Monday, November 20, 2017

It is time for Penguins to see what Sprong can do


By Mark Madden
November 19, 2017
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The Penguins organization feels Daniel Sprong isn’t ready for the NHL.
Call him up anyway. Make Sprong prove he’s not ready.
The 20-year-old right winger couldn’t possibly do worse than any number of Penguins forwards.
Sprong, a rookie pro and second-round pick in the 2015 NHL draft, is thought to be defensively deficient. That part of his game would be a perfect fit in Pittsburgh. Nearly every forward is defensively deficient. It’s a free ride through the neutral zone to the Penguins’ end.
But unlike too many Penguins forwards this season, Sprong can score. He has nine goals in 14 games with the Pens’ Wilkes-Barre/Scranton affiliate. Sprong is a natural finisher, with high goal totals throughout his Major Junior career.
Such a call-up would be no knee-jerk reaction to the Penguins’ mediocre start. The team is 11-8-3 despite clearly suffering from a Stanley Cup hangover. That’s not disastrous. They’re tied for first place in the Metropolitan Division.
Summoning Sprong to Pittsburgh would be a logical reaction to the Penguins’ inability to score, which is inexplicable given their talent.
The Penguins are averaging 2.68 goals per game. That figure ranks 25th in the NHL. Subtract 19 power-play goals and three short-handed goals, and they’re averaging 1.68 goals per. That’s pathetic production at even strength.
So call up the minor-leaguer who’s scoring and has pedigree thereof. That’s common sense.
Few Penguins forwards are producing at the expected level.
Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are pretty near, but hardly plumb. Second-year pro Jake Guentzel isn’t a secret anymore. Phil Kessel is on song, and Patric Hornqvist and Conor Sheary are going above and beyond.
But the Penguins have several forwards that just don’t score.
Fourth-liners carry low expectations. You could use more, but can’t rely on more.
But Bryan Rust (two goals in 22 games), Carl Hagelin (one goal in 21 games) and Riley Sheahan (one goal, an empty-netter, in 13 games) are underachieving at an inexcusable level. Rust and Hagelin have each skated in top-six roles intermittently. Rust gets some power-play time.
Rust does have 10 assists, and does play in traffic.
Hagelin’s forecheck and pace set a tempo. But he doesn’t go to the dirty areas often enough, and his finishing has zero polish.
Sheahan has scored in just two of his last 107 games. Sheahan not scoring isn’t unexpected, and it’s not exactly a mystery. Same problems as Hagelin, only worse: Doesn’t go to the blue paint, misfires at the moment of truth.
Rust, Hagelin and Sheahan are useful players in other aspects. Sheahan is particularly frustrating, because he never puts a skate wrong otherwise. He does all a third-line center should do, except he almost never scores.
Coach Mike Sullivan sometimes tries to create artificial depth by spreading his scoring among his top three lines.
The Penguins’ third line has been productive lately: Hornqvist has two goals in his last three games, and Sheary had two goals (including the overtime winner) in Tuesday’s 5-4 home victory over Buffalo.
But when their skills are evaluated within the context of the roster, Hornqvist and Sheary should be top-six. Third-line talents Hagelin and Rust have instead been used in the top six and simply have not helped in those roles.
Hagelin, Rust and Sheahan don’t score and don’t often even look like threats to score. You can’t have three guys like that playing as much as those three do.
Summon Sprong. Live with his weaknesses. Teach him. Let Sprong get acclimated. See how he does.
Perhaps Sprong will score some goals. This isn’t often said about the Penguins, but goals are a rare commodity right now.
If need be, move Guentzel to center. He certainly isn’t sparkling at wing. Drop Sheahan to fourth-line center.
Sprong and Kessel have similar quirks: Don’t hit much, don’t block shots, don’t excel on defense. It might seem difficult to have both in the lineup. But their deficiencies are much less damaging than a forward who never scores.
You can always send Sprong back to the minors. You can always move Guentzel back to wing. These aren’t desperate times, so these aren’t desperate measures. A big trade would be a desperate measure. These are reasonable experiments that should be tried, and can be discarded if they don’t work.
But much of the tried and true as regards the Penguins’ offense isn’t working right now. November is a good time to test different ideas.
Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Steelers' win over Titans even bigger than we think


