Steelers to Put Mendenhall on Injured Reserve, Anthony Madison Returns

Today’s news confirmed the worst for the Pittsburgh Steelers and Rashard Mendenhall, as Ed Bouchette reports on PG Plus, as are numerous other sources reporting, the Mendenhall did in fact tear his ACL.

That leaves the team with 3 running backs heading into the playoffs, in the form of Isaac Redman, John Clay, and Mewelde Moore.

Mendenhall is not the only injury the Steelers suffered in defeating the Browns. They lost cornerbacks Keenan Lewis to a hamstring injury and Cortez Allen to a separated shoulder injury. While neither injury is expected to be season-ending, their availability for the playoff game in Denver has to be in doubt.

Factor in the fact that Ryan Clark will likely be unavailable to play, and the Steelers are mighty thin at defensive back for their first road playoff game since visiting Denver for the 2005 AFC Championship.

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Steelers Free Agent Focus: Unrestricted Free Agents, Part II

Lock out or no, free agency will come to the Steelers at some point. Part I covered the first group of Steelers 2011 Unrestricted Free Agents, and today we look at the rest:

William Gay

– Joined the Steelers as a fifth round pick in 2007 and saw action in all 16 games as a rookie. For his sophomore encore, Gay started 4 games and then split time with Bryant McFadden. He moved into the starting role in 2009, and struggled mightily, but bounced back in 2010, perhaps making the play of the game in the AFC Championship against the Jets.

Cutting to the Chase on William Gay: Playing as a third corner, William Gay recorded two sacks and defensed more passes in 2010 than 2009. Budding into a number 3 corner is plenty of an accomplishment for a 5th round pick.

  • NFL teams need a good 3rd corners and William Gay should be that man for the Steelers.

Keyaron Fox – Joined the Steelers in 2008 as an unrestricted free agent, and led the team in special teams tackles. In 2009, he started three games for Lawrence Timmons and spelled him for long stretches at other points, playing quite well. Fox saw far less playing time in 2010, largely due to the return of Larry Foote

Cutting to the Chase on Keyron Fox: In 2009 Fox looked to be growing into a strong number 3 inside linebacker. After Super Bowl XLV, Fox’s idiotic penalty, as the special teams captain, makes him emblematic of a look emblematic of a special teams unit that, while it improved, could not transform itself into a bankable asset.

  • Word is that Fox will not be back. Perhaps not an altogether wise decision, but certainly an understandable one.

Anthony Madison – Joined the Steelers as an undrafted rookie free agent in 2006 and worked himself into a special teams demand. After signing him to a 7 figure deal in 2009, the Steelers cut him and, as John Harris predicted, rued the day. They got him back and in 2010 Madison did double duty as a dime back.

Cutting to the Chase on Anthony Madison: As a corner Madison will never strike fear into the hearts of opposing quatertbacks. Nonetheless, his one sack and interception show that he is more than just a body out there, and he continues to excel on special teams. Versatility is a virtue.

  • The Steelers tried life without Anthony Madison once and lived to regret it. Hopefully they learned their lesson.

Trai Essex – Joined the Steelers as a third round pick in 2005, and has played in all four exterior line positions, and did some double duty in 2010 at tight end. Nonetheless, Essex has never managed to nail down a starting job.

Cutting to the Chase on Trai Essex: You expect a third round pick to develop into a starter, and in that sense Essex is a failure. But such a measure proves to be too narrow to fairly evaluate Essex. Essex is a good number 6 lineman, and we repeat, versatility is a virtue.

  • Essex will not get offered a ton of money, and the Steelers will probably get him back.

Mewelde Moore – With little fanfare the Steelers signed Moore as an unrestricted free agent from Minnesota in 2008. After being the unsung hero of the Steelers Super Bowl run in 2008, Moore saw a drop off in his play in 2009. His numbers continued to drop in 2010

Cutting to the Chase on Mewelde Moore: The drop off in Moore’s rushing and passing numbers is a little deceptive. Some of it had to do with Isaac Redman’s emergence, and Moore did make some key third down conversions.

