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Challengers to the throne

July 12, 2009 By: Admin Category: Uncategorized

July 12, 2009
By Donald Starver

I was asked by Most Valuable Network (MVN) to write a 2009 season preview on the Steelers.  In this article, I made a statement that upset some Steelers fans.  I stated that I didn’t think that the Steelers were the best team in the NFL last season.

If you think back to the 2008 season, you’ll remember that the Steelers were soundly defeated by the Philadelphia Eagles.  Frankly, I wasn’t looking forward to facing them again.  Similarly, the Tennessee Titans manhandled the Steelers during the regular season.  Perhaps it is blasphemous for me to say this, but I breathed a sigh of relief when the Baltimore Ravens knocked the Titans out of the playoffs.  The New York Giants had also beaten the Steelers during the regular season.  Though that game was much more competitive than the Eagles or Titans games, I still think the Steelers and Giants were pretty evenly matched, and a rematch could have gone either way.  Lastly, who predicted that the Arizona Cardinals, the lowest seed in the NFC playoffs, would take out the top-seeded Carolina Panthers?  The Panthers were probably the hottest team in the NFL going into the playoffs.  One could have made an argument that any of these teams was actually better than the Steelers.

So were the Steelers the best team in the NFL in 2008?  There’s no way of knowing.  But the Steelers got it done when it counted, and that is all that anyone will ever remember.  Moreover, that’s all that counts.

Going into 2009, the Steelers appear to be just as good as they were in 2008, if not better.  The team returns almost all of the starters from their Super Bowl championship team. They are likely to  get a greater contribution from their 2008 rookie class (which made almost no impact last year).   They also had an excellent 2009 draft.  Combine that with a much easier schedule than they had in 2008, and the Steelers appear to be guaranteed to make another deep playoff run.

Unfortunately, the rest of the NFL isn’t just going to hand the Steelers the title.  If the Steelers want to repeat as champions, they are going to have to hold off several worthy challengers to the throne.

Below is my list of the teams that may pose the greatest challenge to the Steelers’ continued dominance.  Please note that these teams are not listed in any particular order:

New England Patriots - Let’s face it.  The Patriots just aren’t the same team without Tom Brady.  As much as I hate to admit it, Brady may be the best quarterback in the NFL.

In 2007, the Patriots almost went undefeated.  Brady and Randy Moss rewrote the record books.  Matt Cassell’s Patriots of 2008 were a mere shadow of the 2007 team.  But the 2009 Patriots should be very reminiscent of the 2007 team.  Only they’ve added Fred Taylor and Joey Galloway.  Gulp!

The Patriots are the most important hurdle for the Steelers to overcome.  Not only must the Steelers prove that they are more than just interim champs who were merely keeping the throne warm until Tom Brady’s return.  They must also establish their dominance over the Patriots in order to prove that they, and not the Patriots, are the team of the decade.

New York Giants - The Giants won the Super Bowl the year before the Steelers did.  Moreover, they beat the Steelers in 2008.

The Giants are a very well-balanced team, finishing 2008 in the top 10 in both total offense and total defense.

Perhaps their only question mark is their receivers.  Amani Toomer is done, and Plaxico Burress will never play for the Giants again.  However, the Giants have several receiver waiting in the wings to fill the void.  Sinorice Moss may finally be ready to be the field-stretching receiver that he was drafted to be.  Super Bowl hero David Tyree is still in the mix.  Former Michigan star Mario Manningham is highly regarded by the team, and 1st round draft pick Hakeem Nicks may be the best of the bunch.  Suffice it to say that wide receiver should emerge as a strength for the Giants.

Oh yeah, did I mention that Osi Umenyiora will be returning to the line-up?

Philadelphia Eagles - I don’t understand Philadelphia fans.  Donovan McNabb has been one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL for a long time.  He consistently takes the Eagles to the playoffs, yet at the end of each season it seems like Eagles fans are trying to run Donovan out of town.

