Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Steelers Having Protection Problems


Wednesday, November 29, 2006
By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette


Add another goal for the Steelers as they play out the string of five games: Do not let the quarterback get maimed.

How to keep Ben Roethlisberger healthy, happy and upright the rest of the season is a job that will fall on many people, including the quarterback.

NFL defenses sacked Roethlisberger 36 times in the 10 games he played. That's six more times than he was sacked last season and 13 times more than he was decked as a rookie.

Only one Steelers quarterback was sacked more in a season in the previous dozen years and that was Tommy Maddox, who was sacked 41 times in 2003 (Neil O'Donnell also was sacked 41 times in 1993). Only two Steelers quarterbacks have been sacked more often since the 1970 NFL merger -- Bubby Brister 45 times in 1989 and Cliff Stoudt 51 times in 1983.

At Roethlisberger's rate of 3.6 sacks per game played, he would hit the team's modern-day record in the next five games -- if he can last that long. He's listed as probable this week with an injury that came when halfback Willie Parker blew a blocking assignment and linebacker Bart Scott blew into Roethlisberger, bruising his chest. Roethlisberger left for one play but returned to finish the game.

"Ben wanted to be out there," Steelers coach Bill Cowher said. "It's one of those situations where you don't want to not be out there with the rest of your teammates who are out there fighting and battling. There's a lot to be said about that. ... I wasn't going to put him out there if there were risks medically. He fought through it like everybody else fought through it."

Scott's was the most brutal of Baltimore's nine sacks of Roethlisberger. That tied a Steelers record since the sack became an official stat in 1982 (12 is the team's unofficial record).
"The big hit he took, we actually repped that in practice," Cowher said. "Willie stepped up instead of stepping out. He should have taken the guy coming off the corner. Willie should have had it protected."

Roethlisberger took the blame for many of Sunday's sacks and Cowher tended to agree with him. He said he missed some "hot" routes, where a receiver will recognize a blitz and break off his route so the quarterback can get off a quick pass and avoid the sack.

"We didn't take advantage of that," Cowher said. "It's a risk-reward kind of thing. They took the risk but they got all of the reward. We really didn't hit the opportunities we had to make some big plays when we did that.

"There are other times where he should have thrown the ball away before he took the hit. There was a combination of all of those things."

The best way to protect the quarterback, though, is with a good running game and the Steelers have not had that consistently this season. Parker ranks third in the AFC with 915 yards and has a 4.4-yard average but the Steelers are only 17th in the NFL with 107.6 yards per game. They have run just 39.7 percent of the time, down from 57.2 percent last season.

"There's no question we've got to do that more effectively," Cowher said. "We've been playing a lot of catch-up and getting behind early. You want to stay with the running game and we probably abandoned it a little too soon the other day. I think the biggest thing is trying to put ourselves in the situation where we're not playing from behind the entire day."

A look at what transpired on offense in the first quarter in Baltimore shows the problems the Steelers had: Two passes on the first series around a 2-yard loss by Parker; a 12-yard run by Parker to start their second series, followed by two Parker runs for no gain and an incomplete pass; two runs by Parker for a total of 5 yards on the third series along with four passes and a sack for minus-11 yards.

The lack of production on first downs often left the Steelers with third-and-long and the Ravens blitzing.

"When you look at the third downs in the first half, we were 0 of 5," Cowher said. "But we didn't have one third down that was less than 10 yards. We had sacks. We had no-yard gains on first and second downs. Then we had three consecutive sacks on second down that led to third-and-longs.

"There's no question that you need just to get positive yards, just to get it back to manageable situations. Otherwise you're getting third downs and you're seeing us complete a 14-yard pass on third-and-19 because you just can't hold the ball against that type of team in that situation long enough to be able to get that many yards.

"There's no question, first and second down has a lot to do with that."

(Ed Bouchette can be reached at ebouchette@post-gazette.com. )

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

An Analysis: Steelers feasted on spoils of Super Bowl win, lost their hunger


Tuesday, November 28, 2006
By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

More Coverage:
Steelers Notebook: Pride is the only thing on the line now
Ward has surgery on knee
Namath remains a big draw, despite admitted flaws
Gene Collier: Count Cowher among those who should go

The Steelers acted this year as do many Powerball winners: They celebrated their good fortune, then went out and blew all of it.

There are as many theories about what happened to the 2006 Steelers as there are sacks of Ben Roethlisberger. The assumptions target coaching, the quarterback, the line, the pass rush, the turnovers, injuries, motorcycles, bad luck, the Campbell's Soup commercial jinx, the "cheap" owners, NFL schedule makers and that $2.5 million home in Raleigh, N.C.

It may be something that on one hand is much simpler and on the other far more complicated. It may be that the Steelers enjoyed being Super Bowl champions so much after coming close for so many years that they just forgot what it took for them to win it. One veteran player recently described it as "overconfidence."

And here is what Deion Sanders, former Super Bowl winner, said about the Steelers this week on the NFL Network:

"You have to understand when you win the Super Bowl you can't just mosey into town because everyone knows you're coming. They can't handle their success."

That would fall in the realm of human nature. It's why writers have one best seller and can't reproduce it, or rock groups become one-hit wonders, why there are few duplicate Nobel Prize or Pulitzer Prize winners. It's a reason Super Bowl victors rarely repeat. Not only is it difficult to do, but once you've done it, you have "arrived."

As one member of the 2006 Steelers said, even if they have a losing season, they cannot take the Vince Lombardi Trophy away from them. If you had asked each member of the 2005 Steelers if they would accept a losing season in 2006 to win the Super Bowl in 2005, each would make that deal. It does not mean they had to have a poor 2006 season, but it is a way of explaining it.

Willie Parker said it after the Steelers fell to 2-6, that they weren't as hungry this season as they were last. Again, that's human nature; it's tough to stay hungry when your appetite has just been sated.

Somehow, Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots found a way to stay hungry, but those around the 2002 Patriots will say they acted very much like the 2006 Steelers; they were full of their first Super Bowl victory from the previous year.

The Steelers had come so close to getting to a Super Bowl the past decade -- a game they had not won in 26 years -- that maybe once they won it, the end of the journey was like taking the Nestea Plunge, pure relief, and then a soaking. They had AFC championship games at home after the 1997 season, 2001 season and 2004 season and lost each of them. Finally, they won a Super Bowl like no one ever had before, by winning three playoff games on the road to get there.
It was a single-minded purpose after they slipped to 7-5 last season. Nothing else mattered to them other than winning their next game. When they finally had a chance to look up, their next game was the Super Bowl in Detroit, where they did not play their best game but their opponent, Seattle, complied by playing worse.


The natural reaction after such an accomplishment that eluded them for so long would be to let out one big "Ahhhhh," before plopping down in the easy chair with their feet up.

There may have been nothing Bill Cowher could have done to prevent that kind of attitude and neither he nor ownership could deny the players, coaches and the rest of the organization the spoils of victory: The ring ceremony, the visit to the White House, the various commercials and trips. Cowher did his best to pooh-pooh his purchase of a new home in North Carolina, but when that news broke in March, it became an issue that would not go away.

Overconfidence, the veteran pointed out, is tough to combat and it can undermine a team in ever-so-slight ways: Not paying attention to detail, not working as hard, not playing with what Ward liked to call that chip on their shoulders. That can show up in small ways, such as a fumble here or there, a missed blitz pickup, a pass that should not have been thrown. Suddenly those close games they were winning in 2005 turn into losses. Those losses mount and the frustration rises until -- poof -- everything peaks in a 27-0 loss, a performance the coach calls "pitiful."

As a result, the Steelers not only find themselves helplessly out of a playoff race but bailing water to avoid either their worst record in Cowher's 15 seasons as their coach, or the worst record by any of the 40 defending Super Bowl champs, which Denver holds after going 6-10 in 1999 after John Elway retired.

Cowher was asked Sunday how he will keep his players in the rest of the games.

"It is the same thing everyone is dealing with at this point," Cowher answered briskly. "There are people that are 4-7. We have a responsibility to play and to play as hard as we can play."

It's not just a responsibility to the league, either. There's a duty to the fans, to those who pay their salaries and to their young players who are learning how a franchise under duress reacts in tough times. Their quest to repeat as Super Bowl champs ended Sunday in Baltimore; the job of winning another Lombardi Trophy starts today.

(Ed Bouchette can be reached at ebouchette@post-gazette.com.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Gene Collier: Ravens' defense turns 'Big Ben' into 'Bent Ben'


Monday, November 27, 2006
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

BALTIMORE -- Ravens defensive coordinator and auxiliary genius Rex Ryan, correcting the notion that his team blitzed the Steelers 80 percent or 90 percent of the time in yesterday's architecturally perfect shutout, claimed it was more like half the time.

"Sometimes," he said, "we'll give you the illusion of a blitz."

The thunderclap lick that linebacker Bart Scott put on Ben Roethlisberger in the second quarter?

Uh, that was no illusion. The lone element about it that could be described as even distantly vague was that No. 7 somehow didn't get knocked into Chesapeake Bay.

"I was 30 yards downfield and I heard it," said Baltimore linebacker Terrell Suggs, "but Bart's been doing that since he's been here. That's why he's the mad backer."

