Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Ben Roethlisberger Weathers The Storm, Forecasts Good Season

"There is something to be learned from a rainstorm. When meeting with a sudden shower, you try not to get wet and run quickly along the road. By doing such things as passing under the eaves of houses, you still get wet. When you are resolved from the beginning, you will not be perplexed, though you will still get the same soaking. This misunderstanding extends to all things." - Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai

The 2012 Pittsburgh Steelers had their share of frustrations. From a new and unfamiliar offense, to injuries to inconsistent play, they certainly saw little sun shine down onto Heinz field, resulting in an 8-8 season. And for this organization, that may as well be a losing season.

The field general of this group of men, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, recently spoke on those frustrations and admitted to being perplexed at times. His 'frustration' with then-new offensive coordinator Todd Haley was one of the well-publicized issues, one that he says, while overblown by the media, has worked itself out.

"He brought it in and (said) 'Here's my stuff, here's what we're going to do.' So it was hard for us....So there was a lot of frustration with that," Big Ben said. "(But) people blew up the hatred thing or the butting heads, there was none of that."

He also talked about the changes that he, Haley and the other coaches made to the offense to streamline it for Big Ben and the rest of the offense. In so doing, he feels "really good" about where they are as a team and predicts good things for this offense.

"This offense is a new toy," Big Ben said. "I can't wait to see what's coming out of this thing." - http://tinyurl.com/mpdyb7p

"New toy" is different from the "dink and dunk" moniker he used last season, but it's said with the same admiration. When explaining his comments last season, Big Ben said that it "wasn't meant in a negative way" at all." That dinking and dunking the ball up the field is "moving the chains, and it will open up big plays. The {New England} Patriots dink and dunk too."

In order for that to be an apt comparison, though, the Steelers must either run the ball better or incorporate more splash plays also. Both would be nice.

The first of those was addressed at the NFL Draft with the selecting of running back Le'Veon Bell, which was juxtaposed with the attempted trade of Jonathan Dwyer. The starting job was veritably handed to Bell, or so we thought. Dwyer has something to say about it, saying that he aims to win the job.

“I want to prove to people that I can be one of the best,” Dwyer told 93.7 The Fan in Pittsburgh.

As the photo of the tweet shows, he lost 25-30 pounds by watching his diet and working hard. He said he feels like he has more energy, and that he’s more explosive and quicker in Training Camp.

It's a good problem to have, such healthy competition in Camp, because the better the running game, the better the team record. It aids the splash plays too, because as If It Ain't Steel brought out in March, Big Ben's passing statistics when going deep declined as the rushing averages dropped. His numbers in 2012 for passes 21 yards and longer were 8-37 (21.6%) for 317 yards, down from 16-55 (29.1%) for 530 yards.

Comparatively, the Steelers' average per carry dropped from 4.4 yards in 2011 to 3.7 in 2012, the fourth-lowest average since the NFL merger, and they also fell from 14th in rushing in 2011 to 26th last season.

Big Ben himself is 40-12 when the Steelers rush for 4.5 or more yards per carry in a game - a 77% win percentage. When they rush for 4.0 YPC or more in a game, Big Ben and the Steelers are 55-15 - winning at a 79% clip.

So getting Big Ben a running game is very important. Just as important, though, is keeping his uniform clean. Take the numbers presented above and factor in sack numbers and the results are better still.

When he is sacked three or fewer times and the average YPC is at least 3.6, the Steelers are 54-9 - an 86% winning percentage - in games Big Ben started.

Bottom line: get Big Ben a running game and keep him upright. Especially with him readily offering up how good he feels since his knee surgery, make it a team effort and priority.

"I hate missing games," quipped Big Ben. "I probably could have and should have missed more games throughout my career. We play a very violent sport. Knock on wood, I feel I've been lucky to not have a, quote, 'real serious injury.'" - http://tinyurl.com/mjwup53

If he truly wants "to pass Terry Bradshaw by getting more Super Bowl wins" then he must be resolved from the beginning and must not be perplexed, because he will still get the same soaking whether he gets those rings or not.

"I hope everybody out there in the real world has questions all year for us, because we'll get answers."

Especially with thunder and lightning interrupting the first practice of Training Camp, it sounds as if he is ready to weather yet another storm.

~

TIDBITS: Cornerback Cortez Allen out of Steelers practice again with knee injury.

Cornerback Terry Hawthorne was seen favoring his knee after being a gunner on special teams.

Nose tackle Alameda Ta'amu is on the active Physically Unable to Perform list with hamstring injury. Should be back soon.

Coach Tomlin says not to read too much into running back Le'Veon Bell finishing 1st pads practice with the starters.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Jason Worilds vs. Jarvis Jones: The Answer To Whom Should Start For The Steelers

The spoils of victory. The Pittsburgh Steelers are used to receiving them, just as they used to being victorious. But the 2012 Steelers were neither a Super Bowl contestant, nor were they a double-digit win team, but just a .500 ball club. A ball club looking for answers and an identity.

Among those answers they're searching for is who will replace ("succeed" would be a more accurate word) James Harrison at right outside linebacker. On one side is fourth-year player Jason Worilds, while on the other is first-round draft pick Jarvis Jones. There are debits and credits to each players' game, but only one can start week one.

Conventional wisdom would seem to dictate that Worilds is naturally the shoe-in for starter as he's been in the system longer. After all, he has been named by head coach Mike Tomlin as the starter to open Training Camp. But don't read much into that, into players being named as starters at start of camp. It's mainly a nod to seniority. The spot will be won in Camp, in practices, and eventually in games.

That being the case, who should get the starting job in order to help ensure the spoils?

If It Ain't Steel has long contended that it will be Worilds who will start week one. No rookie outside linebacker has started for the Steelers since Jack Ham in 1971, and none has ever started for defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. So, it's time for Worilds to bring his self-proclaimed moniker of "Worilds Greatest" to reality.

Over his first three seasons, Worilds has shown that he is capable of putting up decent numbers when given the opportunity. But he has been limited to total 10 starts in three years while playing behind Harrison and LaMarr Woodley. So, expectations are rightly high for Worilds. but now is the time.

He had five sacks in 422 defensive snaps last season. According to Football Outsiders, that equates to approximately 10 sacks over the course of a season. But we ourselves had made such facts clear months ago.

In a March blog piece we wrote that part of Worilds' issues were that he'd yet to have a true and full offseason in that he was a rookie in 2010, he had to endure the lockout in 2011, and in 2012 he had the wrist injury. As a side issue, he also is decidedly better on the left side than on the right. Nonetheless, during those three seasons, he played 999 snaps or the equivalent to one full season. In that time he has 10 career sacks.

Now, we do realize that this extrapolation doesn't automatically mean that he'll produce that way this season, but it's definitely a point in the right direction. Sometimes, all a player needs is experience and the right opportunity - he will finally have it. Can he make the most of it?

Jones, in true Bulldog form, is chomping at the bit to take the spot from Worilds. In 2012, he led the nation with 14.5 sacks and terrorized quarterbacks for 28 total sacks over the last two seasons. He also pursues the ballcarrier aggressively. Last season, 24.5 of his 85 tackles were for a loss.

Jones has also shown good instinct and the ability to diagnose plays as well as the athleticism to flow to the ball for open-field tackles. Qualities not at all lost on LeBeau.

"He's shown us a lot of instinctive football ability," defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said. "If the coach doesn't mess him up, I think he's got a chance to be a pretty good player."

Linebackers coach Keith Butler said something similar regarding Jones' abilities.

"He's showing us things, and, if he keeps showing those things he's going to be a big part of that, hopefully," said Butler.

LeBeau once said that some of his defensive innovations actually came from mistakes made by players. He used those mistakes and adapted them. One could argue that it might not be a bad idea to let Jones make his mistakes too. Let him learn "on the job", as it were. A trial by fire.

Unfortunately, though, that brings certain failings to light that may be too much to overcome.

"When he was in college, he kind of freelanced a little bit," Butler said. "We're a little bit more disciplined in terms of what we ask him to do and the technique we ask him to use in the passing game. All he did was drop straight back and look at the quarterback."

Since questions still remain about his ability to cover opposing receivers in passing situations, it would be a disservice to the other experienced linebackers to put him out there with them. It's going to be difficult enough learning LeBeau's defense, which is widely regarded as one of the most complicated and ever-changing systems in the entire NFL.

