Monday, September 01, 2014

If Steelers fail, blame the defense

Mike Tomlin and Dick LeBeau

The Steelers drafted. Free agents came and went. As the Steelers headed to training camp, they looked better. There seemed every reason to be optimistic.
Now, not so much.
The Steelers' defense was awful last year, and the problems don't seem to be fixed. Speed has been added, but the unit's shortcomings may negate that quickness.
Mike Mitchell replaced Ryan Clark at safety. Clark decelerated dramatically in the latter stages of his Pittsburgh tenure. But Mitchell looks no better.
No faster, certainly. Mitchell can't close. That was evident on the first defensive series of the first preseason game when Giants' running back Rashad Jennings pulled away from Mitchell en route to a 73-yard touchdown run.
Jennings isn't that fast. Mitchell looks that slow.
If Mitchell isn't better than Clark was, Troy Polamalu's ability to freelance from the other safety position will be diminished. The Steelers' D is woefully inept at manufacturing takeaways. If Polamalu plays it safe, that won't change.
Second-year linebacker Jarvis Jones remains invisible. If Jones can't get to opposition quarterbacks, Jason Worilds will draw extra attention on the other side.
Pressuring the QB is the lifeblood of the Steelers' 3-4 defense. When that's not done, the trickledown can be fatal.
The cornerbacks won't provide life support. Ike Taylor, Cortez Allen and William Gay were shredded on a regular basis last season. They looked horrific in preseason. Stricter officiating that cracks down on illegal contact won't help.
When the corners stink, the entire defense has to lean the wrong way. It's impossible to be as aggressive as coordinator Dick LeBeau likes.
Rookie linebacker Ryan Shazier has had impressive moments. But it's not too early to second-guess the Steelers for not drafting a cornerback in the first round. That's where the need was, and is.
The Steelers could have made do at inside linebacker with Lawrence Timmons and either Vince Williams or Sean Spence.
It's considered blasphemy to wonder if LeBeau has stayed around too long. Maybe he doesn't have the components to execute a scheme that has long been successful.
Or perhaps his defense is outdated.
LeBeau's defense concedes short gains to the offense. No big plays. If the foe has to put together a 10- or 11-play drive, it's assumed a mistake will be made before points get scored. Bend, but don't break.
Problem is, the Steelers' defense too often breaks: 11 plays of 50 yards or more (and 17 plays of 40 yards or more) were surrendered in 2013.
It might be personnel. But if LeBeau lacks the proper talent, maybe he should adjust the X's and O's. The Steelers' D has done the same thing for a long time. The NFL lives on video. Predictability equals inefficiency.
The NFL has changed drastically. Offense has become very high-tech. Most offensive units are equipped to make big plays. Some thrive on them.
This season seems a big test for LeBeau, and for his way of doing things.
If the Steelers miss the playoffs for a third straight campaign, fans will know exactly who to blame: Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. That's Pittsburgh. That's the nature of Roethlisberger's position, too.
But the reality is likely to be much different. If the Steelers come up short again, the defense will be at fault. Some tough decisions will have to be made.
Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).

Cole perfect pitcher to start pivotal series for Pirates

Sunday, Aug. 31, 2014, 9:00 p.m.
Christopher Horner | Trib Total Media
Gerrit Cole (7-4, 3.65) will start for the Pirates on Monday afternoon when they face the Cardinals in St. Louis.

Russell Martin has caught a lot of starting pitchers over his many summers. No one quite like Gerrit Cole, though. It's not Cole's power arm. It's not Cole's visible intensity. It's not Cole's studious approach.

It's all of that, and it's what the St. Louis Cardinals are getting from the Pirates on Monday afternoon.

At Busch Stadium, where the Pirates' postseason ended last October, where their playoff push enters September.

“He's not afraid,” Martin said of Cole. “He likes to rise up.”


A rising is what the Pirates need.

Look, going 7-3 to follow a seven-game skid was a good way to salvage August, but the Pirates should be riding a five-game winning streak.

That was Francisco Liriano on the mound Sunday afternoon. That was Josh Harrison taking Johnny Cueto's first pitch deep. That was a 2-0 lead with only 15 outs standing between the Pirates and a 72nd victory.

That was a sweep that should have happened.

It didn't, and a series win — though necessary — wasn't good enough for the Pirates, who began Sunday trying to jump ahead of two teams for a division title and three to bring a wild-card game to PNC Park.

