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Who gets the game ball for the Steelers win over the Texans?

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Steelers Defeat Houston Texans 30-23 @ Heinz Field - Rapid Reaction

The Pittsburgh Steelers hosted the Houston Texans at Heinz Field facing as much of a “must win” situation as any 3-3 team could face. While the Black and Gold were officially favored, Houston had going for it:

their zone rushing scheme with Adrian Peterson would test Pittsburgh’s shaky run defense
JJ Watt had scored more touchdowns his season than the Steelers offense had in the last two games
the Steelers were facing accusations from Bill Cowher that they’d gone soft and were a finesse team
Steelers, Texans, Antonio Brown, Pass

For the first 28 minutes it looked like Hines Ward and Cowher were right. The Texans were running at will, and the Steelers were settling for field goals. Yet, just inside the two minute warning, the Steelers showed why you never take your foot off of the gas pedal.
Truthfully the Steelers would find fewer moments of glory in the second half, as the offense only managed 6 points (although Brown got screwed out of a touchdown), but the defense held the Texans to 10 points, and the Steelers walked away with a 30 to 23 victory.

The Steelers most certainly need to raise their game vs. the Colts and then again vs. Baltimore. But for a team that limped to a 3-3 record and was facing a hostile fan base, the Steelers got a much needed victory to begin their 3 game home stand.

It’s already 1:16 am here in Buenos Aires, and work looms tomorrow morning. Check back for more later.

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Monday, October 20, 2014

Watch Tower: Pittsburgh Media Puts Tomlin's Talent Evaluation Skills Under Microscope

The Ben Roethlisberger’s first loss at Cleveland since 2009 sent the Pittsburgh Steelers soul searching. While Steelers Nation searches for a scapegoat, the Watch Tower shines its light on more level-headed attempts to discern “what’s wrong” and uncovers something interesting about practice reporting requirements.

Tomlin as a Talent Evaluator Under the Microscope

It used to be that the Steelers press corps fanned the flames of fan passion in Steelers Nation. Often times that makes good business sense, as nothing sells newspapers – or generates web hits, like a fire and brimstone article filled with bad news.

During the 1990’s, when seemingly every off season was punctuated by an exodus of premium free agents (think of Chad Brown, Yancey Thigpen and Rod Woodson’s departures), and fans were treated to a steady stream of “The Sky is Falling in Pittsburgh” themed articles.

It got to the point where, during the 1999 off season, Tom Donahoe, who had great press relations, told a reporter that one of the things he loved about his job was proving the press wrong. (Of course the 1999 season was a disaster, and cost Donahoe his job, but that’s another story.)

Nonetheless, the tone of the Pittsburgh press has shifted over the last decade or so.
  • If anything reporters push back against knee-jerk reactions on the part of the fan base.
Still, the 2014 Steelers are not playing very good football, and two reporters have opted to looks past the “Fire Tomlin,” “Fire Haley,” “Fire LeBeau” and “Fire Colbert” brigades in hopes of offering a more reason-based analysis of what ails the Steelers.

ESPN’s Scott Brown was the first to move in that direction, making his effort in response to one of the weekly “Why Hasn’t Rooney Fired Everyone Already” questions in his weekly Steelers Mail Bag. After indicating that he think Mike Tomlin’s job is safe – barring a total meltdown – Brown makes an interesting observation:
The Steelers would also have to take a hard look at their drafting process. Whatever the setup is in regard to Kevin Colbert and Tomlin doesn't appear to be working. The Steelers have made too many questionable draft picks since the two have been together. I think the Steelers would be wise to give Colbert the final say -- there appears to be 50/50 split between him and Tomlin -- and give him ownership the draft.
Whether Brown has sources to base this upon or he’s simply offering his own opinion (the Watch Tower speculates it’s the second) is unknown. But Mike Tomlin’s ability as a talent evaluator, and perhaps his drafting philosophy, is open to question.

