Steelers Defeat Panthers to Wrap Up Preason

The Pittsburgh Steelers won a field goal kicking derby to defeat the Carolina Panthers 19 to 16, as Jeff Reed booted in a 43 yard field goal with no time remaining.

This is the second week in which Jeff Reed has kicked a field goal at the end of regulation to deliver victory for the Steelers. In fact, on the heels of his four field goal performance against the Vikings, a game in which he was the only team member to score, Reed could stake his claim to being the preseason offensive MVP.

Reed was not alone on the scoreboard tonight, as fullback Carey Davis managed to score on a six yard run.

Tonight’s victory gives the Steelers a 3-1 record in preseason, for whatever that is worth.

All eyes are now on the mandatory cuts that must come the next two days. Mike Tomlin entered the game saying that three to five roster spots were at stake, admonishing several players to make the most of their last opportunities to impress.

While final roster cuts are never easy, one of the most attention catching, and disturbing, facts is that draft picks like Ryan Mundy, Mike Humpal and even fourth round pick Tony Hills and third round pick Bruce Davis have been mentioned as possible cuts.

This is unlikely, but it is a situation that Steel Curtain Rising will be paying close attention to.

Once the 53 man roster is set, the next question will be whether the Steelers sign any of the players who are in the final year of their contracts before their self-imposed negotiation black-out period begins when they open against the Houston Texas.

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Tony Hills the Next John Jackson?

Tony Hills’ name has surfaced infrequently during training camp, but when it has it is most frequently paired with John Jackson.

Tony Hills played tackle for UCLA before the Steelers drafted him in the fourth round of this spring’s draft. John Jackson was of course a tenth round pick out of Eastern Kentucky in 1988.

There was little consensus surrounding Hills when he was drafted. Some writers suggested he’d have gone higher if it were not for an injury, others questioned his toughness.

Writing in the Steelers Digest, Jim Wexell first compared the two players, remarking, “Tony Hills looks like John Jackson. He’s raw but he has a great build, long arms, and quick feet.”

  • The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review’s Scotty Brown was less generous, declaring Hills as “a major project.”

Most recently this week the Tribune-Review’s Mike Prisuta offered that he couldn’t figure out of Tony Hills was the next John Jackson, or the next Fred Gibson — the last 4th round pick who failed to make the team.

A tenth round pick is by definition a long-shot to make the team. John Jackson had a difficult time in preseason, getting runover left and right by a young Pat Swelling in the Super Dome in the final preseason contest of 1988.

Yet Jackson made the team, and he grew into a Pro Bowl caliber left tackle. (In fact, Jackson became the highest paid lineman in football when he left via free agency in 1998 — He was grossly overpaid, but it did take the Steelers two full years to recover from losing him.)

So the Steeler press corps might be unable to make up their minds, but you’ve very well may have made up yours. What do you think?

Does Hills have long-term potential or was he a reach? Sound off in the comments section.

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Who is Kyle Clement?

One of the most interesting things about running a website/blog, is discovering how people find you on the internet.

You’d think that a site dedicated to the Steelers, would get most of its Google traffic from people searching for the latest on the Rooney family, the Steelers draft, Ben Roethlisberger, Mike Tomlin, or one of our other star players. Keywords related to these folks do supply a lot of traffic, but they’re not the biggest magnet.

On May 3rd Steel Curtain Rising dutifully informed that the Steelers had signed rookie free agent Kyle Clement. And since that time, the most common keyword drawing people to this site has been…. You guessed it: Kyle Clement.

Who is Kyle Clement? A few of our readers have generously given us some more information on this standout from Northwood University (Michigan.) Web research has yielded some more information. But I’d like to know more.

So if you know about Kyle Clement, share your knowledge with us. What is the guy like? What kind of on the field presence does he have? What kind of a guy is he off the field?

If Kyle Clement is going to be the next in a long line of rookie free agents to make an impact with the Steelers, let us know why. All you need to do is leave a comment. The only thing we ask is that you keep the discussion civil.

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Is Mike Tomlin A Good Coach – Trackback

James Pete from the website mvc.com has posed an open question, “Is Mike Tomlin A Good Coach?

