Are the Pittsburgh Steelers Playing ‘Wait and See’ with Keisel?

NFL Free Agency starts next Tuesday. Actually, agents can officially begin contacting teams this weekend and unofficial talks have been going on for, well, weeks.

Teams however are free to talk with or sign their own players, as the Steelers have done with Jason Worilds, Troy Polamalu, Heath Miller, and Will Allen. But there’s one person’s whose phone hasn’t rung:

Defensive end Brett Keisel @bkeisel99 might be at end of @steelers career, writes @arobinson_Trib http://t.co/5rWGrEfA34
— PittsburghTribSports (@TribSports) March 7, 2014

Brett Kesiel has said that he wants to finish his career in Pittsburgh.

But he’s also made clear that he believes he has something to contribute, and that he will play elsewhere if that is what is necessary. While the Steelers have generally tried to make it possible for long-tenured veterans to retire in Pittsburgh, more than a few veterans have played a year or two elsewhere before hanging it up.

  • Every era has seen its share of stories. 

Steelers Nation still loses sleep over Franco Harris in Seattle. Craig Wolfey joined the Steelers in 1980 but departed as a Plan B free agent in 1990. Tunch Ilkin helped tutor Leon Searcy before departing to Green Bay. John Jackson started for 9 years before finishing in San Diego and Cincinnati. Alan Faneca and Joey Porter of course went to in New York and Miami before finishing in Pittsburgh West aka Arizona.

Steelers to Make Move on DL, But Who, First?

There’s no question that the Steelers are going to make some move on defensive line in free agency. Its not a case of wanting to, its needing to. In addition to Keisel, Al Woods and Ziggy Hood are free agents. Hood is likely gone, according to press reports. That leaves Woods and Keisel.

  • Of the two, Woods will likely be the Steelers top priority, simply because he is the younger of the two and because he’s got position flexibility. 

Just because the Steelers haven’t called Keisel, doesn’t mean they’ve closed the door to bringing him back. It appears the Steelers are going to allow Keisel to test the free agent waters and then make a move.

  • Before they can make a move for Kesiel or Woods, the Steelers need to free more cap space.

They can do so by extending Ben Roethlisberger’s contract and/or restructuring it. They could also restructure Antonio Brown’s. And of course there is the possibility that LaMarr Woodley and/or Ike Taylor could be released, or in Taylor’s case restructured.

The Steelers need to bring Keisel back if they can. But they should move quickly. Keisel isn’t going to be a top free agent target, but there are a lot of teams with a lot of excess salary cap money to spend who might be willing to throw it at an aging yet still productive 3-4 defensive end.

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Steelers Free Agent Focus: Drafting Ziggy Hood Should Neither Haunt Nor Make Pittsburgh Happy

The Super Bowl winner picks last in the NFL Draft, which means that the Pittsburgh Steelers are the only team to have that “honor” six times. They’ve used their pick on the likes of Dave Brown, Bennie Cunningham, Greg Hawthorne, Mark Malone, Santonio Holmes and most recently, Ziggy Hood.

How does Ziggy Hood fit in with the group above? Clearly, somewhere in the middle. Exactly where? The Steelers decision in free agency will tell us a lot about management’s answer to that question.

Capsule Profile of Ziggy Hood with the Steelers

The Steelers picked Hood with the 32nd pick in the 2009 NFL Draft – in other words, Hood would have been the fourth player taken in the second round had he come of age when Chuck Noll was still made the selections.

Hood didn’t play much as a rookie, and some in the press sought to make a big deal of that when Aaron Smith went down and the Steelers turned to Travis Kirschke instead of Hood. Hood got his snaps and helped the Steelers beat back the Ravens late in the season. Smith again would go down in 2010 and this time Hood assumed the starting role. His play was undistinguished until late in the season when he went on a tear, registering 3 sacks in the regular season’s final 3 games, as well as a sack in the playoffs vs. Baltimore and then again in Super Bowl XLV.

