers would sweep the season series with the Browns. Though the Steelers have struggled mightily this season, and turnovers could change everything, this is still a contest that the Steelers should win.

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A Closer Look at Cleveland

One of the very best sources for reliable information about football is available at Football; and each week the experts at Football Outsiders take a close look at a specific game in an attempt to uncover what really happened (i.e. why the results were what they were).

This week they look at Cleveland's upset of Atlanta last Sunday, and as a bonus there is a short entry on the Steelers' win over New Orleans. Both items are must reads going into this week's game!

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Steelers @ Cleveland: The Team Matchups

Of all the indicators of how badly this season has gone perhaps the most depressing is that this game is now a battle of 3-6 teams. Here's a look at how these NFL juggernauts matchup (the Steelers seem to have an advantage in most areas except special teams).

Browns Offense v. Steelers Defense
Average total yards per game: Browns "O", 29th (251.9) v. Steelers "D", 11th (310.0)

Average net rushing yards per game: Browns "O", 31st (81.8) v. Steelers "D", 10th (98.3)

Average net passing yards per game: Browns "O", 26th (170.1), v. Steelers "D", 5th (211.7)

Third down conversions: Browns "O", 18th (32.3%) v. Steelers "D", 21st (39.8%)

Average points per game: Browns "O", 24th (16.67) v. Steelers "D", 23rd (23.0)

Steelers Offense v. Browns Defense
Average total yards per game: Steelers "O", 5th (375.7) v. Browns "D", 18th (326.6)

Average net rushing yards per game: Steelers "O", 10th (120.7) v. Browns "D", 30th (143.6)

Average net passing yards per game: Steelers "O", 5th (255.0) v. Browns "D", 6th (183.0)

Third down conversions: Steelers "O", 5th (43.8%) v. Browns "D", 18th (38.3%)

Average points per game: Steelers "O", 8th (23.89) v. Browns "D", 17th (20.44)

Special Teams
Average yardage per punt return: Browns 2nd (13.0), Steelers 31st (5.7)
Average yardage allowed per punt return: Browns 10th (7.6), Steelers 19th (8.9)

Average yardage per kick return: Browns 4th (25.1), Steelers 11th (22.7)
Average yardage allowed per kick return: Browns 20th (23.2), Steelers 23rd (23.4)

Net yardage punting average: Browns 5th (38.7), Steelers 15th (36.5)
Opponent net yardage punting average: Browns 14th (36.3), Steelers 31st (40.5)

Turnovers: Browns 30th (-8), Steelers 30th (-8) -- a tie!

Time of possession: Browns 15th (30:14), Steelers 12th (30:48)

Red Zone Touchdown Efficiency: Browns 20th (48.1%), Steelers 19th (50.0%)
Red Zone (Touchdowns) Defense: Browns 15th (50.0%), Steelers 17th (53.1%)


This is News?

How far have the Cleveland Browns fallen? Apparently so far that when one of their players professes his belief in his team's ability to win a game it becomes front page (at least the front of the sports page) news.

In recent online edition of the Cleveland Plain Dealer the Browns' wide receiver Braylon Edwards was quoted as saying of the upcoming game against the Steelers "We're coming after their [tails] [. . .] You don't beat somebody 41-0 at their own house. We're coming for the Steelers, that's point-blank, period."

In a normal season comments like these -- coming as they do from the #2 receiver on the team whose offense is 29th in the NFL so far this season in total yards gained, and 24th in scoring -- would be laughable. But given the struggles the Steelers have experienced all threats have to be taken seriously.


Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Bill Cowher Press Conference Notes: November 14, 2006

Bill Cowher met with the assembled media today, and thanks to the miracle of the internet Pittsburgh Steelers Fanatic was there. Here is a portion of his comments and what was discussed:
  • Injuries: OUT: Willie Reid (foot). QUESTIONABLE: Troy Polamalu (concussion), Deshea Townsend (ankle), Jeff Hartings (knee), Dan Kreider (hip), Clint Kreiwaldt (back). DOUBTFUL: James Harrison (ankle). PROBABLE: Sean Morey (toe), Chukky Okobi (calf)

  • The New Orleans Game: "A lot of positives." In six second half possessions the Steelers defense was able to get off the field five times without the Saints scoring -- the Steelers defense did a good job. The defense did have some chances to get off the field but New Orleans did a better job of executing.

