2.09.2011

Well, At Least Hines Will Return

I've only spoken with Hines Ward once and it was a phone interview done last spring probably about an hour after it was announced that Roger Goodell was suspending Ben Roethlisberger. He told me he was planning on retiring if the Steelers won the Super Bowl. With what was going on at the time, it seemed a very ridiculous condition on which to pin your career plans.

He backed down from that claim as the Super Bowl approached, saying he wasn't going to retire no matter the outcome. I'm not sure that's true. At the conclusion of the AFC Championship Game in Pittsburgh, he was climbing into the stands and exchanging hugs with fans. I watched the broadcast later and it didn't seem to get picked up on TV. To me, it came off as something of a send-off for a guy thinking he might have played his final home game of his career. I think he just played down his career plans so as not to serve as a potential distraction.

I could be wrong, of course. He might have just been typically exuberant after beating the Jets. Even for a guy with two rings, going to the Super Bowl is not a mundane experience. And the retirement talk might have been frustration based on the way things seemed to have been unraveling last spring.

Either way, it's moot, because as we're all painfully aware the Steelers did not win the Super Bowl. Had the Steelers completed their comeback, I think Ward would have made a compelling case for MVP. Obviously it would all depend on how the final drive shook out if it were successful. If it were, Ben probably gets the MVP unless he throws a TD to end it to Hines. Two TDs, including the game-winner might have earned Ward his second SB MVP award of his career.

And credit to him for stepping up huge in the game. His seven catches for 78 yards and a TD were better than his two outings in the AFC playoffs combined (five catches for 39 yards and one score). It was especially pivotal with Emmanuel Sanders having been lost in the first half.

Hines is already scheduled to have more offseason surgery. And no one will make the mistake that he's not on the downside of his career in terms of production. He probably only has a year or two left, tops. Obviously, he's still valuable as a third receiver and even more for his leadership with the rest of the young receivers. I'd imagine he's owed no small part in the emergence of Mike Wallace from one-dimensional deep threat to full-on star receiver this season. And Wallace will likely only continue to thrive while learning from Ward, as will Manny Sanders. By the time Hines is done, the Steelers may have quite the staple of receivers waiting to take over.

In many ways, Hines has been the signature player of the team since Bettis retired. So it will seem like a changing of an era when he finally does hang it up. Good for us that's still at least one year away.

2.07.2011

You Can Only Overcome So Many Mistakes At The Super Bowl

Keep reaching, Mendy.


The Packers played a very good game and Aaron Rodgers a great one, but Steelers fans are going to look back at Super Bowl XLV and agonize over the many opportunities squandered and what might have been. Like Super Bowl XXX, it was a game they never led, but seemed just on the cusp of taking control of, until being undone by costly turnovers. At least the ones on Sunday weren't quite as ugly.

Were it just the two first half turnovers, the Steelers very well might have completed what would have been the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history. But twice being situated on the Packers' side of the field with a chance to draw closer than 21-17 resulted in a frustrating decision to attempt a 52-yard Shaun Suisham field goal and later a huge fumble by Rashard Mendenhall.

Nice trajectory.

Despite all that, of course, the Steelers still had a shot at the very end to stage last-second heroics, having the ball with two minutes left and a timeout, though a stupid penalty by Keyaron Fox meant it would have to be a touchdown drive of 80-plus yards. It stalled out pretty quick. The last throw by Ben to Wallace was off target. Even if it's caught to maintain the drive, the Steelers probably have to burn the last timeout inside of a minute with the ball still on their side of the field. Not impossible at that point, but not the greatest likelihood of getting a touchdown, either. I'll give Antwaan Randle El credit for having probably his best game of the season, but that was a time when Emmanuel Sanders was missed.

It was just such a schizophrenic postseason for the Steelers. Garbage first half against Baltimore capped by a heroic comeback in the second. Dominating start against the Jets that almost slips away in the second half. About as miserable a start to the Super Bowl as they could have had, but one foul-up too many and a lack of a huge play by the defense in the second half prevented another championship. Obviously it would have been nice to get a great performance from start to finish, but obviously there are not many teams in the NFL capable of such outings, at least this season.