Hood seemed primed for a break out, but the breakout never came. While it’s unfair to say that Hood played “poorly” in 2011 and 2012, he did nothing to stand out. He began 2013 as a starter, but was displaced at mid-season by Cameron Heyward, and the Steelers have not looked back since.

The Case for Keeping Hood

The Steelers know what they have in Hood. A durable, predictable, solid but not spectacular 3-4 end. The rest of the NFL knows this and is not likely to throw a lot of money at Hood.

Clearly, you expect more from a first round pick, even a late one. But the Steelers have salary cap issues, and they can likely get Hood back at a very cap friendly contract. No real frills, but no real risks either.

The Case for Letting Hood Walk

The Steelers need to improve their front seven, and they cannot rely on or expect any real improvement from Hood. Hood is an average NFL starter. In that light it would be best for the Steelers to invest their time, roster spot and salary cap dollars elsewhere.

Curtain’s Call on Ziggy Hood

When judged alongside the other post Super Bowl picks Ziggy Hood is clearly above the Mark Malone and Greg Hawthorne’s of the world, but just as clearly below the Bennie Cunningham, Dave Brown, and Santoino Holmes of the world.

This middling tendency continues when judging Hood alongside other first round defensive lineman the Steelers have taken in the modern era, Hood pales in comparison to Joe Greene and Casey Hampton but is certainly a step above Keith Gary, Darryl Sims and Aaron Jones.

The tricky issue with Hood is that the Steelers cannot likely bring back both him and Brett Keisel, and they have no proven depth at defensive end. There’s been talk that Steve McLendon will move to defensive end – but that requires someone to take his place at nose tackle.

Hood can likely be had back at a cap-friendly contract, but that won’t do anything to improve the Steelers at this position of need. The smart money would be to let Hood test the market, see what defensive line talent can be acquired in the draft, and then bring him back or not if he’s still available.

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Steelers Free Agent Focus: Need to Keep Brett Keisel if They Can

Kevin Colbert’s best draft came in 2002, not because of the superstars he brought the Steelers, but because round-for-round, he brought in better value for pick than any other Steelers draft during his tenure.

Although he was largely overlooked at the time, perhaps his most impactful pick came last, in the form of Brett Keisel.

Capsule Profile of Brett Kesiel with the Pittsburgh Steelers

Sometimes it simply takes players time to develop. That was the case with Brett Keisel, who only appeared in 5 games as a rookie, and did not start a game until after earning a ring Super Bowl XL. But Keisel was ready, having notched 3 sacks in John Mitchell’s defensive line rotation.

During the early tenure of his starting career, Keisel was overshadowed by Aaron Smith and Casey Hampton. But that certainly did not stop Keisel from being a quality runstopper and a defensive end capable of making some noise as in a 3-4 system.

Kesiel notched 5.5 sacks in his first year as a starter, and has registered 20 since then. Perhaps the greatest testament to Kesiel’s ability is that he blossomed just as age and injury started to limit Aaron Smith.

Keisel’s play can’t be measured solely by the numbers. He’s shown an ability to make plays in a timely fashion.

Brett Keisel may have begun his time as an overlooked member of a stout defensive line, but his contributions were never undervalued by those who knew.

The Case for Keeping Keisel

At age 35, “Life’s work” to use Chuck Noll’s phrase, is clearly beckoning Brett Keisel. But 2013 showed that Kesiel still has something left in the tank. While Cameron Heyward surpassed him as the unit’s top defensive lineman, it should be noted that Heyward pushed Ziggy Hood and not Keisel to the bench.

Not only did Keisel have the numbers, he still showed an ability to make a play when it counted.

The Case for Letting Keisel Walk

If Keisel still has talent and still has the ability to perform at a high level, he also has durability issues. He’s only started 1 16 game season since 2007. Last year he missed four games. And while his enduring ability to deliver is impressive, Kesiel will 36 during the 2014 regular season, and at that age players can lose it quick.

