Mike Tomlin Leads AFC to 24-23 Pro Bowl Win over NFC, Raises Steelers Pro Bowl Coaching Record to 8-1

Mike Tomlin once assured reporters, “As long as they keep score, I’m trying to win.” The Pro Bowl may have “evolved” to a point where it is only a step more intense than contact flag football, but Mike Tomlin and the Pittsburgh Steelers coaching staff can sleep soundly at night knowing they led the AFC to a 24-23 victory over NFC in the 2018 Pro Bowl.

And there were plenty of Black and Gold helmets in the huddle at Orlando’s Camping World Stadium, as Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell, Antonio Brown, Maurkice Pouncey, Alejandro Villanueva, Roosevelt Nix, Cam Heyward and Chris Boswell represented the Pittsburgh Steelers.

  • If, Roethlisberger to Brown in Pittsburgh proved to be one of the league’s most potent combinations, that magic didn’t translate to Orlando.
Ben Roethlisberger, Pro Bowl 2018

Ben Roethlisberger @ 2018 Pro Bowl. Photo Credit: Yahoo.com.ca

Ben Roethlisberger went 7 of 13 for 50 yards and one pick, while Antonio Brown had one catch for 3 yards. Le’Veon Bell only had two carries, or the same as Roosevelt Nix, and together the two men gained 7 yards. That’s not much of a surprise, given that contact with a defender more or less equates to forward progress dulling the impact of a running game.

  • That’s a far cry from the 1995 Pro Bowl were, under Bill Cowher’s direction, Marshall Faulk ran for 180 yards with Chris Warren adding 127.

So be it. This was the first time Steelers Nation got to see a Randy Fichtner coordinated offense in action. And in  the eyes of NFL.com’s Jeremy Bergman things did not go well:

It was especially sad to watch Randy Fichtner ring in his first game as Steelers offensive coordinator in the Pro Bowl, calling double reverses for Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown and simple routes for Ben Roethlisberger to underthrow.
It’s fair to wonder how much will change next season in the Steel City. Will Bell leave in free agency? Will Roethlisberger hint at retirement again? Will Fichtner force Big Ben to run a sneak? On Sunday, we got an answer to at least one of these quandaries. On third-and-1 from the NFC 39 with Roethlisberger under center, Fichtner called … a dive to Roosevelt Nix. Some things don’t change.

Time will tell whether this is a sign of things to come or whether Fichtner was just having fun.

While Cam Heyward was the lone Steelers defender on the AFC’s Pro Bowl squad (Ryan Shazier was voted in, but obviously could not play) he did come up with a big play:

With the 24 to 23 victory in hand, Mike Tomlin improves the overall record of Steelers coaches in the Pro Bowl to 8-1 and his “undefeated in the Pro Bowl streak” elevates him alongside Bill Cowher and Chuck Noll who were also undefeated in the Pro Bowl.

And by beating Sean Payton, the Steelers head coaches in the Pro Bowl now have another win over Super Bowl winning opponents, with Chuck Noll defeating Tom Landry and Mike Ditka and Bill Cowher defeating Barry Switzer.

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Why Todd Haley Had to Go from a Non-Haley Hater

Today Mike Tomlin and his staff will direct the AFC’s Pro Bowl squad and, for the first time since 2012, someone other than Todd Haley will serve as offensive coordinator.

  • For many if not most of Steeler Nation this moment couldn’t come soon enough.

This site’s readers know that Steel Curtain Rising isn’t a Haley Haters Haven and, moreover, has often defended the Steelers now former offensive coordinator, and this article neither offers retractions nor mea culpas.

But this is also one non-Haley hater who thinks that the Steelers braintrust were right to “go in another direction.” Let’s look at why.

Ben Roethlisberger, Todd Haley, Mike Tomlin

Ben Roethlisberger confers with Mike Tomlin & Todd Haley. Photo Credit: Jamie Sabau, Getty Images, via SI.com

Why Stick Up for a Shmuck Like Todd Haley in the First Place?

By all accounts, Todd Haley is abrasive. His flair ups with stars like Kurt Warner are on record. Some sort of off the field distraction seems to follow Haley wherever he goes. The pelvis fracturing incident over the holidays was the latest of many.

  • So why stick up for a guy who brings it on himself?

Because the title “offensive coordinator” is one of the most difficult in the NFL. Arguably, it’s harder to coach defense, but casual fans have a lot more transparency into offensive coaching.

  • Therefore, everyone thinks they can do better than their team’s offensive coordinator.

