Troy Polamalu Will Return This Season. Or Else He Won’t….

Pittsburgh Steelers fans, who have seen their team struggle mightily in his absence, clamor to know when is Troy Polamalu is going to return.

This week they got some news.

Or did they?

It depends on which story you read.

ESPN.com (and assumptive other outlets) ran an Associated Press story on Troy Polamalu’s return, which cast doubt on the strong safety’s chances of making it back to 2009 this season.

The source cited was none other than number 43 himself:

Asked what it will take for him to play again this season, Polamalu said, ‘A whole lot of feeling. A whole lot of prayers. God willing, hopefully, I’ll be able to play. We’ll see what the doctor says.’

The article itself then talks about Troy’s delayed rehab and examination schedules. The article also emphasizes the point that Polamalu hasn’t been cleared to practices, much less play.

Fear Not Faithful in Steelers Nation

The faithful in Steelers Nation had no cause to fret for long, because the Scott Brown of the Pittsburgh Tribune Review ran an article yesterday headlined “Polamalu Inches Toward Return.”

Like the AP article, the sources is, you guessed it, none other than Polamalu himself! Troy told Brown he already could be playing but isn’t because:

I don’t think I would be a help at all to our team with my current condition. I think if I really felt like I could help this team out, I would be out there playing.

Polamalu also offered some insights into how his presence affects the team.

Who to Believe?

So Troy Polamalu could be playing now if it were absolutely necessary. Then again, he might not make it back for the entire year.

Steelers fans have to wonder, who to believe?

This is particularly difficult, since Polamalu was not only the prime source, but the only source for both stories. Given that Polamalu’s comment are not terribly consistent, either reporter could have cited a source directly or indirectly.

One must suppose that because Polamalu did tell Scott Brown that he could be playing now, perhaps it is safe to believe that 43 will make a return. The other arrow indicating in that direction is Ed Bouchette’s reporting.

When asked about the issue in his weekly chat, Bouchette shared with his readers that he had not heard any rumors that Polamalu would not return….

….Stay tuned.

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Steelers Cut Tyler Palko, Promote Tyler Grisham, Hines Ward Practices

Charlie Batch is apparently well enough to serve as the Steelers third string quarterback, so the Steelers cut former Pitt quarterback Tyler Palko, so reports the Post-Gazette. Another Tyler at the Steelers South Side Complex got good news however, as the Steeler activated former undrafted rookie free agent wide receiver Tyler Grisham from their practice squad.

The Steelers made this move to give them a fourth wide out going into tonight’s game against Cleveland. In a bit of good news, Hines Ward, who injured his hamstring in the loss to Oakland, did practice.

Room for Redman?

The promotion of Tyler Grisham creates a spot on the Steelers practice squad. It will be interesting to see if they fill it by bringing back Isaac Redman, whom they cut last week.

It is also curious to see that the Steelers opted to promote Tyler Grisham from their practice squad in lieu of resigning Shaun McDonald, whom they cut prior to the Baltimore game to make room for Plako.

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Tomlin Vows to Shake Up the Starting Line Up

Reading the Post-Gazette headline “Tomlin may bench some starters against Cleveland,” brought memories rushing back, back 10 years exactly, to the dark days of the 1999 late season meltdown. Let’s take a quick trip back down memory lane…

The Steelers had just gotten upset at home by the expansion Browns, and they were playing in Tennessee. Steve McNair was throwing deep downfield to Chris Samuels. Travis Davis and Scott Shields had him covered, one to the inside and the other to the outside. Both men had perfect position to either take a shot at the ball, or to level a devastating hit.

Instead, both men sort of froze,* and Samuels caught the ball and went 46 yards for a touchdown.

When asked about the play later in the week, Bill Cowher admonished his players, assuring the assembled media that such mediocre play would not be tolerated, nor repeated.

The words sounded hollow at the time, as the latent yet nonetheless apparent question was “Who are you going to replace them with?” Indeed, the starting line up did not change, and less than three weeks later Quardy Ismail lit the Steelers up for 258 yards receiving – empty words indeed.

Lineup Changes Coming in Cleveland

The obvious question for Mike Tomlin is the same. If he wants to sit someone, who is he going to replace him with? About the only back up who has really distinguished himself, outside of the defensive line, is Keyron Fox.

Speaking on Post-Gazette TV, Ed Bouchette outlined a few possible changes.

