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Archive for February, 2012

Farewell Hines Ward

February 29, 2012 By: Admin Category: Uncategorized

February 29th is Leap Day.  It doesn’t happen very often.  In fact, it only comes around every 4 years.  But February 29, 2012 is a Leap Day that we would like to have skipped altogether.  It’s a Day that many in Steeler Nation hoped would never come.

But come it did.  On February 29, 2012, the Pittsburgh Steelers cut veteran wide receiver Hines Ward.

Ward is one of the most popular Pittsburgh Steelers of all time.  He’s been the face of the organization since Jerome Bettis retired after the 2005 season.

Ward holds most of the Steelers’ all-time receiving records.  His 1,000 career catches is almost double John Stallworth’s 537 catches.  His 12,083 yards is over 3,000 more than Stallworth achieved.  And his 65 receiving touchdowns is also the most in team history (once again, Stallworth is in second place).

Not only is Ward the all-time leading receiver in Steelers’ history, but he’s also a two-time Super Bowl Champion, and he played in a third Super Bowl but lost.  He was the MVP of one of those Super Bowls.  Those credentials ought to get him into the NFL Hall of Fame.

But when I think of Ward, I don’t think of any of those things.  In fact, the numbers are a very small part of who he was.

When I think of Hines Ward, the first thing that I think of is that ubiquitous smile.  When Ward caught a pass, he always had a smile on his face.  When he scored a touchdown, there was that smile.  And even when he got smashed into the ground by a safety or a linebacker, he still managed to get up with a big grin on his face.  It was almost as though Ward was asking the defender, “Is that the best you can do?”

Steelers WR Hines Ward

In an age of prima donna wide receivers, Hines Ward was never a diva.  He didn’t whine when he didn’t get the ball.  He didn’t cuss out his quarterback.  He didn’t showboat when he caught a pass.  He didn’t pull out Sharpies or cell phones when he caught a touchdown pass.   Instead, he’d look for a fan who was wearing his jersey, and hand them the ball.  How classy was that?

The other thing that I’ll always remember about Hines Ward was his devastating blocks.  Ward was only 6 feet tall, and just barely weighed over 200 lbs., but defenders knew that he could hit like a Mack truck.  They knew that they had to keep their eyes open when they played the Steelers.  Just ask Ed Reed.  Or Bart Scott.  Or Keith Rivers.  Heck, the NFL had to change their rules because of Hines Ward.  The new rule was even called the Hines Ward rule.

Hines Ward will be 36 years old in about 1 week.  So it was inevitable that his time would come.  But just like Leap Day, many of us hoped that it wouldn’t come for another 4 years.

Good bye, Hines.  Steeler Nation loves you.

Steelers position-by-position review: quarterbacks

February 27, 2012 By: Admin Category: Uncategorized

This is part 7 in our position-by-position review of the 2011 Pittsburgh Steelers.  If you haven’t read the previous installments, please click below:

If you haven’t read Part 1 (offensive tackles), click here.
If you haven’t read Part 2 (guards), click here.
If you haven’t read Part 3 (centers), click here.
If you haven’t read Part 4 (tight ends), click here.
If you haven’t read Part 5 (wide receivers), click here.
If you haven’t read Part 6 (running backs), click here.

The quarterback position for the Pittsburgh Steelers begins and ends with one name………

Ben Roethlisberger

Ben Roethlisberger has been the Steelers’ starting quarterback since 2004.  And outside of suspensions, Big Ben seldom misses or leaves a game.  Even when the Steelers have a big lead late in the 4th quarter, Ben usually stays in the game until the very end.  And this year, Steelers fans found out that Ben doesn’t even miss playing time when common sense says that he should.

Ben’s injury late in the season, and his decision to play through the injury probably cost the Steelers.  So one of the things that I’d love to see new offensive coordinator Todd Haley do is to pull Ben out of the game when he’s hurt, or when it’s obvious that the Steelers are going to win.  Why take unnecessary risks, when the Steelers need a healthy Ben in order to be successful?

