8.30.2010

Impressions From Preseason Game Three

So that was rather unpleasant.

Dennis Dixon got his chance to prove to the world why he should be the Steelers starting quarterback for the first quarter of the season while Ben Roethlisberger sits in timeout. Instead of furthering his case for the job, he turned in a pretty decent Kordell Stewart impression.

Dixon looked flummoxed. His decision making was extremely poor. While he guided the team on three long drives, they all ended in turnovers - two on horrible interceptions and a turnover on downs when Dixon failed to convert a 4th and 1 in the 3rd quarter.

There is no excuse for the first interception. It was a textbook example of trying to force a pass in desperation when nothing is available. There was no chance he was going to drill the ball in the corner of the endzone to Matt Spaeth through two defenders. The kid likely felt pressure to make something big happen in his shot with the starting offense, but no intelligent quarterback makes that throw.

Emmanuel Sanders has to share blame for the second interception that was run back for six, as he got caught flat-footed. Still, it was a route the Steelers had already run earlier on that very drive, and it was nearly intercepted on the first attempt. Obviously, Arians gets the blame for running the play again, but at this point in his career, Dixon isn't experienced enough to audible out of that play or look for other options, which is why you're going to see Byron Leftwich under center in two weeks against the Falcons.

It wasn't only Dixon who struggled with the first unit. Keenan Lewis evoked every dreadful image of William Gay's cornerback play last season, with a pair of mindless personal foul penalties thrown in for good measure. There have been a lot of reports that Lewis should push Bryant McFadden for a starting job, but once he returns from injury, it's safe to say that McFadden's job is safe.

Gay, however, made an impressive interception on Kyle Orton. I think Gay will thrive in his return to the nickelback role. I've heard a lot of his struggles last year being attributed to overconfidence. I can't speak to that, but it sounds plausible enough. What he went through last year - both in terms of experience and some necessary humbling - should make Gay a much better role player in 2010. Of course, one interception in the preseason doesn't necessarily mean the corner has been turned, but it's an encouraging sign, for sure.

Except for back-to-back false start penalties on Max Starks and Flozell Adams, the line looked better than it had in the earlier preseason games. Pouncey looks ready at center. I had initially worried that moving him to center now might create a slight upgrade at that position while costing the team at right guard, but if so, that wasn't apparent on Sunday night.

I have to say I'm more excited for Mike Wallace now than I was for Santonio after his rookie season. As speedy as he is, Wallace will probably never be as good in the open field as Santonio, but at this point, he looks like he'll be better on the deep ball, and not prone to the same mental screw-ups.

It's hard to gauge the overall performance of the defense. If not for the stupid penalties, they probably would have fared better, but it's hard to say with any certainty. Lewis will likely get a ton of shit for the two stupid fouls he committed. The flag on Silverback was kind of ticky tack, so I'm not going to be incredibly worried that the team is going to be riddled with penalties this year. Of course, these aren't things you want to see in the dress rehearsal preseason game.

Other observations:

Sepulveda isn't shining on kickoff duty, but they might as well put him on kick coverage. He's been the most tenacious tackler on punt coverage probably all preseason.

Jonathan Dwyer finally had a good showing in Isaac Redman duty against the scrubs.

Rashard Mendenhall did pretty well for a guy with a broken arm (DIAF, Mark Madden).

For all the dumping on Dixon, it's not like Byron Leftwich instilled much confidence once he entered the game in the second half. I'm willing to believe that had more to do with apathy. He's going against a second team defense, and after the performance Dixon had just put on, he couldn't have felt like there was a lot of pressure on him to dazzle anyone.

8.23.2010

Getting Caught Up - Running Backs

All you, Rashard

With all the attention garnered by the quarterback position the past few months, the remainder of the Steelers' backfield has faded in to the background in terms of topical discussion.

But not in terms of importance. As just about any yinzer will tell/belch at you: DEM STILLERS NEED TO RUN DA BOLL MORE! JUST YIKE WHEN BUSSY WAS ARAND!!