  • Cleveland: A lot of new faces who didn't even play last year -- Kellen Winslow and Braylon Edwards were injured and didn't play. On defense the Browns have added some good players -- Ted Washington is "the cog in the nose" that is needed in a 3-4 defense, and Willie McGinest is an impact player. The Steelers are looking forward to the challenge of playing a good team. Reuben Droughns is a good player, and the Browns' running game is effective.

  • Moving Forward: The Steelers have no margin for error, and "have to start stringing some things together." The defense needs to do a better job of limiting other teams to field goals when they get into the red zone. The team has to "keep putting itself in positions" to make plays, and good things will begin to happen. The Steelers are still not playing up to their abilities.

  • The Schedule: Early in the season it was difficult to get into a routine because of the various times and locations of the Steelers games. Going forward most of the games are at 1:00PM, and the team is playing divisional opponents.

  • Willie Parker: He is a young back who is continuing to improve -- he is seeing things differently and is becoming more patient. And as a pass catcher he is better than ever -- "he is a complete player." As for being caught from behind twice, Coach Cowher has no concerns about that. Mr. Parker is a "good kid" who is "a down-to-earth guy." In addition to the two long runs he nearly broke a screen pass in the fourth quarter for big yardage.

  • Najeh Davenport: He represents a good contrast to Mr. Parker. Mr. Davenport is a back who is capable of "moving the pile" in short yardage situations. And around the league more and more teams are going with two running backs because of the difficulty of a single back carrying the load for a full season. In addition he is doing an excellent job on kick returns. "He is a tough guy -- a physical player," and has proven to be an excellent addition to the team.

  • Troy Polamalu: The medical staff will make the final decision on whether or not he plays Sunday. Mr. Polamalu suffered his concussion in the first half, did not play in the second half, and near the end of the first half "he could talk to you about a lot of things -- it just wasn't about football at that time."

  • Defensive backs: Don't be afraid to try and make a play -- trying and failing is preferred to playing afraid.

  • Officiating: The Steelers have submitted tape to the league for interpretation -- the personal foul/low blow personal foul called on Aaron Smith. Mr. Cowher believes that Aaron Smith did not propel himself into the quarterback's lower leg and should not have been called for a penalty. However, he was not critical of the officiating crew, he simply wants clarification on the penalty.

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Monday, November 13, 2006

Details Emerging About That Pregame Meeting

Some details are beginning to trickle out about the emotion-packed, pregame meeting; and in this article that appeared in both the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and The New Orleans Times-Picayune several of the Steelers' players speak out about just what was said.

"Bill Cowher had admittedly run out of things to say, so he let his players do the talking for a change.

What resulted was as rare an occurrence as the 2-6 hole the Steelers confronted Sunday morning was foreboding. And what transpired was a 38-31 triumph over the New Orleans Saints that was as emotional as it was reassuring to a Steelers team that has yet to give up on itself.

Perhaps even Cowher was beginning to wonder in the wake of a first half of the season that had degenerated from disappointing to potentially embarrassing for a defending Super Bowl champion.

Perhaps he was still applying a form of damage control to running back Willie Parker publicly questioning the Steelers' desire and trust the previous week.

Perhaps Cowher just wanted the players to reaffirm how they felt about one another.

Guard Alan Faneca recalled something similar happening before the AFC championship game in January, when Jerome Bettis and Kimo von Oelhoffen took the floor in Denver.

Before that?

'In that meeting? Maybe not ever,' said Faneca, a nine-year veteran out of LSU. 'Maybe (it's happened) before, but it's been few and far between on that day.'

The final pregame meeting is normally Cowher's domain.

It's held the night before a noon kickoff and on the day of the game when the Steelers play at 3:05 p.m., 3:15 or at night.

'It's him all the way, kind of a "This is what I think it's going to take" from him and his point of view,' Faneca said.

This time, Faneca did some of the talking.

Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and wide receiver Hines Ward also spoke on behalf of the offense.

Linebacker Joey Porter, cornerback Deshea Townsend and defensive end Aaron Smith represented the defense as orators.

