Tuesday, September 30, 2008

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

For the better part of the Monday evening's game we were not sure there would be much good news to discuss, and by the end of the game . . . we remained convinced that there is not much good news to discuss. Be that as it may, here's our perspective of the latest Ravens-Steelers slugfest.

The Good
  1. The best news to come out of Pittsburgh last night was that Andre Frazier was on his feet and walking around when the game ended. Any injury is unfortunate but none has the tragic ramifications of a spinal cord injury. Seeing Mr. Frazier driven off the field strapped to a backboard was frightening (not to mention an ominous harbinger of things to come) and we are thankful to our personal God that his injury was not more serious.

  2. Special teams ~ specifically the kick and punt coverage units ~ turned in another strong performance. In fact, if Mitch Berger continues to perform as he did Monday night (6 punts, net average 39.1 yards, total punt return yards for Baltimore was 7 yards) the Steelers will have a tough decision to make between him and Daniel Sepulveda. As for Jeff Reed, what can we possibly say that hasn't been said? He is as clutch as a kicker can get, and his kickoffs have improved dramatically (i.e. they are routinely sailing into the end zone). At the same time the coverage unit has improved even more dramatically ~ Monday night the Steelers limited the Ravens to 120 return yards on six kicks. So far in 2008 the kick coverage team is limiting opponents to an average of 19.4 yards per return, as compared to an average of 22.6 yards last season ~ an improvement of nearly 15%.

  3. The best group of linebackers in the NFL, led by their two Pro Bowl caliber outside linebackers (i.e. James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley), delivered the win Monday evening by making 32 tackles, four sacks, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery, and one touchdown. Even Lawrence Timmons playd well ~ possibly his best game as a member of the Steelers.
The Bad
  1. We dinged Bruce Arians last week, and now we want to hit the point more emphatically ~ Bruce Arians is coaching himself off the Steelers' staff. Early in the game we were pleased to see two "sidecars" in the backfield on passing plays, one of those being Heath Miller who delivered a solid hit on an oncoming rusher before releasing into the flat as a safety valve receiver. We were also heartened to see (in the first quarter) the use of a fullback, even if it was tight end Sean McHugh. These, and other factors, resulted in the Steelers' offense gaining fifty yards during that first quarter.

    So imagine our surprise when they moved completely away from that approach during the disastrous second quarter, a quarter in which their ten offensive plays resulted in -4 total yards. Looking at the offensive numbers another way the 38-yard touchdown pass to Santonio Holmes ~ that single play ~ accounted for 16% of the Steelers' total offensive output.

    Some will point to injuries as a way of explaining the difficulties the offense is facing; however it is fairly clear already that this offensive unit is not capable of protecting the quarterback much less running the ball on a consistent basis. It's time for Mr. Arians to look at this group, its skills and weaknesses, objectively and begin creating game plans accordingly.

  2. Related to Mr. Arians, has anyone seen or heard from quarterback coach Ken Anderson lately? Ben Roethlisberger's propensity for holding on to the ball too long is not improving, and either he or his receivers are missing hot reads in blitz situations.

  3. We love Dick LeBeau ~ who doesn't? At age 71 he looks better than men half his age, not to mention the great work he's done over the years in Pittsburgh. But Monday evening's performance was, overall, somewhat disappointing especially in terms of the zone coverage scheme that was employed. How does Derrick Mason end up with 71.35% of the receiving yards for the Ravens? At times it seemed that the Steelers' defense was more intent on squeezing in as many pre-snap formation shifts as possible than actually stopping the Ravens' offense ~ as evidenced by the Ravens' fourth quarter, 76-yard touchdown drive to tie the game.
The Ugly
  1. Broken shoulder? Spinal injury? Achilles tendon rupture? Ankle sprain? It was not that long ago that a friend was riding his bike, and during this ride he was hit by a car ~ and ended up in better shape than some of the Steelers did in Monday's game. Wow

  2. We try to be constructive in our comments, but we are incapable of intelligently expressing our feelings regarding the Steelers offensive line play. The reduction in the number of sacks from the game against Philadelphia to this game is more a testimony to Ben Roethlisberger's strength than it is to any improvement by the linemen. The offensive line has been pummeled two consecutive weeks, and they now look forward to playing Jacksonville.

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Sunday, September 28, 2008

Just Who is the Best Linebacker?

The commercials that ESPN is using to trumpet Monday evening's matchup between the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers features one of the most recognizable and lionized personalities in the National Football League ~ Ray Lewis. He dances, he prances, he talks incessantly; and for those reasons ~ not to mention is excellent play during the game ~ the media showers him with the attention he seeks. Moreover, his perceived excellence as a player is also enhanced by the frenetic activity of both his pregame rituals (and their appeal to the media, particularly television) and his play on the field. However, despite Mr. Lewis' nine Pro Bowl selections, we wonder if he is the best inside linebacker in the AFC North much less the entire conference.

He doesn't dance, or prance, and doesn't seem to do much talking on the field but James Farrior is more than good ~ over the last six seasons (i.e. 2002-2007) he's been better than his heralded rival from Baltimore, and has arguably been the best inside linebacker in the AFC. As usual, the numbers do not lie:
  1. Games Played: It may seem like a no-brainer, but the more a team's impact players are on the field the more impactful they are.