  • Moore is not going to command a fortune, regardless of what happens with the CBA, and he could be a very cost-effective investment for the Steelers.

Willie Colon – Joined the team as a sixth round pick in 2006 and even prior to Bill Cowher’s departure the coaches wanted to work him into the starting line up. He beat out Max Starks for the starting job in 2007 and held that job down through 2009. Disaster struck in the 2010 off season, forcing Colon sit out the year with a Achilles tendon injury.

Cutting to the Chase on Willie Colon: Maurkice Pouncey would have unseated Colon as the Steelers best offensive lineman had Colon played. Despite repeated denials from the coaches, rumors continue to circulate that Colon’s natural position is guard. The Steelers would like to keep Colon, but his agent doubts that is possible.

That wraps up Steel Curtain Risings’ Steelers Free Agent Focus on unrestricted free agents. Check back for a quick look at the Steelers restricted free agents. Coming to a lockout near you.

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Steelers Report Card vs. Browns at Cleveland

This weeks scholastic analogy for the Report Card of the Steelers win against the Browns in Cleveland is that of a student who heads off into exam week by knocking his end of the semester paper out of the park.

As usual, we offer the caveat that no other report cards were consulted prior to this posting. Here goes.

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger threw three touchdown passes and no interceptions. He was not sacked, nor did he fumble in route to completing nearly 70% of his passes. In his first action of the year, Byron Leftwich went 5-7 and Antwan Randle El was 1-1 for 3 with a TD. It does not get better than that. Grade: A+

Running Back
On the plus side Rashard Mendenhall ran for two touchdowns in the Red Zone and finished one short of Franco Harris’s record. Issac Redman only had three carries, but made those count for 12 yards. And Jonathan Dwyer looked OK in his first NFL action. AND, Mendenhall and Redman teamed up for 2 catches and 31 yards in passing game.

However, against the same defense Ray Rice ran for 92 yards and averaged a full yard per carry more than Mendenhall. Scoring in the Red Zone is important, but the Steelers will have to run better in the playoffs. Grade: B-

Wide Receivers
Mike Wallace
is beginning to redefine the concept of a player who can do damage with just a couple of touches. Hines Ward had five grabs, including a couple of tough ones. Heath Miller and Antonio Brown caught four balls with the later scoring a touchdown. Randle El brought down two, and Emmanuel Sanders had a nice 17 yard grab. Grade: A+

Offensive Line
Can it be that cohesion is starting to set in on the line? The line gave up no sacks of Ben, and gave the quarterbacks time to throw. And they played a big role in punching in close. Still, some a little more daylight for the running game was all that was missing. Grade: B

Defensive Line
The coaches’ patience in Ziggy Hood is beginning to play off as he is starting to make a name for himself. Brett Keisel registered a sack and a forced fumble. Casey Hampton stuffed the middle as the Browns ran for 43 total yards, well below the Steelers already awesome season-long average. Grade: A

Linebackers
Lawrence Timmons
and James Harrison led the team in tackles, and every member of the unit distinguished himself. In fact, back up Larry Foote lead the unit in splash or quasi splash plays. What else is there to say? Grade: A

Secondary

Anyone fail to understand why Troy Polamalu is the Pittsburgh Steelers 2010 MVP? Polamalu, as usual, tried to deflect credit for this award, and his teammates backed him up, as Ryan Clark and Anthony Madison also came up with interceptions, who also defended another sack and defensed a pass. The secondary saw to it that the Browns never got a shot at making this a game. Grade: A+

Special Teams
Shaun Suisham was under orders to keep it away from Cribbs, and Suisham delivered. His kicks were not long, but that matters little when Cleveland averages 9.1 yards per return. Justin Kapios only punted twice, but made both of them count, albeit with a long loss. The special teams also stuffed a two point conversion attempt. Suisham not only made another kick, but made it from 41 yards out. Grade: A

Coaching
Mike Tomlin
and staff had to do a number of things. Decide whether to play Polamalu or not. Keep his team focused. Disarm the Browns most dangerous man. Tomlin and his team did all three of them allowing the Steelers to do just what they were supposed to do: Clinch the second seed while steamrolling an inferior opponent.