His question is an interesting one, and one that will be answered in the between now and January. But Pete is asking people for what they think now. Fair enough.

Regular readers of Steel Curtain Rising has explored this issue at length.

However, for the benefit of those who are following the conversation on mvc.com we’re link this post to previous articles:

Mike Tomlin: The Glass Half Empty or Glass Half Full?
Assessing Mike Tomlin: The Quest for Objectivity
Tomlin Reveals Willingness to Adapt in 2008 Offseason

Feel free to link back to any of these older posts and/leave a comment here.

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Tomlin Reveals Willingness to Adapt in 2008 Offseason

With the end of OTA’s, the Steelers enter the only portion of the year which can credibility called “the off season.” When quizzed about what his players had shown him during OTA’s, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin quickly to indicated out that little can be learned from “football in shorts.”

While that may be true of the players, the same can not be said for the coach. This off season revealed a lot about Mike Tolmin, and its time to take a look at what Steelers Nation has learned about their standard bearer.

  • Mike Tomlin is not emotionally vested in the decisions he’s made.

Personnel provides the perfect example. Tomlin’s two signature personnel moves during his first year were the acquisition of Adrian Rossum and the decision to sign Sean Mahan to start at center. Mahan was woefully inadequate at center, and Rossum was average at best as a returner.

  • Rossum was among the first cut after the season, and Pittsburgh’s second free agent acquisition sent Sean Mahan from being a starter to merely “having the chance to compete” at guard.

Special teams is another area with Tomlin’s dispassionate decision making was display. Tomlin’s credo since day one has been that special teams is 1/3 of the game and should be treated as such. To that end he used two draft picks on special teams players and the team devoted a record amount of practice time to special teams.

Special teams were of course one of the team’s Achilles heels during the 2007 campaign. Whereas Bill Cowher would have fired special teams coach Bob Ligashesky in the blink of an eye, Tomlin stood by his man (a decsion which Steel Curtin Rising took issue with), declaring that the base of the problem lie in Pittsburgh’s lack of special team aces.

But he has gone beyond that. He’s now drastically cut back on special team practices, banking on scarcity to create a sense of urgency. It remains to be seen if this approach will bear fruit, but special teams does come down to attitude and “want to,” so this shift in strategy is certainly plausible.

Tomlin has also shown himself to be a man who is flexible enough to adapt to changing circumstances. An apostle of building through the draft, Tomlin moved quickly when Justin Hartwig unexpectedly became available to shore up the center position.

Outside of signing Mewelde Moore, Pittsburgh made few other free agent signings, but they did entertain a parade free agent safeties, tight ends, and lineman, thus making good on Tomlin’s pledge to “leave no stone unturned” in his quest to better the Steelers.

  • Finally, Tomlin confirmed that he is a fundamentalist.

He began the off season by pointedly observing that the Steelers needed to get “younger and bigger” on both lines. Yet, the Steelers stuck to their board and resisted any urge to reach during the 2008 draft. The quality of their draft will remain unknown for years to come, but the Steelers never blinked as they watched lineman leave the board in droves during rounds one and two.

During the 2007 Steelers Nation learned little about Tomlin beyond the fact that he said the right things at the appropriate times and nurture good relations with the press. The 2008 off season has shown us that, at the very least, Mike Tomlin is a man who is willing to adapt.

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Between the Lines: Final Comment on Alan Faneca

Today’s post deals with an eyebrow raising statement Steelers Digest Editor Bob Labriola made in the Digest’s May edition. Our most recent Watch Tower post debated Labriola’s contention that Rashard Mendenhall’s arrival could help compensate for the Steelers (very wise) choice not to reach for an offensive lineman in the 2008 draft.

In assembling his argument, Labriola offered this snippet of insight into the Steelers offensive line woes:

With Faneca gone, the offensive line is without its lone star, but it also becomes a group without a dominating personality, without a player who has earned the stature of a superstar among his peers. Faneca was never a problem in any way during his final season here, but it’s also true he never completely bought into the new regime.

