Monday, February 26, 2007

Steelers to Open 2007 in Arizona?

According to the average high temperature in Glendale, Arizona in September is 101 degrees.

So, it is with some concern that we report on the rumor (as reported on the website of the Arizona Republic) that the NFL is considering asking the Steelers to open the season, in Glendale, against Ken Whisenhunt and the Arizona Cardinals.

Of course the University of Phoenix stadium has a retractable roof, but we all know that the Cardinals will do all the can to make the Steelers uncomfortable, and playing with that roof open would be part of the plan.

"At the NFL scouting combine, rumor and speculation are as prevalent as team logos. You bump into them everywhere you turn.

Here's one from Saturday. Word is the Cardinals might open the 2007 season Sunday night, Sept. 9, against the Steelers at the University of Phoenix Stadium.

It makes sense. Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt was an assistant with the Steelers, as was offensive line coach Russ Grimm. Both were thought to be possible successors to Bill Cowher, who stepped down. Instead, the Steelers hired Mike Tomlin.

Steelers fans are among the most supportive in the NFL, and Whisenhunt knows he has a ways to go to create that kind of passion in Arizona.

'There is a reason the Steelers have a loyal fan base, and it's because they won a lot of football games,' Whisenhunt said Saturday. 'Hopefully, we will put a product out there, a competitive, tough, smart team, that will win some games because we have some people that want to become fans.'

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Thanks for Telling Us What We Already Know

In what may be the ultimate display of Monday Morning Quarterback Coaching, Ken Whisenhunt tells us that maybe, just maybe, Ben Roethlisberger was not physically ready to play at the start of the 2006 season.

Knock me over with a feather.

How is it -- and musn't Bill Cowher be thrilled with these comments -- that the coaching staff missed what fans were speculating on througout the season?

Of course the youth/inexperience of Nate Washington and Santonio Holmes, and some inconsistent play along the offensive line didn't help matters any, but it is safe to say that if your starting quarterback goes one-on-one with the windshield of an autombile there are bound to be some long-term affects.

Here is a report on Mr. Whisenhunt's comments, as reported by USA Today:

"In retrospect, the Pittsburgh Steelers coaching staff underestimated the lingering effects of a life-threatening June motorcycle accident and September emergency appendectomy on star quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's psyche.

In a news conference at the Indianapolis scouting combine new Arizona Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt, Big Ben's former offensive coordinator with the Steelers, indicated Roethlisberger's trademark resilience in rebounding from injuries caused the staff to 'misread' how much his traumatic offseason impacted his worst season to date.

Roethlisberger was medically cleared to return to play in Pittsburgh's August preseason opener and appeared fine on the surface. But Roethlisberger wasn't the same confident quarterback under pass-rush duress after leading the Steelers to a 24-7 record his first two seasons, including the Super Bowl XL championship. He returned to the playing field two months after undergoing reconstructive surgery to repair a broken jaw and orbital bone suffered after a June 12 motorcycle collision with a car.

Turns out, the Steelers may have been better off staying a little longer with backup Charlie Batch after Roethlisberger rushed back to play two weeks after his Sept. 3 appendectomy.

'He (Roethlisberger) did a good job of coming back and getting prepared,' Whisenhunt says. 'Maybe just from being in the pocket and having to face the rush, there was some trauma that was with him that maybe we all underestimated from that standpoint. It took him a little bit longer to get over than what we had thought.'

Roethlisberger's 23 interceptions (compared to 18 touchdowns) for the 8-8 Steelers were most in the league and clearly a lingering repercussion of that near-fatal crash.

'When we started the season, or even in training camp, we didn't think it was going to have an effect,' said Whisenhunt. 'But certainly when you go back and look back over it again, I'm convinced that it did.'

Whisenhunt expects a healthy Roethlisberger to bounce back strong under new offensive coordinator Bruce Arians.

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Friday, February 23, 2007

No Vote of Confidence for Joey

For those who might be wondering about the long-term future (with the Steelers, that is) of Joey Porter, you can now begin wondering about his short-term future as well.

With Mr. Porter set to receive a roster bonus of $1,000,000 on March 6th, new head coach Mike Tomlin, who is attending the NFL Combine in Indianapolis, was asked about his linebacker's contract situation and responded simply by saying "I'm not going to prejudge anyone or any situation."

It's not immediately clear what that means, or what it portends for one the Steelers leaders.

Here is the full-text of an item from Yahoo! news, via the website of WTAE-TV:

"The Pittsburgh Steelers' new head coach Mike Tomlin has a big decision to make long before the season starts, and it concerns the future of linebacker Joey Porter.

Tomlin talked about the situation on Thursday in Indianapolis, where he will gauge talent at the NFL combine, which begins later in the week.

Porter has made it clear that he wants to remain on the team, however, he turns 30 next month, and he has just one year remaining on his current deal, which would bring him $4 million next season.

But spending the necessary money to resign him to a longer-term deal is a decision Tomlin isn't ready to make.

'You need to be careful when you talk about making decisions like that, because if you're not careful, you'll try to tell a story, as opposed to letting things happen,' said Tomlin.

Tomlin told the national media attending the combines only that Porter is currently a Steeler, and he's under contract.

Porter is due a $1 million bonus on March 6, but Tomlin has no plans for making any hasty decisions simply because that date is approaching.

'A lot of times, if you slow the process down and watch it unfold, the decisions become clearer to you, so I'm taking that approach,' said Tomlin. 'I'm not going to prejudge anyone or any situation.'

Tomlin further said that he does not give himself a grace period to grow into the job and expects to have success quickly


Monday, February 19, 2007

Here's a Concept We All Support

In a column titled "Taylor Hopes Tomlin turns him into a Pro Bowler", John Harris of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review tells us that Ike Taylor is optimistic about the affects that the Steelers new head coach will have on his performance. According to Mr. Harris (because there are precious few quotes/comments from Mr. Taylor himself) " [f]ollowing a couple of positive conversations with Tomlin, Taylor said he had never felt better about himself."