During his first season, Tomlin pushed for Sean Mahan and Allen Rossum, in addition to pushing to draft Matt Spaeth in the third round and pushing for the team to pick Daniel Sepulveda in the 4th round. Three out of four moves were disasters, and Spaeth, while OK, hasn’t produced at the level you expect out of a third round pick.

Beyond that, it is hard to peg a specific personnel move that has a clear Tomlin footprint on it, other than the Mewelde Moore free agent signing, which was excellent.

A day later, Alan Robinson took a look at the same question, albeit from a slightly different angle. He and the staff at the Pittsburgh Tribune Review took a long look at the first eight drafts of Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe and compared those to the results of the first 7 drafts of Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert.

Robinson renders his verdict this way:
The answer: At comparative stages of the draft picks' careers, the Tomlin/Colbert drafts of 2007 and '10 were the best two, but the Cowher/Donahoe drafts were generally better from top to bottom and produced more star-caliber players.
And except for the 2010 draft that yielded Maurkice Pouncey, Jason Worilds and Antonio Brown, the Tomlin/Colbert drafts have declined since the first draft in 2007 yielding Lawrence Timmons and LaMarr Woodley.
By assigning points to players based on playing time and performance – and punishing player washouts, the Cowher-Donahoe drafts amassed 302 points while the Tomlin-Colbert drafts only ended up with 258.

One can quibble with Robinson’s methodologyCharles Johnson for example gets 11 points starting, but that ignores the fact that his performance was below what one would expect and need out of a first rounder. Likewise, undrafted rookie free agents are not taken into account, and undrafted rookie free agents have played a tremendous part in Colbert’s personnel success under both Cowher and Tomlin.

Still, the Watch Tower has called the professional press on the carpet time and time again for not delivering these sorts of analytical pieces which are a staple on sites like Behind the Steel Curtain (full disclosure I also write for BTSC.)

The Tribune Review turned out an excellent one here – kudos to you Alan Robinson.

A Closer Look Inside the Steelers Practice Facility 

The last edition of the Watch Tower asked whether the Steelers PR team was combating the storm of negativity in Steelers Nation by loosening practice reporting requirements. This week, after Mike Tomlin implied that Brice McCain would replace Cortez Allen, Dale Lolley reported that McCain in fact was running with the first time.

Then he observed, “There were some other changes in the lineup, but due to practice reporting  requirements, I cannot report them without confirmation from the players.”

Reporters are allowed to observe practice, and have a shot at interviewing them as they walk from practice to the locker room, which is when reporters would get a chance to get confirmation from a player.

That of course doesn’t explain the fact that reporters are suddenly reporting details about Stephon Tuitt’s interceptions and/or Matavias Bryant’s drops (as Jim Wexell did last week), but it does shed some light on the restrictions under which beat writers work.

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Sunday, October 19, 2014

Does Ben Roethlisberger Have Too Much Autonomy?

“Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the most despised in Steelers Nation of them all?”
“Why Todd Haley, of course.”

The Pittsburgh Steelers might 3-3, but the natives in Steelers Nation are getting mightly restless. While there are no shortages calls for the heads of Mike Tomlin, Dick LeBeau and even Kevin Colbert, no Steeler has been vilified more than Todd Haley.
  • Haley’s offense’s twin 10 point performances against two terrible defenses leave him open to plenty of criticism. 
His seemingly will-nilly “Today pass, tomorrow run” play calling in the Red Zone would begin any list. But if Haley does deserve some blame, then it’s fair to ask if too many fingers might be pointed in his direction.