If Bruce Arians had his way, we'd run 5-wide sets until the female Browns fans came home. But, our reliance on the pass, or perhaps ineffectiveness with the run definitively bit us in the ass last year. In fact, let us take a look at a few somewhat cherry-picked stats:

2009:

1,793 yards rushing as a team (20th in the league)
10 rushing TDs
4,148 yards passing as a team (9th in the league)
28 passing TDs

2006:

1,992 yards rushing as a team (9th in the league)
16 rushing TDs
3,733 yards passing as a team (9th in the league)
23 passing TDs

Yes, our previous ill-fated Lombardi Trophy defense campaign, despite finishing a game worse than 9-7, was actually more productive on the ground. As you can see, both teams were top 10 passing attacks. And it got them mid-January tee-times. A case can be made that with a porous O-line, establishing the run was less of an option last season for the Steelers. A case can also be made that the NFL's landscape is changing toward multiple wide-out sets and running back committees. In fact, of the ten teams that rushed for over 2,000 yards last season only half made the playoffs. So are teams really WINNING with the run? Should it really be a priority for the Black and Gold?

A successful ground game MUST be used to keep opponent secondaries honest and dictate a minimum of coverage in the box. THIS is it's true value. Mendenhall & Co. will succeed if Arians is willing to commit to play calling that establishes the ground game early and then hammers opponents in to submission late. Remember that W-L stat they used to trot out in the 4th every time the Steelers were up? I miss that.

Let's just get to the ball-carriers:

Rashard Mendenhall: Last season, Mendenhall got his shot at the title of workhorse back. While he did rush for over a thousand yards, he only averaged 65 yards a game. However, he did quell concerns about his fumblitis (though he coughed one up last week) and, with 25 receptions, proved to be a better passing option out of the backfield than some had figured. I still get wood thinking about his 2 TD, 165 performance against San Diego in Week 4. It's too much to say this team will go as far as he takes them, but if they are going to shatter the ceiling most pre-season prognosticators are putting over us, it'll take a top-ten year from #34.

Jonathan Dwyer: Steelers' 6th round draftee out of Georgia Tech has failed to wow in camp. Showing up to Latrobe over weight was an obstacle he had just about overcome, only to sustain a shoulder injury that has limited his preseason touches since. Practice Squad fodder.

Mewelde Moore: With only 35 caries last season, Mewelde qualified as a bubble player at the beginning of training camp. Moore's ability to scamper to the open field and make grabs out of the back field will secure him a spot as a 3rd down option. Dwyer's injury/lack of pop indicates that there will likely be room for both Moore and Redman.

Stefan Logan: Currently listed as a running back on the Steelers roster, return duties were "The Joystick"'s to lose at the beginning of camp. It's looking like he has. Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders are both burners and have the inside track on Logan.

Isaac Redman: Most fans remember Redman generating preseason buzz last year. And then not making the roster out of camp. The difference between now and then is The Steelers are the ones furthering the buzz. Coaches are impressed and "Red-Zone's" numbers seem to indicate he could be a solid goal-line option and change of pace for Mendenhall. Redman lowers to deliver hits, secures the ball with two hands right at the line and runs between the tackles, all indications that he's a serious runner who will stick on the roster this year, maybe even serve as our #2.

Frank Summers: A halfback at UNLV, "Frank the Tank" Summers has been transitioned to lead blocker the past two seasons in Pittsburgh. An injury ended last year early for him, but reports indicate he will likely make the roster as either the first or second fullback.

Justin Vincent: Not much on him as he's barely seen the field on either preseason game, but it looks like Rookie Squad for Vincent.

Dwayne Wright: The only player listed at FB on the Steelers roster currently, Wright was claimed off waivers from the Eagles. He and Frank Summers are likely to come in at 1/2 at that position.

With all of the shifting on the depth chart here, I'm glad I procrastinated waited to write this up. This rather fluid stable of running backs does not scream league-leading rushers. But it does indicate that the Steelers are intent on committing to the run a bit more with heavier, bruising backs.

Up Next: Signal Callers

8.16.2010

Impressions From Preseason Opener

The Steelers had their preseason opener on Saturday evening. Not having access to the local feed, I had to wait on NFL Network for the taped broadcast on Sunday morning. With it being the preseason, I wasn't in a huge rush to lay out my loosely connected thoughts on what transpired. So, not the most timely recap ever, but here it is nonetheless.

- Really liked the idea of Sepulveda handling kickoff duties. This has never been a strength for Jeff Reed. It's hard not to attribute some of the problems with coverage last year to him booting short liners to waiting returners. Skippy was visibly frustrated when he sent the opening kick of the second half to the 12 after a few respectable attempts in the first. Still, this is never going to be a forte for him.

SteelersDepot put together a reel of his kickoffs from the game.