Steelers' QB Ben Roethlisberger

But despite that small complaint, I still think that Ben is capable of leading the Steelers to Lombardi #7.

In 2011, Ben had the second most prolific passing performance of his career.  His 4,077 passing yards was second only to his 4,328 yards in 2009.  However, Ben still has room for improvement.

Specifically, Ben needs to go through his reads faster.   Mental quickness is really what separates good quarterbacks from great ones.  For example, it’s their mental ability, not their physical ability, that separates Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, and Drew Brees from the rest of the quarterbacks in the NFL.  And Dan Marino may have been the best ever at this.  Marino could see all of his receivers and get rid of the ball before the defense ever got near him.  Despite having no mobility, Marino almost never got hit.  Contrarily, Big Ben ends up scrambling around and taking 50 sacks per season.

Get rid of the ball faster, Ben.  Get rid of the ball faster.

Byron Leftwich

Byron has had a firm grasp of the #2 quarterback title since he joined the Steelers.  When he’s healthy, he’s a solid backup who is still relatively young, and who has lots of NFL starting experience.

The problem is that Leftwich is almost never healthy.  He’s become the Aaron Smith of the Steelers’ offense.  He has missed the past two seasons with injuries.  I’m starting to think that Leftwich, Aaron Smith, and Dan Sepulveda are having a contest to see who can get miss the most games due to injury.

I respect Leftwich’s ability, but I’m losing patience with him.

Dennis Dixon

Dennis Dixon wants to be a starter.  As long as Big Ben is around, Dixon will never be a starter in Pittsburgh.  So it’s probably best that he part ways with the Steelers.

Personally, I don’t think that Dixon is going to be as successful finding a job as a starter as he seems to think he’ll be.  But he has to find that out for himself.

Dennis won’t be back with the Steelers next year.  I wish him well.

Charlie Batch

Charlie Batch’s time with the Steelers must seem like the movie Groundhog Day.  Every year he comes to training camp as the last option at quarterback.  He is told that he is “too old”.  He barely gets any reps at training camp.  And then when the season rolls around and the Steelers have to depend on one of their backup quarterbacks, it’s inevitably Charlie who steps in and saves the day.

But the reality is that Charlie is 37 years old.  That’s ancient by NFL standards.  Just as the curtain is closing on guys like Casey Hampton, Hines Ward, Aaron Smith, and James Farrior, it’s also closing on Charlie Batch.

It’s time for the Steelers to bring in a young quarterback who can be groomed for 3-4 years behind Big Ben.  He doesn’t have to be a superstar.  He merely has to be able to carry the offense during the few occasions when Big Ben actually comes out of the game.  And as we mentioned earlier, that doesn’t happen very often.

I strongly recommend that the Steelers take a quarterback in the latter rounds of this year’s draft.  If they don’t draft one, then they should sign a free agent.  In 2012, Dennis Dixon and Charlie Batch should no longer be on the Steelers’ roster.  Who they get to replace them, and how they acquire him, is up to the team.  But they need to make it happen.

Steelers position-by-position review: running backs

February 23, 2012 By: Admin Category: Uncategorized

This is part 6 in our position-by-position review of the 2011 Pittsburgh Steelers.  If you haven’t read the previous installments, please click below:

If you haven’t read Part 1 (offensive tackles), click here.
If you haven’t read Part 2 (guards), click here.
If you haven’t read Part 3 (centers), click here.
If you haven’t read Part 4 (tight ends), click here.
If you haven’t read Part 5 (wide receivers), click here.

The next position that we’re going to review is the running backs.  The Steelers focused so much on the passing game under former offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, that it was easy to forget that we had running backs.  But the Steelers do have running backs, and they’re led by…..

Rashard Mendenhall

Mendenhall has carried the majority of the Steelers rushing load since becoming a starter in 2009.  He’s a very dependable runner who has a good combination, of power and speed, as well as an ability to catch the ball.

It’s difficult to evaluate Mendenhall’s performance, because he’s run behind a weak offensive line for the last several seasons.  But one thing was very clear in 2011.  Mendenhall’s carries dropped significantly.  He had almost 100 fewer carries this year than he did in 2010.  So his total yards dropped significantly, even though his average yards per carry was actually up.

