I'm Lying to my Doctor About This Headache

Let's get this out of the way.

Here's where Hines is obviously in the wrong:

1. Whether or not you make a practice of lying to doctors, you probably don't want to tell that to Bob Costas. Especially in the current climate of hand-wringing about player health issues.

2. Mentioning that anyone besides yourself in the locker room had issues with Ben missing the game. That creates open speculation about clubhouse issues that will go on until the team is able to roll off a series of wins. Because that eradicates any such BS.

If Ben has, through years of persistent physical abuse, been allowed a pass to miss a game following a concussion, Hines gets one for letting his frustration get the best of him. This interview was conducted just hours after Hines and the rest of the team found out about Ben's removal from the line-up. Think about that. Significant game coming the next day against your hated division rival and the guy you practiced with and assumed all week was a go suddenly cannot. You'd be a mite bit ticked as well. Did Hines react poorly? Sure. He's backed down from there. Will it create a huge rift in the team? I can't say for certain but I doubt it. Meanwhile, the Mike Florios of the world will continue to spin it in the usual "drama queen" direction he needs to foster page views. It's annoying as it is inevitable.

As much as it tremendously sucks for the Steelers to hang as close as they did in a game they had no business being in in the first place, they can take a lot of positives away.

Rashard Mendenhall ran for 95 yards on 24 carries. Not an amazing line, until you consider the Ravens KNEW he was coming on probably 20 of those carries. There were few surprises out of that offense yesterday. The fact they were able to generate whatever success they had is a huge testament to the improvement of the O-line.

As much as we want to beat up on Arians, it's the second straight week where the team has had a late lead, only to allow the opposition drive the field and take the game to OT, where they eventually prevailed. Dick LeBeau is not beyond reproach. This has happened too often this year for blame to keep getting deflected from him.

The team, thankfully, broke its eight-game streak of allowing special teams or defensive scores. It really had to be if were to keep it close. There were a few times the Ravens had chances to break returns, though those were mostly the result of penalties. The punt coverage was generally stellar.

William Gay is turning into a huge scapegoat on the team, not that he hasn't deserved it at times, but he might have had a better impact than Ike Taylor yesterday. Gay did force one turnover while Taylor and Ryan Clark were beat on deep passes they were in position to defend.

Again, this late in the season with the position the team is in, moral victories mean little. But the team fought hard enough that at full strength they have to know that they are more than capable of knocking out the next five games. They dropped three straight to fall to 7-5 in 2005 and went on to win it all. They can do it again.

And as much as Ravens dicksmacks are getting off on the Hines Ward interview about Ben, you had to enjoy Hines carrying Ed Reed for 10 yards after a reception in the second half yesterday. Nice tackling as always, Ed, you wimpy little centerfielder.


So, So Very Close.

With their third string QB starting, without Polamalu and Kemoeatu, the Steelers took the Ravens to the wire. No shame in that. No win either. Can't understand why you wouldn't try another designed Dixon roll-out when the one time they did it, it reaped huge benefits.

Fucking Arians.

The Ravens can glory in their hollow victory for now. They aren't going anywhere. You can't even say Flacco outplayed Dennis Dixon. And Rashard Mendenhall sure as shit isn't afraid of Ray Lewis.


Reps With the First Team Offense? Dennis Dixon Don't Need That

"Up there! It's Baltimore's crime rate!"

Dennis Dixon, after not having practiced during the week with the first team offense, gets the start on the road against the Ravens. I suppose the only worse scenario would be if Ben had actually started and injured himself again early in the game. It's kind of amazing now that Ben through six seasons will have only started two games in Baltimore in his career.

I'm kind of freaked out about how Bruce Arians would respond to this. The immediate reaction from laypeople who don't follow the team is that the Steelers are going to bust out the Wildcat, but Arians hates the formation (obviously, of course, because it actually leaves somebody in the backfield - five receiver sets are where it's at!) and Dixon hasn't practiced it much since the preseason, and even then it wasn't an extensive amount of reps. I would imagine they're gonna give a try a few times during the game, but the Ravens have proven themselves effective against the Wildcat in the past anyway. I'd guess the Steelers will go superconservative, which worked wonders for Denver against Baltimore. The Ravens secondary is awful, but if you let them play up and not challenge them deep, you really have no chance against their front seven, even with Suggs out.

The defense will have to put together one of their best performances of the season for the team to have a chance. Without Polamalu playing, that's gonna be tough, but then it hasn't really been the fault of the defense that the team has been losing. Still, it's gonna take a lot of guys stepping up and probably a few mistakes on the Ravens end as well.

Nevertheless, even if the Steelers lose, there are some positives to take away. The Ravens don't get the triumphant vengeance they've been so desperately seeking even if they win. Yeah, they take over second place and put the Steelers in precarious playoff position, but the Ravens still won't have been able to beat the Steelers in any games that Roethlisberger has started since 2006. And it's good for Dixon to get an opportunity to perform in something that isn't the second half of a preseason game. This was a game that I figured the Steelers were likely to lose at the beginning of the season, given how much Baltimore has been drooling all over themselves for revenge. If the team can get healthy, they can easily make a five-game run to get in the playoffs.

Can't escape how weird the timing is for Ben to be sidelined (though the team has yet to comment officially) after a full week of practice. Already there is speculation that the league, ever mindful of concussion issues this season, put the kibosh on Ben starting so as to look responsible on the issue. I don't know. It wouldn't be the first time a QB felt the adverse effects of a concussion after reportedly saying he felt fine in the immediate aftermath. Still, the fact that doctors initially cleared him makes it fishy. Either way, it looks like Dixon gets his trial by fire.

UPDATE: Ed Bouchette reported that Dixon actually got the majority of the snaps with the first team offense on Friday. Hey, that's one day! It's something!


Decontaminate Corey Ivy

Be sure to coat Corey Ivy in all the anti-bacterial spray the team has on hand before allowing him into the practice facility. The Steelers picked up the former Ratbird, along with linebacker Rocky Boiman, to keep with matters special teamsian. Which it would have to be, because Ivy can't do dick in pass coverage.

