Watch Tower: Ben Roethlisberger, Martavis Bryant, Dick LeBeau Press Coverage & More

It’s been a long time, too long in fact, since the Watch Tower shined its lights, but that’s a product of the digital economy’s never-ending work day and certainly not for lack of Steelers related news to analyze.

With acknowledged, this edition of the Watch Tower turns its focus on stories about Ben Roethlisberger, the Martavis Bryant non-trade, Dick LeBeau’s return to Heinz Field, comings & goings, localization pains and much more.

Ben Roethlisberger, Dick LeBeau, Steelers vs Titans, Ben Roethlisberger Dick LeBeau Hug

Ben Roethlisberger hugs Dick LeBeau leaving the field after the Steelers win over the Titans. Photo Credit: Christopher Horner, Tribune-Review

Roethlisberger Up Close

The fact that all eyes have been on Ben Roethlisberger should come as no surprise this season, given that Roethlisberger openly mused about retirement following yet another AFC Championship loss to the Patriots.

Lots have been said about Big Ben and his future plans, or lack thereof, but ESPN’s Hallie Grossman added a lot of substance to the conversation in her 3,000 plus word story on the Steelers signal caller (a story which came to the Watch Tower’s attention quite by accident – more on that below.)

  • Grossman’s story doesn’t of course shed any real light on the question that everyone in Steelers Nation is hanging on, namely is this Ben Ben’s last fall on the gridiron.

She of course raised the question with Roethlisberger, who claimed not to know, and intimated that it may very well be the case that no one but himself know when he decides to make his final trek down the tunnel at Heinz Field.

Ben Roethlisberger

Ben Roethlisberger talking with reporters in the Steelers locker room. Photo Credit: WTAE

She does, however, reveal that Ben Roethlisberger not only has his two locker, but also has his own private room, or vestibule. While that’s hardly earth shattering, it is an interesting factoid and one that the Watch Tower is unaware of the local press publishing.

Hallie Grossman’s story is certainly strong enough to win Watch Tower kudos, but the Watch Tower will also openly wonder why these stories tend to come out of the national media.

  • Lest you conclude that this is a dig at the local Steelers press corps, let’s state ESPN’s Hallie Grossman was probably granted access not afforded to Pittsburgh-based reporters.

Its doubtful that Burt Lauren and the Steelers PR team, will ever read this, let alone be persuaded to change policy because of it, but if the Watch Tower’s assumption is correct, then let’s state for the record that Pittsburgh-based reporters covering the Steelers should get an equal shot at the access needed to draft these in-depth stories.

Steelers Quarterbacks Coach Randy Fichtner

During the Steelers 31-28 win over the Green Bay Packers Steelers quarterback coach Randy Fichtner was seen on the sidelines conferring with Ben Roethlisberger. That didn’t seem all that unusual, until this tweet from Mark Kaboly appeared.

As it turns out, this was a rather new sight, given that four games ago Randy Fichtner moved from the booth to the sidelines. The fact that Ben Roethlisberger struggled early in the season, long before his 5 interception performance against Jacksonville, is not news. Nor were there a lack of stories attempting to explaining why (most/many of which focusing on Roethlisberger not practicing Wednesdays.)

But The Athletic’s Mark Kaboly zeroed in on one concrete move that the Steelers have made to address the situation. The bulk of Kaboly’s article was behind The Athletic’s paywall, and therefore the Watch Tower analysis is necessarily superficial.

Randy Fichtner moving from the booth to the sideline is a change that came in plain sight, but Mark Kaboly is the first reporter to pick up and report on the change, and Kaboly wins Watch Tower kudos.

Follow the Money?

Martavis Bryant trade story has faded for the moment, but the way it all unfolded did yield useful insight into how agents work the PR levers. When national reporters broke the Bryant trade rumor request story, several Pittsburgh-based writers reacted with skepticism. Dale Lolley, then still with the Observer Reporter, response is fairly typical:

A couple of national reporters are saying that Martavis Bryant has requested a trade from the Steelers and did so a couple of weeks ago. I don’t know if I’m buying that one.

