Steelers’ Glaring Hole

Is the irony lost on anyone? The Steelers’ glaring hole is incapable of opening one. A hole, that is.

The patchwork offensive line was somehow good enough to help win a Super Bowl. It didn’t hurt to have the league’s best defense and a gutsy quarterback who’d sooner take a beating than give up on a play down field.

Where a passerby may assume that the champ’s offensive line contributed greatly to success, a studious observer realizes the team overcame its greatest weakness. They won despite the offensive line. They won despite having no short yardage game, no punch on the goal line. Despite giving up sack after sack. Despite undrafted backups forced into service. Somehow the team got it done.

So, there is room for improvement and better yet, the opportunity for improvement. Several of the Super Bowl starters will be free agents including tackles Max Starks and Trai Essex and guard Chris Kemoeatu. Two opening day starters, tackle Marvel Smith and guard Kendall Simmons, finished the season on IR. Smith is a UFA but played in less than a season of games over the last two years. Simmons signed a 4 year extension prior to the 2007 season.

Many assume that Starks will find a suitor elsewhere and Smith may be retained in a backup role. Simmons is expected to return but Kemoeatu will be allowed to walk. If such is the case, the Steelers will be looking to replace the left side of the line.

But is that enough? Justin Hartwig proved to be a servicable replacement at center. However, Simmons has been less than heralded at right guard over the last few seasons and right tackle Willie Colon may be playing out of position (many say he’s really a guard).

Does a Super Bowl winner dare blow up the offensive line? Can the Steelers dare not to?

The Off (Next) Season Begins

It’s been a week and a day since the Steelers claimed Super Bowl XLIII.  Before we forge ahead and prepare our fan-brains for the next phase of the NFL year, let’s have a brief look back at the one which passed.

Be honest, were you realistically expecting the Super Bowl for our Steelers one year ago today?  I wasn’t.  The boys had finished their (10-6) season on a disappointing down, losing 4 of their final 5 games, going one-and-done in the playoffs against their (seemingly) nemesis-going-forward Jaguars.   And that followed a roller coaster 8-8 “Farewell Bill” season which saw our QB fall back to earth after being violently bounced off it in a life-threatening motorcycle accident.

Injuries to key players plagued the team and sports minds second guessed the new coach’s methods.  Older veterans grumbled.  The defense looked less dominant than it had in previous campaigns.  And while Big Ben put up big numbers and Fast Willie led the league in rushing until his leg broke, the general consensus was that the Pittsburgh Steelers were not a team which could contend with the new crop of  big boys.

Still, in February, 2008 fans were cautiously optimistic.  Coach Tomlin’s rookie season was behind him and the draft ahead.  Perhaps a tweak here and a new assistant coach there would restore the Steelers’ late season competitiveness.  It sure couldn’t hurt.

And now today.  It’s been a week since the Steelers ran the gauntlet and carried away their sixth Lombardi Trophy.  For those keeping count, that’s two (of the past 4) for the core of the current team.

It’s wrong to say they did it with smoke and mirrors, so let’s not go there.  They did it with defense and a QB who refused to lose.  But this was an unlikely and arduous journey for the Steelers.  The team began to take on the identity of their new coach and they fought tenaciously to stay in games, “Steelers football is 60 minutes,” Tomlin said after their Super Bowl victory.  But it wasn’t the first time; his team knew what was expected and they were prepared.

Fans are brimming with hope for the next season, they all want to go to Seventh Heaven.  They want to see what that new running back can do.  What was his name?  Menden-something?  You know, that guy from that school?  Ray Lewis broke his shoulder last season.  Ahmed Merkinville?  Eh, whatever.  He was supposed to step in for Fast Willie, make him expendable even.  Mewelde Moore could write a book on being in the right place at the right time.

Fans should be optimistic for the 2009 season.  They’ll get a new look at that rookie kid, Rashard Mendenhall.  And they’ll still have Fast Willie and Right-Time Moore and a hungry defense eager to defend their blade of grass.  And they’ll have a new crop of players to watch grow.

Between now and training camp there will be the combine, players cut, free agents signed, a new draft class and many end-of-the-roster hopefuls clawing for a shot.  Gotta stay hungry.

