Steelers Report Card for Victory over Green Bay @ Lambeau

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is beginning to wonder if some all night cramming might just allow his student to thread a needle on a rollercoaster, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the victory over Green Bay at Lambeau Field. As a caveat, no other Steelers grades or report cards have been consulted prior to this posting.

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Steelers Grading Scale

Quarterbacks
Ben Roethlisberger only threw for 167 yards doing that in 28 attempts with 16 completions. However, Roethlisberger threw for two touchdowns and ran for another and was quite impressive in each instance. While each of those is a positive, Roethlisberger’s accuracy issues late in the game, both before and after the costly, and wholly inexcusable, interception that got Green Bay back into the game. While those errors do not negate a strong performance in a hostile environment in the face of the elements, those are the kind of mistakes that separate the “good” performances from the truly great. Mat McBriar went 1-1 and became the first Australian to complete an NFL pass. Grade: B

Running Backs
All season long Mike Tomlin has been promoting and defending his second round draft pick. While Tomlin’s praise has not been hollow, it has long hinged on the premises such as “staistics can lie,” “considering the line blocking in front of him,” and/or “also taking into consideration is pass catching.” NONE of those qualifications are necessary today. Le’Veon Bell ran for 124 yards, and did so in impressive fashion, including a 25 bust the immediately followed his first NFL fumble. While Bell rightly draw praise for his performance. Jonathan Dwyer continues to run like each touch is his last, helping set up a go ahead score with back-to-back 7 yard rushes and catches, respectively. Felix Jones had one carry for 7 yards. Grade: A

Tight Ends
Heath Miller led the group with three catches for 17 yards. Matt Spaeth came in second, pulling down 1 catch for 11 yards — for a touchdown. The rushing game has picked up for late and that has coincided with Spaeth’s return to the line up. Actually, the two events are far from coincidental. Playing on special teams, tight end David Paulson caught one pass for 30 yards, and drew a 15 yard unsportsman like conduct penalty to boot, setting up a Roethlisberger’s touchdown run. All in all, a very strong night for the tight ends. Grade: A

Wide Receivers 
During the Packer’s game, Ben Roethlisberger targeted Antonio Brown with short, medium and long passes. Brown caught them all and about the only thing he did not do was to score a touchdown, although he set up a couple. Other than that, it was a quiet night for the receivers, with Emmanuel Sanders catching two passes — although one was for a touchdown, while Jerricho Cotchery caught another pass. Cotchery did have an important drop late in the game. Markus Wheaton got into the game, but broke another finger. Grade: B

Offensive Line
My has this unit continued to evolve, in the face of roster shuffles and injuries. Ben Roethlisberger was only sacked once which is notable because it stands in contrast to other recent games where he was not sacked at all. Outside of a momentary lapse by Kelvin Beachum, the line’s performance was strong all day long – and this includes plenty of plays when Green Bay’s secondary kept the Steelers receivers blanketed. More important, on a snowy day when it was essential to get the running game established, the Steelers offensive line did just that. Grade: A-

Defensive Line
Measured by pure numbers, Cameron Heyward lead the unit with 6 tackles and a pass defensed, but the real start was Brett Keisel, who sacked Matt Flynn and two plays later recovered his fumble. Ziggy Hood and Steve McLendon each registered a tackle apiece. The truth is that the Packers enjoyed a lot of success running the ball, and their ability to do so was one of the facets which kept them in the game. This doesn’t solely rest on the shoulders of the defensive line, but responsibility beings there. Grade: C

Linebackers
LaMarr Woodley went on IR early in the week. Jarvis Jones got the flu in Green Bay. Terence Garvin was lost during the game. Jason Worilds also fell injured and had to come out for a time, but he returned and his pressure set up Keisel’s sack. Worilds himself had a sack, as did Lawrence Timmons. Stevenson Sylvester, who saw time at OLB, had a sack negated by a penalty. Vince Williams made another key, behind the line of scirmmage tackle. All and all, a respectable performance by a depleted linebacking corps.  Grade: B

Secondary
Ryan Clark led the team in tackles. Troy Polamalu defended a pass and forced the fumble that set up the Steelers game-winning score. The real star of the show was Cortez Allen, who defended two passes, and notched the secondary’s second pick six of the season. William Gay, Will Allen, and Ike Taylor all posted strong games. Grade: B+

Special Teams
On the plus side, Danny Smith’s special teams units are starting to show themselves capable of making waves. A week after an electrifying punt return for a touchdown, the Steelers converted a fake punt, pulling it off masterfully. Smith’s unit also blocked a field goal, which should have been a critical play after an awesome defensive stop. Add to that Antonio Brown’s 41 yard punt return and Emmanuel Sanders 54 yard kickoff return, and the Steelers special teams was a potent strike force.