However, within in a day or so, the Pittsburgh Post Gazette’s Ed Bouchette and other members of the Steelers press corps were confirming that Bryant and/or his representatives had in fact made the trade request.

Lolley himself took time out to explain how the process worked, comparing Bryant’s case to that of 49er’s linebacker Navarro Bowman, detailing how agents work behind the scenes. Agents, are in fact prime sources for stories about impending personnel moves and are typically the man standing behind the curtain when you see a “league source” cited.

Martavis Bryant,

Martavis Bryant in 2017. Photo Credit: 247 Sports.

And, taking a longer look, it occurs to the Watch Tower that the rule of thumb for agents is perhaps, “To get your guy out of town, leak to national reporters. To get him into town, leak to the local press.”

A good example of the latter would come from way back in spring of 2008, when a visit from free agent Anthony “Bud” McFarland prompted erroneous reports that the Steelers had signed him, followed by a stream of columns by then Tribune-Review editor John Harris that sang the defensive lineman’s praises week’s after his visit to the South Side an suggested that the Steelers sign him.

It didn’t occur to the Watch Tower then that those Harris stories were probably prompted by calls from an agent.

Digital Disruption Continues to Reshuffle Pittsburgh Press Corps Deck

The Steelers press corps has seen two big changes this season. First, Mark Kaboly jumped from local upstart DK on Pittsburgh Sports to accept an offer as the Steelers beat writer for the national upstart The Athletic. Kaboly had been with Dejan Kovacevic team for about a year, and the move marks the second hit that the Athletic DK on Pittsburgh Sports has taken at the hands of The Athletic.

  • The replace Kaboly, Kovacevic pried Dale Lolley away from the Observer-Reporter after a 25 year stint with the local publication.

As the Watch Tower observed previously, this type of movement is relatively new inside the Pittsburgh sports writing community. Back in 2009, when doing the research for the retrospective series on the 1989 Steelers, one of the things that stood out was that so many of the writers who’d covered Bubby Brister & co’s 15 Minutes of Fame were still covering the Steelers two decades later for the same publicationsm.

That is changing fast. DK on Pittsburgh Sports digital only, subscription-based model represented a major innovation in sports journalism in the Pittsburgh market and one side effect of that is that it seems to have spurred a lot of movement for journalists, (although that’s probably not what Kovacevic intended when he launched his site.)

Digital disruption comes with costs of course, and the thinned out Steelers staff at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review can attest.

ESPN.com Screws English Speakers in Latin America

People who travel outside the United States are often surprised to find messages like the one below on the video screens of their favorite sports, news and/or entertainment websites:

Messages like the one above are more and more common outside the USA

This is nothing new and is driven by copyright (or lack thereof considerations.) In fact, the messages are becoming more common. There are no shortage of commercial sites (including Steelers.com) which won’t let you place on-line orders from abroad, even if you have a US-based credit card.

  • Expect more of this to happen inside the US as net neutrality dies.

ESPN has sunk to a new level. ESPN of course has sub-brands throughout Latin America. As you’d expect ESPNDeportes broadcasts in Spanish and focuses on soccer, tennis, golf and everything else which is popular locally (although they do carry the Sunday and Monday Night Games).

But for 16 years, if you were in Argentina you could simply navigate to espn.go.com/nfl/ just as you would in the United States and read as you normally would (although some videos might be blacked out.)

Try that now and this is what you’ll get:

ESPN.com in English in Latin America, Access ESPN.com in English in Latin America, ESPN.com in English Argentina

In Latin America (or Argentina at least) ESPN.com isn’t accessible in English

That’s right! Try to access any of ESPN’s NFL related pages in English, and you’ll get automatically redirected to www.espn.com.ar/futbol-americano/ complete with local soccer scores across the top bar, whether you want to see them or not!

  • Worse yet, there’s no navigation option that you can use to easily get to English NFL content.

You can still access English articles via the writer’s Twitter feed or Google, although if you do so from a mobile device such as an iPad you’re liable to be kicked to the Spanish site when the browser auto-renews.

