Training Camp Starts on July 30th

With training camp 2010 less than two weeks away, bloggers everywhere have dusted off their keyboards in preparation for a season of ill-conceived, homer opinions.

I’m looking forward to this season. NFL pundits of all stripes are writing off the Steelers. Guess what, that’s how the boys in black and gold like it. And it’s how I like it! It gives me extra ammunition for a full season of blogging activities, that extra bit of self-righteous indignation, basically, a little extra inspiration.  (“And you fools actually thought the Steelers couldn’t win with Leftwich?  Ha!”)

When camp gets rolling we’ll begin to see the bigger picture. Will the Steelers implement more of a running based offense? Did Tomlin do the right thing in retaining Bruce Arians (NO!)? Will the offensive line get it together despite the injuries? What can we expect from the secondary this season? How is Aaron Smith feeling? Will Polamalu be healthy this year? Will Mendenhall continue to improve?  Will Isaac Redman make the roster this time around? Is Mike Wallace up to the challenge?

Yes people, these questions and more will be answered over the next month as camp comes and goes and the preseason games begin. And after the regular season is a quarter done, the biggest question for most people will be answered.  What of Ben Roethlisberger?

Big Bad Ben?

It’s just what the world needs:  another opinion on Ben Roethlisberger.  Why not though?  I’m right in the target demographic that loves to have an opinion on this topic.  Sports fan?  Check.  Steelers fan? Check. Blog that nobody reads? Check.  What a perfect confluence!

My thinking is all over the place on the topic of Big Ben, particularly after reading the recent Sports Illustrated article.  The article didn’t change my mind on the legal issues.  Ben has a civil case in Las Vegas related to an incident last off-season and there’s the more recent incident in Georgia which, so far, has yielded no legal proceedings.  It seems like there’s no shortage of extremely judgmental thinking in this area but the facts are quite simple. First,  no criminal charges have resulted from either case.  Second, it’s not illegal to be an asshole. Third, we need morality police like we need another hole in our head.  That’s not the “royal we” either, it’s you and me I’m talking about; we don’t need ‘em and we certainly should not perpetuate the despicable behavior.

So there.  Am I a jaded sports fan? Perhaps. But if we stick to the facts we see two acts of possible assholery.  Does anyone even wonder if there could be an NFL next season if Roger Goodell suspended all the assholes? Not me.

What disturbs me more about Big Ben is the sense of entitlement. When will he learn that a little humility and gratitude go a long way? As a fan, Ben’s attitude worries me. It makes me think that his better days are already behind him, at the age of 28!  He should be entering the prime of his career with every reason to expect multiple Lombardis to come. Don’t hold your breath fellow Steelers fans, not until we see some changes from the man. (It actually feels odd to call someone who behaves like Roethlisberger a man.)

It would be nice if Roethlisberger showed us fans that he understood he’s playing a role in a larger production. He’s part of a team; hell, he’s part of an institution. He played a small role in their Super Bowl XL victory in that he didn’t flat-out lose the game for them and he made a few important plays down the stretch. His role was much larger in Super Bowl XLIII though, his performance absolutely vital to the outcome.  But they wouldn’t have won without a great performance by Troy Polamalu or without the outside linebackers turning up the intensity at the end or without Silverback’s record-setting interception return or without the MVP’s clutch catch. Yes, it was a team victory. It always is.

What do I want to see out of my quarterback? Not much really.  Just the commitment of guys like the following season’s Super Bowl quarterbacks, Drew Brees and Peyton Manning. Brees does nothing short of walk on water in New Orleans. The rest of the the time? He’s beating his coach to work to study and remove any weakness he can find. Manning? When he’s not whoring himself out to yet another commercial sponsor he’s staying late to throw passes to his young receivers to help them improve their game to help him improve his game to help improve the team, even if it sometimes isn’t enough (see SB XLIV).

So what’s the point of this blog entry? Just to say this one thing, “Hey Big Ben, grow the fuck up.”

What the Doctor Ordered

This isn’t about the team physician recommending that Ben Roethlisberger sit out the Ravens game; rather, it’s the next opponent on the schedule.  And friend, the Oakland Raiders are just what the doctor ordered.

While Dennis Dixon performed well enough to get a win in Baltimore, the end result was another loss.  A terrific finish to the first half of the season has morphed to a disastrous start for the second half as the Steelers have lost three in a row.  They are 6-5 and out of the playoff picture.  They’ll most likely need to run the table and cross their fingers to grab the last playoff spot.

Losing to the Bengals at home hurt.  Losing to the Chiefs on the road hurt more.  But losing to the hated Ravens after holding the lead and forcing 4th and 5 on their side of the field with less than two minutes remaining?  That’s a poke in the eye and a kick to the privates.  The Steelers need a win badly to end this 3-game skid.  And what better way to start than with the Oakland Raiders?

The Raiders are starting journeyman Bruce Gradkowski at QB after benching Jamarcus Russell.  But it doesn’t seem to matter as their dismal offensive output plods along at 10 points per game, last in the league.  And while the defense looks good in some categories, they give up over 20 points per game.  Surely the Steelers can manage to net a touchdown and couple of field goals on offense while breaking even on special teams and defense.  Is it too much to ask?

