Saturday, August 27, 2016

Steelers' offense sizzles against Saints in Ben Roethlisberger's debut

Jeremy FowlerESPN Staff Writer 27, 2016

Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (7) works against the New Orleans Saints during the first half of an NFL preseason football game, Friday, Aug. 26, 2016, in New Orleans.
Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (7) works against the New Orleans Saints during the first half of an NFL preseason football game, Friday, Aug. 26, 2016, in New Orleans. (Butch Dill/AP Photo)

Read more here:
NEW ORLEANS -- So that's what the Pittsburgh Steelers' offense looks like.
After weeks of injuries, a player suspension and spotty preseason football from the reserves, the Steelers walked their stars onto the Mercedes-Benz Superdome field and dissected the New Orleans Saints' defense as if it was routine, like lunch or a nap, in a 27-14 win on Friday night.
These were not routine numbers, preseason or not: 12-of-17, 148 yards, two touchdowns on two drives for Ben Roethlisberger in his first action of the preseason.
Roethlisberger connected with six different playmakers on his first eight completions, including a 5-yard score to Jesse James off a scramble to cap a smooth 15-play, 74-yard drive.
Nothing like the Saints' defense to boost morale -- Landry Jones tore it up, too, completing 12 of his first 15 passes for 116 yards and a score -- but the performance was impressive, and much needed.
The Steelers are at their best when in the no-huddle offense like on that first drive, Roethlisberger said. In that set, Roethlisberger calls plays from the line of scrimmage along with offensive coordinator Todd Haley.
"I think our base offense is going to be uptempo," Roethlisberger said.
Le'Veon Bell was a tease, because he looked explosive coming off knee surgery, and now he's out until late September because of the three-game suspension for missed drug tests. His ability as a receiver (five catches, 37 yards) reminds that he can help offset the losses of tight end Ladarius Green (ankle) and Martavis Bryant (suspended). Save his second-quarter fumble on 3rd-and-18 -- and he rarely fumbles -- Bell looked excellent.
Bell, who split snaps with DeAngelo Williams and played well into the second half, said he felt he showed he was back.
"Get hit, get tackled, go to the ground a couple of times, shake the rust off a little bit -- it felt good," Bell said. "I definitely still felt a little rusty."
And don't sleep on this fact: Roethlisberger threw to new slot receiver Eli Rogerson four of his first 14 attempts. It's obvious that he trusts Rogers, who finished with two catches for 17 yards.
There were no questions that the Steelers would have a potent offense in 2016. But as Roethlisberger's 57-yard teardrop to Antonio Brown for a touchdown reminds, this group is good enough to thrive despite a few moving parts.
Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown (84) runs against New Orleans Saints cornerback P.J. Williams (25) during the first half of an NFL preseason football game, Friday, Aug. 26, 2016, in New Orleans.
Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown (84) runs against New Orleans Saints cornerback P.J. Williams (25) during the first half of an NFL preseason football game, Friday, Aug. 26, 2016, in New Orleans. (Butch Dill/AP Photo)

Read more here:
QB depth chart: Roethlisberger left the game after two series and Jones deftly took over, hitting a streaking Markus Wheaton for a 36-yard play and finding Sammie Coates in the corner of the end zone for an 8-yard touchdown. Coates and Jones connecting is a positive sign after they struggled to connect a week ago, resulting in two interceptions. Jones looked much improved playing alongside some of the starters, which is to be expected, but that doesn't erase the four interceptions from the previous week.
Maybe that dude could start: James looked right at home with the first-team offense, catching three passes for 23 yards and a score. James isn't a downfield burner, but he has sure hands and is a huge target at 6-foot-6. His run blocking appears adequate most of the time. If Green is out awhile, James showed Friday that he can at least keep the position afloat.
Who got hurt?: Defensive end Cam Heyward (ankle) and right tackle Marcus Gilbert (elbow) both left the game and didn't return. Heyward was carted off, and Gilbert threw his helmet after his last play in the game. They are being evaluated. These are very important players whose injuries will be monitored closely. Safety Shamarko Thomas hurt his groin in the first quarter.
Surprise players who impressed: Reserve outside linebacker Anthony Chickillo was around the ball on almost every down he played. Tight end Xavier Grimble showed up at a crucial time in the race for a roster spot. Linebacker L.J. Fort forced a fumble on a running play early in the fourth quarter.
When it was starters vs. starters, the Steelers looked ...: Mighty comfortable. While the offense ran through the Saints, the defense acquitted itself well by allowing one first down on the Saints' first two drives. The Saints drove downfield on the third, but by then Pittsburgh had worked multiple backups into the rotation. On the Saints' first team's only touchdown, the Steelers had Willie Snead triple covered and he made a ridiculous catch. Hard to argue with that.
One reason to be concerned: The No. 3 cornerback role remains unresolved. Rookie Sean Davis has played most of the slot cornerback snaps, and though he's up to the challenge, the team drafted him as a safety. First-rounder Artie Burns has been out most of the preseason with a quad injury. The Senquez Golson injury hurts more by the week. That's why I'm not writing off the team potentially signing free agent Keenan Lewis if his health gets right. Or the team can take a chance on Donald WashingtonMontell Garner or Doran Grant.
Do it Tuitt: Defensive end Stephon Tuitt was active early in the game, getting past the Saints' line of scrimmage multiple times. James Harrison also applied quarterback pressure.
Big shot: The Steelers signed linebacker Vince Williams to a three-year deal this week in part because he's a physical tackler. But Williams earned a 15-yard penalty for a helmet-to-helmet shot on running back Daniel Lasco. Williams and Fort both connected with Lasco, resulting in a fumble.