From a desk top you CAN manage to get the ESPN.com’s NFL page by navigating to ESPN’s Hockey coverage, and then clicking back to the NFL coverage, but that’s a royal pain in the ass. After 16 years of living in Argentina, I can certainly read Spanish, but gee, I do prefer to read about the NFL in English and detest having the option taken denied to me.

Note to ESPN, I was on espn.go.com/nfl/ a heck of a lot more than I ever tuned into ESPNDeportes. If you actively try to lose my attention, there’s no way your sponsors can get my dollars.

Ojo, ESPN Argentina. Casi nunca miro ESPNDeportes, pero leí (en pasado) espn.go.com/nfl/ TODO LOS DIAS DE LA SEMANA. Si hacen un esfuerza para quitar mi atención a tu página, no hay forma en que tus clientes pueden capturar mis dólares (si, leíste bien, dólares, no pesos). Pensar en esto, compañeros.

There you go. Won’t change anything but sure felt better.

New, but Juicy Tidbit on the LeBeau-Steelers Story

Did you know that the Steelers tried to kick Dick LeBeau upstairs before they promoted Keith Butler to defensive coordinator? They did, and Jim Wexell broke that fact prior to the Steelers Titans game.

  • As he typically does, Wexell broke a tantalizing new fact as an offhand comment with little elaboration.

When readers, including this one, pressed him for more detail, Wexell suggested that this was common knowledge (its not) but confirmed that LeBeau wasn’t interested in even opening that conversation.

While he didn’t break the news, when the LeBeau story was still hot Wexell provided details that other uncovered, and continues to do so over 2 years after its become history.

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Michael Vick’s Playoff Record Proves He Deserves 2nd Look If Ben Roethlisberger Can’t Play

Pittsburgh’s injury report for the Steelers AFC Divisional Playoff game against the Denver Broncos offered a mixed bag. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger will attempt to practice, but Mike Tomlin indicated Landry Jones will get extensive work in practice.

Antonio Brown remains in the NFL’s concussion protocols with a sharp contrast between local and national reports as to the likelihood of him playing. Running back DeAngelo Williams has been described as “On the outside looking in,” meaning that Fitzgerald Toussaint and Jordan Todman would again have to carry the Steelers running game.

  • No NFL team wants to head to a playoff game with its top three offensive stars on the injury list.

But fortunately the Steelers have the luxury of knowing that some of their heavy hitters may not be able to go so they can plan ahead. As he’s indicated, Mike Tomlin’s contingency plans are already underway, but it says here that Mike Tomlin and Todd Haley might be wise to expand their thinking.

Should Landry Jones Enter Denver Game as QB Number 2?

Most observers expect Ben Roethlisberger to start for the Steelers in the playoffs against the Broncos.

In his video following Mike Tomlin’s press conference, Ed Bouchette all but alluded to Ben Roethlisberger’s history as a drama queen. Dale Lolley advised his readers that when Ben talks about an injury, as he’s doing now, he usually plays. But the Steelers are wise to prepare an understudy, as no one knows how effective Ben will be.

  • The question is, should Landry Jones be Steelers QB number 2 against the Broncos?

Prior to Pittsburgh’s playoff win over the Bengals, Landry Jones had been one of the more pleasant surprises of the Steelers 2015 season. The Steelers gave not one, but three other quarterbacks the chance to unseat him from the 3rd slot on the depth chart, and Jones fought them off.

When injuries forced him into the game against Arizona, it was Landry Jones to the rescue. While Jones did not play particularly well in his lone start vs. the Chiefs, he also closed out a competitive game vs. the Raiders.

  • Unfortunately, Jones was completely ineffective vs. the Bengals in the playoffs.

In his press conference, Mike Tomlin admitted that Landry Jones must improve if he plays vs. Denver, and indicated that extra preparation should help.

Fair enough. Mike Tomlin, Todd Haley and Randy Fichtner know a little more about preparing quarterbacks for games than I do the Steelers coaches would do well to remember that they do have another quarterback on their roster with playoff experience. His name is Michael Vick

Michael Vick Playoff Experience Means He Deserves a Second Look

If memory serves, it was Hines Ward who once said comparing the intensity to an NFL playoff game to an NFL regular season game is like comparing regular season to preseason. Indeed, the NFL playoffs seve as a crucible that separates the average from the good and the good from the truly great. Legendary Steelers linebacker Greg Lloyd holds cult hero status here on Steel Curtain Rising, but what were his signature playoff moments?

