Steelers Defeat Jets 24-19, Head to Super Bowl XLV!

What a game!

What a tale of two halves!

What a way to celebrate Myron Cope’s birthday!

Thanks go out to Greg and Diane, Nick and of course Gustavo who came out to the Alamo to give Steelers Nation a presence in Buenos Aires!

The Steelers piled up a 24-3 lead in the first half, then held on for dear life in the second.

Hats off to Rex Ryan, Mark Sanchez, and the New York Jets. They could have easily mailed it in on the second half, but they fought the Steelers tooth and nail, turning in one of the most valiant performances in AFC Championship history.

In the end the Steelers prevailed, thanks to some stout defense and some smart offense.

On its on to Dallas for Super Bowl XLV to take on the Green Bay Packers.

Steel Curtain Rising will be back tomorrow with full analysis on the Steelers quest to climb the Stairway to Seven!

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Steelers vs. the Jets – Keys to Victory

And then the AFC had two. Not the two the world was expecting, but the two that ultimately earned the right to contend in Super Bowl XLV.

The glory of the 20 or so hours when it appeared that the Steelers would travel to Foxboro to take on the then invincible New England Patriots was that the story would write itself.

With almost a decade elapsed since the day when the upstart New England Patriots waltzed into Heinz Field to upset the Steelers, it was to be time for the Steelers to turn the tables.

The New York Jets beat them to the punch.

And that in and of itself makes them dangerous. Oh, that and the fact that they out foxed the Steelers on this same field less than one month ago.

Fate has given the Steelers a second chance. Let’s take a look at what they must do to take advantage.

Stop the Screw Ups on Special Teams

The stunning reversal on special teams provided one of many sub-plots of the 2010 Pittsburgh Steelers.

Special teams were a glaring liability in 2009, at a minimum, special teams gaffes cost the Steeler the Bengals and Chiefs games.

Al Everest’s arrival last January appeared to continue the Steelers habit of alternating good and bad special teams coaches. Big play early by the special teams ultimately provided the margin of victory in games that went to the wire against the Titans and the Bengals.

All of that came crashing down as the Steelers let the Jets take the opening kickoff 97 yards to the house.

Unfortunately, this does not appear to be an aberration, as the Steelers gave up a long return against the Ravens last week, and only an iffy holding call prevented the punt coverage until giving up its first TD.

No magic formula exists. Injuries would not serve as excuses, even if they were at issue, which they’re not.

The formula is simple.

The Steelers special teams must step up.

Steelers Need to Stay Smart

Steelers-Ravens games come down to a series of tests. Tests of will, tests of endurance, and ultimately tests of whose tougher.

The Jets pose a different problem.

Make no mistake, Rex Ryan was the Ravens defensive coordinator, and the Jets certainly not any sort of “finesse” team. The Steelers, of course, must win the physical match ups.

Most post-game analysis of the Steelers loss to the Jets focues on the opening kick return and the safety that spotted New York nine points.

No argument there.

But on three key plays, the Jets outfoxed the Steelers, via play fakes and direct snaps. If the Steelers don’t get caught on those plays, then they negate the other errors and win the game.

Last week against the Patriots, Rex Ryan activated 11 defensive backs, leading to the conventional wisdom that if it worked against Tom Brady, it will work against Roethlisberger.

Potentially it could, but not if the Steelers play smart. Afterall, Brady, and his cohort Peyton Manning, are accustomed to precision passing with receivers running routes with near mechanical meticulousness.

Ben Roethlisberger, in contrast, is accustomed to pressure, and excels at improvising on the fly.

Keep Doing What They Do

The highlight reels of the Steelers victory over the Ravens were filled with visions of Ben Roethlisberger, Ryan Clark, and James Harrison doing what they have always done – make plays in the clutch.

But the reels also contained contributions from new faces like Emmanuel Sanders, Antonio Brown, and Ziggy Hood.

And so it must continue this week.

This may appear like an oversimplified analysis, but no magic formula exists. Veterans and young players must continue to step up, and everyone must be alert, attentive, and at the top of their game.