Sweet Victory!

What a clutch drive to take the lead. Wow.

Pittsburgh Steelers win Super Bowl XLIII for their NFL record 6th Lombardi Trophy!#6

Black and Gold Bloodbath

Where to start?  How about with #43?  Troy Polamalu padded the Steelers’ slim lead on their way to Super Bowl XLIII with his interception return for a touchdown.  It was a clutch play that they had to have.  Following a timely sack by Lamar Woodley, The Wig’s play seemingly sealed the fate of the Ravens just when momentum was going their way.  The Ravens scored a touchdown on their previous possession and they had just hit a big play to Todd Heap for a first down out to the 30 yard line.  With only 4:30 remaining, all they needed was a field goal and a defensive stand to get a win. While a field goal would have been unlikely, the defensive stand would have been status quo.

But there was Polamalu.  Injured calf or not, #43 came to play.

It all started in typical fashion with a player injured on the opening kickoff. After the bodies were cleared the Steelers scored on their first possession for a 3-0 lead.  The teams traded punts before Deshea Townsend caught his only interception, the first of three for Flacco and this one deep in Baltimore territory.  Pittsburgh gained a first down before settling for another field goal to make it 6-0 in the first quarter.

The Ravens’ offensive ineptitude continued before Willie Parker fumbled the ball, setting them up across midfield at the 41 yard line.  But the Steelers’ defense stood strong.  After getting to third and one, the Ravens were stuffed twice and turned the ball over on downs. The stand featured Polamalu going airborne to push back Flacco on his 4th down sneak.

On third and nine on the following possession a scrambling Roethlisberger hit Santonio Holmes 20 yards down field. Holmes turned the broken play into a 65 yard catch and run to the endzone.  It was 13-0 Steelers and starting to look like a game they could put away early.

But the Ravens would not allow it.  Late in the first half safety man Jim Leonard returned a punt to the Steelers 17. A pass interference on 3rd and 9 setup the eventual one yard touchdown run by Willis McGahee.

Again the teams swapped punts before Pittsburgh regained the ball at midfield with 60 seconds to go in quarter two. On first down Limus Sweed ran past the defense deep down the left sideline. Roethlisberger put a deep pass in his hands only to watch the rookie juggle and drop the ball then feign injury laying in the endzone. The act cost the Steelers a valuable time out and with Ben’s clock mismanagement eventually squandered an opportunity for a last second short field goal attempt.

After being soundly drubbed for 30 minutes, the Ravens went to half time only trailing 13-7, having seized the momentum.

Throughout the regular season the Steelers’ third quarters bested the NFL for scoring allowed in a frame.  This one was no different and Jeff Reed’s 46 yard kick nudged them to a 16-7 lead heading to the final 15 minutes.

That’s when things got ugly.  Punting from the Steelers 37 Mitch Berger netted 21 yards to the Baltimore 42.  The Ravens quickly marched for another McGahee 1 yard TD run.  The drive was aided largely by an endzone pass interference call against Ike Taylor.  The Ravens, with barely more than 125 yards of total offense had closed to 16-14.  Momentum now appeared to favor the Ravens.  Their offense had recent success and their defense allowed only a field goal to that point in the second half.

Desperately needing to eat some clock, the Steelers offense was pushed back and forced to punt after three plays.  But a personal foul penalty after the return changed field position from the Steelers 39 back to the 14 yard line.  A quick 20 yard pass to Todd Heap put some pep in his step.  But on Flacco’s next drop-back Lamar Woodley tallied his second sack of the evening.

And that brings us back to Troy Polamalu’s clutch play that propelled the Steelers to Super Bowl XLIII.

Even after Polamalu’s forty yard touchdown return there was 4:24 remaining.  Still, the 9 point lead seemed insurmountable.  The Ravens offense got back to work, but on their second play Willis McGahee fumbled after a violent hit by Ryan Clark.  It was the worst of the dozens of bone-crunching hits delivered that evening.

The Steelers recovered the ball as McGahee lay prone.  After several minutes he was placed on a back board and carted to the locker room.  Reports stated later that McGahee would recover.