Answer this, can the current Super Bowl  Champions lose to both Kansas City and Oakland in a three-game span?  I say no, they can’t.  The Steelers are better than that.  They still have possibilities this season, but they must defeat a bottom feeder this week to begin realizing them.

Yahoo says they’ve been there before:  “Their task over the next five weeks is a familiar one to the veterans. They were 7-5 and had to win four straight to make the playoffs in 2005. They did just that, and then swept all four in the postseason on the road to win Super Bowl XL.”

Big Ben will be back.  The Steelers need to take their medicine and whip those dirty Raiders.  Then all will be well.

The Horror at Arrowhead

Sing to the tune of The Candyman, Willy Wonka style:

Who can take a winner?
And run them in the ground.
Who can break a running game that was newly found?
Bruce Arians
Bruce Arians can
Bruce Arians can ’cause he calls a stupid game and makes the offense go away.

That’s right people, Bruce Arians can turn a 17-7 halftime lead into sure defeat. It requires a special kind of talent to blow a game like that. It’s a rare coach who can call 26 passing plays to 10 running plays with a 10 point lead.

I suppose Arians is an easy target.  He didn’t ask to start in a 7 point hole.  Thank you, special teams!

And he didn’t give up a late 91 yard TD drive.  Thank you, defense!

And I suppose he didn’t tell Big Ben to toss those two interceptions.  Thank you, Ben!

But he did call the offense and design the offensive game plan.  Is the goal to get Ben over 300 yards or to win football games?

Maybe this team isn’t who we thought they were.

Maybe we’ll find out who they are next Sunday night in Baltimore.  I’m curious about how many points the Steelers will get on the betting line because there’s no way Vegas considers this team a favorite.

Prove them wrong, Steelers.

Steelers Versus the Bye Week

The Pittsburgh Steelers have walked a strange path so far this season.  They started with a victory over their 2008 nemesis, the Titans of Tennessee.  But they lost their All World safety to a cringe-worthy knee injury which had fans cursing Madden NFL maker EA Sports and their selection of Troy Polamalu for the game’s cover.

Two weeks and two losses later had fans cursing the hangover effect.  How could a team led by the mopey Jay Cutler defeat the Steelers?  How could the Bengals defeat the Steelers?  The Bengals!? How could the Ravens already have a two-game division lead? How could the Steelers be in third place in the division they’ve owned for the ’00’s?  How could Jeff Reed do this to us?

Now, at the end of October, the perspective has changed.  The Steelers have a 4-game winning streak.  They knocked off the undefeated Vikings, sacking the Fav-ruh and stuffing the AD.  The Ravens lost three in a row and now the Steelers share the division lead with those surprising Bengals.

Are things getting back to normal? Polamalu has returned to the lineup but Aaron Smith’s season is over (even if he didn’t grace EA’s game cover).  Seemingly shaky early in the season, the defense is rounding into form.  And while it’s still Big Ben’s offense, the running game has emerged.  Whether due to Rashard Mendenhall’s recent opportunity, an improved offensive line or a little of both matters not.  The Steelers ran the ball on the Vikings and got tough yards when necessary.

So now we find ourselves at the bye.  It’s time for the team to heal, regroup and successfully negotiate the off week.  That means you, Jeff Reed.  Stay in the car.  Everyone else, as you were.

Then it’s straight ahead to the next challenge, the undefeated Denver Broncos and football in November.

Vikings, Then the Rest

Despite a difficult start, the Steelers have won three in a row and improved their record to 4-2.  Next, they face an undefeated Minnesota Vikings team that was pushed to the limit by the Baltimore Ravens.   The Vikings pulled out a 33-31 victory only after the Raven’s 44 yard field goal attempt missed slightly to the left as time expired.  That the Vikings were able to post 33 points against the Ravens defense is a minor concern, that the Ravens offense was able to post 31 points is a point of inspiration.

The Ravens defense has not been nearly so stingy as last season, they’ve already given up 100 yard games to two running backs, most recently to Adrian Peterson (143 on 22 carries) of the Vikings.  So the fact that Minnesota was able to post 33 shouldn’t be a major worry.

The Steelers are still looking for a solid, quality win this season.  Minnesota will provide that opportunity when they visit Heinz Field next week.  The Steelers match up well versus Vikings, even sans Aron Smith.  Generally speaking, Adrian Peterson will get his yards and he may do so against the Steelers’ defense.  But it’s Brett Favre who causes concern, especially if a team is overly focused on Peterson.  Fortunately for the Steelers, Troy Polamalu is back and he simultaneously upgrades both the pass and run defense.

They’ll need to be wary of the speedster Percy Harvin in the kicking game and deep-threat Sidney Rice in the passing game.  But they must not over look Favre’s new favorite TD target, tight end Visanthe Shiancoe.  It will be important to contain Peterson such that he doesn’t gash them for 225 yards and 3 TDs, but such a performance is much less likely than Favre getting hot for 4 TDs should things start clicking.