Unsung Hero
Larry Foote
earns this honor this week. Foote’s name has seldom been called since his return last off season. However, in less than a half, Foote had half a sack, defended a pass in the end zone, registered a tackle for a loss, and hit Colt McCoy on another play. All season long “starters in waiting” have stepped into the line up, and not simply done their jobs, but done theme well. Larry Foote’s play Sunday epitomized that spirit.

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Steelers Crush Browns 41-9, Clinch AFC North

One year ago the Pittsburgh Steelers eliminated themselves from the playoffs with a horrendous performance in Cleveland Stadium.

During the final week of the NFL’s 2010 season, the Steelers sealed a first round bye by returning to that venue and vanquishing their erstwhile division rival.

To say, “what a difference a year makes” is an understatement because this game not only provided a nutshell sketch of all that went right for the Steelers in 2010, it also hinted at what else could be possible.

Polamalu Is Polamalu

Troy Polamalu spent his press conference following his teamates’ decision to name him the Steelers MVP attempting to convince the public that he really did not deserve to win the award.

Then he went out during his second play after two weeks on the injured list and proved himself wrong.

So many things that went wrong for the Steelers in 2009 went right for them in 2010 because of Number 43. Troy Polamalu is a very special player and may God keep him healthy.

The Dynamic Duo

Taking their cue from Polamalu, Ben Roethlisberger and Mike Wallace took one play to do what they’re starting to do best – go deep.

Roethlisberger’s 56 yard touchdown hook up to Mike Wallace was the duo’s 8th breaking the team record of 40 yard plus passing combos.

More importantly, it put the Steelers on the board with 7 points, immediately converting a turnover, and had the effect of laying down the law early, nipping any would be Browns spoiler plot in the bud.

Putting Their Best Foote Forward

The Steelers have overcome a slew of injuries this year because their starters in waiting, as Mike Tomlin calls them, stepped up.

Fortunately, the Steelers suffered no significant injuries in this game (save perhaps from Bryant McFadden), but Mike Tomlin went to his backups early.

In just over one half, Larry Foote came off the bench to record four tackles, half of a sack, another quarterback hit, a pass defensed, and a tackle for a loss.

He’s not the only back up to distinguish himself:

  • Doug Legursky spelled Maurkice Pouncey and filled in ably as a blocking full back.
  • Anthony Madison, who was “only” supposed to be a special teams start, recorded a sack and brought down an interception.
  • Keenan Lewis at least compiled some nice stats and avoided mistakes.

Ziggy Hood also had his best game of the year. And so on, and so on, and so on….

Taking Care of Business

Fret about the Steelers 2-4 record against fellow playoff teams this year later.

The 2009 Steelers actually had a pretty decent record against winning teams. They just happened to fall flat when facing off against league bottom feeders.

This group of Pittsburgh Steelers has taken care of business when it has needed to.

Shades of Things to Come…?

When making his Super Bowl pick, the legendary John Madden used to anoint the team that was peaking at season’s end.

Right now the New England Patriots are redefining the concept of “peaking,” but so are the Steelers. There are many indicators to prove this, but only one will suffice.

All season long, no matter who the opponent has been, the Steelers have struggled inside the Red Zone.

Instead of struggling, the Steelers surged inside the Red Zone against the Browns, punching it in from the one twice, and adding on tosses from the 3 and 4 four good measure.

The Cleveland Browns may not have put up much of a fight, but the fact remains that the Pittsburgh Steelers closed their 2010 regular season by clinching the AFC North while playing their most complete game of the year.

No one can ask for a better way to ring in 2011.

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Watch Tower: Bryant McFadden to Be Benched?

Could Bryant McFadden be about to end his second run as a Steelers starting cornerback?

The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review’s John Harris seems to indicate that the answer is ‘yes.’

Life has been difficult for McFadden of late. Brought back on a draft day trade to shore up the Steelers secondary, he warded off a training camp challenge from 2009 third round pick Keenan Lewis.

