Mea Culpa: Why I Changed My Mind on the JuJu Smith-Schuster Suspension to Support #FreeJuJu!

Sometimes it’s simply best to fess up and admit you were wrong. So it is with me and the NFL’s decision to suspend JuJu Smith-Schuster.

  • To be honest, I reacted to seeing the flag being thrown by asking “Why?”

Really, it didn’t make sense. But then the replay showed helmet-to-helmet contact, and then JuJu clearly looked to be making light over Vontaze Burfict. That didn’t sit well, and in my post-game write up I came down hard on JuJu and on Rebecca Rollett’s site, Going Deep with the Steelers I observed, “JuJu Smith-Schuster was (rightly in my view) suspended for gloating over Vontaze Burfict…”

  • Let’s put it out front and center: I was wrong about JuJu Smith-Schuster’s suspension.

Several factors influenced my change in thinking, which I expand below.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Vontaze Burfict, Steelers vs Bengals, JuJu Smith-Schuster suspension, David DeCastro

JuJu Smith-Schuster stands over Vontaze Burfict. Photo Credit: ESPN.com

Taunting is Wrong, but Is It Suspendable Offense + Vontaze Burfict Took a Dive

In taking JuJu Smith-Schuster to task put his actions into the context of what we know today as opposed to yesteryearWhen I saw Greg Lloyd 3 count Al Toon after Thomas Everett knocked the Jets wide receiver out with a concussion during the 1989 Steelers shut out over the Jets I thought it was awesome.

  • Of course at the time Mike Webster seemed to defying father time by playing for the Chiefs and the word “CTE” was close to 20 years away.

Given that, JuJu’s taunting of a seemingly concussed Burfict, while satisfying on one level is nonetheless wrong on so many others. But as Mike Silverstien, aka “Homer J” reprimanded:

No question Juju deserved 15 for taunting, but NO PLAYER IN NFL HISTORY HAS EVER BEEN SUSPENDED FOR TAUNTING. You throw the flag, give him 15, lighten his wallet and move on, damn it.

There no arguing with that logic, and while the NFL mentioned the taunting in its letter to JuJu it apparently clarified that the suspension was for the hit, not the taunting. Even Jason Witlock and Colin Cowherd, two jouralists not exactly known for their support of the Steelers, went at pains to say that the hit only borderline illegal.

But of course, it was a devastating hit, wasn’t it? Well, again Homer J’s analysis is instructive:

Juju clocks Burfict and lays him flat. Burfuct [sic] at first springs up, and he tries to twist and grab Juju’s legs. Then the flags start flying and Burfict flops like some damned Serbian midfielder in a match against hated Croatia. Just like he falls to the ground game after game during other team’s offensive drives. Just like he said Antonio Brown did in the playoff game two years ago. (So it wasn’t something he hadn’t thought about) He laid there like a slug. And they strapped him to the gurney and took him to the field hospital where the Civil War surgeons were ready to amputate his leg or something. But, wait! According to media reports, the second he got into the tunnel and away from cameras, the SOB demanded to be unhooked, and he jumped up and started to head back onto the field. He was faking it!

As no one disputes the press accounts that Burfict did in fact get off the cart after it was out of camera view, one must assume he did just that. And Homer’s analysis makes a lot more sense in that light.

NFL Has 1 Standard for Juju Smith-Schuster, Another for Ilokia and Gronk

When the news broke that the NFL had suspended Juju Smith-Schuster and while also suspending George Ilokia for his hit on Antonio Brown, the league at least looked to be trying to keep up the appearance of objectivity.
Never mind that Ilokia had a lot more opportunity to avoid hitting Brown’s head that JuJu had with Burfict.

  • But of course Ilokia’s suspension didn’t stick as his lawyer got it reduced to a mere $36,000 fine.

Sorry, no amount of sophistry can justify this, although Ilokia’s agent tried suggesting that Brown should have positioned his head differently.

I suppose JuJu’s agent should have tried the same argument with respect to Burfict. Except unlike Brown, Burfict didn’t have to worry concentrating to hold on to the ball as he was probably calculating whether he could injure Le’Veon Bell again.

Tony Defeo has already written about the NFL’s hypocrisy here and taken the argument further by contrasting the 1 game suspension that JuJu Smith-Schuster got for unintentional yet a (borderline) illegal hit, where as Patriots pretty boy Rob Gronkowski clearly pre-meditated, almost pro-wrestling style elbow to the back of the head of Bills defenseless defensive back Tre’Davious White.

Go read Tony’s full article, we need not rehash it here, but Defeo’s argument also played a role in shifting my thinking.

Where’s the Suspension for Ahmad Brooks Hit on Antonio Brown??

And that brings us to the third factor that shifted my thinking.

  • Where in the hell is the NFL’s suspension for the Green Bay Packers Ahmad Brooks  illegal hit Antonio Brown?

What’s that you ask, I don’t remember anything like that from the Packer’s game? Well, I missed it too, but it came on Martavis Bryant’s ill-fated end around at the goal line. What Brown has David DeCastro passes him by:

Gee, isn’t that interesting? Not only was Brown hitting hit from almost the same position that Burfict was standing in, unlike JuJu Smith-Schuster, Ahmad Brooks was clearly aiming at Antonio Brown’s head. This play also came on a nationally televised game, and yet, the only discussion of it came thanks the discussion board on Jim Wexell’s Steel City Insider in response to observations made by Craig Wolfley.

  • And just the point isn’t it? Cris Collinsworth and Al Michaels either missed this hit or chose not to talk about it.