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Steelers Fans in Buenos Aires Unite!

It is time for Steelers fans in Buenos Aires to unite! Tomorrow the Alamo will be showing the game. If you’re in Capital Federal, try to be there.

Last week there was no cover, but they did charge 40 pesos which could be used towards drinks or food.

So bring your Terrible Towels and let’s make our presence known. Last week the place was dominated by Ravens fans, so now let’s turn the tables.

The Alamo is on the fringes for Recoleta, on Uruguay street between Arenales and Santa Fe.

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Watch Tower: Steelers vs. Jets – Rex Ryan on the Couch

Rex Ryan demands attention. From his HBO reality show, to his off the field flamboyance, to his trash talking, Rex Ryan needs not seek the limelight, the limelight seeks him.

Prior to playing the Patriots, Ryan raised the trash talk volume to deafening levels, declaring his animosity for Billy B. and proclaiming that the AFC divisional playoff game was the “second most important game in Jet’s history.”

  • Initially, all of this figured to play into Pittsburgh’s hands.

Long time Washington, DC sports guru, Ken Beatrice, used to repeatedly caution against employing such nakedly emotional approaches. Citing Buddy Ryan and Jerry Glanville as evidence, Beatrice conceded that motivation via emotion could lead to tremendous surges in performance, but warned that it also resulted in dangerous drops.

As Yoda would say, “All the more interesting this makes Rex Ryan’s lovefest for the Steelers it does.”

And the media has taken notice.

Bragging Rights at Behind the Steel Curtain

Cudos for being ahead of the curve to Michael Bean of Behind the Steel Curtain. After praising Rex Ryan early in the week in his “Steelers Six Pack” Bean noted that:

Here’s another reason why I think Ryan is more genius than bafoon. He’s got the Jets quiet and focused this week…. Ryan knows the Steelers are more physical and battle tested than the Pats, and it’s wise that he and his team have changed gears as they get ready for Sunday’s AFC title game at Heinz Field.

A very astute observation.

A Head Dr.’s Attempt to Shrink It Down….

Bean in good company. By mid-week a psychologist felt that something was afoul and contacted Ed Bouchette of the Post-Gazette.

Bouchette thought enough of the head-doctor’s hypothesis that he printed it in PG Plus. Dr. Yagel argues:

He knows the Steelers are as tough as nails, he knows that if he gets us fired up it will work against his team. So the direct assault won’t work. You’re going to try and intimidate Hines Ward, you’re going to try and bully James Harrison? But what’s a scheming, New York, mad scientist of a coach to do? Kill them with kindness, throw them off their game by getting into their heads through the back door.

The good Dr. suggests that the solution is for the Steelers and Steelers Nation to respond with a full-volume roar in Heinz Field on Sunday. If the Ravens game is any indication, the Steelers Nation is up to the task.

Nonetheless, the fact that a seasoned, old-school beat writer like Ed Bouchette would print something like this just goes to show you how dramatically the media landscape has changed.

Mike Tomlin vs. ESPN

The public got another little peep behind the scenes of the workings of the professional football press.

Prior to the Ravens game, Bouchette reported that that ESPN reporter Bob Holtzman upset the Steelers by reporting that Pittsburgh had planned to field Antwan Randel El only to use another player in a trick play.

At issue was whether Holtzman had violated rules that prohibit members of the press from leaking what they see about a team’s game plans during practice. The problem was that Holtzman had not seen the Steelers practice, and he claimed that news item was fair game because it had supposedly come from two Steelers.

One has to wonder what really transpired. Regardless, Tomlin responded to Holtzman’s question about what he expected from the Jets, with “It depends on whether or not you give him my plays.”

Bouchette makes it clear that Tomlin wasn’t joking. Tomlin has had run ins with reporters before about this kind of stuff, attempting in vain to keep Anthony Smith’s “I Guarantee victory against the Patriots” comment out of the press.

Yes, the Roethlisberger Era Steelers Have Won a Playoff Game with the Running Game

We’ll round out this edition of the Watch Tower by picking (albeit) a very small bone with Gerry DuLac.

