Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Quit cryin’ about Heinz Field

By Joe Starkey
PITTSBURGH TRIBUNE-REVIEW
Wednesday, November 28, 2007



Steelers receiver Hines Ward gets a face full of mud, as he eludes Miami's Cameron Worrell (44) and Jason Taylor during the second quarter Monday night at Heinz Field.
Christopher Horner/TRIBUNE-REVIEW


Someday, if the Field Grinches get their way, every pro football game will be played under a dome, on a freshly vacuumed carpet, with the thermostat adjusted to 68.5.
Lambeau Field will be rendered lame, Soldier Field the same.

No mud.

No snow.

No rain.

Mother Nature will be benched, relegated to the sidelines with a clipboard and a ball cap.

Sadly, this already has occurred in places such as Minnesota, where indoor football should be illegal. The Vikings built a proud tradition -- and embodied the rugged personality of their state -- at icy Metropolitan Stadium.

They now play in an oversize family room called the Metrodome.

Which brings us to the Steelers' 3-0 victory over the Miami Dolphins on Monday Night Swampball, a game that has people ripping the Rooneys and decrying the conditions at Heinz Field.

An embarrassment, they're calling it. A blight on the organization.

ESPN's Sal Paolantonio went so far as to ask analysts Steve Young and Emmitt Smith, "Should this game have been played on that field?"

Let me answer that.

Should they have played the Ice Bowl at Lambeau in 1967?

Should they have played the 1982 AFC Championship Game in Cincinnati in a minus-59 wind chill?

Should they have played the Fog Bowl at Soldier Field in 1988?

Should they have played that picturesque, snow-and-mud fest between the Steelers and Bears two years ago at Heinz Field?

Should they have played the 1979 AFC title game at Three Rivers Stadium, the one commemorated with a Sports Illustrated cover shot of Terry Bradshaw sliding along the flooded field, under the headline, "SPLASHDOWN TO THE SUPER BOWL"?

Obviously, there was more at stake in some of those legendary games than there was Monday, but bad weather and horrendous fields - to this observer, anyway - make for fascinating theater.

And help to explain why so many of us are addicted to NFL Films.

Those who cited concerns about player safety should consider that the field Monday was nothing compared to the artificial concrete, er, turf, they used to play on at Three Rivers.

Bad-weather games might not make for the best test of skill, but they are a supreme test of will. Think of Hines Ward on the winning drive.

Think of tackle football in the mud and snow when you were young. We used to call it "slip-slidy football" back in Buffalo. We'd play two-on-two in the blizzard-battered streets, where onside kicks off the snow banks were perfectly legal and highly encouraged.

Even if your fantasy team suffered Monday, you must have found the man-versus-nature battle somewhat riveting. The hydroplaning. The quick-sand effect. The lack of on-field markings. The near-uselessness of kickers. All good stuff.

And when's the last time you saw a punt stick in the ground like a javelin?

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin had a great answer Tuesday when pressed about the field conditions.

"It's football, man," he said. "It's an outdoor game that's played as you move into December. Everybody loved playing dirty football when you were a kid. What else is new? Guys had a great time. It created some adversity, we overcame it, and we found a way to win the game."

Monday's conditions were a fluke, by the way, caused by the confluence of five games in two days, a new layer of sod and a relentless rain. The Steelers do the right thing by allowing high-school teams to use their field. They tried to do the right thing by resodding it for Monday's game.

The team and the NFL should work to avoid scheduling games around the high-school finals, but, truthfully, Heinz Field hasn't provided that poor a surface during late-season months.

The New England Patriots seem to play pretty well there in January.

Steelers president Art Rooney II yesterday issued a public apology for the state of the field Monday. He really shouldn't have.

From this vantage point, that game was a thing of beauty.


Joe Starkey is a sports writer for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He can be reached at jstarkey@tribweb.com

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

It wasn't spectacular, but Parker surpasses 1,000 rushing yards for third year in row

Tuesday, November 27, 2007
By Gerry Dulac, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette



Peter Diana / Post-Gazette
Running back Willie Parker picks up yardage in the 4th quarter. (vs. Dolphins 11/26/07)


It was not the kind of game Willie Parker would imagine he would take another step into Steelers lore.

And it was certainly not the kind of field on which he envisioned coming up with one of his best rushing performances of the season, even though his numbers could not match any of the six 100-yard games he already had compiled this season.

"It was tough, man," Parker said.

In a game in which he went over 1,000 yards rushing for the third consecutive season, Parker did not post the kind of gaudy numbers to which he has been accustomed. It was certainly not the type of statistical gem that will stand out among the series of performances associated with the National Football League's second-leading rusher.

But, when the slop finally settled and newly sodded turf stopped sliding, there was Parker carrying the look of another noted mudder, Jerome Bettis.

It certainly wasn't much, at least, statistically: 81 yards on 24 carries. But, to everyone in the Steelers locker room, it was pretty amazing, considering the circumstances and playing conditions.

"It was pretty unique playing on a field like that," center Sean Mahan said. "It was like playing on sand."

"I feel like I've been running on the beach for three hours," guard Kendall Simmons said. "It took everything we could just to stand up."

"I'm still spitting sand out," said tackle Max Starks, who didn't know he would start for injured left tackle Marvel Smith until he arrived at Heinz Field. "It reminded me of the swamps back in Florida."

In the end, after the Steelers managed to wring out a 3-0 victory against the Miami Dolphins with a 24-yard field goal by Jeff Reed with 17 seconds remaining, it seems improbable that one team would manage to procure any points.



Matt Freed/Post-Gazette
Willie Parker runs late in the fourth quarter against the Dolphins last night. Parker went over 1,000 yards for the third consecutive season with his 81-yard rushing performance.(vs. Dolphins 11/26/07)


And that Parker would come close to another 100-yard performance seems downright remarkable. He had 42 of his 81 yards in the first half, then squeezed out 39 more on 13 carries in the second half.

He would have come closer to his seventh 100-yard game of the season if a holding penalty against tight end Heath Miller didn't wipe out a 9-yard run to the Dolphins' 29 on the winning field-goal drive.

Nonetheless, his ability to gain any amount of yards in a game when the Dolphins managed just 49 yards rushing on 23 carries was testament to his performance.

"He had an exceptional game," Starks said. "He just said forget about it -- he saw the hole and he hit it. You weren't going to get any cutback runs on a field like that."

Indeed, Parker's longest run was 9 yards, not the type of monster runs that have been yielded by the Dolphins defense, which ranked last against the run in the NFL.

Still, when it was over, he had 1,006 yards on the season, only the second NFL back to reach 1,000 yards this season, behind Minnesota Vikings rookie Adrian Peterson. Only two other backs in Steelers history have rushed for 1,000 yards in three consecutive seasons -- Bettis and Franco Harris.

"It was terrible ... terrible," Simmons said, referring to the field conditions. "And the rain didn't help at all. It kept getting worse as the game went on."

"It was tough sledding out there," Mahan said. "There were not a lot of moves being made out there. You just hit it up field as fast as you can. There's not going to be a lot of spin moves out there."

Hines Ward, who had nine catches for 88 yards, compared Parker to another mudder, Bettis, who, at 255 pounds, had the weight to trample through sloppy field conditions. Parker, who weighs 209 pounds, is not that type of back, or so it would seem.

But, he managed to keep his feet well enough to plod into the Steelers record book.

"You can't look at the stats in conditions like that," Ward said. "He did a good job. He didn't turn the ball over. That's one of the things we kept stressing. The weather, the field, it's not going to be perfect."

Gerry Dulac can be reached at gdulac@post-gazette.com.
First published on November 27, 2007 at 1:30 am

Sure, it was ugly, but no one will remember come January

Tuesday, November 27, 2007
By Ron Cook, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette



Matt Freed/Post-Gazette
Jeff Reed kicks the winning 24-yard field goal last night to give the Steelers a 3-0 victory over Miami.


A month from now, when the NFL stamps a team's ticket to the playoffs, no one will care that the Steelers' 3-0 win against the dreadful and still winless Miami Dolphins last night was no Mozart.

An ugly win in the mud on a rainy November night means just as much as one on a sparkling summer day in early September.

"No one is going to put an asterisk on it, that's for sure," Steelers defensive end Aaron Smith said. "They're not going to say it came on a muddy field against a team that hasn't won. No one is going to care."

That was one of the two overriding emotions in the winning locker room late last night. This was the other: "This sure feels better than that game last week," cornerback Deshea Townsend said, grinning as he headed off into the early morning.

That would be the loss to the lowly New York Jets.

The loss that made this game so important to the Steelers.

Nothing less than control of the AFC North Division and maybe even a playoff spot was at stake.

Who says a 3-0 win can't be a Mozart?

"Give it back? I don't think so," Smith said. "In conditions like that, all you want to do is win. You're not going to look pretty doing it."