Mendenhall tore his ACL in the regular season finale, and is likely to miss the beginning of the 2012 season due to the injury.  ACL injuries like Mendenhall’s typically take about 1 year to recover from.  So the Steelers are assuming that Mendenhall will be out until at least December.  But that’s an optimistic forecast.  Some have hypothesized that Mendenhall might miss the entire season.

So far, the Steelers have said that Mendenhall will likely start of the season on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list.  They’ll monitor his progress and make more definitive decisions when the time comes.

Isaac Redman

Fortunately for the Steelers, they have Isaac Redman.  Redman has been Mendenhall’s backup for the past two seasons.  He’s actually averaged more yards per carry than Mendenhall during both of those seasons.  That’s particularly impressive because Redman was primarily used as a short yardage back.

After Mendenhall was injured in the regular season finale, Redman entered the game and gained 92 yards on 19 carries.  Then in the playoff game against the Denver Broncos, Redman started and gained 121 yards on 17 carries.  That’s 4.8 and 7.1 yards per carry respectively.  Both were higher than Mendenhall’s season average.

Redman doesn’t have Mendenhall’s speed, and so he’s not much of a threat to break a big run to the outside.  However, Redman is probably more effective than Mendenhall at running between the tackles.

Jonathan Dwyer

Jonathan Dwyer is a bit of an enigma.  He came to training camp fat and out of shape and quickly found himself in  head coach Mike Tomlin’s doghouse.

I find it astounding that a young player who is trying to secure a place on an NFL roster would arrive out of shape.  Maybe it’s just me, but that makes me question Dwyer on many levels.

Dwyer doesn’t have much actual NFL experience for us to evaluate.  However, he did have that 107 yard performance against the Tennessee Titans.  It’s impossible to know whether that was a fluke or a sign of things to come.

Mewelde Moore

Mewelde Moore was a non-factor this season.  If it weren’t for Rashard Mendenhall’s injury, I would probably be predicting that Moore’s time with the Steelers was over.  But Mendenhall’s injury changes everything.

Isaac Redman would be the Steelers’ only experienced running back if Moore were not brought back.  That’s probably too great a risk for the team to take.

Mewelde Moore has experience within the Steelers’ system, and he’s proven that he can produce when called upon.  He may not have the talent or potential that some of the Steelers’ younger running backs have.  But without Mendenhall, proven dependability is far more important than potential.

Baron Batch

Baron Batch was lighting it up last year during training camp and the preseason.  He was making both fans and coaches take notice of his abilities.  Most were convinced that he was going to replace Mewelde Moore on the roster.  And then he tore his ACL, and everything came to a screeching halt.

I hope to see Batch return next year and pick up right where he left off.  If he does, it will be a major bonus for the Steelers.  But you never can tell how players will recover from ACL injuries.  So we’ll all just have to wait and see what happens.

John Clay

John Clay was an undrafted rookie free agent that the Steelers signed to the practice squad last year.  At 6’1″ and 248 lbs., he’s a big, physical running back.

Clay was actually activated when Curtis Brown was placed on the injured reserve list.  But he got very little action, so it’s too soon to give him a meaningful evaluation.

With all of the uncertainty at running back, it would be easy to say that the Steelers should take a running back in this year’s draft.  However, I actually don’t think they should.

I believe that Mendenhall is going to recover from his injury.  But more importantly, I think that they have quite a bit of potential among their young running backs.  Mendenhall’s injury may force the team to use some of the youngsters sooner than they normally would.  That should help them develop faster than they would otherwise.  And it also should show the Steelers that they have a few keepers among their young backs.

Steelers position-by-position review: wide receivers

February 19, 2012 By: Admin Category: Uncategorized

This is part 5 in our position-by-position review of the 2011 Pittsburgh Steelers.  If you haven’t read the previous installments, please click below:

If you haven’t read Part 1 (offensive tackles), click here.
If you haven’t read Part 2 (guards), click here.
If you haven’t read Part 3 (centers), click here.
If you haven’t read Part 4 (tight ends), click here.