And to begin answering that question, perhaps its best to take a look back in time, way back in time…

October 21st, Steelers @ Broncos

Fans remember Mike Tomlin’s first trip to Denver for the injury that exposed Ryan Clark’s sickle cell trait. It was also Tomlin’s second loss, and the beginning of a trend which would make Bruce Arians, rightly or wrongly, one of the most unpopular figures in Steelers Nation.
Ben Roethlisberger, Bruce Arians, Todd Haley, Ken Whisenhunt

Ken Whisenhunt deserves credit for overseeing Ben Roethlisberger’s formative years, but in doing so he kept Ben on a short leash. Bruce Arians changed that, bringing him into the game planning process, and giving him greater freedom on the field.

The 2007 Denver Broncos had the NFL’s 30th rated run defense. The Steelers, with Willie Parker in top form, planned to exploit that weakness. Ben made no secret about that, "I told the wide receivers I'll get my throws in before practice,” Roethlisberger said. "It might be the last throwing I do all week.”
  • Yet when all was said and done the Steelers had called 3 rushing plays in the first quarter, Roethlisberger threw 2 picks, and the Steelers lost 31 to 28.
The site Steelers Fever pointed out that the common thread in the Steelers two losses that year was Roethlisberger throwing for over 30 passes.
  • Fans focused their anger on Arians, despite the fact that Roethlisberger, pointing to Denver crowding the box, had changed run plays into passes at the line of scrimmage.
And perhaps that overlooked fact was the beginning of a trend that appears troublesome today….

From Ben Buddy Buddying with Bruce to Ben Bubby Buddying with Todd?

2007 is a long, long time ago. Ben Roethlisberger and the Pittsburgh Steelers have won a lot of games since then not the least of which includes Super Bowl XLIII. Bruce Arians remained a lighting rod for controversy through it all for his refusal to use a fullback, being too pass happy, and for Ben taking too many sacks.
Sadly, things have gone downhill since then, but one of farthest reaching events of the day occurred on the sideline when Patriots offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien called out Tom Brady on the sideline.

Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has said that it was that scene that convinced Art Rooney II to force Mike Tomlin’s hand in firing Bruce Arians. Rooney’s exact reasons forcing Arians out are unknown, but Rooney’s concern about Ben taking too much punishment is well documented; it’s also well-known that Arians had zero inclination to push Ben to change.
  • Rooney, it appears thought that Ben was just a little too cozy with his offensive coordinator.
Mike Tomlin hired Todd Haley, a coach not always known for his ability to work and play well with others. Ben and Haley talked the talk about getting along in 2012, but none other than Steelers Digest editor Bob Labriola outed the tension between the two.

Hints of Ben-Todd stories appeared in 2013, but nothing ever came of them as the Steelers offense improved, and indeed carried the team on the back end of its 6-2 finish.

2013 has arrived, and network commentators have gone at great pains to say how well Ben and Haley are getting along, and how the level of trust between the two has grown.
  • Which may be a problem.
Over on Jim Wexell’s Inside the Steel City site “Matt C. Steel” has been issuing a steady, progressive and scathing critique of the Steelers offense. While Steel is critical of Todd Haley, he backs up his arguments with detailed analysis of the play calling.

In synthesis, Steel shows how the Steelers and Roethlisberger are best when balancing the pass and the run, and using play action from under center instead of the empty backfield sets and shotgun formations.

After the narrow victory over Jacksonville, Steel went a step further:
That ability to make something happen on play-action when the initial play isn't there is why I believe he is one of the greatest play-action quarterbacks of all time. His propensity to want to hold the ball and try to make a play in a pass heavy, empty backfield/shotgun-heavy offense is why I believe he will likely never lead a top-5 scoring offense. He'll make plays in those situations every now and then. But those situations are a ticking, drive-stalling time bomb. Every coach and coordinator since Bill Cowher left seems to want to appease the $100 million man who so badly wants to be viewed and treated in the same fashion as Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. No one seems to be willing to tell the franchise what is best for him. [Emphasis added]
Steel may have been the first to voice such thoughts in print, but he is hardly alone.

Neal Coolong of Behind the Steel Curtain pointed out that, vs. Cleveland, Roethlisberger changed numerous plays at the line of scrimmage, and his film review showed that at least one of those played right into the Browns hands.