Personally, I think the Eagles will once again be a playoff contender.  Besides McNabb, the Eagles still have Brian Westbrook, arguably one of the best running backs in the NFL.  Wider receiver DeSean Jackson will be an experienced veteran, and should be even better than last year.  Rookies Jeremy Maclin and LeSean McCoy should contribute during their freshman year.

If you look at the offensive weapons that the Eagles have provided Donovan McNabb, one could easily argue that this year’s Eagles could be even better than the Terrell Owens team that went to the Super Bowl a few years back.

Chicago Bears - The Chicago Bears haven’t had a good quarterback since…..well, ever.  Now they have a young Pro Bowl caliber quarterback in Jay Cutler.

The Bears almost made the playoffs with Kyle Orton at the helm.  What will they do with a star QB running their offense?

Cincinnati Bengals - Just joking folks.  I just wanted to see if you were paying attention.

Indianapolis Colts - Sure, Tony Dungy is gone.  But the Colts shouldn’t lose a beat under the leadership of Dungy’s hand-picked successor.  Besides, Peyton Manning runs this team.  As long as he’s under center, the Colts will be a force to be reckoned with.

Baltimore Ravens - The Ravens were the 2008 AFC runner-up.  Thus, they have to be considered to be a contender.  However, with Rex Ryan leaving as defensive coordinator, Ray Lewis getting yet another year older, and Bart Scott no longer on the team, I don’t think the Ravens will be in the Steelers’ class.

Tennessee Titans - The Titans had a great season last year.  But I don’t expect to see a repeat performance from them this year.  Albert Haynesworth was the heart and soul of that team.  I’m not sure if there is another defensive player in the league who is as important to his team as Haynesworth was to the Titans.  The Titans’ defense should see a significant decline without him.

On offense, I think “smash & dash” will prove to be one-hit wonders.  I just don’t believe that LenDale White can be a consistent threat in the NFL.

Carolina Panthers - Is there a better running back tandem in the NFL than DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart?  Julius Peppers will be back with the team next year.  So will Steve Smith.  The only thing holding this team back is Jake Delhomme.  It’s too bad the Panthers signed him to a 5-year, $42.5 million extension.

San Diego Chargers and Dallas Cowboys - Both teams are better on paper than their on-field performance indicated in 2008.  I expect the return of Shawn Merriman to help the Chargers.  Similarly, the Cowboys should benefit from the removal of distractions like T.O., Tank Johnson, and Pac-Man Jones.

Notice I didn’t include the Arizona Cardinals.  Despite making it to the Super Bowl last year, the Cardinals are still……..the Cardinals.  They were the lowest seed in the NFC playoffs last year, and I believe that the Bears and Cowboys will be greater threats in the NFC in 2009.

I feel much better about the Steelers’ chances this year than I did last year.  With a better team and a much easier schedule than they had last year, a 14-2 regular season record is very feasible this season.

Will they bring home another Lombardi Trophy?  Only time will tell.  After all, anything can happen in the playoffs.  But one thing seems certain, if the Steelers can stay healthy they will be a playoff team.

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2009 bloggers’ mock draft: pick #23

March 20, 2009 By: Admin Category: Draft/Free Agency

Steelers Today has hooked up with 31 other NFL bloggers from around the country to do a bloggers’ mock draft. All 32 NFL teams are represented in the mock draft.

The mock draft is sponsored by Cleveland Browns blog No Logo Needed. For more details on the bloggers’ mock draft, click here.

With the 23rd pick of the 2009 NFL Draft the New England Patriots blog Patriots Daily selects……

Before I get to that, let me just say that I am going to get killed for this. And it’s not my fault, honest. I mean, you see how this pretend draft has gone for me, the pretend GM of the pretend Pats. Let’s just say Rey Maualugua wasn’t going to be sliding in this particular selection process. Neither was Clay Matthews or Brian Cushing, the other USC linebackers we also liked, or even Eben Britton, the versatile Arizona tackle who would have been a nice building block for the future of the Pats offensive line.

So what do I do now? I’m too slow witted to try a trade with the very same people who suckered me into this draft in the first place, so that’s out. Do I go BPA (best player available) regardless of position, or CYA with a ‘need’ pick?