The Steelers defense needs to get younger. And getting younger usually does not involve retaining players who are closer to 40 than 30. And for all of the talk about Keisel’s ability play at a high level at an advanced age, Ziggy Hood’s sack and tackle total were close to Keisel’s, but Hood had the benefit of 5 fewer starts.

Curtain’s Call on Keisel

Deciding to keep a defensive lineman of at Brett Keisel’s age is a risk, plain and simple. The threat of injury or a drop off is real. There’s also the issue of Hood. While Hood is a disappointment as a first round pick decision to sign him can ensure experienced depth on the line for another 2-3 years, no matter who the Steeler draft. Keeping Keisel likely means closing the door to Hood.

  • But with any decision on Keisel must go beyond the numbers.

As Jerome Bettis conversation with Ron Cook of the Pittsburgh Post Gazette reveals why:

Teams always are looking to cut 8-to-10-year veterans and keep younger, cheaper guys. You see the repercussions when you do. You have to have the right older players to set the tone for the young guys and show them how to be pros. If you don’t, you have chaos.

Brett Keisel is a real leader on this Pittsburgh Steelers defense. After Charlie Batch quarterbacked the 2012 Steelers to an inspiring road win vs. Baltimore, it was Keisel who worried aloud that the younger players didn’t quite realize the need to keep the pedal to the metal. Unfortunately, results vindicated Keisel’s worries.

In the final analysis, the Steelers would do well to bring back Brett Keisel, as the potential benefits outweigh the risks. But this comes with a caveat – Keisel needs to play at or near veteran minimum.  If Keisel wants to go out and seek the best he can find on the open market, he has that right.

But hopefully the Steelers and Colbert will find a way for him to retire as a Steeler.

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Pittsburgh Steeelers 2014 Free Agent Focus

NFL Free Agency is a month away. And like the 2013 free agent period, 2014 figures to be just as or more busy for the Pittsburgh Steelers. And like 2013 this coming free agent period figures to be more about who is leaving than who is coming in.

The Steelers have a staggering 22 unrestrcited free agents. In addition to that, there are at least three players under contract who could become free agents thanks to their salary cap status.

Salary Cap Purgatory Not Over, Yet….

That’s a staggering number, especially for a team which is struggling for cap space. Nonetheless, the Steelers salary cap situation is said to be better now than it was in 2012 or 2013, but some moves and some pain will be needed. And a number of players who all things being equal would probably stay will likely be lost.

There also remains the matter of Ben Roethlisberger’s contract. Roethlsiberger is under contract for two more years, but his cap values are very, very high thanks to several renegotiations.

Art Rooney II has said that he wants Roethlisberger to retire as a Steelers, but that his contract might not be extended this year. This is certainly possible, but it is hard to figure how the Steelers will manage without a more cap-friendly deal.

Steel Curtain Rising plans to chart the Steelers moves in free agency and profile all of their free agents. Below is a list of free agents and players who are not free agents but could be.

Steelers Who Could Become Free Agents:

Troy Polamalu
LaMarr Woodley
Ike Taylor

Steelers 2014 Free Agents:

S Will Allen
WR Plaxico Burress
S Ryan Clark
WR Jerricho Cotchery
RB Jonathan Dwyer
DE Ziggy Hood
TE David Johnson
RB Felix Jones
DE Brett Keisel
P Mat McBriar
OL Eric Olsen
TE Michael Palmer
WR Emmanuel Sanders
RB LaRod Stephens-Howling
LB Stevenson Sylvester
C Cody Wallace
LS Greg Warren
LB Jamaal Westerman
OL Guy Whimper
DT Al Woods
LB Jason Worilds
OL Fernando Velasco

What a long list indeed. Check back regularly for updates to the Steelers 2014 Free Agent Focus containing profiles on each player and updates and news as it breaks.

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Steelers Defense by the Numbers: 46 and 1,279 Explain Dick LeBeau’s “Decline”

Football may have surpassed baseball as the US’ pastime long ago, but when it comes to statistics the gridiron can only hope to hold its own vs. the diamond. Yet holding its own it is as every year information technology puts more and more data in the hands of experts and amateurs alike.