In a defense where linebackers are expected to defend the run, drop into coverage, occupy blockers and rush the passer (from a number of positions and exotic looks), it would also be a disservice to Jones to expect him to start right away.

Could Jones start and then have Worilds brought in on passing downs? Possibly. But, especially with this being a pass-happy league, it would make more sense to start the more experienced Worilds and bring Jones in as a situational player. (And we haven't even touched on his possible susceptibility to further nerve-related problems.)

With the linebacker position, outside linebacker primarily so, being so important to the Steelers defense and overall success, the answer to the question of who'll take over the right side would initially seem to be Jason Worilds. It's the smartest and surest way to start enjoying the spoils of victory early on in 2013.

~

TIDBITS: Here's a run down of a few of the more important tweets from the various national and local reporters who were in Latrobe Saturday:

“@EdBouchette: Ben Roethlisberger just told me his right knee is fine, although he did not want to dispute Mike Tomlin's assessment Friday.”

@AKinkhabwala: Steelers WR Markus Wheaton been told to learn multiple positions. After school had him miss camps, said he's excited to hear plays in huddle

@AKinkhabwala: Mike who? Plaxico Burress says Antonio Brown "is an electric guy. He’s going to be our big play guy this year."

"@MarkKaboly_Trib: Antonio Brown makes deep catch from Ben over Cortez Allen. AB can go deep, apparently."

"@MarkKaboly_Trib: Emmanuel Sanders beats William Gay deep. So much for not being able to go deep w/out Wallace"
(It's early yet)

“@AKinkhabwala: Steelers rookie WR Markus Wheaton asked for goals here. Says: "First, making the team. As long as I make the team, I can move on from there"”

“@MarkKaboly_Trib: Team drills has Redman one rep with first team, one for Dwyer, one for batch, one for bell.”

“@MarkKaboly_Trib: Larod Stephens Howling also gets snap with first team”

“@MarkKaboly_Trib: Tomlin telling Le'Veon Bell to "finish everything you do" after breaking into the open”

“@MarkKaboly_Trib: Beachum second team left tackle. Malecki second team center”

"@jimwexell: Alameda Ta'amu injured hamstring 2 weeks ago running sprints. He's lost 27 pounds to 350. Last yr's belly is this yr's chest & shoulders."

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

A Season Of Change: Five Key Players For A Successful Steelers Offense

by Jason and Jayden
Want to know a secret? NFL offenses are surprisingly milk-and-water and bland. It's true. Approximately 75% of what NFL teams do on offense is very straightforward. Virtually every team runs the same things every week. In fact, there isn't even that long of a list.

Just look at games around the league - almost the entirety of the NFL's run game amounts to about five plays. Plays that haven't changed much in 40 years: running between the tackles, running the outside zone (or the "stretch zone"), power play, a counter, and/or a pull or lead draw play. To some degree it's like a red-light district: no matter how much or how different the makeup used, it's still the same trick.

Now turn your attention to just one NFL team - the Pittsburgh Steelers. After failing to make the playoffs after last season, changes to the Steelers roster were needed and inevitable. General manager Kevin Colbert said as much last January.

"If we don't change 8-8, if we don't change the roster that produced 8-8, we'd be silly to expect a better result if we've got the same group of guys," Colbert said. "We can't box ourselves in and limit what we potentially could do."

Change they did, as at least eight players, four on offense, are gone from last season's roster. Now, be it touchdowns, explosive plays or red zone production, the Steelers face the daunting task of replacing their production. How will they do so? By changing a lot, yet not much at all. Within that, though, three things in the former category are paramount: execute, execute, execute. Execution, especially for the offense, is sacrosanct. For example, 110 points were scored off of Steelers turnovers in the 2012 season. Such careless and inept play much desist, it must change. But the controlling of the clock and controlling the tempo of the game, which they often did in their wins, conversely must continue.

Married to those points are the players who themselves must bear the load of the needed change. Aside from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger being the undisputed leader and resident John Wayne of the team, there is a mix of veteran leadership and wide-eyed youth to look to as the offensive keys to unlock the door to the playoffs. Big Ben has publicly said recently that he wants more Super Bowl rings than Hall of Famer Terry Bradshaw. Well, since "the best defense is a good offense," the Steelers need to continue some of the things they were doing on offense last season and edify other things in order to keep their defense and the opposing offense off of the field. If they do so, then another of those rings may find its way to Big Ben's finger sooner than later. To that end...

EMMANUEL SANDERS - "They're expecting 70 catches and 1,000 yards, and that's the same thing that I expect for myself," Emmanuel Sanders said in June.

A lofty goal considering the Steelers' leading receiver last season had 64 receptions for 836 yards and Manny himself had a career-high 44 receptions and 626 yards. Not only that, but Manny is the second receiver behind Antonio Brown, who'll receive the majority of the targets. The goal may be possible, but it isn't probable because of the fact that Brown will also already have an increased role himself.

Manny's speed, quickness and diverse route-running fits right in with offensive coordinator Todd Haley's offense. Therefore, there should be more red zone targets for Manny, who had a career-high 762 snaps on offense, but only five targets inside the 20-yard line. He received 14 targets over his first two seasons, catching nine of them for a total of 65 yards and three touchdowns. Though that is just one shy of Miller’s total during that time, those numbers are skewed considering that Miller's red zone targets and catches increased under Haley.

Still, we can see that there will be room for Manny to receive more red zone targets with the departure of various players. Manny has great hands, as was shown by over 70% of his receptions going for first downs - the Steelers leader in that category. His prowess and potential have him poised for a breakout year.

WILL JOHNSON - The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review posted an article last Sunday that highlighted the shortage of tight ends heading into Training Camp this coming Friday. It pointed out that "no one within the organization knows when Heath Miller will be prepared to play this season." If It Ain't Steel also stated back in March that the Steelers would miss Miller, who'll likely be PUP listed to start the season, more than many may think. - http://tinyurl.com/n7j3yyq

Add to that the knee injury that David Johnson suffered and Matt Spaeth and one can expect either David Paulson or Will Johnson will fill in until Miller recovers.

As we wrote a couple of weeks ago, Johnson was noted in OTAs and mandatory minicamp as showing maturation, increased ability to sustain his blocks and leadership. Johnson also was in the pass pattern 134 times last season and caught 15 balls for 137 yards in 22 targets. This would then support another Trib article that suggested Johnson's likelihood of being in pass patters more often next season. So, while listed as fullback, expect more overall H-Back duties.

Johnson was an important player to the Steelers as fullback and lead blocker, with his catching more passes being part and parcel to an increased importance this season, especially early on in the season. A fact that suits him just fine.

“I will do whatever I can do to make myself more valuable to the team," said Johnson, "and if that means catching passes, then I am fine with that."

LE'VEON BELL - "I think he's going to be exceptional," said Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey on Sirius XM Radio in May about Le'Veon Bell. "He came in, he was 250 (pounds) in college, he came into rookie minicamp at 234 and they say with him running around the edge being an outside zone player that he can be with the power that he brings, I think its really going to help us out."

The job isn't exactly his yet, but the Steelers' brass have to hoping Bell comes in and rips the job away from new teammates Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman. They want him to literally take it and run with it, something no one could do last season.

Being an approximate 235-pound back, running that "outside zone" would suit Bell just fine as he is can pop it outside as easily as he can pound it inside. He's not a power back, though, but one who can read and react. That, then, would fit in just perfectly with the Steelers running more of a zone-blocking offensive line scheme next season. Which leads us to our next key player.

OFFENSIVE LINE - We could easily have focused on one of the individual positions or players on the offensive line, but we realized that this year as much as any in recent memory requires them to act as one. To be one.

The Steelers spent the past several drafts investing heavily in the OLine. Since 2010, they've spent two first-round and two second-round selections on offensive linemen, and now they must come together as a unit under new coach Jack Bicknell, jr.

They are led by top 10 NFL center, Maurkice Pouncey who can pull like few centers in the league. He is great at getting to the second level and never takes a play off. But he does have an injury history and can be handled by bigger nose tackles. He is surrounded by guards Ramon Foster (left) and David DeCastro (right). Both are very good at run blocking and pulling, though are somewhat less proficient at pass blocking. That trio is then book-ended by tackles Marcus Gilbert (projected left) and Mike Adams (projected right). Both are athletic and quick-footed and can grind in the run game. But the key for both of them, principally Gilbert, is pass blocking, which can't be stressed enough. Keep Big Ben upright and the Steelers win.