While this isn’t new, social media combined with advent of Madden and fantasy football allows every fan to become a Twitter offensive coordinator. So at some level, this site’s sympathy for Todd Haley has been rooted in the understanding that offensive coordinator have it tough, and that all but a sliver of fans who think they could do better, can’t.

  • Which isn’t to say that fan criticism of offensive coordinators is always wrong.

Take the dark days of Ray Sherman and ’98 Steelers. On third and long, in a corner of Baltimore’s legendary Purple Goose Saloon, we’d cry “Weak side pitch to Fred McAfee!” And sure enough, Kordell Stewart would lean left, flip the ball to McAfee who’d get clobbered just shy of the first down.

  • If a few 20 something Iron City swigging Steelers Nation expats in Maryland knew what Ray Sherman was going to call, then the opposing team did too.

Joe Walton’s reign as Steelers offensive coordinator was worse. Despite having Merrill Hoge, Tim Worley, Barry Foster and Louis Lipps at his disposal, Walton built finesse offense around his tight ends (OK, he did have Eric Green.)

  • This finesse offense so enraged Joe Greene that he publicly complained about the impact of Walton’s system on the team’s identity.

Did Todd Haley’s deficiencies ever sink to such lows? No, they did not.

What Haley Did Right — Keeping Roethlisberger Upright

During Bruce Arians’ final 3 seasons as Steelers offensive coordinator, defenders sacked Ben Roethlisberger 122 times, a period which includes his 2010 four game suspension.

  • For comparison’s sake, Ben Roethlisberger been sacked 58 timess in the last three seasons.

Certainly, poor offensive lines offensive lines played their role. (Although if Steel City Insider’s  Jim Wexell is right, Arians opposed beefing up the line.) But Ben Roethlisberger’s penchant for holding on to the ball too long was a bigger factor, and Arians refused to do anything about it.

  • Todd Haley’s first task was to deploy a system that let Ben be Ben without getting himself killed.

On this count, numbers don’t lie:

Ben Roethlisberger, Ben Roethlisberger passing stats, Ben Roethlisberger passing stats by offensive coordinator, Todd Haley, Bruce Arians, Ken Whisenhunt

Ben Roethlisberger’s passing stats, by coordinator

Interestingly enough, these stats they’re almost identical to the numbers run in the spring of 2016, so the trend has confirmed itself. Granted, having blue chip skill players like Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell, supported by the likes of JuJu Smith-Schuster and Martavis Bryant has helped.

But, like him or not, Ben Roethlisberger has played his best football under Todd Haley, and he’s taken a lot less punishment in the process.

It Comes Down to Roethlisberger and Results

So Todd Haley wasn’t the disaster at offensive coordinator that many fans portray him as. Nonetheless, there are 2 reasons that explain why the Steelers rightly let him go.

  • First, football is a results driven business.

Gene Collier of the Post-Gazette is largely right when he argues that good play calls are calls that work, bad play calls are ones that don’t. Imagine if David DeCastro had delivered a devastating block that sprung Le’Veon Bell loose on a 50 yard romp on the infamous 4th and 1 pitch, would you have complained about the call?

  • The 2 calls 4th down calls the ended as Ben Roethlisberger touchdown passes were far risker than the pitch, yet no one, save for El Dr. de Acero Gustavo Vallegos, complained about them.

Scoring 42 points in a playoff game is nice, but they weren’t what the Steelers needed. Pittsburgh needed to answer the Jaguar’s opening touchdown with a long drive of their own, instead of a 3 and out. Ditto the series following the blocked punt.

  • If EVER there was a situation where a big special teams play should have fueled a turn around, it was this series.
  • Instead, the Steelers suffered another 3 and out.
Ben Roethlisberger, Todd Haley

Haley & Roethlisberger rarely saw eye to eye. Photo Credit: Karl Walter, Getty Images via BTSC

Take note, one series involved the dreaded empty sets, the other attempted pure smash mouth football. Neither worked. Nor were these isolated incidents. Haley was brilliant at times as Steelers offensive coordinator. Yet at other times, it was almost impossible to escape the feeling that Haley was mailing it in – the 2014 loss to Tampa Bay is a good example.

  • The second reason revolves around Ben Roethlisberger himself.

The Roethlisberger-Haley relationship has been dissected since the day Haley arrived. And while both men have tried to keep everything private, stories of tension between the two never stopped.

For as well as Ben Roethlisberger played under Todd Haley, the two appeared to struggle to stay on the same page. And player and coaches staying on the same page is often what distinguishes success from failure in fire-drill type situations like the end of the Patriots game.