During the Mike Tomlin era, Steelers defenses have finished 1st four times 2nd once in 2010 and 5th in 2009. In 2013 that ranking on total yards allowed dipped to 13th. In some corners of Steelers Nation easily explain this by leaping to the assumption that Dick LeBeau suddenly woke up and forgot everything he knew. Others cling to Warren Sapp’s tired “Old Slow and Done” dictum.

However, Alan Robinson of the Pittsburgh Tribune Review has unearthed two stats that reveal just how faulty those two assumptions are.

What are those two numbers? 46 and 1,279. What do they represent? Snaps played by Steelers rookies in Dick LeBeau’s defense in 2012 vs. 2013.

  • The exponential increase explains a lot.

Robert Golden played all 46 snaps by defensive rookies in 2012. Jarvis Jones led the rookie class with 646 snaps followed by Vince Williams whose snap count clocked in at 406. Shamarko Thomas accounted for the bulk of the rest of those snaps, but Terence Garvin was also working his way into the lineup late in the season, and rookies Brain Arnfelt and Hebron Fangupo also saw spot duty late in the season.

Anyone seeking to understand the impact of 46 snaps played by one rookie vs. 1,279 played by five rookies in a Dick LeBeau defense need look no further than a ‘confession’ made by former defensive coordinator Tim Lewis.

Like John Fox, Tim Lewis broke into the NFL with the Steelers after coaching defense for Pitt, with Lewis’ first year being 1995. When Bill Cowher promoted Lewis to defensive coordinator in 2000 Lewis made a revealing comment that he didn’t really begin to understand LeBeau’s defense until the ’95 season’s final game Super Bowl XXX.

  • Keep in mind, that Lewis made that statement after four years of playing in the NFL and 8 years as a collegiate coach.

And if that was his reaction one can imagine how difficult it must be for rookie’s to pick up on LeBeau’s nuances.

Does 2014’s Peril Spell Promise for 2013? Maybe, Maybe Not

With 2013 fading into the rearview mirror there’s a temptation to look at those 1,279 rookie defensive snaps and count them as some sort of equity towards 2014. And the unit should benefit from the baptism by fire endured by those rookies.

  • But exposure to a system does not equal success with it.

Robert Golden led rookie defenders in 2012 and was seen as an up and comer entering training camp, yet played very little outside of special teams.

The other operative issue will be the 2014 rookie snap count itself. With Ike Taylor holding a high cap value, Brett Keisel approaching his “Life’s work” and Ziggy Hood about to enter free agency its not too difficult to imagine another rookie finding his way on to the field next season.

Ever since the Debacle in Baltimore the national media has clung to Warren Sapp’s words as a catch all security blanket to explain all that ails the Steelers defense.

But Robinson’s research proves with others such as Jim Wexell argued early on that the Steelers defense should best be described as “Young, green, and inexperienced” as opposed to “Old, slow, and done.”

Jarvis Jones, Shamarko Thomas and perhaps Vince Williams are all projected as starters in 2014. And should that come to pass they will be neither old nor inexperienced thanks to 2013.

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Steelers Prepare for Browns; Steelers Nation Prepares to Bid Farewell to Super Bowl Veterans

There’s something unique about high school sports – You know when someone’s playing time is done. My high school wrestling team had a tradition. During the final home match of the season, seniors would be called out to the mat, and recognized for wrestling one final time.

  • Sadly, the dynamic of personnel changes in the NFL rarely lends itself to such send offs.

This is unfortunate because as the Pittsburgh Steelers prepare to close their 2013 regular season vs. the Cleveland Browns, Steelers Nation is preparing to say farewell to several Steelers starters.

Fully 1/3 of the Steelers roster are unrestricted free agents. That figure includes some budding younger stars, in addition to several Super Bowl veterans.