Peter Diana / Post-Gazette
Outside linebacker James Harrison causes Dolphins' quarterback John Beck to fumble in the 4th quarter. (vs. Dolphins 11/26/07)


The Steelers knew the deal when they headed out into the slop. They had to regroup after that hurtful loss to the Jets. They needed to do it for their mental well-being, sure. You lose one week to the one-win Jets and lose the next to the no-win Dolphins, it's pretty hard to be confident about your chances of surviving the rest of the season, let alone competing for the Super Bowl. But the Steelers also had to get it together for another, equally important reason. The Cleveland Browns.

You might say the Browns are coming. They've won five of their past six games -- the lone loss to the Steelers -- to make a race of it again in the AFC North. They also have a much easier remaining schedule. They would have been the team to beat down the stretch if the Steelers had lost to the Dolphins.

You better believe the Steelers heard those footsteps and, at the end of a long, dreary night, found a way to take care of some very critical business.

Send your thank-you cards to quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and wide receiver Hines Ward. Three times on the winning drive, they combined for pass gains of 21, 6 and 11 yards. The footing was lousy for everyone else, but it seemed just fine for Ward, who finished with nine catches for 88 yards. Big Ben didn't have many problems, either. He finished 18 of 21 for 165 yards.

"In clutch time, Ben kept saying to me, 'Make a play,' " Ward said. "It felt good to contribute."

While you're digging out those thank-you cards, write out another to the Steelers' defense. "They won this game for us," Ward said. "No one can win if you shut 'em out."

Steelers kicker Jeff Reed made sure the game didn't go into overtime and maybe even end 0-0 when he found one of the few pieces of secure turf to boot a 24-yard field goal with 17 seconds left.

Just like that, the Steelers (8-3) still had their one-game lead over the Browns (7-4) plus the tiebreaking edge.



Matt Freed/Post-Gazette
WIde receiver Cedrick Wilson catches a pass in front of Dolphins' cornerback Michael Lehan. (vs. Dolphins 11/26/07)


Sure, you can argue the home team didn't deserve this one. Its mistakes -- not the relentless rain and rotten condition of the new sod that Steelers management put down Saturday night as a sign of surrender after the four WPIAL championship games and the Pitt-South Florida game earlier in the weekend -- was responsible for the game being scoreless for so long.

There was a Roethlisberger interception deep in Miami territory, to Dolphins linebacker Joey Porter no less. "You know Joey was loving that pick," said Steelers linebacker Larry Foote, still a close friend even though Porter has moved on. "His mouth was moving so fast you couldn't understand him. But you know he was talking trash. He was screaming."

There were five sacks of Roethlisberger, critical penalties on running back Najeh Davenport and tight end Heath Miller, and a missed 44-yard field goal by Reed, although that really could be blamed on the steady rain and the new grass.

The Steelers were fortunate that Reed found better footing at the other end of the big stadium at the very end.

Those sighs of relief you heard early this morning came from their locker room. "It's like coach [Mike] Tomlin always says, 'Style points don't matter,' " Miller said.

And those groans of disappointment?

They were coming from Cleveland.

Ron Cook can be reached at rcook@post-gazette.com.
First published on November 27, 2007 at 12:04 am

Steelers seem vulnerable

Tuesday, November 27, 2007
By Bob Smizik, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette



Matt Freed/Post-Gazette
Roethlisberger is sacked by Dolphins' outside linebacker Joey Porter in the second quarter. (vs. Dolphins 11/26/07)

The Miami Dolphins, once a premier NFL franchise but now hobbled by injury and ineptitude, staggered into Heinz Field last night without a win and, as a 16-point underdog, little hope of finding one. But as might be expected against the suddenly very vulnerable Steelers, a tightly played football game broke out.

The hapless Dolphins, who have lost their leading rusher and starting quarterback to injury and their best receiver to a trade, battled the Steelers evenly for 59 minutes, 43 seconds only to lose, 3-0 last night, on a 24-yard field goal by Jeff Reed.

Weather conditions were horrible as the new sod put down on Heinz Field became a soggy mess through an all-day rain.

"Worse field I ever played on," Miami safety Cameron Worrell said.

But all the Dolphins were quick to point out the conditions favored neither team.

In view of this performance, there have to be grave doubts about the Steelers the rest of the way. The rosy prediction, here and elsewhere, about the team, look grossly unfounded today. It was one thing to lose eight days earlier to the one-win New York Jets. Those kinds of upsets, particularly on the road, are fairly standard in the NFL. It's quite another to play so poorly at home against a team that has been wrecked by injuries and without a win.

What was especially alarming was the five sacks the Steelers gave up to the Dolphins, a team that had only 12 in its first 10 games. The sacking of Ben Roethlisberger is becoming commonplace and does not bode well for the remainder of the season.

No one was having more fun for most of the game than former Steelers linebacker and defensive captain Joey Porter, who left after last season as a free agent when the Steelers showed no interest in re-signing him.



Matt Freed/Post-Gazette
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger brings down former teammate Joey Porter, now Dolphins' linebacker after he intercepted a pass in the first quarter. (vs. Dolphins 11/26/07)


Porter was his typical self -- loud, demonstrative and effective. He had eight tackles and intercepted a Roethlisberger pass on the first possession of the game and returned it 14 yards. When the play was over, Porter strutted and pranced in front of the Steelers' bench while clutching the treasured football. It was an act that might have prompted a taunting penalty, but the officials did not call it.

"I was just trying to have some fun," Porter said.

Porter, always one of the most popular Steelers, mixed amicably with some of his former teammates before the game and exchanged hugs before the coin toss. He maintained coming back to Heinz Field was nothing special.

"It was what I expected. I knew I was coming into a hostile environment. I knew what it was going to be like. I told the guys not to do anything different."

Concerning competing against his former teammates, Porter said, "I saw them before the game. I'm on the other side now. It is what it is."

He was poised to record a sack in the second quarter but before he could, Roethlisberger was brought down from behind by defensive end Quentin Moses.

It was a credit to the Miami defense that it held off the Steelers much of the game. Blessed with superlative field position, mostly the result of Miami being unable to move the ball, the Steelers could not put together a scoring drive until the final minutes.

"Our defense has given us a chance to win every week," coach Cam Cameron said. "We've got to get our offense back to where it was earlier in the season."

After scoring 31 against Cleveland and 28 against New England, the Dolphins have scored only three touchdowns in their past four games.

The Dolphins' best scoring chance came early in the fourth quarter when they moved to the Steelers' 20. Jay Feely's field-goal attempt was blocked, but there was a delay-of-game penalty before the kick. Given the option to try again from where there appeared to be more solid ground but 5 yards farther back, Cameron opted not to.

"We were concerned about the distance and the field," he said. "Considering that and because we thought we had a good play, we decided to go for it."

Rookie quarterback John Beck was sacked and fumbled on the next play.

Feely was lobbying Cameron to kick a second time.

Asked about his chances, he said, "In those conditions, about 50-50, but I wanted to try."

It was a bitter defeat for the Dolphins (0-11), who lost for the fifth time by three points.

"I thought we could shock the world tonight," said Porter. "I really thought we could win."

They came about as close as possible to doing just that.

Bob Smizik can be reached at bsmizik@post-gazette.com.
First published on November 27, 2007 at 1:35 am

Ward helps bail out 'Monday Night Mushball'

Tuesday, November 27, 2007
By Gene Collier, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette



Peter Diana / Post-Gazette
Wide receiver Hines Ward makes a catch in the mud in the first half against the Dolphins last night at Heinz Field. (vs. Dolphins 11/26/07)


So on a night when no offensive player on either team could make any kind of play, at least any kind of play that could impact a football game that resembled two teams trying to strangle each other in a bathtub, Hines Ward turned in the absolute best version of competence.

To no one's surprise.

On a modest yet decisive drive at the dreary end of a scoreless night, Ward caught three Ben Roethlisberger passes in succession for 38 yards that milked the only real opportunity for points from a balky offense on a near-impossible track.

"The defensive backs were worried about falling down, because one breakdown would win it," Ward said in the minutes after the Steelers slid to 8-3. "I told Willie [Parker], just protect the ball. At that point, for a receiver, it just becomes about route-running and getting some separation.

"That last drive, that's really all you could ask of any offense in these conditions."

The Steelers started the winning drive at the Miami 42, the fifth time they took possession inside Dolphin territory, this one with 4:13 remaining in the game.

On second-and-8 from the 40, Roethlisberger found Ward with perhaps his best separation of the night, floating in the Miami zone. Hines hydroplaned for 21 yards to the Dolphins' 19.

Parker gained 9 yards to the 10 on the first-down play, but Heath Miller got flagged for his second holding penalty of the game, dragging the offense back to the 29. Roethlisberger looked to Ward again, zipping one to him in the right flat for 6 yards to the 23, but it was still second-and-14 on a night when 14 yards equaled one mile.

"Hey Hines," Ward quoted Ben. "Just make a play for me. Make a play."

Ward curled free again in the fast-panicked Miami defense, leaking free for an 11-yard pass that put the ball at the muck of the 12, or its general vicinity.



