Friday, September 28, 2012

Could James Harrison Have Played His Last Down?

We at If It Ain't Steel this summer wrote that this may be James Harrison's final year. -

Doing so caused a stir among some Steelers fans. Evidently, they couldn't or didn't want to believe that one of their favorites soon may not be available. That his knee and/or back problems or monetary issues would bring a quicker departure for the Silverback. Here's an example of an exchange I had with one in particular after posting the piece:

JF: nope not gonna happen
July 25 at 1:59pm via mobile · Like

Jason Antonio Robinson So, if his back (or knee) just isn't healthy enough and his salary could be used elsewhere, especially knowing the Steelers history in such matters, you think they'd keep him anyway.
July 25 at 2:02pm via mobile · Like · 1

JF:yeap yeap or just retire like peezy did
July 25 at 2:07pm via mobile · Like

Jason Antonio Robinson Ok. Then, in reply I'd like to say: Alan Faneca, Mike Webster, L.C. Greenwood, Levon Kirkland, Jason Gildon, Joey Porter, Greg Lloyd, Aaron Smith and Hines Ward
July 25 at 2:13pm via mobile · Like

JF: and when they all left they wasnt as good as when they were when they were all steelers case and point at least all of them retired as steelers
July 25 at 2:17pm via mobile · Like

Jason Antonio Robinson That isn't the point, nor is it true. Faneca was still very good, I believe he went to a Pro Bowl. Porter had a career high in sacks after he left. Kirkland went to a pretty good defense in Seattle. Not all retired as Steelers either. The point is simply that his health and/or salary issues could cause a release next year. I'm optimistic, but I also know it's a possibility. Didn't say probability, I said possibility. I'm not the only who has said so either
July 25 at 2:27pm via mobile · Like

JF: well u and whoever thinks r not real fan if yinz think like that and all did retire as steelers meaning they will always be known as a part of the steelers and most of there best years were in a steeler uniform

"Not real fan(s)?" Ok. Nonetheless, it has now become evident to everyone that what was written in the article was on point regarding Deebo's situation. All accept for the timeframe.

Harrison's "health and/or salary issues could" not only "cause a release next year," but the knee problem specifically may cause him to miss the rest of this year...or more. Lance Williams of Steel Curtain Radio suggested as much in his most recent podcast. -

We wrote once before of how important Harrison is not only to the terrorizing of quarterbacks, but especially to the run defense.

The Steelers going into the bye week are near the bottom of the NFL in sacks (5 total) and are surrendering 101 yards per game on the ground (4.32 yards per carry). Can one man really mean that much to a defense?

The evidence seems to suggest "yes."

Now, the lack of a healthy Troy Polamalu obviously also factors into a faltering defense. The loss of a Silverback, though, means a weak core. Teams are able concentrate on stopping the left side because the right has been all but absent. The experiment of a Jason Worilds and Chris Carter tag team isn't working.

Why, some have asked, didn't this get addressed sooner, though? Why didn't the coaches do something? Why didn't they cut him? Why didn't they PUP list him?

Firstly, there was no way the Steelers were going to just cut Harrison at the start of the season. Not only would there have been the injury liability to hinder that, but he has a base salary this season of over $5.5 million and he carries a cap charge of over $9 million. So, that wasn't going to happen. Fans tend to forget the business side of things and it can affect either keeping or releasing a player.

Plus, I doubt anyone, including Harrison, even knew just how bad this all was until recently. Was there a possibility? Maybe. Possible, though, not probable. Considering he was taken off of Active PUP so late in Training Camp/preseason, we'd suggested that he may not be back until after the bye. Surely the coaches and trainers felt the same.

Could Deebo return at some point this season, though, say in time for the playoffs, and still be Deebo? Like I said in the above exchange, I'm optimistic that he can do so. A 75% of James Harrison is better than 100% of whomever else on the defense. He's 34 and not responding well to his injuries, though. Thus definitely making this latest setback very disconcerting.

One thing that has been suggested is Harrison's being put on the Injured Reserve list and agreeing to a pay cut for next year. If so, it would have to be a significant reduction, he's due over $6 million next season. I suppose that it's possible, but it depends on Harrison and whether he thinks he can come back and play again at a high level.

If he comes back at all.


TIDBITS: Weslye Saunders had a four-game, not four-week suspension after all. -

As Mark Kaboly of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review suggest, he will help the rushing offense once he does since he's a better blocker than Leonard Pope. But, who isn't? -

How massive was the Steelers collapse in the fourth quarter Sunday to the Raiders? Oakland had lost 48 straight games when trailing by 10+ points entering the fourth quarter.

The last two times the Steelers started 1-2 were in 2009 and 2006 - they missed the playoffs each time. Coincidently, those seasons also included losses to the Oakland Raiders. (Gawd, I hate them...)

Darren McFadden's 64-yard touchdown run was the longest the Steelers defense had allowed in six years. The Broncos' Javon Walker had a 72-yard TD run in 2006.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Decline of the Steelers Defense: Is Dick LeBeau to Blame or the Personnel?

Contributing writer, Larry Sayre

I know that some will be curious at first about the title and theme of an article about the No. 1 ranked defense in the NFL in 2011.

It's true, though. There are noticeable chinks in the armor of the Pittsburgh Steelers defense. There were signs of rust in the Steel Curtain that could be seen as far back as 2008, but definite corrosion had set in starting in 2010.

I know the arguments: the 2008, 2010 and 2011 teams were all 12-4 and had the No. 1, No. 2 and No. 1 ranked defenses. Two of those were Super Bowl teams, including a Super Bowl winner. Though they lost in the first game of last season's playoffs, it can be argued that the loss of five starters to injury or ailment, not to mention a hobbled quarterback, were key reasons for that loss.

Mark Twain is credited with the quote: "There are three types of lies: lies, damn lies and statistics. And those stats have lied, to some degree, with the Steelers defense of late.

The poor performance we saw in Sunday's loss to the Oakland Raiders prove some numbers don't lie, though. Meaning the numbers of missed sacks, missed tackles and the many missed assignments. The defensive players talked about some of these after the game. -

Ryan Clark said the lack of performance "wasn't from a lack of trying." LaMarr Woodley admitted that they got pressure a few times, but that it wasn't enough. The Steelers did actually have nine pressures, along with Woodley's sack, against the Raiders, with Foote and Keisel leading the way with three each. Like Woodley said, though, it wasn't enough.

It isn't enough when the Seattle Seahawks recorded nine sacks, not pressures, sacks, against the Green Bay Packers on Monday Night Football. In fact, the Seahawks had more sacks in the first half of that game than the Steelers have in three full games this season (8-5).

That used to be the Steelers forte: a rock-hard, fearsome defense that punished quarterbacks, and teams in general, when they faced the Men of Steel. They led the league or were top three in the league in sacks six times in the 10 years from 2001-2010:
2001 .................. 55
2002 .................. 50
2003 .................. 35
2004 .................. 41
2005 .................. 47
2006 .................. 39
2007 .................. 36
2008 .................. 51
2009 .................. 47
2010 .................. 48

That's the crux of this article: the defense isn't feared as it has been even in the recent past, nor does it cause the chaotic confusion it once did. A confusion that is the driving force behind the 3-4 scheme defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau uses. Raiders wide receiver Derek Hagan even said the Steelers were doing pretty much the "same thing they did six, seven years ago..." Carson Palmer all but said as much as well. -

This begs the question then: Is it execution of the personnel, quality of personnel or is it just time for a change in coordinators?

Look, it hurts to even ask the third part of that question, let alone write an article on it. LeBeau is tremendously respected and is one of the best all time at what he does. Few have achieved more in football than Dick LeBeau, as a player, as a coach and as a man. Who doesn't love Coach Dad?

Still, it's a subject that needs to be addressed based on what has been seen in the three games this season, on how last season ended and on how certain trends have developed. The word "predictable" has now even been used in connection with Lebeau and his schemes. -

First of all, be honest, did you see any real adjustments on Sunday to what Palmer and the Raiders offense were doing in the second half?

Considering the defense hadn't gotten any significant pressure from a four-man front before, was there any sense in rushing only four on third-and-10 late in the game?

We've questioned Lawrence Timmons' play in previous articles and ask now if there was any logic to what he was doing all day. We didn't see any creative ways to get a pass rush off the right side from Chris Carter or Jason Worilds. (I checked the tape, they were actually there.) Nor did we see much of anything from the middle, such as the crossfire blitz we suggested in the Raiders preview blog. Did you?

There is other evidence. Let's go back a ways, though, in order to see the genesis of it more clearly.

Everyone remembers the same big plays from Super Bowl 43: James Harrison's Super Bowl record 100-yard interception return and the 82-yard (really 92) drive that ended with the Immaculate Reception II. If you also remember, it was Woodley's strip sack that ended SB 43 and saved the game after a near collapse that started late in the second half after a 20-7 lead.

There were signs even in that game, though, of the issues regarding LeBeau's tendencies.

To be as succinct as possible regarding the game, Arizona had about 15 yards of total offense after the first quarter. They had about 127 yards of offense in the second, most of which came on one drive. They had about a 142 yards in total offense in the first half, 91 came on one drive. Only seven points were given up in the first half. The defense had done an outstanding job to that point.

The 11:30 mark of the 4th is when it went downhill fast. If I remember correctly that is when we started to drop the safeties back, giving a much bigger cushion. Troy Polamalu was rolling over into coverage on Larry Fitzgerald. Polamalu's playing deeper allowed Fitzgerald to get open underneath. It allowed the Cardinals to get momentum and confidence.

That was evidenced by the go ahead touchdown to Fitzgerald when both safeties were very deep. This is an example of what can be bothersome with LeBeau.

The Steelers had been executing a great game plan. Why call off the dogs? Why change what was working? It almost cost the Steelers a Lombardi.

We don't look at the 2009 season itself as an indictment considering that the special teams unit surrendered so many returns that influenced games that year. Nonetheless, the bend-but-don't-break defensive philosophy LeBeau tends to employ late in games, the calling off of the dogs mentality, often comes too quickly. It allows the other team's offense to gain confidence and get into a groove.