New Meaning to “Young Money”

Ziggy Hood, Emmanuel Sanders, and Jason Worilds are just a few younger Steelers who will finish their time with the team, and look for their payday. NFL players do not reach free agency until after their fourth season. The average NFL career lasts fewer than four seasons. While that represents a harsh reality for younger players, it also means that second NFL contracts can leave a player set for life, if they manage their money properly.

The Steelers will look to retain some of those players, most notably Worilds, but salary cap realities dictate that they can’t retain everyone.

  • The three players mentioned have had interesting trajectories.

Ziggy Hood is the only first round draft pick and, although he’s flashed, his body of work is largely a disappointment, although Hood is far from an outright bust. Ironically, that fact might make it easy for the Steelers to retain him.

Emmanuel Sanders contributed early as a rookie, and Bruce Arians singled out his injury in Super Bowl XLV as a major complication in that losing effort. Yet Sanders has had injury issues, and has never quite reached a consistent level of play. With Markus Wheaton waiting in the wings, the Steelers are likely to let Sander walk.

Jason Worlids spent his first three NFL seasons fighting off injuries and comparisons to Dallas linebacker Sean Lee. Some of that is unfair, as he entered the league playing behind what, at the time, was the NFL’s best 1-2 outside linebacking duo in the form of LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison. Yet Worilds exploded this year to lead the team with 8 sacks. The Steelers would clearly like to keep him, but Woodley’s contract makes that complicated.

So Long to Super Bowl Veterans

Saying goodbye is always difficult, but some goodbyes are more difficult than others. And the game against the Browns figures to be the last for at least two – if not more, Super Bowl veterans.

During 2012 and 2011 Ryan Clark was probably the most underrated defensive back in the league. Clark was in on every play, laying in the wood on big hits, causing turnovers, and leading the defense. Yet Clark has slowed a step in 2013, and the Steelers invested their 2014 third round pick in trading up to get Shamarko Thomas.

  • Sunday’s game vs. the Browns will almost certainly be Clark’s last at Heinz Field.

Someday someone will probably make a movie about Brett Keisel. From 7th round pick to Super Bowl starter. Keisel joined the Steelers as part of Kevin Colbert’s best ever 2002 draft. He did his time on special teams, worked in spot duty, and assumed the starting role after Super Bowl XL. Keisel was once looked at as simply someone who could “hold his own” along side stars Aaron Smith and Casey Hampton. Yet by 2010 Keisel was the stud on the defensive line, and a leader off the field as well.

  • Like Clark, Steelers Nation will almost certainly say goodbye to Keisel on Sunday.

But the personnel upheavel may not be limited to free agents. And that’s where it really hurts….

Just like James Harrison last year, Troy Polamalu has one year remaining on his contract. Just like James Harrison he has injury history. Just like Harrison, Polamalu possess the unique On the Field Presence that allows him to make game changing plays. And just like Harrison, Polamalu represents a huge salary cap hit.

  • While the odds are probably greater than 50/50 that he’ll return, there’s still a very real possibility that Sunday’s game will be Polamalu’s final one in Pittsburgh.

And no, that does not exhaust the list. The emergence of Vince Williams and Terence Garvin coupled with the possibility of a Sean Spence return will likely make Larry Foote expendable. And Ike Taylor too could find himself a cap casualty, although Taylor will most likely be back.

Roster upheaval is always painful.  But Ben Roethlisberger will be 33 next year, the same age Joe Montana was when he won his last Super Bowl, making roster renewal a necessity.