Finally there’s the issue keeping Ben happy. Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has reported that at least someone on the South Side feels that friction between Roethlisberger and Haley drove Ben to muse about retirement last year. That was then, this is now.

Steelers fans might want to accept it, but the Steelers Super Bowl window might already be shut thanks to Ryan Shazier’s injury. A Le’Veon Bell free agent departure would  tip the scales. Time will tell.

But had Ben Roethlisberger opted to start his “Life’s Work” after the Jacksonville loss, he would have slammed the Steelers Super Bowl window shut in a single swoop. And if sending Todd Haley packing for Cleveland was necessary to keep Ben Roethlisberger playing, then the move was a non-brainer.

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Steelers Pro Bowl Coaching Record (Because You Just HAD to Know….)

Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin will soon coach his first Pro Bowl and little does he know (or care) he’s got a tradition to up hold. While the Pittsburgh Steelers are known for their Super Bowls, having won 6 Super Bowls with 3 coaches, Steelers coaches have also led the AFC Pro Bowl squads to six wins.

  • Wow, you didn’t know that, did you?

No, you probably didn’t. Ah, but story gets better yet as the plot thickens. Pittsburgh Steelers coaches have won more Pro Bowls than Super Bowls and boast a 7-1 record in the Pro Bowl for a .875 winning percentage, or 10 points better than Steelers cumulative .750 Super Bowl winning percentage.

  • Chuck Noll and Bill Cowher coached 3 Pro Bowls a piece, and the AFC never suffered a loss under their guidance.

The lone Pro Bowl coaching black sheep for the Steelers is Buddy Parker, who coached the NFL Eastern division to a 26-7 loss in 1957 (actually, the 1957 Pro Bowl was played on January 12, 1958 in the Los Angeles Coliseum – keep that in mind if you ever reach Final Jeopardy and the category is “Pro Bowls” but by all means remember to phrase your response in the form of a question!)

"Mike

All of Chuck Noll and Bill Cowher’s Pro Bowl appearances came by virtue of their AFC title losses, because for much of the game’s history, the coaching staff of the losing team in the conference championship went to Hawaii.

  • Now of course the honor falls to the losing coaching staff from the divisional round that has the highest regular season record.

There’s not a whole lot to discuss in terms of past Pro Bowls, because, well no one really cares about them when they’re being played, much less after their over. I mean, Pro Football Reference lists the games results, the Pro Bowl Rosters, but doesn’t keep a record of the Box Scores. Wikipedia does have a page on each Pro Bowl game with a few notes, but again no box scores.

  • That puts the triviality of the Pro Bowl in perspective. You can find Louis Lipps passing stats on Pro Football Reference, but you can see how many Pro Bowl passes he caught.

So while we know O.J. Simpson was the MVP of the 1972 Pro Bowl, we have no (easy) way of knowing whether Chuck Noll favored Simpson over Franco Harris in terms of workload, or whether The Juice simply out performed Harris. Mel Blount however, won the 1976 Pro Bowl MVP award, for those taking notes.

  • However, we do know that Chuck Noll out witted Tom Landry, Chuck Knox and Mike Ditka in his 3 Pro Bowl appearances.
  • For his part, Bill Cowher vanquished Barry Switzer, Steve Mariucci, Andy Reid and Jim L. Mora in his Pro Bowl coaching appearances.

So, it looks Mike Tomlin arrives at his Pro Bowl coaching gig with a standard to uphold. At least he has Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell, David DeCastro, Maurkice Pouncey, Alejandro Villanueva and Cam Heyward to help him….

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Report Card For Steelers 28-24 Week 17 Victory Over Browns

Quarterback

Starting just the fifth game of his career–and doing so in 10-degree weather–backup Landry Jones had a rather nice game filling in for the inactive Ben Roethlisberger. On the day, Jones completed 23 of 27 passes for 239 yards, one touchdown, one interception and a fumble. It may have actually been a better day for Jones, had backup center B.J. Finney, starting in place of the inactive Maurkice Pouncey, not suffered a thigh injury in the first half. In his place, emergency center Chris Hubbard had a devil of a time getting accurate snaps back to Jones, which contributed heavily to limiting the offense’s–and Jones’–effectiveness in the second half. Grade: B-

Running backs

Despite being without the resting Le’Veon Bell, the Steelers running game was pretty effective, particularly recently-signed veteran Stevan Ridley, who got the start and tallied 80 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries. Fullback Roosevelt Nix was stuffed on a fourth and goal early in the game, but he more than made up for it with some effective blocks, which freed Ridley on several of his early runs. Grade: B