Then there is this (emphasis added): "For the first time since cracking the starting lineup, Taylor gave up some big plays in the passing game. But, truth be told, the Steelers' lack of a consistent pass rush left Taylor -- the team's top cover corner -- alone on an island far too often."

I am very interested to know whether that diagnosis of the cause of Mr. Taylor's struggles is Mr. Harris' alone; or if, perhaps, Mr. Taylor offered that explanation himself. Indeed, while no one could argue that 2006 was the best year for the Steelers' defense, the claim that the pass rush was responsible for Mr. Taylor's struggles is dubious at best.

Since the year 2000 the Steelers' defense has accumulated 306 sacks, with 105 of those coming during the 2001 and 2002 seasons (55 in 2001 and 50 in 2002). That makes for an average of 43.7, with the median number of 41. In other words, as it regards sacks of the opposing quarterbacks, in 2006 the Steelers' defense was just about where you would expect them to be. Additionally, the line of thinking expressed in Mr. Harris' column ignores the symbiotic relationship between pass coverage and sacks. Certainly, if the quarterback is sacked then the secondary doesn't have to cover the receiver for as long a time; however, if the secondary locks down the receivers then the likelihood that the quarterback will be sacked also rises.

Ike Taylor is a talented and hard-working player -- the whole point of Mr. Harris' article is to discuss the intensive training regimen that Mr. Taylor undergoes each offseason -- and though it pains me to do so, the "blame" for Mr. Taylor's struggles last season lies squarely on his very capable shoulders. He was beaten, at times soundly and repeatedly, by skilled wide receivers. Sure, an extra 10-13 sacks a season would make things much easier on the secondary; but that kind of help just isn't likely to happen any time soon.

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Thursday, February 15, 2007

Perhaps Chukky Isn't the Answer?

In our preview of the Steelers' offensive line we pointed out that Chukky Okobi is an unproven commodity who is also going to be well compensated, despite not having played very much during his tenure with the Steelers.

No comes an article on in which it is reported that new offensive coordinator Bruce Arians "would . . . like to try right guard Kendall Summons at center as a possible replacement for the retired Jeff Hartings." During the 2006 season, when Mr. Hartings was ruled out of the two games he missed, it was widely reported that the same approach was being considered, but in the end Mr. Simmons remained at guard and Mr. Okobi started at center. The obvious question is if the coaching staff has doubts about Mr. Okkobi then why is he still on the roster? Furthermore, if such a move was made (i.e. Mr. Simmons to center) is Chris Kemoeatu (who is officially listed as the only backup offensive guard), Trai Essex, or Willie Colon ready to step in?

Or would the Steelers dip into the pool of free agents -- which includes well-regarded Eric Steinbach (unrestricted free agent), Reuben Brown (unrestricted free agent, out of the University of Pittsburgh, but turned 35 years old a couple of days ago), Floyd "Pork Chop" Womack (unrestricted free agent), et al -- and if they did so what would that mean for Mr. Okkobi's future in Pittsburgh?

On a related note, according to an article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette the "Steelers start their final evaluations of free agents today.


Getting Draft Ready --
Assessing the Linebackers

It has been mentioned elsewhere but it bears repeating -- if you want to get an idea of where the Steelers are headed (vis-a-vis the defensive scheme) one need only examine what players the team drafts at the linebacker position; and there should be no doubt that linebacker is a spot that is high on the Steelers' draft list.

Going into to the 2007 season there are eight linebackers currently listed on the team's depth chart (Clark Haggans, James Farrior, Rian Wallace, Richard Seigler -- practice squad, Larry Foote, Clint Kriewaldt, Joey Porter, and James Harrison) and of those, three (Mr. Porter, Mr. Haggans, and Mr. Harrison) are scheduled to become free agents at the end of the upcoming season, and two others (Mr. Farrior and Mr. Kriewaldt) are scheduled to be free agents at the conclusion of the 2008 season. Compounding that is the fact that four of these players (Mr. Farrior, Mr. Haggans, Mr. Kriewaldt, and Mr. Porter) will be thirty years of age, or older, when the 2007 season begins. Despite a rapid descent into old age, this group appears more than capable of handling the rigors of at least one more year.

For example, collectively, the fours starters (Mr. Haggans, Mr. Farrior, Mr. Foote, and Mr. Porter) missed a total of three games during the 2006 season, and that after missing a total of five games in 2005. Clearly durability does not appear to be an issue. On the field, the linebacking corps continues to perform at a high level -- as a group they combined for 7 interceptions (the highest total in the last seven years), 21 sacks (only 1/2 of a sack less than 2005), and 347 tackles & assists -- including James Farrior's team-leading 126, the third highest single-season total of his career (by way of comparison, Baltimore's much heralded starting linebackers combined for 353 tackles, and were led by Ray Lewis' 103) .

However, the 3-4 defense is designed to combat the running attack of the opposing offense, and the linebackers are the key to that. So, if there was a disappointment in 2006 it was that the Steelers' defense gave up the third highest number of net rushing yards (1,412) in the past seven seasons.

While the Steelers' linebackers continue to be amongst the best in the NFL there are questions of depth (will Arnold Harrison, who tore up knee ligaments return to the Steelers?) for 2007 season which must be immediately addressed, as well as long-term planning for 2008 and 2009. It is the hallmark of the free agency era in the NFL that a unit that is performing, and has performed, so well should simultaneously be such a significant question mark.