 Here’s how I figured it. If I’m going to be pretend paying someone pretend first round money for a pretend four years, I’m going to give it to the best football player I can find, and not some linebacker I don’t really like, some DE-OLB tweener that I’m not sure about, or some defensive back I can probably get eleven pretend pay slots later.

So, with the 23rd pick, the New England Patriots select…

Knowshon Moreno, Running Back, Georgia

Yeah, I know. The Patriots don’t need a running back at the moment, not with a full rotation in place for 2009. Not with Sammy Morris, Fred Taylor and Laurence Maroney tied up through 2010. Not with other needs – in the secondary or the front seven, for example – that will more immediately impact their ability to compete this fall.

I don’t care. Moreno is, by most measurements, a top 15 player in this draft. I’m supposed to ignore that? Did I mention that this draft couldn’t have gone any worse for me?

The strange thing is that this could end up working. Kevin Faulk, the Pats utility knife who is about to turn 33, is entering the final year of his contract. Maroney is teetering on the edge of full-on bust status after a disappointing 2008 season that was marred by injury and ineffectiveness. As great as he’s been in New England, Morris is 32, and if the Pats advance deep into next year’s playoffs, they’ll probably have cake in the break room one afternoon to celebrate Taylor’s 34th birthday.  

Best of all, by all accounts, Moreno is a well rounded, consistently productive player. He’s not a burner, but a quick, elusive and tough runner who is well suited to be a focal point, yet does the little things (like blitz pickup) right. He’s a smooth receiver who can get down the field from the backfield, or split wide. He’s got the right classroom and weight room make-up. He’s probably the most Patriot-like running back in the draft. 

So despite the fact that I’ll get killed for this, he’s my pick. The Atlanta Falcons are now on the clock. Hopefully, I’ll find out later that they wanted Moreno. Because after all, misery loves company

The draft results so far are shown below. Click on the individual pick to read each blogger’s rationale for his selection.

1. Detroit Lions: Mathew Stafford, QB (Georgia)
2. St. Louis Rams: Eugene Monroe, OT (Virginia)
3. Kansas City Chiefs: Aaron Curry, LB (Wake Forest)
4. Seattle Seahawks: Michael Crabtree, WR (Texas Tech)
5. Cleveland Browns: Rey Maualuga, LB (Southern California)
6. Cincinnati Bengals: Jason Smith, OT (Baylor)
7. Oakland Raiders: Jeremy Maclin, WR (Missouri)
8. Jacksonville Jaguars: B.J. Raji, DT (Boston College)
9. Green Bay Packers, Brian Orakpo, DE (Texas)
10. San Francisco 49ers, Everette Brown, OLB (Florida State)
11. Buffalo Bills, Clay Matthews, OLB (Southern California)
12. Denver Broncos, Malcolm Jenkins, CB (Ohio State)
13. Washington Redskins, Andre Smith, OT (Alabama)
14. New Orleans Saints, Brian Cushing, OLB (Southern California)
15. Houston Texans, Michael Oher, OT (Ole Miss)
16. San Diego Chargers, Eben Britton, OT (Arizona)
17. New York Jets, Tyson Jackson, DE (LSU)
18. Chicago Bears, Darrius Heyward-Bey, WR (Maryland)
19. Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Percy Harvin, WR  (Florida)
20. Detroit Lions, Aaron Maybin, DE (Penn State)
21. Philadelphia Eagles, Vontae Davis, CB (Illinois)
22. Minnesota Vikings, Mark Sanchez, QB (Southern California)
23. New England Patriots, Knowshon Moreno, RB (Georgia)

The Atlanta Falcons are on the clock.

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Scouting Matt Cassel

November 28, 2008 By: Admin Category: Lists, Pre-Game Analyses

This week, the Steelers must face the New England Patriots, led by surprising quarterback Matt Cassel.  Prior to this season, many fans had probably never heard of Matt Cassel.  When Tom Brady went down with an injury, most fans probably wrote off the Patriots.  But Matt Cassel has played extremely well, and passed for back-to-back 400+ yard games.  More importantly, the Patriots are 7-4, and are in contention for a wildcard playoff spot.

