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Archive for September, 2010

It’s Ravens week!

September 29, 2010 By: Admin Category: Pre-Game Analyses

Growing up in Pittsburgh, the biggest two days of the year were the two times each season that the Steelers played the Cleveland Browns.  Christmas, New Years Day, Thanksgiving, and the 4th of July all paled in comparison.

But those days are an ancient memory.  As much as we like to pretend that Steelers/Browns is still a rivalry, it isn’t.  There hasn’t been any excitement in that “rivalry” since Art Modell packed his bags and moved his team out of town.

Last year, the Cincinnati Bengals swept the AFC North.  They’ve already beaten the Baltimore Ravens this year, and they are hoping to repeat as champions of the AFC North.  But try as I might, I can’t get very excited about playing the Bengals.

When it comes down to it, the one rivalry that stands above all others is Steelers/Ravens.  Not only is it the biggest rivalry in the AFC North, but it’s one of the best rivalries in the NFL.  And it’s definitely the bloodiest.

Steelers versus Ravens is the Allies versus the Axis, Batman versus the Joker, Dorothy versus the Wicked Witch of the West, and The Biggest Losers versus Donuts, all rolled into one.   It’s nuclear war……..on the football field.

These two teams don’t like one another.  Okay, I’m being politically correct.  In truth, they hate each other.  And that hatred comes out during the game.

Over the past Decade, the Steelers and the Ravens have been the two most dominant defenses in the NFL.  So when they play one another, bragging rights are on the line.  Both teams believe their defense is better.  The only way to prove it is by beating one another.   And they usually beat the snot out of one another.

Both teams usually lose players to injury during this game.  I’m sure the NFL probably mandates that they have extra paramedics along the sidelines whenever the Steelers and the Ravens play.

Part of the reason for the fierce rivalry is the fact that in many ways, the two teams are mirror images of one another.  Warped, twisted, bizarro mirror images, but mirror images nonetheless.  It’s like that episode of Star Trek where the crew of the Enterprise met the evil versions of themselves from another universe.  The Ravens are the evil Steelers.

Evil Spock

Both teams espouse the same philosophy; run the ball, and stop the run.  Steelers fans know that offensive coordinator Bruce Arians has been waging war on that philosophy.  But with Ben Roethlisberger on suspension, the Steelers have had to return to their roots.

Last week the Steelers ran for over 200 yards, while holding Tampa Bay’s Cadillac Williams to only 13 yards rushing.  The week before that, they held Tennessee’s Chris Johnson to 34 yards rushing.  And in week 1 they held Atlanta’s Michael Turner to 42 yards rushing.

Similarly, the Ravens held the Jets’ LaDainian Tomlinson to 62 yards, Cincinnati’s Cedrick Benson to 78 yards, and the Browns’ Peyton Hillis to 144 yards.  Wait a minute!  Who the heck is Peyton Hillis?  And how did he run for 144 yards on the Ravens?  Okay, obviously the Ravens aren’t as good as the Steelers.  But they’re still one of the best defenses in the NFL.

Who are the toughest linebackers in football?  James Harrison and Ray Lewis.  Who are the best safeties in the NFL?  Troy Polamalu and Ed Reed.  Who are the most physical wide receivers in the game?  Hines Ward and Anquan Boldin.  See what I mean?  The teams are very similar.

I expect the  Steelers to win this Sunday.  It will probably be a hard-fought, physical, low-scoring win, but it will be a win nonetheless.

When Big Ben returns, he will be joining a team that is 4-0, and sitting atop both the AFC North and the entire NFL.  What could be better than that?

Here we go Steelers, here we go!


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Steelers win, go to 3-0

September 26, 2010 By: Admin Category: Post-Game Reports

When Roger Goodell announced that Ben Roethlisberger was going to be suspended for 4 games, I heard even die-hard Steelers fans saying that the team would be lucky to go 1-3 in his absence.  Many argued that 0-4 was much more likely.  Instead, the Steelers are 3-0 and the doubters are nowhere to be found.

The Steelers beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 38-13, and improved their record to an NFL-leading 3-0.  More importantly, the offense showed up, just in time for next week’s game against the hated Baltimore Ravens.

The Steelers were led by Charlie Batch…….Yeah, that’s right; Charlie Batch.  You remember him, don’t you?  He’s the Steelers 4th string quarterback who was supposed to be cut at the end of training camp, but who had to be retained because Big Ben was suspended for 4 games.  35 years old.  Hadn’t been a regular starter since he played for the Detroit Lions.  Yeah, THAT Charlie Batch.