    But in addition to that, the salary cap makes it difficult (if not impossible) to adequately replace big-ticket players. Since joining the Steelers in 2002, Mr. Farrior has started 92 games ~ missing a total of four games (two in 2002 and two in 2005). In other words, Mr. Farrior played in 95.8% of the games that the Steelers played. Conversely, Ray Lewis has played in 70 games since 2002 (inclusive) and has played a complete schedule only once in that time (2003). Stated another way, Mr. Lewis has missed more than 30% of his team's games during this period. Reliability is a part of being great, and James Farrior is about as reliable as a professional football player can be.

  2. Total Tackles: During the last two seasons (i.e. 2006-2007) Ray Lewis has recorded 348 total tackles (i.e. tackles and assists combined), a remarkable achievement. However during the last six seasons James Farrior has recorded 705 total tackles while Mr. Lewis has 643. It is a testimony to Mr. Lewis' skill that his per game average (9.19) is better than Mr. Farrior's (7.66), but Mr. Farrior outproduced his more heralded counterpart by nearly ten percent.

  3. Sacks: We have to admit to some surprise here ~ James Farrior 15, only 10.5 for Mr. Lewis. For all the images of Mr. Lewis flying around the field, terrorizing quarterbacks it has been James Farrior who has been bringing them down more often.

  4. Forced Fumbles: Ray Lewis 8, James Farrior 12.

  5. Fumbles Recovered: Here we have a tie ~ both men have seven.
Unlike most arguments over sports we're not trying to denigrate the abilities or performance of one player to boost another. To the contrary, we believe Mr. Lewis is a Hall of Fame caliber linebacker. However an objective look at the evidence reveals the undeniable truth that Mr. Farrior is even better.

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Friday, September 26, 2008

Miike Tomlin to Offer Technology Training

In 2007 the newly hired offensive line coach Larry Zierlein was discovered to have forward an email containing a pornographic video to a number of higher-ups in the Steelers' organization.

Now comes word that Rashard Mendenhall sent out a text message promising a big performance against the Baltimore Ravens, and that text message has made its way to Ravens rookie Ray Price, who has shared it with his teammates.

Makes Anthony Smith's boasts before last season's game versus New England seem quaint, doesn't it?

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Thursday, September 25, 2008

Presidential Politics, Steelers Style

A couple of months ago Republican Presidential candidate John McCain discussed how he recited the names of the Pittsburgh Steelers' defensive linemen in order to confuse his North Vietnamese captors.

While flattering to fans of the Steelers, it turned out to be a slip of the tongue by Senator McCain ~ the team that he actually was thinking of was the Green Bay Packers.

Now comes a new story in which Democratic Vice-Presidential nominee Joseph Biden recounted a kindness extended to his (then) young sons, at a time of crisis, by then Steelers running back Rocky Bleier.

Whomever you may support in the presidential election, this story is genuine and touching.

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Ravens v. Steelers: The Matchups

Since 2002 the Steelers and Ravens have played twelve times. Each team has won six of the games and in all twelve games the home team has been victorious (in fact the teams have identical average points scored per game ~ 20.08).

What will happen this week? Here's the tale of the tape:

Baltimore Offense v. Steelers Defense
Average total yards per game: Baltimore offense 19th (315.5) v. Steelers defense 2nd (234.0)

Average net rushing yards per game: Baltimore offense 2nd (190.0) v. Steelers defense 2nd (64.3)

Average net passing yards per game: Baltimore offense 30th (125.5) v. Steelers defense 9th (169.7)

Average points per game: Baltimore offense 16th (22.5) v. Steelers defense 3rd (12.67)

Steelers Offense v. Baltimore Defense
Average total yards per game: Steelers offense 29th (255.3) v. Baltimore defense 1st (161.5)

Average net rushing yards per game: Steelers offense 18th (111.0) v. Baltimore defense 5th (71.5)

Average net passing yards per game: Steelers offense 29th (144.3) v. Baltimore defense 1st (90.0)

Average points per game: Steelers offense: 22nd (18.0) v. Baltimore defense 2nd (10.0)

Special Teams
Average yards per punt return: Baltimore 2nd (15.4) v. Steelers 32nd (1.0)

Average yards allowed per punt return: Baltimore 8th (5.8) v. Steelers 12th (6.7)

Average yards per kick return: Baltimore 21st (20.6) v. Steelers 30th (17.2)

Average yards allowed per kick return: Baltimore 15th (21.2) v. Steelers 4th (19.1)

Net yardage punting average: Baltimore 2nd (44.0) v. Steelers 14th (39.2)

Opponent net yardage punting average: Baltimore 6th (35.7) v. Steelers 32nd (45.5)

Turnover differential: Baltimore 9th (+1) v. Steelers 2nd (+4)

Time of possession: Baltimore 1st (37:01) v. Steelers 23rd (29:33)

Red Zone touchdown efficiency (touchdowns): Baltimore 23rd (42.9%) v. Steelers 2nd (75.0%)

Red Zone defense (touchdowns): Baltimore 8th (33.3%) v. Steelers 7th (28.6%)

Sacks allowed: Baltimore 1st (1) v. Steelers 32nd (14)

Some Individual Numbers
Passer rating: Joe Flacco, 13th (55.7) v. Ben Roethlisberger, 4th (99.4)

Leading rushers: Le'Ron McClain, 28th (66 yards) v. Willie Parker, 1st (243 yards)

Note: The Ravens' second leading rusher is Willis McGahee with 64 yards. Meanwhile for the Steelers, Willie Parker is out. Their second leading rusher is Rashard Mendenhall who has 28 yards.