It was still seen enough times in '09 to mention it, nonetheless, the Chiefs and Raiders games to name a couple. Though, many times they had been playing very well up to that point, LeBeau started playing passive in those situations which resulted in losses. They basically played to protect a lead, not to plunge the dagger deeper and win.

Super Bowl 45 is obviously on the list of example, but was a little different. It wasn't so much a collapse as it was the Green Bay Packers just exploiting a weak secondary all game. Most Steelers fans knew that would be an issue and it was. It could have been worse, actually. The Packers receivers dropped several balls, including a few that would have been big gains.

What was most bothersome, though, was after the Steelers had stormed back and made it a 28-25 ball game with just over seven minutes left, the defense gave up a huge clock killing field goal drive. The Steelers didn't get the ball back till the 2:07 mark. The defense just couldn't get off the field. Like they couldn't Sunday against the Raiders.

Two straight Steelers' Super Bowls where the defense does not show up late in the fourth quarter when needed most.

Especially now with this last example being presented, was this completely a coaching/scheme issue? Could it be instead a personnel or execution problem? After all, LeBeau has shown the ability to change his attack given the circumstances, as was evidenced in the New England Patriots game last year in 2011. And no one is going to present an argument convincing enough to make believable that LeBeau suddenly forgot how to run a defense.

So we don't think LeBeau necessarily needs to be replaced. He simply needs to get out of this comfort zone, especially at the end of ballgames. His defense was No. 1 in total defense/yards per game at 282.1, in passing yards at 180.4, in passing yards per attempt at 5.6 and in points per game at 15.1. Excellent!

That leads us to the execution of the schemes by the players on the whole.

Without a healthy James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley together most of the year, though, the pass rush was hindered. As has been seen, it hindered the secondary tremendously. Consistent pressure leads to creating more turnovers. Two things the Steelers have severely lacked of late.

Such players as Keenan Lewis and Cortez Allen seemed to emerge. Tez was a big part of the success in the aforementioned Patriots game. He locked down on their tight ends, Gronkowski specifically. Ike Taylor had a very good year as well.

They haven't been stellar this year, though. The Steelers haven't had a true lockdown cornerback since Rod Woodson, nor as elite a corner/safety combination since Woodson and Carnell Lake. All due respect to Ike, he is NOT an elite cornerback. And the youth of Lewis, Tez and Curtis Brown have yet to truly distinguish themselves and give Steeler Nation that warm and fuzzy feeling.

The pass defense is something that can be helped with the return of a healthy Polamalu. Helped, not fixed. -

Neither have the youth in the linebacking corps. Worilds, Carter and, to a lesser degree, Stevenson Sylvester haven't yet emerged as a replacement for the aging James Harrison and the retired James Farrior. A linebacking corps that was responsible for allowing 99.8 rushing yards per game last season (only No. 8 last season) and 4.0 yards per attempt (No. 9 last season).

This season has been no different. In some ways it's actually worse. Though, we may see Sylvester after the bye against the Philadelphia Eagles, we won't see Harrison. -

Certain cognoscenti even have suggested or surmised that Harrison might even be put on IR. Either way, we shouldn't see him before the Tennessee Titans game. That way he'd have a built-in bye week to see if the knee will have been able to respond after actual game time.

If either of two of the last four NFL Defensive Players of the Year returns the defense will be helped. Again though, helped, not fixed. It needs more. To quote Lance Williams of Steel Curtain Radio, the young guys have to become the guys.

The Steelers historically have always been great against the run. Not lately, though. They need help at inside linebacker also. This is where the loss of one of those young guys, Sean Spence, to IR really hurts. Hurts more than the loss of guard David DeCastro. A lot more. Spence was the draft pick who was brought in to be the hybrid linebacker, the one who could rush, tackle as well as cover tight ends and running backs out of the backfield. Not immediately, but as the season went along he was expected to contribute.

Pointedly, there are two obvious differences from years past to now that smack directly at those linebackers: (1) they are giving away pre-snap reads on blitzes, as alluded to in the Carson Palmer article by Mark Kaboly. And (2) they don't seem to audible out of defensive alignments or assignments as in the past. Like we've written several times this season already, they're caught out of position too often.

Sylvester will be back soon and should help in this area. Spence won't. It hurts a lot more.

Lastly, if it is the players, are they simply not of the caliber that Steeler Nation is used to seeing? Kevin Colbert is known for having a keen eye for talent, but no one is perfect. It's at least feasible that the majority of this crop of talent is that in name only.

If that is the case, it might behoove LeBeau and company to borrow from Art Rooney II and "tweak" things some. Maybe try some defensive changes that suit the personnel. Persuade LeBeau to use more 4-3 (Woodley did play defensive end at Michigan after all) or 4-2-5 alignments. It isn't as if the 3-4 doesn't work, as the Arizona Cardinals under former Steelers assistant Ray Horton, use it quite effectively. They have the players for it, though.

As an extra element to consider regarding the 3-4, the Chicago Bears are the absolute last team to never have used it in some form. With so many teams using it part-time or as their base defense, the element of surprise or at least unfamiliararity is gone. For a deeper look at it, please review an article we wrote on it last year. -

That being the case, use Steve McLendon to attack more - Hampton clearly isn't getting it done as it is. Use Cameron Heyward more as well to help spell Brett Keisel and to get more comfortable with the defense and more experience in it. The standard is supposed to be the standard, right?

The point is that they need to either be more flexible with their schemes, LeBeau's defense is very complex as it is, draft better players or execute better. The first among those would seem to be execution. -

All things considered, the Steelers defense isn't doomed for the doldrums of the NFL anytime soon. The issues they have are not truly problems yet, especially with two, possibly three, players coming back in the next few weeks. They will, though, be forced to find some way to at most instill that fear once again or at least slow down their opponents when it counts most. Neither of which they have been able to do in a long time.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Steelers Lose Again To Raiders Amidst Turnovers And Penalties

Submitted for your approval...

What started out so good ended so badly. It was 2006 all over again.

The first play of the game between the long-time rivals Pittsburgh Steelers and Oakland Raiders resulted in a Raiders turnover as free safety Ryan Clark with the interception. It was looking good.

The Steelers went for for it on 4th-and-1 from the Raiders' 27 and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger moved the chains by throwing to wide receiver Mike Wallace for 19 yards. Then, for the third straight game, tight end Heath Miller scores the Steelers first touchdown. He was wide open for a 5-yard touchdown throw from Big Ben.

The Beaver County Times Mike Bires tweeted from his personal Twitter account that, "When I asked Roethlisberger about Heath Miller on Wednesday, he said 'We want to get him to the Pro Bowl.'" It was looking very good.

Then it became clear that the Black Hole would become more like the Twilight Zone.

In three plays the Raiders tied it up in an improbable way. Darren McFadden broke loose for a 64-yard touchdown run. It was improbable because the Steelers rarely give up yards on the ground in such a manner. Improbable also because McFadden had rushed for only 54 yards in the Raiders first two games.

The Raiders sealed off the backside linebacker and it was up to the safety. Brett Keisel should've spiked inside. Lawrence Timmons had a terrible first read, Casey Hampton made a horrible effort, and Ryan Mundy lost his socks on McFadden's shoulder shake...just terrible defense on that touchdown run.

It has become an all-too-common situation now with the Steelers defense. They're either caught out of place, they don't play their gaps and they can't get stops when needed. Whether it's scheme, alignment, coaching, players or a combination of all of the above, the defense is offensive.

Want proof? In the last 10 road games the Steelers defense has recorded all of 10 sacks. The Steelers are 5-5 in those games. The vaunted Blitzburgh has been Splits-burgh.

Want more proof? Historically the Steelers don't allow 100-yard rushers. From 2005 to 2010, six years that included three Super Bowl appearances, the Steelers defense allowed four such games by running backs. They've allowed four in the last 19 games going back to week one of 2011.

Plain and simple, the defense, or lack thereof, is a concern. -

Back to the game specifically, an amazing 73-yard punt return for a touchdown by Antonio Brown was nullified by two flags on the Steelers on the play. TD negated. Game changed.

The Steelers were flagged 10 times for 81 yards with only three flags being called on the Raiders. No excuses being made this week either. The penalties were mostly correct. The refereeing was horrendous around the league yet again, so there's no point in dwelling on the referees.

You can't win playing such poor defense and stopping your own drives with penalties. Those were only two parts of the triad of problems causing the Steelers loss today. The third made this eerily similar to the last trip to the Twilight uh...Black Hole.

Turnovers plagued the Steelers again in this trip to Oakland. In 2006 there were four interceptions by Big Ben Roethlisberger, two of which returned for touchdowns. One of 24 yards by Nnamdi Asomugha in the first quarter and the backbreaker being of 100 yards by Chris Carr in the fourth quarter.

Sunday the turnovers were by all but Big Ben. Antonio Brown had two of them, one of which he miraculously recovered for a touchdown. The other wasn't and led to Raiders points. Jonathan Dwyer coughed up the other fumble that wasn't recovered by the offense. Turnovers lead to points that ultimately lost it for the Steelers.

"We expect more and better from ourselves," said Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin. "We turned the ball over. We can't do that..." -

He also mentioned special teams. Tomlin fired former special teams coach Al Everest right before the season. Amos Jones was promoted.

More first downs then and now, more turnovers then and now, more yards then and now...oh, and more penalties then and now.

How can a team that allowed Mike Wallace to be so wide open be the same team that played playoff defense down the stretch?

Spreading the wealth again by Big Ben, who was the Steelers Digest Player of the Week, was the only bright spot in the game, as he connected with 10 different receivers again. He went 36-49 for 384 with four (maybe 3) TDs.

This wasn't on the implementation of the offense at all. Yes, it was questionable and even stagnant at times, but it's still a work in progress. That work in progress scored 31 points and could've (read: should've) scored more.

This was about lack of execution/penalty miscues on offense and poor play on defense. A defense that has secondary and pass rush issues. Issues that won't be solved with the return of Troy Polamalu and James Harrison respectively, either. They are issues that have been on the horizon for some time.