Wide Receivers

What more can you say about rookie receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster? The kid is simply magical and has emerged as a key cog in the Steelers passing-game. Without the injured Antonio Brown for the second-straight week, Smith-Schuster had a Brown-esque day, catching nine passes for 143 yards and a score. As for Martavis Bryant, while not as strong a day as Smith-Schuster, he still managed to be productive, catching six passes for 65 yards. Veteran Darrius Heyward-Bey opened the scoring by racing 29 yards for a touchdown on a reverse on the game’s first offensive series. Grade: A

Tight Ends

Jesse James and Vance McDonald were mostly quiet, tallying just three passes for 14 yards between them. But that may have been a product of compensating for an offensive line that was missing two starters in David DeCastro and Pouncey, along with the backup center in Finney, who missed the entire second half with a thigh injury. James and McDonald were effective in both protecting Jones on passing downs and in opening holes for a rushing attack that posted 124 yards on the day. Grade: C

Offensive Line

Missing its top two talents in Pouncey and DeCastro, the Steelers offensive line still managed to do a decent job in both protecting Jones and in opening holes for the running backs. Matt Feiler started the first game of his career at right guard and was highlighted on one or two occasions effectively pulling in a manner that probably made the Pro Bowler DeCastro proud. Unfortunately, starting left tackle Alejandro Villanueva was beaten badly for a sack that led to a Jones’ fumble, and then there were those snapping snafus by Hubbard, the emergency center. Hubbard rolled three snaps back to Jones and was errant on another that the backup quarterback had to chase down to prevent a turnover. Grade: C

Defensive Line

Starting in-place of Cameron Heyward, Tyson Alualu recorded two sacks, while Stephon Tuitt was his usual disruptive self, contributing 1.5 tackles for loss. The Browns running backs were only credited with 41 yards, but quarterback DeShone Kizer rushed for 61 yards, picking up several first downs on third and long. Grade: C+

Linebackers 

Rookie outside linebacker T.J. Watt recorded eight tackles (including two for losses), a sack, a pass defensed and two quarterback hits. Sean Spence tallied six tackles at inside linebacker, while Vince Williams and L.J. Fort combined for two of the team’s six sacks on the day. Bud Dupree had a quiet day at the left outside linebacker spot, while Anthony Chickillo was credited with just one tackle in spot duty. Grade: B

Secondary

The Steelers were gashed for two big plays in the second quarter, one from 54 yards out, and one from 56 yards away, that contributed to the Browns first two touchdowns. Playing with Joe Haden, the secondary used the same personnel it will in the postseason, yet Kizer managed to pass for 314 yards and may have led Cleveland to its first victory of the year, had receiver Corey Coleman been able to hold on to a fourth down pass that would have set the Browns up inside Pittsburgh’s 10-yard line with less than two minutes remaining. But the secondary was opportunistic late in the game, as veteran William Gay punched the ball from the grasps of running back Duke Johnson Jr. on a screen pass early in the fourth quarter that had gone for 30 yards on third and long. And later in the final period, safety Sean Davis came up with an interception of Kizer that snuffed out another drive in a close game that would come down to the final minutes. Grade: C

Special Teams 

With the Browns punting from their own end zone in the second quarter, reserve inside linebacker Tyler Matakevich came up with another timely special teams play, as he deflected a punt, causing it to settle at the Cleveland 28. Three plays later, the Steelers scored their second touchdown of the day to go up 14-0. Matavevich wasn’t the only special teams hero on the day. Right after the Browns tied the score at 21 early in the second half, Smith-Schuster returned the ensuing kickoff 96 yards for what turned out to be the game-winning score. Jordan Berry managed to down two his four punts inside the 20, while Chris Boswell converted on all four of his extra points. Grade: A

Coaching

On a day where head coach Mike Tomlin and his coordinators had to be conflicted on how to approach things, what with the Patriots needing only to defeat the Jets in-order to sew up the AFC’s top seed, it’s hard to complain about the overall performance. Yes, the defense looked exposed at  times, but  then again, it looked exposed at  times one year earlier, when Pittsburgh had to come from behind to defeat the Browns in the 2016 regular season-finale at Heinz Field. However, this didn’t continue on into the playoffs, as Pittsburgh’s defense was quite stout in recording two victories. Who knows how much of the normal game-plan was in play

Photo credit: Bostonherald.com

Sunday on both sides of the ball. And as Dupree said after the game, the defense was sort of freelancing in-order to break the team’s single-season record for sacks (it did with 56). Grade: B

Unsung hero

How about the thousands of fans who braved the 10-degree temperatures to come out and see a game that was essentially meaningless? Happy New Year!