The depth, if it can be called that, behind them manifests itself in the forms of Kelvin Beachum and Guy Whimper, and undrafted players Mike Golic, jr., Joe Long, Mike Farrell, John Malecki and possible Training Camp darkhorse Justin Cheadle.

The most important aspect of their collective job is unity. Being on the same page as much as humanly possible is essential and, according to Pouncey again, they are already buying in to the new system in order to do just that.

"With us this year trying to go to the outside zone scheme...I think we got the offensive line to do it this year," Pouncey said, "and we really plan on attacking it at these OTAs."

JERRICHO COTCHERY - We spoke earlier of the opportunities that Manny will have to take a big step forward this season. He isn't the only one, though. Jerricho Cotchery will not only be the No. 3 or No. 4 wide receiver, but he can also be very useful in the red zone, a role in which he already excels.

In the nine years that Cotch has played in the NFL, he has reached pay dirt (via TD reception) 20 times. Of that number, 11 have come inside the red zone. So, like Manny, it's important that Cotch stays on the field next season as both have missed time due to injuries. He knows how to use his body to shield the defender from the ball and get the needed yardage for TDs or first downs.

It is those qualities that will be vital to a Steelers offense that still presently has more questions than answers. If the Steelers are to answer them in time for the playoffs, those five elements must come together.

~

TIDBITS: This isn't a Steelers story, but we had to touch on it. A University of Florida Gators sophomore linebacker by the name of Antonio Morrison was arrested Sunday morning for the second time in just over a month. Bad enough, yes. Get this, though. According to the Orlando Sentinel, Morrison “was charged with interfering with police by harassing a police animal.”

"Harassing?" Ok, that sounds weird enough, but get this. According to The Gainesville Sun:

"On the same day the Alachua County Sheriff's Office released the dashboard camera video of the Sunday morning of arrest of University of Florida linebacker Antonio Morrison, Sheriff Sadie Darnell said the arresting deputy should have given the 19-year-old a warning for BARKING AT A POLICE DOG instead of placing him under arrest."

Yes, friends, he was actually barking at a dog. Barking. At a dog. A police dog. Barking.

Had the officer and the dog been playing "good cop, bad dog?"
Was Morrison trying to gain the police dog's trust by speaking its own language?
Is Morrison a relative of Michael Vick?
Was Morrison affected by the dog days of summer, or by a substance that could be partly cured by the hair of the dog?
Was Morrison acting out because he'd recently learned that he was going to be PUP listed to start the Football season?
Or did the Florida Gator simply mistakenly think the dog was from Georgia?

Sunday, July 21, 2013

The 5 Key Players To Returning Dominance To Steelers Defense


The late Al Davis famously once said about his defense, "Don’t adjust. Just dominate."

The 2012 Pittsburgh Steelers were once again tops in total defense, in yards per game and in passing yards. They were the No. 2 rushing defense, including being top three in allowing fewest runs of 20 yards or more (and even one of those was a fake punt). The problem was that they neither 'dominated,' nor did they get to the quarterback enough.

To help quantify the 'lack of dominance factor' and how numbers can be deceiving, consider this: the Steelers defense, when compared to the rest of the NFL's top five defenses, faced the fewest scrimmage plays with only 951. That's 70 fewer, essentially equivalent to a full game, than the team with the most in the top five, the Denver Broncos, at 1,021. Conversely, though, the Steelers allowed more points per game (1.5 more) than any defense in the top five at 19.6 PPG.

The defense didn't take the ball away enough, either, though. Only 20 turnovers were recorded, which was the eighth fewest in the NFL. That included only 10 interceptions. To put that in perspective, according to Steelers Digest, the Steelers picked an historic-low nine passes in the 11-game 1940 season. Hall of Fame cornerback Mel Blount himself had 11 in the 1975 season alone. Get the picture?

If the Steelers truly expect to get back into the playoffs next season, those are the two things that have to be reversed. Like the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review's Dejan Kovacevic recently wrote, "let's face this, too: The NFL's No. 1-ranked defense could be better, mathematically daunting as that sounds....And if you ask me, nothing will mean more to the Steelers than resetting some snarl to that defense, than regaining their intimidating identity." - http://tinyurl.com/l2uyw5l

To that end, there are five defensive players who are key to this and to potential success of the team:

1) STEVE MCLENDON - While some may argue that the most important aspect of the 3-4 defense is being able to get the outside linebackers to pressure the quarterback, we contend that it is a nose tackle who is as hard to move as Excalibur. Therefore, the core of a successful Steelers defense is its defensive line with Steve McLendon being the cornerstone. The Steelers expect to use him in at least 60% of the snaps this season, but McLendon expects even more.

“I am going towards greatness and there is only one way to get there," said the 6'4", 320-pound McLendon, "through hard work and dedication....It's all about discipline." - http://tinyurl.com/n9xvm8j

McLendon is backing up those words by working hard to fill the gargantuan shoes of Casey Hampton who had held down the position since 2001. But even Hampton has given him his stamp of approval, at one point calling McLendon a "beast" and saying he is ready to take the position as his own.

2) ZIGGY HOOD - In a defensive scheme where the linemen are asked to play a two-gap style in which they engage the guard or tackle and keep blockers off the linebackers, Ziggy Hood has not exactly been stellar. He hasn't been a washout, either, though. In fact, he has suited up for every game since being drafted, made 39 starts, including 30 in a row, is the strongest player on the team and is very durable.

The problem is that, with all his strength, Hood plays with more finesse than power. Add to that, he has erratic technique and footwork. He may need to use his strength to develop a bull-rush move to overpower tackles. Nevertheless, both are things that he is working on. And rightly so, because the clock is ticking. - http://tinyurl.com/meokwww

Hood won't just be playing for a big contract next season, but a contract, period. To that end, Hood is once again also working with Outer Limits Athletic Performance in Pittsburgh. He has been working on multi-directional training for practical use on the field. Because jumping 50" from a seated position is very impressive, but...when would he need to do that during a game? - http://youtu.be/P_Iz40cqCJE

3) LAMARR WOODLEY - Anonymous teammates criticized LaMarr Woodley's weight and work ethic earlier this offseason. His response?

“It doesn’t bother me at all. They’re coming at the wrong person when they try coming at me. I don’t listen to nothing,” Woodley said.

To ask Woodley, it wasn't his weight at all, rather his injuries (hamstring and ankle) that kept him from performing. Injuries, in particular his ankle, which he says are healing fine.

But, while Woodley may be distancing himself from the anonymous pyroclastic comments for now, he will need a strong year to make them go away completely. He began process by training in Arizona at Performance Enhancement Professionals at the urging of his teammate Ryan Clark, who has himself been training there for years. Woodley won't say how much he weighs, but his position coach, Keith Butler, approves.

"Whatever he did, it appears to be right," Butler said. "The biggest thing is we've got to (do is) keep him on the field....He's working on it."

On the field and upright...save when he is laying on top of QBs. Sacks are important, but not just sacks alone, it's also when you get them. You have to put teams in bad down-and-distances early (1st & 2nd downs) consistently to get sacks. Those sacks then lead to mistakes and turnovers. Speaking of which...

4) CORTEZ ALLEN - "I think I've shown an ability to make plays in the defensive system," Cortez Allen said.

Ya think???

Tez Allen was a turnover machine at right cornerback when he replaced the injured Ike Taylor late last year. In the final two games, Tez had two interceptions, three forced fumbles and one fumble recovery, making him a breakout player to watch next season. - http://tinyurl.com/nxwfxhp

That kind of play from him is going to be paramount to a Steelers defense that simply hasn't been getting turnovers like they had in the past. Especially with a still very capable but aging Taylor on the other side. He and the other youth in the Steelers defensive backfield know this all too well, though, as the coaches had them working on it feverishly at OTAs and minicamp.

"We're working on it everyday, doing more ball drills, more emphasis on attacking the ball so we can do better in that category," Tez said.

5) TROY POLAMALU - The Tasmanian Devil. The Flyin' Hawaiian. The Elder Statesman. For several years now Troy Polamalu has been the face, well, maybe the hair, of the Steelers organization. When he is healthy and his body is in perfect union with his instincts, he has no equal.

