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And then there were four.

January 12, 2009 By: Admin Category: Post-Game Reports

In an unusual playoff weekend, only one of the favorites managed to defend their home field advantage.  Fortunately, that one team was the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The Steelers defeated the San Diego Chargers 35-24 in a game that looked like old fashioned Steelers football.  The Steelers ran the ball, controlled the clock, and played stingy defense.  Sound familiar?

Willie Parker ran for 146 yards on 27 carries.  That’s a 5.4 yard per carry average.  Not a bad day’s work.

The Steelers ran the ball 42 times while only throwing the ball 27 times.  That’s probably not a bad ratio, particularly when the running game is working as well as it was on Sunday.

Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger completed 17 of 26 passes for 181 yards.  More importantly, Roethlisberger avoided careless turnovers.  He threw no interceptions, and never fumbled the ball.  Roethlisberger did take several long attempts downfield that just missed their intended receivers.  Though the long bombs missed their intended receivers, they were enough to keep the defense honest.

On the defensive side of the ball, the NFL’s #1 ranked defense held the Chargers to 15 yards rushing.  Total.  In the whole game.  That is impressive under any circumstances, but considering that Chargers’ running back Darren Sproles had torched the Indianapolis Colts’ defense for 328 all-purpose yards last week, it is absolutely astounding.  Sproles averaged 1.4 yards per carry, and his longest carry was only 8 yards.

But the most impressive aspect of the entire game was probably the third quarter.  The Steelers controlled the ball so effectively that the Chargers only got to run one play from scrimmage during the entire quarter.  Their total time of possession during the quarter was less then 20 seconds.  it’s pretty hard to score when you don’t get to touch the ball.

So the Steelers move on to the AFC Championship against the Baltimore Ravens.  The Steelers have already beaten the Ravens twice this season.  Now they’ll have to do it a third time if they hope to move on to the Super Bowl.  As they say, “three’s a charm”.

On the NFC side, the Arizona Cardinals defeated the highly favored Carolina Panthers to move on to the NFC championship.  Former Steelers coaches Ken Whisenhunt and Russ Grimm will lead the Cardinals to the NFC championship game for the first time in……….. well, it’s been so long that I don’t think anyone really remembers the last time it happened.  Suffice it to say that it was a looooonnnng time ago.

Finally, the Philadelphia Eagles ousted the defending Super Bowl champions, the New York Giants, to move onto the final four.

The Steelers-Ravens and Cardinals-Eagles will meet next week to determine which two teams will meet in the Super Bowl.  Stay tuned.

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Playoffs: Steelers vs. Chargers Key Match-ups

January 09, 2009 By: Admin Category: Pre-Game Analyses

January 9, 2009
By Donald Starver

Before reading this article, please read our Steelers-Charger Playoff Preview found here.

This Sunday, the San Diego Chargers come to Heinz Field for a second time this season to take on our Pittsburgh Steelers. The Steelers have aspirations of going all the way to the Super Bowl this year.  If that is to happen, first they have to get past the Chargers.   If the Steeler hope to beat the Chargers, these are the key match-ups that they must control.

Steelers center Justin Hartwig vs. Chargers’ nose tackle Jamal Williams
Williams is a huge 6’3″, 348 lbs. nose tackle. According to Hartwig, Williams is one of the most most difficult tackles he has ever faced. If the Steelers running game is to succeed, Hartwig will have to keep Williams from collapsing the pocket. This may prove to be a difficult challenge. However, facing huge nose tackles is exactly the reason why Justin Hartwig was brought in to replace last year’s center Sean Mahan. Advantage: Chargers.

Steelers linebackers James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley versus Chargers QB Philip Rivers
Philip Rivers ended the regular season as the top-rated QB in the NFL. He threw for 34 touchdowns while only giving up 11 interceptions.  That’s pretty efficient. In order to prevent him from picking the Steelers apart, the defense is going to have to put constant pressure on him. Fortunately, the Steelers have the best sack tandem in the NFL to apply that pressure. Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison and fellow linebacker LaMarr Woodley will need to keep Rivers on the run, or it could be a long day for the Steelers’ secondary. Advantage: Steelers.