Jordy Mercer hits grand slam, Pirates hold off Brewers 5-3

By Genaro Armas, Associated Press
August 26, 2016
Pittsburgh Pirates' Jordy Mercer watches his grand slam against Milwaukee Brewers starting pitcher Matt Garza during the sixth inning of a baseball game Friday, Aug. 26, 2016, in Milwaukee.
Pittsburgh Pirates' Jordy Mercer watches his grand slam against Milwaukee Brewers starting pitcher Matt Garza during the sixth inning of a baseball game Friday, Aug. 26, 2016, in Milwaukee. (Benny Sieu/AP Photo)

Read more here:
MILWAUKEE -- One big swing released a little frustration for Pittsburgh Pirates shortstop Jordy Mercer.
After an intentional walk loaded the bases for him with two outs in the sixth inning, Mercer hit his first career grand slam just over the wall in left-center to help the Pirates beat the Milwaukee Brewers 5-3 Friday night.
"Puts a little chip on your shoulder, for sure," Mercer said.
With runners on second and third with two outs, starter Matt Garza walkedFrancisco Cervelli to bring up the eighth-place hitter, Mercer.
Garza got ahead in the count 0-2. Then he hung a pitch over the plate.
"I floated a slider in there," he said.
He didn't get help from third baseman Jonathan Villar that inning. He committed errors on consecutive at-bats to open the sixth.
Villar bobbled a bouncer by Andrew McCutchen, then threw wildly to second after making a diving stab on Gregory Polanco's hard shot.
Starling Marte followed with an RBI double off Garza (4-6) to break a scoreless tie. Three batters later, Mercer connected.
"You take advantage of those opportunities," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "In the big leagues, if you want to be an elite team, those are opportunities you need to cash in on."
The Brewers rallied in the bottom of the sixth behind a three-run shot from rookie shortstop Orlando Arcia, his first in the big leagues.
Pittsburgh's problematic bullpen barely held on from there to back starter Ryan Vogelsong (3-3).
Domingo Santana popped out to end the game with the potential tying run at second.
Tony Watson escaped the jam for his ninth save. He had allowed a two-out single to Ryan Braun and a walk to Chris Carter, and they pulled off a double steal before getting stranded.
"The game boiled down to a couple of mistakes, a bad 0-2 pitch and that was the game," manager Craig Counsell said.
A pair of veteran right-handers, Vogelsong and Garza, kept the bats quiet over the first five innings.
Vogelsong won for the second time in three outings, allowing four hits in 5 2/3 innings while striking out six and walking four. He has a 2.48 ERA in five August starts.
"I've always been a guy that gets out of stuff, sometimes better than others," Vogelsong said. "Most of the time, get some traffic and make pitches and get out of it."
Garza struck out a season-high nine, but stomped off the mound after Mercer's two-out blast.
"That's a tough one to swallow for him over there," Hurdle said.
Villar was the Brewers' starting shortstop until a few weeks ago when top prospect Arcia was called up from the minors. Villar, who has 50 steals, is still working on the glove at third.
Arcia, known for his defensive prowess, got a huge confidence boost at the plate. He was hitting .182 coming into the night.
He pointed into the stands after crossing the plate. Somewhere in Miller Park, his sister and two friends were watching.
Arcia said teammate Martin Maldonado, who was on deck, told him to watch forJared Hughes to leave a sinker up in the zone.
Pirates: RHP Tyler Glasnow (shoulder) was scheduled to make his next rehab start on Saturday for Triple-A Indianapolis.
Brewers: RHP Junior Guerra (elbow) was scheduled to make on rehab start before returning to the team, likely when rosters expand on Sept. 1. Counsell said the team will likely move to a six-man rotation when Guerra returns. ... 3B Will Middlebrooks (right leg) will start a rehab assignment at Double-A Biloxi this week.
Pirates: RHP Jameson Taillon (3-3) has a 2.25 ERA over his last eight starts, going at least six innings in each game.
Brewers: RHP Jimmy Nelson (7-13) is 5-2 in seven career starts against the Pirates with a 2.55 ERA.
Follow Genaro Armas at:

Friday, August 26, 2016

McCutchen, Pirates win in 10th, end 9-game skid at Milwaukee

By Joe Totoraitis, Associated Press
August 26, 2016
Pirates Brewers Baseball-2
Pittsburgh Pirates' Andrew McCutchen watches his solo home run off Milwaukee Brewers starting pitcher Wily Peralta during the first inning of a baseball game Thursday, Aug. 25, 2016, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Benny Sieu)
MILWAUKEE -- Andrew McCutchen feels right at home in Miller Park.
McCutchen hit a home run and a pair of RBI singles through the shift, including the tiebreaker in the 10th inning as the Pittsburgh Pirates stopped a nine-game skid in Milwaukee, beating the Brewers 3-2 Thursday night.
He now has 44 RBI in 56 career games at Miller Park, his highest total at any opposing park.
"There's no (surprise) elements here," McCutchen said. "You get the same thing. You know what you are going to get. You know how the ball is going to look, regardless of the weather. There are really no elements unless you are playing a day game and the shadows start to creep in."
McCutchen, who came in batting .246, homered into the second tier of seats in left field off Wily Peralta in the first for his 18th home run of the season. He then hit an RBI single that beat the shift in the third.
"I know he hasn't had the great year that he normally has, but he's a force, no question," Brewers manager Craig Counsell said.
McCutchen's blast was the 26th career home run against the Brewers and tied with the Cincinnati Reds for his highest total against any single opponent.
Pinch-hitter John Jaso blooped a single off Carlos Torres (2-3) in the 10th, advanced on a sacrifice, took third on a ground out and scored on McCutchen's liner through the empty right side of the infield.
"Even when I'm behind in the count, I know I can still battle and get the job done," McCutchen said. "I was able to do that today."
McCutchen foiled the strategy that moved the second baseman behind the bag, leaving a huge gap between first and second.
"I'm just taking what they gave me," he said. "If they have a shift on, I'm a guy that hits the ball to all parts of the field. That's starting to show a lot more."
Antonio Bastardo (2-0) picked up the win in relief and Tony Watson pitched a scoreless 10th for his eighth save in 11 chances.
Chad Kuhl, making his first career appearance against Milwaukee, cruised through the first six innings -- allowing just two hits. However, he ran out of gas in the seventh.
Pitching coach Ray Searage made a mound visit after Chris Carter's one-out double and just before Nieuwenhuis stepped in. Whatever was said, didn't work.Kirk Nieuwenhuis hit Kuhl's first pitch into the seats in right to tie the score.Orlando Arcia doubled to end the 23-year-old rookie right-handers' eighth start of the season.
Kuhl thought that his slider deserted him in the seventh.
"It was going well for me all night," he said. "Then, it flattened out. I'm a human, not a robot. I wish I could throw it perfectly every time, but it happens."
Kuhl walked two, snapping his streak of no walks in his three previous road starts. He struck out five in 6 1/3 innings, his longest outing of the season and fifth consecutive time he went at least six innings.
With McCutchen's winning hit, the Pirates have won seven of Kuhl's first eight major-league starts.
Peralta was done after throwing 63 of 100 pitches for strikes in five shaky innings. He walked three and struck out five in his fourth start since rejoining the rotation on Aug. 9. He had been optioned to Triple-A Colorado Springs on June 12 after going 4-7 in 13 starts, including the season opener.
Marte stole his 43rd base of the season. The last Pirate to record more than 42 steals in a season was Tony Womack who had 58 in 1998.
Second base umpire Bob Davidson's out call on Starling Marte's attempted steal of second in the Pirates' fifth was overturned after a 2:34 review.
Pirates manager Clint Hurdle shared a story about ghosts at the team's hotel during his pregame session with the media.
Baseball players in the past have reported eerie encounters and strange happenings at the Pfister Hotel in downtown Milwaukee.
"I had a player call me one night assuring me of the fact that there is a ghost and it turned his TV on twice during the night," Hurdle said. "I actually had him come into my room to settle him down. Went back to his room for a while. Sat with him. The TV didn't come back on. I exited and everything was OK. I don't want to name names, but he's still playing."
Pirates: 3B Jung Ho Kang accompanied the team on the road trip. He's been on the 15-day disabled list since Aug. 20 with a left shoulder injury.
Brewers: RHP Jacob Barnes is scheduled to begin a rehab assignment at Double-A Biloxi on Friday. He's been on disabled list since July 27 with right elbow soreness.
Pirates: RHP Ryan Vogelsong (2-3, 2.98 ERA) makes his seventh start and 17th appearance when he faces Milwaukee for the first time this season. He is 4-0 with a 2.53 ERA in his last six appearances, including five starts, against the Brewers.
Brewers: RHP Matt Garza (4-5, 5.27) faces the Pirates for the third time this season. He is 1-1 with a 4.50 ERA in those two starts and overall, he is 3-4 with a 4.37 ERA in 11 career outings.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Pirates can't overcome Cole