Still, it's early enough in the year where we don't think there's reason to panic. We predicted a 10-6 season anyway and still believe that's possible. Games will be won that should've been lost and games will be lost (ahem) that should be won.

Most importantly, none of the rest of them will be played in the Twilight Zone.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Steelers at Raiders - Commitment to Mediocrity

A long time ago in a galaxy far away...

Years ago when the Oakland Raiders were a power in the NFL, their eccentric owner Al Davis coined slogans such as "Commitment to Excellence" and the famous "Just Win, Baby."

These are not your father's Raiders.

Since being blasted in the Super Bowl in 2002, they have gone a combined 45-99 through 2011. So far in 2012, they're 0-2 and hurting at key positions.

The Raiders of this generation look nothing like what Al Davis built for so many years: there is no air of supremacy when they step on the field, there is no fear of the big, bad silver and black and they just don't win, baby.

It has been a commitment to mediocrity.

Despite that, the 2006 2-14 Raiders beat the Pittsburgh Steelers 20-13. It was a game in which a concussed, recently stitched up and lucky to be alive Ben Roethlisberger shouldn't have played. He threw four interceptions, two of which were returned for touchdowns. We wrote in out last article about their secondary problems, so don't expect a repeat performance. -

Nonetheless, this is the NFL and an overlooking of an opponent can lead to a loss. We've seen it yet again this season around the league already and are sure to see it again...just not this weekend.

The Steelers may have their issues, especially running the ball, but the Raiders are worse. They have a very poor running game that only averages only 2.0 yards per carry (YPC). They also have their troubles in the air.

Starting quarterback Carson Palmer has already thrown 94 passes, second highest in the NFL. Palmer has the yards to show for it (670), but he’s only produced two touchdown passes. He ranks 22nd in the league with a 84.1 passer rating.

The coaching staff is still weary of the veteran QB and what the potential the Raiders offense has.

"This guy is a veteran guy, who is very familiar with us and how we attack people," head coach Mike Tomlin said on Tuesday. "He probably has as much experience against facing our defense and our pre snap looks and our blitz packages, as any quarterback in football. He's always represented himself well against us."

That's a bit of Tomlin-speak actually. Palmer has completed just 234 of 410 pass attempts for 2,402 yards and 17 touchdowns against 11 interceptions when facing the Steelers in the regular season action with 11 interceptions.

They don't exactly have All-Pros at wide receiver either. Instead of T. J. Houshmandzadeh, Chris Henry and the vociferous Chad Johnson/Ochocinco/Johnson/Inmate 92-3654AJ-42, Palmer has Darrius Heyward-Bey, Rod Streater and Denarius Moore to catch his passes.

I thought it was interesting to see Dick LeBeau experiment with the 4-2-5 alignment five times against Jets when he hadn't used it in Training Camp or preseason. -

Equally interested by the lack of snaps for Steve McLendon. Casey Hampton still getting the greater number of snaps. Especially with use of the 4-2-5, I would have thought McLendon would see more snaps. Not yet, though.

I would think we'd see more of the more agile McLendon if the Raiders do use Darren McFadden in the Wildcat formation like the Steelers expect they might. -

The Raiders, though, will be without starting right tackle Khalif Barnes which should allow LaMarr Woodley to be able to have his way with backup Willie Smith. Their suspect interior should be susceptible to LeBeau's crossfire blitz scheme as well.

The Steelers have blitzed on 50.8% of the passing plays against them this year so far. Without James Harrison and Troy Polamalu once again (and probably until the Tennessee Titans Thursday night game, that may increase Sunday.

Defensively for the Raiders, it should be noted that they've allowed 295 yards on the ground in two losses, putting them in the bottom five of the league in run defense. So, running on them should aid the Steelers paltry numbers on the ground.

Last Sunday, 47% of the plays executed by the Steelers’ offense were runs, but Redman only had 25 yards on 12 carries, while Dwyer had only 28 on 12 attempts. Most of this came on the 10-minute scoring drive. Tomlin recognizes the need for improvement.

"We’ve got to get better on first-and-10, second-and-medium. We’ve got to block better."

Steel Curtain Radio's Lance Williams considers the Steelers inability to run and the Raiders inability to stop the run to be a wash, though. His latest podcast brilliantly breaks down what to expect this Sunday. -

The difference once again might just be the passing game. The difference in the Steelers wide receiving corps and the aforementioned Raiders WRs is most evident in this stat: the Steelers are tops in the NFL in converting third downs at 55.9%, including 8 of 13 when needing at least nine yards. The Raiders, on the other hand, are dead last at 22.2%.

Naturally, a big part of that is quarterback Big Ben Roethlisberger. He's been lethal on third down in the first two games and is completing approximately 65% of his passes and has a 99.5 passer rating. An "MVP-type of quarterback" according to wide receiver Mike Wallace.

These are not your father's Oakland Raiders. Don't expect another Immaculate Reception. -

Should all of this play out like I expect it to, look for the Steelers to go to 2-1 on the season with a 24-13 victory.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Secondary Of Primary Concern Sunday At Raiders; Goodbye, Steve Sabol

On Coordinator Thursday, offensive coordinator Todd Haley noted that Oakland does not play as much man coverage as in the past. "The [Oakland] Raiders look different than what you're used to seeing."

Very different. Primarily because their secondary is in such disarray.

Injuries have plagued the Raiders starting the opening day against the San Diego Chargers when starting cornerback Ron Bartell went down to a broken scapula (or, shoulder blade - the bone that connects the humerus/upper arm bone with the clavicle/collar bone), and has been placed on the short-term IR.

Add to that, they lost their other starting cornerback Shawntae Spencer in the Miami Dolphins in week two for several weeks to a sprained foot. They will likely be starting Pat Lee and Joselio Hanson, soon-to-be NFL All-Pros I'm sure, against the Steelers on Sunday.

Coye Francies was promoted off of their practice squad on Sunday, and Ohio St. Buckeye product Chimdi Chekwa could be promoted as well at some point, for depth and for serving Nickel and/or Dime and possibly special teams. They also have Philip Adams on their roster, but he is mainly for returns.

Yet, they traded DeMarcus Van Dyke. That's fine, gold is worth more than silver anyway. -

That said, this is still the NFL and we all know what former commissioner Pete Rozzelle maintained.

On any given Sunday in 2006, the Steelers went into the Black Hole to face a 1-5 Raiders team (they ended up 2-14) and lost 20-13. This version is winless, but could easily be 1-1 if they hadn't lost their long snapper Jon Condo to injury with a blow to the head. That spelled disaster as reserve middle linebacker Travis Goethel went in to sub for him and saw three snaps. Only one of them was a successful punt.

Pittsburgh Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley, though, said that the crowd noise of the Black Hole won't affect how they do things. Specifically speaking of the noise that can be generated there, he knows it can be a factor but he won't change what he wants to do.

When asked if crowd noise ever dictates going to the no-huddle offense, Haley replied, "No I don't think it will ever be a factor if we go to it. Crowd noise can always be a factor....It's always an issue but it will never be a big enough issue that you don't do it. You are going to have to use it in the two-minute situations at the end of the half and at the end of the game, and throughout the game whenever you see fit."

Not that this is surprising, but Haley also said the Steelers will ease Rashard Mendenhall back into normal workload when he is cleared.

"When the green light is given, you still have to be smart with it. The guy has been out a good part of a year....Easing him into it would be the way to go about it."

All of what Haley said regarding attacking the Raiders was recorded on on Thursday. -

The Raiders aren't the only ones with secondary issues, though, as safety Troy Polamalu missed practice for the fifth day in a row and isn't expected to play again Sunday in Oakland. For that matter, neither is James Harrison. -

Every Steelers fan know what Polamalu means to this defense. Fortunately, the defense also has free safety Ryan Clark back, which Polamalu acknowledges is a boon to the defense.

"He studies a lot of film, got a great sense of our defense, a natural leader, an awesome football player."

Broadening the defensive look a bit, Stevenson Sylvester was back at practice on Thursday and that's good news to a defense short on linebackers. He knows his presence will be welcomed because of all of the injuries to the position.

"Linebacker position is hard, it's hard to get away from injuries, this year we got a little bit but we're making a comeback," he said.

He's right, which means veteran linebackers need to prove worthy of the money they've been paid. Lawrence Timmons and LaMarr Woodley NEED to lead these this corps from this point on. This is an important year for Jason Worilds as well. All are very important while Polamalu and Harrison remain sidelined.

Not just for Sunday, but as a realistic at what could the lineup as early as next season.


We at If It Ain't Steel were going to do a specific tribute to Steve Sabol for his contributions to the NFL and each of our individual lives. When, though, we saw the emotion on host Rich Eisen's face as he announced the passing of Mr. Sabol on Tuesday, September 18, we knew we couldn't write anything more moving or poignant than what was in his eyes and in his countenance.

We capitulate to human emotion and provide you the segment NFL Network provided:

Monday, September 17, 2012

Too Soon To Question Steelers Identity

"I don't understand the rush to define, or box in by definition, a Steelers offense that's in the embryonic stages. I like the fundamentals." - Jim Wexell (@jimwexell on Twitter).

We at If It Ain't Steel were discussing this topic, amongst others, Monday morning as we reflected on the NFL football weekend. Excited about the Steelers win, yet keeping it in perspective, debating the age-old 'did this one lose the game or did that one win it' angle when talking about the Ravens vs. Eagles games, etc...

Regarding the Steelers we simply called the game a win without attempting to define them any further than that...yet. 

Consider the offensive line and running backs briefly. While the offensive line played fairly well, they were still better in pass blocking than in run blocking - only two true sacks were given up. 

The running backs, Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer, looked good in spurts, especially on the more than 10-minute drive that was the icing on the Renegade cake. 

They're hardly going to be ground and pound offense, though. There are 14 players who have more yards rushing yards than the Steelers do as a team.

In fact, through the first two games, the Steelers offense looks a lot like last year's: a shaky offensive line and pedestrian run game (Is that an oxymoron?). 

The main bright spots yet again are Ben and the receiving corps. With due respect to safety Ryan Clark getting the Steelers Digest Player of the Week nod, Ben Roethlisberger was best on the field Sunday after redeeming himself from last week.

