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 

Please lend a hand by sharing this on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp etc... Thanks.

Hold Down the North – Steelers in AFC North Poll Position Coming out of Bye Week

Are you wearing your Pittsburgh Steelers “Hold Down the North” AFC North Division Champions T-shirt (or, if you’re in Pittsburgh, long-sleeve shirt) today?

I realize “Hold Down the North” was last year’s slogan. I also realize we’re only halfway through the 2017 campaign, and things are far from decided in this season’s version of the notoriously rugged and hotly-contested AFC North Division.

  • But are things really far from decided?

As Pittsburgh, 6-2, enjoyed its bye week on Sunday, both the Ravens and Bengals, what’s left of the competition in the division (the Browns are 0-8), lost to fall to 4-5 and 3-5, respectively.

Antonio Brown, Steelers vs Ravens, Steelers vs Ravens Christmas, Tavon Young

Steelers Antonio Brown makes a first down in Pittsburgh’s Christmas win over the Ravens. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

What that means is the Steelers have a three-game advantage in the ever-important loss column with just a half-a-season to play (less than that for Baltimore). That’s a lot of ground to make up in such a short window, and if there’s anything the first half of the 2017 NFL campaign has taught us about the Ravens and the Bengals, it’s that they probably don’t have what it takes to make up so much ground in two months.

As I alluded to earlier, it’s a departure for the AFC North, as it’s notoriously been one of the toughest divisions in the NFL, with the winner often having to play the runner-up in either the wild card round, the divisional round or even the conference championship.

Even nine years ago, when the Steelers went 6-0 on the way to capturing their second-straight AFC North title, two of those victories were nail-biters over Baltimore, a team that would ultimately clinch a wild card spot, and then navigate its way through the first two rounds of the postseason and back to Heinz Field for the conference title game.

Yes, the Steelers vanquished Baltimore on the way to a record sixth Super Bowl title, but not without plenty of anxious moments that weren’t quite alleviated until legendary safety Troy Polamalu intercepted a fourth quarter pass from rookie quarterback Joe Flacco and raced 43 yards for a game-sealing score.

Even Pittsburgh’s last two division titles were contentious until the bitter-end, and one could argue that the team entered the postseason each time more battle fatigued than battle ready having lost Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell for stretches of those playoff runs.

You have to go all the way back Ben Roethlisberger‘s rookie year in 2004, when the Steelers finished with a 15-1 regular season record and clinched the North title by early-December, to find a time when the home team had such a clear-cut edge over everyone else in the division.

Speaking of that 2008 season that saw them go undefeated in the North, with a 3-0 divisional record currently through eight games, the Steelers have set themselves up nicely to repeat history; furthermore, two of their final three divisional games are at home.

And even if they lose one game and it happens to be against the Ravens, Baltimore would have to find a way to, again, make up three games in the loss column in less than two months–and even then it would come down to a third tiebreaker, as head-to-head and division records would be out the window.

The Steelers are far-and-away the best team in the AFC North, and unlike in previous years, there doesn’t even appear to be an annoying little brother that will hang around until the end of the season (or even the playoffs) and make their lives a little uncomfortable.

The Steelers will hold down the AFC North Division again in 2017 (and everyone else in it).

Please lend a hand by sharing this on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp etc... Thanks.

The Steelers 2016 AFC North Title is More than Just a Stocking Suffer

Steelers fans like to brag about not cherishing playoff spots, division titles or even conference championships.

I guess the standard really is the standard, and after watching the Black and Bold capture six Super Bowls, well, not to sound too cliched (it’s like nails on the chalkboard, sometimes), fans expect nothing less.

However, there’s something to be said for winning a division title, which Pittsburgh did, Sunday night, thanks to a pulsating Christmas 31-27 victory over the Ravens at Heinz Field.

Mike Tomlin, Mike Tomlin Hold Down the North,

Mike Tomlin addresses the Steelers following the Christmas win over the Ravens. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Did the win secure home-field advantage or even a bye? No, but a division championship is nothing to sneeze at and not just something that you look back on years later and say, “Oh yeah, they won the division that year.”

The AFC North is a pretty tough and bruising division, filled with hard-fought and often dirty battles. Sometimes, the best teams don’t always come out on top, and even when they do, like the Steelers did in 2014, it’s not always unscathed. (Le’Veon Bell suffered a hyper-extended knee against the Bengals in the regular season finale and was lost for the wild card game versus Baltimore a week later.)

The Steelers got out of Sunday’s game without any serious injuries, and the fact that they survived at all, heck, that’s better than the alternative.