From these pluses the successes of Green Bay’s kick return team must be subtracted. Michael Hyde had a 70 yard kick return that would have gone for six had it not been for Shamarko Thomas impressive run down. Even if you subtract that long gain, Green Bay still averaged 25 yards a kick return, which is far too high of an average. Shaun Suisham‘s two tackles are two too many. Special teams splash plays are nice, but the goal is to be the splasher, not both the splasher and the splashee. Grade: C+

Coaching
Dick LeBeau‘s defense continues to be vulnerable to the run, a weakness which at this point can only likely be contained instead of cured. Still, the Steelers played smart defense, as the unit both created turnovers and got Green Bay off the field on special teams. For the second straight week the Steelers offense had good overall production numbers, but poor third down conversions. Given that one game remains in the season, we’ll likely never know if this is a statistical anomaly or some under the radar trend. Regardless, Todd Haley’s offense put 31 points on the board, registering scores in each and every quarter. They also produced a 100 yard rusher and protected their quarterback.

To the credit of both coaching staffs, both squads had been written off for dead early in the season, and both were playing with fire and gusto. Yet with so much riding on the line, it was Mike Tomlin’s squad that showed the greater poise, as Green Bay hurt itself with several unsportsman like conduct penalties, its two pre-snap penalties on its last defensive and offense series were literally killers. Tomlin’s men kept their cool under fire and avoided those mistakes. The only real critique of the coaching can be moving away from the running game late in the game. Grade: A-

Unsung Hero Award
Over the better part of the last two seasons the phrases “The Standard is the Standard” and “Next Man Up” have been mocked by the more cynical factions within Steelers Nation. And with good reason. The 2012 Steelers defense was noticeably better with Troy Polamalu, Will Allen, and James Harrison than it was without them, just as the 2013 offense improved greatly with the additions of Miller, Bell, and Spaeth.

These contrasting examples notwithstanding, Mike Tomlin’s insistence that anyone who reaches the NFL should be capable of a “winning performance” is a valid philosophy, and the play of these two men shows why. Both of these players woke up on game day without even knowing if they’d be dressing, let alone playing, let alone starting. Yet that is what happened. Chris Carter ended up getting the start for Jarvis Jones and Stevenson Sylvester got a lot of playing time on the outside when Worilds went down. While neither man will be confused for the second coming of Chad Brown, both put in a winning performance and for that they’re the Unsung Hero Award winners for the victory over Green Bay.

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Steelers Defeat Green Bay Packers @ Lambeau 38-31, Stay Alive in AFC Playoff Race

The Pittsburgh Steelers and the Green Bay Packers. The NFL’s two most storied franchises. Two monuments to the Frost Belt’s indomitable, enduring spirit. Two franchises fighting for their playoff lives, playing on Lambeau Field the NFL’s most hallowed ground, playing in late December, playing in the snow.

  • As John Madden would have said, “This is what the game of football is all about.”

On top of that, recent Steelers history vs the Packers has shown that games between Green Bay and Pittsburgh played under these conditions go down to the wire.

  • In 1995, Yancey Thigpen’s last second drop in the end zone decided it for the Packers
  • In 1998, the Steelers built up a 27 point rally, only to find themselves fending off a furious Brett Favre rally
  • In 2009, it to a Ben Roethlisberger to Mike Wallace hook up with 5 second remaining to break a 5 game Steelers losing streak
  • In 2011, there was of course Super Bowl XLV

This contest brought it all, big plays, smash mouth football, surprises, reversals, and drama.

Steelers vs Packers, Steelers vs Packers Lambeau Field 2013, Le'Veon Bell, Le'Veon Bell first 100 yard game, Heath Miller, Ben Roethlisberger, Morgan Burnett

Le’Veon Bell rushes for his first NFL 100 yard game at Lambeau Field in 2013 as Heath Miller blocks. Photo Credit: Wesley Hitt, Getty Images via CBS Local Pittsburgh

For Whom the Bell Tolls

Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin threw down a gauntlet of sorts mid week when he took a question asking if the Steelers would pick Le’Veon Bell over Eddie Lacy of the Packers. Tomlin didn’t flinch. The Steelers would draft Le’Veon Bell again no ifs ands or butts.

While you’d expect a head coach to pubiclly back his player, it was some statement given that Lacy has outrushed Bell, Bell had not posted a 100 yard game, and indeed in 5 of 11 games Bell’s rushing average failed to crack the 3.0 threshold.

Le’Veon Bell entered the game as a man with something to prove, and it was evident early on that he was going to prove it. Numbers don’t lie. To open the game:

  • Bell took his first carry for 11 yards
  • His second went for 5 yards
  • His fourth went for 22 yards and his fifth for another 7

By the end of the first half, Bell had 71 yards. Yet it was in the second half that he would prove his mettle.