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Wednesday, February 14, 2007

No, It's Not Football Related . . .

but Pittsburgh Steelers Fanatic will never pass up an opportunity to mock the city of Cleveland and its denizens. So, as the snow piles up thoughout the eastern third of the United States, take a look at how one Clevelander responds:


Verron Haynes Day in Pitsburgh

Verron Haynes is one of my favorite Pittsburgh Steelers. He has an enthusiasm for the game that is boundless, and he was an unsung hero -- because of his hard running and outstanding special teams play -- on the Steelers' most recent Super Bowl championship team.

Now comes word from that Tuesday, February 13, 2007 was Verron Haynes Day in the city of Pittsburgh. According to the item on the Steelers' website Mr. Haynes was honored "for his involvement in the community" which includes work with the Boys & Girls Club of Western Pennsylvania, and the Verron Haynes Foundation (which raised money for breast cancer research).

The boorish behavior of athletes will always garner headlines -- whether owning a cache of weapons, trading in the cough syrup black market, or driving with enough alcohol in your system to kill a lesser man -- so it is nice to be able to highlight the good works of a good player.


I Told You!

Building on the work of Pittsburgh Steelers Fanatic, Scott Brown of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review adds his two cents in on the "3-4 or 4-3" discussion and comes to a conclusion that is very similar to the one drawn by the "experts" here at PSF:

"Mike Tomlin, who is following two coaches that won 342 regular-season NFL games between them, said his approach to his new job isn't any different from the one he would take if he were a mortgage broker.

It is fitting that the Steelers' new coach would choose an occupation so bound to numbers for his comparison.

Numbers are at the root of the intrigue Tomlin brings to the Steelers: Will he go with a 3-4 or a 4-3 defense?

The Steelers are built to play the former, while Tomlin received the equivalent of a master's degree in the latter. Tomlin has not tipped his hand as to what shape the Steelers' defense will take next season, and Monday he downplayed the significance of schemes.

'The elite players defy scheme. They do,' Tomlin said. 'Troy Polamalu is going to be an excellent safety regardless of what defensive scheme he's in. Casey Hampton's going to be a dominant defensive lineman regardless of what scheme he's in. We're not going to get enamored with that.'

The clues to what scheme he wants to play -- Tomlin used a 4-3 last season as the Minnesota Vikings' defensive coordinator - could come shortly.

The period to sign free agents starts March 1, and that is followed by the NFL draft in late April.

Tomlin said he has been reviewing game film from last season to identify players' strengths and weaknesses, not to evaluate whether they better fit into a 3-4 or a 4-3 defense.

He said the Steelers will take the same approach when it comes to acquiring players through free agency and the draft, adding that talent will trump all other considerations.

Several signs points to the Steelers playing a 3-4 defense, at least in the short term.

One of the assistants that Tomlin retained from Bill Cowher's staff was defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau.

In addition, the stability that has become a hallmark of the Steelers' organization makes wholesale changes unlikely, especially since the team is one season removed from winning the Super Bowl.

'We're going to continue to shape our package to what our players do and do well," Tomlin said. "It will be a constant evolution.'

As for LeBeau, Tomlin said, 'As I start to work with him on a day-to-day basis, he's exceeded my expectations in terms of what he's capable of. It's been refreshing, not (just) with him but with the entire defensive staff. It's been fun. We're in there every day hacking away at it.'

Tomlin made it clear that he and his assistants aren't the only ones who will be working hard leading up to his first season as the Steelers' head coach.

Tomlin said he plans to hold two minicamps -- the dates are still being worked out -- and that he welcomed the selection of the Steelers to play in the Hall of Fame exhibition game, because it will give the team an extra week of training camp.

'I have always loved camp,' said Tomlin, whose team will play the New Orleans Saints Aug. 5 in Canton, Ohio. 'Most players won't agree with that, but I am looking forward to it. It is an opportunity to eliminate some of the outside distractions that are involved in everyday life and focus on the game itself.'

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Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Getting Draft Ready - Assessing the
Defensive Line

As Steelers fans wait breathlessly for the conversion of the defense from a 3-4 scheme to a 4-3 scheme there is this breaking news -- it's not going to happen any time soon. Yes, Mike Tomlin has indicated that the Steelers may show some 4-3 as a "wrinkle" every now and again, but the players on Pittsburgh's roster are built for the 3-4 scheme -- both literally and figuratively -- and nowhere is this more true than along the defensive line.

According to information available through at there are 26 teams that employ the 4-3 defensive scheme as their primary, defensive formation. In looking at the depth charts of those teams, more specifically the weight of the starting defensive linemen on those teams, it seems obvious that the Steelers do not have the types of players that would allow them to change formations on an on-going basis.

Of the teams using the 4-3 the average left defensive end weighs 274.54 pounds. The average left defensive tackle weighs 312.69 pounds. The average right defensive tackle weighs 302.35 pounds, and the average right defensive end weighs in at 272.5 pounds. Conversely, the Steelers left defensive end -- Aaron Smith -- has a listed weight of 298 (the same weight, or more, than seventeen starting defensive tackles), and the right defensive end -- Brett Keisel -- is listed at 285 pounds.

But beyond the weight, or perhaps because of the weight, there is the speed factor. In a comparison/contrast of the two defensive schemes the folks at Football Outsiders say this about those playing defensive end in the 4-3: "Ends are lighter and quicker. Right ends . . . are usually the best athletes on the line . . . with incredible quickness and agility." Both of the Steelers defensive ends are terrific, indeed the opinion here is that Aaron Smith has still not peaked despite having a career year in 2006, but it is difficult to envision a scenario in which either of them could be described as "lighter and quicker." So unless the Steelers plan on making a major play in free agency (sure Dwight Freeney is an unrestricted free agent, but that isn't going to happen) then it would seem that the team is several seasons away from any major transition in defensive schemes (of course if they DID sign Mr. Freeney they could move Aaron Smith into one of the defensive tackle spots . . . hmmm).