For the most part, Ike Taylor did a good job with Greg Jennings. Both of Jennings' touchdowns can on plays where Ike wasn't covering him. I realize McFadden was coming in hurt and even left the game at one point, but getting corner help is going to be a huge necessity in the coming offseason. If you think teams can spread out the Steelers and dink and dunk now, just try seeing the defense without Ike.

For all the pregame attention on Doug Legursky, his name didn't come up much during the game, which is generally a good thing for a lineman. I'd have to watch the game again for a full evaluation, but other than one mishandled snap between him and Roethlisberger, I felt like he had an all right game. Can't complain much about injuries when the Packers also lost Donald Driver and Charles Woodson during the course of the game.

It's a disappointing conclusion for what could have been another championship season. That it was there for the taking lends more regret the more one thinks about missed chances, but it's worth stressing that many people - myself included - never saw the Steelers getting even this far given the shitstorm of horrible things that happened the previous offseason. They won the division. They furthered their dominance over the shithead Ravens with a third playoff victory over Bawlmer. They denied Rex Ryan a trip to the Super Bowl for the second time in three years.

Presuming there even is a season in 2011, there remains reasons for optimism assuming the team can retain Woodley and Taylor. The two starting tackles will return. Presumably more help on the offensive line should arrive. And hey, something might happen to Bruce Arians, not that he'll be fired now, presumably. Granted, it's another year older for Ward, Farrior and Hampton, but the Steelers have positioned themselves well for the future at wideout and obviously at linebacker.

It'll take a while to get over and, as all Super Bowl losses do, will linger more than your garden-variety postseason defeat, but it's not the end of the run for this team yet. Let's just hope they get a chance to keep it going in 2011.

2.06.2011

Make It Happen



Maybe making Roger Goodell eat crow and hand over the Lombardi trophy to the Steelers, especially Roethlisberger or James Harrison, won't be the single greatest thing about a Steelers victory today, as the question suggests. But it would be way up there.

2.04.2011

Keeping Rodgers' Championship Belts Invisible And Ironic

If you've paid any attention to Steelers detractors over the past three weeks, you've probably heard how the team got lucky to avoid a Patriots team that presents difficult match-ups for the defense. Of course, that supposed luck only goes so far. To win their seventh Super Bowl title, the Steelers are going to have to best a team that can stretch the defense with an elite quarterback. And one that has a more talented roster than the Patriots.

Most likely, you've heard Steelers fans say feel less confident about this game than they did against the Ravens and Jets. That makes sense. There are a few troubling indicators in recent history. The two games this season the Steelers played against what we could reasonably describe as elite quarterbacks (Tom Brady, Drew Brees) capable of spreading the field resulted in losses. The lone game played in a dome was a loss, even if that was more on an offense that hadn't yet found its stride. Aaron Rodgers is a top-tier quarterback with superb receivers and in Dallas they will be playing on a fast track, on which they typically do well.

Throw in the fact that Maurkice Pouncey either won't play or won't be anywhere near sufficient shape to be a net positive and that's another blow to your confidence. Oh, and Aaron Smith's remarkable and inspiring comeback in time for the Super Bowl didn't quite come to pass. I'm as much as I can to get the scary parts out of the way.

I had really gotten myself worked up over Pouncey's injury during the week, even though I had said that I thought Legursky's size and strength advantage would be a slight silver lining. Reading the latest entry in Football Outsider's excellent Word of Muth column helped to assuage a lot of those fears. While pass blocking is always going to be a challenge for the Steelers, especially against top pass rushers like Clay Matthews, the Steelers line actually matches up very well against the Packers when it comes to the running game. Muth suggests that there's a good chance the Steelers will be able to run on Green Bay as well as they did in the first half against the Jets in the AFC championship. Which is imperative. The Steelers showed they're capable of winning a shootout against the Packers last year, but that's still generally the game the Packers want to play.

The last thing Green Bay wants is a game where Pittsburgh can grind the clock and keep the pass happy offense off the field. Moreover, the Packers are generally an inconsistent team. At times, their attack can be outright devastating, but they often find ways to torpedo their own momentum. The NFC championship game is a handy example. While the media is quick to give the Steelers grief for the second they played against the Jets (not undeservedly so) the Packers basically got a pass for a lackadaisical effort in the second half in Chicago. Hell, if Caleb Hanie isn't dumb enough to not see B.J. Raji jump a slant pattern, things might have turned out differently. The point being is that you force Green Bay to be limited in their opportunities to score, even if the overall point total is low, and you've improved your chances at beating them. One huge advantage the Steelers have over the Packers is a knack for winning close games. In games decided by four points or fewer, the Packers were 1-6 this season.