  • Can you imagine how glum things would be this week, on the heels of a depressing home loss to Baltimore that would have seriously put the Steelers playoff hopes in jeopardy?

Believe me, the chances of the Bengals, the unstable and probably ready for the tropics Bengals, mustering up the enthusiasm to wreck Baltimore’s season in Week 17 on the way to the plane were probably slimmer than none.

Now, Pittsburgh, a team with a lock on the third playoff seed has a chance to rest players such as James Harrison, Stephon Tuitt, Ladarius Green and perhaps even Ben Roethlisberger. Likewise, players who’ve been injured such as Darrius Heyward-Bey, DeAngelo Williams and perhaps even Sammie Coates can get a chance to get their feet wet.

So, who do the Steelers match-up best against in the postseason? Who cares……for now. Just enjoy that division title for the next couple of weeks. Sure, it’s been done in Pittsburgh 22 times since 1972, but it’s still not that easy (if it was, everyone would do it).

Go out and buy that t-shirt. Go out and buy that cap.

The Steelers are in the playoffs, and that just never gets old.

Please lend a hand by sharing this on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp etc... Thanks.

Why the Steelers Need a Win vs. Ravens Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium

Most would say a game at the halfway point of the regular season (even one between two division rivals) isn’t a must win.

However, while that may be true for the Steelers, as they travel to Baltimore’s M&T Bank Stadium to take on the Ravens this Sunday, they sure could put down a huge deposit on their second AFC North title in the past three years with a victory.

antonio brown, will hill, heinz field, steelers vs. ravens

Antonio Brown Ravens defensive back Will Hill. Photo Credit: Charles LeClaire, USA Today Sports

It’s a lot easier said than done, of course, especially if Landry Jones ends up splitting time with Ben Roethlisberger because surgically repaired meniscus back to health fails to hold up.

  • But just think about what a win over the Ravens this Sunday could mean.

For starters, it would give Pittsburgh (4-3) a two-game lead over the 3-4 Ravens, as well as a 2-0 record in the division.

Furthermore (and while it’s never wise to count your chickens–or victories–before they hatch), the Steelers have two games against the hapless Cleveland Browns over the final eight weeks. The first  tiebreaker to decide division titles is head-to-head, while the second is record within the division. Therefore, you could be talking no worse than a 4-2 record within the AFC North if the Steelers can avoid tanking against Cleveland.

Things haven’t been the greatest for the Steelers lately–including on the injury front. A team that looked like a Super Bowl juggernaut as recently as October 9, following a 31-13 victory over the Jets, suddenly seems frail and unstable.

Additionally, the competency of head coach Mike Tomlin has come into question (yet again); and those Patriots, not only did they go 3-1 at the beginning of the season in the absence of the suspended Tom Brady, they took advantage of Pittsburgh’s quarterback problems with a 27-16 victory at Heinz Field on October 23.

Not only is New England (7-1) in the driver’s seat for a bye and a number one seed, the Steelers are currently the fourth seed in the AFC.

  • But while the Steelers have some work to do with regards to earning at least a second seed, it’s still very early.

The Pittsburgh Steelers may be down, but they’re currently up by one game in the AFC North, and a victory this week would make a lot of folks feel better about the second half of  the 2016 regular season.

Please lend a hand by sharing this on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp etc... Thanks.

Steelers Antonio Brown Not Forgiving Vontaze Burfict or Adam “Pacman” Jones

The Pittsburgh Steelers 2015 season has been over for several weeks, and one of the few real bits of news to come out during the 2016 off season is that was Art Rooney II’s confirmation that Antonio Brown has cleared NFL concussion protocols.

In a word, Antonio Brown is not in a forgiving mood. In an interview with KDKA FM Brown pulled no punches regarding his feelings about the hit that cost him a chance to play in the Steelers loss to Denver:

Guys don’t want to stop me anymore. They want to take me out. They want to kill me. They want to steal my dreams. They want to ruin me. They want to end me, but we’re not gonna let them. What we are gonna do is win more.

Brown cleared up any confusion over the conflicting reports over whether he had a chance to play. National reporters quickly reported that Brown would miss the game, while Pittsburgh reporters insisted their was a possibility Brown would suit up. As it was, Brown confirmed that he had zero chance of playing.

Brown also confirmed that Adam “Pacman” Jones, who had accused Brown of faking his injury, had apologized to him. Brown did not respond, and questioned why the media gave Adam “Pacman” Jones such a platform.

Cincinnati Bengals the New Jerry Glanville Oilers?

