9.30.2011

It's Okay To Admit You're Worried About The Texans


Wait. I'm seriously concerned that the Steelers might lose to the Texans? "This is not my beautiful house... This is not my beautiful wife..."

It's not that I think the Steelers are uncapable or even all that unlikely to beat Houston. I've just yet to see the team put forth the kind of effort that I know that it should be on a weekly basis if it hopes to contend for another title. I know that's odd to say about a team that has won a game 24-0, but it's true. Perhaps we'll finally see different against the Texans. We may have to if the Steelers want to win.

Above all else, that means not turning the ball over. Pittsburgh has at the moment a league-worst -9 turnover differential. That might be a bit inflated from the -7 that came out of Week 1 alone, but you'd prefer they stay out of the negative over any span of time. Of course, the turnover issue can be blamed as much on protection issues, as it can on erratic play. Of course, that a fine preface for discussing how the team plans to deal with Mario Williams.

Jonathan Scott probably won't start, which would be welcome news if it weren't Trai Essex replacing him. Now, it were just Super Mario who was a threat to disrupt in the pass rush, I wouldn't worry so much, since you can just double team him with a tight end. But Texans defensive end Antonio Smith is so far having the makings of what could be a breakout season with three sacks through three weeks. Oh, and just to twist the knife a little more, let's not forget what happened the last time these teams faced off. Yes, the Steelers won handily, but Mario Williams came off the edge to crush Roethlisberger, a hit which resulted in a shoulder injury that dogged the quarterback for most of the '08 season.

There are two components to the turnover differential and the defense isn't contributing much more than the offense. Granted, the Steelers first takeaway of the season last week proved to be a mammoth factor in determining who won, but the fact that Steelers are even getting turnovers need not be a novelty. James Harrison and Polamalu are the only ones even getting close in most occasions. Someone like Timmons or maybe even Ziggy Hood is going to have to make those kind of splash plays as well.

Arian Foster appears likely to play for the first time this season, which doesn't bode incredibly well for a rush defense that has looked more vulnerable than it has in years, possibly since late in the 2007 season after Aaron Smith went down for the season. I doubt Foster will be entirely 100 percent when testing a hamstring injury that could be aggravated fairly easily, so I would expect the workload to still be predominately Ben Tate, who has been passable, if not spectacular in Foster's absence.

One positive is that despite racking up huge yardage, Houston has been fairly wretched in the red zone so far in 2011. They're 29th in red zone efficiency and were only 1-for-5 last week in the loss to New Orleans (even still, they managed to score 33 points). Obviously, you like a game not determined by whether the opposition is rolling up either threes or sevens on your team, but any edge is appreciated at the moment.

As for the dour preview, I'm still waiting for this team to dominate the way they're capable of doing. I know that's a shitty thing to say about a team with a winning record, but we all know that's padded by wins over two of the worst teams in the league the past two weeks, and a very narrow one at that last week. A loss to the Texans doesn't write the Steelers off entirely, but it will make you wonder when the team will finally get it going, or maybe whether if what we're getting is simply what we're gonna get.

9.26.2011

Between The Bookends, A Troubled Team

It's not often that a team comes away with a victory and ends up looking the worse for it, but here we are with the Steelers. Granted, I'll take the 2-1 start given how the team has played through three weeks, but unless there is marked improvement in the weeks to come, this team won't do much except prey upon the Seahawks and Curtis Painter-led Colts of the world.

The Steelers' weaknesses were almost all glaringly evident last night. Only the play of the corners who aren't Ike Taylor weren't exploited because Painter and Collins simply weren't good enough to do it. Credit to Ike, by the way. He was tested often in single coverage deep and won the battle each time.

There were some other things to be encouraged about. James Harrison continues to regain more and more of his dominating form each week. Last night, he wasn't very far off. Which is nice, because LaMarr Woodley isn't doing a heck of a lot from the other side. I've noticed over the past few seasons that Woodley's sack totals are mostly backloaded through the schedule. In 2009, he didn't register his first sack until Week 5 and finished with 13.5. Last year, 6.5 of his 10 sacks came in the last nine games. So hopefully that;s the case again rather than Woodley being complacent with the big deal he signed in the offseason.