Though Scott's sack brought Charlie Batch on stage for one play while Bent Ben visited Woozytown, it was but one bold swatch in the brilliant emblem of violence delivered by Scott's defensive teammates, who were perched on Roethlisberger like a murder of crows all the live long day.

"It's just good to put Pittsburgh out of its misery," Scott said in a pleased Ravens locker room. "When you can do that, it's gratifying."

To fully absorb the dominant scope of the ninth shutout in Ravens history, their second against the Steelers, you needn't go much further than this: Baltimore's defense generated more negative yardage in sacks (73) than the positive yardage compiled by the Steelers' leading rusher and leading receiver combined (71).

Beyond that, the dismissal of the defending Super Bowl champions from 2006 relevance by an archrival with legitimate Super Bowl intentions was essentially Revolution No. 9.

There were nine sacks by the Ravens, which tied a nine-year old team record and the Steelers' record for most sacks allowed in one game (9) set in the ninth month of 1994. In addition to the nine sacks, the Ravens had nine "hurries." When Roethlisberger was upright long enough to throw, nine of his 21 completions went for 9 yards or less. Moreover, the only time in the Steelers' first nine possessions that Bill Cowher's team did not punt, Roethlisberger had the football knocked away by blitzing cornerback Corey Ivy, with linebacker Adalius Thomas swooping to the fumble and toting it 57 yards to the third quarter touchdown that made it 24-0. It was the kind of play that'll get ya beat nine times out of 10.

"I had my ankle all taped up, but when you see that end zone, the adrenaline starts to go," Thomas said. "On this defense, we don't look to just get a turnover. We're looking to get a score."
Thomas' loping run down the Baltimore sideline was the Ravens' fifth defensive touchdown of the season and 19th since 2003. No NFL team can match that. The Ravens talked as if this one was extra special, as it was triggered by the 5-foot-9, 188-pound Ivy, who had been hampered by injury this season.

"I don't know that I've ever been around a tougher player than Corey Ivy," said Ravens head coach Brian Billick, and that's a mouthful.

Ivy literally defies description, as you can see from this attempt by Ryan:

"Corey's one of the toughest cats in the league; he's a bulldog out there."

Well which is it?

Baltimore's near flawless coverage in the secondary was getting credited with a monstrous assist in the sack orgy, but defensive end Trevor Pryce, who floored Roethlisberger twice, had a supplemental explanation for why so many Ravens wound up in the Steelers' backfield.

"I think it was that they have a lot of confidence in their linemen, and they don't really keep a lot of people in to block," Pryce said on a day when the Steelers added three more to the stinking pile of turnovers that leads the league (30). "If we're bringing seven and you've got five blocking, that's not working."

It wasn't as if the Steelers had a lot of options offensively. Willie Parker was in full road mode, meaning he was averaging barely 2 yards per carry. At home, he averages 5.5. Even in deploying the no-huddle offense that clicked so loudly last week at Cleveland, the Steelers were 1 for 12.

Against the NFL's second-ranked defense (Chicago's is first), the Steelers coughed to three first downs in the first half and did not penetrate Ravens territory until 5:47 remained in the third quarter, a mere 116 minutes after the opening kick. Roethlisberger eventually led them all the way to a first down at the Ravens' 10. In the next four plays, he was only sacked twice, the second coming on fourth-and-goal courtesy of Mr. Suggs, seconds after Nate Washington dropped a touchdown pass. That's three of those, if you're counting.

The more startling stats, though, were in the nearly exclusive jurisdiction of the Baltimore defense, the nine sacks for 73 yards, nine hurries, two interceptions, two forced fumbles, one returned for a touchdown, the sum of all those numbers represented best by the zero after Steelers on the scoreboard.

"Coaches get a game ball if there's a shutout," Ryan said eagerly.

"But you know, we shut out Tampa and we still haven't gotten that ball."

It was probably intercepted.

(Gene Collier can be reached at gcollier@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1283. )

Bob Smizik: Mystery Solved...Steelers Bad


Monday, November 27, 2006
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

BALTIMORE -- The final score was 27-0, a margin of victory that is not unexpected when one of the best teams in the National Football League plays one of the worst.

And that's precisely what the Steelers are -- one of the worst teams in the NFL. That's not an opinion, it's a fact, and it's one borne out by their 4-7 record and their performance yesterday, a humiliating loss to the Baltimore Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium.

There was a time when this Steelers team had us fooled. Through September, October and much of November, they were a mystery team. We couldn't figure out how the defending Super Bowl champs could play so well one week, so poorly the next. There was no explaining the avalanche of turnovers that kept costing them games. Surely, this would even out. Beyond doubt, they would rally to make a run at the playoffs.

But after 11 games, and most particularly after this most recent game, we know precisely what's wrong with the Steelers. They're not a mystery team at all. They just not very good.

"A pitiful performance," said coach Bill Cowher at the opening of his postgame news conference, and that summed it up to near-perfection.

"I accept full responsibility," Cowher continued. "They outplayed us, they outcoached us."
Really, no one should have been surprised by this outcome.

Overlooked in the euphoria of the comeback win against Cleveland last week was that the Steelers not only came close to losing to a hapless opponent but they were unable to run the ball against one of the worst run defenses in the NFL. If they had trouble competing with the Browns, how could they expect to compete with the Ravens, who are proving themselves to be one of the elite teams in the NFL?

No one should look at this result and consider it a by-product of a magnificent Baltimore defense. Although great linebacker Ray Lewis is still around, this Ravens' defense is not in the same class with the one that won Super Bowl XXXV. In their five games previous to this one, the Ravens held only one opponent to fewer than 20 points. This shutout was, in fact, the equal responsibility of a very good Baltimore defense and a very poor Steelers offense. The Steelers have been held without a touchdown in seven of the past eight quarters.

Once again, the Steelers gave up early on the run. Willie Parker carried the ball only 10 times for 22 yards.

It has become more clear with almost every game that offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt is losing confidence in Parker, and that's understandable. Although Parker gives the Steelers the big-play back they've never had, he doesn't give them the ball-control runner that has been the key to the team's success in the Cowher era.

With Parker pretty much out of the game -- six carries in the first half, four in the second -- the offense fell to Ben Roethlisberger, and the Ravens were relentless in hunting him down.
Roethlisberger was sacked nine times and intercepted twice. He completed 21 of 41 passes for 214 yards and had a miserable passer rating of 46.2. His fumble, while back to pass late in the third quarter, was picked up and returned 57 yards for a touchdown by linebacker Adalius Thomas.

That score, at 3:04 p.m., not only ended the game, it ended the season for the Steelers.

What had to be particularly galling to the Steelers was the way the Ravens dominated them by running the ball. Time and again in the first half, Baltimore backs Jamal Lewis and Ovie Mughelli punished Steelers tacklers with powerful hits that gained them extra yards and enabled them to control the game.

In the first half alone, Lewis bullied the Steelers for 61 yards on 13 carries and Mughelli 17 yards on three carries.

"That felt like old times," said Lewis, once one of the most feared backs in the NFL but now clearly in decline. "When the lanes open up like they did, it's just you and the safeties and you and the corners, so you have to deliver that punch and make it easier for the third and fourth quarter."

Steelers inside linebacker Larry Foote had never seen anything like it. "That wasn't Steelers football," he said. "One of those drives in the first half, the way they went down and scored, I've never been a part of that here."

But it was Steelers football yesterday. The team that answered the challenge every time for eight weeks last season, could not muster a decent effort when the season was expiring.

"We didn't show up today," Hines Ward said. "We had guys with their heads down. That's very uncharacteristic."

Ward was asked why, with so much at stake, could the team be so not ready to play.

"I can't speak for other guys," he said. "I don't know. That's why I took all the extra steps [to recuperate from an injury] because I wanted to play in this game. But we went out an laid an egg. We didn't show up. For what ever reason, they wanted it more than us."

(Bob Smizik can be reached at bsmizik@post-gazette.com. )

Sunday, November 26, 2006

John Harris: Ravens-Steelers rivalry has stood test of time


Additional Stories
Brown: Steelers must beat Ravens
Prisuta: AFC North less than Super
Ravens, Steelers trash the insults
Q&A with Charlie Batch
The key matchup: Sams vs. Steelers special teams
Steelers sign Young

John Harris
PITTSBURGH TRIBUNE-REVIEW
Sunday, November 26, 2006

Todd Heap begat Joey Porter, who indoctrinated Heap to the explosive Steelers-Baltimore Ravens rivalry two years ago.

Porter begat James Trapp, who two years earlier did unto Plaxico Burress what Porter would later do to Heap.

Lee Flowers begat Hines Ward, who begat Chris McAlister, all three of whom set the Trapp-Burress brouhaha in motion that ultimately laid the groundwork for the Porter-Heap set-to.

Bill Cowher begat Brian Billick, and if you don't know why the respective coaches for the Steelers and Ravens don't exchange Christmas cards, you'd better ask somebody.

What makes the bare knuckles rivalry between the 4-6 Steelers and 8-2 Ravens the equivalent of Ike and Tina Turner, Tanya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan, and assault and battery, will be on display today when the AFC North combatants meet at 1 p.m. inside M&T Bank Stadium.

Last year, following a 16-13 overtime loss to the Ravens, Cowher told reporters, "These two teams have a genuine dislike for each other, and that makes for a good football game.''