Leading receivers: Derrick Mason, 30th (8 catches, 86 yards, 10.8 per catch, 0 touchdowns) v. Hines Ward, 8th (15 catches, 169 yards, 11.3 yards per catch, 3 touchdowns)

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Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Concussion Research Takes a Turn
towards the Creepy

We have discussed the physical toll that professional football players take, and been pretty critical of the National Football League's lack of leadership in their care. But where the league has been slow to act, now comes word of a study at the Boston University School of Medicine into the cumulative effect of the concussions that so many of the players suffer. This study is unique in at least one respect ~ twelve athletes, including five former NFL players, have agreed to donate their brains to researchers once they are finished with them.

According to a report from the New York Times the athletes have agreed to donate their brains to the medical school and the study after they die. Some of those participating include former New England Patriot Ted Johnson and former Tennessee Titan Frank Wycheck, amongst others.

According to the article former Steelers Mike Webster, Terry Long, and Justin Strzelczyk all showed signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy ~ which develops in athletes, especially older boxers, as the result of traumatic brain injury. A fourth former NFL star, Andre Waters, also suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy. According to the Times article an announcement will be made on Thursday that a postmortem examination of former NFL player John Grimsley suffered from the same condition.

The NFL's resistance to the idea that the nature of the NFL game can lead to traumatic brain injuries and chronic traumatic encephalopathy is puzzling insomuch as medical researchers reported findings to that effect beginning in 2005.


Wille Parker Out? It May be
a Blessing in Disguise

The good folks at Football Outsiders have written extensively, and convincingly, of the risks of overworking running backs. Specifically, their research has shown that 370 carries in a season represents a threshold beyond which bad things ~ usually physical in nature ~ happen to an NFL running backs.

So it was with some concern that we watched Willie Parker rush the football fifty-three times in the first two weeks of the season ~ a pace that would have resulted in 424 carries for the season. The inability of the offense to generate any momentum limited Mr. Parker's carries in week three; and while we never want players to suffer injuries (especially those wearing black & gold) we are relieved that the coaching staff is now being forced to employ other running backs.

Let's just hope that Rashard Mendenhall has figured out that whole fumbling thing.

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Monday, September 22, 2008

Steelers @ Philadelphia:
The Good, the Bad, & the Ugly

On October 30, 1966 the Pittsburgh Steelers travelled to Dallas and lost to the Cowboys 52-21. In that game the Steelers set a few team records that day that still stand including fewest rushing yards (7), and most sacks allowed (12) which should show us all that the game versus Philadelphia could have been worse.

Not much, but it could have been worse.

The Good
  1. The performance by the Steelers' defense was enough to bring tears to our eyes. Faced with the ineffectual performance of the offense, we kept waiting for the defense to collapse under the strain ~ something they never did. Everyone on the defensive side of the ball was tremendous, but here are a few of the standouts:

    • LaMarr Woodley looked like a veteran, and played better than his two tackles and a sack would indicate.

    • Larry Foote is a veteran, his 1.5 sacks led the team.

    • Bryant McFadden? Five tackles and an interception

    • Travis Kirschke? Six tackles, and a half a sack.

    • James Farrior led the defense with seven tackles, and forced a fumble.

    • Then there was Troy Polamalu's third interception in as many weeks to go along with five tackles.

    The high-powered Eagles' offense, who had scored 75 points in their first two games, were held to thirteen points by a determined and tenacious Steelers defense. It should have been enough to win, but not this week.

  2. On a day when field position was even more critical than usual Steelers punter Mitch Berger performed well. His net average for this game wasn't eye popping (39.2 yards), but three of his five punts (did he really only punt five times?) were downed inside the Eagles' twenty yard line. Keeping the Eagles on a long field helped the defense immeasurably, and that kept the Steelers in the game almost until the end.

  3. While we're talking about kickers, Jeff Reed continues to perform at an All-Pro level, and his 53-yard field goal near the end of the first half should have been a momentum changer.

  4. Our coach is better looking than their coach
The Bad
  1. We've said it before, the line between "bad" and "ugly" is a thin one, and very subjective. With that in mind we are going to designate offensive coordinator Bruce Arians "ugly," at least for this week. Specifically the play calling, which has been rather good during the first two games, never seemed to register the fact that the Eagles' defense was (to put it mildly) disrupting the Steelers' offense.

