Saturday, October 25, 2014

Andrew Luck, Ben Roethlisberger both excel at throwing under duress


Stephen Holder, stephen.holder@indystar.com
October 22, 2014

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(Photo: Star photo illustration)
He demonstrates his brute strength each time he refuses to be taken down. He believes a play is never over, whether the pocket is clean or a defender has him tightly in his grasp. He responds to bone jarring hits by patting his nemeses on the head.
He is Andrew Luck.
He is also Ben Roethlisberger.
The two men are among the strongest, toughest, most physically imposing quarterbacks in the game. Their teams – the Indianapolis Colts and Pittsburgh Steelers, respectively – meet each other Sunday, pitting the quarterbacks in their first head-to-head matchup.
They routinely leave defenders in their wakes by turning would-be sacks into big plays for their own teams.
For each, the ability to brush off even the biggest, meanest defender with the worst of intentions seems uncanny.
"I remember watching a lot of Pittsburgh film as a rookie to try and learn coach (Bruce) Arians' offense. Half the time, you're sort of putting the clicker down saying, 'Oh my gosh, how does this guy do that?'" Luck said of Roethlisberger, the two-time Super Bowl winner. "He's an incredible, incredible quarterback. He's obviously a multiple Super Bowl winner and done so many things. His ability to extend plays is amazing."
Luck's ability to stay upright is similarly amazing.
Remember the preseason play when 258-pound New Orleans Saints linebacker Junior Galette literally jumped on Luck's back and Luck still managed to get a pass off? It's hard to say whether it was Luck's rare strength or unwavering focus that was more impressive on the play.
"Andrew," Colts coach Chuck Pagano said, "has beat opposing defenses because of that ability."
If you think that ability is impressive from a distance, try watching it up close. Colts rookie center Jonotthan Harrison has gotten a front-row seat for Luck's feats. He's been as surprised by them as unsuspecting defenders who are not expecting to be stiff-armed by a quarterback.
"Not long after I got here, I was hanging out with a teammate and we were playing Madden (the video game) and he was using the Colts," Harrison recalled. "He just started scrambling all over the place with Luck. I was like, 'Hold up, what?' Then in practice when I saw him, I started putting two and two together. This guy's really, really an athlete. And he's so tough."
Unlike some other quarterbacks who are seen as athletic or scramblers, neither Luck nor Roethlisberger necessarily wants to run the ball. When they leave the pocket, there is a singular intent: Keep the play alive.
They're looking down the field for receivers, tight ends, running backs. They want to deliver the ball, not carry it. And if either has to out-muscle a defensive end in the process, so be it.
Along those lines, Luck said he has "an obligation" to "extend the pass play first."
With Luck and Roethlisberger, there is an element of defiance in their games at work. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin sees it often in his quarterback.
"He's a competitor first and a quarterback second," Tomlin said. "I think that's exemplified in how he plays."
"It's about being a competitor and not giving up, going down easy and fighting to the whistle," Roethlisberger said.
The quarterbacks themselves don't throw in the towel, but the defensive players they fend off may wish to. The inability to bring down these physical quarterbacks takes a steady toll.
"As a quarterback, you know that if you can extend a play during a game, it can be demoralizing to a defense," Luck said. "If you convert a first down or get a touchdown, that can really help. But (Roethlisberger) is certainly the master at that."
Said Roethlisberger: "You can sense it and you can hear it. I'll have players sometimes that'll comment, 'Man, it's hard to get you down,' and all kinds of different things. You definitely know it's in their heads."
The Colts have protected Luck more effectively this season, making his escapes less necessary. The team yielded 2.6 sacks per game in 2012, Luck's rookie season. In 2013, the Colts gave up 2 per game. And so far this season, the Colts are allowing 1.6 sacks per game.
But on those rare occasions when pass protection breaks down, the Colts' offensive linemen have a little peace of mind, knowing their quarterback does not go down easy.
"Every defender, they're licking their chops for a sack," Harrison said. "So, when they come at (Luck) for a sack, and they get shed by a quarterback, that's so frustrating. You'll see them pound their fist and you can tell."
There likely will be some exasperated defenders on Sunday at Heinz Field. With Luck and Roethlisberger, it is an inevitability.