Steelers safety Troy Polamalu vs. Chargers receiver Antonio Gates
Gates is Philip Rivers’ favorite target. He is one of the best receiving tight ends in the NFL.  Gates comes into the game battling injuries.  However, he was questionable for last week’s playoff game against the Colts and still torched them for 87 yards receiving.  Gates will be matched up against the Steelers’ Pro Bowl safety Troy Polamalu.  Ordinarily, these two would cancel one another out.  But if Gates is hurt, Polamalu will have a clear advantage.   Advantage: Steelers.

Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger vs. Chargers’ secondary
Big Ben has struggled with inconsistency all year long.  He’s battled a series of injuries, and is coming off a concussion in his last game.  Fortunately, Roethlisberger gets to face the Chargers’ secondary.  The Chargers secondary was ranked 31st (next to last) in the NFL.  That will certainly help to get Big Ben back on track.  Chargers’ cornerback Antonio Cromartie gets burned more often than microwave popcorn.  If Roethlisberger is smart, he’ll go after Cromartie early and often. Advantage: Steelers.

Chargers running back Darren Sproles vs. Steelers’ run defense
Despite being LaDainian Tomlinson’s backup, Darren Sproles can’t be taken for granted.  He accounted for 328 all-purpose yards in last week’s Chargers-Colts game.  I think the Colts will tell you that the kid is dangerous.  Sproles is only 5’6″ tall, which presents a unique challenge, since he is hard to see behind his much bigger offensive linemen.  The Steelers defense will have to be disciplined and maintain their assignments in order to contain Sproles.  Fortunately, the Steelers have the second best run defense in the NFL.  I’ll be surprised if Sproles exceeds 65 yards rushing.  Advantage: Steelers.

Chargers Punter Mike Scifres vs. Steelers special teams
That’s right, I just said that a punter could be a key to the game.  But this is not just any punter.  This is Mike Scifres, the second coming of Ray Guy.  Scifres was selected the Chargers’ MVP in last week’s playoff game against the Colts.  The last time the Steelers played the Chargers, Scifres pinned them inside the 20 yard line on every one of his punts.  Advantage:  Chargers.

Overall, I believe the Steelers have the advantage in this game. The Chargers are hot right now, but the Steelers defense should prove to be too much for them.  The Chargers don’t tend to play very well when they have to travel to the East Coast, and the weather definitely won’t be in their favor.  

Oddly, the Chargers are 2-0 against the Steelers in Pittsburgh in the playoffs, despite having never won in Pittsburgh in the regular season.  Never.  Not once.  Try explaining that one.

I predict a 24-10 Steelers victory.

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Steelers vs. Chargers Playoff Preview

January 09, 2009 By: Admin Category: Pre-Game Analyses

January 9, 2009
By Donald Starver

This Sunday, the San Diego Chargers will make their second trip of the season to Heinz Field to face the Pittsburgh Steelers.  In the first game, the Steelers defeated the Chargers 11-10 in one of the strangest games in recent memory.

Several things made that game strange, first of which was the score.  It was the first time in NFL history that a game had ever ended with a score of 11-10.  The second oddity was the discrepancy between the on-field statistics and the final score.  The Steelers dominated the time of possession with 36:31 versus only 23:29 for San Diego.  They dominated total yardage 410-218.  They had 24 first downs versus only 16 for the Chargers.  Big Ben passed for 308 yards and had a 96.4 passer rating, while Philip Rivers was held to only 164 yards passing, and a 44.4 passer rating.  Willie Parker rushed for 115 yards, while LaDainian Tomlinson was held to only 57 yards.  Hines Ward had 124 receiving yards, while the Chargers leading wide receiver had only 29 receiving yards.  Yet, despite Pittsburgh’s clear dominance, the Chargers were leading with 30 seconds left in the game.  It took a field goal by Steelers’ kicker Jeff Reed with 15 seconds remaining in the game to salvage a Steelers’ victory.  Huh?  (Cue Twilight Zone music).