So often over the years, where he went is where the Steelers defense went. We could easily throw out the stats that show the win-loss record when he isn't available, the statistical drop-off that occurs when he isn't in the lineup, etc... But we've already done that several times. The bottom line is that a healthy Polamalu means a greater chance at W's for the Steelers.

In order to assure he is healthy and can help generate those W's, he added a new physical therapist aimed at working out the scar tissue in his often-injured calf, the one that caused him so much trouble in the 2012 season. He feels good now, but he wants that to continue. - http://tinyurl.com/mj9wfgf

We're coming upon the twilight of Polamalu's career and it won't be long before he takes his Head & Shoulders and gets the follicle outta Dodge. But if one more healthy season can be squeezed out of out beloved Polamalu, he just might help take the Steelers somewhere they haven't been lately - January.

~

TIDBITS: There are two whom we felt, for one reason or another, reasons which we will illuminate, didn't quite fit into this particular mold. Those receive honorable mention, and they are:

Cameron Heyward - As the third-year defensive end continues progressing, many feel he is doing so more slowly than he should. Heyward had similar stats to fellow DE Ziggy Hood in getting 1.5 sacks and five QB hurries - but he did it in 1/3 the snaps (only 267). So while Hood will be playing for a contract, Heyward will still be trying to establish for the first time that he is an every-down player. That said, and as Ralph Paulk of the Trib points out, Heyward "finds himself in the unenviable position of being labeled a bust if he doesn't improve on the rather pedestrian numbers he put up the past two seasons." - http://tinyurl.com/mm2r2pc

Lawrence Timmons - For the exact opposite reasons, Timmons is among the honorable mentions: he's a straight up BEAST. Arguably among the top three inside linebackers in the NFL. We expect him to wreak havoc. So he has to there regardless. Whether he was in coverage, stuffing the run or rushing the QB, "Juan" is coming off a very strong season of 106 tackles, six sacks and three interceptions. Timmons is poised to become a cornerstone of the team and, as just as the team expects, he expects to be a "game-changer." - http://tinyurl.com/lvmfvbd

Friday, July 19, 2013

If It Ain't Steel's 2013 AFC North QB Rankings


by Jayden Matthews

It’s that time of year again when we at If It Ain't Steel rank the quarterbacks. First up, we start with the QBs of the AFC North. This is the division and these are the QBs we know the most about because of playing them twice a year. Though we always endeavor to remain as objective as possible whenever we write, we still realize this list may not go over well will the Raven faithful. But we're neither the NFL Network or ESPN nor am I Ron Jaworski, and you will see that when our Top 12 QBs list comes out. But without further adieu, here we go.

1) Ben Roethlisberger

This is by no means a Black and Gold-blinders pick. This is where Big Ben deserves to be ranked. Yes, I know he got hurt and missed 3 games. But, SO WHAT? He still deserves to be ranked above the other three in this division. Before Big Ben’s injury, he was arguably right in the thick of MVP talks and was putting together what could have been one of his best seasons yet. He was consistent in his play and had the best 3rd down conversion percentage of any QB in the NFL until his injury. He had only thrown four interceptions before his injury. No, he didn’t look like the superstar stud QB we all know when he came back and we lost two heartbreaking games by 3 points and missed the playoffs, but we still give Ben the No. 1 nod because we mainly rank by regular season numbers with a nod to playoff numbers.

Despite missing essentially three and a half games, Big Ben still finished the season with 3,265 yards 26 touchdown passes and only eight interceptions. He had a 65% completion percentage and QB ranking of 97.0. Big Ben may have had his share of injuries over the past couple seasons and this may have been the longest that we have been without him, but he still deserves the No. 1 nod.

Big Ben is still the most consistent of the four in the AFC North. In his nine years, he has two Super Bowl wins under his belt and helped lead the Steelers to a third appearance. That’s pretty good for any QB, but is great for a QB playing in arguably the toughest division in football. It is hard enough to win the AFC North, let alone win the whole shebang. And we don't believe he's done yet.

The other reason I give him the No. 1 nod is because we all know that last season has to be eating at him as much as it does the fans. We believe he will come out and play like the champion we all know he is and that he will get it done. With the Steelers flying under the radar and the talking heads of mainstream media already sticking a fork in them, Big Ben and the Steelers, in one sense, have less pressure on them. That could set up to be a bad thing for the rest of the AFC North.

2) Joe Flacco

Yes, I know Joe Flacco just won the SB and the MVP. Again, SO WHAT? As we said, we mainly base this on regular season numbers and less on playoff and SB numbers. Joe Namath had a great playoff run and beat Baltimore's favorite son, the Colts. Is Namath supposed to be the best ever? Timmy Smith set a SB record by running for 204 yards, while also scoring two TDs, for the Washington Redskins in SB XXII. Did that make him a Hall of Fame running back?

Let’s be real, Flacco was hardly an MVP during the regular season. His inconsistencies reared their ugly heads a lot, in fact. While he had his ups and downs during the regular season, he is still a better player than the other two in the AFC North. Flacco owns the two worst QBR ratings of any QB in the NFL this past season and, might I add, two of the worst ever. Against a stout Houston Texans defense, he had a ranking of 0.3 and against the Denver Broncos he had a ranking of 0.4. Plus, as we'll further bring out in a moment, Big Ben had more TD passes and fewer INTs in less time. So why, again, should we have Flacco ranked higher?

That is what a lot of fans seem to overlook. Yes, again, Flacco had an amazing playoff run, but he had an inconsistent, yo yo-like season. They also leave out the fact that the playoff run was also fueled by the retirement announcement of Ravens great Ray Lewis. A lot also like to blame Cam Cameron and then are praise Jim Caldwell for Flacco's immediate turn around during the playoffs.

Time will tell if that is the case, because I personally still thinking Lewis’ retirement motivation had more to do with it. Plus, if Caldwell was so great, then why did the Indianapolis Colts tank when Peyton Manning was injured and out for the season?

This will be the season for both Flacco and Caldwell to shut critics like myself up. Are they up for the task? We will see. He finished the regular season with 3,817 yards 59.7% completion, 22 TDs to 10 INTs and a QB ranking of 87.7. Flacco is coming off a near historic playoff run, I do give him credit for that, but he is going to have to come out this season and play that good all the time for me to rank him above Big Ben.

Flacco and the Ravens also have the proverbial target on their backs that comes with being the reigning champs, so this season is by no means going to be easy. Because even bad teams show up to play the champs. Frankly, if the Ravens have any chance of taking the North for the third year in a row and making it back to the playoffs they are going to need that Flacco to show up. Especially with all the questions on their retooled defense and how it’s going to come together, more onus is on him. So this will be the year for Flacco to put up or shut up with all the attention and money he is receiving. Will he remain the media darling or the media kick stand? That is yet to be determined.

3) Andy Dalton

Andy Dalton can play and has shown that since being drafted by the Cincinnati Bengals. He is consistently building a nice résumé and his numbers are very good and right up there with the top two. He has helped lead the Bengals to back-to-back winning seasons and playoff appearances but has yet to get his first playoff win.

The Bengals are quietly building a very good offense around Dalton with very good young talent. Again, this is a brutal division and they still have their work cut out for them if they're going to take out the Steelers and Ravens.

Could this be the year the Bengals emerge and do just that? Time will tell, but things are definitely looking up for Bengals fans and they have every right to be optimistic with this young guy under center.

Dalton finished the season with 3,669 passing yards and a 62.3% completion, which is second behind Big Ben. We can't rank him higher than Flacco, though, until he wins some playoff games. He had 26 TDs to 16 INTs and a 87.4 QB ranking. The sky is the limit for young Dalton, and this could be the year he crosses the threshold.

4) Brandon Weeden

Weeden was drafted by the Cleveland Browns last season and was immediately thrown into the fire. He didn’t have the best of seasons, but he didn’t have the worst, either. A lot of the Browns problems are lack of weapons around Weeden. Given the fact that Trent Richardson was also hurt a lot, it just led to disaster again for the Browns offense.

The Browns have somewhat addressed their issues this offseason. It has been reported that Richardson is healthy and should be ready to go by training camp, which will help. But Weeden has felt the heat of the front office this offseason, and has a new coach to impress. This will probably be a make-or-break season for Weeden and his future with the Browns. I personally feel that is wrong because, with the dearth of weapons around him, how can the Browns' brass expect Weeden to succeed in one of the toughest divisions in football?

