Tuesday, October 21, 2014
By Rob Rossi
Markus Wheaton hauls in a 35-yard touchdown pass from Ben Roethlisberger in Monday night's win over Houston. (AP/Gene Puskar)
Go big or stay home. That is the way the Steelers have to think, how they can make something of this season and a necessary mantra for their challenging course. There can be no Steelers football in January if the rest of October and all of November and December aren't about going big.
The offense has not always looked like the Steelers' attack of the past three seasons. There was actually a time when Ben Roethlisberger was allowed to throw the ball, and by that I mean he spiraled it downfield.
The Steelers were basically a top-five team in terms of average yards per pass attempt over the initial eight seasons of the Roethlisberger Era. They made the playoffs six times over that span, winning two Super Bowls, losing one and also falling short in an AFC title game.
Those eight years represent the second-greatest era in franchise history, topped only by those Super Steelers of the 1970s, and we probably took it for granted because it felt like there was a formula in place for the good times to keep going.
Actually, the formula was in place.
Then the Steelers switched their offensive philosophy, replaced coordinator Bruce Arians with Todd Haley and tried to party like it was 1999 when the offense was a bunch of “Bus” rides and short routes. Call the current approach whatever you want — coach Mike Tomlin offered the word “balanced” last week — but it's really running to set up the pass, and it had made for some nice looking numbers, just not the one that mattered.
The modern NFL may be about complicated offenses and defenses deemed successful by making stops only at the most opportune times, but there remains a simple way to win: stretch the field.
Only one of the past five Super Bowl participants has finished outside the top 10 in average yards per pass attempt, and those 2012 Ravens completely changed their attack plan — essentially turning loose quarterback Joe Flacco — after changing offensive coordinators late in that season.
The champion Seahawks and runner-up Broncos were second and third in average yards per pass attempt last season.
The Steelers were tied for 11th. The season before they were tied for 16th. They finished 8-8 each time, and it is no coincidence they reached the playoffs only once over the past decade when placing outside the top 10 in the NFL's most important offensive statistic.
Though he's been off with many throws this season, Roethlisberger has shown he can make the big pass play, including Monday night. Before facing the Texans, he was 11 of 18 for 222 yards with three touchdowns against zero interceptions on attempts between 20 and 40 yards.
So the fix for the Steelers is an easy one, right? Roethlisberger should forget the dinking and dunking that has become the hallmark of Haley's offense and start flinging that football.
Except, who could he trust to go deep and haul it in?
Antonio Brown is arguably the most dynamic player at his position, a wide receiver without limitations. (He even tosses touchdowns.) Opponents know this, and that is why Brown is consistently facing defenses designed to limit the damage he can cause. Brown gets his catches and yards, but teams are determined not to let him beat them.
That isn't an example of brilliant defensive scheming. It is an acknowledgement by defensive coordinators that the Steelers lack another consistently capable receiver.
Haley and Roethlisberger really needed more from Markus Wheaton, a second-season wide receiver with the experience of a rookie. Of course, it was a terrible decision by management to count on Wheaton as a No. 2 receiving option for Roethlisberger.
It would be ill advised to stick with Heath Miller's way of playing the tight end position. A majority of teams possess athletic tight ends who are primarily receivers. The Steelers need one or two of those, but that will have to wait until the offseason.
There is still this season to turn around, and the Steelers can do that the same way Roethlisberger turned around the Texans late in the first half.
He threw deep to Martavis Bryant, a rookie who ran past the coverage and under a 35-yard bomb.
Go figure, it worked. Let's see some more.
Rob Rossi is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at email@example.com or via Twitter @RobRossi_Trib.
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By Scott Brown
October 21, 2014
Brett Keisel returns an interception late in the second-half of last night's 30-23 win over the Texans. (AP/Gene Puskar)
PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Steelers made a statement Monday night, pulling their season from the brink shortly after boos had rained down on them in their own stadium.
Defensive end Cameron Heyward made an even bigger statement after the Steelers overcame an early 13-0 deficit and held off the Houston Texans 30-23 at Heinz Field.
Heyward, talking about the play of fellow defensive end Brett Keisel, said, "He turned back time. He was the best [No.] 99 out there."
Such a statement would seem ridiculous on the surface.