Most Steelers fans are probably asking “who is this Matt Cassel guy?  Isn’t he a scrub who hadn’t started a game since high school”?  Well, the answer to that question is “yes and no”.  It IS true that prior to this season, Matt Cassel hadn’t started a game since high school.  However, it is not necessarily true that he is a scrub.

Coming out of high school, Cassel was ranked as one of the top 10 quarterbacks in the country.  As a result, he was recruited by Pete Carroll to play at USC, one of the most prestigious programs in the nation.  Cassel probably would have become a starter if he had chosen to attend any other school that recruited him other than USC.

While at USC, Cassel spent his entire career as a backup to Heisman trophy winners.  Cassel started his college career as a backup to Heisman Trophy winner Carson Palmer.  He ended his college career as backup to another USC Heisman Trophy winner, Matt Leinart.

Despite having never started a game in college, pro scouts recognized Cassel’s potential.  At 6’4″ and 230 lbs., he had nice size.  More importantly, he had a strong arm.  Ultimately, he was drafted in the seventh round by the New England Patriots.

Many fans thought it was a fluke when Cassel passed for 400 yards against the New York Jets two weeks ago.  When he followed that game up with a 415 yard passing game against the Miami Dolphins last week, suddenly Cassel could no longer be taken lightly.

Most Steelers fans would probably agree that Steelers’ quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is a franchise quarterback.  Nevertheless, Roethlisberger has never thrown for 400 yards in an NFL game.  Cassel has done it twice in the past 2 weeks.  In fact, Cassel leads Roethlisberger in almost every statistical category this year.

Cassel is 8th in the NFL in passing yardage with 2,615 yards.  Roethlisberger is 17th with 2,233 yards.  Matt Cassel is ranked #10 with a passer rating of 90.5, while Roethlisberger is ranked 21st with a passer rating of 80.5.  Cassel has thrown 13 touchdown passes this year.  Big Ben has 11.  Cassel has completed 66.3% of his passes.  Roethlisberger has completed 61.6%.  Cassel has thrown 24 passes this year that were for 20 yards or more.  Big Ben has only thrown 20 passes for 20+ yards.  The only important category that Big Ben leads Matt Cassel in is interceptions.  Big Ben has thrown 11 interceptions, while Matt Cassel has only thrown 8.  Oh wait, that’s bad, isn’t it?  Ummmm, forget that last one.

Since Big Ben is a franchise quarterback, and Matt Cassel’s statistics are better than Big Ben’s, Matt Cassel must also be a franchise quarterback, right?  Moreover, since Cassel’s stats are better than Roethlisberger’s he must be a better quarterback than Big Ben.  Make sense?  Actually, no.  It doesn’t make sense.

Let’s look at Matt Cassel’s accomplishments a little closer.  Matt Cassel has never faced a passing defense that was ranked in the top 1/3 of NFL.  The best passing defense that he’s faced is the Indianapolis Colts, and he lost that game.  The best defense that he has actually beaten is the 6-5 Buffalo Bills’ defense.  The Bill’s passing defense is ranked #16 in the NFL (out of 32 teams).  That means that they are just barely in the top half of NFL passing defenses.

The Bills’ defense gives up 211.5 passing yards per game, and they have a total of 18 sacks.  By comparison, the Steelers defense is ranked #1 in the NFL against the pass and against the run.  The Steelers allow a measly 168 passing yards per game, and they’ve accumulated a total of 37 sacks.  Translation:  Matt Cassel has been playing against JV defenses.  This Sunday, he’ll be facing his first varsity squad.

While many teams were unprepared for Cassel, after two consecutive 400+ yard passing performances, the Steelers will not take him lightly.  Coach Dick LeBeau will have his defense ready to teach Cassel a thing or two.  The Steelers are likely to try to confuse Cassel by constantly shifting their defensive looks right up to the time of the snap.  More importantly, the Steelers have one of the few cornerbacks in the league who has the size and speed to shadow Randy Moss.  With Ike Taylor taking away some of the advantage that Moss usually enjoys, it is going to make Cassel work much harder for his yards than he usually has to.