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How Ryan Shazier Benefits from the Oft Maligned 2011 CBA

News that Ryan Shazier has begun physical rehabilitation at UPMC is welcome indeed, although the Steelers statement that UPMC will be providing further updates was a tad bit surprising. While all sorts of uncertainty clouds Ryan Shazier’s future there’s one thing that he his family can be sure of:

  • Ryan Shazier clearly benefits from the 2011 Collective Bargaining Agreement.

While you don’t generally tend to associate Collective Bargaining Agreement’s with football, they’ve become a fixture of the landscape, and few documents are as maligned as the 2011 CBA. If you’ll remember, the NFL owners decided to opt out of the 2006 CBA in 2009, triggering the uncapped year (which, as it turns out, wasn’t so uncapped) and then lock out the players following the Super Bowl XLV.

Ryan Shazier, Ryan Shazier injury, Ryan Shazier contract, Ryan Shazier 5th year tender, Ryan Shazier contract

Will Ryan Shazier play again? No one knows. But Shazier does benefit from the 2011 CBA. Photo Credit: Aaron Doster, USA TODAY via BTSC

The lockout continued until summer, when both sides blinked, got the deal done, which paved the way for football through 2020. But the CBA had a lot of things not to like about it:

  • It drastically curtailed OTA’s and mini-camps, which players hate but kept football-only sites going
  • Roger Goodell maintained his Czar like disciplinary powers perpetuating the arbitrary “justice” applied in the NFL
  • Training camp and in-season practices were regulated, shortened, limited and made less physical
  • This has led to sloppier play, shoddy tackling and arguably an increase in injuries

The 2011 CBA also imposed a rookie salary cap and wage structure, and standardized rookie contracts. But that also included a provision that Ryan Shazier now benefits from:

  • Teams could tender 1st round draft picks with an option year that was fully guaranteed for injury.

The Steelers made use of this provision with Cam Heyward and David DeCastro, opted not to tender Jarvis Jones, but did extend the tender to Ryan Shazier. According to OvertheCap, as a rookie Ryan Shazier signed a contract that was just shy of 5.6 million dollars in value, including a 1.3 signing bonus.

  • The tender Ryan Shazier signed was for 8,718,000 million dollars, and he’ll see every penny of it.

It is far too early to know if Ryan Shazier will ever play football again, and that is not the team’s nor his focus. The fact that he needed spinal surgery is not promising, but it is at least theoretically possible that he’ll play again someday, provided that he wants to.

  • Let’s be clear, Ryan Shazier was blossoming into one of the best, if not the best inside linebacker in the league.

Shazier was showing he was something special. Perhaps it was too early to say that he had Troy Polamalu type talent, but he was arguably on a trajectory to be better than Lawrence Timmons in his prime.

Had Ryan Shazier not been injured against the Bengals, the Steelers would have likely tried to sign him to a long term deal, which if the numbers on Over the Cap are any guide, probably would have averaged 10 to 12 million per year, and could have included upwards of 15 million on guaranteed money.

  • Clearly, the injury to Shazier will be costly in financial terms.

But 8,718,000 million dollars is a lot of money, far more than anyone reading this will likely ever see in their life times. Assuming Shazier can resume a normal life, as most reports indicate he can, he should be able to take care of his family.

Here’s to hoping that, regardless of whether he plays football or not, Ryan Shazier’s “Life’s Work” will provide him with comfortable living. But he’ll have a head start thanks to the dreaded 2011 CBA between the NFL owners and the NFLPA.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Steelers-Bengals Game Ball, Ryan Shazier Support Poll

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

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

Ryan Shazier, Ryan Shazier spinal contusion, Steelers vs Bengals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • On defense, there’s slim pickings.

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

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

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

Write in Votes Both Allowed and Encouraged

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

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

 

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Excellent Mike Tomlin Clock Management Skills (yep, just “went there”) Displayed in Steelers Win Over Titans

The Pittsburgh Steelers Thursday Night trashing of the Tennessee Titans offered Steelers Nation a lot to like and a lot of what the fan base has been waiting for. Among those highlights include:

  • Ben Roethlisberger in rhythm with his receivers
  • 5 sacks for the defensive line and linebacking corps
  • 4 interceptions from a secondary (albeit with a long TD given up)
  • A booming special teams field goal block
  • Another example of excellent Mike Tomlin clock management

Say what? Yep, now that you’ve had time to do your double take on the final bullet point, let’s get this out of the way, yes we went there.