Bad blood in division rivalries is nothing new to the Pittsburgh Steelers in either the AFC North or its processor division, the old AFC Central. In 1976, with Terry Bradshaw already out injured, the Cleveland Browns dumped Mike Kruczek on his head in a late hit and Jack Lambert ran the length of the bench to “Deliver the punishment.” A decade later Chuck Noll would openly call out Houston Oilers coach Jerry Glanville.

  • Glanville’s Oilers were the bad boys of the AFC Central in the late 1980’s, everyone hated them.

Yours truly can remember one interview where a Bengals player admitted that he almost wished injuries on the Glanville’s players, who was reputed to encourage his men to injury to opposition. Former Bengals coach Sam Wyche once went so far as to call an on-sides kick with the Bengals leading 45-0 in the third quarter. The Bengals recovered, and Wyche went for it on fourth down at mid field.

  • With Vontaze Burfict leading the way, the Cincinnati Bengals of this decade appear to be mimicking their former rivals.

Burfict reportedly celebrated after a tackle he made on Le’Veon Bell that ended his season. Video tape suggests that he attempted to injure Ben Roethlisberger. For those of you keeping score, those are three hits which, deliberately or not, injured the top three Steelers offensive starters.

Kudos to Antonio Brown for not forgiving Vontaze Burfict or Adam “Pacman” Jones. Football is a physical game and a violent game, but playing with the intent to injury should never be part of that game.

And Kudos to Antoion Brown for focusing on what’s most important, revenge through victory on the score board, not through cheap shots.

Please lend a hand by sharing this on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp etc... Thanks.

4 Surprises from Steelers Victory Over Bengals

The Steelers victory over the Bengals was HUGE by any measure. It gives Pittsburgh a much needed road win against the AFC North leader, and even if it doesn’t allow them to win another AFC North title, Steelers clearly dominated physically.

Yet the Steelers victory over Cincinnati at Paul Brown Stadium brought some surprises, which we draw out here.

Shazier and Harrison Can BLOCK

OK, maybe this doesn’t qualify as a surprise, but it’s an excuse to share a great video. Ryan Shazier opened a can of whip ass on Tyler Kroft. IF the NFL concussion spotters didn’t pull him off of the field after that play, they should have. They probably should have double check Shazier.

It looks like James Harrison is laying out Ryan Hewitt, although it’s impossible to be sure from this video. And argument can be made the he too should have been checked by the NFL’s side line neuro consultant.

Mike Tomlin Declined to Go for Two

As far backs as OTA’s the Mike Tomlin made no bones about adopting an aggressive attitude regarding going for two. Sure enough, the Steelers have gone for 2 early and often this season.

  • Yet, the Steelers departed from that strategy against the Bengals.

Steel Curtain Rising doesn’t argue with the results. Chris Boswell made all three extra points and the Steelers won by 13. But it is interesting that in the Steelers biggest game of the season, Tomlin decided to play it conservatively when it comes to PAT’s.

The Steelers lead the league in Two Point Conversion attempts at 10, and have a 70% success rate. Yet vs. Cincinnati, Mike Tomlin chose to play it safe.

Williams Only Averaged 3.3 Yards Per Carry

DeAngelo Williams had another fine game, scored the offense’s 2 touchdowns, and helped move the chains when it counted. But a peek at the stat sheet following the game yielded a surprise – Williams only rushed for 3.3 yards per carry.

That’s certainly respectable, but his average for the season is 4.7 yards per carry. At first glance his percentage is far below the 7.89 yards per carry he logged in the Steelers loss to Cincinnati after Le’Veon Bell was injured, but he got 55 of his 71 yards on one carry.

Roethlisberger Didn’t Throw a Touchdown Pass

Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has thrown a touchdown pass in every game he has finished in 2015 up until the Steelers win in Cincinnati. Of course he did throw one to Antonio Brown in the Steelers loss to the Bengals at Heinz Field so we’ll gladly trade the TD pass for a win.

(Of course if Martavis Bryant holds on to a should-be catch, Roethlisberger gets his touchdown.)

Please lend a hand by sharing this on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp etc... Thanks.

Steelers Secondary Coach Carnell Lake: Revisiting the “Lake Effect”

With Dick LeBeau officially out and Keith Butler officially in at defensive coordinator slot, focus should now shift to Steelers secondary coach Carnell Lake and the so-called “Lake Effect.”

No matter how Dick LeBeau apologists (of which I am one) attempt to dress it up, the Steelers defense has been in decline for years. While the question of whether aging talent or poor coaching fueled the decline is now irrelevant, the question of what actually defined the decline is not.