By Tim Benz
November 18, 2017

The Steelers won a big game Thursday night.
And they probably won it because it really was a big game.
It might not have felt that way a few weeks ago. But it was.
The 2017 Steelers are an improved edition of a familiar model. They are yet another Steelers team with talent that can contend with anyone when they play with focus and determination.
But they are also a team that is flawed enough that it can keep even the worst of the NFL's clubs in a game if they are ill-prepared and out of focus.
For example, the 8-2 Steelers lost to 3-6 Chicago. They also won by just a field goal against 0-9 Cleveland and 3-7 Indianapolis.
Meanwhile, the Steelers have thus far been the only team to beat AFC West-leading Kansas City at home. They also won a road game against wild-card contending Detroit and are fresh off routing Tennessee, which entered Heinz Field 6-3 by a final of 40-17.
And therein lies the trend over the past few seasons.
Flashback to that AFC North duel on Christmas 2016 against the Ravens. At Kansas City or Cincinnati in the playoffs (and in the regular season). Denver at Heinz Field in December 2015. Six wins versus teams above .500 in 2014.
In recent years, the bigger the game, the better the Steelers play.
Unless it's against the Patriots.
More on them in a moment.
But as we are handing out bouquets for those who played well in that beatdown of Tennessee, let's save the biggest bushel for the Titans themselves.
Going into the bye a few weeks ago, that Titans game had the classic appearance of a matchup the Steelers would overlook. It reeked of a sleepwalking, short-week affair against a bland opponent.
Then Tennessee's improved play and standing in the AFC playoff mix prevented that from happening.
The Titans made Thursday night a big game with a recent hot stretch, and the Steelers responded as they often do.
“They had just won four straight. They were hot,” Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell said. “We went out there and made a statement.
“We were on our P's and Q's and got the job done.”
Bell is right. The Titans hadn't lost for a month. Not only did they creep into a first-place tie with Jacksonville atop the AFC South, but a victory at Heinz Field would have put them momentarily in front of the Chiefs and Steelers in the race to catch New England for AFC supremacy.
The Steelers noticed.
“We respect the Tennessee Titans,” Mike Tomlin said. “They are a division-leading, capable team.”
Yet, the Steelers' offensive explosion and defensive splash plays made the Titans decidedly incapable.
You could find preseason predictions on the Titans ranging anywhere from 7-9 to 12-4. They appeared to be a lot closer to the former Thursday. However, that doesn't dull the implications of this win.
If the Steelers had lost, they would have fallen to 7-3. As referenced earlier, the Jaguars and Titans then would have held potential tiebreakers over the Steelers in terms of playoff seeding depending on which one wins the AFC South.
A loss also would have dented the Steelers' ability to hold serve in its perpetual battle with 7-2 New England for home-field advantage in the AFC playoffs.
Plus, seeing as how the Chiefs have just one game remaining against a team who currently boasts a winning record — the 5-4 Bills at Arrowhead next week — don't be stunned if they finish 13-3 despite some recent struggles.
So via tiebreakers and/or a potential loss to the Patriots before Christmas, that win Thursday over the Titans might have gone further than we had any right to expect between the Steelers getting the top seed in the playoffs as opposed to potentially the fourth seed.
That's a fourth seed that then would have necessitated a likely rematch against the South runner-up, with both candidates already claiming a win at Heinz Field during the regular season.
“Everybody was watching us tonight,” defensive end Cam Heyward said after the victory Thursday. “Now, we are in the clubhouse with a win. And everybody is still chasing us.”
On Sunday, the Patriots will be favored to beat Oakland. Jacksonville is at winless Cleveland. The Chiefs visit the 1-8 Giants. Therefore, you can expect whatever padding the Steelers have built going into the weekend to be gone.
So what could have been viewed as a potential “classic Steeler pitfall game” instead turned into exactly what usually constitutes a “classic Steeler kind of win.”
Late start. At home. Potential playoff opponent. Second half of the year.
Maybe that description finally can be applied to the Patriots as well this time around Dec. 17.
For a change.
Tim Benz hosts the Steelers pregame show on WDVE and ESPN Pittsburgh. He is a regular host/contributor on KDKA-TV and 105.9 FM.