Today we will be looking at the Steelers’ wide receivers.

The wide receivers emerged as arguably the Steelers’ greatest strength in 2011.  The Steelers have always been known for having great linebackers, but the current crop of wide receivers may actually outshine the linebackers.  In fact, they may be the most talented group of wide receivers in the NFL.

What other team can boast two 1,000 yard receivers, a future Hall-of-Famer, another young wide receiver who has the potential to be a 1,000 yard receiver, and a veteran receiver who would start on some NFL teams?  That’s exactly what the Steelers have on their wide receiving corps.

Let’s take a look at them individually, starting with…….

Mike Wallace

Going into the year, we knew that Mike Wallace was going to have a great season.  He had already established himself as one of the fastest wide receivers in the NFL, and he was building great chemistry with Ben Roethlisberger.  By the end of the 2010 season, Wallace had already become Big Ben’s favorite target.

Wallace had another 1,000 yard season in 2011, and he is a player who should play a significant role in the Steelers’ future.  The only problem is that Wallace is a restricted free agent this season.  Because of his incredible speed, Wallace will draw a lot of attention as a free agent.  The Steelers have said that signing him to a long-term contract is one of their highest priorities.  However, doing so is going to be expensive, and the Steelers are already over the salary cap.

The Steelers could slap the franchise tag on Wallace, but that will cost them almost $14 million.  So that’s not a very appealing option.  So the team has to hope that they can get even more veteran players to restructure their contracts.  LaMarr Woodley and Lawrence Timmons have already restructured theirs.  But the team will need to find far more money than that.

Antonio Brown

Antonio Brown came into training camp as the #4 receiver on the depth chart.  Hines Ward and Mike Wallace were established veteran starters, and Emmanuel Sanders had performed better than him during the previous season and was #3 on the depth chart.  But injuries among the wide receivers made Antonio Brown the primary wide receiver during the preseason.

By mid-season, Brown had supplanted Mike Wallace as Big Ben’s favorite target.  In fact, for long stretches it seemed like Roethlisberger had forgotten that Mike Wallace was even on the team.  That speaks volumes about how much talent Brown has.

WR Antonio Brown

Brown is probably the Steelers’ most talented receiver when it comes to gaining yards after the catch.  It’s those running skills that also made Brown a Pro Bowl kick returner.

Did I mention that Brown’s teammates voted him the team’s MVP?  Pretty impressive for a young guy.  I think this kid has a future with the team.

Hines Ward

Hines Ward is clearly one of the all-time Pittsburgh Steelers.  He holds just about every receiving record, and he’s basically been the face of the franchise since Jerome  Bettis retired.  Ward’s place is Steelers lore is assured.

However, Ward is no longer the most talented receiver on the Steelers’ roster.  After a brilliant career 14 year career, Ward will be 36 years old during the 2012 season.  By NFL standards, that’s ancient.  Moreover, Ward ended the 2011 season as the #5 wide receiver on the depth chart.  Even Jericho Cotchery had surpassed Ward.

Ward’s current contract pays him too much money to be a #5 wide receiver.  Moreover, a #5 wide receiver would have to play special teams, and it would be insulting to Ward to ask him to do that.

Ward has said that he wants to play another season for the Steelers, and that he’s willing to play for the league minimum for veterans.  But frankly, I don’t want to see Ward do that.  I love and respect Hines too much to see him sitting the bench behind younger, faster, wide receivers.

Emmanuel Sanders

2011 was basically a lost season for Emmanuel Sanders.  He struggled with injuries, and was only a shadow of the player that we saw in 2010.  Unlike Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown, Sanders isn’t a speedster.  He’s more quick than fast.  He specializes on finding gaps in the defense.  That makes him an ideal slot receiver.

Sanders’ future is going to depend largely on how successful he can be at remaining healthy.  But if he can put the foot injuries behind him, then he will be a part of one of the most dynamic receiving trios in Steelers history.