Of course at the nose tackle spot is the all-world Casey Hampton. There is no doubt that he could play, and play exceptionally well, in any formation that his coach could choose to employ. His 25 tackes and 15 assists represented the second highest total in his career, and he even defended on a pass play (granted, it was a screen) for the second time in his career. Additionally, his backup, Chris Hoke, played well -- getting nine tackles, the second highest total of his career.

Whatever Mike Tomlin and Dick LeBeau decide to do with the defensive unit there is little doubt that one of its strengths are the excellent players in the trenches. Of course, both Mr. Smith and Mr. Kirschke are currently on-track to be free agents at the end of the 2007 season -- and Mr. Smith's cap figure for the upcoming season is $6,860,000 -- so there are opportunties for young players who can perform.

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Monday, February 12, 2007

John Clayton's Mini-Preview

With a column titled "Never to Early to Look Ahead to 2007 Season," John Clayton once again shows why he's one of our favorite football writers. For Steelers fans here's his brief take on what lies ahead for our favorite team (emphasis added)

"New head coach Mike Tomlin needs to maintain what Bill Cowher built for years. The job won't be all that easy. He kept Dick LeBeau around to help with the 3-4 defense, but Tomlin may try to turn the Steelers into a hybrid 3-4 and 4-3, with the 3-4 being the base. Bruce Arians takes over as offensive coordinator. He wants to spread the field with four receivers, something Ben Roethlisberger likes, although Roethlisberger first has to buy into the change from Ken Whisenhunt to Arians. He also has to adjust to Ken Anderson as the quarterbacks coach. The Steelers need to find a big back to complement Willie Parker. T.J. Duckett could be that back at the right price. The Steelers have a tough assignment in replacing center Jeff Hartings, who retired. Tomlin also has to decide whether he likes vocal Joey Porter at outside linebacker. Cowher left Tomlin a playoff-caliber team. The Steelers have nine free agents who are all backups. It's up to Tomlin to get Pittsburgh back into the playoffs."

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Getting Draft Ready - Assessing the
Offensive Line

Editor's Note: In an earlier version of this posting it was incorrectly reported that Chukky Okobi did not start in place of Jeff Hartings during the 2006 season. My thanks to the loyal reader who pointed out the error, and my apologies for the mistake.

There isn't a more important unit to the success of the Pittsburgh Steelers than the offensive line, and during this offseason there isn't a unit that is more unsettled. With the retirement of Jeff Hartings, and the free agency status of Max Starks (restricted) and Barrett Brooks (unrestricted) there are clearly important decisions to be made.

Though they are also receivers, the tight ends are also getting a look here if only because there isn't much that is found wanting. Heath Miller is a good run blocker, who is improving, and as a pass catcher he has 73 receptions over his first two seasons and 852 yards receiving. His backup, Jerame Tuman, has been an above average run blocker and an adequate pass receiver. Finally, Jonathan Dekker -- a Bill Cowher favorite -- is still on the roster.

Of course the offensive line proper is anchored by its guards, Kendall Simmons and Alan Faneca, and while that should remain the case remember this: In five seasons Mr. Simmons has played all sixteen games only twice; and while Mr. Faneca hasn't missed a game in the last five seasons, he is now the oldest of the Steelers' offensive linemen (he turned 30 in December). So even in strength there are questions. At the tackles Max Starks and Marvel Smith -- backed up by Willie Colon and Trai Essex -- are firmly entrenched as starters despite what was a very inconsistent 2006 season.

And then there is the center position.

Jeff Hartings retirement was rumored about last offseason, which led Pittsburgh Steelers Fanatic to advocate the drafting of Nick Mangold (the Ohio State center who started sixteen games for the New York Jets in 2006). Now Mr. Hartings has retired, and it appears that Chukky Okobi, who accounts for $2,456,000 of the Steelers' salary cap space in 2007, will assume the starting position. However, with only seven games played in six seasons -- and only two in the last four seasons -- he remains an unproven commodity. Additionally, given that Mr. Okobi's cap number climbs in 2008 and 2009, next season is undoubtedly the most important of his career. Causing some additional concern is that Mr. Okkobi's backup, at this point, is Marvin Phillip who struggled during his rookie season. All of this may lead the Steelers to look at unrestricted free agents like Robbie Tobek (Seahawks) and Jeremy Newberry (Forty-Niners).

Of course all of this concern stems from the significant drop-off in performance by this unit from 2005 to 2006. The experts at Football Outsiders have developed a statistical measure to evaluate the effectiveness of offensive lines, and the Steelers' group dropped from twelfth (2005) to twenty-second (2006). One of the more telling measures within this statistical analysis is what Football Outsiders call "power success" (i.e. the ability to gain first downs when running on third or fourth down, with two or fewer yards to go). The Steelers' offensive line ranked 20th. This inability to employ a "smash mouth" approach offensively led to this: In 2006, on third down and less than five yards to go, the Steelers passed the ball nearly 71% of the time. Additionally, total rushing yardage in 2006 was nearly 12% less than the previous season; and quarterback sacks were up by nearly 35% -- the most allowed in any season during the last seven years.

No unit within the Steelers is more important to winning and losing than the offensive line. In 2006 the team and offensive line both struggled; and the new season, still off in the distance, promises to be filled with significant challenges to be met and questions to be answered.

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Sunday, February 11, 2007

Getting Draft Ready -- Assessing the
Wide Receivers

In 2006 the Steelers' passing game grew by nearly 23% over the previous season (2006: 4,026 receiving yards, 2005: 3,104), and for the first time since 2001 the top four pass catchers on the team were all wide receivers. So as is the case with the team's running backs, the wide receiver corp would also appear to be an area of strength for the 2007 Steelers.