One of the key reasons for the discrepancy between the statistical results and the final score was the officiating.  Despite playing at Heinz Field, the Steelers didn’t get any home cooking from the referees.  In fact, the refs called 13 penalties on the Steelers for 115 yards.  Contrarily, the Chargers were penalized only 2 times for 5 yards.  Yeah, that will ruin an otherwise dominant performance.

Coming into this game, neither team has reason to feel overconfident.  The Chargers must remember how they got absolutely manhandled by the Steelers.  The Chargers’ defense couldn’t stop the Steelers from running the ball or throwing the ball.  The Chargers’ offense was equally impotent.  Philip Rivers was sacked twice and threw two interceptions on his way to a whopping 164 yards passing.  LaDainian Tomlinson was held to only 57 yards rushing on 18 carries.  Ouch!  That’s got to be fresh in their minds.

Despite dominating statistically, the Steelers can’t feel particularly positive about that game either.  The Chargers’ defense kept the Steelers’ offense out of the endzone for the entire game.  The Steelers’ offensive futility could be summarized by one play.  The Steelers had a fourth and goal from inside the Chargers’ 1 yard line.  Rather than kick the field goal, the Steelers chose to go for it.  The Chargers stopped Mewelde Moore cold and took over on downs.  Though they weren’t able to contain the Steelers’ offense, the Chargers “D” got stops when they absolutely needed them.

Additionally, the Steelers have to remember all of the mental mistakes that they made during that game.  The referees weren’t bribed by the Chargers.  The Steelers made mental errors that cost them 115 yards in penalties.  It’s hard to win in the NFL with that many penalties, regardless of how dominantly a team may be playing.

The Steelers left that game with a win, but it didn’t feel particularly good.  It probably felt the same as kissing your sister.  It was a win, but it was certainly nothing to be proud of.

So now, the two teams will meet again.  Both will want to make amends for their earlier performance.  The Chargers know that history is not in their favor.  They have played the Steelers in Pittsburgh 13 times in their teams’ regular season history.  They have left Pittsburgh with a loss all 13 times.  Strangely though, the Chargers have faced the Steelers in Pittsburgh twice in the playoffs, and they’ve won both games.  Go figure.

The weather will not be on San Diego’s side.  The forecast calls for temperatures in the 20′s, with a chance of snow.  Not ideal conditions for a team from southern California.

To make matters worse, the Chargers are likely to be without LaDainian Tomlinson.  Tomlinson is reported to have a groin tear.  While he has not officially be scratched from the game, it is highly unlikely that he will play.  Additionally, tight end Antonio Gates is also battling injuries.  He was questionable for the Chargers’ game last week against the Colts, but ended up playing.  The same is likely to hold true this week.  Gates will play, but he won’t be at his best.  That’s good news for the Steelers, but terrible news for the Chargers.

All is not lost though for the San Diego Chargers.  They still have Philip Rivers at quarterback.  Rivers ended the season as the NFL’s highest rated quarterback.  Rivers threw for twice as many touchdown passes as Ben Roethlisberger while also throwing fewer interceptions.  The kid’s pretty good.

Despite being without LaDainian Tomlinson, the Chargers can call upon capable backup Darren Sproles.  Sproles had 328 all-purpose yards in last week’s win over the Colts.  Sproles is short (5’6″) and quick, and presents a totally different challenge than LaDainian Tomlinson.  Don’t be fooled by his small stature.  Sproles plays much bigger than he actually is.  Additionally, he’s got a low center of gravity, and he can change directions much faster than his bigger defenders.

The Chargers enter the game as one of the hottest teams in the NFL.  They’ve won 5 straight games, and are averaging 34.4 points during that stretch.

On the defensive side of the ball, the Chargers are a team on the rise.  They ended the season as the 25th ranked defense in the NFL.  Not overly impressive.  However, since Ron Rivera took over as defensive coordinator in the middle of the season, the Chargers’ defense has become much more aggressive.  Remember, this defense denied the Steelers a single touchdown last time they met.

Just as the Chargers would like to avenge their last game against the Steelers, the Steelers also want to make amends.  Last time they faced the Chargers, they got inside the Chargers’ 20 yard line 3 times, and failed to score a touchdown each time.  They know that they have to score touchdowns in order to win this time.