Every lead probably won't be held over the Pirates' final 26 games, but…

Every lead must be held, right? Or extended at least, right?

There aren't enough games left to give ones away like the Pirates did on Sunday.

There also aren't enough games left to justify Andrew Lambo as a No. 2 hitter, but it's not likely that the Pirates' playoff hopes were busted because a minor league power hitter couldn't bunt Harrison to second base with nobody out in the eighth inning.

Well, let's hope not, anyway.

Monday marks the Pirates' biggest game against the Cardinals since Game 5 of the National League Division Series. Tuesday's game will be bigger and Wednesday's will be biggest.

This is it against St. Louis. The Pirates won't see the Cardinals again unless there is a return engagement in the postseason.

A sweep positions the Pirates in sole possession of second place by Wednesday night.

A series win gets them to within a game of that slot.

You don't want to think about any other result, at least if you are thinking about another blackout sellout in Pittsburgh in October.

The Pirates' next 10 games are on the road, where they are 27-37. There are metrics that measure how good the Pirates are at home and how bad they are on the road, but there is about 15 percent of the season left to play, so winning percentages set the narrative.

The Pirates are playing to a .611 clip at home and .422 on the road, where they will be for 17 games this month.

Ah, but a baseball team is only as good as its starting pitcher for the next game.

That brings everything back to Cole and his 95 mph velocity that is now holding late into games, those forceful fist pumps after big strikeouts, that blood that must course coldly through the veins of a California kid who seems like he is Texas tough.

He looks the part of a stud starter, a big-game pitcher, a master of the moment. He looked that part last September and for all but a couple of pitches in two playoff starts at St. Louis last October.

He may look the part again Monday.

Another look has impressed Martin, and it is the one Cole's shown between starts. It's the look of a second-year big leaguer “always studying batters,” “always asking the right questions behind the scenes,” and “always looking for something he can use to his advantage.”

It's the look of a cerebral assassin.

“You don't see that,” Martin said. “It's something I see every day, but it's not something you really see with somebody his age.”

The Pirates have no one quite like Cole.

If they want him to take the bump in a playoff game — and they should — he'll need to show them the playoffs really start on Monday.

At Busch Stadium.

Where everything ended almost a year ago.

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

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Sunday, August 31, 2014

Walker, Worley lead surging Pirates past Reds 3-2

By John Perrotto
August 30, 2014
Walker, Worley lead surging Pirates past Reds 3-2
Neil Walker hits a three-run home run off Cincinnati Reds starting pitcher Alfredo Simon during the first inning of a baseball game in Pittsburgh, Saturday, Aug. 30, 2014. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

PITTSBURGH (AP) -- For the second straight game, the Pittsburgh Pirates made the most of one productive inning.
Neil Walker hit a three-run homer in the first and Pittsburgh made it hold up behind starter Vance Worley, beating the Cincinnati Reds 3-2 on Saturday for its fourth straight victory.
Walker's 18th home run put the Pirates ahead 3-0 against Alfredo Simon four batters into the game. Pittsburgh's winning streak matches its longest of the season.
In the thick of the NL playoff race, the Pirates have won the first two games of the three-game series despite scoring in only two innings. They had a two-run rally in the eighth Friday for a 2-1 victory.
''It's a testament to our pitching,'' Walker said. ''We only scored three runs today and Vance and the bullpen made it stand up. That's what won it for us.''
Worley (6-4) allowed two runs - one earned - and three hits in 6 1-3 innings to snap a career-worst, three-start skid. Mark Melancon pitched a perfect ninth for his 26th save after Justin Wilson and Tony Watson combined for 1 2-3 scoreless innings.