Peter Diana / Post-Gazette
Wide receiver Hines Ward is slammed to the turf by the Dolphins' cornerback Michael Lehan. (vs. Dolphins 11/26/07)


Mike Tomlin walked up to Jeff Reed on the sideline, revealing a plan that involved, of all people, Willie Reid. Tomlin speaks often of "been there, done that guys," but he was thinking of Reid, the second-year wideout from Florida State, who's more of a "been here, done what?" guy.

"He told me they were going to try something with Willie to get the first down," Reed said, "but that if it didn't work, he was going to me."

On third-and-3 from the 12, Roethlisberger took a no-step drop and whirled to his right, hurling a fastball at Reid parallel to the line of scrimmage. Reid took it in the stomach and lanced 6 yards to the 6.

The Steelers would run three more plays, but there was only 1 yard left in the offense. On fourth-and-goal from the 6, Reed punched home a 24-yard field goal that saved the Steelers several metric tons of national embarrassment.

Don't look now, but the Steelers have suddenly gone 99 minutes and four seconds without scoring a touchdown, the last 60 of which are fresh in the consciousness of anyone who watched Monday Night Mushball against the winless Miami Dolphins.

That Reed somehow launched a winning field goal off a playing surface with the consistency of day-old sponge cake left on the side porch during a cloudburst is not terribly encouraging this morning. On a night perfect for fish, the Dolphins remained so perfectly awful that they still lost to a Steelers team that can't keep its quarterback upright and either can't or won't sustain a ground game.

In other words, nothing that ailed the Steelers in the hours after losing in overtime to the almost equally awful New York Jets a week ago has been cured, no matter how many caveats get offered up over Heinz Field's dubious playing surface.

Held without a touchdown by a Miami team that was fielding its 11th different starting defensive lineup in as many games, the Steelers are now 9-for-their-last-28 on third down, with Roethlisberger getting sacked 12 times in the past two weeks. He went to the floor five more times last night against a team that had only 12 sacks in 10 games at kickoff.

But for all of their evident offensive problems, they still have a wideout who happens to be the only Steelers wideout ever elected to four Pro Bowls, and you don't get that just for your sunny disposition. Although, yeah, he has got that, too.

Ward caught nine passes last night for 88 yards, helped Ben to an improbable 18 for 21, and effectively threw this team whatever kind of life preserver was necessary to avoid a first-place tie with the Cleveland Browns. And you thought that turf was ugly.

Gene Collier can be reached at gcollier@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1283.
First published on November 27, 2007 at 1:27 am

Monday, November 26, 2007

It's time for more Miller in Steelers' game plan

Monday, November 26, 2007
By Ron Cook, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette



Heath Miller #83 of the Pittsburgh Steelers runs after a catch against the Cleveland Browns on November 11, 2007 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Rick Stewart/Getty Images)

It's nice to think the Steelers' offensive coaches and quarterbacks spent much of the past eight days huddling, trying to come up with new and creative ways to get the football to the team's next great star.

Heath Miller.

If they didn't, shame on them.

The relentless NFL propaganda machine spit out a bit of fascinating information the other day: Tight ends as a group are on a record-breaking pace for catches and receiving yards. It seems offensive coordinators have smartened up and are realizing a clever way to attack the cover-2 defense they so frequently see is by matching up their athletic tight end one on one with a linebacker. The phenomenal production of Cleveland's Kellen Winslow Jr. (62 catches for 874 yards, five touchdowns), Kansas City's Tony Gonzalez (62-738, 4), San Diego's Antonio Gates (54-729, 6) and Dallas' Jason Witten (59-750, 6) has powered this surge.

Miller's production, not so much.

That's unfortunate.

Although Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians is using Miller more than Ken Whisenhunt did before him -- Miller has 33 catches for 457 yards and six touchdowns going into the game against the Miami Dolphins tonight, just one fewer catch than he had all of last season -- he is not using him nearly enough. Miller had only two catches in three of the past four games. Talk about a waste of a great talent.

"You say that, but I think we went 3-1 in those four games," Miller said, always the consummate team man. "That's ultimately the only stat that matters. That's the only one I care about. The game isn't all about getting the ball to me."

No one is saying it should be.

But might the Steelers -- sitting in first place at 7-3 in the AFC North Division, trying to hold off the Cleveland Browns (7-4) -- be winning even more if they took full advantage of Miller's impressive skills?

In fairness to Arians, the Steelers wanted to use Miller more in that crushing overtime loss to the New York Jets last week. The Jets did a nice job of taking him away by dropping a linebacker into underneath pass coverage. "Some of the post patterns that had been there before just weren't there that game," Miller said.

It's fair to say Miller will see more of that strategy tonight.

The NFL is a copy-cat league, remember?

That's OK, though. There are ways to beat any defense.

For one thing, the Steelers can move Miller around even more than they do normally and give the Dolphins defense different looks. If they can just get him matched up a few times with Dolphins linebacker Joey Porter, they'll be successful. At this stage of his outstanding career, Porter can't win those battles.

But the best thing the Steelers can do with Miller is not take him out of the lineup in so many passing situations. He comes out when Arians sends in four wide receivers. That's absurd. Miller should never leave the field. He's too good of a receiver to sit out plays. Wouldn't you rather have him out there than Cedrick Wilson or Willie Reid?

Miller has to have a big game tonight because the Steelers will be without deep-threat wide receiver Santonio Holmes (ankle). The Dolphins figure to load up their coverage against the Steelers' leader of the wideouts, Hines Ward. You would think Miller will be quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's first option. Certainly, he will be his most dependable option. He not only gets open and catches everything, he's a load to bring down.

"I really don't think my role is going to change," Miller said. "We have other experienced wide receivers to step in and run the same plays. We'll miss Santonio, but our offense will just keep on rolling."

Here's hoping Miller is saying that for the Dolphins' benefit.

What a shame it would be otherwise.

"He's a Pro Bowl tight end," Roethlisberger said of Miller.

No argument here.

But it's time the Steelers start treating Miller as such.

Ron Cook can be reached at rcook@post-gazette.com.
First published on November 26, 2007 at 12:00 am

Porter's presence won't fuel Steelers' Harrison

By Scott Brown
TRIBUNE-REVIEW
Monday, November 26, 2007



Steve McNair #9 of the Baltimore Ravens tries to throw under pressure from James Harrison #92 of the Pittsburgh Steelers on November 5, 2007 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

James Harrison served as Joey Porter's understudy for the five seasons before this one.

That doesn't mean Harrison will have extra motivation when he and the Steelers play Porter and the Miami Dolphins tonight at Heinz Field.

"I want to play well because I don't want to let my teammates down. I want to play well because I don't want to let my coaches down," said Harrison, who backed up Porter at right outside linebacker from 2002-06. "I want to play well for my mom and dad when they're watching. As far as anyone else, I could really care less."

The Steelers want to play well, period.

They are coming off their worst performance of the season, and a 19-16 overtime loss to the Jets in New York on Nov. 18 didn't sit well with the Steelers.
"Watching those guys jump up and down like they won the Super Bowl, that's the standards that we set around here," Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward said. "The best way to get over a game like that is to play again, try to beat up on the Dolphins."

Harrison has done a good job of beating up on the opposition in his first full season as a starter.

The sixth-year veteran leads the Steelers in sacks (7.5), forced fumbles (5) and fumble recoveries (2), and he is second only to James Farrior in tackles (56).

The last time the Steelers played on a Monday night, Harrison had a game for the ages.

In the Steelers' 38-7 mauling of the Ravens on Nov. 5, Harrison had 3.5 sacks, three forced fumbles and an interception.

As for what he can do for an encore, well, good luck.

The 6-foot, 242-pounder, however, has been anything but a one-game wonder.

Harrison has arguably been the best player on the No. 1- ranked defense in the NFL, and he gives the Steelers the same intimidating presence that Porter did before the team released him in March.

His style, however, is decidedly different than that of the trash-talking Porter.

"I don't really talk," Harrison said, "unless I'm talked to."

He'll take that same approach tonight, as Harrison said he won't get caught up in trying to show Porter just how far he has come.

As for which Porter he and the Steelers will see, Harrison said, "If he's still the same Joey, he's going to be (talking) a lot."


Scott Brown can be reached at sbrown@tribweb.com or 412-481-5432.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Steelers' Ward continues assault on record book

By Joe Starkey
TRIBUNE-REVIEW
Sunday, November 25, 2007




The tendency has always been to cast Steelers receiver Hines Ward as a chronic overachiever.

Which is kind of funny, when you think about it.

Pathological tenacity might be Ward's greatest attribute, but he was a good enough athlete to play quarterback, receiver and running back at Georgia and rack up more all-purpose yards (3,870) than anybody in the history of that program not named Herschel Walker.

At six feet, Ward's no giant, but he's an inch taller than Lynn Swann.

He's not Steve Smith-fast, but he's no slow poke, either.
Jim Donnan, who coached Ward at Georgia, remembers Ward's daily practice battles against a gifted cornerback named Champ Bailey - and recalls Ward not giving up much athletically, save for some straight-line speed.