If Polamalu’s return sealed the Ravens’ fate, Clark’s hit punctuated the Steelers’ victory.

Their previous meeting has been described as a slug-fest.  But their third matchup of the season in the AFC Championship Game was not for the faint of heart.  It was a bloodbath.

Super Bowl Bound!

The Steelers pull out a 23-14 win over the hated Ravens for a trip to Super Bowl XLIII.  It’s their seventh trip and an opportunity for an NFL record six wins.

In the News …

Frozen Field Forces Practice Indoors

But the indoor practice was not warm and toasty as Coach Tomlin opened the doors and let the cold inside.

It was a TD!

It was a TD!

Tampa Fires Coach and GM

Gruden’s teams missed the playoffs four of the last six seasons after winning the Super Bowl during his first year at the helm.  The ‘Bucs started strong at 9-3 but lost their last four, including two at home to miss the playoffs.  Gruden was shocked at the news.

Cowboys Fire Brian Stewart

Looks like the scapegoating continues as the Cowboys fire their defensive coordinator.

Ravens Back for Threematch

It’s time to make the Ravens go away. The Steelers have beaten them twice and now they’re coming back for more. Cue the old single by 80’s hairband extraordinaire, Ratt.

And you're back, you're back for more
You turn away, you're back for more

If it’s more they want then it’s more of the same they shall receive.

Welcome back to Heinz Field, Ray Ray, Flacco and the rest of the boys.  Hope you all are feeling healthy after that clash in Tennessee last week.  Really, we do.  It’s been a great season for you guys.  Honestly, it has.  Now it’s snap-to time.  Wake up!  The slipper won’t fit, it never does when you visit the Steelers.  You’ve exceeded expectations so far but the dream ends here.

Two games were played and one team won.  That’s a trend.  That’s momentum.  Hell, that’s foreshadowing.  Now it has come to this, a third game between divisional rivals.  There’s nothing left to say, only the contest remains.

In Tennessee the Ravens came out on top against a tough opponent.  That’s right, it wasn’t so much that they beat the Titans but they “came out on top.”  The Titans moved the ball up and down the field but were victims of horrific turnovers.  The Ravens basically had one better than average offensive play the entire game, but they converted it and ended up with a touchdown a short time later.  The Titans had a running back with 75 yards at halftime, but Chris Johnson was injured early in the third quarter.  Funny how that happens – running backs getting injured against the Ravens.  Kerry Collins passed for almost 300 yards but had a pass intercepted on a deflection.  The Ravens completed only 50% of their passes and rushed the ball for a total of 30 yards.  Thirty yards!  And to make matters worse, they were beneficiaries of extra time on the play clock during their winning field goal drive.  So yeah, the Ravens came out on top.

The AFC  Championship game in Pittsburgh will not be won by a team that only comes out on top.  It will go to the team that beats down their opponent.  And buddy, the Steelers know how to beat down an opponent.  It’s more than just physical play.  Both teams bring that to the game.  And it’s more than the cheap shots, late hits and jumping on the pile that the Ravens bring.  It’s about a defense that demoralizes an opponent, forcing punt after punt and forcing bad decisions by the opposing quarterback.  It’s about shutting down the running game and terrorizing offensive tackles.  It’s about a quarterback who refuses to lose, who keeps a play alive after it has apparently flat-lined only to bring it back to life 30 yards down field.

It’s about the better team winning in the end.  It’s about respect for teammates and home field pride.  It’s about satiating 63,899 screaming, towel-waving fans and it’s about earning a shot at one for the other thumb.

Chargers Back for Rematch

The San Diego Chargers were the team to knock the league MVP from the playoffs.  After the Chargers won the game on a 22 yard TD scamper in overtime by Darren Sproles, people whined about the nature of the victory. The whiners said that getting the ball first is an advantage that cannot be overcome.  That’s loser talk.  I’ve never heard the winning team have any problem with the overtime format.  As a matter of fact, the coin toss winner has scored on that first drive only 30% of the time.  The whiners said that in this season, the coin toss winner won 9 of 16 times.  Reasonable people will point out that 16 is a statistically irrelevant sample.