Neil Walker returning to Pirates? Don’t hold your breath

By Mark Madden
November 17, 2017
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Jon Morosi of MLB Network reports that the Pirates have “some interest in [a] reunion with free agent Neil Walker.” The catalyst: Difficulty with getting infielder/DUI specialist Jung-Ho Kang into the United States.
It’s a crock. It’s a big, steaming pile of fake news.
That doesn’t reflect badly on Morosi, an excellent reporter. Morosi got spoon-fed this garbage by the Pirates to generate good PR: “Bring back the local guy!” Get some Buc talk on the radio in the middle of football and hockey seasons.
But Walker will never play for the Pirates again.
Why would he want to?
The Pirates never seriously entered into talks with Walker regarding a long-term contract prior to trading him to the New York Mets for pitcher Jon Niese on December 9, 2015.
Oh, the Pirates made a cursory offer in ’15: One that Walker called, at the time, “not very realistic.”
Walker, a Pine-Richland High School graduate, wanted to stay in Pittsburgh. The Pirates pointedly did not want him.
Why? Good question. Walker’s performance merited at least seriously discussing a long-term deal, especially with Gerrit Cole, for example, counting the days until he can escape Pittsburgh.
But the organization, especially GM Neal Huntington, considers Walker a flawed player.
Or maybe the Pirates just don’t like Walker. He didn’t always toe the company line when it came to discussing shenanigans.
Walker very likely noticed that the Pirates are a flawed organization.
For Walker to return to Pittsburgh after the way the Pirates treated him would compromise his dignity.
Unless the Pirates are the highest bidder, that is.
But they won’t be. No chance.
Walker made $17.2 million last season, which he split between the Mets and Milwaukee. He won’t get that now. At 33, his stats don’t warrant it.
But Walker still figures to get between $9-11 million per season. He’s going to look for a 2- to 3-year deal.
Does anyone really think the Pirates have “some interest” in paying that when they barely bargained with Walker after some of his best seasons?
It’s just another in a series of Pirate cons designed to make you think they’re trying to win. “We almost got Neil Walker back!”
Walker would help the Pirates. Critics call him injury-prone. Walker only played 111 games this past season, and 113 in 2016. But Josh Harrison only played 128 games last year. Francisco Cervelli played just 81.
Walker has had back surgery, and that’s disturbing. But he’s hardly crippled.
Walker is likely a corner infielder at this point in his career. Who would you rather see as a regular, Walker or David Freese? Kang probably won’t return. But if he does, and the Pirates sign Walker, Harrison returns to his old super-utility role and gets the equivalent at-bats of a starter that way.
Walker hit .265 last season with a .362 on-base percentage, .439 slugging percentage and a .801 OPS. Those figures would have ranked fifth, third, third and second, respectively, on the Pirates.
Walker would make the Pirates stronger. But that’s not a big concern for owner Bob Nutting.
Maintaining profit margin is.
Pirates attendance has dropped over 579K since their 98-win season in 2015. The Pirates’ local TV ratings decreased by 27 percent in 2017.
Besides Morosi’s report about Walker, another rumor is floating: Pirates payroll will be slashed by $15 million before the 2018 season. Last year saw Pirates players earn $109m, the sixth-lowest total in MLB.
Sign Walker, or help the bottom line?
The Pirates can’t do both. So bet on the latter.
Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).