Ten years of NFL violence have taken a toll on Ward's body, obviously, and eroded some of his natural skills, but Donnan still chuckles at the perception of Ward as an overachiever.

"He's a tremendous athlete - and I mean a top-1-percent athlete," said Donnan, who was Georgia's coach from 1996-2000 and now works for espn.com as a college football analyst. "In space, he can make you miss, outrun you or run you over. I think people sometimes believe, because he doesn't have the one quality of overwhelming, blazing speed, that he isn't a great athlete.

"Now, the one thing you want to talk about when you talk about overachieving or underachieving and all that is, did you play up to your potential?

"This guy maxed out."

For proof, pick up a Steelers' record book.

Ward seemingly breaks another team record every time he touches the ball. The next to go will either be career receiving yardage or touchdown catches. Ward is 289 yards and one touchdown behind Hall of Famer John Stallworth (8,723, 63) in those categories.

Ward, 31, recently took time to reflect on a career that still has plenty of life. Already the possessor of the team's career receptions mark, he vividly recalls his first touchdown catch.

It covered all of 1 yard late in a 43-0 blowout of the Cleveland Browns in the 1999 home opener, his second season.

"Mike Tomczak threw a fade pattern," Ward said. "I was just ecstatic. I'd been close to catching one in my rookie year. I had one, but the turf in Three Rivers was real tough - straight concrete -- and the ball bounced out."

If knock-down hits were an official stat, Ward would have that record, too. Teammates marvel at his ferocity. It's not normal. Cornerback Ike Taylor said he doesn't see anything like it when he's watching film of opposing receivers.

"Hines always tells us he's trying to knock somebody's soul out of their body," Taylor said. "I don't think other guys say that."

Ward laughed when he was asked which hit, of the many he has dispensed, he would rate "the best."

"There's been some," he said. "I got Rod Woodson one time when we played at Baltimore. He didn't particularly like that. But the one on (Ravens safety) Ed Reed (three weeks ago) would probably have to be my best, because we went head-up, and he went down instantly."

Ward felt a pang of fear upon delivering the blow.

"I was really concerned for him," he said. "Right when I hit him, his arm went limp, and I called for the trainers. I've knocked guys out before, but never like that, where their arm went limp. I was scared for him."

Reed returned to the game. Ward wasn't finished. He later leveled Ravens linebacker Bart Scott, who bounced up and threatened bodily harm.

Ward laughed at Scott - but don't get the wrong idea about all this laughing. The man might play with a perpetual smile plastered to his face, but a bellyful of resentment boils down below.

Ward barged into the league with a chip on his shoulder pads. Hundreds of hellacious collisions have done nothing to displace it.

Or even budge it.

He's still ticked off that he was passed over 91 times in the 1998 NFL Draft and that the Steelers kept trying to replace him even after he'd begun to establish himself.

"If do get this (touchdown) record, there's nothing anybody can say about, 'He's not fast enough, he's not this, he's not that,' " Ward said. "Nothing was ever given to me. This record is solely from me just working my tail off to get to where I'm at, playing with six different quarterbacks, all the coordinators. I've seen receivers come and go. That's what this record really means to me - all the hard work and all the belief I had in myself, and the ability, and wanting to prove myself.

"I'm not saying I'm the best, but I'm not the sorriest, either. I'm a pretty good wide receiver in the NFL."

For proof, pick up the Steelers' record book.


Joe Starkey can be reached at jstarkey@tribweb.com or 412-320-7810.

Pirates can't change culture with talk

Sunday, November 25, 2007
By Bob Smizik, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette



Bonds, Van Slyke and Bonilla...three big reasons why the Pirates won three straight NL East division titles in the early nineties.

The New York Yankees recently offered contracts to Alex Rodriguez, Jorge Posada and Mariano Rivera that totaled close to $400 million. It was the largest potential team spending spree since last offseason when the Chicago Cubs paid out about $230 million to attract new players or keep old ones. The Cubs' willingness to spend was rewarded. They went from last place to first in the National League Central Division and joined the Yankees in the postseason.

On a much smaller scale, but equally telling, the world champion Boston Red Sox earlier this month exercised their option on pitcher Julian Taveras and agreed to pay him almost $4 million next season. They did this although Taveras barely figures in their plans, and proof of that was he was not included on any of their three postseason rosters.

The Red Sox, like the Yankees and Cubs, are doing what they feel is necessary to return to the postseason by exercising a well-known baseball rule: You have to spend money to win.

Which brings us to the Pirates, whose intent also is to win but not necessarily by spending much more money than they have in the recent past. This means they'll again have one of the lowest payrolls in baseball. The Pirates have indicated they will not venture into the high-priced, free-agent market, not that any such players would agree to play for them. Nor does their current roster call for any significant pay increases.

Which means, the Pirates payroll will be about $50 million, with almost 20 percent of that going to pitcher Matt Morris.

This doesn't mean the Pirates don't have a plan. Oh, they have one for sure, and they're sticking to it. To listen to their new management team, turning a loser into a winner won't be hard. They're simply going to change the culture of the clubhouse.

When hired in September, president Frank Coonelly said there was a need to "change the entire culture" of the Pirates.

Earlier this month, when introduced as manager, John Russell said, "It is my responsibility to restore the culture of pride and passion in the clubhouse."

Oh, that that culture were so important or that it were so easily changed.

Jim Tracy made almost exactly the same point when he took over as manager in 2005. He thought his techniques, and those of his coaches, would have the kind of impact that turns a loser into a winner. Tracy was fired after extending the Pirates' consecutive losing streak to 15 seasons.

You don't change culture with talk.

Go back to 1993, the beginning of the losing. The Pirates were coming off three consecutive division titles. They had one of the best managers in baseball in Jim Leyland. No one could doubt the culture in the clubhouse was excellent. In fact, with the departure of Barry Bonds and the return of such solid baseball citizens as Andy Van Slyke, Jay Bell, Jeff King and Don Slaught, the clubhouse only figured to be better.

Yet the Pirates went from 96-66 in 1992 to 75-87 in 1993 and have not won since.

The culture in the clubhouse means almost nothing.

The players on the field mean almost everything.

The notion that a change in attitude will make a startling difference is a ruse, the only one left for the Pirates to keep the fans who value good baseball interested. If anything, it will be more difficult to change the culture in the clubhouse because the Pirates will have pretty much the same cast of players next season as last. These guys have been beaten down by the losing to the point it will be difficult for them to embrace any new program, no matter how convincing Russell might be

Russell understands the enormity of the task. He has been here before. He was the team's third base coach for three seasons, ending in 2005.

"We're going to compete," Russell insisted the day he was hired. "I know people are going to look at me like, 'This guy's stupid.'

"I've been here. I know what it's like. But that's my goal."

Player personalities are molded by many forces. When Jason Kendall joined the Pirates in 1996 he had an upbeat, positive attitude and he remained that way for a number of years. But the losing wore down Kendall. He turned into an unhappy player, whose attitude, although not intentionally, dragged down the clubhouse. Kendall played the game as hard as anyone, and he played it the right way. But he was defeated by the losing.

That's the culture that remains in the Pirates' clubhouse. There's only one way to change it, and it's not talk. It's better players. Better players cost money.

The same rule of baseball that applies to the Yankees, Cubs and Red Sox also applies to the Pirates -- whether they want to acknowledge it or not.

Bob Smizik can be reached at bsmizik@post-gazette.com.
First published on November 25, 2007 at 12:00 am

Parker ready to turn it up another notch

Sunday, November 25, 2007
By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette



Peter Diana / Pittsburgh
Fast Willie Parker leads the AFC with 925 yards rushing.


Something's wrong with Fast Willie Parker. Oh, he's still fast, so fast that tomorrow night he could reach 1,000 yards rushing, two games faster than he did last season.

Yet there are grumblings that even though he leads the AFC with 925 yards rushing, second in the league only behind sensational but injured rookie Adrian Peterson of Minnesota, that there's just something missing from Parker and the Steelers ground game this season.

Those grumblings start within the mind of Willie Parker.

"I'm having some bad games, man," said the back who leads the league with six 100-yard games this season.

Parker is rarely satisfied, but he's particularly perturbed by recent games. In his past three games, he rushed for 42 vs. Baltimore, 105 vs. Cleveland and 52 in a loss against the Jets. He was happy with none of them, saying he left a lot of yards on the field at home against Cleveland.

So, despite leading every running back in the NFL but one, Parker said he will change his style starting tomorrow night against Miami. He said he will return to his old style of last season, when he ran for 1,494 yards and became the only back in Steelers history to top 200 twice.

"I'm just going back to playing like I used to play, taking more chances," Parker vowed. "I think it's better off for me and the line. I'm not going to press it, I'm just going to free my mind and play ball."

Parker said he became more of a disciplined runner this season, hitting it up between the tackles and not trying to make a break for the corner when he thought something might be there. It's why, he believes, his long runs have diminished.