NFL games are emotional affairs. Playing with emotion is fundamental, but emotion can be tricky. Allow emotion to fuel too much of your effort, and you’ll crush yourself in the highs and lows encountered in the course of a normal game.

Students of the game can find no better illustration of this than what transpired in the last 7 minutes of the third quarter. And Le’Veon Bell was a the center of it.

A picture perfect Green Bay punt left the Steelers with the ball at their 2. Bell coughed up the ball on the ensuing play, Green Bay got possession at Pittsburgh’s two. The Steelers defense amazingly held. Danny Smith’s Special Teams delivered a blocked field goal, thanks to Steve McLendon.

  • What followed was yet another exhibition in the utter incompetence of NFL officiating.

Ryan Clark clearly recovered the ball for the Steelers, yet the officials refused to review the play, letting penalty of Ziggy Hood stand, giving Green Bay the ball back at the Steelers two, where they scored a touchdown.

Did you have an angry football team after that blocked field goal?
Mike Tomlin: I am not going to speak for them. I was angry.

Bell is of course a rookie, and he chose the worst possible time, in the worst possible field position, to make his first NFL fumble. And it cost his team 7. How would he respond?

  • On his next carry, Bell shot through the Packer’s defense like a cannon for 25 yards.

Emotion, when managed correctly in the NFL, can be a powerful weapon, and 5 plays later, including a great 7 yard run followed by a 7 yard catch from Jonathan Dwyer, and Ben Rothlisberger was hooking up with Matt Spaeth to put the Steelers back ahead, 24-21.

And the Steelers were only getting started. On the next play from scrimmage, Cortez Allen read Matt Flynn perfectly, picked off his pass and speed 40 yards into the end zone for his first pick six.

  • In a span of less than 3 minutes, the Steelers had scored 2 touchdowns, and held a ten point lead

But it wasn’t over yet, not by a long shot.

Spirit of Lombardi Still Runs Strong in Green Bay

Teams that give up such scoring sprees rarely win games, and often times fold. But not these Green Bay Packers. The Packer’s next possession ended in a three and out. Perhaps they were, in fact folding.

Yet the Steelers next possession lasted one play, as Ben Roethlisberger, in trying to hit Heath Miller, threw a bad interception. Green Bay drove all the way to the Steelers 4 yard line, but the Steelers defense held, bringing the Packers within 7.

  • The Steelers next possession ended with a three and out.

It only took Green Bay five plays to move down the field, where John Kuhn ran it in for one yard, making Mike Tomlin regret that Bruce Arians talked him into cutting the kid back on ’07. The score was now tied at 31-31 with 7:14 left to play.

It Pays to Play to Win… And to Focus…

The Steelers couldn’t make anything of their next drive, and were forced to punt. It was time for the Steelers defense to deliver, and they did on a series that belonged to Brett Keisel. Keisel sacked Matt Flynn at the Packers 5. After a 5 yard pass, Flynn seeing no one open opted to run for it. Troy Polamalu stripped the ball, and Keisel recovered.

  • Gaining the ball, at the 17, the Steelers could only move to the 7 before Mike Tomlin was forced to send in the field goal unit, when iron struck.

When questioned about penalties, former Steelers coach Bill Cowher always made a distinction between pre-snap and post-snap penalties.

The latter did not worry him as much, because he said you never wanted to temper a players enthusiasm for the game. The former, however indicated a lack of focus. Given that Green Bay has 5 former Cowher assistants, players or draftees on their staff, they might have done well to internalize that bit of The Chin’s wisdom.

  • A Steelers field goal would have given them the lead, but would have given Green Bay the ball back with over a minute and a time out.

Green Bay was penalized on the field goal attempt, and they gave the Steelers a first down.

  • Mike Tomlin did not hesitate, he instead played to win, and Le’Veon Bell scored a touchdown.

Green Bay got a monster return, and drove to the Steelers 1. Overtime looked to be a certaintly when the Packer’s lack of focus struck again.

  • A false start penalty cost the Packers 5 yards and 10 seconds off of the clock.

All time had run off the clock by the time Matt Flynn tried to hit Jarrett Boykin in the end zone, but his pass was too high.

The Pittsburgh Steelers had just walked into one of the NFL’s most sacred playing fields in late December and won the game. And in doing so the team that started the year at 0-4 gave itself a shot at playing week 17 with a chance to make the playoffs.

As John Madden said, this is what the game of football is all about.

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Echoes of Pittsburghese, Cowher Power Heard in Green Bay Packers Coaching Staff

Steelers Nation may never excuse Bill Cowher for his rabid choosing for the Carolina Coyotes over the Pittsburgh Penguins, but they could perhaps forgive their former standard bearer if he showed more divided loyalties in the Steelers upcoming game vs. Green Bay.