But then neither really could the guy he'll be replacing on the roster, Keiwan Ratliff. That signing really threw me in the offseason. Ratliff was never well regarded by the Colts or the Bengals (probably why he was available). It seems as though the signing was based alone on catching the balls thrown directly to him in the Steelers/Colts game last season. It's like if the Steelers gave Andy Studebaker $5 million this off-season for happening to be where two Big Ben passes got deflected.

Mike Tomlin had sworn that the special teams problems weren't something that could be aided by a quick fix, though that's not stopping him from engaging in knee-jerk roster moves on special teams for the second week in a row. If the Steelers end their eight-game free TD streakon Sunday, it'll be hailed as a success, though it's obvious that much work still needs to be done beyond shuffling one or two players a week.


Rooting Interests: Week 12

Hypocycloid blocking view...cannot tell if turkey is done...

Oh, how I wish we weren't scoreboard-watching the out of town games with such apprehension these days. At first blush, I was annoyed with those people who claimed that a Steeler loss didn't hurt our chances as the rest of the AFC North fell as well Sunday. I preferred to wallow in my frustration and Winter Ale selection. But, aside from the morale hit and subsequent injury concerns, The Steelers still hold a playoff position as of now, one that would pit us against The Chargers in the opening round.

Amazingly, of the "Wild Card Teams" only Jacksonville and Miami won. Basically, Jacksonville took over Houston's spot and San Diego (who also won) supplanted Denver. Baltimore, Houston and Miami all remain one game away from our tenuously held playoff spot.

This breakdown of playoff teams and their remaining schedules is extremely informative, check it out. On to the games, team to root for in BOLD:

RAIDERS @ Cowboys
Importance: 0%

I'm only listing games that involve AFC teams as they're the ones that could potentially impact Steeler playoff prospects. That being said, this game doesn't matter fuckall to us. If the Raiders aren't mathematically eliminated yet they should be. I hate the Cowboys and must uphold my annual tradition of rooting against them whilst imbibing beer, wine, liquefied turkey fat, cider and nog. Love the nog.

GIANTS @ Broncos
Importance: 30%

As many predicted, no doubt, The Broncos lost this past Sunday and are looking like a team that peaked too early. With Kansas City twice *punches self* and Oakland remaining on their schedule, the Broncos remain a viable Wild Card Threat and should be rooted against as such. My guess is it's Denver or Jacksonville and if Denver can pull this game out, I'd give them the edge. Conversely, a loss here to NY at home would likely send them on their way toward implosion, every Bronco fan's worst nightmare. Again.

Dolphins @ BILLS
Importance: 25%

The Dolphins can take a small step toward threatening for a playoff spot with this game, but the truth is they're really living on borrowed time. Sitting at 5-5, four of their remaining games are against teams with winning records. I don't like the idea of rooting for T.O. but it's not like this game will really be on TV, either.

BROWNS @ Bengals
Importance: 40%

Brady Quinn had a QB Rating of 133 last week. He threw for 4 TDs. But, don't get sucked in to notion that he's morphed into a serviceable quarterback. It was against the Lions. And they lost. This'll be the game on tv in most of our homes, unfortunately. A win by the Brownies would be HA-YUGE for us, but I'm not ready to let myself think it's possible. But who knows, maybe something crazy will happen and it'll be worth watching....

Importance: 10%

The Jets are not making the playoffs. Not happening. But with Buffalo and Tampa Bay on the schedule after this game. A win over the Panthers and everyone will put them back "in the hunt." Just watch.

COLTS @ Texans
Importance: 40%

This is likely the most debate-inspiring game of the slate for Steelers fans. Do we want Indy to go undefeated? Of course not. Some will say that they're likely to lose one of their remaining games (Jacksonville? Denver?) but I'm becoming less sure about that. Perhaps the more pertinent question is: Do they look like a team that will win it all? To that, I say not really. Sure, they're winning the games but their are cracks in the facade and Manning's sulk was pretty heavy in Baltimore at times. But that's beside the point: The Texans need to lose. Despite having a somewhat bumpy schedule, they are a real threat to us. If Kris Brown could kick, The Texans would be in the Wild Card spot, not us.

CHIEFS @ Chargers
Importance: 20%

My rationale: If both San Diego and Denver lose then the only one will limp into the playoffs. But just looking at their schedule (KC, Cleveland & Washington) it's pretty clear that the Chargers are making the playoffs with at least 10 wins.

Jaguars @ 49ERS
Importance: 50%

This game will go a long way in determining Jacksonville's season. A win gives them a shot at holding on to their current Wild Card spot, something they essentially have to do with a daunting upcoming schedule. If they lose, they're out.

Importance: 10%

No way the Titans run the table an threaten for a Wild Card spot, but I'd just as soon clear that notion up now, before the media starts pimping it in a week or two.


Patriots @ SAINTS
Importance: 10%

It's getting hard to root against Brees & Co. Plus, Steeler hatred of all things Patriots is well documented. Again, I'm not too concerned with the idea of a team going undefeated through the regular season as a motivation for rooting one way or the other. There will be no shortage of hype (and turkey leftovers!) for this game and I'm betting it delivers.

To some degree, this all seems a bit moot as Steeler wins are the only thing that truly matter. But I am in need of rationalization of rabid alcohol consumption. Until next week.

This Year, I Am Grateful for Ed Reed Fail

Start at 4:40.

Dirtbird fans might break from referee whining long enough to point out that at least Ed Reed isn't inflicted with the Madden or the Head and Shoulders curse this year. While true, even a curse couldn't make Troy toss the ball to the other team to ice a big game.

Also, Troy can tackle, and not just when receivers are left out to dry.

Also garnering my thanks: the fact that Big Ben will play. Bawlmer fans like to gnash their mottled gums about how tough it is to win in The House That Modell Conned Maryland into Building Him With Taxpayer Funds but remember that Ben is 1-1 there as a starter. Not exactly a house of horrors, no matter how many times Dirtbird fans beat it in their own mouths with the picture of Bart Scott's hit on Ben in 2006.

The Ravens may have caught the Steelers at the best possible time, with the team having played like ass the last two weeks, Troy injured and Ben coming off a head injury scare, but screw them. I await Rashard Mendenhall's revenge on Stabby.


