If this is going to be a December to remember for the Steelers, let us not forget that it started with a couple of old heads making plays like young bucks.
It started with James Harrison, the 38-year-old who recaptured his starting job at outside linebacker, drawing a holding penalty in the end zone to negate a third-down conversion and instead force a safety.
It continued with Lawrence Timmons, the 10th-year inside linebacker, making a leaping interception and a 58-yard return before age caught up with him.
“It was the biggest play to that point,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “But, you know, you're going to have big plays in big moment as we get into December football. That's what it's about. It's about making those signature plays this time of year to get you out of the stadium.
“And that was a big one.”
The Steelers got out of Heinz Field Sunday with a 24-14 victory over the New York Giants, thanks in part to the leadership of Harrison and Timmons and a defense that has been the catalyst in three consecutive victories since self-destructing against Dallas.
It was after that loss, in which the Steelers gave up the game-winning touchdown in the final minute, that Harrison termed them “terrible.”
It also was when the Steelers lost their defensive captain, Cameron Heyward, to a season-ending injury. Harrison and Timmons haven't allowed there to be a leadership void on a defense that starts three rookies.
“It's great to see both of them playing like that,” inside linebacker Ryan Shazier said. “A lot of us took that Dallas loss really hard. ...
“It means a lot because it set the tempo and let guys know that this is how we need to play. They've been doing this for years. The younger guys get to see that they can do it also. Guys are just feeding off their energy.”
When Giants second-year tackle Ereck Flowers held Harrison's helmet, it gave the Steelers a 2-0 lead with 3:04 left in the first quarter. They immediately got the ball back and added a 44-yard field goal by Randy Bullock for a 5-0 lead before the quarter ended.
The Giants were poised to take the lead as Eli Manning led a drive from the New York 29 to the Steelers' 9. On second-and-4, he dropped back and targeted tight end Larry Donnell. But Timmons read the play perfectly, picked it off and thought he was headed for the end zone.
“I wish I was 25,” Timmons said. “I would have scored. I thought I had nice form at first, but then (age) 30 caught up to me.”
So did Harrison, who wondered whether Timmons could recreate his unforgettable 100-yard interception return in Super Bowl XLIII.
“I actually thought he was going to make it until I was catching up with him,” Harrison said. “Then I thought, ‘He ain't going to make it. I shouldn't be catching up with him.' ”
If age is catching up to Harrison and Timmons, they are fighting the good fight and inspiring their teammates in the process.
Harrison had three tackles, a sack for a 9-yard loss and a hurry. Timmons finished with seven tackles, the interception and a hurry on a fourth-and-1 at the Steelers' 3 on a pass Shazier broke up at the goal line. It was one of three fourth-down stops.
This time, Harrison termed the defense a “work in progress.” The Steelers are taking steps each week, young bucks led by old heads who continue to make plays and keep the team in playoff contention.
Pittsburgh Steelers inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons (94) runs after intercepting a pass by New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning (10) during the first half of an NFL game in Pittsburgh, Sunday, Dec. 4, 2016. (Don Wright/AP)
PITTSBURGH -- The stat sheet shows Odell Beckhamgot 100 yards on the Pittsburgh Steelers' defense Sunday night. But, boy, that was a quiet, inconsequential 100 yards. Some of them came in garbage time. And he was basically the entire New York Giants offense in the Steelers'24-14 win, with the rest of the Giants gaining 151 yards.
That's how you know you're getting the best of your opponent. And the Steelers feel ready for anything after back-to-back-to-back gritty performances from the defense entering Sunday's matchup at Buffalo that will promise additional ice packs for everyone.
If you've followed the Steelers' secondary issues the last few years, containing Beckham & Co. shows serious growth, even if Giants QB Eli Manning was off target throughout.
"We're going to put hands on them," said cornerback Ross Cockrell on covering Beckham and the Giants receivers. "That's how we play Steelers defense."
Question the recent opponents -- and there's some validity to that, with the Browns and Colts a mess at quarterback -- but something is happening that has inspired the Steelers' defense and lessened the burden on coordinator Keith Butler.