“With Faneca gone, it will be easier to change some things, to teach different techniques, to coerce everyone to do it the way it’s being taught instead of the way it used to be done. [Emphasis added.]

One of the real perks Digest readers enjoy is that you sometimes get a little peek into the inner workings of the Steelers. Labriola’s observation that Fanaca “never completely bought into the new regime” is attention grabbing.

Just what does it mean?

  • It’s hard to say. Labriola’s certainly not making the case for addition by subtraction. Faneca was too good for that.

However, it’s also true that cohesion is an important component in quality offensive line play. Labriola’s observations perhaps cast offensive line coach Larry Zierlein’s comments about new blocking techniques in a new light. (For the record, Steel Curtain Rising criticized Zierlein for those remarks.)

Anyone who has ever worked in business knows that any new system requires “user buy in” for success. Without it, things flounder quickly. (Think the metric system in the US, the Susan B. Anthony dollar.)

It is too much of a stretch to think that, lineman for lineman, the net quality of the Steelers offensive line corps will improve with Fanaca’s departure. But Labriola’s revelation makes it conceivable that, as a whole, the overall quality of play of the offensive line can improve in 2008.

 

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Watch Tower: Steelers Digest Enters Protection vs. Weapons Debate

An earlier post discussed the myths about the Steelers offensive line, namely that an upgrade in skill position players can compensate for deficiencies on the line. This idea has been expressed by Steeler coaches, and was endorsed by Ed Bouchette. Most recently, Steelers Digest  editor Bob Labriola echoed similar sentiments.

In the May edition of the Steelers Digest, Labriola contends, “…this running back [Mendenhall] will help protect Roethlisgerger…..” Two paragraph’s later, Labriola continues arguing that the offensive line “only need become functional to give the time and space necessary to make plays.”

To support this argument, he asserts that the prospect of having Willie Parker and Rashard Mendenhall in the same backfield will eat “… up more time in opponents defensive meetings than figuring out a way to neutralize some offensive tackle.”

Labriola is right of course. The possibility if having Parker and Mendenhall in the same backfield is enticing. Indeed, this writer has long bemoaned the steady disappearance of the two back backfield where both backs get carries.* The prospect of Parker and Mendenhall platooned behind the line of scrimmage gives the Steelers the kind of awesome one-two punch out of the backfield that many hoped would evolve during training came in 1990, when both Barry Foster and Tim Worley teased All Pro greatness.

But Labriola also misses the point. Defensive coordinators do already know what offensive lineman are doing to do, but if the offensive lineman are good, there is nothing they can do to stop them. As Chuck Noll used to say, “They know we’re going to come at them and play some good, hard-nosed football, so there’s nothing we can do but to go out there and do it.”

  • A dominate offensive line imposes its will on opponents, regardless of defensive scheme.

In all fairness to Labriola, he offers no illusions about the Steelers line, going on record to indicate that “It’s inaccurate to label the Steelers offensive line a team strength.” Labriola is also right when he claims that no offensive lineman drafted outside of the second round could have made an immediate impact. (Indeed, one of our commenting readers made a similar point.)

Steel Curtain Rising fully agrees with Labriola’s fundamental argument: The Steelers did the right thing by sticking to their draft board. The only quibble that it’s completely coherent to argue, “The Steelers came away with what might develop as steals in the draft, but the same circumstances that led to that also conspired to prevent them from upgrading their offensive line.”

*Steel Curtain Rising did not exist in 1993. But if it had, the Steelers failure give more carries to Merril Hoge after Barry Foster went down would have been lamented. Loudly. Indeed, after they lost Foster, the Steelers finished 3-4, and it is no coincidence that they won the three games were Hoge carried the ball. (God that feels good to finally get that off of my chest.)

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Time to Debunk Steelers Offensive Line Myths

“…A good RB can help an OLine look better, as can better receivers.”
– Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, on-line chat, 4/28/08

The Steelers may very well have succeeded in making a virtue out of necessity by stockpiling offensive weapons for want of offensive (or defensive) lineman in the 2008 draft. Time will tell.

In the here and now one thing is certain: There are myths circulating about the Steelers offensive line, and they will be debunked right now.