The first two games from last year to this year are even similar: after a disappointing loss to a team that seemingly had more riding on the game, the Ravens still smarting from the previous season's third playoff loss to the Steelers and Peyton Manning wanting to prove he was still Peyton Manning, they go out and pummel their next opponent (24-0 and 27-10).

Even the yardage given up by the defense is nearly identical - the defense has surrendered all of 4 yards more this season through two games. 

On the subject of the defense, they had a good performance, yes, but Mark Sanchez is no Peyton Manning and the receivers dropped at least five passes.'s Marc, aka @SteelDad on Twitter, aka Daddio, tweeted regarding the Steelers defense: "[Florida] Gators using zone blitz effectively. I remember when the Steelers did that."

Four sacks in two games adds weight to his sentiment. 

That said, the defense did allow just 10 pass completions from Sanchez. As was written about last week, they were much better at the yards they allowed after the catch. I don't have exact numbers, but I know just from watching that the defense allowed fewer than 50 YAC, with 14 of those yards coming on the pass from Sanchez to wide receiver Jeremy Kerley on the New York Jets first offensive possession.

All told, the defense allowed just 3.4 yards per catch and only, when you take away the lone Wildcat play of the game, 3.09 yards per rush. They also limited the Jets to two explosive/splash plays. 

They were greatly helped, though, by the fact that the Steelers had the ball except for all but 2:43 of fourth quarter. The catalyst of that disparity was quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

Big Ben was 24-31 for 275 yards, two touchdown passes and no interceptions. He was superb all game. The previous week he was neck-and-neck with Manning, until the very end, as he continually converted on third down. 

This week was even better. 

Per the Steelers official website, Big Ben's passer rating was above 125 for the 19th time in his career, It was 125.1 on Sunday. 

Big Ben looks very comfortable distributing the ball all over the place, especially on third downs, hitting 10 different receivers vs. the Jets.

As was mentioned earlier, Big Ben has been money on third downs through two games as he converted 11-of-14 against the Broncos and was 8-of-10 including a touchdown against the Jets.

With Hines Ward now sitting in the NBC Sunday Night Football booth waiting for the opportunity to blindside Mike Florio (hey, I can dream), the Steelers underrated tight end Heath Miller has been the Steelers third down target of many of those, mainly in the red zone, so far this season. 

In a previous If It Ain't Steel article, it was predicted that this would be the case, pointing out that Heath had seen few such opportunities under former offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, and that Todd Haley would emphasize the tight end. 

Case in point, Heath already has as many touchdowns as he had all last season: two. 

Teams will eventually key in on this which will open the door for the four wide receivers to get more touches on third downs, red zone and otherwise. 

Though I'm certainly not now about to advocate throwing it all over the field on every down, Todd Haley still needs to recognize that the offense goes through Big Ben. Instituting the offense and running the ball more is fine. At times, though, Ben just needs to be Ben. Mark Kaboly of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review agrees. -

Big Ben is seeing field very well and his remaining upright will only benefit the team when they'll need him the most come playoff time. It doesn't mean, though, that you don't keep working on the run game. It will get better, especially once Rashard Mendenhall returns. 

The running game isn't currently very good, no, but it was effective late in the game Sunday, proving that you must stick with it. It keeps the defense honest and disallows them from simply pinning their ears back and zoning in on the quarterback. 

When the Steelers absolutely had to pass at the end of the Broncos game, that's exactly what their defense did, because they knew the Steelers absolutely had to pass. Remember the results?

We mustn't assume, either, that the defense is a No. 1 ranked unit just by stepping on the field. They'll go through growing pains too. Fortunately, they will get two starters and a third key backup, out with injuries for Sunday's game, in James Harrison (knee), Troy Polamalu (calf) and Stevenson Sylvester (knee) back after the bye week. The return of these players will only bolster the defense.

So, let's hold off on trying to label the team yet or trying to define what they'll be. Because the only thing we know for a certainty at this point is that Big Ben Roethlisberger wears the number that we're all striving for when it's all said and done...and there's a lot of improvement needed before then.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Steelers Defeat Jets 27-10 Despite Officiating

I told y'all not to panic.

"Redemption week" part two is in the books and Mike Tomlin, the first Pittsburgh Steelers head coach to go 6-0 in his first 6 home openers, said he expected as much from his "A-players". -

Steelers win at Heinz Field today over the New York Jets, making it the 10th straight home opening victory and 9th straight home win vs. non-divisional opponents. The game wasn't a blowout from the start, though.

The Steelers opened up with a 3-0 lead, but surrendered a 90-yard touchdown drive on the next series. Former Steelers wide receiver Santonio Holmes was eating up Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor early in the game via drawn penalties and a scoring a 14-yard touchdown catch in the first quarter.  

Jeremy Kerley also caught a 45-yard pass over Keenan Lewis in that series.

Neither was heard from the rest of the game.

The Steelers defense was being handled well early, the Jets were averaging 4.0 yards per run, but that changed as the Steelers settled down in the second quarter.

On third downs the Steelers started getting off of the field. After being down 10-6, they started playing what most fans consider Steeler football: defense and ball control.

On defense, Ike Taylor played great defense on Santonio Holmes, breaking up pass and forcing punts. On offense, Big Ben was shrugging off rushers saying, "GET OFF ME!"

Jonathan Dwyer showed he had good feet and good hands as a receiver by making a shoestring catch for 12 yards and a first down. Redman also started looking more like Redman as the game progressed as well.

Speaking of defense, Ryan Mundy (5 tackles) and Ryan Clark (team-high 8) combined for 13 of 44 Steeler tackles. They swapped positions throughout the game, playing free and strong safety. One time Clark cuts down a runner in the backfield, another time Ryan Mundy knocks Jets running back Shonn Greene out of the game.

Ryan Clark's return was triumphant as he reminded us how much we missed him and earned Steelers Digest Player of the Week. -

Antonio Cromartie was pretty much watching Mike Wallace man-to-man, while Kyle Wilson, starting in place of Darrelle Revis, was on Antonio Brown. Neither had much success.

Roethlisberger threw a 37-yard TD pass to Mike Wallace who had five catches for 74 yards on the day, and Antonio Brown caught seven balls for 79 yards. Even taking shots, the receivers went on undaunted.

Asked about LaRon Landry's hit on him after a catch, Brown said, "Good hit, good catch. I've got a reputation, too"

LaMarr Woodley got his first sack of the season on third down early in third quarter, helping to back up his guarantee of a win. After the game, he let Steelers fans know about it.

Woodley tweeted: "I told yall we wouldn't be 0-2!! LOL.. We got back 2 playin @steelers football 2day.. appreciate all the noise @ heinz!!"

The worst part of the day was the officiating. We're not normally one's to bash the officials, but Sunday was just awful. Case in point, a phantom pass interference call in the third quarter on Ike Taylor, the second of the day.

On the two questionable pass interference calls, Ike Taylor said, "Them [refs] got a difficult job as is. I can't worry about what they call, I just play football."

Maybe I'm wrong, I might have been looking through Black and Gold colored glasses. You tell me if you see a pass interference on this sequence.

Yeah, exactly.

The true player of the game, though, was Ben Roethlisberger, who has now thrown four TD passes this season - two to tight end Heath Miller and two to WR Mike Wallace.

Big Ben Roethlisberger had a sizzling 144.7 passer rating into the second half,  158.3 is a perfect rating going 15 of 19 for 196, 2 TDs and no interceptions.

Big Ben would eventually cool down, but not by much. Ben had the highest quarterback rating (125.1) for a Jets opponent since Tom Brady in December of 2010. Jets coach Rex Ryan wasn't too thrilled that Big Ben's passer rating was 2nd highest ever vs. the Jets. To put it in perspective, the other was by Dan Marino in 1986 when he passed for 448 yards and six touchdowns.

Big Ben passed the 27,000 yard barrier, being only the second Steelers QB to do so. I'm told the other guy was someone named Bradshaw. Big Ben is due to pass that guy's career mark in only a few more games at this current pace.


TIDBITS: Good hustle by newest Steeler, CB DeMarcus Van Dyke, showed his speed on a muffed Jets punt that Ryan Mundy recovers at Jets 42 yard line late in the game.

Sanchez went zero for his last five passes of the first half after a 4-for-5 start. He, in real time, went about two hours between completed passes in one stretch.

Who's afraid of the big bad wolf? Rex Ryan on the Steelers defense: "They did a great job of press coverage. They have really big physical corners" No more huffing and puffing?

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Despite Steelers Injuries: "No Excuses...We Just Gotta Get Better”

Tim Tebow, Mark Sanchez and the rest of the New York Jets bring their sometimes quasi-West Coast/rhythm offense, sometimes Single Wing/Spread Option/Wildcat offense into Heinz Field to battle the Steelers. In a game where they will be smarting from a loss to the Broncos, the man who was primarily responsible for the previous loss in Denver will be seen yet again. The Steelers plan to be ready for what may be thrown their way. 

Outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley, reflecting the necessity to avoid two conference losses this early in the season, was direct about it. Along with his quote above stating that they must get better he also offered a guarantee, of sorts: “We will not be 0-2.”

Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin was more diplomatic when he spoke of the Jets and what they may throw the Steelers way. 

“I really think what we saw in their last game is just the tip of the iceberg,” Tomlin said when referring to Tebow’s Wildcat role in the Jets’ 48-28 win over the Buffalo Bills on Sunday. “It will require some extra work on our part. It will not be an extended or unusual extra amount of work [though] in preparation.”

Tony Sparano first brought the Wildcat offense to the NFL when he was the Dolphins coach. He used running back Ronnie Brown as a Single Wing-type tailback who could rush or pass. Tebow beat the Steelers in the 2011 playoffs in Denver, though, with more of the Spread Offense than the Wildcat when he accounted for 346 total yards and two touchdowns. -

Sparano is now the Jets offensive coordinator and, while he uses Tebow in that Wildcat, actually getting ready for the more conventional rhythm offense with Mark Sanchez should be priority. As Tomlin said, there "will not be an extended or unusual extra amount" of practice for the Wildcat. Rightly so, considering it is Sanchez who is coming off a career game where he was 19 of 27 for 266 yards and three touchdowns. He lead the Jets to a team record in points for an opening weekend.