Troy was everywhere. He had one touchdown and was a hair's breadth away from scoring, or at least causing, one or two more. That was the first turnover the defense has caused since the AFC Championship Game against the Jets in January. Troy and James seem like the only ones capable of creating turnovers on this unit this season. They were the ones close to making them against the Seahawks last week and they were the ones responsible for the strip-sack for a score last night. Others have played solidly - Ike, Timmons, Ziggy Hood, for example - but more are going to have to show themselves capable of making what Tomlin would call splash plays.

As for the line, which I don't really much want to talk about since there's no clear solution for an issue that seems to get worse each week. Doug Legursky, Marcus Gilbert and Jonathan Scott all suffered injuries in varying degrees of severity against the Colts. Even if they hadn't, the picture wouldn't be much rosier. I had said going into the game that the Colts best opportunity for victory was Freeney and Mathis abusing Scott and Gilbert. And that's exactly what happened. It nearly cost the Steelers the game. Against a better or healthier team, it probably would have. Sure, the fumble that Mathis caused was as much on Roethlisberger than anyone else, but Gilbert was getting abused all night. The Steelers had no viable strategies for run or pass blocking. I'm not sure Jonathan Scott even moved on the strip-sack for a TD that Freeney executed. Even after the ball was fumbled. Scott's injury looks to be the worst from last night. Which likely means Gilbert will be moved over to left tackle, as he was late against Indy. And the team will have to cave to the contract demands of Flozell Adams. They simply have to at this point, unless they want to get Roethlisberger killed. Granted, not every team in the league has a pass rushing tandem on par with Mathis and Freeney, but several do. One elite pass rusher is enough to wreak havoc with this unit. I'm already dreading what Mario Williams is going to do next week.

Despite the one fumble he could have prevented (the second was entirely on Scott) and the bad interception, I thought this was the best performance of the season by Ben Roethlisberger. Manny Sanders and Weslye Saunders cost him two scores with poor drops deep in Colts territory. Ben spread the ball around well. After gouging Indy early with Mike Wallace, he was able to move the ball with Antonio Brown and Manny mostly being the primary targets. The screen plays to Heath were largely ineffective. I understand the thinking behind them since teams are going to send the house a lot against this line, but Heath doesn't exactly have incredible speed, even by tight end standards. He's not going break those plays for more than five or six yards.

Oh, and it still shocks me that the team didn't try harder to replace Shaun Suisham in the offseason. Shazam had a good streak to start his stint for the Steelers when he joined the team last season, but he's been mostly a liability since. I've gotten to the point of cringing anytime they want to try any kicks beyond 40 yards.

Obviously, I don't know if the Steelers will call Flozell, but it appears that their hand is forced, as it will be to dress more than seven linemen in any given game. If they do, I'll feel better about the immediate prospects of this team, because it's still very capable of contending. A below average line is one thing, but this unit has prevented what could be a stellar offense from establishing anything close to a rhythm. And now the team is staring down its first real test since Week 1.

9.23.2011

Steelers Will Gladly Oblige The Colts "Suck For Luck" Plan

The onset of Peyton Manning neck AIDS transformed what would have been an early season test for the Steelers into the second week of a two-week respite before that team has to travel to Houston to prove that it still belongs among playoff contenders after the Week 1 meltdown in Bawlmer.

The Colts got rolled by said Texans in Week 1 and were decidedly beat at home last week by the Browns. An 0-2 start is a signpost toward mediocrity, but there's still hope for redemption. Once a team hits 0-3, it's pretty much over. The Colts know this, which is why if the Steelers beat Indy, that can at least won't have beaten a team that played as flat as the Seahawks did in Week 2.

Beyond Peyton, the Colts will be without linebacker Ernie Sims and potentially Gary Brackett and safety Melvin Bullitt as well. Brett Keisel is out for the Steelers, thus giving Ziggy Hood his first start of the year. Ziggy played exceedingly well on the other side of the D-line in relief of Aaron Smith for most of last season. Tomlin has been making a habit of subbing on the line the first two weeks, so I have little concern that Ziggy won't be used to playing from that side of the line.