In a league of 32 teams whose rosters change annually because of free agency and the salary cap, the Steelers-Ravens rivalry stands the test of time.

To understand why the Steelers and Ravens hatred for each other goes well beyond a mere football game, you must first understand the dynamics of the personalities on both teams, beginning with the coaches.

Cowher and Billick have both coached Super Bowl champions -- Cowher last year, and Billick in 2000. Both men are fierce competitors who rule their teams with an iron fist. The players reflect the personality of their coaches.

"It's Pittsburgh. It's a rivalry,'' Billick once said of playing the Steelers. "That's why you play the game.''

In 2002, Cowher complained to the NFL office that the Ravens were playing fast and loose with the injury report when Baltimore starting quarterback Chris Redman didn't play because of a back injury he suffered the Friday before the game. Cowher said he wasn't notified of Redman's injury until Sunday.

"It is something to inquire about because it is the Ravens,'' Cowher said.

Turnabout was fair play when Porter shoved Heap at the end of the first half of the Ravens' 30-13 win over the Steelers in 2004, the Steelers only loss in a 15-1 season.

Billick expressed his anger when Heap, who twisted his ankle on the previous play, took his spot on the line as quarterback Kyle Boller prepared to spike the ball. As the play started, Porter knocked down Heap, who was forced from the game and didn't return.

Porter insisted that his hit on Heap wasn't a cheap shot. Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis said he would pray for Porter. McAlister responded by calling Porter a name you can't use in a family newspaper.

Since the Ravens moved to Baltimore in 1996, the teams have played 20 times. The Steelers lead, 13-7.

The Steelers dominated early in the series, winning five straight from 1997-99 (including winning both meetings in '97 and '98). The Steelers have won the season series three times, the last time coming in 2002; Baltimore has never won the season series. Both teams split in the year they won the Super Bowl. In the only playoff meeting between the teams, the Steelers won, 27-10, in a 2001 divisional game.

To understand the psyche of the players who follow the lead of their fiery coaches, you must go back in time to understand that both teams are mirror images of each other.

Both teams won NFL titles with dominating running attacks and bruising defenses. And both teams feature hard-hitting, trash talking players such as Porter, Lewis and McAlister who refuse to back down from a challenge.

So, is it any wonder that when Ward was asked recently about the Steelers rivalry with the Cleveland Browns, he replied, "The two cities hate each other. But as far as players hating each other, I don't think it's so much of a rivalry that way. Baltimore's the team you despise or hate the most.''

But Ward was only mimicing the words of Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs, who two years earlier told reporters, "We're Pittsburgh's kryptonite.''

All hell broke loose in the second quarter of the Steelers 31-18 win over the Ravens four years ago when Trapp intercepted a Steelers pass and was tossed out of bounds by receiver Antwaan Randle El.

Ward got into it with McAlister and Flowers, and others. Burress, another Steelers wideout, ended up on the ground and Trapp jumped on him with both feet and yanked Burress' helmet off his head. Trapp and Burress were ejected, Burress, ironically, for not wearing his helmet that an opposing player removed.

Cowher sent a video of the incident to the league office in New York.

Toss the records out the window when the Steelers and Ravens square off today.

Some of the names and faces have changed, but this year's renewal of the NFL's nastiest rivalry figures to live up to all the pre-game hype.

John Harris can be reached at jharris@tribweb.com or 412-481-5432

Saturday, November 25, 2006

John Harris: Linebacker Farrior a high-impact defender


Additional Stories
Point, counterpoint: Do Steelers have enough left in the tank?
Prisuta: Ben returns to site of his debut
Prisuta: Cornerbacks could be rotating again
Steelers notebook
Brown: Run game struggling on the road
Steelers notebook
Brown: McNair's will to inspire
Brown: Ward plans to be in lineup

John Harris
PITTSBURGH TRIBUNE-REVIEW
Saturday, November 25, 2006

In case you haven't noticed, Steelers inside linebacker James Farrior has revved up his game recently.

Defensively, outside linebacker Joey Porter leads the team in colorful quotes (to go along with five sacks, second on the team behind fellow outside linebacker Clark Haggans' 5 1/2). Safety Troy Polamalu is all over the field; he also has that cool long-hair look going.

Farrior lacks Porter's bombastic personality, or Polamalu's flair. But he's a defensive cornerstone.

Farrior had a dream game in the Steelers' 24-20 win at Cleveland last week. He had 12 tackles (one sack) and two quarterback hurries. It was the third straight game Farrior led the Steelers in tackles, and his third straight double-digit tackle game.

The Steelers always receive a strong effort from their linebackers, but none stronger than Farrior. If Porter is the heart, Farrior is the soul of the unit.

"I've been doing some things well, but there's a lot more things I can improve on to help this team win," Farrior said.

Let's try this again, shall we? Farrior finished second on the team in tackles last season with 113 despite missing two games with a knee injury. He also led the Steelers in tackles in 2004 (119) and 2003 (127). In 2001 with the New York Jets, he compiled 175 tackles. With six games remaining this season, Farrior leads the Steelers with 95 tackles and is easily on pace to surpass last year's total.

Farrior has been a ferocious hitter and relentless in his pursuit of ball carriers. He always seems to be in good position to make a play.

"I don't think it's bad," said Farrior, a 10-year veteran who's tied for the team lead with five tackles for losses and also has five passes defended, four quarterback hurries, three sacks, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery. "I wouldn't say it's good or great, but I'm doing my job."
Farrior said it's impossible to separate his individual accomplishments from the Steelers' 4-6 record.

"Last week I had a missed tackle. And I had a mental error. When you're not winning, the margin for error is less and less," Farrior said. "If we were in a different situation, I feel like I'd be having a good season."

Now, that's more like it.

Farrior isn't afraid to toot his own horn. But playing for the Steelers -- who enter Sunday's game against AFC North rival Baltimore with their dwindling playoff hopes on the line -- has taught him there's a time and place for everything.

Now is neither the time nor place for individual bravado. Winning a Super Bowl can change your perspective on a whole lot of things, and that includes placing team goals ahead of personal ones.
"I really feel fortunate to be in this situation," Farrior said. "When I first got here, I didn't know what to expect with this team.

"It's been a lot more than I expected. Coming from the Jets, it's a whole different animal. This team is a lot closer. I didn't really get that feeling when I was with the other team."

Unfortunately, the Steelers' up-and-down play in 2006 has created a sinking feeling of opportunity lost. But Farrior views the Ravens game as a chance for the Steelers to make amends and salvage what's left of their season.

If not now, when? If not the Ravens, who?

"It's got all the tools to be a great game," Farrior said of Sunday's 1 p.m. kickoff at M&T Bank Stadium. "It's already a division rivalry -- they're leading the division. It's an away game. It's got everything you want. It's got all the intangibles."

Farrior's job just got harder because of Baltimore quarterback Steve McNair, who has provided his new team with leadership and late-game heroics.

"He makes a world of difference for the whole team," Farrior said. "It looks like they play with a lot more confidence now on the offensive side and the defensive side. Everybody knows he's going to be calm and relaxed if they're down. He's made some comeback drives at the end of games to win for them. That really sets their team apart from what they were in the past."

Simply put, the Steelers need Farrior to have another one of those high-impact games he's been turning in more often than not.

John Harris is a sports writer for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He can be reached at jharris@tribweb.com

Friday, November 24, 2006

Dave Molinari: Penguins Progress Report


A Progress Report: Penguins' record, play bears little, if any, resemblance to last season
Friday, November 24, 2006
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette


Related articles
Penguins Notebook: Crosby's status for game today remains unclear
Penguins Q&A with Dave Molinari

There are many ways to measure the progress the Penguins have made in the past year.
You could do it with their 20-game record -- 10-7-3, after being 6-8-6 at the same point in 2005-06.

You could do it with the point total that record represents -- 23, an obvious upgrade on the 18 they had after 20 games in 2005-06.

You could do it by noting how they've pared their goals-allowed total from 83 to 63, or bumped up their goal output from 60 to 65.

Or you could ignore all the numbers and simply watch them play because, most of the time, that's all it takes to recognize how different things are.

"You can see there's a big improvement," defenseman Sergei Gonchar said. "Not only in the standings, but in the way we're playing. The system is there, the effort is there every night, pretty much. I guess that's why we are where we are."

Where they are as they close out the first quarter of the season -- technically, it will end midway through the second period of their game at 2:08 p.m. today on Long Island -- is in the middle of the Eastern Conference playoff race.

They are tied with the New York Islanders and Tampa Bay for eighth place in the East, and will have to be there -- or higher -- when the season ends if they are to qualify for the playoffs for the first time since 2001.

But it says something about these Penguins that when they talk about challenging for a spot in the playoffs, no one snickers.

Of course, no one did in late November last year, either. But that was mostly because no one even remotely rooted in reality would not have dared to suggest such a thing was possible.
This season, however, their 20-game record projects to 94 points; Tampa Bay claimed the final Eastern spot in 2005-06 with 92.

"There's no doubt we're happy [with the first quarter]," coach Michel Therrien said. "When we started the season, we said we wanted to be part of a group that was going to battle to make the playoffs. That was our goal, and we're right there."

Numerous factors have contributed to the Penguins' solid start. Some of the biggest include:

* Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, who has elevated his game significantly and is performing with a consistency missing in previous seasons. He has a 2.82 goals against average and .912 save percentage after finishing 2005-06 at 3.25 and .898.