Leading the way again next season will be Hines Ward; and though his touchdowns in 2006 were nearly half of his total in 2005 (6 v. 11), has not had a 1,000 yard season receving since 2004, will turn 31-years old early next month, andhis salary cap number will be $5,918,000 (and escalates from there in 2008 and 2009) Mr. Ward is every bit the heart and soul of the Steelers as Jerome Bettis was in their most recent Super Bowl season.

The second leading receiver in 2006 was rookie Santonio Holmes, and the magnitude of that achievement cannot be overstated, especially considering the tempestuous period between his selection by the Steelers in last year's draft and the beginning of training camp. After a slow start (i.e. 5 receptions for 73 yards in the team's first four games) Mr. Holmes came up strong as the season progressed -- his yardage per catch improved by nearly four yards per catch over the final eight games of the season as opposed to the first eight -- becoming the first #2 receiver on the Steelers to accumulate more than 800 yards receiving since Plaxico Burress did so in 2003.

Cedric Wilson was #3 in receiving on the team, after being #4 in 2005. Despite the improvement in standing his receiving yardage increased by only 53 yards (459 v. 504); and the view from here is that his production so far into his tenure with the Steelers does not justify the $2,900,000 salary cap hit that the team will take if he is retained for 2007, especially considering that -- despite his late season foot injury -- Willie Reid is waiting in the wings.

Finally, at the #4 receiving spot was Nate Washington. Considering that Mr. Washington has one career catch coming into 2006 it is dificult to judge 2006 as anything but a success -- 35 catches for 624 yards is a good first season (inconsistent though he may have been). Mr. Washington, who was a bargain last season at $350,000, is a restricted free agent.

Continuity amongst the skill position players is one important factor in offensive success. For example, the more time together a quarterback and his receivers have the more effective the passing game will be. The view here was that some of Ben Roethlisberger's struggles during the first half of the season were the result of miscommunication(s)/misunderstanding(s) between the quarterback and his young receivers (combined with double coverage for Hines Ward). While Cedric Wilson may be vulnerable to being released, as the result of his high cap figure (relative to his performance), it appears that another season with the same group of receivers will certainly serve the Steelers well.

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Saturday, February 10, 2007

Faneca Disappointed in Hiring of Tomlin

It is indicative of the man and his honesty that Alan Faneca adnitted to being disappointed that Mike Tomlin, and not Russ Grimm, was hired as the Steelers head coach.

In this item found at the website for the Minneapolis-St. Paul Tribune the Steelers participating in the Pro Bowl weigh-in on the newly hired coach:

"Willie Parker can't wait to play for new Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin. Alan Faneca and Troy Polamalu are reserving judgment.

The Steelers' four Pro Bowl participants had divergent reactions to Pittsburgh's decision last month to hire Tomlin, the former Vikings defensive coordinator. The Steelers passed over veteran assistants Russ Grimm and Ken Whisenhunt.

'I wanted Russ to get the job,' said Faneca, a six-time Pro Bowl guard. 'It's a guy we know, and a guy I'm experienced with.'

Defensive tackle Casey Hampton is looking forward to next season after speaking with Vikings defensive stars Kevin Williams and Pat Williams.

'I heard he's a real smart guy, very cool,' Hampton said.

Parker, the Steelers' star running back, needed only one meeting with Tomlin to be sold.

'He made a hell of a first impression,' Parker said. '... It's going to be really exciting to play for him.'

Polamalu, Pittsburgh's three-time Pro Bowl safety, is waiting to see what that intensity means.

'The first impression doesn't go too far in this world,' Polamalu said. 'It's about how you execute, and what you do with it.'

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Getting Draft Ready -- Assessing the Steelers

There are less than two weeks remaining before the unofficial beginning of the NFL Draft season.

One February 22, 2007 the NFL Combine will get underway at Indianapolis, Indiana and with that all manner of mock drafts will be un leashed upon an unsuspecting public. But before assessing the newest batch of NFL rookies-to-be it is both useful and necessary to look within, i.e. assess just where the Steelers are at as a team, vis-a-vis strengths and weaknesses. Over the next few days Pittsburgh Steelers Fanatic will look at the various units within the team (e.g. offensive line, defensive backs) in an attempt to help focus the attention of Steelers fans on those players who might well fill the team's greatest needs.

With our purpose and plan clearly stated let us begin our examination with an area that is arguably the Steelers' greatest strength -- running backs. Willie Parker saw his rushing yardage increase be nearly 20% in 2006 as compared to the 2005 Super Bowl season (1,494 v. 1,202). His rushing touchdowns grew dramatically (from four in 2005 to thirteen in 2006), and perhaps not unexpectedly -- with the retirement of Jerome Bettis -- as Mr. Parker solidified his place as the #1 running back. Additionally, Mr. Parker had no fewer than nine carries of 20 yards or more as compared to the 2005 season in which he had only four such carries.

Backing up Mr. Parker for much of the 2006 season was Najeh Davenport, a free agent this offseason, who joined the team in the week preceeding the game versus San Diego (following the season-ending injury to Verron Haynes). Mr. Davenport effectively replaced the yardage lost to Mr. Bettis' retirement, averaging 3.7 yards per carry to Mr. Bettis' 3.3 yards per carry. Mr. Davenport also managed to energize the Steelers' kickoff return team, leading that unit in yards returned with 448.

With his selection to the Pro Bowl, Willie Parker has established himself not only as the Steelers best running back but also as one of the NFL's best running backs. The "question mark," such as it is, exists at the backup position. Do the Steelers resign Najeh Davenport, or do Kevin Colbert and Bruce Arians perceive John Kuhn -- a crowd favorite from Slippery Rock -- as being ready for that role?