Seriously.

If you take total yards allowed as your metric of choice, the Steelers defense really only started to slip in 2013, having finished number 1 overall in 2011 and 2012, before slipping to 13th in 2013 and 18th in 2014.

But expand choice of metrics just a bit, and you’ll see that the roots of the Steelers decline on defense dig deeply into 2011. And there’s where the tale gets complicated….

Super Bowl XLV Exposes Steelers Secondary as Glaring Weakness

The 2011 NFL Lockout created an off season void, which Steelers Nation largely filled for itself by repeating what became accepted as iron-clad fact:

  • In Super Bowl XLV, Aaron Rodgers exposed the Steelers secondary and specifically its corners as Pittsburgh’s Achilles Heel.

It followed then that Bryant McFadden was a failure, Ike Taylor was slipping, Keenan Lewis was a bust, and William Gay a waste of a roster spot. Respected Steelers author and blogger, Tim Gleason aka “Mary Rose” of Behind the Steel Curtain went so far as to suggest that Art Rooney II order Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin to take a cornerback in the first round of the draft.

It was settled then. The Steelers needed to upgrade at corner, and they need to do it fast….

Steelers Pass Defense Rebounds in 2011 and 2012. But…

2011’s Debacle in Baltimore introduced “Old, Slow and Done” into NFL’s lexicon for discussing the Steelers. Yet it only 4 games into the season my friend and colleague at BTSC Ivan Cole (full disclosure, I also write for BTSC) noted a trend.

The Steelers pass defense wasn’t playing so badly. And in fact William Gay was playing pretty well. And Keenan Lewis, who’d been written off as a draft-day mistake, began to show signs of life. Ivan had a name for this. He called it, “The Lake Effect.”

Gauging the role of position coaches in player development is tricky.

  • Yet Carnell Lake’s tutelage undoubtedly had an impact on these young men’s careers.

Another BTSC scribe, Rebecca Rollet, documented how Steelers coaches had essentially given up on Keenan Lewis before Lake arrived on the South Side.

Today William Gay is the unquestioned leader of the Steelers secondary, boasting more pick sixes in a season than Mel Blount had in his career, while fans (and perhaps the front office as well as the coaches) universally lament letting Keenan Lewis get away.

Beyond those individual accomplishments, during the first two seasons following Lake’s arrival, the Steelers pass defense ranked number despite the absence of a consistent pass rush.

So Carnell Lake is an unqualified success as Steelers secondary coach right? Not so fast.

Turnovers Scarce for Steelers Secondary

Another trend emerged in 2011 alongside the “Lake Effect,” and it’s one that continues today – namely a chronic inability on the part of the Steelers defense to produce turnovers. Interceptions are only one half of the turnover equation, they’re an important part.

And while interceptions can come from the defensive line or linebackers, often to great effect (see Brett Keisel vs. Houston), they’re the primary responsibility of the secondary. Numbers do not like on that measure, Lake doesn’t look so good:

steelers, interceptions, mike tomlin, carnell lake, secondary, corner, dick lebeau

Picks in short supply for Steelers secondary

Graphically, the trends are even more dramatic (note, inverse values have been used to chart the Steelers NFL rank in order to achieve visual congruity):

steelers, interceptions, turnovers, tomlim, carnell lake, dick lebeau, ray horton

Steelers interceptions, by number and by rank

Looking at the numbers as a whole, it is clear that Pittsburgh has had trouble intercepting the ball throughout Tomlin’s tenure, with 2008 and 2010 standing out as exceptions. But even if the roots of the problem stretch back to Ray Horton’s tenure as defensive coordinator, the Steelers worst performances have come during Lake’s time.

In another era, the term “Number One Defense” meant yards allowed. But today, both thanks to information technology and to the way the game’s evolved itself, defenses are measured by points allowed and increasingly, by their ability to take the ball away.

The Steelers have struggled to do that. The struggle didn’t begin with Carnell Lake, but he hasn’t improve the situation either.

Of Cortez, Brice and Blake….

Cortez Allen was an unmitigated disaster for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2014. He was supposed to be the secondary’s savior, instead he was put on injured reserve because the team needed his roster spot. Shamarko Thomas was also expected to push for time at safety, but couldn’t get off special teams. While it is unfair to hang that on Lake’s neck, neither Allen nor Thomas are not one of his success stories…

  • For those you can look to the men who played in their places.

Brice McCain and Antwon Blake arrived at Latrobe as two players salvaged from the NFL’s scrapheap fighting for a roster spot. They finished the regular season by making the turnovers the Steelers needed to secure victory over the Bengals, and ultimately the AFC North Championship.