Which shouldn’t matter, should it? The NFL is supposed to review all game tapes and look for offenses like this, aren’t they? That doesn’t seem to be the case, as Jim Wexell suggested on Twitter:

And that’s what’s so galling about the JuJu Smith-Schuster suspension. On paper the NFL has appeared to take strides towards injecting some objectivity into its administration of justice. But as the old adage goes, “Character is what you do when no one else is looking.” The calculus for understanding why JuJu’s punishment is so harsh is simple:

  • Jon Gruden got the rest of the NFL to look at JuJu Smith-Schuster’s hit, so Roger Goodell suspended him.

No one saw Ahmad Brooks illegal hit on Brown, so it Goodell saw no reason to do anything. Iloka George didn’t taunt and Brown didn’t get taken out on a stretcher, so his suspension can be reduced to a fine.

As for Ron Gronkowski? Well, he’s a Patriot and the one time Goodell tried to get tough on them he overcompensated, and it backfired. So Goodell’s back in his comfort zone of looking the other way when his buddy Bob Kraft is involved.

Let’s repeat something this site has mentioned before and will again:

  • Chronic traumatic encephalopathy aka “CTE” and related head trauma poses a threat to the existence of not just the NFL, but of football itself.

Football will only survive if the risk of CTE is eliminated or greatly reduced. But arbitrary administration of justice, whether that be giving protection to Tom Brady and Peyton Manning but not Ben Roethlisberger, or trying to make James Harrison a scapegoat, simply erodes the integrity of the game, without touching the threat of CTE.

And that’s why I’ve changed my mind. Apologies to readers for the error of my ways. #FreeJuJu!

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Prayers for Ryan Shazier and Antonio Brown Top Steelers Bengals Game Ball Winner Poll

It has been a both a busy and harrowing week in Steelers Nation. While Ryan Shazier‘s recovery outstrips everything else in terms of importance, Roger Goodell and company’s suspension of JuJu Smith-Schuster and non-suspension of George Iloka have managed to steal headlines.

Oh, and the Baltimore Ravens are coming to town with the AFC North on the line.

 

Antonio Brown, Adam Jones, Adam "Pacman Jones", Steelers vs Bengals

Antonio Brown after making a 1st down catch over Adam “Pacman” Jones. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

As mentioned when we put up the game ball poll, running a poll didn’t feel right while Ryan Shazier laid up in a Cincinnati Hospital and the rest of the world wondering if he would walk again. But we put up the poll nonetheless, and included Ryan Shazier.

Steelers vs Bengals, Steelers Bengals Game ball polls, yAntonio Brown, yRyan ShazierAs would be expected and is appropriate, thoughts and prayers for Ryan Shazier topped the poll. The numbers from the rest of Steelers players are perhaps a bit lower because the lowly pollster (me) forgot to enable multiple votes for the first day or so, which is when the lion’s share of the votes come in.

So be it. Ryan Shazier reminded us that are are a lot of things that are far more important than football in this world.

  • As it was, Antonio Brown lead the rest of the voting, carrying 9 votes after his incredible performance while injured.

Ben Roethlisberger and Chris Boswell tied for third place, with 6 votes a piece, followed by Le’Veon Bell who polled 4 votes. Martavis Bryant got two votes, and JuJu Smith-Schuster got 2 more. JuJu’s vote total is perhaps a bit low, considering the out cry over the NFL’s double standard applied to him and George Iloka.

Vince Williams got one vote (despite making what was arguably the key defensive play of the night) and Bud Dupree got zero votes, although someone wrote his name in.

  • George Iloka as got a vote, as his penalty led to good offensive field position.

As always, Steel Curtain Rising thanks everyone who voted, and offers special thanks to all those who took time to cast in write ins.

 

 

 

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The JuJu Smith-Schuster Suspension Highlights the NFL’s Inconsistency & Hypocrisy

The JuJu Smith-Schuster suspension highlights the NFL and Roger Goodell’s inconsistency, hypocrisy and blatant double standards. 

For his illegal block on linebacker Vontaze Burfict, along with his subsequent taunting penalty in the Steelers 23-20 victory over the Bengals Monday night, rookie receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster has been suspended for the upcoming game against the Ravens.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Steelers vs Bengals, yDavid DeCastro, yVontaze Burfict

Other notable suspensions this week have also been of the one-game variety, and they’ve been handed down to Bengals safety George Iloka for his helmet-to-helmet hit on Steelers receiver Antonio Brown during the game-tying touchdown late in the fourth quarter; and to Patriots superstar tight end Rob Gronkowski for his flagrant elbow to the back of the head of Bills defenseless defensive back Tre’Davious White on Sunday.

But hold the presses!

Obviously, Smith-Schuster’s appeal on Tuesday was heard, but the suspension was quickly upheld, which begs the question: Does the NFL think an act as blatant as Gronkowski’s–one that could be seen as downright criminal–is the same as Smith-Schuster’s super-aggressive block, which has been considered by many people to be just a tough football play?

Yes, as you can see there was contact to Burfict’s head, which may have actually been what drew the initial penalty:

But you can also see there was even more contact to Brown’s head, and, as I just stated, Iloka’s suspension has been reduced to a fine:

(Momentary aside: Notice that the JuJu’s hit on Burfict is embedable but we had to find go to someone’s Twitter feed from outside the US to get an embedable video of the hit on Brown. Kinda sorta like you videos of the helmet-to-helmet hit that James Harrison took in 2011, the one that broke his orbital bone got taken down from YouTube fast, while the NFL YouTube police let his hit on Colt McCoy stay up for a long time.)

  • You might say, “But Smith-Schuster also stood over Burfict and taunted him after the hit.”

OK, fine, but is that as bad as intentionally elbowing a totally prone and defenseless player in the back of the head, simply because you were angry that he held you right before intercepting a pass from Tom Brady

  • Immediately after the hit, White was put in concussion protocol.

Smith-Schuster’s and Iloka’s fouls were football plays; Gronkowski’s was akin to a heel wrestler hitting someone in the back of the head with a folding chair.