So I'm Almost Done Misery Drinking

Should probably chill with the Chiefs taunting, Sprint Steeler girl

You know, I don't much feel like going back and examining this game. It sucked in all the predictable ways it would have to suck for the Chiefs to win: a return touchdown, a couple of turnovers on the opponent's side of the field that turned into huge point swings, fuckwitted playcalling on key plays. The shebang. I'd rather be fixating on how much I hate the goddamn Ratbirds and their pathetic referee-blaming fans in advance of Sunday night's game, but what can you do?

STAGGERING FACT THAT EVEN IF YOU DIDN'T KNOW PROBABLY WOULDN'T SURPRISE YOU: The team has surrendered a defensive or special teams score in each of the last eight games. That's an NFL record, folks. Not even sure how the team went 5-3 over that span with that kind of generosity. It's a credit to the rest of the team that the Steelers largest margin of defeat is six points. But that's much consolation when you've dropped two straight, the latest to the fucking Chiefs.

Beside kick returns for TDs, there's another commonality between the last two losses. Starting the second half with a lead and proceeding to turn the ball over. Both were on tipped passes, but on each of those drives the team was noticeably pass happy coming out with the ball and the lead. The run was featured more prominently in this game, and Willie Parker even showed some flashes of utility (helps when it's Kansas City's run defense). But even with the offensive line playing better, it seems like there's no faith placed in the running game. And when the Steelers do try to run in critical moments or short yardage situations, it's a pitch to the left on a 3rd and 2 with Mewelde Moore.

The 3rd and 2 call will get all the attention as the huge Arians blunder of the game, but I was even more irate with how the Steelers final drive in regulation ended. It was almost a carbon copy of the conclusion of the Bengals game. Obvious blitzes by the defense while the passing game has four guys running down and no quick routes of hot reads in case Ben doesn't get five seconds to throw. Ben was a lot better about hitting checkdowns in this game than against Cincy, which I think was a huge part of why they were so successful in moving the ball so easily. But then the game is on the line and it turns into trying to hit a home run on every pass play.

It's just like when the Steelers get into the red zone. How many times in the last few weeks have the Steelers moved down the field with varied attacks only to switch to five-wide shotgun formations inside the 15? Not really the part of the field where you can afford to be obvious. You know, you can keep a rusher in the backfield just maybe even create the possibility that you might run the ball.

Until we get some definitive news on Roethlisberger, I don't want to start to speculate on the Ravens game. You know those assholes will be ready. It's their Super Bowl. The Ravens have been waiting for this game since January (I mean, except the part where they dodged a Week 1 meeting) and wearing shirts saying how much they hate the Steelers. There's probably no game the Ravens want to loss less than this one.

I'd like to say I'm not totally down about the prospects of winning if Dixon started, but I am. Maybe if it were the 2008 Steelers; they could pull out a 13-9 win. Not that this defense hasn't proven to be far off from that one. But the chances of a return TD or some other gimme score to put the game away are too high. And the Ravens offense is better than the unit LeBeau dominated a year ago. This is certainly a week, Ben or not, the Steelers have to end that streak at eight games. It'll going to be too tight a game. One such slip-up will get them a loss. I guarantee it. Not that the Steelers can't afford to split with the Ravens and still make the playoffs, but who really wants to leave it to that?


2006 Raiders Game Redux

No words. Should have sent an execution squad.

More Arians bashing and bemoaning special teams breakdowns will follow when I'm not wallowing in misery drinking.

But, hey, I think Hines and LaMarr Woodley played well.


If You Lose to the Chiefs They Kick You Out of the League

I feel a paraphrase of the Al Bundy line is an appropriate title here. And it while it may not hold true for the NFL, it certainly does for the playoffs. Lose to the goddamn Chiefs, even on the road, and you might as well hang it up.

But then that would require a breakdown on all levels on par with the 2006 loss to the Raiders. But then at least that Raiders team had a halfway respectable defense. The Chiefs suck ass in every conceivable way. 24th in rushing, 28th in passing, 27th against the run, 24th against the pass. Suck, suck, suck, suck.

And their biggest offensive threat is serving the first week of a four-game suspension. Jamaal Charles is capable of good things, but it shouldn't be that daunting of a challenge to contain him. When the Steelers last saw Matt Cassel, they forced him to commit four turnovers in a rout of New England last year.

Bruce Arians will probably get a lot of use out of Rashard Mendenhall, but then he's comfortable doing that when the Steelers play creampuff teams. Pit them against a reputable opponent and he just wants to air it out to the extreme. I'd just be encouraged by less formulaic playcalling here, unless of course Mendenhall is just destroying them on every play, in which case more of the same is fine. Big Ben is typically reliable for bouncing back after he admits he's had a bad game. Plus, again, it's the Chiefs. Granted, they've hung around in a few games against respectable teams. They gave the Ravens a closer game than they should have Week 1 starting their back-up. They took Dallas to overtime. Still, you have to go in expecting a convincing win.

But then this is another game with Polamalu out of the lineup (unfortunately, there are rumors indicating he might miss the first Ravens game as well) it's back to the more vanilla defense, not that it didn't play mostly effectively last week against the Bengals. But really, it's gonna have to be the usual culprit - a bad turnover of special teams lapse - that Kansas City would need in high quantities to pull this game out.


Rooting Interests: Week 11

I'm rooting for you to put your hands up, Miss

Dropping last week's game to the Bengals effectively cedes a two-game lead to Larry Johnson's new squad. If the playoffs began today, everything would be quite tidy in the AFC with Division Leaders Colts, Bengals, Broncos and Patriots earning births. The phrase "1st round bye" and Cincinnati seem so crazy when put together, but that's how it's shaping up currently. San Diego, who is making a "charge" (Oh, God, that's abysmal) for the West title would grab the other Wild Card along with the Black and Gold. In case you care, we'd be up against the Pats in that scenario.