* The play of second-year center Sidney Crosby, who is poised to make a serious run at the NHL scoring championship, and rookie Evgeni Malkin, who has made a seamless transition to North American hockey. They form a 1-2 punch down the middle that eventually could rival the finest in hockey history.

* A team-wide commitment to better defense. Fleury's performance is a huge factor, but so is the structure introduced by Therrien and the willingness of players to work as hard to prevent goals as they do to produce them.
"When we started the season, we knew that if we were going the same way we did last year, we were going to get killed," Therrien said.

Although they've avoided that, the Penguins do have some blemishes that could sabotage their season. Prominent on that list is:

* The failure of their wingers to generate goals. First-line right winger Colby Armstrong, who doesn't have any, is the poster boy for this problem, but right wingers Mark Recchi and Michel Ouellet are the only non-centers to score as many as six. That's not enough, especially with set-up men like Crosby and Malkin.

* Their penalty-killing, which is steadily sliding down the league rankings. It is the ninth-worst in the league, with a success rate of 81.4 percent, and is particularly ineffective on the road (72.6 percent). With so little margin for error, the Penguins can't afford to lose an undue number of one-goal games because of subpar penalty-killing. Being the most-penalized team in the East (18 minutes per game) doesn't help.

* Modest depth. The profound impact Mark Eaton's dislocated wrist has had on their penalty-killing and overall defense underscores the shortage of solid defensemen in the organization, and if they had wingers in the minors who were good bets to score at this level, they'd be up by now.

Whether any of those will push the Penguins out of playoff contention remains to be seen. It hasn't happened yet, though, and that's unmistakable evidence of progress for players who endured so much defeat and disappointment last season.

"We're not last in the standings," Fleury said. "We're right there."

(Dave Molinari can be reached at DWMolinari@Yahoo.com. )

Polamalu, Reed are new breed of safety


Friday, November 24, 2006
By Gerry Dulac, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Related articles
Steelers Notebook: Ward takes another day off, hopes to play Sunday
Ed Bouchette's Daily Question
Anderson: Bryant still making wrong moves

It is not the type of showdown that will attract the attention of Peyton Manning vs. Tom Brady, LaDainian Tomlinson vs. Larry Johnson, Chad Johnson vs. Steve Smith.

But, when the Steelers play the Baltimore Ravens (8-2) Sunday in M&T Bank Stadium, Troy Polamalu and Ed Reed will be on the same field, two All-Pros redefining how the safety position is played in the National Football League.

They are the best at what they do, even though their styles are different. At a size much smaller than other players, they control a defense, dominate a game, dictate to other quarterbacks what they can or cannot do on any given play.

They make big plays look ordinary and turn ordinary plays into big events. They are so good that, despite their many and, at times, varied talents, one team wouldn't think of trading one for the other.

"You throw the word unique around too often in this game and sometimes unjustifiably so," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "But those two players are unique."

"One thing about both of these players, they're both very instinctive," coach Bill Cowher said. "They have great instincts and a great feel for the game. That's what separates them from other safeties."

Indeed, Polamalu and Reed are a breed apart, separated by a chasm from just about every other safety in the league.

Polamalu, a strong safety, has been a Pro Bowl selection in each of his first two years as a starter and was named All-Pro last season. Reed, a free safety, has been to the Pro Bowl every year except 2005, when injuries caused him to miss the final six games of the regular season. But he was the NFL's defensive player of the year in 2004 when he led the league with nine interceptions and set an NFL record with 358 return yards, which includes a 106-yard interception return.

Since 2002, Reed is second among active players with 24 interceptions. His 702 return yards are more than any other player and proof of his big-play ability.

"He's the best," Polamalu said. "He does everything great. He always does. He's truly in a league of his own."

Funny. The Steelers say the same about Polamalu.

He does not have as many interceptions as Reed -- Polamalu has 10 in his career, though he leads the team with three this season -- but he sometimes can impact the game more because he plays closer to the line of scrimmage, allowing him to influence run and pass plays.

His performance in the second half in the second half of the comeback victory in Cleveland last week, including a dominating three-play sequence in the fourth quarter, was vintage Polamalu. Afterward, linebacker Larry Foote said Polamalu "showed the little something extra he has inside him that the rest of us don't have."

"He uses his talent to the fullest," cornerback Bryant McFadden said. "You get a chance to watch him a little bit and see how he makes plays, and the effort he gives is unbelievable.
"I wouldn't say it's a level that a lot of people can't reach, but he's so passionate for the game. And his explosion is something you really can't teach that a lot of people don't have. The way he combines his skills and his passion and his explosiveness, you put all that together you have a heck of a ballplayer."

Funny, The Ravens say the same about Reed.

He has been an impact player since he was the 24th overall pick in the 2002 draft. He averaged 33.4 yards per return on five interceptions and also blocked two punts as a rookie. He followed that with seven picks and two more blocked punts in 2003 before being named the league's top defensive player in 2004.

"You're either born with it or you don't have it," said Steelers rookie defensive tackle Orien Harris, who played with Reed at the University of Miami. "They both drink some kind of water. I don't know what it is. I'm trying to get me some."

Reed is the ringleader of a Ravens defense that leads the league with 18 interceptions. He is one of four players with two interceptions, but he has such an explosive move to the ball that Cowher already issued a public warning to his quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, who has thrown 10 interceptions in the past four games.

"Ed Reed is a guy that, if [Roethlisberger] stares someone down, he will get there before the ball gets there."

"I think he's one of the true free-safety ballhawks," Polamalu said. "He seems to be comfortable in every situation. He makes plays. It's hard to do that."

Watch them on the field Sunday. See how Polamalu and Reed change the complexion of a game.
Notice their greatness. Pay attention that, in a game that features defenders such as Casey Hampton and Joey Porter, Ray Lewis and Adalius Thomas, they are the most dominant players on the field.

"You might see unbelievable plays," McFadden said. "You might see Troy run backside and take a guy down and pop the ball out and you might see a guy like Ed Reed block a punt, pick it up and return it. Both of them have big-play abilities, and they have used it throughout their careers."

(Gerry Dulac can be reached at gdulac@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1466. )

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Steelers Notebook: Steelers, Ravens Thrive on Hatred


Thursday, November 23, 2006

By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Sunday won't be a game between two teams that just don't like each other. Hate is more like it when the Steelers and Baltimore Ravens get together twice annually.

"The coaches hate each other, the players hate each other," Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward said, almost gleefully.

"There's no calling each other after the game and inviting each other out to dinner. But the feeling's mutual: They don't like us, and we don't like them. There's no need to hide it, they know it, and we know it. It's going to be one of those black and blue games."

Ward said Baltimore is the only team in the NFL he hates. Not even Cincinnati evokes such a strong emotion. "No, I like those guys," Ward said.

Ravens coach Brian Billick thinks Ward went too far to describe the rivalry.

"Hatred is a little strong," Billick said. "I think there is a huge amount of respect that I have alluded to many times. As heated as this game gets -- and it gets heated -- two seconds after it is over and once the players come together, watch them interact with one another.

"I think hate is a little strong of a word, but it is a pretty strong emotion from the kickoff to the last down."

The chairmen of the emotional boards have been linebackers Joey Porter of the Steelers and Ray Lewis of the Ravens. It reached a pinnacle in the 2003 opener at Heinz Field, even though Porter did not play after he was shot in the rear end the previous week. Lewis mocked Porter's famous boot after making a play in a 34-15 Steelers victory. Porter was so incensed he tried to call Lewis off the Ravens' bus afterward.

The two have made up.

"Whatever happens out there happens, but afterward I have no problem with him," Porter said. "We buried the hatchet awhile back. On game day, I don't know what might happen."

Lewis missed the past two games with a back injury and is listed as questionable for the Sunday game against the Steelers.

"I know he had that planned, to sit out so he would be ready for this one," Porter said. "If there's one game you want to be back for, you want to be back for this rivalry game because it's always a close game and it means a lot when us two hook up."

Ward feels better

Ward said he won't try to practice until tomorrow, but that he felt good yesterday. He's listed as questionable with a hyperextended knee.

"I'm walking, so that's better."

Ward was injured when Cleveland Browns safety Sean Jones fell on him after he caught a 21-yard pass on the Steelers' winning touchdown drive in Cleveland. He finished the game, then was helped off the field and into the locker room.

"Adrenaline," he explained. "Just a will to keep going, keep fighting."

He has that kind of will, he said, to play Sunday. Ward has missed just one game in his career, last year because of a hamstring injury.

"It's Baltimore, man. I'm going to do whatever it takes."

Running back Najeh Davenport (groin, questionable) and cornerback Deshea Townsend (ankle, probable) also did not practice. Wide receiver Willie Reid (foot, doubtful) practiced a little for the first time since his injury Oct. 8.

Lots of significance

The Ravens (8-2) can virtually eliminate the Steelers (4-6) from playoff contention with a victory, and the visitors know that.
"No question," Porter said. "So it's a desperate game for us, it's a must-win, a have-to-have game. Guys know it's a state of emergency."

Honor for Holmes

Santonio Holmes won the NFL rookie of the week award after catching five passes for 75 yards and his first pro touchdown against the Browns Sunday. He leads all AFC rookies with 29 receptions. Fans vote for the award online.