“We moved the ball, but we sputtered in the red zone”, said Steelers’ quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.  “We can’t afford to do that.  We can’t turn the ball over.  The big thing is we can drive up and down the field, but we have to be able to put the ball in when we get down there”.

That game was not the only game in which the Steelers’ offense has sputtered.  In seven games against teams that made the playoffs this year, the Steelers managed only 8 touchdowns.    That is not good enough for a team with hopes of winning a Super Bowl.

“There’s no hocus-pocus or secret formula for getting the ball in the end zone,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said.  “We’ve got to execute better.  We’ve got to put our guys in a better position to capitalize on field position”.

The Steelers’ offensive woes come from three sources.  Firstly, the offensive line has been suspect all year long.  Many felt that the Steelers’ offensive line needed a complete overhaul after last season when they allowed Big Ben to be sacked 290 times (okay, maybe not THAT many times, but it was still too many).  Many Steelers fans were disappointed when the offensive line wasn’t addressed more aggressively during the draft and free agency.

The second problem has been Willie Parker.  Fast Willie has battled a series of injuries this season, and hasn’t resembled the back who led the NFL in rushing last year before breaking his leg.

The third, and definitely most important problem has been Big Ben.  Roethlisberger’s performance this year can best be described as “inconsistent”.  Roethlisberger threw for 17 TDs and 15 INTs, and ended up with a passer rating of 80.1.  That’s just not good enough for a $100 million dollar franchise quarterback.  Moreover, Roethlisberger was sacked 46 times.  That’s second worst in the NFL.  Some of that was attributable to the aforementioned offensive line, but some of it was also attributable to Ben.  Ben has a tendency to hold on to the ball too long in an effort to make the big play.  Sometimes it works, and sometimes……….

Roethlisberger is coming off a concussion suffered in the Steelers’ season finale against the Cleveland Browns.  The Steelers medical staff has cleared Ben to play on Sunday, but I’m sure all of Steeler Nation will be watching Ben for any sign of lingering effects from the concussion.

So the Steelers will send their 22nd ranked offense against the Chargers’ 25th ranked defense.  That’s a pretty even battle.  Pathetic, but even.  Fortunately, the Steelers have an ace in the hole.

Whenever the Steelers offense has struggled, their #1 ranked defense has been able to pull out a win.  While the Steelers offense may be evenly matched against the Chargers’ defense, the Chargers’ offense should be no match for the Steelers’ defense.  This is especially true with Tomlinson out, and Gates at less than 100%.

NFL Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison and the rest of the Steelers defense should be able to contain the Chargers offense, and give Mike Tomlin his first playoff victory as a head coach.

Next up, the Baltimore Ravens (yes, I am predicting a Ravens victory over the Titans).

For more information on the Steelers-Chargers playoff game, please read our Steelers-Chargers Playoff Key Match-ups, which can be found here.

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Five keys to the Steelers-Chargers game

January 08, 2009 By: Admin Category: Pre-Game Analyses

We have a special guest blogger today.  Steelers Today welcomes Patrick Cartwright, one of our regular readers, and our resident haiku guru.  Patrick is sharing his keys to the upcoming Steelers-Chargers game.  Take it away, Patrick.

Five Keys to the Steelers-Chargers Game
By Patrick Cartwright

1.  Where is Ben Roethlisberger’s head

Despite multiple reports out of Pittsburgh assuring the public that Ben will be ready to go for the playoff game against the Chargers, you have to wonder just how concussion-free he’ll be when he takes the field on Sunday.  It’s certainly a positive sign that the doctors cleared him to play, and that he’ll now practice with the team all week.  One of my biggest fears entering this week (other than the possibility of Ben not being cleared by the doctors to play) was that he would not participate in practice during the week.  We’ve seen this season how much difference a week of practice makes; when he was taking off practice to rest his sore shoulder, he was not the same quarterback.   Throws were mis-timed, he wasn’t on the same page as his receivers, and he was much more prone to throwing bad interceptions and fumbling.  For all his talent, he’s a quarterback who needs to throw during the week to be effective.