Jason La Canfora of CBS Sports went a step further:
Now that they’ve become much closer, and there’s a whole lot of trust there, some people around the league are like, ‘Is there too much trust? Is Todd deferring too much to Ben?’ And too many decisions are being made at the huddle or right at the line of scrimmage, and that has something to do with the lack of offense. I think those are valid questions to ask.
It is hard to really assess Canfora’s arguments without knowing who “some people around the league” are, but a pattern has emerged.

Tomlin’s Tight Rope to Walk

Clearly, and offense cannot succeed when the offensive coordinator and the quarterback are at each other’s throats. Steelers fans with long memories will recall the days of Bubby Brister and Joe Walton, or of Kordell Stewart and Ray Sherman and/or Kordell and Kevin Gilbride.
  • No easy answer to this situation exists.
Ben Roethlisberger is a successful quarterback precisely because of his ability to improvise and his ability to make plays under the gun (see Super Bowl XLIII.)

But it also seems to be clear that Ben is truly at his best when he can do that, but with someone who can and will occasionally say “No” to him.

Mike Tomlin’s duty is find a way to strike that balance. The Steelers success or failure the remainder of 2014 will hinge on his ability to do so.

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Thursday, October 16, 2014

Steelers Suffer Practice Squad Roster; Tuitt Likely to Start, McCullers to get Helmet...

The Pittsburgh Steelers gamble with Wesley Johnson coupled with additional injuries suffered during the loss to Cleveland have forced additional roster changes.

To replace Ross Ventrone on the practice squad the Steelers signed defensive back Jordan Sullen. To provide additional insurance now that Steve McLendon is injured, the Steelers signed defensive end Ethan Hemer. Taking Johnson’s space, figuratively, is offensive lineman Adam Gettis.

The moves cost Derek Moye his spot on the practice squad and also forced 5th round pick Shaquille Richardson to the injured reserve list, ending his season before it began.

For Good or For Ill, Defensive Line Shake Up Coming

2nd round pick out of Notre Dame Stephon Tuitt should get his first start this week vs. the Texans.
As Cam Thomas has shown he is no Al Woods both fans and the press have been calling for Tuitt to get more time. Thomas however will start at nose tackle, but Dan McCullers will likely be activated this week as he is the lone nose tackle.

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Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Tomlin Must Lead Cortez Allen Reclamation Project

Once upon a time there was a Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback, whom both the team and Steelers Nation admired as a rookie. This corner, however, failed to crack the starting line up in his second year, only breaking through to the other in his third season. Going into year four, the team gave him a big contract – only to see him struggle.
Well, yes, Cortez could be the unnamed Steelers corner above, but it’s actually Ike Taylor. Taylor’s story and Allen’s story are similar, there’s no perfect parallel. Bill Cowher began using Taylor to shadow the opponents best receiver during the Steelers ’05 Super Bowl run, and it was Taylor’s interception that recaptured the momentum for the Steelers in Super Bowl XL.

That was all in Taylor’s third season. Allen first memorable play of his 3rd season was missing a tackle vs. Minnesota in London. He did come back to make a big pick six vs. Green Bay, but it William Gay was the Steelers most consistent corner in 2013.

But, like Taylor before, him the Steelers choose to keep Allen off of the free agent market prior to his fourth season, only to see him struggle. Bill Cowher’s reaction was to bench Taylor for 5 games in 2006.
  • Now, Mike Tomlin is unambiguously threatening a similar fate for Allen.
Over one Behind the Steel Curtain, site editor Neal Coolong argues that such a benching might be beneficial to Allen’s development.