The D gets sacks now. The secondary is breaking up passes it wouldn't have two months ago. And LB James Harrison is playing some of his best football at age 38, which makes him the perfect candidate to remind his locker room of this:
The Steelers' great defenses, the ones that really dominated, loved December football and hated everything else in front of them. Maybe that's why Harrison offers perspective to quell any potential self-adulation among his group, calling his team's performance Sunday "an all-right job." The Steelers are "nowhere near" where they need to be in a month, he added.
"This week, it doesn’t matter. It’s gone," Harrison said. "There’s no time to slap ourselves on the back."
Then Harrison attributed the recent success to a football truism that's become a cliché but rarely gets done properly -- all 11 players doing their job in unison.
In following that blueprint, several Steelers are playing their best football. Lawrence Timmons has returned to being an every-down linebacker and is making plays against the run and in coverage. His field-flipping interception in underneath coverage stripped all momentum from New York. Mike Mitchell and Sean Davis have brought out the best in each other since forming a tandem three weeks ago. Stephon Tuitt has elevated his play without Cam Heyward. There are others, too.
The Steelers feel they can drop back into coverage and beat teams while getting pressure with four up front. Manning went 8-of-9 with a touchdown against the blitz but 16-of-30 with a touchdown and two interceptions when the Steelers sent four or fewer.
Coach Mike Tomlin said December football is about "making those signature plays this time of year to get you out of the stadium" with a win.
In the last three weeks, the Steelers have 13 sacks and back-to-back games with at least two turnovers.
Beckham bolted downfield over and over, waiting for the Steelers cornerbacks to crack, but Artie Burns and Cockrell held up on the outside. Continue that, and the front seven will do the rest.
"We changed up who’s down, who’s back; we executed the game plan well tonight," Cockrell said. "Artie and I, we got a system going."
PITTSBURGH — This was a Steel Hurtin’ all right, a day when those two Super Bowl championships seemed like distant memories, a day when Giants fans would have traded Eli Manning for Ben Roethlisberger in a Big Apple minute.
This was a test of their mettle, and Manning and the 8-4 Giants, 24-14 losers, were anything but iron men with iron wills.
This was a jolting, jarring slap in the face, the first blast of December football that left the Giants’ six-game winning streak strewn across Heinz Field, a sobering and humbling reminder that the road to the playoffs is littered with desperate teams fighting every bit as fiercely as they are for January football.
Bring on the Cowboys?
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These aren’t the Steel Curtain Steelers of yesteryear, with “Mean” Joe Greene and L.C. Greenwood and Jack Lambert and that crew, but on a day when the Giants needed Manning to lift them, carry them past Big Ben and keep the NFC East title dream alive, he looked as if he were seeing ghosts.
Manning threw two interceptions, including the critical mistake from which the Giants could not recover.
Victor Cruz shouldn’t have bothered making the trip. He was targeted the same number of times as Amani Toomer.
Manning was 9 yards away from taking the lead in the second quarter when he looked for Larry Donnell, of all people, in the end zone.
And didn’t get enough air under it.
And found Lawrence Timmons at the 2 instead.
And Timmons returned the gift interception 58 yards to the Giants’ 40.
Three plays later, Roethlisberger escaped the pocket to his right and hit Antonio Brown with the 22-yard TD pass against Janoris “Jackrabbit” Jenkins that made it Steelers 11, Giants 0.
“I tried to squeeze it in there,” Manning said. “I thought I could get it high enough to Larry Donnell and kinda put it on that back shoulder a little. Lawrence got a little wider than I thought and thought I could get it there. Obviously any interception’s a bad decision, so it obviously hurts when it takes away points.”
It was an uphill climb the rest of the way, and Manning couldn’t climb it.
Maybe you can beat the Browns scoring seven points in 59 minutes.
Not the Steelers.
And certainly not the Cowboys.
And if Ben McAdoo doesn’t fix it quick, the Giants will be in big wild-card trouble.
“We need to be more efficient,” McAdoo said.
Manning was 1 yard from a first down and 3 yards from a touchdown midway through the third quarter when, after all the inefficiency and listlessness and disjointedness, he had finally begun targeting Odell Beckham Jr. and connecting with him and from the shotgun, forced an incompletion under duress over the middle to tight end Will Tye, who was blanketed by Ryan Shazier, when running back Paul Perkins was virtually free in the left flat and a better option.