Batch got off to a bad start.  His first pass of the day was intercepted by the Bucs’ Aqib Talib.  But after that, he calmed down and led the Steelers to one of their biggest offensive outburst in a very long time.  Even when Big Ben is playing, the Steelers seldom reach 38 points.  And based on what we saw last week against Tennessee, most fans probably thought the Steelers would be lucky to score 10 points this week.

Instead, they saw an offensive explosion like we don’t see very often from the Black and Gold.  Batch connected with Mike Wallace later in the first quarter for a 46 yard touchdown pass.  He enjoyed that so much that he decided to do it again, throwing a 41 yard TD to Wallace in the 2nd quarter.  Then to add a little insurance, Batch hit Hines Ward for a 9 yard touchdown catch later in the quarter.

Not to be outdone, Rashard Mendenhall decided to show what he can do.  Mendenhall rushed for a touchdown in the second quarter, and finished the game with 143 yards rushing on 19 attempts.  That’s 7.5 yards per carry.

Rashard Mendenhall breaks free

The Steelers finished the game with 201 rushing yards.  That will certainly destroy the confidence of an opposing defense.

And lest we forget, the Steelers defense also played a huge role in the game.  They forced 3 more turnovers in this game, and now have a league leading 10 turnovers.  The most exciting of those turnovers was an interception by Brett Keisel that he returned 79 yards for a touchdown.  Keisel’s interception reminded me of James Harrison during his Super Bowl interception return.  I didn’t think that either player was going to have enough gas in their tank to actually make it all the way to the endzone, and both players needed oxygen afterward.

The NFL schedule said that this was going to be an away game for the Steelers, but obviously the schedule was wrong.  The Steelers wore their home black jerseys, and there were clearly more Steelers fans in the crowd than there were Bucs fans.  If that doesn’t make it a home game, I don’t know what does.

Of course, Steeler Nation takes great pride in taking over other teams’ stadiums.  And we certainly did that in Tampa Bay.  I don’t know about you, but each time I see a sea of black and gold in another team’s stadium, I get goosebumps.  I just love seeing that!

So despite the expectations of most “experts”, the Steelers go into week 4 with a 3-0 record.  Next up are the Ratbirds (booo!!!!!), who struggled to beat the Cleveland Browns today.  Based on what both teams displayed today, 4-0 is definitely feasible for the Steelers.

Here we go Steelers, here we go!!!!!


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Steelers vs. Bucs: Key match-ups

September 26, 2010 By: Admin Category: Pre-Game Analyses

Today the Steelers face the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Tampa.

The Steelers have a 7-1 regular season record against the Buccaneers, and they are 4-1 against them in Tampa Bay.

Tampa Bay has difficulty selling out games, and we know how much Steeler Nation loves taking over other teams’ stadiums.  So I am going to assume that those unsold tickets are going to end up in the hands of Steelers fans, and this is going to be like a home game for the Black and Gold.

With that in mind, here is a look at some of the key match-ups that may effect the outcome of tomorrow’s game.

Troy Polamalu vs. Kellen Winslow Jr. - Polamalu and Winslow are old friends.  They’ve faced off many times over the years, back when Winslow was still playing for Cleveland.  There aren’t many players in the NFL that Troy wouldn’t have an advantage over.  But Kellen Winslow Jr. is one of them.  Winslow is taller than Troy, and he has a decided advantage anytime there is a jump ball between the two of them.  Despite that one advantage, Troy and Kellen usually play one another to a virtual draw.  Advantage:  Neither.

Mike Tomlin vs. Raheem Morris - This is obviously not an on-field match-up.  But the two head coaches are very close friends who coached together in Tampa Bay.  Tomlin and Morris talk on a regular basis, and I’m sure that quite a bit of trash talk has been exchanged between them this week.  But the bottom line is that Morris has a 5-13 record as a head coach, and Tomlin has a 36-18 record and a Super Bowl ring.  Advantage:  Steelers.

Steelers Defense vs. Cadillac Williams - Cadillac Williams is a talented, but injury-prone, running back.  He has the ability to light up any team.  Fortunately, the Steelers are not just any team.  Their defense takes great pride in not letting anyone run on them.  Just ask Chris Johnson and Michael Turner.  Despite Williams’ talent, he will be lucky to get 60 yards today.  Moreover, he’s going to have to spend some extra time in the hot tub after today’s game.  Advantage:  Steelers.