Allen Reclamation Project

Player development is a curious concept (and one that can’t be explored fully here.) Sometimes players show incredible flashes as rookies but then are seen no more. Other times a player can tinker on the edge of obscurity, only to emerge as a solid starter or even superstar (think Brett Keisel and James Harrison.)
  • Cortez Allen showed those flashes as a rookie and as a “sophomore.”
In the final couple of games of the 2012 season, Allen almost single handedly doubled the Steelers turnover total. This was after a rookie season that saw him get time in the team’s upset victory of the New England Patriots.

But Allen’s development since those moments has been anything consistent. Opposing teams unhesitatingly target him, and with the exception of the Tampa Bay and Jacksonville games, Allen’s given them no reason to regret it.

When Allen got beaten badly by Cleveland’s Jordan Cameron Trent Green suggested that he should have had safety help. Reporters asked Mike Tomlin if that was the case, and Tomlin flat out denied it, laying full responsibility at Allen’s feet.
  • While the prospect of benching Allen might win popular approval in Steelers Nation, it’s a dubious move in terms of football merit.
Brice McCain is the new “next man up” at corner, and while McCain has legitimately earned his 15 minutes of fame as a nickel back, there’s nothing to indicate he’s ready to start.

Instead of benching Allen, Tomlin should make Allen’s development his personal project. Tomlin entered the league as a defensive backs coach, so he knows the tricks to the trade. While Tomlin shouldn’t and couldn’t devote excess 1-1 time with Allen, Tomlin does need to closely monitor the situation via defensive backs coach Carnell Lake and defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau.

With the cupboard bare behind him, and Ike Taylor aging, it isn’t a question of the Steelers wanting to get Cortez Allen’s development back on track, it’s a question of them needing to. This is necessary not only to salvage something from 2014, but for the good of 2015 and beyond.

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Monday, October 13, 2014

NY Jets Sign Steelers Wesley Johnson Off of Waivers

Once upon a time the Pittsburgh Steelers rolled the dice by cutting a promising young offensive lineman. A suspension of Ben Roethlisberger and an injury to Byron Leftwich didn’t leave the much choice. The Steelers had planned to cut Charlie Batch, but they needed to keep him.

But this young lineman had made so much progress that he’d outpaced the incumbent starting center, Justin Hartwig, whom Maurkice Pouncey had displaced.
  • That young lineman was Kraig Urbik, who got claimed by Buffalo and went on to make 44 starts for the Bills while the Steelers struggled on offensive line.
The Steelers didn't get much long term value out of their 2009 Draft. The rest of the NFL did, however, and Urbik started the trend.

Something similar could be afoot with the Steelers 2014 draft. Shamarko Thomas’ hamstring injury forced the Steelers to cut 5th round pick Wesley Johnson to make room for Ross Ventrone. The idea was that the Steelers would resign Johnson to the practice squad.
  • The New York Jets had other ideas, and claimed him off of waivers. 
While Wesley Johnson never played a down for the Steelers, he’d shown a lot of promise, particularly with his ability to play all 5 line positions, and made Guy Whimper expendable. [Knock on wood] the Steelers have had better luck this far with offensive line injuries, but offensive line depth has been an issue throughout the Tomlin era.

That depth just got a little thinner.

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Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for Loss @ Cleveland

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who wonders why he’s getting Special Ed level performance out of a student who should at least be average, there is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the loss at Cleveland.
Pittsburgh Steelers, Report Card, Grades, Loss, Cleveland Browns

Ben Roethlisberger is in a funk. For two straight games now, he’s simply been off. Yes, he got screwed with an interception that wasn’t a pick. Yes, his receivers did little to help him in some cases. But in other cases he was simply off as his 50% completion rate suggests. Ben may not bear all of the blame for this team’s offensive ineptitude, but he is the focal point on that side of the ball. Grade:  D

Running Backs
Le'Veon Bell put together a nice day rushing the ball and caught another 4 passes for 23 years. LeGarrette Blount also ran well, as did Dri Archer. The Steelers offensive was terrible, but you can’t really put that on the running backs.  Grade:  B