Green Bay Packer’s head coach is a Pittsburgh native but, despite deep ties to Western Pennsylvania, he has no connection to the Black and Gold.

  • The same cannot be said for much of his staff.

Both coordinators are former Bill Cowher assistants. Green Bay’s defensive signals caller is none other than Dom Capers, who worked as Cowher’s first defensive coordinator from 1992 to 1994, until he took the head coaching job at Carolina and was replaced by Dick LeBeau.

Supporting Capers are none other than two branches on the Dick LeBeau Coaching Tree, Kevin Greene and Darren Perry, coaching the Packers linebackers and defensive backs, respectively.

Kevin Greene of course manned the outside linebacker slot opposite Greg Lloyd from 1993 until Super Bowl XXX in 1995. Derry served as Cowher and Caper’s free safety (who played so well as a rookie in training camp, he made Pro Bowler Thomas Everett expendable) until 1998, and returned to coach defensive backs for Cowher from 2003 to 2006.

  • But Cowher Power’s echo isn’t solely heard on Green Bay’s defense.

Tom Clements is the Green Bay Packers offensive coordinator. In 2001, Bill Cowher hired Clements to be the Steelers first quarterbacks coach since Bill Parilli held those duties in 1973. During that time Clements guided Kordell Stewart through the most productive phase of his career.

Further down the coaching roster is Alex Van Pelt. Former Pitt quarterback Van Pelt of course isn’t a former Steeler, technically, but the Steelers did draft him in 8th round of the 1993 draft. Van Pelt couldn’t beat out Rick Strom for the third string quarterbacking position, got cut, and eventually caught on with the Buffalo Bills, where he enjoyed 9 year career as a back up.

With Green Bay fighting for a playoff spot and Aaron Roger’s return pending, you can bet that the Packer’s coaching staff has forgotten any hometown team sentimentalities.

But win or lose, its not hard to imagine “Yinz looked pretty strong ought there” and “So did yinz” being exchanged during post game handshakes.

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Watch Tower: Troy Polamalu Overrated? Yeah, Right.

Tory Polamalu is not finding much love in the peanut gallery these days.

The Reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year recently found himself on the blunt end of some pretty harsh criticism of two members of the national media. Let’s dissect these arguments.

Polamalu “Over Rated”?

CBS Sports Pete Prisco went so far as to label Troy Polamalu as the league’s “most overrated player.” He further explained:

He was selected as the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2010 — an award I couldn’t figure out — and then disappeared in the playoffs, even getting trucked by Ray Rice of the Ravens in the playoffs.

He was a spinning top in the Super Bowl, trying to cover Packers receivers and instead watched them rip off big gains and two touchdowns on his watch.

The Packers exposed the reason I think Polamalu is overrated. He isn’t great in coverage and the NFL is now a cover game. [Emphasis added]

Ok, let’s attack Prisco’s points on Polamalu in order.

He can’t understand Polamalu’s Defensive Player of the year award? Really?

All he did was make game-changing plays in contests against Atlanta, Buffalo, and Baltimore. His play-making ability also ensured that the Steelers struck blood early and dominated rivals Cincinnati and Cleveland.

  • OK, both teams were terrible in 2010, but these were both crucial, must win division contests in December. That’s when underrated players fold.

Let’s not forget the red zone interception that Polamalu made against the Raiders, which slammed the door on any possible comeback in a game where the officials seemed determined to penalize the Steelers for sneezing, let alone hitting, too hard.

As for the Ray Rice comment, having watched the play again, give Rice (and the entire Ravens offense) credit for an incredible play. Polamalu appears to have simply miss judged the angle on his hit. Not to excuse him, but hardly an error that negates the rest of his accomplishments.

Polamalu’s Performance in the 2010 Playoffs

Polamalu took some criticism for not making a dramatic play against Baltimore but, as Joe Starkey pointed out, Joe Flacco only passed for 125 yards in that game, didn’t complete a pass longer than 16 yards, and his top two receivers had zero catches for zero yards.

That only occurs if good things are happening in the secondary. And good things do not happen in the Steelers secondary if Polamalu’s plays poorly.

  • It is true that Polamalu was not up to par in the AFC Championship and the Super Bowl, but he was playing with an Achilles injury.

The argument that a player is overrated if his level drops off in post-season is both a valid and one which Mike Wallace perhaps needs/may need to answer.

But has Prisco forgotten what a healthy Polamalu can do in the playoffs? Perhaps, so let’s remind him:

Yeah, now you were telling me that Polamalu was overrated?

49 Players Ahead of Number 43?

Sports Illustrated columnist Peter King has been issuing his own list of the NFL’s top 100 players, and he only rated Troy Polamalu at number 50 (while also questioning another ranking that put Ben Roethlisberger at 41.