But Terrell Owens had his way with McFadden in last week’s game against the Bengals. And according to statistics that Harris cites, Carlson Palmer targeted Owens 14 times, and 10 of those balls found their mark, including two that went for touchdowns.

Drew Brees enjoyed similar success against McFadden, although McFadden did have a sack strip in that game.

Perhaps the most interesting part of Harris’ column is the following:

…McFadden’s value is falling like Blockbuster stock.

There are indications, if you know where to look, that McFadden’s status as the starting left corner is becoming more precarious each day. Local journalists aren’t permitted to report what occurs at practice, but there were signs last week that a shakeup in the secondary could be forthcoming.

What can we take from this?

It is hard to be completely sure. Harris certainly wants to convey to his readers that he’s seen evidence, based on who is getting snaps with which unit, that the Steelers are grooming a replacement for McFadden.

This certainly might be the case.

Or it might not.

Credibility Gap

The Steelers have been vocal about journalists leaking confidential information from daily practices, and while Harris avoided revealing specifics, his implication was clear. Would he risk getting his press credentials revoked?

Second, there is Harris’ history. John Harris has made some astute observations in the past, rightly sounding the alarm when the Steelers released special teams ace Anthony Madison prior to the 2009 season.

However, Harris has show a penchant for stoking flames for the sake of stoking flames. Last season he incurred the wrath of the Watch Tower twice for asserting that “Tomlin had quit” on his team, and then offering no journalistic evidence (quotes, off the record comments) whatsoever to bloster such a bold claim.

Harris is right about one thing. The Steelers did not bring back Bryant McFadden to bench him, so it will be interesting to see how this story plays out on the field.

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Anthony Madison Returns; John Harris Gets to Say “I Told You So…”

The Steelers resigned cornerback Anthony Madison yesterday, as they continued to bolster their special teams. To make room for Madison, the Steelers released cornerback Corey Ivy, whom they had only signed last week.

Madison, with the Steelers from 2006 to 2008, was released during the final roster cut down in a surprise move. This came a few short months after the Steelers had resigned Madison to a contract valued at one million dollars.

At the time, it was believed that Madison’s high cap value, and not his ability, was the prime determining factor in his release.

The Steelers special teams did improve the other night in Baltimore – they did not allow a kickoff return for a touchdown, but their punt return coverage units faltered.

Kudos to John Harris

John Harris of the Tribune Review lays a claim to some “bragging rights.”

99% of Steelers Nation’s attention on cut down day was focused on the fate of Isaac Redman. But John Harris apparently is smarter than the average bear.

Harris took Mike Tomlin to task for releasing Anthony Madison simply because of his salary. At the time Harris described Madison as “the heart and soul of the Steelers special teams.”

He went further, criticizing Tomlin for letting Carey Davis and Donovan Woods go in favor younger players such as Joe Burnett and Frank “The Tank” Summers.

Although I don’t think you’ll find anything about that on Steel Curtain Rising, but at the time the thought here was, “Tomlin knows how bad special teams were in 2007, and he knows how much better they were in 2008. He’s not going to make personnel decisions that undercut special teams….”

The Steelers actions speak for themselves. They almost immediately showed signs of buyers remorse in putting Frank Summers on IR and resigning Davis. They brought Donovan Woods back, albeit briefly, and now Anthony Madison has returned.

John Harris apparently knew something the rest of us, including the Steelers coaches, didn’t.

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Steelers Resign Anthony Madison – Last Free Agent Signing?

Last week the Steelers signed another free agent when Anthony Madison accepted the team’s one year-tender. This was their ninth free agent signing, and as with the previous eight, Madison was already a Pittsburgh Steeler.

Madison is a reserve cornerback who plays mainly on special teams. He joined the team as an unrestricted rookie free agent in 2006, made the practice squad that year, and has been with the team since, with the exception of a brief stint with Tampa Bay in 2007.

Madison has steadily improved, and peeking with 25 special teams tackles last year.

Is 2009’s Free Agency Season Already Over for Pittsburgh?

With Anthony Madison taken care of, and Marvel Smith off to San Francisco, the Steelers have no remaining restrict or unrestricted free agents to resign.