Will he be able to step up and improve from last season? We believe he will. Weeden finished the season with 3,385 yards 57.4% completion 14TDs to 17 INTs, with that last stat definitely needing to be cleaned up if he wants to do better. He also had a QB rating of 72.6. The best to Weeden in taking the next step, because we really think he can if given a chance. But if his numbers do not improve from last season, and the Browns don’t win a few more games, his time will be up.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Shamarko Thomas Must Use His Head Regarding "Blow Up" Hits

Tom Robinson of The Virginian-Pilot has been covering Shamarko Thomas since high school. He has seen his maturation into a player with a "prodigious capacity for work and desire to learn and excel." Traits that he saw Thomas parlay into becoming the Pittsburgh Steelers' 2013 fourth-round NFL Draft pick.

But he says that Thomas didn't always listen. Even "Thomas concedes that he wasn’t focused." He admits that he "was troubled that his mother and father had divorced. The emotional pain stung more because he was the oldest of six children." Then Thomas’ life got even worse when his parents died within a year of one another. He was angry, frustrated and confused. He was a very troubled and obstinate youth.

He forged a friendship with his high school coach, Chris Scott, changing his life. He calls Scott his biggest supporter. His early life and that relationship is described in this Virginian-Pilot article. - http://tinyurl.com/khbr9m6

As Robinson wrote in his blog Wednesday, Thomas showed his own support when he dropped by to help out at coach Scott’s "sweltering youth camp." It was there that he asked Thomas "if in OTAs so far his coaches have discussed with him how he hits."

In case you don't know by now, Thomas flies all over the field, throws his body around with reckless abandon and HITS. He has the nose for the ball and the instincts that will help him fit snugly under the wings of two current Steelers safeties. - http://youtu.be/lMfYx-GbbWE

But as Neil McCauley famously said in Heat: "There is a flip side to that coin."

To continue with what Robinson wrote, he said he'd asked 'whether the coaches cautioned him to change or to be wary' considering his style. He said that Thomas "smiled and admitted it’s come up, and that the Steelers stress proper form -- i.e. wrapping up, leading with the shoulder and not the head -- rather than going for a 'blow up' hit." - http://hamptonroads.com/2013/07/thomas-fine-hitting-hard

Thomas' response? “I’m gonna get some fines, I’m not gonna lie," he said. "That’s just how I play. It’s football.”

That is both good and bad. Good in that the Steelers coaching staff is doing their due diligence in teaching the proper technique. Good also in that there are few safeties in the league with better form at the point of attack than Ryan Clark, and few with better overall talent than Troy Polamalu. They are known for their big hits too, so, again, Thomas will fit right in.

The other side of the coin is that these are two safeties who are also known for their big hits. i.e. One's biggest strength can be his biggest weakness. Clark had two concussions last season alone, and Polamalu has had...well, a lot.

While we're not saying that either of them will end up like Reggie Ray from Not Another Teen Movie, we're simply stating that this kinder and gentler, 1,000 points of light NFL is doing all it can to protect *cough* its players. And however inconsistent their approach to it may be, their intentions do have merit.

A 1994 study from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health stated that retired football players, with at least five seasons in the NFL, are three to four times more likely to die from diseases of the brain compared with the general public. - http://tinyurl.com/mec72xn

Now, we don't know whether or not Thomas was even serious about getting fined. But he does need to be made aware against throwing things like that out there in the future considering the perception of the Steelers defense - NFL referees whistles come quickly enough as it is.

That said, we still don't want to see Thomas adversely change his style or have his growth stifled. Even though he may be fine with being fined, he still needs to use his head instead of using his head.

~

TIDBITS: Steelers among eight NFL teams to participate in pilot program that would put player medical records online. - http://t.co/NsvgNr5hwj


Tuesday, July 16, 2013

LaMarr Woodley Paramount In Returning Greatness To Steelers Defense

"Who are you to deny greatness? If you would deny it to yourself, you would deny it to all of Steeler Nation. And we will not be denied. GREATNESS AWAITS!" - Sony PlayStation ad. (Ok, but not exactly "Steeler Nation." Don't sue me, Sony!)

By the end of the 2012 season, James Harrison was playing some pretty good football. He started to resemble once again the disruptive force he used to be. He was the intimidator in a long line of intimidators. It was something the team had been lacking. It may also be the thing the Steelers will miss most next season now that Deebo is wearing Cincinnati Correctional Facility orange.

That is unless someone steps up and takes over the mantle of the bad ass. Because despite impressive statistics, the Pittsburgh Steelers defense wasn't the wet-the-bed scary hoard of ruffians they had been in previous (nearly 40) years. And that needs to change.

Change that needs to be spearheaded by LaMarr Woodley.

The initial problem to that end is that Woodley doesn't have the same disposition on the field that Harrison has. Harrison earned the nicknames "Deebo" (from the movie Friday) and "Silverback" for good reason. Woodley, on the other hand, has a slightly different demeanor and comes across more as Chief Bromden from One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest - you know the power is there, you've even seen it, but there just isn't the same fear factor.

And while the Steelers have drafted the man whom they feel can be a replacement in Jarvis Jones, and already have what looks to be a ready player in Jason Worilds, for the Steelers to bully themselves back to the top means that Woodley truly needs to next level his game.

Greatness awaits you, Mr. Woodley. And in one sense, it's closer than one may initially have thought.

The Steelers top all-time sacks leaders (via Steelers and NFL stats) through the 2012 season are as follows:
1 - Mean Joe Greene (78.5);
2 - Jason Gildon (77);
3 - L.C. Greenwood (73.5);
4 - James Harrison (64);
5 - Joey Porter (60);
6 - Keith Willis (59);
7 - Greg Lloyd (53.5); and
8 - LaMarr Woodley (52)

Just an average 2013 season from Woodley would put him ahead of Willis and Porter and into fifth place all-time in sacks for the Steelers. In fact, there is an extremely short list of pass rushers drafted by the Steelers (playing at least 48 games) who have as high of a sacks-per-game average (.626) as Woodley. He is also the Steelers' leader in sacks-per-game average in games started (.742) with 52 in 70.

This is also all in just six seasons, which includes the missing of nine games between 2011 and 2012 because of nagging hamstring and ankle injuries. As a point of comparison, the aforementioned Porter played 122 games for the Steelers. If Woodley does pass Peazy this season, he would have done so in at least 23 fewer games.

All of this and yet there is still the lingering feeling that Woodley has underachieved. That he actually fed off of Harrison's carnage as if he were a pilot fish eating on the leftovers of the host species.

Therefore, for his sake and that of the Steelers, more than "just an average 2013 season" is needed. And there is also more to the outside linebacker position than just getting sacks. It isn't just sacks, it's power and presence. In a word: fear. The kind of power that pushes back the line of scrimmage on running plays. The kind of presence that causes offensive linemen to miss a snap count or causes a quarterback to throw too quickly. The kind of fear that we know Woodley can instill.

Woodley had been just as dominant a run-stopper over his career as he had been a sack artist. According to FootballOutsiders.com, in 2010 Woodley ranked eighth in yards against per run play, and had a stop rate of 71% for a ranking of third. Respectable, if not dominant, numbers.

However, his production dropped precipitously over the last two seasons. The same website tracked his decline for 2011, but his numbers essentially nonexistent in 2012 in those categories. In his defense, though, Woodley was asked to drop into coverage a lot last year, doing so 35% of the time. Even so, questions remain for the other 2/3 of the time.

It is that 2010 Woodley, also the last year he had double-digit sacks, that the Steelers need to see reappear in 2013. Woodley turns 29 years old in November, and is under contract through 2016. Now is the time to reestablish relentlessness and intimidation in the Steel City, Mr. Woodley.

Greatness awaits.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Steelers Running Backs: For Whom Will The Bell Toll?


“There’s the devaluing of the running back position,” Jerome Bettis told USA TODAY Sports before the 2013 NFL Draft. “You see a devaluing of the running backs and the higher valuation of the offensive line. It’s difficult for me because I don’t want to see the art of being a running back disappear.”

The NFL’s sixth-highest career rusher, Steelers legend and future Hall of Famer obviously has strong feelings about the current state of his position. He would seem to have a point as offensive linemen dominated the top of the draft. In all, five offensive linemen were selected in the top ten (as shown in the graph below), with the "skill" positions falling lower than expected.