Jets running back Shonn Greene needs to be accounted for as well as he ran 27 times for 94 yards, exactly what the Broncos recorded against the Steelers Sunday. There are also tight end Justin Keller and wide receivers Stephen Hill, Jeremy Kerley (who may not play due to injury) and some guy named Antonio or Santonio or something. 

The Jets have weapons and, despite the fumbles by Greene and the ineffective play Tebow on Sunday, they can beat you on the ground as well as in the air. The Steelers must be ready in all phases of the game in defense. 

Because of that potential versatility of the Jets offense, Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau must be able to adjust, must not be stubborn in his schemes/play calling and must PREACH being gap sound (especially in the Wildcat) and tackling the catch. He and the Steelers were poor in all of those areas against the Broncos. There have even been rumblings that LeBeau has been guilty of at least two of the three for a few years now. A solid, if not dominant, performance this week and beyond will quiet that talk.

The defensive line didn't hold the point of attack like we've seen them do in the past, though it was at least better than opening day last season and the season on the whole. They only gave up 3.48 yards per carry (YPC), as opposed to last year's Cut Block Bowl in which the Ravens gashed them for 5.48 YPC, versus a 4.0 average given up last year. Let's hope it's the start of something good.

Despite most likely being without James Harrison again this week, and, along with Stevenson Sylvester, possibly not until after the bye, the thought of dominance may be a stretch, but a solid, Steeler-like defensive performance isn't. It just means we need Larry Foote, Lawrence Timmons and Jason Worilds (who may start ahead of Chris Carter) to pick up the slack...and for LaMarr Woodley to actually make it out of the locker room this time. 

It also means that the secondary needs to redeem themselves. Too many yards were allowed after the catch last Sunday. Players were out of position to make necessary tackles. When, then, they were in position to make the tackle, they didn't. Remember when the Steelers secondary was a fierce, sure-tackling unit? Carnell Lake does. 

To be fair, I remember when Ike Taylor could be counted on that way. I still feel he has the ability to do that and can remind Cortez Allen and Keenan Lewis how to also. We need to see it again. Desperately. Especially with trading Ryan Clark for Troy Polamalu, who is possibly out Sunday. According to LeBeau, Polamalu’s status is questionable after he sat out the past two days of workouts with a strained calf muscle. -

No matter who's playing or not, the Jets free safety LaRon Landry says they'll have the better defense in Heinz Field on Sunday. 

"We can be as great as we want to be. I'm not about to turn it into a controversy, but I think we can win over them, declared Landry. "I think we have all the pieces that they have, even better. To answer your question, I think we'll pull it off. If you look at the starter at each position....I like the matchup. I choose my guys over any of their guys, especially in our defensive scheme." -

He is certainly one who backs up what he says, as evidenced by knocking Bill's wide receiver Fred Jackson from the game and forcing a fumble last Sunday, and the Steelers know it. Most notably among those is Steelers WR Jerricho Cotchery who once played with the Jets. 

"We’re seeing some of the same stuff with Rex and how he calls it - guys all over the place. But I think the presence of (the) safety, Landry, I think that’s something I really haven’t seen," said Cotch. "He’s a physical presence. You have to find him. It’s been a while. He’s an excellent player and he’s making a lot of plays for the defense."

"The guy looks like Popeye...He's got the built-in spinach. He brings it," Cotch added.

Regardless of what Landry may bring to the game, the Steelers, especially the receivers, welcome the challenge the Jets defense brings. 

"We love it. We love when we see one-on-one coverage.You gotta beat your man then, and that's what we gotta do," Steelers WR Antonio Brown on facing the Jets man coverage. 

Steelers WR Mike Wallace on Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis: "He's a great player. He's probably the best in the league at what he does. But, I don't feel like he's going to change what we do out there. We're just going to go out there and play our game. Hopefully, we have success."

Wallace should expect success, he caught seven balls for 102 yards back on December 19, 2010 when he last faced the Jets. If Revis does play Sunday, though, as he's not practiced this week through Thursday due to a concussion, he more than likely would face Brown leaving Cromartie, the longer of the two cornerbacks to face Wallace. 

The man passing to those receivers, Ben Roethlisberger, has a new target also, though: Heath Miller. I pointed out in a previous article how seldom he'd been used in the red zone under Bruce Arians. I then suggested that in Todd Haley's offense Heath could get career numbers in either catches, yards and/or touchdowns. We saw a glimpse of that Sunday as he just missed having two scores in the red zone. Whether a 12, 21 or 22 personnel package, expect Haley to use him again that way Sunday. 

Haley also seems to be comfortable letting Ben call plays in no-huddle, something Big Ben talked openly about Thursday. -

Haley wants to run a ball control offense, knowing that the ability to run the ball early in the game opens up the passing game, but Big Ben still has to get involved early too. If they do that, I expect the Steelers will back up Woodley's "guarantee" and get their first win. 

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Steelers Offense Will Improve, Defense Must Improve

"Troy Polamalu takes blame for Thomas TD. Ben takes blame for INT. But blame Steelers loss on Peyton Manning, the master of [the] 4thQ."

Those words were written by Alan Robinson of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review after the game on Sunday in Denver. By now, you know all the numbers and why those individuals said what they did. But, what Robinson wrote truly epitomized the outcome of the game: regardless of the bad angle taken by either Big Ben's throw or Polamalu's pursuit, the ultimate blame lies with Peyton Manning. -

That said, Big Ben Roethlisberger was straight forward when commenting on his part in the loss.

"There’s no one to blame but myself. I already told my teammates and coaches that it’s my fault. It’s on me. It’s disappointing. I hate to let my team down, my coaches, the fans. That loss is squarely on my shoulders. I'll take that and get better and learn from it," said the Steelers Digest Player of the Week.

While both Ben's offense and Troy Polamalu's defense share responsibility for the outcome, though, one unit already looks to have a higher ceiling. While it may not be immediately obvious by a cursory look at the numbers, the offense instituted by Todd Haley has real big game potential. 

I know, I know, I'm in the minority in this so far-I've already seen the message board, Twitter and Facebook posts, which is why I waited before writing this piece. And at first glimpse, I could see how I would seem to be wrong. Haley's offensive focus, though, is to run the ball more and more effectively, to protect the quarterback by utilizing shorter drops and to throw the ball to tight ends and running backs more. There is also an impetus on getting the ball out of Big Ben's hands quicker and on using shorter drops. For the most part, with the big picture in mind, mission accomplished. Big Ben agrees.

“I thought we did pretty well. We were going against a great defense in a hostile environment. We did a lot of no-huddle, mixing things in. We used a lot of clock, worked down the field, made plays when we needed to," Big Ben said. "Overall, I was happy with the way the guys handled the offense.”

Dejan Kovacevic wrote a fantastic article in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review regarding his thoughts on this as well. You can read it here:

Speaking again of Big Ben, those were the realistic words of a quarterback who understands that this was only one piece of the pie and one who is looking at what eventually will be. It's the typical fan who only sees 26 rushes for just 75 yards, and not the fact that Jonathan Dwyer carried the ball nine times for 43 yards (4.8 yards per carry) and that Rashard Mendenhall will be back after the bye. Haley wants more ball-control, Dwyer has shown that he can be that running back, a sentiment seemingly echoed by head coach Mike Tomlin. He said in his Tuesday press conference that Dwyer will get more opportunities. -

That said, certain elements do still need tweaking, such as the 28 total first downs that produced only 79 yards and the four sacks allowed. All-in-all, though, I'm reservedly optimistic about the offensive line considering they were down to just five players after right tackle Marcus Gilbert (knee) and right guard Ramon Foster (eye) were injured, both of whom will be available this Sunday. Considering that, there was good overall protection from the offensive line. 

Unfortunately, that has a second edge to it. The Steelers OLine pass blocked better than it run blocked on Sunday, managing to keep Big Ben clean most of the game. The problem lies in the poor first down numbers mentioned earlier. Keeping Big Ben upright is good, forcing him into "Ben being Ben" because of too many third and long down and distances (they were 11-19 in those) is not. Which is one of the main things they're wanting to avoid this season forward. 

The Steelers played good ball-control and kept Peyton Manning off of the field as they wanted to do, they just weren't able to close the door enough. That will improve. Remember, overall it's not Haley's playbook that's the issue, it's the players grasping that playbook. Haley's job is get those players in a position to execute. The blame is ultimately on them.

The comments vilifying the offense just aren't warranted. I've seen the shouts of "predictable" play-calling regarding what was seen against the Broncos, but I don't subscribe to that notion because (1) it was the first game and (2) 'predictability' is the most overrated concept in football - they still have to stop you. 

Vince Lombardi's Green Bay Packers 'predictably' created "a seal here and a seal here" and ran it "right up the alley." No one stopped them. He and his teams were predictable all the way to five NFL Championships, including two Super Bowls. Execution trumps predictability 24/7/365.

The defense gets a needed boost in that starting free safety Ryan Clark comes back this Sunday against the New York Jets. It may also get another in the return of Pro Bowl outside linebacker James Harrison. According to Tomlin, "James Harrison worked out Monday. He will run [Wednesday] and see where he is. We'll work him up to activity and let that be our guide."

I am on record in previous blogs and on the podcast as saying that the "telepathic" and even "symbiotic" connection between Clark and strong safety Troy Polamalu would be missed. It was. I also said that Harrison's absence would mean less pressure on Manning and a run game that would test the side vacated by him. It did. Let's hope the Steelers return both of those two players this Sunday.

In that podcast interview I also downplayed the impact of wide receiver Demaryius Thomas, saying that his historic game was as much a product of the unpredictability of the Triple Option (really a "Spread Option") offense run by Tim Tebow. I was actually wrong and right on that one. While the X-factor that was Tebow affected game plans, I can't take anything away from Demaryius Thomas who had five catches for 110 yards on Sunday. 