- Rashard Mendenhall is still having problems holding the ball away from his body. This has to be a huge point of emphasis of the running backs coaches. Any opponent this year has to be keyed on going for the strip with him. If someone like me could frequently spot it in live action in games last year, you know rival coaches are all over it. On Saturday, he had a huge gain turn into an essential no-gain after the tackler was able to punch the ball out making even a glancing shot on him.

- Leftwich didn't look very good, but then pass blocking was a huge and distressing problem. Flozell Adams had the most visible miscue, allowing Cliff Avril to blow around him for a sack almost completely untouched. I'm not going to let one dismal performance in the opening preseason game to go into full-on panic mode, but unless the pass blocking improves in the next two preseason games, Mike Tomlin might have to give real consideration to starting Dennis Dixon, if only because of his ability to elude rushers.

- Leftwich did get to take one shot down the field. Spotting Mike Wallace streaking deep along the right sideline, Leftwich slightly underthrew Wallace, who made an effort to get back to the ball, but was interfered with by the Lions corner, though it ended up being a bizarre non-call. Leftwich did miss Battle high on what might have been another touchdown opportunity, but the pressure being what it was, it's hard to fault Byron too much for that mistake.

- That said, I wasn't as blown away as others were by Dennis Dixon either. Benefiting from better blocking and playing against reserve defenders, Dixon only had maybe a handful of good throws. Sure, he was able to pick up the longest gain on the night by scrambling to the left and finding Battle on the sideline for a nice catch-and-run, though there were also a number of other fairly routine reads that it Dixon misplayed. While I agree it would be nice to get him reps with the first-team offense during the preseason, you also have to remember that Leftwich has to get fully reacquainted with the starters before Week 1, not to mention that Ben is going to need to get some snaps in so he won't be coming in completely cold once he's reinstated, whether that's in the fifth of seventh game of the year.

-Mewelde Moore made a nasty block on Zach Follett on Dixon's TD run. Of course, if Hines makes that hit, people are whining about it for days.

- Someone who does need a few earlier looks is Issac Redman. The guy has been a preseason standout for two years running. Last year, a lot of fans were aghast when he didn't make it past final cuts. With less depth on the roster this season, he seems like he might be a lock to make it, but it would be nice to know how he's fare against stronger competition before bringing him up the big time.

-Redman's long screen run was welcome, not only because it was well executed, but because the Steelers didn't run anywhere nearly enough screens last year. Hopefully that's a sign of the more conservative gameplan Bruce Arians plans to implement for the early part of the year, which if successful, could have a place for after Roethlisberger returns.

- The first team defense was impressive. The Lions got their only score on a long drive in the first half, but it was after several of the Steelers starters had already been pulled.

- WHAT HO! A Ryan Clark interception! Yes, I'm still rattled by the paucity of forced turnovers from last year.

- Ben looked deeply fazed by the scrutiny of his sideline plodding. Perhaps not fazed enough? MIKE FLORIO SAYS HE NEEDS TO BE PHYSICALLY SHAKING FROM CONTRITION! HE CLEARLY HASN'T LEARNED HIS LESSON!

8.10.2010

Mike Pereira Beats Back Leavy's Apology

"Libeskind glasses don't miss holding calls!"

All right. This is hopefully the last Super Bowl XL referee post I'm forced to do for a while. Or at least before the season starts. Or before my afterlife starts.

The point being that erstwhile NFL Vice President of Officiating Mike Pereira came forward in his Fox Sports column to defend the validity of the calls made in Super Bowl XL. Well, except the very obviously wrong personal foul call on Matt Hasselbeck, which - again - changed very little about how the game played out.

Pereira did write that the holding call a few plays prior called on Sean Locklear was, in fact, correct, despite what Leavy is now claiming. Here's visual proof. Yeah, that's a textbook hold.

With the call being correct, the Seahawks have very little to complain about. Had the hold not been called, there was at least a decent chance that they might have been able to win. But it was a penalty and it was called, whether or not Leavy has misgivings years after the fact. Pereira argued that Leavy actually would have has a better argument flagging Haggans for being offsides. Fair enough. Then you simply have off-setting penalties.

Public opinion, at least among the portion of the public unwilling to accept that the Steelers won the game on their own, is not likely to be swayed by Pereira's defense. These people will brand him as a lackey mouthpiece of the league, as they reflexively do when he comes to a conclusion they dislike. Going forward, we're back to ignoring the folks who can't get past their own spite.

8.08.2010

What Could Make This Offseason More Tedious?