Wide receiver Sean Morey voiced what the special teams players were feeling.

'Coach told us earlier (last week) that he wanted a couple of us to get up and speak,' Roethlisberger said. 'I don't know what he was expecting us to do, but the guys got up.

'We didn't talk about X's & O's.'

Parker said Porter 'kind of pointed all the players out.'

'He said stuff we normally wouldn't say,' Parker said. 'He was probably talking to me.'

Parker also said Smith was moved to tears.

'I love this team,' Smith said.

The recurring themes, Faneca said, were trust and a belief in one another.

That they came from the heart rather than the head man meant everything.

'You get a guy up there that opens his heart up in front of your teammates and your peers, it's gonna get emotional, it's gonna get to you a little bit,' Faneca said. 'A message delivered by a guy you're out there fighting with is a little bit different than coming from the head coach. It's from a guy that's down there in the trenches with you.'

Together, those guys in the trenches survived a 517-yard New Orleans onslaught, a blown 14-0 lead and enough injuries in the secondary to force Anthony Madison into the game for extended stretches on something other than special teams.

Through it all, one fan among the 61,911 clung to a placard that read 'We Steel Believe.'

At 3-6, the Steelers do, too

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Sunday, November 12, 2006

Bad News, Steelers Win: The Good, the Bad, & the Ugly

In a season in which more has gone wrong than any of us could have imagined now we have this. Rather than losing, thereby enhancing their draft position, the Steelers pulled out a gutty, hard fought win.

Even if the Steelers win the remainder of their games, ending the season with a 10-6 record, it is unlikely (because they have lost so many conference games, and do not have tie breakers against any of the teams in front of them in the standings) they would make the playoffs.

Will the nightmare never end?

The Good
He has been inaundated with criticism throughout the season, so it is only fair that the first person to be praised is none other than Ben Roethlisberger. His performance was very consistent throughout (first half statistics: 10/16, 149 yards, 2 touchdowns, 0 interceptions, 132.6 QB rating. second half statistics: 7/12, 115 yards, 1 touchdown, 0 interceptions, 118.4 QB rating.), and his decision making was significantly better than it has been for some time. None of his passes were forced into areas where defensive coverage didn't allow, he took sacks (though only two of them) rather than "chucking and ducking," and appeared to be more relaxed and confident than he has been since the win against Kansas City.

Also performing well, of course, was Willie Parker. His two big runs -- 148 of 213 rushing yards came on those two plays -- were the result of intelligently setting up his blockers (i.e. moving towards the line of scrimmage, drawing the defenders to the line of scrimmage), and then using what must be exceptional speed -- until, as Alan Faneca pointed out after the game, "Fast Willie" gets inside the opponents' five-yard line -- to get around the corner and down the field. Both runs were remarkable, but the second run was one of the plays on which the game turned. Clearly New Orleans knew Mr. Parker was capable of big plays, and it must have been dispiriting to their defensive unit to see him break off another play.

Finally, the best performance by the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday occured before the game even started. According to some of the players -- Willie Parker amongst them -- the pregame meeting was emotion-filled with more than a few of the Steelers crying, or on the verge of tears. In the aftermath of Sunday's game it is clear that whatever was said resonated with everyone and, rather than splintering in the face of a frustrating season, the players are pulling together to support one another in the face of difficult times.

The Bad
It may appear that Chris Gardocki has become something of a whipping boy for Pittsburgh Steelers Fanatic, but his continuing struggles are an important part of why the Steelers have been struggling this year and nearly allowed the Saints to score the game-tying touchdown in the fourth quarter. Specifically, his 28-yard punt with 4:40 left in the game was horrible, especially considering that this was a situation in which he should have excelled -- i.e. punting on a short field. Instead Mr. Gardocki performed no better than if he had punted the ball into the end zone.

The Ugly
Following a game in which the opposition amassed 517 net yards, 29 first downs, 77 offensive plays, 67% red zone efficiency, and 63% third down efficiency I would be calling out the defense in a big way. However this Steelers team fought and clawed all afternoon -- a day in which the defense was something less than itself absolute best -- and the feeling here is that because of that their efforts are worthy of praise.