August 24, 2016

Pirates pitcher Gerrit Cole labors through the fifth inning against the Astros on Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2016, at PNC Park. (Christopher Horner/Tribune-Review)

Say this much for Gerrit Cole, who suffered a career-high ninth loss Wednesday: When reporters trekked into the clubhouse to inquire about his latest failed start, he was right there at his locker, ready to face questions.
If only someone had answers.
What is wrong with the Pirates' presumptive ace?
I asked manager Clint Hurdle what he saw from Cole in the 5-4 loss to the Houston Astros, one in which Cole lasted just five innings and gave up seven hits and five earned runs. That makes it a mind-blowing 31 hits surrendered in his past three starts.
It's a good thing Cole's contract doesn't make him give back money by the hit. He'd be broke.
Anyway, what did Hurdle see?
“It's a big question,” Hurdle said. “Anything specific?”
Well, yes: Why did he struggle again?
“His overall command is coming and going,” Hurdle said. “Balls are elevated over the middle of the plate.”
Consistency. Command. The usual stuff. Nothing injury related that anybody knows of or is willing to admit. But, wow, have things changed. The Pirates were 23-9 in Cole's starts last season. They are 8-12 this season.
Does anyone swing and miss at his stuff anymore?
Can this team possibly make the playoffs with Cole scuffling like this?
On many nights last year, Cole was simply overpowering. On many nights this year, especially during an August swoon where his ERA is 6.07, he looks like a right-handed Jeff Locke.
“I'm just getting killed when I miss,” Cole said.
The Astros did almost nothing against Jameson Taillon and Ivan Nova the previous two games. The major difference Wednesday was Evan Gattis, who did not start the previous two games and made Cole wish he hadn't started this one, either.
With one on in the second — after Carlos Correa nearly hit Cole with a shot up the middle — Gattis launched a juicy fastball to the “S” in “PIRATES” in the center-field shrubbery, some 410 feet away. The boos came later, during the Astros' two-run fifth.
Cole has surrendered 41 hits in 26 23 innings this month. His flops have occurred at very bad times: with a chance to sweep a series (Reds); a chance to set up a sweep (Dodgers); a critical game against a fellow wild-card contender (Marlins); and now this, a chance to win a series against the Astros and somewhat salvage a six-game homestand that instead crashed and burned to 1-5.
Pitching coach Ray Searage was on an ESPN podcast with Buster Olney before the game and said his advice to Cole was to keep it simple.
“You set the bar so far up there that if you don't reach it every start, you think you've failed,” Searage said he told Cole. “And you're not failing.”
Actually, at this point, Cole is failing. He is failing his team badly.
Searage was right on this, though: Cole doesn't have to be lights-out dominant every time. That is unrealistic. But he does have to get deeper into games and not just “give his team a chance to win” but put it in position to win.
Right now, Cole is as big a reason as any that the Pirates are in position to lose out on a postseason bid — and the next week could be telling. First comes a trip to dreaded Miller Park, where the Pirates have lost nine straight games and are 19-68 since 2006.
Yes, 19-68.
I asked Hurdle if he has an explanation for the horrors that unfold there.
“They've played better than us,” he said. “And we're due. It's our time to do something there. It's easy to talk about. We need to go in there and play well.”
After Milwaukee comes a trip to Wrigley Field and a three-game set with the Cubs. The pitching matchup for the opener has a familiar ring to it.
Jake Arrieta versus Gerrit Cole. 
Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 FM. Reach him at