If Ben is still feeling the effects of his noggin bouncing off the Heinz Field turf like a superball, then it could be a long game for the Steelers.  The last time he had a head injury, it affected him long after the incident.  It doesn’t take much for a Steelers fan to recall what happened a few years back.  In that instance, his pre-season motorcycle crash and subsequent head injury affected his play for the entire season.  It took him an entire year to get back into form.  If Big Ben’s head isn’t right, I can easily see something along the lines of a 3 INT game.

If, however, Big Ben is really a-ok, concussion-free, and ready to go, then I see him lighting up the Chargers to the tune of 250 yards and 2 TD’s.  Call it a hunch, buy you only need to look at how he performed in the San Diego game earlier this season to understand my reasoning.

2.  Penalty Yards and the Refs Who Love Them

When the Steelers played the Chargers earlier this season, there were 15 penalties called.  Two of those were on the Chargers, for a grand total of 5 yards.  The Steelers were called penalized thirteen times for 115 yards.  This represents the largest disparity between both fouls called and penalty yardage between two teams in a single game this year.  Even more outrageous is that James Harrison was held on nearly every play, and there was not a single holding call against the Chargers all game.  This was also the game, you might remember, where a phantom “illegal forward pass” negated Troy Polamalu’s fumble recovery for a touchdown.  The ref for that game was Scott Green, an official who was described by former NFL commisioner Paul Tagliabue as having committed “the most disappointing officiating blunder he’d ever seen in his years as NFL commissioner” referencing another blown call in the 2003 playoffs.  Yet, he’s considered one of the best back judges in the league.  Interesting.

Now maybe I shouldn’t be too hard on the officials.  Ed Hochuli, who in my opinion is one of the best in the game, blew a call earlier in the year that cost San Diego a win against division rival Denver that (arguably) started their early season freefall.  And I’m not complaining about penalties being called.  The Colts/Chargers game had a ton of penalties, but I felt they were all justified.  And guess what?  That crew CALLED HOLDING.  (Sorry, that just drives me nuts that it isn’t called more on Steelers’ opponents).  Really, all I want is a good performance from the officiating crew.  Call what needs to be called, but be fair and equal in your judgment.  There is absolutely no reason the calls should be 13-2 against any team.  In fact, if we could see that not just for this game, but for the entire playoffs, it would be a welcome change.  I’m sure any fan of the NFL would agree.

3.  Let’s Play a Game Called “Who’s Healthy?”

By the end of an NFL season, there are usually numerous injuries to every team.  The main questions heading into the postseason is 1) “Who is injured”, and 2) “How badly”?

On the Steelers side of the ball, James Harrison went down a few weeks ago with a “hip pointer”.  After three weeks, we’d hope that he’d be at 100%, but that is one of those injuries, like turf toe or the dreaded high ankle sprain, that can bother a player to the point where their performance is seriously affected.  While all indications seem to be that the Defensive Player of the Year is going to be healthy and raring to go, you just never know about these things.  Brett Keisel has had problems.  So has Aaron Smith.  Both are now healthy, and Steelers fans hope it stays that way.

Fortunately for the Steelers, the Chargers are currently dealing with much worse injury problems.  Running back, and perennial #1 fantasy pick, LaDainian Tomlinson is probably not going to be able to play.  Antonio Gates has what has been described as “Keyzer Sose foot”.  And Shawn “I’m not Irish so I don’t spell it Sean” Merriman has been out for the season.  If you had to rank the five best players on the team, those three would be on the list.  This bodes well for the Steelers.

4.  Home Field Advantage

The Steelers are 6-3 all-time against the Chargers.  Since 1994, they are 5-0 in the playoffs when coming off a bye.  San Diego is sunny and warm.  Pittsburgh will be approximately negative three hundred and forty degrees on Sunday (with the wind chill) and it’s only going to get colder as the sun goes down.  Playoff game in Pittsburgh.  Terrible Towels waving.  Crowd noise off the charts.  It’s going to be fun.