Aside: I abhor the term "skill" player/position. It's grossly inaccurate. Try telling the athletic 6'6", 305-pound Lane Johnson, who went fourth overall, ran a 4.72/40, ran the three-cone drill in 7.31 secs and broad jumped 118.0 inches that he isn't skilled. But, I digress...

It is true that more and more teams are getting away from the romanticized notion of the feature running back and moving more toward having an aggregate output from the position. Then pair that with a position that is famous for a short half-life, and it becomes clearer why Bettis' words have the ring of truth to them.

The Steelers, though, are looking very much to once again make the running game an integral part of their offense. They proved this by going out and drafting Le'Veon Bell in the second round of this past April's draft, one of the highest picks they've used on a running back in many years.

As If It Ain't Steel has pointed out in past writings, it's partly because of coordinator Todd Haley's offensive direction. His offense is predicated on two main concepts. Firstly, he wants his unit to go on sustained drives that kill the clock and, in doing so, keeps the defense and the opposing offense off of the field. When done successfully, thus inhibits the opponent's ability to score points of their own. Secondly, he wants the running game to set up the passing game.

The Steelers' version of "running back by committee" used in 2012 simply didn't work. They realize that they need a workhorse to tow the load, but also with a backup who can come in and take carries with little-to-no drop off. Will Bell be that man week one? The Sporting News thinks that he will as they have him as a front runner for offensive Rookie of the Year. - http://tinyurl.com/p2ofalf

Steelers players have chimed in on Bell and his promise as well.

"I think its he's going to be exceptional," said Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey. "He came in, he was 250 in college, he came into rookie mini camp at 234 and they say with him running around the edge being an outside zone player that he can be with the power that he brings, I think its really going to help us out."

If that is to be the case, however, Bell must absolutely do one thing particularly well.

“Around here, if you don't block, you don't play,” Jonathan Dwyer said.

Steelers running back coach Kirby Wilson, who has been coaching runners in the NFL for 16 years, backs that statement and then takes it a step further.

“That's anybody. That's any running back,” Wilson said. “You have to be able to protect the quarterback or you won't play. That's not just in Pittsburgh. That's in every NFL city.” - http://tinyurl.com/ponrc2v

Bell is no exception, but he says he's up to the task. The problem lies in his having two others with him in the backfield who've already proven themselves in that capacity.

According to Pro Football Focus, Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman pass blocked better than nearly any other running back in the NFL. In 2012, they were Nos. 1 and 2 in the NFL in pass blocking efficiency, "a rating that measures pressures allowed on a per-snap basis." They also finished tied for third in halfback blocking.

It is well known that the Steelers tried to clear room in their crowded backfield by shopping Dwyer. A revelation he used to motivate him. As SteelBlitz.com highlighted, Dwyer is excited for Training Camp "to prove everyone wrong." - http://tinyurl.com/q3x9m5f

This is a make or break year in Pittsburgh for Dwyer. He has to compete not only with Redman and Bell, but also with attrition.

Last season, the Steelers kept six running backs on the final 53-man roster when you include fullback Will Johnson. That won't happen this year. Which means that at least one less running back position will be available.

The WVU product, Johnson was noted in OTAs and mandatory minicamp as showing maturation, increased ability to sustain his blocks and leadership. Add to that his pass-catching ability, Johnson was in the pass pattern 134 times last season and caught 15 balls for 137 yards in 22 targets, and you have a very viable 2013 roster candidate. - http://tinyurl.com/q8o44wu

Though he won't compete for a starting position, LaRod Stephens-Howling can run between the tackles, catch the ball out of the backfield and protect the passer - all of the things mentioned thus far. He also has the ability to return kickoffs, though I'm hoping that task is a Dunn deal elsewhere. He does, though, think he sees "a lot of third down opportunities that Todd Haley’s always had other places."

Last and maybe least is Baron Batch, likely the last running back on the depth chart, and the one likely to be on the outside looking in when Training Camp starts.

However this plays out once July 26 arrives, the Steelers will once again look to show the value they place on running backs and their running game.

~

TIDBITS: Speaking of Pouncey...he apologized for his "Free Hernandez" hat - http://t.co/LqjjlibxzA

~

The Steelers' Training Camp schedule, including practices open to the public and preseason games, per the Trib and the Steelers website:

Friday, July 26 — Players report; campus closed

Saturday, July 27 — 3 p.m. (Helmets and shorts)

Sunday, July 28 — 3 p.m. (Helmets and shorts)

Monday, July 29 — 3 p.m.

Tuesday, July 30 — Players off

Wednesday, July 31 — 3 p.m.

Thursday, Aug. 1 — 3 p.m.

Friday, Aug 2 — 7 p.m. at Latrobe's Memorial Stadium

Saturday, Aug. 3 ­— 3 p.m.

Sunday, Aug. 4 — 3 p.m.

Monday, Aug. 5 — 3 p.m.

Tuesday, Aug. 6 — Players off

Wednesday, Aug. 7 — 3 p.m.

Thursday, Aug. 8 — 3 p.m.

Friday, Aug. 9 — Campus closed

Saturday, Aug. 10 — Preseason opener vs. N.Y. Giants, 7:30 p.m. at Heinz Field

Sunday, Aug. 11 — Players off

Monday, Aug. 12 — 3 p.m.

Tuesday, Aug. 13 — Players off

Wednesday, Aug. 14 — 5:30 p.m. at St. Vincent College

Thursday, Aug. 15 — 3 p.m.

Friday, Aug. 16 — 3 p.m.

Saturday, Aug. 17 — 3 p.m.

Sunday, Aug. 18 — Break camp; campus closed

Monday, Aug. 19 — Preseason game at Redskins, 8 p.m.

Friday, Aug. 25 — Preseason game vs. Chiefs, 7:30 p.m. at Heinz Field

Thursday, Aug. 29 — Preseason game at Panthers, 7:30 p.m.



Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Shamarko Thomas' Mentors - Safety In Numbers


Mentor. We hear the word used all the time, be it in youth, at school or in the workplace. It refers to someone we can look up to for guidance and advice.

If we look deeper into the origin of the word, though, we'll find an interesting parallel to the subject of the article today.

In the epic ancient Greek poem The Odyssey (the sequel to The Iliad), Homer chronicles the adventurous journeys of Greek hero Odysseus. When Odysseus left for the Trojan War, he placed his son Telemachus in the charge of his foster-brother Eumaeus and his friend - Mentor.

Now, 2,800 years later, we have a bit of life imitating art as Shamarko Thomas, the Pittsburgh Steelers' 2013 fourth-round draft pick, has also been brought under the charge of two men who are virtually brothers as well as friends. They are also Pro Bowlers, All-Pros (Polamalu) and Super Bowl winners. Few other safeties could be considered as qualified to mentor the young man.

Not many aging veterans are so willing to help teach those who are brought in to replace them. But, once again, the nature of the Steelers' family-like organization shined through, and from the very beginning.

“It all started the same day I got drafted,” Thomas said. “Troy and Ryan called me and left a message and told me they were going to teach me everything they’ve learned. I came in here ready to learn. They’ve made me comfortable.” - http://tinyurl.com/ljjkolk

Class. It shows how special Clark and Polamalu are, not only as players, but as people. It's also what many simply know as the "Steeler way."

As the article from the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review went on to highlight, it's an especially "unselfish act on Clark's part knowing that he's in the final year of a four-year, $14 million contract that he signed in 2010." The same goes for Polamalu "who has two years left on the four-year, $36.5 million deal that he signed in 2011."

Clark has made it clear that he wishes to play beyond the 2013 season. He wants to retire a Steeler. The question, naturally, is whether or not the Steelers consider it a wise decision to sign him beyond 2013. They could extend a deal to him in the framework of the one signed by Steelers linebacker Larry Foote.

Foote signed a three-year deal worth $5.5 million. He received a $1 million signing bonus and $2.5 million is guaranteed. But after the 2013 season, Foote could be released with the Steelers only taking an a $666,666 dead money hit in 2014, according to SportTrac.com.

Knowing that he would never see the end of such a contract, as Foote won't, could Clark sign something similar?

There is no doubt that Clark has been an integral part of the Steelers top-ranked defenses. He shows no signs of slowing down, either, as he was finally named to the Pro Bowl after the 2011 season and followed that up with a career-high 102 tackles, seven pass defenses, two forced fumbles and two interceptions in 2012.