Friday, November 17, 2017

Steelers solve offensive issues

By Kevin Gorman
November 17, 2017
Some day, the Steelers could talk about playing the Tennessee Titans on a Thursday night as the breakthrough game of a Super season.
That storyline inevitably will turn toward Ben Roethlisberger's halftime challenge of an underachieving offense that had struggled to convert on third downs, in the red zone or put 30 points on the scoreboard.
To take nothing away from the narrative of Big Ben's outspoken show of leadership in the locker room, it wasn't so much about what he said as what followed.
The Steelers flipped that script, turning their failures into fortune in a runaway 40-17 victory over the Titans at Heinz Field.
It was all so sudden and unexpected, especially against a Titans defense led by legendary zone-blitz guru Dick LeBeau.
“I think you can call this a breakout game in terms of points, but I still think that we're going to look at this and say, ‘Man, we left a lot out there,' ” said Roethlisberger, who completed 20 of 23 passes for 185 yards and three touchdowns in the second half.
“I'm going to give them credit. That's a Coach LeBeau defense. They stopped us a lot on third downs and stopped us in the red zone. Was it our best game? No. Was it better? Yeah.”
The Steelers scored on their opening drive, making it look so easy when Roethlisberger found Antonio Brown for a 41-yard touchdown and 7-0 lead.
But then reality hit: Twice, the defense delivered interceptions returned inside the Tennessee 25. Twice, the Steelers' offense failed to score touchdowns.
Their faults in the red zone were covered by Chris Boswell, who booted field goals of 41 and 28 yards. But there was no hiding their difficulties on third down.
“They're huge,” Roethlisberger said, “any time you're moving the chains, keeping the flow going and keeping the rhythm going.”
Yet the Steelers failed to convert on their first five third-down attempts, until just before the two-minute warning before the half.
But Big Ben didn't just deliver a halftime speech, he backed it up with big pass plays. On a third-and-11 at the Titans' 17, he connected with JuJu Smith-Schuster for a 12-yard gain that set up a 5-yard touchdown pass to Antonio Brown. On the next possession, Roethlisberger hit Martavis Bryant on a third-and-10 for 20 yards, extending a drive capped by a scoring pass to Jesse James.
“Every third down is critical,” Bryant said. “We've got to make those plays to keep the ball moving. Guys made the plays. We kept the ball moving and got into the red zone and started scoring, so everything is big on third down. When third down presents itself, we've got to go out and make plays.”
The Steelers did a better job of that after halftime. After going 1 for 7 on third downs and 0 for 2 in the red zone in the first half, they converted 3 of 5 in both statistics in the second half.
It's no coincidence that the Steelers also crossed the 30-point threshold — once a stated per-game goal — for the first time this season.
“I think we all kind of felt we were doing some good things,” Roethlisberger said. “We were on the verge, you know. Winning the football game is obviously most important, but to be able to put points on the board and to be able to capitalize on some of the defense's turnovers — we'd like to capitalize on all of them — meant a lot. But it feels good to get those points and score in the red zone.”
Almost as good as it feels to be 8-2 at this point of the season, the Steelers' best start under Mike Tomlin.
This was an important win, not just because the Steelers beat the Titans but how they beat them.
The Steelers solved three of their biggest issues on offense, not just because of what their quarterback said at halftime but how they answered his challenge.
Pointedly.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at kgorman@tribweb.com or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.

Antonio Brown, Steelers hang 40 on Titans, charge into AFC lead

By Jeremy Fowler
November 17, 2017
Image result for steelers titans november 16 2017
Don Wright/Associated Press