    Drop back passes, especially when your quarterback is prone to holding onto the football, are not the best types of pass plays to call. We're sure we must have just missed them, but did anyone notice many two tight end sets? The idea of having the extra blocking available must have occurred to someone, and it might have even helped the running game. Moreover, the tight ends could have been used to "chip" oncoming rushers and then release as a safety valve. We only watched the game once, so it is possible that this approach was attempted but we certainly did not see any sustained efforts in this regard.

    The result was 5- and 7-step drops only to have Ben Roethlisberger swarmed over. We might also point out that this is just another reason to have the running back more active as a receiver in the passing game ~ but that would be piling on.

The Ugly
  1. Throw the ball Ben!

    Much will be made of the offensive line's struggles on Sunday, and we will do our share in that regard, but a big part of the difference between Philadelphia's defensive effort last week (when they surrendered 41 points) and this week was Mr. Roethlisberger's insistence on holding on to the football. This is something we have harped on before, but apparently it did not do much good. So we are trying again.

    Throw the ball Ben!

  2. The offensive line was beaten like a drum for much of the day; and while it is true that Ben Roethlisberger's propensity for holding on to the football did not help matters much we also think that Justin Hartwig did a terrible job of coordinating the zone blocking attack, and that Willie Colon looked overmatched.

    How many times will defenders come unabated, up-the-middle, before Mr. Hatwig figures out that it's probably a good idea for him to get in the way? As for Mr. Colon, we're not sure if it was just a case of the Eagles' defensive end having superior speed, Mr. Colon having average to below-average footwork, or a combination of the two factors.

    When an offensive line fails so completely, so utterly, it is as shocking as it is painful. Between Mr. Roethlisberger's inability to get rid of the football more quickly and the offensive line's inability to provide any real time to throw (which comes first, the chicken or the egg?) it's a wonder the Steelers scored any points at all.

What Philadelphia's defense did Sunday was something that Cleveland was able to do, to a much smaller degree, in the preceding week. It is clear that opponents perceive the Steelers' passing attack (i.e. wide receiver-centric), Mr. Roethlisberger's unwillingness to throw the ball quickly, and the offensive line's inability to contend with the blitz as something of a soft underbelly to the Steelers' offense. This past Sunday that weakness undermined an amazing performance by the Steelers' defense. Let's hope the coaches and players on the offensive side of the football figure out how to fix the problem sooner rather than later.

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Thursday, September 18, 2008

Steelers @ Eagles: The Matchups

The Eagles' offensive firepower is frightening and creates some serious matchup problems for the Steelers' defense.

There, we said it ~ and remember you heard it hear first.

The Steelers' physical, built to stop the run, defense will be going up against an offense that, so far this season, is passing nearly sixty percent of the time.

We're nervous and not afraid to admit it. Here's a look at this week's numbers:

Philadelphia Offense v. Steelers Defense
Average total yards per game: Philadelphia offense 2nd (429.5) v. Steelers defense 6th (221.0)

Average net rushing yards per game: Philadelphia offense 19th (93.0) v. Steelers defense 3rd (64.0)

Average net passing yards per game: Philadelphia offense 1st (336.5) v. Steelers defense 11th (157.0)

Average points per game: Philadelphia offense 3rd (37.4) v. Steelers defense 7th (11.5)

Steelers Offense v. Philadelphia Defense
Average total yards per game: Steelers offense 23rd (293.0) v. Philadelphia defense 10th (273.0)

Average net rushing yards per game: Steelers offense 9th (150.0) v. Philadelphia defense 1st (52.0)

Average net passing yards per game: Steelers offense 26th (122.0) v. Philadelphia defense 16th (221.0)

Average points per game: Steelers offense: 9th (24.0) v. Philadelphia defense 20th (22.0)

Special Teams
Average yards per punt return: Philadelphia 11th (9.9) v. Steelers 32nd (-1.0)

Average yards allowed per punt return: Philadelphia 4th (2.3) v. Steelers 14th (7.0)

Average yards per kick return: Philadelphia 13th (21.8) v. Steelers 31st (14.3)

Average yards allowed per kick return: Philadelphia 29th (28.5) v. Steelers 10th (19.1)

Net yardage punting average: Philadelphia 1st (44.6) v. Steelers 13th (39.2)

Opponent net yardage punting average: Philadelphia 25th (39.7) v. Steelers 32nd (46.7)

Turnover differential: Philadelphia 7th (+1) v. Steelers 2nd (+4)

Time of possession: Philadelphia 4th (33:04) v. Steelers 13th (30:37)

Red Zone touchdown efficiency (touchdowns): Philadelphia 9th (66.7%) v. Steelers 1st (100.0%)

Red Zone defense (touchdowns): Philadelphia 2nd (0.0%) v. Steelers 13th (40.0%)

Sacks allowed: Philadelphia 13th (4) v. Steelers 20th (5)

Some Individual Numbers
NFC Passer rating: Donovan McNabb, 1st (131.0) v. AFC Passer Rating: Ben Roethlisberger, 1st (136.3)

NFC Leading rushers: Brian Westbrook, 17th (91 yards) v. Willie Parker, 1st (243 yards)

NFC Leading receivers: Desean Jackson, 5th (12 catches, 216 yards, 18.0 per catch, 0 touchdowns) v. AFC Leading Receivers: Hines Ward, 8th (11 catches, 135 yards, 12.3 yards per catch, 3 touchdowns)

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Monday, September 15, 2008

Steelers @ Cleveland:
The Good, the Bad, & the Ugly

Before the season began much of the talk regarding Super Bowl contenders from the AFC revolved around New England, Indianapolis, San Diego, and Jacksonville; and in many a season preview the Cleveland Browns were highlighted as a team that had a good chance of unseating the Pittsburgh Steelers as AFC North champions.