So it is possible, though it's hard to say at present how probable it is. Because it's possible that the development of Thomas will make Clark expendable next year. But Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Ed Bouchette recently touched on the flip side of that coin.

"Even with Shamarko Thomas, the Steelers are not prepared to lose both Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark in 2014, although plenty can happen between now and then. Clark has had some of his best seasons lately and it’s reasonable to think that he could play at a good level another few years." - http://t.co/mTrlRD0gzF

The chemistry Clark has with strong safety Polamalu can't be denied. As Bouchette stated, the Steelers aren't prepared to part ways with both. Plus, the uncanny connection Clark has with Polamalu frees him to take many of the gambles and accomplish many of the big plays Polamalu has become known for making.

It is that chemistry, that level of comfort with the feel of the game, that the two of them will look to instill within Thomas. Can that be done in one year?

Clark is a very football smart player who rarely gets caught out of position, while Polamalu's instincts are the stuff of legend. But, how much money does general manager Kevin Colbert want to sink into two safeties on the wrong side of 30 whose hard-hitting styles mean that their next could end someone's season? Specifically theirs.

Regardless, both mentors want to dispense their wisdom "when it is a guy who truly wants to be a sponge." Thomas' determination to learn is just what was needed and comes at the right time.

“Troy and I have asked for years for a guy to mentor,” Clark said. “Some players feel like they can play forever. We understand it is not going to be that way. We want to see somebody take it over and do well.”

Thomas is 5'9", 213 pounds, ran a 4.42 in the 40-yard dash and jumped 40.5" at the NFL Combine, so he has the physical skills. He possesses both speed and athleticism, and has excellent coverage skills. He has the flexibility to line up in the slot or outside, and has the football aptitude to be able to be indoctrinated by one of the NFL's better safety combinations.

Two true mentors.

One Wish

If I could have just one wish, I'd be your sky so vast,
And you would be the white clouds in my chest.
Your smile would warm me and would bring me light,
And in your light rays would I find rest.

If I could have just one wish, you'd be my queen.
I'd be the jewel in your crown,
And my right arm would be your scepter,
A crown you'd never abdicate and a scepter you'd never put down.

If I could have just one wish, I would be your captive,
whether physical or spiritual - there'd be no release.
Each facet of your being enslaves and ensnares,
And in being your willing prisoner I find peace.

If I could have just one wish, it'd be your breath on my neck,
the touch of your fingers on my skin,
the warmth of your lips on my cheek,
and the feel of your heart beating within...

...every morning for the rest of eternity.

None of the poems, songs and history books written all time match my love for you, Jayden.

I have loved you forever and I love you today.
Happy "anniversary", Imzadi.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Steelers Secondary Is Of Primary Concern


Once again this NFL offseason, the focus for the Pittsburgh Steelers' top-ranked defense has been to generate more turnovers. And both defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau and defensive backs coach Carnell Lake have emphasized the need for them to do just that.

The paltry numbers they’ve generated the past two seasons have been embarrassingly low. Bottom-half-of-the-NFL low. The defense took the ball away 20 times, which was the eighth fewest in the NFL. In 2011, there were even worse with only 15 takeaways.

In 2012, the Steelers ranked 24th in the NFL in turnover differential at a -10, and 28th in TO differential in 2011 at a -13. Those defenses may have been No. 1, but the only numbers that truly mattered were 8-8.

This is trend that must desist if the team is serious about contending for the playoffs and the possibly Super Bowl again this season. Not that they can just flip a switch to make that happen, but Art Rooney II made a salient point in his State of the Steelers postseason interview back in January as to what a remedy may be.

"We need to get more pressure on the quarterback," Rooney II said, "because as everyone will tell you that creates turnovers."

He's correct. If It Ain't Steel covered that interview and quoted some telling statistics regarding the subject. In the 2008 Super Bowl season, the Steelers posted 51 sacks and 29 takeaways, and in the 2010 Super Bowl season, they had 48 sacks and 35 takeaways. Compare that to the previous 2011 and 2012 stats, and the turnover stats of the teams that made the playoffs, and the point is well-made. - http://tinyurl.com/lahlacl

The front seven side of those stats will be covered in an upcoming piece. As for the secondary itself, it allowed the fewest passing yards in the NFL for the second consecutive season. And as the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review's Mark Kaboly brought to light in a recent article, they also have something very important: experience.

"This will be the eighth consecutive season (Ike) Taylor, (Ryan) Clark and (Troy) Polamalu have played together — the most consecutive seasons of any trio in the league — and with the potential of Cortez Allen, the Steelers' defensive backfield could rival some of the best of the past decade." - http://tinyurl.com/kavmvcz

The experience advantage presented by the triumvirate Kaboly mentioned and the youth and "potential" of Cortez Allen brings to mind the knock against them made the NFL Network's version of Champ Kind, Warren Sapp.

Sapp once again called the Steelers "old and slow" and said that "three of the four secondary guys there are 32 years old or older." While that's true, what is being ignored is the youth being infused into the Steelers defense, including the secondary. Tez Allen is especially exciting because of the potential impact he could have. Tez went on a turnover surge at the end of last season, and the hope is that he can make 2013 his own.

"I'm not that type to make predictions or boast about myself....I just come to work every day and try to get better and better so I can help my team the best I can," said Tez. "I think I've shown an ability to make plays in the defensive system." - http://t.co/RX7JvMEw06

He isn't the only one who has a golden opportunity to shine for the Steelers. Nor is he the only one who actually does have speed. Contrary to the Sapp's comment, all three of the aforementioned triad have sub 4.5/40 speed (with Polamalu and Taylor still being 4.4 in the 40). Add to that some young blood that could make an impact this season.

Second-year man Robert Golden has potential at safety, so much potential that the Steelers forwent drafting a second one, but nonetheless had an inauspicious beginning last season.

“It was a surreal feeling,” Golden said of the Dallas Cowboys game where he was victimized. “Then we had a little blown coverage. We didn’t get the stretch call. They had two verticals up the seam and we were in a cover 3 and kind of back playing between both and couldn’t make that play.”

But the young safety has the requisite skills and speed to prove he isn't simple pyrite. The golden ticket is in his mentally picking up the defensive stratagems. (I've got lots of these for him.) Fellow safety Clark said as much about him.

"He’s a guy who jumps off the film talent-wise, speed-wise," said Clark. "What Rob has to do is show the jump as far as knowledge, dependability, durability. - http://t.co/6BzEtGnSY7

Curtis Brown, was picked ahead of Tez in the 2011, but has fallen behind him on the depth chart. Brown will not only have to beat out young teammates Isaiah Green, Josh Victorian and DeMarcus Van Dyke (all of whom are sub 4.45/40) for defensive snaps, but also veteran William Gay. Behind The Steel Curtain broke down what awaits the young cornerback who's heading into his third year. - http://tinyurl.com/bxdgymo

Terry Hawthorne was listed among Steel City Insider's 'Players to Watch' list written by Jim Wexell. Hawthorne is very fast, but very raw. Still, Carnell Lake really likes what sees.

"What I like about Terry is that he has a lot of upside potential that I see in him," Lake said. "He is big. He is fast. He doesn't mind tackling, and he can play press coverage well, kind of in the same way as an Ike Taylor."

At 6'0", 195 lbs., Hawthorne has starting potential, but his biggest impact this season will likely come on special teams. But Lake, who has former teammate and Steeler great Rod Woodson coaching with him via an internship throughout Camps, likes his 4.44/40 speed, his fluidity in the hips, his ability to hit and other tools to contribute down the line.

All-in-all, that "old and slow" Steelers defense finished atop the NFL defensive rankings. Then, just for good measure, they went out and became the top-rated unit again last season. Now they've added youth and speed to make sure to, not only lock down that No. 1 spot again, but to turnover their recent misfortunes and make it mean something in January.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Will Jarvis Jones, Other Young Linebackers Add To Steelers Legacy?

Jack Lambert, Jack Ham, Andy Russell, Loren Teows, Robin Cole, Mike Merriweather, David Little, Bryan Hinkle, Greg Lloyd, Hardy Nickerson, Levon Kirkland, Joey Porter, Earl Holmes, James Farrior, James Harrison... Some underrated, some under appreciated, but the list goes on.

Few NFL teams can say they have had as much talent at one position as the Pittsburgh Steelers have had at linebacker for the past forty-plus years. Such a legacy and tradition, therefore, dictates that the Steelers, aka "Linebacker, Inc.", have to be considered the resident experts on the position.