The majority of that, though, was the big catch-and-run off the bubble screen which he took untouched to the house. Tackle the catch better, which was a problem all game, and he only had four receptions for 39 yards. Have to tackle the catch better, as defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau likes to say, and disallow all the yards after the catch (YAC). 

To illustrate why this is so important: Manning was 19-26 for 253 yards - only 127 of those yards were in the air, meaning the defense surrendered 126 in YAC. (Thank you, NFL Rewind.) So, half of the passing/receiving yards were because of poor tackling. 

Plus, as was alluded to in the opening paragraph, Polamalu was caught completely out of position to make the play. He took the wrong angle and Thomas, aided by a possible hold by Jacob Tamme on Ike Taylor and a definite hold by Zane Beadles on free safety Ryan Mundy, was off to the races. 

Too bad LaMarr Woodley couldn't make it to Denver. 

The return of Ryan Clark and James Harrison won't be a panacea for this defense. Chris Carter and Jason Worilds need to continue to contribute and Cortez Allen must wrap up better. Before LeBeau's defense and schemes start to come into question, also, the defense as a whole must improve. Giving up 334 yards on 55 plays is not a LeBeau defense. 

In fact, outside of Buck inside linebacker Larry Foote, who registered eight total tackles, one sack (almost two), one forced fumble and one pass defensed in the week 1 loss, the defense wasn't overly impressive and was gouged from mid-third quarter onward. This is definitely my greater concern. The defense didn't look like last season's No. 1 ranked unit, but instead simply looked to return to the scene of the crime. And that crime was never solved. 

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Peyton Manning or James Harrison: Which Player Impacts A Steelers Win More?

"When you get Peyton Manning, you get a package. You dont get a QB; Peyton Manning's not a cookie-cutter QB...You get the whole thing."

Those words were spoken on Thursday by Pittsburgh Steelers free safety Ryan Clark who won't be able to take part in the game in Denver Sunday because of the sickle-cell trait he carries that prevents him from playing in the high altitude there. His absence will be felt.

His isn't the only, though.

Stevenson Sylvester will also miss the game as well as the next two there after because of a knee injury. David DeCastro was placed on the Injured Reserve/Return list and won't be back for at least eight weeks.

Other players on the injury report were running back Baron Batch (groin) who is listed as questionable. Running back Isaac Redman (ankle/hip), defensive end Brett Keisel (ankle), linebacker Larry Foote (ankle), and linebacker Jason Worilds (knee/wrist) were all full participants in Friday's practice and are listed as probable.

Rashard Mendenhall (knee) is listed as doubtful, though former Steelers lineman and current Steelers analyst Tunch Ilkin said on Steelers Live @ 4 that Mendy looks great as he continues to work his way back from his ACL injury. He told CBS Sports he's physically able to play but won't say if he is on Sunday.

"Stability is fine. I continue to grow in strength. The running and cutting and everything is fine, so just gonna take it day to day."

He has been practicing, but I maintain that he won't play until after the bye week.

More important than any of those, though, is right outside linebacker James Harrison (knee) who didn't practice at all Friday and is listed as questionable on the Friday injury report. The Silverback told the media that he was a gametime decision, but logic dictates that he does not play Sunday night. Second year Fresno State product Chris Carter will start in place of Harrison if he indeed cannot go.

Harrison even admitted when asked that "if the game was today, I couldn't play." Harrison said the knee "didn't feel too good" and that it needed rest. Seems highly unlikely Harrison will play. -

As we've written before, it isn't just Harrison's pass rushing ability that the Steelers would be missing Sunday. His run stopping ability is immensely important. Carter is a speed rusher who can get to the quarterback. But the QB in question, the one praised at the outset of this article by Clark, knows how to exploit weaknesses.

Without question, Peyton Manning is a very, very smart signal caller who gets the ball out of his hands quickly. He's a surgeon in cleats and has dissected many a defense. And it's those same smarts that cause him know to utilize his running game.

Manning is not afraid to run the ball out of a passing formation, like in 3-wide receiver sets. Specifically, also, he knows to run the ball at an unproven right outside linebacker. It wouldn't be surprising to see Denver try to run to beat the Steelers.

Manning, with all the attributes we know him to have, is a quarterback who can be rattled and made to throw the ball sooner than he wants to, when the defense is able to confuse him AND hit him. Plus, it's well known that Manning has trouble with 3-4 defenses using disguising schemes.

Manning's troubles with 3-4 defenses makes the loss of a fully healthy Harrison loom larger. It also means that not only Carter, but Worilds and LaMarr Woodley must pick up the slack.

Worilds, who sustained a wrist injury in a game early last season that required offseason surgery, says he's glad to be healed and is ready to throw his hand in the pile (no pun intended): "I've broken something before and I'd rather have something breaking. I'm definitely relieved, absolutely relieved. It's been a long journey, but I'm just [happy] to get back on the field...with my teammates again."

Worilds isn't Harrison either, though. Nor is Adrian Robinson. All good players, but none are Deebo.

From recognizing formations to breaking down cover schemes in order to stymy the run or force a strip-sack to being wreaking havoc in coverage, few are the force of nature that wears the ultimate game face. This guy scares everyone and his absence will more profoundly affect the Steelers chances of winning than will Manning's presence.

Make no mistake, despite what the Steelers offense does, the defense truly should have the more vocal say in who wins this game.

A complete corps of linebackers means a shutting down of the run game. Lawrence Timmons, Foote and Carter need to have big games against the run considering we've already said we fully expect the Broncos to utilize the run. Shutting down the run means you're forcing a rusty QB coming off of four neck surgeries to pass more.

Point blank: a healthy Harrison or DeMarcus Ware or Aldon Smith or even a Woodley could break Michael Strahan's sack record this year. Every team is passing more - it's very much a passing league. More pass attempts mean more opportunities for sacks. It's simple numbers: more drop backs begets more sacks.

BOTTOM LINE: In our humble opinion, a healthy and angry Deebo would have meant an easier victory. If he truly is out for Sunday, look instead for the Steelers to squeak out 20-17 victory.


Whether it's an extra secondary body just to throw at Manning and then discarded or a bona fide addition to the roster, the Steelers signed for Oakland Raiders cornerback DeMarcus Van Dyke.

Without getting any deeper into roster implications, we referred to the raw CB in a previous blog as "a project." Van Dyke is a curly hair short of 6'1" and weighs 187 pounds soaking wet, carrying a brick and with extra change in his pockets.

Bob Labriola of Steelers Digest posted this on him on Friday after the official announcement of his signing: "Scouting rept. on Van Dyke: Fast (4.3), athletic, developmental CB, good gunner on punts, tall (6-1), slight but added 10 lbs since '11."

So, while he probably won't see the field defensively, he should see special teams as a gunner.

If you follow us on Facebook you may converse with us on occasion in a Steelers group or two. One such conversation with Paul Ventura provided a bit of knowledge about Van Dyke. He hipped me specifically to what former Steelers cornerback and Hall of Famer Rod Woodson, who was the Raiders defensive backs coach when they drafted Van Dyke, said last year about him in their training camp.

"He has great hips. He reminds me of a player that I played with in Baltimore, Duane Starks. When he got drafted coming out of The U (Miami), and we were in Baltimore, he had great hips, great feet. DVD reminds me of him. He's a little bit taller. His range, I don't think too many receivers are outrunning him," Woodson said.

"So, he has to learn to break down, move his body weight and transition when he's playing in space," Woodson continued. "If he does that, he can be a pretty good. It's the little things that he has to work on."

"He has to learn how to finish, Woodson concluded. "He's still learning the little things about playing corner in this league - playing the different coverages, when to do certain things, when not to do certain things. But if he keeps progressing in the positive manner like he has in the first week or so, he'll be a decent player."

If Carnell Lake can have the influence on him that he had on Keenan Lewis, maybe Van Dyke sticks around for a while.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Godfather Goodell Gets Taken To The Mattresses In Saints Bounty Case

Looks like the Godfather was made an offer he couldn't refuse. Actually, he had no other choice.

Per Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk on Friday, the Bounty Gate suspensions were overturned by the internal appeals panel, not a judicial court ruling. Richard J. Howell, on behalf of that three-person panel, points out that the case now has been given back to Roger Goodell. 

They decided that it’s unclear that the suspensions imposed by Goodell fall within his jurisdiction, and not the jurisdiction of the “System Arbitrator." 

“While we agree, then, that the Commissioner had jurisdiction to discipline the Players in this case, we are uncertain that the discipline handed down was attributable, in any part, to that aspect of the Program which lies within the exclusive jurisdiction of the System Arbitrator."

Howell continued, “While we could speculate, it is not clear from the record before us whether had the distinction we draw in mind at the time he disciplined the players.”

This basically means that the suspensions are voided and that Godfather Goodell doesn't have jurisdiction and, Barzini, rather, Stephen Burbank does. So, for now, as was said earlier, this is now back in the hands of Goodell. 

Just when he thinks he's out, they drag him back in!

This isn't necessarily a victory for Saints. It just means that the arbitration panel, i.e. the five families, decided that more specific evidence needs to be provided and it may more directly be under the purview of the System Arbitrator. So, the players will be in uniform opening weekend. The ruling means nothing, though, to Sean Payton, Mickey Loomis, Joe Vitt, and Gregg Williams. It doesn't affect them at all. -

As Adam Schefter said, "With Saints suspensions overturned, players are eligible to play this weekend. Talk about a can of worms being opened on eve of 2012 season.

Exactly. How is Goodell supposed to continue to work toward more balanced adjudications when his rulings can be countered because a lawyer(s) can fail "to properly draw the lines when drawing up the penalties?" This is good for Saints P.R., but not for NFL perception. - 

A bottom line statement was provided by Schefter when he stated, the "Appeals Panel vacated suspensions and directed Commissioner to make "an expeditious re-determination" of discipline for conduct detrimental. Until Commissioner does that, the players are reinstated and eligible to play." -

This isn't the end of the Bounty Gate suspension fiasco. The panel didn’t make any determinations as to whether or not there was a bounty program and who may have participated. New and/or more specific evidence needs to be provided and then the players should still see some much deserved downtime. -

So, Goodell still has time to settle all family business. 