Despite the fact that the Steelers hurt themselves in the draft with each win -- and despite the fact that they have very little chance of making the postseason -- the team's performance against New Orleans was as inspiring as it was inspired. The reason Steelers fans love their team so much was on display Sunday. The team never quits, never stops fighting and playing hard. This group dug a mighty hole for itself, but rather than quitting on themselves they appear to be coming together to do whatever they can to improve the situation.

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Saturday, November 11, 2006

When the Obvious is Still Interesting

John Harris of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review would like all of us to know that Bill Cowher is firmly in charge of the Pittsburgh Steelers. And while this may be an obvious point, hardly in need of confirmation, Mr. Harris' article is still an interesting one, especially his comparison to the Steelers and their AFC North rivals.

"The week after the Steelers lost yet another winnable game is the perfect time to examine how much coach Bill Cowher remains in control of his team.

In the AFC North, the Steelers are the only team whose players have remained loyal and committed to their coach and his system. But cracks are forming in the foundation.

In Baltimore, running back Jamal Lewis and wide receiver Derrick Mason whined about play-calling until coach Brian Billick finally fired offensive coordinator Jim Fassel.

In Cincinnati, several offensive stars, including wide receiver Chad Johnson and running back Rudi Johnson, have called out coach Marvin Lewis for the unit's lack of production.

In Cleveland, tight end Kellen Winslow Jr. complained he wasn't getting enough looks in the passing game. Winslow got his wish. Coach Romeo Crennel started getting him the ball more, and offensive coordinator Maurice Carthon was fired.

Cowher's Steelers keep things in-house. They rarely air their dirty linen in public. And when they do, Cowher is quick to provide damage control.

When running back Willie Parker said after Sunday's 31-20 loss to Denver that some players became content after winning Super Bowl XL and are losing trust in each other following a 2-6 start, Cowher said that's not what Parker meant to say.

Even though Parker's words hit close to home, his comments were ill-timed.

Cowher circled the wagons. Parker's teammates said they didn't know what he was talking about, that Parker's words were his own and that the Steelers, despite their poor play, are a unified team.

Parker, already one of the quietest players on the team, clammed up and didn't revisit his comments from last Sunday. And he probably won't, if Cowher has his way.

Parker wasn't alone. There was another player bold enough to speak his mind after the Denver loss.

Cornerback Deshea Townsend questioned whether the defense needed more variety -- after giving up several big plays -- and that maybe the scheme in the secondary was too predictable.

Townsend's words have merit. Unlike Parker, he wasn't questioning effort or desire, which are more difficult to quantify. Townsend believes a strategy change can improve the defense.

The Steelers defense was outstanding the previous week against Oakland, yielding 98 total yards and no offensive touchdowns. But defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau has to make adjustments after Denver quarterback Jake Plummer completed 10 passes for 180 yards and three touchdowns.

The game film against Denver is the blueprint on how to beat the Steelers and is being passed around the league.

The Steelers play New Orleans on Sunday afternoon at Heinz Field. Expect the Saints to attack Townsend and fellow cornerback Ike Taylor, who was burned by Walker on a double move. That's if Taylor starts; he could be replaced by second-year cornerback Bryant McFadden, as Cowher attempts to shake up the troops.

The Steelers' lack of a pass rush left Taylor and Townsend on an island against Denver. The Steelers rush only three linemen and blitz linebackers and safeties to generate pressure on the quarterback. The Steelers had one sack against Denver.

Often, blitzing leaves cornerbacks vulnerable, because they're in one-on-one situations.

The Steelers have had their problems and their critics this season. Why do they keep turning the ball over? What's wrong with Ben Roethlisberger? Are the Steelers a passing team or a running team? Can the defense play better?

Those are all fair questions. But one thing you can't question is who's in charge of the Steelers. This is Cowher's team. His players still respect and play hard for him


Thursday, November 09, 2006

Porter Guarantees Victory Over New Orleans

Joey Porter has had enough with losing and his promises that the Steelers will win Sunday's game; and in this article by Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette several teammates refute Willie Parker's "we aren't hungry" statement:

"Today, many Republicans know how the Steelers feel. Riding high as the dominant team, they have been swept up in a landslide of losses and face the next few months as lame ducks, soon to be no longer the ruling party of the land.