  • And this is why so many people think the NFL front-office is a joke.

If you want to suspend Smith-Schuster for what he did, fine (although, for a rookie receiver to draw a one-game suspension for that is like putting a kid in jail for six months for underage drinking), but then you should have also upheld Iloka’s suspension.

  • And if you want to suspend both of those players for a game, shouldn’t the superstar tight end get at least two (if not more)?

What message are you sending, when you claim to be a league that cares about head injuries, but you’re going to treat a football act the same as, again, a criminal act?

  • It makes no sense, but, then again, it is the NFL, and not much the league does these days makes any sense.

The 10-2 Steelers head into a potential division-clinching match-up Sunday night without one of their best young players, while the 5-7 Bengals will head into their Week 14 match-up with their starting safety.

Seems about right.

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James Harrison vs Ravens – Baltimore Brings Out Best in Deebo. Mike Tomlin Must Play Him

James Harrison vs Ravens – Baltimore Brings Out Best in Deebo. Mike Tomlin Must Play Him

The Steelers Monday Night win against the Bengals may have been sobering and costly, but expect the Baltimore Ravens to show zero sympathy for Pittsburgh. While the Steelers have stayed a top the AFC North all season long, the Ravens have quietly been pulling themselves out of mediocrity.

  • Baltimore’s won 4 of their last five, including two 40 point performances and one shut out.

At the final gun of the Bengals game, the Steelers were without 3 starters on defense (Ryan Shazier, Mike MitchellJoe Haden)  and minus two starting backups ( Tyler Matakevich & Coty Sensabaugh) due to injury or under performance. Seany Spence’s return should give the Steelers some depth, if not stability at linebacker, but if ever there was a defense in need of an octane boost its this one.

James Harrison, Joe Flacco, Jason Worilds, Steelers vs Ravens, James Harrison sacks Baltimore

James Harrison closes in in Joe Flacco in the Steelers 2014 playoff game against the Ravens. Photo Credit: Gene J. Puskar, AP via Concord Monitor

Fortunately, Mike Tomlin has that option available to him and its as simple as this:

  • Play James Harrison as extensively as the Steelers defensive coverage needs will allow.

James Harrison should play against the Ravens, because James Harrison always brings his A+ game against Baltimore.

Even in the face of such a litany of high-profile performances, its easy to write of James Harrison’s record against the Ravens as sentimental and perhaps a by-product of yesteryear. But while James Harrison may get emotional charged up to play the Ravens, the call to play him more is supported by data.

See for yourself:

James Harrison vs Ravens, James Harrison sacks ravens, James Harrison vs AFC North

James Harrison vs Ravens – Deebo Brings is “A” Game. Always.

Numbers don’t lie.

James Harrison has an uncanny ability to “turn it up” against the Ravens, much the same way that Franco Harris could find a something extra for the playoffs. In fully 66% percent of his games, or two out of every 3, James Harrison has sacked a Baltimore Ravens quarterback.

Out of James Harrison’s 82.5 (and counting) career sacks, 19 or just under a quarter of them have come against the Baltimore Ravens. During his career, James Harrison has had 6 multi-sack games against the Ravens, with two of those coming since his “retirement.”

  • Playing good football goes beyond simply bringing down the quarterback .

But again, James Harrison’s numbers against the Ravens stand out. He averages 2.9 tackles per game against the Ravens, as opposed to 2.1 against the rest of NFL. His lone interception against Baltimore even exceeds is regular season average.

James Harrison, Joe Flacco, James Harrison strip sack Joe Flacco, Steelers vs Ravens, Steelers Ravens 2008 Heinz Field

James Harrison’s strip sack of rookie Joe Flacco in 2008 proved to be critical for Pittsburgh. Photo Credit: BaltimoreRavens.com

None of this is to suggest that T.J. Watt should ride the bench against the Ravens. T.J. Watt is having a strong year and has shown he can do damage in a number of ways. In just about every game he’s play, T.J. Watt has made a heads up, “Wow, and he’s only a rookie” type play. He’s clearly a player on the rise and a wise first round draft pick.

T.J. Watt brings and athleticism to the position that James Harrison probably could bring even in his prime. And T.J. Watt is an asset in coverage. The blunt truth is that at this point in his career, James Harrison is a liability in coverage.

  • So let’s say that Mike Tomlin, Keith Butler and Joey Porter are wise enough to know when to send James Harrison in and went to hold him out.

Although James Harrison signed a 2 year contract with the Steelers this spring, he’s 39 years old, and T.J. Watt and Anthony Chickillo’s emergence only bring Harrison closer to his “Life’s Work.” Ditto Bud Dupree (ok, maybe not….)

But James Harrison brings his best against Baltimore. Playing James Harrison against the Ravens at Heinz Field wouldn’t simply give him a chance to out with a bang, it would also improve the Steelers chances of winning.

#JustDoIt Mike Tomlin 

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Steelers Report Card for MNF Win over Bengals: Sometimes Letter Grades Are Just Unimportant….

Taken from the gradebook of a teacher who got a soberly brutal reminder that often times things like letter grades mean little in real life, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the MNF win over the Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium.