  • Again, we don’t know how much impact Lake’s had in their growth.

But we do know its Lake’s job to guide it, and he didn’t bat an eye in mentioning Blake’s name when asked why the Steelers didn’t take a corner early in the 2014 NFL Draft. Do two better than expected corners make up for the Cortez Allen disappointment? Do they vindicate Mr. Cole’s “Lake Effect Thesis.”

Who knows?

But Keith Butler is going to need to find a way to get the Steelers to produce more turnovers, and he’ll need to determine of Carnell Lake is capable of coaching the secondary to help do that. Butler’s choice will be interesting.

 

Please lend a hand by sharing this on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp etc... Thanks.

Steelers Brown Matchup in Cleveland Season-Defining Game for Both

A hot college quarterback drafted in the first round upstaged by a cast-off that no one else wanted….

Optimism replacing pessimism in a town that has struggled in perpetual football purgatory….

A one-time division dominator now unsure of its identity shakiness lurking into the place of a long-faded strut….

The scenario above accurately depicts the run up to the Steelers-Browns rematch in Cleveland. The interesting thing is that the same statements were basically true before the teams first duel in 2008.

Derek Anderson was the upstart who supplanted Brady Quinn. Optimism was the watch word in Cleveland in September 2008, as the Browns had finished 10-6 and just outside the playoff bubble the season before.

And while “Shaky” may not have been an accurate description of the Steelers heading into week 2 of 2008 (the Steelers after all had manhandled Houston in week 1), Pittsburgh had ended 2007 on a thud, as Jacksonville became the first NFL team in history to defeat the Steelers twice in Pittsburgh.

  • Steelers Digest Editor Bob Labriola joined the off season chorus of off season writers who warned that the Browns were bouncing back.

When the history of the 2008 season is written, the Pittsburgh Steelers will be remembered as Super Bowl XLIII Champions, the Browns for their 4-10 finish, and the team’s first game was a ho-hum 10-6 affair.

  • Wait a minute? The eventual Super Bowl Champions only managed a 4 point victory over a 4-12 bottom feeder.

There are several morals to this backstory, all of which are relevant to the 2014 Steelers second AFC North road game.

In January, Steelers Nation smirked as the Brown executed yet another off season upheaval. Yet 10 months later, the Cleveland Browns are the AFC North team with the mojo. They almost beat Pittsburgh in the opener, came from behind to beat New Orleans, played Baltimore to a photo finish, and scored 26 unanswered points to come back from 28-3.

What’s more Brian Hoyer’s quiet competence is rapidly relegating Johnny Manzel’s  “Johnny Football” bravado to irrelevance, while the Steelers find themselves arguing about whether Mike Tomlin was right or wrong to assent to Ben Roethlisberger’s request to keep Antonio Brown’s record alive.

With Cincinnati atop the AFC North, Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Cleveland are now fighting to see who can stay out of the basement.

  • We already know the story the media wants to write – The Browns are on the rise.

And the truth is, they’ve lent plenty of cause to this claim. Cleveland is playing with confidence, while Pittsburgh struggle for consistency.

  • But that’s also where lesson of the ’08 game comes into play. 

Overarching narratives are nice, the stories the spawn help us make sense out of unrelated events. But at the end of the day, the yarns that NFL writers and modern day bards such as the late Steve Sabol spin are ultimately reactions which are utterly dependent on the 45 men who write the real story on the gridiron.  Case in point:

  • Who exactly had the Dallas Cowboys at 4-1 at this point in the season?

The Browns entered 2008 as AFC North favorites in many parts. The Steelers traveled to Cleveland and fought tooth and nail for every inch, and every yards. They made plenty of mistakes. But time and time again, Mike Tomlin refused to coach scared, and placed his faith in the men on the field.

  • At the end of the night, his team rewarded him with a 4 point victory.

Behind the Steel Curtain Editor Neal Coolong has said that this game will define the 2014 season for both the Browns and the Steelers. He’s probably right. The winner will occupy second place in the AFC North, the loser last place.

The Browns have home field advantage. Thanks to LeBron James, they have the Cleveland rust belt revival story to rally behind. A historic division rival who has owned them for more than a decade is coming to town and now looks vulnerable….

  • You can imagine the editors at ESPN.com and MMQB have the story templates already queued. 

And it makes sense. The smart football money would be on Cleveland this week. The Browns have some objective advantages and the subjective intangibles seem to be on their side.