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''It's just a lot of fun to be pitching in this situation,'' Worley said. ''Every game is important. You have to be excited about that.''
Despite retiring 12 batters in a row between the third and sixth, Simon (13-9) fell to 1-6 since pitching in his first All-Star game last month.
Todd Frazier homered for the Reds, who lost their seventh road game in a row. Simon allowed four hits and three walks in seven innings while striking out seven.
''This was pretty much the story of his second half,'' Cincinnati manager Bryan Price said. ''He has some trouble getting out of the gate and then he's fine. The bottom line, though, is we have to score more than two runs. It's tough to win when you don't score runs consistently, and it's been a problem all season.''
The game featured only seven hits, four by Pittsburgh.
The Pirates are a major league-best 24-9 at home since June 19.
Cincinnati cut it to 3-2 in the seventh, scoring a run when first baseman Ike Davis dropped Zack Cozart's two-out popup for an error.
Reds: No injury updates.
Pirates: 3B Pedro Alvarez (sprained left foot) missed his third straight game, and RF Travis Snider (strained right hamstring) sat out for the second day in a row. ... RHP Charlie Morton (right hip inflammation/sports hernia) won't be able to get stretched out enough to rejoin the starting rotation by the time he is eligible to be activated from the disabled next Friday, but said he would be willing to pitch in relief.
Reds: RHP Johnny Cueto (15-8, 2.26 ERA) will look to snap his two-start losing streak in which he has allowed six runs over 11 1-3 innings for a 4.76 ERA. He faces LHP Francisco Liriano in a rematch of last year's NL wild-card game. Cueto is 16-4 with a 2.26 ERA in 25 career starts against Pittsburgh.
Pirates: Liriano (3-10, 3.98) is 0-3 with a 4.03 ERA in his last five starts, but he pitched six scoreless innings Monday against St. Louis. Though he won the wild-card game last season, Liriano is 0-5 with a 4.25 ERA against the Reds in seven regular-season starts.
The Pirates recalled a player from Triple-A Indianapolis for the second straight day, bringing up INF Brent Morel to help off the bench with Alvarez and Snider unavailable. 1B-OF John Lambo was recalled on Friday night.
LHP Jeff Locke was optioned to Indianapolis in a procedural move. He will remain with the Pirates and be recalled Monday when major league rosters expand. Locke is scheduled to start Tuesday night at St. Louis.
Reds RF Jay Bruce called this season ''the most embarrassing year of my life.'' He went 0 for 3 with two strikeouts, dropping his batting average to .217.
Bruce is 4 for 32 with 15 strikeouts in his last nine games. He is 2 for 12 in his career against Worley.

Harrison was one of a kind for Steelers

By Scott Brown
August 30, 2014

PITTSBURGH -- The closest I ever came to experiencing what an NFL quarterback faced when playing against James Harrison came in October 2008. 

A couple of days earlier, the Pittsburgh Steelers had beaten the Jaguars in Jacksonville, but Harrison had been furious after the 26-21 win -- and rightfully so since he had been held more times than a newborn baby. 

As the visiting locker room at Jacksonville Municipal Stadium started to empty, Harrison groused to longtime Steelers beat reporter Mark Kaboly and me during an interview that maybe the officials had money on the game. 

We wrote it. Roger Goodell read it. And Harrison received an envelope from Park Avenue. 

It included a $25,000 fine and a letter explaining that he would be making a generous donation to one of the charities that the NFL supports because of something I had written. 

Yeah, yikes. 

I had the good fortune the first time Harrison did a group interview after getting fined to be on the other end of the Steelers' locker room since one of my colleagues was in on the scrum. 

I felt really lucky when I was later informed that Harrison had said, “Which one of you m-----f------ is Scott Brown? You owe me $25,000.” 

That was the last I heard of that debt, though I did briefly consider walking up to Harrison one day and handing him $25,000 in Monopoly money. I wisely figured that joke might not play well for several reasons. 

James Harrison was ornery. James Harrison was intimidating. And James Harrison was unpredictable. 

Let me add this in the wake of Harrison announcing his retirement Saturday morning via social media: James Harrison was one of the greatest success stories in the fabled history of the Pittsburgh Steelers. 

Let that sink in a little bit. 

And then consider that Harrison was cut three times by the Steelers before finally sticking with the team in 2004. 

He bided his time on special teams for three seasons before the Steelers unleashed a raging bull on the rest of the NFL. 

Harrison both terrorized and tormented quarterbacks after taking over at right outside linebacker for perennial Pro Bowler Joey Porter, earning the nickname "Deebo" from his teammates after the terrifying neighborhood bully in the movie "Friday." 

Harrison piled up 54 sacks from 2007-11, and his 64 career quarterback takedowns for the Steelers rank fourth in team history, two behind a guy named Joe Greene. Harrison became a perennial Pro Bowler, and the former undrafted free agent won the NFL Defensive Player of the Year Award in 2008 after registering 16 sacks. 

Harrison turned in one of the greatest plays in Super Bowl history at the end of that season when he returned an interception 100 yards for a touchdown. 