Hey, I know! A pointless revisit to the Super Bowl XL officiating discussion! Fun fun fun!

So the big news late in the week was referee Bill Leavy coming forward to say he's still souring over missing two calls in the 4th quarter of Super Bowl XL. Diddums, Bill.

The two calls in question: the clipping penalty assessed on Matt Hasselbeck and the holding call on Sean Locklear earlier in the drive. Such admissions, of course, have only brought the conspiracy theorists to a froth and given cause to facile bloggers to conclude

Of course, the problem with all these arguments is that they always see to focus on the Seahawks grievances. Nowhere in Doug Farrar's Shutdown Corner post is any mention of the blatantly incorrect ruling that Jerramy Steven's catch, five steps and a fumble was ruled an incomplete pass. I mean, yeah, what does that matter? It's only a turnover.

With Farrar's post, there's also the problematic assumption that because these two calls were wrong, then somehow all the other contentious ones were as well and it's only a matter of time before they are admitted by an official. Of course, there's no evidentiary grounds to make that argument, but it follows well the easy media narrative that has followed the game from its conclusion. This call is wrong, therefore they are all wrong and I'm free to make whatever conclusions I like!

Farrar claims that neither the Steelers nor the Seahawks played well enough to win. This is a meaningless statement, because what is the baseline winning performance? The Seahawks outgained the Steelers by 58 yards, got one more turnover and held the ball for seven more minutes. Sure, these stats would suggest that the Seahawks would win the game the majority of time, but certainly not always. Hell, at one point in the second half, the Steelers were a few yards away from taking a commanding 21-3 lead before Roethlisberger threw his worst pass of the game in the endzone. If the Steelers were truly manhandled, as he and others foolishly claim, how is it possible they could be in that position after not having a single first down in the first quarter of the game?

Let's examine the calls Leavy is discussing. First off, that the Hasselbeck personal foul call was incorrect comes as news to absolutely no one. It was a dreadful misstep, albeit one that didn't change a great deal what happened after that. Say the post-possession foul is never called. Most likely Hines Ward runs an additional 15 yards on Randle El's trick throw and the outcome is the same. Obviously, things might have played out differently, but 15 yards in that scenario didn't put the Steelers in a position where they absolutely were going to score. Not anywhere close.

That Leavy considers the holding call on Haggans to be incorrect is a surprise. I've watched the game at least six times and I haven't once thought that it definitely wasn't a hold. Steelers tackle Max Starks is still certainly of the opinion that it is one. For the sake of argument, let's say that it is indeed wrong. Then the Hasselbeck interception never happens. Quite possibly, the Seahawks score to take a 17-14 lead. We know the Steelers score on the next drive. This, of course, would have given the Seahawks one more chance to take the lead. The way Mike Holmgren was managing the clock in that game, do you really think they would have done it? I don't.

Then again, the refs didn't force Hasselbeck to respond to the holding call, right or wrong, by throwing an extremely costly interception. And there lies the critical difference between the two teams in that game: the Steelers made the splash plays, as Mike Tomlin would call them. At one point, Ben Roethlisberger, who played an overall poor game, did convert a 3rd and 23 to Hines Ward to set up the game's first touchdown. Willie Parker had the longest run in Super Bowl history. Randle El hit Hines on a deep pass to clinch the victory. Can you think of one big play that Seattle had in that game?

By the way, but sorry, the Roethlisberger rushing TD was ruled a touchdown on the field. Even if you think the video evidence doesn't show that Roethlisberger broke the plane - I think it does - you must admit that it's too inconclusive to overturn the call on the field. Therefore, again, it's a touchdown. Them's the rules.

The longest play the Seahawks had from scrimmage was 31 yards. The Steelers, by contrast, had two plays of at least 40 yards, both of which went for touchdowns. When you have long, plodding marches that extend down the field that result in a missed field goal or a turnover, you're probably going to have the advantage in yardage and time of possession. Unfortunately, you're also probably going to lose.