Colts vs. Steelers preview


By Scott Brown and Mike Wells
http://espn.go.com/blog/pittsburgh-steelers
October 24, 2014



The streaking Indianapolis Colts will try to win their sixth game in a row on Sunday when they visit the Pittsburgh Steelers. Slowing down quarterback Andrew Luck will be the Steelers' priority, and they have to find a way to minimize his impact or score enough to keep pace with the 5-2 Colts. Beating Indianapolis would give Pittsburgh a 5-3 record at the halfway point of the season as well as a signature win. 

ESPN Colts reporter Mike Wells and Steelers reporter Scott Brown take a closer look at the 4:25 p.m. ET game at Heinz Field. 

Brown: Mike, the Steelers’ passing game has been torched by the likes of Mike Glennonand Brian Hoyer this season. The Steelers' pass rush has been average, and they are suspect in the secondary. That is not a good formula for stopping Luck. What is the best way to contain him, if that is possible? 

Wells: Blitzing Luck is the best way, but that appears to be a problem for the Steelers. Luck has done an exceptional job of spreading the ball around this season. He is not just focusing on receivers Reggie Wayne or T.Y. Hilton. Luck had back-to-back games where he completed passes to nine different receivers this season. His biggest problem, though, is interceptions: He is tied for third in the league in that category with seven. The Colts have survived Luck’s miscues so far, but they won’t be as fortunate once they get to the playoffs and face teams that can make them pay for their mistakes. 

The Steelers are a tough team to figure out. One week they get blown out by Cleveland, and then they come back and use an incredible performance in the second quarter to beat Houston. What is Pittsburgh’s identity? 

Brown: Mike, I can’t figure out this team quarter to quarter, much less game to game. The defense certainly isn’t the one that people are accustomed to seeing. There is no intimidation factor, no swagger, and the Steelers are really just trying to get by defensively as they retool a unit that is in transition. The Steelers have the potential to forge a personality as a dynamic offensive team, as they have the NFL’s leading receiver in Antonio Brown, the second-leading rusher in Le'Veon Bell and, of course, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. The Steelers have moved the ball this season, but they have too often bogged down in the red zone. Maybe scoring three touchdowns in the last three minutes of the second quarter Monday night against the Texans will serve as a springboard for the offense. It had better put up a lot of points against the Colts if the Steelers are to beat one of the NFL’s hottest teams. 

I normally don’t associate the Colts with the kind of defense they played in absolutely stifling the Bengals on Sunday. Is Indianapolis' defense underrated? 

Wells: It is very underrated. I didn’t think this defense had a chance once linebacker Robert Mathis, last season’s sack leader, was lost for the season with a torn Achilles. The unit appeared to be headed for a rough season after it had only one sack over the first two games. But defensive coordinator Greg Manusky has taken a hold-nothing-back approach with his defense. With two cornerbacks who can blanket receivers, Greg Toler and Vontae Davis, Manusky is loading the box and constantly blitzing. That is why the Colts have 20 sacks and nine turnovers during their five-game winning streak. They have also held their past four opponents to 4-of-41 on third down. People might not have respected the Colts' defense before, but now teams have to take notice. 

The Steelers have a history of being a good defensive team. They are 15th in the league in yards allowed a game. Are they on the decline defensively? 

Brown: That is a great question. The Steelers have to hope it doesn’t get any worse defensively, or they could be in trouble. They have some promising young players to build around in rookie linebacker Ryan Shazier and rookie defensive end Stephon Tuitt. But the Steelers have serious questions at outside linebacker, especially if 2013 first-round pickJarvis Jones doesn’t develop into a pass-rushing force. Cornerback is also an issue, a position at which the organization has not drafted well or neglected, depending on your vantage point.Cortez Allen is the Steelers’ best young cornerback, and he recently lost his starting job to Brice McCain. Allen has the physical ability to develop into a No. 1 cornerback, but the 2011 fourth-round pick has to become more consistent. It could get worse before it gets better on defense, given some of the holes that the Steelers have tried to spackle over by moves such as coaxing veteran outside linebackerJames Harrison out of retirement. 

The Colts seem like they have something going with Trent Richardson and Ahmad Bradshawat running back. Richardson seems to be playing much better than he did last season. Is part of the reason that Bradshaw has eased the pressure on Richardson to carry the Colts' ground game? 