King explains his low rating of Polamalu this way:

Here’s why I put the reigning defensive player of the year where I did: This list is not based entirely on how a player played in 2010, or where his current body of work places him today. It also includes how a player will play in 2011 and the future. The past is important for establishing greatness, and Polamalu has certainly been a great strong safety. But what is he now? I’m not sure. He’s missed 13 games due to injury in the last two seasons. He was mostly invisible in the Steelers’ run to the Super Bowl last season.

I take issue with King’s comment that Polamalu was “invisible in the Steelers run the Super Bowl” for the reason below.

Beating the Ravens in December in Baltimore was most certainly an integral part of the Steelers run the Super Bowl.

Beyond that, I am unable argue to vigorously against the rest of King’s charge.

  • Troy Polamalu is one of the greatest players in the game today – when healthy.
  • Given what he does, the way he does it, and when he does it, it I argue that Troy Polamalu has the mark of an all-time great – when healthy.

If you think the later comment is an overstatement, think again.

One of the strongest arguments in favor of Lynn Swann’s enshrinement in Canton during the 1990’s when Hall of Fame voters, including King, resisted his induction was that even 20 years after his retirement, fans would still marvel at an acrobatic catch and say “That was a Lynn Swann catch.”

  • 20 years from now, people are likely to look at incredible defensive plays and say, “That was a Troy Polamalu play.”

But with that said, King, sadly, may be right. Earlier this off season Tim Gleason of Behind the Steel Curtain aka “Mary Rose” compared Polamalu to a European sports car – best car on the highway – when not in the shop.

Polamalu’s explosive play is taking its toll on his body.

With 8 seasons under his belt Polamalu is unlikely have the type of 14 season career that other great safeties like Ronnie Lott or Donnie Shell had.

But Steel Curtain Rising certainly hopes that Polamalu has a couple of three more years of peak performance left in him.

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Steelers Defeat Jets 24-19, Head to Super Bowl XLV!

What a game!

What a tale of two halves!

What a way to celebrate Myron Cope’s birthday!

Thanks go out to Greg and Diane, Nick and of course Gustavo who came out to the Alamo to give Steelers Nation a presence in Buenos Aires!

The Steelers piled up a 24-3 lead in the first half, then held on for dear life in the second.

Hats off to Rex Ryan, Mark Sanchez, and the New York Jets. They could have easily mailed it in on the second half, but they fought the Steelers tooth and nail, turning in one of the most valiant performances in AFC Championship history.

In the end the Steelers prevailed, thanks to some stout defense and some smart offense.

On its on to Dallas for Super Bowl XLV to take on the Green Bay Packers.

Steel Curtain Rising will be back tomorrow with full analysis on the Steelers quest to climb the Stairway to Seven!

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Vikings Give Steelers Nation Reason to Appreciate the Rooneys

Sometimes the best posts are the ones you don’t write.

How’s that, you ask?

As the entire football world knows, last August Brett Favre again dominated the news coverage with his annual “retire, retire me not” soap opera only to show up at Vikings headquarters 2 weeks prior to training camp.

It made for good football copy, and I fully admit to interest in the outcome.

But the sheer skeptical of a player, with no formal ties or history with a franchise, holding an entire organization hostage bordered on the inane.

Work commitments prevented a “Never Would Happen in Pittsburgh” post from gracing his corner of cyberspace.

And just as well, as Brett Favre came out and did want no one expected him to do, putting together a phenomenal season worthy of a man half his age.

Before going on, let me make a few confessions about Brett Favre’s history with me. I was an early Brett basher. First because he was tremendously hyped even before his first game in Green Bay (I remember the headline “Sunday Could be the beginning of the Brett Favre era in Green Bay.)

The fact that his first game and first win coincided with Bill Cowher’s first loss and Rod Woodson’s worst game helped his cause none here (click here to see lowlights from that lamentable day at Lambeau.)

I remained a Favre skeptic for a while, but waned while he started justify and then not only live up to but beyond the hype. He really earned my respect on Christmas even 1995, when Kevin Greene and Greg Lloyd, among others, continually knocked the snot out of Favre, but Favre refused to relent.

So I found myself rooting for Favre in 2009, save for his visit to Heinz Field.

And when the Steelers failed to make the playoffs, I was among those who wanted to see Favre end his career hoisting the Lombardi Trophy.

The thought that Favre’s career might end with an interception pained me.

That Was Then, This is Now

But perhaps not just as much as it pained Favre.

Favre knew he needed ankle surgery if he was to play again, yet he delayed it until late in the off season. He dithered again about whether or not to play, until his coach sent a posse down to Mississippi to get him to play.