Ben Roethlisberger: The Most Evolved QB

Ben Roethlisberger is the only player of his era to dominate as both a sandlot-style playmaker and a cerebral field general

by Andy Benoit
August 23, 2016

Image result for roethlisberger august 2016


Ben Roethlisberger is the most underrated quarterback in the NFL. More precisely, he’s the most misappreciated quarterback. Almost everyone agrees that Roethlisberger is a superstar, but few seem to realize what makes him such a rare talent.
For the longest time, Roethlisberger’s greatness stemmed solely from the fact that he was the most physically gifted passer in the game. People marveled at the way he would shed would-be sackers and extend plays. Football insiders reallymarveled at how, after shedding those tacklers and extending the play, he would still make such accurate downfield throws (usually doing so while off-balance). Roethlisberger’s arm is as strong anyone’s. His precision accuracy is better than almost everyone’s. The fact that he can exhibit all this when things break down is breathtaking.
For a long time, Roethlisberger himself was often the reason things broke down in the first place. “Early on it was, Okay who’s my No. 1 receiver, who’s my No. 2 and that’s about all you had room for,” Roethlisberger told me when I visited the Steelers’ training camp this month. “It was: take the snap, if it’s there, get rid of it. If it’s not, make a play.”
Despite a long history of injuries, Roethlisberger hasn’t lost his playmaking magic at 34. But his game no longer relies on it. And that’s why he’s a markedly better QB now than he was in his 20s.
“As I’ve evolved I’ve been able to recognize and read defenses, change a play if necessary,” Roethlisberger says. “I’ve gotten comfortable enough in this offense that it even gets down to, Okay, I’m looking at this safety. What’s he doing? What are his eyes telling me? I think that’s just the comfort level with our offense that I can afford to do that.”
Reading not just a safety’s positioning, but something as detailed as his eyes, is one element of 500-level quarterbacking. Another is manipulating a safety withyour own eyes—or with your body language as a passer. Roethlisberger has become very adroit here, controlling defenders with his vision, with little rolls of the shoulder, subtle tilts of the helmet and, of course, various forms of his patented pump-faking.
“I think when I was doing the pump fakes early in my career, it was an attempt tothrow the ball,” he says with a laugh. “The throw’s not there, so it turns out looking like a great pump fake. But as you get older, as you understand defenses and your offense, you utilize it [as a weapon]. I want to continue to get better [with all of these physical passing nuances], so I watch Tom and Drew and Aaron and some of those guys to see, Okay what’s something little they do that maybe I can do with my game? That’s how you’re always improving.”
Like Brady and Brees, Roethlisberger’s command both pre- and post-snap has led to an influx in empty backfield formations for his offense. You frequently see the Steelers spread into a 3x2 set with nobody but the QB in the backfield.
“Usually it reveals defenses easier, it’s harder for them to disguise a blitz because they’ve got to cover people, so they’ve got to spread out. We do enjoy it because we feel we can go up-tempo with it and keep it moving fast. We can take our shots but also get the ball out quick.”
Never would anyone who studied Roethlisberger in the 2000s guess that he’d one day be talking about the game through this prism of intellect and discipline. He’s the only player of his era to be independently dominant as both a raw sandlot-style playmaker and as a controlling field general.
“You have to evolve with the times,” he says. “The longer you’re around, you find little tricks of the trade. Whether it’s in meetings, or even just impromptu meetings on the field. Or spending time with the backup quarterbacks that I’ve had. I’ve been very blessed with some great guys like that. I think all those things combined really helped me become more of a cerebral type quarterback.”