Late-breaking statistics

Backup defensive end Travis Kirschke earned his third sack and second forced fumble yesterday from the league statisticians at Elias. The stats crew in Cleveland ruled it a team sack and gave the forced fumble to no one on what was an obvious play by Kirschke, who stripped the ball from quarterback Charlie Frye

Monday, November 20, 2006

Gene Collier: Roethlisberger gives Steelers temporary relief from all that trouble


Monday, November 20, 2006
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

CLEVELAND -- With a first-half passer rating that looked more like a birth weight (6.4), with a suddenly chronic inability to even throw off the correct foot, with an operationally defective offense that gagged on its first seven possessions and hacked through most of the first three quarters, Ben Roethlisberger still never got the feeling the Steelers were in trouble at Cleveland Browns Stadium yesterday.

Well, that was one of us.

"He was off," offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt said. "I don't know if it was the ball, the rain ..."

The season ... the year.

"Whatever it was," Whisenhunt finished, "what matters is he came back."

This, for future reference, is why you don't go to Charlie Batch at halftime.

Roethlisberger overcame three first-half interceptions with some kind of complete psychic inversion, going 18 for 29 for 224 yards and two touchdowns in a fourth quarter that included touchdown drives of 87, 79 and 77 yards.

That it was all barely enough to beat the Browns, who haven't won two games in a row in more than three years, didn't seem to matter all that much in a relieved Steelers locker room.

"It was a gutsy effort by Ben," coach Bill Cowher decided in the minutes after a 24-20 victory that had all the aesthetic appeal of the miserable Cleveland afternoon. "I don't know if we've dug ourselves too big a hole and maybe we have, but these guys are still playing and they're playing hard."

Cowher said he was glad the offense "got unglued." He meant "unstuck," but unglued was the better choice for most of this affair. Against the 30th-ranked run defense in the NFL, the Steelers ran for all of 77 yards on 20 carries, with Willie Parker back to averaging 2.9 after his 213-yard performance a week ago against New Orleans. Generally when you have three consecutive possessions end with interceptions, when one is returned for a touchdown and a kickoff is returned for a touchdown as well, you're going to lose in the very way the 2006 Steelers have grown so accustomed to losing.

But it was just about at that point, when Joshua Cribbs returned a Jeff Reed kick 92 yards for a touchdown and immediately drew an excessive celebration penalty (tell me, somebody, what is there to celebrate excessively with these two teams?), that someone on the Steelers' offense finally took a look around and asked a very useful question: Wait a minute, aren't these the Browns?

Oh boy, were these the Browns.

On the Steelers' next possession, in the minutes after Cleveland had erected its second 10-point lead of the game with only 9:21 remaining, the Browns committed three personal foul penalties on eight plays, one for yanking Roethlisberger's facemask, one for pulling Parker's and one for hauling Hines Ward down by the collar. That drive, which pulled the Steelers to within 20-17, was twice sustained by clutch catches on the part of rookie Santonio Holmes.

"I guess he was motivated by the Ohio State win [Saturday]," Roethlisberger said. "He dropped one early but I told him, 'Forget about it, I'm coming right back to you.' I'm getting more confidence in him every week."

Holmes, who had five catches for 75 yards and his first pro touchdown, jump-started an offense that was gradually figuring out that an unusual reliance on crossing patterns from the no-huddle was the key against the Browns' secondary, particularly in the fourth quarter.

"I've got to give these receivers a lot of credit," Roethlisberger said. "They were getting tired running all over the field, and when I'm scrambling, they really don't know what's going on. They've got to be careful not to block in the back, there's a lot to remember in that situation. They're the ones making plays in that situation. I'm just running around throwing it."

While he was whipping another to Holmes for 15 yards and a first down a couple of minutes later, Browns linebacker Kamerion Wimbley rode him into the turf and appeared to injure Roethlisberger's right shoulder.

Roethlisberger walked dramatically to the sideline at the two-minute warning, where Cowher asked if he could throw.

"What if I can't?" Roethlisberger said.

"I'll put Charlie in," Cowher said.

"I can throw," Roethlisberger said.

Two plays later, Roethlisberger whipped an 8-yard strike to Holmes on third-and-6, and three plays after that, Wimbley was back on him, putting his right paw right on Roethlisberger's front number, but the quarterback who had thrown so many awkward passes in the first half had one more awkward pass left. He got his right arm free and scrambled left, shoveling one to Parker inside the 5 on which Parker turned and leaned into a winning touchdown.

"Things weren't going well for a while," Roethlisberger said, "but I never got the feeling, you know, that we were in trouble."

Maybe that's the kind of lens you need to play quarterback in this league. But they were in trouble, and as it happens, they still are.

(Gene Collier can be reached at gcollier@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1283. )

Ron Cook: Polamalu's play on a higher level


Monday, November 20, 2006
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

CLEVELAND -- In one marvelous three-play sequence late in the fourth quarter yesterday that went a long way toward determining a winner in the Steelers-Cleveland Browns game, Steelers safety Troy Polamalu showed why he's the NFL's best defensive player.

Or, as teammate Larry Foote put it, "He showed the little something extra he has inside him that the rest of us don't."

There was Polamalu's closing speed -- unmatched in the league -- that enabled him to run down Browns quarterback Charlie Frye for a sack and no gain on the Steelers' sideline.

There was Polamalu's extraordinary instinct to get to the football -- honed by hours of film study -- that enabled him to slice through the left side of the Browns' offensive line to tackle running back Jason Wright for a 2-yard gain.

And there was Polamalu's fabulous athletic ability that enabled him to pull up on a blitz and time a leap just right to bat down Frye's pass for tight end Kellen Winslow.

Three plays and out for the Browns when a first down or two could have meant the game.

The Steelers took over and scored the touchdown that gave them a 24-20 win and delayed the removal of life support on their teetering season for at least another week.

"I've been playing football a long time and I've never seen anyone make plays like he makes," Foote said of Polamalu. "I'm seeing plays that I'll never see again."

Here's the best part of Polamalu's day:

His three plays came at the most crucial time, but he made others that also amazed. After Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor gambled and lost trying to break up a Frye sideline pass for wide receiver Braylon Edwards in the second quarter, Polamalu ran down Edwards after a 63-yard gain to save a touchdown and, ultimately, four points that would have been huge at the end. But his best play might have been the way he closed to the sideline to tackle tight end Steve Heiden after a 6-yard gain on a third-and-7 play early in the third quarter. No other NFL player could have prevented that first down.

"I don't know if even Michael Johnson or some of the other great sprinters in the world have Troy's speed for 10 yards," Foote said. "There's nobody else as fast as he is for those first 10 yards."

Foote grinned and shook his head, then said something so quietly it almost was if he didn't want anyone to hear, like he feared he would be giving the rest of the NFL some sort of advantage with knowledge of his little nugget.

"Troy gets even faster on game day ...

"That's his will, his want-to."

Polamalu's performance was all the more remarkable because it came a week after he was concussed early in the game against New Orleans. That injury didn't draw quite the same attention that Ben Roethlisberger's concussion did a few weeks earlier, but it probably should have. Polamalu is as valuable to the Steelers' defense as Big Ben is to the offense.

"We've got the best doctor in the country, maybe in the world," Steelers coach Bill Cowher said of team neurological surgeon, Dr. Joseph Maroon. "If he says a player is not at risk, that doesn't just put my mind to rest. It puts Troy's to rest."

Polamalu said he never considered not playing yesterday. "That was my mind-set the whole time. You've got to approach it that way or you'd never be prepared to play at the end of the week."

The Browns certainly wish Polamalu had taken the day off. Winslow said as much before the game when he called him "phenomenal."

"He's the best player I've ever seen at safety. He's on a different level."

It was just that way until the final play of the game when Polamalu leaped higher than a man 5 feet 10 has a right to leap to get a hand on Frye's desperation pass in the end zone. It was just enough of a deflection to keep Edwards from making a miraculous catch.

"He's just one of those few guys in the league who's special," Steelers defensive end Aaron Smith would say moments later.

"I'm talking about guys like Randy Moss, Reggie Bush, Troy ... You see them, you see they have something special. They have a little different speed, a little different talent, a little different something.

"A gift from God. That's what it is. A gift from God."

Amen.

(Ron Cook can be reached at rcook@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1525. )

Bob Smizik: Pirates' fans find offseason depressing

Sunday, November 19, 2006
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

There are bits and pieces of baseball in the newspaper every day, and almost all are nothing but downright discouraging and disheartening to the ever-shrinking band of black-and-gold bleeders who believe the Pirates' day will come.

The Chicago Cubs sign Aramis Ramirez to a five-year, $73 million contract. Wouldn't Rammy, who grew up in the Pirates' organization, look sweet hitting behind Jason Bay? But, of course, that's impossible. As recently as 2003, the Pirates couldn't afford the $6 million Ramirez was due the next season. Although the giveaway of Ramirez was the most spirit-crushing event of the McClatchy-Nutting ownership era, in retrospect, it only jump-started the inevitable. The Pirates cannot afford players the stature of Ramirez.

Those same Cubs, the only team in the National League with a worse record than the Pirates, sign backup catcher Henry Blanco to a two-year, $5.25 million contract. That's chump change for the Cubs, but a major expenditure for the Pirates.