And all of that ignores the tightrope that the Steelers are walking in relying upon fullback Dan Kreider's seeming indestructability. Mr. Kreider, who joined the Steelers active roster for the fourth game in 2000, has not been inactive since week three of the 2001 season -- 103 consecutive regular season games. But Mr. Kreider turns 30-years old next month, and it would seem prudent to begin some succession planning.

Obviously the running back position is very strong -- at least at the top -- however there are questions of depth that must be addressed either before the draft or on the draft's second day.

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Tuesday, February 06, 2007

It's More than Just an Honor

The recent announcement that the Steelers will be one of the participants in this summer's Hall of Fame game meant more than just a trip to Canton, Ohio for the Black & Gold faithful. As the following item from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette points out it also means extra practice time -- no small consideration with all the changes to the coaching staff.

"The Steelers and new coach Mike Tomlin will get plenty of extra practice time with which to get acquainted this season.

The announcement that the Steelers and New Orleans Saints will open the NFL preseason Aug. 5 in the Pro Football Hall of Fame Game in Canton, Ohio, means more than just an additional preseason game for both teams.

It also means the Steelers will be allowed to open training camp a week earlier than usual. The Steelers have not officially identified their first day of training camp in Latrobe, but NFL rules allow the team to open camp two weeks before its first preseason game.

That means they likely will report to St. Vincent College the weekend of July 20-22, rather than July 27-29. The Steelers have not participated in the Hall of Fame game since they opened the preseason against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1999.

In addition, because of Tomlin, the Steelers are allowed to hold an extra minicamp this year. League rules allow teams with a new head coach an extra offseason minicamp.

Tomlin has not set a date for the minicamp, either

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Saturday, February 03, 2007

NFL Cancels Church Parties

Pittsburgh Steelers Fanatic is always amazed when common sense is ignored, and big companies steam-roller those who support them the most. For example, Major League Baseball's (MLB) apparent decision to move their Extra innings television package exclusively to Directv -- a move that would leave the majority of last season's subscribers out in the cold. That kind of business acumen is why MLB is now the national pastime, as long as the NFL, NBA, and X Games are not on television.

Now comes word in the form of a Los Angeles Times article that the National Football League has fired off cease-and-desist letters to houses of worship ordering them to cancel plans to hold Super Bowl viewing parties that involve big screen televisions, and are advertised using the official Super Bowl logo.

According to the Times article the NFL's efforts are based upon laws designed, and passed, to protect television ratings. Indeed the rules are so specific that they define just what a "big screen television" is:

"Under NFL guidelines — and federal law — churches, schools and other public venues can hold football-viewing parties only if they use a single, living-room-size TV, no bigger than 55 inches. When they project the game onto 12-foot screens or set up banks of TVs, they cross the line, according to NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy.

Jumbo screens 'have the potential to draw thousands of people, and if we had that going on across the country, it would eventually erode the television ratings,' McCarthy said

How many of these big screen television parties would have to be going on before television ratings declined? And just how how do the television networks feel about the NFL dragging them into this issue?

The ironic thing is that thousands of bars and retaurants around the country are doing precisely what the churches have been precluded from doing. Again, according to the Times article "[s]ports bars and other businesses that rely on televised sports to draw patrons are exempt." The logic in all of this is so tortured that there is no logic.

In one of the understatements of this NFL season Marshall Leafer, a law professor interviewed for the article, says that "the NFL 'has a pretty good case. But I'm a little puzzled as to why they're doing this, because it gives them a lot of bad press'."

Amen brother, amen.

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Friday, February 02, 2007

This is What Everyone is Afraid Of

Following the Steelers game against Atlanta this past season there was a great deal of discussion -- including here at Pittsburgh Steelers Fanatic -- about just how much time should pass before Ben Roethlisberger went back on to the football field. Mr. Roethlisberger had suffered a concussion during the off-season, and then again against the Falcons, and the concern for many was that any additional head injuries might jeopardize his career.

During this off-season we have been exposed to the story of former Eagles defensive back Andre Water's suicide, and the subsequent comments by University of Pittsburgh neuropathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu in which he stated that "Mr. Waters' brain tissue had degenerated into that of an 85-year-old man with similar characteristics as those of early-stage Alzheimer’s victims."

Now comes a frightening, and compelling, the Boston Globe's Jackie MacMullan in which she describes the damage apparently done by numerous concussions to former New England Patriot Ted Johnson.

What follows is an extended excerpt of Ms. MacMullan's article (click here to go the complete version, registration is required) which focuses on the head injuries and their cumulative affects. Much is being made of the Bill Belichick connection to this story, but most of that has NOT been included here -- we have chosen to focus on the physical/psychological affects of the concussions rather than the culture of the NFL that allows coaches to ignore the well-being of their players.

"It has all unraveled; his career, his marriage, his health, his reputation. Former Patriots linebacker Ted Johnson was once a Super Bowl champion and a fan favorite, admired for his jarring hits and thoughtful approach to a violent game.

But now he is a struggling ex-athlete who has become unreliable and unreachable -- making promises and commitments he does not keep -- the subject of steamy tabloid gossip, shunned for an alleged domestic abuse incident involving his wife.

Johnson, 34, suffers from such severe depression that some mornings he literally cannot pull himself out of bed. When the crippling malaise overtakes him, he lies in a darkened room, unwilling to communicate with his closest family members.

The 10-year NFL veteran believes his current state is a direct result of a career in which he absorbed "countless" head injuries, including back-to-back concussions suffered within days during the 2002 season, when he says the Patriots didn't give him proper time to recover.

He has tried to make himself well. He has been in counseling, taken antidepressants . . . [and] [w]hen they made him feel sluggish, he began taking . . . an amphetamine. He developed an addiction to the stimulant and was admitted to McLean Hospital in the summer of 2005 to receive psychiatric care. The doctors took films of his brain, he said, but they were not conclusive . . .