Antonio Brown, Kevin Minter, Steelers vs Bengals, Steelers Bengals Monday Night Football, Steelers Bengals MNF,

Antonio Brown dodges Kevin Minter in the 4th quater of the Steelers MNF win over the Bengals. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger’s final 24 for 40 for 2 touchdowns and 1 interception were pretty impressive on the night he passed the 50,000 yards mark. Yet Road Roethlisberger was in evidence early, and Ben struggled during the first half, as would be expected given the severity of Ryan Shazier’s injury. All things considered, Ben Roethlisberger had a very good night. Grade: B+

Running Backs
The Cincinnati Bengals limited Le’Veon Bell on the ground during much of the first half, but Le’Veon Bell did his damage through the air, and ultimately led the team in receptions, and piling up a respectable 76 yards on the ground. His heads up touchdown is what got Pittsburgh back in the game. James Conners played for a series and looked good on two runs, but got mauled on the third. Grade: Asteelers, report card, steelers grades, coaching, special teams, unsung heroes, steelers 2017 season

Tight Ends
Jesse James caught one of two passes thrown his way and Xavier Grimble caught a 9 yard pass to set up a 4th and short on the Steelers 2nd field goal drive. The tight ends have been playing solid football, but neither man is Vance McDonald’s equivalent when it comes to blocking. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
Antonio Brown arrived at Paul Brown Stadium without knowing whether he would start, but his toe injury wasn’t very apparent. William Jackson kept Brown in check during the first game, but Brown did his damage in the rematch, catching 8 passes for 101 yards and holding onto a touchdown in the face of a brutal hit. Martavis Bryant continues to emerge as a key possession-receiver type role, while JuJu Smith-Schuster caught four passes. Eli Rogers caught 1 of two passes thrown his way.  Grade: A-

Offensive Line
The Steelers offensive line lost the battle at the line of scrimmage early in the game in terms of both run blocking and pass blocking. However, the second half was a different story as Ben Roethlisberger had time to throw, and Bell and Conner had room to run. Grade: B

Defensive Line
The Steelers defensive line has been a shining star of excellence so far this season, but the game at Paul Brown Stadium was not their finest hour. The Bengals controlled the line of scrimmage, particularly in the first half as their running backs averaged nearly 6 yards per carry and Andy Dalton had all day to throw. The line tightened things up somewhat in the first half, but with Shazier gone this unit is going to need to do even more. Grade: C

Bud Dupree, Andy Dalton, Stephon Tuitt, Steelers vs Bengals, Bud Dupree sack Dalton

Bud Dupree sacks Andy Dalton on 3rd down in Bengals final drive of the Steelers MNF win over the Bengals. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Linebackers
Everyone knew going into the game that Ryan Shazier was the team’s best linebacker, but his loss highlights just how much he meant. In Shazier’s absence Tyler Matakevich and L.J. Fort struggled to stop running backs when they reached the second level.  Vince Williams got a sack on the Bengals 1st key series in the 4th quarter and Bud Dupree finished the last one with a sack, although Dupree let go of Dalton too early and it nearly cost the team. Grade: C+

Secondary
Robert Golden struggled in Mike Mitchell’s absence, and Coty Sensabaugh was so bad that the coaches replaced him with Cam Sutton. Cam Sutton got burn badly on a long touchdown that was called back, but his name wasn’t mentioned much for the rest of the night which is good, considering he was covering A.J. Green. Artie Burns deflected two passes and didn’t give up a long TD, while Sean Davis had seven tackles. The secondary struggled mightily early on but the Dalton failed to convert third downs in the second half. Grade: C-

Special Teams
Martavis Bryant continues to do well as a kick returner as his 96 yard return for a touchdown that was negated by a penalty shows. Eli Rogers was back on punt return duty, and also had a nice return negated by a touchdown. The Steelers coverage was solid. And Chris Boswell was a perfect 3 for 3 including yet another game winner at the buzzer. Grade: B

Chris Boswell, Steelers vs Bengals

Chris Boswell kicking the winning field goal as time expires in the Steelers MNF win over the Bengals. Photo Credit: Christopher Horner, Tribune-Review

Coaching
IT would be easy to criticize the Steelers offense and defense for their sloppy first half performances and attempt to point the finger at the coaches as Colin Cowherd did.

  • But the team was clearly shaken by Shazier’s injury, as it should have been.

Todd Haley’s offense did what it needed to do in the second half, putting two touchdowns on the board and it got into position for Chris Boswell to kick field goals to close both halves. The Steelers defense looked lost after Shazier went down but Keith Butler‘s s boys made the necessary adjustments to hold the Bengals to 3 points in the second half.

And finally, that brings us to Mike Tomlin. Nothing tests leadership like a crisis, and the Steelers were in crisis mode Monday Night against the Bengals. Mike Tomlin kept his team on an even keel, and had the courage to make a substitution at cornerback which probably helped and certainly didn’t hurt. Grade: A

Unsung Hero Award
During the second half, Bud Dupree got a hold of Andy Dalton but let go before he got him down, Dalton slipped away, but for a moment the entire Steelers defense seemed to lose the quarterback.

Such a situation could have had devastating consequences, were it not for the rookie linebacker who never lost track of Dalton, perused him and ultimately forced him to throw the ball away and for that T.J. Watt wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers win against the Bengals.

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Steelers Resign Sean Spence in Wake of Shazier, Matakevich Injuries

Injuries to Ryan Shazier and Tyler Matakevich have forced the Pittsburgh Steelers to resign Sean Spence.

The Steelers arrived a Paul Brown Stadium for their 23-20 Monday Night Football win over the Cincinnati Bengals with four healthy inside linebackers but left with only two.

In a move that has been rumored for over a day saw Pittsburgh Steelers resign Sean Spence, the inside linebacker whom they drafted in the third round of the 2012 NFL Draft, kept on injured reserve during both the 2012 and 2013 campaign and who split time as a starter with Ryan Shazier and Vince Williams during 2014 and 2015.

Sean Spence, Steelers vs Texans, Steelers resign Sean Spence

Sean Spence after securing a key fumble recovery in the Steelers 2014 win over the Houston Texans. Photo Credit: SteelersWire

When he finally returned to full health, Sean Spence did everything the Pittsburgh Steelers asked of him, as he started 13 games over two seasons, where he record 2 sacks, over 60 tackles and a key fumble recovery in a game against the Houston Texans.

  • Facing a crowded inside linebacking depth chart, Sean Spence rejoined Dick LeBeau during the 2016 off season.