Mike Wallace and Troy Polamalu have each had a fairly quiet postseason so far. The extra two weeks should mean that Troy's Achilles is that much closer to 100 percent. If the man himself is to be believed, it's the best it's felt in a while. That's a pretty sign, as the Packers showed considerable ability to chew through the Steelers secondary without Polamalu last year. Of course, the unit as a whole has improved since that time. The same, of course, could be said about Green Bay's defensive backfield, which got torched in the '09 game.

Everyone talks about how the dome turf benefits the Packers offense, though the Steelers speedy trio of receivers will no doubt benefit from it as well. Sam Shields is probably the Packers fastest corner, though I wouldn't expect the team to trust him to cover Mike Wallace and leave Charles Woodson responsible only for lining up against Hines Ward or Manny Sanders. William Gay going against Jordy Nelson will be key. Gay's had an impressive bounce back season after what was a terrible 2009 campaign as a starter. I'd love to see him have a huge game, not only cause he's a funny dude and it would of course help the Steelers win, but I think the bad rap that hands over him from his one bad season is a little unfair at this point.

Heath Miller is repeatedly been raised as a conceivable Super Bowl MVP if the Steelers win, as the Packers generally struggle in coverage against good pass receiving tight ends. To be honest, I don't really care much who the award goes to so long as the Steelers win, obviously. My dark horse, however, would be LaMarr Woodley. Rookie Bryan Bulaga, as Muth notes, is likely to struggle against Woodley's speed rush unless he gets help or wildly changes his technique. Of course, you focus more on shutting down Woodley and there comes James Harrison with a strip-sack. Rodgers is obviously very nimble in scrambling, so whatever pressure the Steelers do generate will have to succeed in bringing him down. He's probably even better than Mark Sanchez is this department and that's the one thing that Sanchez even does well.

The Packers have gotten more out of James Starks than the other rushers they've tried to use since Ryan Grant went down, but I doubt he'll be much of a factor unless the Steelers really have to sell out to defend the pass. That's a possibility of course, but aside from the stray draw play to keep the defense honest, I can't see the Packers trying to run much unless they're able to get a lead in the second half.



I don't know if it's just my mind succumbing to the Media Week mantra that this is a particularly even contest, but the teams' set of strengths and weaknesses play off each other in an intriguingly large number of ways. Things might not be "even" because no game is ever really that. It's a scenario where the A game of both teams is capable of beating anyone in the league and it's just a matter of who gets closest to that A game. Especially when both defenses come with similar approaches and backgrounds, even if their personnel have several shifting variables. I can see any number of outcomes favoring both sides. If one side wins in a blowout, it would probably be Green Bay. I don't really see that happening, but it's always a possibility with a few bad bounces. Should the game finish close, which I imagine it will, the Steelers are winning a majority of those scenarios.

A victory would mean tons of things in terms of legacy, history and all sorts of stuff you don't need me to explicate and I don't want to discuss unless a win actually comes. I will say, the run-up to the game meant barely stomaching the inevitable myriad of either poorly written or poorly conceived pieces trying to provocatively frame, pro or con, the Big Meaning of Ben Roethlisberger Being In The Super Bowl Post-Allegations. I know what it is to be a writer and to be forced to come up with an angle when you don't necessarily have one, but these were almost uniformly terrible. I can't recall one truly illuminating piece I read on the subject over the past two weeks. Even more frustrating was the tendency of the negative pieces to attempt a little feat of mental gymnastics, wherein they would handily ignore the vast crush of articles employing the same critical tone while depicting one halfway complimentary thing said about Roethlisberger as representative of some fawning consensus that doesn't actually exist.

That said, I have enjoyed the attention heaped on Brett Keisel. Or more specifically, Brett Keisel's beard. It's nice that a guy who's been a consistent and solid contributor for the entirety of his career can let his personality come out after years of relative obscurity.

Let's hope that's not all we have to celebrate about this trip.

2.01.2011

James Harrison: Still Terrifying


Don't necessarily blame Kara Henderson for asking the question, but I don't envy her for getting that response.