Mike Tomlin, Mike Tomlin clock management

Mike Tomlin’s clock management is ALWAYS under fire from fans. But is the criticism justified? Photo Credit: AP, via Yahoo Sports

The “Poor Mike Tomlin clock management” mantra has become an article of a faith that it is so ingrained that it is so rote that even Tomlin defenders repeat it just as drivers in the Northeast must automatically condemn the conditions on the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

Is Mike Tomlin the NFL’s best clock manager? Probably not. Are there times when the Steelers inexplicably take time outs (see the two point conversion against the Colts) or perhaps fail to get plays off before the two minute warning? Yep.

But Mike Tomlin isn’t nearly as poor as a clock manager as his reputation would suggest, and the Titans game is a perfect example of it, which we discuss below along with other examples.

Tomlin Manages the Clock to Win

Coty Sensabaugh’s interception set up the Steelers with the ball at Tennessee’s 20 yard line with 3:11 left. Lost in the sound and fury of Pittsburgh’s 40 point explosion is that the Steelers were inept on this visit to the Red Zone, which included a series of incomplete Ben Roethlisberger passes to Le’Veon Bell, a sack, a penalty on David DeCastro and a 10 yard run that set up Chris Boswell’s field goal.

  • But Titans coach Mike Mularkey was playing to win, buruing his 2nd & 3rd time outs at the 1:48 and 1:39 marks.

After the field goal and ensuing kickoff the Titans got the ball back at their 25 with 1:32 left to go in the half. Mike Hilton dropped DeMarco Murray for a 5 yard loss on the Titan’s first play. The Titans had no timeouts left, and the safe money in that situation is to let the clock continue to tick and get into the locker room as fast as you can.

  • Mike Tomlin called a time out.

Tomlin in fact aggressively used the Steelers remaining time outs, so that when all was said and done, the Titans had only bleed 14 seconds off of the clock. 1:11 is not a lot of time to work with when you get the ball at your own 33, but passes to Jesse James and Antonio Brown (with an assist from Martavis Bryant) set up a 50 yard field goal, which while no gimmie at Heinz Field, was enough.

  • At the end of the night those 3 points were little more than the chocolate jimmies on the sundae, but that hasn’t always been the case.

Against the Colts, Mike Tomlin found himself in somewhat of a similar situation. Bud Dupree sacked Jacoby Brissett for a 13 yard loss, bringing up 3rd down with 1:48 left to play. Again, after an atrocious 1st half, it would have been easy to let the Colts bleed the clock, take a knee and head into the locker room.

Tomlin instead took a time out, and with 1:39 and 2 timeouts left, Ben Roethlisberger was able to connect with Vance McDonald, JuJu Smith-Schuster as well as Brown and Bryant to set up another end of first half field goal, this one coming in a game that was decided by 3.

Looking Further Back for Examples of Tomlin’s Aggressive Clock Management

Mike Tomiln’s aggressive clock management didn’t suddenly start in 2017. Think back to opening day 2014 when the Steelers hosted the Browns on Chuck Noll Day. When the Steelers got the ball at their 20 with 1:44 remaining, Pittsburgh was holding on to a 24-3 lead.

  • The only question at that point wasn’t whether Bruce Gradkowski would play in the 2nd half, but how soon he would enter the game.

Mike Tomlin declined to take a series of knees, and Ben Roethlisberger methodically moved the ball down to the 3 yard line, where Shaun Suisham kicked a field goal. The extra 3 points seemed academic, but the Browns roared back in the 2nd half, and the Steelers ultimately won the game with a field goal at the buzzer.

Le'Veon Bell, Le'Veon Bell touchdown, Steelers vs Falcons

Le’Veon Bell runs for 1 of 2 touchdowns in the Steelers 2014 win over the Falcons. Photo Credit: Scott Cunningham, Getty Images via NY Daily News

You could also argue that Mike Tomlin’s clock management at the end of both halves in the Steelers 2014 win over the Atlanta Falcons was nothing short of impeccable.

In the afterglow of Super Bowl XLIII, fans tend to forget just how many come from behind, 4th quarter and/or 2 minute comebacks the 2008 Steelers needed. Their December 7th 2008 win against the Cowboys provides a perfect example.

After trailing for much of the day, the Steelers finally pulled even with the Cowboys as Ben Roethlisberger connected with Heath Miller in the End Zone with just over 2 minutes left to play.