But there’s a reason why we actually play games. The Pittsburgh Steelers 2014 story is still largely unwritten. The Browns may be favored, but the opportunity is still there if the Steelers can muster the discipline and consistency needed to seize it.

Thanks for visiting. Click here to check out the rest of Steel Curtain Rising. Or… Follow @SteelCurtainRis
Please lend a hand by sharing this on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp etc... Thanks.

A Fan’s Memories of the Steelers’ Road to Super Bowl XL: The Greatest Nine Weeks Ever (Part I)

The first half of the 2005 Pittsburgh Steelers regular season was going along much like the previous one, when Pittsburgh finished 15-1 with rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger before losing to the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game.

Even though Roethlisberger was out a few weeks after having minor knee surgery, Charlie Batch filled in just fine in beating a pretty mediocre Green Bay team on the road and the miserable Browns at Heinz Field on Sunday Night Football. Pittsburgh was 7-2, and the playoffs seemed like a sure bet.

However, things began to take a turn for the worse in Week 11 when Batch was unable to go and Tommy Maddox had to take the helm at quarterback against the very ordinary Ravens. I don’t know if any of you remember, but ’05 wasn’t the greatest year for Tommy Gun. Earlier in the season, he had to fill in for Roethlisberger against the Jaguars and proceeded to throw three interceptions, including the back-breaker in overtime as the Steelers lost and Maddox may or may not have had garbage thrown on his lawn.

Maddox didn’t fare much better against the Ravens, and Pittsburgh lost, 16-13, in overtime with some help from a fluky interception off of Hines Ward‘s cleats near mid-field. The following week, the Steelers traveled to Indianapolis to play the then undefeated Colts on Monday Night Football. Roethlisberger was just coming back from his surgery, but neither he nor the Steelers defense had an answer for Indianapolis as Peyton Manning and the boys had their way with our Black and Gold.

The Steelers were 7-4 and one game behind Cincinnati in the AFC North, heading into their Week 13 match up at Heinz Field. Pittsburgh whipped up on the Bengals earlier in the season at Cincinnati, and I figured the team would do the same thing at Heinz field and tie the Bengals for the lead in the division which essentially would put the Steelers one game ahead because of the head-to-head tiebreaker they would hold. Didn’t happen.

It was a pretty good game, but the Bengals eventually won by a touchdown and held a two-game lead with just four to go, all-but clinching the AFC North. At 7-5, not only did Pittsburgh’s chances at the division look pretty weak, but because of a very poor record in the AFC, its chances at a wildcard looked bleak at best.

  • Things weren’t looking good at all for Steeler Nation.

’05 Steelers Rally to the Playoffs Begins!

Then………the fun began!

There was no doubt the Steelers had to win their last four games to even have a chance to make the playoffs, but they were in a dog-fight for the last two spots with the Jaguars, Titans, Chiefs and Chargers. The only tiebreaker advantage Pittsburgh held was over the Chargers because of a last-second victory earlier in the year.

The rest of the teams had the Steelers dead-to-rights, and the Chargers were still one-game up on Pittsburgh, tiebreaker or not. I’m always pretty optimistic about my Steelers, but even I had very big doubts about them getting into the postseason.

The Tuesday night after the Bengals loss, my aunt asked me if I wanted to join her at the Firehouse Lounge in Pittsburgh’s Strip District for the weekly taping of the Joey Porter Show. I turned her down. I wasn’t in the mood for any Steelers celebrating. As far as I was concerned, they were pretty much dead in the water in terms of any postseason hopes.

Onto the game against the Bears. The Steelers played their best game in weeks as they manhandled the supposed toughest team in the NFC. The game was most notable for a play in which the Bus, Jerome Bettis, ran over Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher during a short-yardage touchdown run in the snow at Heinz Field.

It was fun to see the Steelers win, but their playoff hopes were still pretty sad.

Later that evening, I was shocked to hear that San Diego lost at home to the Dolphins. “Wow, a piece of the puzzle,” I thought as I watched the Chiefs go up against Dallas later that afternoon. I haven’t been a Cowboys fan in years, but you better believe I was that day. Trailing, the Cowboys had the ball first and goal late in the game. Dallas’ offense didn’t get anywhere on the first three downs, and after a fourth down pass fell incomplete in the end zone, I thought, “Oh well, at least the Chargers lost and the Steelers gained a little bit of ground in the playoff picture.”

  • Wait a second!

There was a flag for defensive holding against Kansas City, and the Cowboys had new life. Dallas eventually scored and went on to win. Not only did the Steelers win and break their three game losing streak, but the Chargers and Chiefs both lost and suddenly, within a span of six hours, Pittsburgh’s playoff hopes went from last rights to new life.