5.  We Want Philly! (Rivers)

Philip Rivers had the best QB rating of anyone in the league this year.  No arguing, he had a big year.  The Big Ben/Eli Manning/Philip Rivers comparisons will now never end.  Regardless, the Steelers defense took that big 105.5 passer rating down a few pegs, as he threw 2 INT’s, didn’t top 200 yards, and finished he game with a paltry 44.4 passer rating, his lowest of the year.  If the Steelers’ defense can make him play the way he did in the game earlier this year, then the Steelers can win this game and win it big.  If, however, Rivers plays the way he has most of the season, then it could be a long day for the Steelers.  With his primary target, tight end Antonio Gates, on a bad leg, the Steelers should be able to harass Rivers all day.

Something to watch is the screen pass to Darren Sproles, who is filling in for Tomlinson.  Sproles is small and fast, a terrible combination for defenses because sometimes defensive backs and linebackers can’t see small guys over the linemen.  By the time they pick up the runner, he might already be past them.  If Sproles catches a screen pass in space, look out.  The guy has wheels.  But if the Steelers are smart and look for the screen early, keep on their receivers, and pester Rivers, this could be a long, long game for the San Diego offense.

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Steelers to face Chargers

January 04, 2009 By: Admin Category: Pre-Game Analyses

Peyton Manning may have won the NFL MVP award, but he couldn’t lead his team past the first round of the playoffs.  One day after accepting his MVP trophy, Manning and the Indianapolis Colts got booted out of the playoffs by the San Diego Chargers.

The two teams found themselves tied 17-17 at the end of regulation.   The Chargers won the coin toss and got the first possession in overtime.  That would be all that they’d need.  Before the Colts could even touch the ball in overtime, Chargers’ running back Darren Sproles sprinted into the endzone to end the Colts’ season.

Sproles, who is actually a Smurf (okay, maybe not, but how do you explain his 5’6″ height?), torched the Colts defense for 328 total yards.  He had 105 yards rushing, 45 yards receiving, 106 yards on 4 kickoff returns, and 72 yards on three punt returns.  Pretty good for a munchkin.

Sproles only found himself playing when starter LaDainian Tomlinson had to leave the game due to a groin injury.  This is the second year in a row that Tomlinson has punked out……..errrr, “been unable to play due to injury”, during the playoffs.

It’s too early to say, but the initial indication is that Tomlinson won’t be able to play next week against the Steelers.  Perhaps his injury is serious, but it sounds like a thinly veiled excuse to avoid playing against the bruising Pittsburgh defense.

The Steelers faced the Chargers during week 11 of the regular season.  The Steelers won that game 11-10.  That game came down to the wire when Jeff Reed hit a 32 yard field goal with 15 second left in the game to seal the victory.

The Steelers actually dominated the Chargers in just about every category during that game.  Unfortunately, one of those categories was penalty yards.  The Steelers had 13 penalties for 115 yards, while the Chargers only had 2 penalties for 5 yards.  It’s hard for a team to overcome 115 yards in penalties, regardless of how well they play.

Despite all of the penalties, the Steelers held the Chargers to less than 70 yards rushing, and held Chargers’ QB Philip Rivers to only 164 yards passing.  That’s some pretty stingy defense.

Not only did the defense dominate, the Steelers’ offense also dominated.  They gained 410 yards, compared to only 218 yards of offense for San Diego.  Ben Roethlisberger passed for 308 yards, Willie Parker had 115 yards rushing, and Hines Ward had 124 receiving yards.  As they’d say in London, the Steelers kicked their bloody arses.

Given what happened the first time the two teams played, I don’t think Steelers fans should be overly concerned about Sunday’s game.  Sure, they Chargers could win.  But I don’t think they will.  Not only did the Steelers beat the Chargers before, but this time the Chargers will be without LaDainian Tomlinson.  Sunday’s game is also being played in Pittsburgh, a very difficult places for opposing teams to win.  Moreover, the forecast is calling for temperatures in the low 20′s next weekend in Pittsburgh.  Not ideal conditions for a team from sunny San Diego.

Elsewhere in the AFC, the Baltimore Ravens (boo!!!!!) defeated the Miami Dolphins 27-9.  The Ravens will now travel to Nashville to take on the Tennessee Titans on Saturday.

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