The Steelers now find themselves in the thick of the AFC Wild Card hunt. As if this wasn't the case from week one, now almost every AFC game (except vomit-inducing match ups like Browns/Lions) is potentially huge for us. This is reason #358 why the NFL kicks ass so heartily: as the season progresses our fandom causes us to give a shit about things we didn't think we would. Did I want Matt Schaub to die a fiery death in Week 1? Not really, but now I hope the Texans' team plane crashes. So, at least for now, I'm looking to break down these match ups in accordance with potential impact on Wild Card status. Remember: The theme here is SCORCHED EARTH - any outcome that could in any way impact the Steelers must be factored (and importance quantified with meaningless percentages). Team in CAPS = team to root for.

Dolphins @ PANTHERS
Importance: 20%

At 4-5, the Dolphins do not pose too much of a threat, but a) they play almost every Wild Card eligible team down the stretch and b) we end our season in Miami, so we best keep an eye on the Fish.

COLTS @ Ravens
Importance: 50%

It's hard to root for the Colts, especially when undefeated. But it's much, much more difficult to root for the Ravens. Along with the Texans, Baltimore represents the group of teams currently just outside the playoff "bubble" and all too capable of working their way in. After starting 3-0 the Ravens look more pedestrian than many thought and Brady Quinn's chop-block on Terrell Suggs looks to have further cemented them in mediocrity. God, I love inter-divisional hate crimes! But I'm still wary. The Colts have all but locked up the first round bye already, might as well have them go down to another team on another week.

Browns @ LIONS
Importance: 0%

This game is like dead-baby jokes: disturbing and yet, hilarious.

BILLS @ Jaguars
Importance: 30%

I thought the Jags were going to be a surprise Wild Card team and they still can be, but my guess is they'll come up just a little shy with a 9-7 record. Still, better for them to take a loss here.

Chargers @ BRONCOS
Importance: 30%

It's unlikely both of these teams will make the playoffs and it's looking more and more like the Broncos will be the odd squad out. The Steelers have the tie-breaker in either instance, so it's not that important, but the weaker the field in the playoffs, the better chance we'll have. Let's have one of those the-better-team-loses games with the Broncos staving of full scale implosion another week.

Bengals @ RAIDERS
Importance: 40%

The Bengals' schedule is absolute cake heading down the stretch, but obviously we'll all be pulling for them to lose every single week. Our only hope here is that they overlook the Raiders and somehow manage to screw the pooch.

JETS @ Patriots
Importance: 40%

I cannot, in good conscience, pull for the Patriots. Not yet. The Jets are fading and with remaining games against the Bengals, Falcons and Colts it is safe to say "Sanchize" won't be making the playoffs in year one.

TITANS @ Texans
Importance: 50%

The Texans are an enigmatic bunch. Potent arial offense at times. Shitty ground game at others. But make no mistake: they can screw us over good. Remember, they're just a missed Kris Brown field goal (ha!) from being ahead of us in the standings. Meanwhile, the Titans under Vince Young have ripped off three wins in a row. But before the media gets all up on VY's junk consider that these wins were against teams with losing records at the time. Realistically, one more loss and they're probably eliminated from the playoff hunt. So, it's pull for the Titans to knock the Texans down a peg.

So, none of these game appear to matter THAT much. And looking at this particular slate of games may leave you rather apathetic. But taken in concert with one another (and Weeks 12-17) they'll determine both our playoff and potential match up destiny. And it's a great time of year! Thursday games! No more Bye Weeks! Coach firings!

Let me hear your take on all this rubbish in the comments.

UPDATE: CBS' 4 o'clock game coverage approach is interesting this week, with Pittsburgh and all points west of the Mississippi getting SAN/DEN and everything to the east (except Ohio) watching NYJ/NE.


Polamalu With PCL Sprain, "Questionable" for Sunday, But Not Really

Semi-good news, as it's been reported that Troy has been walking around without a limp after sustaining a PCL sprain early in Sunday's game against the Bengals. The team is listing him as questionable, but they'd have to be seriously retarded to use him any more than a series at most against the Chiefs, who beside being generally horrible are now without no. 1 receiver Dwayne Bowe, who has been suspended for testing positive for PEDs. Let him rest up for the Ratbirds.


Playcalling Tardery, Kick Coverage Breakdowns and Red Zone Blunders Key Bungle Sweep

Hey, remember earlier this week when I extended a half compliment to Bruce Arians for his improved playcalling? So, let's be clear that that is rescinded. If I may replace any such plaudits with a chainsaw lodged in his rectum, that would be just grand.

Obviously, not all of this maddening loss can be laid at the feet of that dopey fat shit. The O-line regressed horribly, especially Max Starks. Big Ben had an overall lousy game. The kick coverage remains a huge issue that continues to be exploited in close games. Hell, it proved to be the difference in this one. Cincy, to their credit, didn't commit the big mistake. The Bengals contained an underutilized Rashard Mendenhall and their linemen slapped down what seemed like 80 or 90 Roethlisberger passes.

But it must be noted that the league's signature overrated permachild, Chad Ochocinco, still did nothing.

Still - this game will be remembered by more textbook Arians idiocy (this being the constant and predictable run-pass-pass variety). With the talent the Steelers have on offense, they can still move the ball between the 20s with that kind of approach. But once they got in the red zone, the Bengals knew runs would be coming on first down, leaving them only have to defend two pass plays they expected to be coming. It certainly didn't help either that the Steelers were flagged for holding on two of their red zone trips. And Santonio had what would be a touchdown catch go through his hands.

I ridiculed the Bengals secondary going into this game, but they put forth a admirable performance. Naturally, it didn't help that Arians would consistently dial up late forming deep routes that couldn't get open before the pass rush rendered plays broken and that Ben felt it necessary to try a couple "fuggit, I'm going deep" throws into double coverage on several occasions during this game (even if one of these gambits yielded a stupid pass interference penalty by Cincy safety Chinedum Ndukwe that led to a Steelers field goal at the end of the first half).

And, as an extra swift kick in the junk, Troy Polamalu left the game in the first quarter after reaggravating his injured knee. At the moment, his long term prospects are unknown. His services probably aren't necessary next week against the Chiefs, but now that tiebreakers will be important against the Ravens, he will be integral in the game in Baltimore in two weeks.

If there's any upside to be found, it's that the defense gave up a total of 12 points on four field goals, one of which had be considered a big win given that the Bengals started their drive inside the Steelers 20 after a Roethlisberger tipped pass was intercepted. Still, the D also allowed Cincy to pick up a series of first downs mostly via the run late in the 4th, even with Cedric Benson having long since left the game.