The numerous head traumas, said Dr. Robert Cantu, co-director of the Neurological Sports Injury Center at Brigham and Women's Hospital, have left Johnson with post-concussion syndrome as well as signs of early brain damage that Cantu fears is permanent.

Johnson's multiple symptoms include depression, dizziness, excessive drowsiness, fatigue, irritability, memory loss, poor concentration, ringing in the ears, and acute sensitivity to noise.

According to Cantu, who has been treating Johnson since last May, post-concussion syndrome can occur from a single concussion, but is more likely to occur after multiple concussions, and most likely to occur when the patient has endured back-to-back concussions without time for the first concussion to clear . . .

Johnson said he can pinpoint the beginning of the decline in his health to Saturday, Aug. 10, 2002, in an exhibition game against the New York Giants.

Giants running back Sean Bennett had just caught the ball in the flat, and Johnson steeled himself for the head-on contact.

'It was a terrific collision,' Johnson recalled. 'I think I blacked out for a second. The guys could tell right away I was in trouble, so they pulled me off the field immediately. The trainer [Jim Whalen] asked me a few questions on the sidelines. I don't even remember what he said. The team doctor [Bert Zarins] might have come over, too, but honestly, I was out of it.'

The Patriots' medical staff ruled Johnson out for the remainder of the game . . . [but] [p]ressure to perform in a sport where there are no guaranteed contracts and where being 'soft' is the worst moniker that can be thrust upon you creates a culture in which players feel they must play through almost anything.

After his second concussion, Johnson was held out two weeks. When he returned to practice, he said, he noticed a shift in attitude toward him. When the team went through a light practice at the beginning of the week to prepare for the Sept. 9 season opener against Pittsburgh, Johnson did not take reps with the regulars. He surmised -- correctly -- he would be inactive for the first game of the year.

Johnson was stunned. After practice, he grabbed a garbage bag, dumped all of his belongings from his locker into it, and took off . . .

After conferring with his agent and the Players Association, it soon became apparent to Johnson he had no recourse. The team sent him a certified letter stating if he did not return in five days, his contract would be voided. He reluctantly reported back to work, but his relationship with Belichick remained strained. It wasn't until a few weeks later, when the coach asked him to join him in his office for a meeting, that Johnson confronted him.

'I told him, "You played God with my health," ' Johnson said. ' 'You knew I shouldn't have been cleared to play, and you gave me that blue jersey anyway."

'Bill said, "I had to see if you could play." That's when I lost it. I told him, "After all these years, you had to see if I could play?"

'Bill finally admitted, "Hey, Ted, I [expletive]. I made a mistake. . ." '

Although Johnson was reinstated, the balance of the 2002 season was a challenge. He returned to action against the New York Jets in Week 2, Sept. 15, a game the Patriots won, 44-7, but he said during huge chunks of the game, he was unable to focus on his assignments, hampered by a persistent "fuzziness."

'The one touchdown the Jets scored was my fault,' Johnson said. 'I adjusted incorrectly. I was supposed to be the play caller, the middle linebacker, and half the time I didn't know what the hell was going on. On the very first play of the game, the tight end got open for a big gain because I vacated the spot in the zone where I was supposed to be.

'Our safety, Lawyer Milloy, was waving his arms at me, trying to direct me, but I was so confused I didn't know where to go.'

There were more incidents of memory loss and confusion. His teammates, he said, often covered for him out on the field.

'I remember one game when I was in the completely wrong coverage,' Johnson said. 'I'm yelling to Mike Vrabel to go outside, and he's looking at me like I'm crazy. I was telling him the exact opposite of what he should have been doing.'

Johnson estimates he had at least a 'half-dozen' concussions in his final three seasons, but reported only one, fearing his reputation as an injury-prone player would be perpetuated . . .

Chris Nowinski is a Harvard graduate and former World Wrestling Entertainment wrestler. He was forced to retire in 2003 after suffering multiple concussions that resulted in severe migraines, memory impairment, and depression.

He did not seek help until one night, while sleeping in a hotel, he woke his girlfriend up by trying to climb the wall of the room. She shouted to him and grabbed him in an effort to wake him, but he remained in his trance-like state, jumping off the bed and crashing through a nightstand.

He awoke 15 seconds later, surrounded by broken glass, his girlfriend screaming his name.

Nowinski sought treatment, then began researching athletes and concussions. He wrote a book, 'Mind Games,' and, after meeting Ted Johnson through a friend, commissioned the former Patriot to write the foreward. But, as Nowinski's book went to print last fall, Johnson, not ready to tell his story, abruptly yanked his foreward.

'It's difficult to watch how much Ted struggles with the aftereffects of his concussions,' Nowinski said. 'He can trace his troubles back to those two in a row in 2002. I can do the same with my history. It's heartbreaking how much it has cost him.'

Johnson finished second on the team in tackles that 2002 season, and came back to play eight games the next season (he missed the final eight with a foot injury) and 16 games in 2004. Johnson planned on suiting up in 2005, but, he said, the thought of absorbing that first hit "made me physically sick." On the eve before training camp, he contacted owner Robert Kraft and informed him he was retiring.

"Robert has always cared for him," said a team official. "But Ted Johnson is a very sick young man. We've been aware of the emotional issues he's had for years. You can't blame all of his behavior on concussions."

That, said Cantu, is open to debate. Head trauma can alter people's personalities drastically, he said. So can the stress of such a nebulous condition . . .

Earlier this week, Johnson requested his medical records from the Patriots. He was pleased the concussion he suffered in that game against the Giants in 2002 was documented, along with notations he was not cleared to play. The subsequent concussion he suffered in practice four days later is also on record.

He wants the NFL to establish specific rules about how and when teams should hold out players with head trauma. Cantu said the NFL should fund studies on concussions, but then leave the actual research to the experts.