The NFL season takes many twists and turns, and the teams that were expected to contend may still do so, but right now San Diego and Jacksonville are winless in their first two games, the Colts are struggling with the NFC North, and New England is without their most valuable player.

Then there are the Browns.

Proving so far that being a Cinderella story is easier than being the favorite, the Browns now find themselves tied with their Ohio neighbors, the Bengals, for last in the division after having lost two home games. In fairness, the Browns played hard but some questionable decisions by Romeo Crennel and big plays by the Steelers doomed Cleveland to their tenth consecutive loss against the Steelers.

Without further adieu, here's our look at some of the highs, the lows, and the hideous.

The Good
  1. Generally we like to focus our attentions on entire units within the team ~ e.g. the offensive line, the linebackers, etc. ~ but one player in particular showed us that the concerns we had regarding his ability to regain hi Pro Bowl form were nothing more than alarmist nonsense. For at least one night Troy Polamalu ~ who finished the game with four tackles, one for a loss ~ ran, dived, and vaulted like the young man we all fell in love with when he first showed up in the 'Burgh. Moreover, his interception at the end of the first half was the play of the game. The impact on the scoreboard was obvious, but its impact on the confidence of the Browns must have been even more significant. That fourteen play, seventy-one yard drive began with 6:20 left in the half, and instead of showing the Steelers that they were ready to take control it only reinforced the idea that it was the Black & Gold that was really in control.

  2. Who are those players covering kicks and punts for the Steelers? It almost appears that they are "staying in their lanes" ~ a concept that we were convinced simply was not a part of Steelers special team play. But against the best return man this side off Devin Hester, on three kicks the Jeff Reed delivered two kicks for touchbacks, and the single kick that was returned went for twenty-two yards. On the punt team Mitch Berger continues to perform well ~ six kicks for an average of 45.5 yards, though the net yardage was only 38.2 yards ~ and the Steelers limited Joshua Cribbs to an average of 8.8 yards on five returns. One can only hope that this solid play will continue, and that it will inspire the kick return teams of the Steelers to play better.

  3. Offensive line, you are beautiful! Willie Parker gets another one 100+ yards rushing and Ben Roethlisberger was well protected (yes he was sacked three times, but on each of those occasions the Browns blitzed multiple defenders ~ i.e. it was a numbers thing). Chris Kemoeatu continues to perform well in his attempt to replace one of the greatest offensive linemen in NFL history (want to know how skewed media coverage is in the NFL? For all the incessant talk about Aaron Rodgers replacing Brett Favre, Chris Kemoeatu replacing Alan Faneca is every bit as compelling a story), Justin Hartwig is making the painful memories of the Sean Mayhan era recede quickly, Marvel Smith looks like a different player, Kendall Simmons (and his tumbling skills) may be John Madden's newest favorite player, and Willie Colon just keeps doing his job. In two weeks this group has gone against two pretty decent defensive fronts, and in both cases acquitted themselves very well.

  4. Honorable Mentions: Ben Roethlisberger playing well while injured, Bruce Arians for a well-called game (especially the pass on second-and-ten from the Steelers' own endzone with :39 left in the third quarter that resulted in a 31-yard completion to Hines Ward, and the play action pass on second-and-ten with 3:16 left in the game that resulted in a 19-yard completion to Heath Miller), Santonio Holmes looks like a Pro Bowler, and Bryant McFadden playing for the injured Deshea Townsend.
The Bad
  1. The Steelers' punt and kick return teams, specifically their return men, were dreadful. Two near fumbles had us ready to crawl though the satellite dish and throttle Mewelde Moore and the tandem of Rashard Mendenhall/Carey Davis. Indeed the only "return man" to come out of the game with his reputation unsullied was Matt Spaeth who had the presence of mind to call a fair catch on the fourth quarter pooch kick by Phil Dawson.

  2. Third down efficiency of twenty-five percent? 0-for-4 on third down conversions in the second half? If that becomes a trend the Steelers had better hope they never trail in any of their remaining games this season.

  3. We tend not to worry about the officiating, but the inconsistency of this group ~ in particular the roughing the passer call against LaMarr Woodley,and the non-call when Ben Roethlisberger had thrown a pass and Sean Rodgers took two steps and buried the crown of his helmet in Ben Roethlisberger's chest ~ warrants a mention. Coaches, players, and fans just want to see the same rules apply to both teams. While the numbers balanced out (the Steelers had 7 penalties for 60 yards, the Browns 10-for-65), it seemed that "protecting the quarterback" meant different things to head official Tony Corrente depending upon which team had the ball.
The Ugly
  1. This is going to seem a bit harsh, but Willie Parker messed up badly. In the fourth quarter, with 2:42 play, Mr. Parker took a hand-off on second down and six. He cut over the right side, got the first down, and then went out-of-bounds thereby saving Cleveland nearly thirty seconds of game time.