  • Joe Burnett in for William Gay – Gay is injured so this is almost certain to take place
  • Ziggy Hood to start at defensive end – Hood has looked good thus far
  • Keyron Fox in for Lawrence Timmons – Timmons, has not been bad, just inconsistent
  • Ramon Foster in for Trai Essex – The Steelers rushing attack put up good numbers against Oakland, but those numbers are far, far less impressive after you take out the 60 run
  • Ryan Mundy in for either Tyronne Carter or Ryan Clark – Neither safety has played well lately, but would Mundy be an improvement?

Of course the other change that Tomlin hinted at would be Ike Taylor sitting the pine while Keenan Lewis gets some time. It is funny. Only a short while back, people were saying that interceptions were all that separated Taylor from the status of an elite cornerback.

Nonetheless Taylor’s play has slipped, but so has the play of the entire secondary. Taylor is still their best available player there, and he should continue to start.

Mike Tomlin Speaks

The effect of whatever changes Tomlin makes will remain unknown for another 48 hours, but the way he discussed them in his press conference was interesting:

I think it’s appropriate at this point that we acknowledge that we have an undesirable pattern kind of behavior…. Moving forward this week and beyond, we can’t continue to do what we’ve been doing and assume that that pattern behavior’s going to change and those outcomes are going to change, so… [we] are going to be aggressive in terms of looking at potential changes. Not only what we do schematically but who we have do it. [Emphasis added.]

Ok, Mike Tomlin is a little more cerebral than most NFL head coaches, but all in all its pretty much head coach boiler plate stuff for, heads are rolling.

A few questions down the transcript, he got more intriguing:

You have to acknowledge the potential that this can be kind of a shaken group. We’ve swallowed a lot here of late…. I’m going to be looking very closely at these men. It’s going to provide quality information for me, in terms of who, legitimately, is mentally tough and who can stand the test of adversity, because we have some. And who’s going to lead the charge, more than anything, in terms of getting us out of this and winning the football game. I’m going to be very interested to see who those people are, and who those people aren’t. [Emphasis added.]

Take notes, Daniel Snyder. This is why it is important that the men in the locker room know that the owners have the head coach’s back.

Tomlin probably already has an idea of who is starting to buckle and, without mentioning anyone’s name, he is clearly calling them out. He is sending his team a very clear signal – I am going to be here for the long term, if you want to join me, step it up. Now.

At the very least (in as much as one can gleam “tone” from a transcript), Mike Tomlin’s words did not have the hollow ring that Cowher’s did ten years ago.

Let’s hope they produce a better result on the field.

Varium

There’s a lot of analysis floating around, attempting to diagnose what ails the Steelers.

Bob Smizik suggested that perhaps Dick LeBeau has put too much faith into his players. LeBeau certainly did not forget how to coach defense, but Smizik poses a question that few others are asking. He suggests that the answer is for Tomlin take a more active role in the defensive game planning.

Blitzburgh of Behind the Steel Curtain wrote a very expansive article on after the Steelers loss to the Raiders. As always, he made a lot of great points, but he gave his readers a really long look at how Troy Polamalu’s absence is affecting the rest of the secondary.

Finally, Scott Brown of the Tribune Review hails Tomlin’s decision to start more rookies, and suggests that the Steelers be more open to playing rookies. Not a bad idea on the surface, but he misses the point when he contends that Kevin Colbert and company draft players with the idea that they’ll be productive in 2-3 years.

Well, that may be true, but if it is some of it is a function of the fact that the Steelers have regularly picked late in each round because they’ve played so well. One would figure, however, that the Steelers will have better than normal draft positioning in 2010….

*Someone help me here, as my memory is not clear. I can’t remember if both men froze, or if it was one of those uncanny plays where both Steelers bobbled an interception, but Samuels came down with the ball and made the TD.

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Steelers Choke, AGAIN, and Lose to Raiders 27-24

A week ago an injury-depleted Steelers squad came up short in Baltimore after a very gutsy performance. Steelers Nation generally responded by crediting the men for their effort, and arguing that Pittsburgh was headed in the right direction.

Steel Curtain Rising took exception, arguing that the loss to the Ravens revealed that the 2009 Steelers are doomed to be consistently inconsistent.

How good it would have felt to write “Steel Curtain Rising was wrong, the Steelers are back on their feet.”