However, despite the his familiarity with the Dick LeBeau’s system, Spence only managed to start six games for the Titans, although he appeared in 15 contests where he recorded 3 more sacks, defensed 3 passes and forced a fumble.

During the 2017 off season, Dale Lolley mentioned that the Steelers might be intersted in bringing Spence back as a backup, but Spence instead signed with the Indianapolis Colts. However, Spence only saw action in 3 games with the Colts and found himself on the waiver wire back in October.

It is unknown whether Sean Spence will have a chance to start in place of L.J. Fort or, should his health allow Tyler Matakevich, but his presence does free the Steelers from the need of having to prep Arthur Moats, who has inside linebacking experience, to do emergency duty there.

While the fact that Sean Spence was still available in early December should raise a yellow caution flag, the Steelers know him well and Sean Spence knows Keith Butler and Jerry Olsavsky.

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Ryan Shazier’s Spinal Contusion Sobers Reaction to Steelers 23-20 Win over Bengals

The Steelers 23-20 Monday Night Football win over the Cincinnati Bengals will spark debates and discussions for a long time. Unfortunately, this is one game that people will remember for the wrong reasons.

  • Football is a contact sport, and an often a brutal one.

On one level, there’s often something beautiful about this, as athleticism, precision, strategy, teamwork and pure force combine to form the ultimate test of wills. If the movie Concussion is accurate, even Dr. Bennet Omalu’s wife Prema Mutiso concurs.

  • Last Christmas, the Steelers and Ravens treated the world to an example of the NFL at its best.
  • On Monday Night Football, the Steelers and the Bengals treated the world to an example of the NFL at its worst.

One can argue whether this was simply a hard hitting game or a dirty game. A little bit of both is true, and both teams bear responsibility. Regardless, Ryan Shazier’s spinal contusion shows just how a big of a risk players take and how high of a toll the game extracts.

It’s hard, and it some lights feels almost inappropriate to focus on football in a context like this, but solider on we will.

George Lloka, Antonio Brown, Steelers vs Bengals

George Lloka drills Antonio Brown as he scores the Steelers 2nd touchdown in a brutal game against the Bengals. Photo Credit: Christopher Horner, Tribune-Review

Rocky III Reenacted on the Gridiron

A good friend of mine and founding member of the Pittsburgh Steelers Fan Club of Buenos Aires sees himself as an old-fashioned Cold Warrior, and I’ve often joked  that the 1980 US Olympic Hockey Miracle On Ice equals Rocky IV in real life.

  • If that’s the case then the Steelers first half vs the Bengals provided the football equivalent of Rocky III.

If you’ll remember, in the movie right before the first fight, Clubber Lang takes out Micky, Rocky fights anyway but is clearly out of sorts and gets KOed as a result. That pretty much sums up the Steelers first half against the Bengals.

To be sure, Road Ben Roethlisberger started the game for the Steelers, but Ryan Shazier got hurt 3 plays after Ben’s first interception.

After that, the next 24 and a half minutes belonged to the Cincinnati Bengals. You wouldn’t exaggerate if you argued that the Pittsburgh Steelers haven’t looked as aimless since the dark days of the 1998 and 1999 late season melt downs under Bill Cowher.

  • Cam Heyward, Javon Hargrave and Stephon Tuitt got dominated at the line of scrimmage, leading to…
  • Tyler Matakevich aka, “Dirty Red,” looking clearly out of his depth ,as Giovani Bernard and Joe Mixon ran up the middle at will
  • Coty Sensabaugh proved that the long touchdowns he’s given up since taking over for Joe Haden were no fluke

Indeed, Coty Sensabaugh looked to be playing the role of a tormented child struggling to catch a bar of ice cream tossed between Andy Dalton and A.J. Green in cruel game of keep away.

Steelers vs Bengals, A.J. Green, Robert Golden, Coty Sensabaugh

A.J. Green catches a touchdown pass as Robert Golden and Coty Sensabaugh can do little more than watch. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

The Steelers offense was just as unfocused. Martavis Bryant dropped another catchable long bomb, Antonio Brown dropped a would-be touchdown pass, Le’Veon Bell couldn’t find room to run, the offensive line gave up a sack on 3rd down, and Ben Roethlisberger threw several near interceptions.

When Andy Dalton connected with A.J. Green for their second touchdown of the night with 0:45 left in the first half, it looked as if both a blowout and a shut out were in the making.

Comeuppance for Tomlin Clock Management Critics

Steel Curtain Rising has already challenged the conventional wisdom by complementing Mike Tomlin’s clock management skills, but the Bengals game adds new fuel to the fire.

After getting torched on the road during a cold, rainy Monday for another touchdown on a night after you’ve lost your most dynamic player and your down by 3 scores, taking a knee when you’ve got 26 seconds left in the half must be appealing head coach.

  • As long as that head coach isn’t Mike Tomlin.

Tomlin ordered his offense to go for it, and a heads up play by Le’Veon Bell, combined by a foolish pass interference penalty by the Bengals allowed the Steelers to get into position for Chris Boswell to knock in a 30 yard field goal.

17-3 at the half isn’t pretty, but it sure beats 17-0.

Steelers Rally, Show Resiliency in 2nd Half

It would be easy to look at the Steelers offense’s 17 point second half and credit them for the comeback. And the offense did play much better in the final 30 minutes which were highlighted by:

  • An offensive line protected Ben Roethlisberger well an opened holes for Bell and James Conner
  • Le’Veon Bell’s heads up, play to the whistle touchdown while Cincinnati snoozed
  • A pass interference call set drawn by Martavis Bryant that set up Chris Boswell’s first field goal
  • An incredibly tough touchdown catch by Antonio Brown as he got KOed by George Lloka

The real story of the second half, however, was the Steelers defense. The unit began the night without Joe Haden and Mike Mitchell, lost Ryan Shazier 3 plays into the night, and lost Tyler Matakevich a few plays into the 3rd quarter, leaving L.J. Fort as their last healthy reserve linebacker.