The source of the first “Weapons vs. Protection myth” is Ed Bouchette himself. In making reference to some comment (not available on-line) by Mike Tomlin, Ed Bouchette suggested that “Yes, I thought Tomlin’s answer was a good one. A Good RB can help an OLne look better, as can better receivers.”

That sounds nice. It even has a certain, if superficial, logic to it. But the simple fact is: Winning on offense begins with the offensive line.

One need not look back too far for proof. Flash back: 2003. The Steelers offensive line is such disarray that Alan Fananca has to shift from guard to center depending on what down it is…. The Steelers finished 6-10.

Look a little farther: 1998, One year after running roughshod over the league Jerome Bettis yards per-carry drop from 4.4 to 3.8, his total yards drop by almost 500, and he scores a mere three touchdowns. The difference? John Jackson departed for San Diego, wreaking havoc with the Steelers offensive line.

1999 was worse. The offensive line was weaker, and Bettis barely cracked a 1000 yards, averaging 3.3 yards per carry. Indeed, many argued that the Bus was washed up, and that Richard Huntley was the better back.

The fact that that argument looks so foolish today is as much a testament to the improved offensive line as it is to Bettis himself.

The Steelers offensive line improved tremendously in 2000 and 2001. It’s no coincidence that the play of Bettis, Kordell Stweart, and the receiving corps dramatically improved.

Myth number two comes from offensive line coach Larry Zierlein. He recently informed the Pittsburgh media that he’d changed some blocking techniques when he arrived in 2007, and that the players should improve in 2008 as they become more comfortable.

Yeah, right.

If that is the case, then why didn’t the offensive line improve as the 2007 season progressed? Instead, the line played above expectations during the early part of the year, and only to get progressively worse as the year season wore on.

Fate did not allow the Steelers to address this area in the draft. So be it.

Solid play at center coupled with a healthier Marvel Smith continued development by Willie Colon, could result in better protection for Ben Roethlisberger and more daylight for the running backs.

But until that scenario plays itself out on the field, the Steelers offensive line remains an area of concern. And no amount sophistry from Larry Zierlein or the press will alter that reality.

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In a Wise Move, Willie Parker Mentors Rashard Mendenhall

After the Steelers selected Rashard Mendenhall with the 23rd pick of the 2008 NFL draft, the Pittsburgh Tribune Review’s John Harris was the first to proclaim:

“The clock on Parker’s career with the Steelers is now officially ticking toward its inevitable conclusion.”

Given that Willie Parker is coming off a major injury in a league where running backs seem less and less durable, there’s a certain ring of truth in Harris ominous words.

But Parker is having none of that, and has vowed to take Mendehall under his wing. This is the right thing to do, for several reasons.

  • First, it shows that Parker is a good man.

Being a good man might not bring the Steelers a Super Bowl, but it’s a quality that should earn Parker praise.

  • Second, Parker’s embrace of his newly found mentor role is good for the team.

Locker room cohesion might be an intangible, but its importance should never be underestimated. Both Bill Cowher and Dan Rooney have been on the record stating that while the Cowher era might have had more talented teams, the 2005 team that won Super Bowl XL edition was the closest.

If you’ll remember, that was the team that won eight ‘must win’ games in a row, including three playoff road wins. That kind of streak only happens if the guys in the trenches are certain that their buddies have their backs.

  • Finally, Parker’s attitude is also very much in his own self interest.

Durability is one factor that separates good from great running backs. There’s a lot of research to show that the wheels of a running back start to fall of after he’s run for more than 350 carries in a season.

For the record, Parker carried the ball 337 times in 2006 and 320 times in 2007. He very well may have surpassed his 2006 total had he not gotten hurt in week 16.

OK. 350 holds no mystical value, and assuming he bounces back from his current injury, Parker’s natural shelf-life might be a little longer than the average running back by virtue of the fact that he played so little in college. But that will only come to fruition if he has someone who can share the load with him.

The Steelers’ luck with first round running backs is checkered. They hit the jackpot with Franco Harris. Greg Hawthorne, Walter Abercrombie disappointed, and Tim Worley chose to sniff his signing bonus up his nose. Mendenhall arrives with no guarantees.