PITTSBURGH -- Forget going off the top rope. Antonio Brown went off the helmet for the Pittsburgh Steelers' takedown.
Brown's one-handed dagger of a touchdown catch -- ball pressed against his dome as he fell backward -- was so good that the 10-yard score required at least three double takes.
Leave it to a prime-time game at home to get Brown, Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers back to sizzle status.
After weeks of erratic offense, the Steelers notched their biggest explosion of the season with a commanding second half in a 40-17 victory over the Tennessee Titans on Thursday night.
The Steelers (8-2) want home-field advantage in the playoffs. Well, this is how dangerous they can be if they get it.
"It's about time, I guess you could say," guard David DeCastro said.
There's something about prime-time games at Heinz Field that spark Big Ben, who now has at least four touchdowns in his past three night games in Pittsburgh. He's 19-3 all time in that setting.
And after a quiet 12 catches and one touchdown over the past three weeks, there was no way Brown would stay quiet for long. He caught 10 passes for 144 yards and posted his second career three-touchdown game.
Despite a curious first-half lull, the Steelers looked like the offense they drew up in the preseason: Taking what's available, Brown weaving through traffic, running back Le'Veon Bell doing a bit of everything, JuJu Smith-Schuster as the intermediate pass-catching option, and receiver Martavis Bryant and tight end Jesse James coming through with timely plays.
The only thing that was off was Bell's modest workload of 12 carries for 46 yards. Bell getting 25 or more carries usually is a recipe for Steelers victories, but such heavy lifting wasn't necessary Thursday, and Bell added nine catches for 57 yards on the night.
This was, by far, Roethlisberger's cleanest game of the season; he mixed no-huddle offense with a more balanced, calculated attack, depending on the mood. Roethlisberger's 30-of-45 passing for 299 yards was a welcome sign for Steelers fans hoping for more vintage Big Ben moments down the stretch.
Peak offensive performance came at the 1-yard line to start the fourth quarter, when James faked a missed block, Bell faked a rush and Roethlisberger went over the top to a wide-open James for the score. Perfect red zone work.
Roethlisberger challenged his offense to make plays in the second half, himself included. The 14-year veteran proceeded to complete 15 of his final 16 passes for 141 yards and three scores, relying on empty sets to get the ball out more quickly.
"I don't care if you're old or young, just someone has to step up and make a play for this team," said Roethlisberger, recalling the halftime talk. "Or else we are going to keep relying on our defense. It is time that we step up and do something. I love the way they all responded."
Brown did the rest with his ninth career game in which he had at least 100 receiving yards and at least two touchdowns, a league high since 2013. His toe-tap catch for 23 yards early in the fourth quarter might have been a body blow. But then he went and topped that with a 10-yard score on Titans cornerback Logan Ryan that will go high on Brown's career highlight reel.
Brown saw a lot of man coverage. He was pleased.
"I love it when guys bet against their guy versus me," Brown said. "I'll take that matchup all day."
The defense had a few rough moments, but it's hard to complain about forcing Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota's first career four-interception game. Mariota had six interceptions all season before Thursday. The Steelers recorded their first four-pick game since Week 11 of 1997 against the Baltimore Ravens. DE Cam Heyward (two sacks) was dominant, and CB Coty Sensabaugh held up well in replacing Joe Haden, save Rishard Matthews' 75-yard touchdown on a play with no safety help.
The Pittsburgh defense contained the run-option with the edge, applied interior pressure with Heyward and Stephon Tuitt, blitzed with linebacker Vince Williams and others, and let coverage do the rest.
The Steelers' message at halftime was clear: Make tackles.
"Tuitt and Cam really got all our pressure," linebacker Bud Dupree said.
Midway through the third, Titans TE Delanie Walker gashed the Steelers up the middle for a 42-yarder and a would-be 17-yard touchdown that he dropped in the back of the end zone. That cost the Titans four points, as they settled for a field goal to cut the lead to 23-17, but the Steelers were rolling at that point.
After all, once the Steelers get out to double-digit leads, they always protect them -- at least with Bell, Brown and Roethlisberger. Pittsburgh has won 26 straight with those three when up by 10 points or more.
This resounding win suggests there might be more chances to maintain such leads.
"This team can go as far as it wants to go," Sensabaugh said.