“Had pressure right up the middle, and tried to hit to Will quickly,” Manning said. “Good defensive call by them.”
The Giants defense soon gifted Manning the ball at the Pittsburgh 17 when Damon “Snacks” Harrison stripped Le’Veon Bell and Eli Apple recovered. Two plays later, Manning faked an end-around to Beckham and tossed a screen right to Rashad Jennings for the 13-yard touchdown that made it Steelers 14, Giants 7 with 6:30 remaining in the third quarter.
But Big Ben immediately answered the bell when Landon Collins lost tight end Ladarius Green on the 20-yard TD pass that made it Steelers 21, Giants 7.
Apple then gifted Manning the ball with an interception at the Giants’ 47, but on fourth-and-13, as Manning scrambled out of the pocket to his right, he threw across his body, an underthrow for Sterling Shepard, who was open early, that was intercepted by Sean Davis.
“If he could have got a little more mustard on the ball, we had a chance for a big play, but it’s tough running to the right and throwing back across your body,” McAdoo said.
He later missed an open Shepard from the Pittsburgh 24. The Giants cannot win big games with Manning’s downfield game in disrepair, if he is able to complete one pass — on one target — to Beckham for 10 yards in the first half, and forgetting Cruz was back on the team. He targeted Beckham 17 times in the second half.
“It really came down to those red-zone trips where we got no points off,” Manning said.
There is no margin for these errors by Manning on another day when he has no running game and finds himself down 2-0 thanks to an end-zone holding penalty on offensive lineman Ereck Flowers.
By the time it was Steelers 14, Giants 0 at intermission, Manning had completed nine passes, and six of them were to Jennings and Tye.
The defense, which has been burdened all season with covering for the offense, was Ben And Break early. Late in the first half, when Roethlisberger needed 17 yards on third down, he flipped a middle screen to Eli Rogers and got 18 to position Randy Bullock for a chippie field goal.
Manning struggled with the deep ball in Cleveland and this was more of the same right from the gitgo. A prayer for tight end Jerrell Adams wasn’t answered and interference was called on a disbelieving Beckham.
“You never know when we can break out,” Manning said.
They’ve been saying that from the start of the season.
“We just gotta do a better job to help our defense out,” Beckham said.
Bring on the Cowboys?
“It’s a big game, and we gotta win this one,” Manning said.
If he doesn’t play better than this, if he doesn’t play better than Dak Prescott, if he doesn’t start getting his team in the end zone, they won’t.
Pittsburgh Penguins' Phil Kessel, right, celebrates his goal with Evgeni Malkin (71) during the second period of an NHL hockey game against the Detroit Red Wings in Pittsburgh, Saturday, Dec. 3, 2016. (Gene Puskar/AP)
Kessel scored twice, including one of Pittsburgh's four goals in the third, and the Penguins rallied to beat the Detroit Red Wings 5-3 on Saturday night.
"You just have to stick with it in games like this," Kessel said. "We did and we got rewarded."
The defending Stanley Cup champions trailed 3-1 entering the third, but scored three times in the first 11 minutes of the period. Matt Cullen tacked on his fifth goal of the season when he was hauled down on his way to an empty net with 41 seconds remaining.
Detroit goaltender Jared Coreau stopped 32 shots in his NHL debut. Coreau was poised early, making a sprawling save on Sidney Crosby in the first five minutes and later denying Evgeni Malkin on a breakaway, but he struggled in the final period.
"In the third, when they scored the second one, we started to panic a little bit instead of playing with poise and staying calm," Zetterberg said.
Bonino's goal was his second in as many games, and Schultz has two goals and four points in his last three. Malkin had two assists, extending his point streak to a season-high five games.
Bonino started the comeback with his third goal at 2:05 of the third. Schultz tied it at 3 at 6:28, beating Coreau with a shot from the point. Kessel then put Pittsburgh ahead to stay when he got a pass from Carl Hagelin and beat Coreau from the top of the crease.