Barring an epic Bengals collapse (never rule it out with Marvin Lewis leading the show, even if their remaining schedule looks to be mostly a cakewalk) the Steelers will be fighting for a Wild Card berth the remainder of the year. While it sucks to cede the division to a bunch of fairweather franchise protesting fans in Cincy, before the Steelers won it out of the no. 2 seed last year, the previous three Super Bowl champs came out of the Wild Card round. And, well, we all remembered what happened in the playoffs the last time Cincy won the North.


The Steelers Are a Better Team Than the Bengals - Now They Just Have to Show It

It was to date unmistakably the low point of this Steelers season - Pittsburgh went into Paul Brown Stadium and, thanks to a second half chock full of careless errors, handed a Bengals team the legitimacy it craved to establish with the rest of the NFL.

Granted, the Bengals made all the huge plays that had to be made late to squeak out that win, including an incredibly clutch 4th down catch and run by Brian Leonard deep in Steelers territory. But the Steelers should not have lost that game, nor even let the Bengals get close. And as a team that has appreciably improved its play since that game, Pittsburgh should not lose this Sunday either.

The are several reasons to be optimistic for this game. It's at home. Unlike the first Bengals game, Troy Polamalu is playing. Limas Sweed won't have a chance to drop touchdown passes, because Mike Wallace has more than ably assumed his spot on the depth chart. And Willie Parker, who put up easily his best game of the season against Cincy with 93 yards rushing and a TD catch, has given way to a back capable of inflicting much more damage on a defense. And while Aaron Smith is gone from the Steelers for the season, the Bengals have since lost Antwan Odom, Roy Williams and Chris Henry. Not to mention that vengeful linebacker Keith Rivers is likely to be out for this game as well. Meanwhile, Lawrence Timmons returns for the Steelers, though Travis Kirschke is looking to miss his second straight.

While Cedric Benson didn't get to the 100 plateau in the first game in Paul Brown, he certainly didn't have a bad game either, averaging 4.8 yards over 16 carries. Even though they won, the Bengals are playing into the Steelers hands in most circumstances if they're holding Benson under 20 carries when he's that effective. I wouldn't expect them to duplicate that mistake on Sunday.

Though the Bengals rush D is statistically ranked second only to the Steelers through nine weeks, their pass defense remains among the bottom eight in the NFL. Jonathan Joseph had an outstanding game against the Ravens, but he's still isn't a guy you have to be terrified of when running your passing game. That and the Steelers receivers are bit more difficult to defend than Derrick Mason and his purple-clad band of scrubs. Yes, he was the one who recorded the pick-six in the first game, though that was more the result of Santonio running the wrong route and the ball coming directly to him. By and large, he and Leon Hall have been exploited by these receivers handily in the past.

As I mentioned in the recap of the Broncos game, I thought the Steelers were way too vanilla on offense early last week, perhaps reasoning that they would have to counteract an attacking Broncos defense. And while more of the hurry-up would be nice to see, at least trying to play action sometime before midway through the 2nd quarter is probably an advisable tactic.

The O-line played well in Week 3, allowing only one sack. The Steelers pass rush, meanwhile, had only two to its credit, though Palmer is typically not one to take a great many of them.

Kiss the 400 lb. man-baby, Chad

And, of course, coming off a big week against the Ravens (despite carelessly fumbling twice - though one was negated by penalty) Ocho is doing his thing. He wanted to send the Steelers mustard because HARF HARF HARF they play in the ketchup stadium. A lapidary wit, that Ocho. As I cited before the Week 3 game, Ocho has three career TDs in 17 career games against the Steelers. it'll likely be three in 18 games after Sunday. He can make as many cheeky little signs about it being illegal to cover him one-on-one as he wants, but Ike Taylor finds a way to consistently shut him down. If William Gay can deal with Coles and Troy does his thing with Andre Caldwell, it'll be another game that's the Steelers to win.


"Where I'm Going, I Won't Need Road Beers"

New Benstonium Burghability video. Chuckleworthy stuff, though the concept is a slight quibble for me. If you die because you were sloppy drunk and rowdy from only drinking IC Lights, perhaps you had it coming. God just wants to thin lightweights from the herd. And if a girl pukes on your Lawrence Timmons jersey, that's just her subtle way of saying you should get a Keyaron Fox jersey.


Steelers Midseason Positional Breakdown

Not a particularly sexy headline there, but then it's a post with a bit of a spartan purpose. Let's look at how the Steelers are stacking up through eight games in as many phases of the game that I deem worth discussion. Worry not, there'll be plenty of talk to come later in the week on the pivotal game against Cincy.


Quarterback -- Last year, thanks to a Week 1 shoulder injury, coupled with a wholesale lack of blocking or help in the running game, Big Ben had a middling statistical season, which gave cause to his many detractors to dust off the long disproved "game manager" label. Hell, even though he's been playing at a Pro Bowl level all year (and been to a Pro Bowl in the past) Jaws invoked it at the beginning of the Monday Night Football broadcast. Again, it's a sad misnomer that will hopefully fade with time and his ever-mounting lost of accomplishments, but who knows. While some of his turnovers aren't on him (Week 1 Hail Mary interception, pick six caused by a missed hot read by Santonio against the Bengals, fumble against the Broncos after Kemoeatu got beaten badly) he's had the occasional bad misfires, such as the redzone interception in Denver. Still, hard to find much to bicker about here.

Running back -- After he's torched the Chargers, there was skepticism about how Rashard Mendenhall would fare against a respectable run defense. Two solid performances at home against the Vikings and on the road in Denver have quieted those doubts in a hurry. Still, it's his first full season in the NFL, so it's good that the team has Mewelde Moore to grind out yards late in ballgames to ensure Mendenhall doesn't get worn down before the end of the year.

Fullback -- David Johnson appears to have played himself into this role for the forseeable future. He had a few nice blocks to spring long runs this past week. A welcome find in what has been a fruitful '09 Draft for Tomlin and Colbert.