Wells: Richardson might never live up to the expectations as being the No. 3 overall pick in 2012, but he is running better than he did last season, when he eventually was demoted. He is running with more confidence and making better decisions. Having Bradshaw has been a blessing for Richardson because he doesn’t have the burden of carrying the load in the backfield. Neither player has a problem sharing the work, and it helps that Bradshaw is familiar with sharing the load in the backfield. He went through it while with the New York Giants

Brown looks like he could surpass the 1,499 receiving yards he had last season. What makes him so successful, and what type of challenges will he present to the Colts’ secondary? 

Brown: I thought Brown would have a really tough time matching his production in 2013, when the fifth-year veteran set a Steelers record for receiving yards in a season. He has been even better this season and has scored five touchdowns after reaching the end zone eight times in 2013. Brown is an excellent route-runner, makes tough catches in traffic and is dazzling after the catch. The Colts will have to limit the damage Brown does after the catch, and I would imagine they will do everything they can to take him out of the game. But no team has succeeded in doing that, even though a reliable complement opposite Brown has yet to emerge. 

Friday, October 24, 2014

Pro Football Focus: Antonio Brown is the best wide receiver in the NFL


By Scott Brown
http://espn.go.com/blog/pittsburgh-steelers
October 23, 2014



PITTSBURGH -- Is Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown the best player at his position in the NFL? 

Pro Football Focus' Sam Monson builds a strong case for Brown, who leads the NFL with 719 receiving yards this season after finishing second in the league with 1,499 receiving yards last season. 

Wallace
Brown
Monson calls Brown a "modern day version of Jerry Rice" since he doesn’t have the greatest measurables but makes the game look easy at times because of his innate understanding of it. 

The PFF piece is the latest example of Brown starting to get his due as a premier wide receiver. In the past there were questions about whether the fifth-year veteran was a legitimate No. 1 receiver, because he is 5-foot-10 and 186 pounds in a league that covets tall wide receivers. 

"From the day I got here he wasn’t a household name other than special teams, and you’ve just seen the guy ascend and put himself up there with the great receivers in the game right now," said Todd Haley, who took over as the Steelers' offensive coordinator in 2012. "He continues to get better, and that’s the exciting thing." 

Brown is having an All Pro-caliber season even though no one has emerged as the Steelers' clear cut No. 2 wide receiver, something that would help divert some attention from Brown. Markus Wheaton, who starts opposite Brown, has slumped after a promising start, and former No. 3 wide receiver Justin Brown was a healthy scratch last Monday night. 

Wheaton, Brown, Lance Moore, Darrius Heyward-Bey and rookie Martavis Bryant are all trying to solidify roles, and for now the Steelers are content to play their receivers -- well, at least the ones not named Antonio Brown -- based on situations. 

"You’d love to see somebody jump up and say, 'Hey, we can’t have this guy off the field,' and that’s usually the way it works, so right now we’re kind of in that process and we just need guys to make plays," Haley said. "When your number’s called you need to step up and make the play, and if you don’t there’s some guys champing at the bit to show that they can do it." 

The Steelers don’t seem to be in a hurry to set a hierarchy after Brown, the two-time Pro Bowler. It could change on a weekly basis, but quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said he doesn’t have a problem with a largely rotating cast at wide receiver. 

"We work every day with all of them, so it’s really just knowing who’s out there on a particular play, because each guy may run a route a little bit different," Roethlisberger said. "As long as I know who’s in there as we’re going, I’m fine and I feel confident with whoever’s in there is going to make a play."

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Century mark beckons for Ben


Thursday, Oct. 23, 2014, 12:01 a.m.