Since then you’d think Ringling Brothers had set up shop in the Metrodome. Favre falters (gee Brett, maybe you’d play a little better if you’d taken some snaps in training camp, eh?) Brad Childress brings Favre a toy in the form of Randy Moss. Moss’ performance in Minnesota is Mundane.

Childress cuts Moss after Moss waxes about how much he misses New England and then humiliates the team caterer of all people.

Childress gets taken to the woodshed by Zygi Wilf for not checking with him before cutting Randy Moss. Word is the Wilf polled the locker room to gauge support of Childress….

Can you imagine a player, a quarterback, holding the Steelers hostage, keeping Steelers Nation hanging on a thread by his every word? Can you imainge Chuck Noll, Bill Cowher, or Mike Tomlin bringing in a Diva mid-season only to cut him, and then only to get into a very public spat with upper management over whether it was right or not?

No, you can’t.

In contrast, the Vikings are almost a picture of anarchy.

Dan Rooney would never have allowed such a spectacle to unfold. Neither would Art Rooney II.

And for that, Steelers fans should be thankful.

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Joey Galloway, Jared Retkofsky Join Steelers

The Steelers today took steps to shore up their ailing receiving corps. as Joey Galloway joined the active roster. This move came one day after Limas Sweed was ruled out for the rest of the year for “personal reasons.”

It was also announced that Hines Ward’s hamstring is still bothering him and rookie Mike Wallace bruised a knee during Sunday’s victory over Green Bay.

The Steelers had attempted to sign Galloway during the off season, but he opted to play for New England instead, where he caught 7 passes before being released in October.

Jared Retkofsky also returned to the roster from the practice squad to the 53 man roster, to replace long snapper Gerald Warren.

Retkofsky served as the team’s long snapper in 2008 following the injury of Warren against the Colts all the way through to Super Bowl XLIII.

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Greg Warren, Limas Sweed, Out For the Year

Yahoo! Sports is reporting that both Greg Warren and Limas Sweed are out for the year. Warren injured his ACL on the final play of the Steelers 37-36 victory over the Packers.

Limas Sweed has been sick with the flu. It was believed that it was just regular flu, which makes the team’s decision to place him on the non-football injury reserve list interesting.

Regardless, Sweed has had a disappointing sophomore year, consisting of little more than dropped passes at key moments. While the team must still hope to get something out of their 2008 number two pick, he was unlikely to help them much this year.

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Steelers Gut Out 37-36 Win Over Packers

During six of the Steelers seven loses during the 2009 season, Steelers Nation watched in agony as the men in Black and Gold let fourth quarter lead after fourth quarter lead slip away in spite of themselves.

  • Today against the Green Bay Packers the Pittsburgh Steelers reversed the course of events finding a way to a last minute victory in spite of some, perhaps, questionable coaching.

The Steelers and Packers are the NFL’s two most storied franchises, and so it is fitting that the two teams would play one for the ages on the first occasion that Pittsburgh-native Mike McCarthy brought the Packers to Heinz Field.

Please, spare me any analysis of how this game affects any playoff results, not because the Steelers still have a long, long way to go before that can become relevant, but rather because this game revealed something far more important.

Defenseless

The phrase “The Steelers and the Packers played one for the ages” conjures images of hard hitting, smash mouth football, of tyrannical coaches like Vince Lombardi, of mean and nasty players like Ray Nietzsche and Jack Lambert.

These images only intensify when you factor in that the Packers entered the game with the number two defense, and the Steelers entered the game with the number four defense.

  • Instead, the two teams put on an air exhibition worthy of the legacies of Don Coryell and Joe Gibbs.

The word from the pundits all season long has been that today’s NFL is all about offense and passing and that defense and running have gone by the wayside.

Purists like yours truly has hopped that something would come along and disprove this thesis. Ironically, on Sunday Post Gazette ran a feature highlighting the success of the defense that Dom Capers, Dick LeBeau, and Marv Lewis installed in Pittsburgh back in 1992; the same defense Green Bay fielded.

  • If any two teams could show that this 2009 obsession with passing was just a fad, it would be Green Bay and Pittsburgh. Alas, their play gave the pundits ample ammunition.

Be that as it may, things change quickly in the NFL, and what is in vogue one year can be old hat the next, and so it may be with the demise of defense and rushing.

But one thing that cannot be disputed is that:

  • the Steelers defense, without Troy Polamlu at least, has no hope of defending the pass.

Was Mike Tomlin Crazy, or Calculating?

Which brings us to Mike Tomlin.

Steel Curtain Rising had prepared to condemn Mike Tomlin with moral indignation for on-sides kick, irrespective of the final out come.

Tomlin seemed to ignore the very lesson that the Packers most recent trip to Pittsburgh so clearly demonstrated: Trick plays can give an effective team an edge, but can be equally fatal for a struggling unit (click here for a full recount of the lesson Ray Sherman’s offense left us.)

