Friday, December 21, 2012

For The Steelers, The Playoffs Begin Sunday Against Bengals

"What we are about is wins and losses. That is how you are measured. How many wins do you have? Are you in the playoffs? That's what we are shooting for..." - Pittsburgh Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley when asked about Ben Roethlisberger's numbers being better this year with him as the OC.

It is a valid question after all. Despite missing three (really 3.5) games, Big Ben has 22 touchdown passes, six interceptions and has suffered 24 sacks. Compare that to 21 TD passes, 14 interceptions and 40 sacks endured in 2011. That, by the way, was with 115 more pass attempts than he has at present. So the question is rightly asked.

Going by the criteria laid out by Haley, though, the season to this point would be a failure. Thankfully, they have two weeks to change that. Well, really only one.

This Sunday is the season for the Steelers. This one game. "That's it, that's the list" as Mr. Tony Kornheiser would say. It's win or go home starting this week. It begins with Big Ben and Haley being on the same page and guiding the Steelers successfully.

"Yeah, we've been on the same page. Our focus this week is on the Cincinnati Bengals," said Haley.

"Ben and I, I've felt, have been on the same page throughout the year," he continued. "as much as a quarterback and coordinator can be. There [are] going to be ups and downs and frustrations, but it's never been an issue of being on the same page."

Big Ben spoke similarly to ESPN's Josina Anderson (@JosinaAnderson on Twitter) Thursday in a locker interview. He spoke of being comfortable with Haley's offense and what's needed as their playoffs do indeed begin Sunday. -

In that interview the subject of the "comfort level" of Big Ben and the players in this offense was broached. Mark Kaboly of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review touched on this topic earlier this week.

Kaboly pointed out how Big Ben used to be a "one-read quarterback his first couple years in the league," but that he made himself into one of the best 2nd, 3rd and 4th-read quarterbacks in the league.

Over the last five years, Big Ben has nearly mastered his progressions. Like Kaboly said, he's become "one of the best" at it.

Over the last 2 weeks, though, Big Ben has struggled in that department. Could be because he isn't totally comfortable with Haley's offense yet? Possible, though it could just as easily be that the Tin Man still needs his oil can lubricating his joints as he works his way back from injury.

If it's the former reason, Big Ben said on Wednesday what he thinks are possible ways to help rectify that. Big Ben said he felt that they need to push the depth of routes more, that teams have picked up on their short passing game.

"They're definitely keeping on eye on our short passes, quick game as we call it. Because we've done a lot of that," Big Ben said. "That's kind of how we started the year, been pretty successful doing that stuff."

"They have sat on a lot of short routes," he went on, "which means we need to take advantage of that and double move and push the depth a little more."

He has a point. The "quick game" has accounted for 62% of the passes thrown by Big Ben having traveled nine yards or less, up from almost 56% last season.

The Steelers need the splash, or explosive, plays in their offense, I like and understand Haley's offense, I just think it needs to allow for more of "Ben being Ben." Or, wasn't that obvious in the touchdown pass to Heath Miller in the first half against the Cowboys? -

What is also obvious is that Big Ben's improvisation will be needed again as the musical chairs-like offensive line will be facing a man whom the website Pro Football Focus calls the "best defensive tackle in the game in the NFL in 2012: the Cincinnati Bengals' Geno Atkins.

This week, Steelers left guard Ramon Foster will see a lot of the man listed as having 69 quarterback disruptions and who already has the Bengals record for sacks by an interior lineman with 10.5, topping Dan Wilkinson's 1995 mark.

"He’s a good D-lineman, man," Foster said this week. "I think he’s one of the best if not the best D-lineman in the game right now. You’ve got to respect that guy, and you’ve got to really study that guy."

Atkins did have a sack in the teams' first meeting, but erstwhile left guard Willie Colon kept him in check most of the game. Foster knows he'll have his hands full come Sunday.

"You can’t go into the game thinking that you’re going to take a play off, it’s just not possible," Foster continued. "He has a great motor, he’s a strong guy with good leverage. You can’t be slow to take off on this guy he’ll definitely come around and embarrass you. He’s coming right off the snap."

What's his advantage? What makes him so good?