Christopher Horner | Trib Total Media
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (7) scrambles for a first down past Cleveland's Kamerion Wimbley during the second quarter on Sunday Nov. 11, 2007, at Heinz Field. The Steelers won, 31-28.
Mike Tomlin calls his quarterback “a sick competitor.” The description seemed especially apt Monday night at Heinz Field, where Ben Roethlisberger pretty much lost his mind in the pursuit of victory.
Roethlisberger turns 33 in March. He does not have the security of a new contract. His body has absorbed untold punishment in the form of 406 sacks and countless hits.
Yet there he was in the second quarter, diving head-first into the shins of Houston linebacker Whitney Mercilus in hopes of giving Antonio Brown an extra second to throw. The result was a Brown-to-Lance Moore touchdown that went a long way toward the 99th victory of Roethlisberger's career.
One question, Ben: Why did you do that?
“It's my job to secure the edge, and he came upfield pretty quick. So I had to make sure I slowed him down.”
So yes, “sick competitor” fits. “Prolific winner” does, too, even after back-to-back 8-8 seasons (Roethlisberger has never had a losing one).
If the Steelers beat the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday, Roethlisberger will improve his record to 100-50 and reach 100 wins faster than all but three quarterbacks in NFL history. And those three quarterbacks (Tom Brady, Joe Montana, Terry Bradshaw) own 11 Super Bowl rings combined.
This isn't some statistician's phony milestone. It's not consecutive games with 15 completions for 150 yards. This is 100 wins.
This is big, even if Roethlisberger downplayed it Wednesday.
So let's do what humans often do when big moments beckon: Let's pull out the photo album. In this case, it's Big Ben's shredding album, as it includes snapshots of all 99 wins.
The first was Sept. 26, 2004, against Dave Wannstedt's dreadful Miami Dolphins. It was a day after Hurricane Jeanne whipped through South Florida. Roethlisberger clinched the 13-3 win with a running strike to his close personal friend, Hines Ward.
What follows are seven snapshots culled from those 99 wins, seven plays that in one observer's mind define No. 7 in all his winning characteristics. And remember, these are regular-season wins, so a certain Super Bowl pass is not included:
• MOBILITY. Nov. 11, 2007, Heinz Field. Watch the tape of Roethlisberger's career-long, 30-yard touchdown run in this game against the Browns, and you'll see two things: how spry he once was, and what a physical freak he is. Nobody standing 6-foot-5, 250 pounds should be able to move like he did here. He later converted a scramble on the winning drive to eke out a win over the upstart Browns, who finished tied with the Steelers at 10-6 but missed the playoffs.
• TOUGHNESS/SMARTS. Dec. 5, 2010, M&T Bank Stadium, Baltimore. This won't make the man's Hall-of-Fame highlight tape. But it might have won a game. With time running low and the Steelers needing a TD, Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs had Roethlisberger dead to rights but couldn't pull him down. The two locked horns like wrestlers, Roethlisberger moving backward to stay on his feet. With Suggs draped all over him, Roethlisberger somehow mustered the strength to toss the ball out of bounds, avoid a sack and keep it on the Ravens' 9. Two plays later, he threw the winning touchdown pass.
• AD-LIB ABILITY. Nov. 19, 2006, Cleveland Browns Stadium. With the game on the line, Roethlisberger stepped up in the pocket and was halfway to the ground when he worked up his best Jim Kelly impersonation and shoveled a pass to Willie Parker, who raced into the end zone with the winning points.
• COMPETITIVE FIRE. Oct. 20, 2014, Heinz Field. The block on Mercilus, which Roethlisberger insisted was part of the play's design. “We do whatever it takes around here,” he said.
• SHORT MEMORY. Oct. 5, 2008, Jacksonville. In a game in which Rashean Mathis returned one of his passes 72 yards for a touchdown, Roethlisberger led an epic winning drive. It started with a 16-yard completion with defensive end Reggie Heyward literally hanging on Roethlisberger's back, pulling him to the turf.
• CLUTCH GENE. Dec. 14, 2008, M&T Bank Stadium, Baltimore. The Steelers had done nothing all day and were pinned on their 8 with time winding down, trailing 9-6. That's when they took off on a 13-play, 92-yard drive that finished with Roethlisberger, outside the pocket, throwing against his body to Santonio Holmes at the goal line.
• GOLDEN ARM. Dec. 20, 2009, Heinz Field. Down to the final play, Roethlisberger dropped back to the Green Bay Packers' 31 on the right hash and unleashed perhaps the most brilliant regular-season pass of his career: a laser beam to the left corner of the end zone, on Mike Wallace's back shoulder, against the sideline. One could not have walked up to Wallace and placed the ball in a better spot.
The Steelers won 37-36.
“That's just Ben,” Wallace said after the game. “That's all I can say. That's just Ben.”
Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 FM. Reach him at jraystarkey@gmail.com.


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Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Fleury is, and will remain, Penguins' soul


Tuesday, Oct. 21, 2014, 9:45 p.m.
 