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Steelers Sign Cornerback DeMarcus Van Dyke

A fast secondary just got faster. A lot faster. 

According to Pro Football Talk, the Pittsburgh Steelers will sign former Miami Hurricane cornerback DeMarcus Van Dyke. When the Oakland Raiders signed veteran cornerback Joselio Henson on Monday, they waived Van Dyke.

Van Dyke passed through waivers unclaimed and will complement an already fast group of defensive backs, all sub 4.45, with his 4.28/40 NFL Combine speed. -

That type of speed is something the Raiders covet and it helped him become their third-round pick. He just can't do much else. Neither could the rest of the Raiders cornerback corps, though, as they allowed 251 yards per game through the air last year.

So, the 6'1" 187 pound Van Dyke is a project. He doesn't have great control once he gets turned, doesn't have great balance over his hips, but he has NFL length and NFL speed.

Should mean no Trai Essex after all now, and David DeCastro most likely goes on 8-week IR. 

UPDATE: Steelers Digest writer Bob Labriola has finally announced that "CB DeMarcus Van Dyke just signed today. Will wear jersey No. 30." No word yet on corresponding roster move. We still contend that it will David DeCastro to the short-term Injured Reserve.

Truths, Myths And Realities: The Steelers And James Harrison

Some weeks ago, Adam Schein of wrote an article addressing what he considered to be the debunking of myths and establishing of truths. Regarding the Steelers he addressed specifically what he felt were the reasons they would be nothing more than a third-place team.

While on the surface he seemed to have covered all the main bullet points, his reasonings were so much pure speculation and conjecture that I thought I was reading satire, something akin to "The Colbert Report" rather than actual journalism. Add to that, he missed a very salient matter that was in question even a month ago.

Let's simply look at his points and see what really are truths and myths. We're also providing the link to the article so there can't be a claim that anything was taken out of context. -

"The Myth: Pittsburgh is Pittsburgh, and will be a top-tier contender. 

The Truth: The Steelers have issues and look like a third-place team."

After extending his respects to head coach Mike Tomlin, he said "I'm not convinced the shotgun marriage between new offensive coordinator Todd Haley and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger will work....Have you studied the combustible Haley and Roethlisberger through the years?"

Schein so far is exemplifying synthetic thinking by regurgitating the same rhetoric as much of the rest of the media assuming Haley's and Roethlisberger's first names are Devil Anse and Ole Ran'l. There hasn't been any actual indication, though, of a Hatfields and McCoys disagreement. Maybe they didn't have communication immediately upon Haley's arrival, but there is no rule they had to do so. 

There is, though, an NFL rule saying that the team and coaches couldn't have any football contact/connections at that time. So, the lack of contact between the two, which again was media generated, was much ado about nothing. Besides, as long as they agree that the mutual goal is to win a Super Bowl, it doesn't matter if they don't exactly get along. It's well known that former Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Chuck Noll and quarterback Terry Bradshaw didn't exactly get along, bickering all the way to four Super Bowl wins. 

Next, Schein addresses another aspect of the offense. "Meanwhile, receiver Mike Wallace....wants Larry Fitzgerald -type money. The Steelers (wisely) won't give it to him. This situation can't be spun with the argument that Wallace knows the Steelers' system and won't be hurt by missing time -- Haley is implementing a new offense, after all."

First thing to say on that is, as we've written before, please provide that quote where Wallace said he absolutely wanted Fitzgerald money. At the same time, we know he wants to get paid. Who doesn't? Very briefly, then, let's tackle the contract aspect of this.

We've been saying for some time now that the money is there to sign Wallace. That hasn't changed. The problem is with how Wallace may be looking at the money he'd be receiving. Never overlook the all-important paragraph five in NFL contracts.

Wallace has the possibility of making, if indeed the $50 million that Mark Kaboly of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review alleges was offered to Wallace is accurate and still on the table, $20 million over two years initially and basically $50 million over five.

It's hard not to see him taking it, but Wallace may be looking at an $11 million average if his push for $55 million is also accurate. That wouldn't be smart because the back ends of the contracts is hardly ever paid. So, why look at an average when it's the signing bonus and the first two years are what matter most? Like I mentioned earlier, always consider the paragraph five money (i.e. signing bonus + 1st year/option bonus + 2nd year = 2 years, $20 mill or more).

More importantly and impactfully is what Wallace can do on the field in Haley's new offense. The beauty of what Wallace brings is that, if all else fails, Wallace can just use his speed and go long, be used as a decoy, and/or hit and exploit simple slant routes or bubble screens. Big Ben and Wallace, with a simple look or nod, can also just recreate the train station scene from the movie The Untouchables. Big Ben/Elliot Ness: "You got him?"
Wallace/George Stone: "Yeah, I got him."
Ben/Ness: "Take him!" (The GREATEST SCENE IN MOVIE MAKING HISTORY. But, I digress...)

We acknowledge that Rashard Mendenhall is still hurt and that his inability to play Sunday can affect what the Steelers can do. Don't expect the Steelers to rush him back, though they might throw a smoke screen Denver's way. -

We tie that into Schein's next point, which was, "Do you trust Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer? 

In a word, yes. Redman is a straight forward plodder who likes to attack, and Dwyer is pounding runner with skip and pop when given that hole. Between the two of them, and with the variables that Baron Batch and Chris Rainey behind them bring, they can collectively provide the running game the Steelers need. 

I choose to skip the comments on the offensive linemen drafted because one is gone for at least eight weeks and the other won't start in that time frame anyway. But his next point may be the most head-scratching of all he wrote.

"Receiver Hines Ward is on TV. Linebacker James Farrior has left the building. Safety Troy Polamalu is older."

Response: Hines barely played as youth was served. Potsie was off the field more than you remember. Yeah? So is everyone else. Polamalu is one who keeps himself in great shape, is known for his conditioning. Whether 26 or 31, he will be ready to play. 

Schein then addressed the entire by saying that the "Baltimore Ravens are the team to beat in the AFC North. Baltimore has a more imposing defense (even with the injury to Terrell Suggs) and a better running attack than its arch rivals in Pittsburgh."

Really? Even without Fall So Hard? Check the NFL stats again from last season, the Steelers were atop the list. While the No. 2 defense was a Harbaugh-led unit, it was the one in Garnett and Gold. Not to mention the fact that the Ravens lost key defensive players in defensive end Cory Redding, nose tackle Brandon McKinney, outside linebacker Jarret Johnson, cornerback Chris Carr and safeties Tom Zbikowski and Haruki Nakamura. 

The running attack point is arguable, but the fact is that neither team historically runs well against the other. So, that's generally a wash. In all honesty, though, both are potential 10-6 teams.

"The Cincinnati Bengals are legit....Quarterback Andy Dalton and receiver A.J. Green will continue to blossom in Year 2. Right now, on Aug. 1, the Steelers have more issues than the Bengals."

The first point with which we completely agree. The Bengals will only improve on last year's success and will be a team to be reckoned with this season. Dalton is a QB on the rise and Green has scary potential. The Steelers and Ravens both with have to account for the Bengals. 

The way Schein ended that last point was that "the Steelers have more issues than the Bengals." Yes, they do. One of the biggest of the issues is how much can be expected from outside linebacker James Harrison. His presence of absence is a very mighty swing of the pendulum.

We at If It Ain't Steel have questioned just how much we all may see him in the season-opening Broncos game, as well as over this year entire year. We also surmised that this could be his last full season with the Steelers. If so, his loss would be immediately felt. He has only participated in a limited capacity the last two days of practice, so this is of real concern.

As good as Chris Carter has been in the preseason at rushing the passer and causing disruptions, he isn't the clogging run stopper that is Harrison. When the Silverback wants the running back to stop, he stops. Deebo's strength, especially his lower body strength may be unmatched in the NFL right now. When he is healthy and is able to get low, basically too low for the offensive tackles to counter, the wide side of the field for the running back is simply cut off. When healthy, he is pure intimidation. Scary. He's like the NFL's version of Candyman--offensive coordinators don't even say his name five times when going over game plans the night before games. -

Whenever Harrison does hang up the cleats, the Steelers will miss his run support as much as, if not more than, his pass rushing prowess. Just as he has been explosive and terrorizing force at times, at other times he has been an immovable block of granite. "Dominant" is not ever an exaggeration when describing Harrison's play over the years. Even if he is limited, therefore, in Denver Sunday night, the reality is that his 75%-80% is better than 100% from some others.

Adam Schein tried to prognosticate doom and gloom for the Steelers, and, to be precise, there are some issues that may take all season to be completely resolved. The truth, though, is that much of what he opined and that the media writes to gain website hits is speculation. They themselves are more myth than anything else. The actual reality is that the Steelers will struggle with in the early part of the season schedule. But, as they coalesce as a solid unit, this team could find enough of an identity to make a playoff run. 

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

If It Ain't Steel's Top 12 QB Rankings

It’s that time of year again that we at If It Ain’t Steel are doing our NFL quarterback rankings. When choosing our rankings we didn't look at their being fantasy darlings, we looked at their overall work and what we think they will do this season. We didn’t go by the sexy picks of the Top 100 or any other so-called expert picks, we went by our opinion of their overall career and what we project they will do the upcoming season. This ranking is solely based on that. (Addendum: For a breakdown of the criteria of our Top 12, refer to last season's Top 12 QB blog)

1. Tom Brady

He last season had a rating of 105.6 and threw for 5,235 yards and 39 touchdowns to 12 interceptions. Why did we choose Brady? Let’s look at last season. The Patriots had one of the worst defenses in the league-they were good at manufacturing turnovers, but not much else. He led the Patriots to a 13-3 record in the regular season. He carried that team on his arm and led them to a Super Bowl with that same defense. Though they ultimately lost, he still got them there. He did what needed to be done to make up for his suspect defense, which is what Brady does: he finds that drive to carry his teammates and win when it counts. In that SB, some like myself, believe that Brady was only a few dropped passes away from winning his 4th Ring. Face it, whether we like Brady or not, as long as he is healthy, he is always going to be right there in the thick of things come the postseason. So we give props where props are due and he gets our highest honor this year.