Tight Ends
Heath Miller caught two passes for 19 yards, Matt Spaeth as usual did not get targeted, neither did Michael Palmer. Miller missed a key block in the red zone, which was costly. Grade:  C-

Wide Receivers 
Antonio Brown had a great game. The same cannot be said for the rest of the receiving crops, who looked like they’d never met Ben Roethlisberger let alone played with him before. Markus Wheaton managed 4 catches on 11 targets. Justin Brown had 2 catches. Lance Moore had 1 including a touchdown, although he missed one he should have had. Something is a miss here. Grade:  D+

Offensive Line
Ben Roethlisberger was sacked twice, although both of those came at inopportune moments. Overall the line play was solid, although better run blocking in the red zone was necessary. One might also suggest the unit should have been more dominant given Cleveland’s thin defensive line. For the second straight week, Kelvin Beachum committed a penalty that moved the Steelers out of a goal line situation. Grade:  C-

Defensive Line
Cameron Heyward led the group and was a force early on but faded a bit. Brett Keisel had a strong game. Stephon Tuitt saw his first significant action and came away with a tackle. The quality of the run defense dropped with Steve McLendon out. Overall this unit’s performance was strong, but far from spectacular. Grade:  C

Lawrence Timmons continues to be this unit’s most consistent player and lead the team in tackles. Jason Worilds had two tackles behind the line of scrimmage. Arthur Moats was invisible, and outplayed on the stat sheet by James Harrison. Sean Spence had seven tackles and a QB hit. But there were no sacks, no splash plays, no game changers in sight. Grade:  D

After two strong games Cortez Allen looked like an amateur. Troy Polamalu was out of place a on a number of key plays as was Michael Mitchell, who did have two touchdown saving hits. Overall this until was plagued by the wrong-place, wrong time syndrome when the team could least afford it. Grade:  F

Special Teams
The Steelers coverage units were strong, but for the sixth straight week, Pittsburgh saw nothing from its return game. Brad Wing knocked off some long punts, but the Steelers couldn’t seem to pin the Browns down deep. However, this unit failed in the most basic of its functions, bumbling a should be automatic field goal when Wing mismanaged a perfect snap. That served as the catalyst Cleveland needed. Unacceptable. Grade:  F

Something is going on with these Steelers and it isn’t good. Realistically, the Steelers have 9-7ish talent, but their consistent 10 point offensive efforts speak more to a team with 4-12, 5-11ish talent.

While the defense should not get a free ride for giving up two horrendous long plays, they were playing without 4 starters, and this unit was expected to struggle. While Dick LeBeau’s defense might have better talent than it displayed yesterday, this group is in no way qualified to carry the team, which is what the offensive performance is demanding.
  • And the offense really is a mystery.
The Steelers have an a franchise quarterback, an All Pro wide out, a tight end who, although he may be beginning to decline, is still one of the best in the game, and a budding running back. The team has invested heavily in the offensive line.

Yet, the Steelers offense can only manage 10 points against weak defenses.

That’s a performance worth more of Mark Malone, Weegie Thompson, Walter Abercrombie and Preston Gothard as opposed to one turned in by Roethlisberger, Brown, Bell and Miller.

In the past, Todd Haley’s units ranged from solid to averge in the Redzone. Now it’s the dead zone. Something’s not right, not right at all, and at the end of the day blame lies with Mike Tomlin and Todd Haley. Right now, their performance is way, way below the line. Grade:  F

Unsung Hero Award
On a day when nothing seemed to be going right after the first 15 minutes, Brett Keisel showed how it was done, but running down Jordan Cameron on a 42 yard pass. Defensive lineman are not supposed to make plays that far down field, but Keisel’s heart and effort, if nothing else, provided an example to the rest of the team of the type of effort that will be necessary if the Steelers are to avoid a season-dooming tail spin and for that Brett Keisel wins the Unsung Hero Award for the loss at Cleveland.

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