Marc-Andre Fleury stops a shot in the warm-up prior to a game against the Toronto Maple Leafs on February 1, 2012 at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, Canada.
(Claus Andersen/Getty Images North America

Some things just feel right. Take postseason baseball at PNC Park. Think of January football at Heinz Field. Look at the Penguins, wearing a yellow that only Pittsburghers could consider “gold,” playing hockey against those orange Flyers from the less-friendly side of our Commonwealth.

Actually, look at the goalie guarding the home club's cage on Wednesday night. Wouldn't make sense to see somebody else between the pipes for a home game against the Flyers, right?

Well, Marc-Andre Fleury isn't going anywhere anytime soon.

“He's been and he will be in the future a key member of this team,” Jim Rutherford said Tuesday while taking in a Penguins practice at Consol Energy Center.

“As long as I'm the general manager, Marc-Andre Fleury will be our goalie.”

That is the best thing anybody associated with the Penguins has said in a long, long time. Publicly committing to Fleury is a franchise-settling move that should convince any remaining skeptics that Rutherford has a good feel for the present and future.

Centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are the Penguins. However, an affable, charming French Canadian goalie was here first, and the Penguins are more than ever Fleury's club.

Veterans told first-year coach Mike Johnston as much this past summer. They reiterated the same thing to me over the past few days.

“He calms us down on the ice,” Crosby said. “For a guy who isn't really that way off the ice — like, he can't even sit still most times — you notice right away that he's calm in the net. That's how he leads for us.”

Teams lacking great leadership and good goaltending don't win the Stanley Cup. The Penguins won't win it again without Fleury, and they need his intangibles now more than ever.

Brooks Orpik was the conscience of this team, but he is playing for the Capitals. That leaves Fleury as the longest-tenured Penguin, and if not their conscience, surely is their soul.

No Penguin is funnier, friendlier or more respected, Malkin said.

Fleury, who is in the final year of a contract that counts $5 million against the salary cap, will turn 30 on Nov. 28. It is not inconceivable that parameters for his next deal could be in place by that big birthday. His agent will be in Pittsburgh in a few weeks, and nobody expects a contentious negotiation on a likely long-term deal.

“What Jim is expressing publicly is exactly what he's expressed privately to Marc and myself,” agent Allan Walsh said. “He expressed that to us when he had just taken over as the GM.”

That was June 6, which feels like a lifetime ago, but it was only two weeks after the Penguins blew a 3-1 series lead in a second-round playoff loss to the Rangers. That defeat was tough on everybody but especially for Crosby, who believed Fleury was performing at a level similar to when the Cup came back to Pittsburgh in 2009. (Fleury's .915 save percentage last postseason was the second-best mark of his career, better than during the Cup run.)

Former No. 1 overall picks and forever friends, Crosby and Fleury need one another perhaps unlike any teammates in the NHL.

Without greatness from his goalie in the postseason, Crosby might never again get his hands on the Cup. Winning it just once will detract from anything he accomplishes and Crosby, while still only 27, already has accomplished more than most of the all-time greats.

Without another conquering playoff from his captain, Fleury may never get the second championship he will need to cement a potential Hall-of-Fame legacy. He needs only nine wins to become the fourth goalie to notch win No. 300 in the year in which he turns 30. He is on pace to reach 400 wins by the time he turns 33, a feat accomplished only by Martin Brodeur and Patrick Roy (Fleury's boyhood idols).

Given what he knows, Crosby does not doubt Fleury may crave the Cup more.

They met at a Hockey Canada practice for the World Junior Championship in December 2003. Crosby was 16. Fleury was 19, the most recent first overall pick, and had already played for the Penguins. They were relative strangers, Crosby said.

“Well, I knew he was the first pick,” Crosby said, smiling.

After that practice, Crosby shot pucks into an empty net as Fleury huddled with coaches. Crosby sauced a softie toward the cage.

“All of a sudden, ‘Flower' took, like, five shuffle steps, dove and swatted it away,” Crosby said. “I was like, ‘He really doesn't like getting scored on.' ”

That is especially true against the Flyers, who always will be Crosby's nemesis, just as Fleury will continue to be the soul to his heartbeat for the Penguins.

“I'm happy to hear that,” Crosby said of Rutherford's commitment to keeping Fleury. “When you think of the Penguins' goalie, you think of ‘Flower.' It feels right.”

Some things just do.

Rob Rossi is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at rrossi@tribweb.com or via Twitter @RobRossi_Trib.


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