2. Drew Brees

Brees had a rating of 110.6 and threw for 5,476 and 49 TDs to 14 INTs. Brees gets the second nod because personally we believe, even with all the Bounty Gate suspensions, Brees will still be right there as one of the top ranked QBs in the NFL. He broke Dan Marino’s passing record last season and we look for more the same this season. Brees, like Brady, has that will and drive to win, no matter what it takes. The Saints do have a lot of obstacles to overcome this season, with the loss of their head coach and defensive players to suspension, but that does not change the fact that Brees is one the premier QBs in the league. We believe the play of Brees will put the Saints right into the thick of things come postseason.

3. Aaron Rodgers

Had a rating of 122.5 and he threw for 4,643 yards with 45 TDs to 6 INTs. I know what you are thinking, "Why isn’t Rodgers #1?" Well, I'll tell you why. Yes, Rodgers led the Packers to a 15-1 regular season, but was one and done in the playoffs. Unlike Brady who made up for his suspect defense, Rodgers didn't when it counted. Rodgers won the NFL MVP of the year and was named the No. 1 player in the NFL’s Top 100 list, but as I pointed out, we don’t just look at stats, but at overall play. That is the only reason that Rodgers is below Brees and Brady. We feel Rodgers will have another great season this year and put up much of the same numbers, making him on the top tier QBs in the league.

4. Ben Roethlisberger

A passer rating of 90.1 and he threw for 4,077 yards and 21 TDs to 14 INTs. Big Ben has proven year in and year out that he deserves to be in the Top 5. We at If It Ain’t Steel think that Ben will take another step forward this season. The Steelers lost in the wildcard round of the playoffs, but the team was plagued with injuries, even Big Ben was playing hurt. That is no excuse and we're not making any, just stating fact. We believe Ben will take his play to the next level and move up the rankings with his play. There is talk of there being issues with him and new offensive coordinator Todd Haley, but we do not see it-it's a media fabrication. Big Ben and Haley share a common trait, and that is that they both like winning. Each has a true drive to get to the top of the NFL world again. We look for this to be one of Big Ben’s biggest seasons yet and for him to lead the offense to being one of the top ranked units in the league. He has all the requisite weapons around him and a solid offensive line in the making. We feel this could be Big Ben’s best season yet.

5. Eli Manning

Passer rating of 92.9 and he threw for 4,933 and 29 TDs and 16 INTs. We are well aware that Eli is the reigning SB MVP and all that other stuff. Remember, though, we don't only look at things like that. Don't get it twisted, we respect what Eli has accomplished over the past 8 seasons. So, since we look at overall play, realize that there were times that Eli didn't look so good. He turned it on in the postseason, when it counted, and won the Super Bowl. They barely made the post season in the first place, though. We felt last year’s SB could have gone either way (and was the most boring SB we have ever watched). Eli will have to show that fire this season because he and the Giants have a tougher schedule in front of them. Let’s see if he can be the first QB to get to the big show in back-to-back seasons in a long time. Then maybe he will move up our list.

6. Peyton Manning

There are no stats for Peyton because we are all aware he did not play last season. He gets the No. 6 nod because, c'mon, he's Peyton Manning. Peyton will be with a new team this season, but I believe that we will see the same Peyton we've seen in the past. He may not have the likes of Reggie Wayne and Dallas Clarke around him, but he can make any average receiver look very good. Eric Decker and Damarius Thomas and Jacob Tandee are more than capable of filling those roles. His ability to read defenses and shred them makes him one the best to ever lace them up. I think he will make the Broncos look a lot better than they did with Tebow, even though that wouldn't take much. Peyton can actually throw the ball.

7. Joe Flacco

His passer rating was 80.9 and he threw for 3,610 yards and 20 TDs and 12 INTs. Joe Flacco jumped our list this year because of his play last season. He starting out benefiting from a great defense and really did not have to do much. Last season, though, Flacco took a step forward by twice beating his arch nemesis, aka the Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger. He also showed his moxy in the playoffs by showing that he can lead the Ravens when needed. His play in the AFC Championship game was very good, and while we hate to admit it, he had us cheering for the Ravens to take the Patriots out. It was one of those moments where, being a Steelers fan, we were rooting for the lesser of two evils. For so many seasons Flacco got blamed for the Ravens woes, that he was the reason they didn't make it to the Super Bowl. This past season, though, he put that team on his back in the championship game and took them right down into a winning position. He was NOT the reason they lost, he did everything to set them up to win. This season will be the next step for Joe Flacco-with the defense getting older and with injuries to key players as well as losing some other key players to injury, he must take on a greater load. Time will tell if he can handle that task.

8. Philip Rivers

Rivers had a passer rating of 88.7, he threw for 4,624 yards and 27 TDs with 20 INTs. Rivers had one of the worst seasons of his career last season. At times we were wondering if we were watching Rivers or Jamarcus Russell. He still deserves to be in a Top 12 list, though, because, we think he has a bounce back season this year. Yes, he lost most of his go-to weapons, but his coach and general manager are on the hot seat. If Norv Turner and A.J. Smith get sent packing because you have another bad season, then you may be next. So, he has a little thing called "incentive," because we don't see that happening. We get the feeling we'll hear yet again the nauseating fantasy geeks proclaiming that "Rivers is the best." We won’t (ever) say he's the best, but he is mid-to-top tier.

9. Matthew Stafford

Passer rating of 97.2, he threw for 5,038 yards and 41 TDs with 16 INTs. You may ask why, with stats like that isn't Matthew Stafford higher. Well, last season was a look at things to come. It was the first full season of his career and he showed that he is the real deal. He played solid all season and led the Lions to the playoffs and out of the ashes of being the step-child of the NFL. Stafford showed finally last season why he was a No. 1 draft pick. We see no reason why he can't repeat that performance this season.

10. Matt Ryan

Passer rating of 92.2 and he threw for 4,177 yards and 29 TDs with 12 INTs. Ryan, aka Matty Ice, comes in at 10 in our list. He has shown consistency over the course of his career in Atlanta and has had, much like Flacco, winning seasons every year. Ryan, however, has not had the success in the playoffs that Flacco has had. They both entered the NFL the same year and numbers wise, Ryan is better. Numbers can be misleading, though. Ryan, we think, will step over the playoff hump and get a win this season. He has all the pieces around him to take the next step forward. He plays in a tough division, but he holds his own with the big guns of the NFC South.

11. Tony Romo

Romo had a passer rating of 102.5, he threw for 4,184 yards, and 31 TDs with only 10 INTs. Romo has shown without question that he can win regular season games. It is his record in December and January when Romo gets more blame than he deserves. The playoff losses haven't been only the fault of Romo. We believe this season is going to be make or break for Romo. Jerry Jones has put a lot of pressure on Romo and the Cowboys this season by coming out and saying that “their window is closing." Romo, like Flacco, gets the blame for a lot of the Cowboys woes, which is just not the case. That should have been evident when he went down with injury in 2010. The play at QB is not the problem. Romo can play, plain and simple. If he gets over the hump and wins some playoffs games, then this will not even be a discussion. We could even see putting him in our Top 6 if he does. Will he get there next year? The season will tell.

12. Cam Newton

Passer rating of 84.5, he threw for 4,051 yards, for 21 TDs and 17 INTs. Newton is the real deal. Plain and simple. No one thought he would come out and have the rookie season that he had, us included. But, he went out and played with a fire that most players do not possess until their second, third, even fourth season. The only thing that hindered Newton last season was the lack of weapons around him. He ran the ball for 706 yard and an additional 14 TDs. If the pocket broke down around him he just ran. I think he will only be better this season and move up the list. Though a sophomore slump is possible, we don't see one in his future. Will he get the Panthers to the playoffs? Probably not this season, but he will lead his team to an improvement in the win-loss column.

Honorable Mention:

The honorable mentions are guys we believe will have good seasons and could possibly make the list next season, depending on how they do this season.

Jay Cutler: Cutler is being reunited with his buddy Brandon Marshall and that should only improve his numbers and play. I think Jay will move up to the Top 12 next season if he stays healthy.

Andy Dalton: Dalton shocked the world last season with his play at quarterback. No one gave the Bengals a chance last season and Dalton, along with A.J. Green, proved the doubters wrong. He helped lead the Bengals back to the playoffs, but he and the Bengals were beaten by the Texans. He had a great rookie campaign and we look for him to improve on it.

Josh Freeman: Freeman, had a not-so-good season last year, and, with the Buccaneers' additions this offseason, this could be a great year again for Freeman. We think he only gets better over the season. No Barney Stinson this year, but we still expect Freeman to football suit up!

If It Ain't Steel’s Watch list:

Andrew Luck: Luck is getting ready to start his rookie season with the Colts, replacing some guy named Manning. We think Luck will surprise a lot of people this season and will be better than expected. Not predicting he will get the Colts to the playoffs, but we think he will fill the shoes of that guy in the Direct TV ads well enough to make Indy fans forget sooner than later.

Russell Wilson: I (specifically Jayden) was big on this kid in the draft, I actually had him ranked higher than Tannehill, though he went later to the Seahawks. He was recently named the starter, beating out Matt Flynn, and has sparks of being a good quarterback. I will be keeping my eye on these two rookies and, you never know, they may crack our Top 12 next season.

Robert Griffin III: I (specifically Jason) was big on this kid ever since college. He has all the skills needed to be great in the NFL and more. I was never concerned about his size, unlike Russell Wilson, nor about his having happy feet and leaving the pocket too quickly. He definitely has pocket-presence, but also the pocket-awareness that allows him to use his escapability. Watching him in college I couldn't help but think of other college and NFL quarterbacks with requisite skill sets. Namely Randall Cunningham (multiple playoffs, athletic, 1998 NFL Comeback Player of the Year), Mark Malone (trust me on this, Malone was a hell of an athlete and very good QB at Arizona St. and a promising NFL QB before knee injuries derailed his career-he even filled in at WR for Lynn Swann and held the Steelers' record for longest TD reception for 30 years) and Steve Young (though, admittedly, Young took off and ran more quickly than RG3 does). I will be keeping my eye on this one as well as the other two and see if he cracks the Top 12 next season.