The Steelers don’t win a sixth Super Bowl title if Harrison doesn’t weave his way down the field, pinball off Arizona Cardinals tacklers and then collapse in the end zone with no time left in the first half. 

We may never see a play like that again. 

If it was an original, so was Harrison. 

He played with an edge. He also played on the edge, something that turned Harrison into the unwitting face of Goodell’s crackdown on helmet-to-helmet hits. 

His clashes with Goodell -- Harrison blasted the commissioner in a 2011 Men’s Journal story for which he later apologized -- may complicate his legacy a bit when it comes to the NFL. 

That is not the case with the Steelers, which is why so many fans were clamoring for the team to re-sign Harrison when he made it clear he wanted to return to Pittsburgh for one more season. 

It doesn’t look like he will get that second act with the Steelers. 

But what a first act it was for the inimitable James Harrison.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Harrison helps Pirates edge Reds 2-1

By John Perrotto
August 29, 2014
MLB: Cincinnati Reds at Pittsburgh Pirates
Pittsburgh Pirates third baseman Josh Harrison (5) receives high-fives in the dugout after scoring a run against the Cincinnati Reds during the eighth inning at PNC Park. The Pirates won 2-1. (Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)
PITTSBURGH (AP) -- Edinson Volquez loves how Josh Harrison plays the game. He thinks the third baseman is the most valuable player in the National League.

Pitching Details

Harrison hit an RBI triple and scored on Jose Tabata's tiebreaking single in the eighth inning, leading the Pittsburgh Pirates to a 2-1 victory over the Cincinnati Reds on Friday night.
Harrison had three hits while also making a number of sparkling defensive plays. Tabata, starting in right field for the injured Travis Snider, finished with two hits in the Pirates' sixth win in eight games.
''He's unbelievable,'' Volquez said of Harrison, who began the season as the last man on the Pirates' bench but is now their leadoff hitter. ''He can do everything. For me, he's the MVP with the way he's been playing. He's an exciting player.''
Volquez was working on a no-hitter before Devin Mesoraco's leadoff single in the seventh. He was charged with one run and three hits in 7 2-3 innings, running his unbeaten streak to seven starts.
''It was a very impressive outing,'' Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. ''It wasn't his best fastball but he kept it down and no-hit them for six innings without the best stuff we've seen from him.''
Reds right-hander Mike Leake allowed six hits in seven innings in his second consecutive scoreless outing. He pitched 6 2-3 innings in a 1-0 victory over Atlanta last Saturday in his previous start.
Cincinnati put two runners on in the eighth, chasing Volquez from the game. Mesoraco then put the Reds in front with an RBI single against Tony Watson (10-1), but Brandon Phillips was thrown out at home to end the inning.
The Pirates' ERA is 2.15 over their last eight games.
Mesoraco had two of the Reds' four hits.
The Pirates' winning rally came against Jonathan Broxton (4-2).
Pinch-hitter Andrew Lambo, recalled from Triple-A Indianapolis before the game, singled off first baseman Todd Frazier's glove with one out. Then Harrison and Tabata followed with their big hits.
''It was really one pitch that hurt me,'' Broxton said. ''Harrison hit one off the right-field wall but the other two hits were ground balls.''
Reds: 1B Joey Votto experienced pain in the area of his troublesome left knee on Wednesday when he attempted to field ground balls for the first time since going on the disabled list July 6 with a distal quadriceps strain, manager Bryan Price said Friday. Votto won't be ready to play when he is eligible to come off the disabled list on Thursday, and the rest of the season is in doubt.
Pirates: 1B Pedro Alvarez (sprained left foot) sat out for a second game and Snider (left hamstring discomfort) was not in the lineup after leaving Wednesday's win over St. Louis. Both are day to day.
Reds: RHP Alfredo Simon (13-8, 3.26 ERA) will start Saturday in his first outing since breaking a five-game losing streak Sunday by beating Atlanta. Simon is 1-4 with a 4.74 ERA in eight starts in the second half after going 12-3 with a 2.70 ERA in 18 starts in the first half and being selected to his first All-Star game.
Pirates: RHP Vance Worley (5-4, 3.14 ERA) will try to bounce back after losing his last three starts and compiling a 6.11 ERA in that span.
The Pirates recalled Lambo to bolster their bench with Alvarez and Snider sidelined.
Lambo hit .328 with 11 home runs and 42 RBIs in 61 games at Indianapolis. He also had hit six home runs in his last eight games.
RHP Gerrit Cole was optioned to rookie-level Bristol to clear a roster spot for Lambo. However, it is strictly a procedural move and Cole will be recalled Monday when the roster limit expands to 40 and start that day at St. Louis.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Observation Deck: Panthers 10, Steelers 0