In his weekly chat, responding to a fan who suggests that the Steelers need to pound the ball to beat the Jets, Dulac rightly pointed out that the Steelers are paying Ben Roethlisberger 100 million dollars for a reason.

  • The then went on to claim that the Steelers had not won a playoff game because of their rushing since Ben joined the team.

Not true Gerry.

In fact, the Steelers beat the Jets at Heinz Field in 2004 behind the battering of Duce Stanley and Jerome Bettis….

….For the record I agree with Gerry’s essential point about this week’s game.

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Return on Investment Analysis: Hines Ward vs. Anquan Boldin

Steelers Nation is rightly turning its attention to the impending AFC Championship Game against the New York Jets.

Having both a more than full-time job and internet connectivity problems have prevented me from getting this up sooner. So here goes. Enjoy!

A lot has been made apparently in Baltimore over the drops by Ravens receivers during Pittsburgh’s ferocious second half comeback in the playoffs.

And so it should.

Baltimore spent big bucks to assemble the fire power that they thought would propel them past the Steelers.

Let’s take a quick look at one example of what that fire power bought them. I can’t say I am being all that original, but lack of originality doesn’t mean its still not funny….

Return on Investment in Wide Receivers

Contract Values

Anquan Boldin:

  • Total contract value 28 million dollars

Hines Ward:

  • Total contract value 22.1 million dollars

Average Salaries

Anquan Boldin:

  • 2010 average salary 7 million dollars

Hines Ward:

  • 2010 average salary 5.525 million dollars

Cost per Catch/Cost per Yard (regular season)

Anquan Boldin:

  • 64 catches, $109,375 per catch; 837 yards receiving, $8363 per yard gained

Hines Ward:

  • 59 catches, $93,644 per catch; 755 yards receiving, $7318 per yard gained

Price per Point Scored (regular season)

Anquan Boldin:

  • 7 touchdowns, 1 million dollars per touchdown

Hines Ward:

  • 5 touchdowns, 1,105,000 dollars per touchdown

Ability to Make Clucth Catches with the Game on the Line?

Priceless!

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Steelers vs. Ravens Report Card III – AFC Divisional Playoffs

In keeping with the snappy scholastic analogies from previous Steelers Report Cards, the Steelers game against the Ravens was a kin to a sharp student getting an “A” on the take home section only to pull an all nighter before a big exam, fall asleep on his books only to wake up when he’s already supposed to be at school. Arriving at the exam when time is halfway expired, he nails the balance of the exam in the time he has left!

Here’s the Steelers report card for the Steelers playoff game against the Ravens with the normal caveat that no other grades were consulted prior to this posting:

Quarterback

Ben Roethlisberger’s overall numbers of 19-32-226-0-2 might appear pedestrian, but there was nothing pedestrian about his performance. Despite facing a veritable onslaught from the Ravens and taking six sacks, Ben Roethlisberger stood his ground fearlessly and took control of this game. Grade: A

Running Back

Another case where numbers fail to tell the tale. Rashard Mendenhall’s 2.4 yards per carry average makes it appear he had a mediocre night, but Mendhenall did what he had to do — get the ball into the end zone. Isaac Redman also had a key third and one conversion, and Mewelde Moore ran for twice for 12 yards. An “Above the Line” effort Grade: B

Wide Receivers

This is exactly what we all saw coming when the Steelers dumped ‘Tone and drafted Sanders and Antonio Brown in the 2010 NFL draft. Right? With the exception of a drop by Emmanuel Sanders, the Steelers wide outs and Heath Miller made plays all game long. Each member of this receiving corps distinguished himself either by the quantity or the quality of his work, and the Steelers were victorious because of it. Grade: A

Offensive Line

To say that musical chairs on offensive line has been a theme throughout the season might be corny, but it is true. But despite playing back up tackles (who are really backups themselves) the Steelers lineman gave Ben time, at least on enough crucial plays, and provided enough push on running plays to move the chains and get the ball in the end zone. Grade: C+