Andy Dalton, Vince Williams, T.J. Watt, Steelers vs Bengals, Vince Williams sack Andy Dalton

Vince Williams sack of Andy Dalton keyed the Steelers most important defensive stand of the night. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Having seen enough of Coty Sensabaugh, Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler started the rookie Cam Sutton in the second half. At one point it looked like a preseason game as Arthur Moats, Anthony Chickillo were also seen on the field along with Fort and Sutton.

  • Despite that, the Steelers defense persevered as the Bengals fell apart, particularly on third downs.

After the Steelers pulled to within a touchdown, Vince Williams spearheaded the key defensive series as he charged untouched on 1st down to sack Andy Dalton. That led to a three and out, which in turn set up the Steelers touchdown drive.

  • Bud Dupree closed the night with another sack of Dalton, forcing a punt with 2:48 remaining.

For those looking to complain about clock management, look no further than Tim Lewis who allowed the Steelers to burn up over 2 minutes of time before using his time outs. By the time Chris Boswell was kicking the game winner, time had expired.

A Word about JuJu

The NFL has suspended Steelers rookie JuJu Smith-Schuster for his hit on Vontaze Burfict. Looking at the replay, yours truly concurs with those who argue that JuJu’s hit, while illegal, wasn’t intentional.

  • But his standing and gloating over Burfict is unacceptable and appalling.

Knowing what we now know about CTE (Chronic traumatic encephalopathy), we can argue about whether the NFL’s defenseless receiver, no helmet to helmet hit and concussion protocol amount to real protections for players or mere window dressing.

That’s besides the point. This isn’t 1989 when ESPN PrimeTime would lead with footage of Thomas Everett knocking out  Al Toon out with a concussion followed by Greg Lloyd by giving Toon a WWE style three count. JuJu Smith-Schuster should know better, and for that alone he’s earned his suspension.

Nice that Steelers Won, But….

This was another game that shouldn’t have been close on paper but that went down to the wire. The Steelers have been in several of these, yet they keep managing to come out on top.

While it’s nice that the Steelers won, seeing Ryan Shazier carted out on the back board with his hands covering his face casts a pall over everything and reminds us that the most important outcome of this game has nothing to do with the score.

Get well soon Ryan, our thoughts and prayers are yours.

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Steelers-Bengals Game Ball, Ryan Shazier Support Poll

Honestly, after a game in which the ESPN Deportes of Raul Allegre thought to bring up the infamous Redskins-Eagles “Body Bag” game putting up a game ball poll doesn’t seem right. Seeing Ryan Shazier lying there motionless, as the medical crew got the backboard was simply heart rendering.

For a moment there in the shower I thought to  throw up the poll and simply leave Ryan Shazier’s name on it, but that doesn’t do justice to this situation, although Ryan Shazier’s injury is all that is on anyone’s mind this morning in

Ryan Shazier, Ryan Shazier spinal contusion, Steelers vs Bengals

Steelers Ryan Shazier awaits the medical team after suffering a spine contusion against the Bengals. Photo Credit: Frank Victores, AP via PennLive.com

With that acknowledged, we are going to put Ryan Shazier on the ballot, and we ask you, in addition to voting for him, to offer your thoughts and prayers. Here’s how the rest of the ballot shapes up:

This poll is closed! Poll activity:
start_date 12-05-2017 09:37:27
end_date 12-09-2017 13:15:31
Poll Results:
Which Steelers Deserve Game Balls for the Win over the Bengals (multiple votes allowed)

We’ve kept the ballot short this morning, and that’s not simply out of respect for Shazier, situation.

The blunt reality of the situation is that the Steelers didn’t play good football last night. Watching the first half unfold called to mind Apollo Creed’s words to Rocky Balboa in Rocky III when conceded that knowing that Micky was dying had to have messed with his head, but he nonetheless scolded Rocky.

Le’Veon Bell gets the first slot on the ballot, as Bell had a tough night running, but remained patient, played to the whistle and was clearly a difference maker for the Steelers. Antonio Brown gets second billing. Antnio Brown entered the day listed as “questionable” because of a toe injury, and while he had a couple of slip ups early on, Brown rallied and again was a difference maker for the Steelers.

  • Ben Roethlsiberger was in the first half last night, and his erratic play began before any injuries took place.

But like his teammates, Ben Roethlisberger bounced back in the second half, and led the Steelers to 20 point rally which ultimately was enough for the win.

Martavis Bryant had another game in which he helped convert several critical downs, although he did have a drop on a long ball that he should have caught. Chris Boswell gets the nod for knocking in his third field goal at the buzzer.

  • On defense, there’s slim pickings.

The Steelers defense began the game without two starters, Mike Mitchell and Joe Haden, and losing Shazier created a gaping hole in the middle of the field. At one point it seemed like a preseason game as Anthony Chickillo, L.J. Fort, Cam Sutton, and Arthur Moats all seemed to be in on the field at once.

  • Perhaps that’s memory playing tricks, but it was that kind of night for the Steelers.

With that said, both Bud Dupree and Vince Williams came up with sacks in the 2nd half, and both of those were difference makers so they make the ballot.

Write in Votes Both Allowed and Encouraged

Remember, this isn’t my poll it is your poll. If you think that say, Sean Davis, James Conner or perhaps David DeCastro or another lineman did enough to stand out and deserves a vote, please write their name in.

Better yet, write their names in and leave a comment stating your case. The Steelers Monday Night Football game over the Bengals ended at 1:30 am here in Buenos Aires, so please click here for our full analysis.