Last season, Parker had runs of 76 and 72 and, all together, six longer than 35 yards. This season, his longest run is 32. Backup Najeh Davenport has the team's longest runs of 45 and 39 and wide receiver Cedrick Wilson has one longer at 37.

"This year, it's more scheme," Parker said, "and more like -- I wouldn't say I'm not confident in taking the corner, but I'm more hitting it up the middle and reading it. Instead of taking that chance like I used to take last year, I don't take as many chances."

Of course, there may be tradeoffs to the different approaches Parker takes. Last season, while he had more long runs and bigger games, he also had games of 20 yards rushing, 47, 46, 22 and 29 and his team finished 8-8. This season, he has topped 100 in six of 10 games and the Steelers are 7-3.

Particularly galling for them, however, was their performances at Denver and at the New York Jets. At the time they played them both teams ranked dead last in the NFL against the rush, yet the Steelers managed only 119 and 112 yards against them with Parker getting 93 and 52.

It was a stunningly poor performance for an offense that ranks second in the league in rushing.

"I wouldn't even think we're still No. 2," guard Alan Faneca said. "It just seems for some reason some games we get the job done, some we don't. It's inconsistent play."

Tomorrow, in a statistical anomaly, they will play the No. 32 defense against the rush again in Miami, and they want to avoid a similar outcome.

Parker thinks they have lost to such teams because of the attitude they've brought into those games.

"We go and play at these guys' level, man. We think they're below average and we play below average. It's the tale of the tape.

"We were supposed to beat all three of those teams and we didn't. That's just how it is, but we didn't. We didn't go out and take care of business. That's our downfall, that's why we're not a great team right now. That's why we're not getting everything done, we're not handling business when we're supposed to handle business."

Parker hopes to help change that tomorrow night, and he'd like to hit 1,000 as well, something he did not do until his 13th game last season.

"It means a lot, coming back home, in Heinz Field, in front of your fans, in front of your family and it's Monday night."

He also would love to lead the league in rushing, something that no Steelers back has done since Bullet Bill Dudley in 1946. Peterson, who will miss at least one more game today, has 156 yards more than Parker.

"You know leading the league would mean a lot to me," Parker said. "That would be a big step for me, another line on my resume. But I'm not going to dwell on it. That's a big steppingstone. But we just have to get our stuff together. Right now we ain't playing worth a crap."

Ed Bouchette can be reached at ebouchette@post-gazette.com.
First published on November 25, 2007 at 12:00 am

Thursday, November 22, 2007

No tips for Porter, but Steelers ready for him

Thursday, November 22, 2007
By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette



Joey Porter never backed down from anything on a football field when he played for the Steelers, yet he declined to get on a conference call yesterday with the media in Pittsburgh.

Afraid of what he might say? Perhaps, because as most every Steelers fan knows, Porter's mouth can get him in trouble at times.

Take last week, for instance. Reporters asked him if he would accept the return of wayward Dolphins running back Ricky Williams into the Miami locker room.

"Yeah, I would," Porter said. "We're 0-9. I'd welcome Bin Laden if he could run the ball like Ricky did."

That's Porter, not quite Mr. Politically Correct. Last season, he got in trouble for calling Cleveland Browns tight end Kellen Winslow a homosexual slur. The year before, he called out President Bush. The year before that, he was ejected from a game in Cleveland for a pregame fight with Browns running back William Green.

There were other run-ins too numerous to mention, including a bizarre one when he tried to call Baltimore's Ray Lewis off the team bus after a game.

The Steelers expect nothing less from Porter Monday night when his 0-10 Dolphins limp into Heinz Field. At least by not talking to the media yesterday, Porter did not guarantee a Miami victory the way he did against Oakland before the Dolphins lost to the Raiders, 35-17, in the fourth game of the season.

"I kind of laugh at him week in and week out," said halfback Willie Parker, one of many Steelers who speak to Porter on a regular basis. "Especially that time he predicted that win, and they didn't win. I kind of laughed with him, and he laughed, too."



There hasn't been much laughing for Porter this year. Released in March by the Steelers, who believed he no longer was playing up to the $5 million salary he was to be paid in 2007, Porter signed with the Dolphins for a $12 million signing bonus and $30 million in guarantees.

He was switched from his normal spot as the right outside linebacker to the left or strong side in the Dolphins' defense. He has 1 1/2 sacks and has been the poster child for what has gone wrong with the winless Dolphins.

The Steelers, though, expect Porter to be at his best before, during and after the game Monday night.

"On a scale of one out of 10, he'll be a 10 1/2," said defensive end Brett Keisel, who played next to Porter last season.

"I mean Joey's going to want to come in here and win. Joey hates to lose. They haven't gotten on that side this whole year yet, so he's going to come in here with everything he's got. I'm sure he's going to try to give them all our secrets and things like that. He'll be ready to go."

Players expect Porter to be yapping before the game, as he always did to opponents when he was their teammate and co-captain.

"I'm sure he's going to do his thing to us," Keisel said. "We'll probably laugh at him."

His old teammates talk fondly of Porter, who not only is fourth in team history with 60 sacks but whose emotion and leadership helped stoke their drive to Super Bowl XL.

Hines Ward said he would like to throw a block on Porter "then pick him up and tap him on the butt and tell him how much I love him."

"It's going to be fun playing against Joey," Ward said.

"Hopefully, if he tackles me, he'll pick me up, slap me on the butt and go about his business. He'll probably stay up here after the game and kick it with the guys if he can. We look forward to playing against him."



Parker has done well picking up the blitz this season and figures he'll have to do it several times against his old friend Monday night.

"The first thing I'm going to try is to hit him in his mouth because he thinks I'm going to cut him," Parker said, smiling broadly.

"When you play somebody who knows your style of play you just have to do the opposite of what they think sometimes. So I'm going to keep him guessing. But I am going to cut him, I'm just going to try not to cut him the first play."

Right tackle Willie Colon will be the first line of defense for the Steelers against Porter's pass rush. He knows Porter would do anything to get past him and ring up Big Ben Roethlisberger a few times.

"It's Joey, man, let's not kid ourselves," Colon said. "He's been thinking about this since he signed with Miami and saw it on the schedule.

"From what I've heard, they've been dogging him down there, but watching him on film, he's playing well to me. I don't think they're giving him a fair shot down there."

Or, as Aaron Smith put it, "Knowing Joey, Joey's going to be Joey."

Ed Bouchette can be reached at ebouchette@post-gazette.com.
First published on November 22, 2007 at 12:00 am

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Steelers' troubles enough to make you sick

Tuesday, November 20, 2007
By Ron Cook, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette



The Jets sacked Ben Roethlisberger seven times Sunday in the Steelers' 19-16 overtime loss at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.

As Mournings After go, this one was fairly typical. The Steelers reported for work yesterday at their South Side facility, reviewed tape of that fiasco in the Meadowlands Sunday, took their scolding from coach Mike Tomlin, climbed back into their luxury vehicles and headed home to their comfortable cribs. As expected, a quick check of the building's telephone records revealed not a single call to the suicide-prevention hotline.

It should be noted here that fans take the losses so much harder than players, who have to move on to the next game. The Steelers don't have time to dwell on their horrible 19-16 overtime loss to the New York Jets, not even with an extra day before they play the Miami Dolphins Monday night at Heinz Field.

That extra day is going to be rough on the fans, though.

Do you realize how much more fretting that means over the Steelers' offensive line problems, Willie Parker's footing, Santonio Holmes' ankle injury, Daniel Sepulveda's punting and the team's inability to beat even mediocre opponents on the road, not to mention the Indianapolis Colts' chances of running away with the AFC's No. 2 playoff seed and -- worse, by far -- the horrifying possibility of the Cleveland Browns stealing the AFC North Division title?

Whew.

At this point, it's important to remember something that former coach Bill Cowher always preached to the Steelers after the best of victories and the worst of defeats.

"You're never as good as you think you are or as bad as they say you are."

That thought should help get Steelers fans through the long week. Their team isn't nearly as bad as it showed against the Jets.

The season isn't doomed, that's for sure. The Steelers' chances of winning the AFC North remain excellent. Their schedule is tougher than the Browns' -- their six remaining opponents are a combined 26-34, the Browns' 22-38 -- but they hold the tiebreaking edge because of their two victories against Cleveland. That No. 2 seed, though unlikely now, isn't out of the question, either. The Steelers should be favored in five of their final six games, the exception being the game at New England Dec. 9. The Colts must play tough division games against Jacksonville and Tennessee.

That doesn't mean Tomlin doesn't have plenty to correct before the Miami game. The obvious place for him to start is with his offensive line, although that bunch, especially, isn't as bad as it looked against the Jets. Yes, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was sacked seven times, but his receivers weren't exactly getting open. Yes, Parker rushed for just 52 yards on 21 carries, but he would have had a lot more if he didn't slip and fall so often. Maybe Fast Willie is just too fast for his own good at times.

Still, it wouldn't be shocking if Tomlin made a line change. Right tackle Willie Colon took a lot of blame Sunday and it was hard to argue with him. This might be the right time to go back to Max Starks, who was good enough to start on the '05 Super Bowl team.