Wide receivers -- The big question coming into the season was if the Steelers could ably replace Nate Washington as the no. 3 receiver and with who? Suffice it to say, Limas Sweed was not up to the task, but Mike Wallace has not only made Steelers fans forget about Nate, he's already appreciably better than Nate ever was at any point in his career in Pittsburgh. Excluding his Week 1 fumble, Hines has been nothing short of great. Santonio endured some mental gaffes earlier in the year, and still is a little up and down in his week-to-week output, but has otherwise steadied.

Tight end -- It's Heath Miller. He's good.

Offensive line -- Like Wallace, another pleasant surprise. Hell, even Willie Colon has gotten the stupid penalties in check, while Max Starks, whose contract extension I bemoaned endlessly during the offseason, has been downright stellar for most of this season. Gotta hand it to the guy keeping in check two elite rushers in Jared Allen and Elvis Dumervil in check the previous two weeks. Granted, Chris Kemoeatu was beaten badly on a play that resulted in a costly turnover, but otherwise Roethlisberger has time to throw and Mendenhall had running lanes against Denver.

Playcalling --Not that I'm turning into a Bruce Arians defender by any means, but he's been easier to take this year. He wisely committed to the run against the Broncos, though I was surprised by the lack of play action until midway through the second quarter. There was a lapse into his usual "let's run on first down to keep the defense honest then go into obvious pass formations on 2nd and 3rd downs" early in the game, which is partly why the Steelers had difficulty early on.


Defensive line -- Denver simply could not run against the Steelers, even when their pass game was working in the first half. Adrian Peterson would solid, if unspectacular coming out of the backfield. Aaron Smith will be missed at times throughout the rest of the season, but nowhere near are sorely as anyone initially expected.

Linebackers -- Surprise! There's still probably among the best units in the league. Keyaron Fox is challenging Lawrence Timmons for playing time the same way Timmons did to Larry Foote. That's not a bad problem for a team to have. LaMarr Woodley sack stats, however, are way down, though he has made his presence felt in pass coverage and run stopping. And lately he's getting a lot of pressure on QBs even if the sacks aren't coming to him. The fumble recovery against the Vikings was also a needed boost for him, though we've still yet to see a monster game out of him this year the way we have with James Harrison.

Corners -- William Gay is getting routinely picked on by quarterbacks. At the moment, it's probably the biggest concern the team has. Again, he's a first-year starter, there are adjustments to make. And I don't think he's played terribly. He should have had an interception against Denver that was jarred away by Polamalu. He'll need to step it up as the season progresses, however. Ike has been routinely solid

Safeties -- The league got a reminder that a healthy Polamalu makes all the difference to this defense. It was good to see Tyrone Carter step up in Ryan Clark's absense. Like I said last week, Tyrone's skill set more closely matches Ryan's than Troy', which is why I think he fared much better against Denver than when he had to play Polamalu's role earlier in the season.

Coaching -- The most frustrating aspect of the defensive playcalling to date in 2009 has been how far corners have played off receivers, which opposing offenses have takens advantage of more than anything else against the Steelers. At first I thought it would disappear with Polamalu's return, but it remains. Might have something to do with a lack of faith in William Gay at this point. It would be nice to see them at least attempt to play some press coverage.


Kicking -- As long as Jeff Reed is quiet and not trying to fight cops, the kicking game is fine. After a disaster in Chicago and another miss in Cincy, Reed has bounced back somewhat. The short kickoff and perfunctory tackle attempt on Percy Harvin's touchdown return two weeks back was another thing that will dog him come contract offer time, but it seems at least he's getting the message to shut up and play.

Punting -- Watching Mitch Berger shank a few for Denver on Monday night was another splendid reminder how much better off the Steelers have been with Sepulveda back.

Coverage -- It was looking shaky for a few weeks, but responded very well against Eddie Royal in Denver. And while they got burnt two weeks in a row, it came against Joshua Cribbs and Percy Harvin, two of the best return guys in the NFL this year. Not to say we should expect them to break down when going against good competition, but these are players capable of hurting anyone.

The team has really been able to congeal within the past month. Whereas last year, the Steelers were a team with very glaring weaknesses and obvious strengths that could compensate for them, this is a more complete team we're seeing this year, which is a startling thing. A lot of credit is due to the coaching staff and scouting for helping to plug those problems, despite a rough start, through adjustments and the draft. Should the upward trend of the past month continue to play out, repeating is a very real possibility.


At Last, a 4th Quarter Putdown to Quash All Doubt

Kyle Orton came in with one interception all season. He threw three tonight. Ryan Clark's replacement had two of them.

Meanwhile, Ben Roethlisberger tossed three touchdowns. Rashard Mendenhall ran for more than 150 yards, and for a change didn't cough the ball up. The special teams denied Denver its needed long return, while neglecting to surrender a cheap turnover.

That's all you need to know this was the second big Steelers win in as many games.

Of course, all could have been different if not for another consistently huge effort by the defense. While the unit was burned by the pass during the Broncos first three or four drives, they held firm and allowed a mere three points while putting up seven of their own in the first half. Thanks to a couple confounding turnovers by the offense in Broncos territory at the beginning of the offensive onslaught in the second half, the unit was called on to shut the door again. Look no further than Troy Polamalu. With Denver getting the ball inside their own 20 down 14-10 with nine minutes remaining in the 4th quarter, Troy made a run blitz off the corner for a loss, then on the following play made an interception to set up a backbreaking TD pass from Roethlisberger to Mike Wallace.

The contrast in running couldn't have been more encouraging. 173 yards to 27 on the road. Though we know the early season pattern that saw the Steelers come out of the gate in the 1st quarter resulted in repeated failure, it would be nice to see the offense put up an effective job in the first half. The defense, too, seemed in the first half like they hadn't learned much for the Ravens win over the Broncos last week, playing too far off receivers and leaving the middle of the field wide open for slants and crossing routes. But William Gay getting burned early on quickly morphed to a stifling effort by all involved. A singular effort by Brett Keisel must be acknowledged. While the rest of the pass rush was unable to bring down Orton, it was Keisel who was able to sling two sack arrows out of his quiver (still think Keisel has one of the best celebrations in the league).

The best oversized towel of the night for a two-TD receiving effort.