    In watching the play a second (and third, and fourth) time we can see that Mr. Parker had the first down, and was in-bounds with 2:38 to play. Two seconds later he is still in bounds, and has picked up an additional four yards. With 2:35 left he stepped out-of-bounds. Now, if he had fallen to the ground at nearly any moment after getting the first down (but before going out-of-bounds) the Steelers would have had the ball first-and-ten with the clock running (the Browns had used all their time outs at that point). At that point the Steelers might have been able allow the clock to run to the two minute warning without running another play (we admit it would have been close ~ depending upon when the ball was made ready for play by the officials).

    As it was the clock stopped with 2:34 remaining, the Steelers had to run their first down play to restart the clock, the clock then stopped at the two minute warning, and the Browns eventually regained possession with :26 left. It didn't have to be that way; and while we love Mr. Parker's determined running style that is the kind of mistake good teams do not make in a close game.

  2. We believe in allowing the fans of other teams to analyze the performance of those teams, however the job that Romeo Crennel (a man for whom we have some genuine respect) did Sunday night was deserving of harsh judgment.
With some of the better teams (i.e. the teams against whom the Steelers are competing for home field advantage in the playoffs) struggling out of the gate, and their top rival in the division doing the same, this was a big win for the Steelers.

With the Eagles playing on Monday night it will be interesting see if their offense is all it appeared to be in week one. If it is, then the Steelers defense is in for a significant challenge (e.g. are the Steelers going to cover Brian Westbrook with a linebacker?).

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Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Steelers @ Cleveland:
The Matchups

Is there any NFL team that has more rivalry games than Pittsburgh? Perhaps it is because of their recent history of excellence, or because of their ardent fans, or some combination of these and other factors but it seems as though two-thirds of the Steelers' games are against someone with a grudge.

Of course the Cleveland game transcends them all. Here's a look at the numbers after week one:

Cleveland Offense v. Steelers Defense
Average total yards per game: Cleveland offense 25th (205.0) v. Steelers defense 6th (234.0)

Average net rushing yards per game: Cleveland offense 19th (91.0) v. Steelers defense 7th (75.0)

Average net passing yards per game: Cleveland offense 27th (114.0) v. Steelers defense 10th (159.0)

Average points per game: Cleveland offense 22nd (10.0) v. Steelers defense 12th (17.0)

Steelers Offense v. Cleveland Defense
Average total yards per game: Steelers offense 15th (305.0) v. Cleveland defense 27th (487.0)

Average net rushing yards per game: Steelers offense 3rd (183.0) v. Cleveland defense 24th (167.0)

Average net passing yards per game: Steelers offense 26th (122.0) v. Cleveland defense 26th (320.0)

Average points per game: Steelers offense: 1st (38.0) v. Cleveland defense 12th (28.0)

Special Teams
Average yards per punt return: Cleveland 9th (11.5) v. Steelers 28th (-3.0)

Average yards allowed per punt return: Cleveland 10th (4.0) v. Steelers 7th (2.5)

Average yards per kick return: Cleveland 17th (18.0) v. Steelers 14th (19.8)

Average yards allowed per kick return: Cleveland 14th (19.5) v. Steelers 13th (18.7)

Net yardage punting average: Cleveland 21st (35.0) v. Steelers 5th (41.3)

Opponent net yardage punting average: Cleveland 12th (37.0) v. Steelers 17th (39.0)

Turnover differential: Cleveland 6th (+1) v. Steelers 3rd (+2)

Time of possession: Cleveland 28th (22:31) v. Steelers 9th (31:31)

Red Zone touchdown efficiency (touchdowns): Cleveland 11th (50.0%) v. Steelers 2nd (100.0%)

Red Zone defense (touchdowns): Cleveland 19th (60.0%) v. Steelers 23rd (66.7%)

Sacks allowed: Cleveland 15th (31) v. Steelers 25th (47)

Sacks Allowed: Cleveland: 1 v. Steelers: 2

Some Individual Numbers
AFC Passer rating: Derek Anderson, 9th (74.0) v. Ben Roethlisberger, 1st (147.0)

AFC Leading rushers: Jamal Lewis, 9th (62 yards) v. Willie Parker, 2nd (138 yards)

AFC Leading receiver: Kellen Winslow, 14th (5 catches, 47 yards, 9.4 per catch, 1 touchdowns) v. Hines Ward, 8th (6 catches, 76 yards, 12.7 yards per catch, 2 touchdowns)

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Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Future Opponents, Dramtic Stories

Tuesday was an unusually busy day of dramatic stories involving some players on NFL team whom the Steelers will be facing later this season. We offer up links for your convenience:

Jaguars: Jacksonville police now believe that jags' offensive lineman Richard Collier was targeted by his attackers when he was shot on September 2nd.