As I said last week, my biggest concern going into this game will be Jonathan Scott and Marcus Gilbert going against defensive ends Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney. While the Steelers look like the superior team in nearly all other aspects of this match-up, the tackles are so overmatched that this particular disadvantage could, if not gameplanned around properly, potentially swing the game for Indy. Gilbert got beat badly a few times against the Seahawks, not a team noted for its dominant pass rush. And Jonathan Scott is Jonathan Scott. Suffice it to say, I wouldn't be surprised if the Steelers offense has to rely heavily on two tight end sets to give help to their beleagured bookends.

If Ben Roethlisberger doesn't get strip-sacked five times from the edge rush and manages to correct his own early season accuracy issues, then I don't see this being much of a contest. Of course, Ben has been a frustrating through two weeks. His stats improved last week, but he got fortunate a few times when he judgment lapsed on occasion. A solid outing out of him would be as encouraging as any other positives the Steelers could take away Sunday night.

The Steelers have had recent success against Kerry Collins, who lost to Pittsburgh in the '09 opener and made his first appearance of the season last year in relief of Vince Young, but provided little offensive spark in the 19-11 Steelers win in Week 2 last year. Further confounding the Colts hope is the fact that Collins has been dealing with a right shoulder injury. While the Colts say it's not significant, even if that's true, it's limited practice time for their starting quarterback this week. With Collins still struggling to pick up Indy's offensive scheme, any loss of practice time will be costly going against a defense as complex as the Steelers'.

Complex though it may be, the Steeler D has yet to force any turnovers. Yeah, I know, Polamalu dropped what would have certainly been a pick-six last week. James Harrison was close to another pick. And when a quarterback is as off-target as Tarvaris Jackson was, whether a team gets turnovers or not is of little consequence. But like I said - don't expect the Colts, decimated as they are, to show up quite as listless as the Seahawks. So the signs of life that the Steelers defense showed last week have to manifest themselves once again and then some.

9.19.2011

Not a Learning Experience, But a Pleasant One


Two games with wildly divergent outcomes against opponents of wildly uneven quality. That's what we have to base our current expectations of the 2011 Steelers. I hoped to learn something about the Steelers through Sunday's performance, and I did, though not quite enough to get a firm idea of where exactly they stand. It was a heartingly display, if not a very instructive one.

If anything is certain, however, it's that the Seahawks are, if not the worst, then combing somewhere at or near the bottom of the league. That is plainly an atrociously bad football team. When the Steelers failed on the 4th and goal on their first scoring chance, I cringed for the worst. But the worst never came. Even through what was still a mostly shaky outing by the Steelers, there was never even the meekest of threats posed by Seattle. It was as though the game was being played on Madden rookie mode.

Ben Roethlisberger, injured or not, has looked about as bad as he has since the '08 season when he played the entire year through a shoulder injury. He's missing open targets and making poor reads. It was one thing last week when making desperation throws down multiple scores in the second half. Though the stat sheet reflects a solid outing, Ben probably should have been picked at least twice. Granted, Polamalu should have had a pick-six himself, but I'm less concerned about wasted opportunities in a blowout than the fact that the starting quarterback, who came into week 1 off a near flawless preseason, has suddenly regressed. I'm confident that Ben is merely going through a bad stretch. Getting to play a devastated Colts team next week should give him another chance for easy sledding, but at some point he's going to have to regain his touch. If the defense isn't quite as dominant as its been (yes, yes, yesterday was a shutout, but the Steelers left enough open receivers for a competent team to exploit for at least some points) and the offensive line is going to be dreadful even b its recent standards, the team can't afford Ben to be anything less than very good to great.

Marcus Gilbert has a long way to go. He got beat terribly on a red zone sack and nearly cost the Steelers Ben Roethlisberger for the season when he leg whipped Raheem Brock into Roethlisberger's knee when Brock blew by him on an inside rush. It's a lot to expect a rookie to be fantastic in his first career start, but Gilbert is going against much better opposition very soon (expect Mathis and Freeney to have a field day with Gilbert and Scott next week).