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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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Steelers Report Card for Win Over Cincinnati @ Heinz Field

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who feels like he’s watching his student shift into high gear just as its too late to get into college, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the win over the Bengals at Heinz Field. As a caveat, no other Steeler grades were consulted prior to this posting.

steelers-report-card-grades-bengals-heinz-field

Quarterback
First, Ben Roethlisberger deserves credit for sounding the “You will see no quit on this team” call loud and clear. Roethlisberger managed the offense in the no huddle in a first half effort that saw the Steelers score 27 points. Overall he was 20 of 25 on the night, and threw on touchdown pass. He also threw an amateurish interception in a play that, had the ball been thrown well, could have iced the game. Still, a solid night. Grade:  B+

Running Backs
Le’Veon Bell again had another nightmarish day running the ball – if you look at his average. But Bell those numbers mask some good runs, and Bell was effective in the short passing game. Bell is also proving himself to be an adept blocker. Felix Jones got five carries on the night, and looked good on all of them. Jonathan Dwyer ran twice for 15 yards in the second quarter, helping the Steelers add a field goal and also entered during the clock killing phase of the game. Grade:  B

Tight Ends
Heath Miller caught four passes. The Steelers offense scored on each of those drives. Coincidence? Not on your life. Matt Spaeth played a lot and didn’t get a catch, but helped with the blocking, as did Miller. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
Antonio Brown led the group with 5 catches for 66 yards. A “quiet night” by his standards, but that make no mistake, he delivered when called upon. Emmanuel Sanders also had a modest night, but was able to deliver on a clock-killing 3rd down conversion late in the game. Jerricho Cotchery had one catch for 2 yards. Grade:  B

Offensive Line 
My, how this unit has come along. Ben Roethlisberger was only sacked once. The December vs. September difference in pass protection has been night and day. Indeed, it would be metaphysically impossible for the protection to have been better on the touchdown pass to Brown. Run blocking, however remains a work in progress, and what game would be complete without a player taken off for injury. This time it was Marcus Gilbert’s turn, although his injury was not serious. Grade:  B-

Defensive Line
As usual, this unit was lead by Camr…. No, it was actually lead by Ziggy Hood. Hood not only led the defensive line in tackles, he recorded a tackle for a loss, a QB hit, and recovered the fumble caused by Troy Polamalu. Hood’s biggest play came when he ended the Bengals second possession with a sack of Andy Dalton, a play which further cemented the Steelers control of the game. Al Woods started and looked strong in the middle and with Cameron Heyward they neutralized the Bengals running game. Woods also had a pass defensed and a tackle for a loss. With McLendon and Kesiel out, it was up to the “youngsters” to get this done. The Kids Are Alright. Grade:  A-

Linebackers
LaMarr Woodley’s return to the lineup lasted all of two plays. Aside from the linebackers had a strong showing. Jason Worilds did not have a sack, but did have two pressures. Lawrence Timmons was all over the field as usual, and Jarvis Jones defensed the Bengals 2 point conversion attempt. Vince Williams resumed his spot at inside linebacker, and Terrance Garvin also saw signifgant time in the Steelers Nickle defense. Grade: B+

Secondary
Cortez Allen replaced William Gay in the starting line up and had a pass defensed. Ike Taylor led the team in tackles and defended two passes. Polamalu forced another fumble and returned to his strong safety spot for most of the night. Will Allen likewise got playing time, and Gay defended a pass. The secondary put in a strong night, but coverage broke down badly on the Bengals final touchdown pass, which, had the two point conversion been successful, could have gotten Cincinnati back in the game. Grade: B-

Special Teams
Special Teams in the NFL is all about “want to” and the devastating job that the punt return team did in clearing a path for Antonio Brown on the 67 yard return (where Brown displayed yet another bust of speed) was all about attitude. While Steel Curtain Rising does not condone helmet to helmet hits, it must be said that Terrance Garvin’s jaw breaking block on Kevin Huber represented an awesome display of power. Shaun Suisham was 3-3 including a 45 yarder into the wind. Mat McBride’s punting average was nothing to write home about, but no punts were returned. While the praise for all of these positives is legitimate, it would be remiss to ignore the fact that the Bengals kick return game enjoyed a lot of success, including one 52 yard return. Those don’t erase the positives, but they do bring the grade down. Grade: B

Coaching
There are times when analysis of the coaching staff revolves around game plans, personnel choices, and strategic decisions. And then there are times when those things finish in a very distant second place. Quitting on a coach when the playoff homes have been elimated is an artform in the NFL. Few coaches can keep a team both fired up and focused.