Defensive Line

Ziggy Hood is beginning the post-season the way he ended the regular season — with a bang, coming in third on the team 5 tackles, a QB hit, a tackle for a loss and one sack on Flacco’s final drive. Brett Keisel recovered Flacco’s fumble. He and Casey Hampton did not pile up gaudy numbers, but made their presence known as Ray Rice gain only 18 more yards after his 14 yard scoring scamper. The rest of the Ravens rushing game netted a half yard. Grade: A

Linebackers

James Harrison had gone since 5 games without a full sack, but he set the tone by sacking Flacco on Baltimore’s first two second half possessions. LaMarr Woodley had a sack and a recovered fumble, a QB hit and a tackle for a loss. Lawrence Timmons “quietly” led the team in tackles with support from James Farrior, who defensed a pass. Grade: A

Secondary

Losing Bryant McFadden early on was not good, but William Gay stepped up and Ike Taylor neutralized his man throughout the game. Troy Polamalu made no splash plays, but if nothing else, Polamalu’s presence had to have impacted Flacco’s decision making. Raven receivers made innumerable drops – that that happens sometimes when you’re worried about getting KOed from behind.

But Ryan Clark stole the show, causing the two turnovers that sparked the Steelers resurgence in the second half. Grade: A

Special Teams
Let’s start with the positive. Justin Kapinos BOOMED off four punts for 194 yards, and Shaun Suisham’s kick offs were deeper. But the Steelers gave up a long opening return, and benefited from a, questionable call, that nullified a punt return for a TD. Outside of those gaffes coverage was good, but as Al Everest says, it is the screw ups that sting. Special teams play was above the line. Barley. Grade: C-

Coaching
Critique Mike Tomlin for being unfocused and out hustled in the second 16 minutes of the first half. Credit Tomlin for disavowing the emotional roller coaster since the day he was hired. Make no mistake about it: This level headed approach and steady hand at the wheel are what allowed the Steelers to regain focus and unleash fury upon the Baltimore Ravens in the second half. Still the second quarter and inconsistent special teams knock the coaches grade down. Grade: B

Unsung Hero

Who to choose in a game where so many stepped up? How about Doug Legursky? You won’t see his name on the stat sheet, but the man played multiple positions on the offensive line, helping provide stability or at least sanity to a unit under assault. He also did some road grading from the fullback position leading to the first touchdown.

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Resilient Steelers Rebound Against Ravens, 31-24

It was great for the game of football.” – Mike Tomlin

The Pittsburgh Steelers and the Baltimore Ravens’ rivalry is intense, hard-fought, and their players take it personally.

Statisticians generate reams and reams of data to document how closely matched these teams are. But you cannot reduce the beauty of this rivalry to numbers.

That’s because the Steelers and Ravens don’t play each other. They test each other.

  • Sometimes the teams match wills.
  • Sometimes the games become trails of attrition.
  • Other times they test the other’s nerves.
  • And yet other times the game simply tests which team has better playmakers.

In the 2010 AFC Divisional playoff game the Steelers and Ravens tested themselves in each of the above categories and in the process played one of the best NFL playoff games in history.

El Quarto Negro

The title is Spanish for “The Black Quarter” – in this instance, Spanish is just more poetic, which is fitting because the last 16 minutes of the first half were pure poetry – for the Ravens.

Memory can provide no darker quarter of post-season football for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Sure, there have been darker playoff moments (thanks Neil), but never has a playoff opponent dominated the Steelers as thoroughly for a quarter as the Ravens did.

  • Ray Rice’s 14 yard scamper schooled William Gay and made Troy Polamalu look amateur
  • Terrell Suggs strip-sack of Ben and Baltimore’s subsequent touchdown called the Steelers focus into question
  • Mendenhall’s fumble and Todd Heap’s touchdown reeked of an impending rout

With Shaun Suisham’s missed field goal, the Steelers gave every appearance of being in full-self destruction mode.

Testing Nerves
When you turn the ball over the way we did, a lot of teams usually give up, and it ends up being a blowout. But we stayed the course…” – Hines Ward

Prior to the game both Gene Collier and Dan Gigler of the Post-Gazette picked the Ravens to win, agreeing that it was “their time.” They appeared to be correct in as the third quarter began with a pittly 6 play Pittsburgh drive that ended with a punt.