So, get over it all you Colts apologists and the-MVP-never-got-to-touch-the-ball-in-OT wailing babies.  Guess what?  The Colts defense didn’t give him a chance.  And in regulation, pinned deep in his own territory, the MVP took a sack, narrowly averting a safety.  Hey, MVP, lead your team to a couple of first downs and this whole talk of OT format is moot.  Got that?

Sideline view during winning kick.

Now, back to the rightful winners of that game, the San Diego Chargers.  Wow, it’s good the Steelers get this team again.  When they last met, the Steelers absolutely dominated the Chargers with stats.  But they needed a late field goal to win an 11-10 game.  Remember, this is the game where Troy Polamalu’s lateral-fumble return for a TD was disallowed by the brain-dead referees.    And this is the game where the Chargers were penalized twice – once on the last play – in comparison to 13 drive-killing (offense) or drive-extending (defense) penalties for the Steelers.  Shit, I’d wager there were no less than five near tackles by the Chargers left tackle of a rushing James Harrison.

I’m thinking the Chargers will come into this game absolutely unprepared for the fury they’ll face.  Sixty minutes against the mushy Colts defense in the warm climes of San Diego are not a fair preparation for the League’s Number One Defense and the frigid, wet and windy conditions of Heinz Field.

Last time Big Ben had a nice game going 31 of 41 for 308 with no TDs or INTs.  Fast Willie carried the ball 25 times for 115.  The only touchdown in the game was scored by Tomlinson early in the first quarter and he finished with 57 yards on 18 carries.  Phirrip Livers had a poor day going 15 of 26 for 159 and no TDs with two INTs.

Frankly, there’s no good reason why the game will be significantly different this time around.  If the referee crew calls the game fairly and both teams get hit for similar amounts of penalties then the Steelers should win this one by 12 or more points.

Hopefully, knowing their next opponent will not distract them from the task at hand.  Coach Tomlin should guard against this.

Prediction:  Steelers win 27-13.
Actual:  Steelers win 35-24.  Stupid garbage time scores for the Bolts ruined my prediction.

In the News …

Wild Cards:  Road Warriors Poised To Upset

Can you believe it?  All four wildcard teams are favored.  That’s each pair in each conference.

“I’ve never seen anything like that,” said Mike Seba, a senior oddsmaker for Las Vegas Sports Consultants.

Vegas Likes the Titans and Giants for Super Bowl XLIII

The favored Giants are 2-1 to win with the Titans at 4-1.  Steelers are at 9-1 odds to take the big game.  Other notables are New England at 2-1 and Dallas at 7-1:  both failed to make the playoffs.

Pro Bowl Before the Super Bowl?

The Pro Bowl will be played one week before the Super Bowl in 2010 and both games will be staged in Dolphin Stadium, a person directly involved in the decision told The Associated Press on Monday.

Prediction:  All Pro Bowl selections from both Super Bowl teams will decline their invitations. Can you imagine the outcry were a player on a Super Bowl team to be injured in the Pro Bowl!?

Cowher Just Says “No” to Browns, Jets

Cowher … told the team he would not be a candidate because he would like to bring in his own personnel director.

Can you blame the man? Look at the rosters for the Browns and Jets. What a mess! Cowher would be a fool to accept such a job. A coach can only do so much if he can’t pick his own players.

Offense in a Groove

It’s official, the Pittsburgh Steelers’ offense is in a groove rut.  After taking a lead the boys on the offensive side of the ball got their shovels, started digging and didn’t stop.  At the end they were staring up from a 31-14 hole.

One hopes they find their way out before the next meaningful game, three weeks hence on Heinz Field.  The final against Cleveland means nothing, it’s like the final preseason game before the real ones start.

Somebody tell Bruce Arians that once in a hole, it’s time to put away the shovels – there’s no digging your way out!  And stop pounding those square pegs where they don’t belong, Brucey-boy.

pro-corbis-com-S1430-32

Bruce and Ben, to minimize future gaffs, please utilize the following table. It can only help.

Square Peg Round Hole
Willie Parker Up the middle
Delayed draw In the playbook
Ball in Ben’s hand 3+ secs after snap