Playing in the 4-3 defensive alignment until 1982, the Steelers then switched to the 3-4 and have been running it ever since. Looking to continue that legacy are several young linebackers on the offseason roster who are looking to create their own by adding their names to that list.

Along with those names, though, come question marks as well. First round draft pick Jarvis Jones signed a four-year, $8.705 million contract with $4.71 million in bonuses. Jones’ $8.705 is guaranteed. His success isn't. While Jones, who recently stated that he thought he was going to be drafted by the Cleveland Browns, may have had 28 sacks and an average of 22 tackles for a loss for Georgia over the last two seasons, like Steelers inside Buck linebacker Larry Foote recently said, it will be difficult for Jones to crack the starting lineup as a rookie.

“It's going to be difficult (for Jones to start immediately), especially outside,” Foote said. “There is so much technique, (knowing) where you've got to line up, inside or outside. The fortunate thing is they (Jones' Georgia Bulldogs) played a 3-4....I've seen a lot (of players) come in as rookies and not have a clue, but you can tell he's been around our type of football.”

His pragmatism was tinged with a bit of reserved optimism for the rookie. Much like the architect of the current 3-4 defense the Steelers employ.

"(Jones) has got (linebacker) instincts," Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said when commenting on turning a defensive end into an outside linebacker (think LaMarr Woodley). "You don't have to (wean) him off the end stuff."

According to Len Pasquarelli of the National Football Post, Jones might just have the chance to do what no rookie linebacker has done for LeBeau - start.

"The team has seen enough of the 17th overall pick...to privately acknowledge that he could be that rarest of commodities: a rookie who actually starts for the Steelers at the prized outside linebacker spot," Pasquarelli wrote. "There’s apparently a decent chance now that Jones can bump fourth-year veteran Jason Worilds (10 sacks in three seasons) as the heir apparent to James Harrison’s old spot on the right side."

However, one of the things Jones may find to be the most difficult part of that process and in learning the outside linebacker position in the pros is in mastering coverage instincts. And per the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review's Mark Kaboly, he doesn't look like he is going to be there any time soon.

"Watched every practice & nothing would say he can stop run, drop into coverage or beat NFL LTs," Kaboly wrote to an unintelligent Twitter hack. "Maybe, but can't tell in spring."

Speaking of Kaboly, he reported in the Tribune-Review awhile back that the Steelers had moved Stevenson Sylvester from inside linebacker, where he has played nearly exclusively in his three years, to outside linebacker during minicamp.

This suggests two things: 1) that his versatility may directly affect his roster spot, and 2) that the coaches like what they have seen from former undrafted free agent Marshall McFadden, whom If It Ain't Steel told you to keep an eye nearly two months ago, allowing said versatility and position flexability. - http://ifitaintsteel.blogspot.com/2013/05/youth-being-infused-into-steelers.html

With second-year linebacker Sean Spence still unavailable as he recovers from his knee injury, and third-year linebacker Chris Carter largely unproductive in his opportunities, that leaves Sylvester, McFadden, Adrian Robinson and this year's sixth-round draft pick Vince Williams as the players with the best chances to fill the final three of an expected nine linebacker positions. (Not that anyone really expected Kion Wilson, Terrance Garvin, Alan Baxter or even Brian Rolle to make the team.)

Pointedly, Sylvester has displayed a greater knack for special teams, which is what will tip the scales for those last spots. In 2012, despite missing six games, Sylvester played on nearly half of the team’s special teams snaps. Carter, despite missing eight games, played on less than a quarter of the team’s special teams snaps. This, plus the position flexibility spoken of earlier, would seem to move Sylvester ahead of Carter.

McFadden has the goods and the desire, while Robinson appears to be a coach favorite at outside linebacker as position coach Keith Butler has effused about him more than once. While Williams is probably headed for the practice squad, nonetheless he's gotten the attention of his teammates.

"He looks like a smart player," said fellow Florida St. alumnus Lawrence Timmons. "He’s very gifted with his athletic ability and I’m starting to get excited to see what he’s going to do in camp." - http://tinyurl.com/l8tfzrq

We'll see indeed. They all have some degree of uphill climb ahead of them, and whether or not they will add their names to the pantheon of Steelers linebackers is still to be determined. The questions that surround them, though, will begin to be answered in Training Camp.

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TIDBITS: Speaking of Training Camp, the Steelers will report on Friday, July 27, with the first open practice being on Saturday the 28th, and will break camp on August 18, per Steelers.com.

The first practice in pads will be on Monday, July 29. All practices that are open to the public are scheduled from 3-5 p.m., except for the two night practices on Friday, August 2 at Latrobe’s Memorial Stadium at 7 p.m., and at Saint Vincent College on Wednesday, August 14, from 5:30-7:30 p.m.

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For a more personal look at first-round draft pick Jarvis Jones and his many plights that included tragedy, castigation and pain, read Jim Wexell's piece on Jones and his road to the Steelers: http://pit.scout.com/2/1297050.html


Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Roger Goodell, It's Time to Bring Down the Hammer

by Jayden Matthews

Yes, If It Ain't Steel is back and ready to start taking on the offseason again. But before getting into the purpose of this blog, we would like to take a minute to thank our followers for sticking with us and supporting us. We want to apologize for not putting much of anything out there over the past month and also want to send a special thank you to Christina Rivers for being our guest writer while we were dealing with some issues in our personal lives.

That said, we are back to get this party started by writing something to our favorite person to whom we owe so much. He who has been an inspiration for a lot of our blogs: NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.

According to numbers "compiled by U-T San Diego" and as of the writing of this article, "since the Super Bowl in early February, 31 NFL players have been arrested." And like NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said, “one [arrest] is too many.”

So far this year there have been two arrested for murder and attempted murder, former New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez and former Cleveland Browns rookie linebacker Ausar Walcott; for weapons charges, Indianapolis Colts safety Joe Lefeged; and others for DUI, drug possession, assault and battery, child endangerment and fraud. Why is this happening? - http://tinyurl.com/nxkhyb8

This is an alarming number of arrests, to be sure, but not the first eventful offseason by any means as If It Ain't Steel chronicled last year. And the NFL wanted Playmakers cancelled because it put them in a bad light??? - http://ifitaintsteel.blogspot.com/2012/07/nfl-offseason-arrests-proves-goodell.html

I understand that the NFL doesn't hire babysitters to be with the players 24/7, but my gripe is with how little is being done once these players do get into trouble. i.e. why are these players still allowed to play? Goodell has talked endlessly about cleaning up the NFL. Halfway through the 2007 season, he even instituted what was to be stricter punishment for player misconduct. The result? From 2008 to 2013, the NFL has averaged 28.5 arrests (an average increase of 10 more) per offseason.

Guess what, Rog? Your words are obviously falling on deaf ears. It is time for a little less talking and a lot more action. Here's a thought: actually enforce the laws you instituted. I know the NFLPA has been trying to block everything you do to try to clean up the league, but it's time to put your foot down as Commissioner and say "enough is enough." It's time to work with them to hold their clients accountable. Because, when you have this many arrests every offseason, then there is an obvious problem.

Answer me this, Goodell, are you more worried about the all-mighty dollar or the safety of the players? You incessantly make speeches about player safety, but then players continue running around with illegal firearms, using illegal drugs and driving drunk. Shouldn't you be just as concerned with this lack of safety? And why have there been so few suspensions for this conduct? In 2010, you said yourself that a player doesn’t have to be arrested to be held accountable. You remember saying that, don't you? Or does that just pertain to certain players? Is this the type of message you want to send to the little guys aspiring to come into the NFL?


But why shouldn't the players act with impunity? As an example, of the approximate 40 offseason arrests in that same year of 2010, only 2 players were suspended for violating the league's Personal Conduct Policy. As we said last offseason as well, the players know you have no fist in your glove.

It's time to put these players on notice, and the only way to do that is by starting to bring the hammer down. I understand letting the Law's due process work itself out first, but I don't care if they're cited for jaywalking. Just apply a jaywalking penance. If they want to behave this way then they need to be held accountable for their actions. So put your sh** kickers on, Goodell, and get to actually "protecting the shield." This has gotten out of hand and, until you bring the hammer down on these players, even if it's a minor offense, this type of behavior will continue.