"His leverage, he’s down the middle of most guys’ chests. Most guards in this league are tall and he’s right there with the leverage," Foster revealed. "You’ve got to be really balanced with your base in this type of game."

That said, Foster doesn't expect the Steelers to use double-team strategies or chip him the entire game Sunday. "No, because we get paid in this league too," said Foster.

If that's the case, the Steelers will need to use the run game better to help offset his effectiveness. The last 2 weeks the Steelers have passed 72% of the time vs. the run (though, it was high against the Chargers for obvious reasons), and it's something the running backs have been vocal about this week as well. -

Getting Jonathan Dwyer the ball more is important, yes, but Big Ben in the interview alluded to what might be the team's biggest problem: turnovers, 27 of them to be exact. Of the 291 points allowed this year, 107 of them have come off of turnovers.

Haley doesn't fumble or throw interceptions, so the players need to execute and be held accountable when they don't. -

Through 14 games, the Steelers defense ranks first in yards allowed per game, passing yards allowed per game, and first downs allowed per game. They also rank second in yards allowed per play and passing yards allowed per play, and fourth in rushing yards allowed per game.

They have even allowed a league low 29 splash plays (plays of 20 yards or more). But the lack of sacks and turnovers, the two are usually indelibly linked, keeps this unit from being truly scary. The players know this and are sending a clear message regarding Sunday.

"The Bengals have to come in here and be ready to get hit in the mouth and stand in the middle of the field and slug it out," Steelers free safety Ryan Clark vowed.

Despite his injuries, Keenan Lewis also said he'd be ready, saying he will follow A.J. Green around on Sunday: "I am sure I will be ready to go 100% by Sunday."

Not backing down, he reiterated: "I'm playing, no matter what."

Green, who leads the AFC North with seven dropped passes (Mike Wallace is second with six), would have a field day against the combination of Curtis Brown, Josh Victorian and Robert Golden. Lewis is desperately needed Sunday so that Green doesn't set NFL records.

In "Coordinator's Corner," defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau spoke on all of these things, but cited what might be most important.

"It's important to get the guy on the ground every game," LeBeau said. Dallas quarterback, Tony Romo, was only sacked once last week. Tackling the passer and getting him on the ground is paramount.

"People know that we are a pressure defense, and the league has gone to a very quick release passing game," LeBeau continued. "They don't hold the ball very much. I have said this many times. If you look at the passing numbers that we have, there's got to be pressure on the quarterback."

Is there a solution? This deep into the season, "no" seems to be the answer. But LeBeau was accurate in one assessment in particular: "Our pressure has been consistent. Do we need more sacks? Absolutely..."

If the Steelers don't get constant pressure on Bengals QB Andy Dalton, he has the ability to pick them apart. The front seven of the Steelers defense needs to protect the inexperienced and injury-depleted secondary. -

The bad thing about the Bengals having played last Thursday night is the extra time they had to prepare. The good news is that all of the Bengals points were scored off of turnovers.

They were lackluster. They committed stupid penalties. They couldn't protect their quarterback and, when they did, he wasn't exactly good. He was sacked six times and he compounded that by fumbling twice. Fortunately for them, Philadelphia was worse.

The Eagles committed four turnovers in a brutally bad and hard-to-watch seven-minute span of the second half. All told, the Eagles turned it over five times and even had a punt blocked. They were more turkey than eagle and Cincinnati capitalized.

Recipe for success: play a clean game and they can be beaten. Remember the turnover stats given earlier? This is vital for victory. A victory needed to get into the post-season.

A post season that starts Sunday.


TIDBITS: FRIDAY PRACTICE/INJURY REPORT: Steelers - James Harrison and Maurkice Pouncey were limited because of illness; Keenan Lewis returned on a limited basis after missing on Thursday; Cortez Allen (groin), Troy Polamalu and Emmanuel Sanders (rib) were all full participants during Friday's practice. All Steelers listed as PROBABLE for Sunday except for CB Ike Taylor (out) and OT Mike Adams (doubtful). Most important that means CBs Cortez Allen/Keenan Lewis/Curtis Brown and WR Sanders will play.

Bengals - Adam Jones surfaces as questionable on Friday injury report. He was limited in Friday practice. Not on report prior this week. If Jones can't go, Nate Clements will play CB and Brandon Tate would return punts.


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