Jericho Cotchery

Cotchery ended the 2011 season as the #4 wide receiver on the Steelers’ depth chart.  Cotchery is an unrestricted free agent, and I would assume that he’d like to be a starter.  That’s just not going to happen with the Steelers.

I really liked what I saw from Cotchery last year.  He didn’t really get much playing time until the second half of the season.  But once he did, he showed that he could be a reliable target for Big Ben.

I’d love to see Cotchery return to the Steelers in 2012.  However, I doubt that’s going to happen.

Steelers position-by-position review: tight ends

February 15, 2012 By: Admin Category: Uncategorized

This is part 4 in our position-by-position review of the 2011 Pittsburgh Steelers.  If you haven’t read the previous installments, please click below:

If you haven’t read Part 1 (offensive tackles), click here.
If you haven’t read Part 2 (guards), click here.
If you haven’t read Part 3 (centers), click here.

Today we review the tight ends.

In my opinion, the Steelers are in pretty good shape at tight end.  This is primarily due to…

Heath Miller

I readily admit that Heath Miller is one of my favorite players on the Steelers.  I love his business-like approach to the game.  He never whines.  He never complains.  He just goes out and does his job.

If Heath is asked to block, that’s what he’s going to do.  And he’s pretty good at it too.  In fact, he’s one of the best blocking tight ends in the NFL.  Although that doesn’t seem to count for much these days, since tight ends are often used as primary receivers (see New England’s Rob Gronkowski).  But Heath doesn’t let that bother him.  He seems to get as much joy out of blocking as he does from catching passes.

And when it comes to catching passes, Heath is as good as any tight end in the business.  He has great hands, and he’s hard to bring down after the catch.  One of my favorite things is watching Heath run over a cornerback, or drag a safety.

TE Heath Hiller

If Heath got as many opportunities as some of the more visible tight ends in the league, he could definitely be a Pro Bowl caliber player.  But he doesn’t get those opportunities, and I’ve always viewed that as a problem.

One of the reasons that Heath doesn’t get the pass catching opportunities that some others get is that he is often asked to stay back and block.  That’s been one of the problems with the Steelers’ weak offensive line.  Miller is often used to cover up other players’ weaknesses.

Hopefully, Todd Haley will quickly realize what a dangerous weapon he has in Heath Miller.  More importantly, I hope that he’ll use Heath early and often in his offense.

David Johnson

Former Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians believed in using an H-back in his offense.  An H-back is essentially a tight end who plays the role of a fullback.  David Johnson has been the Steelers H-back for the past 2 years, and he’s done a decent (but not great) job at it.

Johnson is a powerful blocker who often seemed to be in the wrong place to make his blocks.  So we typically don’t get to see the punishing blocks that he’s capable of making.

Johnson was almost never used in the passing game.  He has a total of 18 regular season catches in the 3 years that he’s been with the Steelers.  That’s only 6 per season.  Rob Gronkowski catches that many passes in a quarter.

There are definitely tight ends out there who would be an upgrade to Johnson.  But first the Steelers will have to see how Todd Haley plans to use his tight ends.

Weslye Saunders

I really liked the little bit that I got to see of Weslye Saunders.  But that little bit may prove to be the last that we see of him.

Saunders was suspended for the first 4 games of the 2012 NFL season for violating the league’s banned substance policy.  That’s not a good thing when you’re a Pittsburgh Steeler.  The Steelers dont’ tend to look favorably upon such things.  Does anyone remember what happened to Santonio Holmes when he received such a suspension?  He was traded before the suspension ever got implemented.

Saunders has been a troubled player since college.  He was viewed as a potential 1st or 2nd round draft pick while he was in college.  But Saunders started getting in trouble, and his draft stock plummeted.  First, he was suspended by Steve Spurrier for “violating team rules”.  Saunders was later investigated by the NCAA, and ended up being declared ineligible for the 2011 NFL Draft.

Saunders came to the Steelers as an undrafted free agent, and looked to be on the cusp of making a name for himself with the team.  But this suspension now brings his future into question.

Based on the uncertainty with Johnson and Saunders, I won’t be surprised if the Steelers bring at least one new tight end into training camp this summer.