With his home run target partially neutralized, Cassel is going to have to spend more time searching for his second and third passing options.  This will give the Steelers’ pitbulls, James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley, time to get to Cassel.  Cassel has already been sacked 34 times this season.  That’s even more sacks than Big Ben has taken, and we all know that Ben gets sacked waaayyyyyyy too often.  So while Matt Cassel will enter the game with 34 sacks, he’s not likely to leave the game with 34.  36 or 37 is far more likely.

The one X-factor that might change the complexion of the game is Patriot’s coach Bill Belichick.  For those of you who don’t know, I don’t like Bill Belichick.  Besides being a cheater, Belichick is also a Steelers killer.  He has a knack for creating perfect game plans for facing the Steelers.  There is little doubt in my mind that Belichick will have Cassel and the rest of the Patriots well prepared for this game.  The fact that the game is being played in New England won’t help either.

The bottom line is that Matt Cassel is a decent young quarterback.  However, he has never faced a defense like the one that he’s going to be facing this weekend.  Bill Belichick will have him well prepared, but it won’t make a difference.  The Steelers are going to beat the Patriots.  The only quarterback who can potentially change that outcome is Ben Roethlisberger, not Matt Cassel.

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Why I hate Bill Belichick

November 23, 2008 By: Admin Category: Pre-Game Analyses

I hate New England Patriots head coach Bill Bellichick. I don’t hate him in the same way that I hate child molesters. No, that is a special kind of hatred. You know, the kind where you wish they would spend eternity in Hell having their brain slowly and painfully eaten by carnivorous fire ants while simultaneously being forced to listen to Jessica Simpson music.

I don’t hate Belichick in the same way that I hate brussels sprouts. Though I find them to be utterly disgusting, I could probably force myself to eat brussels sprouts if they were the only food available to prevent myself from dying of starvation. Under those circumstances, I might even grow to like them.

I don’t hate Belichick in the same way that I hate Paris Hilton and Tila Tequila. What I feel for them is actually more like pity, because they don’t seem to realize how pathetic their vapid act truly is.

Tila who?

Tila who?

Nope, I hate Bill Belichick in a totally different way. I hate him the same way that I hated Pete Rose, Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan, Ken Griffey, George Foster, and the rest of the Big Red Machine. During the 70′s, the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Cincinnati Reds were often the best two teams in baseball. Unfortunately, they both played in the National League. So instead of making it to the World Series like they should have, my beloved Pirates were repeatedly denied their rightful place of honor by the hated Reds.

I hate Bill Belichick the same way that I hated the Boston Celtics of the 80′s. Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parrish, Dennis Johnson, and Danny Ainge were the victims of more than a few verbal bludgeonings by me (through the TV, of course). I hated their ugly green shoes. I hated their stupid green uniforms. And I hated the way they always seemed to beat my idol, Dr. J, and his Philadelphia 76ers.

I hate Bill Belichick in the same way that I recently found myself hating the Detroit Red Wings as they defeated Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Stanley Cup championship. As much as I was rooting for “Sid the kid” and company, deep down I knew that the Red Wings were just….better.

The type of hatred that I felt for all of these teams is a hatred that is, at least partially, based on respect……and jealousy. You know the old saying, “if you can’t beat them, hate them”.

I’m sure that some of you have felt the same type of hatred. Perhaps you’ve felt it for Alex Rodriguez. Or Kobe Bryant. Or Randy Moss. You recognize that they are pompous, arrogant, and able to back up every ounce of their brashness with pure, unadulterated talent. What other option is there but to hate them. And when they stand in the way of your team, that hatred is multiplied tenfold.

Since becoming head coach of the New England Patriots, Bill Belichick holds a 5-1 record against the Pittsburgh Steelers. That lone loss was during the 2004 regular season. Unfortunately, Belichick avenged that loss during the same year by beating the Steelers in the 2004 AFC championship game. To add insult to injury, he beat them in Pittsburgh. He also beat the Steelers in the AFC championship game in 2001. That one was also in Pittsburgh. Curse you, Bill Belichick!