The defense played better, but not to the level that a shutout would suggest. The Seahawks had open looks that they simply could seldom exploit. Not that some Steelers defenders who struggled mightily in Week 1 didn't fare better at all. It was a much improved performance by Aaron Smith. James Harrison looked just a little bit better and nearly came away with an interception in coverage. And the decision to bench Bryant McFadden already looks like a sound one, though I would prefer Keenan Lewis getting a shot and keeping William Gay in the nickel packages.

Going into Indy next week will be more of a test than yesterday, from which I'm not sure we can glean much beyond that at least the Steelers are far better than the worst the NFL has to offer. That the Ravens suffered an embarrassing letdown game shows how much mental and emotional that team invested in going all out against Pittsburgh in Week 1. So it's possible to still entertain the best case scenario that the Steelers got the absolute best the Ravens had to offer - an ideal, possible perfect showing by a Baltimore team playing over their heads - while the Steelers are foundering a little at the beginning of the year.

That's a hopeful scenario, but it might also be reality. There's just no way of knowing yet. The Steelers meanwhile, will get to face a Colts team that's suffered more than a little embarrassment of its own the last two weeks. That it will be in Indy and in primetime means the Steelers will likely get all Indy can muster. If you think about, if the Colts win, the team can still entertain the possibility of regrouping and making a run to respectability sans Peyton happen. Fall to 0-3 and you might as well pack it in and commence the Suck for Luck campaign.

9.15.2011

Nothing Rejuvenates Like Terrible Teams

Nothing like rebounding from a week of disappointment and Ravens fan gloating to hear that Bill Leavy has been assigned to Sunday's Seahawks-Steelers tilt. No way that gives cause to unbearably tedious Super Bowl XL officiating discussion from the announcers. At least Phil Simms won't be calling the game again. I'm sure by the second quarter that he'd be calling for the NFL to vacate the 2005 title.

Anyway, on paper the Steelers should wipe the floor with Seattle. But paper doesn't mean much right now. The paper said the Steelers would give a game to the Ravens last week and what we got was little tangible result. So until we get results to the contrary, or maybe even further confirmation of our biggest fears, everything is speculation, either hopeful or dreadful.

I don't think the Steelers are anywhere nearly as bad as the scoreboard indicated last week. They made mistakes that were both uncharacteristic and not likely to be replicated except for when a team falls woefully behind to a worthy adversary. That said, there were still a lot of distressing shortcomings that need to rebound should the Steelers maintain any aspirations beyond middling team for this season.

I think we'll discover a lot about the supposedly diminished speed of the defense early on. If Tarvaris Jackson can do anything well, it's scramble. Not that Bryant McFadden can't be picked on, but I'd expect the Seahawks to get Jackson out of the pocket as much as possible. As for the O-line, well, a lot of the season's fortunes depends on how quickly Marcus Gilbert can develop.

If I sound like a downer, then it's probably because it's been a downer week. That'll happen when the only meaningful football we've seen out of our favorite team since last season produced such parlous returns. The Steelers will be motivated and agitated and all the stuff they should be following last week's embarrassment. But they still have to show that they're any good.

9.13.2011

That'll Be One Start In Two Years For Willie Colon


Willie Colon had a strange and unexpected ascent two years ago. In 2008, Colon was the biggest liability on a much maligned offensive line that ended up being part of a Super Bowl champion, That year, Colon could be counted on for nothing much besides drive-killing penalties and an inability to read the pass rush.

So it took many, including myself, by complete shock when Colon transformed into the Steelers' best lineman the following season. So dramatic was his turnaround that Peter King called the tackle the 48th best player in the league. Of course, that was a laughably high valuation from PK, but it at least illustrates that Colon was starting to garner some respect around the league.

Now, however, we might never find out if that 2009 season was indicative of Colon becoming a standout tackle. After missing all of 2010 was a torn ACL suffered during training camp, Willie suffered a triceps injury in the Ravens drubbing that will require season-ending surgery. So that offseason $29 million contract looks great for a guy who will have played four quarters of football in two seasons. While it's not a reaggravation of the injury he already had, how many players rebound from missing essentially two straight seasons? Not many, I'd imagine.