A couple of days later, I did join my aunt at the Lounge for another taping of the Porter’s show, which was hosted by Peezee himself, with former Steeler Chris Hope and Jon Burton of Channel 4 Action Sports acting as co-hosts. The show was taped on Tuesdays and aired on Friday or Saturday nights on WBGN.

It was like a poor man’s Jerome Bettis Show with sub-par production values, but being at a taping was always a ton of fun. The place wasn’t too crowded my first night there. I was able to sit right behind the cameras beside my aunt and her friend. Joey always had at least one special guest Steeler each show and Antwaan Randle El was the guest that night. Afterwards, the fans all gathered around the guys for autographs and pictures.

In-fact, my aunt’s main purpose for attending these shows was so she could get as many autographs as she could on a Steelers shirt that she would eventually give my uncle. I’ve never been an autograph seeker, but it’s like a knee-jerk reaction when you’re around a celebrity of any kind.

For some reason, you feel compelled to ask them to sign something. Randle El disappointed most of the crowd by skirting out of there pretty fast after the show ended, but Porter and Hope stuck around to sign stuff and have their pictures taken. When Hope finally came my way, I said, “Hey man, could you sign my hat?” as I shoved it in his face. And he said, “where?” My hat was this Steelers tossel cap, with very little room for writing, except on the logo, so that’s what he signed.

  • It was a pretty cool night.

The Steelers were in even better shape the following week after they dominated the Vikings and Kansas City lost again, this time to the Giants. The Chargers won, becoming the first team to defeat the Colts, but as I said, the Steelers owned the tiebreaker over San Diego.

I went to another taping of the Joey Porter Show that following Tuesday, and the crowd was still pretty small despite the Steelers’ playoff chances looking a lot better. The thing I remember most about that night was Porter, the crazy but lovable linebacker, recounting an argument he had with someone from the Vikings and describing it with the help of the f-word before catching himself and apologizing to the audience. Joey’s guest that night was fellow Steelers linebacker Larry Foote.

Things Begin to Fall into Place for the ’05 Steelers

Heading into Week 16, Pittsburgh was now one-game up on the Chiefs, who were playing San Diego at home. The Steelers were in Cleveland on Christmas Eve to play the Browns. While Kansas City knocked off the Chargers, 20-7, Pittsburgh pounded the Browns, 41-0. I didn’t get to see the game because I was working, but I did have it taped for me, and I’ve probably watched that beat-down a dozen times.

Speaking of beat-downs, the Cleveland game is probably most noteworthy for being the contest in-which a Browns’ fan ran on the field and was snatched and flung to the ground by future Defensive Player of the Year, James Harrison.

  • With one week left in the season, the Steelers were 10-5, and a game-up on both Kansas City and San Diego.

The Jaguars were basically in with the fifth seed, and the Chargers were eliminated, thanks to the loss in Kansas City, and now it was down to the Chiefs and Steelers for the last seed in the AFC. On a side note, I didn’t go to the Joey Porter show that week. I don’t remember why, but it was the only one I missed after the Steelers started their historic run.

Despite Pittsburgh having a one-game lead over the Chiefs, if the two teams finished the regular season tied at 10-6, Kansas City would get into the playoffs, based on a better conference mark. That Saturday night, the Chargers played Denver in a meaningless game for the Broncos who already had the AFC Western Division clinched as well as the second seed in the playoffs.

If San Diego would have somehow won that game, Pittsburgh would have clinched that last playoff spot before Sunday’s games were even played based on some weird three-way tiebreaker, involving the Chiefs. It didn’t happen, though. The Chargers lost, and after celebrating New Year’s Eve, I sat down with my uncle to sweat out Pittsburgh’s season-finale against the Lions at Heinz Field. The Chiefs played the Bengals in a meaningless game for Cincy, and Kansas City won, 37-3.

’05 Steelers Seal the Deal – Road to Super Bowl XL Opens!

The 5-10 Lions didn’t go quietly, as Pittsburgh only led, 21-14, at halftime. During the break, my uncle was watching Tommy Boy, and I, being a nervous wreck about the game, was off to the side doing karate moves and wound up catching my foot on the back of his chair and fell on my butt. The thing I remember most is looking up and seeing my uncle and little cousin laughing hysterically. You talk about bringing Chris Farley back from the dead.

Anyway, that game turned out to be the last regular season and home game for the Bus, and he finished it off in style by scoring three touchdowns in a 35-21 Steelers victory.