Dick LeBeau vs. Josh Freeman - It will be James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley who are breathing down Freeman’s neck today, but it will be defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau who will be concocting the plays that allow the Steelers’ linebackers to cause havoc.  LeBeau loves confusing quarterbacks.  He develops exotic blitzes that confuse even the most experienced QB’s.  Young quarterbacks like Freeman don’t stand a chance against LeBeau.  I expect Freeman to get sacked at least 3 times today.  Advantage:  Steelers.

Bruce Arians vs. Charlie Batch - Charlie Batch is a very experienced quarterback.  He is more than capable of passing the ball and leading the Steelers to a victory.  Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians LOVES to see his team pass the ball.  However, Arians knows that Batch has been injury-prone throughout his career.  He also knows that this is Byron Leftwich’s first game back from an injury, and that Leftwich still isn’t 100%.  With that in mind, Arians will probably ask Batch to hand the ball to his running backs 80% of the time.  It’s a conservative approach that makes sense due to the Steelers’ QB situation.  Unfortunately, it makes it easy for the opposing defense to stack the line with 8 or even 9 men in the box.  That makes it hard for Rashard Mendenhall to find any room to run.  Arians hates running the ball, and Batch hates being kept on a leash.  But both understand that this is the safest move for the Steelers until Ben Roethlisberger returns.  Advantage:  Neither.

Tampa Bay’s weather in February vs. Pittsburgh’s weather in February - I started feeling bad for Tampa Bay because they have no apparent advantages over the Steelers.  Their team is inferior.  Their uniforms are inferior.  Their stadium is going to be filled with Steelers fans.  So I had to think of some area in which Tampa has an advantage over Pittsburgh.  Their weather in winter is the only one that I could think of.  It’s not much, but it’s something.  Advantage:  Tampa (sort of).


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Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Tampa Bay Bucs Preview

September 24, 2010 By: Admin Category: Pre-Game Analyses

This Sunday the 2-0 Pittsburgh Steelers travel to Tampa to face the 2-0 Buccaneers.  Few would have guessed that either of these teams would be under undefeated after two games.  But going into week 3 of the NFL season, that’s exactly where both teams stand; tied for the best record in the NFL.

The Steelers have beaten all odds and found a way to win their first two games.  Last week’s game against the Tennessee Titans was one that few thought the Steelers had a chance of winning.  But the Steelers are winning the old fashioned way; with defense and the running game.

Frankly, I don’t believe that this is a sustainable formula for victory.  That’s not an indication that I have an aversion to good defense.  Rather, it’s an indication that I have an aversion to predictability.  And if there’s one thing the Steelers have become, it’s predictable.

The Steelers have announced that they will be starting Charlie Batch at quarterback.  In training camp this summer, nobody believed that Charlie was even going to make the team this year.  So having to start him has thrown a wrench in the Steelers’ plans.

Steelers QB Charlie Batch

The Steelers were already without Ben Roethlisberger due to his 4-game suspension.  Then they lost his intended replacement, Byron Leftwich, to an injury during the preseason.  Then last week, they lost Dennis Dixon to a knee injury, leaving Charlie Batch as the only healthy quarterback on the roster.

Their tenuous quarterback situation made the Steelers completely predictable.  They didn’t have another quarterback on the roster (though both Antwaan Randle El and Hines Ward played quarterback in college), so the Steelers couldn’t take a risk of getting Charlie Batch hurt.  So instead they handed the ball of to their running backs on almost every play.  Like I said, predictable.

The Steelers attempted only 17 pass plays last week against the Titans.  Moreover, they completed only 9 of those passes for 21 net yards.  That’s not good.  But what other choice did the Steelers have?  Allowing a quarterback to drop back for a pass increases his odds of taking an injury-causing sack.  And the Steelers couldn’t afford that, so they put handcuffs on Charlie Batch.  They’ll likely do the same thing this week, even though Byron Leftwich will be dressing for this week’s game.

The Tennessee Titans responded to the Steelers’ predictable offense by stacking 8 or 9 men in the box on almost every play.  This made it almost impossible for Rashard Mendenhall to find any room to run.  Expect Tampa Bay to use the same strategy until the Steelers prove to them that they are willing to beat them with the pass.

We all know that Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians would prefer to pass the ball on every play.  If it were up to him, running the ball would be outlawed in the NFL.  But Arians understands the limitations of his roster.  Byron Leftwich is just returning from an injury, and he’s still not 100% healed, and Charlie Batch attracts injuries the way marijuana attracts Santonio Holmes.  So Arians’ options are limited.