Keisel, who turned 36 last month, did not even re-sign with the Steelers until late August because of lukewarm interest from the organization. The other No. 99 in the nationally televised game was Texans defensive end J.J. Watt.
Watt is only the best defensive player on the planet and owns a list of NFL accomplishments that is longer than Keisel's beard.
Watt, as the Steelers could attest after improving to 4-3, can be contained only to a certain degree. The Steelers largely did a good job against the 6-foot-5, 289-pounder, and he still finished with three tackles, a sack, two quarterback hurries and a fumble recovery.
His stat line easily trumped the one turned in by Keisel.
His impact on the game, however, did not.
Keisel's fingerprints were all over one of the more bizarre stretches in the history of Heinz Field, one in which the Steelers needed just five plays and less than two minutes of possession to put together three touchdown drives.
That sequence changed everything -- maybe even the Steelers' season.
It seemed so out of place coming from a team that managed just two offensive touchdowns over its previous two games, against the Jacksonville Jaguars andCleveland Browns, that you half expected to see cows flying over Heinz Field at halftime.
Less improbable, though maybe only slightly so given how much the NFL is a young man's game, was Keisel making more of an impact on Monday night than Watt.
Keisel hurried Texans quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick into a third-down incompletion that forced a punt with the Steelers trailing 13-3 and just less than two minutes left in the second quarter. Two plays later, Ben Roethlisberger threw a 35-yard touchdown pass to rookie wide receiver Martavis Bryant.
After a takeaway by the Steelers defense led to another quick touchdown, Keisel turned in one of the plays of the game. With just more than a minute left in the first half, Keisel redirected a Fitzpatrick pass when the Texans weren't content to run out the clock and go into the locker room trailing by four points. After Fitzpatrick's pass clanked off the face mask of linebacker Lawrence Timmons, it landed in one of Keisel's ample mitts.
He started rumbling toward the end zone and made it to the 8-yard line. Two plays later, Roethlisberger found Le'Veon Bell for a 2-yard touchdown pass with 14 seconds to spare in the second quarter.
The Texans never recovered from that barrage of points.
After the Steelers survived a late rally and an onside kick attempt that almost went in the Texans' favor, Keisel was asked if the three-minute stretch at the end of the first half, which started with a field goal at the 3:08 mark and resulted in 24 unanswered points, saved the season. "I don’t know," he said, "It's still early [in the season] -- well, about halfway."
It is late enough for Keisel to know the Steelers have to start stringing together victories.
That is why he didn't plan on allowing himself or his teammates much time to celebrate a win the Steelers had to have on Monday night.
"We can't just win and lose one, win and lose one," Keisel said. "We've got to be able to have the same urgency after a win as we have after a loss."
Monday, October 20, 2014
By Chris Bradford
October 20, 2014
PITTSBURGH — It was late February last year and the Texans’ disappointing season was long over when an 18-second Internet video clip of J.J. Watt went viral.
The grainy images, the Zapruder film of hockey, showed Watt, a 6-foot-6, 290-pound behemoth, skating rather effortlessly across a dimly lit, empty rink, kicking a puck up to his skates before ripping a slap shot.
No one should have been surprised.
Just a few months earlier, another video revealed Watt’s exploits in a batting cage in Houston, crushing a home run deep into the left-field seats at Minute Maid Park.
Again, no one should have been surprised. Antonio Brown certainly wasn’t
Seven years ago, the Steelers’ star wide receiver and Watt were freshman teammates at Central Michigan. Brown didn’t know Watt as the dominating defensive end — or Verizon pitchman — that he is today. In 2007, Watt was … a tight end?
“He was actually pretty good,” Brown said. “Always competitive, thought he didn’t get enough balls. He was great.”
In his first four seasons in the NFL, Watt has been great there too.
Steelers left tackle Kelvin Beachum calls Watt “a freak.” Running back Le’Veon Bell, who played against Watt after he transferred to Wisconsin, calls him “a one-man wrecking crew.” Cornerback Brice McCain, a former teammate of Watt’s in Houston, says “J.J. plays at a different level than almost everybody else.”