Titans get their answer: Sloppy play plus Steelers equals ugly loss

By Joe Rexrode
November 16, 2017
Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota (8) is sacked by
Vince Williams sacks Marcus Mariota in the second half of Thursday's game in Pittsburgh (George Walker IV/Tennessean)
PITTSBURGH — The Tennessee Titans have been making the mistakes that help blah teams stay with them, but they’ve been overcoming those gaffes, winning those games and advancing toward their first playoff berth since 2008.
The advance certainly isn’t over after Thursday’s 40-17 thumping delivered by the Pittsburgh Steelers at cold-yet-loud Heinz Field. The mistakes are getting out of hand, though. Good teams, the kind you see in the playoffs, burn you for them.
"The dam kind of broke," Titans coach Mike Mularkey said of a game that was 16-14 Pittsburgh early in the third and 23-17 early in the fourth.
"They kicked our butts in that second half," Titans linebacker Wesley Woodyard said.
"If you throw four interceptions," Marcus Mariota said of his career high, "it's tough to win."
This really could have been a different game. A game of some sort, at least. That seems ridiculous to say aloud in light of the final score. Maybe Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and a loaded offense that blazed through the second half would have made it easy for the 8-2 Steelers either way. But consider the Titans’ list of football sins
• A Mariota pass that got away from him on the first possession, sailing over the head of receiver Rishard Matthews and into the hands of Pittsburgh’s Mike Hilton. That led to a field goal to make it 10-0 Steelers because the Titans’ defense stepped up in the sudden-change situation.
• Inadequate blocking that got Titans placekicker Ryan Succop’s first field goal of the night blocked.
• Another Mariota pick, this on a stare-down of rookie receiver Corey Davis, with the Titans driving in the second quarter and trailing 10-7. At that point the Steelers had 98 total yards, 56 interception return yards and the lead. Mularkey put that one on Davis for not coming back to fight for the ball, but it can't be thrown.
"When it comes down to it," Mariota said, "I'm the one that makes the decision."

• A Jurrell Casey personal foul for roughing the passer on the Steelers’ first drive of the second half, after Mariota hit Matthews for a 75-yard catch and run to cut the lead to 16-14. The penalty helped keep a drive alive that ended in a touchdown. And yes, it was a ticky-tack call. But as Casey found out in the preseason, a fingernail scrape anywhere low on a quarterback is going to be called.

• On the drive after that, Mariota moved the Titans right downfield and put a pass on tight end Delanie Walker in the end zone that couldn’t have been more perfect. Walker dropped it. The Titans settled for Succop from 44 yards and a 23-17 deficit, and they were never in the game again.
"I'm very upset ... that could have been a momentum changer," said Walker, a guy who usually catches everything.
"That's big," Mularkey said. "I mean, it's hard to get that open, hard to get plays like that."
And then there was the strange sequence at the end of the first half, Mularkey taking timeouts with the Steelers driving to make it 13-7 so Mariota could have time for his own drive. The Titans then went run, screen, run; Steelers coach Mike Tomlin used his timeouts; and Roethlisberger happily made the plays for a 16-7 lead at the half instead. Yes, the officials mistakenly let the Steelers advance a Brown fumble, providing 10 crucial yards. But hey, the officials were just following the Titans' lead.
Some are going to look at this as an outright exposure of the Titans. It’s true, their defense gave up touchdowns on the first three possessions of the second half, beloved former Steelers coordinator Dick LeBeau ending up with a sour homecoming.
But the Titans won’t see guys like this again during the regular season. Brown (144 yards, three touchdowns) and Le’Veon Bell (103 total yards) make up the best receiver-runner combo in the NFL. The Steelers also have one of the best defenses in the league, statistically speaking, though the Titans should have done more to take advantage of a banged-up secondary.
But Mariota simply made some plays you can’t make if you want to have a chance in games like this, against opponents like this. He wasn't alone.
This team is 6-4, still in good shape, the first four-game winning streak since 2009 halted but a welcoming schedule ahead. The Titans just need to be within a game of the 6-3 Jacksonville Jaguars and beat them in the regular-season finale at Nissan Stadium to win the AFC South.
That would be a huge step forward for this franchise. But the struggles of the past few weeks look worse in light of this humiliation. And Thursday was a look at just how small the Titans’ margin for error will be – and how ugly another batch of them will be – if they do make it to January football.
Reach Joe Rexrode at jrexrode@tennessean.com and follow him on Twitter @joerexrode.