The Central Division champion St. Louis Cardinals sign clearly declining outfielder Jim Edmonds to two-year $19 million contract, vastly more money than the Pirates couldn't afford to pay to keep Ramirez.

On the Pirates' Web site the other day, readers wanted to know about the chances of the club signing veteran pitchers Greg Maddux or Jeff Suppan. Ed Eagle of MLB.com let these bug-eyed optimists down easily, gently informing them there is not even a miniscule chance of the Pirates paying those kinds of salaries or those kinds of players wanting to play for the Pirates.

The Boston Red Sox pay $51.1 million, more than the Pirates' entire payroll, for the rights to negotiate with Japanese pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka. No truth to the rumor the Pirates bid was $850,000.

We could go on and on, and it's enough to pose this question:

Which is the most depressing time of the baseball year in Pittsburgh: The season or the offseason?

Our vote is for the offseason. During the season, the Pirates won 41 percent of their games. That stinks, but at least it meant you almost had a 50-50 chance of them winning if you showed up at PNC Park or tuned them in. Beyond that, it was pleasant to see the development of players such as Freddy Sanchez, Mike Gonzalez, Zach Duke and Chris Duffy.

There are no such plusses in the offseason. Not only are we reminded daily by the news that the Pirates can't compete, when they do sign a player, invariably, it's the wrong signing which raises false hope and costs the team money that could better be spent elsewhere.

This column always has been of the belief there was a small window of opportunity some day for the Pirates. We don't believe that anymore.

One of the reasons is because of the message the ticket-buying public sent to the Pirates last season when 1.86 million purchased tickets to give the team its fifth-highest attendance in history. By their willingness to spend money to watch a 14th consecutive losing season and by showing up in astonishing numbers late in the season, these people told Pirates ownership exactly what it wants to hear:

We don't care how many games you win, just keep the fireworks and the bobbleheads coming.
Those are words Bob Nutting, the team's bottom-lined devoted chairman of the board, loves to hear. It's a message that tells the Pirates they don't have to increase their payroll significantly, just continue with those snazzy promotions.

What this means is there's not only no chance the Pirates will sign a high-profile free agent, but they are not likely to go after such a player in trade. Why should they? They sell tickets without the inconvenience of carrying high-salaried players.

General manager Dave Littlefield will be active in the trade market this offseason, but he's not likely to be dangling some of his best players: Bay, Duke, Sanchez, Gonzalez.

An historical note for Littlefield. What might be the three most important Pirates trades in the past 50 years involved the team trading one of its best players.

After the 1958 season, the Pirates traded right-handed slugger Frank Thomas, coming off a 35-home run, 109-RBI season, for Harvey Haddix, Don Hoak and Smoky Burgess. These three veterans helped turn a contender into a world champion two years later.

In November 1986, the Pirates traded Rick Rhoden, who had won 15 games, and in return got a package that included young Doug Drabek. The Pirates had a top-of-the-rotation ace and future Cy Young winner who would power their three division titles.

In April 1987, the Pirates traded Tony Pena, generally regarded as their best player, for three unproven players, Andy Van Slyke, Mike LaValliere and Mike Dunne. A weak club was on its way to becoming a division champion.

The point is this: You want to get quality players, you have to trade quality players. Jose Castillo and Paul Maholm will not fetch players who can significantly upgrade the Pirates. Jason Bay and Zach Duke, like Frank Thomas, Tony Pena and Rick Rhoden before them, can.

But it's not going to happen. There simply is no pressing need from within the organization for the Pirates to get better. It's all about fireworks and bobbleheads.

(Bob Smizik can be reached at bsmizik@post-gazette.com.)

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Team Monitors Polamalu's Concussion

[We will continue to see head injuries like the one suffered by Mr. Polamalu until the epidemic of a certain style of tackling is wiped out. The "head-down/head-first" mode of bringing down ball-carriers (more often known as "spearing" not so long ago) currently in vogue at the professional level is extremely dangerous and fundamentally unsound. Even as children we were taught to always see what we were tackling. The Steelers' Tyrone Carter caused a game-ending fumble last Sunday against New Orleans with a similarly dangerous tackle and then proceeded to lay motionless on the ground for several minutes before awakening to grins and backslaps. What if he hadn't gotten up? Would that game-saving tackle have been worth it? Concussions and spinal cord injuries will continue to occur at ridiculous rates until a broad shift in technique takes place. - jtf]

Additional Stories
Q&A with Joey Porter
Polamalu may play despite sixth career concussion
Point, counterpoint: Should Steelers worry about offense or defense
Steelers notebook
Harris: Cowher says Steelers have 'long way to go'
Brown: Steelers DBs hurt, struggling
Slumping defense remains a major worry to Steelers
Steelers notebook
Browns, Edwards quickly set sights on Steelers
Brown: Parker runs wild in win
Polamalu leaves game with concussion
Harris: Parker makes amends

By Mike Prisuta
PITTSBURGH TRIBUNE-REVIEW
Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Sometime in the five plays between Troy Polamalu's collision with Reggie Bush and Drew Brees' touchdown pass to Terrance Copper, Steelers coach Bill Cowher suspected something was wrong with the All-Pro strong safety.

Cowher's fears were confirmed when Polamalu came to the sideline after the Saints' first touchdown in the first quarter Sunday afternoon. The Steelers quickly determined Polamalu had suffered a concussion.

During that five-play sequence, Polamalu executed a unique interpretation of the Steelers' scheme.

"We had called another defense," Cowher said. "We were wondering why (free safety) Ryan (Clark) was covering the receiver and Troy was covering the tight end.

"I think that was why. He just went to the tight end, and I don't think he was ready to discuss why he should have been on the slots. Ryan did a good job of kind of covering for him."

Polamalu is listed as questionable for Sunday's game at Cleveland.

Despite the concussion, the sixth Polamalu has suffered, he was where he was supposed to be most of the time before leaving the game.

"He wasn't 'out of it' out of it," Cowher said. "He was just confused on one defense.

"I looked at him in the first half. Troy could still talk to you about a lot of things. It just wasn't about football at that time. He wasn't really ready to talk about the game."

Polamalu has a history of concussions, although he hadn't suffered one prior to Sunday since the Steelers traded up to draft him 16th overall in 2003.

His first was sustained when he was a freshman in high school, and the second occurred during his junior year. At USC, Polamalu suffered concussions as a freshman, as a sophomore and in fall camp before his senior year.

"I know he hasn't really had anything since he's been here," Cowher said.

The Steelers had Polamalu undergo a neurological exam before drafting him.

Team doctors will check him out again this week before a determination can be made about his status for the Browns game.

"He'll do some testing again (today)," Cowher said. "He feels better, but, again, this will be a decision to see that he stays asymptomatic as it relates to the game Sunday."

Cornerback Deshea Townsend and safety Tyrone Carter suffered concussions against the Saints, and both have been cleared to return, Cowher said. Townsend (ankle) is questionable.

Polamalu has played in 57 consecutive games since joining the Steelers and has started 41 in succession. That streak appeared to be in jeopardy when Polamalu suffered a shoulder injury in the Steelers' season-opening win over Miami on Sept. 7. He played wearing a shoulder brace for the next three games.

Mike Prisuta can be reached at mprisuta@tribweb.com.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Roethlisberger on pace to set Steelers records


Tuesday, November 14, 2006
By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

More Coverage:
Steelers Notebook: Parker made a successful run at few team records

One of the seven or so players who stood up at the Steelers' Saturday morning meeting was quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. It should come as no surprise considering that he stood up to everything thrown at him all year, from emergency medical procedures to calls for his benching.

Now it's Roethlisberger's turn to do the throwing, and he has done a much better job of it lately. In the past five games, he has compiled a more Big Ben-like passer rating of 101.4 compared to his overall 78.1. During that time, he has 1,474 passing yards, 10 touchdowns, 7 interceptions and completed 70 percent of his throws.

Clouded by the team's record and his high interception total, Roethlisberger is on target to produce the most prolific season by a passer in club history.

He has thrown for 2,043 yards in eight games, an average of 255.4 yards per game. Over the course of 15 games, that would produce 3,830 yards. Terry Bradshaw holds the team record with 3,724 yards in 1979.

Roethlisberger also is tearing through the personal standards he set in his wildly successful first two seasons as a pro. He has thrown for 998 yards the past three games, by far the most he has produced in a three-pack. This, after he threw for 433 yards against Denver Nov. 6, the second-highest total in club history.

It also marked the first time in his career he had consecutive games of more than 300 yards -- he had just two such games in his first two seasons. He has gone over 200 yards in his past seven games. He did it six times last season before the playoffs, and topped 200 four times as a rookie.

Also, for the second time in four games, Roethlisberger threw three touchdown passes. He had one three-touchdown game before this season.

All in all, coach Bill Cowher is happy with his quarterback's performance.

"It was good to see him accurately throwing," Cowher said after Sunday's 38-31 victory against New Orleans at Heinz Field. "He's played pretty well throughout the year except for those one or two throws."

Roethlisberger's high total of 14 interceptions this season is perplexing to Cowher and his offensive staff because it's something Roethlisberger did not do his first two seasons in the league, when he threw a total of 20. He started the season by throwing seven interceptions and no touchdown passes in three games, all losses.