Tomlin also might want to put in a call to former center Jeff Hartings to see if he's bored in retirement. Sean Mahan doesn't appear to be getting it done. I know we've been spoiled by the greats who played that position, but ...

While Tomlin is sifting through Cowher's old Rolodex, he probably should jot down former punter Chris Gardocki's number. I'm only being half facetious there. Sepulveda has been a disappointment, if only because of his lame punts late in the past two games. He got lucky in the win against the Browns because of a holding penalty, but there was no saving him or the Steelers Sunday from his poor overtime kick. Blame the coverage unit if you must for Leon Washington's 33-yard return; I'm putting it on the punter.

It's fair to question Sepulveda's nerve under pressure. Actually, it's fair to question this team's. To be truly great, you have to be able to beat good teams on the road. The '05 Steelers didn't just win three away playoff games to get to the Super Bowl, they won at San Diego and beat Green Bay at Lambeau without Roethlisberger and Parker. This Steelers team has lost at Arizona, at Denver and at the Jets. That's not encouraging, for that Dec. 9 game in New England or for the playoff games in January.

But that's looking too far ahead. The Steelers had better not be thinking beyond the next game. If the loss to the Jets proved anything, it's that they can't take any win for granted, not even one at home against the winless Dolphins.

Here's hoping Holmes' injury isn't serious. He has become invaluable to the Steelers' offense as its best deep threat. It's no coincidence that the other receivers struggled to get open after he was out Sunday, and Parker had a hard time finding running room on those rare occasions when he stayed on his feet. Tomlin will provide an update today on Holmes. It's nice to think he won't miss a game.

If you want something legitimate to fret about this morning, fret about that.

Ron Cook can be reached at rcook@post-gazette.com.
First published on November 20, 2007 at 12:00 am

Monday, November 19, 2007

Ian O'Connor: Steeler fans on Jets' turf

Bergen County Record

Monday, November 19, 2007



A Jets fan taunts a young Steelers fan late in the game Sunday, November 18, 2007 at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey. The Jets won, 19-16, in overtime.

EAST RUTHERFORD – The visiting towels indicted the winning coach. Thousands and thousands of gold-colored towels spinning frantically in the marshy winds, claiming Giants Stadium as decisively as a flag planted in the moon.

It took Eric Mangini only 14 regular-season home games over two seasons to completely surrender his turf. Heinz Field moved some 375 miles to the east Sunday, so in a stunning victory Mangini managed to find a large measure of defeat.

No, his Jets won't match Rich Kotite's 1-15. And no, there isn't any challenging the fact that Mangini's team played with spirit and intent in upsetting the Pittsburgh Steelers in overtime to move its record to 2-8.

But with Bill Parcells in the house to honor Curtis Martin at halftime, it was a fitting time to remind Mangini that the NFL awards no medals for trying.

This isn't a leisurely morning of nobody-keeps-score soccer with the young ones. No trophies given or pizza parties thrown just for showing up.

Mangini is the man most responsible for this oil spill of a season, the one that allowed about 65 percent of the fans in attendance to color their allegiances in black and gold. The head coach fielded a product that kept his customers home. No doubt his billionaire boss, Woody Johnson, filed away the sights and sounds for a rainier day.

The embarrassment was tempered by a 19-16 victory that was about as likely as Louisiana-Monroe's triumph over Alabama. At his postgame news conference, Mangini actually showed a few teeth when he smiled. The scoreboard said it was a good weekend for counterfeit geniuses who learned under the most insufferable coach of all, Bill Belichick.

The day after Charlie Weis actually won a game in South Bend, Eric Mangini did the same in East Rutherford. He was positively chipper at the mike, all but daring the NFL to give him two weeks to prepare for each and every foe. Mangini had proven himself to be a beautiful bye-week mind, taking down the 2007 Steelers the way he took down the 2006 Patriots.

Thomas Jones battered the Steelers for 117 rushing yards, and a pass rush that had managed a grand sum of nine sacks all year got seven on Ben Roethlisberger, who suddenly didn't look like the draft-day quarterback the Giants should've hired instead of Eli Manning.

Leon Washington ripped off the big punt return in overtime, Mike Nugent nailed the deciding field goal and the Jets celebrated as if they were million-to-one college kids stoning a Goliath in the first-round of the NCAA tournament.

The fans surely would've joined in the celebration if they weren't facing a long, dreary drive to Pittsburgh, or if they weren't so exhausted from cheering on the defense when the Jets had the ball.

"Whenever there is a situation like that," Mangini said, "you try to minimize the things they're able to cheer for, and the amount of things they are able to wave their towels for. ... That's really all you can do."

What a remarkable, telling statement. The head coach of a winning home team was hoping to take the crowd out of the game.

Thomas Jones pitches the ball back to quarterback Kellen Clemens who threw a pass to Laveranues Coles for a 56 yard gain in the first quarter.

In the shotgun formation, Kellen Clemens had to use a silent count to combat the fans who were imploring the Steelers to sack him. On a first-possession flea-flicker, after Clemens hit Laveranues Coles for a 56-yarder to the Pittsburgh 1, the fans responded as if they'd been informed their tires had been slashed in the parking lot.

Had New Jersey state troopers stopped eastbound traffic at the Pennsylvania border, there would've been fewer fans in Giants Stadium than Seton Hall-Robert Morris drew at The Rock.

"We're used to it," Roethlisberger said. "We see so many of our fans everywhere we go. It's great, and that's why we've got the best fans in all of sports."

Pittsburgh fans are known to travel like no fan base in the NFL, but this was absurd. Ever since they moved to New Jersey, the Jets have suffered through a severe identity crisis – their stadium is named after another team, after all, and requires green wrapping paper on Giant-blue walls.

In losing seasons past, Jets' fans have quit making the brutal commute from Long Island and Queens. Only it's hard to recall a takeover of a home Jets' game any more hostile and humiliating than this one.

"I thought we were playing at a neutral site at first," said Kerry Rhodes, he of the breathtaking interception. "I thought we were somewhere between New York and Pittsburgh."

Yeah, like Latrobe.

Ten thousand Fireman Eds wouldn't have balanced the scales in the Jets' favor.

"It kind of ticked us off a little bit," Rhodes said.

The Jets channeled their anger toward an improbable result. They physically punished a team built around its physicality, and inspired the obvious question:

Where's this passion been hiding?

"When you lose five games by a total of 27 points," Mangini said, "it comes down to a handful of plays."

And if my grandmother had hair on her chin, she'd be my grandfather.

Mangini has used everyone from Mozart to Teddy Atlas to motivate his team (Atlas was one of the few fans dressed in Jet green Sunday), without any success. As it turned out, this frightening outbreak of Steelers' fans galvanized the Jets in a way their coach never could.

"The apple pie is going to taste better," Mangini said of his postgame dessert. "This is a lot better way to spend our Sunday night."

One way or another, the winning coach was going to enjoy a victory that would be filed under "Pyrrhic" on Woody Johnson's scorecard.

The owner is smart enough to know those Terrible Towels were made possible by Mangini's Terrible Team.

Road blocks become a problem

By Mike Prisuta
TRIBUNE-REVIEW
Monday, November 19, 2007



Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger tries to escape from the New York Jets pass rush in the first half of their football game at Giants Stadium, Nov. 18, 2007.
Christopher Horner/TRIBUNE-REVIEW


EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J.: The Steelers came to Giants Stadium with the second-best record in the AFC and designs on continuing to establish themselves as Super Bowl hopefuls.

They left having exposed a fatal flaw.

They can't beat a non-AFC North Division team on the road.

They've tried three times now against three teams with less-than-winning records (5-5 Arizona, 4-5 Denver and the now 2-8 New York Jets).

They're 0 for 3, which constitutes a trend.

It's a different story at Heinz Field and when they visit Cleveland, Cincinnati and presumably, Baltimore, familiarity apparently meaning everything in such instances.

But Sunday afternoon the Steelers took on a team that had lost eight times in nine tries on merit, somehow managed to come from ahead in the fourth quarter and lose in overtime, 19-16.

That's the compelling problem confronting Mike Tomlin and his staff as the Steelers attempt to regroup and get ready for still-winless Miami at home.

The specifics of their latest head-scratcher, from pass protection to special teams to missed tackles to being out-physicaled, are merely symptoms.



Jets quarterback Kellen Clemens eludes Steelers linebacker James Harrison for a long gain during the fourth quarter Sunday, November 18, 2007 at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey. The Jets won, 19-16, in overtime.
Christopher Horner/TRIBUNE-REVIEW


The big-picture issue involves how a team as statistically decorated and as seemingly well-prepared as the Steelers can so consistently find itself groping for its game on foreign soil.

"I'm sick of going out in these games and taking punches," defensive end Brett Keisel said after the team's inexplicable performance against the Jets. "I want us to go out and start punching.

"I'm sick of coming out on the road and 'Ohhhhhhh, here we are on our heels,' and then we gotta fight back. That's not the way we need to play if we want to be a playoff team."