Bill Belichick is actually the only NFL coach that I fear. When we play any other team, my mind is focused primarily on their players. When the Steelers play the Chargers, they have to beat LaDainian Tomlinson, Philip Rivers, and Antonio Gates. When they play the Cowboys, they have to beat Tony Romo, Terrell Owens, and Marion Barber. When they play the Philadelphia Eagles, they have to beat Donovan McNabb and Brian Westbrook. But when the Steelers play the New England Patriots, they have to beat Bill Belichick.

Bill Belicheat

More than any other coach in the NFL, Belichick seems to be able to put together a game plan that will defeat his intended opponent.  During his tenure with the Patriots, he has not coached the most talented players. He simply has a way of understanding his players’ strengths and weaknesses, and masterfully utilizing them in the optimal fashion to win.

Mike Vrabel used to play for the Steelers.  He didn’t even have enough talent to break into the Steelers’ starting lineup. But when Belichick got his hands on him, Vrabel became a star. Wes Welker was a serviceable receiver, but Belichick made him one of the most prolific receivers in the NFL.   He took Bengals cast-off Corey Dillon and made him a world champ. 50 year old Junior Seau was reborn under Belichick. As blasphemous as it may sound, I am not even certain that 6th round draft pick Tom Brady would be the superstar that he is if it weren’t for Belichick.  Stop laughing. I’m totally serious.

In my opinion, until the Patriot acquired Randy Moss, they didn’t really have any players who had physical talents that were head and shoulders above the other players in the league at their position. Some will argue that Tom Brady falls into that category, but Brady showed no sign of being that type of player while at Michigan. He only manifested that level of ability when teamed with the mad scientist Bill Belichick. What other coach could take Matt Cassel, an unknown quarterback who hadn’t started a game since high school, and get him to pass for 400 yards in an NFL game?

Coach Belichick develops game plans and makes in-game adjustments better than any coach in the NFL. In 2007, Belichick understood that his team was not going to beat the Steelers by trying to run against them. The Steelers had already proven that running against them was an extremely difficult task. So Belichick developed a game plan that all but eliminated the run. His team passed the ball 46 times, while only attempting 9 running plays. He used short passes as a de facto running game. The result; Patriots 34, Steelers 13. Tom Brady accumulated 399 passing yards, while the Patriots rushed for only 22 yards.

Belichick even manages to make the Steelers’ resident genius, defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, look mundane. As much as I hate to admit it, Belichick dissects LeBeau’s defenses like biology students dissect frogs.

Belichick is even better at countering the Steelers’ offense. At times, it even seems as though Belichick knows what plays the Steelers are going to run before they actually run them. Perhaps he is cheating. After all, it is now known that Belichick has cheated before to give his team an advantage. But if he is cheating, that makes me respect him even more. As they say, “if you’re not cheating, you’re not trying”.

For those who question Belichick’s coaching ability, it should be noted that he is the only NFL coach to record 9 or more wins in each of the last 5 seasons. His teams own all of the major winning streaks in NFL history: consecutive overall wins (21 from 2003 - 2004), consecutive regular season wins (18 from 2003 - 2004), and consecutive playoff wins (10 from 2001 - 2005). Only legendary Steelers coach Chuck Noll has won more Super Bowls than Belichick (Belichick is tied with Joe Gibbs and Bill Walsh for second place).

Bill Belichick actually won his first two Super Bowls as defensive coordinator for the New York Giants in 1986 and 1990. George Seifert is the only other coach who has won multiple Super Bowls as both a head coach and as an assistant coach.

Next week, the Steelers will travel to Gillette Stadium to take on the New England Patriots. Tom Brady won’t play. Neither will Adalius Thomas. Tedy Bruschi and Richard Seymour have been battling injuries, and neither may play. But that doesn’t matter. The Patriots’ strength is not in their players. Their strength is in their coaching. As long as Bill Belichick is the Patriots’ coach, they have a good chance of winning. That’s why I hate him.

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