"We just had to keep working and sticking to our game," Kessel said. "We believe in each other here."
Pittsburgh is the healthiest it has been the entire season. The Penguins activated forward Chris Kunitz from injured reserve Saturday morning after he missed six games with a lower-body injury.
The Red Wings, on the other hand, played without seven regulars because of injuries. The group, which includes Darren Helm and Jimmy Howard, has accounted for 36 man games lost in the last three weeks.
Forward Justin Abdelkader was placed on injured reserve Saturday morning after suffering a knee injury Thursday against Florida. He had four points in six games prior to his injury.
"We had a decent amount of chances, really throughout the game, and even in the third period," Red Wings coach Jeff Blashill said. "In the end, we didn't execute good enough to win."
Game notes Red Wings D Niklas Kronwall played in his 750th game. ... Pittsburgh scratched Tom Kuhnhackl to make room for Kunitz in the lineup. Rookie Jake Guentzel also sat for a second straight game. ... The Penguins honored the 1991 and `92 Stanley Cup-winning teams, as nearly 40 former players, coaches and team executives attended the morning skate and were recognized during an on-ice ceremony before the game.
Andrew McCutchen is being shopped by the Pirates. He had a bad 2016, but McCutchen is only 30 and arguably still the team’s best player. He led the Pirates in home runs and runs scored and was second in RBI.
But he’s scheduled to make $14.2 million next year.
Josh Harrison is being shopped, also. The Pirates traded Neil Walker for a scrub pitcher in 2015, ostensibly because they had Harrison to play second base. Now, just a year later, the Pirates are looking to trade Harrison.
Harrison is scheduled to make $18 million over the next two seasons.
Manager Clint Hurdle’s contract runs through 2017, with a club option for 2018. Hurdle said he and the Pirates are not currently talking about an extension, even though now is the logical time for that.
One of the Pirates’ media propaganda arms cited Tom Prince as a logical in-house successor to Hurdle, even though Prince hasn’t managed above Class AA. Anyway, Hurdle is only 59, not old for a manager. Prince is just seven years his junior.
Sean Rodriguez went to Atlanta via free agency, taking 18 home runs with him. Matt Joyce departed for Oakland. He went deep 13 times. The Pirates hit just 153 homers last year, ranking 26th in MLB.
The Pirates are connected with no free agents, including their own.
What the heck is going on at PNC Park?
Just one season removed from winning 98 games, it looks like the Pirates are considering a youth movement.
Youth movements don’t cost much.
Those who support trading McCutchen point out that money saved by moving his salary could be spent on needed starting pitching. But would it?
Josh Bell is a logical replacement in the outfield, with Starling Marte moving to center field. Bell is talented, but has just 152 big-league plate appearances. Can he replace a 30-year-old former National League MVP, especially in the short term?
Austin Meadows, 21, is an outfield prospect that should arrive soon. But when will that be, exactly?
Will the Pirates ever make decisions based on right now?
The situation created by Harrison’s departure would be murky. Second-base options are Adam Frazier (146 major-league plate appearances) and Alen Hanson (33 major-league plate appearances).
Bell, Frazier and Hanson are all 24: Not at all young by the standard most organizations apply to “prospects.”
Harrison’s stats last year were disappointing, especially considering his price tag. His on-base percentage was a meager .311. But the Pirates knew what Harrison was when they gave him a four-year, $27.3 million contract in 2015.
The Pirates give deals like Harrison’s and McCutchen’s for PR purposes. Owner Bob Nutting never intends to pay the full price.
The Pirates payroll was MLB’s sixth-lowest in 2015 and 2016, but dropped $3 million this year. It is likely to be cut a lot more by opening day 2017.
Pedro Alvarez, J.A. Happ, Francisco Liriano, Mark Melancon and Walker have all gone elsewhere since the Pirates won 98 games in 2015. Once McCutchen is dealt, Marte will be the only player left from the starting lineup for the Pirates' 2013 wild-card victory over Cincinnati. That’s only three years ago.
You can debate the individual merits of each departed player. But that’s extremely high turnover from a good team, especially considering that only Happ left via free agency. Everybody else was either traded or cut.