This week, The Steelers lived up to their side of the deal, as the Bengals did theirs. Next week instantly becomes the biggest game of the year for either team. There wasn't much tonight that didn't declaim that Pittsburgh isn't up to the challenge.


Traveling Light Into Thin Air

I'm sure a lot of observers who watched the Broncos game against the Ravens last week came away thinking the Ravens had somehow created a blueprint to beating Denver, which is kind of silly, because, even though Baltimore had more success than other teams have had against Denver's defense, Josh McDaniels put together one of the stupidest offensive gameplans I've seen this season. Unless he plans on replicating that week in and week out (and, hey, I wouldn't particularly mind) Monday night will hardly be a carbon copy of that game.

The Ravens were playing up on the line pretty much the entire game. McDaniels' visionary counter to this was a steady diet of running up the gut and throwing receiver screens to Brandon Marshall. Which might have worked if Baltimore were running all-out jailbreak blitzes on every play. But obviously they weren't and it made for a strategy that played directly into Baltimore's hands.

Any chance that Denver tries the same thing against the Steelers? I wouldn't bet on it. The shortcommings of Kyle Orton deep ball necessitate playing a little conservative, but what they did last week was turtle offense. And the fact that they didn't alter it much, if at all, tells us Mike Nolan is responsible for a lot more of Denver's success than Belichick's deciple might be.

But Denver is still a team, not unlike the Steelers at times, that can have a poor offensive showing and be able to put up wins. The previous game against San Diego, the team was largely outplayed, but managed a victory by dint of two return touchdowns by Eddie Royal. That's of particular concern to a Steelers teams that finds itself with alarmingly poor kickoff coverage the last two games. Because the Broncos sports statistically the league's best defense, another break down in coverage could be the difference between a win and a loss.

Max Starks performed admirably two weeks ago, shutting out Jared Allen, the NFL's sack leader. He'll be tested again facing Elvis Dumervil, who trails Allen by only half a sack. More commitment to the ground game would be nice to see, especially given the immense success it had against the Vikings. How you can have a back averaging nearly five and a half yards per carry and limit him to only one game with more than 20 carries is astounding. The lack of adjustment for the offense was troubling last week. I have said that in general Bruce Arians has done a better job this season, but there had to be recognition from the success of the running game and the end of the half touchdown drive that the short yardage passing game needed to be ditched in the second half against the Vikings. They were fortunate that it did not cost them and they can't afford to be as rigid if they run into problems on Monday.

In addition to Ryan Clark already (smartly) ruled out, it looks as though Travis Kirschke and Lawrence Timmons are unlikely to go, or at best, see very limited playing time. Keyaron Fox is a luxury is that there's no dropoff without Timmons, though you have to worry about depth should something happen to he or Farrior. Kirschke's injury means more reps for Nick Eason and Ziggy Hood, but thankfully, the chances of them getting overmatched are lessened with the Broncos right tackle Ryan Harris already out for the game.

As for Sunday, obviously I'll be keeping a keen eye on the Bungles and Ratbirds. Even with Haloti Ngata hobbled, I don't see the Baltimore getting swept by Cincy, though I've been wavering on which team I'd prefer to see lose that game. A Ravens loss drops them woefully behind in the division race, with games remaining against an Indy team that crushed them last year, two against the Steelers and another tough trip to Lambeau. A Cincy loss obvious gives the Steelers a chance to take the division and control of the no. 2 seed on Monday night, both of which would be nice but don't mean a ton at the halfway point in the season.


Can You Believe This Booshit?

Yeah, a receiver who blocks a lot is much worse than a 300-plus pound defensive lineman who stomps on people's faces. Or a safety who's made a illustrious legacy of horsecollaring people to death? And how did Vince Wilfork not crack the top 5? Last I checked, Hines never took a flying elbow at someone's knees.

Nice that SI happens to quote a Bengal to corroborate that Hines is supposedly dirty. Can't believe they got that reaction.

There are some dyed in the wool false hater perceptions the Steelers are never going to shed. Big Ben as game manager who only wins because of the defense is one. And Hines as dirty cheap shot artist is another. Naturally, this becomes Exhibit A for the latter argument.

I'd be interested to know where the distribution of votes came from. Hines got 11.6 percent of the 296 players surveyed. Wouldn't be shocked if those roughly 30 who named him the dirtiest in the league were primarily Ravens, Bengals and Browns players.


Your Quarterly AFC Team-By-Team Breakdown

Running low on AFC team themed Google images...

Recently, I was asked why I confined this monthly piece to the AFC. The rationale: Unless we happen to be playing them on a given Sunday, NFC teams do not matter to the Steelers. And the playoff landscape of the NFC certainly doesn't. Making the playoffs as healthy and with as good a record as possible SHOULD be the goal of every team at the onset of the season. I didn't give a sugar-frosted fuck about the Arizona Cardinals until last January (except Edgerrin James, who was on my fantasy squad because I am a fantasy "guru," clearly).

What follows is a break-down of The AFC, but I've included what I see as the NFC picture for now, like I'm some sort of soothsayer, I know...


Indianapolis (7-0): Wish I had been wrong about this one, previously. Pey-Pay actually looked rather pedestrian Sunday, failing to find the end zone. Again, Manning is going to put up his usual numbers (his cast of offensive characters is definitely better this year) but the defense is what is securing their place at the top thus far. The Colts just got safety Bob Sanders back and have held opponents to the lowest points total in THE ENTIRE NFL. The good news: their schedule has been relatively easy (The Titans were not the test anyone thought they'd be and it's fair to say Miami was more of a struggle than some thought). Additionally, the four game stretch that lay ahead of them will likely deliver at least one loss. Texans (potential shootout match up), Pats (over-hyped match up), @Ravens (lingering abandonment hatred/potentially stabby match up) and @Texans again will not be a cake-walk. Still, The Colts have the inside track on a first round bye. I fully expect that they'll claim one.