Chargers: Shawne Merriman, whose decision to not have knee surgery caused some much conversation over the summer, is now having knee surgery, and is out for the remainder of the season.

Patriots: Carson Palmer's surgeon says Tom Brady will be back sooner than you think.

Titans: Nashville police say they found a gun in Vince Young's car ~ but that it wasn't loaded.

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News on Upcoming Opponents

We love Pro Football Talk, so it was only a matter of time that we ripped-off emulated their "Morning One-liners" format. So, in an effort to keep you informed on the Steelers' next three opponents we offer up some comments and links.

Cleveland: In the immediate aftermath of their debacle versus the Cowboys, the Browns turned their attention to next Sunday night's visit by the Steelers.

Baltimore: The listless, uninspired performance of the Bengals defense is really the story coming out of last week's game between the Ravens and Bengals; however Joe Flacco is 1-0 as an NFL starter and has some people dreaming of a bright future.

Jacksonville: As if the loss in Tennessee wasn't enough, the Jags are in bad shape along the offensive line. On an entirely different topic, one has to wonder what it will take to get Jags fans excited about their team.

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Monday, September 08, 2008

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

There are occasions, infrequent though they may be, when even a fan of the Steelers is satisfied. To say that finding something for the "Ugly" section was difficult is an understatement.

The Good
  1. The offensive line has been the object of some concern amongst the Steelers' faithful so it is just that, in the aftermath of a fairly dominant performance, we salute them first. Other than a blown assignment in the second quarter that allowed Mario Williams to get a clean shot on Ben Roethlisberger (which resulted in the fumble return that setup the Texans' first score), the offensive line was very nearly flawless. In fact the job that Marel Smith did on Mr. Williams was marvelous! The outcome of the game was hardly in doubt at halftime, but whatever doubt did exist was squashed in the third quarter when, in two possessions, the Steelers rushed the football on fifteen of their nineteen plays in the quarter, gained 108 rushing yards in the quarter, and had 11:26 of possession time. For one week the group of Marvel Smith, Chris Kemoeatu, Justin Hartwig, Kendal Simmons, and Willie Colon transcended sports to become something closer to art.

  2. The play of the linebackers ~ specifically LaMarr Woodley (3 tackles, 1 sack, 2 tackles for a loss, 1 interception, 1 recovered fumble) and James Harrison (6 tackles, 3 sacks, 2 quarterback hits besides the sacks, 1 forced fumble) ~ had visions of Joey Porter, Greg Lloyd, Jack Lambert, et al dancing in the heads of the Steelers' faithful. The play of this unit was at the very core of an overwhelming display of defensive prowess not captured in the statistics. Indeed, it was the ability of the Steelers' defense to hold Houston to a field goal, following the fumble recovery and run by Houston, that was the turning point in the game.

  3. Another aspect of the Steelers' play that has been justifiably criticized over the years has been their special teams; and given that Houston had excellent return teams in 2007 it was something that was a concern coming into this game. However, rather than the 26.5 yards per kick return that they averaged last season, on six kick returns Sunday the Texans were limited to 18.7 yards. The punt team also did a terrific job, limiting Houston to 2.5 yards per return on two punt returns. The decision to mix-up their kicks (i.e. regular, line drive, pooch) and the ability of Mitch Berger to kick with his coverage (on three punts he had a gross average of 43.0 yards and a net average of 41.3 yards) was . . . remarkable, at least compared to Steelers special teams play of years past.
The Bad
  1. Why in the world did the Steelers actually hand the ball off on the final play of the first half? What if the ball had been fumbled, or Willie Parker had been injured? Hey Bruce Arians, order the kneel down next time (in a game like this one, with the Steelers performing as they did, there is pretty slim pickings for bad stuff).
The Ugly
  1. Sure it's nitpicking, but the fourth quarter defense was pathetic. That's what fifteen minutes of prevent defense looks like, and we didn't care for it one bit. If the Steelers defense cannot do a better job of matching up athletically with opponents (i.e. their ability to stop teams is all about the scheme) then they are going to struggle mightily with the better teams in the league.

  2. It was fourth quarter play in a blow out but we could not help but feel that Byron Leftwich was auditioning for a more permanent place on the Steelers' roster ~ and did not do much to make us believe that Charlie Batch should be let go. Mr. Leftwich's 0-for-4 performance, and general inability to spark any life into the offense, causes us to hope that recent reports that the Steelers are exploring an injury settlement with Mr. Batch for the purpose of releasing him are nothing more than rumor.

  3. Houston's backup quarterback Sage Rosenfels was the only active player for either team not to make it into the game ~ is he hurt or just that bad?
This game represents further evidence that the preseason is utterly meaningless.

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Saturday, September 06, 2008

Rules Changes in the NFL

Saturday's edition of Sporting News Today offers up a digestible look at changes to the rules under which NFL games are played, and we were surprised by a couple of them.

First, there is no longer a "force out" rule related to completed passes. Under the new rule a receiver is either in or out, and even if he is pushed out it goes as an incomplete pass. What is also interesting is the comment, attributed to head of NFL Mike Pereira, that part of the reason for changing the rule was that the "force-out rule had a high degree of difficulty." More difficult than catching a high velocity pass while (at least) one large man pushes the receiver?