Sadly, Steel Curtain Rising was right. About the only revelation to come out of the loss to Oakland is that the Steelers excel in discovering ways to self destruct.

Falling from 6-2 to 6-6

In four weeks the Steelers have fallen from 6-2 to 6-6. It is getting to the point where adjectives fail to describe the four-loss fall, but here’s a shot:

What about the loss to the Raiders? Right now there’s even money on “devastating” and “demoralizing.”

“Only the Raiders”

In two and three quarters seasons, Mike Tomlin has shown himself to be a top notch head coach. There’s no other way to describe a man who guides a team through the NFL’s toughest schedule in a generation and ends it by claiming a 6th Lombardi Trophy.

But during his third season, Mike Tomlin’s Achilles Heel has become horrendously apparent.

  • Mike Tomlin teams play down to the competition.

Coming into the game, Oakland was 1-5 on the road. It had the 31st ranked offense. The Raiders had scored 10 touchdowns in 11 games – that’s less than one per game.

The Steelers defense gave Oakland three touchdowns, in a single quarter.

Fully half of the Steelers losses (thus far) have come at the hands of teams jockeying for draft position. Injuries and freak mishaps are fine, but when a team consistently drops games to inferior talent, place the blame squarely on the coach’s shoulders.

The Steelers Did Rectify Several Wrongs, Except…

Throughout the course of this 6-6 season, several deficiencies have ailed the Steelers.

  • Costly special teams breakdowns
  • Touchdowns dropped in the end zone
  • An inability to pressure the passer at key moments
  • A (perceived) lack of commitment to the run

Yet against the Raiders, none of those ills were apparent.

  • Kick coverage was good, and Stefan Logan finally broke a long one, and he had another very good run back
  • Ben’s receivers caught everything he threw at them
  • Pittsburgh’s defenders racked up 3 sacks, and pressure forced plenty of Oakland punts
  • The Steelers in fact found excellent balance on offense, passing 24 times and running 27 times

Since the losing streak started, the Steelers seemingly have righted a lot of wrongs, but in the end, that effort has not been sufficient.

…As It Was in the Beginning It Shall Be in the End

The key to the sentence above is “right a lot of wrongs,” because the two big wrongs, namely coming up empty in the Red Zone and folding in the fourth quarter, returned to haunt Pittsburgh with a vengeance.

Red Zone Failures
In the first half, the Steelers got into the Red Zone three times.

  • Starting from the Oakland 15, the Steelers managed just three points
  • Advancing to the Oakland 5, they gave it up on downs
  • Driving from mid-field to the Oakland 15, Ben threw an interception in the end zone.

If the Steelers score as little as three more points on any of those Red Zone possessions, the Raiders do not finish regulation with the lead.

A touchdown on any one of them gives the Steelers an advantage.

Fortunately, the Steelers offense adjusted, and scored two touchdowns in the fourth quarter.

An impressive turn around, almost tempting enough to let the offense off the hook, for it would have been enough, had there not been a total and complete defensive collapse in the fourth quarter.

Folding in the Fourth
The Raiders first touchdown was hard to take, but the Steelers had given them the ball at midfield and Oakland simply drove 47 yards in workman-like fashion. Nothing to be proud of, but no cause for panic either.

But the next two drives were inexcusable.

The first saw the defense give up a 75 yard touchdown pass.

Then came the final drive where Gradkowski had completions of 17, 12, 19, 23, and 11 yards. As if five double-digit plays were not enough, the Steelers defense was kind enough to give them another 11 yards on an unnecessary roughness call.

To find a more shameful fourth quarter performance by a Steeler defense, you need to go back to the dark days of 1998 or 1999.

And that observation is more damming than any number or statistic.

Tomlin’s Test

Throughout this losing streak the question has been, “a rally is still possible, can Tomlin rally the troops?”

Now the question is simply, “Can Tomlin keep his team from quitting?”

Mike Tomlin himself seemed to concede as much. When asked about playoff possibilities a dejected Tomlin simply responded:

“I am just trying to win a game.”

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Redman Released from Practice Squad, Vincent/McLendon Return

Isaac Redman’s fairy tail with the Steelers is over, for the time being at least, as the Steelers released him from the practice squad last week. Red Zone Redman was a preseason sensation who repeatedly scored in a variety of goal-line situations both at St. Vincent’s and in preseason games.

The team however waived Redman to make room for running back Justin Vincent. The Steelers also added defensive lineman Steve McLendon to their practice squad.