Fortunately, the Steelers will be facing the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.  The Buccaneers’ 2-0 record is  a reflection the teams that they have faced so far (the Carolina Panthers and the Cleveland Browns), and not a reflection of them being a powerhouse team.  Nobody expects the Bucs to be 16-0 at the end of the season.  In fact, few even expect them to make the playoffs.  Most analysts predicted that the Bucs would finish last in the NFC South, and that is still likely to happen.

The Bucs have a young quarterback in Josh Freeman. Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau loves facing young quarterbacks.  He eats them for breakfast.

Expect LeBeau to serve up healthy doses of James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley, with a bit of Troy Polamalu thrown in to keep Freeman guessing.

If the Steelers can continue to play tough defense, and mix it up a little bit on offense, they should be able to leave Tampa Bay with a win.  The key will be to make sure that they don’t take Tampa Bay too lightly.  Last year Cleveland, Oakland, and Kansas City showed the Steelers what can happen when you take a team too lightly.

Hopefully, Steelers will bring their “A” game this week.  If they do, I predict a 21-10 Steelers win.


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The Leftwich “waiver” question

September 20, 2010 By: Admin Category: Draft/Free Agency, Players

Several people wrote to me asking why the Steelers released Byron Leftwich last week.  They didn’t understand why the Steelers would make a move that might lead to them losing Leftwich permanently.

After reading comments from Steelers fans here, on my Facebook page,  and on Steelers message boards, it became apparent that the confusion is rather widespread.

The source of the confusion was a misplaced belief that another team could claim Leftwich off the waiver wire.  There was never any threat of that.  In order to understand why, you first have to understand the “waiver system” as defined in the NFL Collective Bargaining Agreement.

The Collective Bargaining Agreement basically says that a player who has less than 4 years of service in the NFL is subject to the “waiver system”.

The waiver system is the process by which an NFL team releases their claim to a player on their roster.  That player is then made available to the other 31 teams in the league.  Those teams may either file a claim to obtain the player, or waive their right to do so.  Thus the term “waiver”.  If the player is claimed by a team, they acquire him under the exact same contract that he had with his previous team.  Thus, there is no need to negotiate a new contract.

If more than one team claims the player, then his rights are granted to the team with the worst record among the teams that are attempting to claim him.

However, if a player has more than 4 years of service in the NFL, he cannot be claimed by another NFL team.  He isn’t “waived”, he is “released”.  No other team has the opportunity to claim him under his existing contract.  Instead,  the player immediately becomes an unrestricted free agent, and he can negotiate a new contract with any team that he pleases.

That was the case with Byron Leftwich.  He has more than 4 years of service in the NFL.  So there was no risk of another team claiming him.  That was the biggest point of confusion that I heard among Steelers fans.  They seemed to believe that the Steelers took an unnecessary risk of losing Leftwich.  This simply wasn’t true.  The Steelers effectively took no risk at all.

Leftwich wasn’t healthy enough to play during week 2.  He knew that, and the Steelers knew that.  So rather than hold a valuable roster spot for him, the Steelers chose to use it to bring up Steve McLendon, a defensive lineman, from their practice squad.  This proved to be a wise move, as the Steelers suffered injuries and dehydration versus the Tennessee Titans.  They needed the extra defensive lineman.

Because Leftwich was released, he became an unrestricted free agent.  However, Leftwich and the Steelers already had a pre-existing agreement in place that the Steelers would re-sign him on Monday (which they did).  Leftwich wanted to be with the Steelers, and the Steelers wanted Leftwich.  So there was no risk.  Did anyone really think that Leftwich was going to leave the Steelers and sign with the Buffalo Bills?

The Steelers re-signed Leftwich today, and they waived Steve McClendon.  Because he has less than 4 years of NFL experience, McLendon will have to clear waivers.  However, since McLendon is not a high profile player (he was an undrafted free agent out of Troy in 2008), it is unlikely that any other team will claim him.  However, if the Steelers were to waive a player like WR Mike Wallace, he would be claimed by all 31 other NFL teams.  So the Steelers would never take a risk like that.

Hopefully, that helps fans to better understand the waiver system.  Moreover, I hope it helps to explain why the Steelers made a smart move by releasing Byron Leftwich, and not a “stupid” move like many Steelers fans accused them of doing.


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