That’s why this is an opportunity for the Steelers’ linebackers to stand out with Lawrence Timmons and James Farrior taking care of Peterson and Shiancoe while Lamar Woodley and James Harrison pressure Favre.

Offensively, the Steelers present problems for a Vikings team that had difficulty containing the Ravens when it counted.  Ray Rice, who looked like a poor man’s Brian Westbrook, had a field day rushing and receiving.  This may provide a chance for Rashard Mendenhall to further cement his place in the offense, particularly if he presents as a good target should Ben Roethlisberger need a relief valve.  And to say that the Steelers’ wide receivers outclass those of the Ravens is a gross understatement.  One hates to get overzealous, but the Steelers could get off to a big start if the Vikings aren’t ready to play, but such a scenario shouldn’t be expected.

There’s every reason to expect a close game, one that is in contention until the final tick of the clock.  The pick?  Home field advantage proves to be enough, give me the Steelers, 30-24.

There’s No Place Like Home

After two weeks in the proverbial wilderness, Heinz Field must have been a welcome site.  Even if the confines of home had no effect on the Steelers’ strange 4th quarter woes, the end result was favorable as they saved a gem of an offensive performance and held off the Chargers, 38-28.

Ben Roethlisberger was nearly perfect in throwing for 2 TDs and 333 yards on 33 attempts. He completed over 78% of his passes and kept those iffy (sometimes costly) throws out of his game.  Truly, Ben was on fire and the offense as a whole efficiently decimated the ailing Chargers defensive unit.

For the fourth straight week, the offensive line protected the QB.  Most would blame Roethlisberger for taking three sacks and he likely wouldn’t argue.  Even the young Mendenhall chipped in, violently stuffing a blitzing linebacker to the turf.

When he wasn’t picking up blitzes in the passing game, Mendenhall led a resurgent Steelers’ running game, compiling 165 yards and 2 TDs on 29 carries for a 5.7 (!) ypc average.  He combined vision, patience and power when attacking on the inside with speed and shiftiness when taking the ball outside the tackles.

One hates to use the term “must win” but indeed, sitting at 1-2 and already trailing the division leader by two games, the Steelers sorely needed the victory.  As fortune would have it, the division-leading Baltimore Ravens fell to the New England Patriots, reducing their lead to one.  Considering the two games still to come against the Ravens, the Steelers’ 2-2 record seems more manageable.  Perhaps one can even consider it a motivational tool that Coach Tomlin will have at his disposal.

Super Bowl Hangover?

Not a chance.

Overconfidence against the Lions?  Don’t bet on it.

Two in a Row is No Trend

What are we Steeler fans to make of this? Two road games in two weeks result in two sloppy losses. In Cincinnati as in Chicago, the Steelers dominate the first portion of the game only to see halftime leads fall to lackluster offensive play and a defensive effort that simply wasn’t good enough.

For the second week in a row the Steelers’ defense dominated a game only to yield the game winning score with only seconds remaining. And, for the second week in a row, the offense looked productive in the first half only to sputter in the second.

Was it a mistake to return 9 of 11 defensive starters? Are fourth quarter collapses revealing old legs? The head may be willing but it appears the body simply cannot deliver.

Of course, these late afternoon start times aren’t helping. The defensive line is likely considering a nice nap before a discount supper at the cafeteria.

What are we to think? In a game that appeared to be dominated by the Steelers from the start, the offense underwhelmed in the red zone. In a game that displayed a running game apparently back on track, the offense eventually couldn’t get out of it’s own way. The offensive line provided great protection but Big Ben tossed another horrific interception that was returned for 6 points. Limas Sweed’s demons returned in stunning fashion as a great catch in the back of the end zone became a gut-wrenching drop. Jeff Reed missed another field goal and a Hines Ward penalty canceled another first-down play.

The only positive to take back to Pittsburgh is the excellent play of rookie wide receiver Mike Wallace. Unfortunately, he plays for the offense and will be rendered ineffective over the long run by the schemes of Bruce Arians.

Just as there are team victories, this game must be categorized as a team defeat. Let’s hope that Coach Tomlin can right this train before it careens off the track.

Bright Spots from the Chicago Game

Perhaps I should get back to you on that.

Really though, let’s see, bright spots – think now, think.  Got it!

There were no new injuries.

It was a non-division, non-conference loss.

The running game showed signs of life.  I saw a few sparks before Bruce Arians stomped out the embers.

The Steelers had to have their kicker uncharacteristically miss two field goals, have Big Ben toss a horrific interception and give up two late scoring drives to lose that game.  Any two of those would be unusual enough but to have all three coincide on the road against a solid football team is rare.

What did we learn?

Troy Polamalu was missed, but his absence was not the reason for the loss.  They didn’t, but they can overcome.

It is still impossible for a left tackle to hold James Harrison.  Apparently, there’s a New Rule.

Big Ben is a big John Elway fan.  Nah, we already knew that.

Bruce Arians’ play calling can bring the offense to a screeching halt.  Nah, we already knew that as well.

There’s always next week!  Watch out Bungals, trouble is coming to town.