Yet a visitor from Mars observing the intensity and focus displayed in the first quarter against the Bengals would readily conclude that it was the Steelers, and not the Bengals, who were vying for the division crown and a possible first round bye. While credit for that must be shared across the franchise, Mike Tomlin deserves to be first among equals. Grade:  A-

Unsung  Hero Award
By the time December rolled around, former Steelers head coach Bill Cowher was fond of saying that first year players were no longer rookies. While the greatest jump in performance is typically tracked between years 1 and 2, young players do make progress in their rookie years. And this young gentleman certainly has. This player not only led his unit in tackles, he put himself in position to make a play during the Bengals first attempt to convert a 3rd and 1 and he stopped him man cold. This play set the tone for the entire night, and for that Vince Williams is the Unsung Hero in the victory over Cincinnati at Heinz Field.

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Steelers 30-20 Victory Over Bengals, Flashes Mirror Image to 2013, Lessons for 2014

In the wake of the playoff killing loss to the Miami Dolphins, Mike Tomlin made no bones about his singular objective for the balance of the Steelers 2013 season:  Winning.

  • The question remained – would the Pittsburgh Steelers locker room follow him?

Versus the Cincinnati Bengals, Steelers Nation only needed to wait 10 plays until they got their answer. An answer that came to them the form of a mirror image of the 2013 season, in which they saw a season of misfortune reversed and glimpsed, perhaps, hope for the future…

New Faces in New Places on the Steelers Defense Set the Tone

The 2013 season has taken the Pittsburgh Steelers on a series of hairpin turns.

3 starters were lost during the season opener. Players such as Troy Polamalu have been forced out of position. Its been feast and famine when its come to sacks and turnovers. Players, such as Jason Worilds, who many had essentially given up on, have marginalized 8 figure contract veterans. Triumphant returns have either been delayed (Matt Spaeth) or aborted all together (Sean Spence).

Such ups and downs have made it difficult to get a firm sense for which tendencies define this group of Pittsburgh Steelers. There simply haven’t been enough people in enough of the same spots for long enough to draw meaningful data points. With one exception:

  • The once vaunted Steelers defense has slipped.

Of this, there can be little denying. Statistics might lie, but the missed tackles that cost the Steelers vs. Miami don’t. Yet, if this is a truth that must be rectified in the off season, against the Bengals one other contradictory fact was undeniable.

  • The defense embraced Tomlin’s challenge to fight to the end, and they did it with vigor.

And it happened only 10 plays into the game. It was a single play. The kind that gets lost on a stat sheet. But nonetheless it was one that resonated through the rest of the night.

After the Steelers first drive went 38 yards and then was followed by a punt, Andy Dalton and company went to work from the Steelers 7. A quick pass to A.J. Green was aptly defended by Cortez Allen, but not after Green had gotten 9 yards. Polamalu defended the next pass to Marvin Jones. Ominously, that brought up 3rd and 1.

  • “Ominous is the operative word” because opposing offenses have imposed their will on the Steelers all season long. 

For those not educated in the term “Impose your will”= run the ball where you want, how you want, and when you need to. In short, this was a gimmie for Cincinnati. Giovanni Bernard took the snap. Al Woods and the Steeler defensive line succeeded in getting penetration, pushing the Bengals offensive line into the back field. But Bernard was on his feet. And despite the penetration there was a hole.

Rookie Vince Williams, oft singled out as one of the defense’s weak links in 2013, not only plugged the hole, he met Bernard behind the line of scrimmage and knocked him back.

  • No forward progress. No measurement. No 4th and inches. Williams stopped him cold for no gain.

Standing at 4th and 1 from their own 16 left Cincinnati little chance but to punt. Kevin Huber bobbled the snap. Will Allen and Cortez Allen wasted little time in bringing him down in the end zone, although from some unknown reason the Steelers were denied a safety.

  • Ironically enough, it would go down hill for Huber from there.