The shock of it all, at least for the defending Super Bowl champions, was evident as they reconvened yesterday to begin preparations for what they hope will become a better second half to a lost season.

In fact, linebacker Joey Porter promised a new beginning will take place Sunday when they play the 6-2 New Orleans Saints at Heinz Field.

'You know me,' Porter said, 'I want to put some of the pressure on my shoulder for us to go out and get this victory: We will come back with a victory on Sunday.'

His teammates can only hope Porter's words work as well as they did during the playoffs last season, when he called out the Indianapolis Colts and later the Seattle Seahawks' tight end, Jerramy Stevens.

The circumstances are different this time. At 7-5, the Steelers had to win eight games in a row to win Super Bowl XL. At 2-6, they'd probably have to win 12 in a row to win Super Bowl XLI, a miracle not on their minds these days.

'I'm embarrassed,' admitted reigning Super Bowl MVP Hines Ward. 'I can't speak for other players. Me, personally, myself? Yes, I'm embarrassed. I mean, to be 2-6? There's nothing fun about being 2-6. Especially, when you go out there and you put it all on the line to try to win ball games, yet for whatever reason you can't find a way to win games.'

They have lost six of the past seven games and continue to grope to find a way out and how to describe what got them here.

"It's tough," said quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, "because we know we're a good team with a bad record. It's frustrating out there right now."

Halfback Willie Parker said after their most recent loss Sunday to Denver that he sensed a "hungrier" team last season than this one and a lack of trust in teammates. He declined to talk yesterday.

'If that's what he thinks, so be it,' said Ward, a co-captain on offense. 'But you'd have to ask Willie about that.

'I can't speak for other guys, I only speak for myself. I know me, it doesn't matter what happened last year, you have to move on.'

Other teammates disavowed any connection to a Super Bowl hangover.

'I didn't hear [Parker's] comment, but I don't believe that's the situation,' tackle Max Starks said. "I think all of us go out there and play our hardest. Nobody's thinking "I need to sit down, I got what I wanted now." '

Said cornerback Deshea Townsend, 'That's his opinion. I don't know, I feel like guys are playing hard, we're just coming up a little short.'

Porter said Parker and any of his teammates are entitled to speak their opinions and noted that he has led the locker room many times in that area. But he does not agree that there has been a softening of the attitude among the 2006 Steelers.

"The way we go out and fight on defense, I know it's definitely nobody on my side of the ball who feels like that," Porter said.

'I hate to lose anything I do. Me being a sore loser is natural. To lose the way we've been losing is frustrating.'

Guard Alan Faneca, co-captain of the offense with Ward, acknowledged that there was satisfaction with winning a Super Bowl after coming so close in 2001 and 2004, but he does not believe it took away his team's desire to try to win another this season.

'I think hungers change,' Faneca said. 'I think as close as we were for so many years, that did satisfy that hunger a little bit. At the same time, I think myself and everybody came back in here ready and hungry to get another one. So, I think there are different types of hunger.'

Porter said it's not a lack of hunger that separates this year's club from the world champs, it's a glut of turnovers.

'We haven't lost any hunger. We had more turnovers now than we had all of last year. We were involved in every game, but you're not going to win the game when you have four, five turnovers a game. The people you're playing are just too good for you to overcome that all the time.'

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Bill Cowher Press Conference Notes

Bill Cowher met with the assembled media today, and thanks to the miracle of the internet Pittsburgh Steelers Fanatic was there. Here is a portion of his comments and what was discussed:
  • Injuries: Two players out -- James Harrison (ankle) and Willie Reid (foot). Jeff Hartings (knee), Clint Kreiwaldt (back) doubtful. Numerous players, including Troy Polamalu (shoulder) listed as probable.

  • Willie Parker: Coach Cowher believes that Mr. Parker's post game comments Sunday were not an indictment of the team or his teammates, but his own disappointment at losing.

  • Turnovers: The team is committing too many turnovers, and while it is difficult to force turnovers the defense isn't getting very many.

  • Lineup: Everyone is going to be held accountable and Mr. Cowher intends to utilize the players who give the team the best opportunity to win.