By Scott Brown
August 28, 2014

Panthers blank Steelers 10-0 in preseason finale
Carolina Panthers running back Fozzy Whittaker (43) is hit by Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker Ryan Shazier (50) in the first quarter of the NFL preseason football game on Thursday, Aug. 28, 2014 in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Don Wright)

PITTSBURGH -- It certainly looked like a fourth preseason game, from the swaths of empty seats at Heinz Field to the uneven play with many starters from each side playing sparingly, if at all. 

Carolina parlayed a big pass play into the game’s only touchdown ,and the Panthers beat the Steelers 10-0 Thursday night with the specter of final cuts looming for fringe players on each side. 

Landry Jones started at quarterback and completed 14 of 18 passes for 97 yards before giving way to Brendon Kay midway through the third quarter. Jones, a fourth-round pick in 2013, didn’t lead any scoring drives but probably did enough to make the 53-man roster as the Steelers’ No. 3 quarterback. 

No Steelers player battling for a roster spot made a particularly compelling argument to stay with the team beyond 4 p.m. ET Saturday, the NFL deadline for finalizing 53-man rosters. 

Brad Wing looked like he was on his way to nailing down a roster spot after pinning the Panthers deep in their own territory several times. Then the Aussie unleashed a 25-yard clunker, something that will make the coaches ponder whether Wing is consistent enough to be trusted. 

Players such as Wing have made their final argument as far as making the team. 

The Steelers’ coaches and front office personnel will meet on Friday to start paring down the roster and could make some cuts then, with the rest coming on Saturday. The Steelers have to cut 22 players to get to the 53-man limit by late Saturday afternoon. 

Some other thoughts from the Steelers’ fourth preseason game:
  • It was a very nice bounce-back game for starting outside linebackerJarvis Jones after the second-year man struggled a week ago in Philadelphia. Jones made his presence felt early against the pass and the run, and the Steelers coaches had to love his hustle after a snap sailed over the head of Panthers quarterback Derek Anderson in the second quarter. Anderson tried to pick the ball up, and when he couldn’t get a handle on it Jones made a diving recovery. He then got up and started to rumble downfield, drawing a personal foul penalty when former Steelers center Fernando Velasco dragged Jones down by his hair. Jones recorded three tackles, including one for a loss, and the fumble recovery before calling it a night.
  • If the Steelers only keep five wide receivers Justin Brown might be headed back to the practice squad. The wide receiver who created such a buzz during offseason practices caught five passes for 32 yards in four preseason games despite playing more snaps than any other Steelers skill player. Hard-charging Darrius Heyward-Bey caught six passes for 44 yards against the Panthers and solidified his spot on the 53-man roster even if the Steelers only keep five wideouts. His speed and experience -- and his production in the Steelers' final two preseason games -- will make Heyward-Bey too difficult to cut
  • David Paulson and Rob Blanchflower needed to beat Michael Palmer for the No. 3 spot at tight end, and neither was able to do it. Palmer had a couple of nice blocks early when the Steelers were able to run the ball, and the fifth-year veteran is solid on special teams. He solidified his spot on the 53-man roster, and Blanchflower looks like a strong candidate for the practice squad.
  • Cornerback Antwon Blake had played well before getting beat badly on a 53-yard catch by wide receiver Philly Brown, setting up the Panthers’ only touchdown. Blake will make the Steelers as a core special-teams player but Brice McCain has clearly established himself as the No. 4 cornerback assuming the groin injury he suffered against the Panthers isn’t serious.
  • The Steelers showed an interesting defensive look late in the second quarter. Josh MauroRoy Philon, Daniel McCullers and Ethan Hemer were up front with Vince Williamsand Terence Garvin as the only linebackers in the game. However, Shamarko Thomasplayed close enough to the line of scrimmage that it looked like the Steelers had their big nickel package on the field with four down linemen.

Panthers blank Steelers 10-0 in preseason finale

Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker Jarvis Jones (95) recovers a fumble by Carolina Panthers quarterback Derek Anderson (3) in the second quarter of a NFL preseason football game on Thursday, Aug. 28, 2014 in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Gene Puskar)