 

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Watch Tower: Ben Roethlisberger, Martavis Bryant, Dick LeBeau Press Coverage & More

It’s been a long time, too long in fact, since the Watch Tower shined its lights, but that’s a product of the digital economy’s never-ending work day and certainly not for lack of Steelers related news to analyze.

With acknowledged, this edition of the Watch Tower turns its focus on stories about Ben Roethlisberger, the Martavis Bryant non-trade, Dick LeBeau’s return to Heinz Field, comings & goings, localization pains and much more.

Ben Roethlisberger, Dick LeBeau, Steelers vs Titans, Ben Roethlisberger Dick LeBeau Hug

Ben Roethlisberger hugs Dick LeBeau leaving the field after the Steelers win over the Titans. Photo Credit: Christopher Horner, Tribune-Review

Roethlisberger Up Close

The fact that all eyes have been on Ben Roethlisberger should come as no surprise this season, given that Roethlisberger openly mused about retirement following yet another AFC Championship loss to the Patriots.

Lots have been said about Big Ben and his future plans, or lack thereof, but ESPN’s Hallie Grossman added a lot of substance to the conversation in her 3,000 plus word story on the Steelers signal caller (a story which came to the Watch Tower’s attention quite by accident – more on that below.)

  • Grossman’s story doesn’t of course shed any real light on the question that everyone in Steelers Nation is hanging on, namely is this Ben Ben’s last fall on the gridiron.

She of course raised the question with Roethlisberger, who claimed not to know, and intimated that it may very well be the case that no one but himself know when he decides to make his final trek down the tunnel at Heinz Field.

Ben Roethlisberger

Ben Roethlisberger talking with reporters in the Steelers locker room. Photo Credit: WTAE

She does, however, reveal that Ben Roethlisberger not only has his two locker, but also has his own private room, or vestibule. While that’s hardly earth shattering, it is an interesting factoid and one that the Watch Tower is unaware of the local press publishing.

Hallie Grossman’s story is certainly strong enough to win Watch Tower kudos, but the Watch Tower will also openly wonder why these stories tend to come out of the national media.

  • Lest you conclude that this is a dig at the local Steelers press corps, let’s state ESPN’s Hallie Grossman was probably granted access not afforded to Pittsburgh-based reporters.

Its doubtful that Burt Lauren and the Steelers PR team, will ever read this, let alone be persuaded to change policy because of it, but if the Watch Tower’s assumption is correct, then let’s state for the record that Pittsburgh-based reporters covering the Steelers should get an equal shot at the access needed to draft these in-depth stories.

Steelers Quarterbacks Coach Randy Fichtner

During the Steelers 31-28 win over the Green Bay Packers Steelers quarterback coach Randy Fichtner was seen on the sidelines conferring with Ben Roethlisberger. That didn’t seem all that unusual, until this tweet from Mark Kaboly appeared.

As it turns out, this was a rather new sight, given that four games ago Randy Fichtner moved from the booth to the sidelines. The fact that Ben Roethlisberger struggled early in the season, long before his 5 interception performance against Jacksonville, is not news. Nor were there a lack of stories attempting to explaining why (most/many of which focusing on Roethlisberger not practicing Wednesdays.)

But The Athletic’s Mark Kaboly zeroed in on one concrete move that the Steelers have made to address the situation. The bulk of Kaboly’s article was behind The Athletic’s paywall, and therefore the Watch Tower analysis is necessarily superficial.

Randy Fichtner moving from the booth to the sideline is a change that came in plain sight, but Mark Kaboly is the first reporter to pick up and report on the change, and Kaboly wins Watch Tower kudos.

Follow the Money?

Martavis Bryant trade story has faded for the moment, but the way it all unfolded did yield useful insight into how agents work the PR levers. When national reporters broke the Bryant trade rumor request story, several Pittsburgh-based writers reacted with skepticism. Dale Lolley, then still with the Observer Reporter, response is fairly typical:

A couple of national reporters are saying that Martavis Bryant has requested a trade from the Steelers and did so a couple of weeks ago. I don’t know if I’m buying that one.

However, within in a day or so, the Pittsburgh Post Gazette’s Ed Bouchette and other members of the Steelers press corps were confirming that Bryant and/or his representatives had in fact made the trade request.

Lolley himself took time out to explain how the process worked, comparing Bryant’s case to that of 49er’s linebacker Navarro Bowman, detailing how agents work behind the scenes. Agents, are in fact prime sources for stories about impending personnel moves and are typically the man standing behind the curtain when you see a “league source” cited.

Martavis Bryant,

Martavis Bryant in 2017. Photo Credit: 247 Sports.

And, taking a longer look, it occurs to the Watch Tower that the rule of thumb for agents is perhaps, “To get your guy out of town, leak to national reporters. To get him into town, leak to the local press.”

A good example of the latter would come from way back in spring of 2008, when a visit from free agent Anthony “Bud” McFarland prompted erroneous reports that the Steelers had signed him, followed by a stream of columns by then Tribune-Review editor John Harris that sang the defensive lineman’s praises week’s after his visit to the South Side an suggested that the Steelers sign him.

It didn’t occur to the Watch Tower then that those Harris stories were probably prompted by calls from an agent.

Digital Disruption Continues to Reshuffle Pittsburgh Press Corps Deck

The Steelers press corps has seen two big changes this season. First, Mark Kaboly jumped from local upstart DK on Pittsburgh Sports to accept an offer as the Steelers beat writer for the national upstart The Athletic. Kaboly had been with Dejan Kovacevic team for about a year, and the move marks the second hit that the Athletic DK on Pittsburgh Sports has taken at the hands of The Athletic.

  • The replace Kaboly, Kovacevic pried Dale Lolley away from the Observer-Reporter after a 25 year stint with the local publication.