"One Hiccup"

Denver (6-1): Speaking of inside tracks, The Broncos still have one as a path to the AFC West title, though it did get a bit more bumpy Sunday. Orton was shown by the Ravens to be completely disoriented and incapable of delivering a big strike down the field. The running back situation here should not by a cause of opponents' concern, either. I'm tentatively optimistic about the Steelers' chances of snagging a win at Invesco, Monday. That being said, The Broncos' D will still keep them in most games (they only gave up two offensive TDs to Baltimore) and they have the Redskins, Raiders and Chiefs (twice) left on their slate. Pick up one additional win (especially against the Chargers) and the Broncos will be the weakest division winners in the AFC playoff picture.

"On a roll..."

Cincinnati (5-2): Possibly the most impressive thing about this team is that they're 3-0 on the road with wins in Green Bay and Baltimore. That's DEFINITELY not the old Bengals. Even in Carson Palmer's "WhoDey Hey-Day" they struggled away from the Queens City. The Bengals have won shootouts (Chicago & Green Bay) and tight defensive matches (Baltimore), they've won with the running game and passing game. It definitely seems as though their biggest obstacle is themselves as untimely turnovers essentially lead to their two losses. As far as I'm concerned, Cincy is legit and capable of a playoff run. The AFC North picture will come into focus in the next two weeks as the Bungles play the Ravens then Steelers to start November. With Oakland, Cleveland and Detroit on their schedule afterward, getting even one of those two divisional wins will put them a very good chance of making that run a reality.

New England (5-2):
I just don't see any way around the fact that the Pats win the AFC East. Not with The Jets floundering. And certainly not with the Bills and Dolphins and their respective inconsistent offenses lead by garbage-heap QBs. What's more, Brady & Co. won't be underdogs in a single remaining contest, save slight ones at Indy. Dammit, I really don't want another year of Boston-based sports media pandering...

Houston (5-2): Um, if this Ryan Moats fella is even a little bit of the play-making threat he looked at Buffalo we may have our Wild Card front-runners, here. Then again, two of their next three are against Indianapolis (SEE: "Scheduling Anomaly"). Personally, I think it'll be a playoff miss, but a narrow one.

"Head Above Water..."

Baltimore (4-3): No getting around it: This team will have more to do with deciding how The Steelers' season plays out than any other on the list. Are they the league's best defense? Hardly. Should we expect to take both games against them? I wouldn't bet on it. The Ravens are gearing up for the Nov. 29th contest against Pittsburgh like it's the damn Super Bowl. Have been for months. But they'll be coming off what's sure to be a challenging contest versus Indy, while we BETTER be riding high off a win in KC. Every year, a teams' schedule is set with six divisional games, and eight "tied-in" games consisting of teams from a division within their conference and a division from the other conference. This leaves two games that are decided
by their finish in the division from the previous year vs. the same place finishers in the other conference divisions not on the schedule. The Ravens' this year get New England and Indianapolis. And THAT will be what keeps them from dancing into the playoffs, in my opinion.* Surely, the Ravens' losses to Minnesota and to Cincy at home didn't help their situation and puts them at a disadvantage comparatively, but make no mistake: They're good enough to keep us from the postseason.

*Fixed due to commenter "Luz" Thanks. I think.

San Diego (4-3): Let's not get excited about this team having beaten the Raiders and Chiefs - they're supposed to do that. A disappointing ground game (not a single 100-yard rushing game between either Sproles or LT) and literally one too many difficult remaining games on the schedule means The Chargers will make it interesting (they have the Titans and 'Skins to close out the season), but come up just a little short.

"Even Steven"

New York (4-4): Whoops. Swept by the Fins. It'll be a long bye week here. Pats, Falcons, Bengals and Colts all still left on the schedule for these guys. That's at LEAST seven losses and won't be good enough to get them in. Hope they aren't on our schedule next year, though, they'll be on the rise.

"Spoilers Alert"

Miami (3-4): The only team from here down that has any legitimate shot at the post season, and an outside one at that. The Dolphins would have to at the very least split with the Patriots to make a postseason push. Given that, it could be done as they have a soft-ish schedule and a serviceable ground game. Then again, consider these numbers: 44.2, 92.0, 130.4, 45.0 and 87.8 - No, that's not the o-line's IQ stats, it's Chad Henne's QB ratings this season: The picture of inconsistency. Likely not good enough to get into the tourney, but fully capable of ruining another teams' chances. Here's hoping they're out of it come the last week for our sake.

"Juuuuust a Bit Outside"

Jacksonville (3-4): I feel bad for MJD. Languishing as a top-teir back on this squad. Honestly, I thought conditions were perfect for the Jags to make a run, but going to OT with the Rams and losing by three scores to the Titans put that idea to bed. Still a really weak schedule remains, but they missed their window.

Buffalo (3-5): See what kind of Karma you invite when you sign Terrell Owens? The offensive numbers here are just disgusting. The truly scary part? If they'd beaten the BROWNS they'd be .500

"Don't Get Comfortable, Coach"

Oakland (2-6): It would be great if the Raiders could get their act together enough to put up a fight agains the Bengals in three weeks. Ah, who am I kidding? They're more likely to make me lose my stuffing on Thanksgiving the following week.

Tennessee (1-6): Isn't there just a little part of you that thinks the Titans could make a run with VY only to see his mental state break down? Obviously it's too late for this year, but I bet they still have 4 or so wins in them.

Kansas City (1-6): Not a fan of having to play AT Arrowhead or knowing that Jamaal Charles is fully entrenched as their back now. Still, if we can't handle this team we don't deserve the playoffs.

Cleveland (1-7): Hopeless. No other word to describe this team, coach and franchise. Years away from competing.

Trying to predict the AFC North outcome is FAR more daunting than the Conference picture as a whole. As it stands now, ours is the only division with three winning teams in the AFC. I still feel like The Ravens are on the outside looking in as they have the home loss to the Bengals, but it obviously could move in any direction.

The Playoff Picture as I see it:

AFC NORTH: Steelers (11-5)
AFC SOUTH: Indianapolis (14-2)
AFC WEST: Denver (11-5)
AFC EAST: New England (12-4)

AFC Wild Cards: Cincinnati (10-6) and Houston (11-5)

NFC NORTH: Minnesota (13-3)
NFC SOUTH: New Orleans (15-1)
NFC WEST: San Francisco (10-6)
NFC EAST: Philadelphia (12-4)

NFC Wild Cards: Atlanta (12-4) and Dallas (10-6)