It seemed like raw emotion, rather than reason, had gotten the better of Tomlin, and that the team was going to lose another one in the fourth not because of poor plays, but because of poor coaching decisions.

But then I read Tomlin’s explanation.

I’ll be very bluntly honest with you, based on the way the game was going in the second half, first of all I thought with the element of surprise we had a chance to get it, but if we didn’t get it and they were to score, then we would have necessary time on the clock to score or match their score.

Plan A didn’t work, we got the ball but we were illegal, that was the correct call, but it kind of unfolded the way you envisioned it. We had 30 minutes of evidence that we could drive the ball on them, we also conversely had 30 minutes of evidence to show they could also drive the ball on us. That’s why we took the risk when we did. [Emphasis added]

There you have it folks. In so many words, Mike Tomlin knew his defense had no chance of stopping the Packer’s passing offense – the Packers made little or no pretense of running the ball in the second half.

So his logic was cold and calculating. Either get the ball back and hope to add to the lead, or give them a short field to work with so that they can score quickly.

It is not pleasing to think that the defense has fallen so far that coaches need to take those game gambles, but they did, and it worked. Barley. But as Tomlin says, “they don’t add style points.”

Why They Call Him BIG Ben

Tomlin’s gamble worked because his players pulled it off. Losing is never pleasant, but during the Steelers five-game streak it was difficult to gauge whether each loss was more ignominious or more demoralizing. Bob Labriola, the editor of Steelers Digest, himself all but said the Steelers had quit against the Browns.

Credit Mike Tomlin for rallying his players. There was fight in this Steelers team, even among the units that failed to acquit themselves well (namely the entire defense, the coverage teams, and the offensive line.)

As Tomlin stated during his pre-game press conference, if you fail to play dominating football, then you’ve got to make plays.

  • And Mike Tomlin’s players made plays, starting with Ben Roethlisberger.

Less than ten days ago authorities of no less stature than Bob Smizik and Jim Wexell were calling out Ben, claiming that generous love handles he had put on were impeding his both mobility and ability to improvise.

Well, Ben showed he can still improvise, and then some.

Games like this make you want to track down ESPN’s Thomas Neumann and Scott Symmes who wrote prior to the 2007 season, explaining why Ben would never make it to the Hall of Fame:

Roethlisberger proved to be an effective game manager in his first two pro seasons, and he has a Super Bowl ring to show for it…. Now the Steelers are losing personnel from their championship team, and nothing to this point suggests that Roethlisberger can carry an undermanned team on his shoulders…. [Emphasis added.]

Oh really?

On a day when Ben got no help from his offensive line, no help from the defense, and had little running game to lean on, he put up 503 yards passing – without throwing an interception, putting him in the exclusive company of Warren Moon and Y.A. Tittle.

Ben did more than carry his team. He had the commanding presence of a general on the battlefield. He adjusted protections, called audibles, and chewed out teammates, goading them to fight on.

As Santonio Holmes put it, “Only one guy was talking in huddle, and that was Ben. No other voice was spoken. No one had an opportunity to talk. We were dead tired.”

  • Ben must have been tired too, but he did not let them stand in his way.

As Roethlisberger himself declared, “We didn’t quit, everybody believed that we could do it…. That is kind of a Pittsburgh mentality, we don’t quit no matter what.”

Amen.

At 7-7 this Steelers team has some issues to resolve, but fortunately, attitude is not one of them.

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Steelers vs. Packers History – Tales from the NFL’s Two Most Storied Franchises

The Pittsburgh Steelers and the Green Bay Packers are the NFL’s two most storied franchises. The latter defined winning and excellence in the 1960’s; the former defined the term “Dynasty” for the NFL in the 1970’s. Both franchises were fortunate to hit their respective peaks as the NFL was coming of age.

Yet, due to the conference and division realignment which followed the NFL-AFL merger, these two teams have seldom faced off.

In fact, in the last 20 years, the teams have only met four times, but those meetings have contributed much to the lore of both franchises, including:

Bill Cowher Reveals Himself as a Head Coach
Steelers So Close, Yet So Far
Look What Happens When You Try to Get Smart
Never Under Estimate the Importance of Back Ups
Rookie Mike Wallace is a 60 Minute Man Too
Steelers Fall Short in Quest for 7

Below, you can find a recap of each of those encounters.

Bill Cowher Reveals His Identity as a Head Coach
9/17/92 @ Lambeau Field, Packers 17, Steelers 3
History will long remember this game as Brett Favre’s first NFL start. Conversely, it was also Rod Woodson’s career worst and Bill Cowher’s first loss.