The Steelers might have been denied two, but Le’Veon Bell only needed two tries to give the Steelers 6.

The Steelers defense however, was only getting warmed up. Cincinnati got the ball back and, while they weren’t exactly establishing momentum, they did make a first down, and were looking at a third and 11, when Ziggy Hood, another player many had given up on, brought Dalton down for an eight yard loss.

Cincinnati of course punted and it only took Ben Roethlisberger 8 plays to find Antonio Brown, on a play where he had an eternity to throw, in the end zone.

  • The score was 14-0, Steelers and the first quarter had not ended.

Again, the defense did its job as a one yard run followed by two incomplete passes to A.J. Green, defended alternatively by Cortez Allen and Ike Taylor, prompting another Bengals punt, paving the way for Terrance Garvin to make his introduction to the NFL.

Garvin’s contact with the helmet probably will an should draw a fine for the NFL, but the ferociousness of the hit, combined with several other blocks from the punt return team added a resounding bang to the Steelers already explosive 1st quarter, as the Antonio Brown burned through the center of the field for a touchdown.

The score was now Pittsburgh 21, Cincinnati 0, and the first quarter had yet to end.

3 Quarters in the Rear View Mirror

It would be both pretty and poetic to say that the Steelers finished the game in the same dominating fashion in which they started it. Except they didn’t.

  • And ironically, that made the game all the more fitting.

Throughout 2013, when things have gone wrong, whether it has been in London, Baltimore, or Heinz Field, the Steelers formula has varied little.

  • Their formula has been to start slow, get behind by a few scores, rally, and then fall short.

This time it was Cincinnati’s turn to follow the script. Credit Marv Lewis and his players for this – his team did not give up when down by 24-0 or 27-7. They fought on, and when they came within 10 points with 5:46 left in the fourth quarter, victory was plausibly within their reach.

  • But, holding the cards that a 10 point lead gives you, the Steelers turned the tables and made the game a mirror image of 2013 thus far.

Instead of making mistakes to actively lose the game, the Steelers instead made the plays necessary to conserve victory.

  • Jarvis Jones deflected a 2 point conversion attempt
  • Emmanuel Sanders made just enough effort to convert a third down , burning clock and forcing the Bengals to burn time outs
  • Polamalu, Worilds, Will and Cortez Allen shut AJ Green out on Cincinnati’s last possession

Taken individually, there was nothing spectacular about those plays.

Their collective beauty lies in the larger lesson they represented – for one night at least the Steelers veterans had not only succeed in teaching the younger players never to quit, they had also succeded in teaching him to make the plays necessary for victory.

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Rapid Reaction: 7 Key Performances Drive Steelers Defeat of Bengals, 30-20

With the Steelers facing almost impossible odds at making the playoffs, Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin began the week sounding the call of “No Surrender, No Retreat.”

In other words, there would be no 2013 equivalent of #suckforluck no play for draft position in Pittsburgh.

  • The question was, would the Steelers locker room heed the call of their field general?

Versus the Cincinnati Bengals tonight, in front of a record low crowd at Heinz Field, the Pittsburgh Steelers answered that question early in the fourth quarter with a resounding “Hell Yeah!”

As it is almost 2:00 am in Buenos Aires, Argentina where Steel Curtain Rising is written out of, a full summary of the game is impossible at this point. Work looms large tomorrow, and temperatures are expected to approach 100 F.

Still here are some highlights:

  • Ziggy Hood helping set up the first score with a sack of Andy Dalton
  • Le’veon Bell, rushing for another touchdown
  • Ben Roethlisberger going 20-25 and one touchdown
  • Antonio Brown scoring one touchdown in on offense, and another on an 67 punt return
  • Shaun Suisham going 3-3 in field goals, including a 45 yarder in the wind
  • Ike Taylor leading the Steelers with 7 tackles and two passes defensed
  • Troy Polamalu forcing yet another fumble

While this game was far from perfect, there were other individual performances worthy of note, which Steel Curtain Rising will detail in full tomorrow evening.

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