  • Bruce Gradkowski is no superstar, but the Steelers offense didn’t miss a beat when he went in for a few snaps in the Steelers 2014 playoff loss to the Ravens.

It is true that, save for a phenomenal 4th quarter vs. the Chargers, Mike Vick struggled as a starter. And while Steelers beat reporters cannot share what they see in practice, they’ve all but confirmed that Vick has struggled in practice. Fair enough.

  • But Mike Vick has six playoff starts and two playoff wins under his belt.

Vick’s playoff passer rating just a shade below his career passer rating and is below his rating for the Steelers this year. But Vick has started four playoff games on the road, and won in hostile environs such as Lambeau Field. Mike Vick has been tested by the NFL’s playoff crucible.

At this point, Landry Jones is almost certainly in the Steelers plans for 2016 and perhaps beyond. Given that, and given the positives from him earlier in the year, Mike Tomlin is wise to name him his QB number 2 for the divisional show down vs. Denver.

But if Roethlisberger can’t play and Jones falters, Tomlin should make sure that Michael Vick is ready to step in.

Other Steelers Injury Updates Prior to Denver Game

Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and DeAngelo Williams are not the only names on the Pittsburgh Steelers injury report heading into the playoff game Denver.
Fullback Will Johnson (hamstring), inside linebacker Vince Williams (hamstring) and safety Robert Golden (shoulder) are on the injured list but expected to play vs. the Broncos.

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Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for Playoff Clinching Win over Browns

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who saw his star pupil squeak by on the pass/fail portion of his qualifying exam, and now waits with baited breath as his student prepares to enter the “real world” here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the playoff clinching win over the Cleveland Browns.steelers, report card, grades, Cleveland Browns, playoff clinching win

Quarterback
While no one can claim that Ben Roethlisberger played poorly vs. the Cleveland Browns, the truth is elements of his performance are downright worrisome. Ben Roethlisberger’s two interceptions were very poorly thrown balls, heads up plays be his receivers prevented at least three more balls from being picked off.

If Ben Roethlisberger gives away interceptions like he did vs. the Browns, the Steelers season will quickly end in Cincinnati. This is a classic “Good but” performance if there ever was one. Grade: B-

Running Backs
The Browns were cued up on stopping DeAngelo Williams, and Williams found it difficult to find running room. He caught two out of two passes thrown to him, but was forced from the game by the beginning of the second half. Fitzgerald Toussaint quadrupled his carry total for the season, and while his 2.0 yards per average isn’t impressive, the determination he showed in playing to the whisle did. Toussaint also caught his first two point conversion pass. Grade: C+

Tight Ends
Heath Miller’s stat line reads like this: 3 catches, 18 yards, on 4 targets 1 touchdown and his longest pass was for 11 yards.

  • Fantasy football owners who started Heath Miller probably regret the move.

Mike Tomlin, however, does not. The ball could have been easily intercepted on both Miller’s touchdown and his 11 yard reception, but in both cases Miller outmuscled the defender to the catch. Those are the types of plays simply win games while failing to show up on fantasy football stats. Matt Spaeth and Jesse James both played, but neither had a target. Grade: B+

Wide Receivers
Antonio Brown showed that he is mortal, barely, but fumbling away the ball. The Browns failed to convert it into points, but that turnover coupled with Roethlisberger’s interceptions gave the Browns the courage they needed to give the Steelers a run for their money. Outside of that, Brown’s game was flawless. The same cannot be said for Martavis Bryant, who was only targeted twice, and saw one of those picked off (not his fault) and the other he dropped. Markus Wheaton had a solid game with a 40 yard catch that helped set up the Steelers second touchdown followed by an excellent touchdown catch. Darrius Heyward-Bey made his return to the passing offense with a bang on a 66 yard reception. However, he did drop two catchable balls, including a touchdown. Brown and Wheaton pull this group’s overall grade up. Grade: B