I'd prefer it, and I'm sure the Steelers would too, that Flozell could return. But The Hotel's asking price is supposedly too high. While an adequate stopgap (at least in run blocking) Flozell isn't anyone worthy of breaking the bank on. So instead we get rookie second-round pick Marcus Gilbert taking over as the Steelers' starting right tackle. A best-case scenario would be Gilbert playing well enough that he could be swapped for Jonathan Scott on the left side, though I'll settle for something less than a complete disaster.

The Steelers, meanwhile, brought on tackle Jamon Meredith, who, along with Scott, was a guy that offensive line coach Sean Kugler coached in Buffalo two years back. No sure whether it's bad luck or something more distressing, but Kugler has had to deal with lines decimated by injuries each of the past three seasons. Does that mean he's to be commended for his flexibility or are there conditioning problems that the team should worry about?

9.11.2011

Showing Their Age Or Just Not Showing Much At All

The Ravens put a hurting on the Steelers today in a way they last, and maybe only did, in the 2006 season. Ironically, it was their first victory over a Steelers team starting Ben Roethlisberger since that '06 season.

Depending on your knee-jerk reaction, the Ravens made all the right off-season moves, the Steelers are too old to compete, the Steelers were complacent, the Ravens got all plays they needed until Pittsburgh was too far gone. However you want to frame it, this was really, really ugly.

The Steelers defense was slow and unable to apply pressure. The secondary was clueless, Bryant McFadden in particular. But even the greater lights of the unit deserve reproach. Troy Polamalu was beaten badly for a touchdown by a tight end. James Harrison looked like a guy running on fumes. Aaron Smith might as well have been replaced by Ziggy Hood.

Ben Roethlisberger had as stellar a preseason as anyone could have had, yet he made about as many unthinkably stupid throws as he could have made today. Two were intercepted by Ed Reed and a third should have been. Those were gift-wrapped interceptions to Reed. If you're gonna give Ravens fans something to crow about with the BALL HAWK, at least make the guy work for it.

Mendenhall was all right. Can't blame the fumble on him as Ngata was right there to pop him as soon as the late handoff was stuffed into his chest. Mike Wallace ended up with more than 100 yards receiving, though I can't recall a pass attempted in the air to him longer than 15 yards.

I'm willing to chock this up in part to arrogance on the Steelers part. When a team has owned another for so long, even if the regular margin of victory hasn't been that dramatic, there isn't a sense that much needs to be done. While the Steelers have changed as little of their roster as possible during the past few years, the Ravens have tried overhaul after overhaul until something stuck. Today, they found something that did.

A lot of the turnovers were sheer sloppiness. The defense I believe can improve if Ziggy and Keenan Lewis get starting nods over Aaron Smith and Bryant McFadden. James Harrison, if spelled over the next few weeks, should hopefully return to something approaching his Pro Bowl form of the previous few seasons. Any quarterback is going to look like a potential Super Bowl champion with as little pressure as Flacco got today. The Ravens' line isn't that good. The Steelers will make adjustments and find ways to make pressure the next time around.

I mentioned in my post this week that it was a matter of time that the Ravens got the better of the Steelers. I had a sneaking suspicion that it would be this week. Obviously, I didn't envision it would be quite this bad. The Steelers, especially under Tomlin, haven't been used to early season setbacks. In fact, it was the first Week 1 loss under Tomlin. But I have a feeling the team will learn to bounce back in a hurry. It doesn't hurt that a hapless Seahawks team comes to town next week with a trip to defeated Indianapolis the week after. Obviously, the point isn't about padding the record with wins over the meek as much as matching the best the league can offer. Questions remain after today and it may be a while before we get answers, for better or worse. Nevertheless, if nothing else, the Steelers have the luxury of some time. Pray they make the most of it.

9.06.2011

Ravens Reboot Confronts First False Start

To say that the Ravens underwent a complete roster overhaul in the off-season is a bit of a stretch, but the team did take risks (some commendable, others questionable) in replacing a few long-time staples in an effort to get younger and faster. Whether it's enough to finally vaunt Baltimore past the Steelers could determine what happens with much of the rest of the roster.