James Harrison, Ziggy Hood, and Ryan Clark had other ideas. In short order James Harrison sacked Flacco, Hood stuffed Ray Rice for a one-yard loss, and Ryan Clark stripped the ball as LaMarr Woodley recovered.

After Mendenhall ripped off a 14 yard run, Ben Roethlisberger found Health Miller for a touchdown.

  • Although still down by 7, in just five plays the Steelers delivered a message – we’re still playing and we’re playing to win.

Football is a game of momentum. James Harrison opened the ensuing defensive series with another sack. The Steelers continued to pressure Flacco and the Ravens went nowhere on their next two plays.

The momentum had swung the Steelers way, and now it was the Flacco and the Ravens whose nerves were tested.

  • The next time Flacco had the ball he tossed an easy interception to Ryan Clark.

Four plays later Roethlisberger threw a laser to Hines Ward to tie the ball game.

  • James Harrison pressured Flacco into an incompletion and then, on his next touch, Flacco fumbled the ball.

Eight plays later Shaun Suisham gave the Steelers the lead. The Steelers were winning the test of nerves.

The Crucible of Attrition

Steelers-Ravens contests are known for their hard hits, and this one was no exception. The Steelers lost Bryant McFadden early in the game.

William Gay stepped in, and made play after play, especially on the game’s final drive.

And, as they have done so all year long, the Steelers injuries forced the Steelers to play musical chairs on the offensive line.

Although the line played far from perfectly, giving up six sacks, the Steelers lineman never gave the impression that they were being overwhelmed, even as guys shifted from guard to tackle, and from tackle to guard.

Test of Wills

Art Rooney II raised eyebrows early in the off season when he declared that the Steelers must run better.

The Steelers rose to the occasion against the Ravens. Forget about Mendenhall’s paltry s 2.4 yards per carry.

Rooney stated that the team needed to be able to run the ball when it needed to, and they did just that:

  • Isaac Redman converted a key first down on the Steelers opening touchdown drive
  • Rashard Mendenhall muscled his way into the end zone not once, but twice in critical goal-line situations
  • Ben Roethlisberger willed his way to a first down on 4th and 1 during the Steelers go-ahead field goal drive.

The Baltimore Ravens fought hard on every play. No one should question their desire or effort. But in a game where the Steelers defense limited Baltimore to 126 yards of total offense, certainly no Baltimore Raven can argue that they wanted this one more than the Steelers.

Putting Play Makers to the Test

It is ironic that in a year where Ben Roethlisberger and Mike Wallace established themselves as one of the league’s most deadly QB-WR tandems, that Wallace was not Big Ben’s target on the game’s biggest play.

Ben Roethlisberger played a fabulous game. Under relentless pressure all day he delivered. After having been sacked an throwing incomplete, Big Ben faced a 3rd and 19 with just over two minutes left to play.

And, if his post-game comments are to be believed, he more or less told Antonio Brown to run deep and other wise “go out and get open.”

Roethlisberger heaved a 54 yard bomb, Brown got open and caught the ball, gaining control just as his momentum took him out of bounds. Five plays later the Mendenhall ran it in from two yards out to put the Steelers ahead for good.

Bring on the New York Jets

The Steelers and Ravens played a game of the ages as Pittsburgh passed each of the tests administered by Baltimore.

But based on their last game at Heinz Field the New York Jets figure to offer a different sort of test.

That’s fine. Because the Pittsburgh Steelers are 1-0 in the playoffs against teams who beat them at home during the regular season!

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Steelers Defeat Ravens 31-24

What a game. The Pittsburgh Steelers of the Mike Tomlin era have a flair for the dramatic, and a knack for pulling out games when all hope appears to be lost.

They took that standard to a new level against the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC Divisonal playoffs.

I can’t pretend to offer a detailed analysis so soon after a dramatic victory.