Dallas got the ball back, ran one play that James Farrior stuffed for a 2 yard gain. Again, the safe money says let the clock run and play for overtime.

  • Instead, Mike Tomlin called a time out.

By his own account, Tomlin’s aggressive posture rattled Tony Romo as he was heard saying heading back to the huddle, “What, they called a time out?” although given that they’d just played Renegade at Heinz Field, perhaps he should have known better. If your memory is fuzzy, here’s how things unfolded, starting with Renegade:

Notice, no one was complaining about Tomlin’s clock management after that game.

Which is part of the point. As Rebecca Rollett as pointed out on Going Deep with the Steelers, clock management is something that generally only comes up after a team loses. In fact, Rollett set up to find examples of good clock management, and while she came up with a few, most were hard to find.

So while Mike Tomlin does make clock management mistakes, he does a lot better than most fans give him credit for.

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Le’Veon Bell Tops Steelers Game Ball Winner Poll for 2nd Straight Week

The Steelers game ball winners poll following the Steelers 29-14 win over the Bengals at Heinz Field generated a lot of participation, with votes being cast across both sides of the ball, including several write ins and with ties resulting across the ballot.

Scroll down below the photo of this week’s top vote getter to review the full results!

Le'Veon Bell, Vontaz Burfict, Steelers vs Bengals

Le’Veon Bell gets tackled by Vontaze Burfict en route to his latest 100 yard performance against the Bengals. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, Penn-Live

  • And it should come as no surprise, that for the second straight week Le’Veon Bell led the voting.

Steelers vs Bengals, Steelers Game ball winners BengalsThe second slot yielded a pleasant surprise, as Roosevelt Nix tied with Ben Roethlisberger with 10 votes. Nix was instrumental in paving the way for Bell. The fullback is largely an anonymous (and largely disappearing) role in today’s NFL so it is nice to see Nix get recognition.

Fourth place brought yet another tie, with David DeCastro and Robert Golden netting eight votes (interesting that Golden would poll 4 times more votes than the guy who caught his pass). They were followed by yet another tie a slot below, as Bud Dupree and Joe Haden both polled 6 votes to split 5th place.

Antonio Brown drew 5 votes, followed by William Gay’s 4 votes. JuJu Smith-Schuster got 3 votes, Cam Heyward polled 2 tying with Darrius Heyward-Bey, with Tyson Alualu, Maurkice Pouncey and Ryan Shazier polling 1 a piece.

As always, Steel Curtain Rising thanks you our beloved readers for taking time out to vote and gives special nod to those who took the time to cast write in votes.

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Steelers Report Card for the Win over the Bengals – A’s for Defensive Excellence

Taken from the gradebook of a teacher who has a note from his mother excusing his middle of the week absences from sickness here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the win over the Bengals at Heinz Field.

T.J. Watt, Cameron Heyward, Cam Heyward, Andy Dalton, Steelers vs Bengals

T.J. Watt jumps for joy after sacking Andy Dalton as Cam Hewyard looks on. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, Penn-Live

Quarterback
This was Ben Roethlisberger’s best game of the season thus far, as Roethlisberger led the Steelers to two touchdown drives, managed to work an number of receivers into the passing game and did not turn over the ball. Big Ben’s day could have been even better had two potential touchdown not been dropped. Still, the Steelers struggled on third downs, and Roethlisberger must bear partial responsibility. Grade: B

Running Backs
Is there any doubt that Le’Veon Bell is back into form? Le’Veon Bell attacked the NFL’s number 2 rushing defense head on, and fought his way to 134 yards on 34 carries. He also made noise in the running game with a brilliant stiff arm of Dre Kirkpatrick. James Conner carried 3 times for 19 yards, while Terrell Watson carried once for no gain. Roosevelt Nix paved the way. Grade: Asteelers, report card, steelers grades, coaching, special teams, unsung heroes, steelers 2017 season

Tight Ends
Vance McDonald made two catches, including an impressive 28 yard catch. He also dropped a gimmie on the end zone. Overall however, his blocking was a key element to Bell’s success. Xavier Grimble also had one catch for 1 yards and blocked well when McDonald left via injury. Grade: B-

Wide Receivers
The Bengals have had a lot of success in containing Antonio Brown, but Brown did his damage in the first half with 4 catches for 65 yards including a touchdown. Still, the William Jackson put Steelers Nation on notice that AFC North as a corner that can go toe-to-toe with Brown.