Baltimore's fan base and, to a slightly lesser but still significant extent, their front office evaluate their team's season based on how well they do against the Steelers. Save the games they've played against Pittsburgh (at least those that Ben Roethlisberger plays), the Ravens have been an incredibly successful team the last few seasons. But close as they may get, they just can't conquer their biggest rivals. The margin has been achingly close each time, to the point that a few minor changes could make all the difference.

Flacco has his faults and as Steelers fans, we've seen him at his worst more often than not, but the guy throws a good deep ball.

Okay, maybe not this one.



/gratuitous
//satisfying

Nevertheless, Flacco is usually pretty good when he's going deep. To that end, Derrick Mason, a good intermediate range receiver, wasn't much help. And Anquan Boldin isn't a whole lot better as a deep threat. Bawlmer took a flyer on Donte Stallworth last season and pretty much got their money's worth. They had a quarterback who's best asset is a deep ball and their star-studded receiver corps had three possession receivers (Mason, Boldin, Houshmandzadeh) and one mediocre deep threat who didn't end up doing anything (Stallworth).

So, even though I doubt it was their plan all along, the strategy to dump Mason and trade for Lee Evans turned out to be a fairly solid one for Baltimore. It may cost them early in the year when Flacco misses his third down security blanket, but by the end of the year it may end up looking inspired. Evans isn't great - above average might be pushing it to some - but he'll at least give Baltimore a halfway credible deep threat. He looked pretty good with Flacco in the preseason, for what it's worth. Pittsburgh's corners will never be mistaken for the fastest in the league, so of all the things Baltimore did since January, that's the one that concerns me most.

Of course, the addition of Evans is tempered by the aforementioned loss of Mason, as well as Todd Heap. Sure, Baltimore's tight end hadn't been putting up the receiving numbers he had since his prime in '05-'06, but I can't see the duo of Ed Dickson (some physical talent, but lots of mental fuck-ups in the times I saw him play) and Dennis Pitta making anyone forget about him in the foreseeable future. One day, perhaps, but certainly not this year.

The Ravens secondary didn't need the youth movement as badly as the receiving corps so much as it simply needed change. For all the hype for Lardarius Webb as a no. 1 corner last season, there he was having Antonio Brown blow past him on a 3rd and 20 in a huge play in a playoff game. Enter first-round pick Jimmy Smith and fourth-year player Cary Williams (one career start) as the proffered solution. Williams seems like more of a stopgap, while Smith might one day be good/great, though he looked downright confused in preseason action. You could even say he was laughably bad against the Redskins. Unless the new Baltimore defensive coordinator has made huge inroads with a pass rush that was decidedly lackluster in 2010, the Ravens secondary could be set up for an extremely difficult and even sobering early season test.

The Bryant McKinnie signing is the obvious exception to this theme, as he's overweight, old and of little to no use to the team that made him a name. It's easy to scoff at his signing, but the same was said of the Steelers acquisition of Flozell Adams last season. Adams, though hardly perfect, still managed to have a solid season and might have been the Steelers' second or third best lineman in 2010. If McKinnie produces anywhere nearly that well for Baltimore, it will have been a tremendous gamble.

For all the searing hatred I have for the Ravens, I can laud some of the gutsy moves they made. They may not position their team well for a Week 1 showdown against their nemesis (fine by me, btw) but they are able to retool at key positions without going into a full-on rebuilding stage. And who knows? By the end of the year, or even the second meeting in Pittsburgh - things might be better suited for them.

At some point, the Ravens are going to find a way to get the better of the Steelers. That won't necessarily mean that the series will swing in their favor, but Baltimore will eventually manage to steal a win. Maybe even in a game where Charlie Batch isn't starting. Hell, even the Browns finally beat Pittsburgh two seasons back. It can happen. Pittsburgh may not have the uncertainty of new faces in new places, but the health of both its starting corners, as well as that of Maurkice Pouncey and James Harrison are big question marks.

So Baltimore is close. As Baltimore has been the last few years. The riskiness of the Ravens new approach is in its disjointedness - trying to win now with a concerned eye cast toward the future. It's a difficult proposition and even more difficult in the early going. We'll see Sunday whether they can claim immediate dividends or start hoping the long view has a pleasant vista.