The sad legacy of Super Bowl XL wasn't that it had a few incorrect calls (affecting both teams, mind you) and a few more borderline ones. The same can be said of lots and lots of games. It's that the losing team pathetically, disgracefully and publicly whined about it. Yes, Steelers players and fans have taken issue with calls in the past. For all the bitchy talk that the Steelers are always the beneficiaries of the referees' help, let's recall that they've lost two playoff games in the last decade on highly questionable calls (the Dwayne Washington's running into the kicker penalty against the Titans in 2003 and the uncalled hold - later acknowledged by and apologized for the NFL - on the critical 4th and 2 against the Jaguars in 2007). In neither of these incidents did the Steelers carry on like they had been robbed and make mewling comments during press conferences. Why? Because in each case they had other opportunities to win and didn't take advantage. Three weeks prior to Super Bowl XL, the Steelers were the victims of a huge incorrect call that overturned a Troy Polamalu interception that would have clinched the game against the Colts. And you know what? The Steelers won anyway. Sure, it made the game closer than it needed to be, but bad calls happen and great teams rise above.

Believe me, I'd love never to have this discussion again, but it'll continue to crop up pointlessly now and again, mostly because of Madden's complaining during the Super Bowl broadcast and the Seahawks whining immediately thereafter. And, of course, the fact that many people hate the Steelers and have to try to discredit one of their titles to be able to accept the fact that it happened. For those unwilling to actually analyze what happened, that's enough to convince them that the referees were the deciding factor in this game. But anyone who is honest with themselves knows that, ugly as it was, it was victory that was earned, not awarded.

8.02.2010

All Yinz Readers Are Fine

You heard us! Eat shit, Brett Keisel!

The time spent contributing to three other blogs has kept me away from DCSN for the last few months, but given what's transpired in that span, reluctance has been easy to come by. It's obvious to all concerned that this was the worst Steelers offseason in quite some time, if not ever.

-Roethlisberger furnishing drinks to a minor and putting himself in a position where he could be accused again of sexual assault, with the subsequent suspension and media stoked mob that remains certain of his guilt despite any conclusive evidence. (Insipid comparisons to the O.J. case are especially infuriating, as LAPD had sufficient evidence to convict OJ but most if not all of it was deemed inadmissable, whereas Georgia prosecutors had NOTHING on Ben. Fred Bright admitted he couldn't even prove the two had sex, despite an immediate medical examination of the accuser).

- Santonio's club incident, drug suspension and trade.

- Limas Sweed's season-ending injury (I'm being liberal in my counting this as a negative).

- Willie Colon's season-ending injury. Colon had gone from being a huge liability in 2008 to being arguably the team's best lineman in 2009. As much embarrassment that comes with the team having to sign an aging asswipe like Flozell Adams, after losing Colon the team's already thin depth at tackle had become an instant emergency. The prospect of Trai Essex being the first-team starter on the outside in not something the team wants to face at the beginning of the year.

- Maurkice Pouncey being investigated for taking money right before leaving Florida. Not significant as it pertains to this season, but yet another "Steelers have lost their way" story to bring down the general mood. That said, I'm still high on Pouncey and think he will do well this year.

- Jeff Reed inexplicably getting pissy about not getting a long-term deal. Last year was far from his best. Taken together with the overriding movement to rid the team of clownish buffoons, he might consider himself lucky to have a job at all. All I can say is lucky for him there are so few kickers who have shown they can be consistent at Heinz Field, or he would have been gone long ago.

- LaMarr Woodley 30 Percent Rule contract complications. Earlier today, Wood tweeted that negotiations are done for the offseason and that he's 50/50 on remaining with the team after this season. It could be that the team has plans to retain him if the franchise tag is still an available option come next year. Possibly they could reach a deal anyway, but given the money being thrown around to secure other players long term, I wonder how much leeway they have to get that done. It would take an incredible leap of faith to assume that Jason Worilds could be able to come close to replacing Woodley were he to leave after this season.

The consensus among Steelers fans I've talked to about this season is uncertainty. That's not an across-the-board kind of thing. More like, how bad could it be? That said, bad for Steelers fans hiked expectations means a repeat of last year's empty winning record. The outliers fall to either sky falling panic or unchecked optimism, though the latter has been slightly more rare. I'm seeing things only in extremes as well. Either Polamalu, Aaron Smith and other key components stay healthy. Bryant McFadden's return helps stabilize a shaky secondary that will also benefit from Polamalu's presence. With the defense near its '08 form, capable play from Leftwich and consistency from Mendenhall would be enough to keep the team in contention until Ben gets back, when renewed focus will have him ready to push toward a playoff run.

Or, conversely, everything just comes undone from the start and never has a chance to recover. Obviously something in the middle could also, and probably will, occur. Really, nothing would come as a surprise at this point.

But, hell, anything would beat another spate of off-the-field troubles. Even on-the-field ones.