Watt is certainly doing that this season, making a very compelling argument for league MVP, an award no defensive player has won in nearly three decades. He leads the Texans with four sacks, an NFL best 20 quarterback hits, six passes defended and an interception and fumble return for touchdowns. His three total touchdowns, in just six games, are the most by a D-linemen since William “The Refrigerator” Perry in 1985. According to Elias Sports Bureau, Watt is the just fourth player in NFL history and first in more than 50 years to have a TD reception, interception return and fumble recovery for a TD.
As much athleticism as he showed in those videos, though, Watt’s work ethic, speed and leadership are what set him apart, according to Brown.
“He was a leader from the first day we got on campus as freshmen,” Brown said. “He was leading all the rookies, getting us to the field to get used to the stadium, running 110s. Always rallying the group to be better.”
Brown can fondly reminisce about his old college teammate now, even saying that Watt was “just as huge, maybe even bigger,” as an 18-year-old. For the Steelers linemen, who’ll have to defend Watt, though, it’s no laughing matter.
The Steelers are desperate for a win, if only to rid themselves of the bad taste left by last week’s lackluster performance at Cleveland. One of, if not the biggest, keys to victory will be trying to contain Watt. Good luck with that. Many have tried and many have failed.
“He’s always in the right place at the right time,” Beachum said. “Finds a way to get to the ball, finds a way to bat balls down, finds a way to get to the quarterback, gets hits, does a great job of putting himself in the right position.”
Houston defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel moves Watt along the defensive line, meaning that almost every Steelers linemen will get their shot against the 2012 Defensive Player of the Year. Likely, he will require two blockers.
“We have to defend him,” right guard David DeCastro said. “He’s still a person, still a human being, still a ball player. He has bad plays too. Obviously, he has a ton of good ones but we’ve just go to go out there. We’ve got a great scheme, a great plan, we just have to go and execute it.”
For a Steelers offense that has been heavy on yards but light on scoring — two combined touchdowns in the last two weeks – Watt presents a challenge on the Monday night stage. Right tackle Marcus Gilbert said the Steelers should take it personally.
“You want to go up against the best because all eyes are going to be on you,” he said. “Every guy is going to see him on the line. If he’s lined up on my side, sure, I’ll be glad to have him.”
Sunday, October 19, 2014
By Dan Scifo
October 19, 2014
PITTSBURGH (AP) -- The much-maligned Pittsburgh Penguins' penalty killers provided the lift needed to back up an already-sizzling power play.
The Penguins killed a lengthy 5-on-3 just minutes before Evgeni Malkin and Patric Hornqvist scored power-play goals 55 seconds apart in the second period, helping Pittsburgh hand the New York Islanders their first loss of the season, 3-1 on Saturday night.
''They took some heat the last three games, but certainly tonight they came through big time,'' Penguins coach Mike Johnston said of the penalty killers. ''That was the turning point in the game, that 5-on-3 kill.''
The Islanders (4-1), who came up empty during a 5-on-3 of their own in the second, were the Eastern Conference's last unbeaten team.
''If you go back and look at our record when we don't score a 5-on-3 goal, it's not good,'' Islanders coach Jack Capuano said. ''We didn't capitalize on ours, and obviously they did. That's the difference in the game.''
Hornqvist, who assisted on Malkin's goal, added an empty-net tally with 1:20 left to seal the Penguins' win. It is the first time Hornqvist has opened a season with points in four straight games. He has a total of eight points.
- Seguin's late goal lifts Stars past Penguins, 3-2 The Associated Press
- Islanders-Penguins Preview The Associated Press
- Crosby picks up 500th assist as Pens halt Isles’ streak NBC Sports
- Penguins dominate Ducks 6-4 in Johnston's debut The Associated Press
- Islanders-Rangers Preview The Associated Press
Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby had two assists, including the 500th of his career. He joined Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr as the only Penguins with 500 assists, and he is the sixth-fastest to do it in NHL history.
Marc-Andre Fleury made 30 saves as Pittsburgh recorded its fourth straight win over the Islanders and the eighth in nine meetings.
Thomas Hickey staked the Islanders to a 1-0 lead in the first period, but New York failed to post its first 5-0 start. Jaroslav Halak stopped 35 shots.
The Penguins' penalty-killing unit, which ranked last in the league entering Saturday, went 6-for-6 and came up with two key third-period stops to protect a one-goal lead.
That wasn't the case Thursday when Dallas scored the winning, power-play goal with 2.9 seconds left.