  • Philosophy: Sports is a microcosm of life -- there are peaks and valleys, and how individuals deal with the ups and downs is more important than the ups and downs themselves. The team has to remain positive, fight through the challenges, and stay professional. The team has to sustain a belief in themselves without trying to do too much -- Mr. Cowher indicated that some players are afraid to make mistakes, and others are trying to win the game by themselves.

  • Playoffs: The Ravens do have a difficult schedule ahead, but the Steelers need to worry about winning a football game, one game at a time; and can't sorry about playoff possibilities.

  • Opponents: Teams are not doing anything unusual, or unexpected, to stop or attack the Steelers.

  • Denver Game: Ben Roethlisberger made some bad throws -- his first interception was a bad decision -- but the other two were not necessarily bad plays -- the second interception was much like a punt (i.e. Denver had the ball inside their own five-yard line), and the third interception was late in the game. The Steelers' offense is turning the ball over in the red zone, and points are not being scored despite gaining significant yardage. In then red zone the team has to come away with some points. The 72 -yard reverse by Jevon Walker "was a back-breaker."

  • Santonio Holmes: He's a young player who is going to improve, but "he has put the ball of the ground way too many times." He is getting more comfortable with the offense, but he has to get acclimated to the speed of the NFL game.

  • Penalties: The team has gotten too many big penalties (e.g. personal fouls, unsportsmanlike conduct), and while referees are calling those penalties more -- which is how it should be in the NFL -- the players have to adjust.

  • New Orleans: The Saints are playing with great confidence and will be a good test for the Steelers.

  • Najeh Davenport: "He has been a real pleasant acquisition," and has played well in any role he's been asked to take on.

  • Offensive Line: For the most part they played well. Max Starks played better than the week before, and on the first sack of Ben Roethlisberger he was expecting help from Najeh Davenport.

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Monday, November 06, 2006

"With the First Pick in the 2007 Draft the Pittsburgh Steelers Select . . ." : The Good, the Bad, & the Ugly

Back in July or August I reviewed the season preview from Yahoo! Sports (I'd love to tell you exactly when it was, but of course I've lost all of the 460 or so postings from the 54 weeks that preceded this posting). In my review I mocked these "experts" who picked Baltimore to finish first in the AFC North! The sheer audacity of such a pick nearly defies description.

As it turns out the real flaw in the Yahoo! preview was in their pick of the Steelers for second place behind the Ravens. Halfway through the season the Steelers have reduced themselves to playing out the string, looking forward to 2007, and the possibility of a fresh start under a new coaching staff.

But before we begin dreaming of a better day we have to continue our Monday tradition that is the Good, the Bad, & the Ugly.

The Good
Never before has there been a Pittsburgh Steelers Fanatic game analysis that didn't offer some positive words about someone on the Steelers' sideline, but they are really making it tough these days. However Aaron Smith certainly is deserving of praise (at least as much as any of the Steelers are) for his fine effort in this game, and his very solid play throughout the season.

In the Steelers' defensive scheme it is the linebackers who are the high visibility players, but Mr. Smith continues to excel. In his previous six full seasons (he played in six games in 1999) Mr. Smith averaged 2.78 tackles per game. So far this season he is averaging 3.5 tackles per game -- an increase of more than 20%. And against Denver he had one of his best games recording four tackles, two assists, the Steelers' only quarterback sack, and even defended a pass. It's a shame, given the team's poor performance, that his efforts will probably go unrecognized on a national scale.

Also doing a good job was the kick coverage team which limited rookie return man Brian Clark to just 17.8 yards per return. And had it not been for Santonio Holmes' fumble of a kickoff the kick return team also could have been applauded -- the Steelers averaged 23.0 yards per kick return in this game.

The Bad
It is a fine line between "bad" and "ugly." At least some of the ugliness that Steelers fans witnessed on Sunday was the result of individual players simply trying to do too much. So in this sense some ugliness is the result of a good thing (effort) gone bad. What do I mean? How about Hines Ward trying to high jump his way into the end zone, only to lose the football? Or Cedric Wilson's fumble inside the Denver 10-yard line as he fought for additional yardage?