Based on the way the AFC North has shaped up, the Steelers can probably win their final three home games only and still win the division, no matter what happens Dec. 30 at Baltimore.

But if they want to achieve anything once they reach the postseason -- and for the Steelers, achieving something in the playoffs constitutes reaching the AFC Championship Game, at the very least -- they're going to have to figure out why whatever it is that makes them special winds up elsewhere whenever they land in Arizona, Colorado or the swamps of Jersey.

When that happens, the Steelers aren't good enough to beat 1-8.

"Hopefully, that'll get addressed (today)," Keisel said.

In Arizona, the Steelers jumped to a 7-0 lead but failed to build upon it.

In Denver, they did the same.

Against the Jets, the variation on the theme was that it was 10-0 almost before the Steelers had broken a sweat.



Jets running back Thomas Jones avoids Steelers defenders Brett Keisel (99) and Travis Kirschke (90) in the second quarter as he rushes for 117 yards at Giants Stadium, Nov. 18, 2007.
Chaz Palla/TRIBUNE-REVIEW


This time, they recovered well enough to be in possession of the ball and the lead with less than five minutes remaining and couldn't finish.

For the Steelers, that's as uncharacteristic as it is unsettling.

The great teams pride themselves on putting people away, on overcoming their given shortcomings from week to week and on winning when they're at less than their best, if that's what's required.

The Steelers collapsed offensively, defensively and on special teams almost immediately after stopping the Jets on fourth-and-five from the Steelers' 41 with 4:15 to play.

They're that far from great and have one less week to do something about it.


Mike Prisuta is a columnist for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He can be reached at mprisuta@tribweb.com or 412-320-7923.

Big Ben gets no time behind porous line

Monday, November 19, 2007
By Gene Collier, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette



Peter Diana / Post-Gazette
Roethlisberger is sacked by defensive end Shaun Ellis and tackle C.J. Mosley for a loss of 2 yards. (at Jets 11/18/2007)


EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- On his way to the interview room, along the cold, dark concourse beneath this doomed NFL landmark, Ben Roethlisberger turned to say hello to a fresh-faced young female; it only took a second, but it was the one small thing he had sufficient time to do all day.

That New York Jets nose tackle Dewayne Robertson didn't bust through the walls of the home team locker room at that moment and throw Big Ben to the concrete was practically another Miracle in the Meadowlands all by itself.

The Jets had nine sacks in nine games coming into yesterday's presumed mismatch. Now they have 16, thanks to a Steelers offensive line that functioned essentially like a row of subway turnstiles at New York's evening rush hour.

"You can finger-point," said Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, now 2-3 on the road in his first season as head coach, "but we're all responsible. That's the reality of football. That's what a team is. We win together, and we stink it up together."

There was no doubt this 19-16 overtime loss to a 1-8 team would not have been possible without significant episodes of substandard performance on offense, defense, special teams and coaching, but the hot suspicion that the Steelers have to this point flourished despite a seriously under-performing offensive line got itself validated nearly to the point of embarrassment on the day the Steelers' record slipped to 7-3.

Not only couldn't Willie Colon, Kendall Simmons, Sean Mahan, Alan Faneca and Marvel Smith protect Big Ben, they couldn't erect, let alone sustain, the kind of running game that allows the Steelers to dictate tempo, balance, authority and ultimately dominance.



Peter Diana / Post-Gazette
Roethlisberger can only watch as he looses control of the football and Jets' defensive end Shaun Ellis picks up the ball. (at Jets 11/18/2007)


"We've got to do a lot better job than that," Colon said in the minutes after the Bronx native's Metropolitan homecoming. "It wasn't a good time. I didn't play my best ball [but did contribute a false start penalty]. They just got after it a little better than we did. Especially me."

Colon has the excuse of having only 12 career starts on his callow resume. The four other starters have 356. It's nearly unfathomable that when Roethlisberger pulled on No. 7 early yesterday afternoon, he was wearing the Jets' sack total. Considering the fact that Ben avoided probably another seven with his ever-more-familiar Houdini schtick, and makes similar hair-raising maneuvers every week, it's fair to say Tomlin's offensive line is, uh, an issue.

"I have all the confidence in the world in those guys," Roethlisberger said, just as he has after just about every game in his four-year career. "And that's not going to change. I'll never waiver on that."

Waivering is one thing. Become the stuntman in the personal highlight video of an undistinguished nose tackle like Robertson is another. Robertson was in on three sacks in all of 2005 and 2006. Yesterday, he had 21/2 in a little more than 60 minutes.

The Steelers' resultant predicament crystallized late in the fourth quarter, soon after they had completed an hours-long climb out of a 10-0 hole and into a 16-13 lead. The Jets had just turned the ball over on downs at the Steelers' 41. There was 4:15 to play. Bruce Arians' offense was two first downs from victory. Willie Parker gained 8 yards on two carries that presented a third-and-2 at the 49.

That third-and-2 seemed to freeze the offense in fear.

Not confident enough to run and not competent enough on this day to pass, Roethlisberger dropped back anyway. Robertson and defensive end Kenyon Coleman collapsed on him as though he'd pulled a box of books from a shelf over his head. Four yards behind the line. Forcing a punt with plenty of time remaining (2:23) for New York's improbable tying field-goal drive.

"A lot of different things were breaking down," said Faneca, a Pro Bowl guard whose apparent final season with the Steelers isn't likely to be remembered as his best. "It seemed like it was something different every time. I got into the habit of watching [for answers] on the big screen. I had to stop that. They did a lot of pinching with the defensive ends on third down, and they were spying [Ben] with a linebacker, mirroring him."

The Steelers lost the toss for the overtime, but got one more chance when the Jets went three-and-out on their first possession. On second-and-7 from their 21, Ben dropped back. Robertson dropped Ben 7 yards behind the line. On third-and-14, there was a handoff to Carey Davis.

What confidence. Here Carey, get yourself killed.

Sometime in the offseason to come, the Steelers know they'll be writing Big Ben a contract for a bajillion dollars. Who's going to protect that investment? More urgently, who's going to protect 7 over the next six weeks?

Gene Collier can be reached at gcollier@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1283.
First published on November 19, 2007 at 12:00 am

New York's tying drive was against all odds

Monday, November 19, 2007
By Bob Smizik, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette



Peter Diana / Post-Gazette
Jets' kicker Mike Nugent is mobbed by teammates after kicking the winning field goal in overtime. (at Jets 11/12/2007)


EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- With 2 minutes, 23 seconds remaining, a football game that had played out like few could possibly have expected, figured, at last, to be about to fall into a conventional pattern. The one-win New York Jets, who had battled the two-loss Steelers ferociously all afternoon at Giants Stadium, seemed down and all but out. They trailed by three and were on their 14. They were 86 yards away from a victory, more than 50 from a tie.

But time and distance were hardly the only factors raging against the Jets. Here's what truly legislated against a New York win:

The Jets were the 29th best offense in the National Football League. The Steelers were the No. 1 defense in the NFL.

It was No. 29 vs. No. 1.

The game might as well be over, right?

As is well known, wrong.

The previously superb Steelers defense caved in to the previously inept Jets offense. The result was a stellar drive by the Jets and an almost unimaginable performance by the Steelers. New York moved 76 yards in 13 plays in two minutes yesterday for a tying field goal and went from there to a 19-16 overtime victory.

There were many reasons why the Steelers lost this game, and we'll be hearing them all week, but it all came down to No. 1 vs. No. 29 and No. 1 not being able to get it done.

In his post-game news conference, coach Mike Tomlin spoke often about missed tackles.

"Quite simply, we missed tackles," Tomlin said. "We missed more tackles than I've ever seen us miss. That's the story."

Not really. This final drive wasn't about missed tackles. And it wasn't about Jets running back Thomas Jones rushing for more than 100 yards, the first time in 35 games that has happened to the Steelers. Jones carried twice for no yards while the Jets were tying the score.



Peter Diana / Post-Gazette
Jets running back Thomas Jones picks up 3 yards as linebacker James Farrior makes the stop in the 3rd quarter. (at Jets 11/18/2007)


This drive was all about the Steelers being unable to handle second-year pro Kellen Clemens. It was about Clemens shredding the No. 1 defense in the league.

Clemens completed 5 of 6 passes -- 10 yards, 12, 12, 10, 14 -- in moving the Jets to the Steelers' 5, where the drive stalled and Mike Nugent kicked the tying field goal. In between the dazzling clutch passing, Clemens sprinted 15 yards up the middle when his receivers were covered.

The Jets were so dominant on the drive that not until it stalled on the 5 did they have a third-down attempt. The Steelers, a defense that normally had the answers, had none.

It's not like this was standard stuff for Clemens, who opened the season as a backup to Chad Pennington. Before the drive, he completed 9 of 20 passes. Coming into the game, he was mediocre, at best, completing only 51 percent with a poor passer rating of 59.3.

"They just made plays when they had to," linebacker Clark Haggans said. "They just played better than us."