'It's a huge, inherent conflict of interest otherwise,' Cantu said.

'It's not just the New England Patriots that need to change how they do things,' Johnson said. 'It's the entire culture of the NFL.'

Last spring, Ted Johnson, who missed football and his teammates, was invited to play in a Patriots charity golf tournament. He happily accepted, and agreed to emcee the program that would follow.

On the day of the event, Johnson was a no-show. Repeated phone calls to his home and his cellphone went unanswered.

Only later did the team learn what happened. It was one of those dark, dark days when Ted Johnson simply could not drag himself out of bed

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Jeff Hartings to Retire

According to ESPN's Len Pasquarelli Pittsburgh Steelers center Jeff Hartings is set to retire:

"Eleven-year veteran offensive lineman Jeff Hartings, who made a seamless transition from guard to center when he joined the Pittsburgh Steelers as a free agent in 2001, has decided to retire.

Sources close to Hartings, 34, confirmed that the two-time Pro Bowl performer, beset by a variety of knee problems the past several seasons, will not return in 2007. Hartings' decision to retire was first reported Thursday by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, which cited Steelers teammates who were aware of the veteran center's plans.

Hartings has deliberated retirement the past few years, including after Pittsburgh's victory in Super Bowl XL. But he noted following that game that a Super Bowl ring and all it entailed might keep him around a bit longer.

Unfortunately, for Hartings, his balky knees did not cooperate.

'He played hurt just about every week,' said backup center Chukky Okobi, the likely successor in the starting lineup. 'Sometimes you wondered how he did it.'

Originally chosen by the Detroit Lions in the first round of the 1996 draft, Hartings, a former Penn State star, began his NFL career as a guard. When he signed with the Steelers as an unrestricted free agent in 2001, he moved to center and continued the franchise's strong tradition of excellence at the position.

Past standout centers over the past three decades in Pittsburgh have included Ray Mansfield, Hall of Fame member Mike Webster, and Dermontti Dawson, a seven-time Pro Bowl player many feel will someday be elected to the Hall of Fame.

Said offensive tackle Max Starks: '[Hartings] could hold his own with that bunch.'

A six-year veteran who has been groomed to become the starter, Okobi has played in 77 games and started seven. But the Steelers also like second-year snapper Marvin Philip, a sixth-round pick in 2006 who did not play as a rookie. And, of course, there is the matter of a new coaching staff.

'I feel like I'm the guy, but we'll see, I guess,' Okobi said.

In 11 seasons, Hartings appeared in 162 games with the Lions and Steelers, all but two of them as a starter. He reworked his contract in 2006 to help the team's salary cap situation, and had one more season remaining on his contract, with a scheduled base salary of $3.6 million for 2007.

An official announcement of Hartings' retirement by the Steelers, who have not commented on it, is likely to be made in the next few days

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Preparations for Free Agency Continue

Rumor has it that there is still one game left in the 2006 season -- something going on in Miami? -- but it doesn't involve the Pittsburgh Steelers, so who really cares? Instead our attention turns to the draft and to the impending free agency season.

According to our friends at the Steelers are going to be $1,440,000 under the cap -- the lowest number of any team in the AFC (by comparison the Indianapolis Colts, the next AFC less than five million dollars under the cap, is projected to be $4,900,000 under the NFL's salary cap). Amongst the teams in the AFC North the Baltimore Ravens are projected to have $5,700,000 available -- assuming that Jamal Lewis, who's cap number for 2007 could be in excess of eleven million dollars isn't cut -- the Cincinnati Bengals are projected to be $28,800,000 below the cap, and Cleveland --despite their spending spree last offseason -- is expected to be $33,305,000 below the cap. Clearly the Steelers have much less flexibility than their rivals.

Of course another aspect of this issue is just how many free agents each team has, and in this respect the Steelers are in decent shape. According to Pro Football Weekly the unrestricted free agents on the Steelers' roster are: Rodney Bailey, Barrett Brooks (one of the oldest players on the roster), Tyrone Carter, Najeh Davenport, Chidi Iwuoma, Mike Logan, and Sean Morey. Meanwhile the restricted free agents are: Tim Euhus, Arnold Harrison, Ronald Stanley, Max Starks, Greg Warren, and Nate Washington.

While the team would like to resign several of these players (e.g. Tyrone Carter, Chidi Iwuoma, and Max Starks) most are eminently replaceable.

As for the other AFC North teams some of the more noteable free agents include: Adalius Thomas (unrestricted, Baltimore), Jarret Johnson (unrestricted, Baltimore), Eric Steinbach (unrestricted, Cincinnati), and Justin Smith (unrestricted, Cincinnati).

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Thursday, February 01, 2007

A New Strength Coach is Hired -- Everyone Can Relax Now

The following is an item that appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

"New Steelers coach Mike Tomlin has added another former associate to his coaching staff, hiring long-time NFL strength coach Garrett Giemont to be the team's new conditioning coordinator. Giemont, 49, was the strength coach in Tampa Bay in 2003 and 2004 when Tomlin was the Buccaneers' secondary coach.

Previously, he worked eight seasons with the Oakland Raiders (1995-2002), where he was named the NFL's strength and conditioning coach of the year in 2002. He was also strength and conditioning coach for the Los Angeles Rams from 1983-1991 and was director of physical development for the Chicago Cubs from 1992-94.

Giemont, a native of Fullerton, Calif., replaces Chet Fuhrman, who was told he was not being retained by Tomlin. Fuhrman was the last remaining member of Bill Cowher's original staff in 1992 and was the NFL's strength coach of the year in 2005.

Giemont is the fifth new assistant coach who has previously worked with Tomlin, joining offensive line coach Larry Zierlein, wide receivers coach Randy Fichtner, running backs coach Kirby Wilson and assistant special teams coach Amos Jones