Every player on the Steelers' roster is feeling the pressure that arises when a team loses games that they expected to win, and it appears that some key peformers are trying to single-handedly reverse the team's losing ways.

The players on the Steelers' roster are every bit as talented as they were last season, and in some cases the team has actually upgraded its talent over last season's squad. So, the advice here is for all the players to relax, have some fun, and play the game in a more natural manner.

One of the permanent residents of "The Bad" this season has been Chris Gardocki, and this game was no exception. His poor net average (35.0 yards per kick in this game, and 37.0 yards on the season) is adding to the Steelers' woes. Because Mr. Gardocki is unable to kick the ball high enough and/or far off to move opponents back towards their own goal line, combined with the problems the Steelers' offense is having, teams are enjoying a marked field position advantage over Pittsburgh.

To be fair, Mr. Gardocki has never had a net average of more than 39.0 yards in his career and this seasons average is actually higher than last season (34.7). Those types of numbers are fine when your offense can move the football and your punter is being asked to pooch the ball down near the opponents goal line. However, when your offense struggles, and a team needs a big kick to turn the field position around, 37 yards just doesn't get the job done.

And a new entry into "The Bad" is place kicker Jeff Reed. Mr. Reed has enjoyed a fine career in Pittsburgh; and some of this criticism is due to struggles of the offense, but Mr. Reed's margin for error is significantly smaller this season than in seasons past and missing 40-yard field goals just isn't acceptable. Indeed, this season Mr. Reed is 2-of-5 on kicks between 40-49 yards (40%), while coming into the season he was 24-for-36 (67%) from that same part of the field.

Obviously there is much more that could be palced into this category, but then what would we have to talk about as "ugly"?

The Ugly
Oh boy! What a wealth of material to work with! Here is just a portion of the ugliness that abounded in the Sunday's game.
  • Turnovers: Those of you who have read Pittsburgh Steelers Fanatic for some time know that I rail against the turnovers. Six times a Steelers' player put the ball on the ground and three times the Steelers lost possession. Combine that with three interceptions and it's a wonder that the game wasn't more of a blowout.
  • The Offense & Play Calling: This unit continued its habit of playing reasonably well in the first half, and then imploding in the second half. For example, in the first half of the game Ben Roethlisberger was 19-for-26 in passing attemtps, 206 yards, 1 touchdown, 1 interception, and a respectable 92.8 QB rating. In the second half hei was 19-for-28, 227 yards, 0 touchdowns, 2 interceptions and a 62.6 QB rating. Furthermore, the Steelers completely abandoned the run in the second half. In the first thirty minutes the Steelers had rushed the ball 13 times for 67 yards. In the second half they rushed six times for 29 yards. And for those who would like to believe that the play calling was the product of trailing in the game, please remember that in its first possession of the second half 7 of the Steelers' first 8 plays were passing plays, and the drive ended with Ben Roethlisberger's second interception of the game.
  • The Offensive Line: This unit, which excelled in 2005, continues to struggle; and it looks increasinly as though the Steelers should be looking for a left tackle in the draft next April.
  • The Defense: Over the previous eight weeks (seven games) it seemed that one phase of the Steelers' game would collapse while others played well. In this game we saw a complete collapse of the Steelers on both sides of the ball. Jake Plummer looked like a world-beater because of Ike Taylor's continuing struggles, and there is no explanation or excuse for Jevon Walker running 72 yards on an end-around.
On December 5, 2005 it looked very much like the Steelers' playoff hopes had been extinguished following a loss at hom to Cincinnati. Of course fans of the Black & Gold found out that such was not the case, and we all celebrated a Super Bowl win. But despite protestations by Ben Roethlisberger and others let me say here what we all know: the Steelers' season is over.

Even if they were to win out the Steelers would end up at 10-6, and unless Baltimore and Cincinnati lose a few more games besides that then the Steelers would still be on then outside of the playoffs looking in, and would end up with a pick at the tail end of the draft. The better scenario is the Steelers lose the rest of their games, get a top five draft pick, draft the best offensive tackle they can find, get a little bit of a break on their 2007 schedule, go back to the playoffs, and win the Super Bowl again.

It's all so simple when you have a plan.

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