There will be a lot of people -- probably some of the same ones who last week, with seven games remaining, were worrying about the Steelers' postseason seeding -- ridiculing this performance. No question, the team deserves criticism.

The offensive line was the height of ineptitude. Ben Roethlisberger was sacked seven times by a defense that had nine sacks all season. Willie Parker could manage only 52 yards on 21 carries.

There was blame to go all around and Tomlin dished it out -- offense, defense, special teams, which allowed a 33-yard punt return in overtime that set up the winning 38-yard field goal.

But anyone who thought this absolutely could not happen hasn't been paying attention. Games like this are precisely why the NFL has become an American passion. It's a cliche, but it's true: On any given Sunday ...

Hines Ward, in his 10th season, has seen this happen before -- for him and against him.

"In the course of 16 weeks, you're not going to play perfect week in and week out," he said. "You're not going to play a perfect game every time. We laid an egg. We didn't play well, offensively, special teams or defensively. Everyone has to be accountable. We have to learn from it and move on. We don't have time to dwell on a bad game."

That will be left to the media and the fans.

But the upshot of it all is this: It was a loss, but not a devastating one. The Steelers still hold what amounts to a two-game lead over the second-place Cleveland Browns in the AFC North.

And, yes, they have a relatively easy schedule remaining. But based on what transpired yesterday, it will be some time before this team or its fans consider any game an easy one.

Bob Smizik can be reached at bsmizik@post-gazette.com.
First published on November 19, 2007 at 12:00 am

Thursday, November 15, 2007

No one faster than Parker at self-criticism

Thursday, November 15, 2007
By Gene Collier, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette



Against the grain of reason, against the grain of evidence, and entirely against the flow of ready excuses, Willie Parker executed another cutback in the minutes after the Steelers sidestepped the Browns Sunday, shifting the discussion with the same fluid flash that has made him famous.

DD Grassmaster, which is the name of the playing surface at Heinz Field rather than, as I suspected, the opening act for Jay Z, had little or nothing to do with Parker's intermittent pratfalls on the margins of another 100-yard performance. If, as Willie said, he left a lot of rushing yards unclaimed in various sectors of the North Side lawn, it was primarily his fault for, as he put it, "not getting my feet under me."

It's pretty hard to lead the conference in rushing without your feet under you, but everyone has a kind of inner gyroscope that triggers some confidence alarm when it leans away from total control. You don't think much of the implications of your inner gyroscope when you're taking out the trash, but when you're streaking toward eight in the box trying to identify the exact strands of DD Grassmaster that will support an instantaneous cut, it can get complicated. When you're doing this with the kind of speed Willie Parker has, the variables are more volatile still.

Lonnie Smith, a brilliant prospect in the Philadelphia Phillies' minor-league system in the late 1970s, was so fast he had trouble going from first base to third at full speed without falling down. Dwight Stone, a former Steelers scatback and special teams burner, veered out of bounds on his way to an uncontested touchdown once by failing to command the old inner gyroscope.

Even someone as accomplished as Parker can wind up on the ground without being touched, without knowing how he got there.

"It's all about not getting carried too far into the moment," Parker said after sitting out practice in sweats yesterday, the result of some hip discomfort. "The thing is to be patient, which is how I got here, and not throw away everything I've learned. I threw it away in that game."

Parker knifed into defenses for 100 yards or more six times this season and nine times in this team's past 13 games, but neither that nor the fact that the Steelers have ascended to their customary slot atop the AFC's rushing stats has quelled the suspicion that this particular ground attack is still evolving.

"You don't want to be hitting on all cylinders at the halfway point," Hines Ward shrugged before practice yesterday. "Sometimes you're not going to be at your best in the running game. We did a good job in the passing game the last two weeks and it won us a couple of games, but Willie Parker starts this offense. Willie Parker's gonna have a 200-yard game again pretty soon. So we don't want to get frustrated and steer off course."

No one's advocating any kind of course correction for a 7-2 team that's 4-0 in the AFC North (unless it involves the possibility of tackling a kick returner), but most serious observers still regard Bruce Arians' rushing protocols as in some ways incomplete, most notably the boss.

Not Springsteen, Mike Tomlin.

"We have to get better in that regard," the head coach said the other day. "We have to get better at sustaining blocks for [Parker]. We are running the ball effectively. He did run for 100 yards. I am excited that he feels like he left some yards out there, because I believe he did."

While Willie reunites with his gyroscope, parallel development must continue all along an offensive line that ought to be a little more cohesive than it has been considering that the same five fellas have started every game.

"We can get a lot better in the run game, blocking it up," said Willie Colon, in his first season as the starting right tackle. "We had a chance Sunday to put that game away a lot sooner than we did. We didn't start off very well, but I think our rapport is getting stronger."

Parker needs 111 yards Sunday in beauteous East Rutherford to pass Rocky Bleier for seventh place on the club's all-time list of glorious ground gainers. He needs 127 for a third-consecutive 1,000-yard season, at which time he'll join Messrs. Harris and Bettis in that club. If he gets even 100, it says here, the Steelers will be 8-2 and 19-1 in Parker's 100-yard games. So if you're miffed that Parker has only two touchdowns a year after scoring 16, know that Willie will still beat you in the hypercritical Olympics.

"He's very self-critical," running backs coach Kirby Wilson said yesterday. "We want perfection and so does he. He understands what he's missing. He loves the feedback from his coaches and his teammates. He's just got to be a little more patient, and still be in attack mode.

"It's pretty hard to argue with what he's done."

You'd think.

Gene Collier can be reached at gcollier@post-gazette.com.
First published on November 15, 2007 at 12:00 am

Farrior shows no signs of slowdown

Thursday, November 15, 2007
By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette



Peter Diana / Post-Gazette Ryan Clark, James Farrior and Ike Taylor tackle Cleveland's Kellen Winslow in the first game. (at Browns 09/09/2007)

James Farrior and Larry Foote had a little debate early this year: Which of them would be gone when Mike Tomlin installed the new 4-3 defense?

There's room for only one middle linebacker in the 4-3.

"He was saying it was him" who would remain a starter, Farrior said, "and I was saying it was me."

Then Tomlin declared there would be no 4-3, and Farrior and Foote remained the starting inside linebackers in the 3-4. Still, some wondered how long Farrior might maintain that job because linebackers often do not flourish at age 32 in their 11th pro season.

On Sunday, Farrior returns to his first home in the NFL at the top of his game when he joins his teammates in the Meadowlands against the New York Jets, who drafted him in the first round in 1997 from Virginia.

The oldest starter on the Steelers' defense not only has not lost his job, but he also has not lost a step. He leads the Steelers in tackles again, something he has done every season but one since 2003, the year after he signed with them as an unrestricted free agent.

His five sacks also are second to James Harrison's 6.5 and his career high for an entire season at a position that does not rush the passer much.

"He's having a good year," said linebackers coach Keith Butler. "It's tough when you've been playing 11 years and as long as he has. He's at a high-impact position. It's difficult to play more than 11 or 12 years, very difficult, and he's still playing well for us at a high level."

Only a handful of linebackers ended their careers with the Steelers having played longer than 11 seasons since the 1970s league merger. Jack Ham, Andy Russell and Bryan Hinkle played 12. Others who began with the Steelers and finished elsewhere were Hardy Nickerson at 16 seasons and Chad Brown, who was in his 15th when the Patriots released him Oct. 10.

It's rare territory that Farrior treads.

"James is a great athlete," defensive end Aaron Smith said, giving one reason Farrior has been able to play at a high level in his 11th season. "I think that's one thing people forget. The man was a first-round pick; you don't get that just by being an average athlete. He's that, a great player, a great leader."

Farrior serves as the lone captain of a defense that holds the NFL's winning numbers across the board. They rank 1-1-1 -- No. 1 overall, No. 1 against the rush and No. 1 against the pass.

"That's hard to beat right there," Farrior said.

Everyone knows the Steelers drafted two linebackers in the first two rounds this year and put top pick Lawrence Timmons at inside linebacker. Timmons, though, has played exclusively on special teams.

As a concession to his age, Farrior began his offseason workouts earlier this year, and, as a result, lost 4 or 5 pounds. "I felt good with it, that's why I kept it down. My body actually has been holding up a lot better than previous years."

That's good news for a guy who made All-Pro in 2004 and finished second to Baltimore safety Ed Reed as defensive player of the year.

"He should have made it the year before that, for sure; every year," said his backup, veteran Clint Kriewaldt. "He's just a smart, hard-nosed linebacker. You can always count on him."

Farrior calls the defensive plays and makes sure everyone is in place. As the buck linebacker, he must be stout enough to stop the run and athletic enough to often cover receivers -- his three passes defensed lead all of their linebackers.

"He's the quarterback of the D," Clark Haggans said. "He makes all the calls, keeps the vibe right and is the anchor of the whole defense. He's Steady Freddy."

Ed Bouchette can be reached at ebouchette@post-gazette.com.
First published on November 15, 2007 at 12:00 am