There’s been a lot of shuffling at the bottom of the roster and on the practice squad with a turnover on special teams and injuries to quarterbacks. Nonetheless, the Steelers motives regarding Redman are a little puzzling, as they opted to release Vincent a few weeks ago when they needed to create space.

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

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

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

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

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

Kudos to John Harris

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Watch Tower: Steelers Digest’s Labriola Rips into Steelers

Let’s begin with a nod to superstition. Yours truly has been a subscriber to Steelers Digest since 1990, back in the pre-internet days when the publication served as a vital source of information about the Black and Gold.

For many of those 19 years (God, that makes me feel old), tradition has been to read editor Bob Labriola’s column on the Saturday evening before the game.

I didn’t get around to reading Labrolia until Sunday on the occasions of the Bears game, the second Bengals game, and the Kansas City game. The results speak for themselves. Last night was about to turn in, when I remembered I still hadn’t read Labrolia – I made sure it got read before shutting my eyes.

An Apologist He is Not

Even though 97.5% of the “news” to be had in the Digest has been available on the internet for a long, long time, I have continued to subscribe, mostly to be able to continue reading Labriola’s insights.

On this particular occasion, Labroila spared no mercy for the players representing the organization that signs his pay check.

Here’s a sampling of his observations on the 2009 Steelers:

The definitive characteristics of the 2008 Steelers… was the ability to finish. Finish plays, finish possession, finish games. Whenever the team absolutely had to get something done, it did….

That characteristic is gone. [sic] In the wind. This team does not finish. Examples of the inability to finish drives were all over the place in that loss to the Bengals at Heinz Field when the offense was 0-4 in the red zone and 0-3 in goal-to-go situations. Examples of the inability to finish games dotted the early part of their 2009 season, when fourth quarter leads were squandered by the defense in Chicago and then again in the following week in Cincinnati….

The Steelers have been missing something all year, and Labriola has put his finger directly on it. All of that would be harsh enough, but he lays it on even thicker a few paragraphs down:

This season is now into its second half, which means a team’s identity largely has been formed, and what the Steelers are showing in that area right now is not pretty.

Championship team do not continue to make the same mistake over and over and over again, as the Steelers are doing in allowing kickoffs to be returned for touchdowns. Championship teams do not lose the turnover battle, as the Steelers have done in seven of their 10 games this season. Championship teams don’t trip over their own feet when they have an inferior opponent on the opposite sideline, as the Steelers did here last Sunday.

Jeez Bob, don’t hold back, let readers know what you really think.

What makes this particularly ironic is that over the year, in sports bars and among gatherings of Steelers fans when ever I’d mention a point that Labriola had made, almost without fail someone would question his objectivity based on the fact that the Rooney’s are part owners of the Steelers Digest.

Well, if that is and example of a party line publication or a sanitized version of how Steelers management views things, I’d hate to see the raw version.

Media Wrap Up

One of the more attention grabbing things about the bluntness of Labriolia’s assessment is that he is so much more harsh than his colleague in the independent press. The Steelers looked bad and deserved every bit of their last two losses.

Yet the tone of most coverage has been “don’t over react, the season isn’t lost, the Steelers have a lot of cream puffs ahead of them, they’ll still slide it into the off season….”

It is quite a leap to say that the press coverage might be indicative of what the reporters are hearing in the locker room, but this lax attitude of “don’t worry, we’ll be able to pull it out” seems to be part of what is ailing the team.

The One that Comes Back to Bite You in the A_s

Gerry Dulac’s article in today’s Post Gazette departs from that track. He goes back and looks at the Steelers two times previous in this decade when the Steelers dropped a game to an obviously inferior opponent, and catalogues how it cost them.

Yours truly had thought to do something similar, but with a far more ominous tone, as last week’s loss to Kansas City felt a lot more like the losses the team suffered to Cleveland in 1999 and Detroit on Thanksgiving day in 1998….

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Steelers Work Out Ramsey, Bouman as Emergency Quarterbacks

Two unemployed veteran quarterbacks had reason to give thanks this week, as they got a chance to peddle their wares with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

They were none other than Patrick Ramsey and Todd Bouman. Steelers reserve quarterback Charlie Batch had surgery this week to repair a broken wrist sustained in the Steelers disastrous 27-24 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs.