  • So does this mean the Steelers are done with free agency?

There are conflicting reports.

Art Rooney II spoke to the Post Gazette’s Ed Bouchette last week. Ronney II talked up the team’s “take care of your own” approach, but he also left the door open to signing someone from another team, telling Bouchette:

“We don’t look at that [signing other team’s free agents] as the barometer of whether we’re having a good off season or not,” but he went on to say “ ‘I would imagine we will’ eventually sign at least one.”

A few days later Kevin Colbert spoke with Bouchette, and the tone was different. While Colbert did not explicitly rule out plucking someone else from the free agent pool, that was the distinct impression that Bouchette conveyed to his readers:

And it appears they might not sign any more. They have no scheduled visits by free agents and they see nothing on the horizon.

Don’t Look for Terry Holt or Marvin Harrison to Sign with Steelers

Kevin Colbert acknowledged that the Steelers are thin at with receiver with the departure of Nate Washington. To bolster their receiving corps, they attempted but failed to resign Joey Galloway.

But Kevin Colbert has made it clear that the Steelers are banking on improving from within, as his comments to Bouchette indicate:

We lost our third guy and some of the young guys have to step up. We’ll keep watching and seeing [in free agency], but at this point we’re not optimistic that there will be anybody else that we’re interested in. The people we have have to step up.

So don’t expect to see either Marvin Harrison or Terry Holt darken the doorways of the Steelers South Side complex.

Extending Deals of Harrison and Max Starks Steelers Priorities

Steel Curtain Rising tends to agree with the analysis from Art II. The Steelers are going to need to fill holes at some point, and they’ll bring someone in, even if he is just a special teams player. Most likely, this move will come after the draft.

But significant signings like that of Justin Hartwig or Mewelde Moore of a year ago are unlikely, and not simply because there are not too many of those players available.

The Steelers to priorities remain to extend the deals of Max Starks and James Harrison. Both players are under contract for next year, but have no deal in place beyond that. And both deals are complicated by complexities of the NFL’s salary cap.

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Troy Polamalu Interception vs Ravens Sparks Steelers to AFC Championship

The Pittsburgh Steelers and the Baltimore Ravens fought it out on the turf at Heinz Field  while officially the stakes were “only”the AFC Championship and the right to go to Super Bowl XLIII the two teams played as if they were fighting for the right to claim the legacy of the Ray Nitschke, Dick Butkis, George Halas and Vince Lombardi.

  • The first two games between these two AFC North Rivals both went to the wire for good reason: These two teams are about as evenly matched as is possible.

Both are led by dominating, punishing defenses and bright young coaches. On offense what the Raven’s lack in experience under center in comparison to the Steelers, they make up for in a stronger offensive line and a more productive running game.

Games where the stakes are so high and the teams so close come down to a variety of factors. Coaching, seizing opportunities, will to win, and great players making plays.

Each element impacted the game, but in the end only one proved to be decisive.

Troy Polamalu, Steelers vs. Ravens, Steelers Ravens AFC Championship, Troy Polamalu Interception AFC Championship

Troy Polamalu’s sealed the AFC Championship for the ’08 Steelers over the Ravens. Photo Credit: Matt Freed, Post-Gazette

It’s [Not] The Coaching Stupid

John Harbaugh is nothing if not audacious. When his team got the ball the Ravens came out throwing, which was quite bold considering the quality of Pittsburgh’s defense.

This move cost him 3 points early on, and it took time for Baltimore to gain their footing. If you fault the man for his wisdom, you’ve got to admire his attitude. He and his staff were also quite astute in challenging Santonio Holmes‘ first long catch, as almost no one in the stadium saw that Holmes had lost possession.

Mike Tomlin had a solid game plan, and the Steelers defense got the better of the Ravens during the early going. Yet, for all of the third down conversions, there was a palpable disruption to the Steelers offense as soon as Hines Ward was lost.

You don’t miss what you’ve got until it’s gone, but the Steelers should have been better prepared for this kind of contingency. Bruce Arians, who has drawn more than his share of fire from Steel Curtain Rising, called a pretty good game, and stuck to his plan to run the ball, even when it wasn’t working as well as anyone would have liked.