He followed that with two nearly perfect games against Kansas City and Atlanta, before he was knocked out of the Falcons' game with a concussion in the third quarter. He threw for a lot of yards -- 734 -- against Denver and Oakland but also had seven interceptions. Cowher absolved him of two of his three interceptions against Denver and Roethlisberger followed that with none against the Saints.

Roethlisberger, though, has readily accepted blame all season and he did it again Sunday.

"This is a team and a franchise that's used to winning games. For us, not winning and for me to not play well and to think it's been my fault -- it was important to come out and get this win and not turn the ball over."

He also refused to take credit for Sunday's victory, refusing even to say it was his best performance of the season.

"I think it was just a good game all around for all of us," Roethlisberger said. "I think our line played great -- they gave us a lot of time. There were maybe one or two sacks, but the one sack was my fault. I should have gotten rid of it.''

(Ed Bouchette can be reached at ebouchette@post-gazette.com. )

Monday, November 13, 2006

Rebuilt secondary saves the day


Monday, November 13, 2006
By Gene Collier, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

When the coin toss came up tails in the Heinz Field grass yesterday, referee Bill Carollo asked the Steelers what was, given the circumstances, a fairly probing question.

"Do you want the ball?"

Apparently there was no immediate response.

"Do you want the ball?" he said again.

"Well," the Steelers' captains must have thought collectively, "not really. We'll probably just give it away anyway."

But for some reason, the Steelers elected to take the ball, and for some reason evidencing a dramatic change of karma, they succeeded in protecting the ball all day, and for mostly that reason, they won for a change.

But it was a lot more complicated than that.

Facing a smoking New Orleans offense that finished just to the civil side of 400 passing yards, defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau overcame a deconstructed secondary and put together a pass defense with chewing gum and chicken wire at halftime, a point by which Drew Brees and Reggie Bush and Marques Colston and their able cohorts already had scored three touchdowns for a seven-point lead that felt like 30.

"We had to keep our composure," said cornerback Bryant McFadden, who did not start in lieu of Ike Taylor despite that widely held assumption but played well and extensively. "In the first half, they were putting Colston in the slot a lot and getting him matched up with the linebackers. We made some adjustments."

How many adjustments? Let's just say there are fewer adjustments during a fire drill at the blind school.

Troy Polamalu and Deshea Townsend, half the starting secondary, had been concussed from the game. Colston, the startling rookie out of Hofstra, had seven catches for 128 yards at the half. The only thing that looked like cleverness on the part of the Steelers' defense was that it prevented the deployment of the dreaded punt return unit by simply allowing the Saints to score on the four first-half possessions that did not include a fumble.

"We had to go with [rookie] Anthony Smith when Troy went down, and he was getting exposed to the whole package out there," said Bill Cowher after his club's first win in nearly a month. "Then when Deshea went down we had to go to [rookie free agent] Anthony Madison, but I think this will be invaluable to them. It's great that they got a lot of playing time and, given the circumstances, I liked the look in their eye on the sideline.

"You had a veteran quarterback, spreading us out, dinking and dunking, having some success down the field. They were having to make some checks out there. We were making a lot of adjustments, yelling from the sideline during the course of a drive. It got a little helter skelter out there."

That's right; oh look out, helter skelter.

It got a little unsettling when Brees took New Orleans 72 yards in five plays for a 24-17 lead, but just about everything that happened after that reflected reasonably well on a secondary that was brutally overtaxed, a secondary desperately buttressed by Tyrone Carter, the beleaguered Taylor, McFadden, Madison, Smith, and at times Mike Logan.

"Thank God we got a win," said Madison, the virtually anonymous corner out of Alabama who was on the practice squad until October. "They are two great leaders that we were missing in Troy and Deshea, two guys who come through for us and make clutch plays. I had to step up. McFadden had to come in and play nickel. Anthony Smith had to come in and play dime. But somehow we stuck together. It's a blessing."

Somehow is the key term in this treatise.

Somehow Colston only caught three balls after halftime for only 41 yards, nearly 5 less than per-catch average in the first half. Somehow Brees, who hit 31 of 47 passes for 398 yards, threw only one for a touchdown after throwing three touchdown strikes in each of his previous three starts, the first time that had been done in the history of the Saints' franchise.

That all this happened with Polamalu and Townsend urgently absent, and with the Steelers getting no pressure whatsoever on Brees (particularly from victory-guaranteeing Joey Porter) bordered on the illogical.

"We just had to continue to work hard out there and believe in ourselves," Carter said. "We know what we can do in this room. We're never going to quit."

And neither were the Saints.

Brees moved them from their 19 to the Steelers' 45 with a minute and a half left and the Steelers ahead, 38-31, but after two incompletions faced a third-and-10. Brees drilled Terrance Copper (92 yards on six catches) down the middle for his 10th third-down conversion in 16 attempts, but it was there, at the Steelers' 25, that Carter forced the fumble that finally won the Steelers a game instead of the other eventuality. Ryan Clark pounced on his second recovery of the game with 39 seconds left.

The Steelers thus kept up the florid pace of the 3-6 Cleveland Browns, whom they'll meet Sunday in a quasi-cataclysmic battle for the basement in the AFC North.

(Gene Collier can be reached at gcollier@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1283.)

Parker puts long week behind him, satisfies hunger with 213 yards


Monday, November 13, 2006
By Bob Smizik, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

It had been a long week for Willie Parker, the quiet third-year running back who stepped fully out of character after a loss to the Denver Broncos to pronounce the Steelers as too satisfied with their Super Bowl win and not hungry enough to repeat. They were stinging words, and while viewed as the gospel by many who saw them as an explanation for the team's poor play, they drew a private rebuke from Bill Cowher.

But if the week seemed long, the first half against the New Orleans Saints yesterday at Heinz Field seemed longer. The Steelers were trailing by seven points and Parker still wasn't hungry enough. In fact, he was starving for rushing yards. He had been handed the ball 10 times in the first half and responded with 26 yards. It was ugly.

But in the blur of two consecutive possessions, one late in the third quarter and the other early in the fourth, that all changed, as did the outcome of the game.

In two plays, Parker turned around the game and drove the Steelers to a 38-31 win and proved once again he is the kind of back the Steelers haven't had in a long time -- if ever. He has the speed that can change a game. He did it in the Super Bowl and he did it again against the Saints.

On nearly identical plays, though in opposite directions, Parker turned what looked like ordinary runs into game-breakers. On the first, he slashed toward the middle, but spotted an opening, swung to his left, reached the outside and was gone for 72 yards to the Saints' 14, from where he scored four plays later. On the second, he initially headed off-tackle but cut it hard to the right and was gone in a flash for 76 yards to the Saints' 4, from where he scored on the next play.

The first touchdown put the Steelers up by seven, the second by 14, a cushion they would need.
The fact he was brought down from behind on both plays says more about the speed of NFL running backs than anything about Parker's lack of it. It also gave him a lesson in humility.
"I didn't think they could catch me," he said. "I learned something new today."

For the game, Parker finished with 213 yards on 22 carries. It was the second-best rushing performance in Steelers history, trailing only Frenchy Fuqua, who rumbled for 218 yards against the Philadelphia Eagles in 1970. Hall of Famer John Henry Johnson, who ran for 200 yards against Cleveland in 1964, is the only other Steelers player to run for 200 yards in a game.

Parker's harsh words last Sunday --"This year, it seems like we already got what we want, what's the use? What the use of going out there and selling out?" -- gave him much pause during the week.

He addressed the issue after the game. "A week ago, I kind of put it on my teammates by saying we weren't hungry. Coach [Cowher] pulled me into his office and said I can't be doing that because some people might take it the wrong way.

"So I took off from talking to the media this week and kind of looked at myself in the mirror. Should I have said it? I don't know if I should have or if I shouldn't have. I only know we're a much better team than we had been playing."

Parker was asked if he had heard from his teammates about his remarks.

"They are my teammates and we are real close. We are a team. The stuff we say to each other will stay with us. Some teammates came at me. But they weren't mad at me. They said, 'Willie, you were kind of right.'"

Whether the words will have a pronounced effect on the team remains to be seen. But if the Steelers, who raised their record to 3-6, in any way turn around this miserable season, Parker's candor and honesty will be remembered as being part of the reason.

Parker ran for 1,202 yards last season, the sixth best in Steelers history but he wasn't satisfied. He wanted to get bigger and he knew he had to get smarter.

"I kind of bulked up a little bit but I kept it a secret," he said. "I needed that to take all the punishment. I knew there was a chance I'd be playing on the goal line and in short yardage and I know I wanted those challenges."

As for the smarter, ask Ben Roethlisberger, who threw for 264 yards and three touchdowns.

"Willie is maturing," Roethlisberger said. "He understands he needs to be patient. There were a couple of times -- me being behind him, I see things -- where the old Willie Parker would have headed for the outside as fast as he could. But he's showing his maturation. He's being more patient."

Parker said, "I kind of took the foot off the pedal a little bit. I hit the hole hard but not as hard as I used to because I'm waiting for things to set up. I'm smarter running with the ball."

Parker has run for 847 yards in nine games, which put him on pace to run for 1,505 yards, which would be third best in Steelers history.

That's a lot of yards. But for a guy who picks them up in huge chunks such as Parker, it's hardly out of the question.