The Penguins fended off the hard-charging Islanders, who nearly tied the game midway through the final period.
''I thought our penalty killers battled hard,'' Johnston said. ''(The Islanders) have a very good power play, but our penalty killers were outstanding.''
And they needed to be.
The game was a matchup between the NHL's top two power-play units and bottom two penalty-killers.
Pittsburgh entered with the best power play and worst penalty kill. The Islanders were second with the man advantage and 29th when short-handed.
The teams combined for eight penalties in 9:32 in the second period, starting with the Penguins, who committed four penalties in 3:21. Pittsburgh killed the Islanders' two-man advantage that spanned 1:26.
''The power play was ugly,'' Islanders captain John Tavares said. ''The second half of the game, we didn't generate much. We tried to mix things up, and it just seemed for whatever reason, we just weren't sharp.''
The Penguins got the next two-man advantage after Cory Conacher was called for hooking, and the Islanders were then caught with too many men on the ice.
Malkin tied it 1-1 at 13:49 when he put in a wrist shot from the left point, and then fired a drive that Hornqvist tipped past Halak with 5:16 left in the second.
''When you get a 5-on-3 like we had right after theirs, those are turning points,'' Johnston said. ''We scored and they didn't. That was the difference in the game.''
Pittsburgh outshot New York 16-10 in the opening period, but the Islanders held a one-goal lead.
New York scored 5:46 in when Ryan Strome, on a rush down the right side, found the trailing Hickey, who wristed a shot over Fleury's shoulder.
Special teams allowed the Penguins to make up the difference.
''We had to kill that 5-on-3. To get one of our own, put one in, and fire back to get another one was huge,'' Crosby said. ''We seemed to build a lot of momentum off of that.''
NOTES: Penguins F Pascal Dupuis played after leaving the ice on a stretcher on Thursday against Dallas when he was cross-checked and hit with a shot while he was down. ... Pittsburgh is 20-5-1 in its last 26 games against New York and 17-3 in its last 20 home games. . The Islanders return home Tuesday against Toronto. Pittsburgh will wrap up a three-game homestand Wednesday against Philadelphia.
Saturday, October 18, 2014
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
October 17, 2014
Mike Webster in 1984 (AP/Al Golub)
The film in which Will Smith portrays Dr. Bennet Omalu features a story with deep Pittsburgh roots.
Mike Webster’s Hall of Fame career playing for the Pittsburgh Steelers boasted four Super Bowl titles, unrivaled strength and toughness and — afterward — health issues that led to an early death at age 50. It was Dr. Omalu who discovered severe brain damage in Webster at the Allegheny County coroner’s office.
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette first wrote of Webster’s health and financial problems in 1997. We dug the story out of our library and published it online for the first time. It’s an insightful read about the downward spiral that led to his early death and was likely caused or made worse by chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE.
Those letters are now all too familiar to the National Football League, but that has only become the case within the past decade.
This page is filled with links to Post-Gazette stories illustrating Pittsburgh’s connection to the story of the NFL and brain damage (and now the Will Smith movie filmed in and around the city).
David Morse cast as Steeler Mike Webster in Will Smith movie (Oct. 10, 2014)
New extras casting call on Oct. 18 for Will Smith movie (Oct. 7, 2014)
Filming in Pittsburgh, Will Smith football movie needs extras (Sept. 23, 2014)
Football, brains and science
Long-term brain damage at heart of huge NFL lawsuit (May 14, 2013)
Part 2: Scientists hunt for ways to untangle damage of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (May 13, 2013)
Chris Henry's mother 'surprised' at findings (June 29, 2010)
Ron Cook: This game is serious (June 29, 2010)
Experts warn about repeated brain blows in football (June 28, 2010)
Update on concussions & the NFL (June 16, 2007)
Suicide ruling in Long's death hasn't ended controversy (Jan. 26, 2006)
Ron Cook: Webster's legacy is much greater today (Sept. 25, 2012)
1980 strong-man show portended steroids rage (Jan. 30, 2003)
200 offer final tribute to Steelers' Webster (Sept. 28, 2002)
Steelers Mike Webster at center of long line of excellence (Sept. 25, 2002)
Obituary: Mike Webster, Steelers Hall of Fame center, dies at 50 (Sept. 25, 2002)