A good baseball deal could be made using McCutchen. Same with Harrison.
But while that’s always the promise, good baseball deals weren’t made using Liriano and Walker. Melancon brought decent return, but the Pirates swapped their All-Star closer this past July 30 when they were just three games out of a wild card.
The motivation is always money. Every single time. You’re foolish to believe otherwise, and dumber still to trust the Pirates. Every single word that comes out of their mouths is horse manure.
If you still have faith, let’s see how you feel after McCutchen and Harrison depart. Where will it stop? Closer Tony Watson is also said to be available.
Fans are starting to catch on. Attendance dipped by 250K last season. That’s OK. Raise ticket prices, cut payroll, whatever. The con goes on.
Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).
There is only way to describe the Pirates aggressively attempting to trade Andrew McCutchen, the face of the franchise.
The ultimate betrayal.
Not just to McCutchen but to Pirates fans and the City of Pittsburgh.
We deserve better than a bottom-line owner more concerned with making payroll than the playoffs, one whose words simply are lip service.
We have given Bob Nutting the benefit of the doubt. Now all that remains is the doubt.
Three years ago, Nutting promised to “compete for championships.”
Yet when McCutchen signed a six-year, $51.5-million deal in March 2012 — an absolute bargain when he won National League MVP a year later — the Pirates didn't spend the money they saved with McCutchen on complementary pieces.
Last January, Nutting told USA Today he hoped McCutchen would remain a Pirate for life.
“I'm not sure we're allowed to sign lifetime agreements, but I'd love to see him stay with us forever,” Nutting said. “He's been remarkable for the game, and for Pittsburgh on and off the field.”
So why trade Cutch now?
The Pirates will try to sell this as a baseball move.
If so, it's a bad one.
The Pirates are asking for prospects and a starting pitcher for a five-time All-Star and four-time MVP finalist.
Faster than you can say Midre Cummings, I should remind you that the Pirates' recent history of trading All-Stars (Aramis Ramirez, Jason Bay and Freddy Sanchez, to name a few) hasn't netted much of a return. Pirates fans deserved a player they could connect with and found one in McCutchen, who not only found stardom but an adopted hometown.
After averaging .313, 25 home runs, 90 RBIs and a .926 OPS the previous four years, McCutchen is coming off a sub-par season in which he batted .256 with a .776 OPS and his play in centerfield slipped. Which makes this the worst time to trade him, given that his value dipped.
It's true that two-time Gold Glove winner Starling Marte could move to center, and the Pirates could flank him in the outfield with Gregory Polanco and Josh Bell. It's true that Austin Meadows is waiting in the wings, much like McCutchen was when the Pirates traded an All-Star in Nate McLouth to the Braves to make room for McCutchen.
“Playing center field is one thing,” McCutchen told MLB.com, “but being a leader out there is another. That's something we need.”
That's something the Pirates desperately would lack without McCutchen, their first superstar since Barry Bonds left for San Francisco. A prospect drafted and developed by the Pirates, McCutchen became the cornerstone of a team that ended their 20-year losing streak and made three consecutive playoff appearances.
Let's be clear: Nutting's ownership, which has profited from taxpayers building the Pirates a first-class ballpark, wasn't at the root of that turnaround. McCutchen was the catalyst, the one who puts fans in the stands and energized PNC Park. McCutchen outperformed his contract yet never complained about being underpaid or demanded a new deal.
Even last season, when he struggled after moving to the No. 2 spot in the lineup and was benched for a three-game series in Atlanta, McCutchen never publicly pouted. Instead, he finished the final two months strong, hitting .284 with nine home runs, 36 RBIs and an .853 OPS and ended up leading the Pirates in hits (153) and home runs (24).
At 30, McCutchen is still in his prime. At $14 million this season, with a club option for $14.5 million next year, he remains a bargain. Like Ben Roethlisberger to the Steelers and Sidney Crosby to the Penguins, McCutchen is the face of the Pirates, one who gave this city hope it could win another World Series.
But Nutting is making it clear the Pirates don't want to pay the price for a superstar, let alone what it costs to win a World Series. That's a betrayal to Pirates fans and, most of all, to McCutchen.