So I’ll just tip the hat to Greg and Diane, and the other two Steelers fans who joined Gustavo Vallegos and myself at Buenos Aires Alamo resturant for the game — the other 45 people or so who were in bar were all Ravens fans.

What a joy it was to have them ask me, when the Ravens were winning big, “you’re a Steelers fan? Where are you from….?” [Maryland was my response.] “Then why are you rooting for the Steelers?

“Because its Steelers Nation, baby!” We Steelers fans are loyal and today’s game was one of the reasons why.

More tomorrow. Go Steeler!

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Steelers-Ravens III – Youth Takes Center Stage

The Steelers have an aging team. Everyone knows it, everyone has been talking about for as long as anyone has listened.

John Harris of the Tribune-Review was the latest to chime in, suggesting that the window on the Steelers Lombardi Trophy opportunities might be closing.

Harris, doubtlessly might be right.

But what is overlooked and perhaps all the more remarkable, is that how many Steelers will be starting their first NFL playoff game.

Steelers starting their first NFL Playoff game:

  • Maurkice Pouncey,
  • Jonathan Scott,
  • Ramon Foster,
  • Mike Wallace,
  • Rashard Mendenhall
  • Ziggy Hood
  • That’s 60% of the offensive line, two starters from the “skills positions,” and one defensive end.

Of course the Steelers will need more than to put them over the top against the Ravens and many of the key backups will be playing their first playoff game:

  • Emmanuel Sanders
  • Antonio Brown
  • Ryan Mundy
  • David Johnson
  • Sylvester Stevenson
  • Arnaz Battle

Numerically, the Steelers strike a good balance between youth and experience. That equilibrium is of course far stronger on the defensive slide of the ball, but that’s a discussion for another day.

Let’s beat Baltimore!

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Steelers-Ravens III: Key Match Ups

Having already suggested that the outcome of Steelers-Ravens III could boil down to who controls the underneath passing game, I’ll now turn my attention to other key match ups:

James Harrison vs. Michael Oter

As Behind the Steel Curtain’s Neal Coolong pointed out in his Pre Game Zone Blitz, Harrison had his way with Oher during the match up in December, drawing multiple penalties. Oher apparently didn’t look so good against the Chiefs either…

Oher will be looking to rebound, but James Harrison will also kick it up a notch.

  • Let’s hope Harrison reek Havoc against Baltimore. Again.

Steelers Offensive Line vs. Terrell Suggs

Suggs put on the kind of dominating performance against the Steelers that we hope to see from Harrison. The Steelers will need to bring Spaeth, Miller or Johnson back to help with protection.

Rashard Mendenhall vs. the Ravens Run Defense

In two contests vs. the Raven’s Mendenhall rushed for 3.2 yards per carry and 2.4. The conventional wisdom is that this is as good as he can get, isn’t it?

Mendenhall has done better against this stout defense. Last year, with Dennis Dixon under center and the Steelers down to one quarterback, Mendenhall ran for 95 yards, on 24 carries.

  • The Steelers don’t need Mendenhall to have a big game to win, but if he does have one, it will make a lot of other things easier.

Flacco vs. the Steelers Corners

The Ravens have weapons a plenty for Flacco, and if the leaf readers from Baltimore are to be believed, they think he can pass on the Steelers corners.

  • The Steelers don’t need spectacular play from their corners, just smart play.

Mike Wallace vs. the Ravens Secondary

Here is how Mike Wallace has faired against the Ravens:

  • Mike Wallace did not catch a pass in his first game against the Ravens, which the Steelers lost.
  • He burned them for 3 for 83 yards including one 45 yarder in his second game against the Ravens, which the Steelers won.
  • With Charlie Batch under center he only caught 2 passes for 24 yards in this year’s first meeting, which the Steelers lost.
  • Last time around Wallace caught 5 passes for 76 yards and the Steelers won.

Notice a trend here? Yes. Is it a coincidence? Don’t bet on it.

  • To beat the Ravens, the Steelers need a big game from Wallace, and they need him to do something he has yet to do – score.

It will be one heck of a game folks – enjoy the ride. I’ll post more tomorrow as time allows.

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