Offensive Line
Whatever is troubling Ben Roethlisberger, lack of pass protection cannot be called an issue, certainly not against the Browns. There were many plays when Ben could have written pages of his diary, the offensive line gave him so much time. And on those occasions, Roethlisberger made Cleveland pay. The Steelers run blocking, however, was not nearly what it needed to be, although DeAngelo Williams injury essentially meant the Steelers weren’t going to run much anyway. Grade: B

Defensive Line
Stephon Tuitt led the unit with a 2 sack day, he also dropped two Browns defenders behind the line of scrimmage and got to Austin Davis two more times. Cameron Heyward had a quiet day with one tackle, but that’s another example of how stats can mislead. Steve McLendon had one tackle, but it was for a loss. Grade: B+

Linebackers
The lack of pressure from the Steelers outside linebackers has been an issue of late, but Arthur Moats sacked Austin Davis once and recovered the fumble that Lawrence Timmons helped cause. James Harrison’s interception was exactly the type of play the Steelers defense needed after Roethlisberger had given them an opening to get back into the game. Harrison also batted away two passes, and he stuffed another runner to prevent a third down conversion. Ryan Shazier split a sack with Timmons. Vince Williams had 3 tackles and Bud Dupree. Grade: B+

Secondary
Let it be said that any of the teams making the NFL playoffs and their will provide the Steelers with a far stiffer test than the Cleveland Browns did, but the Steelers secondary seemed to step it up a bit after having been roasted by Ryan Mallett. Antwon Blake played a complete game, recording a sack and batting balls away while making no egregious tackling errors. Michael Mitchell was his usual self, as was William Gay. One take away and two other splash plays by the Steelers secondary were what was needed, especially on a day when the Steelers offense was turning over the ball. Grade: B+

Special Teams
On the negative side, the Steelers coverage team benefitted from another long return that got nullified by a penalty. And Chris Boswell missed another field goal. Granted, that was a 48 yarder, but the Steelers Super Bowl hopes could rest on Boswell’s ability to make another 48 yarder in another AFC North city just down I-75.

On the positive side, the Anthony Chickillo forced a fumble just after the Steelers offense had made the score 25 to 12 which allowed the Steelers offense to put the game away for good. Grade: B-

Grading the Steelers Coaches
Todd Haley’s game plan was sound, although the Steelers inability to run the ball against a weak Browns run defense is a little puzzling, although not worrisome. More worrisome for Todd Haley has to be Ben Roethlisberger’s suddenly erratic performance.

  • Is Ben Roethlisberger simply trying to force the ball to Antonio Brown or is something else at work?

It says here that “Ben to Brown” is a winning combination, but quarterbacks should never get on one wide receiver. Regardless of its root cause, Todd Haley and Steelers quarterbacks coach Randy Fichtner must correct this situation immediately.

People can critique the Steelers defensive effort from a number of angles:

  • The Browns won the time of possession battle…
  • Cleveland scored at the tail end of the first half…
  • They opened the 4th quarter by cutting the Steelers lead to 5….

All of these type of stats can be made to hold an ominous tone. But the bottom line is that Keith Butler’s defense kept sacked Austin Davis 7 times, secured 3 turnovers, and kept the Cleveland Browns out of the end zone despite 3 turnovers by the Steelers offense.

  • That’s the type of play that is going to help the Steelers win playoff games.

As noted above, the turnovers by Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown could have been devastating, but fortunately the Steelers defense minimized the impact of the first two turnovers, and neutralized the next. Equally importantly, the Steelers offense had the mental toughness to avoid allowing the turnovers to take on a snowball effect.

It is true that the Steelers hardly dominated the Browns, especially early on. But one week after the 2015 Pittsburgh Steelers most disappointing performances, Mike Tomlin had his team in bounce-back form that, while not perfect, won the game. Grade: B

Unsung Hero
Early in the game vs. the Browns there was one player who seemed to take last week’s loss to the Ravens personally, and made it his business to avoid a repeat. This member of the secondary had 7 tackles, 1 pass defensed, one QB hit, another tackle for a loss and a sack and he made his moves early and often, helping set the tone for the game. And for that Will Allen is the wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers playoff clinching win over the Cleveland Browns.

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