But Rashard Mendenhall’s very presence has the potential to extend Willie Parker’s career. For that to happen, Mendenhall has to make and impact in the pros. That’s more likely now that he’s under Willie Parker’s tutelage.

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Steelers 2008 Draft: Pittsburgh Stockpiles Potential at Important, If Less Critical Need Areas

At 2008 off season’s outset Steelers coach Mike Tomlin reaffirmed his commitment to attrition football – in other words to fighting and winning games in the trenches. To that end he, declared Steelers “need to get bigger and younger on both lines.” The Steelers then proceeded pick a single lineman in the 2008 NFL draft, Texas offensive tackle Tony Hills….

The Rolling Stones once opined that while you can’t always get what you want, you sometimes you get what you need. More recently Cold Play warned that those who got what they wanted but not what they needed would require fixing….

  • The dust from the 2008 NFL draft has settled, but the question remains, did the Steelers get what they wanted or what they needed?

The answer is that what the Steelers got in the draft, they needed.

Prior to the draft, Steel Curtain Rising was firmly on the record in support of drafting a offensive lineman. Yet we’ve also endorsed Tomlin and Colbert’s “draft the best man available” philosophy.

The Steelers followed their philosophy to the letter, and in the long run, that should reveal itself as a positive. Pro Football Weekly’s five year analysis of the Steelers draft record largely coincided with the analysis presented here in the Colbert Record. Namely that the Steelers success on day one of the draft has not carried over to day two. Pro Football Weekly concluded that this tendency has hurt the Steelers special teams play and their overall depth.

This conclusion is sound, and its one reason why reason to praise Colbert and Tomlin’s decision making, in spite of the team’s failure to land a blue-chip lineman.

All things being equal, the Steelers probably would have drafted a lineman early, but as fate would have it, drafting a lineman in the 1st or 2nd would have constituted a major reach. Reaching to fill a need in the draft is dangerous, remember Troy Edwards?

  • The Steelers 2008 draft score card is made up of a running back, a wide out, two outside linebackers, an offensive lineman, a quarterback and a safety.

The Steelers field Pro Bowl caliber talent at running back, wide out, and at outside linebacker. Yet at each of these slots, their depth is critically thin.

When Willie Parker went down, we learned why Najeh Davenport is and will be a career back up. Carey Davis and Gary Russell’s potential is just that, potential.

At wide receiver Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes are backed up by a solid Nate Washington and the hope that Dallas Baker and Willie Reid will show something they’ve failed to show thus far.

At outside linebacker, James Harrison has established himself as a force, and LaMarr Woodley came on very strong in late 2007. But the cupboard is very, very bare once you look beyond these two players.

Rashard Mendenhall, Limas Sweed, Bruce Davis, and Mike Humpal have proven nothing at this level. The odds are against all four blossoming in the NFL, but their presence certainly strengthens the Steelers foundation in three key areas.

Quarterback is a little different. Ben Roethlisberger and Charlie Batch give the Steelers the best 1-2 tandem in the league and if, God forbid, disaster were to strike both men, no one would say “If only Brian St. Pierre were still here…..”

Given this reality, Steel Curtain Rising whole heartedly concurred with Steelers Digest’s Bob Labrolia that “using [a pick] on a guy who would only be competing for the No. 3 spot would be a waste.”

With that said, Dennis Dixon is a player that would have gone on day one had he not been hurt. The Steelers have the luxury of letting him heal and develop. Time will tell if the Steelers can groom him into a number two, but if they do he will prove to be a wise selection.

The bottom line is, if Steelers determined the lineman who were on the board in the fifth would be unlikely to make the team in September, they were right to pick a high value player.

The Steelers did net offensive tackle Tony Hills in the draft. Even if Hills proves to be tougher than the pundits think him to be, the Steelers lines remain a major area of concern.

But the simple fact is that quality lineman were not available when the Steelers had to pick. Instead of panicking or allowing themselves to be victims of circumstance, they gave themselves a chance to strengthen other, if less urgent, need areas.

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