The second change that interested us was the dropping of the five yard, incidental facemask penalty. In a rare display of equity towards offensive and defensive players alike, Mr. Pereira indicated that part of the reason for the change was the fact that a "defender was not allowed to grasp and release the facemask, but a [running back] was." Seems unusually reasonable.


Friday, September 05, 2008

Houston v. Steelers: The Matchups

Like Christmas for a six year old, it seemed as though the beginning of the NFL season would never arrive. However kickoff is just hours away now, and in an effort to help you all prepare yourselves properly (e.g. stretching, tackling drills in the living room, special trips to the store to load up on refreshments) we offer up a statistical snapshot of where these teams were at when the 2007 regular season concluded.

Houston Offense v. Steelers Defense
Average total yards per game: Houston offense 14th (333.6) v. Steelers defense 1st (266.4)

Average net rushing yards per game: Houston offense 22nd (99.1) v. Steelers defense 3rd (89.9)

Average net passing yards per game: Houston offense 11th (234.4) v. Steelers defense 3rd (176.5)

Average points per game: Houston offense 12th (23.69) v. Steelers defense 2nd (16.81)

Steelers Offense v. Houston Defense
Average total yards per game: Steelers offense 17th (327.4) v. Houston defense 24th (344.2)

Average net rushing yards per game: Steelers offense 3rd (135.5) v. Houston defense 19th (114.1)

Average net passing yards per game: Steelers offense 22nd (191.9) v. Houston defense 25th (230.1)

Average points per game: Steelers offense: 9th (24.56) v. Houston defense 22nd (24.0)

Special Teams
Average yards per punt return: Houston 18th (8.7) v. Steelers 30th (6.1)

Average yards allowed per punt return: Houston 12th (7.9) v. Steelers 14th (8.6)

Average yards per kick return: Houston 2nd (26.5) v. Steelers 21st (22.0)

Average yards allowed per kick return: Houston 21st (23.1) v. Steelers 16th (22.6)

Net yardage punting average: Houston 8th (37.9) v. Steelers 9th (37.9)

Opponent net yardage punting average: Houston 14th (37.1) v. Steelers 26th (38.6)

Turnover differential: Houston 31st (-13) v. Steelers 12th (+3)

Time of possession: Houston 20th (29:41) v. Steelers 1st (34:41)

Red Zone touchdown efficiency: Houston 4th (61.0%) v. Steelers 7th (58.2%)

Red Zone defense (touchdowns): Houston 17th (53.2%) v. Steelers 22nd (55.3%)

Sacks allowed: Houston 15th (31) v. Steelers 25th (47)

Sacks: Houston 7th (37) v. Steelers 31st (47)

Some Individual Numbers
AFC Passer rating: Matt Schaub 6th (87.2) v. Ben Roethlisberger 2nd (104.1)

AFC Leading rushers: Ron Dayne 12th (773 yards) v. Willie Parker 2nd
(1,316 yards)

AFC Leading receiver: Kevin Walter 83rd (65 catches, 800 yards, 12.3 per catch, 4 touchdowns) v. Hines Ward 13th (71 catches, 732 yards, 10.3 yards per catch, 7 touchdowns)


Monday, September 01, 2008

Great Insight from Ed Bouchette

We love articles that examine the nuts-and-bolts of football and Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has written such an item.

In addition to looking at Steelers' roster he spends a couple of paragraphs exploring how NFL offenses responded to their blitzing defenses of seasons past, and how that defense is now attempting to respond to that response. The article offers a succinct explanation of the zone blocking scheme (one that the Steelers offense will employ this season) and gap control ~ something you rarely see in media reports.


Judy Battista is a Beautiful Person

"The PITTSBURGH STEELERS will always be built around their defense — it was ranked No. 1 last season — but this may be the year quarterback Ben Roethlisberger joins Tom Brady and Peyton Manning as the elite at the position."

So states Judy Battista in her "AFC Scouting Report" available at NYTimes.com. As if that were not enough Ms. Battista, who has officially been added to our Christmas card list, (apparently) has the Steelers as the #2 team in AFC behind New England, despite their "a brutal schedule this year."

In some other media previews of the NFL season:
  • In their print edition Pro Football Weekly predicts the Steelers will win the AFC North citing the offensive weapons (e.g. Limas Sweed and Dennis Dixon) the team has accumulated, the improved health of Troy Polamalu (we're not convinced), and improved speed on the defensive side of the ball.

  • Sam Farmer of the Los Angeles Times predicts that the Steelers will win the division if Troy Polamalu is healthy.

  • No word if Ken Whisenhunt was consulted, but Bob McManaman of the Arizona Republic also predicts a division win for the Steelers, predicting that Limas Sweed will help Ben Roethlisberger have an MVP season.

  • Finally, PA Sports Ticker (by way of OttowaCitizen.com) predicts a third place finish for the Black & Gold. Not an outlandish prediction considering the schedule, but their prediction of a second place finish for Cincinnati calls their logic into question.