Nonetheless, his decision to throw out of an empty set on third and 1 while protecting a lead was foolish. The fact that Hines Ward was to be the primary receiver in the original play makes the call more mystifying.

  • The uncertain will absolutely arise against Arizona in the Super Bowl, and the coaching staff must adjust better.

Credit both coaches for this game, but in the end, coaching did not make the difference.

Opportunity Knocks – Will Steelers or Ravens Answer?

The Steelers have lived on edge all season, and watching this game made one think that they like it that way.

Limas Sweed certainly does, dropping a sure touchdown pass, and then allowing embarrassment to lead led him to feign injury, costing the team a precious time out and ultimately a field goal too.

Chris Kemoeatu and Ike Taylor also appear to be fond of sailing close to the wind, as had penalties called on them that greatly contributed to Baltimore’s second TD. (I won’t single out Bryant McFadden, as his pass interference penalty was borderline at best.)

Yet if you credit the Ravens for scooping up of these hand-wrapped gifts, you must fault them for discipline at a critical juncture. The personal foul on Anthony Madison after the Ravens had returned a punt to the 40 set Baltimore back at a moment where momentum was clearly on their side.

Mistakes aside, Pittsburgh also made its opportunities, in the form of numerous scrambles by Ben Roethlisberger and his ad-lib touchdown pass to Santonio Holmes.

As important as these events were, opportunism would not rule the day.

Toughness Just the Price of Admission in Steelers vs. Ravens

The Steelers and the Ravens do not like each other. Both teams wanted a shot at the Super Bowl 43. Only one ticket to Tampa was to be had.

The result was a game played with an intensity seldom matched in today’s NFL. While momentum may have shifted back and forth, neither team showed any sign of backing down. The hits got harder as the final gun approached. Each side upped the ante when it came time to show who wanted it more.

The will to win has always been the requisite for admission when the Steelers and Ravens have played this year, but never a differentiating factor.

Troy Polamalu’s Vindicates Lynn Swann in AFC Championship

In his commentary for the video The Steelers of the 70’s in Their Own WordsLynn Swann said it best:

“Chicago has one Michael Jordan, who with the game on the line takes the ball in his hands, shoots and scores. Well, we had four or five guys who felt that they could do that on every single play.”

Steel Curtain Rising is not ready to elevate these Steelers to the status shared by their 70’s counterparts, not yet at least, but this team has some players who flat out make things happen.

Ben Roethlisberger has done it time and time again this year, against Baltimore, Jacksonville, Dallas, and then Baltimore again.

  • Hines Ward and James Harrison have also come through in the clutch.

The Ravens, with Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, and perhaps some others, have their share too. But the Steelers simply have more, and that was the difference in the AFC Championship. And there is no better illustration of this than the decisive score.

After completing a masterful 20 yard completion that brought Baltimore to close to mid field, the Steelers held the Ravens to two yards on first.

LaMarr Woodley turned it up a notch and sacked Joe Flacco on second. That brought up third down and it was time for the Steelers stars to shine.

Flacco faded back to pass, but as he has done so often this year, James Harrison was there, arriving just in time to disrupt the rookie’s pass.

  • Troy Polamalu was in coverage. He read Flacco’s eyes, positioined himself, leapted, and came down with the ball.

Hollywood producers would not have scripted what followed next simply because no one would have believed it. From 40 yards out Polamalu tucked the ball under his arm, dodged and weaved, accelerated and reversed direction, zigged and zagged, lunged forward and then cut back, flying past defender after defender as he found the goal line.

In a single play the Troy Polamalu interception vs Ravens simultaneously exorcised Pittsburgh’s “Ghosts of AFC Championship games passed” and sealed Baltimore’s fate.

John Harbaugh and Joe Flacco have every reason to be proud, and just as Steelers Nation should know that this duo is going to a formidable force in the AFC North to say the least.

But for the moment, the Steelers, led by their playmakers, are the power in the AFC to be reckoned with.

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