  • Pittsburgh was in the playoffs with the sixth seed in the AFC, and I was relieved.

This concludes part one of my story. Join me next time for part two.

Thanks for visiting. Click here to check out the rest of Steel Curtain Rising. Or… Follow @SteelCurtainRis

Please lend a hand by sharing this on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp etc... Thanks.

Versus Bengals, Steelers Buck 4th Quarter Meltdown Trend to Reach .500

It was now or never time for the 2012 Pittsburgh Steelers.

The Pittsburgh Steelers arrived Paul Brown Stadium Sunday night as a once proud team licking its wounds, clinging to the hope promised in 2 wins and dreading the dark omens raised in three straight road games lost in the 4th quarter.

Certified NFL bottom feeders, led by quarterbacks whose best days were behind them, had dealt the Steelers two of those losses, ensuring that the sting sunk a little deeper.

  • At lot was at stake. This wasn’t just a road game, it wasn’t just another AFC game, it was an AFC North game. 

When a 2-3 team finishes the game six, some mathematical realities begin to set in.

  • Finish 3-3 and you’re one game away from officially righting the ship. 
  • 2-4 brings a profoundly altered reality. 

You’ve dug a three week hole between your team and the sunny side of .500. And even if you get yourself out, you’ve likely seeded the ability to control your own destiny.

The Steelers took to the field in Cincinnati with a choice between two decidedly different fates. Which one would they choose?

Comedy of Errors That Failed to Be Funny….

In the lead up to the Bengals game, Steel Curtain Rising joked about the fact that a good portion of the team’s injury situation had been created by Steelers tripping over each other (not to single out Marcus Gilbert.)

  • Unfortunately, the Steelers took the tripping theme to heart, but not in terms in injuries, but in terms of broken plays. 

The Steelers sin for the first 28 minutes of the first half wasn’t to put on a poor performance, it was to put on a mediocre one.

  • The defense allowed the Bengals to run with ease
  • Mike Wallace committed a number of drive-stalling drops
  • Baron Batch dropped a sure-fire touchdown on an otherwise excellently executed reverse flee-flicker
  • Ben Roethlisberger threw a pick in the end zone

At the two minute warning the Steelers were lucky to be behind by only eight, and the only real question was, “Would the defense cave again, or would it make a stop?”

 “Sometimes the Ball Just Bounces Your Way.” 

That oft cited cliché is true enough because randomness does play a factor in sports, just as in life.

  • But the simple fact remains that luck means very little if you fail to take advantage.

There’s little question that the ball slipped out of Andy Dalton’s hands but LaMarr Woodley was focused enough to capitalize on that error.

Six plays later and Ben Roethlisberger connected with Heath Miller in the end zone. Mike Tomlin doubled down on the two point conversion, and his team delivered.

  • In the space of just 1:23 the Steelers had gone from under achieving basket case road team tying the game going into the half.

That was all well and good, but the Steelers had been far from kind to themselves during second halves on the road. Could they shake the curse….?

A New 4th Quarter Script

The record will reflect that the Steelers entered the 4th Quarter with the game tied. Chris Rainey changed that with his brilliant 11 yard run courtesy of the road-grading offensive line.

  • That put the Steelers up by 7 with all but :44 seconds elapsed in the final period. 

In other words, the Bengals had Pittsburgh just where they wanted them. This was, after all, exactly when things fell apart vs. Denver, Oakland, and Tennessee.

  • The Steelers, however did something different.

First, Jonathan Dwyer channeled his inner Jerome Bettis, running for 55 yards in the 4th quarter alone, and ripping off runs of 15, 14, and 32 yards in the process

Second, the Steelers actually played defense in the 4th quarter. No heroics, no splash plays, no Polamaluesque game-changing fumbles or interceptions. The Steelers simply played defense, forcing the Bengals to punt on each of their 3 fourth quarter possessions.

The Steelers defense kept the Bengals from making long gains on first and second, and then got off the field on third down. And they did it on three consecutive 4th quarter possessions.

Encouraging to say the least.

Proper Perspective

The win over the Bengals puts the Steelers at 3-3. It ended a string of fourth quarter melt downs, ended a series of losses to AFC teams, and got the Steelers their first AFC North win.

All pluses.

  • But please, no one mistake this for the apocryphal “statement game.” 

By definition, no team makes a statement by merely .500. But the Steelers needed a win, and they got one, and that’s a start.

Thanks for visiting. Click here to check out the rest of Steel Curtain Rising. Or… Follow @SteelCurtainRis

Please lend a hand by sharing this on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp etc... Thanks.