Coach Mike Tomlin earlier this week that explained Batch would only miss two to four weeks after a metal plate was inserted to help the healing. However, Tomlin did say that the Steelers would look to add a veteran signal caller if Batch’s recovery takes longer than expected.

Ramsey or Bouman for Taxi QB?

Of the two, Ramsey is the more intriguing. Drafted by the Redskins in 2002 the former first round pick ran afoul of Joe Gibbs, and has bounced around to the New York Jets and Denver Broncos.

Patrick Ramsey has a 10-14 record as a starter, which is not stellar, but he has thrown more touchdowns than interceptions in his career. He showed some good talent early in Washington, but his development was not helped by playing under Steve Spurrier.

Ramsey would not appear to be “the answer” for any NFL team, but perhaps he’s good emergency quarterback, if not back-up QB material.

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Rashard Mendenhall: A Reason for Steelers Fans to Give Thanks

Happy Thanksgiving to all.

As Mike Tomlin declared in his Steelers State of the Union Tuesday:

We’re ten games into this thing, we’re a 6-4 football team. Definitely no where we anticipated being or want to be, but definitely where we are.

Steel Curtain Rising will have more to say about “where we are” later in the week (time permitting) but on this Day of Thanks, we’d like to remember one thing that Steelers fans can be thankful for in 2009.

And that is the emergence of Rashard Mendenhall. Injured in Street Fight Number 1 against Baltimore in 2008, Mendenhall surfaced as somewhat of an enigma when he rejoined the team at St. Vincents.

Rashard Mendenhall, Steelers vs. Jets, Steelers Thanksgiving

Rashard Mendenhall rushes for the Steelers vs. the Jets. Photo Credit: Kevin Dietsch, UPI.

Judging solely on statistics (remember, they don’t show preseason games here in Buenos Aires, so yours truly never got to see him run), he did not run strong. Steelers coaches nonetheless seemed to bend over backwards to complement him.

While Mendenhall’s ability re-inject power rushing into the Steelers offense, to the extent that Arians allows, is certainly his most celebrated accomplishment, today Steel Curtain Rising commends him for something else.

His heart.

When Mendenhall screwed up his very first carry of the season against Tennessee, Steel Curtain Rising observed:

For as boneheaded as collision with Roethlisberger was, he muscled through a would-be tackler and turned a certain 3 yard loss into a one yard gain.

Clearly you expect more from a number one pick, and Steelers Nation should be concerned that he is not delivering more, but Mendenhall’s reaction showed good instincts and some heart.

Mendenhall’s instincts and heart were the one thing that shown brightly in that God-awful loss to the Chiefs.

Take a look the effort and hustle he mustered to make the tackle – and save a touchdown, on Studebaker’s second interception – ah alas Roger Goodell’s YouTube Police have had the video taken down!

There you see it. The man ran clear across the field and was gaining speed as he approached the opposite end zone – Studebaker probably did not even know he was gaining on him.

That was pure want to, and that is something Steelers fans can be thankful for. Happy Thanksgiving.

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Charlie Batch Out, Ben Fine, Dixon to Number Two

Steelers back up Charlie Batch only came in for four snaps or so during the Steelers overtime loss to the Chiefs, but that was enough for him to break his wrist.

He will have surgery, and by all accounts is likely out for the season.* The Post Gazette is reporting, however, that Ben Roethlisberger is not showing any affects of the blow to the head he sustained in Kansas City, and will likely start this week in Baltimore.

The Steelers will not sign a veteran quarterback to take Batch’s place. Instead, 2008 5th round draft pick Dennis Dixon will move into the number two spot.

Swann Song for Batch?

Steel Curtain Rising is a Charlie Batch backer. Batch is an excellent number two man and a leader both on and off the field.

But one has to wonder if the latest injury isn’t the end of the line for Batch. He missed the entire 2004 and 2008 seasons with injuries. He did make some crucial starts in the 2005 Super Bowl season, but also got injured during his second start, ironically, against Baltimore.

During free agency the Steelers openly attempted to get Bryon Leftwich to sign with as a back up to compete with and/or replace Batch, and it was only after Leftwich chose to go to Tampa that the Steelers came to terms with Batch.

Perhaps Batch has another season or two in him, but his high injury-to playing time ratio suggests that his “football age” is becoming a liability in spite of his back up status.

*Since the news broke, Mike Tomlin has said that Charlie Batch will remain on the active roster, pending the results of his surgery.

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