Although the words “Hall of Fame” and “Rod Woodson” were already being collocated in 1992, Woodson fell flat in almost every conceivable way possible on this day.

If you have a strong stomach for memories you’d rather forget, you can watch the game summary from NFL Prime Time.

For Steelers fans the significance of this game is in what Bill Cowher revealed about himself.

Near the end of the game Cowher approached Woodson. Rod turned away fearing a tongue lashing. Instead, Cowher consoled him, saying that “You’ve had a bad day at he office. When that happens, you don’t quit the job, you analyze what went wrong and bounce back.”

Steelers fans loved Cowher for his fire, brimstone and in your face bravado, but…

  • …in his first loss as a head coach, The Chin showed that he was a head coach who was smart enough to know when to kick a player in the a_s, and when to pat him on the back.

Steelers So Close, Yet So Far
12/24/95, @ Lambeau Field, Packers 24, Steelers 19

The Steelers playoff position was set, while the Packers still had something to play for. Bill Cowher benched many starters – Fred McAfee and Steve Avery were the Steelers starting backfield.

Yet this was a hard-fought, knock down drag out game. Kevin Greene hit Brett Favre so hard that he appeared to be coughing up his brains at one point. Jim McMahon did come in for a few snaps, but Favre refused to stay out long.

The Steelers second string almost pulled it off, as Yancy Thigpen dropped a sure touchdown pass as time expired.

  • It was a metaphor for things to come as the Steelers took Dallas to the brink in Super Bowl XXX, until Neil O’Donnell threw it away…

Look What Happens When You Try to Get Smart…
11/9/98 @ Three Rivers Stadium, Steelers 27, Packers 20

Kordell Stewart and the entire Steelers offense had suffered and struggled under Ray Sherman’s offense all season. That seemed to change on Monday Night Football as Steelers amassed a 27-3 lead in the first three quarters.

As the fourth quarter began, Pittsburgh appeared poised to make it 34-3, until Sherman decided to get cute on the goal line. Sherman thought it would be smart to revive Slash, and sent Mike Tomzack under center with Kordell lining up as a receiver. All went well, until the snap….

A bobbled exchange leads to a fumble, which Keith McKenzie returns 88 yards for a touchdown. The Packers score 17 unanswered points, but Pittsburgh holds on.

  • The moral of the story there is that trick plays can give an already efficient offense a lethal edge, but they can be just as lethal for a struggling unit.

Never Under Estimate the Importance of Back Up
11/6/05 @ Lambeau Field, Steelers 20, Packers 10

Ben Roethlisberger is out, so is Jerome Bettis. Willie Parker suits up, but only lasts for 5 carries. But Bill Cowher a deep bull pen to fall back on. Charlie Batch starts, and while his numbers aren’t pretty, he avoids critical mistakes.

But the star of the day is Duce Staley, who gets his first carry of the year that day, and adds a total of 14 more for 76 yards and including a long run of 17 and a touchdown. He also catches to passes for nine yards.

  • As Bill Cowher said the day Pittsburgh released Stanley, “If we don’t have Duce, we don’t win that game. If we don’t win that game, we don’t make the playoffs, and never get to Super Bowl XL.”

The Steelers signed Duce Staley to a generous contract in 2004, and he only ended up playing 16 games over three season. But in the end, it was money well spent.

This Wallace is a 60 Minute Man Too
12/20/09 @ Heinz Field, Steelers 37, Packers 36

This installment of the Pittsburgh Steelers vs. the Packers had been billed as the battle of the defensive titans, as the two teams were leading the league in defense. To add an exclaimation point, it pitted Dick LeBeau vs. Dom Capers, the two architects of the Steelers defense of the 1990’s.

But it was anything but a defensive struggle.

The Steelers and Packers combined for 936 yards and the lead changed hands four times in the fourth quarter as Aaron Rodgers passed for 383 yards. Ben Roethlisberger did him better, however, passing for 503 yards and in doing so only becoming only the 10th NFL signal caller to break the half-century mark.

Hines Ward and Heath Miller both broke the 100 yard mark, but the star of the game was Steelers rookie of the year Mike Wallace. Wallace bookended his game with touchdown catches. Taking his first pass for 60 yards to the end zone, and he did it again with his last pass, hauling in a 19 yard grab with 0:03 seconds remaining.

Stairway to Seven Will Have to Wait

And that brings us to Super Bowl XVL and the Steelers ill-fated quest for Lombardi Number Seven.

The Steelers made some early mistakes and, as Mike Tomlin, ever the class act, insisted, the Packers made some tremendous plays that put the Steelers deep in a hole.

The men in Black and Gold fought back furiously and were alive until the game’s final minute. But, when the final gun sounded, the Packers simply showed themselves to be the better team and, to their credit, the Steelers acknowledged as much.

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