(Bob Smizik can be reached at bsmizik@post-gazette.com. )

Sunday, November 12, 2006

There's No Disputing Malkin Can Be a Star


By JEFF Z. KLEIN and KARL-ERIC REIF
The New York Times
Published: November 12, 2006

Last season the N.H.L. reaped its first real crop of superstars in years: Washington’s exciting Russian, Alexander Ovechkin, and Pittsburgh’s husky Nova Scotian, Sidney Crosby. This season there are more sensational rookies: Slovenia’s Anze Kopitar in Los Angeles, the Polish-born Canadian Wojtek Wolski in Colorado, Alaska’s Matt Carle in San Jose and Ontario’s Jordan Staal in Pittsburgh. All are well worth watching, but first among equals is yet another Pittsburgh talent, Evgeni Malkin, a lanky 20-year-old forward from Magnitogorsk, Russia.

The second selection in the 2004 draft, Malkin postponed his departure for the N.H.L. He remained with his club team in the Russian Superliga, Metallurg Magnitogorsk — or Magnitka, as its fans often call it — supposedly with the understanding that he would be allowed to play in North America for the 2006-7 season. The situation was complicated when the Russian hockey federation refused to renew an agreement that allowed N.H.L. clubs to sign away players for a relatively low $200,000 transfer fee.

When Pittsburgh tried to sign Malkin last summer, Metallurg demanded something substantially larger than what had been the standard transfer fee. The Penguins argued that they did not have to pay anything, since the agreement with the Russian federation had expired.
What ensued did not quite rise to the cloak-and-dagger level of the Peter Stastny and Alexander Mogilny episodes of the Cold War period, but a bit of foreign intrigue was involved nonetheless. Malkin signed a one-year contract with Metallurg in August reportedly worth $3.45 million — but then bolted the team a few days later in Helsinki, Finland, and was spirited off to Los Angeles and then Pittsburgh.

Malkin missed the Penguins’ first four games because of a shoulder injury, but his Oct. 18 introduction to the N.H.L. was a smash in more ways than one. He scored Pittsburgh’s only goal in a 2-1 home loss to the Devils, dazzled with his passes and shattered the glass with an errant slap shot.

He scored goals in each of his next five games, becoming the first N.H.L. player to score in his first six games since the Hall of Famer Joe Malone did it in the league’s inaugural 1917-18 season. The goals have not come by accident; several, like the dipsy-doodle split-the-defense number he scored in a rematch with the Devils on Oct. 24, have been of highlight-reel quality.

Malkin, a center in Russia, made the transition to left wing for his first nine games, playing on Crosby’s line opposite yet another gifted youngster, Colby Armstrong. On Wednesday against Tampa Bay, Malkin moved back to center. He did not do much, but his replacement on Crosby’s line, Nils Ekman, scored three goals in 4 minutes 10 seconds.

Pittsburgh, twice Stanley Cup champions in the early 1990s but a sad-sack club on the brink of bankruptcy in recent years, is reaping the rewards of the high draft picks brought its way by years of losing. Malkin, Crosby, Staal, Armstrong, defenseman Ryan Whitney and goaltender Marc-AndrĂ© Fleury are all among the team’s best players and all are between 18 and 23, boding well for a new victory march of the Penguins in the near future.

There is one potential hitch: Metallurg is suing the Penguins and the N.H.L. in United States federal court over Malkin’s signing.

“They all like to talk about democracy, the American way, and then they shamelessly steal our best players,” Gennady Velichkin, Metallurg’s general director, told Reuters. “He was our gold diamond, our prize possession. He had a contract with us. We were building the whole team around him, and now he is gone.”

Metallurg is seeking an injunction that would prevent Malkin from playing for the Penguins. The hearing is scheduled for Wednesday in federal court in Manhattan.

With Malkin in its lineup last season, Metallurg dominated the Russian Superliga with a 42-5-4 record, including a 25-game unbeaten streak, and was so strong it clinched the regular-season title with a month and a half left on the schedule.

But this season has been a bit of a struggle for the club. Malkin is gone, of course, as are several of the team’s top scorers. Last week, Metallurg was seventh in the 19-team Superliga, with an 11-9-1 record.

Another change from last season: Dave King, the coach, is no longer with the team. King, a former coach of the Columbus Blue Jackets and the Canadian national team, joined Metallurg for 2005-6 and was the first North American to head any Russian club. After Metallurg crashed out of the playoffs with a semifinal loss to Roman Abramovich’s richly financed Avangard Omsk, King returned for the start of this season. But a 3-4-1 start prompted his firing.

“We lost four players to the N.H.L. and others to other Russian clubs,” King said from his home in Scottsdale, Ariz., “All signed away. The problem was that our team had pushed through a leaguewide $11 million salary cap to keep expenses down. But without a system to keep track of payrolls, a lot of clubs ignored the cap. We stuck to it, because it was our manager’s idea.”

King said he enjoyed his stint in Magnitogorsk, a steel city of 415,000 in the southern Urals about 900 miles east of Moscow. “It was built under Stalin in the 1930s and placed well to the east so the Germans could not bomb it,” he said. “Those huge steelworks go 24 hours a day, and the city is covered in coal dust.

“It’s a spartan place, and the steelworkers there really like the team — hockey is practically the only thing to do. We had great, raucous fans — the atmosphere is like a soccer game, with singing, drumming, flares going off.”

King, who lived with his wife in a modest apartment in Magnitogorsk — “each day was fascinating,” he said, “like a new adventure” — came away with great respect for Russian players in general.

“They have tremendous skill levels,” he said. “And not just Malkin, who was electrifying. Even the fourth block of players on any team could do amazing things skating and stick-handling. They might not have the desire or the physicality to play in the N.H.L., but they all have the skills. The Russian league is definitely the second best in the world.”

Bob Smizik: Steelers are running on empty

Sunday, November 12, 2006
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Are the Steelers embarking on a course that will take them on that very dangerous and slippery slope -- where, to their regret, they've been before -- known as abandoning the run for the pass?

Looks that way.

Consider their philosophy last Sunday in what was an absolute must-win game against the Denver Broncos.

The team that was known far and wide to live by the run went at the Broncos with a game plan that accentuated the pass. That's not particularly outrageous except they adopted this philosophy with a quarterback who had thrown four interceptions -- two of which were returned for touchdowns -- in a loss to Oakland the week before.

In other words, Ben Roethlisberger cost them the game the week before, let's see if he can do it again?

Coach Bill Cowher's rationale for favoring the pass was that he wanted to spread out the Denver defense to open up the run. But since when do the Steelers allow the opposition to dictate their strategy? Their philosophy almost always has been: We're going to do what we do best; try and stop us.

Cowher has been down this path before. In 2002, when the Steelers won five of their final six games, he fell in love with the passing artistry of Tommy Maddox and the following season abandoned his career-long reliance on the running game to throw the ball 519 times -- a team record.

In the wake of that 6-10 season, Cowher renewed his vows with the running game and the results have been spectacular. The Steelers were 15-1 and lost in the AFC title game in the 2004 season. Last year they won the Super Bowl. So why would he even consider going back, particularly when Roethlisberger has struggled much of the season? Why would he put his fate in the hands of a quarterback who has thrown 14 interceptions -- two more than in all of 2005 -- including four inside the 20-yard line?

Perhaps it's because he has lost confidence in his running game.

If that is the case, there would be a basis for such thinking. There is plenty of evidence to indicate the Steelers' running game isn't what it once was. It might have something to do with Willie Parker, who is not the bruising-type runner Cowher has favored in the past, which is not to say he wasn't highly successful last season. It might have something to do with diminishing success on the offensive line.

The Steelers, who play the New Orleans Saints this afternoon at Heinz Field, are 16th in rushing in the NFL, 16th in rushing attempts and 17th in yards per carry. Those numbers are considerably lower than in the past and much of that decline has to do with the fact they are behind more this season than in the past and must often forsake the run for the pass in such situations. But there were hints of decline last year.

In 2005, although the Steelers led the NFL in rushing attempts, they were fifth in rushing yards and only 12th in yards per attempt. Overlooked in their playoff success was that the running game was often along for the ride rather than integral to the success of the team.

In the opening playoff game, against Cincinnati's defense, which ranked 20th against the run, the Steelers ran for a more-than respectable 144 yards on 32 carries. But the following week against the 16th-ranked rushing defense of Indianapolis, they gained 112 yards on 42 carries, a meager 2.7-yard average. Against Denver's second-ranked rushing defense in the AFC title game, they ran 33 times for 90 yards, another 2.7-yard average. In the Super Bowl, against the fifth-ranked rushing defense of Seattle, they had some very nice numbers -- 33 carries, 181 yards and a 5.5-yard average. But until Parker broke his 75-yard touchdown run, the Steelers again had been struggling. Without Parker's run, they averaged 3.3 yards against the Seahawks.
It has often been the same this season. Against teams with good rushing defenses -- particularly San Diego, Atlanta and Jacksonville -- the Steelers have had little success running the ball. Nor could they run against Oakland's weak rush defense. They did run the ball well and often against Cincinnati and Kansas City.

The Saints are 17th against the run, which means the Steelers should go back to their base philosophy of run, run, run and give Roethlisberger a chance to regroup and pick his spots.

If they don't, well, we will know Cowher is in love again.

(Bob Smizik can be reached at bsmizik@post-gazette.com. )