As the Watch Tower observed previously, this type of movement is relatively new inside the Pittsburgh sports writing community. Back in 2009, when doing the research for the retrospective series on the 1989 Steelers, one of the things that stood out was that so many of the writers who’d covered Bubby Brister & co’s 15 Minutes of Fame were still covering the Steelers two decades later for the same publicationsm.

That is changing fast. DK on Pittsburgh Sports digital only, subscription-based model represented a major innovation in sports journalism in the Pittsburgh market and one side effect of that is that it seems to have spurred a lot of movement for journalists, (although that’s probably not what Kovacevic intended when he launched his site.)

Digital disruption comes with costs of course, and the thinned out Steelers staff at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review can attest.

ESPN.com Screws English Speakers in Latin America

People who travel outside the United States are often surprised to find messages like the one below on the video screens of their favorite sports, news and/or entertainment websites:

Messages like the one above are more and more common outside the USA

This is nothing new and is driven by copyright (or lack thereof considerations.) In fact, the messages are becoming more common. There are no shortage of commercial sites (including Steelers.com) which won’t let you place on-line orders from abroad, even if you have a US-based credit card.

  • Expect more of this to happen inside the US as net neutrality dies.

ESPN has sunk to a new level. ESPN of course has sub-brands throughout Latin America. As you’d expect ESPNDeportes broadcasts in Spanish and focuses on soccer, tennis, golf and everything else which is popular locally (although they do carry the Sunday and Monday Night Games).

But for 16 years, if you were in Argentina you could simply navigate to espn.go.com/nfl/ just as you would in the United States and read as you normally would (although some videos might be blacked out.)

Try that now and this is what you’ll get:

ESPN.com in English in Latin America, Access ESPN.com in English in Latin America, ESPN.com in English Argentina

In Latin America (or Argentina at least) ESPN.com isn’t accessible in English

That’s right! Try to access any of ESPN’s NFL related pages in English, and you’ll get automatically redirected to www.espn.com.ar/futbol-americano/ complete with local soccer scores across the top bar, whether you want to see them or not!

  • Worse yet, there’s no navigation option that you can use to easily get to English NFL content.

You can still access English articles via the writer’s Twitter feed or Google, although if you do so from a mobile device such as an iPad you’re liable to be kicked to the Spanish site when the browser auto-renews.

From a desk top you CAN manage to get the ESPN.com’s NFL page by navigating to ESPN’s Hockey coverage, and then clicking back to the NFL coverage, but that’s a royal pain in the ass. After 16 years of living in Argentina, I can certainly read Spanish, but gee, I do prefer to read about the NFL in English and detest having the option taken denied to me.

Note to ESPN, I was on espn.go.com/nfl/ a heck of a lot more than I ever tuned into ESPNDeportes. If you actively try to lose my attention, there’s no way your sponsors can get my dollars.

Ojo, ESPN Argentina. Casi nunca miro ESPNDeportes, pero leí (en pasado) espn.go.com/nfl/ TODO LOS DIAS DE LA SEMANA. Si hacen un esfuerza para quitar mi atención a tu página, no hay forma en que tus clientes pueden capturar mis dólares (si, leíste bien, dólares, no pesos). Pensar en esto, compañeros.

There you go. Won’t change anything but sure felt better.

New, but Juicy Tidbit on the LeBeau-Steelers Story

Did you know that the Steelers tried to kick Dick LeBeau upstairs before they promoted Keith Butler to defensive coordinator? They did, and Jim Wexell broke that fact prior to the Steelers Titans game.

  • As he typically does, Wexell broke a tantalizing new fact as an offhand comment with little elaboration.

When readers, including this one, pressed him for more detail, Wexell suggested that this was common knowledge (its not) but confirmed that LeBeau wasn’t interested in even opening that conversation.

While he didn’t break the news, when the LeBeau story was still hot Wexell provided details that other uncovered, and continues to do so over 2 years after its become history.

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Can the Steelers Win without Antonio Brown? We May Soon Find Out. Brown “Questionable” vs Bengals

The Pittsburgh Steelers offense of 2017 has seen its share of ups and downs.

We need not rehash what Steelers Nation suffered through since September in too great of detail. Everyone, including the team itself, expected the Steelers 2017 offense to dominate and it hasn’t and it didn’t, at least not until the Titans and Packers games.

Yet through it all there’s been one constant the Steelers offense has been able to count on: Antonio Brown.

Antonio Brown, Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Bengals, Antonio Bryant questionable

Antonio Brown talks with Mike Tomlin at Heinz Field. Photo Credit: CBS Sports

Antonio Brown has been playing lights out all season for the Steelers. Yes, for a couple of three games his targets and his catches dropped, but even if JuJu Smith-Schuster did grab headlines against the Lions and Colts, Brown still made critical catches.

  • Antonio Brown has played so well this year that he’s being talked about as a serious candidate for league MVP.

That’s all good news, but as the Steelers prepare to travel to face the Cincinnati Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium on Monday Night Football they may need to find away to remove a thorn from the tiger’s paw.

  • That’s right. Antonio Brown has missed two days of practice and is listed as questionable on the Steelers injury report heading into the Bengals game.

The Standard is the Standard. Injuries will not be an excuse. We’ve heard that before, and to Mike Tomlin’s credit, his players embrace that mentality. Fine. But the reality is that Road Roethlisberger isn’t the same quarterback as Heinz Field Big Ben, and Antonio Brown is a Hall of Fame talent that has helped make Ben Roethlisberger a better quarterback in those situations.

  • If the Steelers defense were playing at the level it had been broaching prior to Joe Haden’s injury, the Steelers offense would have a larger margin for error.

But Coty Sensabaugh and Artie Burns are both struggling, and the smart money on the Steelers has said that their playoff hopes have rested more on the offense’s ability to outscore the opponents if/until Joe Haden can reclaim his starting spot.

An Antonio Brownless Steelers team on the Bengals will certainly put that idea to the test.

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