JuJu Smith-Schuster had two catches for 39 yards including a touchdown. Eli Rogers reminded everyone why he’s still on the roster, while Martavis Bryant got everyone to ask “Just WHAT is he complaining about again?” Finally, Darrius Heyward-Bey caught what might have been the most important catch of the game on a fake field goal. Grade: B

Offensive Line
IF ESPN’s statistics are to be trusted, the Bengals only touched Ben Roethlisberger once. And while the offensive line wasn’t busying keeping Roethlisberger clean it was opening holes for Le’Veon Bell thanks to David DeCastro and Maurkice Pouncey’s pulling. This until established control at the line of scrimmage early on and never looked back. Grade: A

Defensive Line
Its some how fitting that Cam Heyward opened the Bengals final series with a sack, as the defensive line dominated the Bengals front seven from Cincinnati’s final possession of the first half onward. In addition to his sack, Heyward had two tackles for losses, and stopped several other Bengals for no gain. Perhaps most satisfying, late in the second quarter Heyward began punctuating his tackles with an extra backwards slam, and it was all down hill for Cincinnati after that.

Take out Joe Mixon’s 25 yard scamper, and the Steelers held the Bengals running backs to 2.8 yards rushing. That all starts up front. Grade: A-

Linebackers
Vince Williams had two tackles. Anthony Chickillo had a key pass defense. Bud Dupree and T.J. Watt both had sacks, while Ryan Shazier lead the team in tackles including one for a loss and was last seen chasing Andy Dalton in the backfield as the beleaguered Bengals signal caller opted to simply throw it away on 4th and two. A fine day by the linebackers. Grade: A-

Joe Haden, Joe Haden 1st Steelers interception, Joe Haden intercepts Andy Dalton

Joe Haden after intercepting an Andy Dalton pass intended for A.J. Green. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, Penn-Live

Secondary
Andy Dalton passed for 140 yards and the Bengals only managed 19 yards of total offense in the second half despite playing from behind the entire time. Oh, and Cincinnati finished 3-11 on third down conversions. Oh, and A.J. Green was held to 3 catches for 31 yards or 1 grab less than the Steelers secondary as Joe Haden and William Gay nabbed their first interceptions of the season. Grade: A

Special Teams
Chris Boswell boots it well against the Bengals, as he knocked in 5 field goals, including one from 41 yards away and another from 49 away. The Bengals did have one long punt return, which is the second week in a row the Steelers have allowed one.

The biggest play of course came on the hands of Robert Golden who connected with Darrius Heyward-Bey for the fake. That was a gutsy and risky call, but the Steelers executed it and it ended the game. Grade: B+

Coaching
Todd Haley did his homework on this one, expertly mixing the pass and the run to get the Steelers on the board early with touchdowns, and then controlling the clock after that – all against the NFL’s number 2 rush defense.

  • Still, the Steelers Red Zone and third down performance need to improve.

Objectivity commands us to remind ourselves and everyone else that the ease with which the Bengals scored their first two touchdowns was al little disquieting. You can be forgiven if you forgot because from the Bengals final drive of the first half onward, the Steelers defense dominated as thoroughly as any unit fielded by Bud Carson, George Perles, Dom Capers or Dick LeBeau ever fielded.

  • Keith Butler’s defense was that good against the Bengals in the games final 32 minutes.

Cincinnati didn’t have a chance, and Andy Dalton’s final throw away on 4th and 2 in the 4th quarter perfectly symbolized the Bengals haplessness.

Mike Tomlin’s teams are sometimes prone to let down, and this was a possibility after a big win over the Kansas City Chiefs coupled with a Bengals team bringing a 2 game winning streak into Heinz Field on the heels of a bye week. But Mike Tomlin kept his team focused. And if his offense needs to improve in situational football and he does need to take care not to overwork his feature back, his Steelers put in a pretty good afternoon against the Bengals. Grade: B

Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Bengals

Pittsburgh Steelers Head Coach Mike Tomlin during the 2017 win over the Bengals at Heinz Field. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, Penn-Live

Unsung Hero Award
A year ago after the Steelers loss at Miami commentators trotted out various statistics of the Steelers records with Cam Heyward and without Stephon Tuitt in the lineup together.

  • Now to be fair to the rest of Johnny Mitchell’s pupils, the Steelers defensive line righted that ship after Cam Heyward’s season ending injury.

But for as well as L.T. Walton, Ricardo Mathews and John Maxey might have played in Heyward’s absence, the Steelers brass went out and signed someone who could be a true 3rd defensive end in the rotation, and his name is Tyson Alualu and it was his playmaking as much as anyone else’s that lead to the defensive turn around and for that Tyson Alualu wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers win over the Bengals.

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